Friday, September 28, 2007

Me vs. the Spider Silk Biologist

When some people want to feel inadequate, they look at Forbes’ list of the wealthiest individuals and beat themselves up for not being obscenely rich. Whenever I’m feeling low but not quite low enough, I think about MacArthur Fellows, or Geniuses as they’re more commonly known. And beat myself up for not being spectacular.

The latest crop of MacArthur recipients was announced earlier this week and, big surprise, once again I did not get the call. Apparently I have not demonstrated the requisite “extraordinary originality and dedication” in my creative pursuits nor a “marked capacity for self-direction.” (It’s true, when I travel, I usually need a map.) I heard the MacArthur folks loud and clear: Do not pass Go, do not collect the $500,000 stipend (spread over five years, which takes a little bloom off that rose).

There are those who might scroll through the bios of the two dozen winners and remark, “What an amazing group of people.” Pollyannas. Me, I looked to see who’s younger, just to sink a little lower in my own estimation.

I came across two Geniuses who are my exact age. My new arch nemeses: Jay Rubenstein, medieval historian; Cheryl Hayashi, spider silk biologist. What the hell is that? you ask. It seems Hayashi is studying ways to integrate the “understanding of spider phylogenetics and the development of such biomimetic materials as biodegradable fishing lines, sutures, and protective armor cloth.” I take that to mean she’s working on turning spider webs into Spidey suits.

I picture Hayashi as a 10-year-old, waking up in the morning and declaring, “I’m going to go to Yale and become a famous scientist.” I picture myself as a 10-year-old, waking up in the morning and declaring, “We’re out of Cap’n Crunch.” I picture Hayashi today, smartly dressed in her white lab coat, gazing intently through her microscope, scribbling furiously in her notebook, working tirelessly around the clock for a breakthrough so that tangled knots of non-biodegradable fishing lines no longer choke our waterways. She does not know who Britney Spears is. I like to think that she leaves her fluorescently-lit lab only to attend international conferences, but she probably throws amazing dinner parties and is an accomplished rock climber. She is respected, admired and envied by friends and colleagues alike, who mutter behind her back, “It’s not like she won the Nobel Prize.”

I picture myself today, reading recaps of television shows that I’ve already watched.

I remember tuning into the Olympics when I was in my teens. I think it was the summer games, held in L.A., when Russia boycotted and U.S. athletes greedily took pretty much every medal, competing against perennial non-powerhouses like Lichtenstein. One of the adults in my family—either my dad or my Aunt Mary Jo, but I don’t want to point fingers—said to me, “Look at these girls and how much they’ve accomplished at your age.”

I have hated prodigies and over-achievers ever since.

When I was younger, I don’t know that I had any expectation of what my life would be. There was no grand plan, other than making it through high school and college. What came next was completely vague, aside from the fact that it most certainly did not involve phylogenetics or biomimetics. Now that I’m older, I still don’t have a specific notion of what my life should be, only that it’s not. What it should be. I wonder if Hayashi looks at fellow Fellows like Corey Harris, a blues musician, or Ruth DeFries, environmental geographer, and thinks the same thing.

Realistically, I know we can’t all be geniuses just like we can’t all be billionaires. Not every composer is Mozart, not every artist is Picasso, not every investor is Warren Buffet. The vast majority of humans are average—original and unique in our own way, to be sure, but average nonetheless. I don’t know why, but that bothers me. I want to be gifted.

If there is one positive to be found in this whole MacArthur business, it is in the personage of Joan Snyder. The painter, an honoree this year, was born in 1940. It either took her awhile to blossom into a genius or it took the MacArthur Foundation awhile to recognize her talents. So I still have hope. MacArthur Class of 2034, save a spot for me.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Little Right Lie

In the wake of the dogfighting scandal involving NFL quarterback Michael Vick, the women of “The View” held a “hot topics” discussion regarding the position athletes occupy in American society. We place them on a pedestal—do they deserve it?

Joy Behar argued no, cracking wise that “It’s not like these guys are sitting down reading Freud,” or something to that effect. Which was her way of saying, we shouldn’t place so much value on guys whose light bulbs are missing a few watts. Elisabeth Hasselback, herself the wife of a QB (albeit a back-up one), objected to this characterization: “I know lots of highly intelligent athletes.”

I hate to contradict The Hasselback. (We actually agreed this week that it’s important to say “I love you” to your spouse on a regular basis because you never know when it might be your last chance. If anyone in Hell can drop me an email, please confirm that the joint has frozen over.) So I’ll let Sports Illustrated do the job for me.

In the magazine’s weekly Pop Culture Grid, four athletes were asked to fill in the following blank: “Best thing I read last week…”

Jeff Francis, pitcher, Colorado Rockies: “How to Talk to a Widower,” by Jonathan Tropper, #15,272 on Amazon

Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: “Now I Can Die in Peace,” by Bill Simmons, the sportswriter’s look back on his life as a Red Sox fan

Chris Gbandi, defense, FC Dallas (the soccer team that does not have David Beckham): Maxim magazine—the Lindsay Lohan edition

Dustin Pedroia, second base, Boston Red Sox: “I don’t know how to read.” [laughs] Note to Simmons: Perhaps a hooked-on-phonics version of your book?

The Grid is one of the first features I turn to when each issue of SI arrives in my mailbox, although I suspect it was injected into the magazine to capture far younger readers. While we may question whether it’s healthy for kids to idolize athletes, the fact is that they do, and I wonder what kind of message they’re taking away from a comment like Pedroia’s, which was in no way unique. I’ve seen plenty of his peers take their turn in the Grid and answer “I don’t read” [not laughing] or “I can’t remember the last book I read” [still not laughing] to this same question. (I’m not sure Gbandi’s admission of perusing Maxim isn’t more troubling, but he’s a soccer player, so nobody cares.)

I’m not asking these guys to start toting around copies of “War and Peace.” Although it could be beneficial to their biceps. But as long as kids take their cues from athletes and not, say, English teachers, I am asking players to lie. To lie and say that they have a passing acquaintance with the written word. I mean, they have no problem dissembling about steroids or the woman they’re photographed leaving a nightclub with, who happens to not be their wife.

Think of it as a little right lie.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

DWTS: The Men’s Turn

“It’s testosterone Tuesday,” Tom Bergeron declared at the opening of last night’s “Dancing With the Stars: Guys’ Edition.” I’m not sure how much manliness was actually on display, what with all the sequins and waxed chest hair (Albert, I’m talking to you).

Ostensibly the male celebrities were in the spotlight, although someone forgot to tell that to the female pros. Most spray-tanned: a draw between Edyta and Karina. Least clothed: Anna giving Karina (a perennial contender) a run for a wardrobe malfunction.

(A brief digression: I refuse to feel bad about watching this show when a famous person like contestant Jennie Garth, who should have far more fabulous things to do with her time, says she’s been DWTS fan since the first episode.)

Back to our regularly scheduled program.

The difference between the girls and the guys: Men don’t play the “Dad” card or the “I’m doing this for all the middle aged men with poor body image.” Because that would be wussy. But they will play the “I just had a hip replacement” or the “I had some unpronounceable childhood bone disease and had my legs in braces for three years” card. Because that makes them look tough. And totally gives them an excuse if they suck.

Which, by the way, most of them did not. While this year’s crop of competitors may be several hundred rungs lower on the celebrity scale than in seasons past—and that’s saying something—the talent level is uncommonly high. I kept waiting for a Kenny Mayne-like implosion, but one never came. Which begs the question, how much fun will this show be without the requisite train wreck?

Rating the teams:

Cameron & Edyta: Finally Edyta escapes the geezer curse and gets an age appropriate partner. These two make a good looking couple—and chemistry does count. Cameron seemed a little stiff, despite being lauded for his arm movement, so it will be interesting to see how he copes with a Latin dance.

Floyd & Karina: On Monday night, the rest of the men tagged Floyd as the guy to beat. Based on what? He certainly can shake his money maker—but not in a way remotely resembling ballroom dancing. And what was that look on his face? Constipation?

Helio & Julianne: Well hello Helio. Where you been hiding? This Indy race car driver looked like he was born in a tuxedo and proved an unexpectedly charming and elegant dancer. I literally said “awwww” at the end of their routine. Julianne continues to earn high marks for her clever choreography. If they can tackle the Latin dances with similar ease, this looks like the team to beat.

Albert & Anna: You know, it used to be the term “supermodel” meant something. As in you could pick the person out of a police lineup. I mean, I’m no Cindy Crawford, but neither is Albert, who admitted, “I am the least famous person in this competition.” Dude, how about not famous at all. But the guy can dance, in a hyper-frenetic attention-deficit kind of way. Quippeth Bruno: “The crotch action was like a warp drive.” I suspect all that gyrating and the bared chest was designed to keep us from noticing what wasn’t going on everywhere else in this routine—like an actual Cha Cha—and a blatant bid for the female vote. I don’t hate this team…yet.

Mark & Kym: I really wanted to like this couple—Kym’s a charmer and Mark should buy the Chicago Cubs and give me World Series tickets—but they made it awfully hard. Mark’s costume was hideous—if you’re going to follow the shirtless guy, do not dress like a hobo. The singing along with the song needs to stop. And the facial expressions—good lord, where to start. I predict a Week 2 visit to Ian Ziering, who teaches Mark how to paste on a smile. I’m looking for this team to improve, but with Mark lacking any discernible fan base, they could be the first couple eliminated. (Josie Maran, you can exhale now.)

Wayne & Cheryl: Ah how the mighty have fallen. Two-time champ Cheryl finally gets paired with the requisite grandpa. (Actually, Newton has a five-year-old daughter.) I’m looking into my magic disco ball and I do not see a third title for Miss Burke. Not that the couple’s routine was avert-your-eyes, turn-the-channel horrible—in fact, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Wayne—but there are far better dancers in the competition. Which is kind of too bad because Wayne—can I call him Wayne?—is surprisingly human. He actually sweats.

Next week the ladies and gents square off face to face, which should separate the Helios from the…I’m sorry, who were the women again?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Live Blogging Premiere Night

7pm: How I met your Mother--Ted is single again
7pm: Chuck--I don't know any of these characters or what's going on
7pm: Dancing with the Stars--The wait is over!!!!!!!!!!

7:02: The ballroom is back in business! Drew Lachey is NOT Samantha Harris. Put him in a tacky prom dress, have him whittle down his biceps and then maybe I'll buy it. The pros are doing a group dance. That is so not why people watch this show. Bring on the the disasters.

7:04: HIMYM. You can not have sex on a windsurfing board.

7:05: Chuck. Some guy in a bloody shirt just got shot while checking his email. People--put down your Blackberries. They're killing people.

7:06: DWTS. Can you be a Cheetah Girl and a star? Cameron Mathison just slipped walking down the stairs. Rookie mistake. You always file down the heels of your shoes before hitting the dance floor. Cheryl Burke looks terrified of Wayne Newton.

7:08: DWTS. Jennie Garth is the first celeb to play the "I'm just a Mom card." It didn't work for Vivica. It didn't work for Leeza. It didn't work for Paulina "Supermodel" Porizkova. It ain't gonna work for Jennie. Partner Derek Hough admits he doesn't look as "macho" as the other guys. Because he's 12.

7:12: Chuck. Here's the scene they played in all the promos. And then some more dialogue. I don't have time to decide if it's funny.

7:16: DWTS. Derek is freaking me out with his rubber hips. Doesn't he know it's supposed to be about the star--not him? Jennie who? "Let's welcome back our always dependable band." As in dependably off key.

7:18: "You look like a yummy mummy." Bruno gets in his first rehearsed "off the cuff" comment of the season.

7:20: Derek, backstage, "That was her best one yet." Excuse me Derek, wasn't it her first one yet?

7:22: HIMYM. Allyson Hannigan--Chrissy Hynde called. She wants her bangs back.

7:22: Chuck. Note to self--get TiVo.

7:24: HIMYM. Meet Mom already.

7:25: DWTS. "Hi, I'm Josie Maran and I'm a supermodel." How do those words even come out of a person's mouth? Note to Josie--DWTS is all about the fan base. You can try to fool us that you're not coordinated and un-fit, but you just showed us your six-pack abs. We hate you. Alas, she doesn't completely suck.

7:29: The season's first boos for Len for honestly judging the contestant. I give his pink shirt an 8.

7:33: Chuck. I like this guy. I'd date him if I wasn't already married. TiVo, TiVo, TiVo.

7:36: DWTS. How many times is Tom going to remind us Samantha just had a baby and Drew is just filling in? Doesn't he know we just want Samantha to go away?

7:38: Sabrina and Mark are Cheetah-taststic! Or was it Cheetah-licious. Give it to me Bruno--"Sabrina, you were a bewitching, blonde dynamo!" Eh. "Surgical precision." Huh? I know the dancers are still learning their steps, but c'mon Bruno, you've had all summer to practice those lines. I give it a 5.

7:48: Shameless promo for "The Bachelor." Didn't work for Donny Osmond's show last year. Nice segue--here comes Marie. First to play the "I'm single, over 45, with kids" card. Give it up girl. It's all about rockin' the sequins.

7:51: Jonathan Roberts--scarier bangs than Allyson Hannigan. Memo to dancers: Don't follow the Cheetah.

7:55: Chuck. We can make this work. If you'd only switch timeslots.

7:57: Grey's Anatomy promo. Thanks for reminding why I made a vow last May to break up with this show.

7:59: A vote for Marie is a vote for Mitt Romney.

8pm: Maksim! Scary Spice: "Why am I doing this?" Because you have a tour coming up that isn't selling tickets. Waiting for her to play the Tia Carrere "I just had a baby" card. Shouldn't the Cheetah have worn the animal print dress?

8:02: Maksim!

8:04: Heroes. New characters. Speaking in subtitles. No time to read.

8:05: DWTS. You can take Samantha Harris out of the backstage interview, the stupid questions remain.

8:08: Heroes. Clearly a fantasy sequence. What high school girl, even one with superpowers, would hug her dad in public. J.J. Philbin works on this show. The best superpower of all--nepotism.

8:12: DWTS. Jane Seymour plays the "I'm the oldest woman to be on this show" card. Ladies, stop with the excuses and shake the hips. Damn, Tony's wearing a shirt. I'm waiting to see if it's a tear-away.

8:15: Bruno says "essence of elegance" and I have to agree. But was it Cheetah-licious?!

8:18: Heroes. George Takei. Nice to see at least one Trekker knows how not to chew the scenery.

8:23: DWTS. Here come the men. If you don't recognize a "star" on sight or by name, are they really a star? Mark Cuban--I'll give you my vote, but you've got to buy the Chicago Cubs.

8:30: Heroes. Parkman and Molly are eating dinner. Which I haven't had yet.

8:31: Over and out.

The War

I submitted to the full-on Ken Burns treatment last night, taking in Episode 1 of the documentary filmmaker’s latest effort, “The War.” My initial thoughts:

Damn, these people look good for a bunch of 80-somethings. Burns was partly motivated to make “The War” after reading statistics that suggest there will, at some point in the relatively near future, be few folks left in the U.S. who participated in WWII. He has rounded up a fascinating bunch of veterans and other witnesses to events of that time, including Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. My favorite “character” is Katharine Phillips from Mobile, Ala., who breaks any number of stereotypes about elderly southern women in that she is neither sassy, spunky or twinkly. She is, however, a naturally gifted storyteller with surprising charisma. As she reminisced, I could picture myself back in 1942, all the boys on my block having gone off to fight, and the notices arriving, one by one, that a good number of them would not be coming back.

“Survivor” is a ridiculous concept. There is Burns’ footage of the battle for Guadalcanal—a jungle landscape where U.S. Marines faced nightly ambushes from the enemy and constant shelling from the Japanese navy, not to mention monsoons, malaria, starvation and the stench of rotting corpses. Compare this with last week’s premiere of “Survivor: China” in which viewers were asked to care about yet another ragtag group of attention junkies who once again failed to build adequate shelter against the first-night thunderstorm we all knew was coming. The stakes in the former—no less than life and death. The stakes in the latter—fleeting fame and fortune. Wanna bet which program draws higher ratings?

The Post Office has some ‘splaining to do. Burns somehow manages to ratchet up the tension—will our boys emerge victorious at Guadalcanal?—even though we all know the outcome. (Well, some of us. Burns also decided to make this film after learning a fair number of students today aren’t clear about whom the U.S. allied itself with during the war.) He does this by emphasizing the deprivation—the lack of food, reinforcements or adequate weaponry. Sidney Phillips, brother of the aforementioned Katharine, is our guide for much of this segment. When he recollects that in the midst of this hell he received a letter from home that just happened to arrive on his birthday, all I could think was, the Post Office can deliver to the South Pacific during WWII but it can’t get me my InStyle on time?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Always The Bridesmaid

I didn’t want to watch the Emmys last night. I didn’t agree with a number of the nominations, don’t have access to anything shown on cable, and was sure I’d be annoyed by most of the winners. But we had spent the day downtown at Celtic Fest and by the time we got home, I was exhausted from walking a continual circuit from the dance stage to the music stage to the bathroom and back again. So I plopped myself in front of the boob tube and said, “Go ahead Ryan Seacrest, I dare you to entertain me.”

And then the first award I witnessed went to Terry O’Quinn of “Lost” and things were looking up. Not just because I think O’Quinn is an amazing actor. And not just because I think “Lost” was otherwise unfairly overlooked by this year’s Emmy voters. But mostly because I was thrilled O’Quinn beat out castmate Michael Emerson. I hope O’Quinn’s victory sends a message to “Lost”’s creators, who are enamored with Emerson and his band of “Others,” that the show’s most compelling storylines and most gripping performances feature the original cast members. And the dude who plays Desmond.

It was all downhill from there, with the usually dependable one-two punch of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert failing to amuse with their shtick. It’s never a good idea to give the viewers at home an opportunity to ponder why actors deserve a televised awards ceremony when email is considered good enough to notify Nobel Prize winners of their honor. We might say, “Hey, they’ve got a point. Click.” And life would go on.

The bloc of miniseries awards left me with no option but to switch to a re-run of “Without a Trace.” I mean “Cold Case.” Definitely not one of the CSIs. I hate these shows, which constantly up the ante in terms of cruel and unusual murders. I find them even more disturbing now that a real-life former co-worker of mine has been charged with stabbing and hammering his real-life wife to death. Suddenly “Criminal Minds” doesn’t seem so escapist.

And…it was back to the Emmys. I had no skin in any of the remaining categories, so I gave my full attention to the fashion. Blech. Not that the dresses weren’t shiny and colorful. There just wasn’t that “wow” factor and a good number of gowns reminded me of a classy bridesmaid’s dress. Which I guess is fitting, because the Emmys are definitely the “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” to the Mother of All Red Carpets—the Oscars.

My pick for worst dressed: Felicity Huffman. Nothing wrong with the ensemble, just the Skeletor wearing it. Somewhere Calista Flockhart is fuming. Remember when the artist formerly known as Ally McBeal showed up at the Emmys with all her vertebrae on display and the media went into an eating disorder frenzy? Where was the same furor last night over Huffman, whose plunging hot pink number showed off her every rib bone? I’m not sure why Felicity gets a pass on this issue. Because standing next to Teri Hatcher makes her look healthy? Because she seems too smart to play the scary-skinny game? Because she’s married to William H. Macy? I hate this phrase, but Felicity, eat a sandwich. Or three. And cover up the rack of ribs until you do.

Then before I knew it, Sally Field had been censored for saying “goddamn,” the “Sopranos” won for saying and doing a whole lot worse, the show limped to a non-dramatic finish, and I remembered why I hadn’t wanted to watch in the first place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Doomsday Is Near

Like most riders of the Chicago Transit Authority, I have a love-hate relationship with the CTA. On the one hand, I love not having to drive and most who know me would agree that our highways and side streets are safer without me behind the wheel. On the other hand, I hate the shoddy way CTA conducts business—constant delays, “customer service assistants” who appear to be trained in maximum surliness, filthy conditions on the majority of rail cars, elevated platforms with no protection from the elements…stop me before this turns into a novel. For most riders, there’s no convenient alternative (a la Metra); so while we don’t exactly shut up—complaining loudly and often to our fellow victims, er, passengers—we are largely forced to put up.

So it’s with mixed emotions that I’ve been following the CTA’s recent funding woes. In short, unless the Illinois legislature acts within the next few days, CTA is guaranteed a $100 million shortfall and will implement its long-threatened “doomsday” scenario, which includes layoffs, service cuts and fare hikes.

Normally I don’t like to reward people who can’t manage their money. This is the second time in nearly as many years that CTA has faced such a ginormous budget gap. How does this sort of miscalculation occur? It’s as if I were to walk into the swankest restaurant in town, order the most expensive items on the menu and when the check comes, tell the waitress, “Oops, I’ve only got 5 bucks in my pocket.” And then expect the owner to make up the difference.

This might explain why you haven’t seen a groundswell of CTA riders marching on Springfield to demand action. It doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring chant: CTA sucks but give it money anyway.

Much as I’d like to send CTA a message to get their house in order, the doomsday approach isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Partly because it will hit me and others—many of whom can ill afford the fare increase—in our wallets. But mostly because in light of skyrocketing gas prices and global warming, it strikes me as extremely shortsighted of our elected officials to continue underfunding mass transit, which has the potential to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere. I would argue that now is the very time when we should be looking for ways to expand mass transit options, not scale them back.

This brings me to the following telephone survey, which I participated in last night. Normally I don’t answer the phone but we were expecting a call from the plumber regarding our ceiling, which started leaking last Friday. It wasn’t the plumber. Instead it was a digital voice.

Question #1: Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to fund mass transit?

Suspected Hidden Agenda: I’m guessing this survey was devised by opponents of a plan making its way through the Statehouse, which would enact a slight increase in the sales tax to fund CTA—an increase that would only affect people in the area served by the regional transit authority. “Do you want to pay higher taxes” is kind of like asking someone if they want to be stabbed to death. Not the sort of query that’s going to get a lot of takers.

My Answer: Yes.

Convoluted Explanation: I don’t enjoy paying taxes but I’m also not violently opposed to the concept. Especially if I can see a tangible benefit. Take the federal income tax: A lot of people would like to see it dramatically lowered or eliminated altogether (along with the government that administers the collected funds). I suspect that’s because they look at their paycheck, see the difference between “gross” and “net” and think, “This is bullshit.” Because a lot of that money goes toward things like gazillion-dollar stealth bombers, which none of us ever gets to see or play with. But roads, bridges, schools, food safety inspectors, and the like—well I don’t mind paying for stuff like that. CTA falls in this category as just the sort of thing that taxes should go toward—something that serves the common good.

Which leads to…

Question #2: Do you think mass transit should be funded solely by the fares of the people who use it? Press One. Or do you think mass transit benefits the entire community and funding should be spread across the entire tax base? Press Two.

My Answer: I pressed two.

Convoluted Explanation: I realize this looks like I’m acting in my own self-interest, which, I might add, is what people typically do. And I can see how someone who drives to work every day or has never stepped foot on a bus or train would look at the CTA crisis and say, “Not my problem. I’m paying $3.50 a gallon for gas. Screw them.”

This is what I have to say to those folks: What if everyone who owns a car but chooses, for various reasons, to ride CTA instead, drove their car to work. Imagine how much worse your commute would be with these people on the road, clogging the expressways, beating you to your parking space. Imagine the added wear and tear on the roadways and all the construction projects to repair the damage. Imagine the extra pollution spewing into the air. Still not your problem?

Or picture this scenario: What if everyone who doesn’t own a car, and rides CTA because it’s their only mode of transportation, doesn’t show up to work. Imagine there’s no one to take your order at lunch or perform in the play you bought tickets for months ago. Imagine there’s no one to babysit your kids or admit you into the Emergency Room.

Still not your problem?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Britney Spears Is Not Fat

A year ago the American public sent a message to Congress: Make Iraq go away. Instead we got a troop surge. I guess they didn’t hear us—but the media did. They’ve complied with a number of distractions: Tuberculosis Man, Popcorn Lung, the Kitten of Death—any story they can get their hands on that doesn’t involve the words “sectarian violence.”

At least this is the only explanation I can think of for the current obsession with the antics of Young Hollywood or why anyone would bother to cover Baby Dannielynn’s first birthday.

This morning I turned on the television and it seems Britney Spears is the train wreck du jour. Now, I didn’t watch last night’s MTV Video Music Awards. Mostly because I don’t have cable but also because I knew there were plenty of people getting paid to watch the show for me. I swear, I’ve watched entire TV series vicariously—“The Sopranos” springs to mind—listening to morning-after pundits discuss the latest plot developments, completely negating my need to ever tune into an actual episode.

Same with the VMAs. All I needed to know I learned from the 20-second clip that played in heavy rotation on pretty much every news outlet I tuned into. It wasn’t really necessary for Matt Lauer to tell me what my own eyes could see: Britney Spears turned in a helluva bad performance. Some say she appeared out of breath; frankly, I thought she looked bored.

I’m not here to pile on the “Britney needs help” bandwagon. I don’t really care whether she parties too much, forgets to wear underwear or shaves her head. I’m not a fan of her music, find her talent questionable and whether her career survives this latest miscue is of absolutely no consequence to me. I hate to even sink to the level of discussing her at all.

But it bothers me that people are calling her fat. Joe Scarborough, I’m talking to you.

Britney Spears, even the post-partum Cheetos-chomping version on display last night, is not fat. True, she had actual meat on her bones, like most healthy women I know. That hardly qualifies as overweight. To suggest otherwise simply perpetuates the skeletal image that Hollywood would have us think is the female norm. Interestingly, these same commentators are the very people who urge celebutantes like Nicole Richie to “have a sandwich” (now that she’s eating for two, perhaps she's finally eating for one).

This yo-yo messaging from the media needs to stop. One week the headlines scream “Scary Skinny!” the next week they shout “Diet Secrets of the Stars!” According to a recent report, an increasing number of women in their 30s and 40s are developing eating disorders. Gee, I wonder why.

So call Britney irresponsible or immature. Feel free to critique her parenting skills, lackluster dance moves or non-existent vocal ability. But until she approaches Pavarottian proportions of girth, stop calling her fat.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Price You Pay

I’m having a hard time working up sympathy for anyone who rushed to buy an Apple iPhone, only to watch the cost of the device drop by a couple hundred bucks a few months later. That Steve Jobs is offering refunds/rebates to these customers is even more bewildering.

Isn’t that just part of the trade off of being an early adopter? These are the folks who always have to have the latest gadget or accessory or toy—and they have to have it NOW. They aren’t going to wait a month or a week or even a day to see if the thingamajig lives up to its hype. They definitely aren’t about to wait for a sale. And they often don’t even wait to consider whether they really want the damn thing.

Because their lust isn’t just about ownership, it’s about bragging rights and showing off and having something that no one else has. It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses, it’s about being the Joneses. And if in the process these people get burned on price and features—it’s the rare product that doesn’t improve upon itself with later roll-outs—that’s the bargain they’ve made.

It’s like this: Some people jumped on the first version of digital cameras and some people said, “Let’s wait and see.” And now the latter group has a camera with more mega-pixels and a wider LCD screen—at considerably less cost. It’s the Tortoise and the Hare, baby, and the lesson still applies.

I’m also not particularly inclined to feel sorry for mortgage lenders or the people who bit off bigger loans than they could chew. My husband and I were first-time homebuyers not that long ago. And we were told by the bank that we could borrow an insane amount of money. And we had those bright and shiny low-interest ARMs dangled in front of us. And we could have taken those offers and purchased twice the space and twice the amenities in the neighborhood of our dreams.

But instead, we were realistic about what we could afford as a monthly payment, considered the implications of rising interest rates, and made a decision that was decidedly un-American—we chose to live within our means.

I understand the temptation to opt for bigger and better. We settled for “good enough.” But at least we get to keep it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lines of Distinction

In the latest issue of Details magazine, which I haven’t read because a) I don’t think it’s out on newsstands yet and b) it’s Details, Brad Pitt apparently “opens up” about aging. Here’s what I’ve managed to gather from various entertainment sources: the forty-something actor basically says he’s not as pretty as he used to be, what with the wrinkles and the grey hair, and that he’s developing what in Hollywood passes for a paunch. Because, shocking revelation, the older one gets, the harder it is to keep off the pounds.

And he’s perfectly fine with that.

Can you imagine those same words tripping off the tongue of any of his female peers? Hardly. They’re all too busy starving themselves, working out 6 hours a day, having their fat sucked, their boobs lifted, their tummies tucked, their lips plumped, their cheeks nipped and their foreheads frozen with botulism. Anything to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. It would be positively revolutionary for any of them to take Mr. Pitt’s stance (or that of George Clooney, whose career hasn’t exactly been hurt by his salt-and-pepper mane).

I did a term paper in high school on the treatment of women in Hollywood. I remember a quote from Jane Fonda (I think), delivered sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s: “Women get crow’s feet; men get lines of distinction.”

Clearly we have not come a long way baby. And partly we have ourselves to blame. It’s one thing for someone like Jamie Lee Curtis, whose career is frankly beyond its prime, to boldly pose for a magazine sans photo shopping and make-up. It would be another for an A-list, glamour-aholic like Nicole Kidman or Cate Blanchett to actually wield the supposed power of their $20 million paychecks and behave like a mature woman: toss out the Botox, have a slice of cheesecake, and stop feeding the adolescent fantasies of male producers, directors, studio heads, clothing designers, et al. And yet she and the rest of her kind don’t. Meanwhile we—the average American female—pay the price, holding ourselves (and being held) to their standard, which, without a superstar’s fortune and resources, we can’t possibly hope to achieve.

If Brad Pitt gets to have belly fat and laugh lines, why can’t we?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How To Save A Life

I once had a boss who banned all of his underlings from microwaving popcorn at work because it made the office smell like a movie theater, an aroma most people find irresistibly enticing but one that he felt projected a less than professional environment (which we were more than capable of doing all on our own without the popcorn). At the time, my colleagues and I thought he was exhibiting classic symptoms of a Napoleonic complex. Years later I can only thank him for saving my life.

Apparently there is a condition out there called “popcorn lung,” which sounds like a spoof of a side effect—along the lines of giant eyeballs, hotdog fingers and four-hour erections—but is a legitimate diagnosis just like Restless Leg Syndrome.

Popcorn lung first manifested itself among factory workers who handle the artificial buttery flavor that goes into microwave popcorn. And now a consumer, who ate several bags of the stuff on a daily basis, has developed the potentially fatal disease.

Now, I’m not here to question the existence of or the health hazard posed by popcorn lung. But I am here to ask why anyone would eat that much popcorn.

Don’t get me wrong. I love popcorn. I make it whenever I sit down to watch the Oscars, “Dancing With the Stars” or a “Gilmore Girls” rerun—sort of a guilty pleasure two-for-one deal. It’s also what I eat for dinner whenever I’m feeling down in the dumps, and usually chase the meal with a handful of chocolate chips. But several times a day? I’m surprised the disease isn’t called “popcorn colonic.”

I think I know what happened here. Some dude bought a microwave and discovered the appliance had no legitimate use other than boiling water for hot cocoa and preparing the aforementioned popcorn. But by then he had thrown out his receipt, the packing box and any of the other myriad requirements necessary for a refund. So he made the best of a bad situation and decided that in order to get his money’s worth out of the microwave, he would live on nothing but popcorn.

This is why I don’t have a microwave. It’s not nearly as necessary as people think. Anything a microwave can do, an oven or a tea kettle can do better. Slower perhaps but then again no one ever came down with lung disease from demonstrating a little patience.

Predictably, manufacturers are now promising to eliminate the noxious chemical in microwave popcorn (so if it’s not all that essential, why was it ever there in the first place?). I would proffer an alternate solution—bring back the old-style popcorn popper.

Living sans microwave, I’ve personally relied on an air popper for the majority of my adult life. I recently upgraded to a Cuisinart when my trusty friend sprang a leak in its, for lack of a more technical term, butter-melting compartment. While I don’t want this to turn into a product review of the Cuisinart, which operates via some sort of “stir rod,” let me just say that it’s now taking up space in a landfill having failed to fulfill its promise to reliably turn kernels into popcorn.

I searched for a replacement, but much like videocassettes, which have been consigned to the great obsolete technology burial ground in the sky, popcorn poppers have become a rare commodity. Sure, if it’s nostalgia you want, you can locate a Joe Namath model online at any of a number of collectibles sites. But if you’re in the market for a modern air popper, happy hunting.

I came up empty handed at various small appliance outlets. The new season of “Dancing With the Stars” loomed. I started to feel desperate, precisely the kind of condition that calls for popcorn.

And then one weekend we were shopping at Target for Kleenex, toilet paper and plastic sandwich bags—which mushroomed into floor cleaner, a mop, beer and a half dozen other items I don’t remember placing in the cart—when we came across the Chefmate. $15.99. I snapped it up.

Tuesday night and a “Gilmore Girls” rerun rolled around (as soon as the show’s finale re-airs, I will gladly wash my hands of the CW network—killer of “GG” and “Everwood”—once and for all). I was psyched to take my new air popper out for a spin. I measured kernels to the “fill” line, placed a pat of butter in the butter-melting compartment and excitedly flipped the switch to “on.”

Mayhem ensued.

While the Chefmate looks like an air popper, I promise you that it’s not. It’s a volcanic death machine. The top of the appliance is so poorly angled that swirling kernels are ejected from the appliance without coming close to popping. As white hot projectiles shot across my kitchen, I grabbed the Chefmate and tilted it backwards, hoping to keep some of the kernels in the belly of the beast long enough to pop. The barrel became clogged and the appliance started to smoke. I uprighted the Chefmate, at which point the thing blew its top and spewed the remaining kernels as far as the dining room. I happened to be wearing flip flops and one of the kernels lodged itself under my semi-bare foot. Burn cream was administered—I call the condition “popcorn toe.” I wound up settling for a bowl of rice and sent the Chefmate off to join its cousin the Cuisinart.

I wonder what they’re asking for the Joe Namath over there on eBay.