Thursday, February 07, 2008

To Give Or Not To Give

Back in 2004, I received a letter from Nancy Pelosi. Much like Princess Leia’s “help me Obi Wan Kenobi” hologram in “Star Wars”—only without the crazy cinnamon bun hairdo—Ms. Pelosi implied that my assistance was urgently needed if the Democrats were to have a prayer of ousting Darth Vader in the coming election. I sent her $25.

My mistake.

For openers, if you recall the results, I got zero return on my investment. Even worse, the Democratic National Committee was convinced in me it had landed a tuna, when in fact it had hooked a minnow. Or a plankton. Or whatever it is that plankton eat. In other words, my pockets do not run deep.

Try telling that to the DNC. Ms. Pelosi’s missive has been followed by notes from John Kerry, Al Gore and Howard Dean, along with phone calls from some guy named Jeff who refuses to grasp the concept that additional funds will not be forthcoming.

I only have myself to blame. I got into a similar pickle when I donated $25 to the Sierra Club. Well, that opened the floodgates to the World Wildlife Fund, Amnesty International, the National Resource Defense Council, Habitat for Humanity, and Save the Plankton. The onslaught reminded me of those emails from Amazon, which make sweeping generalizations about one’s personality based on a single purchase: “Patricia [never mind that no one calls me Patricia except my credit card company], we see that you like trees. We think you might also be interested in whales. May we suggest Greenpeace. Buy today and you could qualify for Super Saver Shipping.”

It’s easy enough to toss these pleas into the trash with a mental “If I could, I would” to satisfy my conscience. It’s much harder to reject a live human being on the telephone; they all but require a faxed copy of my latest tax return before they’ll believe that I’m not hiding a fortune of Bill Gates-ian proportions. The genius of their technique is that they know no self-respecting American wants to look cheap, much less poor. “Can’t you just do twenty-five?” they challenge. And I appreciate that $25 has become the new $10—against the Euro, it’s more like the new $1—but no, I can’t. The last time Jeff rang me up, I finally worked up the nerve to say so and the phone calls, if not the letters, have ceased.

So I find myself at a crossroads. Hillary Clinton’s campaign coffers have run dry. The candidate has had to lend herself money; meanwhile Barack Obama is sitting on the sort of treasure chest seldom seen outside pirate movies. I think he has actual doubloons at his disposal. I feel compelled to help level the playing field, partly because I would like to see Hillary Clinton as our next president and partly because Barack Obama is really starting to annoy me.

First, there’s his support among “young voters,” which the Super Tuesday pundits mentioned so many times, I thought perhaps the audio had gotten stuck on repeat. I would have written, “like a needle skipping on a record,” but then it would be so obvious that I am just a bit outside the 18-35 demographic. I suppose now that you know the truth about my age, I might as well admit that I hate young voters and young people in general. Scratch that. Hate is a strong word, what I really am is tired. I’m tired of our culture’s obsession with youth and those Juvederm commercials, and I’m particularly weary of the way 16-year-old boys get to dictate the options at my local multiplex. Seriously, these are the people who made Paris Hilton a celebrity and have passing knowledge of Hannah Montana—and we’re trusting them to choose our next president?

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. I guess it’s just that I, and other like-minded Generation X-ers, have been locked out of the political process for the past eight years. And now that it looks like we’re back in the game, young voters have crashed our party.

That’s my first issue with Barack. My second is that as the first viable African-American candidate, he’s completely hijacked the uniqueness of the first viable female candidate. I’m sure that a number of black voters look at Hillary and they see “white” and they see “Clinton”—same old, same old. In the same way, I look at Barack and I see “man.” If we’re going to talk about change, how about electing the first president who’s never used a urinal? (I don’t know this 100% for sure, but I feel pretty safe in my assumption.)

When the 57 hopefuls vying for the Democratic nomination lined up at their endless parade of debates, Hillary was clearly the answer to “what’s wrong with this picture?” “But what about Barack?” you argue. And I would counter that a black man in a dark suit (which he may or may not have worn to the previous debate or, for all we know, on the previous day), accessorized with some version of a blue or red power tie, has more in common with his white, male counterparts than does the woman in the yellow blazer wearing the bra underneath. Than the woman who was the only person on stage to ever undergo a pelvic exam. Or use a tampon. Or fix a run in her pantyhose. Or become a parent the hard way…by giving birth.

I hate to raise points that are largely biological, as those are the very reasons used in the past to block women from higher office. But I bring them up to illustrate how much Barack Obama is, in many ways, like every other person we’ve ever elected president of the United States. And Hillary Clinton is not. Somehow this message, and the excitement it should be generating for Hillary, seems to be getting lost.

Which brings me back to my original quandary: I would like to contribute to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But I don’t want to be mistaken, again, for a big fish. I looked for ways to lend a hand, other than financial. Were there envelopes that needed stuffing? Stamps that needed licking? Files that needed filing?

Alas, my vision of campaign headquarters went out of vogue with the Truman administration. I could, according to the Clinton web site, host a fundraising party or make fundraising phone calls. There were other, vague tasks, such as “get out the vote,” but that sounded like it might involve a clipboard and standing outside a supermarket to register new voters. Which is an order of magnitude of effort above envelope stuffing. I said I wanted to help, not work.

So, a $25 charge to my MasterCard it would be. But I’m warning you, Jeff, don’t come looking for more.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Keep on Picketing

Ah, the Hollywood writers’ strike: It’s been the worst of times, it’s been the best of times. Back in November, if you had told me that news of a possible resolution to this labor impasse would cause me anything other than unmitigated joy, I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how I would survive without the weekly antics of the folks at Dunder-Mifflin, Mode or Buy More. Why, a person could starve on such measly rations as re-runs, reality shows and the complete seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls” on DVD, courtesy of Netflix. When your remote lands you on PBS’s Pledge Week and you choose to stick around and see if you can mentally make the phone ring for that guy in the third row, you know you’ve hit bottom. The situation has become so dire, the best comedy currently airing on network television happens to be a political ad.

And yet.

I’m not ready to go back to the way things were.

I don’t mean that I want to turn my back on the medium. After all, “Lost” finally premiered last week and “Masterpiece Theatre” is doing a bang-up job with those Jane Austen adaptations. I just mean that I found other things to fill all the time I didn’t spend watching my favorite shows or reading online recaps of my favorite shows or debating whether to jump on the “Gossip Girl” bandwagon. I never realized how exhausting it all was, this attempt to maintain my pop culture street cred.

The strike was my get-out-of-jail-free card.

It’s not so much the absence of television that I’ve enjoyed—because when I really want to veg out in front of the boob tube, there’s always “Wife Swap”—as the absence of celebrities. Admit it, the words “silver lining” crossed your mind when Teri Hatcher disappeared along with new episodes of “Desperate Housewives.” The cancellation of the Golden Globes was a surprising relief and the prospect of a world without an Oscar telecast no longer struck me as particularly bleak.

A lot of us have a love-hate thing with these awards shows. We love the pretty dresses, we hate being reduced to such shallowness. Love the competition, hate the self-congratulatory acceptance speeches. Love the illusion of glamour these shows inject into our lives, hate the way the fabulous honorees make our own existence seem so very small and pedestrian. Surely, I’m not the only one to suffer from that particular inferiority complex.

I mean, if I never saw another actress walk down a red carpet dripping in jewels, her “naturally” rail thin body encased in a designer gown that cost more than my condo, I probably wouldn’t mind.

So when the world continued spinning on its axis after the Golden Globes much-derided press conference, plenty of us award show junkies were given pause to question our drug of choice. What, after all, is the point?

During the SAG Awards pre-show telecast—hey, I might be trying to kick the habit but even heroin addicts need their methadone—I got my answer. “We really needed tonight,” said the actress Chandra Wilson, whom I generally adore or, more to the point, whose “Grey’s Anatomy” character I generally adore. “We needed to celebrate each other’s work.” Or something to that effect.

There was no mention of the fans. No shout out to the couch potatoes at home. No pretense that the viewing audience was even factored into the equation. Award shows boil down to actors gushing over other actors. (And I know some of these shows let cinematographers and make-up artists and sound effects editors come out to play, but let’s face it, even their mothers are saying, “Let’s get to Javier Bardem.” In fact, that’s why the Screen Actors Guild invented their own awards—sort of like a clubhouse with a giant “keep out” sign aimed at deterring all those dorky set decorators and screenwriters.)

Before I completely lose my train of thought, I remember responding to Wilson’s comment—and I hate to keep singling her out for what is undoubtedly a common opinion—with a “Well, what working stiff doesn’t need a pat on the back? Why are actors more deserving of it than the rest of us?” And why are the rest of us expected to care?

My former employer used to hold an annual Rewards & Recognition Week. I’m sure versions of this take place all over Corporate America. Banquet halls or hotel ballrooms are rented out, some sort of mystery chicken is served, assorted plaques and/or other blunt objects are distributed as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, often accompanied by modest sums of cash or the occasional gift card.

None of this is televised. Which is actually how the Oscars ceremony got its start—as a small dinner party for Cary Grant and friends. I’m starting to think maybe the Academy got it right the first time, and has mucked it up ever since. Would it really be so terrible to wake up on a Monday morning, hear who took home the golden statue the night before, view a few pictures of the fashions and then move on with one’s day and, dare I say, one’s life?

I was hoping that the writers’ strike would last long enough for us to find out.

Monday, February 04, 2008

It’s Not Polite to Ignore the Girl Who Brought You to the Dance

I’ve been following the presidential campaign so closely for so long, it hardly seems real that I’m about to cast a ballot tomorrow.

For months, I’ve watched with anticipation and envy as other primary voters basked in the glow of the national spotlight while candidates courted their favor (or was it the other way around?). I saw some New Englander in a flannel jacket boast that he’d shaken each contestant’s hand and “looked ‘em in the eye.” I heard second-hand reports of Barack Obama delivering inspirational speeches to Iowans on the subject of ethanol and wondered when he might turn his attention to the mass transit crisis in his home state.

And now, as Super Tuesday approaches, the wait is over. My time has come.

I spent the past week or two haunting various locations where candidates seemed most likely to congregrate—diners, coffee shops, hot dog stands. I wore my puffy down parka, which is how the media likes Chicagoans to dress in the winter. My friends and I threw informal gatherings in our homes—you know, those intimate tete-a-tetes where you bond with Mitt and McCain over spinach-artichoke dip and really connect on a personal level. I had my sound bites and questions prepared. I would be so passionate and eloquent and camera-friendly, I would look and sound so much like a Real Person with a Real Grasp of Real Issues that the campaigns would enter a bidding war for my services as a special policy adviser. (No way I was going to pull a Maria Menounos. The “Inside Hollywood Access Tonight” reporter sat down last week with Laura Bush and actually asked the First Lady, “Would you like to reach out to Britney Spears?” No, Maria, I’d like to reach out to you and revoke your license to interview.)

Overall, I had the right idea, just the wrong location.

Barack’s glamour train, with Oprah and a gaggle of Kennedys on board, pulled into L.A. Hillary headed to Connecticut and NYC. Romney stumped in Massachusetts. Granted Mitt did make a stop in Glen Ellyn, Ill., but to a Chicago resident, that’s as good as Iowa. I have been, so it seems, ignored.

So I never got my one-on-one time with Mrs. Clinton, which is too bad because I had some vital strategic information to impart. “You know, lots of people don’t feel comfortable wearing their hearts on their sleeves,” I planned to enlighten her. “We’re called introverts. Embrace this long-ignored demographic and the presidency is yours.”

I never got the chance to walk Mike Huckabee over to the Field Museum, where I would show him Sue, our really, really, really, really old dinosaur.

I never had the opportunity to tell Obama that it’s not polite to ignore the girl who brought you to the dance. But if you can’t be bothered to campaign in the city where you live, and you still insist on hammering home your message of change, you might think twice before sending out Richard “Mayor for Life” Daley, scion of American’s longest-running political dynasty, as your substitute.

Mostly I’m sad that candidate Romney will soldier on without benefit of my sartorial assistance. “Mitt,” I would say, pulling him away from prying ears, “what’s with the cheesy blue Men’s Warehouse suits? You look like you’re selling vacuum cleaners door to door, not running for president. Let me show you something in black.” And the hair? Well I would let him go on thinking he’s fooling us with that.