Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lite Pop: Squeeze That Lemon!

I don't know about everybody else, but as much as I look
forward to Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impressions on SNL, what I've really been waiting for finally came Thursday night -- the third Season Premiere of "30 Rock." From episode one this show has been a tantalizing mix of character comedy, industry parody and social commentary and episode 37 is no exception.

Tina Fey's intrepid alter ego Liz Lemon ranks in the top five, maybe even three female television characters of all time.  Not only is she funny and smart and persevering even when mightily challenged by the powers-that-be (in the forms of Alec Baldwin as her corporate boss and Tracy Morgan as her unpredictable, uncontrollable star), she is also selfish, self-destructive, corruptible and mean-spirited.  In other words, she's an actual human being.  And her love interest isn't ever really in the form of a guy -- it's in the form of her job, her friendships and her lame attempts to overcome (sometimes) her baser nature.

No need for me to gush when you can check it out for yourself (if you are new to this show, treat yourself and watch all of the episodes on, but how many shows have lines as loony as "She was wearing Dora the Explorer panties that were meant for an obese child" and as highbrow as "We're not the best people, but we're not the worst people. The worst people are graduate students" in the same episode?  Par for the course on "30 Rock," as are sight gags, cutaways, wordplay, political jabs and celebrity jokes.  It's a veritable comedy grab bag almost every episode and totally gets away with it.

Why?  Because Tina Fey, her writers, actors and directors are, I think, out for more than ratings or Emmys or even a good belly laugh (even though they've consistently gotten two of the three).  I think they are out to tell the truth of the people and the place they are presenting, no matter how wacky, ugly, venal or petty they get.  As Liz Lemon says (after tons of shenanigans and half-truths) to the woman who is evaluating her to become an adoptive mother: "Yes, this place is not ideal but these weirdos are family to me and so if this job is a deal breaker, you tear up my application and I will start someplace else."  Moments like these, and the undercutting ones that follow are why this show has heart as well as humor and why I think we all should squeeze that Lemon and keep her around for as many seasons as she'll give us.

LLH out.

Lite Pop.  We Like It.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The First Black Anybody

Everyone has "that one" in their life right now, right? That one friend or relative who sends you every article, video, blog or humor item that has anything to do with Obama, making your e-mail inbox swell from 10 to 100 messages on a near-daily basis? If you don't, you probably are "that one" and if you are, I salute your commitment to political spam... I mean, getting the word out. For me, "that one" is my Auntie Brenda, so whenever I see a have e-mail from blakin, I skip over it because I know it will be long and/or time-consuming. But I recently found a moment to hack through my blakin e-mails and read a piece by Frank Schaeffer of the Huffington Post entitled "Obama Will Be One of The Greatest (and Most Loved) American Presidents."

I don't know why, but of all of the Obama fodder in my box, this one made me more than a little "Yes, We Can" -- it actually made me weepy, emotional and (dare I say?) hopeful.  Not only because this self-described life-long Republican and Christian is so eloquent about the virtues of Obama, but because it's the first time the simplest argument to vote for Obama occurred to me.  He will absolutely be the best president this generation has ever seen - -because he HAS TO BE. 

The First Black Anybody, it hit me, is always superlative whenever he or she crosses lines that have not been crossed before.  Not only are they preternaturally gifted in their field of choice (Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. DuBois, Leontyne Price, to name a few), they also possess the demeanor, will power and acumen to earn the respect even of those most resistant to their presence in a heretofore homogeneous field.  The First Black Anybody knows everyone is watching him or her, some with fingers crossed, some with eyes askance, and if they "mess up," it becomes painfully unlikely that The Second Black Anybody will get their proverbial turn at bat.

Obama, put plainly, is a man without a net, so he must cross the high wire intact, or perish.  Does old boy McCain have that kind of pressure on him?  Um, not so much.  Of course, The First Black Anybody theory isn't the only reason I'm voting for Obama, but I must say, I do love that he's the guy who's playing "all in" because he does not have the luxury of hedging his bets. And that's the guy who for damn sure knows how to play his cards.  And since I have no other metaphors to mix, I will close by saying feel free to use this argument with any undecided friends of yours because even though there is a level of facetiousness and whimsy to it, it's really kinda true.

Deep Pop.  We Love It.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lite Pop: The (Old) Girl Can't Help It

This will be brief, because it is filled with shame. The shame of guilty pleasure. But I can no longer contain it -- I must share it and let it fly free, because perhaps then I can let it go. I watch "Dancing With The Stars" and have since season two (believe it or not, we are not at the shame part yet). But never have I enjoyed a season or contestant more than right now. In case you don't know, Cloris Leachman (of "The Last Picture Show," "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Phyllis" fame) is one of the celebrity dancers this year, and at 82, the oldest to ever compete on the show.

I never thought anything would top the embarrassing-but-real anticipation of one-legged Heather Mills' prosthetic popping off in Season 5 (it never did, but she did keel over once) but oh my, how it has been topped. (Insert aforementioned shame here.) Cloris Leachman is completely insane and her dances are beyond Billy Ray Cyrus horrible but THEY ARE SO ENTERTAINING! With her archangel of a partner Corky Ballas, Cloris is SHAKING HER TA TAS:



and this week in the middle of her "jive" to "The Girl Can't Help It" she even GETS HER WIG YANKED OFF AFTER SMELLING CORKY'S FARTS. Oh yes, you read right. Farts. Proof that I am not kidding? Click below:

Fortunately, Cloris is in on the joke (my conscience won't let me think otherwise), so even when she rambles semi-coherently to the judges and the camera, you can tell she is just doing her best to entertain. And because of said entertainment value (low-brow and wacky as it may be) it's the first time I've ever considered picking up the phone to vote. Click below if you need another taste of the shame/hilarity (this is after her first dance):


So, if you are looking for a jaw-dropping controlled car crash to watch next Monday, tune in to ABC at 8pm to check out the latest stylings of the incomparable Cloris. Phyllis Diller, gird your girdles -- there's a new octogenarian clown in town!

Lite Pop.  We Like It.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Sacred Institution Between Two Unwilling Teenagers

Y'all know what I'm referring to, right? The third in the most-awesome series of SNL political spoofs ever? You know -- the Joe Biden/Sarah Palin debate parody from Saturday night.  Tina Fey and gang were on fire and never did they shine more brightly than with the single line above.  If you want to catch the full context, watch the video above.  It will show you the whole segment but if you just want to hear the line (the whole sentence is actually "I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers") scroll about six minutes in.

The reason the above joke/sentiment made me laugh out loud and almost damn-near cheer my TV (it got the most live-audience applause, too) is because I can't stand that neither the republicans NOR DEMOCRATS will support gay marriage.  I'm not so sure about Palin or McCain, but I know Obama and Biden know better -- two men so knowledgeable about history and civil rights have to know how unfair it is to deny ANY citizen ANY right.  But they choose to pander because they feel they can't risk the political backlash in so close a race. Though I rarely start a sentence with the following because I feel it is reductive, I can't help it in this case. As a black person (that's the sentence starter right there), it is unconscionable to me to ever deny any law-abiding citizen the right to participate in any government-sanctioned activity.  I think about voting rights, property rights, housing rights, hell, even marriage rights (first for blacks -- the broom jump developed because it wasn't legal for slaves to marry -- and interracial marriages were illegal until 1967) and in every case, the people who wanted them were denied such rights because the majority perceived them as "less than."

So they can say all they want about tolerance and "a civil union is just the same" -- but it's not.  It is NOT the same.  Does 1896's Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" ring a bell for anyone?  Or that it had to be undone fifty-eight years later by Brown v. the Board of Ed? (I didn't even fact check the dates -- they have been seared in my brain since high school because they've always struck a deep chord with me.) Come on, people, let's spare ourselves the decades-long anguish over this and do the right thing now.  Does it make any sense to you that two "oops, we got pregnant" teenagers who don't even want it can get all the rights and legal protections of marriage?  That prisoners like Erik Menendez who murdered his parents can get married?  But good, loving people like my friends Ray Lancon and Sara Washington (I've been feeling your recent pain over this one, girl) can't? If that's not calling somebody "less than," I don't know what is.

California Voters -- No on Prop. 8. Voting any other way says you are against liberty and justice for all. This is not my opinion, this is fact. And it is also a fact that those against gay marriage will be proven wrong and one day gay marriage will be as commonplace as seeing a woman vote (an abomination in 1919) or a black person in a public swimming pool (cause for a lynching before the 60s). 

Okay, so... this is a screed as well as Deep Pop.  But we still love it.

April 7, 2009 UPDATE:  As everyone knows, Obama/Biden captured the White House on November 4, 2008, shattering a ceiling most felt would take several more generations to break through.  But even with that huge leap forward, California took a huge step back by passing Proposition 8.  The matter is still in the state Court of Appeals, and hopefully justice will prevail.  In happier news, Vermont and Iowa approved gay marriage this week, bringing the total of states that sanction same-sex matrimony to four (the other two are Connecticut and Massachusetts).  Four down, forty-six to go!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lite Pop: Seat Jumpin' Classic #1

*LITE POP ALERT*  Although this website/blog is dedicated to exploring the deeper meaning in popular culture, sometimes you can love something just because, well, it makes your eyes pop.  Or your ass move.  So every once in a while, we are going to write shorter pieces about such.  Hence, "Lite Pop."  Here's a piece originally posted on Facebook:

I don't know if this will become a regular, but I threw a #1 on the title just in case. In my never-ending effort to get rid of all of the crap and clutter I've accumulated since high school (left L.A. with four boxes, came back from college with thirty four and they've been making babies ever since), I'm paring down my super-sizeable record/CD/tape collection. Still on the CDs... going through those early mix-CDs made with .WAV files (remember those behemoths?), trying to see what I can trash. I'm not as sentimental about the CD mixes -- the tapes though, those are going to hurt. Maybe because they took so much planning and effort and you had one take to get it right. So when they came out well, they were like gold. But the CDs? Eh, just reshuffle your playlist and burn again while you drink a latte -- no real time, hours-long commitment.

Perhaps as a result of the ease of CD-mixing, a lot of my CD mixes aren't that good. So on my way home from Whole Foods, I was confident I could trash the one I was listening to. I had all the cuts on iTunes and I could definitely get some better sequencing going than the hodgepodge of Ashanti's "Foolish" (so of its time, the song bores me now) to the Blow Monkeys' "Digging Your Scene" (still love that 80s underplayed classic) to Blu Cantrell's "Hit Em Up Style" that so didn't work. A few more late 90s/early 00's cuts played (Ja Rule, you are off the hip hop map for good reason) but then -- BAM! The horns and drums from Kool Moe Dee's "I Go To Work" kicked in and I was literally jumping in my seat. I know most people love Moe Dee's "Wild Wild West" or "How You Like Me Now" but "I Go To Work" has never failed to make me want to move my body. But now it makes my mind explode too because the lyrics and phrasing are so intricate, propulsive and creative. In my opinion, it's probably his best rap ever. It's great conceptually, rhythmically, musically -- it hits on all cylinders and is a true hip-hop classic -- it would definitely be on my top 10 all-time hip hop song list. Hell, that song is so good it not only makes me want to boogie or write my own rhyme -- it makes me want to exercise! Trust me, that's GOOD.

Kool-Ass Kool Moe Dee

I'm still gonna trash the mix CD, but it was such a nice surprise and reminder of how good songs can be that you haven't heard in a while and how revisiting the past can make you appreciate certain things you may have missed the first time around. So even though the clutter and the crap absolutely have to hit the bricks, sometimes there are benefits to sifting through slowly. Perhaps I have found my anti-clutter theme song? I'll put it on next time I'm trashing things, see if it helps and let you know. 

LLH out.

Lite Pop. We Like It.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pregnant With Juno Schadenfreude

Has it happened to you?  Has something or someone in popular culture driven you nuts?  Not the garden variety “This song is horrible, when will they stop playing it?” nuts (R.I.P. “Macarena”!), but the anaphylactic shock “This person/thing is making me irrationally angry and sick and I want him/her/it to fail fail fail” nuts?  Well, it’s happened to me, twice, each time with other female writers.  Want to take one guess why?  No, you're right, you don't have to, you already know why -- jealousy.

The first time it happened was in 2005 when “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted and became a monster hit for ABC.  I knew immediately why I was peeved -- the creator of the show, Shonda Rhimes, was having the career I wished I had.  Our paths first intersected in 1998 -- I was a Vice President of Production at Twentieth Century Fox and bought a movie pitch from her a shortly before I summoned up the guts to quit my suit gig and become what I beheld -- a writer.  That particular project went nowhere, but soon thereafter, Rhimes wrote the lauded HBO movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (which won Halle Berry a Golden Globe), the Britney Spears debut (read: debacle) “Crossroads” (the DVD commentary by Shonda and director Tamra Davis, however, revealed the creative intentions behind it were as good as the acting was bad) and “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.”  (Okay, at this point, you may be wondering, "What’s with the “Juno” poster?  This is all about Lori hating on Shonda Rhimes."  But truly, it’s not.  I’ll get to the “Juno” of it all in a moment, promise.)

Shonda Rhimes, from the start, was an obvious talent -- her unproduced script, “When Willows Touch,” was her calling card to Hollywood and a lovely piece of writing -- so B.G. (Before “Grey’s”), her successes made me cheer her on from a distance because she deserved them.  But as soon as she blew up in television -- the medium of writing where I had the most traction and she had no previous experience -- I found my eyes quickly transmuting from brown to green.  Not only was she becoming the most successful black female show runner ever in terms of audience and ratings, she was doing it the way I wanted to -- without race pigeonholing her casting or her subject matter.  

I was envious of her and angry with myself.  I’d known Shonda all those years ago -- why hadn't I nurtured or protected that relationship?  If I had, would I be riding the zeitgeist to writer heaven (awards, fat development deals, syndication), too?  But these "If I'd only stayed in touch with her" moments were cracker barrel, too.  I’m not a good networker, never have been and hindsight hasn’t changed that.  I realized, in my saner moments, the negativity, self-directed or otherwise, was coming from my ego and had nothing personally to do with Shonda.  Bottom line?  I was coveting what Shonda had and, like a fiend, wanted it to be mine.  I couldn’t even watch “Grey’s” the first season it aired, even though it was right up my TV alley -- soapy and sarcastic with super-verbal characters and underpinnings of good intention.  Who willfully ignores such affinity for a self-created world of isolation and delusion?  Say it with me, folks -- a fiend!  A jealous fiend!


Fortunately Oprah helped me break through my cloud of envy -- she anointed Shonda and “Grey’s Anatomy” on an “Oprah” episode and who am I to dismiss the teachings of the great and powerful Oprah?  So I started watching (and enjoying) “Grey’s Anatomy.”  Good thing, too, because shortly thereafter, I saw Rhimes at a Writer’s Guild function for NAACP Image Award nominees (my husband Warren was a nominee for his work on “The Bernie Mac Show”).  During a break, I approached Shonda, reintroduced myself and congratulated her on her career.  Facing my demons like this not only did a world of good for my peace of mind, but as the words came from my mouth I realized they were, in fact, the truth.  In my heart I wished Shonda well and knew her success was my success.  Shonda thanked me and asked me what I was up to.  I told her I was writing on a show called “All of Us.”  She then told me to call her for lunch, implying she might be needing some writers soon.


I called her office that Monday -- our lunch became breakfast and then got rescheduled four times before her assistant called and said Shonda’s schedule was too hectic and he would call me back when time opened up.  Translation?  GRAB A MUFFIN AND SOME STARBUCKS BY YOURSELF, HONEY, BECAUSE IT AIN’T HAPPENING WITH SHONDA.  Which, oddly, was fine by me.  My conscience was clear -- I had done the right thing -- I had taken “right action,” put my ego in check and followed up on a friendly offer for a meal.  That it didn’t happen was not on me and I could only wish Shonda well.  (By the by, we are careening toward the “Juno” connection in the next two paragraphs -- for real this time.)

About a year after the unrequited lunch, I got a jubilant call from my agent saying the Shonda Rhimes camp wanted to meet with me.  (My agent’s genuine disbelief at my ability to score such a meeting over so many other well-seasoned and better-credited writers made me chuckle -- I guess my unproduced screenplays, short-lived series and UPN/CW gigs make me a hard bag of goods to sell out there on the mean streets of Tinseltown.)  She informed me Shonda was doing a spin-off of “Grey’s” called “Private Practice” and Marti Noxon (the marvelous writer/executive producer from “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” who, coincidentally, was an old poker buddy) would be running it.  The seeds of good karma were finally being sown -- Shonda hadn't forgotten me and was offering me something much better than a meal -- a chance at a career-changing job.


The meeting went well (at least I thought it did) with Shonda, Marti and executive producer Betsy Beers (a connection there too -- I was a writer’s assistant on “True Colors,” an early-90s Fox TV show on which her ex-hubby was a producer), but I didn’t get hired.  I felt bad about it for a while but when I thought about why I was feeling bad, I realized it was my stupid ego again -- I felt bad because I thought I should feel bad, not because I really did feel bad.  My life had changed so much by then -- I’d just given birth to a son who had several medical issues and the guilt of possibly leaving him for full-time work was already plaguing me.  Also, my awareness about the fleeting nature of things like the popularity of television shows had expanded to the point where the part of me that was not my ego was beyond the rejection the moment my agent told me I didn’t get the job.  When I looked at the situation for what it was, I saw I’d had the opportunity to spend half an hour with three seriously-talented, successful women, we weren't meant to work together at that time, and hey, guess what, there was no pen or paper shortage -- I could still write.

So after going through all of that, thinking I’d conquered jealousy and filled my professional heart with benevolent good will, imagine my shock when the same exact feelings -- more intense and more irrational this time -- surfaced around “Juno” and its writer, Diablo Cody.  I didn’t even have a personal connection to this writer and I certainly (until “Juno”) didn’t want her career.  I first came across the Diablo Cody phenomenon when I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about her rise from stripper to blogger to screenwriter with a super-hot project at Fox Searchlight (“Juno”), a TV project with Steven Spielberg (“The United States of Tara”) and a column in the very magazine I was reading (the only other guest writer EW employs is Steven King -- mighty high cotton for The Little Stripper That Could to shimmy in, one might -- and did -- think).

I was immediately disgusted with myself -- why was this happening again?  What did Diablo ever do to me?  Nothing -- except maybe get a movie project made at the company where I once had three.  The script I had at Searchlight dearest to my heart, the character-based romantic comedy “The Facts About Kate,” had long been dead, but clearly my emotions around it weren’t.  In development since 2000, “Kate” had gotten as close to becoming a movie as most movies that don’t become movies ever get:  the awesomely awesome Forest Whitaker was attached to produce, stylish and soulful up-and-comer Kwyn Bader was hired to direct, Sanaa Lathan (of “Brown Sugar,” “Disappearing Acts,” and “Raisin In The Sun” fame) was offered the lead with start dates in mind, and Peter Rice, then President, now King of Searchlight, told me he was going to make the movie -- in front of a witness not directly under his employ, no less.  But after several stops and starts “Kate” fell apart in 2004, and then the other “almost movie” I worked on for Searchlight, “Fast Girls,” was given the greenlight... twice... but went all red light in 2006.   So in 2007, when I read the story of the ease of how “Juno” went from script to screen at Searchlight, what I felt went beyond jealousy, beyond envy.  I wanted “Juno” to go down.  I wanted Schadenfreude.

As the Rolling Stones famously put it however, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  Especially when a multi-billion dollar corporation is marketing the hell out of and the public is eating up what you want to sink down the drain and become as forgotten as the Sacagawea dollar.  Instead, the joke was on me -- “Juno” exploded at the box office and went on to major critical acclaim, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and, curse of all curses! -- an Oscar nomination for Diablo Cody her own damn self.  Was my spite going to make me boycott the Academy Awards, my own personal Super Bowl (I haven't missed them since fifth grade when Dustin Hoffman won for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and made the funny speech where he thanked his parents for getting busy), just so I wouldn't have to see "Juno" and Diablo strut off with the gold?

Right before the Oscars aired, I had a serendipitous lunch in old Hollywood with my old friend Teddy.  We got to talking about movies (we’re both writers and that fall had received more free screeners from the studios than ever -- ironic since we were on strike at the time) and Teddy asked me if I’d seen “Juno” yet.  I admitted the truth to him: I couldn’t bring myself to watch “Juno” because of my irrational feelings towards it and Diablo Cody.  Teddy smiled knowingly, laughed to himself, then spiritedly said, “She’s your nemesis!”  I balked, saying how could Diablo Cody be my nemesis, I don’t even know her!  Teddy replied that it didn’t matter if I knew her because she was an archetype -- someone who symbolized all of the negativity, hatred, jealousy, pettiness, etc. that I had within me.  This bit of unexpected wisdom floored me.  I couldn’t see the complete truth of it in the moment, but what I glimpsed made me realize I needed to deal with the issue right away.  Teddy then mentioned a song from the musical “Avenue Q” called “Schadenfreude” he thought I should check out.  He said it talked about how wishing misfortune on others actually makes the world a better place.  I told him I’d get to it, but first things first.  I had to watch “Juno” that night.  Because I couldn’t let myself be that crazy.

Well, it turns out I was okay with letting myself be that crazy because it took me a few more days to suck it up and watch “Juno.”  I knew I would feel even worse if it was bad, because then, in my mind, my petty ill will would be justified.  Thankfully, “Juno” turned out to be, in my opinion, a very good movie with excellent acting, directing and characterization.  Yes, a lot of the dialogue was stylized, but as I intimated when talking about “Grey’s Anatomy,” I dig that.  Yes, if the tone had been off a hair it would have been a disaster.  But it wasn’t and the movie really, really worked for me and I got why it connected with so many people.  It was fresh, quirky, uplifting and life-affirming.  And that ending duet between Ellen Page and Michael Cera of that Moldy Peaches song just killed me.  So when I watched Cody walk up to accept her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, I actually felt happy for her.  She seemed genuinely pleased and humbled by the occasion and thanked her family in a way that was charming and heartfelt.

But even as I made my peace with "Juno" and Diablo, I felt uneasy.  What Teddy said was still with me.  Would my darker side always seek out an archetype through which to express itself?  What new form of popular culture would emerge and unleash the beast within?   And what if next time the material wasn’t of quality and my sense of “what’s good is good” wouldn’t allow me to quell the nastiness?  Or maybe there was no way to quell it -- perhaps I should just take solace in the progress I’d made -- it took me much less time to kick my Cody jones than my Rhimes one.  

And then it hit me -- perhaps this was yet another deep function of popular culture -- to reflect and reveal not only the best within us but also the worst.  If we can face the weaknesses mirrored back to us via pop movies, television, music, artists, etc. instead of hide, resist or succumb to them, we can transform them into compassion and a higher consciousness -- the kind that can release us from the inherent folly of human nature.  Simply put, acceptance of my untoward feelings would be the only way for them to dissipate.  With this in mind, I recalled Teddy’s suggestion and downloaded “Schadenfreude” from “Avenue Q” on iTunes.

From first listen, "Schadenfreude" made me laugh out loud -- of course it was all about acceptance of our own nature, bad, good or otherwise.  On its surface the song may seem overly clever and snide but really, it’s a celebration of the thoughts and feelings we all have and must acknowledge before we can overcome them.  “Schadenfreude” as a piece of music also manages to be blissfully snappy, so as we listen and identify with it, we not only get to feel good about having bad feelings, we get to hum a few bars, too!  Just like “Grey’s” and “Juno,” this song got me to take some looks within I might not have bothered to otherwise.  It almost makes me look forward to my next bout of ego-driven lunacy, so it can dissolve from say, the size of an Oscar to say, the size of a Sacagawea dollar.  Which I would then forget about altogether because who ever thinks of a Sacagawea dollar?  In fact, hmmm... Tina Fey... how YOU doin'?  I've already got child care lined up so I can check for you in "Baby Mama," Homeslice.  Like seriously, Meredith...

Deep Pop.  We love it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The New World Oprah

In all fairness, I have to begin by saying I love Oprah.  I drink the "O"-flavored Kool Aid regularly and I love the taste.  So what you are about to read is admittedly biased because I believe what Oprah has been doing, particularly in the past five years with her show, her media empire and her life, is nothing short of awesome.  And I don't mean that in a "Whoa, dude, check out Oprah, she's awesome!" kind of way, but literally -- for me, Oprah inspires awe.  From launching a magazine devoted to helping people "live their best lives," to an XM satellite radio network with the same conceit, to building an Academy to educate young women in South Africa, to her new television network, to launching the ABC reality show "The Big Give" where people win by giving to others -- one would think that Oprah has done it all.  Well, it turns out Oprah is just getting started.  

Oprah's latest, and perhaps greatest awe-inspiring feat happened just a few nights ago when she hosted a live, ninety-minute, free, worldwide webcast discussing Eckhart Tolle's latest book (and Oprah's current book club selection) "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose."  I picked the book up as soon as she announced the ten-week class (a pop culture happening, in my opinion, not to be missed), and "good student" I believe myself to be, went online and I reserved my "seat" in class, downloaded my Chapter One Workbook (Professor Oprah does not play -- she gives us homework!) and began to read the book, even though all I knew about it was that Oprah said it wasn't a typical pick for her.

The title of the book intrigued me (who doesn't want to awaken to their life's purpose, or at least check to see if they've got it right?), but it didn't give me a clear understanding of its contents.  I thought the book would be akin to a Dr. Phil-ish experience -- it would annoy me then help me see what's dysfunctional in my life so in the future I could make better choices.  But from the first page, when Tolle writes about the first flowers on the planet and how they had no purpose other than to be messengers from the spiritual realm, I realized "A New Earth" was going to offer so much more than a bald Texan in a bad suit.  Oprah had picked a "deep" book, a "new age" book, a (dare I say it?) "spiritual" book.  

As I read on, the book immediately moved me.  It was reminding me of everything I have been learning over the past few years through personal experience or through Taoism, the spiritual path I am currently exploring.  The coolest ideas to me in "A New Earth" were these: 1)the idea of God/the universe/ consciousness as an absolute truth with the different paths towards it being secondary (Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and 2)the identification of the individual ego and the collective ego as the culprits behind dysfunction, destruction and madness.  The first idea is pretty clear but the second is a bit esoteric, which is why it takes Tolle some 300 pages to explain it.  

The bottom line, as I understand it, is that when we make our thoughts our identity and value things and ideas over our inner god/spirit, we get out of whack in our personal and collective lives.  Tolle gives examples of this by citing, on the personal level, anger, anxiety, depression, guilt and the like.  On the collective level, wars, murders, genocides -- all justified by the "you're wrong and I'm right" mentality needed by the ego to survive.  I'm sorry if this is even more confusing -- I only mention it to give a glimpse into what the book talks about and why it was such a daring choice for Oprah to put out there to her legion. 
So anyway, Monday night, I'm all ready with my Chapter 1 workbook, my pen (plus several extras) and I log in, "take my seat" early (still in "good student" mode) and watch celebrity testimonials, Oprah clips, and promos from sponsors Chevy and Post-It.  Class begins with a big close-up on Oprah.  She looks tired, but excited.  Sitting across from her on the ethereal, white-and beige colored set is author Eckhart Tolle.  

As Oprah keeps talking my mother Joyce (who I turned on to the book) arrives when I imagine all the cool kids do, a few minutes after the "bell" rings.  She sits and watches with me.  The first question Oprah is asked via interactive computer phone system Skype (another sponsor) is from a woman who wants to know how to reconcile Tolle's ideas (which draw from Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism as well as the Bible) with her Catholic faith and wants to know how Oprah reconciles them with her faith.  Oprah, not realizing the question was going to be directed to her, admits to thinking she'd be able to take a rest, but quickly snaps to attention and answers. 

On her daily show, Oprah has spoken about being raised in the church, but always seemed to steer clear of definitively labeling herself as a practicing Christian.  Well, that day has passed because not only did Oprah identify herself as Christian, she also proclaimed to a world-wide audience that she does not believe "Jesus Christ came here to start Christianity."  Wow!!  Officially, this class was now dynamite.  And not in the J.J. Evans "Dy-no-mite!" way, but the "this is explosive, blowing up the box" way. Oprah officially transcended from well-meaning talk show host to ersatz webevangelist.

Taken out of context, I can see people having a field day with Oprah's Jesus statement and her later statement that "God can't be contained in a church."  But what she was saying (in context) was that Christ's purpose on earth was to show people "Christ consciousness" -- how to be awake and present in the world and how to tap into the Christ within.  She also mentioned a few books ("The Seeker's Guide" by Elizabeth Lesser and "Discover The Power Within You" by Eric Butterworth) that helped her reconcile her Baptist teachings ("Old Spirituality") with non-church based teachings ("New Spirituality") like Tolle's.

Coincidentally it was around this time, as Oprah got a call from a Baptist in Germany, that my feed started stuttering and stammering as if it were 1969 and Oprah was broadcasting from the moon.  When I clicked on the "if you have problems with this webcast" link, the whole thing crashed.  I re-entered the class several times over the next forty minutes, but only got glitchy images, then two-second sound bites that were impossible to follow.  Eventually the web geeks managing the site apologized on the main page for the technical difficulties and encouraged people to come back tomorrow (Tuesday) to watch the video on or download it through iTunes.  I did the latter and just finished watching it in its entirety before I started this blog.

Other highlights from the class were Oprah saying everyone blames the media and movies for negativity but she thinks they are a cultural reflection of where we are as human beings.  She then said look at the movies nominated for Oscars this year -- that tells you where we are.  I don't think Oprah was trying to rag on the filmmakers but in a way she seemed to agree that movies do play into the collective psyche and ego.  She then turned to Tolle and prompted him to quote from his book where he says humans are the only species who watch violence for entertainment.   Will these comments make it harder for Oprah to host her Oscar party next year?  Prevent certain studios from having their stars appear on her show?  Answer:  OPRAH DOESN'T CARE.  

Oprah also had one of her signature "A-ha" moments as she reveled in the coolness of the technology that was allowing her to host the event.  She said she realized the acceleration of technology could accelerate the destruction of mankind if we don't "wake up" to our consciousness.  Tolle confirmed this and quoted from his book about the destruction in the 20th century and all that can be accomplished in the 21st if the collective ego continues to go unchecked.  Did Oprah alienate her technology sponsors with this commentary?  Answer:  OPRAH DOESN'T CARE.  Oprah ended the class on a note of enthusiasm, clapping her hands together gleefully with anticipation for next week's class which will focus primarily on the ego.  

So, in sum, what is so "deep" and "pop" about all of that?  Well, it's pop because Oprah's anointment of this book shot it to the top of every bookseller's list and it has now shipped 3.5 million copies.  It's also an interactive, worldwide event (free live or for download!) that I suspect will only grow in audience over the next nine weeks.  It's "deep" (besides the "deepness" of the subject matter) because Oprah has, with this bold act, made the intention behind her popularity clear: she is using it to awaken people to their consciousness (i.e. "the God within") and thus has positioned herself as our nation's (and planet's?) newest (and perhaps most powerful) spiritual leader.  No wonder Oprah doesn't want to be the President -- to paraphrase Prince, she'd rather be the Pope!  Not in the ring-and-mitre sense, but in the sense that she wants to lead the masses from all corners of Earth to God.  

Oprah no longer cares if she alienates her audience, religious leaders or her sponsors -- not because she is too rich to care (even though she is) but because she is on a mission, and over the web on Monday, that was obvious.  Oprah, ever inclusive, made a point of saying she does not believe Christianity is the only way to God, but that there are several paths to God with six billion people on Earth.  She also affirmed you don't have to give up your current belief system to achieve the kind of spirituality she's touting, and that Tolle isn't trying to be your next guru.  Oprah shot Tolle a quick look when she said this, then moments later asked him point blank if he wanted to be a guru.  He said no and sort of laughed.  Perhaps because he knew he was in the presence of our latest one?  Stay tuned... I know I will.  

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Cruisin'" For A Bruisin': In Defense of Tom Cruise

I was on the phone with my friend PJ a few weeks ago and the topic of Tom Cruise and his recent YouTube Scientology video came up.  I'd heard about it of course (who hadn't?), but wasn't interested enough to check it out until PJ went on and on about how "over-the-top crazy" Tom was in it.  Having seen the famous "Jumping-On-Oprah's-Couch" incident as it aired in 2005 and its numerous spoofs on television and the internet, I figured maybe it was time for me to check out the latest pop-culture brouhaha inspired by the formerly untouchable Cruise.  I decided to look it up while on the phone so PJ and I could have a proper conversation about it.  (By the way, I find cable modem/DSL/video streaming to be particularly satisfying internet advances -- you can instantly have a conversation with someone about something they insist is fascinating and not go "I didn't see it.  Can you get me the tape?"  By the time you get the tape, watch it and bring up the topic again, everyone has moved on.  In a weird way, fast connections and video capability allow us to have more complete discussions, even though conventional wisdom says people are more disconnected because of the internet.  But that's another topic. Right now, I'll stick to Tommy Boy.)

As I watched Cruise talk to an unseen interviewer about what Scientology meant to him, P.J. supplied unsolicited commentary.  "Do you see his eyes, Lori?  Looking all glazed and freaky?"  Personally I'd choose the adjectives "intense" and "focused" but potato/potahto... who was I to disagree?   I still had eight minutes of video to watch and the "glazed freaky" could be lurking just around the corner.  So I watched... and watched... and only saw more intensity and focus -- two qualities often present in Cruise's better acting performances.  About seven minutes into the video I said to my friend, "I don't know, PJ.  If he replaced 'Scientologist' with 'Born-Again Christian' I don't think there'd be much difference.  Except someone would nominate him for President."  PJ conceded this point but continued to insist that Cruise was "out of his friggin' mind" and the scarier part of the video (which was forcibly removed from the internet) where he gets a medal in front of a big image of L. Ron Hubbard and salutes undoubtedly made him look like a lunatic.   Since I couldn't see this part of the video, the conversation shifted into a brief discussion of Scientology, of which I know close to nothing about, moved on to lighter topics (travel, makeovers), then PJ and I said our good-byes. 

Off and on during the following weeks, I thought about Tom Cruise and how the pendulum of general opinion on him had in two-and-a-half years swung from super-likeable, talented megastar to complete-and-total nutbag -- and stayed there.   Then today when I walked into Barnes & Noble to buy the latest Oprah's Book Club Selection "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle so I could prepare for Oprah's "live class" (a pop culture moment I do not want to miss), the first thing I saw was an unavoidable display of Andrew Morton's unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise.  Where was Oprah's book in relation to this?  Crammed behind the discount DVDs, off to the side of the register.  Clearly, the "Tom-Cruise-Is-Fucking-Insane" crowd is more valued than the "I-Want-Oprah-To-Help-Me-Live-My-Best-Life" crowd, at least at this particular store.  On the ride home, I thought about Cruise some more.  Really, what had he done other than overzealously proclaim his love for his now-wife Katie Holmes on TV (most of us are lucky to have our similar moments preserved only in the minds of a select few, not the whole world) and profess his devotion to his chosen religion?
I'm sure the fact that Scientology is a "new religion" (founded in 1952) with what people believe to be cultish tendencies plays a factor in the anti-Cruise shift, but religious intolerance ultimately does not keep Americans from enjoying their favorite entertainers (think the Osmonds, Richard Gere, every Jew who ever was and still is successful, including glass-eye-having, Swedish-model-dating-very-short-black-man Sammy Davis, Jr.).   Besides, Cruise has made no secret of his religion for well over a decade, so why would it cause a backlash now?   The more I thought about it, the more I realized the deeper reason for the switch from TomKat to TomHate is because before the couch jumping and the Brooke Shields attacking and the L. Ron Hubbard saluting, for a vast number of people, Tom Cruise represented the quintessential American man. 
Cruise, particularly in his movies, was so every guy (who can forget him in "Risky Business" lip-synching and sliding around in his underwear as we all do?), so patriotic and heroic (in "Top Gun" or "A Few Good Men" or even "Born On The Fourth Of July") or so selfish-but-ultimately redeemable ("Rain Man," "The Color of Money," "Jerry Maguire"), that every guy wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him. He was a successful, handsome, wealthy and charming self-made individual.  But then he threw that image into turmoil on "Oprah," then into an incinerator when he argued to Matt Lauer on "Today" that psychiatry was essentially quackery and taking medication for mental health issues was unnecessary.  Cruise is far from the only person who believes psychiatrists/psychologists/therapists are con artists (the term "headshrinker" didn't invent itself and certainly wasn't invented by Cruise) or that his or her religion can save people in distress, but the fact that in the process he slagged Brooke Shields, an American sweetheart, well, that was akin to having the captain of the football team chop up the head cheerleader and fertilize the end zone with her.
Even though Cruise later apologized to Shields and mended that fence well enough for her and her husband to attend his wedding to Holmes, as far as America was concerned, it was too late.  Tom Cruise had already become "The Other" -- someone who is not "us," not of the majority, no longer a reflection of the collective American self-image.  Fear and hatred of The Other is rampant in our culture -- there are examples of it everywhere, from the politics that led us to the current war in Iraq, to every racist or sexist joke you've ever heard, to classic Disney movies.  (Think about what's going on in "Snow White" for a moment -- everything is cool when the Queen looks into the mirror and sees herself as the fairest.  But as soon as that image isn't reflected back to her, she goes insane and wants the heart of The Other cut out and brought to her in a box.  Yikes, right?  But it's this pathological desire to stamp out The Other that terrifies and fascinates equally because we all have it within us.  In fact, everything truly memorable in "Snow White" is motivated by the twisted actions of The Queen.  Watch it again and you'll see -- the dwarves, the prince, even Snow herself -- they don't hold a candle to Queeniepoo.)  

Even though it's typical for The Other to have different skin, a different religion, a different nationality or a different sexual orientation, in Snow White and Cruise's cases they are reviled all the more because they appear to be just like "us" but they are not "us" (although they are because really, when you go even deeper with it, there is no "Other."  But to remain in existence, our egos take our worries and insecurities and fears and make our psyches give credence to the idea of The Other.)  

So instead of forgiving Tom Cruise for having the human moments we all have (misguided, strident, glazed, freaky, real -- whatever you want to call them) we say, "How can the guy we nailed Russian MIGS with, agented football stars with, solved impossible missions with, shook cocktails and shot pool with -- a guy we thought we knew -- how can he be a guy we no longer know?  And if we don't know him, how can we know ourselves?"  And when we turn the mirror on ourselves like this, we react like The Queen in "Snow White" -- we try to cut Tom's heart out.

As an alternative to heart-cutting, we might want to take a longer look in that mirror -- past our anger and our hatred and ask ourselves why we are reacting that way.  Cruise, like everyone else, carries the best and worst within him.  Instead of reviling and ridiculing him, consider defending him, even if just as an exercise.  I have and I have found that at the end of the day, I just want to give Tom Cruise a break.  Not because I love his work (and I do) and not because I'm trying to "be cool" (and I do try) and not because I agree with him on basically anything, but because simply, if it were me, I would want the same break.  There's a major opportunity for preciousness right here -- I could quote "Do unto others..." and wrap this all up very piously and quippily -- but that's not my bag, at least not today.  Because even with all of this said about Cruise, I still think Mel Gibson is the biggest sack of the nuttiest nuts ever to come from the planet Nut. (Perhaps because of his intolerant, sexist remarks and his consistent perpetuation of the idea of The Other?)  Something else to think about...

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Do You Sudoku?

When I asked my husband Warren what he wanted for Christmas last December, I expected his typical sweet-but-infuriating answer: "I want you, baby."  We fall into our routine -- Me:  "You already have me."  He: "Then I have what I want."  Then I say be serious and he says he is serious and we go around like a co-dependent Abbott and Costello until I give up and secretly swear to get him underwear.  This time, however, Warren had a different answer:  "I want brain games."  "Brain games?"  I ask.  "Yeah. Something to keep me sharp."  Okay.  He wants to keep his edge -- that I can respect. So I go in search of brain games and come home with crosswords, books actually entitled "Brain Games," and, you guessed it, Sudoku.  I never thought much of Sudoku -- I sized it up as just another craze that would go the way of "Where's Waldo?" or "The Magic Eye."  I tried it once or twice in my LA Times, but could never get into it.  It reminded me of those irritating, little plastic number puzzles that were (and still are) popular party favors for kids, but even more annoying because Sudoku numbers don't slide around or make cool clicking noises.  But when I read the forward of the handy-dandy purse-sized "White Belt Sudoku" book, I realized I never understood the rules of Sudoku.  So, after years of ignoring this pop culture phenomenon and knowing my mommy brain could also use some "sharpening," I, too, sudoku'd.

For those who don't know (all three of you), the object of sudoku is to fill in every row, column and 3x3 box with each of the numbers 1-9 exactly once.  I knew about the rows and columns, but the box info was new to me and obviously crucial.  So I tried a puzzle armed with proper instructions and it was like a shot of adrenaline to my brain -- I instantly loved Sudoku.  This shouldn't have surprised me as it did -- I've always been a puzzle person.  Give me a pencil and some good light and I'll cross words and connect the dots with the best of them.  But no puzzle had captivated me so immediately and completely as Sudoku and I started to wonder why.

I went through all of the obvious reasons -- it's simple, it's quick, everyone likes the feeling of building towards something and getting something right.   As Will Shortz, current king of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle (r.i.p. Eugene T. Maleska!), says in his introduction to "The Joy of Sudoku": 

"Sudoku... can be easy, moderate, or hard...  And the amount of time needed to solve one -- generally between 10 and 30 minutes, for most people for most puzzles -- is about perfect in order to feed a daily addiction.  If sudoku took less time, it wouldn't pose enough challenge, and if it took more, you might lose interest...  Like crosswords, sudoku puzzles have blank squares that are inviting to fill in.  It's said nature abhors a vacuum.  We as human beings seem to have a natural compulsion to fill up empty spaces... Sudoku also provides an appealing rhythm of solving.  Generally, the first few numbers are easy to enter.  Then... you may get stymied and maybe a bit frustrated.  Once you make the critical breakthrough (or breakthroughs), though, the final numbers can come quickly, giving you a rush and a heady sense of achievement -- often tempting you to start another sudoku immediately.  Hence the addictiveness of sudoku, which is the "crack cocaine" of puzzles."

So was that the answer?  Was Sudoku merely puzzle crack and I its latest strawberry?  Yes, I was addicted and yes, I always want to solve another one right away, but I still sensed there was something deeper going on with Sudoku and its massive, worldwide and lasting appeal.

As I thought further, I realized there was something inherently democratic about sudoku -- most everyone at every age can count from 1-9 and it takes little to no money to get into sudoku -- there are plenty of free puzzles online and in newspapers.  But there is still more to it than ease and price, more to it than simplicity and the quick high of achievement -- Sudoku manages to challenge those who attempt it to bring out the best within themselves.  

How, you may ask, does a grid half-filled with numbers manage to guide us to a nearly (or sometimes complete) transcendent experience?  Well, think of the skills involved in solving Sudoku -- first and foremost, you need patience and perseverance.   Once you get the initial rush of numbers pencilled in, as Shortz points out, there is a moment where it seems the puzzle is impossible to solve.  You search and search and search for another number but you can't seem to come up with anything.  You are as lost as Newt Gingrich at a Wu Tang concert.

It is when you are lost like this in your Sudoku that you must rely on logic.  Every number has its own place in Sudoku and even when you feel like taking a stab and guessing, logically you know the best strategy is to employ discipline and find the only number that can fit in a certain place.  Too often in our every day lives we abandon logic for ease or comfort or short cuts  (think of how we act in traffic -- honking and lane-switching does not get us to our destination any faster though it gives us the illusion it does).  Sudoku does not allow you to ditch logic without consequences -- like having to start the puzzle all over again when you get a double number because on the whole, short cuts don't work in Sudoku.  Which leads us to discipline.  Sometimes when you can find no possible next move, you have to suck it up and scan every row and every column and every box counting from 1 to 9 until you find the number to build on.

This process, while challenging, is also calming, even meditative.  I Sudoku before I go to bed because unlike a book, magazine or crossword, Sudoku allows my mind to clear itself of everything but Sudoku.  Sudoku requires a kind of concentration that words do not command.  You can't rely on your memory the way you do with words because the variables are digits and they have no meaning except an unexpectedly pure one -- they are the tools in service of your brain's (or dare I say mind's?) ability to think in, around and outside the box.  No puns, tricks or double entendres to sort out -- just numbers and the holes to fill with them.  And, although it seems contradictory to everything I just said, Sudoku also relies on intuition.  I can't tell you how many times I look at the same line of numbers again and again and again and then all of a sudden I see something.  What makes the difference?  Once you start to get into the rhythm of a sudoku puzzle, into the heart and soul of it, the logic, patience, discipline and meditation all converge and damn if the puzzle doesn't start to reveal itself to you.  Under normal circumstances, I think this is where I would lose most people.  But fortunately since most people do Sudoku, you know what I'm talking about!  (You know you do!)

Sudoku, lastly, is a cyclical puzzle.  Even though it appears to be a linear game of method and elimination, the mental process of solving it is similar to the one we have when we approach anything new in life.  You first think, this is exciting, I can do this, it's a piece of red velvet cake.  Then you hit a wall, you think this is impossible, I want to give up, why did I start this in the first place.  Then, because of your perseverance, discipline and intuition, you find a way to power through and then you think, wow, I got through it.  And that's how we learn and how we grow.

Kind of a lot for a little puzzle, huh?  Well, don't take my word for it -- test it out.  You can start with the puzzle above.  It may not seem like it, but Sudoku is more than just a "brain game" -- it's a life game.  On a subconscious level, we want to reaffirm our life process in everything we encounter, even in the seemingly little nothing puzzles we do to pass the time at the dentist's office.  This, I think, is what Sudoku has captured.  And every time we do one of these puzzles we are saying, "We can be patient.  We can persevere.  We can problem solve.  We can use logic and intuition.  We can learn and we can grow."  Why?  Because we can Sudoku!

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