Monday, February 19, 2007

Role Models: The New Parent Trap

Two disparate and incredibly stupid incidents occurred on the "public stage" recently, both of which are classic examples of the types of things I'd love to avoid even knowing about, but have been on television, the radio, and in the papers. They have another thing in common, and I'll get to that in a bit.

Britney Spears (I paused here while typing that, as I was half afraid my computer would crash as I wrote it...It didn't) apparently walked into a hair cutting establishment, asked the stylist to shave her head, and when the stylist refused, Britney shaved it herself, the front half of her head now looking like Sinead O'Connor, and the back looking like Lenny Kravitz. She then went and got a tattoo on her lower hip and another on her wrist. This is apparently front page news on MSNBC and Reuters'.

On Wednesday of last week, former NBA star Tim Hardaway, apparently unable to contain himself at the recent coming-out-of-the-closet of former NBA non-star John Amaechi, spewed the following hogwash in a radio interview: "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." Does Timmy have a right to his opinion? Of course he does. Does he have a right to use a public interview as a forum for his opinions? Absolutely he does. Just as any advocate of gay rights would have the same right. My problem with it in fact, has little to do with his opinion (no matter how moronic). My problem is with the media that keeps the story going on and on and on. In the last 5 days, I've heard no less than 7 stories (or sidebar pieces) on this one lunatic ramble, on the radio or television. When I've heard exactly none about the public support he's gotten, including one of his coaches in the NBA (I only found out about it while looking up stories on Amaechi to make sure I got the quote in it's entirety).

Anyways, for some reason, today I got to thinking about one of my oldest rantable peeves, the argument that celebrities should be expected to be role models. Because the celebrity gauntlet runs so wide, I'll concentrate on athletes here.


There was a time, probably up until the late 70s or early 80s in fact, that athletes' personal lives were their personal lives. Even on the field. Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, noted for bumping, spitting, kicking dirt, and worse at umpires in the middle of a game, on national television, used to call his star relief pitcher Don Stanhouse "Full Pack".... Because, said Weaver, that was how much he (Weaver) used to smoke when Weaver would bring Stanhouse in to finish a game. Yep. He'd stand on the dugout steps and smoke, not 5 feet from the fans. Many of the stars in the game then (the 60s and 70s) were hugely out of shape, even for baseball players. "Boog" Powell looked pretty much like you'd think he'd look with that name. Mickey Lolich, a pitcher on the world champion Detroit Tigers in 1968 had a belly that Santa would envy. Gaylord Perry, a Baseball Hall of Famer, was so famous for his spitballs (along with assorted other foreign objects put on the ball, all against the rules) he titled his autobiography "Me and the Spitter".

Rookies were hazed, veterans were respected. Players and managers that drank, caroused, gambled, and were sometimes arrested, were treated with a "boys will be boys" attitude. Billy Martin, a legendary player and manager for the N.Y. Yankees for 35 years, had fights numbering in the double digits with baseball players, including not one, but TWO separate incidents with pitchers on the team he was managing at the time (different teams). He drank often, and had fights beyond his 60th birthday. One of my favorite Billy Martin episodes was in 1972, when he was managing the Tigers, the Topps Baseball Card Company took his picture for his baseball card. He smiled and extended his middle finger. It wasn't caught until the card was released. Oh yeah, Billy Martin's number is now retired by the Yankees, and his plaque hangs in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.

The point is (yes, Virginia, there IS a point here somewhere) that athletes are paid lots of money to do one thing: Put butts in the seats, so the people paying them all that money can make even more money. I guarantee if people stopped paying admission prices, owners would stop paying multi-million dollar contracts to anyone who can fill their auditorium with bodies.

Straying once more to the entertainment field, I'll finish with the band Judas Priest, and their trial in 1990. They were sued when two young men, one 20 and one 19, killed themselves, after listening to what their parents said was a subliminal message in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me". While the suit was dismissed on its merits, the implication is still scary today. If you write a depressing book, can you be blamed if someone reading it takes his or her life? If you choose to use steroids and take the attendant risks, are you endangering someone else's child? If your parents raised you badly and you become famous, do you take over the responsibility of someone else's child-rearing skills? How bone-chillingly frightening is it to raise your child for so many years, then have a 20-something year old spoiled brat come by and muck it all up? Actually, I think it's a pretty chickenshit position. You raise your child as best as you can, then you trust him or her to look at the world that's out there, and make the right choices.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Chef Out of Time

So here I was last night, watching one-third of my holy trinity of latenight cable television channels, The Food Network (the other two being ESPN and The History Channel, a.k.a. "All Hitler, All the Time"), when I realized what a truly culture-changing phenomenon this is. The Food Channel. It's made icons of Emeril Legasse, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and dozens more. "Iron Chef" has become a party game at many of the trendiest parties (at least here in the northwest). Rachel Ray has three regular TV shows as well as her face on Nabisco products and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (there's a Popeye joke in there somewhere, but I'll let it be), Emeril has cookware, spices ('Essence of Emeril' no less), and more, not to mention the fact that you can probably go into the heart of the smallest towns or the biggest cities all over the world, throw an imaginary pinch of salt hard at the ground and yell: "BAM!", and most of the people within earshot of you will laugh and point and say: "Emeril!"

And with mostly 24/7 coverage of all things food, there's enough smart cooking shows (Alton Brown's "Good Eats", Batali's "Molto Mario", or "Iron Chef" for example) to avoid the insipid ones ("How To Boil Water", "The Secret Life of...." and "Rachel's Tasty Travels" leap to mind). But it's the star-making power that boggles my mind. Until 10 or 15 years ago, cooking shows, from the fun ("The Galloping Gourmet") to the serious ("Julia Child") were all on public television. The four major networks wouldn't, as a rule, touch them.

Which got me to thinking about my favorite television chef, the Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith (1939-2004), the "Frugal Gourmet" was a native of Tacoma, WA, near where I live now, and made his name at the public television station right near where I grew up, WTTW, in Chicago. He apparently had two completely different personalities, depending on who you talked to. Some have said Smith was a megalomaniacal dictator who had to have everything his own way, and micromanaged his staff into oblivion. Others, including two of his long-time assistants, and a host of longtime friends and associates, say he was a man who laughed easily, was magnanimous, generous, and a culinary genius. About 10 years after he moved his production back home to the Seattle area, seven men charged Smith with sexual abuse as young men years earlier. He denied the allegations and was never charged with any crime, but he and his insurance company settled the suits out of court, and his career was over. He continued to cook for charities and charity events, even while confined to a motorized cart until he died in his sleep after a long bout with heart disease in 2004.

I obviously don't know any more about those incidents than what was subsequently reported, but I think I understand, a little, about how a parishioner can stay loyal to their man of the cloth when he is accused of something as scandalous as that. I met Mr. Smith in the mid-80's, when doing a story about his Frugal Gourmet show, for a college newspaper article. After inquiring with the producers at WTTW, they in turn referred me to Mr. Smith directly, who not only agreed to an interview, he invited me to watch two days of his show's taping, from script meetings to filming. It was a fantastic experience for me. He was "on" every moment of his time in the station, whether it was in meetings, pre-cooking sessions, or in front of the camera. He was indeed a bit of a control freak, which he freely admitted to when asked about it: "When the show is seen, whether by 1 person or thousands, they assume I'm responsible for everything that goes on on my show. And because I take that responsibility, I'm going to do my best to make sure that I know about everything that happens on it. If I mess something up, I'm going to make sure I tell the audience that I messed it up." I saw him yell at several of his assistants in those two days, but I've got to tell you that he pled "mea culpa" about his own missteps a lot more often, and the times he spent laughing with the crew were much more plentiful.

I watched other cooking shows like Julia Child's, but back then her show (for me) was more akin to how I watch do-it-yourself construction shows now: I didn't understand a thing about it, but it was fascinating to watch the techniques. It was like auditing a Quantum Physics lecture, in Chinese, but with it somehow producing really good looking food at the end. But The Frugal Gourmet was different. He explained it, from the historical and cultural background of sitting down at the table with friends, to why it can be cooked like that, or not like that, to short cuts to the same tender morsels. I'm hungry now, I'll be right back. Feel free to grab a bite while I'm gone.

Ok, that's better. I understand that those allegations are horrific, and, if true, gave Jeff Smith his just desserts in ending his career. But since I don't know if they are, what I base The Frugal Gourmet's impact on my life is what I know. I love to cook, I love the history of food, and I love to eat, which accounts for my body type (besides, who needs six-pack abs, when you can have a whole keg?). At least two of those three things I attribute almost exclusively to Jeff Smith. I like to think he would have at least three good shows on the Food Network if things were a bit different. Hell, maybe I'd even watch less of the History Channel then.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What If They Gave A War, And No One Came?

In June of 2006, Ehren Watada, a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed right near here at Fort Lewis, WA, made headlines when he became the first commissioned officer in the U.S. armed forces to refuse deployment to Iraq. His first court-martial began February 5, 2007 and ended today, two days later, with a mistrial declared.

Lt. Watada has said he's willing to deploy to Afghanistan, which he considers an "unambiguous war linked to the Sept. 11 attacks". His request to be deployed to Afghanistan was denied, as was his attempt to resign his commission. He has added that he is not a conscientious objector, as he is not opposed to all wars as a matter of principle, and that he believes this war (the war in Iraq) is an illegal war, based on the War Powers Act of 1973, requiring the President to receive congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, as well as the the basic charters from the United Nations, the Geneva Convention, and the Nuremberg Principles, all of which bar "wars of aggression." Lt. Watada contends that any approval obtained by President Bush was based on incorrect information regarding weapons of mass destruction and the ties of al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

It is further Lt. Watada's position that based on the doctrine of "Command Responsibility", he could be tried as a war criminal. Interestingly enough, the Command Responsibility Doctrine is sometimes referred to as the "Medina Standard", based on the "My Lai Massacre" in Vietnam, which Capt. Ernest Medina failed to prevent. It holds that a commanding officer, being aware of a human rights or war crime violation, will be criminally held responsible if he does not take action to stop it.

With the Army charges, Lt. Watada is facing up to four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted (a charge of "contempt for officials" was dropped at the outset of the court martial). And before the mistrial today (one of the papers Watada signed earlier was apparently in error, so they have to start again) , it looked like a very quick trial and conviction for the Lieutenant. The bulk of Lt. Watada's defense was based on the illegality of the war, and with it the war crimes liability connection. But on January 16th, the presiding judge in the pre-court-martial hearing ruled that Watada would not be allowed to present evidence regarding the Nuremberg Principles or the legality of the war, because the legality of a war is a "nonjusticable political question", and consequently ruling that the order Watada received to deploy was legal. Let the butt-kicking contest begin, Mr. One-Leg.

Anyways, to the point of this blog. I don't know Lt. Watada at all, and can only hope his sincerity is real. Because he's probably going to be a sacrificial lamb for his beliefs. I suspect that when all is said and done, he'll face very little (if any) jail time, but he's got to be looking at a dishonorable discharge, and he's going to be about as popular as a Dixie Chick at a NASCAR race with a sizable crossection of the U.S. armed forces and their veterans.

The reality is, there's no way the government can do anything but win this case. If they somehow lose it, precedence is set for every single soldier, sailor, marine, and flyboy to pack it up and go home. AND, if that weren't enough, the rest of the world that aren't coalition-ing suddenly has a whole wing set aside in the Hague for American war criminals.

So no, Lt. Watada, you ain't gonna win. What you might accomplish is an eventual resumption of that time-honored tradition of going to war when we actually have a country to go to war against, not to finish up the First Dad's missions. I'm hoping it will help define what war is really, and that war really is hell, and that the reasons for undertaking it should never be based on "U.S. interests." Only on U.S. freedom and survival.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reading And Writing And.... ?

Awhile back I wrote a curmudgeonly little piece on the abandonment of the liberal arts curricula in today's schooling. Upon further review, I want to amend it to include the apparent abandonment of education of almost any kind.

Two different brouhahas have surfaced in the last few weeks in this state (Washington) that just make me shake my head about the state of education today. This state has a pretty good reputation for its intellectual habitues, from companies like Microsoft and Boeing, to renowned institutions like the University of Washington and Washington State University.

A few months ago, the first outcry began filtering out as a result of the decision last year to make passage of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) mandatory for high school seniors to graduate. This test has been given for years, but was more of a monitoring guideline for the various Boards of Education to compare against. The WASL gives pass/fail grades in four categories: Reading, Math, Writing, and Science. The WASL is given every year from 3rd through 8th grade, and then in the 10th grade. The passing grade is based on meeting or exceeding that particular grade. Anyways, last year the legislature (or the WA state Board of Education, I don't know which) passed a measure that said that by the time the current freshman class graduated high school, they needed to be at least at a 10th grade level in the four WASL categories.

There were the usual complaints, valid or not (that's a different discussion), about cultural biases in the construction of the WASL, but the feces didn't hit the fan until a couple of months ago, when the first wave of WASL scores were released. Now bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, if a child fails the WASL at any point, he/she can make it up. As far as I can tell, in fact, they can make it up as many times as becomes necessary. AND, they only need to retake the portion of the test they failed, not the entire set. AND, they have a number of free tutoring options available to all students. A month or so ago, a committee was set up to actually repeal the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL before graduating. As I write this, they're still discussing this option.

Before writing this, I checked the "Washington State Report Card" put out by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to see what those WASL scores have been. As of the '05-'06 school year, the statewide scores were: Reading: 82%, Writing: 79.8%, Math: 51%, and Science: 35%. Yes, 65% of the Washington state sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined were scoring below 10th grade level in science, and almost half were below 10th grade math levels. No wonder parents are panicking.

And then came the kicker (at least for me). This past fall and winter have been particularly nasty for most of the state weather-wise. This fall there were floods in large portions of the western half of the state (the part that includes Seattle, Tacoma and all their suburbs), and this winter we've already had snow and ice storms exceeding anything the natives have had here for many years. The number of days many school districts had to close this school year already has made it impossible for those children to log as many hours in school as they are required to by law, without either extending the school year or the hours per day in class. The same children who reveled in those days off are now, of course, incensed at the prospect of having to go to school into June and in some cases even longer. Their disappointment I understand. They're kids. It's the indignant parents I'm not sure I get. A good many of the same parents who insist their children shouldn't have to be held accountable to an actual learning standard are insisting they be taught more, faster, and with less class time than ever.

It's a Catch-22 of classic proportions: Everything is automated and computerized and hand-held, to the point that math done in one's head is about as necessary a skill as being able to weave one's own sweater on a hand loom. On the other hand, the skills that need to be in place to put together those automations and computerizations and miniaturizations, are being cut off at the base. We're creating a smaller and smaller sub-class of science and math professionals to operate the next phase of whatever area of industrial or scientific revolution we are in for. It's a bizarre reverse Darwinism: Survival of the Thickest.

In the heyday of the intellectual, people like Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft) Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (Intel), and hundreds more, made computer-related breakthroughs by pioneering developments in math and science that pushed the envelope for their field of study. And made lots of money too. Will the culled and cultivated intellectuals eventually come out on top again? Or will the pyramid be inverted? Will the brightest minds in math and science be nothing more than money-making tools for the business elite?

If you're young, and a prodigy (i.e., you can do multiplication tables without using your toes), the world may well be your oyster as you get older. If you don't wind up on some future assembly line of developers for someplace like Microsoft, designing the operating system for Windows 2020, in a room, ironically enough, without windows.

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Long Time Ago, In A Jungle Far, Far Away

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Country Joe and the Fish
"Fixin To Die Rag"

This past Tuesday, January 30th, was the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, arguably the most famous series of battles in the Vietnam conflict, and also arguably, the turning point, both politically and militarily, of the war. Some of the most indelibly imprinted images of the war came from this period, including the breaching of the U.S. Embassy walls, the subsequent reinforcing of Embassy personnel, as well as the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams of a summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner.

Today, we have the proposed "troop surge" in Iraq, and I'm confident that the debate going on about this is manned by men and women much more eloquent and adept than I am at this. So I'm going to talk about the American "Police Action" of the internal civil war in that other country, the one two generations ago.

Actually, that's not accurate. I'm only going to refer to Vietnam in "Big Picture" terms. The reason I was thinking about the Tet Offensive in particular, and that war in general, is tied to a memory, nearly spontaneous, that I had this week, about the man who gave me one of my earliest regular jobs - a man who was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.

The year was 1974 or 75, I don't remember which, but I was either a sophomore or junior in high school in Chicago. About three blocks from the high school, a new ice cream parlor was opened. The guy who opened it was a hippy in his mid twenties, complete with long hair and tye dyed shirts. Barry was a childhood friend of an older cousin of mine, so when he asked about local help when he opened, I was recommended. The first interview lasted probably two hours. More precisely, the interview lasted about 5 minutes, when he offered me the job. The rest of the conversation was more... eclectic, to say the least.

We talked about the name of the new place, and its significance. He was calling it "Teth", he said, because of its Kabbalistic meaning, as a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Much to my dismay, I can't recall many of those specifics. It sucks being old with this porous of a memory. Later I learned he was also in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. I don't remember him telling me the name had significance to the offensive, but in retrospect, I am sure it did. We talked about ice cream (This guy was Ben AND Jerry, combined), we talked about Jimi Hendrix (he insisted that the real line was "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy", as during both shows he saw him in, he proceeded to kiss his bass player. I've always suspected he was trying to yank my chain, but in the years I knew him, he never failed the straight face when telling me that "fact"). And we talked about just being a 'mensch' - doing right by people, regardless of who they were. Customers, vendors, staff, or people on the street.

Business started off pretty well. We were busy most of the time, although being short-staffed probably made it seem even busier than it should have. It was probably about six months later that I began to notice the first changes. The off-season wasn't going as well as he had hoped, and the bills began to get a bit bigger. As one of only two employees he had then that were with him from the beginning, I was working a lot of hours for a high school kid. Then those hours were trimmed a bit.. and a bit more... I'd be hanging out there, just talking to Barry, but not on the clock, as we didn't have much to do besides talk. There were days it resembled Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry. Just hangin' out, talking.

Slowly, the clouds began to hover around those conversations. I'd never seen even a hint of a temper where Barry was concerned, the voice was slow, and measured, and always with a hint of a smile, way deep down. Then, a comment about a vendor that "had it in for him". I thought it was a joke, but the trademark smirk never surfaced.

Barry had always been a spiritual man, more Kabbalistic than a classically religious Jew. He'd frequently talked about ghosts, but in a benign, naturalistic way. It wasn't too long before 'they' were out to get him. Vendors who wanted to get paid became ghosts who were after him. In his defense, Barry was the kind of man who would think nothing of letting debts owed him go unpaid, until the person got back on their feet. In fact, he did this frequently with his own customers. He was just unable to understand why anyone who wasn't evil wouldn't do the same for him. A wonderful man, scary-bad businessman.

The paranoia got worse. Agents were lurking behind all doors. THEY were out to get him. Stories about Vietnam began to filter out. Early on, he wouldn't mention his time there at all. Direct questions about it were gently steered away. But the occasional story, mostly about the violence, the evils of war in the jungle, began to work their way into the conversations. He would actually look over his shoulder, seeing things he wouldn't mention, then forcibly block them from his thoughts.

But there were times when you could tell the scary stories from places like Khe Sanh and Hue were beginning to hang out in the now, for Barry. The dislocation was getting more pronounced.

To be honest, I don't remember if I left to go off to college, or if he went out of business before then. But either way, it was a short and troubled life for the Teth Ice Cream Parlor on Foster and St. Louis Avenues in Chicago.

The pseudo post-script here isn't any better. A number of years later (sometime in the mid eighties), I saw, sitting on a street corner in Uptown, with a full beard and in old camouflage fatigues, Barry, or his doppleganger. He was talking softly to himself, complete with small gestures. I didn't say a word to him, probably so I could keep the pretense in some part of me alive, that maybe it wasn't Barry. And maybe it wasn't.

There have been a wide range of reactions to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, from taunts of baby-killers to chants of hero, to everything in between. The veterans of that era have had faces from those portrayed in "Born On The Fourth Of July", to "Casualties of War" to "Once We Were Soldiers", but mostly they were kids in their teens and twenties, dropped into a place they'd never heard of, asked to do the unthinkable to people they'd never met. The casualties were absurdly high, but when I think about my friend Barry, I think those casualties were much worse than most of us realized.