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Monthly Archives: November 2013

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I’m not one to boast about my stock-picking prowess, mostly because I rarely pick winning stocks, but I am happy to say that I did invest a little in Facebook and that I now have a 50% profit (on paper at least.)

I am not sure what possessed me to buy that stock because it’s clear that the Facebook fad has peaked.  Younger hipped kids have fled for more cutting edge social media like Snapchat and the average age of the Facebook user just keeps getting older.

I can’t help noticing that the proportion of personal posts on my news feed is declining relative to the institutional posts from musicians, writers, podcasters and companies that I have “liked.”  Facebook fatigue appears to have set in, with many members realizing they actually don’t have that much interesting to say.

Personally I’m sorry to see that because I actually do enjoy seeing photos of kids, vacations, family get-togethers, new pets, shots of funny people on the street, etc.  And the news, jokes, and YouTube clips?

But the question does arise – with Facebook becoming less compelling, when is the time to trim back your list of friends?  I now have exactly 300 “friends,” which seems high for the limited amount of real-world socializing I do.  To maintain that ceiling, I am committed to cutting out one friend for every new one I add. Here are the categories of people I am considering eliminating:

– Would-be political pundits. You all know the type. People who post nasty remarks or cartoons about someone or a political party you like. The thing with these people usually is that they would be outraged if they posted the same number of nasty comments about their guy.

– Over-posters: These are people who post too frequently, especially people who think you don’t read the newspaper yourself and need to see about five clips a day.

– The never-posters.  There is a whole category of people who were cajoled into signing up and apparently lost their password after friending a handful of people because they’ve never been heard from again.  Some of my best friends in real life fall into this category, and although they clutter my friends list, I will maintain them for now just in case, like Frankenstein’s monster, they are suddenly jolted to life.

– Yankee fans. Enough said.

– “Friends” who are not friends. When I first joined Facebook I was promiscuous in my friending. This was particularly true of people I used to work with, some of whom I only met once or twice (and who now no longer even work where I used to work.)  And the point of keeping them as friends is: what?

– One-way friends.  There are people who post a lot themselves but have never acknowledged my existence. Not even a lousy “like” or happy birthday.

One of the reasons people are so anxious about their Facebook connections is the use of the word “friend,” a heavily freighted word that carries deep emotions.  LinkedIn’s “connections” and Twitters “followers” are much more neutral and don’t set off a barrage of angst along the lines of: is this person my real friend or not.  I’ve never once thought of culling my LinkedIn associates because the word “connection” doesn’t carry the same baggage as “friend.”

In the end, I always worry that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings if I unfriend them.  That’s probably an ego thing — like it would really ruin someone’s day to learn they can’t see my posts any more, especially since they’ve given minimal evidence that they care one way or another. Nevertheless, whenever I scroll through my list of friends to see who I can delete, I always hesitate.  That’s me – the Hamlet of Facebook.  To unfriend or not to unfriend.

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Walt JFK-jpgYou may have heard this already, but we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of two famously important events in television history: the JFK assassination and the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It doesn’t take much Googling to find references to the significance of the assassination for television.  The Associated Press maintains that, “in life and especially in death, John F. Kennedy changed television forever” because his murder showed that this then-youthful technology could hold the country together in a moment of crisis.  Similarly, there is near-universal agreement that the first televised strains of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” launched a youth culture that has yet to abate.

For five decades now, whenever two Baby Boomers meet, the topics that could always bridge any conversational divide have been: “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” and “did you see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan?”  I’ve played this game myself so many times I can no longer keep straight whether I’m remembering what actually happened or what I’ve been told I should be remembering.

In some respects, television achieved its apotheosis during those crucial two-and-a-half months of 1963-64.  The popularity and influence of television had been building rapidly during the previous 15 years, with Little Rickie’s birth on “I Love Lucy” attracting massive audiences and the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 swinging the election to JFK.  The events of November 1963 merely cemented television’s already dominant role as the nation’s cultural glue.

Television has had a long run as the preeminent communications medium, and 50 years after the assassination is as good a time as any to ask whether it still holds that position.

“Television,” of course is a technology or a medium that does not itself exert influence. What we are really asking is whether it is still possible for a handful of news and entertainment executives to set the national agenda as they did 50 years ago.

The irony is that, although more people spend more time watching television than ever before, the television medium itself will never again be as dominant as it was in 1963.  In the early ‘60s there were only three networks, and the share of the audience would approach 100% when every network broadcast the same thing – like a presidential funeral.  Moreover, although virtually every home had a television 1963, the vast majority of them had just one set. This meant that everybody in the family had to watch the same program, creating a forced uniformity across the TV-watching landscape.

To state the obvious, at a time when there are hundreds of channels and more televisions than people, it’s impossible for any single event to attract universal attention. In 2008, journalists refused to believe that President Obama’s inauguration wasn’t the most-watched swearing-in in history, forgetting, for example, that when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1980, the telecast was essentially the only show in town. And if the TV audience was fractured in 2008, it’s even more so in 2013 with Netflix, VOD and other time-shifted options.

Then there’s the impact of social media.   For 50 years, whenever we wanted to know what was going on in the world, we would race to the television.  But an increasingly large number of people now are getting their news and cultural influences through Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

But the ironic thing is that social media is helping to restore the cultural relevance of television at the very time that fragmentation is diluting its importance.  First, social media can create the much sought-after “buzz” that drives TV viewing.  Case in point, the tremendous increase in viewing for the final season of “Breaking Bad.”  It might have been old-fashioned word of mouth that inspired millions of people to pick up “Breaking Bad” just as it was coming to an end, but I’m inclined to think that social media contributed mightily to the phenomenon.

Social media can also create buzz retroactively.  The Miley Cyrus “twerking” scandal was the 2013 equivalent of The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan, even though her VMA performance was seen live by only small fraction of the people who watched The Beatles. But even though Miley had a smallish live TV audience, the subsequent social media meltdown made the VMAs one of the most significant cultural events of the year.

No, TV might not dominate the landscape as it did 50 years ago, but it’s pretty darn important.   If (or when) there’s another calamitous event to compare with the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion or the September 11 attacks, it’s almost certain that people will convene around the TV once again.  They might be watching events unfold on a tablet or a smartphone;  they might be supplementing their information-gathering via Twitter or Reddit; but almost certainly, they’ll be watching the first draft of history unfold as they’ve done for the last 50 years: on television.

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To those of us old enough to remember Joni Mitchell as the blonde sex-bomb of the folk music scene, the news that she turned 70 years old today is an alarming reminder of our own mortality. More than any other artist, she was a chronicler of the flower children of the 1960s. Indeed as the creator of the song “Woodstock” she essentially dictated how we should think about that era. And it’s disquieting to be reminded  of how old those “forever young” artists have actually become.

As a performer, Joni never achieved massive success. She was on the verge of it after the popularity of her 1974 album “Court and Spark” but instead of creating more pop songs, she doubled down on the introspection, experimented with jazz and then ultimately (and unsuccessfully) tried her hand at political commentary

She will always be known as a songwriters’ songwriter. The list of artists who claim to be influenced by her is long, but she was also an outstanding performer in her own right. She burst onto the scene with one of the most beautiful voices in the industry (a voice that has deepened over the years thanks to her affinity for tobacco products). And she was beautiful, with chiseled cheekbones and long flowing hair. But more important than all of that was the emotion she put into her songs — the stories about love and loss that helped generations of young sensitive souls understand the feelings the couldn’t quite articulate themselves.

The writing itself is phenomenal. No one — not Dylan, not the Beatles — ever did a better job of phraseology, rhyming, or creating images. Listen to the words in the following songs and try to deny she wasn’t the best lyricist of her generation.

10. A Free Man in Paris

Supposedly written for her friend David Geffen, this has great sentimental value for me because when I heard the album “Court and Spark” I realized I could like Joni Mitchell on her own and not because of what she stood for as a sensitive songwriter. Even now, 40 years later, I love how her voice slides up and down the lyrics, expressing exuberance, vitality and freedom.

9. Chelsea Morning

Hillary Clinton claimed that she named her daughter after this song, and who knows, this might actually be one of those truthful Clinton claims. A cheery song, for a change. The sun poured in like butterscotch — I’m sure it did.

8. Song for Sharon

This is an unappreciated classic — one long story of a women walking around New York City ruminating on her failed relationships. Her friends tell her to find find herself a charity or “put some time into ecology” but all she wants to do is find another lover. There are no refrains and choruses, just one beautiful observation after another.

7. Blue

This is a song that makes you want to open a vein. Song are like tattoos? Love never really went right for Joni Mitchell, and the pain just pours out through these lyrics. Yet I do like to listen to it when I’m feeling self indulgently in a blue mood myself.

6. In France They Kiss on Main Street

One of her few joyful songs, this is an expression of free-love and a rejection of middle-class staidness, as the video images makes clear.

5. Carey

This song came out when I was in high school and from the very first lyric (“The wind is in from Africa”) it represented for me a glimpse into an exotic, free-spirited world that seemed to exist only in Fitzgerald and Hemingway novels. I’ve always wanted to go down to the mermaid bar and have someone buy me a bottle of wine. But alas, I went to college and got a job.

4 Both Sides Now

Ever since Judy Collins made this a massive hit, “Both Sides Now” has been Joni Mitchell’s most well-known and most frequently covered song. I’m not a big fan of the 1960’s versions, which are peppy and flower-childreny. But this rendition from 2000 by an older and wiser Joni is haunting. As she sings them now, the lyrics assume the melancholic meaning that was always intrinsically there. Somehow, when a 57 year old woman sings “I really don’t know life at all,” it has an entirely different meaning than when a 25 year-old tries it.

3. All I Want

The ultimate expression of what you can get out of love. It piles up concrete images of what she wants to do for her lover: knit him a sweater, write a love letter, culminating with the ultimate offer of “Do you want to take a chance on finding some fine romance with me.” This song always epitomized how a love affair — and even a marriage — can be fun, romantic, and mutually supportive, something that Joni herself was never able to accomplish for very long in her own life.

2. Help Me

Boy do I love this song. It was her biggest hit, but never even cracked the Billboard top ten. This is from the “Court and Spark” album, which was her most explicitly pop effort. I love the way her voice conveys the knowledge that love is once again going to cause pain, but she can’t help herself.

1. Coyote

From the “Hejira” album, when she was turning away from pop music. A great articulation of the contradictory desire to be loved and to be free at the same time. Here she is performing it during the Band’s “Last Waltz” movie. “No regrets coyote” might as well have been Joni’s own personal motto. Lord knows she lived life on her own terms.

Pauline Kael

(The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael)

Television is arguably the country’s dominant art form, but it has yet to spawn a really great critic who can make sense of it all.  Oh, there are lots of good television writers, but no authoritative cultural thinker to compare with the likes of such great mid-century film critics as Andre Bazin, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, John Simon or Stanley Kauffman.  As Kenneth Tucker, himself a respected TV reviewer, admits: “Unlike film or rock criticism, television criticism has never yielded a significant body of work—or at least an acknowledged one enshrined with any permanence in book form.”

This is pretty surprising, given the role that television plays in shaping our desires, defining our sense of what’s “normal,” and driving the entire consumer products industry.   But instead of the profound intellectuals who devoted their lives to philosophizing about film, today’s best TV critics are the video equivalent of Roger Ebert: crowd-pleasing, prolific, entertaining and middle-brow.

Again, not to disparage the many excellent writers who churn out superb commentaries day after day.  I’m a big fan of Hitwise’s Alan Sepinwall, The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, NPR’s Linda Holmes, MediaPost’s own Ed Martin and many others.  And to the extent there’s a Queen Bee, it would be The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who recently developed the ground-breaking concept of the “bad fan,” (the enthusiastic viewer who doesn’t understand the real point of the show and may think, for example, that Walter White is an actual hero, instead of the clear anti-hero he is meant to be.) But even Nussbaum, as excellent as she is, doesn’t exert the same influence that Kael did 40 years ago in those same pages.

Part of the problem for any television writer is the medium itself.  There’s so much content that trying to make sense of it is like trying to review a gushing fire hose at full throttle.  Film, theatre and book reviewers are not expected to turn in a commentary before they’ve finished the work they’re reviewing, yet TV critics have to opine after seeing just a handful of series episodes.  Theoretically they could wait until the end of a season to review the whole arc of the year, but viewers don’t want to wait 13 or 22 episodes to find out what their favorite reviewers think.

The way many critics deal with the challenge of television’s immediacy is through recapping.  To keep on top of thought-provoking shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” they write long recaps (which have now evolved into interpretative summaries) as soon as the show is over.   Given how quickly they are written, recaps can be remarkably insightful, but it’s inevitable that speed and quantity will be enemies of thoughtfulness and perspective.  As Ken Tucker argues, “recapping is ultimately a mug’s game—there is no way to maintain that kind of writing without becoming either burned out or a hack.”  (On the other hand, for a full-throttled defense of recapping, see Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture.com.)

Finally there’s the niceness factor.  The critics all seem to be sympathetic, understanding people, the sort of folks who would be great to have as best buddies — but they rarely tear into a bad TV show with gusto.  Worse, they’re all chummy-chummy with each other.  The stories are legion of novelists who threw drinks in each others’ faces at cocktail parties because of offense taken over a bad review.  And Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael had a famous feud over the “auteur theory” of film criticism.  There’s no equivalent phenomenon in TV criticism.

I don’t know what happens when TV writers get together at the industry’s various press tours, but I have a hunch there’s a “cool kids” section of the room where the best critics hang out and crack jokes before heading to the bar.  You can see it in their subsequent Twitter exchanges, in which they constantly retweet or promote each other:

  • Here’s Sepinwall on Linda Holmes’ “Money See” blog: “This is unsurprisingly strong: @nprmonkeysee on ‘Survivor’ sexism.”
  • And Andy Greenwald likes BOTH of them:  “I’ve been pulled from active HOMELAND duty but I agree w/ @sepinwall (http://bit.ly/1ayCWKP ) & @nprmonkeysee.”

I’m glad the TV writers like each other, but I worry about a certain amount of group think.  There’s a surprising consensus in criticland about what’s good and what’s not.  After all the palling around at press tour and on Twitter, the writers are starting to sound and think the same.  What we really need is a nasty feud that could be fought out in the public square. If only the sparks would fly, we might get some good groundbreaking criticism.

Johnny-Damon

With David Ortiz parading through the Back Bay with even more adulation than Jesus received on Palm Sunday, you have to wonder: have the Red Sox become a religion?

No less an expert than Johnny Gomes declared on national television that Fenway Park is a “cathedral.”  Let’s not forget that the bearded, over-tressed Johnny Damon (see photo above) was frequently compared to the Son of God.  And what are Curt Shilling’s bloody socks but the modern equivalent of pieces of the cross?  Indeed, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is itself an even bigger reliquary than anything in Italy.

It’s not just the Red Sox, of course.  The Packers’ are a civic religion in Green Bay, as are the Cowboys in Dallas, the Canadians in Montreal and the Futbol Club in Barcelona. Players sometimes make an explicit connection between religion and sports by ostentatiously pointing to heaven after a home run (but never after a strikeout.)  And of course many many fans have fervently prayed for a successful field goal, home run or foul shot — as if God takes sides in sporting contests (although since He moves in mysterious ways, who am I to say?)

Religious terms are frequently appropriated for sporting purposes.  The Red Sox were big on “redemption” this year.  In Christian theology, redemption is salvation from sin through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Somehow the idea that John Lackey redeemed himself from the sin of consuming fried chicken and beer in the locker room by winning Game Six doesn’t have the same weight. On the other hand, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy did point out that “New Englanders who went to Mass Wednesday noticed the final verse of the Gospel of Luke (13:22-30), which reads, ‘For behold, some are last who will be first . . . ‘’’

Unexpected sports developments are sometimes referred to as “miracles.”  The 1969 World Series winners were “The Miracle Mets.”  And when a batter makes a deliberate out to move along a runner that is known as a “sacrifice.”

Fans are sometimes buried in their team’s sports jerseys or have their fans surreptitiously sprinkle their ashes in their favorite sports venues (I can only imagine how many ashes are in the bullpen at Fenway Park).

For many people, sports satisfies a need that religion itself used to fulfill.  People who watch football on TV all Sunday are not that different from the 17th Century Pilgrims who spent their entire day of rest in church.  And the ecstatic experience that fans get when their team wins a key game is akin to the religious ecstasy that saints and devoted followers achieve through worship.

Handout photo of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio posing with a jersey from the San Lorenzo soccer club

This is not to say that all fans are using sports to fill their religious needs.  The Pope himself is a fan of the Saints of San Lorenzo in Argentina (that’s a soccer team, not a religious order).  Yet there does seem something sad about fans who ONLY worship sports.  As much as I love the Red Sox – and I love them a lot – I would never make the mistake of thinking they will quench any kind of spiritual thirst.

Sports are often a metaphor for life and I did learn a lot of about faith – and even more about doubt – by watching the Red Sox this season.

As all the world knows, the Red Sox had a terrible year in 2012.  It wasn’t just that they lost games, but that the players were surly and selfish while management seemed arrogant and heartless.  You can root for a losing team if they are nobly defeated, but to lose with a bunch of selfish players is soul-crushing.

Over the winter, the Sox redid the team and restocked it with guys with good attitudes, and unexpectedly started to win.  They became inextricably associated with the recovery from the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing, which took place just a mile from Fenway just after the annual Patriots Day game.   And while the memorial service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross  attended by President Obama was fine, the real healing began two days later at Fenway Park, when the Sox honored the victims and “first-responders” before the game – and then proceeded to defeat the Royals 4-3.

As the season wore on the Sox continued to win, including many come-from-behind victories, each of which seemed a miracle.  And yet  for the first time in ten years, the games were not sell-outs.  The most worthy team in a decade rarely sold out! To the fans, the lingering question was would they continue to win?  Were these flukes and statistical anomalies?  Would the law of averages take hold? Would the Sox experience a “regression to the mean” and sink to their natural level?

And here’s where the lesson about faith comes in.   I used to think that if I’d lived in Jesus’ time and seen Him perform His miracles it would be a lot easier to believe.   How much harder it seemed to have faith when you are relying on stories passed down 2,000 years.   Now I realize that I’m so naturally skeptical that if Jesus had raised Lazarus right in front of me I have demanded he do it again – and then again.

Even after the Red Sox had pulled off miracle after miracle this year, I still doubted.  They had seemed like a team of destiny ever since the Marathon bombing,  and they had never disappointed.  Yet how were we to believe that they’d go all the way?  Even after they achieved the best record in baseball and started to win play-off games with walk-off grand slams we always doubted they’d win it all.   After all, the other teams had the same faith in their teams.  Out of 30 teams only one could win and why should it be ours?

To be clear, I am definitely NOT saying I found God because the Red Sox won the World Series.  What I am saying is that the doubt a fan feels about his team’s chances – even in the face of evidence to the contrary – is related to the doubt a spiritual seeker can feel about God.  The happy fans are the ones who give themselves whole-heartedly to their teams and don’t despair even when they lose.  So too with the religious faithful.  I had spent too much time being skeptical about the Sox that I hadn’t enjoyed the season as much as I could have. And I have spent so much time worrying about whether Jesus really walked on water that I haven’t received the full benefits of faith.

In 2003, a team of documentarians followed the experiences of eight hard-core Red Sox fans through the entire season.  This was the tumultuous year when it finally seemed that the Sox would win it all, but were undone when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long and the Sox blew their chances against the hated Yankees.  Curiously, when the film came out the next spring, it was entitled “Still We Believe.”

What a concept. Still we believe.  “Still we believe” in the Red Sox even though they just broke our hearts! People of faith believe despite disappointments.  Why should it be easier to believe in the Red Sox than in God?  Can we still believe in God in a world with disease and natural disaster?  Maybe if we believe in our sports teams we can believe in a higher power.

Some other thoughts about the 2014 Sox:

  • The Beards – I finally succumbed to the beards, as ugly as they were.  I understand that it became a team bonding exercise, but it also had the effect of reducing the individuality of the players.  By focusing on the beards, it was harder to focus on one player alone because you could hardly tell them apart. Each player was giving up a bit of his ego and identity to blend with the team.  The best baseball teams are not a collection of superstars – they are just an integrated unit of consistently good players.  There were no batting title winners, home run kings, or Cy Young winners on the 2013 Sox. Instead, just a group of solid players who pulled for each other and the team.
  • The 2013 Sox are sometimes compared to the “idiots” on the 2004 team – the guys who finally won the World Series.  That’s not entirely right.  The better comparison is to the 2003 Sox.  That was the team who adopted the motto “Cowboy Up,” laughed at the video of Kevin Millar dancing to “Born in the USA”   and shaved their heads for team bonding purposes.  That’s the team that really should have broken the curse.  Nomar was still with the team and I still regret he was exiled when they finally won it the next year.
  • Even when the Sox win the World Series, I’m always sad to see the season end.  I probably watch 80 games a year on TV and there’s a huge void when the last game is played.  So let’s end on the famous Bart Giamatti quote: “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

Amen!