Friday, April 30, 2010

Nothin To Do, Nowhere To Go

Over the last several days, I have watched the Milwaukee Bucks host three NBA play-off games. In each of these games, every time that the Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith so much as touched the basketball, he was immediately hounded with a chorus of boos from upwards of 18,000 people. This is certainly not the first time that a play-off series has been marked by enmity between fans and an opposing player. But what is curious about this circumstance is the particular sin which Smith committed. At no point did he plant an elbow into the chest of an unsuspecting Bucks player, nor did he administer any other kind of cheap shot. He committed no felonies or misdemeanors off the court, and he didn't even do or say anything which could result in a civil suit. What he did do was tell a reporter, when asked about going to Milwaukee for a couple days, that there was "nothing to do there." (Ironically, at about the same time Smith was feeling the fallout of this comment, the Chicago Bulls Joakim Noah was met with a backlash for saying pretty much the exact same thing about Cleveland).

I don't think it is at all surprising that fans have seized upon this quotation and responded negatively, but I do think it is interesting. Certainly, denizens of any geographical area will respond defensively when an outsider exhibits disrespect, perhaps because of a phenomenon I first speculated about several years ago, something I call "Geo-Cultural Anxiety." But I don't think it is just outsiders who are apt to make such a statement. In fact, everywhere I have lived or worked, I have heard it said about my present geographical location that there is "nothing to do here." I grew up in a fairly small town of about 15,000 in Wisconsin, where such an utterance wouldn't be surprising. I went to college outside of the aforementioned Milwaukee, where I often heard the very comment that made Josh Smith a persona non grata. I taught classes in Louisville, Kentucky, where young people would claim that there was nothing to do "unless you are 21."

And I think that whenever anyone makes such a comment, whether they are talking about Milwaukee, Louisville, or Podunk, USA, they are wrong. There is always something to do. None of us have infinite choices about things to do; we are limited by finances, by time, by work, by commitments, by weather. But we don't live in the Middle Ages. Our society fosters social interactions. Even in a small town, you can check the "community calendar" and note a myriad of activities. There are any number of social groups and organizations that one can join. But setting aside the social dimensions, one would think that individuals can find plenty to do without ever having to interact with another human being. With high definition television, video games, and the Internet at our disposal, and the amount of time and money that people invest in such diversions, one would think that we should be able to brag about eliminating boredom the way we can brag about eliminating smallpox.

Yet for all of this, complaints about boredom subsist. Why is this? My theory is that our attempts to solve the problem are actually the cause. Barry Schwarz argues in The Paradox of Choice that there is a point where the number of choices at our disposal start to cause anxiety, and that we would be better off with a more limited palette of choices. Perhaps overwhelmed with so many possible diversions, we become disillusioned about all of them. And furthermore, we constantly expose ourselves to narratives in which we vicariously live through characters who are experiencing the absolute heights and depths of human experience (sometimes in 3-D). It might be harder to take pleasure in going to a neighborhood brat fry on a Saturday when we spent Friday night inhabiting some world constructed by Michael Bay.

But I also think there is another factor. I hate to follow the trite and overused script of laying the blame at the feet of the education system. And in fact, it is such a practice that maybe should be blamed instead. In trying to avoid leaving any children behind, in trying to make sure that our students can compete with students of other nations, and most egregiously, in assuming that the only purpose of an education system is to prepare students for an occupation, you fill the entire day teaching students how to succeed in school and in work. But teaching students how to succeed in their play seems to me to be a vitally important mission in its own right. About 150 years ago, Emily Dickinson lamented that "The soul selects her own society then shuts her door to the divine majority...unmoved an emperor be kneeling at her mat." And every time that anybody says of a place that there is "nothing to do," they are proving her right.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On Autographs

Sometime circa 1991, I stood in a line at a Wal-Mart in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin for at least an hour, probably longer. After 20 years I can't be positive of the precise time I invested, but I distinctly recall it being the better part of a weekday evening. I entered the store with a football, and I came out with a football. I didn't actually acquire anything as a result of my wait, unless you count two small scribbles on my football. One of these scribbles was administered by Darrell Thompson, a Green Bay Packers running back who, despite being a first round draft pick (taken two selections later than Emmitt Smith), averaged a little more than 27 yards rushing per game over the course of his career. (For those who might be reading this who don't know much about football-- this would be considered "bad"). The other scribble was administered by Vai Sikahema, a return specialist who, in his lone season with Green Bay, averaged about nine yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return, with no touchdowns. (For those who might be reading this who don't know much about football-- this would be considered mediocre).

Since I was at an age at which I still had to rely on parental transportation, my unfortunate father (who couldn't care less about football and never cared much for Wal-Mart, either) had to accompany me on my excursion. When it was finally time for us to depart, he asked me about my conversation with the players. I sheepishly admitted to him that I didn't say anything to them other than "thanks." He was incredulous. How could it be that these people were important enough that one would wait in line for over an hour to receive a signature but they weren't important enough to try to converse with? In my defense, I was a kid, unskilled in the art of conversation with unfamiliar adults, and it's not like these intimidating NFL players made much of an effort to converse with me. They had to keep the line moving, after all.

I kept my football for a few more years, adding to it when Packer players would come to town for an annual charity basketball game. Then after awhile the football became deflated, ended up at the bottom of a "toy box," and then faded into some obscure and mysterious place where all deflated autographed footballs probably end up.

But I hasten to assert that the decline of this football was not symbolic of a gradual loss of interest or enthusiasm on my part. No, the truth is that this football never meant anything to me. (Actually, it probably meant something before I dedicated it to autographs, when it actually had a utilitarian value). I collected autographs out of a sense of obligation. Being a sports fan, and being a kid, I felt that I had to be interested in acquiring player signatures. Adults (though not necessarily my father) assumed that you wanted autographs, and if adults thought that you wanted them, you felt like there was something wrong with you if you didn't want them. So you convinced yourself that you wanted them.

To this day I often read or hear critiques of a celebrity's willingness or unwillingness to sign an autograph as somehow representative of their character. Celebrities who take time to sign autographs are regarded as grounded, polite, and even heroic, while those that brush seekers aside are thought of as rude and vain. But isn't there something implicitly arrogant in assuming that your mere signature represents a status symbol that fulfills another's psychological needs? Aren't you tacitly endorsing the idea that you belong to an elite class that deigns to acknowledge those who are subservient to your existence? And if that is not problematic enough, one can further consider the absurd commercial dimension that has been added to the autograph exchange, which includes children being hired by dealers to solicit autographs.

But then again, there is something to be said for the desire of a person to have some kind of tangible record of a meaningful interaction. In contrast to my experience with Darrell Thompson and Vai Sikahema, when I was a senior in high school I had a chance to converse with former Milwaukee Braves shortstop Johnny Logan (he was scouting a baseball game at my school for the Brewers). At the end of our conversation, I asked him to sign his name for me on a sheet of notebook paper. He proceeded to write me a personalized autograph. I still have this sheet of paper tucked away in a box today--not because I think it will be worth anything, but because it represents a neat personal communication.

But one thing I didn't do the day I met Johnny Logan was get a picture with him. The cellphone camera had not been invented yet. Prognosticators speculate that the written letter will be rendered obsolete, that technology will obliterate the concept of a literal "paper trail." I wonder if technology might also play a role in someday obliterating what is now considered the standard record of a celebrity encounter. With written communication going the way of the dodo, why would pen-scrawled celebrity signatures be any different? And if that does happen, I'd say "good riddance." We would be free of the absurdities that the autograph represents, while still having the means to acquire an alternative (and more legitimate) record of meaningful encounters.

But no matter what happens down the road, I will not let my son drag me to a Wal-Mart to wait in line all night for the opportunity to encounter mediocre football players.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why Dancing With the Stars is Bad for America

I grew up listening to oldies radio, so I've always known the names of popular dances of the 1950s and 1960s, even if I had no clue what those dances actually looked like: e.g. The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Watusi, The Limbo, The Locomotion. I've subsequently learned that so-called "dance crazes" pre-date rock and roll, that people were doing The Charleston during the roaring 20s, and The Tango even before that. Because I watch a lot of sports, I became aware of the YMCA dance without ever setting foot in a disco. And because I've been to weddings, I became aware of The Chicken Dance. I lived through the rise and fall of The Macarena.

And these days, of course, we've reached a golden era in the importance of dance in popular culture. Because of Dancing With the Stars, which is now beating American Idol in the Nielson ratings, Americans are taking to the dance floors like never before. Actually, they are following Martha and the Vandellas and they are dancing in the streets. You've got to be careful these days when driving in a residential area so as not to hit an overenthusiastic dancer.

Of course, the only true statement in the above paragraph is that Dancing With the Stars is, in its 10th season, is still a massively popular show, even moreso than ever before. But I haven't seen any evidence that more people are dancing. On the contrary, I don't think we've had a "dance craze" since The Macarena. (Wikipedia is trying to tell me that "Crank That Soulja Boy" is a recent dance fad, but I'm not buying it). Why might that be?

A couple of years ago I wrote a contrarian blog post about how rock and roll caused the end of singing (communal singing, that is). To quote myself:

To some degree, the rise of television made this an inevitability. It probably wouldn't have mattered who it was that appeared on Ed Sullivan, the very fact that somebody was being set apart as a featured performer would have caused a shift in public perception, as millions of viewers would have had an Adam and Eve experience and realized that they were naked, that they lacked the musical aptitude of the star being featured, and that there was a gulf between performer and audience...

Ironically, though, the opposite happened with dancing. People who saw Elvis felt liberated to turn their bodies loose. If you watch archival footage of the various variety shows of the early rock era, the cameras give a lot of face time to amateur dancing. Here is one random example, a Del Shannon performance from 1965. Notice around the 1:20 mark in particular:

Contrast that with this Britney Spears & N Sync performance on MTV in 1999. You can tell there is a large crowd, but the camera is firmly planted on the performers and the highly choreographed phalanx of professional dancers.

So the implicit message that the most recent generation has received is: "Don't try this at home; leave it to the professionals." And a show like Dancing With the Stars only reinforces the notion that there is a right and wrong way to dance, that those who are not good enough are judged and summarily dismissed, with dancing privileges revoked. Consequently, what for centuries has been a shared, communal practice across cultures is now becoming the domain of a privileged few.

Friday, April 09, 2010

How to Become a Living Legend While Dead

Five ex-governors are attempting to get their old jobs back this fall. This doesn't really surprise me. The first Rocky got made because we love a good underdog story, but every Rocky movie since then got made because we love comeback stories. Or perhaps some of those sequels got made because of the power of nostalgia. Either way, it works to the advantage of would-be once and future governors.

Meanwhile, fame is fleeting. Or more accurately, the ability of the famous to stay relevant (and to sustain an economic dividend from their fame) is fleeting, and reduced even moreso in our age of media saturation. How many records did Amy Winehouse sell in 2009? Is anyone banking on Lady Gaga making the covers of magazines in 2011? Everybody knows who Ringo Starr is. About 30,000 people have purchased Ringo Starr's last album (which is less than half the number of people who attended a single Monster Truck show in Florida last month).

Meanwhile, there is one sure fire way to become relevant again. Michael Jackson sold more albums last year than in the ten previous years combined. Alex Chilton was unknown a couple of months ago, and now sports gossip blogs are posting articles about him. All he had to do to get a little recognition was shuffle off his mortal coil. Five years ago Chuck Klosterman wrote "[D}ying is the only thing that guarantees a rock star will have a legacy that stretches beyond temporary relevance. Somewhere, somehow, somebody decided that death equals credibility." He consequently turned this thesis into a book that was brilliantly titled (albeit taken directly from a Black Sabbath song): Killing Yourself to Live.

So let's play a little connect the dots. Let's assume the following are all true: 1. Once attained, cultural relevance is difficult to hold onto. 2. For whatever reason, being dead increases cultural relevance 3. The public loves a comeback 4. The public loves nostalgia

So what would you do if you were a cultural figure who wanted to stay relevant but didn't want to die? The solution seems so obvious that I am just waiting for someone to actually do it: have your P.R. staff send out a press release stating that you have died, take on an alternate identity and live a mundane existence for however long you want, and then when a number of years have passed, make a stunning return to the public eye. Certainly the idea of a celebrity going off-grid is not unprecedented (e.g. J.D. Salinger, Bobby Fischer, the aforementioned Chilton). But these are people who never wanted to mount a comeback. And of course, the idea itself is not particularly novel; people have speculated that Elvis or Jim Morrison are still out there waiting to do just such a thing. Yet the mere existence of these rumors indicates to me a public appetite for such a narrative. We've created the story already, and now we just need someone to play the part.

It seems to me that an obvious candidate to pull off such a stunt would be Eminem. He went years between recordings, and his comeback has proven to be lackluster. Yet in his prime, he demonstrated an ego and a sense of theatricality that would seem to be perfect for the task. I could see a rapper even pulling a WWE style kayfabe approach and claiming to actually be literally resurrected.

But perhaps Eminem is too obvious of a candidate. There is another recording artist who I think could benefit from such a move. He has actually sold more records in America than any other individual, and the only group that has outsold him is The Beatles. Six of his albums have achieved diamond status (at least 10 million sold). Yet for all that, he's never been regarded as a living legend, and perhaps not even as a figure of special relevance. Maybe this was why he felt motivated to change his persona entirely in 1999, taking on an alternate identity and releasing an album completely unlike any he had ever done before. But when that identity tanked, he announced his retirement, and he vowed to not record again at least until his youngest daughter turned 18 in 2015, a vow he has upheld thus far. But what if, instead of becoming Chris Gaines the rock star in 1999 (pictured above), Garth Brooks had become Chris Gaines, the literal friend of those in low places? I suspect that upon his return in 2015, he would have been bigger than Elvis.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Happiness Lost

I've never watched a single episode of ABC's Lost. But I have still managed to accumulate some knowledge of the show over the last five years. Beyond the general premise that a bunch of people are stranded on an island after a plane crash, I'm aware that there are a bunch of numbers that need to be punched in on something, I know that there is some kind of hatch, I know that there is a guy named John Locke (and there is another guy named after another philosopher, but he might be dead). I know there was a guy named Desmond, but he might be dead now. But then again I think there were dead people who are now alive. I know there is a mysterious group of "others" who live on the island. And I'm aware that the characters often have visions or hallucinations that reveal that they were connected even before the plane crash. And there was once a polar bear on the island, I think.

The reason I know these things is because fans of the show are unafraid to discuss plot points with each other in public, or on-line, such as in facebook status updates. Why do people who watch Lost talk to each other about Lost? There can be only one reason-- it must make them happy to do so. But what is inherently pleasing about talking about a show that from all outward appearances is patently ridiculous?

According to this New York Times article, the answer may be found in a recent study, (which I found to be so interesting that I feel it justifies my use of the annoying term "recent study"). The study's conclusion: the more you engage in "small talk," the less happy you are, and the more that you have "deep discussion" the happier you become. The author of the study (Matthias Mehl) offers an explanatory theory: “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world.”

The world of Lost is, from all accounts, even more chaotic than our real-life existence. But on a weekly basis, viewers of the show are given just enough fodder to fashion theories that may give structure and meaning to this dreamed-up world. And then to take those theories and engage with the theories of others brings a whole new dimension of pleasure to the interpretive experience. And there is an added benefit to this as well, as further explicated by Dr. Mehl in discussing why deep conversation leads to happiness: "interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

But there is of course a difference between a discussion about meaning in Lost and meaning in real life. There are no stakes in our investment in Lost. We have nothing to lose if we are wrong, but nothing to gain if we are right. Therefore, the construction of meaning is its own intrinsic reward. Meanwhile, the conversations we have about meaning in the larger drama we call "real life" are laced with consequences and fraught with peril. We might offend those we engage with. We might end up confronting things we don't want to confront. And we might end up acknowledging realities that once acknowledged, would force us to re-consider our very identities and make us alter behaviors that we are in no hurry to alter. It's much safer to comment on that beautiful weather we've been having. But perhaps it takes more than sunny skies (and commenting on sunny skies) to make us happy. Maybe we need something a little deeper, starting with the acknowledgement that we have some things in common with the passengers of Flight 815.