Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fantasies and Reality

Like many a young boy, I indulged in fantasies of being not only a professional athlete, but a superstar athlete. While throwing a tennis ball against a wall, I would construct elaborate scenarios in which I would get drafted by a major league baseball team, work my way through a minor league system, and eventually achieve big league stardom. Based on the bounce of the ball, I worked out a season-by-season fabrication, so intricate that I was acutely aware of when I was eligible for free agency. (My football fantasies were a little less pronounced. I determined that I would be a punter. I saw two advantages to this: a) I would not get hurt and b) I could conceivably play for any team in the NFL and still root for the Packers).

Though there is no shame in admitting to childish ambitions, there may be a stigma attached to pursuing Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy in adulthood. But I'd bet that even though few would admit it, almost everyone who thought about being an athlete as a youngster still occasionally lets the mind wander to "what if" scenarios even in adulthood. I know I have. While my days of ball bouncing are long gone, I still sometimes wonder: if I woke up with a 99 mile-per-hour fastball, what steps would I take to try to make this known?

While I suspect I am not alone in considering such questions, I would admit that another fantasy scenario I've indulged in may not be as common. I have never achieved that dream of being a pro athlete, but at one point I did manage to work my way into big league locker rooms and clubhouses as a member of the media. And it was my observation of the interaction between media and athletes that made me regret not becoming a superstar. It wasn't because I envied the lifestyle or desired the adulation. What I wanted was the opportunity to be the one on the other end of the microphone.

What kind of monstrous ego do I possess to have desired such a thing? I'll leave that general question for others to determine, but I will say that my desire to have the spotlight to myself was rooted in a practical objective. After witnessing the sheer banality of athlete/media exchanges, and noticing the potential for attention that the best athletes can command (something truly capetlized upon by a surprisingly few enterprising types such as Cinncinati's "Batman and Robin"), I though about how much utter fun it would be to deconstruct the concepts of the sports celebrity and the sports interview.

I worked out a mental scenario befitting the ones of my youth, but aside from the vague notion that I would annually lead the league in several offensive categories, I spent the majority of the imaginary excercise thinking about what I would do and say after games. I decided that every season I would show up with a different personality, just to mess with the media (and by extension, fans). My rookie year I would take the league by storm but mutter nearly inaudible one or two-word answers to every question. Just when everyone thought I was incapable of articulating a coherent thought, I would show up the next year and turn every question into an opportunity to extemporize about philosophy. I would fill my locker with literary classics, and I would never be seen without a book, even carrying them with me to the shower. My third season I would continue to dominate on the field, but I would grow my hair long and my main focus off the field that year would be to blare glam rock from my locker. And every single time I answered a question from the media, I would find a way to reference Kiss. The next year I would show up with a series of wigs, and I would blare indie rock at every opportunity, and I would turn every question into an opportunity to make references to obscure bands that nobody in the sports media would have ever heard of (though every couple weeks I would sit at my locker and just sob uncontrollably). Season five I would only speak in Zen koans, and perhaps by season six I would go back to offering one word answers.

In short, I fantasized about becoming a sports star just so I could become a performance artist, notoriety being a prerequisite. But having never achieved notoriety, my plans were dashed, and my hope of seeing a mockery made of celebrity rested with actual celebrities. And since I missed Andy Kaufman's heyday, I had to wait until this week for someone to actually step forward.

Consummate actor and star of the just-released I'm Still Here Joaquin Phoenix (and his partner in crime, director Casey Affleck) revealed that for the two years, whenever he made a public appearance, he has been literally following Shakespeare's credo that "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." As to what was on the mind of the actor and the director, we no longer need speculate. Affleck was forced by his studio to come clean, and he gave a particularly thoughtful and articulate interview to Roger Ebert. My favorite quote:

All cultures are different. Some commit genocide. Some are uniquely peaceful. Some frequent bathhouses in groups. Some don't show each other the soles of their shoes or like pictures taken of them. Some have enormous hunting festivals or annual stretches when nobody speaks. Some don't use electricity. We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don't know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.

Since this revelation, the genre of this movie has been reclassified from documentary to "mockumentary." While this word generally refers to the idea of a faux documentary, it is especially apt here, since it can perhaps be interpreted that the audience is being mocked. Predictably, not everyone appreciates that.

But to my way of thinking, I don't see how this is any different than a plot twist in any other narrative. When an author or director surprises us in the course of a story, we respond with admiration. I not only admire the meta-twist, but also the skill to pull it off, the commitment to pull it off, and the salutarious effect that such a performance could inspire. If we were to ever get to the point where the boundary between a celebrities' persona and performance were indistinguishably blurry, many of our most absurd cultural rituals would be eradicated. There would be no need for any further debate over the never-ending question of whether celebrities should be role models, because no celebrities would be real--they would just be cartoon characters. And nobody worries about whether Bugs Bunny is a good role model.

Also, if we ceased our ridiculous hero worship, I could quit worrying about what I would say in a post-game press conference and get back to thinking about what pitches I would throw in Game 7 of the World Series.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meadowlark and Stuff

A few days ago, I drove past a company called "Meadowlark Storage." I immediately thought of Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters. Although I watched a few Globetrotters games as a kid (on ABC's Wide World of Sports), Wikipedia tells me that Meadowlark left the team when I was two years old, meaning I never would have seen him play. So how did I come to draw this associatoin? Perhaps it was through his animated guest appearance on Scooby Doo, but most likely, I think it was because when I was a kid I had some Harlem Globetrotters trading cards. Google tells me they most likely from the 1971 Cocoa Puffs cereal set. How I came to acquire them, I don't completely know, and I have no idea what became of them. All I know is that I had them for a few years, and sometimes I would look at them. But I didn't have an emotional attachment to them, and if a bully would have beat me up and taken them, I don't think I would have even cried.

George Carlin famously satirized our attachement to "stuff," ("That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff"), and it's clear that the attachment begins in childhood. Yet it's a bit amazing that very little of our childhood stuff, no matter how integral to our lives then, remains our stuff through adulthood. There is a cliche that "you can't take it with you," but this is almost literally true long before a person dies. One would think that the shredding of our initial collection of stuff would be habit forming, that we would become accustomed to the transience of stuff, but for some reason we can never seem to shake the conviction that what we own is important.

I do think there are differences in the way that a child perceives stuff and the way an adult does. Consider the rise of digital media, and the accompanying cultural shift in attitudes toward scarcity. When I was younger, music CDs (like vinyl records before this) had to be guarded vigilintly. Should they be thieved, you would have to labor a couple hours at McDonald's to earn enough to replace it. Kids nowadays can just thieve it back in a matter of seconds on-line. Also when I was younger, I had a few VHS tapes full of episodes of my favorite programs. No need to do that anymore when you can find a torrent, or put it on your Netflix que, or locate it on Hulu.

But though this particular digital trend is new, I think the underlying phenomenon is not. As we age, we develop such an awareness of the sheer amount of stuff available, that it diminishes our perception of the importance of our collections. On the other hand, the younger we are the more circumscribed our existence, and therefore we are more likely to regard our stuff as valuable. There is some irony in this. We tend to think of materialistic people as those who are always seeking to acquire more, but they at least recognize that their current holdings are lacking. Could it be even more materialistic to be so content with your existing material that you don't even ask for more?

But in making moral judgments, there is one more factor to consider. Even though I didn't have an emotional investment in my Harlem Globetrotters cards, I did look at them. By contrast, when I was in college, I got a set of Marquette University basketball cards as a give-away. Like the Globetrotter cards, I have no idea what became of them. But I remember having them in my dorm room for awhile, and I also remember that I never looked at them. When I was a kid, every book that I owned was read more than once. Now I have many books that I have never read at all. When I bought a magazine at the grocery store, I would read every article. Now if I get a magazine I'm lucky to read a fourth of it. The more limited our purview, the more impressionable we are, and the more we pay attention to our environs. But if I first received a pack of Globetrotters cards today, and I were to drive past Meadowlark Storage tomorrow, I doubt that I think twice.

I have some other thoughts, but I'm going to have to cut them short. My son is getting into my stuff.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Secret Formula of Entertainment

My little boy turned seven months old today. One of the great pleasures of seeing him grow and advance before my eyes has been in witnessing the development of a sense of humor. At first I suspect his laughter was largely in imitation of mine, and later giggles and chuckles that came about as a result of physical manipulation (i.e. tickling) hardly count as genuine. But somewhere along the line he has become able to show signs of amusement in response to outside stimuli, and what he finds funny is often unpredictable. For example, yesterday I stumbled upon a way of gyrating my head which guarantees a response equivalent to tickling; it's like an invisible tickle, sending signals straight through the air to some neural pathway dedicated to chortling.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly know what someone else, baby or not, will find humorous, or in a larger sense, entertaining. Looking at the common denominators of what my son finds funny, I came up with a theory. It seems that if something is too familiar it doesn't elicit much of a reaction from him, if it is too strange or exotic it may frighten or overwhelm him, but if it blends these two concepts, it "tickles" him. For example, he's used to seeing my head, and even used to seeing my head move, but seeing it move in a novel and to him, illogical, manner was pleasurable.

And the more I think about it, the more it seems that as we get older, what appeals to us may change, but the formula really doesn't. I don't presume to assert that I've discovered anything new here-- certainly, theories of aesthetics have long held that slight variations on a reliably familiar theme are what penetrates an audience's consciousness. But I wonder if we should also look beyond fine arts to apply this to any popular phenomenon.

For example, I was watching a football game earlier today in which there was a rather scary injury. One of the announcers remarked that though such incidents are unfortunate, they are inevitable. He commented that the violent nature of the game is precisely why it is so appealing, that football is so popular precisely because it is physical. But then again, one could certainly devise a more gladiatorial pastime than football, one with a much baser appeal to savagery. Football is undeniably violent, but with 22 men at a time pursuing specific strategic goals, it is also undeniably intricate and complex. And that may be precisely the appeal. We fall into a routine of watching the same teams at the same times on weekends in the fall. We familiarize ourselves with a set of rules which is more or less static, we become accustomed to personnel who change little week to week, and gradually enough over the years to keep us invested. But the outcome of any game, any play, any season is always in doubt. Within the comfortable and the familiar, there is always the element of surprise.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this idea is the television show This is Your Life. The show's concept was to keep surprising the guests, but the surprises were always rooted in the familiar. The guest wasn't surprised because they were now going to meet somebody new, but because they were going to meet somebody old. Of course, the show's limitation was that only celebrity guests were truly experiencing this, yet I think the core appeal was so great that many viewers were content to experience it vicariously. If only the elements of this show could be packaged in a way that anyone could experience it, we would truly have a cultural phenomenon on our hands.

Oh wait, Mark Zuckerberg did do that. Conventional wisdom is that Facebook exploded in popularity because it appealed to a narcissistic culture, that people were served with a way to indulge their need for ego construction and projection. But provided that in 1997. What makes Facebook different is that in addition to sharing about oneself, we have access to the sharing of others. And notably, the "others" are people we have a connection to-- and the more tenuous the connection, the stranger it is that we have access to their sharing. And this is exactly what makes the phenomenon. There is something inherently surreal about checking one's newsfeed and finding out that a person you went to high school with (but can't remember ever talking to) is having trouble with their pet, that someone you work with (but hardly ever talk to) has posted vacation photos, and that a guy who played rightfield for your favorite baseball team 20 years ago is excited to watch a football game this weekend. But again, this is only surreal because of the prior context. The information and the relationships may be mundane (and familiar), but the fact that we have access to the information elevates the mundanity, and makes us all like babies looking at a father with a gyrating head (though Zuckerberg probably wouldn't phrase it quite like that).

Of course, this theory is really only evident in hindsight. Even knowing that my young son enjoys a mix of the familiar and the strange, the degrees of each aspect and the exact manifestations of this formula are so variable that I can at best hope to stumble upon them by experimentation. But I think my neck muscles are up to the task.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Autobiographies for Everyone?

When the World Wide Web first creeped into the mainstream, I remember there being a lot of rhetoric regarding the potential for truly democratizing society. Technology had finally enabled individual citizens to mount a virtual soapbox which, in theory, could enable them to voice ideas to anyone. In particular, voices that were previously oppressed or marginalized could find an avenue to be heard.

About fifteen years later, I think the jury is still out on whether we have a better democracy, whether we have a more flourishing marketplace of ideas than we had before the Web. But one aspect that I think is indisputable is that the individual has greater potential for self-promotion than ever before. And though the term "self-promotion" often carries a negative connection (largely because of the highest profile self-promoters, such as a LeBron James), I think the type of promotion is what should be evaluated, not the mere act of expressing oneself. Even the humblest among us sometimes desire to share what is going on in their heads, at least to a select group, which is exactly what a phenomenon like on-line social media permits.

Historically, only the elite were afforded the opportunity to publish an autobiography. While virtually anyone did have access to the raw materials to record their own life story, the difficulty in finding an audience was probably enough of a deterrent to quash a number of worthy narratives. But now, with "friends" and "followers" potentially giving notice to any utterance, stories that would have been ephemeral at best are finding life beyond what they ever would have known. Of course, such stories are fragmented, disjointed, and even taken together, not exactly representative of a person's life the way a traditional autobiography would be.

I suppose I could spend the rest of this blog post using postmodern theory to explain how this is a good thing, how collections of blog posts, tweets, and status updates are actually more representative of the human experience than an attempt to construct a master narrative, that the Internet has enabled a whole new genre of autobiography which is in keeping with the philosophical milieu.

But the problem with such an argument is that the old genre is still with us, and it is still the domain of the elite. Famous people still write traditional autobiographies, and non-famous people, even though they may now write autobiographically, don't. But that really true? In actuality, famous people don't write autobiographies. Their ghostwriters do.

And this reveals the actual obstacle that confronts the concept of a "layman's autobiography." It's not that there is a lack of audience, it is that there is a limitation (or a perceived limitation) in an author's ability to construct a narrative. And only the elite have resources that enable them to get around this limitation.

Is there any remedy for this? I see a few possibilities. Perhaps as a society we will become so accustomed to crafting written communication that people will feel more emboldened and empowered to write their own stories (this is the optimistic writing teacher in me talking). Another possibility is that a market will emerge for ghostwriters. Maybe retirement communities of the future will have staff writers to crank out autobiographies for their residents.

There is a final possibility that some might find ominous and some may find intriguing: as each individual's electronic footprint gets bigger, as we leave more and more of a record of ourselves on the Internet, could there one day be an algorithm that is developed that would pull together all of a person's data, sort it, and recapitulate it in the form of an ever-updating life story, which a person can then easily share with others? And considering digital data should render shelf space a moot point in the future, it is not inconceivable that everybody alive would be entitled to their own autobiography. Whether such a thing would be for the benefit of society is perhaps open to debate--which may first have to play out on the World Wide Web.