Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

If you take everything we know about good television and do the exact opposite, the result is Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Low resolution, cheap sets, slow pacing. Same holds for the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, similarly slow moving yet profound. Fred Rogers, champion of children, is a weird guy, to be sure, but he’s impressive as all heck.

The essence of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is: “Love your neighbor and yourself.” This is a single word off the Biblical imperative, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet I find the two to be quite different. Love your neighbor ‘as’ yourself implies no doubt – of course you love yourself! Love your neighbor ‘and’ yourself implies that perhaps you do not love yourself. Which, many of us in mid-20th-century America did not.

Self-love in 1968, when Mr. Rogers debuted, was not a sure thing. The tumultuous Sixties represented a ground shift from the conformists Fifties, (when self-love was neither common nor valued, and was perhaps suspicious). Self-esteem grew rampant, at least in the media, throughout the ‘me’ decade of the Seventies; by the time Whitney Houston belted ‘The Greatest Love of All’ in 1985, healthy self-regard teetered on narcissism; and when Mr. Roger’s finally exited PBS in 2001, the man who exalted self-esteem was pilloried for puffing up mediocre, fragile egos.

Anyone in the public eye as long as Fred Rogers is sure to develop detractors, and there’s logic in identifying him as a compass point in our increasingly self-absorbed society. But he’s too easy a scapegoat. As a pre-Mr. Rogers boy who grew up with ten tablespoons of sarcasm for every teaspoon of encouragement, I appreciate how this gentle minister called out America for its mechanized approach to childhood. He often said, “America values children for what they will be.” Mr. Rogers always valued little people for who they are.

If we could all adopt his wisdom and apply it to our own children, our elders, our betters, and our peers, our world would be a much better place.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

The longer I live, the less I understand religion. I don’t understand why humans crave order and answers so much that we proclaim as truths what are, at best, idealized fables; why we hate our fellow man and why we kill him in god’s name. Yes, uncertainty is uncomfortable. Power in a form that doesn’t reflect our own is unsettling. Acknowledging that we do not know all, and cannot control all, may appear to diminish us. Actually, it balances us. It places among—not above—the rest of the natural world.

I recently read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book includes this passage, the most succinct argument against traditional ‘god’ I have ever read:

“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”

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If You’re Going to Steal our Title, at Least Give Us the Bucks

According to Work + Money Magazine, six of the ten highest paid jobs of 2017 have one thing in common. That’s in addition to the fact that they are male-dominated techie-jobs with elusive descriptions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Take a look at this list, and find the clue:

  • Enterprise Architect: $112,500
  • IT Architect: $105,303
  • Software Architect: $104,754
  • Solutions Architect: $102,678
  • Data Architect: $102,091
  • Systems Architect: $97,873

That’s right, six of the top ten jobs have the word ‘Architect’ in their title. Yet, not one of those jobs is actually… ummmm… an architect: a person who went to architecture school, passed their exams, completed their internship and is registered to call himself, or herself, by that name.

I admit that being an architect is at least 95% cool. It may not be a top 1% profession, like being a movie star or a professional athlete or Beyoncé. But I get a one hundred percent eyebrow lift rate at parties when I tell someone I’m an architect. Paul Simon writes songs about us, Mr. Brady-bunch is one of us, Mr. Ed’s human is one of us. Thanks to Ayn Rand and Frank Lloyd Wright, everyone thinks architects are cool. Do a Goggle image search for ‘Architect’ and see a world of trim white guys with cropped hair and colorful hardhats unrolling luscious drawings before the world. No matter that we actually sit before monitors all day, just like other office dweebs. Even when I divulge the second level fact that I design healthcare facilities, a cool-factor demerit for sure, most people still think what I do is cool. Regardless that it has nothing to do with Enterprise/IT/Software/Data/ System/Solutions.

 

I don’t mind, in principle, that geeks skim my title. But I do note the disparity between the salaries these ‘faux’ architects command compared to what the world pays the real deal. Average pay for an actual architect in 2017, per US News and World Report, is $78,470, 25% less than these guys (almost all guys) who tack ‘architect’ to their name.

In the grand scheme of world problems, people embellishing their title with the word ‘architect’ is minor. But since our wacky world is inclined to pay these guys much more money than the folks who actually ensure our buildings stand tall, perhaps the American Institute of Architects ought to franchise the title it made so desirable. People don’t pay architects all that much. But apparently they can get paid handsomely for calling themselves one.

 

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Behind the Pane of Empty Storefronts

Are you a Cambridge resident? Go online and vote for your favorite empty storefront art by March 8, 2019.

__________

What do Americans buy with our affluence? Privacy. Single-family houses in gated communities, automobiles for every driver in the family, entertainment streamed into our large screen TV’s, consumer goods delivered to our front door.

 

As Barbara Streisand sang so very often, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Which makes us singularly unlucky. People who have money rarely have to see other people. We aspire to a world of diminishing interactions, and in large part we succeed. (It’s no coincidence that this also yields maximum consumption and corporate profit.)

I live in a city that often defies national trends. Cambridge is pedestrian friendly. It’s wicked tough to park your car, but subway and bus service is good. Our six-square-mile metropolis sustains a population of 100,000, yet this epicenter of biotech boasts even more full time jobs than that, so our tax coffers are deep.

 

Cambridge keeps trying to grow our population; it makes sustainable sense to increase the number of humans in an area with such robust infrastructure. Yet, although we build and build and build, the population doesn’t much budge. Because Cambridge is so desirable—and so affluent—we rich folks gobble up space just as fast as developers can create it. My household of three occupies a dwelling that, a generation ago, housed a family of ten. My neighborhood is littered with two and three family houses that have been purchased by empty-nesters and turned into single family houses. The amount of square feet per resident in this city keeps ballooning. The volume of private space we construct, furnish, heat and cool keeps growing, but the total population: not so much.

Yet Cambridge, like virtually very other city, has one particular type of space it cannot fill: retail. In the 46 years since I’ve arrived, I’ve never seen so many empty storefronts in Harvard Square; the other squares as well. Why shop anymore? It’s time consuming, the online selection is greater, and besides, in stores, you have to interact with people. Or at least you will until Amazon perfects cashier-less convenience.

All across America, empty storefronts are the missing teeth of our communal life. Places of chance encounter, places thick in the fundamental pursuit of trade. We are a nation of empty malls and eyesore parking lots. Cambridge, with all of our money, won’t put up with that sort of blight. So the City is sponsoring a contest to create art to fill empty storefronts. In typical Cambridge fashion, residents can vote for their favorites online.

The finalists, including the graphics in this essay, represent some very good street art, Good enough that, once they embellish a vacant window, I can imagine discussing them with other pedestrians passing by. Which may not be the same as interacting with a shopkeeper or other customers, but it’s better than nothing.

 

Once upon a time an empty storefront meant a neighborhood in decline. Now, it can also represent a neighborhood so rich, we don’t need stores. Which is, ultimately, just another form of neighborhood decline.

 

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Thanks to the Academy…

This Sunday night, the Oscars will be broadcast across America, across the World. The Academy Awards are our cultural State of the Union. The annual pulchritude parade reflects our social and aesthetic coherence—and dissonance—by applauding achievement in that squiggly gap between popular entertainment and high art. Traditionally, our President addresses the nation every winter and pronounces, “the State of our Union is strong,” even when it is not. So too, Oscar proclaims its winners to be the apex of our culture, even when that’s no longer so.

The Academy Awards’ importance has never been as great as Hollywood imagines, but for most of my life, Oscar has held both cache and relevance. I recall the excitement, as a fresh-face ten-year-old, splat on the living room floor in my footed pj’s, watching Bob Hope poke gentle fun at the svelte women and handsome men that pranced across the stage. I got to stay up late because, one: my father loved Bob Hope, and, two: the films honored reinforced our family’s identity: Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in 1965; The Sound of Music as Best Picture in 1966, or any other year as far as we were concerned.

When the nation teeter-tottered, the Oscars hung on for the ride. Is there any clearer evidence of our late 1960’s national schizophrenia than presenting the Best Picture Award in succession to In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, and then Patton?

During those tumultuous teenage years, I watched the Oscars with friends. We all rooted for Midnight Cowboy; even though none of us were allowed see the only X-rated Best Picture ever. Something about its forbidden grit appealed to my small circle, all of whom eventually defined ourselves by a word we didn’t even know at the time: gay.

 

College, marriage, babies. Through every phase of life I set aside a dark Sunday night to sit through the bloated glam-fest. Usually, I had seen at least some of the movies. When the VCR era emerged, Oscar received more preparation; I made sure to see them all.

Peak Oscar immersion occurred when my children were in middle school. My daughter’s interest in fashion demanded that we watch the red carpet segment. My son’s best friend’s family was Oscar-buffs. We watched all five Best Picture nominees together. We staged elaborate parties, themed to the nominees. After the Walker’s moved, we actually flew to Chicago over Oscar weekend to continue our ritual.

 

Cold winter day’s well-spent, family bonding in dark theaters, sharing films that reflected the breadth of our culture. We preferred the adventure movies (Master and Commander, Gangs of New York) even though they never won the big prize. But the quieter films offered opportunity for a dad and his teens to discuss challenging topics. After The Hours, over Chinese food, my very hetero-twelve-year-old son conversed about homosexuality and suicide—topics that would have been impossible to excavate from him without that film. Shared viewing also enabled us to express understanding and affection in singular ways. Two minutes into Mystic River, as the boy gets into the priests car and drives off, my son leaned over and whispered, “You’re not going to like this one very much.” How well he knew me, even then.

All golden eras must end. My children graduated to life and the Oscars began their long, messy tumble. When Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture 2006, I wasn’t as appalled as most of my ilk: after all I always liked action films. But the snub signaled the Academy’s hesitancy to engage the issues of our day. When they expanded the Best Picture category in 2009 from five films to as many as ten, I felt manipulated to see even more movies and stopped trying to see them all in advance. I actually wound up seeing fewer nominees before the ceremony. When The Artist won the statue in 2012, a silly trifle of retrograde nostalgia, the Academy Awards had become too inverted, too self-reverential for me to care.

 

This year’s Academy Awards have been tainted by misstep after misstep, each more disorienting than the last, each wounding every possible constituency. The Academy kicked off awards season by announcing a ‘Best Popular Picture’ category. Was that a snub to popularity or Best Picture or both? They were forced to retract. Then they publicly aired the trouble of finding a host. Kevin Hart went up in flames and the Academy aborted even having one. Now, they plan to distribute some awards during commercial breaks, denying the TV audience even a snippet of award winning cinematography. Yet in their capacity to make every constituent angry, the Academy announced it will live-stream those presentations, a policy sure to enrage the companies paying for those commercials. They pretty much snubbed If Beal Street Could Talk while heaping critical praise on Roma, an escapist slice of memory in an idealized place far removed from our own. Finally, the Academy proclaimed severe measures to keep the broadcast under three hours; a fascist insistence on time and order hardly necessary since I doubt many people will be watching.

This year, for the first time in over fifty years, I’m skipping the Oscar broadcast. I had an invitation to a different, preferred, social event. When an upper middle class, gay white male of a certain age—Oscar’s precise demographic—forgoes the broadcast, you know the Academy Awards are done.

Perhaps the worst thing about this year’s Academy Awards, the truly scary thing, is how, because of all these snafu’s, Oscar remains an accurate reflection of our culture: so fragmented it cannot agree on anything. The Academy expands the nominee pool in a gesture toward inclusion, but actually diffuses our collective interest. They abandon having a host because no single person can corral the entire event. They pretend that culling a four-hour marathon to a three-hour leviathan will pique interest, but our attention spans have already shrunk far below that (average You Tube video is 4 minutes 20 seconds). We are a culture—if that term even applies— defined by our conflict and differences more than our shared commonality. And so, after making all kinds of changes that have insulted pretty much everyone, this year’s Oscars are sure to have the lowest ratings ever.

Thanks to the Academy for ensuring that the Oscars remain a perfect reflection of our times.

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Sherlock’s Last Case: Holding a Magnifying Glass Up to Changing Theater

Everybody was there. Actors, house managers, directors. Folks I’ve met in and around Boston theater over the past twenty years. So many theater insiders lent an expectant buzz to the Huntington Theater’s opening production of Sherlock’s Last Case. I wondered why they were in the audience rather than behind the curtain. Same reason, it turns out, that I was there. The Huntington Theater distributed a rasher of comp tickets to ensure an opening night full house; and theater mavens gobbled them up.

Sherlock’s Last Case is an amiable farce, littered with witty lines that evaporate as quick as the audience giggles. Like all Huntington productions, the set was an elaborate creation (in this case Victorian bric-a-brac run amok), the costumes spot on, the acting tight. It was enjoyable as…as… as… sitcom, which is all well and good, but hardly worth the effort of turning off my 42” TV, rising off my sofa, and forking over fifty bucks for a ticket. Which is also why the tickets were free.

Intermission, twitter: ‘What’s the point of this?’ At which point I realized that, in the twenty-first century, live theater as entertainment is passé. We can chuckle to witty one-liners on over a hundred television channels 24/7. Three hundred hours of video are uploaded to You Tube every minute. In a culture that suffers no shortage of entertainment, live theater demands too much attention, too much focus—and too much money—to simply entertain. It must transcend what a screen can offer.

Let’s call is art.

Later in the season, I attended a performance of Jennifer Blackmer’s Delicate Particle Logic at Watertown’s Mosesian Center. I paid real money to sit in a black box theater, with minimal set and vintage shop costumes to watch talented though fledging actors: an experience much richer than what the Huntington had provided. The story of a Jewish female physicist in Nazi Germany is not sitcom fodder, yet the triangle of politics, love, and science is extraordinary. The simple production left room for the imagination to embellish incomplete details and deduce partially stated truths. The play, and this production, played the only trump card live theater holds over anything created on a screen. Delicate Particle Logic was entertaining, yet also inspiring, thought provoking, and emotionally complex. It demanded more direct connection than anything I watch at home; and more active attention than Sherlock required as well. And since I invested more in Delicate Particle Logic, I reaped a greater reward.

 

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Roma Contrarian

First impressions matter. When the camera finally pans up from the luscious opening visual of water on stone, more water on stone, even more water on stone; my imagination stirs at the wondrous places it might lift us up to. That Roma opens in an urban carport is a bit disappointing. We are in a compact yet airy house, upper class though not grandiose, somewhere south of the Tropic of Capricorn. A somnolent place to be sure, where shade is more precious than light. As the camera pans the carefully arranged interior, immediately I feel cheated. Not by the detail, which is precise; nor the pace, which is leisurely. Rather, by the color. Or lack thereof.

Is there any place where color is more integral to its fabric and energy than Mexico City? Rio perhaps, Cartagena, Mumbai, Barcelona, maybe even Miami: cities banded across lower latitudes where orange and red, turquoise and green punctuate the sharp edges of bright sun and deep shadow. But Roma strips Mexico City of color. As if Bergman shifted his diffuse Scandinavian gloom 40 degrees to the South.

Roma and I get off to a bad start. Then things deteriorate. The first time the father wedges the Ford into the carport, okay. The second iteration; we’ve seen this before. Then the mother wedges between two trucks. Finally, when I’ve spent more time than I care to in that carport, she bangs the heck out of it one more time. The metaphor is beaten beyond meaning or humor. Ditto the dog poop. Ditto, ditto, ditto the airplanes flying overhead, directly above the focus of our attention at every plot turn. The plane flies between the extended arms of the fake army leader. It flies above our downtrodden heroine’s final climb to the roof. In pursuit of what noble deed? To hang the laundry.

 

Clearly I have missed the point of this important movie. So, after the final credits, I indulge in reviews after the fact, podcasts that dissect Roma’s marvels and mystery. It’s about class conflict (by the end of the film, love has been expressed to the maid, but she’s still the maid). It’s a memory film about Director Cuaron’s youth (And? So?) It’s magic realism. Actually, Roma is anything but magical realism. Despite an earthquake, with terrible special effects; a wild fire, with even worse effects; and a student protest that spills into a furniture store, there’s nothing magic in this movie’s realism. The distilled black and white images polish privilege to a silky luster, but they don’t even hint how that privilege might—or even should—change. Magic realism bursts with the color of imagination. This movie is grounded in a reality rut.

 

Still, it’s easy to see why Roma is a movie for our times.

The film possesses the dramatic arc of a #MeToo darling. The men are all cardboard villains, the women complex, fully human, yet ultimately heroic. The sunset tableau on the beach, all strength and unity, includes only women and children. We are long overdue films with fully fleshed female characters. Can that only be achieved by making the men simpleton cruel? Are our screens too small to breath life into a full range of characters?

The brilliant light of that same tableau also washes away the skin tones that define who is the maid and who is the mistress. Roma may be set among Brown people to our South, thus triggering all manner of reaction identity politics north of the Rio Grande. Yet the film is not about immigration or Northbound striving. It’s about social hierarchy, rooted in race. The maid is smaller, darker, more indigenous than the people she works for. Which makes me wonder: would Roma enjoy the same critical acclaim if it were set a few degrees further north? If the maid’s skin were a shade darker, her boss’s a shade lighter? If instead of Brown and Browner, they were actually Black and White? Consider a Roma set in the Mississippi delta, down the road, perhaps from last year’s richer, deeper, more nuanced Netflix Oscar nominee, Mudbound. Would we still applaud this sweet, though obtuse maid, and her erratic employer if they represented stereotypes closer to home?

If ‘Best Picture of the Year’ is the film that most represents our times, perhaps Roma deserves to win that award. Narrow in scope, incidental in plat, it reflects our times only too well. The characters are affected by big events (violence, natural disaster) without any attempt, or even inclination, to affect them. If so inclined, everyone left milling about the house at movie’s end can claim victimhood.

The forces that created the world of Roma (i.e. men) are all gone. Those remaining have no plan for how to maintain, or better yet improve, the terrible things that men have wrought. We’re inclined to a positive outcome: after all, the maid is climbing; and there’s that plane; and just about anybody could do better managing the world than men have done. Yet in truth, the women and children have no Plan A, B, or C for what might happen next.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like movies that are bigger than life, that inspire me to transcend man’s malicious nature (as in Mudbound) or celebrate triumph over adversity (The Florida Project) or maybe simply bubble over in shared ecstasy (Bohemian Rhapsody). But we don’t live in an era of enlightened perspective, or hope, or euphoria. And so we celebrate Roma, a monochromatic vision of the most colorful city on earth; a solitary woman who, at the end of the film, is still the maid.

 

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