Thursday, February 26, 2009

Another tear.

A new addition to the list of things that have me completely overcome in a matter of seconds.

If you haven’t watched Taking Chance on HBO, the true story of two marines and how their lives intersected, I’d recommend you don’t unless you have a tissue – or even a convenient sleeve - nearby. If you’re like me, you may be taken by surprise when you feel the first tear slip away. You won’t quite know why, but at one point or another you will feel your eyes fill up. Your throat will get just a little tighter and the screen will blur just slightly for a little while.

The story, on its surface, is deceptively simple. Kevin Bacon plays Marine Colonel Mike Strobel who escorts a soldier, PFC Chance Phelps, from Dover Air Force base to his home in Wyoming. Phelps was killed in Iraq and Strobel is his escort home. During that trip, Mike finds himself questioning his own role as a “paper pusher” in the Marine Corps, although he was deployed during the first Iraq war.

If I had to choose two words to describe this movie they would be respectful; quiet. I have loved Kevin Bacon’s acting forever but I have never seen him perform a role with such quiet control. His movements are controlled and tight. Even at the local VFW post, where friends and other soldiers gather to celebrate Chance’s life, Bacon maintains his respectful distance as he sits and listens respectfully to the stories told about the fallen soldier. His smiles are small; his glances are attentive; his tone is measured.

Toward the end of the evening, Chance's very good friend tells Cpl. Strobel about the day of the attack. The silence that endures – for a very long time – as he relates the circumstances of Chance’s death is exquisite and painful. The simple expresson of comfort Strobel offers him is powerful.

There is only one moment during the film where you feel anger in Bacon’s character and its directed at himself. He questions aloud – during a talk with a Marine who saw his action in Korea about sixty years ago - and berates himself for his choice to work in an office, and not go overseas.

When Mike meets the family to deliver Chance’s belongings, I could barely breathe. His speech to them, about the family not mourning alone, was almost too much to bear. The cut away shots during the hand off of the dog-tags and Chance’s watch are devastating. You’ll understand when you watch the scene.

My dad was a Marine and you know what they say about Marines: Old Marines never die – they just go to hell and regroup. Maybe that’s why this movie had the effect it did on me. My Dad loved the Marine Corps until the day he died. The men who portray Marines in the film clearly feel the same way about their service to the country.

What is entirely absent from this movie is anger, regret or judgment about the military or dying for your country. The love of country is palpable and real, although never overplayed or overwrought.

To me, the movie is a testament to everyone who ever wore a uniform for this country. To me, it’s irrelevant where you stand on Iraq, Afghanistan or any other place in the world that is viewed – at least by some – as an enemy of this country. It’s not about “the troops” or “the war on terror” or which side of the argument you embrace philosophically. The film is much smaller but much bigger than that. It’s about two men. Both of their stories will touch you and move you to tears. And ultimately leave you inspired by their honor.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

People are nice enough....

Almost five years ago at Christmas time, I chose to honor my Dad (who had passed away six months earlier) by donating books to the library in Allentown’s Central Elementary School. Instead of buying gifts for co-workers that year, I donated the books in their names, in memory of my dad.

I can’t tell you why I chose Central School. I have no personal affiliation there, nor did my father. I didn’t know anyone – students or faculty - at the school. But I do know my children live in a home where they always had an extensive library of books at their disposal. (One of my earliest decisions about raising kids was to never say no to a request for a book.) I also know that Central faces challenges with many students – or their families - that simply don’t exist in a suburban school setting. It broke my heart to imagine some children not having books on a shelf at home. Maybe by adding a few to the school’s library, even just one child would begin a lifelong passion for reading.

All I can tell you is that on that day – the day I dropped of my co-workers books - I watched a young boy walk into school alone. Several years later, I can still picture him clearly. What struck me that morning was his look of absolute, unquestionable enthusiasm for the day. He looked eager and alert, and, yes, thrilled to be walking up those steps. I wondered: Is this the best part of his day? Is this where he feels secure? Stimulated? Safe? Challenged - in a good way?

He’s stayed in my mind’s eye. I wonder about him – five years later. I wonder about his eager look. I wonder if middle school generates the same positive emotions I saw on his face that day.

In a recent column, I made a request of readers, something I had not done in the eight years I’d been writing for the newspaper. To mark a milestone birthday this year, I planned to donate ten books to the Central library and asked readers to join me. My goal was to add total of 50 books to the school’s library.

Just about six weeks later, I’m honored and delighted to report that according to the Central Elementary Librarian, donations have come in that have more than doubled my goal. The school receives books daily donated in my name, which brings tears to my eyes.

In addition to the lovely thank you note I received from the Librarian, I was touched by sincere notes from some of the students. As they thanked me, each one wished me a happy birthday and expressed his or her feelings about reading. Every note was charming, unique and expressive, but one of them told me everything I needed to know: “That was nice of you to do. You are friends with Central.” Another wrote: "I'm so glad that people are nice enough to give books to the school."

To everyone who wrote me an email expressing your own plans to donate, to everyone who gave me books (or cash) to donate, to everyone who sent me a card or a note through the mail and told me about your plans to make a donation, I want to say thank you very much for your support and your help. Your generosity is touching and overwhelming.

In the perfectly chosen words of the students:

“That was nice of you to do. You are friends with Central.”

"I'm so glad that people are nice enough to donate books to the school."

I'm so very glad, too.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Those elusive little details...

On Valentine's Day, one of my least favorite holidays ever, the USA Network played a day-long marathon of romantic comedies, otherwise known as chick flicks. I have no quarrel with these kind of films, in fact, some of them are very near to my heart.

I do have an objection to them being labeled "for women only," however. If men were honest, they would admit that the real point of these movies is that there is no better feeling on earth than love at it's newest, at its freshest. That moment when new love takes its first breath, first blinks in the bright sunlight and taps the shoulders of two individuals who have been looking for it their entire lives: "I'm here! Enjoy!"

This "best feeling in the world" also partially explains why people the world over have choose to have affairs or "emotional" affairs. The desire to recapture that "new love" feeling never quite goes away no matter how long ago we turned 17.

But that's the moment we wait for in these movies. The first hour and fifty minutes is nothing more than the preamble to the final moment of recognition when the couple reaches that mutual stage of admiration and desire and passion and love. Voila! The kiss, the embrace, the moment we want to see. (And if we're lucky, have experienced in our lives.)

It's just that despite the excitement and fireworks, it isn't real. It isn't real in the movies and it isn't real in life. And by real, I mean - lasting. It's fun and manic while you're in the throes of new love, but it can't possibly by definition stay "new love" forever. On a good day, that's where the magic really happens: When it's not new but it's still good.

Along those lines, there are those who say the best bit of love isn't the start, but rather the mellowing that comes along only after years of commitment and compassion for each other. Which brings me to one of my favorites authors, and how he handles this subject. The New Yorker has labeled Nick Hornby "a maestro of the male confessional." I love him - he writes male characters I want to know (and feel like I have known as a matter of fact.)

In his wonderful novel, High Fidelity, Hornby reveals the angst and turmoil of his storyteller, Rob. And Rob, in his own wonderfully insecure voice, tells women (and men) the truth about how we're different people (but not in an annoying and simplistic Mars / Venus way) and how we approach the same thing (love) from two different angles.

Rob and his girlfriend Laura are about to reconnect after a breakup and Laura tells him she isn't good at "the slushy stuff." I feel that way. I think many women do, partly because many of us believe we'll never measure up to the fantasy women who seem to capture the collective male psyche through the media these days. And Rob can't help but show his disappointment in her revelation:

"That, to me, is a problem, as it would be to any male who heard Dusty Springfield singing "The Look of Love" at an impressionable age. That was what I thought it was all going to be like when I was married....I thought there was going to be this sexy woman with a sexy voice and lots of sexy eye make up whose devotion to me shone from every pore. And there is such a thing as the look of's just that the look of love isn't what I expected it to be. It's not the huge eyes almost bursting with longing situation somewhere in the middle of a double bed with the covers turned down invitingly; it's just as likely to be the look of benevolent indulgence that a mother gives a toddler, or a look of amused exasperation, even a look of pained concern. But the Dusty Springfield look of love? Forget it. As mythical as the exotic underwear.'s much harder to get used to the idea that my little-boy notion of romance, of negligees and candlelit dinners at home and long, smoldering glances had no basis reality at all."

And this bit of honesty: "I know what's wrong with Laura. What's wrong with Laura is that I'll never see her for the first or second or third time again. I'll never spend two or three days in a sweat trying to remember what she looks like, never again will I get to a pub half and hour early to meet her..."

That's true for everyone in a committed relationship, isn't it? Doesn't everyone get caught in the daily life that includes such unromantic moments as stopping for milk, unclogging the washing machine hose, working your way through paperwork and bills that are due or helping someone overcome stomach flu as they hang out in the bathroom for several hours? This isn't just about men although again, I'll admit to being an enormous fan of Hornby's male characters and the peek into the male mind he gives readers.

Sometimes the look of love is the glance you give someone during a difficult moment that says: Please stop talking. Trust me on this one. Stop right now. It's the look that tells them: The kids are making me crazy and I'm about to lose it, for the nine-thousandth time. It's the look that says: I'm sorry. Or please help me. Or thank you.

No one ever wrote a song describing the look of love in someones eyes as they balance the checkbook or sort the laundry or clip the hedges. It's those kind of elusive little details that never get the spotlight that make up a marriage, and a lifetime. The rest is just Hollywood; it's Dusty Springfield. And when the screen goes black or the song is over, you're left in the dark, in the silence with each other. Ready to start again tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Courage Decisiveness Tenacity: The Time Is Now

Those are the words that appear on the cover of this year's brochure advertising the World Business Forum which will take place in October at Radio City Music Hall. I've never attended the event but for some reason I get the promotions for it every year. My name must be on a list that gets rented for this mailing. My husband is one of the media people who works there every year and he ususally comes home with some interesting stories.

Here is the brochure's description of the people appearing at the Forum, "the world's most important gathering of senior executives." The event offers "an incredible lineup of brilliant minds, business icons and legendary CEOs." It promises to provide attendees "the energy and ideas to face today's challenges with confidence, no matter how demanding the business climate."

So who are these guys? (And this year, it's almost all guys.) You can certainly hop online for the detailed resumes but here are a few select words and phrases about several of them:

Gary Hamel: The Wall Street Journal called him the world's most influential business thinker and The Economist called him "the world's reigning strategy guru."

Jeffrey Sachs: Time Magazine named him among the "100 most influential leader sin the world." Special Advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General, Professor of Health Policy Management at Columbia University after spending 20 years on the faculty at Harvard.

George Lucas: American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award and recipient of the National Medal of Technology. Founder of one of the world's leading entertainment companies, winner of eight Academy Awards.

Jack Welch: 20-year Chairman of General Electric, where his leadership grew GE's market value from $3 billion to $400 billion; named the 2000 Manager of the Year by Fortune; named Most Admired CEO of the past 20 years by Chief Executive magazine and the World's Greatest Leader in a survey by Fast Company.

T. Boone Pickens. Paul Krugman. And several others, all of whom are very bright, very experienced senior executives who have stories and messages of leadership to share. The presentations carry titles like these: Emerging Multinationals, Leading Transformational Change, A Conversation on Energy Dependence and Economics for a Crowded Planet.

Oh, one more celebrity speaker - another advocate of courage, decisiveness and tenacity no doubt - I wanted to mention: Michael Phelps. His presentation? High Performance.

I'm not kidding. I can only imagine the conversation that took place in the office of HSM Global, who creates this event each year, when they realized their brochure was at the printer or already in the mail announcing the High Performance presentation by Michael Phelps.

You can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

It happened again.

I read this headline and was ready to scream:

"Is community service the new green?"

God help me.

We are losing our ability to speak plainly. And when did speaking plainly become so undesirable? The translation of this headline is this: "Is volunteering popular again?" Or perhaps slightly more nuanced, you could read it as: "Is volunteering becoming the new trend?"

In fact, I'm not quite sure what it means. I do know it's lazy and boring. On the plus side, it takes yet one more swing at that horrible "this is the new this" phrase, which please dear God should be put out of its misery in terms of journalism and trend-spotting in this country.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Kellogg's cares. So does the USA Swimming.

The online poll was a bit surprising but I'm willing to admit that I'm probably much more conservative than a lot of people. The MSN poll indicated that 466,994 people voted on question: How do you feel about Michael Phelps smoking a bong? 21% agreed with this response: "I'm dismayed, I can't believe he would do that." Remember the contents of that phrase. Dismayed. Disbelief.

ON the flip side, 79% agreed with this: "He's 23 years old - can we all relax?"

First of all, let me clarify something here. I'm relaxed. And the fact that Phelps is 23 years old doesn't indicate anything to me other than the fact that he may be older but he's no brighter than any completely ordinary teenager who makes the same wrong decision about smoking pot.

Secondly, these two statements in the poll are not parallel. If you agree with the first, you sound humorless, judgemental and "square." Agreeing with the second makes you sound like a now grown up Spicoli in Fast Times.

Turns out that Kellogg's would have probably weighed in with the 21% had they cast a vote. A report in Ad Age states that Phelps will no longer be affiliated with Kellogg's. According to a Kellogg's spokeswoman, "We originally built the relationship with Michael, as well as the other Olympic athletes, to support our association with the U.S. Olympic team. Michael's most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg. His contract expires at the end of February and we have made a decision not to extend his contract."

On a related note, USA Swimming, the sport's governing body, has suspending Phelps from training for three months. He'll miss a competition in March and compete again starting in May.

Here's the deal. Phelps became a media darling because he represented an American kid who made good - dedicated himself to his sport, overcame some personal challenges and became the most successful Olympic swimmer in history. His onscreen and offscreen personality was sold to the viewers just as successfully as the products featured in the commericals on the NBC Olympic Games and for the most part, we all bought it. A major publisher "crashed" (rushed) his book full of "you can do it, too" motivational nonsense so he could scoop up sales during the first holiday season following the Games. Corporations scooped up Phelps and paid him handsomely to have him and his success associated with their brand names.

Now the truth is, he doesn't really owe his fans much more than a great performance in the pool so they can continue to cheer and he can continue to set world records. But in terms of engendering their good will - especially the good will of parents who still may be archaic and uptight enough to care about whether or not their children decide to smoke pot - I propose he also owes them some reasonable, admirable, non-controversial behavior. I suppose reasonable people can argue what is meant by the phrase "reasonable, admirable, non-controversial behavior." But I have a thought: could it mean law-abiding? Could it mean responsible? Could it mean reliable? Could that be it? Why is no one online or elsewhere talking about the fact that Phelps broke the law and there is a photograph which he does not dispute that proves it?

Why, exactly, are none of us supposed to care about this and, in fact, enjoin those who might to just "relax?"

Maybe there's an "inappropriate" line somewhere that he needs to cross. Cocaine? If he were snorting a line of cocaine in a photo, would the vote lean more like 40 % to 60%? Or shooting heroine. Maybe we'd be a little tougher on him then and the vote would fall into the 50 / 50 range. Freebasing. That might get him in trouble with more people.

I need someone to post the rules. Because although I have not spent one minute thinking about Michael Phelps since the summer games ended, he "disappointed" me. And I think if more people voted honestly, not according to the "cool way" to vote on this topic, that 21% would look more like 79%.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The puff - and tax returns - heard round the world

Let me try to understand this.

In November, Olympic swimming sensation and all-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps attended a party at the University of South Carolina. At the house party, someone snapped a picture of him smoking pot - or at least in a position that very much indicated that taking a hit would be his next move - and the photo was published in a British tabloid last week.

If you read the stories about this revelation, you read a lot of apologies, a lot about disappointment, and platitudes like learning from your mistakes. You also read what this means to the Olympic committee and to swimming's governing body (I'll save you the time: nothing) and what the companies who have sponsored Phelps and hired him as a spokesperson have to say about the disturbing image (I'll save you that time, too: not much.)

Turns out that no matter what kind of splash (you should pardon the expression) you make during the Olympic games, the IOC can say absolutely nothing about the state of an athlete's body while not competing nor can they apply their code of conduct once the games conclude.

So, here's what we have: an athlete who was apparently not using any sort of illicit or illegal substances while he was completing and making a worldwide reputation for himself as some kind of phenomenon. Fast forward about four months and he's partying with friends, smoking pot, and then he offers us this, once he is exposed by a tabloid: "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said in the statement released by one of his agents. "I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

And this: "It's something I am going to have to live with and something I'll have to grow from," Phelps said. "I know with all of the mistakes I made, I learned from them and that is what I expect to do from this. By no means it is [sic] fun for me, by no means is it easy."

Let's take a look at his statements, shall we?

His act was regrettable and exhibited bad judgement.
Regrettable? Bad judgement? How about: stupid? And given his high profile, moronic?

He's a 23 year old star swimmer and he acted like a kid, and inappropriately.
...all this despite his success in the pool?
Being a good swimmer - being a world class champion swimmer in fact - has nothing to do with what you may choose to do at a party in South Carolina. And 23 years old doesn't exactly make him a hot-headed teenager.

...not the behavior people expect from him.
What do people expect from him?
Quite honestly, we expect him to win swimming competitions. Expecting anything else, based on his past behavior, is ill-advised at best.

He's sorry..won't happen again.
Uh-huh. Keep reading.

He'll have to live with it; he'll grow from it.
Yes, he will. That's very nice for him. Somehow, I don't think he's quite bereft.

He's learned from his mistakes in the past. He expects he'll learn from this one.
I'm wondering what exactly he's learned from his mistakes in the past. One of those mistakes was probably his underage drinking and drunk driving arrest after the Athens Olympic games in 2004. He apologized then, too.

It's weird that according to the quote I read, he misspoke and said " is fun for me..."

My favorite quote from the stories this week comes from the USOC: "We are confident that, going forward, Michael will consistently set the type of example we all expect from a great Olympic champion," the group said.

Boy, everyone's really apologetic and confident aren't they? Based on what?

I'm so weary of reading about people who get caught in situations that are less than admirable and "regretting" them and exhibiting "bad judgement." If anyone felt like being honest for just one second, they would skip all the polished statements that PR professionals get paid very handsomely to craft and simply issue a statement like this instead: "I thought I'd get away with it. I didn't. This is entirely my fault and my the blame rests with me. I don't deserve any more leniency or understanding than anyone else would get for the same actions."

No one will make that statement, though. Michael Phelps won't. Tom Daschle won't. Neither will Nancy Killefer nor Timothy Geithner. But that simple statement is the truth. They all thought they'd get away with it. Some did - for some time. And now it's all "regrettable." And they're all "disappointed."

Please. We're disappointed. They're pathetic.

Monday, February 02, 2009

This has to go.

If I never hear this conversational construction, "Blank is the new blank" again it will be amazing. Whoever started this I don't know but this phrase has long since worn out it's usefulness and now people seem to be using it for all manner of circumstances they simply can't find any other way to describe:

Fifty is the new Forty.
Translation: People are looking and behaving in a more youthful manner than they have in the past!

Green is the new Black.
Translation: Environmental concerns seems to be more important to many people than being chic and trendsetting.

Cash is the new money.
Translation: Credit is crap. Cash is what matters.

But I just heard a new one, this one promoting network primetime television shows. Here it is: Monday is the new Thursday. Ahem: umm, no, it's not. Monday will never be the new Thursday and I don't care what programs are on the air.

First of all, Thursday is almost Friday. Monday is nothing more that a version of a bleaker Tuesday, that showed up one day early. It indicates nothing but the start of the week for many of us, and rarely carries with it that lighter, happier feeling you tend to find around a day like Thursday.

Second of all, substituting your own words within a phrase that was passably amusing when used very specifically and occasionally about ten years ago is pathetic. It doesn't make you clever, just derivative.

I know this post sounds kind of depressing but it's the end of a long, difficult day and believe me, not matter what's on television tonight, it will never feel like a Thursday night to me.

Unfortunately, someone reading this may feel the need to convince me otherwise. Phrases like "depressing is the new encouraging" or "bleak is the new bright." Good lord. They are not, okay? Can we all agree that we can stop comparing two disperate things and claiming they are the new whatever?

If not, I have one of my own: saying one thing is like another thing in an effort to be amusing and surprising is the new literary nadir. I like it.