Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fed Up WIth Fads

Fads: a thing that becomes very popular in a short amount of time, and then is forgotten at about the same speed.” — The Urban Dictionary

None of us are immune to fads.
I consider myself a person of moderate thought and deed, a man who wears traditional clothing that never goes out of style.
But in the 60s, I sported hair tumbling over my ears and collar and had an affinity for bell-bottom trousers topped off with Edwardian jackets. A friend commented that I looked like a seedy Prince Valiant.
Did I stand out? Nope, because many other people were dolled up in unique clothing, from Sgt. Pepper attire to frontier buckskin outfits. We were making a statement, although we weren’t sure what it was.
My foray into fashion splendor didn’t last long. I was soon back shopping at Brooks Brothers after I decided looking like a British dandy was probably not my cup of tea.
But who among us can say that they never tried a Hula Hoop or a Rubik’s Cube, danced the Twist or played Pac Man? Who has not worn a mood ring, owned a pet rock, wore a tie-dye shirt or played with a Slinky?
We are all faddists, each and every one of us.
According to an essay on culture and society written a decade ago, the specific nature of the behavior associated with a fad can be of any type including language usage, apparel, financial investment. And even food. What, people don’t eat porcupine meat balls anymore?
Apart from general novelty, fads may be driven by mass media programming, emotional excitement, peer pressure, or the desire of “being hip”.
We are warned, however, not to confuse a “fad” with a “trend,” since a trend tends to evolve into a permanent change. This may or may not exclude the “Macarena.”
The latest fad sweeping the country, according to a source with dubious credibility, is orange jump suits, the kind favored by the incarceration community.
This fashion trend has been inspired by a television series called “Orange Is the New Black,” a comedy-drama about women in prison.
This is either a statement of fact or a home run by the show’s publicist.
Whatever. According to Saginaw (Mich.) County Sheriff William Federspiel, kids insist on wearing neon-orange jumpsuits to the mall in order to emulate what they see on the show.
As a result, the Saginaw County Jail is transitioning from the orange jumpsuit to the classic black-and-white garment “because it signifies ‘jail inmate,’ and I don’t see people out there wanting to wear black-and-white stripes,” the Sheriff told a local Michigan news outlet.
Like flag pole sitting (a fad in the 1920s), this is fraught with danger. I know nothing about law enforcement in Saginaw, but here in Los Angeles County if a sheriff’s deputy or an LAPD patrol officer saw a gaggle of kids parading down the street in orange jump suits, I suspect they wouldn’t just wave and drive on by.
Of course, switching to black-and-white striped jump suits could inspire a new fad. These kids nowadays.
Fads have been with us for centuries. Fortunately, most never became trends.
Pointy jester shoes were what all the fancy gentleman wore in the 1400s. Even though — as archeologists would later discover — those shoes deformed their feet, caused pain, and made them trip, they were still excellent status symbols among courtly men.
The shoes irritated King Henry IV, and he had them banned. He proclaimed the “beak” of a shoe was not to exceed two inches, and any cobbler who made such a ridiculous shoe would be fined 30 shillings.
In Elizabethan times, poor people ate a more healthy diet than the rich. That’s because they subsided on fruits, vegetables and meat while the well-off stuffed themselves with costly sweets.
As a result, bad teeth became a status symbol. Ladies to the manor born actually used cosmetics to black their teeth out, in order to look more rich and glamorous.
Tear catchers were a fashionable way to mourn in the Victorian era. You would cry your tears into a tiny bottle until it was full. A special stopper allowed for slow evaporation of the tears, and when it was empty, your mourning was over.
As we became more civilized, we confined ourselves to such innocent pastimes as goldfish swallowing, marathon dancing, phone booth stuffing, streaking and eyeball licking.
Fast forward to now.
I’m happy to say without hesitation that you’ll never see me in a jumpsuit — orange or otherwise — for the rest of my days. Nor will I dance the limbo or revel in the music of Abba. I’ve sworn off fads forever.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take a selfie.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Bad News

The first time I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, two things were immediately clear: it was spectacular; it was a lot more monument than museum, a tribute to the president’s deeds, not his disasters.
Well, of course it was. Did we really think Mr. Reagan’s friends and supporters, who ponied up $60 million to build the place, considered including a Hall of Shame where we could view memorabilia from the Iran-Contra affair, the savings and loan crisis and other assorted missteps during his administration?
That’s not what presidential libraries do.
I doubt if Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress is hanging in the Clinton Library. I don’t think the picture of President Bush declaring victory in Iraq as he stood in front of a banner that declared “Mission Accomplished” is on display in his edifice. After all, the war lasted another eight years and counted among its victims his personal and political reputation.
It took the Nixon Library nearly two decades to come to grips with the Watergate scandal.
A friend who hailed from Upstate New York once told me he visited the Millard Fillmore Museum in Erie County and said that the docents there could convince you that the little-remembered Fillmore belonged in the pantheon of great presidents.
If you’re seeking a warts-and-all version of history, look somewhere else.
Clinton himself called the libraries the “latest grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
We mention all this because it won’t be long before another presidential monument begins to rise, this one to honor Barack Obama, who will be checking out of the White House soon.
There’s no official locale yet but if I was a betting man, I’d place my cash on Chicago. Hawaii, where the president was born, is in the running. Columbia University, where the President received his undergraduate degree, pitched a West Harlem site in New York City.
The campaigning within the city of Chicago has already begun. Proposed locations include the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law for 12 years; Chicago State University; vacant land that was part of Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics; and a former steel plant near Lake Michigan being pitched by a real estate developer.
The University of Illinois-Chicago also is pitching potential locations on and off campus.
Groups that work with troubled and disadvantaged youths are joining campaigns to draw the library to their neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Tribune. Not only do they see a presidential library as an economic engine that would generate jobs and revitalization, they view it as a catalyst for social change, a means to curb violence and instill hope.
Whatever the outcome, we can be sure that the library will focus on the president’s rightful place in history as the first African-American president. That it will salute the passage and implementation of Obamacare; that Michelle Obama will be recognized for her work on behalf of childhood nutrition and her support for a nationwide philanthropic effort to raise millions of dollars to help military families in need.
We will see their china, her dresses, his limo, their kids. We’ll see a replica of the Oval Office.
But we won’t see any bad news.
Don’t expect any photos of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, at least not in a flattering light. Or Clint Eastwood for that matter. Don’t expect any displays on Benghazi. Or articles on accusations that the IRS targeted opposition political groups. Don’t expect any explorations of the origins and future of the Tea Party.
We wonder if his birth certificate will be on display.
If there’s a downside to all this orchestrated hero worship, it’s the cost of building what amounts to latter-day pyramids. Harry Truman’s cost $1.7 million. George W. Bush, however, reportedly raised close to $500 million to build his.
Some estimates for the Obama Library peg the cost at more than $500 million.
And while the construction is privately funded, the National Park Service is responsible for the operation of the libraries at a cost of some $75 million, paid for by you and me.
It would be nice if sanity prevailed and we build modest structures devoted to scholarship and research. If people want to see the White House china, they can look on the Smithsonian website.
But reason and good sense is long gone. A New York Times story said that an investment banker who is familiar with the president says Obama is “show[ing] more ‘good will’ to the business community” because very shortly he will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from them.
I’m betting that won’t get a mention in the library, either.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The GOP in Unfriendly Territory


Once around the news cycle:

Republicans Select Cleveland for Their 2016 Convention: 
Who else was on the list? El Paso? Detroit? Camden, N.J.? Actually, the second place finisher was Dallas. I’m sure the residents of Big D are being good sports about losing out to the “Mistake by the Lake.”
This, of course, is old hat for Cleveland. They hosted the Republican convention in 1936. You remember that one: Alf Landon was selected to run again President Franklin Roosevelt who was in the middle of a four-term beat-down of the GOP.
More recently, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, nine precincts in Cleveland returned zero votes for Mitt Romney in 2012. That's right, Zero. And President Obama carried the state of Ohio in both of the last two elections.
You have to hand it to the Republicans for not holding a grudge. Maybe they figure Ohioans will like them a lot better if they see them up close and personal.
In the interest of fair play, the Democrats are deciding between Birmingham, Ala., Cleveland, Columbus, New York (Brooklyn), Philadelphia and Phoenix.
Not exactly garden spots but a midsummer convention in Phoenix? Really? Figure on an average high of around 105 degrees with a chance of scattered sandstorms interspersed with monsoonal rains.
I’m not sure the Bedouin would want to meet in Phoenix in the summer.

Madonna Reports for Jury Duty in New York:
Yup, just like the rest of us, the Material Girl showed up to do her civic duty although she was fashionably late (by 30 minutes).
So did she sit in a stuffy jury assembly room with hundreds of her fellow citizens to wait for hours to see if she would be impaneled? Not on your bejeweled bodice. According to the New York Daily News, she was ushered into a first-floor clerk’s office. Then she got sprung after an hour and a half.
A court official said the decision was made to let her go early because her presence was a distraction.
I’ll remember that next time I’m called. I just might show up dressed as Jabba the Hutt.

Fast as in Last: 
A new survey of fast food chains by Consumer Results turned up some startling results.
Finishing dead last in their respective categories were McDonald’s (burgers), Taco Bell (burritos) and KFC (chicken sandwich). Add to that Subway, which finished near the bottom of the sandwich list, and Panda Express, which brought up the rear in the Asian food category.
Why, it’s almost un-American. Next thing you’ll be telling me is that GM has recalled almost every Chevy ever made. What’s that? They have?
According to Consumer Reports, they asked subscribers this direct question: On a scale of 1 to 10, from least delicious to most delicious you’ve ever eaten, how would you rate the taste? We heard about 53,745 burger chains’ burgers, chicken chains’ fried or roasted chicken, Mexican chains’ burritos, and sandwich chains’ subs — or heroes, hoagies, grinders, or wedges, depending on where you call home.
For the record, In-N-Out won the burger competition, Chick-fil-A was the favorite chicken and Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill captured the Golden Burrito award.
What does it all mean? “Our readers told us that quality of the food has become more important in their dining decisions, and convenience of location is less so than in our 2011 report. They could be reasons the traditional fast-food chains are losing their edge: Diners, especially younger adults in the millennial generation, may be more willing go out of their way to get a tasty meal.”
First, a bump up in minimum wage. Now the customers want quality. It’s tough to be a burger flipper.

Holy Writ: 
When an employee at Gino’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., cut into an eggplant Monday, he found “GOD.”
Chef Jermarcus Brady couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I saw a miraculous image formed by the seeds,” he said. “It spelled out the word God!”
This is hardly breaking news. Religious icons have been appearing on food for years and the media religiously reports on it. Just in case it’s the real deal.
We’ve seen tortillas, pizzas, coffee cups, burnt sauce pans, Cheetos, you name it. Most involved likenesses of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.
I’m no theologian but the skeptic in me wonders why God, creator of the universe, the all seeing, all knowing, all powerful deity, would reveal himself in an eggplant in Baton Rouge. And spell his name out in English.
I guess the Lord does move in mysterious ways. Or maybe he just has a great sense of humor.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

U.S. A'int

Along with millions of my fellow Americans and various interested parties throughout the world, I watched the World Cup match this past week in which an overmatched U.S. team stayed with a Belgium side until the inevitable happened:
We lost.
This is not new territory for an American team. In 1934, we finished 16th. In 1938, we withdrew. In 1950, 10th. We didn’t even qualify from 1954 until 1986. Since then, we have finished 23rd, 14th, 32nd, 8th, 25th, 12th and 15th. Not the kind of record that strikes fear into the hearts of our opponents.
It is also not the kind of record that, despite what a lot of overly emotional pundits said this week, is going to turn the American sporting public away from basketball, baseball, football and, yes, even hockey.
While it may enthrall Brits and Brazilians, Mexicans and Moroccans, it only captures the imagination of Americans once every four years. And while we may love underdogs we are quick to forget losers.
Let’s face it, the big TV ratings and raucous crowds who watched the U.S. in World Cup event were largely motivated by national pride, not a love for the grand old game.
The same thing happens every Olympic year. Americans cheer wildly for swimmers, gymnasts, sprinters, discus throwers, figure skaters, ski jumpers and lugers. Nobody seriously suggests any one of these events would attract a lion’s share of the U.S. sports dollar.
Some of the boosterism is downright silly.
I was amused by a sportswriter for a local downtown paper who bellied up to a bar to watch the U.S.-Belgium match and gleefully noted the ethnic mix of the people in attendance. The implication was that soccer had brought us all together.
But this is Los Angeles, melting pot of the 21st Century. You can find an ethnic mix of United Nations proportions among people waiting for a bus.
To think soccer will somehow unite us conveniently ignores a sport whose existence has been marked by rioting, hooliganism, cheating and bribery scandals for decades.
Look, I’m all for soccer having a seat at the table of America’s favorite pastimes. Its popularity is slowly gaining. A recent Pew Research Poll showed that soccer is now the fourth-most popular sport for high school girls and fifth-most popular one for boys.
The problem is that kids want to see their heroes in action. And they’ll find them on football, basketball, baseball and hockey telecasts which dominate the ratings game.
Sure, there’s the MSL professional league here. But viewership last year was 332,000 on ESPN, ESPN2 and NBC Sports, compared with 205 million for the NFL.
According to the website MLS Attendance, 8 of the 19 MLS teams are averaging fewer fans this season than last. And the 2013 MLS Cup drew a 0.5 television rating, which is probably lower than an “I Love Lucy” rerun.
If our young athletes show considerable talent in soccer, they hone their skills then go off to Europe or South America to play where the money and support is major league.
So we never see them. What we do see is less than world class. That’s no way to build a world class team. That’s no way to build a world class fan base.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in the camp of Ann Coulter, a writer who is to politics what Vlad the Impaler is to peaceful coexistence. She opined that any spike in interest in soccer is “a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” She added that “in American football, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box.”
Of course, Ann is more provocateur than professional so we largely ignore her.
But I have serious doubts that soccer mania is sweeping the country.
Consider this perspective offered by a man who knows a thing or two about sports.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing in a Time.Com essay, said “To the average American used to the hustle of basketball, the clash of titans in football, the suspense of the curve ball in baseball, or the thrilling crack of the slapshot in hockey, the endless meandering back and forth across the soccer field looks less like strategy and more like random luck.
In America, fans like to see effort rewarded instantaneously with points, he wrote.
“Soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise.
“As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse.”
All of which means we are a long, long way from the victor’s stand at the World Cup.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Legend of Harry Widener

In a recent column on notable graduation speeches, I mentioned one delivered by former U.S. Senator Barney Frank to his fellow Harvard grads.
“When I was here there was still a requirement that students had to swim 50 yards to graduate … because Harry Elkins Widener had drowned with the sinking of the Titanic,” Frank said. “And it made me very grateful at the time that he had not gone down in a plane crash.”
A fuuny line, to be sure.   But what's this about a swimming requirement?
Is it true that Harvard students, the cream of the American educational system, the alleged embodiment of intellectual and physical refinement, really had to swim 50 yards before the dean handed them a diploma?   
And was the Titanic to blame?
Surely a U.S. senator would not engage in hyperbole.
Reader Pat Brunette (Harvard-Radcliffe, 1965) confirmed that, indeed, the 50-yard swim was once a graduation requirement:
“My strongest memory of this enchanting obligation is of not being allowed out of the pool until 11:50 a.m., having to dry off, dress, and struggle through a mile or so of snow drifts (which, of course get deeper each year I get older), to my next class, George Wald’s biology class, which started at noon. If Professor Wald ever noticed me at all, I was the one straggling in late once a week, with frozen wet hair, sitting on the stairs because his was a popular course and all the seats were taken by noon.”
She added:
“Whoever thought being able to swim for fifty yards would have saved (Harry Elkins Widener) from sinking with the Titanic must have been a bit of an optimist, but I’d like to read more about it.”
And so you shall, Ms. Brunette.
This much is true: Mr. Widener, along with his father, perished when the Titanic sunk. His mother survived.
Alas, the rest is all wet.
The legend holds that, to ensure no other Harvard man would share her son’s fate, Eleanor Widener insisted that future graduates be required to demonstrate an ability to swim. “Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent,” says the Harvard University Library’s “Ask a Librarian” service.
“A review of records in the Harvard Archives indicates that there have been swimming requirements at various times in Harvard history, but none were related in any way to Mr. Widener or the gift of the library to Harvard by his mother ... In his 1980 publication [on Widener Library], Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence in the President’s papers, or the faculty’s, to indicate that [Harry Widener’s mother] was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsible for [any] compulsory swimming test.”‍
That doesn’t necessarily ruin a good story, however.
As recently as two years ago, many schools still had the compulsory swimming requirement, among them MIT, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, Washington and Lee, Dartmouth and Notre Dame.
And like Harvard, the test has become the stuff of legends.
One such tale holds that during the 1920s, Oregon State University had such a requirement, and Linus Pauling, who would go on to win two Nobel Prizes, could not swim a stroke. It was rumored that someone donned his number and swam for him.
At Columbia, campus lore has it that a university president wanted to ensure students’ survival if Manhattan ever sank — but since engineering students could build a boat, they were exempt.
A Washington and Lee University spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that a school president from the 1910s lamented “the idleness and restless shallowness of the average undergraduate,” but it is unclear whether swimming specifically was seen as the remedy for youthful malaise. The school’s test now asks students to swim 50 yards in one minute, and then spend five minutes treading water.
At all-female Bryn Mawr, the swim requirement dates at least to 1909, said a spokesman, noting that an archivist found a clipping in the personal papers of the then-athletic director mentioning that “American mermaids are known for their hardiness and fine physiques.”
Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, who earned a PhD from Columbia University, wrote more than 30 books, taught at Columbia and was chairman of the board of editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was denied his bachelor’s degree by Columbia in 1923 — despite his completing their four-year curriculum in three years and finishing at the top of his class — because he failed to pass the swimming test required for graduation.
He was finally granted his degree 60 years later after informing Columbia that he had since learned how to swim and asking them to waive his disqualification.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Words Worth Hearing

“I could have said something profound, but you would have forgotten it in 15 minutes — which is the afterlife of a graduation speech.” — Art Buchwald.

It’s graduation season, that time of year when a generation that made a mess of the world exhorts the next generation to go forth and clean it up.
Of course, the older generation was also encouraged to spread peace and prosperity but somehow fumbled the ball out of the end zone. As did the generation before that. And before that.
Maybe if someone actually paid attention to graduation advice, the cycle might be broken.
That’s a lot to ask. Graduation day is not the best time to expect an eager and receptive audience. It’s a day for celebrating, not navel gazing.
For example, one of our daughters “walked” in high school, twice in college, once in law school and once when she was sworn into the bar.
And each and every ceremony that I sat through was accompanied by a speech in which grads were wished well in the real world and encouraged to do their best.
Aside from the general tone of the remarks, I remember absolutely nothing. Not one word.
I offer no excuse except for the fact that I was so caught up in the moment and awash in pride that Lincoln himself could have materialized to recite the Gettysburg Address and I would been mentally and emotionally otherwise occupied.
So shame on me. Because there are inspiring words being spoken at graduation ceremonies throughout the land that are worth hearing.
One my favorites, from a writer named Nelson Henderson, was profound in its simplicity. “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
There are plenty more.
“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — it means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short.” — Adrienne Rich, Douglass College.
“Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harvard University.
“Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces.” — Amy Poehler, Harvard.
“I graduated in 1989, and I’d focused almost entirely on the Soviet Union and communism … so when the Berlin wall fell, I was, well, I was screwed.” — Anderson Cooper, Tulane University.
“… our challenge is to live the final stanza of a song you have heard or sung hundreds of times … land of the free and the home of the brave!” — Anita L. Defrantz, Connecticut College.
“Just remember, you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, USC.
“When I was here there was still a requirement that students had to swim 50 yards to graduate … because Harry Elkins Widener had drowned with the sinking of the Titanic. And it made me very grateful at the time that he had not gone down in a plane crash.” — Barney Frank, Harvard.
“So the mission of … every empowered person in the world in this time has to be to build up the positive and reduce those negative forces of our interdependence.” — Bill Clinton, Yale University.
“Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.” — Bill Gates, Harvard.
“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.” — Bill Watterson, Kenyon College.
“Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.” — Bradley Whitford, University of Wisconsin.
“Despite difficulties, always keep optimism. ‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner strength and self-confidence.” — The Dalai Lama, Tulane.
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you’re nothing special.” — David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School.
“Now I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes, advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you. Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push-up bras.” — Dolly Parton, University of Tennessee.
“In the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal.” — Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College.
“Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come, but as long as we have today, we can change the world.” — Glenn Beck, Liberty University.
“So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this. You won’t.” — Jon Stewart, College of William and Mary.
“Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.” — Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Lake Forest College.
And finally:
“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda, a galaxy far, far away

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.