Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When Celebrities Become Asshats

Over at one of my favorite blogs A Year and Change by the amazing Lucy March, the equally amazing community of readers known as the Betties are sort of debating Sean Connery. Several years ago, Connery gave a lengthy explanation on the circumstances when he feels it's justified to slap a woman. There are plenty of places online to watch the interview clip with Barbara Walters. Connery's opinion is not what I'm musing.

I'm wondering if we care disproportionately more when a celebrity or public figure acts like an asshat than we do over some non-famous man or woman down the street. Maybe that isn't the right question. Maybe it should be why, not if, we care.

Hah. Perhaps care isn't even the right word. Seriously, I really don't care about Connery's opinion, or Lindsay Lohan's probation violation; Mel Gibson's drunken tirades or Ashton Kutcher's alleged infidelity.

However, when I hear about these things, I admit that my attention's diverted to the story. It might only be for a couple of seconds, but the information registers. Why does it seem as if we're more interested? Are we more riveted by the public opinion plunge of these people because we're the ones that built their pedestals in the first place? Is it similar to car crashes that are horrific but we can't stop watching?

I think it's more that the celebrity, the household name, is a common point of reference. The mere fact that they are someone whose name is known by the masses appears to rocket up the interest in their words, accomplishments, crashes, and causes.

The degree and spread of the interest increases in direction proportion to the level of their celebrity. If a superintendent's wife embezzles money from the local school district, that news will buzz around your hometown. It probably won't be much more than a blip in the next county.

What if your state's attorney general gets a DUI? You and your friend four counties over will probably see the story in your newspaper or on television. Will it make a fuss in the diners and coffeeshops two states away?

Ramp that up to, say, the Speaker of the House or the Vice President and that same story's going all CNN all the time. The more people who know about a person, the more celebrated he or she is, the bigger the news story, the harder the fall.

If some schmo at the local bar belches after a swallow of beer and says, "Yeah, there's times when it's okay to slap a gal," probably nobody's going to put it up on YouTube. Years late, people who have never met him face to face are not going to discuss his words on a blog.

Hmm. Maybe that's another price that stars pay for their fame and money. They can't hide their asshattery.

Now that I've pondered this, I want to ask myself, "Do I ever want to be that well known?"

Do you?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Comings and Goings

I had another post prepared, something upbeat and funny. Now it doesn't fit my mood which has turned sharply introspective.

The brother of one of my dearest friend's is dying from cancer. He has fought a long, courageous battle against his disease. I've never met him. My experience of him comes through his sisters and their stories. Yet, even from a distance, his life has touched mine. Grace, humor, faith -- I can only pray that when I'm nearing the end of my life, I'll be blessed with those gifts to help me on the journey.

My heart aches for my friend, her sisters and sister-in-law. I'd like to wrap them all in a giant blanket -- an emotional comforter in more ways than one -- and cushion them against the sorrow.

By contrast, earlier today I spoke with another one of my dearest friends. She and her husband battled for over eight years to have a baby. Their daughter was born six weeks ago. She was seven weeks early but is catching up fast, bless her sweet little self. I haven't met her yet, but my friend text messages me a picture every frew days.

Beginnings and endings. Birth and death. The beginning of the road and the end of one journey while we transition to the next. In between the start and the finish, if we're really, really lucky, we give and receive love. We care for the people in our lives and are cared for by others in our times of need. Those are the things that matter.

Those are the blessings.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Last night, HBO premiered a new series called Boardwalk Empire about Atlantic City, N.J. at the beginning of Prohibition. I'm an Atlantic City native and keenly interested in this show and the historical depiction of my hometown. It focuses on the county treasurer Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a dapper power broker, totally corrupt mover and shaker.

In 1920, my mother's mother would have been 27. My grandfather was the V.P. of a local bank. Nana's father was a county judge. So, of course, my family would have known this man, or at least known of him. I confirmed this with my aunt. Nucky was still around when she was a young girl in the 30s. She remembers seeing him walk around town and being introduced to him once when she was quite young.

I was talking about the show yesterday afternoon with a friend who then said, "Your family goes back a long way in this country, doesn't it?"

I don't think about it often, but it's true. Nana's family was here well before the Revolutionary War. (She and my mother both belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution.)

Yesterday, I really stopped and considered what this means. Members of my family were already in this country before it was this country. They were British subjects who rebelled against the Crown and fought side-by-side with their neighbors for America's independence. Maybe one of them crossed the Delaware with George Washington that fateful Christmas Day to launch the surprise attack at Trenton. I'll have to research that. There's a family book somewhere that might hold the information.

Whatever the case, the roots of the family tree go deep in the earth of New Jersey. I'm proud of that fact and those long ago ancestors. Nana's family also settled early in Atlantic County. I'm not sure of the exact generation, but it was at least a few steps back from when she was born. Have you heard of the Jersey Devil? The creature was reportedly born to a woman with the last name of Leeds who lived near the Pine Barrens in the county. (There's a Leeds Point in the area.) We connect to the Leeds family, too, and when my cousins and I were younger we claimed the Jersey Devil as a relation.

On the other side of the family, the history is much shorter. My father was a first-generation American, born to Sicilian parents. Grandpa Stella came over when he was in his teens. Grandma was born in this country, very soon after her parents arrived. They embraced the American way and the dream. My father was born the same year that Prohibition started. Twenty some odd years later, he fought in World War II.

What defines a proud American? Pondering these things and how many family fits in the grand scheme, there's at least one thing of which I'm sure. Whether 100 years, two hundred years or two generations, length of time doesn't factor into the definition.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What a Gallimaufry.

I have a pretty good, some would say above average, vocabulary. My reading comprehension has always tested high. Unless I pick up a medical or major scientific journal in a field which which I am not familiar, I usually know the words in books I read. If I hit one that's unfamiliar, I can figure it out by the context.

In a novel, it's rare for me to run across a word I've never seen and can't figure out. That happened today in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The word for the day is Gallimaufry. The sentence was something like, "Vanger's were in a real gallimaufry."

The sentence stopped me cold. As a reader, I don't mind the occasional strange word as long as not knowing it doesn't interrupt my reading entertainment. Seriously, do you know what that word means? (No fair if you've already read the book and looked it up for yourself.) Could you get its meaning from such a generic sentence?

I really hated needing to put the book down and look up gallimaufry in the dictionary. Even the speed and ease of using my iPhone didn't reduce the annoyance. By the way, gallimaufry means hodgepodge and is from the Middle French for stew.

I ask you -- couldn't Larsson have just used hodgepodge or, even better, stew? Did Larsson write his manuscripts in English or Swedish? If the latter, can you imagine the translator's reasoning? "Gallimaufry! There's a word that, surely, everyone will know!"

On what planet?

Told you I'm annoyed. Know what really scorches my stew? When I posted the word to Facebook, my freakin' iPhone recognized the word before I finished typing and offered to fill it in for me. Smartass smart phone.

Do you ever watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee? The contestants are allowed to ask the judges to use the word in a sentence. Here's what I would use if this was the word in question:

I think it's pretentious for authors to use a word like gallimaufry when hodgepodge will do.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Burn This Blog

I usually stick to the fun side of blogging, but I've seen one too many stories that glorify hate-mongering this week and I'm sick of it.

I'm tired of people blaming all Muslims for the actions of fanatics. The family I saw last weekend in the airport, the young adults I've known since they were born who converted to and practice Sufi, and the doctor who just treated your mother in the E.R. are no more responsible for the attacks on this country than you or I.

Yet, for no reason other than their faith, they are the target of hate, scorn, bigotry, vitriol, and violence.

The same acts that we decry when they are directed at Americans in foreign countries now occur with increasing frequency in this country, where we're supposed to be the land of the free and home of the brave. Where we're supposed to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The attacks of 9/11 struck at our hearts. Amid the almost overwhelming national shock and mourning, we grew more united in our resolve. We would not be defeated by extremists. The American spirit would not be crushed. We would rise from the ashes, remember those who died, and not give victory to those who attacked us.

Yet today I feel like we are letting them win. If the Muslim center had been built near the World Trade Center before 09/11/01, there would not have been national protests.

We do not battle our enemies by fighting over that center. It isn't a victory over fanaticism to burn the Quran.

Instead, these actions give them what they want -- fuel for their argument that Americans hate all those connected to Islam.

How many of us grew up with the Golden Rule of treat others as you would like to be treated? At work these days we're learning the Platinum Rule -- treat others as they would like to be treated.

I get that people are angry at Al Qaida, at the people who seek to tear us down. So am I. But I refuse to let that anger poison me to the point where I treat all Muslims as enemies.

I will not allow fanatics to convert me to their politics of hate.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sensory Memory

Whenever I go away for a few days, my dogs go to "doggy camp". Last weekend, I got home Sunday night but, because Monday was a holiday, I couldn't pick up Nat and Pyxi until Tuesday. The emptiness in the house expanded with their absence but my senses didn't get the message that they weren't here.

Each time I pushed back my chair, I waited to hear them jump up to see what I was about to do. A couple of dozen times, in pure reflex, I reached to pet them and my fingers expected to feel soft fur. I opened the front door and automatically gave the "wait" hand signal.

I do these things so many times each day that they're ingrained. The sounds, the touches, the instinctive actions are imprinted on my eyes, ears, nose, and skin. They're so palpable that, even when the dogs aren't here, I still feel, hear, and smell them to some degree. No, not as vividly as if Nat and Pyxi were really by my side, but sensory memory is strong.

I notice it more with the dogs these days than with anyone else because the three of us are my "now". Still, even 25 years after my father's death, if I hold very still and close my eyes, I remember exactly how it felt when he hugged me. Everybody's hug is unique depending on their height or body structure in relation to mine, the amount of pressure, the duration. Dad's hug was unlike any other.

Mom had a way of brushing my hair back from my face. When I was a little girl and upset about something, we'd talk and she would repeat the motion, with her fingers threading through my hair, soft against my skin. It always soothed and calmed me down. Even when I was an adult, she'd do it sometimes when she knew that something was weighing on my mind. That's another sensory memory I carry with me, years after her passing.

I'm working on a story in which a woman leaves her husband after many years of marriage. She's finally had enough of his cheating and the complete lack of respect he shows her. There's more to it. Leaving is really an act of survival and a step toward healing for her. Still, I think that it would be very, very hard for her to leave behind the sensory memories even though she has physically removed herself from his presence.

I can picture her lying in bed alone but remembering how his side of the mattress dipped when he joined her and how his arm wrapped around her and held her close. I wonder how much more lonely she'll feel without these things in her life. How will she cope. Perhaps to fight their power, she'll need to make herself remember the touches that actually annoyed her but that she never shared... like the way that his fingers curled into her waist when he placed his hand at the small of her back. The motion always communicated possession instead of intimacy.

More to ponder.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Feeding on the Energy

I was in New Orleans for Heather Graham's annual Writers for New Orleans Workshop this past weekend. For me, this is less work and more fun with friends. People I adore fly in from all over the country and we spend a few days together doing panels, discussions, and partying in a terrific city that epitomizes fun.

There's a palpable energy to the city. It spreads out like sunshine and soaks into your skin until you're all filled up with warmth and light. The French Quarter doesn't simply buzz or hum with life. It sings in full-throated harmony and dances to the rhythm of jazz, blues and zydeco. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the spirt (and spirits) flow.

There's an energy to a writers' conference, too. I love talking with and listening to writers and readers. They are all storytellers and for someone who loves words as much as I do, this is like a banquet for gluttons. From the sharp smarts of JA Konrath who has become an Internet juggernaut with the Kindle sales of his work, to the hilarious joy of L.A. Banks who has the funniest tale of getting the call about her first sale ever . . . to Sarah from Smart Bitches Love Trashy Books who shines the spotlight on the genre's glories and flaws and now is invited to speak at places like Princeton University and publishers' institutes . . . F. Paul Wilson, Alexandra Sokoloff, Harley Jane Kozak, Linda Conrad, Kayla Perrin, Kathy Love . . . I could go on and on and on.

I talked to writers, editors, readers. We shared stories over Eggs Benedict or scones in the morning, fine filet and cocktails in the evening. I gorged on the energy of like-minded people and returned home stuffed and happy.

I have to wonder if it's like this in other industries. Do dentists or insurance agents go to conventions and catch a similar vibe? Do they return to their homes, buzzing with energy and eager to go forth and create with new purpose?

For their sakes, I hope so.