Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Truth in Advertising

I am tired of overly beautiful people peddling crap. Not that I’ve ever met any in real life; I haven’t because they don’t really exist, all these perfect-haired, perfect-abbed and zitless avatars that crowd our world and sell us stuff. I’m referring to the models and actors, male and female, young and old, pitching cars and pills and mortgages, wireless service and hemorrhoid ointment and companies that will take your money and invest it better than you ever could, except maybe sometimes not. And it’s not only Victoria’s Secret wannabes. It’s perfect men, too, whose shoulder-width-to-waist-size ratio was never God-given. Oh, and before I forget, all those perfectly cute children that never dirtied a diaper or bashed a sibling on the head with a Tickle Me Elmo. They’re three years old and talk in the subjunctive without even being French.
Sometime and somewhere, someone managed to persuade us that listening to these physically admirable folks and taking their advice would make us look like them and enjoy their lifestyles, which are monumentally better than ours. This was an amazing piece of manipulation that, in spite of our best efforts, still works like a charm. We are besieged with perfect grandparents in assisted living situations when we know and remember perfectly well how arduous and emotionally draining it was getting gramps into the Sunshine Hollow efficiency apartment after gamma passed away. And of course, we’re completely aware that the big-busted and roundly-hipped model promoting shampoo had her hair professionally attended to before shooting the ad. Women buyers of the product will not, ever, look like her.  No more than men who purchase that masculine smelling bodywash will trek the Himalayas tomorrow. And yet…
Perhaps it’s the insincerity of it all that bothers me. I wonder if it isn’t time to force advertisers to come clean, like the drug companies selling anti-depressants. They can’t simply say. “Take Elaterada and be happy the rest of your life.” The FDA stepped in after too many Elaterada users became addicts, or killed themselves, or turned green, and now the ads will include a perfectly female monotonic voice reciting the possible side-effects of the concoction. “Elaterada may cause stomach upset, nausea, fatigue, headache, tremor, nervousness and dry mouth, postural blood pressure changes resulting in dizziness, constipation, difficulty urinating, blurred vision, weight gain and drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, flushed face and agitation, confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, irregular heart rate, cardiorespiratory collapse and death. Do not eat cheese, meat, chicken, green vegetables, nuts, or aged cheese when taking Elaterada.  Do not drive 18-wheelers or operate construction equipment.(Cut to music) Be happy again with Elaterada.”

Imagine if the ad trying to sell you a new and overpowered SUV ended with an overweight man staring into the camera and saying, “Buying the XRV-16 may lead to unsafe driving, speeding, traffic tickets, fines and imprisonment or death of you or others. Do not drive the XRV-16 when drunk or high on legal or illegal drugs. Do not engage in texting, sexting or sex while driving. Driving the XRV-16 is not suggested for insulin-dependent diabetics, people with fibromyalgia, irregular heartbeat, memory loss, weak kidneys, ulcerated stomach linings or any issue named in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV).” 
Truth in advertising. Personally, I’d find that really entertaining.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Anex Canada!

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is abominable and disgraceful. As a country that wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, ever and under any circumstances, I think we need to retaliate and send a strong message to the Madman Putin. I therefore offer a suggestion.  We should annex Canada.
Canada is a large landmass to the north of the United States. Few people ever think about this, but like Crimea, our neighbor is deeply divided. The Canadian French and English speakers have a long history of animosity towards each other and we should step in, for their own good.
Why, you might ask, don’t we annex Mexico instead? After all, it’s sunny there, the food is somewhat interesting if you like refried things of questionable origins, there are beaches, and a goodly part of the population already works in the States in largely menial capacities. Well, the fact is many Mexicans speak neither English nor French, which would make basic communications difficult. Plus, Mexico is overrun with drug cartels and criminals with no respect for human life. We don’t need people like that in our society. And lastly, any country that has Montezuma’s Revenge as part of its national heritage can’t really be taken seriously.
We don’t need to annex all of Canada, just the Quebec province. The unfortunate people of Quebec have long been held in submission to the Montreal yoke and the separatist movement there has failed ignominiously. The brave and subjugated Québécois need our help.
Consider the fact that we have a long history of amicable relations with the French. Their culture is very close to ours and without the arrival of Lafayette to our shores in 1777, we would all be speaking The Queen’s English today.
Additionally, the French have given us:
  • French toast
  • Les Misérables
  • The Chateaubriand, a hefty slice of rare meat named after one of their best writers
  • Brigitte Bardot, before she went quite mad
  • Cinéma Noir
  • Foie Gras
  • Windsurfing
  • Bic pens and lighters
  • French maids who don’t do much but look very sexy
  • The moped
  • The Tour de France
  • Fernandel (and shame on you if you don’t know the name of perhaps the best comic actor of Marseillais origins)
  • Bouillabaisse
  • Gitane and Gauloise cigarettes
  • Louis Pasteur and Coco Chanel
  • Dominique Strauss Kahn (for his sheer absurdity and entertainment value)
  • The ménage à trois  or more (see above)
  • The Olympics
  • Face transplants
  • The Metric system
  • Deconstructionism
  • The words cliché and escargot.
Admittedly, none of the above originated in Canada or in Quebec, but I am sure the suffering Québécois are proud of sharing a language and cultural assets with such an illustrious people as the French.
We should act before some other nation gets the same idea. It would send a clear message to Putin. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Opera

I went to the opera yesterday, a Simulcast from the Met in New York of Jules Massenet’s Werther. This was a lovely birthday gift from my buddy P and his wife. We were accompanied by a young couple who had never witnessed an opera, and were apparently taken by it. For me, the experience was fascinating because the last opera I saw was some 20 years ago, a dreadful production of Carmen Jones, which left me persuaded that opera was indeed--and deserved to be--dead.
Not so with Werther, a truly lush production with gorgeous yet simple backdrops. The plot is simple. Werther, a depressive poet with a penchant for self-destruction, falls in love with Charlotte, a young woman who is engaged to Albert, a soldier. Over a time span of almost three hours, Werther declares his undying devotion to Charlotte maybe a dozen times, threatens suicide, disappears, reappears, and finally shoots himself in the chest with a pistol. He is obviously a very poor shot as he misses his own heart and lingers painfully as Charlotte looks on, and begs God to save what she comes to recognize as the love of her life. She presses on the gunshot wound, though I am not sure if it is to hasten Werther’s demise or staunch the flow of his theatrically red blood. At any rate, almost the entirety of the fourth act is devoted to the poet’s death throes during which he falls to the ground, struggles to stand, falls again, is assisted to his feet by Charlotte, falls a third time, crawls about a bit, and finally expires.
As this was occurring, a spectator in a nearby row (a woman, I think), sobbed and sniffled helplessly, and at the climactic moment, the sound went out. This opera was being broadcast live to an audience in the hundreds of thousands in some 600 venues worldwide, each and every one of which went quiet during the grand finale. 
The cast was lead by two of the greatest voices performing today, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, and German tenor Jonas Kauffman, both born in 1969. They made the work effortlessly their own and were rewarded by standing ovations and shredded programs tossed in the air by the admiring crowd.  I am told this, opera-wise, is the ultimate compliment an audience can pay performers.
Attending a Simulcast of this type is both mesmerizing and somewhat challenging. The audience is old, 70s and above, and heaven help a spectator who has to absent himself once the aficionados are seated. They do not like to move. Sidling towards the aisle is a twinkle-toes exercise in avoiding size 13 brogans firmly planted and resolutely obstructive. I tripped twice and narrowly avoided sprawling on several ancient laps.
You can eat popcorn during the show. Pizza is also available, as are hot dogs and for all I know pastrami sandwiches. I dropped and spilled my bag of popcorn when I was halfway done but luckily had a secret stash of Sour Patch Kids candy.   
Opera, I decided, is an art form where insane characters lurch around the stage in despair over everyday situations. I heard at least one spectator tell Werther to get over it, sh*t happens. One might even be tempted to suggest Werther and Charlotte do the deed and be done with it. No one will find out as they’re all singing Christmas carols or crooning odes to Bacchus.  
Lastly, in opera, where the music is gorgeous and moving, the words are often at best banal. A section devoted to the effervescent beauty of nature and happy innocence of small children was lovely, even as the actual phrases and wording used bordered on the trite. I was also struck by the fact that Massenet wrote Werther in French, yet the work was largely incomprehensible to a French speaker (me). I had to rely on the subtitles.
Simulcasting may very well be opera’s savior as live productions are staggeringly costly, which of course is reflected in ticket prices for live shows. Simulcast allows opera fans to
view the spectacles without going bankrupt themselves.  This is good. My grandfather wrote operas and I never got to attend one. Who knows, with the miracle of Simulcast, maybe one day I’ll be able to eat popcorn and watch one.  

Friday, March 14, 2014


How many times a day do you say “thank you?” You thank the barista who hands you a morning coffee, the waiter and busperson, the parking lot guy, the woman who holds the elevator for you, and you hand-signal a thanks to the driver who lets you cut in.
By doing so, you establish a momentary relationship. You, the thank-giver, and the other person, the thank-recipient, have done something together that benefitted both parties--one gave, the other took, with gratitude--and was promptly forgotten. For a brief moment, the two of you reverted to an earlier age when the culture of thanking was well-established, at least among peers.
Thanking now is largely automatic. If it’s accompanied by a smile, we might smile back, or not. We’ll note a lack of manners when letting someone cut in line doesn’t elicit the basic thanks…
Me, I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase, “Thank God.”
Thank God? Why? Does God need our thanks for moving, as he/she/it does, in mysterious ways? More to the point, will God get pissed off if we don’t thank him/she/it for whatever we think he thinks (not a typo) we should thank him for (if he does, which I doubt), and anyway, how are we supposed to know what to thank him for in the first place. Think about this long enough and you’ll get a migraine. Suddenly, thanking becomes a massively complex undertaking.
And what if God suddenly realizes we’re just hypocrites (which, being an all-knowing God, he/she/it was aware of all along) giving thanks simply to cover out asses, because really, are we sure about thanking a Higher Power for all the strange stuff going on? What about Aunt Myrtle’s cancer, or Uncle Jim’s gout? Should we be thankful we don’t have the same afflictions? And doesn’t that make us really crappy people, thinking thoughts like that?
So I don’t have any answers. I seldom do. But I welcome other people’s thoughts.

Monday, March 10, 2014


I’m a lot smarter early in the morning than at any other time of the day. At 5:45 a.m., I excel at crossword puzzles, recall names from decades past, hum tunes from my childhood in Paris and remember the name of the President of Bulgaria (Rosen Plevneiev).  By late evening I can barely spell Bulgaria, I forget my cell phone number, and don’t know what I ate for lunch.
This, I suspect, has something to do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s theory of memory, once vastly ridiculed but now coming back into fashion.  The creator of Sherlock Homes believed our brains housed what is essentially a limited number of pigeonholes. These get filled as time passes--whether days, years, or an entire life--and if we are to make new memories, we must make space by ridding ourselves of old ones. Thus, in order to recall the name of a favorite new brand of quinoa, we have to abandon the name of Mrs. Winthrop, who taught Sunday school when we were eight years old and whom we never really liked much anyway. The email address of our faraway cousin will be sacrificed to the oil viscosity rating of the family SUV. The boss’ birthday will give way to the wife’s shoe size.
What really intrigues me is the short-term memory which enables us to remember a piece of information that may be useful for only very brief period. A good example of this is the memory needed to walk from point A to point B in your house to retrieve a cell phone or piece of paper.  According to Simply, “Short term memory has three key aspects:
1. limited capacity (only about 7 items can be stored at a time)
2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).
There are two ways in which capacity is tested, one being span, the other being what is called the ‘recency effect.’
Most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory.” 
This idea was put forward by psychologist G. Miller in 1956, who thought that short term memory could hold 7 (plus or minus 2 items) because it only had a certain number of “slots” in which items could be stored. Miller didn’t specify the amount of information that can be held in each slot, but it has been demonstrated that if we put together a block of information, we’ll be able to store considerably more material in our short term memory.
Miller’s theory is supported by evidence from various studies, one of which used the “digit span test,” which examines the ability to recall every letter in the alphabet and numbers apart from “w” and “7,” because these had two syllables. Tests found that people find it easier to recall numbers rather than letters.
The duration of short term memory seems to be between 15 and 30 seconds, though items can be kept in short term memory by repeating them verbally (acoustic encoding), a process known as rehearsal.
The 15 to 30 second rule explains why I forget why I came downstairs. Typically, it takes me a minute to get from point A to point B, because between the two, I find a dozen things that need my attention: the cat must be fed, the coffee needs warming, the laundry had to be tossed into the dryer and the garbage can rolled to the street before the giant dump truck arrives.
Now I need to remember to post this.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Assets & Shortcomings

For decades now I’ve been fascinated by the assets and shortcomings that establish a personality. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve come to realize these pluses and minuses are actually closely related. In fact, a positive trait can, in a heartbeat, become a deficiency. For the most part we’re not aware of when this change occurs--it simply does, sometimes as a function of age, often as the result of a particularly demanding life experience.
With that in mind, I started cataloguing the character traits we all possess, and their relationship to one another, good and bad.  This is what I’ve come up so far. Any thoughts?
ASSETS                                  SHORTCOMINGS
Am I:                                       Or:
  1. Passionate                               Obsessive
  2. Assertive                                 Aggressive
  3. Honest                                     Abusive
  4. Responsible                            Controlling
  5. Accepting                                Resigned
  6. Factual                                    Dramatic
  7. Persevering                             Stubborn
  8. Giving                                     Victimized
  9. Serene                                     Ignorant
  10. Solitary                                   Isolationist
  11. Hectic                                      Chaotic
  12. Trusting                                   Expecting
  13. Ethical                                     Obstinate
  14. Respectful                               Demanding
More and more, I’ve come to realize that most of us are complex amalgams of all of the above. This is simply a starter list and I’m sure not all will agree with it. I’d love to get your thoughts!