Up, up and away in his beautiful balloon

Posted in current events on October 19, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Eleven year-old Lindsey Baum disappeared after leaving a friend’s home in McCleary, Washington, on June 26th of this year.  Nine year-old Laurence Brannum disappeared from a beach in Santa Maria, California on April 15th.  The last time anyone saw Reachelle Smith of Minot, North Dakota, she was three years old.  That was in 2006.  Today marks seven years since one year-old Ta’Niyah Leonard was taken from her home in Bartow, Florida.  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard about any of these cases, I hadn’t either until I saw them listed in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children database while researching this article.  It’s doubtful that they warranted much of a blip outside of the immediate areas where each child disappeared.

But I bet you’ve heard about Falcon Heene.  You had to have not watched a television, picked up a newspaper or gone on the internet anytime in the past four days to not have heard about Falcon Heene.  The six year-old Colorado boy, now forever known as “Balloon Boy,” has been a top news story ever since it was believed that he floated away from his house in a homemade weather balloon last Thursday, drifting for more than fifty miles and leading to a massive search that temporarily shut down Denver’s airport and required the use of two National Guard helicopters.  Footage of the weather balloon flying lazily several hundred feet over the ground warranted constant news coverage, even making headlines overseas.  It’s easy to see why Falcon’s disappearance was considered a newsworthy event, more so than your run of the mill “child snatched off the street on their way home from school” story: first, there were the unique circumstances behind it.  He floated away in a homemade balloon.  It was scary, but kind of whimsical too, and you know that some struggling screenplay writer holed up in a tiny efficiency apartment in Santa Monica immediately started working on a plot outline as soon as he heard the first breaking news announcement, waiting on bated breath to find out if the story would end in tragedy or in tales of adventure, perhaps involving a talking bear or a friendly tree that carried the adorable little boy safely back home.

The second reason it made headlines was, of course, that the Heenes are minor celebrities, the thoroughly 21st century products of reality television.  They appeared on Wife Swap, a program in which the matriarchs of two very different families switch places for a month, ostensibly to make changes in each other’s homes that somehow lead to everyone improving their lives.  Mostly they just seem to scream and curse at each other, though, which is apparently what draws in viewers.  The Heenes were reportedly one of the more obnoxious families featured on the program, which, of course, because of this Bizarro World we live in now in which appalling behavior is rewarded with attention and a chance at dubious “stardom,” meant that they were brought back to appear on a second episode.

Despite the non-stop coverage and viewers chewing at their nails in fear that they’d see little Falcon fall out of the balloon on live television, red flags about the authenticity of the family’s story went up almost immediately.  For one thing, closer inspection of the balloon, which looked to be constructed mostly out of aluminum foil and duct tape, rendered it fairly obvious that it wasn’t capable of carrying a small child, certainly not far into the air for over fifty miles.  Questionable details about the family emerged: for instance, dad Richard Heene, an amateur scientist and self-proclaimed “storm chaser,” had been unsuccessfully shopping around an idea for his own reality show for months, reportedly a rip-off of Mythbusters.  Even TLC, bested only by VH1 and FOX as America’s go-to network for all that is tasteless and appalling, turned him down.  When TLC, who recently began airing a program called My Monkey Baby, turns you down, you know your chances at stardom are slim at best.  A disconcerting YouTube video showed Falcon and his two older brothers, presumably filmed by their parents, performing a rap charmingly called ‘Not Pussified,’ in which there’s a line about throwing rocks at a “faggot in a tree.”  Richard Heene seemed remarkably calm and self-assured in front of news cameras for someone whose child was missing and possibly endangered.  My daughter was less than a half hour late getting home from school a couple weeks ago and I had a panic attack.  Maybe it was shock.  Or maybe he just knew something that the rest of the world didn’t know.

Of course, as you know by now, Falcon was never in any danger.  Lo and behold, he appeared out of nowhere in his home, with his family claiming he had been hiding the whole time in the attic, a place that somehow no one thought to look in when he was missing.  He had never been in the balloon in the first place, rendering the whole situation a non-story, yet it still warranted round the clock coverage, with the family giving televised interviews to three different news outlets the next day.  Falcon, who was reportedly so nervous that he vomited before appearing on two of the programs, almost immediately gave up the ghost when, after asked why he didn’t come out of hiding even when he heard people calling for him, muttered that he did it “for the show.”  Leave it to little kids to tell the truth even when you don’t want them to, that’s why you never ask any of them if they think you’re fat.  Dad Richard applied some quick damage control, explaining that Falcon was confused, and that when he meant “the show,” he meant the show he was appearing on right then.  In a turn of events more shocking that Britney Spears and Kevin Federline breaking up or Ellen Degeneres announcing that she was gay, it turned out the whole thing was a hoax, orchestrated by Richard Heene and his wife in order to generate publicity that could (and probably would, if they hadn’t gotten caught) finally get their own reality show off the ground.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the situation at this point is that it’s still a top story.  As he has yet to have formal charges filed against him, technically speaking Richard Heene is still winning here.  His plan so far has been successful.  Sure, the world at large thinks he’s a dreadful human being who has no business being a father, but look at what deciding to become a worthless douchebag has done for Jon Gosselin’s career.  Spencer Pratt of The Hills, which MTV is still weakly insisting is a reality program, makes $65,000 episode by being a miserable shitball.  Even the ladies have gotten in on it–Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth has maintained a fruitful career appearing as a combative villain in everything from The Apprentice to The Surreal Life; her success is curiously explained as being because “viewers hate her.”  Unless one of these shows is going to end with her being thrown into a room with a bunch of starving pit bulls, I’m not quite sure how that works, but perhaps that’s why I don’t work in the entertainment industry.  When it comes to success in reality television, which can be parlayed again and again into a career appearing on other reality programs, generating a considerable amount of income, being a total asshole pays off.

I was going to use this story as an excuse to go on my rant about reality television again, how I believe, with absolutely no hyperbole, that it’s a blight on society, and one of the worst things ever inflicted on pop culture as a whole.  Filing a false report claiming your child has disappeared in order to get your own television show is incomprehensible.  Octomom? Octomom is a piker, this just goes beyond the pale.  My wish that people would stop watching Jon and Kate Plus 8 has only recently come true, and not nearly soon enough.  Now I have an all-encompassing wish that people would stop watching reality television in general, simply because it’s clear that there are far too many individuals who will go to pretty much any length required in order to get that brief taste of fame that appearing on The Biggest Loser or The Bachelor allows, including using their own children as pawns for publicity.  All bets are off at this point, and I really wonder what it will take, what sort of appalling stunt someone will pull, that will finally lead to the shutdown of much of this garbage.  Perhaps someone will pry out their own teeth in order to appear on a makeover show.  That was merely speculation, for the love of God, don’t do that.

But instead of ranting about Satan’s presence behind the scenes of Big Brother and Tool Academy, I’ll wrap this up with some thoughts on how the Balloon Boy hoax, if nothing else, once again puts a spotlight on the media’s skewed handling of missing children cases.  Sadly, and perhaps inexplicably, missing children rarely make the news outside their own hometowns anymore unless there’s some sort of special angle the media can capitalize on, such as, say, they were believed to have floated off into the sky in a balloon or their family appeared in an episode of some piece of crap TV show.  While a child just disappearing without a trace one day is a fairly rare event, and the vast majority of missing children are taken by a non-custodial parent, it does happen more often than coverage on such outlets as CNN and MSNBC would have you believe.  Consider the story of Adji Desir.  Six year-old Adji, the same age as Falcon Heene, disappeared from outside his grandmother’s home in Immokalee, Florida in January of this year.  Searches and various leads have gone nowhere, and police coverage of the case has dwindled down to almost nothing, resulting in his family having to place ads on Craigslist requesting any help or information.

Adji’s disappearance warranted exactly one brief segment on an episode of Nancy Grace, odd considering Grace’s near-obsessive, day to day coverage of the disappearances of two other Florida children, Caylee Anthony and Haleigh Cummings.  He’s been missing for ten months, and requests that his story be profiled on major news outlets and even by Oprah Winfrey have gone unanswered.  Falcon Heene was missing for three hours, and it immediately became a top story with round the clock coverage.  Why isn’t “Adji Desir” a trending topic on Twitter? Why hasn’t Adji Desir’s family appeared on Larry King Live or the Today show? Why does there have to be an “angle” to make his disappearance a newsworthy event? Suggesting that it might be because Adji is a special needs child of Haitian immigrants, and thus not likely to be embraced as “America’s child” by the public at large, would simply be too cynical, wouldn’t it? I realize I’m not saying anything new and controversial–it’s obvious that media coverage of missing children, as well as missing adults, is blatantly favored towards white people, and that goes double if the family is prominent, which, sadly, the Heenes qualify as.  The least we can do is own up to the fact that we in general only give a shit about people’s kids disappearing if they remind us of our own kids, or if we feel like we “know” the family somehow.  You want a reality show? Let’s see what life is like for Adji Desir’s family.

Words, they have meaning

Posted in pop culture with tags on September 28, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

So I saw Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs yesterday.  I’m not bothering to review it here, since it’s not likely on the “must see” list of most of my target audience, unless, like me, you have a school-age child.  Whereas I tend to view most children’s movies as something to endure, I found Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs surprisingly enjoyable, silly yet with a clever streak that appeals to the adults in the audience, and a refreshing lack of both fart  jokes and preachiness, despite its anti-gluttony message.  Plus, it featured the voices of both Bruce Campbell and Mr. T, so how bad could it have been?

Sometimes I’ll wait until after I see a movie to read the reviews, mostly to see if my opinion of it meshes with those of critics I generally trust, such as Roger Ebert, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and the crew at The A.V. Club.  While reading the user comments for the review of Cloudy at The A.V. Club (which was just as, if not even more positive than mine), I came across this…

This really does look like it rapes my childhood. The book is a wonderfully melancholy and beautifully illustrated story about a good thing going bad. The trailer for the movie looks Fun! and Wacky! And Ugly too.

The “it rapes my childhood” line would be offensive if not for the fact that it’s kind of hilarious.  It’s also become kind of a cliche at this point: any time plans are announced to adapt a well-beloved cartoon or children’s book into a movie, or worse, remake a “classic” film, particularly if those cartoons, books or movies were popular during the 70s and 80s, someone claims that their childhood has been raped.  To paraphrase The Princess Bride, a film that as of yet, remains free of remakes and sequels, you keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.  If you must resort to using hyperbole, I think the word you’re reaching for is “pillaged,” or perhaps “plundered.”  It’s still melodramatic, as it suggests that you held the rights to Alvin and the Chipmunks in a carefully hidden coffee can until a band of roving Hollywood producers burned your house down and stole it, but it’s slightly less over the top than applying the word “raped” to it.

The grumbling over Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is nothing compared to the outright gnashing and wailing over the upcoming, long-awaited adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, probably the single most beloved children’s book of the past forty-five years.  The complaints began from the moment the project was announced–it seemed the mere fact that the book was to be adapted as a movie was an insult to people, as if that hasn’t been happening since a week or so after moving pictures were invented, and as if virtually all children’s books aren’t made into movies or TV specials at some point, simply because they lend themselves to it.  They increased in volume when it was revealed that Spike Jonze was set to direct it, because Jonze, a favorite director of detached, ironic hipsters, has a reputation for making films that are visually interesting and unique, but somewhat lacking in heart and warmth, rendering him perhaps not the most suitable choice to film a children’s movie.  The fact that the script was a collaboration between Jonze and Dave Eggers, another patron saint of hipsters who is loathed by pretty much every other pop culture sub-group only snowballed the criticisms, particularly when it was realized that a 40-odd page book that consists mostly of pictures would have to be significantly padded in order to stretch it out for a feature length film.  After all, look how well that worked out for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, where the Grinch was made into a sad sack who was the victim of childhood bullying by mean, avaricious Whos, and the Cat in the Hat was some sort of lecherous half-man/half-feline mutant.

After rumors that Jonze’s original cut was deemed by Warner Bros. to be too dark and scary for young audiences, the final cut is due to be released in a couple weeks, and I’m having a good laugh at how many people of my generation, meaning people in their thirties and even into their forties, are doing the equivalent of folding their arms, stomping their feet and declaring they won’t go see it, they won’t, they won’t, THEY WON’T! It’s one thing to refuse to see a movie just because you don’t want to see it–hell, 75% of the movies that come out these days look like utter shit to me, so I’m not going to see them.  However, much of the refusal to see Where the Wild Things Are seems to be based in some sort of weird, misplaced “principle,” of which the energy expended on it would be much more useful when directed towards, say, feeding the hungry.  They’re taking a stand, letting Hollywood know that they’re tired of having their most cherished memories of childhood snatched away and adapted, remade or repackaged for money! Everything we read, watched or listened to as kids now “belongs” to us somehow, and someone stepping in and doing something we don’t like with it is clearly just like rape.  Why, if Maurice Sendak was still alive, he would have never stood for this!

Except there’s just one thing: Maurice Sendak is still alive, and unlike Alan Moore, who disavows every film adaptation of his work only after the check has cleared, Where the Wild Things Are was made not only with his full approval, but with his input.  After decades of turning down other offers to purchase the rights to his book, Sendak hand-picked Spike Jonze for the honor.  So if you think Where the Wild Things Are looks “ugly,” or if it seems to be “marketed towards pretentious yuppies for their hipster kids,” or if just its mere existence offends you, don’t blame Warner Bros. or Spike Jonze.  Blame its author, the only person who really has a say in what’s done with his or her work in regards to who it’s sold to, or his or her family, if they’re not around anymore.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat were both dreadful movies, but let’s not forget that the rights to the stories were sold American by the widow Geisel.  It’s rather ludicrous to complain about something being taken away from us that never really belonged to us in the first place.

I probably wouldn’t find this minor controversy quite so irritating and amusing if not for the fact that I’m on the side of wanting to see it.  I think as far as children’s movies go it looks pretty good.  It doesn’t appear that they’re trying too hard to be twee and “indie,” Arcade Fire songs in the trailer notwithstanding.  It’s not CGI’ed to within an inch of its life.  Best of all, it doesn’t look as though it’s been updated to reflect supposed trends and what “the kids are into” today, such as, God forbid, having the wild things break into a hip hop dance sequence.  As far as product placement, idiot adults being bested by smart-ass kids, teen pop stars on the soundtrack and all the other trappings that make the majority of children’s movies all but unwatchable, that remains to be seen, but it seems to have a leg up on most of the competition so far.  If I’m wrong, believe me, I will say so here.  If you don’t want to see it, then don’t, but let’s cut the “it’s raping my childhood” shit.  No, it really isn’t.  It’s not raping your childhood, or kicking your dog to death, or stealing your grandmother’s heart pills.  It’s just someone making money, which is pretty much why every decision in the entertainment industry is made.  Do authors of our beloved childhood books, or their families, really, genuinely care about what you or I think when they sell the rights to their creations? Probably not.  It shouldn’t change how you feel about the stories themselves, or what impact they had on your childhood.  If it does, then maybe they didn’t mean all that much to you in the first place.

Existing as a pre-existent condition

Posted in current events on September 22, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Many apologies for the radio silence the past week, I’ve been tending to both personal matters and trying to deal with the creeping chest crud.  I’m still coughing like I have a two pack a day Lucky Strike habit, but I’m probably recovered enough to go back to my regular posting schedule.

I’ve been avoiding talking about health insurance reform here, mainly because I’m not sure there’s anything new and original I can bring to the discussion.  I support the public option, and it’s likely I’d be preaching to the choir here.  Not to mention the fact that it’s become such a polarizing issue, revealing a depressing, even frightening amount of racism, classism and intolerance at its core, that I’ve been avoiding much of the media surrounding it.  It just fills me with a profound sense of despair and anger, to the point where I hope that the next person I hear say something so stupid as “Keep government out of Medicare” has good health insurance, because I will stab him or her in the fucking face.

However, I felt this story could no go unremarked upon.  The next time your conservative grandfather or Libertarian co-worker claims that the health insurance crisis would be solved if people just got off their duffs and bought some proper health insurance, tell them about the provider that canceled a 17 year-old girl’s policy after designating her case of celiac disease as a pre-existing condition.

Their saga began in the summer of 2008 when Dale Rice lost his job as a business consultant. The family had group health insurance through his employer at the time, but decided continuing that coverage through COBRA was too expensive.

The couple consulted an insurance broker, who suggested Brianna apply for coverage with American Community. On Brianna’s application, the Rices noted no prior medical problems, and Brianna was granted coverage starting Nov. 1, with a monthly premium of about $130.

After the teen’s diagnosis in February, American Community reviewed her medical files and found reports of dizziness, elevated cholesterol levels, ongoing fatigue and a persistent cough.

On May 12, the firm sent the Rices a letter saying it was rescinding coverage.

“The coverage you applied for would not have been issued for Brianna if we had known this medical history at the time of application,” the letter said.

Dale Rice said the insurance company cherry-picked from various doctors’ visits, and that none of his daughter’s health problems were ongoing. He attributed the dizziness to dehydration, the fatigue to his daughter staying up late surfing the Web, the elevated cholesterol to an inaccurate test, and said the cough is now gone.

None of the issues were serious medical problems, and none stuck out in his mind when he filled out the application, Rice said. He sent the Problem Solver a copy of Brianna’s July 2, 2008, physical, which showed no major health concerns.

“[Insurance companies] look for anything that they could say ‘you didn’t tell us about,’ ” Rice said. “They hope that people just lay down and die and don’t fight.”

Just to clarify, American Community, despite implying that the policy was canceled due to the Rices withholding information about Brianna’s medical condition, wouldn’t have covered the teenager in the first place, because she was allegedly already under a doctor’s care for a previously diagnosed illness.  This is what’s known as a “pre-existing condition,” and it’s a term that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone who deals with everything from irritable bowel syndrome to epilepsy when it comes to time to apply for new health insurance.  In the simplest terms, insurance companies don’t want to cover anything that was wrong with you before you came to them for coverage, even if it’s a condition that may only require an occasional visit to the doctor and some prescription painkillers.  Pre-existing conditions can cover anything from migraines to depression to obesity to fibromyalgia, and pretty much everything in between.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I was declined for health insurance coverage by a previous employer because I was pregnant.

It doesn’t just stop with medical issues, though–in some states it’s legal for health insurance providers to deny coverage to police officers, firefighters and construction workers, deeming their high risk professions as being too much potential for expensive payouts.  If you like that, you’re gonna love this: in eight states, plus Washington, DC, it’s legal for health insurance providers to deny coverage to victims of domestic violence.  I think that bears repeating, with some emphasis: in eight states, plus Washington, DC, health insurance providers have the right to deny coverage to someone if they have been a victim of domestic violence.  The reasoning is clear and cold as the proverbial witch’s tit: domestic violence victims go to the emergency room a lot.  Emergency room visits are expensive, and most health insurance providers bear the brunt of that cost.  Women and men who get beaten up by their partners cost insurance companies too much money.

One of the biggest myths of this debate is the notion that health insurance companies are benevolent beings whose job it is to help their customers in times of need, and how dare Obama and his band of merry socialists try to deprive us of that service?  Health insurance companies don’t exist to pay your medical bills.  They exist to not pay your medical bills, and they will use any loophole they can find to avoid paying them, even for something as minor as a misspelling on an application.  As insurance premiums increased an astonishing 131% in the past ten years, the restrictions on what policies will and will not cover become ever more limited.  It’s ludicrous to believe that health insurance companies are there to help.  They’re businesses, and businesses can’t exist if they don’t make a profit.  That profit comes from making decisions on whether or not someone will get medical care, or at least, be able to get it without getting stuck with hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars in bills afterwards.  It’s someone’s job, and that someone’s expertise more likely lies in finance rather than medicine, to decide what procedures and treatments will get covered and what won’t, and it all comes down to how much money the company stands to earn or lose.  Occasionally, these decisions lead to someone not getting treatment they desperately need, and that person dies, such as 17 year-old Nataline Sarkisyan, who died after her health insurance provider declined coverage for a liver transplant.  Their reasoning? The procedure was “experimental,” with a low success rate.  In layman’s terms, they didn’t feel it was worth the cost, since she would have likely died anyway.

I probably shouldn’t paint all health insurance providers with the same tainted brush.  I’m sure there are some who are a bit more generous with their decisions.  My point is, these people who shout and raise their fists, claiming that Obama is going to kill their grandmothers and make people stand in line for hours at a time just to get some hemorrhoid cream are kidding themselves if they believe that health insurance companies are the “good guys.”  They’re part of the same big business that has always worked against the needs of the people, where we’re all just dollar signs, and our lives and well-being are measured in degrees of profit and gains.

In other news, Pope Catholic, Clay Aiken still gay

Posted in politics on September 10, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

From the “who didn’t know this?” files: a study based out of North Carolina State University proves that parenthood makes women more politically liberal and men more conservative.

“Parenthood seems to heighten the political ‘gender gap,’ with women becoming more liberal and men more conservative when it comes to government spending on social welfare issues,” says Dr. Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at NC State and co-author of the study. Greene and Dr. Laurel Elder of Hartwick College used data on the 2008 presidential election from the American National Election Studies to evaluate the voting behavior of men and women who have children at home. Parents who have grown children were not part of the study.

“Basically, women with children in the home were more liberal on social welfare attitudes, and attitudes about the Iraq War, than women without children at home,” Greene says, “which is a very different understanding of the politics of mothers than captured by the ‘Security Mom’ label popular in much media coverage. But men with kids are more conservative on social welfare issues than men without kids.” Men with kids did not differ from men without kids in their attitudes towards Iraq.

Again, this shouldn’t be news to anyone, and it’s fairly easy to see why.  Having a child really opens your eyes to how rarely conservatives take women and children’s needs into consideration.  Not to say that women who don’t have children aren’t afforded the same knowledge, but after years of hearing the right-winger blather about “family values,” which suggests that they hold mothers in high regard, it’s a bit surprising to discover how many basic conservative platforms–anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-health care reform, anti-childcare vouchers, anti-public school funding increases–work in direct opposition of women with children.  Oh, if your child is still in the womb, they care about it, provided it remains there to full term.  After that, anything you may need in order to properly take care of your child, whether it be affordable health care or daycare is your problem, and hey, if you can’t handle it on your own, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant in the first place.  To paraphrase George Carlin, when it comes to conservatives and children, if you’re pre-born, you’re fine, if you’re preschool, you’re fucked.

I certainly won’t deign myself as speaking for all women when I say this, and it may sound weird, but it wasn’t until after I had a child that I truly understood the need for safe, legal abortion.  When I was a teenager (and, probably not coincidentally, a practicing Catholic), I maintained a wishy-washy, pompous “Well, that’s fine for you but I would never do such a thing!” mindset in regards to abortion.  That changed when I became a mother, and I discovered that having a child is a lot of work, it’s expensive, and more often than not families are left on their own to manage when things get rough.  Also, postpartum depression really, really sucks, but that’s for another post.  Let me point out that my child was planned.  I was twenty-five years old at the time, married, and both my then-husband and I had decent jobs.  Even then, though, I was turned down for coverage by my employer’s health insurance provider, because my pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition.  Also, my maternity leave was unpaid.  We managed, and I don’t regret a second of it, but what of women whose pregnancies are unplanned, teenage girls whose birth control failed, or who were never taught about proper birth control options in the first place, those who don’t have the means to care for a child? The conservative answer (not to mention the Libertarian answer) is, of course, “Not my problem, she shouldn’t have been having sex if she wasn’t prepared for the possible consequences.”  Be that as it may, let’s stop pretending that insisting a woman should carry a pregnancy she doesn’t want to term is anything other than good old-fashioned, Puritan-style punishment for having sex, and that accomplishes nothing except making a small handful of smug, self-righteous windbags feel good about themselves.

As for men becoming more conservative when they have children, I’d hazard a guess that it’s specifically when they have female children.  Men get weirdly protective of their daughters, and often they buy into the conservative paranoia that results in such myths as “Liberals and feminists are encouraging our children to have underage sex” and “Virginity is the most important thing a young woman has to offer, it must be protected at all costs!”  They get convinced that, with Democrats in charge, illegal immigrants and other men with darker skin colors than ours will be allowed to run around unmonitored to rape our daughters and murder our sons.  If this is ridiculous to read, believe me, it was even more ridiculous to write, but if you think I’m exaggerating, look at the reaction to Obama’s speech to schoolchildren earlier this week.  There were people who were actually convinced that his speech, which, after all that commotion, turned out to be about the importance of working hard and staying in school, was going to “indoctrinate” young people into some sort of socialist agenda.  One woman was filmed literally weeping, claiming that she was terrified of what Obama might say to her children.  We could simply wave these people off as maladjusted nutjobs who get all their news from WorldNetDaily, and that’s probably true, for the most part, but I’d be willing to bet they weren’t quite as unhinged before they had children.  Parenthood makes you paranoid, and it makes you wary of the world around you, believing that danger awaits your children around every corner.  Conservatives know this, and they tap into it with finely tuned precision to win and keep constituents.  Conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are even better at manipulating that kind of paranoia, they just do it for ratings.

Another not entirely surprising finding from the study concerns America’s favorite political disaster Sarah Palin.

Greene also notes that, “despite media speculation that Sarah Palin, given her status as a self-proclaimed ‘Hockey Mom’ and working mother of five, would be effective at attracting the votes and admiration of parents, especially mothers, the research showed no evidence of a ‘Sarah Palin effect’ (between parents and non-parents), even when looking exclusively at Republicans.” Greene explains that this means there was no difference in how parents viewed Sarah Palin versus how non-parents viewed Sarah Palin.

Again, I was saying this months ago, and I was hardly the only one making such an observation.  Sarah Palin being sold as a typical working mom with the needs of other working moms at heart rang hollow from the very start, especially since it was apparent that, part and parcel with identifying as a hardline, Christian conservative, she was working directly against them in several ways.  The image only grew flimsier when, within barely weeks after Palin publically declared that she would support no other sex education for children but abstinence-only,  17 year-old Bristol Palin became pregnant.  Instead of letting the overly polished, unruffled “super mom” mask drop for a moment so we could see and perhaps embrace some shred of humanity, Palin insisted that she and her husband were “happy” about their unmarried teenage daughter accidentally getting pregnant while still in high school.  Recall how quickly babydaddy Levi Johnston and his family were shut out and cut off when he and Bristol broke up and see how “happy” Sarah and Todd really were about the situation.  The point is, a lot of other women besides me could see right through the “she’s just like you” bullshit from the very beginning, and the more obviously phony that got, including but not limited to the infamous $150,000 clothing budget, the more she and her handlers dug their heels in and insisted it was true.  Then it just became insulting, and when you insult potential voters, even those on the fence, they tend to go and vote for someone else.    The best thing that can come out of that particular debacle is that maybe politicians will stop with that patronizing, “just a working class Average Joe/Jane” shtick.  Coming from humble beginnings, sure, that’s still plausible, but if you’re running for an office any higher than, say, city councilman, you’re already given up any claim you can have on being “average.”

Good fences

Posted in current events on August 31, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Unless you haven’t picked up a paper or watched the news in the past couple of days, you’ve probably heard about the shocking story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 11 year-old California girl who disappeared in 1991, only to be found last week, kept in a backyard shed by her kidnapper, 58 year-old Phillip Garrido.  Despite being held captive for more than half of her life, sexually molested by Garrido and even being forced to bear two of his children, Dugard apparently made no attempt to flee, or even to reveal her identity; investigators are just barely scratching the surface of what promises to be a sad, twisted story of emotional manipulation, brainwashing and other unspeakable acts committed against her.  Hortense at Jezebel writes about what may be the strangest aspect of the story so far: that Garrido kept his young victim in the same house the entire time, without his neighbors aware of what was happening.

When Phillip Garrido’s neighbors learned he’d been keeping kidnap victim Jaycee Lee Dugard in his backyard for 18 years, their reactions ranged from shock to horror to the admittance that they’d always thought there was something strange about “Creepy Phil.”When I read some of these reactions, particularly a quote by neighbor Heather McQuaid-Glace, who told the New York Times that though she knew Garrido was a sex offender, “We never heard screaming; we never heard anyone crying for help,” and so she never thought there was anything to be particularly worried about. It’s a chilling quote in that one can’t totally fault McQuaid-Glace for her reaction: she claims that neighborhood children were rightfully warned to stay away from the man, but with little evidence of any crime to go on, aside from a damning criminal history and being “creepy,” it’s hard to blame McQuaid-Glace, or any of Garrido’s neighbors, for not breaking his doors down, vigilante-style, to look for evidence of any wrongdoing.

I admit to initially being just as baffled as anyone else that Garrido was able to get away with it and other generally creepy behavior for that long, and then, like Hortense, it occurred to me: how well do any of us know our neighbors anyway? Can we say unequivocally, without question, that our next door neighbors aren’t up to anything nefarious? To say no makes us nervous, as it suggests we may not entirely be in control of our surroundings, but to say yes means that we’re always aware of what our neighbors are doing at all times, and that’s creepy in and of itself.

When I was a child, I always found the TV sitcom cliche of the wacky next door neighbor bursting into the main characters’ house unannounced a bit strange.  I knew that, even played for laughs, Gladys Kravitz peering at Samantha and Darren’s house with a pair of binoculars and reporting their activities to her husband was really kind of weird.  On TV and in the movies, neighbors always seem to play two roles: either they’re close friends who are always there to lend an ear over some Taster’s Choice, or they’re rivals who get into bitter arguments because someone’s tree extends four inches over someone else’s property line.  Whatever the case, they’re impossible to ignore, and yet for much of the time I’ve lived on my own, that’s exactly what I’ve done, and I expect that I’ve been equally ignored as well, which is fine by me.  This may sound rude, perhaps even a bit antisocial, but I refuse to make apologies for it.  I’m a very private person, particularly in my everyday, offline life, and I’ve never felt a great desire to befriend everyone I meet, nor do I make a point of drawing attention to myself.  It comes with the territory of being shy.  Now that’s not to say that if a neighbor comes to my door asking me to call the police, or even to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar that I’m going to refuse them.  I may keep to myself, but I’m still a good citizen, and being that I’m a generally nice person I’ll also smile and nod at my neighbors, but that’s pretty much the extent of my interaction with them.

I have to kind of laugh a little bit when I watch crime documentaries, where some horrible thing happens in some pastoral small town in the Midwest, and the town is invariably described as “the kind of place where everyone knows everybody.”  That sounds dreadful to me.  I don’t want everyone to know my business, nor do I want to know everyone else’s.  And yet, attitudes like mine are what enable people like Phillip Garrido, or other common, everyday child molesters and wife beaters to get away with their misdeeds.  But what can you do? If you find out a neighbor is a convicted sex offender, the best you can do is tell your children to stay away from him.  You can’t follow him around, tracking his every move, that’s the law’s job, even if it’s an assignment they bungle far too often.  As satisfying as it might be, you’re not allowed to harass them or try to run them out of town on a rail, Old West style.  Even if you have a hunch that something might be going on, cops don’t respond very effectively to hunches.  Hell, cops don’t always respond very effectively to actual evidence.  In most cases you just have to let said neighbor go about his everyday business, hoping that he doesn’t molest or rape anyone, or, you know, kidnap a girl and keep her in a shed.

It’s easy for us to shake our heads and wonder how Phillip Garrido’s neighbors couldn’t have realized what was going on in his home.  We’d like to think that, had it been us, we would have noticed there was something wrong years ago and reported him.  Keep in mind that, despite having a reputation as being the neighborhood weirdo, which every neighborhood has (and if you don’t know who yours is, it might be you), Garrido lived a fairly normal everyday life, to outward appearances.  He owned his own business, he had a wife, he had children, he didn’t make trouble with his neighbors.  He even introduced Jaycee and the children he forced upon her to his customers, allowing the younger girls to attend birthday parties, where they were described as seeming not at all out of the ordinary.  He was maintaining the classic child molester/potential serial killer modus operandi of drawing as little attention to himself as possible.  It wasn’t until just a few days ago, eighteen years after the fact, that Jaycee found the courage to admit who she was and to even begin hinting at what she had been put through.  Undoubtedly Garrido’s behavior troubled his neighbors on occasion, but they had their own lives to deal with, as we all do.  What makes any of us think we would have seen something that no one else did?

Once upon a time, in Quentin Tarantino’s universe

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

basterdsGather round, boys and girls, and listen to your Auntie Gena tell you a story about my origins as a film snob.  Being that I was a lonely, introverted only child, I spent a lot of time alone, either reading or watching TV.  Luckily, my parents got cable when it was still considered a luxury, which made my TV watching experience that much better.  We rarely paid the phone bill on time, but dammit, we had HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Prism, the works.  Mostly I watched horror movies, but occasionally, because my parents rarely monitored what I watched to make sure it was age appropriate, I saw stuff like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver and Looking for Mr. Goodbar as well, all of which could be considered horror movies of a different kind.  I didn’t claim to understand any of them very well, but I found them deeply fascinating, mainly because they were just so different than much of the other stuff that was on TV and in the theaters, where everything was bright and happy, and everybody always got what they wanted at the end.

I particularly embraced the “different” aspect of it once I entered high school, when I convinced myself that my problem wasn’t that I was a socially maladjusted geek, but that I was simply living in a place that didn’t appreciate my “eccentricities.”  It certainly didn’t appreciate film snobs–I lived in an area where there were exactly two movie theaters within a forty mile radius, and their idea of an “art film” was Fatal Attraction.  Instead I haunted the local video store near my grandparents’ house, one of those dying breed tiny mom and pop run places that rented porn in an area curtained off in the back, slowly but methodically working my way through the horror section, but also trying to educate myself in other areas as well.  I was on a big Martin Scorsese trip for a while, followed by Francis Ford Coppola, followed by Stanley Kubrick, followed by Brian DePalma.  I read magazines like Premiere and Movieline, before they both gave in and went the fluff route, plus the harder to find stuff like Film Threat and Cinemafantastique.  I worshiped Joe Queenan’s ability to dissect such sacred cows as Woody Allen with a sense of humor as sharp and cutting as an X-acto blade fresh out of the package.  I actually aspired to be a film critic myself, that’s how pretentious I became, until it occurred to me that, being I also liked movies like the Naked Gun series and stood in line with the other plebes to watch Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night, I should probably get over myself a tad.

I do have a point here, somewhere.  I’ve watched a lot of movies, particularly during my teens and into my early twenties.  Many of those movies I’ve seen numerous times, but only twice did I ever watch a movie on video, get to the end, then immediately rewind it and watch it again.  One of those movies was Heathers.  The other was Reservoir Dogs.

It’s a cliche to describe a movie as “like nothing I’d ever seen before,” but Reservoir Dogs was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  The dialogue buzzed and crackled, the plot was deceptively simple yet dizzyingly sharp.  To this day I can watch it and still find something I missed before.  The most amazing thing was that the writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, was a high school dropout who worked in a video store while working on the script.  He wasn’t a Hollywood insider, he wasn’t related to anyone in the business, he got his first big break through sheer perserverance and talent.  He was an inspiration for all of us underdogs who thought we could do a better job of making movies, or at least, talking about them, than those who were signing the contracts and rolling in profits.

Cut to seventeen years later, and Quentin Tarantino is a millionaire filmmaker, while I’m a blogger who has started several screenplays, even finished one, yet has done nothing with any of them, either because I discover that my idea isn’t as original as I initially thought, or because, well, it probably sucks.  I have no hard feelings towards Quentin Tarantino, though, as success stories like his are such a rarity in the film industry that the chances of it happening a second time, at the same level are almost negligible.  It also helps that he hasn’t gotten lazy and boring.  He hasn’t taken a $20 million contract to direct a film adaptation of The Six Million Dollar Man.  He hasn’t resorted to cliched plots involving split personalities or evil twins no one knows about until the script calls for it to be discovered.  Thankfully, blessedly, he hasn’t discussed a great desire to write and direct a conventional romantic comedy.  Even his weaker movies in his near-twenty year career are still pretty darn good, and they get better upon repeated viewings.  Yes, I even liked Death Proof, his segment in Grindhouse, a whole lot, and I’m not at all averse to saying that if you didn’t like it, you pretty much missed the entire point of Grindhouse and the genre of film it was emulating.  But I digress.  In fact, this entire article up to this point has been one long digression, so let’s get to the real meat and potatoes: my thoughts on Tarantino’s latest Inglourious Basterds, his first period piece, a WWII saga that is one of his funniest, exciting, most gripping films yet.

Inglourious Basterds stars Brad Pitt, though he’s not in it as much as the trailers would have you believe, nor is the movie about him specifically.  He plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessee-born leader of a group of renegade Jewish soldiers, the “Basterds” of the title, who kidnap, torture and murder Nazi soldiers, often scalping them for souvenirs.  They’re a fearsome group, with such particularly notorious members as Sgt. Stieglitz (Til Schweiger) and the baseball bat wielding Sgt. Donowitz (Eli Roth), known as “the Bear Jew.” While Raine and his Basterds are weaving a path of destruction through the French countryside, on their way to meeting a German spy, we also make the acquaintance of Sgt. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a high-ranking Nazi officer whose speciality is finding Jews in hiding, mostly with just his master detective skills and smooth, oddly charming interrogation tactics.  The film opens with Landa questioning a French farmer, wearing him down until he admits to hiding a Jewish family in his basement, all without a single threat, or even raising his voice.  He prefers using charm, gentle but persistent persuasion and mind games to get the answers he wants; in fact it seems that the answers themselves are mostly arbitrary.

Landa’s soldiers murder the family, save for one member who escapes: oldest daughter Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), who flees to Paris, changes her name and becomes the proprietor of a movie theater, with her romantic partner Marcel (Jacky Ido) as the sole employee.  Shoshana meets a German war hero (Daniel Brühl), who is immediately so smitten with her that he requests that a film made about his exploits, directed by Joseph Goebbels himself, be premiered at her theater.  Shoshana and Marcel then come up with a plan to set fire to the theater during the premiere, using highly flammable silver nitrate film, killing everyone from Goebbels to  Heinrich Müller all the way up to Hitler himself.  Though they never cross paths with Shoshana, the Basterds have their own plan to destroy the theater and kill Hitler, et. al. themselves, infiltrating it with the help of Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful actress working as a spy.

Now, obviously Inglourious Basterds isn’t going for historical accuracy, nor has Tarantino ever claimed that it was.  I don’t even know that you could classify it as “alternative history,” since we’re given no indicator of what kind of far-reaching change would have occurred if the events in the film had actually taken place.  It’s more like history as Quentin Tarantino, and probably a lot of people, would have liked it.  I’ll be frank, it’s kind of amusing to imagine a bunch of tough Jews causing Nazis to quake in their jackboots over stories of fellow soldiers being beaten to death, the survivors set free but not before swastikas are carved into their foreheads with a very big knife (the one pictured in the photo above, to be exact).  It’s not minimizing or making light of the true horror of World War II, specifically the Holocaust, as some of Tarantino’s critics have suggested.  People still like watching John Wayne’s The Green Berets, even though only the most jingoistic, gullible fools would still insist we won in Vietnam.  It’s all just escapism, enjoying what could have been rather than what actually was.

This has become the longest film review of all time, so let me try to at least begin wrapping it up.  It’s impossible, really, to say in just a few sentences what I most enjoyed about Inglourious Basterds, and yet I’ll try: few films have you both laughing and literally wringing your hands in nervousness, and this is one of them.  A scene that takes place in a tavern unexpectedly overrun with Nazis, where some of the Basterds and their spy contact try to keep their cover from blowing, is like watching a lit fuse move slowly but steadily towards a pile of dynamite.  They know they’re going to get caught, you know they’re going to get caught, it’s only a matter of when and how, and it’s deliciously torturous.  It’s a smart film made by a smart writer who respects his audience and knows that they’ll understand what’s happening without his having to spell everything out for them.  It’s one of the things I like best about Quentin Tarantino, besides the fact that he writes excellent roles for women and he rarely resorts to gratuitious sex and nudity to pad an empty script.

The acting is uniformly strong, though, and I realize I’m probably the sixtieth or so self-professed “critic” to say this, the real star of the show is Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa.  In his American film debut (though he’s been an actor for nearly thirty years), he’s nothing short of marvelous, quietly intimidating, droll yet a little silly at times, particularly his delight in discovering American slang.  You buy from the minute he appears on screen that despite his smile and impeccable manners, he is not someone to be crossed, not one little bit.  May he enjoy a career in competing with Jeremy Irons for roles, since they share that similar reptilian, chilly charm, one where even the most seemingly benign interactions are tinged with quiet menace.  You can easily see how someone would be drawn into conversation with him, despite there being something just not right about it, the sense that he is a cat carefully working a mouse into a corner, doing God only knows what when it gets there.  I don’t know any other actor, particularly one who was already well known, who would have been able to do the role without lapsing into Oscar pandering showboating.

So yeah, Tarantino, to use a bit of Hollywood hyperbole, has done it again.  He may come off as a bit douchey in real life, but if I had the brains and creativity to make the kinds of movies he does, I would too.  Hell, I come off as a bit douchey here, and I don’t have a single film credit to my name.

Babies: Katie Roiphe’s anti-drug

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Found through Pandagon, author and noted anti-feminist Katie Roiphe, a first-time mother of a six week old infant, wonders why feminists, particularly those of the childfree variety, just refuse to admit how wonderful babies are.  After all, motherhood for her so far is a hippie, touchy-feely wonderland where every waking moment of her life is consumed in her child, and she loves it.

There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done? One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a “vocation.” The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

Some of the pressing tasks I do—say, running to the drugstore to buy more pacifiers—are just excuses to think about the baby, to obsess and dwell upon every little thing about him. Here again is the singular fixation that characterizes addiction rather than calm productivity.

Ah yes, spoken like a new mother who has not yet had to deal with teething, tantrums and bodily effluvia in a variety of fascinating colors and textures.  There is something charmingly irritating about a woman who has just very recently given birth and is already convinced that she has this motherhood thing down, that every moment she spends with her child is spiritual and poetic, that she has all the answers and can’t understand why other mothers can’t get it together.  These are the women who claim that as their children grow they will make every outing with them a “learning experience,” that they’ll never resort to fast food or frozen chicken nuggets even for a quick meal, that they’ll never lie to them, that they’ll always make time for them no matter what.  They have not yet discovered that the first six weeks of parenthood is the easiest time you’ll ever experience, because your child does little more than sleep, poop and cry.  After that, it gets a lot harder.  It becomes more rewarding and entertaining too, but make no mistake, it gets harder.

Katie Roiphe has long been a thorn in the side of feminism, mostly because she says stupid things like claiming that the fact that she’s never met anyone who was date raped must mean that date rape is an overexaggerated problem, not to mention that she seems to be one of those women who thinks we’re just better off being soft and feminine and letting men be in control.  I’m not surprised that she would have a similar, overly romanticized view of motherhood, to the point where she implies that anyone who doesn’t share her opinion on it couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about, they just don’t know what they’re missing.  I am, however, surprised that she mentions going back to work soon (although I suspect Roiphe’s definition of “going back to work” differs from average, lower middle to middle class mothers), as I pegged her to be the type to immediately quit her job upon giving birth, declaring that she’s found her calling, there is no more to her life, at least for the next ten years or so, than to be a mother.  Considering she later states in the article that she can’t imagine choosing to write award winning novels over having children, as Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf did, clearly she believes that a woman who gives birth is worth more to the world than one who contributes to culture and the arts.  You’ll note that Roiphe has done both, so there’s a smugness to her essay that makes it damn near insufferable by the time it gets to the end.  It’s reminiscent of pretty much everything Caitlin Flanagan writes, especially on the subject of the “choice” we make to be working parents or stay at home mothers, a “choice” the majority of American women don’t actually have.

I wouldn’t wish colic or ear infections on an innocent baby, but it will be interesting to see what it will take to pop Katie Roiphe’s little bubble of self-satisfaction.  Once the hormones wear off and reality sets in, and she realizes that there isn’t anything all that poetic about discovering that you haven’t brushed your hair in two days because you’ve been chasing a growing toddler around the house, one that seems to grow extra arms and legs when you try to pick them up, as well as the ability to scream at a decibel equivalent to a 747 jet engine, she’ll get off this “feminists just need a whiff of new baby smell and they’ll see what’s really important in life” trip.  Motherhood is an incredibly important task, and it’s a choice I never once regret making for my own life.  However, I’m not going to kid myself and others by claiming that it’s the end-all, be-all for every woman, especially since I’m not naive enough to believe that parenting is a breeze for everyone.  The “I could just stare at his bitty little eyelashes for hours” phase doesn’t last long.  After that, it involves a lot of cleaning, a lot of soothing of tears, a lot of putting off either things you really need or at least want to do to watch Veggietales for the fifth time in a row.  Motherhood ain’t always pretty, and you’re in for a big disappointment if you’re picturing it through some hazy, Victorian-era lens, where you sit beatifically in a wicker chair with a pink-faced, perfectly dressed infant dozing adorably in your lap.  I’m fairly certain that the decision to not have children is not made lightly by most women, and I doubt Katie Roiphe’s holier-than-thou insistence that feminism is preventing women from experiencing the unending, incomparable joy of motherhood will change most minds.

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