Friday, May 23, 2008

Preferring Pam to Jenna

My favorite TV show is “The Office.’’ It never fails to make me laugh out loud. Each episode brings new dimension to words such as “dysfunctional’’ and “inappropriate.’’
It also manages to do something extremely difficult in seamlessly combining the authentic with the absurd. Anyone who has ever worked in an office will note the air of authenticity in the show's characters. And yet, it is mainly populated with caricatures. The writing is brilliant.
For all its amusing distortions, the show is not without an element of sweetness, due mainly to the two characters who are unqiue in the sense that they are not portrayed as gross exaggerations. The characters I refer to are Pam, the receptionist, and Jim, a salesman.
They have a budding romance that is tender and smart and entirely charming.
I find Pam especially endearing. She is sweet and genuine, modest yet appealing. Often, the camera will show her gazing across the office at Jim and smiling. In those shots, it seems to me that she is the most attractive woman on TV.
She is, without question, one of the more wholesome characters you will find on TV, which I realize is faint praise in today’s prime-time lineup.
I found her so refreshingly decent that I was compelled to find out more about the actress that plays the role. So I Googled “Jenna Fischer.’’
I wish I hadn’t.
The first image that came up during the search was a photo of the young actress that can best be described as soft porn.
My heart sank. Then, I had to chuckle at my gullibility.
After all, I’m almost 50 and, because my profession has often put me in the company of celebrities, I should certainly have known better than to assume that the people we know from the spotlight are the same people behind the scenes. My experience tells me that the surest way to be disappointed in your heroes is to actually meet them.
Yes, it was na├»ve of me to think that the qualities that define Pam on “The Office’’ would be exhibited in Jenna the actress.
Of course, it is always easy make judgments about people we don’t know. Maybe that photo of Jenna was a lapse in good judgment; perhaps it is something she deeply regrets and how I wish that were true,
But on the other hand, I cannot dismiss the possibility that the photo is an accurate portrayal of a ambitious young actress who is as promiscuous and morally bankrupt as any other young Hollywood starlet.
If that’s the case, there’s no reason I should be surprised.
Over the years, I’ve come to recogninze that fame is a most alluring addiction and all addictions destroy.
Consider: Ten years ago, a young girl tells her mom she wants to be the next Britney Spears and her mom takes her to a voice teacher. Today, a young girl tells her mom she wants to be the next Britney Spears and her mom takes her to a therapist.
A couple of months ago, Miley Cyrus was the ideal image of what a young girl should be. And then, this 15-year-old girl shows up semi-nude on a magazine cover and we shudder.
The photographer, Annie Leibovitz, is recognized as a great photographer, so she can defend turning a 15-year-old into a sex object as "art.'' In the process, she seems to have created a new genre, a means of making child pornograply a little more acceptable. Imagine that. Now, we have Child Soft Porn. Thanks, Annie, for your contribution to humanity.
At Molly’s age, Britney Spears was still as wholesome as an episode of “Little House on the Prairie,’’ which suggests that Molly is way past Britney on the journey into depravity.
So what happened to Britney? What is happening to Miley? They’ve been lost in the addiction of fame. And if you want to remain relevant in pop culture, you better be provocative. That is truly tragic, I think. Self-obssession, this desperate need the be in the spotlight no matter the cost, ultimately leads to ruin.
Of course, being self-absorbed is not limited to actors and entertainers.
Truth be told, we’re all vulnerable.
We’re all selfish, to some degree, and I’ve come to believe that it is greatest obstacle to true happiness, contentment and fulfillment.
At least, that’s been my own experience. It is a battle I’m always fighting on one level or another. And the pursuit of self is the great rabbit hole of humanity. Chesterton wrote that it is easier to grasp and understand the cosmos than to explore the vast expanse of self It is a dark and cold and empty space. You can get lost there.
The genuinely successful person is not one who thinks less of himself, but one who thinks of himself less often.
I am at my best, and most closely resemble the person God made me to be, when my thoughts turn to others.
That is what gives me hope.
World-weary through I may be, I still believe that somewhere among the Jenna Fischers and Miley Cyruses of the world, there really are some Pams and Hannah Montanas.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stuck in the 70s? Who knew?

I read a very disturbing story in the May 21 edition of The Arizona Republic. It caught me off guard for a couple of reasons. First, the story was located in the Arizona Living section of the paper, where the fare is generally benign. I confess it is a section I rarely ever read.
Beyond that, it was the content of the story that furrowed my brow in anguish.
It was a story about a fund-raising effort. Apparently, men are growing moustaches for charity. Now, I had heard of women having their hair cut and donating it to a charity that makes wigs for women who have lost their hair during chemotherapy.
But what do you do with a moustache? I mean, are there men out there undergoing chemo who would be greatly cheered by wearing another man’s moustache? This seems highly improbable.
The story was a lamentably vague on those sorts of details. As best as I could piece it together, the idea was that men would grow a moustache, which would inspire people to give money to the moustache grower’s favorite charity.
The ambiguity surrounding this effort was not what I found disturbing. No, it was the way moustaches are characterized that jolted me.
According to Lisa Nicita, the story’s author, “A moustache these days can be a conversation starter. It’s not seen as much anymore…’’
Well, all I can say is that Lisa hasn’t been watching me for about the past 30 years. I’ve had a moustache since I was about 20 years old.
Jim Valenzuela, who is an owner of one of those fancy-smancy upscale barbershops was quoted in the story. According to Valenzuela, the moustache look fell out of favor in the 70s, when it became unruly and wild and started being associated with adult films.
You know, I’ve really got to start paying more attention to style section of the newspaper. Apparently, I started growing a moustache about the same time moustaches suddenly became code for “sicko.’’
I mentioned all of this to a friend of mine.
“Just think, I’ve been walking around looking like a creepy porno star for almost 30 years!’’ I told him. “I bet that’s why I can’t get a date!’’
My friend considered me with a cold, unblinking stare. Then put a hand on my shoulder and let out a sigh.
“Somehow I doubt that,’’ he said softly.
Thanks, pal.
But you know what. I’ve grown accustomed to this old gray moustache. I think I’m going to keep it.
Sorry if that creeps ya out.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Crime and Punishment, Maricopa County style

Imagine that you have just brought home a new puppy. We’ll call him Rex (I always wanted a dog named Rex and it’s my blog, after all).
Well, not surprisingly, Rex has some behavioral issues. He just refuses to do his business outside, even though you have a doggie door and you have been over this time and time again. Furthermore, he has chewed up every shoe in the house. Rex yaps well into the early-morning hours. He begs for food every time you sit down for a meal.
What shall we do?
Here are some helpful ideas:
The next time Rex soils the carpet, you should grind his wet little nose into the deposit he has just left on the floor. It might also help to kick him sharply in the side, just so he’ll get the message.
And that shoe-chewing issue? A fist to the little face should help Rex see the error of his ways.
Barking? That’s easy, soak his little tongue with Tabasco.
If Rex begs for food, cut his food ration in half. Then he’ll have something to beg about, right?
Now, some of you bleeding-heart types might suggest that following these steps is simply cruel. Heck, it is even illegal, you might argue.
But you just don’t get it, do you?
See, I really do have Rex’s best interests in mind. I want him to be an obedient, well-adjusted part of the family. I bet you understand now, right?
Just think about how you raised your children. Remember when little Billy broke that vase with his ball when you had told him over and over not to play ball in the house? Say what you want, but after beating him almost unconscious, Billy sure learned his lesson about playing ball in the house, didn’t he?
So the same principle applies here. The idea is to make the punishment so unpleasant that Rex and Billy will never, ever make THAT mistake again.
OK. Let’s end this ruse here. Who in his or her right mind would approve of such cruelty?
A lot of people, that's who. I run into them all the time. I’m talking about the kind of people you would normally consider to be kind, generous, thoughtful people.
It comes up almost everytime the subject turns to my recent stay in prison. They want to know what it was like, so I tell them it was a miserable experience, especially the 34 days I spent in county jail.
I tell them that the conditions at Durango Jail, where I was placed while awaiting sentencing on my DUI conviction, are brutal. I tell them that there are pointless acts of cruelty inflicted on the inmates on a routine basis, that the sheriff has for years, flaunted the rules governing treatment of prisoners. I tell them that it seems the general policy at these jails is to make the experience as dehumanizing and degrading as possible.
And you know what these fine, decent people say?
“Well, I’m sure it’s like that so that the people there will never want to come back.’’
I used to be surprised by that answer. Not anymore.
I can only assume that these people have never really thought it through. Maybe it is because the sheriff - I wish I could remember his name, but like most Arizona sheriffs, he is content to do his job without any fanfare - has been trotting out that “it’s for their own good’’ nonsense for the past 16 years.
It’s his pat answer for acts so senselessly mean-spirited that no rational argument can be made in their defense. It’s always the default argument: We are being cruel for the good of the inmate.’’
And somehow, many decent people have simply adopted that twisted logic without holding it up to the light of reason.
It's pretty simple. Treat a human being like an animal and that it what he is likely to become. Oh, that less-than-human ex-con will be back in the neighborhood, sooner or later. Sleep light, OK?
This week, I saw on the local news that the sheriff will address a cut in his budget by turning the screws on the inmate population. So, it’s likely that the gulag conditions at his jails will be even harsher. That will take some creativity.
And chances are, there won’t be a peep of protest from the community, which seems anesthetized by the sheriff's mantra that being tough on crime is synonymous with terrorizing people who are already in custody and, hence, are no long an eminent threat to the community.
OK. Let me jump in here to say that I am not suggesting that the jails be “country clubs.’’ You often hear that drivel whenever someone of conscience complains about cruel treatment of prisoners. If you want to have a serious, grown-up discussion about jail conditions, please resist the urge to blurt out that foolishness. No one has ever suggested that inmates be treated as though they are on a vacation trip to Disneyland, OK?
But I will suggest that a human being, made in the image of God, should not be subjected to treatment that would be considered inhumane and illegal were it inflicted on a dog.
Now, if you are of the mind that prisoners should suffer needless cruelties, that a pound of flesh is half as good as two, stand on that argument. If you conscience doesn't cry out in protest, ignore the subject altogether.
But, please, let's put aside this insulting idea that making a man less than human is somehow for his own benefit.
Can't we at least be that honest?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Splash's tale (For mature audiences only)

OK. It’s been a while since I’ve written, so some of you may have wondered how I am getting on.
Well, I’m doing fine, thanks. At least, I’m doing fine compared to my friend, Splash.
Splash is a horse and he’s had a tough go of it for the past week or so.
Before I tell you about Splash’s troubles, some background might be of value.
I live in Tempe, on an “urban ranch’’ owned by Mark Salem. Mark sort of took me in after I got out of prison, renting me a little mother-in-law house on his six-acre property in southwest Tempe.
Mark has eight horses and a burro. He moves the animals around on the seven small pastures on his property. My little house in smack dab in the middle of his pastures, so I’ve made friends with my neighbors, who happen to be horses.
Mark’s menagerie includes two yearling fillies - Jasmine and Gracie - four mares - Chanta, Cowgirl, Dolly and Misty - and a burro named Burrita. He has a gelding draft horse named Bernie, who comes from Amish stock in western Pennsylvania. Bernie is the only horse on the property with any religious affiliation, far as I know.
And finally, there is Splash. Splash is a painted stallion, whose job is to breed with the mares. Now, Splash is always "on the clock'' so to speak, which means he must be kept apart from the other horses except for the time when Mark wants his mares to get pregnant.
About a week ago, Mark decided it was time for Dolly to get pregnant, so Splash and Dolly were put in the pasture next to my house. This small pasture is considered the “Honeymoon Suite’’ of the ranch.
I became aware of this when I heard a commotion outside. I went outside and watched for a while.
An old friend of mine said that when his young boys began to inquire about “where babies come from,’’ rather than have an awkward conversation about “the birds and the bees’’ he instead took them out to his dad’s farm and let them see for themselves.
Well, I cannot recommend this strategy, based on what I observed this week.
(NOTE TO CHILDREN AND THE SQUEAMISH: This would be an excellent point in the story to QUIT READING! )
While Splash tackled the job with great zeal, Dolly did not seem agreeable. Maybe she was worried about losing her girlish figure. Maybe she just wanted to cuddle. Maybe she wanted to be "just friends.'' I don’t know.
But it was obvious that she wanted no part of what Splash was up to. She would try to run away, but Splash would follow on her heels, throwing his front hooves up on her back and running along behind her on his two rear legs, all the while trying to, uh, “engage.’’ Dolly would snort and holler and kick, but Splash was not deterred in the least.
Truth is, it struck me as a most violent act. I wondered if I should call 9-1-1 or something.
Instead, I just went back in my house and turned up the stereo - loud.
A couple of days later, Jose' (Mark’s ranch-hand) told me something very interesting. Apparently, when Splash had succeeded in his quest, his, uh, “thing’’ had become entangled in the hair of Dolly’s tail. The result was that the hair tore open Splash’s “thing.’’
“He pees out of about three holes now,’’ Jose' said.
The vet came out and rubbed anti-biotic on the wound (I’ll bet THAT is something they never tell you about in Vet School, huh?) and waited to see if the wound would heal on its own.
The other day I ran into Mark and I inquired about how Splash was doing.
He said it’s likely that Splash will have to have surgery.
The vet made a follow-up visit on Tuesday. Now, as it turns out, that was the day Mark got a call from a rancher friend who was coming through town with his horse trailer when he noticed that his brakes were beginning to fail. Mark, who owns an auto shop, told him friend to bring his truck by the shop. While Mark was working on his brakes, Mark asked his friend to stop by the ranch to help the vet examine Splash.
His friend was happy to oblige. When he got to the ranch, the vet asked for a a hand - literally.
“I need to take some pictures,’’ the vet told him.
So, Mark’s friend had to hold Splash’s “thing’’ so that the vet could photograph the wound from various angles.
So somewhere out there, there are photos of this man holding a horse’s "thing.''
I STRONGLY suggest that this man never run for public office. Some things you can just never explain, after all.
Anyway, Splash seems to be doing all right. He still nickers and hollers when he sees the mares in the other pasture. Splash can play hurt, I figure.
Mark says he plans to put Splash in with Dolly as soon as he heals up. He said he will probably put Dolly's tail up in a bun to prevent another similar accident.
I suspect that Dolly will look sort of like an FLDS horse with that bun, although I doubt Splash will mind. Like I said, he loves his work.
But he's going to be a sore boy "down there'' for a while, I bet.
On top of all that, I am sure that Splash is pretty embarrassed about all this. I suspect the mares smugly tell him that "it serves you right, you beast!'' They probably give Dolly a "high-hoof'' and say, "You go, girl!''
I am also sure that Bernie, being a gelding and bitter about it, is greatly amused.
But I feel sorry for ole Splash.
So, yes, I am doing fine.
Relatively speaking.