Chris Cuomo, earlier today, teasing for Good Morning America's upcoming chat with actress Reese Witherspoon:
"And Reese Witherspoon will be here to tell us how she keeps the paparazzi away from her kids." This is said over shots of Witherspoon mugging for the cameras in one of those sprayed-on décolletage dresses actresses wear for their preening Red Carpet photo ops. (Let me be clear: The woman shown is not Witherspoon.)
I understand that we don't want to expose children to harassment, whatever its source and nature. In recent months, watching the Britney Spears debacle, we've gotten a pretty clear idea of just how out-of-bounds things can get. At the same time, when I hear remarks like Cuomo's—spoken so plainly and unself-consciously, as if there is not a whit of irony to be found—I can't help thinking about the schizophrenic relationship that so many of today's Hollywood types expect to have with the media. They want the media there, minicams rolling, when they need the buzz. Generally speaking, they want the (respectable) supermarket magazines and entertainment segments of news shows littered with their likeness. They want and need those GMA interviews to hype their next film. Yet they also want to be able to just shut all that off, no questions asked, when it suits them. I'm not sure it works that way—no more than a candidate running for president can dictate precisely what gets reported about his or her campaign. Though I know there has to be a happy medium—a better way of doing all this than we're doing now—I'm not sure it's the celebrity herself who gets to make such calls.
And I find it sorta funny that Cuomo puts this implied dichotomous distance between himself and the paparazzi. They're predatory and annoying...whereas he, being the legitimate stand-up journalist that he is, and GMA, being the beacon of daily enlightenment that it is, are perfectly entitled to trade in Witherspoon's celebrity cleavage. Makes me laugh sometimes.
I wanted to take just a moment to acknowledge the passing, this Wednesday, of intellectual right-winger* and Renaissance man William F. Buckley, Jr., age 82. It is largely because of Buckley that I write. (So I guess I could thank him or curse him.) Widely known in political circles as "WFB," Buckley was my father's favorite columnist, and I think it's safe to say I might have been the only kid in Brooklyn of that era who grew up watching Firing Line instead of Captain Kangaroo. If you have any knowledge of Buckley at all, this also explains why I spent so much time up in my room, leafing through the dictionary and encyclopedia. Later I would anticipate each month's copy of the magazine he founded, National Review, as avidly as most of today's young people anticipated the next book in the Harry Potter series.
As Buckley's son, the novelist Christopher Buckley (Thank You for Smoking), tells it, his dad died at his writing desk, hunched over the manuscript for his new book; it would've been his 56th. I guess, for a writer, that's the only way to go.
And one more thing I guess I gotta say, since it only happens every fourth year: Happy Birthday Tony Robbins. He's 48.
* Young folk need to realize: It is only since the ascendancy of George W. Bush that that phrase sounds like an oxymoron.
Friday, February 29, 2008
Chris Cuomo, earlier today, teasing for Good Morning America's upcoming chat with actress Reese Witherspoon:
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Congratulate me. Or send condolences. This morning I joined Oprah.com.
It wasn't easy, and I don't just mean that in a philosophical sense. One hates to descend deep into the muck of conspiracy theory (especially before that fourteenth cup of coffee), but I found that I was unable to register for the site under either my most common online user name—"IwroteSHAM"—or my customary business email address, email@example.com. Repeated attempts to use either or both resulted in error messages. It was hard to resist the notion that I'd been locked out of the site, a suspicion that only grew when I tried a third, more random user name linked to a moribund email address and the registration sailed through. In case you were wondering, you can't register for Oprah.com with user names like, oh, say, "IhateOprah." Those are specifically blocked. I did try. Also, and interestingly, no sooner had my registration become active than I started getting spam from "Black Voices, The Premier Website for African American Lifestyles."
I joined Oprah.com in order to get a better handle on this whole Tolle online workshop that the Queen of Media (and motive force behind the political phenomenon of the 21st Century, so far) has been promoting with such a tireless vengeance. And, I wanted to see what people were saying about Tolle on Oprah's discussion boards. Those discussion boards are mind-blowing. In sheer numbers alone, you're working with an order of magnitude that's so completely foreign to the frame of reference of us mere mortal bloggers. I consider it an exceptional day here on SHAMblog when we cross 1000 unique hits. One post on the Oprah/Tolle boards, titled "AHA! moments from A New Earth," has been viewed 161,000 times! Most of the posts in that series are at well over 100,000 hits.
On the site I learned that "by reserving [my] seat for this 10-week interactive webinar"—it begins March 3—"[I'll] be able to: watch and participate in the live classroom webcasts; ask Oprah and Eckhart Tolle questions before and during class; connect with others who are seeking to become more aware of themselves—and the world around them; download and save [my] thoughts in an exclusive workbook; access the classroom video archives…and more!"
Curious about the "more," I started looking through various parts of the site. Eventually I wound up at the Workbook that's provided as a companion to the "webinar." Exercise 3 of that Workbook says: "Think about Eckhart's question on page 5: Can human beings lose the density of their conditioned mind structures and become like crystals or precious stones... transparent to the light of consciousness? What makes you feel more alive and open, less dense, less bogged down by heavy thoughts and feelings? Could this be the beginnings of what Eckhart is talking about?" I didn't fill in my Workbook yet, but my reflex answer would be along the lines of, "I have no friggin’ clue what Eckhart could be talking about. Nor, I suspect, does he."
Skipping down to Exercise 6: "Eckhart says, Humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. … If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction." See, this ticks me off because it so perfectly inverts, and really perverts, the nature of the problem facing us as a nation and a part of a global civilization (or the aspiration to same). At the risk of being adjudged too sane to be spending my time on Oprah.com, I would point out that it isn't "the structures of the human mind" that pose the gravest risks to and for mankind. The human mind is constantly evolving forward in its rationality and perspective, forever making strides in a very specific and pointed effort not to "re-create" the past. Indeed, it is the mind and only the mind that represents our best and last hope of transcending destructive rote/reptilian behaviors. Rather, it's the stuff beneath the "heavy mind structure"—the "formless" essence that Tolle wants us to get more in touch with—that keeps rising up and subverting the mind. What's inside us, under the mind, is precisely the problem. Personally, I think we need to arrange for Tolle to have a private screening of the 1950s sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. I can't take the time to explain here, but sci-fi buffs know exactly what I mean.
One other thing that requires comment, then we'll quit for today. (I reserve the right to revisit the topic after that webinar kicks off.) If you have even a cursory knowledge of Tolle, you know that the abandonment of "ego" is, in his metaphysic, a key prelude to reaching the state of Now that he urges among all those seeking spiritual harmony and a deeper, truer sense of self-knowledge. Now, in fairness to Tolle (and Oprah), he's not using the word "ego" quite the way a Freudian (or a critic of Donald Trump) might use it—but I find it hilarious anyway that on one of the Oprah/Tolle pages, directly beneath a highlighted section that emphasizes a technological plug-in you'll need in order to view the Webcast, is an ad that reads: "GET GORGEOUS! Good hair days, flawless makeup and a fabulous wardrobe are all within your reach. It's all in our new Beauty and Style section!" I guess they don’t want you to abandon your ego till you're done consuming everything the Oprah marketing machine can sell you. Oh, I almost forgot. I also learned that today's Oprah guest is Marianne Williamson, she of the "Course in Miracles," who famously wrote after 9/11 that we should "pray for angels to surround the Golden Gate Bridge," etc.
Does it ever, ever end? Pretty soon Oprah is going to be all New Age, all the time.
Received a comment this morning that scraped what we might call a "procedural nerve" (or maybe a writerly one). I had to reject it on that basis. Since this isn't the first time this has come up, I'm going to address the subject here. So this post has no purpose except to make that procedural, writerly point. Humor me, and we'll get back to customary SHAMblog business next time.
Naturally, we're all quite attached to the words we use. And as a writer, I have a special level of investment in my words, and that investment is literal: Those words are my sole means of generating income. (The checks never actually arrive, but that's another matter.) That special relationship between me and my words also makes me sensitive to the rights of other authors. So when I get a long comment that consists of a short introduction to a topic, followed by an article/essay that appears to have been cut-and-pasted, intact, from some other publishing medium, I get both nervous and touchy.
Nervous because I don't want to be complicit in copyright infringement—which would be the case if I allowed someone else's copyrighted materials to be improperly published, even unwittingly, on my blog. Laugh if you will, but it's a crime, folks, and it's only the amorphous nature of cyberspace that makes otherwise intelligent people screw up their faces in puzzlement and ask "What's wrong with that?" When I was teaching, I found that college students, who grew up in the Age of the Internet and apparently believe that "all content is free!"*, were especially mystified by such matters as copyright. "Dude, how can you, like, own words?" So in class I would use this example: Imagine if the New York Daily News obtained an early copy of the New York Times each day and simply republished the Times' front page, verbatim, as its front page. That would, in effect, allow the News to take (free) advantage of all of the Times' vast resources, including its highly paid writers and editors, its infrastructure investment in news bureaus, etc. How do you think the Times would feel about that? Trust me, dude, the Times would insist on owning its words. All of them.
Which brings us to why I'm touchy. I know how other writers feels when their words are stolen. I've had my own words stolen—and my copyright infringed—on several occasions. Usually when this happened I had someone of significant clout, like The Wall Street Journal, to back me up. See, if I sell something to the Journal, like my recent piece on happiness, they have the right to publish it for the first time anywhere (so-called "first rights"), but I retain copyright. In essence, they're licensing the right to print that work one time. And they pay me—quite nicely, in newspaper terms—for that privilege. In return, they not only expect to be the first place the piece runs, but the only place it runs for a specified period of time. (Typically newspapers ask to be protected against republication for 14-30 days.) So if somebody else sees my Journal piece on the first day it runs and simply decides to copy it and paste it on his site, he has infringed not only my copyright, but the publication arrangement the Journal made exclusively with me. This has actually happened twice. The last time, the Journal sent a pretty scary letter to the infringing individual, threatening all kinds of dire repercussions. Suffice it to say you don't fu—uhh, you don't mess around with The Wall Street Journal.
(I know what you're probably thinking: But...people link stuff all the time! You're allowed to link. Linking isn't the same as doing a cut-and-paste. If that sounds odd, remember, linking ensures that readers will actually be taken straight to the Journal's site. Where they'll be exposed to the Journal's online advertisers, other Journal content that may lead to still more ads, subscription offers, etc. That's how the Journal helps recoup the vast sums it pays to people like me. Wink.)
Here's another way of looking at copyright infringement (or plagiarism). The fact that Sal takes Betsy's words and uses them to make a given point proves, ipso facto, that Betsy's words had value: They helped Sal make his point. If Sal didn't think that Betsy's words were helpful in making his case, Sal would've spent more time putting together his own words. But since Betsy's words were already written and available, that saved Sal the trouble. I don't want to be overly pedantic, but I feel it's important to drive home what's really going on in instances of copyright infringement/plagiarism: Sal is taking Betsy's sweat-equity, the hours or days that she spent carefully crafting a product**, and he's using it as a convenient shortcut in achieving his own selfish aims. All the hours that Betsy spent writing that piece are now accruing to Sal's benefit (and possibly are even appearing under Sal's own name, if the sin being committed is outright plagiarism). If you think about it, this means that Betsy has now effectively worked for Sal—free—for x-number of hours or days.
I realize that few people do this maliciously. Maybe they don't know that copyright infringement is possible in an informal medium like a blog. And someone might say to me, "Well, Steve, if you're going to be so picky about republishing an article someone sends to you attached to a comment, what prevents me from simply taking that article and passing it off as my own work? If I don't use the other writer's byline, you'd never know! So you're actually penalizing a guy for giving the original writer the credit! You're reinforcing even worse behavior!" Look, there's some truth to that. I'd also concede that anyone who administers a blog participates in inadvertent copyright infringement now and then. I'm sure I've done it here. (If you plagiarize someone else's work, and then you send it to me under your own name and I publish it, technically we have both sinned.)
But the bottom line is this: If I do know about it, I feel compelled to stay within the letter of the law. I feel compelled to try to protect another author's rights, once I realize they're in jeopardy. And I urge all of my visitors to do likewise.
So: In the future, if you're taking material from a bylined/copyrighted source, please don't send it to me and expect me to publish it on SHAMblog. And if you're not sure whether that material is copyrighted, contact the person whose material you want to use (i.e. the person with the byline) or contact the webmaster of the site where you found it.
I'd be happy to take questions...but only if you put them in your own words.
* They're used to pirating music and films, after all, so why not words?
** And an essay is most assuredly a product, a definable work of "intellectual property."
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Let me be clear before I start: I don't want this post to be viewed through an overly political lens (which is going to be a temptation some readers have, inasmuch as the movement I'm attacking draws chiefly from the conservative right and its partisans among the Christian community. Please keep in mind as you read that I've given Sen. Obama a pretty hard time, too. And I don't have much use for the left wing as a whole in SHAM). I also realize that the sentiments I'm showcasing here aren't exactly original. Finally, I concede—and damn, these are an awful lot of concessions with which to begin a post!—that in the recent past, I myself have bemoaned the limited options our young people have, these days, in trying to locate workable role models among the moral dissolution of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, The Family Spears and/or just about anyone in Hollywood. (Apropos of which: From what I hear, Juno was a pretty good flick with a brilliant script...but...a movie that celebrates and, ultimately, vindicates a breeding 16-year-old? No matter how savvy and "delightful" her character may be? Whether or not a movie like Juno depicts "reality," is that image helpful to the millions of parents waging a desperate daily war to make such predicaments seem totally unacceptable in the minds of their own teenagers?)
All that said—and it's a mouthful—this sort of stuff flat-out appalls and, yes, terrifies me. Not only that, but I find it hard to resist the use of words like, oh, I don't know—"hypocritical scumbags"?—in describing the kinds of people who typically set themselves up as Guardians of Our Collective Moral Compass. If you click the link above, you'll read about an initiative that seeks to restore the "under God" to our approach to daily life here in America. This would be done by mobilizing the nation's 52 million Christian voters to resolute action in the next election. The man at the so-called heart of this initiative, David Kupelian, has written a book called The Marketing of Evil. Among his endorsers and media shills are (non)-Dr. Laura Schlessinger, David (my brother got me this job) Limbaugh, and Sean (if my IQ were any lower I'd be a dandelion*) Hannity.
Kupelian and his sympathizers in the movement invoke John Hancock in exhorting their disciples as follows: "I urge you, by all that is honorable, and by all that is sacred, not only that ye pray but that ye act!"
Look, I'd like to see some things done differently in today's society. But I don't want those changes legislated. And I certainly don't want them legislated by people who presume to speak on God's behalf (and who, I might add, truly believe that that's what they're doing). So I'm curious about a few things. How do hard-line Christians and other conservatives reconcile their supposed godly view of life with their support of a party whose policies are so hostile to the very classes of people for whom Christ reserved his most fervent embrace? (I guess they skipped the part of the bible that stresses brotherly love and all that rubbish about the meek inheriting the earth.) How can they proclaim themselves "right-to-lifers" at the same time they so vigorously oppose every effort to do away with the death penalty? How do they manage to look beyond the moral stains on the resumes of many of their own leaders and sponsors (like, say, Schlessinger), while at the same time displaying such venom for people who misstep today? (Again, I've had my quibbles with Spears and such. But I'm not claiming to be a religious voice.) How can they have so much compassion for their own philandering bisexual leaders and yet so little compassion for gays who simply want to formalize a lifelong monogamous relationship?
Above all: How do they justify decrying theocracies like those one finds in Muslim nations while at the same time seeking to set up an effective theocracy right here in the U.S. of A?
I don't think they're unreasonable questions. And I wouldn't mind hearing some answers.
This, by the way, is my 500th SHAMblog post. And though I haven't actually counted (that much of a masochist I'm not), those 500 posts almost surely represent an output of more than a quarter-million words—or about three times the length of SHAM itself. Hard to believe, folks. Hard to believe....
* Apologies to Jim Bouton, who penned the line in his masterful baseball tell-all, Ball Four. I figured that since everyone seems to plagiarizing everyone else of late, I might as well steal Bouton's line, which is a classic. For the record, my gibe at Hannity is not intended as a symbolic broadside against right-wing radio. I listen to Rush now and then, watch Glenn Beck with some regularity, and even think Michael Savage, for all his pathologies, makes an intriguing point now and then. But I do not think it possible that a fundamentally dumber person than Hannity has ever had his own TV show.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Returning once more to the enthusiastic non-claims that advertisers make for their products nowadays... I just saw another one of those tacky, godawful commercials for the (supposed) diet aid Cylaris. Though the name might not ring a bell, you've almost surely seen the spots: The central action has this self-conscious young woman walking down the supermarket aisle in her blue swimsuit, looking slightly padded but far from hideous, yet mortified nonetheless (we are to assume) over the condition of her tummy, hips and thighs. (As we know, the American diet industry, like all quadrants of the SHAMsphere, will leave no stone unturned in making consumers, particularly women, feel bad about themselves.) Then comes the pitchman, who tells us that Cylaris is the answer to this poor creature's prayers because, you see, it has been "formulated to support favorable metabolic signaling." Lo and behold, a few moments later we see the woman again, post-Cylaris, only this time she looks like a cross between a Sports Illustrated cover model and a competitor in the next Ms. Olympia.
And every time I see this ad, I end up asking myself two questions:
1. Why would anybody be walking down a supermarket aisle in her swimsuit? But more to the point,
2. Could someone please tell me what, if anything, the makers of Cylaris, Iovate Health Sciences, mean when they say the product is "formulated to support favorable metabolic signaling"?
I'll tell you what they mean: Nothing. It's another one of those phrases, so common throughout the land of "self-improvement," that sound like a million bucks but contain maybe 34 cents' worth of actual, meaningful content. In fact, let's break the phrase down to its component parts and look at what a truly remarkable piece of non-communication* it is:
Right off the bat, this construction gives the makers of Cylaris plausible deniability. Though it sounds scientific and pharmacological, what it really does is pointedly avoid making any claim of actual efficacy. It's the equivalent of my saying, "I planned this blog to have a far-reaching social impact." That statement says nothing about the blog's actual impact; it simply establishes my intent. Confronted with a demand to prove efficacy, Iovate could sensibly respond, "Look, we simply said that we formulated it to do-such-and-such. We never actually claimed that it does such-and-such."
Here again, support is distinct from a claim of effective causation. I could say that my blog "supports" intellectual discussion. Parents might say that they've established a household climate that "supports" respect for education. That's a whole lot softer than saying, "In this house, we insist that our kids take their studies seriously."
"...favorable metabolic signaling..."
Though even this phrase could be further parsed (favorable being another one of those words that seems to be making a claim but actually isn't), for now we'll take it at face value—and I feel safe in saying that, taking it at face value, I have no idea what it means. A Google search on the full three-word term** yields a mere three hits, all of which seem to refer in some way to the Cylaris ad and/or related advertising. A search on the phrase "metabolic signaling" yields thousands of hits, but they're all over the physiological map, covering cardiology, kinesiology and everything in between. I also find it significant that if you Google the search terms Cylaris + metabolic + signaling, you get zero hits. What this tells me is that Cylaris has never been the subject of any study that sought to evaluate its effect on "metabolic signaling." It's just words, folks.
FYI, comments about Cylaris on a Web discussion board are underwhelming.
* And, I'm betting, carefully lawyered non-communication at that.
** Yes, I also tried it with the alternate spelling of signaling, i.e., signalling. The results were similar.
Friday, February 22, 2008
I read with interest this morning that Rodale had another banner year in 2007. The company, based in sleepy Emmaus, PA—just a few miles down the pike from where I write this—remains privately held and is under no particular compulsion to fully disclose its finances, but says it logged record revenues of $632 million last year. Ad pages are up (in a generally tough market), and 13 of its books hit the various New York Times bestseller lists, notable among them LL Cool J's Platinum Workout. Two years ago, Rodale published Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and the company obliterated all kinds of sales records with 2003's The South Beach Diet, which became less a mere book, really, than a cultural gestalt. Though Rodale has gone mainstream in a big way under the recent leadership of Steve Murphy (shown), the company rose to power on a platform of holistic health, New Age spirituality and other aspects of self-improvement. Beginning in the 1950s, but during the 1980s and '90s in particular, there was not a purer, more concentrated mother lode of SHAM-based activity than Rodale. The company's one-time corporate mission statement said it all: "To show people how they can use the power of their bodies and minds to make their lives better."
If you read my book and/or are a regular to this blog, you already know that Rodale is the reason why I sit where I sit as I write this. In the spring of 2000 I accepted the company's offer to come in and run its men's books division, officially known as Men's Health Books. In October 2001 I accepted Rodale's offer to stop running that division. (More on this in subsequent installments.) Point being, my Rodale period occasioned a move away from Indianapolis, where I'd been editor-in-chief of American Legion and, later, a professor of journalism at Indiana University's gargantuan Bloomington campus. I was deliriously happy at IU—more comfortable than I'd been at any job, ever. My students loved me, my colleagues tolerated me in spite of myself, and my evaluations were always top-of-the-charts. Which, of course, if you know me, explains why I left.
The head of men's books had always been charged with isolating and developing topics from Men's Health magazine that were worthy of more expansive treatment. Rodale then had a massive, perpetual-motion direct-to-consumer marketing machine that was in voracious need of new (or seemingly new) material to fill prescribed "mailing slots." Like our counterparts in the women's division—their loose blueprint was Prevention—we churned out books in a regular, unending rotation: a fitness book, then a sex book, then a health book, then back to fitness, then sex, and so on. When I came on-board, the prevailing theory was that guys would not willingly buy an out-and-out diet book—"too girlie." That philosophy changed during the 16 months of my employment, so diet books were added to the mix. All of these were promoted via colossally expensive mass-mailings to millions of former customers and others deemed good prospects based on Rodale's proprietary lists and similar market-research indicators. (For years, Rodale's mailing list was one of the most sought-after commodities in the industry.)
I knew I'd be a bad fit at Rodale. To no small degree, I knew this even before I was hired. Certainly I knew it with a rare clarity* by the time I'd gotten settled in at my executive-editor's desk. It is not altogether unrelated to our story that said desk was set so that I faced out the window, with my back to my office's glass-paned entry door. Among other things, this meant I had to work while looking into the daylight, and I'd never know when people were about to enter my office or might simply be hovering outside in the hallway, watching me. I find it impossible to work comfortably like that, and I soon found other Rodalians who felt the same way. We writers and other creatives are picky about the environment in which we create. Not a few of us have to lock ourselves away in hermetic conditions just to be functional, let alone optimally productive. But I was told I'd have to make do; all of the desks at that campus were positioned according to the dictates of feng shui, a personal passion of Ardie Rodale, the eccentric matron who then still ran the company, at least for the record. See, the important thing was that the building was in harmony with the universe, even if the employees contained therein weren't. There's an important lesson right there about some of these New Age types... But I digress.
You won't be surprised to hear that money was a factor in my decision to ignore that little voice that kept repeating, "Do not take this job, putz." The salary was good, very good, especially for a job where one didn't need to commute to the city**, and off-site lunch specials could be had for $4.95. Equally important, the senior vice president who hired me told me exactly what I needed to hear. We'll call him Neil, which makes sense, because that was his name. "We want to upgrade the program, Steve," Neil told me over a steak dinner that cost an exponential multiple of $4.95, one night as we both attended 2000's Book Expo in Chicago. "We want to bring in more serious writing and journalism. You'd be just the guy to oversee that!" I was also led to believe that my relationship with the magazine would be more of a two-way street: that the flow of ideas and "brand development" would go both ways. Now, Neil was a very bright guy—he'd be the first to tell you—and he knew just what he was doing. He'd sized up the psychodynamics in play here, and he understood that I needed a way of saving face. I needed a way of explaining to myself why, after two decades of investigative journalism and delving pieces of social commentary for Harper's and The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, I was going to place myself in an environment where there were seemingly no more important issues in life than (a) sex, (b) six-pack abs, (c) beer and grain spirits, and (d) the interconnectedness of (a), (b) and (c).
Neil gave me that rationale. And I bought in.
More to come.
* Some would say there are few things in life about which I have much clarity.
** In all discussions of writing and journalism, "the city" = Manhattan.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
It began with HeadOn.
You know what I'm talking about: those annoying commercials that by now are so famous for being annoying that HeadOn runs second-generation spots in self-parody: "HeadOn! I hate your commercials...but I love your product!" You have to wonder, or at least I do: Did they plan this from the outset? Did they realize just how irritating that original pitch would be and purposely green-light the campaign so that later they could get added mileage out of the whole thing by spoofing themselves? If so, it was sheer genius. One imagines that the HeadOn spots will never win a Clio or a trophy in any other glossy advertising competition; they're just so low-rent, and the ad industry, like Hollywood on Oscar night, likes to reward panache, imagination and glitter. But if you judge by efficacy—which is what advertisers ought to judge by—you gotta give props to the company behind HeadOn, Miralus Healthcare. ABC reported in 2006 that "in less than a year" after the ads began running, Miralus sold some 6 million tubes at $8 a pop. (For the math-impaired types we talked about in our last post, that adds up to $48 million.) The ChapStick-like product has now spawned an entire family of other "-On"s: ActivOn (joint and muscle pain), FirstOn (itch), PreferOn (scar therapy), etc. One supposes it won't be long before they have a cure-in-a-tube for anything and everything that ails you.
Two questions here:
1. Does HeadOn really do anything?
2. Does anyone care?
HeadOn has been the subject of skeptical scientific reporting by CBS News, ABC News and others. Anecdotally, evidence of its usefulness is mixed (and of course, in those cases where people say it works, one cannot discount the placebo effect, or mere coincidence). For its part, Miralus seems to be treading a fine line, walking awfully close to the ledge when it comes to the bargain it makes with consumers. The company's products are homeopathic concoctions and make no use of any actual drugs that fall under FDA regulation; therefore, they have not formally been certified as safe or effective. That doesn't necessarily mean that HeadOn is unsafe or ineffective. It means...well, we just don't know. (Of course, homeopathy as a "field" has been debunked more often than Britney Spears gets pulled over by cops these days.) And yet a passage on the Miralus site says the company "is dedicated to developing innovative and high-quality pharmaceutical, cosmetic and dietary supplement products. Our mission is to research, develop, and market exceptional healthcare solutions that help improve day-to-day living." Pharmaceutical? Healthcare solutions? That sounds like medical lingo to me. It sounds like something you'd expect to find in the first pages of an annual report from Pfizer or Eli Lilly. In fact, click here and read the first paragraph of Lilly's corporate overview.
Interestingly enough, in its earliest advertising, Miralus made some mildly concrete claims about HeadOn's effectiveness against migraine and such. This prompted some lower-level consumer watchdogs to ask for documentation. At which point Miralus, instead of producing that evidence, simply stopped making claims. Of any kind. It instructed prospective buyers to "apply directly to the forehead," making no specific mention of why someone might want to do such a thing or what benefit HeadOn might offer in return.
And guess what. It made no difference. People bought the stuff anyway.
This goes back to what we said about how in this culture, celebrity = credibility. Get your product or program in the media and people will buy it...just like that. It doesn't matter if your product is a hokey self-help regimen or a supposed headache panacea. Apparently, it doesn't even matter that much if your product never says exactly what it's for or what it does. Just get it on TV, make your fortune before anyone bothers to investigate the factual basis of what you're selling (if ever), and make your not-so-clean getaway. We saw the same thing with Kevin Trudeau and his wildly successful Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About. Consumers bought the Big Lie; when people started coming forward with the Unhappy Truth, Trudeau already had his millions safely socked away. This is also the same phenomenon that explains why Hollywood will open an especially bad flick with an all-out, one-weekend ad blitz; they figure that by the time the public gets wind of the lousy reviews or the damning word-of-mouth spreads coast-to-coast, they've at least got a couple of weekends of box-office receipts in the till. (Yet it gives me great pleasure to report that despite such tactics, Paris Hilton's latest star turn, the intellectual tour-de-force The Hottie and the Nottie, flat-out bombed. Sometimes there is justice in life.)
Meanwhile, getting back to Miralus.... I can't wait to see what they call their product for erectile dysfunction.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Good morning, boys and girls! Today we will discuss the numerical grading system that's taking hold across my region of Pennsylvania and, I hear, is poised to sweep the nation in the years to come. The system, described at length in an article in today's edition of my local paper, replaces traditional A-F letter grades with numerical grades from 1 to 4. The grades also have associated verbal descriptions, as follows:
4 = advancedThis represents a gravitation towards so-called "standards-based learning,"* wherein students are no longer measured against each other, or even by the progress they've made since the beginning of the semester; rather, they are plainly and coldly measured against the testing standards established for, and expected from, that grade. (NOTE: For a good, albeit a two-year-old, snapshot of state-by-state educational performance and spending, click here.)
3 = proficient
2 = basic
1 = below basic
I'll give you an example that's purely my own hypothetical but, I think, is a fair one. If the standards expect Johnny to be able to read a certain section of text in 10 minutes and then answer at least 5 questions correctly, it won't matter if, at the beginning of the semester, he couldn't answer any questions correctly and by the end of the semester he answered 2 or 3 correctly. He's still sub-standard and would receive a 1 for his final reading grade. Under the old system, of course, Johnny might well have received a C "for making progress," especially if Johnny was a likable hard worker, and even more especially if Johnny's classmates were all having a tough time with reading, too. Since all subjective factors are, theoretically, being taken out of the equation, students no longer will receive good marks just for being the best of a bad bunch. (Presumably in that case, you'd end up with an entire classroom full of students receiving 1s and 2s.) At the other end of the spectrum, "It won't be as easy to get a 4 as it is to get an A," confirms one local professor who's an expert on state education standards. Students will merit 4s only when they show total mastery of the material that's expected from students at that grade level. In other words, no more teacher's pets, unless the teacher's pet also happens to be a very, very good student.
As one of the educational sources quoted in the piece puts it, summing up, "This way we know that a second-grader in one classroom and a second-grader across the hallway are being taught the same curriculum and judged on the same criteria."**
But...will we really know that? Why would a shift to a numerical grading system automatically mean that the folks in the trenches—that is, the teachers faced with a sea of sweet little blank faces—will stick to their guns and keep plodding ahead with what the kids are required to learn, instead of backing away from that commitment and just "curving" the new numbered system as well? Clearly this new grading system will depend, first and foremost, on a wholesale cultural change on the teachers' part. The student, after all, just shows up for class—or doesn't; we'll get to that in a moment—and, we can only hope and pray, tries to learn whatever is taught. But it's the teacher who will have to hold steady amid a fair amount of confusion, failure, desperation and—one must assume—parental harassment. (One even suspects that the new grading system was necessary, more than anything else, to provide teachers with a "fresh start": to help them break free of their old grading habits.)
My own feelings? If this is really going to result in greater adherence to educational standards, I'm all for it. If you read SHAM, you already know my thoughts on what the more "enlightened," student-oriented approaches to learning have done to academic performance in this country; I devote the entirety of Chapter 10 to the perils and pitfalls of self-esteem-based education. On its face, standards-based instruction appears to be a more serious-minded reaction to the ills of the past 25 years. Except, there are aspects of the new system that trouble me as well.
For example, there's a line in today's story about how a grade "will be a reflection only of students' mastery of a subject and will not be skewed by homework, behavior or attendance" [emphasis added]. Hmmm. I realize that the article is not comprehensive and may leave certain aspects of the new system uncovered. Still, the mentality quoted above says implicitly to me that students are in school to learn facts only—that the school plays no formative role in teaching kids about such things as responsibility, honesty, honor, and the like. Does it then become "OK" if a kid rarely shows up, so long as he or she aces the tests? Granted, I taught college, but I always considered classroom give-and-take a strong barometer of overall mastery of a topic. If the student is seldom there, or seldom produces homework, or even is mildly disruptive...I'm curious about how that will be handled. Do we truly want to say that these factors should have no impact on grading?
Secondly, I'm a bit concerned by the connotations of the descriptive labels attached to the numbers, which still appear euphemistic and heavily influenced by self-esteem-based protocols. "Below basic" is as bad as it gets. The entire concept of "failing" has simply been removed from the system. (There is, technically, one category beneath that, an "X," which stands for "not evaluated at this time." I wonder if teachers of kids who are having really awful semesters would be tempted to give them Xs instead of 1s....) Look, I'm a compassionate guy as well as a man who absolutely loves kids; so I'm not crazy about the idea of entire classes of underperforming students falling by the wayside, as would seem inevitable here. But are we going to have standards...or not? And are we going to enforce them...or not?
* You know, I hate to provide a Wikipedia link in explanation of a topic like this...but honestly, people, the materials put out by the educational establishment itself are so impossibly dense and convoluted that you begin to wonder whether educators may be the last people who should ever be permitted to attempt to sell this kind of reform. As a very brief and minor example, I give you, herewith, one Harry G. Tuttle's explanation of the format he uses for briefing parents on their kids' progress. Now imagine a teacher trying to communicate something like that to the growing hordes of parents for whom English is a second language!
** It is also thought that the new grading standards more naturally lend themselves to expression in traditional GPA terms—although a 3.2 in standard-based grading is NOT directly translatable to a 3.2 in today's GPA format. (Thereby adding to the overall confusion for which the educational establishment is revered.)
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Fourteen years ago today, Randy Shilts died. It's odd that I'd remember the actual day, as I'm usually pretty bad with dates (even important family-related ones: the kind where nobody talks to you for a while if you forget them). I did not know Randy personally. There's just some reason why the date sticks in my mind. One of those things, I guess.
Randy Shilts is well worth remembering, though, for he was perhaps America's preeminent gay journalist. Regular readers know that I don't link group identities and occupations/accolades in that manner—"foremost female violinist"; "first African-American president"; "respected left-handed Navajo investment banker"—and I recoil from such labeling when I encounter it elsewhere. In this case I think it's apt. Especially in HIV's uncertain early years, when everyone in the medical establishment was trying to figure out what the hell was happening to gay men, and everyone in the political establishment was trying to figure out a better way of not giving a damn, and even journalists were shrugging off "gay cancer" as some utterly distasteful thing that was beneath comment...Shilts' remarkable reporting was a talisman of the plague to come.
He worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and took the paper's name and mandate seriously: He became the nation's foremost chronicler of the emerging AIDS epidemic. The highlight of that effort (though by no means the end of it) was his 1987 book, And the Band Played On, which is both exhaustively comprehensive and narratively spellbinding. When I taught journalism at Indiana University, I used it in class as proof that honest journalism could be mesmerizing without sacrificing its core mission of providing reliable facts.
The AIDS bandwagon, it must be said, overcorrected in time. Though the complaints of neglect continue (and may have some merit again now, given that the so-called gay agenda isn't too high on the Bush Administration's radar), during the mid-years of the crisis there was more money being spent per capita on AIDS research than on some diseases that threatened and killed far more Americans. Once Rock Hudson came out of the closet and gave that oh-so-sad 1985 press briefing from his wheelchair—looking utterly wasted and nothing like the matinee idol America knew from his roles opposite Doris Day—it was as if we suddenly couldn't talk about HIV enough. People felt they had to make an elaborate show of just how much they cared about AIDS. This tendency, no doubt born of guilt, extended even into the realm of clinical research at the highest levels. Spokespeople at the CDC and NIH began overselling the epidemic, the most egregious example being a mid-90s repackaging of AIDS as "Everyone's Disease." That was the new message: AIDS was destined to break out of its core groups and overspread the American landscape with a vengeance. CDC officials shared this troubling news at major press conferences, even as upstairs in that same building, top doctors actively working the disease continued to say among themselves that no such breakout was imminent or even likely. I know this because I interviewed several of them for a controversial and (then) highly impolitic story I wrote on the subject.* Instead of going through the usual media channels, I just got myself a CDC directory and began dialing numbers. I was shocked at how many people were willing to speak to me without going through channels themselves. But that's research types for you.
Anyway, my inside sources were correct. That breakout has not occurred, despite the ongoing alarmism from first-name-only media stars like Oprah, Ellen, and Rosie. If you analyze the data, it's clear that AIDS remains largely confined to the initial groups Shilts cited two decades ago: gay men, prostitutes, women with bisexual partners, and IV drug users. (Several of those categories overlap.) I always thought that in attempting to make the disease "bigger" and "more relevant," the powers-that-be actually did a disservice to gays.
Why did this have to be "America's disease" to be important? Is a gay man's life not worth as much as mine or my daughter's in its own right? I think Randy Shilts, in his heart, agreed.
Tragically but almost fittingly, he would succumb to the disease he covered. On February 17, 1994, the craft of journalism lost not only a dedicated practitioner and gifted storyteller, but a man of vision and perspective. In the piece I just did for Skeptic, I talk about journalists with no sense of proportion who find all sorts of cosmic significance in meaningless random events. Shilts was just the opposite. He did his homework, interviewed his sources, and found and filed stories that mattered, including one of the stories of the closing years of the 20th Century.** And he didn't have to create some faux "cause" in the course of doing that. He just reported on what he found. Which, really, is all a good journalist should ever do.
* I'm going to do something I almost never do on this blog and ask you to trust me on this one. For some inexplicable reason, though I keep copies of just about everything I write, including all associated research materials, I can't seem to find anything related to that piece, titled "AIDS: Undue Alarm?", for the September 1993 issue of American Legion. And I don't have time to reconstruct my entire argument here. I can only tell you, and ask you to accept on faith, that several of the major players in HIV research were openly dismissive of the "alarmist" attitudes that the CDC was attributing to them at that very moment. They gave me the statistical breakdowns and scientific rationales to prove it. When my piece ran, there were quite a few closed-door meetings held at the agency, I am told.
Please also realize that these comments have nothing to do with HIV in the Third World, which is a whole different matter.
** If you read the Skeptic piece, you know my basic argument: that almost all daily journalism occupies itself with trivia. And if relevance can be defined as "the number of people who are directly affected by a given story," then most stories have little relevance for the average American. So yes, Shilts' reportage gave us a relatively small lens on life, because most people do not contract, or die of, AIDS. But among the trend pieces journalism typically covers, AIDS surely must be ranked among the biggest of the small, if you will. And certainly within Shilts' native community (both geographically and personally), this was a huge story from beginning to...well, wherever we are in the AIDS saga.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Last night as I waited for 20/20, which, naturally, under that new theory of network programming and lead-ins, begins at 10:02, I was forced to endure the final few moments of Desperate Housewives. The episode ended with the usual slide-show of events up and down Wisteria Lane (one supposes that this is meant to be tragicomic/bittersweet, and to whet the appetite for the next installment), behind the usual tender-voiced narration, in this case punctuated by a dramatic rendering of the ubiquitous Nietzsche quote: "What doesn't kill us...makes us stronger." [fade to black....] We've talked before, briefly, about that particular string of words, which is among a handful of aphorisms, like "believe it, achieve it," that have been embraced to the collective bosom in this culture without ever being questioned. In certain circles, in fact, it's considered a sacrilege even to subject such quotes to further scrutiny—a faux pas on the order of, say, writing critically of Valentine's Day cards. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)
But seriously, folks: What doesn't kill us makes us stronger? Says who? Do you suppose the GI who comes back from Iraq with no legs thinks that way? And regardless of how he, himself, thinks—is he, factually, stronger for the loss of his limbs? How 'bout the bullet intended for Ronald Reagan that drilled that lovely hole in the forehead of former press secretary James Brady: Does Brady seem stronger to you in the years since the shooting? What about cancer patients as a class? (One of the lead characters in Housewives is trying to beat cancer.) No small percentage of such patients hold the disease at bay for a while, make an elaborate show of proclaiming themselves cured and living life to the fullest, etc....then suffer a relapse and die. So in such cases, would it be more accurate to say, "What doesn't kill us, eventually kills us anyway"?
You say I'm taking it all too literally? All right, then. Let's look at the emotional realm. I don't think the 9/11 families by and large feel stronger, deep inside, for what they went through on that tragic day. Or what about Clint Hill. Hill, if you don't recognize the name, was the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the back of JFK's limo in Dallas after Kennedy's head exploded from the fatal shot (whatever its origin). He has said many times, most memorably and tearfully to Mike Wallace in a 60 Minutes interview a dozen years later, that he would've gladly taken that bullet for the president. The events in Dallas did not make Hill stronger; actually, I doubt he ever recovered. These are just high-profile anecdotal cases, but the point they illustrate has wide relevance: that many of us probably do not emerge from traumatic events "stronger." On the contrary, we are damaged in ways that can never be fully repaired, no matter how we spin it ourselves. Consider, too, the rash of school shootings. I could be wrong, but I'm betting that the events at places like V-Tech and, now, Northern Illinois University, have not only played havoc with the well-being of surviving students on those campuses, but also have caused a slightly increased level of paranoia in college students everywhere (or at least some college students). These students do not feel stronger. They feel vulnerable and exposed. They survey the room on the first day of classes each semester, and they wonder....
Are there people who gain strength from overcoming adversity? Of course! But to posit the Nietzsche line as a frank statement of cause-and-effect—Get seriously hurt! Then get stronger!—which almost implies that we should actively seek near-death experiences so that we can emerge new-and-improved on the far end, is absurd. So absurd that its absurdity shouldn't require discussion. Alas, for many among the Attitude-is-All crowd, the notion is not only true on its face...it's a religious incantation. They simply won't listen, no matter what factual or commonsense rebuttal you produce.
Nietzsche penned the line more than a century ago, of course, but it has really come to the fore in recent years as another example of that pop-psych/PC initiative that rationalizes away all bad things, often by making bad seem good (e.g. special or differently abled instead of crippled or handicapped). And the phrases in this category do, indeed, sound terrific; they have that certain je ne sais quoi. Trouble is, when you scratch away the slightest bit of surface sheen of today's cultural and philosophical [sic] rallying cries, it usually reveals another popular saying, which was the slogan for Miller Lite:
"Tastes great. Less filling."
Friday, February 15, 2008
I don't want to be accused of wimping out or caving in, so we'll call this a...clarification.
By now I've gotten a fair amount of email off-blog with regard to my post on Valentine's Day cards. In fact, between the continuing feedback from the eSkeptic piece and the feedback—maybe I should call it fallout—from yesterday's thoughts, I think it's fair to say that my inbox has been as close to bursting at its digital seams as an inbox can be. And as my use of the word fallout would suggest, though the reaction on the blog itself has been divided, the 9 emails were overwhelmingly critical. If not scathing. Almost to a person, my critics, of both genders, felt that my timing and taste were abysmal, and that I'd desecrated (one writer used that very word) the only day each year that's set aside for all of us to indulge in an unabashed celebration of the "love experience." That same writer went on to say, "Though each of us individually have birthdays and anniversaries in our private life, this is the one and only day when everyone everywhere gets to focus on the magic of love. You chose to focus on the negative, to the extent of making jokes about killing your mate! How sick and sad is that?...." And those were the kindest things she had to say. I heard, also, this morning, from a woman who's about to get married for the second time. She said her first marriage had been very bad—abusive—and that my portrait of "marital hopelessness" had given her pause, and almost reduced her to tears.
This may strike some of you as odd, and may even cause Michael Shermer to formally revoke my standing as a skeptic, but yesterday's post was meant in a playful spirit, and I apologize to those who were troubled by it—all the more so because it's not really in tune with my own feelings on love and relationships. I hinted at this in that one line yesterday about remaining "optimistic" about love, but clearly that line got swallowed up in the tenor of the post as a whole. (And please let's also keep in mind that I was taking aim primarily at the card-writing set, not love itself. As a political pundit might say at this point, "It's the cards, stupid!" I wasn't down on love; I was down on Hallmark.)
You see, I happen to be a romantic; a man who believes that in matters of the heart, belief is, truly, everything. You have to be able to sustain your belief in love (or suspend your disbelief) even in the face of life experience that would normally erode that confidence. It's true that most of us who've been married for any length of time are going to give our marriages mixed reviews; that is my quarrel with cards that make it sound like it's all been a bed of roses, when it hasn't. However, it's a grave mistake—maybe not logically, but emotionally—to allow yourself to fall into the trap of making cynical predictions about the future of the marriage to which you've just given those mixed reviews. (And there is no basis at all for assuming that any given new relationship is doomed to fail. Every pairing is unique to itself.)
We'll call this part "Steve's Self-Help Manual on Love and Marriage": The stresses and strains and temptations of latter-day life being what they are, you have to go into each day of a relationship believing to your core that the bond is unshakable and permanent. If you don't have that core-level belief, you'll find ways of undoing the relationship (or will more easily allow it to unravel on its own). Does that contradict my established position on other areas of "belief" and "PMA"? Not really. I don't think so. Love is a pure emotional state. It has no real-world correlative, which is to say, it's not like believing that you can dunk a basketball when you're 4-foot-11 and you've never been able to jump more than 6 inches off the ground, or believing that you're going to be the next president when you have no money and no political background and seven felony arrests, and your husband is a registered sex offender.* The belief in love is its own reward, the lack of belief its own penalty. (Note to my more cynical fans: You can all gag together now, if you wish. It's just one man's opinion.)
Which is a long way of saying that if I gave the impression that love and marriage aren't worth it, or that people on the threshold of making a serious commitment shouldn't bother because all relationships are destined to collapse into Thoreauvian despair anyway...none of that was my intent. Yesterday's post was more like a winking gag between a bunch of well-worn middle-aged folks at a party, all of whom have had a few drinks, and who think it's "cute" to skewer their spouses just a little bit. But then they take their spouses' hand in the car on the way home, and they still mean it when they say "I love you" before turning off the lights at night.
* No wisecracks about Hillary Clinton here.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Thirty years ago at about this time, my father was taking his last labored breaths on an upper floor of Brookdale Hospital, a tall, gleaming oasis tucked between two of New York's most blighted and forbidding neighborhoods. Though I remember shockingly little from that period of life, I remember the night of his passing in great detail. It had been a day much like today: gloomy, dank, streets clogged with accumulated snow, ice and grit. I've already written the story of that night, so I won't belabor it here except to say that once again I'm keenly conscious of how different the arc of my life would've been if Dad had gotten the extra 15, 20 years to which he was entitled.
He was a good man—and a profound stabilizing influence. And if you know me to any degree (which few do, to their benefit), you know how much I could've used more of that. ;)
All of what I consider positive about me—jazz, baseball, thinking/writing, my love of animals and children—I owe to him. The rest of it? I'm afraid that goes on my own tab.
By the way, no comments needed/accepted on this post. (In a way, I feel presumptuous in even saying that.) This is my 490th of these, since I launched SHAMblog in July 2005. I hope I can be permitted a very small handful that are just "between me and me."
We'll get back to the business of this blog tomorrow.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 7:55 PM
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Of Natalee, Gardasil, Jello shots, hooking up, and the college life. A modern (a)morality play in two acts. The finale.
There's a larger point to this whole Natalee Holloway thing, and it has to do with the recklessly hedonistic way of life now commonplace among young adults. I could pontificate about all this till my blog is blue in its face, but the same points are more succinctly made by quoting two people very familiar with the college scene. One was a boy on a news show I happened to catch a few weeks ago, who had this to say about "hooking up," the campus sexual climate, and young men's unapologetic expectations of today's coeds: "Hey, if they're here [i.e. in college], they know the score. If they don't like it, they should've gone to a Catholic college or they shouldn't drink." The young man made clear that he viewed a girl's attendance at a party, and especially her willingness to consume alcohol, as implied consent to at least some form of sex. (I don't have to be more specific about my use of "at least some form," do I? Think: Bill Clinton.) Occasional contributor acd concurs; not only have girls given in to that mentality and even embraced it for themselves, she says, but both sexes are out of control when it comes to pleasure-seeking, with respect to booze in particular. She drives the point home by way of a half-facetious (but also half-serious) corruption of the familiar Nietzsche line: "Today college students say, if it doesn't kill me...thank God!"
The foregoing is anecdotal, but several factors attest to its accuracy. Binge-drinking at today's colleges is a well-known problem. And if you seek a more scholarly and/or expansive treatment of "hooking up," you might try two recent books that assess the phenomenon: Kathleen Bogle's Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus and/or Amber Madison's Hooking Up: A Girl's All-Out Guide to Sex and Sexuality. For her part, Bogle puts a pragmatic spin on things: Busy young adults nowadays simply don't have time to "date"—as people of my generation understood the concept—so they "fillet" the experience. By arranging sperm-of-the-moment appointments for sex via Facebook, text-messaging and the other real-time tools at their disposal, they cut to the chase—or, a wag might say, they cut out the chase. Theoretically, in these ad hoc sexcapades, there are no winners and losers, no expectations of commitment on other side (though Bogle notes that even many lib-minded girls have trouble with this, and become more emotionally involved in their hook-ups than they like to admit).* Meanwhile, Madison, who's all of 23, writes with the chatty, no-taboos candor that's emblematic of her generation, and accordingly gives parents nightmares. (Publishers Weekly reports that one of the early sections of her book begins, "Vaginas: What the hell?")
Girls who are more circumspect in matters of sex will nonetheless claim for themselves the right to dress, drink and behave however they damn please. They'll tell you that they're fully entitled to (a) show up at a party bra-less and in a see-through halter and micro-skirt, then (b) drink themselves into a stupor, then (c) accompany some boy upstairs to a bedroom—none of which is to be construed as granting the boy license to have sex with them. And of course, they're technically correct. They absolutely have that right. You also have a right to take a midnight stroll through Camden, New Jersey in a Klan hood, fanning a wad of $100 bills. Go ahead, knock yourself out**. Just, before you go, tell me where to send the donation in your memory. And I'll be sure they inscribe your gravestone as follows:
HE DIED EXERCISING HIS RIGHTSI do need to say that it seems unfair to blame girls for so much of what's going on today, inasmuch as it takes two to tango, and boys have been getting away with this kind of libidinous abandon for centuries, if not millennia. Hell, if male puberty has an anthem, it would be something like get it, get it fast, get it over with, then get it again. It must be validating to young women to finally be able to play in that same sandbox, by the same (non)rules. But I can't help thinking of the late Randy Shilts' canny observation about the endemic cultural factors that predisposed the rampancy of HIV among homosexual men: They may have been gay, but they were still males, and males generally don't turn down sex. In fact, most males actively seek it at every opportunity. In America's gay communities in the early 1980s, you had an entire subculture of people with hardly anyone ever saying No.
You have to wonder: What happens when you have an entire society where hardly anyone says NO?
Which brings us at long last to Gardasil. The injectable drug is the first approved treatment to combat sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, the precursor to a number of types of cervical cancer. Though some say we overstate the dangers, HPV is unquestionably epidemic among young Americans—especially women. "In fact," says Planned Parenthood, citing the CDC as its source, "the lifetime risk for contracting HPV is at least 50 percent for all sexually active women and men, and, it is estimated that, by the age of 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired sexually transmitted HPV." (Click here for a CDC fact sheet on HPV.)
The Gardasil commercials, which I'm sure by now you've seen (they're about as ubiquitous as Jarvik's Lipitor spots) show girls skateboarding, skipping rope, jumping on trampolines, playing in youth-soccer leagues, etc. Some of the girls depicted in the commercials clearly have several years to go before puberty. And that's the proper message, say Gardasil's defenders, who'll tell you (persuasively) that it makes no sense to wait till girls actually begin having sex before giving them the shot. This is not a revolutionary line of argument; we heard the same logic with regard to sex education generally and birth control in particular: "You gotta start 'em young, otherwise what's the point?" Once they have that first kid (or abortion) at 14, it's too late. Hence, the tag-line of the whole Gardasil campaign: "ONE LESS." If vaccination can prevent even one girl from getting cancer secondarily to contracting HPV, then it's worth it: penetration by one thing to ward off the dangers of penetration by another.
But hence, too, the debate that rages ceaselessly in my head. By fully equipping young women for sex, are we not giving them permission to do exactly what we'd prefer (in an ideal world) that they not do? At least not yet? Are we encouraging sex by planning for it? By reducing one risk, do we incentivize others? (I don't know if Natalee Holloway was on birth control, but you have to wonder if she'd have been on that dark beach with Joran if she knew that neither of them "was prepared.") The counterargument is strong: Look, it's gonna happen anyway, so if we don't plan for it, we're asking for trouble. We're forcing girls to deal with some of life's harsher truths. I see a lot of merit in that. Then I say to myself: There has to be some way that we can condition kids to simply not do it. Is that so naive, so far out of the realm of the possible? Has the pendulum swung that much towards promiscuity that we can't get it back, and we must therefore give in to the malaise and accept it as "real life"? And most important, can I please stop asking rhetorical questions now?
As you can see, I can't quite get a fix on where I come down in this argument. And so I'm left wondering: How do you folks feel?
* A cousin of mine puts it more bluntly, and I apologize to women for the nature of his observation, which is piquant and odious, but also, apparently, isn't far off the mark. My cousin says of women: "When they open their legs, they open their hearts."
** though someone else will probably do it for you, first.
Monday, February 11, 2008
A bit of a row over qualifications. And congrats to a legend lots of people never heard of before last night.
A brief detour today, then we're back to Natalee Holloway.
I'm fascinated by the emerging Capitol Hill flap over Dr. Robert Jarvik's suitability as a spokes-shill for Pfizer in those ubiquitous, cloying Lipitor ads. Again, if you hadn't heard, some Congressional types, led by Rep. John Dingell, a career skeptic of drug-industry tactics, have raised concerns about whether Jarvik's status as the inventor of the artificial heart may unduly influence consumers about his fitness to speak authoritatively to the benefits of Lipitor. Though Jarvik* is technically an MD, he doesn't practice and isn't certified in cardiology. It also appears that the ads use body doubles to give the misleading appearance that Jarvik—who says he takes Lipitor—now indulges in any number of arduous physical activities, including rowing. Jarvik's long-time collaborator at the Texas Heart Institute, the nearly equally famous O.H. "Bud" Frazier, had this to say: "He's about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen. He can't row." (NOTE: We don't actually know whether Woody Allen rows, but I'd be kind of surprised.) Third-quarter 2007 sales for Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, hit $3.3 billion.
But notice what's happening here. Jarvik is a medical doctor, even if he's not currently licensed to practice. And though he's not a cardiologist, either, the guy did, after all, invent the artificial freakin' heart. You'd think that all of that might give him at least some standing—a "platform," as it's known—to credibly air his feelings about a heart drug. And yet despite all that, there are watchdogs who consider Jarvik's background insufficient or ill-suited to the task.
Compare that sort of ultra-close scrutiny of credentials to what you have in SHAMland...where people who were running Carvel franchises a few months ago reinvent themselves overnight as "executive coaches" and dispense all sorts of life-changing advice to clients at hourly rates that few cardiologists could get away with.
Think about it.
And, a point of personal privilege... I'd be remiss if I let the day pass without noting Herbie Hancock's stunning "Album of the Year" victory at last night's Grammy Awards. In achieving that coup, he somehow bested such pop powerhouses as Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. Though Herbie was, admittedly, awarded for his work on a "crossover" project, River: The Joni Letters—a tribute to his long-time friend, pop/folk songstress Joni Mitchell—it's nice to see somebody from the jazz world getting props in categories outside the limited context of jazz itself. (For years now, the Grammy's haven't even been giving out the jazz awards on-camera; they're marginalized to treatment in recap form, like the esoteric technical categories at the Oscar's.) This is all the more true in an era when "harmonic complexity" seems to mean the ability to combine more than three simple chords in the same song.
And, of course, Herbie Hancock isn't just "somebody." If you're not into jazz and you know the name at all, it's likely as a result of Herbie's showstopper live performance of his fusion hit, Rockit, at the 1984 Grammy's—acknowledged as a banner moment in Grammy history. (Maximize the view and watch it all the way through. I think you'll thank me.) But for half a century Herbie has been one of the most influential figures in American jazz and, I dare say, American music—whether credited for that influence or not. He came to prominence as part of what some jazz aficionados consider the idiom's greatest quintet ever: the "second great Miles Davis group"**, which included Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. From there, and along with such contemporaries as McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, Herbie went on to change the way the piano was played, not just inventing new harmonic voicings and improvising dozens of the more technically astonishing solos on record, but also composing some of the most lyrical and haunting melodic lines to come out of the modern-jazz period (Dolphin Dance, for one. And if you listen to the track, pay attention to Herbie's subtle chord-work in the background).
I'll end with an unusually candid quote from one of Herbie's fellow nominees, country singer Vince Gill. Upon being asked how he felt about Herbie getting the award before the likes of West and Winehouse, Gill replied: "I think Herbie Hancock, hands down, is a better musician than all of us here put together." Amen. And congrats, Herbie.
* whose wife is the officially declared "world's smartest person," Parade columnist Marilyn vos Savant. I open SHAM with a memorable quote from her about the limits of possibility.
** The first was the one with John Coltrane, arguably the foremost figure in jazz's so-called modern period.