The holiday season is upon us; which means, for me, some pretty long days working on the coffee service side of retailing.
One of the things that's been keeping me busy is that I've been dividing my time between a couple of different Starbucks locations in my area (and some weeks, more than that), mostly because has been promoted to a new store, and I am helping her out in both the old store, and the new one (on my way to working fulll time in the bigger, busier one full time).
I haven't mentioned it much - I don't talk about the coffee work here often - but the chance to work in a variety of setttings has been eye opening in realizing that even in a small radius, the types of customers, and retail exoperiences can be quite different.
That's been especially true this week, with many college kids home on Thanksgiving breaks, as well as many high schoolers on reduced schedules at school.
In addition to finding "Black Friday" to be a bit of a bust this year, the various groups of kids with extra free time got me thinking about class dynamics, and the assumptions people make.
While both the stores I work in are in pretty upscale sections of a generally wealthy enclave (Westchester County, which I believe is still one of the five richest counties in the nation), there are differences. My new store is adjacent to some of the wealthiest of the wealthy (as evidenced by what we laughingly term "au pair night" - when dozens of nannies imported from Europe descend on our store for their night off, turning us into an especially loud version of a Euro-cafe), and the differences in attitudes and espectations is palpable, compared to my other store.
The class feelings we experience are a general topic of discussion amongst the workers - the impatience, the occasions of deep disrespect for who we are and what we do - but I find, with the kids, it hits home especially hard. And it's not, for me anyway, the experience of rudeness or impatience that gets me; what gets me is the faux politesse, the extra larding on of "thank yous" and giggly inattention that are a special way to condescend to who we are and what we do.
I don't want to make it sound as if I'm loaded with resentment or suppressed rage over this; it's mostly tiring, especially late in the evening, when we are trying to close things down and clean up after a long messy day. I don't take it personally. Indeed, I think of it as a lesson in the person I was, and the person I've become. Every time I find myself annoyed trying to pull a drink order out of a group of girls too busy talking amongst themselves, on their phones and texting (usually all at once), I remember... you were there once, too.
Back in my collegiate days, it wasn't Starbucks; it was McDonald's, or places at the mall, or the food court. But I remember the occasions of feeling smugly superior to the checkout clerk, the drive through attendant, the waitress or whoever. Not, really, trying to be rude or ugly about it... but just... oblivious. Unconcerned. Impatient and inattentive, all at once. We were the smart ones, the ones with a future; and even if we worked some little job in the mall,we probably condescended to it, knew that we would be leaving it, one day, to go "off to school." And the rest of our lives.
I remember a vacation when I joined friends of friends in Rehoboth, Delaware, shortly after college for all of us. We were catching a late bite in a McDonald's after a night in the bars, and some of the people with us were just impossibly rude (and drunk, but still) to the people behind the counter. And I remember being appalled... but in a way that was like "that's really a tacky way to treat the help."
Whcih, of course, is just another way to be superior... but nice about it.
I'm different now, in my way; I don't think of these things in terms of "better than" or "different from". I try to be a nice customer, a decent customer, someone who doesn't make the job harder for the person doing it behind the counter; but I do expect good service, because that's what I try to give. I know, from my job, that you can't generalize about workers in retail establishments, working for something close to minimum wage. We're there from all kind of backgrounds, all kinds of life experiences... many of them not that different from our customers. Even in a tony, ritzy section of a wealthy county. It's not that I hate you, college kid; it's that I was you... that I am you.
I don't think today's class tensions are necessarily that vastly different or new... and yet... I don't think we necessarily think about them enough, don't raise them enough, or confront them enough. In the nice liberal enclaves in and around the major coastal urban metroplexes, we talk about right wing prejudice and intolerance... as we blithely ignore the workers smoothing the path before us. Before you. Before me. We make assumptions about class, about educational backgrounds, about life choices... and we rarely do the work to even confirm those assumptions, never mind examine why we carry them or why they might be wrong.
And I suppose - or at least I gently excuse - that one can't necessarily expect in a youth of 17, or 19, or 22, the ability to confront one's own class prejudices. On the other hand... I did kind of think that raising awareness and teaching kids to think was the goal of getting an education. I know... silly me. But then, I just work behind a coffee counter... what do I know?
Let's all agree: it's challenging, to say the least, for a singer/entertainer to make the transition to film. Many have tried, many have failed - Madonna, Britney, Mariah are really only recent examples of a problem that goes back, no kidding, all the way to Ethel Merman.
So perhaps one can't entirely blame Christina Aguilera (and her team) for an excess of caution; she's waited years for the right project, long enough to have a hand in building it herself. She's learned the lessons well: Surround yourself with top talent. Don't play a contemporary singer. Be sexy, but stay dressed. Out of all that and more... what a project she's helped to build: Burlesque, the best Kander and Ebb movie musical in the tradition of Chicago and Cabaret that Kander and Ebb never wrote.
Christina is no Liza (and even more to the point - no Renee Zellwegger, either)... and I don't mean that (either comparison) in a bad way: Aguilera's combination of singing chops, solid dance skills and capable acting put her far closer to Judy than Liza, talent really capable of blowing the competition away. There's a powerhouse in there. And while Burlesque is a solid, if derivative, piece of entertainment, the shame of it is that I suspect it barely taps the deep wells of possibility that Aguilera has within her. There's more to her than a pale copy of Kander and Ebb can contain.
Burlesque is a walkinag (perhaps more precisely, an all singing, all dancing) anachronism, full of those numbers that evoke old, seedy stage shows of a bygone era done in a fading theater that's seen better days. The movie is shameless from the get go - though it scales especially brazen heights by having Alan Cumming hang out just long enough to do a complete rip of "Two Ladies" with him as Joel Grey and two conrtortionist dancers to assist... what, no one could score the rights to a new film version of Cabaret?
Writer/Director Steve Antin does what he can to breathe new life into the "you're going out there an ingenue, but coming back a star" plotline for Aguilera's Ali (did I mention that Antin has stapled the plot of 42nd Street to the musical numbers of Chicago and Cabaret?), but it's pretty creaky. The better moments are when Antin stands back and lets the music and dancing shine through - I'm surprised more musical makers don't mine the Kander/Ebb catalog for all the derivative glory they can; audiences do, still, eat this stuff up (Baz Luhrmann, at least, gets this). It's true that Kander and Ebb are themselves derivative of twenties and thirties era dancehall jazz... but the work endures for a reason.
in her performance, Aguilera is fine - natural, largely unforced, she's a charming presence as an actress (even more charming when the film isn't tying too hard to make her adorable). And she's more than able to carry the weight of most of the show's musical numbers - anyone who enjoyed the plethora of musical styles she attempted on "Back to Basics" will see the payoffs here.
And then there's the talent around her... most notably Cher, who's got a tailor made part as Tess, the club owner and aging star of the show, who gracefully stands aside so Ali can have her turn at the spotlight. It's to Cher's credit that she makes being Cher look this easy, but after all these years, the fact that it looks easy and assured is yet more testament to just how amazing her work is. The wonder is why no one thought of tailoring a role to Cher like this sooner... 20, 30, hell, 40 years ago; never mind her assured acting, or the burlesque moves and figure she's working at age 64... consider that, at her age and after years of touring and playing Vegas, Cher still manages to belt out her numbers with all the power she's ever had as a singer, in her patently unique style. And she probably has just performed this year's Oscar winning song "The Last Of Me," making Diane Warren's generic-as-always lyrics sparkle.
The rest of the cast is also quite talented, though not necessarily left with a lot to do. As Ali's main love interest, Cam Gigandet is easily one of Hollywood's best lookers, and smolders quite nicely. As Cher's main costar, Stanley Tucci continues to give good aging gay, even though he isn't. Peter Gallagher (as Tess's ex) and Eric Dane (as the man who's wrong for Ali) would be fine as well... but neither one gets the time to prove it.
At its best, Burlesque is everything Nine wasn't: a fun, stylish aping of other, better shows with plenty of sass and skin to make up for its weaknesses. The showgirl numbers are terrific, and achieve that pure burlesque quality of being sexy without seeming dirty, tarted up or cheap. There's no egregious nudity, and the use of carefully placed pearls and feather fans does appropriate homage to the history of burlesque itself. If the music and lyrics of the modern creations don't quite muster up to the classics they emulate, there's Aguilera, holding court at center stage. It's pure showmanship, brilliantly done. And all that, without breaking a sweat. I wish she would. I hope she does, soon.
Now, about the Bristol Palin thing...
What is it about Sarah Palin? I mean, I get it: she's famous, she says stuff, there's a lot of drama around figuring out if she'll run for President or not... but I'm still mystified: is she really that fascinating? Really?
So far, Sarah Palin has been a small town Mayor, a failed Vice Presidential candidate, and served about half a term as Governor of Alaska. She wrote a book of memoirs that sold fairly well but apparently wasn't all that interesting. Now she appears on Fox News programs as a paid "analyst," and she's hosting a travel and reailty show on The Learning Channel... and, well, that's about it.
Are you fascinated? I know I'm not.
This week, a simmering scandal of sorts burst into the open: Palin's daughter Bristol, a contestant on this year's Dancing With the Stars (!), survived the semifinals by getting more audience votes than Brandy, the R&B singer/actress. She will now face Jennifer Grey in the finals.
Yes, that's about the extent of the scandal.
Palin the Younger's ability to outlast her DWTS competition has been the subject of considerable speculation, apparently; I didn't notice it... but then, I didn't realize the Finals were coming, either. The thing is, apparently, that Bristol gets, each week, a vast outpouring of support from conservative fans of Sarah Palin, despite the fact that, week after week, Bristol is hardly a great ballroom dancer, and others do better than she does. Or something.
Let's jump back for a minute and just take note of Dancing With the Stars overall, because the fact that people are getting excised about a celebrity ballroom dance competition, and what it might mean for our politics, is itself a good indication of the madness surrounding Sarah Palin.
Dancing With The Stars is a strange bird, even assuming one likes competitive ballroom dancing. Various has-been stars (the show itself is becoming a defining moment of "D List" for everyone who goes on it), of limited dancing ability generally, go on and pair up with a trained dancer, doing a variety of ballroom styles in front of the most neurotic, inane judges (which, in these reality show days, is saying something), except that the elimination decisions are then handled by telephone vote, like American Idol.
Dancing With the Stars has shown, repeatedly, that actual ability to dance isn't the voting criteria by phone; it's a popularity contest, and each year, the eventual winner is a combination of sob story, a reasonably modest level of improvement from start to finish, and usually being kind of good looking in the revealing costumes. Each outcome has been disputed, and mostly the results are forgettable and embarrassing. If you're not reading US Magazine, you may have managed to avoid how Marie Osmond has remade herself thanks to her appearance a while back. And she's just one, sad, example.
I don't know why Bristol Palin is a "star"; I don't know why Sarah Palin still gets a lot of attention. These are the realities of our celebrity obssessed culture in this country, where fame is often disconnected from anything real. Bristol Palin has joined the circle of hellishness that produces self help book writers, diet advice spokesmodels, people who endorse dubious health remedies and dime store toilet water. None of this matters; and most of it can be easily avoided. I don't care who wins Dancing With The Stars, nor do I care who votes for Bristol, or why. In a sane world, yes, it would be fairly obvious that Jennifer Grey, a trained dancer from a family of trained dancers, would probably win. But then, in a sane world, there wouldn't be a ballroom dance competition on television featuring has been "celebrities." Start there, and then tell me, again, why this matters.
The point about Sarah Palin - and I do have one - is that all this irrational obssessing over the various moves that keep her and her family in the public eye is quite beside the point. There are reasons, perfectly reasonable ones, why Sarah Palin will not be President of the United States. They are the reasonable points about her incoherence, her lack of policy knowledge, her inability to organize a large scale campaign, and, most crucially, her interest in being famous over doing public service. Palin has skillfully used the levers of fame to provide a career as a "serious politician" as long as the whole thing winds up in quotes. She's not actually serious, nor, really, an actual politician.
Actual politicians are beginning, I think, to figure this out. That's why the real bad news for Palin was probably this week's other voting scandal - that Lisa Murkowski managed to win back her Senate seat over Palin's chosen irritant, proving that Alaska voters, who know her best, have no interest in ratifying her supposed political power, and will go to great lengths to prove it. Combine that with Karl Rove's apparent decision to undermine Palin and her power at every turn, and you have the makings of Palin's sidelining by the people who need to do it - Republicans who know all too well that a Presidential candidacy of hers would be disastrous, and embarrassing.
It's true, still, that too much of Palin hating is still wildly personal and unnecessarily harsh; and much of the resentment of her does betray a kind of ugly class sense of superiority most people, especially her harshest critics, would do well to examine and avoid. One doesn't have to disapprove of all that and wind up, somehow, making Palin more viable. There's nothing wrong with the kind of middlebrow fame seeking she and Bristol represent. It's just not the recipe for political success. And, well, Thank God - yours, mine, or theirs - for that.
In these post-election days - when we are supposed to be more polarized than ever, less able to find common ground - it's nice to see that Americans on all sides of the political spectrum have found something to unite around: opposition to the idea of full body scans.
(I know, I was hoping we coud all unite around disdain for Dancing With The Stars and the weird fame of Bristol Palin... but that's for another post.)
The near universal derision for the installation of the body scanners, and the accompanying howls over "too much intrusive security at airports" says to me that our long national nightmare is finally over: we all tried really hard to be scared out of our wits and fearful of terrorism at every turn... but frankly it was hard and kind of annoying, And so, apparently, we've decided to just stop.
Oh sure, we've decided to retain our dopey, extreme prejudices about some Arabic customs and "Radical Islam", but the past couple of weeks have made clear that the passion to enshrine safety and security at every turn has simply died. I'm not sure if it's a good thing - I'll get to my own counterintuitive security sense in a momment - but if it means we're moving past "fear of terror" as a way of defining our politics... I'm pretty sure that, by itself, will be a welcome shift. In particular, I think we're seeing the moment when fear of "the next 9/11" became a footnote, rather than our operatins stance.
I just think the opposition to the "full body scans" is just so... weird. Which, of course, is just so us, so USA.
I've been trying to avoid this, but it just has to be said: I have become enthralled with The A-List:New York, Logo's new reality series which does a "real Housewives" like gloss on gay men in New York City.
Partly, this is pure shallowness: there's so much toplessness and buffery on display that it's just ridiculous (I think "notices buff men in filmed entertainment" is the new shorthand form of gaydar; if you can name the cute ones, you are one of us)... and confirms my own taste-o-meter for reality TV: from Paradise Hotel to Temptation Island to that brief Bravo series on picking America's next male model... if they wear a bathing suit, count me in.
But The A-List is, if possible, shallower than that: it's every "oh my God, did you see his boyfriend" story ever told, every overly dramatic queen's dream of everyday life. It's all hair and clothes and bitchy comments and buff bodies and the 6 to 10 other things that make for the most shallow conversations imaginable.
And it's utterly fascinating, and utterly true.
The A-list's conceit is that the young men on camera represent some sort of urban gay elite; like the other shows, it's more "legend in my mind" than The Real Thing, but it makes perfect sense: if you can dine out on being Britney's hairdresser, if doing Beyonce's makeup makes you a somebody, if anyone cares that you do the flowers in Ivanka Trump's office.... it's gay men in Manhattan who can somehow make that seem important.
The most "famous" face on the A-List is probably Reichen Lemkuhl, a former Air Force officer who gained some notoriety dating Lance Bass, one of the men in N'Sync, and the only American boybander (so far) to come out. Next most famous is probably Austin, who was part of a messy series of relationships Marc Jacobs pursued since kicking drugs and buffing up into a new Gay Icon. There's also Derek, a modeling agent who apparently knows Lindsay Lohan, and Ryan, a hairdresser who married well (a much older, black banker who is rarely seen), and Ryan's friend TJ, who is also his Personal Assistant.
All of these boys, and Reichen's new boyfriend Rodiney (the requisite Brazilian model), do a credible job of representing what passes for gay social life: heavy on the arts, fashion and the visual, cute and young. It's a literal "Logan's Run" where it's rare to hang around much past 30, or maybe 35 if you push it (Mike Ruiz, also known to Drag Race fans, adds some grace to the image of the aging boytoy). Everyone's a little too young, a little too immature. Put it on camera... and it shows.
The A-List, like other reality shows, doesn't necessarily tell anyone anything they didn't already know: gay men can be shallow, and too caught up in what's pretty and of the moment. Since Stonewall, there's been a long line of books (Dancer from the Dance and Faggots, most famously) and plays (The Boys in the Band) and movies (Lots, but start, say, with Jeffrey) to make much the same point. Still, the A-List does climb up and under an image of gay life that I've rarely seen represented so fully, so unashamedly, and yes... probably so badly for the cause: this is a reminder that while we talk about "gay rights" and make gay men seem like saints... we often forget about the boys who, well, go to The Saint (a legendary nightclub, dear... look it up).
As well, the A-List climbs under and around the gender issues that the Housewives programs can't seem to address (or at least... that's my line and I'm sticking to it, to try and seem deep): bitchy and queeny they may be... but these are definitely men, and that complicates dismissing their emotional issues and social problems in quite the same way as the women of the Housewives' shows. This is a world that, up til now, was not necessarily visible to those outside of it. Trying to explain the "gay world" of clubs and parties and Fire Island to outsiders often seemed, like, well, trying to get people to believe in a mythical place (it's why, for instance, all this stuff about "the gays" and the SATC world of straight women's NYC can seem like the real thing... when those in the know can tell you, firmly, it isn't the same at all). The A-List is warts - well, not warts - and all: the "telephone, telegram... tell a fag" world of gossip and cuteness and relationships built on little more than looks and air.
And sure, it's about the small, petty details: watching Reichen lie to others, and himself, about his attractions and his wants; about shallow friendships like Derek's and TJ's and deciding whether or not to like Austin, and watching a pretty boy like Rodiney try to "make it" as a model in New York. But more than the housewives shows, I suspect that what gives the A-List some emotional punch is the breadth of relationships on display: friends, enemies, lovers, business partners. It's intimate, and a little incestuous, and oh so pretty to look at. And, as Malone said, beautiful is all it is. It takes a while to realize there might be more to life than that. Here's hoping these boys find that out.
The unraveling of pretty much any Democratic hope to delay or deny extension of the Bush tax cuts has been kind of amazing, even to me, who pretty much expected Democrats to fail, mostly by being bad negotiators. I knew they were bad... but in some ways, this is ridiculous.
Or beyond ridiculous: it's one thing that Democrats could wind up wilting and giving some absurd extension of the whole package for an extended period... but even more absurd that the net result could be what Democrats want anyway, by letting the tax curs expire, naturally, at the end of the year.
I mean, letting them expire... and still looking like losers for it.
In my argument for Democrats failing to add leverage, I realize now I missed something just as obvious: Republicans are setting up a situation where, even if they lose, they win: I take them at their word that they want some sort of blanket extension, but consider the obvious: the Bush Tax Cuts have blown an enormous hole in the government's budget, which makes reducing the deficit all but impossible. Republicans ran on being the people who, finally would tackle the enormous debt problem. But they also ran on the tax cuts.
So how do they lose while angrily defending the tax cuts... only to see them expire at the end of the year?
Almost everyone admits that, if the tax cuts expire, no one's going back to retroactively reinstall all of them; there are sensible compromises already in the works on estate taxes, capital gains, and even the overall tax rates. Next year, it will benefit the Republican leadership to look like people who can work with the Democrats, including Obama. Being able to sorrowfully declaim "we tried to salavge all the tax cuts... but this is all we could pass" makes them heroic, and accomplished, and doing things that people actually want to have happen. Win - win - ... and win.
That, I suspect - as do others - is the real reason the Republicans postponed this week's "reconciliation" dinner with the President; there's nothing to be gained, just now, when Democrats desperately need to look like they can negotiate a compromise, and get along with the GOP. Letting Democrats twist in the wind for a couple of weeks, doing nothing on the tax issues, just makes everything more urgent. And Republicans still hold all the cards: negotiate an extension on their terms, or let the tax cuts expire and start the new year with much less of a deficit problem than they had before.
For desperation, nothing was more obvious than yesterday's suggestion by AFL CIO head Richard Trumka that Democrats could sever the extension for "middle class" taxpayers from those at the top of the scale; Republicans will not - as some progressives wish - look "anti-middle class" by voting against it. They've already framed the issue as one for supporting small businesses... and people believe them. And it doesn't help that Democrats, as I've noted before, have gone to the Obama standard of calling $250,000 a year in salary "middle class" when the median income in this country is $55,000 (and probably decreasing). Unless Democrats get much tougher, and throw a whole group of educated professionals into the upper brackets where they belong, there's a fundamental dishonesty that's undermining an chance of portraying themselves as the real defenders of working people. I like college professors - honest I do - but well paid, tenured faculty, advertising executives and others are not middle class. They're very well educated... and very well off.
There was a time when this kind of "lose-lose-lose" prospect for Democrats made me sad or angry... but now it just seems foreordained: you could see this coming, and there are actions that could have prevented this disaster... and you went ahead and got there anyway. Oh well.
Like I said before: Democrats can't get to a strategy for winning, until they can face that we've lost... and that we will continue to lose not changing anything at all. Welcome to the brave new world of Minority Leader Pelosi, where the budget gets balanced... and Republicans get the credit for it.
Mom asked me to jump off my arguments against Nancy Pelosi, and, though I don't always defer, it seemed to me that the work was done: if the New York Times can see, plainly, just what I saw... at least I know I'm not crazy.
What's been interesting as the "Really... Nancy Pelosi? Really?" storyline has unfolded is the amount of excuse-making involved in trying to make the case for her. My friend Red ably noted that a number of the things I mentioned in my first post - her tenacity, her political savvy and exercise of power through fundraising - were probably things that could be seen as making her successful. I tend to agree. She wouldn't be where she is, or in a position to keep doing what she's done, if what she already did wasn't seen to work.
The excuse making on the left, though, is about the election: from a world-weary "the party in power always loses seats" to "the losses were all about the Democrats who were too conservative" or in more Republican-leaning districts... a large number of liberals, it seems, have found a way to deal with major losses in the House: they're not really losses... it's just inevitability.
Not that Repubicans are immune - I think they've spent the years since the 2006 losses in a similar dreamworld about just how bad their rejections were - but I don't think excuse making is any way to figure out how to win the next time around. The "new fatalism" among energetic liberals and progressives, in which the Democratic Party is either on a natural down cycle before the next upswing... or the more radicalized perspective of some further left types that the whole "Legacy Party" apparatus is falling apart... sort of obviates everyone from doing the work of coming up with the next big idea, or finding the next new leaders. We could... but, really, it will just end up the same, anyway. Or something.
What got me thinking about all this excuse making is, naturally, former President Bush. Just in time for the post election hangover, Mr. Bush's memoirs popped out to bookstores, and the President naturally embarked on the kind of things he likes to do least: interviews where people actually question his decisions, and having to justify a lot of what remains pretty indefensible.
Watching a few segments of the hourlong interview with Matt Lauer, I was struck, again, by how much of the kan's interviews turn into rounds of defensive "it's not my fault" type answers to questions that are hardly deep or probing; they can't be - neither his thinking, nor his speaking style, really lend themselves to developing deep insights. What you get is what you see... and what you get, most of the time, is "it wasn't my fault" or "I thought I was right then, and I still think I am." Self doubt... who needs it?
More than Iraq, more than 9/11, the place where this self-justification and excuse making just gets absurd is in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It's not that Bush won't admit to mistakes - even he seems to get, at this late date, that at least the appearance of things he was supposed to be handling looked bad - but even his admissions are tinged with a kind of "I couldn't do otherwise;" and if it looked bad... well, that's how the media works, isn't it?
It's not that I think Mr. Bush helped create, or more likely, sustain, a faith in never admitting mistakes and refusing to take responsibility for one's own failings... it's that I think the eight years of his disastrous Presidency, in addition to deeply lowering our expectations of nearly every leader we have, also made the self centered excuse making expected, hardly news. From Toyota to BP to all the various political leaders who've failed us in one way or another... it's fine to admit to mistakes. But after that, feel free to make all the excuses you want. We'd love to hear them. We probably won't believe them... but why would you expect anyone to do anything else?
There is such a thing as "inexcusable" and "indefensible"; more pointedly, there's a sense in which growing up and shouldering some responsibility for oneself is taking the excuse making off the table. It doesn't matter what the excuses for some things turn out to be - whether other people were mean, or no one understands you, or you did the best you could. Do better, don't worry about the others, and get back to work. No excuses. At least, don't expect a lot of things to change until we take the excuse making defenses off the table.