February 16, 2019

#149) Movie review: “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

Three months ago, if someone had asked me about Lee Israel, I would have said, “Who’s he?” When I saw the preview for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, a biopic of literary forger Lenore Carol “Lee” Israel starring Melissa McCarthy, I thought, “Maybe if I’m stuck on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that’s running late and they’re showing this movie, I’ll watch it.” Recently, I found myself on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that was running late and they were showing this movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a film that should not work. It is about an obscure person, it’s slowly paced, lacks a marquis cast and has no main characters under the age of 40. I can’t imagine why anyone thought America would be interested in Lee Israel (and judging by the fact that as of this writing, the film is yet to make up its $10 million price tag at the box office, America isn’t.) Yet despite all of its liabilities on paper, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” delivers – a success as unlikely as the idea of a dowdy Jewish alcoholic lesbian has-been writer becoming a con artist.

In 1991, Lee Israel is a struggling Manhattan biographer. While she had some success in the past, she is now perceived by the literary community, in particular by her agent (Jane Curtin) as unfashionable, outdated and unwilling to play the game. She is reduced to selling used books to pay for her cat’s medications; at the store, insult is added to injury where her biography of Estee Lauder is being sold in the clearance section. A chance discovery of a long-lost Fanny Brice letter at a research library becomes a lightbulb moment for Israel. Stealing the letter, she takes it home, rolls it into her typewriter, adds her own post script and sells the new version to a collector. Before long, Israel is forging and selling letters allegedly written by the likes of Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, who was known to sarcastically ask, “Can you ever forgive me?” following her alcohol-fueled outbursts.

McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lee Israel is a big reason why “Can You Ever Forgive Me” works. It’s been said that American actors are afraid of playing unlikeable characters. McCarthy didn’t get that memo: Lee Israel is not only unlikeable; she’s also boring. Unlike Frank Abagnale, Leo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can”, Israel is not charming, elegant or witty. The key is that McCarthy, director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty aren’t trying to get us to like Lee Israel. The script gives Lee multiple chances to take the high road and she never does. What the movie accomplishes is making her real: someone whose grudges, moods and lack of social graces, however unappealing, are still relatable. Haven’t we all, at one point, resented the successes of others who might not be as skilled but know how to ingratiate themselves to the right people at the right time?

For all McCarthy brings to it, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is not a one-woman show. Opposite her is Richard E. Grant, whose performance as Jack Hock earned him a best supporting actor nod. The decision to make Hock a roguish Brit (his real life counterpart was American) might feel gimmicky, but Grant gives the character depth. Below his gaudy exterior is a quick and sharp wit; below that is resignation. Perhaps Grant’s Hock grew up having to repress his homosexuality before enjoying liberation in the post Stonewall Riots era as a young man, only to then have to live under the threat of AIDS, which takes the lives of many of his friends. His bond with Israel stems not just from loneliness but a shared sense of loss of fleeting success and happiness.

The other main female character, shy bookstore owner and autograph buyer Anna (Dolly Wells) is a fictitious creation, but still a key part of the story: through her we see Lee’s struggle to let herself let others in. At first, Wells seems to play Anna as a typical wallflower, but the performance is more nuanced. Anna doesn’t want to hide behind her books; like Lee, she yearns to connect with others but doesn’t know how. Whereas Lee is embittered by having lost recognition and respect for what she feels are no good reasons, Anna has always lived in the shadows and can barely get herself to ask for acknowledgement.

The loneliness of Lee, Jack and Anna is compounded by another character in the movie: New York City. The New York of this film is not the lurid den of iniquity seen in “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy” but rather a perpetually gray, snowy place that ignores its citizens who toil and sacrifice to make ends meet. Lee and Jack’s corner bar of choice is a respite from the cold but not particularly inviting in any other way. The warmth of Lee’s agent’s brownstone is superficial, bought by her pandering to popular tastes and telling people what they want to hear.

The film’s shortcomings are minor. My main issue is the cat: does a film that achieves so much with understatement really need to resort to the cat lady trope to show Lee’s lack of meaningful human relationships? Also, some of the plot seems a little convenient: after the FBI sends out alerts about Lee, wouldn’t her buyers be suspicious when the quirky Englishman suddenly shows up wanting to sell the same type of memorabilia? Perhaps they don’t want to believe the worst about Lee; perhaps 1991 was a more innocent time; whatever the reason, they seem only mildly concerned about what would probably be a giant red flag today.

These points aside, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” exceeded my expectations by more than any movie I’ve seen in a while. No, it’s not for all tastes, but for those who might be a little tired of origin stories, remakes and sequels, it hits the spot. Lee Israel might not have been a noble protagonist, but I wouldn’t have minded sitting next to her on a JetBlue flight that’s running late.



February 4, 2019

#148) How not to complain #8: Sorry Jeff Pearlman, the Patriots are not the problem

Hey, Jeff, how’s it going. Fellow tribesman sports geek David Lockeretz here. Complaining is in our blood, but when you called Super Bowl LIII the worst ever, was your intent to show the NFL how it can improve or were you just upset that the Patriots won? I get that you’re a New Yorker and I’m a Bostonian, so there are certain sportsball issues on which we will not see eye to eye, but calling Super Bowl LIIII the worst ever is a charge that is hard to back up objectively.

Let’s start with the margin of victory. At 10 points, the margin in LIII was below the historical average of 13.9. Yes, it was the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever – but it was close, something that cannot be said for many Super Bowls. It was only the second Super Bowl ever (after XXXIX*) to enter the fourth quarter tied, keeping the David vs. Goliath storyline intact. No, the game wasn’t particularly elegant, but by your own admission, Super Bowl XV, the game that turned you into a fan, was “technically poor.”

Yes, there was a blown call in the Saints/Rams NFC championship game. Why weren’t the Saints able to put the game away after jumping out to a 13-0 lead? Why did Drew Brees throw an interception in overtime? If the NFL is scripted, wouldn’t the refs have done everything they could do stage a Brees/Brady Super Bowl? If The Rams Didn’t Belong In The Super Bowl Because The Refs Blew The Call, isn’t it karma that the Pats won? Sports will always have a human element and humans aren’t perfect.

Moving on to the half time show. I’m no Maroon 5 fan, but was their performance really the “lamest…in modern memory?” Jeff, were you on the edge of your seat for Coldplay? Did the Who’s 2010 performance make you beeline to the local record store to get “Tommy” on vinyl? Is it a Good Thing that “many musicians made it clear…that they would no longer support the league’s entertainment efforts”?

Which brings us to the issue of race. You write, “This is the NFL trying to convince us (via advertisements featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches) that the whole Colin Kaepernick thing never happened; that — hey! — we love when blacks speak out, just as long as it doesn’t affect our image or our profits.” True perhaps – but would a 41-38 Kansas City win over New Orleans magically have made everyone suddenly see eye to eye on anthem protests and come together like the people in Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad? I’d bet a GE dishwasher that had African-American quarterback Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl for the Chiefs, the NFL brass would have found a way to make his moment about themselves and how much they love diversity. The Patriots’ successes and the NFL’s woes are independent.

I’m not asking you or anyone else to love that the Patriots won yet again. To borrow an adage that used to be said of the Yankees (*cough* before they started sucking *cough*), rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for Brad Pitt to get the girl or Bill Gates to win the lottery. But why make yourself just a generic voice in the Patriot haters crowd? Maybe you just need to blow off steam. Understandable. But if you’re looking for meaningful change in the NFL fan experience to come from your deconstruction of Super Bowl LIII, you will be as disappointed as everyone west of the New York state line.

*I decided to take the high road by not pointing out that XXXIX was another New England victory.

January 30, 2019

#147) When it’s OK for sex to sell part 2: No Anti-Sinematism from this blogger!

“SEX! Now that I’ve got your attention…” may be the oldest marketing ploy out there, but sometimes it works.

Like many people, I did a double take when I saw photos of a woman standing on the U.S. Senate floor wearing over the knee boots and a short dress. I may be a happily married man but I am not above the occasional ogle. Once I realized that her presence among the more conservatively dressed men and women was not a Photoshop gag, I did what many Britons did the day after voting for Brexit: I went straight to Google. When I was in high school, a sexy album cover made me a jazz geek overnight. Will senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and her boots make a political pundit out of me – or at least inspire me to become a little less ignorant? Before I saw the photo, I had no idea that Sinema is Arizona’s first female senator, that she is the country’s first openly bisexual senator and that she was once homeless. Had she been wearing a pantsuit, I still would have no idea.

Love her outfit or hate it, Sinema has a chance to become a new, galvanizing voice for the Democrats while also daring the conservatives to get grumpy and look like the dowdy GOP of old. It’s telling that Alabama auditor Jim Ziegler got defensive about his Sinema comments. Now that she knows what kind of a response she can get by the length of her footwear, what will Sinema do about it? Will she become a latter day Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann or will her story grow legs as long as those that strode across the Senate floor?

I leave those questions to better minds than mine to debate. What I do know is that I can’t be the only political ignoramus whose interest was piqued by Sinema and her fashion statement. Right or wrong, sex sells – and in this case, it might just increase voter turnout in the bargain.

January 15, 2019

#146) You can’t give it away #4: “I’ll catch the next one” (Why we don’t give a #*@! about discounts)

couponsPhoto: BessieSpin

Limited Time! Act Now! Offer Expires Soon!

It’s been done.

Recently I was offered a 20% discount on an annual membership renewal. Since my membership wasn’t ready to expire for another four months, I started an email to the company to ask if, since the coupon code was only valid for two days, I could apply the discount to my future renewal. When I saw that the email was sent from a “do not reply” rather than go online and research the correct address for such inquiries, I decided it would be more fun to write a blog post about why I decided to leave my 20% discount on the table.

A friend of mine whose father is on his fourth marriage quipped that when her dad asked her if she was going to come to the wedding, she said, “Nah, I’ll just catch the next one.” The same can be said of discounts. How many times have we received an email or seen an ad with a “you can’t afford to miss this” offer, only to see some variation of the same promotion the next week? With all of the competition for our time, attention and money, are we going to drop everything and buy a unicorn horn for our cat because it’s 15% off Today Only? As this article notes, “[It] becomes increasingly difficult to convince consumers they need to make a purchase right then and there when they are offered countless limited time bargains day after day, many of which resemble one another.”

That’s not to say discounts don’t have their place, if done effectively. The website WebFX suggests offering discounts to show appreciation, not to retain customers: “Have some clients left you for a cheaper service provider? Are you afraid you might get rejected if you ask for what you’re worth? These sorts of reasons [for offering a discount] can greatly undervalue your skill, time or effort.” This article about discounting suggests doing 4 major promotions per year and not to show the same ad to everyone: “Someone who already bought your product doesn’t need to be notified you are running a discount.”

My response is a variation to this last point: since I was planning on renewing my membership anyways, the discount was moot. However, a customized email – I have been with this company for close to a decade – sent from an address to which I could respond directly might have made me want to engage more with them instead of running to my blog. The company in question provides a service that I want, regardless of the price. Would a 20% discount have been nice? Sure. But I’ll just catch the next one.


January 3, 2019

#145) “The Disaster Artist”: book vs. movie

Everyone loves a good train wreck, and train wrecks don’t come much bigger than “The Room”, a 2003 film that has often been cited as the worst movie ever made.

That said, train wrecks aren’t always created equal or, more accurately, aren’t always remembered equally. Fifteen years after its release, “The Room” enjoys a cult following and celebrity status. Like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” it is often given midnight screenings with audience participation; like Ed Wood, director/star/writer Tommy Wiseau has become a cult figure who is laughed both at and with. As Greg Sestero writes, “‘The Room’ became every bit the blockbuster Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned.”

“The Disaster Artist” was published in 2013 and made into a movie in 2017. The film is directed by James Franco, who stars as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave plays Sestero, who starred in “The Room” and also served as a line producer. (“When we began, I had no idea what a line producer was. Neither did Tommy.”)

Sestero and Wiseau met four years before production on “The Room” started. During this time they developed a bond. While they were an odd pair – Sestero a clean cut kid from the ‘burbs; Wiseau an eastern European eccentric who wore his heart on his sleeve but also was very secretive about his origins – they both felt like outsiders and shared a dream of making it big in Hollywood. The time they spent together made Sestero qualified to give a well-rounded portrait of Wiseau and his work.

The brothers Franco do a good job capturing the dynamic. James, whose accent of undetermined origin is fairly consistent, is by turns sympathetic and cringe-worthy. He is your older brother who didn’t get enough oxygen at birth. When he tries to woo an agent at a Hollywood restaurant by bellowing Shakespeare, you genuinely don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Dave may be Wozniak to James’ Steve Jobs (there are some parallels in the idiosyncrasies and heavy handed communication style of Wiseau and those of the Apple mogul) but his Greg is not afraid to call out Tommy’s inappropriate behavior. At the same time, when he applauds after Tommy finally nails a line after having mangled it every way possible, he comes across as genuinely happy for Tommy, not just glad to be done with the scene.

In the latter half of the film, Seth Rogen gives an effective straight performance as beleaguered script supervisor Sandy Schklar. Paul Scheer, known as whipping boy Andre on “The League” goes toe-to-toe with Franco as photography director Raphael Smadja. Another “League” veteran, Jason Mantzoukas, is Peter Anway, a go-between for Wiseau and the venue where he is shooting. Those who remember Mantzoukas from “The League” as the psychopath Rafi may find it amusing to see him playing a fairly sane character. June Diane Raphael, known for “Grace and Frankie” and as an occasional guest star on “The League” (no wonder I was drawn to this movie!) plays the actress Robyn Paris, whose role is more about quality than quantity as her few lines provide insight into Tommy and the script. Ari Gaynor brings positivity to Juliette Danielle, the actress who played the thankless role of Lisa, Tommy’s love interest. Zac Efron has an unlikely stint as Dan Janjigian, who plays the violent drug dealer Chris-R. Because we don’t see much of Dan Janjigian out of character in the film, by proxy, the wholesome Efron becomes the dealer and pulls it off.

If the film has one shortcoming, it’s the narrative structure. The book alternates between flashbacks and the present; having multiple storylines helps keep interest. For the first half of the film, we see little besides James and Dave. While the constant shifts in time of the book might not have translated well on screen, breaking up the timeline a few times would have helped the pacing. The film doesn’t make much of a side plot about Greg’s girlfriend Amber (Alison Brie) and their breakup (although the book doesn’t get much into this either); this is a storyline that should either have been developed further or dropped.

The book ends as “The Room” is about to screen for the first time. Sestero knows that we know what happens and opts to conclude by celebrating Tommy’s fulfilment of his dream and ignoring the inevitable ridicule and eventual redemption that would follow: “Although I knew Tommy’s film wasn’t going to be received the way he wanted it to be that night, I hoped he’d be able to recognize how incredible this experience really was.”

The film shows Tommy getting more and more upset as the audience laughs their way through the premiere. Greg has to talk him off the ledge: “Look at how much fun they’re having. They fucking love it, man! How often do you think Hitchcock got a response like this?” The last scene feels rushed as Franco compresses “The Room”‘s journey from bomb to cult classic and Tommy’s transformation from reject to folk hero. With a run time of 104 minutes, there would have been some room to elaborate on the aftermath of the film without belaboring the point.

These critiques aside, both the book and movie are worthwhile and entertaining, celebrating misfits and unlikely dreams. As Adam Scott says in the film’s introduction, “People are still watching a movie and talking about a movie. People aren’t doing that about whatever won the Oscar for Best Picture ten years ago.”

During the closing credits, there is a side-by-side comparison between “The Room” and the cast of “The Disaster Artist” reproducing some of the film’s most infamous scenes. Franco and company are clearly having fun but are also respectful; perhaps they see themselves in the struggles their characters felt trying to survive Hollywood, Tommy Wiseau and “The Room.”

January 1, 2019

#144) Language court 2018: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 44th annual list of banished words

It’s been difficult to wrap my head around the optics of this year’s list of banished words. I dare say, I’ve had to grapple to see why the crusty thought leaders at Lake Superior State University importantly feel that we should eschew some words while ghosting others (how did “_____ for days” dodge this year’s list?) Maybe they’re legally drunk or maybe it’s a collusion. Either way I can’t help feeling as if they’ve abused their platform.

Nevertheless, it’s time to litigate this year’s accoutrements.


Charges: “Irritating, has become a cliché…awkward word to use in the 21st century. Most people have never seen a wheelhouse.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Maybe I was just more anti-social than usual this year but I didn’t notice any particular overuse of this word.

In the books

Charges: “It seems as if everyone’s party is in the books…and…there for friends to view on social media.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The phrase may be somewhat cliché, but overuse of it didn’t come to a boiling point in 2018, at least not that I saw.

Wrap my head around

Charges: “Impossible to do and makes no sense.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Wrap your head around that, Linda of Bloomington, MN.


Charges: “People use it as an excuse to rant…step down from the platform already.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Indeed, the term “platform” does tend to glorify or legitimize crazy people and their rants. Not that I would know anything about ranting.


Charges: “We all need to collude on getting rid of this word.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Like the Rosa Parks card, people tend to play this one too easily when confronted with an outcome not to their liking.

OTUS family of acronyms such as POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS

Charges: “Overused, useless word for the President…”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). Maybe I’m just tired of political drama, but I’d be happy to see this acronym go. When I talk about the Supreme Court, I shouldn’t have to add “OTUS” to clarify that I’m not referring to the Seychelles. I also have to ask, am I the only one who can’t hear the words FLOTUS and SCOTUS without thinking of fetus and scrotum respectively? I am? Oh well, guess I didn’t mature as much as I thought I did in ’18.


Charges: “No need to bring the paranormal into the equation.”

Verdict: Not guilty. This word badly wants to become trendy but in the context of this court, “Ghosting” is the delinquent who dabbles in petty crime to impress the older kids but really just needs to go back home to the suburbs and let Mom and Dad ground him. (Or her – I shouldn’t assume gender.)


Charges: Vigorously throw or toss (possible origins in onomatopoeia as a sound made either by the thrower or the throw-ee?) “If I hear one more freshman say ‘yeet’ I might just yeet myself out a window.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). This could be argued as entrapment – “yeet” is a word that one is likely to find only when shamelessly wasting time on the internet or hunting for memes, as my, uh…friends…do. Still, entrapment or not, the verdict stands and will not be yeeted out.


Charges: “Appropriated by politicians and journalists for any manner of controversy in the public sphere.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Personally I’d rather have seen “appropriated” get banished.


Charges: “People who struggle with ideas and issues now grapple with them.”

Verdict: Not guilty.


Charges: “Nobody ever actually says this word out loud, they just write it for filler.”

Verdict: Gesundheit! Not guilty.


Charges: “This has become a popular insult. It’s disgusting and it’s weird.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Oh, it’s disgusting and weird all right, but not pouplar enough to merit a felonious conviction.


Charges: “The trendy way to say appearance.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Like “Giving me life” and “Nothingburger” from years past, a slap on the wrist will probably fix this.

Legally drunk

Charges: “People who are ticketed for drunk driving are actually “illegally drunk.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Save this one for the real courts to figure out.

Thought leader

Charges: “How can someone hold a thought-lead, much less even lead by thought?”

Verdict: Not guilty. While the term smacks of self-importance, it was not used widely enough to be prohibitively annoying.


Charges: “Totally unnecessary when ‘important’ is sufficient.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). Mark Twain supposedly said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Technically “importantly” is an adverb, but I’m sure Twain would be happy to see it go.


Charges: “Hard to spell…anachronistic.”

Verdict: Not guilty. With spelling pretty much a lost art these days, having a few words that require people to think when their guess is out of the range of auto-correct might not be a bad thing.

Most important election of our time

Charges: “Not that we haven’t had six or seven back to back most important elections of our time.”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). To use another quote attributed to Twain: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Whether one is a political junkie or a proud ignoramus such as myself, it’s simply physically impossible for every election to be the most important of our time. Yes, it’s understandable to get emotionally caught up in elections, especially as they become more and more acrimonious. Deep breaths, folks.

Well, now that this year’s verdicts are in the books, what say you?

December 28, 2018

#143) How not to complain #7: Yes, we suck, but…

It’s no secret that the United States of America isn’t perfect. That said, I find that the “I’ve Been To 53,000 Countries And This Is What America Is Doing Wrong” trope has run its course. It’s one thing to bring up meaningful ways in which the U.S. can learn from the rest of the world, but some of the stuff I’ve seen just makes me wonder how much time the authors have on their hands. (Yes, I realize the pot just called the kettle black). Case in point: “The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre” by Joe Pinsker.

I have to admit, the title piqued my interest. The government is shut down, wildfires have recently decimated California and the problem is The Way American Parents Think About Chores? Not knowing whether to expect tongue in cheek or unintentional comedy, I climbed aboard.

As it turns out, Pinsker cites some valid, sane points. One quote is from Arizona State University psychologist Suniya Luthar: “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks his clothes up off the floor…are you saying…you’re owed something just for taking care of your stuff?” Says New York Times finance columnist Ron Lieber: “Chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation… Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

Fair enough, but where the article runs out of gas is the comparison to other countries, to which only the last three paragraphs are devoted. Thus, the piece falls into a rut I’ve found to be common to this sort of content (which, I’ll admit, I’ve probably spent more time reading than I should). Many authors seem to enjoy describing how the American way of doing something sucks more than analyzing why the other country is better and what can be learned from it.

In the latter part of the piece, Pinsker only cites one source: anthropology professor David Lancy, who argues that parents should harness kids’ natural desire to help out once they start showing it (18 months) before they learn to want something in exchange (6-7 years). There are no examples of this idea at work in other countries and its effects. How has parents not giving kids an allowance for doing chores in Agrabah made it a better country?

To be sure, Pinsker did capture my attention, if only because his premise was one that I simply wouldn’t have considered on my own. That being said, I’m not quite ready to email his article to all the mom bloggers that I know. Call it my white privilege or indifference but if Pinsker’s goal was to get me whipped up in a lather about what American kids do for an allowance, he was a few bullet points short.


December 10, 2018

#142) Christmas Songs That You Didn’t Realize Were Totally Sexist. #9 Really Opened My Eyes.

Note: this is a simulblog, posted on both D-Theory and Positive Music Place.

It’s always gratifying when karma does its job. After decades of dodging bullets, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has finally seen its day of reckoning as radio stations across the U.S. and Canada are banning this song that clearly endorses date rape. However, our work is just beginning. For every “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, “Santa Baby” or “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” that gets exposed for being the misogynistic propaganda that it is, there are dozens of other problematic holiday songs that are blindly consumed by the sheep every November and December, at once making record company and radio execs rich and perpetuating sexist rhetoric. Here is a hand-curated list of what we hope will be the next set of Christmas songs to be held accountable for their harmful content.

1. Little Drummer Boy

In 1976, a musician known to most audiences as a singer appeared on a television special and blew everyone away with a drum solo. The performer was none other than Karen Anne Carpenter. Despite her untimely death, Karen Carpenter was a pioneer, paving the way for female drum virtuosi such as Meg White, Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz), Sheila E. and jazz luminary Terri Lyne Carrington. So why is it that “Little Drummer BOY” hasn’t been updated? If we’re not ready for “Little Drummer Girl” yet, how about at least acknowledging gender fluidity by changing the words to “Little Drummer Cis-Male?”

2. Please, Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas

Why does it have to be “Daddy” that gets drunk while “Mama” cries? Also, maybe we could update the lyrics to acknowledge the many same-sex couples that are raising children in today’s world, sober or otherwise.

3. Run Run Rudolph

Sigh: another song that models obsolete gender roles in describing kids’ Christmas gift wishes. The “boy” asks for a guitar while the girl wants…you guessed it…a doll. OK, maybe Chuck Berry’s 1950s recording gets a “different times” pass, but when Luke Bryan remade the song, he had an opportunity to update the lyrics but didn’t. Swing and a miss!

4. Christmas Wrapping

This glib song from the early ’80s insidiously presents its heroine as an independent, successful woman before showing its true agenda: the only way for her to be happy on Christmas is a random encounter with the “guy [she’s] been chasing all year.”

5. Same Auld Lang Syne

Guy bumps into Ex on Christmas Eve. Ex lets it slip that she’s not happy in her marriage. Guy buys a six-pack and drinks it with Ex in the car. Our work here is done.

6. Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire (The Christmas Song)

This song contains at least two lyrics that could be updated for the #metoo era: “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” assumes gender while “Every mother’s child is going to spy…” excludes nontraditional families. Sidebar: while it’s not sexist, per se, can we do something about the line “Folks dressed up like Eskimos”? And what’s with “Kids from one to ninety-two?” Do people aged 93 and up not count?

7. It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way

Don’t let the lyrical acoustic guitar and soothing vocals of Jim Croce fool you. This song, like “Christmas Wrapping”, is a wolf in sheep’s clothes. A man, using the trope of loneliness during the holidays, implores his ex to see him on Christmas Eve. “It’s only right,” Croce creepily sings. Stalk much?

8. Linus and Lucy

Some might argue that an instrumental song can’t be sexist. Maybe so. But why does “Linus” have to come first in the song’s title? Are we going to tell the girls who watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” each year that they will always be secondary to boys?

No, it doesn’t feel good to let go of something that is familiar, but sometimes change is simply necessary. Let’s get on the right side of history and start the conversation about smashing the Christmas patriarchy.


November 15, 2018

#141) The new red flag hashtag

If you waste as much time on social media as I do, you may have noticed a new hashtag on list articles that pop up in your feed: #Nonextbuttons.

In response to growing annoyance among users at having to click “next” to work their way through lists of former child celebrities who have fallen on hard times, reasons to eat walnuts and inspirational quotes for your smaller breast, many content creators have received the message and have placed the entire list on one page and placed #nonextbuttons in the preview link.

What exactly is the problem with #nonextbuttons? Isn’t it just a perfectly reasonable response to demand in the marketplace? There’s no problem with #nonextbuttons, but it is a red flag nevertheless.

When one sees an article with #nonextbuttons, it begs the question: is this something that simply must be read, right now, next buttons or not? For “research” purposes, I decided to search #nonextbuttons on my Facebook feed and see what came up. The first five articles with that hashtag were:

Statin side effects: 5 reasons why you should not take statins

Didn’t know what a statin is before I saw this article; this article didn’t pique my curiosity just because it has #nonextbuttons so I still don’t know what a statin is.

20 tips to help you take control of your health


15 amazing attributes of God: What they mean and why they matter

I’m a Jew.

A list of the 25 best-selling video games of all time

As an on-again off again video game nerd, this topic might be of some interest to me depending on my mood, but #nonextbuttons is not a selling point. If I’m interested, I don’t mind clicking the next buttons; if I’m not, I’m not going to click to begin with.

22 foods to eat now to add years of healthy life

Yes, I know avocados are awesome. I still fucking hate them.

You and I will both probably spend way too much time online, especially on social media, before our lives are through. However, for me, each #nonextbutton has become a sort of signpost – a “has it really come to this?” moment akin to the Simpsons episode where the library has a banner proclaiming, “We have books about television.” Let’s face it, #nonextbutton is not something we are likely to come across while doing something productive. Yes, we need our down time; no one can be a hero every waking hour. Still, while I don’t begrudge people their right to use it, #nonextbutton has become a warning for me, a reminder that at that given moment, I’ve probably spent too much time on social media and should focus my energy elsewhere.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check out the list of 20 details I didn’t notice in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

May 2, 2018

#140) Book review: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever” by Josh Karp

Most people under the age of 50 haven’t heard of Doug Kenney. Until earlier this year, I was one of them. My interest in Kenney wasn’t piqued by the new Netflix film starring Will Forte, but by learning of his rise and fall, from a childhood as an outsider in his own family and in the all-American town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (where “[F]ew remember Doug Kenney…they remember…Tim Conway instead. He is Chagrin’s favorite son”) to his success at National Lampoon and then Hollywood to his untimely and mysterious death. When I visited the Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai, Hawaii last year I didn’t realize that at that same spot almost four decades earlier, a man who’d had a huge impact on the last half century of comedy either fell or jumped to his death at the age of 33. Learning that Kenney died not in a squalid hotel room or alley but in one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the fortune of seeing fueled my desire to learn more.

Like the exact circumstances surrounding his demise, Doug Kenney was elusive, even to those who knew him best. What is unambiguous is the influence that Kenney’s baby, National Lampoon, had on humor. Josh Karp writes that Kenney and his National Lampoon colleagues “[paved] the way for Saturday Night Live, the Onion, the Simpsons and nearly everything funny that has happened since 1975.” It’s a broad claim – but “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” makes its case convincingly.

As a piece of writing, “Futile” is not perfect. Karp has a tendency to tell more than show, often explaining punchlines after the fact and not making the supporting cast memorable. Kenney’s colleagues at the Lampoon, including Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, Ed Bluestone, Sean Kelley and Ted Mann are all described as one kind or another of misunderstood, creative comic genius who found their voice through the magazine, but without much compelling detail about them, their names start to blend into one another.

Where “Futile” scores is in its getting underneath subjects that haven’t been explored all that much in print but nevertheless have had a big impact on popular culture in the latter decades of the 20th century and the first few decades of this one. If Kenney isn’t a household name among today’s generation, he was associated with many people who are. Though he died less than two years after Kenney, John Belushi’s work has been transcendental. Chevy Chase’s best days may be behind him but he is as recognizable as Clark Griswold, Fletch or Ty Webb today as he was 20 or 30 years ago. Kenney’s work on “Caddyshack” as a producer and co-writer put him in close quarters with star Bill Murray and director/co-writer Harold Ramis; he also crossed paths with Dan Aykroyd. The backlash to the recent all-female “Ghostbusters” remake proves that the three stars of the original are still in the hearts and minds of fans of all ages.

“Futile” is also strong as a study of the relationship between art and commerce; the conflict among readers and advertisers between wanting to feel edgy and dealing with the consequences when edginess becomes offensiveness. Publisher Matty Simmons is the voice of reason – an authority figure with whom his writers have a love-hate relationship. At the outset, he is excited by the dangerous, boundary-pushing humor of the magazine but he soon finds himself putting out fires with angry sponsors and the increasingly influential Christian right while also trying to handle the turnover of staff that results when bruised egos cause one twenty-something writer after another to quit in a huff.

Most poignantly, perhaps, “Futile” shows the effects of personal and cultural changes over time and the inevitable decline that follows sudden success, both generically and in ways specific to the 1970s. “Nixon’s departure would leave an enormous void,” Karp says of the effect Watergate had on the Lampoon. “He’d been a treasure, bringing with him a group of would-be civil servants and hangers-on who were unparalleled in their capacity to be parodied. And now they were gone.” By the mid 1970s, so were co-founder Henry Beard and the brilliant but volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who left to become the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. Kenney continued to drift in and out; Karp describes his relationship with the magazine at this point as “emeritus.” By the late 1970s, the Lampoon staff was “not capable of operating at the same level…[r]ather than appearing out of nowhere, they had been influenced by National Lampoon. They were National Lampoon writers, not individual voices that came to the Lampoon.”

Looking through the lens of hindsight, Karp accepts that the Lampoon’s decline was inevitable. The brand would flourish financially in the 1980s, thanks mainly to a series of successful movies, but the magazine’s days as the bad boy of American humor were long gone, a casualty both of changing times and a staff of erstwhile smart-asses who eventually became part of the establishment they hated. As staff writer and editor P.J. O’Rourke said, “We were standing in the flower garden with our noses pressed up against the window, making faces at the grown-ups eating inside. There would come a time for most of us when it would be time to go into the house, take our places and have faces made at us in return.”

Did Doug Kenney’s inability to grow up kill him? For much of the book, Kenney is portrayed as a manchild, “burdened by a desire to belong and a mistrust of the very same.” He craves success, in particular to please his straight-laced family, but doesn’t seem to know how to handle it (the scene in “Caddyshack” where Cindy Morgan discovers a large, uncashed check in Chevy Chase’s room was inspired by an incident with Kenney). Of Kenney’s move to Hollywood, Karp writes, “Though he was now the financial, commercial and artistic success he had spoken of becoming…when he was penniless and living off handouts, Doug Kenney was unfulfilled…he was a success and at the center of a hip, smart, funny social circle that adored him…yet it meant nothing. Somehow it was ill-gotten and illegitimate.”

Ultimately, Karp concludes that Kenney’s death was an “accident that was no accident.” Kenney “knew himself too well, and as a result knew himself not at all.” While those he left behind can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived longer, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a celebration of Doug Kenney’s brief time on earth and its influence that can still be felt.