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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

That Is All Ye Know On Earth, And All Ye Need To Know -or- Old Age and Treachery

On his late-night TV talk show, Craig Ferguson delivered a monologue about how American society has turned away from reverence of age and life experience, and toward the slavish glorification of youth. He delivered the monologue in July 2009; again this week, at least in my tiny corner of the online world, it went moderately viral.

Ferguson ended it with something of a throwaway line about a pop-culture phenomenon of that moment which has since faded, relatively speaking; if he were to make this speech again, he’d change the reference, and it would be fine, probably accurate, and just as much a relatively trivial punchline-ish way to end an otherwise pretty philosophical piece.

(I know something about that phenomenon, I admit.)

The video is here; it’s fun to listen Ferguson deliver it in his mostly-penetrable Scottish accent. But I include the text here, too, because there’s one bit in it that wasn’t Ferguson’s main point … but it got my attention.

 

“I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured it out.

“’What?’ I’ll tell you.

“Everything. Why everything sucks.

“Here’s why. In the 1950s, late ’50s, early ’60s, a bunch of advertising guys got together on Madison Avenue and decided that what they were trying to do was sell products to younger people. They thought, ‘We should try to sell to younger people because then they will buy things their whole lives. So we’ll try to sell them soft drinks, or bread, or cigars’ or whatever the hell they were selling them. And they thought, ‘we’ll try and appeal to young people.’ It was just an advertising thing, they didn’t mean any harm by it, just a little bit of market research.

“And so they did that, and they told the television companies, and the movie companies, and the record companies — and everybody started targeting the youth. Because the youth was the place where you were going to be able to sell things.

“And what happened was that in a strange kind of quirk of fate, youth began to be celebrated by society – in a way that it had never been, at any time in human history. Because what used to be celebrated was experience, and cleverness. But what happened was, what became valuable was youth — and the quality of youth, which made you a consumer.

“So what happened was, they started concentrating on these people.

“I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying ‘but wait a minute, Craig, in ancient Greece they deified youth.’ No they didn’t. They deified beauty. Ah! Different. Right?

“What happened is that youth became more important and became more important and became more important. Society started to turn on its head. Because with the deification of youth – youth has a byproduct. The byproduct of youth is inexperience. By the nature of having youth you don’t have any experience. You’re too young to have it. It’s not your fault. You’re just kind of stupid.

“So they sell you stuff. Right?

“So therefore, the deification of youth began, but the deification of youth didn’t stop there. The deification of youth kind of evolved, and turned into the deification of imbecility. It became fashionable and desirable to be young and to be stupid. And that started to become a fashion. And that grew, and that grew, and that grew, and now that’s what all the kids want to be. ‘I just want to be young and stupid!’ But you know what? That’s not what you want to be. You don’t want to be young and stupid.

“And then what happened is that people were frightened to not be young. They didn’t want to not be young; they didn’t want get older, so they started dyeing their hair, they started mutilating their faces and their bodies in order to look young. But you can’t be young forever, that’s against the laws of the universe!

“All of these horrible [trends], all of these terrible movement[s]. Nobody meant it. Nobody meant any harm. But now we’re in this terrible place where we have the f#@%ing Jonas Brothers!”

 

It really is even better with the accent.

But the line that got me was this one <*cassette-tape rewinding sound*>:

what used to be celebrated was experience, and cleverness. But … what became valuable was youth … ‘but wait a minute, Craig, in Ancient Greece they deified youth.’ No they didn’t. They deified beauty. Ah! Different. Right?

Again, not the main thrust; but it raises a question, the answer to which has been different in different cultures on Earth – and has changed within some of those cultures from century to century, decade to decade, even week to week, seemingly. The question: what did the ancient Greeks consider beautiful? What is beautiful to us? What is attractive?

I’ll admit: I chuckled at a few moments in the movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary”. Now, it’s a chick flick; and I am not a chick. But I’ve occasionally been exposed to them. (Ask me sometime about “Notting Hill”.) It’s my wish to avoid being seen as entertainable by anything other than highbrow, relentlessly intelligent artistic creations – must not glorify mediocrity! (I refer you straight back Craig Ferguson’s phrase, “the deification of imbecility”.) Still, some of those movies that aren’t exactly “Lawrence of Arabia” do have their moments. Like this one: one of Bridget Jones’s diary entries, as narrated by the wonderful Renee Zellweger:

Feel need to do something to stop aging process, but what? Cannot afford face-lift … Why do I look old? Why? … Decided needed to spend more time on appearance like Hollywood stars and have therefore spent ages putting concealer under eyes, blusher on cheeks and defining fading features.

“Good God,” said Tom when I arrived.

“What?” I said. “What?’

“Your face. You look like Barbara Cartland.”

As a culture, we’re pretty seriously hung-up on this.

 

There’s an article by Eddy Elmer and James Houran, published by a company called 20/20 Skills™, entitled “Physical Attractiveness in the Workplace: Customers Do Judge Books by Their Covers”; its purpose is to “review and summarize classic and contemporary research on the psychology of attractiveness and propose ideas and guidelines to help the service-hospitality industry seize opportunities to use ‘beauty in business.’”

This could be seen as an industry’s attempt to pull an ethical end-run on the government regulations that address discrimination on the basis of factors that people can’t control – their genes, hello! But never mind that, for now…

The authors first deal with “universally preferred physical features” that they suggest have been associated (across all cultures) with physical and psychological traits that can be indicators of good physical (reproductive!) health. Clear skin, vibrant hair … symmetrical face and body … some gender-specific characteristics that indicate good health, good ability to be a protector, good ability to bear healthy children. Humans seem to prefer “cuteness”, i.e. baby-like features that signal nurturance … and to prefer facial features that imply maturity and strength. The authors emphasize that “average faces and bodies are composites that wash out extreme ends on the continuum of various features (i.e., they indicate the absence of potentially maladaptive genes).”

On the other hand, the authors propose this: “In both sexes unattractive facial features [according to somebody! -Ed.] are often offset by attractive physiques. … [C]ertain physical, but non-anatomical features … can either counteract anatomical flaws or … can by themselves be more physically attractive than the kinds of anatomical features mentioned above.” They cite examples: a person’s physical style (posture, stature, gait, eye contact, smile) … a person’s body image (level of comfort with their own body), e.g. someone whose comfort with their own looks can counteract their physical flaws and make them appear more physically attractive than someone with already above-average looks [All of which is in the eye of the hypothetical “average” beholder out there somewhere. -Ed.] … a person’s level of physicality with others … and personal hygiene, grooming and dress (“in some cases, exceptional presentation can make average or not-so-attractive faces and bodies look quite physically attractive.)

Then they suggest “situational factors” that might go some way toward convincing us that someone is physically attractive, including: people who are familiar to us (you’re safer if you know who they are, screams our evolutionary sense – although, heaven knows, that is not always the case) … people who are in our general vicinity for longer periods of time than those who aren’t (Hmm. Bang goes “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. -Ed.] … people with positive personal qualities, whose physical imperfections we may overlook, and even notice less over time. They quote an article from BBC History Magazine, whose writer suggests that “[t]he overriding characteristic of female beauty is … charisma. This goes a long way towards explaining the appeal of women such as Mary, Queen of Scots, whose attraction is hard to understand from her portraits alone.”

One really interesting example of a situational factor that the article’s authors cite: “People with whom we have experienced something emotional or physically arousing are often perceived as more attractive than they were before such an experience” [i.e. after sharing a “heart-to-heart” talk, or enduring a traumatic situation, with someone – that person may seem more physically attractive than they did before the event] … due not only to the familiarity that results from being next to that person, but also the emotional energy that is created by the situation.”

 

As I was reading all that, and was starting to write this, unconsciously I started to assemble a roster of people I’ve known personally or at least have observed closely, who might defy current American conventions of beauty and attractiveness, or might not even really address them … but that I think qualify as perfectly attractive for some of the aforementioned reasons. Amongst them …

[] My seven-year-old nephew, specifically his face when he tells me a joke he *knows* is funny. Could be that there’s a lot of my Dad’s face looking back at me; but the glint in his eye is a world-beater.

[] People in the church choir I conduct, when we’ve just nailed the anthem of the morning and we know it. We are the very picture of facial and physical diversity, but everyone has that look of “…yeah.”

[] My two favorite performers from the original British version of the theater-improvisation TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, Sandi Toksvig and Mike McShane. Never appeared on any fashion-and-beauty magazine cover. Ever. But they could be among the very funniest, most inventive humans on the planet.

[] A couple I know, who will be married soon. Pictures of them surface on my Facebook news feed from time to time. It would be your call, whether you think either of them will make the cover of Vogue magazine, as an example of perfect American physical beauty. But when they’re pictured together, the way they obviously feel about each other makes them more beautiful than anything Vogue puts on its cover lately.

[] On any re-run of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” when the great comedian JoAnn Worley pops out of the Joke Wall and ad-libs a retort to a fellow actor’s punchline, she makes you want to go in and take part in that silliness, too, doesn’t she?

[] I’m thinking of a particular college friend who, as soon as she stepped out on the ballroom-dance floor, possessed such grace that people could not look away. It’s arguable whether “Dancing With the Stars”, had it existed, would have felt the need to cast her, on looks alone. Their loss. In the moments when I had the good fortune to attempt to be a Good Lead for her, her dancing skills – and significantly, her face and smile – made me like myself as a dancer.

[] From a drum corps video recording that I get to see at least once a summer: a member of a senior drum corps who is very much a senior citizen, whose wealth of grey hair easily sets him apart from most of the other pit percussionists in the corps that year. He looks more like the current version of Jack Nicholson than he looks like Tom Cruise, by a lot … but the utter concentration on his face and in his stance always gets a smiling reaction from the Drum Major Academy video audience. “This bell-tree passage is the most important thing in my life right now,” his face says, and we want to hear him talk more about how much he likes his gig.

[] A friend and colleague of mine, whose smile alone carries the day when it flashes in my direction. Regardless of what the rest of assemblage looks like, pop-culture-attractive or not, that smile goes with me afterward.

[] The DMA staff members, of whom I have recently written in glowing terms. Some absolutely do fit the classic American standard of magazine-cover attractiveness; some fit to a lesser degree. But they are smart, funny, friendly, loyal, competent (as previously chronicled) … and when we re-assemble at whatever DMA location is next on the summer schedule, they’re the best-looking group of people I know, in that moment.

[] My late uncle. He had a number of non-average physical attributes, to say the least. When he walked or sat, he stooped over this way; he inherited the same limited-head-of-hair genes that I’ve got!; and he needed a cushion on his driver’s seat, in order to be able to be up high enough to drive the slick little VW Beetle that he did. He was not, by any stretch, a model for the next Greek statue to be chiseled. But when my five-year-old self brought out an armful of my newest toys to show him, Uncle Carl looked as interested as could be, and I was inspired to bring out yet more of them.

 

Every example on this list reflects, to some degree, the suggestions of a different article, which I’d read some time ago, and happily was able to find again recently. Which were:

Imperfections make people special. Be it a mole, a [front-tooth] gap or even a scar, beauty can always be found in these so-called ‘flaws’. Embrace the features that make you unique – it’s what makes you irreplaceable.

I suppose one could look at Craig Ferguson and suppose that he’s maybe not the most absolutely handsome fellow on the planet, and list various facial features or other attributes to prove one’s case. But there are a lot of people who watch his program regularly, and think he’s a better late-night talk show host than almost any of his competitors and colleagues, for reasons which have nothing to do with his not being a male-supermodel type. And I’m sure there are many people who hold both those views.

I think there must be a good reason why Keats didn’t write, in his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, “beauty is youth, youth beauty”.

It’s not always.

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August 14, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Church Has Left the Building

About a year and a half ago, the leadership of the church where I “church-gig” decided we needed a renewed focus.

It’s fine to put up lovely Sunday morning services, and it’s even fine to hold lots of activities at church during the week. And it’s just as fine to provide helpful organizations like Al-Anon and our local Savoyards group (which donates its profits to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, specifically to fight hunger in the world) with a place to hold their meetings.

But, said our senior pastor, we need to get out of our building.

Partly this was because, as our Social Principles document suggests, we properly demonstrate our faith not just by talking about it but by doing good works. And, whew!, there’s so much work to be done out there in the big world. All kinds of people need all kinds of help; and if we can be of help, we ought to be of help. Bring food to food pantries. Send supplies and helpers when natural disasters strike. All that good stuff. We call it “outreach”.

Also, the Methodist owner’s manual suggests that we ought to try and bring folks into our fold. In another post in this space, I described briefly how happy I am that when you look up “acquiring new members” in the Methodist rule book, it does not say “put up large billboards” or “get in people’s faces and demand that they repent on the spot”. We prefer a style that some might call more passive-aggressive, but I would just call more considerate.

Acquiring new members – or, “making new disciples,” as the Social Principles more elegantly put it – may require a bit more effort than just having a church building and pointing to it and saying, “…come join? … We’re nice?”

So, our leadership created a gently descriptive slogan for our new efforts, 18 months ago or so: “The Church Has Left the Building.”

On the Sunday we kicked off this campaign, we worshipped out in front of our church building … so that passing motorists might notice, and who knows who might remember that and come by again later? And afterward, some of us went across town to help build some picnic tables for a local school’s play yard; while others of us went around the corner to sing and play tunes for the residents of an assisted-living community … and there were a couple of other project destinations, as well, which escape me at the moment. You could look at it as advertising; we preferred to think of it as a prelude, hopefully, to further interaction.

The effort reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my high school band students, early in my teaching career. Probably ninety-percent-jokingly, he chuckled, “oh, we don’t like freshmen.” I suggested that perhaps this might not be the best philosophy ever; and my student actually nodded as I was saying it. “Yeah, I don’t think I mean that, really.” Right, I said, because if we don’t get new freshmen each year … eventually we die.

Certainly, a very similar conversation happens within the leadership of most denominations nowadays. Fewer and fewer people, when polled, are indicating that they are regular members of any religious organization. Our senior pastor reported that in pastor circles, those people are nicknamed “Nones”.

 

So, last night, after spending quite a bit of time watching the television news coverage of yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing, I did what any journalism-fatigued soul would do: went online and started observing the Internet’s coverage. Obviously.

And in short order, I spied the first two indications that this event had turned the corner, going from “horrible disastrous event that affected a state, a nation and the whole world” to “hey! an opportunity to hitch my wagon to this star”.

The first indication was when a radio talk show host supposed that the blasts in Boston had been a government plot from the beginning (so within a couple hours, we had “Marathon Truthers”, I guess). Talkers gonna talk… If you have a three-hour show every day, ya gotta fill it with some damn thing, I guess.

The second indication, I suppose, should not have surprised me.

The Westboro Baptist Church weighed in.

 

These people from Topeka, Kansas, hold simply hateful views and appear to have been deprived of parental attention as toddlers. The WBC has made a name for itself by holding demonstrations outside public events like football games, music concerts, and funerals. An average of six every single day, by their own estimates. For a long time, they’ve seemed to me to be a pack of Johnny-One-Notes: their whole raison d’picket is that they believe some event has something to do with that nasty ol’ gay agenda thingy. Their favorite slogan suggests that God hates gay persons, although they express it using instead that word that starts with “F” and in England also means cigarettes and in Italian musical scores happens to be the abbreviation for “bassoon”, as the word originally meant “pile of sticks”, and let’s face it, a bassoon looks like a tree-trunk with a mouthpiece.

Sorry. Digression. But you now know what word they use, which I won’t use, since it’s an epithet and I don’t do epithets, unless they’re creative, such as Shakespeare used to invent.

In fact, the URL of the WBC’s website is … well … it’s “that slogan”-dot-com. Seriously. They don’t shy away from it. They’ve linked plenty of picketable events to the scourge of The Gay, events you’d hardly expect to have anything to do with it. Notably, one of those events was the funeral of a member of the US military, killed in Afghanistan. Hmmm. Mysterious. And another of those notable events was a Kansas City Chiefs football game. Hmmm. Doubly, triply mysterious. The NFL? Really? Really?

(Y’all read the papers?)

So, they’re focused – and their church Has Left The Building. I’ll give them that.

 

I’ll also give them this – a gentle thought or two:

I don’t espouse violence, and certainly the past day has been one to decry violence; it’s no civilized way to make a point.

I don’t espouse shouting people down, because that’s no way for people to come to an understanding either.

I don’t even really think counter-demonstrations are helpful (satisfying, yes) – even though I understand other people’s need to carry out counter-demonstrations – the need to try to demonstrate to you just how heartless and cruel your First-Amendment-protected expressions appear, to everybody but you. All that does is bring out the journalists to cover the point-counterpoint, and regardless of what transpires after that, in the end that only gets you the attention you obviously so desperately crave, and cements in your mind how right you are to do what you do.

What makes this country great, or at least admirable, is that our system of government’s guiding document protects your right to say things. And it protects everybody else’s right to respond. Implicitly, it supports both those rights so long as the sentiments are not irresponsible or do not endanger other people. I’ll leave it to other people in other spaces to decide whether the WBC expressions always meet this standard.

So I would hate to ban the WBC from even being able to express itself, no matter how awful I think their expressions are. Don’t want a Constitutional crisis. Don’t want that particular slippery slope.

But how you can be a member of an organization that reportedly spends a quarter-million dollars a year on this picketing effort (how many hungry people would that money feed, I wonder?) … how you can be a member of an organization that suggests that God hates anybody (again, isolated bits of the Old Testament aside, that’s not the God that I learned about in Sunday School) … how you can be a member of an organization that thanks its particular God for acts of violence and claims that those acts were perpetrated to demonstrate how right it is to hold their particular views … and still call yourself a member of a church?

You’re just foolin’ yourselves.

That’s no church that I was ever taught about in Sunday School.

And your church has left more than just its building, I think.

 

Again, let me be clear. My Sunday School lessons included plenty about turning the other cheek … about loving other people as you love yourself … and I have ever held fast to those tenets. I do not – do NOT – support the use of violence. As the illuminated Martin Luther King Jr. quote in New York City said last night, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”

But if you have the guts to issue a press release less than a day after bombs kill three people and injure and maim more than 170 others … a press release that praises God for sending that violent act, regardless of what reason you think s/he sent it …

and then if you have the guts to hold your usual kind of demonstration outside the funeral of an innocent eight-year-old kid from Dorchester, Massachusetts – who was at the Marathon not because he cared a toot about gay marriage but because he wanted to cheer on his dad as he finished running a 26-mile road race – and whose only mistake was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, right in front of that first bomb …

Amazingly … somehow, because s/he is capable of it where arguably no one else on Earth is capable of it … the God that I was brought up to believe in will still love you.

I can’t speak for the residents of that little kid’s Dorchester neighborhood though.

I dunno. You all may have chosen a very poor bear to poke, this time.

April 16, 2013 Posted by | civil rights, current events, journalism, media, news, politics, religion, social media, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

That’s, Like…

Optional soundtrack for this post, here.

 

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine last weekend …

No, I really was! This is not some fabricated story of a fabricated conversation, created in my own head to act as a great setup for a story … or a joke … this was honestly a real live conversation between two individuals!

(My apologies. Got a little defensive there.)

But on its way hither, thither and yon, this conversation looped around toward the topic of online social media outfits and their effects upon civilization. And upon us.

We each were decidedly of two minds. (So we totaled four? Again, sorry.)

We agreed that we were pleased that the invention of Facebook came AFTER we’d been in college. Time-sucker that FB and its equivalents are … well, heck, time-sucker that the entire Internet is … I’m fairly convinced that I would have been burning even MORE midnight oil than I did as it was, in the mid-1980s when the standard writing implement of destruction (or thesis projects) was the electric typewriter. In the case of my colleague, yes, the late ’90s and early 2000s (the “Oughts”, as cable newser Rachel Maddow has occasionally called them) featured an Internet and computers that did better work than the old TRS-80s; but neither of us recalled the online world being quite as quick to relieve a user of their precious time as is the case now.

(On the other hand, social media sites are terrific for event organization, particularly if speed is required. Quick! We need to gather many people at this location for this purpose! And, in my experience, it also can be good for calling off events that need to be called off. Quick! Bad idea!! Never mind!!!)

For a few years in the mid-2000s, I worked with college band folks, and I heard about this curious thing called Facebook. Didn’t really pay much attention to it – during my freshman year in college, I had a Facebook too: it was a book (y’know, with paper pages and hard cover) that was full of faces, specifically many members of the newly-arrived UMass class of 1988. Kind of a yearbook in reverse. I assumed it was an electronic version. And since I wasn’t a student, I wasn’t eligible anyway. No matter: I had eMail for my communication device, which was of course state-of-the-art.

In this space, virtual online ink has been spilled fairly often regarding online comment sections. Nearly no more need be said about how easy it is to lash out at an online writer – and yet here I go – making special note of the ease with which it is now possible to say the most hateful and horrid things about people, because writer and critic not only will probably never meet, the critic need not hold back because screen names create a virtually airtight defense. Anonymity is empowering. If someone lobs a water balloon off the top of the building but the damp person below doesn’t see who let it go … the lobber is perfectly safe.

After the conversation finished and we parted company, I was still thinking about some of my online behaviors. The one about which I got thinking the hardest was that amazing creation of Mr. Zuckerberg and his Facebook invention:

The “Like” button.

In this context, the word Like is, indeed, capitalized. Not just to distinguish it properly as an function of within FB, but because, well, I can read lots of things online and enjoy them, but to click that ol’ Like button means I am registering my official appreciation for a thought, or an event, or a concept. Or a company …

Split-seconds after the Like-clicking, one is offered the opportunity to Unlike something … to declare a mulligan, to pull an Emily Litella. But I’m uncertain: is it better to leave something Liked when the Liking was a mistake (after all, is this Liking an earth-shaking, history-changing event? Likely not) [sorry. Pun]? … or … is the owner of the Liked concept then alerted when the change happens? Is that someone Notified (again, capitalization is key) that “Rob Likes this”, and then later they read that “Rob has Unliked this”?

Seems kinda mean, if that’s the case. But then, Facebook doesn’t offer us an opportunity to click on a Dislike button. Or at least hasn’t yet.

So, the Like button becomes an online comment section – and a remarkably positive one – for people who either don’t wish to (or have the time to) use actual sentences to approve of stuff.

Unfortunately (at least, I can imagine, according to some of its early users), Facebook has now been transformed into just as much a commercial avenue. “Hello, Americans,” bellows political news analyst Ed Schultz, “thanks for watching The Ed Show, and don’t forget to Like us on Facebook.” One could imagine doing so because one actually likes the show … but one can also Like a car company, which the car company likes or even loves because another Facebook user has been opened up to the company’s advertising blasts.

Not, I suspect, what the early users had in mind at all.

I double-checked to see what organizations I had officially Liked, back at the beginning of my Facebook existence. Turns out, no commercial enterprises (something of a relief), but instead: five fine scholastic music ensembles, two publicradio programs, one non-public-radio program, two friends’ home businesses (neither a corporate giant!), the Drum Major Academy, a memorial FB site, my high school alumni association, and this very blog. (But not a partridge in a pear tree. Which is fine, as I probably don’t want any advertising spam from the pear tree lobby.)

Meantime, I have occasionally logged on to Facebook, scrolled down the News Feed and reacted to status posts, news items, concert PR, and all kinds of other contributions, and found myself committing a lot of Like-clickery. Every so often, after a dozen or so Like moments, I’ve been known to post, “I’m Liking things and I can’t shut up.”

But I will admit to feeling a little tiny glow whenever I’ve been Notified that someone used their little clicky mouse to express appreciation for one of my thoughts, deep or shallow. So … if a large chunk of humanity is now caught in a spiral of low-intensity admiration that identifies the admirer … I suppose it’s preferable to one alternative: high-intensity anonymous flame-throwing.

January 9, 2013 Posted by | Facebook, media, social media | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment