Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pardon Me, My Head’s Exploding

Here’s another one from the “You Can’t Make This Shit Up” file: The Skinny Website (conveniently available at is described by its creator/moderator, Rian, as a site for “celebrity gossip and trends pertaining to weight, diet and exercise.” Rian says that for many folks, “celebrity weight-watching has become a hobby” and the site is “just for fun.” Uh-huh, a veritable measuring cup of malnourished monkeys.

In practice, catering to this hobby involves Rian providing a couple of dozen links to photos and commentary on Hollywood’s full roster of Ashleys, Britneys, Jessicas, Jennifers, Kates and Kellys et al, followed by the considered opinions of site faithfuls. There’s no learning curve to slow down newbies, since the pix, plugs and pans are also divided into such categories as celebrity diets, celebrity eating disorders, celebrity skeletons, celebrity cellulite, celebrity baby weight, celebrity flab and bulges and, my personal favorite, celebrities eating.

This last item leads to such shocking food porn as “Hayden Panettiere Eats a Sandwich,” “Kristen Kreuk Eats Ice Cream” and for especially heavy breathing, “Anna Kournikova Eats in a Bikini.” They comment on the celebs and they comment on the food, frequently wishing they could have some of it. I wish I was making this up.

Every day on The Skinny Website, those posting comments discuss such weighty issues as Lindsay Lohan’s ass (too big), Angelina Jolie’s “pencil-thin” arms (too small?; the vote’s not in) and Sophie Monk’s hip bones. I’ve never heard of Sophie Monk. Or her hip bones. As a public service, Rian points out celebs who are “scary skinny” and reminds readers that there is such a thing as too thin, and good health is what matters. Most of them don’t care; it’s all about thin, by any means necessary.

And these folks are harsh! They label numerous 23-year-old starlets as “old and tired,” call cute chubby chicks like Jennifer Hudson “disgusting fat pigs” and express concern that women who are a size 6 are becoming “overweight.” Indeed, it seems that anyone above a size 2 is deemed overweight and needs to stop “letting herself go.” Just yesterday, I read a post in which the writer said if she looked like Beyonce (a disgusting fat pig), she would kill herself. Understandable. Beyonce is not “toned.” She is not “buff.” She is not a “fat-free lady.”

For those in pursuit of self-help, there are handy reference categories, including Fat Loss 4 Idiots, Negative Calories, Master Cleanse and Pregnancy Without Pounds. By the way, pregnant celebs are watched closely so fans can see their “baby bump.” There was a picture of preggers Nicole Richie leaving a gym; her baby bump looked like a small, bad case of gas.

There are a few voices of quasi-reason who champion being fit and healthy instead of tin-rib skinny, who challenge the idea that anyone who is a size 4 can possibly be fat in any way, and suggest that a size 0 (yes, zero) may be a little too small. Radicals! But I did learn a new term I like: body fascism. Those who resist the anti-fat crazies call those fat police body fascists. I love that.

Needless to say, as a fat activist and firm believer in body autonomy, I am aghast at the tone and content of this site. Rian may say it’s all in fun, but this is the kind of crap that promotes fat hate and its attendant behaviors. More important, this site is emblematic of a large segment of public sentiment, not just about stars and size but everybody and size. Those posting on this site constantly spew forth all the standard anti-fat propaganda: fat is deadly, fat people are lazy/ugly/stupid, it’s easy to not be fat (just shut your big fat mouth), thin is the only form of beauty, health is a social responsibility. And on. And on.

I’ve given alot of thought to what I could say to this fat-hating audience that might encourage them to see things in a different light – even just a little. It’s not that I want the whole world to love fat, to approve of it, to praise it. I’d just like to help stop the meanness and the anger. It actually pisses these people off that anyone is fat, even people who aren’t really fat. But to them, anyone who isn’t scary-skinny and hard as a brick wall is fat and fat is about the worst thing you can be, just a notch above pedophiles and double-agents. What a lonely, difficult thing it must be to live and work as a young actress today. How hard it is to be an ordinary person more afraid of fat than a pandemic disease. How painful it is to be fat, even a little fat, in a culture that despises you for it. Why can’t the fat-haters see how much this harms us all?

How can anyone talk to these people about discrimination and false values and a shocking lack of human kindness? They’re on a completely different wavelength and their frequency is more closely attuned to the general public than it is to me. I’ve noticed recently that everything I see on TV, everything – movies and sitcoms from every era, talk shows, newscasts, cooking shows, stand-up comedy, commercials, shopping channels, even documentaries – includes some kind of anti-fat comment. How do you fight that?

When I think about what the fat acceptance movement wants to achieve juxtaposed against rabidly anti-fat public opinion, I’m winded with defeat. I don’t know where to begin. But I’m going to keep thinking about it and talking about it with other fat-friendly folks. Many entrenched social ideas have been changed; it isn’t necessarily hopeless. Maybe. Meanwhile, this whole unpleasant business has made me hungry. I’m going to make a sandwich.
I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Word For Word

I’m not sure what made me suddenly realize it – maybe it was a bad movie (so many of them are), or a stupid TV show (is that redundant?), or surfing the too-often-mediocre waves of the worldwide yada-yada, but it suddenly hit me that the American vocabulary is being reduced to a handful of dull words, dumb phrases and clumsy constructs.

To wit (or lack of it), it is almost impossible to hear or read today’s language without being assaulted by innumerable repetitions of: like, wow, do, OMG (or the full OhMyGod), so, totally, man, fat, thick, ugh!, dude, bitch, all, shit, buzz, fuck, shut the fuck up, really, what up, word, buff, baby bump, way/no way, retro, up (as in: “this dude was all up in my face”), out (as in: “change this out”), hottie, amazing, fug, signify, represent, WTF, LOL, IMO, BTW and all the other texting abbreviations. There is, of course, the ubiquitous whatever, hello and duh! and, leading the pack, the now-rendered-meaningless icon and awesome. The controversial nigga still abounds, but I prefer that to the infantile N-word. And I don’t care what anyone sez (er, says…), there is no car, no item of clothing, no post-adolescent hunk that is to die for.

As if this weren’t enough to give one, like, pause, there is the matter of contractions (the kind that don’t precede childbirth). You’re seems to be dying a fairly swift death replaced by your for all occasions, while its, dont, cant, wont, etc., have been stripped of their apostrophes. under the heading “type faster, not smarter,” everywhere i look, people are writing entirely in lower-case letters – not as an homage to e.e. cummings, as was the case in the 60s, but because they’re too lazy to periodically press the Shift key. Re-reading the previous sentence, I’m reminded that the distinctions among there, their and they’re are becoming a dim memory and too is apparently too much trouble to be bothered with, to.

Malapropisms are making a big come-back, even though few people know what a malapropism is anymore or recognize one when they hear it. Not long ago, I heard a woman compliment another by telling her she was “just superfluous” and another woman describe her kitchen as the hub-bub of her home. Indeed, a house has become a home and even when walls and doors are involved, we no longer have rooms, we have areas.

Furthermore, when it comes to fashion and interior design, we no longer have colors and fabrics, we have colorations and fabrications – adding confusion to insult and injury, since people want their homes to have a classic contemporary look filled with casual elegance. I call this the jumbo baby shrimp devolution of American English. The only new phrase in the décor vocabulary I really like is mid-century modern, since it refers to the 50s and 60s, which is where I am firmly and unapologetically rooted. I am not a 21st century person!

I know language is a living thing that must change as cultures change; I know that for hundreds of years, the printing press has made language more stable for much longer than it ever was before and that it’s reasonable for digital technology to have its own impact now. But I love language, its nuances and subtleties and variety, and seeing it truncated in a charmless way as an ode to ignorance and speed just breaks my heart.

Finally, there is this: we seem to have dispensed with the past tense. Apparently, past is just too old to deal with. So we end up hearing a mixed tense that I don’t know the name of (but which makes me tense) that goes like this: Jennifer and Sean were so totally bummed out by their parents’ reaction to their marriage that they steal Sean’s dad’s car and drive out west. They stay with Sean’s friend Brad in Denver and Sean gets a job waiting tables in a ski lodge while Jennifer finds herself behind the fryer at Burger King. What the hell is this called – and how can we kill it?

It looks like having a passion for Harry Potter hasn’t been enough to make kids want to read anything else, and their older siblings (as well as their folks) don’t read anything more challenging than fanzines and tabloids. As a writer and a reader, I am way dismayed. If I knew how, I’d give it all the bomb.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

To Everything a Season

In a few hours, when the sun sets on the East Coast, North American followers of two of the world’s primary religions will begin the observance of their holiest time of the year: Judaism’s spiritually sober yet celebratory New Year, Rosh Hashanah and Islam’s month-long period of sacred reflection and daytime fasting, Ramadan. These holidays are, in tone and intent, akin to Lent in Christianity.

As a Jew, Rosh Hashanah has personal meaning for me, a rich blend of childhood memories and comfortable ritual that enriches the importance of this holiday. As an ordained Interfaith minister, I regard the confluence of these two holidays as a powerful divine command to take stock, reassess and atone, as well as reflect, rejoice, renew and restore. And coming on the heels of the September 11th anniversary, I appreciate the equally-strong secular imperative to slow down and look within, instead of zooming about in our usual frantic manner of behaving like human doings rather than human beings. This is a time for sincere beingness, lest we lose sight of who we are and what we’re doing.

As a Tarotist, I enjoy the fact that both the Jewish and Muslim holidays are based on the lunar calendars that chronicle these religions. In the Tarot, the Moon is the 18th card in the Major Arcana and, not incidentally, 18 is the number that corresponds to the Hebrew word chai (life) and Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (and 2 x 9 = 18…). The Moon represents the life of the soul in darkness and in light; it stands for what is hidden and the necessity of revelation. Ramadan calls for “the spiritual cleansing of the soul through restraint” (by fasting and sexual abstinence); Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year,” initiates a period of spiritual growth and redemption.

It may be a cliché to say that true faith and humanity should express itself through peace, forgiveness and unity, especially at this time of the year, but cliché or not, that is what’s so and it’s worth repeating until it sinks in. Whatever your faith (or lack of it) may be, I hope you will join me in expressing a heartfelt wish that all of humankind will use its beliefs and intelligence to make the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan a functioning reality every day of the year.

Monday, September 10, 2007

September 11th Continues

I was depressed on that crisp blue morning, so I slept through the most horrific enemy attack ever to occur on American soil. I slept through the dozens of police cars, fire engines and ambulances that roared down the boulevard under my window to Ground Zero. I slept through the collapse of both towers; ten seconds each that turned 110 stories of steel, concrete and glass into eight stories of rubble and fire and evaporated people. Once I did wake up in late afternoon, I, like most of America, sat limp and riveted to the newscasts, watching the assault and the fall, over and over again, far into the night. I was very sad and very mad and really scared.

Six years later, I’m still beside myself – not just about the nightmare of that day, but also about the outrages that have followed. I don’t hold with the conspiracy theorists who think the government either let it happen or made it happen, but I do believe that Bush & Co. have callously, brazenly, used the events of September 11th to achieve their money-grubbing, fear-mongering, power-ravenous goals. In the name of national security they have robbed us of basic civil rights and Constitutional protections. They have squelched anything resembling a loyal opposition; to them, there is no such thing. They have lied and connived the American people into the most stupid, expensive and totally unnecessary war in our history, and themselves into untold additional wealth. They are pirates and devils and couldn’t have been worse for this country if Osama bin Laden had hand-picked them to continue his demented plan.

Every time I see a movie or TV program that offers a glimpse of the towers in all their skyscraping glory, I involuntarily gasp and a vibration of crippling loss shakes within me. I wince for those who died, the loved ones they left behind and the lesser nation that we have become since the attack. I know we’ll never go back to the confidence – or complacency – that existed when those towers stood. And I fear that we may never reclaim the freedoms we lost.

I read in the New York Times last week that many people are “annoyed” with the annual day of mourning, the bagpipes and drums, the reading of the names of the dead; they think it’s time for us to “move on.” My God, that is so us: shit happens, get over it! We fear grief as much as death itself. I do think we would do well to find other, perhaps more meaningful, ways to remember the dead and uplift the living. But we don’t dare forget what we lost that day and in the years that followed. Our survival, our humanity and our democracy depend on our not forgetting – or sleeping too deeply on a crisp blue morning.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Laboring Under a Delusion

Millions of hard-working Americans are in the middle of frenzied Labor Day Sale shopping today. Some of us will notice that almost everything we buy was made in China, or some other country that isn’t ours. Some of us will care, many will not. It is not my intention to put down American workers; we’re underpaid, overworked, and function in an employment infrastructure that provides little or no security or support, including a general lack of health insurance and the constant threat that our Social Security will disappear. However, I do want to point out that very few of us classify ourselves as workers. Nobody wants to think of themselves as working class anymore. The term (and its “low-class” implications) has become disreputable. This is very seriously unfortunate, because our failure to identify as workers – at the same time as we struggle just to make ends meet – prevents us from seeing the need to band together, as well as identify with workers around the world. Just as important, we resist recognizing how we have been manipulated into helping to exploit them by relishing rather than questioning ridiculously cheap goods.

There is no such thing as $5 jeans and $7 shoes without the use of abused labor somewhere, here or abroad. A recent New York Times article (“Wages Up in China as Young Workers Grow Scarce,” August 29th) would have us believe that China’s medieval labor conditions are undergoing broad scale change. They are not. In another article, published by The Nation in June (“The Last ‘Competitive Advantage’: Letter From China”), writer Jehangir S. Pocha explained that the “power imbalance between owners and workers in China means that almost 200 million Chinese workers go to bed every night in overcrowded dormitory rooms after having worked eighteen-hour days in Dickensian factories where some employees are literally worked to death. The phenomenon has even added a new word to the Mandarin vocabulary: guolaosi, or overwork death, where fatigued workers fall off their stools bleeding from the ears, nose and anus.”

The other big story is child labor. According to ASHA for Education, a non-profit organization, 246 million children worldwide are child laborers, 127 million of them in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Seventy-three million working children are younger than ten, and 22,000 children die in work related accidents each year. Children are also bought and sold. In India, kids are cheaper than buffalos: the animals can cost as much as $350, while the kids are a Wal-Mart bargain at $12 to $45 apiece.

In many parts of the world independent labor unions are illegal and those who attempt to unionize workers are often beaten, jailed, tortured, even killed. Here at home, some unions still wield some clout, but many are paper tigers. From the time that Ronald Regan decimated the air traffic controllers union in the early 1980s, the labor movement in America has devolved into a dim memory – and not a widely-recalled memory at that. Besides a few old cranky liberals, who still knows about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 young women because most of the sweatshop’s exits were blocked? Who knows that in days gone by, more than 400 Americans were shot or lynched by the powers that be simply for protesting appalling working conditions?

My father was a union man. He spent his working life as a merchant marine, a waiter and wine steward on the great trans-Atlantic liners, and a skycap for TWA. He had been with TWA for 25 years when, in the early 80s (the Reagan era, remember?), TWA fired all of its skycaps, then re-hired only some of them from the smashed-up union at a slim fraction of their salary and benefits. My father’s spirit was broken; he loved TWA, was proud of working for them, believed that this company would do right by him for all his years of service. When he retired in 1988 his pension was just over $92 a month. My mother was a non-unionized office worker for 40 years. She spent the last 17 years of her career with a small publisher, and when she took early retirement at 62 due to ill health, her boss was so pissed off he didn’t even say goodbye. And she had no pension at all. As a poor, non-union writer, I cannot disrespect my family history by not speaking out on this matter.

A disturbing majority of American workers have allowed themselves to labor under the delusion that everything will eventually work out somehow. They cushion their worries and weariness with mad consumerism and fantasies of a star-studded, red-carpet life. They think unions are corrupt (and some of them are) and see no value in the power of collective bargaining. Citizens and undocumented immigrants view each other as the problem, ignoring the downright evil perpetrated by massive corporations that would sooner lay off thousands of employees at a clip and outsource jobs to even more desperate workers overseas than pay Americans a living wage. We’re angry and scared and don’t know what to do with those feelings, so we shop, as if we can pile up our stuff against the door and keep out the boogey-man: poverty. But we’re kidding ourselves. Working Americans will be doomed to ever-increasing hardships unless we wake up to the true source of our difficulties, launch a meaningful, global 21st century labor movement, and demand that our elected officials serve us instead of their own money-grubbing interests. And we have to be willing to pay truly reasonable prices for the products we buy. By this alone, we will be supporting the existence and dignity of workers everywhere. Happy Labor Day.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Diana, Revisited

I remember Diana’s death ten years ago as a fascinating Rorschach test of the fundamental difference between men and women. Virtually every man I know thought the car-crash death of Britain’s People’s Princess was a sad thing, especially for her children, gave the matter a sincere 30-second tisk-tisk and went back to whatever it was they’d been doing. Virtually every woman I know felt as if she’d been kicked in the stomach and was riveted for days to the spectacle of flowers and keening that followed. The men didn’t get what the women were so bent out of shape about, and the women didn’t understand how the men could be so cold.

I was never what you’d call a Diana freak, but I liked her very much. I thought she was sweet, genuine and a snappy dresser. I liked that she went out of her way to physically touch people with AIDS at a time when the general public viewed them as lepers. I liked how fierce she was about protecting her boys from the media, and the way she goosed the royals with her openness and independence. And I fondly remembered her fairytale wedding, which I watched on a tiny black & white TV in the Third Avenue office of a small investment company I worked for back then. The one man in the office didn’t pay much attention. The other two women and I sat together and cooed

Of course, as the years passed and the continuum of Diana gossip painted a nasty portrait of the poor-little-rich-girl reality that hid behind the façade, women everywhere were forced to acknowledge that the fairytale was just that. Diana was indeed a real-life Cinderella, but she never got to live happily ever after. All of us who, much to our surprise, wanted to believe that at least one woman had gotten to live the classic fantasy, were crushed when it all went sour. When this hoodwinked innocent, this tender mother, this hungry lover, was killed trying to escape the relentless public eye, well, we cried for our own flattened dreams as much as for her grim end. And we were shocked by the depth of our own sadness. The men didn’t understand why we cried, because they hadn’t been raised on the scripture of ridiculous girl dreams.

Now, a decade later, only a shade of that sadness remains, at least for me. So much else has happened since 1997; lost fairytales seem the least of our problems. But I still feel moved to note this melancholy anniversary. True fairytale princesses don’t come along very often. I’m glad I had a chance to watch Diana shine. I wish she’d had the chance to make a better dream come true.