Remember When Claire Underwood Was a Princess?

OK I know this is PrincessBride_buttercup350facile and a little silly maybe, but House of Cards starts Friday and when The Princess Bride theme slid onto my Spotify feed last week, I remembered that Robin Wright, (Princess Buttercup!) is now the notorious Claire Underwood: monstrous friend, cold manipulator and, of course, ruthless First Lady.

Claire underwoodArt imitates life, right?  This is a great reflection – hugely distorted and grotesque though it is, of what has happened to so many of us —  women and men –particularly but not only in public life.

We walk such thin lines most of the time.  We flee innocence and dependence in pursuit of ourselves.  We watch what appears to be the slow crumbling of every trusted institution.  We struggle to learn how to be — and remain, moral, whole adults, able to stand alone, able to love and share, able to support, able to seek and accept help when we need it.  And still, we feel – women and men and our country itself – that we’re losing what’s best in us.

Claire has jettisoned most of these qualities, if she ever had them.   The conspiracy she shares with her husband has tethered her to his malignant pursuit of power at any cost.  Their “arrangement” is beyond toxic; even a desired pregnancy must be sacrificed.  What would Princess Buttercup – or even the Dread Pirate Roberts – think of these two?

The Princess Bride was released nearly thirty years ago, in September of 1987.  It’s possible that was a nicer time.   The 5 top grossing films that year were 1) 3 Men and a Baby (corny/cute), 2) Fatal Attraction (boiled bunnies – not so cute), 3) Beverly Hills Cop 2 (bloodshed and mayhem amid the jokes – also not so cute), 4) Good Morning Vietnam (Robin Williams, war, music, grief and rebelliousness celebrated in the film but not so popular today), and 5) Moonstruck (love, family, fairytale new beginnings.)  Also among the top ten were the venal comedy The Secret of My Success (7), Lethal Weapon (see Beverly Hills Cop above) (9) and, perhaps a distant cousin to The Princess Bride, Dirty Dancing (class, romance, first love, politics, music) (10.)  Cumulatively not as dark a worldview as in House of Cards, but not all sweet little stories, either.  Even so, add Dirty Dancing to The Princess Bride and Moonstruck and 1987 offered us at least three fairy tales.  No fairy tales dare show their faces at the Underwood caucus, do they?

Even more interesting are the films IMDB denizens took the time to vote for that year.  1) Full Metal Jacket (more war), 2) Predator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and, 3)The Princess Bride herself!  Behind her, The Untouchables (Costner as Ness), Lethal Weapon (see high grossing: cop comedies), RoboCop (robot – um – cop), and – again – Dirty Dancing.  Wrapping up the top ten, Spaceballs (funny space stuff), Wall Street (“Greed — is good.”) and The Running Man. (more Arnold.)  Probably Oliver Stone’s Wall Street comes closest to our current Netflix White House.

Last year, when the Underwoods took over the presidency, the highest grossing films, not a fairy tale among them, included six sci-fi/fantasy films including three from Marvel, a witch, a Hobbit and some Transformers.  The list concludes with two animations, an American sniper and one Dystopian teen rebellion.

Those garnering the most IMDB votes included eight sci-fi/fantasy films including five from Marvel, an end-of-the-world time/space and time travel adventure and two outer space monster invasions.  That list concludes with a fancy old hotel, icky, nasty Gone Girl and …  a different Dystopian teen rebellion.

Not altogether sure what all this means except that we’ve lost much of our 1987 capacity to cherish whimsy and gentle humor, Grand Budapest Hotel or not.  OH and that we need all that escape these days — really badly.  If I were to guess, I’d say what we’re escaping from is a world where, although certainly not in the White House, the Underwoods have taken over, for real.








My Friend Laurie: the Post I Never Wanted to Write

X Cindy and Laurie 2

“Inside you someplace” laughed my friend Laurie, “lives a 16-year-old boy!”  We were talking about cyber fiction; I was trying to explain my attraction to this geeky, otherworldly material to the only person who would really understand what I was talking about.

I’ve known her since the early 80s, when I produced her appearance on TODAY; she had come to discuss her masterful LA Times Salvadoran death squads series. Our friendship deepened in the years I lived in LA, her long-time home.  We were both major Web freaks.  After all,  both of our minds bounced around like the facts on the Web (often to the confusion of those with whom we were speaking.) We were struggling to, between us, get enough information to understand how this astounding Internet worked.  Laurie found The Electronic Cafe, an arts space in Santa Monica that hosted speakers ranging from the EP of The Legend of Zelda to the founder of Earthlink.  We were on our way. It was thrilling.

We never stopped talking when we were together – circling around topics, bouncing to other ones then back to the first — or third.  We never got lost and were always intoxicated by the messy exchange that was our conversation, sometimes joined by her husband Henry Weinstein and their daughter Elizabeth.

They were, Laurie called it, “a triad.”  From the beginning Elizabeth was an active partner in their lives; the “adult” events, the travel, the baseball, the cooking and, lucky for all of us, the time spent with parental pals.  The three of them were a beautiful thing.

When she decided high school journalists needed more resources, she founded, from sheer determination (i.e. with hardly any money) Associated Student Press, to help high school reporters learn the rules, skills and sheer joy of journalism.   I worked with her on a couple of their events, including a high school journalism convention, and it was so great; the kids loved it.   We did too.  I knew the depth of her affinity for teenagers because she had become a real friend and mentor, quite independent of us,  to our younger son.  It was a friendship he treasures to this day.  She and Henry came to his wedding.

Laurie Becklund died on February 8th of metastatic breast cancer.  She used every reporting skill she’d ever learned to locate experts, treatment and allies and I believe extended her life through her fierce determination.  In the past year, she applied that determination to advocacy for people with advanced disease and the need for “big data” tools to aggregate and parse new information and the effect of new treatments to help find trends and flaws in treatments, drugs and drug trials.  She also challenged researchers, in talks and in person  “We have the cells to help your research.  Use us.”  She called her campaign Use Us or Lose Us.

(I’m telling you about her post-newspaper years.  You can read about Laurie as an award-winning journalist here in this LATimes profile and other stories that will, I’m sure, keep coming.)

On the day she finally told me that her cancer had returned, Laurie sat in my car as we drove out of the driveway and said “Don’t put the sun visor down. I don’t want to waste any chances to look at the trees.” As I struggle to write this post, I think of that afternoon and her hunger for everything from a beautiful view to a cool new technology to visit to a new country to a personal story gleaned from a conversation.  She was full of courage and curiosity and loyalty; she was a gifted mother and wife and friend; she was — Laurie.

We are about to leave for Los Angeles for her memorial service.  I have been so haunted and sad; it’s very hard to write this.  I’m hoping to find some — some something — as we join what I know will be a crowd of people who Laurie, Henry and Elizabeth so generously included in their lives.  When I told one friend how sad I was, she wrote “I wish you comfort in your memories.”  Yes.

The traditional Jewish version is “May her memory be a blessing.”  That it certainly is.

The War on Science? Anti-Vaxxers Trump the Right

Vaccine chart lat
We’ve all been ranting about “The Republican War on Science: anti-climate change, anti-evolution, anti-God-knows-what-else: all those conservatives refusing to see what’s in front of them.

Well, my friend Erin Kotecki Vest, whose immune system is seriously compromised, posted on Facebook yesterday from a pharmacy where she’d gone to pick up a prescription.  Next to her was a man who had brought with him his son, who has whooping cough!  That’s kind of the equivalent of waving a gun at her.

Whooping cough (Pertussis) can usually be prevented through a DPT injection; although this kid’s vaccination status is unclear, the more people who  refuse to vaccinate their kids, the less safe the rest of us are.  This is not an observation, it’s an epidemiological fact.

Meanwhile, measles is haunting California, from Disneyland to affluent Marin County and other Northern California communities*.  And the folks fighting the science?  We have met the enemy and they are us:  Whole Food progressives who refuse to accept hard evidence that the “vaccines cause autism” research was a fraud.

Imagine how scary this is for those of us in California (which always leads the way for the rest of the country by the way, so don’t write this off as California crazy.) I have three grandsons under four; two of them are under 6 months old. They can’t have MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) immunizations under 12 months. So here we are: Daycare at the gym? Children’s concerts? Family restaurant dinners?  Story time at the library?  Would you go?

What I want to know is, if it’s wrong to deny the theory of man-made climate change and wrong to deny the theory of evolution – both of which have been repeatedly found to be true by researchers, why is OK to risk the lives of entire communities of kids when the decades of research have proven these vaccines to be safe and reliable?  What’s the difference?  And which side’s “war on science” is doing the most damage to us and our families — and threatening our children and grandchildren —  right now, today?

*The  chart above is from the Council on Foreign Relations via the LATimes.

Jules et Jim: That Was MY Song!

Jules and Jim.  One the best movies ever. Really. Ever. Certified.  Directed by Francois Truffaut and released in 1962, it appears on  several best films lists and was, it is written, the biggest success of the influential French New Wave.  The story of two men and one woman, all of whom love one another, and Paris, and World War I, and friendship, it is wry and romantic and original and wonderful.

And that song!  Listen to it just above here, and watch Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre as Moreau sings Cyrus Bassiak’s Le Tourbillion.  The song did not deserve to be amputated and appropriated.  It, and the emblematic film, have always stood for a time, a dream, a view of war and life, friends and love — and Paris.

Then TurboTax, a pox upon them, came along and stole it.  Probably not technically; I’m sure they paid for permission to stick it into a dumb commercial about tax deductions and weddings.  I am NOT posting or linking to it here.  One less place you have to see it.

Of course there’s nothing to be done.  There never is.  There are scholarly  books about it.  And we know it works, or they wouldn’t do it, right?  But oh what a violation.

Many commercials have used popular songs to strengthen the marketing message conveyed. When a commercial uses a popular song well, the music is aligned with the visual imagery and words. It creates a synchronized message that brands hope will induce purchase of their products.  by David Mitchel, Vice President of Marketing at Norton Mitchel Marketing on Duetsblog

This is not my first musical outrage.  I refused for years to buy Nikes for my sons because they were using Revolution in their 1987 commercial.  (Only later did I learn how mean that really was; they had so wanted those shoes…)  and that the Beatles, who had sold the song rights to Michael Jackson, had sued Nike [who had legitimate rights] to get the thing off the air.)  The lawsuit finally wore everyone out and the ad stopped running but it had aired for a long time. Here’s the commercial:

Of course by now every song we’ve ever loved has been exploited — er, I mean licensed — to sell something.  I can remember doing a story when the trend revived in the late 80’s and interviewing plenty of high-profile musicians who were devastated that their songs had been appropriated and others who were happy for the money.  Some no longer owned their catalogues and had no control over how their music was used.

I get it.  It’s part of capitalism and all that. It’s just that, once in a while, it feels like they go too far (if that’s possible) and use something that meant too much, at least to me.

Paris to Strawberry Fields to City Hall: Needing Each Other

January 11, 2015

It was impossible to watch Sunday’s enormous march through traumatized Paris with any detachment; events that touch us all invariably drive us to gather, so we felt it too.  Stating the obvious, certainly, but, as I grow older and my inventory of remembered public sadness grows — JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Oklahoma City, 9/11 — it remains remarkable.

charie john lenno9n crowd

I am somewhere in this crowd, gathered for a vigil and moment of silence six days after the assassination of John Lennon.  Imagine all the people, living life in peace he wrote.  Grief and anger at his loss drew us then, as, so many years later, grief and anger summoned the people of Paris.

CHARLIE CROWD TO LEFTI am somewhere in this crowd, too: another Sunday, in 2014, 34 years later.  We’re in San Francisco, not Paris, but once more have come together, a continent and an ocean away from the millions in France.  We too mourn, and rage, and join together for comfort — but look.  Thirty four years later, John Lennon is still present, asking the same questions, demanding, even as we mourn, that we do better.

CHARLIE UP PENCILScharlie ahmen juif crop

That’s How I Got to Memphis – Music and the News

Will, Charlie's grandson and Jim sing That's How I Got to Memphis
Will, Charlie’s grandson and Jim sing That’s How I Got to Memphis

Stuck in my head ever since the end of The Newsroom, this song really seems to want to spend today with me, which would be fine if it didn’t make me so sad.

It won’t matter much if you didn’t like the show, or if music doesn’t carry you forward and back or if you don’t mourn the decline of integrity as a core value of journalism, but the use of it at a funeral for Charlie Skinner, (Sam Waterston,) the keeper of the flame, the leader who defended the honor of every journalist and story, is a spectacular metaphor.  YouTube won’t let me embed it, but here it is if you have the patience to link, it’s worth it.

Aaron Sorkin says Charlie represented the loss of decency offered by each of us to the rest of us, but for me, as Newsroom closed down, he stood for the rules that made journalism credible and critical to our country*; rules eroded in surrender to commerce and coarseness and fear.  Even so, The Newsroom closed with the first moment of yet another day’s show.  As Sorkin said, “They’re going to keep doing the news.”  It will, though, be with the loss of just a little more of the combination of honor and power, the Charlie Skinner, that had protected them, and us, for so long.


*The Atlantic called it a funeral for “old media” but I’ve lived in “new media” for decades now and the show wasn’t about that change – at least not to me.


Patti Smith, Big Eyes, Mr. Turner and Into the Woods: Women and Art

How do the artists we admire find their way?  What do they sacrifice to share their vision with the rest of us?  How does it feel?  Were they ever satisfied with what they made?

The great Patti Smith answered many of these questions, and more, in her 2010 memoir Just Kids.  It was, to me a real gift – a peek behind the curtain that stands between the journey and the outcome.  It was a long time before another such revelation turned up.  But first, consider this:

“Of course women aren’t as creative as men,” he said.  “After all, they create children.  They don’t have the same drive to do anything else.  How many female composers do you know of?”  That wasn’t some 21st century sexist.  That was a professor at Smith, the excellent, committed, women’s college where I spent four years in the late 60s.  He was sitting in the “housemother’s parlor” after dinner, speaking with whomever of us had turned up for coffee.  I remember thinking “Huh.  That’s interesting.” and feeling, at his declaration, not outrage but sadness — and humiliation.

I remembered this moment for the first time in decades as a rash of holiday films raised questions about creativity and art, agency and power, commitment and sacrifice.  Into the Woods offered a grim view of women’s lives, where mothers imprison their daughters, daughters abuse their sisters, bakers long to become mothers and deliver their most important lessons after they’re dead, and it’s all the witch’s fault.  Steven Sondheim’s beloved musical includes some lovely songs and I went mostly to see Anna Kendrick but still…

No witches but a desperate mother who sells her soul for her art (and, kind of, for love) emerges in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.  It’s the story of American painter Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter stole her art, her talent and her reputation and took them for his own.  The cost of continuing to paint and still support herself and her daughter was to surrender the right to take credit for her own work.  A woman in the 50’s making art for a living was unthinkable, or so he told her.  Her story is a bridge – she owned her creativity but not the product.

Then came Mr. Turner, an exquisite profile of the brilliant JMW Turner, a maker of art, no matter what the cost.  The film is a journey through his life as a painter of sea and landscapes and the invincible drive to create images of the beauty he saw.  His singular vision, the decisions he made to preserve that vision, his almost Asberger’s detachment from most people and his startling depth of commitment to the two people he truly loved combined in a thrilling consideration of art and love and living with both: a portrait of what is required of any artist, woman or man, to share what they see and feel and understand.

And so we return to Patti.  She and Turner are bookends on this shelf.  As with Mr. Turner, we learn what she lived and learned and made and what she left behind to do it — a woman slamming through barriers with commitment and with love.  An woman’s tale of what must be done – and of a woman expecting, demanding and embracing — as did Turner — all it took to share what she sees with the rest of us.



Did We Thank Title IX on Thanksgiving?

imageThere’s a beautiful breakfast buffet at the hotel we stayed at for Thanksgiving weekend; Wednesday morning was a pretty thin crowd so there was a lot of easy chat from table to table and in the buffet line. Just in front of me at the omelet station was a very tall young woman — around 30 or 35.

“My husband and I together aren’t as tall as you are!” I teased. “Did you hate that in high school?”

“Oh, no” she replied, “I played basketball so I was fine about being tall.”

“WOW – Thank you Title IX” I laughed.

You can guess what came next: she’d never heard of 42-year-old Title IX and had no idea what it was or why it had been so necessary or what would have become of her basketball opportunities without it. Like my most-admired friend Veronica Arreola,  we all need to help the girls coming up behind us understand how far we’ve come and how very far we still need to go.


Ferguson, Age, and Loss

kneeling sizedVery seldom do I notice my age.  But as I have read the outpouring of grief and rage (which I share) over the Michael Brown grand jury verdict, I am deeply aware of the decades I lived before most of these friends, and other writers who are otherwise strangers, were born.  Things they learned about, but I lived through.

With deep sadness and disgust,  I watched Robert McCullough in his starched white shirt and dark suit with his half-glasses perched on his nose like a college professor and knew what he would say.  His endless prologue foretold what was coming with an ego and naked self-interest that was dreadful to see.  But it wasn’t a surprise.  I expected nothing else.

I remember the murders of  James Earl ChaneyAndrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner,, (see Awesomely Luvvie) of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Viola Liuzzo.  Brutality, incarceration, death.  I remember George Wallace in the school-house door,

and Willie Horton

and the ads that NC Sen. Jesse Helms, in a re-election bid, ran against African-American candidate Harvey Gantt .  
I remember scores more for every one of these.

It’s really terrible to witness, and share, the heartbreak described by so many I love.  Read this post by Kelly Wickham that expands on that, or this by Rita Arens.  Or go back and hit the #ferguson and #blacklivesmatter hashtags one more time if you can bear it.  A Greek chorus of agony.

I am by no means connecting this weariness of mine with reasons to stop taking action and writing and reaching out and making noise.  No.  I’m just thinking about how different it feels when you’ve sat in front of black and white TVs and listened on transistor radios the first times you learned of each desperately painful incident of even the past half century. We know we will keep working, trying.  Even so, how hard it is to feel shock or surprise or anything other than a bone-chilling validation of the presence of those ugly creatures of hate and injustice that still hide between the stars and stripes that represent our country.

Ada Lovelace, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Google and Where They Took Us All

handshake ccflickr smYou know what?  Not only did Al Gore never say that he invented the Internet, but he was one of its best advocates and understood the importance of the slew of people who really did.  They’re part of a surprisingly exciting and remarkable story told by Walter Isaacson in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.   It’s a fast-paced tour through the evolution of modern technology, from the prophetic work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (aka Lord Byron’s daughter) through the first computers, programming, the unsung (big surprise) but enormous contribution made by women technologists, transistors, microchips, video games, the Internet and the Web, as well as personal computees to access it.  The story is pretty amazing and yes, inspiring.

The people behind these developments, and the process that carried them, provide a rich narrative and a couple of surprising through-lines.  First, about patents and Nobel prizes: the men (and women) who brought us from The Difference Engine to the microchip to the Internet of Everything were not hoarders.  Although many of them received patents and made money from their work, rather than withholding developments, most shared them, even precise details.  They collaborated to build upon the genius of the ones before.  Secondly, much of their work, basic development and science as well as more sophisticated details, was funded by governments; a lot of the American work was funded under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  He saw American science leadership as a national security issue, and, as we consider what emerged from that federal funding, it’s hard to argue.

There are dozens of anecdotes as well as illuminating biographical profiles in The Innovators, including Alan Turing, currently played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the highly anticipated film The Imitation Game (Isaacson interviews the cast below).   Each story is a worthy candidate for inclusion here.  Better though, that like these heroic creators of what became our present and future, you read the book and discover them for yourself.