Monday, May 29, 2017

A Couple of Haikus Written By Me

When I went to Mars
I ate a lot of honey.
It burns on my lips.

The stories are true:
Baseball games are much more fun
When it's Hot Dog Night.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In the Night Kitchen: A Review


Sendak, M. (1970) In the Night Kitchen. Harper Collins.

Maurice Sendak opened a lot of controversy with his children's book, In the Night Kitchen.  The small book finds itself often challenged or banned from libraries.  I had not read In the Night Kitchen as a child so I did not know anything about it.  Now having read it, I don't know what the fuss is all about, both in regards to the controversy and to the praise it has received.

In the Night Kitchen revolves around Mickey, a little boy who hears noises and orders them downstairs to quiet down.  Before he knows it, he floats downwards, losing his pajamas and lands in the night kitchen.  There, three identical chefs, all who look like Oliver Hardy, apparently mistake Mickey for milk and stir him into the morning cake.  Just before they put him in the over, Mickey pops out and says he's not the milk and the milk's not in him. 

Now wearing the batter, he makes a plane out of dough and flies over the Milky Way (a large bottle of milk), where he dives in and pours out the milk for the Hardy Trio's cake (again, losing his covering and appearing nude).  Job done, he shouts out "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo" and floats back up to his bed, with the ending noting that thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.



What freaks people out about In the Night Kitchen is the full-frontal nudity of Mickey, who is around five in my estimation.  This child is naked twice in the book, and it isn't just that Mickey's nude.  It's that we can clearly see his genitals.  The sight of a nude child concerns many parents, who fear that this might be offensive, even pornographic.

I can only judge from my own perspective, but I don't see why parents or any other adult would be so horrified at the drawings.

This does not go up to the level of child pornography in any way, shape or form.  Child pornography is when one gets sexual pleasure or gratification from images of or actual intercourse with children.  In the Night Kitchen does not, to my mind, come close to having been created for such a purpose.

From my view, the illustrations of nudity are innocuous and inoffensive.  There have been nude children in art before: primarily images of the Christ Child with Mary where He is undressed, or when we see mythological creatures like Cupid or cherubs who are similarly undressed.

For me, this is a case of the adults putting in their own perspectives, good or bad, into a children's book.  I'm pretty strict about nudity and anything I might think is untoward or indecent, but given that the audience for In the Night Kitchen is children, I don't think many children will even really care.  Boys know what they look like, and maybe girls will ask about what Mickey looks like, but a straightforward "that's what makes a boy a boy" I figure would work.

Ultimately, when it comes to Mickey's nudity, I think it is a case of they read too much into things.



In the Night Kitchen is beautifully illustrated, rich in detail and pleasant to the eye.  Having said that, I thought it wasn't a particularly interesting story.  A somewhat bossy child (he does yell at the beginning) dreams he falls into a special kitchen where cake that is served in the morning is made (with him almost in it) and he pours the milk.

I'm trying to think if I were a child, would I really care all that much about the story itself.  I don't think I would.  I'd love the illustrations, so full of fun and life and whimsy, but for the story?  I know it was all a dream, but why would I care how cake for breakfast was made?

I don't even remember having cake for breakfast, at least on a regular basis.

With regards to the reason In the Night Kitchen is often challenged or banned (Mickey's nudity), I still hold that people read too much into it and put their own ideas about decency into it.  It's a little boy, and while perhaps Sendak could have illustrated it in such as way as to hide Mickey's penis, he opted not to.

It is up to parents to decide what is and isn't appropriate for their children, not other adults either librarians or 'concerned adults'.  It isn't pornographic or meant for arousal.  In the Night Kitchen is really about the beautiful art within it.  I just thought the story was dull, though it might entertain a very small child.

I would not ban or censor In the Night Kitchen, finding it much ado about nothing.  I'd have no problem letting my children read it.  I doubt however, it would be of much interest to them.

 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady: A Review


Quinn, S. (2016) Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. Penguin Press, New York.

In the years since the death of Eleanor Roosevelt, all the skeletons appear to have come out of her and her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's closet.  Eleanor herself appears to have been forced out of the closet, her sexual persuasion now a subject of debate.  The BIG question surrounding the former First Lady is 'Was Miss Ellie gay?  Was she maybe bisexual?'  Eleanor and Hick cannot answer the question of whether she and her friend/associate Lorena Hickok had a sexual relationship.  There is simply no solid proof of such a thing.

Eleanor and Hick does show that there was a deep, profound, even romantic relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok, but romantic attachments does not always mean sexual relations or even physical desire. One can feel passionate, even romantic about someone without it becoming physical. Eleanor and Hick makes a strong case that without Hickok, Eleanor would not have become the iconic, activist First Lady she became.  

There could not be two women as vastly different as the patrician Eleanor and the hard-scrabble Lorena.  The former was born into wealth and privilege, daughter of one of the oldest New York families and niece of the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.  The latter was born into squalor, abused by her father and forced out into the world.  Despite their radically different social circumstances, the two were kindred souls.

Eleanor, nicknamed 'Granny' by her own mother for her dour demeanor, was brought up in a pretty chaotic world.  The glamorous Alice Roosevelt looked askance at her daughter and openly called her unattractive.  Eleanor's father Elliott had a very serious drinking problem and while he was devoted to his 'Little Nell', it wasn't enough to save him.  Eleanor's childhood was filled with fine homes but ones full of emptiness and even danger.

Hickok's early years were equally chaotic.  With essentially no parents, she dropped out of school and worked in other people's homes until a distant relative, Aunt Ella, rescued Hick, helping her get an education and eventually a career as a journalist.  It was as a journalist that Hickok and Roosevelt got reacquainted (Hickok having previously interviewed Eleanor when the latter was the spouse of an up-and-coming politician named Franklin); Hickok got a chance to board a train carrying the Roosevelts on a campaign tour and she got an interview.  Despite their differing backgrounds, they immediately bonded.


Hickok was as openly lesbian as one could be in the 1930s, and she fell in love with Eleanor as well as the New Deal the Roosevelts personified.  Knowing that it would be impossible to be impartial, Hick gave up her career as a journalist to be with Roosevelt in both official and unofficial capacities. Eleanor's own private life was not as clear: in her posh French school, Allenswood, many girls were attracted to her in various degrees, from mere infatuation to perhaps sexual desire.  Whether she actually returned the affections is unknown.

For a time, the two were very close companions, bosom buddies if you will.  Again, whether it ever turned sexual, even once, is something Eleanor and Hick does not give a firm affirmative or negative.  Roosevelt did associate with a large group of lesbians, who were a major part of Democratic Party outreach, especially to women.  One of her enterprises, Val-Kill, was a cooperative between Eleanor and a lesbian couple with whom she eventually had a bitter falling out.

Hick encouraged Eleanor to be more assertive, working with her to break out of her shell more and take risks.  It was Hick who suggested that Eleanor use her diaries and letters to her to create what would become Eleanor's daily My Day newspaper column, making Eleanor's voice and views known around the world, for good or ill to FDR (who was too busy with both the business of government and his own wandering eye to be hovering over 'the missus').

Quinn's argument is that Eleanor would not have become the First Lady of the World if not for the help of this squat little woman next to the almost six-foot-tall Eleanor.  Eventually though, whatever passion they felt for each other, be it romantic, sexual, or something in between, faded.  There was still respect, admiration, and affection, but the thrill was gone.  Eleanor had found other people (men, interestingly enough), while Hick found love with another woman.

Eventually, old age caught up with Eleanor Roosevelt, and she died in 1962, revered and admired.  Lorena Hickok died five years later, pretty much forgotten by history, yet in those five years, on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday, Hick would go to her old companion's grave and leave a tribute: a yellow rose.

The Third Doctor on Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee, observed that there wasn't during his time on the show any hint or suggestion of romance between the Doctor and his Companion.  He was fond of the Companions, Pertwee said, but fondness is different from desire.  I find this to be the case when it comes to a love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.  There may have been a love affair between them.  I think there was one.  Yet, does this mean there was a sexual one between them?

There is a difference between affection and attraction.  They are not one and the same.  I believe one can be fond of someone, even feel great emotion for them, without it ever entering the world of physical intimacy.  It may be possible that Eleanor Roosevelt had great passion for Lorena Hickok, finding in her someone to confide in, to free up emotions.  Their letters do indicate something very strong: Eleanor treasuring a ring Hick had given her, reminiscing about their trips together.

One letter even speaks about how Eleanor wanted "to put my arms around you and hold you close".  Read today, they strongly suggest a physical relationship.

So, was Eleanor into a gay life?  Again, no proof has yet confirmed or wholly denied a physical relationship, and my memory of Eleanor and Hick doesn't ever say "Yes, they had sex".  I imagine that for many people, particularly the LGBT community, having someone as prominent as a First Lady be in 'the sewing circle' would be of great symbolic use.

As a side note, these are probably the same people who stretch to find that either President James Buchanan or his successor, Abraham Lincoln, might have been gay based on circumstantial evidence that can be interpreted in certain ways to fit the supposition.

However, on a personal level, I'm disinclined to think that Mrs. Roosevelt did indeed carry on a sexual relationship with Lorena Hickok or with anyone outside Franklin.

There are a few things to consider.  First, Mrs. Roosevelt came from an era where women could be more openly affectionate without there being any suggestion of 'untoward or unnatural' activities.  Second, Eleanor and Franklin had five children together, hardly a suggestion that Eleanor didn't, at least on some level, enjoy heterosexual sex.  There might have been more intimacy between them if not for Franklin's devastating affair with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer (later Mrs. Rutherford), which totally broke that part of their life together.  Third, would Eleanor, as old-fashioned in some ways as she was, and who had endured the horror of an unfaithful spouse, herself opt to be unfaithful?

There had been rumors of an affair between herself and a bodyguard,  Earl Miller.  He had a smaller but still influential role in the First Lady's life, showing her how to shoot and making her laugh.  When asked about the possibility of an actual sexual relationship, he answered, "You don't go to bed with someone you call 'Mrs. Roosevelt'".  In her latter years, the Widow Eleanor was also extremely fond of her doctor, David Gurewitsch, with the suggestion she was in love with him.

Whether Eleanor Roosevelt was gay or bisexual is known to only one person, and she isn't giving interviews outside a seance.

If the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt was schtupping a rather frumpy middle-aged woman is the reason one picks up Eleanor and Hick, it would be a sad turn, because the book is not some sordid tabloid gossipy tome.  It is instead, a very interesting read about the relationship between two women, whatever form it took, helping and shaping each other, as well as shaping world history.  One learns quite a bit, such as how influential lesbians were in the Democratic Party of the Roosevelt years.

One also learns about these two very interesting women, who rose from very punishing circumstances to become strong, capable, and historic figures.  That, I would argue, is more interesting than any sexual tidbits about long-dead people.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Crisis of Character: A Review


Byrne, G. (2016) Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience With Hillary, Bill, and How the Operate. Center Street, New York.

*Editor's Note: this review is for the audiobook, reading by Brian Troxell.

Bill and Hillary Clinton can be seen two ways, depending on your political persuasion.  They can be seen as a loving couple who have devoted their lives to public service, working towards making the world a better place (that would be the liberal point of view).  They can be seen as a cold, calculating pair interested only in holding on to the power they think is their divine right, enriching themselves in the process (that would be the conservative point of view).  Crisis of Character comes from former Secret Service Agent Gary J. Byrne, who was part of then-President Bill Clinton's protection detail and was ensnared in the tumultuous Starr investigation that nearly brought down his Presidency. 

Those on the Right or Left who might expect a no-holds-barred takedown/monstrous slur of the Clintons may be in for a surprise.  While we do get some disturbing new information about President Clinton's liaison with former intern Monica Lewinsky, Crisis of Character reads more like the unpublished memoirs of MITCH RAPP than a tell-all on the machinations, real or imagined, of the 42th and almost 45th President.

Most of Crisis of Character is really about Byrne himself and his experiences working at the Secret Service and later, the Air Marshall Program.  He talks often about how inept the Secret Service was when kowtowing to political correctness (such as putting physically unfit people in guard positions to fill quotas) or in how their hands were tied due to civilians who thought they knew better (such as when staff to then-candidate Bill Clinton would push the Service to wave in people instead of inspecting them, or when a gay activist visiting the White House became incensed when told he couldn't put gay-themed stickers around the Mansion or the artifacts within them, insisting that 'they had won').

It should be noted that whenever the Service would screw up, or indeed whenever anyone would screw up, Byrne himself was not the person who did the actual screwing up.  When it came to President Bill Clinton's extramarital assignations, Byrne didn't do the screwing either.



Instead, we see that to a point, Crisis of Character actually backs up the former President and First Lady's story: White House intern Monica Lewinsky, not the brightest bulb who if Byrne had had his way wouldn't have ever set foot on the grounds, was a stalker of sorts.  She would go into restricted areas, constantly coming up with weak excuses to be where she knew she shouldn't be (she got lost, she was looking for the restroom, she was visiting a friend, she was dropping things off).  It was an irritant to Byrne and the other agents, but eventually she managed to snare herself a President (and was unaware that she wasn't the only mistress gallivanting about, former Second Daughter Eleanor Mondale getting in on the action too).

The grotesque nature of the liaison (I'm not sure it would qualify as an actual affair) involves having the President's semen not just on that infamous blue dress, but on White House hand-towels that a Navy officer was forced to wash as part of his duties.  This whole thing disgusted our agent, especially given the difference between our Baby Boomer President and the last President from The Greatest Generation, dear Poppa Bush, who was dignity and kindness itself.

We then get the long, sordid saga of the Clinton impeachment, and how it wrecked his life when he got dragged into it.

Apart from this and the assertion that then First Lady Hillary Clinton knew of the liaisons (down to throwing things at the President), Crisis of Character really has little to nothing to do with the Clintons, in particular with how Hillary Clinton plotted for sixteen years to return to power in her own right as the first female President.



Instead, Crisis of Character tells us of the various exploits (both exciting and mundane) that Byrne went through.  I couldn't help think of the late Vince Flynn's most famous character: superspy and super-Patriot MITCH RAPP, a man who is the embodiment of the American Assassin.

Let me digress slightly to say that as much as I liked Flynn personally and found him to be highly talented, I never liked MITCH RAPP (the caps are always because he struck me as a staccato, monotone, monosyllabic person).  MITCH RAPP, in the two novels I read/heard about him, has no personality.  He has no family, no friends, no outside hobbies, no quirks, no sense of humor, no personal foibles, no life apart from kicking ass and killing people, especially if it means going against those in power.

Sure, he might have been motivated by his girlfriend being killed in the Pan Am bombing, but MITCH RAPP, at least the one I encountered, doesn't even appear capable of any human emotion, let alone love.  He doesn't appear to enjoy sports, doesn't read books, binge-watch shows, have any guilty pleasures, laugh at anything...in short, he to me is so cold and unlikable I really have a hard time getting through a MITCH RAPP book.

Listening to Crisis of Character, one feels that Byrne seems himself as a MITCH RAPP-type: tough, take-no-prisoners, at permanent guard, a master at weaponry and hunting down evil beings.  It borders on the comic, and to be honest, I skipped some parts because he went on and on about his various trainings, which might have been interesting if I went into the book wanting to learn that.

I went into the book wanting a reason to not have Madam Clinton be Madam President, why Hillary Clinton was unfit to follow Poppa Bush or even her own husband a la Evita Peron.  What I got was how great Gary Byrne was at his job.

If you want to learn about the machinations of the Clintons (real or imagined) or why she was not fit to have been Commander-in-Chief, skip Crisis of Character



Monday, February 20, 2017

Hope: Entertainer of the Century: A Review


Zoglin, R. (2015) Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Simon & Schuster, New York.

In the nearly fifteen years since his death at age 100, I venture to say that the name Bob Hope is slowly being forgotten.  I'm old enough to remember Bob Hope specials, even his last USO tour during the First Persian War.  If he is remembered, it is with a certain disdain, a relic who was both politically incorrect and politically repulsive to the current leading lights of laughter.  With left-wing comics Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, and Jon Stewart ruling comedy, Hope's brazen conservatism is essentially the final nail of the coffin of his reputation as a comedy master. 

Richard Zoglin would have a long argument with you on Hope's legacy and importance.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century is an impeccable biography of the all-around star who found success in every field of entertainment he entered: vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio, and television.  Hope's fortunes (financial) were assured, but his fortunes (career and reputation-wise) faded thanks to a mix of time and Hope's own inability to stay with them.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century covers both Hope's public and private life, one that was filled with sex, ego, and pettiness, but also one that had kindness, generosity, and shrewd management.

Leslie Towns Hope (Zoglin insists that the more traditional "Townes" spelling is wrong, even when Hope did it) was an immigrant, born in England but who was brought along with the rest of his family to join his father in Ohio.  He was a bit of a scrapper, not one for school (Zoglin uncovered that Les, as he preferred to be called, had even done a stint in juvenile correction school), but one who loved his family.

Encouraged by his mother, who loved playing her piano, Les started entering dance competitions and soon built up an act with other partners, who for various reasons, didn't stay long.  Still, Les Hope kept plugging away at showbiz, and soon he was working his way up the various vaudeville circuits, from regional to national.  He also started honing his comedy skills, where it was his quips, not his dancing, that got the attention. 

Already at this point, Zoglin would argue, Hope was creating a new style for comedy, one that didn't depend on what had gone on before in vaudeville (comedy duos, ethnic stereotypes, or standard jokes).  Instead, Hope started doing more topical humor, tailoring quips for the regional audiences.  As a side note, Hope was among the first to not try any ethnic humor, his Midwestern manner being an odd fit to try anything ethnic, though he tried once with such awful results he never ventured into it again.



As his career kept building, Hope indulged his other great passion: women.  He had a secret first marriage, and his marriage to Dolores Reade (born Dolores De Fina) is shrouded in mystery.  Despite a wide-ranging search, no marriage license or wedding photo has ever been found or produced.  Zoglin argues that as a devout Catholic, Dolores would not have 'lived in sin' for long, so the likelihood of a Church-sanctioned wedding must have happened, but when, how, and under what circumstances no one outside Bob and/or Dolores knows.

Hope, for his part, continued his rise in showbiz, and after a failed first attempt finally got into the movies at a relatively old age of 34.  Not a splash at the beginning, it was The Big Broadcast of 1938 that bolted Hope's career: not the movie itself, but its theme, Thanks For the Memory (a title which most people erroneously refer to as Thanks For the Memories), which he lucked into to be his signature song.

Out of his movie success came radio, where Hope became a pioneer: having to create a whole radio show out of whole cloth versus other radio comics like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who already had definitive personas.  Hope's humor was also unique in that it was more down-to-earth, more the 'everyman' than a particular type like the cheapskate Benny or cerebral Steve Allen.

Hope managed his career smoothly, open about using writers (whom he wasn't the most generous with and whom he expected to be on call 24/7).  His radio and film career built up, and eventually a "Bob Hope" type emerged: the brave coward, one who appears courageous but turns chicken at first sign of danger, who pursues women but crumbles when he manages to get a response.

This of course was different from Bob Hope in real life, who had no problem getting almost any woman into bed (if it is believed, among his conquests were Ethel Merman and Doris Day, the latter never commenting on this curious liaison).  What Dolores knew, or wanted to know, is also unknown.

The Second World War was Hope's finest hour.  A man who didn't have any great angst, he thrived on the live crowds and threw himself into entertaining the troops (having done a wide variety of charity events for years prior).  Hope was undeterred, crisscrossing Europe and Asia to find an audience (even if sometimes troops would rather get home than get Hope). 

After the war, things slowly changed, but Hope didn't.  He didn't become an ideologue until the Nixon years, and his support of both Nixon and the Vietnam War, along with his mocking of the youth movement in his various USO and television specials, began to sour larger groups of audiences.  His film career began to fade, and his specials became the like man himself: more rigid, more scripted, more cautious, and finally a sad parody.


Bob Hope ruled NBC, with only Johnny Carson being anywhere near his equal.  However, whenever Hope wanted to promote something, Carson had to give him time on The Tonight Show.  Carson, more withdrawn and moody, didn't gel with the generally bon vivant Hope, and Carson hated how scripted their 'spontaneous encounters were', to where if Carson skipped a question Hope would answer it anyway.

Bob Hope, once nicknamed 'Rapid Robert' for his quick-fire monologues, would not give up the limelight.  As he entered his 90s, he stubbornly insisted on doing his TV specials, where it was getting harder and harder to hide his advancing age, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties.  Hope, to the end, wanted to be the center of attention, even if it was accidental.  When Dolores, who had given up her singing career to be Mrs. Bob Hope (and where despite the ability to Bob would not put her in his specials until very late in his career), made a 'comeback', Hope's hearing caused him to virtually shout when she sang.  Even worse, he would loudly order Dolores to stop being romantic with him after her set.

Given that at least until his 60s or 80s (I can't remember which), he had no problem being romantic with other women, it seems all so unfair.

In the end, after meeting his goal of living to 100, he died a couple of months later in 2003.  By that time, Bob Hope might have been an institution, but one that fewer and fewer remembered (his death merited one page in Time Magazine, but that of 'third-best Beatle' George Harrison got the cover).  Zoglin argues that Bob Hope had simply lingered too long: the prepared obituary for The New York Times had been sitting there so long that the author of the obituary himself had been dead three years).

I figure that many people nowadays do not know who Bob Hope is, or why he matters.  Zoglin's brilliant biography brings Hope back to life, showing us both his comedic brilliance and the hard, sometimes unfeeling man he was.

I say sometimes because Hope was more complex than 'selfish comic'.  Hope could be unpleasant (such as an early stunt where he would make paper planes out of his writer's paychecks and send them floating down, a practice he quickly dropped once it made the rounds).  He had no qualms about not just seeing other women on the side but forcing others to be party to such antics (in one incident Zoglin compared to a real-life The Apartment, he cajoled a young writer to let him have the key to his apartment for an assignation, leaving at the arranged time). 

However, Zoglin tells a story that reveals another side of Bob Hope.  Hope, unlike other stars then and now,  would reply to almost all his fan mail, adding personal touches, particularly whenever a soldier or his/her family were involved.  In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated (and Hope's popularity diminished), he got a letter from a friend of a seven-year-old girl he had posed with for a cystic fibrosis campaign.  The letter detailed that she was dying and that if he could write to her it would mean so much. 

Bob Hope replied, and not just with a form letter, but with a brief note that even threw in some humor at his expense (opening with, "Remember me?").

Hope was complex and complicated, at times self-centered, even vain.  He was also, Zoglin would insist, a true genius: not just in comedy, but in the art of career management.  He set up Hope Enterprises to further his career, always venturing into new media when given the chance (he didn't run away from television when others were terrified of it).  He invested wisely in real estate (though bristling at reports of exactly how wealthy he was).  He brought an intimacy between himself and his audiences that made him appear approachable, even if he wasn't.

For all the disdain Colbert, Maher, Silverman et al may have towards Hope's politics, there would be none of them if not for Hope.  He set the standard of the modern late-night talk show: the monologue, the skits, those were all from Hope.

Bob Hope should not be forgotten or relegated to a small place in comic history.  Apart from Woody Allen, no major comedian/comedienne mentions Bob Hope.  With Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Richard Zoglin gives us the whole Hope: brilliant, petty, easy-going and difficult.  Bob Hope was a true comedic genius.

With luck, Hope: Entertainer of the Century will spark a revival to restore him to his rightful place in comedy.

Bob, Thanks For the Memory...

1903-2003

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Binge: A Review



Oakley, T. (2015). Binge. Gallery Books, New York.

According to the back flap of Binge, the author, Tyler Oakley, is both a 'pop culture tastemaker' and 'an Internet icon'.  The logical question therefore might be, "Who is Tyler Oakley"? 

A more pertinent question should be, "Why should anyone outside Tyler Oakley's circle genuinely care what he thinks on anything?"  By his own admission, he doesn't have the skills that would normally vault someone into a sphere of influence: he doesn't sing, he doesn't act, he doesn't dance (though he's given them a crack in his high school days).  Oakley's claim to fame is the way most Millennials gain fame: he is on YouTube.   In his various YouTube videos, he follows, or perhaps leads, the Millennial march into oversharing, discussing everything that pops into his little head with nary a thought as to whether everything that pops into his little head should be discussed.

Oakley, in various essays, does so, giving us his thoughts on everything from sex (among his favorite topics) to his high school days (where he would get sex), his early work experiences (which inevitably led to more sex) and the constant surprises of his life as a YouTuber (one of those being, surprisingly, not sex, but on how fickle a fanbase can be).  Oakley, however, doesn't make a case as to why HE in particular should be heard.  Apart from a few moments where we can see genuine hurt and joy, where we got a bit of Mathew Tyler Oakley, Binge seems a trifle calculated, as if it isn't a real revelation into Oakley's life but a continuation of how he is on YouTube: cheery, irreverent, and willing to have lots of laughs.

This may be how he is in real life as opposed to YouTube life (and I figure he'd argue there's no difference between Tyler Oakley: YouTube Icon and Tyler Oakley: After Dark), but again, Binge won't answer the more important question, not 'Who is Tyler Oakley?' or even 'Why is he famous?', but rather, 'Why should he be famous?'

In various chapters we're told what are embarrassing stories that I was told would be 'hilariously sidesplitting'.  I didn't laugh while reading Binge.  My reaction instead was one of slight puzzlement as to how someone so young (he's a mere 27 at the time of this writing) can insist his views, his experiences, can be of such importance to anyone whom he isn't personally connected.

Sometimes though, my reaction was slight repulsion.  Of particular note is the appropriately titled section Fecal Matters, which starts out "Over my lifetime, I've had an interesting relationship with poop".  After regaling us with his various nicknames for the anus, he talks about how in his earlier days he had difficulty defecating.  As a Gen-Xer, though not one as filled with angst and apathy as most of my peers, I'm not sure how to read something like Fecal Matters.  It wasn't funny to me.  It was both bizarre and a bit disturbing.

Another section is Disney Princes; I should have mentioned off the bat that Tyler Oakley is gay.  Nothing wrong with that, we're all free to live our lives however we wish so long as no lives are actually being taken or abused, but Oakley does remind me of that quip, 'the love that dares not speak its name is now the love that won't shut up'.  Hence, Disney Princes, where Oakley marks down his Top Twelve Princes in Disney animated films according to how attractive he found them.

One of them, Eric from The Little Mermaid, loses points because he killed, "the best Disney villain of all time, the drag queen that is Ursula.  Unforgivable. RIP" (emphasis his).

Allow me to digress to say that when I saw The Little Mermaid, a.) I didn't think of sexually desiring any character, b.) I wouldn't know what a drag queen was, and c.) I think Maleficent and the Queen from Snow White are greater Disney villains.  Furthermore, while I can't say I know many gay men, the few I know don't talk or haven't mentioned their erotic fixations on animated figures.  I guess I could ask.

I suppose it's just because my viewpoint comes from someone older who didn't obsess about sex at age 12 (or obsess about it now).  That brings me to yet another chapter, Brace Yourself.  Here, he talks about how his parents made him get braces and that they took Oakley to have them tightened by dental students to save money (his family's poverty being something he mentions often).  At age twelve, he finds nirvana.  A quote:

"Dental students used poor kids like me as their practice dummies, and when I met mine, I was ready to surrender all control.  My student was tall, handsome, charming, and had muscles bulging under his scrubs.  He had to be more than a decade older than me, but that didn't stop me from thirsting".


Already fantasizing about living a life together with this dental student, his body finally allowed him to taste a touch of temptation.  Tightening braces requires the person to spit, so in his own words, "I did what any twelve-year-old flirting with a man twice his age might do--I licked his fingers".

The dental student quickly pulled his hands from Oakley's mouth, asked (perhaps nervously) if he needed to spit, and when told no, kept going.

Again, be it me, but at age 12, I wouldn't have known what the concept of flirting was, let alone flirting with anyone twice my age or wanting reciprocation from someone twice my age. 

The entire essay, one of the shortest, was one I found rather uncomfortable.  The idea a twelve-year-old would 'thirst' for an adult, male or female, dream of a life together as the closest thing possible to 'wedded bliss', or flirting with a man twice his age is, well, I leave it up to you to decide what you think of such things.

Most of Binge follows in that vein: Oakley discussing his favorite things (sex), absolutely mundane things (one section revolves about what he'd do if he were BeyoncĂ© for a day, another on holidays he'd get rid of), and the rigors of being a YouTuber (mentioning other people I've never heard of, whom I figure are famous via YouTube).  It even shows him to be a bit of a diva: one section is about how he threatened an employee over his Cheesecake Factory order, another when he threw his name around a Verizon shop, and one where he berated fans at a convention when they surrounded the bus he was in to sing him Happy Birthday (a song he doesn't care for).

When I say sex is a big deal in Binge, it isn't an understatement.  Let me refer you to his essay, Ten Cummandments.  Among his tips are to shave the armpits, not squeal like a fangirl when/during/after sex with Oakley (he states one encountered ended with him asking for a selfie, another Millennial invention I don't understand), and know whom you are actually having sex with.

I figure that is one of the primary difference between Oakley and myself: I wouldn't discuss my sex life with anyone, let alone everyone.  Further, I don't see a need to do so. 

However, there was one section that had me if not riveted, at least gave me a greater insight into Mathew as opposed to Tyler.  The One That Got Away, the longest of his essays, details his first great love affair with a man named Adam.  Adam said he was straight, but as time went on it took only one drunk St. Patrick's night to show that at least he was flexible.  As time went on, Adam came to admit slowly to himself and Oakley that he was gay and that he was in love with Tyler.  However, Adam was not ready to come out to his family, and Tyler respected that...at first.

However, the push and pull of the relationship began to wear on Oakley.  Oakley wasn't ashamed of who he was (rightly so) but also knew that you shouldn't push someone to come out until they are ready.  Still, they were boyfriends, and this cloak-and-dagger business of having to hide their relationship from the world, especially as Oakley was gaining fame as an LGBTQ+ advocate, was making things impossible for Oakley. 

Eventually, they did break up, but a break up is hard no matter who you are or how old you are.  Oakley cried for hours, days on end, even contemplated suicide.  Eventually, with some help from the Trevor Project, he pulled through.

The One That Got Away was one of his best sections because it wasn't about something silly or superfluous.  It was about something I understood, about something deeper than a romp or his latest run-in with a famous (or at least somewhat known) person.  It was about the joy and pain of love, in its confused, confusing form.



Speaking of pain, there is one last section I'd like to tackle.  That is Pleasure and Payne, referring to his ups and downs with former boy band One Direction.  Now, again, while I know of them, and even have learned their names (Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis), I wouldn't know one from the other, but that's beside the point.  Being introduced to 1D by friends, Oakley because obsessed (part of being in his own words, a 'professional fangirl').  He promoted them on his social media, went on about them, and eventually got their good graces.

The One Directioneers (I think that's what the fans are called) soon embraced him as one of their own, a high priest/priestess in the cult of these former Britain's Got Talent participants (if memory serves correct), even chanting HIS name when spotted at a 1D concert, with Oakley getting swept into the mania by waving his ass at them while wearing his "Professional Fangirl" shirt. 

However, how fickle are fangirls, even professional ones.  After rereading Pleasure and Payne, it's still a bit murky what exactly happened, but from what I understand, one of them (Liam Payne, hence the title) retweeting something from someone who said things that were interpreted as homophobic, and Oakley, out and proud, tweeted Payne and expressed concern/hoped for clarification.

Payne took issue with this, tweeted that Oakley was never a real fan, and the Directioneers, lemmings to the end, went after Oakley.  The tweets against Oakley were harsh to say the least (things like #WeWantTylerOakleyDead and #RIPTylerOakleysCareer were probably the nicer things), so much vitriol slung that even Oakley was unnerved and pulled away from social media for a while.  Eventually he came back, stronger and more sure that one had to stand their principles no matter what...even if it meant getting cut off from five pretty British boys.

Lesson learned.   

Binge, I suppose, is interesting reading to those who think Tyler Oakley and/or his views are important.  He isn't going to discuss such things as what steps to take to disarm North Korea, how to improve American education or whether it's macaroni & cheese or cheese & macaroni.  As I finished Binge, I got some sense of who Tyler Oakley is: a person who likes to talk a lot about himself and how he meets famous people, can accidentally throw away expensive clothes used for some red-carpet event, and his early fixation with penises that continues unabated.

I just never got a sense as to why I, or anyone, really should care. 

It brings to mind something I heard on NPR, I think, a profile of Girls.  In the clip, Lena Dunham's character is shocked when her parents cut her off financially.  She protests that they shouldn't, using the idea that "I don't think I'm the voice of my generation.  I think I am a voice, of a generation".  I figure Tyler Oakley thinks if he isn't the voice of Millennials, he is a voice, of a generation.

Maybe next time, he can tell me why I, Generation X, or anyone not Millennial, should listen.


And we wonder how Mama Hillary lost...

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space: A Review



Sherr, L. (2014). Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space. Simon & Schuster, New York.


Sally Ride is an icon, an American heroine, yet also a figure cloaked in mystery.  Her friend, journalist Lynn Sherr, has taken it upon herself to reveal the public, private, and secret world of the first American female astronaut in the biography about Dr. Ride.  The title I believe is appropriate to how Dr. Ride saw life: direct, with no excessive details.  Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space reveals as much as it can about the woman who broke barriers but still kept the world far more distant in her life than she was when she floated among the stars. 

Sally Kristen Ride, the oldest of two sisters, came from a family that encouraged intellectual pursuits and did not hold the idea that a person's gender held one back from anything.  In fact, the only time Sally was told she couldn't do something because she was a 'girl' was when she was told that she couldn't play for her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.

No matter, as she found a true passion in tennis, playing fiercely and well enough to seriously consider a future as a professional (even going up against legendary tennis player Billie Jean King, who would become a friend and a sort of mentor in business years later).  Ride, however, also had an analytical mind, and had a tremendous passion for science.  If asked to find the term that best described her, she would answer "physicist", loving the logic of the natural sciences.

Ride would not think that being an astronaut would be within possibility until 1978, when while studying at Stanford, she saw a notice in the school newspaper announcing that NASA was looking for female astronauts.  Ride sent her application, and was accepted as part of a new class that dubbed itself TFNG (Thirty-Five New Guys, though Sherr states it really came from another, less flattering term).  The TFNG had six women and four minorities: three African-Americans and one Asian-American.

The class went through a battery of tests, drills, and training, and ultimately, Ride's mastery of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), the robotic arm that would dispatch material from the shuttle, that got her into history.

After her successful trips, she retired, slightly disillusioned with NASA's bungling that led to the Challenger disaster, but still enthusiastic as she enters a new phase: academia.  She launches a new venture (no pun intended): to bring more interest to children in studying science and making it a career, in particular girls.  Ultimately she uses her name and cache to create Sally Ride Science, which sets out to bring girls and boys into an interest in the sciences.

Sadly, Sally Ride was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in 2012 shortly after her sixty-first birthday.




As Sherr was a friend of Ride, she brings her own insight into Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space.  She also benefits greatly from having the full cooperation of all the Ride family: Sally's mother Joyce, sister Karen (better known as 'Bear' due to the young Sally's inability to say 'Karen' and reducing it to first 'Pear' then 'Bear'), and most importantly, Ride's longtime partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, with whom Ride spent the last twenty-seven years of her life.

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space touches on Rides' very private life: her early lesbian relationships, her marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, and her life with O'Shaughnessy.  What Sherr finds frustrating is that Ride herself never wrote down her own feelings on topics, what she felt about love and romance.  This must make getting a fuller picture of any subject frustrating, but Sherr confirms what she sensed in all her interactions with Dr. Ride: that ultimately Sally Ride was a very private person, not one to look back, or perhaps, look within.

Throughout the book, Ride's unwillingness or inability to express emotion publicly or even to others appears almost as a hindrance, forever keeping the subject just a little opaque, even after her death maintaining some semblance of the privacy she yearned for despite her history-making journey.  However, once Ride is diagnosed, the cracks in her guarded nature begin to show.  It is now, as she comes close to death, that Ride starts slowly making strides towards acknowledging her longtime partner.

This isn't to say that Ride was ever 'in the closet' to where her lesbian or bisexuality was a closely guarded secret.  She travelled with O'Shaughnessy, lived with her, and even shared matching rings.  However, through almost all their time together, Ride did not introduce O'Shaughnessy as her 'partner', her 'girlfriend', or her 'companion', or any euphemism that would have indicated a romantic relationship.  Sherr speculates that seeing their friend Billie Jean King so publicly outed, and the damage that the revelation had on her business ventures, may have influenced their decision.

It is speculation because to a point, even O'Shaughnessy was not able to penetrate the strong guard of privacy that Ride had with everyone.  My view is that Ride simply wanted a private life, a space all to her own, where she didn't have to explain herself.  She already had a corner of history due to her historic flight (though Ride was technically speaking, the third woman in space). 

As such, it is reading how Ride, as she battled her cancer, started chipping away at her own remoteness that moves one.  Ride decided to register with O'Shaughnessy as 'domestic partners', something that she didn't need to do as she had already granted her partner the right of inheritance.  For me though, the most poignant moment is when Ride told her longtime partner how she wished they could have another twenty-seven years together, a remarkable declaration given how Ride had in all their time together told Tam that she measured their relationship in terms of five or ten years, not a lifetime.  That admission of just how important her longtime partner was to her made Sally Ride, emotional recluse, touchingly human.

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is, mercifully, not a total hagiography. It is certainly very sympathetic to the subject, but it also does not shrink from pointing out that Ride could at times be unpleasant.  She could cut people off whom she considered having betrayed some trust (though to be fair, this is about the only flaw I can remember Ride having). 

Sherr doesn't condemn or criticize her for that, nor does she condemn Ride for not revealing her sexuality until after her death or even the fact that her longtime companion endured a somewhat ambivalent relationship (or that they had no children because Sally wished it so, whatever O'Shaughnessy's wishes). 

Sympathetic is the best term for Sherr's biography.  It isn't fawning, it isn't critical.

The scientific terms are well-explained without being complicated, which is good for the laymen who don't follow NASA-speak. 

About the only real flaw in Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is the occasional snarky asides Sherr cannot resist adding.  When commenting on the issue of 'bodily waste differences between men and women in space', Sherr writes the following:

The bodily waste issue was more than timely.  Sally was following closely the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would go down to defeat two months later thanks, in part, to the fuss kicked up by Phyllis Schafly over the specter of unisex restrooms.  You know, like the ones in airplanes.  Or in your home. (Emphasis mine).


There is a mocking tone to Sherr's lines, clearly revealing the contempt she has for those who disagree with her (like the late Schafly).  I don't agree with Schafly, but I also think Sherr could have rephrased this part or cut it out completely, sticking to placing objections like toilets in space in context of the times and era.  She does this well when discussing such things as the 'good old boys' mentality within NASA from almost its inception or how the public at the beginning of the space race didn't conceive of the idea of an 'astronette'.  When Sherr interjects her own contempt for those who disagree with her, it takes away from the subject and puts attention on Lynn Sherr herself, and she doesn't come across as capable of being truly objective.

Minor flaw though it is, a flaw it remains.

Ultimately though, Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is as close to a definitive biography as we are likely to get on this true American heroine.  Sally Ride's place in history is not just assured, but preserved with as great an insight into this private woman as we will ever have outside a successful sĂ©ance.  Sally Ride's life was devoted to exploration and breaking down barriers, to show that science was not just for 'men in white coats', but that it could be both a career for women and moreover, fun.

Sally Ride remains a heroine, an icon, and a woman any young girl (and yes, boy) should look up to and admire.  Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space, does Dr. Ride tremendous credit in keeping her memory alive, letting us see as much as possible and giving us not just greater insight into Sally Ride the persona, but Sally Ride the person. 

1951-2012
 
P.S.  While I'm sure Dr. Ride and Ms. Sherr would not approve of this, being a cheeky American I'm going to do it anyway.  Should anyone criticize me, well, get over it.