Well, I guess we have to say something about Tina Turner. It’s hard to do, because so much has already been said about her. Now that the top ranks in news organizations have been taken over by Gen X, the headlines and obits are concentrating on her ’80s period, i.e., post-Ike. That’s a defensible stance; her struggle to leave her abusive ex-husband was the turning point of her life and career, and we’re not supposed to give bad people like Ike Turner credit, even for the good things they did.

But the first time I saw Tina perform she was with Ike, and it left a mark. They were at the Ohio State Fair, we got in early enough to be in the first rows, and their performance was…indelible. (That means “it left a mark,” ha.) This must have been in their career bump after “Proud Mary,” and they performed as Ike and Tina Turner. I remember none of Ike, lurking in the back like the dark presence and bandleader he was. You watched Tina. The three Ikettes stood to Tina’s right, a few feet behind her. But they were all dressed similarly, in short dresses with fringe that never stopped shaking, because they didn’t, either. God knows how Tina could sing as well as she did, moving all the time; she must have had the cardio fitness of a Tour de France stage leader. They did slow songs, but Tina stutter-stepped through those, too, leaving it all on the stage, which was set up on the racetrack where harness races were held, the first rows seated on the track and the rest up in the grandstand. It wasn’t a glamorous venue; the fair director was famous for x-ing out those infamous tour riders that performers insisted on, delivering the same mediocre fair food to all the acts.

I’m sure Tina was used to it. Her memoir — most memoirs of performers of that era — was pretty clear about the tour grind they went through on the way to making the charts. Stage life is difficult, especially when your cheating husband is going through Ikettes like jelly beans, and beating you when you object. And they were black, which meant the chitlin circuit to start, until The Rolling Stones invited them to open in the ’60s, and they started reaching white audiences. It is said that Tina taught Mick Jagger to dance, and I believe it.

If you saw “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the biopic based on her memoir, you know all this, especially the dramatic split with Ike, where they fought in the back of a limousine in Las Vegas Dallas, she got out at a light left Ike sleeping in their hotel room and walked across the street crossed a busy highway to a Ramada Inn, where she told the manager she had 36 cents in her purse and a Mobil credit card, but would they give her a room anyway? He did, and she stayed at Ramadas for years afterward, mentioning the kindness in interviews whenever she was asked.

So it’s not surprising the interviews will mention the triumphant, you-go-girl part of her career first. I saw the Private Dancer tour in Fort Wayne, the shaggy-wig look, the Auntie Entity persona, and it was excellent. But you never forget your first Tina.

You guys can talk about that Tina if you want, but the record I’ll be playing in my head today is my absolute favorite, the Phil Spector production of “River Deep, Mountain High.” The story goes that Phil agreed to put Ike’s name on the recording, but only if he butted all the way out, and he did. So this is Tina-without-Ike, plus another bad man, but oh well.

One more small thing, no, two: She was really her own woman, embracing Buddhism and practicing it faithfully. And she left behind American racism, moving to Europe decades ago and settling in Switzerland. I always liked that about her, and pictured her hitting her singing bowl and chanting her mantra.

She also had the best single response to a question about whether she’d had plastic surgery, during her comeback. She replied yes, she had, because being beaten by her husband had left facial fractures that affected her breathing. And “I had my breasts put back in place,” she said. Take that, Ed Bradley, or whoever asked.

Did you ever see her? What did you think?

Posted at 4:16 pm in Current events, Popculch | 54 Comments

Road trip.

Some friends of ours who used to live in Detroit moved to Nashville a couple years ago and occasionally suggest they’re open to visitors, but the timing was never right until it was, and then it wasn’t. Shadow Show is headed down to SXSW again this year, and is playing gigs along the way. There was one Saturday night in guess-where, so we thought, sure, we can drive down for a long weekend, see the girls, see our friends.

Unfortunately, one of our host’s aunts died, the funeral was a can’t-miss event, so they invited us to stay at their house anyway, etc. etc., and we decided what the hell, let’s go.

I’m glad we went. I hadn’t been to Nashville in decades. It is a decidedly different city than it was then, by a factor of about a million. The changes are…well, it doesn’t matter if we approve or not. They’ve happened and they’re not going away. Yeah, I remember Broadway as a scene but not a Scenetm; back then we went to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and had a few beers but did not exit into the alley behind the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Old Opry, where it was said countless performers before us had done, having one last snootful before taking the stage. On Sunday, I wouldn’t have entered Tootsie’s with a live cattle prod. It was SEC tournament weekend, and the entire strip was rockin’ with basketball fans, drunks and brides-to-be, all entranced by the cover bands playing in every bar.

Oh, those brides-to-be. Someone informed me that Nashville is now Bachville, i.e. the country’s biggest non-Vegas destination for bachelorette parties, and not having known that already makes me feel like I’m not keeping up. March is considered the beginning of Bachelorette season, and they were already evident, traveling in packs, squealing, caroling WOOOOO from pedal pubs, you know the drill. (An aside: Is there a more jarring disconnect between the people on a pedal pub and the people watching them from the street? I don’t think so.) In googling for why this is so, I came across a five year old, but still excellent story in BuzzFeed that goes deep into not only the trend itself, but what it says about the city, which is gentrifying at a staggering pace. This piece was great, too. And full of tidbits like this:

(Bachelorette parties) love taking pictures in front of murals, which, over the last decade, have come to dot every gentrifying section of the city. What started as a covertly capitalist art form (a “I Believe in Nashville” mural designed by a merch company) has become overtly so, as business owners all over town realize the free advertising potential of Instagram location tags. During peak bachelorette season, the photo line at the most popular Nashville mural — artist Kelsey Montague’s “angel wings,” just a block away from Biscuit Love — can take 90 minutes.

An hour and a half wait to take a picture!? I sent this to Alan while we were eating lunch on Sunday, and who should come in and take a nearby table?

We did get to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which was much better than I expected — thoughtfully curated, spiced up with music interludes and interesting artifacts, like Les Paul’s log guitar, outfits from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and a lot more. The Hatch Show Print shop is in the same building, so we stopped there, too. Worth a visit for sure.

The Saturday-night Shadow Show was, however, one of their worst, as judged by the musicians themselves. The PA was shit, there were no monitors, they had to play last — touring etiquette in these situations say the road band goes second, I’m informed — and Kate said she never wanted to play a gig like that again. As for me, I’m just glad no one gouged me for parking, which happened in nicer parts of town on Sunday. And it was nice to catch up with Mr. and Mrs. Bassett, who joined us for most of a very long evening.

Did we try hot chicken? We did. It’s a spicy chicken sandwich.

Sunday night was another show, this one at the Brooklyn Bowl, a benefit for uninsured musicians. Elvis Costello and Billy Gibbons were the co-headliners. Elvis sounded less than great; his voice wasn’t coming through, the band wasn’t tight and his roadie brought out a new guitar for nearly every song, none of which seemed to please him. Fortunately, the show was closed by Gibbons, and once he banged out the opening chords to “Sharp Dressed Man,” we knew everything was going to be fine, and it was:

Oh, and that little text block on the mural in the first picture? The one you can’t read? A version of George Jones’ infamous lawn-mower story. His wife would hide all the vehicle keys when she left, to keep her hopeless alcoholic husband from heading to the liquor store:

And I didn’t have to wait at all to take it.

Posted at 3:28 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 90 Comments

The phantom sweater.

Every year there’s a perennial between-the-holidays story to be written, at least here in Michigan. It’s about the unclaimed property office in the Department of Treasury, and how to search and claim what might be yours. And every year I try, because there’s a $50 gift card from Lands End waiting for me there. I have zero memory how it got there. Maybe it was a Christmas gift I never redeemed, or store credit for a sweater I returned, or something else, but there it sits, year after year, with my name on it, mocking me.

It mocks me because I can’t seem to claim it. One year it required a notarized statement, which was probably more than I could get around to that year. But every time I see it in the database, I fill out the form, and at some point the form asks me to submit proof the unclaimed property is really mine. I have said, over and over, that I don’t have the gift card, so I can’t do that.

This year, I wrote a more detailed letter. I explained the concept of Catch-22, and said it several ways: If I had the gift card, it wouldn’t be unclaimed, but I don’t, so it is. And I asked, politely, that if I was going to be denied again, I would appreciate the Department of Treasury using the card to buy clothing for a poor child, and just delete it from the database.

Most years, I never hear back at all. But this year, I opened it, and the first word was Congratulations, so it’s a 2023 miracle.

And it gets better: They’re not sending me the gift card, but a $50 check, and that’s good, because Lands End quality has really slipped over the time I’ve been angling for my phantom gift card. So I guess I should donate it to a clothing bank, or something, because I already sent that intention out in the universe. Or I could combine it with the $180 that Michigan Democrats want to send me as part of their policy package this year (“inflation relief checks” is what they’re called), and have a nice dinner with Alan somewhere.

Oh, and I should add: This year’s stories about the unclaimed property office notes that the biggest single piece it has is a $2 million life-insurance payout, so if you’ve lost any relatives in Michigan lately, might want to search that database.


One of the irritating things about Madonna, to me, is how thoroughly she has snowed people who should know better. (I’m not talking about her music – even I have a playlist on my Spotify account. It’s called “Tolerable Madonna” and is about 40 minutes long. I use it on short bike rides.) As long as she’s been around, she’s been bullshitting academics, critics and others with the idea that her “reinventions” are thoughtfully calculated, thick with carefully considered details, cultural references and other frippery that makes her, basically, a walking/talking PhD dissertation in pop-culture studies. She used to tell interviewers about how well-informed she is, and that her IQ was 140, so obviously, y’know, this is all real.

When it was pretty obvious to anyone who pays attention that what Madonna does well is scan the outer regions of pop culture, the place where her soccer-mom fans don’t spend much, or any, time, and import them into her routine. Also, that she is a narcissist without peer.

This has been going on for decades now. Camille Paglia, I’m looking at you.

Now the torch has been passed, in this case to Jennifer Weiner, who takes note of Madonna’s new face, which has been there for a while but got its widest exposure yet at the Grammys:

All of Madonna’s features looked exaggerated, pushed and polished to an extreme. There was her forehead, smooth and gleaming as a porcelain bowl. Her eyebrows, bleached and plucked to near-invisibility. Her cheekbones, with deep hollows beneath them. The total effect was familiar, but more than slightly off.

…Beyond the question of what she’d had done, however, lay the more interesting question of why she had done it. Did Madonna get sucked so deep into the vortex of beauty culture that she came out the other side? Had the pressure to appear younger somehow made her think she ought to look like some kind of excessively contoured baby?

Perhaps so, but I’d like to think that our era’s greatest chameleon, a woman who has always been intentional about her reinvention, was doing something slyer, more subversive, by serving us both a new — if not necessarily improved — face and a side of critique about the work of beauty, the inevitability of aging, and the impossible bind in which older female celebrities find themselves.

Oh, pfft. Madonna is 64, and can’t stand it. So she fell into a trap many people, most of them women, have fallen into already. She’s probably had dozens, scores of procedures already done to her face and body, most of them good; until recently, she looked great. But at some point the body says, “Girl, it’s time to stop,” and she ignored it. This is not a critique of “the work of beauty.” It’s a sad woman grasping for relevance.

Has anyone noticed that Madonna always wears gloves, and has for years now? I’d bet plenty that it’s because the veins on her hands bulge, a common side effect of exercise and vigorous physical activity: Exercise delivers lots more blood to the muscles, and veins return that blood to the heart. Athletes have larger veins than non-athletes, and that’s okay.

Madonna has always been proud of her commitment to fitness; she was trained as a dancer, after all. You’d think she’d display her hands without shame. And she’s going around these days talking about how the most controversial thing she’s ever done was to “stick around.” OK, then! Look like someone who’s been sticking around for a while. Patti Smith is almost aggressively old and gray these days, as she continues to make music and write. Most of the older female musicians at the Grammys that night, like Bonnie Raitt, looked their age. What’s so terrible about being old? (Other than knee pain, she said, wincing.)

OK, enough. I’m going to wait by the mailbox for my $50.

Posted at 11:08 am in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 54 Comments

Poor Pam.

Did I mention I’m dog-sitting this week? Not at my house, theirs. It’s just a mile or so from my house, so it’s not a huge deal, but I’m sleeping over with the dogs, one of whom is an insulin-dependent diabetic, and the other a cute little shit who thinks his cuteness excuses his in-house shitting. But whatever, they’re not my dogs, I’m just here to take care of them. What else do I have to do?

These friends of mine have all the streaming services, so I’ve been watching a lot of TV. One this week was the Pamela Anderson documentary on Netflix, “Pamela: A Love Story.” I didn’t get all the way through, but I saw enough to gather the gist: This sweet girl was fed into the sex-symbol meat grinder, had a wide range of experiences related to that, and is now telling her story, her face scrubbed of makeup.

This is, I’m sorry to say, an old story. A while back I noticed that single women past the age of 50 have a strong tendency to have lots of pets, and that all these pets sleep in their beds, up to and including 80-pound pitbulls. At the same time I can’t help but notice that when sex symbols worldwide age out of the role, they will inevitably swear off men forever and get heavily into animal charities. Brigitte Bardot, case in point. Anderson is following the same path; she sold her Malibu house for $11 million, bought her childhood home and a lot of surrounding land, and now lives in Vancouver with her parents and, you guessed it, a lot of animals.

Her latest marriage, to a construction worker on her reno project in Vancouver, didn’t last. This is a theme.

Not that I am judging. One thing that becomes clear, watching this heavily documented life play out in archival video, photos and readings from her own detailed journals is, this is a woman in love with love and always willing to take a chance on it. Also, she didn’t manage her money all that well, and from time to time she needed to marry someone with enough to support her.

And here’s the other thing: What happened to her, a process in which she was a willing and sometimes eager participant, was equal parts wild ride and tragedy. You look at old photos of her, from her teen years, and she is unrecognizable as source material for the bleached, pneumatically boobed, polished, waxed, sculpted creation that came later. Here she is at the literal beginning of her modeling career, when she was spotted at a Canadian sporting event by the Labatt’s crowd cam:

So pretty, so wholesome, right? Then Playboy magazine invited her to come down to L.A. and meet Hef, and that was the beginning. Breast implants, natch. Peroxide-blonde hair, but of course. I have no idea how many surgeries and procedures she’s had to maintain it all, but I’d guess plenty. Still pretty, still more or less natural:

Then the upper lip expanded, the eyebrows were tweezed into a high arch, the ridiculous Baywatch swimsuit was glued to her body and pretty soon she was getting married to Tommy Lee on a beach in Cancun. All this time men are staring at her, exposing themselves to her, pawing her, and, needless to say, masturbating frantically to her image. When women say, later, how uncomfortable they were with this level of literal exposure, I always want to ask: What did you think would happen? Had you ever seen a copy of Playboy? Sometimes, anticipating these questions, women will say, “They made me feel beautiful, which had never happened to me before,” and OK, I guess I understand. Anderson’s first sexual experience was a rape, and that does a number on your head. But none of this is a secret, and none of it was a secret when Anderson was drawn into it. She’s absolutely right that the obsession with her breasts was ridiculous, underlined by clip after clip of some late-night talk-show host goggling at them. (You know what that tells me? We need more female late-night talk-show hosts.)

But I can’t go along 100 percent with the “it turns out Pam was a person all along” hype. Everybody is a person, but we sometimes forget it. I’m glad that today’s sex symbols have more of a voice in these things; Emily Ratajkowski is photographed naked and semi-naked all the time, but also published a book of essays called “My Body.” I didn’t read it, but it was pretty respectfully reviewed. She had the advantage of coming along 20 years later.

Once again, we learn that women are human beings, and we should treat them as such, at least until they demonstrate, over and over, that either they consider themselves far, far better than the rest of us, or that their personhood is not something they value all that much, or that they have taken it to places where it’s clear they’re actually inviting the world’s judgment. Hello, Madonna and your latest terrifying face:

That’s her daughter, of course, Kate’s former classmate at U-M. She saw her once on the bus, and remarked, “She sure is pretty.” Careful, Lourdes. That’s what they said about Pam Anderson.

So the week starts. A few more days here, then a Shadow Show gig at the end of it. Should be good.

Posted at 5:36 pm in Movies, Popculch | 59 Comments

O down the drain.

If you grow up in Columbus, it doesn’t seem weird to have at least three friends whose parents have turned their rec room, or guest bathroom, or whatever, into a shrine to the Ohio State Buckeyes — the buckeye wallpaper, the block-O toilet seat lid, maybe a framed picture of the coach of the moment. When a baby girl is born to Mr. and Mrs. Gray, and they name her Scarlett Ann, netting them a cute story in the local media, it just seems…normal.

It’s a measure of how far I’ve come from Columbus that when the Free Press did a story last week about all the businesses along High Street had covered any Ms in their signage, I was able to finally say JFC these people. (Borden and I used to hang out at a High Street club called Crazy Mama’s, which I suppose would have to be called Crazy Xaxa’s. The basement place next door would be Xister Brown’s Descent. Down the Street? XcDonald’s.)

This is stirring up memories of working as a reporter in Columbus, and how it intersected with OSU. In Michigan it’s the couch blazes in East Lansing, but in Ohio, it can be anything. My favorite was the two city council members whose romance went sour: The spurned boyfriend drunkenly broke into her apartment in the middle of the night, and rousted his ex and her new lover out of bed. I believe he threatened them with a barbecue fork he found in the kitchen. He made them do Script Ohio stark naked, then stabbed their waterbed to death before fleeing the scene. This prompted a city editor, a legendary drunk himself but one blessed with a Shakespearean actor’s voice and diction, to crow to the newsroom at large, “Ah yes! Miss Coleman’s companion swung his baton while she enthusiastically dotted the I!” Newsrooms were fun places, back then.

I usually don’t take a side in sports contests, because it seems to be an E-ticket to misery. But man, I have to say: When Michigan put the smackdown on Ohio State on Saturday, it felt…wonderful. Underdogs, in hostile territory, all the sports yakkers calling them sacrificial lambs – and then they not only win, but win decisively? It was nice.

The chips and dip weren’t bad, either. I see why people get into this.

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving, and I apologize for being absent. There was work to do, my back is still KILLING me, and ever since I got this new laptop, your comments are no longer coming to my email. A few will slip through, but it isn’t a steady stream rolling across my desktop. I have to check the dashboard, or just dial up the site like anybody else. It’s no biggie, but I get behind from time to time.

Anyway, it was a good weekend for me — holiday, birthday, OSU-beatdown day.

How about a meme, then?

Ha ha.

OK, enough gloating. Occasionally, I surfaced to check out the news. And whaddaya know? Nothing changes:

Republican lawmakers have largely remained silent in the wake of former President Trump’s dinner with antisemitic rapper Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes, reviving a tactic they frequently relied on during his presidency.

Wonderful. Just wonderful. I should go back to bed.

Hope the week ahead is good for everyone. I’ll be here more frequently.

Posted at 5:44 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 41 Comments

Dirty books.

Note: I started to write this for Deadline Detroit, trashed it, rewrote it, trashed it again – it seemed too obvious. But now, in the last days before the election, gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has unearthed dirty books as a campaign issue. So, with a sigh, I say the obvious.

Defending books from those who would ban them, burn them, keep them out of libraries – that’s porn for a progressive. It’s so easy to step up for Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, all of whom have written something to cheese off right-wingers. It’s almost literal virtue-signaling.

It’s harder to do it for the terrible writers – hacks, pornographers, crap-merchants – who also get swept up in the net wielded by people like state Sen. Lana Theis, who last summer choked back tears on the MIRS podcast when talking about the filthy, filthy books that Michigan children are exposed to in their school libraries. Stung by her tongue-lashing from her Senate colleague, Mallory McMorrow, she sought to get a little of her own back by also crying to the Detroit News’ Ingrid Jacques, champion of put-upon conservative women everywhere. Wrote Jacques, in her last column for the paper:

Theis points to specific books that she knows are in some Michigan school libraries or being taught in the classroom. Books such as “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health” depict in graphic detail masturbation, sexual positions and LGBTQ relationships. It’s targeted to children ages 10-13.

Other books such as “Push” describe a father raping his daughter, also in great detail.

“Do you believe preschoolers and elementary school children should be exposed to complex sexual and gender identity issues?” she asks. “Or do you believe children should be able to maintain their innocence at those young ages?”

Innocence. Huh. In my experience, 10-13 years is the age when puberty arrives, early for some (mortifying) and later for others (equally mortifying). Once that happens, one’s brain becomes a fetid stew of confusion, and innocence – at least, the innocence of early childhood – flies out the window. A book that explains how one’s body is changing, not just in medical terms but in a way that at least acknowledges all the weirdness one might feel as a result, sounds like a welcome addition to any school library. (Also, please: If 12-year-old boys, and some girls, aren’t masturbating, I’m Marilyn Monroe.)

I was about 12 when a different book was passed around my junior high school, like Soviets sharing samizdat. “The Godfather” was a best-seller, the ‘70s version of the Mafia tale. The paperback was everywhere, copies stained with pool water dripped by summer readers and ketchup from lunch readers, spines scored with multiple openings and closings. But we all knew what we wanted. Our copies fell open to page 21.

It’s the scene where Sonny Corleone screws Lucy, a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding. Author Mario Puzo doesn’t spare a detail in describing Sonny’s huge penis, “an enormous, blood-gorged pole of muscle” that penetrates Lucy and causes “unbelievable pleasure” as she receives the “savage arrows of his lightning-like thrusts” which of course – of course! – end in a “shattering climax” for Lucy, the first of her life. Of course.

Junior high was different then. Most of us were still virgins. Our health classes talked about reproduction, sperm and eggs, but nothing about blood-gorged poles of muscle, needless to say. The passage was titillating, confusing and terrifying. We all had enough knowledge to understand, theoretically at least, that we’d be having sex one of these days, but we feared for the integrity of our tender interiors, should it be with a Sonny Corleone. But Lucy felt unbelievable pleasure; it said so right on the page. From savage arrows. What is going on here?

Here’s another book Theis named in her tour of aggrievement, “Push,” by an author known only as Sapphire. It opens with this devastating passage:

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

Clarieece Precious Jones, the child telling her story, is not innocent, needless to say:

“Father,” (the nurse) say. “What’s your daddy’s name?”

“Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the Bronx.”

She say, “What’s the baby’s father’s name?”

I say, “Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the same Bronx.”

I can see where “Push” might not be Theis’ cup of tea. But imagine you’re a child who’s enduring this sort of abuse at home – it happens, even in Howell – and you pulled this book down from a library shelf. You might feel less alone in the world. And maybe you are a well-loved child from an intact family, and you did the same. Maybe you’d feel like the world was wider than you might have thought.

And that is the whole point of literature. To hold a mirror to the world, all of it. Children should be guided in their choice of reading material by adults, but not dictated to. (You should have heard what my school librarian had to say about Nancy Drew mysteries, my absolute favorite for a while.) In a just world, any child entering a school library in search of reading material should be treated with trumpets and salutes. If a plain old book can cut through the static of TikTok, homework, over-scheduling and the million other things competing for their attention, give that author the Nobel Prize. That’s an accomplishment.

Theis’ cause is not a lonely one. I recently stumbled across a spreadsheet, file name “inappropriate library books,” compiled by FEC United, a hard-right group that has established a beachhead in Grosse Pointe, where I live. It contains “Push,” needless to say. And there’s the 1619 Project and various books about racism. All three of the authors I mentioned in my first paragraph are there. And now, late in the race, the flailing Michigan gubernatorial campaign of Tudor Dixon has seized on dirty books, which she describes as “books describing how to have sex” as an issue. I can’t really top Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s riposte to that (“You really think books are more dangerous than guns?”), but I will add that in my experience, no one needs to be taught how to have sex; nature has endowed us with the instincts to figure it out on our own.

Anyway, like I said, we can all get a warm glow from sticking up for Toni Morrison. But I rise today to stick up for Mario Puzo, crap-merchant. His lousy novel was the foundation of two of the best movies ever made; that alone is the basis for a decent term paper. Lucy the bridesmaid gets her own subplot, a weird medical detour to explain her too-large vagina, and no I’m not kidding. It scarred me for years, worrying that one day I could only be satisfied by a donkey-endowed man like Sonny Corleone.

If only it had been kept from me!

Posted at 9:34 am in Current events, Popculch | 37 Comments

Rich people on film.

I think it was during the first year of the pandemic, all of us spending too much time on our phones and devices, that Fathers Day came along and Kate said, not entirely seriously but maybe not, that she felt bad about her gift, which was something like a home-cooked dinner and time together.

Why, I asked. He’s delighted to spend time with you, and the dinner was lovely.

“Some girl on Instagram wrote a song about her father, recorded it and put it to a slide show of pictures and videos of them together as she was growing up,” she said.

Ladies and gentlemen: Social media.

This morning I had the weekend shift for Deadline Detroit, and I aggregated (summarized, basically) a story based on the Instagram posting of a swimsuit model who became engaged to the Lions’ quarterback. I was struck by how…Instagrammy the whole weekend seemed to be; he popped the question on vacation in Cabo, and arranged to have all her friends flown in (PJ, natch), and they partied and celebrated and took 10 million photos and videos and it all came together in a very photogenic fashion.

I guess because I have worked with photographers my whole career, I always imagine what’s behind the fourth wall. I can understand wanting to memorialize a significant moment, but knowing the way photographers can bark orders, I can’t understand inviting one to a fairly intimate moment. Like this, say:

Honestly, I see this sort of thing everywhere, life not lived so much as lived for some fantasy audience, who will see, admire and envy you on social media. I also know, for public people, that social media is in some sense inescapable, but I hate to see people who can’t afford aspiring to what is, frankly, an unattainable life for nearly all of them.

And of course, the kings of tech not only brought this plague upon us, but now they’re ruining other things, too. Our newspaper carrier gave us a copy of the Wall Street Journal on Friday by mistake. We used to subscribe, years ago, and I remembered the Friday features section as a somewhat amusing catalog of rich people problems, and indulgences. Sometime before 9/11, there was a story on people who book name-brand entertainers for private parties, for example. I always looked for the YOLO quote, which was something like, “Yeah, it cost $100,000 to book Tom Jones, but mom and dad only have a 40th anniversary once.”

Anyway, for some reason the Friday features section was called Mansion, yes really, and the lead story was about the ruination of Malibu. People think Malibu is exclusively rich people, and it is, but it wasn’t always. Seriously:

About three decades ago, Beverly Hills native Andy Stern moved to the nearby beach city of Malibu to raise his young family. He quickly came to know all his neighbors, he said, recalling block parties with children pouring onto the streets to play together.

Now Mr. Stern—a two-time Malibu mayor and Coldwell Banker Realty real-estate agent—said he barely sees his neighbors in the Broad Beach area, because they are rarely there. The families that once lived in the neighborhood have largely been replaced by celebrities and billionaires, such as the Chicago-born real-estate billionaire Sam Zell, Miami Heat President Pat Riley and Torstein Hagen, the Norwegian billionaire founder of Viking Cruises, property records show. Mr. Stern said many of his neighbors own two, three or even four other homes, visiting Malibu only periodically while their houses there sit empty for much of the year.

This was the problem people talked about when I wrote about subsidized housing in Aspen, back in the day, for Bridge.

If it weren’t for the housing program, there wouldn’t be a single bartender, teacher, ski instructor or even doctor who would afford to live there. What’s more, the town would be empty all but a few weeks a year — maybe even two weeks, since that’s when the rich people who own houses there come in for skiing, around the holidays. And now Malibu is the same way? You don’t say. They don’t live there because they live everywhere, and can’t possibly live in a hotel when they’re somewhere. Rich people ruin everything.

Not to bring you down in the waning hours of Fathers Day. It really was a nice weekend, even though I spent a fair amount of it cleaning up construction dust. But there was also strawberries, bike rides, a boxing class and a haircut. A good haircut, too. No pictures, though — I have terrible Helmet Head at the moment.

Let’s go into the week and enjoy it best we can.

Posted at 9:16 pm in Current events, Popculch | 31 Comments

John v. Amber.

I paid zero, and I do mean zero attention to the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. I don’t have cable, for one, and while I understand that the trial was live-streamed over the internet, I refused to engage. Depp is one of those celebrities who, if I saw them in an airport, I wouldn’t think of engaging with; I mean, I’ve seen him here and there in this and that, but I’m too old to think about him as a lust object, and I can’t think of a single question I might want him to answer.

As for his ex-wife, I wouldn’t even recognize her as famous. Pretty and blonde, because so many actresses are, but otherwise, a tabula rasa.

As such, I welcomed the chance to ignore, completely, a news event and not feel guilty about it.

I’m starting to gather this was a mistake.

I should have known when I started seeing #JusticeforJohnny trending among a few MAGA accounts I keep tabs on. I should have known when, late in the trial, the role of certain so-called Influencers began getting MSM coverage. I should have known when I finally did pay attention, and learned this was a defamation trial, based on an op-ed Heard wrote that didn’t even mention Depp. I should have known.

Then the verdict came in, and well, now I know. Anything TikTok plays a leading role in should be assumed moronic and toxic on its face. These damage awards are fucking insane, like the time a Columbus jury found one pornographer defamed another pornographer and awarded him $40 million.

It was later knocked down to $4 million, and Bob Guccione’s plans to use the settlement money to build an Atlantic City casino were stopped at the steel-girder stage. I’m sure someone else took over the project, which was notable also for the fact it was constructed around a single residential house, the proverbial stubborn homeowner who wouldn’t sell for any reason. Googling…and someone did take over the project. None other than Donald Trump. Speaking of pornography.

I hope Amber gets her award knocked down on appeal.

Sorry I’ve been scarce of late. No time, no ideas, rather stare at the horizon and wait for some Eastern religion-type enlightenment wash over me.

So here’s this, for Monday.

Posted at 1:56 pm in Current events, Popculch | 27 Comments

Our bodies, our selves.

I’ve been wanting to write something about transgender issues. I’m waiting for the static in my head around the issue to stop being so staticky, but the more I read and think about it, the louder it gets, so here goes. I usually work through these things by writing about them, anyway.

Let me begin with a revelation that shakes me to my core:

I find myself largely in agreement with this Ross Douthat column.

People? That never happens. Until now.

It’s paywalled, and I’ll clip/paste/summarize as best I can:

After laying out some rather eye-popping statistics — that 21 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBT, he notes:

Here are three possible readings of these statistics. The first interpretation: This is great news. Sexual fluidity, transgender and nonbinary experience are clearly intrinsic to the human experience, our society used to suppress them with punitive heteronormativity and only now are we getting a true picture of the real diversity of sexual attractions and gender identities. (Just as, for example, we discovered that left-handedness is much more common once we stopped trying to train kids out of it.)

So the response from society should be sustained encouragement, especially if you care about teenage mental health: This newly awakened diversity should be supported from the time it first makes itself manifest, at however young an age, and to the extent that parents feel uncomfortable with their children’s true selves, it’s the task of educators and schools to support the kid, not to defer to parental anxiety or bigotry.

The second interpretation: We shouldn’t read too much into it. This trend is probably mostly just young people being young people, exploring and experimenting and differentiating themselves from their elders. Most of the Generation Zers identifying as L.G.B.T. are calling themselves bisexual and will probably end up in straight relationships, if they aren’t in them already. Some of the young adults describing themselves as transgender or nonbinary may drift back to cisgender identities as they grow older.

So we shouldn’t freak out over their self-identification — but neither should we treat it as a definitive revelation about human nature or try to build new curriculums or impose certain rules atop a fluid and uncertain situation. Tolerance is essential; ideological enthusiasm is unnecessary.

A third interpretation: This trend is bad news. What we’re seeing today isn’t just a continuation of the gay rights revolution; it’s a form of social contagion which our educational and medical institutions are encouraging and accelerating. These kids aren’t setting themselves free from the patriarchy; they’re under the influence of online communities of imitation and academic fashions laundered into psychiatry and education — one part Tumblr and TikTok mimesis, one part Judith Butler.

There is no clear evidence that any of this is making kids happier or better adjusted; instead all we see is a worsening of teen mental health, blurring into a young-adult landscape where sex and relationships and marriage are on the wane. So what we need now is probably more emphasis on biology, normativity and reconciliation with your own maleness or femaleness, not further deconstruction.

I find myself solidly in Camp #2. Like most people I know, the second interpretation fits with my direct experience and observation. I have known trans people, know them now, see elements of it in younger people, and even in the young children of people I know. I am happy, proud even, to support trans people in every way I can. I’ll use whatever names or pronouns they might want, treat them with respect. Share a bathroom. Hell, share a locker room if that’s the ask. It seems pretty simple to me, very live-and-let-live. People exist across a broad, vast spectrum of individuality, and that’s what makes them so wonderful.

That said, I am uncomfortable with some of the radical treatments being made available to children, adolescents and even young adults. I’m talking surgery, hormones, puberty blockers, etc. I understand that an older trans man, weary of binding his chest, may opt for breast removal, and OK, your body, your choice. But I’m really leery of saying that to a 19-year-old, let alone a 14-year-old.

Here are some of the ideas and experiences that contribute to the static in my head these days. I offer them in no particular order, just as a slide show of my brain:

** Many conservatives like to say trans people are mentally ill. Having recently shared an evening with a trans woman (hi there, you know who you are), as well as many other encounters in recent years, I reject that out of hand. (Although I’m convinced this trans man has more than one screw loose, sorry. It’s impossible to look at the near-full-length photo of him, showing off the new, surgically constructed bulge in his tighty whities, and not see the enormous divot on his thigh, where the flesh to construct it was harvested, and not be appalled. That’s not to mention the still-obvious female waistline, and I shudder to think how that’s going to be rectified in some future operating room.) But mental illness? For living as a person of another gender? Sorry, no.

** I think back on, of all things, Edward Bodkin, whom you can google, although Hoosiers will remember him as the Huntington Castrator. In the less-edified fog of the late ’90s, there was lots of discussion as to who, exactly, would seek out the castration services of a man who practiced his craft on a filthy kitchen table. As I recall, the easiest answer was transgender women who couldn’t afford the services of a reputable surgeon. I also recall one of my colleagues hanging up the phone after an extended interview with the editor of some fetish magazine — was it Ball Club? Something like that — and coming over to my desk, rather shaken, for a debrief. The gist of the interview was basically that body dysmorphia is real, that it doesn’t always break down along clear gender lines, and that for whatever reason, some men might want to kiss their testicles goodbye.

** Not long after that, the Atlantic published a long story about people who seek out amputation of healthy limbs, sometimes by mangling the ones they have in self-inflicted injuries, out of nothing more than a sense that they are meant to be amputees.

** I’ve been told most people do not regret assuming genders other than those assigned at birth. I accept that. But I reject that this number is so overwhelmingly large that those who do have second thoughts are outliers we can disregard. This essay, recently published in the WashPost, seems noteworthy:

When I was 19, I had surgery for sex reassignment, or what is now called gender affirmation surgery. The callow young man who was obsessed with transitioning to womanhood could not have imagined reaching middle age. But now I’m closer to 50, keeping a watchful eye on my 401(k), and dieting and exercising in the hope that I’ll have a healthy retirement.

In terms of my priorities and interests today, that younger incarnation of myself might as well have been a different person — yet that was the person who committed me to a lifetime set apart from my peers.
There is much debate today about transgender treatment, especially for young people. Others might feel differently about their choices, but I know now that I wasn’t old enough to make that decision. Given the strong cultural forces today casting a benign light on these matters, I thought it might be helpful for young people, and their parents, to hear what I wish I had known.

There follows a list of regrets, and they boil down to: I wish I’d been able to come to terms with my homosexuality. She concludes:

What advice would I pass on to young people seeking transition? Learning to fit in your body is a common struggle. Fad diets, body-shaping clothing and cosmetic surgery are all signs that countless millions of people at some point have a hard time accepting their own reflection. The prospect of sex can be intimidating. But sex is essential in healthy relationships. Give it a chance before permanently altering your body.

Most of all, slow down. You may yet decide to make the change. But if you explore the world by inhabiting your body as it is, perhaps you’ll find that you love it more than you thought possible.

One reason I am sympathetic to this view is my direct experience with a member of our commenting community here. Alex commented on this essay:

If I’d been given the opportunity to change genders at adolescence, I would have gone for it. After a dozen or so years of psychoanalytic work as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t. The counseling I underwent taught me many things, but perhaps most important of all, to accept myself as I am. My identity is no longer tied up in the arbitrarily rigid gender norms that I grew up with, and I find this so much more liberating than if I had gone under the knife and endured a lifetime medical regimen in order to conform to a physical ideal that I would have fallen short of anyway.

Gender fluidity is a state of mind, and a perfectly healthy one that needs no surgical augmentation.

Honestly, I think no one can make an informed choice who hasn’t had a sex life or gained significant social maturity beyond young adulthood. Not an easy message to impress upon young people who fervently believe that a sex change is the one thing they need in order to find fulfilment when they’ve gotten it from nothing else. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and risk being called a stodgy old fart and a buzzkill if I can persuade even one young person to reconsider. Next to getting myself some good counseling, it was the best decision I ever made.

Alex and I exchanged a few emails over “In the Darkroom,” Susan Faludi’s outstanding memoir of her reconciliation and short-lived relationship with her estranged father, following his gender change. I won’t share them; if Alex wants to, he knows where to do it. I highly recommend the book, by the way.

** Conversations with gay men on this topic all seem to end, maybe after a drink or three, with a lowered voice, a glance around to see who might overhear, and a confession that while they are supportive, etc., they sure seem to know a lot of hot-mess trans people. Maybe that’s because they’re treated so badly by others, so misunderstood. It can’t be easy.

** I know I’ll clash with some of you over this, but I’m a feminist who wonders why, once again, women are carrying most of the burden for all this societal enlightenment. Yes, I’m talking about That Swimmer, but also the issues J.K. Rowling is raising: What about women’s prisons? Domestic-violence shelters? What about…identity? Graham Linehan is affirmatively anti-trans, but it can be useful to check in with these folks from time to time. Do scroll through his recounting of the story of Jaclyn Moore, and make your own conclusions.

I’ve known radical feminists who are deeply offended by drag culture, who find it, at base, a mockery of womanhood. I’m not among them, but I feel that way about Jaclyn Moore, sorry.

** Speaking of identity, you know another bad actor in all this? The fucking Kardashians, who have steamrolled through the culture with this insane version of femininity that, had I confronted it at age 14 or so, might have made me call myself non-binary, too. The plastic surgery, the dieting, the fucking waist trainers, the laxative teas, the injections of fillers and plumpers and slimmers and all the rest of it — just fuck them all the way out of town. They are not helping. Has femininity always been this rigid? I thought we’d learned something during the ’70s, and here we are 50 years later, making the same mistakes.

** Language. Oy, the language. Here’s my declaration: I will never, ever be able to say “pregnant people” or “menstruating people” with a straight face. Never mind the they/them stuff. You should hear me talking to Kate about some of her friends, it’s like the who’s-on-first routine: “They’re going with you? X and who else?” etc. Language should make messages clear. This language does not.

Finally, I guess my conclusions are that I have no conclusions. I just have static. Some people are indeed walking around in a body that feels all wrong, and if they accommodate it in some way that doesn’t hurt others, that’s perfectly fine. Young people should be in counseling, maybe for years, before they undergo surgery or drugs that will leave them forever changed. And that’s it for me, for today. How’s everyone else doing today?

Posted at 2:51 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 106 Comments

What’s on your bookshelf?

Another week in the books, and I can’t quite understand how it happened. You ever get that way? Monday dawns, and it’s another grind ahead, and then you look up and it’s Friday, and you’re another week older.

Not that I wish to depress you. It’s just something that happens.

Today I found Barack Obama’s year-end list of his reading and viewing, and once again, regretted… well, you know what we regret:

That’s a two-page list, by the way. I’ve read two books on there, total — “Harlem Shuffle” and “Leave the World Behind.” I’m clearly not smart enough to touch the hem of Barack Obama’s garment, but I think we could share a laugh at a cocktail party. I read “Harlem Shuffle” in Paris, where I learned that every current best-seller on the U.S. list is available in Europe in a fancy paperback, which is maybe not important to you until you have to schlep this stuff through one, two or more airports.

I did better on the movie list:

Saw three of these – “Pig,” “Summer of Soul” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” all excellent. I want to see the rest, but after the “House of Gucci” experience, I can wait until they play in the living-room cinema.

As you can no doubt tell, the holidays are sapping my energy, as is the January 6 subcommittee and all the rest of it. One of these days I’ll find something to say about it, but for now, probably just as well to look at other people’s reading lists.

Back after the weekend.

Posted at 8:44 pm in Popculch | 46 Comments