Sunday, September 30, 2001

I Wanna Be Like Her

From clothes to hairstyles, from speech to hand gestures, kids like nothing more than to emulate the people they see in the movies, in music videos and in sports. While there is a certain element of hero worship, to be sure, it is as much about being a fan as it is about simply growing up. That's because at a time when young adults are struggling to find their identity, it's easier to appropriate traits than to define your own. The result is that kids sport Kobe Bryant sneakers, Madonna tee-shirts and Julia Roberts hair.

What's more, youngsters don't always differentiate between the personalities themselves and the parts they play. They want to be as cool as all of the characters on "Dawson's Creek," forgetting that they're watching actors playing roles which are sketched out for dramatic effect. They forget that this is fantasyland: on a day-to-day basis, it's difficult to wear jeans that tight or hair that moussed.

Yet to ignore the effect that these characters have on viewers is to bury your head in the sand. And so recognizing the power that these images have kids, especially young girls, the National Organization of Women, or NOW, decided to shine its own light on one particular image maker, the world of prime time television. To that end, it compiled a list of programs that offer positive role models to young women in today's culture.

Rather than approach the task anecdotally, it created a rating system, bestowing points and demerits in various categories. Over the past year. It has been tracking gender composition, violence, sexual exploitation and social responsibility as it applies to women portrayed on the broadcast networks. Well, the results are in... and supporting the notion that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, the results don't always play out the way NOW might have liked.

Not surprisingly, the highest marks we're given to "The Gilmore Girls," a show on The WB that focuses on a single young mom and her intelligent daughter. The show features sensitive story lines, realistic scenarios and likeable characters... just the kind of family friendly fare for growing adults. After that, however, the fun begins. For when you do it by objectively by the numbers and ignore the gestalt of the show itself, you come up with some interesting rankings.

Coming in at number two is "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." Now, what exactly do we have here? An empowered young lady in the lead? Check. She has a number of strong female companions? Check. There's a lack of overt violence? Check. But forget the bullet points and look at the big picture. At its heart, it's a show about a female who only triumphs because she has magical powers. Now, there's something your daughter can relate to: using eye of newt to get the lead in the school play. At least she something to shoot for: when she grows up, she can be in "Charmed," a show about 3 attractive witches who dress in lots of spandex and who use their powers on warlocks, demons and boyfriends. Unfortunately, that kind of activity drops "Charmed" to 27th in the rankings.

Also near the top was "Felicity," a show centered on a college student coping with the rigors of school and the big city. Again, from an objective standpoint, the show has lots of positives. A female lead, a lack of violence in favor of intelligence, a focus on using hard work and study to get ahead. But once again, even the raters commented that majority of the lead characters were "thin, conventionally attractive, young and presented in a way that highlighted their physical attributes." The message: a 4.0 grade average is important, but so is a skin tight "Baby Pfat" tee-shirt.

Number five on the list was "Popstars," also on The WB. First, the good news: this chronicle of the building of a new girl group had no violence, lots of females from diverse backgrounds and showed them working hard to get ahead. But then there's the rub: it's all in pursuit of being a starlet in a band whose entire image is based on sex and beauty. Oops... they did it again.

A quick scan through the rest of the scores and the notes in the margins reveals similar conundrums. With the possible exception of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager," almost all shows that feature women in lead roles also focus on their physical attractiveness. IN "CSI," one of the lead investigators is a smart female... who almost always dresses in skin tight black slacks. In "Law And Order," the female lead wins cases... always dressed in a tight skirt. And in "The Weakest Link" the appeal of the program rises or falls on the quick repartee of the woman host... who dresses exclusively in tight pants and a long black leather coat. In TV land, power for women obviously comes by being wrapped very tightly... physically, that is.

Will the trend continue? Well, this fall will see Kim Delaney of "NYPD Blue" as a defense attorney-single mom and Jill Hennesy of "Law and Order" as a medical examiner. Odds are that they'll play strong, gutsy parts, while also wearing blouses that are a shade smaller than they should be. And Jason Alexander will have a comedy where he portrays a motivational speaker... opening the door to another show about a not-so-good looking guy with gorgeous women surrounding him.

But then again, perhaps we shouldn't expect much. We're talking entertainment here. Male or female, no on wants their kids following the example of Homer Simpson. When I kick on the tube, its to be entertained, not lectured too. Or as Mark Twain said, "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."


Marc Wollin of Bedford still studies "MASH" reruns for Hawkeye Pierce behavioral tips. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, September 23, 2001

One Degree of Separation

This President has said that we must get back to the business of our daily lives, that to do so denies the perpetrators of the terrible calamity in New York the victory of disruption that they so desperately crave. And he's right. While we must never forget what has happened, to wallow in it does us no good. Without disrespecting the memories of those who perished, the psyches of those who were traumatized or the efforts of those who were rescuers, the most important thing we can do is to move forward with new resolve. The path, of course, is not clear. But if the will is there, then we will find a way.

And so next week, I will return to documenting the twists and turns of daily life that strike me as a bit out of sync, as I have done in this space for nearly six years. In doing so I will leave it to much brighter minds than mine to work out the philosophical conundrums of liberty versus security, the practical considerations of lengthy airport check ins versus economy growth, the political consequences of military action as weighed against diplomatic efforts. Like you, I will watch, listen and participate to the best of my ability in the national conversation that will shape the future, the future that began last Tuesday at 8:45AM on a bright September morning.

But before we move on, we would be dishonoring all those affected if we didn't take away some lessons from this catastrophe. Not big ones about national security or urban safety or search and recovery... we'll leave those to the panels of experts that seem to have taken over CNN. Rather, while I was fortunate not to be directly involved with the horrors of the day, like anyone who lives in the metropolitan area, I know plenty of those who were at every level. Their stories are visceral, disturbing and heartbreaking, but also filled with tutorials. Without presuming to be definitive, and recognizing that these observations are viewed through my own imperfect prism, here are but a few.

Bob was in the revolving door of the South Tower when the first plane hit. He told me about the decisions he made that morning that put him there at that time, most specifically taking the long way around in order to get a little extra fresh air. Likewise, Tim was walking across the north bridge at the same moment, people-watching with the spare time he had. In both cases, they confessed to being where they were because the day was so beautiful that they couldn't bring themselves to hurry to their desks. I would submit that the lesson isn't to dawdle nor to speed up. Rather, it is that life can be cut short in an instant, and so you should savor the view wherever you are, wherever you're going and whatever you're doing.

In the days following the disaster, I received scores of calls and emails from people all around the country and the world, from Colorado to Ohio, from Japan to Australia, checking up on me and my family and mutual associates, and offering prayers and expressions of concern. I know how I felt when I got the communication: touched that someone was thinking of me, even people whom I barely knew. Indeed, I did much the same, reaching out to close friends, as well as people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance. Many of those I contacted spoke of the same kind of gratitude for my efforts that I had experienced. If I learned anything from that, it is that I am part of a community that I take for granted, one that I should be far more appreciative of in the future.

As businesses began to reactivate on Monday morning, there was a sense of getting ready for battle. All you had to do was look at the shots of the traders on the floor of the New York Stock exchange as a marine sang "God Bless America" to see it. The scene resembled the start of any football game, with the "Star Bangled Banner" being played over shots of athletes twitching with anticipation. And yet, for most people, the importance attached to wheeling and dealing and buying and selling and office politics seemed to have diminished. One Wall Street broker put it best: no matter what the situation, nothing is so important any more that any interaction with a client, associate, family or friend shouldn't begin with a personal conversation.

There are plenty of other lessons to take to heart. Disasters affect real people, not movie extras: the next time there is a monsoon in India or an earthquake in Japan, perhaps we'll understand that and reach out with more compassion than we've shown in the past. We need to differentiate freedom from privileges, and understand what's important. Taken another way, it's a freedom to be able to travel when and where and how we wish; it's a privilege to be able to check in 10 minutes before the flight. And no matter how stoic, how professional, how hardcore you are, you can still cry, still benefit from a hug and no one will think less of you.

Ithiel Pool, one of the grand visionaries of the modern social sciences, originated the concept "six degrees of separation" to describe the phenomenon of a shrinking world, where any random two people can discover a link through a chain of six acquaintances. But with over 5000 souls lost, that chain gets a lot shorter. It harkens back to 1961, when Berlin was partitioned and the wall went up. At the time, the US spearheaded an international effort to fly food and supplies into the besieged city. President Kennedy went there himself, and in a famous speech, declared the solidarity of the world's people with the citizens of that stricken zone. Well, in a paraphrase that I'm sure he wouldn't object to, people the world over are proclaiming that at least for this week, "Ich bin ein New Yorker."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has written Glancing Askance since 1995. It appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2001


In an instant, everything changed.

On Tuesday morning, you and your kids got up, had some breakfast, kissed each other good-bye and went your respective ways. They headed to school, you to jobs and activities, maybe a little shopping, a few errands. And the expectation was that come the end of the day, you would all get together for dinner, homework, a little television and then bed.

But nothing again will ever be the same. Never again will you get on a train without wondering. Never again will you walk through a museum without thinking. Never again will send you kids off to the mall without hoping. Never again will you go up in a tall building, or get on an airplane, or sit at a ball game without wondering... wondering if this is the time when something happens, something horrific, something that will change your view of the world forever.

For if something the size of the Pentagon can be attacked, something as massive as the World Trade Center can be targeted... and not just targeted but targeted successfully... what of everything else? After all, these are locations that have security services and alarm systems and backup fail safe designs specially constructed to foil any mischief. And yet in a matter of less time than it takes to watch the news on TV, they were decimated. With that point of reference, how easy would it be to destroy a local school, or a shopping mall, or a hospital? You know the answer, even if you don't want to admit it: it would be a piece of cake.

But that's by design. It's the bad news and the good news. We pride ourselves on having an open country that's based not on fear, but rather on respect. Sure, we exercise reasonable precautions, looking for obvious threats and perils, while assuming that the real boogie men are being kept at bay. After all, we all have things that we don't like or with which we disagree. But we fight the good fight with words, not with bombs and guns and planes loaded with innocent people flown into the sides of buildings.

No, we expect that the rules will be observed, and that the really ugly fighting will stay safely contained in another time zone. But that's obviously an extravagance we can't afford any more. We've always looked at places like Somalia and Bosnia and the West Bank as places "over there." The battles in those locales were nasty, brutish affairs, ones that brought out the worst of humanity. We saw them as intramural conflicts, contained in the arena of the third world. We might have our views, our favorites, even back the horse of our choosing, but it was all done from afar. Today that changed: "over there" suddenly became "over here."

It offers a taste of the real world that we don't often get and don't really want. We used to be able to sit here with our café lattes and our cable modems and visit the world by holding it at arm's reach. We used to be able to take our package tours to the great wonders of the world, prepay the local taxes and transfers, and have the bus driver zip us past the uglier sections of town. We used to be able to frame the debate over the future of society not over big, confusing topics like human rights and freedom and repression, but over issues such as how big a 14-year-old's spaghetti straps are or how violent a Mel Gibson movie rated PG-13 really is. But the luxury of that vantage point has just vanished.

Calling what comes out of this "good news" is to insult the lives of those people caught in the tragedy. However, it will change our view of the world as no debate or presidential address or op-ed piece ever could. For all the talk about the new millennium, a world economy and a new world order, nothing could have united the country and created a sense of purpose as much as this disaster. It's simplistic and naive to think that all the differences that existed among Democrats and Republicans, conservative and liberals will evaporate, that we'll all get together and sing "God Bless America" all the time. But perhaps the blinders will come off; certainly the gloves will as well.

As I write this, there is no shortage of speculation as to where to lay the blame for this tragedy. The first question is "who." Was it Islamic terrorists? Was it a splinter group of Bosnian separatists or a radical arm of a Palestinian freedom movement? Or, harder to imagine and worse to contemplate, did it come from within? As Timothy McVeigh proved, there is no shortage of extremists carrying American passports.

And then we'll want to know the "why." Was there any significance to the date, which some have noted was the anniversary of the Camp David accords? Or to our policies in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia? In time, we should know the bottom line. Forensic science is very advanced; if there's a shred of evidence, there will be a definitive answer soon enough.

That's what we do when there's a catastrophe. We look for answers in the hope of preventing a recurrence. But then again, you can argue that's all Monday morning quarterbacking. Perhaps the only thing worth taking away from this horror is the date. September eleventh. Or written another way, 911... very fitting. For if ever we had an emergency that requires us to take action in the way we live, this is it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford writes Glancing Askance every week. It appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, September 07, 2001

Close The Captions

For a person who struggles with English, I can conceive of no harder job than being a simultaneous translator. You have to not only understand the intricacies of another tongue, but also the nuances, the biases, the slang, even the inside jokes of a second culture. And on top of it all, you have to make split second decisions as to how to convert those into another language, itself loaded with all of its own baggage.

The good news is that when you do your job, there are precious few who can catch your errors. By the very nature of the beast, people are listening to you because they can't understand the original speaker. As such, no one will know if you substitute "meal" for "breakfast" or "car" for "sedan." Of course, accuracy is important... you don't want to be translating "war" for "peace."

As long as you get the sense right, you've done your job, and no one will ever know otherwise. I was once interviewing a Japanese gentleman through a translator. I asked her to ask him if he was comfortable with the ground rules, and could we begin? She rattled off a stream of rapid fire Japanese that took 15 seconds or better. He listened, then responded in multiple sentences for an equal amount of time. She then turned to me and uttered a single word: "Shoot." It was obvious that this was no literal translation, but I nonetheless got the idea that we were ready to go.

There is, however, one venue where the discrepancy can be a bit more transparent. Through the miracle of modern science, most new televisions include a feature that enables them to display captions for what is being said on the screen. An outgrowth of the Americans with Disabilities law that went into effect a few years ago, the idea is permit people with hearing problems to enjoy the same bad programs that those of us with perfect hearing do.

For most shows that are created ahead of time, the producers send their programs to a service that matches up the text of the script with the spoken dialogue. Where necessary, they make judicious cuts or trims to enable the scrolling words to stay more or less in sync with what's being said on screen. They even indicate other sounds that help to better capture the sense of the action: laughter, doorbells, music and the like.

Generally, the text scrolls up a moment or two after the spoken word. As such, it is useful not only for those who are heard of hearing, but also for those who are perhaps not as familiar with the culture being portrayed. One friend reports that he kicks on the captioning feature when they're watching a cop show filled with street lingo. That way they get a second chance to translate "Yo, he dissin' the hood, man, speakin' jive like that" -like comments into English, and don't have to ask "What'd he say?" quite so often.

But unfortunately, sometimes the final finishing of the sound mix isn't reflected in the text. In "Ally McBeal," popular music is often inserted over characters talking, helping to illustrate their thoughts. The actors know this, and so just babble away, assuming their dialogue will be removed. Aurally, yes; but not always in the text version. In one episode, the song "You Belong to Me" welled up and the voices faded away. But viewers who kicked on their caption option saw this exchange between Ally and Billy.

Billy: "Conversations with dead wife. Not a problem. Yacht, could be."

Ally: "I have three experts to say that short term memory loss is not necessarily a cause of, um... dementia."

Billy: "What about the time he stole a loaf of bread?"

Ally: "He just saw Les Miserables?"

While "music playing" should have been the text, this is far more entertaining.

Now, with most of the shows we watch, the conversion from speech to text is accomplished ahead of time... offline, if you will. So in those cases, there is plenty of time to catch mistakes and smooth out any rough edges. Unfortunately, that is not the case for events which are live. For news, sports, awards shows, it is left to the speed and comprehension level of the typist to keep up with the action. And just as in any situation that requires hundreds of split section decisions to be made in real time... from driving to playing baseball to day trading stocks... occasional mistakes are made.

During the last Olympics from Sydney, for example, viewers who had the sound turned down but the caption turned on would have seen Team USA standing on the floor of the gymnastics pavilion chanting... according to the text... "USE! USE! USE!" You might ask, use what? Well, turn up the sound, and you would have heard "USA! USA! USA!" That makes mores sense, doesn't it?

Or had you stuck around for the swimming competition, you might have heard the commentators talking about the various competitors. They were speaking of the skill levels and training regimes of the different national teams. But viewers who had switched on their captioning feature might have wondered why they were referring not to the swimmers from Hungary, but about the "Hung Aryan swimmers." Hmmmm. Voices those unspoken thoughts we all have about those skintight suits.

And then there's the corporate presentation where the chairman of the board addressed his troops. Beamed out via satellite to all employees far and wide, the opening music rolled, the titles flew in, and a beaming executive strode to the podium to begin his speech. But those watching with the closed caption button pushed in might have been just a bit insulted when the first words out of his mouth scrolled down the screen: "Good morning ladies and jerks, and hoppy new jears to you all."

Hoppy new jears, indeed. Call it instantaneous or concurrent or simultaneous. But any way you look at, sometimes speed may not kill, but you could die laughing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford considers himself fluent in one language... barely. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Familiarity Breeds

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where it started. Perhaps it was during the fifties when we all started to like Ike. Others might trace its beginnings back to the early 60's when Bobby was tapped by his brother Jack to be Attorney General. Maybe it took root at the 1976 Democratic convention when the man from Plains said, "My name is Jimmy Carter and I want to be your next President." But it really got rolling in the nineties with the dominance of corporate giants such as Bill, sports figures like Tiger and entertainers similar to Britney. That was when you knew that we were truly all on a first name basis.

In the past, things were different, more formalized. While we've always had them, our so called "given" names were used only by our parents and close personal friends. Everyone else used your surname, with some honorific preceding it. It might be pro forma, such as Mr. or Mrs., or earned through years of hard labor, such as Dr. or Professor. In fact, it was not uncommon for even good friends to address each other by more formal handles. Absolutely Mr. Pitney? Positively Mr. Bowes.

This is taken to its highest level in Japan, where everybody is addressed by his or her last name only. Co-workers, childhood chums, golfing buddies.... It doesn't matter what you've been through together, how long you've known each other or what your fathers did together in the service. Everyone calls everybody they meet by their last name, followed by "san." It's such a part of the culture that you would sooner eat day old sushi than call your best friend Irving.

Meanwhile, back in this country, for those that wished to curry favor with you, such as bankers, doormen or salesmen on commission, even this level of formality wasn't enough "Yes, ma'am" or "Yes sir" was standard issue when addressing the senior figure in the relationship, even if the senior figure was junior in age. It was a way of saying, "Yes, you control the outcome, yes, you control the timetable, yes, you control whether or not I get ten bucks out of your wallet."

But along with casual Fridays has come casual relationships. We're buddy-buddy with everyone, everywhere, from our bosses to our doctors, from our clients to our parent's friends, from our kid's teachers to our waitresses. We want to be comfy with every interaction, treating every person we deal with as a good pal with whom we can work together to advance our mutual causes... whether or not we hate, don't respect and want to kill the very person with whom we're talking.

This has led to every customer service rep in every line of business addressing their clientele by their first name, regardless of whether you're buying a polo shirt or complaining about your cell phone bill. Should you doubt this, simply dial the 800 number for Eddie Bauer or FedEx or Verizon Wireless, and see what happens.

"Hello, and thank you for calling Cablevision. This is Sheila. How may I help you?"

"Sheila, this is Bill Jones at 57 Maple Ave in Podunk. I've had it up to here. My cable has been out since this morning, and tonight is the broadcast of 'The Love Boat Reunion' that I've been waiting for all year. And to top it off, this is the third time this month that it's been screwed up. I have to tell you: I've about had it."

"Well, Bill, I'm sorry about that. Let me see what I can find out...."

Bill??? At the very least, you might expect a "Mr." to help placate you. Perhaps a "Sir" would go some distance towards making you not feel so pissed off that you're not getting the service for which you are paying so dearly. But no. The rep acts like she's your next-door neighbor, and her kid's soccer ball has rolled into your yard. You almost feel like it's your fault and you're being unreasonable.

Perhaps they're just trying to be friendly. Perhaps some study has shown that the use of a first name relaxes people. Perhaps it's an extension of what George Sr. called a "kinder, gentler" nation. But for most of us that level of familiarity has to be earned. It's not that we consider ourselves better than anybody, or that we like to put on airs. It's just that we're usually paying for something, and so we expect that the person on the other side of the transaction to treat that relationship with value, and show a little deference. After all, it's as easy to ship that package with Joe at FedEx as it is with Mary at Airborne.

Now, if you're Madonna or Cher, you've made a choice to have the world know you by one name only. And it's a fair bet that if you're in that position, even without the benefit of a last name, people will go out of their way to make sure you get what you want. But for the rest of us mere mortals, there's an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. And while I too like to be friends with everybody, there are some folks with whom I'm just not going to be inviting over for a cookout.

When all is said and done, the form of address says a lot about the dynamics of the relationship. First names are friendly and familiar; surnames connote deference and respect. After all, consider this: who had the upper hand, Wilbur or Mr. Ed?


Marc Wollin of Bedford still calls his parents' friends by Mr. and Mrs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.