Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death with Jodi Arias

Neil Postman's prophetic words in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1984) came to mind as I became slave to my television watching every twist and turn in the Jodi Arias murder trial on HLN. Arias is a small town waitress from Yreka California who stabbed and shot to death her former boyfriend after a sex romp in Mesa Arizona in June 2008.
In keeping with Postman's show business metaphor, the two met in 2006 at a convention in Las Vegas. After dating her for several months, Alexander realized she wasn't marriage material, but Arias wouldn’t take no for an answer. She stalked him after their breakup and used her feminine charms as bait to reel him back in. Alexander couldn't resist her sexual prowess, referring to her as "a three-hole wonder".
The gist of Amusing Ourselves to Death, which Postman extends to the rest of his critique of modern public discourse, can be summed up as "form excludes content." In other words, a particular medium (TV, Internet, radio, but especially Twitter with its 140-character limit) can only sustain over-simplified ideas and concepts. In layman's terms, style trumps substance in modern communications. Although she’s a high school dropout, Arias intuitively understands the importance of form over substance without appreciating its limits.
The Toronto Star describes Arias as "part of the Internet, MySpace and reality-TV generation. When she posed for a mug shot, she thought about the millions of people who would see it. “I was like, ‘Wow. I see this stuff on TV all the time,’” Arias says in a jailhouse interview with 48 Hours, played for the jury during her first-degree murder trial. “I knew it would be all over the Internet, so why not?” So Arias tilted her head and gave a half-smile — she says it was the look of an innocent person — but it could also be interpreted as the pose of an acutely self-aware young woman who perhaps understood that it could bring her the kind of viral fame only possible in our digital age.
Case in point, Arias started courting the media to proclaim her innocence the moment she was arrested. She’s petite, somewhat attractive, soft-spoken and very articulate. You almost have to do a double-take each time you see her public persona juxtaposed with the gruesome pictures of the crime scene in Mesa, Arizona. Arias has deftly exploited this sharp contrast. In each television “performance”, whether with police or the media, her underlying message seems to be: Do I look like a cold-blooded killer?
Bulldog prosecutor Juan Martinez is the antithesis of Arias. He always seems angry, doesn’t seem to care about his public image, shouts constantly. His saving grace? He’s authentic and understands the limits of form over substance, especially in a courtroom. He brilliantly exploited Arias’ narcissism. He re-played for the jury the 48 Hours jailhouse interview where she confidently looks into the camera to make this bold statement: “no jury will convict me. You can mark my words on this. No jury will convict me because I’m innocent."
Mere minutes after a jury unanimously found her guilty of first degree murder she was back in front of a camera. She granted Fox News and interview where she threatened to kill herself. In her haste to be in the spotlight, she didn't find the time to be remorseful or introspective. With killer ratings, show must go on.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I just had to let it go

John Lennon apparently wrote “Watching the Wheels” while he took a hiatus from the music industry to find inner peace and be a dad. To the extent that I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for nearly two years, I can relate.

The lyrics to the song reverberated in my head when I ran into a former colleague as I was dropping off my kids at daycare. We used to work together at a leading mutual fund company. He was a “number’s guy” who had just completed his CFA, today’s Holy Grail for financial analysts worth their salt. I was a marketing writer who enjoyed the paycheque, but not much else about corporate life.

 He was wearing a suit and rushing his kids in order to get to work on time while I was walking nonchalantly in a track suit. It almost seems inconceivable that we once shared the same office floor in a downtown skyscraper. “Hey, what are you up to these days? he asked me. I couldn’t come up with an answer, knowing he might not understand my choices and I didn’t want to sound defensive either. He didn’t have time for a long explanation, so I said “you know, doing the stay-at-home dad routine”.

 Part of me felt ashamed for wearing my “stay-at-home dad uniform” (i.e. track suit), for letting myself go and for “no longer being on the ball” to paraphrase Lennon. Why feel ashamed? I guess I know deep down inside society looks down on me as a slacker who refuses to pull his own weight. How about living a life that judges itself by its own standards, regardless of what is being promoted as the life we should all aspire to? The pressure to conform is overwhelming.

 However, corporate life with its rigid hierarchy, sanitized cubicles, year-end appraisals and polite viciousness made me feel numb and unsure about my own place in society and my purpose in life. I felt like a spectator watching my own life slip away. Each day seemed to be a variation of “Groundhog Day”, stuck in a time loop with no end in sight. While society gave me accolades for being a spoke in the big wheel of the financial universe, I felt empty, useless and longing for something meaningful and long-lasting.

 I resigned from my last corporate job two days after our second baby was born. Oddly enough, I feel more fulfilled changing diapers or pushing a stroller than I ever did about filing stories about a company’s latest quarterly earnings. Raising small children is no picnic, but that’s where I want to put my focus at this stage of my life.

 One day, “Watching the Wheels” came on the radio and I realized every word of it could be the anthem for what I was going through. My eyes filled up with tears and I just started crying. It was as if I had finally gotten the opportunity to grieve over the loss of a loved one—my former identity. Maybe that’s why I felt a bit of shame when I ran into a former colleague. I just had to let it go. “Watching the Wheels” should become the official anthem to all the stay-at-home dads who need some validation from time to time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sammy Sosa, Pete Rose, and Cooperstown

In It's Proper Place(?)Image by Runs With Scissors via Flickr

Baseball is often referred to as “America’s favorite” pastime and looms large in popular culture with movies such as Bull Durham and songs like Mrs. Robinson where Paul Simon wonders “where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”, the storied New York Yankee who was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe.

The deference of yore has given way to widespread cynicism every time a new record is shattered, especially since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a spirited race in 1998 to break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs, a chase that gripped the country with excitement.

In a bid to remove clouds of suspicion chronicled in the book Game of Shadows, Major League Baseball commissioned the "Mitchell Report". While baseball is not the only sport facing problems, it’s the only sport so invested in an image of sweet American innocence.

Last week, a congressional committee announced it will revisit Sosa’s testimony after a newspaper reported he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 (Alex Rodriguez’s name was also leaked from the same supposedly anonymous survey of 104 players who tested positive in 2003, but that’s a totally different topic).

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s review came shortly after Sosa told ESPN's Spanish-language service, that he’s about to formally announce his retirement and “calmly wait” for his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame, for which he will become eligible in 2013.

Meanwhile, Pete Rose, who’s never been suspected or convicted of using banned substances, remains persona non grata at Cooperstown despite holding some impressive records: all-time Major League leader in hits (4,256), three World Series rings, three batting titles, one Most Valuable Player Award, two Gold Gloves, the Rookie of the Year Award, and made 17 All-Star appearances at an unequaled five different positions (2B, LF, RF, 3B, and 1B).

Twenty years ago, Rose agreed to permanent ineligibility from baseball amidst accusations that he gambled on baseball games while playing for and managing the Reds.

In this context, should suspected drug cheats be permanently banned from entering Cooperstown?

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Phil Jackson the best coach in NBA history or just lucky?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 15:  Head coach Phil Ja...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The man who’s become known as the “Zen Master” for tapping Buddhist teachings has been fortunate enough to coach the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as they grew into dominant superstars, but rounding their games into championship form was a never-ending battle of wills.

In his 2006 memoir, Jackson refers to Kobe as “uncoachable” for his tendency to try to win games as a solo artist. After breaking the late Red Auerbach’s record to stand alone as the first coach to win 10 NBA championships, Jackson paid tribute to Bryant for his maturity as he accepted his very first MVP award.

Jackson recalled a long-ago game in Toronto when Bryant engaged in a one-on-one battle with Vince Carter that “took the Lakers out of their team play”. Shortly after, Bryant told Jackson “I’m ready to be captain right now”, and Jackson replied “but no one is ready to follow you”.

Jackson learned his lessons from the Knicks team he played on, which won the 1973 title, and from his coach, Red Holzman: individual sacrifice for the good of the group. It has been the cornerstone of his coaching philosophy.

When Jackson became head coach in Chicago in 1991, there was an ongoing tug-of-war to get Jordan to sacrifice his game in order for the team to be better. The fight only ended when Jordan acted as a decoy in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals in Los Angeles against the Lakers. He passed the ball again and again in the fourth quarter to John Paxson, the open and hot shooter, whose jumpers clinched the title.

Jackson coaxed an uneasy peace between Jordan and Pippen, found the right role players who could mesh with the superstars. He coddled Dennis Rodman and kicked Lamar Odom in the butt, and got the most out of each.

No one has won as much as a head coach as Jackson, whose dominance of the NBA coaching landscape now approaches two decades, spanning the Michael Jordan-Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant eras.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

At 50, does Michael Jackson have enough stamina for 50 shows?

Ever since he was 11 years old, Michael Jackson has been one of the most bankable pop music mega-stars. From his debut with the Jackson Five to some of best-selling albums of all time during his solo career, Jackson’s music career is legendary. But his personal life has been less than thrilling over the past two decades or so.

The self-styled King of Pop has been fighting ongoing rumors since his infamous 1993 broadcast from his Neverland ranch (Jackson’s mini Disneyland for kids) during which he vehemently denied then thirteen-year-old Jordan Chandler’s charges and described the humiliation of being strip searched by police. In a 2004 Vanity Fair article, correspondent Maureen Orth reported that “in 1993, Jordie was interviewed eight or nine times by authorities, who probed him for inconsistencies to see if he would make a credible witness. He reportedly never wavered in his story”.

Chandler’s credibility rested on the fact that he had been able to draw distinctive markings on Jackson body. His account also gave his family’s legal team all the ammunition they needed to settle the matter out of court for $25 million, the night before Jackson was to be deposed, according to Orth’s expos√©.

Almost two years before his 2005 sex child abuse trial, British journalist Martin Bashir produced the documentary “Living with Michael Jackson” where Jackson defends his right to share his bed with kids during sleepovers at Neverland. Although he was later acquitted on all charges, Jackson’s public image, especially in North America, never recovered. He’s become a cartoonish reminder of what happens when fame and fortune go wrong.

Whether it’s his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, his alleged battle with vitiligo, his sunken cheeks, upturned nose, the over-pronounced chin cleft, his artificially inseminated children, all these sideshows have overshadowed his musical brilliance.

To paraphrase Elizabeth Day in Britain’s Observer, Jackson’s return to the stage this summer in London promises to be “the biggest comeback since Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead”.

At 50 years old, after being away from the stage for 12 years, in an attempt to resurrect his career, Jackson has been rehearsing for 50 already-sold-out shows. He promises the shows will be bigger and better than anything we’ve seen before. Under the guidance of Kenny Ortega, his long-time choreographer, Jackson plans to introduce a new dance move, reputedly even more spectacular than the moon walk. Randy Phillips, the president and CEO of AEG Live, the tour promoter, has been quoted as saying that Jackson will receive “probably something pretty close to £50 million ($82 million) for the London shows”.

No public source seems to have a straight read on Jackson’s personal finances, but Vanity Fair reported in 2004 that “over the years Jackson has doled out millions upon millions of dollars to lawyers, doctors, accountants, security people, con men, voodoo chiefs, business advisers, members of his bankrupted dysfunctional family, an ex-wife who allegedly threatened to tell his secrets, former staffers on remittance, and the families of young boys he has made his "special friends" all over the world”. Since the sale of his Neverland in order to fend off foreclosure, media reports have suggested that the King of Pop is in dire need of a stimulus package.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Should NFL give Michael Vick a second chance?

Should a man, having paid his debt to society for a crime he says he regrets, be forbidden from resuming a career at which he excels; a career for which his crime in no way disqualifies him (in the way that an embezzlement conviction might disqualify an accountant)?

This is the question National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell will have to answer when Michael Vick files his reinstatement papers.

The former star quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons was released on May 20 from the Leavenworth, Kan., prison where he served nearly two years for his role in bankrolling and participating in a dogfighting ring.

Until his sentence is up July 20th, Vick will be under federal surveillance at home while he works a $10-an-hour construction job and pursues reinstatement in the NFL where big bucks are usually a sure bet.

In a country where atonement for transgressions and redemption are popular religious themes, the gifted NFL running and passing quarterback is seeking absolution from one of his harshest critics: the Humane Society of the United States. In a blog posting, Wayne Pacelle, CEO for the Humane Society of the United States, announced that the group would work hand in hand with Vick to help eradicate dogfighting among youths.

“If this is simply a self-interested ploy to rehabilitate his image or return to football, we will find out soon enough, and we will repudiate it. But if Michael Vick is sincere, then we can, we must, use his story to advance our broader mission—saving lives and ending dogfighting,” Pacelle said.

Now that Michael Vick has served his prison sentence and secured the endorsement of the Humane Society, do you think the NFL should re-instate him?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blackberry maker co-CEO and NHL face off in court

In his book Star-Spangled Canadians: Canadians Living the American Dream, journalist and author Jeffrey Simpson chronicles the lives of Canadians who have left their homeland to display their talent on the world’s biggest stage. Since the late 80s the National Hockey League (NHL) has been dreaming about landing a lucrative network television deal south of the Canadian border. Their sales pitch began in earnest in 1988 when Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, left sleepy Edmonton to pursue his career in Los Angeles. And to put a Hollywood spin on the storyline, Gretzky married American actress Janet Jones, whose other claim to fame is a small part in the movie Police Academy 5.

The trade happened in the midst of a federal election when free trade with the United States was the overriding issue. The timing led many Canadians to interpret the move as yet another example of a “natural resource” being gobbled up by the American giant. Gretzky’s success in boosting the NHL’s profile in sunny California and beyond prompted league executives to set in motion the second and most aggressive phase of their sunbelt expansion. In the 90s, the league moved the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, Texas; awarded Miami and Tampa Bay new teams, moved the Nordiques from Quebec City to Denver, Colorado, while the Jets were uprooted from frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba and transplanted in the Arizona desert.

After 13 years in Phoenix, with Wayne Gretzky as head coach and minority team owner, the “Desert Dogs” appear to be skating on thin ice these days. The team’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection will probably force the NHL to assess the success of its rapid expansion outside Canada, mostly in sunbelt markets with little or no hockey history.

News of the Coyotes bankruptcy proceedings set off an almost uncontrollable bout of schadenfreude among Canadian hockey fans who felt powerless and snubbed when NHL executives argued that Quebec City and Winnipeg didn’t have the corporate backbone to sustain professional hockey teams. Research in Motion Ltd co-CEO Jim Balsillie is trying to tap the lingering frustration of ordinary Canadian hockey fans who still dream of repatriating an American-based hockey team.

In recent interviews, Balsillie has taken an increasingly nationalistic tone to make his case and he’s morphed into some sort of Captain Canada. During an hour-long interview with the Toronto Star newspaper’s editorial board, RIM’s co-CEO was quoted as saying: "I take on entrenched interests. It's my character quirk. I don't quit and I don't get scared," said Balsillie. "I love the NHL, I love hockey and I believe this is part of our soul as Canadians and we don't feel we have enough stake in our own soul."

Balsillie’s love for Canada and hockey are well documented. Each time the NHL turns him down, it only seems to fuel his desire to snap up an American-based franchise even more. It probably brought to mind the naysayers who claimed Research in Motion could never thrive in Canada, let alone in the town of Waterloo, Ontario. As of May 15, 2009, the company had a market capitalization of $40 billion and the naysayers are nowhere to be found.

After failing to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by the Nashville Predators, Balsillie is convinced the NHL will never let him own a franchise. During that same interview with the Toronto Star, he was quoted as saying: "I spent five years looking for a front door. ... We couldn't find a front door. I found a side door."

That side door happens to be located in an Arizona bankruptcy court. Balsillie wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5 million from owner Jerry Moyes, conditional on the team relocating to Hamilton, a blue-collar suburb sandwiched between Toronto, Ontario and Buffalo, New York. But the NHL claims Moyes lost control of the team when he received bailout funds from the league. In motions filed in an Arizona bankruptcy court, the NHL was quoted as saying: “it is a matter of indisputable fact and law that the NHL rather than (Moyes), owns any franchise opportunity in southern Ontario. Accordingly any bid for the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes solely for relocation to Ontario is a sham and should be rejected by the court.”

The NHL accuses Balsillie of trying to overturn its rules governing relocation of teams which prevent a franchise from moving within 80 kilometers of another team without permission. Balsillie has done little to soothe the growing rift. He’s accused the NHL of operating an “illegal cartel” and commissioner Gary Bettman of running interference for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (the Toronto Maple Leafs' parent company) rather than acting in the best interests of the game.

At this rate, cooler heads might want to offer Balsillie and NHL commissioner Bettman a copy of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller “How to Win Friends & Influence People”.

Balsillie’s latest bid to buy an NHL franchise has once again ignited a debate (at least in Canada) about the future of hockey as a major professional sport in the United States. Do you think the National Hockey League should continue to bailout money-losing American franchises and prevent billionaire Jim Balsillie from buying and relocating a team to Canada?