More Than a Diversion

Psst, pass it on: After a 32-year intermission, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series! After winning the National League West the previous seven years—this year will be the team’s eighth consecutive division title—and exiting the playoffs without the Commissioner’s Trophy, the 2020 postseason finally brought a championship banner back to Chavez Ravine.

The Tampa Bay Rays played with heart through the entire postseason. It takes untold athletic ability, strategy, and grit for any team to make it to the World Series, and while this year’s final prize went to the Dodgers, there is little question we will see the Rays again soon in October baseball. Both teams filled Globe Life Field with players of unquestionable excellence, and the six-game series came with all the unpredictability that makes baseball relentlessly nail-biting no matter your expectations.

The Dodgers simply had to get this done.

After so many failed attempts to full triumph over more than three decades, losing becomes an all-too-familiar feeling. It’s astonishing how quickly that feeling can be replaced by sheer glee. At this moment, I am experiencing glee. Devoted Dodger fans everywhere are experiencing glee. I’m finding it a different form of glee than it might have been any other year. This particular form of glee is a much-needed gulp of surely lasting but highly compartmentalized glee.

Let me try to share that qualified celebration, limited in practical application, boundless in idealistic resurgence.

So much that matters is going on in our world. We are approaching the end of one of the most difficult and painful years in our nation’s history. The year ahead of us is filled with anxiety and uncertainty no matter who is elected to lead the nation. It is only reasonable to ask ourselves why something as inconsequential as professional sports matters.

If you’re not on the team, employed by the team, or an owner of the team, does it really matter who wins the MLB World Series?

Does being a fan of any team matter?

I think it does, but only in a well-rounded, emotional context where we hold our priorities in balance.

Is the drama and endurance of a championship delivered by your home team a matter of life and death? No, in any mentally balanced sense, certainly not.

Is it a joyful diversion that can ease the burden of otherwise overwhelming demands on our time and attention? Yes, I think for many the game is just that. It has been for me.

I needed baseball this past summer. It was only a sixty-game season, but I needed all sixty of them. Even if I didn’t have time to watch them all, I needed to read about them the next day, to look at the box scores, to see who was healthy and getting the job done despite harrowing circumstances.

I needed the break from the political headlines, from the horrors of coronavirus, from the social injustices inflicted on those deserving better, from the inescapable racial bias tearing apart people’s lives, from the wildfires that came much too close to home while savaging the homes of others, and from the daily navigation of my own leadership responsibilities.

We all need things that are fun and fulfilling. Call them luxuries in perspective, but without something to capture the imagination in a time where so much focus is devoured by the absurd, our equilibrium can hang in the balance.

The Dodgers have given that to me when times were less stressful. They win, they lose, they lose when it matters most, but like every team, they reemerge every summer. This summer they mattered more.

It was more than a diversion. It was more than entertainment. It was psychological relief. It was a place I could go that really didn’t matter in the big picture of getting through 2020, but mattered enough to deflect a few minutes of serial stress each day.

I love baseball because my father loves baseball. It’s a way we discovered to connect. My dad was a talented ballplayer in high school and college. He loves to tell me if only he could have mastered hitting the curveball, he might have made a run at The Show. My brother is also an amazing ballplayer, a power hitter and respected star in high school and college. I never had the gift. I just couldn’t put the physical together with the mental. It wasn’t my thing, but it was a great way to talk to my dad.

I have no memory better than going with my dad to see the Detroit Tigers play downtown at the old Tiger Stadium. The Tigers were my first team. I collected all the baseball cards season after season. When the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, I was a little kid. I listened each night to Ernie Harwell call the game on an AM transistor radio under my pillow, with one of those really uncomfortable earplugs muffling the broadcast. To this day I can name the Tigers starting lineup in those days from memory.

There was an even more important bond I shared with my father as a child. We couldn’t afford to go to major league baseball games all the time, but he played softball every week and I loved to cheer on his team. I kept the scorebook in longhand, old school. After each game, I would calculate the updated batting average of every player on the team in longhand, old school.

I’d tag along for pizza with the softball team after their games and make the rounds telling everyone how they hit versus last week and last month. Some of them noted I was pretty good at math for a kid my age and thought I might be a decent student. I guess that was a learning moment for me. We can’t be good at everything, but maybe I’d be good at something.

Those are perennially restorative thoughts encoded in protective mode on my aging biological hard-drive. When I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I knew I was going to be here for a while, so it was time to adopt a new team. That was the team of Jackie Robinson. That was the team of Sandy Koufax. That was the right team for me.

In 1988 I had so little money the idea of going to a World Series game wasn’t a remote fantasy. When former Tiger Kirk Gibson helped the Dodgers win that series with that legendary walk-off swing in Game 1, I thought to myself the World Series would come again to Los Angeles, and then perhaps I’d have the money to see them win it all in person.

It’s been a bit of a wait.

And I still didn’t get to see it in person! With so many complications this year, traveling to Arlington, Texas, just wasn’t a viable option.

Dad and I were supposed to go to the All-Star Game this year at Dodger Stadium. Covid-19 also nixed that. We texted with ardor all through the postseason. Hey, it’s the 21st century. No more old school.

A diversion is not the same as a distraction. A distraction can be an annoyance, shifting our attention from determined contemplation. A diversion can be a gift, briefly capturing us with a complementary story thread that sheds light on our more serious obsessions.

When I am seriously focused on work or the ills of the world, I may think I want neither distraction nor diversion. The child in me may say otherwise, that I lose when I am too serious. You may not love baseball, but the child in you wants the same escape. I found mine this summer. I will again next summer.

It’s often said in various ways that baseball is a child’s game played by adults. Bart Giamatti also warned us that it will break your heart. In Field of Dreams, a father and a son mystically share a catch that was always meant to be. Not every diversion can open your mind and your heart. I was talking to a rabbi recently who assured me that anything that can open our hearts is essential to our well-being. He used the metaphor of baseball in his Yom Kippur sermon. Coincidence? Maybe.

Our trip around the baseball diamond begins and ends in childhood, where simple stories can last a lifetime. The Little Prince reminds us of the difference between childish and childlike. One undermines our maturity, the other ensures its sensible evolution. I hope your diversion may be as inspiring, uplifting, and rejuvenating as mine.

And psst, pass it on. For once after 32 seasons, our Blue Crew doesn’t have to repeat those mightily dispiriting words: Wait ‘til next year.

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Photo: MLB

The Problem with Joker


I don’t write about movies often. On the occasions I do, it’s likely because something bothered me.

Joker really bothered me.

I can’t deny the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He is a gifted actor. He gave a masterful depiction of a troubled, anguished, sick character.

That only makes my criticism more severe.

I’m also not going to argue against First Amendment expression. The creators have an inalienable right to make and distribute this work, for profit or otherwise.

That simply makes them guilty of intellectual laziness at best, and self-serving irresponsibility at worst. I think both have occurred, and I am deeply troubled by this because of the film’s enormous audience reach. Its success makes the laziness and irresponsibility all the more pernicious. They could have done better. They deliberately elected not to do so.

I’m going to tell you why I think this movie is psychologically problematic, but first, let me warn you, this will be one of the worst spoilers ever. Do not read a sentence further if you intend to see the movie and don’t want the ending ruined.

Okay, if you’ve seen it or don’t care to see it but want to know why I’m upset, please read on.

It is important to remember that the core source material for this literary work is a comic book. I read comic books a lot as a kid, and in fact I was about as big a fan of Batman as they come. That was in the escapist pages of a comic book.

The character portrayal in this onscreen depiction seems to me evolved from the school of naturalism, extending the realm of realism to a more interpretive form of social commentary. The extreme portrayal seems less a form of entertainment than it is a comment on cruelty and its origin. The clown makeup does not separate the storytelling from the gritty suffering in the streets. The imagery throughout could appear as hyperrealism, as Stanley Kubrick approached similar territory in A Clockwork Orange, but that would have required artistic choices that aren’t evident in Joker.

There can be obvious real-world consequences to confusing the worlds of fantasy and framing souped-up slice-of-life imagery as somehow predictive or inevitable.

The ending for me is what matters when an artist seeks to claim the high ground of unconventional storytelling, purposeful inclusion of uncomfortable scenarios, or violence that is meant to disturb us in order to reboot our thinking.

It is precisely the ending of Joker that is the biggest problem for me.

Even deeper than the ending is the punchline, which snaps into place so conveniently because the unmasked Arthur Fleck aspires to be a comedian. The irony in that kind of payoff could have been emotionally rich and telling. Instead, it’s simply exploitative because it’s enunciated as instructional.

Here’s the punchline: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

I was almost okay with the movie until that line was uttered. That’s when I believe the writers, producers, and director abandoned moral ground and just went for accelerated shock value.

I guess it’s the writer in me that feels a churn in my stomach when fellow creatives let hope for commercial success undermine their better judgment. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about pride in authorship, embracing the seriousness of disciplined expression. There are consequences to our craft worthy of foresight.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a satisfying ending to any story. The more outlandish the story, the more difficult it is to structure an acceptable conclusion. By acceptable I mean an ending that doesn’t waste an audience’s time and reflects the values of those who create it. No creative team wants to be embarrassed by an ending that ruins all that comes before it, but the true test of an ending is time. How we feel when we create something is one thing. How history treats it or how we feel about it decades after its creation are entirely different benchmarks.

My immediate sense is that there are at least two distinct, conscientious ways to think about resolving a work of popular fiction as the creatives involved start working toward an ending. There’s poetic justice and there’s existentialism.

If the intention is poetic justice, a wrong should be avenged. It should be made clear that evil will not triumph over good, and though any world is imperfect, the arc of our commonality ought to bend toward justice.

If the intention is existential—nature in its own social element—no moral summation is required; the world depicted is exact, unforgiving, and unapologetic. Yet here a storyteller with something to say may bravely suggest an observation of irony or social critique. The observed criminality may not be a tool pointing toward redemption, but it can be a window of material reflection.

Neither of these occurs in Joker, and that is where the bad is enshrined.

When late in the movie Arthur is invited on “The Murray Franklin Show,” he shoots his idol dead and utters the words: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

It’s a carefully plotted moment and among the worst forms of premeditated murder imaginable, celebrated live on television before a presumably horrified viewing audience.

Sadly, that is just a setup use of the punchline. The truer horror is to follow.

A few minutes later, the wealthy Thomas Wayne and his wife are shot dead in the street by a rioting supporter of the savage clown. He echoes the same phrase: “You get what you f*cking deserve.”

Arthur uses his punchline to justify the act of homicide. That allows the stranger to justify his act of homicide.

This is an act of parroting. This is an act of emulation. In the story, both teaching and learning have occurred. Unfortunately, the lessons are abhorrent.

The moment the elder Waynes are slaughtered is without discussion or reflection specifically because it is integral to the larger epic of Batman. The child, Bruce Wayne, watches the brutal murder of his parents, which sets him on his life’s path to become The Dark Knight who will commit his adult life to avenging this wrong.

I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That implied forward arc is not responsible storytelling. An act this vicious must be resolved in its own context or it is no more than isolated, exploitative horror.

Again, why am I so bothered?

Think of all the unconscionable violence around us. Think of the common occurrence of mass killings, of widespread gun violence too often triggered by mentally troubled individuals who have lost any sense of a moral compass.

Presume a tiny segment of the population watching this movie and these unnerving scenes are themselves abandoned victims of social cruelty. Might they see their own suffering in Arthur’s eyes? Might they also be in any way mentally disturbed as the film’s protagonist?

What message is this movie sending them? Is it a moment of necessary caution or claimed victory? Is it a moment of hesitancy or reinforcement of their unapplied curb on self-control?

What the hell is the purpose of this punchline beyond its catchy shock value? Was this two-beat mimicry necessary to secure the film’s blockbuster potential?

My answer is that the filmmakers could have done so much better if they’d wanted something better. They could have had their cake and eaten it. All they had to do was worry as much about the possible byproducts of the film’s success as achieving financial gain. It’s not that hard to care about what you’re saying directly or inadvertently. It just has to matter to those at the helm.

If you want to tell difficult stories, you work harder to create difficult endings. Don’t walk away from the problems you frame just because you can. You have the right, but doing it isn’t right.

Joker isn’t right.

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Photo: Warner Bros Gallery

Paul

I keep thinking I’m going to run out of things to write about The Beatles. I keep proving that notion wrong, at least to myself.

I recently enjoyed the final night of Paul McCartney’s Freshen Up Tour. He played to about 50,000 fans at a sold-out Dodger Stadium, where I last saw him five years ago. In fact, I included the setlist of that previous concert in the appendix of my second book, Endless Encores.

My key observation then was that Paul was as committed to his new music as he was to his historic catalog. That is what has allowed him not only to stay in the game for six decades, but to remain at the top of his own game—that constant hunger for reinvention. That is what has made him not just an artist, but a legend.

I had a new observation this time, partly about us, and partly about much more than us.

We are aging through time. These songs are becoming a constant.

Our memories are a snapshot in time. These songs bridge those snapshots.

We are temporal, driving the arcs of our lives. These songs are a continuum.

We will not be here forever. These songs could be.

These songs are ours to enjoy, but they don’t belong to us. They don’t even belong to Paul or The Beatles. They belong to the world.

These songs are universal. They bring us together. They make us happy. They make us remember.

We connect the dots of our life’s timelines from song to song, and in the moment of a single song played back at various points throughout those long and winding roads.

I remember first listening to “Sgt. Pepper” as a child and it takes me back to the record store where I bought the album. I remember first listening to “Band on the Run” as an adolescent and I am back in the hallways of school. I remember first listening to “Here Today” and I am transported to that sad December day when I was in college and John was murdered.

Each song fixes a moment in time that is never erased. Sometimes these moments get back-burnered for a while, but then the associated song reignites our memory. It’s a visceral reaction. It cannot be preempted.

Then there are the songs that pop up all through our lives. I remember “Blackbird” when I initially tried and failed to play it on my first guitar, scratching up my copy of The White Album with each needle reset. I remember hearing it at a New England rally protesting the war in El Salvador. I remember hearing at it the memorial service for a dear friend who loved The Beatles and left this world much too early in his own life. Whenever I think of the ceaseless work we still have to do in civil rights, I hear the lyrics in my mind: “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

A single song can traverse the entirety of our lives, inspiring one emotional reaction in our youth, an entirely different response in adulthood, and something even more profound as we continue to age. That’s an awful lot of punch for three minutes of commercial composition. Call it the miracle of creativity. Maybe we’re just very lucky to be in this audience.

Is this somehow unique to Paul, or even to The Beatles? Of course not. We all have our own take on the soundtrack of our lives. Yet sitting there in Dodger Stadium far from the stage but genuinely close to the music, my mind wandered from here to there and back again.

This night’s setlist spanned the entirety of an impossible 60something year career. All those perfect songs held me in the moment and connected the dots of my own journey. The songwriter’s inspirations became my timeline and all of our shared history.

In a single performance, all these songs come together in a temporal theme. We connect the dots of our lives in the collision of moments forced into relevancy. Sadness, joy, loss, love, babies born, children grown, the progression of our careers, the paths of our relationships, generations of sharing—it’s all there in the continuum.

For the performer on the grand stage, it’s his life’s work in stunning summary. For those beyond the proscenium, it’s pure accessibility, sheer singalong joy, and dancehall madness.

At the end of the show, Paul thanks us because we are one with his brilliant talent. We are part of it, and now we pass along the music to others who will not know The Beatles as more than a story. They will not see Paul play live. They will only know it is real because of the continuum. Their memories will replace ours. That is the continuum. It is why art is more permanent than we can ever imagine.

John Lennon is gone, but the songs remain.

George Harrison is gone,  but the songs remain.

George Martin is gone, but the songs remain.

Ringo Starr plays two songs live with his former mate, perhaps never again, and the songs remain.

Paul McCartney at age 77 puts on a three-hour rock show without a break that reminds us who we were, who we want to be, who we want to be with, and who we still can be. We connect the dots of our lives through his lyrics, rhythms, and melodies. There is something eternal about that.

Not convinced this is a form of magic that is as rare as it is tangible?

Listen again to the songs. Just listen to the songs.

This is awe.

Paul reminded us not to wait past the point of no return to say what needs to be said.

There’s one person I need to thank for bridging the continuum that is the almost six decades of my life.

His name is Paul.

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Photos: Bruce Friedricks

Sam and Rosie: An Odd Couple

I can’t defend Samantha Bee because the harsh, offensive language she used this week was wrong. I have been a fan of her show since it launched, but I actually think it has gotten progressively worse as she has allowed her indignation to overcome her humor. My sense for some time is that she is not currently at her best.

Indignation is the call to fight. Humor is the sword that slays dragons.

A strong producer could steer her back on track. I don’t see a lot of evidence she has one, and I think her talent is taking a hit as a result. If she looks to some of her peers and mentors, she’ll see where she may be losing ground on that illusive concept of “crossing the line.” I’d like to see her rebound because she does have a unique, important voice in our nation’s dialogue.

When Roseanne Barr launched her latest damning tweet, I believe she was in an entirely different universe of free expression.

Here are a few points on the false equivalency:

1) There is no equivalency between a random racist tweet and a few unnecessary hateful words deployed in the context of making a point about the morality of separating parents from children. Lenny Bruce pretty much died for this point. Context is inseparable from language.

2) Complain all you want about who should get fired or cancelled, but the two performers have different employers. It’s the employer’s decision to exercise a response to the free speech exercise of an employee or contractor. Had it been the same employer, there might be an opening to hypocrisy, but even then, don’t mistake what happened. These were considered business decisions.

3) If you want to know the true horror of our nation, do a few internet searches and see what some of Roseanne’s supporters are saying about the underlying truth in her remarks. The defensive outcry over an alleged double-standard does little more than fuel the fire of racism as some kind of macabre social norm too many people can easily dismiss as overblown. Racism is institutionalized hatred bolstered on ignorance. Celebrities choosing to fan that flame know what they are doing. To the contrary, you might find a few people defending Samantha’s rotten choice of words, but for reasons of emphasis, not denigration of gender. Again, context matters, particularly as a rallying cry. There are degrees of invective. The hierarchy stems from purpose.

Far be it from me to defend Samantha, but I believe her intention was motivated by a positive force of social criticism. She threw away that timely opportunity with a few poorly chosen words. Roseanne was just being herself, using her humor to irresponsibly reinforce a longstanding platform of inciting the biases of her base.

The two incidents are not the same. Far from it.

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Image: GQ