Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oscar Stage Not the Only Home of the Brave

The word "brave" is often tossed around to describe Kathryn Bigelow, director of "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker."

On Sunday, the parade of speeches at the Oscars will offer up a celebration of courage not unlike a Medal of Honor ceremony.

There will be stories of brave performances and courageous choices, and actors or directors clutching their chests to illustrate how their breath was taken away by the fearlessness and tenacity of someone with whom they worked.

And around the country, firefighters, soldiers, police officers, foster parents and people about to board a plane for their Doctors Without Borders assignment will roll their eyes in unison.

Yet, let’s face it. Bravery is in the eyes of the beholder. By its very definition, bravery is doing something  others would not do. Often those doing something “brave” are people who find something easy that others find so, so difficult.

There are plenty of people who would run into a burning building before they’d get up on a stage or behind a lectern in front of other people. There are some who can’t imagine a world past high school where they are required to write anything that other people might read.

Still, I get a little weary of those who equate creative activity such as writing, acting or performing with the Great Struggles of Our Time.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert recently weighed in on this topic, taking to task one of the literary legends of our time, Philip Roth. Now, I couldn’t get through Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” but on this score she was dead-on. She was reacting to a story that Roth had tried to dissuade a just-published author from continuing on in the business because writing is torture, just awful. Gilbert feels just the opposite.

“I'm going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it's f*cking great,” she wrote on the Bookishwebsite. “You don't have to wear a nametag, and -- unless you are exceptionally clumsy -- you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.”

Writers aren’t the only ones susceptible to this. I was at an Ani DiFranco concert years ago, not because I’m a big fan but because my friends were and it seemed a fine way to pass the evening. We were down in front and the crowd behind us screamed and screamed for Ani.

“I never wanted this,” she said coyly, over and over again. “Really, I never wanted this."

I wanted to shout, “Well, give me my 20 bucks back and go play in a coffeehouse.”

Courtney Love surmised that Kurt Cobain was a victim of the pressure around him. On the one hand, you think, “Well, why do you become a musician?” but in Cobain’s case he was sort of catapulted into a stratosphere that most wanna-be rock gods would never see coming.

There are elements to what Philip Roth said that aren’t full of hubris and ridiculousness. As an artist, you are driven by a need to create something but at some point you have to let it go. That’s where everyone else’s opinion can come in and that can be the hard part.

Just this week, Dame Maggie Smith said on “60 Minutes” that she’d never watched a minute of “Downton Abbey.” For some people that came off as a pretentious load of crap. But as a journalist who looks at a clock and has to let a story go, I understand. You don’t want to look back, you might not like what you see because all you'll see is what you could have done better. Heck, I edited a local history book that came out two years ago and I have yet to read it because I would weep at something as minor as a misused semicolon. Conversely, something like a blog can be tended to and fixed, weeks after the fact, making this a very emotionally easy way to create.

For most  people, all of life is a one-shot deal. You go through, trying to do what you can and if you mess up you try as hard as you can to do it right the next time.

It isn’t coal mining, it isn’t MedFlight piloting, it isn’t pediatric oncology. But maybe real life is the bravest thing of all.
The fire department in Mount Horeb, Wis., is doubly brave: Members will run into a burning building AND stand in front of 42,000 people to sing the national anthem.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fantasy, Glory and Everything In Between

Oscar Pistorius, where people know him best - on the track. (AFP/Getty Images photo)

I think it’s time for a new Fantasy League.

Just take any famous sports figure, preferably one who is held up as a pantheon of virtue, and give them 100 points. Then come up with a point system that little by little chips at that century mark and see who gets to zero first.

Maybe just 10 points off for driving drunk. Screaming obscenities at an official … meh, just a few points here or there. Peformance-enhancing drugs? That’s worth some points, too. Sex offenses pile up the points even faster, beating up a spouse or significant other would certainly be a high-ticket offense. Perhaps a commissioner would have to set the bar as to what a murder would rate.

Because, really, how we look at athletes and celebrities is nothing more than a fantasy. If the last year or so hasn’t proved that to people, nothing ever will.

This week’s arrest of sprinter Oscar Pistorius on charges that he murdered his girlfriend is just one more smack across the head to remind people that watching someone do something glorious on TV doesn’t automatically turn them into a perfect person.

We like the fantasy. We like it when Pistorius and his blades challenge the notion of speed and what someone minus two legs can do. We really like it when a guy like Lance Armstrong can overcome cancer, get back on a bike and climb a mountain. We love the idea of a Joe Paterno, a kindly father figure who we can look to for old-school guidance in our new-fangled world.

But if people we know and love can shock and disappoint us on a regular basis, why shouldn’t a total stranger? Because, when it comes down to it, they are strangers. Only in the fantasy are they people we know.

There’s often been a disconnect among the things athletic heroes do, that somehow they don’t add up. The problem is, just like for you and me, they do add up. They add up to someone being wholly human.

There’s also been a disconnect in people’s perceptions, particularly about athletes. They are the gladiators of our day and we ascribe to them so much of what we want to be while forgetting they are also made out of the things we all are. To think Pistorius wouldn’t shoot his girlfriend because he rose up against so much adversity, or that Armstrong wouldn’t cheat because he overcame cancer is as logical as saying someone is more likely to shoplift because they have blue eyes.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, for the same reasons as anybody else. Silly reasons, actually, that point out that we just don’t know a dang thing.

In 1994, I was covering the NCAA women’s basketball championship game that North Carolina won on a buzzer-beater. There was pandemonium in the locker room after; these women were, deservedly, over the moon with happiness. They screamed, they danced. They jumped on a bench and danced some more. The bench broke, sending players flying and a few sports writers, too.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up on the locker room floor, with my leg a little cut up by the splinters from the busted bench. The players got up and continued to celebrate, but one turned around, offered a hand to help me get up and asked me if I was OK.

It was the Tar Heels’ speedy little freshman point guard who had opted for a basketball scholarship even though the track world was waiting with baited breath for what she could accomplish there. She was cute as a bug and had the Tar Heel logo painted on her face like she was a kid at a carnival. Her name: Marion Jones.

Stripped gold medals and a prison sentence later, that’s how I still remember Marion Jones. It’s why when her name first surfaced in connection with performance-enhancing drugs, I was genuinely upset. Surely, it was the fault of her good-for-nothing husbands, I originally believed. She was so sweet to help me up off the floor, was the thought, she wouldn’t cheat.

Of course, that’s as logical as your mother telling you when you were a kid that if you continued to make that face, your face would stay that way.

My face of disappointment didn’t stay that way. Sad to say it’s been replaced by a face of skepticism, that even a jaw-dropping charge like the one against Oscar Pistorius inspires not much more than a shrug from me. It's too bad. There are a lot of good people out there and some of them are athletes.

I want to believe, I really do.  I also wish there was a Santa Claus and that I owned an Invisibility Cloak.  But the hero worship for me, these days, is a fantasy that is out of my league.

Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones' illustrious track career ended with tears outside a federal courthouse and a prison sentence. (AP photo)