Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking Out the Trash

All I wanted to do was put the trash and recycling out. This hasn’t been the easiest thing for me to do since the accident five years ago. For those of you who don’t know about my accident, five years ago, a drunk driver rear-ended me at 50 miles an hour leaving me with a permanent spinal injury causing daily pain that radiates from my neck through my shoulders and arms ending in alternating tingling and numbness in my hands.

Therefore, the lifting, pulling, carrying, turning things upside down, dumping things out, generally holding anything relatively heavy in general required for putting out trash and recycling are not the easiest things to do. So much so, in fact, that for several years I tried to avoid putting the trash out at all.

I would wait until someone came over and then casually say: “Oh, hey, it’s trash day. Do you mind helping me put the trash out? That way, you know, we can get on with whatever we had planned to do quicker.” But sometimes it would be weeks before somebody else was around on the right day. With the trash it wasn’t so bad since that gets picked up twice a week. But with the recycling, which is only picked up every other Saturday morning, it could be a little tricky. There were times when my recycling would pile up for months. I tried several times to get whatever civic service organization it is that’s in charge of those things to bring me extra crates so I would have somewhere to put it all. But apparently those requests go into some dead email office and nobody ever responds to them. (Much like all of those letters I wrote to Santa asking for Vespa and an Emma Peal jumpsuit and matching boots for Christmas from ages 5 to 13.)

When I couldn’t get any extra recycling bins through the proper channels, I even thought about stealing other people’s crates after they’d been emptied, but were still sitting on the street on a Saturday morning. But a voice inside me told me not to give anyone else any reason not to recycle. And since I know first hand how difficult it is to get more recycling crates delivered, I didn’t want to put any of my neighbors through that annoying process. Gee, I am such a nice person.

Anyway, I have since learned not to leave the trash and – especially not – the recycling too long and no matter how much pain I’m in, I force myself to go through the process of collecting it from around the house and getting it out to the street. This is what I was doing yesterday when I suddenly found myself in the midst of a cinematic series of physical comedy gags.

First, I went to the cupboard where I keep the garbage bags and bent over to pull one out the box. Except that they came out one after another after another after another, like a magician’s scarf trick, but when I tried to pull just one out of the knot of bags, I compensated for my numb hands with too much force and ended up banging my head on the shelf above the garbage bags. Ouch.

Rubbing my head with my right hand, and with the garbage bag in my left hand, I went to the bathroom to empty the trash. On the way there, because of the numbness in my left fingers, I dropped the bag on the floor. When I tried to pick it up with my equally numb right fingers, a kitten jumped on the end of the bag and started chewing on it. I tugged the garbage bag out of the playful kitten jaw and continued on to the bathroom.

Reaching for the first trash can, my numb right hand dropped it. So, the previously thrown away items were all over the floor and needed to be picked up one-by-one and put in the garbage bag. This was annoying and only made worse by the two kittens – count them two – who had arrived and thought I had dropped a pile of germ-filled toys for them; used q-tips, Kleenex, cotton balls, etc. were being knocked across the tile floor with purring enthusiasm as I tried to grab them and put them in the big garbage bag.

Once the contents of the first trash can were successfully picked up, I moved on to the second bathroom. Reaching for the second trash can, the pain in my back came on like a stabbing knife, I squealed, lost my balance, slipped on the floor, fell to my knees, ripped my pants and knocked over the trash. Since I was already on the floor, it made it slightly easier to pick up each newly fallen piece of trash. But, of course, the kittens had followed me and were thrilled to find that we were once again playing the “bat trash across the floor” game – and so soon after the first successful game! They are hoping this will become a regular thing. I, of course, am not.

Once I finally had the bathroom trash collected, I slowly got to my feet and forced myself to move on to getting the trash from the kitchen and the office. Gladly, this was done without any additional incident. I got everything collected and carried it out to the garage, dropped it in the big trash can and rolled it down the driveway to the sidewalk.

Of course, it wasn’t until I turned around to walk back inside that I remembered about my ripped pants and realized that my next-door neighbors who were outside working on their car, had a perfect view of my black floral underwear.

Maybe I will go back to asking friends to help me put out the garbage.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Breaking the Internet: The Movie

In the September 7 issue of Newsweek, the back page story is a helpful guide titled: How do you Break the Internet? While this is obviously meant to be both informational and tongue-and-cheek, it is perhaps unintentionally also a go-to list for wanna-be super villains and movie executives.

The list includes eight different ways someone could "break the internet." That is, take their best shots at the worldwide network's weakest links. But if movie producers are paying attention, there are eight summer blockbusters up for grabs right there on the back page of Newsweek.

1) Take Up Fishing.
NEWSWEEK: Nets pulling up undersea cables are the single biggest cause of Internet breakages.
BLOCKBUSTER: The newest Bond film opens on a poor South Asian waterfront fishing community. As we close in on one particular boat, one "fisherman" played by Christoph Waltz looks suspiciously evil and European.

2) Grab a Hacksaw
NEWSWEEK: Follow the lead of vandals near Santa Clara, California who cut through underground fiber-optic wires, halting all service to the area.
BLOCKBUSTER: Zach Efron leads a group of young and ethnically diverse whiz kids on their road to revenge after their billion dollar idea was stolen by a computer mega-corp (read: Microsoft).

3) Pray for an Underwater Earthquake
NEWSWEEK: Preferably, a repeat of the quake that took down cables carrying 75 percent of Internet traffic between Europe and the Middle East last December.
BLOCKBUSTER: After 10.1 earthquake hits sending shockwaves throughout the globe, a team of sexy scientists, including Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel must get the internet up and running again before something terrible (but very vague) happens.

4) Become the Head of ICANN
NEWSWEEK: Once in charge of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers - the organization that coordinates the global system of IP addresses - you can redirect traffic at will.
BLOCKBUSTER: A computer illiterate guy (Kevin James) accidentally impresses a powerful senator (Ken Howard off his recent Emmy win) and is appointed Head of ICANN. Hilarity ensues.

5) Break into an Internet Data Center
NEWSWEEK: There are thousands of centers housing computer servers in the United States alone. Take your pick and get mischievious.
BLOCKBUSTER: "Oceans 14"

6) Sabotage a Few Boats
NEWSWEEK: Internet providers like Verizon lease fleets equipped to locate and repair broken cables. Stop the ships and you stop the fix.
BLOCKBUSTER: A ship of international pirates (including Jean Reno and Lucy Liu) take a cable repair ship hostage only to be overthrown by their captain Vin Diesel.

7) Wait 29 Years
NEWSWEEK: On January 19, 2038, the internal clock for Unix, the operating sytem for many servers, will overflow, Y2K style. Big meltdown or big letdown? Only time will tell.
BLOCKBUSTER: "Untitled Samuel L. Jackson Project"

8) Train Sharks
NEWSWEEK: The stealthy sea creatures have been known to gnaw through a few cables.
BLOCKBUSTER: 3-D animation enhances this Dreamworks story of sea creatures who find a way through humor, diligence and anthropomorphism to repair undersea internet cables. Voices include Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Bob Newhart.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The PTI & the DE Student

I have been teaching college courses since 1995. First, as a graduate student and then, and forever since, as a PTI, or for those of you who don’t work in the ever acronym creating world of academics, a part-time instructor. For the most part, I’m pretty good at it. My student evaluations are predominantly positive. Moreover, students compliment my personality, inventiveness, organization and equity in person and by private email. Obviously, this is nice, but I encourage them to also do so through official channels so their glowing opinions of my work performance can also have a positive impact on my personnel file. But even with the frequent and encouraging feedback, the start of a new semester always makes me think of past decisions and student encounters that were particularly difficult or merely uncertain.

About a week ago, while sitting in a pre-semester faculty meeting, I was reminded of a specific student that I hadn’t considered in years. It was the fall of 2001, and as I remember it was near the beginning of my foray into DE, or distance education, or teaching online to put it more simply. It was an English composition course, English 101 to be exact, for CCSN, the Community College of Southern Nevada. To be frank, teaching essay writing to community college students is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I have a lot of successful experience doing it. Transferring that experience to the online classroom is challenging, but not impossible and with the right guidance and dedication and acknowledgment of personal responsibility, students do succeed.

But back in fall of 2001, I had one student who was determined not to take responsibility for any of his actions and blame me for every problem, from miniscule to devastating, that he encountered.

If he overlooked a policy in the syllabus, it was my fault because the link on the homepage labeled “SYLLABUS” wasn’t clear enough.

If he didn’t turn in something on time, it was because he shouldn’t have been expected to use the calendar link with all of the deadlines included and I should have sent emails reminding him whenever assignments were due.

If he lost points on an assignment for poor grammar and punctuation it was because my expectations for the proper use of English were too high… in a college English composition class, no less.

For an entire semester, not a day went by that I did not receive a volatile, accusatory email from this student. And not a week went by that he did not publicly post a complaint about my pedagogy seeking support for his anger from other students.

I responded to every indictment with a calm grace that is one of the benefits of teaching online. When an antagonistic student approaches you in person, it takes a lot of inner strength to take a breath and remain composed. But online, you have the option to close the email, think about it for a few hours and then expertly compose a response. This is especially important since in an electronic classroom, your response is in writing and time/date stamped. It is irrefutable evidence, so it must be unambiguous and professional.

Eventually the angry student took his complaints to the chair of the department. When he didn’t get the response he wanted from her – namely my severed head on a plate – he took his complaint to the dean. I received a letter documenting that meeting, but thanks to the slow bureaucratic stylings of higher education, it didn’t come months after the semester was over and I was rid of this student forever. And, thankfully, the letter merely acknowledged the meeting had happened and that the students’ complaints were ultimately determined to be unfounded.

Well, I could have told them that.

Despite anything this one student may have said, my online teaching skills were deemed successful by the powers that be and I have continued to work as a distance education professor every semester for over nine years. And, in order to improve my talents, I seek out professional development opportunities. Conferences, workshops, online tips and videos – I take advantage of anything I can find and afford.

A few years ago, I attended a one-day distance education conference sponsored by the Community College of Southern Nevada one week before the start of a new semester. The idea of the conference was to promote online education and inspire professors before we all started back to work. I went to lectures and workshops all day, enjoyed free breakfast and lunch with some colleagues and generally had a great day. At about 4pm, I was exhausted and debating whether I should sneak out before the last panel discussion. I took off my suit jacket and sat down on a bench outside to decide what to do next when the decision was made for me. The director of the distance education office came by and struck up a conversation with me. Next thing I knew, we were doing the “walk and talk” and I was following her into the theatre where the last panel discussion was about to start. That was it. I was trapped. I took a seat, took out my notepad and decided to make the best of it.

As opposed to all of the previous events of the day, which focused on pedagogy and technology, this panel was made up of students. Four very different looking people were seated at a table on the stage representing the broad variety of students that take online classes.

A professor stepped up and introduced the panel. Student A was an older man who had come back to school later in life and enjoyed distance education because he felt conspicuous in the classroom. Student B was a single mother who appreciated distance education because she couldn’t afford daycare. Student C was a nursing student who used distance education to take her general education courses because nursing classes are so time consuming. Student D was a guy who was using distance education to earn his degree while working full-time. And his named sounded really familiar.

It turned out that Student D dominated the conversation. He was arrogant, loud and opinionated and didn’t let Students A, B or C speak at all. So, it wasn’t surprising when he jumped in to answer this question: Do you find instructional pedagogy to be as effective online as in a traditional classroom setting?

Student D blurted out: “I do now. But I didn’t always.” And without anyone asking him to, he started telling a story. A story that sounded way too familiar. He started talking about the first time he ever took an online course… it was English 101… of course it was, I thought to myself… and then he talked about how he hated his professor and he thought that she… and the word “she” didn’t escape me… had overly high standards and poor communication skills, that the class wasn’t organized with the students’ needs in mind. He share how he had complained endlessly and had even taken his complaints to the chair of the department and the dean.

At this point I slunk down into my chair and anxiously glanced toward my left lapel. I was relieved to remember that I had taken off my jacket with my name tag on it so that he wouldn’t know that the professor he was talking about was actually in the room. And thank God I wasn’t the type of online professor that posted a photo of myself. At least he would never recognize me. He was tearing me apart in front of my colleagues and a couple of people who could actually fire me. I started silently, desperately praying that he wouldn’t say my name. Please, please, please don’t say my name was my unspoken mantra.

He talked about how that experience had turned him off of online education and he was panic-stricken because he had counted on being able to complete his degree online while he still worked full-time. So, hoping that his disastrous first experience was a one-time thing, he registered for two more online classes the next semester. One, he said, was truly awful, and the second was just okay. And from taking these additional online classes, he realized that it was he who had not put the effort into the first class… English 101 with yours truly as the professor… and had blamed his problems on the professor when in retrospect her class was actually well planned and organized and she had been more much patient and helpful with him than perhaps he actually deserved.

Wait, I thought – is he actually admitting he was wrong?!? Was this public apologia? I was shocked, but so happy that I was there for this event. If I hadn’t stayed for the panel discussion, I never would have known that this student who hated me and had tried to get me fired had eventually come to the conclusion that I was a good teacher. He even went on to say that he was glad he had taken English 101 during his first semester because what he had learned about writing had been so helpful in his subsequent classes.

I don’t remember what anyone else said in that panel discussion. I just sat there reveling in the unexpected flattery and satisfaction of a job well done. I also debated whether I should approach the student and introduce myself in light of what he had said. But instead, I just picked up my jacket, purse and conference materials and slipped out the back door with a smile on my face. If he had actually wanted me to know any of those things, he would have contacted me on his own. I had the unique opportunity to learn that my position as a professor, while initially met with disdain, had ultimately been a much broader learning experience than that student could have ever imagined. That was rewarding and inspiring in ways that the conference coordinators could have never imagined.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stag Funerals & Pine Needles

I’ve attended funerals by myself before. As a 37-year old markedly and unfailingly single woman, I’ve done almost everything there is to do by myself, including going stag to a funeral.

Going to a funeral stag is unlike attending any other rite of passage alone. Going to prom stag can be done as a social protest. Going to a wedding stag can be an attempt to hook up with an attractive stranger from the other side of the church aisle. But going to a funeral stag is only done out of necessity. Because unlike a wedding, prom or even a company holiday party, if you don’t have a significant other likewise invested in a particular funeral, you really can’t go trolling for a last-minute date.

Another way that attending a funeral stag is different than those other types of events is because kind people go out of their way to make you feel like you’re not alone. Choosing to be solo at a prom takes a lot of concerted effort to maintain your look of lone superiority and that really cannot include meeting new people. Going to a company party by yourself usually means being the third wheel to an office friend and his or her bored spouse or getting to know the bartender pretty darn well. And if you’re alone at a wedding, you’ll either end up scoring big time or sitting at the kids’ table by yourself while everyone else laughs their way through the chicken dance and electric slide. Moreover, the worst part about being stag at a wedding is the number of times you have to answer the question: “so, when will we dancing at *your* wedding?”

But at a funeral, nobody is worried about your love life. There’s an almost tranquil sense of collective loneliness. Because mourning is an individual experience, even the in the closest families, members mourning the same loved one in the same room each feel that loss individually. So, even the largest funeral congregation is really just a gathering of lonely people. So, when you’re alone at a funeral, oddly, you’re part of the group.

So, while technically I had flown by myself to North Carolina to attend a funeral alone last week, I was hoping that once I got there, I would feel like a part of a group, or to be more specific, a family. I went all that way to say goodbye to the man who called himself my “father-in-law“. Although, this was not a legally recognized familial position, he had wanted to be my “father-in-law” and called himself that. Just because his son never got around to asking me to marry him before he died didn‘t keep him from assuming that position in my life. And I love these people like they were actually my in-laws and probably more than many people love their real in-laws. So, there was no question that I needed to be there to help support my “mother-in-law” at this time.

I felt confidant about my decision to spend the money on the trip across the country until I landed in Raleigh and called to tell my mother-in-law and whoever was already gathered at the house that I was on my way. But the phone was busy. No problem, I thought. She must be talking to somebody else. So, I picked up my luggage and headed to the rental car shuttle. I called again. The phone was still busy. Okay, I thought, she’s still on the phone. Fifteen minutes later I was settled into the rental car and about to start the two hour drive to Lexington and I called again. This time it just rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. So, I tried her cell phone, which she rarely uses, and it went straight to voicemail. Now, I was starting to get worried. Maybe they forgot I was coming. I set out on the highway and proceeded to call both numbers every ten minutes throughout the drive. The cell phone always went straight to voice mail. The home number was either busy or rang with no answer. Maybe they weren’t expecting me. Or maybe they didn’t want to see me. Were they avoiding my call? I was feeling abandoned out there on the highway as the sun was setting on a state I’d never been to before. And I was relieved that I had insisted on getting my own hotel room instead of staying at the house. Even though I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, at least I would have someplace to spend the night.

The rain storm started about a half-hour before I got to the hotel. There’s nothing quite as lonely as being in a hotel room, in an unfamiliar place, with nobody to greet you, during a rain storm. Even though I was really feeling unwelcome and questioning the trip at all by this point, I mustered my courage, looked up directions to the house on my blackberry and set off in the rain down Route 8, a rural, unlit, two-lane road with no shoulder to speak of. The speed limit was 40 mph, but I was driving about 20. Unsure of my directions, destination and the wet asphalt, I slowed down at every country lane, and every driveway that looked like a country lane, looking for any street sign that would indicate I was headed the right way.

Along the side of the road there were all kinds of hand-written signs advertising just how the recession has hit this part of the country. People were selling fresh eggs from their chickens, fruit from their trees and quite a lot of guns and ammunition. Was that legal? I wondered. Why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina gun laws before I came? Was it possible these people angrily passing me in their trucks as I crept along reading signs were also carrying guns?

One sign in particular captured my imagination more than the others. Unprofessionally written with a thick sharpie, it sat conspicuously underneath one of Route 8’s extremely rare street lamps, reading only two words: PINE NEEDLES.

Without any other information, I don’t know whether the sign meant that the pine needles were for sale or were free for the taking. Moreover, I have no idea what someone would want with a bunch of free pine needles, let alone why anyone would pay for them. My experience with pine needles comes from my childhood in California. They were abundant during camping weekends. Dry ones were fire hazards and fresh ones always stuck to sleeping bags and ended up in my hair. At the beginning of December, we used pine needles to decorate Yule logs as an annual craft project in Sunday School. But at the end of December, pine needles were an undeniable sign that the Christmas tree was dying. They were supposed to collect on the old bed sheet wrapped around the tree, but ended up stuck in the carpet anyway where even a vacuum had trouble picking them up.

Driving down Route 8, I felt like those advertised pine needles. Unwanted and useless, yet glaringly announced by a sign under a bright light. Here I was everyone, hard to miss, inching down the road, headed to a place I’d never been before, not knowing if anyone there wanted to see me, or if anyone was there at all. I felt simultaneously obvious and unwelcome. I was a big sack of pine needles about to be dropped at a front door and somebody will just have to figure out how to get rid of me.

After some time and a couple of wrong turns, I found the street I was looking for. And after some effort and a lot of squinting in the dark, I found the address. To my surprise, the porch lights were on, the front door was open and there was talking and laughing loud enough to be heard from the end of the long gravel driveway. This was not a house where nobody would answer the phone. Why hadn’t they answered the phone? Surely they really had been avoiding my call.

I cautiously made my way from the rental car to the front door, suddenly wishing I had a flashlight for my safety and a gift for my “mother-in-law”. Why hadn’t I thought to stop at a gas station and buy flowers or a bottle of liquor? And why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina liquor laws before I came? It wasn’t too late. I had service on my blackberry even out there. I could get back in the car, look up a nearby store and come back, so that I wouldn’t arrive empty-handed. Even if they didn’t want to see me, who wouldn’t want to see a nice bottle of booze or wine the night before a funeral?

But it was too late. I heard the squeak of the screen door opening. Someone had seen the headlights in the driveway and was coming out to investigate. “It’s Rebecca!” the female voice shouted back into the house. “Rebecca’s here!” Was she happy to see me? Or alerting the rest of the house as if in a horror film to either arm themselves or run for cover?

No, believe it or not, they were all happy to see me. I was greeted with strong-armed hugs and poorly aimed kisses that landed nearer to my chin and forehead than to either cheek. I believe this was the result of the many empty beer and wine bottles scattered about the kitchen. Those who knew me already exclaimed, through the confusion of their beer goggles, how beautiful I looked. Those who I was meeting for the first time said how wonderful it was to put a face to the name. Or in the case of those who had heard my NPR piece about my deceased boyfriend - their deceased nephew or cousin - how wonderful it was to put a face to the voice.

After the excited greetings had settled down, the questions began: Where had I been? Why hadn’t I called? No. Nobody had been on the phone. Yes. They had been waiting for my call. Which led to a fast-forward Benny Hill style race around the house (minus any saxophone playing or toplessness) to find the busy signal culprit and cause of my anguish. But no, none of the phones were off the hook. Everything seemed to be in working order. But wait - somebody had turned the cell phone’s ringer volume down. And wait - someone had apparently slammed the door on the way back from getting beer in the garage and knocked a rarely-used wall phone down from the wall. Everyone but I looked accusingly at one particularly soused family friend who agreed it must have been her fault. And with the mystery solved, I felt welcome, except for the fact that there was no red wine in the house. But I had a beer. And I had my hugs. And I felt at home.

The next day, as I got ready for the funeral in my hotel room, I noticed that last night’s rain had turned into an actual storm. I also noticed that I had only brought open-toed shoes with me. I was about to introduce myself to a Catholic church full of strangers with muddy, grass-soaked toes. But before the service began, to my own surprise, while voluntarily manning the guest book, I had actually known - or at least recognized - many more people than I expected. Sadly, the reason why we were familiar to each other was because we had all attended the other funeral four years earlier. But while those are still difficult memories for me, recognizing people actually made me feel even more a part of the family. After at least a half-dozen people have said to you, “I’m so glad to see you again… even if it is under these conditions,” I couldn’t help but feel connected to a familial history. I belong, I thought, even if it is as an indelible memory in the scenes of their tragedies. And nobody had even mentioned my inappropriate footwear.

After the funeral and a buffet lunch where I barely ate anything, the family, including me, headed back to the house. There were so many people this time that instead of even trying to learn names, I just smiled a lot, and tapped people on the shoulder on the rare occasion I needed someone’s attention. Mostly I stayed in the background, drinking glasses of Jack Daniels and ginger ale, playing with dogs, making trips to the outside coolers for more beer and refilling bowls of potato chips. Mostly I was trying to look occupied while keeping others from wanting to give me plates of food or talk too much about my dead boyfriend. This part was particularly hard considering the many photos of him and the display of his medals, certificates and personal belongings right next to the kitchen table.

But then something interesting happened. It appeared that three family members - a son, a son-in-law and a grandson, I think, but don’t quote me - were setting up in a circle in the living room with three acoustic guitars. I thought perhaps they had prepared a performance in honor of my “father-in-law”. Perhaps a beautiful, strumming version of “Cat’s in the Cradle”? So, I took off my shoes, sat down on the floor by the coffee table, set my sweating glass of Jack & Ginger on a coaster and settled in for the performance.

With the first song, which was something I didn’t recognize, I realized that this was no performance, but rather an impromptu sing-a-long. I had no idea that I had been welcomed by a family with the kind of musically talented members that can enliven any gathering with spontaneous music. As they moved from song to song - even taking requests yelled-out from other rooms - different people joined in singing when they knew the words. A few songs in, I knew the words to “Norwegian Wood,” so I trepidatiously moved a little closer to the guys with guitars and sang on the verses and added harmonies to the choruses. Nobody gave me confused glances or the full-out evil eye, so when it was over, I moved a little closer still and hoped that maybe I would know the next song, too.

As the guitarists strummed and brain-stormed, somebody suggested they play something with a straight ahead rock-blues feel, to which the obvious leader of the group responded with: how about “Route 66” in G? And without thinking, I excitedly blurted out: “That’s my song! And my key!” Everyone looked at me, so I quickly explained that I had been singing “Route 66” with bands for over ten years and, serendipitously, I sing it in G. Without a pause, the group leader smiled and said, “well, great! It looks like we’ve got a lead singer on this one. We’ll give you a few bars and you come one in.” Sitting there on the living room carpet, leaning back on the floor with one hand and holding my drink in the other, I sat in that family circle and belted out a song I’ve been carrying in my proverbial vocal pocket for most of my life. But rather than feeling like I needed to perform, I felt like I was sharing myself and being accepted by others.

We made it through the tune top to bottom two full times, including a few guitar solos and a big finish. By the end, almost everyone had moved into the living room and their applause was full of familial affection, outright praise and even a little surprise. Somebody shouted out that I sounded like Shirley Bassey, which was a lovely compliment, and others asked if I had any CDs they could buy. This would never happen while singing Christmas carols at my parents’ house, since amongst my real blood relations, everyone knows that I sing and that I don‘t any CDs for sale. But here my singing was mostly a revelation. Except for the fact that my “mother- and father-in-law” had come to see me perform twice in Las Vegas, bringing me flowers and accolades both times. And at that moment, I could hear my “mother-in-law” bragging to nobody in particular, “see, I told you how talented she was,” and I felt so pleased that I could make her smile and give her something to be proud of on the day of her husband’s funeral.

The guitar-playing trio asked me to keep singing with them, but I just told them to keep doing their thing and I’d join in on harmonies and such if I knew the tunes. Mostly I didn’t, but that didn’t matter to me. But as people were getting ready to head home, I did get to lead a rather rowdy version of “King of the Road” that almost everyone joined in on. Oddly, this was part of the regular set I did with a swing band back in the late-90s and I’d always felt a little uncomfortable singing it while in a vintage cocktail dress. But in my black sundress and bare feet, sending family off, encouraging them to drive home safely as the rain was finally letting up, it seemed like the most appropriate, comfortable and fun song to shout out with this tipsy - or in some cases very drunken - post-funeral group.

A little while later, I headed back to my hotel, as well. I was staying in North Carolina another two days, so there would be plenty of time to spend with this family. But at that moment, after two long days and several sleepless nights, I wanted some time to reflect on my own, write for awhile and hopefully go to bed early. I drove the rental car back toward Route 8 and took a left toward town.

Soon I came across the “PINE NEEDLES” sign, but this time there had been something added to it that I couldn’t quite read. I found a place to pull over, turned around and went back to investigate. In the bottom left corner, someone had added a piece of paper that read: “DEER CORN APPLES”. Was this advertising three separate things: deer, corn and apples? Or was it just one thing, a rare variety of apple: the deer corn apple. Or maybe it was two things. Either a type of corn - deer corn - and a general variety of apple, perhaps a red delicious? Or else they had deer available and something called “corn apples” which could have either been a type of corn or a type of apple that maybe deer enjoyed eating?

I got back in the car and started laughing to myself as I debated all of the possible meanings of this sign. And then it occurred to me that I definitely no longer felt like that unwanted, useless dead pile of pine needles. Now I felt like deer corn apples. Maybe I wasn’t immediately definable. Maybe my place or purpose was suspect at first. But, in the end, I was interesting, useful even and people were glad I was there. I’m still not sure what “deer corn apples” actually means and I don’t really want to know. Because I have my own definition for it. Deer corn apples are me, going “stag” to a family funeral in North Carolina.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Prime Birthday

I like to think about my birthdays mathematically.

For example, on Monday, August 3rd, I turned 37. A prime number.

Metaphorically, I imagined this would mean I had reached my prime. You know how they say that women reach their prime – in a variety of ways – later than men? Well, I was prepared for that. And excited about it. I was ready to begin this year with gusto and vim and zest and all kinds of underused words.

But if what happened on my actual birthday is emblematic of the year to come, then 37 isn’t the prime year I was so looking forward to.

I should have known things were doomed when I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was supposed to be sleeping in a hotel room in Anaheim with my friend Tim and it was important that I sleep since the alarm was set for 6:30am. We were determined to get to Disneyland by 7:45am, so we could be in the park at the moment it opened at 8am. But even with two sleeping pills, I couldn’t sleep. And the one time I ventured out of my ineffective bed, I walked right into a chair, painfully stubbing my toe. On the way back to the bed, I stupendously did it again. But this time to a toe on the other foot, thereby successfully ensuring that I would begin my day of Disneyland walking with the faint linger of throbbing within both feet.

Once the sun came up, things seemed a bit better. We got our free continental breakfast (bagels and cream cheese in foil packets – the cream cheese, not the bagels) and caught the Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) to the park. (Which, by the way, has no redeeming sense of “art” about it.) I got my free birthday ticket with no problem and we were standing in the midst of Main Street U.S.A. when the celebratory opening of the day music began at 8am. We ran to Tomorrow Land and things appeared to be going smoothly: Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters quickly followed by Star Tours. But when we took off for the coveted Space Mountain, we were met by a human wall of costumed 20-year olds who were informing everyone that Space Mountain was not open “yet.” They had been told to inform guests that it might be open within a few hours.

Okay, I thought, nothing to panic about. It’s just that Space Mountain is the most fabulous ride in the park. And it was my birthday. So, it had to open eventually, right? It would. I was sure of it. I just had to stay positive. Positive, positive, positive. But on the inside I had already started freaking out.

We continued our counter-clockwise journey: the Matterhorn, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Thunder Mountain Railroad. Then all the way to Splash Mountain, back to the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones. And then it all fell apart at the Jungle Cruise.

The Jungle Cruise is one of my favorite rides in the park. It’s absolutely unique as amusement parks go: relaxing and hilarious. I’ve been memorizing the guides’ patter since my first trip to the park in 1977. And the fact that it’s rarely changed in 32 years is comforting and amazing, since it’s still just that funny.

“If you look over here, you’ll see some beautiful limestone. Although most people just take it for granite.”

I love that joke.

But I didn’t hear it on my birthday. Because of Kelli.

Kelli with an “i” from Portland, Oregon. Kelli with an “i” hates her job. One of the most coveted jobs at Disneyland and she hates it. She is ruining visitors’ vacations with her rude, flippant, childish assault on possibly the best patter in tourism history. She tells jokes incorrectly when she tells them at all, which most often she doesn’t. And she races right past whole sections of the animatronic tour without saying anything. She complains about how she always gets the bad boat and how things don’t work. The only saving grace is that she mumbles, so some riders don’t have to hear her at all.

But then Kelli did something unforgivable. She announced to the boat full of paying passengers that she once fell in the water and “they” – meaning the park management, I guess – made her go get a tetanus shot. She continued, “so, if you fall in the water, they’re going to make you get a tetanus shot, too. So, try not to fall I the water because the water at Disneyland will give you tetanus.”

She actually said that! In the happiest place on earth! On my birthday! So, for the first time in my 32 years of blissfully going to Disneyland, I went to the Town Hall of Main Street. I stood in line for 30 minutes. And I made an official complaint. If Kelli with an “i” hates her job so much, then she can get fired, I thought. She’s ruining my favorite ride, my birthday and my non-tetanus view of Disneyland and this needed to go in her permanent record.

But I wondered to myself, as I stood in that line, had this happened before I was 37, would I have bothered. Would I have been so angry at the immature, ill-trained, selfish Jungle Cruise mean girl when I was younger? Or was this ire related to me reaching my “prime”?

When I reached the front of the line, Jason, the prince charming of customer service, wrote everything down, was appropriately appalled at the tale of Kelli with an “i” and promised that she would be reprimanded. In addition, he gave me something to hopefully make my day better: a magic fast pass.

A magic fast pass is apparently something you can only get if you make a complaint or have some upsetting thing happen to you during your visit to the happiest place on earth. It allows you and your friends or family to cut to the front of any fast pass line. Instead of having to get a fast pass ticket and then wait for your turn to come back, you can present the magic fast pass at any time and go right into the fast pass line.

With the magic fast pass glowing in my hand, I asked Jason if he knew if Space Mountain was open “yet.” One quick phone call later, he exclaimed: “It just opened! Rebecca, go now!”

So, Tim and I ran from the head of Main Street to the tip of Tomorrowland, panting with excitement. We weaved in and out of the ever growing mid-day Disneyland throng. The crowd navigational gods were with us as we were reaching Space Mountain in record time. But just as we arrived, we noticed something was wrong. The line was moving toward us down the ramp, not up the ramp toward the elation of the Mountain of Space. Jason hadn’t lied to us. Space Mountain had indeed opened. It’s just that it had closed just as quickly. And everyone was being evacuated from the line.

I put my magic fast pass safely in my wallet and we moved on, just a little more dejectedly. The anger from Kelli with an “i” combined with the melancholy of the closed Mountain was putting a particularly non-prime mood on my supposedly prime birthday.

Next, we moved on to Toon Town. I thought the wackiness of Roger Rabbit and talking mail boxes might lighten my mood. But as I stood in line for the diaper-smelling, toddler-raging Toon Town bathroom, I made the mistake of checking my email on my Blackberry. And that’s when I got the news that Stan Lapinski had died.

Surrounded by screaming children and wacky bulbous architecture, I collapsed on a bench to take in the news that the only man who has ever called himself my “father-in-law” had died on my birthday. My 37th birthday. My birthday that clearly wasn’t shaping up to be very prime.

It should have been perfect. What’s better than doing something that makes you feel young on a day when you would otherwise feel pretty old? Isn’t that the idea? Shouldn’t you try to convince yourself on your birthday that you are still in your prime? And that age isn’t going to catch up with you? But how am I supposed to fool myself into believing that when, on my birthday, death gets this close?

Getting the news that someone dies is bad enough. But on your birthday, while at Disneyland, it feels even more devastating. And it wasn’t just anyone. Stan Lapinski was a man who had drunk from the fountain of youth. A man who survived World War II, competed in the Olympics and worked as a golf pro well into his 70s. If a man like this can die, a man that never looked his age until the last few weeks of his life, then what chance do the rest of us have?

I did have the chance to recover some of my birthday spirit. And what better place to do it than Disneyland, a place of fantasy, adventure and a cartoonish future? A place where I could have fun while simultaneously feeling cloudy and mystified by the sad news about Stan.

I don’t remember exactly what we did next. I know we rode more rides. I know we took the Monorail to Downtown Disney, had cocktails and artisan cheese at the Grand California Hotel and did a little shopping. And I know that when we got back to the park, that Space Mountain had finally opened!

This was going to be my salvation. There is hardly any mortal experience more liberating, refreshing and air-conditioned than the thrill of a roller coaster – this particular roller coaster – in the dark. Of course, mere humans were forced to wait in a line for two hours. Slightly more clever folk were getting there fast passes to return at 11pm. But we were different. We had the magic fast pass. We were going to jump right into the front of that line.

We ran up the wide cement ramp, handed over the red piece of paper and rushed into the final stretch to greatness. And that’s when it happened. The final straw. The final realization that 37 isn’t a prime year at all. It’s a year burgeoning on old. A year when your body begins to fail you. A year when running to ride Space Mountain begins to seem like the folly of youth.

As I came around a sharp corner on my way to the front of the Space Mountain line, I felt a sharp pain. I can only describe what happened like this: my left calf seized. All of the muscles in my left calf just gave up and screamed in pain. Now, I have a high threshold for pain. But when I tried to put weight on my left leg, the sharp intake of air accompanied by my scrunched eyes indicated to Tim that I wasn’t kidding.

But there I was, so close to Space Mountain. So close to that roller coaster in the dark, where age doesn’t matter. Where my screams and laughter are just as young and prime as everyone else’s. I wouldn’t miss this for the world on any day, let alone this not so prime birthday.

So, mustering the Keri Strug inside me, I started to limp. Slowly, but surely, I was going to make it to the front of the line. I could feel the impatient courtesy of the line slowing down behind me. People desperately wanted to pass me, but they didn’t want to be rude to the injured old lady. Well, that and “line jumpers may be evicted from the park.”

I did ride Space Mountain that day. And I did manage to limp around the park until 11:30 that night. After all, it was my birthday. And I was going to celebrate it no matter how many deaths or injuries or Kellis with “i”s tried to get in my way. It was a despondent, gimpy, annoyed celebration. Certainly not the prime celebration I had envisioned. But unforgettable and I suppose prime in its own way.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Very Good Doctor

One day in 1985, in my eighth grade honors English class, Mrs. Tomita finally had enough of my constant chatter with Sarah Schacker and decided that we must be separated and punished. Sarah was made to sit at a table by herself in a corner by the water faucet and the pencil sharpener, a high traffic area if ever there was one and so Sarah still had plenty of opportunities to socialize.

On the other hand, I was reassigned to a table for four that, until my arrival, had a glaringly, gaping empty chair. This was the nerd table. The geek table. The table of three heretofore unlucky pubescent boys who not too many years later would all make millions of dollars in the Silicon Valley dot com boom of the mid-90s. One of them even showed up at our ten-year high school reunion with some eastern European beauty queen who undoubtedly had agreed to a long-winded pre-nup.

But on this day in Mrs. Tomita’s class, they were still thickly-bespectacled, greasy-haired, spotty-faced boys who didn’t know how to answer questions in class without sounding like a team of insolent George Wills and didn’t know how to talk to girls at all.

Now, I was no Barbie-haired mean girl. I had crooked teeth. I was really good at math. And they only let me on the cheerleading squad because I was strong enough to lift the other girls and be in the bottom row of the pyramid. On the other hand, I did have a nice complexion, a bubbly personality and a couple of pairs of Guess jeans that almost made me look like I had a figure. So, when I took my place in that conspicuously vacant fourth chair and said, “Hi,” all three boys quickly turned to look at something fascinating on the outside of the window.

But since I refuse to ever be at a loss for words, and on that day I refused to give in to Mrs. Tomita’s assumption that by placing me at this table that I would automatically stop talking during class, I was not going to give up. I was determined to engage them in conversation. So, I decided to start over, and not with something as vague as “Hi.” I mean, who at that age can use “Hi” as a conversation starter anyway? Two 13 year olds can spend seven full minutes while passing between classes just saying “Hi” in increasingly shy and uncomfortable ways. No, I decided I would blow their awkwardly intelligent minds with an opening gambit that they could never imagine would ever come out of a girl’s mouth. I said, “So, did you see Doctor Who last night?”

I wasn’t trying to insult them or tease them in anyway. I was just trying to find common ground. Because I had actually seen Doctor Who the night before… and the night before that… and the night before that. In fact, I had seen Doctor Who most Monday through Friday nights in the half-hour before my family ate dinner for a few years at that point. It started because my older brother usually dictated use of the remote control at that time of day. But then I ended up honestly enjoying it. First, I was amused by K-9, the loyal talking robot dog. Then, I started to like Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s proto-feminist companion.

But it was Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, who made the whole thing so much fun. He was giddy and capricious. He made time travel exciting, as opposed to dangerous. Certainly there were dangers: such as Daleks, etc. But as it’s so often been noted, those 1970s and 80s special effects were obvious, if not down right silly. It was the character studies, the philosophical dilemmas, the imagined science and the serial story-telling that kept me and my brother and other kids enthralled by sci-fi and fantasy coming back night after night. Well, all of that and, of course, Tom Baker’s ridiculous scarf. And then there was the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, who seemed charming, most likely because he’d previously been a veterinarian on All Creatures Great and Small. But then I grew tired of Doctor Who when Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, started to play him as arrogantly egotistical, as opposed to good-naturedly self-assured.

After that memorable day in eighth grade, I could hardly get my nerdy English class table-mates to stop talking about Doctor Who. More than anything, I think they were amazed to have something they could talk to a girl about. While I didn’t really want to talk to them outside of class and I certainly didn’t want them asking me to go a dance or anything, the experience was certainly enlightening.

As I moved into high school and later college, I realized that I had an advantage over a lot of other girls. Not only did shy, geeky guys (the type that eventually became my main interest and romantic desire) have something they could talk to me about, but I had something I could talk to them about. And it wasn’t just Doctor Who. I also knew every episode of Star Trek. I’d read most of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And I could also have a reasonable conversation about comic books thanks to my brother. I both read his comic books and spent time browsing comic book stores in the days when only he had a driver’s license and I was at his mercy. And while I never told him this at the time, I loved going to the comic book stores because I was almost always the only girl there. I would catch guys looking at me, and although they were never brave enough to actually flirt, it was infinitely more attention then I ever got from any guys at school.

I began to understand those girls that seemed to know so much about football. Whereas before I thought they were feigning interest and just learning things to help them flirt with jocks, I started to recognize that they really did like football, which informed their romantic interest in athletic boys or vice versa; plus it gave them something to talk about.

Because despite what some boys may believe, it’s just as hard for us girls to talk to you as it is for you to talk to us. And having any type of advantage in my teen years was encouraging, especially for a girl like me who never had a date, let alone a boyfriend, until college. It was handy that I was often the prettiest girl around who liked Doctor Who and Star Trek and anything similar that was usually geeky male domain.

I actually took a self-imposed break from Dr. Who during the reign of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, which then became a forced break when production was ceased on the BBC television series in 1989. But then, in 2005, the show came back, with a brand new kind of Doctor. Christopher Eccleston, as the Ninth Doctor, had a shaved head and a black leather jacket and was sarcastic and moody, but still brilliant and brave. While, in the U.K., Doctor Who is still widely considered a popular show for youth, Eccleston’s Doctor was the right kind of Doctor for the adult in me.

But just like most men I’ve even grown attached to, as quickly as the Ninth Doctor had entered my life, he was gone again. It just didn’t seem fair that there was just one season of Eccleston. But like all other Doctors, and because the BBC doesn’t like to let a good brand die, the Tenth Doctor was announced: David Tennant. While this may not have meant much to most American sci-fi fans, I could hardly contain myself. David Tennant is the one of the few actors I’ve ever truly swooned over. Some might say it was from his memorable portrayal of Casanova in 2005. But I actually was smitten, nee besotted, by his Detective Inspector Carlisle in the strange, murder mystery musical Viva Blackpool in 2004.

So, while I was still mourning Eccleston a little bit, I was ecstatic to learn that Tennant was going to be the new regeneration of Doctor Who in 2006. But little did I know that he was going to play the best version of Doctor Who ever.

Besides Tennant’s innate sex appeal, including for the geek-lover in me the fact that he’s the only Doctor to have ever worn glasses, what’s so truly special about the Tenth Doctor is that Tennant plays the role with both memory and mortality. He is clever and brave and cheeky and serious, but also modern and self-aware. His companions – both Rose and Martha – couldn’t help but fall in love with him and I completely understand why. He is even more the Doctor of my dreams than any other, including Eccleston, could ever be.

One of the common complaints about television characters is that they don’t learn from their mistakes, i.e. they don’t have any memory. This is especially true in situation comedies, daytime and primetime soap operas and even characters like Wily E. Coyote. But the Tenth Doctor, like many modern television science fiction characters has nearly complete recall of his over 900 years of life and adventures. Sometimes that memory is a detriment as it gives him more sorrow and humanity than some previous incarnations. But that also makes it even more delightful when he exuberantly takes on adventures, runs full speed down corridors and cheekily takes on his aggressors. A being with this much life experience could very easily be bored and weary of his ever-lasting life, but Tennant plays it with gusto.

I believe that much of this sense of memory comes from the fact that Tennant is the first actor to play the Doctor who admits that he was an enormous fan of the show growing up. He came to the role with all of the knowledge of the Doctor’s past adventures. So, whether the script directly references those experiences or not, it’s clear that they are a part of him. It only makes sense that, from one regeneration to the next, the Doctor is still the same being and should have the same memories, but the role had never exactly been played that way before.

The Tenth Doctor is also the second regeneration of the characters since his home planet was destroyed. Through most of the episodes with Eccelston and Tennant, the Doctor believes that he is the only Time Lord left in all the known universes. So, even with the assumed continued ability to regenerate, the Tenth Doctor has a sense of his own mortality. All Doctors have had a sense of their own transience and importance in the galaxies and lives they touch. But when the Tenth Doctor faces his enemies and puts himself directly in harm’s way, he does so with the weight of mortality, the significance of his existence and the memories of all of the other Time Lords who now cease to exist.
This is especially apparent in the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter” when there is a possibility that the Doctor has (through unusual circumstances) a daughter and that perhaps he wouldn’t be the last Time Lord after all.

Tonight on BBC America, marks the beginning of the end for David Tennant and the Tenth Doctor. There are only a few more adventures left to air before this Doctor will regenerate and become the Eleventh Doctor, a young actor named Matt Smith who takes over the role in 2010.

But still today and for a little while longer, as played by David Tennant, Doctor Who represents a modern man that I could fall for. Was I ever destined to fall in love with somebody like Tom Baker? Besides the fact that I am sometimes drawn to guys with naturally curly hair, no, that was never going to happen. In fact, up until Eccelston, I only thought of Doctor Who as entertainment and a way of meeting and talking to real men that I might be interested in. But with the Ninth… and then especially, the Tenth Doctor, I’m afraid that instead of just talking about Doctor Who with actual men, now I expect actual men to live up to new ideals set by the Tenth Doctor.

Could I ever meet this man? This sexy, brilliant, sarcastic, brave and enthusiastic man, with empathy for others, who learns from his past and lives in the moment because tomorrow may be too late? Will I know him when I meet him? He certainly wasn’t sitting at that table in eighth grade. But is he in a comic book store right now? Or sitting at his home somewhere waiting to watch Doctor Who tonight? Or maybe he’s flying in his Tartis and he’ll invite me to join him for time travel adventures?

Do you think that’s what my Grandmother meant when she suggested I meet a nice doctor and settle down?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Rules of Culture

In this month’s Vanity Fair, John Heilpern interviews San Francisco society matron Denise Hale for his column “Out to Lunch.” This isn’t one of those Dominic Dunne exposes of society gone wrong. Make no mistake; I love those. But this is just an agreeable one-page conversation with Mrs. Hale who comes across as a lovely, personable and terribly mannered woman.

What really captured my imagination in this otherwise pleasant, but forgettable article is this proclamation from Hale, a paragon of the upper class:

“If you know the rules you belong; if you don’t know them, you don’t.”

I read this last night, just hours before I was scheduled to appear alongside art critic Dave Hickey on the Nevada Public Radio live call-in talk show “State of Nevada.” I had been told that the scheduled topic was something about high and low culture in Las Vegas.

(On the other hand, Mr. Hickey was told that we would be discussing Michael Jackson and had prepared as such. A superb miscommunication if ever there was one, but, nonetheless, a story for another time.)

So, I had been considering this nonsense of high and low culture last night when I came across Heilpern’s interview with Hale in Vanity Fair. I say “nonsense” because it’s my academic opinion that those terms are useless and meaningless. Any culture – that is to say, any cultural product produced in a given society – is meaningful as it either pleases or displeases the intended audience. And anything that persons in a society choose to spend their time and money on is valuable as cultural product and worthy of cultural analysis so far as it reflects what said people relate to, desire and consume.

Maybe it goes without saying that my academic background is in the field of popular culture. But it doesn’t go without saying that, in my opinion, in this day and age of hyper-accessible media, there ceases to be anything other than popular culture.

The academic definition of elite culture – which is a term I much prefer to high culture – is culture that requires specific skill, knowledge and/or access in order to participate. But in the 21st century, we are hard pressed to name any cultural product that isn’t accessible to vast numbers of people. Therefore, almost all culture has become popular – that is, available, accessible and desirable to countless individuals.

This morning on the radio, I made the statement that the two largest popular culture events of this year were the inauguration of President Obama and the Michael Jackson memorial. At the memorial, popular music stars like Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey performed. At the inauguration, we had Aretha Franklin and Yo-yo Ma performing on the same stage. Classical music used to be considered elite culture. But f you search for Yo-yo Ma on YouTube, you’ll get over 60,000 hits. Some of the videos have been viewed over a million times. That’s not elite. That’s accessible, available and popular. And he’s appeared on Sesame Street, so future generations will know who he is, too. The idea that in this generation and forever after Yo-yo Ma will be considered a figure of popular culture is outstanding. We’re no longer expected to have special training to appreciate classical music nor the money to attend a symphony performance.

This brings me back to what Hale said in her interview: “If you know the rules you belong; if you don’t know them, you don’t.”

In her conversation, Hale was referring to the opportunity to belong to elite society. And, certainly, in a historic context elite society was just that. It was only accessible to those who knew the rules: the passwords and tricks of etiquette and the money to participate.

But today with programs like The Real Housewives of New York and NYC Prep on Bravo, that inside information is available to anyone with basic cable or the internet. The Countess Luann de Lesseps, of The Real Housewives, has repeatedly regaled television audiences on the rules of etiquette and has even published a very affordable book on the topic. And on NYC Prep, one of the featured teenage girls complained that she can’t go to her favorite restaurant anymore because it was mentioned on Gossip Girl and now everyone knows about it. If a fictional program like Gossip Girl is getting those kinds of insider details correct and spreading them around, then certainly the previously exclusive information on reality programs is even more accurate and instructive in the ways of the rich.

I acquiesce that not everyone who watches Bravo has the money to behave like these fictional characters or reality personalities. But Hale didn’t say “if you have the money, you belong.” She said, “if you know the rules.” And the rules are available to us all. In this world of the internet and digitized information, the rules, are no longer secret. Actually, Vanity Fair itself is one of the best sources of this kind of information about elite culture and those people who grace the society pages.

And so is Bravo. Besides informing the public about rich people, Bravo has also opened the doors to information about the things they love, like gourmet food and couture fashion. Top Chef and Project Runway expose the general public to the language of foodies and the tastes of fashion mavens. Chefs and fashion designers that were previously only known by those who could afford to dine in their restaurants and wear their clothes are now in our living rooms explaining their techniques and teaching us the elite language of their craft.

Certainly, just watching these programs will not automatically imbue anyone with the skill to cook food or design clothes. But it gives us the opportunity to observe masters and to discuss these topics intelligently without being rich by design or accident of birth. Decades ago, Julia Child brought the art of French cooking into American homes. But now Top Chef and the Food Network have brought us all varieties of gourmet cooking and James Beard award winning chefs.

Honestly, how many Americans had heard of the James Beard Foundation before Top Chef? And how many Americans knew about New York Fashion Week before Project Runway? But now, I am sure that there are millions of people who would feel comfortable sitting down over champagne cocktails with the likes of Denise Hale and discussing foie gros and couture. Because we know the rules and, therefore, we belong.

To read the interview with Denise Hale in Vanity Fair, go to: