Saturday, June 11, 2011

Deciphering Sarah

"The Sarah Syndrome."

There’s a book “concept” but I’m not sure the book's worth writing. Well, I’m certain it’s “worth” writing. It would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Maybe millions.

What is it about Sarah Palin? What is it about us, as a nation and as a culture that makes all things Sarah so intriguing?

When she first emerged nationally as John McCain’s vice presidential choice (giving new meaning to the term “femme fatale”), I wrote a little essay here about her glasses, noting that Sarah punctured the quip (attributed to Dorothy Parker) that “men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses.”

Sarah’s glasses, essential to her trademark looks, invite us to ponder and linger over Sarah — imagining her sans specs. They are, in a way, a visual come-on.

Tagged “sarah,” “palin,” “glasses,” the post attracted more hits than any I’d put up on this blog. (The only one that has beat it was the “Tipsy Beer Truck" post that gained near-mass popularity from someone’s link to it from a porno site.)

The fascination with Sarah’s glasses should be no surprise. Sarah is nothing if not visual. Face it, she’s the best looking national politician since John Kennedy. Eye candy. The smile, a faint deer in the head-lights look, the stray locks of hair, the lingering beauty pageant figure. No fool and surrounded by marketing experts, Sarah is a package.

Content? You betcha! Here it gets interesting. Start with the verbal nuggets. Is there gold or fools gold in Sarah’s Alaskan e-mail lode? Mining for riches, hordes of journalists rush to Juneau.

On the national stage, Palin is a political high-wire act. We gasp at her wobbliness. We are astonished by her contortions to right herself. Paul Revere’s ride reconsidered, Russian policy shaped by staring across the Bering Strait, her avowed love of motorcycle emissions, a gaffe flipping of North and South Korea. The fractured English. A mouth disconnected from mind—at best. Joe Biden in drag.

The improbability of it all. Sarah Palin matches our own improbability as a nation and perhaps even as human beings. Somehow we survive on our own high wire. So far....Somehow we even thrive, as Sarah does. At least so far....

We’ve turned our own cartoonish ignorance and audacity into a strength, so far....

In her eyes, we see our own. There’s no there there, and yet...THERE it is! So far....

Sarah Palin, like us, is magical and frightening to behold. I think we call this entertainment. I often wish that the late Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”), who brilliantly analyzed mass media, were alive to decipher Sarah. Here is a pop figure seemingly created for a mass culture.

Visual, vulnerable, sexy, unpredictable, marketable, opportunistic, frightening, naive and earthy.

Oh, did I mention her family?....

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

James Arness, Ray Bryant and me

On Saturday, on the same page of the New York Times, appeared obituaries reporting the deaths of James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and jazz pianist Ray Bryant.

Arness died last Friday at age 88; Bryant died Thursday at 79.

Both, in their own ways, touched my life.

Arness portrayed the benign, stolid Marshal Matt Dillon on the long running TV Western. We can all be grateful Arness didn't sing. His lanky, lyric-less marshal protected a fragile frontier town inhabited by equally beguiling characters, most notably Chester (played by a gimpy Dennis Weaver), Doc and Miss Kitty.

The series taught justice and virtue and probably shaped me more than a year of days at Keith Country Day School in Rockford, Illinois in the mid-’50s.

I first heard Bryant when he was a young man. At the time, I was only 10 years younger than Bryant himself. The encounter must have been at the Blue Note in New York City when he was in his early 30s and I was in my early 20s training to go into the Peace Corps. Bryant had not yet been discovered by the wider public.

Being riveted to his blues playing, tinged with ringing gospel references, brought a lump to my throat. That night was a musical epiphany.

Hear what I mean HERE.

In an age smitten by Rock ‘n Roll, Bryant’s “Little Susie” became one of the few jazz pieces to climb the charts. Its success gave hope that new generations, including my own, would feel the gospel roots at the heart of the blues.

James Arness and Ray Bryant. How very different and yet how very similar they were in the values they represented and nurtured. In my mind, they conveyed depth, purity and honesty in their art. I would never have thought of them together in life as I now do in their deaths.

How honored and graced I was to live during their time here.

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