Monday, February 27, 2012

Why I could celebrate this year's Oscars

Just got home from watching the Academy Awards with my husband and some friends, and for the first time in years, I enjoyed the show--and I bet you did, too. Here's why:

I actually saw most of this year's crop of nominated flicks, and I think there are many more people like me than admit it. I stay away from most movies because I hate watching violence. I also don't like witnessing other people's tragedies, and seeing splattering blood on screen makes me ill.  In addition, I cringe at slapstick, because it's humor at somebody's expense, and I avoid films with hold-your-breath suspense, because I don't like that tense feeling of ill-boding.

Real life has enough unpleasantries, violence and harm; I'm not going to pay to see more.  Also, I'm just too sensitive; I take make-believe scripts to heart, and empathize with well-acted characters; I tear-up, wince or withdraw when I witness tough events.  It's just emotionally hard on me, so why go through it?

So the movies I do attend are...romantic comedies.  I like the ones that yes, leave me hopeful, optimistic, happily satisfied.  I like the guy to get the girl, and I like people to learn upbeat lessons and come out smiling. I like cheerful music; I like achievement, overcoming obstacles and the triumph of true love.

Call me a wimp, but even "excellent" films with positive moral messages that involve war or child endangerment or cruelty are out.  I'll read about those movies in the newspaper, thank you, because I don't want a film's horrifying two minutes impressed into my psyche. I don't want to ever recall a torture scene, a car crash or somebody's arm being severed--even if in the end it turns out okay.

This year's Oscars honored films that met my criteria.  "Hugo" was a lavish, wonderful story with eye-widening effects, winning characters and an uplifting finale.  "My Week with Marilyn" featured a luminous actress and charming protagonist in a dreamy setting with no tragedies.  "The Iron Lady," though admittedly portraying Margaret Thatcher in her declining years, showed Meryl Streep at her finest, with only fleeting violent flashbacks (when I closed my eyes).  "Midnight In Paris," Woody Allen's tribute to the magical years when literary greats created a Paris of possibility, offered a stunning locale and romantic fulfillment. "The Help," I'm told, though I have yet to see it, also offers rewarding relationships. And most enthralling of all is "The Artist," an unusual film not only because of its wordless script and brilliant musical score, but because the entire cast, without exception, is likeable.

For me, "The Artist" is perfect because it offers conflict and pathos--but among honorable and sympathetic characters. There was no "bad guy," only unfortunate circumstances. Instead, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), playing a silent film star sunk by the obsolescence of his medium, acted honorably, admitting his love for the caring and dynamic rising star Pepe (Berenice Bejo) only after the end of his marriage.  Uggie, the adorable Jack Russell terrier who at one point saves the day, is the icing on the positive-character cake.  Perhaps tonight's Academy Awards show was satisfying because "The Artist's" sheer exuberance invited its "Best Picture" nod.

Some other features of the show made the evening entertaining and delightful. Cut and unmissed were unbearably over-produced renditions of each of too-many nominated "best songs." Billy Crystal was succinct, charming and funny--and his introductions snappy.  The pre-recorded schtick, including a first-up Crystal movies spoof, a tasteful montage of deceased Academy associates, some star-interview snippits offering their views of the impact of film and quick recollections, broke up the line-up of presentations with laughter and thought-provoking moments.  The presenters did offer a few lame lines of patter, eye-rolling sexual banter, a silly pose by Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz, and dumb fake-vodka swig by "Bridesmaids'" Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne, but the yawn-content was far outweighed by awards recipients' genuine gratitude, and their sweet acknowledgements of their families and support in long-term marriages.

It was an occasion even a movies-eschewer like me could enjoy, and if the industry continues to offer fewer explosives and expletives, and more happy and heartfelt fare, then I'll be waiting with my popcorn in the theater, and anticipating another Oscars party next year.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Be Nice to the "Nuisance:" Telemarketers are People Too

Because my husband and I have a small home-based business, my phone rings three or four times a day with "cold-callers" trying to sell everything from copy machines to investments.  They always start out asking to speak to "Mike," which is not the name anyone here goes by, but must be the contact listed on some master roster of businesses, somewhere.

These calls are a nuisance. They interrupt my activity, my train of thought, my concentrated effort at whatever I'm working on. When I'm writing, I find these intrusions particularly irksome. By the time I look on the caller-ID, which usually says 'restricted' or 'unidentified' but sometimes does offer the name of some unknown company, the damage is done. Usually, I just answer the phone, and get the so-familiar request for "Mike."

I'm not talking about the telemarketers who call at a home number. If you don't like them, you can sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry.  No, these solicitors aim for businesses, no matter how large or infinitesimal.

I respond that Mike's unavailable; may I help you? Most of the time, the salesman says "No, I'll call back" and hangs up. Second-place response is "when will he be in?" to which I answer "I'm not sure; can I help you?" which triggers the hang-up.  Sometimes I'll get someone tenacious who starts out, "Can I speak to your personnel manager?" or "Can I speak to the manager who handles your copy ink?"  Well, that would be me, and we're all inked up, sorry.

These calls used to cause me irritation, but a couple of years ago, I had an epiphany: phone solicitors are trying to make an honest living (assuming their products are legitimate).  They spend their days dialing strangers who tend to return their inquiries with anger and disgust. They likely have children and rent to pay and yes, even cell phone bills, and they're trying in the most discouraging profession to eke out their sustenance.

Telemarketers deserve respect.  They're not spending their days collecting welfare checks (one hopes) but on the telephone taking one rejection after another.  In some cases, their entire incomes are based on the commissions they make from the rare respondent who says "yes."  Many of the people who phone me have accents. They obviously have accepted their positions understanding how constantly demoralizing the work is, but continue to press those phone buttons with renewed aspiration to make a sale with the next call.

That's honorable.  Once I thought about it, I was determined to say something nice to each cold-caller, if he didn't hang up first.  The gentleman who just now phoned asking for "Mike" accepted my offer to take a message. He gave his name and the name of his company, saying he was making a "courtesy call," cute lingo for "sales pitch," about an "investment opportunity."

My response: "I realize that this is your job, and I wish you success, but I know that Mike is not open to investment opportunities at this time. But good luck with others."  The gentleman didn't press, as many do, but said, "I appreciate your honesty, and have a great day."

Wow. That was nice of him.  He wasn't obnoxious.  But even the ones whose scripts call for them to be forceful, pushing against resistant answerers to overcome all objections, deserve credit for their efforts--not snide or rude put-downs.

Next time you get a cold call, consider the salesperson's tough job.  Even in turning her down, be polite; acknowledge that she's trying to earn a living. Wish her success, because the more workers and businesses prosper, the healthier our economy and our nation.  And you might even have a nicer day.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Upper Tribe" and "Lower Tribe" (classes) are divided by values, not ignorance

David Brooks has taken heat from letter writers for his op-ed column about Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, in which Murray describes the differences between the succeeding fifth and the most-languishing third of the American population.  Brooks says values were generally similar among Americans prior to 1963, and then a deepening schism caused the lower "tribe" to merely glare across the great divide to the productive and achieving upper "tribe."

Brooks got in trouble when he proposed a lame solution: national service that would "jam the tribes together" to expose each to the other's values and character.

The whole premise earns brilliant exposition as Big Lie Number 9 in Michael Medved's The 10 Big Lies About AmericaThe Lie, which says "a war on the middle class means less comfort and opportunity for the average American," assumes that citizens are born poor and remain that way, stymied from escaping their fate. Medved shows that "the poor" refers to a group that has more than previous low-income generations could even imagine, and that, most crucially, people who start out poor tend to improve their status during life.

Reading Brooks' silly solution to differences brought me back to my own youth.  My parents struggled financially, with my father, a civil servant in the California state employment office, failing to earn enough to keep up with inflation. My mom had to work as a secretary, and finally they had to give up their home when their combined income couldn't cover their rising property taxes. 

I was on "4-4" in high school--four hours' class followed by four hours at a $1.65-per-hour job. After high school graduation, I was on my own, financially.  As a student, I worked part time and lived on what I now see was poverty-level wages.  My food budget was $4 per week. My rent was $110 per month. I never ate out, never went to movies, didn't buy clothes--I alternated between two pair of jeans and five tops.  And never felt poor for a moment.  Even as a child, hearing my dad scold my mom for buying meat we couldn't afford, it never occurred to me that we were in a "lower tribe." My parents had gone to college, as I knew I would, and therefore whatever scrimping we had to do was always seen as temporary.  We'd get out of this; we'd be improving our lot, and, over the years, we did.

It's a mindset. A belief system.  If, when in the midst of my low-income years one of David Brooks' "upper tribe" had condescended to "jam in" to my world, I wouldn't have fathomed that he was any different from me.

Under the heading "The Myth of Permanent Misery," Michael Medved quotes a Washington Post story headlined "Many Blacks Earn Less Than Parents, Study Finds." The reality under the alarmist newspaper title was buried way down in paragraph seven: "Overall, four out of five children born into families at the bottom 20 percent of wage earners surpassed their parent's income. Broken down by race, nine in 10 whites are better paid than their parents were, compared with three out of four blacks."

In other words, everyone's moving on up. Not only are the generations increasing in their wealth, but individuals increase their economic levels as they age.  Anyone starting out earns less than he does with experience and greater expertise.  Workers usually begin with little, and over time, accumulate and advance, commensurate with their ability and industriousness.

One uncomfortable but undeniable fact is that half of the population lives below the average.  Still, more people are in the upper tribe (30%) than the lower (20%)--doesn't that in itself tell you that more Americans are succeeding than barely treading water?  The gap between the "lower tribe" and "upper tribe" actually reflects that with dot-com opportunities, more young people can get rich quicker, moving from lower levels to the top more easily. That's good news--and given the statistical reality, somebody has to populate those slots in lower percentages; unlike the residents of Lake Woebegone, not everyone can be "above average."

We know a family with energy, optimism, faith and tenacity. The mom home-schooled their four children; the dad worked in sales. With the downturn, he got laid off.  Despite his earnest efforts, he couldn't find a job; they fell into debt, just as their oldest child was to enter college.

On the precipice of destitution, they got to work. The mom and kids would recite multiplication tables as they delivered flyers to doorsteps, piecework they made into a fun adventure. Their college-bound daughter applied for scholarships and got a part-time job. The dad took stop-gap assignments for low pay as he kept searching for a proper job.  Eventually he found something.

Were they the "lower tribe"? Of course not, but neither were they the upper, economically.  But their values were what shaped them.  And the difference between the "underclass" and those who are comfortable is the willingness (or not) to see oneself as a victim and entitled to others' support. It's a difference between remaining staunchly responsible for yourself versus relinquishing that control to expect others to be responsible for you.

This ridiculous, artificial distinction between "the 1%" and the other 99% is the vocalization of victimhood.  People who are smart, motivated and capable will succeed; those who are not blessed with high intelligence still have the opportunity to succeed with motivation and dedication.  In our YouTube age, you can build a business with little more than a great idea (or talent) and a laptop computer.

We don't need the upper and lower tribes to jam together--everyone's online; the ability to associate with others is no farther than your desk.  It's mostly a matter of what people choose to do with their time that determines whether they end up as a success or not. And also how they decide to define success.  Even as she was tucking flyers under doormats, the mom I mentioned was thanking God for the time with her children, confident that hard work can and will be rewarded, even if in unexpected ways.

David Brooks might want to refer again to Murray's book, because its point is that values are the root of these "tribal" differences.  The solution isn't in "jamming together" tribes, but purposefully imitating the 1% in achievement and disseminating the formula that can bring everyone upward.