Friday Free-for-All #93: Out of place, reality, growing up, smell

Another Friday, answering another set of random questions.

In which I answer random questions generated by a website. An ongoing series.

In what situation or location would you feel the most out of place?

Any kind of right-wing political rally or fundamentalist church service. A Monster Truck Rally or NASCAR race might fall under the umbrella as well.

At least these aren’t that common in Los Angeles County — well, the parts that aren’t far inland. We tend to get the rallies and fundies in Orange County. The Monster Truck Rally might show up at the Pomona Fairgrounds, which is where they hold the L.A. County Fair, but that’s obviously oriented toward a more rural crowd.

They do have some NASCAR race event coming up at a new stadium in Inglewood — I think it’s the one where the Sup — sorry — “Big Game” is going to be played — but as someone pointed out, that event is mostly going to draw its crowds from the Riverside and Inland Empires. That is, the red parts of the state.

The stadium itself is in the middle of an historical Black neighborhood in L.A.

What do you think about reality TV? Why is it so popular?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a genre that is completely without value. Note that Documentaries are a completely different animal. But the whole Bachelor/Bachelorette/Big Brother/Duck Dynasty/Real Housewives stuff is just complete crap. I’ll even include all the existing “talent” shows on this list. And yes, Drag Race is a talent show.

The problem is that they are so orchestrated and manipulated behind the scenes that what we’re seeing on screen really bears no resemblance to reality. It’s manufactured drama, some shows far worse than others, and it has the added detriment of continuously creating celebrities who should not be celebrities at all. Most of them never even deserved the first fifteen minutes.

These shows can also destroy the lives of their contestants, as well, and not in obvious ways. Yes, suicide is an epidemic among reality show contestants, present and former, and not just in the U.S. But the damage can destroy the living as well.

Look at home makeover shows. A lot of the time, the actual work isn’t done by contractors, but by set builders and decorators instead. There may technically be permits, but that stuff isn’t necessarily built to last. When it is, the new add-ons can sometimes trigger a new tax-assessment on the property, which is carried out based on the current market value, plus the improvements.

So a family that’s owned their home for twenty or thirty years and had been paying property taxes on those rates and original values may suddenly find their assessment is twenty or thirty times that old value, with higher property tax rates as well. They’ve been thrown into a situation where they can no longer afford the house they’ve lived in because the new property taxes are more than what they would have ever paid for a mortgage for the original place.

As for Drag Race, contestants on the show can spend a fortune on their looks — wigs, shoes, outfits, make-up, etc. — and most of them go onto the show not being rich or famous already. This is rather ironic, since in the early days of drag it was a do-it-yourself, thrift-shop affair. The kids were having fun by being creative, not by buying thousands of dollars of fabric or designer dresses.

As for why I think it’s popular — it’s junk food for the brain. It gives viewers a storyline to follow about “common” and “real” people who are neither of those things. It gives them drama to talk about with family and coworkers later and fills a hole for people without more creative outlets.

It’s kind of sad, really, and what’s sadder is that the money train seems to show no signs of slowing down.

What did you like / dislike about where you grew up?

Since the question asked both, I’ll answer both. I grew up in what started out as an exurb of a major city only to itself eventually turn into a small city with its own suburbs. When my parents had first moved there, it was a fairly new development, although they were not among the first wave of people to buy homes out there, nor were they the first owners of their house.

Interestingly, by the time my parents got there, a lot of the original homeowners were on the verge of finally seeing their kids reach adulthood — or so I’ve heard from conversations from an old neighbor who was one of those teens when I moved in as an infant.

Things that I don’t or barely remember are that they had not quite connected a main road across a rail line but finally built the right-of-way when it became clear that everything was going to keep developing to the west and that this street was going to be one of the major thoroughfares.

The topography of the place was basically low mountains to the south with what had probably originally been a pass or narrow valley at the bottom. This had been plowed out to make way for the Ventura Freeway and Ventura Boulevard, which in turn were what enabled the whole area to develop. (The Boulevard obviously came first.)

Like most of the San Fernando Valley, it was built on property that had once been rancheros, first when the southern half of California was a part of Mexico, and later on after it had become part of the United States. As the various cities across the Valley developed, evidence of the rancheros faded slowly, but since this was the far west end of the Valley, the rural nature of the environment faded last.

Not that there was a lot of it left in my neighborhood growing up, although I was two blocks from Pierce College, which was dedicated mostly to teaching agriculture and farming and which is still there to this day.

Meanwhile, Ventura Boulevard had all the fancy stuff, including the high school, and all the shops and fast-food places. Victory, after it had been put through, tended to mostly go through residential areas, but our grocery store was one mile east, and the huge mall, Topanga Plaza, was about three miles west.

It was also safe, most of my friends were Jewish, so I grew up learning comedy and hanging with the intellectual crowd, and for some reason we got a lot of the same stuff — multiplexes, automatic scoring bowling lanes, big box stores, and so on, that only seemed to pop up in the more urban and distant parts of town.

Well, at first. I think that we were actually a test market for a lot of things.

What I disliked about where I grew up was that, as I became older, I realized how far it was from everything else. It was not a trivial matter to get to Hollywood by bus, for example, and points beyond, especially downtown, were out of the question — especially in my pre-car days.

Hell, it was bad enough to convince my mom to let me make the bike ride to North Hollywood, which is only about thirteen miles by car now and which is not at all an uncommon bike commute for adults nowadays. Of course, they also now have the Metro bike path that follows the Orange line from the West Valley right to NoHo, so it’s a lot easier.

Another thing I really disliked as I became more and more aware of it was that the area had become where all the white racists had moved in order to escape the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city, especially just over the hill in Hollywood. Of course, they’d also fled to the south-west corner of the Valley because parts of it in the North were beginning to have too many Hispanic and Latino residents for their liking. Never mind that it was only in the extremely northern parts of the Valley, and pretty far east from there.

Since then, the justice has been poetic, as most of my old neighborhood is now pretty heavily mixed white and Latino, with those old racists having fled farther west into Simi Valley. But at least I never had to deal with a lot of the racist parents directly growing up, and once I graduated high school, I was out of there.

What is it they say? A nice place to grow up but I wouldn’t want to live there.

What smell brings back great memories?

This isn’t something that I’ve smelled in a long time, but whenever I do, it brings back the same memory. The smell is a wood-fire stove, burning early in the morning. It’s off in another part of the house, so the aroma is subtle, but it’s definitely there. It mingles with whatever part of the crisp morning air outside manages to sneak in.

Then — add bacon. The sudden smell of frying bacon that manages to come in and permeate everything, making the smell of the wood fire even stronger somehow.

The smell means that it’s time to get up. Grandma is making breakfast. I don’t need to tell myself twice. I get dressed, hurry through the chilly back house, then through the vinyl accordion door into the front house, closing it behind me.

Here, the wood-fire stove heats everything and the family gathers. Pretty soon, we’ll have scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home-made biscuits, milk, apple juice, wheat toast with plenty of butter and apple preserves, and I can’t even remember what else.

It only takes a whiff of a wood-fire stove somewhere and a hint of cooking bacon and I go right back to those mornings from my childhood. Funny how smell is supposed to be the strongest sense, and the one that most powerfully evokes memories, isn’t it?

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy while Alex Trebek was still with us, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek was with Jeopardy, as a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

In the past, I’ve written about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

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