A kind of hush all over the world

WordPress just added this incredible feature whereby you can track hits on your blog by country of origin.  Admittedly a lot if not the majority of these hits aren’t people looking specifically for my writings, they’re stumbling upon it because search engine tags of a post I’ve written happen to coincide with something they’re looking for.  But any writer would like to hope that a few are sticking around because they like what they’ve discovered.  One thing is for sure, it sort of puts to bed the idea that you need a massive marketing machine to find yourself a global audience – it also reinforces the theory that the Internet is one of the greatest tools of democracy ever invented, and why its freedom needs to be protected wherever the Ministry of Information dares to try to rein it in.  So without further ado, here is where you’ve all come from.  And as always, thanks for visiting.

I am humbled.  Truly.  Saudi Arabia even???  Yowza.  The only thing I have to add is, come on Japan and New Zealand, get with the program here.  And Greenland is not that big.

The tragedy of Amy Winehouse

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse.  I wasn’t really a fan of Amy Winehouse.  I had only a tangential interest in Amy Winehouse, inasmuch as I knew that she sang “Rehab,” had a strange hairdo and made news for drinking, drugs and getting into a lot of trouble.  That would probably be a common answer if you asked any dozen people on the street to describe her.  So the news of her sudden death at the age of 27 this past Saturday would not come as a great surprise either.  She joins the pantheon of musicians unravelled by their demons – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley.  What stands Amy Winehouse apart from this crowd is how her downward spiral became the focus of her fame.  Despite her talent, entire forests were whacked to instead provide embarrassing photos and salacious accounts of somebody who was clearly suffering a great deal – so much so that the sanctimonious among us can now say smugly, “it was only a matter of time.”

The first time I ever received morphine was during a brief hospitalization for a collapsed lung.  I remember thinking as the sensation of euphoria washed over me and cleansed away the pain, “ah, this is why people do drugs.”  (Clearly a world-changing revelation from a naïve 21-year-old who barely drank and never even tried a cigarette.)  Despite the morphine experience, I don’t have an addictive personality.  Most of us don’t, which is why we love jumping all over the latest celebrity drug abuse scandal.  It is incomprehensible to a non-addict where this need to smoke, drink or inject chemicals into one’s body for a temporary “high” comes from.  Things just can’t possibly be that bad, we say.  Just don’t take the stuff.  A lot of misguided drug policy has been formulated from this morally superior perch, because our brains aren’t wired the way an addict’s brain is.  And with a lack of understanding comes a lack of empathy.

Addiction, like any mental illness, is still a stigma.  If people don’t look like anything is wrong with them, then it’s assumed that they are perfectly fine.  People missing limbs, people wasting away from AIDS, people who have suffered disfiguring injuries are regularly celebrated as heroes, resolute in the face of their challenges.  But most mental illnesses are still equated with weakness, or worse, turned into punchlines.  Someone with bipolar disorder who needs to have regular electroshock therapy is viewed as “crazy,” much less courageous than the stalwart woman fighting breast cancer.  And raising money to fight addiction and mental illness isn’t as politically sexy as other diseases because many of the people who suffer from them are often viewed as the undesirables of society – far too often winding up in prison instead of treatment.

The tabloids loved to kick Amy Winehouse when she was down, which seemed to be regularly.  Plenty of stories ran earlier this year about her cancelling concerts, appearing incoherent and slurring her words on stage.  “Winehouse Behaving Badly” was no longer news – it was just expected.  Not having known her personally, I can’t attest to what was going on in her life, what kind of person she was, how she treated those around her.  All I know is that she didn’t get the help she needed in time, and her parents have now lost a daughter.  And I can’t help wondering if she had suffered a more visible illness, might she have garnered more sympathy?  If she’d died of leukemia or ALS, would people be saying, as was overheard in my office today, “well, she was clearly headed that way”?

Suffering doesn’t always come with a limp or a scar.  We need to stop assuming everyone with an addiction or a mental illness is crazy, or that it is something to be scorned.  It’s difficult to watch someone self-destruct, as it must have been for those closest to Amy Winehouse.  It’s harder still to continue to be there for them, to not let them go, to fight against the stigma and the public perception and the belief that it’s their weakness.  But we can’t let ourselves do any less.  Love is, after all, the most important part of Rehab.

Pro intelligentia et curiositas

Textspeak frustrates me to no end.  That there has been a word coined for a non-language bordering on illiteracy irks me even more than seeing “LOL” dropped into emails as punctuation.  If I were an English teacher, I would take a well-deserved dollop of joy in assigning zeroes to any essays that crossed my desk featuring any combination of OMG, BRB, b4, Ur, ppl or ROTFLMAO.  To wit:  “OMG Shkspr’s Jlius Csr is SO LAME!!!!  U agree?”  I thought I was on the side of the angels until I read about one of the U.S. states deciding to no longer teach handwriting in its public schools.  I guess the ppl thought that was SO LAME too.  I get that it’s today’s version of shorthand.  I understand that it helps you send messages quickly.  I don’t understand why you’d want to sound like a squealing teenage girl woozy over her latest Bieber sighting, but there you are.  The aim in any form of communication, spoken or written, should be to sound smart.  If you can’t deliver your message without abbreviating words to the point of incomprehension, then a rewrite is required.  Even on limited platforms like Twitter.  Just try harder.  You can get there.

The flourishing of textspeak is only a symptom of a larger issue.  Both the triumph and the failing of the Internet is that it has become a leveler, in that anyone with access can share their opinions on all number of things.  The problem is that not all opinions are equally valid, but the perception has arisen that they should be.  “I’m entitled to my opinion,” whines the anonymous message board commenter.  If I’m going in for a triple bypass, I want the opinion of the expert in cardiac surgery.  I could not care less what the guy who watched a marathon of House reruns thinks.

This hasn’t been helped by a media so terrified of being accused of bias that they have to shove a knuckle-dragger onto the air to offer “the other side” every time a specialist is interviewed.  If Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon last week, the news networks would give equal time to the crackpots who claim that it was all shot in a soundstage in Arizona.  Jonas Salk would have to share the stage with a faith healer.  Bill O’Reilly would insist to Albert Einstein that you can’t explain the universe anymore than you can explain the tides (because Bill doesn’t remember the moon and its gravitation, but I digress). I suppose things have gotten better in that a screaming match on Fox News would be a far merrier fate than that which befell Galileo, but I’d like to think that in 400 years we’ve come a little further than that.

Still, you could forgive this ignorance if behind it all there weren’t a cabal of very smart people looking to keep things that way.  The easiest way to win an election is keep your voters dumb and angry.  Rupert Murdoch wouldn’t have as much power as he does and be able to influence as many people if his audience was smart enough to know when they’re being played.  As I’ve said before, you do have a choice when you’re standing at the supermarket counter to leave that tabloid in the rack where it belongs.  But we’re too conditioned to want the fast-food version of the news rather than taking the time to plumb the depths of the story, to look past the talking points and examine the nuance.  I have a feeling we would be so inclined were we a better educated, more curious people.  But as I said, a lot of people are making a lot of money keeping us stupid so we’ll buy their crap, so I don’t see a mass effort to change this coming anytime soon, at least not from the top.

It has to start with us as individuals.  We have to raise our own game and demand the best from ourselves.  I won’t say I’m not upset at watching News Corp being hoisted on its petard over the phone-hacking scandal.  But it was our fault that they got as far as they did – because we craved more and more cheap news hamburger.  I guess my point is, when it comes to food for your mind, suck it up and go for the filet mignon.  You are, after all, what you eat.

Read it, don’t read it, it’s entirely up to you

Journalists and bloggers have been making plenty of noise since the verdict was handed down on whether or not Casey Anthony will get a book deal.  Naturally there’s been lots of accompanying outrage and moral indignation over the thought of this person raking in seven figures to spend a few hours chatting with a ghostwriter who’ll shape her verbiage into a tearful missive.  Frankly, I expect this as inevitable.  I suppose it’s no more egregious than any one of a hundred true crime authors who’ll be cashing in on the Casey Anthony media frenzy.  I could launch into a screed on how this is symbolic of the downfall of our culture and our preoccupation with all things celebrity, but I won’t, because I have hope.  And that hope has oddly come in the form of Snooki.

When it was announced early this year that the  Jersey Shore “star,” who had boasted of only ever reading one book in her entire life, had landed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write a novel, thousands of unpublished authors across North America (myself included) bashed their heads against the wall in unison.  Why, with such a glut of undiscovered talent out there busting their asses for the slightest bit of attention from mainstream publishers, were the big houses continuing to write big cheques to D-list celebs with no discernible writing talent whatsoever?  It reminds me of the fourth-rate movie production houses who regularly churn out zero-budget dreck like Snakes on a Train, apparently banking on that precious and heretofore-unexploited demographic of Snakes on a Plane fans afflicted with glaucoma.  Somewhere in an accountant’s backroom, the great gods of publishing have decided that a piece of crap written by a quasi-somebody will stand a better chance of selling than a potentially brilliant story written by a nobody.  So thousands of query letters go in the trash and semi-literate Snooki goes out on a massive publicity tour to pimp her opus A Shore Thing, hitting just about every morning and evening talk show on television (and the cover of Rolling Stone, much to the chagrin of Dr. Hook).  My personal favorite was her interview on Today, with a clearly embarrassed Matt Lauer asking her, “What’s a badonk?” – to which she replied with the William F. Buckley-esque “Your badonk is your butt.”  Yep, somewhere Hemingway was rolling over in his grave and reaching for another drink.

But then the book dropped.  And the heavens parted and a great light shone through from above and nobody bought it.  The more inclined of you can look it up, but I believe it moved about 10,000 copies worldwide.  Hardly “runaway bestseller” territory.  Those thousands of unpublished authors could now remove their heads from the wall and resume bashing it against their keyboards.

The sharp rise and crashing fall of Nicole Polizzi’s writing career proves to the more jaded of us that there still exists some semblance of taste in the appetite of the public.  Yes, Glenn Beck is still there ranting against all things Obama and Sarah Palin continues the world’s longest c***-tease of a possible presidential campaign.  And The Huffington Post still runs “Kim Kardashian Shows Off Her Curves” stories twice a week.  But dammit, we dashed Snooki’s pursuit of a Pulitzer!  And we did it in the easiest way imaginable – we just ignored her.  Which is what anyone who objects to a Casey Anthony book deal should do.

I say, let Casey Anthony’s book come out.  And let it sit on the shelves yellowing and collecting dust.  Ignore it the way you do Batboy and the latest “Who’s Gay in Hollywood!” in the aisle at the grocery checkout counter.  Eventually, publishers will get the message and maybe go back to that slush pile of queries – because the next somebody (who hasn’t been accused of murdering her daughter, or, acted stupid, drunk and skanky on television) with a great story is just waiting to be found.  It’s up to us to make that happen.

Or, buy the damn book.  But then don’t get indignant when the next reality show troglodyte rakes in a cool million for his thesis on boogers and how to use them to get laid.  It’s entirely up to you.  And I’m blaming you accordingly.