Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Perspective of a White Male on the Democratic Debate

I know the Democratic debate that took place in Philadelphia tonight on MSNBC may not have swept the television ratings, especially since it seems like the presidential candidates have a debate once every two hours in this never ending primary season. However, I wanted to use my soap box to give my two cents:

[I'll save the spin on the individual candidates for the professionals, but in brief: Hillary didn't shine, which would have been hard anyway because she was the other candidates' punching bag all night, but on first blush she also didn't make any glaring mistakes; Edwards came out fighting and did a good job of it; Obama seemed to stutter a lot and took a distant second to Edwards' assertiveness; Biden had some great lines; Dodd was pretty much irrelevant; Richardson should get rid of his hair piece because it's distracting; and Kucinich won the vote of the 14% of Americans who claim to have spotted a UFO when he admitted that he's seen one too.]

What I found most outrageous about the whole debate was the moderators: Tim Russert and Brian Williams. Besides asking convoluded questions that failed to engage the candidates until the waning minutes of the debate, it was absurd that the two moderators were both white male news anchors. Since the debate moderators are essentially acting as the questioning voice of the voters, it's important that they bring a range of perspectives and vocalize the different concerns that voters are struggling with. On stage and on camera, however, Russert and Williams exposed the news media as lacking both diversity and creativity, especially in the media's upper echelons, where white males rank supreme. And, it's not like MSNBC didn't have other moderator options. Tim Russert is generally a good choice since politics is his speciality on his Sunday morning show Meet the Press. The superior questions he asked reflected on this experience. But instead of nightly news anchor Brian Williams, the Today Show's Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry or even weatherman Al Roker would have been good choices. It's not like moderating a debate is rocket science: ask a few questions, keep the candidates on their toes and make sure none of them hog the spotlight for too long while also getting the time to say their piece. Alternatively, MSNBC could have made more of an effort to find a moderator that doesn't actually work on one of their regular newscasts.

Judging by the long winded questions that Russert, and especially Williams asked, they clearly enjoyed hearing the sounds of their own voices too much. They also totally dropped the ball when they tried having a few "lightning rounds" where candidates only had 30 seconds to answer a question. For this to work the questions have to be straight and to the point and the candidates have to be cut off when time runs out or else everyone will feel entitled to transition into their stump speeches. Russert & Williams failed on both counts, especially since most of their questions took more than 30 seconds just to ask.

The best part of the debate came in the last few minutes when the moderators asked direct questions, allowed the candidates to spar with one another and even injected some humor into the show by asking Kucinich to confirm that he had in fact spotted a UFO (yes, but it didn't necessarily involve aliens) and Obama what he was planning on dressing up as for Halloween (probably as Mitt Romney). By then, however, most viewers were already tuning out and gearing up for the next Democratic debate in two short weeks from now on CNN, featuring, of course, CNN's white male news anchor, Wolf Blitzer.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The View From My Window

The Things I See From My Dining Room Window:

-The line for the soup kitchen at the church across the street. Like clockwork every Saturday and Sunday at 9AM. People of all colors, sizes and ages.

-At 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon there's a 50-something year old guy standing nonchalantly across the street next to the garbage dump with shades on. Every few minutes he looks both ways and then pulls out a can of beer he's tucked away on the garbage dump ledge where no one can see it and steals a swig of beer. He should make sure to look up next time he tries to drink anonymously.

-In front of the anonymous alcoholic there's a guy who lives in the building next door. I've never spoken to him before but I see him all the time and I believe he's on the autistic spectrum. I'm not sure he's able to speak. But, he's obsessed with cars and will stand by a car literally all day, polishing it every few hours and looking in the mirrors. He used to be watched over by our block's "mayor", a guy named George who had lived here for God knows how long. On most days - especially nice ones - George would take a chair out onto the stoop of his building at about 7 in the morning and sit there smoking a stoogie all day and chatting with other folks from the neighborhood, mostly kids and retirees. Every now and then I'd see George hobble over to the church across the street to mentor kids. After I got back from Alabama last summer George was nowhere to be seen. Turns out he had been arrested for allegedly having inappropriate contact with one of the kids he was mentoring. He came back for a month or so in May and since then I haven't seen him. I wonder where he went.

-The construction workers in front of the building across the street. They start drilling at 7AM every morning on weekdays and I still can't figure out what exactly they're doing. They're not building a new structure or fixing the sidewalk, at least not as far as I can tell. But they do make a lot of noise.

-If I stick my head out the window, I can see, on the stoop where George used to sit, a group of high school kids gradually taking over his domain. On Friday evenings they'll occasionally sit out there with a six pack and have a good time. I played basketball with one of those kids.

-People living life in New York: mothers pushing baby carriages; a couple going out for a jog; and people of all ages walking East to West, from Amsterdam to Broadway, where they turn the corner and disappear.

Out of view.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

52 Pickup

No one will ever confuse me for a stud muffin at a bar or nightclub who picks up previously unknown women and convinces them that their phone number belongs on the back of the dry cleaning receipt that’s tucked in my wallet, and which I have supposedly taken with me so that, of course, I can pick up my clean clothes after I leave the bar. Nevertheless, I can always play make-believe.

Last week, in the middle of a splendid Italian dinner and bottle of wine with my brother and with my friend Mark we asked ourselves the following question: What's the best way to meet a woman on a swing dance floor and get her number after the first dance? Given that all three of us are swing dancers, this question had practical implications for all of us, though our discussion at the dinner table was merely one of intellectual curiosity (obviously). I would add the disclaimer that I’ve never successfully met a woman on the swing dance floor (hey, I’m surprised too), so I couldn’t bring my experience to bear on the conversation.

In fact, our discussion was spurred by Mark's recent addiction to the self-explanatory VH1 television reality show, Pickup Artist, and by his upcoming departure for a swing dance retreat in Wisconsin where, with all due respect to my friends in Wisconsin, there’s not a whole lot to do once it starts getting cold outside (which usually happens in the middle of July there) except challenge oneself to a game of 52 Pickup – and I’m not referring to picking up sticks. (The truth is I don’t know if there’s really a 52 Pickup dating game, but if there isn’t one then there should be because it sounds catchy).

Ultimately, our discussion centered on the questions that we would pose at the end of the dance in order to get our respective dance partner not only willing but wanting to give us her phone number. The questions that were immediately nixed were what we categorized as “identity inquiries”, such as “What’s your name?” and “What do you do in real life?”, which I have to confess is what I usually ask at the end of a dance, and which might explain my aforementioned lack of success.

Instead, the three questions we came up with after 45 minutes of serious talk-time that we thought had the highest likelihood of success were as follows:

-Who’s prettier Beyonce or Shakira?
-What’s your favorite dance movie?
-I’m planning a trip abroad and can go anywhere in the world. Where do you think I should go?

Looking at these questions on the screen in front of me, I’m the first one to admit that these questions might sound shallow and, for the most part, have nothing to do with swing dancing. But that’s exactly the point that we all realized. These questions might not be intellectual brain teasers, but they’re all designed to engage our respective dance partner in a conversation instead of interrogating her with the hope that we can uncover some commonalities in our backgrounds or identities.

The questions are also just off-kilter enough that, though the initial response might be a confused “Um, what did you just ask?”, they’re memorable and provocative. Take the Beyonce-Shakira question, for example. Many men and women have an opinion on which of these two celebrities is more likeable, attractive, or promotes a better public image. This might be presumptive, but the Beyonce-Shakira question also begs the thought, “why is this person with whom I just danced interested in Shakira and Beyonce, but not me?”

Since my conversation with Mark and my brother, I haven’t had the opportunity myself to get on the dance floor and experiment scientifically with our hypotheses. Another bottle of wine and a trip to the laundromat to get a few spare dry cleaning tickets are on my to-do list before I actually go that route. In the meantime, however, I’m going to give my friend Mark a call and find out how the dancing was in Wisconsin.