Lessons from Uncle Walter

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA/Bill Ingalls

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to Google’s “Doodle” of the day. Today, however, I was touched to notice that the internet search engine was honoring longtime CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Cronkite (1916 to 2009) would have turned 100 today.

I haven’t covered a lot of “straight” journalism in my years as a writer. I write reviews, craft recipes to honor specific foods and occasions, and from time to time venture into opinion. Nevertheless, I think of myself as a journalist. And my hero has always been the reporter known to millions as Uncle Walter.

Cronkite came to prominence as the leader in a generation of broadcast news reporters and anchors who hewed to old-fashioned standards of impartiality. They occasionally ventured into opinion—as his mentor Edward R. Murrow did when addressing issues like poverty and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as Cronkite did himself when he called for an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1968.

By and large, however, they strove for objective truth in reporting, even though I’m sure most of them knew then, as most of us know now, that objectivity is a Platonic ideal rather than anything any of us will ever achieve.

I last saw Cronkite in the early 2000s when he was interviewed onstage at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in New York, where I worked for a few years. Hearing his voice then warmed my heart; it was like hearing the voice of my dead father. Both were warm, smart men who performed work they loved with integrity and lightened life with humor. And both possessed voices that charmed and informed.

If the national election in which we are currently enmired has taught us anything, it is that the ways in which we receive and deal with the news have changed. As a nation and a world we no longer share a few, elite sources of news—and, as the Pew research center has recently pointed out, Americans no longer share many of the “facts” of our political and social life. We have come a long way from aiming for that Platonic ideal of objectivity.

I know that we can’t go back to having one trusted source for news—or even a few. In many ways, that’s a good thing. I don’t necessarily buy the impression of many in this country that Cronkite had a liberal bias—perhaps because I have one myself (and what does liberal mean, really, other than “generous,” an attribute to which we should all aspire?). I do believe that as a human being he was inherently biased in some directions.

We don’t necessarily need an elite to tell us what to do and how to interpret the news. Without that elite, however, we do need to cultivate standards Uncle Walter embodied, as journalists and as human beings. These include committing ourselves to coming as close to objective truth as we can, to growing and learning, and above all to taking our time.

One of Walter Cronkite’s most famous, and most replayed, moments on the air is the one in which he announced the death of John F. Kennedy. He stops several times during his short report, to compose himself but also (it seems to me) to get his reporting right, to give himself and the people watching and listening time to process the information he is reporting.

I’m not good at pausing. In casual conversation I tend to rush in and fill the dead air space between my own sentences and everyone else’s. Remembering Walter Cronkite today and in the days to come, I’m going to try to give myself and everyone else a little more time—time to process, time to deliberate, time to be kind and truthful.

As this crazy election season at last draws to a close I hope other journalists and citizens will do the same.

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This Girl’s Notes on “That Girl”

I have watched several episodes of That Girl (1966-1971) in the past week as research for my (extremely) forthcoming book of recipes from classic TV shows.

I realize that watching television may not exactly sound like work. Sometimes it feels like work, however. I viewed scores of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for my doctoral dissertation—no easy task. Ozzie’s insecurities and Babbitt-isms can wear on a person very quickly.

That Girl was a lot easier to watch–but challenging in its own way.

As older viewers and Netflix addicts may recall, That Girl followed the adventures of Ann Marie, an aspiring young actress striking out on her own in New York City.

Marlo Thomas, who served as the producer of the show as well as its star, apparently originally wanted to name the series Miss Independence. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, had often applied this nickname to his eldest child.

In later years Marlo Thomas made claims for her show that were perhaps a little farfetched. “’That Girl’ threw the hand grenade into the bunker and everybody else got to walk through,” she told a fan website in 2010, making it sound as though Ann Marie was television’s first and most important single female protagonist.

She wasn’t. She was one of the most memorable and most assertive female characters of her era, however. Ann is a social creature who experiences her life and career in partnership with her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), and her loving but slightly disapproving parents, Lew and Helen (Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp).

Thomas and Ted Bessell

Nevertheless, she is financially independent of all three—and although she cares about their opinions she charts her own path. She is often outspoken, although always charmingly so.

Watching this character cavort through New York City this past week has made me want to BE Ann Marie.

Certainly, I’d love to have her postitive attitude, not to mention her plain old gumption. I have wanted to live in New York all my life but never believed that I could make enough money to go out and rent an apartment there. In the pilot Ann just packs her bags, gets on a train, and starts living in the city.

I’d also love to have her figure and wardrobe. True to type, Ann is a slender and attractive creature, with extraordinarily chic clothes.

I haven’t seen this episode so I have NO IDEA what a turkey is doing with Ann Marie. But her dress is predictably fab.

Her bright, mod wardrobe embodies ABC’s move away from black-and-white broadcasting; when That Girl debuted the network had been showing most of its programs in color for only a very short time.

Ann Marie’s eyes have eyelashes that, in my friend Alice’s words, resemble the business end of yard rakes. These enormous fringed eyes seem to take in everything that New York and life have to offer. Ann is a positive and joyful figure, trying, in the words of Marlo Thomas, “to get a bite out of life.”

The part of me that wants to be Ann Marie also knows that facets of her identity may be slightly disturbing for me as a feminist.

First, her job is acting (a career to which I aspired when I was little and watching reruns of That Girl), hardly a ground-breaking line of work for a female.

Second, her extreme adorability could be a problem for a person who wants the world to take her seriously. Often Ann gets her way not because her arguments are strongest but because she is so darn cute that people in power can’t resist her.

I love getting my way, and I even enjoy being cute. I’m not sure that being cute should be my preferred path to success, however.

Finally, I’m a little bothered by Ann’s ethnic identity … or lack thereof. Her truly lovely face–with its big eyes, tiny nose, and huge smile—and her fetching flip hairstyle (the show was underwritten by Clairol) are bland yet hugely appealing; it’s easy for any girl to identify with Ann and her perspective.

But … Marlo Thomas was her Lebanese-American father and Italian-American mother’s daughter. Pictures of the young Marlo show a nose that was definitely prominent, although it couldn’t quite compete with her father’s famed beak.

Two Thomases

That young Marlo is striking. She’s ethnic. She’s not drop dead gorgeous according to popular standards, however, not the Marlo of later years. She’s not “That Girl.” And so … clearly, somewhere along the way, her nose (at the very least) mutated.

Wanting to be Ann Marie, then, makes me a little nervous about the thought of abandoning my own sizeable nose and my own ethnic identity. And it makes me wonder whether Marlo Thomas, a noted feminist, ever doubted her own choices in recreating herself as Ann Marie.

I’d still love to live in New York. Maybe one of these days I’ll just get on that train and see what happens. I’ll try to be my own girl if and when I get there, however.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering what I’m planning to cook from this series, I’m taking my cue from the second season opener of That Girl, which aired in September 1967.

In it Ann Marie gets a walk-on part in a week-long revival of the musical Gypsy, starring the legendary Ethel Merman. In a silly but (yes!) cute plot twist, Ann and Donald end up inviting La Merm to dinner at Ann’s apartment—and Ethel herself volunteers to prepare her favorite dish, stuffed cabbage.

Hmm … Ethel Merman. Now, there’s someone who might be an interesting role model for this girl.

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The Voice(s)

My family and I are following both of American television’s current vocal competitions, The Voice and American Idol.

For years I was the only one among us who watched American Idol. I wasn’t always riveted by it, but since I hardly ever watched it live I could fast forward through the recordings of particularly abysmal performances. I figured it was my duty as a scholar of American popular culture to be familiar with the program.

I also watched (and watch) America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor, although I’m not sure I can sit through another full season of the latter. And I always adore The Sing-Off, which features a cappella groups singing their hearts out. I tend to wander off pitch without accompaniment so I take my hat off to the Sing-Off performers.

North Shore, my favorite group from the past season of The Sing-Off. Don't ask me why I resent old white guys in government and love them on TV, but I do.

Last summer while visiting my mother and me in Massachusetts my brother David, his wife Leigh, and their son Michael stumbled across an episode of America’s Got Talent on my DVR.

Suddenly my relatives became talent-show junkies. We spend a lot of time together watching the two current shows. Although David, Leigh, and Michael don’t believe in fast forwarding it’s fun to have company while viewing the programs and even more fun to have someone with whom I can discuss them.

Frankly, I’m torn about both competitions and what they mean for singers.

American Idol became a lot more fun last year with the addition of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as judges. Their wardrobes are entertaining, and their personalities, particularly Tyler’s, are engaging. He starts to make a comment that seems way, way off base—and then somehow goes on to demonstrate on-target knowledge of both human nature and the human voice.

As an older performer and listener, however, I’m put off by American Idol’s age limit. Its contestants range in age from 15 to 28. I understand the emphasis on youth in a way; after all, the program hopes to uncover new talent. Nevertheless, the nation offers plenty of covered-up talent in the 29-plus age group. And sometimes one longs for just a little more maturity than these contestants can show, in their voices and their attitudes!

As a singer I’m also frustrated by the ways in which Idol’s audience and judges seem to reward over-singing. It’s true that an idol needs to stand out in a crowd. Even so, sometimes a singer needs to let the words and the melody do their work. Too often these young performers can’t resist messing with both lyric and song–and receive applause for their misguided efforts.

The Voice should be more appealing to me than American Idol, and in many ways it is. Its opening premise—that the final contestants are chosen by the judges sight unseen, merely on the basis of their sound—is brilliant and allows the show to highlight singers with a diversity of backgrounds and appearances.

The Voice also lets its judges coach the singers. The judges/coaches come from a refreshing mixture of musical genres (Idol tends to focus in the main on pop music) and dole out more concrete advice than contestants receive on American Idol.

Nevertheless, this program, too, tends to reward over-singing–particularly in the battle rounds, the just concluded episodes in which the coaches eliminate half of their team members by having those members face off against each other, two by two, singing songs chosen by the judges.

The battle round is an interesting concept since it requires both cooperation (it is, after all, a duet) and competition (it is, after all, a fight). The latter facet of the round forces vocalists to pull out all the stops, which unfortunately sometimes does less than justice to the songs they are singing … and less than justice to their voices.

I hope that as the weeks go by the contestants on The Voice and American Idol buck this trend. The world needs less over-singing and more pure singing.

Meanwhile, my family and I will continue to watch and critique the programs. I only hope that my nephew Michael will suspend the critical eye and ear he has been honing when he comes to hear ME sing late next month. I want to continue to be one of his idols.

Still, I’m glad he’s learning to listen for things like pitch, emotion, and lyrics in music as well as rhythm (like much of his generation, he adores hip hop, which is nothing if not beat centered!). We all need to be aware of music in our lives … and to be encouraged to make it.

My next post will talk more about my own feelings about the nature of songs. Meanwhile, I’ll tune in tonight to see which Idol contestants continue on to the next round.

What Do We Expect When We Go to the Movies?

I have let this week fly by without a post. So here’s a quick one that deals with my beloved Oscars, just in time for Sunday evening’s festivities.

I adore watching the Academy Awards. In years gone by I regularly saw at least three quarters of the nominated films by the time the gala night rolled around.

Of course, I never accurately predicted who would win most of the awards. (That honor at my annual Oscar party usually went to the wonderful Charlotte Thwing, who didn’t see any of the films but read People magazine religiously.) I felt comfortable talking about the films and the awards, however.

This year I have seen only two of the nominated films, Hugo and The Artist.

Of course, this is an improvement over last year, when I had seen only one film, How to Train Your Dragon. Statistically, it’s a HUGE improvement.

Nevertheless, I can’t indulge in any Oscar picks. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about my reaction to The Artist.

I’ve been a child of the movies for as long as I can remember. Going to see my first film is the only thing I can remember from the entire year in which I was four. And I drove my mother crazy in my youth staying indoors to watch vintage films on television when the sun was shining.

I was on the film committee in college and both of my graduate schools. So I learned to analyze film intellectually as well as react to it emotionally. Nevertheless, for me, emotion was and is always paramount.

So I was surprised to be a little disappointed at first during The Artist. I wasn’t as disappointed as the two elderly women who were the only other people at that particular screening. Both of them said they fell asleep during the film; apparently, dialogue is the only thing that keeps them going in the movies. And The Artist pays tribute to the era of silent film by eschewing dialogue.

(I’m always amazed at the expectations and reactions of my neighbors in movie theaters. I’ll never forget the teenage Leonardo DiCaprio fans directly behind my sister-in-law and me at our viewing of the film Titanic who exclaimed, “Why on earth is the band still playing?” I had a sinking–sorry!–feeling that they had had no idea going into the film that the ship was doomed.)

I was disappointed because The Artist didn’t fit the expectations I had brought to the film, expectations I didn’t even realize I had. I was careful not to read any reviews before going to the theater since I thought the reviews would shape my viewing of the film. I didn’t count on the short previews I saw over and over again on television.

Those previews indicated that the film was funny and lighthearted. And so despite my desire to watch The Artist unshaped, as it were, I entered the theater expecting a comedy.

The Artist has its comedic moments, but at heart it is a melodrama. Most of the film dwells on the downfall of silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) rather than on his romance with perky soon-to-be talking-film star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).

Jean Dujardin's character in "The Artist" on the skids (with the adorable Uggie)

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE melodrama. Some of my best film friends are melodramas. And this one even had a cute dog. How could I not enjoy it? Tears streamed down my face frequently as I watched.

Nevertheless, I had been so conditioned by my expectations that it took me most of the film to realize that I WAS enjoying it, that it was giving me all the emotional catharsis that a film is supposed to.

Perhaps my confusion while watching the film was a function of my going to the movies so seldom. If I had not built up such a stash of capital in my moviegoing savings account, I might not have had such an enormous investment as a viewer of the film. And I probably would have relaxed and enjoyed it a lot sooner.

I will try to indulge in more frequent moviegoing and see whether that makes me more open to letting the movie, rather than the publicity surrounding it, shape my reaction.

And I will remember that melodrama is one of the things I expect, and enjoy, in film. In 1929, the first year in which Academy Awards were given out, the uber melodrama Sunrise (one of my favorite films of all time) won the award for “unique and artistic production,” a prize The Artist would win this year for sure if the category hadn’t been abolished in 1930.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that I have decided that I would recommend The Artist to just about anyone. My only real criticism with the film is aesthetic: having made the smart decision to shoot on film, director Michel Hazanavicius shot the picture on color film stock, which was then translated into black and white.

As a result, the black-and-white images didn’t have the gorgeous, shimmering crispness one associates with the classic films Hazanavicius was trying to evoke.

I have a feeling he used color stock because no one supplies black-and-white stock anymore. I was sad, nevertheless.

I still enjoyed the film, not just for its superlative acting and charming homage to old Hollywood (I can’t recall seeing Mary Pickford’s bed in any other recent movies) but also for the ways in which it reminded me that not getting what you expect isn’t all bad.

What do YOU expect at the movies, readers? Do you want to be moved, stimulated, entertained? And does it worry you when a picture doesn’t precisely line up with your expectations?

I ended up looking back at "The Artist" with a smile ALMOST as big as Jean Dujardin's when he found himself in Mary Pickford's bed.

Coming next week: More on the cookbook conference, and a NAME for my kitten. (We are down to two names now so we ought to settle on one for sure by then!)