Mike Kueber's Blog

September 16, 2013

Raised by a single mother – 2

Filed under: Culture,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:05 pm

Yesterday I posted about the term, “single mothers” and how being raised by a single mother has replaced the American political custom of my childhood – namely, growing up in a log cabin.  (OK, maybe Lincoln was a little before my time.)  My posting was prompted by an Express-News article on media darling Julian Castro.  As I was thinking further about this issue today, I was reminded that the “child of a single mother” qualification was previously claimed, dubiously, by Presidents Obama and Clinton, and is now being claimed by Dem gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis.

A recent column by local journalist Peggy Fikac summarized Davis’s self-described Horatio Alger story as follows:

  • It’s a pulled-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps story that starts with being raised by a single mom, finds her in a trailer park as a divorced single mother herself, then triumphantly fast-forwards from community college to Texas Christian University to Harvard Law School.  

But Fikac’s column indicated that Davis’s story is more complicated than her shorthand version and that a harsh spotlight awaits her.  Although Fikac seems more interested in Davis’s story as a single mother, I have previously suggested to her that Davis’s story as the child of a single mother is also complicated.  According to previous reports, her father was a local, highly-acclaimed man in the arts community and his role in Davis’s upbringing has not been thoroughly reported.

All of which brings me back to my earlier posting.  It seems that the media should be careful about using the term “single mother” because it is freighted with so much ambiguity.  Does it apply to unmarried mothers only or to divorced women?  Does it apply only to women who have been abandoned by their child’s father or also to those who share custody and receive child support from the father?

And regardless of how you define the term, it should always be preceded by a wealth-indicating modifier – e.g., a low-income single mother.  Otherwise, it might be technically accurate to describe Ivanka Trump as being raised by a single mother, Ivana.

The public would be served best by journalists who decline to use such a misleading and ambiguous term.  I remember in college writing classes we were instructed to stay away from clichés and instead use words that were alive with meaning.  That same guidance seems applicable here.

Raised by a single mother

Filed under: Media,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:52 am
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An article in the San Antonio Express-News this Sunday described the city’s mayor, Julian Castro, as being raised by a “single mother.”  Usually, the term is used when a journalist is attempting to describe a Horatio Alger story – i.e., rags to riches, and that is clearly the case here:

  • Castro said he was speaking from experience. He and his twin brother, a Democratic representative from San Antonio, were accepted to Stanford University in April 1992. The cost for one of them to attend exceeded their single mother’s entire annual salary.”

According to Wikipedia, a single parent is “a parent, not living with a spouse or partner, who has most of the day-to-day responsibilities in raising the child or children. A single parent is usually considered the primary caregiver, meaning the parent the children have residency with the majority of the time.”  Thus, the use of the term, as applied to Julian Castro, is technically accurate, at least after his father moved out of their house when Julian was eight years old.

But I suspect that a majority of Americans apply a different definition to “single parent.”  As reflected by a discussion on Yahoo, many Americans think the term “single parent” means that the child doesn’t have two parents involved in their lives, either physically or financially:

  • “I think the term ‘single mother’ invokes sympathy and compassion – as it should. But if you choose to become a single mother, and you are only a 50% single mother – I don’t think you should get the same empathy as someone who is single mom 100%. The struggle is clearly different.”

Based on what I have read about the Castro twins, there were not raised by a single mother, as most people understand the term.  Applying the term to Castro is merely a modern-day version of the legend of Abe Lincoln growing up in a log cabin, and because the Express-News is often merely an extension of the Castro PR machinery, I’m not surprised that it helps spread the legend.


September 15, 2013

Sunday Book Review #107 – Difficult Men

Filed under: Book reviews,Culture — Mike Kueber @ 2:26 pm
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Difficult Men chronicles the Third Golden Age of television, an age when a medium that has been characterized as a vast wasteland suddenly blossoms with shows of depth and nuance.

While assessing the best shows of this age, the author Brett Martin found himself especially drawn to hour-long dramas with truncated seasons (ten to thirteen episodes) on cable TV.  These dramas were unique in that they were forever open-ended, leaving fundamental matters unresolved.  Each episode led to the next one, and each season led to the next one.  With multiple seasons to work with, writers had 50 hours or more to develop interesting characters and were less concerned with conclusions – they “created suspense through expansive characterization rather than mere cliff-hangers.”  There was no catharsis or easy resolution, and it was no longer safe to assume that everything would turn out OK.

Author Brett Martin points out that these shows can be enjoyed on two levels – high-brow (fine literature) and low-brow (pulp fiction).  Because I have never been much for appreciating fine literature, I suspect my joy emanates from the low-brow aspect of the shows.  Yet, because cable shows don’t require vast, mainstream popularity, the producers aren’t required to emphasize the low-brow aspects over the high-brow.

The chronicled shows are HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, and Deadwood, FX’s The Shield, and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  Each show was created and developed by an individual described as a “showrunner.”  This person is primarily a master writer, but unlike a movie screenwriter, this writer is ultimately responsible for the finished product.

The showrunner manages a “writing room” that produces the scripts, but also controls the final product by directing the director.  The author Martin takes the reader into each showrunner’s writing room to reveal dramatically different management styles – from autocratic micromanagers to collegial collaborators.  But the essential job of any writing room is to flesh out where the character’s head is and what he is doing.  The showrunner and his writers obsess about the integrity of the story, but as with fine writing in great literature, I suspect that 95% of it is lost on 95% of the viewers.

The following brilliant men are the showrunners of Third Golden Age:

  • David Chase of The Sopranos
  • Alan Ball of Six Feet Under
  • David Simon of The Wire
  • David Milch of Deadwood
  • Matthew Weiner of Mad Men
  • Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad

These showrunners created the following “Difficult Men”:

  • Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
  • Nate Fisher of (Six Feet Under)
  • Jimmy McNulty (The Wire)
  • Al Swearengen (Deadwood)
  • Vic Mackey (The Shield)
  • Don Draper (Mad Men)
  • Walter White (Breaking Bad)

As the book’s title suggests, the protagonists in these shows are not John Wayne types who see a clear line between right and wrong.  Instead, they are “unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human…. badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world.”  They struggle with doing the right thing because in an ambiguous situation, there often is not a right answer.  Although this type of complicated protagonist has long been accepted in the movies, he was not deemed acceptable into someone’s home via television until Tony Soprano proved them wrong.

Incidentally, the First Golden Age was in the 50s, with “televised Shakespeare and opera and brilliant, original anthologized drama,” and Second was in the 80s, with Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue, et al.


September 12, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #81 – (500) Days of Summer

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:32 pm

Wikipedia summarizes this movie much better than I can:

  • (500) Days of Summer is a 2009 American comedy-drama film … starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Tom Hansen) and Zooey Deschanel (as Summer Finn). The film employs a nonlinear narrative structure, with the story based upon its male protagonist and his memories of a failed relationship.  As an independent production, the film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It garnered critical acclaim and became a successful ‘sleeper hit,’ earning over $60 million in worldwide returns, far exceeding its $7.5 million budget. Many critics lauded the film as one of the best from 2009.

The director, however, disagrees with the movie being characterized as comedy-drama or romance.  Instead, he sees it as a “coming of age” movie.  Whatever!  Although the characters are a few years out of college, I can see how the essence of the film is portraying a young person’s transition from child to adult.

Rotten Tomatoes critics liked the movie better (87%) than its audience did (82%).  I liked it a lot, too; to the tune of three and a half stars out of four.  Why:

  • The stars have a likeable, kid-next-door quality.
  • The story, even with its comedic episodes, is both realistic and interesting.
  • The denouement with Summer, in hindsight, makes perfect sense and contains several excellent insights.  It reminds me of an ex-girlfriend who said that, when he says he doesn’t want to get married, he really means he doesn’t want to marry you.
  • The closing scene, where Minka Kelly finally appears as, you guessed it, Autumn, puts a ribbon on the entire movie.  This scene reminds me of Alan Jackson and Zac Brown singing, “As She’s Walking Away.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tthIHXUsPs.

Incidentally, the movie begins with a disclaimer: “Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental… Especially you, Jenny Beckman… Bitch.”  According to Wikipedia, a co-writer of the film has admitted that the story was based on a real romance.  When the writer showed the script to his ex-, she claimed to think she was more into the relationship than he was.

Memory plays tricks, both ways.

September 7, 2013

Racism and bigotry

While dressing at the gym this morning, I overheard a young guy say, “Shut up nigga.”  Although I’ve heard that expression a lot on TV or the movies, I don’t recall hearing it in real life.  There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about why “nigga” is apparently permissible if spoken by black people, but “nigger” is utterly impermissible if used by anyone other than a black person.  After hearing the expression, I looked toward the speaker and was happy to see the speaker and the recipient were both black.  Otherwise, I would have felt compelled to consider how to react to the racism.

Which brings me to my topic for today – racism and bigotry.  Racism has returned to the front page of American life because of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman matter.  And bigotry has been a huge issue in San Antonio for several weeks as the City Council contemplated whether to add sexual orientation and identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance (NDO).  Both topics have generated an immense amount of passionate oratory, but very little dispassionate reflection.

A good starting point for any discussion is to agree on definitions.  Although some people are called racist whenever they act badly toward or speak badly of a black person, the term actually means a person who (a) believes that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races, and (b) acts with prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

This definition of racism certainly does not prevent an individual from speaking or acting badly toward a black person, provided the individual is not motivated by a racial animus.  But the definition also seems to allow a certain amount of racial profiling if the profiling is based on facts.  For example, NYC has a stop-and-frisk policy that results in 90% of the frisked being minorities.  The NYPD justifies this result because most of the frisks take place in high-crime neighborhoods, which happen to be populated by mostly minorities, and most of the criminals in those neighborhoods are young minority males.

The Martin-Zimmerman confrontation also fits a profiling framework – i.e., Trayvon was a young, black male wearing a dark hoodie walking idly alone in the rain at night in a neighborhood where this would not ordinarily occur.  Surely, a neighborhood-watch person might have approached the kid without this being proof of racism.

Bigot is a term that was thrown at just about anyone in San Antonio who opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation and identity in the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.  The term is defined as a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.  Although sexual orientation and identity are not racial or ethnic characteristics, they are characteristics that are often treated with hatred or intolerance.

Based on this definition of bigotry, I understand why GLBT activists would consider opponents of the NDO to be bigots.  In their mind, sexual orientation and identity are comparable to race and ethnicity because they are an immutable quality that you are born with.  Many, if not most, NDO opponents, however, consider sexual orientation and identity to be lifestyle choices, and even if they aren’t choices, there are still evil – an abomination, according to the Bible.  They consider homosexuality to be deviant sexuality that should not be approved.

Formal societal approval, some have argued, is the ultimate objective of San Antonio’s NDO ordinance, which was passed by the City Council on an 8-3 vote earlier this week.  There was not a lot of evidence of past discrimination in SA, and as a practical matter the NDO will not deter an individual determined to discriminate.  But the NDO does welcome the GLBT community into San Antonio’s mainstream.  That is why I supported the NDO.

September 3, 2013

Sunday Book Review #106 – The Zealot by Reza Aslin

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:42 pm
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As indicated by the subtitle, “The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” this book titled The Zealot is about the historical Jesus.  But the reader will probably be disappointed to learn that most of that history comes from the Gospels in the New Testament.  Only small bits and pieces of information come from non-Christian history.  The author Reza Aslin, however, often relies on non-Christian history to point out statements in the Gospels that are false or inaccurate.

The title of The Zealot comes from a group of Jews who resisted Roman rule of Palestine.  Aslin believes Jesus was one in a long line Jewish Zealots.  Like many other of the Zealots, the Romans executed Jesus for his sedition.  Crucifixion was a type of execution primarily reserved for rebels.  What set Jesus apart from these other rebels was not his life, but rather his death.  None of the other Zealots were resurrected, yet several of Jesus’s disciples and apostles swore that they saw the resurrected Jesus and refused to retract their statements even unto death.

Incidentally, Aslin suggests that (a) John the Baptist was more of a mentor to Jesus than the current Catholic Church is willing to concede, (b) Apostle Paul was more of an outlier and a minor figure in the Church during his life, but after his death he became more prominent because his Gospels better fit the message that the Church was trying to sell, and (c) Jesus’s brother James was actually bigger than Peter or Paul in developing the Church following Jesus’s death.

The Zealot is an excellent primer for someone wanting some basic information about the conception of the Catholic Church.