A world of subtext in SNL sketch

I’ve been more than a little obsessed with last Saturday’s SNL sketch depicting Kellyanne Conway and CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Normally I’ll watch a sketch once — or if it’s really good, twice. I think I’ve watched this one 15 or 20 times. So, yeah, not normal.

If you haven’t seen it yet, view it below. If you have seen it, watch it again.

I think what works so well here  – besides the nods to Fatal Attraction and Death Becomes Her – is that the characters’ motivations make the startling escalation so believable.

Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne is so desperate to get back on the news, she’s willing to up her game each time Beck Bennett’s Jake refuses her – eventually resorting to assault and death threats.

Jake wants her to accept his decision not to allow her on his show, and he’s willing to give her some latitude if it lets her accept the truth on her own without him having to force some sort of result. But reasoning with her is futile, and ultimately he’s forced to give in to her demands.

But that’s only one level of this story. Another level pits them against each other on opposite sides of a public war.

Jake is a journalist and Kellyanne is counselor to the president – and not just any president, but one who’s highly suspicious of the media.

You can see the weight of that truth come into play at minute 1:15, when Jake wants to remove himself from Kellyanne’s grasp. He lifts his right hand but seems to think better of the action. He realizes he can’t place hands on her, even in a defensive move, and risk the possible outcome – like, say, any assault charges she might bring against him should this exchange get any more physical.

Maybe it’s a stretch that Jake considers all the potential outcomes of his actions in the span of a second. And, yes, his hand raise could be merely a gesture of frustration.

But he does it again at minute 2:08, when Kellyanne catches him on his way to the front door and shoves him against the wall in a one-handed choke hold. He lifts his left hand as if to stop her, but resists the urge – at least until she lowers her hand and he can kind of brush her away rather than push or grab at her.

It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it explains why he seemingly lets her get away with so much. She’s a small woman. He could have easily guided her by the shoulders and attempted to shove her out the door. (He doesn’t know she has a second knife hidden on her.)

But he doesn’t throw her out, maybe in part because he’s a decent guy or he’s just so overwhelmed in the moment. But I think it’s also because he can’t risk the possible hellstorm she could rain down on him. She has an office at the White House, and since, with every passing second, she seems to become more and more unhinged, there’s really no telling how she might use her public platform against him.

In the sketch’s final moment, she seals that implication. Unflappable and unbreakable, she can’t be stopped. And now that she’s forced compliance from Jake, she owns him.

I find this whole thing fascinating from a storytelling standpoint. Every line, every action works so well.

At face value, this is stunning, biting, well-crafted satire to rival SNL’s best. But below it all is a world of subtext that I think sets this one apart.

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The Mind of a Procrastinator

In the movie Groundhog Day Phil tells Rita he spent four or five hours a day for six months learning to flick playing cards into a top hat.

“Is this what you do with eternity?” she asks.

Short answer? If you’re a procrastinator, yes.

I’m one of the worst procrastinators I know – always have been. I’ll find almost anything to occupy my time other than what I should be doing. If you know the feeling – or even if you don’t – here’s a brilliant video that perfectly illustrates the mind of a procrastinator:

If that’s you in a nutshell, and you’re not sure Tim Urban’s presentation is enough to kick your butt into gear, then this might help:

Stop saying this: “Sorry, I don’t have time.”

Say this instead: “Sorry, it’s not a priority to me.”

 

Imagine telling your niece, “I’m sorry I couldn’t make your dance recital, it wasn’t a priority to me.”

Or telling your best friend, “I’m sorry I haven’t looked at your website yet, it isn’t a priority to me.”

How did that feel? Painful, right? It should feel painful, because it’s honest.

And that’s the problem with the phrase, “I don’t have time.” It’s a lie. Or, at least it’s mostly a lie.

Just the other day, I was all set to cancel my gym membership, because “I don’t have time to go to the gym,” and my husband told me, “If working out isn’t a priority to you, then go ahead.”

Damn.

So I kept the gym membership.

Maybe, we can’t be expected to do everything, but we do actually have more “time” than we think. But that won’t be true forever. So let’s look at those priorities again. That way, the next time we tell someone, “Sorry, that isn’t a priority to me,” it’s not only honest but also something we can live with.

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Loving the life well-lived

“Loving life includes loving the fact that it goes.” – Rick Brookhiser, critic

I came across this remarkable quote while reading about the staying power of the film Groundhog Day – a highly acclaimed movie I watch every year, usually more than once, because it leaves me with a feeling of such inspiration that I immediately want to run out my front door and change the world.

But, in spite of the effect Groundhog Day has on me, that quote is such a foreign idea, I can hardly wrap my mind around it. And considering the popularity of the recent nostalgia boom, I would imagine it’s just as foreign to most other people trying to resurrect wonderful things about the past that they wish were still true today.

I find myself doing that all the time – trying to make aspects of my world today mimick parts of my childhood. Or else longing for the feelings I associate with former times, which I fear aren’t possible anymore.

But that’s a dangerous game, because if you ignore the present to live in the past, then one day you’ll wake up and wonder where in the world the last 15 years went.

Plus, memories are deceptive. We can remember things being better than they were, focusing on the good and glossing over the bad. We start living for the past and ignoring our present, and that gets us in trouble. Because the present can never live up to the past we’ve built in our mind, and dragging the past into the present doesn’t let us live with honesty.

So I think that’s where that quote I mentioned above becomes so important.

If you were truly happy right now, this very moment, would you happily let go of that feeling so that tomorrow you could experience something else? Something new? 

Would you be okay packaging away today’s experiences and leaving them in the past? 

How do we even go about living for the present and not longing for that moment to last forever?

And when it all ends, can we really expect to love “the fact that [life] goes” and embrace death as the next great adventure?

Well, yes, I suppose that’s exactly what we’re meant to expect, isn’t it?

“Don’t be afraid of death,” Natalie Babbitt wrote in her book Tuck Everlasting. “Be afraid of the unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”

And that’s one of the conclusions of Groundhog Day as well.

Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is a cynical man who doesn’t realize how very stuck he is in life until he gets trapped in a time loop on the worst day of his life. He eventually learns from the experience not only to embrace living, but also to be a hero for others whose misery and pain might have gone unnoticed by others if not for him.

“The curse is lifted when Bill Murray blesses the day he has just lived,” Brookhiser wrote. “And his reward is that the day is taken from him.”

I guess it’s an idea I’ll have to mull over. Because for me, the idea of devoting one’s life to others sounds a whole lot easier than loving the passage of time – and the changes that come with it.

But I don’t suppose great ideas like this are meant to be understood easily. Otherwise they wouldn’t be meaningful.

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Deodorant ad pulls the ladder out from under a woman’s climb to success

Flipping through the February edition of Better Homes and Gardens magazine,  I happened upon the following advertisement for Secret deodorant for women.

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to this ad, except to say how very disappointing I find it.

The pink dress, the 3-inch yellow heels, the implication that helping this woman smell “fresh” is Secret’s sole contribution to encouraging women along their climb to success… Where to begin?

Yesterday, around the world, an estimated 4.8 million men, women, and children united in an effort to show that the opinions of women and other “minorities” matter in politics and in life. It was an astounding effort, much greater than most people seemed to expect. And although, nothing has actually been accomplished yet, the 673 marches are still symbolic of what people can accomplish when they decide to show up and unite their voices in a fight for equality and against injustice.

That’s partly why this Secret ad was so disappointing to me.

Not that I don’t understand what Secret was trying to achieve. It’s clear the company thought that by showing a strong woman literally climbing her way up to a new level of success, women would feel that Secret is supportive of their efforts in the workplace. However, I don’t understand why the company thought this woman needed to look party ready to convey that message.

The three men at the table she’s attempting to join are dressed identically in standard grey suits and brown shoes. I want to know why she isn’t also wearing a suit and sensible shoes.

Does Secret think we’re not going to identify her as a woman if she isn’t wearing a pink sundress? 

And the heels? Besides undermining her perception of strength (Does she really think she can’t measure up to those men without ludicrously tall shoes?), they’re an odd choice for fitting the metaphorical scenario we’re asked to believe – that her climb up the corporate ladder is every bit as grueling as climbing a mountain or scaling a high rise building that is somehow missing any staircases or elevators. (Did someone kick the ladder out from under her to make her climb more difficult?)

Again, I get what Secret was going for. It was trying to be understanding of how hard women have to work in the corporate world. It’s a well-known mantra that women have to work twice as hard as men to achieve the same success, which in itself is incredibly offensive, however accurate.

So Secret isn’t revealing any secrets here; in fact I think it’s assuming we already know that women “have to work harder to get ahead.” But that’s also part of what’s so discouraging about this ad.

It misses the mark of trying to make us believe that she’s worked twice as hard to get where she is. She’s arriving late to the table, and I would imagine if she’s really put in that much effort to get there, she would have dressed for the seriousness of the situation.

Moreover, the ad tries to be sensitive without offering any solutions. It tells women, “We know your struggle, and we’re going to help mask your efforts so that the men at the table won’t realize how hard you worked to get there.”

I find this ad to be sad and self-defeating. The woman in pink, struggling to maintain equal footing with the men at the table, doesn’t really look like she belongs there, does she? She looks different from them in every possible way, and she goes unnoticed by them in her struggle to join them.

It’s almost like this ad is saying, “Though we sympathize with your struggle, as a woman you’re never really going to fit in with the men at that table.”

And in 2017, that kind of advertising is not at all acceptable. We need to be telling women that they are every bit as worthy as men. Even if we know how hard their struggle is going to be and how long that road to success might take, we still need to give every assurance that women are on equal footing with men.

The only way we as humans can achieve anything meaningful is if we can already imagine ourselves succeeding. And this ad doesn’t achieve that. It shows a woman’s struggle, not a woman’s success.

I would have preferred to see an ad of a woman doing something to show she belongs at that table, something that shows she has the same skills the men do and can lead the conversation.

Maybe she doesn’t need to wear a suit, per se, but how about something that shows she understands the concept of “dress code”? It would have illustrated her attempt to prove herself, but would not have separated her so distinctly by dressing her like a little girl trying to make it in a man’s world.

Ultimately, I guess that’s what so offends me about this ad. It’s 2017 – a year in which 19 world leaders are women*, and a woman (Hillary Clinton) won the popular vote in the most recent U.S. election. 

 Why are we still calling it a man’s world?

* Based on January 2017 data from http://www.UNWomen.org.

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Spreading Less Fear and Doubt

I recently read a terrific column in our local newspaper by a pastor who talked of New Year’s resolutions.

In our efforts this year to change – to look better, feel better, or better manage our lives – he offered what I thought was a magnificent challenge: Make an effort to look more like Jesus by the end of the year.

Although none of us will achieve perfection in this life, becoming like Christ and being mistaken for him really should be every Christian’s goal, not because of our titles or positions, but because of our actions, attitudes and thoughts. – George Bowers Sr., pastor

I was moved by the idea since I’m usually terrible at achieving New Year’s resolutions, and, yet, I still love making them each year. There’s just something about figuratively closing the book on the past year and looking ahead to a year untouched and jam-packed with potential. The New Year makes me believe anything is possible, while the Year End makes me sad for missed opportunities.

But never, in all my New Year’s lists, have I ever resolved to be a better Christian. All of my plans have been primarily worldly – become healthier (ie. more physically fit), become better at managing my finances (ie. save more money), update my blog every week (ie. increase output of my product to improve my writing prowess).

To put it in the words of Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook: “Me, me, me, mine, mine, mine, now, now, now.”

Of course our intentions aren’t necessarily selfish. We resolve to be healthier so we can live longer and enjoy more quality time with those we love. We resolve to be better at money management to provide a better future for our family and friends – and perhaps so we’re not leaching off family or friends. We resolve to be more productive in our jobs or hobbies, because we hope to be of use to those who need us, to do our part to better the world, and actually use those talents God gave us, rather than letting them atrophy while we watch Netflix.

There’s honor in each of those ambitions – as long as we aren’t trading in sloth and gluttony for greed and vanity.

And that, I think, is where George Bowers’s idea of resolving to be more like Jesus fits in. Yes, let’s become healthier, more active, better at handling our finances, and more productive in our lives. But instead of focusing on how we (you and I) will benefit from our change in habits, let’s think how these changes will bring us closer to Jesus (or any of the other prophets who support your faith.)

In becoming “healthier,” are you shunning worldly items/habits that would otherwise draw you away from God? (ie. smoking, drugs, alcohol, sloth, gluttony, working too much, not sleeping enough, stressing yourself out.)

In becoming more productive, are you benefiting anyone but yourself? (ie. volunteering your time, donating money or items to others, producing anything of value that will help people.)

In decluttering your home, are you also “decluttering” your life? (ie. Removing the things that stress you out and bog you down, and instead sharing your life with others.)

In better managing your money, are you using that money for good?

This past Christmas, I was watching (for probably the 30th time) A Muppet Christmas Carol, when for the first time I really “heard” a line I’d never really heard before – in a song that Jacob and Robert Marley sing to Ebenezer Scrooge.

You specialize in causing pain, spreading fear and doubt.

And it hit me in that moment that so often, out of fear for the future or desperation to make others understand what I view as the truth, I have also spread fear and doubt. Example: Posting news articles on Facebook that I think people “need” to see, when really all I’m doing is sharing my fear with them and promoting more doubt in our government.

So I’m resolving to do that less. The world has enough fear and doubt without me stoking the fire. And I figure if people really want to read the news, they’ll read the news. They don’t need me bogging down their Facebook newsfeed with doomsday messages and calls to action, which will probably only reach the people who already agree with me.

That doesn’t mean I’ll suddenly stop sharing ideas I think are important. But my aim is in changing my tone. Instead of sharing the bad, I will share the good. Instead of pointing out fearful images, I will try to offer solutions of love.

The world is scary enough without feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and hatred bombarding us every time we log onto social media.

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Scoring big with ‘Home Alone’ chase music

I remember when I first saw the movie Home Alone. It was 1990, I was 10, and my dad took my brother and me to our local theater. My brother’s name is Kevin, like the main character Kevin McAllister. He was almost 8, and with his short, blond hair he looked a little like 8-year-old Kevin McAllister. They even had the same winter coat.

Whatever its faults (slight plot holes, occasional lack of realism, and a plot that relies on the *fictional* disinterest of the Winnetka, Illinois, police department), this movie remains one of my favorites. I watch it every year – sometimes more than once. But this week I noticed something I never noticed before.

I’m becoming a bit of a junkie for watching movies with director commentaries (found in the special features on DVDs.) It’s something my late, great dad introduced to me, and though it baffles my husband why I’d spend hours listening to people talk about a movie (and, in the process, drown out most of the film’s dialogue), I have my reasons.

For the writer in me, it’s an education in how scripts come together and what makes movies work.

For the musician in me, it’s a lesson in musical themes that often accompany the main characters, and musical cues that help viewers better engage with the emotion of a story. A really good musical score can even take on a life of its own.

I think watching various films with commentaries has made me more aware of what to look for and listen for in movies.

Case in point: Home Alone

Basic premise: When Kevin McAllister’s family accidentally leaves on vacation without him, he does what any other 8-year-old would do: He eats all the junk food he wants, sneaks into his older brother’s room … and has to defend his home from a pair of bumbling burglars.

Granted, there isn’t much in the film’s Family Fun Edition commentary with Director Chris Columbus and star Macauley Culkin about the score, other than how great it is. But, as I said, I’ve been learning to listen for musical cues – not an easy thing to do, really, without having to kind of ignore the movie itself.

Home Alone‘s score was composed by John Williams. But unless you intentionally listen for the musical cues, you might miss how his music complements characters’ actions – like in the chase scene near the end, when Kevin lures the crooks from his booby-trapped home into a neighbor’s house, where Kevin has already alerted the cops to come arrest the robbers.

I’m not sure how many other composers have an opportunity to work with this sort of scene – when one character’s theme music “chases” another character’s theme music.

I couldn’t find the actual film clip on YouTube, but you can get the gist of John Williams’ genius chase music in the above scene, starting at minute 5:00.

The chase music alternates between Kevin’s theme (the tune of John Williams’ “Candles in the Window”) and the crooks’ theme:

5:00 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv are committed to catching Kevin, who’s taken a zip line from the attic of his home to his nearby tree house and threatened to call the cops on them. They attempt to follow him, climbing their way along the zip line.

5:37 – Kevin’s theme: The kid outsmarts the crooks again, producing garden shears to show he’s going to cut the zip line.

5:45 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv attempt a hasty retreat, but aren’t quick enough. When Kevin cuts the line, they plummet toward the ground.

6:02 – Kevin’s theme: Kevin runs across the street toward the home of his neighbors, the Murpheys.

6:15 – Crooks’ theme: Harry and Marv appear around the corner of Kevin’s house, chasing him.

6:33 – Kevin’s theme: Kevin again threatens to call the cops, then climbs into the Murpheys’ basement, which he’s shocked to find is flooded from a burglary two days earlier, when Marv left the water running. As Kevin runs up the stairs to the kitchen, John Williams’ music rushes up a chromatic scale, breaking off into silence, much as Kevin does, when he opens the door – and finds Harry and Marv waiting for him.

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Ten years I almost forgot

Usually when people who haven’t seen me in the long time ask what I’ve been up to, my answer is the same: Nothing.

Everything is the same, nothing has changed, this is my life.

But it’s not true.

I might not be where I expected to be by now, or have what I thought I’d have, but my life has been far from tedious, and it’s about time I admitted it. So, without much emphasis on details, here’s just a quick list of some of the things I might have forgotten to mention if you ever asked me what I’ve been doing since 2006. And after reading this, I hope you’ll make your own list — for your blog, for your Facebook page, or for yourself – just a reminder of all the little things in life worth remembering and celebrating!

latte

At Le Pain Quotidien, with my niece, in NYC

  • Bought a house
  • Started playing the old clarinet again
  • Photographed three weddings
  • Went to my 12-year high school reunion
  • Gave the sermon at church five times… with a sixth coming up soon
  • Took four overnight skiing trips — and didn’t die
  • Met my best friend
  • Ran a 5K
  • Wrote a 50,000-word novel in November — seven times
  • Performed the Verdi Requiem, Carmina Burana, and Bach’s St. John Passion with the Masterworks Chorus at Shepherd University
  • Was a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding
  • Attended a Pakistani wedding reception
  • Become an aunt twice over
  • Took my husband’s niece on a “Christma-Birth-uation” road trip to NYC
  • Took another niece to the local premier of a 14-year-old writer/director’s horror movie
  • Saw Aerosmith and Hootie and the Blowfish in concert
  • Interviewed LeAnn Rimes over the phone and Candace Cameron Bure in person
  • Saw Phantom of the Opera twice at the Kennedy Center
  • Saw various other local stage productions
  • Traveled the entire East Coast, from Montreal to The Bahamas
  • Went tubing and kayaking on the Shenandoah River

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