Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I've cashed my check, I'm ready to go ...

I live about two miles from the ocean, but lately life seems to pass in a blur of cubicles, supermarket aisles, and locker rooms. So when I found myself with a week off recently, I decided to leap from bed one morning and grab the fast ferry to P-town, where I found a gorgeous mix of ocean, salt air, and sun — in short, a delight!

I love the wide open look of a beach on the ocean. (Who needs a cove, really?) For me, nothing can compare to the Vineyard's south shore, but Provincetown's Race Point Beach was quite beautiful.

Of course, getting there was a chore — the ferry ride brought me as close to seasick as I've ever been; and the walk to the beach was much longer than was implied by the map I picked up at the dock. Further, the road I followed lacked a sidewalk, which was a little inconvenient, and when I moved onto a twisty bike path, I got a bit turned around. But then, the trek made the beach itself seem like a reward. The shoreline was just what I was hoping it would be — expansive, quiet, and clean. It was a great spot for reading my trashy paperback novel, writing in my journal, and watching the occasional Michael Jackson video on my iPod. I even found a convenient sign where I could hang my new Jack Purcell sneakers so they wouldn't get too sandy.

Of course, to assess the merits of any oceanside community, you have to take in a few eateries, view the gingerbread, and see the stuff that's off the beaten track. I was only there for the day, but I tried to poke around a little and liked what I saw.

When I first got off the ferry, I was freezing, so I stopped in at each of the town's two thrift stores in search of a jacket. I think I had an idea that I'd find a cute peacoat like the one Mickey Rourke bought his daughter in "The Wrestler." That didn't happen, but it was fun checking out both places, and I picked up a cool black-and-gold '60s-era wallet for only $1. I liked that in at least one of the thrift stores, they provide books on getting sober free of charge.

The food situation was a bit up and down. I had a decent plate of lobster benedict at a place called Bayside Betsy's. The view was nice, but I felt rushed, and I definitely wouldn't recommend the latte. Later on I had a delicious slice of pizza at a place called East End Pizza.

The town itself is beautiful. I really enjoyed walking around and looking at all the buildings. Some of the color combinations were quite bold — royal blue with yellow, purple with hot pink, fire-engine red with white — they reminded me of the cottages in the Oak Bluffs campground.

I didn't talk to too many people, as I was feeling a bit solitary, but I chatted with a shuttle driver on my way back from the beach and he was very pleasant. We talked about the geography of the town — it was much hillier and contains more undeveloped land than I'd expected. He said he sometimes worries about the possibility of fire because of all the dry brush and trees. Let's hope those fears are unfounded.

As the sun started to set, I began fantasizing about missing the boat back so I could hang out a little longer. But I hadn't brought a change of clothes and didn't really want to spend more money — I'd already dropped $80 on the ferry ticket plus about $35 on food and beverages. But I definitely hope to go back for a longer stay sometime. I still need to check out some of those the great P-town clubs, and I want to climb the Pilgrim Tower!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Can we stop judging now?

I was on the green line the other day, heading toward Kenmore Square, when the woman next to me leaned over to peer at the Michael Jackson video I was watching on my iPod. "Which one is that?" she asked me. I told her. She watched a moment with me and said, with what seemed like real sadness, "It's too bad that he died."

But when she spoke again, the sadness was gone. "You know he did it to himself. Drugs."

I didn't respond, but her comment got me thinking. Why do people love criticizing Michael Jackson so much, and why do I react so badly to it?

In a previous post I described how much I've enjoyed Michael's music over the years. After reflecting more, I realize that I also empathize with his angst, or what I imagine his angst must have been. In many ways, I think he got a bad deal in life. From a more selfish perspective, I think he epitomized for me at a very early age what it is to be vibrant, likable — unbeatable, even — so much so that both his death and the apparent unhappiness of his later years are sobering. So is the scorn that some seem to feel for him, even in his death.

Of course, judgments of Michael Jackson are nothing new, but back in the day, they were way at the other end of the spectrum. I remember it, even though I was only 13 when I first became aware of him in a significant way. As I recall, up to that time the sexiest thing I'd ever seen on screen was Han Solo. And great as Han Solo was, Michael Jackson was more electric, more vulnerable, and more real. Closer to my age than most celebrities, he seemed both the same as me and yet nothing like me. He was like the impossibly cool older brother of a friend, winking at me knowingly from light-years away. For a lot of his 1983-era fans, it would have been more comfortable if he'd stayed that way, but of course he didn't.

When "Bad" came out, I saw the same physical changes everyone else did. But to me the biggest change was the expression on his face, which now seemed worried, and maybe just a little bit pissed off. I can still remember how, like attack dogs smelling fear, pop-culture critics — even the amateur 18-year-old ones — zeroed in mercilessly on these perceived weaknesses. Me, I didn't see them as weaknesses. I commiserated. At the time, I too was worried and a little angry, as, with a perfectionist's unforgiving eye, I lamented the distance between my accomplishments and my goals. Thank God my goal wasn't to top "Thriller."

These days as writers chart his life, they make much of the fact that he apparently became angrier in the years following his biggest success, as if this were the first sign of fatal flaws. These articles often have headlines like "The Talent and Tragedy of Michael Jackson." For many, the "tragedies" are the unproved allegations about him, but a strong emphasis is also placed on his oddities: his changing appearance, his penchant for exotic pets, his childlike tendencies. And don't forget the fact that he dressed his kids in veils, that he commissioned some kitschy artwork, and that his fashion sense declined during the '90s, as the Globe helpfully reminded us the week after his death. In general, the mainstream coverage has been kinder than it was during his life, but poor taste still rears its head: The generally good Time special edition uses the pejorative nickname "Jacko" (which, as Jon Stewart wisely observes, should have died when Jackson did). In a separate piece, a writer for Time.com declares that Jackson was "a pariah to all but the most brainwashed of fans."

Many of the blogs out there are even more harsh. I read one item recently that speculated favorably about what it would have been like if MJ had died in 1984. This same blog entry stated that had MJ just been busted for drugs or hitting a photographer, the public would have been more understanding of him. Perhaps not all of these comments are meant to be taken literally, but to me they're still a bit chilling. What kind of commentary on our culture is it when we think it's better to be violent — or dead — than alien? Not a good one.

Interestingly, those writers most scandalized by Jackson seem fond of stating that there were "two" Michael Jacksons: a good early one and a bad later one. This strikes me as an awfully convenient way of compartmentalizing the various black-and-white judgments to which these observers are so committed. But is it honest? Think of the worst thing you ever did. Was that the "bad" you? Or was it the only you, the one that's predominantly good but fallible?

I admitted previously that it had crossed my mind, "Why did he have to get so weird?" then I later felt bad about it. When I examine that thought, I realize that we like what we understand. We understand a good-looking black kid who can sing and write songs. That's easy. We don't understand, and don't like, someone who changes the color of his skin, whose pop sensibilities grow more off-key, and who engages in behaviors that seem foreign.

So, it seems to me that two mistakes are being made. One, people often are equating "unusual" with "bad," and in some cases "sinister." People also apparently want to assign blame, which leads to the second mistake: blaming the person, not the circumstances. One wonders if these critics would also blame the anorexic, not anorexia.

Personally, I don't think we need to throw up our hands and investigate why it is that Michael Jackson had a pet chimpanzee or walked around with a parasol. His addiction to plastic surgery is more disturbing, but even if we take the most negative view — that for some reason, he didn't want to be black — we should consider his environment. Undoubtedly he experienced racism. Add to that the fact that his childhood traumas were more spectacular than most of us can grasp, that international stardom brought pressures the average person can't imagine, and that he was damaged throughout life by a camera crew of "Truman Show" proportions, and we can't know what he went through. None of us knows how we would have fared under the same circumstances.

But for those who see his arc as negative, perhaps that's the scary part, and that's why they feel the need to critique him so harshly. They prefer to label him as a fundamentally flawed because to do otherwise is to acknowledge the possibility of frailties within themselves. After all, Michael's arc in many ways is the same as anyone's: Who among us, except the very young, can't recall a time when we were more beautiful, our lives more promising, our histories unmarred by some embarrassment? Throw in a few exceptional obstacles — physical abuse, isolation, public condemnation — and who knows how one's own arc would skew.

I'm reminded of a debate I once had with a friend about Patty Hearst. His position: She should have been stronger. My position: She was kidnapped, locked in a closet, raped and worse, and when finally freed, she found that the country was furious with her, not with the SLA. Why? In my view, it's because people didn't like to think that they could be as vulnerable as she turned out to be. My intuition is that we are all more like Hearst than we want to admit. We're fragile. We're not necessarily designed for abuse, and none of us should be punished for that.

Unlike Patty Hearst, Michael Jackson was never convicted of a crime. The vast majority of criticisms against him are for utterly benign things. In almost all cases, his actions affected no one but himself.

So, as to the "tragedy" of Michael Jackson: The tragedy is not that he became angrier after "Thriller." It's not that people became displeased with his appearance, his personal life, or his music. The tragedies are that he suffered, and that he's gone.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Miracle in the Sooner State

One of my earliest memories about Michael Jackson is also one of my clearest of middle school. I was sitting in my eighth grade math class, waiting for it to start. I was new — my dad was in the Air Force, and we'd just moved to town. I was your basic shy outsider, trying to move silently through insular environs. In that class, I sat next to three of the most popular boys in school, a trio who, in my opinion, acted a bit more superior than was warranted. That day, they were talking about Michael Jackson's new album. "Do you have 'Thriller' yet?" the blond son-of-the-teacher said to the football player. The athlete nodded sagely and said, "yeah." And then they fell silent for a moment, reflecting, or so it seemed, on how cool they were.

I was determined not to like this record. My aversion was spurred not just by these Heathers, but also by my tendency then to distance myself from things wildly popular. Not that we in that corner of Oklahoma really knew what was wildly popular, but we knew about "Thriller." And despite my principles, I heard "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," and soon it became clear that resistance was futile. One overcast Saturday afternoon I walked down to our little record store, where they displayed posters of Prince next to Def Leppard and John Cougar, and I bought what was to become one of my most beloved pieces of vinyl. In the coming years, "Thriller" would travel with me everywhere — when my family moved to yet another town and school system, when I went away to college, and when my various journalism gigs propelled me around the country still further. The record got a bit battered in greater St. Louis, when I unwisely situated my music a little too close to the air conditioner, but luckily no major harm was done.

"Thriller" was hardly the only memorable Michael recording in my life. During my freshman year at school, one of my two roommates was fond of playing Jackson 5 cassettes (to the disapproval of our other roommate, who favored INXS). I wasn't ready for the Jackson 5 back then (or INXS); that was the year I listened to "Abbey Road" over and over. Still, to this day when I hear "ABC," a track I now love, I can see that room we three shared: complete with boom box, Anne's fish bowl, and a stash of Swedish cupcakes, which were occasionally delivered by Ingegärd's mom.

A couple of years later, I was living and working in Texas. After a Bad Breakup, I decided a change was in order, so I moved from the antiseptic, urban sprawl of Arlington to Dallas's funkier lower Greenville area. From there, I and my fabulous best friend, a singer and dancer, explored dance clubs in Deep Ellum and Cedar Springs. We also made a mix tape of dance tunes that featured some choice "Off the Wall" tracks. But the real victory of that era was when I stumbled across an LP that featured five different mixes of "Black or White," which I promptly bought and recorded to a cassette that I labeled "45 minutes with Michael." That song's infectious exuberance — undercut with just the right amount of steel — is one that still gives me a lift, particularly the ClivillĂ©s & Cole House/Club Mix.

The mid-'90s found me on Martha's Vineyard island, where, like many other year-round residents, I bounced between gorgeous winter apartments and humble summer shacks at the whim of the tourism industry. My first summer was spent in a centuries-old house in Vineyard Haven, where the rotating cast of residents included a waitress, a high school student, and a handful of chain-smoking musicians who liked to tell stories about the place possibly being haunted. My housemates were diverse in age (17 to 40-something) and in ethnicity (Venezuelan, Cuban-American, Anglo), but united in their desire to cluster 'round the TV for the world premiere of the "Scream" video. I'll never forget it: stark and angry, it was an entirely valid rebuke to the venomous tabloid press and, more broadly, to the sometimes judgmental nature of the public's celebrity fascination. And while its refrain — a cry for mercy from oppressive pressure — was clearly not inspired by the sorts of problems I had, its effect was cathartic. I loved it.

Of course, despite the message of "Scream," over time it became ever more the fashion for people to mock MJ's oddities. It seemed like I was always the last to hear about the latest gossip, but I admit that occasionally I too was put off by his eccentricities. Still, I was generally inclined to defend him. So was one of my later roommates, Kate, a small-business owner who was endlessly curious about MJ's life. "It makes sense that he would marry Lisa Marie," I can still remember her saying. "Look at the lives they've led — they're the same."

Eventually I ditched the island for Boston, and the journalism gig for Corporate America. As Michael's output slowed, I suppose I thought about him less, though with the advent of iTunes I loaded up on his work, buying several vintage tracks I hadn't heard before, including the joyous "Just a Little Bit of You" and some cool previously unreleased "Thriller"-era recordings. Last year I drew heavily on all stages of Michael's oeuvre when I created my "Best of the Jacksons" playlist, a favorite for when I'm cooking or working out.

My iPod and the playlist were with me at my gym last Thursday night, but I wasn't listening to them; I was watching CNN's coverage about Michael Jackson being taken to the hospital. My initial reaction was one of mild concern, yet whenever they showed recent footage of Jackson, I was also — selfishly — a bit irritated. Why did he have to get so weird? It's uncomfortable to admit that now, but it crossed my mind. Still, when Wolf Blitzer paused and said darkly that there was new information, I drew in my breath and brought the elliptical machine to a halt. How could Michael Jackson be dead?

Since then, television and Internet reports have shown me a lot of fandom. When I hear people say "I feel like I knew him!", the hyperbole makes me cringe a bit and yet, I kind of get it. Perhaps anyone who follows an artist for a long time starts to feel they know the person. Yet we obviously didn't know him. So why does the loss seem so acute?

For me, a partial answer came tonight when I was streaming videos: "Thriller," "Remember the Time," "Bad," the sublimely simple "Rock With You," and others. MJ's intonations are so familiar, and yet no less pleasing for being so. Likewise, the imagination and style of his performances still floor me, even those I've watched countless times. The work would be great even without the nostalgia component, yet the latter is there too, and it's strong. The music of Michael Jackson has been such a constant in my life, throughout many miles of travel, friendships that came and went, and a few decades of growing up. I'm scarcely the same person I was when I first dropped the needle on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," yet MJ's music has been a steady soundtrack, and a damn good one. When I think of his voice, his smile, and his grace, I'm rather thrilled that anyone could have had these gifts. I realize now that, in a way, those gifts must have been a burden to him. That makes me all the more grateful that I got to enjoy them, and it seems wrong, somehow, that I can't thank him for that.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.