What Oscar Forgot

Oscar needs a football helmet.

Don’t worry. I’m not predicting yet another Slap Heard ‘Round The Academy. Not unless Jimmy Kimmel sets up a gag, anyway. But now that the nominees have been announced and the countdown is under way, the Academy Awards really should have the proper gear.  

After all, they’re getting more and more indistinguishable from the Super Bowl.

Yeah, I said it. Hollywood’s golden night and football’s biggest stage are separated by about four weeks, some turf and not much else. Take a look from 1,500 feet – the typical altitude of the Goodyear Blimp – and think of what we have here.

There’s weeks of hype from every conceivable angle and a few inconceivable ones. A huge splash on the day itself. A main event that goes on and on and on. (And on.)

And more often than not, regardless of who wins or loses, it’s the weirdness that steals the headlines.

To be fair, the NFL at least plans for it. It’s practically a cliché that nine times out of 10, the Big Game is less interesting than the Big Commercials. (Or occasionally the Big Power Outage or the Big Wardrobe Malfunction, but that’s another story.) But when Oscar takes the stage, the possibilities are as endless as the running time. Will the wrong winner be announced? Will angry celebrities storm the stage? It’s a night that’s seen more on-stage nightmares than a Halloween special:  garbled names, awkward kisses, and even an on-camera streaker to liven up the evening.

Granted, some of that is the risk of a live performance. I get that. Things happen. But when year after year, the flubs, cringes and oddities are more interesting than the show itself, there just might be a problem.

We’ve known this for years. Heck, we’ve known it for decades. And the surface reason isn’t a secret: the show runs too dang long. Last year’s Oscars dragged out for nearly four and a half hours. The longer it goes, the more tedious it gets and the more time you have for something to go wrong.

But it goes deeper than that. If it was all about running time, people wouldn’t binge entire seasons of TV. Oscar audiences have fallen like a rock, but an “Avatar” sequel that’s more than three hours long is burning up the box office.

No, it’s something more fundamental. Something so simple, it’s Performance 101: a show isn’t about the performer. It’s about the audience.

If they don’t buy your story, you have no show.

That’s true for blockbusters. It’s true for art films. It’s true for any performing venue, from the smallest stage to the biggest stadium. The audience has to care. It can’t just be about you.

And for an awards show – a night designed for self-congratulation – there’s no easier trap to fall into.

That’s an important lesson to remember. And not just for Hollywood. Most of us will never get a multi-million dollar movie contract. (Mine just got lost in the mail, right?) But we all have the same chance to be aware of the people around us and hear what matters to them. To understand why they care and where they hurt. To connect their story with ours.

When we can do that, we can make a difference.  

I hope Oscar eventually learns that. I know we can. And on a smaller budget, to boot.

Listen. Care. Come together.

And if you come together at a Super Bowl party, let me know how the commercials went, OK?

Oh, Say, Can You Sing?

In a world where social media gets taken over so easily by arguments and conspiracies, it’s nice to know that some of the old favorites survive.

Like say, complaining about the National Anthem.

Or, more precisely, complaining about how singers perform it in the Super Bowl.

You can usually set your watch by it. From the moment the two teams are announced, post after post will beg the opening act to PLEASE just sing the Anthem the way everyone learned it in grade school. No four-minute over-produced spectaculars, just remember the words, hit the notes, wave and walk off.

That’s what we say we want, anyway. But I sometimes wonder.

Oh, I’m not saying that it can’t be done or that it wouldn’t be great. We’re just a little over 30 years since Whitney Houston nailed a pitch-perfect version of the Star-Spangled Banner that’s still considered the standard. But the anthem is a pretty thankless piece for most singers to take on, and not just because it requires the vocal equivalent of an Olympic athlete.

With the anthem and other patriotic songs, everyone has a lifetime of expectations bound up in it. We’ve sung it (or tried), our neighbors have sung it (or tried), we know what it should sound like. So a singer has two options:

ONE: Play it safe. Hit the marks. Fulfill the expectations. And most likely be forgotten three minutes after you leave the field.

TWO: Take a chance on making the song your own in some way, big or small. It’s high-risk but potentially high-reward … how many people still adore Ray Charles’ decidedly non-standard “America the Beautiful?”

So even with the mockery of so many anthem attempts over the years, singers keep shooting for the stars. Even Whitney’s famous attempt had a few verbal acrobatics that I don’t remember from Northridge Elementary School; it’s just that with her, they worked.

The real issue isn’t the style. It’s the setup. If you put a star behind the mic, you shouldn’t be surprised when they try to shine.

But what if the Super Bowl didn’t put a star at midfield?

What if they didn’t put anyone out there at all?

A Kansas friend of mine made a simple suggestion: strike the spectacular. Just start the music and let the crowd belt it out by themselves. Stand up. Sing out. Sit down.

I don’t expect to see that any time soon. The Super Bowl insists on being BIG, with even the commercials drawing the level of scrutiny usually given to an Oscar winner. But it would make a nice change.

More: it would be a reminder of what the moment’s supposed to be.

In our ideals, this country isn’t supposed to be about one person, but about all of us. It’s not meant to be a solo, but a choir, different voices coming together to create something more beautiful and wonderful than anyone could make alone.

We’ve often fallen short of that ideal. Too often, in fact. But it’s still a dream worth reaching for.

No, crowdsourcing the National Anthem won’t miraculously solve all our problems, bridge the gaps and open the doors to the excluded. It’s a small gesture. But those matter, too. It’s the small habits that make the larger achievements possible, just like the daily exercise that builds a star athlete. Or a top singer, for that matter.

Besides: if enough of us have to take on that anthem, sooner or later, we’re bound to put it in a more singable key, right?

Like I said, a man can dream.

A Long Time Coming

This year, another of the long, painful legacies finally came down.

OK, my friends who are Cubs and Red Sox fans are probably laughing themselves silly. After all, when your wait for vindication approaches or even exceeds the century mark, that’s a special kind of pain right there. Never mind the poor, hurting teacher I knew who was both a Cubs AND a Red Sox fan – an exercise in masochism if there ever was one.

Still, 50 years between championships is long enough to wait. And so, despite my own passion for the division rival Denver Broncos, I couldn’t help cheering along with my friends and family from Kansas and Missouri (yes, I know my geography) as the Kansas City Chiefs finally brought home the big one.

Naturally, they didn’t do it easily. The Chiefs rarely do anything easily. Every single playoff game, right up to the Super Bowl itself, had the same script:

  • Come in full of promise, heralded as one of the best teams in the NFL.
  • Fall behind. Maybe way
  • Find a way back that John Elway himself would envy.

If the last five decades could be translated into a single football game, that’s about what it would look like. And it’s why Chiefs fans went absolutely nuts afterward and a lot of the rest of us with them. The wait is painful. But the end is all the more glorious for it.

But putting it that way overlooks something.

It assumes that all you have to do is wait. Have patience, and the good things will happen.

That’s never been true. In football or the larger world.

For the last five years, the musical “Hamilton” has been a phenomenon on Broadway. Part of the attraction is the contrast between the show’s version of Alexander Hamilton – energetic, impatient, fighting to burn his name in the history of the world – and Aaron Burr, a charming man who plays his cards close to the chest, waiting for the right opportunity to show itself. At a crucial moment, when Alexander has just cut a deal to put his long-sought national bank in place, he taunts his rival:

 

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game,

But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game,                          

You get love for it, you get hate for it,

You get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

 

There’s nothing wrong with playing the long game. In fact, it’s vital. Most rapid revolutions fail, and many of the ones that succeed turn on themselves – the English saw it with Cromwell, the French with Napoleon, the Russians with Lenin and Stalin. The movements for change that win have a foundation underneath that is built from a long span of patient and often-frustrating work.

But the work has to happen.

If the Chiefs had blown off the draft year after year – if their fans had never bought a single ticket or tuned in any of the sponsored games – there’d be no trophy, and probably no Chiefs.

If the American colonies had never made a single move toward self-sufficiency over the decades that preceded the Revolution, the fight would have failed, if it had come at all.

If the civil rights movement had waited for rights to just happen, instead of constantly working, constantly struggling, constantly refusing to be put down despite yet one more failure, all of America would be poorer for it.

It’s still true today. Transformation doesn’t come from a single election. Victory or defeat in a cause doesn’t stem from a single action on Capitol Hill. Those are just individual notes in a greater melody. What makes the difference is constancy – not quitting, not turning away, taking the time that needs to be taken without assuming that all that’s needed is time.

Victory is never guaranteed. But it’s that sort of stubborn persistence in pursuit of it that can shape lives. Or histories. Or even the occasional sports franchise.

It’s no fun to endure. But the reward is worth it.

Just ask the Chiefs.

Reading Into It

Once upon a time, I watched children’s literature win the Super Bowl.

OK, not literally. There were no overpriced commercials armed with bad jokes, cold beer, and cute puppies. Justin Timberlake never got within a mile of the microphone. There were no questioned calls, no fireworks and high-flying blimps, no appearances of the Tom Brady game face. (Broncos fans, take a moment to cheer, please.)

But the small city of Emporia, Kan. lined the streets for a huge parade. Well-known children’s authors from across the country descended on the school system for classes and events and even sleepovers. LeVar Burton himself, he of Reading Rainbow, showed up to be the emcee on the big day.

It was 2002, the 50th year of the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards. And on that day, there was no doubt that reading had power.

As the last remnants of Super Bowl LII-RTD-LOL-EIEIO get scraped off the field, it’s good to remember. Football champions come and go. But a good book lasts.

This week – in theory, at least – it’s time to call that out.

The first full week in February, it seems, marks one of the thousands of obscure holidays that the world has to offer – Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week.  Normally, I call holidays like this out to tease them a bit, on the order of National Popcorn Day (Jan. 19), National Kiss a Wookiee Day (June 15), and Eat Country Ham Month (October, which must make trick-or-treating a little interesting). But in this case, even if the date is forgettable, the topic’s a close one to my heart.

I started reading when I was two and a half. I never really stopped. Kids’ books were old friends, from Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss, to Stuart Little and Encyclopedia Brown, to The Westing Game and The Secret Garden. Never mind the family read-aloud time, where my sisters and I discovered Middle-Earth, Green Gables, and many more.

Each story led to the next … and possibly, to my habits as a night owl. When I met my wife Heather, she was the same way – she had shed tears at the end of Charlotte’s Web as a child, and thrown 1984 across the room as a teenager in anger at the ending. Even now, as guardians to Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt Missy, our most sacred time of the day is the evening storytime. (Often with Mr. Harry Potter, the audience favorite.)

I know some will call this memories of a bygone era, that social media and smartphones have eaten any desire to actually read. I smile and remember working in a bookstore in the 1990s, when television and video games were the worries of the day … and children streamed in to buy Goosebumps books. Or helping with children’s summer theater during the 2000s, when the internet was taking over … and seeing half the cast parked backstage with the latest Harry Potter.

Books have found distracted youth before. They can still find them now.

And they’re still needed.

A good book builds empathy. It requires you to put yourself in a character’s shoes, live in their brain, see how they experience the world. Chosen well, it can make you reach outside yourself and enter a world you never knew.

A good book can build family. Taking even a little time to read together – and I know how that seems to get harder every day – not only spurs interest in a story, it strengthens family bonds to simply have the time together. (It also means there’s a guide on hand for the more challenging words; I first learned “fortnight” and “quay” from reading Tolkien with my dad).

And yes, it builds language and learning skills – but maybe even earlier than anyone realizes. A recent study found that babies learned more quickly if they were read stories that had named characters. As young as six months.

It doesn’t take a halftime show by Bruno Mars, or an overflight by the Blue Angels, or a trick play drawn up by Bill Belichick. Just time, love, and a library card.

And if you want to hold your own private parade for your favorite title, I’ll be the last to stop you.

Go, team. Let’s book ‘em.