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May 28, 2004

Underneath It All

I grew up in a sweet, provincial, middle-class, small-town/suburb-ish, vanilla-American part of the world. Bicycles, baseball, Boy Scouts, cheerleaders; parents with jobs, not "careers," whatever those were; nice kids who married high-school sweethearts and raised nice, vanilla kids. Granted that a little "Twin Peaks" and "Boys Don't Cry" could be found too if you looked hard enough. But this really was a fringe element. Horizons may not have been big, but on the other hand nine out of ten people were trustworthy, and nearly everyone meant you well.

Parental ambition and my own curiosity blasted me out of that comfy universe and landed me on a very different planet, one of high-powered narcissists, glittering schools, big egos, money, vanity, connections, etc. A cold and vicious place -- yikes! But so long as I was still in school, I did OK for myself. I was tenacious enough to hold my own among these strange, ferociously highstrung creatures. I even had moments when I felt downright special: yo, look at me! I could continue to be a nice person yet still do well among the egomaniacs! I was so cool that I could balance on the edge of a cliff!

Once that framework was no longer in place, though -- once I left the fancy schools yet remained among the fancy people -- I fell off that cliff. I had adventures and misadventures, a few of them enjoyable, a few of them even chic. I did fine in some respects. But I spent a lot of time in bewildered freefall. Good lord, how to cope? I'd do my best to get on top of things, or I'd give over and try to get Zen about my fate -- anything to find some kind of poise. But I always lost the battle.

Aside from a few fantasies about making movies, I'd otherwise never had professional ambitions. But I did have a bit of a verbal knack, and I'd tumbled into a part of the media woods where that might serve ... So every few years I'd laboriously pull reluctant energies together and treat myself to a tense spasm of "trying," as in trying to make an impression. And every time, I'd give it up pronto.

Having failed to make an impression on a field I didn't want to get ahead in anyway, I'd lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and mutter gloomy and pointless words. In my own mind, the only thing I'd ever really hoped to do in this anxious, pushy, free-for-all world was to have a good time -- or at least a snazzier and more interesting time than I'd have had if I'd stayed back in sweet, boring ol' vanilla-land.

Downside of all this: frustration, tension, and a lot of time spent trying to pull myself together in all the wrong ways. Upside: primarily the Wife (and hooray for her). But also some very good friends, a ton of lost naivete, and a fair amount of hands-on knowledge about how a certain part of the world operates. Not so bad, really.

These days, I spend my work hours helping privileged people look good. I marvel that I ever hoped to find a more congenial place than that among them. After all, it's their world I live in; and so far as they're concerned, they're doing me a big, big favor by allowing me even to serve them. Sometimes, going about my routines, I think of my younger self and marvel at how full of stars my eyes once were. Did I really think room would be made for me because ... well, because I was reasonably bright and had a few modest talents?

I've abandoned the fight -- a funny state to have arrived at, given that I'd never asked for a fight in the first place. Hey, I'm someone who's happy when he's makin' zee luvvv, not when he's at war. Among other things, this blog has been (and continues to be) a place where I can gab about my years as a loser-participant in the arts-and-media worlds, years that are now, as far as I'm concerned, vanishing into the rear-view mirror. I still follow art and culture, and I care about them as much as ever, if perhaps in different ways than in years past. But I do so at my own pace and on my own terms. I don't "keep up" any longer, for one thing. I'm not trying to get anywhere, impress anyone, or buck for a professional position.

Blogging has primarily become a place to meet and swap notes with other people, and thank heavens for that. More selfishly, though, it also gives me a chance to sort out a bit of what I've lived through, and to pass along some observations and stories, and maybe even a few scraps of knowledge. How amazing that a handful of people occasionally seem willing to pay a little attention -- and how much more amazing when they take off from my drivelings and create lively conversations that I can take part in too. Ironically enough -- the joke's on me, but in the most pleasant way -- having walked away from a battle I'd never asked for, I've found the fun I'd always hoped to have.

Most of the time -- this posting is an obvious exception -- I try to dress my efforts up in suave and urbane clothing. Well, OK, so I have to settle for impish, deadpan, and droll instead; my gifts are limited ones, after all. But that's no reason, IMHO, not to be affable, courteous, and entertaining, or at least to make the effort. So I do my best to slip what oddball personal reflections I happen to be gnawing on into what I hope are amusing and informative discussions about what's happening in the culture world generally. Even though I keep a super-low profile these days, I still spend my days out there on the culture-making, culture-consuming front lines. So at night I've got a few not-me things to chat about.

Underneath it all, though, is my real drive, the one small bit of good I feel I may still have it in me to do in the world. What I really want to do is seize passersby -- the nice people, the people like the crowd I grew up with, and emphatically not the egomaniacs who inhabit the world I continue to spend most of my life in -- and scream a little something at them. That little something perhaps being along the lines of:

"These glamourous people? These arty and intellectual people? The ones you listen to, and pay attention to? The ones you turn to for advice, information, entertainment, and enlightenment? Who you imagine are, underneath it all, nice people just like you? Well, baloney to that! Wise up! Because they're awful! They're vicious! They're full of themselves, and they're interested in nothing but their own fortunes, and in ways that are close to pathological! They lack empathy and honor, and they actively mean you ill! They not only don't like you, they've got contempt for you! To get where they want to be, they'd happily do it at your expense! Wanna know what you're good for in their eyes, you 'nice' people? They see you as nothing but a bunch of putzes and losers, good only for laughing-at and ripping off! Enjoy some of what they produce if you want -- heck, some of it's pretty good. But be sensible, for god's sake! Stop imagining that they have any interest whatsoever in serving, helping, or being nice to you! Give up the dream that you might like them, or that they might like you! And, above everything else, wake up to the fact that the only thing that keeps them from behaving even more destructively is your own efforts!"

More or less. IMHO. And exceptions allowed for, of course.

posted by Michael at May 28, 2004


My goodness! A rant! A genuine, bonafide rant! I've come to expect a certain amount of good-natured crankiness once in a while, but I'm not sure I've spotted a real turn-up-the-volume kind of rant here before.

Of course, it might not be your rant--you're quoting something, after all. Are you quoting yourself, or someone else?

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 28, 2004 02:31 PM

Wow, I've really enjoyed reading the 2 Blowhards and hearing the wonderful conversations that go on. I think one reason for the enjoyment was the lack of a "pose". This post tells me why. I grew up in the same vanilla world as you - for instance I didn't know until college that the clothes and labels you wore symbolized something about class and wealth!

However, because we weren't brought up in that fetishized world, "underneath it all" we can see the realities that the glamourous people will always miss. It might be sentimental and hogwash and whatever you want to call it, but like Dorothy Gale, the Kansas that we have we can always go back to in the way we treat people and ourselves. The egomaniac glamourous people have never had that Kansas, and they don't know what that solace means.

Posted by: Jim on May 28, 2004 02:32 PM

Michael! You're a Marxist! Who knew?

Posted by: Felix on May 28, 2004 05:36 PM

In the art world (and elsewhere) I've noticed that egotism and vanity usually have an inverse correlation with talent and ability. The fakes and phonies and air-kissers often seem to be making up for their shortcomings, while the really talented people I've known have been down-to-earth realists with an appetite for hard work. Craftsman types.

Or maybe they're just better at faking it?

Posted by: Brian on May 28, 2004 07:27 PM

In the art world (and elsewhere) I've noticed that egotism and vanity usually have an inverse correlation with talent and ability.

Be honest - this is wishful thinking, isn't it? An attempt to make the world fit a redeeming framework ( the untalented tend to be assholes; and vice versa) perhaps? Maybe I'm the only one, but I've seen enough of every possible combination of the above to reject this idea.

As for Michael's observations, it's common knowledge that the rich and successful often descend into some very unseemly behaviors, because no one has the balls to stand up to them. None of the negative reinforcement of norms that us regular folks endure. I don't know that all these people start out that way though.

Posted by: Jonas Cord on May 28, 2004 08:05 PM

So what you're saying is that some big city folks are rude, bad tempered jerks. And this is a revelation to small town folks?

I live very near a state park that's just packed with Chicago folks on the weekends. You have no clue how much joy the locals get by selling 6 sticks of firewood for $15. They guffaw the whole time they're being treated like ignorant rubes.

Posted by: Deb on May 28, 2004 08:12 PM

Goodness---would you have listened to that rant when you were eighteen? Would you not have hurdled into another world and just been contented in your hometown? Somehow...I think not. You probably would have stayed there anyway if that rant would have stopped you. Plus, it's possible to romanticize all things---the beautiful people AND Gales of Kansas. Sometimes,if you can't find your heart's desire in your own backyard, it's coz it's not there...not because you never really lost it.

Lots of young people secretly believe it will be "different for them." Part of being young. And even if you wound up hanging around the edges of a world which was interesting but not what you started out believing, how could you ever have learned that without firsthand experience? I mean, you got close enough to your dream world to know what it was really like...think of some lives which never get that close! In a way, your life is remarkable. And if you were too "nice" to go further, well, not such a bad epitaph.

But, yes, I do agree, there are many factors in our culture which conspire to convince people that the "beautiful people" really have it better, and are better, and are worth striving for. Even by people who should know better, coz they know the beautiful people. Sigh. If we weren't so eager to believe something bad about ourselves, maybe we wouldn't believe so quickly all things good about someone unlike ourselves.

Posted by: annette on May 28, 2004 08:21 PM

"These days I spend my work hours helping privileged people look good."

This is nosey as all get out of me, but could you give us some specifics?

I wonder whether being shocked by the viciousness of the world is a matter of where you come from. Couldn't it be more a matter of temperament? I grew up in NYC (admittedly the outer boroughs), yet even in adolescence I was shocked by the cutting manner of more than a few of my peers. Some are just naturally harder than others. When you add to that the hyped up pace of the big city....well, it can be pretty rough. So I guess I'm saying it's a little of both -- nature and nurture.

Posted by: ricpic on May 29, 2004 07:37 AM

One thing I've picked up is that one of the reasons that so many successful people seem incredibly full of themselves is that it is exactly that characteristic which enabled them to succeed. For many careers (not just in art), you must persuade others that you are capable of the superhuman. And the best way to do that (in fact, perhaps the *only* way to do that), is to believe it yourself.

Of course, this belief tends to insure that you'll come to an unhappy end. It means that no matter how successful the person is, they'll be unlikely to prepare for the inevitable fall from popularity. How many actors are dead broke shortly after their careers end. Are they stupid? Perhaps. But if they didn't have that sort of stupidity, they probably wouldn't have succeeded in the first place.

Sad to think that what is almost necessary for success in certain fields almost guarantees one's eventual failure.

Posted by: Tom West on May 29, 2004 08:01 AM


My jaundiced view is that many of the little people in fly-over country want to be like the famous and powerful because they want to be awful people who can do anything to anybody and never pay a price. (Isn’t it interesting that R. Kelly has issues and his acts, no matter how disgusting, may very well be symptoms of a troubled past and etc. while the Abu Ghraib guards are mere redneck morons or stooges?)

Okay, not all of them. Many, though. Contemporary chick-lit, it seems, it mostly about how freakin’ great it would be to run roughshod over everyone while being celebrated for qualities that you are incapable of recognizing, let alone possessing.

Does it seem to you that the a significant part of American Idol’s success ( I realize this appears to contradict my previous statement) is about the thrill of watching unknowns get one over on the entertainment industry? I mean in addition to and separate from the fantasy elements and the horse race aspects - and the bullying.

On the other hand, I continue to meet lovely people in all walks of life – even corporate law! In the “Pick me up on your way down” vein, I am conversational with a couple of… let’s just say folks who are no longer as sought after as they once were, who have calmed down and now truly accept that being studio musicians or doing regional theater is a rewarding life that includes having fond memories of their youthful wealth and debauchery.

Don't see any correlation between talent and personality though, Lords knows, I've looked.

M. Blowhard, your personal life ain’t none of my affair – but if you’re a flack or have access to flack gossip, then I want some dirt on somebody. Your take on the dirt. Your own wiley insightful take on the dirt.

Posted by: j.c. on May 29, 2004 12:27 PM

I smell a book.

Posted by: John Massengale on May 29, 2004 01:29 PM

Bad day at work?

Maybe I've less experience, but I generally agree with Plato on this. To paraphrase The Republic: A very small number of people are very, very good, and a very small number are very, very bad. The rest are in the middle

It may have something to do with which characteristics annoy one the most. If vanity and/or false humilty bothers you, I imagine being a 'media flunky' can wear ya' down every once in a while.

Posted by: Karl on June 1, 2004 05:06 PM

Will -- Every now and then the ol' poise (or what I like to imagine is the ol' poise) just has to break down for a sec or two. Kinda fun quoting the voices that rant in my head, though -- a blogging innovation, perhaps?

Jim -- I couldn't agree more. I wonder sometimes about what seems to me like their vindictiveness towards the vanilla people. Do you think jealoiusy might play a role?

Felix -- If only so many of the media/arts bigwigs weren't ... well, lefties.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 2, 2004 12:45 PM

Brian -- I'm not sure I've been able to come up with any correlation between arts talent and anything at all, whether brains, social standing, or moral character. Would that it were true. I wonder if it is maybe more true in other fields, including other arts-related fields, like craftsmanship. Do good craftspeople tend to be more decent and in-control than lousy ones? Alas, I wouldn't know.

Jonas -- Yeah, plus I think it's all amplified by the fact that arts-and-culture is such a gooey field. If the sifting-and-sorting doesn't take place along roughly-meritocratic lines, as it might in a more hard-nosed field, how then does it occur? As far as I can tell, once you're over the "good enough" line, it's a free-for-all: ego, politics, determined careerizing, connections, etc. But I may well be doing nothing but rationalizing my own lack of success.

Deb -- I think you were born tougher and smarter than I was!

Annette -- Those are all good points, I think. As is the point you make that "how would you know beforehand?" Drat, eh?

Ricpic -- I think part of all this may be a red-state/blue-state thing, don't you? Red-staters are often sweet and generous in their own terms, so long as you fit it; if you don't fit in, you might well be miserable there. But they also don't have much of an arts-and-culture life, and if you're drawn to that you might well find yourself making the leap over to the blue state world. Where you do get a more direct arts-and-culture involvement, but you're also often among rather strange (to a red-state person) people -- the privileged, red-state castoffs (who are often full of resentment about it), fantasists, and the highly-political. I think this split is kind of tragic. It heightens antagonisms for one thing -- "art" becomes very anti-vanilla, for instance, thereby antagonizing vanilla people even further out of the arts. And the cultureworld often has a kind of thought-police mindstate; you aren't really an "arts" person if you don't subscribe to the following 33 articles of political belief. Too bad, no? I wonder if the web might be helping the barriers fall just a bit. Any hunches about that?

Tom -- You're reminding me of a woman I know in publishing, who's done really well for herself. I asked her the other day if she was ready to make a stab at the very heighest level of the biz. She gave me a horrified look, and said something like, "I'd never! Not given what I know now." I said, "Which is what?" She said, "Well, they're crazy. They're like psychopaths. They need to triumph so badly that they'll do almost anything." Which has been my general impression too. I wonder though: do you think they all end up badly? Karmically, I certainly hope so.

J.C. -- I think one of the big changes in culture since I was a kid is what you're talking about, the way so many flyover types seem to feel almost entitled to stardom themselves, or at least just an inch from it. 40 years ago, the celeb/arts/culture life seemed like another world entirely. These cable/web/all-acess days, it seems like high-school sports, something we're all almost part of and feel completely entitled to stake a claim on. Very strange. I wonder how it's affecting the imaginations of young kids. It seemed to me like one of those landmark things in culture history when Ivy kids started going to Hollywood, and then writing in TV. Hard though it is for younger people to believe, showbiz didn't used to be something that kids from expensive colleges went into.

John -- And its title is "The Red and the Black"! Or maybe Tom Perrotta's "Joe College," which touches on a lot of these questions in amusing and rather moving ways, or ways that I found amusing and moving anyway.

Karl -- You don't indulge in the occasional rueful musing about the choices you've made and the unexpected places they've taken you? I do think one of the elements at play is the fact that the cultureworld, while not entirely a winner-take-all field, doesn't really have many positions in it where people having thoughts can find a place doing so. In engineering, say, if you're good but you aren't lucky or driven or connected, you're still going to wind up doing engineering. In the cultureworld, if you're good but not lucky/connected/driven, you're probably going to wind up doing random office work that has next to nothing to do with what got you into the field in the first place.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 2, 2004 03:10 PM

About what Michael Blowhard said about the red and blue states: I think both areas have a lot to learn from each other. I am physically in a red state(TN), for background. Red states could learn to be a bit more inculsive, to not be so worried about change, and I don't know as much about blue states, as I have never lived on the coasts, but maybe a bit of respect for tradition is ok, not the type that says "anyone different is bad" but the part where there is slowness and stillness. But I could be making it up, as I don't know about it.

Posted by: Shannon on June 3, 2004 12:36 PM

Shannon - That sounds about right. Too bad that culture's so hard to come by in the red states, and decency can be so hard to come by in the blue states. I envy people of your generation. What with the Web and Netflix and all, it should be less of a dilemma for you guys than it has been for us broken-down old folks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2004 01:18 PM

at the risk of being pilloried, i'm going to put on my secret decoder ring and say this:

Michael is a straight white gentile, and many of those in the town he lives in and the industry he works in are not.

In fact, they are often very hostile to straight white male gentiles - particularly the religious ones - and all they stand for.

This hostility, when accompanied by wealth and social libertinism (as distinguished from liberalism) can be galling. Not all of the hostile ones are lefty Jews or gays...but quite a few of them are, and certainly enough to take notice.

(note: i am not a straight white male gentile, though it is up to the reader to discern which category I don't fit).

Posted by: humm on June 5, 2004 05:46 AM

Imagine being a maid for one of those aggressive elites? But actually tyranny comes in all shapes and sizes. In families, among the poor, we can even inflict it on ourselves in the form of addiction. Certainly a naive view of life benefits from the awareness of tyranny. People like Bush say the tyrants are all over there but they are also among us. It's amazing to think that the same sort of people who would use slavery or serfdom are still among us, they just don't have the system in place. It definitely makes me appreciate what we have to give people freedom of choice and economic mobility. More power to the positive people!

Posted by: Mr Chips on June 7, 2004 07:55 PM

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