Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some Final Thoughts on the 2014 Midterm Elections

With less than three weeks until Election Day, two conclusions are taking hold. First, early estimates of low turnout suggest that voter apathy is alive and well. Secondly, the polarized state of American politics, especially as President Obama enters his last two years in office, is more shrill and viable than ever. As with any election, the well-financed men and women that are jockeying for position are a melange of dolts and schemers, liars and dreamers. Even the most idealistic candidate can be worn down by the meat grinder of our legislative branch.

If you're an Illinoisan, you have plenty to be exasperated about. In fact, for as long as I've been a registered voter I don't think our state has had a major party candidate for governor that was worth voting for. The license-for-bribes scandal that ended George Ryan's political career gave way to six ignoble years of Rod Blagojevich, which begat six years of incumbent Pat Quinn. Of this sorry bunch Quinn was probably the least embarrassing. Accusations of corruption have been unfounded --right-wing conspiracy theorists have tried to connect Blago to his reluctant second in command and vice versa, with limited success-- but Quinn's doddering, in-over-his-head performance as governor should offer limited hope for a second full term. The Republican's answer, multimillionaire Bruce Rauner, would have a commanding lead over Quinn if not for several character flaws: he's been perceived as alternately out-of-touch, bullying, and coasting. Rauner is a pro-choice, pragmatic Republican in a state where moderate "collar county" conservatives have more sway than any other right-wing faction. (I thank my lucky stars that the Tea Party has never found a foothold in Illinois, Joe Walsh notwithstanding.) Just being "the other guy" is not enough, so it seems.

Where the governor's race is saturated with schadenfreude, the Illinois U.S. Senate race almost plays like satire. The incumbent is the prominent (read: powerful) Democrat Dick Durbin, and his challenger is ice cream magnate and perennial candidate Jim Oberweis. It's essentially a battle between a candidate who's out of touch with voters versus a candidate who's out of touch with reality. Nevertheless, Durbin is the #2 Democrat in the higher chamber, and CPACs will keep pumping money into the Oberweis campaign to oust a Washington top dog, no matter how lousy or delusional a candidate like Oberweis might be.

The problems that face my home state will not be fixed overnight. The Land of Lincoln has made social progress in recent years (yay, marriage equality!) but seems stagnant in every other aspect. In a way, Illinois is a microcosm of what ails the United States as a whole: partisan bickering, extreme ideologies, shortsighted ideas. What happens in the last two years of Obama's administration likely won't change much; the GOP is expected to reinforce their control of Congress, and though they will gain seats in the U.S. Senate they won't seize the majority. Basically, another two years of gridlock.
In summation, I'm writing this year's election rundown slightly earlier than usual to implore anyone reading this to register to vote and express your voice on November 4th.  A voter turnout of 3.5% percent means 96.5% of the population will lose their right to complain about the next two years. If you have a problem with what's going on this country, then put pen to hand and speak your mind.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Royal Pains

Anyone who’s known me for a reasonable amount of time will attest that I am a lifelong and long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. For the vast majority of the time I’ve been a fan, there really hasn’t been much to brag about. Growing up in the southwest Chicago suburbs, reactions from other baseball fans --about 50% White Sox, 45% Cubs, 5% “other”-- ranged from ridicule to confusion to pity. With the Royals becoming the Cinderella of the 2014 playoffs, earning them the temporary title of America’s team and sentimental favorites against the thriving San Francisco Giants, my noted fandom has experienced unheard-of levels of euphoria. And yet, I’ve never really explained at length why I root for the Royals.

My paternal grandmother’s family moved from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana to Kansas City in the mid-1910s. Even though my father’s family bounced between KC, St. Louis, and LaGrange, IL for much of the 1940s and 50s, my grandmother’s brother and two sisters hewed close to KC. When Grandma Sara died in July 1993 my family flew out to the Emerald City for her funeral, the first of several trips I would take between then and 2001. It was during this first trip that I would grow acquainted with the surviving members of Grandma Sara’s side of the family, especially her older sister Beatrice. “Aunt Bea” was ten years Sara’s senior; she was 12 years old when the family left the Deep South; my grandma, the baby of the family, was 25 months old. Because of that, Bea spoke with a lilting, Eudora Welty-type southern drawl while Sara spoke with a very slight Great Plains twang.

Growing up mostly with my mom’s side of the family --unabashedly blue collar, salt of the earth Chicago Polacks-- to meet these college-educated, somewhat WASPy, middlebrow social climbers was a little alien to me. My father’s sister had a bigger house than most of my mother’s relatives, but I never dwelled on it too much. I found it hard to relate to my mother’s side of the family; I’m more urban than agrarian and I’m not very outdoorsy; in a family of mechanics and custodians, I was more concerned with getting an education than picking up a trade. I wanted to strive more than live modestly within my means. I saw that in Aunt Bea, who was a socialite in her prime and was still graciously hosting whomever would visit her townhouse as she approached her 90th birthday. Incidentally, she was also a Kansas City Royals fan, with a swooning affection for their aging star George Brett.

Kansas City in 1993 was a lot different than KC now. When the Royals won their first championship in 1985, the city was at rock bottom; the farms were dying, and the economic strife in the heartland trickled up to the cities, where businesses were shuttered and unemployment was at record levels. With their NBA team moving to California and the Chiefs middling at best, the Royals’ come-from-behind defeat of the Cardinals in the World Series was just the morale booster the city needed. Eight years later, KC was faring slightly better but not out of the woods just yet; the urban renewal of the mid-to-late 1990s was in its early stages. The Royals hadn’t made the playoffs since then (obviously), but they were consistently first-division and at worst a .500 ballclub. The Royals were consistently good but seldom great, and with my interest in sports just beginning to bloom, this piqued my interest. My mom’s family were mostly Cubs fans, and their almost delusional devotion just didn’t make sense to me.

With our first World Series appearance in 29 years on the horizon, my pride is usurped by a desire to gloat. After decades of mismanagement, small-market budgeting, lousy scouting, squandered draft picks, and all-around irrelevance my beloved Royals are back in the promised land. Regardless of what happens in the 2014 World Series, I will remain just as proud of my favorite baseball team as I was when they consistently lost 100 games a year. Their improbable playoff run has been a thrill to watch, and I assure you that this displaced Royals fan will spend this year’s Fall Classic glued to a TV set.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Legacy of Jan Hooks

With Saturday Night Live approaching its 40th anniversary this year, it's hard to fathom that we're inching closer to the prospect of seeing former cast members of old age. With the exception of World War II veteran Herb Sargent (who passed in 2008), the "In Memorium" reel is filled with actors and writers that died much too soon. Earlier this week Jan Hooks, one of the greatest female cast members in the show's four-decade history, died suddenly at age 57. Hooks had been sick for some time, though her illness has not been disclosed. A New York City resident since the early 1980s, this eulogy was probably the best I've read in the days following her passing.

If I had to pick my five favorite all-time female cast members, in chronological order I would choose Gilda Radner, Nora Dunn, Hooks, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig (though Wiigy's spot is in close danger, thanks to current cast member Kate McKinnon). We all know Poehler is a bona fide TV star and Wiig's fledging movie career has already seen its ups and downs, the first three women on this list are known predominantly, if not almost exclusively, for their work on SNL. Much has written and said of Radner's influence on comedic actresses in recent decades, but people either intentionally ignore or overlook her very underwhelming career after Studio 8H. In fact, Radner might be the first alumni to be dismissed as "well, she was funny on SNL..."

From that perspective, Hooks' career trajectory is not dissimilar to Radner's. Like her frequent partner in crime Dunn, Hooks was a linchpin of what I usually refer to as the Renaissance era of SNL, part of arguably the greatest and tightest ensemble in NBC's veritable sketch comedy show. Where Dunn alienated the show's producers (including her ex-boyfriend, Lorne Michaels) by refusing to share a stage with host Andrew Dice Clay --and after a PR fiasco, was soon fired-- Hooks left on her own volition after five years. And yet, both Radner and Hooks spent their first post-SNL decade in the wilderness, Radner with questionable and often mediocre film projects, Hooks relegated to work as a character actress. Her greatest champion was fellow SNL alum Martin Short, who cast Hooks as his wife on both his short-lived self-titled sitcom as well as various projects with his alter ego Jiminy Glick. It wasn't until various medical issues in the mid-2000s forced Hooks to stop striving for elusive stardom.

So why did Radner, Dunn, and Hooks all struggle? Movie stardom was an attainable goal, yet it never really happened (assuming Dunn did not inadvertantly burn bridges for the Diceman episode). Of course, you could say the same thing about the entire Renaissance cast; Dennis Miller is infinitely stronger at stand-up than acting, Dana Carvey pulled a Radner and attached himself to some lousy scripts, and Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman found steady work in supporting roles. One could argue in hindsight that these actresses were overshadowed by their male co-stars, a viable argument given the "boys club" reputation SNL had through the mid-1990s. There was a misogynistic pecking order, and Dunn, Hooks, and Victoria Jackson took their place near the back of the line. Radner loved John Belushi like a brother and he seemed to recipricate the affection, but I doubt they ever saw each other as true equals.

Glass ceilings and internal sexism aside, Jan Hooks will go down as an all-time great in the SNL annals and one of its most underrated and underappreciated talents. She was a consumate team player, a star that shined both individually and alongside the extrordinary talent SNL incubated in the late 1980s. Outside of late Saturday nights, she was a versatile and clutch supporting actress, doing memorable work on TV series like "Designing Women," "Third Rock from the Sun," "The Simpsons," and "30 Rock." She accomplished quite a bit in 25-plus years as a working actress, and I hope her passing offers a fresh and positive perspective on a talent gone too soon.