I HAVE BEEN RECEIVING so many requests lately for lifestyle advice, tips on public relations and media etiquette (not to mention recommendations about health and beauty maintenance), that I just haven’t been able to keep up with them all. And let’s face it, it’s pretty obvious why so many people ask me. That’s why there’s so much pesky filtering to do! Some of these approaches are screams for help from needy individuals who are perfectly sincere, while others are just the usual come-ons or come-hithers from would-be groupies and young women and men who want to take advantage of me. I don’t dispense the obvious for people who are simply unstable, and I can name names and initials like “L.L.” You can talk about your divas if you insist, but I say unstable is the worst.
Yes, I have worked as a guru for numerous and various insecure show-biz types, and I can tell you that because they couldn’t handle the truth, a number of these people are no longer with us. Now, a lot of destructive problems such as mixing alcohol abuse with other substance abuse and both of these with reckless driving—well, I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what to say. I didn’t even have to be Henny Youngman: “Doc, it hurts when I do this!” But getting them to accept, internalize, and act on this advice? I learned a long time ago that not even a hefty fee can fortify sensible advice, if the listening ear and the power of will are lacking. So I have one rule: I don’t do convincing. I just do instructing. And I don’t even do that until the deposited check is as clear as you ought to be right now. I lay it down; you pick it up. That’s the way this thing works.
Now I might also point out that the problems have changed since I got into personal consulting and confidential career tweaking. The perplexities of today are much more difficult than the tractable ones of two generations ago. You know what I mean—the kinds of things you used to read about in the National Enquirer. There used to be lurid scandals and the usual alcoholism and drug problems, weight crises, sexual chaos, closeted frustrations, various anxieties, car crashes, swan dives off balconies. That was in the old days. And I had a lot to learn, I do concede. I should have known that bringing a bottle of Scotch to Ava Gardner was a bad move, but I was just trying to break the ice. Little did I know that she would try to break my head! Damned if she didn’t shatter that bottle—and it was Johnny Walker Black Label, the good stuff. Even if there had been a bottle to get it back into, it couldn’t have been done. Never mind about her and her bullfighters and Frank on the phone in the middle of the night. Basta! You can’t fix crazy, or at least I couldn’t.
So I had regrets about the wasted booze (and that was some good booze, let me tell you) but not about Ava, because she was impossible. There comes a time when you just have to walk away and not look back. But situations like that are not the problem anymore. The world has changed, the ambience has changed, and I think that even human nature has changed, because it has been directly attacked through the digitalized assault on the nervous system.
So I used to tell people what they needed to hear, and sometimes I was right. I was wrong when I told Ann Sheridan not to worry about her chain-smoking, and I admit it—but that’s how I learned. I was wrong when I said to Jayne Mansfield, “Your poodle is starting to annoy me, so why don’t you give it the gas, slowpoke!” And I regret those words, the last ones she heard. And I regret having told her that her new convertible was vulgar, though it was. She just couldn’t handle it.
So this is what he probably meant when the guy—I forget his moniker—said, “Wisdom comes from suffering.”
Today, things are different and not so heavy. And we are more honest about obvious problems, such as excessive exposure to the sun. People used to be reckless about time on the beach, but now you hardly have to tell them. And it was common years ago to deal with smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise—things that, in ways, are not issues in the contemporary scene. So some issues are off the table, as I have learned in my consulting, and some issues are very much on the table. But I digress momentarily to ask why, after the war on smoking, the same people who pushed that are now all hipped on decriminalizing marijuana. Well, they lie. One year they say that secondhand smoke isn’t fair to waitresses, etc., in low-ceilinged rooms. Not much later, Mayor Bloomberg forbids smoking at the beach, though beaches don’t have ceilings. It kind of makes you wonder if not knowing the news might be liberating, in the sense that there would be so many lies to which you were not exposed. There is no sunscreen or parasol for the cognitive damage caused by endless prevarication and mendacity intoned in an authoritative manner, as on the broadcast news, or in the New York Times, though in both cases, the manner has lost its authority.
Now I know what you are waiting for: You want to know about the celebs and others of their ilk, what’s really bothering them these days. And a large part of the answer is what’s bothering you. Because it’s simple really, like knowing who is a loon and who isn’t: You can tell by the way they act. If people actually take the contemporary social media seriously and hook up to them, then they are in big trouble—they might as well be doing speedballs. And I know this because I have been there myself. There is a degenerative aspect of human nature whereby a process becomes a habit, and then a destructive obsession. I have lived it, I have seen it, and it is a horror. It is partly the basis for the contemporary cult of zombie movies, because otherwise healthy people can become virtual zombies repeating reflex actions and the mantras of our day. And people in such a pitiable condition are liable to be subject to all kinds of bad influences that would lead to deplorable and self-destructive behaviors.
LET’S TAKE SOME EXAMPLES so we can turn the point into a useful image. Everyone has seen the misuse of cellphones and texting on the highways—the danger of such gross misbehavior is obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I have seem women driving two-ton SUVs at 70 miles per hour who are texting, smoking, and adjusting makeup while they have one finger on the wheel. This happens on a coast-to-coast scale every morning, though such out-of-control behavior is so dangerous and repulsive, you might think it would be its own rebuke.
Another image would be the student who is looking at his iPad in class while the lesson is being imparted. This misbehavior is so odd that a much simpler example, the student who listens to rock music while she “studies” is now quaint. So I will ask, do you listen to music while you read or work? I do not. When I listen to music, it has, or rather is, my attention. If it is not, I silence it. But I am no model of virtue or good sense: I do listen to music when I drive, and I know that it is a mistake—it is dangerous, the way I listen. Yet I think this example of a good thing becoming a bad habit clarifies much grosser ones. But can you learn from this? Or do you simply want me to tell you what music I find transporting, so that by imitating me, you can possibly fake a rise in taste or class along the way? In your dreams! If you want my playlist, you can subscribe to it at the usual fee like everybody else.
Nevertheless, Although, Even so, and However, I am going to tell you what not to do and what to do so you can avoid the mental damage and various nasty consequences of living wrongly—of doing it badly, of messing up—and that free of charge. No toll on this call!
Inarguable Point I: Insofar as humanly possible—conditions are never perfect, and we must compromise to live—you must avoid the social media like the proverbial plague (and I hope that you will forgive my use of the word plague in our interdependent, borderless global environment). So that means that iPhones and iPads can only be used for instrumental and justifiable purposes. If you find yourself blogging in an illiterate fashion, then you are already in big trouble and should consult with me as soon as possible, while bearing in mind that I don’t do charity work. If you rant like a jackass, then that is what you are, and if you permit your name to be tainted by orthographic, grammatical, and substantive distortions, then you have become a zombie, and the game is over.
Inarguable Point II: Two generations ago, there might have been a point to watching the news, for obvious reasons. Those days are gone. There is no available news, and if there were, they wouldn’t tell it to you. From FOX and MSNBC, we get yelling and misinformation, and from the rest of them—well, if you want to watch. bimbos expose themselves, there are porn channels for losers. News shows are showcases for racial and “gender” quotas, which is a clue that they are not serious expositions. That’s how bad it has become. Watching the news today is destructive. You would be better off smoking, though you probably can’t afford that unless you manage a hedge fund.
Inarguable Point III: Watching television is no good. It is basically destructive altogether, and even the better parts of it are not good enough. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are funny, but the point they ultimately make is that you don’t need them, either. Anything that is good on television can be acquired another way for you to watch when you want, without “watching television.”
I INTERRUPT THIS MESSAGE to insist that alienation or “making strange” can be most helpful in shifting the ground so that the enormity of the evil banality of television can be perceived. Example: Years ago, The Brady Bunch (1969-74) was an embarrassingly dumb TV show. It was agonizingly stupid, and it was ugly. Decades later (1995) there was a movie which reproduced its ugliness exquisitely, so that the film and then the movie on TV could pretend it was hipper than TV, but if the vomit-green rug on the one was the same shade on the other, and the moronic presentation was—but you get the idea. Stay away! Amscray! Avoidance alert! They are all like that, including the talking heads on Sunday morning. If I had to choose, I’d marginally prefer The Brady Bunch to Senator McCain and Senator Graham, and any remotely orthodox church service to either.
Inarguable Point IV: As watching something flow strikingly and listening to something coherent are appealing, there are vast stretches of important things—classic films, good music—on YouTube and DVD for you to organize your own base of knowledge, feeling, and images. You can act to be your own channel, and you should. You owe it to yourself—my favorite form of finance.
Inarguable Point V: Nothing too much. Even reading has its limits—it can be antisocial and unhealthy if over done. Get up and get out. Walk the sidewalk; say hello to the neighbor; That is human relations. Stay away from the totalitarian simulacra: They are evil and even lethal. The “reality shows” give the game away. Reality, by definition, is not a show, and if it is, it isn’t real. It is, rather, arrogant, ugly, and degrading propaganda of the worst kind, to be avoided at all cost. There is no cost—except if you watch it! Don’t Watch It.’ Watch out!
Inarguable Point VI: Marcus Aurelius learned not to care about the Greens and the Blues, and we have to be disciplined enough to reject most of sports and nearly all of it that is on TV. Too bad: Sports are a nice substitute for war and a relief from political obfuscation and vexation, so we can understand their social utility and distraction. But sports have become corrupt and corrupting, and the viewer on the boob tube is no innocent but an enabler of abuse. Organized professional sports have resulted in scandalous damage to the young and to the enfeebled adults who ogle a continual athletic fraud all pumped up with steroids and drugs and “enhanced performance.” The pre-pros in the colleges are part of the malfunction of education itself, and the usual controlling mamas and papas abuse their own children for vanity and cash. Add to that the national betting craze, the point-shaving, etc., and the subsidized stadiums. Repeat after me with your hand over the place your heart used to be: “I will never watch an NBA game on TV again.” Repeat. “Because it is too stupid for me to waste my time.” Repeat. Again: “I will never watch an NFL game again, because they are ugly and gross and brutal.” Repeat. Again: “I will never watch a MLB game again, because baseball belongs to the boys of summer, not to the drug addicts and fat cats of October.” Repeat. Again: “No pro hockey ever again, especially from the Sunbelt.” Repeat. Again: “Tennis is marginally acceptable.” “Golf is OK.” “The Olympics are disgusting political bombast.” Etc. In other words, quit using abusive violence, drugs, and perversion as an excuse to watch more television and thereby escape reality by escaping from reality into an artificial and poisonous, noisy, ugly, repetitive, boring fantasy that makes face-lifted performance-enhanced zombies like Schwarzenegger and Stallone look “good,” whatever that is.
A Last Point Not Up For Discussion: A hospital waiting room or the service wing at a car dealership can be very instructive about your own domestic creeping crisis. People will watch anything on television, like stupefied animals, and there are very few exceptions. So take a cold look at your home environment and do not hesitate to take drastic action. If you have a television set of whatever quality and size, see that it is placed in an appropriately subordinated setting and environment. Do not ever allow any such set to dominate a room, particularly a living room. If you do, the false idol will have taken over. Do not fall for the trap of the “man cave.” Do not allow any set in a kitchen. Do not allow them in bedrooms. Do not allow computers to be abused by the young in their private space. You have been warned. The instruction is over. It’s up to you now.Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (November 2014) James O. Tate is recovering from years of being a professor of English literature at Dowling College on Long Island.