Category Archives: Exploitation

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Dream a Little Dream

“What’s the skinny guy sayin’?”

Jake Plotner plopped on the bar stool next to mine in the cool darkness of the American Legion.  Jake’s a sixty-something fireplug with blue eyes and white flat top who claims to be the small town cousin of the late, great Chicago columnist Mike Royko’s alter ego Slats Grobnik. I cannot confirm the identity of either fellow, but they both enjoy a good conversation over a cold beer. Some say Jake retired from a local factory where he ran a press that punched tin can lids. My son Michael worked a similar machine one hot summer.

“Toughest job I ever had, Dad,” Michael said, this from a kid who detassled, painted barns and shoveled soybeans and other things for farmers since the age of fourteen.

Jake punched that press for forty years according to local legend.

Without a word the blonde bartender handed Jake a beer and the three of us stared up at the TV.

Thanks to the proliferation of 24/7 news channels Americans have a choice in how the events of the day are presented on TV. We have networks that lean conservative, liberal and the one that’s in every airport which appears to be simply dazed and confused at this point. But the channels do share a few things in common like banner headlines signaling “Breaking News: Kim Kardashian Divorcing after Seventy-Two Days of Marriage,” a plethora of “buy gold” commercials and talking head “experts” who seem to have so much time on their hands that they do not work a day job. Or maybe being an “expert” is their day job.

Give me a steaming cup of Joe and the morning paper.

I gestured at the flashing screen.

“He says since Congress hasn’t acted on comprehensive immigration reform he’s not enforcing the law to deport illegal immigrants under the age of thirty who meet certain requirements,” I said.

“It’s good to be King,” Jake said. “But heck, his party had control of Congress for two years and never did nothin’ about it. What’s ‘Mister Gentleman’s Quarterly’ got to say?”

A news ticker ran along the bottom of the TV highlighting civil war in Syria, Iranian nuclear denials and the announcement that a Reality TV couple was having a child. GQ appeared on cue, square-jawed with every black hair in place, sixty-something like Jake but not showing the wear and tear of forty years in a factory. He said something about not necessarily disagreeing with the idea of not deporting young illegal immigrants who fit the criteria but objected to the skinny guy’s unilateral pronouncement. GQ also called for comprehensive immigration reform.

Jake and I swigged our beers. The blonde wandered to the end of the bar.

“So they agree?” Jake said blue eyes wide. “We need new rules on this whole deal, right?”


Jake brushed his flat top and shifted to face me.

“This is crazy. These guys agree we need to secure the border, be reasonable about the folks already here and set up a new system to make it fair for everyone who wants to come to the U.S. That’s what they’re both sayin’, right?”

“You’re correct, my friend,” I said.

“Then why the hell don’t they get it done?”

“Devil’s in the details, I guess. But some say it’s not good politics.”

“Come again,” Jake said leaning on the bar.

“Stirs the pot.  Fires up each party’s base. Helps get the vote out. It’s not about governing or doing the right thing like both sides claim. They don’t want to make proposals that the other can criticize and turn against ‘em.  It’s all about winning elections.”

“Geez,” Jake said, rubbing his chin, “with all the problems this is causin’ for all sorts of people, it’s hard to believe that even politicians can be that cynical.”

Our eyes met and we laughed.

“Another round,” Jake called to the blonde. “And for Pete’s sake…change the channel. I’d rather watch the Cubs lose than listen to any more of this.”

The screen glowed with green grass, blue sky and a Cub batter kicking the dirt after a swing and a miss.

“Hell, at least he’s swingin’ the bat,” Jake said, raising his glass. “At least he’s swingin’ the bat.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs, Corrupt Politicians, Exploitation, Immigration Reform, Institutions, July 2012, Mitt Romney, Newspaper, Small town America

The Biggest Loser: Exploitation or Enlightenment?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then maybe feelings of pleasure are as well. One person’s enjoyment viewed with disdain by someone else. I can imagine it harking back to our earliest communities, a caveman sketching on rock walls being chastised by contemporaries who felt he should be hunting and gathering, laying a “guilt” trip on him for drawing stick figures when there was work to be done. Similar to how some people today might view musicians, poets, or, dare I say, writers, who wile away the hours “expressing” themselves for no apparent reason other than self-gratification. Driving them to practice their craft at night or in the wee hours of the morning while spending the rest of their waking hours working socially acceptable day jobs. Perhaps that ostracized caveman artist was the first individual to engage in what we now call a “guilty pleasure.”

Of course “guilt” is in the eye of the beholder as much as beauty. Sexual mores, for example, have evolved to the point where we openly discuss activities on afternoon TV that would make our grandmothers blush (OK, maybe great-grandmothers.) As for beauty, what we now term “plus-sized” women were the epitome of desire centuries past and the subject of innumerable paintings. Even today in certain cultures, what we would consider an overweight woman is viewed in a positive manner, being fat a symbol of sexual maturity, wealth, strength and wisdom.  Ditto for overweight men. Their girth a sign of financial success and the ability to provide.

In American culture not many positive attributes are applied to heavy people. There are exceptions, a few folk who are attracted to overweight partners. Some entertainers, like Queen Latifah, celebrate their size and encourage others to come to terms with their body type.  But for the most part the definition of beauty in this country is tied to being thin. You have far more celebrities, Marie Osmond, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Alexander and Dan Marino come to mind, touting weight loss programs as opposed to body image acceptance.

The irony of our quest to be thin is that we have never been fatter. For Americans over the age of 20,  34.4% are considered overweight and 33.9% obese. Overweight is defined as a body weight  1 to 20% more than medical guidelines, obese, 20% or greater. Thus, in America today, over 60% of people 20 or older are carrying too many pounds.

It is the nexus of these two societal constructions, the notion of guilt and our standards regarding weight and beauty, that make Reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser intriguing to those who study culture. For some, Reality TV, regardless of the subject matter, is considered voyeurism and/or an exercise in schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the troubles of others.  The “maybe my bad habits/lifestyle/personal choices aren’t so bad, look at this schmuck” rationale.  Seeking enjoyment from the trouble of others is not something to which most people will admit. So when the discussion of Reality TV comes up, many will say they do not watch such programs despite the fact that the shows garner high ratings and generate millions of dollars profit for the networks. Our lies about watching Reality TV are similar to the “I usually break even in Vegas” line. Really? Is that why the drinks are free as long as you’re gambling? Because everyone’s “breaking even?”

I’m not a regular gambler or overweight. But those times I’ve been to Vegas, I’ve lost money (while enjoying the free drinks.) Second, I like watching The Biggest Loser.  But it’s not because I take pleasure in watching overweight people sweat.  It’s because I admire what they are doing, fighting to regain their health and redefine their self-image.  While I understand that people come in all shapes and sizes and some are genetically predisposed to be heavier, the overwhelming evidence is that most people get overweight because we eat too much and exercise too little.  If you’re fifty or older like me, picture yourself, friends, or family in their twenties and compare their body size to today. Were all the currently overweight folks as heavy then as now? If not, I think we can toss out the “genetic” rationale and focus on diet and exercise.

If you watch a show like The Biggest Loser you realize that being overweight is not something people consciously choose. Some have always fought the battle of the bulge, others only as they aged. But almost all say they use food as a substitute for things they feel they lack like love, friendship, family, or acceptance, and they fill that gap by eating.  Their desire to lose weight is rarely about looking better. It’s about attempting to regain control of their emotions, health and lives.

That said, I cannot deny the show can be exploitive. That sometimes the camera should be turned away, the producers appealing to the schadenfreude contingent in the viewing audience. And, yes, there is a $250,000 prize to the winner. Yet, from my point of view, there are far more uplifting moments than negative. For those willing to dig deeper and look into their own heart, those positive moments engender empathy and understanding. As for the prize money, I’ve yet to hear an eliminated contestant moan about not winning. Rather, they are grateful for the opportunity to make a significant change in their lifestyle.

In a society that increasingly rewards image over substance, that encourages us to applaud the superficial and vain, that’s no small accomplishment. I feel no guilt and experience genuine pleasure as I root for real people who lay it on the line in front of God and a national television audience in an effort to reclaim control of at least one part of their life.

For me, that’s a beautiful thing.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Beauty, Exploitation, Guilty Pleasures, November 2011, Obesity, Reality TV, Schadenfreude, The Biggest Loser