Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In Memoriam: Cyd Charisse

The world was saddened today by the announcement of the death of Cyd Charisse. The actress/dancer died of a heart attack near Los Angeles, California yesterday, at the age of 86.
Hers is a story we should all know and celebrate.

As a child, she contracted polio, a viral disease which, up until 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine, often left it’s victims crippled, paralyzed, and in a few cases, dead. The early 20th century answer was the Iron Lung to help regulate breathing, or body casts and braces to prevent the afflicted limbs from twisting.

She was one of the fortunate ones, and after her recovery, Cyd (her stage name; she was born Tula Ellice Finklea) took up dancing as a way to strengthen her muscles. And what a recovery!
In 1952, she danced with Fred Astaire in “Zeigfield Follies”. In 1952, she replaced Debbie Reynolds in a dance scene in “Singin’ in the Rain” (photo above) – because Gene Kelly insulted Ms. Reynolds... told her she was a lousy dancer.

Cyd Charisse went on to co-star with Astaire and Kelly, and with other such notables as Sammy Davis Jr. and Ricardo Montalban.

She reported that in 1952 her legs were insured for $5 million – more than Greta Garbo’s! And as she performed, the censors were ever-present to make sure she remained properly covered and within the limits of the 1950s sense of modesty and decorum.

Of Kelly and Astaire she said, “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious!”

Of Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire wrote, “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her, you stay danced with!”

Cyd stayed active throughout her life. In 1990 she produced an exercise video targeted for active senior citizens. But to her credit, she never stooped to the obligatory guest appearance on “Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island” that denigrated the legacy of so many of her peers.

To borrow from an old advertisement, “Nothing beats a great pair of legs!” Cyd, thanks for sharing!

How Far Do We Go?

Several years ago, my brother-in-law and his wife adopted a boy from an orphanage in Russia. Now 17, and having lived most of his life in the United States, Kolya announced recently that he didn’t want to go see the latest installment of the “Indiana Jones” movies. When asked why, his response was simple:

“Because the bad guys are Russians.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. It’s just a movie… light-hearted entertainment. As in all of the other “Indiana Jones” movies, the characters are simply “caricatures”, comic exaggerations designed to generate a laugh. Take, for example, Dr. Jones himself – a mild-mannered archeology professor at an ivy-covered college by day, but a hard-drinking, fist-throwing, gun-shooting, whip-cracking adventurer by night… who hates snakes!

C’mon. You only find those types among United Methodist pastors!

In the first movie, the bad guys were Nazis. The film could almost have been a WWII-era propaganda film, with the very obvious plot of good (i.e. America) triumphing over evil (i.e. the Nazis). Yet as far as I know, people of German-American descent did not cry out in protest over the comic mis-characterization of that unfortunate chapter in their history.

As WWII concluded and the Nazis were defeated, America’s next big threat came from Russia – the Soviet Union. This latest Indiana Jones movie is set during the Cold War, so it seems appropriate that the “bad guys” would be Soviets. If it had been set any time after 2001, the “bad guys” would be turban-wearing Taliban terrorists.

You’ll find a similar progression of enemies in the James Bond movies.

But the Indiana Jones series is as much comedy as adventure. To that end, each of the movies has been filled with stereotypes of people around the world – from the fez-wearing, black market businessmen in the grottos of Morocco to the mud-covered, poison-dart blowing natives in the jungles of this latest movie.

And the aliens – taken straight out of the “X-Files”.

I would dare say that if the Indiana Jones series has misrepresented anyone, they have misrepresented pretty much everyone… throughout the galaxy!

But Kolya was serious. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of being “politically correct”. These were his people being unfairly maligned. It wasn’t funny to him. Truth be told, would we laugh if the roles were reversed and the Russians were the heroes?

And is it possible Kolya was catching some grief from his schoolmates who were unable to distinguish between the fantasy of a movie villain and the reality of a flesh-and-blood Russian-American right there in their midst?

Does what we call “entertainment” inadvertently inspire racial and ethnic misconceptions?

In December I attended a conference on diversity at Lake Junaluska, N.C. It was sponsored by the Southeast Jurisdiction of the UMC. It was a joy and privilege to celebrate the heritage of multiple ethnic groups represented there – Asian, Hispanic, Native American, African-American – and to worship God using their traditions. I came away from the event feeling like I had experienced a brief glimpse of what heaven must be like, and wishing that all of our churches could be so diverse and inclusive.

But one presentation almost ruined the event for me. We had already heard a great deal about how Native Americans have suffered at the hands of the “white man”. One woman told of the pain of being ostracized by both whites and Native Americans because she was a “half-breed”. We could feel her pain.

Then a Native American pastor, with a flair for the dramatic and a gift of humor, shared with the gathering his hurt at the hands of an ignorant white man – the man had continually referred to him as “chief”, referred to the native garb as a “costume”, and did the hand-raised “How?” – codified as an authentic “injun” greeting in early westerns.

I was right there with him, feeling righteous anger at this insensitive exchange. But then my native brother referred to the annoying little man as a “red-neck”.

Hey, wait a minute! That’s “my people” he’s insulting!

Seems it’s only funny when it’s the other ethnic group being insulted.

Speaking of “red-necks”, a television commercial for a local auto dealer recently announced he is giving away a free shotgun with every pick-up truck purchased. Lord help us!

But maybe Kolya has a point. Maybe it’s time to put away the stereotypes – even the funny ones!

I haven’t researched this, but I’m guessing that not every Russian is named “Boris” or “Natasha”… not every young black man with his pants bagging around his knees is a gang-banger… not every Muslim in America is a member of a “sleeper cell” waiting for an opportunity to destroy America… not every pickup truck owner wants a shotgun.

But how will we know until we look within ourselves and confess our own misconceptions and prejudices? How will we know who these people really are until we reach out and invite them into an authentic relationship? How will we know who they really are until we listen to their stories and hear how they have been hurt by our all-too-casual stereotyping?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Last Call???

My friends, America stands at a cross-roads.

No, I’m not talking about the current political race, or the war in Iraq, or the price of gasoline, or the earthquake in China. Symbolically, this is more important than all of those.

According to USAToday today (I never know how to say that!), an international corporation has made a lucrative offer to buy Anheuser-Busch!

Of course, I don’t drink Budweiser… or Bud Light… or Michelob… or most of what A-B has to offer, come to think of it.

I do like “Landshark Lager”, which A-B produces at its Jacksonville brewery, but that label has not received wide acclaim and I don’t expect it to last long. Even the flocks of Parrotheads – who have temporarily set down their margaritas to support yet another Jimmy Buffett branding – will not be able to generate the sales necessary to keep the label alive.

Especially since A-B also holds a 50% share in Corona’s parent company.

But surely Anheuser-Busch won’t be sold to an international conglomerate. It’s an institution! A national treasure! It’s as American as baseball, Mom and apple pie!

Consider it’s history: In 1869, a German immigrant to America named Adolphus Busch took over a failing brewery, turned the company around and created a national brand name which today claims almost half of all beer sales in America.

What was that comment about immigrants…?

A master at marketing, Busch gave away items like posters and prints to distributors and bar owners; he even gave away pocketknives engraved with the company’s name and a peep-hole through which one could look and see his portrait painted in miniature.

From 1916-1933, the United States outlawed alcohol, so Busch switched to making non-alcoholic beverages, ice cream, and refrigerated cabinets. When Prohibition was lifted, he hitched up a team of Clydesdales and delivered a wagon full of beer to the White House. The Clydesdales became an icon of the company.

In the 1990s, company profits started slipping. They realized that the common perception of their product was that it was “your father’s beer”. So they tweaked their advertising, targeting the younger generation of drinkers, and the company rebounded.

In recent years, the Anheuser-Busch Company has spent heavily on marketing, sponsoring TV shows, sports teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, and sporting events like the Super Bowl. In 2000, the company spent most of its $250 million advertising budget on sporting events.

Yes, in America, “Bud” has become synonymous with “beer” in much the same way that in the South “Coke” is used as a reference to all carbonated beverages. A-B’s success story is one we should all know and from which we can all learn, no matter what line of work we are in.

Yet now a Belgium-based corporation called “InBev” has put money on the table – and a lot of it! $46.3 billion, to be precise!

InBev already owns Becks and Stella Artois, among other well-known labels, and are ranked as the second-largest brewer in the world. (A-B is ranked third.) But it is also a company known for stream-lining production to reduce costs and increase share-holder value.

Anheuser-Busch, as we know it, may cease to exist. What will happen to the amusement parks? to the Clydesdales? to the St. Louis Cardinals? to Superbowl commercials?

Perhaps this is simply much ado about nothing. August Busch IV, CEO of A-B, says the company is not for sale – ‘no way, no how’! But the reality is that the family only holds 4% of the company’s stock. So the future of the company rests with the share-holders.

So let me speak directly to the share-holders for a moment: Friends, this vote is not about beer. It is about preserving a piece of our American heritage. Would you sell the Statue of Liberty? Would you sell the Washington Monument? Would you sell Al Gore? [please!]

I think not!

Put to a vote, will the A-B share-holders be bold and act to save this great American icon?

Or will a Gordon Gekko arise (remember “Wall Street”?) and announce, “Greed is good!”?…and the company will be sold…and most likely gutted.

Will this be last call?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


She was a sweet little old lady – the grandmotherly type, complete with support hose and those pointy-framed glasses with rhinestones. She was the guest pianist at my little church when I was a student pastor in college. Her name has long since slipped from the memory, but I will never forget her.

She was introduced with appreciation that morning near the beginning of the worship service, and I invited her to tell us a little about herself. She proudly announced that she was a volunteer for the American Family Association. It was her job (along with hundreds of other just like her, I’m sure) to watch network television programs, review the content – including counting the number of times a “swear word” is used – and report back to the AFA, which stands always poised and ready to launch the next boycott.

That may explain the woman in Arizona who found the alleged “phallic image” on the cover of a “Little Mermaid” video… or the person who insisted that (in the same video) the minister officiating at the wedding of Ursula and Prince Eric had a “cartoon” erection.

You’ve got to be intentionally looking for this stuff to find it… and then some!

So it came as no surprise that last week, when CBS began airing it’s summer adult offering, “Swingtown”, the network and local affiliate stations received complaints. Not surprisingly, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal many of the letters of “outrage” were identical in their wording.

I smell a rat… or the AFA!

For those of you living under a rock, “Swingtown” has been heavily advertised over the past couple of months. Set in the 70’s – an era few of us want to remember, much less relive – the summer space-filler unapologetically explores the swingin’ lifestyle of that era through a fictional couple. In it’s advertising, the network was very upfront in telling us that this new show would be pure, unadulterated trash – full of all kinds of sexual immorality and blatant drug use, and lacking adult responsibility and maturity.

So what are concerned Christians supposed to do about this latest scourge that “threatens to undo the moral fabric of America”?

How about this idea: Watch something else!

No, really. No one is forcing you to watch “Swingtown”. In Memphis, basic cable provides 63 channels of programming for alternative viewing. At any time of the day, I can change the channel of my television and watch sports or home improvement shows or spaghetti westerns… or even Pat Robertson’s “700 Club”. Even without cable – at least up until “the Big Switch” – one can tune in to at least three other channels to watch.

Here’s another idea: turn off the TV and spend some quality time with your family.

With divorce continuing it’s crest at 51% per year, and teenage pregnancy on the rise yet again, it seems there are more important things to do than sit around all night watching soft-core porn on television! So make Thursday nights “Game Night” for the whole family… or take your spouse out for a date (alone!)… or any number of other, healthier diversions.

The truth is, while a few AFA boycotts have successfully eliminated questionable programming on television, more often than not such good-intentioned actions have only provided free publicity to the offending show. And as they say in show business, “Any publicity is good publicity!”

So change the channel, or do something else. That’s what I do.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

And the winner is...

No, that's not "Big Brown" in the photo crossing the finish line at Saturday's 140th running of the Belmont Stakes. That's "Da' Tara", the horse voted "least likely to succeed" in beating Big Brown and ending his bid for the Triple Crown.

When Casino Drive was scratched from the race due to an injury, it seemed a foregone conclusion that nothing could prevent Big Brown from being the first Triple Crown horse in 30 years.

Yet, even 38-to-1 odds did not stop Da' Tara from trying, and when the "photo finish" clicked, it wasn't even close. Da' Tara rode off with the blanket of carnation.

And where was Big Brown? Ninth.

For those of you who missed the race, that's "last".

There is no rational explanation (yet) for what happened to Big Brown. He definitely wasn't the same horse we saw at the Kentucky Derby or at the Preakness.

It just proves what I have said about every other sport: "On any given day, any [horse] can be any [horse]."

Perhaps next year Rick Dutrow will do better with his next Triple-Crown Threat: John Wesley!

(Hey, it could happen!)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Annual Conference 2008

O Lord, what have we done?

The 169th session of the Memphis Annual Conference concluded last night at around 8:30 p.m., working well past the designated quitting time and through the dinner break to finish the necessary work of the annual meeting.

In general, this year’s conference could be summed up by a line from the Bishop's special Task Force report: “It was determined that with declining membership and a diminished financial resource base we could be just as effective with fewer districts.”

“Just as effective”???

That reminded me of a sermon illustration about the preacher who turned in the following annual report:
* Professions of Faith = 0
* Baptisms = 0
* New Members received from other Methodist Churches = 0
* New Members received from other Denominations = 0
And the pastor concluded: “Serving Christ faithfully to the end.”

I honestly wondered if that line in the Task Force report was a typo. In context, perhaps it should have read, “We could be just as IN-effective with fewer districts.” And to that end, we could be just as ineffective with no districts… or 100 districts.

Or perhaps they were trying to sound more optimistic. If that was the case, then it should have read, “We could be even more effective with fewer districts”. Unfortunately the hour was growing late and I wisely chose to not raise the question.

Each year I come away from the conference wondering, “O Lord, what have we done?” And I ask myself, “Why do I keep going back?”

…besides the fact that I am required to be present…

Well, for me, it comes down to the “holy conferencing” that occurs in the hallways and at breaks, in the table fellowship of a meal together, and in a beer shared at a baseball game.

Those who enjoy combing over “budget sheets” and exercising “Robert’s Rules of Order” will take care of the business – I am confident of that.

Meanwhile, as Methodism continues to fracture and our churches become more congregational than connectional, this annual meeting gives us a chance to visit with colleagues in ministry from other parts of the conference whom we don’t often get to see, providing us the opportunity to catch up… to commiserate… to encourage… and to celebrate.

And without this annual gathering, I am confident our ministries would be diminished, our families would suffer, our own physical, mental and emotional health would suffer, and our churches would surely die.

So here’s to the 169th session of the Memphis Annual Conference. May God bless our intentions if not our actions. I look forward to being with you all again – in Memphis! – the first week of June 2009!