Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

5.7 The Seventh Day: Six more fascinating characters

So here are some of the folks who didn’t make the cut this week, but certainly deserve a little attention:

The Irish Voter.  This year, the voters of one small country (Ireland) decided the fate of Europe’s critical Lisbon Treaty, which represented some key policy changes in voting standards, defense, and representation for the European Union.  The Treaty went down to defeat by a margin of 53.4% to 46.6%; and with the defeat came questions about the strength of the European Union’s future.  That remains to be seen;  but the Irish voter has certainly earned him/herself a place in history as a result.

Sarah Silverman.  From the woman who created the brilliant “I’m F***ing Matt Damon” video (“on the bed, on the floor, on the towel by the door…”) earlier this year came “The Great Schlep,” an attempt to get college kids to visit their Jewish grandparents in Florida and convince them to vote for Barack Obama.  Hilarious.  My grandparents are no longer alive, and they weren’t Jewish, and didn’t live in Florida, but she still made me want to go.  Heck, I still do.

The fascinating Richard Armitage

The fascinating Richard Armitage

Richard Armitage.  This guy is HOT.  If you’ve never seen the BBC production Spooks (renamed MI-5 here in the U.S.), do yourself a favor and watch.  You probably won’t see his character surface on the show for a few years–broadcast schedules here are lagging behind the U.K. by several seasons–but believe me, the wait will be worth it.  And if you’re impatient, you can catch Mr. Armitage in BBC America’s Robin Hood.  The show itself is fluff, but seeing him clad in black leather is…fascinating.

A-Rod.  Schtupping Madonna?  The Kabbalah?  What?  I’m so confused.  Since when are baseball players spiritual gurus?

Amy Winehouse.  She doesn’t want to go to rehab.  Yup, I think we got it.

Those guys who made the prank call to Sarah Palin.  I don’t know if there is some Canadian national award for merit or something, but these guys (“Masked Avengers” Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel) certainly deserve it.  Holy crap, I still can’t believe she was stupid enough to think that Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to go on a helicopter hunting trip with her.  Or that they had a lot in common because he could see Belgium from his house.  Or that he would tell her that his wife, former model turned singer Carla Bruni, was hot in bed.  

And to think, this woman is still considered a serious contender for 2012.

5.6 Don’t worry, be happy: the King of Bhutan

So I’ve been thinking:  life isn’t really like Christmas songs, is it?  I mean, who really roasts chestnuts?  And where are all of these glorious silver bells ringing in the city?  And in this time of holly jolliness, isn’t it rather horrible that people are being trampled to death at Walmart?

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan

In a season that is supposed to be about joy, and giving, and peace, there seems to be a fearsome amount of stress and aggravation all around us.

That’s why (in this VERY tardy post, my apologies) I chose my final fascinating character of 2008: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan.

King Jigme, an Oxford alumnus, was coronated just two days after Barack Obama won the U.S. Presidential election.  At age 28, he is the youngest king and head of state in the world, and he presides over one of the world’s newest democracies (it held its first parliamentary elections in December of 2007.)  And he is single.

But that is not the reason I chose the young monarch as a fascinating person.  No:  the reason has to do with the country he presides over, and the philosophy that is part of its national creed.  Because Bhutan, a small country that lies at the end of the Himalayas, and wedged between the behemoths of India and China (well, technically China’s “autonomous” region of Tibet), strikes me as one of the most important countries in the world.  And it is not because of the size of its military, nor yet because of its wealth (Gross National Product), but rather because its guiding principle of self-measurement is called Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Amazing, yes?  Gross National Happiness.

As you would imagine, there is much debate about how to measure something that is, in its essence, so subjective.  And since the GNH policy was instituted in 1972 by King Jigme’s father, there have been multiple approaches to developing metrics.  But the most recent (and comprehensive) effort has included indexing seven specific indicators, including economic wellness, environmental wellness, physical wellness, mental wellness, workplace wellness, social wellness, and political wellness.

Now it strikes me that the U.S. would likely fail in most of these categories, were we to actually measure ourselves.  But as we look towards 2009, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we at least decided to try and attempt something like national happiness?  And started grading ourselves accordingly?

Perhaps then the songs we sing at this time of year would have a bit more meaning.  And our attitude of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men” might stretch beyond a few brief weeks at the end of December.

5.5 A man possessed: Michael Ware
December 13, 2008, 2:24 am
Filed under: Most Fascinating Characters of 2008 | Tags: , , ,


Michael Ware

Michael Ware

Like me, you have probably seen Michael Ware on television quite a few times.  He’s hard to miss:  the handsome and acerbic Australian with the crooked rugby nose who is always reporting from a troubled area of the world.  As one of CNN’s most prominent Middle East correspondents—and prior to that, Time magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief–he has, to some extent, become one of the few journalistic voices left on the ground in Iraq, telling us the tragic, ongoing story of that war-torn place.

Unlike many journalists, however, Ware has been living in Iraq (he is formally listed as a resident there) since before the war began.  He has been one of the few to actually gain access to terrorist camps and report from them; he has also reported from the front lines, accompanying soldiers on daring attacks and raids when he himself has not been armed.  (One soldier he has worked with famously said of him “I can’t stand the media, but I would go through hell with a bucket of gasoline for Michael Ware.”)  During his time in Iraq, Ware has been repeatedly kidnapped, threatened, blindfolded, shot at, and had death threats lodged against him.  One terrorist splinter group even went so far as to bring him to a site of execution (complete the black felt bag over his head and the banner hung for the benefit of videotape and the internet filming), but the last-minute interference of one of Ware’s contacts in the insurgency saved him from an almost certain beheading.

What is fascinating about Michael Ware is that, despite everything he has been through, even his near-death experience, he will not leave Iraq.  He has become addicted to the upside-down, fiercely violent way of things, and has even declared that “Baby, I’ll be there filming that last chopper as it flies off the embassy you’re giving to Iran.”  These are strong and rebellious words; but they belie the torment Ware has suffered because of his years there.

Because as much as he is addicted to the war, Ware also recognizes that this addiction is destroying him.  He drinks heavily.  He doesn’t sleep.  He has become the “bad boy” journalist of Baghdad, known for destroying media equipment in fits of anger, getting involved in controversial love triangles, and even (it’s been rumored) being drunk on camera.

But behind this rather desperate behavior lies the fact that Michael Ware has become something of an unofficial conscience of the Iraq war.  Consistently, and for years, he has been debunking the American governmental platitudes about how the war is going.  And now his constant theme is about the mess we will leave behind us when we depart, and the fact that we will essentially be handing the country over to Iran’s influence.

We owe him so much–he has, at great personal cost, made it his mission to try and educate an American public that has all too quickly forgotten how we have changed, and changed utterly and unthinkingly and irrevocably and horribly, a foreign country so far away from us.  He reminds us of the daily struggle so many face there, American soldier and Iraqi citizen alike.  

And that, I’m ashamed to say, is necessary.  We are at war.  And we need to be reminded, and reminded, and reminded of it.  Because we cannot ever make this kind of mistake again.


5.4 Yang Peiyi, the “Jan Brady” of China

So despite Mike and Carol Brady’s wordy protestations to the contrary, we all know that Jan Brady was a second class citizen in the Brady household.  It was, as she claimed, “always Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”  Marcia was the prettiest.  Marcia was the one who got all the boys’ attention.  Marcia sang lead vocals for the “Silver Platters.”

Yang Peiyi, the Chinese Jan Brady

Yang Peiyi, the Chinese Jan Brady

We met China’s own Jan Brady this year, the seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, when we discovered that she had been the beautiful voice behind the “Hymn to the Motherland” sung during the dazzling Olympic Opening Ceremonies.  But we never actually saw her.  Instead, we saw someone else:  another young girl had been chosen to lipsynch Yang’s voice, as it had been decided by the Chinese government that Yang Peiyi simply wasn’t pretty enough to represent her country on television.

Now I have seen pictures of Yang Peiyi; and I, for one, think she is adorable.  It incenses me that this cult of beauty has taken such strong hold around the world (and especially among young girls), suggesting that unless you look a certain way–meaning, perfect–you are somehow not worthy.  Hence the dramatic rise in teenagers who are getting plastic surgery before they are 18.  (Even in China cosmetic surgery has become a boom industry, as it is well known that attractive people earn significantly more than their “average”-looking counterparts.) 

But in ushering Yang Peiyi to the sidelines in August, China took this message of perfectionism and exploded it for all the world to see, much like the fake fireworks that were aired on television during Opening Ceremonies but weren’t actually set off in Beijing that night because of smoggy conditions (they filmed the fireworks we saw during an earlier dress rehearsal.)  The message that rang out was: image is all.  Appearance is the most important thing.  Looks matter more than talent.

In broadcasting this type of message, China is certainly not the only guilty party; the beauty bias is endemic to much of the (particularly Western) world.  It just put those values on display in an unprecedented way.  In effect, it felt like the culmination of the “reality as artifice” movement that has become so commonplace in our own society.  The much-hyped advent of “reality” shows proves this, as they often feature very good looking people, in staged situations, competing for large sums of money and camera time.  It is hard to believe anything we see anymore.

Lin Maioke replaced Yang Peiyi in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Lin Maioke replaced Yang Peiyi in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics

But what makes Yang Peiyi’s case so fascinating is the graciousness with which she accepted her fate.  After competing in a difficult nationwide contest for the coveted singing role, and participating in all of the dress rehearsals up to the evening of the event, Yang stepped aside for the more physically “acceptable” Lin Miaoke.  “I am proud to have been chosen to sing at all,” she has said.  And when asked how it felt not to be on stage for the event, she simply replied, “my voice was there.”

Perhaps, at age 7, Yang has achieved the wisdom and self-composure it takes some of us a lifetime to learn.  Or, perhaps, she simply understands what often happens to pretty people who get a free ride through life.  After all, Marcia may have been the poster-worthy Brady girl; but she ultimately turned out to be a cocaine addict who swapped sex for drugs and even slept with her brother, Greg. (I know.  Eew.  I’m getting visions of the Johnny Bravo jacket.  But I digress.)  

So if being Jan means having a life of relative normalcy, maybe it isn’t such a bad gig, after all.  


A little taste of the Brady kids’ musical stylings, courtesy of YouTube.  Come to think of it, it might have been a great anthem for the Obama campaign:

5.3 Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life
December 11, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: Most Fascinating Characters of 2008 | Tags: , , ,

383px-piratey_vector_versionsvg1So if we’re talking about fascinating people this week, let’s talk about pirates.

Like many preschoolers his age, my nephew, Garrett, likes pirates.  He even asks me to play pirates with him sometimes.  It’s basically the way we play lots of things:  he tells me what to do, and I follow along obediently.  Captain Garrett’s pirate philosophy usually involves taking prisoners, whenever and wherever he can find them.  And when he’s found them, the prisoners don’t tend to live long—he usually shoots them multiple times while they are in his custody, and then tells them to get up so he can shoot them again.  (In fairness, his “prisoners” are usually his uncles, and they usually like to stage comedic and elaborate death scenes.)  As you can imagine, he has achieved a fearsome reputation on the high seas, given that the mortality rate for his prisoners is so shockingly steep—the fact that each one is dying multiple times means that the number of deaths is actually higher than the number of prisoners, which is a very difficult statistic to achieve.  But Captain Garrett has skills.

Modern pirates have skills, too.  So much so that there has been a sharp rise in the number and scale of pirate attacks on merchant ships in the past two years.  They’ve hijacked fishing boats; cargo ships; cruise liners; and last month, even a supertanker carrying about $100 million worth of oil.  (The supertanker MV Sirius Star and its crew are still being held today almost a month after they were first attacked.)  During these daring escapades, the pirates usually take the passengers, crews and cargo hostage and demand exorbitant ransoms for their release. It’s estimated that the shipping industry loses somewhere between $13 and $16 billion worldwide every year because of pirate activities.300px-sirius_star_2008e

But who is this fascinating figure, the modern pirate?  One of the most prominent “motherlands” of modern pirates is Somalia, which started to see pirate activity begin back in the late 1990s after their vicious civil war.  The first Somali pirates were fishermen keen to protect their fishing rights and boundaries, which were being violated by outsiders—international trawlers taking advantage of the breakdown in Somali government control.  Now that piracy has been perceived as being so lucrative, many others—such as warlords and their former soldiers—have gotten into the game.  And it is a very attractive game to play:  in parts of Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world, piracy has become accepted as a part of the norm.  Pirates build the big houses; they marry the most beautiful women; they buy new cars and new guns;  they have the power and money.  This line of work (despite its illegality) is now so attractive that scores of young men are being recruited; the average age for a pirate is often well under 35.

Somali pirates

Somali pirates

With such social legitimization, at least in their own country, these pirates are far from their 17th and 18th Century counterparts of old.  They have no need for treasure maps or hiding places; they have their spoils in plain sight.  There is even speculation that they have financial backing from businessmen in certain Middle Eastern countries, and have become loan brokers, themselves. 

But perhaps what is most shocking is that now, in the 21st Century, with all of the technological tools we have to fight it, piracy on the seas still exists.  And it does not look much like the fictionalized image of piracy we have in our minds, complete with the eye patches and swordfights and grog and bawdy songs and cries of “me hearties.”  No; in comparison with its 18th Century counterpart, modern piracy, with its emphasis on financial negotiations, looks much more like a day at the office.

Captain Garrett would be disappointed to learn this.  But perhaps he’ll learn to adapt his game a bit, and start ransoming his uncles to supplement his college fund.  

5.2 Addie Polk, Get Your Gun: A Foreclosure Story
December 9, 2008, 10:58 am
Filed under: Most Fascinating Characters of 2008 | Tags: , ,

It's expected that more than 8 million American homes will be under foreclosure in the next 4 years. (photo by Jeff Turner.)

Addie Polk was 90 years old, and had been living in her home in Akron, Ohio for 38 years when her bank’s representative came to repossess it in October.  But unlike other people, Addie did not obediently move her things out onto her driveway, or silently pick up and walk away from her biggest life investment.  Instead, she shot herself.  Twice.  In the chest.  When her neighbor found her in her bed, he said she looked like she was sleeping.

Barbara Walter’s overviews of “fascinating” people last week completely left out any mention of our country’s economic crisis, and the kind of struggles people like Addie are going through.  Granted, it’s probably more fun to hear about a pregnant man or Tom Cruise’s latest whackadoodle pronouncements about Scientology, but at base we are all concerned with what’s going on in our nation.  In Ohio alone (Addie’s home state), 1 in 8 residents are either losing their homes or have fallen behind on their mortgage payments.  That’s a whopping 12.5%.  And the national average for mortgage trouble (including foreclosure) is roughly 10%.  So if you’re out walking around your neighborhood today, just imagine every 10th house empty, or with a foreclosure sign out front, or with your unhappy neighbors sitting amidst a pile of their belongings, waiting to figure out what’s next.  Or just where to go.

Stories such as Addie’s may be sad, or even thought-provoking–but are they fascinating?  To me they are, yes.  Because the word “fascinating” at its root is about being bewitched by an evil spell; and I think we are all in a state of hypnotized horror about what’s going on around us, and praying (whether that prayer be religious or secular) that we and our loved ones will be spared from this financial ruin.  

But there is a gleam of hope in Addie’s story, as well–because Addie, at 90, survived her self-inflicted gunshot wounds.  And Fannie Mae, who had owned Addie’s home at the time of foreclosure, has recently given her back her house.  Now I’m not suggesting that the lesson and the “hope” in this is that people in financial trouble should just take a few bullets to avoid bankruptcy.  Believe me, that wouldn’t work.  A person can cry “wolf” only so many times.  (And if we look at it realistically, the banks are the wolves, so it wouldn’t make sense.)

No, what I’m suggesting is that Addie’s story is emblematic of what many Americans are going through at this very moment.  And if a 90 year old can shoot herself, and still manage to get up and walk away from such a wound, then perhaps we, as a country, can beat our metaphorical wounds, too.  Perhaps we just need a good doctor.

(Paging Dr. Obama….STAT.)

5.1 Bristol Palin’s Baby Daddy: Levi Johnston


Levi Johnston

Political roadkill: Levi Johnston

He’s the self-described “f***in’ redneck” who enjoys snowboarding and riding dirt bikes, hangin’ with the boys, fishin’, “shootin’ some sh**”, and “just f***in’ chillin’, I guess.”

He’s the boy that every pregnant teenage girl would like to bring home to her parents.  (Not.)

And he could quite possibly be the most prominent piece of political roadkill we have had in decades.

Levi first came into the spotlight after Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s surprise Vice Presidential nomination in August 2008, when reports surfaced that Palin’s eldest daughter, Bristol, was pregnant.  Soon outed as the “baby daddy,” Johnston’s MySpace page was overwhelmed with hits, and we lucky few who got to see it before it was taken down found out that the father-to-be was a very reluctant one, indeed.  He clearly stated “I don’t want kids” in his bio.  D’oh.

Fast forward to the campaign trail, when Johnston appeared with a new haircut, a clean-shaven jaw, and a suit in which he appeared immensely uncomfortable.  Just looking at his face revealed so much:  behind that expression of frightened and bewildered awe was the stunning fact that (holy crap!) a bit of messing around with Bristol in the cab of his Chevy Silverado and here he was on national television, being watched by tens of millions of people.  And it landed him on the fast track to teenage marriage.  Gulp.

What followed was a groundswell of public support for Levi’s plight.  “Free Levi” shirts began to fly off the shelves.  309350721v2_350x350_front_color-black2Bill Maher made an impassioned plea on Levi’s behalf on his popular HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher.  Levi even had songs written about him, including “The Ballad of Levi’s Johnson.”   And he became a YouTube star.

But why does this matter?  Why does Levi matter?  Put simply, his story magnifies a larger social issue that has been our national preoccupation for some years now: who is allowed to be married, and who is not.  The passage of Proposition 8–and subsequent revocation of marriage rights for gay couples in California–is one example of the egregious double-standards we have for different sets of people in this country.  The fact that Levi and Bristol’s wedding is not only encouraged–but celebrated!–by many people throughout the U.S. is another.  What both cases have in common is that a life commitment between two people is being made into a political decision rather than a personal one–and we are all the worse for it.   

This is a young man who should be allowed the time and space to grow up before undertaking anything as important as marriage.  And he should be told by his parents and other authority figures that he can still be true to himself–and his future child–by fulfilling his own potential before he becomes a husband (if that is ultimately what he wants to do.)  It’s already clear that a premature marriage might be ruinous–only weeks after their engagement announcement, he and Bristol looked quite uncomfortable together at some campaign events in Alaska (no hand holding, no eye contact.)  And we know that, even though he was 18 at the time of the election, he didn’t vote (he didn’t register in time)–which speaks a bit to his maturity and sense of purpose.  (Especially when his potential mother-in-law was on the ticket.)  We also know that he’s planning to drop out of high school to support his child, which would seriously impact his future earning potential; surely there is some adult in his life telling him he should wait until graduation to get a job.  (Wouldn’t it be nice if his magnanimous mother-in-law to be might loan him a teeny bit of that $7 million book advance she’s been offered, at least until he can get his diploma?)  

For now, we know the future is rapidly overtaking Levi Johnston–fatherhood is mere days away, as Palin/Johnston baby X is due on December 18.  Beyond the excitement of what the name might be (Sixpack Palin Johnston?  Joe Plumber Johnston?  Chevy Silverado Johnston?  Hockey Puck Palin Johnston?  The possibilities are endless), there remains the question of what Levi will do.  Will he bend to societal expectation and marry Bristol immediately?  Or will he give himself the chance to discover who he is before he ties his life to someone else’s?  It doesn’t mean he can’t be in the baby’s life.  It doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father.  

If only his MySpace message were actually true, and he could tell everyone to back off and leave him alone:  “Ya f*** with me I’ll kick [your] ass.”  But a more honest testament to his predicament would likely be this:  “I f***ed a Palin and got my ass kicked.”  

Let’s hope Levi can take a little page out of that fantastic 2007 sleeper hit, Juno, and realize that being a biological adult does not necessarily make him ready for adulthood.  And speaking of Juno, I have this funny little parody number called “Juneau” I discovered on YouTube recently, which describes Levi’s fascinating predicament quite well.  Enjoy.