Under New Management

The Smoothie King where I live has a banner on its exterior side wall, facing a busy intersection. The banner reads, “Under New Management.”

I sat in my car and could not quite figure out what to think about this banner. Obviously this is one of those loaded phrases which means more than it at first offers. The implication, since this news is being advertised, is that this change in management is a good thing. Which means that the new manager must be somehow better than the previous management. You’re now realizing, as I did, that this lets a cat out of the bag:

Something used to be terribly terribly wrong at my neighborhood Smoothie King.

What could it be? Someone reminded me of the Denny’s scandals of the 90s, where people of color won big settlements for stuff like being forced to wait longer for food than white folks. Denny’s, knowing that their food wasn’t worth the wait for anyone, took some drastic measures, like making this commercial where George Jefferson is really excited about how much money he’s saving on his Grand Slam.

In fact he believes that the best idea is to have the Grand Slam “all summer, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

I’m going to leave it up to you to decide how much this commercial may or may not reinforce stereotypes about African-Americans loving a good steal, or having less than healthy eating habits.

Obviously Denny’s has since been a beacon for racial reconciliation and harmony, as “Crazy Dennys Fight,” where a white boy and his girlfriend get taken care of by some black guys, demonstrates. My preference of Denny’s videos though, and there are many to choose from, is “Fight At Denny’s Massachusetts – Tha real shitttttt.” I value its authenticity, cinematography, and especially its carefully spelled and punctuated title.

To get to the bottom of this, I searched online for Smoothie King management news, but the most interesting thing I found was that Smoothie King appeals to “families and fitness enthusiasts alike.” Truly, we’ve all been waiting for a company to finally win over both of those key demographics, leaving the fat single people to fend for themselves.

Then I searched for “Smoothie King hates black people” but got nothing. Then I remembered the area I live in and tried

“Smoothie King hates Asians”

“Smoothie King hates people from the subcontinent”

and “Smoothie King hates Jews,” but that one was a bit of a stretch, I know.

Still nothing. There weren’t even any hits for “Smoothie King sucks” which means something HAS to be up. You can’t employ that many teenagers and not piss one of them off enough to get blasted on a myspace page somewhere.

By this time I figured the “Smoothie King ________” jokes were wearing thin, so I contented myself trying to learn more about this “Under New Management” business.

I want someone to explain this to me. The only people I can see who would be spurred by such a banner to enter the Smoothie King would be former customers who were so disappointed with the service that they have quit going. Can this truly be a big enough crowd to merit purchasing a banner – and displaying it, because apparently you need to pay to display banners in this town. Because you have to figure that only a certain percentage of your disappointed customers are going to buy in to the banner’s promise of redemption.

And to counterbalance that you’ve got people like me who see the banner and assume the worst of your shop. And yet maybe now I’ll go in just to satisfy my curiosity; I’ll look for blood stains on the floors, rat feces in the corners, etc. Maybe that’s the new business they’re banking on.

But if that’s the case I think “under new management” is not up to the task. You need something bolder, like, “No Urine In Our Beverages Anymore,” or “We Fired That Bastard,” or as a different route, something even more mysterious, like “Now Serving Smoothies.” If I saw a Smoothie King with that banner, I would go in. No question.

If you Google “under new management” you will find all kinds of treasures, like t-shirts you give to some newly married guy.

What I like about this one is that it swiftly confirms two of our favorite Western truths about marriage: that it involves a man surrendering his balls, and that women need it in order to get at our money since they have insatiable desires for shopping.

There’s also a shirt meant to represent America’s new management under Obama. I think churches really ought to get in on this, and have t-shirts for new members that say “under new management” but the letters create an outline of Jesus’s head.

I mean hell I’d like just a plain one for the days after I drink too much. You know, those “I’m never going to do that again” days.

The back could say, “No, for real this time.”

See? This could be fun, like a game: the shirt says, what bad life choice did I make last night?

Finally, searching “under new management” can lead you to gems like a Wikipedia entry on “The Enchanted Tiki Room (Under New Management),” which chronicles – over 13 paragraphs, mind you – the storyline of one of Disney World’s oldest rides, given a face lift in the 90s by the addition of Zazu and Iago.

Reading a step by step narration of a Disney ride is an exercise in language almost as bizarre as being left to decipher the subtext of Smoothie King banners, and so I leave you with this, my favorite paragraph:

Zazu tells Iago that where he comes from, no worries is “Hakuna Matata,” which Iago misinterprets as “Hunky-Tuna Tostada”. However, he seems to like it, declaring that Zazu is now his friend and that they should party. All the birds start to sing their own rendition of “Conga” as the Bird Mobile descends from the ceiling. Zazu sings about how Iago learned his lesson and will no doubt be more discreet in the future. Iago decides to show Zazu that he won’t be discreet, telling everybody to get on their feet. “That’s right — everybody stand up!”

Sadly, a fire recently damaged the ride and burned the shit out of Iago. The ride is set to reopen this summer, but in its original 1971 format. I hope you will join me in writing letters to Disney asking that they declare the ride to be “Under Old Management.”

P.S. In what world does Hakuna Matata sound like Hunky-Tuna Tostada?

True, 1

In the picture, Greg Mortenson is the white guy. I don’t know who those two small people are, and I cannot be sure that they have learned anything from him. I just want to try and be honest with you.

When the first stories came out about Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer’s response to Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, I decided to err on the side of Mortenson. Maybe some of the book is embellished, I thought, but come on. The guy’s building schools in Afghanistan. Let him without sin throw the first stone. Which is fitting, since they still throw stones in Afghanistan.

One of the things I do is try to fix existing fictional narratives onto real situations. I read about something and think, that reminds me of such and such movie or book, and the movie or book thus gives me a framework for how to understand the event. We all do this to some extent; I just probably do it more than you do because I spend more of my time alone watching Netflix.

Reading about the tea business, I thought of three films: Broadcast News, Quiz Show, and, partly because I’m basically always thinking about this movie, A Time to Kill.

A) Broadcast News

This 1987 gem stars Holly Hunter as Jane, a network news producer struggling against the perils of anchorman star power and the recent trend of news as entertainment (and this was in 1987; by now we’re toast). Her best friend is Albert Brooks, who plays Aaron, a reporter who agrees with her principles and is in love with her. Her foil is William Hurt, as Tom, a pretty boy sports reporter thrust into the anchorman spotlight. When she falls for her foil, and he for her, and the Jewish sidekick for his vodka, the love triangle is on.

Sparks fly between Tom and Jane. They really have great chemistry. But the obstacle is the principle. Tom first meets Jane at a lecture of hers, and tells her he feels like a phony because he doesn’t really understand the news he reads. She blows up at him. What do you want, she asks, permission to be a fake? Do something about it. Later, at work, she says to him, “This isn’t personal.” It’s news, we’re left to presume.

The trouble is that the news is always personal, because it is captured and presented by persons.

When Jane and Aaron are in Nicaragua covering the Sandinistas, there is a sequence in which a reporter encourages one of the rebels to put on his new boots so they can get footage of it. Jane goes berserk. “We are not here to stage news,” she says. She then tells the rebel, who is halfway to shoed, that it is his “choice” to put the shoe on or not. Confused, he puts it on and they get the shot. The shot makes the story because of the way it punctuates their narration about supplies getting to the rebels.

Later, with the help of Jane, Tom creates a tearjerky news piece on date rape. Creates is a telling word, because he chooses the subject matter, and this ought to remind us that news sources choose all of the subject matter they report. While there is more obvious demand for certain stories, it is always humans at the back saying “this story, not that one.” So he has this piece on date rape, and as this woman tells her sad story, Tom cuts back to himself, and you see him tearing up.

Jane says that while the choice to show himself like that was unusual, the story “was real and it got to me.”

Aaron scoffs at leaving the anchor in the footage, as if “we’re the real story, not them.” Similarly, when Tom has to vamp to cover a few seconds of dead air – during a breaking story about Qaddafi, no less – he says something like, “I think we’re going to be okay.” The head producer says to himself, “Who cares what you think?”

In this way, the deck is stacked against Tom’s smiling anchor. But think about Walter Cronkite. Everyone cared what Cronkite thought. And because they cared, when Cronkite released his report on Vietnam in 1968, famously saying that “in this reporter’s opinion” the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, legend has Lyndon Johnson saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”  

And we have to think that losing Middle America’s support for Vietnam in 1968 was a blow for the forces of good in this world. And so if Cronkite stepped over some line in offering an editorial in a position of newsman, we ought to applaud him for it, right?

To use Cronkite again, don’t lots of people remember how he appeared to get choked up when announcing the death of President Kennedy? Isn’t it the occasional flash of the human that helped him earn the credibility to be dubbed Uncle Walter, to be the most trusted source of the news? Can we not measure the good of his newscasting against the potential bad of the moments when he broke journalistic form?

Not according to Broadcast News, where Uncle Tom is deemed to be the devil. Don’t let the looks fool you, says Aaron:

What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.

This all comes to a crisis when, with Tom and Jane in the flush of passion, Aaron asks his friend to think about how Tom got the shot of his tear when they only had one camera. So Jane goes through the footage. After they interview the woman, you hear someone off camera saying it’s a shame they didn’t catch Tom when he was tearing up. He says, wait a minute. And with dramatic music, we see him recreate his feelings and shed a tear.

And that’s it. Jane confronts a playful Tom at the airport the next morning and refuses to go to on their island getaway. He crossed a line. He tells her to come with him and they’ll argue it out together. He’ll learn. But she refuses.

That’s it. The writer tags on an epilogue, where everyone wins and everyone’s happy even though none of them are together, but it doesn’t feel right. The movie really ends at the airport.

B) Quiz Show

Based on a true story (that phrase deserves an entry unto itself), this movie is about the scandal around the game show Twenty One in the 50s. The show was rigged, in that contestants were told what answers to give, even when to mop their brows to increase tension. Coincidentally, a handsome WASP (Charles Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes) is brought in to dethrone a hirsute Jew (Herb Stempel, or John Turturro); feels a little bit like the Tom/Albert dichotomy. What is it about the whitebread male that screams duplicity?

One of the ways the producers rationalize the cheating is by screening questions first with Van Doren, and then on the show only asking him ones which he already knew the answer too. It’s not lying, right?

During the subsequent Congressional hearings into the matter, a producer of Twenty One offers the following justification:

Yes, we did one thing wrong: We were too successful…Those advertising dollars came from somewhere. Why do you think the newspapers and magazines are making such a big thing about this?…The sponsor makes out, the network makes out, the contestants see money they probably would never see in a lifetime, and the public is entertained. So who gets hurt?

C) A Time to Kill

It always comes back to this 90s potboiler. A shrink is called to testify for the defense, and on cross examination it is revealed that he’s been convicted of statutory rape. In his closing argument, the defense attorney tries to dismiss this ad hominem attack. Does it make the man’s testimony any more or less true? If you were told that he was 19, she was 16, and they’ve been happily married ever since, does that make his conviction more or less true?

And of course I’ve written before about how, later in the closing argument, the attorney gets his jury to feel theso-called truth of the issue at hand by having them imagine something – the rape of a white girl – that is a fiction.

Now we have allegations about Three Cups of Tea, which we had all taken for truth because it was offered as such. Jon Krakauer’s most serious charges are that parts of the book are completely made up (the capture by the Taliban, the way Greg chose Korphe as the site of his first school), that Mortenson has used the non-profit Central Asia Institute for personal gain (for instance using the company credit card to purchase copies of his book at retail price, thereby getting himself personal royalties), and that some of the schools CAI has created are now ghost schools with no funding, or which suffered poor planning to begin with.

Mortenson and CAI have responded, although their words do not exactly inspire great confidence, and a letter from Mortenson to his supporters makes it clear that he will be taking a different role in CAI in the future. So something is up, certainly, although the truth most likely lies between Krakauer and Mortenson. Though he is upfront about this, it is worth nothing that Krakauer is personally vested in this story, having donated over $70,000 to CAI.

It’s as if he’s Aaron, and Mortenson, with his shy lumbering lovableness, is Tom, the devil in disguise, and we’re Jane.

So in Part 2 let me tell you why I am going to let Greg Mortenson keep my piece of the Jane pie.

True, 2

First I think we all need to get a little more serious with ourselves about the truth and our standards for it. For instance, I read Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel recently. It is billed as “a memoir.” Memoirs belong to that category of things, like documentaries, the news, research papers written by doctors, that we categorize as true until someone else comes with another memoir, documentary, news story, research paper, that says the first one wasn’t true. And we all say, what? I had no idea.

For large parts of the time covered in Prozac Nation, the author was on Xanax, Valium, overdose-levels of Mellaril (an antipsychotic!) or just plain drunk. Granted, she is a writer, and probably took notes or kept a diary, and granted, she is a journalist, and perhaps fact-checked herself. But still – she’s on Mellaril; she details her thoughts while intoxicated; she quotes long conversations which could not have been recorded. How is her memoir not going to be steeped in the half-truth of memory?

The stakes are lower, you say. It’s Twenty One. Who gets hurt? If Wurtzel made shit up, it’s not like she stole money from a charity, not like she took candy from Afghan babies. Yet James Frey’s memoir was a similar low-stakes story of personal triumph, and when that turned out to be embellished people went nuts. Why? Because finding out that Frey didn’t have a root canal without anaesthetic deprived us all of hope, of the idea that maybe we could exorcise our own demons, be better people? Frey’s a liar, baby: pass the whiskey and hang on while I go beat our son.

I mean let’s imagine a fictional alcoholic who decides to get on the wagon because of Frey. Frey made stuff up. Is it not possible that the alcoholic’s anger at being lied to spurs him on to be the better man?

It’s really just about embarrassment, isn’t it? About not wanting the joke to be on us again? Oprah was embarrassed by Frey. That’s a no-no.  

A few days ago I watched Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, a documentary involving that most serious, most high-stakes of subjects: violence in the Middle East. Well the film has an extended montage in the middle with non-verbal or non-translated footage of general conflict in Israel and Palestine. At least that’s what one assumes it is, based on the titles that are placed on screen – though I have no way of really verifying what I’m seeing. And even what I see is mostly left up to my interpretation, as it’s just an artsy montage meant to convey chaos, to break up what is an otherwise pretty dull film about Jimmy Carter’s book tour. There’s one shot of two girls with backpacks on running. The shot has been put in slow motion to make it more dramatic. But they could just as easily have been running happily to school. There is no way to know and no information is given.

And this is a documentary? Say what you want about Michael Moore; at least he goes to the trouble (since he is hounded to) of letting you know what you’re seeing, of creating books and footnotes to accompany his films that provide sources and documentation for every assertion he makes.

We have astoundingly low standards for truth-telling, despite the fact that history keeps hitting us upside the head with the deception stick. How many times do we need to have liars exposed before we start consistently evaulating our sources of information? I mean hell, maybe Whitney Houston, when she asked Diane Sawyer to “show me the receipts” that proved her alleged crack use, and Donald Trump, who wanted a very particular receipt from his President, are the smartest people in America.

In fact it’s often when the stakes are highest that we become the most gullible, and accept the least amount of rigor from our sources. When you read Krakauer’s piece, part of the amazement is, “How did NOBODY ELSE ask these questions already?” It’s been years. Some of these people are in remote places of the world, but some of them are perfectly plain old North American friends o’ Greg. Was everyone just waiting for the right moment to come out of the shadows and strike?

The debate over CAI’s finances and bottom lines inevitably bring up a “crack a few eggs” mentality about the developing world. Pakistan’s not like America, we’re told. You have to spend money to spend money. Grease wheels. Drink tea. Even in the developed world, where a firestorm rages over Mortenson’s expenses on his book tours, you have to take into consideration the millions and millions of dollars he raised on those jetsetting tours.  

Plus, in general, we are far too lax about holding non-profits to clear standards of transparency. We take too many claims about our donated dollars at face value. Read your Peter Singer, people. There are crafty ways to use donations for overhead and still maintain that “90% of your money goes straight to the people.” Plus, “the pressure to keep administrative expenses low can make an organization less effective.”

Singer, via Jeffrey Sachs, brilliantly deconstructs the claim of an organization called Nothing But Nets. Sponsored by Sports Illustrated guru Rick Reilly, it’s a group that provides “anti-mosquito bed nets to protect children in Africa from malaria, which kills a million children a year” (Singer’s words). The nets cost $10 each. In their words: “If you give $100 to Nothing But Nets, you’ve saved ten lives.”

This sounds great. But think about it. How do you know the child would get malaria without a net? How do you know that the child would die of malaria if she got it? How do you know the nets will be used?

Sachs uses his voodoo master magic to come up with a number more like $200 per saved life. Not an entirely reliable figure either, Singer admits, but surely closer to the truth.

Charity folks are doing the best they can. They read the latest psychological research on how to get people to give a shit, and they try to exploit it. They’ve learned that individual stories are more powerful than statistics, and so on. They know that keeping it simple – 10 for $10 – is key. And it’s hard to fault the poor bastards for trying, isn’t it?

If you think charities are bad, how deep do you think you have to plumb network programming to find a game or reality show that’s partly bogus?

Surely some of the backlash against Mortenson is frustration at not being able to think our dollars do as much as we’d thought. Did he mislead us? Perhaps. But he didn’t have to push us very far in the feel-good direction, either.

Anyone else hear Grand Moff Tarkin creepily saying, “You’re far too trusting”? No? Just me?

Carol Michele Kaplan wrote a monologue called “True” for Eve Ensler’s V-Day. In it, she lays out several true stories of violence, and how they all were stopped midstream by good people intervening. At the end, she reveals she’s pulled one on us, and that in fact no good people intervened, and the violence was allowed to continue uninterrupted, in all but one of the stories.

The monologue ought to make us angry. It ought to take our breath away. The anger at having a happy ending pulled out from under us ought to spur us on to create our own.

Do I think that Mortenson’s potential lies will discourage millions of people from helping build schools in remote places of the world? No. I like to think he will encourage us to be more skeptical of our charities. I like to think he may make us angry enough to show him who’s boss, to find other, better ways to fulfill the dreams he planted in our minds. Those better ways may still be with CAI – no doubt they’re going to whip themselves into a hell of a shape after this, accomplishing even more of the impossible than they already do.

Above all else, let’s not let any scandal over Greg Mortenson distract us, Time-to-Kill-like, from the real injustice at hand: the lack of educational opportunities for so many of the world’s children.

One story in Three Cups of Tea remains my absolute favorite.

Jahan, one of the first women educated in the Korphe school, comes to Greg in the middle of a meeting with (male) village leaders and tells him he needs to help her become a doctor. She figured out what classes she needed to take and how much they cost, and she gave him a written petition in English for the money. He smiles at her pluck, realizes this is what he’s been teaching his students to want, takes the cash out of his pocket, about $400, and gives it to her.

That’s when I knew this guy was for me. Because primary education is one thing. It’s great to teach children how to read and be skilled at a basic level. But taking them all the way – that’s something else entirely. Something, I think, much harder. But he knows it’s all part of it, and arranges for other girls to get similar opportunities. What Mortenson did for Jahan was not very business-like; trust me, I know that non-profit managers are not supposed to just hand out cash without discussing it with anyone. But I love him for doing it.

Even if, as in Kaplan’s monologue, that’s the only true story, even if Mortenson’s tea has some lumps in it, I’ll take it. It’s a start.

And if the Jahan story is not true? What’s true? Are your memories true? Is the news true? Is the Bible true? The parables Jesus tells certainly aren’t. He didn’t represent them as such, I realize, but the point is the action taken because of the story, not the story itself.

To me Broadcast News is a tragedy. I find it very difficult to care about Tom’s transgression. Is it more true if he was thinking of the woman’s story when he forced the tear? Is the fakery worthwhile if it encourages more people to be moved by the story, like Jane was?

It’s a slippery slope, I know. Today it’s a tear, tomorrow it’s two tears, the next day it’s Oprah.

But every morning, Jane takes a few minutes to sob. This is never commented on. It’s something we’re just expected to understand. The daily purge. The daily sorrow. The perpetual loneliness, disappointment, whatever. Despite her new hairdo and new love prospect in the epilogue, I can’t help but feel part of her will continue to need that release, because she is asking too much of the world, and she is walking a too thin tightrope of truth.

Don’t be that girl who cries every morning.

Go sleep with William Hurt.

Go watch American Idol.   

Go free Carl Lee.

It’s not that I think lying is good; it’s that I think we kid ourselves about truth, and I don’t want to see this Mortenson stuff used as an excuse to stop trying to do the right thing.

The CAI money will get straightened out – there are investigations now – but the real investment we’ve all made in Greg Mortenson is something intangible; it has to do with caring about those kids, and it’s up to us what we do with those funds from now on.