The Cultural Cliff

I recently went out early one Saturday morning to attend a community parade. People from various locations in the area had set up their lawn chairs along the route and were awaiting the various entries. Local leaders, school bands and other organizations came down the street, and everyone shouted their support. Then came a group of young girls who were supposed to be cheerleaders. I don’t know that they actually had a team somewhere to cheer for, but it seems that they are enrolled in an organization that teaches them how to be cheerleaders.

While I always thought that students with significant school spirit simply tried out for cheerleader, and those who didn’t make the squad became pep-club members, I’m surprised to find out that girls can start cheering at a young age without any school affiliation. I suppose that when they get certified, they might become a sort of adolescent soldier-of-fortune where they support the team who pays the highest price.

Loose ranks in the parade.

Loose ranks in the parade.

I really don’t know the purpose of all this extra-curricular cheering, but if you’re going to walk in a community parade with a banner that identifies you as a cheerleader, I’d expect at least two or three out of the dozen girls to actually perform a cheer. At the very least, raise your voice above a whisper and give us the impression that you’re enjoying yourself.

Instead, these surly girls meandered about aimlessly, not holding any sort of line or maintaining a uniform distance while a couple of adults, one assumes spirit-filled moms, occasionally shouted “Woo-hoo! Wooooo-hooo!!!” while the girls frowned or looked down at the ground.

Moms screaming "Woo-hoo!" every few feet does not convince me that these girls are great at cheering.

Moms screaming “Woo-hoo!” every few feet does not convince me that these girls are great at cheering.

I could imagine them gathering at the end of the parade route. There would be no admonitions of how they could’ve been better. Perhaps one mother alone with her daughter in the car would mention something about how she’s wasting her money and her time getting the next top cheerleader to those classes, but somehow, it seems that shouting “Woo-hoo! Great job!” excuses a poor showing.

While enjoying a live performance one evening, a promising young artist was invited to the stage. We were told that he was very creative, had written a number of his own songs and was poised for discovery because he was all set to take off on an amazing musical career. Who told us this? The promising young artist himself. I will say that he did things with a guitar that I never thought possible. I could bear it only because I stopped listening and was concentrating on coming up with something nice to say when he finally got off the stage.

I don’t know how long he played, but it finally ended. One very kind person said, “Well, he tried, and I give him all the credit for having the courage to get up there.” Perhaps it was courage; perhaps it was foolishness. It seems I was the only one willing to admit that he’d unleashed something terrible through his incessant strumming.

There have been other times recently when I’ve experienced less than stellar performances. A standup comedian who’s performed on television got on stage at a world-famous comedy club to read jokes from a sheet of paper. This wasn’t even new material, as I’d heard 90% of it performed six weeks earlier from the same sheet of paper. How hard is it to memorize a seven-minute routine that you wrote and have been performing every week for two months? You’re lucky enough to have landed such a great venue, and you owe it to your paying audience to show up prepared.

I get requests to read manuscripts and writing samples from time to time, and I really enjoy the opportunity to be among the first people to see what creative individuals are doing. However, one thing that really bothers me is when I read a first chapter of a published e-book or begin to read a blog that’s been posted only to be stopped in my tracks by blatant misspellings or words used mistakenly because of the writer’s haste.

The spelling is sometimes the worst part, and it’s the thing that stands out before I even get to the rest of my concerns such as sentence fragments and one-word sentences that make me feel as though I’m riding in a car where the driver is slamming on the brakes every few feet. I’m not a fan of stories that begin like this:

As the sun was rising that winters morning Chance Harding had already admited to himself one thing. It was going to be a long ride. A very long ride. A long ride so long that would mak for a very long day. He loked across to the epassngers seat and said to Mona. “Mona, its going to be a very long day, and the day is only getting startd.”

This is not to say that there’s not a good story in there somewhere, but a good amount of re-reading, polish and the advice of another person, if not a professional editor, is always helpful. This is especially true of writers who are somewhat out of practice.

A writing sample recently came my way via social media. I stopped reading in the fifth paragraph when the writer used “irregardless.” Since I knew the author, I sent a note suggesting that she correct the typo before someone made an issue of it publicly. I haven’t gone back to check because I’m afraid that she’s left it alone, and I’ll be tempted to be the one to make a public issue of it. I can only be so strong.

I’ve noticed that the lackadaisical approach isn’t confined to the amateur musicians, the beginning writers or the as yet undiscovered comedians. We see it every day in the singing sensations that don’t bother to sing with consonants (and I’m speaking to you Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas) or to people on reality shows that have no specific talent for entertainment purposes. They often command attention by being really unpleasant people, but as long as they perfect their looks and create newsworthy sensations, it doesn’t seem to matter that they don’t actually do anything worthy of paying them any attention.

Jumping into the spotlight and wasting our time shouldn’t be enough, and screaming “Woo-hoo!” a thousand times doesn’t make a performance, a story or an exhibition better. Nor is unpolished work ready for our attention. Culturally, we’re headed for a cliff if, in fact, we’ve not already gone over it. As music lovers, readers, audience members and generally good people, let’s give our time and attention to those who have worked really hard at their craft, and soon those who plainly refuse to do so will fade from the cultural stage and reflect quietly that their fifteen minutes is over.

© 2015 by Patrick Brown

Visit my author page at to learn about my books “Moral Ambiguity” and “Tossed Off the Edge.”

Cheerful Travel

I hadn’t been to Florida since Spring Break of my sophomore year. I had a great time that week even though by most collegiate standards the vacation I had was dull compared to the bacchanalian revelry one sees along the coasts. I stayed with a Baptist family and went to church five times. However, I still had time to water ski, lie on the sand and go to Disney World. I also learned how to play poker from a deacon’s wife.

The opportunity to return to Florida didn’t come for 30 years. When you live in Southern California, you have warm weather, mild winters and access to as much Disney as you want, so Orlando and its surrounding areas are not always among top travel destinations unless your goal is to reach the Caribbean.

We departed Los Angeles on a Friday in early April, in order to land in Orlando that evening. The flight time and the change of time zones kill the better part of a day, but we were prepared for that. We had very carefully selected our travel time to avoid certain things like hurricanes, spring break, election debacles and families vacationing with lots of children. Wouldn’t you know, the one thing we weren’t aware of was the annual cheerleading competition taking place in Orlando.

Gary and I made our way through the LAX terminal, noticing a few teenagers at drop off, then at security. They were fairly subdued at that hour, and they were so sporadic that we had no idea they were forming a herd to end up in our part of the terminal. My mind is distracted on travel days. From the point I close my luggage at home until I find a seat near the gate, I’m on a mission and cannot easily be distracted.

Once we arrived at the gate, there was no room in the seating area, so we piled our stuff in a couple of adjacent chairs before taking turns to get snacks for the trip. Having reached the gate, or close to it, I had begun to get into vacation mode. I had already dived into a book, so my head was down. The writing was smooth and the subject was interesting, so I barely noticed that the teens were gathering at the same interval as Hitchcock’s perching birds. It wasn’t until one of them flapped his wings, so to speak, that I realized what was happening. There was a legion of them, and they were beginning to wake up!

I wasn’t fully aware what fate had in store until the flight was announced. First-class boarding was called along with parents who need assistance with small children. I didn’t worry at first, as these young people were not gathering their things in preparation to depart, and since we had been seated in the adjacent gate’s lounge, I had forgotten that they were standing in our gate’s immediate boarding area.

As we waited our turn to board, I was in denial that any of these noisy kids would be going with us. Ours was a direct flight to Florida, and surely these spirited young people were in school somewhere. It was unlikely that they would be taking such a long trip so soon on the heels of spring break. No, they had to be going on some field trip to Sacramento to study state government. I heard more murmuring and the occasional shout, and with apprehension, I glanced over my shoulder to see 26 energetic teens and their sleepy sponsors lined up behind us. How could this be?!?

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Of all the flights taking off that day from LAX, the cheerleaders were on ours!

Gary and I try the occasional trick when flying coach. First, we buy as early as possible, and when there are three seats on each side, we buy A and C, hoping that no one will select B. This doesn’t work every time, and on really full flights, it doesn’t work at all. I always say that if someone sits in the seat, I’m going to deliberately spill into his or her space and hold conversations with Gary until the intruder decides to find available seating elsewhere, but inevitably we welcome the poor soul and I get smashed against the window. We usually get a sleeper that can’t be roused even if the oxygen masks drop.

Such was the case of Flight 4355, which by the way spells H*E*L*L on your telephone keypad. It seems that the sponsors were parents, and that these bleary-eyed guardians had decided their job was finished until the plane landed safely. After all, they had had roused their teens out of bed, survived the trek to and through LAX, and had made sure these kids, who were more and more awake by the minute, had gotten onto the correct plane. Getting into the correct seat, however, was the flight attendant’s job.

The parents lumbered down the aisle with large disposable cups of coffee, which I’m positive were decaffeinated. One such mother squeezed into the seat between us, her disposable coffee cup jerking so wildly over our heads that the familiar logo was just a green blur. Without a word, she kicked off her flip-flops, washed down a banana muffin and curled into the fetal position for the next five hours, 99% oblivious to the madness that reigned supreme.

We almost didn’t leave because one of the cheerleaders left her seat as we pulled away from the gate. She was looking for an electrical outlet in the wall of the cabin in order to charge her phone—the one that she, along with the rest of the passengers, had been instructed to turn off. Flight attendants and a couple of the girl’s peers called for her to take a seat. Where was her mother to tell her to sit down? Was her mother even chaperoning the trip? Did anyone know where on the plane her mother might be, or if she was on the plane?

Ah, that would be the woman sitting one row behind the disruptive girl, scrunched next to me, not saying a word. “Ma’am! Take your seat at once,” stated the flight attendant firmly. “But I need an electrical outlet. My phone is dying.” Mother of the Year clearly had a hands-off approach to letting her daughter handle her own business.

Once airborne, it was like flying with the cast of Glee. The noise and enthusiasm never waned for a second. No one instructed the kids not to practice cheers or told them that regardless of how cute they thought they were, the entrance to the plane’s rear galley is not the place to form a pyramid. The flight attendant in our stretch of the fuselage maintained a broad smile throughout though by the end it looked more like a grimace. You know she was seething on the inside each and every time she had to move that drink cart all the way to the back in order for one of the little darlings to get to the lavatory.

Perhaps it’s age, but I really think there’s a problem with too much self-esteem. I think it started with telling kids that they are winners just for showing up. Everyone gets a trophy, and if you attend a party, you get a goodie bag. We’re all winners; there are no losers. I don’t know who thought it up, but it was probably a couple of parents who never won anything when they were kids.

If everyone gets a prize for participation, how can anyone learn that everything that is said and done is not great? I recall the feelings of not winning a particular award, or coming in second or third place—or not placing at all. It made me try harder next time. A ribbon for participation at a grade-school track meet would’ve left me with the false impression that I was an athlete on par with the physically fit and agile. Surely I would’ve seen the truth after placing next to last with only the obese kid to eat my dust, but what if I had received a ribbon when my participation had been lackluster due to an utter dislike for running, not to mention my loathing for our track coach?

I struggle with humility enough as it is. Can one imagine what I’d be like if I’d been told everything I’d ever done was perfect? I’d be writing with way more grammatical errors and thinking every word out of my mouth is comedy gold. Self-esteem can lead to over confidence, and in the case of the non-athlete, it’s a slippery slope to becoming a cheerleader.

Midway through the flight, our seat-mate’s daughter, the one still looking for an electrical outlet, stood up and announced to anyone listening that she was a cousin to the Kardashians. (I love that when you type Kardashian it comes up as a misspelled word. There may still be hope for humanity.) This particular cheerleader didn’t look the type to have sat on a secret like that for the first seven months of the school year, so I was quite sure that she was directing her remark to anyone within earshot even though her head was turned in the general direction of another cheerleader.

She must’ve been disappointed when no one, not even her comatose mother, looked up to see who had announced being on the fringes of pop-culture “greatness.” My nose was in my book so that she couldn’t see me listening. I glanced over at her dozing momma, mouth agape and drool running down the corner of her mouth. With no care for her physical appearance, I deduced that the head cheerleader’s blood connection to the Kardashians was paternal.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I was hit with a memory. I was in college, perhaps a year or two after my previous Florida trip. I was traveling with a musical group, and toward the end of the tour, 50 of us disembarked from the charter bus, bursting with energy and the urge to spread out. We had been dropped off at a private school where we would have lunch and a free afternoon. Lunch plans were delayed when the director pulled us together for an impromptu meeting. She told us that she had never been so embarrassed by such insensitive and arrogant behavior. Who did we think we were? Where did we think we were, and how had we ever come to believe that we could walk in like we owned the place?

My co-travelers that long ago day and on this flight were insensitive, and yes, rude. My true discomfort was recognizing my lack of patience when I had once been in their shoes.

©2014 Patrick Brown