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On Rachael Ray, Fame, and the Most Beautiful Beach You Will Never See

“Do you think Rachael Ray regrets her life,” I asked during the penultimate episode of “Food Network Star,” the reality TV series that has produced exactly one true star in 10 increasingly convoluted, laborious seasons . That was Guy Fieri, the frosted-hair purveyor of faux Americana and creator of, possibly, the Worst Restaurant in America. And Fieri won his way into the “Food Network Family” – as well as America’s arteries – way, way back in Season 2.

But back to my question, which was not unserious. Rachael Ray grew up in and around food – her family had four restaurants on Cape Cod; she managed a local pub in upstate New York; she once worked the fresh foods counter at Macy’s (which, in retrospect, seems completely unreal). Eventually, she started teaching cooking classes based on the “30-minute meals” concept, which led to a regular segment on a local New York CBS affiliate, which led to an appearance on the Today Show, which led to the Food Network, which led to spectacular, mind-blowing success. By my count, Rachael Ray has at least four television shows, a magazine that bears her name, a line of cookware, and more money than anyone reading this will ever have. Given her upbringing and her personal history with food, it is difficult to say that Rachael Ray has been anything but an unqualified success.

But at this particular moment, watching this particular episode, I genuinely wondered if she regretted her life. She looked tired and wary – as if she wanted no part in determining which of the four remaining contestants would, after 13 weeks/episodes, “win” the stardom she had spent nearly her entire life earning. She sounded worse – hoarse, mannish – as if she had just chugged a carton of cigarettes, or as if she had been talking nonstop for almost 15 years, which, as it turns out, she has. (It should be noted that Ray had vocal cord surgery about 5 years ago to remove a benign cyst). Given the time commitments of her various endeavors, I have to wonder when was the last time Rachael Ray cooked anything at all. I know she “cooks” on her various TV shows, but anyone who watches “Food Network Star,” or the network in general, knows that this is not cooking in any practical sense of the word. It is far more performance art – faux cooking for mass consumption.

That episode aired at the end of July this summer. Less than two weeks later, Robin Williams killed himself in his California home. What followed almost immediately were fond remembrances from those who knew him personally and three basic types of media accounts. The initial stories were primarily about how someone so beloved as Robin Williams, someone who made millions of people laugh, someone so talented, who had won an Oscar as well as multiple Emmys and Grammys, someone who had a family, who was The Genie in Aladdin and Peter Pan in Hook, could possibly kill himself. It was stunning. There were also the stories about the links between comedians and suicide, stories about how comedy frequently involves being emotionally naked and vulnerable to your audience on stage, which can mean being emotionally naked and vulnerable to the world, stories about how comedy frequently involves being able to laugh at yourself, which can mean allowing others to laugh at you. And finally, there were plenty of stories about the state of mental illness in our country, and the need for greater awareness of the problem – that it could happen to anyone, even Robin Williams. I found this one in Slate, written by someone who suffers from mental illness, particularly telling:

So many people have commented on how all the money and fame in the world couldn’t save Williams from depression. Not being famous, I wouldn’t know, though I can’t even imagine how celebrity complicates a mental illness. The mentally ill must wage a fairly constant internal battle. It’s exhausting, even without the public spotlight.

At the time of Williams’ death, I was in Maui, where there are vast expanses of beauty unlike anything I have ever seen before. A few millennia of volcanic activity has left its coastline littered with hard, jagged, coal-black rocks and towering structures that look like peanut brittle made of bronzed red sandstone. The geology contrasted with the translucent, turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean makes much of the place look almost extraterrestrial. There are swaths of dense forest, which open to sweeping valleys, acres upon acres of places where no humans ever walk. And, of course, there are beaches – beautiful, pristine places – almost everywhere you look. Tucked away in a U-shaped alcove, about a half-mile from the Kewala’i Church, Maluaka Beach was one such place. It did not have the breathtaking breadth of Makena Beach nor the inviting, communal feel of the various Kamaole Beaches along Maui’s western shore. Instead, it was an unassuming little place, like the beach lazily decided one day to nuzzle up to the water line and spoon for a little while. But the water was warm, the waves were modest, and there was a nice reef close to the shoreline where you could snorkel with minimal effort. It was about as perfect as perfect can be. Directly across from this spot, a developer was building four luxury residences – thousands of square feet of mahogany wood, open floor plans, top of the line appliances, sweeping views of the Pacific, and Infinity pools. The price? Just north of $8 million. So, there they stood, towering edifices of irony: The few people who could afford to pay such a price – celebrities, athletes, CEOs of tech companies – were the same people who probably could not enjoy the perfect little public beach only a few steps away, the very thing that made the homes so desirable.

We live in a culture that is seemingly centered on creating and celebrating fame. We have televised mechanisms to produce famous chefs, fashion designers, singers of all types, ballerina moms, Jersey Shore bros, stupid, vapid, housewives, and plenty more. Fame consumes many of those who seek it like a voracious velociraptor and often leaves them a pulpy, bloody mess as it passes by, looking for its next meal. It’s temporary and transient, fickle and capricious.

I’m not famous, but I find rich irony in something that can provide almost unimaginable freedom, and leave you free to do nothing; that can make you loved by millions, but feel completely alone; that means you need infinity when infinity is outside your front door.

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On Nostalgia and New Kids

On June 11, 2011, New Kids on the Block, the (seminal? uber?? heart-throbbing???) 1980s boy band, played a sold-out show at Fenway Park. Enough time has passed now that I believe this occurrence can be discussed in a rational, emotionless manner – unless you are a woman, of a certain age, who happened to be at this concert. Then, all bets are off. If I were wagering in 1995, or even in 2001, I probably could have received better odds on the Red Sox winning the World Series before the end of time than on NKOTB playing a sold-out show at Fenway in 2011, or as the year is otherwise known, 20 years after New Kids on the Block first became popular. It was that improbable, that far removed from the potential landscape. But this was not simply one isolated show, a send-off of sorts for a group formed in The City of Boston. No, the group also played sold-out shows at places like Foxwoods and The Comcast Center. And apparently (improbably?) has more shows later this year in places like Orlando and London. If this were not unbelievable enough, then consider that these shows were played with the Backstreet Boys – in some sort of perverse, boy-band gang bang, mind you – a group that became popular two years after NKOTB broke up. So, the question that has to be asked is: How did this all happen?

The music industry, particularly the concert tour scene, has always relied on established fan bases to fill seats. That’s why you still see bands, or perverse versions of bands, like Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and even Sublime still performing. That’s why I recently received a Live Nation email advertising concerts by Huey Lewis & The News, Motley Crue, and Peter Frampton. To wit, here’s the list of the top grossing concerts for 2010:

Bon Jovi – $201 million
AC/DC – $177 million
U2 – $161 million
Lady Gaga – $134 million
Metallica – $110 million
Michael Buble – $104 million
Paul McCartney – $93 million
The Eagles – $92 million
Roger Waters – $90 million

Other than Lady Gaga, none of those musicians or bands have been relevant in at least a decade, and that’s only because U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2001 after being, more or less, irrelevant for the previous decade. So why is there an inverse relationship between cultural relevance and the ability to sell expensive concert seats? That is, why is it that as a band becomes less popular, it also becomes more popular (at least in some way)? The answer would seem to be nostalgia. (I realize that there’s a demographic explanation here – that older people with more advanced careers and higher incomes can afford to spend more on discretionary items like concert tickets than the teenagers to whom most modern music is marketed; however, it also means that those same people are willing to spend more on bands that have not been relevant for decades).

Nostalgia is an interesting elixir – a sort of all-purpose, all-body cleanser that washes away pieces of the past and leaves us feeling clean and whole and good. It is a time machine and a particle decelerator, able to transport you to a time when everything in the world coalesced in a perfect moment, and you could see everything clearly, all at once, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, like streaming fluorescent green strings of computer code (sort of), perfectly, as if you were seeing the world for the first time, and that moment was the only moment that ever existed or mattered. Nostalgia may also, simply, be a psychological survival mechanism. For better or worse, we tend to remember the good experiences and good people, and forget – or at least suppress – the bad ones. Nostalgia helps us forget things that we might be better off not remembering.

Here’s what I tell people I remember about my senior year at UMass: the origins of this website, for one; busy afternoons spent putting out a decent newspaper with people I liked and respected and, occasionally, engaged in office wiffle ball; endless nights spent with good friends at crowded bars; the freedom to take whatever classes I wanted, having completed the requirements of my major; spending time with my sister and my best friend at a place I loved; pick-up basketball games.

I also remember being emotionally crippled for the first two months of my senior year, having endured a heart-rending breakup during the previous summer, and a series of, in retrospect, ludicrous circumstances that thereafter strained (and broke) longtime friendships. It was a complete downward spiral. I know this because in the Fall 2000 Back to School issue of our newspaper, I wrote a column which concluded with this sentence: “I am 20 years old, and I have lost all faith in humanity.” And it was the truest thing I have ever written.

I don’t think that this discrepancy is some form of agency problem – that there’s a conflict between what actually happened and what I want people to believe happened. It’s not even that I prefer to remember the good things over the bad things. It’s simply that I do remember the bullet-stopping, green computer code moments more than the two-month pile of shit. On balance, I am nostalgic for that time period.  

Chuck Klosterman recently suggested ( in this podcast I think)  that nostalgic (he didn’t use this word) music fans will attend a concert, even of a band that they did not like originally, as long as the band playing was popular/relevant during their teenage years. It’s an interesting, and unprovable, assertion; though, anecdotally, it would help explain why our list above has such a heavy ’80s focus to it – those fans having achieved the necessary levels of personal career success and nostalgia to shell out consistently large dollars for concert tickets. A thought process like the following is pretty remarkable:  In 1983, I never liked this band, nor the music they played, nor, perhaps, even the genre of music they embodied, but now, almost 30 years later, I want to see them perform music live to be reminded of 1983. It speaks, yes, to the deep emotional connection we have to music and, yes, to the fondness we associate with adolescence – primarily experiencing defining moments of self-identity, glimpsing our first hints of independence and hormones – but also to the allure of nostalgia. No matter how great any adolescence is, it is inevitably marred by clashes with parents, serious self-doubts about personal appearance, fear of rejection (and many times, things much worse than these). Yet, evidence suggests people are willing to pay lots of money to be reminded of music from their adolescence – perhaps even music they never listed to during adolescence.

During one of my favorite scenes in Garden State, Zach Braff’s character is talking about growing older and becoming more removed – physically and spiritually – from his sense of home; he explains that at some point, the place where you grew up, perhaps even the place where your parents still live, is no longer home. He concludes by saying, “Maybe that’s all family is – a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” I think maybe the same is true about nostalgia.

So, here’s a concession: My original question does not have a good answer. There is no explanation that New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys sold out Fenway Park in the year 2011, at least not for me.  I couldn’t understand it; in fact, it still kind of fries my brain. But that’s the thing about nostalgia: it’s irrational and emotionally-charged and personalized. To get it, you had to be there (again).

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