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Amazed and baffled for yet another year

Published January 05. 2013 09:02AM


The Pennsylvania Dutch are credited with "too soon old and too late smart." My own version is "too soon old and never smart enough." As 2013 gets underway, here are a few of the things that continue to amaze and baffle me.

In the "amaze" category - good things I never expected - is Barack Obama polishing his second inaugural address. I remain astonished that we Americans elected, and then re-elected, a black candidate to the nation's highest office. Whether you love or hate our once-and-future President, the historic significance of a black face in the White House is hard to over-state. I never expected to live long enough to see it happen, and I hope I have enough years left to also see a woman sworn in as the country's chief executive.

In 2013 my amazement remains undiminished, as the years go by, that the peace continues to hold in Northern Ireland; that the Cold War ended without a nuclear exchange (MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - actually worked); that Apartheid ended in South Africa without a bloody race war; and that New Orleans is still New Orleans. All these amazing historical facts reinforce my naïve faith in the ability of our human species to muddle through even the worst crises.

Things that baffle me include our national debt. How can Uncle Sam owe trillions of dollars and operate year after year at a deficit? I listen as hard as I can when the economic gurus, like Ben Bernanke, hold forth. But I am never going to wrap this old head around it. Nor will I ever understand how the investment bankers on Wall Street and the Fortune 1000 CEOs deserve the millions and millions of bucks they take home every year. How those "compensation" packages ever got to be legal is a permanent mystery to me.

I'm equally baffled by the inability of brains allegedly bigger and brighter than my own to come up with consensus solutions on climate change, mass shootings, and our troubled education system. If they actually are worth all the money they stuff in their (often off-shore) accounts, why can't they successfully tackle these problems… along with our tenaciously high unemployment rate and endemic national deficit?

Supposedly, our society is a meritocracy. The best and the brightest rise to the top, reaping the biggest rewards in return for guiding the rest of us middling, muddling folks past the dangers that always threaten. Instead, all too often, it seems to me, the biggest paydays and the most power go to people who move American jobs off shore; who fabricate economic bubbles - the Savings & Loan Bubble, the Dot-Com Bubble, the Sub-Prime Mortgage/Derivatives Bubble - for their personal bonanzas; who climb into bed with one another to cut cozy deals on Capital Hill, or else quarrel like children in the hallowed halls of Congress, when they ought to be conducting the nation's business for the benefit of all its citizens.

One more thing I must admit I can't figure out: do the things that amaze me trump the baffling ones? I hope so. But as 2013 gets going, this "too soon old, too late smart" commentator can't in good conscience reassure the generations of younger Americans, who may be just as baffled, that he has that kind of confidence.


Although I'm part of a generation that often prides itself on being jaded and unflappable, I must admit that I continue to be amazed and baffled by the world around me as well. There's so much to take in at all times. We've made incredible advancements and taken huge steps toward becoming a more complex and fascinating society - one that will most likely amaze and baffle the scientists of the future long after we've had our own Roman-esque fall - and never has that been more apparent than in the year 2012.

I'm amazed, for example, that we've managed to make a reality television show out of absolutely everything. From "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," to "Breaking Amish," to "The Biggest Loser," there is literally no ground we haven't broken on the reality TV front. We've managed to lure on camera horrid people of every stripe and color with the mere promise of 15 minutes or less of fame. All for the sake of a little attention - and not necessarily, or even probably, positive attention - you can now turn on your TV and gape at a woman as she bathes in her own pee ("My Strange Addiction"), mock a housewife experiencing a nervous breakdown ("The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills"), or cringe as two virgins share their first sloppy kiss on their wedding day ("The Virgin Diaries"). I'm not saying you should, but the point is that you can.

I'm amazed that we continue to support the lifestyles of families who choose to name every single one of their many children names that start with the same letter (not only the Kardashians - Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kylie, and Kendall - but also the Duggars - Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Justin, Jedidiah, Jeremiah, Jordyn... I'll just stop now). For that matter, I'm amazed that we still insist on combining every celebrity couple's names into one stupid word ("Kimye," "Robsten," "Jethroux") and acting like it's clever. But mostly, I'm amazed at our startling ability to simultaneously condemn these people and take pleasure in watching their every mind-numbing move.

Other things that amaze me? Well, it's been an amazing year for film as well. First, I'm amazed that Peter Jackson managed to pitch "The Hobbit" as three separate movies that will surely generate superfluous merchandise over the course of several years when the entire story could have easily fit into one more satisfying film. I'm also amazed that we can't let a single interview with Anne Hathaway go by without asking her twenty questions about her weight loss for "Les Miserables," and whether or not it alone qualifies her for an Oscar nomination. I'm truly amazed that someone thought it was a good idea to cast Ashton Kutcher - Ashton Kutcher! - as Steve Jobs in the late genius' upcoming biopic.

Which naturally leads me to things that baffle me. Speaking of geniuses and their more debatable cohorts, I'm baffled not only by the fact that Facebook hasn't been replaced by something newer and more interesting, but that Facebook continues to be so darned important to people. Haven't we moved past the pointless redesigns and our need for a high "friend" count yet? Where's the next Big Idea, folks? Is this really all we've got?

Music is pretty baffling as well. I mean, did you know boy bands are back? From the inanely-named The Wanted to the very straightforward One Direction, teen girls are once again panting over floppy-haired groups of young men spanning every degree of (un)attractiveness. I thought it was a thing of the past, long gone the way of the broken shell that was once N*SYNC's friendship (did you know Justin didn't invite any of the old band to his wedding?!), but I suppose everything is cyclical. I hope that means we're due for the next Color Me Badd, because I could really use a reason to buy some new shoulder pads.

Most of all, I'm baffled that the Mayans were wrong and that we've all somehow continued to thrive (or, at least, exist) this long past our predicted expiration date. I for one am thankful, though. Who knows what the New Year may bring? Thinner actresses? Weirder people on our TV and computer screens? A modicum of grace or intelligence? I hardly dare to imagine!

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