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I’m a big fan of both writer/director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines, so I was sad to hear about the online battle that’s been raging between them since last Saturday. Because I love them both so, I’ve made it a point to dig deeper and find out as much of the whole story as I can, and knowing more makes the story that much sadder: It’s clear that this whole mess could have easily been avoided.

If you haven’t heard yet, here’s a summary of the basic story as reported by the Los Angeles Times: Last Saturday, Smith was escorted off a Southwest flight because, Southwest employees told him, the captain had determined that his size posed a “safety risk” to other passengers. Smith politely left the plane when he was asked to, but he didn’t buy their explanation, and was particularly peeved because he saw this as a sign of systematic mistreatment of larger passengers. He shared his displeasure with his Twitter readership—which, unfortunately for Southwest, amounts to over 1.6 million people.

To my disappointment, neither the news reports, nor Smith’s Twitter feed, nor even the vague apologetic post written on Southwest’s blog by their representative, Linda Rutherford, makes clear what, exactly, happened. My fan-girl brain was spinning with questions: Was Smith posing a safety risk, or pushing another passenger out of his or her seat space? Was he violating an FAA regulation or posted Southwest policy? Who decided to eject him from the plane, and what reason did they give? And why was a Hollywood star flying on a discount airline that has only cramped, economy-class seats?

I wanted to know more because, as I’ve said, I’m a fan of both Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines. I love Smith’s work: his smart, sometimes satirical, but often just goofy comedy. I think Dogma, in particular, is brilliant, and Smith himself is a great storyteller. On the other hand, I’ve flown Southwest for five of the six flights I’ve taken this year. I love that they’re cheap (because so am I), but I’ve also found their attitude towards passengers to be fun, courteous, and friendly. On my last trip, a baggage checking agent went far out of her way to help me avoid a $50 overweight baggage fee, even though the problem was entirely my fault. I have always thought highly of both parties in this argument, and I’d like to continue to do so. So I wanted to know: What really happened?

Because Southwest is being very careful about what they say, (They are in the middle of a PR nightmare, after all.) the best source I could find for the full story was Smith’s own podcast, Smodcast. As soon as he arrived home on Saturday, Smith recorded the hour-and-a-half-long episode #106, entitled “Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines,” in which he discusses the incident with his wife, journalist Jennifer Schwalbach Smith. Yes, it’s clearly just one side of a heated argument, but Southwest has not questioned Smith’s version of the events that went down, and some bloggers have praised Smith for his honestly. The podcast answered all of my questions:

Smith was flying Southwest because it’s a very convenient way to get from the Bay Area, where he had business, to Burbank, an airport that he loves and that is near his home. He has flown Southwest often, many times a week in some cases, because loved their corporate attitude and friendly service—until last Saturday, that is. He usually buys two seats for himself because a) he’s rolling in dough and can afford to, b) he jokes, “I just don’t like people!” so he avoids being crammed up against strangers, and c) as he puts it, “I’m fat! I know I’m fat!” and while he proudly and repeatedly insists that he has always been able to fit in an airline seat with the armrests down and buckle his seatbelt without an extender, he is more comfortable with more space. On Saturday evening, though, Smith was in a hurry because he’d been away from home for days and he missed his beautiful wife (He put it a bit more graphically in his podcast.) and so he asked to switch to an earlier flight. The early flight had only one seat left.

Rather than assigning seats, Southwest lets passengers pick their own. Smith chose a seat in the center of a row, between (as he tells it) two adorable, tiny ladies who were very polite and gave no complaints about having him between them. He was about to fasten his seat belt when a flight attendant told him that the captain had asked her to remove him due to “safety concerns.” It took him a moment to figure out that she was talking about his size. He pulled down the armrests to show that he could fit between them, and asked the other passengers in his row if they were uncomfortable. Both said they were fine. The flight attendant still insisted on escorting him from the plane.

Smith went calmly and politely, not wanting to cause a stir and get arrested by Homeland Security, but once back inside the airport, he began arguing (in a calm voice, he insists) with the gate agent, demanding to know on what grounds he was ejected, and who made the decision. The captain could not have made the call, he argued, as the captain could not possibly have seen him. (Rutherford’s post on Southwest’s blog later admitted that it was not the captain who made the call.) After getting the same unsatisfying reply over and over, Smith then spent the two-plus hours he had to wait for his next flight telling his 1.6 million Twitter followers exactly what he thought of Southwest Airlines. As the enormity of Southwest’s PR problem became clear, a manager walked over to Smith where he sat by the gate, apologized profusely, and offered him a voucher for $100 in credit to be used when (if!) he flys Southwest again. Smith accepted the voucher, but assured the manager that this was far from making things right.

That’s where most of the news coverage ends, but I think the best part of the story—and the most damning for Southwest—is what happened on that later flight. This flight was not crowded, so Smith used the two seats he had originally paid for, taking a window seat towards the front of the plane and setting his voucher as a placeholder in the middle seat. A pleasant young lady sat down in the aisle seat, and Smith noticed that she was about his size, perhaps a bit larger. A few minutes later, a Southwest customer service agent escorted her off the plane while Smith watched, thinking to himself, “Are you kidding me? Not again!”

The young lady did return to her seat before the plane took off, but she was noticeably upset and fighting back tears. At this point, Smith says, his previous anger at Southwest seemed petty and small. Now he was far angrier because, among so many other things, Kevin Smith is a little girl’s dad. “I just kept thinking of our daughter,” Smith told his wife on the podcast. “If that were my daughter, I would have punched somebody’s lights out!”

Late in the flight, the young lady introduced herself as Natali, and told Smith what had happened to her. He later invited her to tell her full story on Smodcast episode #107, “Thinnicism,” posted today. Natali tells listeners that she flies all the time, on Southwest and on other airlines. Although she was always nervous about her size and careful to pick a seat where she’d be most comfortable and least likely to scrunch anyone else, her size had not been a problem up until that flight.

On the flight from Oakland to Burbank, however, a flight attendant pulled her aside and told her she must sit in the aisle seat of Smith’s row. Then a customer service agent boarded the plane to tell Natali that there was a problem and she would have to step off. Back inside the airport, the agent told her that she had to buy a second seat—something she had never done before because she, like Smith, had always been able to fit in one seat with the armrests down and a non-extended seatbelt fastened. Natali pointed out to the agent that the seat next to her was already empty, but the was told that it belonged to Mr. Smith, and it would be unfair to him if she used it.

Natali continued the debate until she was finally allowed to get back on the plane, now very upset and very much aware of the dirty looks she was getting from some passengers. She has since left phone and internet messages for Southwest, with no response from them. “Believe me, you’ll hear from them now!” Smith declared. The pair went on to speculate that maybe Southwest was putting on a show for Smith, trying to prove that they treated all large people equally.

If it was a staged show, I’d have to say that it backfired completely, adding paternal rage to Smith’s personal indignation, and showing that Smith’s ejection was not an isolated case of poor judgment, but rather a sign of a systemic problem. After reading through Southwest’s web site, Smith says he’s found no clear guidelines about when a passenger’s size is or isn’t a problem. Fitting between armrests is a suggested test, but this was not used in Smith’s case or Natali’s: Both of them did fit between armrests. The site also suggests that the captain can decide, based on his or her judgment, but Southwest’s blog post admits that the captain did not actually make the call in Smith’s case, and the captain wasn’t even mentioned in Natali’s case. As of now, there is no way for a passenger to know what will or won’t be a problem, and the rules can change from flight to flight. In fact, Natali was on a connecting flight, having just made the much longer trip from Des Moines to Oakland in one seat with no problems. Smith concludes that, when flying Southwest, “If you’re over 200 pounds, I would think twice, because they could grab you at any time.”

This nightmare—for larger airline passengers and for Southwest—could have been avoided if Southwest had set solid, clear policies, shared them with their customers, and stuck to them. Of course airline employees have an obligation to look out for safety, and to provide an entire seat to every passenger who pays for one, and it’s true some people just don’t fit in one seat (many people, actually, since the CDC estimates that 67% percent of American adults are overweight and airplane seats are designed to stuff as many customers into a plane as possible). But these should not be subjective judgment calls. A person is either overflowing into someone else’s seat, or he’s not. A person is either getting in the way of safe flying procedures (buckling seatbelts, keeping the aisle clear, etc.), or she’s not. Airlines can tell us clearly what size bags fit as carry-ons. Why can’t they tell us what size bodies fit in their seats?

I’m not suggesting that they set boxes by the gate with signs that say, “If your butt doesn’t fit in this box, you’ll need to check it as baggage,” or that airline employees should measure passengers’ waists as they board the plane. Instead, airlines could simply set clear, common-sense rules, enforce them to the letter on every flight, and post them on their web sites and ticket envelopes so that passengers could plan accordingly. For example, if the web site said, “Our seats are 17 inches wide. If your body does not fit in a space this size, you’ll need to buy a second seat. If you do fit in this space, but would be uncomfortable in it, please consider buying a second seat. If you cannot sit in one seat with the armrests down, you will be asked to purchase another seat or to leave the plane.”

Of course this won’t make everyone happy, and some passengers will still be humiliated and inconvenienced by being removed from planes when they simply can’t fit and can’t afford a second seat. Still, clear, objective policies would go a long way towards decreasing the embarrassment for everyone concerned. Passengers would know exactly what to expect, and airline staff be able to explain—in a completely factual, non-euphemistic, non-insulting way—the rare occasions when they really must take someone off the plane. Most importantly, no more Kevin Smiths and Natalis would be humiliated when there really isn’t a problem, and nobody would have to live in fear of being suddenly singled out because some hidden, unnamed person arbitrarily decides that they are (as so many headlines have called Smith) “too fat to fly.”

Note: I once had a blog, now offline, called Anita’s Weekly Column, in which I practiced writing one essay per week. I’m trying for more of a standard blog format now (though I don’t know if I’m any closer to it), but I’d like to occasionally repost some of my favorite essays from the old blog. This is one such essay:

Me as a child, on a family trip to Springfield.

Me as a child, on a family trip to Springfield.

In his blog, Traveling Hypothesis, my friend R.J. Zimmerman has posted an intriguing review of Lewis MacAdams’ book Birth of the Cool. It sounds like a great book, full of fascinating tidbits about the musicians, poets, and visual artists who shaped our world through the avant-garde movement, but I won’t be reading this book anytime soon. One of R.J.’s comments scared me away: “The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.” If this is a book by a name-dropper, for name-droppers, I refuse to read it. I have a great fear of any path by which people try to become cool by studying those who were cool in the past, trying to ride on their cool coattails by claiming an association with them. I’m afraid that to read such a book would remove any chance I have of ever being cool.

Yes, I do believe that I have the potential to be really, truly cool. I know that those of you who’ve met me are laughing right now. You’ve seen the wire-rimmed glasses I insist on wearing almost everywhere, even though I own contact lenses. You know that I wear no makeup at all, except on very special occasions—the occasions when I break out the contacts. You’ve noticed that my fashion choices have gotten a bit sexier since I realized that spandex-infused tight jeans and polo shirts are even comfier than the huge, baggy ones I used to wear, but that’s about as dressy as I usually get. The Converse sneakers I wear everywhere are falling apart again, but I can’t replace them because I don’t know where to find more in bright purple. I have a new haircut because I’ve realized that the all-one-length, long locks I’d had most of my life can’t get nearly as messy as my new, piecey short cut can. I can speak knowingly in the terms of Dungeons and Dragons, and I remember reading The Lord of the Rings more reverently than I remember the Bible. My stuffed animals have stuffed animals, and lately I’ve been knitting totem animals that represent myself and my friends. For fun, I read about mummies, autopsies, and neurological disorders.

It gets worse if you look at my childhood. I wear glasses now because I’m quite used to them; I was four and a half when I got my first pair. (Jerry Maguire would not convince the world that very small children with glasses were cute for another 18 years. In 1978, a four-year-old with glasses was simply a freak.) I didn’t learn to speak at the rate generally considered normal. In kindergarten, I was sent to a speech pathologist who systematically taught me to pronounce “sh” “t” “th” and “s” sounds correctly and at the right places in the language. I continued to see a string of speech therapists through the fourth grade because it took them that long to figure out how to get me to pronounce the “r” sound. In the meantime, I shuddered when people asked me my last name, knowing that they would never understand “Harkess” coming out of my mouth. I learned to avoid speaking at all. By the time I mastered “r”s at the age of nine, I was used to being practically mute, and stayed so well into high school. When I was six, my orthodontist started experimenting with pulling lots of baby teeth to see if this would make my adult teeth grow in straighter than otherwise expected. They didn’t. After my few remaining teeth leaned in, my canines grew in high up on my gums. From age 10 until I got my extremely painful braces at age 12, I avoided smiling so that other kids wouldn’t be scared by my fangs. On top of all of that, I was definitely what psychologist Elaine Aron now calls “a highly sensitive person,” meaning that I was one of those kids who involuntarily burst into tears with the slightest stress. In short, a string of issues beyond my control doomed me to a childhood as an incorrigible dork.

All of this, of course, is the blessing that gives me the potential to be truly cool. In his review, R.J. explains that MacAdams’ book has taught him what cool really is: “the detachment from what seems important to everyone else, mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway.” Learning early on that I could not possibly attain the small details that seem important to everyone else, I learned not to care as much as most people do. I never struggled to fit in, simply because I never had much hope that I could.

I didn’t realize what a marvelous, protective gift my dorkiness was until 2002, when my very cool friend Rachel sent me a copy of the New York Times Magazine article profiling Rosalind Wiseman and her upcoming book for parents, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Wiseman had done a great deal of work with young teenaged girls. Her book, and the article, revealed how truly horrible these outwardly sweet little girls could be to one another. She shocked and worried a nation of parents by showing how the “queen bees” at the top of the most powerful cliques in most American schools can order communal actions that amount to psychological torture. Those at the top can make those on the edge do just about anything, all the way from buying clothes their families can’t afford, to standing for public humiliation, to going way too far with alcohol, drugs, and too-early, promiscuous sex. Yes, the clique system is dangerous and cruel. And what gives the queen bees such incredible power? It’s the desire of the wannabe, that urge everyone has to belong, to be accepted, to be part of a community. The wannabe wants so desperately to fit in that she will do anything to please those in power.

Wiseman’s book goes on to instruct parents on how to communicate with their daughters to help them navigate the clique system and rise ethically to a position of power. Me, I suggest a different solution. You see, I remember the cliques from my junior-high days. I remember the queen bee, her wannabe disciples in tow, following me as I walked home from school each day of seventh grade, yelling something about my hair. (I think it had to do with the color. My hair had recently turned from light blonde, like hers, to the murky midpoint between blonde and brown where it still is today. For some reason, this color, and my refusal to bleach it out or dye over it, is particularly offensive to 12-year-old blondes.) I remember ignoring her, and I remember letting out a friendly laugh as the wannabes quietly came to me at my locker the next day, apologizing for their queen’s behavior. I remember being touched by their respect for me, but I don’t otherwise remember caring much. I definitely don’t remember changing my appearance or my actions to make this stupid girl like me. It’s not that I didn’t want to belong to the group. I just realized that nothing I could do would ever make that possible, so I went on with my dorky little life, saving a lot of time, energy, and money for my own interests. I’m grateful now that I was such a complete outsider. If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to give her such a gift. I’ll spare her the tooth-pulling, and I’ll let her speak correctly if she can, but I am definitely going to buy her the ugliest pair of glasses I can find, then make her wear them, whether she needs them or not.

I do believe in the problem Wiseman describes. Even as a girl, I had an inkling of what it was like to be a wannabe. I felt sorry for the sweet girls who met me at my locker. As early as eighth grade, I heard about drunken parties I could never be invited to, about the boys who prowled them looking for passed-out girls to have sex with, and the class president, who peed in another eighth-grader’s mouth because he was too drunk to enjoy oral sex. In high school, I heard about kids being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I heard about the girl in my senior class who got so drunk that she spent the night spread-eagled on a pool table, having sex with any besotted boy who wandered by. I heard how horrible she felt afterward, and that her parents threatened to sue the school paper for running a classified ad that cryptically mentioned the incident, but that most of the damage was already done. I felt sorry for her, too. I was grateful that I wasn’t invited to that party. My freakishness was my armor. I was saved from the torture of belonging.

This is why I believe that I may someday be cool. I think that we too often mistake being “in” for being cool, when in fact the two states are opposites. The “in” crowd, the fashionable people, those who belong, simply do as they’re told. They work very hard at being just like as many other people as possible. The truly cool do whatever works for them, whether or not anyone else understands it. They focus on their own lives, on causes that matter to them, on art that comes from their souls, and in so doing, they accidentally become unmistakably unique. The “in” are sometimes respectable. The cool are geniuses.

For example, the more I learn about Neil Young, the cooler I think he is. He is, and always has been, a strange-looking guy. His voice is even stranger. He is best known as a guitarist, but his songs are so easy to play that they are often taught to beginning guitar students. In his solos, he doesn’t show off technical prowess or speed; there are plenty of guitarists who play faster and more complicated licks. He just plays what sounds good to him. He even wanders from genre to genre, from the hippie protest songs of Buffalo Springfield, to the pretty folk of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to Crazy Horse’s hard rock—the precursor to grunge—to some beautiful country songs and some so twangy that I wonder if he’s making fun of the genre. When he dabbled in electronica in the early 80s, he was so far outside of expectations that his record label sued him for making “unrepresentative music.” Even now, at 60, (note: This essay was written years ago. Young is now 63.) he has not sunk into the mire of doing only greatest hits albums and “I-need-the-cash” reunion tours, as many older stars do. He’s still writing new songs, still performing, still using his power as a celebrity to propel his favorite social causes, like Farm Aid, Live 8, and his wife’s creation, the Bridge School. In an age when appearing in an iPod or car commercial is considered to be the best way to promote an album, Young is one of the few classic rockers who hasn’t sold any song for any ad. He’s surely a celebrity worth admiring. His real appeal for me, though, is best summed up by Kevin Chong, the self-described geek who wrote the homage book Neil Young Nation: “Young was the embodiment, in his appearance, his singing, his music, of a type of anti-beauty. To an awkward kid, this was appealing. Young sought beauty in frayed edges and worn-out patches. He reveled in bum notes, in buzzing guitar strings.”

Of course, I haven’t read Chong’s book, either. I’ll allow myself to read it in a couple of months. I’m rationing my Neil Young intake now, an album here, a book there. Loyal fan that I am, I am afraid of steeping myself too thoroughly in anyone else’s story. I don’t want to become an imitator, or the sort of rabid fan who is so excited about someone else’s life that she forgets to live her own. That would definitely not be cool.

Anyway, I don’t ever need to know all about Neil Young, as I don’t want to be exactly like him. I just want to be cool like Neil Young—to be an outsider, irreverent, obviously imperfect, a little bit ugly, a little bit odd, and proud of it. Thanks to the gifts I’ve been given, I think I just might have what it takes.

For as long as I can remember about such things, the number-one dreamboat movie star for me has been Christian Bale. I’ve loved him since Empire of the Sun—this should worry you if you’ve seen the film, but let me explain. Christian Bale is exactly three days younger than I am, (I just looked him up and found that out. I knew he was about my age, but how cool is that?) so when that movie came out in 1987, he was a little boy, and I was a little girl, just the right age to go gaga for him. When we were teenagers, I swooned over Swing Kids. At 20, I knew just what the Little Women were so excited about. Then there was American Psycho (starring an Englishman, oddly), The Machinist, and the disturbingly bad Reign of Fire, but even that wasn’t enough to crush my ardor. And now I have the cowboy version of Christian in 3:10 to Yuma, and of course, Batman, Batman, Batman… Sigh!

Kal Penn speaking to get out the vote on Auraria Campus, Denver, Colorado

And yet, I have to admit that Christian Bale is now my second biggest movie star crush. Christian has looks, and he’s certainly got talent, but I’ve now heard Kal Penn speaking for himself, seen him in action in the real world, and I’ve even had the chance to see him in person. (See my crummy cell phone snapshot, left. I couldn’t find my camera that day. My apologies.) I loved the Harold and Kumar movies, and House, M.D. He’s certainly cute, and the boy can act, but I didn’t truly fall for Kal Penn until I saw him out in the real world, gushing in his own words about the integrity and brilliance of Barack Obama. He’s clearly an idealist, (Kal, I mean. Well, Barack, too.) but he states his case with intelligence and conviction that makes his enthusiasm contageous. He’s cute, he’s smart, he’s passionate… How could a girl resist?

My crush began when I saw this interview on The Late Show with Craig Ferguson on September 5:

Yes, Kal, you can take me into a little room and do things, too… Ahem. Where was I? Ah, yes. Smart, enthusiastic, idealistic. What a guy! What I found most touching is that this bona-fide movie star, prime-time TV regular, and cult hero (for Harold and Kumar) said that he was volunteering to wear an orange vest and usher people around because he felt that this “could really make a difference.” In an industry and at a level of success that encourages self-centeredness and self-congratulation, Kal Penn has spent most of 2008 working like crazy for a cause that he truly believes (or so he’s convinced me) will make the world a better place for everyone.

Last Saturday, I got to see Kal Penn in person, along with Eva Longoria (of Desperate Housewives) and Adam Rodriguez (of CSI Miami), speaking at my old stomping grounds on Auraria Campus in downtown Denver. (Auraria Campus is home to three schools: Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and my alma mater, the University of Colorado at Denver.) He gave a speech similar to the one in the video below, which is from Cleveland, on his pre-primary campus tour. Of course, since I saw him two days before the deadline for Coloradoans to register to vote, he was pushing us specifically for that, but most of the examples and analogies were the same. (The specifics of Obama’s plan for college financial aid weren’t in Saturday’s speech, either. I wonder if Obama’s plan has changed. I’ll have to go check on that.)

I was quite impressed with Kal’s intellect, passion, and speaking skill. (For context, I’m a Toastmaster and a former high-school debater, and I gave the sermon at my church when I was 16 years old. It takes a bit to impress me.)

And finally, check out this interview with Kal on the primary campaign trail in January:

Yum! Look at that hope, that beautiful enthusiasm! As one of the YouTube commenters said, “And it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute.” Not at all, though actually, I can’t remember how cute I thought he was on the big screen, when I knew nothing of him as a person. But now that I can see his excitement, his speaking skill, and that big, big brain, well… I’m sorry, Christian. We’ll always have high school, and college, and all of my twenties, but there’s a new guy making my heart go pit-a-pat. Sigh…

And Kal, in the unlikely event that you’d see this: Yes, I’ve registered to vote. Yes, I’ve told others to register, too. Yes, I, a registered Independent like you, am volunteering for Barack, too. Thanks for everything you’re doing. All joking aside, you have my respect, and my heartfelt thanks.