Clout vs. Impact

Issue No. 10 | April 29, 2022

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

A movie actress recently proclaimed that she and her musician fiancé regularly drink each other’s blood. You probably reacted to this “news” much as we did, with a mix of revulsion, boredom, and a slightly smug sense of superiority. But maybe some empathy is called for too, a healthy dose of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Are we really so different from this Hot Topic, valley girl vampire?


“Not everyone can be famous. But much of our daily experience tells us that we should if we possibly can, because it is the best, perhaps the only, way to be,” writes Leo Braudy in his 1986 book “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History.” A couple decades later this is still true, except everyone can be famous; or at least is always just one viral moment away from ascending to this higher plane. Best to ignore our dumb, depraved celebrity culture; but not before acknowledging that each of us harbors the same desperate and all-too-human craving for recognition. We might just count ourselves fortunate that nobody’s indulged it. 


To live in Los Angeles, as we do, is to be surrounded by imposing edifices that double as monuments to their benefactors: hospitals, theaters, libraries. A different kind of memorial  may be found at a small, not particularly attractive post office in Brentwood. A modest plaque indicates that it is named after veteran character actor Karl Malden. Although Malden distinguished himself in his long career, his focus was not on fame, but on his legacy – his lasting impact on his work, on his community (the USPS honored Malden for his service on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee), and on his family. In this last domain, Malden achieved something few in Hollywood manage: he and his wife Mona were married for almost 70 years.


Philanthropy is a good way to build your legacy, even if you don’t tell anyone about it. Although you may have yet to acquire the means to fund an oncology wing or university gym, many causes can benefit from whatever you can spare. But non-profits face the same challenges that arise in the private sector: management bloat, excessive overhead, and inefficient allocation of resources. It’s hard to know just where you should “invest” your hard-earned donor dollars. 


Charity Navigator can bring some clarity to your giving. Since 2001, it’s been evaluating and comparing how well various charities steward your money, rigorously scrutinizing their financial health, transparency, and accountability. You can also search its extensive database for charities in the sector of your choice. If you find the site useful, you may wish to leave a tip. A non-profit itself, Charity Navigator depends on your largesse.  


We recently inherited some family heirlooms from our father: a few cardboard boxes haphazardly filled with all manner of ephemera, ranging from Civil War artillery shell pieces a great great grandfather plucked from a Gettysburg battlefield, to tattered photographs of unknown provenance, to a great uncle’s letter describing a trip to the UK. (“The woman are the worst looking bunch I have even seen, and these English dress queerly.”)


The Family Curator provides helpful tips on how to organize and preserve these glimpses of the past. It also teaches best practices for selecting and saving current family artifacts, so your heirs are not confronted with an intriguing but confusing jumble of treasure and trash. 


A good antidote for taking yourself too seriously is to consider that in 100 years you and everyone you know will be dead. While those of us in the creative fields may fantasize that our work will live on, the odds of any of us making a lasting impression on posterity are slim. 


Nowhere is the contrast between this sobering reality and how people actually comport themselves greater than it is in Hollywood. Case in point: the voicemails of powerful 1980’s agent Warren Klein. The breathless, life-or-death importance with which Klein speaks to his then A-list clients of various terrible, largely-forgotten “projects” is chef’s-kiss perfect. 


These recordings are fake (the creation of two geniuses named Matt Oberg and Jody Lambert), but they did manage to fool many when they were first uploaded to Funny or Die more than a decade ago. Now they live on an obscure YouTube channel, which we recommend you visit. You won’t truly get “the industry” until you’ve heard Klein plead with Andrew McCarthy to take the role in Ladyhawke before they cast “Matty Broderick” (“Rutger turns into a wolf by night, Michelle turns into a hawk by day, and you turn into an above-the-title movie star by October”) or reassure “Gleaming the Cube” star Christian Slater about Josh Brolin’s rival skateboarding epic (“He’s lucky if he could ollie over a matchbook”).


As someone tasked with teaching the “worst” students in Los Angeles, Jaime Escalante was a man who understood the tyranny of low expectations.   “If we expect kids to be losers, they will be losers; if we expect them to be winners, they will be winners. They rise, or fall, to the level of the expectations of those around them, especially their parents and their teachers.” 


After teaching math and physics for 12 years in his native Bolivia, Escalante emigrated to Los Angeles, where he worked odd jobs, got another college degree and taught himself English before taking a job at the low-income Garfield High School in 1974. Escalante immediately clashed with the administration and his fellow faculty, who considered it hopeless to do anything beyond babysitting their charges. Escalante disagreed, and soon was teaching AP Calculus. By 1991, his high-level math program included 400 students, and his efforts resulted in unprecedented numbers of students passing the AP exam and going on to college.

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