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On a Wing and a Prayer

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Surely a year as intense and disturbing as 2001 calls for some soothing words from a sage. Or perhaps from an unexpected philosopher king (and current swain of Pamela Anderson), rapper Kid Rock. In a ballad from his new CD, Cocky, Kid forgoes his usual bad-boy testero-extremo and muses: "I believe we can make it through the winds of change." And we can, even if it means turning to religion, therapy, sex, drugs, liquor—or even liquor ads featuring 29-plusers who never get blitzed, now cleared for broadcast on NBC.

Rock's Hallmark depth is a sure sign that after the terrorist attacks—and our resulting need for comfort everything—a new pitch-perfect, Giuliani-like sensitivity to tone is required. The best example of that is BBDO's campaign with Woody Allen, et al., selling the "New York miracle," offering hope and humor without any of the expected sentimentality. On the flip side, I've been collecting offensively or unfortunately worded ads or promos since Sept. 11, and I think I have a winner.

It's from an e-mail sent in early December to patients of a laser and dermatology center in White Plains, N.Y. "Greetings," it starts. "Our hearts go out to all the victims and their families, and indeed to all of us as Americans who have seen our world change." And, in the very next line: "We are going about living our lives, and hopefully appreciating the happy occasions. Lots of rejuvenation procedures can be done with no recovery time, and now is the time to treat those leg and face veins."

They're not the only ones retreating to the land of the mordantly self-obsessed. A headline in The Onion, in one of its first editions following Sept. 11, suggested, "A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again," and, of course, the cliché was that "everything changed." We thought the world would, from 9/11 forward, suddenly be detrivialized. (Indeed, now anything reeking of the self-absorbed or frivolous is, "So Sept. 10.") But that hasn't quite happened.

Despite our supposed re-examination of the material life, we're still getting holiday stories like, "What to get the pet who has everything." This piece appeared in early December in USA Weekend, and it quotes a pet-clothing-boutique owner who says, "The trends mirror what's happening for people. They like to coordinate with their pets. Army jackets and camouflage are it right now."

Will Fluffy remember to wear his camo at the time of highest alert?

In a year of massive wartime airstrikes and great fear about planes, it's interesting that flying imagery was everywhere. Microsoft had the misfortune to create an entire campaign for Windows XP around a beautiful blue sky and the line, "Prepare to fly." This was changed, absolutely appropriately, to "Yes, you can."

The imagery seems to be an aftereffect of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with a giant global dweeb doing the flying. It's amazing how an act that's supposed to heighten the senses—offering the freedom to soar and all its meta phoric meaning—is reduced to hangin' with Mr. Ungainly. Freud said that in dreams, flying is a code for sex, but this guy looks like he could not care less about anything beyond reworking his motherboard. It turns out that the software contains a titanic, security-threatening bug, so maybe he's right to seem a bit hangdog.

Another instance of hype going splat was Ginger, now named Segway—some called it It—the hotly anticipated "invention of the new millennium." When the exceedingly earthbound, rather mun dane and '50s-lawn mowerlike gyroscopic pogo stick was finally revealed on Good Morning America, its future seemed as dreary as this year's retail numbers. By 2030, I imagine a crew of helmeted, geriatric programmers riding "the human transporter" around the Micro soft campus, getting their jollies from bumper-car-like high jinks. Dean needs to get out more.

Flying imagery also figured in Victoria's Secret's prime-time info mercial on ABC in November, programming that raised the question, How low can network TV go in support of uplift? The answer: very, very low. Bony but pneumatic models pounded down the runway in skimpies and enormous, feathery wings strapped to their backs. The show got decent ratings—we were, after all, desperate, and this was about sex—but it was not angelic, it was depressing. A few unlucky supermodels were actually wired up and airlifted over the crowd, and the faux innocence and fake religiosity made it look like a pornographic Christmas pageant.

Actually, it was possible to see fancy underwear worn intelligently, with character and a distinct fashion sensibility, on TV this year. That was on HBO's Sex and the City, which, along with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, provided the greatest escape TV, even in reruns.

Six Feet Under, especially, celebrates the funk in dysfunctional family values, which seemed to provide so much diversion this year, starting with the no-longer-reported doings of the Bush twins on up to the Jackson family reunion. In Spielberg's reworking of Stanley Kubrick's AI, the poor little robot boy desperately wants to bond with his cold, ambivalent human mother, and The Royal Tenenbaums is being promoted with the line, "Family isn't a word. It's a sentence."

On the intellectual front, MSNBC's rising star Ashleigh Banfield donned a pair of titanium-framed glasses in a reverse Clark Kent, with the specs suggesting sudden brainy superpowers. The glasses thing also worked for Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update anchor Tina Fey. Are we that intellectually bankrupt that frames equals gravitas?

Similarly hip black glasses helped build the intellectual bad-boy persona of Jonathan Franzen, the author of this year's National Book Award winner, The Corrections. A novel about a Midwestern family and psychological hurt, it also provided unexpected gossip fodder when the author became the first ever to be dumped by Oprah's TV book club for distinguishing his "high art" book from some of O's schlockier choices (is this a trend—resisting Oprahfication?).

This question about "selling out"—the commodification of everything—not only causes conflict for Franzen, it also dogs Chip, the main character, throughout the novel. In the book, however, the moral dilemma is illustrated by Chip's critique of a successful ad campaign. A college instructor, he shows his class a six-spot campaign called "You go, girl" (now there's a crack at Oprah!), about a young woman's battle with breast cancer. In the last spot in the series, the office-furniture advertiser announces that it has made a $10 million donation toward "finding the cure."

Chip feels it's completely exploitative and cynical. Not a student agrees with him. "So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the courageous fight against cancer?" Chip asks. The pink-faced kids all nod. "You want to teach us to hate the same things you hate," a student says. "What's wrong with making a living?"

Chip's line of questioning may be a bit Sept. 10, a great indulgence and luxury now that no body can get a job. Ex tended adolescence is not so much fun when it's a necessity. The economy was already going south when 2001 began, and now we're back to 1995-level profits.

Are we going backward? It's reassuring to look back when the future is uncertain. We've always recycled our past, but now we seem especially nostalgic. Perhaps that's why ratings for the Carol Burnett reunion special went through the roof. Through the prism of a technicolor variety/comedy show, the '70s indeed seem like the smiley-faced dec ade, all jokes about Farrah wings and Gerald Ford. Moving right along, The 80s Show is actually coming to Fox, as a spinoff of That 70s Show.

When it comes to selling nostalgia, the Restoration Hardware catalog offers the retail phrase for our age: "evocative gifting" (retro radios, lamps, phones, martini shakers). Comfort gifting.

That's in contrast to the non-evocative gift that's cheaper but amazingly apt for our ruptured psyches, the new $3.50 toy and party favor the Dropper Popper. It's half a rubber ball that bounces surprisingly high. I was impressed: a cheap toy makes a point.

We too will bounce back. We'll make it through the poetic "winds of change."

At the same time, we have faced unconscionable, unprocessable evil, and it has shaken us to the core. But we've also shown amazing dexterity, resilience and strength. What's next? There are no oracles, but I did consult an other important sphere, a "financial ad viser" in the form of a green 8-Ball a friend got as a gag gift at a holiday party. As I held it up to my face, I whispered, "Will 2002 be a good year?" as if this 8-ball were in a position to know.

I shook it expectantly and watched the letters on the liquidy triangle slowly move into place. The answer: "Ride it out." Preferably not on a Segway.