Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Talk Is Cheap, Gas Is Not

The headline in the paper said, “Leaders agree to suspend gas tax.”

The legislature of Illinois, at the behest of Governor George Ryan, is proposing suspending the state sales tax on gasoline for six months, starting as soon as this weekend. Sounds pretty good, right? Gas prices seem higher than ever, and every one of us likes to spend a little less.

Are Americans truly outraged at the price of gasoline? I’m not just talking about bitching and moaning every once in awhile. I mean real outrage that motivates action.

I don’t see a massive drop in sales of those gas-guzzling SUVs. I don’t see anyone urging investment in alternative energy sources. I don’t see the roads suddenly emptier because of more car pooling, mass transit, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing any of those things and turning into Ed Begley, either. But I’m also not whining about the price of gas.

The fact is that we Americans love our cars. We love driving, we love driving fast, we love driving fast in big vehicles that scream, “Get out of my way! I have to get to Starbucks to spend four dollars on a cup of coffee!”

Sure, four bucks for a mocha grande latte, but two bucks for a gallon of unleaded? Must be a bunch of criminals running this operation! Or maybe OPEC is simply operating under the same system of supply-and-demand as every other capitalist organization.

So, back to the suspended sales tax idea. Unfortunately, you’re dealing with politicians here, so more than a bit of cynicism is called for.

The “leaders” want us to see that headline and say, “Hurray for our leaders! They really do care about us, and they’re proving it by helping us escape from the tyranny of high gas prices! They love us and we love them! We want to hug them! Let us kiss their babies for a change! We must make contributions to their campaign coffers and shower them with affection! Leaders rule!!!”

Ahem. Reality check, please.

The tax would only be suspended for six months. Guess what’s happening between now and then? There’s a little thing called an election, and guess who wants your vote so desperately that they’re willing to say or do anything to get your vote? The political “pander” light is shining more brightly right now than the neon “hot” sign at Krispy Kreme. Then, a few weeks after the election, when the incumbents are safely returned to their office, the sales tax is quietly returned to the pumps.

You ask, “What’s the difference, as long as they’re saving us money? It must be a pretty substantial amount if they are spending so much valuable legislative time discussing it and proposing it and considering it and voting on it.” Okay, let’s investigate just how much money we’re talking about here.

A nickel. Five cents a gallon. That’s the current gasoline sales tax in Illinois.

Let’s do a little bit of arithmetic (this always makes politicians angry, because they don’t want you to actually figure out the numbers behind this, and you’ll see why in a moment).

Assume for our purposes that the average car has a 15 gallon gas tank, and that the owner has to fill it up once a week. I know that there are people who use more than that for business or on summer vacation, but just go with me here.

So, 15 gallons a week with a savings of 5 cents per gallon means you’ll save 75 cents each week. If the tax is suspended for six months, let’s round that out to 25 weeks. At 75 cents a week, you will have saved $18.75 at the end of those 25 weeks. If you drive a little more, make it $20. More than that? Okay, let’s go up to $30.

Thirty dollars? Over six months? Is that enough of a savings to have you jumping up and down in support of the “leaders” who made this miracle possible?

But wait. If the state isn’t collecting that nickel a gallon, that means that tax revenue is going to be down, and how much can that be? The Governor says it would only cost the state about $180,000,000!

Much of that huge chunk of change would normally be used to repair roads and bridges, which are in need of major maintenance all across Illinois, just as in the rest of America. Oh, good thinking! This is the typical modern approach to problems. Give people a feel-good quick-fix rather than working towards a real, long-term solution.

A hundred eighty million dollars -- just so you can get thirty bucks back? Well, no, not really. That money is actually being used to guarantee that our “leaders” get to keep their jobs, and they’re hoping that we’ll be suckers enough to fall into their pandering pit. Let’s hear it for our leaders!

I have a better idea. How about this headline: “Americans agree to suspend leaders!” Six months should just about do it.

Sunday, June 18, 2000

Happy Father's Day

Father’s Day. A day to be proud to be a father, and to remember our own Dads. And to realize that, contrary to what we always believed would happen, there’s a part of us that is turning into a part of him.

Every man who has kids has gone through this. One day, you’re the son, hearing your father saying, “As long as you live in my house, you’ll live by my rules.” The next day you’re grown up with a kid of your own, and you suddenly hear that same voice saying that same phrase – only now it’s in your house, and it’s coming out of your head! You realize that, horror of horrors, you’re channeling your own father!

I asked the listeners of my show to contribute some of their favorite Dad Sayings. It’s amazing how universal they are.

“Don’t make me turn this car around!” Great threat, Dad. We’re 200 miles from home and I’m sure my brother and I will be peaceful and cooperative all the way back. Alternate version: “Don’t make me stop this car,” which is the title of a memoir by Al Roker of NBC’s “Today Show.” Yeah, go ahead, Dad, pull over and stop the car. That will get us there faster.

“This is not a restaurant, you’ll eat what’s on the table.” Lots of these sayings have to do with food, because dinner table battles are not generation-proof. Nowhere in America has any kid ever eaten brussels sprouts warm, but millions of us have sat there after everything else was cleared away, looking at those ugly orbs of yuck that we either had to swallow or look at for the rest of our lives. Alternate version: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it.”

“Don’t leave food on your plate. There are children starving in China (or India, or the third world nation of your choice).” Dad, can you explain to me again how my eating this liver will help them? Logically, shouldn’t I purposely leave some leftovers, which you and Mom can box up and send overseas through some United Nations program? We could use those same boxes they give us at the Chinese restaurant, where I noticed that you didn’t finish everything on your plate!

“Just think of the broccoli as little trees.” I love broccoli now, as an adult, and can’t understand why my daughter won’t try it, even though it was always a fight to get me to eat it as a kid. My Dad actually used this tree analogy on me, and to this day I don’t get it. What made him think that I was ever in the mood to chomp down on a tiny tree to begin with? Climb a tree, plant a tree, chop down a tree, carve my initials into a tree -- these I was interested in, but not eating one. What’s for dinner tomorrow night, bonsai bushes?

Also from the world of botany, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.” Of course not, Dad. It grows on broccoli!

“This family is not a democracy.” We knew this all too well. When something of vital importance came up, there was only one vote that mattered, and it was Mom’s. Which explains why Dad was always saying, “What did your mother say? If it’s all right with Mom, then it’s all right with me.” Usual kid response, delivered in overly dramatic whine as if the world will end if you don’t get what you want: “But Dad, I really want it!” Usual parental reply: “Well, people in hell want ice water.” Go ahead, think up a rebuttal for that one.

“Life is not fair.” A lesson that Dad learned all too well through his many years toiling away in the workplace. This may have been the most important concept ever passed on from one generation of workers to the next.

“This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you.” Dad as disciplinarian. Afterwards, the big difference between us was that he was able to sit down comfortably.

“You’ll understand why I’m doing this when you grow up and have kids of your own.” One listener says her father told her that she might not understand all of his jokes while she was a little girl, but when she grew up to be 65 years old, she’d get them all. She grew up expecting that, on her 65th birthday, she’d wake up laughing hysterically as all those jokes finally made sense to her. That is, until I pointed out that her father probably was a long way from 65 himself when he told her that.

“Don’t stand in front of the television – you’re not made of glass, you know!” Alternate version: “You make a better door than a window.”

“Close that door! We’re not paying to air condition the outside!” Dads have a great temperature sense, and it wasn’t confined to the front door, either. “Close the refrigerator door! You’ll attract penquins!” I always loved that one.

“If (your friend) jumped off the (highest local structure), would you jump, too?” This one has faded in recent years as that whole bungee-jumping fad got popular.

Here’s a really philosophical one that I hadn’t heard until a listener told me that her father used to say it to her: “You can lose your car, you can lose your house, you can lose your freedom, but you can never lose your education. And with your education, you can get it all back.” I’m going to try to remember that one so I can say it to my daughter, over and over again.

If you don’t understand any of this, you will someday when you’re a parent. In the meantime, go ask your mother.

Happy Father’s Day!

Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Al Roker

The "Today Show" weatherman was on my show today to talk about his book,"Don't Make Me Stop This Car: Adventures In Fatherhood." He told stories about being at the hospital when his daughter was born, torturing his younger brother with the Hitchcock classic "Psycho" on television, and more.

Listen.

Monday, June 05, 2000

Some Pictures Aren't Worth 1,000 Words

I had a humiliating photographic experience the other day. I needed to get a new publicity photo taken, and was sent to Suzy Gorman, arguably the town's top photographer, who has a studio in a loft at the top of a warehouse building downtown.

It looks like every photographer’s facility you have ever seen in a movie. Lots of open space, with music pulsating and a motif that screamed funky-but-chic. Exactly what you’d picture a cool, hip, bigtime photographer’s place to look like. This is not my world at all. It’s the kind of place where people know about fashion and read Vogue.

When I arrived, Suzy's assistant told me it would be just a couple of minutes while she finished a session with another guy. So I sat and watched while she photographed – and I mean this in the most heterosexual way possible – the best-looking man I have ever seen in my life.

Picture this. He’s an African American guy who, as soon as you see him, you think, “If this guy isn’t a male model, then Pamela Anderson is all natural.” It turns out he is a model. He’s wearing a casual white shirt and easygoing white pants, and the photog puts him in various positions for different pictures. Every time he poses and looks at the camera, it’s perfect.

I hate this kind of guy. This guy, in his life, has never taken a bad picture. This guy, even before he shaved his head, never had a hair out of place in a photo. This guy has never had those red dots in his eyes in any picture. This guy’s a ten, and I’m not even on the same scale he is.

This guy was so good looking and so perfect, I said to Suzy’s assistant, “I have to follow this?” She replied, “Well, he’s a model, after all.” I know that, but I still have to be the next subject she photographs! In the world of pictures, I’m the before shot, and this guy is the incredibly-long-time-after shot in a plastic surgeon’s ad.

Couldn’t I come back on bald, middle-aged, fat guy day? At least then, I’d have a chance of looking good! It felt like Suzy looked at me after working with this perfect specimen and realized she now had a real project on her hands.

I showed her a couple of shirts and jackets I had brought, and she chose the ones that appeared mildly acceptable, and then she began applying makeup to my face. Every time I have to have this done – at a photo shoot, or a TV appearance – I always think, “I don’t know how women put up with this day in and day out.”

Especially that eye makeup. I’m squeamish about anything near my eyes. I can’t even watch someone put a contact lens in. And here Suzy is doing something with my eyelashes and it’s really close to my eyeball and I can’t help but look because she won’t let me close my eyes and I’m freaking out like Woody Harrelson at a free hemp farm.

That’s when I explained to her that this was pointless, that she was never going to get me to look like the model she had just been photographing. Suzy didn’t even pause one beat before responding, “Oh, I know!”

Eventually, she finished with (or became fed up with the attempt at) preparing me and we got down to the actual photography. Now, I only needed one good shot, and that will be my new publicity photo. I’m not working up a portfolio. I’m not trying to be the new underwear model for Dillard’s.

Mr. Gorgeous Guy passed the one-good-shot mark at precisely the second picture. Me, I required seventy frames of film exposed over a one hour period. There’s a reason I make my living with my voice and not with my face.

As we finished and I sighed in relief -- so did Suzy, although she didn’t think I noticed -- I saw the next guy who was waiting to have his session. I nodded at him, and he nodded silently back to me.

I knew what he was thinking: “Thank goodness I get to follow that guy!”

Saturday, June 03, 2000

Hollywood's Hype Machine

Over the last several years, the coverage of the entertainment business has itself become a huge business. The byproduct of all that coverage is the need to fill more hours with newer stories and fresher faces. The problem is that, in doing so, the expiration date on "freshness" is coming so much faster than it used to.

A friend of mine in Los Angeles just told me a story about a guy from Wisconsin who was visiting Hollywood and talking to some people about movies. One of the Hollywood folks was excited about something involving Vince Vaughn. The guy from Wisconsin, who thought he was pretty knowledgeable about movies, asked, "Who is Vince Vaughn?" All of the Hollywooders were shocked at his ignorance.
Well, the fact of the matter is that Vaughn is a guy who has done some nice acting in a couple of movies, but he's far from a star by most of America's definition. He was in the terrific "Swingers" (an indie movie that wasn't a big hit), and "Lost World: Jurassic Park 2" (but calling that a Vince Vaughn movie is like calling "Godzilla" a Matthew Broderick movie). Along the way, he may also have had a couple of stories in Entertainment Weekly or People or some special attention in a trade paper or two. But the majority of Americans would still ask, "Who?"

Yet the Hollywood hype machine assumes that you know who Vaughn is, because they spend every waking minute thinking about this sort of thing. You, on the other hand, have an actual life, meaning the list of Things You Know goes a long way down before it gets to "Who's the new actor/hunk?"

Here's another example.

Get ready for a big splash of publicity for Kate Beckinsale. All together now: "Who is Kate Beckinsale?". It just so happens that, because I have so much free time, I've seen two new movies that she's in. She was in the barely-seen indie flick "Shooting Fish" (it came and went in about a week -- a shame) and is now in the more widely-released "The Last Days Of Disco." I can see why Hollywood would embrace and promote her. She's beautiful, she's perky, she's a good actress, and she could easily play Courtney Cox's younger sister. I understand she's also in a couple of other movies due out this year. But how did an unknown get lead roles in so many movies so quickly?

My friend tells me it works like this: she was acting in one movie and, when the dailies were shown to some studio people, they noticed that she was cute and good. Since Hollywood is desperate to discover and exploit the Next Hot Thing, her agent used that early buzz to get her a part in another movie even before the first one was finished. Then she worked a few weeks on yet another project, and insiders spread the word to other insiders that they liked her, so she got a fourth movie. All of this before her first movie had even been released! Now, it looks like she's white-hot, because she's done these four movies in a year, so Premiere magazine does a story on her in their June issue.

It's at this point that everyone in Hollywood already knows about Kate Beckinsale, and assumes you do, too. Just in case, they book her on a few talk shows, let Mary Hart follow her to the hairdresser, and plant a story in USA Today about her (though not in Larry King's column...she's not from Brooklyn and never met his wife). Maybe they get her to do Five Questions with Craig Kilborn.

Kilborn, by the way, fits right into this saga. A year ago, he was an ESPN anchor, then he got hired to do Comedy Central's "Daily Show," and next year he'll take over Tom Snyder's "Late Late Show" on CBS-TV. The hype machine can't believe you don't know who he is. Didn't you get the memo about Kilborn? Geez, he's even older news than Vince Vaughn!

There are so many media outlets paying attention to this sort of stuff nowadays that you'd think "fame" would last longer than the proverbial fifteen minutes. Instead, the machine just gets hungrier and hungrier, like Dom DeLuise with a tapeworm, and a lot of its food simply gets swallowed whole. Those fifteen minutes now run concurrently on 30 different channels, and it's the same thirty-second clip on all of them! And look out if someone in the business dies (see Phil Hartman). Then your clip gets bumped and you sit around waiting for a call from The Food Network.

Anyway, Hollywood's hype schedule dictates that you'll know all about Kate by Labor Day. Even if you don't, they're already working on the next person to chew up and spit out. The wheels of their publicity machine turn faster than the conveyor belt in Lucy's chocolate factory.

A-ha! A media reference you're familiar with! See how long it takes to sink in?