Sunday, December 16, 2001

Read This Or The Terrorists Win

Since September 11th, we Americans have been called upon to renew our patriotic spirit in every way. A lot of that is fine, but a good deal of it is nothing but cheap jingoistic pandering, and I’m getting sick of it.

First we had to get on an airplane or the terrorists had won. Fine, I like to travel, and we had already planned three trips in the last quarter of this year. No hijacking SOBs were going to keep me out of the sky. When you live in the middle of the country and want to go to one of the coasts for a weekend, driving is out of the question. So, getting up, up, and away was no problem. We didn’t book any new trips, but we didn’t cancel any of our travel plans, either. And we beat the terrorists, right?

Next, we were told we had to go to the mall and shop, or the terrorists had won. Frankly, I hate the mall and try to stay away as much as possible unless I absolutely positively am out of socks. Fortunately, my wife easily balances my lack of mall attendance and can single-handedly keep several store clerks busy at once. So, together, we beat the terrorists, right?

Then we also had to buy a car or the terrorists had won. Personally, I already had a car I was quite happy with, and had no intention of buying another one just to keep America strong. We have a friend who is sales manager for a large car dealer. He tells me that during this whole zero-financing promotion, they have sold more cars than ever before. If you’re one of those who bought new wheels, he thanks you. And America thanks you, because buying that car helped us beat the terrorists, right?

The next warning we got came from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who reminded us that if we criticized anything he said or did, that we were just helping the enemy. In other words, don’t use your constitutionally-protected right to dissent or the terrorists have won. So most Americans quietly agreed to trust their government to only do the right thing, and we beat the terrorists, right?

Last week, when President Bush signed a new federal anti-drug bill, he said, "If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terrorism." That’s right, you crackheads! Put down that pipe or the terrorists have won. I’m sure this will be a highly effective anti-drug argument. Ask any addict what has kept them from giving up their habit, and they’ll tell you that they were just looking for some global objective to aspire to. On the other hand, I’ll bet that there are some Americans who became so afraid after 9/11 that they started using drugs.

Even the NFL is getting into the "invoke the terrorists" act. Today, the Associated Press reported that commissioner Paul Tagliabue has asked that New York and Washington be considered as hosts for the Super Bowl to help the cities recover from the attacks.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello is quoted as saying, "the economic and intangible impact...would help establish either or both cities as attractive tourist sites."

Hmm. Tourism in New York and Washington? I think the word is already out, Greg. Unless your real plan is to boost tourism in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Landover, Maryland, where the stadiums are actually located. I understand that there’s a very nice display at the local TGIFriday’s in each city, which tourists will certainly flock to.

What makes The Commish’s request even lamer is that he’s not talking about having New York or Washington as the host city for the next Super Bowl. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Or even the one after that.

He’s talking about the game in the year 2007!!!

That’s five years from now! That’s more recovery time than you need for Mariah Carey, Aaron Sorkin, and that tattooed Backstreet Boy combined.

Don’t get me wrong. New York and Washington are both great towns. I’ve lived in both places, and they are both too damned cold at the end of January to host the Super Bowl outdoors!

I speak from experience. I was in Minneapolis for the big game in 1992. Although it was a nice and toasty 72 degrees inside the Metrodome, we still had to travel through the frozen outside air (official temperature "too freakin’ cold," with a wind chill of "are you out of your mind?") to get to the game. Parts of my body retracted so far they didn’t come back out until well into the second quarter.

What I’m saying is that if The Meadowlands or FedEx Field is the site for the Super Bowl, the NFL had better make it Heated Seat Cushion Night.

Before picking a cold-weather venue, why not pick a fine American municipality with a domed stadium that has never hosted a Super Bowl? Someplace that doesn’t get as cold as it does back east. Choose a city with a franchise that has won the Vince Lombardi trophy recently and has fans who would never throw Miller beer bottles onto the field to protest a controversial call by the referees (after all, St. Louis is a Budweiser city). Just a thought.

Thursday, December 13, 2001

Meredith Viera

Meredith Viera, the star of ABC's "The View," was on my show today to talk about cheating men, her drinking and censorship, the 9/11 attack on America, and exposing her breast on national TV. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, November 26, 2001

Harry Potter, Britney Spears, and The Patch

Once again, the Harry Potter protest people are mouthing off -- not just in the media, but in school systems, too -- about how JK Rowling’s books and the movie will lead children down the dark road to witchcraft. Do they honestly think there are beings in the world who have the ability to fly on broomsticks and cast spells on other people? It’s a lot scarier to me that there are beings in the world who are incapable of telling the difference between fantasy and reality.

After all, if anyone was going to be converted to believing in the positive powers of witchcraft, it would have been all the pubescent boys who watched Elizabeth Montgomery on “Bewitched” and (especially) Barbara Eden on “I Dream Of Jeannie.” Somehow, though, we managed to escape those magical vixens without selling our souls for a lifetime as Satan’s spawn. If Jeannie in a harem outfit didn’t do it -- that’s a direct groin attack! -- what chance does Daniel Radcliffe have?

The Harry Potter movie has made close to $200,000,000 already. This begs the question, if we’re in a recession, where are people getting the money to buy all those tickets? Somehow, those same families also found the cash to take their kids to see “Monsters Inc.” and make it another $200 million smash (true, those are predominantly children’s tickets, but the soda and popcorn weren’t discounted!). And many of those same families just got a new car, too. They took advantage of the 0% financing to buy more new cars in October than in any other month -- ever!

Is this what happens when the economy is slumping? You certainly can’t tell that times are tough by looking at a mall parking lot. Go ahead, try to find a parking space on a weekend. You’d have better luck finding Dick Cheney’s secret hiding place and then beating him at the new US military arcade game, Whack-O-Sama.

Not to get off on a tangent here, but am I the only one who laughs every time a Taliban leader talks about how much they hate America and will fight to the death to destroy us? They’ve been mouthing off like this for weeks. Their statements are always followed by an immediate retreat from whatever city they made their proclamation in. Rather than standing and fighting to the death, these guys run, hide, and give up faster than the Iraqi Army did a decade ago. They’ve obviously been deriving military strategy by watching old videotapes of Roberto Duran. How do you say “no mas” in Arabic?

Back to the business page. Wouldn’t you like to be running a health club this week? Right after Thanksgiving is the time -- just like in January, after New Year’s resolutions -- that Americans decide that they’ve overeaten and must do something about their weight. So you head to the nearest gym and sign up for some extravagant workout package. Come on...if you really wanted to exercise, why did you drive your car to the gym instead of walking?

You swear that you’ll be there daily to lift weights, play volleyball, swim laps, play basketball, go to spinning class, play racquetball, do the stairmaster, and be in perfect shape in no time. “No time” is a technical term, defined by gym owners as the period you will spend in the gym after that initial visit. Oh, maybe you’ll put in some effort for a week or so, but inevitably, that’s the last time you’ll ever see the place. In the end, the gym owners get to keep the cash, while you return to sloth- ville and give the remote a workout, leaving the sweating and panting to Britney Spears videos.

I happened to catch a few minutes of Britney’s recent Vegas flesh-travaganza on HBO. I don’t want to say she showed a lot of skin, but for a second, I thought I was watching Cinemax.

Britney has taken a lot of cheap shots from people who criticize her singing, but not me. Nope. I’d rather criticize her dancing (and I use that term loosely). Since when did moving like a mime trapped in a box qualify as dancing? That’s all she and her on-stage colleagues seem to do. Britney, if you take requests, I’d like to see that walking-against-the-wind thing next time!

I wonder if any of those Potter-phobic parents mind their kids watching Ms. Spears writhe around the stage, casting her own spell on millions of American youth? As we all know, that’s the sort of activity that can lead to young girls growing up to wear a contraceptive patch.

The patch is the newest technological advance in the sexual revolution -- not to mention a helluva conversation starter. But what message does it send to men? Say a woman goes out to a bar while she’s wearing a sleeveless dress and has this patch on her arm. Him: “Is that an Ortho-Evra patch on your shoulder, or are you just happy to see me?” Her: “Beat it, loser. All I’m trying to do is quit smoking.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Jacko's Televised Freak Show

You’d think by now that Michael Jackson would be aware of the popular perception that he’s a freak, and he would do what he could not to encourage anything that perpetuated that notion.

You’d be wrong, if we’re to judge by Tuesday night’s televised version of his “30th Anniversary Concert” on CBS.

I admit it. I was drawn to this show like a moth to a flame, like a commuter to a three-car pileup on the median, like a plastic surgeon to Joan Rivers. I was looking forward to a freak show of epic proportions, which I had heard this event was when it was originally videotaped at the beginning of September. There was every indication it would be the kind of televised disaster you can’t turn away from, like Magic Johnson’s old talk show.

For starters, The King Of Androgyny’s companions in the royal box were Macauley Culkin on one side and Elizabeth Taylor (in a blond fright wig) on the other. What, no Bubbles The Chimp? Where was Webster? As for his parents, Mom was allowed an early appearance, but then her seat had to be given to Michael’s rhinestone wrangler.

Meanwhile, Michael’s look continues to mutate. You know the way a kid draws someone’s face on a piece of paper, and the nose looks like a little triangle? My producer points out that Jackson’s nose has now been carved down to a point just like that. He could open a can with that nose. He reminds me of those bobbing novelty birds you can put on the rim of a glass and they keep dipping down for a drink with their beak.

His physical appearance, complete with bluish-gray skin tone, has achieved inhuman status. It’s perfect that this show aired on CBS, the network of “The Amazing Race,” because that’s what Michael has become. Pardon me for playing the race card, but it doesn’t matter if he’s black or white, he’s an amazing new race unto himself.

Still -- and this I really don’t get -- girls and young women in the audience swooned when he appeared on stage. Of course, this has been going on with male performers for a long time, even back before The Beatles and Elvis, to bobby-soxers fainting over Frank Sinatra. Even today, girls go nuts when The Backstreet Boys or ‘NSync appear. In each of those instances, I assume that it’s a sexual attraction. Seriously, what is sexually attractive about Michael Jackson -– to anyone? What perverse sexual appeal are these young women swooning over? I’m stumped.

Michael was not alone in the bizarre looks department, though.

As soon as Whitney Houston showed up, I (and the audience at Madison Sauare Garden) gasped audibly at how scarily thin she’s gotten. She looks just like Karen Carpenter did in her last days. I don’t know if she’s abusing crack or anything else, but she certainly isn’t making regular visits to Steak ‘N Shake. Or if she is, she’s going to Purge ‘N Puke immediately afterwards.

But Whitney looked like the healthiest person in the room when Liza Minnelli came out. Is there anyone in show business today more irrelevant than Liza? It’s been a long time since “Arthur” and an even longer time since “Cabaret.” I swear, she looks like a male impersonator. Not a female impersonator, a guy pretending to be Liza. No, this looked like a woman pretending to be a guy pretending to be Liza. In other words, she looked horrible.

At this point, the celebrity freak quotient was awfully high. You line up Liz, Macauley, Whitney, and Liza, and you’re ringing the bell. But CBS did us a great disservice by editing out Marlon Brando (!) in full bloat mode, rambling on and on nonsensically to the point where he was actually booed by the crowd. As a freak show fan, I felt cheated.

On top of that, we didn’t even get to see the other Jackson family curiosity, LaToya, who apparently was vehemently dissuaded from attending. Either that or she couldn’t get through the tight security with her pet boa constrictor wrapped around her loins as usual.

We also didn’t see the best looking Jackson, the amazing-abdomened Janet, or her long lost sister Rebe, who somehow managed to slip down the list of Obscure Jacksons past Randy.

The latter two were there, along with Tito (who’s somehow convinced that he’s still in show business), Marlon, Jermaine, and um, Zeppo, for what was overhyped on the show as “the reunion the world’s been waiting for.” Which of course is a lie. The world is truly holding its collective breath hoping for a reunion of the cast of “Bob Patterson.”

When the brothers performed together, it was a pleasure to hear some of those good old Jackson Five classics, even in truncated form. And once his brothers were shooed off stage and Michael was left in the spotlight to perform solo, you had to give the guy credit for still having the chops.

He flawlessly recreated the “Billie Jean” sequence he did on “Motown’s 25th Anniversary” back in the eighties, complete with moonwalk and cringe-inducing crotch-grabbing. Sure, lots of other people have learned to do that move, but no one else pulls off that walking-backwards-in-a-tight-little-circle thing like Michael.

But it was clear that Michael was lip-syncing the lyrics, because he kept putting his hand over his mouth just as the camera cut to a close-up. Either he was trying to hide it -– and what better way to deflect attention than by subtly covering your lips with your entire palm! -– or he’s having a problem with parts of his plastic surgery falling off and having to be replaced manually.

CBS apparently liked what they saw, though, because they’re talking about starting up a new series called “Michael Jackson Survivor,” in which, each week, yet another original facial feature is voted off his face.

As much as I enjoyed this show, purely from the Freak Show perspective, I had one overriding problem with it.

There’s something wrong with doing a tribute concert to someone who is only 43 years old -- especially while he’s sitting there on the side, watching the whole thing like royalty. That sort of lifetime achievement accolade should be saved for someone who is much more advanced in years.

That’s not to say that “Jacko” hasn’t put in a lot of years in showbiz, but until he’s getting the AARP discount at movie theater matinees, he’s too young for a career retrospective. At this point, it’s as unsettling as the concept of an autobiography by the kid who’s playing Harry Potter.

I can’t wait to read the chapter, “The day I hit puberty at Neverland.”

Sunday, November 11, 2001

Airport Security Is A Joke

Since the events of 9/11, there has been a lot of talk about making air travel safer. It has intensified as Congress debated whether or not to federalize the airport security workers.

I find it ironic that many politicians in Washington don’t want to have a federal police force looking out for your safety and mine when we fly, but when those politicos go to work everyday, they enjoy the protection of government employees – the US Capitol Police. It’s good enough for them, but not for us.

My daughter and I flew from St. Louis to New York last weekend to spend time with family. Our outbound flight went smoothly, and we weren’t delayed at all by the security procedures at Lambert Airport.

It was on our return that we ran into problems that are indicative of the ongoing headaches that are endemic in the weak security system currently in place.

We entered the terminal at LaGuardia with our carry-on bags and e-ticket paper confirmation in hand. That meant we wouldn’t have to wait in line at the ticket counter, but could go right through security to the gate and check in there, just as we had in St. Louis.

As we approached the security screening area, there was a sign saying, “Passengers only past that point. You must have a ticket, a boarding pass, or paper confirmation of an electronic ticket.” No problem, except for the fifty or sixty people already in line ahead of us.

Issue number one. When you go to the supermarket on a busy weekend morning and it’s packed with shoppers, most good stores will try to keep the lines down by opening up more checkout lanes and bringing other personnel forward to be cashiers and baggers.

Why doesn’t airport security work the same way? Why have only two or three metal detector lanes open when all these people are waiting to get through? If it’s busy and backed up, get more equipment and personnel in there to keep it moving efficiently. It’s not like you don’t know when people will be showing up – just check that departures monitor!

Unfortunately, efficiency goes hand in hand with competency, but at almost every airport checkpoint I’ve ever gone through, neither of these qualities seems to be in play. That was certainly true of this crew, employees of a security company named ITS. For my money, they left out the DIO in the middle.

At LaGuardia, not only did the security staff seem just plain dumb, but collectively they were less fluent in the English language than my seven year old daughter. That’s what happens when you contract the security business out to the lowest bidder, who then, to keep the bottom line down, hires unskilled employees and pays them a near-minimum wage. Considering the high number of immigrants exploited this way, their treatment ranks only a few bucks an hour above sweat shop labor. As long as a job at the fry vat at McDonald’s is an upwardly mobile career move, you’re not going to hire and retain the best and the brightest on the front lines of airport security.

A half-hour later, we had finally reached the front of the line. I handed my picture ID and e-ticket confirmation to the guy at the podium and was immediately told that I had to go back to the ticket counter, because we couldn’t get through without a ticket or boarding pass. I explained to him that he was wrong, and he repeated that I had to go back to the ticket counter. I pointed to the sign -– there was another one right next to my shoulder -– which laid out the paperwork rules, but all he did was tell me that the sign was wrong and that I had to go back to the ticket counter.

In a huff, I said fine, but told him that if the rules have been changed, then someone should change the damn sign so that people don’t waste time in line like I just had. He gave me a “yeah” in reply. It was the kind of “yeah” that someone gives you when they just want you out of their face because they’re not listening anymore.

I thought about making more of this, but didn’t really feel like having the nearby National Guardsmen escort me to the body cavity search room. So my daughter and I went back to the ticket counter.

Issue number two. Why aren’t the rules the same at every airport? If this process were federalized, could we get some consistency in the rules and their application? The paper confirmation worked in St. Louis, but now, two days later, we were being denied access with the same credentials in New York!

After a short wait (and a comment to the ticket agent about changing the sign, which engendered approximately the same “yeah” response), we got our tickets and headed back to wait again in the security line, which didn’t look like it was moving any faster than the first time we had joined it.

With the proper paperwork in hand, we eventually got past the podium king and went through the metal detector. For some reason, the thing beeped when my daughter went through.

Now the next person in the ITS security chain, a woman wearing latex gloves, took out a wand and started running it over my daughter. Up and down her arms, over her torso, her back, up and down her legs -– nothing. Then, over her belly, and it made a little “beep” noise. She tried it again, same thing. A third time, again a “beep.”

Without looking up at me, she lifted my daughter’s shirt above her beltline and noticed that there was a metal snap. Next, unbelievably, and without my permission or my daughter’s, this woman reached up and undid the snap! I was going to explode in anger at this intrusion on my daughter’s person, but the words wouldn’t form in my mouth (although the steam was no doubt clearly visible coming out of my ears). For some reason, this satisfied her that my seven year old daughter was not a terrorist, and she said she could go.

I’m not sure what her thinking was. In fact, I doubt there was any thinking going on at all. If there were, then what did unsnapping the pants accomplish? Did she read somewhere that some terrorists plant the detonator to a bomb in the pants snap of seven year old girls? And if you’re going to check her out, why not check me out, too, since we’re obviously traveling together? I don’t get it.

Issue number three. What made this more irritating is that she was doing this inspection precisely where everyone else had to pass through. That meant that the whole line was held up while my daughter was checked. After we were cleared, I noticed a guy behind us getting the wand treatment, also right in the path of whoever else would follow. Instead of slowing everyone down, why not take the person aside for inspection while the rest of the cleared passengers pass?

After arriving at our gate, we were about five minutes from boarding the plane when a man’s voice came over the PA. He announced that the FAA had found a security violation at the checkpoint, and we would all have to leave the concourse and go back through security again!!

You may have heard the groan at your house that evening, as the voices of over two hundred passengers rose as one. We were herded out and told to sit down for awhile while they sorted things out. Forty minutes passed without any information to update us on our status. Other passengers who were going to be getting on other flights in St. Louis wondered if they’d make their connections, but no one could tell them anything.

Since we had nothing to do but wait, we decided to go over to the food court to get a hot dog. At the deli counter, I was behind a man who ordered a large sandwich, and when the clerk handed it to him, he asked if they could cut it in half for him. The clerk said they couldn’t do that because they weren’t allowed to have any knives. A few feet away, I heard the same thing being explained to another customer who had just ordered a personal-size pizza -– that restaurant wasn’t allowed to have a pizza cutter!

Issue number four. Where exactly is the danger in allowing an airport restaurant employee to have a pizza cutter? Especially if they’re outside the supposedly secure area of the concourse? What’s the customer supposed to do, gnaw it down from the crust to the interior?

Finally, they announced that we could begin the cattle drive through security again (our third time through the process!). But now, with the FAA inspectors and two teams of airport police keeping an eye on the ITS personnel, the screeners made sure they took their time with each passenger. Oh, did I mention that one of the metal detectors had broken down, too? Thus, the line crept along at a snail’s pace.

I asked a cop if this happened often. He told me that it was the first time at LaGuardia (lucky us!), but the FAA was really cracking down on ITS because they were the security company at Newark, where Flight 93 had been hijacked. The thinking was that if the FAA stepped on them, they’d do a better job. You’d think so, but there was no evidence of that. No one felt more secure. I didn’t see them go through one carry-on bag by hand. They just did everything slower.

Issue number five. This time through, the guy ahead of us had a laptop, which he had to put through the conveyor belt. No problem. Once he and the computer had made it past the electronic equipment, another security agent asked him to turn it on and push a button. I suppose this was to make sure that it really was a laptop computer, but why push only one button on the keyboard? If it were rigged with explosives, couldn’t a clever suicide terrorist rig a detonation sequence that involved two or three keys? Oh, I suppose I’m the only one who has seen that movie.

We eventually made it onboard, and the flight departed a little more than an hour late. Total time in LaGuardia airport: over four hours from arrival to departure. The entire flight only took three hours!

The bottom line here is that we not only have bad rules, poorly applied. The fundamental problem is the incompetent people on the front lines of airport security -- you can put all the National Guardsmen you want in the terminal, but they still have nothing to do with the screening process, which is left to underpaid people with no benefits and no motivation to do a good job. And the private security companies that hire these people and run the checkpoints don’t seem to flinch at the fines levied against them when the FAA finds violations. They just add them into the cost of doing business, without fixing the holes.

Worst of all is that this so-called increased security is nothing more than cosmetic.

Issue number six. At Lambert Airport in St. Louis, if you want to park in the hourly garage nearest the terminal, your car has to be inspected by the guy at the gate. What does the inspection entail? He looks through the window to make sure you don't have anything dangerous in your back seat. That's it. Because, as you know, no suicide bomber would ever put explosives in the trunk! They also now ban SUVs and minivans from that garage -- because no suicide bomber would ever drive a Taurus, they'd only go to the airport in a Chevy Expedition or a Dodge Caravan!

I spoke with several flight attendants and asked them if they feel safer now. Unanimously, they angrily said no, they didn’t. They told me that the only thing that’s been accomplished is adding needless restrictions, annoying passengers, delaying flights, and disrupting crew routines –- without making any airport any more secure than it was on September 10th.

Want proof? On the same weekend we flew, a guy got past the ace Argenbright security team at O’Hare Airport in Chicago with a couple of pieces of contraband.

He was only carrying seven knives, a stun gun, and a can of mace.

They didn’t notice any of them. The items were only discovered during a random check by a United gate agent. Some people might say that’s the system working perfectly, catching the problem at any point necessary.

I say it’s a massive failure of the system, exemplary of the weakness that needs to be repaired. Don’t just fine these inept security companies -- fire them!

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Halloween Harris Style

Halloween is still days away, but the excitement meter is already pinned at our house. And this is before my seven-year-old daughter goes into sugar overload from her candy bounty to come.

It’s for her sake that Halloween is a big deal at our place, and there are lots of important decisions to be made. She has her costume planned months in advance, and while always clever, never gets too exotic, expensive, or age-inappropriate (she’s too young to want to be Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider”).

Then, just as the calendar turns to October, she starts bugging us to go pick out the Official Harris Halloween Pumpkin. Make that plural -- this year, we also have to have a backup pumpkin, in case there’s some sort of Jack O’Lantern mishap. Gee, where’d she get that idea?

After making her big orange selections, she insisted that we carve right away, but my wife and I were able to table that discussion for awhile by explaining the concept of how fruit can go from pleasantly raw to unpleasantly rotten when left exposed for a fortnight or two.

In the meantime, we kept her busy festooning the house with a boxful of Halloween decorations. Yes, we erred slightly by allowing her to apply ghoulish stickers to the windows -- she applied all of them to the same kitchen window pane and then asked for more so the room wouldn’t look lopsided.

By the weekend before H-Day, there was no more delaying. It was time to dig into the pumpkin. Fortunately, our daughter had designed an intricate drawing of exactly what the Jack O’Lantern must look like, complete with cartoon word balloons saying “Boo!” She got these ideas from a pumpkin carving kit that my wife – in a moment of total insanity – found at a local store. One look at the renderings on the cardboard and I laughed for a half hour.

You know the way the pictures of food on a restaurant menu never look anything like the actual dish that’s served to you? The same is true of these pumpkin carving samples.

The cruel people who produce this product try to convince you that you have a chance of success by giving you little carving tools to work with. In my house, the only way the final product would come close to resembling the illustration is if they also provided a professional pumpkin carver (there must be people who specialize in that, in a world where you can make a good living forming chopped liver into a turkey shape and carving ice into giant swans).

Let’s just say we’re not good at the visual food arts. It doesn’t matter how extravagantly it’s designed -- our Jack O’Lantern will always end up with triangle eyes, a triangle nose, and a mouth with three top teeth and two bottom teeth. You can hope for Pumpkin Van Gogh, but we’ll just end up with both pumpkin ears missing. Nevertheless, once that candle was placed inside, my daughter gave us a big, satisfied smile (which I’m happy to say, contains more teeth than the Jack O’Lantern).

When it comes to trick or treating, I’m happy to say we live in a neighborhood where lots of kids are out doing the door to door routine, usually accompanied by a few Dads, including me.

Best of all, none of the Dads bothers with an intricate costume. That’s why I’m certain that none of them will be stupid enough to wear an Osama Bin Laden mask this year. Besides the waste of $95, what’s the appeal? Are you hoping to pick up some hot woman in a Taliban-approved burqa?

I’ve always been creeped out by adults who get too into their Halloween costumes. You’ll never see me dressed as Frankenstein, or Austin Powers, or Tony Soprano. Even in college, when I attended a costume-mandatory party in the girl’s dorm, I hated the concept so much that I just strapped a colander to my head and went as an upside-down bowl of pasta. Two things should be apparent from that story – one, alcohol was involved in my last minute costume choice, and two, I didn’t spend much time in the girl’s dorm after that.

Anyway, back to the food. The part that we are good at is choosing which candy we’ll give away. There’s a delicate balance to be achieved here, because you want to get something good enough that you’ll enjoy eating the leftovers (mini Mr. Goodbars, tiny Twizzlers), but not so tempting that you down them before the doorbell even rings on the 31st (orange cream filled Halloween Oreos, pulled pork sandwiches).

You also don’t want to get the reputation as The House To Avoid because you gave away the wrong thing last year. Anything from the fruit and vegetable family qualifies here, as do homemade taffy, stale candy corn, or bulk stationery. On the other hand, there’s no real risk of retribution, because the “trick” option rarely exists anymore. What’s the last time a house got egged over a bagful of zucchini sticks?

Here’s to a Happy Halloween. Lots of families need it as a distraction this year. And remember, when it comes to telling hair-raising stories, avoid the recent ugliness and stick to the classics from days of old. Tell your kid about when you invested in internet stocks. Oooh, scary!

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

America's Anthrax Anxiety

AAAHH!!! Anthrax!!!!! AAAAHH!!

There, do you have it out of your system yet? We really need to calm down. Get some perspective.

Tell the media to knock it off. They’ve made anthrax the new Chandra Levy. Do you realize how lucky we are that the envelope that went to Tom Daschle’s office didn’t go to Gary Condit instead? Larry King’s head might have exploded at the confluence.

Yes, the media (particularly the television news networks, with their nonstop info-tickers) deserve a lot of credit for feeding this frenzy. Tom Brokaw signed off the “NBC Nightly News” on Monday by saying, “In Cipro We Trust.” That’s the antibiotic that he and others have taken on the chance that they’ve been infected by anthrax.

What kind of pronouncement is that for a network news anchor? I’ll bet that many viewers took that as a suggestion that they go out and get some Cipro to be safe, too. Unfortunately, it’s an antibiotic, not a preventative, which means that it won’t keep you from getting anthrax poisoning -– and if you take it too much and for too long, you’ll actually reduce your body’s ability to fight off the anthrax bacteria. But never mind the facts, In Brokaw We Trust!

I’m not saying that there is absolutely no threat from anthrax. But I am saying that instead of Cipro, maybe America should talk to its doctor about a prescription for Paxil, the anxiety medicine. After all, statistically, you’re more likely to die in a roller coaster accident than from anthrax infection!

The US Post Office delivers 680,000,000 pieces of mail every day. So far, a grand total of one person has died from anthrax. The number of people infected is somewhere around a dozen, and all of them are doing fine with medical attention. In other words, we’re at about the same level we were with shark attacks this summer. Still, when the media overplayed that story, people all over the country became fearful. Because, as you know, those Mississippi River mud sharks are a real threat here in the midwest.

As of this morning, the FBI reports that there have been 2,300 reports of possible anthrax -- in the last week! Anywhere anyone spots white powder, hearts start pounding. It’s like living inside the body of Robert Downey Jr.

An airplane full of passengers was moved to a secure area at Cleveland’s airport for four hours because someone noticed some white powder coming off the end of a newly started roll of toilet paper. Hasn’t everyone seen that before? Same thing happened with a tissue box at a high school in the St. Louis area yesterday. In Kansas City, a middle school was evacuated after a cafeteria worker spotted some kind of white powder. Turned out it was baking soda, which you’d hope someone in the cafeteria might have seen before. What’s next, sales of CoffeeMate drop? Ever looked under your printer to see the white dust caused by hundreds of pieces of paper moving through the machinery? Please, don’t pass the salt, whatever you do.

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a memo to every radio and television station with instructions on how to handle mail. One of the things they said to be careful with is any package that has an odor or a stain. Gee, thanks for the tip, because those are always the first ones I open! I love getting stinky mail, don’t you? There goes my subscription to the Runny Cheese Of The Month Club.

Here’s another heads up: don’t inhale someone else’s dead relatives. In Georgia, a railroad worker spotted a container with a white powdery substance inside. Nope, not anthrax. It was human ashes from a cremation, placed in a box so they could be spread instead of buried.

We’re also told to be very cautious with our junk mail. Before this reminder, I would simply throw it away unopened. Now, I use special sanitized tongs to toss it into the trash.

Speaking of odors, did you hear the story of the guy in Pittsburgh who called the cops to report that he had smelled something odd coming out of the sewer? The dispatcher paused, asked him if he was serious, and the guy said, yeah, it really doesn’t smell good. To her everlasting credit, she told him that he should stop sniffing sewers, because they have always smelled bad, and there’s no reason to panic.

Panic. That’s the word, isn’t it? Remember all those announcements that we shouldn’t be afraid, or the terrorists have won? Keep it up and it’s game over.

People have been buying gas masks by the thousands (which, incidentally, means you’re not being patriotic, because the number one manufacturer of gas masks is a company in Chile!). Many stores have sold out of them faster than they did American flags, although you can probably pick one up from any of the people who still have them stockpiled in their bunkers from the Y2K hysteria. If you bought a gas mask, you’d have to carry it with you at all times, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, how would you know when to have it and when not to have it? Do you only put it on when opening your mail or passing a sewer?

I wonder if the people who have run out to buy masks have also bought them for their kids, and if the kids are supposed to hang on to them all day long at school. There are times my daughter can’t remember where her lunch bag is, and I’m supposed to assume that she’ll be able to get to her gas mask in time?

I can’t count the number of reporters who have told us that law enforcement officials remain on alert. That’s a relief. Wait a minute. Why would they ever not be on alert? Is there a “loaf around and don’t pay attention” status?

Hope this doesn’t mean the cops have cut down on their trips to the donut shop. I hear there’s a white powdery substance on some of those sugar crullers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

One Week After The Attack

On Monday night, David Letterman proved again why he is the current king of late night television. Speaking from the heart and choking back his emotions, he explained that he was unsure he should be doing his television show now, but that he had been inspired by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plea to try to return New York City to normal.

Much of the attention from that show has gone to guest Dan Rather, who, no doubt suffering complete exhaustion after putting in 16 hour days every day for the last week, broke down at least twice when talking about last week’s attack and the ensuing carnage.

But it was Letterman’s opening commentary, seemingly from small notes and without cue cards, along with a perfect mix of raw emotion, information, and –- thanks to the equally genuine Regis Philbin -– moments of mild humor, that set the tone not only for his own show but for all other TV talkers.

Letterman claimed he was unsure of how to handle the show, saying he didn’t trust his own feelings, and that he was just a dumb guy trying to understand this madness. He shouldn’t have any doubts. He is by far the most intelligent and natural broadcaster of all his peers.

Letterman paid homage to Giuliani, saying he “defined courage.” No matter what you may have thought of him before, you have to respect the way the Mayor has seen his city through this crisis. When asked today, if term limits were revoked, would he like to continue being Mayor of New York for another four years, he answered, “I haven’t had time to think about that....there’s much more important work to be done right now.” Can’t argue with that.

At the other end of the spectrum, can anyone still have even an ounce of respect for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after their incredibly divisive remarks? Falwell essentially said that God probably gave America what it deserved, blaming the attack on gays, lesbians, feminists, the ACLU, etc. Robertson agreed completely. These two are religious extremists who believe that a vengeful deity works on the agenda of their own hatred to kill those who dare disagree with them.

That’s more than un-American. That’s the Taliban.

After some -- but not nearly enough -- people condemned Falwell for what he said, he complained that he was being quoted out of context. When no one bought that, he was forced to issue an apology. Sorry, Jerry, too little, too late. It’s obvious that you truly believe what you said, and are only now doing a mea culpa in an attempt to save yourself from the pile of irrelevancy to which Robertson was banished several years ago. This is not to say that all evangelical Christians should be seen as sharing Falwell’s views (any more than saying all Muslims share Osama bin Laden’s views), but why they, or anyone else, would want anything to do with Falwell ever again is beyond me. Not that I understood it in the first place.

You think that’s harsh? Let’s reverse it. Just imagine the uproar if an Islamic religious leader had made those statements. There would be even more mosques attacked in this country than there already have been by other morons practicing their own disgusting brand of American vigilantism.

Who was it who first considered war to be “holy," anyway?

To make it worse, Falwell chose to make these statements at a time when our country is all about unity, not polarization. While never denying his First Amendment right to shove his foot so far down his mouth that he chokes on his own kneecaps, we should all censure anyone who looks to make scapegoats of Americans for this horror.

The blame lies entirely with these enemies who turned our own airplanes against us, wreaking havoc never before known on these shores. They did all this damage through years of planning, plus a few knives and a couple of box cutters. But until they took over those planes, these madmen hadn’t committed any crime. It was legal for them to have those sharp implements on their person as they passed through the airport security checkpoint. In response, the FAA has now banned passengers from bringing any knives onboard a commercial flight. Will they still hand them out to first class passengers with their meals, or will future terrorists have to use a fork? The hijackers were all sitting in first class seats, by the way.

A great deal of the clamp down on security across America is merely cosmetic. It is designed to make us feel more secure, without actually ensuring our security. We’ll be more vigilant, just as we did after Tim McVeigh killed 168 Americans, but once a few months have passed, we’ll get lax again, unfortunately.

Not that America doesn’t have continuing cause to worry, but some of the reaction borders on the paranoid. What’s being overlooked is the fact that these terrorists were not simply out to get American citizens. They could have killed more of us by crashing their fuel-loaded airplane bombs into the stands of any Nascar race.

But these demons wanted to demolish American icons, which is why they targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (although we now know that the true target was the Capitol Dome). Those are symbols of everything they hate. While we would have mourned the deaths of thousands of Americans in other venues just as deeply, these attacks dug more intensely into the American psyche because of the buildings our fellow citizens were in at the time of the attacks.

So many other things have occurred to me over the last week. Here are just a few more...

Michael Moore, the film maker and TV producer, was in Oklahoma City yesterday and went to the memorial site for the Murrah Building blast. He noted that a large granite slab there says “9:03,” and was struck by the fact that this is the same exact minute that the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center.

I nearly choked at the irony of seeing Yassar Arafat condemning the attack on America and then giving blood. As if his contributing one pint somehow makes up for the gallons of blood he and his followers have spilled through the years.

On my Monday show, I begged the TV broadcasters to stop showing the video images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. We have all seen those images so often that they are seared into our consciousness. No need to run them again for a very long time. On Tuesday, David Westin, president of ABC News, became the first to declare that his network would not show that footage anymore. Bravo!

Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ll care about “reality TV” anymore. Suddenly, the phrases “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” have taken on a new meaning in America.

So has “reality.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

You Had To See The Terror

I was going to sit down last night and compose some thoughts about the events that overtook America on Tuesday, but I became entranced just sitting and watching it all unfold on television.

Make no mistake about it, this was a television event.

I love the medium of radio, which I have worked in for over two decades, and which can bring people together in a way that TV, newspapers, magazines, and the internet never can. But it does that best on the day after. Radio can rally the American spirit, get people out to blood drives, allow us to exercise our free speech rights in two-way communication and discussion.

Yet it is TV that bound us all together on Tuesday. This was a story you had to SEE to believe.

You had to SEE the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
You had to SEE a slice taken out of the Pentagon as if it were a five-sided apple pie.
You had to SEE the Twin Towers collapsing into rubble.

TV became our communal viewmaster, just as it did for the Columbine massacre, the Challenger explosion, the LA riots, the OJ Bronco chase. Even a thousand words did not match these pictures. In fact, no words seemed to match.

There were at least six different views shown of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center –- all taken by amateurs with home video cameras who just happened to be rolling tape at the time. How many people do you know walking around with audio recorders, randomly catching major moments on tape and handing them over to broadcasters?

On the day after, there aren’t enough words to express everything we’re feeling. Nonetheless, I have more than a few that I have to get off my chest.

Looking at the rubble, the ash, the demolished neighborhood, I thought, “Welcome to the third world.” When I heard that nearby hospitals were treating over 1,500 people with severe burns all over their bodies, I thought, “Welcome to Hiroshima.”

My earliest TV memory was the national trauma of the assassination of JFK. I was only 5 years old, but I sat in the living room with my parents watching a black and white television with flickering images of Oswald, Ruby, the rider-less horse, the funeral procession, the mourning.

Now my daughter is 7 years old, and when she came home from school on Tuesday afternoon, she wanted to watch the news coverage of this disaster. She’s curious, full of questions, a little bit afraid, but mostly interested in what she can tell is obviously something big. This will be the milepost for her early life, as the death of a President was for my generation.

She’ll remember sitting with us as we flicked from channel to channel, looking for more information and comparing the coverage, which was everywhere. CBS simulcast Dan Rather (subdued yet frantic, which only Dan can pull off) on MTV, VH-1,
and Country Music Television. NBC ran the Brokaw/Couric/Lauer trifecta plus separate fronts on MSNBC and CNBC. CNN was on every AOL/Time Warner channel. ESPN ran the ABC crew and Fox Sports Net simulcast Fox News Channel. Most of the shopping channels quit selling cubic zirconia for the day, while Barry Diller’s Home
Shopping Channel picked up the Canadian feed of his co-owned NewsWorld.

You know it’s an important story when it gets a title -- “America Under Attack!” (or, in Spanish, “Estados Unidos Bajo Ataque!”). All the networks were soon crowding the screen with titles, logos, graphics, and news tickers. How many of the executives who chose to put those up on screen were among those who criticized the new look of CNN Headline News for doing exactly the same thing?

Thanks to digital cable, we watched news feeds from Spanish-language Univision (actually understanding some of it, to our gringo surprise) and the BBC (alone in giving some perspective to the story by providing background every once in awhile), contrasting their different approaches with the near-hysterical can’t-catch-your-breath reportage of the various US networks.

Was there anything more sickening than seeing people hanging out of the World Trade Center’s windows 90 stories above the ground, desperate for help yet unreachable? I couldn’t help thinking that if it were me, and the smoke and flames were making death a certainty inside, I’d probably do a header into the pavement, too.

Fox was the only net that stepped over the line when they aired footage of someone on a high floor jumping to their death, the camera following the doomed person all the way down to the ground. There’s absolutely no reason to put that footage on the air. None. Ever. What's next, doing a split screen with footage of Susan Flannery, as Robert Wagner's lover, doing the death dive through the window of "The Towering Inferno"?

The field reporting, especially on the cable nets, was outstanding. Fox’s Rick Leventhal and MSNBC’s Rehema Ellis and Ashleigh Banfield showed crisis courage we haven’t seen since Peter Arnett.

Speaking of Arnett, CNN’s Nic Robertson must have thought he’d lay claim to his title by doing live reports from Kabul, Afghanistan, of apparent US attacks on the city. Too bad they turned out to be something else entirely. But how about that remote broadcast via videophone?

That was the best use of technology for the day, until we heard that some of the survivors in the Trade Center rubble were using their cell phones to call for help and contact family members. Good thing they didn’t get rid of those cell phones when New York banned them in cars.

In St. Louis, one reporter was doing a live shot from the terminal at Lambert Airport long after it had been closed and all flights canceled. She said authorities had found accommodations for all travelers, although some people had decided to “tough it out” in the terminal for the night.

Who are these people who passed on a hotel room and chose a completely uncomfortable plastic airport chair for the night? Who stayed at the terminal all night keeping an eye on them? Who would call that “toughing it out” compared with what was going on in New York and Washington? That’s as bad as the other reporter I heard calling the nearly-empty terminal “a wasteland.” Come on, choose your words more wisely.

Somewhere in Hollywood, Jerry Bruckheimer is thinking about who will star in the inevitable big-screen exploitation of this tragedy. And Aaron Sorkin just got the inspiration for the “West Wing” finale.

Remember when video of a demolition crew imploding a building was cool to watch? Never again.

Thursday, September 06, 2001

Carl Gottlieb, "Jaws" screenwriter

The screenwriter of "Jaws" and author of "The Jaws Log" told several behind the scenes stories on my show today, including how Robert Shaw came up with the speech about being on the USS Indianapolis, how that's not Richard Dreyfuss in the scene with the head coming out of the bottom of the boat, and how Roy Scheider really was scared by the shark coming out of the water in the famous "you're gonna need a bigger boat" scene.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, August 20, 2001

Put Your Shirt On, America!

Now that I’m back from summer vacation, I have an important message for all American men: Put Your Shirt On!

On this vacation, I saw far too many guys walking around shirtless. That’s not a problem at the beach or the pool, but there’s no reason for anyone over the age of 12 to be walking around town topless. I don’t care how hot the day is, I don’t want to walk into the supermarket to pick up a gallon of milk and be confronted with the sight of some guy letting his chest hair and pot belly hang out.

This doesn’t mean that young in-shape guys are exempt, either. Trust me, no one wants to see you showing off how you spent your summer tattoo allowance to proclaim your torso-laden devotion to the reptile gods. If we let you do it, we have to let everyone do it, and before long we’re back to half-naked middle-aged guys with droopy man-breasts gassing up at the Sunoco. So slap a tee on that bod, you Red Hot Chili Pepper wannabe!

Speaking of shirts, I’m going to extend this ban to those t-shirts with the huge armpit holes. For some reason, these seem to have particular appeal to the hairier members of my gender. Here’s a rule of thumb: if you’re so hirsute that, when naked, you look like you’re still wearing a sweater, then pull on something with sleeves when you’re out and about. Spare us the display of your personal underarm rainforest.

We spent several days in a coastal Maine town, where there are only three things to do: eat, shop, or go to the beach. When I say “go to the beach,” I don’t mean swimming. The ocean water is far too cold for normal people -- about 55 degrees on the hottest day of August.

At that temperature, there are parts of the male anatomy that retract completely. Forget shrinkage, this is more like regression. The only humans who can endure extended exposure to water that cold are: children, who have no natural body thermostat and will remain in the Atlantic until they turn six shades of purple; and Canadians, who flock south for the summer to discover the miracle of water that isn’t being Zamboni-ed. We watched dozens of Quebecois (Quebecians? Quebecers?) frolic in the waves like drunken polar bears.

Fortunately, the frigid temperatures do have an upside: they help keep the sharks away. You’ll notice that all the shark bite stories of late have come from Florida (whose name is an Indian word meaning “giant mutant mosquitoes that will suck your blood through your socks”), mostly in the Daytona area. Gotta wonder how those shark stories are going to affect Spring Break next year. Will Murray Hamilton ever allow the beaches to be closed? Will MTV still go? This could be the ultimate reality series -- don’t be the first one eaten off the island!

There hasn’t been one report of a shark attack off the coast of Maine. The closest they’ve come was in late July when one guy got his index finger stuck in a lobster claw, but a liberal application of drawn butter solved that problem quickly. Once we retrieved the kids from the shark-less arctic water, we mostly sat on the beach, watching them dig holes in the sand. For parents, the greatest thing about this childhood activity is that it has no logical end. Thus, it keeps them busy for hours, for no matter how many friends they have buried in the sand or how many castles with moats they have designed, there’s always another hole to dig.

At one point, my daughter asked me the same question I once asked my father, “Dad, could I really dig all the way to China?” I started to give her a geographic and geological explanation of why that was impossible, but I stopped and gave her the same answer I got from my father, just as generations of other kids have gotten from theirs: “Sure, go ahead and try!” I couldn’t help but wonder if, on some beach in China, there’s some Dad telling his kid to try and dig a hole all the way to America.

While the kids were digging, the adults were doing what we do best on a trip -- discussing where we would eat our next meal. My family is particularly good at this. Since we don’t like to cook and clean up all that much at home, we look at vacation as an opportunity to do even more eating without performing any chores. Thus, the near-constant discussion of where to go for the next meal. We have even talked about where to have dinner while walking to the place we’re about to have lunch!

On the way to and from each meal, we would have to stroll past the various tourist-trap boutiques that keep the village economy going. If you’ve ever been to one of these towns, you know what I’m talking about. Every other store carries a full supply of the same two dozen hats and shirts with the town’s name printed on it. Or you can have a keychain made out of a shell. Or a lobster-shaped stuffed toy (not to be confused with stuffed lobster, which will cost you about thirty bucks in any local restaurant).

Then there are the stores with signs saying “Summer Sale.” These are businesses that stay afloat thanks solely to the influx of vacationers from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and they’re trying to con us into thinking they have discounted some of their merchandise just for us. As if they raise their prices back to normal once winter returns. What they really mean is, “It’s Summer, And We Have Lots Of Crap For Sale.”

The store owners could do us all a favor by offering a summertime special. Give a small discount to any man who comes in, buys a shirt, and puts it on!

Monday, July 30, 2001

12 Things I Learned From The New "Planet Of The Apes"

  • Although apes in the future will be able to speak English perfectly, they really aren’t themselves unless they’re grunting and squealing like a bunch of people in primate costumes.
  • In every large group of apes, the lead female will be the only one with an English accent.
  • Some female apes enjoy wearing lipstick, mascara, and eye liner.
  • Some male apes enjoy wearing Russell Crowe’s battlefield costumes from “Gladiator.”
  • In every group of dirty, stinking humans on the run, there will be one clean yet pouty supermodel with a low-cut loin cloth.
  • Marky Mark is unable to grow whiskers, which explains why, even though more than two days pass in the course of the plot, he can’t even work up a mild five o’clock shadow.
  • Some apes have seen “Mission Impossible 2" and like to mimic (ape, if you will) the leaping-off-motorcycles jump-bump-in-the-air stunt in the middle of a fight.
  • The sexiest female apes dress in designer fashions, presumably created by Donna Orang-Karan.
  • Tim Burton is incapable of filming a brightly lit scene.
  • Estella Warren in a speaking part is no match for Linda Harrison as a mute.
  • Them monkeys can fly!
  • If I could travel in time like Marky Mark, I’d go back two hours and get my $7.50 back.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Baby Naming Rights

The story in USA Today says that a couple is auctioning off the naming rights to their soon-to-be born baby boy. Acting as if they were giving birth to a new baseball stadium instead of a human being, 32-year-old Jason Black and Frances Schroeder are looking for some corporation to cough up $500,000 or more to permanently brand their child with a brand name.

One of Jason’s friends is quoted as saying, "I’m against it and so are almost all his friends. But he’s chosen to do it anyway, and I respect that."

You respect that??? I ridicule it!! As the ultimate merger of Generation X Ego and 21st Century Capitalist Greed, the whole thing is as sleazy as can be. The good news is that the parents haven’t had any bidders on EBay or Yahoo -- yet.

The parents are probably hoping that, since the boy will be burdened with this moniker for life, the company or product name won’t be cringe-inducing. For instance, if the high bidder is Anheuser-Busch, the kid could very easily live with the name Bud. If he wishes he were an Oscar Meyer Weiner, that is what he truly could be! Then, when he turns 16, Mom and Dad could buy him the Wienermobile as his first car.

But I like to think the other way.

What would be the worst company to buy these naming rights? What company or product name would tag this child for life with a stigma that he could later blame his parents for forever?

Once again, I turn to the listeners of my show -- who are as put off by this revolting cash concept as I am -- for suggestions. Here are several of the best Bad Baby Boy Names:

Drano. Ex-Lax. Cruex. Viagra.

Since it’s a boy, he couldn’t possibly be happy with the name Tampax. Monistat. Summer’s Eve. Vagisil. Name him Gynolotrimin and you ensure that he is always chosen last for any team sport.

Want to kill any career prospects he might have? Name him Lazy Boy.

Want to guarantee him a life of teasing? Dairy Queen. Velveeta. Vaseline. Kaopectate. Tidy Bowl. Fleet Enema. Binaca. Siemans, the telecommunications company (Siemans Black? See a urologist!).

Hooters. Yes, that would be worse for a girl, but imagine if he’s a little pudgy and has those boy-breasts...uh oh!

Also not good for a girl: Frito Lay. Others from the sexually suggestive problem name file: Ben Gay. Bunn-O-Matic. Trojan. Nads, the hair remover.

He probably wouldn’t want to go through life named Head, after the tennis racquet company. That’s an even bigger problem when he’s listed in the phone book, since his last name will be Black.

Considering that last name, maybe the perfect company for his first name would be Mennen. Go ahead, say his full name out loud.

Whatever his name turns out to be, this kid will certainly grow up to file a lawsuit against his parents for the emotional distress brought on by this ridiculous idea.

Then he’ll spend much of his adult life with his alcoholic cousin, Johnnie Walker Black.

Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Don't Say The "N" Word In South Dakota

You can’t say the "N" word in Bismarck anymore. The "N" word is "North."

There’s a movement to change North Dakota’s name to simply "Dakota." Supporters say that having "North" modifying what kind of Dakota they are makes their state sound like a frigid, snowy, flat, treeless prairie. Nonsense!

North Dakota is exactly the opposite. It’s a tropical paradise, with rolling hills, beautiful beaches, and plenty of palm trees. Who doesn’t remember the fun of seeing all those spring breakers descend on Fargo for "MTV’s DakotaPalooza"?

The Greater North Dakota Association (a Chamber of Commerce group, previously responsible for the license plate slogan "North Dakota: Land Of 1,000 People") is behind the proposal. They insist that the name change would be a serious economic development initiative. Mostly, I’m guessing, for anyone in the business of making all the new signs and stationery that would be needed across the state. Either that, or start handing out really big bottles of White-Out.

Obviously, Dakotans have an inferiority complex. They look at all the tourism dollars that Florida and California rake in and think, "If only we had a one-word name, people would flock to our doorsteps! Those damn uni-namers!"

They’ve got it backwards. Instead of wimping out and dropping half their name, North Dakotans should band together and proclaim their boldness. Start a campaign that makes residents of the other 49 states look like weaklings. Dare them to vacation among the bravest frontier residents of the USA!!

"North Dakota: We Keep Canada In Its Place!"
"North Dakota: A Lot Further North Than Those Carolina Pantywaists!"
"North Dakota: Bet You Can’t Find A Celebrity Here!"
"North Dakota: Come Enjoy Our July 4th Frozen Lake Fireworks!"
"North Dakota: Only Real Men Can Make It Through Our Winter!"
"North Dakota: Our Women Will Kick Your Ass!"

What would happen to South Dakota if their neighbors dropped the "North"? Well, it’s not unprecedented to have one state side by side with another similarly named state which has a compass direction in its name. That is, if you want to be compared to West Virginia.

Look for South Dakota to rename itself Not So North Dakota.

Monday, July 09, 2001

The Sequel To End All Sequels

The news made Hollywood tremble with excitement.

Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas have all agreed to a plan for a fourth "Indiana Jones" movie. They may even bring back Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. Although they still don’t have a script, it’s smiles all around – especially on Ford’s face, since he’ll get a paycheck of at least $25,000,000.

But do we really want another "Indiana Jones" movie?

The original, "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," was brilliant movie-making, one of the most exciting adventures ever filmed, hands down.

The sequel, "Temple of Doom," was mediocre at best, weighed down by gory scenes designed purely to shock, not to mention the nearly constant screaming of Kate Capshaw, who attempted the simultaneous feat of replacing Karen Allen onscreen and Amy Irving offscreen.

They were back in form with the third installment, "The Last Crusade," which returned to the original’s formula of Evil Nazis plus Good Religious Icon times Truck & Tank Stunts equals Mega Entertainment.

The pattern indicates that the odd-numbered "Indiana Jones" movies are better than the even-numbered ones, but since the next sequel will be Number Four, there’s not much reason to be hopeful. This is known among movie afficionados as the "Star Trek Sequel Theory" -- though in that series, it was the odd-numbered movies that sucked.

What’s also bothersome is that there’s very little new ground to cover in another Indiana Jones adventure, not that this small point stopped other movie sequels from being made, of course.

Take, for example, another big box office Spielberg series. Are you expecting to see a new creative direction in the third "Jurassic Park" movie when it opens in a couple of weeks? I’m just guessing that the plot consists of some humans (who are naturally fearful of computer-generated creatures) trapped on an island with The Dinosaurs That Time Forgot, who begin chasing their biped visitors until everyone but Sam Neill and two cute kids is dead and mankind finally catches on to Michael Crichton’s decades-old message, "don’t mess with technology, you fools!"

Wait! Imagine what Indiana Jones could do to a T. Rex with his whip!

Face it, most sequels are nothing more than cheap attempts to bring in a few more dollars by making the same movie again and hoping the audience doesn’t notice too much. For every "Terminator 2," there’s a "Predator 2." For every "Toy Story 2," there’s a "Smokey & The Bandit 3" (they couldn’t even convince Burt Reynolds to do that one!).

"Godfather 2" may be the all-time high-water mark of sequel-dom, but even it spawned a piece of drek in "Godfather 3." Still, both of them stand head and shoulders above so many others that Hollywood has foisted upon the movie-going public. Herewith, a small sample:

"Jaws." First one, phenomenal. Second one, not so phenomenal. By the third one, they had resorted to lame 3-D effects. But that didn’t stop them from making "Jaws 4," in which the shark actually followed Lorraine Gary to the Bahamas, where it climbed up on land and finally persuaded the studio to knock it off.

"Rocky." Perfect example of the downward spiral of multiple sequels. When your movies hopes lie with Dolph Lundgren and Brigitte Nielsen trying to be as appealing as Mr. T, you know you’ve sucked the franchise dry. What to do? Make number five! [Incidentally, there are rumors that Sly Stallone is seriously considering converting "Rocky" into a Broadway musical -- thus proving that he learned absolutely nothing from directing Travolta in "Staying Alive," the humiliating sequel to "Saturday Night Fever."]

"Rambo." By my count, this makes Sly’s combined total six sequels, unless there’s a "Tango & Cash 2" that I missed somehow. Did you know that in "Rambo 2," his dialogue times out at less than two minutes for the whole movie?

"Karate Kid." Follow this sequence to oblivion. Make Ralph Macchio a champ in one month. Then have him defend the title. Then have him go to Japan to play up Pat Morita’s story. And in the fourth and final chapter, just as the schlocky well runs dry, turn him into a teenage girl!

"Alien." Sigourney Weaver’s "Jaws In Space" scared the stomach out of more than just John Hurt. But by the third sequel, they had to bring Ripley back from the dead to prop up the horribly miscast Winona Ryder in "Resurrection." Should have let her battle it out with Lorraine Gary.

Let’s browse the comedy section, too, for more of the worst sequel ideas ever.

"Caddyshack." Recipe for the sequel: replace Rodney Dangerfield with Jackie Mason, replace Ted Knight with Robert Stack, replace Bill Murray with Dan Aykroyd (!), let loose the never-hilarious Randy Quaid and Dyan Cannon, and you’ve got yourself an all-time stinker!

In case they don’t get the message, repeat the recipe for "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Meatballs 2." Or "Grease 2," which was so bad Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t save it, even with the assistance of the legendary Mr. Adrian Zmed!

Don’t make me bring up seven – seven! – "Police Academy" movies. Or the two followups to "Back To The Future." Or "Superman" three through five! The list goes on.

Movies that stunk to begin with kept rolling: "Porky’s 2." "Cannonball Run 2." "Weekend At Bernie’s 2." "Mannequin 2."

Scary classics that had their legacy ruined: "Exorcist 2." "Psycho 2." "Poltergeist 2." "Carrie 2."

How about the ones without a number in the title? "Terms of Endearment" begat "Evening Star." "Romancing The Stone" begat "Jewel Of The Nile." Look what Tim Burton begat when he started with Michael Keaton in a cape and cowl. Holy Bat Crap, George Clooney!

Lastly, let’s not forget the one that may have started this mania in the first place: "Planet Of The Apes." Below, Return, Beyond, Escape -- and now, Remade. Somewhere, Roddy McDowell’s estate is laughing.

Get your dirty paws off me, you damn dirty dinosaur!

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

The Cell Phone Driving Ban

Congratulations to the State Of New York, winner of the competition for Feel Good Legislation of the Year. They win it because their legislature has cleverly approved a new law making it illegal to use your cell phone while driving your car, unless you buy one of those hands-free attachments.

This is nothing but Feel Good Legislation because it was passed based solely on emotion and popular opinion. A few people who have lost family members in auto accidents where the driver happened to be using a cell phone lobbied the politicos to make it illegal and, backed by some survey that told them that 85% of the public wanted the legislation, they passed it.

It’s sad that those people lost their lives, but what’s sadder is that the lawmakers have ignored the research that shows that cell phone use is responsible for a very small percentage of car accidents.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently reported that, in a study of tens of thousands of vehicular accidents, cell phones could be blamed in only 1.5% of auto crashes. That means that the New York legislature has acted against a cause that has nothing to do with the effect 98.5% of the time! That’s good lawmaking, isn’t it?

The AAA research showed that distractions outside the car are responsible for 30% of the metal-crunching moments and other occupants are blamed for another 10%. Also rated higher: adjusting the air conditioning!

I’m sure that a couple of kids somewhere died this year when a piece of gum got lodged in their throats and they couldn’t breathe. But no one was so ludicrous as to suggest banning chewing gum, were they?

Note that there is no legislation on the books banning you from doing any of the following while driving (but which we have all seen other drivers do): reading a newspaper, putting on makeup, changing your clothes, shaving (!), checking your schedule in your Palm Pilot, or any number of other activities. They’re not specifically legislated against because they are covered by the laws already on the books which ban reckless driving! Thus, this cell phone law is redundant at best.

Ironically, the man who will turn this bill into a law with a stroke of his pen will be a governor who can chat away as much as he likes on his cell phone, because he has someone else on the public payroll to drive the car for him!

The truth is that cell phone technology is still relatively new -- it has only exploded in the last several years -- and we’re still getting used to it. As the use of cell phones expands, more and more of us will be able to use them as part of our multitasking lifestyle.

I’ll bet that when the first radio was put in a car, someone suggested that it would be too much of a distraction to operate and you should only do so when the car was stopped. Of course, now we know that when you change the station on your car radio you are committing an act that is hazardous only to my broadcasting career -- so maybe it should be outlawed!

New York is not going to be alone in taking this step, I promise. Every other legislature will be pressured to follow suit. What I’d like to see is some money committed to studying the fallout from the statute -- and, in a few years, if the accident rate hasn’t dropped dramatically, let’s repeal the law!

That will never happen, because common sense is no longer permitted to rule the day. They’ll find another scapegoat to take the place of the cell phone.

We’d better start shutting down drive-thru windows at fast-food places, because you’re just going to try to eat that food while driving, aren’t you? How distracting! Then we’ll have to remove all but the driver’s seat, because you insist on carrying on an intense conversation with a passenger, thus taking your mind off the task at hand -- not to mention the danger inherent when a kid is in the back seat babbling away!

How many accidents occur every winter because the driver has to take their eyes off the road to search for that rear defroster button? I’ll bet the number is well over a dozen, so let’s ban that, too!

Supporters of the new law say it will only make you use your cell phone with a hands-free attachment, thus freeing up both of your hands to be on the steering wheel, "where they belong."

Unfortunately, this is not how Americans really drive. Go ahead and do a random visual survey tomorrow morning and see how many of your fellow commuters keep both hands on the wheel at all times in that "10 and 2" position (actually, experts now say that "10 and 2" is dangerous, because the airbag might blow your elbows out -- instead, you should be at 4:23 and 7:19, adjusted for your time zone and daylight saving time).

But the reality is that most of us drive with one arm out the window, or on the manual gear shift knob, or on the travel mug, or wherever. For smokers, the car is one of the few refuges where they can carry on their habit, and that involves using one hand or the other to bring the cigarette to their lips -- not to mention the mental effort involved in operating the lighter!

So if it’s okay to do all those things with your hand, what is the problem with holding the phone to your ear? Is that the distraction, or is it the act of conversing that’s the problem? Because if simply talking-and-listening is the real problem, then the hands-free argument doesn’t hold up -- you’re still having the conversation!

Here’s the real bottom line. There are those of us who can do more than one thing at a time, and there are those who can’t. If you’re one of those who knows that you can’t drive and use a handheld cell phone simultaneously, then don’t -- but leave the rest of us alone!!

As New York Assemblyman Brian Kolb said when he was bold enough to be one of only 19 who voted against the bill, "We seem to be reacting to polls more than relying on scientific evidence. We can’t eliminate stupidity."

So stop passing laws designed solely to make people feel good, but without any practical proof that they’ll make our lives safer. In the meantime, I'll go check my glove compartment, where I have a fax coming in.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

Wedding Bell Rhythm & Blues

Two stories about marriage have been in the news in the past week.

One was the new study that shows that 48% of American households are now made up of unmarried people, compared to only 22% in 1950. This was immediately seized as proof that the institution of marriage should be considered an endangered species.

They failed to take into account the fact that we’re all living a lot longer now than we did fifty years ago, and many senior citizens who are widows and widowers would now fall into that unmarried category. Also, more people are realizing that "until death do you part" isn’t nearly as long if you get married in your thirties as opposed to right out of high school, which was the norm half a century ago.

The other marriage story involved the tragedy in Israel, when the dance floor at a large wedding gave way on the third floor of a Jerusalem catering company. About 300 people were injured and 23 died. It was an amazing story, and there was amazing video aired on newscasts everywhere.

Aside from the horror of the carnage, what astonished me was the fact that those 323 people only made up half of the total number of people who were there. The reports said there were 650 attendees at the wedding reception.

Six hundred and fifty!

No wonder the dance floor gave way. That’s a lot of people doing the Bunny Hop all at once. Or, more likely in this case, the Hebrew dance known as the hora.

I’ve never been to a wedding that large. Most of the ones I’ve been invited to included somewhere between 150 and 200 people. But after this incident, I asked several friends who told me that, yes, they’ve been to and even had huge wedding receptions themselves – four or five hundred was not an uncommon number.

That’s a lot of "chicken or beef?" decisions. And a helluva large catering bill.

I don’t even know that many people. At some point, you must be inviting in-laws of friends of roommates of relatives whom you have never even met in the first place.

That’s where the crazy dancing comes in. People who would be scared to death to get up and dance in front of close friends have no such trepidation getting up (and down) in front of distant cousins they’ll never see again, especially when the wedding band breaks into Kool & The Gang’s "Celebrate." Come on!

Pretty soon the dance floor is filled with middle-aged folks moving more awkwardly than Trent Lott at a Jim Jeffords hug-a-thon. This is endlessly amusing to everyone under 30, who turn their backs so that the bride doesn’t see them guffawing at the way her father thinks he’s Tony Manero but looks more like Tony Soprano.

Now gather round – so that the waiters can clear away that salad you didn’t eat because it looked like it was made up of yard rakings and assorted oak leaves – and watch the bride’s father and the groom’s mother fight back tears to the sounds of "Sunrise Sunset."

One wedding tradition that always makes me cringe is when the band is playing a fast song that has attracted everyone to the dance floor (the music will either be "Shout" or "Hava Nagila" depending on ethnicity), and someone brings out The Chairs Of Death. Suddenly, the bride and groom are being hoisted overhead by several burly men.

These are almost always the same guys who were taking advantage of the open bar earlier, so the concept of balance is no longer a physical priority. More than once I’ve seen either the bride or groom spilled or dropped to the floor.

This doesn’t dissuade the crowd, who then force the parents of the betrothed into The Chairs. You haven’t seen horror until you’ve seen the groom’s mother clinging to her chair for dear life, knowing that she’s just moments away from a gravitational encounter she’ll remember for weeks.

As the evening wears on, the band weaves its way through all the wedding band classics. Although "Close To You" and "Color My World" have long since been dropped from their repertoire, you can count on valiant attempts to imitate Louis Armstrong on "What A Wonderful World" and Whitney Houston on "Greatest Love of All." And every husband in the room will be dragged into a slow dance against his will to "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Time Of My Life."

For some reason, this is usually followed by "YMCA," and everyone hits the dance floor to twist their body into alphabetical contortions. I seem to be the only one who sees the irony in everyone celebrating the pairing of two heterosexual people by loudly singing a song that is essentially a gay anthem.

And now that you’re on your feet, let’s boogie down cliche street with "We Are Family," "Old Time Rock and Roll," and, if we’re lucky, "The Duck Dance!"

Perhaps those marriage researchers overlooked something.

Maybe some of the unmarrieds among the invitees see the spectacle of all those suits and dresses doing "The Electric Slide" -- plus the sight of 70 year old Aunt Matilda trying to keep up with her 13 year old grandson while the band plays "Gettin’ Jiggy With It" – and decide right then and there to stay single just one more year.

Now, while we serve dessert, won’t you please join the happy couple back on the dance floor as we play the song they told us was their song: "Love Theme From Pearl Harbor."

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Being Sick Sucks

When I got back to work this morning after being sidelined for a week with an allergy-related throat infection, one of the women in the office said to me, "Wow, I sure wish I could call in sick and just lie around the house for a couple of days."

I replied that I would have happily traded her all those hours I had spent leisurely lying in bed enjoying my scratchy throat, blinding headaches, and inability to draw a complete breath. I also explained that, at least for me, doing absolutely nothing is boring as hell.

Remember when you were a kid and got to stay home -- most likely after faking a raspy complaint of "Mom, my stomach is upset, my throat is sore, and my head hurts" -- because it meant you could hang out, have Mom bake you some chocolate chip cookies (universally accepted as therapeutically sound therapy for anyone suffering from any illness), and watch TV all day?

I’m here to tell you that, these days, staying home and watching TV as an adult means enduring hour after hour of pablum. Not so much in the morning, right up through Regis and Kelly Lee, or in the evening and late at night. But between morning and primetime, there is nothing worth viewing.

You know you’re bored -- and running a fever -- when a 15-year-old rerun of "LA Law" prompts you to think, "Isn’t that Judy Landers? Whatever happened to her? And didn’t she have a sister, Audrey?" There was a time in the 1980s when you could hardly go a week without seeing one of the Landers sisters guest starring on one show or another. So why haven’t we even heard their names for at least a half-dozen years?

I’m guessing the answer is: Gravity.

Even with the 100+ channels on digital cable, the variety of afternoon programming runs the gamut from squat to nada to zippo (yes, I'm including Oprah). Once you’ve seen the day’s headlines repeated for the umpteenth time on four different news networks -- okay, we know that Jim Jeffords is making the big switch, and is now dating Ellen DeGeneres -- it’s time to browse the premium channels. These are the ones which exist purely to prove that there are far too many horrible movies produced in Hollywood.

Here’s where you’ll find a huge selection of movies no one has ever heard of -- and their sequels! Giving my channel-flicking thumb a momentary break, I wonder which studio genius was it that green-lighted production of "Alligator II: The Mutation"? How many people could possibly have gone to see the first "Alligator" movie (raise your hand if you even knew that such a movie existed) to justify making a sequel? They couldn’t even drag Steve Irwin to see this reptilian waste of celluloid.

After noting the complete absence of quality cinematic offerings, it’s around to the skip-over channels, which in my house include the garden channel, the shopping channels, and the food network. I knew I was too hopped up on antibiotics when I considered sending Emeril the new recipe I’ve come up with for a delicious new carbonated beverage with medicinal powers. It involves a glass of Pepsi and one cherry-flavored Hall’s Mentholyptus Cough Drop. Mmm, soothing.

Now it’s over to CNBC, where I’m not surprised to see that the price of Kimberly-Clark stock has shot up, since I have personally used over 200,000 of their Kleenex tissues today alone.

Which leads to my next question: how much mucus can one human body possibly produce? Is there a limit? After all, women stop producing eggs after menopause, and some men -- count me in -- can’t grow hair on their head after a certain age. And certainly my brain knows that continuing to fabricate this stuff will only clog up my nasal passages to the point where I can’t inhale -- which most medical experts agree is not good for you.

So why keep it flowing? Turns out the answer is deceptively simple. The body is not creating new mucus. It’s making a sequel.

Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Mr. Perspective

Pardon me while I slip into my alter ego as Mr. Perspective. In that guise, I have no super powers other than the ability to apply rational thought to news stories that are otherwise swallowed whole by the media at large, and then blown way out of proportion.

Let’s start with this headline in today’s paper: "Study Ranks Area Among Worst For Road Congestion."

It’s based on a new report from the Texas Transportation Institute about how much time we’re spending in our cars going to and from work everyday. According to this report, St. Louis is the 9th-worst metropolitan area for road congestion. You know it’s an important report because it’s not written in real, everyday English -- they call us "motorists" instead of "drivers," as in "motorists, use caution" rather than "drivers, be careful!"

The report says that St. Louis drivers lose an average of 44 hours a year to traffic delays -- or "more than one workweek." That sounds like a lot. Here’s where Mr. Perspective comes alive, applying simple math to the claim.

If you lose 44 hours a year on the road, that’s less than an hour a week. It actually works out to about 10 minutes a day. That’s five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. Not so much anymore, is it?

But no one would print a headline based on the real story: "You Spend Less Time In Traffic Than You Do in Line Waiting For A Mocha Latte At Starbucks!"

Story number two for analysis by Mr. Perspective starts with this headline: "Space Tourists Are Lining Up To Follow Dennis Tito."

They make it sound as if we’re just months away from you being able to book your very own trip to the International Space Station. All you have to do is get on the waiting list. Oh, and one other small thing -- get ready to cough up $20,000,000!

In other words, your spot in line is somewhere behind Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Paul McCartney. Sure, Julia Roberts could buy herself a couple of orbits just off the paycheck from a single movie, but then who would buy dinner for Ben Bratt? Maybe he could use the frequent flyer miles Julia racks up.

Face it, by the time they’re ready to send the average person into space, they’ll also have the technology to accidentally send your luggage to Jupiter.

Next, Mr. Perspective goes to the movies.

Roger Moore was asked recently who he thinks should play James Bond when Pierce Brosnan gives it up. Moore, who was 007 for a dozen years, suggested Cuba Gooding, Jr.


Yes, Cuba’s a good actor. If you only know him from "Jerry Maguire," you should rent "Men Of Honor," where he holds his own very nicely opposite Robert DeNiro – not a small achievement.

Gooding is certainly talented. He’s also young enough to take over the role and run with it for several years. There’s only one problem: Cuba Gooding, Jr. is black. James Bond is not.

Does that mean that Gooding couldn’t play an international spy playboy? Of course not. In fact, that might make a pretty good movie, perhaps the first in a new series. But he can’t be Bond.

Bond can’t be an African-American. Bond can’t be a woman. Bond can’t be a midget. Bond can’t be bald, he can’t be fat, he can’t be blond. If he is, he’s not James Bond. You might as well make him a bad shot, a poor driver, and shy with the ladies. Would you cast Drew Carey as Bond? Of course not. No more than you’d cast Kevin Costner as Shaft.

Is Mr. Perspective being unreasonable? Hey, I’m not suggesting that we assign O.J. Simpson to find the real killer of Robert Blake’s wife. I’m just trying to bring some rationality into an otherwise irrational media world.

One final story. Sad to report that Cliff Hillegas died over the weekend. That name may not mean much to you until I tell you that he’s the guy who invented Cliff’s Notes -- every literature student’s best friend. Cliff was buried earlier this week in a casket with yellow and black stripes on one side.

In his honor, the eulogy was just three sentences long.

Monday, April 30, 2001

My Field of Dreams

My daughter played her first baseball game yesterday.

She’s almost 7 years old, so the full skill set is still in development, just as with all of the kids at her age. They’re still trying to master which way to hold the glove, when to run on the bases, how to get the ball from one player to another.

They work on this skill a lot. In practice before the game, a simple game of "catch" with one of the other kids quickly becomes a game of "go get the ball" for both of them. For some reason, it’s a little harder aiming at a target your own size than it is tossing it back and forth with Dad in the yard. But they’ll get better the more they do it, and we'll keep practicing each day at home.

They’re still working on some of the basics of the game, like knowing where and how to play your position. There has been some improvement since the first practice, when the batter hit a slow grounder between shortstop and third base. Neither of the players in those positions was paying any attention, distracted by a plane flying overhead, so they were completely unaware that the ball had rolled by them. But some of the other kids noticed, and they all started running for the ball. It was eventually picked up somewhere in left field by the first baseman, who threw it back towards the infield, where it bounced, rolled, and hit the shortstop -- who was now finally looking towards home plate -- in the back of the leg.

As much trouble as a simple grounder can be, a pop fly is trauma-inducing. At this level, a ball hit in the air is more harrowing than hail falling on a new car dealer’s lot.

Some of these kids have obviously watched the pros play, because they’re all set to imitate the big leaguers. Ask them to toss you the ball, and they have to go into a full pitcher’s windup. I swear one of the kids stepped into the batter’s box, tapped home plate, and then used the bat to smack her sneakers as if she were knocking mud out of her cleats.

Every team has specialists. The kid whose head is too small for the batting helmet, which falls off whenever he runs. The kid who comes to bat and points to the outfield in Ruthian style as he takes the first of three mighty swings, none of which comes close to the actual pitch. The kid who can field the ball cleanly but refuses to throw it, insisting instead on chasing every runner personally.

My daughter has shown a special aptitude for groundskeeping. That patch of grass gets worked over by her feet more than the hardwood floor at a flamenco dance class -- all while wearing the sneakers with the heels that light up every time she takes a step. She’s the first pyrotechnic grass grooming gal.

Meanwhile, in the parents’ bleachers, we’re shouting the usual phrases of encouragement: "good swing," "nice try," "way to go," "you look cute in that catcher’s mask." Any batted ball that gets past the pitcher is enough to start a standing ovation. One father threw in a "good eye" to his at-bat son, who was surprised to hear that the ball had even been pitched.

Fortunately, we don’t have any adults who get overly excited -- no bleacher rage, yet. No one has shown the tendency to run on the field and scream at the 13 year old umpire just for having the temerity to call their son out on a close play at second base. Frankly, we’re all just happy that the runner and the fielder remembered to move towards second base in the first place.

None of this matters, of course, as long as they’re having fun, and there were a lot of smiles on their faces yesterday. They have no idea what the score is, how many outs there are, what inning it is, or whose turn it is to bat. And they couldn’t care less, as long as they get to play and wear the uniform.

Ah, the uniform. The highlight of my daughter’s day was putting on the hat, the pants, the socks, and -- how cool is this? -- the shirt with her own name and number on the back. Talk about your ear-to-ear smile.

After the game, on the way home, I commiserated with her over a strikeout in her final at-bat. I told her that when I was 8 and started playing Little League ball -- there were no leagues for 6 and 7 year olds then --I struck out a lot, too. Lots of kids did, and always have. But, I told her, as the season goes along, you’ll get better and better.

She thought about this for a moment and then turned to me with a big smile and asked, philosophically, "Dad, can I sleep in my uniform tonight?"

Yes, because you obviously have your eye on the ball.

Monday, April 09, 2001

The Toilet Bowl Poll

Another compelling survey crossed my desk this week (those of us in the media are fortunate to receive vital, life-impacting survey results like this almost every day).

This new survey has to do with the bathroom habits of Americans. It was conducted on behalf of the National Association For Continence, who, as you know, are engaged in an ongoing vitriolic debate with their arch-rivals at the American Society For Incontinence.

The NAFC survey shows that the average American spends about an hour in the bathroom every day. I’m not sure whether this is all strictly toilet time, or if it also includes brushing your teeth, singing in the shower, and picking up the little subscription cards that fall out of all the magazines you’re reading on the bowl.

If it includes time in public bathrooms, they’ll have to subtract the large amount of time wasted while attempting to dry your hands with the forced-air hand dryer -- which, in the history of humanity, has never sufficiently dried a single hand on the first run-through.

You are no doubt wondering about the methodology used to conduct a survey of this magnitude and importance. Turns out that some research company was hired by the NAFC to "randomly poll 1,001 Americans in shopping malls nationwide."

Stop and picture that for a moment. You’re at the mall, somewhere between the department store perfume counter attack mob and the Cinnabon place that malevolently pumps the aroma of their sweet-smelling baked goods through the mall’s air ducts in such a way as to guarantee that your nose pulls the rest of your body directly to their counter.

Suddenly, a man with a clipboard approaches and asks in hushed tones if he can talk to you for a few minutes about your personal bathroom habits. Instinctively, you shout, "Security! I’m being accosted by a perv over here!" End of survey.

Or, perhaps you prefer to play a little game with him by replying, "Thank goodness! I’ve been walking around for days waiting for someone to ask me some bathroom questions! I can’t wait to share my most intimate toilet experiences with you! Please, ask me about urinal cakes and cushy seat covers and how many sheets of Charmin make the perfect amount to guarantee a nice clean tushy! Yes, let’s go. I want to tell you my most personal toilet habits and talk lavatory lingo!"

Instinctively, the polltaker would shout, "Security! I’m being accosted by a perv over here!" Again, end of survey.

Most people feel awkward talking about their bathroom habits. We’re not even comfortable using the bathroom in someone else’s house, because it means entering alien territory.

Remember when you were a kid at a friend’s house and had to go? Nothing was where it should have been. Your friend’s Mom used potpourri or something else to keep the scent clean, and you were going to befoul it. She had towels that were far too nice for your skin and nothing that looked like the Ivory soap you had at home. Instead, there was a bowl of shell-shaped things that seemed to be only for decoration. There’s a classic scene in "The Flamingo Kid" with Matt Dillon that captures that ambience perfectly.

I relived this horror recently when my wife and I were having dinner with some friends at a fairly nice restaurant.

At one point, I excused myself to use the men’s room. This is usually a hit-or-miss proposition at a restaurant, because the bathroom is more often than not located in uncomfortable proximity to the kitchen and, on a busy night in most places, gets about as much sanitary attention as your average gas station restroom.

This one was different. In fact, it put to shame every other bathroom I have ever been in. Once I had finished my business and returned to our table, I had to tell everyone how amazing it was.

The room was spotless, as if it had never been used. No splattered water marks on the mirror or anywhere. A candle burning in the corner (!). Liquid soap in a real silver dispenser. Magazines fanned out on the counter for your reading-while- seated pleasure (all the magazines were current and trendy -- no two year old Newsweek here -- you had a choice of Bon Appetit or something similarly upscale and obviously not chosen by a guy). Real faucets, not those find-the-sensor automatic gizmos that dispense water for nearly 3 seconds before shutting off automatically. If any place had ever lived up to the euphemism "comfort station," this was it.

I was intimidated. Let’s face it, I came in here to make at least some kind of a mess. Did I dare even leave a drop of water on the sink counter after washing up? I got the distinct impression that as soon as I opened the door to leave, an employee would rush right in to rearrange the room and return it to its original pristine state, ready to serve the next customer.

At least there wasn’t an attendant in there. Talk about careers that attract no attention at a Job Fair. I can’t help feel sorry for guys who have that job, as if they’ve been punished for losing Hell’s Lottery.

Still, I speak for all men when I say that this whole bathroom attendant concept makes us ill at ease. We don’t want some guy hovering while we drop trou, like a plainclothes cop ready to bust George Michael.

Worse, the attendant always greets you with a "Hi!" or a "How ya doin?" This catches up by surprise because it violates the First Rule Of The Men’s Room: NO TALKING!

Guys want to get in, take care of business, and get out, without any hassles and without speaking a word. I have seen heated conversations between two men come to a complete stop at the door on the way in and then resume once they left, with nary a syllable exchanged in between.

I don’t know if there’s someone serving a similar function in the ladies room, so, as a public service, let me clue the women into what you’re missing.

In addition to his hovering responsibilities, the attendant has a display of carefully arranged toiletries for sale, from a bottle of after-shave to a hairbrush to a bowl of mints (mmm, yummy, men’s room mints!). I’d guess there’s more material sold via the aspirin-and-condom vending machine on the wall than through his countertop display, but he’s still set up to move some merchandise.

Next to it, inevitably, is the tip jar. Normally, you wouldn’t even think of giving the guy any money for patrolling the poop palace. Unfortunately, he has commandeered every paper towel in the place and is holding them hostage like an American spy plane crew that’s crash-landed in China. While you may be able to wash your hands unassisted, you can’t dry them without your pal handing over a two-ply.

Is there a more disturbing level of commerce than this? Aside from being paid to do a bathroom habits survey for the National Association For Continence, I mean.

One last thing to ponder: if all restaurant employees must wash their hands before leaving the bathroom, does that include the guy whose job it is to clean that bathroom? And then, once he cleans up the mess he has just made, does he have to wash again, thus creating a new mess?

Put that in your bowl and flush it.