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!