Friday, January 18, 2002

Bob Balaban

Actor-producer-director Bob Balaban -- whose family still has a restaurant in the central west end section of St. Louis -- was on my show today and we discussed his work on such well-known movies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Absence of Malice," "Waiting For Guffman," "Best In Show," and "Gosford Park" (which he produced and Robert Altman won a Golden Globe for directing).

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Monday, January 14, 2002

The Statue Of Reality

In New York, they’re going to erect a statue honoring the firefighters who died in the September 11th attack. Certainly, that’s a noble group to honor, but the way they’re going about it is all wrong.

The sculpture will be based on the famous photo, taken by Tom Franklin of The Bergen Record, of the three firemen raising the US flag over the rubble at the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. In real life, the three firemen were white. In brass life, one of them will be white, one will be black, and one will be Hispanic.

This perfect example of political correctness gone wild was a joint decision by the sculptors, the company that owns the fire department headquarters building in Brooklyn where the statue will stand, and the FDNY. Their spokesman is quoted as saying, “ultimately a decision was made to honor no one in particular, but everyone who made the supreme sacrifice.”

If that’s the case, this isn’t the correct way to honor them. The idea isn’t bad, but the execution is.

What they’re doing is taking a single moment from that day, frozen forever in the shutter of a photographer’s camera, and altering that image. In other words, they’re creating a lie.

We have lived with enough lies in our history, from “your 401k is safe with Enron stock” all the way back to “Columbus discovered America.” Some of these historic lies have taken hundreds of years to repair, so why start a new one now?

For the sake of diversity, say those who made the decision. I’m all for diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and honoring those who deserve it, regardless of who or what they are. But I’m also for veracity.

One member of a group of black firefighters -- Kevin James -- thinks what they’re doing is good. He’s quoted as saying, “The symbolism is far more important than representing the actual people. I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.”

Wrong! The truth is the truth is the truth. You may interpret actions, you may interpret thoughts, you may interpret intentions. But you must never be subjective with the truth.

The fact is that these three men -– Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein -– were white. If they’re making a statue of them, or what they did, they can’t change that. What’s next, sculpting the Twin Towers as pyramids?

I’m no sculptor, so I don’t even know how you show ethnic differences in a statue. Unless you resort to emphasizing racial stereotypes in their features, doesn’t everyone’s skin color end up bronze?

To their credit, the three firefighters have not exploited their moment of fame. We haven’t seen them all over the newsmagazines, talk shows, and tabloids. I’ll bet they’re not too thrilled with the notion of being immortalized this way, but if it’s going to be them, it should be them!

Perhaps they understand that what they did that day with that flag was not heroic. Yes, their endeavor was symbolic, as if these three men were acting out a new verse to the “Star Spangled Banner,” which still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. It proclaimed to our enemies that you can knock down our buildings but you can’t take away our freedom. That’s strong symbolism.

Yet the heroism of that day was not in raising that flag on that pole. It was in trying to save the lives of the thousands of people in those buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts that followed. The heroes were not just the 343 firefighters who died, but also the ones who selflessly served that day and lived.

If there is to be a statue to honor all the firefighters, it should depict several firefighters, including all the ethnicities, races, and genders (hey, you forgot the women!!) that make up the FDNY. Have them standing side by side with their heads bowed, holding their helmets over their hearts, as if looking down at fallen comrades. There’s your diversity, there’s your symbolism, there’s your memorial.

Change the shape of the bronze, not the texture of the truth.

Editor's note: five days after this column was published, the Fire Department of New York cancelled plans for the statue based on the firefighters raising the flag.

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Teenage Suicide Pilot

The strange flight of Charles Bishop, the 15 year old kid who stole a Cessna 172 and flew it into the Bank of America building in Tampa on Saturday afternoon, has raised more questions as the days have gone by.

The story put every cable news outlet on Graphics Alert Status because there was a report that Bishop had left behind a suicide note, in which he had praised Osama bin Laden. No one has yet produced this note, so we don’t know the details. But someone said the magic OBL words, and we were off to the Speculation Races!

For me, though, the questions begin with, why was he being taught to fly a plane at such an early age? He started taking lessons when he was 13. That’s early. That’s just about the age parents begin thinking about leaving their son home alone on a Saturday night, and this kid’s flight instructor left him alone in the Cessna (with the keys!!) to run a pre-flight check.

He wasn’t old enough to learn to drive a car, so why was it legal for him to learn to fly? Maybe you should have the skills to manage potentially dangerous ground vehicles, like mom’s Acura, before graduating to Bernoulli’s principles.

Not that he’s the first teenager to do so. Under FAA regulations, student pilots are allowed to fly solo when they’re 16, but can’t get a full pilot’s license until they’re 17. That seems backward, doesn’t it?

Another question to be raised is, why aren’t there any jets at MacDill Air Force Base? That’s the base that houses Central Command for US operations in Afghanistan (remember Norman Schwarzkopf being headquartered there during the Persian Gulf War?). The kid flew the Cessna right into MacDill’s restricted air space, but they couldn’t do anything about it, because there are no fighters stationed there.

Excuse me, but isn’t the Air Force the one with the planes?

Instead, they had to scramble jets out of Homestead Air Force Base, 200 miles away. By the time those F-15s got there, the kid had crashed the plane into the bank. I guess we have to just hope that no one with truly evil intentions ever wants to fly into that airspace and do some real damage.

Whatever happened to that edict we heard so much about in the days after the 9/11 attacks -- the one that said that there would now be an air patrol that could shoot down any planes that were off course or disobeying orders to land? In this case, crewmen aboard a Coast Guard helicopter spotted the kid and motioned for him to take it down, but he ignored them. And what was the consequence of his actions? Nothing. They couldn’t do anything about it, apparently.

I bring this up not because I think they should have shot him down, but because the “authorities” told us what they were going to do in situations just like this, to keep America safe, but they didn’t! So, it was just a lie. Another cosmetic attempt to make you feel more secure, with no truly protective policy behind it.

In several media reports, Bishop has been described as a “troubled loner.” What a shock! As if we hear about a lot of “peppy life of the party” guys committing suicide. Unless you’re the Maytag Repairman, it’s not good to get that “troubled loner” label.

We’ve also been told that Bishop may have been taking Accutane, a prescription medication for severe acne. In the paperwork for this miracle drug, in the Adverse Reactions section, along with many other possible physical problems, there’s a little upbeat side effect warning that reads “Psychiatric: suicide attempts, suicide, depression, psychosis, emotional instability.” Gee, sounds like just the thing for a troubled loner!

Granted, being a teenage boy is tough enough, what with the hormones raging and all. On top of that, this kid was abandoned by his father and had to move to a new state with his mother and try to re-start his social life there. Then, you pile on some serious acne, and you’ve got Trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Pimples!

Given all of that, does it make sense to give him a drug that can make him even more depressed? Sounds like, pharmaceutically, he went from the frying pan into the fire.

I can’t help but wonder if, somewhere on that list of possible side effects, it warns that patients who use Accutane shouldn’t operate heavy machinery or vehicles.

Like, say, a Cessna 172?

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Pay Teachers Like Babysitters

This is to everyone who thinks teachers are overpaid. It was taken from an editorial in a New Hampshire newspaper. Author unknown.

Consider this:

If I had my way, I'd pay these teachers myself. I'd pay them babysitting wages. I'd give them $3/hour out of my own pocket. And I'm only going to pay them for 5 hours, not coffee breaks. That would be $15/day. Each parent should pay $15/day for these teachers to babysit their child. Even if they have more than one child, it's still a lot cheaper than private day care.

Now, how many children do they teach everyday? Maybe 20? That's $15 times 20, equaling $300/day. But remember, they only work 180 days a year! I'm not going to pay them for all those vacations! So that's $300 x 180 = $54,000.

Wait. I know that you teachers will say, "What about those who have ten years experience and a masters degree?" Well, maybe (to be fair) they could get the minimum wage, and instead of just babysitting, they could read the kid a story. We could round that off to about $5/hour, times five hours, times 20 children. That's $500/day times 180 days. That's $90,000! Huh?

Wait a minute. Let's get a little perspective here. Babysitting wages are too good for these teachers. Did anyone see a good salary guide around here?

Need I say more?

Signed, An Intelligent Parent