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Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Super Size Jazzercise

Would you take a Jazzercise class led by a woman who is 5'8" and weighs 240 pounds?

The Jazzercise people in San Francisco don’t think so, which is why they didn’t hire Jennifer Portnick. Jennifer says that’s not fair, because she eats healthy, works out, and is qualified for the job.

The Jazzercise folks don’t think she fits their instructor image, and that potential customers would take one look at her and think that the program must not be very effective if she’s their representative.

I understand the PR angle. They want the public to think that everyone who does Jazzercise looks like the dancers behind Britney Spears (if you're over 40, change that reference to "...looks like Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie 'Perfect'.") And if they don’t look like that now, they will soon, if only they would join!

What they’re overlooking is the vast number of people who hate commercials for health clubs, gyms, and exercise equipment precisely because everyone in them looks like Mr. or Ms. Perfect Body. Why? Because we can’t relate to them any more than Sir Anthony Hopkins can relate to Keanu Reeves.

They could use Jennifer as a new kind of spokesmodel. She says she’d like their appearance policy to “fit all women, not just the ones that are a smaller shape and size.” In other words, the 99.9% of American women who don’t have Janet Jackson’s amazing abs.

Let her convince people that just because they’re big doesn’t mean they’re out of shape. Sure, they’d have to do more physical activity than a single deep knee bend to check the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to see if there’s any leftover pizza.

As Jim (one of my radio listeners) points out, what if this were a large man? Say, someone the size of Rams linemen Orlando Pace or Jeff Zgonina? These guys tilt the scales at 300 pounds or more, yet they’re fit enough to play in the NFL. There would be a line out the door filled with guys who want to work out with them.

So if Jennifer can bring them in, why not hire her? Let her try it for a month, and make an effort to appeal to People Of Girth (something like “free Krispy Kremes with every membership in Jennifer’s Jumbo Jazzercise!”). Then, if the customer base doesn’t improve, dump her with just cause. On the other hand, if there is an increase in customers who want to partake of Jennifer’s expertise, then make it a regular gig.

And consider the possibility of yet another new revenue stream. I bet those big folks will be hungry after a good workout, and a stop at the Jazzercise Nacho Buffet might be just what they’re looking for.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Skeleton In My Closet

Watching the Winter Olympics, I sat through the skiing, the skating, and the curling, but I couldn’t wait to see this event called “skeleton.”

Skeleton is different than luge, in that each ride starts with the athlete holding the sled and running, then jumping onto the sled as it heads down the hill. The sleds are short and narrow (picture a cafeteria tray with handles), and the athletes are going face-first, with their chins just a couple of inches above the icy track.

Watching this, I had a major flashback, because that’s exactly how we used to go sledding in my neighborhood when I was growing up.

We lived in an apartment complex with a hill in the front and a wooded area out back. In the winter, when we had any kind of decent snowfall – enough to cancel school for the day – all the kids would convene in one place or the other for a full day of sledding.

The hill in front was the short, easy ride, so we’d create all sorts of new ways to make it more exciting. Riding together as a sled train, holding onto the runners or feet of the kid ahead of us. Going down the hill sitting up, or on our knees or, to be really gutsy, standing up like a surfer. We even added a mini-ski-jump by packing some snow against the wooden fence at the bottom of the hill. Get over that, and we could keep going into the street and extend the ride by several dozen more yards.

The tougher course was in the back, where we’d head into the woods to ride our sleds down the hills and between the trees. This was where we combined slalom and skeleton skills, although we didn’t know that’s what they were called.

The first ones down would have the responsibility of picking the path that everyone else would follow. To the left of the oak, past the birch, a quick turn around the maple, etc. The more kids who rode the path, the more tamped down the snow became. Eventually, that meant a nice, slick, packed surface, which meant more speed. Fairly regularly, someone would miss a turn or slide too far one way or the other and -- BAM! -- sled would meet tree bark.

For a kid, a little thing like a head-on collision is no reason to stop having fun. We’d just put some snow on the big lump on our forehead for a few minutes until it was our turn to ride, and then we were off again.

The sleds were resilient, too. They had to be, because there was no such thing as going home to your parents and telling them that you had just banged up your Flexible Flyer and they had to buy you another one. Every kid knew that wasn’t going to happen. In that neighborhood, parents expected a sled to last at least through the winter, and usually through several winters. If yours didn’t make it, you either had to borrow someone else’s, or ride double-decker (the two-man skeleton!).

Since there was no replacement coming, we made do with what we had. I vividly remember a whole corps of kids with sleds that got so battered during one snow-heavy winter that the wooden handles we steered with were practically gone. So we learned to twist and turn our bodies to control the direction. Our faces were leading the way, just inches above the snow track, with that metallic front of the sled frame just behind our chins.

We didn’t have crash helmets and face guards, either. At the end of a run, if the sled stopped before our bodies did (isn’t inertia wonderful?), we’d end up with a face full of snow.

Little did we know that we were performing an Olympic event! Granted, we weren’t achieving speeds of 70-80mph. But they don’t have trees in the middle of the Olympic skeleton track, do they?

Thursday, February 14, 2002

I Hate Valentine's Day

I hate Valentine’s Day.

That may make me sound like an un-romantic slob, but the truth is that Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with romance.

Why have a single day set aside to express love for your spouse/partner/significant other? The answer, of course, is to sell more flowers, candy, and greeting cards – with which you can articulate your love by signing your name under sappy words written by someone else.

My wife and I have been together for a very long time, but I still remember that Valentine’s Day was the worst day of the year to be an unattached single person with no love life. No other secular holiday makes you feel so excluded. Every American can celebrate freedom on July 4th or give thanks on Thanksgiving -- and even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you make up for it with Chanukah or Kwanzaa or whatever.

I asked a single man and woman this morning how they feel about Valentine’s Day. They told me they detest being surrounded by husbands moaning that they “have to get” flowers or candy for their wives, or wives who “have to get” something for their husbands. That notion really drives home the love aspect – feeling obligated to buy a gift OR ELSE!

On top of that, it seems to them that every sitcom has a Valentine’s plot and all the cable channels run “the most romantic movies ever made.” Even the supermarket taunts them with tie-ins to the love angle. Is there anything more sentimental than a single-serve burrito with a big heart on the package?

Then there’s that nonsense about how Valentine’s Day is really a holiday rooted in religion, so some school districts won’t celebrate it at all. Just as they’ve ruined Halloween, some small-minded parent has complained that it’s a First Amendment violation for a public school to teach about saints (or, in the case of Halloween, witches). Pure bull. No one says, “Happy St. Valentine’s Day!” Those holidays are celebrated today in a manner that has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with kids and commerce.

That said, I do agree that Valentine’s Day needs to come out of the schools, especially those that treat it the way they do at the elementary school my daughter attends.

To prepare for it, the kids are instructed to be sure to give Valentine’s cards to everyone in the class, so no one feels left out. The idea is to avoid the kind of ego-crushing moments that were standard issue when I was a kid, as the popular kids got two dozen cards, and the dweeby dorks like me got a total of three -– all from the other dweeby dorks. This all took place right in the classroom, maximizing the embarrassment potential.

They don’t do it that way anymore. Instead, they hand out a list of names of everyone in the class. Then Mom or Dad goes to the store and buys a package of rectangular pre-processed Valentine’s cards. On each one, the child writes the name of one of the other kids in the class, and then their own name, until everyone is covered. Then they take them to school and drop them in the boxes the individual students have prepared and decorated.

By the way, the school can’t legally require the kids to do this, so they always tell the kids “only if you want to.” As if any second grader would want to be the sole kid in class who didn’t hand out Valentine’s cards to everyone else. Even the dweeby dorks would look down on them!

While I admire the school’s efforts to teach inclusion, I detest the whole concept.

First of all, the cards are not personal at all. They’re all commercially prepared, so they’re selling something (never miss an opportunity to make an advertising impression, particularly on the most impressionable!). In the pile my daughter received today, here’s one with Britney Spears and another with 'NSync. Here’s one with the Powerpuff Girls and another with The Crocodile Hunter. Here’s one from “102 Dalmations” and another from “Monsters Inc.” Only a few are handmade, hand-drawn, or show any input from the kid other than filling out the names. On at least one of them, it’s clear that the Mom filled out my daughter’s name – either that, or this kid has the best penmanship in a class that just started to learn how to write in cursive!

Secondly, the lesson being taught is one of insincerity. In any group of 20 kids, they are not all going to get along with all the others. Some will be close friends, some will be casual friends, others will be the kids you just don’t like. I watched my daughter filling out her cards, and that’s the order she did them in, from friend to foe. By about the 13th name, it was like homework to her. Why should they give cards of friendship or love to everyone, when that’s not how they really feel?

Children should be taught tolerance and inclusion, but if Kid A taunts and teases Kid B on the bus every day, it’s hypocrisy to make Kid B give Kid A a “Be My Valentine” card, just because they’re in the same class.

So, what’s the solution? Stop making our schools the Post Office Of Love!

Let the kids go back to giving Valentine’s Day cards to only the friends they want to give them to. But instead of delivering them in the classroom, put them in the mail! That way they’re delivered without an atmosphere of exclusion and hurt feelings – and most of all, without the artificiality that now pervades the day.

Besides, teaching kids to “love everyone” may have repercussions when they’re teenagers. When puberty hits and we have The Big Discussion, we’ll teach them that they should only have sex with someone they love. And they’ll tell us, “But I love everyone, just like they always taught us in school!”

Great! My daughter, the Valentine’s Day nympho.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

Ring Around The Olympics

“Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!”

That’s a verbatim transcript from NBC’s Olympics coverage earlier this week. I don’t know the guy’s name, but he was doing the “analysis” for the snowboarding half-pipe competition. I put “analysis” in quotes because shouting “look at that!” is the sort of insightful commentary that passes for “analysis” at these games. Never mind that the viewer has no choice but to “look at that!” as long as NBC points their cameras at it and we’re watching the television.

I’m twice the age of the average snowboarder, so I don’t know what most of the lingo even means, although I have learned that each and every competitor (both male and female) is nicknamed “dude.”

Thanks to my high school trigonometry teacher, I do know that a “seven twenty” means the guy went around twice, but NBC’s “analyst” should be telling us a lot about what we’re “looking at.” You can’t just throw out words like “goofy stance” and “inverted air” and expect us non-X-Gamers to know what you’re talking about. Treat us like the idiots we are. Most of us are so un-hip about this stuff that, until recently, we thought that, in skating, a “toe loop” was part of the skate’s shoelace.

For the most part, NBC’s done a pretty good job with the Winter Olympics thus far. After the failure of their "triplecast" concept in the last decade, they've decided to just dump some stuff off onto their cable channels without much fanfare. But if you checked your local listings, you could have switched over to MSNBC to catch every heart-stopping moment of the big hockey game between France and Belarus! Of course, no one actually did that. According to the Nielsen ratings, the MSNBC coverage attracted fewer viewers than ABC's Aaron Spelling Celebrity Edition of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." And even Tori didn't watch that.

Bob Costas is physically incapable of doing a bad job, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to take everything so seriously gives some welcome relief from other sportscasters. If you heard the tone in his voice during the Opening Ceremonies while Lantern Boy was being chased around by the Giant Icicles, you know what I mean.

Bob seems to have the same low tolerance for Pageantry that I do, which is to say none. I’ll have to check, but I believe that extended use of imagery involving huge wire puppets is a violation of the Geneva Convention, which is why the Opening Ceremonies were not broadcast to Camp X-Ray.

Although he stumbled badly during those Opening Ceremonies, it’s nice to see 80-year-old Jim McKay again. Unfortunately, he’s been relegated since to those taped “up close and personal” segments, which -– according to international laws of Olympic broadcasting -– must focus on an athlete who has a family member ill, near death, or overcoming adversity on a grand scale, thus giving the athlete the motivation to win. It helps if the athlete has also been seriously injured and is attempting a grand comeback. Then the announcer can report that “she’s really going for it.”

I heard that phrase used during the women’s downhill and wondered whether the announcer knew of another Olympic competitor who had decided not to “go for it.” You never hear them say, “She’s decided to give it a half-hearted effort and frankly doesn’t care if she loses by the widest margin ever. Besides, everyone in her family is healthy!”

There are other things I wish NBC would avoid during their Olympic coverage. For instance, please tell the ski jumping announcer to stop saying that the competitor is “really breaking wind up there.” Unless this is some new kind of jet-propulsion strategy I’m not familiar with.

Next, pull the cameras back a little bit during the luge competition. Let us see the whole course, so we can get the big picture every once in a while. Since they’re traveling at 80-90mph, a close shot gives us less than a second of “whoosh” before they’re out of the frame and into the next one. This leads to more quick-cutting between cameras than in the Saks security room during a Winona Ryder shopping spree.

Wouldn’t you think that the Winter Olympics, which tend to take place outdoors in cold weather, would be the one sporting event where we wouldn’t have to see shirtless idiots in the stands? And yet NBC’s cameras find them every time! Worse, there are usually three of them together with U! S! A! scrawled on their chests. I suppose it could be worse, there could be a dozen fans spelling out “Herzegovinia!!”

Ever been to a sporting event where some pinhead in the crowd has brought one of those air horns and insists on blasting it right next to your ear? The Olympic version of that is the dreaded cowbell. The fans in the stands are constantly clanging cowbells during the skiing and snowboarding events. Some people claim that the crowd uses them because hand clapping with gloves on isn’t loud enough. But my research has uncovered the truth behind the cowbells.

Apparently, since Fleetwood Mac doesn’t tour anymore, Stevie Nicks decided to sell her personal collection of The Only Instrument She Played, and they fell into the hands of luge and moguls fans. Unfortunately, their spouses won’t allow any of that clanging in the house, so they have to take them outside.

And they’re really going for it.

You’ll see more on the VH-1 special, “Behind The Cowbells: The Same Sound You Hear When You Rattle The Head Of A Russian Skating Judge.” Look at that!!

Monday, February 04, 2002

Random Thoughts On Super Bowl 36

Congratulations to the Patriots. I’m sure their fans all across New England are still feeling good about their victory in Super Bowl 36. And I'm sure their players felt good during the post-game celebration as they were buried in confetti made up of shredded Enron documents.

Unfortunately, I live in Missouri and root for the Rams. So I’m a little cranky. Seems like the perfect time to vent about a few things I observed during the game, both on and off the field.

In all the years I’ve been watching football, I can’t remember ever seeing the “prevent defense” actually prevent anything. You saw Sunday night how the Rams prevented the Patriots from marching right down into field goal range, didn’t you? A coach telling his team to play the prevent defense is about as effective as a nutritionist telling a fat guy to load up on fried food.

Here in St. Louis, many people were disappointed that the Rams Victory Parade was canceled. True, the fact that the Rams were not victorious would have put a damper on the celebration. But their argument was that we should still have a rally to show the team that we love them and they shouldn’t feel sad about losing the Super Bowl after such a good season.

Now, I love football and support the team, but is it really necessary for us to cheer up a few dozen millionaire athletes because they came up short on their big night? In the real world, if some sales guy lost an account, or a construction worker was laid off, would he expect Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner to call and console him? It should be enough that we go see their games in person by the tens of thousands, purchase their merchandise, and root them on.

Let’s also keep this in perspective – by losing, the Rams did not instantly become the worst team in the NFL. They were second best out of thirty one! In the Olympics, competitors are rewarded for that, but we don’t host therapy sessions for the silver medalists, do we?

Memo to the NFL officials: when a field goal goes through the uprights, the clock stops. When Vinatieri hit that 48-yard game winner and the refs put their arms up, the game clock should have stopped with two seconds to go. I’m not saying the Rams would have scored a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff, but let’s remember that the Titans advanced to the Super Bowl two years ago in exactly that circumstance, with the Throwback Downtown Touchdown, or whatever it was called. And in 1972, in the Gold Medal basketball game in the 1972 Summer Olympics, the USSR got two seconds put back on the clock and managed to score a basket to win the game as time expired. Again, I’m not saying the Rams were ripped off, but the rules are the rules. Get the photographers off the field and kick the ball.

Aside from the game, a lot of people watch the Super Bowl to see the multi-million dollar commercials. This year’s crop was just so-so, with the exception of the Budweiser/Bud Light commercials and the one with Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

There were a couple of commercials that linked drug use to terrorism. Last fall, there was a campaign encouraging you to eat out at a restaurant, or the terrorists would win. Now the message is: if you use drugs, you’re supporting the terrorists. This is pure preaching-to-the-choir advertising. It certainly wasn’t aimed at your average crackhead. These spots will not change the mind of an addict. “If only I’d known Al-Qaeda was profiting from my habit, I’d have tossed my needles, unwrapped my arm, and gotten off smack a lot sooner!” That's about as likely as getting Mike Tyson to stop identifying himself through dental records left in his opponents’ flesh.

Even less effective were the ads for M-Life. At first, no one had any idea what it was. Now that we know that it’s not an insurance product but some new deal from AT&T Wireless, does anyone care? Yawn!

The question every year is how effective the advertisers were in getting you to recall their products and brands. This year's crop failed.

Other impressions from the Super Bowl telecast...

I like Paul McCartney. I like Terry Bradshaw. They’re both talented, they’ve both done some amazing things, and they’ve both done some lame stuff, too. So I like them both, just as I like milkshakes and ketchup -– but not together. That’s why I’m still cringing after seeing them singing “Hard Day’s Night” together on the Fox halftime show. Especially with, as Cris Collinsworth noticed, Bradshaw singing the wrong lyrics. Terry, where in your life did you hear the expression “...and I was working like a log”? Must’ve been during one of those $1 twenty-minute phone calls.

While we’re on the subject of McCartney, let’s admit that his song, “Freedom,” is not the most sophisticated tune he’s ever produced. Nice message, but musically and lyrically impaired. I put it up there with Paul’s worst-ever song, “Let ‘Em In,” which contained these brilliant lyrics: “Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell, do me a favor, open the door, and let ‘em in.” If you’re not familiar with it, you’ll find it on his solo album, “I Think The Pizza Guy Is Here, Do You Have The Money?”

Time now for a HarrisOnline.com insta-poll: “Should Fox knock it off with those incessant instant polls?” Every time they posted the results onscreen (almost a full minute after asking the question!), I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of losers were sitting in front of both their TV and their computer at the same time. And would they really stop downloading porn long enough to vote on a silly poll?

Come to think of it, the porn part of that goal was accomplished at halftime when TVs everywhere flipped to the Playmate edition of “Fear Factor.” If you missed it (you didn’t really sit through that whole U-2 performance, did you?), let me recap: the Playmates were locked in a room with Strom Thurmond, and the first to stimulate him without the aid of Viagra was the winner. Unfortunately, halftime only lasted 23 minutes, so the show had to be continued after the game. At last check, they still haven’t been able to wake the Senator up. If NBC really wanted to see fear in the eyes of the Playmates, they would have asked them to do some math. Maybe a word problem like, “When your breasts were enlarged from 34C to 38DD, what percentage increase in saline volume did that represent?” The women would have gone screaming out of the room faster than Fox executives meeting with Pat Summerall’s agent.

Finally, these words from a caller to my show on Monday: “Since we’ve always heard that the only way the Rams can lose is if they beat themselves, I’d like to congratulate the Rams on beating the Rams in the Super Bowl.”

I'm sure that makes the Rams players feel a whole lot better, and that's what counts, isn't it?