Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Reciting The Pledge

It’s extremely rare that you’ll see me praise a politician, but then again maybe Jesse Ventura still doesn’t qualify as a politician, even though he’s been a Governor for awhile. Either way, here’s to Jesse for taking a bold stand last week in vetoing a bill sent to him by the Minnesota legislature.

Jesse vetoed The Pledge of Allegiance. No, he didn’t ban it, but he did veto a bill that would have made it mandatory for schools to require students to recite The Pledge every week.

Never one to mince words, Jesse explained, “I believe patriotism comes from the heart. Patriotism is voluntary. It is a feeling of loyalty and allegiance that is the result of knowledge and belief. A patriot shows their patriotism through their actions, by their choice. All of us should have free choice when it comes to patriotic displays.”

What he didn’t point out is that this sort of bill is nothing more than the worst kind of political grandstanding. All it does is allow politicians to do their lowest pandering in an attempt to paint any opponent who dares vote against it as unpatriotic and anti-American.

My daughter has to say The Pledge every morning, along with all the kids in her school. Does it hurt them? No. It wouldn’t hurt them to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” either, nor would it serve a practical purpose, so why do it?

You don’t make kids more patriotic by having them say The Pledge every day or even every week. When you do that, it becomes a rote recitation that loses its meaning. If you had to do it when you were in school, think back to what was going through your mind at the time. Once the novelty wears off, kids mumble their way through it, as bored as can be, resenting having to do it.

If The Pledge is so important, why would you want to engender those feelings towards it? On the other hand, if you reserve The Pledge for occasional and truly special circumstances, its message rings with unmistakable clarity.

Nowhere else in the educational process do we force children to stand up and repeat the same lessons they’ve learned over and over, year in and year out, from elementary school to middle school to high school. We don’t do that with the times tables, or verb conjugation, or penmanship practice. Yet somehow, students manage to learn, memorize, and retain those important concepts and many others, too.

If the idea is to try to imbue our children with reasons to be patriotic, that’s fine. But you don’t do that by making them habitually drone The Pledge.

Teach them what the words in The Pledge mean, what they stand for, what we as a people stand for. Teach them the reasons why this American experiment in democracy is the greatest system on the planet. Teach them the vitality of the concepts in the Constitution. Teach them to value the importance of the liberties laid out in the Bill of Rights. Above all, teach them how, as a nation, we’re still striving to live up to that last line, “with liberty and justice for all.”

Ask yourself this: do you love America any less because you didn’t say The Pledge Of Allegiance this morning?

My Vacation Soap Opera

You haven't seen a column from me for a few weeks because I've been off on my summer vacation. Or, as it’s come to be known, My Annual Search For Regular Hotel Soap.

Whoever was in charge of the hotels and motels account for Procter & Gamble must have retired a few years ago, because you can no longer find good old Ivory soap anyplace you stay overnight.

What you end up with are varying degrees of fancy soap. You know they're fancy because they're no longer rectangular, and they're not wrapped in paper. Instead, they're wrapped in some vacuum-sealed post-space-age clear plastic film that is tighter than the lips of a Secret Service agent watching Dick Cheney down a Wendy’s double with cheese.

Since you need that soap, you dig at it with your fingernails, leaving some nice pockmarks whose design resembles Tranquility Base. Once you have it open, you immediately sense an un-soap like aroma. Why, that would be the essence of vanilla that’s been added, which means you’ll now smell like a candle for the rest of your trip.

There are alternatives, and you’ll find them in the little collection of bottles that housekeeping has left for you on the sink counter or in the shower.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who wants to cover up that vanilla scent with something more reminiscent of a tangerine. Well, the Citrus Body Wash is for you. Then rub on a little Almond Moisturizing Lotion because, of course, the almond is the most moist of all nuts. Top yourself off with the Juniper Conditioning Shampoo and you’ve completed a veritable fragrance smorgasbord.

Perhaps you prefer your soap a little rougher. That’s when you use the soap with the brown chunks in it -- excuse me, I mean the Oatmeal Cleansing Bar, which sounds like an all-you-can-eat restaurant that serves only laxatives. Personally, I don’t want oatmeal in my soap anymore than I want soap in my oatmeal. If you have to take a breakfast product and use it in the bathroom, I’d suggest a medicine cabinet Pop-Tart dispenser.

Not all of your hotel hygiene options are that exotic. Sometimes you get something with a generic name like Bath And Shower Gel. Which is good, because who has room to pack both their Bath Gel and their Shower Gel? Thankfully, someone has merged the two technologies, and we’re all cleaner for their efforts.

The same people must make the contents of the other bottle, the one labeled Shampoo Hair And Body. This is a marvelous product for me -- even though I don’t have that much hair left on my head, I can use this stuff to keep my arm and leg hair looking lustrous and shiny. Next time you see me in short sleeves, please comment on my glow.

Shampoo bottles often lists the ingredients, including all the Latin chemical names. There must be some consumer somewhere in the world who needs that information: "My doctor tells me I’m not getting enough sodium laureth sulfate on my scalp." Ingredient number one in all shampoo is water, but one hotel shampoo I used on this trip wanted to seem more exotic than the others. They don’t want you to think they would stoop so low as to manufacture a product that is the most readily available natural resource in the world. So they list the first ingredient as "agua." I’m sure it came from an exotic Iberian spring named "El Faucet."

Once you emerge from the shower, it’s time to get dry, so you reach for your soft, fluffy, ultra-absorbent hotel towel. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. No matter how much you paid for that room, you’re still going to end up dragging some thin white rag with the texture of fine sandpaper across your body. Hotels certainly do this because people stole all of their good towels, although that’s always been a mystery to me, because people still steal the crappy towels. Are you telling me that you can afford to rent a room for the night, but you can’t afford to buy a towel for your own house?

The thing that gets me the most is that hotels are notorious for putting the towel rack right in the shower. This makes no sense. Do you store your dry towels in a nice damp spot at home? If so, you must store your Charmin in the toilet tank.

Maybe they should wrap them in that protective soap plastic. Nah, they’d be stolen even more, because that would make them "fancy."

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Dick Clark's TV Junk

As I was looking around for something to watch on TV the other night, I came upon a rerun of “The $10,000 Pyramid” on the Game Show Network. It had just begun, and since I had always enjoyed the show, I watched it to the end. In doing so, two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I couldn’t believe I was actually rooting for the contestant playing with “celebrity partner” Teresa Ganzel, whose only other minor claims to fame –- as far as I can tell -– were being on the TV series “The Duck Factory” with Jack Gilford and Jim Carrey, and replacing Carol Wayne as the busty female sidekick whenever Johnny Carson did his Art Fern bit.

Secondly, I realized that “Pyramid” was the only thing I ever liked Dick Clark for.

I know, it’s considered un-American to dislike Dick Clark, but the guy just bugs me. No, it’s not the “Oldest Teenager” routine. It’s the fact that he’s so blatantly phony.

His best-known ongoing product is “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve,” which for a couple of decades has been the highest rated conduit to the ball drop in Times Square. I give him credit for still being there every year, sure, but the show is terrible. Maybe it just seems under-ambitious to me, or maybe it’s just that I like broadcasts with a little more edge, a little more risk-taking. I’m not suggesting that Johnny Knoxville ride the ball down the pole, but the simple fact that everything on that show is pre-recorded other than Dick’s segments is indicative of his play-it-safe modus operandi. Worse, he pretends that the other segments weren’t actually taped in Hollywood days or weeks ahead of time -- the Hollywood crew of People Desperate To Be On Television is faking it, badly -- as if everyone were simultaneously ringing in the New Year (let’s not even get into the Time Zone difference).

That’s the phoniness I’m talking about, and it extends to all of his projects.

Take Dick’s other Most Celebrated Show, “American Bandstand.” ABC just aired his 50th Anniversary extravaganza, which did nothing but prove that “Bandstand” was always about as hip as Donny Osmond (an argument reinforced by the fact that Barry Manilow sang the theme song).

Worse, all the performers on “Bandstand” lip-synced their songs! Sometimes you could see that the guitars weren’t plugged in – this was before wireless instruments were invented – and the drummers looked like they had been told “don’t let your drumstick actually touch the drum head.” I would burst out laughing whenever a song faded out, because it wasn’t live, it was the record!

Perhaps the reason that “Pyramid” still looked good to me is that it came from Bob Stewart Productions, not dick clark productions (that’s not a typo – he pretentiously insists that the company name be in all small letters, as if he’s the e.e. cummings of television).

The most vital job at “dcp” must be that of the videotape editor, because that’s the person who has to take all of Dick’s pieces and put them together into a coherent show. Take a look at the “Bloopers” series he produced. Remember how a bloopers clip montage would end, and Dick and Ed McMahon would be sitting on their stools pointing and laughing as if they were watching along with the audience? They weren’t! All Dick and Ed had to do was record their parts, get them right in a couple of takes, and then the editor would splice it all together in post-production. Since the speaking parts rarely took more than ten minutes, that meant that Dick could pre-tape his parts for five or six shows in a single hour. Forget that it looked bogus to the home viewers!

Shows that have the “dcp” stamp on them aren’t just phony, they also have the appearance of shameless ripoffs. Speaking of Ed McMahon, his show “Star Search” was cloned by Dick to become “Your Big Break.” Long after The Grammys were established, Dick started The American Music Awards, which are nothing more than a popularity contest -- like The People’s Choice Awards, the results are based on polling, rather than merit.

After “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” became a phenomenon a couple of years ago, it was Clark who rushed his ripoff onto the air. Remember the first time you saw “Greed”? Chuck Woolery wasn't the problem, but the set, the lighting, and the pounding music were flagrantly counterfeited from the instant classic original that Regis was hosting.

Earlier this year, Dick did it again, allegedly taking the concept of ABC’s “The Chair” and pumping it full of hot air to create “The Chamber.” There’s debate about who copied whom, but the truth is that, although neither one deserved to be on the air, the Dick Clark version was much lamer and more excessive.

Clark is also the one who elevated The Golden Globes to the exalted status they now unduly receive -- winning one is about as important as winning the MTV Rock ‘n’ Jock softball game, and yet the hype is unbelievable.

Ever hear of another show Dick’s involved in, entitled “The Other Half”? Here’s how the show is promoted on its website: “The Other Half is unique among daytime TV talk shows for women. This new, one-hour show features an engaging and revealing look at a variety of topics important to women including relationships, finance, health and fitness, sex and parenting.”

Unique, huh? A unique copy, maybe, since it’s the exact same concept Barbara Walters developed for “The View,” but with four guys! Dick is one of the foursome, along with Danny Bonaduce -- the man who never met a camera he didn’t mug for -- and two other guys you’ve never heard of (it doesn’t matter, because they’re horrible). In St. Louis, “The Other Half” truly is unique among daytime TV shows, in that it runs in the middle of the night.

Speaking of Bonaduce, he brings us to Dick’s latest foray into revolutionary primetime brilliance: “Celebrity Boxing.” You may recall the debut special, in which Bonaduce pounded Barry “Greg Brady” Williams, Tonya Harding smacked Paula Jones all over the ring, and Todd Bridges knocked the word out of Vanilla Ice. That Parade Of Has-Beens was a big enough hit that Fox asked Dick to dig deeper into the barrel of tabloid vermin for another round, which airs this Wednesday night. This time, the quality will really show when Joey Buttafuoco fights Joanie Laurer, who used to wrestle as Chyna and stepped into this muck pile when original combatant John Wayne Bobbitt had to be replaced because he faces new abuse charges after using his wife as a punching bag. Clark and the sleaze-mongerers at Fox didn’t seem to mind that Bobbitt was convicted twice before on abuse charges.

Also on the bill, extra-tall Manute Bol fights extra-wide William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the guy who played TV’s Screech fights the guy who played TV’s Horshack, and -– wait for it -– Olga Korbut (yes, the 1972 Soviet Olympic Pixie has crawled out from under some rock to embarrass herself on television) takes on Darva Conger.

You remember Darva, the blond from “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire.” She’s the one who desperately wanted fame and fortune, right up until the moment that fame and fortune meant spending more than three seconds with Rick Rockwell. Then she claimed she never did it for publicity and just wanted to be left alone. The way she proved her Garbo-esque desire was by making repeated appearances on “Larry King Live” and then doing a nude layout and publicity tour for Playboy. Apparently that wasn’t enough privacy for Darva, so she’s going to be on “Celebrity Boxing.”

The irony is that if Dick Clark were to begin a new version of “The Pyramid” today, all of his celebrity boxers would be answers in the category “People You Wouldn’t Want As Your Partner If You Were Playing The Pyramid.”

Somewhere, Andy Warhol’s watch has stopped. And we have Dick Clark to thank for it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Ken Lay School of Economics

The University of Missouri finds itself stuck in an embarrassing ethical quagmire, thanks to that paragon of economic ethics, Kenneth Lay.

You remember Lay, the man who drove the Enron engine down the road to financial ruin -– ruin, that is, for everyone at the low end of the pyramid. Kenny Boy and his executive colleagues engineered for themselves a nice soft landing -- right onto the heap of investors, shareholders, and employees who unknowingly were part of that giant sham operation. Not to mention the inflated energy prices the utility customers of California suffered thanks to Enron’s business practices. You have to go back to Guccione's "Caligula" to find so many people getting screwed by one Lay.

Now, Ken Lay has donated $1.2 million to Mizzou to endow a Chair in International Economics that will bear his name.

The school must realize that this money came from those dubious -- and possibly criminal -- economic parlor tricks. Therefore, in the name of ethics, the University Of Missouri must give this tainted money back and refuse to name a prestigious spot on its faculty after Lay.

Lay's contribution makes him a “very distinguished benefactor” at Mizzou (remember when "distinguished" meant more than "the check cleared"?). That's why there's a giant portrait of Kenny Boy in the Mizzou student counseling center. What’s that for, to inspire students to lower their personal scruples?

The school is conducting a search for a professor who would fill the Lay Chair. Several dozen people have applied for the job, apparently having no compunction about co-mingling their name with Lay’s.

There are economics professors at Mizzou who see nothing wrong with accepting this financial windfall and naming the chair after Sir Enron. Some have called him a creative and innovative business leader, which makes you wonder exactly what’s being taught in their economics classes. Then again, this is the University where Kenny not only got his undergraduate degree, but his master’s, too -- they must be doing something right!

I’ve checked the curriculum that would be discussed in the classroom of the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of International Economics. The syllabus highlights include:
• How To Get Around Conflict Of Interest Rules
• Screwing Employees Out Of Their Retirement Money
• How To Hide Debts In Off Shore Accounts
• Inflating Profits, Propping Up The Stock Price, Cashing Out
• Your Most Vital Accounting Procedure: Shredding

Once the University gives the money back to Lay, he can use the cash to dab away the tears his wife, Linda, must still be spouting. Remember her proclamation on “The Today Show” that they were so broke they might have to sell some of their ten homes? It got so bad for the Lays that, on one trip to their resort home in Aspen, Linda was forced to actually talk to someone whose personal worth didn’t have two commas in it. Oh, the agony!

The supporters of the Lay endowment argue that he hasn’t been convicted of anything, as if that makes him Mr. Morality. OJ Simpson wasn’t convicted, either. Would they accept an endowment for an OJ Simpson Chair In Criminal Justice? OJ could personally conduct the search for the Real Professor.

The fact is that Lay’s business actions were highly questionable at best, but -- yet again -- money talks and morality walks. Principles and integrity go out the window when a huge check comes in.

So, what’s next at the University of Missouri?

• The Leona Helmsley Chair in Hotel Management.
• The Jeffrey Dahmer Foundation Chair in Nutritional Studies.
• The Father Geoghan Chair in Pediatric Studies.
• The Mike Tyson Chair in Sports Psychology (okay, Abnormal Psychology).

Since when did higher education come with such low standards?