Monday, October 27, 2003

Pyro Mania

What is it about a building on fire that's so fascinating? A warehouse in Granite City, Illinois, was on fire most of the day and the TV crews were all over it. Fire and smoke make good visuals, especially from "EyeInTheSkyViewChopper" or whatever they call it. In most shots, you could see people gathered around who had nothing to do with the warehouse -- they just wanted to watch as the flames went up and the building went down.

When I was a kid, they built a luxury apartment building up the hill from where we lived. Not long after it opened and tenants moved in, the thing was on fire. That was the day I learned the meaning of the word "engulfed." Within minutes, every kid in the neighborhood was on that hillside watching as firemen (there were no women on the job then) battled the blaze. We sat there for a couple of hours watching the inferno, as it consumed apartment after apartment, floor after floor. Windows popped out, blinds melted before our eyes, and smoke stretched to the sky in every direction. I swear the bricks seemed to glow with the heat. Every once in awhile, someone would say, "wow, I'm glad I don't live there" or "those poor people." But for the most part our reaction was, "This is so cool -- a big fire, right here in our neighborhood." We couldn't take our eyes off it.

Maybe it's instinctive in the human spirit; Prometheus lives inside us, or something like that. Why is a room full of lit candles so much more romantic, a jack-o-lantern so phony with a light bulb, a gas street lamp somehow more heartwarming? If Jeff Probst were here, he'd remind us that fire is life.

Next time you're at someone's house with the fireplace going, see how everyone seems drawn to it. They're mesmerized by the flames, unable to so much as blink, like Ashton Kutcher on that first great date with Demi Moore. You see it at a campfire or bonfire on a beach. People gather around as if they're paying homage to the fire deity. Maybe those Texas A&M fans weren't really cheering for their football team, but for another huge log glowing orange.

In 1980, I lost an apartment to a fire (I realize as I type this that it's going to look like I'm some sort of arson carrier, but this one was an electrical short that started two floors away while I wasn't even there). Being a 22-year-old single guy, I didn't have a lot of stuff, but what I did have was gone. Naturally, I didn't have tenant insurance -- the premiums would have cost more than my stuff -- so I lost everything. At that point, "everything" meant my clothes, a stereo, a bed, a table, and about a dozen milk crates which doubled as a place for my records and my laundry.

Still, at midnight, there I was, standing in the street watching firemen spraying water on the flames shooting out of where my bedroom used to be. I stayed until they left, and then I cried.

Mostly, it was because I didn't have a place to live and had to start over again. But a little part of me probably was sorry that the fire had been extinguished, and the show was over.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Vegas Animals

Just got back from a great weekend in Las Vegas, happy to say that I returned with more money than I brought. Nonetheless, I have to share two stories about events that bothered me.

While there, I went to The Mirage for a poker tournament, and wandered over to the area where they display Siegfried & Roy's white tigers in their "habitat." I'd never seen it before, and wasn't aware that they had done such a good job recreating a tiger's natural habitat -- all concrete with Greek columns and a giant fountain.

One of the beasts was wandering around inside while several hundred people gawked at it through the display window, pointing, taking pictures, etc. The first thing that struck me was how big a white tiger is. I've seen tigers at the zoo and in a circus or two, but those are safe and secure situations, so I never thought too much about their sheer bulk. Looking at this one, it was easy to imagine how much damage it could do once its feline brain was set to "maul" mode, even if the victim was your friendly neighborhood magician superstar.

Most surprising was that The Mirage had no signs or other tribute to Roy in this area. It may have been elsewhere, but if so, I (and most others) missed it. Instead, it seemed to be business as usual, as if the attack had never happened -- gift shops were selling a large inventory of stuffed white tigers, videos of the duo, and t-shirts. There wasn't a "Get Well, Roy" placard in sight. This was in marked contrast to the headlines in the Las Vegas newspapers, which were reporting on the 267 people who have lost their jobs because the Seigfried & Roy show has ceased to exist.

I was bothered by something else at The Mirage -- the attitude of the locals towards us out-of-towners during the poker tournament. This was the first time I've played in the Mirage no-limit hold'em tournament, and it's going to be the last.

I have been in lots of cardrooms over the course of many years and played in several tournaments. I know that the seats around a poker table are filled with all sorts of folks, but these were among the most arrogant, abusive people I've ever been around. It's one thing to look down your nose at other players while beating them and taking their money, but it's another to be openly disdainful and downright rude.

That attitude is going to be unhealthy for poker in the long term, and it's especially inappropriate at a time when the game is more popular than ever. Thanks to television, more and more people are coming to card rooms for the first time -- but if their first exposure to casino poker play includes being abused and insulted, they're unlikely to return. It's one thing to lose your money, it's another thing to be told you're a jerk at the same time.

The poker veterans with the lousy attitude forget that bringing new people and new money into the room is a good thing, and it should be encouraged. Personally, I love it when a "Travel Channel rookie" (as they're known, because that network's "World Poker Tour" series has increased interest in the game enormously) sits down and starts playing. They may get lucky here and there, but in the long run, the other, better players will wind up with that player's money -- it's the poker equivalent of a casino's house advantage. Scaring them off means chasing money out of the room, which is a pretty bad way to conduct business for these poker pros.

They could take a lesson from the Siegfried & Roy incident -- a bad mauling can end the show for everyone.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Greta Van Susteren

Today on my show, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News Channel talked about the Kobe Bryant case, why cameras should be allowed in courts (including the Supreme Court), her relationship with Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, and stories from her book, "My Turn At The Bully Pulpit."

Listen.

Friday, October 03, 2003

See Death Live!

There are two cheap life-and-death publicity stunts planned for this weekend, and they're both causing a ruckus. I know that by mentioning the parties involved, I'm just giving them more free publicity, but there's a point to be made.

One involves a Florida band, Hell On Earth, which claims a terminally ill man will commit suicide during their show on Saturday night, to bring attention to the right-to-die movement. The authorities are freaking out over this possibility, and got a judge to order a temporary injunction banning the group from doing their show within St. Petersburg city limits. The owner of the theater where they were originally booked has said they can't perform there, as has another venue they tried to book. The band says they have a new location and a select audience picked out, and the show will go on. The leader of the band says it won't be physician-assisted suicide, since there won't be a physician present. The patient will do it himself, because he wants to make sure the band doesn't go to prison.

I support physician-assisted suicide, and detest what happened to Jack Kevorkian, because we all have a right to die with dignity. Too many people endure horrendous pain in the last days, weeks, months of their lives, and none of us has the right to tell them when they may throw in the towel on that suffering.

That said, this stunt is a horrible idea. Real live death is not entertainment, and should never be cloaked as such. Spokespeople for the right-to-die movement agree, and while they agree with the band's position on the larger issue, they have rightly condemned this event.

The other stunt involves British magician Derren Brown, who plans to play Russian Roulette live on TV. With a gun pointed at his own head, he'll pull the trigger on a .348 Smith & Wesson until he "psychologically senses" that the next chamber is the one with the bullet in it. Then he'll point it harmlessly away from his body and fire the bullet.

Again, the authorities are freaking out, demanding that, if they can't stop the show, that it at least be run on a delay so no viewers will see him blow his head off on live television. Here's the part they're missing: IT'S A TRICK!

Brown is an illusionist. I've never heard of him, and have no idea what his reputation inside the magic industry is, but he has certainly come up with a much more clever way to get attention than by suspending himself over a river in a Plexiglas box.

But, again, this is a trick. You remember magic tricks, don't you? The cups and balls, the lady sawed in half, the self-restoring rope. They're about misdirection, science, and deception. David Copperfield didn't really walk through the Great Wall of China. Lance Burton doesn't really make fighter jets disappear. Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction. It's all a trick!

I've seen Penn & Teller perform the double bullet catch to close their stage show several times, and I've never failed to be stunned. With help from audience volunteers, and with neither Penn nor Teller ever leaving his side of the stage, they fire .357 Magnums through panes of glass and at each other's mouths, where they "catch" them. It's the most stunning illusion I've ever seen in person, and they perform it brilliantly. I have absolutely no idea how they do it (and I don't want to!), but I do know it's a trick.

So what's the difference between what Derren Brown or Penn & Teller do and what Hell On Earth says it will do? It's the difference between artifice and reality. In the former, they're playing with your imagination. In the latter, they're putting on the stage version of a snuff film.

I can see the mortifying pun in the headline now: "In Concert, This Band Kills!"

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Hayseed Dixie

Hayseed Dixie, the boys from Deer Lick Holler who turn rock classics into bluegrass classics, were back in the studio today to chat and perform AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" and Kiss's "Detroit Rock City." Listen.

In a previous appearance [5/1/03], they performed Kiss's "Rock & Roll All Night" and AC/DC's "Highway To Hell." They also revealed their alter egos, Kerosene Brothers (the album cover Wal-Mart wouldn't carry). Listen.

Hayseed Dixie got started with "A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC." Their second CD is "A Hillbilly Tribute to Mountain Love," and their third is "Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute To Kiss."

Arnold Sexharasser

It was disturbing to read today's LA Times story about the several women who say that Arnold Schwarzenegger groped and harassed them. Not because I put him on a pedestal -- believe me, that's far from the case -- and not because the story gets graphic (it doesn't), but because Arnold didn't think he was doing anything wrong at the time.

Worse, these women couldn't make a fuss about it because the culture of rich and famous movie stars means that their actions get laughed off, while the victims have to keep quiet or suffer the consequences. If the guy trying to fondle them had been an assistant cameraman or a caterer, it would have been different -- but Arnold was a Major Marquee Attraction. So none of them filed a police report, none of them filed a lawsuit, none of them went running to the press.

That makes their claims even more believable to me. For while you could brush off a single accusation as sour grapes or any number of reasons, when there are a half-dozen women who point to ugly incidents over the course of quarter-century (the most recent in 2000), you're looking at a blatant pattern of misbehavior.

Today, Arnold acknowledged the story, no doubt wishing he could use some special effect to travel back in time to tell himself -- repeatedly -- not to act like a jerk. In confessing, he tried to simultaneously spin the story and apologize for it: "Yes, I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful, but now I recognize that I have offended people. And those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize, because this is not what I'm trying to do."

Yes, he's deeply sorry -- sorry that this story came out now, when he was on the cusp of winning the gubernatorial recall election next Tuesday. But he wasn't sorry enough two years ago, when these allegations first appeared in an issue of Premiere magazine. There was no public apology or acknowledgment then. Of course, at the time, he wasn't a candidate, just a movie star. And there's your double standard right there. In 2001, he didn't have to cry mea culpa, but now he does.

A woman said to me today, "How could his wife put up with this? After all, she's from a rather refined background." Wrong! Maria Shriver is from the Kennedy family, for whom power, sex, money, and women have always been an aphrodisiac. No wonder Arnold fit in so well.

It's one thing for a young, single man to engage in a large amount of sexual activity or even a gangbang, as Arnold claimed he did in the infamous 1977 Oui interview. Some have attacked him for those admissions, claiming they proved his negative attitudes toward women. To the contrary, if it was consensual, he did nothing more than a lot of other guys have done -- even if it was in larger numbers -- with women who were willing participants.

However, these accusations are not about consensual activity. They're about groping, taunting, and using his powerful position to make women uncomfortable, all for his personal enjoyment.

The LA Times says no politician provided them with any of this information, nor did any of the women seek the paper out to tell their tale. Naturally, Arnold's supporters don't buy that for a second. They immediately insisted that the release of these claims at this time was nothing more than "dirty politics."

Wouldn't it have been refreshing if they spent even one minute expressing some sympathy for the women who were the alleged victims? I didn't hear a single Arnold-ite stand up and say, "If these allegations are true, Schwarzenegger has a history of demeaning and sexually harassing women. Those are not the attributes we want in a leader, or in a movie star!"

Think of how you would react if some man groped your wife, or daughter, or sister, but she had to keep her mouth shut or say "hasta la vista" to her own career. You'd want that guy terminated.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Halftime For Hitler

"Now, please stand for the presentation of the Nazi flag." The PA announcer at the Paris (Texas) High School game didn't make that announcement, but he might as well have.

At halftime of last Friday's high school football game, the marching band took the field for their show, "Visions of World War II." Never mind that most of these kids are barely old enough to have visions of the first Gulf War, or that the triumph of the Allies over the Axis had very little to do with marching in formation while playing the glockenspiel. The band played music from several of the nations that fought in WWII, and one of the kids ran around with the corresponding national flag during each song: the US flag, the French flag, the British flag, the Japanese flag, and the Nazi flag.

The Nazi flag? The swastika? Yep! To make matters worse, this particular Friday night fun took place on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year!

I don't want to say they were booed, but I think you'd find a more receptive crowd if the Dixie Chicks showed up at a benefit for the American Legion and sang a medley of Barbra Streisand songs.

Charles Grissom, the newest member of our People Who Just Don't Get It club, is the adult (?) director of the marching band who came up with the concept. He defended the idea of his show, but apologized to the community and admitted, "We had an error in judgement." Ya think?

What's planned for the next halftime show, Chuck? How about "Visions of 2001," complete with a picture of the World Trade Center going down and a kid running around with Osama bin Laden's picture on a flag? Maybe from here on out, the kids should stick to "76 Trombones," "Louie Louie," and "Rock and Roll Part 2."

Don McLean's lyric keeps running through my head: "The players tried to take the field, but the marching band refused to yield." No wonder. They were plotting their takeover of Poland.

Halftime For Hitler

"Now, please stand for the presentation of the Nazi flag." The PA announcer at the Paris (Texas) High School game didn't make that announcement, but he might as well have.

At halftime of last Friday's high school football game, the marching band took the field for their show, "Visions of World War II." Never mind that most of these kids are barely old enough to have visions of the first Gulf War, or that the triumph of the Allies over the Axis had very little to do with marching in formation while playing the glockenspiel. The band played music from several of the nations that fought in WWII, and one of the kids ran around with the corresponding national flag during each song: the US flag, the French flag, the British flag, the Japanese flag, and the Nazi flag.

The Nazi flag? The swastika? Yep! To make matters worse, this particular Friday night fun took place on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year!

I don't want to say they were booed, but I think you'd find a more receptive crowd if the Dixie Chicks showed up at a benefit for the American Legion and sang a medley of Barbra Streisand songs.

Charles Grissom, the newest member of our People Who Just Don't Get It club, is the adult (?) director of the marching band who came up with the concept. He defended the idea of his show, but apologized to the community and admitted, "We had an error in judgement." Ya think?

What's planned for the next halftime show, Chuck? How about "Visions of 2001," complete with a picture of the World Trade Center going down and a kid running around with Osama bin Laden's picture on a flag? Maybe from here on out, the kids should stick to "76 Trombones," "Louie Louie," and "Rock and Roll Part 2."

Don McLean's lyric keeps running through my head: "The players tried to take the field, but the marching band refused to yield." No wonder. They were plotting their takeover of Poland.