Thursday, December 20, 2012

Doctor, Conspirator?

His name really was Mudd.

Today is the 179th birthday of the most vilified doctor this side of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil.

Samuel Mudd was born on December 20, 1833. Before his 32nd birthday, he was a convicted felon.

With the rebirth of Abraham Lincoln in our social consciousness (they even made a movie where Abe isn't a vampire hunter), now is a good time to remember Dr. Mudd, who was convicted along with several others for conspiring to kill the president in 1865.

Justice moved a lot quicker in those days, for good and for bad. The president was assassinated on April 14, 1865 (he died in the wee hours of the 15th). Less than a month later, Mudd and his co-defendants were on trial. By the end of June, Mudd was convicted along with the others.

It was Mudd's prior acquaintance with assassin John Wilkes Booth that planted the seeds of conspiracy.

Mudd first met Booth, history says, in November 1864 in a church in Bryantown, MD. Booth used a guise of a real estate hunt as an excuse to visit the town, but his real intent was to scout out an escape route in his plot to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the release of Confederate prisoners of war. During this first Bryantown visit, Booth allegedly met Dr. Mudd and even stayed overnight at the doctor's farm.

Historians pretty much agree that it's unlikely that the doctor would have knowingly participated in Booth's kidnap plot, though a second Booth-Mudd meeting occurred in December, which included drinks at a tavern and at Mudd's farm. The nature of the meeting is unknown.

Mudd's farm was only five miles from Bryantown.

Co-conspirator defendant George Atzerodt claimed that Mudd knew of Booth's plot ahead of time, which turned into one of the murder variety.

You know the rest. Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater, and sought medical assistance at Dr. Mudd's farm later that night. The doctor treated Booth's broken leg (suffered while leaping from the balcony onto the stage after the shooting) and let Booth spend the night. It's unclear---and this is a biggie---whether Dr. Mudd knew, at that time, that Booth had murdered Lincoln.

The doctor didn't help his own cause. Mudd failed to contact authorities until several days after Booth left his farm, fueling speculation that Mudd was part of some sort of plot.

Mudd was also less than forthcoming about whether he had met Booth previously, once authorities were able to question the doctor. Mudd at first denied ever having met Booth, then retracted and confessed to the first meeting in Bryantown in November 1864. It wasn't until he was in prison that Mudd confessed to the December 1864 meeting. Both denials were, obviously, big mistakes.

Mudd served less than four years in prison. It always helps to have friends in high places; Mudd's defense attorney, Thomas Ewing Jr., was influential in then-President Andrew Johnson's administration. This connection was a big factor in Johnson's pardon of Mudd in February 1869. Mudd returned home in late March.

Dr. Samuel Mudd, as he appeared while in prison

Thanks to the pardon, Mudd resumed practicing medicine and in 1877 he even ran for the Maryland House of Delegates as a Democrat. He lost.

Mudd died of pneumonia on January 10, 1883. There is irony in his burial, which was in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bryantown.

That's the church where Dr. Mudd first met John Wilkes Booth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Let's Get Serious

It's another of the talking points pushed by the gun camp, symbolically accompanied by the throwing up of hands in the air.

"If you ban guns, only criminals will have guns."

First, I am not in favor of banning guns. I fully believe in the Second Amendment to the degree that folks should have the right to protect their castles---even if deadly force is required.

I do, however, believe that reasonable, responsible gun owners can darn well protect themselves---and their homes and their families---with weapons that aren't designed to mow dozens of people down in minutes.

But here's the thing. These mass shootings that are being committed nowadays aren't being committed by criminals. In fact, many times the perpetrator has no previous criminal record. Not even a parking ticket.

Like Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old monster who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.

Lanza had no criminal record.

Neither did the shooter in the recent mall incident in Oregon. Same with the Aurora, CO theater shooter last summer.

The kids who committed the atrocities at Columbine weren't criminals, either. Nor was the perp in the Virginia Tech massacre.

Loners? Yes. Troubled? Definitely. But not criminals.

Criminals aren't committing mass shootings. Armed criminals typically rob or steal. Or trade on the black market. If they stockpile artillery, it's to sell. They don't acquire automatic weapons so they can shoot up a mall, a school or a movie theater.

Those are facts.

The folks who are arming themselves to the hilt, throwing on military-style vests and camouflage gear, aren't criminals. They're suffering from mental illness.

Until we start treating root causes rather than symptoms, we're going nowhere in the effort to try to make what happened in Connecticut on Friday a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy.

It's time to start educating about mental illness, which is still, in the 21st century no less, terribly misunderstood.

Look no further than the reports that Lanza may have been autistic, or afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome.

Adam Lanza

Neither has ever been directly connected to violent behavior of any serious degree. Yet you just know that there is a segment of the population that will take the autism and Asperger's thing and run with it. And you know that those afflicted with said disorders will now be looked at sideways.

There is so much we don't know about mental illness. I'd say we'd better start getting a handle on it, because it ain't going away.

If there is any common ground I can find with those on even the most extreme side of pro-guns, it's that people are ultimately responsible for their actions. The gun provides them with the means of destruction, but not every gun owner commits mass shootings, so that should be a clue right there.

Lanza's mother, Nancy, who was gunned down first last Friday, has been taking some posthumous heat for her decision to have guns of the magnitude that was used by her son, in the first place.

But even his own mother clearly didn't understand the scope of Adam Lanza's troubled state.

This is a time for experts in many arenas to sit down, together, and start hashing some stuff out. To do whatever we can to prevent another atrocity like Newtown from happening again is going to require serious, honest discussion from everyone across the gun, mental illness and law enforcement spectrum.

You're afraid that only criminals will have access to guns?

It's not working too well when the non-criminals get a hold of them, either.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Undercooked Rice

Susan Rice tried to take one for the team, but she put it behind the eight-ball instead.

Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, today yanked herself out of the running (that she presumably was in) to be the replacement for the retiring Hillary Clinton as President Obama's next Secretary of State.

In a letter to the president, Rice wrote, in part, "the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive, and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."

The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And Rice just paved another one with her premature bailing on the president.

If you believe the conspiracy theories---and this one seems to have some merit---the GOP assault on Rice's competence to be SOS, which was odd in of itself for its "jumping the gun" nature, is part of a scheme to bring Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to the fore as Clinton's successor. Why? So Kerry's ultimately vacated seat could be filled by, say, recently defeated Republican Scott Brown.

Far fetched? Hardly.

Phase One of that plan is complete, with Rice's too-soon withdrawal from contention.

I must say, I'm disappointed in Rice, a woman in whom I thought was more fight.

She thinks she's doing right by her president and her country, when she is, in fact, putting Obama in a box and feeding into a negative stereotype.

The stereotype is that women are weaker than men, emotionally, and when the heat gets turned up, they do things like Rice did.

It also shows that bullying works, another bad message to send to our young men and, especially, women.

Rice should have hung in there. She should have stood with the president, if it came to his nominating her. Obama is already taking some heat for not supporting her strongly enough, which supposedly led Rice to the decision that she made.

But what was Obama to do? Once Rice tendered the letter, it pretty much forced his hand.

Rice should have floated the notion of withdrawing past the president, first, to test the waters. I'm confident that Obama would have encouraged her to not withdraw, even if he ended up choosing Kerry (the only other likely candidate) instead.

Rice bailed far too early. Frankly, she had an obligation to stick it out. She let down her president, her country and her gender. I imagine there are "binders full" of strong, independent women out there (NOT necessarily feminists, either) who aren't too pleased with this decision.

Perception is reality. And from where I sit, I see a bunch of angry white men who bullied a black woman out of contention for SOS. And she let them get away with it, without much of a fight. 

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, is how the saying goes. Only, Susan Rice didn't get anywhere near the kitchen, yet she still failed her gender. How ironic, huh?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Deli Advertising

The sandwich board is making a comeback.

I'm not talking about literal sandwiches here, like the kind you eat.

I'm talking the term often used for the signs those poor folks are holding or wearing these days, hawking a variety of retail outlets, from cell phone stores to oil change places.

The sandwich board was so named because of its original incarnation, which was usually two pieces of wood, connected with rope or twine, which the wearer would sling over his shoulders, advertising on the front and back, creating a sort of human "sandwich."

The sandwich boards started showing up in earnest in the late-1920s and early-1930s, which were, not coincidentally, the days of the Great Depression. But in those days, often the human sandwich was promoting himself, not any company.

The sandwich board is back, but in a more streamlined fashion. It used to be that the only businesses in recent years who commissioned people to stand on the curb and wave people in, holding a sign, were car washes (the fundraising kind) and, during tax season, tax preparers (with typically someone dressed as Lady Liberty or Uncle Sam).

Now, there are so many sandwich boards and signs out there, I'm surprised they're not bumping into each other.

There's this one dude who works for one of those companies that buys and sells gold. I see him every Friday when I'm on my way to cash my check on Rochester Road, and I have seen him for over a year now, rain, snow or shine. He wears headphones and is swiveling his sign like mad, all the time. And I just see him on Fridays. Doubtless he works the whole week as well.

The thing is---and granted, it's hard to tell just by driving by at 40 mph once a week---he seems perfectly happy to be doing it. Not bored at all. He walks up and down, forward and back, swiveling his sign.

To be honest, I don't even know where his employer's store is located. I only see him, not the actual store front.

But he's there, every week, with his gold sign with black print, walking up and down that tiny stretch of Rochester Road. He looks to be in his 20s, and physically fit.

I wonder what they pay people these days to be human sandwiches?

Back in the day, the sandwich board advertised people, not businesses

Is it worth the cost? Is such advertising really effective? Using my Friday Guy as an example, maybe not. You'll notice I have made mention of driving by him, but not knowing the name of his company, nor exactly where the store is located. And I've seen him do his thing for well over a year.

Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of having him there?

I also drive by an oil change place every night on my way home from work. That dude strays from the sidewalk, however, and damn near stands on the street. Kind of dangerous, if you ask me.

But again, does his presence make me want to get my oil changed?

Does any human sandwich influence your wanting to drop some dollars at the sandwich's business?

Regardless, there's no question that the human sandwiches are increasing in number. I guess it's the new wave of guerrilla marketing.

We've come a long way, I guess, since "Eat at Joe's" was the sandwich board of the day.

Not sure if that's good or bad.

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Zero to 60---In His Grave

One of the greatest ironies these days is that if you're off to Lansing via car, chances are you just might have to travel on the Reuther Freeway, aka I-696, for a portion of that trip.

That would be the Reuther, as named after Michigan labor pioneer Walter P. Reuther. The same Reuther who is spinning in his grave right about now with great centrifugal force.

If only Ford Motor Company had acquiesced to organized labor back in the late-1930s as quickly as the Michigan Legislature ramrodded the first stage of the so-called "right to work" bill through session yesterday.

Reuther, eventual head of the UAW, paid for his union organizing efforts physically, at the famous Battle of the Overpass at the River Rouge plant, in 1937, when he and Richard Frankensteen were beaten severely by henchmen hired by Ford. The auto company was unhappy about Reuther and his fellow organizers handing out pro-union leaflets along the overpass.

So what would Reuther, and other labor organizers and champions of the early movement, think of the "right to work" bill, and its potential to take down labor unions?

This isn't exactly what Reuther had in mind when he worked tirelessly to ensure union representation for autoworkers some 75 years ago.

I wonder how many of today's young state lawmakers even know who Walter Reuther was. I wonder if they know why the Department of Transportation named I-696 after him?

I wonder if they know the sacrifices that Reuther and others made so that the middle class could be fortified and have peace of mind?

I wonder if they care.

For now, it's all about not only union busting, but Democrat busting. It's no secret that labor unions, while not as strong as they were 10-15 years ago, still form a good portion of the base of the Democratic party. And wouldn't the state GOP just love to hack away at that base, which they are now beginning to do by shoving the "right to work" bill onto Governor Rick Snyder's desk at warp speed.

Weaker labor unions---the bill would prohibit unions from requiring membership as a condition of employment---would be a boon to the Republicans.

But of course, the bill is being propped up as something that will ensure fairness and keep Michigan competitive in terms of salary and benefits, when statistics from other "right to work" states suggest mostly the opposite.

More likely is that the bill would become a slippery slope down which salaries, benefits and the middle class itself would all slide.

The manner in which the bill made its way through the Legislature, complete with protests and pepper spray, is, for now, worse than any of its residual effects. The Republicans' zeal for this bill is so blatantly partisan and filled with not-so-hidden agendas that it's either something to laugh or cry at. Nothing in between.

I know which one Walter Reuther would pick.

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More on the game:

The basketball game is tied with less than 30 seconds to play. Just about everyone in the building expects the superstar scorer from the visiting team to get the ball in his hands to take the potential game-winning shot.  Everyone is standing—fans and players alike. Chants of “DEE-FENSE…DEE-FENSE” rock the arena. The clock ticks down. But the superstar doesn’t get the basketball. His teammates are unable to get it to him, thanks to great ball denial by the home team. The fans are relieved to see a secondary player from the visitors hoisting a jump shot as the clock ticks closer to 0:00. But that secondary player drains the 15-foot jumper, a dagger into the hearts of the home crowd. Down by two and the time almost gone, the home team takes a timeout and designs a buzzer-beating play. Will they go for the tie or try a desperation three-pointer to win the game and send the fans home deliriously happy? Could you picture the above scenario in your head? If you’re a follower of pro basketball, no doubt you did, because moments like those occur almost nightly in some arena, somewhere. It’s also a scenario that plays out in Basketball Bones, a brand new tabletop basketball game that uses four dice (“bones”) and individual player cards to re-create exciting pro basketball action that includes just about everything that happens on the hardwood! In most instances, the superstars will get the basketball in “crunch time,” because each player is rated for how often he is the focus of his team’s offense.  But the beauty of Basketball Bones is that, just like in real life, pro basketball is a player’s game, and sometimes the plays drawn out on the dry erase board break down. You get it all with Basketball Bones—rebounding beasts who dominate the boards; ball handling wizards who have that innate ability to find the open man for a high percentage shot; “money” free throw shooters who you don’t want to foul with the game on the line; three-point threats whose range extends to downtown; ball hawking defenders who are “pick pocket artists”; and even clumsy, ham-handed defenders who commit fouls quicker than you can blink an eye. In Basketball Bones, every player who suited up for that season gets an individual card rating him in every aspect of the pro game, from shooting frequency to field goal success to rebounding to defense, and more! The game is easy to set up and play. There are no laborious charts to constantly consult. Some possessions are resolved with one throw of the four Bones. The player cards are the integral parts of an engine designed to keep game play flowing like water from a spigot. But pro basketball isn’t just shooting and rebounding. Every game, every night, can include various elements which may affect the outcome: the home court advantage; momentum shifts; a bad night from a key player; a wayward referee’s whistle; and of course, that old bugaboo—injuries. They all can happen in Basketball Bones, too, thanks to the included Rare Play Boards, which bring those elements, and more, into your contests. Maybe a loose-lipped player says the “magic word” and gets slapped with an ill-timed technical foul. Maybe a wet spot on the floor causes your big man to slip and collapse to the floor like a house of cards, resulting in an injury. Maybe a brief spurt by the home team causes a change in momentum and leads to an even bigger and more damaging run. If you’ve seen it happen in the pro game, chances are it can happen in Basketball Bones. Basketball Bones ships in a sturdy box. Inside are player cards for a past pro season, the Rare Play Boards and Buzzer Beater Chart, an 11×17” display, and the Bones—three six sided dice (red, white and blue) and an eight-sided die, from which you will reproduce exciting pro basketball action. We know there are other basketball simulation games out there, and we know how popular some of them are. But Basketball Bones is unlike any other, because it combines simplicity with realism, making for a fun, fast, statistically-accurate pro basketball simulation. Take off your warm-ups and get on the court with Basketball Bones today! You’ve been called into the game! Basketball Bones---where every roll counts!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cult Politics

I have this crazy, mixed up thought that the politicians we elect are supposed to represent those of us who elected them.

Yet there is one man who has a Svengali-like hold on the Republican wing of Congress, a hold that I'm not sure is disturbing, annoying, reprehensible or all of the above.

His name is Grover Norquist, and apparently Grover's interests and marching orders trump those of the electorate when it comes to the GOP members of Congress.

Norquist, back in 1985, started Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), apparently at the behest of President Ronald Reagan. Norquist has never held political office, nor has ever run for so much as city councilman. Yet he has somehow managed to convince dozens of Congressmen (and women) to be his lapdogs.

Norquist is the originator of The Pledge, which holds to the fire the feet of every member of Congress (and Senate) who has taken it. It's a pledge to never raise taxes, under any circumstances.

From Norquist's Wiki page: Prior to the November 2012 election, 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans had signed ATR's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge", in which the pledger promises to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

"I'll have to check with Grover," one of the new U.S. Reps from Michigan actually said when the Detroit Free Press recently asked if that rep would support modest tax increases on the wealthy.

I'll have to check with Grover?

The GOP is no longer a party; it's a political cult. And Norquist is their Jim Jones.

Grover Norquist

Norquist has steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of those who fund his ATR, but it's widely speculated that the contributors are wealthy individuals, foundations and corporate interests. Big surprise, I know.

I have a fundamental problem with a non-elected person---Norquist himself; he IS the ATR---wielding so much power and influence over those elected and who are sworn to represent their constituents.

As the nation teeters on the brink of the so-called "fiscal cliff," Norquist has become front and center in the debate, as one-time sensible, independent thinking politicians have been revealed instead to be members of Norquist's cult.

There isn't any wiggle room for common sense, reasoning or debate in ATR's pledge. Only now are some pledge takers beginning to see the light of the oncoming freight train and backing away from Norquist's outdated, outrageous pledge.

Norquist appears to be a one-man lobby and special interest, all by himself. He wields power a lot of elected officials could only dream of having.

As long as actual members of Congress are saying things like "I'll have to check with Grover" when confronted with issues affecting our national economy and children's future, something is seriously wrong.

You want to talk about pledges?

How about the one to the American people.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Holy Bidding, Batman!!

It was one of the coolest things I ever saw on television, and I was just a wee lad of four years old.

Oh, how I loved to watch the Batmobile in the Adam West-ravaged, 1960s TV series, "Batman," leave the Bat Cave.

First, there was the firing of the ignition, which always included the stock shot of flames shooting from the Batmobile's exhaust. That was cool, too.

But there was something about the black, souped-up 1955 Lincoln Futura zooming from the cave that captivated me.

That's because there was this small guard rail that would flip down, enabling the Batmobile to pass through. THAT was the coolest thing.

Some things just grab us and don't let go, particularly from our youth.

There was something about that guard rail flipping down that I thought was just so awesome in its simple auspiciousness.

That image comes to mind as I read that the Batmobile is going up for auction. It'll happen on January 19, 2013, at the Barrett-Jackson auction house in Scottsdale, AZ.

The Batmobile is a 19-foot long, black work of art---maybe the coolest vehicle ever, something that Henry Ford could never have conceived in his wildest imagination.

So how much will it fetch in auction?

No one is saying, which is appropriate, because mystery has always been such a large part of the Batman character, from the comic books to the "Dark Knight" movies.

George Barris and his original Batmobile creation

The original Batmobile (there have been some replicas) was created by George Barris, a Los Angeles-based car customizer. I don't know if Barris was given a blueprint, a clay model, or was just left to his own devices, but regardless, he created a masterpiece. The machine (it seems too small to call it a car) has been kept in marvelous condition over the years.

There was so much for a small boy to love about the Batmobile. The flaming exhaust, the bubble top, the siren, the wings, etc., all captivated. And, come on---it was 19 feet long!

Thanks to YouTube, here's a 29-second clip of the boys racing to the Batmobile and leaving the cave. Watch for the guard rail flipping down just before the machine hits the highway!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Two Minus a Half Men

I'm not sure which is more troubling---that Angus T. Jones has come out against his own show, "Two and a Half Men," as being "filth," or that it took the young man so many years to come to that conclusion.

Jones, 19, who has been part of the one-joke show for its entire nine-year run, blasted "Men" in a video recorded in October but that has just recently popped up on YouTube.

Appearing with a mostly shaved head and looking like either a hostage or a cult member, Jones says to the camera, "I'm on 'Two and a Half Men' and I don't want to be on it...Please stop watching it and filling your head with filth," Jones adds. "Do some research on the effects of television and your brain, and I promise you you'll have a decision to make when it comes to television and especially with what you watch on television."

Thanks for the advice, Angus, but I don't think you need to do much research to come to the conclusion that "Men" is not exactly a TV show that is brimming with highbrow humor.

For nine years (the past two with Ashton Kutcher as Jon Cryer and Jones' co-star; the first seven were with the manic Charlie Sheen), "Men" has managed to crank out episode after episode on a premise that would appear to have a short shelf life.

Jones plays Cryer's son. Cryer is divorced and for the first seven years he shared an apartment with his boozing, womanizing brother Charlie (Sheen, in a real stretch). Cryer has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife, which, when Jones was younger, was played for laughs as Jones was the feuding ex-spouses' pawn.

Kutcher joined the show two seasons ago as suicidal billionaire Walden Schmidt, who was saved from his death march into the Pacific Ocean because it was too cold. Schmidt then wound up at the late Charlie Harper's home and taken in by Cryer's character, Alan.

So where is all the "filth" (Jones's word) that Angus T. Jones is talking about?

Well, pretty much everywhere.

Angus T. Jones

"Men" shoves sex in your face, plus juvenile bathroom humor; the hilarity of divorce when kids are involved; alcoholism; one-night stands; teen apathy; and other bad character traits of various guest stars and secondary players.

Other than that, it's clean and wholesome fun.

Jones's tirade would appear to be his way of ending his contract, though there has been no comment yet from Warner Brothers studios, the studio where "Men" is shot, about their child star's outburst.

When a celebrity spouts off such religious righteousness, it is often an indicator that he/she is about to walk away from the business. But it's far too early to determine whether Jones' pious-filled beat down of "Men" is an indictment of just that show, or of the business in general.

Maybe we'll see Jones turn up somewhere else on television, a medium not known for its dignity.

The kid is right about "Men," of course. Even if he is a bit of a slow learner.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Question Is...(Beats Me)

When I first started watching "Jeopardy," the dollar values were $10-50 for the first round and $20-100 for Double Jeopardy. The answers were revealed by stagehands pulling cards backstage. The only lights were the ones illuminating the stage. Don Pardo was the show announcer. Art Fleming was the host, and he didn't have all sorts of foreign words to over-pronounce. No one won trips or tens of thousands of dollars. The categories included such as "Potent Potables" and "Potpourri."

But the game was still damned hard to play, and needed legitimate intellect in order to succeed. "Jeopardy" was never about spinning wheels or drawing cards or shouting "Big Money! Big Money!" or "No Whammies!" It was never about dumb luck or bouncing up and down on stage like a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal."

"Jeopardy" is the one game show that can make me feel intellectually bankrupt. Yet it's that very feeling that draws me to it, like an insect to a porch light.

Not that I am an avid viewer. I don't stop what I'm doing at 7:30 p.m. to flip on channel 4 to catch Alex Trebek, that crusty old Canadian, delight in pronouncing various languages' words. But when I do happen to tune in, when the stars and the moon align properly, I find every episode to be challenging and fun.

There's a small joy I take in every "Jeopardy" question I can correctly ask. Each one is a mini victory. I consider myself a pretty good trivia guy, but the stuff these "Jeopardy" people know isn't trivia, it's a bunch of mini college theses.

There hasn't been an episode of "Jeopardy" yet, where I haven't mused aloud, "How do these people know this stuff, anyway?"

How does one study for an appearance on the show? How do you bone up on subject matter that can range from 18th Century European Literature to the history of minerals?

Yet Merv Griffin's creation (he came up with the idea of providing questions for answers, he said, while on a plane) has been featuring eggheads in six different decades now, all asking questions involving subject matter that I have no idea about how they have acquired the knowledge.

I'm a sucker for Final Jeopardy.

If I don't see any other part of the show, I want to see Final Jeopardy. And not just because of the iconic music that's played while the contestants scribble their questions.

It's the ultimate challenge. They give you the category then take a commercial break, giving you the requisite two minutes to wonder what on Earth the answer could be. Then Trebek comes back and reads the answer. The music is cued and plays. Everyone---the contestants in the studio and those of us at home---have about 60 seconds to come up with the correct question.

There's no better feeling of accomplishment than correctly identifying the Final Jeopardy question. It can more than make up for the previous 22 minutes of feeling like an idiot, which those eggheads make me feel like.

I caught the show last night, while at my mother's house for Thanksgiving. As usual, I was correct a pathetically low percentage of the time. As usual, I felt like an intellectual midget.

And, as usual, I can't wait to try it again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Replacing the Cloak

The Sesame Street Muppets have become such a part of our social consciousness that I don't think any of us really stop to think that the Muppets aren't living, breathing creatures---we must remember that they're puppets, controlled and voiced by living, breathing humans.

Humans, as in imperfect beings.

The face of Elmo, one of the more popular Muppets, was ripped off in a shocking and vile manner recently, revealing that its puppeteer, Kevin Clash, has been allegedly involved, in the past, with some hanky panky with at least one underage youth.

Two accusers came out against Clash, who is openly gay. The first recanted, saying that the relationship was consensual and legal (age-wise). But then a second accuser surfaced, and this one says that he and Clash became involved when the former was just 15 years old.

The second accuser has slapped Clash with a $5 million lawsuit, claiming he (the accuser) had only recently become aware of "adverse psychological and emotional effects."


Kevin Clash and Elmo

Regardless of the credibility of the accusations, Clash has submitted his resignation. Elmo is in need of a new alter ego.

Sesame Workshop issued this statement regarding Clash's resignation.

"Sesame Workshop's mission is to harness the educational power of media to help all children the world over reach their highest potential. Kevin Clash has helped us achieve that mission for 28 years, and none of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin's personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from ‘Sesame Street.’ This is a sad day for ‘Sesame Street.’"

To Sesame Street's credit, they were ready to welcome Clash back into the family once the first charge was recanted. Clash's sexual orientation, thankfully, wasn't enough to pull the plug on him as being Elmo's puppeteer. But when the second charge came down, along with the accompanying lawsuit, SS felt like it had no choice but to call for Clash's resignation.

It's hard to argue with SS and Clash's decision. The SS brand has been a part of American households and families for about 40 years. Why should they risk any additional bad press and scuttlebutt by bringing Clash back while there is all this legal stuff going on?

Besides, the mystique and aura of Sesame Street's Muppets are based almost solely on the anonymity of the puppeteers. Yes, folks eventually found out that guys like Frank Oz and Jim Henson operated and voiced many of the original Muppets, but for the most part we aren't visualizing humans behind the scenes when Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy are doing their thing. 

They're not puppets, they're Muppets, for crying out loud! They're practically human.

The seedy story that is about to unfold about Kevin Clash (under-aged boys, meeting online, etc) is one that Sesame Street just as soon let play out somewhere else---anywhere else, other than behind Elmo's back.

It looks to be the end of a 28-year ride for Clash as Elmo's puppeteer, but it's an ending that needs to happen.

The sooner the anonymity of Elmo's puppeteer is returned, the better.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Frankly, Scarlett...

So did you hear about the Cleveland woman who had to stand on a busy street corner and hold up a sign that says "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus"?

To recap: 32-year-old Shena Hardin was caught by surveillance camera, driving her car on a sidewalk to avoid a school bus that was loading and unloading children. Her sentence, as handed down by a Municipal Court Judge, was to hold the sign for one hour each on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, in 34-degree weather and in full view of rush hour drivers. 

Hardin also had her license suspended for 30 days and she was ordered to pay $250 in court costs.

Apparently, Hardin was the victim of a good old-fashioned sting, put on by the bus driver, because the incident in which she was caught by the camera was not the first time she had driven recklessly in order to avoid waiting for the kids to get on and off the school bus.

Shena Hardin serves her sentence

Whether you agree with Hardin's "Scarlet Letter" type sentence or not, it would be hard to disagree that other offenses might merit similar sentencing from the court of public opinion, if it were left up to them.

To wit:

Non-use of turn signal. This is the ultimate in arrogance. The offender is telling us, "You don't need to know what I'm about to do, until I reveal it." Suggested sentence: Not allowed to order own food at restaurant for next two meals out. Offender has to eat whatever the server brings, not revealed until the plate hits the table.

Rolling through/failing to stop at stop sign in residential neighborhood (where there are kids and pets about). The disrespect for those red, octagonal-shaped signs is getting ridiculous. I walk our dog daily and I see vehicles cruising through stop signs routinely. Suggested sentence: Offender must stand in the middle of a high school hallway during lunch rush, wearing a brand new, all-white outfit.

Tailgating in a residential area. Nothing grinds my gears more than being followed closely by some clod in a 25 mph residential area. I don't like being tailgated, period, but something about cruising down a side street, usually going to or from home, with a very aggressive, very impatient dufus riding my rear is just so wrong. Suggested sentence: Offender must spend next session of opening and responding to e-mails with someone (a stranger) looming directly over his/her shoulder the entire time.

Taking two spaces in a parking lot. This one needs no trumping. Suggested sentence: Offender must watch helplessly as person ahead of them in line orders the last two pieces of cheesecake, and only eats one---throwing the second one in the trash.

Cutting across two lanes of a freeway in order to exit, last minute. This one is not only annoying but freaking dangerous. Most people know, way ahead of time, which exit they're taking. Why you decide at the last possible moment that you suddenly need to bid farewell to the freeway is beyond me. Suggested sentence: Since this is usually a male offender, sentence is for offender to be cut in front of, at the last moment, by a counterpart who wants to use the only available urinal in a public restroom. And I do mean at the last moment.

Those sound like apt punishments, eh?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Sex, lies and...e-mail?

Videotapes are so passe. And who has a VCR player anymore, anyway?

E-mail (and its evil spawn, texting) is the smoking gun of the 21st century, when it comes to catching those engaging in extramarital affairs. And it seems no matter how powerful and how high up the food chain you are, you're not impervious to its tentacles.

Witness what's happening at the CIA and the Pentagon these days.

First, General David Petraeus (rhymes with Betray Us) was busted, and subsequently resigned his post as Director of the CIA, for engaging in hanky panky with a mistress, much of it via e-mail.

Now the military's top man in Afghanistan, General John Allen, might be in the same kind of mess. E-mails, once again, are being scrutinized.

It's a sort of love triangle, with Petraeus's mistress allegedly sending threatening e-mails to the woman who Allen has been allegedly fooling around with.

As The Pentagon Turns.

Gen. David Petraeus

This, of course, is unbecoming no matter what, but when it involves men of the stature of Generals Petraeus and Allen, well then it moves into another category of unbecoming.

Women might be right. Maybe men do think with their penises---in general (sorry, pun intended).

Recall how text messages and e-mail helped bring down Detroit's young and promising mayor.

There really isn't any shock value, anymore, to the philandering powerful man story, even when it comes to Petraeus and Allen. I mean, did your jaw drop when Petraeus resigned, and you found out why he resigned?

Surprised? Sure. Shocked? Maybe not so much.

At this point, only such an affair involving the President of the United States would be shocking enough for us to be, well, shocked.

One by one they fall, betrayed by their own anatomy below the belt.

Politicians. Corporate leaders. Entertainers. And now, CIA directors and generals.

The question isn't really "Who's next? but rather, "When?"

When will be the next time we read of a powerful, entrenched man toppled by his pee-pee?

There are 48 days left in the year. Plenty of time to squeeze another scandal in, maybe before Christmas.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Time to Heal, Compromise

OK, so you're Barack Obama. You woke up Wednesday morning having been re-elected as President of the United States.

But over 57 million people voted for the other guy---almost half the electorate.

It's a sobering thought, or should be, as Mr. Obama starts Term II.

This was among the most bitter, divisive and nasty presidential campaigns in recent memory. Maybe ever.

You can blame Social Media for that. But more about that in a second.

Obama is president of everyone, of course (not just 47 percent), but knowing that about half the people don't want you in the Oval Office certainly should have a bearing on how you govern, no matter if you feel that your agenda and ideology are right, and theirs isn't.

But it's also a great time for compromise and reaching across the aisle, because no longer can Obama's detractors in Washington rally around their flag of making him a one term president. That ship has sailed, though not necessarily with breakneck speed, given how close the popular vote was.

But it has sailed, so let's get to work and get some stuff done. Speaker of the House John Boehner has offered an olive branch and a conciliatory tone, which is more than you can say for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It should also be noted that McConnell is up for re-election in 2014.

It's time now for Obama to gather the haters in Congress around him and say, "You guys wanted me gone. Well, I'm back. Deal with it, and let's end gridlock."

So we have a dichotomy of sorts here. There's the fact that nearly half of over 117 million voters wanted Mitt Romney as president. Yet there's also a magnificent chance to work on the soft underbelly of a GOP that got slapped in its behind on Tuesday, losing some key Senate races, most notably Elizabeth Warren beating Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

Obama Term II should be more interesting and even more productive than Term I. It could also lay the groundwork for continued Democratic presence in the White House come 2016. Someone might have some long coattails on which to ride into the Oval Office.

Obama had over 59 million votes, but 57 million voted for the other guy

Back to Social Media.

Facebook and Twitter weren't nearly as widespread in their use during the 2008 campaign. But in 2012, the vitriol and political posts and ensuing mean-spirited, nasty threads that resulted truly ended Facebook friendships or at the very least caused animosity that will take a while to dissolve. Sounds silly, I know, but it's true. I was among those who got involved in some pretty nasty back-and-forths.

With FB and Twitter, it's just so easy (too easy) to log on, rap out something in anger or passion, and then maybe you'd wished you hadn't. Maybe what you threw out there you should have kept to yourself. But the flip is that sometimes you stay on the sidelines too long, holding too much in, and you have no choice but to put in your two cents.

Trouble is, those two cents can rapidly turn into a buck and a half once the dissenters start responding.

I'm sure we'll all heal from this angry campaign. We always do. But the tone is set in Washington. If we see our leaders coming together, reaching across and banging out some bi-partisan legislation, maybe that will accelerate the healing.

But I think we can agree on one thing.

Thank goodness this campaign is over with!

Friday, November 2, 2012

National Disasters

Fat Bob Taylor is still the best National Anthem singer I have ever heard. And he's been gone for 17 years now.

I will tip my cap to the late Whitney Houston, whose stirring rendition at a Super Bowl is, without question, the best one-time effort on record. It beats out Marvin Gaye's version at the 1984 NBA All-Star Game, not long before he was tragically killed by his own father.

But Fat Bob was the best anthem singer, pound-for-pound, and I'm not making weight jokes here.

Taylor would show up at Tiger Stadium, but not every night. Just on the big nights, like the old Shrine Night or Polish-American Night. Or playoff games. Or whenever there was likely to be a big crowd and the Tigers invited Fat Bob to Michigan and Trumbull.

Taylor would stand in front of home plate, with stiff posture, a mike stand before him. His arms at his sides, the bearded man with the jet black hair would then boom out the National Anthem and you'd get chills.

Even as a youngster, I could appreciate Taylor's anthem singing. My adolescence couldn't muddy the fact that Taylor's anthems were stirring.

There always seemed to be a collective "Wow" after Taylor belted another one out, as the crowd whooped it up and Fat Bob turned from the mike, nodding to the denizens.

Moments later, the first pitch was thrown and there was still a buzz in the air.

On WJR radio and elsewhere, Fat Bob was aka "The Singing Plumber"

I bring up Taylor because we saw two more butcherings of the National Anthem at Comerica Park before Games 3 and 4 of the World Series last weekend.

Zooey Deschanel, star of Fox's "New Girl," and Demi Lovato sang the Anthem for Games 3 and 4, respectively. Both tried, let's leave it at that.

I'm not even talking about legendary butcherings like Roseanne Arnold's scream fest in 1990. I'm talking about so-called legitimate artists, who in an effort to put their own "spin" on the anthem, end up wrecking it, or at the very least making it unrecognizable.

Which brings me back to Fat Bob Taylor, who sang the anthem the way it was meant to be sung: in a rich baritone---forceful but elegant. His anthems were perfect, simply put.

It's been said that the National Anthem is a "hard" song to sing. I'm not so sure about that. I think many artists have made it unnecessarily hard on themselves (and on our ears) by straying from proper form and using it as a sort of vocal canvas on which they paint. Sadly, too often those efforts become the Salvador Dali of singing.

A proper anthem should be sung within two minutes, really. The basic rule of thumb seems to be that the longer it goes on, the worse it probably is.

Ironically, Aretha Franklin was scheduled to sing the anthem before Game 5, which of course was never played. I have no doubt that Franklin would have done the anthem justice. She might have injected some personal style, but it probably wouldn't have been to the point of bastardization.

Fat Bob Taylor has been gone since 1995. And I haven't heard consistently good National Anthems since.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Extortion for Fun

I was never a Halloween guy, as a kid. I could take it or leave it as a youngster. Too much effort, I suppose.

I never knew what I was going to dress up like, or even if I was going to go door-to-door at all, until sometimes hours before sundown on October 31.

One year, I recall, I was particularly tardy with my decision. I was planning on staying in, passing out candy, when I got a phone call from a friend. It was dusk, at the very least, when the phone rang in our Livonia home.

"You going baggin'?" was the question. It was my friend, Bob Bernard, who lived a couple blocks away and who I never had gone Trick or Treating with prior to that year. I still don't know what prompted the call. It wasn't that Bob and I weren't friends; we just weren't very close. Certainly not "baggin'" close. Or so I thought.

I initially rebuffed his request, but he pressed me.

"I don't have a costume," I pleaded. It fell on deaf ears.

I hung up, scrambling. What to be? WHO to be?

I don't where it came from, but I asked my mom if she had a nylon stocking that she didn't care much for.

Voila! I went as a bank robber, the stocking pulled over my face. I think I had a toy gun. Not sure. Regardless, I had a "costume." I was ready to go baggin'. Bob's term.

A pillow case served as my "bag." Out we went into the Halloween night, soliciting for candy door-to-door.

Halloween---the only holiday based on extortion.

Trick or treat!

Give us candy, or something bad will happen to you or your home. Or maybe even your loved ones. Who knows.

It's a holiday built around candy used as protection money. Just cough up the goodies and we'll make sure nothing untoward occurs.

But as an adult---more specifically, as a father---I came to enjoy Halloween more. The decorations got more sophisticated and fun to look at, number one. One of our family traditions has been to drive around neighborhoods, admiring Christmas displays. Now, you can pretty much do the same with Halloween.

Then there are the cute little kids, made even cuter when stuffed into bumble bee or pumpkin outfits. I can't wait to see who comes to our door next.

Our daughter has always been a big Halloween person, starting from when she was two years old and won a  costume contest at a campground in Canada. She was dressed as a pumpkin, of course. Every year she has dressed in something different and never without creativity. In recent years she's been Captain Jack Sparrow, The Joker, and Harley Quinn.

As usual, even at age 19, she plans on dressing up. She doesn't go "baggin'" anymore, but she's taken over the candy passing out duties at home. Tonight it will be friends coming over for pizza and to watch scary movies.

My wife and I will be safely ensconced in our bedroom, dressed as ourselves and eating pizza while the kids take over the front room, passing out the candy.

Yes sir, I'm liking this Halloween thing more, the older I get.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bye, George

Was George McGovern the worst presidential candidate to come from the two major parties, in history?

You could make a case for it. 

Not that any Democrat would have defeated Dick Nixon in 1972, all of the president's dirty tricks notwithstanding. 

Yet somehow McGovern, the senator from South Dakota who passed away last week, became the Democrat nominee in '72, when there were better and more appealing men available.

It wasn't just that McGovern was more left than a freeway's fast lane shoulder. The times were kinda, sorta, right for a left-winger such as McGovern to run for president. There was the Vietnam War, for one; McGovern was a famous opposer of the war. 

But the Democrats didn't need to go so left of center to have a shot against Nixon, even with the war raging on. 

Part of the blame could be laid at the feet of Lyndon Johnson.

It was LBJ who shocked the nation by not seeking re-election in 1968, after pretty much trouncing the hawk Barry Goldwater in 1964. Initially, Johnson's decision opened the door for the likes of Bobby Kennedy and vice president Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy was the early favorite for the nomination, but you know how that turned out in early-June in Los Angeles.

So it was Humphrey against Nixon in '68, and the race was close. Yet it's hard not to wonder what would have happened had Johnson gone against Nixon armed with more than a full term under his belt. 

That sequence of events---Johnson running and winning in '68---likely would not have led to an extreme left-winger like McGovern gaining traction in 1972.

If you believe the whispers, the torpedoing of other Dems like Ed Muskie (the infamous "Canadian letter" may have been planted by Nixon operatives) might have been part of a concerted effort to isolate McGovern as the last man standing. Ted Kennedy nixed an offer to run, and George Wallace was partially paralyzed in an assassination attempt. Eugene McCarthy, another pacifist, couldn't get rolling.

So that left McGovern, and his campaign was hamstrung almost immediately after the party's convention when it was learned that running mate Thomas Eagleton had some mental issues in his past. McGovern soon dumped Eagleton and tabbed Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by proxy (and marriage) only.

As expected, McGovern was destroyed by the Nixon machine, both before and on Election Day. The South Dakota senator never had a prayer.

George McGovern (right) and doomed running mate Thomas Eagleton at the 1972 Democratic National Convention

Yet they say McGovern's failed candidacy galvanized the Democrats. More likely, Watergate did that.

Vice president Joe Biden damned McGovern with praise at a prayer service Thursday night, calling the late senator "the father of the modern Democratic Party." Without his resolve, Biden said, the country would have remained mired in the Vietnam War for longer and "so much more blood and so much more treasure would have been wasted."

"The war would never have ended when it did. It would never have ended when it did," Biden said, his voice rising as he turned his body toward McGovern's daughters. "Your father gave courage to people who didn't have the courage to speak up to finally stand up. Your father stood there and took all of that beating."

McGovern certainly took a beating on Election Night in 1972. But he picked himself up and continued to be an effective senator for nearly a decade longer. He might have been a lousy presidential candidate, but like so many of them, his candidacy was the culmination of a perfect storm.

Or imperfect, in this case.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On the Record

There's an episode in one of my favorite TV comedy series of all time, Everybody Loves Raymond, where Ray Barone's dad, Frank, chastises his son for ruining (accidentally) dad's jazz album collection when Raymond was a youngster. Seems Ray moved the albums to make room for his new Hot Wheels car track, received for Christmas. Unfortunately, Raymond moved the albums next to the furnace. You can imagine what happened to them.

So Ray tries to make up for the lost music by replacing as many of the albums as he can, with CD versions. He professes to have visited a bunch of independent music stores in his effort to replace the albums.

Frank is skeptical of the discs and won't even listen to them, which frustrates Raymond. Finally, Raymond basically forces his dad to listen to the discs by having them in a portable CD player, ready to go, when his parents return from a shopping trip. They enter the home, Raymond hits the remote button, and the jazz fills the house, loudly.

But still Frank isn't happy. Raymond tries to convince his father of the discs' grandeur by declaring that it's like the band was right there, in the living room, thanks to the crystal clarity of the sound.

Still no sale. Frank gets belligerent (nothing out of character for him) and orders the music turned off. Raymond is incredulous; how can his dad NOT enjoy these discs?

The answer arrives a few minutes later, when Raymond's brother Robert and his fiancee Amy arrive with some of the actual albums, purchased at a used music store. They are not CDs but vinyl, 33-1/3 RPM platters of jazz.

The album is played on the phonograph, with all of its crackling and hissing, and Frank is in heaven.

"Now THAT'S music!" he declares as the songs pop.

I know where he's coming from.

CD technology is wonderful; digital is always best, in terms of cleanliness in sound. But I get what Frank Barone is enjoying---the music in its original form; static and crackle and hiss and all.

I started to collect 45s when I was as young as a pre-schooler. Actually, my mom would buy me the records, based on my likes. The Monkees were high on my list back then. The 45 collection grew as I became old enough to pick them out on my own at K-Mart, which sold them for 96 cents, in their plain white sleeves on hooks behind the cashier in the music department.

My first record player was plastic and the "stylus" was a clunky needle that was bigger than a pencil lead.

This record player is very similar to my first one, circa the late-1960s

In 1977 my parents bought me a brand new stereo system, and the phonograph was much more sophisticated and the stylus was diamond. Plus, you could stack the records/albums, and play hours of uninterrupted music.

The cracking and hissing was part of the deal. So was the occasional skip or crack that would cause the same four notes to play over and over until you moved the stylus.

I don't know; there was something magical about turning on the record player and lowering the needle/stylus onto the vinyl platter and hearing that first crackle and hiss, moments before the song began.

You don't get that with CDs. I'm not so sure that's progress.

I know Frank Barone would agree with me.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Boss Romney

Leave it to an old Wayne State guy to cut to the chase.

James Lipton, who's so much more than just the host of Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio," was on Chris Matthews' MSNBC show last night. And the former Wayne State attendee (he received an honorary doctorate from WSU in 2002) boiled the presidential election down to this.

"The choice is clear," Lipton said. "Do you want a president, or a boss?"

Lipton was asked to give his impressions of the performances of Mitt Romney and President Obama at Tuesday's debate, from the perspective of someone who is very used to critiquing on-screen, on-stage bits.

Lipton felt that Romney was every bit the CEO and Obama every bit the statesman.

"Romney is that boss who tells bad jokes to his employees and waits for everyone to laugh," Lipton said. And, "He's very used to getting his way."

Lipton thought that Romney was less-than-deferential to the president, particularly when Romney told Obama, "You'll get your turn," as he motioned for the president to sit down in the middle of a diatribe.

"This is the President of the United States, being told this by a...civilian," Lipton said, incredulously.

Lipton's bottom line is spot on. Romney does indeed come off as the CEO, talking down to his subjects in a board room. Obama looked like, well, the president---and how a president should look.

Matthews chimed in at one point and said Romney is "like that guy on the plane who won't turn his cell phone off after the stewardess tells him to."

Again, spot on.

Lipton said it again. "Do you want to be governed by a statesman, or supervised by a boss?"

Wayne State University's own James Lipton

Romney's lack of statesmanship was supremely evident in the exchange during Tuesday's debate about the tragic loss of diplomats in Libya on September 11. The former Massachusetts governor drew Obama's ire, as the president both scolded Romney and took offense to the suggestion that the administration's response to the attacks in Libya was political in nature.

"That's not what we do," Obama said, glaring at Romney in the eyes. "It's not what I do as commander-in-chief."

It was Obama's "I'm the president and you're not" moment.

It got worse, as Romney pressed the issue, claiming that Obama didn't call the attacks a terrorist act until two weeks later. That blew up in his face when moderator Candy Crowley noted that the president did, indeed, call the attacks an act of terror the day after they occurred.

Romney tried to bully the president and Crowley, and just as he's done in previous debates, the governor barked out his own interpretation of the rules.

"He got the last word on that one so I get the last word on this one," Romney said early on as he apparently was not only debate participant but also the rules sheriff.

"It doesn't quite work that way," Crowley said.

Not that it matters.

Debate score: 1-1, with one more remaining next Monday.

But Lipton was dead on accurate in his assessment.

President, or Boss?

Good call!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Just Marie

The cake would hold 53 candles if it could, or if the recipient would allow it.

The say there's a light on Broadway for every broken heart. In Marie Osmond's case, there might be a candle on her birthday cake for every heartache.

Not literally, of course. Marie, the kewpie doll, only girl of the Osmond entertainment clan, turns 53 tomorrow. She hasn't had 53 heartaches, though sometimes it has seemed like it.

An entertainer entertains. Period. It's what they do. The show must go on and all that rot. Marie Osmond is a shining example of that adage.

It hasn't always been easy to keep smiling and keep knocking them dead on stage for Osmond, who's back on the airwaves with Marie, a variety show that debuted October 1 on the Hallmark Channel.

You can't keep a good girl down.

You can say the odds were always with her. And you can also say that the odds were always against her. Depends on how you look at it.

For being the only girl among a gaggle of boys, in a family hellbent on putting on a show, can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because you have an "in." Bad, because who wants a stinking girl around when the boys seem to be doing just fine? Plus, what if mom and dad had decided to protect their only daughter from the glare of show business?

But Marie was tossed into the fire, with all that testosterone around her. And she's had to pick herself up a few times along the way. More than a few, actually.

There was the cancellation of the Donny and Marie Show in the late-1970s, at a time when she was told in a not-so-subtle way by show producers that she was getting chubby. She was all of 20 years old.

There was, along with brother Donny, a lull in her career that encompassed pretty much all of the 1980s and some of the '90s, too. That lull included a marriage in 1982 and a divorce by 1985.

But it's been in the last 15 years where Marie Osmond has felt the most pain. And has shown the most resiliency.

In 1997, she was divorced from second husband Brian Blosil after 11 years of marriage.

In 1999, she suffered severe postpartum depression. She would tell stories of driving along winding roads along the Pacific Coast, and fighting the urge to turn the vehicle toward the ocean.

The early-2000s saw a brief run on TV, again teaming with brother Donny in a talk show format. But the show went bust after a couple of years.

In 2009, Marie revealed that her oldest daughter, Jessica, was a lesbian. That wasn't easy to deal with, as an avowed Mormon.

Then, the worst of all: son Michael committed suicide in February 2010 by leaping from the eighth floor of his apartment building in Los Angeles. This was getting ridiculous now. Michael's death was the culmination of years of depression, which started as early as age 12.

But then, some brightness: Marie remarried first husband Stephen Craig in March 2011, wearing the same dress she donned in the 1982 original nuptial. You know how many women would kill to fit into the same dress they wore 29 years previous?

And now she's back on TV with Marie, though it's far too early to tell if that show will make it or not.

Maybe all that dollmaking and hawking was a way for Marie Osmond to escape the demons that were threatening to destroy her.

All this, while she was trying to be a wife and a mother to eight kids---three biological and five adopted.

Marie's birthday is tomorrow. She might be the oldest 53-year-old in the world.

But you can't keep her down, or from entertaining her fans. Good for her.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Clara, Meet Big Bird

Clara Peller was a retired manicurist who found fame after the age of 80, in early 1984, when she barked out three words that became a national catch phrase. Then the phenomenon dovetailed into the 1984 presidential campaign, and Clara enjoyed a new wave of popularity.

You never know who will be plucked from obscurity or the recesses of our consciousness when it's an election year.

In 1984 it was Peller, who famously and angrily asked, "Where's the beef?' in a Wendy's commercial mocking competitors who rely on big buns and not-so-big hamburger patties.

It didn't take long before we were all saying, "Where's the beef?" in a variety of situations. It started on TV, of course, and then filtered its way to the water coolers and barber shops.

The commercial hit the airwaves in January, 1984 and a few months later it got a second jolt of awareness when, in the Democratic presidential primaries, Walter Mondale used the catch phrase as a way of attacking rival Gary Hart's economic plan. Mondale didn't feel that Hart was offering much in the way of details.

Sound familiar?

Wendy's campaign with Peller didn't just create a catch phrase; sales jumped 31% in the year after "Where's the Beef?" first aired.

According to Wikipedia, Wendy's senior vice president for communications, Denny Lynch, stated at the time that "with Clara we accomplished as much in five weeks as we did in 14½ years."

Lyndon Johnson had his scare tactic ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964, juxtaposing a little girl pulling petals off a flower with the images of a countdown to a nuclear attack. Ronald Reagan had his "It's Morning in America" campaign. Michael Dukakis battled the spectre of furloughed felon Willie Horton, who committed rape while on release in Massachusetts.

All those, plus Clara Peller and more, became iconic in their respective presidential campaigns.

Clara Peller, wondering where the beef is (1984)

Add Big Bird to the list.

It's becoming apparent that the tall, gangly character from Sesame Street is going to be 2012's pop culture icon thrust into presidential politics.

It's been just one week since Mitt Romney brought Big Bird into the discussion, when he targeted in his debate with President Obama, PBS as a potential victim of a President Romney administration's efforts to pay for his tax plan.

In this day and age, a week may as well be six months. For it only took a few days for Big Bird to enjoy a spate of popularity he hasn't experienced in maybe decades, if at all.

Heck, it hasn't been since 1976, when Mark "The Bird" Fidrych enthralled America pitching for the Tigers, that Big Bird has been mentioned this much in mainstream media.

Big Bird is doing the circuit now. "Saturday Night Live" came calling, and the Bird is making appearances here and there.

The president these days is quick to mention Big Bird in mocking Romney's tax plan and how it is to be paid for.

Clara Peller died in August 1987, aged 85 and her 15 minutes of fame drained from the clock. She did make some other commercials for products like Prego spaghetti sauce, but nothing close in popularity to the "Where's the Beef?" campaign.

Fortunately, Big Bird is immortal. Although after a few more weeks of the tall, yellow, feathered creature being shoved in our face, maybe that won't seem like such a good thing.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


The clothes had no emperor---or president.

It was a vanishing act of the most extreme. Someone start rolling milk cartons off the presses with the president's mug on them.

"Have you seen me?"

Mitt Romney is a magician. He walked on stage at the University of Denver last night, opened his mouth, and made Barack Obama disappear.

Obama, for his part, did some "Abracadabra" of his own---by making Romney's baggage go away, just like that. Someone check back stage for an albatross slithering away, freed from Romney's neck.

Last night's presidential debate was made out to be Muhammad Ali vs. Chuck Wepner, redux. The challenger didn't have a chance to touch the champ, right? Obama was going to wipe the floor with the former Massachusetts governor.

But unlike the Ali-Wepner bout, which featured the overmatched challenger Wepner hanging tough by showing he could take the pounding of a lifetime from champion Ali, it was the champ/president who entered the ring and immediately went into Ali's famed Rope-a-Dope.

Romney pounded and pounded, from the get go, while Obama thrust his arms in front of his face, stood against the ropes, and took it, as if hoping Romney would tire his mouth out.

This was also a bout without a ref. Moderator Jim Lehrer was like one of those disrespected refs in a WWE match. Romney had as much respect for Lehrer as the Harlem Globetrotters do for the Washington Generals.

When tired of running roughshod over the president, Romney took to holding Lehrer in contempt, frequently ignoring the 78-year-old's feeble attempts to rein the governor in. At one point, early on, Romney declared, "I have the last word on this subject."

It was like a batter in baseball telling an umpire, "I get a fourth strike." And the umpire agreeing.

But Obama doesn't have Lehrer to blame. It was all on the president---the lack of fire, the refusal to break out even one weapon from an overloaded holster, the inexplicable silence on all the verbal and policy gaffes Romney has made in recent weeks.

Two of these men were invisible last night and the third pounced (guess)

Did you hear anything about 47%? Or offshore holdings? Or the multiple examples of flip-flopping? Or the hypocrisy on China?

Did you hear about Osama bin Laden (other than in the final 30 seconds)? Or the automotive bailout?

What was Obama waiting for? Approval from Lehrer, who one time inexplicably asked Romney, while the president was speaking, "Do you agree with the president?" thus allowing Romney a free opportunity to look good. And Romney took it.

But again, this is on Obama. He played it like a hockey team trying not to lose in the closing minutes, just dumping the puck out of their zone and hoping for the best, while the other guys pepper the goalie with shot after shot.

It could be rust. Romney debated just this year, while the president hasn't done this in four years.

Regardless, Obama was flat. A bottle of Pepsi left out for several days had more fizz.

There are two of these debates left. Suddenly they matter.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Voice(s) of Treason?

The good news about Seth MacFarlane as the host of the Oscars telecast is that the producers can save a ton of money.

MacFarlane, he of many voices and characters, isn't just one man. He's his own talent pool. He's an R-rated Mel Blanc.

It was announced Monday that MacFarlane, creator of the popular animated TV series "Family Guy," and the source for many of the show's voices, will host the 2013 Oscars telecast.

Who needs Steve Martin or Billy Crystal? They're one trick ponies (or, one pony each, anyway), while MacFarlane will never run out of voices and characters, not even during Oscar's sometimes interminable telecasts.

MacFarlane doesn't just do voices. He does TV shows---as in he produces them. Besides "Family Guy," MacFarlane has his fingers in the pies of "American Dad!" and "The Cleveland Show" (all animated).

The hiring of MacFarlane signals an attempt by Oscars producers to go after a younger, more hip demographic. MacFarlane, who recently hosted "Saturday Night Live," can be seen on occasion on Comedy Central's celebrity roasts---and he's pretty funny. His humor is edgy and pushes the proverbial envelope on occasion.

And he appreciates the gig.

MacFarlane calls the Oscars hosting opportunity "the greatest call that I could have gotten in show business." He was a presenter in 2012.

If you're tilting your head and looking at the screen sideways, like a confused dog, Oscars co-producer Neil Meron feels you. He called MacFarlane "the most unbelievable, consummate host choice we could think of."

Well, as far as unbelievable, maybe the ill-chosen Anne Hathaway and James Franco pairing of 2011 takes that cake.

Seth MacFarlane

It's hard to say if the MacFarlane we will see on Oscar night will be a watered down version. Despite the seeming boldness of the pick, you never know if the producers will "chicken out" a little as the telecast grows nearer, and present a MacFarlane that is more suitable for audiences of all ages.

The Oscar audience, on TV, is still heavily populated with the 50+ crowd (might want to add a few pluses, actually), and MacFarlane and his shows are not necessarily an older person's cup of tea.

That's why Crystal was so popular; he played well with the older crowd. Steve Martin was transitional. Seth MacFarlane is an extreme.

Will it work? Well, the worst that can happen is that they don't ask him back.

Actually, that's not the worst that can happen. The producers ought not to ponder the worst. That could be a little scary.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Oh, Snap!

It's one of the best snapshots taken of Jimmy Hoffa. The photographer was the legendary Tony Spina, the longtime shutterbug for the Detroit Free Press, and when Spina got behind the camera, iconic portraits often happened.

It was Spina who captured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of the more enduring photos of the late civil rights leader's life---taken before King was to speak before a crowd at a Grosse Pointe High School. Spina caught King, perhaps in prayer, but certainly reflective, clasped hands near his chin.

Dr. King, as seen through the lens of Tony Spina

And there's the photo of Hoffa, with the ex-Teamsters president smiling like he doesn't have a care in the world, snapped in front of Hoffa's metro Detroit home.

The date was July 24, 1975.

It's significant, the photo shoot (which included a few different poses), because less than a week later, Hoffa would leave that metro Detroit home for a lunch meeting and never return.

I saw the photo the other day, once again, because Hoffa is once again in the news, and the Free Press ran a photo gallery chronicling the labor leader's life.

Jimmy Hoffa, snapped by Spina on 7/24/75; Hoffa would go missing six days later

Hoffa is being talked about, some 37 years after his disappearance, because yet another failed effort was made to find his remains.

They dug up a driveway in Roseville, based on a supposedly credible tip, because authorities were told that Hoffa may have been buried beneath the concrete. So far, the four-inch sample doesn't appear to contain anything human.

Add the Roseville driveway to the list of places where Hoffa's body supposedly was dispensed. That list includes, among other places, under Giants Stadium in New Jersey; beneath a multitude of farms in various rural locations; under a home in Detroit; and even under the Renaissance Center, which was under construction when Hoffa disappeared in 1975.

The photo that Spina snapped of Hoffa is rather haunting because it was taken just six days before Hoffa drove to a meeting at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant at Telegraph and Maple and was never heard from again. It's hard to look at the photo of a smiling Hoffa and, knowing when it was taken, not feel something spooky, for here was a man who had no idea he had but six days to live (assuming Hoffa was killed shortly after arriving at the Red Fox).

There will likely always be a fascination with Hoffa's demise, because of the loose ends nature of it, and the lack of closure. We had a taste of that kind of notoriety earlier this year, when Amelia Earhart's remains were theorized to have been found.

I never had any real hope that the Roseville digging would uncover anything of note; after so many years and so many failed attempts, it's kind of hard to be optimistic. But it wasn't whether we would find Hoffa's remains that had me interested this week. It was that photo, snapped by the award-winning Spina, that had me going.

Which is a good thing, because it's a perfect portrait of an imperfect man. And the way I prefer to remember Hoffa anyway, truth be told.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'm Two Dads Now

The other day, I officially became my father.

It's inevitable, they say. One day you'll become your parents.

Pop culture is usually the killer.

My induction into the Crotchety Old Man Hall of Fame occurred a couple of nights ago.

I was in the kitchen and on the TV in the front room was a video of a performer having a tantrum on stage. I couldn't see the video; I could only hear the audio.

"I'm not Justin Bieber!" the male voice screamed, followed by some bleeped out expletives.

"Who's that?" I called out, because the audio clip was rather shocking.

Our 19-year-old daughter answered with what I thought was "Billy Joel."

Now, knowing Joel's occasional drinking and drug foibles, and his notorious temper, I thought that made sense. Joel's melted down in the past---on stage and off.

"Billy Joel? Really?" I replied, a little knowing chuckle in my voice.

"BILLIE JOE, dad!"

Now I was confuzzled.

"Billy Joe? Who's that?"

I could literally hear her eyes rolling.

"BILLIE JOE, dad! From Green Day."

"I don't know who that is?"

Heavy sigh, followed by, "You've never heard of Green Day?"

"I've heard of them, yes (barely), but I don't know the names of the people in Green Day!"

She groaned. "Oh God, Dad."

Apparently I should know who this is (psst---it's Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day)

That capped a day in which when I got into the car, her radio station was on---95.5 FM.

"All this music sounds the same to me," I told my wife, sincerely. The songs that played all did sound the same to me.

So you combine that comment with the "I thought you said Billy JOEL and who's Billy JOE?" thing, and I have become my dad.

My father didn't appreciate all of my kind of music, either, though we did intersect in our like for certain 1970s recording artists like Three Dog Night and Dave Mason.

That's OK. I loved my dad to pieces, may he rest in peace. I don't really mind becoming him.

Besides, our daughter's lucky that I didn't think she said Green BAY.

Now that's more up my alley.

Oh, and I got her in the end. Referencing Joe's meltdown, in which he demolished his guitar on stage, Nicole wondered aloud if I had ever seen that.

"Yeah---Pete Townshend of The Who used to do that regularly."

She didn't know who that was.