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.