Friday, November 24, 2017

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Thursday, November 23, 2017

If Turkeys Could Speak

As you sit down for dinner this Thanksgiving, pause for a moment to ponder the meaning of the holiday. If you are a Millennial, a recent Pew poll suggests 40 percent of you are clueless as to why we should be thankful this day.

One of the first Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in the American colonies, in Plymouth Colony (now Southeast Massachusetts) in 1621 when the Pilgrims shared an autumn harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians. The Indians brought deer, not turkey, so venison was the main course. But the first true Thanksgiving came two years later, when the Pilgrims’ prayers were answered: rain brought an end to the drought that was destroying their crops, and Captain Miles Standish landed bearing new and much needed supplies.

But who were these Pilgrims who had settled the Plymouth Colony? They were men and women fleeing religious persecution by the English Crown, emigrating first to the Netherlands and then to the American colonies. They sought freedom of religion, which encompasses two other freedoms: the right to express ones’ self and the right to gather with others who share this expression. A century and a half later, the American colonists upon declaring their independence from England would consider all three rights to be necessary, fundamental freedoms and combine them in the First Amendment to the new nation’s Constitution.

The First Amendment is arguably more important and essential to democracy than the other nine amendments comprising the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution itself. It’s all about freedom of expression. It guarantees it through what you say (freedom of speech), what you write (freedom of the press), what you believe and the practice of those beliefs (freedom of religion), and the right to share such expressions with others (freedom of assembly).

Of course, not everyone will agree with what you say, or write, or even how you express yourself. Some may even be offended. That is the cost of, and a necessary corollary of, free expression. While there is an explicit guarantee of the right to free speech in our nation’s Constitution, there is no corresponding right not to be offended by others. Democracy will survive, and even flourish, amidst offensive words – the most bountiful plants flourish when manure is heaped upon them. But democracy cannot survive when speech and other forms of expression are forbidden by the government.

That is why it is so shocking and downright frightening to read the results of the Pew poll in which 40 percent of Millennials – those aged 18-to-34 – say they want the government to censor statements that are offensive to minority groups. America was founded on the concept of fundamental freedoms, and that the government could not be allowed to censor its citizens, in part because the government was “of, by, and for the people.” We are not governed by a dictator or king’s edicts but rather by those we choose from among us. We are our government and therefore shall not censor ourselves. That’s what made America different from all the other nations from which its future citizens would emigrate. Once we allow the government to decide what we may or may not say, we have surrendered our democracy. Once we permit offensive speech to be proscribed, the next question becomes ‘Who decides which words or statements are deemed offensive?’ Our freedom decreases in direct proportion to the expansiveness of the definition of the word “offensive”.

Freedom of speech must not be curtailed in the name of political correctness. Americans should cherish the First Amendment and not carve it up along with their turkey.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

There Must Be Something in the Water

Did you know I had a blog before there were such things as blogs? Neither did I, yet before I became a reluctant blogger I tried two brief stints as an enthusiastic one. My first attempt was at the end of the last century (I’ve waited all my life to say that phrase) and was merely a column on my personal Web site (remember when people had personal Web pages in the days before Facebook and MySpace?). It was entitled “rAnts and Raves” because it had these cool JavaScript ants crawling across the Web page. I know, but it was 90s and the Internet was new.

I ran across several of these posts locked in stasis in a time capsule and I thought I would share them with you over the next few weeks. Think of it as summer reruns in the fall. My first thought as I reread these words I penned so long-ago was, Wow, the more things change the more they stay the same. Then I realized how far we have come. In this first post from 1999, a prominent white man was accused of abusing his position of authority and power to solicit sex from a 13-year-old girl; today, U.S. Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore of Alabama is accused of abusing his position of authority and power to solicit sex from a 14-year-old girl. Clearly, in the intervening 18 years the age of nonconsent has been raised from 13 to 14.

There Must Be Something in the Water

Thursday, September 23, 1999 - Have you noticed lately how people in positions of power and responsibility in both the corporate world and government have been saying and doing outrageous absurdities without the slightest thought as to the inappropriateness of their actions or the effects on the institutions they represent?

It seems to have begun when the president of the United States unzipped his pants for a dalliance with a girl young enough to be his daughter. To paraphrase Monica Clark, when we elected him we knew he was horny; we didn’t know he was stupid. How can someone spend his whole life working to rise to the most powerful position in the world and then blow it (no pun intended) so stupidly?

You would think that people who work so hard to achieve the pinnacle of success would exercise a modicum of common sense when it come to their comments or actions. Not so, apparently. Last week, Patrick Naughton, head of the Walt Disney Company’s Web sites, was arrested and charged with using the Internet to solicit sex with a 13-year-old girl. Let me rephrase that: this guy’s job is to make both the Internet and the world’s largest children’s entertainment company look good, so what does he do?

Now consider the comments made this week by two men seeking the U.S. presidency. Pat Buchanan stated America should not have entered World War II to fight Hitler. If he were president – and he’s trying to be – he would have let Hitler conquer Europe and complete his genocide. Meanwhile, former P.O.W. Sen. John McCain was quoted as having been “outraged and deeply hurt” by Buchanan's remarks, while himself quipping to reporters that “the reason Chelsea Clinton is so ugly is because her mother is Janet Reno and her father is Hilary Clinton.”

Today, the NASDAQ suffered its fourth largest point drop in history after comments from Microsoft President Steven Balmer, who told reporters he thought the technology sector was overvalued, along with the price of his company’s stock. “There’s such an overvaluation of tech stocks it’s absurd,” he told a conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. So the man who is paid (some would say absurdly overpaid – Balmer is No. 4 on the Forbes 500 list with a net worth of $23 billion) to promote his company tells a press conference his company’s stock is absurdly overvalued.

So what is going on? Is there something in the drinking water making top executives and national leaders loony? How ironic that George C. Scott died today. I guess his character in Dr. Strangelove was right all along.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Talking Fish

On the radio today, I heard about a filmmaker who devised an idea for a documentary: he would go door to door and film people’s responses to one scenario. What if you found a magical talking fish that could grant you three wishes before you released it? What would you wish for?

Of course, this is merely a variation of the Aladdin’s lamp tale from the Arabian Nights. On the other hand, it also recalls W.W. Jacob’s cautionary tale of “The Monkey’s Paw” that warns to be careful what you wish for. Or as a lawyer would put it, draft your wishes carefully to consider all the possible loopholes and save the last wish in case you need to undo the first two.

But my reaction on hearing the question was visceral, without thought or consideration. I immediately knew what my wishes would be, in order of priority. But first, what would yours be? Go on, write them down. I’ll wait. I’ll meet you back at the next paragraph.

Are you back? Got your list? Good. Here were my three wishes, off the top of my head: (1) To rid the world of hatred; (2) To rid the world of illness; and (3) To be reunited with all my loved ones I’ve lost. I probably might have made different choices as a child, and again as a young man. I think age plays a role in one’s perspective. So does a degree of selfishness. Perhaps more than ever in my lifetime I see so much hatred in the world today. It’s the cause of much persecution and most wars. In my own selfish way, I’d like to spare my family and friends, and myself from being touched by this senseless violence. And why not extend that protection to everyone else, too? Similarly, as I age, I see more of the debilitating and painful effects of illness afflicting so many, including myself. I’ve spent time at cancer hospitals watching not only adults, but young children, walking the halls or dining in the cafeteria in hospital gowns, their hair long gone and their eyes staring back with a gaze hinting at the unimaginable suffering they are enduring. However, illness affects not only them but their healthy family members as well: the mothers and father, siblings, husbands or wives… the toll it takes on them is equally devastating. Most selfishly of all, I miss my departed loved ones: both human and pets. They had been my nurturers and support system throughout the years, and the source of constant unconditional love — the nutrient we all need to survive and prosper.

No amount of money could purchase my wishes. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” No one aspires to a life of mediocrity. We all wish to accomplish something meaningful with our allotted lifetimes. Many of us would like to leave the world a better place than we found it. So that’s how I would explain my wishes to the talking fish.

“If wishes were fishes…” But of course, magical talking fish don’t exist.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Really? You’re Famous?

Other than when I’m interviewing them, I don’t pay much attention to celebrities. I’ve often said I wouldn’t recognize most famous people if I bumped into them on the street. It turns out that’s true.

Many years ago, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con and I had reached the point where I needed a break from the hustle and bustle so I wandered away from the throng over to the hotel bar. I ended up passing the next 25 minutes downing scotch and sodas with a group of four or five other jovial men. I can’t recall what we talked about, not because of the passage of time or the abundance of liquor but simply because it was the sort of small talk one makes with strangers so that one doesn’t have to drink alone. There was a particularly gregarious young man, a few years older than myself, seated next to me who was really fun to talk to. Honestly, I felt as if we had all known each other for years and we were drinking at the local watering hole, and not strangers at a hotel bar on the other side of the country.

Eventually, I rose from my bar stool to return to the pandemonium of the convention, having been appropriately immunized with the sufficient number of shots of scotch. I said my goodbyes, waved nonchalantly to my drinking buds and headed back. I had gone about 10 feet when a young man stepped up excitedly to me and asked, “Do you know who that guy you were talking to is?”

I shrugged, slightly embarrassed at not being able to remember the name of someone to whom I’d been speaking for nearly half an hour. “Mike? Mark?” After all, what did it matter? I would speak to hundreds of people by the end of the convention and remember few, if any, of their names a day later.

“That’s Mark Hamill,” the young man said.

I remembered having watched a TV show as a kid starring a young actor named Mark Hamill and now that he mentioned it I could see the resemblance, although he was now much older. “The actor from The Texas Wheelers?” I asked. From what I later learned, I was probably about one of a dozen television viewers who had watched the show when it aired on ABC in 1974.

He looked at me incredulously. Obviously, he had never seen The Texas Wheelers but he had seen the movie Mark Hamill was cast in three years later; an obscure science-fiction film called Star Wars. At first, I couldn’t see the resemblance. Hamill was about my height, and no one has ever mistaken me for tall or anything near it. Luke Skywalker towered over the movie screen as a larger-than-life figure. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that had been simply the illusion of Hollywood.

A few years later, I was back in San Diego staying at the Marriott Marina Hotel with my full complement of pets in tow, having driven cross-country in a minivan. I learned San Diego had a doggie bakery that prepared confectionaries edible for canines so I decided to drive my Siberian Husky and my Weimaraner there one morning. What I didn’t know was that the hotel, which is adjacent to the convention center, allowed non-guests to park in its parking lot, even though the guests were paying an exorbitant daily parking fee. When I returned from the doggie bakery with my dogs I discovered the lot was full. That made me quite upset, since I had paid for parking space, so I parked in front of the lobby and brought both dogs inside and stood on line at one of the concierge desks to complain. The front desk was L-shaped and there were several lines, as this was an extremely large hotel.

My Siberian Husky became excited when she saw a woman standing in line on the other side of the L. I didn’t know why she would become so excited over a stranger until I realized who the stranger was. My Husky loved to watch television but only shows that featured animals; when humans came on, she would lose all interest and turn away from the screen. I’d often keep the TV turned to Animal Planet and at night we would watch Lassie. It was then I realized my Husky had somehow recognized June Lockhart, Lassie’s “mother” (Timmy’s mother, if we’re being technical).

The couple behind me noticed how excited my dog was, so I explained the situation to them. We had a good laugh about it and they complimented me on how beautiful both my dogs were. They told me they wished they had known the hotel accepted pets because they would have brought their dog. We talked about dogs and other things for about 20 minutes or more while we waited in the slow-moving line, and the entire time we spoke I couldn’t shake the feeling the man I was speaking to was familiar. I was certain I had seen him before, so I steered the conversation around hometowns and such but they were not from my state. Then I noticed he had a portion of a name tag jutting out from beneath his lapel. I strained my eyes, trying to decipher the writing whenever his jacket shifted, without appearing too conspicuous. Eventually, I could make out his full name and I knew immediately why he seemed familiar. After all, this was a man I had grown up watching on television. His hair had begun to gray and his face was lined with deep wrinkles but that was to be expected after 30 years. The name tag on the lapel of the man with whom I had been chatting so amicably about dogs read Walter Koenig. I had been talking to Ensign Chekov, who had appeared each week on my family’s 19-inch black-and-white Emerson TV set on Star Trek.

Back in the late 80s or early 90s, I was binge watching some of the early Dark Shadows episodes on VHS – the black and white ones introducing the 10-year-old ghost Sarah Collins, who had these haunting eyes. The next weekend, I attended  a Dark Shadows Festival in New York and received an invitation to a party at Studio 54. Even though it was past its heyday, I figured I couldn’t leave the Big Apple without checking Studio 54 off my bucket list so I popped in. Had I been expecting to see any of the brilliant Sy Thomasoff sets from the show I would’ve been disappointed; the only indication it had once been a soundstage (aside from its odd shape) was the architecture of the rafters above.

So I mingled, feeling a bit out of place as a tourist alone in New York City. Then, I saw a young woman my age (as I said, this was decades ago) who looked familiar. Naturally, I approached her (she had some friends around her) and told her she looked familiar, asking if we had met before. It must have seemed like the lamest pickup line possible, and she replied she didn’t think so; but I was certain I had seen her before so I pressed on. “Are you from Florida?” I asked. “Have you ever been to Florida? Where did you go to school? Work?” I knew I recognized her but the more questions I asked, the more I saw that “Omigod, he’s a stalker” look in her eyes, and her friends were giving me dirty looks, so I slowly backed off, hoping to lose myself in the crowd.

An even younger woman, who apparently had been standing behind me, approached me and asked, “Do you know who she is?” I replied I thought I knew her but apparently I didn’t, although her face was so familiar deep down I was certain we had crossed paths. The girl told me, “That’s Sharon Smyth. She was one of the stars on Dark Shadows.” I explained that wasn’t possible because she was my age and all the stars on my favorite childhood television show had been a good 20 years older than me. “Not her,” the girl replied. “She played Sarah, the 10-year-old ghost.” Immediately, I realized I had recognized the same haunting eyes at Studio 54 that I had been seeing for hours every day on television before coming to New York. Oops.

Flash forward about another two decades. I’d been invited to spend the week at Seaview Terrace in Newport, Rhode Island, the original “Collinwood” mansion used in the photo props for the Dark Shadows television series. The mansion was in need of repair and as part of the fundraising process I did a special limited-edition print run of about 300 copies of a short story collection and donated it so that it could be sold with all the proceeds to go toward restoration of the mansion. I know there weren’t 300 guests there that week, so either they sold them all over time or there’s a box of my books sitting in the haunted attic of Collinwood guarded by its resident ghosts. I also agreed to read some excerpts and be available to sign books during the weekend. The first evening there was a cocktail party and a few people approached me for autographs, so I kept the pen in my hand. I turned and bumped into a woman, apologizing of course, and she saw me holding the pen. She asked if I wanted her autograph. I replied, rather awkwardly, “Actually I was just signing autographs. Who are you?”

She introduced herself as Sharon Smyth, “I played the little girl Sarah on Dark Shadows.” This time there was nowhere to run and no large crowd to fade into. Oops again.

So I apologized profusely, first for not having recognized who she was, and then retroactively for having recognized her two decades earlier at Studio 54 and coming off as an obsessive stalker, LOL. A few days later, several of us attended the wonderful Judi Dench movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Sharon and I sat together to watch the film. All was forgiven, although she hasn’t invited me to another movie since.  ;­)