It’s in the water.

My wife and I have been trying very hard to enjoy Grace and Frankie, the new Netflix (I guess you call it a) series about two older men who leave their wives for each other. It’s an interesting premise with a good cast, and it raises many interesting issues about sexual orientation and marriage. The two gay men bickering and the two abandoned wives (presumably they’re straight) are funny…once. After that, it’s just acting and I don’t believe a word of it anymore. If the the script were dangling in front of them, it couldn’t be more obvious that these are not four characters facing a crisis—they’re four actors playing four characters facing a crisis. Comedy requires truth, and if you maintain that this not a comedy but an observation of modern life, then that requires truth also.

I mention this now because Philip Austin died a few days ago. You may not know the name, but to those of us who latched on to the Firesign Theater in the 70’s and never let go, we know Phil Austin. He was a comic genius in a troupe of four of them, producing memorable characters on phonograph records(!) in performances that mimicked everything from old radio broadcasts to on-the-spot news coverage.

Everyone has a different story about “discovering Firesign.” For me it came in 1970. I had just begun teaching high school English—I wasn’t that much older than my students and therefore very hip. One day a student asked me if I listened to Firesign Theater. I was suddenly unhip—I had no idea what he was talking about. He brought in the record and let me take it home where I heard a game show called “Beat the Reaper” and a history of America called “Temporarily Humboldt County” in which Native Americans come out on the short end of the stick and end up as extras in a Hollywood movie providing “Indian” sound effects. Everything was rapid-fire—there was no time for them to revel in their own jokes: another one was right there waiting.

This morning I read the tributes to Mr. Austin on the Firesign website

and laughed almost as hard at them as I did at many of those wondrous skits—Nick Danger,: Third Eye, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, Porgie and Mudhead at More Science High. I first heard the word clone on a Firesign Album and listened intently as daredevil Rebus Knebus (whose last name resembled the popular smoking product in the 70’s) tried to jump his motorcycle into the center of the earth. Firesign poked fun at education, at jingoism, at Madison Avenue, at television, and of course themselves.

In that tribute list are many listeners in their twenties, in a sense a third generation of fans already planning to share Firesign with their own offspring. As for me, forty-five years past that vinyl on my turntable,I have one friend who understands any of my references, but knowing there is such a legion of them makes me feel better. As one of the tributes reads: “We are like members of a secret society without the evil intentions or onerous dues.” When I tell this friend that the Antelope Freeway is only 1/128 mile from here, he actually knows what I’m talking about. As Nick Danger would say, odd but strange.

So rest in peace Phil Austin, and thanks for creating such memorable characters, so many quotable lines, and mostly for the truth you gave us. You and your three partners were, in fact, four guys with scripts in front of you, but we listeners never thought of you that way. To us you were Uh, Clem, and Rocky Rococo, and Audrey Farber (though everyone knew her as Nancy). This afternoon I’ll hoist a Bear Whiz Beer in your honor. It’s the least I can do.

Besides, it’s in the water.

Next time, don’t apologize

A recent statement by Connecticut House minority leader Themis Klarides compared the state’s democrats distancing themselves from the Governor to a “battered spouse support group.” The analogy probably drew an uneasy laugh from a few people, but one who didn’t laugh was Karen Jarmoc, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She decried Klarides’s comment as insulting, citing the number of women facing the threat on a daily basis, adding that some even face the threat of homicide.

So far this is pretty much de rigueur, right?—politician says something questionable, gets called on it, apologizes. End of story.

But sometimes the apology is even better than (worse than?) the original gaffe. In this case, Representative Klarides said she absolutely did not intend to be insensitive, adding, in what has to be the worst clarification on record, “I certainly didn’t intend to diminish domestic violence.”

Well Ms. Klarides, I think we all know what you meant—that you didn’t want to diminish the seriousness or the danger of domestic violence. And I don’t represent the PC police with some sort of gotcha based on an obvious or presumed insult. But politicians—people who make decisions for us—shouldn’t get a pass on something like this. They shouldn’t be able to simply say well you know what I meant.

I’m going to assume that Representative Klarides would in fact prefer to diminish domestic violence, especially since I don’t know of any political party platforms that support it. So I don’t require another apology—none of us does. (Come on though, folks, aren’t you curious about what the next one would be?) But maybe a better alternative to unclear and inaccurate apologies would be diminishing the number of insensitive and thoughtless comments in the first place. I do realize that for many elected officials such a stricture would leave them with nothing to say, but that’s the kind of “diminishment” I’d be willing to support.

Look who’s shooting to improve mental health

Just a note to gun enthusiasts: thank you for your sudden and deep concern for mental health issues in our country. No really. Thank you so much.

It seems that every time someone uses firearms to murder people  (nine in Charleston, twenty-six in Sandy Hook, twelve in Aurora, thirteen in Littleton, etc.) gun enthusiasts express their outrage at the state of mental health in America. I’m pretty sure they don’t do this on a daily basis or implore some big lobbying group like the NRA to fight for better psychiatric care, but whenever someone picks up a gun and goes “crazy” with it, then it’s time once again to deal with “craziness.”

It’s not easy. With over 300 million firearms in civilian ownership in the U.S. and over fifty million guns manufactured or imported and sold in the U.S over the past seven years, it’s impossible to keep anyone, sane or insane, from simply stumbling over one. (see HBO’s Requiem for the Dead for the depressing proof.)

But what if…what if we instituted some sort of prohibitive tax on guns and ammunition, a tax so high that no sane person would pay it. For instance, a pack of cigarettes costs roughly thirty times what it did back in the sixties and now fewer people smoke. Economic hardship can be an effective deterrent. But a gun that cost about $100 in 1970 now costs $500—only five times as much. If it had gone up commensurately with the “dangerous and deadly” cigarettes, one might be paying $3,000 for a handgun, or $21,000 for an AK-47. If you’re willing to spend $21,000 on a gun (and you don’t work for the Defense Department, you’d have to be crazy. If you’re crazy, you can’t have a gun. That would probably mean some rudimentary background checks, but hey, if you’re upset at the “craziness,” that’s a small price to pay.

As for the recent terrorist act in Charleston: I did read the assertion that anyone with a bomb could have done just as much damage. Maybe, but when I look in the vacant eyes of Dylann Roof, I don’t see someone who could have constructed a bomb without blowing himself up, or even found a way to obtain a bomb…without blowing himself up. I do however see someone whose birthday money would have been insufficient to buy a thousand-dollar weapon, and to whom the gun dealer would have said (and should have said) “you’re crazy if you think I’m selling you a gun.”

Some cynics might claim that gun enthusiasts are keeping the mental health of Americans in the forefront to ensure that the real problem keeps getting buried. But you’d have to be crazy to believe that…and if so, sorry—you can’t have a gun either.




Break out the asterisks

The cry among Patriot fans these days, faced with the very real probability that their team cheated their way to the NFL Championship, is that they didn’t need special footballs to beat the hapless Colts.

45-7, they claim. They could have used beachballs!

There may be an element of truth to that boast—New England was a heavy favorite going into that AFC championship game, and the Colts seemed to lag behind their opponents in every statistical category. Fans may have been surprised at the lopsidedness of the score, but nobody was terribly surprised that the Patriots won. I doubt if the Colts themselves were that shocked.

If that’s true, why would a team that seemed destined to win cheat to do so?

The answer is obvious: because they thought they could get away with it.

And why did the NFL postpone any investigation for two weeks until after Super Bowl had passed? That’s just as obvious: same answer.

Let’s face it, 2014-15 was not a stellar season for the National Football League. From Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to the admission that maybe being smacked in the head over and over for ten years might just possibly destroy the brain—last year’s NFL season seemed a constant struggle between the actuality of the league and the public image it tried to convey. What better end to the contentious season than to have Tom Brady, football’s golden boy, lead his team to victory and put a stop to all the extraneous minutiae clogging up the sports pages? (I use the term “golden boy” intentionally—it was once used to describe Paul Hornung a few generations ago. Look up his fall from grace if you’d like.)

As for the fact that the game was a “blowout,” , let’s not forget that football, like basketball and hockey is timed—a team falling behind 17-7 at the half (as the Colts did) knows it has thirty minutes of football to recover. For contrast, a player could lose the first two sets of a five-set tennis match, maybe even the first five games of the third set, yet still win the match. Time doesn’t run out. Three times a baseball team has scored nine runs in its last at bat to win a game. Nobody kept an eye on the clock. But falling behind in football determines the pace and strategy of the second occurred.

Will this be a soon-forgotten blemish on the reputations of Brady and Belichick (already accused of previous chicanery) or will it be an ongoing stigma with which their names will always be associated? From what I’ve seen of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Lance Armstrong, I would hold with the latter. And though football is not so statistics driven as possible, it may be time to open up a big bag of asterisks for Brady and the Pats.

A week ago the partisans of Fenway took Alex Rodriguez to task for sullying baseball’s good name, sending a deafening chorus of boos his way when he came to bat. I hope these strict moralists will greet Tom Brady with the same disapprobation and disdain when he takes the field this fall.


Missing persons

Last weekend Dean Smith, one of our greatest basketball coaches and educators, died at the age of 83. Tributes came from everywhere, many of them ending like this: he will be missed.

I wonder by whom. If it’s the maker of the statement, wouldn’t it be a lot more personal to say “I’ll miss him”? Doesn’t this sound more heartfelt? Simply saying that someone will be missed is to say nothing at all about the emotional state of the speaker, only that he’s betting on someone somewhere probably wishing that the deceased were not quite so deceased. That’s a pretty safe bet. I’m sure if you go through a catalog of the worst people in history, you will find someone who lamented their passing. Of course you will find many more who didn’t—maybe more still who celebrated it. “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” comes to mind. There’s something genuine and personal about that song, something lost in a statement like “the witch will not be missed.”

We should feel bad when someone dies, not lay the responsibility on others.

Then again, if we’re so married to the passive voice, then let’s have some Valentine’s Day cards to match. How about: “Be my Valentine—you are loved“? Let’s see how that works out. And if that relationship progresses all the way to “Will you allow yourself to be married by me?” and the answer is yes, then I’ll admit that I was wrong. But until then “he will not be missed” will not be missed.

Human Error, Part II

I like Brian Williams. I’ve always found him entertaining. As far as delivering the news, I don’t think he’s better or worse than anyone else. How could he be? It’s the news—you either tell it or you don’t.

But that’s the problem. We don’t really want the news. We prefer the feel-good stories that substitute as news—the items that come after that first commercial break. If we really wanted the news we’d watch PBS.

Still Brian Williams made a mistake—he took liberties with the part of the news after the first commercial. He turned a feel-good story into a feel-too-good story by adding fictitious details. It was so unnecessary: we’d have been happy with the feel-good story alone. Didn’t he know we’re not that choosy anymore?

So now Brian Williams is taking some time off to weigh the possibilities and become the butt of jokes. Many people want him gone for good. They accuse him of stealing valor, of turning a soldier’s heroic act into his own. I don’t think Mr. Williams said to himself beforehand, “Mmmh, let’s see, tonight I’ll steal some valor.” In fact with what we’ve learned about memory the past few days since Mr. Williams conflated those events in the Middle East, it’s entirely possible that he made an honest mistake. I’ll let the experts figure that out.

Let’s not, however, fall for this shibboleth that news anchors need to be held to a higher standard. Really? Higher than who? Higher than politicians who control the operation of this country?

Texas republican governor Rick Perry currently faces two felony charges.

Before he became Florida’s republican governor, Rick Scott was the CEO of Columbia/HCA which was fined a total of $1.7 billion for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

So as not to slight the democrats, Queens Assemblyman William Scarborough faces 23 state and 11 federal charges over misuse of campaign funds.

They say Brian Williams has done this kind of thing before—enhanced stories to make them more compelling. I hope that’s not true, but if it is, well, I can’t lament that I put him on a pedestal and he let me down. I don’t own a pedestal. And if he doesn’t “give it to us straight” the way Walter Cronkite did, it’s because we don’t want it straight anymore. Seriously does it really matter who tells us a story involving pandas or kittens, or William Kate and Prince George arriving home after their Caribbean vacation?

Maybe stories like that become so mind-numbing after a time, that making stuff up is the only way to say sane.




Human Error, Part I

A driver made a mistake.

That simple statement could save a great many investigators a great many hours of investigation relating to the recent Metro-North tragedy in Valhalla, New York.

A driver made a mistake.

You can put in signals, and signs, and gates, and flashing lights—still, occasionally a driver will make a mistake.

You can even blame the third rail which does seem grievously dangerous, but something that works well almost all the time may not have been the problem. What was the problem is the driver made a mistake.

That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say we can’t address the issue of human error. We can. We do. Those rumble strips on the sides of highways—who knows how many mistakes those have prevented over the years—how many weary drivers were jolted from an approaching nap by that annoying vibration.

We can’t operate the microwave with the door open just to feel the tingle.

We can’t open the elevator door between floors just to have a look.

We can’t open a window on an airplane because it feels stuffy.

We’re protected from our own idiocy all the time. Why shouldn’t we be protected from simple confusion?

This morning while I was on the treadmill I watched a TV show on my iPad. I don’t know how that works, but somehow the magical rays in the air allowed that to happen. How much easier would it be to put a little sensor in each railroad crossing gate that, as soon as that gate encounters an obstruction of any kind, signals the approaching train and automatically applies the emergency brake? How embarrassingly easy would it be to have a camera feed directly to a central location: CAR ON TRACK. EMERGENCY STOP. That took me about five seconds to type (the caps lock key slowed me down). That would have left another twenty-five seconds for the train to come to a stop had such a device been installed. Even more actually, because it would have been slowing down all that time.

We’re going to continue to make mistakes, and yes, that third rail doesn’t seem like the cleverest idea anyone’s ever thought of. And I don’t think we can ever eliminate human error and never obviate every impending disaster.

But we can probably do better.

Got Milk? Got Cash?


From The N.Y. Times, February 3, 2015:

Coke is coming out with premium milk that has more protein and less sugar than regular. And the company is betting people will pay twice as much for it. The national introduction of the drink, Fairlife, over the next several weeks is one way that Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest beverage maker, is diversifying its offerings as Americans turn away from soft drinks. To make the drink, filters are used to separate the various components in milk. Then, more of the favorable components are added, while the less desirable ones are kept out. Fairlife says the drink is lactose-free and has 50 percent more protein, 30 percent more calcium and 50 percent less sugar than regular milk.


It’s always good news when a company that has made a fortune selling something unhealthful turns around and sells us something slightly less unhealthful and doubles the price. Who wouldn’t crow about that? And just so you know that Fairlife isn’t Coca-cola’s first venture into other liquid areas, here’s a photo from their website of their current product line:


Drink up.

You can also, if the spirit moves you, by a retro 10-can vending machine to dispense your Coke. It’s available at Wal-Mart for a mere $139.00.

One person bought it and reviewed it. He gave it one star and praised it as a wonderful purchase. He apparently doesn’t understand the star system—perhaps too many sugary beverages have addled his brain. (How many horrible movies must he have seen?)

As for Fairlife, the new super-milk, well first off, if you’re reading this, you shouldn’t be drinking it. Milk is for babies—it’s a concentrated food that helps them grow fast. Adults don’t want to grow fast, the obesity rate in this country notwithstanding. But it’s a losing battle to fight the National Dairy Council who claims that milk “– whether white or flavored – plays a vital role within the school meal in helping children meet needs for critical nutrients of concern as identified in the Dietary Guidelines.” The Council has the lobbyists to back it up—all I have is a quart of Silk…and my knowledge that the nutrients in milk comes from the plants that cows eat and that we could also eat those plants and eliminate the middle…cow.

Still, I wish Coca-Cola only the best in this new corporate maneuver. It’s bound to succeed, and if you think that people can’t be charged twice as much for something they don’t need anyway, stop by a Starbucks sometime.


Sackcloth—the fashion that never goes out of style

My son is a meteorologist. I guess I need to get that fact out of the way.

Also this: I’ve had enough of Robert Kraft and all Kraftiana (except for the unrelated mac and cheese).

That concludes my meager but necessary preface, allowing me to continue without (too much) bias.

Yesterday I read a statement from the National Weather Service apologizing for blowing the forecast in the New York City area this past Tuesday. The prediction of twenty-plus inches of snow never materialized, leaving the area with six to ten. The subway system was shut down, as was Broadway. Probably the Staten Island Ferry and the Guggenheim—though I’d have to check to be sure. Apparently there were minimal casualties, this despite the slippery roads. No casualties—sometimes warnings help.

And all the New Yorkers and their sympathizers complaining about the so-called blown forecast should search their apparently inadequate memory banks to recall the last time the City faced the cleanup after a crippling snowstorm. In 2010, for instance,  just under two feet of snow fell in a December nor’easter, shutting down and isolating entire neighborhoods for days and rousing an endless skein of complaints. And not that it matters to people whose minds are made up, but this week’s forecast was hardly “blown.” We all saw that forecast map of Connecticut Monday evening that indicated 15 to 30 inches of snow would fall. The final range turned out to be a remarkably close 8 to 33. Anyway, for those who were deprived of their share of snow, remember, blown forecasts are easier to shovel out of—ask the people in Stonington. Or Marshfield.

Which brings me to Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who has, in this season of apologies, demanded one from the NFL when the investigation into his team’s doctoring of footballs is complete. I don’t know if he realizes it or if he cares, but (and I can say this as a Yankee fan) the Patriots are becoming the Yankees in terms of fans’ disaffection. They may not have been around long enough to develop generations and generations of despisers (The Yankees have had more than a century to build up their non-fan base with parents passing it on to children), but the Pats are making up for lost time. The players’ and coaches’ recent denials of any chicanery have been laughable though not unexpected, and most casual observers don’t care about the results of this so-called probe. But for the four-billion-dollar man to demand an apology from a league that seldom does its job and this time decides to? Ludicrous. Arrogant. Unnecessary.

Aplologies, then.

Just by way of comparison, Derek Jeter was successful 30% of the time and he’s a future Hall-of-Famer. Should he apologize for the 70% of at-bats when he didn’t get a hit? If so, then yes, let’s get that apology from NWS and demand that the NFL kiss Robert Kraft’s (Super Bowl) rings. But if we’re going to let Jeter slide, and Larry Bird (who missed half his shots) and John Elway (forty percent of whose passes hit the turf), and Rory Mcllroy (four strokes to reach the hole—after three that missed?) then maybe we should cut the meteorologists some slack too.

In a society as imperfect as ours, let’s not go around expecting an apology from everyone who declares we aren’t perfect.

Here we come a-waffling, Part II

Like everyone else who believes that having access to the Internet makes him smart, I have a lot of opinions. Some of them, of course, make no sense. Those are the ones I try to keep to myself, only letting them roam free when someone makes the mistake of asking me.

I can get away with that: I’m not running for president.

But in a speech in Manitoba yesterday, Hillary Clinton, who IS running for president said that since the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has not been resolved she would not comment on it. “We have differences,” Ms. Clinton said, “and you won’t get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I’m not going to express an opinion.”

In the absence of her opinion, let me give you mine: she has to form an opinion and she has to express it. Now.

It’s not as if any new facts need to be gathered. We all know (warning: opinion ahead) that this project could easily become the single most ecologically disastrous event of the still-early 21st century, both in terms of carbon emissions and the rape of the Alberta landscape. That’s my opinion, and since I plan to vote in the next presidential election, I’d like to know the opinion of the frontrunner.

Her assertion that “you won’t get me to talk about it” does not exactly inspire confidence. Instead she sounds very much like just another indecisive politician waiting to see which way the wind blows. Of course she doesn’t want to alienate millions of people (many of them members of her own Democratic party) by coming down on one side of a controversial issue, but she’s going to do that on a daily basis throughout the election cycle. Some people are not going to like things that she says: since that fact is undoubtedly true, coming out and exposing Keystone XL for the disaster that it is might be good practice.

Granted, the 2016 presidential election is 600 some-odd days away, but I need more than this brand of “taking the fifth” from a candidate who, it appears, plans to run and hopes to win.