Thursday, December 28, 2006

Adventure in Argentina

December 8, 1998: a date that will live in infamy. For on the day, at a small town on the coast of Argentina, my wife was the victim of a sneak attack by – a sea lion?

The town was Puerto Madryn, so named by its Welsh settlers a century ago. Located about 700 miles south of Buenos Aires, it is a small city of about 20,000 souls who scratch out a living on the edge of Patagonia. American visitors to Argentina are often surprised to find so many of the place names to be decidedly un-Latin. Madryn is one such name, and nearby Rawson and Trelew are others. The Welsh left their mark on Argentina’s history, as did the Scots, the Irish, and the Germans.

The main attraction of Puerto Madryn to cruise ships like ours, the Royal Princess, was not its Welsh heritage but its deep harbor and its fine long pier, saving ship and passengers the inconvenience of tendering. There are few sights to be seen in Puerto Madryn, and many tourists opt for a three-hour bus ride over bumpy dirt roads to a penguin preserve. We were not tempted by this – there would be penguins enough later in the cruise – so we decided to take the ship’s shuttle downtown, less than a mile away. The Royal had docked early that morning and would sail at 5 PM. Looking across the bay at the town, we thought that an hour’s visit would be about right, so we dawdled over breakfast and made our way down the gangplank at about 11.

The 45,000-ton Royal Princess was a grand sight as we walked alongside her at the pier. This was our third cruise on the ship, but it was still impressive, inside and out. We had boarded her in Buenos Aires after a few days in that magnificent city, called at Montevideo for a day, enjoyed an “at sea” day, and were now en route to Cape Horn and up the other side of the continent to Valparaiso, Chile. The prospect of “rounding the Horn” was exciting. On the Royal’s first, eastbound cruise of the season, the weather at the Cape was ferocious; in the words of one crewmember, it was “like being inside a washing machine.”

On the pier, just ahead of us, abeam of the Royal’s prow, a small group of passengers clustered around a huge lump of an animal, a sea lion. A very tame sea lion, we figured, to be sitting so placidly on the dock, not at all bothered by the human traffic. The situation seemed to cry out for a photograph, and indeed the other passengers were clicking away while the sea lion posed majestically.

The best photo, I reasoned, would feature, from foreground to background, the sea lion, my wife, and the ship. So, advancing forward of the bow, I prompted Jill to “Stand behind the sea lion.” Bad advice.

Jill likes animals, and she assumes that animals like her, so she advances to within a few feet of the rear of the sea lion. Then she rashly reaches out to pat the head of this 700-pound mass of brown blubber.

POW!! Sea lions look as if they are slow-moving creatures. They are not. It took this one less than a second to flick its head around and sink six big teeth into Jill’s right thigh. The pivot was counterclockwise, so the force knocked her away from the edge of the pier. A clockwise thrust would have sent her into the waters of Golfo Nuevo.

Gasps from the onlookers as Jill reeled, bleeding badly through her torn slacks. Husband rushes fearlessly to her aid and hails a crewmember to help her up the gangway and to the ship’s hospital. The sea lion, having delivered its message, resumes its pose for the shutterbugs.

In the hospital, a female doctor and a nurse assess the damage. Big holes in the thigh, but no apparent damage to bones or muscles. Has Jill had tetanus shots lately? Who knew? People should keep records of such things, but most people don’t. The medics assume no tetanus shots and proceed. The next question is more interesting: Can sea lions carry rabies? The doctor is “pretty sure” that the answer is no. The wounds are bandaged. Jill will survive.

The ship departs an hour late because of high winds, and then we head southeast, toward the Falkland Islands.

The next day and throughout the cruise, Jill is a celebrity, as passengers point her out to one another as “the woman who was attacked by the sea lion.” One passenger we befriend is a stunning blond girl, Mary, from New Orleans. Mary, it turns out, is a doctor, and she is aghast that we have settled for “pretty sure” in the matter of sea lions and rabies. “Rabies is one hundred percent fatal in humans,” she says, “and the doctor should be absolutely positive about this.”

Mary’s logic is impeccable, so, later that day, I raise the point with the ship’s doctor, who seems less than amused that her judgment has been questioned. She tells me that on cruises to Africa she has treated crocodile bites and hippopotamus bites. From a shelf she takes a big book with lists of animals that can and cannot carry rabies. Every animal in the world is listed – except sea lions. She will inquire.

The ship is carrying two ampoules of rabies serum – not enough for the full series, but more could presumably be requisitioned from the large British army hospital in the Falklands. But before another day has passed, she calls to report that she has phoned the Center for Infectious Diseases and a Marine Biology Laboratory in the U.S. Sea lions do not carry rabies.

It made sense. Rabies is carried by carnivores, and sea lions eat fish, plus an occasional nibble at a human who sneaks up on it from behind.

The Royal’s hospital staff provided first-class medical treatment throughout the voyage, the medications were on target, and the wounds proceeded to heal nicely. (“But you’ll never wear a bikini again, dearie,” clucked one lady at lunch. There’s one in every crowd.)

Fate had a hand in the episode. The Royal Princess was new to this itinerary, and this was its second cruise of the season. But on the first, eastbound cruise, bad weather at the Falklands forced it to bypass Puerto Madryn. So ours was this ship’s first call at the port – and its first encounter with the sea lion on the dock.

We never did see the sights of Puerto Madryn. Fellow passengers tell us we didn’t miss much, but all the same I wish we had seen it. They say that some of the restaurants serve high tea there and that Welsh is spoken by some of the inhabitants.

We have seen the wild life, however, and we will never forget it.

Friday, December 08, 2006


I have been impressed by the advances made by the Koreans in the automobile market, and I know people who rave about their Hyundais and Kias. But now comes word that, henceforth every new Hyundai and Kia will come with satellite radio (XM or Sirius) installed. Sorry, guys, but that tears it for me. Forcing me to accept a subscription radio service (with Howard Stern, yet!) is a deal-breaker……… The recent “Great Performances” special on Beverly Sills was compelling TV. What a singer! What a woman!……… I have completed “The General Radio Story,” a history of a remarkable company, which created many of the instruments essential to the early development of electronics. The book is now available on………… I can’t pretend to be a devotee of the ballet, but I did enjoy the DVD “Ballet Russe,” a two-hour documentary that traces the history of this legendary company, started in Paris in the early 30s by Russian émigrés. More than dance was involved, I learned. The ballet in its golden age was a blend of the best choreography (Balanchine), settings (Miro), music (Tchaikovsky), and costumes (Matisse) – a veritable banquet of fine arts. The DVD features relatively little dancing and relatively much reminiscing by the stars of yesterday, now mostly in their 80s and 90s – and in amazingly good shape!…...This is the time of the year when the world is divided into two parts: Those who think Christmas lights should be tastefully white, and those who prefer color. In the historic Massachusetts town where we used to live, white was right, and woe betide anyone who put a red or green candle in the window. I prefer color, and now that I live in laid-back Maine, I feel free to hang a string of color lights outside. The three stars in the windows are all white, however. There are limits.……………Did you know that, in 2005, fully 40 percent of all house sales in the U.S. were either for “investment” or vacation homes? And did you know that the average 7.1 percent sub prime ARM written in 2004 could reset to 11.4 percent in 2008? Scary…………As a sports fan, I marvel at the way professional football has become a national obsession. A ticket to a game at Patriots Stadium has become the kind of thing you leave in your will, and scalpers get insane prices for good seats. I marvel because I remember hustling hot dogs (see my earlier post, “The Hustler”) at Fenway Park during football games played by the Boston Yanks, the area’s pro football franchise in the forties. The Yanks were owned by Ted Collins, Kate Smith’s manager, and there were always plenty of empty seats, as the public was still unsure about pro football. What happened to convert the multitudes into sportsaholics? The answer is easy: Television. At first, team owners worried that fans would prefer free TV to paid admission, but once again conventional wisdom was wrong. The added exposure convinced the sports world that a pro football game was a Very Important Event, and attendance boomed……. Today I saw “The Queen,” with Helen Mirren. My high expectations were met and then some. Mirren deserves at least an Oscar nomination, if not the prize, and Michael Sheen, who is spot on as Tony Blair, merits a nomination, too. …….Three inches of snow fell here overnight. Snowfall in autumn ought to be illegal (as it was, if I remember correctly, in Camelot).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Our Changing Culture

Europeans like to look down on us Americans for our lack of a developed culture. In their eyes, our young country is light years away from equaling, let alone surpassing, the artistic output of DaVinci, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Verdi, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc. In their place, we offer Hemingway, Faulkner, Gershwin, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, Wyeth, Copland, and Bernstein – good artists all, but a bunch of second stringers compared with the European masters.

The Europeans are right. What’s worse, the gap is growing, not shrinking.

For a while, things looked promising. American musical theater, at its best, far surpassed European operetta in every aspect. In Fred Astaire America had the greatest dancer of the century (according to Baryshnikov). Homer and Benson, if not in the same league as Van Gogh and Gainsborough, were respectable painters. In the motion picture art, Hollywood reigned supreme, partly because of talent imported from Europe.

Then in the 70s, everything started going downhill. Just as we were learning how to emulate and in some cases improve on European art forms, Europe lost its cachet among Americans. The waves of European immigrants who settled here in the early twentieth century were followed, six decades later, by waves of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. These new Americans had a culture of their own, and it was not the culture of Ibsen and Trollope. Also, the empowerment of African-Americans meant that their musical tastes would gain commercial clout, and rhythmic beat, the louder the better, won out over melody – in a sense, Kenya winning out over Vienna (and over Scott Joplin).

Then there was the fallout from the protest movements of the 60s, which were not just about Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson and the establishment, but, by extension, against the body of music and art and drama favored by the establishment. It was time to trash the old icons and to exalt the raunchy (“Deep Throat”) and the tasteless (“Hair”).

A piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day says it all. The Journal reports that dance is disappearing from the American cultural landscape. Ballet theaters are folding their tents, and on television the only dancing is that seen in “Dancing with the Stars,” in which the attraction is the stars, not the dancing. The movie musical, except for the occasional curiosity like “Chicago,” is dead. Fred Astaire, if he were alive and young today, could not get a job in entertainment. He would probably become an insurance agent in Omaha.

Another grim sign is the shrinking supply of radio stations specializing in classical music. Greater Boston’s WCRB, long a landmark at 102.5 MHz, is the latest to succumb to the dumbing-down tide. (They say it’s just a move to a new location and a new spot on the dial, but the vibes are bad.)

Robert Altman died the other day, and an e-mail correspondent and I were lamenting his loss. But more than the loss of one great film director is involved. As the artistic giants of this country die off, one by one, the culture that they represented is passing with them. Given the changing face of our population, it is likely that the Euro-centric culture of the American twentieth century is disappearing for good. Measured against the titans of the Renaissance, then, we have lost the race. I find that sad, but I am probably in the minority.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Joan Leslie

My first love was Joan Leslie. Seeing her on the screen today in one of her old movies, I can easily see why I was so smitten. In the early 1940s she was always typed as the wholesome girl next door, and I wondered why none of the girls who lived next door to me ever looked like Joan Leslie. Then, as she grew a bit older, she was exactly the kind of loyal wife the girl next door could be expected to become. She was the dependable, staunchly supportive better half to George M. Cohan (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”), Sergeant York’s girl back home, and a near-miss romance for George Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”). But her shining hour came when she danced to the beautiful Arlen-Mercer ballad “My Shining Hour” with none other than Fred Astaire, in “The Sky’s the Limit.” Joan was 17 during the filming, Astaire 44 and a living legend. How did she do? Just fine. Dance critic John Mueller, in his excellent “Astaire Dancing,” writes that of Astaire’s partners in the post Rogers era, “Joan Leslie is most closely reminiscent of Rogers, particularly as an actress: attractive, intelligent, feisty, vulnerable.” No one could seriously say that she was as good a dancer as Rogers, but she was better than her 17 years gave anyone the right to expect.

“The Sky’s the Limit” tells the improbable story of a Flying Tigers pilot on leave in Manhattan and trying to score points with a young magazine photo-journalist, who regards him as just another wolf, which he is. (He is dressed in civvies and hides his true identity.) Joan’s character is named Joan, and Fred’s character is named Fred, and the chemistry between them works, despite the obvious age difference. After the usual plot complications are resolved, the two are obviously fated to be mated, though first Fred has to fly back across the Pacific to win the war. You could always count on a happy if not downright inspiring ending in 1943. It’s a pleasant enough movie, because the two leads are so likeable. A bonus is the appearance of Robert Benchley, one of the era’s best humorists, as Joan’s boss and Astaire’s rival.

“The Sky’s the Limit” received mixed reviews, but Mueller calls it “one of the most effective and affecting war films Hollywood ever turned out,” thanks to its stars, its music, and a script of considerable depth. My only complaint is that there are too few songs. When you have Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer on the payroll, it makes no sense to settle for just a few musical numbers.

Truth to tell, Joan Leslie was not a great actress, or even an especially good one. She was no singer, so her vocals had to be dubbed. As noted, she was an excellent dancer, and the pity is that she didn’t have more opportunities to display her footwork. What Joan Leslie had was a sparkling personality, a slightly mischievous smile, a good figure, and a wonderful face, which managed to convey wit and intelligence and style, all rolled together. She was the girl any parents would want their son to marry.

She was also a poster child for the 1940s and the age of innocence. All in all, she appeared in more than 40 movies, most of them forgettable, first as Joan Brodel (the name she was born with), then as Joan Leslie (much better). For a while, she was, for the studios, money in the bank, even playing herself, a bonafide celebrity, in “Hollywood Canteen.” At 17, she was featured on a Life Magazine cover, a sure sign of stardom.

After the war, as innocence went out of style, so did Joan Leslie. Today, I doubt that one out of 20 people would recognize her name. I try to think of a contemporary actress who is a latter-day version of Joan Leslie, someone I can compare her to, but it is no use; the girl next door doesn’t live there any more.

In 1950, Joan Leslie married a doctor, who died in 2000, a month after their 50th wedding anniversary. She has long been active in Catholic charities, and she has twin daughters, both doctors. In January, Joan will be 82.

To me, though, Joan Leslie will always be 17, on the big screen at the Codman Square Theater, smiling at me. Just me.

Note: "Searching for Joan Leslie," a collection of these blogs in book form, is available from

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Our First Car

My mother bought our first family car in 1948. I say mother bought it, even though Mom would in fact never drive a car in all her 94 years, because she was the family controller, CFO, and treasurer. So, after I had pointed out ad nauseam that everyone owned a car but us, she authorized me to see what could be bought for a reasonable price, by which, I sensed, she was talking about $200 or less.

The car I found was owned by a man a few blocks away, and at $150 I thought that Mom would agree to buy it. She did, and within a week a car was sitting in our driveway – where, as far as I knew, no car had ever sat before.

It was a red 1929 Packard convertible, with a rumble seat. The body was in perfect condition, and the eight-cylinder engine ran passably. The leather seats (including the rumble seat) were in good shape, but the convertible top was ragged. One of the features was a lever under the dashboard which, if pulled once a day, would lubricate various parts under the hood. That was the theory, at least.

A fuzzy line separates the two automobile categories “old” and “antique.” Motor vehicle registries use arbitrary minimum ages in authorizing special antique plates, but collectors have their own ideas on the subject. In 1948, a 1929 Packard was not an antique; it was just an old car, just as a 1987 car would be today. In 1948 they were still making Packards, which were upscale cars, like Cadillacs. There was no way to know that the Packard automobile would disappear from the landscape a decade later and that old Packards would become prized by collectors. (Moral: Save everything.)

Since the car had been bought at my urging, I bore the responsibility for improving the appearance. First, I painted the entire body black, adding a thin red stripe along each side. It was an amazingly good paint job for a non-painter. (I had guessed, correctly, that you couldn’t go far wrong with black.) Then I arranged for a local garage to replace the worn top with new black canvas. When the facelift was complete, the Packard looked like a million dollars (which, if I had been smart enough to mothball it, is not far from what it might fetch today).

Our first family drive in the Packard was a day trip to Hampton Beach. Dad drove, Mom sat beside him, and my kid sister and I sat in the rumble seat, praying that it would not rain. (If it did, we would be only slightly wetter than Mom and Dad, since there were no windows, only snap-on side curtains.) This was long before the interstate era, and we drove up Route 1, through Ipswich and Rowley, up and down the long, steep hills. The ups were barely manageable by the car, its eight cylinders straining to haul almost two tons of steel up each grade, but we made it to New Hampshire, where the grown-ups took in a band concert while the children headed for the penny arcade. Then the Packard carried us home in style, and I felt that my campaign to persuade Mom to spring for a car was vindicated.

Dad used the car to commute to work in a town west of Boston, and one day, on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, a fellow driving a Ford made a major error in judgment when he tried to make a quick left turn in front of my oncoming father. It was no contest. The Ford was destroyed (the driver unhurt), while the Packard hardly had its hair mussed, the only visible damage a crooked bumper. It was an unfortunate occurrence, but my Dad took a perverse pride in our car’s imitation of a Sherman tank.

Not long afterward, the Packard died on Dad, this time in a Newton residential neighborhood, and that was it for him. He left it by the side of the street, took the T home, and announced that, as far as he was concerned, the car could rot in Newton. Next day, my friend Dan and I made our way to the abandoned Packard, and I raised the hood to inspect the situation. (I knew nothing about automotive mechanics, but I thought this was the thing to do – sort of like getting hot water when a baby is being born.)

In no time at all, a man who lived in a nearby house was at my side, asking if he could help. (Even then, a 1929 Packard convertible was irresistible to car buffs.) He guessed that a gasket on the fuel filter was leaky, but he figured that he could make a replacement out of cardboard. He ran to his house and came back with cardboard and a pair of scissors. Then, using the old gasket as a template, he fashioned a new one. I got in the car, turned the key, and presto, the motor was purring.

One problem: I did not have a driver’s license. Neither did Dan. But I had occasionally been given the wheel on Sunday drives, and I felt sure I could navigate the dozen or so miles home to Dorchester. And I did, presenting my parents with a conundrum: Should they be furious at me for driving without a license, or should they be grateful to see their Packard back in the driveway? Gratitude won out, as I figured it would.

Shortly afterwards I got my license (renting a Plymouth for the test), and we turned the Packard in to buy a brown 1937 Hudson sedan, a fine car that carried me and Dan to college every day, reliably and comfortably. It even had a radio, a luxury the Packard lacked, But that Packard had class, more in fact than any of us recognized at the time. I sometimes wonder what happened to it. It could have wound up in a scrap heap, a crushed cube of steel. Or it could be the centerpiece of an antique auto collection, somewhere in California or Saudi Arabia. One thing’s sure: They don’t make them like that any more.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Monarch of the Glen

In 1999, the BBC launched a weekly television series called “Monarch of the Glen,” based very loosely on some novels written by Compton MacKenzie. The series was wildly successful, not only in Britain, but on the European continent, in Australia and New Zealand, and, via BBC-America and PBS, in the United States. It ran for seven seasons, has been rerun since, and the BBC does a brisk business in DVDs. It has also spawned a cult of Monarch followers, who call themselves “boglies” because the series takes place at a Scottish estate called Glenbogle.

Two old pros anchor the series: Richard Briers plays Hector MacDonald, the Laird of Glenbogle, and Susan Hampshire plays his wife Molly. As the series begins, their son, Archie, is preparing to open an upscale restaurant in London when he hears that his father, Hector, has had an accident “in the loch.” Archie drops everything to catch the sleeper to Scotland and Glenbogle. There he finds his father just fine after his dunking, and Hector and Mollie seize the moment to inform Archie that, for tax reasons, they have made him the new laird of the 40,000-acre, near-bankrupt estate.

Archie wants none of this, but events conspire to keep him at Glenbogle, where he tries to right the sinking ship while romancing the local teacher, his old girlfriend up from London, and Glenbogle’s chief cook and housekeeper (shown with Archie, above). The acting is superb, the writing even better, and the scenery spectacular. (The fictional Glenbogle is actually a highland estate called Ardverikie, to which boglies make regular pilgrimages.)

What accounts for the extraordinary worldwide response to “Monarch of the Glen”? First, there is that writing, always wise and witty. Second, Briers and Hampshire are joined by a flock of fine young actors from the BBC’s seemingly limitless pool. Third, it is clean as a daisy – no steamy sex, no four-letter words, no violence. (But the series is not “Mary Poppins,” and most of it would be over the heads of small children.)

Seven seasons is an eternity in television, and actors must be written out of the story line when their contracts expire or when better opportunities call them away. (Richard Briers, after three seasons, left to spend more time with his grandchildren.) The writers coped with these comings and goings fairly well, but whenever a central character is dropped from the story, there is a palpable feeling of loss, which says something about the program’s hold on its audience.

The first five of the seven series are now available on DVDs, which are rentable from Netflix. Many boglies have bought DVDs of the final series from the UK, sometimes buying multi-region DVD players expressly for the purpose. You will also find a bustling trade in “Monarch of the Glen” DVDs on eBay.

This is a gem of a television series, and it will make you want to hop on the next flight to Scotland. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reflections of an ex-Teacher

Let’s state one thing up front: My first job, after I graduated from college, was as a high-school teacher. I loved the work, but I found my career elsewhere. My wife Jill was a kindergarten teacher for eight years, before and after we were married. We are both ex-teachers, then. We both think that teaching is a noble profession and that teachers deserve more respect in our society. Most of them deserve more money, too, but some of them do not, which brings me to my first point.

When, at age 22, I decided that I didn’t want to spend a lifetime in the teaching profession, my reasoning went something like this: I think I’m an excellent teacher, and I like the challenge of teaching, but 20 years from now, if I’m the best teacher in my school, my salary will be exactly the same as if I’m the worst teacher in the school. That proved to be a powerful disincentive. Teachers’ unions exist to protect the mediocre, not to reward excellence, and in their vocabulary “merit” is a dirty word. So I left teaching behind.

I won’t attempt to speak for Jill, but I believe that her complaint had much to do with the winds of change that swept the teaching establishment in the 60s, change driven by would-be educational revolutionaries, change we saw first-hand as we raised three children in public schools that served as laboratories for Harvard theoreticians. There was a period in the 60s and 70s during which the education of small children was secondary to the ambitions of the self-proclaimed pioneers and grant-seekers. Millions of children were educationally short-changed in that era.

Then came the era of political correctness, best described by an anecdote. Years ago, as a member of a town finance committee, I toured an elementary school one evening just before Christmas. I mentioned to our guide that I didn’t see any evidence of Christmastide – no crèche, no wreaths, no pictures of the infant Jesus. “Oh, no,” I was told, “we can’t have any of that in here; it wouldn’t be allowed.” Then I spotted, in the hallway, a large framed photo of Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a hero, Christ was not, at least not in that (Massachusetts) school system.

The web of political correctness now overspreads just about everything we do, but it is most suffocating in our schools. Public support comes with strings, we all know, and a minority of taxpayers has the power to drive the educational agenda. In Leningrad I once saw a church that had been turned into a roller skating rink and another turned into a museum by people whose mantra, like that of many Americans, was “separation of church and state.” Once you really separate church and state, the Russians discovered almost a century ago, the state holds all the cards.

Back to the schools. The “special education” budget in Massachusetts towns was an open invitation for parents to claim extra privileges for their children, and suddenly a disproportionately high percentage of all students were “special,” their status proved by an army of consultants that sprang up for just that purpose. New handicaps were invented (or rather, new names for old handicaps), each with its own lobby and its own charitable foundation. We undoubtedly had the same “disorders” in the 30s and 40s, but we never knew about them.

The foundations raise money, they create jobs, and they are unstoppable, because they represent “investments in our children.” How can any selectman, any budget director, any voter fail to support a program designed to help our children? And if you waver, there is a steamroller coming right at you: the teachers’ union, possibly the most powerful lobby in the country. Where I live, we spend well over $10,000 a year to educate each one of our children. It’s not enough. It’s never enough. If enrollment drops 10 percent, program needs will expand 12 percent. Count on it.

If you want to poke this hornets’ nest, ask, at your next opportunity, what percentage of your school department’s budget or personnel count is devoted to classroom teaching? I tried that once, and the school superintendent could not or would not answer. That’s because the percentage is usually embarrassingly low. If you persist, you will eventually be told that the explosion in the non-teaching budget is a byproduct of various federal or state mandates. Maybe so, but a few years ago I remember reading that the huge Chicago parochial school system was run by about a dozen administrators.

Teaching, as I said, is a noble profession. If I were running things, I would try to identify the really top teachers and give them six-figure salaries. I would replace those who were mailing it in. I would hire math teachers who knew math, whether or not they knew how to compose lesson plans. I would make sure that at least 90 cents of every education dollar went straight into the classroom. And this time of year, there would be, in the school cafeteria, a tall Christmas tree with an angel sitting on top.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Considering the low quality of TV commercials these days, I have this vision of contemporary life at a big ad agency.

Creative Director: So you want to be a copywriter. Where did you go to school, and what was your major?

Applicant: I was majoring in phys ed at State, but I flunked out.

Creative Director: Do you do much reading?

Applicant: I look through People magazine every now and then. The pictures, mostly.

Creative Director: What qualifications do you have for a job in advertising?

Applicant: My uncle is a VP at your biggest client. He said I could get a job here.

Creative Director: Great! We’ll start you off writing TV commercials aimed for the teen-age, drop-out demographic.

We live in the age of inane commercials, in which desks and chairs disappear, cars fly over the highway, and cows parachute onto a football field. The guiding principle seems to be that if we give them enough computer graphics, maybe they won’t notice that the ads don’t make sense.

To be fair, a few commercials – one out of 20, maybe – are clever and witty. One of my favorites shows a mother telling a TV mobster that she’s going to block his program because it’s too violent for her kids, whereupon the hood offers to give her the watch of his last victim. (“I want you to have Vinnie’s watch, because you deserve it.”) No computer graphics, just a writer with a good sense of humor and a perfect group of actors.

And no one can complain about the commercials from big pharma, which include disclosures of the terrible things that can happen to you if you use their product. “Possible side effects,” the announcer tells us matter-of-factly, “may include nausea, shortness of breath, chest pains, dizzy spells, internal bleeding, irregular heart beat, or, in rare cases, death.” These are arguably the best commercials of them all, because they are truthful to a fault. (And if you take the pill and live, you will feel triumphant.) If brokerage firms were held to the same standards, the announcer would say, “Possible side effects may include loss of all your money, the break-up of your marriage, the loss of your job, and a nervous breakdown.”

Not all pharma companies are blameless, however. Scenes of elderly people gamboling through the fields like Julie Andrews, with the voice-over suggesting that you “ask your doctor if ---- is right for you,” are borderline deceptive. Then there are the faux-medical commercials, like the one showing a white-jacketed announcer, meant to look like a doctor, telling you that a certain brand of mattress will enhance every aspect of your life.

To say that the humor in today's commercials is sophomoric would be to insult sophomores everywhere. I try hard to give the benefit of the doubt to the young (make that immature) copywriters responsible for this rubbish, but it is no use. They should not be copywriters; they should be highway toll collectors or mail sorters or chicken pluckers. If they insist on writing humor, they could create material for some hard-up comic, like John Kerry. But they should not be writing TV network commercials for Fortune 500 companies.

The worst offenders are the fast food and beer producers (aiming at that teen-age, drop-out demographic) and, ironically, financial services firms (aiming at fools with money). Budweiser once produced some classy commercials, like the Clidesdales clopping home at Christmas, but today they are joining their competitors scraping the bottom of the keg. Other big spenders are the automobile makers, whose ads seem to be irresponsibly encouraging reckless driving, warding off lawsuits by cautioning that we are watching a professional driver on a closed course. Oh.

The prize for the dumbest commercial currently running goes to the brokerage firm that tries to make the doubtful point that investors are changing their behavior – by showing office workers behaving like wild monkeys when their boss isn’t looking. I don’t remember the name of the advertiser, which is just as well.

The Capital One commercials, obviously expensive, seize on one doubtful point: people will choose a credit card based on the chance to gain unrestricted air miles. I’m sure that Capital One has market research to support its campaign, but I’m skeptical. These days, most folks I know would rather not fly at all, period.

Lawyers’ commercials are both irritating and unprofessional. A Portland law firm shows us three grim-faced attorneys walking toward the camera, obviously ready to file suit against the cameraman. They try hard to look tough, but whenever I see them I think of the trio as Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe.

The lame commercials are especially annoying during sporting events. Baseball games come with a large supply of gaps for advertisers to fill – a gap every three outs, plus a gap when a team changes pitchers, and even gaps between pitches, if the pitcher is deliberate enough. It’s even worse in football, where commercials are stacked up until there is a break in the action, then unleashed in a nonstop stream of idiocy. An injured player, a time out, a call being reviewed in the replay booth – all these stoppages ring the cash register for the advertisers, or at least for their agencies.

The basic problem, I suspect, is that too little creative talent is chasing too many available minutes of TV time. The proliferation of cable channels hasn’t helped, providing an outlet for the worst of the lot: the home-made commercials for the local furniture stores and car dealers. These I can forgive, because they operate on tiny budgets. But the appalling quality of the network commercials, prepared by major corporations at obscene expense, is inexcusable. No wonder that so many eyeballs are fleeing to the Internet – as you so wisely have.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

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