Sunday, December 12, 2010

Royal Flush

I have to admit I got some pleasure out of seeing this photo of Prince Charles and Camilla reacting to the recent student demonstrations in London, once the violence was directed at their noble personages firsthand. When a breach in police security lines piled a phalanx of protesters around the privileged twosome's Rolls Royce as they headed to the theatre, the shock suddenly registered on their Stonehenge-like countenances. Reports claim the students rocked the car and shouted "off with their heads" while someone even poked Camilla in the ribs with a stick, as though assessing the old horsewoman the way she might inspect a pony's fetlocks. I wonder if it was the first time either of them, in their well-sheltered lives, had been truly frightened.

The fact that these two are living out their storied lives together now, and may soon be king and something very close to queen, seems unfair. When the prince selected the 19-year-old Diana Spencer for his bride 30 years ago, she was naive enough to think she was marrying for love. The reality was that she'd been chosen for her virginity, fertility, and a lineage that went back many centuries. She was simply a brood mare to the royal family, and it wasn't long before she realized her specific role and the fact that her husband had never ended his relationship with the older woman. By the time she finally extracted herself from the family and began to define herself it was already too late.

Knowing the fate that would befall Diana, it's hard to watch this early interview when the engagement was announced. Seeing the prince caress her one finger, as though that represents affection to him, is quite sad. Worse still, though, is what comes after the 7-minute mark, when he is asked if they're in love. "Whatever 'in love' means," he responds.

Understandably, there's a lot of speculation as to whether a similar fate will befall Kate Middleton, the fiancee of Diana's son Prince William. It seemed a bad omen to use Diana's engagement ring to start this marriage, but maybe that's just superstition. Certainly the press will follow their every move, but the couple has already had a lengthy courtship and are both 28, on a more even footing even though Kate is considered a commoner. Let's hope that in this case history doesn't repeat itself. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Getting the Scoop

Journalism is in a sad state when you're more likely to get breaking news from a check-out stand tabloid than the New York Times. But more and more, gossip rags like The National Enquirer, which once featured front-page stories on Bat Boy or Nostrodamus' predictions of world annihilation, are scooping their more esteemed colleagues in the Fourth Estate.

That was the case with the sad news that Motown legend Aretha Franklin is suffering from -- and most likely dying from -- pancreatic cancer. While other news agencies were gingerly approaching the subject of the singer's recent hospitalization, the Enquirer wasn't afraid to make the announcement -- just as it did with the revelation of John Edwards' affair and paternity issues involving his videographer. 

Fortunately, you can still count on wide-ranging journalistic takes on current events and celebrity news. Case in point: two side-by-side publications currently on the new stands:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kut the Kards

Perhaps there’s hope for humanity, and the world isn’t composed entirely of idiots after all.

I’m referring to the epic failure of the Kardashian Kard, a prepaid debit card introduced earlier this month by the monumentally untalented Kardashian sisters of E! Network fame.

Before it was pulled, only 250 of the cards – or “Kards” – were purchased, meaning that even the financially unsophisticated target audience who supposedly aspires to emulate the lives of luxury, extravagance and unflinching exhibitionism that are the creed of Kim, Kourtney and Khloe weren’t biting. (And what is with prolifically-breeding nut job reality show families, like the Duggars of 19 and Counting, and their penchant for naming all of their children with the same first consonant?)

Complaints of egregious fees caused banking officials to look into the matter, quickly resulting in outcry from regulating agencies like the Consumers Union and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Aside from having to prepay the card to use it, cardholders could have racked up an additional $100 in annual fees on top of charges to cancel the card, add money to it, withdraw funds from an ATM, or even speak to a phone representative.

The family’s provenance doesn’t exactly inspire fiscal responsibility, considering its fame was launched by a graphic sex tape leaked by oldest sister Kim. Or that these spoiled, sniping young women are the offspring of O.J. Simpson’s pal Robert Kardashion, who may have helped to discard the bloody clothing and weapon used in the murder of Simpson's wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. Or that these girls have made a very profitable career out of horrifying their wizened stepfather, former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, with their general vulgarity, shallow consumerism and tacky public hookups.

It’s almost like a biblical pronouncement, and for once the money lenders were swept out of the temple. What next, Kardashians?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Grizzly Scenario

One of the most ludicrous pieces of delusional nonsense I've read lately comes from a conservative columnist named S.E. Cupp. Attempting to analyze the woefully unprepared former governor's supposed popularity, she writes:

The reason Palin has become such a lightening rod, a kingmaker and a punching bag, a celebrity and a power player, is simple. It's because she's so gosh darn happy.

(A kingmaker? What does that even mean?)

You only have to see Palin speak to detect the thin veneer of upbeat boosterism that frames every inane utterance. She trowels on the soccer mom platitudes, playing up to her image as a woman of the people; it was the mannered falseness of her delivery that Tina Fey isolated and satirized so successfully. 

This is not a woman who is happy, regardless of how "flippin' fun" she says all those calculated family outings on her reality series are. As a Vanity Fair profile recently illustrated, the town of Wasilla, Alaska is littered with the rubble of citizens and former friends so burned by Palin's self-serving machinations that most will only speak to the media anonymously for fear of retribution. Her own staff has had to advise her to back off on her attempts to eviscerate her online critics, and her handlers, during her candidacy for Vice President, soon realized she was a hot-headed horror-show that even the most experienced spin team couldn't sculpt into something that resembled a viable candidate. 

Former future son-in-law Levi Johnston, who had unlimited access to the Palin household, described her as a negligent, abusive wife and mother who issued draconian chores to her children, sparred constantly with and threatened to divorce her supposedly perfect husband Todd, and referred to her own Down's Syndrome child as "the retard." 

Here's more of Ms. Cupp's tragic misdiagnosis of the situation:

"...nothing raises the ire of cynical liberals more than a happy-go-lucky, totally unburdened, freethinking and self-assured conservative woman who has everything she wants and then some. And without anyone's help."

Here's how I would amend that blurb:

"Nothing sickens liberals more than yet another inexperienced failed politician being groomed to become another puppet of the far right."

No wonder we're cynical.

Stop Being Crazy

I’ve got news for you: you’re not that crazy. How do I know? If you were among the small percentage of the population currently wandering the streets in tattered ballet slippers pushing a baby stroller filled with colored Easter eggs shaped from your own excrement, you probably wouldn’t be reading this with anything close to comprehension. I’d even wager that the poopy-pushing nut job yodeling outside your local Starbucks isn’t nearly as insane he would like you and society at large to believe. He stops speaking in tongues long enough to open the door for you in expectation of a tip, doesn't he?

There’s no denying that life is difficult. Or that the chaos and confusion of the modern world exists way out of proportion to the ability of our marginally-evolved brains to process and absorb it. Recent advances in our technologically-enhanced culture may already be rewiring the way we process information and formulate thought, so that very soon the average person will have difficulty locating a hamburger joint around the corner without consulting the ubiquitous hand-held device downloading signals from orbiting global positioning satellites. Our elected officials don't seem to have our best interests at heart, and big business makes a show of ecological awareness while befouling our air and water. And, as a rapidly growing population teems across the imaginary borders of our tiny blue planet, it’s natural to be a bit anxious about the subsequent distribution of our dwindling resources in the face of inevitable warfare and climate change. But does that justify succumbing to the seduction of medication and mediation, succumbing to an industry for which society had no need just a few generations ago?

What would you say fuels your neurosis, your psychosis? Financial worries during a time of economic uncertainty? A parent that never loved you? The fear of dying alone? The inability to find fulfilling work? Unhappy childhood experiences, followed by an adulthood that has been less than satisfying? I’ve just described the human condition, and there has to be a better way to navigate it than for us to collectively shell out billions of dollars to supposed practitioners that will only pretend to listen to our woes without supplying any applicable answers and trick us into “feeling better” by dosing us with complex combinations of pharmaceuticals.

At this exact moment, there are thousands of relocated Somalian refugee families thriving in the once-abandoned industrial cities of northern New England. Are they filling the waiting rooms of the local psychologists and therapists to sob and obsess about the civil war that displaced them, the ethnic cleansing efforts that drove them from their ancestral homes onto the sleet-frozen streets of Lewiston, Maine to serve as taxi drivers and kitchen crews? Not generally. Like any of us who have survived torture and turmoil, they have nightmares, they exhibit caution in strange surroundings, and they apply themselves to make the most of the current situation in which they find themselves. What about the young Chinese and Indian adults who work seven days a week and must pay, out of their meager earnings, to reside in squalid factory dormitories owned by American retailers, so that our overweight, over-indulged children can slink off to school with $6 backpacks?  Do they doubt their self-worth, and trouble themselves into a state of emotional instability because of their circumstances? No, they seize the opportunity to provide for their poverty-stricken families back in their villages and home provinces, and embrace the one afternoon they have off each week to date, dance, and dream of better things to come.

The simple fact is that throughout history people have persevered because they must. Cultural mass-insanity is a by-product of a leisure culture, one with enough time on its hands to feel sorry for itself, to indulge in weakness and childishness, and, worse, to allow itself to become so insecure it seeks solace in false cures and foolish promises. In short: suck it up. Life is hard. And you can stop being crazy now.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Half-Baked Alaska

It's hard to image what, exactly, the intention could be behind the new reality series Sarah Palin's Alaska.

If she really has presidential aspirations -- and we know she does -- then why give us this intimate little glimpse into the Palin household? My guess is that the reasons are two-fold: first, she simply can't resist the revenue that her celebrity began generating just two years ago when John McCain tapped her as his vice presidential running mate. This is the woman, after all, who walked away from her role as governor of her supposedly beloved home state in mid-term -- a position that pays a paltry $125,000 a year. She's managed to rake in an estimated $12 to $15 million so far.

The second is that it provides an opportunity to project a carefully-controlled portrait of the Palin family. We see Sarah exposing her brood to the natural wonders of the Yukon -- not missing an opportunity to compare the local wildlife with her own "grizzly mama" persona, even though they were actually watching Alaskan brown bears. And we see her being the firm and attentive mom she'd like us to believe she is, telling daughter Willow that no boys are allowed upstairs in their home. Nice touch, considering that with daughter Bristol one definitely got through the gate.

What you won't see on Palin's reality program, however, is a heart-warming interaction between Sarah and her husband Todd. He coordinates the fishing trips and glacier hikes like some hired hand, but there's no sense of marital happiness here, because that kind of connection can't be scripted. She even has him build a hastily-constructed 14-foot-tall fence to block the view of the writer next door who Sarah says is working on a "hit piece" about her.

And the most appalling thing about the show? It was the biggest series premier in TLC's history, with over 5 million viewers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cover Up Your Sheep

If anyone needed proof that the American public is still complacent enough to accept even the most ludicrous spin from authorities about disturbing topics, here it is.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist. But it's pretty obvious to even the most casual observer that the so-called Mystery Missile seen ascending into the sky just off the coast of Southern California the other evening was not a plane. Yet today news web sites and newspapers across the country are proclaiming "MYSTERY SOLVED."

Even Ambassador Robert Ellsworth, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense who evaluated the footage, never considered that it might be a jet or plane. "It's definitely a big missile," he says, and attempts to determine just what type. Jets don't shoot into the stratosphere at right angles to the earth. And viewed from more than 35 miles away, they appear to hang in the sky despite traveling near the speed of sound -- they certainly don't tear through the atmosphere like an Apollo rocket heading for orbit. They also don't emit broad fantail plumes that track their entire course.

Take a look at the news footage.

What's really shocking about this incident isn't that NORAD and the Pentagon deny any knowledge of what had to be some sort of missile test or, God forbid, an accident or demonstration of might from a foreign nation with a submarine parked just off our shores. What's horrifying is the lack of public concern, the lethargy of our elected officials to find out the truth, and the lack of investigation by the press.

Right, it was just a plane. And I have a big orange bridge I can sell you cheap.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Orange You Thrilled?

Many years ago, I worked in an office with a woman named Doris. Doris had been an affluent Marin County housewife whose doctor husband abandoned her for a younger woman -- which is why, at the age of 45, Doris found herself bitterly typing, in her hunt and peck manner, documents in a landscape architect's office. I suppose it goes without saying that she'd supported him through medical school.

This was back in the days when people still smoked in the workplace, and Doris smoked a lot. Our boss expressed concern for the company's new word processing system, imploring Doris to smoke outside because the particulates in cigaret smoke would certainly clog the equipment's processors. Doris would barely look up during these lectures, but when he left her to enter his large inner office she'd very purposefully blow a lungful of smoke straight into her computer's innards.

One day someone made the mistake of commenting to Doris about the sudden winning streak of a local sports team. Doris took a huge toke on her cigaret and blew a plume into the man's face. "I wouldn't give a rat's ass about it if they played it pantsless in Jello," she replied.

I felt a bit like Doris during the recent World Series, which saw the San Francisco Giants winning for the first time in 56 years. City Hall and Coit Tower were bathed in orange light in tribute to the team's jersey color, homemade fireworks twisted into the sky above the Mission, and the entire city erupted into a cacophony of blaring sirens, honking horns, and hooting fans. A million people attended the parade that pushed its way through downtown. And yet I cared not a particle for this achievement, and had no desire to be a part of this celebration. Why? I simply can't relate, or imagine what it would feel like to care.

I only have to hear that familiar tone of the announcer describing the action on the field, overlayed with the drone of the crowd, to be yanked back to those childhood days when my father would monopolize the living room -- and our one TV at the time -- to watch endless baseball games. I cared about them then as much as I do now.

I know that times are grim, and people will seize any opportunity to express joy and communal happiness. But all through the excitement I kept thinking that if all that energy had been expended toward something that really mattered -- Global Warming, say, or the slaying of horrifying politcal dragons like gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, or even heartfelt causes that I oppose -- it would have to be more satisfying and worthwhile.

Last weekend I asked my 86-year-old father if he had followed the World Series on television. Dementia is rapidly closing in on him -- "they tell me I saw a bob cat," he said, as though the sighting happened to someone else -- and he sadly said he didn't think so. Days later, I can still see the orange-lit dome of City Hall glowering like a sunburned nose in the middle of the city's face. But the carbon levels are still rising, civil liberties are still disappearing into the ether, and the homeless are still pushing their carts through the Civic Center in its rosy glow.

22 Pounds of Flesh

It's been a while since I posted, and the reason is simple: I've been recovering from extensive oral surgery since October 5th.

I love how the periodontist's office glossed over the seriousness of the recovery process. Basically, they hand you a brochure that chirps, "some people find that they can actually resume their regular routine the very next day!" Right, if their routine consists of writhing on the floor in intense pain in a Vicodin-induced frenzy while cursing the periodontal industry.

One thing they forgot to mention, for instance, was that the procedure would expose the roots of half my teeth, making it impossible to ingest any substance that was even the tiniest bit above or below room temperature. And I had been told that my paltry insurance would at least cover $1400 of the $8200 I paid toward the doctor's master bedroom suite spa or next European vacation. That turned out to be more like $800.

So, it's pretty much over now, and things are returning to normal, or as normal as anything can really be these days. And though I wouldn't have minded losing a few pounds, 22 pounds was a bit much. I'll try blogging more regularly, if only for my own sanity, and see how that goes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Vampires Really Do Suck

When you thread your way up the southern coast of Oregon, you eventually come to a small seaside town called Gold Beach. The village itself isn't much, just a strip of motels and restaurants and the odd business that caters to West Coast sensibilities, like surfing supplies and doggie cupcakes.

But nestled against the unspoiled sand dunes and the impossibly wide beach is a place called Ireland's Rustic Lodges. The sign on the road proclaims that it's World Famous, and it stood out to such a degree from all the cookie-cutter motels on my recent trip north that I did a U-turn and checked in. The rooms are knotty-pine with vaulted ceilings, and they promise you all the firewood you can burn in the enormous stone hearth. Burn it I did, though the night was warm and still, and I fell asleep to the sound of the surf dragging across the sand.

In the morning I went down to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast room, and found it filled with a group of eight or so young people. From my vantage point it's impossible to gauge the age of youngsters these days but I'd guess they were college freshmen, falling somewhere between the classifications of hipster doofus and nerd, with the sort of self-possessed confidence that young people have today. They seemed to have some sort of shared purpose or direction, and though I was concerned that they would turn out to be members of a church group or, worse, chastity pledges, I began to talk to them. The reality was worse: they were on a self-guided tour of filming locations for the Twilight movie franchise.

"Wasn't that filmed in Washington state?" I asked, deliberately trying to rain on their parade.

"Oh, no," replied one boy in skinny black jeans and heavy black-framed glasses. "People think the location shots were all done in Washington. But a lot of it was filmed here in Oregon. Some scenes were even filmed nearby," he added in what I'm sure he thought was a tantalizing tone.

"So, what do you do when you get to one of these sites?" I asked, suddenly remembering being stopped on a street in San Francisco years ago by a New Jersey couple looking for Mrs. Doubtfire's house. "You know it's a movie, right?" I had said uncharitably before continuing my morning run.

The kids exchanged glances -- they were humoring me. "Sometimes we take digital pictures of ourselves where the characters were," a pretty brunette girl explained patiently. "And sometimes we just, you know...take it in."

Someone's bagel popped out of a toaster with a sad twang. "So you guys are really into this Twilight stuff, huh?" I said. "Why do you think it appeals to you so much?"

The only fat girl, her blondish hair dyed in chunks of blue and vermillion, answered almost tearfully. "He just loves her so much!" she exclaimed, color rushing to her wide, oily cheeks.

"What other books do you read?" I asked.

"We were really into Harry Potter," a skinny blond boy with a pierced eyebrow responded. "But that's, like, over." Big surprise, I thought. During the Harry Potter heyday, there were endless articles about how the series had driven kids back to reading. But if you asked those same kids what else they were reading, the answer was that they were rereading Harry Potter.

"You know, there are so many great books to read," I ventured. "Especially if you're drawn to the idea of obsessive love. Have you ever read D.H. Lawrence, or Jane Austen? Or how about Madame Bovary, by Flaubert, or even The Collector, by John Fowler? Most of them have even been turned into some really great films."

The kids looked at me blankly; the pretty brunette was texting someone on her iPhone. Only the fat girl answered me. "Are they about vampires?"

I went back to my lodge and started packing up the car.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Humanity's Oldest Argument

Years ago, when my mother and I were discussing my abandoned Catholicism, she said, "You know, there are no atheists in foxholes." Meaning, I guess, that when faced with the certainty of impending death most people turn back to religion.

That's why I have such respect for author and journalist Christopher Hitchens on what has been designated "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day." Stricken with esophageal cancer and wracked by chemotherapy, the 62-year-old atheist, when asked about the religious movement arranged for his benefit through viral online networking, said, "I shall not be participating."

The fact that Hitchens is sticking to his guns in the face of the ultimate challenge is heartening to an atheist like me. It's a public display of a philosophical stance that gets very little exposure in a world where politicians invoke God at every opportunity and even our currency kowtows to the divine deity.

Hitchens says that the people praying for him today break down into three distinct groups: those who see his cancer diagnosis as vindication that he has displeased God with his outspoken anti-theism, those who want him to "see the light" and join their particular religious faith, and those who are asking God to heal him to demonstrate the Almighty's, well, might.

Hitchens told the Associate Press that he intends to stand by his atheistic views to the end, and would like to be recalled as one of those "who are attempting to uphold reason and science against superstition."

"This is a very long, long, long story," he said. "It's humanity's oldest argument. If I played a small part in keeping it going that would be enough for me."

I'm not going to be praying for Christopher Hitchens today. But I wish him the best, and sincerely appreciate his sage words on this most volatile of topics -- and how he's still fighting his final battle from that foxhole.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cheating Death

How we each deal with adversity and the grim realities of what it means to be human says so much about who we are as individuals. Take the case of two public figures who revealed this summer that they are both "battling," as they say, cancer: noted author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas, both in their sixties, who suffer from similar afflictions. 

Douglas, the offspring of Hollywood royalty, grew up in privilege that surely boosted his rise up the ladder of success, starting with a prominent role on TV's The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. Now suffering from advanced stage 4 throat cancer, he trumpets "I'll beat this!" in 30-point type from the cover of People magazine. Hitchens, on the other hand, an avowed anti-theist who's the product of a hardscrabble English military upbringing, continues to write eloquent, realistic observations about facing the death that his metastic esophageal cancer, which has spread to his lungs and lymph nodes, seems to indicate is inescapable.

Douglas' upbeat outlook strikes me as narcissistic and foolish, a product of what writer Barbara Ehrenreich brands "bright-sided positive thinking." Having received a cancer diagnosis herself, she defied the self-help thinking and infantilized therapy that steers disease management and derails a patient's ability to come to terms with terminal illness. It's in keeping with the self-image of a celebrity like Douglas, who has been in the public eye since birth, to think that he can overcome what is essentially a death sentence, and consistent with the outlook of the contemporary medical industry to let terminally ill people believe that they can continuously bang their heads against the bulkhead of mortality and somehow break through. There's also a tang of hypocrisy around Douglas' fervency. Douglas is a lifelong smoker, party hound, and self-admitted compulsive sex addict who just this year used his celebrity status to mitigate the sentencing of his adult son for dealing methamphetamine. Google "Catherine Zeta Jones smoking" and you'll come across a gallery of images showing the actor's wife smoking cigarets in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

Hitchens, whose body of work has been both provocative and prodigious, makes no qualms about his own lifelong abuses of the flesh, and that's just one more layer of introspection he adds to his pragmatism about his illness. Yes, the writer is currently enduring the requisite rounds of chemo for the sake of his wife and children, but he's also contemplating the abyss with the same eloquence and realism that he's used to broach such topics as Islamic radicalism, Mother Teresa's messianic adulation, and waterboarding. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, he even evaluates online postings from supposed Christians who say his cancer is God's retribution for the blaspheming he conducted with his now afflicted throat. 

Death will always be an inevitable outcome for every living being. It amazes me that at this stage of human development so many of us still cling to the childish fantasies that keep us from making the grand exit with a degree of dignity that reflects our development and learnings as a species.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stressed to The Nines

These days, corporations try to appear actively engaged in making the world a better place. But so often their attempts are simply wrong-headed and neglect to take human nature into consideration.

I recently stayed at The Nines, "A Luxury Collection Hotel" in Portland, Oregon. I'm not sure if "luxury collection" means it's one in a collection of hotels or if one collects luxury there, but it's definitely a posh facility, seven or eight stories wrapped around a central atrium, all perched on top of the downtown Macy's in the heart of Pioneer Square. There is, of course, the requisite rooftop bar with outdoor terraces offering sweeping views of the city, along with several trendy restaurants frequented by Portland's most festively tattooed scruffy young things. The rooms are elaborately draped and carpeted, with 42-inch LED TVs, sea foam green velvet sofas, flocked wallpaper and marble bathrooms. And on each night stand is a card that reads:

Please note that all bedding including the duvet is cleaned prior to every arrival. We will make your bed each day. In an effort to further increase our sustainability practices at The Nines, we have also removed the top sheet of the bed. If you would prefer to have atop sheet during your stay, please contact our guest services...."

It's hard to believe that not having to launder an extra sheet per room is going to make a huge impact as to whether the Greenland Ice Shelf crashes into the sea or not, especially if the hotel has to launder or dry clean the duvet every night instead. Plus, what I quickly discovered is that when a hotel bed has no top sheet or even a light blanket, you only have the heavy down comforter as cover. So I did what I'm sure most other guests do: turn the thermostat down to 60 so the room will be chilly enough that you could hang meat in there and you'll actually need a down comforter. And what does that do but light another match under the cauldron of Global Warming?

It's great that companies like Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which owns and operates The Nines, are thinking about sustainability. But when those practices have no real-world practicality, it's simply greenwashing: the tendency for modern companies to spew the expected earth-friendly rhetoric without implementing anything that's at all likely to make "a world of difference."

And, on a separate note: as a compulsive ironer, I appreciated having a steam iron stored in the bedroom closet of my luxury suite. But could I maybe have an ironing board, too?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Six Signs That Your Company Is Going Under

With the economy still in the tank, you can expect lots more businesses to fail. Having worked at ad agencies large and small -- and keep in mind that agencies are the first businesses to reflect the health of the economy and, consequently, to go out of business -- I've seen the signs that the shop is about to be shuttered. So here are some tips on evaluating the health of your employer.

Stage 1: Perks you've taken for granted, like bottled water, suddenly disappear. Better dust off your resume; something's gone seriously wrong.

Stage 2: Your receptionist is suddenly let go. When management decides that visitors, clients and vendors no longer need to be greeted by a friendly face, you'd better update that resume.

Stage 3: They no longer provide free coffee. Start sending out those resumes and network with all your LinkedIn connections, because they've stopped caring about your creature comforts and productivity.

Stage 4: Key management personnel suddenly start jumping ship. The writing's on the wall. Take the office gossip to lunch to find out what he/she knows. But nowhere too fancy -- you've got to start being frugal.

Stage 5: Instead of your usual holiday bonus, you're handed a crisp $100 bill. You're fucked. If you don't get out now, you'll find yourself right in the middle of:

Stage 6: Your office furniture is being repossessed. Nothing says "it's over" like a burly guy in overalls wheeling away your desk.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cheap Shots

Earlier this week, conservative columnist Debra Saunders slammed President Obama for being photographed during his Martha's Vineyard vacation riding a bicycle while wearing a helmet.

Granted, the pose and the helmet did make him look something of a dork. But imagine the firestorm of public outcry that would have erupted if he were photographed without a helmet -- you'd hear criticism ranging from his obligation to serve as a role model to children all the way to his responsibility of protecting the brain that holds the codes that trigger nuclear attack.

This is a familiar tactic of the GOP, to besmirch the masculinity of a Democratic politician or candidate. It wasn't so long ago that the abhorrent Ann Coulter called former Senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards a "faggot." (This was before the revelation that an affair with an aide had resulted in an illegitimate child.) Coulter, who inexplicably makes morning show TV appearances attired in a cocktail mini as though she were some sort of Beltway hooker, eventually retracted, saying she hadn't meant Edwards was gay, she was just using the word as a schoolyard taunt. Right. This is the same woman who once stated that she found Dick Cheney's crooked corporate raider leer "sexy," so it's obvious that it's power, not sex appeal, that floats her boat.

Oddly, the same people who are so quick to paint Democratic leaders as friends of Dorothy make a practice of branding female leaders like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer as "bitches." What successful women in politics or, for that matter, the business world haven't been recipients of that charge?

Sarah Palin is the casebook pro at this maneuver, sneering at peers who actually read newspapers and don't shoot wolves from pontoon planes. It's like the Republicans are the fat redheaded bullies of the schoolyard calling out rude names at the smart kids, and the Democrats' response is always to just tuck their books under their arms and head for French lab.

It's not like I want to see the President of the United States harpooning whales like Soviet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (as it turns out, he was only assisting scientists in obtaining skin samples, a fact that conservatives like Saunders omit when comparing the two world leaders). But it would be helpful to his image, and to the political future of our country, if he used his intelligence and charm to rebuke criticism in a way that was more forceful and self-assured. Bullies don't deserve kid glove treatment.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Standing On the Wrong Side of History

Exactly who does gay marriage harm?

The proponents of California's Proposition 8 have spent at least $40 million defending their perception of marriage, with more than half of that funding originating from out-of-state sources, including the Church of Latter-day Saints -- commonly known as Mormons -- who seem to think that polygamy and child marriage are just swell. 

Since one of the most long-standing condemnations of the gay lifestyle has been the perception that gays are wildly promiscuous, shouldn't society as a whole welcome a shift to committed marriages? And at a time when home foreclosures are at their highest in history, shouldn't communities embrace the emergence of solid, generally two-income citizens contributing to their tax bases? And what about all those children orphaned by the endless civil unrest and upheaval in our world -- what would be better for them than to be adoped by two solvent same-sex adults able to provide them with a loving and stable home?

It's a complete fiction to insist on a family model headed by a mother and a father when the reality is that more than 13 million American families are single-parent, with 80% of those headed by a female. (It's even higher in the U.K. and Australia.) Of the supposedly "normal" families I can think of, it's hard to summon up an example of one where the extraction of at least one of those traditional parents wouldn't have resulted in fewer neurotic, ruined adults populating the waiting rooms of America's therapists. 

I think the movement to oppose gay marriage really comes down to one simple thing: people who perceive themselves as "haves" love to deny a basic right to the people they perceive as "others." It was the same when pograms annihilated entire villages of Polish Jews in the 19th century, or when Irishmen were denied entry to New York bars at the turn of the 20th century, or when interracial couples were harrassed during the 1960s. Gay marriage is inevitable and affirms our progress, however slow and halting, as a species. Who really wants to stand on the wrong side of history?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Grief

Last Thursday night, a 32-year-old man leapt to his death in full view of the concert audience at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, an affluent suburb south of San Francisco.

I'm sure concertgoers in the ampitheater were shocked and horrified to be witnessing a violent death during what should have been a pleasant summer evening of musical entertainment -- the man's body plummeted to the stage inches from where Irish musician Glen Hansard, of a band called Swell Season, was performing. But this morning KFOG radio reported that the concert venue had deployed grief counselors to work with ticket holders who'd witnessed the tragedy.

A few years ago, an unfortunate accident claimed the life of a young coworker at about the same time a couple of other unrelated deaths occurred within my company, triggering a team of grief counselors to descend on our corporate campus to initiate rounds of group therapy sessions. In the one I attended, a young designer -- oddly, he was 32, the same age as last week's suicide -- struggled to express his feelings to the therapist. "All this death lately, it just makes me feel like nothing's safe," he said. "It makes me feel like the universe is just this random chaos where anything can happen." Gee, you think? 

It speaks volumes about the protective bubble most Americans reside within, where occasional exposure to life's grim realities necessitates a flurry of soothing therapies and navel gazing. There are places on this planet where toddlers are rounded up like cattle so their arms can be hacked off with machetes, where bombs go off daily in crowded marketplaces killing babies and old women, where women and girls are gang raped for being of the caste or tribe not currently in power. On last night's news there was a report of an attack on a hotel in Mumbai where dozens of people were murdered by a mob, including, inexplicably, the hotel's shoe shine boy.

Maybe it's because I helplessly watched so many friends in the bloom of youth die horribly protracted, pointless deaths during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, but if there's one thing I've learned, it's that death can come at any time, with no rhyme or reason. Isn't that what life is all about, really? To have a bunch of spoiled Americans whining that a simple reality the rest of the world copes with on a moment-to-moment basis makes them feel threatened and afraid strikes me as the height of arrogance and self-indulgence. I'd even go so far as to say that if we approached death a bit more realistically we'd enact social reforms to ensure the care and comfort of our elderly, and perhaps be less likely to inflict death so cavalierly on the far-flung people of our world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tweet Misery

Imagine how much sooner the Hollywood studio system would have collapsed if stars back in the day had had the option of Tweeting or writing on each other's Facebook walls.

For most of the 20th century it took a barrage of lawyers, publicists and press agents working overtime to keep stars like Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin out of the papers or jail, and even then the peccadilloes of these film legends still landed them in constant trouble. But at least there was a mechanism in place to protect movie stars from themselves.

Now celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Courtney Love are only too eager to air their sordid family laundry and minimal grasp of the basics of grammar in a medium that exposes their rants to millions of people in real time.

If Marilyn Monroe had been able to Tweet about her relationships with the Kennedy brothers, her life might have had an entirely different outcome -- or it might have ended even sooner. I can imagine her posting her current mood online the way people do today, but in her case she'd select something like "slutty/suicidal."

Take a look at just a fragment of Ms. Love's Tweets about her ongoing custody battles for Frances Bean, her daughter with rock legend Curt Cobain. It's sad to see a woman cut off from her child (who just turned 18 this week) and trying to rationalize the mess to herself and her indifferent daughter, but is this the forum for such jumbled, personal emotion?

i shouldve hooked up in some loveless marriage to a powerful hedgefund guy then youd be safe, im sorry i didnt. for your sake.i love you.

im done, you arent dumb you know what youve done what youve sold i couldnt shelter you from them i suppose its my fault, im so sorry bean. x

and im sure her dog., everyone else has a fucking agenda , that chantel if i see her shes a goner thats for dammed sure. grosspig≥poisonkids

with that that kid s=mustr ee somne accountability or shes going to believe thier insanity narcissism and lies, one human loves her truly ME

at her most vulnerable and feed her uttter bullshit based ona FORGED forensically proven to be FORGED operating agreement, so well have fun

she a little baby; sheltered to SOME degree, phony cop raids, seeing her mother cuffed for no reason other than i found out and theyGRABHER

The wall that once kept us from seeing that celebrities are as misguided and fallible as we are has been eroded, and in its place is a 24-hour gossip cycle that makes them seem as mundane as the rest of us. It makes me nostalgic for the days when movie magazines told us the stars were different from us, even if we never really believed it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chewing the Fat

When I was a little kid growing up in Maine, I loved reading the full-page advertisements in the Sunday Parade magazine for a diet supplement with the unfortunate brand name of AYDS. Each one was a testimonial -- a time-honored advertising format that's particularly effective when the product you're selling claims transformative properties -- from a formerly overweight man or woman who had lost 100 pounds or more simply by nibbling a chocolate-flavored appetite suppressant. It was wonderfully satisfying to read about people finally overcoming their life-long weight disability, allowing them at last to become the active, attractive person they'd always known was buried under all that blubber.

Of course, in the early '80s, the product underwent a name change due to the emergence of the AIDS pandemic, which could also be counted on for a swift, dramatic weight loss followed by an untimely demise.

Which brings me to the ongoing series of commercials for Jenny Craig. Granted, the weight-loss food system has had its spokesperson problems of late. For one thing, it probably wasn't the wisest choice to pick Kirstie Alley as the "face" of Jenny Craig given her butter addiction
So when she was replaced by the young actress Sara Rue, I wondered about the career implications of being a performer known primarily as a chunky comedic actor who suddenly drops 50 pounds. Yes, she looks great, and who wants to be fat? But when casting directors are saying "I need a funny, overweight girl for this part" they'll no longer be calling Ms. Rue, who now looks like a million pretty young women clamoring for parts in L.A.

Don't get me wrong, Rue is a likable young woman and at 31 she's already had an enviable career in show business that speaks to her obvious talents. I wish her the best. But when veteran actress Valerie Bertinelli was brought out of semi-retirement by Jenny Craig, the point was to use the product to restore her to the slim television personality we remembered from sitcoms and made-for-TV movies. She promptly lost 40 pounds and revived her career with a lead role on Hot In Cleveland, and that in itself is a great testament to the effectiveness of the product line. But Rue's lifelong weight problem was in a way her personal brand, and now it's completely altered. The challenge will be if her innate talent can bring her the success her quickly identifiable physique once did.

The same goes for the remarkably talented Jennifer Hudson. She's only been on the scene a few years, and we learned to associate her amazing singing voice with her heavy stature. Even her Academy Award-winning performance in Dream Girls was based on her ability to inhabit that character's size and the limitations it imposed. Now that she's slimmed down, she's less identifiable, and somehow more ordinary. That's the risk of adjusting any brand, be it personal or product, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out for both of these talented young performers.

Imagine if Jenny's new spokesman Jason Alexander continues to pare down. Does anyone really want to see a skinny George Costanza?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cathy Gets Erased At Last

The news that Cathy comic strip creator Cathy Guisewite is finally putting down her pen after 34 years couldn't have been more welcome.

Though Guisewite's artistic ability never improved an iota in over three decades, when it first appeared in 1976 the strip apparently resonated with the growing population of single women struggling with career and dating. Cathy was a somewhat blearier Mary Tyler Moore, obsessing about her weight, her boss, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Irving. Formless and somehow indistinct (she had no nose except in profile), she was a more neurotic but less succinct Zippy, who managed to get his point across in only one panel. Cathy is the kind of strip people read for its reassuring sameness, like Marmaduke or Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus, whose maestro Bil Keane has been content to run the same tiresome gags for nearly fifty years. Guisewite's schtick managed to endure for so long (there have been about 30 books of Cathy collections) that eventually she had to succumb to a slowly advancing story arc, finally marrying off the aging single to Irving in 2005 and letting them both settle down with two appropriately politically-correct shelter dogs. 

Lots of strips run their course, like Lynn Johnston's far more realistic For Better or For Worse, which started just a few years later than Cathy. Johnston's characters aged naturally, with the children becoming adults and having children of their own, the pets dying, and the parents experiencing mid-life crises. But when she decided to end her long-term endeavor, Johnston did something inexplicably self-indulgent: she started over, zapping the kids back to toddlerhood and turning the couple back into young marrieds. It was a bizarre move, like someone not just paging through their old photo albums but actually reanimating all those old memories. I personally have no interest in revisiting these characters for a second go-round, unless this time she plans to kill them all off in a series of unfortunate accidents.

There are, of course, comic strips that were so consistently well-drawn and finely-conceived that their early demise is still regrettable years later -- or, to use Cathy's trademark catch phrase: Aaaack! I could read Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes all day, even if it focused only on the suicidal snow people that Calvin sacrificed on his enlightened, TV-depriving parents' lawn to embarrass them in front of the whole neighborhood. The character's stasis as a precocious six-year-old could easily have continued for fifty more years because it was so thought-provoking, variant, and entertaining. The panel artwork could be pastorally pretty when Calvin and his stuffed tiger played in their close-knit suburban world, or sweepingly majestic when he explored the far reaches of the galaxy as Spaceman Spiff. Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County was similarly imaginative and intelligent, though far more topical. Both men knew when to close shop, leaving us wanting more, and I'd even venture that the ability to pull the trigger on a long-running cherished project might be more of a male trait.

So I'll give Guisewite props not exactly for knowing when to quit -- she should have folded Cathy's shaky tent a good 15 years ago -- but for choosing to focus on her family and parents at a pivotal time in her life. After decades of wide syndication and marketing tie-ins, I'm sure she can afford it. Perhaps she'll even find time for a drawing lesson or two. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Please Stow Your Anger In An Upright Position

America has a new folk hero, and his name is Steven Slater.

Anyone who has traveled extensively for business in the last few years can identify with the plight of the JetBlue flight attendant who yesterday "went ballistic," as first reports of the incident claimed. But imagine being responsible for the safety and comfort of 100 self-entitled, ill-mannered slobs and their unruly children, and having a passenger actually call you a "motherfucker" for insisting that he obey Federal Aviation regulations? 

On every flight there are always several passengers who insist on getting their enormous bags out of the overhead compartments before the pilot has turned off the seat belt sign. If you're a frequent business traveler sitting in the rear of the plane you've learned to relax and just let them lumber out with their rolling coffin-sized carry-ons. Not long ago I boarded a Denver-bound flight that had originated in Honolulu and found myself sitting next to a hugely obese woman holding a crate of pineapples on what we'll call her lap. "You know," I finally said, "you can buy perfectly good pineapples in any supermarket." You can imagine what her response was.

You can expect Steven Slater's story to get a lot of play because we can all relate to reaching the boiling point on a job and doing something dramatic and perhaps even career-ending -- most of us just don't have an emergency chute at our disposal so we can slide away as an exhilarating punctuation to our take-this-job-and-shove it statement.  In Mr. Slater's case he may face federal charges that could result in seven years in prison, but I predict he'll soon be making the rounds of late-night and morning talk shows as something of a media sensation. I can already see him dishing with the girls on The View. Math skills, though, apparently aren't a requirement for flight attendants -- I don't understand what he meant by "there's goes 28 years" when he's currently only 39, unless he practiced for his airborne career by serving peanuts and drinks to his G.I. Joes and Barbies when he was eleven. So far I've only seen video of him doing a smirking perp walk in handcuffs, but if he has any stage presence at all he may have launched an entirely new career in television. I certainly hope so.

If you have a story to share of your own spectacular on-the-job melt-down, please use the Comments section below to post it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Disappearing Act

When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in April, it set in motion a litany of lies: first that the crude oil entering the Gulf of Mexico would have a negligible impact on the ecology, followed by weeks of vastly underestimating the quantity of oil being emitted, unchecked, into the sea. Even the underwater images from BP's control center proved to be doctored. Never mind that the accident, which killed and maimed dozens of workers, happened in the first place because of safety regulations that were ignored and alarms that were dismantled.

Now BP tells us that the more than 200 million gallons of oil have "disappeared." The miles of reddish tarry tendrils that were being tracked from space have miraculously dissolved, they tell us, so now we can go back to worrying about Castro's prediction of nuclear annihilation and the possibility that Sarah Palin will be the next Republican presidential candidate. 

The disgraced oil conglomerate's explanation would be risible if it wasn't just flat-out insulting. By this point we should have learned not to believe any magical thinking encouraged by their public relations machine. The reality of the situation is far more dire: unprocessed crude oil, unlike the substances normally released by oil tanker incidents like the Exxon Valdez accident, has an entirely different composition and physical properties than treated crude. So instead of merely dissipating and disappearing, the thick blankets of oil have sunk far below the surface, creating unimaginably vast oxygen-deprived kill zones that will have a much more profound impact on ocean life and the food chain than the floating lakes of oil that coated and killed so much surface life already.

Why are we so willing to accept corporate lies? Because we're so used to hearing them, for one thing. But mainly because ignoring a truth so impactful and long-reaching is so much easier in the short run than confronting the horrific reality.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Money Changes Everything

It's hard to imagine now, but when Bill and Hillary Clinton were originally installed in Washington on the heels of the first administration in the disastrous Bush dynasty, they crackled with a home-spun authenticity that hadn't been seen since the days of President Carter. They were the original egalitarians, fresh from Arkansas, a state most of us couldn't have picked out on a map, and to prove it their first task was a failed attempt to revamp the health care system. That's probably when they began to realize that the American political system was bigger than both of them.

That was a long time -- and a lot of money -- ago. Despite their extensive and costly legal battles over the years, the Clintons are what most former presidential families find themselves to be if by some thin chance they didn't start out that way: millionaires. So it's been interesting to see how this formerly plebian couple, who were married in 1975 at a friend's home in the unassuming college town of Fayetteville, have handled their daughter Chelsea's wedding in this new-found, to-the-manor-born style. To her own ceremony Hillary claims to have worn a "lace-and-muslin Victorian dress I had found shopping with my mother the night before," while in photos of the event Bill is wearing a spotted tie most definitely not of a designer label. He even spent his wedding night bailing his young brother-in-law out of jail on a DUI charge.

But, as they say, money changes everything. The idealistic, frizzy-haired, post-hippie couple who embarked on the rough road of marriage together 35 years ago sprung for a wedding last weekend that cost a reported $3 million. There was the $11,000 gluten-free wedding cake, Vera Wang gowns for all eleven bridesmaids (and two specially-designed VW gowns for the bride), and this time Hillary didn't settle for a last-minute rumble-sale grab -- she wore an Oscar de la Renta ensemble befitting her new Brahmin status. Bill apparently took his father-of-the-bride role so seriously he went on a crash diet and successfully lost 20 pounds.

So yes, fame and fortune are corrupting, and it's tough to resist the siren call that lures you to the shoals of comfort and entitlement. I'm not sure why, but somehow I still expected the Clintons to set a slightly less ostentatious example to the world, especially at a time of struggle and need for so many. Perhaps I'm still naive; even Sarah Palin, that aw-shucks people's-choice populist from Alaska, has managed to amass a $15 million fortune since she was nominated for the vice presidency just two years ago. Although that doesn't surprise me at all.

Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Avenue

A "Shouts & Murmurs" parody in the current issue of the New Yorker toys with the idea of how different Mad Men would be if it were set in the present day of Tweets and online marketing tactics.

Of course the brilliance of the AMC television series is how masterfully the era of the early 1960s has been recreated. Right down to the period wristwatches and ash trays brimming with cigaret butts, the show's careful stylization mirrors the look and feel of movies that actually were shot that long ago, like Hitchcock's North by Northwest or Billy Wilder's The Apartment, or the film version of the Broadway hit How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Unlike the early-60s advertising-themed sitcom Bewitched, the admen of Mad Men take on real clients like Lucky Strike cigarets, the Volkswagen Beetle, and Kodak. It anchors the work element of the series in a real-world dynamic; we know those products and expect the creatives at Sterling Cooper, or now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, to apply their marketing expertise in a way that contributes to the success we associate with those winning brands.

What really makes the show work for me, though, is the enigma at its heart: the protagnonist is himself a fabrication no more authentic than a cigaret brand's claim that its smokers would rather fight than switch. Jon Hamm's Don Draper had to fashion himself out of whole cloth before he could create marketing campaigns for Madison Avenue's toughest clients; with an identity stolen from the battlefields of the Korean War he truly is a hollow man, an empty shell down to his core -- the perfect thing to be when you're using smoke and mirrors to get the public to choose one product over another.

Like any series that spans the Sixties, we expect to be awarded glimpses of changing social mores. Peggy Olsen goes from ignored secretary to competent copywriter; Paul Kinsey dates interracially and opposes Southern segregation, and an ad exec named Kurt casually declares his homosexuality, though a main closeted character, Sal Romano, seems to have been written out of the show. I worry that if the series continues much further into the decade, we'll be marched through the usual litany of flower children and Stonewall, but I have faith that the show's creators will do this evolution justice by showing it in context. I just don't want to have to see Don Draper in a Nehru jacket.

If I have any complaint about Mad Men it's that the show isn't sordid enough. People go on at length about what a different world it was, what with all the workplace drinking and casual office affairs, but have they ever worked at an ad agency? It was just a couple of years ago that I worked at a major San Francisco agency where a person pushing a drinks trolley would stop by your desk in the afternoon so that you could order the adult beverage of your choice, and beer coolers stocked with the latest microbrews hummed in every office. I arrived at work one morning to find the producer of a project I was in charge of dancing in the lobby in Kabuki whiteface that turned out to be cocaine, then discovered that $30,000 of post-production budget had gone up the noses of her crew. So if anything, the show could get a little wilder and smuttier.

One last note: I've seen a lot online lately about what a supposedly bad mother Betty Draper is. I give the show's producers kudos for accurately depicting motherhood in that era. After all, this was decades before a child's day was sectioned out into playdate appointments and he or she could be tracked electronically like migrating elk. Back then pregnant women took tranquilizers, smoked cigarets and drank martinis. I'm reminded of my own hugely pregnant mother's reaction when, some time around 1962, I ran screaming into the house with a huge gash torn into my knee. "Oh, stop it," she said, before returning to her soap operas. "You're not going to die." At least she didn't smoke.

Besides, does anyone ever point out that Don Draper isn't exactly Robert Young?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Night Visitors

How do you encapsulate the concept of something as simple, but ethereal, as a good night's rest? Well, if you're a pharmaceutical giant like Sepracor, Inc., you lock a creative team in a room and have them brainstorm product names that sound peaceful, reassuring, and safe. But when they emerge with a name like Lunesta as their recommendation, you should probably send them back in for another round. It sounds to me like the mad aunt your grandparents locked up in the attic back in the Eisenhower administration.

The commercials miss as badly as the product name, mostly because the drug's effectiveness has been embodied by a ghostly, glowing butterfly that steals into its victims' bedrooms under cover of darkness. First it uses its six spidery legs to loosen the chains of insomia that surround the fitfull sleeper; as they fall to the floor they dissolve into ashy dust. Hey, I just vacuumed in there. Then the little invader flutters to the bed and draws the covers up to the sleeper's chin.

I don't know about you, but I don't find it particularly comforting to have a radioactive holometabolous insect tucking me into my drug-induced coma. In fact, I'm far more likely to have the kind of reaction depicted in this parody:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Moscow On Madison

I love a high-concept ad campaign. You just don't see it much any more, and to some degree I'd say that's because marketers these days don't have much imagination. And, in an era when economics tend to hinder risk-taking, it's great to see an ad that hinges on a gimmick, and this 30-second spot for DIRECTV almost works. DIRECTV was one of the worst clients of my entire career, completely unwilling to listen to the professional recommendations of its creative agency, so I'm surprised someone talked them into being this entertaining. Perhaps it's just a reflection of how desperate they are now that they've lost a huge part of their market share to Comcast.

In the realm of cable television providers, I tend to think of DIRECTV as way behind the curve, much like Blockbuster Video was five or six years ago -- too late to the table when it came to industry innovations that should have been part of their developmental road map: movie downloads, streaming video and mobile apps. In fact I'm always a little startled when I see a Blockbuster store sitting forlornly in some suburban strip mall. Who still orders home videos this way? 

So give DIRECTV props for at least trying to be creative. And for tossing in that special effect at the end -- it's a sort of coda to a commercial that uses, of all things, a Russian mafia billionaire as its spokesperson. And the girl in the middle on the sofa? She should get some sort of award for her perfect portrayal of very jaded, very bored arm candy.