Friday, April 30, 2010

The Mob's Back






The mob is back in Las Vegas. (This assumes that the mob ever left). Soon there will be two museums dedicated to gangsters of the past. You'd think that Las Vegas would want people to forget its mob origins. Nope. In fact, the mayor, Oscar B. Goodman (who has represented many alleged mobsters) is very excited about the "Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement." (No, this is not my April Fools Day column). The mayor is somewhat upset because there is a rival museum that is scheduled to open soon. According to The New York Times, this other one is subtly named the "Las Vegas Mob Experience." I hope the forces behind the two museums don't settle their differences like the people they honor did.


One of the folks involved in the Las Vegas Mob Experience is Antoinette McConnell, the daughter of Chicago crime boss – I mean, alleged crime boss – Sam Giancana. The place they have in mind will actually resemble a theme park more than a museum. You know, it's good for the whole family. One of the planned exhibits will be called, "Final Fate." In this one, to get a feel for the way things were, a visitor has a chance of getting "whacked." The little kids will love that one, won't they?


Giancana's daughter makes no bones, oops, no pretense about her father's occupation. In fact, she says, "The Mafia is something people can't get enough of." When I close my eyes, I imagine how proud she'll be when they cut the opening day ribbon with a knife that has been wiped clean of all fingerprints. It's the kind of tribute that any daughter would like to give her late, beloved father.


I admit that I enjoyed going to Las Vegas back in the days that the mob ran the place. Allegedly. If you play blackjack today, your dealer is likely to be a pretty, young woman who decided to take that job instead of selling real estate. Back in the old days, it was a lot more exciting to have a scary looking dealer whose pinky ring was just slightly smaller than his head.


I've enjoyed watching movies and reading books about gangsters. I loved to watch "The Untouchables" on TV when I was a kid. However, in all of these earlier instances, the criminals were the bad guys. Maybe they fascinated us, but we weren't building a tribute to them. As much as it might be fun to sometimes romanticize these people, they were criminals. They weren't Robin Hoods. They were just hoods.


Mayor Goodman probably thought he had a way around this by not just naming the museum the "Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime", but adding "And Law Enforcement." Yeah, right. Which exhibit do you think more people would be drawn to: one about John Dillinger being gunned down after he was lured to the movie theater by the "lady in red" or one that tells where F.B.I. agents buy their shoes?


So what's behind these mob veneration ventures? What do you think? Money. The people who put together the deal for the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement were able to buy an old federally owned building for only one dollar. That's because the building will be used for "cultural purposes." The transported and rebuilt wall from the St.Valentine's Day Massacre qualifies as culture? I guess it was between the crime museum and a new opera house.


Those behind these museums/theme parks hope they'll bring in lots of money. They believe Las Vegas will get booming again because of interest in organized crime. Sounds like the old days. Like the old days, this gangster gambit has official support. Only this time it's not under the table. The $42 million museum (the one the mayor likes) has been financed by state, federal, and local grants. And you thought the government wasted money on silly things.


But this is America, and I guess you can build whatever you want here. I know I'm not going to be the one to tell Giancana's daughter that she can't have what she wants.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

What's In Their Tea?







This whole Tea Party thing is somewhat confusing. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that people who are upset about politics are participating in protests rather than being apathetic. However, some things that they're saying don't make sense to me. The big cry is, "Give me my country back." Where do they think their country went? Did they have a bad dream in which they wake up and suddenly can't find all of the states? "Oh, no! Didn't Delaware used to be over there? Whoever took it, should give it back." And who do they think took it? Was it some country with fewer problems than we have? Are they calling out in this dream, "Hey, Monaco, we know you took our country. That's not right. You don't even have room for it."


Many of us were surprised by the recent demographic statistics about the Tea Party. Tea Partiers say they don't want the government so involved in their lives, yet the majority of them are in favor of Social Security and Medicare. In other words, they are against the government spending money on programs to help people except for the programs that they like. The majority of Tea Partiers are wealthier than the average American, better educated, and own nicer homes. So they've achieved the American Dream. They just don't care if anyone else ever gets to have that dream.



Just what are they unhappy with? What do they think has changed too much? Do they yearn for a time when there was runaway spending by the Bush Administration? They shouldn't worry about that. We've still got runaway spending. Do they miss the days when we waged a senseless war in the Mideast? Cheer up. We're still waging that war. Are they afraid that since Obama was elected, Wall Street's traditional greed has been halted? There are two words that should get rid of this fear: "Goldman Sachs." So where's the "socialism?" What are the "radical" moves Obama has made?



Is it just about health care? Come on. Is there one American who either personally or through his or her family hasn't had a horrible experience with a doctor, a hospital, or an insurance company? I don't know any. Besides, if for some reason, you love your nice, caring insurance company, nobody's making you change to something else. That doesn't sound so radical to me.



So why are they upset with the Obama Administration? It goes beyond the Democrats who were upset with Bush becoming President. These are not the usual feelings that those among the political "outs" have for the political "ins." There are some things having to do with the anger that these people feel towards Obama that is over the top. I'm talking about the out and out disdain, the name-calling, the drawings of Obama looking like Hitler that are displayed at their rallies. This is not just the traditional American rhetoric of those who were disappointed that their people were voted out of office. This is unabashed hatred.



I'm thinking of forming my own political group and calling it the Cola Party. I want my country back, too, and not just the good old America in which Coke only cost a dime. I would love to see the old America in which people could disagree politically, but still respect each other's opinions -- and their right to have them. Give me back my America in which people could calmly discuss their differences without calling each other un-American.



Those who are actually spewing disgusting invective or bringing those Nazi posters to the rallies might very well be on the fringe of this fringe movement. I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone in the Tea Party is filled with this venom. But I worry that too many of them are.




So what makes these Obama opponents so much angrier, so much more threatened, and so much more involved in using violent images than Americans who haven't liked previous Presidents throughout our history? It's a mystery, isn't it? Lets see. What is it about President Obama that's different from all the other Presidents who've come before him?

Hmm. Maybe it's not really such a mystery after all.


Friday, April 23, 2010

What's In That Tea?





This whole Tea Party thing is somewhat confusing. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that people who are upset about politics are participating in protests rather than being apathetic. However, some things that they're saying don't make sense to me. The big cry is, "Give me my country back." Where do they think their country went? Did they have a bad dream in which they wake up and suddenly can't find all of the states? "Oh, no! Didn't Delaware used to be over there? Whoever took it, should give it back." And who do they think took it? Was it some country with fewer problems than we have? Are they calling out in this dream, "Hey, Monaco, we know you took our country. That's not right. You don't even have room for it."



Many of us were surprised by the recent demographic statistics about the Tea Party. Tea Partiers say they don't want the government so involved in their lives, yet the majority of them are in favor of Social Security and Medicare. In other words, they are against the government spending money on programs to help people except for the programs that they like. The majority of Tea Partiers are wealthier than the average American, better educated, and own nicer homes. So they've achieved the American Dream. They just don't care if anyone else ever gets to have that dream.



Just what are they unhappy with? What do they think has changed too much? Do they yearn for a time when there was runaway spending by the Bush Administration? They shouldn't worry about that. We've still got runaway spending. Do they miss the days when we waged a senseless war in the Mideast? Cheer up. We're still waging that war. Are they afraid that since Obama was elected, Wall Street's traditional greed has been halted? There are two words that should get rid of this fear: "Goldman Sachs." So where's the "socialism?" What are the "radical" moves Obama has made?



Is it just about health care? Come on. Is there one American who either personally or through his or her family hasn't had a horrible experience with a doctor, a hospital, or an insurance company? I don't know any. Besides, if for some reason, you love your nice, caring insurance company, nobody's making you change to something else. That doesn't sound so radical to me.



So why are they upset with the Obama Administration? It goes beyond the Democrats who were upset with Bush becoming President. These are not the usual feelings that those among the political "outs" have for the political "ins." There are some things having to do with the anger that these people feel towards Obama that is over the top. I'm talking about the out and out disdain, the name-calling, the drawings of Obama looking like Hitler that are displayed at their rallies. This is not just the traditional American rhetoric of those who were disappointed that their people were voted out of office. This is unabashed hatred.



I'm thinking of forming my own political group and calling it the Cola Party. I want my country back, too, and not just the good old America in which Coke only cost a dime. I would love to see the old America in which people could disagree politically, but still respect each other's opinions -- and their right to have them. Give me back my America in which people could calmly discuss their differences without calling each other un-American.



Those who are actually spewing disgusting invective or bringing those Nazi posters to the rallies might very well be on the fringe of this fringe movement. I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone in the Tea Party is filled with this venom. But I worry that too many of them are.



So what makes these Obama opponents so much angrier, so much more threatened, and so much more involved in using violent images than Americans who haven't liked previous Presidents throughout our history? It's a mystery, isn't it? Lets see. What is it about President Obama that's different from all the other Presidents who've come before him? Maybe it's not really such a mystery after all.











So what makes these Obama opponents so much angrier, so much more threatened, and so much more involved in using violent images than Americans who haven't liked previous Presidents throughout our history? It's a mystery, isn't it? Lets see. What is it about President Obama that's different from all the other Presidents who've come before him? Maybe it's not really such a mystery after all.



Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chicken Wallbanger?






It wouldn't shock anyone to learn that San Francisco recently passed a resolution to make Mondays "VegDays." Everyone in the city will be encouraged to eat vegetarian meals and to avoid eating meat every Monday. It sounds like the kind of thing that could easily happen in Santa Monica next. Don't worry. There will be no Vegetarian Police, clad in green outfits, barging into people's homes to make sure that they aren't having lamb chops on Monday night. This is not just a movement by people who want their fellow citizens to eat less meat to be healthier. The people behind this resolution point out, "If everyone in San Francisco eats a plant-based diet just one day a week for a year, we would save over 378,600,768 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. That is the equivalent of taking 123,822 cars off the streets of San Francisco." I wonder how many of those 123,822 cars are on their way to pick up a Big Mac.


Vegetarianism has, of course, increased over recent years. So it came as a big surprise to me to learn that some people are clinging onto meat. The weirdest way that they are consuming meat products is in their cocktails. They've given a whole new meaning to Beefeater gin.


Some hip,"in" bars are serving drinks like "Bring Home the Bacon." That's a concoction that contains beef bullion, vodka and a garnish of deep-fried bacon and a prosciutto-stuffed olive. Beef bullion doesn't sound all that over the top. However, would you want to drink a cocktail containing elk bullion? There is an elk based drink called, "Big Eye Bloody Bull." Sounds really appetizing, doesn't it? Where do you even buy elk bullion? I've never seen it on a grocery store shelf, have you? And I guess a sometimes Governor/sometimes candidate from Alaska might be drinking moose-tinis.


This infusion of meat into people's lives during the vegetarian revolution doesn't stop at the corner bar. According to "Time" magazine, more and more people are butchering their own meat. I'm not kidding. People are butchering their own meat in their kitchens, right next to that beautiful white tile that they spent all that money on. Now, I would never suggest that all this home butchering would save the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as VegDay. However, in one way this meat movement is "green." That's the color I'd turn if anyone ever did any butchering in my kitchen.


The last time I heard about a cleaver being in a home kitchen, she was named June. However, the author of "Julie and Julia," Julie Powell, has published a new book called, "Cleaving" about home butchering. I can hardly wait to see the movie in which Meryl Streep prepares a romantic dinner by chopping off a pig's snout.


So what's this culinary counterrevolution all about? Why are people bringing dead animals into their kitchens? Why are they excited about a dinner of braised hoof? I have a theory. In these difficult economic times, people want to hold onto something that they've always felt was special. Meat has traditionally been a symbol of wealth and good times. When people want to celebrate something, they have often celebrated with the most expensive meat they can find, not with an avocado and sprouts sandwich. So maybe the attitude is, "You can take away my raise. You can take away my fancy car, you can even take away the house I bought with ridiculous credit three years ago. But keep your hands off my meat."

Evidently, to some people, meat is an economic comfort food. Maybe when their finances are back up where they want them to be, they will look back and laugh at the time they moved yesterday's mail, the laptop, and their kid's relief map of South America off the kitchen counter so they could make oxtail soup from scratch.


So is it possible to reconcile these polar opposites of vegetarianism and meat-ism? I think it is. I think both sides can be happy. All the people who serve that elk bullion cocktail have to do is make sure that the menu states that the bullion is made from free range elk.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Just A Game?








If it had been a movie, Butler's Gordon Hayward's last shot would have gone in. But it wasn't a movie, it was real life. It was the NCAA Championship game and real life spoiled things for an amazing Butler team, for about 60,000 (out of the 70,000) people in the arena, and for millions of people the country who were rooting for the little school that almost could. The score was close the whole game, and Duke’s winning 61-59 probably made the defeat all the more painful for Butler.


It was an excitingly emotional game. Up and down, tied, up and down some more. It was the kind of game you didn't want to end. Butler University, a school only a few miles from the arena, a school with about 4,000 students, was considered the underdog this season no matter whom they played and no matter how high their ranking soared in the national polls. People love an underdog. In sports and in life. We get much more excited to hear a success story about someone who started with nothing rather than one about a kid who was born rich and then succeeded.



The non-sports fans always seem to ask why people who are seemingly mature in other ways will get so involved in a game. They don't understand that getting so involved in sports, getting so wrapped up in watching a game, is a great break from the realities of life. In those last few minutes of the Championship game, I guarantee you nobody there was thinking about the economy, foreign policy, or whether their kid had married the right person. They were either rooting for a team they had cheered on for years or for a team they felt symbolized the optimistic mantra of "Anything's possible." And maybe then they felt that anything's possible for them. Maybe they can solve those problems in the "real world," maybe they can get a job or a promotion, maybe they can get that person at work to smile at them.



It was fitting that Butler's Hayward took that final half-court shot. Butler has often been compared to the school in the movie "Hoosiers." If so, then Gordon Hayward was "Jimmy," the kid who could do almost anything with the basketball, a kid who looked so very Middle American in this sport that had its origin in Middle America.



After the game, I felt a little depressed as reality was slowly creeping into my mind. "I have to pack, would I make my plane connections tomorrow? (I didn't), I have a lot of work to do when I get home," etc.



Reality can be an annoying thing. It disturbs our dreams. It often spoils our good times. But for reality to join fantasy -- like during an "unreal" basketball game -- is a wonderful gift for those who are lucky enough to be present for it.



I was at that championship game in Indianapolis, and sitting behind me was a very tall man who looked like he had definitely played basketball. He turned out to be the Olathe, Kansas girls high school basketball coach (and science teacher) Joel Branstrom. A couple of months before this game, he had been in the news because of something that happened at a pep rally at his school. Some kids blindfolded him, then told him that if he could make a half-court shot, he'd win tickets to the Final Four. Branstrom, a former basketball walk-on for the University of Kansas, made the half-court shot blindfolded. The kids were shocked, and then admitted that they didn't have any tickets for him. It was just a prank. There was that annoying reality again.



But somehow, the NCAA got wind of this whole thing and sent Branstrom tickets for the championship weekend. So there he was, sitting behind me with his family, a big smile on his face, watching one of the most exciting games in history. For him, reality had joined fantasy.

If it worked for him, if one of his dreams could come true, maybe it can work for the rest of us, too. Let's face it: making a half-court shot blindfolded sounds impossible. It is impossible in the world of reality, but not in the world of sports.

By the way, when Gordon Hayward missed that long shot at the buzzer, I wonder if Branstrom was thinking, "How could he have missed that? He wasn't even blindfolded.








Friday, April 2, 2010

Couldn't Give It Away



Suppose you're driving along and you happen to be behind an armored car. Suddenly, the back door of that armored car flies open, a bag of money hits the street, splits open, and cash starts flying all over the place. Would you slam on your brakes, get out of your car in the midst of traffic, run over to the bag, stuff as much money in your pockets as possible, run back to your car, get out of there as fast as you can, and think they're was nothing wrong with what you just did? I didn’t think you’d do something like that. Neither would I, but that's exactly what several people did recently when this actually happened in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

The first thing I thought about when I heard the story was how could the back door of an armored car fly open allowing a bag of money to fall to the street? I've been driving for a long time, and I've never had any money fly out of my car, and I don't even drive a special vehicle whose sole purpose is to safely drive money around.

The other thing, of course, was the behavior of the people who grabbed the money. $100,000 is still missing. ($100,000? I guess that was a pretty big bag). Maybe they rationalized that they were taking the money from a big, unfeeling, faceless bank or corporation, not from “regular people.” But that money that was bouncing around in the armored car probably belong to "regular people." It could have been your money going to or from a bank.

Maybe another rationalization was that obviously, the money was insured, so "nobody got hurt." Your house is probably insured. If you were robbed, would you think that "nobody got hurt?"

Call me a Pollyanna, but I generally feel that people are good, honest, and responsible. That's why I was so disappointed to learn the way so many people acted. I worried that maybe I’d been wrong all these years about my positive views of my fellow men and women. It shook up my entire perception of the world. If people are willing to run out of their cars in the middle of traffic to grab money that’s not theirs, who knows what else they’re capable of doing? Maybe some people actually do things like cheat on their income taxes, take drugs so they can play sports better, or take their neighbor’s newspaper early in the morning to check last night’s sports scores.

So I decided to conduct an experiment. I would walk up to people with money in my hand, and ask them if it was theirs. I started with quarters and I would usually be near a store's cash register to make my scenario believable. "I think you might have dropped this," was my line. But every person I approached that way said to me, "No, that's not mine."

I even went to a video arcade where quarters are like gold. There were two kids in there who were either doing research for a paper on video games or were ditching school. The one whose jeans were around his knees actually dropped a quarter as I walked in. After he picked that up, I presented him with one of my quarters and said, "I think you dropped this one, too." The kid declined the quarter, saying it wasn't his. (He actually said, “Not mine, dude).”

I decided to up the ante. I was walking in a crowded shopping mall with my hands in my pockets and purposely "dropped" a $20 bill to the floor and continued to walk. I was practically tackled by two people, coming from opposite directions, telling me that I dropped the twenty. They also admonished me, saying I should be more careful with my money.

As I put the $20 bill back in my pockets, I smiled. People really are good. Then how do I explain the actions of those who stuffed their pockets and fled? There are plenty of plausible explanations. For example, maybe that's the one street in America where people don't act properly. Maybe they plan to give the money to charity. Maybe they thought it was play money. The important thing is that I proved that people really are trustworthy.

By the way, if you see me walking around, don't bother following me, hoping that I'll purposely be dropping money on the ground. My experiment's over. It was a one-time thing. I have faith in people, but I'm not going to push my luck.




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