Saturday, August 30, 2008

All hail the Jonas Brothers!

The Walt Disney Company’s latest cash cow, a trio of siblings called The Jonas Brothers, infiltrated my town last week. Their appearance was the talk of the neighborhood block party.

Two of my neighbors were planning to attend, not because they relished this band but because they had daughters and were therefore required to fork over hundreds of dollars to sit among shrieking prepubescent girls for two hours.

I have daughters as well but, for some reason, they’re not into the Jonas Brothers. A pair of twins named Zach and Cody? Now that’s a different story. They religiously watch this show, which features the brothers living in the penthouse suite of a posh New York hotel. A reality show, it ain’t.

As far as I can tell, Zach and Cody don’t sing or play instruments so it’s unlikely I’ll be attending one of their concerts. Plus, every time I see the show, it appears the twins have had a hard time staying away from junk food. Both seem to be getting a little thick in their pre-teen middles, which no doubt has Disney executives nervous.

What? An overweight Disney kid? The horror!

So even though I would not be attending the Jonas Brothers concert, I decided to read up on them. It wasn’t hard considering they were splashed across the Sunday Chicago Tribune with the kind of coverage usually reserved for papal visits and a Cubs playoff victory.

I’ll admit, these kids intrigued me. They hail from New Jersey, they really ARE brothers and all have lengthy show business backgrounds. But here’s where their story really became interesting for me: the three play their own instruments and even write most of their own songs.

That’s right. Teenagers who play real live instruments! I didn’t think that was possible anymore. Probably because I was recently introduced to a new video game called Guitar Hero.

For those of you who recently awoke from a coma, Guitar Hero is the game that lets kids actually think they are playing an instrument. It comes with a plastic guitar that looks exactly like a regular electric guitar except that it has no strings, no frets, and no tuners. Other than that, you can barely tell the difference.

Instead of strings, the guitar has five different colored buttons. The guitar “player” starts the game by standing in front of the screen that serves as the Guitar Hero monitor. First he or she chooses a song from the Guitar Hero library. I chose “Barracuda” from Heart. From there the song begins and one or several of those colored buttons scroll down from the top of the “fret board.” At the appropriate time, the player presses the “note” with one hand and the “strum bar” with the other hand. If done correctly, lo and behold, it appears that you are playing guitar just as expertly as Nancy Wilson, Heart’s lead guitarist.

Notice how I said appears. That’s why this game troubles me. Kids today actually think they are playing guitar. Maybe I’m just spouting sour grapes because I took lessons on a REAL guitar for six years. I gave it up and it’s a decision I regret to this day for I would love to take a break from time to time in my home office and alleviate writer’s block by strumming a James Taylor or Paul Simon tune.

Today’s software programs basically allow kids to play any instrument they want without actually learning how to play it. I get this image of attending a concert in 10 years with four band members who bound onstage, fire up their Macs and basically do nothing as the computers play music and the audience screams while waving cell phones and lighters in the air.

The younger generation might call this form of music making “creativity.” I prefer to think of it as laziness. Kids today just don’t seem to want to put in the extra work, no matter the reward. Oh sure, there are exceptions to every rule. During the Beijing Olympics we were treated to countless stories of Michael Phelps and his daily four-mile swims, or gymnast Shawn Johnson, who walked into an Iowa gymnastics facility when she was five and never left.

But just once in awhile, I’d like to see a kid do something – ANYTHING! – without the aid of a computer. Last December I was listening to the local news in my car when I heard the announcer say something about Santa’s email address. Apparently kids can now email their wish lists to Santa simply by firing up their PCs, typing in the subject line and telling Santa how good they have been, using whatever font they choose.

I nearly drove into a snow bank.

Emailing Santa? Does this mean that kids will no longer line up at the mall to see Santa? That’s a holiday tradition as old as the ugly tie that Aunt Clara knits every year. You know, the one that smells like cigarette smoke when you open the box?

Hey kids, you want to see Santa? Then do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Go to the mall, find the line that stretches from Macy’s to Nordstrom’s, and stand in the back. Two hours later you’ll be sitting on Santa’s lap for 30 seconds. You’ll walk away with a lollipop from Christmas 2003 while remarking to your Mom that Santa smelled a little like Daddy when he drinks that “icky” stuff after a hard day at work. THAT’S how you see Santa.

Sound too difficult? Okay, go ahead and use that computer. Go ahead and email your wish list. But remember, technology is a two-way street so be prepared for Santa to email back – sometime in February.

Dear Billy: I’m sorry I didn’t visit your house this year. I hadn’t heard from you. But today I was cleaning out my Spam folder and, great green gumdrops, what do you think I found? Your list! Oh well, stuff happens. See you next year at the mall.

P.S. If you still want Guitar Hero, I’ve had one wrapped up and waiting since last Christmas.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Take the long way please

In my last post, I blogged about the lack of conversation aboard planes . I wrote that I’m a “plane talker” and wondered why so many others didn’t engage in chat at 30,000 feet, particularly on flights lasting more than two hours. Thanks for the responses. It seems some of you agree with my sentiments while others relish the chance for a little solitude.

Now I can see why for, as I write this, I’m on an American Airlines jet bound for Chicago from Orlando. Yes, I’m in first-class but I wish I were anywhere but here.

No sooner had I sat down and buckled in than my seatmate, an attractive woman with blonde hair and a killer smile, casually said, “I hope you don’t mind sitting with two babies.

”Babies?” I replied, looking at her puzzled as she did not have any kids on her lap.Then I glanced down and saw the “kitty carrier” she was cradling. Inside were two gray and white kittens which looked as if they had been born in the terminal just prior to boarding.

“They’ve got great lungs. Especially when it’s time to eat,” she said.

She was right. About 30 minutes into the flight her ”babies” started mewing and did not stop until she fed them milk from a bottle that looked suspiciously like it had been stolen from a six year old’s doll house. When the flight attendant came by seeking drink orders, she handed him the bottle and asked if he could “heat this for about eight seconds.

Not 10 seconds, not five seconds but EIGHT seconds.

The flight attendant looked at the bottle as if she had handed him a live rat. He scurried away but returned about 12 seconds later. She thanked him profusely.

I sat there, unsure of what to do or say. I’m not a cat hater by any means but this was borderline ridiculous. She was cradling the kittens with more care than the presidential advisor who carries the “football” that holds our nation’s nuclear launch codes. Even if I had wanted to make conversation, what was I supposed to say to this woman?“

Pardon the smell,” she said and then I realized that one of her babies had just pooped. Luckily she had brought aboard a product called “Kitty Wipes” to clean up the mess.

It was at this point that I realized two things: One, I had nothing to say to this person since I have no knowledge of kitty toys, kitty breeds or kitty litter for that matter, and two, she desperately needed an “animal free” night on the town, preferably with a Chippendale's dancer.

Then there are times I just feel too tired to talk but wonder if I let an opportunity slip away by remaining silent. Case in point – a five-hour flight from Los Angeles to Orlando two days earlier. When I boarded, I just wanted to listen to my iPod and watch episodes of my new favorite show, Mad Men, on DVD. And that’s what I did in spite of the fact my seat mate was a large, African-American gentlemen who talked non-stop (but quietly) on his cell phone during the inevitable 90-minute “mechanical issue” that preceded the flight. I overheard a few snippets including “we’ll need to take a meeting with him when I get back” and “it’s time they know that I’m not a one-hit wonder.”

Okay, on one hand this is typical “LA cell phone conversation.” Walk down an LA street or sit in a cafĂ© and listen to people yak on their cell phones. You will swear that everyone is talking to Martin Scorsese. Once I was walking along Venice Beach and saw a guy stretched out on the grass, cell phone in hand, saying, “and I’ll just have to go to William Morris if ICM or CAA won’t give me the money that this is worth.” I’m not really a betting man but I’d be willing to wager that there was nobody on the other end of the phone.

Maybe that was the case with the man seated to my left. But what if he was a rising star in the entertainment field? Or an established star who I would know by name, if not by sight? Did I miss something by opting not to initiate a conversation? We’ll never know. He closed his eyes shortly after takeoff and didn’t wake up until we were circling Disney World.

The truth is, I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories from strangers. That’s why I’ve become so chatty during my travels. Everybody has a story to tell if you just let him or her get started. And if you want a guaranteed intriguing story, look no further than Las Vegas cabdrivers. I often wish the Strip were farther away from McCarran International Airport as it would give me more time in the cab with these people, who are unlike cab drivers in any other American city. Number one, they speak English. Number two; they don’t talk on the phone while driving. I recently hailed a cab in Chicago and the foreign cabbie spent the entire ride repeating what sounded to me like “chocolate taco” into the phone. Perhaps it’s a greeting in some African country. But it was annoying. Worse, it was making me hungry.

When these drivers FINALLY hang up and I ask who was on the line, they typically tell me it was a family member. “My brother in El Salvador” and “my uncle in Bangladesh” are responses I’ve received recently.

How cab drivers can afford their cell phone bills is a question I will never be able answer.

Vegas cab drivers are different. Like everybody else in Vegas, they came from somewhere else. They weren’t planning to stay long but they’re still here. And ALL of them have some hiccup in their life story that landed them in Vegas driving tourists to hotels, strip clubs and convention centers. Talk to them long enough and that life-altering detour will come out in conversation.

So, how long you been in Vegas?

About 12 years.

What did you do before that?

I lived in San Jose. I was an IT consultant for Sun Microsystems.

What was that like?

It was great man, particularly the international travel.

So did you move your family out here?

No, my wife – my ex-wife - and kids are still there. (PAUSE) Man, that cocaine will mess you up. Stay away from it pal. (PAUSE) Did you say the Bellagio or the Venetian?

There it was right there. No need to press; just sit back, listen and the truth always comes out.Once I had a cabbie who spent the first part of the ride berating gamblers.

“So you don’t gamble?” I asked.

“Nah, it’s for suckers. It does nothing for me. Of course when friends come to visit, I might take ‘em to the Strip for the night. Maybe I’ll throw a few bucks in a machine here and there. But that’s just to kill time.

"But that’s it?”

“Yeah, nothing else. Course I might make a sports bet every now and then, especially during football season. Makes the games more fun, right?”


“Baseball can be fun too. I mean, I’m no Pete Rose or nothin’ but I do okay. ‘Specially if I parlay. I did a six-team parlay last season that paid me about three grand. Course it’s Vegas baby. It all goes back eventually. Hey, who do you like in the fifth at Belmont?”

By the time the cab pulled up to the hotel, I was convinced that I was this guy’s last fare before his Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

Every now and then my Vegas cabbie is a retired guy who’s driving a cab because he “missed being around people.” That may be true but I can think of about 1,000 jobs in Vegas that allow you to meet people and DON’T require shuttling drunks between strip clubs at 3:30 a.m. Pushing a change cart through a smoky casino seems more appealing. For that matter, so does putting on a full suit of armor in August and standing outside Caesar’s Palace.

My dad, a retired salesman, is 76 and devotes his sunset years to volunteering as a marshal at a nearby public golf course. He drives a cart around and gently reminds foursomes to “keep up the pace.” It’s easy work and allows him to get his “people fix.” Plus it gets him out of the house twice a week. Were it not for his limited vision and arthritic knees, he’d probably be a great cab driver. Or a great knight at Caesar’s Palace.

The need for stimulating conversation is something that I long for, particularly in this age of earbuds, Blackberries, home theatres and other toys that allow us to retreat into our own private worlds. Maybe that’s why I’m lucky to have chosen stand-up comedy as a career. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter; just tell a stranger that’s your occupation and you’ll get a response. NOBODY has ever said, “hmmmm, interesting” and resumed reading a business document. Insurance salesmen, on the other hand, probably get that response on a daily basis.

So if you’re seated next to me on a plane, or you’re driving me around town in a taxi, or you happen to sit next to me in a hotel bar, be prepared. I’m going to pick your brain and find out what makes you the person you are. But don’t worry, I can take a hint. I’ll leave you alone if your nose is buried in your PDA or your ears in your iPod.

Or if I see you with a cat.