Sunday, March 30, 2008

'Just words'

The other night, I gathered with some of the guys for some drinks, billiards and general bullshit in a buddy's basement. At one point, a lifelong friend of mine referred to his wayward pool game as "retarded."
At that point, another longtime friend of mine spoke up, a man who's a live-in caregiver for two older, cognitively disabled men. Meanwhile, I have a family member who is severely autistic and unable to care for herself. Both of which Friend A knew full well. So to put it diplomatically, an effort was made to "make him see the error if his word choice."

We asked if he'd go into Harlem and call somebody a "nigger." Or if he'd call a gay friend of ours a "faggot." Or someone else a ... (insert slur here). To my mounting disappointment, he defiantly insisted that the word "retard" should not mean to us what it did, ultimately insinuating that we were simply "oversensitive."

He tried to turn it into an offensive on how we can't make him find, or not find, something funny. The problem was, he hadn't been making a joke. And no one was saying a person should or shouldn't find anything funny. In fact, I reasoned, we often find things funny precisely because their absurdity and outrageousness say we shouldn't. I pointed out to this vocal backer of Barack Obama that Obama himself gave a renowned speech called "Just Words" (just prior to the Wisconsin Primary); a speech in which Obama referred to "I have a dream," "We hold these truths to be self-evident" ... all to illustrate the absurdity of insinuating that words have no resonance.

Meanwhile, Friend A insisted upon his freedom of speech. But it was pointed out to him that with every right comes a responsibility. Freedom of speech is not absolute, and anyone requiring proof is free to joke about a bomb in an airport sometime.

Instead, I was oversensitive.

This from someone who's never walked into a restaurant only to have nearly every set of eyes staring as you walk toward your seat; not at you but at the person you're with. ... This from someone who never went on a road trip with his parents to South Dakota when he was about 10, and was seated at a short lecture in some small nature preserve only to have another kid actually physically stand in the front of the room, point and laugh at your disabled companion. ... This from a person who's never had his eighth-grade principle clear him out of the classroom while he openly scolded the rest of the class for making light of your sister being "retarded." ... This from a person who was never the 13-year-old who - wanting nothing more as an adolescent than to fit in - had to walk back into that classroom.

This from a person who's never had to wonder what it was to like to fully appreciate the construct of a full "family of four," including everything from sibling rivalries to riding on a roller coaster at a county fair.

Nope. I was oversensitive.

It was all I could do to keep from shoving his pool cue so far up his ass he'd have to say "Aaaah" to chalk it. If for no other reason, than this is a person who openly prides himself on his "enlightened" and "liberal" view of American society.

How in God's name, it was put to him, could he then so loosely use a pejorative that would denigrate and belittle the ONE segment of the population that could never speak up for itself. A black guy walks into a room, an obviously gay person, a woman ... etc., and I know damn well he wouldn't use any of the aforementioned terms in their presence.

Instead, he chose the one demographic who could be sitting right next to him, hear him call him a "retard," and never think to - or be able to - speak up on his own behalf.

I spoke to Friend A the next day for quite some time, and the "retard" subject never even came up. Nor did an apology. I didn't ask for one because an apology sought is worthless. And I didn't bring up the "retard" issue because I was still pretty hot about it and didn't want to lash out at him. Yet I'm sitting here, two nights later, still stewing about it to the point of writing some anonymous blog about it that I half wish he'd read, and half wish would be nothing more than idle venting that will alleviate this hurt and mild sense of betrayal.

I guess I'm oversensitive.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A playwright gets it right

David Mamet - who apparently is a playwright of some renown - recently penned a piece for the Village Voice outlining his recent conversion from "brain dead" liberalism to that of more classical conservatism. It's a long piece, and he meanders, but it's worth a read for the points he does raise.
His overriding assertion is that the "sides" shouldn't hate each other the way they do. This is a view akin to my own.
I've told friends for years that there are a whole lot of people making a whole lot of money on the fact that our country is divided into red/blue, liberal/conservative, black/white, etc. I find myself falling into the same trap - even if it's just to temper some of the vapid rhetoric I hear constantly thrown at President Bush, Republicans and conservatives - but I try like hell to rise above this. That's not to say I have no concept of "right" and "wrong," but I do recognize shades of gray in most issues.
One of these days maybe I'll lay out my beliefs in this space. (Might not be a bad idea to help sort out the nuances of the issues. Maybe everyone should do that.)

Voice of Reagan dies at 75

Hal Riney, the man who voiced Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" commercials in 1984, died Monday (March 24) at his home in San Francisco. He was 75. Links to the commercials are below along the right. Some brilliant ads.
Apparently he was a man of some renown in the advertising community, and he had an interesting back story. This from the San Fransisco Chronicle:

S.F. ad man Riney dies

(03-25) 15:24 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- Hal Riney, the San Francisco advertising man whose iconic and memorable work helped establish the city as a leading creative center for the industry, died of cancer in his San Francisco home Monday. He was 75.
Whether his client was an automobile manufacturer, a wine cooler or the committee to re-elect President Ronald Reagan, no one could put as graceful a spin on Americana as could Hal Riney. He made likable, engaging advertising in a career of nearly 50 years.
Some would say he is best remembered for creating the brand and image of General Motors' Saturn automobile division, establishing a memorable alternative to Detroit car culture in the process. Others would argue he is equally famous for the codgers Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes, who sing the praises of the Gallo wine cooler that bore their names. Another case could be that his best work came in 1984, when he wrote soft-textured, 60-second montages of Americana, telling stories of swelling national pride, making people comfortable about re-electing Reagan. The ads - titled "It's Morning Again in America" - assured the public it would be folly to return to the days before Reagan's tenure.
Western style
These advertising campaigns and many more had a unique and relaxed Western feeling to them and stood in contrast to so much in a New York-dominated industry. Importantly, Riney's ads prompted marketers to pay attention to the San Francisco ad scene. He narrated many of them, and his gravelly voice is as memorable as the products he promoted.
Before Riney, Howard Gossage had established San Francisco's ad industry roots. Riney's proteges, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, who started with Hal Riney & Partners doing "Billy Ball" ads for the Oakland A's, left in the spring of 1983 to establish what is today one of the country's top agencies, and they in turn encourage the next generation of San Francisco creative advertising people.
In fact, Riney's disciples went on to found no fewer than 28 advertising agencies, said Goodby.
"He created an atmosphere and body of work that attracted the highest level of creative people outside New York," said Goodby, co-founder of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. "Some would say higher."
Throughout his work, Goodby wrote of Riney, "there was an optimistic, perhaps even romantic, vision of America. It was a land populated with people of similar values, small-town Fourth of July parades, and rocking chairs on shady porches. There was little tolerance of fakery and cant. It was this vision he mined in his 1984 campaign for Reagan, and even in his advertising for beer and automobiles."
Hal Patrick Riney was born July 17, 1932, in Seattle and was reared in Longview, Wash., a lumber mill town on the Columbia River. His father was a cartoonist, writer, newspaper publisher, actor, salesman and gambler who was jailed after writing "a check that wasn't the best check he could have written," Riney recalled.
His father abandoned the family, including his mother and older sister, when Riney was 5, but he was an idyllic figure for the young Riney, who kept a photo of him in his office above his Underwood typewriter.
His mother was a teacher who became a volunteer at a fire lookout during the summers of World War II in Washington's Cascade Range - where Riney fell in love with the outdoors.
He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in art in 1954. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he took a job in the mail room at the San Francisco office of BBDO, then the city's largest advertising agency. He was soon promoted to art director.
Nine years later, he became the agency's creative director. It was at BBDO, in the mid-1960s, that he hired composer Paul Williams to create a theme for Crocker Bank of San Francisco. The song, "We've Only Just Begun," went on to become a No. 1 hit by the Carpenters.
During that time, Riney met Jerry Andelin, the art director with whom he would collaborate until his retirement.
In 1976, Riney opened the San Francisco office of New York agency Ogilvy & Mather. David Ogilvy later said it broke his heart when Riney ultimately left to start his own agency, said Steve Hayden, vice chairman at the New York agency.
"Hal Riney went on to prove just what a massive talent he truly was," Hayden said. "Like David before him, Hal trained an entire generation of stars that continue to dominate the industry to this day, and proved irrefutably that his beloved San Francisco could provide all the talent needed by the world's biggest accounts."
Lee Clow, another famed adman, now global director of media art for TBWA Worldwide in Los Angeles, said, "Hal Riney was one of our fiercest competitors and, personally, one of my greatest inspirations. The man was truly a genius. His voice for storytelling and his art changed the way we think about advertising. His work will continue to inspire us."
Writing at the bar
He may have been considered a genius, but for many he was unassuming. Riney told the story - dating to when he was a member of the 1984 Reagan re-election group called the Tuesday Team - of writing three of the Reagan ads, and a few others that the campaign did not use, in about 2 1/2 hours in a San Francisco bar, Reno Barsocchini's. At the time, the bar was just below his office on Battery Street.
"It was lunchtime, and I remember a guy sitting next to me, one of those guys who hangs around the bar, and he says, 'What are you doing, Hal?' I said, 'Well, I'm writing the president's advertising.' And he thought that was bull- and just snickered," Riney told The Chronicle in 2004.
Riney was a demanding manager. "You had to be on your guard because he always had his wheels churning, a project going on in his head," Goodby said. "There was the feeling he was operating on a higher plane than your presentation seemed to be on. I would also say our sense of humor was wetter than his. He would consider the humor we do a little crass," Goodby said of himself and partner Silverstein.
In 1982, on a trip to Honduras, Riney's Sahsa Air Lines flight was hijacked on the tarmac in Tegucigalpa. Honduran rebels with semiautomatic pistols and bombs rigged with dynamite held the plane. He made a daring escape.
"I just opened the goddamn emergency hatch, jumped out and ran like hell," Riney told The Chronicle that year. "I zigzagged while I ran, expecting shots that never came." Coming home, he circulated a memo to his staff that read, "A belated thank you for your concerns while I was on that airplane. Actually, my research shows that there were 37 in favor of rescue, 29 in favor of blowing up (the airplane) and the remainder undecided."
Goodby recalled that in early 1983, Silverstein had been persistently prodding him to quit the Riney agency and start their own. When the two finally went in Riney's office to give him notice, Riney asked, "What brings you fellows in?" Silverstein said, "Tell him, Jeff," leaving to Goodby the unpleasant task of giving him the news.
"He said, 'If you fellas get tired of making your own coffee over there, you should call me up,' " Goodby said. "I thought that was a sweet reaction."
Goodby omitted mention of the video he made that shows Goodby, Silverstein & Partners on a gleeful pleasure cruise, torpedoed by a vengeful Riney.
In 1985, Riney purchased the Ogilvy & Mather office and renamed it Hal Riney & Partners. It later created the Saturn campaign, centered on the pretty-as-a-picture town of Spring Hill, Tenn., where the car was manufactured, free of the auto industry baggage of Detroit. The tagline was "A different kind of company. A different kind of car," and it was the most successful new model introduction in GM history.
In 2003, the agency was sold to the Publicis Group of Paris and renamed Publicis & Hal Riney.
Hall of Famer
Among his awards, Riney was inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Advertising Hall of Fame in 2002, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies presented him with its lifetime achievement award in the same year.
In his private life, Riney was a doting father who wrote and illustrated hundreds of unabashedly sentimental letters to his children. One of these included a poem explaining that the Easter Bunny was actually a lawyer for a special-interest group who, once a year, assuaged his guilt by distributing candy.
Riney died surrounded by his family, and his death was announced by his wife, Elizabeth Sutherland Riney.
He is survived by his widow and his children, Ben, 21, and Samantha, 19, from a previous marriage.
Memorial gifts can be sent to Save the Children at or to Earthjustice, for its work to protect Pacific fisheries, at A date for a memorial service will be announced by the family.
E-mail George Raine at
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Brett Favre calls it a career

As the intonations of another stellar season fade into our memories, we're suddenly aware that they were the ebbing bars of a coda to a symphonic career.

Brett Favre reported on Tuesday that he will retire. He is scheduled to address the media in a press conference (live on at 11 a.m. Thursday at Lambeau Field.

Favre's legacy among Packer fans is dichotomous. He's been both earthy and aloof; the Wrangler-pluggin' plowboy from down home, and a guy who always seemed outside arm's reach of the community that worshiped him. He's concocted plays of the breathtaking variety, for better and for worse. For every last-gasp touchdown to snare a victory from the jaws of defeat, there was an inexplicable interception that left even his most adamant supporters scratching their heads.

Favre walks away from the NFL as its all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, passes attempted and completed, interceptions, and in both victories and consecutive starts by a quarterback. (He started 275 consecutive games, including playoffs; next on the list is 31-year-old Peyton Manning at 160.) Popular both among sportswriters and his fellow players, Favre was voted All Pro seven times and to the Pro Bowl nine times, respectively.

For me, Favre represents the last tether to an era when I came of age along with my hometown team, as the 1990s saw the Packers rise from the NFL's septic tank. Favre was the subject of the first significant move by newly hired GM Ron Wolf, who went on to add Reggie White as a free agent a year later, nudging the Packers down the road to immortality. The '90s was a heady era for a young guy such as myself, watching his childhood team rack up not just victories, but winning seasons! This from a team that did better with its three-game strike replacement players in 1987 than with its regulars, and that had gone 9-24 at home from 1986 to the point that Favre took over under center in 1992. All of a sudden people were talking about a Super Bowl? For us?

Aaron Rodgers, who will slide in for Favre, could become a fine quarterback. He will be no Favre, which could be a mixed blessing for the fourth-year Cal product. He insists on wearing Lynn Dickey's No. 12, so he'll have some karmic issues to overcome right off the bat; especially if his early injury bug has been any indication. But finally the Packers, the youngest team in the NFL, have a quarterback who can grow right along with the guys who've been starting for a couple of years now. I think the fans will give Rodgers plenty of slack; it's the players who'll need to be more forgiving. Say what you will about Favre, but he was no first-year starter. And that's what the starters will have to keep in mind when Rodgers inevitably struggles. Obviously, only time will tell.

But in bidding farewell to Favre, I'll feel only the pang of hoping I appreciated what I had as a fan. But I'll shed no tears into my keyboard and will leave the slobbering Maddenesque tributes to others across the Internets. I won't refer to him as a "friend" or deify him like I fear many in Packerland will. I'll simply thank him for his effort, and for a job well done. Somehow, I think that's all he'd want.

Obligatory Favre tribute:

Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel: Favre knows it's time for change
Ray Ratto, San Francisco Chronicle: Best ever? Maybe best highlight
Bob DiCesare, The Buffalo News: Still time to unretire
Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel: Rides off into the sunset
Tom Sorensen, Charlotte Observer: Fearless Favre will be missed
Bill Plaschke, LA Times: Everyman's QB
Michael Wilbon, Washington Post: Favre's star power
Kevin Sherrington, Dallas Morning News: Makes the right call
John Romano, St. Petersburg Times: Retirement leaves NFL duller
Judy Battista, New York Times: Goodbye on his own terms
Joe Posnanski, Kansas City Star: Throwback to old-time QBs
Barry Horn, Dallas Morning News: Favre would be a first-string broadcaster
Bob Wolfley, Journal-Sentinel: Stay out of the broadcast booth
Bob Ryan, Boston Globe: Favre barely among top 10
Gene Frenette, Florida Times Union: Please don't audible and return
Randy Galloway, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Retirement hardest transition for QB

Highlight archive:

The Day that Football Died - Annette Summersett
Favre era begins: comeback vs. Cin 9/20/92
On-field interview from Cincy game
Interview with Larry McCarren PRIOR to Cincy game
Favre's first start: Pitt-GB highlights, 9/27/92 (ESPN's Chris Berman "not trying to start any quarterback controversy")
Favre-Freeman beats Vikings in OT 11/6/00
Favre-Jennings beats Broncos in OT, 10/29/07
Favre goes 4-0 vs. Raiders, 12/9/07
Favre's last playoff win, vs. Seahawks, 1/12/08
NFL Network tribute, 3/6/08 (Steve Mariucci)
NFL Network 'Total Access' interview, 2/8/08 (Deion Sanders, Mariucci)
Farewell press conference, 3/6/08 (Yahoo version; Opening remarks, why he retired, on his legacy, on Aaron Rodgers, on what's next)