Look sharp.

When I read the story about the RNC’s $150,000 clothes shopping spree for Sarah Palin, my heart sank. It was the usage of “appears to spend” that did it, which was in early versions of the story; I thought it was going to be like that “Cindy McCain wears a $380,000 outfit” story, which was, sorry, pure bullshit. Ninety percent of the figure was based on some jeweler’s estimate of what her earrings might cost, although the jeweler never got to check them out with the loupe. I thought the next line would be, “And that yellow Oscar de la Renta dress was spun from pure gold, it looks like. Let me redo the math.”

But this is a little better-sourced. In August, no expenses stated; in September, $49,425.74, plus $4,716.49 on hair and makeup, and isn’t it ironic that we all know there’s no way that much could have been spent on Grandpa Simpson, and Sarah Palin is actually a very pretty woman. Beautiful, even. And so you get the basic irony at the heart of femininity — the better you look, the more you have to spend to make people think so.

Let’s just talk makeup now. Some years ago, before Photoshop, some magazine — Harper’s, I think — ran a copy of the itemized bill submitted by the photo retoucher who worked on a famous magazine cover featuring Michelle Pfeiffer. It went on and on, dozens of places where the airbrush had been used to cover that wrinkle or smooth over that skin booboo. The joke of the list was that the picture had run under a cover line that read, “Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect exactly the way she is,” or something similar. There was another list going around at the time, a makeup artist’s detailed plan for giving Brooke Shields the no-makeup look on another magazine cover. It required 57 separate products costing about $450.

A person who can feel no empathy with another can’t be fully human, so here’s my soft spot regarding Palin: I know, looking at her, that when you’re a woman in the public eye, you just can’t win. To be sure, she looks sensational on the campaign. But if she didn’t, if she showed up for speeches in something she found at the Wasilla T.J. Maxx, there’d be another kind of hell to pay. You might as well look your best while you’re taking shit for stuff you have no control over.

And yes, maybe it’s true that this was all Palin’s doing, that the RNC staffers tried to get her to shop at Dress Barn and she waved her imperious hand in the air and said, “Designer or else, little missy, or you’re going back to D.C. on the next plane. You can take your chances with the Bushes and see how it goes.” But I doubt it. A job needed to get done fast; note how many charges are to department stores in the Twin Cities. The jaw does drop at the $150,000 figure, but my friends? That’s what happens when you pay full retail. They probably got nicked for a “personal shopping” charge, too.

Don’t Republicans know what Hollywood does? You pay a call on the designer and make an arrangement. You wear their clothing somewhere it’s guaranteed to get photographed, and the bill disappears. Well, wait a minute: Nancy Reagan did this and got called on it, so maybe not. Still. Someone at Neiman Marcus saw these folks coming and rubbed their lucky Rolex.

Here’s the ridiculous part, however: Instead of, y’know, owning it, the McCain camp made it worse:

“With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it’s remarkable that we’re spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses,” said spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. “It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign.”

I want to know when that church rummage sale is going to be. (Even though Sarah wears a much smaller size.)

But as I said before: You just can’t win. We’ve become a nation of Robin Givhans, hunting the next Pulitzer in a piece about the semiotics of asymmetrical buttons. Much of her stuff rings a little too snarky for me — hasn’t she ever looked into her closet on a given morning and despaired? doesn’t she ever have PMS Wardrobe Madness? — I’m very glad she does what she does, because occasionally it serves as the national response to such sartorial oddities as the John Roberts family press conference. (I watched that one thinking, “Where do you even buy seersucker short-pants suits and saddle shoes for little boys these days? Does Nordstrom’s have a special department behind a secret door?”)

Frankly, Palin has been making such a mess of things on the trail, it’s probably just as well that she looks good doing it. If her hair was a mess at the same time, it would be too easy for the RNC to say, later, “Oh, that crazy lady…”

Sorry for the late start today, folks — another sleep deficit payback. Back to speed and ready to rock. So, rock on.

Posted at 12:29 pm in Current events, Popculch | 67 Comments
 

But, but…it’s organic!

Michael Pollan was on “Fresh Air” yesterday, and as usual, I was left nodding my head in agreement with everything he said, while simultaneously mistrusting all of it with every fiber of my being.

Yes, our agriculture policy needs a huge overhaul. Yes, we should pursue policies that encourage more food to be grown locally. Yes, the world is not well-served by huge feedlots and monocrop farming. Sure, the White House should have a Victory Garden to set an example for the rest of the country and donate the leftovers to local food banks. Yes, let’s consider the rising cost and toxic fallout of fossil fuels when we consider how government will play its role in the marketplace. Yes, yes, yes.

And yet.

There seem to be a dozen places in Pollan’s stump speech, at least, in which “and then a miracle happens” seems to hover over the narrative. I soon learned that it was linked to the parts where Pollan says, “I’m not a policy maker, but…,” another way of waving one’s hand dismissively while saying, “details, details.” I didn’t hear every single minute, so maybe he addressed this at some point, but the biggest stumbling block to agricultural policy, Pollan-style, is the loss of an essential skill in this country: Cooking. Of course I cook, and you cook, but all you have to do is look at the explosion of “convenience” and other heat-n-serve, half-baked and other food in the grocery these days to know that an awful lot of people don’t. And I don’t know how we make our way away from high-fructose corn syrup and toward unprocessed-and-organic without that skill.

If I’ve told this story before, forgive me, but I always think about it when I think of the loss of cooking skills: My newspaper once sponsored a cooking demonstration, for which I served as the speaker’s Vanna White. At one point we made cupcakes in foil muffin cups arranged on a cookie sheet. She filled the first three and I did the rest. All of hers came out perfect and mine spread out like pan pizzas. She pointed out I overfilled the cups by just a tad, and that tad was enough to buckle their sides. “This is stupid,” I said. “Why don’t we just put the cups in muffin tins, the way you’re supposed to?” Alas, not possible. Reynolds Aluminum, one sponsor of the show, wanted the cups demonstrated freestanding on cookie sheets, because they were aimed at home cooks who owned a pizza pan, but not a muffin tin. Sometime in the last 25 years or so, a muffin tin became as exotic as a brioche mold or a tart pan.

I could tell more stories. A couple years ago I did a business-mag story on the explosion of specialty groceries in Detroit, whose biggest growth area is in pre-marinated chicken, pre-assembled casseroles and other just-add-heat entrees. “My wife doesn’t cook, so we live on this stuff,” said one owner. (P.S. His wife is a stay-at-home mother, which suggests she’s also a real underachiever.) “No one I know cooks anymore.”

“I cook,” I said.

“You do?” he said. “Well, you’re in the minority.”

And I’m a college-educated, middle-class person. We’re not even talking about the poor, whose nutritional status is even more perilous. At least the grocer’s wife is getting decent ingredients; the poor kids are living on Red Zone Mountain Dew and pork rinds.

I suppose Pollan would point out that cooking is easy, that a delicious meal can be assembled from a box of spaghetti, some olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. Of course these skills can be taught. But good luck teaching them in a world where muffin tins are specialty kitchen equipment.

I also break out in hives when Pollan says that “food should be expensive,” as though it’s not expensive enough now, pretty much admitting that he’s advocating a Whole Foods-ification of the marketplace. There’s a winning position, pal. Ride that pony all the way to Washington, whydontcha?

So, bloggage:

Obama goes off to hold his dying grandmother’s hand, and you know someone’s gonna have a problem with that. Roy has the rundown.

When we were taking breaks from making our zombie movie, of course a few of us dared speak of the Holy Grail — making a real movie, and how it might be done well on a very small budget. Then I stumbled across a trailer for this movie, which appears to be a big stinkin’ p.o.s. shot in SEVENTY MILLIMETER, entirely financed by corporate America. Has anyone seen this? And how can I get Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, American Airlines and MasterCard to finance my movie?

Off to the gym, folks. I neglected it all last week, so it’s time to pay the piper.

Posted at 9:49 am in Movies, Popculch | 89 Comments
 

The second opinion.

My NPR affiliate is doing a piece on the Free Press’ endorsement of Barack Obama. They’re running down its bullet points as I write this. It’s not a long piece — it’s over now — but still: I am agog.

Never mind the dog-bites-man element here. The Freep has a left-leaning editorial page; for them, endorsing the Democrat is like the Wall Street Journal editorial page touting free enterprise. OK, it’s Monday, slow news day blah blah blah — that is, if you consider the unraveling of world financial markets, coupled with a potential GM-Chrysler merger that will likely be the death blow to the local economy, just two of today’s stories, “slow.” Never mind that. I have worked for newspapers, and I know how the endorsement process works, and all I can say is, why should the public give a shit who any editorial board thinks should be elected to any office?

Endorsements made sense when there were more newspapers in the world, and they had real authority, and great people behind them. Then, you wanted to know who Charles Foster Kane was backing for job one. Whether or not endorsements actually changed a single vote has always been a pretty theoretical question, and even the most generous estimates put the number of endorsement-led voters at tiny-to-miniscule. And yet, newspapers continue to make endorsements, like Brits gathering for high tea nomatterwhat. Looked at one way, it’s sorta charming. Looked at another, it’s a symptom of the problem at the root of the industry — their maddening, “this is the way we do it because this is the way we’ve always done it” attitude.

As I recall, editors like making endorsements about as much as readers like reading them, i.e., not so much. People don’t realize what goes into them; they think it’s all about gathering around a pastry-strewn table and arguing, when what it really involves is weeks of interviews with some of the most boring candidates you’ve ever met. Because the paper doesn’t just endorse for the big races — those are only the ones that make the news. No one writes about the ones headlined: “For 4th District village council: Herminghausen.” And to get to that endorsement, the editorial board chatted up Herminghausen and his opponents, Schiller and Grubman. Before that, if there was a primary, they might have talked to Herminghausen, Schiller, Grubman, Czerny, Skolnik, O’Reilly and Killeen. Multiply that by however many races there are, and you see why endorsement season is extra-martini season on the ed page.

When you think about it, the endorsements that you should pay attention to aren’t the ones that make news. Really, do you feel the need for a second opinion to make up your mind about the presidential race? But how much do you know, really, about the Court of Appeals, or the township assessor, or the 4th District rep? That’s where an endorsement can help, to the extent it says, “This person appeared before us, didn’t wet his or her pants and impressed us with at least rudimentary competence.” There are always a few spots on any ballot you just couldn’t get to in your research. That’s when you need to know Herminghausen got the paper’s endorsement.

Or, as Alec Baldwin’s character said of marriage in “The Departed:” Marriage is an important part of getting ahead: lets people know you’re not a homo; married guy seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least somebody can stand the son of a bitch; ladies see the ring, they know immediately you must have some cash or your cock must work.

Well, he delivers it better. But you get the idea.

The Detroit News’ editorial page leans right. Now, if they endorse Obama, that’ll be news. We’ll see.

“The Cemetery Precincts” wrapped shooting last night. That means all we have to do now is the editing, the sound, the scoring, the this and the that. Then we have to fight about it, and change it all around, and do it all again. Listen to me: “We.” Most of this stuff will be done by others, but when a production is this small, it’s everybody’s baby, and you sweat every step of the process. I volunteered to put on zombie makeup and be a back-rank zombie, but somehow I got recruited to be the lead in the big gross-out scene, which is so unbelievably gross I don’t think I’ll be able to watch it. The prep:

(I suspect there was a lot of K-Y in that mix.) Thanks to our genius gross-out guy, Dan Phillips, who crafted the effect and signs his e-mails, “Stay scary, Dan.” I’ll say.

Not much bloggage today, but this: One of the things I like about Jon Stewart is his willingness to talk back to one of the nastiest myths of red-state America (at the moment, anyway), that people who live in cities aren’t the real America, or pro-America, or whatever. And he does it so well.

The rest I leave up to those of you who paid more attention to the news this weekend. I’m off to study Russian.

Posted at 10:13 am in Current events, Media, Movies | 42 Comments
 

Oh, Mr. DeMille.

I’m ready for my closeup.

Posted at 12:08 pm in iPhone | 25 Comments
 

In the manure lagoon.

Eric Zorn takes note of a Republican women’s club in California that used one of the seemingly scores of racist Obama caricatures in a newsletter. This one, to be specific:

food stamp

Anyone care to guess what their reaction was when called on it? Anyone? Yes, you there in the back — Coozledad, is it?

“What is, ‘Who, me? Racist?'”

Correct.

Anyway, I’ve seen quite a few of these in my perambulations around the web. There’s this one:

watermelon one

And this one:

(Image removed at photographer’s request, who directs us to the original, unaltered picture, before it was co-opted by racists.)

From an Israeli newspaper:

black white house

(He’s painting the White House black, get it? Get it?)

Of course, what self-respecting campaign featuring a black candidate would it be without a huge-Afro image?

afro

He’s a furriner, you know:

tribesman

And a rapper:

rapper

And I could go on. I won’t.

I found these images in about 15 minutes of Googling (“racist obama” in Google Images was my best bet), but I see them all the time, sometimes with a comment that the poster knows it’s offensive, but it was “just too funny” not to pass along. I really have to wonder about people who can insulate themselves from reality to this degree. This explains, I guess, why so many of these pictures turn up in places where you’d think someone would know better — GOP newsletters, for example.

Today’s question for the room: Any thoughts? I know this welcomes a whole lot of back-patting and other head-nodding, but I’m really looking for a little cogitation here.

In other bloggage at this hour, the inevitable hits local government: A decrease in tax revenues, thanks to foreclosures, means local municipalities must cut services. Here it means layoff notices for sheriff’s deputies. Meanwhile, I heard through the local gossip grapevine that the contractor who has the dead ash-tree removal task from one of our local municipalities is very careful to take the trees down without major damage to their meaty bits, which he cuts into 12-foot sections and promptly sells to a flooring manufacturer nearby. Win-win! Can we put this guy in charge of something involving taxpayer money where we might get a little back?

“W.” has been getting generally bleh reviews. Trust Roger Ebert to swim against the tide. Four stars! Get outta town.

OK. Off to work and time to get into my zombie head. Braaaainns… braaainnns.

Posted at 10:40 am in Current events | 94 Comments
 

O.I.D.

Today’s only-in-Detroit story is about hunting pheasant in the ghetto. Money quote:

“You have to watch out for missing manhole covers. People steal them for scrap metal. Last year we had a dog fall into one.”

From the land where you can’t make this shit up, have a nice rest of the day.

Posted at 2:40 pm in Detroit life | 21 Comments
 

The continuing crisis.

As I drift further from the newspaper business, I write about it less. Frankly, its stupid self-inflicted problems don’t interest me very much anymore, particularly as they — the managers who still have a) jobs; and b) offices with doors that close — seem intent on continuing to generate them.

Still, it seems a day doesn’t go by without a mention of the Tribune Co.’s reinvention officer Lee Abrams on Romenesko, the only media blog worth reading. Abrams, so cheerily clueless, is sort of a clown prince of the newspaper meltdown, an ongoing poor-Yorick scene that we turn to for gallows humor as we contemplate a life spent selling apples on street corners. As you newspaper people know, Abrams recently oversaw the essential project of any newspaper consultant, the first thing they always do, the No. 1 busywork job that can take the better part of a year and thereby puts off the great reckoning that much longer: A redesign. The Trib was remixed in the usual way, into a big, graphics-heavy load of crap that makes designers pee their pants with pleasure and readers say, “Um, where’s the news?”

(The introductory video on the Trib’s website featured a designer using the term “big, exciting promo,” a phrase surely only used by designers.)

The reviews are mixed, but of course Abrams is a big fan. Here’s one of Abrams’ trademark memos, linked on Romenesko, with the usual stylistic flourishes of exclamation points and all-caps:

Of course we get the “it looks like USA Today” comments. Well, USA Today is one of the few newspapers GROWING, so I’m not sure that’s so bad–but MORE importantly, all you have to do is read the Chicago Tribune and you’ll know it’s clearly NOT USA TODAY. IF a colorful and energetic looks that reminds some remotely of USA TODAY and it gets more people engaged in the content….good.

So this is an e-mail I recently received from a Chicago resident and former Trib subscriber. I pass it along not to rain on Abrams’ parade, but on the off chance he might actually want to read it. To make it more familiar to him, I’ve edited it in the new Trib style of eye-catching text. In other words, it’s been Abrams-ized:

We’ve decided to DROP the Trib and take the seven-day NYT. We feel like we gave the redesign A FAIR SHOT over the past two weeks, but we HAVEN’T taken to the new look. Here we are in the midst of the BIGGEST STORY of our LIVES — we really are on the edge of a potential GLOBAL ECONOMIC MELTDOWN!!! — and 70% of the front page is given over to GRAPHICS, TEASERS and HUGE ART. Plus, the geniuses folded the business section into the news section. These are serious times but the Tribune looks and reads decidedly UNserious. FUCK ‘em. I’ll keep the Sun-Times for local news and sports and depend the the Times for EVERYTHING ELSE.

See you on the corner!

Posted at 2:23 pm in Media | 11 Comments
 

Caught up.

I can go one night on six hours sleep, followed by another, but by the third the bill has come due. So I went back to bed this morning after driving the morning car pool, and can report it was the best sleep I’ve had in weeks — 90 minutes of dead-to-the-world REM with actual dreaming. It was the unfinished-house dream, which is the one I have whenever I have work to do. I had dreams last night, too — ones I remember, anyway — in which I was the Cybill Shepherd character in “Taxi Driver,” and was on a date with a faceless man who took me to a dirty movie. Make of that what you will. I didn’t watch the movie. I was waiting for the right moment to make an escape.

All this by way of giving you guys short shrift AGAIN, but I know all anyone wants to talk about today is the last debate, so have at it. Listening from an adjacent room, McCain sounded angry. This is becoming a theme with him, I notice. Personally, I think the anger is self-directed; every time his eyes flash while Obama gives a calm answer, I imagine his train of thought: So, this is my last act. I can’t believe I listened to those people. There’s no fool like an old fool, I guess. I wonder if I have a retirement house in Montana yet. It’s cool up there in the summer — screw Arizona.

But I could be projecting.

Anyway, I have reporting to do. Have at it, my friends, and I’ll be in and out.

Posted at 11:07 am in Current events | 30 Comments
 

Don’t light a match.

If California were Virginia, they could get Pat Robertson to turn stuff like this back:

fire

God hates the Golden State, obviously. I often note, driving around town, that Detroit is really one of the butt-ugliest cities I’ve ever seen, but so far I’ve never seen anything like this, driving home. On the other hand, I can’t say it’s all that much worse than a typical January morning commute down, say, Jefferson, with the boarded storefronts and the snow pushed to the curb and what is that in the right lane that I can barely make out in the gray murk of a steely dawn? An old woman driving her electric scooter in the road because the sidewalk is impassable? Oh, OK.

(Sometimes she’s walking on two canes. Alan and I have been to the Majestic Theater complex a couple times in the past year. It’s adjacent to the Detroit Medical Center, formerly Detroit Receiving, the big public hospital that serves everyone. In a place where the safety net is strained and fraying, it’s safe to say that not everyone is released from the ER into the arms of a loving family and a comfortable home. Both times we were at the Majestic, I came thisclose to mowing down some poor shlub in a hospital scrub top and fresh bandages, jaywalking home from their latest doctor visit, across Woodward and against the light. One was in a wheelchair. I almost wet my pants.)

Anyway, LA Mary, who sent me a couple of fire pictures this week: Keep your roof wet and your powder dry.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: It’s hard to understand what life is like in another place, even another place you’ve visited. Even if you read a lot and are very skilled at putting yourself in the shoes of another. And if that place is Los Angeles, triple that. I’ve never been anywhere in this country that felt so much like a different country, and that mostly has to do with the land and the weather. Everyone discusses L.A.’s essential oddness in terms of freeways, which seems silly, because every city bigger than a grease spot has freeways. What always baffled me about L.A. was the topography — one minute you’re in a regular old city and the next you’ve gone over a ridge and you’re in a canyon, and you might as well be in a cowboy movie. When I was freelancing for a horse magazine, I had a long chat with a California-based rider, who told me she kept four jumpers on a single acre of land tucked back in one of those canyons, and it all worked out fine. There was a small barn — I imagine the horses slept in bunk beds — and a small corral made of PVC pipe, and her own living space. The tack was hung from trees. The animals were ridden daily, and there was a network of trails leading to a community ring for their schoolwork, and that was just the California Way.

In the Midwest, in case you’re wondering, the rule of thumb for horsekeeping is one acre per horse. Some people go denser than that, but those would be commercial operations, not backyard owners.

Throw in the hell winds from the desert and the sort of single-digit humidity that makes your skin feel like a stretched drumhead, it’s easy to see how this sort of thing happens. But hard to fully understand, just the same.

Meanwhile, I’m always telling people how flat is is here. How flat? This flat: Last weekend I stopped at a light at Mound and 10 Mile Road, facing south. And I could see the Renaissance Center. Ten miles away.

OK, bloggage, while I frantically clean house — John and Sam due this afternoon — and prepare for Tolstoy:

You know how Sarah Palin complained about how irritated she was with Katie Couric’s mean, irrelevant questions? She was probably happier with Rush Limbaugh:

“You seem to understand the stark choice we have and the real danger the country faces in the future if the Obama-Biden ticket is elected. And I’d just like to know, do you see it that way?”

“I do,” she responded.

I missed David Frum on Rachel Maddow’s show the other night, but that’s why we have YouTube. My lord, what a horrible, horrible man. Is it worth it, having to take ridiculous, contemptible positions in public in exchange for a fat living? It can’t be, not in the end. (When he brought up Paul Wolfowitz, I thought my head would asplode.) Roy, as usual, nails it.

OK, sheet-changin’ time. The floor is yours.

Posted at 9:57 am in Current events, Detroit life | 74 Comments
 

Bye.

I have an early interview today, followed by a date with some dust bunnies, so I may have to make this a bye day. (Although never underestimate my powers of procrastination, which truly are superhuman.) I realize I could write this paragraph from here to November and it wouldn’t make a difference, as the engine of this blog these days is in the comments, but I feel I have to make an appearance from time to time — open the front door, turn on the “open” sign, refill the bowls of nuts and pretzels.

I’ve taken on a few new obligations this fall, in an effort to inject a little oxygen in my sad little life, and they will take some time. One is reapplying my nose to the grindstone of learning Russian. Another is joining a great-books discussion group (like my hero, Tim Goeglein), which meets monthly but requires a bit more than my customary light reading of mysteries and the Wall Street Journal. This week we’re covering Tolstoy’s second epilogue to “War and Peace,” and I need to plow through the last 15 pages today.

Geez, I sound like a whiny sophomore, I realize. So let’s lighten the tone a bit with one of Anthony Lane’s great, meaty pans, a twin takedown of “Filth and Wisdom” and “RockandRolla,” the autumnal output of Mr. and Mrs. Guy Ritchie. I watched a trailer for the former online the other day, and thought, “That narrator sounds just like Borat.” I think my instincts are sound here.

Back later, maybe. Any thoughts on Tolstoy?

Posted at 8:47 am in Movies, Same ol' same ol' | 60 Comments