Archive for May, 2013

Sorry About That

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

The headline on a six-paragraph story in the business pages of The Record caught my attention. “PepsiCo pulls offensive ad,” it said, and I knew there’d probably be a corporate apology someplace in the story.

Then I read the first paragraph and was flabbergasted. “PepsiCo has pulled an online ad for Mountain Dew that was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and making light of violence against women.”

In a commercial for soda?

Well, the ad depicts a white woman moving around on crutches; “battered,” according to Associated Press. She is supposed to pick her attacker from a lineup. All the men in the lineup are black.

Then the story got really weird. A PepsiCo spokeswoman said the corporation only learned that the ad could be considered offensive by some people when the company was informed so by its consumer relations unit. They needed a customer relations unit to figure out that the ad was racist and misogynistic? Can you think of anyone – Klan members excluded – who would not find this ad offensive and degrading?

PepsiCo conceded that some people found the commercial offensive. Some people? How about a sizeable portion of all those who saw it? In fact, can we agree that about 98 percent would think the ad was garbage, with the missing 2 percent having just landed from Jupiter and unaware that there are certain ways in which we don’t depict our people.

To its credit, PepsiCo pulled the ad quickly. But what is not explained is how such a commercial could have been created and used in the first place. Someone at PepsiCo approved that ad. Someone said, OK, great work, let’s run with it.

An unintentionally witty corporate apology came from J.C. Penney which, after doing business one way for more than a century, changed its outlook to attract a younger, hipper crowd. The younger, hipper people didn’t bite, and the people who had been Penney’s foundation customers for decades found other places to spend their money.

When Penney realized its aisles were emptying, it fired the CEO it had hired a year ago. Then it re-hired the CEO it fired to make way for the newcomer. And it ran an apology advertisement with this immortal line: “Some changes you liked, and some you didn’t. But what matters with mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing, to listen to you.”

J.C. Penney went into business around the turn of the last century. You’d think that after about 111 years it would have figured out that you listen to your customers, that you don’t mess with the customer base because everybody knows that retail stores are not really owned by corporations and boards of directors. They’re owned by the shoppers.

Another example of where-was-the-person-in-charge occurred with an advertisement for Hyundai cars that was designed for use in Great Britain. In it, a creative team went for humor and then decided to couple it with the subject of  suicide. Very stupid move. But where was Hyundai brass?

The ad depicted a man trying to kill himself in his Hyundai but failing because the car’s emission control system worked so effectively, according to a story in Advertising Age.

The thing about many corporate apologies is that they’re produced in a manner that suggests the company doesn’t really want to apologize and is looking for an out. “We understand that some people may have found the [car] video offensive,” Hyundai said. “We’re very sorry if we have offended anyone.” That’s we understand, not we know; some people, not all people; offensive, not outrageous. And so, Hyundai is very sorry “if” its ad offended anyone.

For more on corporate apologies, check the NPR program “Le Show,” which runs on Northeast Public Radio at 1 p.m. on Sundays.

AARP: New Publishers Clearing House

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

By Michael Kaufman

I had hoped the annoying email from the AARP would stop after I didn’t renew my membership a while back. I should live so long. They are relentless. And just in case I don’t look at my email, they make sure to send regular reminders via the U.S. Postal Service. Those I don’t mind quite as much. I want Crystal, our letter carrier, to keep her job, along with all the postal workers around the country whose jobs are being threatened by the austerity hawks in Congress.

Really, I don’t need an AARP card to show that I qualify for the senior discounts. And lately I’m finding their emails at least as annoying as the letters I get from Publishers Clearing House announcing in big, bold type that I could be the next winner of their Grand Prize. Look closely and there is small type saying “no purchase necessary,” and “odds of winning Grand Prize: 300,000,000 to one.” At least the AARP gave better odds in their email last month when they wrote, “Michael, We’re Giving Away $25,000 in the Brain Health Sweepstakes – Enter for Your Chance to Win.” I didn’t read any further: Brain health isn’t my forte.

Then there was one that said, “Michael, Intimacy After 50: What’s Normal?” I have to admit I was tempted to read that one just to see what they had to say on the subject. I imagine they don’t think highly of whips and chains and such. That reminds me of my favorite line from Eating Raoul where Paul Bartel as Paul Bland says, “I’m into S&M and she’s into B&D and we met at the A&P.” I like that movie.

There was one in January: “Michael, For a Limited Time Save 40% on the AARP Driver Safety course.” And in February: “Michael, For a Limited Time Save 20% on the AARP Driver Safety course.” That would have really bugged me if I were going to take a driver safety course and I’d missed out on that 40% off deal. There was another in March: “Michael, For a Limited Time Save 30% on the AARP Driver Safety course.” Now I’m waiting for that 40% off to come around again. When it does I’m going to jump on it. (I told you brain health isn’t my forte.) I figure you can never learn too much about safe driving.

The one on March 29 was kind of spooky: “Michael, Why Do Couples Split after 25 Years or More?” I didn’t look at that one either but I suppose they split for the same reasons couples split after fewer than 25 years. But the thing that was spooky about it is that Eva-Lynne and I would soon be celebrating our 25th anniversary. Was AARP trying to tell us something?

And then there was one that resembled a headline in the National Enquirer: “Michael, You Can Prevent Arthritis with These 7 Tips.” I have no idea what the tips are but it is way too late for me to prevent arthritis. I’ll tell you this though: If AARP can come up with some tips that will cure arthritis, I might consider renewing my membership. But for now I’ll pass.

At a time when issues of vital concern to seniors, when Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are on the chopping block, AARP sent, “Michael, These Inns Are So Fancy You May Never Want to Leave Your Room.” The accompanying text describes “Quaint inns for the astute and deep-pocketed traveler.” Of one, AARP wrote, “Countless repeat guests don’t blink at the $1,260-and-up nightly tab, which includes three sumptuous, made-to-order gourmet meals each day; plentiful outdoor activities, from snowshoeing to flyfishing; and personalized service that extends to round-trip transfers from distant airports.”

I replied to that one April 27: “Shame on you, AARP.” So far they haven’t answered.

Michael can be reached at


One Man Out in a Nation of Intolerance

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

jason-collins-comes-out1By Bob Gaydos

When Jason Collins revealed earlier this week that he is gay, it was widely hailed as the first time a male athlete who was still actively playing in one of the four major professional sports leagues had revealed his homosexuality. A watershed moment. And it is, if not quite the watershed as has been described.

Collins, 34, made his announcement in a Sports Illustrated article that appeared on the Internet after the season had ended for his team, the Washington Wizards. An athlete of modest talents and tremendous character, Collins is a free agent now, meaning he has no contract with any team and is free to sign with anyone who wants him. That creates an interesting scenario for next year in the NBA. Collins says he wants to keep playing basketball. Will some NBA team oblige? Will his open homosexuality be welcomed as an asset by some progressive team owner, along with his 7-foot height and “team player’’ reputation, or will Collins be shunned and wind up, in effect, like other male athletes who have come out only when their careers were over?

Make no mistake, given the homophobia that dominates locker rooms in male sports, his simple declaration is at once matter-of-fact and bold. The overwhelmingly encouraging response to his statement, especially among his NBA peers and other pro athletes, attests to the respect with which Collins is perceived as well as to the fact that this country is, albeit slowly and torturously, turning a corner on yet another moral issue. For those reasons, barring injury, I think Collins will wind up with a contract in the NBA next year and become the perfect role model he has been called in stories announcing his decision to stop living a life of lies.

But this is just the beginning of what is likely at times to be an ugly, hateful path to acceptance. The truth is, this “melting pot” of a country does not handle “different” well. Whether it be skin color, religion, nationality, language, country of origin, gender, age, sexual preference or even food choice, many Americans speak and act today as if liberty, justice and equality are rights granted solely to them and their ilk because, well, because they say so and that’s all they need to know. So please, do not bother them with the facts and save your moralizing for your socialist, atheist friends. (Put political views on that list as well.)

I ascribe this harsh reaction to “different” to fear and ignorance, the bellwethers of the tea party faithful who have cowed the Republican Party into submission. Greed, too. Many people, I believe, are afraid that they are going to lose something they perceive as rightfully theirs if someone else of a different race or nationality or religious belief or country of origin or sexual orientation, or, in the case of many men, of a different gender, is afforded the same opportunities as them. Sharing is not an option, whatever their religion preaches. (Put economic status on the list, too.)

Despite our pumped-up national pride and high-minded ideals, we do not always practice what we preach. We have, in fact, become a nation in which angry, self-righteous, holier-than-thou and, sometimes, just plain dumb people dominate national debate because of the vehemence with which they express their views and the money they are willing to spend brow-beating the rest of us. Loud is good. Louder is better. Nasty is good. Insulting is better. Facts are bad. Phony TV ads are good. Compassion is for the weak. Guns are the answer.

The Jason Collins story is definitely a positive one about wider acceptance for people simply for who they are. He is 7 feet tall, black and gay. He went to Stanford and plays basketball. Young gay men who play sports, or not, may be more likely to follow their dreams because of him and less likely to be fearful, secretive and easily bullied. It’s a start.

But this is not a simple feel-good story. Collins has a twin brother who also played in the NBA and who says he didn’t know his brother was gay until the rest of the world found out. That’s sad. And it’s sad that Collins felt the need to hide his homosexuality even from himself for so long because a lot of people in this country are so busy minding everyone else’s business and deciding what is right and wrong. I personally don’t think they are a majority, but they are a persistent, aggressive minority.

That means those of us who disagree with them must shed the comfortability of basking in our own, self-assured sense of enlightenment and do battle with the forces of hate and ignorance. That means speaking out against all forms of injustice and exploitation, insisting on laws that protect individual rights, not corporate profits, and electing representatives who will pass those laws. It means exposing bullies for what they are, punishing those who see violence as a means to their ends, insisting on helping the disadvantaged (as our duty, not their entitlement), and not letting fear or weariness prevent us from exposing fraud and simple prejudice.

It also means telling those who would tell others they see as “different” to get over it. Mind your own business. Live your own lives. A gay man in a locker room? They’ve been there for decades. Also in Army barracks. They just had to hide it because of institutional ignorance and bias. Again, this is changing, if slowly, in America. Tolerance is a bitch. It requires one to simply accept another person for what he or she is, in toto, without insisting that person change or agree with one’s particular set of “rules.” It can be uncomfortable, but so long as the person represents no real (not perceived) danger to one’s well-being, there should be only one rule to apply to everyone: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” There’s a reason it’s called the Golden Rule.




Limbaugh Annoyed

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

By Jeffrey Page

I acknowledge that a while back I vowed no more columns about Limbaugh. Enough was enough of this thumping blowhard, such as when he called Sandra Fluke a “slut” because she testified before a congressional committee that contraceptives ought to be part of basic health care. Later, he apologized, apparently in the belief that saying the words – I’m sorry – relieves you of the onus of having caused terrible pain in the first place.

A quick non sequitur here: In his “apology” to Fluke, Limbaugh, who referred to her on the air as a “slut,” a “prostitute,” and someone who wishes to be paid for having sex, declared, “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.” If that wasn’t a personal attack, what was it?

Remember back in the Eighties when he called President Carter’s daughter Amy the ugliest presidential child? Then he apologized. Years later he referred to Chelsea Clinton as the official White House dog. Then he apologized.

And do you remember that it was Limbaugh who slandered about half the American population when he referred to feminists as feminazis? Wait, actually I don’t think he ever apologized for that, and his use of the word hangs from him like rotting carrion.

Limbaugh has a way of opening his mouth and revealing an unbelievable degree of ignorance and cruelty, and I feel compelled to withdraw my No-More-Limbaugh vow and write about his latest pollution of the air.

Nowadays, he is distressed about the amount of ink and time being given to Jason Collins – the center of the Washington Wizards team of the National Basketball Association – following Collins’ outing himself as gay. (This distress from someone who spent parts of three shows on the air attacking Sandra Fluke.) As far as most people can recall, Collins is the first American active male pro athlete to declare his homosexuality.

Collins comes at an astounding time in the history of our nation, a time when nine states allow unrestricted gay marriage, when men marrying men and women marrying women get space in The New York Times wedding announcements in the Sunday edition, and when survey after survey finds surprisingly large segments of Americans don’t give a hoot in hell about the sexual orientation of movie stars, athletes, or the guy standing next to them on the subway.

So Collins came out and of course editors and reporters jumped on the story. That’s what they’re supposed to do. This was a culture change. With the understanding that surely there are more gay men playing in the professional leagues of American sports, President Obama sent a positive message about Collins. So did Bill Clinton. So did David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA. So did every fair-minded person in the country.

And then, along came Limbaugh who had just about as much as he could stand about Jason Collins, even if the story involves one of the more victimized groups of people.

Limbaugh got all huffy because, he says, there’s a lack of tolerance for – are you ready for this? – people who are opposed to the very existence of gay men and women. All this coverage makes them look bad. But I haven’t heard of any such attacks.

Have you?

Poor, misunderstood Limbaugh suggested that he is a victim. “Why can’t everyone just put your sexual preferences on Facebook and call it a day?” he asked in a story about Collins in Sports Illustrated. Expand that argument and you have someone asking if it was really necessary for us to celebrate or mourn people like Rosa Parks, Matthew Shepard, Jackie Robinson, Sonia Sotomayor.

Limbaugh complained, “If you want to say you’re gay, fine, but does it have to be rammed down everyone’s throats all the time?”

I know of no such ramming.

Pill Mills: Prescription for a Tragic Loss

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013
My sister, Ann Bradford Morrison, 1952-2010

My sister, Ann Bradford Morrison, 1952-2010

By Emily Theroux

For me, May Day will forever be a yawning chasm of unmet expectations, a muffled cry for help I never heard.

On one side of the precipice is a younger me, stretching my arms across the open space, hoping not to fall over the brink. On the other side is my sister Ann at 21, barreling straight toward me in her sky-blue Jeep, her bags packed with elaborate stripper gowns and sequined G-strings. Tucked in a zippered side compartment of her make-up case are two pairs of false eyelashes and a vial of Valiums, her drug of choice for that particular decade.

I call her name, terrified she won’t stop in time. “Turn back!” I cry. “It’s never too late. You can start over.”

She waves at me, manic, artificially cheerful. Her mouth is moving but I can’t hear the words. Instead of stopping, she accelerates. I cover my eyes with my quaking hands, plagued by a tremor of kinship to her plight. I hear the screech of metal, but the anticipated crash never follows. Opening my eyes, I find myself in bed. I see the quilts, tangled from night sweats, thrashed to the floor. I must have been napping, just as I was the day the phone call came, three years ago today, from Tampa.

Once again, it’s Saturday, May 1, 2010, at 5:46 p.m., one agonizing moment trapped for eternity inside the cultured pearl ring that is Ann’s talisman, the one I thought I’d kept but can’t find anywhere. I awake from the dream of everything that might have been, but never from the nightmare. My sister is gone, her indefatigable life force reduced to an urn of ashes on my mantel. Whatever I once foolishly imagined was salvageable is lost to the brutal, inexorable forward slog of time.


A sudden death is always the hardest kind to comprehend, to assimilate. One day, I was on the phone, long-distance to Tampa, just as I had been three or four times a week since my sister had moved there from upstate New York six years earlier. The next day, the phone jangled again, jarring me awake.  I heard the  familiar voice of Ann’s partner, Paul, uttering three dreadful and unfathomable words: “Ann is dead.”

I couldn’t process it; I didn’t believe him, and I told him so. I had just talked to her, and everything was fine. She was writing her new novel, begun just two weeks earlier. She wasn’t suicidal and she wasn’t ill. She was only 57 years old.

Paul had very few details to impart to me. When he left for work that morning, Ann was awake and getting ready to begin her very circumscribed day. (Over the years, she had become agoraphobic and rarely left their small apartment. Most days, she sat in her recliner all day with her laptop and a glass of white wine, chain-smoking as she wrote.) Paul tried to call her several times throughout the day, but she never picked up. That was unlike her, and Paul grew worried, but he worked as a security guard and he couldn’t clock out early.

When he got home at 4:30, he found Ann in their bed, lifeless and very cold. The medical examiner was there, Paul was telling me. I could barely hear him for the dull roaring in my head, as if I were at Folly Beach again, where our Charleston cousins took us as children, holding a conch shell against my ear.

It appeared that Ann had died some time in the morning. The police had found half-empty pill bottles on her nightstand, but that wasn’t unusual. Ann spent the latter part of her life in chronic pain from herniated discs that developed years after she had competed as a bodybuilder.  Nothing in her life was done in half-measures. She “lifted heavy,” right along with the men, and had bulging muscles throughout her thirties.

Ann lived her life in an extreme fashion and paid dearly for her choices farther down the road.


We wouldn’t know for weeks exactly what had happened to her, not until the toxicology report arrived — although I already realized that if she hadn’t had a heart attack or an aneurysm (which I knew were unlikely because she was found in her bed, under the covers), it must have been the pain pills.

Ann’s body lay in the morgue that first night, awaiting autopsy. I couldn’t bear the thought of her in that place. She was two years younger than me. I was her protector, and often, her enabler; like my mother before me, I took her in when she had nowhere else to go. I couldn’t think rationally; what if she was lonely or afraid or needed a blanket?

It dawned on me that I would never talk to her again; I couldn’t ask her any of the unanswered questions that such a death inevitably leaves in its wake. I listened frantically to my voice mail; the only tangible remnant of her, if you can call it that, is the recording of a single pathetic call made late at night when she was so high, I couldn’t understand what she had been trying to tell me. She had needed me, and I wasn’t there to help her — neither that night nor the day she died.

When the medical examiner’s report finally arrived weeks later, the results were stark and unavoidable. Ann had died from a drug overdose — a combination of three prescription pain medications and a cough suppressant.  “Accident (prescription drug abuse)” was listed on the report as the manner of death.

My tragic, flawed, beautiful sister had attached four transparent, 50-microgram fentanyl patches to her skin at various points on her torso.


The sheer heft of the grief that followed, its ponderous weight on my chest — as if a powerful raptor were perched on my sternum, clutching my flesh, squeezing my lungs together — astounded me. There was simply no remedy for it, nowhere to flee.

But one thing gradually came into focus at the periphery of that pervasive fog: I needed to understand what combination of circumstances made it possible for my sister to procure a substance as potentially deadly as fentanyl, which I knew she’d never been prescribed before. A strong opioid originally developed as a surgical anesthetic, fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and “very easy to overdose on,” according to a Toronto drug program coordinator, particularly when more than one patch at a time is used.

My sister had always been an expert manipulator. She started drinking straight vodka at 15, filching it at first from my parents’ liquor cabinet and later persuading an 18-year-old friend to buy it for her. She stowed the bottles in her bedroom closet with a hoard of  emergency “puke bags.”

Within a year, Ann graduated to street drugs — heading to Rochester’s Midtown Plaza in search of a dealer known as “Frog,” who was rumored to lurk in the mall’s underground parking garage. This punk-ass kid sold her an ample supply of “black beauties,” an amphetamine that had my erstwhile A-student sibling speeding her brains out for three days and then crashing for the next two, a devastating routine that caused Ann to flunk out of the eleventh grade and led my poor, clueless parents to surmise that she was “manic-depressive.”

By this time, Ann had also become a proficient “doctor shopper.” By 17, she could talk circles around a physician three times her age with a prescription pad in his hand. She consumed quantities of sedatives, speed, opioids, and muscle relaxants that would have flattened a horse.

Once, during an overnight hospitalization after Ann swallowed six Quaaludes, the emergency room doctors were astonished when she emerged from a coma they had predicted she wouldn’t survive. My mother, jaded by a decade of Ann’s escapades, shocked the chief resident when she deadpanned, “It’s the God’s honest truth: You couldn’t kill her.” Sadly, I believed from then on that Mama’s pronouncement must have been true — until the day it happened.

The fact that Ann stayed alive as long as she did, I realized later, was not so much a miracle as a one-off, an aberration, a fluke of cosmic proportions.


According to a November 2011 study of prescription painkiller overdose deaths released by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, Ann ranked in every single parameter defining people most at risk for overdosing on opioids:

  • People who obtain multiple controlled substance prescriptions from multiple providers — a practice known as “doctor shopping”
  • People who take high daily dosages of prescription painkillers and those who misuse multiple abuse-prone prescription drugs
  • Low-income people and those living in rural areas
  • People on Medicaid (who are prescribed painkillers at twice the rate of non-Medicaid patients and are at six times the risk of prescription painkiller overdose)
  • People with mental illness and those with a history of substance abuse

The only endangered demographic that Ann didn’t belong to was rural residents.


I knew several months before Ann’s death that when the Medicaid doctor who prescribed her pain meds finally balked at her request for an increased dosage, Ann “fired” him and lit out for a local pain clinic. Earlier, she had continued to frequent the doctor while supplementing her “stash” with prescription painkillers supplied by illegal Internet “pharmacies,” which sold controlled substances to customers who lacked valid prescriptions.

Illicit “pain clinics” soon began to spring up, taking advantage of lax state regulations, particularly in and around Houston, Los Angeles and South Florida. Addicts and legitimate pain sufferers alike flocked to these locales to stock up on their scrips of choice, arriving by the busload. (Ann, I should add, was a card-carrying member of both groups; plagued by chronic, unrelenting back pain and unable to afford surgery, yet also hooked on the prescribed remedy for it.)

The Obama administration’s first National Drug Control Strategy for reducing drug use and its consequences, published in 2010, included initiatives to help states address doctor shopping and “pill mills,” drive illegal Internet pharmacies out of business, and crack down on “rogue pain clinics” that failed to follow appropriate prescription practices.

But coordinated efforts to root out the criminals, monitor addicts, and expand addiction treatment services came too late to help my sister. A year after she died, Florida state lawmakers finally passed legislation designed to derail “the Oxy Express.” By that time, according to state attorney general Pam Bondi, her state had become “the epicenter for pill mills in the nation, and prescription drug overdoses cost at least seven Floridians’ lives per day.” In 2012, two years after Ann’s death, the FDA targeted 4,100 illicit online pill vendors with criminal charges, seizure of illegal products, and removal of websites.

Ann slipped through the cracks — or, more accurately, the gaping fissures in prevailing drug policy. Even worse, I’ll never know who helped her do it. She didn’t tell me the name or location of the clinic, and Paul couldn’t remember it or find any record of it. I couldn’t track her former Medicaid doctor, either. Addicts are secretive people, and Ann took hers with her to oblivion.


Dredging up the details won’t bring my sister back, but who knows? Maybe persisting in my quest to find out what’s being done about the problem will some day avert this nightmare for some other tormented family.

Failing that, may it restore my dreams to flashbacks of a less complicated time, when Ann and I, at 4 and 6, lay on our backs in the grass and gave names to the shapes we perceived in the mobile cumulus clouds above us. When the sky was finally dark enough for stars, we watched them twinkle “on,” one at a time at first and then a gathering expanse of them, a canopy of gemstones against velvety blackness.

If there was some kind of order to it, a pattern of galaxies or constellations, our untutored eyes couldn’t discern it. Too young to fathom either limits or infinity, we settled for random bursts of wonder, daring to imagine that such a spectacular light show had been devised for our viewing pleasure alone.

Logic was not what we were looking for anyway; unfettered splendor was what we had in mind.