Sunday, August 28, 2011

Everybody Talks About The Weather...

As I type this, Hurricane Irene is churning its way in my general directions.  I find it difficult to get too intimidated by an entity that shares a name with my grandmother's sister.  The woman used to knit caps for her cats, for pete's sake.  Of course, the fact that I am 100 miles inland and nowhere near a major body of water also increases my hubris.

The media have been hyping this storm for nearly a week now, and I have to say, it's hard for me to take them seriously about it.  I do believe in my heart of hearts that they do genuinely want their viewers to be safe, but as a former media guy myself, I know the major part ratings play in everything they do.  With so many possible choices for information these days, media outlets are constantly trying to draw attention to themselves by whatever means possible.

I worked in radio news in the late 80s and early 90s.  Broadcast radio in those pre-internet days was still a pretty active player in the media game.  Among my responsibilities was to assemble stories from the various wire sources to which we subscribed into a five minute newscast.  There was no shortage of material from which to choose, but I learned early on that there was an unwritten rule to putting it all together: "There ought to be blood at least once in every newscast, and death if you can get it."  The reasoning behind it was that these stories grabbed the attention of listeners more and therefore made them more likely to become repeat listeners.

As a result, a car accident on the other side of the state with no local connection at all was more likely to make the newscast than an actual local story with a less "sexy" angle.  This rule wasn't hard and fast, mind you.  Sometimes there was no blood or death to be had, and once in a while there were enough impossible to ignore local stories to keep the gore at bay.  At the time, viewing it as a young adult on the inside and ground-floor of the business, it all seemed  perfectly appropriate.

Now fast-forward 20+ years.  Competition among media outlets has increased exponentially.  There are more elbows than ever being thrown in an effort to attract the attention of viewers.  And these media outlets are willing to stoop lower and lower to find things that will jack up ratings.

The other day, I had one of the cable news channels on, and this big voice came on stating in the most serious tone, "This is (Insert Name Here) Breaking News!".  This was of course accompanied by tense music and expensive-looking graphics.  Well, it got my attention.  I remember Reagan getting shot, the space shuttles going down, 9/11, and the rest of it, so I figured it was some pretty big deal.  The "breaking news"?  President Obama was about to give a speech on the economy.  Isn't it his JOB to give speeches and whatnot?  Doesn't he do it all the time?  How is THAT breaking news?  Nonetheless, it did get my attention.  And I was pissed off that it did.

So when the media outlets are urging us to take precautions because a storm is coming, I just can't help but wonder if they are crying "Wolf!"  When they present everything as being so urgent in order to grab attention, how can you tell when something really IS urgent?  I don't want to be like that character in every disaster movie who ignores the warnings he is given and then is washed out to sea in his split-level ranch.  At the same time, I don't want to be one who panics every time attention-hungry media types want to stir things up whether for real reasons or for ratings.

It does work though.  I have to admit, I've watched more of The Weather Channel this past week than in all the rest of the year put together.

There is another side to this as well.  When some Kardashian's wedding, for example, gets space in a newscast, that means something else, something less ratings-friendly but likely more important to everyday people, like people starving to death in east Africa, gets kicked to the curb.  Media bias, so frequently hollered about these days, is not just in the stories they choose to emphasize, but even more so in the ones they do not.

My point in all this, and I do have one, is that we all need to be savvy media consumers, now more than ever.  And, we need to be sure that our children are taught to be as well. It is vital that they can distinguish between real news, "fluff", parody, and infomercials, all of which blur together at times.

I'd type more, but my neighbor's Volvo just landed on my back deck, so I had better go to Costco and stock up on canned goods and candles in case the powe

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weenie War

I am a picky eater.  Very picky.  There are lots of foods I will not even try, and never have.  Most of them are meats or meat products.  Ham, deli meats, most sausages...they are just a few items on my no-no list.  But one food stands far above the rest.  It is my great adversary.  The Professor Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes.  The Robert E. Lee to my U.S. Grant.  The Wile E. Coyote to my Roadrunner. That great enemy of mine is: the hot dog.

People often do not believe me when I say that I have never eaten a hot dog in my life, but it is true. Not even once has a frankfurter touched my lips.  I haven't even been tempted to try one.  I don't know if it is the eerie similarity in shape and size to a certain part of the male anatomy, or the rumors that they are made of sheep intestines and stuffed with eyeballs, hooves, and various other rejected parts from the meat packing plant.  I would rather go hungry than eat a hot dog, and on occasion actually have.

My loathing of hot dogs somehow became a well-known quirk of mine when I was a kid.  When hot dogs were served, as they often are to groups of kids, I would turn up my nose.  Forget about trying one; I would not even touch one.  A child who would not eat a hot dog was thought an oddity by many adults, and for some  reason it became a notable characteristic of mine.  "The kid who won't eat hot dogs" they called me.  I didn't promote it, but apparently it was viewed as being so odd, and the strength of my resistance to even try one was so great, that people noticed.  The mothers of my friends were flabbergasted when they threw a birthday party and they had this one little creep who just would not eat what all the other guests were so happily scarfing down.  A friend's father once offered me $10 (a princely sum to a little kid), just to take one bite of a hot dog.  No way.  It didn't take long for word to get around that, if hot dogs were on the menu at a party to which I was invited, it was a good idea to have a PBJ on hand as a backup.

I remember one time in parochial school when I was about 7, I ordered school lunch instead of bringing my own as I usually did.  The menu said pizza for that day, and I was all about that.  Now our school did not have a kitchen or cafeteria.  The lunches were prepared by cooks at the public schools, placed in Styrofoam trays, and were delivered to us.  It was some kind of contract deal, I guess.

Anyhow, this particular day, I was especially hungry and looking forward to some pizza, which the school lunch people made especially well.  I went down the hall with my class and got my white tray, full of anticipation.  Walking back to my seat in the classroom where we always ate lunch, I noticed my friend Frenchie out of the corner of my eye at his desk.  On his Styrofoam tray was sitting a rather soggy hot dog and about a half dozen even soggier french fries, along with some shredded carrot & raisin mixture.  My heart sank.  I slid into my seat and opened the tray with dread.  Sure enough: hot dog.  The worst-case scenario had occurred.  Not only was it not pizza, it was something that I absolutely despised. My disappointment knew no bounds.

Now going without lunch when I was hungry was bad enough, but bear in mind, this was parochial school.  Wasting food while there were poor children starving in Africa was just not acceptable. The nuns required that we eat at least half of our lunches or else.  For them, only requiring that we eat half was considered lenient. And no, trading was not allowed.  They kept their eyes peeled for finicky kids like me who might try to break these rules.

There was no way I was going to even take one bite of this thing.  I was willing to go to the principal's office.  I was willing to serve detention.  I was willing to have my parents called.  Heck, they could have dragged me before the pope.  Eating this thing was just not going to happen.  Of course, if there was a way to avoid all of this drama, I was going to do it.

It required stealth.  Just ditching the whole weenie at once would arouse suspicion with Sister Ursula, who surveyed us with watchful eyes.  As much as it pained me to do so, I held my breath, thought of clear blue skies over a flowery meadow, and pulled a bite-sized portion of hot dog off when Sister Ursula was not looking, rolled it into a ball, and shoved it down the inkwell of my desk.  (The days of using ink in schools had long since passed, but we still had the old desks with the inkwell.)  I tried to time my tear-offs with the bites Frenchie was taking so as to add to the believability factor for the formidable nun watching over us.  The trouble was, I hated hot dogs so much that even handling them made me a bit queasy.

Maybe it was warm in the room that day.  Maybe I had a mild stomach bug of some sort.  Or maybe it was hot dog cooties.  Whatever it was, by the time I had clandestinely dispatched of the entire hot dog down the inkwell and into my desk, I was feeling pretty green around the gills.  Fortunately, my desk was within reach of the classroom wastebasket, because I felt that uncomfortable surge from down in my gut, and whatever was down there came back up.

Needless to say, this ruined lunch for many of my classmates that day.  For me, however, it meant a) I got to go home for the afternoon, even though I felt fine after vomiting, and b) I didn't have to eat that damn hot dog.  I did have to clean the hidden pieces out of my desk the next morning, but I was ready for it and did so quickly before class started, holding my breath and keeping my eyes closed.  No throwing up involved.  So, final score: Me = 1, Weenies = 0.

Some of the adults who knew me back then, as well as some of the kids who sat beside me wolfing down weenies all those years ago, are amused to no end to find out that at age 41, I still will not eat a hot dog. I don't get nauseous when I touch them now, but I still will not try them.  I will not eat them in a box.  I will not eat them with a fox.  I will not...well, you get the gist.  That stubborn kid who dug his heels in so deeply against eating hot dogs way back then is still digging in his heels many years later.  Better have a PBJ on hand if you are inviting me over for lunch.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Foot Patrol

When I was very young, my parents got brand new wall-to-wall carpeting in our house.  Immediately, a rule was put into place: no shoes in the house.  You put them on in the entryway when you left the house, and took them off there when you came in.  Pretty simple.

However, coming and going from the house is something one does a whole lot.  So, as a lifelong creature of habit, it became an ingrained thing for me.  Very ingrained.   Whenever I went into anyone’s house, I just assumed that shoes had to come off, even if I was not asked.  Thank goodness my parents were not nudists, or I would have developed habits that would have prevented my ever being invited anywhere.

To this very day, I cannot relax in my home or anyone else’s while wearing shoes.  It’s just one of my weird quirks. Around my house, I am either barefoot or in socks, depending on the time of year.  If I am a guest at your house and my shoes are still on, rest assured that I am not fully comfortable yet.  Either that or I am too drunk to undo my laces, but that would be rare. 

In a cruel twist of fate, my feet have developed a tendency toward getting cold easily as I have reached middle age.  Living in the frozen wasteland that I call home, my tootsies are chilly to some degree from September until May.  No biggie, though.  That’s why God invented socks, after all.

This leads me to the point of this tract.  Yes, I do actually have one.  Without fail, I can find something wet or horrible to step in whenever I am wandering around the house in socks.  A few drops on the bathroom floor near the sink?  Stepped directly in it.  Some snow tracked in from outside?  Right here!  Small spill of coffee near the kitchen counter?  Planted my foot right in it.  Cat horked up a hairball?  Found it!  It’s uncanny.

I maintain that if you dropped me into the center of the Sahara Desert from a helicopter in my stocking feet at the height of summer, I’d be fine, because I would inevitably find something wet with my feet within a few steps.

What’s most amazing is that there really aren’t that many things on the floor in my house in which to actually step.  I keep a pretty tidy place overall.  If there is a mess, I clean it up immediately.  Which makes it all the more irritating when one of the cats eats their dinner too quickly and yacks up a disgusting but innocuous little puddle of Friskies turkey-flavor that blends in perfectly with the color of the carpeting.  The ratio of yack-occupied floor to otherwise clean and traversable floor is pretty steep, and yet, I always, always, always seem to step in the nastiness before I see it.

I suppose there must be a silver lining in this somewhere.  Some kind of upside.  Maybe I could rent myself out to drought-stricken lands to find water with my stocking feet.  Make a few bucks.  I’ll have to develop a business plan around that.  Meanwhile, you’ll have to excuse me, I have a load of socks in the washer that need to be moved to the dryer.