Sunday, September 30, 2012
I’ve alluded to the fact that I am persnickety in this blog on several occasions. That’s not to say I am any more fussy than the next guy, because I don’t think I am, except for maybe in the realm of food where I hold a PhD in persnicketiness (See: Weenie War, August, 2011). Well, I am particular about clothes too. (See: Fashion , July, 2011) Oh, and there’s that thing I have about stickiness (See: DON’T Pour Some Sugar on Me , last March).
Okay, maybe I am more persnickety than the next guy. Whatever.
What often amuses my friends and family is the kind of thing that bugs me. Many of my hang ups are things that don’t even enter their (or anyone else’s) minds. Here, in no particular order, are some examples of things that those close to me do not care much about, and yet I just cannot abide.
Mixing team/brand apparel.
I have Red Sox gear. I have Patriots gear. I have gear with names of brands like Nike or L.L. Bean. But I will not wear more than one of each on my person at any given time. It's either a Red Sox day or an L.L. Bean day, but NEVER both. For me, there’s a fine line between showing your support for a team or brand and becoming a walking billboard. Needless to say, watching NASCAR drives me crazy if I fixate on this too much.
Signs left out after the event is over.
Yes, I realize that you had a yard sale at 154 River Street over Labor Day weekend. Thing is, it’s the beginning of October. Take your stupid signs down off the phone poles! I get even more irked by political signs that are left up long after the votes have been counted. (I’m talking to YOU, failed Senate candidate Bruce Poliquin!) If I didn’t vote for you before, I sure as hell am not going to in any future election if your signs are left mucking up the scenery. There are ordinances in place prohibiting such things, but they are rarely enforced it seems. I’d like to start a community task force to put a stop to delinquent sign removal. I wonder if we could be issued some kind of non-lethal weapons? Cream pies? Super Soakers?
On a recent camping expedition, for which I was very well-stocked and prepared because I was going to be many miles from the nearest store, I nonetheless found myself without one of the most basic things a person could need: fingernail clippers. Sure enough, I chipped a nail on my right index finger while setting up my site, and it nearly drove me over the edge for the rest of the day. Before night fell, I made a 60-mile round trip to get a 99 cent pair, just because I could not stand it any longer. The relief was totally worth the time and gasoline. Plus, I treated myself to an extra large caramel iced coffee too…so there was that.
Poor radio reception.
If there is static or hiss when the radio is on, I get very unsettled. I am not sure why this is, but it really bothers me. I've walked out of stores where the radio playing over the P.A. system is poorly tuned. If I am in control of the radio, I will switch the station or even turn it off rather than listen to interference. Growing up as a huge music fan in a rural area with few nearby radio stations, this was kind of a problem at times. I learned how to rig up some pretty extravagant aluminum foil antennae in my youth to make radio reception at least tolerable.
Watching a movie or television show after it has started.
I really despise this. I feel like I’ve missed something, and everyone else watching is privy to something that I am not. If it’s a situation where the movie or program in question is really, really good, I will force myself to watch it through, but will also make it a point to watch it again sometime to catch up on the parts I’ve missed. To this day, I really feel like I haven’t really seen the entire series of Star Wars movies, because I missed the first ten minutes of Episode III. Never mind the fact that I’ve seen all the other movies multiple times in my life.
Eating junk food in the morning.
Potato chips are one of my real weaknesses. I absolutely love them. However, if you set a bowl in front of me first thing in the morning, I would probably gag. It applies to any “heavy” foods at that hour of the day. Ice cream at dawn? No way. Pizza for breakfast? Couldn’t stomach it. A hamburger at that early hour? I’d barf, no doubt about it. My coworkers find this especially funny. They will nosh away on Cheez-Its or something of that ilk before the sun is barely over the horizon, and I can’t even be in the same room with them. I think they do it just to bug me now. Donuts and other breakfast pastries don’t count however. Hey, these are my quirks! I can make exceptions if I want.
It never fails that the packages I end up having to open at work contain items packed in Styrofoam. The stuff just makes my teeth hurt. The squeak of Styrofoam on more Styrofoam just makes shivers run up my spine. I don’t mind fingernails on a chalkboard or anything like that, but Styrofoam just rattles me every time. One of my coworkers has said that watching me unpack a box lined with Styrofoam is like watching someone defuse a bomb.
Flies in the house or car.
Flies are nasty, disgusting, disease-spreading creatures that vomit on things. The green ones are the worst. If one gets in my house, I simply cannot rest until I catch it. I’ve been found roaming around the house at three in the morning with a rolled up newspaper, eyes darting everywhere, on the hunt for my prey, which awoke me from slumber. Fortunately, the cats are firmly on my side in these safaris, and rarely does a fly escape our clutches for long. Of course there is frequently a lot of collateral damage, usually caused by the cats but occasionally by me, however, the flies are dispatched with, so it’s worth it. In the car, I will literally pull over until the offending insect is either dead or shooed out the window. This amuses and sometimes alarms passing motorists, I find.
Cooking smells after the meal is finished.
Shortly after I graduated college and had my own full kitchen, I tried to make a meal involving fish. I don’t think it was the freshest fish either, as my money was tight in those days. At any rate, the fishy smell in the house afterward was very strong, and lingered for what seemed like days. That was over twenty years ago, and I still remember it vividly, so that should tell you something. No matter how great the meal was, I just don’t want to smell it any more after I have finished eating it. I don’t, however, mind baking smells, like bread or apple pie. Those don’t count. I might even buy a candle with one of those scents. Again, my quirks, my rules.
Mixing cursive and print.
This is just indecisiveness, plain and simple. If you are printing in a note you are writing, then print all of it. If you are one of the three people left on earth who remember how to use cursive, then stick with that. Take a stand! Switching from one to the other in mid-message makes me wonder if your whole head was in the communication in the first place.
I could go on and on about this topic, but I’d better stop now. I have to go wash my hands seventy-three times, and then make and remake my bed forty-six times so I can go to bed before midnight.
Monday, September 24, 2012
While many people, including me, thought they would never take to the concept of reading a book from a screen, I have to admit that my e-reader has become one of my most treasured electronic gadgets over the past almost two years. It was not a purchase I made, but given to me as a Christmas gift by someone who knew I was a lifelong bookworm, and yet had not heard my misgivings about the concept of e-books. I still read good old-fashioned paper-and-glue books often, but the scales have tipped in favor of e-books by about a 70%-30% margin.
My two primary reasons for favoring e-books would probably be obvious to any marketer: they are cheaper and they are immediate. I can find one quickly and buy it instantly at what is usually a reasonable price. While I love the feel of flipping through pages and always will, I know it’s going to be tough for “traditional books” to keep up in the market against the value and convenience of e-books.
One problem I’ve found in my pleasure reading lately is finding something reasonably new that is geared toward my demographic. It’s no secret that more females than males read books these days. Likely it has always been like that. During my time as an educator, there were piles of research urging us to get boys reading more and better, because they as a gender lagged behind and it put their entire education (and future) at risk. I put a particular emphasis on getting the boys to see that reading was a cool and useful thing to do, however I was but one fish in the ocean, and female readers still outnumber males these days. Lately, however, it just seems like the number of titles geared toward women has started to completely overshadow those appealing to men, especially in the realm of fiction.
What types of fiction, exactly, appeals to males and to females? Well, I suppose we could play into the stereotypes for a moment. Men like explosions, violence, swearing, hot babes and lots of action. And women like romance, feelings, love, rock-hard muscle guys, and talking.
Whether you are a man or a woman, I am sure that neither of those descriptions fits you to a tee. Yet that seems to be what many publishers are targeting in each gender, if the current bestsellers are any indication. I have also seen this pattern in output from the independent author realm, of which I consider myself a part. If you want to be successful, you need to create a product that people will want to read. So write something that fits a formula that has worked for others, and you are bound for success. If you don’t think this is happening, take a look through the best-seller lists at Amazon or Barnes & Noble and note how many titles nowadays have the pattern “*blank* shades of *blank*”. Formulas can’t be all bad, can they?
Well, they can be. I guess it depends on your reasons for writing. Are you simply making something for consumption by as many members of the public as possible in order to make some cash, or do you have a real story to tell, and numbers are a secondary concern for you?
As for me, I am probably not what one would consider a “typical” male reader. For me, the ideal novel is told in first-person narrative (though this is negotiable), and has at least some humor and genuine feeling in it. The characters need to be believable, multi-faceted, interesting, and personally relatable on some levels. The plot doesn’t need to be full of nuclear weapons, dragons, spaceship chases, or loose women in bikinis, but there should be some sense of tension. By tension in this case, I mean a pressure of some kind, causing change or growth in the characters, whether they like it or not. When the story is done, I want the characters to be different in some way from how I found them at the start. I don’t expect a happy ending every time, but I do like the resolution to be more positive than negative, and for Pete’s sake, make sure you resolve it! Nothing bugs me more than to be left hanging at the end of a novel, the story to be continued in the next book in the series. I prefer each book to be able to stand on its own.
So many fiction novels geared toward teen and young adult females right now are patterned to some extent after the Twilight series by Stephanie Mayer or The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, with a strong, competent female protagonist in danger and in a complicated relationship to boot.
Many of those geared toward teen and young adult males are patterned somewhat after the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, with a young male protagonist suddenly discovering he is not at all what he thought he was.
Lots of adult female fiction these days has some variation on romantic relationships, good or bad and a female protagonist who has gone through a hard time trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps.
And adult male fiction? What there is of it often entails crime, law enforcement or military elements, with a few struggles against personal demons thrown in for good measure.
That’s not to say every single book out there fits these trends, but a lot of them do. Witness, the Amazon Top Ten Bestsellers as of September 24, 2012. The portions in quotes are taken directly from the Amazon.com descriptions of each book or series, while the comments in parentheses and bold are mine.
4. Fifty Shades Freed: Book Three of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James
5. Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James
“Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.”(Another romantic relationship story, though it’s up to you whether it’s good or bad. Sounds nasty to me.)
6. Thicker Than Water (A Leo Waterman Mystery) by G.M. Ford—“Hard living collects its fair share of casualties, but somehow Leo Waterman avoided becoming one of them.” (A story involving a guy struggling against personal demons. There’s crime too.)
10. Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins
“The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.” (Not a variation on the popular series, but the actual series itself. The first book in the trilogy is at #14 right now.)
Now I haven’t read any of these books, and I am not saying any of them are good or bad. None of them really reach out and grab me though. By my unscientific reckoning, they skew about 70% toward female readers. They also all fit neatly into popular molds. Art (which writing is, remember) is about breaking those molds. Mozart was different. Dali was different. Hemingway was different. Fosse was different. The Beatles were different. That’s part of what made them great. I’d dare say that ten years from now, the only titles on this list that will still be relevant will be the Hunger Games books. One could argue they do not fit into a popular mold, because they are the mold into which some others are trying to fit.
The moral of this post is that there are lots of other great reads out there. Don’t just take what is thrust at you as “must reads”. Dig around a little. Run some Internet searches. Blow the dust off some volumes at the back of your local bookstore (if you are lucky enough to still have one) or the public library. See what’s out there beyond the bestsellers.
And writers, don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled these days. There are always going to be readers out there like me who appreciate it.
Monday, September 17, 2012
There are many, many things that make the weekend better than weekdays. One of those, for me at least, is radio countdown shows. I love them, and always have. They are fewer and further between on the air these days, but if you know where to look, you can still find them.
Radio, for those of you under age 30, is a device from which music, voices and other sounds being broadcast from a remote location are emitted for entertainment or information purposes. It’s like an iPod, only you can’t control the programs, and there are commercials. Sounds crazy, I know. Ask any of us senior citizens born before the Reagan administration if you want to know more.
Radio has always played a large part in my life. As soon as I got my first transistor radio (another term you young-uns will have to Google) around age 6, I always had it on when I could. I actually worked as a professional announcer and board operator for eleven of the most formative years of my life, from age 15 to age 26. While I only worked part time in radio, I had offers to go full time on numerous occasions once I graduated high school. I chose instead to go another career path, but radio is always going to be the “road not travelled” in my life. It made an indelible impact on me.
My earliest radio memories involve a radio countdown show, American Top 40, with legendary host Casey Kasem. American Top 40 made its debut in the world just a few months after I did, in the summer of 1970. As with most things, it started small, but it caught on quickly. Casey’s engaging personality, the interesting anecdotes and facts about the songs and artists, long-distance dedications, and of course the countdown of the music itself, propelled the show to worldwide popularity within a few years. At one point, it was heard on over 500 stations worldwide.
Casey Kasem (photo from Premiere Radio Networks)
I remember being very young, probably around five years old, and playing outside at my house one Saturday afternoon while my parents were doing some kind of work in the yard with the radio on in the background. Our local radio station had been a real “Heinz 57” jumble of all sorts of programming for many years, but it had just begun to smooth out into a more consistent format of pop music, interspersed with news, sports and weather. Young people like my parents were beginning to listen for longer periods of time. I think American Top 40 was new to the station at that time, maybe even making its local debut, which may have been why my parents were listening to it that day. For some reason, Casey Kasem’s voice caught my ear. Most likely, the fact that he was also the voice of Shaggy on my favorite cartoon Scooby Doo Where Are You? played a part in it. But the music intrigued me too. I vaguely recall an Eagles song playing, I think it was One of These Nights, and really digging it. It’s all a jumbled haze of memories, but I’m pretty sure that’s the moment when I got hooked on radio. If the radio wasn’t playing in the house or car after that, I was often urging my parents to turn it on, especially on the weekends for Casey’s show.
By the time I was eleven, my weekly ritual was to listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem every Sunday night from 5:00 to 9:00. I’d disappear into my bedroom, turn on the radio, and just absorb it every week. Few things before or since then held my short attention span quite like that. If I had to be somewhere during those hours, I made sure to bring a portable radio to keep up with the countdown. I didn’t want to miss out on even a few songs. At school the next day, American Top 40 was always a major topic amongst us kids.
At age 15, I was old enough to work, and I got a part time job at that local radio station. Starting out, I was to work two shifts on the weekends, one on Saturday afternoons, where I would host my own show, playing pop music and reading the news and weather, and another on Sunday evenings, where I was to engineer the broadcast of American Top 40. Little did my boss at the time realize that, as far as my Sunday shift was concerned, he was paying me to do what I would be doing on my own at home anyway. At that time, American Top 40 was supplied to radio stations on four long playing records (another one to Google, kids!). My job was to put the records on the turntables in the correct order, and to insert local commercials during the breaks. And to listen. It was a great situation, and I loved it.
1988 was a time of change for both me and American Top 40. I was graduating from high school and going on to the University of Maine, and Casey Kasem was leaving the American Top 40 that same summer. Unable to work out a contract agreement with the company that produced American Top 40, Casey was offered a lucrative deal to do a new but similar countdown show for a competing company. Even though Casey was going to return to the air at the start of 1989, I knew it just wasn’t going to be the same, and it wasn’t. The new show, Casey’s Top 40, was too similar in some ways to American Top 40 and too different in others (if that makes any sense). It ran for nearly 10 years, but never really established its own place in the hearts of many listeners. Casey’s replacement on American Top 40, Shadoe Stevens, was very good, with a deep, resonant voice, but he just wasn’t Casey. Many others must have felt the same way, because the show struggled after Casey Kasem left. 1988 marked the end of what might be considered the “golden age of radio countdowns”.
I still listened to the weekend countdown shows after that, though not as faithfully. Radio programmers smelled blood in the water after the hosting turmoil at American Top 40. In addition to Casey and Shadoe, Rick Dees and Dick Clark were also hosting popular countdown programs in the late 80s. After a while, when I started working full time in education, I drifted away from the weekend countdown shows entirely.
As for Casey himself, he returned to his original seat at American Top 40 in 1998, and remained there until he retired in 2004. The show never really returned to its original form though, partly because the popular music of the day, which was increasingly rap and hip-hop oriented, just didn’t mesh as well with Casey’s voice and personality. He was then in his late 60s and early 70s, and hearing him introduce songs like Move Bitch by Ludacris featuring Mystikal & Infamous 2.0 (it’s a actual song, really!) was rather jarring. It was time for it to end. American Top 40 is still on the air, now hosted by the ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest, about whom I will refrain from comment or ridicule (for now).
In recent years, I have come back to radio countdown shows, thanks to the internet and satellite radio. While the music and personalities on the current version of American Top 40 are not my cup of tea, rebroadcasts of Casey Kasem’s original programs from the 70s are on satellite radio every weekend, and his 80s countdowns are streamed on the internet and broadcast by some local stations. In addition, several satellite radio stations broadcast countdowns of the hits from this week in a given year from the 1980s or 90s, closely emulating the format that Casey Kasem pioneered. I can’t get enough of them.
On weekends, when I have time to relax, I like to hop in my car and ride the back roads of this beautiful part of the state, reliving the old days with the countdown shows on satellite radio. Or sometimes I’ll fire up the laptop, take it to the back deck or the living room, kick back, open a cold one, and listen to Casey count down the hits from the old days once again.
Casey is 80 years old now, and living in quiet retirement. Apart from an interview on his daughter’s podcast in 2009, he has stayed out of the spotlight. As a huge fan of radio in general and countdown shows in particular, I will always be grateful for the hours and hours of enjoyment and inspiration Casey’s programs gave me. They still do for that matter.
He ended every show with the same line, which also seems like a darn nice way to end this post:
“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Summer in these parts is spectacular. There’s no other word for it. Living in a place with a challenging climate like northern Maine’s, one tends to gain an appreciation for weather that doesn’t try to kill you and wreck your stuff. Yes, we do get some nasty thunderstorms and the occasional stifling hot stretch in the summertime, but that’s pretty easy to deal with when compared to the prospect of clearing two feet of wet heavy snow from your roof or bundling up against temperatures of 20 below zero. When people around here complain about a hot day in the summer, a frequent retort from my fellow winter-loathers is “At least you don’t have to shovel the heat.”
But for me, it’s not just the summer weather that appeals, but the summer attitude. It’s that feel in the air that starts on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend and ends abruptly the day after Labor Day. You might describe it as the equivalent of the first time each year when you open the windows in the house and let the fresh air in.
There is a feeling of freedom in the air. College students are home for the summer. School kids are on a long break. Adults are taking time off from work. People around town are towing boats to the lake, tending gardens, taking leisurely walks, grilling burgers, and fishing in the river. Even if you are working or taking summer classes, it just feels different during the summer months. It’s almost as if a collective weight on our shoulders, if not entirely lifted, has been lightened.
Many new faces appear in our lives in the summer. People who have long since moved away come back to visit. It’s not unusual to be picking up a few things at the grocery store in the summer and run into a high school classmate you haven’t seen since senior English class over a quarter century ago. Tourists without specific roots in the community pass through, seeing with new perspectives the things that we locals often take for granted. For visitors, that statue in the park that we barely give a second glance on our way to work each day becomes the focus of discussion and photographs. The “wallpaper” of our lives becomes a vivid portrait to someone else.
Places and things that are shuttered during the cold weather months open for business again. The dairy bar, the golf course, the community band, the farmer’s markets…they all set forth pleasant new opportunities for locals and visitors alike to enjoy the unique pleasures of where we live. Roadside stands are unboarded, and go from selling just fiddleheads around Memorial Day to strawberries and cut flowers around the 4th of July, to a vast selection of fruits and vegetables by Labor Day. And many of these stands still go by the honor system. Signs next to a small container simply state the prices of items and ask that the customer put the money in the box.
Special events allow us all to mingle and relax. Agricultural fairs, festivals, parades, concerts, church suppers and picnics, and numerous other opportunities present themselves almost every weekend. Few if any of these are of the caliber to be featured on the Travel Channel. Heck, most don’t even merit a mention on the Maine Tourism Board’s website, yet we turn out for them in droves anyway. After all, how many chances does a person get to have a piece of the world’s largest ploye? We are fed, entertained, and most importantly I think, have some quality time with our family, friends, neighbors and visitors.
The summer attitude is even reflected in the clothing we wear. Loud Hawaiian shirts and fluorescent yellow flip-flops don’t even generate a second glance in the summer months. An older woman wearing a huge floppy hat and bright blue sundress with smiling dolphins on it doesn’t turn a head. A middle-aged man in plaid shorts and a striped shirt? Meh. It’s summertime. Who cares? Kids wear only a bathing suit (usually the same one) for days in a row, shirtless teenagers skateboard in the park, and even business types go without a tie from time to time. I actually saw my perennially conservative and buttoned-down boss wear khaki shorts to work one especially humid Saturday. As for me, I take great pleasure at this time of year in going as many consecutive days as I can without wearing socks. Fashion becomes relative between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
This is the time of year we live for around here. It’s this time of year that keeps us going when there’s a driving blizzard in January and we have to shovel out the driveway in dawn darkness just to get to work.
The whole time we are enjoying summer however, we watch the pages on the calendar falling away out of the corners of our eyes. Memorial Day is followed in short order by June, which leads to July, and then August. The next thing we know, Labor Day Weekend is here. You can feel it coming before September even starts. Fewer and fewer vacationers and other visitors are around. More and more camps at the lake are closed up. School-aged kids are sent to bed earlier to get in the groove for the daily routine soon to come with the start of another academic year. College kids pack up their stuff and head back to their studies. Nature lets you know that Labor Day and all it implies is on the way too. First you take the air conditioner out of the window, then you stop using a fan in the window, and sometimes you are even sleeping through the night with the windows closed by the beginning of September. The lushness of our surroundings is paler, less vivid. Brown is slowly creeping in to replace the greenery. Some leaves have even started to fall, and quite a few flowers and seasonal plants have “gone by” as my grandmother used to say.
The day after Labor Day, which is when I am writing this, can be sobering. Yes, the calendar still says it is summer, and the thermometer outside my office reads 72 degrees, but it’s not summer anymore. Not really. Vacations are over and the visitors have gone home. We are back at work, back at school. The special events have been held. It’s time to dress more practically. Noses to the grindstone people, there’s serious business to attend to now!
Just until Memorial Day Weekend, 2013.