Friday, December 30, 2005

Web of intrigue

The problem with knowing a little about web design is that the people who know nothing about web design think you know a lot about web design.

I know a little about web design. Therefore, the last five days of my life have been consumed with completely reworking the website here in Public Radioland. It's been made easier by our new developer/host, which has a pretty easy-to-use interface. But it's hard to get past the fact that I'm really just a guy that doesn't know exactly what he's doing, disguised as a guy who sort of knows what he's doing. Basically, I'm a 4.5 on the "Knows What He's Doing Scale", rather than the 6.0 that I purport to be.

My major problem is lacking the proper vocabulary. (Witness my earlier use of "developer/host", made necessary because I don't know exactly what to call them.) There's a lot of lingo in the web design business that doesn't often find its way into journalism, and as a result, I spend most of my time with our way-more-competent "Client Relations Specialist" trying to explain exactly what I'm trying to do, though he might as well be speaking Estonian to my English.

The current issue is trying to make sure that when people type in our URL, they get our new site, and not our old site. A pretty simple concept, made more complicated by the fact that we need to do something called "transferring domains to another registrar", and provide somethign called a "zone file" to our new, um, developer/host. Also, we need to change the name servers for each of our domains. Or something. I generally know what this all means - it means we're making sure that when people type in our URL, they get our new site, and not our old site. Besides that, I have no idea.

I brought these problems on myself, of course, by actually having experience creating the website at the former 19 Minutes headquarters. It was a pretty clunky corner of cyberspace, given that it took me the better part of two days to create the navigation buttons, and probably a week to create the program grid, given that I had to first figure out how to write tables using HTML. But it was a fun era of experimentation on the web - the site included a scan of a North Country Public Radio bumper sticker that someone found on a trail in Wyoming because a) they sent us the bumper sticker, and b) we had a scanner. We "streamed" audio of news stories, but in a way that was only slightly easier than if listeners had just called and had us read the stories to them over the phone. The website has long since been redesigned by people who really know what they're doing, but they made the mistake once of telling me how impressed they were that I had created such a relatively complex old website purely by grinding my way through it in HTML.

This only encouraged me.

So I've grinded my way through the new website, using a minimum of HTML, and it looks, in my estimation, not bad. It still takes me the better part of a day to create buttons (which is why I've, uh, reappropriated what few buttons I used from other places), and I'm thanking my lucky stars that someone else is responsible for the program grid.

But it doesn't look bad. And if the stars align right this afternoon, the new site may actually go live, and someone else might actually see it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Put down the duckie

You'd think I might learn at some point. Before Monday night, I'd eaten duck four times in memory. (I may have eaten duck baby food as a child, but somehow, I doubt it.) Each one of those four times, I was sick to my stomach, or very close to it.

After it happened twice, I was still willing to chalk it up to coincidence. The first two occurrences both happened after eating in the same restaurant in Washington, DC's Chinatown. So, I mean, hey, there's nothing that says I wasn't actually allergic to egg rolls, right?

I went about 5 years before trying duck again. This time it was in an unfamiliar restaurant in Ottawa. But both the taste and the results were strikingly similar, leading to an enjoyable drive back to Potsdam, New York that night, which was marked by fun-filled stops along Highway 416 in such hotspots as Kemptville (which became decidedly less kempt) and Spencerville, Ontario.

Still, the optimist in me decided to give duck another go a couple years ago in San Diego. I didn't feel great afterwards, but survived unscathed.

Emboldened, I set out for the home of our only local relatives to ring in Chanukah on Monday. They were serving something called "Turducken", which apparently is a turkey stuffed with duck, chicken, and - in this case - sausage. As a vegetarian colleague of mine noted, "That's like having meat with a side of meat, another side of meat, and then meat for dessert!"

(Never mind for the moment that we were about to celebrate a Jewish holiday with a meal that included sausage. For more on this theme, check out Andy Borowitz's column in Sunday's New York Times, in which he describes celebrating Yom Kippur by going to a Swedish smorgasbord restaurant.)

So, of course, the duck part of the Turducken came back to haunt me Monday night, though unlike the Chanukah miracle, the after-effects lasted considerably less than eight days.

What I can't figure out is why I would want to eat a duck in the first place? Ducks are cool birds. As my wife can attest, I've wasted no small amount of bandwidth on a variety of digital cameras capturing ducks in their natural habitat (at a museum in Sweden, in Bank One Ballpark, etc.). I read "Make Way for Ducklings" to our daughter dozens of times before she was born. Really. I owned three rubber ducks before she was born, too.

So in a first for this space, I hearby make the following New Year's resolution: No more eating ducks. Although maybe I'd have more luck with the rubber ducks...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas thoughts from Studio 103

I'm on the air today, hosting Weekend Edition and a variety of holiday specials, and spelling our otherwise Gentile on-air staff. A little gift from the Jewish news director.

The traffic (such as it ever exists in Flagstaff, Arizona) is pretty non-existent on the way in to work at 5:30 am on Christmas morning. Not another occupied car on the road today. While some will be watching Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" later, the ride through town was, for me, more reminiscent of Heston driving around a deserted Earth in "The Omega Man" - minus the blood-lusting zombies, anyway.

[It's now just occurred to me that "The Ten Commandments" might be more typically watched on Easter, rather than Christmas. I can't keep track of what you Gentiles watch and when.]

But speaking of movies, Christmas is always an enjoyable opportunity for me each year to go to a party and drop the conversational bombshell that I've never actually seen "It's a Wonderful Life". Unlike my ongoing boycott of "Rain Man" (too consciously Oscar-worthy), "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"(too many people telling me I have to see it), or "Caddyshack" (too many people doing bad Bill Murray imitations) I didn't start out to avoid that particular cultural commonality. It just wasn't part of the holiday tradition in the 19 Minutes household when I was growing up. As time went on, I decided that "I've never seen 'It's a Wonderful Life'" was a better conversation starter than "Hey, how about that Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life'?" Plus, it moves the conversation to a discussion of iconic films we've never seen, rather than a discussion of a movie that everyone in the room but me has seen. (If that maneuver fails, my fallback position is to feign complete ignorance and express my amazement that Jon Stewart would be in a film so closely linked to Christmas, given that he's also available to work on Christmas morning, if you catch my drift.)

Lest you think I'm completely opposed to the Christmas assault on the airwaves, I'll point out that I'm a card-carrying member of the non-existent "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Fan Club. NPR's Diane Rehm Show devoted an hour to the 40th Anniversary of "ACBC" last Friday, a discussion that raised the question of whether there's something less-special about being able to watch the special on-demand via DVD, rather than having to wait for an entire year before it next aired.

And I submit that, yeah, there is something less special about throwing it in the DVD player, and missing out on all the commercials for Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars (is there another example of two different products that were always marketed together?) and Peppermint Patties (raising the question of whether York advertised Peppermint Patties on Peanuts specials purely because the candy shared a name with a Peanuts character).

On the other hand, if I watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on DVD, it lowers the risk that I might accidentally channel-surf my way over to "It's a Wonderful Life" and inadvertently ruin all my Christmas party talking points.

Joyeux Noël, Hauska Joulua, and - of course - Happy Chanukah, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Caramelizing Christmas

First, before we get on to the general theme of this evening’s symposium, I’ll pass along the winner of the ‘Phrase With Which I Never Expected to Start a Sentence’ Contest:

“So, I was making caramels the other night…”

Now then.

So, I was making caramels the other night in a fit of holiday spirit of some kind (I’m not sure which holiday tradition involves the making of caramels, but I’m sure there’s at least one), and ran into unexpected difficulty in the form of an ornery 18-month old, who decided she didn’t want to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a stretch.

I’ve groused in the past about unrealistic expectations by recipe authors – namely, the expectation that I’ll know what the heck I’m doing in the kitchen when the recipe calls for me to “sear” something. In the case of the caramels, I was pretty confident in my ability to follow the recipe itself, but as usual, the recipe included no contingency plan for what you do when your mixture is just about to reach optimal temperature and your 18-month old is letting loose with what the 19 Minutes household has long referred to as her “pterodactyl scream”. Let’s think of those contingencies next time, recipe authors! Thank you.

The caramels turned out okay. At room temperature, they make a good ballast ingredient, or could be used to provide traction for a vehicle stuck in ice. Heated in the microwave for 13 seconds, they do a nice impression of actual caramels. Heated in the microwave for 20 seconds, they do a nice job of coating the inside of the microwave with a sticky mess.


Sylvi recovered from the other evening’s Non-Sleeping Pterodactyl Mode, allowing for a trip this evening to Target. It was a sociologist’s field day at Target, inasmuch as it was the Friday evening before Christmas. I get sort of a neurotic pleasure out of scenes like tonight's, along the same lines as the neurotic pleasure I got out of driving to the Mall of America on the day after Christmas one year, just to see if I could find a parking space (I landed in the first row, no less).

Anyway, there were a variety of personality types at Target this evening:

  • The Intergenerational Arguing Families. They were gathered around the “One Spot”, where everything is a dollar, and they could get their pre-holiday aggression out by snapping at each other over whether to buy mini-photo albums or Shirley Temple DVDs as stocking stuffers. Ho ho ho!
  • People cruising the toy department while consulting with unseen relatives (who may well have been in the Housewares section) by cell phone about whether “Hungry Hungry Hippos” is an appropriate gift for a four-year old. It does raise questions about how we, as a society, got along before we could use cell phones from the toy department. The answer is, we bought inappropriate gifts in those days. I remember being around 10 years old and getting a birthday present from an elderly relative that was way inappropriately young. Somehow, even at that age, I grasped that the embarrassment would be worse for the gift giver than it was for me, so I remember being pretty gracious about the whole thing. And it’s why, to this day, I try to err on the side of caution, which explains why 18-month old Sylvi will be receiving a subscription to Newsweek for Christmas this year.
  • People only there to buy Kleenex or AA batteries. Poor saps.
  • The freaked-out, clueless guy looking for something for his wife or significant other. I, myself, spent several hours in a mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this week in just such a mode, finding plenty of gifts that I would have enjoyed, and gradually expanding my mental notion of what would constitute an appropriate gift for my wife. ("Hmmm… how about Old Navy? Hey! There’s a pen shop! Hold on – maybe the Wisconsin Cheese Mart is open late!") So again, I went with Newsweek.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Notes from the spin cycle

Another hectic week in Public Radioland. Our local Morning Edition host is on vacation, and as usual, I’m first off the bench when it comes to filling in. Translated, that means waking up at 4:45, then at 4:54, then at 5:03, and so on, until my snooze bar builds up such a static electricity charge that it threatens to electrocute me if I don’t actually get out of bed.

Translated further, that means trying to get to bed early enough to sleep longer than three hours. This is especially key tonight, since tomorrow features one of my semi-annual appearances at the university commencement, at which I’ll be reading the names of the lucky graduates. And the university intelligencia generally asks me not to fall asleep in the middle of the master’s degree recipients.

So I’m going to try to wrap up the blog before I move the laundry to the dryer. Trust me, Woodward and Bernstein worked under the same deadline when they broke the Watergate story.

But on a week that has dealt me little sleep, tonight’s trip to Target inadvertently reminded me why the public radio thing is a good gig. The trip didn’t initally shape up that way – in fact, it had all the trippings of Disaster Trip 2005, as my 18-month old daughter chose this evening to have an Explosive Diaper Incident. And like any standard-style dad, I hadn’t actually checked the mini diaper bag (No, it is not a purse, thank you very much.) to see whether the packet of wipes was still serviceable. Hey, as a standard-style dad, it was pretty amazing that I remembered the diaper bag. Thankfully, my quick-thinking wife pointed out that we were in Target, which meant if nothing else, at least we could replace Sylvi’s pants with a new pair. And you wondered why I had to do laundry tonight…

Anyway, while my wife was changing Sylvi in the bathroom, I was paying for the rest of the shopping trip at the cash registers – at which point the woman who was next in line recognized me by voice. It’s a public radio kind of town. Moreover, she remembered an interview I had conducted with a landscape artist (which aired this week), and told me how much she liked it.

And that reminded me what I like best about showing up for work, even more than volunteers who bring in Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the staff. There’s something entertaining about becoming an expert on something – for a day. My knowledge of abstract landscape paintings is pretty minimal. In fact, my knowledge of artwork in general is pretty minimal.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and every year, our elementary school would troop us down to the Hirshhorn Museum or the National Gallery of Art, and try to get us interested in art. But they never could satisfactorily explain why we, as 10-year olds, should be interested in the school of painting Dave Barry once described as “Enormous Naked Women Eating Fruit”. And so we’d feign interest (badly, I’m sure) in the art for a while, and then go back to bugging our teachers to take us to the Air and Space Museum.

So I had to do some prep work before I could conduct this interview. And I was ready with what I hoped were some prescient questions. And then, something remarkable happened. My interviewee explained what makes a good painting:

“It’s pretty,” she said, in just about those words.

I finally understand art.

But the spin cycle is about to end, and so tonight’s self-imposed deadline looms.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Car talk puzzlers

At the risk of co-opting all my material from the past weekend's New York Times, there was another interesting Sunday feature on the phenomenon of car window decals bearing memorial messages. It's a phenomenon that has its roots in Latino culture, which means the decals are a relatively common sight out here in the southwest. But the article notes the concept is transferring (not unlike a decal) to other segments of the populace.

In the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, it's just another aspect of the car culture that we don't completely understand. I can grasp why someone would want to commemorate the life of a loved one who has passed away, but I'm not altogether clear on why the back (or side) window of a car, or pickup, or SUV is the appropriate venue for such a tribute.

But there are many things about the vehicular world that are a little puzzling, several of which have made themselves apparent in just the last several days:

Vanity plates. I guess I can understand the philosophy behind personalized license plates. I was actually close to getting a vanity plate a few years ago, when a minor windfall from my three days on "Jeopardy!" allowed me to buy my first-ever new car. It was a German car, and I thought "Gefahr" (the German word for "Jeopardy") would be catchy, clever, and mysterious. But having my application returned for proof that "Gefahr" wasn't actually a swear word, I decided it would just be a puzzlement to other drivers. Likewise, the plate on the car I passed both on the way to and from the coffee shop the other day: "BIG GAL". An extra 50 bucks to put a vanity tag on your car seems like an extravagance for an inside joke that only 11 people will get.

Leis and rear-view mirrors. I'm not sure whether this is a phenomenon outside the west, but there's an abundance of Hawaiian leis hanging from the rear-view mirrors of northern Arizona. Besides making it difficult to see out of a substantial proportion of the windshield, I wonder about the function of these decorations. Is it an effort to create a little slice of Maui in the driver '89 Escort? (And if that's the case, does it work?) Are they left over from a luau? It seems unlikely the decorative touch will lead anyone to confuse Interstate 40 between Flagstaff and Kingman, Arizona with the road to Hana. Tough talk from a guy with Hawaiian print seat covers on his '87 Golf.

The Lexus as holiday gift. I'm sorry - do luxury car manufacturers really think those commercials that show a $40,000 car with a bright red bow on top will lead anyone to run out and buy their spouse, child, parent, or whoever a car for Christmas? Have we really gotten to the point that a $350 Xbox is the reasonably priced alternative for holiday giving? ("Yes", is probably the answer.) And are the car dealerships jammed on December 26th with people returning cars they don't like?

The more important question, though, is where do you get a bow that large?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Hack to the future

The New York Times did an interesting riff yesterday on how many of the recent developments in professional football were actually forecast in a 1962 episode of "The Jetsons". The episode, titled "Jetson's Night Out", included a domed stadium ("Space Coliseum") some three years before the Astrodome was built, and such innovations as Skycam, bar code scanners for tickets (rather than ripping the ticket at the turnstiles), and radio communications between the coach and the quarterback.

It was a pretty uncanny depiction of the future of professional football. But perhaps more importantly, it was probably one of the first citations of "The Jetsons" as an accurate portrayal of the future.

For years, "The Jetsons" has been the benchmark for describing how preposterous our vision of the future is. And, of course, my flying car is still on order and I'm bringing an actual dish to the staff holiday party this evening, rather than food in capsule form.

And yet, "The Jetsons" references endure, rivaled only by Jules Verne for cultural iconography. Funny, given that "The Flintstones", which was essentially the same show, hasn't been cited nearly as much in the debate over evolution and "intelligent design" school curricula.

Maybe it's because at some level, we're all still holding out for flying cars and robots that do the dishes. And maybe it's because we've forgotten about the Jetsons' take on the workplace.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

De-Clausing the season

Sylvi turned the big 1-8 today. Yes, 18 months. She’s currently celebrating by having an animated conversation with the blanket in her crib, rather than actually napping as per the plan for this afternoon.

But earlier today, with my wife at work, the two of us accomplished a little of our holiday shopping. And somehow, we managed to avoid the ubiquitous chubby guy with the beard and red suit. This was a good thing, as far as I was concerned. My wife and I haven’t come to any resolution on how our household is going to handle the whole Santa Claus concept, and if we can avoid the mall for another two weeks, we will have succesfully diffused the issue for another year.

We actually have had one Santa encounter this season – a week ago, we took Sylvi to a symphony concert, which one could logically imagine would be a safe refuge from elves, reindeer, and the like. This, of course, meant that as a special treat for all the kids in the audience, Santa showed up at the end of the concert. Fortunately for us, Sylvi was significantly more interested in pointing at all the S’s in the program than she was in Symphony Santa, who for reasons that were unclear, was wearing dress shoes instead of his winter boots.

Part of it is Santa himself – being the Jewish half of a mixed marriage, I don’t really have a lot of Santa heritage to draw on. I was always the kid who would sit on Santa’s lap and, with a healthy dose of skepticism, made sure he knew I was actually planning on celebrating Chanukah, and thus, was just sitting on his lap to conform to a cultural norm. Though at age 7, I may not have put it into exactly those words.

But even if I had grown up among the goyim, I’m not sure I wouldn’t also be cool to the Santa concept. (The double-negative concept is a different story.) I mean, the idea of a munificent chubby guy that brings gifts -- asking only that children be good little boys and girls – is, on its face, not the worst thing in the world. I mean, hey – kids probably ought to learn that it pays to be good.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure about the other message that Santa sends – that if mom and dad save all year, take on extra work, and forego the more expensive, extra-lean steaks, then a fat guy in a red suit will bring the kids new bicycles. If the fat guy in the red suit agreed to babysit now and then, maybe I’d be more inclined to give him some credit.

But I also know Santa Claus is a cherished tradition in many households. And I would feel kind of bad if Sylvi was the only three-year old in her preschool that was going around and saying to the other kids: “Santa Claus? You have got to be kidding. What do you think your mom was doing in the toy department at Target last week? Buying herself a Lite-Brite? Don’t be so naïve. Pour me another apple juice, willya?”

So I don’t know. I’m seriously considering showing her the episode of “Friends” where the Holiday Armadillo explains the story of Chanukah – and presenting it as a factual documentary. She’d be the only preschooler yammering on about an Armadillo, but coming from our household, I imagine that she’ll also be the only preschooler yammering on about the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Beagle, so it’ll be par for the course.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

I get press releases, Vol. 24: [Fun with] news from the PR industry [maybe]

In the current climate of 24-hour news cycles and abrasive talk programming, the PR industry likes to send out news releases that "stir things up". Every day, the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters gets press releases from the Republican and Democratic national committees, poking fun at some "outrageous" statement a member of the opposing party made, or raising the specter of the dire circumstances that will come to pass if the other party's legislative agenda is allowed to move forward.

Generally, these news releases come with an especially forceful headline, like "Democrats Will Make This Country Weaker", or "Arizona Republicans Come Under Fire For Tainted Money" (and sometimes, "Andreas Vollenweider PRESS RELEASE CORRECTION").

Sometimes these news releases make the newspapers in the "Political Notebook" column. Sometimes they get shouted about on MSNBC or Fox News shouting shows. And sometimes, they make it to this space. Particularly if they're as simultaneously forceful and wishy-washy as this entry from Arizona's Clean Elections Institute, whose headline, "Time for Smith to be Removed" doesn't quite do the message of the release justice:
The Clean Elections Institute believes the time has come for Rep. David Burnell Smith to be forcibly removed from office, if necessary.
In other words, he definitely should be removed from office, provided he has to be removed from office.

But at least the CEI is making a complete statement, which is more than you can say for the Republican National Committee, which apparently objected to the following television appearance by Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean:
Dean: "[Our Troops] Don't Belong [In Iraq]." (CNN's "American Morning," 12/8/05)
Though in all fairness, it should be pointed out that White House Spokesman Scott McClellan's press briefing yesterday included the following statement:
"[The lesser flying phalangers] are the smallest [marsupials in the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, Texas]."
And President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1936 features this plea:
"[I have] new problems [with ring-around-the-collar -- problems that require the development of a new laundry detergent]."
But none of this, of course, would be possible without the U.S. Constitution, which makes clear in the First Amendment:
"[Press releases are the key exercise of] the freedom of speech [that will someday allow bloggers to fill 400 words over their lunch hour]."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Throwing wet paper towels against the wall: Words, Rodeo, and TV Mayors

It's been a distracting series of days around the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters. The End-of-the-Year pledge drive is about to get underway in Public Radioland, leading listeners to bombard us with questions like, "Didn't you just finish your last pledge drive?", and leading us to consult our calendars to determine whether we did, in fact, just finish our last pledge drive.

We're also undertaking a major overhaul of our website, which allows us a fun-filled opportunity to spend time listening to web professionals talk to us on a speakerphone and clicking the "next" icon on the demonstration page.

We've accompanied our 17-month old daughter to the symphony and a book-signing, which was distracting insofar as we spent most of our time staring in amazement as she sat through both as though she'd been a music and literature fan all of her life. (If only the symphony had played "Mahna Mahna"...)

And we were on the cusp of posting yesterday when the US Supreme Court decided to take up a case that originated right here in Flagstaff, Arizona, which caused much scrambling around in Public Radioland to get a story to air - a task made more difficult by the fact that we don't typically cover many Supreme Court cases in Flagstaff and thus had all sorts of basic questions that Nina Totenberg hasn't had to ask in 40 years.

All the while, though, we've been throwing metaphorical wet paper towels at the wall, hoping one of them would stick. Unfortunately, none of them was a full-sized paper towel. But those pick-a-size towels are pretty cool, anyway, so here goes:

The topic of First Words has been on the minds of some key 19 Minutes staffers (well, my mind, anyway). My 17-month old, Sylvi, launched into her first real word a couple months ago -- "breakfast". But since then, she's figured out it's way more efficient to just use the first letter. So "breakfast" became "B-b-b-uh", and so, for that matter, did "lunch" and "dinner". This is somewhat confusing - not because we might accidentally feed her breakfast at 6:00 pm, but because "B-b-b-uh" is also her word for "ball", "butterfly", and "bee". So one must take a contextual approach to understanding her.

Anyway, we're waiting anxiously for her first word that sticks (not unlike a wet paper towel). If first words are a reflection of the time in which we're living, I suppose she might well say "iPod" when I get home tonight. Of course, if first words are a reflection of the prevailing culoture, there's probably a whole generation of 1970s-born people whose first word was "Convoy". My own first word, for reasons unknown, was "ten".


For other reasons unknown, my late night attention has again turned to ESPN2, as it's the week of the National Finals Rodeo. I have no legitimate reason to be interested in rodeo. I own no large hats, nor large belt buckles. I do agree that many of the events are pretty cruel to the animals (except bull riding, which actually offers the animals a legitimate chance at revenge). And I've ridden a horse exactly once, which was enough to convince me that horseback riding is an activity best-suited to people who possess a butt.

But for the past few years, I've found myself strangely mesmerized by the NFR. Perhaps it's the advertisements that run during commercial breaks - you have your usual ESPN fare - beer, pickup trucks, etc. - but also products that don't often make it on national TV, such as remedies for something called "lung flukes". On last night's broadcast, local viewers were treated to a commercial break which included spots for a trailer hitch company, an anti-domestic violence PSA, and a commercial for the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra's music-in-the-schools program. So apparently the NFR casts a pretty wide net. It's also strangely soothing to watch the Barrel Racing event, which basically consists of a seemingly never-ending littany of horses and riders going into the arena, circling three barrels, and heading out of the arena. They go one after another, circling the barrels, and circling the barrels, until I drift off to sleep. It's the most relaxing television experience I've had since I broke my arm playing baseball in 2000 and for weeks afterward, drifted off to a Vicodin-induced sleep while watching the Andy Griffith Show.

The Vicodin is long-gone, but I'm still watching the Andy Griffith Show, which was the genesis of the final wet paper towel, brought to my attention by my wife. She noted that the show's Mayor Pike (and later, Mayor Stoner) were emblematic of the larger trend of TV sitcoms portraying mayors as buffoons. It's a trend that continued into the '90s with Barry Bostwick's portrayal of New York Mayor Randall Winston on "Spin City" and the ongoing Mayor Quimby character on "The Simpsons". Interesting, in that governors don't seem to get quite the same treatment (see Gov. Gatling on "Benson") and presidents (see Jed Bartlett on "The West Wing" and MacKenzie Allen on "Commander in Chief") are depicted with a degree of reverence.

My guess is that most actual mayors are too dull to inspire TV characters. Our own mayor here in Flagstaff is a pretty decent guy, though he does have the unfortunate habit of pronouncing "business" as though it were spelled "bidness". But most of his public career seems to involve meetings with other mayors, appearances at the Elks Club and pictures with representatives from Flagstaff 72,000 Sister Cities, which hardly inspire the kind of revelry required on TV sitcoms these days.

On the other hand, he's a former Safeway store manager, which means he should still have easy access to wet paper towels.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Last Laugh: A longer run than "Pink Lady", not quite as long as "60 Minutes"

The 19 Minutes staff has been expanding the definition of "public service" by posting my monthly humor column, "Last Laugh", in this space since this space came into existence. The column has been running in something called Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine since September 2004. A couple months ago, I got the word that the column was to be cancelled at the end of the year. It was, well, kind of a bummer. Fortunately, this blog will live on, which means I won't be forced stand on a fire hydrant in downtown Flagstaff and shout my column to passersby. I could make some parting shots at the Mountain Living folks, such as keeping a running count of their typographical errors. I could threaten to sic my legions of fans on their e-mail in-boxes. But parting shots are unseemly. And my legions of fans are probably more passive consumers of great literature.

So I'll settle for posting this last column in this space, noting to any newspaper or magazine editors out there that I'm available, and pointing out that readers can direct any compaints here.

Some months ago in this column, I reflected on my contribution to diversity – specifically, my place in the patchwork quilt of cultures, languages, and ethnicities that make up the changing face of northern Arizona. This, not surprisingly, was done with just a trace of irony, as the best way for me to actually make a place more diverse would be to put me in a place like, say, Cameroon.

Somewhere down the line, the editors of this fine publication took my point to heart and – in their wisdom – figured having a diverse group of voices on this page might actually reflect the character of northern Arizona better than one jaded journalist banging away on the word processor in his Bat Cave every month. Even this jaded journalist has to admit that makes a certain amount of sense.

So this will be the penultimate edition of this column in this form – literally, the Last Laugh. However, to ensure that the goal of achieving diversity on this page is met, I hope the editorial staff at Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine will allow me to make the following suggestions for overlooked demographic groups that I hope we’ll hear from on this page in the future:

  • People who enjoy waiting for the trains to go by at a grade crossing. You see these people hopping out of their cars to take pictures of the BNSF blasting by San Francisco Street. Or at least you did, until the Department of Homeland Security got sketchy about people doing things like that. Anyway, I’d like to know why 150 freight cars going through Flagstaff are any more interesting than 150 freight cars going through Akron.
  • Europeans having a Route 66 Experience. They hop off their rented Harleys, stand on the corner in Winslow, walk into a bar, and say “I’ll hef a rrrrut beeer.” I’d be curious to know what the bartender replies.
  • People who have ridden their mountain bikes without sustaining serious injury. My last regular experience on a bicycle came when I was around 10 years old – in other words, during the time when falling off the bike was a traumatic experience. So I’m always a little surprised to run into mountain bikers on Monday morning, comparing their weekend battle scars. It seems a little like listening to golfers compare stories of the great fun they had landing in water hazards. So I’d love to hear from a mountain biker who went out on the trail Saturday morning, rode for a few hours, then had a cheeseburger.
  • I’d like to hear from the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher itself. We hear a lot from the environmentalists and the ranchers. Now, let’s hear from the bird. The same goes for the Humpback Chub. (Which, I’ll concede, is not a bird, but a fish. And which would also make a good name for a professional bowler.)
  • Someone who can satisfactorily pronounce “Tempeh”. And tell me whether you can purchase it in Tempe.

Thanks for listening.


The blog, however, returns tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

News from the F, G, and H segments

The lights came on early this morning at the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, as we were tasked to host the local broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition. Lots of news about the President's visit to the southwest to talk about immigration reform, the recurring theme of which was that people were either for it -- or against it. A story about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Canada, and an interesting piece about a guy who drives a hydrogen fuel cell car to his daughters' soccer practices.

Each hour of Morning Edition is divided into five segments -- the most important stories, naturally, go into the "A" segment, and the variety of other pieces get slotted into other segments, sometimes depending on importance, sometimes depending on length, and sometimes based on subject matter (the business report, for example, airs in the E-segment of Morning Edition's first hour).

But hosting Morning Edition also affords an opportunity (a responsibility, really) to browse the wire services and newspapers, as I try to pull together relevant newscasts. And in the course of the morning, that means running across plenty of material that doesn't make the Morning Edition cut - nationally or locally.

We start with news from the US Supreme Court, which somehow didn't warrant a piece by NPR Legal Correspondent Nina Totenberg. The high court declined to hear an appeal by a California man, Shawn Gementera, who was convicted of stealing mail and required to stand in front of a post office for eight hours wearing a sign that read "I stole mail - this is my punishment". He was originally sentenced to wear the sign for 100 hours, but the judge reduced the sentence. Gementera claimed the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Interestingly, the court delivered its decision to defense attorneys by Federal Express.

We move on to news of the death of Stan Berenstain, one of the creators of the Berenstain Bears of children's literature. This is not an especially humorous development, but it does point to the discovery I made just a few months ago that the name "Berenstain Bears" came from the authors, and not from the variety of bears depicted in the stories. Keep in mind that I made this discovery at the age of 36. (On a related note, I learned only last year that the word "booty" -- as referenced in the K.C. and the Sunshine Band disco hit "Shake Your Booty" -- does not refer to the listeners shoe.)

And finally, we check in with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who used a news conference in Harrisburg to assert that the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles have treated star wide receiver Terrell Owens unfairly by suspending him for the season and preventing other teams from negotiating for his services (such as they are). The Republican lawmaker says he may refer the matter to the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, coincidentally, he chairs.

In a related story, Specter also plans to ask the committee to take up the matter of requiring other 29 NFL teams to give the players on Specter's fantasy football team ("The Specter of Doom") more playing time.

Concomitantly, the NFL rules committee says it is considering reinstating Owens, but also requiring the Eagles to hire Specter to replace injured quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Further bulletins on these important stories as events warrant.

Monday, November 28, 2005

More curious trends in packaging

As I’ve probably noted, I read too many labels. I’m probably wired to read the label of whatever is nearby, since I’ve been doing it since I could read. I was probably the only first grader who was suggesting “monosodium glutamate” as a spelling word. (And the fact that I was consuming monosodium glutamate probably explained a few things about my first grade life, as well.)

So I read labels. And sometimes I read instruction manuals.

And that’s probably a good thing, since we just acquired a new electric skillet for the commissary here in 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, and it came with Some Assembly Required. I was pretty sure the assembly involved attaching the handles with the screws that were also included, but I figured I should check the instructions, just to make sure. Fortunately, the Rival Electric Skillet came with the following helpful instructions:

Header Bands: RIVAL Wave: 100% PMS 647 Blue with black overprint which starts at 32% black at the lowest point of the wave and ends in 0% black 3/4 of the way up the total height of the wave.

NOTE: when printing, the PMS 647 MUST lay down first, before the process colors to achieve the gradient black overprint.
The instructions were also translated into Japanese and included a diagram, in case they weren’t clear enough.

So now, my only fear about using the new electric skillet is that it may have beem produced by painters with PMS, and thus might spit ingredients back out at me without warning, or criticize my choice of seasoning.

My label-reading habit also came in handy on my trip to the grocery store this evening, as I looked for dish soap. Otherwise, I never would have discovered the only soap with a built-in inferiority complex:

Maybe it’ll clean your dishes, maybe not.

Sometimes, though, this label-reading thing can get in the way of my life. I speak now of the Kleenex Anti-Viral tissues I returned with from this same shopping trip. I’d never seen a box of tissues that included Directions for Use. I’d also never seen a box of tissues that threatened me with arrest:

It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. Use only as a facial tissue.
A little research revealed that this dates back to HR 2001-00076, the Statutory Nasal Ejection and Expectoration Zeroing Effort Act, which sought to prevent potential terrorist cells from weaponizing facial tissues.

I assume this little-known law is also why the Kleenex box also includes directions for Storage and Disposal:

Store in a dry area. Dispose of used tissues promptly. Do not reuse empty container.
This direction, I’m sure, vaguely disappoints all the people out there hoping to set the World Record for Largest Used Kleenex Collection, but it’s probably a better option than saving all the Kleenex, only to have Federal Agents break down your door and take you to Paper Products Prison.

And finally, my personal grooming products are talking to me again. Another stick of Degree anti-perspirant, another message carved into it. This time, it was:

Take the Risk”.
Which, to me, sounds like a dare not to use anti-perspirant. But I’m going to use it, anyway. Just in case there’s another little-known Federal law out there.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Zoom. Zoom Zoom. Zoom zoom zoom.

So as I said, I just had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in relatively sunny San Diego, the kind of city where there should be a sign greeting arriving airline passengers that reads: "Aren't you glad you just left someplace else?"

(Not that life around the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters isn't sunny. It's tough to complain about Flagstaff's 300+ days of sunshine a year.)

The other key indication that San Diego was not the place I had just left came on the freeways. The drivers on I-8, I-5, Highway 163? They're not kidding. The guy at the rent-a-car place suggested I go with the Chevrolet Cobalt, rather than the Kia Whatever, so I'd be more viable on the freeways. He wasn't kidding, either. (Although I'm still a little confused about how a red car can be called a "cobalt", which -- last I checked -- was a shade of blue.)

For a long time, I've lamented driving in Arizona. My theory is this: The copious amounts of sunshine sufficiently bake the brain of the average driver so that they're aware of nothing but their car stereos. They don't notice stop signs, they don't notice yield signs, and they certainly don't notice other cars, as they stray into other lanes.

I actually prefer driving the Washington Beltway, because although you're routinely cut off (and as often as not, flipped off) by other drivers, you're at least pretty sure they driver meant to cut you off. In Arizona, you can be cut off, sent into a ditch, and your car could flip over, and the other driver would continue searching for his Coldplay CD on the passenger side floor.

California still has me mystified. The traffic moves along at no more than 30 or 40 mph above the posted limit, and people seem perfectly happy to cut you off. But they all seem too busy talking on their cell phones to be changing their CDs. And judging from the traffic reports on the radio and TV, they're all busy calling in the accidents they've seen. It seemed almost as exhilerating as the Washington Beltway, only with the thrill of the unknown thrown in.

Truth be told, I enjoyed driving back in rural Iowa the best - where you weren't so much worried about whether someone would cut you off as much as whether to wave at that person with your whole hand, or with just the two finger, off-the-steering-wheel maneuver. The latter move still left one with eight fingers left over to change the CD.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A crush of helpful information

I'm just back from San Diego. Plenty of observations. Lots of ins and outs, lots of what-have-yous. But the one that was most striking was the realization that I was in Earthquake Country. I came to this realization when the hotel where I was staying put me on the fifth floor of the tower section of the hotel.

Opening the "Guest Services Directory", ostensibly to find out if the place had a business center (it didn't, from what I could ascertain), I was greeted by a page promising "Helpful Earthquake Suggestions". Now maybe it's because I've spent most of my life in the midwest and the northeast, but the first Helpful Earthquake Suggestion just baffled me:

I'll agree that the prospect of an earthquake might cause me to retreat into my shell, but my big fear would be that the ground would shake, and I'd start thinking of the world's oldest living mollusk, the Ocean Quahog, and then I'd start puzzling over whether it's pronounced QUAY-hog, or COE-hog, and then I'd remember that I once adopted a quahog at the National Zoo in Washington with a girl on whom I had an enormous crush, and by that point the room's ironing board would have an enormous crush on my head and that would have been that.

It also got me thinking about why a hotel with a thousand rooms, but one in which I seemed to be the only guest, would have put me in the middle room in the middle floor of their tower section. Perhaps they decided my massive 150-pound frame needed to be in the middle to properly balance the structure in the event that an earthquake struck. And as I surmised, the middle room of a floor is the best place to be if you're a clam. That, or the Pacific Ocean.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Flagstaff. Sunday morning.

It’s 8:15 am on a Flagstaff Sunday. My wife’s at work all day. I’m awake at 8:15 because my neighbor’s car alarm has gone off for the second time today. The first time was at 2:00 am, and it was pretty annoying. I’m less annoyed this time because I can actually be sure it’s not my car. I used to be pretty sure of this regardless, since the closest thing my ’87 Volkswagen has to a theft-deterrent system is a rear door handle that doesn’t work. But I left for work yesterday morning at 5:30 a.m., popped the key into the ignition, and was immediately greeted by a horn that turned itself on and wouldn’t shut off. I drove like that for about a half-mile, periodically smacking the steering wheel in an effort to get it to shut off, or at least look like a real jerk to the other drivers on the road. It shut itself off when I took a right turn. It hasn’t come back on again since. Even when I try to use the horn, it doesn’t work. Anyway, my wife has the ’87 VW today, so I’m pretty sure it’s not my horn I’m hearing.

Anyway, I woke up at 8:15. My neighbor got his alarm shut off pretty quickly, but I stayed awake, figuring I’d take advantage of the short period of time before 17-month old Sylvi woke up to check my e-mail, listen to the radio, read the New York Times, etc.

That was a lot of pressure on a short period of time, but by 9:15, I’d actually accomplished all of those things. Tiptoe upstairs. Check on Sylvi. Tush still straight up in the air, snoring away. I’d figured on throwing on a baseball cap and sweatshirt and taking her out to the coffee shop, but if she was going to let me squeeze in a shower, who was I to argue?

Twenty minutes later, I’m dressed. Sweatshirt. No need for the baseball cap. I have bad hair, but not as bad as it would be if I hadn't showered. Sylvi’s still asleep. Back downstairs to read the sections of the newspaper I’d normally skip. I learn a few things: There are an awful lot of attorneys getting married in New York. Christian Dior makes a ski parka that costs $2365. It’s unclear who would wear such a garment.

10:15. No word from upstairs. Coffee will be great, but at this point, it’ll be too late to stave off the caffeine headache. Locate Coca-Cola product. Ahhhh, the first jolt of caffeine on a Sunday morning. A simple pleasure on a level even higher than reading about New York attorneys getting married. Check e-mail again, in case anyone has an important message for me at 10:15 on a Sunday morning. Nothing interesting to report, unless I decide to someday write dissertation on fake PayPal solicitations.

10:25. Commence channel surfing. Learn a few more things: It’s 44 degrees outside. John Murtha looks older than I imagined. Football analysts sure yell a lot. Oh yeah, I knew that already.

10:45. Start wondering if we should go out for lunch when Sylvi wakes up. Tiptoe back upstairs and poke head in nursery. Sylvi is just sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Decide it’s still early enough for coffee.

By 11:15, I’ve finally figured out an appropriate outfit, based on the crucial piece of temperature information I’ve gleaned, and on the fact that Sylvi’s $2365 ski parka is at the cleaners. I’ve assembled her breakfast of yogurt, a banana and milk, and loaded it in the diaper bag, and we’re on our way. Even with a Coke in my system, the coffee ought to taste pretty good.

We reach the coffee shop at 11:25. Naturally, it’s closed. Quickly revise plans and decide to go out for breakfast burrito back on other side of town.

11:30. Hit enormous traffic jam at major intersection. It’s apparently caused by the fact that the traffic light is out and the City of Flagstaff, instead of deploying a police officer to direct traffic, has deployed a stop sign. Since no one in Flagstaff is familiar with how a stop sign works, this causes much confusion. It would cause a lot of honking, except no one in Flagstaff is familiar with how a horn works either. I’d honk, except I’m afraid my 2003 VW may have gotten the message from its buddy and the horn wouldn’t shut off.

We arrive at the Plan B restaurant (which would actually be a good name for a restaurant down the street from a trendy place) at 11:40, at which point I learn they no longer serve breakfast burritos after 11:00 am, despite the fact that there are a half dozen other things on the grill. Also, they no longer have more than one size coffee or soft drink, which allows them to sell what I used to call a “medium” soda for $1.50. Look at list of $6.50 sandwiches and decide to order a chocolate donut. I decide to redub the place as the Plan Z restaurant. Sylvi eats entire 8-ounce carton of yogurt.

12:00 noon. Counter person stops by and asks if my donut was all right.

12:05. Decide to eat lunch at home. Consider staying in bed longer next Sunday.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Samuel Alito? Doesn't he play for the Nashville Predators?

Permit me to summarize my week:

--> I hosted Morning Edition on a couple of mornings. The local version, anyway. Our regular host requested that I note, on air, that she was “on assignment”, so as not to give the impression that she was vacationing mid-week. Someplace, there’s probably a blog where someone keeps track of our local on air personalities. I considered a misdirection play, but in the end, dropped in the term “on assignment” now and then. This kept the number of panicky phone calls from her fans to a minimum.

The odd thing about hosting Morning Edition here in Public Radioland is that it requires the host to do a lot of both on-air work and taped production – concurrently. This means that on the two mornings I hosted the show, I heard fewer stories than on mornings that I’m not on the air. I did, however, learn a lot about the weather forecast, having read it out loud roughly 50,000 times.

--> I spent lots of time with my 17-month old. The following story doesn’t really involve her, except that it took place at a local bookstore, where Sylvi and I were trolling for Sesame Street videos. We overheard the following cell phone conversation between a student (I presume) teacher and her presumed fellow student teacher:

“Well, I thought about buying “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein, but that’s not really about being nice to other people. I haven’t decided what to get.

I don’t know… how about “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein? Since it’s basically about, um, being nice to people…

Sylvi and I, by the way, ended up with “Sesame Street Celebrates Around the World”, which is pretty unremarkable, except that it includes scenes with a) Elmo’s “cousin” Pepe, who is actually Elmo with a comical moustache, and b) Cookie Monster as a TV science reporter.

--> I moderated a “forum” about publc education. Or, rather, I “moderated” the forum. It was a somewhat uncontentious affair, since everyone on the panel and everyone in the audience was an adrent public education supporter. (And so was I, I suppose.) The people on the panel were bright and the audience appreciative, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was one part panel discussion and one part infomercial. Had Ron Popeil been on the panel the audience could have shouted “Set it and forget it!” in unison.

On the other hand, it was heartening to see a room full of people who cared enough about educating kids that they got babysitters for a couple hours so they could talk about it.

--> And I listened to too much hockey coverage on XM. They’ve added a 24/7 hockey news channel, which I think is a positive development as a whole, though even I’d have to admit that the material might run a little thin after, say, three or four hours. I thought, for example, that the hour-long feature on hockey hall-of-famers and their breakfast cereal preferences was a bit dry. As opposed to the cereal itself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

If Al Gore hadn't already disavowed his role in creating the Internet...

The aforementioned Lewis Black suggested that "if you want to know where we, as a society are - at this moment in time - you watch the Super Bowl at halftime."

But the Super Bowl only comes around once a year. Thank god. In the meantime, if you really want to know where we as a society are at any moment in time - I'd suggest checking out the search terms people are using to land on this very feature.

Some of them aren't surprising:

A lot of you, for example, are landing here while searching for pictures from the calendar featuring women curlers in various stages of undress. Alas, I have no pictures from the calendar to show you, but I'll happily post another picture of my own comical, yet fully clothed, attempts at curling. I wasn't at all surprised by these search engine hits, since I basically invited them in a recent post.

On the other hand, I was somewhat surprised at the people who reached this site while searching for naked pictures of Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin, a person whose name I invoked exactly once, and in reference to my own expedition at my local hospital. Some of our readers are going awfully deep into the results pages on Google.

From the Weird Coincidences Category, we've had a lot of visitors recently from web surfers who were interested in a recent mention of Hagerstown, Maryland on the TV sitcom, "My Name Is Earl". We didn't actually mention both concepts in a single post, but did mention each within a single week, which apparently made us almost unique on the Internet.

We've had some visitors who apparently confuse us with sites that provide actual, useful information. A lot of them were looking for some scientific information about the studies showing sauerkraut might prevent avian flu, though what they got were witty remarks at the expense of kimchi. And we've had a few people stop by, looking for solid information about defective window parts on Volkswagen Jettas. Instead, they got complaints about those window parts, which of course they already had before they got here.

There's an occasional Paris Hilton-related hit, thanks to one mention in a months-old post.

And there are a few hits that just make us happy - like the one who typed "learn thinks about arkitech" into Google. We can't actually remember who (or what) arkitech is or why we mentioned he/she/it, but we're especially happy that someone would attempt to "learn thinks" about he/she/it by visiting our humble feature.

And at long last, someone landed at the 19 Minutes Base Camp when they searched for Spudnik the Space Potato, who of course was the character who reminded us on 1980s-era Washington DC television that "you Earthlings should eat vegetables..." and that salad was, in fact, spelled "s-a-l-a-d".

As noted, this should give us a snapshot of where American culture is at the current moment. Curling, Jeff Corwin, Hagerstown, and arkitech. We have no idea.


And now, this Podcasting Update: The 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters has a pretty vast audio archive, some of it on reused audio tapes whose labels still read, "Farming America". We just ran across a 1996 interview with the Newfoundland rock/Celtic band Great Big Sea. Despite the fact that we were almost a decade less experienced when the interview took place, it struck us as interesting and entertaining enough that we've added it to our podcasting wing. The link for the podcast feed is here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Um, art imitating, um, art?

Lewis Black is a very funny man. Not the kind of comedian you necessarily want to expose your 17-month old to, but a very funny guy. One of this funniest bits was from his 2002 CD, "The End of the Universe", in which he called the Weather Channel to task for not discussing the possibility of global warming. [He also noted the absurdity of the fact that TWC was the most watched cable channel in America, noting: "If you want to know what the weather is you look out a window, and if you want to know the temperature, you drive by a bank."] It was Weather Channel skewering at its finest, and it even came before TWC started showing programs about 1978 snowstorms in the evenings instead of what it should show - the weather forecast.

Then, Lewis Black showed up on the Weather Channel.

I'd accuse him of being a sell-out if his commuter forecast wasn't so damn funny.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Suave holiday weekend

I should really stop reading labels.

The people at Unilever – the same company that gouged the words “Embrace Challenge” into my Degree-brand underarm deodorant a few weeks ago – have again caused me to start my day by standing in the shower, scratching my head in puzzlement.

This time it was the Suave for Men body wash. Specifically, the “directions for use” on the label. Why I – in fact, why anyone – would need to read the directions on a bottle of body wash is a question for another time. The more pressing issue was at the top of the directions – an unheralded statement reading: “93+ uses.”

This, naturally, has meant that roughly 65 percent of my brain cells today have been occupied with trying to think of uses for a bottle of Suave for Men (“Refreshing” flavor) body wash. Good thing it’s been a long weekend.

I’m not quite there yet. But my list probably includes a few uses the Unilever folks may not have been thinking of for their body wash:

1. You could, well, wash your body with it.
2. In a pinch, you could probably use it as shampoo.
3. In a real pinch, you could use it to wash your dishes. This would leave your dishes with a cool, clean, masculine scent, which would be okay if you’re having the guys over to watch college football, but would be less desirable if you’re entertaining say, Queen Elizabeth.
4. In an extreme pinch, you could wash your car with it, though you’d probably need a small car or a very large bottle.
5. You could lend it to Queen Elizabeth if she’s staying overnight.
6. Writing a murder mystery? Suave for Men would be a pretty unusual murder weapon. For example, if the murder takes place in New York, the murderer could drop the bottle of body wash from the Empire State Building onto the victim. Or, if the murder takes place at the International House of Pancakes, the murderer could replace the boysenberry syrup with Suave for Men.
7. Budding science fiction special effects designer? Suave for Men would make good alien blood.
8. Donate the label from the bottle to the University of North Dakota Library as part of your personal papers.
9. Use the bottle as a paperweight for the rest of your personal papers.
10. Encourage your child to use the body wash in place of water in his Caribbean diorama project.
11. It would make an excellent lubricant for a Slip-n-Slide. Plus, no need to shower after you’ve used it.
12. Become a latter-day Andy Warhol. Use your body wash as a still-life subject.
13. After you’ve painted it, Suave for Men would make a good topic for discussions of color theory. Is it navy blue? Midnight blue? Plain old dark blue? Or should it get its own color distinction – somethinglike “Refreshing Body Wash Blue”?
14. Artists of a different nature can also be inspired. You could write a post-modern ode to Suave for Men, something like: “Ninety-three plus uses/Suds cover my sponge/In a refreshing shade of blue/Freedom."
15. Or you could write a hit hip-hop song called “F&%$! Clean”.
16. Or an opera called “La Duchessa Soave” (“The Suave Duchess”).
17. Claim that your bottle once belonged to say, David Lee Roth, and sell it on eBay. That might command enough money for you to finally afford that nude curling calendar you’ve been dreaming of.
18. Suave for Men could make a novel form of punishment for any judge looking to make a name for himself. It’d be like a cross between “Judge Judy” and “Fear Factor”: “Mr. Williams, you’ve been convicted of damaging the plaintiff’s convertible. I sentence you to be covered from head to toe with Suave for Men body wash and be placed in the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo for 24 hours.”
19. Practical joke: Sneak onto a golf course early in the morning, and fill each hole with Suave for Men. Then, sell hand towels nearby for $20 each.
20. Related practical joke: Sneak into a bowling alley early in the morning, and fill the finger holes in all the bowling balls with Suave for Men.
21. Related practical joke #2: Sneak into Lambeau Field early in the morning. Fill Brett Favre’s helmet with Suave for Men. Don’t give the Green Bay Police my name.

Granted, the people at Unilever probably pay a person tens of millions of dollars to think of uses for Suave for Men on a full-time basis. But it’s taken me three days to even come up with 20 uses for the stuff, not including the shameless reference to the curling calendar to drive up traffic to this site (at least among Canadians). And this, frankly, has me stumped about what the other 73+ uses could possibly be.

And this is why, in addition to my need to quit reading labels, I should go back to using regular old soap.

And it's 19 minutes past the hour.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Rock bands, Toledo, and surfing

A few items of note, none of which really deserves its own individual blog entry – though the 19 Minutes staff is tempted to make multiple postings just to look more prolific.

I found out today that a colleague of mine – an editor with whom I’ve worked for close to a decade – was formerly an actual rock musician with an actual semi-successful band. Weird. It was like, well, finding out that an editor with whom you’ve worked for nearly a decade used to be a rock musician. (Great analogies are sometimes hard to come by.) Despite the band’s major-label release, I had to admit that I’d never heard anything by them. This isn’t surprising, since I tend to catch on to pop culture roughly four years after everyone else. The upside to this is that by the time I get into an album, the artist is just about to release another album. The downside to this is that by the time I get into a TV show, it’s about to be cancelled. (Although maybe that's actually another upside.)

Anyway, aside from envying the coolness of being part of the rock music industry, I have to admit I’m also a little jealous of the notion of having an interesting past life. I’ve been scanning the memory banks and auditioning potentially interesting past life ideas, just to get a jump on my memoirs. “’Jeopardy!’ contestant” is one possible concept, but it strikes me that a past life should last more than three days. “Mediocre middle relief pitcher on obscure college baseball team” might be a more substantial past life, but I don’t think it rises to the level of interesting cocktail party conversation. I’m open to suggestions, bearing in mind that it may take fiction to make me sound cool.


The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that Toledo, Ohio is one of the most unwired cities in America; that is, it’s one of the best places for wireless internet access. Apparently, Toledans could be reading this very blog in any public library, at the airport, or even Fifth Third Field, the home of the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team. (Why they’d choose to be in an empty minor league ballpark in November is another story. Still another story is why anyone would name a ballpark "Fifth Third Field".)

Personally, I think the idea of people reading this fine feature in the airport is appealing, though even I’d have to cringe at the thought of having to reach across a guy surfing the net to buy a hotdog in the bleachers.

But it also brings to mind a curious commercial that the Verizon people have been running to publicize their wireless broadband coverage. They’re taking the unconventional tactic of suggesting that it’s no fun to surf the internet at a coffee shop – that coffee shops are somehow unpleasant places, at least if you don’t like coffee, or music, or comfortable chairs.

I’d posit that the opposite is probably the case – that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable place to surf the net. I’m enjoying typing this as I lie on my own couch, but I’d say the experience would be even better if someone else would bring me drinks as I write. The ballpark would be an okay place to surf the net, but aside from annoying actual baseball fans, you’d need a laptop that’s impervious to mustard and cheap beer.

Of course, now the computer industry is now making computers that are impervious to huge waves, so I can’t foresee any problem with the anti-bratwurst packaging. The real question is, where do you find waves like these in Toledo?
BBC photo

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Curling with Ed

Lately, people have sought me out, guru-like, to comment on a couple of events that have taken place. These people seek my opinion and yet, rather than take the time to address them individually, I have invoked the blog rule. “Read my blog,” I tell them. It’s a pretty simple rule.

(True anecdote: A colleague here in Public Radioland was in my office Tuesday afternoon, brainstorming with me about questions to ask on two separate broadcast debates between candidates for Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Hopi Tribe. “Ask them if they read my blog,” I suggested, helpfully. He thought I should phone that question in myself. Good thing the debates were on a different radio station.)

But as I said, a couple of things have transpired about which people think I should have an informed opinion. Or at least more informed than my opinion about the whole sauerkraut-avian flu thing.

Good Night, and Good Luck” opened around the country last weekend. It’s a pretty stylish bio-pic about the 1953 showdown between legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (If you need more background than that, you’ll want to consult a website with more actual information.)

Murrow was one of the key reasons I got into journalism. More specifically, Murrow’s terrific reportage in “Harvest of Shame” inspired my career choice. My 8th grade science teacher, for reasons that are still a little hazy, showed us that documentary about the conditions Florida’s migrant workers were living in, and it’s an image that has always stayed with me, particularly as I produce or edit stories that could have an impact on people’s lives. (And also as I try to get news of the off-year elections this evening, only to find that CNN Headline News is leading with the latest non-update in the Natalee Holloway case, and CNN proper is running an interview with Jennifer Aniston.)

I’ve now seen “Good Night, and Good Luck” twice – the news department sponsored a field trip to see a matinee this afternoon and, while it’s not quite as inspiring as my first viewing of “Harvest of Shame”, it’s certainly cause for introspection for those of us in the news business. Specifically, it raises the question of who is maintaining Murrow’s legacy in broadcast journalism. While the Natalee Holloway and “Runaway Bride” stories are all-too-common in broadcast journalism today, there are plenty of noteworthy examples – many from here in Public Radioland – of journalism that strives to reach that Murrow ideal.

And it also leads one to think about CBS. The network has taken plenty of hits in recent years – the Dan Rather document controversy being among the most recent. But it’s worth noting that two of the more significant news-related movies in the past decade (“Good Night et al” and “The Insider”) chronicle the former Tiffany Network’s role in shaping history. Legendary journalists though they were, no one is making movies about Howard K. Smith and John Chancellor.

But of course, that wasn’t precisely the opinion people have sought from me. Here’s what they’re looking for: It’s a good movie. And the amount of weight George Clooney gained for his role as Fred Friendly was indeed impressive.

The other important development about which I have a vaguely informed opinion is, naturally, the calendar featuring women curlers in various stages of undress. I’m not what you would call a curling expert, but in Arizona, just knowing that curling is a winter sport makes you something of an authority.

I produced a story (which, coincidentally, won something called an Edward R. Murrow Award) last year about the only curling club in Arizona. I actually got to try the sport in the course of reporting the story, and I can assure you that all the members of the Coyotes Curling Club were fully clothed at all times while they were on the rink. I can also assure you that I won't be posing for any male version of the nude curling calendar.

The women curlers – from countries such as Canada, England, and of course Andorra – say they posed for the calendar in part to raise the profile of curling and change the image of women curlers – leading people to recognize that women curlers can be athletic and attractive, rather than, um, unathletic and unattractive.

After an evening of straining roughly every muscle in my thighs and (let’s face it) non-existent rear end while curling, I can vouch for the fact that anyone who would curl at a serious, competitive level had better have some equally serious level of athleticism. But I can also vouch for the fact that at some point in time, the Fully Clothed Guys of the World did an amazing job of convincing the Athletic Women of the World that posing naked was somehow an empowering act, rather than what it actually is: Carrying on the legacy of another famous journalist. Hugh Hefner.

(But then again, the 19 Minutes staff would never get such a calendar for the pictures. We’d only read it for the dates.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

If I don't like The Amazing Race, does that make me an Amazing Racist?

The 19 Minutes staff has never been much for "Reality TV", except when the reality has involved travelers and rats, or hockey players and cross-checking. But we may have to change our attitude, now that we've learned that Reality TV is not just a ratings boon for the networks, but a source of Legitimate News.

We learned this from an ad for the local news on a Phoenix station which we'll refer to only by the fact its call letters resemble a popular Vietnamese noodle soup, promoting Tuesday's story about the Arizona scenes in an upcoming episode of "The Amazing Race". The promo was tagged with the station's news slogan: "Live. Late-breaking. Investigative."

And this got us to thinking about how a story about the Arizona scenes in "The Amazing Race" would fit such a mandate. "Late-breaking" seemed the easiest to dismiss. If they already knew about the story - and apparently have it pre-produced in such a way that they could show clips in a promo the night before - it doesn't seem to rise to the level of "late-breaking".

"Investigative" is a trickier claim to debug. For example, if the news team at this station includes reading a press release from the CBS Entertainment Division as "investigating", then perhaps a story about "The Amazing Race" would fit the description. Likewise, if the reporter was able to unearth some heretofore undiscovered nugget about the competitors' time in the Grand Canyon, you might have an argument on behalf of Investigative Journalism. For example, perhaps the competitors didn't really Leave No Trace, which seems like a legitimate claim, considering about 400 gazillion Americans are about to see the evidence of their visit on national television. But really, actual investigative journalism would more likely tell us that Grand Canyon National Park is really a money-laundering operation run by llama ranchers from Paraguay.

So that leaves us with "Live", which as we noted in our dismissal of the "Late-Breaking" claim, can't really be the case if they've produced the story in advance. Although I imagine the anchor people may introduce the piece live, between the 20 seconds they spend on the riots in France and the eight minutes it takes them to present the Phoenix weather forecast for the coming week (Tuesday - Partly Cloudy. Wednesday - Partly Cloudy. Thursday - Partly Cloudy. Friday - Partly Cloudy. Saturday - Partly Sunny.).

So we're not suggesting that our noodle friends bag their story on "The Amazing Race", nor are we even suggesting that the bulk of their news doesn't fit their self-described mission. We would just offer that perhaps, the Phoenix TV station could slightly alter its moniker. Something like: "Live. Late-Breaking. Investigative. Subject to change."

Friday, November 04, 2005

Playing footie behind the scenes

Regular readers of this feature will recall the call I put out some weeks ago for someone to explain the concept of Australian Rules Football in advance of a story I was planning on an Australian Rules Football team's training camp in Flagstaff. Regular readers of this feature will also recall the lack of response that call generated.

No matter. I found a friendly Canadian couple who was crazy enough about the sport to drive eight hours up from San Diego to watch the team practice, and they were able to relate the objective of Australian Rules Football (a.k.a "Footie") to this reporter. Basically, if I understood correctly, this is how Footie works:
  1. Run down a very long field.
  2. Try to get the ball between the goal posts.
  3. Try to avoid being mauled by the opposing team.
  4. When the opposing team has the ball, try to maul them.

There are probably some other subtleties to the sport, but I no more grasped them from watching a practice than your average Burkina Faso resident (okay, I know the word is "Burkinabe", but I'm not sure that's common knowledge) would pick up the balk rule from a day at the Brewers spring training camp.

But there are plenty of other things I gleaned from spending some time with the Collingwood Magpies. The team has a pretty comprehensive website with lots of video from their two-week camp in Arizona, but most of it is actually related to the sport. Here is the other behind-the-scenes information that show like "Entertainment Tonight" and "ESPN Hollywood" would kill to find out, if anyone at either of those shows had ever heard of Australian Rules Football.

First, any game where you can knock the ball away from someone by jamming your knee into the back of his head shouldn't get a cute name like "Footie".

Speaking of cute, most of the Magpie players were roughly 6'3", 200 lbs., wore training uniforms that accentuated their athletic physique and sported Australian accents. Thus, it was difficult to interview women who were watching the practices, because the drool kept gumming up my minidisc recorder.

The team spent a full day at the Northern Arizona University "challenge course", which included team-building drills on the high ropes, but also more subtle (read: "weird") exercises, such as trying to form geometric shapes with a rope while blindfolded. The staff here in Public Radioland went through the same challenge course exercises a couple years ago, and the approach we took to geometry wasn't 1/10th as intellectual as this group of professional athletes. It's also difficult (but fun) to imagine the Chicago Bears discussing equilateral triangles while blindfolded.

Footie players sometimes dribble - basketball-style - the ball down the field. This is a more difficult skill than it looks. The Magpies' Chief of Staff gave me a few lessons, but more often than not, the ball bounced up and smacked me in the face.

On a related note, an Australian Rules Football hurts when it smacks you in the face.

I ran into a couple of the players at Barnes & Noble a few nights ago. The Arizona Cardinals trained in Flagstaff for six of the seven years I've lived here, and I don't remember running into any of them at Barnes & Noble.

Footie is unlikely to catch on in America, in large part because Americans are unlikely to willingly watch a game between teams called The Magpies and The Swans. On the other hand, Australians apparently can't relate to games between The Blue Jackets and The Canucks, and thus, ice hockey is less of a big deal there.

Most of these little factoids didn't make it into the final cut of my story, though. If you want to hear what did, it's available here, and on the KNAU Podcast.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A fast take on the news

The 19 Minutes staff likes to maintain an air of mystery about our physical appearance, in an effort to keep readers and listeners believing that we’re 6’4” and wear a tuxedo to work. Unfortunately, most of our attempts to conceal our appearance are in vain, since the foyer outside our office in the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters includes a Wall of Fame, featuring pictures of local and national public radio luminaries.

And so people typically express surprise when they see our pictures and reconcile them with our voices. Sometimes, it’s disappointment, but more often, it’s basically stupefaction that we’re not older, younger, shorter, taller, less hirsute, etc. than the voice they hear on the radio.

With that in mind, Dr. Andrew Weil was on the Diane Rehm Show this week, and even a denizen of Public Radioland like me had a hard time reconciling his voice – which sounds for all the world like a polished version of the college student who served my iced tea at Starbucks the other day – with his heavily-bearded visage. Perhaps it’s a testament to his prescription for healthy living, but more likely, that’s just how he sounds.

Weil has a lot of things to say about healthy lifestyles and their ability to stave off the aging process. I’m sure he’d have plenty of things to say about the leftover Halloween candy I’ve consumed in the past few days, too. But one concept he mentioned that should have struck a nerve around the newsroom here was his notion of a “news fast” – that is, a conscious break from listening, watching, or reading the news.

His point was that we’re susceptible to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news out there. In other words, difficult and/or lousy things have always gone on all the time around the world – we’re just in a unique postiion to hear about EVERY DANG ONE OF THEM nowadays.

Weil may have a point. Right now on CNBC, there’s a guy shouting about what stocks to buy or sell. On CNN Headline News, there’s a debate about second-hand smoke, accompanied by a scrolling headline about the rapid rise in the price of common prescription medicines for elderly people. MSNBC is reporting on the interregation of Al-Qaeda terrorist suspects. I’m overwhelmed by information, and I hadn’t even gotten to the Top 20 countdown on the GAC Network, the Diamonique sale on QVC, or the guy on Animal Planet who's hoping his yet-to-be-born son will inherit his love for snakes (another health concern to ask Dr. Weil about).

But I’d suggest that a news fast isn’t the answer. Rather, I’d call on the major networks (my own included) devote one day a month to real news – but news that isn’t cause for worldwide alarm.

For that one day, we’d forget about disease-carrying chickens that could wipe out the population of Monaco in 35 minutes, and instead discuss the likelihood that herds of deer could invade our bedrooms, such as was the case in Arkansas recently, where one Wayne Goldsberry was forced to use his bare hands to kill a five-point buck that had crashed into his daughter's house. What's more, by the time the AP showed up, he had already had the deer butchered, packaged, and returned to his freezer. My mother-in-law once struck and killed a deer on her way back from work late one night in rural Minnesota. She called the local sheriff's office when she got home, and they of course asked whether she wanted to claim it. She figured she would, and returned to the scene of the accident a little while later, where an officer was already cleaning the deer for her. Moral of the story - if you're going to hit a deer, do it in a place where the police know what to do with it. Also, you might want to check what your local limits are on hunting deer with a pickup. Or your bare hands.

We could also worry less about the possibility that global climate change is intensifying hurricanes around the world and instead focus on whether a large hold could suddenly open underneath our houses or apartment buildings.

And we'd be able to take a break from the legal news in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein is on trial for, in part, stealing millions from his country, and instead concentrate on the efforts to find out who stole $75,000 worth of bull semen from a Maryland farm.

Although maybe we should worry more about what that person will do with it. Selling it on the black market in Niger would be a good way to get some press.