Monday, January 31, 2005

Casually dressed or dressing casually?

It’s a random day off from work in 19 Minutesland. In preparation for a trip out to the gym, I’m hanging out in a college sweatshirt – Vanderbilt. I’ve never been to Vanderbilt. I know of only one person who attended the school – one of my wife’s high-school friends (though I can’t remember whether it was undergraduate or grad school). I’m not 100% sure I know where it even is. Frankly, I had to look down at my chest to confirm how to spell “Vanderbilt”.

I probably have no business wearing such a garment – or the sweatshirts I own from various other schools I didn’t attend – Virginia, Macalaster, the Scripps Insititution of Oceanography, Paul Smith’s College, the University of New Mexico – but I wear them with pride. It’s pride that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Cavaliers, the Fighting Scots, the (I don’t know… Plankton?), or sports teams at any of the other schools.

Rather, it’s pride that my wardrobe has gone largely unchanged since junior high school (actually, it was called “intermediate school” in my day, but I digress). My 11th grade history teacher once told me: “You know what your problem is, Mitch? You’re a schlep.” (I was tempted to reply, “You know what your problem is, Mr. Schultz? You’re an 11th grade history teacher.” But instead, I rubber-cemented-down all the items on his desk, a prank that didn’t have quite the desired effect but was interesting to watch.)

The problem with high school (yes, it’s the only problem with high school) is the teachers who see themselves as mentors and the career aptitude surveys never ask: “Do you want to be able to wear flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and jeans to work?” If they did, they’d know there are plenty of would-be journalists out there who are being stifled because they’re being told that they’re schleps.

I did a brief stint as a PR flack in the Washington, DC area in between two gigs in public radio. Aside from the depressing nature of fetching coffee for reporters and pitching them stories I would never have covered myself, the worst part of the deal was having to dress up for work. I don’t think my co-workers ever cottoned to my Snoopy ties, and I was constantly urged to find a higher-grade of pants. I found my way back to flannel and jeans as quickly as possible.

Now re-ensconced in public radio, the university at which I’m based has a “casual dress” summers policy – basically, between Spring commencement and the start of fall classes. And the biggest problem we have in the newsroom is figuring out how to be “more” casual. So I usually add a Snoopy tie to my sweatshirt-and-jeans ensemble.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ahhhh.... Box.

There’s a big debate heating up here in Flagstaff over a so-called “big-box” ordinance. By “big boxes”, I refer not to cardboard vessels that once contained refrigerators, but rather, to largish stores, along the lines of Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Home Depot, and something called “Mor”, whose purpose I’m not entirely sure, but the store advertises on Phoenix TV stations, and wins the award for goofiest store name, just edging out Colorado-based grocer “King Soopers”.

Basically, you have three types of people in Flagstaff:

1. People who would rather die than shop at a Wal-Mart; or at least would rather spend $43 on a pair of socks at an outfitter store instead of getting the six-pack of socks for $15 at Target. These are the same people who are buying organic dental floss and polar-fleece jockey shorts.

2. People who believe Flagstaff won’t be in the big-leagues until we have a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and a Circuit City. These are the same people who make the 360-mile round-trip drive to Phoenix to shop at these places and then gush about the money they saved.

3. The rest of us, who would be happy to shop at locally-owned stores, but always wind up at Target because a) at least we know when it’s open; and b) we figure there’s no locally-produced toothpaste, anyway.

I tend to think both arguments are predicated on the assumption that the big box companies would actually want to locate stores in Flagstaff, which might be a little, um, optimistic. I mean, this is a town that, in the last six years, has seen this disappearance of a Taco Bell, a Baskin Robbins, two Dunkin’ Donuts, a Denny’s, a Circle K, and four movie theaters. It seems like the city might want to get its little box thing together first before it moves on to bigger boxes. (Of course, we’ve also lost a K-Mart and a Price Chopper, so big boxes are already a question mark.)

But while Flagstaff may lag in hanging onto national chains, we’re way ahead in reusing the former chain buildings for bizarrely inappropriate purposes. The latest addition to this category is the former Denny’s on historic Route 66. It sat empty for approximately 3 years with a “for lease” sign on it, looking for all the world like, well, an empty Denny’s. Just recently, though, it’s gotten new life as the home of Sammy’s Auto Parts. Now it looks, for all the world, like… an old Denny’s stacked to the rafters with boxes of oil filters.

Just down the road from Sammy’s is a flooring store – probably the only flooring store with a marquee, residing as it does in one of the city’s former movie theaters. The former Baskin Robbins (on, yes, Route 66) is now a check cashing place. And there’s an expired Toys R Us that’s now a motorsports shop – though they didn’t bother changing the color scheme, meaning it’s probably the happiest snowmobile place in town.

(Granted, the mom-and-pop stores aren’t immune – shoppers who go looking for horse tack at a local saddle shop will probably see people corralled in a different way when they find it’s now a place that deals in bail bonds.)

Me, I can deal with large boxes or small boxes. As long as they’re holding donuts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Audio alert

For you curling enthusiasts out there, the Scottsdale-based Coyotes Curling Club has posted an mp3 of my radio story on curling in the desert on their website -- as part of the menu bar, no less. Another version of the story is scheduled to run on NPR's Only A Game, probably in early February.

For you non-curling enthusiasts out there, curling is a winter sport that involves sliding a 42-pound hunk of granite down a sheet of ice towards a target. USA Curling has some useful information to get you started, should you actually want to learn more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Blog along with Mitch

Before we go any further, let me just say that I like my name. My name is fine. I have no major complaints with the name "Mitch", dumb 6th grade rhymes notwithstanding.

What was missing, though, from my childhood was a good Mitch role model. There were relatively few Mitches out there in the public eye. Mentioning Mitch Miller and "Sing Along With Mitch" to a nine-year old is a little like handing out Björk CDs at a nursing home. Mitch Kupchak played for the Washington Bullets while I was growing up in DC, but it's tough to emulate a 6'9" guy when you're 4'9".

The other Mitches, it seemed, were low-level bad guys in books and TV shows. There was a Mitch in the comic strip "Foxtrot" that tried to talk a couple high-school age characters into trying drugs. There were a few weasly guys in sitcoms and soap operas. And then there was David Hasselhoff's Mitch Buchannon character on Baywatch, who I guess the Germans at least would consider a good role model. But the first really positive portrayal of a Mitch I can remember (if you consider mid-life crises worth emulating) was Mitch Robbins (i.e., "Mitchy the Kid"), Billy Crystal's character in "City Slickers".

My point in reflecting on this comes as I consider my 7-month old daughter, Sylvi. My wife and I chose that name in part because it was distinctive without being trendy, dated, or too-connected to a famous person with that name. There are plenty of Sylvias around, but we don't connect that name to our kid.

This all came to the fore the other day when a new Coca-Cola TV ad hit the airwaves. It's supposedly first-person narrative by members of a [high school? college?] all-girl rock band -- though the amount of production and editing necessary to create this ad campaign probably exceeds every episode of "Sing Along with Mitch" combined. And the band features a drummer named... Sylvie. (Close enough.) Now I have no idea whether the band called "Kievan Rus" is remotely cool among the people who establish such things. But it seems like my daughter might be off to a decent start. At least until "Baywatch 2015" comes along.

Monday, January 24, 2005

This blog: Counterprogramming for all of you who would normally read The Onion

First, the Rock Band Name of the Day, culled from a TV commercial for Met-Rx, the vaguely-ethical, almost-a-steroid, nutritional supplement for body-builders (as seen on ESPN):

50 Million Squats

Counterprogramming interests me. When I lived in Potsdam, New York, the local movie theater had two screens. When there was a huge line to see "Titanic", naturally, I was one of four people in the other theater, watching "The Postman" (that'd be the Kevin Costner vehicle, not the Italian movie known as "Il Postino"). I was always fascinated by what the other networks would throw up against NBC's "Friends". If I was ever in New York City on New Year's Eve, I'd be checking out what they were doing in Herald Square.

So I was watching ESPN this evening, even as I also watched my New England Patriots thump the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, because I was curious about how the all-sports network would counterprogram against what I would assume was a pretty heavily-watched football game on CBS. Throughout the rest of the football season, ESPN has generally sent figure skating up against Monday Night Football -- figuring, I suppose, that if there are any sports fans out there not watching MNF, they're probably women, and as we all know, the only sport women are interested in (note heavy sarcasm) is figure skating. [Of course, I was more than happy to stick with the skating when given the opportunity to avoid bellicose football announcers. But I digress.]

This evening, I would have though skating was an obvious choice, or, at the very least, women's professional billards, a sport which -- if ESPN's coverage is to be believed -- has only three competitors (The Asian Woman, The Vaguely-Attractive Woman With What May Be An English Accent, and The Woman Who Bought Her Eyeglasses In 1975). Instead (we're still talking about counterprogramming), it was a marathon of The World's Strongest Man competition. Apparently, the decision was made to support the viewing habits of people who don't believe there are enough steroids in professional sports. For those of you not familiar with the WSM competition, it features strength events ranging from pulling a 15,000 pound truck cab down a course, to carrying enormous milk jugs down a completely different course. The programs are a swell way to pass a half hour's time, if only to see how many times the announcers invoke the name of Magnus Ver Magnusson, the legendary Icelandic strongman who apparently won all of his championships before most of us had cable.

Truly an inspired, gutsy choice by ESPN, though even they wimped out a little just before the end of the last episode, when they cut away to live coverage of a news conference being given by Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher. Cowher, incidentally, was spectacular as he attempted the triple-axel.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Discovering health

I've been trying to figure out this Discovery Health Network for some time now. My wife, who concedes an addiction to "Chicago Hope" reruns on Discovery Health while she's home taking care of our 7-month old, started watching the channel while she was pregnant. In those days, it was mostly shows that all fell under the broad categories of "Bad Things That Can Happen While You're Pregnant", and "Bad Conditions Your Child Could Be Born With".

And so as I eavesdropped on today's episode of "Chicago Hope" (main plot line: Should a woman be allowed to harvest the sperm of her late husband, who dropped dead of a heart attack while he was on the way to donate the sperm for artificial insemination anyway, but against the wishes of her late husband's parents? And who says TV shows are far-fetched?) I noticed all the promos for other shows involved:

a) weight loss techniques (e.g., "The National Body Challenge");
b) sexuality (e.g., "The Electric Orgasm", which a quick check of the DHC website reveals is not close-captioned);
or c) conditions you hope to God you'll never have to deal with (e.g., "Diagnosis: Unknown" -- this week's episode: Silent Poison)

I can understand why one might want to watch shows in categories a) or b), but I'm trying to figure out what possesses people to tune into all the shows in category c). I'd like to think it's not pure schadenfreude on the part of Discovery Health's viewers. Maybe it's people with less-serious conditions who are watching, comforted in the notion that, hey, at least I don't have that.

My other thought is that it's encouraging all sorts of lunatic self-diagnoses. I'd be interested in a survey of Discovery Health's viewers to learn just how many of them have become hypochondriacs since they tuned to Cablevision channel 67.

Either way, I'm going to stick to Andy Griffith Show reruns.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I get press releases...

There's a staggering amount of stuff out there that people, for some reason, want to publicize. The latest to come across my desktop is from the Spinal Injury Foundation:

-- Includes skiing & great intl lectures on whiplash
-- Feb 25-26 2005 -- Breckenridge CO

WESTMINSTER CO USA -- MEDICAL INDUSTRY E-MAIL NEWS SERVICE(TM) -- JAN 18 2005 -- The Spinal Injury Foundation announced details today of its 2005 International Whiplash Trauma Congress, to be held at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, Colorado. This year's national and international scientific congress, ranging in topics from medicine to engineering, to auto design to basic science research, will present the latest developments in whiplash diagnosis, treatment, research and prevention.

You know, I imagine after a few days of skiing, some of the participants might have great insights into whiplash. I hear next year's Whiplash Trauma Congress will be held at the Talladega Superspeedway...

Monday, January 17, 2005

January's Last Laugh

Those readers of this feature outside of northern Arizona (and even, I suppose, some readers inside northern Arizona), may not be aware of my monthly column "Last Laugh", in Mountain Living Magazine, or, as it's officially known, Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine. I'd link to its website, but to date, it doesn't exist. So as a somewhat dubious public service, here's the January installment of "Last Laugh":

A dark and Trevor Stormy night

When I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a book. A detective novel, in fact. That the hero was named “Trevor Storm” should give you a hint as to whether it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But in retrospect, what was truly remarkable about it was how I wrote it – by hand. Using a ball-point pen, smudging all the way.

I filled 120 pages of a small, vinyl-covered notebook over the course of nine months, writing instead of learning about osmosis in Mrs. Wilkie-Mortl’s biology class, and proofreading instead of asking girls out on dates. (Hey, I didn’t say I was proud of myself.)

But the point is, when Trevor Storm finally, um, solved whatever crime had taken place, I had myself a big, thick wad of handwritten pages. This was way longer than anything I had ever written before, including that eight-page illustrated report on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, or the ten pages on Burkina Faso.

But if I was ever going to get it published, or at least optioned for a movie deal, I needed to get it typed. Fortunately, my dad somehow convinced (or paid, I’ve always assumed) his secretary to transcribe it on the office typewriter. Which is when I learned that 120 handwritten pages yielded... 43 typed pages. Double-spaced. I never did get that call from Penguin-Putnam, or even Steven Spielberg.

Today’s aspiring ninth-grade writers are far more fortunate. Most of them, for example, are sophisticated enough to know that “Trevor Storm” is a pretty drippy name for a detective hero. (They can also do a Google search and learn that the real-life Trevor Storm appears to be a 19-year old arson suspect in Shelbyville, Illinois.)

But beyond that, today’s high school hack novelists have many more tools at their disposal. For starters, they have a extraordinary weapon in the “thesaurus” feature of Microsoft Word. This gives them the opportunity to rethink, for example, the use of the terms “extraordinary” and “weapon”, and subsequently refer to the thesaurus as a “groovy bludgeon”, or perhaps a “marvelous mace”.

They also have a much better choice of fonts than I did. I was pretty much limited to what is now known as “Courier 11 pt., bold”, but which in those days was referred to as “IBM Selectric”. Nowadays, future Pulitzer non-finalists can choose from everything from the popular “Times New Roman”, to something called “Arial Unicode MS”, to the less-popular “Enya bold”. (And what better way to catch a potential publisher’s eye than to have your manuscript look like lyrics from a new age chanteuse?)

Finally, the frosh scribes of 2004 can use the “word count” feature of their word processors. This will help them avoid the would-be embarassment of writing a 120 page tome, only to learn that it’s a novella, or even a brochure-length story. It’s a lesson I’ve learned, as I write this 500-word column and learn that I’m still seven words away from completion. It was a dark and stormy night.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

What the time check is all about:

I've been in radio for 14 years -- the last 11 in public radio. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the signature sound of NPR's Morning Edition included 'time checks', at 19, 29, 39, and 49 minutes past each hour. It was always phrased as, for example, "Eleven minutes before the hour [my emphasis]", because it's a two-hour program, fed from the Eastern Time Zone to network stations from the US Virgin Islands to Guam, and so there's never any telling what hour it is.

All that changed earlier this month when NPR dropped the time checks from Morning Edition. It doesn't really matter in most places, including at my fair station, since a local program host jumps in and gives local time checks. But for many people, the change is an unsettling one in their morning routines -- and let's face it, while change is often a good thing, we're talking about change that's taking place at 5:19 am for some folks. Not that the time checks need to return, but I figure their existence ought to be commemorated in at least some small way. Hence, the name of this blog.

Incidentally, the Morning Edition folks did touch on the disappearance of the time checks on the Friday, January 14th show:

Steve Inskeep:And finally, one other goodbye. Some of you may have noticed that Renee and I no longer announce the time during MORNING EDITION. We used to say it was 19 minutes past the hour or 29 minutes past the hour, since it's heard in different time zones. We stopped doing this recently in order to give our member stations more flexibility in what they announce locally.

So thanks to this new-found flexibility, I'm suggesting our announcers start their local host breaks by reciting the opening lines to "Kubla Kahn" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or perhaps "Word Up", by Cameo.

It's eleven minutes before the hour.

It's 19 minutes past the hour...

...and this blog thing is underway, on time, no less.