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.