Tuesday, January 31, 2006
In any case, I'm pretty sure it's not a ranch.
And yes, it was pretty sunny for a January day in Wisconsin.
We looked at 23 houses in the first two days of scouring the Milwaukee area. The fact that there were 23 houses in our price range anywhere amazes me in itself. There aren't 2.3 houses in Flagstaff we could comfortably afford. In fact, the entire southwest is full of houses which seemingly only people who have beamed in from Planet Zoog can afford. Somewhere in the last five years or so, the issue of home ownership has gone from being about "finding somewhere to live" to being about "making money off of people not yet able to own a home".
So we looked at 23 houses. Some of them were pretty nice. Some of them were pretty weird. We looked at one house which was still occupied by a woman who was running a daycare. Not only was the place in nightmare shape with clothes and other possessions everywhere, but the daycare - which was still going on - was our nightmare image of daycare - two kids sleeping on couches while the caregiver sat on one of the same couches watching soap operas.
In some cases, it took less than 10 seconds to figure out the house was wrong for us. Note to prospective home sellers: You might as well rip out the old magenta shag carpeting with the holes and tears in master bedroom. Even a plywood floor would be a more attractive option.
We saw one house we nicknamed the "Swinging '80s Bachelor Pad", which was in terrific shape, as long as you were looking for a pink kitchen, a basement festooned with full wet bar (draft beer nozzles included), beer signs and pictures of Ford Mustangs, and a backyard that included a gazebo with hot tub and stereo speakers. Not that I can't imagine taking an outdoor hot tub in Wisconsin this February, but, well, I can't.
We looked a beautiful Victorian in a stylish neighborhood in Milwaukee, which our realtor perceptively guessed was based on my desire to look into at least one beautiful Victorian in a stylish neighborhood in Milwaukee. (And for those of you who have never been to southeastern Wisconsin: Aren't you surprised there is a stylish neighborhood in Milwaukee?)
23 houses in two days. In the end, one of them felt like home. It was a 1925 craftsman bungalow, with hardwood floors, glass doorknobs, oak woodwork, original stained glass, and even a bathroom or two.
And that's the one we bought.
So I'm staring at the picture a lot these days, in between scanning copies of American Bungalow magazine and watching "This Old House". I can only imagine that actually living there will be even more fulfilling.
Monday, January 23, 2006
The upshot is that I have no idea what the likelihood of my blogging is this week. I may have to ask to try out the computers in our potential homes.
Sunday, January 22, 2006
a) It gives me a vaguely superior feeling.But it’s been a while since I’ve commented substantially on the medium of television. And so you’re probably wondering: Are there things about television these days that irritate you, almost to the point where you’d describe it as “frosting your shorts”? I’m pleased to report that the answer is a resounding “yes”. We’ll start with Mr. Rogers.
b) I watch plenty of TV.
c) Both radio and television are similar in the sense that they convey programming from a station or network to consumers in some way that employs physics and is thus, a complete mystery to me.
We watch plenty of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” around the 19 Minutes household. More specifically, we watch plenty of four episodes of Mr. Rogers, as our local PBS affiliate - which has no problem bombarding us with Mellow Talkers during pledge drive – recently dumped MRN in favor of “Barney and Friends”, who I would include in the “frosts my shorts” category, except that ragging on Barney is just a little too easy.
Anyway, we see a lot of the four episodes of Mr. Rogers that are on the two Mr. Rogers DVDs in the 19 Minutes collection, which has given us (well, me, anyway – 19-month old Sylvi has never actually pointed this out) insight needed to make the following keen observation: Mr. Rogers never puts his shoes back on at the end of the show. He comes in at the start of the show, singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”, takes off his dress shoes and replaces them with canvas sneakers. At the end of the show, as he sings “It’s a good feeling to know…”, we see him remove the canvas sneakers… but then he leaves them God Knows Where, and we never see him put the dress shoes back on. And then he walks out the door, out into the metaphorical neighborhood, presumably wearing only his socks. (On his feet, that is. )
And while we’re at it, shouldn’t the late Fred Rogers have been at least somewhat interested in teaching the nation’s public TV-watching youth the importance of proper punctuation? My copy of “The Elements of Style”, given to me 24 years ago as a Bar Mitzvah gift (in a stunningly prescient foreshadowing of my adult life), confirms that the program should have been called “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood”. It goes on to note that the only exception to this standard punctuation of the personal pronoun possessive comes in reference to ancient people whose names ended in “s”. So if Kenneth Tomlinson had had his way with PBS and there were more religious content available, we could watch either “Jesus’ Neighborhood” or “Moses’ Neighborhood” and not object to the punctuation. Someone should get Lynne Truss on the case.
I’ve noted before that the QVC shopping network entertains me, especially in the sense that anyone who can ad lib about fake diamond jewelry for four hours at a stretch deserves credit for their broadcasting prowess. But in channel surfing through QVC en route to “The Andy Griffith Show” at just before 10:00 pm MST (yes, it’s an exciting life I lead), I came across a new QVC feature that must be commented upon: They now run a countdown clock to forward-promote their upcoming “Today’s Special Value”, which is itself a sort of poorly defined concept, when you consider that it implies their other products are, well, run-of-the-mill values. Anyway, I’m not here to comment on the “Today’s Special Value” concept (too late), but rather, the countdown clock. The countdown clock runs for a whopping one minute and two seconds. If nothing else, you’d imagine QVC’s viewers at that hour probably aren’t going anywhere and thus, probably would have stuck around for the big 1:02 gap.
And finally, we note that the gecko spokesman for Geico insurance has apparently acquired a new accent. For years, he spoke in a chipper “Good on ya, mate” cross-between-English-and-Australian accent. Suddenly, a few weeks ago, he resurfaced on Geico commercials affecting a distinct Cockney accent. It’s as though the ad agency that produces the Geico commercials figured Americans would never notice the difference between the two accents.
On second thought, they probably have something there. But that line of commentary is probably an even easier target than ragging on Barney.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The view from my future Milwaukee office is not going to be quite the same, though the concept of snow will at least seem familiar.
Monday, January 16, 2006
The irony is that the conversations that sound the most natural are the ones that involve the most prep work. It takes a certain amount of research to be familiar enough with someone's work that you can converse at a level that doesn't make it seem like you just scanned the executive summary of his or her life before you came into the studio. ("So, how did you come up with the title of your book? You are an author, right?")
So after a fair amount of prep, I went into a weekend interview with a well-known piano player feeling like it shouldn't be tough to pull together something interesting.
The problem with prepping, though, is it doesn't usually take into account the possibility that your interview subject will meander into, um, strange answers (say, a love for rhinoceroses) to seemingly straightforward questions. Or that the subject will veer the conversation in a truly unexpected direction (from, say, music to the Zapruder film).
[On a side note, a variety of conversations with other people since then tells me that you don't even need to ask what someone thinks about the Zapruder film - just that fact that someone would bring it up tells you everything you need to know. Unless, I suppose, the person brings it up in a conversation about amateur cinematic technique. But you never hear someone say, "Hey - how about that Zapruder film? That really put the whole Kennedy assasination to rest, didn't it?" But I digress.]
So, as it turns out, there was enough material in the 41-minute interview for a finished product that ran 5 1/2 minutes, including a two-minute harmonica piece.
This was actually a better ratio than the result of my worst interview ever, a 1996 exclusive with former Minnesota Senator Rudy Boschwitz, who was attempting to get back into politics. His campaign people set up the interview shortly after a southern Minnesota fundraiser. Thirty minutes and dozens of contentious answers (most of which began with the phrase, "I disagree with the supposition of your question...") I had exactly one usable 25-second sound bite, which may not have been the media splash his campaign had been hoping for (which, of course, wasn't my problem).
Rule of thumb for people about to be interviewed: Bring along a harmonica.
Friday, January 13, 2006
Okay, so on the list of bombshell admissions, it probably ranks in between an affinity for baths and an addiction to Cap'n Crunch. But as a certified Guy Sports Fan who relishes a Saturday afternoon on the couch with the television showing a college football game between two teams with no relation to my life (say, Nevada and Fresno State) except that they're on my TV, the figure skating admission comes with a degree of sheepishness.
The truth of the matter is that -- just as I'm duly impressed by the fact that hockey players can ply their complex trade on ice -- it's pretty impressive to watch athletes launch themselves, backward, into the air, spin three or four times, and then land, upright, on skates. Without their legs actually detatching themselves from their bodies.
And if a typical figure skating broadcast consisted of a brief pre-game show, an hour or two of people skating around, jumping, and getting scores, I think there would be plenty of guys who would be comfortable with such a confession. Hey, there's no guy stigma about watching televised poker, despite the fact that it amounts to an hour of watching guys glare at each through their sunglasses.
But the typical figure skating broadcast has taken on such a significant degree of soap opera-like characteristics that it often doesn't feel like watching sports at all. For every five minutes of skating, viewers are subjected to an equal amount broadcast time featuring interviews with furry-parka-clad skating coaches and fuzzy, dream sequence-style video detailing skaters' triumphs over adversity. The current drama in the sport is the sudden influx of recently naturalized US citizens into national competition. Not an issue that turned up in last year's NCAA Final Four.
The problem is that we can't really identify with the lives of most skaters. At least when you hear about the life of a college football player, you can imagine him playing high school football, going on to college, going to practice each day, etc., etc. He probably doesn't study the way most college students do, but at least he appears to exist in some context besides football.
Of course, there are exceptions. Last night's broadcast of the US Figure Skating Championships on ESPN2 actually felt something like a sports broadcast - featuring a scoring analyst on a set that looked like the bridge of a space ship, and big name color commentators Katarina Witt and Kurt Browning.
We also learned that at least one of the competitors, Jane Bugaeva, is actually a full-time student at the University of North Carolina, and instantly we could identify with her experience. Bugaeva fell on her first couple of jumps (which we could identify with as well), but then she looked genuinely excited to hit her final jump, which - if we were actually talented enough to intentionally leave our feet while skating - seemed like a tangible and recognizable emotion.
Bugaeva finished in 13th place, which unfortunately leads me to believe the full-time-student-as-competitive-skater model will remain the exception, rather than the rule. Which is a shame, because it'd be nice - just once during the Olympics - to see a sepia-toned feature in which a skater talks about how Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain, or even Tom and Ray Magliozzi influenced her skating.
But I'll settle for a skating competition that ends in a shootout.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Arizona is a Bad Donut State. (I think that's actually the slogan they're going to put on the official state quarter in 2008.) Flagstaff, current site of the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, has no donut stores at all. As I noted some months ago in this space, it may be the only place on earth that all the Dunkin' Donuts franchises have folded their tents.
A few years ago, we picked up an independent donut place. The "Arizona Donut Company" was operated by, if memory serves, one of the technical crew that produced "The Dukes of Hazzard". The store's gimmick was that it employed exactly the same equipment as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts uses. The store's downfall was that no one ever knew when it was open, which made stopping for donuts on the way to or from work a hit-or-miss experience. And since donuts - let's face it - are a something of an impulse buy, no one wanted to return three or four times a day, just to check whether they were open. The Arizona Donut Company disappeared from the Flagstaff donutscape after about 18 months. Of course, Flagstaff is also the kind of city where, to survive, a donut shop would have to have flavor offerings including hemp, tofu, Chocolate Clif bar, and elk.
Lest you think these problems are merely emblematic of life in a smallish city, I submit they're endemic across the state. We've been known to spend occasional weekend in the so-called Valley of the Sun (so-called, because daytime temperatures in August are approximately the same as the surface of the sun), to take advantage of the opportunities such as NHL hockey, decent Chinese food, Babies R Us, smog, etc. But we are unable to take advantage of better pastry opportunities, as Phoenix turns out to be the kind of city where the donut shops close at 5 p.m. Because as we all know, no one ever wanted to eat a donut after work.
So I'm optimistic about Milwaukee. I mean, the donutscape couldn't be any worse than it is in Arizona. And it's a cold weather place. The best donut scenes I've encountered are in New England, where Dunkin' Donuts even out-ubiquitous Starbucks, and in Baltimore, where donut shops serve as overflow for all-night diners that cater to the sobering-up crowd. And, as I've been led to believe, there are at least one or two taverns in Wisconsin.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Not too long ago, my interest in home ownership was limited to snickering at the participants on “House Hunters” on the HGTV network, who seemed to employ the “Three Bears” method of looking for a new place to live (“This house is too small. This house is too large. Say, this house is just right!”) They always showed the prospective homebuyers looking at three houses, as though there was actually some chance they’d choose the first house, even though that would have meant ending the show after only eight minutes.
I’ve lived in a succession of apartments since my senior year of college, and I’ve always figured they afforded me some unique living arrangements without the stress of homeowner activities such as fixing the toilet, or mowing the lawn, or washing the dishes.
My first apartment was directly above the general store in Lisbon, Iowa. It was appointed with vintage 1940s kitchen appliances, which worked out fine for me and my roommate, as this freed us up to make good use of the pizza place two doors down. It was quite the deal at $150 a month, especially when you consider bonuses like the plexiglas that covered the bathroom windows and the network of cracks on my bedroom ceiling. After staring at the cracks every night for months, I finally came to the conclusion that the cracks were a fairly accurate road map of Linn County, Iowa, and went ahead and labeled the roads. But the apartment’s highlight was our newspaper recycling bin, which by the time we moved out, contained nine months’ worth of newspapers and weighed approximately 150 pounds. It was a nice addition to the dining room.
After college, I lived in a couple of apartments in Decorah, Iowa. The first one was in the basement of a house, which meant there was a huge support beam in the middle of the living room. The owners had thoughtfully covered it with indoor-outdoor carpeting, which created the effect of having an enormous scratching post in the middle of the living room. The owners had also gotten around the problem of running plumbing underneath the basement by elevating the toilet on a large wooden box, making “throne” an especially appropriate metaphor.
Sadly, I moved out of that apartment just a year later, taking up residence in a building that had been converted from its previous incarnation, a Catholic school called the “Academy of the Immaculate Conception”. I had a whole bunch of follow-up lines planned in the event I ever brought a date home, which, of course, I never did.
My subsequent apartments were less eventful, unless your standard of measurement includes cockroaches, in which case my apartment in Rochester, Minnesota was pretty eventful.
My wife and I have been renting a townhouse here in Flagstaff for nearly seven years. Like most construction in Flagstaff, it’s made of a hearty combination of plywood and plaster, with beige carpeting accentuated by the occasional cherry Pedialyte stain. It’s on the small size, but it’s worked out okay, despite the twice-a-year inspection visit by out landlady, which is immediately preceded by our twice-a-year cleaning of the top of our refrigerator. She terms it “protecting our investment”, though most of the tenants here refer to it more realistically as “being nosy”.
As I said, though, it’s on the small size and, with a growing 19-month old, it’s getting smaller by the minute. And so my mowing gene is making itself more evident, and I’m beginning to imagine myself raking leaves on a crisp October morning.
So we’re looking for a house. There are several interesting neighborhoods around here, each with its own unique character. But, just to shake things up a little, we’re looking for a house in Milwaukee.
But that’s another story.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Fortunately, it figures to be a while before Sylvi gets to that point. That's because most of our conversations this evening went like this:
Me (holding the kazoo): See? It goes like this... "Hummmm". (At this point, I go from humming to holding the kazoo to my lips and playing. I hand her the kazoo.)
Sylvi: Ba! (This is one of her all-purpose words. It could mean "ball", "balloon", or "the sound a sheep makes". In this case, I'm unclear as to what it implies.)
Me: No, see try this... "Hummmm."
Me: Good! Now put the kazoo in your mouth and go "Hummmm."
Me: Good! Now with the kazoo!
Sylvi (putting the kazoo in her mouth): Ba!
Me: No, like you were just doing - Hummmm...
Sylvi (taking the kazoo out of her mouth): Hummmm.
And so on. In all fairness, by the end of the evening, she was saying things like "Ha" into the kazoo that sounded a little like kazoo music. Or a little like an 18-month old with a kazoo in her mouth, anyway.
Not bad for a night's work. Worthy, perhaps, of a Skarf 'Em. Of course, Sylvi's already asleep, so I'll have to skarf 'em myself.
Monday, January 02, 2006
It starts with a question as to whether we have enough time before our 18-month old wakes up in order to complete this afternoon's entry. (And the almost immediate answer, called out from upstairs: "No.")
[extremely long pause, 23 hours to be exact]
The Time Theme actually started on New Year's Eve, as the 19 Minutes household wimped out and decided to celebrate the New Year on Eastern Standard Time, or as it's known in Arizona: "10 o'clock". We had planned to go watch the Flagstaff New Year's commemoration, which is (really) the lowering of a large metallic pinecone from the balcony of a downtown hotel. (The tradition started a few years ago with a pinecone that was made from branches and, well, real pinecones, but apparently someone decided it looked too rustic. So the downtown business leaders went with the more-cosmopolitan look that only a metallic pinecone provides.) But with Sylvi's 30-minute afternoon nap in mind, we thought that might be pushing our luck. So we opted for the Dick Clark, rockin', televised version of the New Year.
Around 9:40, having gotten Sylvi into pajamas, we switched on the TV and found out two things:
1. Sylvi enjoys Bon Jovi music. (She gets this from her mom, I believe. Or she's already entering her rebellious phase.)
2. None of the Phoenix TV stations carry the Times Square New Year's celebration live. Yes, we saw Bon Jovi, then the return of Dick Clark, and then, at 11:59, we broke away to local news, which was topped by a near-drowning in a Phoenix swimming pool. Here's the thing: It's not as though they weren't picking up the East Coast feed of "Desperate Housewives". This was an actual live event that was going on in New York City (though, I'll grant you, we kind of all knew how it would turn out). Showing it two hours later, to coincide with the Phoenix New Year, sort of goes against the whole spirit of New Year's Eve. Plus, I don't imagine most local viewers believed people in Times Square were actually celebrating on Mountain Standard Time.
We ended up watching the ball drop on CNN (on coverage anchored by Anderson Cooper), which I'm not sure is ready to take over the "Rockin' New Year's Eve" franchise, unless "rockin'" refers to a chair.
One of our last purchases of 2005 was a travel alarm clock, found in the clearance rack at Target. The 19 Minutes staff is now proud to present some highlights from the Operation Manual:
So far, so good. I mean, I'd be happy to follow the instruction Manual, including such helpful instructions to use the Timer as:
ATTENTION before you use it:
1. Please pull out the PVC insulation sheet Beside the battery-cover on the bottom, Then the music will come up. Press any Key to stop it. This is regular situation.
2. If the display shows up a disorder situation After you pull out the PVC insulation sheet, Please press the (RESET) key on the screen lide. Then the music will also come up. Please Press any key to stop it.
3. Please proceed to follow the instruction Manual after the above procedure.
Press (%) key to start non-zero setup (Count-down Timer), press again will suspend. At the moment, it may use (▲) or (▼) for liquidation.But, lest you think that I have a problem with this travel alarm clock, I will point out that it has an alarm that sounds like a vague approximation of the "William Tell Overture" and a very spiffy mode that allows me, with one button push, to access the time in Karachi. Unfortunately it has no light, which makes it difficult to see the time in Karachi, or figure out how to shut off William Tell (when the music comes up).
Fortunately, I was able to wrap up my work with the travel alarm clock quickly enough that I could watch a few of the 730 hours of football available to me over the weekend. I quite enjoyed watching parts of ESPN Classic's Rose Bowl marathon, partly because it meant they weren't showing "Classic" billiards matches, and partly because it brought a couple of phenomena to the fore which have gone tragically underanalyzed, in my estimation:
First, of course, is the phenomenon of watching an event (in this case, sports, but it could also be a new broadcast, or even an episode of "Family Ties") that took place in your lifetime, but which now looks so horribly dated, that you can't possibly imagine how it looked modern while it was going on. And it did look modern then - even cutting-edge. The broadcast of the 199o Rose Bowl, between USC and Michigan, featured coaches wearing sweaters five steps beyond anything Theo wore on "The Cosby Show", approaching wardrobe entertainment levels heretofore only matched by that Mike Levy guy of "Amazing Discoveries" infomercials fame. The players themselves were in the "Shoulder Pads the Size of School Busses" phase. (There was one aspect of the broadcast that still rang true -- USC won.)
The other phenomenon is the ridiculous ability to watch a game that took place ten years ago, and treat it as though it were being televised live. I mean, I was pretty sure Northwestern lost to USC in 1996 (just as I'd be pretty sure they'd lose if they played USC tomorrow), but it was tough to watch the game and not root a little for the underdog - even though I could have found the result (USC 41, Northwestern 32) on the internet in about 30 seconds.
And finally, we can't let the weekend go by without at least commenting on Doug Flutie's appearance in the Patriots-Dolphins game over the weekend. Flutie came in after a Patriots touchdown and drop-kicked the extra point, a play that involves (uh) dropping the ball on the ground and kicking it through the uprights. It was the first time someone had done that in an NFL game since 1941 (also by Flutie). Patriots coach Bill Belichick deserves credit for a couple of reasons - for letting Flutie, a guy that has managed to stay in pro football until age 43 (despite the predictions of analysts who believed he would make it in the NFL past age 23), have one last 15 minutes of fame; and for remembering that at their heart, sports are a way for people to have fun; but most of all, for agreeing to let something truly bizarre (that doesn't involve drunks or cheerleaders) take place at a professional football game.