Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rat Pack on Idol--No Baritones

I’m looking forward to tonight’s installment of “American Idol”. According to the paper, they’re doing “The Rat Pack”.

For those who are under 40, the Rat Pack was an informal group of some of the top entertainers of the 1960’s including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. And occasionally, Judy Garland. All were major stars. As a group in a Las Vegas showroom they were phenomenal. Tonight could be pretty interesting in a couple of ways.

One is that the music, of course, will be themed from the 60’s. It will be interesting to see how it is interpreted by a 21st century group of singers especially Adam Lambert who is arguably the front runner, arguably the best singer and arguably the funkiest.

What will also be interesting and is a matter of some consternation for me is that all of the Rat Pack singers (Judy Garland excepted) were baritones. None of the Idol finalists are baritones—all the 4 remaining males are tenor or higher. Of course they can transpose but my question is really, how come there are no baritones?

I’m not talking Barry White bass. I’m talking baritone—like Lou Rawls or even Tom Jones (please, not like Josh Grobin with his overdone vibrato). I’d even take John Legend, although his voice is kind of between bari and tenor. Perhaps the lowest voice on “Idol” is the lone female, Allison Iraheta (and the only “non-Caucasian” remaining too).

It’s a bit of a bummer. I’ve always sung bass/baritone and when my voice and diaphragm are in shape can do a covered 2nd tenor. But choral singing with some solo work is a far cry from what these kids are doing.

I’ve always wondered why there don’t seem to be male voices on Idol that sound like they’ve got just a bit more testosterone. Does it have to do with what sells records/cds? Does it have to do with the “sound” of today and that there’s just not much music for “crooning”?

Every week has a theme. Maybe there should be “Sha Na Na” night featuring Bowser as the “coach” for the performers. For those of you who are uninitiated to Bowser he’s the deep bass who sings “yip, yip, yip…yip, yip, yip…yip, yip, yip Get a Job”. Now that’s deep!

Or how about a Jimmy Buffett night (he’s kind of a baritone)—except one rule; no “Margaritaville” or “Get Drunk and Screw” allowed. Anyway, I’ll be watching just to see how these kids handle “the Rat Pack”. And I bet I’m not the only “OS”er who does.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Great American Wipe-Out

There are special days for just about anything and everything in the U.S. We just “celebrated” Earth Day, that special day each spring when we tout the virtues of the environment, everyone goes around looking like it’s St. Patrick’s Day again and then we go merrily on our way the next day spewing pollution and automotive emissions again.

And of course, there’s the “Great American Smoke-Out” in November where we’re all supposed to quit smoking for the day in the hopeful expectation that many of us cigarette puffing sinners giving up the habit (somebody look up the addictive properties of nicotine please) permanently.

So, now I’m going to propose another special day. Just once a year in the hopeful expectation that we can change our habits and protect the environment probably more than all the Earth Days and Great American Smoke-Outs combined.

I’m calling it the Great American Wipe-Out and it has absolutely nothing to do with falling off a surf board. In recent newspaper articles the Natural Resources Defense Council has been critical of the American preference for “ultra-soft or quilted toilet paper”. According to them, in “less-picky” Europe and Latin America, 40% of toilet paper I produced by recycling but Americans demand multi-ply tissue which requires “virgin wood” for 98% of the product.

Now, I don’t know about you but I like soft toilet paper. The but in this equation is how much I like soft, cushy toilet paper within the context that it’s not made of recycled material like old newspaper or bond paper or whatever could be used.

Perhaps I have a bit more of a unique perspective in that I lived in Europe for a while and got used to Italian toilets which either provided on paper at all or perhaps provided a newspaper or if it had toilet paper it was the consistency, absorbency and softness of crepe paper. Additionally, I spent many a summer vacation at my grandparents’ farm in the hills of Kentucky using a privy (that’s fancy talk for an outhouse) and have literally used Sears or Wards catalogue pages to wipe. My brother and I would get so “plugged up” trying to avoid the privy that the morning we were to leave the farm Mom would insist on dosing both of us liberally with Ex-Lax to get things moving, so to speak.

The idea of using 98% “virgin wood” to manufacture soft, fanny-caressing toilet paper is just a bit repugnant to me. But not repugnant enough to get me to quit using it. Now, I have gotten myself to the point where I’m pretty careful about how much I use. I’m a folder rather than a scruncher and I can get by with 3 sheets per wipe as long as I’m pretty gentle about it. And it all depends on how things went down there as to how many wipes.

But a couple of ideas come to mind. How about if we printed paperback novels and popular magazines like “People” or “Time” or “Entertainment” on a paper that could do “double-duty”? This could actually encourage more bathroom reading and maybe even make our kids just a bit more literate. Southern California is now under mandatory water reduction and rationing so bidets don’t present a very viable alternative.

This is really a crappy issue. That’s why I’m proposing an annual “Great American Wipe-Out Day”, perhaps right in the middle of sweet corn season, where we use alternative sources of toilet paper and which will highlight and promote the need for greater conservation of our scarce resources. Otherwise, at some point in the not too distant future, it’s really going to hit the fan.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dead Cats Lying in the Street

There was a dead cat lying in the gutter in front of our apartment building yesterday morning. I think I may have heard the “thunk” of when it was hit by a car the night before. I probably shouldn’t have let it lay there until this morning but I just went down and scooped it into a garbage bag and took it to the dumpster which will be emptied later today.

God, I hate it when that happens to critters. What I’m a bit surprised about is that it doesn’t happen very often on our block even though there’s a bunch of feral cats wandering around. This one was the object of curiosity of a lot of the junior high and elementary kids who walk up the street each morning and afternoon on their way to and from school.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to do that—although it’s the first time it wasn’t “my”cat. The first time was at a busy intersection right next to our house and became part of the subject of testimony I had to give to a transportation commission hearing in Iowa about road and traffic safety improvements in our city. That cat, Missy, was flattened to the extent that I had to scrape it up with a snow shovel. I told the commissioners about it in lurid detail remarking that it could have just as easily been a kid. One of the commissioners even remembered it 2 years later at another hearing when he looked at me getting up to testify on another matter and said, “You’re the guy with the cat.”

The second time was when the kids were little and a neighbor informed me that he had seen one of our cats—we had 2 at the time and a dog too—run over and lying in the gutter. The cat spent a lot of time outdoors in this Wisconsin neighborhood and it wasn’t too unusual for him to be gone for a couple of days. I “affectionately” called this cat “Shitter” for the time when he climbed in the open door of our clothes dryer and, well let’s just say that’s what he did on a load of clean clothes which were then dried baking the “material” into the clothes. I had to go a few blocks away to dispose of the cat because we didn’t want the kids to find out that he had been run over and disposed of. Susan still wailed when she found out though.

The third time was Petey—probably my all time favorite cat. Petey was the Lord of the Household. He was a huge, Maine Woods Coontail. Whenever I would grill fish outdoors I would have to wear jeans because he’d be trying to claw his way up my leg to get at it. This damn cat would beg until I gave him a bite of the salmon then he would go around the corner of the house where I could hear him barfing up the rich fish. Then he’d come back around and start begging all over again. (Although it can be argued that cats—especially that one—don’t “beg”. They demand. They insist. But they would never condescend to beg).

Petey used to think he owned the street in front of our house. In the afternoon, he’d go out to the middle of the street and lie right on top of the yellow line sunning himself. Snoozing in the hot Iowa sun. Occasionally flicking his tail. I can recall seeing cars stop and honk at him so that he’s condescend to get up and move out of the way. That was until one day when I got a call at work from Susan who by then was about 12. She was almost hysterical and I was able to pry out of her why she was upset. It seems as though a pick-up truck came barreling up the street and intentionally went out of its way to swerve and make sure to run over Petey. So, once again, I had to go home and scrape a cat up. This time into a box which I took into a little wooded area across the street and buried.

I never got any cats after that. Cats own you, you don’t own them. Petey had adopted me for some reason and liked to hang out with me. And I guess that’s good.

But geez, I hate having to go out and scrape cats off the street and somehow dispose of them. It’s gross. It’s sad because the cat wasn’t bothering anyone. And it’s senseless. But at least the junior high girls won’t squeal this afternoon and the boys won’t tease them about it and be grossed out themselves.

Dead cats lying in the street. I don’t know what it means exactly. I suppose I could attribute any number of different allegorical messages. Let’s just say it’s another “omega” in the never-ending “alpha and omega” of life. And we know there’ll be another “alpha”.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Old Fartdom

I’ve been re-reading some of my posts from the last week or so and it strikes me that I’ve been sounding like a cranky old fart. Sorry about that. Unfortunately, I now identify more with Walt, the dad in the cartoon “Zits” than with his son Jeremy. Or I identify more with Earl Pickles.

But, I just feel like I’ve got to get stuff off my chest when I encounter some of the ludicrous things that are floating around out there.

But, I did want to bring up something a bit more positive. My daughter was all excited yesterday on Facebook because she just became an aunt again (another niece). She’s just tickled to death for her brother and his wife. And that led me to think about some of the singular joys of having a daughter.

Living in the Midwest we’d have a number of thunderstorms each year (that’s a foreign concept here in Southern California). From the time Susan was about 4, everytime it would rain we’d have to go out and re-create one of her favorite scenes from a musical we had watched on TV together.

As it would start raining—the harder the better it would seem—we would have to get jackets and umbrellas and go out into the yard or even better walk along the gutter singing:
I’m singing in the rain,
Just singing in the rain,
What a glorious feeling,
I’m smiling again…
I walk down the lane
With a happy refrain,
Just singin’
Just singin’ in the rain…

We’d sing and dance and stomp in puddles splashing all over and then giggle and laugh until we were all wet and ready to scoot back inside to dry off.

Ah, that was a while ago. You can’t go back and do that again. But it sure does make for a great “re-run” in my mind and imagination of happy times with children. Maybe I’ll be able to do it someday when I finally get to Lincoln and meet my granddaughter. So, enjoy being an auntie again Susan. And Mike, enjoy Raegan being a toddler that you have to hustle to keep with.

So, hopefully that makes up for me being a cantankerous old fart recently.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Quote George Carlin...

Recently the FDA and EPA have both come out with positions that would first, cause George Carlin to spin over in his grave and second, would have him sitting up and saying, “thank you Captain obvious”.

First the EPA issued a proposed finding on April 17 that greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare. Apparently the U. S. Supreme Court told them to do that 2 years ago. Now, there’s a whole lot of stuff behind this I’m sure and now there is a public comment period until EPA can make it official.

Wow, I’m glad that this isn’t anything serious and I’m glad that the EPA has cleared this up. I would never have suspected that greenhouse gases either contribute to air pollution or endanger public health without this finding. When the last of us are gasping and sitting on our oceanfront property in Kansas we’ll be able to point to this finding and say, “See, I told you so.”

The other remarkable item deals with the FDA which will apparently now have the ability to “regulate” cigarettes. It won’t be able to outlaw tobacco or nicotine but it can regulate it in cigarettes. One of the other things I loved was discussions on “e-cigarettes” which release a nicotine vapor up a tube to more thoroughly simulate smoking but without the smoke. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey wants e-cigarettes taken off the market however, “until they are proven safe”. Say what? If he wants to do that to e-cigarettes how about taking regular cigarettes off the market until they’re proven safe? Naw, wouldn’t want to do that would we?

Anyway, this one is just a bunch of hooey. Remember when Dr. David Kessler was Commissioner of the FDA during the Bush the Elder and Clinton administrations? Naw, you probably don’t. He got in trouble for suggesting that cigarettes be designated a “drug delivery device” and as such be regulated by the FDA. Big trouble. But he was absolutely, dead solid right. So, now we get this watered down stuff that says the FDA can regulate some of the content of cigarettes.

Geesh, when is the government going to let itself realize (in spite of the tobacco industry’s posturing, lobbying and spending) that these things are killers. The only thing they are made for is to get people addicted to nicotine. Nicotine in and of itself is relatively harmless but it’s the way the nicotine gets into the system that is the killer.

When people were giving themselves HIV and Hepatitis B from sharing needles, many groups and governmental bodies supported and provided sources of clean needles. Is there a parallel there? I think so.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I smoke like a chimney on a cold night. Yeah, I’m addicted and I’ve yet to permanently quit. It would be nice for the government to do the right thing once in a while. Kessler was right.

But isn’t it nice to know that the EPA and FDA are looking out for our best interests!

Thank you Captain Obvious.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Want My Quarter Mill

As of yesterday, and thanks to the incredible ability of the Wall Street Journal OnLine and Yahoo Finance to ferret out the information, we have a definition of “getting by” in these uncertain and scary economic times. I would like to publicly thank the Wall Street Journal for their service.

In case you missed it the Journal did a story titled “The Wealth-Less Effect” which discussed how much a quarter million buys today especially in light of President Obama’s proposal to raise the tax rate on people making $250,000 plus from 33% to 36%.

The story featured a family near Knoxville, TN who believe that they’re not doing much better than getting by on their $260,000 annual income. Gee, I guess if I lived in Sevierville, TN I would be tempted to fix a casserole and maybe a box with some of my old clothes and take it over to this unfortunate family of seven.

According to the article, “Taxes, premiums for medical care and deductions for Social Security and their 401(k) contributions cut the gross to about $12,000 per month”. Now, that means that all those things are costing this family about $10,000 per month. They’ve got deductions for 5 kids, but yeah, health insurance, a fully funded 401K, fully funded 529 college savings plan, etc. would put a dent in the pay check.

Their mortgage, second mortgage and payment on land they bought is nearly $4,000 a month. That’s a bite, and they live in a 2500 square foot house. They also tithe $1300 per month to their church and after including their family car payment, insurance and college funds, as well as basics like food, utilities and donations to charities, leave them with about $1,200 left over each month—that’s their “walking around” money.

OK, let’s see. After every single expense they’ve got $1200 a month left over. Their $1300 a month tithe is deductible. Health insurance and 401K are paid with “before tax dollars” and I bet that they have a Flexible Spending Account for medical deductibles, etc. also funded with pre-tax dollars. (That means that if they’re in the 33% bracket then each dollar spent on health insurance, 401K and FSA really only costs 67 cents because it’s money that isn’t part of taxable income—a good deal that people should always take advantage of).

This family commented that they lost $60,000 in equity in their 2500 square foot house this year. Hey, the people who owned a house across the street from me got their 900 square foot, 70 year house foreclosed. They bought it for $400,000 and it recently sold for $175,000. I have to admit that 7 people in a 2500 square foot house is a bit tight but it’s still a lot more than many people have.

Now, what I take umbrage to is that this family doesn’t see themselves as affluent. According to the wife, “I'm not after sympathy. We are blessed. What I want is a reality check on what rich means. I can pay my mortgage and I can buy some clothes. I'm not going without, but I'm not living a life of luxury."

If this is "not living a life of luxury" then where do I sign up?

Let’s look a little deeper at their community. The median family income of Sevierville, TN is $37,972. Only 1.4% of families in this city make more than $200,000 per year. They might not be living a life of luxury—let’s say in the Paris Hilton sense of the word—but they’ve got it pretty good. So I want my quarter million a year so I can not live a life of luxury too. This family has a lot more tax deductions than most others and I’m pretty sure that they’re showing far less than $260,000 a year in adjusted gross income which makes it doubtful that they would be subject to a proposed tax increase.

What gripes my butt is that there are places in Tennessee (probably right in their own hometown) where 10 families could get along pretty nicely on a total of $26,000 per family for the year—and they’d be grateful for it—just go down to the local WalMart and ask a few of their employees if they’d be happy with $26K per year.

There’s no way that a quarter-million plus annual income isn’t affluent, big money or however else you’d like to describe it. Maybe it isn’t rich—or as rich as it used to be—but to suggest otherwise is just plain dumb (I was going to say naïve but dumb is better). I guess it's a matter of "a quarter mill here, a quarter mill there and pretty soon you're talking about real money".

This family is obviously religious. So, give thanks that you’re doing better than 98% of the rest of us. Give thanks that you can live like you do and make the lifestyle choices you do. Thank God each and every day and also pray for the rest of us. And, maybe, pray for just a little bit of enlightenment and empathy.

By the way, here’s the link to the article from Yahoo Finance and Wall Street Journal Online:

Monday, April 20, 2009

Car Buying 101: The First 2 Rules--Shop at Home 1st & Shop for Your Money

A story in the paper this morning suggested that this is a terrific time to buy a car and get a better price than at this time last year. And I agree with that. The person interviewed was from Edmonds.com and said that buyers can save anywhere from $350 to $2500 by smart shopping. Now $350 isn’t much on a purchase that in all likelihood will exceed $15000 but $2500 is real money.

I spent years selling new and used vehicles and additional years training and consulting with dealerships on how to do a better job of selling vehicles. Now, lest you think of me as a fast talking, “no-good-nik” car salesman let me assure me that I constantly the “e” word and the “t” word when it comes to vehicle sales—ethics and trust.

But, it’s always a terrific time to get a great deal on a vehicle. If you follow just a few really simple rules.

Rule 1—Start your shopping at home. Go online. Research the types of vehicles you’re interested in at sources like Edmonds.com or AutoTrader.com or Kelly Blue Book or even Triple A. Look at manufacturers’ websites to get specific information on the make and model you’re interested in.

Rule 2—Shop for money before you go to a dealership. OK, so now you’ve started shopping for a vehicle. Remember, money is a commodity. Find out from your bank or, better yet, your credit union how much the money is likely to cost you (interest rate) and the terms. Plus, secure a copy of your credit report. Before you ever go out and about to dealerships you really need to have a good idea of how much your money will cost (i.e. the interest rate and terms of the loan). This is known as pre-qualifying and it’s better if you do it yourself with the lenders you choose prior to going to a dealership and relying on them. This will let you manage the process and compare and ultimately make a better decision.

Take notes. Use your computer’s printer. Have as much information in writing as you can. Remember, this is a decision making process you’re engaged in. Especially since you’re probably looking to spend anywhere from $15,000 and up on a new or used vehicle.

So, also ask yourself, “How long am I going to drive this car?” If you’re like most people and only plan on keeping it 3 ½ years or so, then you typically don’t want to finance it for more than 60 months (in fact less is better). There are a lot of dealers who will try to get you to a longer term in order to get your payment lower. But, look at 72 or 84 months only if you’re certain that you’ll be driving that vehicle at least 90% of the term of the loan.

Many dealers take a mistaken approach that buyers are only interested in payment and so they will manipulate the term to fit what you tell them is your monthly payment budget. You are far better off “stepping down” in terms of the vehicle you’d like to something that is less expensive than to go for a 6 to 7 year payment contract. You’re generally not likely to get enough discount to reduce the payments to the amount you’ve budgeted. So be realistic.

Remember one thing—it’s a car. It’s not a lifestyle or a personal statement. It’s transportation. And, rather than let things get a bit terse at a dealer, go home. Think on it. Do a bit more homework. Come back another day. The dealer is typically going to try to get you “buy and drive today”. But, unless you just drove your car into the bay or it caught fire, you don’t have to do anything today.

That’s just a couple of thoughts for now. I’ll come back with a few more “rules” in a day or so. But, keep these in mind. They’ll help you do 2 things—pay less for a vehicle (price and payment) and keep the process from getting aggravating.

Bottom line. Yeah, now is a good time to buy a car. If you can afford it and if you go into it with your eyes open. Then it can be a good time to buy and you can have a good time buying a car.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Water Conservation California Style

(Dear Mom, Please don’t read this post.)

It’s Saturday morning. We just got done cleaning in the apartment and Carolyn is back from a run. And we just got done saving precious California water by taking a shower together.

This is something we’ve enjoyed doing together ever since we’ve known one another. Quite frankly, there is very little that is erotic or sexual about taking a shower with your spouse (wink, wink). Rather there’s a tremendous sense of togetherness and intimacy which is even better along with the water conservation. Plus, there’s the added bonus of someone else using the scrubby on your back—man, it’s better than grinding your back against a door jamb.

I’m not sure how much water we save by showering together. My solo showers typically last maybe 2 minutes and I’m not sure how long Carolyn’s solo showers last. But occasionally I enjoy taking a little longer solo shower—a guy shower. A solo guy shower typically includes something I remember from my dad when he would be in the shower—nose blowing and sounding like an angry elephant trumpeting towards the “Great White Hunter”. Now if you do this you have to be a bit careful and make sure that any “detritus” that comes out of your nose is washed away by the shower and doesn’t stick into a semi-permanent nugget on the wall of the shower (that’s a sure way to get “busted” and get in trouble and have to take over all shower stall cleaning duties for the indefinite future).

Additionally, the solo guy shower features a more languid approach to cleaning up “down there”. Taking one’s time. Carefully cleansing “fore and aft” and luxuriating in the soap and water.

Finally, one thing you can (obviously) never, ever do unless it’s a total solo shower is—hmmmmm, how to delicately put this—take a wizz while the water cascading out of the showerhead rinses it down the drain.

So, to shower together or not? If I had to choose one rather than the other it would have to be showering together. I would imagine that Gov. Schwarzenegger would approve of the water conservation—along with the Metropolitan Water Authority. But, a couple of times a week it’s a nice treat to have a “solo guy shower”. Sorry water advocates, but you just can’t always be water-patriotic.

Hey Barnes & Noble! (Cheap Bastid Strikes Again)

For some reason, when I mentioned Barnes & Noble in my last blog-post it reminded me that this year I finally bit the bullet and joined their “club”. You know, the one where you give them $25 at the beginning of the year and then you get 10% off all your purchases (I think it’s more on hardcover books but remember, I’m the “Cheap Bastid” I don't buy hardcovers unless they're in the "bargain bin" for less that paperbacks.)

So anyway, I have resisted for years simply on moral principal. I think it’s extortion to have to pay for a discount. Are you paying attention to this Barnes and Noble? Think about it. Southwest Airlines didn’t charge me for joining Rapid Rewards and they give me free airplane tickets. Hilton Honors didn’t charge me to join and gives me points for free stays at their hotels. Subway never charged for their card and gave free sandwiches after you had bought a dozen or 10 or something. Even my barber, Ed, has a card. He punches a hole each time I go in for a haircut and the 10th one is free. But Barnes & Noble charged me $25 and for years I resisted. The only reason I bought it this year was that I got a $25 gift card for Christmas so it "technically" didn’t cost me anything (the “Cheap Bastid” thing again).

I’ve still got a problem with it though. After I spend $250 this year at Barnes & Noble I’ll actually start getting ahead. That’s no problem. I’m in there every couple of weeks and buy 2 or 3 paperbacks so I’ll spend about $500 this year. But it still bugs my butt. Of course, that’s kind of the problem with me. The “Cheap Bastid” won’t do it. If I were the “Frugal Bastid”, I’d have joined long ago.

Come up with a different plan, Barnes & Noble. You know every transaction I make at your store. Each time I swipe my membership card or give you my phone number instead of the card you also record exactly what I’m buying which also means that you know how much I’m spending. How do I know that you know? Simple. I get e-mails asking me to write reviews of the books I’ve bought. So, if Barnes & Noble knows what books I’ve bought, they also know how much I paid. Which means that they can change the way they do their membership/frequent buyer/loyalty program.

How about telling me that I get a card for free—just for signing up like frequent flyer or car rental or hotel programs. Then when I’ve spent $250 give me a discount. Even better give me a discount right away and really reward my loyalty. If you don’t want me going to Borders, make it worth my while. I might be gullible but I’m not totally dumb.

So, right around the first of the year, I was in Barnes & Noble. I stepped up to the counter with my books and gift card. The young woman asked if I were a member and I said no. She asked if I wanted to join and started to explain the program. I interrupted and told her that I was going to join but that it was “under duress”. Her response (and I’m not making this up) was, “Oh, that’s nice.”

So, in about 2 more months, I will actually be money ahead with my discount card membership at Barnes & Noble. Now if I can only make sure that someone gives me another $25 B&N gift card this Christmas so the membership is “free” in 2010—someone other than my wife. That’s the “Cheap Bastid” way.

Friday, April 17, 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid

Isn’t it about time we dust off that famous/infamous quote from George H. W. Bush (the President I have referred to for the last 8+ years as Bush the Elder) and apply it to the debacle that many of us are living/suffering through?

Yep, it’s the economy, stupid! I’m not even going to get started on how this unmitigated disaster got started but rather I’m going to write just a bit on how it’s affecting at least this household and what we’re doing about it.

First of all, I haven’t worked in 3 months. Worse, I was an independent contractor so no unemployment comp. That sucks. Even worse, in spite of dozens and dozens of job applications I haven’t come close to anything yet expect for “warm body” jobs prospecting and cold-calling within a high pressure sales environment.

So, what are we doing? Well, we were pretty frugal to begin with. Not much into luxuries and gratuitous expenditures. But, we’ve managed to cut back pretty good although by the time we get done with fixed expenses each month (rent, utilities, car insurance, health insurance and groceries) we’re still pushing $3000 a month and that’s scary.

We haven’t gone out to eat (or even $1 Whopper Junior carry-out) this year. We used to love going out for breakfast at least once a week at Vista Way Café—and it was a business meeting too when we would talk about what we needed to get done, bills to be paid, etc. typically on the morning a business trip would start for me. We don’t go shopping (we never did much to begin with) except for the grocery store, dollar store and occasional sojourns to Barnes & Noble.

By the way, think about the Barnes & Noble or Borders thing. A paperback novel costs about $8. It’ll take somewhere on the order of 8 to 10 hours or so to read (that’s actual time spent reading). That’s versus going to a movie which will set you back $10 or even renting a movie for $5 both of which provide only about 2 hours worth of entertainment. Plus you’re going to occupy about an hour of your time just going to the bookstore and making your selection.

So what else are we doing—not a whole lot different. My car was paid off a year ago so we don’t owe money on it. It’s too bad I’m not working because then either we could be putting the same amount of money into my IRA or saving it for a down payment on the next car.

Our grocery bill is about the same—even though we’re eating all of our meals at home. Last night I grilled loin chops and asparagus. Let’s do the math—2 loin chops are about a pound and a half of meat and cost about $4; the asparagus came from the dollar store (believe it or not you can get fresh asparagus in season at the dollar store and it’s enough for 2 meals for 2 people). So for less than $5 I did a full meal including chimichurri sauce on the side. At a restaurant that same meal is about $30 for 2. Tonight I’m going to make homemade pizza (do the math—homemade pizza crust costs about 50 cents to make plus maybe 1 to 2 bucks worth of other ingredients). And the grocery store will grind meat for free--London Broil is on special this week for $1.67/lb. which means 90%+ lean ground beef for $2 a pound less than if you buy their hamburger.

We’re not going anywhere so I haven’t filled up with gas in a month—and I’ve only been putting in about a half tank. A trip to Costco is a major 5 mile round-trip adventure--especially at the right time of day when, if you're lucky, you can get lunch from the free samples.

Well, I guess I’m not doing much to help spend our way out of this economic mess. Tough! I wish someone would give me a big, whopping bonus for screwing up. Maybe if I opened up the Bank of Walt I could get some bail-out dollars. Someone made off with a third of my IRA and I’d like it back but I know that’s not going to happen.

So yeah, it’s the economy, stupid. There’s a bunch of people in the same situation we’re in. And a lot of them are my age which is even scarier. But, like the State Farm ad—things will get better. I’m just hoping that they don’t get a whole lot worse before they get better. And, I would like to know WHEN!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Adam Lambert for Idol

OK, I confess. I like watching American Idol. I have ever since the 2nd season. It’s always been an evening’s entertainment while I was traveling for work. Many a Tuesday and Wednesday evening have been dedicated to watching Idol from a Hampton Inn hotel room. Come on already, I'm 57 years old--too old to be excited over this stuff.

Now I’m home and I still like watching it. It’s not just to see how acerbic Simon is going to be or how ditzy Paula will be; that’s part of it. I enjoy watching the kids perform—some of them much better than others. I like to be able to watch how some of them seem to grow week after week while others fade and yet others never seem to get much of a clue or realize that this isn’t some high school or family gathering where oversinging and being precocious are good.

So anyway, I have my favorite for the year. I have ever since Week 2 of the finals. That was the night when the guy with the weird hair and make-up blew me away with “Ring of Fire”. I doubt that anyone who remembers the original by Johnny Cash thought that this weird kid could do anything like that (if you don’t remember the original think “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Phoenix). Lambert’s version was totally original and invoked even better images of the fires of hell than Johnny Cash did.

I really got into Lambert the following week when he did Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of my Tears”. Damn, but this kid can sing. He’s weird but he has a sense for music and melody and even better he’s an excellent singer technically. Pitch perfect. Spot-on timing. His breath control is phenomenal. I remember my high school choral director, Mr. Sherwood, and how he always insisted on 2 things—breath control and hitting a note precisely. This kid can do both of those and “Tracks of my Tears” also proved the other thing that Mr. Sherwood insisted was the hardest thing to do and that’s to sing softly. It’s far more difficult to sing soft than loud and takes even greater muscle control.

So, last night Lambert proved his gift again when he did “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. But, he did his own 21st century version of it rather than an imitation of the 1967 version. Simon Cowell liked it but also said that he doubted that anyone who was a fan of the original would like this new version. Well, Simon’s wrong (what else is new). The original is an anthem of the 60’s. This new version is just that—new, different, compelling in its own way.

So, if I were going to vote (which I won’t), my vote would be for this kid. He’s going to able to sell records, sell concert tickets and make a name for himself. But, this kid can not only sing--he's a terrific performer too and that's even better.

Well, so much for my “fan rave”. I don’t watch on Wednesdays. I’ll find out who got kicked off next Tuesday. It won’t be Lambert or either of the 2 women. Probably the goofy kid who played the piano and sang off pitch with too much vibrato last night.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


The TV we watch cost me $88 at Target in 2004. It’s a 20” flat screen. If I want to upgrade to one which is bigger it looks as though I’ll be spending somewhere in the neighbor of $400-$450 minimum (that would be for a 32” which sounds far bigger but is really just a wider rectangle versus the almost square image I currently enjoy).

I’m not necessarily averse to spending $400 or so on a new TV—assuming it would last me the rest of my life—but first I question if this is reflective of the cost of new TVs or if it’s the price of a new TV because companies which put their name on it know they can get away with charging that much. Probably the biggie for us though, is that the quality of programming barely justifies an $88 investment let alone a $400 investment. Why do we watch “Dirty Jobs” and “Deadliest Catch” and “Top Chef” and “Monk” and re-runs of “The West Wing” and “Third Watch” and even “Andy Griffith”? I have to think that it’s because the other stuff that’s on is crappy. You’ve basically got shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Who Wants to have Sex with a Millionaire” (I made that one up).

And worse yet is that we definitely have a favorite TV show. It’s called “Corner Gas” and it’s actually a Canadian show. It’s one of the best written ensemble comedies I’ve ever seen. It’s funny in a laid-back way and it’s set in a tiny mythical town in Saskatchewan. WGN broadcasts it—that’s the good news. WGN used to broadcast it 5 nights a week—Sunday through Thursday at 9 p.m. our time. Then they changed things. Their excuse is that people weren’t watching it. Now it’s on Tuesdays only, 3 episodes in a row, starting at 1:00 a.m. our time. One a.m.! For crying out loud! And they wonder why people aren’t watching it? At 1 a.m. the only other thing on TV is infomercials to either remove impacted feces or enlarge your penis—there aren’t even any good fishing shows on OLN.

We really enjoy this show. The DVDs of it cost about $45 per season and they’re in their 6th season now. Remember, I’m the “Cheap Bastid”—that comes to $225. So what did I do? I found the show online from a “private source" for a total of $35 for the first 5 seasons (not per season—total). The DVDs are in “plain white wrappers”—no boxes, no shrink-wrap. I guess that makes me some kind of criminal or something. I don’t know about that but we try to ration ourselves to one episode per day, kind of like dessert.

Let’s put it this way—WGN made me do it! I’m innocent! I didn’t want to have to move to Canada (or to the northern tier of the northern tier of states where we could get the CBC on cable). I’m just an innocent fan of this terrific TV show. WGN could have kept it on at a time when I’m awake and made my TV watching a lot more cost effective. But NOoooooo! They didn’t. They moved it to 1 frickin’ in the a.m., 1 frickin’ night per week. Jeesh—they made me do it. Honest, judge! I would have never bought those DVDs otherwise. It’s all WGN’s fault.

I don’t know when I’ll spend the money on a new TV. Maybe when I get a new job. $400 is a lot of money for an entry level HDTV. Those bad boys can get up to over two grand. And if I think twice—or three or four—times about $400, you know I’m not going anywhere near $2000. So I’ll stick to my $88 Target special, watching the Discovery Channel and Food Network. It beats 95% of the other stuff that’s on.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Great Algona Easter Egg Hunt

When I first got into the Chamber of Commerce business I moved to the smallest city I’ve ever lived, Algona, Iowa, population 6000. I moved there in late March just in time to help with planning one of the more enjoyable events sponsored by the Chamber each year—the annual Easter Egg Hunt the day before Easter.

This particular event was conducted by a group within the Chamber called the Salesman’s Bureau. It was composed of sales people who spent most of their time away from home. It met monthly on a Saturday in order to get caught up with what was going on in town, enjoy a bit of camaraderie and plan a couple of events—the other main event this group did was a golf outing in the summer we dubbed the Herb Tarlek Open in honor of the salesman from WKRP Cincinnati.

We spent months working on the Easter Egg Hunt including lining up groups of Scouts to dye the 2000+ eggs we got donated from a couple of area farms, getting donated toys from some of our local stores, making sure the local state park was reserved and otherwise just tying up details.

The date of the event started with a breakfast in the shelter at the park—eggs, sausage, biscuits and Bloody Marys. After breakfast we made sure that the areas for the egg hunting age groups were roped off and that an appropriate amount of eggs were placed in each. Prizes were laid out and extra eggs were put aside for us to make sure that kids who weren’t otherwise able to find an egg “found” one with a bit of help from one of us. What we really wanted to have happen was for the kids to have fun.

Cars started to arrive, rapidly filling available parking and stretching down the gravel road leading into the park. We started to usher the kids to their areas broken down by age group. It just wouldn’t do for a toddler to be run over in a stampede of older kids so age segregation was strictly enforced. We also handed out paper bags to the many kids who arrived without Easter baskets to put their goodies. Now, as the rest of this story unfolds remember those 2 key items—stampede and paper bag.

People would come from literally all over our area—some as far as 20 miles for the Annual Easter Egg Hunt. It was heavily promoted on our local radio station for a couple of weeks ahead of time. It wasn’t unusual to have 500 kids attend along with parents, grandparents, etc.

The hunt was set to begin at the stroke of 10 a.m. The Mayor of our small city would ceremoniously fire a gun (blank cartridge) to get the organized mayhem started.

Everything was in place. Using the P.A. system from a police car, the mayor was introduced and made a few introductory remarks. I was walking to the edge of the crowd after a last check of one of the search areas and handing out paper bags. I was down to my last paper bag.

The mayor held the starter’s pistol overhead. I was wondering what to do with the last bag.
The mayor started a countdown. I held the bag up to my mouth.
The mayor’s countdown reached 5. All the kids were poised in anticipation.
I blew into the bag and proceeded to slam it down into my other hand at the same instant the mayor’s count reached 3.

Looking up I immediately realized what I had done. The mayor’s face was frozen in a grimace at hearing the loud pop just as he said 3. The kids all started to surge forward even though many were unsure because the pop of a paper bag and of a blank from a starter’s pistol don’t quite sound the same. It was literally like on TV when something happens and the action immediately goes into slow motion—and the word Noooooooooooooo reverberates. (Or more aptly when Ralphie is helping his Dad change the tire and the Dad knocks the hubcap with the lug nuts flying and Ralphie says “Oh fuuuuuudddgggeee”).

The kids bolted. The mayor jolted. He never fired off the gun. All the eggs got found. The kids had a great time. The rest of the Salesman’s Bureau laughed until they had to hold their sides. I was totally embarrassed at having done something so idiotic. And the Mayor never forgave me.

Have a wonderful Easter.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

WTF? or Water, Water Everywhere but...

This morning’s newspapers had a couple of articles about issues here in San Diego County that literally caused me to ask myself the classic question—WTF??

One article dealt with the Metropolitan Water Agency which serves most of Southern California and apparently has a great deal of control over water supplies which come via both the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct from northern California. It said that the winter’s snowpack in NorCal was only about 80% of normal, water supplies were critical and that the San Diego area would see a reduction in water supply in the 10 to 15% range.

That in and of itself is pretty ominous. This is a desert climate with low levels of annual rainfall. Of course, municipalities have never seen fit to require things like drought resistant yards and landscaping (like seen in areas like Phoenix or Albuquerque) or the use of grey water for non-drinking water purposes like irrigation. Or even (gasp!) some sort of restrictions on pubic water use for residential swimming pools or spas. Hey! Drinking water is for drinking and cooking not golf course greens or pools. But that’s a whole other rant for me.

The other article dealt with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and its ongoing skirmishing with Poseidon Company which is trying to get approval to build a seawater desalination plant next to a power plant in Carlsbad. The plant would re-use the seawater that the power plant currently uses for cooling and would desalinate the water into drinking water and could provide for up to 9% of the freshwater available in San Diego County when it goes online.

Well, apparently the Water Quality Control Board has some issues (like for the last 6 years) on “mitigation lands” the plant has to buy and restore so that endangered species have a refuge. The Board now wants to require a doubling of the lands from 55 to 110 acres. It’s because of fish which may be harmed by the plant’s intake which, according to experts, comes to the amount of fish that would be eaten each day by 2 pelicans.

You can kind of see where this is heading can’t you? Let’s see—not enough water from sources hundreds of miles away. A whole big ocean at our back door. A bureaucracy putting more impediments in place. 2 pelicans. Yep. WTF?

The bad news is that there is less fresh water available from traditional sources. The good news is that there’s a whole ocean out there and the technology exists to take the salt and minerals out of it and make it drinkable fresh water, even though it’s expensive. The better news is that global warming will mean that there’s more ocean water on its way as the ice caps melt, etc. The technology for desalination is expensive (too bad the investment wasn’t made a quarter century ago when this same problem existed but the technology was cheaper), but it’s only going to get more costly and the need is only going to become more acute.

You’d think that…Oh for crying out loud, nevermind. It’s all kind of ridiculous the way things are approached isn’t it? But, let’s see, 2 pelicans vs. 9% of the County’s water supply. Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Yeah, right. My opinion and $2.00 will buy me a cup of coffee at any Denny’s.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cheap Bastid Strikes Again

Cheap Bastid Strikes Again

Whatever happened to Jiffy Pop? At the grocery store we frequent you can still find it stuck up on a top shelf. It now costs $1.99. Dayem, that’s a lot.

Whatever happened to regular popcorn? When did it evolve that the only way to make popcorn at home is in the microwave? Do the math. A bag of microwave popcorn costs about 75 cents.

I can remember when the big innovation in popcorn was the airpopper. About the only way you can find one of those now is at a garage sale or in an antique/2nd hand/junk store sitting forlornly on a table priced at about five bucks. Airpoppers were cool. Just load the popcorn in, stick a bowl underneath and the heated air caused the corn to pop and then roll out of a spout—no oil. Instant “health food”. It was an incredible technological breakthrough in the early 70’s right up there with airpots for coffee or other beverages. They both made great wedding presents or gifts to parents with old fashioned electric burner popcorn poppers or regular coffee carafes.

For some reason, I have recently been on a quest to “re-learn” how to make popcorn on the stove. This is a knack we all had “back in the day”. Just take out a sauce pan with a cover, turn on the burner, pour in a bit of oil, drop a couple of handsful of popcorn, cover and let it pop. (Hmmm, I just now remembered that white popcorn kernels always popped up lighter and fluffier than yellow!) But that was 35 years ago.

So, recently for some obscure reason, I have taken it upon myself—and now enlisted my wife, Carolyn’s, active participation—to make popcorn the “old fashioned” way. On the stove. In a pan. (I’m not going all the way back to one of those baskets that you filled with corn and stick into a fire and pop that way.”

If I were Alton Brown, I’d be talking about the chemistry of heating the moisture in the corn kernel until it turns to steam and causes the kernel to explode itself inside out. Oh, I guess I just did the TMI thing, didn’t I?

So the first time, I just grabbed a sturdy sauce pan, drizzled a bit of oil in it, turned on the stove, and put some popcorn in. Not bad except for a couple of things. Too much oil, too much popcorn, too much heat, too small a pan. It scorched into the bottom of the pan. There were way too many “old maids” and it tasted stale.

We tried again a few days later. Same pan, less popcorn. Still too much heat and it scorched again. Carolyn went on a scavenger hunt in the cupboards for a long forgotten, larger pan and found it. We tried again. Too much heat and not enough corn. I’m getting good at scraping burned black popcorn residue out of a sauce pan.

After much trial and error we’ve got it down (we think). A thin skim of oil in the bottom of the pan. Temperature on the stove set at “6 o’clock”—a solid medium. One third of a cup of popcorn. Shake the pan liberally as it’s popping. Voila! We have popcorn. After about 6 or 7 abortive attempts to replicate the popcorn we could make “in the old” days automatically, without thinking, perfectly every time.

We haven’t saved any money yet. But—you can buy popcorn at Frasier Farms (a local grocery featuring organic and fresh stuff which is a good reason to charge more) for 69 cents a pound. That’s enough for about 5 servings of popcorn—or about 15 cents each. We just got some more today. Let’s see if we can do it right this time.

It’ll be right when we can pop up the corn in about 5 minutes from the time I open the cupboard reaching for the popcorn and pan until I rinse out the pan and carry the bowl (one of my TexasWare mixing bowls) to the living room, plop down on the couch with Carolyn, feet up on the edge of the coffee table, each of us with a napkin and the bowl resting between us on the cushion still hot, not too salty, fresh tasting, ready for the rest of today’s “Monk Marathon” on USA.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rungi Schmelli 1

Do junior high boys even have P.E. class anymore? I wonder. It’s too bad if they don’t especially with the number of kids I see going down the street every day on their way to school who are obviously overweight and out of shape.

Growing up in Tampa, Florida in the late 50’s and early 60’s we definitely had Jr Hi PE. Everyday. Outside. Unless it was raining or too cold (a relative term in Tampa).

Seventh grade hit in August, 1963. I had PE that year in the afternoon (fortunately I had a class between lunch and PE so the “beanie weenies” had a chance to settle down and start working their way through my system).

The first day of PE was an orientation for those of us in the 7th grade featuring our instructor Coach Solomon (rumored to have been a Marine DI) and Head Coach Escobar—a large, round, bald-headed, nut-brown Cuban. Coach Escobar did most of the talking and he had a unique way of talking. For one thing he bit off many of his words and never pronounced the “s” at the end of a word.

Here’s the opening of his standard, first day of school lecture: “Girl,” he’d say, “You got to dress out every day. You got to wear your sock, your jock and your tenna choo. You get 2 point every day you dress out. If you don’ wear your sock, you lose one point. If you don’ wear your jock, you lose one point. If you don’ wear your tenna choo, you lose one point.”

And someone would invariably ask, “But coach isn’t that losing 3 points?” Coach Escobar would respond, “You get 2 point for dressing, but no sock, no jock, no tenna choo—you can lose 3 point. Now go run 2 lap.” And the kid had to go out to the quarter mile track, in his regular clothes (because we hadn’t dressed out that day) and run 2 laps returning sweat soaked and better educated than he had been 10 minutes earlier.

We all had to wear the same black gym shorts and the same white t-shirts both emblazoned with Madison Junior High on them. Everyone looked the same. Well not really because our ages in the Junior High class ranged from 12 to 15 because it combined 7th through 9th graders together. But more on that later.

I got 2 pairs of shorts and 2 t-shirts and they lasted me all 3 years—by the time I was done with 9th grade, the shorts were grey and the t-shirts where holey. They were pretty baggy on me at 12 but by the time I was 14 in 9th grade both were getting pretty snug.

Then Coach Escobar went into the rest of his lecture. “OK girl, you got to chower after class. Everyone got to chower. If you don’t chower, you lose 1 point. And, when you chower, you got to get in there and wash out your rungi schmelli. You don’t want to go to class and get around those cute girl all you girl like without washing out your rungi schmelli.”

Now none of us dared to ask what a rungi schmelli was—it was a term we’d hear often over the course of the next 3 years—because we all had a pretty good idea what he was referring to. And by the way, Coach Escobar always referred to us as “girls” (except he pronounced it girl).

What a fantastic introduction into the world of Junior High. Into the world of men. To being talked to as men. We 7th graders looked at one another, somewhat self-consciously. This was fascinating new stuff and most of us couldn’t wait to actually “dress out” the next day. But that’s another story.

Rungi Schmelli 2

The second day of junior high dawns. I take one pair of my new gym shorts and one of the new t-shirts along with my athletic supporter and a pair of socks and lay them inside a towel which I then rolled tight and tied with the laces of my tennis shoes. OK, I’m all ready for my first day of PE class.

The gym clothes went into my locker during homeroom and I took them out following lunch homeroom. I’d carry them with me the rest of the day. The bell rang to end my after lunch class and it was time for PE.

I raced to the boy’s locker room and proceeded to change. We had 5 minutes between classes and PE started 5 minutes after the bell rang. We had to be fully dressed and out on the field ready to go by the end of those 5 minutes. Some guys could never figure out how to be on time. I never had a problem. The PE class would end 5 minutes before the bell. We had those 5 minutes and another 5 to shower, change and make it to our next class.

And, back in the early 60’s you didn’t want to mess around with being late for class. It could be worth a trip to the office for either detention or a “pop” (which was the application of the “board of education” across your butt).

Anyway, in the locker room it seemed as though all the 7th grade boys were along one wall, the 8th graders in the middle and the 9th graders along the opposite wall. The fourth wall was a large open bay shower area with about a dozen shower heads spaced along it. I changed and managed to get out to the field well before Coach Solomon made his appearance.

PE class started with calisthenics. But before they could begin on this our first day of class, Coach divided us into 3 squads of about 10 each. Each squad had a 9th grader as a leader and there was another 9th grader who was in overall charge of leading the exercises. Keith Robbins. Rumor had it that he was almost 16 and already practice driving for his driver’s license. He was a man among boys. While we were puny, Keith was solid—and hairy. He even shaved. He popped zits on his legs while waiting for class to start. Gross, but in a manly sort of way. I didn’t have enough hair on my legs for anything to get ingrown and create a zit.

I had never done any of this before—and obviously neither had my 7th grade colleagues. And yet for me, at least, the calisthenics were easy. They were all done in unison and we were required to count each repetition off, “One, two, three, one. One, two, three, two” until we reached a 15 count of each different exercise. We did jumping jacks, windmills, squat-thrusts, rocking-chairs, push-ups, bicycles and several others whose names I forget. When “cal” was done we’d run a lap over on the track. This would take about 15 minutes and then we’d proceed to the sport we were doing during this 6 week grading period.

The way the class was set up, you could be totally un-coordinated and un-athletic and still earn a B by making sure that you dressed each day, doing well on a written test on the sport we would do each grading period and at least try during the sport’s skill test—like shooting a lay-up and free-throw.

So now, PE class is over. We’ve worked up quite a sweat. We run to the locker room (no walking allowed). We go to our baskets, unlock them and peel off our sweaty gym clothes. Now there is something like 40 or 50 naked young sweaty men trying to get into the shower.

This was the first time I had ever seen so many guys without clothes on—or any for that matter. There were a number like me—scrawny, pubescent boys, tanned from the summer just over but except for our heads, hairless. There were the 8th graders with hairy pits and "other" places. And then there were the 9th graders. Men. Some of them like Keith Robbins hairy all over. I won’t even broach the topic of the differences in “endowment” between 12 year olds and 14 year olds. Some of the kids gaped and held back. A couple of others tried to avoid showering but succumbed to the bluster of Coaches Solomon and Escobar. “Come on girl, get in and out. Everyone shower down.”

Now to bring this tale to a close, I’ve long thought that there was genius to this whole PE class thing. It was physical activity which helped get many into shape and some of us into better shape. Some of the boys had never done anything physical or athletic in their life. And it was a great equalizer. Getting sweaty in gym clothes and then naked has a way of erasing a lot of perceived status. And, everyone has a body—in junior high our bodies are going through a lot of changes—this is normal and natural. I like to think that this was just as much a goal of the class as the actual physical education.

Kids today don’t seem to have this same kind of experience. Physical education has been reduced and in some districts eliminated. Kids don’t get the level of physical activity and there certainly isn’t much expectation on them to exercise at school. That’s too bad because there’s a lot more to be learned in PE than the rules of a sport. Like, what a rungi schmelli is.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Interest of the Weaker

I’m going to try and do something totally serious here on a topic I have wanted to write about for decades. I’ve tried before but have always gotten mired down in convoluted details. So let’s see how this goes.

In society, what do we mean by justice? I’m talking about when someone commits a crime, is arrested and tried for it. Just exactly what is justice? Maybe I’ve been reading too many Robert Tanenbaum and John Lescroart novels recently but I’ve always wanted to take a whack at describing my thoughts on the subject.

In “The Republic”, Plato ultimately describes justice as the protection of the interests of the weaker. I’ve always believed this to be arguably the best definition. We must always zealously safeguard the rights of the weaker party in any situation.

If someone is mugged, that victim is the weaker party. Another person has accosted them and deprived them of their property. The person who was mugged reports this to the police. That’s how things are done in a society. With the police report, the victim is now out of the picture. The full might and power of the state (government) is now focused on the person who committed the crime. And that’s a lot of muscle.

Let’s say that someone is arrested for the mugging (and assume that all the legal “t’s” were crossed and all the “i’s” were dotted). The suspect will be booked, charged, put into jail and then arraigned before a judge. Now in our system, there is the classic presumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. This person has been formally accused of the crime. At this point, the suspect becomes the weaker. The entire focus of the state is upon him—police officers, lawyers, etc. It can be a crushing burden.

The suspect is now the weaker and his interests must be as zealously protected as the victim’s. And that is only right and just and fair. All of the suspect’s rights must be safeguarded. Otherwise the state could do whatever it wants—including torture, coercion, lying, etc. to get a conviction. But it can’t because the accused has the same rights as anyone else and they must be protected. To fail to protect those rights would mean that the rights of anyone or everyone could be abrogated just as easily.

I read something recently about trials which said that the prosecution has a double burden. First it must win its case—beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, it must make sure that the entire proceeding is fair. That’s the protection of the weaker. Plus, the defense is there to safeguard the defendant as well—and to try to get him or her off.

Now, this is mostly philosophical and I know that there are multitudes of arguments that can be made that oftentimes the system just doesn’t work that way. That’s right. There are plea bargains. There is misconduct. For decades the law was abused and allowed to perpetuate segregation and discrimination.

All that is true. But, the essence is that the protection of the interest of the weaker is what drives and fuels our entire society whether it’s criminal justice or civil justice or social justice. The good thing is that in America we pay more than lip service to this notion. It’s imperfect but we strive mightily to make it reality.

Gee, maybe that MA in Political Philosophy wasn’t a total waste after all. Thanks Dr. Poochigian.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Until Your Head Explodes

Every morning my wife and I like to have the TV on in the background as we get caught up on e-mail, read the paper, drink coffee and otherwise wake up. The TV is usually on A&E for re-runs of Third Watch and then on Bravo for re-runs of West Wing (even though we have the DVDs of the first 3 seasons).

But one of the things we wonder about is whether marketers intentionally try to drive people crazy with their ads or not. There are some ads which by their noisome repetition tend to inspire an eventual reaction much like one of Charlie Brown’s “AAUUUUUUUGH’s”.

We cringe when the strains of “Bum, bum, Bumblebee; bum bum Bumblebee; bum bum Bumblebee; Bumblebee Tuna” come over the TV featuring a lip synching actor in a really bad John Denver wig cavorting in kitchens and through the surf.

And then there’s “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar.” This is a commercial about a cookie which promises to help you lose up to 100 pounds just by eating these filling, low calorie cookies.

Then there’s NuvaRing. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, every day” goes this ditty for a birth control product featuring synchronized swimmers in swimsuits with the days of the week on them.

And, I would be totally remiss not to mention the 4 offerings, each with a slightly different melody, extolling the virtues of “Free Credit Report dot Com”. This goofy cast of characters (again lip synching—when did Millie Vanilli start doing commercials?) performs in a fish restaurant, at a Renaissance festival, in a beat up Honda hatchback and in the basement of the in-laws’ house.

AAUUUUUUUUUUUGH!! After the first few repetitions these commercials grate on the nerves. They insinuate themselves into your consciousness. They create a medley of insanity that will not leave your conscious or unconscious mind.

Is this good advertising or bad? They certainly impress themselves upon you. But do they inspire me to buy the product?

Let’s see. I don’t need NuvaRing (obviously). I don’t believe that eating cookies will help me lose weight (although maybe if I munched down enough ginger snaps or vanilla wafers). Free Credit Report really isn’t free.

Well, I’m left with tuna. That would be about the only product of these that I would buy. Maybe if it were 50% off at the grocery store I’d buy some but there’s never a special on it so I stick with store brand.

Someone is spending a lot of money. Obviously people are buying the products but is it because of the ads? Well, it seems as though I certainly remember the products. They have a branded image in my mind. But is it a good one? Whatever happened to “my bologna has a first name, it’s Oscar…”? Or “little girls have pretty curls, but I like Oreos”. Or even “let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat today.”

That’s OK I guess because this is new age advertising. Apparently it doesn’t matter whether it’s a good impression or a bad impression as long as it’s an impression. Until the next major campaign comes along we’ll just sing along with Bum Bum BumbleBee on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…every day. AAUUUUUUGH!!