Friday, December 14, 2012

A Charles Shultz Christmas

I didn’t understand years ago, but now I see that Charles Shultz was right. The man who created the comic strip “Peanuts” came to the same conclusion that I have except he got there a good 50 years before me. His complaint? Christmas is getting too commercial. My complaint? Christmas is way beyond commercial.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas, the religious holiday. The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is fine by me. To me, Easter is the true top Christian holiday, but Christmas is nice too. I like the time leading up to Christmas, especially the celebration of Advent. But let’s be honest here… there is nothing religious about stringing up multi-colored lights and hanging up stockings. A minority of the American people celebrate Christmas the religious holiday. The majority celebrate the commercial Christmas. Santa Claus and presents. Maxed-out credit cards and Black Friday sales. We’re getting to the point where Black Friday may soon begin right after the Labor Day picnic. Those things are trappings of the commercial Christmas.
Now, I don’t fault anyone for celebrating the commercial Christmas. The wealth of purchases is good for our economy. The gathering of families for a holiday is heartwarming. Sharing the magic of Santa Claus with a small child can bring a tear to your eye. And I’d never turn down a ride in a one-horse open sleigh. If that’s your idea of Christmas, good for you. But please don’t confuse it with the religious Christmas.
The songs of religious Christmas are hymns, carols that are usually saved until the week before Christmas. There are plenty of other Christmas songs — commercial Christmas songs — but the Holy Family did not rock around the Christmas tree just outside the stable, alright? There were no decked halls, and Grandma didn’t need to worry about being run over by speeding reindeer while walking home that first Christmas Eve. Go ahead and sing them. (Well, maybe you could skip that stupid Grandma getting run over by a reindeer song!)
When I was a kid, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas was a little confusing for me as some of the characters talked about Christmas being too commercial. Was that some movement in the 60s that I was too young to appreciate or understand? Is Snoopy’s doghouse covered in lights and decorations some sort of betrayal of Christmas? All these thoughts would run through my head. Then I would promptly put them out of my head and continue with making my Christmas plans. After all, commercial Christmas means presents for kids, right?
As I got older, I noticed some things I didn’t like about Christmas. For instance, we became so engrossed by Christmas traditions that not everyone even knew what the traditions meant. I mean, who cuts down a tree and puts it up in the house and thinks that means the birth of the Christ Child? Some of us went to the trouble to find out why trees were some of the first decorations for Christmas and got some meaning from it. The rest just ruined the vacuum sweeping up pine needles. But after a while, the traditions can tend to overshadow the meanings.
Buying Christmas presents used to harken back to the gift of a baby given by God. For many today it is about getting presents and getting your shopping done, saving 50-75 percent along the way. I shook my head sadly last month when I saw someone who had noted that only in America can we have a holiday to be thankful for what we have, then with the smell of that dinner still on our breath, wait in line at a department store to elbow someone in the jaw so we can get the last big screen TV at a doorbuster price. So much for thankfulness.
I don’t begrudge anyone his Santa or Rudolph or Abominable Snow Monster. Feel free to sing Jingle Bell Rock and White Christmas and weep when Frosty the Snowman melts. That is fine. You can celebrate the Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Festivus, or ignore the holidays entirely. However I also invite you join me in celebrating Christmas — the religious Christmas. Even if your doghouse is covered in Christmas lights.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A Father's Day gift

My boys got me a wonderful early Father’s Day present this year. They presented me with three tickets to the Indianapolis 500 -- one for each of us. I have been an Indy fanatic since I can remember, and many years ago I introduced my sons to the legendary and almost magical Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They were ages six and four when we first visited. They did not know what they were getting into, but once I pointed them in the direction of the track and the first two brightly-colored race cars flashed by at around 210 mph, they were jumping up and down, cheering like maniacs. At the same time I was smiling as a proud papa, and inside I was jumping up and down and cheering also. The place makes me feel like a kid.
The three of us took our seats high above turn four about three hours before the green flag. It was hot. Very hot. Think surface of the sun. Now you’ve got it. No breeze except when we flapped our arms around while putting on another layer of sunscreen. But we were there. A few others were already at their assigned seats while most waited in the shade until it was closer to race time. Eventually, a trio of men came up the stairs and sat in the row behind us. One man pulled out his cell phone and began a conversation with someone who was not from this country. The gentleman, who by this time was already sweaty, spoke in a slight accent. He explained where he was seated, the event that was coming up and chuckled at the ignorance of his friend. I sat there trying to identify the accent unsuccessfully. The boys and I glanced at each other, amused at what we were overhearing behind us. Soon the conversation ended and my attention turned to the opening festivities that had just started.
Since the 500 is run on Memorial Day weekend each year, there is always a deep respect shown for the military. Troops from every branch of service are driven around the track, others march, and the crowd stands, cheers and waves in appreciation. Patriotism is on display in full force -- even from the guy with the foreign accent behind me. So is tradition. One of the traditions, for some unknown reason, is to have Florence “Mrs. Brady” Henderson sing “God Bless America.” This year, it seemed the crowd decided to join in very loudly, even the guy with the accent. I heard him whisper that everyone was singing to drown out Henderson’s pitchy offering. I had to agree, and the boys and I did our part in overpowering the fading TV star with the microphone. The other traditional singer, Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors was too sick to travel from Hawaii, but he sent a video recording of himself crooning “Back Home Again in Indiana” to satisfy the many who did not want to part with tradition.
By the time the race started, a breeze had cooled us off. My sons and I watched what proved to be an incredibly exciting race without dehydrating or getting sunburned. We did our share of jumping up and down and cheering as well. Although we weren’t rooting for any one particular driver, but there were two cars we were not rooting for. Of course you can probably guess which two cars finished first and second. But that was alright, we got to be at the race. Attending an event in person is always better than watching on television -- different, but better.
With the sound of turbocharged engines ringing in our ears, the three of us navigated the sea of people to walk back to the car. For an event that brings in upwards of 400,000 human beings, the Indianapolis crew gets them in and out very efficiently. I guess when you’ve been doing it for 100 years, you learn a thing or two about directing traffic. So even in the midst of marching through vendors, tired race fans, and people trying to walk in the wrong direction, I was not worried about getting to the parking lot quickly or losing my way or not finding the car among the acres of vehicles parked with no landmarks to guide us. My mind had already drifted back about 14 years to that feeling I got when I introduced my sons to Indy. It’s still a good feeling. Thanks, boys!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The editor's mailbag

I'm sure that in every occupation, people receive interesting or odd emails. It would be interesting to glance through the inbox of a Congressman, a rodeo cowboy, an attorney, or even an exotic dancer. Each would be on the receiving end of some odd requests and stories. But as a newspaper editor, I am ready to put my inbox up against most anyone as far as having the widest variety of, let's call them unique emails. Even still, among all the community event items and press releases from obscure special interest groups there is the occasional item which stands out as just plain strange.
I got one of those the other day. This email originated in London, England. (At least that's what it claims.) In the text of the letter, the author asks me to publish this new incredible information or at least get it to those involved. This man believes he has critical information about a famous crime that heretofore has not been public knowledge. The author claims he knows who killed former Beatle John Lennon.
Now, I know what you're thinking -- "They caught the guy who shot Lennon! Mark David Chapman! He was arrested at the scene! How could that be wrong?" Well, according to our English tipster, the real killer was the Maharishi who began the Transcendental Meditation movement back in the late 1960s. The emailer claims that the Maharishi used mind control to accomplish the killing in revenge for Lennon and fellow-Beatle George Harrison's quick exit from the Marharishi's movement back in the day. I guess we are to believe that Chapman's mind was controlled all the way from India and he pulled the trigger, not to impress actress Jodie Foster, but to exact vengeance for someone on the other side of the world. My email buddy also claims that a knife attack on Harrison 19 years after Chapman's fatal shot was fired.
And how does our London do-gooder know this? He claims to be a victim of other crimes of the Maharishi and his cohorts. The exact nature of the crimes or the extent of his victimhood is nowhere to be found in the email.
I'm not a big believer in conspiracy theories anyway. I believe Oswald acted alone, Elvis has been dead since the late summer of 1977, and no one is trying to poison us with gas released from airplanes. So, I'm certainly not going to go off believing this idea simply because it came to me via email -- the same way I'm reached by virtually every Nigerian businessman and his wife with those money scams. (Yes, I still get those emails too!) But this email was certainly one of the more entertaining items in my inbox so far this year.
Aside from the lid being blown off the freshly-revealed John Lennon murder conspiracy, most of my email is the type that no one really cares about. I am apparently on the mailing list of upwards of 34 ka-jillion groups who want to convince me to publish information about the latest threat to our security, the newest self-help book to hit the shelves, and the best way to find a good-fitting bra. And that is just the items that make it through the email filters here in the palatial Times Bulletin Media offices. Just think about what is stuck in my spam filter!
I do get the occasional request to publish one side of the story in a family dispute or a supposed bad customer experience -- usually to try to drag someone else's name through the mud. Of course the newspaper is not the place to take unverifiable shots on people to get revenge. That's for the trashy Internet sites and the gossip chain at the local restaurant or parking lot.
I'm not certain just what the inbox of a cowboy, a congressman, or a cleaning woman looks like. But for pure entertainment value, I have to believe mine ranks somewhere in the upper half. But then again, maybe someone has me under mind control.

Something to chew on

I have never been much of a gum chewer. It’s not that I don’t like gum, but I just never got into that habit. Recently my attention was distracted from the tabloids and magazines at the checkout stand and started gazing at the array of chewing gum choices available. I was a bit amazed at the number of brands, but what really caught my eye was the assortment of flavors and the mixing of flavors. Really? Lime-melon? Raspberry-mint? Who came up with these flavors, and why would I want to risk a sour stomach to try pomegranate mixed with any sort of mint? What’s next? Grapefruit-potato? Watermelon-rutabega?
Back in my day, there were the basic chewing gum flavors, and we knew all about them. There were the standard Wrigley’s gums - Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit. Five sticks in a foil pack. No questions. You knew what you were going to get. I went through phases when each of these were my favorite, usually doled out a half-stick at a time from my grandmother’s pocketbook. (Not a purse. It was her pocketbook. I’m not sure why.) As a kid, half of a stick of gum was barely enough to interest my mouth, let alone my taste buds. So many times, I would pass on the pocketbook gum. If I was going to chew, I wanted two pieces. Make it worth my while, Grandma!
Aside from the Big Three, in 1976 there was the addition of Big Red, a cinnamon gum that I didn’t like. There was also the stuff that nobody I knew would touch with a ten-foot toothbrush. There was Blackjack gum, and Teaberry, and Clove. I’m not sure I ever put an actual stick of either Blackjack or Clove in my actual mouth, but I suffered for less than a minute with Teaberry. I have no idea what the taste was supposed to be. I just knew I wasn’t going to wait until I had chewed the flavor out of it.
Lest I forget the gum that most every kid loved. We couldn’t wait to get a stick of Fruit Stripe gum. Maybe it was the stripes, but I think it was probably the fact that there was enough sweetness to allow me to pass up on chocolate cake if I had a stick of that good striped stuff. Give me a pack with the zebra on the outside, and I was good for the afternoon. Apparently, there were other striped animals on the packs for a while too. Maybe because there were five flavors, I don’t know anymore. But even if I could get a half-stick from Grandma, Fruit Stripe was worth the effort.
Of course there were a few others -- Trident (the one four out of five dentists approved for their patients who chew gum), Dentyne (with the sticks that gave you less gum than a half-stick out of Grandma’s pocketbook), and Chicklets (which I always accepted from the teller while accompanying my parents to the bank). And at some point, the hottest gum to have was Freshen-Up (the gum that goes ‘squirt’). That was the cubical gum with the liquid in the center. When you got a couple of good chews in, you would break open the center and the fresh flavor squirted all over your mouth. If you made a slice in the side of a piece of Freshen-Up, placed it on the floor and stepped on it just right, you could really get the school janitor upset!
For the most part, any other gums were bubble gum -- Hubba Bubba, Bazooka, Double Bubble, and the like. They could shred it like tobacco (Big League Chew) or make it as hard and dry as possible (inside packs of baseball cards), but it was all just bubble gum. There were no gums that changed flavor midstream or sticks that mixed fruit and mint or anything on that order. We peeled open the Juicy Fruit, the Doublemint, or on a good day, the Fruit Stripe gum, and we chewed. Then we begged Grandma for the other half of the stick.

Monday, May 14, 2012

May I have the envelope please?

I have never been a big fan of award shows. It’s not the awards and the occasional acceptance speech that set me off, but it’s all the other trappings. For instance, two people walk out onstage to some random tune performed by an orchestra assembled just for the occasion. They meander to some sort of podium and proceed to read stale jokes from cue cards to the forced laughter from the captive audience made up of nominees who just want to know if they’ve won something. The list of awards is seemingly endless and the categories are incredibly obscure, like Best Performance By A Redheaded Left-handed Soprano In A Film With A Title Consisting Of Precisely Three Words. These programs typically run too long for the slot on television. They blame the winners who thank everyone from the doctor who delivered them to the kid who mowed the lawn. But the culprit is whoever organizes these shows into marathon events.
With that admitted prejudice inside me, I attended the Associated Press Society of Ohio’s awards dinner last weekend expecting the worst. But I attended because these fine folks wished to honor me with an award for my writing in this weekly column. So I put on a tie, drove to Columbus, and waited to see how these Associated Press awards would be handled.
I knew that I was already a winner, but I was not sure if I was a first place, second place or third place award winner. I would find that out and receive my award at the luncheon. Looking at the program, I realized that the awards were divided up into five divisions, depending on the size of the newspaper’s circulation. I was in Division I, for the smallest papers. However, this division had the most competition. There are something like 32 or 33 publications in the division with the Times Bulletin. The bigger newspapers in the state had almost no competition with only five or six in the upper divisions, so I felt even better about having been named a winner.
Division I came first. After a presentation of a special award, a tall gentleman stepped to the podium with no cue cards or stale jokes. He simply began reading the categories and the three winners for each. When the Best Columnist category came along about five minutes into the presentation, my name was called. I walked forward to accept third place, shaking someone’s hand and grabbing a certificate which is suitable for framing. (I know because the certificate was already in a frame!) Then I sat down. Times Bulletin Publisher Kirk Dougal’s category, Best Editorial Writer, was next, and he walked up and accepted his suitable-for-framing award. A few minutes later the Best Special Sports Section award came up, and I was told to pick up our first place award. This one needed no frame. It was a wooden plaque with silver accents. But it is suitable for hanging. The notch for the nail was already in place.
After picking up our three awards, we sat there as the rest of the Division I awards were handed out. There were 35 in all. And bless that tall gentleman who read them as quickly as humanly possible. Then it was time for Division II. That meant 35 more awards. Then 35 more in Division III, 35 more in Division IV, and 35 more in Division V. Wow! That’s a lot of awards. And a lot of sitting and applauding. By the end of Division I, my hands were sore. So those poor folks in the top two sections went without my personal praise as I gripped a glass full of ice.
I’ll note that I gave no acceptance speech, thanked none of the little people who helped me, nor was I escorted off the stage by a pretty lady in a tight, sparkling dress. There was no music played when my name was read. However there was a screen where my name and picture were projected and the applause of audience members who had not yet realized that they’d be applauding for another few hours or so. There was also the opportunity for me to realize that some people actually appreciate my weekly babbling and that I’m not simply amusing myself every seven days. And to those of you, I thank you, whether you’re a little person or not.

Listening differently

It hit me with a start as I was rummaging through my belongings. I have literally thousands of audio cassette tapes that I have accumulated over the years, but do you think I have any audio cassette player? Apparently not. Certainly I have owned plenty of these devices. But, like many things in my life, they have either been broken, lost or stolen by my children. It’s not really a pressing need though. I can listen to music through any number of methods these days. But all the work that I put into saving recordings from what is now ancient technology seems wasted. And it doesn’t even begin with my huge cassette collection.
Like most of us seasoned folk, my first real memory of possessing music was on a vinyl record. There were 78’s that spun at an incredible pace, then the 45’s that were smaller in size but still packed the same amount of music onto a side thanks to microgroove technology. Today, microgroove sounds like some sort of new coffee variant. The tough deal about the 7-inch 45’s was the adapter that you needed to play the things on a standard record player. If your player did not come with a large cylindrical adapter useful for playing stacks of hit songs, you needed a plastic adapter, often called a spider because, well, I’m not really sure why anybody called it a spider since it looked more like a round three-legged swastika than any insect I have seen. But with a pack of spiders and an automatic changer for the player, the music would never end -- at least not for about an hour.
For real music lovers, the album was the chosen method of listening. Turning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, the disk would run under the record needle which would faithfully reproduce anything from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” for our listening pleasure. Of course, the record player didn’t help for those long car trips when Mom and Dad wanted to listen to the equivalent of Muzak on the radio. But soon, music lovers were presented with salvation itself. It was called the 8-track tape. With just a quick push into the dashboard or into the slot on the home hi-fi, and the music would flow.
I never owned an 8-track tape or an 8-track player. I found early on that there were disadvantages to the 8-track technology. For one, there were four “programs” on the tape and often the recording didn’t fit well onto the allotted space on the tape. The result was a fade out of the music, a click to the next program on the tape, and a fade in of the music again. Annoying. The other drawback was that the vast majority of 8-track machines were simply players and not recorders. So I bypassed the 8-track for the prize that didn’t include fading during guitar solos and did include the ability to create my own recordings. I went straight to cassette. Yes, I was a trendsetter. It took a while before I could get many pre-recorded cassettes. In fact, if not for the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, I probably would have been music-free in my formidable years except for recording my favorite songs from the radio.
I still have no 8-track player, although I do have a turntable, which is the fancy way of saying record player. I can play music from the vinyl discs and from the more-common compact discs. Then there is the new standard for music -- digital. I never had an mp3 player of my own or any kind of iPod, but I do now have an iPhone which accomplishes the same purpose. (Oddly enough, my iPhone also makes phone calls. Who’da thunk it?)
But for some reason, I don’t have a cassette player to my name. I purposely avoided the 8-tracks that I knew would be worthless and sunk my time, money and energy into a different obsolete music format. Now I’m faced with the fact that I have a boatload of cassettes that I can store in the same room as all the VHS video tapes I can no longer watch since my VCR blew up a few years ago. I feel like technology has marched right over me.

Wrestling rebirth

It was 30 years ago that professional wrestling was born. Well, wait. Strike that. Let’s say that it was reborn. It was April 5, 1982 that comedian/actor Andy Kaufman faced off in the ring with pro wrestler Jerry “the King” Lawler in Memphis, Tennessee. As part of his comedy act, the skinny Kaufman (better known as Latka Gravas from the TV series, Taxi) had been challenging women in his audience to wrestle, offering a cash prize and his hand in marriage to any woman who could beat him. Lawler took offense and the typical bluster of a wrestling feud began. After Lawler predictably put Kaufman into the hospital after the match, the feud continued with a famous appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, etc. The true importance of this whole charade (spoiler alert: the whole feud was scripted) was that a young wrestling promoter named Vince McMahon saw how much attention a celebrity brought to the often-ignored world of professional wrestling and used the idea to build his organization -- the World Wrestling Federation (the WWF then, the WWE today).
I first remember actually watching professional wrestling shortly after this time. My college roommate used to watch and got me to watch one day when his favorite wrestler, Sgt. Slaughter, made an appearance. Then there was this up-and-coming guy named The Incredible Hulk Hogan and the Iron Shiek and Nicolai Volkov and the whole gang. I was amused, but not addicted. After all, this was professional wrestling and not a real sport, right? But soon the inspiration of Kaufman’s antics hit and Cyndi Lauper (the Katy Perry of the 80s) was taking part as was red-hot actor Mr. T. The WWF was everywhere and was probably on MTV more than either Hall or Oates. Eventually by 1989, McMahon let the cat out of the bag. Faced with the prospect of paying higher taxes or admitting that the matches were staged, McMahon took the cash and affirmed the worst-kept secret on television.
Back in 1986, the radio station where I worked sponsored the WWF show and four of us were given complementary ringside seats. It was four guys (because no woman would even think about going), sitting in the second row (or “close enough to be spit on” as I phrased it at the time), screaming and laughing for two to three hours at the spectacle. I remember little about the wrestling from that night, but I do remember that we watched a match between future Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura and a character known as Uncle Elmer. Ventura was the bad guy and one of the locals (who must have been shocked when he found out the matches were staged) was in grand form. He had walked down from the cheap seats, screaming and pointing his finger at the boa-wearing Ventura, cussing him up one side and down the other. Old Jesse stood there in his corner staring back at the lunatic, face in a mean scowl. Then, suddenly, I saw Ventura do something I’ve never seen any professional wrestler do before or since. He broke character. The corners of his mouth started to curl upward and The Body couldn’t keep it in any longer. He broke out laughing at the show that most everyone else in the crowd had been gawking at for the past few minutes. After about five to ten seconds, Jesse took his hands away from his face, stood up straight again, and set his face back into that scowl.
I haven’t watched any professional wrestling for a long time now. I do know that somewhere after McMahon admitted that the fix was in, the shows got raunchier than the cartoonish wrestling characters of the Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection days. But I’ve always thought of pro wrestling as an easy metaphor for life. There are good guys, bad guys, and those who alternate between good and bad. There is passion, anger, bitterness, forgiveness, revenge, ego, and greed all dressed in tights. Thanks, Andy, for bringing it to our attention.

Somebody' got to do it

Parenting is hard work. The uproar over the accusation by a Democrat strategist that Mitt Romney’s wife hadn’t worked a day in her life despite being a stay-at-home mother has highlighted the job of raising children. Yes, it is hard work, although it is unpaid. If you have raised kids, you already know how much effort is put into all sorts of teaching and training. Sure, there’s the whole ‘love’ factor. We take care of our children and prepare them for adulthood because we love them. But there is a bit of a startling trend that I need to report.
As I was chewing my breakfast Thursday morning with the radio playing, I heard an interview with a woman who apparently began a company which specializes in... well, let’s just me just tell you the name of the firm: PTS. That stands for International Potty Training Services. Yup. Now you can hire someone to potty-train your child. At first I thought it was just a joke interview on the AM radio. Well, if it’s a joke, the joke also has a website. ( And the lady with the nondescript foreign accent seemed to have all the answers. She didn’t reveal her secrets, of course. And she kept the toilet talk to a minimum, perhaps because the interviewer was as amazed as myself that someone would consider hiring out for this kind of service.
For those of you who are truly curious, the website is full of items and cute pictures of kids sitting on toilets of various sizes. The page I sought out was the one listing the types of services available. From the looks of things, there is a $200 initial psychological exam to determine why a parent is calling out to have someone else do the work. Once that is completed, you can choose two different types of service. Number one, short-term training or number two (if you’ll pardon the expression), long-term training. Short-term is for those 18 months of age or older. Long-term is for the younger ones, as young as nine months old.
The other choices are to either bring in a trainer into the home or to get tips from the experts via phone or email. In-home trainers are paid anywhere from $20-$55 per hour, while phone tips are dispensed at anywhere from $1.25 - $2.00 per minute, depending on how many hours a day the expert is on call. I’m not sure what the difference in quality would be. I’m thinking that’s the risk you take.
As I’ve pondered the whole idea of hired gun potty-training experts, I have considered children with special needs as a possible legitimate case for the PTS experts. After that, I’m a little stumped. I’m afraid that PTS is a symptom of that growing problem of detached parenting. I’m very thankful that I had loving parents who helped me with everything from potty-training to learning to cook and do my own laundry. And I’ve tried my best to be an involved, instructive parent for my kids also. But I think we all know that there are some parents who, by choice or due to unforeseen circumstances, aren’t all that involved in their kids’ activities, schoolwork, friends, or even behavior. Is PTS just another excuse for a parent to skip out on basic parenting? It could be, but at $55 an hour it would certainly be an expensive method of avoidance.
I get that some parents try to avoid changing diapers or doing the dirty work of potty training on occasion. I never did shirk my responsibilities in this department, although if there was a cheap potty training expert that could teach my dogs to use the commode, especially at 3 a.m., I’d be mighty tempted to shell out the funds. But for children, let’s all try to wipe away the urge to push that responsibility onto someone else.

Everyone's a critic

So what is art, anyway? The question came up this week in discussion following the death of the self-proclaimed Painter of Light, Thomas Kinkade. You see, Kinkade has been a lightning rod in the art community. Art critics could never stand the guy. Well, mostly it couldn’t stand his work, but for some critics it got personal too. They called his paintings everything from unoriginal to amateurish with a whole lot of expletives thrown in the mix as well. They said he was too commercial, opening up his own galleries and even hawking his prints on television shopping channels. And somewhere along the line, the Associated Press started a side discussion earlier this week asking if Kinkade’s work was really art or simply pop culture.
Personally, I thought that was a pretty silly question. I believe the word art deals with all manner of items judged on their beauty, but I don’t recall anything being kicked out of “art” because it wasn’t beautiful. In elementary school, I made an ash tray in art class. It was hardly a thing of beauty. Mostly it was a concave object with some sort of apparatus upon which a burning cigarette could be rested. It was clay-colored. This was not breathtaking in any manner or form. But it was art. And it earned me a passing mark in art class.
As I read through the various comments about Kinkade’s work, I remembered some of the various items I had encountered over the years that were classified as art of some sort. That included the work of someone who strung women’s undergarments together to form a chain that crossed a large gorge. It also included a canvas with half of it painted one color and the other half painted white. It also included a crucifix sitting in a jar of urine. These were works of art. So how is it that a painting of a garden cottage surrounded by flowers could be considered anything but art?
The secret lies in the world of criticism. As a whole, I find critics to have a sense of standards that rarely correspond to the average person. That is alright, I guess, but typically the opinion of the critic suggests that those of us who are viewing a painting are unable to determine whether or not we should like it. The stereotypical critic is much more intelligent that the rest of us and has a more informed opinion. It’s not just paintings and sculpture. Music critics are the same way. Movie critics are the same also. Most anyone who used to watch Siskel & Ebert using the patented Two Thumbs Up method of reviewing movies soon realized that just because the critics in the balcony gave two thumbs up, that didn’t mean we were going to enjoy the movie. If you’ve read music reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone, you know that certain musicians will usually get good critical reviews while others will not, no matter how many records they sell. Those seeking to make music that appeal to a large number of people are called “sellouts” and are spat upon by many music critics.
So, back to the Painter of Light. This guy moved merchandise. He was not the typical starving artist. And so some critics despised him for that. Kinkade was also a man who expressed his religious faith openly, even when he failed to live up to his ideals. And some critics despised him for that. He also painted things with a gimmick that highlighted light in the picture. That gimmick earned him some slams from the critical world. And, full disclosure here, I have three Kinkade prints. Not original prints. Copies of copies, most likely. They were gifts for my wife. And I like them. I’ve always been a fan of artwork where you can actually identify what has been painted on the canvas. But I realize these are not Leonardo da Vinci quality. And that is okay. It seems that the most important aspect of art in any form is how it makes you feel and what it makes you think about. Art can be pop culture too, if it is popular or at least depicts what is popular. Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? If so, you should have beholded my ash tray. I’m no sellout.

Productivity problems

It used to be that the two least productive work days of the year were the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA mens basketball tournament. Workers would head out to lunch and not come back, and those on the job would give half-hearted effort to work and most of their attention to that all-important matchup between two schools whose campuses 99 percent of America couldn't find on map. Now, I will agree that those two days can throw a wrench into a firm's productivity, but I think I can beat them.
We are coming out of the least productive two weeks in Van Wert County. That's right, it's not late December through New Years, and it's not Peony Festival weekend. Give me two weeks of temperatures in the 70s and 80s in mid-March, and I can bring Van Wert County to a screeching halt! Well, not completely. But just how hard has it been to continue with that Midwestern U.S. work ethic with a full-blown case of spring fever? Sure, I've seen lawns mowed for the first time of 2012, flower gardens weeded, and cars washed. But the work most of us earn paychecks to do has to have suffered since spring got such a big head start.
Here in the palatial offices of Times Bulletin Media, we work without windows. Well, the front office has windows. The rest of us doing all the grunt work back in the South Wing of the estate have little idea if it is day or night, rainy or sunny, March or November. We just keep plugging away, far away from the temptation of windows and the call of Mr. Blue Sky. These days that beckon those with the window seats have no effect on us... until we need to go outside. Maybe news has just broken out. Maybe it's lunch time. Maybe we thought we heard a noise. Whatever. And we go outside and then...
I'm not really sure what happens from that point. Nobody ever seems to come back. Not until the next day when it all starts up again. Or when we get all overcome by guilt that we drag our sorry selves back through the high-security doors, sit down at our chairs and wait for the memory of how nice it is outside to fade away. Let's face it, if we all had better memories, every factory, store and business in this county would have been empty at least half this week.
Those people who work outside are not immune to this either. The percentage of time daydreaming as opposed to cleaning up brush or framing up that wall has certainly been skewed toward fantasyland over the past two weeks. Don't try to deny it! It's only human nature. Unless you are one of those people who apparently has some penguins in your family tree, you long for the beginning of spring and you curse that wretched groundhog and the shadow he rode in on every February.
Spring is when a young man's fancy turns to love. At least I think I read that in a high school English class once. Spring is also when our collective fancies turn to baseball, bikinis, barbecue, and at least three other things that begin with 'B.' There are a few other items we are reminded of when spring makes an early entrance. Farmers are wondering if they should press their luck and get out into a field in the near future. Some use the opportunity to test the air conditioning at home, at work, and in the vehicle. Others realize that exercise programs are not restricted to the climate-controlled indoor spaces. Sleeves are short to non-existent. Skirts are short to almost non-existent. Attention spans are short to... well, I forgot what I was talking about.
But praise be! Clouds and rain are on the horizon. April showers are right around the corner. And maybe, eventually, I'll be able to get some work done without having my brain drift out to lunch in the warm sunshine. Or maybe I'll just watch the NCAA tournament.

Bobbing My Head

It’s strange what you remember. I remember lots of toys from my childhood. There were the typical ones -- Hot Wheels, board games, sports accessories, that sort of things. But one of the items I used to spend a lot of time with was a set of small figurines of the U.S. presidents. There were 36 of them with a genuine styrofoam stage set up with places for all 36 figurines. They weren’t exactly action figures, but I remember rearranging them on the styrofoam steps and reading the small inscriptions on the base of each. There wasn’t much information. I remember the names, the years in office, and whichever number president were on each little statuette, and it wasn’t too long before I had them memorized. I knew them backward and forward. Pick a number and I knew the president. It’s too bad my memory has taken a sabbatical since then. Now when I try to recite the presidents, typically around Tyler, Polk and Taylor, I’ll end up inserting Larry, Moe, and Curly, or maybe Grumpy, Sneezy, Dopey, and Doc. Of course, maybe I’m not too far off. But I digress.
I was reminded of my little presidential figurine set this week when I saw the story about the John Wilkes Booth bobblehead. If you missed it, the gift shop at the Gettysburg National Military Park announced it was pulling the Booth bobblehead from its shelves. Something about bad taste. Most people didn’t realize there was such a thing as a bobblehead of a notorious killer, let alone that it was being sold at a place that is synonymous with the victim. Personally, I wouldn’t have suspected that there was an “assassins” collection in the bobblehead catalog. After all, aren’t bobbleheads supposed to be celebratory or honorary in nature?
Typically, bobbleheads are handed out to encourage attendance at sporting events. If you are one of the first 2,000 fans in the stadium, you’ll receive a free bobblehead of the team hero. You don’t expect to go to a Reds game and get a bobblehead of a Cubs pitcher. It’s an honor, no matter how goofy they look.
I did what I naturally do in these situations -- I pulled up the Internet and looked around. And as I had figured, you can make a bobblehead out of anyone. Mostly, anything with a head can be bobbled. One such company will make a bobblehead of anyone as long as they have a picture to get a likeness. So if you really want a bobblehead of Lee Harvey Oswald or Brutus or Mark David Chapman, you can get one! (Don’t ask me how to get a picture of Brutus to accomplish this one though.)
My mind started to race back to my presidential statuettes, and so I thought, are there presidential bobbleheads too? Silly me. Of course there are! There are bobbleheads of presidents, military heroes, professional and collegiate athletes, broadcasters, cartoon characters, religious figures, movie characters, celebrities, rock stars, superheroes, and most every other category of person you can name. I could not find any other assassins aside from Booth. No John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, etc. either. And I did for a moment, breathe a sign of relief.
Then I thought again. Why couldn’t a bobblehead be made simply to teach about a person. Does a bobblehead truly need to be for honorary people? Some of the subjects I saw “honored” with a bobblehead truly were not all that honorable, if you get what I mean. So, while I understand the Gettysburg Gift Shop pulling the bobbling Booths off the shelves, I don’t think it was necessary. The name John Wilkes Booth is connected as much with Abraham Lincoln as the Gettysburg battlefield. Why deny that? So maybe I should start shopping for a presidential bobblehead collection. Maybe I’ll start with Larry, Moe and Curly.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The draw of being a celebrity

“'Cause when you're a celebrity, it's adios reality. You can act just like a fool; People think you're cool just 'cause you're on TV.” - Brad Paisley
I've mentioned previously that I've never been one to be impressed by celebrities. I figure most of them are even more messed up than me, so why should I admire them. A portion of them have talents that I do not have, namely the athletes, but many of them do not. Yet still they become celebrities, mostly because they can get other people to pay attention to them. Now I have no real problem with getting attention. I think most of us feel the same way. But it's what you get attention for that you may cause you to rethink your goal of being famous.
If your name is Kardashian, apparently that gives you a free ticket on the Celebrity Express. This comes despite the lack of any discernible talent, aside from being able to grow and maintain a large posterior. Reality shows have upped the number of celebrities into the ka-jillions, with the only real distinguishing characteristics being the ability to follow a map, to choose from among 25 potential spouses or to survive an immunity challenge. But let's move past the world of reality television and instead focus on another medium -- the Internet.
Do you know how many Internet celebrities there are? Alright, neither do I, but let me tell you it's more than you might suspect. The Internet has opened the doors of the Celebrity Express to anyone with a PC and a camera or a webcam. The first Internet star I can recall was Cindy Margolis, who was billed as the most downloaded woman in the world. Forget for a minute the possible double entendres of that statement and focus with me on the fact that a woman whose sole marketable talent is looking pretty can become a “celebrity” on the Internet.
My sons are avid followers of a couple of Internet celebrities who inhabit cyberspace through videos posted on YouTube. One of them even “moved up” and was a contestant on a reality show (fittingly enough) for one season. But the shows are typically about playing video games or their own naiive takes on news events presented in a style reminiscent of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update skits.
But it's not just the kids who are turning assorted computer geeks into “celebrities. I was talking to a woman the other day who is nearly my age who admitted to me that she is always checking to see if new videos are posted by a certain woman who demonstrates makeup. Apparently the video-maker has plenty of followers who feed on her every suggestion.
Other YouTube “celebrities” do other ground-breaking things like point a video camera inside their dresser drawers and describe the items inside, often with language that would make a sailor blush. Amateur filmmakers produce parody videos skewering anything hot in the world of pop culture. And the videos become popular, and the video-makers become popular, and eventually turn into Internet “celebrities.”
The old commercial used to ask, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” but I am asking, “What would you do to become a celebrity?” Display your drawers and their contents for millions upon millions to see? Perform feats of idiocy to get people to watch? Play video games and tell people what you think about them? Well, those things have already been done, and who knows how many of their 15 minutes of fame still remain.
But I wonder why someone would want to be a celebrity in the first place. Interviews with real celebrities that I have heard have also included tales of being chased by photographers, being never given any privacy in a public place (including the rest room), and being nearly assaulted for not stopping to talk with every person who recognizes them.
Who needs that? Then again, the same celebrities talk about never having to wait in long lines, getting free food and other special goodies, and being given respect despite their poor behavior. So maybe it's time to dust off the video camera...

Friday, March 02, 2012

Don't try to wiggle out of this one

Who knew the world of children's television programming could be so brutal, so cruel, so... wiggly?

Word out of Australia is that the original Yellow Wiggle is coming back to take over the part from the Replacement Yellow Wiggle. Of course I realize many of you have no idea who The Wiggles are. I also realize that another large percentage of you are pretending not to know who The Wiggles are but you were forced to listen to the songs and watch the TV shows and videos with children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or kids who wandered through the house. But for those of you who truly have no clue, The Wiggles are a four-man group of children's performers from Down Under who have made approximately $578 ka-jillion by singing silly songs and making funny faces at kids. Not bad work if you can get it, eh?

These four guys dress in four different colors -- Anthony (the Blue Wiggle), Murray (the Red Wiggle), Jeff (the Purple Wiggle), and Greg (the original Yellow Wiggle). And while my daughter was an infant through preschool age, these four kids crooners were consistently on the TV in one form or another. And I will admit, that I much preferred The Wiggles singing about Fruit Salad (Yummy, Yummy) than listening to the rantings of a purple dinosaur.

Then about five years ago, the Yellow Wiggle, Greg, had to retire from the group for health reasons. He had fainting spells (which can scare young kids watching their favorite performers in concert) and had such chronic pain that he could only walk using two canes. That does make it hard to wiggle. However now, Greg appears to be back in good health at age 40 and is ready to Wiggle for Dollars once again. But the thing is, while Greg was on the sidelines the group hired another guy to be the lead singer and Yellow Wiggle.

Sam was not only the Replacement Yellow Wiggle, but apparently he wasn't given that lucrative of a deal to pull on the yellow shirt. Of the $578 ka-jillion, Sam was apparently making minimum wage or some such nonsense. He was on a salary as terms of a contract. The reported salary -- $200,000 annually. Certainly I'd take that paycheck for wearing a yellow shirt and singing songs about hot potatoes and the pirate Captain Feathersword, but it's not exactly an equal share of The Wiggles' bankroll.

Now, with Greg again donning the color yellow, Sam is a free agent, dumped back into the unforgiving market of singing and dancing about remembering to wear a sun hat in the summer. And now the backbiting has gone public, with the powers within The Wiggles organization (the Head Wiggler perhaps?) calling poor Sam “a hired hand,” and references to Sam being mocked as the Salaried Wiggle have surfaced. All the silliness makes it sound as if those in The Wiggles organization are perhaps no more mature than the dancing four-year-olds they have been singing to.

I hope it hasn't always been this way. I hope Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Moose weren't snickering at the hem on Mr. Green Jeans' green jeans. I pray that the teacher from Romper Room wasn't making young girls cry by making fun of their hair bows. And I certainly hope that Alan and Daphne didn't leave Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to rot in jail on drug charges because all the sandwiches in the Mystery Machine were eaten by a pair of munchie-ridden beatniks. Maybe the world of kids television has the same motto as that toy store: “I don't want to grow up.” But with my children out of range of these shows, I guess I'll have to wait for grandchildren to give it some further study.

Snow days are different

As I write this, my school-aged kids are home instead of having knowledge crammed into their brains. Why? It’s a snow day. Well, not exactly snow, but you know what I mean. School was closed and the juvenile world celebrated. Oh, so did the teachers and school staff and bus drivers and others. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a surprise vacation! But the whole routine just seems so different than when I was the school boy wondering if it would snow enough for the powers-that-were to call off school.

First of all, back in my day (just picture me leaning back in my chair, putting my thumbs in my suspenders and gripping an old pipe in my teeth for this part), we didn’t get days off school unless the weather was really bad. These days, with everyone threatening to sue a school district for any little things, superintendents have to be far more conservative about sending buses and student drivers and parents out on the roads. When I was a kid, the administrators relied more on experience -- meaning if they could drive to school without experiencing a ditch or pole firsthand, school was on!

A friend of mine whose wife is a teacher wrote me today that since school had been cancelled, he was taking his beautiful wife out to breakfast. I responded with something about it being too awful outside for school, but apparently not for breakfast! He responded that he had to run to town anyway, so he might as well bring some unexpected company!

Of course in my boyhood, if school was called off, it was because no one without a military tank or a snowmobile could get to the building! The rest of us old folks all remember the Blizzard of ‘78, the Winter of ‘79, and countless other seasons that didn’t rate special commemorative names. Most of those times, the question was not if school would be cancelled, but how many days in a row would it be cancelled.

Also, the way we learned about snow days is so much different now than back then. This morning I got three separate text messages informing me that my kids were delayed, further delayed, and finally cancelled. The most work I put into finding out was to reach for my cell phone on the nightstand.

Back in the day, we used to crowd around the radio as the announcer on WOWO or some other station would read the list of schools where kids could play all day. The list would be long, especially on WOWO since there were maybe 100 school districts reporting there. We waiting anxiously, hoping against hope that this time they weren’t reading them alphabetically when they forgot to read off my district.

There are so many ways to find out about cancellations today. Sure there is radio, but there is also the crawl at the bottom of the television channels, school websites, radio and TV station websites, signs in front of the schools, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The kids today don’t get to experience near as much anxiety in the wait.

When I worked in radio, we took the calls from the school big-wigs who got to call off school. Calls from people asking about school delays and such came in on the same line. And yes, there were the occasional kids who tried to cancel their own school day. Do-it-yourself snow day! The problem was, the school administrators were all given a code that had to be repeated when calling in a school announcement. So when the kid would call, trying desperately to sound like an adult (and fooling no one), and tell me that the city school system was closed for the day, I would just have to ask, “What is the code?” After a few seconds of stammering, the line would go dead. So much for the do-it-yourself snow day.

I saw plenty of kids out and about during the Thursday snow day in the county. They weren’t snowed in. They weren’t trying to dig their way out of the house to make a snowman. They went out for breakfast and lunch, and went shopping. On a snow day! It’s just not like it used to be.

Poking my head out

Six more weeks or right around the corner? Even after Groundhog Day I really don’t have any idea. And I’m still not sure why we pay attention every Feb. 2 to this bit of silliness. Sure it gives us an excuse to watch the classic movie with Bill Murray as a weatherman stuck in serious rut in time, but why do we look to the animal known alternately as the whistle-pig or the land-beaver to clue us in to meteorological matters?

Yesterday, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, forecasting six more weeks of winter. At the same time, from the weather-forecasting capital of Ohio (Marion, in case you were wondering), comes Phil: The Sequel, better known as Buckeye Chuck. Ohio’s entry into rodent prognostication has been active since the 1970’s and was deemed official for the state since 1979. And at the crack of dawn yesterday, Chuck, apparently still rubbing sleep from his eyes, saw no shadow. So Chuck the woodchuck declared winter to be just around the corner. Who’s right? Will we need a no-holds-barred cage match to decide when spring is to arrive? Well, of course not. Spring will show up when it’s good and ready just like always. The calendar says March 20, but we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?

Phil was first asked to predict the onset of spring in 1887 and has been doing it ever since. (We must all pretend that the life expectancy of this certain groundhog is somewhere around infinity.) The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club takes care of the varmint throughout the year and hauls him out each February for the annual event. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the routine. But in checking the statistics, yesterday’s shadow sighting was pretty predictable. Of all the years (1887-2010) with records kept, the rodent called Phil has seen a shadow 99 times and did not see his shadow 15 times. I guess it’s a safer bet to predict more winter at the beginning of February than to go out on a limb (or whatever it is groundhogs would go out on) and predict an early spring. With that in mind, Punxsutawney Phil’s accuracy record should be pretty impressive, right?

Uh, not so much.

One study proved that Phil’s forecasting was correct a grand total of 39 percent of the time. If you narrow the predictions to more recent years, 1969-2010, the accuracy of the famed whistle-pig drops to 36 percent. And when you consider that Phil has only two choices -- spring showing up Feb. 2 or March 15 -- he’s really not doing well. Flipping a coin should get you a 50 percent rate. Now before you complain about the accuracy of human beings predicting the weather, let me tell you that one person from the National Weather Service who let himself be quoted for some odd reason admitted that if the NWS has it right 60 percent of the time they consider that good. I realize that most people would love a job where you can be wrong 4 out of 10 times and still be employed, but then again most people wouldn’t like a job where they have to predict the future.

I find it interesting that for both Phil and Chuck, the handlers check for a shadow right at sunrise. If I was ever up at sunrise, I doubt I'd have enough energy to cast a shadow, let alone see one! But at least they don't have to adjust for Daylight Savings Time or leap seconds or anything else.

So instead of awaiting the grudge match between Buckeye “Give me spring!” Chuck and Punxsutawney “Make more cocoa!” Phil, I will patiently await the arrival of 70 degrees during this faux winter we've been having. I figure the tough part of winter will be right after that.

Dressed in high collars and tails

I've always been an animal lover. And for the most part, animals have always loved me. Currently I care for three dogs, three cats, and a kitten, but the total has reached well into double digits at varying times of my life. I'm the guy that grumpy barking dogs want to sit close to, and the guy that moody cats like to rub up against. I believe that animals like me because of one factor. I do not dress them up in funny costumes. Animals can sense this sort of thing, and I'm sure they recognize me as being a non-costume owner.

Now, if you are one to put a hat on your dog, I have no beef with you. Just realize that sometimes the pet may not be as happy about being festive as you are. Perhaps ol' Lucky actually likes his little baseball cap that you strap on his head every so often. More power to you both. And perhaps, you even have a cat, bird, hamster, or marmot that enjoys donning their gay apparel. I'm happy for you. However, for every pet who is a closet clothes horse (so to speak), there are likely dozens who consider the ritual of dressing a mild form of animal abuse. I am their advocate.

If you are on the Internet even a fraction of the amount of time that I spend there, you have seen countless “cute” photos of pets dressed in all sorts of clothes. Many of these pictures are kind of cute. There's a pug dressed like Raggedy Ann, a black lab dressed like Zorro, and a cocker spaniel wearing the blue gingham dress of Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz.” I'll admit, I chuckle at most of those pictures. But then I look into the eyes of the pooch in the costume and I see a profound sadness. It's the same look that Ralphie had on his face in the movie “The Christmas Story” when he was standing at the top of the stairs in that pink bunny outfit. It's the look that says, “Has my life really become this meaningless to become the laughingstock of the neighborhood? I hope no one sees me wearing this!”

Dogs are easy to dress up. They handle the physical movements of putting legs into sleeves, etc. better than other animals. Like cats. I have never tried to put any of my cats into any type of clothing, but I cannot imagine coming out of the process without blood dripping from numerous parts of my body. Cats are temperamental anyway, why would you want to add to the poor animal's mood swings by putting a bonnet on it? Birds never really seem to be better-behaved to me either. Maybe a nice docile rabbit or guinea pig, but I doubt any of them really enjoy it too much.

But the thing is, people don't stop at putting Superman capes and Elvis-style sequin jumpsuits on their hounds, they design all sorts of humiliating costumes for the canines. While many of the costumes show great imagination, I sincerely doubt that Fido has much appreciation for how much work went into the making of the costume that makes him look like a taco or a hot dog with mustard, or the Sphinx. Perhaps the worst picture I've seen is the one featuring a pathetic looking black and white hound wrapped in a corrugated cardboard contraption made to look like the starship Enterprise from “Star Trek.” While the general shape of the spacecraft is cardboard, mounted above the fuselage (or in this case, Rover's back) are four beer cans poised to resemble warp-drive engines. There is a clever combination of intelligence, white trashiness, and geekdom all rolled up into this costume. But the look on the dog's face makes me want to call the ASPCA. It actually goes beyond heartbreak to something like, “I'm going to kill you in your sleep.” And what jury on earth would convict him?

And so, speaking on behalf of my friends, the animals, please put away the hats and wigs, the bonnets and the bridal dresses, and above all, the cardboard and the beer cans. The life you save may be your own.

Monday, January 23, 2012

All spelled out for you

All week in schools across Van Wert County and all over the region, dozens of students have stood with sweaty palms and quivering stomachs awaiting their word. Yes it’s spelling bee time again. A time where ordinary middle school-aged kids memorize the spelling of rare and obtuse words in hopes they have memorized the words that will become their word when the day of the bee comes along.
As a good student in school, I enjoyed the challenge of the spelling bee -- and the competition. As a fifth grader, I wanted to show up the older kids. As a sixth and seventh grader, I wanted to uphold my reputation. Then as an eighth grader, I wanted to get it all over with. Can you guess which year I didn’t win?
Full disclosure: I won the spelling bee for my age group at my school three times out of four years. I never won the county spelling bee, but I had three good showings. That fourth year I must have blocked from my memory. I only remember missing a word during the school competition and the expression on the pronouncer’s face when the three-time defending champion blew the spelling of an easy word. I always lost on easy words, not the ones that nobody should be able to spell. I lost one year by misspelling a three-letter word and another year it was a four-letter word. (No, not any of those words that you just thought of.)
I remember sitting alone in my bedroom with a small booklet containing the official word list of the spelling bee. These books were put out by the national sponsor of the event. The cover was orange with cartoonish bees all over it. Inside, the words were listed in columns and in groups of ten. The book itself was divided into three sections: Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced. Let me tell you right now that the words in that Advanced section are all made up. That’s my theory anyway. At one time the sponsor made up a whole new section of words like smaragdine, hydrophyte, maculature, xanthosis, and chiaroscurist. Yes, those are spelling bee words. Those are winning words from the national competition over the years. The winning word is not the word the second place speller missed. The winning word is the word the winner spells after he or she has correctly spelled the word the other kid messed up. When we played H-O-R-S-E with a basketball on the playground, we would call this “proving it.” In a spelling bee, the winning round only serves to prolong the agony. After all, isn’t it silly to think that in round after round of spelling that anyone would have to “prove it” by spelling another word for no apparent reason?
Anyway, I learned the Easy spelling bee words without a lot of difficulty. There were a few tricky ones, but that section wasn’t too bad. My goal was to learn all of the words in the Intermediate section. There were some toughies there. Each year I could spell roughly 80 percent of that section, and I stood a chance at getting lucky on the remaining 20 percent. Close enough.
In a twist of fate, I began my career I was a radio broadcaster where the spelling of a word doesn’t really matter. You just have to pronounce it correctly. Now, as a newspaper editor, I have to become a walking Spell Check. But in newspapers, we can pronounce it wrong provided we spell it correctly. I’ve made the trip from one end of the spectrum to another.
But does good spelling really matter? In an age where texting and online communication seem to have a unique shorthand language that defies everything I learned in the spelling bee book, people laugh at the need to spell correctly. As a writer, I have never needed to spell chiaroscurist (aside from earlier in this column), but if I do it will be spelled correctly. It is important. Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it.