Thursday, December 08, 2011

Christmas Music Overload

By this time of December, either you've haven't heard enough Christmas music for your liking or you've heard plenty more Christmas music than you want to hear. It's the curse of the holiday -- how much music is enough and how much is too much.

Musical performers will all record Christmas music. They have to. It's the law. Alright, it may not be the law, but they all do it. The reason singers record Christmas music is that they realize that if they have one hit that strikes a Christmas chord with the general public, their careers will never die. Artists can make their career based on one record, and with a Christmas record, it will be dragged out and played every year. Brenda Lee has "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Bobby Helms has "Jingle Bell Rock," and Elmo & Patsy have "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Each have become as much a part of Christmas as stockings, trees, and one-horse open sleighs.

But in the glut of Christmas music, many songs get lost along the way. Realize that there are only a handful of accepted Christmas carols and then a separate group of Christmas songs. In all, there are really not many songs that keep getting repeated on those 24-hour Christmas radio stations. If you listen for an afternoon, you'll already have figured that out! However, many other recordings are treated with as much respect as the box with all the broken ornaments and non-working Christmas lights. Because I have a background in radio broadcasting and music, I may have heard of a few Christmas recordings that you may have never heard. Allow me to peruse my personal collection of Christmas music and share a few with you.

"Merry Chirstmas from The Brady Bunch" - What could be cuter than the lovable television family warbling carols? Well, plenty. The real actors performed the songs on the album, meaning it sounded only slightly different than any group of kids in the early 1970s singing Christmas carols. Mighty forgettable. (Note: There was also a "Partridge Family Christmas Card" album, but good taste overtook me and I didn't pick that one up!)

Twisted Sister - "A Twisted Christmas" - Imagine the hard-hitting rock and roll chords of the 80's hit "We're Not Gonna Take It." Now imagine those same three chords with the lyrics of Christmas carols instead the cries of teen angst. You've got "Twisted Christmas." It's the album that makes it possible to bang your head to "O Come All Ye Faithful."

"Christmas Day with Colonel Sanders" - I, as a lover of truly terrible music, was overjoyed at the thought of Col. Harlan Sanders crooning holiday classics coated with 11 herbs and spices, but alas the album was a mix of hymns and carols sung by real musicians like Al Hirt, Jim Reeves, Ed Ames, and other household names from over half a century ago. So I passed on the album and got the bucket of chicken instead.

The Singing Mailmen of Miami - "Mail Early and Have a Merry Christmas" - I'll admit, this may be my personal favorite. I stumbled across this in the record library stacks of a radio station I worked for. It was the late 80s, but the recording dated back to the 60s. There was an actual group of postal workers known as The Singing Mailmen of Miami who sang for charity purposes. This album was Christmas-themed, but also served as public service announcements for the post office. One tune sounded like "Jingle Bells" but the lyrics were about remembering to use zip codes to make mail deliveries quicker. Another cited the benefits of mailing cards and packages early during the holiday season. The Singing Mailmen of Miami were always good for a useful holiday tip.

My Christmas wish for you is that you do not overdose on sappy Christmas songs this year, and that the music you enjoy is always at your disposal. But, if you want to jam to the Singing Mailmen of Miami, let me know. We can play it LOUD!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My traditional words of wisdom

What do July 4th fireworks, Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds, and my grandma's date pudding have in common? All three are strongly associated with tradition. The tradition holds that we celebrate the birth of our nation with colorful explosions in the sky on the night of the fourth, unless it's raining too badly. The tradition used to be that the first Major League Baseball game of the season would be held in Cincinnati. And it is highly traditional for my grandma's special mixture of dates, brown sugar, and around three ka-jillion calories to be served each Thanksgiving.

We have traditions to cover pretty much every annual event. I think the reasons they become traditions is because we are too lazy to change them. Or else we just don't want to fight about it. In fact, I think if enough research would be done, I could find that the word tradition is rooted from some Greek word meaning "we can't change this or people will burn down the city." Nothing is as protected as something we call a tradition. If it's just something that comes up every year, we can change it however you like. But smack of label reading 'tradition' on it, and it will never be allowed to change. Think of that time as a kid when you made a funny face and your mother told you to stop making that face or else your face would get stuck just like that. That's what has happened with some of our traditions. They just stuck like that.

Traditions are cherished because so many people fear change. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe change requires so much effort. Maybe it makes us unsure of our place in the world. Nah. Change forces us to do something different. People are creatures of habit. For some reason, many people enjoy the consistency (some might call it a rut) of having a set pattern to life. I've never been one of those people. While I like familiarity, I enjoy the challenge of doing something different. But others try to keep such a little amount of change that they make the Amish look hip and modern. That's fine for them, but just don't try to require me to live by the same code.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the value of tradition. We are approaching a time of year when tradition almost rules our lives. My reference to Grandma's date pudding, for example. It is on the table every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Only a couple of people actually eat it these days. I can't do it. It is so sweet and rich that my teeth begin to rot and fall out while the fork is on the way to my mouth. But somehow it is comforting to see that glass bowl of dark brown sugary stuff topped with Cool Whip sitting there beside the gravy. It's almost like Grandma is still with us for the family celebrations. And that's the value of tradition -- to remember the people and events that helped shape who we are today. But some traditions are just empty reminders instead of living history.

Maybe the best thing we can do with tradition is to actually figure out why each is important or trivial. Or better still, create new traditions that actually have meaning, at least for the time being. Have you ever purposefully started a tradition? I have. And I have known others who have done the same. One family began the tradition of working each Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to feed those in need rather than gorge themselves on turkey and stuffing. Another family now takes the money they would normally spend on presents for one another and uses it to give to the needy at Christmas. The tradition I began gives us a chance to concentrate on the meaning of the holiday rather than the means we celebrate it by these days. That ties into the value once again of remembering that which has shaped us. Not that a few dozen plates of pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, and date pudding wouldn't change my shape for the worse, mind you! But when one of those traditions comes up in the next six weeks or so, maybe you can cherish the comfort of reliving some of the traditions which have made you who you are. Or just maybe, you can ignore it in favor of something more meaningful that will make you even better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A great discovery -- count on it!

As I was sorting through the list of possible topics to write about -- Veterans Day, 11/11/11, elections, Joe Paterno, and other newsworthy and noteworthy items -- I found the news item I've been hoping for my whole life. Are you ready? A university professor of nutrition at Kansas State University has lost 27 pounds in two months by eating... junk food! Yes, my snack-loving friends, you read that right. This professor of nutrition (mentioning that again for emphasis) lost 27 pounds in two months with a diet that included every three hours eating a Twinkie or a Little Debbie snack cake or a small bag of Doritos. Are you with me on this? A little junk food doesn't hurt.

Professor Mark Haub won't be pushing his 'convenience store diet' in a book or appearing on daytime television talk shows anytime soon. But his premise actually is simple. If you want to lose weight, consume less calories than you burn. It doesn't have to be fresh asparagus or specially-harvested, flavor-optional seaweed. The nutritional information that restaurants are being pressured to provide really are irrelevant if your goal is weight loss. It's all about the calories.

If there are two subjects that I have a lot of knowledge about, they are diets and junk food. I've had weight issues since elementary school, my weight going up and down depending upon my lifestyle and habits. And I've had jobs where much of my time is spent on the road, so I've learned the finer points of dining on Zingers and Rolos. But I have always contended that chocolate was not a poison causing instant mounds of fat to appear at the first taste. It's the total amount.

I checked on the aforementioned Hostess Twinkie. In one filled sponge cake treat, there are 27 grams of carbohydrates, 4.5 grams of fat (2.5 grams of those are saturated fat), 20 mg of cholesterol, 220 mg of sodium, and 1 gram of protein. But if Prof. Haub's idea is accurate, all that is irrelevant to weight loss. What you need to know is that in one Twinkie there are 150 calories. You should be able to figure out that there are 300 calories in two Twinkies. That is key because those stinkin' things are usually sold in packs of two. Let me remind you that a medium-sized apple is about 95 calories, a banana has about 105, and a can of Dole pineapple chunks packed in juice contains about 315 calories.

But if you protest, thinking something is wrong here and that junk food will make us less healthy, the good professor points out that after his 'diet' his good cholesterol had gone up 20 percent, his bad cholesterol had gone down 20 percent and his triglycerides were reduced 39 percent. In other words, he was actually healthier after the two-month junk food binge! Well, it was not all junk food. About one-third of his diet was normal food, including some green vegetables and a protein shake each day. Still Professor Haub isn't recommending other people try this experiment. In fact, he is not really sure what to make of the results. It's not often a 41-year-old man with a trash can full of empty Little Debbie cake wrappers can drop his body fat index from 33 to 25 percent. But he appears to be sticking by his guns that dieting is simply a matter of eating fewer calories than you use. Who'da thunk it?

If you can see large amounts of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie in your future, but you don't want to get pudgy heading into Christmas candy season, remember the key is cutting down the number of calories you take in. Stop before you hit the 15th helping of that so-called 'good-for-me food.' And don't fear the Twinkie.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Milestones ahead

I've always been fascinated with milestones. Perhaps it is the geographer in me, wanting to know how far it is to the next landmark. Milestones date back to Great Roman Empire at least. The Romans, probably wanting to brag about the size of their empire, set out to measure the distance from one end to another, and many shorter distances in between.
Where I grew up along U.S. 30 in Indiana, there was a green sign we always passed which indicated the mileage to the next two decent-sized cities down the road. As a sports fan, my first instinct was that someone had posted football scores along the side of the road (New Haven 10, Fort Wayne 14), but my parents filled me in on what they were for. Since that time, I've studied milestones. When I lived in Cumberland, Maryland (the beginning of the Cumberland Road which later became the National Road), I got to see the first milestone which dated back 150 years. It was the first in a long series of markers which helped early American travelers figure out how far it was to the nearest Stuckey's.
I'm thinking about milestones because my household is coming up to a number of them. My daughter turned 10 years old earlier this week. It's a milestone that really doesn't seem to be that special on the surface. Nothing really changes at 10, although at 10 it seems that everything changes daily! So her age is now double digits, even though she truly believes she is somewhere in her mid-twenties.
My oldest boy turns 20 next month. Now 20 is one of those ages that should be a milestone, but really isn't. Absolutely nothing changes except a 20-year-old is no longer a teenager. Because he is away at college, I've had a hard time considering him a teenager the past year and a half anyway. His big landmark is next year, but unless he plans on taking up a drinking habit, not much will change there either.
My middle child will turn 18 this spring. Now that's a landmark! Well, maybe not so much the birthday itself, but it seems that a lot of things start to change right around the time of the 18th birthday. High school turns to college. Childhood turns to adulthood. If only I could get the car insurance rates to change from "Have you thought about borrowing the money?" to something actually affordable!
And as for me, next month I will officially hit middle age. My 50th birthday is coming up. Um, 50 is halfway, right? So in honor of hitting middle age, I would like to have a mid-life crisis. This would be a welcome substitute for all my other assorted crises. The thing is that so-called experts claim that a mid-life crisis is a reaction to depression over uncontrollable changing circumstances in a person's life. I'm not in the market for depression or uncontrollable things. However, I have always wanted a flashy red sports car.
Years ago, I knew a man who hit close to 50 and went out and bought a shiny red two-seater sports car. He even got the little sloped cap too. You know the kind. It's guaranteed to make a sane person look like he's living on Fantasy Island. But he really enjoyed the car and seemed to avoid all the other pitfalls of a mid-life crisis.
Me, I can't afford a sports car. I'm not going to drown my life with alcohol because I really don't like it well enough to pay all that money for it. Can't afford a Harley. And an affair with my secretary is out of the questions for many reasons, the least of which is that I don't have a secretary! So I guess I'm going to have to hit this milestone head-on with some vitamins in one hand and some Geritol in the other.
With milestones along the road, you know how far you have to go. With life's milestones, you only get a reminder of where you've been. Whatever the second half of my life turns out to be, I know that I have made it down the first 50 years of roadway. I may have four bald tires and one bald head, but I'm fueled up and ready for the trip! But I'd rather avoid anymore milestones for a few years!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Only a few voices speak to me

He was supposed to call at 11, but it was 20 minutes before that and the phone was ringing. The caller ID display said it was from “Enberg, Barbara,” so I readied my recorder and answered the phone.

“Hi, is this Ed?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Oh good, this is Dick Enberg.”

“Uh, yeah... I recognize your voice.”

That was an understatement. The voice was crystal clear. This was the play-by-play voice I remembered from NCAA basketball, from eight different Super Bowl broadcasts, the World Series. He was the host of the game show, Sports Challenge, which I loved to watch as a kid. I talked to him for about 15 minutes, and listened as he regaled me with stories of traveling with Al McGuire and Billy Packer during the college basketball season, and his enduring friendship with the former Marquette coach. It was a very nice conversation with a charming gentleman.

I'm not generally affected by celebrities. I've met more than my fair share. In this job, I've interviewed all sorts of folks, including a big chunk of the performers who have played here in town. I have finished many interviews thinking the artist I've just talked to is a very nice, bright person, but it didn't really register with me that this person was a celebrity.

That was how my talk with Mr. Enberg was as well. Almost. You see, the voice of Dick Enberg took me back to my youth. The voice that brought NFL football games to me. The voice that described college basketball games during my high school and college days. The voice that helped my enjoy Major League Baseball games. That voice! It was a little like being young again.

The last time I had felt like that was when I had a chance to do a phone interview with impressionist Rich Little. Growing up, Rich Little was my favorite performer. Talking to him was not so much getting to know a celebrity, but letting him take me back to a simpler time. He even did a couple of impressions while telling me stories, and when the interview was over, Mr. Little just kept going. He was obviously having a good time talking, and I was lapping it all up. I was 13 again and was a private audience with my favorite entertainer.

I've tried to think of other celebrities that have had a similar effect on me, but for the life of me I can't come up with another one. No other performers, no other announcers, no politicians. Nobody. Earlier today, I did go through a bunch of old voicemail messages on my phone here at The Times Bulletin and found one from country performer Charlie Daniels. I remember my interview with Mr. Daniels. He was entertaining, funny, and all I ever wanted from an interview. I even had a few of his records back in the 70s. (Kids, if you don't know what a “record” is, go ask your grandparents.) But talking to Charlie Daniels was not like talking to Dick Enberg or Rich Little. Maybe if he'd launched into a chorus of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” it would have been different, although, I have always been amused by the concept of me having a voicemail message from Charlie Daniels somewhere in the phone system.

I have tried thinking of other people who could have the same kind of effect on me, but I can't really come up with any. Of course, as with Dick Enberg, I probably wouldn't realize it until I heard the voice. Well, I'm sure Howard Cosell's voice would do the same thing, but considering he has been dead for more than 15 years, hearing his voice would probably have a quite different effect on me!

I've heard it said the voices of the past are heard in old photographs and other such memorabilia. As it turns out, voices of the past are also heard in voices of the past.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Making the right costume choice

If I may, I would like to direct my words of pseudo-wisdom this week to those who are deciding on a Halloween costume for next weekend's festivities. You're asking yourself, “Ed, what should I dress as for Halloween?” Well, ask no more! Let's start with you adults. What costume will make you the hit of this year's party?

For guys, it doesn't really matter. Nobody really pays much attention to your costume anyway. Unless you are extremely trendy and topical and choose to come as a Gaddafi zombie, you'll just fade into the wallpaper anyway. So wear something comfortable and enjoy! (Now if you do go as a Gaddafi zombie, I'll expect you to send me a buck or two to pay for your inspiration) For adult ladies, sadly unless the title of your costume begins with the word “naughty” you probably won't be noticed either. For some reason, the past few years have seen the increase in adults dressing for the day, but the only requirement for ladies seems to be to show more skin. At least that's what I've been told.

But really, Halloween costumes are all about kids. Since kids are down to the last minute for costume choice, I feel it's my duty to offer tips that will help kids win prizes at costume contests and charm extra candy bars out of those crabby old people. First tip: If there is a group of trick-or-treaters traveling together, have a theme. Dress as M&Ms, but different colors. Maybe one of you can be purple or striped or moldy or something unique, but make sure you have a theme. My wife and I dressed three kids in themed costumes for as long as the oldest would continue to dress up. We did a Wizard of Oz theme, a rodeo theme, etc. Don't laugh. We won costume contests repeatedly.

Second tip: Wear something that adults will recognize. This is important because if the grown-ups don't know who you are supposed to be, all that effort to get the right look will be mostly wasted. When I was a youngster, I had the perfect costume but nobody knew it. I had a leash and harness that was all stiff so it looked like you were walking an invisible dog. At that time, there was a cartoon called Goober and the Ghost Chasers in which one of the characters walked a dog that often turned invisible. So I found a pair of khaki shorts and a khaki jacket, the proper hat and sunglasses to go with my invisible dog prop, and I had THE perfect costume. Everyone would surely be impressed. Except I forgot that everyone else was not spending Saturday morning watching Goober and the Ghost Chasers. So mostly, people just kind of looked at me sideways and moved on. So kids, before you dress like your favorite minor character on a Nickelodeon cartoon show, don't blame me if the candy sack is a little light this year.

Third tip: Dress as something that everybody else ignores. What I mean is that if you enter a costume contest, it seems there are always categories for the event. Some of these categories were set up decades ago when everyone thought it was cool to dress like Matt Dillon or the Lone Ranger, but now if you enter the Cowboys category, you'll have almost no competition! We capitalized on this one year when two of our kids and our dog all dressed as clowns. Nobody else went clown. The family earned first, second, and third. (I don't remember which prize the dog won.) So don't overlook the classic costume choices that adults will look at and remember when they wore similar get-ups. But avoid the sheet-over-your-head ghost look. Nobody is impressed that you can cut two holes in a sheet.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hot Dog Etiquette

In the news business, we see a lot of odd stories come across the desk (or computer monitor). For instance, this past weekend, golfer Tiger Woods was putting in a tournament when a man (I am resisting the urge to simply call him an idiot) tossed a hot dog onto the green. A hot dog. The bozo then laid down and waited to be arrested (which he promptly was). The frankfurter was retrieved and disposed of, and Woods went on to miss the easy putt. (So I guess the guy had money on another golfer?) End of story, right? Of course not. Soon, there came a press release from a group known as the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council (website The president of these fine folks issued a statement reading in part, “The use of an iconic food in an act of violence against an iconic golfer like Tiger Woods is reprehensible -- and a violation of hot dog etiquette.”

Hot dog etiquette? Really? I laughed it off, but then noticed near the bottom of the press release, “For more information about hot dog etiquette, see” Well, that was an invitation I couldn't refuse. So after a few minutes poking around the site of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council (, I finally hit upon the page entitled, “Hot Dog Etiquette.” As I scanned the list, wondering who came up with these and where was the line about tossing wieners at golfers (or any professional athlete), I realized that a small section of the worldwide web was being wasted. Let me include a few rules of hot dog etiquette:

Don't use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18. Mustard, relish, onions, cheese and chili are acceptable.

Condiments remaining on the fingers after eating a hot dog should be licked away, not washed.

Eat hot dogs on buns with your hands. Utensils should not touch hot dogs on buns.

I could continue, but I'll spare you. The list goes as far as laying out the order that condiments should be put on the dog, but no mention is made of chucking franks at putting millionaires. But hurling hot dogs was not the only area not covered by the definitive essay on hot dog etiquette from the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council ( So, allow me to fill in a few items that were not included from the frank folk.

The proper way to cook a hot dog is with a stick, roasting the frankfurter over an open fire. Don't boil them like they were some tubular lobster. And do not put them in the microwave. There should be at least a little black on the outside from the flames.

The only time hot dogs that were not cooked over an open fire should be eaten is at a sporting event. Baseball, football, basketball... let's face it, the hot dog was made to be sold as a concession.

Hot dogs should be made from real meat, not the stuff you cut off and feed to the family dog. I've tasted hot dogs made from parts of the chicken I don't even want to think about consuming again.

The hot dog bun should not be so large that it distorts the hot dog-to-bread ratio. Too much bread dilutes the hot dog taste.

The entire hot dog should be eaten. If you are reasonably close to adulthood and have not had gastric bypass surgery, you should be able to eat an entire regulation-size wiener. Do not eat half and throw the rest away.

Use any condiment you desire on your hot dog unless the smell is so strong it sends the person sitting next to you at the ball game into sneezing convulsions.

There. I figure my contributions to hot dog etiquette are as good as any of those from the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council ( Oh wait, one more:

There should be absolutely no throwing of hot dogs by idiots desiring a bed in a cell, even if you're rooting for another golfer.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hearing it from both sides

As a married man and as a parent, I know something about selective listening. But as someone who has spent way too many years in the communications business, I'm continually surprised by the number of people who only hear what they want to hear... or what they don't want to hear. Many liberals only read news from liberal media sources and conservatives only frequent conservative sources. That way their opinions won't be challenged. The trouble is, we should be seeking out the other side of the story to test what we believe and what we hear. If we refuse, we do not know nearly as much as we think we do.

Some items of information are more easily believed. Many WANT to believe that there is a conspiracy against them, or that somehow someone else is getting something for free that they aren't getting. So if a person hears that Jack got a free hot dog at the concession stand or cheated to get his new job, chances are good that person will believe it. It's the fuel that feeds gossip and misunderstanding. Usually it begins with someone overhearing Jack say something about buying so many hot dogs that he should have been given one free, then the story gets twisted like in the kids game, telephone.

Or it could be a story that was made up by someone, then repeated by many “well-meaning” people, swearing to its authenticity. Please understand that when someone tells you, “I heard from someone that...” whatever that person is going to tell you is almost always untrue. That's the way gossip works. One person listens selectively (if at all) then starts spouting off what they believe, then as the old saying goes, “A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Gossip and falsehoods are nothing new to our society, but with the so-called Information Superhighway at your service, sometimes the information you get is nothing but gossip and falsehoods. Yes, even the forwarded emails sent to you by your trusted friends could be (and probably are) nothing more than rehashed garbage. For example, no soft drink company is printing a can with the words “Under God” left out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and no one survived the World Trade Center collapse by surfing or sliding down with the debris 80 stories. Several websites have been set up to correct the false campaigns waged against people and companies that are passed along by people who decided to listen to the nonsense. The most popular one is Please make a note of that one before you forward anything to your entire address book. It's a chance for us all to help truth get its boots on.

The same problem exists in other media. Sometimes, a reporter, anxious to highlight something that will get people's attention, will focus so hard on one side of a story that the other side gets ignored entirely. In all the hoopla after this week's execution of Troy Davis for the 1991 shooting of a police officer, many reports shouted that seven of nine witnesses had recanted their testimony, but almost no news source told the whole story that only two of the witnesses actually claimed Davis was not the shooter and that Davis himself kept them from testifying before the court. Oh, and there were 34 witnesses, not just nine. As a reporter, I know there is the easy way to write a story -- repeat the information others give you -- and the tougher way which involves investigating what others claim. Please understand that I'm not saying one thing or another about the death penalty or anything else, I'm just pointing out that we all need to examine both sides of the story before we claim anything as truth. If we do not, we're cheating ourselves and silencing the truth.

Must-hear albums?

Critics can be funny people. And by “funny” I mean “completely out of touch with humanity.” That point was driven home for me this week when I stumbled across “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.” This book is a list of one critic's most important musical releases since 1955. Of course, I was stuck on the title. Are there really 1001 albums I really MUST hear? I am a music lover, so I've listened to well over 1001 albums in my life, but there weren't that many of them that I considered worthy of everyone's attention before death. And I'm still not sure WHY I have to hear them all. Is it so I have a more rounded musical experience? Is it so I'll look cool at parties? Is it so some of these albums will sell more copies and funnel money back to the guy who wrote the book?

Then I looked through the list. There are some great albums on there. In the 50's section, there are picks from Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holliday. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Who made the 60's section with the Doors, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder in with the 70's, and so forth. But what really got me scratching my noggin were some of the other albums listed as “MUST BE HEARD” by the author. Like the album “Don't Stand Me Down” by Dexy's Midnight Runners. You remember the tune “Come on Eileen” right? That band. (Sorry if the tune is stuck in your head now.) Why in the name of all that is good would I need to listen to an entire album from a forgettable 80's one-hit wonder band? And “Come On Eileen” isn't even on that album! There are plenty more questionable selections for a “must hear” list from every decade. A “must hear” list wouldn't include albums from the Electric Prunes, Quicksilver Messenger Service, or Haircut One Hundred. Not even if I had to struggle to come up with 1001 albums, would I pull out Blue Cheer or the Incredible Bongo Band!

So, you're surely asking yourself, what albums are the ones I MUST hear? First of all, there are no albums you absolutely must hear, but if you want a list of albums that would give you a well-rounded musical background, maybe I can help. I've taken care to introduce my kids to some music from before they were born, and this might be a good opportunity to work through some of those. With that in mind, here are some albums you should probably listen to if you want knowledge about popular music.

From the 50's - Chuck Berry “After School Session” (or any early Chuck Berry record). I like Elvis as much as the next guy, but Chuck Berry is the real King of Rock and Roll. That signature guitar riff is what it's all about. Also toss in any album by Hank Williams (Senior), Ray Charles “The Genius of Ray Charles,” Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool,” and Elvis' “Elvis Presley.”

From the 60's - Beatles “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This is the obvious choice from the psychedelic era because it influenced so many artists. (Almost as many as Chuck Berry!) Add to that the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds,” B.B. King “Live at the Regal,” Johnny Cash “Live at Folsum Prison,” and Bob Dylan “Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.”

From the 70's - Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.” The New Jersey sound that The Boss and his band brought to America was incredibly different than anything else on the radio at the time, but became commonplace soon afterward. Then throw in David Bowie “Changesbowie,” Boston “Boston,” Willie Nelson “Red Headed Stranger,” and the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever.”

From the 80's - Prince & the Revolution “Purple Rain.” This was the mid-1980s. The music was a remix of a watered-down Jimi Hendrix sound with a dance groove. Then check out Michael Jackson “Thriller,” Stevie Ray Vaughn “Texas Flood,” George Strait “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” and Van Halen “1984.”

From the 90's - Nirvana “Nevermind.” The commercially-successful beginning of grunge rock came from this Seattle band's landmark album. From there, try U2 “Actung Baby,” TLC “CrazySexyCool,” Alanis Morissette “Jagged Little Pill,” and Garth Brooks “No Fences.”

These are not necessarily the best albums, but the ones that will fill out your musical knowledge. Now, go and educate yourself. But if you feel the need to argue my selections, email me. But I'm not budging on the Dexy's Midnight Runners album. Deal with it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weather: The Great Equalizer

Mark Twain is credited with saying, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Some people over the years have found that sentence humorous, probably because Twain is associated with it. But it is either an obvious statement or a foolish one. It's obvious we don't do anything that will either make it rain or make the rain stop, unless some sinister accusations about the Russians are actually true. And it's obvious that we are constantly doing things because of the weather. We add another layer of clothes and a coat. We peel off as many clothes as we legally dare. We build houses to keep ourselves out of the elements. We invent and build artificial cooling machines and artificial heating machines. We put up an umbrella, install windshield wipers, build drains, plow snow, put on snow tires, but that's about all we can do. When it comes to weather, we're pretty much all in the same boat because weather is The Great Equalizer.

For a couple of weeks, much of the midwest was stuck in a heat wave. Highs in the 90s, heat index values (whatever they are) in the 100s and 110s... nasty stuff. But we couldn't cool it off. Why? We can't do anything about it. Same in the winter when the snow keeps falling. We can't do anything about it. Same in the spring when the rain never seems to stop. We can't do anything about it. It's obvious. We just try to make ourselves comfortable.

As far as everyone talking about the weather, again this is obvious. We talk about the weather because it is something we all have in common. If it's raining we can used the tired old question, "Is it wet enough for you?" when we feel the urge to converse. We all have to deal with it. Now of course the weather here is not often the same as in the more southern states or the more northern ones either. And we make special note of that. Does this happen to you? When my friends or family take a trip south during the cold winter months, they seem to be required by law to call me and tell me the temperature where they are staying. Almost always it's 70 or more degrees hotter than the frozen tundra I'm walking around in. So I have to chuckle and sound envious even if it's 45 and fairly comfortable here in the thawed tundra.

Weather also immediately makes us wish conditions were different. Now, Thursday was just a banner day in Van Wert County with the puffy clouds, the blue sky, Mr. Sun playing hide-and-seek in the sky, and a nice breeze. It was a day to file away and remember on those days when no one wants to venture outside. But mostly, any day's weather makes people wish for something different. If it's dry, we want wet. If it's wet, we want dry. If it's 50 degrees, we want 75. If it's winter, we want summer. You get the idea. But I'm sure that even on that banner weather day, had I looked more extensively, I would have found someone whining that it was too hot and someone else whining that it was too cold, and a third person praying for rain.

And don't blame the weatherman! People complain that forecasters are never right yet get to keep their jobs. Of course most of the rest of us aren't asked to predict the future either. And persons coming up with sales projections or trying to get a handle on the stock market aren't that accurate either. In truth, it's amazing that meteorologists can predict storms, severe weather, heat, and cold as accurately as they do. Maybe we should all stop whining about them and appreciate the advanced warning we get. We're all in this together. And until we can actually cause rain to start or stop or get the temperature to everyone's ideal, we can't do anything about the weather. Except talk.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Have Another Drink!

After waxing nostalgic last week... alright, I told stories of a long-forgotten era like an old man, about refreshing beverages. But since that time, my memory banks have been overflowing with all the drinks of yesterday and today that have graced my refrigerator and my cupboards in days gone by.

In the cupboard was that jar of Tang. You remember, it was what the astronauts drank! Well, eventually the astronauts drank it. At first the stuff mostly sat on grocery shelves until it got packed into John Glenn's space capsule. I'm not sure how Glenn mixed the little freeze-dried orange granules with water to make an imitation orange juice drink, but apparently he did. Then anyone in the 1960s who wanted to be hip or groovy or whatever we were back then would drink Tang for breakfast. Fewer people remember Tang's less-popular family member -- grape flavored Tang. To be honest, I like the grape hundreds of times better than the orange. And just to reveal how odd I was, my favorite way to drink Tang was not ice cold, but hot. Dad could drink his hot coffee while I would drink hot grape Tang. And, no, I didn't take cream or sugar.

I did drink a lot of soft drinks when I was young, and being a chubby, young boy, I was required to drink “diet” soft drinks. My drink of choice, because it was a lot cheaper, was Diet Rite Cola. Diet Rite was the no-calorie version of RC Cola. We bought them in the 8-pack of 16 ounce returnable bottles. That was back when bottle recycling was enforced with a nickel or dime deposit for each bottle. If you paid a nickel a bottle, or 40 cents a pack, the bottles usually made it back for recycling (which may have just been running them through a car wash and refilling them, I really don't remember.) But anyway, Diet Rite is still around as Diet Rite Pure Zero and it comes in flavors as appetizing as Green Apple Splatter, which sounds more like a summertime apple-throwing fight at the orchard than a refreshing beverage.

The other popular diet drink was Tab (or TaB as it appeared on the can). Tab was Coca-Cola's answer to Diet Rite, and eventually when the FDA decided which artificial sweeteners wouldn't kill you as quickly, Tab gave way to Diet Coke. Tab's ugly cousin was Fresca, but aside from a line in the movie “Caddyshack” when Ted Knight offers the kid a Fresca, I really can't remember anything about the stuff. I think it was supposed to be lemon-lime or something. Plenty of lemon-lime all over the market then, too, with 7-Up and Sprite and Mountain Dew. I wonder who was the person who first mixed the lemon and the lime? Probably some Polynesian who never got credit, I'm guessing.

The obscure soft drink I used to love in the early 80s was called Rondo. It was a lemony-limey-citrusy soda too, but it didn't have as much carbonation. That meant you could drink it faster, and presumably, burp less. The commercials were of a guy grass-skiing, which is pretty much what you think it is -- a guy skiing with no snow and no water, just a hill with long grass. My friends and I drank a few hundred gallons of this in college before it disappeared. Come to think of it, I haven't seen anyone grass skiing lately either.

When I think about all the beverages over the years, my head starts to spin. I drank Crystal Pepsi. Remember that clear Pepsi that no one drank because it tasted like Pepsi but didn't look right? I also tried the Pepsi Blue, but it reminded me too much of Ty-D-Bol. I've drank my Ovaltine and my Quik, but always opted for liquid chocolate for my milk whenever possible. There has been Hi-C and “How 'bout a nice Hawaiian Punch,” and about three ka-jillion other drinks. But the king of them all was the worst of them all. Jolt Cola was said to have “all the sugar and twice the caffeine,” so this morning radio DJ who couldn't stand waking up in the morning became quickly dependent upon his morning bottle of Jolt.

Now, certainly I could have been drinking water all this time instead of these artificially-made chemical concoctions, but what kind of memories would I have then?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How about a cool drink?

I don't need to remind you that it's still hot outside. It's summer. It's supposed to be hot, although not quite this hot yet. But it's not unusual to see triple-digit temperatures in the summer, and because of that we've learned the best ways to cool off. Besides looking for an air-conditioner or a swimming pool, most of those ways revolved around finding something cold to drink.

Water is the typical choice these days. Stay hydrated. We drank water back a few decades ago, but we didn't pay a buck and a half for a small bottle of it. For fun, try to imagine your grandfather being asked to pay any amount of money for a bottle of water. Go ahead. Is your grandfather slamming his hands on the counter and yelling words we can't print too? Yeah, kind of funny, isn't it? Anyway, if you're going to pay money for something cool to drink, why not try something with flavor? Lemonade? Iced tea?

Personally, I still have a soft spot for Kool-Aid. Even the "off-brand" versions made for some good cool refreshment. I will note that the best Kool-Aid flavor is black cherry. Sure most of the other flavors are good (except for blue stuff), but black cherry is the Cadillac of Kool-Aid flavors.
In spite of common wisdom, I drink a lot of carbonated sodas ('pop' to us real Americans). But these things supposedly make you more thirsty. So you can look for some alternative. When I was a kid, I remember sometimes getting a cold bottle of Choc-ola from the vending machine. If you are unfamiliar with Choc-ola (or it's cousin Yoo-hoo), it is an imitation of chocolate milk. It was fantastic to seven-year-old tastebuds. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. All us kids were into Choc-ola for cool refreshment. Years later, as high school students, two friends and I were on a trip with our baseball team somewhere around Cincinnati. We stopped at a gas station that sold Choc-ola! We were ecstatic! It had been close to a decade (half our lives) since we had downed a cold Choc-ola! The three of us each purchased a frosty bottle and took it outside. Once they were open, we stood facing each other, gripping our glass bottles of nostalgic goodness. At the nod of a head, we all tipped back our heads and took a gulp. Approximately 1.5 seconds later, all three of us turned away from each other and spit the mouthful on the asphalt parking lot! It was not the chocolately good drink of our childhood. It was some imitation milk product with chocolate flavoring. So not every option is a good option.

My kids have grown up with sports drinks like Gatorade. Playing sports almost requires commitment to Gatorade. For years, my boys would emerge from the dugout between innings, look my direction, and tip an imaginary drink to his lips twice. This of course is the international sign for "I'm very thirsty, Father. Please go purchase a sports beverage for me so that my thirst might be quenched. Oh, and make it the blue kind."

Ice cream drinks are good for cooling off. Even the ones with coffee in them. However, coffee should never be truly classified as a drink consumed while cold, so I'm taking them right out of the discussion. Still shakes and sodas and root beer floats and the like can really hit the hot spot on a sweltering day. But the best coolant and thirst quencher is a slush. A Hawaiian ice is pretty much in the same category -- you're drinking ice! You can test me on this one. A slush will cool you faster than any other drink. But drink it slowly or you'll be holding your head in pain for about an hour, and that's no better than simply sweating through the heat.

So best of luck cooling off this weekend. And remember my advice: Don't pay for water, black cherry is the best Kool-Aid, Choc-ola is not as good as you remember, and don't down your slush too quickly. Now drink responsibly.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hair I am again

“Give me a head with hair. Long beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen...” - The Cowsills

Let me preface this my saying that I am in the post-follicular stage of my life. Yes, I am bald. In a world where hair turns heads, I am left on the sideline. Now of course, it does have it's advantages. I don't spend a lot of time and money trying to make it look good with combs, sprays, dyes and various appliances. It is an easier way to go about things.

Back in 1964, the traditional world gasped when four mop-topped men from Liverpool, England invaded this country making it fashionable to grow hair longer. (Look at the pictures of the Beatles today and you wonder what all the fuss was about.) When the Cowsills and company tried to push for hair that made grown men look like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family, fashion gladly opened its arms to the trend. Since that time, men’s hair has been shorter, longer... whatever. But only a few brave pioneers went without. Yul Brynner brought bald to the movies. Telly Savalas brought bald (and lollipops for grown-ups) to television. But after that, the list of hairless heroes is really pretty sparse.

For women, the trend goes the other way. Rebellion for men was to grow hair longer, while women wanting to protest their oppressed lifestyle began to cut their hair shorter. Soon we were faced with females with crew cuts, and eventually Sinead O'Connor, the Irish singer-songwriter, who found she could get more attention for herself by shaving her head (and by ripping up pictures of the Pope on live television). But the point is, the world is attracted, enthralled, and overstimulated by hair.

As a boy, my hair was blond. That color lasted until kindergarten when for unknown reasons my hair darkened to a dark brown. And it was thick. Very thick. The barber always had to “thin” my hair to get it to lay down correctly. Oh what I wouldn't give to have some of those thinnings back now! In high school, I began to experiment with facial hair. Except for baseball season, I had a full beard throughout my senior year. And hair down to my collar. It was that way through college and into the work world. I shaved my beard for the first time after high school about six years after graduation. Then I started growing it longer. I can remember fashioning a crude ponytail for it one morning when it was particularly unruly.

Then something happened shortly after I got married. (Not that it's my wife's fault. I'm sure it's just coincidence.) My hair started to thin even when I wasn't in a barber's chair. After a few years of trying every hairstyle imaginable to make me look a little hairier, I gave up and got it all cut short. Then gradually over the course of time, what hair remained got shorter and shorter until one day while shaving my face, I decided not to stop at the top of the ears. By that time, a ka-jillion other guys with the same situation decided to do the same thing too -- shave the head and grow a goatee. So now, ironically, I look like a ka-jillion other guys (only infinitely more handsome). The crowd of people with long hair has become the crowd of people with shiny heads. It's like the circle of life for hair.

I will also add that I have rejected the school of thought to “grow what you can” or to trim hair down so there is a semi-circle around my dome. Bless you, sir, if that's you. I just have too many memories snickering at people wearing toupees, or having the “toilet seat” haircut, or the long locks in the back with nothing on top a la Hulk Hogan. And don't get me started on the comb-over. But in the end, it's all superficial anyway. True beauty is not found in a do like Fabio or a cut like Farrah or Jennifer or whoever-is-in-style-today. Hair is window dressing. True beauty is in one's character. But hair does keep you warmer in the winter. And for now, I'm glad it's summer.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In praise of sugar

I stumbled across a website last week that predicted something that almost broke my heart. The site, called 24/7 Wall St., looked into its crystal ball and predicted the demise of ten brands in the upcoming year. While I recognized a few, the one that lept from the page was the prognostication that the cereal Kellogg's Corn Pops would be discontinued! NO! Citing figures that Corn Pops sales have dropped 18 percent and that the price of corn is making the stuff too expensive, the financial gurus claimed it would be cut by the cereal-maker in 2012. As a lover of cold cereal, I was more than a little distressed by this. I refuse to believe it, but if it did happen, I would still lay the blame on the trend of the late 70s when the word "sugar" was removed from cereal names. Hey, it was Kellogg's Sugar Pops. for years before the word police hushed all the sugar talk and pointed to corn. Sugar became a bad thing at that point when previously it was a selling point.

In 1949, Post put out a product called Sugar Crisp. With it, was a mascot who represented the cereal. He was simply named Sugar Bear. And Sugar Bear was on the cereal boxes and in the commercials. When the name was changed to Super Sugar Crisp in the 60s (because un-super sugar is nowhere near as wonderful as super sugar), Sugar Bear used to sing, "Can't get enough of Super Sugar Crisp." But when the sugar-haters got their way, these sugar-coated puffs of wheat became Super Golden Crisp, and eventually the 'super' was dropped (since super golden isn't all that special). Interestingly, the bear is still in some of the advertising and is still named Sugar Bear. Sugar is good enough for animals, but not for the breakfast table, I guess.

But I'll be honest. When the cereal was called Sugar Crisp, it was 50 percent sugar! That's right, half of it was sugar. It still is 50 percent sugar, as is it's Kellogg's cousin, Honey Smacks. Yes, Honey Smacks used to be Sugar Smacks. Kellogg's and Post need to keep up with one another, you know.

It's a shame that sugar takes such a bad rap. Sure, you don't want to overdose on sugar, but it isn't to be completely avoided. Over the past couple of years, the southern favorite sweet tea has become popular all over the country, even up here in Yankee states. What's so special about sweet tea? Well, there are all kinds of answers, but the correct response is obvious. SUGAR!

Sugar is a carbohydrate, and our bodies need carbohydrates. Sugar is tasty, and as Mary Poppins tried to tell everyone, just a spoonful of the white granular stuff will indeed help the icky-tasting medicine go down. There is a point to using real sugar. Meanwhile, how many sugar substitutes have been blacklisted by well-meaning agencies as being bad for you? I remember cyclamates. I've read about dulcin and P-4000, neither of which could be sold after 1950. And there are all sorts of claims about the problems with saccharin and aspartame and neotame and other stuff that I can't spell. If I'm going to eat something with warning labels, it might as well be the real thing.

So, with an eye on the traditional Independence Day picnic, I won't be sprinkling anything out of a pink, blue or yellow packet onto fresh fruit. I refuse to have a slice of sugar-free pie. And I may just take a black marker to a box of Corn Pops and label the thing correctly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Criminal Masterminds Aplenty

Back when I was a radio star (meaning: I had at least two fans), I used to do a feature called Stupid Criminal of the Week. During that time, I would highlight the exploits of someone who didn't think that big effort at crime all the way through. You know, like the bank robber who wrote the holdup note on the back of one of his own deposit slips with his name and address printed right there, or the guy who broke into a home and fell asleep on the couch. People like that. They were the highlight of my week.

This was back in the 1980s, when information wasn't nearly as plentiful as now when the Information Superhighway opened for business. So, these stories were occasional, cute and out-of-the-ordinary. Then, I started finding more and more, and most weeks there was not only a winner, but a runner-up, and sometimes an honorable mention in the contest to take the weekly prize. Soon, the award became the Stupid Criminal of the Day. Today, there is information flying around in digital form at breakneck speed, and it is hard to keep up with some of the lame-brained moves of certain people on the other side of the law. So I thought I'd make you feel a little better about yourself today.

There's the guy around Buffalo, New York who was riding around on the Interstate with the upper half of his body sticking out of the sunroof of the car. (I'm assuming he wasn't driving, although the account really doesn't rule that out.) Anyway, when the state police trooper pulled up behind the car and turned on the flashing lights, the dude in the sunroof found he had another problem. He had a bag of pot that he didn't want to be caught holding, so he decided to ditch the drugs by throwing it over his shoulder as the car was pulling over. The baggie of marijuana flew through the air and landed on the hood of the state police cruiser. He was charged with possession of drugs and not wearing a seatbelt. A more intelligent criminal would have kept his upper torso and head inside the car.

Or how about the three guys (note: it took three persons to be this stupid) who walked into a doughnut shop with knifes and hatchets and wanted the money from the store. It didn't take long for one of the trio of geniuses to notice a paper bag with a lump inside sitting in one of the workers' opened purses. The three grabbed the bag and took off, figuring they had just made off with the day's receipts from the cash drawer which was ready to be taken to the bank. Sometime later, they opened the bag to see how much dough they had stolen only to find that it was really dough. Fried dough. Doughnuts, to be precise. Apparently one of the workers was going to take a few crullers home at the end of the day, but the robbers grabbed the goods instead of the loot. Always check your order before you leave -- that works for robberies and for getting food from a drive-through window.

That reminded me of a case where a guy walked into a doughnut shop (doughnut shops obviously attract all kinds of people) and slipped the clerk a note that said he had a gun and a bomb and would use both if he didn't get the cash. Then the robber reached over the counter and grabbed the cash register and took off running out of the shop... only it wasn't the cash register. Mr. Holdup had grabbed a large adding machine that had no cash drawer. Instead of a drawer full of money, he had an outdated piece of office equipment. Sheer brilliance.

Police officers have always told me that criminals are not the smartest bunch in the world, which is fine by them because that quality makes them easier to catch. And with some of these idiots, it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Live in concert

I'm one of those people who really likes to have a tune playing in the background or the foreground while I work or drive or eat, so music is important to me. It's been that way as long as I remember. I grew up with a limited variety -- mostly whatever was on WOWO radio, but by the time music hit the FM band (that's right, kids, AM used to be the place for music!) there was a little more variety than just “safe” pop songs and the so-called beautiful music versions of “safe” pop songs. In subsequent years I discovered at least 153 different varieties of rock music, as well as country, jazz, blues, big band, electronic, bluegrass, reggae, and a few other genres that escape me at the moment. And for the most part, I can appreciate most any type of music. The orchestral majesty of classical music can truly inspire. The rhythmic poetry of rap can actually get me moving. And the sound of a mariachi band can really make me hungry. Yes, it usually comes back to food!

But I was thinking about all this as I looked through the upcoming performance schedule at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center. This city is blessed to have so many chances to hear good music. Besides the impressive list of talent that will be showing up at that magnificent venue, we are also treated to other shows. Visionary Promotions put on a string of great shows over the past couple of years with some lesser-known, but just-as-talented performers. Local and regional bands take to various stages around the area. It's a wonderful thing to have a musical soundtrack while remaining in this area.

I was reading on the Internet of the memories of some locals who were thinking back on some of the concerts they had seen right here in Van Wert. In 1966, the Kingsmen (”Louie Louie”) and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon (Palisades Park) each held shows at the Junior Fair Building at the Van Wert County Fairgrounds. That one stunned me. I realize that the music industry has changed a great deal in the past 40-plus years, but that still seems like quite the coup for this little town. I think the modern equivalent might be having a Ke$ha concert (Adults, have a kid explain Ke$ha to you) at the Junior Fair Building. Just can't see it happening!

There have also been plenty of great shows as part of the Van Wert County Fair over the years. I am half-amused and half-saddened when I hear people give their suggestions of who they want to see at the fair. Usually the acts are far too pricey or far too pickey to play in front of the local grandstand, but somehow that thought never occurs to these helpful suggestors. I would like to see the Rolling Stones without having to drive three hours too, but I can't see Mick and the boys playing the fair. Besides, at their ages, the Stones would probably have to wear some sort of air filtration system to keep the racetrack dust from bringing them to their knees.

I've attended some great concerts over the years. It started with a Pat Benatar show in Fort Wayne in late 70s, and moved through all sorts of shows, including the good and the bad. My wife of 22 years (today) once refused to attend a John Mellencamp show with me because she wanted to change into “concert clothes,” whatever that means. While I can say I saw Bruce Springsteen, George Strait and Michael Jackson in large arena shows, I also sat through Air Supply and the immensely forgettable Jack Wagner. (The latter two I was actually paid to attend. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

These days, I like seeing musicians of all types sharing their craft with an audience. Be it a Southern Gospel quartet or a guy with a guitar and a fistful of songs, there's nothing like live music. So I encourage local folks to take advantage of the numerous shows around the area this year, even if the music isn't usually your taste. Unless it's Jack Wagner. Then you have my permission to go home and sing yourself to sleep.

Monday, June 13, 2011

An embarrassing job, but someone's gotta do it

As the father of three, it has been my privilege, nay my honor, to in fact fulfill the duties of parenthood. Offering instruction and correction, providing for them, hauling them to various and sundry sporting events and activities -- yes, the previous two decades or so have been packed full of trying to live up to what a father should be. One area where I think I could have been better was in the necessary realm of embarrassing my kids in front of their friends. I just haven't done enough.

I wasn't the parent at the little league games screaming at my boys to “just hit the ball” or the one dragging out baby photos when my son started bringing dates home. I haven't attended school dances only to join in when “Solja Boy” gets played. Quite frankly, I'm a failure in this area. But I have a new hero.

His name is Dale Price. Dale found out this year that his 16-year-old son's bus route had changed at the beginning of the school year, and that each school day, his boy would ride past the house once again. So Dale took action. He decided he would stand outside the house and wave at the bus when it went by. Every day. Oh, but not just that. That wouldn't be embarrassing enough. This is the part that makes Dale my new hero. For each of the 170 days his son rode the bus to school, Dale dressed for the occasion. On the second day, he stood outside in a San Diego Chargers helmet and jersey waving to the bus. On the third day, he donned an Anakin Skywalker helmet. The next day it was swim trunks and a snorkel. You're starting to get the picture now, right? For 170 days, Dale didn't reuse a costume, taking on identities as varied as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz to Ariel of The Little Mermaid. He wore bunny costumes, cowboy gear, an orange prison jumpsuit, and even a lampshade, all in the name of embarrassing his teenage son. Bravo, Sir Dale! Bravo!

I was also amazed that Dale spent less than $50 for the costumes and props. Most were borrowed. He pointed out that it's amazing what your neighbors have in their closets. I'd rather not ask. You can see pictures from each day of the odyssey at if you need some ideas for possibly creating some red faces in your own family.

Have you seen the Toyota commercial where the cool kid is next to the unfortunate kid at a stoplight? The poor embarrassed boy tells his friend, “They've been singing the same song for the last three hours!” Cut to Mom and Dad loudly indulging in another chorus of “Angel of the Morning” as the boy continues to cringe. That's some fine work, right there.

But let's be realistic: Some kids are embarrassed just by the mere existence of parents. They like to think of themselves as independent agents -- in their 20s with their own place and lifestyle, not as dependent on people who are, well, OLD! And the thought that these parents were once kids too, engaged in stuff that would get them in trouble, well, that is almost too much to bear.

I think I have been relatively unembarrassing for my kids. Now, they may well argue that point. I am who I am, but I have resisted the urge to purposely find ways to cause them to slink down in their seats. Perhaps that means I have fallen down in my parental duties. I would have likely been mortified if my friends had to listen to my Dad sing, “I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)” as we rode along, but he was usually considerate along those lines.

And I have a hunch that Dale's 16-year-old son has come to appreciate his Dad over the past 170 mornings on the bus. Not everyone's parent cares enough to do something, no matter how foolish, for him every school day for a year. And I'm sure the kids on the bus got more than a good chuckle seeing Dale dressed as a pirate or a house painter or a superhero each day. I'm betting the kid got a few chuckles himself as well. So maybe embarrassment isn't such a horrible thing for a teenager. And so perhaps I'll accompany my daughter to her first day of fourth grade next year wearing a hula skirt, singing, “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” Do you think she'll mind?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Celebrating June. All of it.

It's June. Finally. We've lived through five months of this year, turned the corner and turned up the air conditioning. That's right, June. It's the month when summer begins officially (June 20) and unofficially (whenever school lets out). But June is more than just the month when we joyfully finally put those winter coats and hats away half-expecting to have to retrieve them again in a week or so. (This is the midwest, after all!) But there are actual celebrations this month that we certainly should not miss.

According to the never-wrong Internet, June is National Safety Month. Celebrating National Safety Month must surely be boring. I mean, surely we should all be wearing a helmet. No wind blowing through your hair (or in my case, my scalp), put on a helmet and observe all safety instructions. That means check out the warnings on that new hair dryer you just bought so you'll know not to use it while sleeping or while in the shower. If you wish you can try to figure out why someone would think about using a DRYER while they are getting WET. I'll just skip National Safety Month. And I know that's probably a bad idea because June is also Hernia Awareness Month, and maybe if I had been more safety-minded, I wouldn't have that hernia! I'll just wrap myself in bubble wrap. At least that way I'll have something to do since there will always be more bubbles to pop!

June is also National Scleroderma Awareness Month. I'm guessing this is the first time for this celebration or else Headquarters hasn't done much of a job making me aware of scleroderma up to this time. For the record, I looked it up and scleroderma is a chronic connective tissue disease. There. Now we're both somewhat aware.

This month is also National Camping Month and Great Outdoors Month. Now, there's cooperation! Someone was thinking ahead to get them both the same month. Unless of course your idea of camping is using sheets with a thread count of less than 450. Then you're on your own.

Other grand celebrations set for June include National Headache Awareness Week (June 5-11). Personally, when I have a headache, I'm pretty much aware of it. Also National Mosquito Control Awareness Week comes up June 26 - July 1, and if it helps the fight, I'm in! I'm thinking no-pest strips instead of crepe paper streamers. June 21 is Baby Boomers Recognition Day and National Daylight Appreciation Day. Both parties are sure to be long ones since that day is the longest day of the year. Hope the refreshments hold out! The month finishes with National Prevention of Eye Injuries Awareness Week (June 27 - July 4). My nomination for a party activity is to practice the Three Stooges Eye Gouge Block -- you know, place your flattened hand edgewise along your nose so the two-fingered eye poke cannot reach your pupils. That of course ties right in with the National Safety Month Celebration which is already going on. My other suggestion is to somehow use a recording of Ralphie's mother from A Christmas Story saying, "You'll shoot your eye out with that thing!" I'm still working on how to fit that in.

But my two favorite parties this month will be the ones celebrating National Accordion Awareness Month and Goat Trauma Awareness Month. Two two, like all the others I've mentioned, are legitimate observances according to various places on the world wide web. I found out about the accordion month designation by stumbling across the website, named for the most popular song ever played on the accordion (which is a little bit like being the tallest cockroach). At that site I found this impressive claim: "A blue-ribbon panel of experts recently named the accordion as the instrument most likely to put a smile on your face." Somebody needs to repossess those blue ribbons.

The other observance was found at the website belonging to the Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation. That group is hosting a whirlwind tour of several U.S. cities with special programs dealing with avoiding goat trauma and what to do if you are a victim of goat trauma at someplace like a petting zoo. The website states "Counselors will be on hand to help anyone who has already been a victim." I never considered being a goat trauma counselor for a career choice, but I guess there's a call for them.

It's June. Enjoy yourself, however you choose to celebrate.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A 500-mile common thread

Where has the year gone? It's the end of May already. Perhaps at least a month of 2011 washed away in the rains without me noticing. But now that May has arrived and has almost departed, I can take a little reflection time.

For as long as I can remember, the Indianapolis 500 has been a part of my month of May. Is it mere coincidence that The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is celebrating its 100th anniversary the same year as I celebrate my 50th? Well, yes, probably it is. But I'm going to ignore that fact. You see, I grew up in Indiana, and the Indy 500 was "our race." So when Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana" on the Sunday before Memorial Day, it's kind of like a family reunion.

One of my earliest childhood memories is rooting for Parnelli Jones to win the 1967 race. I was thrilled because I heard my driver was ahead so much of the race. My parents had to explain that Parnelli had car problems in the last five laps and did not win. My next favorite driver, Al Unser, took up the slack for me, winning in both 1970 and 1971. How did I get these drivers as my favorites? I'm not sure. I'm thinking I probably just liked the name Parnelli, and since I had a cousin named Al, that was probably the determining factor. Childhood decisions don't require a lengthy thought process.

The race in 1973 was a mess. I remember listening to the race when it finally was run on Tuesday after two rainy days. Art Pollard was killed earlier in the month in a crash, then at the start of the race on Sunday, a huge fiery crash almost killed driver Salt Walther. The images of his legs sticking out of the bare remnants of what had been a race car are still burned in my mind.

The next year, my parents took me to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. The cars, the colors, the crowd, the pageantry -- and this was just for qualifications! I saw many things I had never seen before, and in the stands I saw things I probably shouldn't have seen. But life goes on. I made the trip to the brickyard whenever I could after that, even getting free reign to the media center as a college student since one of my professors was a long-time announcer for the race network.

Twenty-five years after I first visited the speedway, I took my own boys to the track for the first time. After sitting around watching the track dry for close to three hours, my elementary-aged sons finally got their first taste of real racing. We were sitting near the pits when the first two cars went out to warm up. The boys had seemed fairly disinterested up to that point. About 45 seconds after the cars had pulled out, I got their attention, pointed to the north, and said, "Boys, watch this." Five seconds later the two cars came screaming by at around 210 mph making a terrific noise and almost blurring my vision as I tried to watch. I looked at my boys to see them jumping up and down, cheering and screaming in utter excitement. I understood exactly how they felt as I smiled.

I think most people have something that warms the heart, reminding them that there is a common thread in our lives from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to cynicism. It could be a love of baseball or the familiarity of an old building or an often-played song. Family traditions and favorite places keep a sense of home in our lives. For me, it's a 2.5 mile oval track in Speedway, Indiana and a race that brings me "back home again" no matter where I am. Our family won't be attending this year, but you can bet we'll be sharing the race experience. And the common thread of my life will continue to run much farther than 500 miles, all the way to the next generation. I hope each of you have a thread to share that leads you back home again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wind opinion up in the air

One of the things about having my job is that I tend to have a lot of information about almost every local subject either in my head or scattered somewhere on my desk. I have to learn new things, then translate the information and retell the story. In the past couple of years, I have had a crash course in wind energy and wind turbines. My editor and I joke that we've had to learn more about wind energy than most people in the state, and that's probably not far from the truth.

But being in the news media, everything I write is to be done without bias. Sometimes that is tough to do. After all, I have opinions just like everyone else. Lock 12 Van Wert County residents in a room and ask them a question, and you're sure to come out with no less than 15-20 different opinions. That's the way we're wired. But with wind energy, being impartial is easy for me because I'm really still up in the air on the whole thing.

I hear objections to having a couple hundred wind turbines in the county from time to time. Actually, they aren't as frequent as they used to be. But I've heard some of the typical complaints which sound more like the usual “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) arguments. “They might catch on fire!” Or “Birds will get killed by spinning blades” or “They'll be noisy or cause shadows” or whatever convenient excuses come to mind. While I can sympathize to some extent, I really don't pay much attention to NIMBY objections. Since I bought my house in the 90s, I now have a couple of large hog farms, a dairy farm, and electrical plant, and who knows what else -- all within a couple of miles. I know about NIMBY. We just have to deal with that.

I also hear real objections, like whether or not wind energy is going to be a real answer for the electrical needs of the country. Since wind energy can't be stored, a wind farm can't take the place of a coal-burning power plant. So it's not a final answer. I'm not sure it's money well-spent by the government, but at least we're seeing the results around here. Usually I have to drive to a far-off state to see what bridge or useless museum my tax money has purchased.

But you know, the objection I hear the most is that some people think they are ugly. I don't get that. Apparently other people don't either since there seem to be plenty of cars pulled to the side of Paulding County roads with eyes glued to the tall white towers. I've taken the drive numerous times with my kids, counting the number of completed turbines and looking at the sites where one or two vertical pieces are in place -- stumps, I call them. The blades reach high in the sky above us as we drive along, looking like overgrown white mosquitoes at times, or as my wife observed, like a fighter jet flying sideways when viewed from one angle. I could sit and watch them for hours, much in the same way I could stare at a campfire. It just sucks you in. Ugly is just not a word that comes to mind when I see them.

“Well, that's because you don't have to look at them all day, idiot!” (I'm sure someone just said that as they read... hope they don't mind me cleaning up their language!) Actually I don't have to look at them, but I can. Even though the turbines completed thus far are all in Paulding County, I can see about a half-dozen from my backyard. At night, the red lights atop the nacelle (the part the blades appear to be attached) shine brightly, blinking in unison at me. Even though the closest turbine is more than five miles away, they are still part of my landscape... part of my backyard.

Will these turbines and the ones still to be erected in Van Wert County always be pleasing to my eyes? Hard to say. There could come a time when they become as outdated as the farmhouse windmills that are just now starting to vanish from the countryside. But for now, they are bringing in a much-needed economic boost. And for that we should be thankful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Deciphering the dress code

Today, it's a polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants. Yesterday I dressed up a bit more with dress slacks and a button-up shirt. The day before that, I wore jeans. Consistency is not a hallmark of my wardrobe. But let's face it, you have to be prepared for anything. This is especially true for me, where my week often includes attending a banquet and taking pictures of farm animals.

Dress codes have always mystified me. Granted, I don't keep a wide variety of clothing in my makeshift closet, but I don't think I could fit in everywhere. There's something called “smart casual” (as opposed to “dumb casual, I suppose) which includes a blazer or sports jacket. Now to me, a blazer suggests perhaps becoming a TV anchorman, but not really casual. And “informal” includes “business attire” which requires a business suit and a tie. Maybe my rural midwestern upbringing has messed me up, but how does anything involving the wearing of a suit and tie fit into “informal” wear?

I started thinking about all this when I ran across a story about a Swiss bank and its dress code. The bank is UBS and the dress code is 44 pages long. OK, not exactly. Until January it was 44 pages long. Then the bank officials got tired of being made fun of by people all across the world, so they decided to whittle it down to a small booklet. It seemed that the bank wanted to control how all of their employees looked and smelled right down to the color of their underwear (skin-tone). And having run my own business, I do understand that looking “professional” means something very different to certain employees. But these folks were getting pickier than the father of a teenage girl.

How we dress has certainly changed over the years. When I was a child, few men would even think about attending church without a necktie. (That could be why fewer men attended services.) Women wouldn't dream of wearing slacks to sit in the pews. We were taught to dress out of respect to God. Of course for many, they dressed to attract attention with their new clothes, but you get the idea. Now many churches stress the condition of the heart rather than the condition of the wardrobe.

In business, the dress code depends on the type of outlet. In factories, safety equipment is the main concern, but elsewhere these codes dictate how people dress. I worked in radio for ten years back in the 1980s. Now you would think if there was one business where it wouldn't matter what you wear it would be radio, right? PEOPLE CAN'T SEE YOU. However, there was usually a business office attached to the studio complex at radio stations, so management always wanted these young disc jockeys to look “professional” if they were on the job during any business hours. Which meant that if I worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, I would have to dress appropriately because someone might see me during that one hour that my schedule overlapped with the business folks.

At some point my laundry didn't get finished, and I faced having to go to work with no clean dress pants. Rather than wearing dirty pants, I slipped on a pair of jeans with my dress shirt and put on a tie. I was a little nervous going into work in jeans, but I soon found that no one noticed my jeans because everyone was impressed I had worn a tie. I got more compliments on my attire that day than in the previous six months combined. So when I was in management, I passed this little trick onto other young men with a limited number of dress pants. No one ever noticed the jeans. It worked every time.

So perhaps the secret to proper dress is not skin-tone underwear, but delivering a good focus -- a tie, a beautiful hat, or whatever is kicking around in your closet. Make sure it's tasteful to more than just people your own age, then strut your stuff with pride. Just be careful around the farm animals.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tornado Watch-ing

For a second straight week, Van Wert County survived a tornado warning this week. Sirens blared, half-dressed people ran instinctively to shelter, and all over the region there were people nibbling on fingernails or in all-out panic mode. Tornadoes scare people. I get that, especially in Van Wert County. That November day in 2002 was one of the few days I had my entire family in the basement. I even joined them there for a minute after I saw the high winds suddenly switch the direction they were pushing the trees. But for the most part, if there's a tornado watch, I go out and try to watch.

I've been caught out in many storms, but I've never actually seen a tornado. My wife would love to be a storm chaser and watch these giant funnels. Ironically the day a tornado hit our neighbor's house, our whole family was away. We saw nothing but the aftermath. The one time we had a reserved ringside seat, and we were ten miles away. Figures.

I do have a healthy respect for tornadoes. I know people who were directly involved in the F-4 that rumbled through here almost a decade ago, and suffered great loss. I watched news accounts on the Internet and on television of places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Ringgold, Georgia, which were blasted by twisters on Wednesday. For years I've heard the stories of chickens having their feathers stripped away, stalks of corn being driven through tree trunks, and personal items being carried hundreds of miles by the tornadic winds. The destructive power boggles the mind.

When I was a child growing up in Indiana, I had a few brushes with tornadoes, or at least the effects of tornadoes -- both physical and emotional. One storm tore through a town of a couple hundred people, ripping the roof off the gymnasium of the old school building. I still remember riding in the car past the permanently retracted roof, and further down the path of the tornado, staring at trees that were freshly bent at a 45 degree angle. Those trees continued to lean for years afterward.

I also remember the panic that overtook my aunt when I was very small. The story was always that a tornado headed at you sounded like a freight train. We were discussing that during a particularly bad storm back in the 60s. We had gathered at my grandmother's house because she had a basement and we did not. My aunt was particularly nervous that night, having heard that tornadoes sound like freight trains and hearing the mighty winds blowing outside. Suddenly, she heard that sound that made her scream, certain that destruction was seconds away. What was the sound? A freight train sound? Sort of. It was a train whistle. I remember she almost had to be pulled off the ceiling and reminded that tornadoes don't have train whistles!

People today will, at times, become unnecessarily panicked over the threat of a tornado. Some of that panic can be avoided with a little education. A little study of twisters can tell you what sorts of things to expect when a storm threatens. You should know that a tornado watch just means that the conditions could allow tornadoes to form and a warning means there is a rotating storm somewhere. Information during a storm also can reassure a person when it isn't necessary to grab Toto and run to the storm cellar with Auntie Em. With the Internet, weather radios, and even television, it is possible to find out most everything that is happening as it happens.

But perhaps the greatest education one needs is basic geography. I'm continually amused by people who cannot seem to grasp that a storm traveling east from, say, Willshire, is not endangering Grover Hill or Scott. Now I could chalk it up to people not being able to read a map or knowing which direction is east, or it could be that storm panic has set in and no amount of information can penetrate the brain until a meteorologist shows up at the front door giving the All Clear signal.

So my tornado season advice is simple: (1) Respect storms, but don't let your mind glaze over in panic, (2) Gather information from as many reliable sources as possible, (3) Learn the basic geography of places in the region, especially to the south and west, and (4) If you hear a train whistle, it's just a train.

The Thrill Is Gone

Blues singer B.B. King sang, “The Thrill Is Gone” about a relationship that took a nose dive. In the song, B.B.'s lady apparently did something wrong, and now the relationship wasn't the same as it used to be. While I can't be as brief as Mr. King with this one, I think the thrill wears off far too quickly in many things, and I'm not even talking about relationships.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Americans first entered space. Alan Shepard climbed inside his Mercury-Redstone rocket dubbed Freedom 7 and took a 15-minute sub-orbital flight that made people in this country take notice of space flight. That is, if they hadn't noticed Yuri Gagarin become the first person in space just three weeks earlier. But in 1961 and for that entire decade, people were aware of space flight. Sometimes they were skeptical. Sometimes they were proud. But when there was a scheduled liftoff, people paid attention.

The drama continued through the Apollo missions, then the launch of the first space shuttle in 1981. Then after a while the shuttle launches became routine. We didn't gather to watch as before. On a January day in 1986, a radio announcer complained that he had to stop his show so the station could carry yet another broadcast of a space shuttle liftoff. After all, no one really listened to those anymore. He changed his tune about 73 seconds after liftoff when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts and stunning this nation and the world.

But after a couple more successful missions the disinterest was back. The thrill was gone. Even the 2003 Columbia disaster didn't keep interest in the shuttle missions. Let's face it, if we weren't down to the last two shuttle missions, the apathy over a space shuttle launch would be deafening. Even the thrill of sending human beings into space can't keep us riveted anymore. And for as long as it has been, we can't truly describe what it was like when the entire country would put life on pause while the countdown marched toward liftoff. The newness, even for those of us who remember, has worn off.

I was thinking about all this while driving around, flipping through the stations on my radio. When I stumbled across an old Beatles song, I realized that a majority of people today don't have a true appreciation for the uniqueness of the music of that Liverpool quartet. The sound was new and different -- unlike tunes that had been revolving on turntables up until that time. Today, introducing someone to the early sound of the Beatles is not that impressive because all kinds of music sounds like that now. Someone growing up in this century cannot truly appreciate what a shock it was when the opening guitar riff of The Kinks' “You Really Got Me” hit the radio or the psychedelic guitar of Jimi Hendrix's “Purple Haze” or the folk-rock guitar and nasal vocals of Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone.” It's not necessarily that the thrill is gone. Some of us still remember that thrill and realize how groundbreaking these records were. It's just that the thrill can't be brought back.

One of my favorite firsts was the first time my son laughed at something he saw. He was a fairly quiet baby, not speaking until after his first birthday. But one night as I held him on the couch with the television on, I heard him start to laugh. Not just a giggle to himself, but he was laughing at the show on TV. I turned to see what had tickled my baby's funny bone and smiled. He was watching an old Three Stooges film. I couldn't have been prouder. My son had good taste in comedy.

It's a shame that various thrills can't be bottled or framed or pickled or whatever else preserves something. First date, first job, first baby, first kiss, (you can continue that line of thinking on your own time) -- they all have their own unique place in our hearts and memories. But the feeling can't really be shared or recaptured. So I believe that we should truly enjoy those firsts that come our way. That even goes for the firsts we might rather never experience. Each new day is a gift and an experience. And maybe, just maybe, each new day will bring an ever-so-brief thrill that will help you remember all the thrills that have gone before.

Friday, April 22, 2011

History in the buff

I've always been a history buff. I've always been that way, preferring to spend time reading and studying the past over dealing with more contemporary subjects. In college, I took nearly as many history classes as I did classes in my declared minor. Frankly, history fascinated me more than marketing. But even I knew that high-paying jobs in history are mighty scarce. (Little did I realize that I naturally have an aversion to jobs that pay highly anyway!) So I took a different route, but still kept an eye on the past and what I could learn.

My eyes have especially been drawn to history over the past two weeks, as the nation remembered the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The bombing of Fort Sumter in South Carolina was really kind of pathetic as far as battles go. The fort, located on a man-made island in the middle of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, was commanded by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, who tried his best to hold the island from Confederate forces demanding the evacuation of the garrison. The Union men were outgunned and outmanned and were severely low on supplies.

The firing by the rebels began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. After 34 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender. The number of casualties? Zero. Nine were wounded, four of those on the Confederate side. The bloodiest part of the battle was the surrender ceremonies when a gun exploded killing two Union soldiers. The first casualties of the American Civil War came not as the result of a battle, but a ceremony.

The characters always seem larger-than-life in history. That's probably because the same-size-as-life characters didn't make the history books while the volumes are full of George Washingtons and Teddy Roosevelts and Platos and Napoleons. And since history is written by the winners, we can probably assume that for every favorable story there is likely another tale told from the opposite camp. But that's what makes history fun.

I know a man in town who will have nothing to do with the Internet or computers, claiming proudly that he lives in the past. I've told him on more than one occasion that there is more history on the Internet than he will ever dig up in person. For instance, I found a site called simply, where copies of historic newspapers are viewable for free. The idea is that you can see how newspapers reported the famous events of history. I pulled up a copy of the New York Herald from April 13, 1861 to read the account of the bombing of Fort Sumter. Included are a map of the Charleston area, descriptions of the fort (”a modern truncated pentagonal fort, built upon an artificial island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, three and three-eights miles from the city of Charleston”), and copies of letters sent between Maj. Anderson of the Union and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederates. Fascinating stuff.

There are advantages to being a history lover nowadays. Research is fast and easy with the Internet. Books on various subjects from the past are published seemingly every day. (There may be more books written on Lincoln's assassination than Stephen King has sold in his lifetime.) And there is a group of television channels supposedly dedicated to history. I say 'supposedly' because it seems the programmers define 'history' rather broadly. The Thursday night lineup on the History Channel consisted of a show where men hunt for alligators in a swamp, a program about a taxidermy shop in Alaska, and a reality show where contestants compete to determine the best shot using various firearms and weapons. I'm sure they're all wonderful shows, but that's not history.

The writer George Santayana is credited with penning the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If he's right and my memory holds up, I should be set for the rest of my life.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The April 15th holiday

It's April 15. Why am I not running around like an idiot trying to make sure my taxes are all figured, packaged, and stuffed into a postal worker's sack? Is it because I got around at the beginning of February and got the nonsense out of the way early? Sadly, no. Mostly it's because we procrastinating American taxpayers were blessed with an extra weekend to mop things up. This year (and this year only), taxes only need to be postmarked by Monday, April 18. We should probably celebrate, as that's the most mercy I've seen ever from the Internal Revenue Service.

I had to look up the reason for the delay, as nothing much seemed like a good excuse to push back the day when the I.R.S. agents all begin to salivate. It turns out that the District of Columbia is celebrating Emancipation Day today. The holiday commemorates the end of slavery and is usually observed on April 16. However as we all know, you can never correctly celebrate a holiday on a Saturday. So it's been moved to Friday, and we all get an extra weekend of trying to find more deductions. I'm assuming that the residents of D.C. are today proudly remembering the emancipation of slaves in some solemn way. I'm sure it's as classy as the way we remember the former chief executives of the country -- with a President's Day mattress sale.

Actually, I'm not in a panic because the taxes are done, thanks to a professional. I gave up long ago trying to do them for fear that I wasn't properly completing Schedule 666 or whatever needs to accompany all my W-2s, 1099s, 1040s, and Form E-I-E-I-Os that I have to stuff into those envelopes. It's just way too complicated unless you file the form with the EZ at the end of it. I think everyone seems to like it that way, and by everybody, I mean the I.R.S. and every accountant and tax service in the nation. The rest of us could stand a break from the complicated machinations of the tax code.

There are movements to replace the current system with a flat tax of say, 17 percent of all income. No deductions or exemptions. No complicated tax forms. Just three or four lines and a place for a signature. That sounds like a good idea on the surface. I'm sure there are catches I haven't thought of yet. What we sometimes forget is the tax code has become complicated because we as a nation have looked to reward certain behavior. Want to encourage charitable giving? Offer a tax deduction! Want everyone to learn the tango? Give a deduction for tango lessons. You get the idea.

Think of what a huge change that would be, though. Dismantling the current tax system would be almost like making gravity optional. Or even like celebrating holidays on Saturday -- we're talking massive change! I'm all for change, but I do want some kind of plan as to what the change is going to be. Change for change's sake is usually a stupid idea. Just when we start thinking things can't get any worse, we realize we were wrong and that we have no business trying to do the job of a psychic.

The government isn't good at change though, unless you count raising taxes. Cutting things isn't a strong point for those chaps. They can't stand to make people mad. (Something about wanting votes or some such nonsense.) Truthfully, most people are in favor of government cuts as long as the cuts have nothing to do with them. “Don't touch my pension!” or “Don't cut funds for my subsidy!” or “Don't you dare cut funding for my precious snail darters!” Some day we'll have to get over that or else we'll all have to learn the hard way. We're already $14 trillion in the hole. That's something that could stand changing.

And so, those of you who can't change the habit of waiting until the last minute to plaster a stamp on the envelope and sending Uncle Sam more money to play with, take a deep confident breath, knowing you have a couple of extra days. Happy Emancipation Day.