Friday, January 21, 2011

Name withheld by request

It's a jungle out there.

When I say that, I mean what seemingly everyone else in the media has said: There is a lack of civility among many in this country. Granted, it may not be as blatant as in past centuries, but name-calling seems to be old hat for commentators, politicians, and others who generally have a camera or a microphone in front of their faces.

I love a good debate, and I've always lived by the maxim that if one side stoops to insults, that side has lost. After all, insults are usually what fly when you've run out of important things to say. But it seems many people don't abide with that maxim. Perhaps it's because they've run out of important things to say themselves.

Mostly folks like to point fingers at who is causing the level of discourse to take a nose dive. Some blame talk radio. Some blame selected politicians. Some blame television commentators or even entire networks. I think I have the real culprit in mind. The Internet.

Please understand that the world wide web is not responsible for things resembling hate-speech. It's the speaker's fault and the speaker's responsibility to tone down the rhetoric. But the anonymity offered by the Internet takes away the inhibition of many who might behave if everyone knew his or her identity. It's like lobbing grenades while traveling incognito.

Back where I grew up, the local newspaper did not require those who wrote letters to the editor to sign them. That way, person A could write about the terrible service they received at the local gas station and not have to worry about having the clerk let the air out of her tires on her next visit. Or person B could scream and whine about his neighbor's trashy lawn and not need to hire a guard to keep the litter off his property. The signature for those letters would be “Name Withheld By Request.” As a reader, if you read the editorial page to see some juicy letters, you skipped the ones with names at the bottom and went straight to those from Name Withheld By Request.” Those anonymous letters were always full of a mixture of anger, guile, hatred, and likely a little too much alcohol. But they were written because “nobody will ever know who wrote it anyway.”

I'm glad we don't print those letters here at The Times Bulletin. We still get them, mind you, but they are filed inside a large green plastic bag. Usually they aren't even read. If you aren't adult enough to put your name on your opinion, I guess that opinion isn't worth anyone's time.

I've spend a lot of time on the Internet over the past dozen years or so, on forums, chat rooms, blogs and the like. What could be a legitimate, healthy face-to-face debate often becomes more heated and vengeful when the participants are hiding behind Internet screen names or handle. Think about it: If I am “Ed Gebert” there are expectations for civil behavior since people can track me down, but if I am “ihateeveryone238” no one expects anything from me. I am a character, a persona, a mysterious identity.

And trust me, those hiding behind screen names usually are the ones dragging down civility in online conversations. Not everyone with screen names is doing that, but if the debate is in the mud, chances are it's shutupanddie66 who started it.

But I can't blame everything on Internet anonymity. I knew a guy online who was always an obstinate jerk whenever he took part in a discussion. One day I met him in person, and he turned out to be the exact same in real life. There's something to be said for consistency, I suppose.

But for all the talk of being civil, there are always going to be arguments. I heard a fellow today complain that people at a local coffee shop were up in arms about the latest go-round of whether to allow beer to be sold on city property. He seemed to be shocked that people were upset with one another about the whole affair. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself that this certain coffee shop has seen plenty of arguments over coffee in the years since 1922. A former professor of mine told me he learned about many of life's weightier questions while listening to the patrons at a bar in Willshire.

But do we have to be so nasty about it? Do the people who disagree with me have to be such idiotic, brainwashed low-lifes?

Whoops. I guess I lost that one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Watching the gas station signs

Is there anything more watched than the price of gasoline? With each bump in the price for a gallon of the stuff, whining and wailing starts to reach deafening levels. With each drop in cost, cars start to burn rubber to get to the pumps to fill up before the cycle begins again. Of course it helps that stations light up signs with giant numerals to tell us how much we can expect to pay. If other businesses had to advertise in this way, we'd all be complaining about the price of milk or lawn mowers or teeth cleaning.

Within the past two weeks, we've watched unleaded clear the $3 a gallon barrier here in Van Wert County. It's the first time since 2008 we've seen that price. Back then, though, we were relieved at $3 a gallon since we had narrowly avoided $4 a gallon weeks earlier. I've been amused at the reports in the media of people reconsidering their travel plans because the price of gas has gone up. Somehow, the increase of gas prices from $2.99 to $3.19 doesn't seem to alarm me.

Thinking about this, my car gets around 20 mpg. So a 20 cent per gallon rise in the cost of gas equals about a penny a mile more. That makes a trip to Columbus and back of approximately 200 miles now cost around two dollars more. Now, who in their right mind would cancel a fun trip (or a trip to visit family who may or may not be fun) because it costs an extra two bucks? Yet I've read and listened to people say that now with $3 a gallon gas, they'll change their driving habits and not take long trips! If you are indeed strapped for cash (and probably wouldn't be making a fun trip to Columbus in the first place), that's one thing. But it costs $2 for a soft drink at most restaurants these days! Do you think I'm changing for two dollars? I don't think so.

I've often said that the more times a person tells a story about how little something used to cost, the older they truly are. But I'm going to risk that maxim to tell you this story of my childhood:

At that time in the late 1960s, gasoline was selling at every service station (that's automotive service, not just selling doughnuts and potato chips) for 29.9 cents per gallon. I'm pausing here so everyone can collective say, “Wow, he really IS old!”

Anyway, I was riding in the backseat with my chin resting on the front seat one day when my dad pulled into a service station. He looked at the pumps and shouted, “34.9? I'll NEVER pay that for gas!”

Ironically, he was probably right since the price of gas started rising soon afterward, and he never did get to pay just 34.9 again.

Now I realize that was a different era. Hey, my first car didn't get miles per gallon. It was more like gallons per mile. But we all knew where we needed to drive, and if there was going to be any scrimping and saving, it wasn't going to be on driving.

I've also heard so-called “experts” say that gas will be $3.75 by spring and over $5 by 2012. Those people may be right, or they may not. Inflation alone means we'll probably hit that benchmark someday. But the truth is, I'm not sure I even know how to drive less anymore. I can't take the bus. I can't take the train. I can't really car pool since much of my work time has me going to one destination or another -- alone. But if those giant lighted numerals clear $5.00, I'll have to find a solution, won't I?

I just hope I won't go driving out of a station, declaring that I'll never pay that price for gas. I'm afraid I may be right.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's this guy doing anyway?

A few years ago, this blog was full of updated thoughts about life, faith, and dealing with them both. Then... silence. Nothing. For the better part of three years, there was basically nothing of any consequence posted here. Now, there have been a couple of odd posts that seem a little different? What gives?

It's nothing to be alarmed about. Life continues to get in the way of some things. I'm not sunning myself on a gorgeous beach today. I'm not running a marathon. I'm not touring the southland in a traveling minstrel show. I'm sitting at home by the fire, avoiding the cold outside. It's a rare time of relaxation for me.

But I'm back here, hoping again to be able to share some thoughts and revelations -- perhaps as much for me as for anyone who happens to read. Almost half a decade ago, I took a job with a local newspaper as a reporter. I get to use my writing skills, but unfortunately, they are usually used to describe school board meetings, grand openings and criminal court proceedings.

Moreover, sometime after that, my ability to minister to people well was severely hampered by the need to be ministered to. It's a long story, but let's just call it a case of writer's block.

Lately I've been able to write a weekly column for the newspaper, and I've been posting a few here. Don't look for a lot of applied spiritual truth in those. Maybe you'll have to do the application yourself.

But I'm at the point where God is filling me up again, giving me ideas and thoughts that are going to have to come out on a page. The trick may be finding time to put them all together. But when they do, they'll be here. So I won't be posting 5-6 times a week, but I'm hoping that when I do it'll be worth a read for you. I know it will be worthwhile for me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Palin Highlights Human Differences

Perhaps you've read the headline above and think you know what this column is about. You're probably wrong.

Sure, Sarah Palin's name has been all over the media for the past week because of all the accusations made against her. But I'd much rather leave that to our editorialist to take on. Somebody in the office once declared that there is nobody in America who either doesn't love Palin or hate Palin. I proved that statement wrong. As with most everyone, I disagree with some of her opinions and actions, and I agree with others. She's just a human being, like everyone else you run into.

For me, that was never more obvious than the night last week when my wife and I watched back-to-back episodes of "Sarah Palin's Alaska" on one of those satellite channels. (I can't tell them apart. I watch something on Animal Planet the other night that didn't have a single animal in it. No wonder I'm confused!)

The Alaska series has finished its run now, but it featured eight one-hour episodes plus a "greatest clips" compilation assembled for those who just don't have eight hours to kill. In it, Palin is more travel guide than public figure, taking viewers on an exploratory trip of America's Last Frontier. And that frontier is a beautiful place. Majestic mountains, crystal-clear waters, and acres of trees, with very few people standing in the way.

The series is a reality show of sorts. The stars are Todd and Sarah Palin and all the kids, the grandchild, various other relatives and friends, and other assorted Alaskan folk, and I'm sure some people didn't even think about watching the show because the Palins are front and center. But as I watched, I picked up on something. The Alaskan culture depicted on the series is at once both very familiar and incredibly foreign to me. I don't know much about salmon fishing, logging or dog mushing, but the blue-collar work ethic I understand. Still, as I sat with my wife and watched, I was as much entertained by the Alaskan lifestyle as I was looking at the bears play in the river.

One of the episodes featured a visit by Kate Gosselin, of (John and) "Kate Plus Eight" fame. The nine of them were coming to go camping and fishing for a weekend with the Palins. However, it turned out to be a real (excuse the expression) fish-out-of-water situation. Gosselin was no more prepared for Alaska than Beverly Hills was prepared for Jed Clampett and his kin. She whined about the rain, the cold, the bugs, the surroundings, the food, and most anything else she could think of. As her eight kids ran around having the time of their collective lives, Mama Gosselin looked for her first opportunity to get out of the Alaskan wilderness.

It was apparent just how few people from outside Alaska would be comfortable there. It's different. They stand around and cut up a catch of fish in one part of the show, including Palin's daughter Willow who is spending her 16th birthday in "fish camp." It's not exactly the Sweet Sixteen party many girls dream of. I mean, who lives like that in the year 2011? But as I marveled at the Alaskan way of life, I was reminded that the Midwestern way of life is just as mysterious and unknown to many others. East coast and west coast dwellers often refer to this part of the world as "flyover country" as if there was nothing of importance in Ohio, Indiana, or countless other states in between New York and Los Angeles. They have no knowledge of corn fields, of counties with only 30,000 residents, or of cities where murders are rare instead of a daily occurrence. And many don't want any knowledge of those things either. We are like a documentary on rural Midwestern life that nobody wants to watch.

Maybe we're too quick to dismiss things -- cultures, people, ideas -- that are different than ourselves. Perhaps we find ourselves judging others as harshly as they judge us. While I'm not booking a six-month Alaskan camping vacation, or planning to turn in my keyboard for a salmon boat in Alaska's Bristol Bay, I'm pretty sure I have no business looking down my nose at those who live in that environment. And no matter what you think of Sarah Palin's politics, you should be able to see that the state she formerly governed is not a backward culture. It's just a different culture. As much as I hate being judged for the area I live, I have to be sure I'm not doing the same thing. I may not want to live in a big-city high-rise or in a tent in sub-zero weather, but I won't be talking down those who do. And just maybe the same thing should apply to people who have different opinions, different levels of education, different income tax brackets, different musical tastes, and different personal habits. We're just human beings, after all.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Of Buggywhips and Typewriters

Surfing across the Internet this week, I encountered a handful of articles about obsolete products. Actually the products are not obsolete yet, but probably soon will be. One simply listed items that babies born in 2011 will never know. Usually I skip these types of articles since I feel old enough already, thank you. But this time I read through, each author coincidentally coming up with the same dozen or so products.
I'm not always on the cutting edge of technology. In fact, most times I struggle to keep up with the latest trends. Twice in my life I have found myself decades ahead of all you common folk.
The first time, I was just a youngster with a record player. Alright, it was a turntable for those of us serious about our music. But a new medium was arising that was threatening to eliminate the vinyl 45s and LPs. It was the 8-track tape. I resisted, watching as my friends jumped to tapes. You see, I had my eye on something newer, more accessible, and with more uses. I jumped straight to cassettes. I jumped so soon, there were no pre-recorded cassettes in the stores. I was forced to join... the Columbia Record and Tape Club to get my music. Sometimes behind ahead of the curve has its cost.
The other time was the fax machine. Let's face it, the only time a fax machine was really needed was to transmit a signature. There was no way I was buying a hulking machine just for that. In my lifetime, I have sent maybe two faxes. And someone else did the faxing. I just stood back and shook my head.
But what about the current products that will soon go the way of the buggywhip? What do the experts have pegged for extinction? Encyclopedias are one item. Wikipedia and all sorts of Internet reference pages can easily take the place of the 26-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica. That's sad. My uncle sold encyclopedias for years and years. It was his ultimate reference. Now instead of finding the right volume, it's about five to ten seconds of keyboard work and the answer is there.
The same goes for phone books and yellow pages, at least according to these experts. Now, I can still find a phone number faster with the white pages, but usually it takes me a few minutes just to find the book.
Also on the list is the network evening news. I had to check last night just to see if this was still on. I watched about five minutes of the CBS version which once made Walter Cronkite a national treasure. Last night it looked more like a promo for the network's morning lineup. Seriously, do people with more than three channels still watch the network news?
Other things newborns will never get to remember include paper road maps (or the thrill of trying to re-fold one properly), movie rental stores, cameras that use film, and home land-line telephones.
These kids won't understand about calling long distance since few people today have to pay more to talk to someone far away. They won't wear watches, since the time will be prominent on whatever the latest electronic device is. They won't comprehend travel agents since there are many dot coms to book all your travel needs. They will never catch onto the manual typewriter, where you have to reach up to return the carriage every time the bell rings.
Indeed, the very thing you are holding -- a newspaper -- will be different than the physical paper we have grown up with. While some papers, along with books, magazines, and catalogs, will still exist on a limited basis, many will do their reading from a screen, without the need for a paperboy or a trip to the mailbox.
Yes, times are changing. Life in the mid-21st Century will go on without dial-up Internet service, VHS tapes, and Kodachrome film. While that may be a blow to my personal memory banks, it is sure to be a boon to culture in general. And when my grandkids come scurrying up to my chair, asking for me to tell them about the olden days when we had telephones connected with wires and recording devices with long reels of brown tape, I can scoot back in my chair and regale them with tales of the Good Ol' Days. And just like I did when my grandmother told me about having to hitch up the wagon to go to town, they'll sit and listen, thanking their creator they don't have to live in such prehistoric times.