Monday, December 5, 2011

ABC News 'Made in America' series

There are a lot of things you can call the feature news components on ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer.

  • News you can use
  • Service journalism
  • Shooting fish in a barrel

The lede is not one of them. Though that does not stop the team at the network’s 2nd place evening newscast from positioning their manufactured news series as the top story of the evening, as they do from time to time with their segment, Made in America.

Starting with an obvious premise, that the American economy has evolved from a manufacturing economy, while failing to note where the American economy has moved to, this series scratches American’s nationalist itch. It finds college students with new dorm room stuff, none of which is made domestically. It notes families who own very little that’s made at home. It’s gotten people passing through New York’s Grand Central Station to strip down in order to find a US label on a pair of undies.

But it doesn’t take the time to do more for the audience at home than remind us of the changes to our economic structure, continues to cheapen what used to be a valuable amount of time in a newscast, and offers itself up for parody that could just about write itself for any of the late night cable comedy shows.

David Muir, now introduced as ‘anchor David Muir,’ smirks his way through these indulgent stories, repeating from piece to piece precisely what we’ve heard before. What’s new is that the bottom has gotten even lower in this charade.

Children have been pimped as stooges in this false drama. Just tonight, three pre-tweeners are found alongside a mother in a parking lot, asked whether they will find more American made products in the electronics store or the sporting goods store. "SPORTING GOOOOOODS" they shriek. But as the camera follows them inside, the reporting staying outside, and we again were left wondering. To paraphrase Clara Peller, 'Where's the news?'

A boss who has hired three people following a previous Made in America story is given time to laud his contribution to the economy. Three people? Who’s kidding who.

Most significantly, earlier in this exceedingly long piece, long by network standards, a brand new low was created by ABC. The network that learned over a generation ago that you do not fool mother nature with real news by recreating scenes, has managed to not let those same standards and rules apply in this era of digital cameras and i-reporters. Tonight, ABC added a graphic atop the screen at the beginning of their story, placing an image in a corner implying that the footage was created directly by an ‘MIA CAM.’ Hell, it even had the flashing red dot that we know tells us our personal camera is recording.

But this MIA or Made in America camera was nothing more than a false lens, a fictional appearance within a contrived story deep within what should be a more thoughtful newscast. It is the representation of what we’ve allowed news to be…..a device to hook and hold viewers, regardless of the methods, the manner, or the style.

Would it matter more if we knew if anchor David Muir’s suits were domestic or imported, or whether his shoes were Thom McCann’s? Would it help if we knew whether the glasses Diane Sawyer wears were made in America? How about the cars owned and driven by the senior production and editorial teams at ABC News? What about where they vacation, or what wines they drink, or food they consume? Domestic, or not made in America?

Reporting some time back provided journalists with a window onto what they were covering. But when you smash that window, and step over that space, the one that separated the reporting from the public, you do open yourself up to these questions.

And they need to continue to be asked, even if they’re coming one at a time.

Perhaps as valued and respected news watchers like Andrew Tyndall continue to document that these emperors really do have no clothes (domestic or imported), others who measure content and perform analysis will follow.

For now, we’ll try not to choke on Oscar Meyer or spit up our Coca Cola as we try to watch the evening news.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hugo (a review)

What a charming, delightful film.

Martin Scorcese once again proves that he doesn’t need blood and guts to tell a story. Hugo is just plain theater, with a fantastic backstory, a strong arc, an impressive finish, and all the essential ingredients for an instant classic: tragedy, drama, adventure, intrigue, and passion.

For cinephiles, there’s history as well, plenty of it. Presented in a very creative, pleasing, and modern way. Hugo makes use of a myriad of storytelling devices, foreshadowing, previewing, voice-over, dramatic shots, revealing camera angles, all with just the right touch of character.

While this is a period piece, intended to be Paris in the 30’s, there’s more than just an apparent timelessness to this. There’s an ease to it. A reminder, even though none among us was around at that time, that hustle and bustle is not a modern phenomenon, even if social attitudes and mores may have changed over the ensuing decades. And the message of the film, that we each have a purpose, a role, a story to tell, something to share, is not just universal. It’s elemental, as the basic root of storytelling.

For younger viewers, the pacing might be a bit slow, though the action and intrigue may well compensate for the pace. For teens, who the hell knows. There’s no vampire action, at least none I could discern, and the closest thing to visible romance was some handholding and a polite peck. Not even dancing, at least not among the younger set in the film. For adults, this film is a feast. One does have to share an interest in films, in drama, in storytelling, and in the possibility of people opening their hearts, and thus minds, to allow for there to be change.

As for the particulars, Ben Kingsley is fantastic. What would you expect. Sacha Baron Cohen is convincing as the ogre dressed in a rail security uniform. Cameos by Johnny Depp and Jude Law give this some major star flavor. Emily Mortimer’s understated flower girl provides the right touch. And teens Chloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield make this film, with just the right level of innocence and curiosity to play out this thoughtful and very smart drama.

Finally, a 3D film that was truly worth it. Not over the top, not shot for effect, but simply something that just plain works. And delivers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum

Noted architect Daniel Libeskind is still celebrated around the world for his angular take on both form and function.

Libeskind continues to receive commissions and builds buildings and creates space across the Americas, as well as in Europe and Asia.

I have had the opportunity to be in spaces he has designed in Berlin, Toronto, Denver, and now San Francisco.

And to a project, I have to say, the Boards and individuals who hire him must really like the language he speaks, for his work doesn’t match any aspiration for a successful space.

Just the other day I spent some time at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. A renovated space just off Market Street in the now trendy and popular Yerba Buena Gardens, this behometh of a building offers a jarring contrast upon approach, a witty appeal in the canyon of the main level, and then a series of perplexing statements in the main gallery entryway and public area.

The existing building obtained by the CJM was a 19th century power station for the city of San Francisco. Destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, it was rebuild on site in classical form under the design of noted architect Willis Polk. Unused and virtually abandoned for years, it was reclaimed for the CJM project, and Libeskind was hired in 1998 to create the new space.

What’s interesting here, among other things, is that this commission was Libeskind’s first in North America, before his additions to the Royal Art Museum in Toronto, the Denver Art Museum, and even his role in the 9/11 Towers at the World Trade Center.

Yet it was completed only in 2008, after each of the other museum additions, as well as the opening of his Jewish Museum Berlin, the signature piece in his portfolio.

In visiting several of Libeskind’s spaces, you immediately see the severity of his lines, the deliberateness of his angles, and the harshness of corners that seem to materialize out of nowhere. In plan, these exteriors must be tantalizing, for in execution, they are cold and off-putting, literally creating distance between people and the building itself.

The CJM space, while it doesn’t have as many dangerous corners and post-construction safety notices as in Libeskind’s other domestic works, still manages to confound with perhaps the most counter-intuitive central atrium of any museum intended to attract, hold, and move people.

The CJM has two levels. The main level has a large gift shop in one of Libeskind’s cubes, as well as some smaller gallery space buried in corners behind the primary stairwell, off and away from the ticket region. There’s also a very large but underutilized entryway, which recognizes the industrial history of this space, but when facing east seems little more than a post-modernist interpretation of the original building.

Ascending the main stairs, modern as well, stark in white, with handrails along one side which serve the dual purpose of keeping both children and adults away from the pointy corner walls, ascending the main stairs delivers you to a landing which provides at least three choices.

Choice #1, immediately to the right, offers an exceedingly large and bright gallery space, directly above the gift shop, and in the extension of Libeskind’s slashing cube. This space is deceptively large, incorporates creative use of perception and distance to present identical windows as different in size, and serves as a way station on a journey through the museum.

Choice #2 is further ahead on the landing, and offers a perch above the main floor, a view down and across the old industrial space, above fellow museumgoers who are still entering the building. Yet this space is contained by the corner in which it was placed, and requires entering and exiting in the same manner. It is also at this space that the two aspects of this building come together, the old and the new. At at this space is the visual confluence of the Jewish symbolism that Libeskind follows as the design theme, the linkage of the Hebrew words 'chai' and 'yud' to celebrate life, and this building. Or so he says.

Choice #3 presents a large freight elevator, stark in appearance, unusual in it’s placement, right past a turn towards the primary gallery space, and central to the grand area that should be where you are when you are standing at this point. Among the many design issues with the building, the placement of this important yet best hidden item is the most perplexing. There’s no getting around this. You have to step right around this service elevator to enter the primary gallery space. Why there’s no false wall to mask the elevator, let alone an elevator in another space, since it was added for this project, is quite perplexing.

Beyond these three choices, at least with regard to the problems with this building, is that this landing, this confluence, this core of the building, is actually a choke point, forcing people to step aside, step back, or in some way actively work to avoid moving into one another as they attempt to proceed. So coming up stairs, you may be forced to wait for other ahead to clear. Moving from any of the three choice points mentioned above, you might similarly have to dance around others, or just wait for them to move. And making matters even worse, there’s a series of sharp turns to enter the primary gallery space, boards to read just behind one of the sharp turns, and here’s the most confounding point of this all, jutting walls closing off this space, so that in addition to the turns, the confluence, and the volume, are angular white walls coming down at you, restricting your entry, as some sort of post-industrial sentry designed to thwart entry, as opposed to invite thought and wonder. It’s a bit much, and the breathlessness of the last sentence really is intended to convey as much. Really.

This space, which all must traverse in order to enter the main gallery, is a travesty, and a sorry excuse for a grand promenade for what should be a remarkable building.

How someone can take an open space virtually the size of a football field, and manage to contain a central area for movement down to the size of an airport restroom, defies logic.

That, after all, is the brilliance of Daniel Libeskind. Reducer of architecture, confounder of design.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ESPN hot seat over Syracuse tape

Deadspin attempts to waggle its' finger at the Bristol Behometh and the Bernie Fine/Syracuse story. But there are so many more lingering questions.

Here are ten+ that come to mind for anyone who cares about journalism or reporting:

Were any calls placed to Syracuse area law enforcement to determine whether any of these allegations had risen to the level of an investigation, or arrest?

Why not hire an audio analyst to check the voices on tape to confirm identity?

Why not examine the tape to determine whether it has been edited, and if so, where?

Why hold onto the audio for the past 8+ years if this is not a story?

How often did these allegations come up in meetings over the past 8+ years?

Who was this story first brought to at ESPN? A producer? A reporter? Anyone in their enterprise unit? An investigative person?

Did anyone at ESPN in the past 8+ years reach out to anyone at Syracuse University to seek comment? Was there any communication of any kind about these allegations?

If, as ESPN college basketball reporter Andy Katz noted on air this week, it is exceedingly unusual for a college team to travel ‘ball boys’ to out of town games and tournaments, why did this not come up in anyone’s reporting on Syracuse men’s basketball?

Were there any concerns that the relationship between ESPN and the NCAA might be compromised if even preliminary calls were made about this story to Syracuse University or any of its’ representatives or associates?

Why wait until these allegations have the cover of the Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State story before reporting on the tape?

And, as a bonus, what did ESPN’s legal department have to say about these allegations, this tape, and its significance, when it was advised of the tape’s existence in 2002?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Musings on San Francisco Bay Area

Weather changes from neighborhood to neighborhood. The locals know this. The tourists read of it in advance. Yet it’s still refreshing.

Yerba Buena Park provides a respite for urbanites. There are museums, fancy shops, hotels, and pricy restaurants. And there are also public spaces, attractive park areas, each of which acknowledge the city, incorporate urban life, and welcome all who come and visit, not only the moneyed class.

San Francisco street life defines eclectic. From Tranny couples, to punk kids, to toking teens, on to trendy/attempting middle age women, over to Brit-styled men who ogle men, the streetscape along Market provides a range of views and styles and appearances. Some of them even memorable. Others decent.

The homeless situation in the city is serious. These guys are light years beyond an ‘Occupy’ movement. Wherever they are, they’re occupying their space, 24/7. It’s hard living on the street, and faces, stares, attitudes, and distance from the surroundings further defines as much.

There’s a shitload of Asian restaurants in the Bay Area. Who knew? Well, we all know, but still, there are dozens of Noodle Shops, several places with the name ‘Bamboo,’ and enough Dim Sum places to be sick of interior food carts. This city is a foodie destination. And you don’t have to go far to adventure, or drop big money for good stuff. Then again, not every hole in the wall offers paradise. Food, that is.

While there are iconic tourist locations, from Ghirardelli Square to the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island, and of course Coit Tower and Lombard Street, the Cable Cars and the stores and shops around Union Square, even the remnants of the Haight, there is so much more just steps from touristville, and in many ways, under the noses of everyone. Take in the Hunter-Dulin building at 111 Sutter Street. A French imperial inspired skyscraper (well, 25 stories capped with spires and a mansard rood) in the heart of the financial district, it has the main entrance on Sutter, but around the corner, the entrance to the Wells Fargo branch on the corner of Montgomery and Post provides another way into this building, and a reminder of the grandeur and wealth that old banks once had. But the key to this building is the address, and the history that was made by Philip Marlowe when he had the office of detective Sam Spade up on the sixth floor.

Just around the block, near the corner of Bush and Market, is the Skinny Building. Just 20 feet wide, this narrow mini-rise goes up six stories at 130 Bush Street, and provides some whimsical context to the serious nature of the financial services buildings all around. It’s reportedly called the Skinny Building not only for it’s narrow width, but because its’ original tenants were garment workers who made ties and other ‘skinny’ fabrics. Go figure.

Visiting in the late fall provides a respite from the weather in other cities, particularly of those back east. But even without the opportunity to catch a Giants game at AT&T, or to stroll about on a mild evening, there’s still the splendor that is Golden Gate Park, and perhaps the greatest treat the city provides visitors, the truly inspiring and remarkably sedate Japanese Tea Garden. Ensconced within this urban oasis, the Tea Garden truly takes visitors away from the relative bustle, and even from the strollers and joggers in the Park, and offers a tranquil setting which seems to provide greater distance from the buildings and people and even sounds that lap up to the manicured flora than one could imagine.

I have long been telling whoever asks that Americans should find a way in their life to live in two cities for at least a year or two. New York is naturally one of these cities. And San Francisco, and the entire Bay Area, is the other. While it’s not possible to do more than scratch the surface on a short visit, sustained trips over many years continue to provide insight into this fantastic, vibrant, and energetic city, this place that provides a range of sites, tastes, and even settings, for virtually every type of person. I would expand that to say that the Bay Area could work for anyone, from any country, any culture, any background, and with any language skill. There’s much to appreciate, and even more to take in. I am already looking forward to my next visit.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I heard a new phrase the other day. It still both haunts and suggests. So here's a short story.

A friend and fellow journalism educator and I were talking about the state of the news business, what students are interested in learning, and what universities are willing to teach. It was a rather open ended conversation, and had it been held in a bar, with drinks, in the evening, it probably would have made more sense than the dayside, office space conversation that it was.

But when we spoke about writing styles, and styling writing for a particular medium, my friend passed on something he had picked up from one of his former students, now working on a hybrid news app, or something of the sort, to one of the newer players to the media sandbox.

It's no longer just writing to catch someone's eye, which we do try in television, or to hold someone's interest with compelling sound, which can work in both radio and television, nor is it just strong characters, which works primarily in print, but across each traditional media landscape.

What this recent graduate, the former student, is impressing upon people, and his company is seeing through research, is that the next generation journalist is going to have to write for the swipe.

So it's one, two, three swipes you're out. It's not a matter of losing the reader after the jump, or getting the viewer to stick with the news after the first commercial, or the radio listener to not change the station while stuck in traffic.

Now, it's all immediate, it's all rapid, and it's all there, in no more than three brief lines. Headlines, perhaps. Teases, maybe. News and information, hopefully, but just not sure.

And that's why this revelation, this description for a practice we know has been widely embraced, is both haunting and suggestive. It will continue to scare most of the old guard, and suggest opportunity for the creative members of the news regiments to come.

And it's already here. Just look down on your device for affirmation. Now swipe for the next article.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

King Memorial inspires posting a progressive Jefferson quote

"I am certainly not an advocate for for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
from an 1816 letter, and memorialized, in abbreviated form, on the Jefferson Memorial
good words to live by, even if from a southern states rightist who lauded the farm and the prairie and derided the city and urban life

Monday, August 22, 2011

No time to be a luddite

Hey, fellow journalists.

Wanna be afraid. Very afraid? More afraid than being called into the office, feeling you're about to miss air, inadvertently deleting your work product?

Check out this story on web analytics,, and the totally straight faced comment by the dude who says 'and since we know how well the future is going to play out.....'

Yes, it's a brave new world indeed. Confidence in predictions. That'll get you far.

Anyone interested in racoon stew? Now that's something I can predict for the future with confidence.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sarah's Key

In the years since ‘Mississippi Burning’ was released, historical fiction has rightfully received a great deal of criticism. The liberties that Hollywood has taken with history on screen are legion, creating whole cloth out of the tattered fabric of seminal events. While a subject of great concern, let's leave this for another discussion at another time.

Other than the well awarded German drama ‘The Lives of Others,’ it’s hard to come by a film that respectfully incorporates history on a grand scale into the arc of the story.

Yet Sarah’s Key manages to be respectful, dramatic, and even realistic, without slinking back to maudlin or even seeming overwrought. It's tough, but not brittle.

Working through the present, in the form of a bold American magazine writer working for a small French publication, Kristin Scott Thomas takes the role created by novelist Tatiana de Rosnay, and provides meaning and purpose to her work as a journalist, while delving into the difficult questions that challenge, provoke, and often divide.

Scott Thomas wants extra space in her magazine to cover the story of the 60th anniversary of the little told Vichy French government’s round up of Parisian Jews at the Vel d’Hiv velodrome in July 1943. Over the course of her research, told through the film’s second story, and shot beautifully on different stock, she documents the repeated horrors inflicted on the Jews taken in, locked up, and then sent off to Nazi death camps.

But within the grand story, she becomes transfixed by one particular drama, involving a 10 year old girl, and her 4 year old brother, two victims of the Holocaust who manage to not appear on either death documents, or transfer documents, or anything else Scott Thomas unearths.

And within that research, and that back and forth of the story from at first 1943, to the present, we are provided a range of human emotions and characters, and a story that traverses time, continents, and even families.

Sarah’s Key will appeal particularly to those who feel compelled to bear witness on these kind of works. It goes much further, though, as a story of love and faith, of the human desire to learn the truth about history and family, and as a film that wisely avoids cliché even when that opportunity abounds.

This is one of those rare films in which the total of the film is far great than the sum of the individual performances, as impressive as they are, particularly that of young Sarah.

Though fiction, Sarah’s Key speaks to universal questions, acknowledges pain, suffering, and loss, and manages to take events from long ago in a world far away and make them engaging, and interesting, for our exceedingly modern world.

Cowboys and Aliens

This is just one of those times where the drapes just don’t match the carpet, where the steak ain’t anywhere near as good as the sizzle, and where all the hype in the world just won’t budge this turkey forward.

There’s a reason I’m mixing metaphors, and Cowboys and Aliens is certainly high among them.

There is a lot of promise in a premise as positive as we have with Cowboys and Aliens. It’s a smart concept, as far as out-there film ideas go, but it seems like they included everything and the proverbial kitchen sink in order to make this work. From your two respected hunk-o-rama’s (Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford), to your royal babe in waiting ( Olivia Wilde), to a decent supporting cast, all set in the picturesque desert of northern New Mexico, there literally isn’t a thing this film doesn’t have.

Except for a story that defies disbelief, and sustains attention.

This film starts off simple enough, and within moments, we’re somewhat glued to our seats, after Craig dispatches a team of ruffians who awake him from his alien induced siesta.

But soon after, the comic nature of the alien attacks far exceed the intended level of humor. Craig and Ford, as the wealthy cattle baron who runs things in town, play everything straight. And when they saddle up and ride out to take on the evil aliens, you’re rooting for the good guys, but you’re not quite sure why.

This film includes virtually every western caricature known to man (and woman), up to including a kid and a dog in a posse. While Ford’s character does make light of this, it’s about the only intended laugh in this film. All else comes at the expense of the film, and that’s no way to make and present a summer blockbuster.

Sure, the good guys win in the end, though not without sacrifice. It’s a bit gorier than most of this genre, but after Alien and all that’s followed in this genre, little should surprise or disgust. There are subtle attempts to present rural western life as a bit more integrated than what is shown in a standard western, but it’s also 2011, and even modest efforts at historical accuracy are to be expected, even with a plot as outlandish as an alien invasion for precious items found (apparently) only on earth.

You’ve got to really hold a torch (or equivalent) for Ford and Craig to be willing to spend two hours, and 12 bucks, sitting through this unintended parody.

Even with Spielberg and Howard and Grazer listed as producers, and two separate credits for writing and story, this film falls under it’s own weight.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The correct number is 50

There are many things that can be said about beauty pageants. I would wager that most of them are correct, from the crazed excess of some pageant moms, to the nervous tension on the stage, to desperate acts of sabotage.

And cutting to the chase, yes, there’s still the swimsuit parade, that legacy of the old Atlantic City crowd that founded the Miss American pageant 90 years ago. It’s been recast as lifestyle and fitness, but we know better. It’s still all cheesecake, glam thighs and perky breasts, topped off with a glowing smile.

In a bit of way out of the ordinary booking, in June I was one of five judges in the 2011 Miss North Dakota pageant. I was initially dubious about virtually every aspect of this process, including my participation. But the more I learned, the more I heard, and eventually, the more I witnessed during a very long weekend judging, has turned me from a shrill opponent to someone who would now just as soon say ‘ehhh’ to them.

The official title of the North Dakota pageant is the North Dakota Scholarship Organization. That is of course a misnomer, an attempt to apply political correctness to an ongoing activity that at root remains a beauty contest. (Yes, there is money behind these chiffon gowns, and cheap tiaras. Upwards of $10k for the winner, which can go a long way for a state college student from rural North Dakota, and small batches in hundreds for the also-rans, money that probably gets you back the investment in shoes, gowns, dresses, and travel costs. )

But that’s not the real story. That is what goes on off-stage, behind the scenes, in the judges’ room, at the private homes where the pageant privileged are oiled and fed, and in the off hours during pageant week. That’s where guards come down, ties are loosened, heels kicked off, and the wine and beer flow.

And that is the story of a small American town, with traditional values, caught up in the glamour and potential of being part of something larger, something popular, something distinctly sexier than the everyday happenings in the dusty and distant northwestern corner of an oft forgotten plains state.

To set a picture about the scale out there, think of the characters who live to perform dinner theater, and you immediately have an image of the cast. . In fact, the locals running the pageant in North Dakota for the past 25 years were not at all typical, unless you count a series of couples cut right from a regional performance of ‘La Cage’ and the supportive straight men who assisted their not so prim wives with, literally, the heavy lifting involved in staging this production.

And those were the folks I met on the first night, at our first stop, in town. Over the ensuing days, we saw that all the stops were pulled out for visiting royalty. Well, for us, which in this case were five judges, along with a dozen ‘formers’ as the former Miss North Dakota’s were called. We judges cut an interesting picture, with three folks with North Dakota connections, a schoolteacher, an accomplished dancer, and a former winner herself, now a home school mom to her four boys, along with the state director for the New Mexico pageant, and myself, a former network television news producer.

We were often brought together at local gatherings with the members of the board of the pageant, and the dozen ‘formers’ or former Miss North Dakota’s, ranging from the most recent winners, up to several forty-somethings, each now moms struggling with the same issues mere mortals face in middle age; family, work, spouses, weight.

There was plenty of talk, mostly small talk, as this is a small state, if you measure by population. And in this world, everyone seems to know one another. And not just one another, but who else competed way back when, and her talent performance in an earlier year. It’s like baseball fans at old timers’ day, and they even made the formers gown up for the evenings, which was a far better thing than seeing Yogi Berri in pinstripes.

So the scene each evening included the five judges, a bevy of current and former beauties, the grand dames of town who helped administer the program, and the combination of codgers and queens who took a high school stage and turned it into the closest thing folks in Williston, North Dakota, would take for a fashion runway.

And what could have easily been the setting for a bad setup joke (a NY Jew, a member of the Christian Coalition, and former winner looking like a ‘Pricilla, Queen of the Desert’ fan walk in to a room) turned into a rolling series of conversations on rural life, the oil boom, real estate, prior year contestants, current year expectations, along with a smattering of politics, and plenty of discussion about food and recipes.

This was all something that I signed up for solely to be able to say I had made it to all 50 states before my 50th birthday. Until the pageant, North Dakota had bewitched me. I had been near while driving cross country in college, but the entire width of South Dakota on US90 was as close as I came. Slowly, each of the final states peeled away. A visit to the University of Hawaii. A lecture in Anchorage, Alaska. Those two are often the tough ones. Hell, I’d been to Maine a half dozen times, and even Idaho on more than one occasion. But still North Dakota held out.

Yes, North Dakota ended up being the last one. And to cap it with a bit of time on the ground, and a volunteer project, well, that at least helps cement the memory.

But there was more, in the surprise of the social diversity found in this otherwise monochromatic flatland, in the pleasure of seeing real smiles and true happiness in the eventual winner, and also in seeing people, strangers initially, come together, and reach a consensus on which young woman with the tight abs and the scrubbed teeth will get to try this all over again, this winter, on a much bigger, much less forgiving stage, representing the state of North Dakota before the nation in the fabled Miss America pageant.

I wonder how the folks in Las Vegas will treat a new girl from the heartland? Now that’s a story! If only I could get a judging gig for the big pageant. Damn, I’ve already been to Vegas. But it’s always worth going back. Who knows, maybe this time I’ll get lucky.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What’s in a number?

50 means different things to people.

To the AARP, it means numbers, people, and cash.

To hockey fans, it’s mystical. Counted in goals, it’s a symbol of scoring prowess, a marker of exceptional ability.

In baseball, a slugger with a 50 home run season (until Brady Anderson, among others) was considered a real star, with Hall of Fame potential.

Paul Simon rhymed to it in his catchy song ’50 ways to leave your lover,’ not that this is recommended, unless you want to set yourself free.

For many, it’s equated to gold. The golden anniversary, for instance.

To me, 50 has been rather simple. There are 50 states here in America. And with 50 states, there are 50 Capitols. And 50 state capital cities.

As someone with a lust for wandering, an interest in the role government plays in our society, as well as the architecture of democracy, 50 is a trifecta. While I haven’t hit that one, I have managed to get to all 50 states. It has taken time, though it has hardly been an adventurous accomplishment. No tales from the road of great danger or intrigue. Very little zen, and not much motorcycle maintenance. But over time, it’s provided a window onto who we are as Americans, as a country, as a culture, and as a community.

Even with our hundreds of cable channels, and thousands of blogs, and tens of thousands of web sites, and millions of possible friends on social networking sites, it comes down to what we find when we’re in places as seemingly large and cold as New York City, as down home as central Alabama, as tranquil as the painted desert in Arizona, as unusual as Anchorage, Alaska, or as neighborly as Williston, North Dakota.

It’s about people and places, and what they do where they live, and where they play.

It’s how they interact with visitors, with strangers, and with those working through.

And it’s a journey, and a series of lessons, that are very much still in progress.

There are 12 state Capitols to go, though oddly enough, just 10 capital cities.

Hopefully, they will become more than just numbers.

Though it would provide a greater sense of accomplishment to have the entire trifecta met in the next year or so, closing out a real 50x50 campaign.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

leaving North Dakota

This is an unusual state, this North Dakota. I have become so accustomed to hearing people speak in the passive voice, that it has even begun to infect my writing. Oh, yeah. You betcha. It sure golly does.

The upper mid-west is certainly a friendly place, or at least appears to be. People go out of their way to not only be polite, but to help. Not sure if the whole country was once this way, or just the prairie, or whether it’s the euphoria coming out of the oil and land rush that’s going on in the western part of the state, but it is one of many interesting things I picked up during my four days in the rural and rustic Williston.

For starters, Williston is so distant from civilization that one young woman participating in the statewide beauty pageant noted, more than once, that she really likes her hometown, and is excited that it now has a Mexican restaurant. Now has, as in prior to 2011, it did not. Even if we grant that this international cuisine hit these parts in 2010, that’s, well, about a generation or two past the rest of the country.

Sticking with food, there was lots of it, provided by gracious hosts in very nice homes. But last night, at what passes for an after party, the host provided two impressive dips, both homemade. The red salsa was quite good, with flavor and a light heat. That was good at the end of a long day. But what was funny was that the second dip, hummus, was something Ted (the host) said he had first come across earlier in the month during a trip to New England.

Sure, there’s some concern about middle eastern things across the United States, but to think that a cultured middle-aged man had not heard of, let alone sampled hummus until this year, well, that does astound.

Another oddity, that I can’t explain, is that higher octane fuel is less expensive than lower octane. 91 octane with ethanol is a nickel less than standard 89 fuel. Hope the next driver of that rental Chevy HHR appreciates the quality juice I left for them.

Then there’s the beauty pageant itself. It seems to take over this small town, bringing out people from across the landscape, bringing out clothes on the non-competitors that makes you wonder, and yet seems to be a significant source of local pride.

As for the pride, it’s for good reason, as this event is very well run, very well thought of, and really works well in this small corner of the state.

There’s something quintessentially American about a beauty pageant in a small town, complete with tears of joy, quivering jaws gripped tight by those who didn’t win, group hugs for all, barefoot babes dancing across the stage, and the incredible lightness that comes with being free of the responsibilities of serving others for a spell, as those recent and long ago Miss North Dakotas seem to now have.

Glad I had the opportunity to take in more than just an afternoon during this visit to my 50th state. Lots of thoughts and ideas on future trips and such, and perhaps even one to the eastern edge of this state. But with many things these days, it depends on variables beyond one’s control. Ya know that, don’tcha.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Going Native?

Well, this thing seems to be working out.

Six months ago, I accepted an offer to be a judge in the 2011 Miss North Dakota pageant.

I was not sure what I was in for, and had no idea what to expect. I had never before been a pageant judge, nor had I even watched an entire pageant on TV. My views were colored by a series of films I have seen over the years, from the now classic ‘Smile’ from the mid-70’s, up through the indy success ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’

And there is a strong truth to those films, and their message of excess and ego and drive.

But, and it surprises me to say this, but there is another aspect to these events as well, and that is what these programs do for the communities in which they exist, and for the young girls in those communities who seem to enjoy having their shared moment in the lights alongside the ‘big girls.’

Last night I sat right before the stage in Williston High School and watched a two and one half hour program. It was uneven, and a bit ragged at times, but there was a consistent image that was evident from the stage. And what we all saw was a show for the families and friends who dotted the audience, and a wide smile from all who padded across the stage.

This was fun, and it was evident to all. But for the 22 little girls who made periodic appearances alongside their big sisters for the evening, this would have been just another local American spectacle.

These little girls literally were looking up to their older and more scantily clad sisters. And they were looking to them for everything from visual cues, to reminders to say hi or blow a kiss to their moms.

This folksiness came across as quite real, quite earnest, and quite unlike anything I have seen in quite some time. These young girls were able to make some costume changes, perform some very basic moves, and were allowed to appear and act as kids, which they are, not as small adults, which can often be the case in other communities.

Not sure if this small oil boom town will leave a temporary or a lasting impression, but at least for one night, there was great fun in the auditorium. Let’s see if the kids can keep it up, and if the program can avoid clichés.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Days. 120 hours.

Five Days. 120 hours.

Over the course of a lifetime, it’s an insignificant amount of time.

Not a full week, though a bit over the 72 hour marker that guides many of us.

Five days. 120 hours. That’s a lot of time to fill, and hardly enough to learn about a new location, to understand people, culture, and the way they live.

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be heading off to distant North Dakota to close out a chapter. The moment I touch the ground in Bismarck, I will have officially set foot in all 50 U.S. states. For me, for what it’s worth, this is an achievement. And it will be accomplished under a self-proclaimed deadline that involved getting there before my 50th birthday. So I will now have 15 months to figure out some new endeavor to reach by then.

Five days on the ground just to see North Dakota? Well, there’s much more to it.

For the past few final states on my list, I’ve been able to spend some quality time, taking in sites, and speaking before audiences of students and media professionals. I enjoyed these visits to Hawaii and Alaska, two of the harder to reach states. The time spent getting to these destinations was well worth it, all things considered.

And until recently, the missing piece on that 50 state puzzle was bewitching. After all, what is there to do in North Dakota that can serve as a lure? Any major league baseball, or great theater, or upcoming music festival? Well, none that I know of. And while I do like winter sports, the prospect of Fargo in January is not a pleasant one.

But with the significant assistance of a good friend, and lifelong North Dakotan, I have been invited to be a judge in this year’s Miss North Dakota pageant. Thanks to 1997 winner Roxana Saberi, I will be spending the next five days, and 120 hours, in the teeming metropolis of Williston, (pop. 12,303) located on a speck of oil soaked land in the far northwestern corner of the state nicknamed the Peace Garden State.

It remains to be seen if this will be an adventure, or just a departure from the norm, from reality, and perhaps even from my senses.

Five days judging a beauty contest? (note to self: beware biting the hand that feeds you, even if you do it often. these people don't know you, yet. [note to note to self: chill]) That sounds like a penalty, not an opportunity. Hell, I haven’t even reached the age of weird ogling. I'm not yet 50. Not yet eligible for an AARP card, and an official discount. Though the contestants are certainly young enough to be my daughters. All of them. But since I’ve never stepped foot in North Dakota, nor probably even flown over this forsaken stretch of our vast continent, I can safely judge each contestant free from any concerns about nepotism, familiarity, or just plain ickiness.

Now I have to return to reviewing each contestant’s application materials, and to preparing questions for the off-stage and important interview round. And I wonder, should I ask them if they have followed Anthony Weiner on Twitter, and if not, why not? Perhaps that’s too leading. I’ll find a way to get to current events, and world history. I just hope none of the contestants are named Monica.

Five days. 120 hours. I don’t think they are going to want to have me around any longer than that. I will know soon enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

NASCAR, appearances, and names

A day at a NASCAR race can sure get your motor running.

Nothing like that mixture of high octane fuel, the swagger Americans bring to these events, as well as barbeque, sweat, oddly created trucks/viewing stands, and an assortment of tattoos, implants, and just plain odd smells to test the amperage.

The NASCAR All-Star race has fast become a new tradition in the household. That is if back to back attendance makes a tradition. And since it doesn’t involve dancing, hell, it’s a tradition.

This year was little different than last. A little hotter on the track and the infield, perhaps, and literally couldn’t find the cool firefighters I had hung with last year, but all else was the same. After all, NASCAR doesn’t go radical. It goes big. Real big.

Throngs of people.
An overindulgence of North Carolina State Troopers.
Amazing access within America’s most popular sport.
More African Americans than Confederate flags.
Check. (can’t say this last year, and not sure what any of it means)
Fuel and barbeque induced nausea.
Check (again, not sure what any of it means)

Next year I think I’ll start asking people about their tats, at least the visible ones, and see what I learn. Should make for some interesting conversation. After all, I’ve got credentials, so I might as well put them to good use.

The funniest part about the whole weekend occurred to me during the 400 mile drive home. 400 miles is more than the All-Star race itself, though it takes infinitely longer to get from Charlotte to DC on 85 and 95 than it does to traverse the Charlotte Motor Speedway 100 times. And 400 miles provides a lot of time for thought, even reflection at times.

But what stood out was a humorous note.

Jammed up against traffic at times, it became obvious that the bulk of American cars and trucks have western inspired names. There’s a long history to this, from the Catalina to the Montana.

Today, though these names are destinations, and inspire us, while choked up in congestion, to think of the places we could be in our Denali, or our Sierra, our Sedona, or our Sequoia. The Tahoe, the Santa Fe, even the austere Malibu conjure up fresh air and relaxing times. Or you could get there in your Escape, your Charger, or in an Explorer. For the galactically inclined, there’s the Odyssey, for the traditionalist, the Armada, and of course the godfather of them all, the pony car, the Mustang.

Now, the funny part comes here. (insert joke here for readership) All of us slogging north on 95 today passed through industrial cities, and parts of the country that time may have passed. North of my journey is Camden. West is Erie. Further north is Bridgeport. You don’t see any of these names, any of the names for 19th century American cities stuck on the side as badges on America’s dream machines. Dead east coast cities don’t inspire hope. And I don’t think anyone at Chevy would want to be offering the Passaic for 2012, or the Acura Anacostia as part of the fall lineup.

So while we are all into cars for looks, for performance, and for feel, we are also into them for names.

And I was reminded of that as well on the ride today, passing a Subaru Outback hooked up with a trailer pulling a mint condition Ford Probe. Ford caught some flak, rightfully so, for this poorly named car, the anticipated replacement to the then underwhelming mid-80’s Mustang. But female buyers had issues with a car called a Probe. Imagine that.

And all of this provided a chuckle, as an Outback owner claiming a Probe as a prize might truly be seen as ironic.

Then again, I still might be running on fumes ingested on pit row.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's up with Europe?

Leaving an America still drunk on the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, traveling to a Europe withering on fumes from the emptying tank of economic union, yet giddy over this weekend’s Eurovision song contest, you just have to wonder, and ask, what the hell is going on here?

I’ve had the distinct benefit of a short time in Paris, and a short visit in Berlin. Two impressive old world European capitals, complete with charm, dignity, and abundant history.

Yet Paris was riddled by a rail strike that took this first world city to the depths of third world conditions, while Berlin, in classic German form, has taken prevailing security concerns to a level not seen since the days immediately following the attacks of September 11.

In conversation in Germany, the morality of the military action against bin Laden is raised, and raised in a way that suggests this discussion has been going on for the better part of the last two weeks, in public, in the media, and in many communities. It was with a straight face that I had to inform a friend that the killing has not so much as raised a hackle in the United States. While not all danced and paraded before cameras like the students in front of the White House, and the New Yorkers who rallied at Ground Zero, the death of bin Laden has not been a moment of contemplative reflection for Americans.

My friend, a fellow journalist familiar with America, and our practices and standards, understood, and politely moved the conversation on to another topic. So much for that one.

Back in Paris, a city ridden with tourists, tsochkes and tarts, an odd civility seemed to hold forth. The well worn stories of rude service and incivility did not come to bear, though replaced less with charm, than with a politeness, and a willingness to assist, upon request. Even with a significant language difference, strangers on trains offered guidance, and suggestions, even though their information was neither clear, nor always correct. Yet this metropolis seems to move forward even as Parisians live with these incessant strikes, and these unerring attacks on modern, urban life. How anyone in Paris accepts this nonsense is beyond me. Americans just wouldn’t stand for it, though we stand for a lot. But periodic shutdowns, slowdowns, and regressive practices seeking benefits that can’t sustain the country, let alone the economy, just don’t seem to make sense in this 21st century.

All of this being said, there is an efficiency to European urban life, to simpler living, to fewer amenities, to smaller apartments, to smaller meals, to smaller cars, even to smaller overhead storage on flights (damn Lufthansa for not allowing my carry on to be carried on). Yes, you may be more likely to be run over by a bicyclist in Berlin than an auto, though in Paris it’s conceivable you may be run into the Seine by a frenzied visitor straining for that ‘original’ shot of Notre Dame.

Back at home pedestrians have rights, though American drivers are reluctant to recognize this fact. And you’re not going to see someone texting while driving here, though the selfish American with a nose in a smartphone is replaced in Germany by a loutish teenager with his nose in a quart bottle of lager. Each presents an issue, though in the end, while the differences are significant, and the attitudes vary, seeing them, recognizing them, and beginning to understand them all help us learn more about the world around us, and more about the world in which we live.

But don't worry, we can still agree that any couple seen wearing matching sweatsuits should be returned immediately to their country of origin. So there's still a dismissive view towards Russia and many parts of eastern Europe!

Tonight, while Europeans will sit before their small tv screens in rapt attention, I will be skipping the Eurovision song contest. An American has to have some standards, after all. Perhaps I’ll work on creating a puppet show documenting how President Obama took down bin Laden. That might do the trick, and bridge the divide. Puppets. There’s the ticket. Wonder if anyone has Euros for admission?

Monday, April 25, 2011


What's wrong with a fictional sport, you ask?

Well, quite a bit, when you consider the strangle hold someone else's creative mind has placed over the minds and creative spirit of our future movers and shakers.

Last week I was able to visit a half dozen college campuses along the fabled northeast corridor. In the majority, reference was made to either Harry Potter, Quidditch, or even quidditch tournaments, of all things. The only school that didn't mention this fictional endeavor was a real-world Ivy League institution that is riding the crest of the popularity wave, and doesn't seem to need to support of muggles or wizards to ensure further popularity.

For colleges that wish to promote their uniqueness, and how they allow individual students to blossom into free thinkers, with independently created majors, and universal access to world class faculty, you would think they would have something more in common than a game which involves young adults parading about green space with a broom out their ass. Or is it out there arse, if you want to say it in the traditional English.

Just about everywhere on tour, students, and in some cases admissions department staff, referenced the proximity of their school to the holy grail of media popularity: the Harry Potter legacy.

A student guide at NYU noted that Emma Watson had transferred from Brown. At Tufts, the only reference to 'that university in Cambridge' was to note Tufts' recent defeat of Harvard in some sort of quidditch match. At Wesleyan there were repeated references to quidditch, but, then again, the enthusiastic tour guide just wouldn't stop raving about Middletown, Connecticut, so try and figure that one out. Even at Boston University, admissions staff proudly mentioned BU's contribution to this bizarre world of pop entertainment and dubious athletics.

Columbia, and Columbia alone, deviated from what fast become the norm, and neglected to enter the arms war, or is it brooms battle, over quidditch. But they're in NYC, enjoyed an obscene number of applicants for this fall's entering class, and are riding a wave of popularity not seen since the period when activist Mark Rudd took over the campus in '68 and rocker Jim Carroll dropped out in the mid 70's.

Early childhood behavior experts emphasize the importance of play, and creative activities for children. But that's for early childhood. And while there's an irony in seeing quidditch taking off on all these fancy northeast campuses, it would be even better to see a campus go quidditch free, taking a stand in support of real independent thinking, while helping these coddled kids recognize they are actually adults, after all.

And that's the way it is, as another cranky old man says.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The College Tour

It’s one of those rites of passage, like learning to drive, experiencing your first kiss, or even swimming in the ocean.
The junior year college tour.
If you’re part of the vast American middle class, you’ve probably been part of this in one form or another. Whether as the primary college student, or as a younger sibling, or perhaps just as the parent or tag along relatives, you’ve ended up traipsing across a bevy of college campuses, wondering what this place will have to inspire and impress the lump ‘o 17 year old you dragged with you for the afternoon.
The thing is, this is actually quite an important time, and more than a mere rite of spring. It’s an opportunity for young people to help to begin to define themselves, their interests, their desires, and their sense of being as individuals in this world.
But first they have to be awake, get the coffee or cola out of their teeth, decide upon the proper/perfect/appropriate/acceptable outfit du jour, and make it to the damn campus on time. Well, the latter part is usually the responsibility of the parental unit, though that can be compromised by any one of several actions taken by the lump ‘o 17 year old.
After a few days of concentrated college touring, which has included seeing the same faces on different campuses on succeeding days, dozens of questions from parents and prospective students alike that were already answered on the website’s main page, and an assortment of comic light moments, I have the following observations:

Colleges are different. But know what the college represents itself to be, so that you can see how close it gets in the overview presentation.
Student guides provide a great perspective on the overall population, even if they’re a turbocharged version of the average student at the school.
People are clueless. HS students don’t appear to know what they want from a college at this point, and their parents appear to know even less.
Colleges at this point just want you to apply. It pads their application numbers, makes them appear more selective, and more than pays for the recent graduates added to the admissions office staff.
If a school will not accept AP or IB scores other than for placement, then you’re in a serious academic institution. If the school will give you credit for AP scores, then you’re not at a very demanding place.
Multi-tasking has taken over. Today’s undergraduates all seem to be double-majoring, or triple-minoring. No one has a singular focus any longer.
There are woefully few people of color on campus visits.
If your tour guide insists on walking backwards throughout the tour, don’t even bother to give that school any further consideration.
If the walkways on the main campus are asphalt, and not concrete, cement, or brick, don’t bother with this school. (for the cognizati, yes, Harvard Yard is asphalt, but it’s rimmed in brick. On the other hand, it’s Harvard, so that’s your problem)
Everything is up in the air when it comes to admission. The buzzword now is passion, but how many 17 year olds are passionate, about anything, let alone able to define or articulate their passion in a convincing and impressive essay. But learning about schools from the time their sneakers are on the ground this spring can go a long way to reducing surprises post-admission, or even unnecessary applications this coming fall.

Undoubtedly, there will be more to come. This process is just building at this point, and for this excursion, we just covered the I-95 corridor. I have heard there are colleges across the entire United States. So this could grow.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nose Pressed Against the Media Window

Every once in a while I have the opportunity to get up close with some of the pressing issues facing our media landscape. At least from my perspective.

Just last week I may have been among the handful of people who spent time at both FOX News and at National Public Radio.

This was not a test, nor did I lose a bet. Each visit was for a meeting, and each visit provided perspective on why each institution, regardless of claims to the contrary, just doesn’t represent the universe of Americans who are cast across this vast country.

Over at FOX, there’s an apparent order, and hierarchy. It’s defined by the relatively larger spaces that each producer enjoys. Not cubicles, or banks of open space, mind you, but relatively comfy workstations with around 100 square feet of space, more than on average in other newsrooms. That’s one thing. Another is personal appearance. Journalists these days, at least those among us who toil behind the camera, have become every more comfortable in our clothes in this century. That’s not the impression at FOX. There, virtually everyone, both men and women, seem to be dressing from a workplace standard that hasn’t been updated since the election of George H.W. Bush. Men in ties, mostly, and women in sharp outfits. It’s a serious workplace, with everyone looking relatively crisp, and quite professional.

And then there’s the overall appearance. The FOX News Washington bureau looks like a workplace from before the election of a Bush as President. It’s a white place. There were so many white men milling about, and passing through corridors, that you would think you fell into a casting call for ‘Mad Men.’ Neat, clean looks, cropped hair, and scrubbed pink and alabaster faces seemed to fill in most every desk and workstation and control room seat. Yes, that’s often the look in many downtown Washington offices, even in 2011, but not to this extent. Not at all.

Time at NPR provided a visible contrast. Diversity rules the roost. A progressive hipness infuses every space in the building, from the leftover books bin, which had more books on sports than on policy, to the entry space, which provides a passel of images of NPR correspondents from across the nation and the world. It’s Portlandia, but on the edge of what used to be DC’s Chinatown.

The dress at NPR is significantly casual. Yes, it’s radio, after all, but some of the producers and editors must have meetings with sources outside of the newsroom every so often. And the workspace, well, there is need for more space, and more comfortable space, for all at NPR. Workstations are thrust one into the other, the carpets are a bit ratty in places, and there are reports of mice running across the floors.

But the most distinguishing characteristic, from a media perspective, was what was on the tv screens at NPR. Yes, there are television at NPR. While many who work for this public media provider may eschew televisions in their personal life, professionally they at least recognize the significance of images and visual reporting. And towards that end there are monitors near the news boards within each show’s primary news desk.

At the location I visited, all four televisions were tuned in to cable news channels. But here’s where NPR just doesn’t get it. You would think that with four channels, there might be CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and perhaps either C-SPAN or some other hard news channel. At this time, the four tv’s were tuned to CNN, MSNBC, a second set on CNN, and the fourth set, well, that was tuned in to al Jazeera English.

I almost swallowed my tongue laughing to myself when I came upon this, given what seemed to me to be obvious irony. But with reflection, it wasn’t ironic. It was just NPR.

Those same folks who show up at a knife fight with a tote bag (love that line) still sup at a different trough than their media brethren. And even as they present the widest array of news over four plus hours of programming each day on their morning and evening shows, they don’t seem to get that each of the three primary US cable companies are worth watching to see not only what’s being covered, but how that story is being covered.

Simply put, if you don’t have FOX on (or CNN, or MSNBC), you can’t know what it is they’re covering, and what they’re not. Virtually every other newsroom in Washington has all the primary channels up for view, and this is the first time I have come across one of them not only not on, but having an outlier channel on in its’ place.

Each newsroom seems to suffer from a criticism often leveled by outsiders, and that is their seeming inability to grow out of their comfort zones, FOX with the white majority, and NPR with its tone deafness to the wider audience of Americans.

Hell, maybe it’s just me, but these contrasts helped me through a long week, and a week that certainly had moments of amusement, and clarity. Now, who hid the remote. I need to see what’s on the tube this evening. Perhaps there’s a good cricket match on al Jazeera Ocho.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

College Admissions Season

I’ve recently finished three books on the college admissions process.

• Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

• Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges and Find Themselves by David Marcus

• The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg

Recommended by friend an all around college info know it all Susan Stewart, these three, along with the just released Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson, document the perplexing process of getting a high school student prepared, and then admitted, into the best college for that student.

Here are the ten takeaways I have from this intensive prep class.

For the student:

Take the most rigorous courses your school has to offer, and do exceedingly well in those courses.

Don’t just be active. Be active as a leader in your clubs, teams, and activities.

Don’t screw up.

Write well.

Be witty.

Follow instructions on the application and essays

Get great recommendations from your teachers

SATs and ACTs matter, but they are far from the only part of you that schools evaluate.

Know the schools to which you’re applying, and how they will impact you, and you will impact them.

Apply early, early action or early decision if you can.

Visit your final choices so that you literally get a feel for the place.

For the parent:

Be an alumnus of a fancy school

Come from a geographically underrepresented part of the country for your child’s first choice school.

Prepare to spend a boatload of money on the process of just getting in

Have a spouse who provides your child with diversity, or, better yet, be a person of color yourself

Stay on top of your child’s progress with their applications

Help your child focus on the primary elements involved in selecting schools

Be supportive

Be realistic. Not everyone gets in to Stanford. Even those with 2400 scores.

Don’t be shy about inquiring about financial aid. Just be sure to complete the forms.

Once your child is accepted, selects their school, and ultimately goes off to college, let them grow up and begin to enjoy learning to become the person they are to be.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Disastrous Coverage

Covering a breaking news story that involves death and despair, following a natural disaster, is painfully difficult work.

But the reporter should never be the story.

The story should be the crisis. The impact on the effected community. The challenge the community faces in restoring itself, to regaining or even just attempting to reclaim what was lost.

In the now five year race by electronic journalists to out Anderson Cooper Anderson Cooper, Diane Sawyer seems to have outdone herself with her work on this evening's World News broadcast.

She was in the right place, on the ground reporting on this terrible situation in northern Japan. But her writing suggested the entire nation was deprived of essentials, the editing of her anchor piece melded days old footage with what a camera captured today, without a single reference to any sense of time, and she injected herself into virtually every frame of her piece, hardly a first for an anchor, but an unnecessary addition to each shot when the visuals for this story already speak with a clear and credible voice.

Let's see some questions of authorities with regard to this horrific impending nuclear power situation, let's document the work being done by relief workers from the range of nations that have responded to the crisis, let's let those involved in the story tell us what they're doing. Just because the language isn't English, and the patterns and practices are not western, does not mean there are simple and earnest stories that can be told, and told for the cameras, sans the anchor prattle.

Perhaps it's just the rush of adrenalin that comes with being on the scene of a situation like this. So let's see how Sawyer follows up during her time on the ground, and let's see if her focus and treatment do not devolve into worn words and hyperbole.

Monday, February 28, 2011

is the circle jerk our media future?

It's got to be better than this.

Tell me it's better than this.

Confirm for me that Arianna Huffington really is nothing more than a name-dropping star-fucking money-hungry wannabe who may have succeeded at accomplishing her short term goals.

Here's from her lede on the Huffington Post today.

Arianna Huffington: Bill Maher Saves the Oscars... At Least for Me

For my money, this year's Academy Awards telecast was the funniest in ages. No, not because of the show itself -- Anne Hathaway and James Franco's "young and hip" shtick wore thin pretty quickly -- but because I watched the show sitting next to Bill Maher at the Vanity Fair dinner at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Bill kept up a running commentary that put the on-screen patter to shame. At one point we realized that we were both tweeting and retweeting what each of us was saying to the other. "This is excruciating for me, I can only imagine what it's like for you," I leaned over and said to him after a particularly lame joke. He then tweeted what I'd said... which I then retweeted. I'm not yet sure if this mode of communication is a good thing or a bad thing -- I'm just reporting.

I'm just reporting, she says. This is journalism? This is the future of news? This is going to save us, to propel us forward in the digital universe. Overhead conversations between people at a table.

Tell me we can do better than the well-coifed and over-sexed version of Beavis and ButtHead laughing at each other's jokes.

Confirm that there is real stuff out there on the web, and not just the content created by traditional media doing the hard work in dangerous places where journalists get hurt just plying their craft.

Let me know that quality still matters, that there's a difference between opinion and news, hearsay and insight.

Make us think, help us learn, allow us to be informed, and educate us with wit and charm. Don't just repeat regurgitation. Sloppy seconds have no place in news.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

best film review I have read, ever

A.O. Scott with the New York Times is one of those serious film critics. He looks the part, plays it well, and converses on film and media at a very high level.

Imagine my surprise to see the verve and energy in his review of the current Nicolas Cage car and girl epic, 'Drive Angry.'

Like many regular moviegoers, I have been berated by repeated showings of the trailer for this release. But even the amped up 2 minute trailer didn't do it for me, and I wasn't planning on catching this one.

But Scott's review is inspiring, and I suspect I'll make the time to check out the 3D version. After all, as he notes in his second sentence, and his closing paragraph, how often do you get this combination on screen.

Here's the review. See if it's not impressive.

On a Mission, but Not From God
Published: February 25, 2011

There are those who insist that no great work of cinematic art will ever be presented in 3-D. The most persuasive among them — Roger Ebert, for example — offer learned arguments grounded in science and aesthetics. None of that really has anything to do with “Drive Angry,” which at least in its 3-D version makes a loud, incoherent but oddly compelling case for the enhancing effects of stereoscopic projection on certain treasured objects of the cinematic gaze, like classic Detroit muscle cars, women’s breasts and Nicolas Cage.

Last things first. Mr. Cage’s acting style — if that is still the right term — seems these days to require not an extra dimension, but rather an entire parallel universe. In this movie, he plays a grandfather from hell (I mean that literally, though to say more might count as a spoiler) with lank blond hair, a haunted demeanor and the poetical name of John Milton, a sop to the English literature grad students who are sure to flock to this movie.

The details of his character are both preposterous and beside the point, as “Drive Angry,” directed by Patrick Lussier (“My Bloody Valentine 3D,” “Dracula 2000”), from a script he wrote with Todd Farmer, lets Mr. Cage continue his exploration of the mysteries of the universe. His companion is Amber Heard, playing a hard-luck waitress who can both throw and take a mean punch and whose very short denim shorts compete for attention with the 1969 Dodge Charger she drives.

You can guess how she drives it, though there is plenty of anger to go around, and a lot of action, some of it pretty inspired. And also a gooey heap of plot, which is revealed efficiently and without too much concern for plausibility of any kind. Milton is on a mission to rescue a baby from a Satanic cult led by a neorockabilly messiah (Billy Burke) with long fingernails and what may be a prosthetic soul patch. Giving chase is a dapper fellow who identifies himself as “the Accountant” (William Fichtner) and who is invulnerable to everything except the magical antique gun that Milton keeps with his gear.

Apart from some half-cartoonish digital effects and the whole 3-D thing, “Drive Angry” could almost be mistaken for a raunchy, cheesy exploitation programmer of the same vintage as some of its cars. Or rather, a whole retrospective of disreputable ’70s B pictures, what with the cars, the supernatural mumbo-jumbo, the churning, anonymous heavy-metal guitars of Michael Wandmacher’s score and the nudity.

All of these elements combine in one extraordinary sequence, during which Milton manages to gun down about a dozen Lucifer-loving, farm-implement-wielding thugs, while smoking a cigar and taking slugs from a bottle of whiskey. And, through the whole bloody barrage, having sex. “That never happened to me before,” his partner says later, recalling the episode more graphically and succinctly than I can here. “Has it ever happened to you?”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I suspect the RNC will find a way to link this to Michelle Obama

Unlikely story of the day:

From Memphis WMC-TV Action News 5: "A pizza delivery driver was called a hero Monday after she likely saved an elderly woman's life. ... [M]ost neighbors knew little about Memphis resident Jean Wilson, except that she's eaten pizza daily for the past three years. 'We make her pizza every day before she even calls, because we know she's going to call,' delivery driver Susan Guy said. Guy often delivers Wilson's regular order, one large pepperoni pizza, but recently workers at her restaurant noticed an unusual break in the pattern. ... Guy insisted to her boss that she be allowed to check on Wilson. ... Guy drove to Wilson's house and knocked on her door, but no one answered. Then, she banged on Wilson's windows, but there was still no response. ... Guy quickly called 911. When police arrived, they broke down the door to Wilson's home, and found her lying on a floor inside. They soon learned that Wilson had fallen on Saturday, and couldn't get over to a telephone to call for help. Investigators said it's possible that her pizza-only diet may have saved her life.... Wilson was in non-critical condition at St. Francis Hospital."

A pepperoni pizza daily for three years! Were the EMS folks able to carry this person into the hospital, or did they just roll her in.

With three years of pepperoni pizza, they could have just slid her in to the ER.

Wonder what this woman would eat as comfort food, if pizza is at the top of the nutritional pyramid.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

four square

I have to admit I find the whole 'document your presence' movement that comes with technology to be a bit amusing.

At the same time, if I utilized foursquare, or a similar app, and cared to share where I was there, it would be pretty interesting.

But since it's not, I'll stop, and return to research and planning for a trip to the spaces first documented by Lewis & Clark oh so many years ago.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Not so fun fact of the day.

North Dakotans just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the coldest day ever on record.

On February 15, 1936, Parshall recorded a temperature of -60F. A storm blew in from the north that Valentine's Day, setting records over a three day stretch that week.

June is reportedly a warm month in the state. Hoping so.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

hunting and fishing

According to the primary tourism page for North Dakota, these two are primary things to do for people either living in or visiting the state.

That poses a bit of a dilemma for those among us who don't take much to these kind of outdoor activities.

Still, there's plenty of time for research and planning in advance of what will likely be a interesting, if not wholly unique experience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

you betcha

What is there to say about North Dakota?

Today, well, it's probably all just frozen tundra and hissing farm animals.

But tomorrow, and in the days and weeks to come, there will be plenty.

And there's a good reason for the focus. A damn good reason. But that will come in time, and with your patience, and indulgence, it will inform, and entertain, and amuse. And it will hopefully tweak.

So for now, sit back, grab a DVD version of Fargo, and enjoy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What a difference a week makes

Last week at this time, I was freezing off assorted parts and pieces in the great white north, stewing over mistreatment by a less than stellar gate crew working at Reagan National Airport for Frontier Airlines.

This week, no travel, lots of family time while watching sporting events, both real, and over the teevee thingy we've got in the living room.

And it appears there is a world beyond this screen and keypad, and that some people actually read this stuff.

A very well networked Frontier staffer came across last week's diatribe, took the initiative to not only follow up, but offered to provide assistance, and if words will be matched by deeds, will provide closure for what a situation that should never have happened in the first place.

The lesson here is that social media can not only update us with information on long lost buds from high school, or provide endless hours of wasted time for those with time to waste. It can remedy.

So an early, and hopefully not premature, shout out to Marco Toscano, the senior manager for social media, for not only jumping in to this fray, but for confirming the words that I blogged, and letting me know that Frontier will be working to make this all good, as they say.

Be sure that I will follow up on this.

Until next time.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Frontier Airlines is incompetent

Things always seem to start out so smoothly. Start out. But not when it comes to Frontier Airlines.

On Saturday, I was booked to fly from Washington’s Reagan National Airport on a mid-day flight to Milwaukee. I know. Wisconsin in the winter. Yeah, yeah, but I was scheduled for visits to several campuses, including some classroom lectures, along with catching up with some folks, and a quick jaunt over to the State Capitol for the 39th notch on my state capital building belt.

Note that I say I was booked.

My ticket on Frontier Airlines had been bought and paid for. The boarding pass for flight 321 had been printed out the day before the flight. I arrived at the airport around 45 minutes before the departure, and proceeded to the TSA screening area, and then the gate. Getting through the TSA security went quickly, as it should on a Saturday morning.

But to my surprise, once I sat down in the seats outside of the scheduled departure gate, and then connected with a gate agent, i was told the gate had closed 25 minutes prior to the departure time, and flight 321 to MKE had taxied away from the gate, and was in line for flying out of Washington.

This was news to me. An airplane leaving early. And not a full international flight leaving two or five minutes early, but an undoubtedly empty domestic carrier taking off a full 25 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.

Now, before you get all up in arms about this, understand that the gate agent said he had paged me. No, didn’t hear a thing in the terminal. No, didn’t hear my name on the overhead. No, I frankly don’t believe that he paged me. And further, he said he paged me once. Haven’t we all heard individuals paged more than once when planes are about to depart. Wouldn’t an air carrier want to insure that a passenger would be on board, particularly when that passenger was already booked and provided a boarding pass, complete with seat information?

Apparently not.

And how legitimate is the use of an overhead page for a passenger. What if that passenger had hearing issues. Or what if that passenger was engaged in conversation with a TSA official, or another representative of the airlines, or the airport authority, or anyone else for that matter, and was temporarily unable to hear a page.

To me, this defense doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Nor does the response of the gate agent to my dilemma, and my request, which was to get me to Milwaukee that afternoon.

His response. No. Not gonna happen. Not on Frontier Airlines. After all, I was told, it's your fault.

I was told there were no other Frontier flights to Milwaukee that afternoon. I was told, but only after I asked for options on Frontier through other cities, that there were no guarantees that I would make the 20 minute connection in Kansas City if I was put on that flight (d’uh), and most significantly, was told that I would not be allowed to be placed on a flight out that afternoon on any other carrier because it was my fault that I missed a flight that left the gate 25 minutes prior to scheduled departure.

That’s right, it’s my fault the airplane left early, without me. It’s my fault the plane left without me, even knowing that I was slated to sit along the window in 12A that afternoon. It’s my fault that I placed trust in a carrier I had previously not flown, and undoubtedly will not fly given the way this matter has been handled.

Well, we’ll see. It is possible that i am the only air passenger ever put in this position. I am the only one I know of, but I suspect Frontier has acted in this cavalier way with others. Perhaps even on this flight, on other Saturdays. Who knows. If it happened to me, it may as well have happened to others.

If you’ve got a similar story, let me know. I will gladly add this to the mix in what will likely be an interesting discussion with Frontier. I would like Frontier to reimburse me for the cost of my ticket. It would be even more responsible for them to reimburse me for the one way cost of the ticket I purchased on a competition carrier. Let's see if they step up, acknowledge the error in this unusual gate decision, and provide a satisfactory response.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011 Oscar Picks

Best Film:

127 Hours
Alice in Wonderland
The Black Swan
Fair Game
The Fighter
*The Social Network
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Best Actor:
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Leonardo DeCaprio, Inception
Robert Duvall, Get Low
*Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Best Actress:
Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
*Natalie Portman, The Black Swan
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Naomi Watts, Fair Game

Best Supporting Actor:
*Christian Bale , The Fighter
Bill Murray, Get Low
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Mila Kunis, The Black Swan
*Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Julianne Moore, The Kids are All Right

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky, The Black Swan
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland
*Sofia Coppola, Somewhere
David O. Russell, The Fighter

*asterick indicates projected winner

Friday, January 7, 2011

No, it's not a Porsche. But it's close.

It looks as though yet another opportunity presents itself.

This one is something I have been waiting on for a while.

And now that it's arrival is imminent, I am trying to see if it is in fact something I still want, something I need, something I will enjoy, something I will appreciate, and something I will utilize.

Still guessing?

No, not a beer fridge, though that would be nice.

A Porsche. Well, those don't just arrive on your doorstep, though I'm willing to be surprised.

A device for scanning information directly into the brain. Would take that one in a minute. Wouldn't we all!

Actually, talking about an iPhone, that last decade time saver, and time abuser. Reportedly coming soon to the cell provider with which I'm contracted until the ashes from my cremated remains are delivered to their headquarters as proof of the need to end service.

Have long desired a tool of this kind, and now that the reality approaches, have to think if it's really worth it. Does it help? Does it suck even more time? Is it fun, and does that make it worthwhile? Will it de-clutter, or will there be yet another item with charger and such sitting around? And if my car stereo can't accomodate an MP3 player, what's the point anyway?

Very much of two minds. Open to thoughts on this one. Oh, yeah, it ain't a bargain, either. But what is? What is.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why we know more about our Chevy than our body

For a long time I have made analogies between car repairs and doctor visits.

Yeah, at times a check up feels like an oil change. Sure, the magazines in the waiting rooms can be quite similar. And invariably there are crying babies nearby, and strange sounds coming from behind closed doors.

Oh, yes, and each costs a boatload of money. $95 an hour to provide incorrect information on my Toyota? You’re kidding. $300 for a diagnosis that my wizened grandmother virtually nailed at dinner the previous evening? Where did you get your medical degree?

But it’s only when you really get to spend time with doctors, and occasionally with car repair people, that you see a gap in this theory, and you learn that you get more information from the grease monkeys than you do from the white labcoats.

Car repair shops sign you in, ask what you would like them to examine, provide you with a disclaimer, and then indicate they will follow up prior to any treatment or repair work on your vehicle. More often than not they do find something, they do follow up with you, and they do manage to improve the quality of your car, at least at that moment in time. When it comes to retrieving your vehicle, you often receive an itemized listing for each repair, each investigated noise or creak, as well as how parts or liquids were disposed, if that was the case.

At the very least, you have in somewhat plain language a printout for what was done to your vehicle, how much it cost, and perhaps even what is recommended in a future visit.

If only a visit to the doctor were so simple, so clear, and so open.

Doctors seem to be a bit hesitant to share information other than very simple facts. They appear reluctant to theorize about the prospects of an illness, or a range of treatments, unless you ask a specific question indicating a base of knowledge in this area. They speak in a language that might as well be Middle English, rarely if ever offer to provide a document explaining their findings, the results of a test, or an outline for a treatment plan. They presume a patient - regardless of the medicine she might be on, the potency of an anesthetic from which they are awakening, or their level of knowledge about medicine - can understand the particulars of what is being said to them.

Difficult news seems to be something not readily shared, but caged, in medical terms that suggest an intellect on part of the physician that is not shared by the patient. Polysyllables with Latin roots often pepper these conversations. And regardless of the proximity of the physician to the patient, there are often miles between them, especially at a time when a patient is working to process this new, and often confusing data, which renders some either speechless or disinclined to even ask the necessary questions.

What might make a difference, and elevate doctors back up to the level of car mechanics. Here’s my list, for starters:

• A bit more clarity
• A bit less obtuseness
• Handout information, particularly when the physician has a hard copy of the procedure findings or post-op results
• A willingness to do the equivalent of office hours, either by phone or online, for all patients who might not otherwise be able to process what they are hearing in real time
• An agreement before the patient leaves that she understands what has been told to her, and has a plan for her health and wellness to follow

Hell, I’m not even going near the issue of insurance, and who carries what, and who changes policies and plans each January 1, and whether prices are known in advance by patients, and whether certain procedures (innoculations, blood tests, etc) need to be done at THAT visit, or whether they could be held off for another six months, or even a year.

Yes, the provision of medical care in America is quite complicated, and more expensive than need be. And it has become politically divisive. But with some relatively simple steps, a culture of physicians, providers, institutions, and individuals sharing medical information and optimally the ability of patients to directly access their own medical information, we might at least be in a position to know as much about ourselves and our health as we do the stations on the pre-set buttons on our car radio.