This, That, and the Other Thing

Posted December 30th, 2008 at 8:09 pm (UTC-4)
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There’s not much fresh and revealing to be said about the funk and gloom of the U.S. economy. Just as sunny optimism drove stock prices and retail spending ever higher as if the good times would surely never end, today there is a brooding sense, not of dread – for, as a woman from Michigan remarked a couple of posts ago, if we can survive the Depression, we can wait out this recession – but of extreme care and caution across the land. Just as Wall Street endures downward “corrections” from time to time, individual Americans have launched corrections of their own to tighten up on their spending.

Bread line
Things have not reached the breadline stage of this 1932 photograph in Brooklyn, New York. But it will be a tough winter for many families

Certainly the loss of jobs, sometimes homes, and giant chunks from our retirement-fund portfolios will do that to a-body, as my mother used to say. But it’s broader than that. Even those who remain “people of means” seem cured, for the moment, of buying sprees and speculation. Patience and prudence reign.

And in turn our recent tight grip on our wallets has its own dire ripple effects. Chadwick Matlin in The Washington Post writes that a quintessential American institution, the shopping mall, is ominously threatened by the downturn. Many malls are for sale at cut-rate prices, and demoralizing vacancies are rising. The recent holiday sales slump, even bleaker than predicted, has sent some retailers to the brink of extinction in year in which almost 150,000 stores, and a number of national retail chains, have already closed.

Mall
Plenty of mall stores, like this one, are opening – in Dubai, where this photo was taken, certainly not in the struggling retail environment of the United States

Once again, negative psychology is afoot. Matlin points out that “every store that closes has an impact on the shops left behind.” And on consumers, already skittish, who are viscerally uncomfortable in malls with vacant and boarded-up stores. As Sherman Cahal and Randy Simes note in their “Urban Cincy” blog, “Cincinnati Mills, one of the largest retail centers in the region, has seen store after store shutter. This comes after millions of dollars of reinvestment into a massive mall sandwiched in between two others along a mall interstate of sorts.”

We’re Closed, and So’s the Next Shop

I’ve seen the death spiral of malls myself in the Washington area, particularly when an anchor department store goes belly up. It casts a pall over the mall, if you’ll pardon the rhyme, making it seem undesirable, even dangerous.

Empty store
Empty lots, and empty stores, are becoming an all-too-familiar sight at malls across the nation

The Post’s Matlin thinks that, in a world of big-box, one-shop stores and nearly effortless shopping online, malls’ time has come and gone anyway. Who in a nation obsessed with convenience and, now, cutting back spending has the time or patience to park what seems like a kilometer away and fight crowds (when there are any) and pay undiscounted prices at a mall?

Borrowing from President Ronald Reagan’s plea to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall, the headline to Matlin’s story read: “Tear Down This Mall.”

But then, where would our teenagers hang out?

***
Tick

One second can be put to a lot of positive uses. You can give someone a sly wink, smile at your spouse, pat your child on the head or back, give your pet an encouraging “good girl” or “good boy,” change the television channel from something inane to something uplifting, put a big check mark on your list of New Year’s resolutions, and so on.

You can even blurt out an “I love you” in less than the tick of the clock.

Toast
You can do two things at once in the New Year’s Eve leap second: smile and raise a toast to someone you care about

If you’re reading this before the year turns, you have some planning to do, for the world’s scientific community is squeezing in an extra “leap second” just in front of midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you know what they say: “Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.”

“They,” in this case, is motivational speaker Harvey Mackay. And isn’t it satisfying to know who “they” is for a change?”)

Atomic clock
Louis Essen (R), is credited with inventing the atomic clock. Its accuracy prompted a complete redefinition of the “second” to the time it takes for 9192631770 cycles of his lightning-fast device

Only someone like Art Chimes, VOA’s “Mr. Science,” could lucidly explain the reasons for the leap second, but it has something to do with compensating for the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. It seems that even the combination of brainy scientists, super-duper computers, and atomic clocks that are accurate to the gadzillionth decimal point cannot precisely predict the exact amount of time it will take the Earth to make that journey each year. Those clocks always end up a fraction of a fraction of a second fast. So every few years the men and women in the white lab coats decree an extra second to let the Earth catch up.

The last leap second was added in 2005, and don’t you wish you had it back?

Sleep
This, or something approaching it, will be Carol and I, ringing in the New Year in dreamland. The part of Ted is played by the guy in the suave moustache. Note that the “Carol” character is zzzing as well

I’ll be taking my leap second a tad early, say a second before 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, as Carol and I turn in early. I plan to use that instant to raise a toast to her and to better times for the world in 2009. I’m pretty sure I can think all that in a second, while quickly raising my glass, though it will obviously take a bit longer to speak the words.

If you are reading this after midnight on New Year’s Eve, I’d be interested to what you did with your extra second of life.

***
Taking Time

OK, the leap second probably isn’t really bonus time on earth, exactly. It’s a high-tech bookkeeping thing. But it feels like this extra second – and certainly the complete February day that’s added in quadrennial leap years, are gifts not to be squandered. (2008 was a leap year. Did you make good use of February 29th?)

This makes me wonder why that additional days every four years don’t sop up all the time needed to get the clocks right. You’d think they’d serve as a sort of chronographic credit, so that we wouldn’t need those stray leap seconds every few New Year’s Eves. Get Mr. Science back in here.

Clock
This clock is probably not going to cut it as the world’s keeper of time, even with an occasional leap second, hour, or day

As usual in matters scientific, there’s a raging debate over the leap second among the intelligentsia, in terms mere mortals would never understand. (Maybe this is the “rocket science” we keep hearing about.) The folks at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, near Paris, propose scrapping the leap second, whose origin, naturally, traces to something British having to do with Greenwich Mean Time.

Hence the French aversion to the idea.

***
Saving Time – for Seven Centuries
Cafe
Speaking of time, this is a great place to pass it, in no particular, haste, in this quiet Paris arrondissement, or district

Being mellower than the Brits and us Yanks, these Frenchmen believe a leap hour every 700 years would make more sense. I doubt even Mr. Science could explain why that is, other than an hour is much more civilized than a second every now and again. A full 3,600 seconds all at once would give us a chance to sip Beaujolais, break and butter and enjoy crunchy bread and a bit of brie, and talk about the French Paradox or something. I’m relatively sure that wine, bread, and the French Paradox will still be around 700 years from now, should the Leap Hour take place.

(Yes, yes, you were wondering about the French Paradox. I couldn’t fit the explanation into the previous sentence with any hope that its end would relate to its beginning. The paradox is simple: French men and women, who eat cholesterol-rich food, drink wine at the drop of a beret, smoke from morning to night, and exercise only by walking to the patisserie to get their chocolate croissants, wine, and cigarettes, somehow stay thin. When Americans do these things, our obesity rates literally shoot off the doctors’ charts. The answer – for which I owe a nod to travel writer Kelby Hartson Carr, someone who actually pays to eat, drink, and gad about France – is utterly simple: the French savor their food and their wine, and of course their language. I don’t know if they savor their cigarettes. Impatient Americans wolf down their food, drink to get high, and do a lot of it on the run.

So it’s natural that French people, who are in no hurry, would prefer a leap hour to a leap second, even if they have to wait 700 years to enjoy one.

***
I’ll Be Asleep If You Need Me

You may have wondered, back a few paragraphs, why Carol and I would squander the opportunity to wedge into the shivering, rowdy throngs at New York City’s Times Square and “watch the ball drop” to usher in 2009, or to gather with friends for toasts and hugs at midnight, or at a minimum, to sit pathetically in front of the tube and watch nauseously giddy TV commentators count down the end of a pretty sorry year.

Black ice
This is black-ice territory, a literal nightmare scenario for the Landphair-Highsmith traveling show

Washington temperatures often hover around freezing most New Year’s Eves. “Black ice” is a genuine threat, and we will never forget the time our car, speeding over the mountains in eastern Oregon on seemingly dry pavement soon after a spit of rain, hit a patch of black ice and spun several times into a guardrail, just meters in front of a speeding truck. So we don’t “do” black ice, especially when others on the road might be half blotto.

Times Square
We don’t even watch the famous Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop on television. Were this photo taken this year, there’d be just 13 seconds – not to the New Year but to the 2008 Leap Second!

Nor are we wild about toasts with strangers. We tried that once in some New Year’s Eve package deal. Picture three hours of small talk with assorted meter readers, university pedants, and National Zoo elephant keepers randomly assigned to your table. Nor shall we forget the sips of lukewarm cheap champagne, awkward hugs with the elephant keeper, hoots on paper noisemakers at midnight, then mirthless choruses of “Auld Lang Syne,” only one verse of which anyone knew:

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
“And never brought to mind?
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
“And days of auld lang syne?”

The lyrics that follow are incomprehensible outside the heather – something about “auld lang syne my jo,” and a reference to taking “a cup o’ kindness yet.” That perked up revelers for a moment, though, thinking that the “cup o’ kindness” line would signal a champagne refill. The band trudged on, repeating the main refrain about 37 times. We all croaked “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” over and over until the music mercifully ceased. That was the cue for big, forced “Yeahs!” all around, more uncomfortable hugs, a promise to get together soon with the meter reader and his wife, and a dash to the coat-check room.

We don’t invite anyone in, either. The neighbors are out spinning on the black ice, the kids are spread throughout the East, and our local friends live several drunk drivers’ car lengths away.

No, better to hug Carol early, make that leap-second toast at 9:59:59 p.m., and get a good night’s sleep.

Rest assured, though, if you were beginning to wonder, that we are a jolly duo, not misanthropes, the other 364 days a year – 365 in leap years.

***
Who Dat? (As They Say in New Orleans)
Guy Lombardo
This is Guy Lombardo’s mug on a 1928 sheet-music cover. What was with the dark circles around people’s eyes in those days? Lack of sleep from too many late-night gigs, perhaps, in Lombardo’s case

For older Americans, “Auld Lang Syne” will forever be linked to Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo, who each New Year’s Eve from 1929 through the mid-1970s turned the song into his trademark and financial (Lombardo, by the way, in a curious non sequitur of a career, was also a world-champion speedboat racer. You’d have never guessed it, listening to the measured “Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” that his orchestra played.)

Names like Guy Lombardo inspire pleasant reminiscences in about half the population and blank stares in the other – some of the latter believing that no one who matters besides Mom, Dad, and Uncle Bruce was alive pre-Madonna. (In fact, that’s the 21st-Century definition of prima donna!)

To anyone under 30, Guy Lombardo might as well be Guy Fawkes or Guy Lafleur. They haven’t heard of any of them, even when you hint that “Guy” is “Gee” in the case of Lafleur.

I mention all this because of a similar lighthearted generational disconnect in one of our morning coverage meetings at VOA. Mr. Science was discussing a new Pew Internet & American Life survey projecting Americans’ likely online habits to come in the year 2020.

Hearing this on the speakerphone from his post in New York, our colleague Adam Phillips piped up, “It sounds so Buck Rogers!”

I took quick stock of the reactions around the table. We’re, shall I charitably say, a seasoned bunch, by and large, and those with a touch or more of gray evinced a slight nod at the mention of Buck Rogers’s name. Others of more tender years, and those of any age born outside the United States, stared dully at the speakerphone box.

Impishly, I could not resist asking my 24-year-old compadre and Internet savior, Anne Malinee, if she know who in the world Adam was talking about. Of course not, and why should she? My intent was not to embarrass her, but to point out how “household names” in one generation can pass almost completely out of view of the next.

Name That Dead Person

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a furiously busy society that names like Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, Alan Shepard, Betty Boop, Buffalo Bill (or Buffalo Bob for that matter), Roy Rogers, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, Babe Ruth – and certainly Buck Rogers – are not the least bit familiar to whole swaths of society. I thought every American everywhere knew of Babe Ruth. I mentioned him at a family Christmas gathering, and four of seven people – teens and young adults – looked at me like I had just invoked the name of some obscure Mesopotamian potter.

Buck Rogers
Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who later became more famous playing Tarzan the ape man in the movies, is shown on this 1939 movie poster as the star of a series of Buck Rogers shorts that appeared before the featured film at theaters

Never fear. At the end of all this, I’ll give you a thumbnail briefing on each of these figures. But let’s first circle back to Buck Rogers. He was a science-fiction action hero who first appeared in a 1927 novella, Armageddon 2419, then in the first sci-fi comic strip. By the 1940s, kids across the country were packing Buck Rogers lunch boxes, aiming flashing and buzzing Buck Rogers ray guns at each other, and hurrying to the theater to see Rogers battle the Tiger Men of Mars.

I missed all that by a decade but had good fun with “Rocket Man,” a fellow with what looked like two propane canisters strapped to his back. He would leap off rock outcroppings, arms extended, and zoom across the sky as smoke gushed from the canisters.

Some other time, I’ll tell you about Flash Gordon.

Buck Rogers inspired fantastic dreams of a future that would indeed one day, in real life, include elaborate space travel, if not yet encounters with Tiger Men.

Just ask Adam, but not Anne.

***

Another colleague, Julie Taboh, suggests that I add the phrase “above the fray,” used in my last posting on the newspaper business, to my “wild words” listings. I’ll do so below, provided she reads up on Buck Rogers.

As for the promised quick rundown of those “blast from the past” names awhile back:

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists who were tried, convicted, and later executed in the 1950s for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. I say “allegedly,” since doubt about their guilt lingers in many circles.

Alan Shepard, an astronaut, was the first American in space, aboard the Freedom 7 Spacecraft on May 5, 1961. He would later become the fifth person to walk on the moon.

Betty Boop was an animated-cartoon character in the 1930s. Her big eyes and flirtatious eyelashes had the naughty, come-hither look of a Roaring Twenties “flapper.” She became one of American advertising’s first sex symbols.

Buffalo Bill
Here’s one of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Cowboys” traveling show posters. Bill himself rode at the head of the opening procession each night

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody organized extravagant, touring “Wild West” shows in the early 20th Century. They featured such headliners as trick-shot artist Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, the last Sioux chief to surrender to U.S. forces following bloody “Indian wars” on the frontier.

“Buffalo Bob” Smith was the buckskin-costumed human host of the “Howdy Doody” TV program in the 1950s. It featured, besides Howdy the freckle-faced puppet, characters such as Phineas T. Bluster, Chief Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Clarabell, the seltzer-bottle-squirting clown. What can I say? Our tastes were simpler then!

Like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers was a “singing cowboy” – one of the “good guys” in western movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. Later, on TV, kids across America watched him, his wife, Dale Evans, and some melodic cowpokes called the Sons of the Pioneers while away the hours in song around a campfire, between mild fistfights and a gun or two shot out of villains’ hands in their crusade for Western justice. All ended well each week as Roy and Dale crooned their “Happy Trails” theme song.

Lucille Ball, who starred with her husband, Desi Arnaz, in the top-rated series “I Love Lucy,” and rotund comedian Jackie Gleason, who hosted a variety show that featured many of his own tragicomic characters, were “must see TV” figures in the 1950s and ’60s.

Babe
Babe Ruth didn’t look the part of a gifted athlete, but he changed the game of baseball by knocking ball after ball out of the field of play and whetting fans’ appetite for these “long ball” home runs

Babe Ruth was an orphaned, paunchy, profane womanizer who, from 1914 to 1935, turned into a prodigious baseball player, first as a pitcher, then as the “Sultan of Swat” record-setting batter. Even in this age of lithe and sculpted millionaire athletes, The Babe is considered the best player of all time.

As for the two “Guys” besides Lombardo: In 1605, Guy Fawkes conspired with other English Catholics to blow up Parliament and King James I. November 5, the anniversary of the “Gunpowder Revolution,” is still celebrated as “Guy Fawkes Day” in Britain, if you call bonfires and burned effigies of Fawkes a celebration. Guy Lafleur was a gifted and graceful hockey player during the dynastic reign of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Le Demon Blond, as adoring French-speaking fans in Quebec Province called him, is the Canadiens’ all-time leading scorer. In another strange career move like Guy Lombardo’s speed racing, Lafleur now runs a helicopter-rental company.

Don’t be dismayed if you didn’t know about any of these people or characters. I didn’t know who Flavor Flav was until I looked him up.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

A-body. This is sort of backwoods-Pennsylvania shorthand for “anybody.” My mother would often mutter how hard it was for a-body to do this or that in the big city of Cleveland.

Above the Fray. One who stays above the fray remains cool and collected in the midst of turmoil. A “fray” is a fight that goes on and on. Some sources date the term to feudal times, when nobles, high in their castles, remained serenely unaffected by the squabbles of their vassals outside the gates below. When I hear the phrase, I think of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, watching the fierce fighting from atop a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hill in the U.S. Civil War. Lee is said to have remarked to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, [lest] we should grow too fond of it.”

Belly up. One who goes “belly up” has been financially ruined and forced out of business. The term likely originated at sea, where dead fish float upside down and sunken ships sometimes turn hull-upward in the briny deep. The term is not to be confused with “bellying up” to the bar, which is thought to relate to the notion that you are old enough to drink if your belt line reaches the bar.

Big-Box Stores. These are mega-stores, sometimes an entire square block in size, that sometimes carry an entire mall’s worth of products from fresh produce and meat to appliances and, in some states, even guns.

Blotto. Intoxicated, soused, stoned, pie-eyed, sotted, drunk as a skunk – not that we’ve seen too many inebriated skunks. The derivation is unclear; perhaps it popped up after one too many people were blotted out on the highway.

Gad About. In the 19th Century, a gad-about was a person with nothing better to do than drop in on neighbors, just to pass the time. Gadding about today is viewed as a pleasant interval of shopping or just ambling along, taking in the sights.

Gravy Train. When you’re on the gravy train, you have it made. Money is no problem, and you don’t have to work very hard. Gravy was long considered a luxury addition to meat or potatoes, and railroaders who pulled shifts on short, easy runs were said to be riding the gravy train.

Non sequitur. This old Latin term refers to a statement that makes little or no sense in relation to the comments that came before it. Something like, “I took my dog for a walk where the straws were longer than usual,” for instance, would be a real head-scratcher. The walk and the straws have no apparent connection except, perhaps, in the dog owner’s mind.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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