Hitmen

Posted October 29th, 2010 at 10:36 am (UTC-4)
2 comments

The “SportsCenter Effect” on American life is seductive and, in the view of many observers, insidious. “SportsCenter,” which showcases highlights of the day’s action in professional and amateur sports, is the signature program of the cable television sports network ESPN. Many of the plays that are spotlighted are stunningly violent. Helmet-to-helmet collisions, savage bodychecks into unyielding boards, and full-bore launches of muscular athletes into the heads and backs, kidneys and knees of vulnerable opponents have proven to be surefire audience-getters.

Medical personnel check Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley after he absorbed a violent hit from T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns.  Shipley suffered a concussion, and the league fined Ward $15,000 for his actions.  (Tony Dejak/AP)

Medical personnel check Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley after he absorbed a violent hit from T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns. Shipley suffered a concussion, and the league fined Ward $15,000 for his actions. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Those crunching “hits” — today’s term, replacing “tackles” and “checks” — make an impression, not just on viewers for whom American-style football, in particular, is a vicarious thrill, but also on young athletes, who cannot help but conclude that all-out assaults on other players will get them noticed, recruited, and, one day, extremely well-paid.  Techniques that emphasize “wrapping up” your opponent and bringing him to the ground in workmanlike fashion are as quaint as leather helmets.

Every day on sports broadcasts and sports-talk shows, I hear commentators — ex-athletes in the main — laud the most ferocious players as “predators,” “assassins,” “cavemen,” “heat-seeking missiles,” “beasts,” and “attack dogs.”  Producers of sports highlight packages — including the National Football League itself — happily promote clips of vicious collisions in which one player “blows up” another, in today’s vernacular — to the beat of a kind of macho music once reserved for war movies.

Big cat with an attitude? Or today’s pro athlete?  (Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr Creative Commons)

Big cat with an attitude? Or today’s pro athlete? (Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr Creative Commons)

You’d have to be terribly naïve to miss the message from these presentations: Merely vigorous competition without brutality is for losers and sissies.

Some social scientists believe the SportsCenter Effect that glorifies mayhem has even contributed to a rash of violent confrontations on the sidelines and in the stands at amateur sporting events. Incidents of fans attacking coaches, game officials, and each other occur almost routinely, even at tiny-tots’ games. Read the rest of this entry »

Bad Fruit on the Email Tree

Posted October 21st, 2010 at 2:05 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

Once you start forwarding lighthearted email — jokes, puzzles, wacky cat videos — to friends and colleagues, you’re sure to get a blizzard more in return.  Many of the messages will contain amazing purported “facts” that seem perfectly plausible.  A lot of them turn out to be blatantly inaccurate “urban legends” or worthless bunkum.

Thought you’d like to see part of an old — 1906 — map of Lake Erie and environs.  (The lake hasn’t moved since.) That’s Ohio, all right, right below it. (Probert Encyclopedia)

Thought you’d like to see part of an old — 1906 — map of Lake Erie and environs. (The lake hasn’t moved since.) That’s Ohio, all right, right below it. (Probert Encyclopedia)

I got a list of “believe it or nots” recently.  And one of the items listed, as fact certain, was that my home state, Ohio, had “no natural lakes; every one is manmade.”  Even discounting Lake Erie — one of the nation’s five Great Lakes, which, true enough, borders and is not quite “in” Ohio — there surely had to be other naturally formed lakes among the couple thousand decent-sized ones in the state.

I knew this because my geography teacher in junior high school — back in the “olden days” before subjects like geography and English composition were replaced by courses such as “Cultural Stereotypes and You” — droned on and on about the massive glaciers that sat for 24.6 gazillion years during the Precamomillian Epoch, or some such, atop the very spot where we were sitting.  We also learned about mastodons, woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, fossilized footprints, and cave paintings at this time.

To be clear, it was not big, hairy animals but hairy cave men and women — always discreetly covered in saber-tooth tiger skins in the sketches we were shown — who did the cave painting.  The men ventured out on occasion to hunt and gather, carelessly dropping thousands of flint spearheads for us to find and take to show-and-tell.

More maps!  This one shows the progression of glaciers almost all the way south to Kentucky.  And where there were glaciers — at least below northern Canada — there would be melting, leaving behind “glacial puddles,” or what we call lakes.  (Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources)

More maps! This one shows the progression of glaciers almost all the way south to Kentucky. And where there were glaciers — at least below northern Canada — there would be melting, leaving behind “glacial puddles,” or what we call lakes. (Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources)

But I digress.  I wouldn’t normally bother to double-check email assertions about glacial lakes, but we’re talking Buckeye Pride here.  (Buckeyes are nuts.  We Ohioans are called Buckeyes.  I’m loath to take that logical progression to its conclusion.)

Back to lake talk:  Though geologists at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources do point out that many a natural lake that was in place before the coming of white settlers has been filled in or drained, at least a few “glacial puddles” left behind by receding glaciers do remain.  One of which they are proudest is Punderson Lake, 24 meters (80 feet) deep in spots.  Researchers at Kent State University dug core samples and peg the lake’s age at 10,500 years.

So don’t buy the “no natural lakes in Ohio” assertion if that particular “believe it or not” email gets around to you.

Even though it’s a good example of why one should be skeptical of blanket online statements of “fact,” I confess to enjoying “did you know?” emails anyway.

You’ll have to agree that these items, just in, for instance, have at least the ring of truth:

No word in the English language rhymes with “month,” “orange,” “silver,” or “purple.” (I couldn’t think of any.  “Grunth?”  “Pilver?”  “Slurple?”) Read the rest of this entry »

Smart Towns, Clueless Kids

Posted October 15th, 2010 at 4:13 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

Americans love lists and rankings — the Top 10 this, the Hottest that, the Best and Worst something else — and many magazines and Web sites get their highest readership when they publish a list.

CNNMoney.com, for instance, recently dug through U.S. Census data and compiled a list of the 10 metro areas with the highest percentage of college graduates.  “Call it America’s brainiest places to live,” as the site put it.

A lot of smart people live in Georgetown — Washington, D.C.’s, most prestigious neighborhood.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A lot of smart people live in Georgetown — Washington, D.C.’s, most prestigious neighborhood. (Carol M. Highsmith)

In first place – Washington, D.C.  Not too surprisingly, since it is also the nation’s wealthiest metro area and attracts lots of smart people seeking federal and defense-contractor jobs.  Almost half of us who live in the Washington area (47.3%) have college degrees.  Other communities in the Top 10 include San Jose, California, (hub of the Silicon Valley tech corridor) 3rd; Boston, Massachusetts, (more than 60 universities in the area) 5th; and New York, 10th (a surprise to me that it ranks so low, considering its financial and corporate clout.)

If the Top 10 are the brainiest, what does that make the Bottom 10? “America’s brain-deadest cities”?  I noted that my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where just 25.9 percent of folks have college degrees, finished 10th from last.  Another struggling industrial town, Detroit, Michigan, was 8th-lowest.

Housing developments have replaced most orange groves in Riverside, whose greater metropolitan area spreads all the way north into the San Bernardino Mountains to the north, and east across the desert to the Nevada border. (Wikipedia Commons)

Housing developments have replaced most orange groves in Riverside, whose greater metropolitan area spreads all the way north into the San Bernardino Mountains to the north, and east across the desert to the Nevada border. (Wikipedia Commons)

I never would have guessed which metro area finished dead last.  It is Riverside, California — which you may not have heard of.  In this sprawling “exurb” of Los Angeles where the California fruit industry was born on the edge of the parched desert — just 19.2 percent of its folks have college degrees.

I wasn’t kidding about the “sprawling” part.  What the Census Bureau lumps into “Riverside” is really California’s entire “Inland Empire,” which includes parts of two huge counties and 12 percent of the state’s entire population.  These are blue-collar communities, heavy into agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.  The last time we were there, we could hardly see the shopping centers, palm trees, and tracts of tile-roofed homes for all the dust kicked up by road graders, bulldozers, and the hot desert wind.  Read the rest of this entry »

DB&Bs

Posted October 8th, 2010 at 1:31 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

There are two kinds of people.

With an opening line like that, I could go in a million different directions, but as promised in a recent posting, I want to discuss bed-and-breakfast inns.  On that subject, there are indeed two kinds of people, at least among those who have ever stayed at one: those who adore “B&Bs” and those who — hate is too strong a word — dislike and avoid them.

Hence my title: “DB&Bs”: delightful bed-and-breakfast inns, or dreaded ones, depending upon how you feel about them.

For reasons that a couple of tales will explain in a bit, Carol and I skew toward the “dread” end of the scale.  We prefer the predictable presentation, the points we earn toward free future stays, and the blessed anonymity of decent chain motels.

In our fantasies, at least, “getting away from it all” includes a week of relaxation — fishing, perhaps, and lots of hikes and long snoozes at your B&B — in a location such as this, on Fish Lake, Alaska.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

In our fantasies, at least, “getting away from it all” includes a week of relaxation — fishing, perhaps, and lots of hikes and long snoozes at your B&B — in a location such as this, on Fish Lake, Alaska. (Carol M. Highsmith)

To a lot of people — us included at first — cozy bed-and-breakfast inns are alluring.  (“Cozy” or “quaint” is an obligatory part of their descriptions in brochures and online, and you can be sure that they’re always “nestled” or “tucked” into some picturesque location.)

Who doesn’t want cozy?  You’ve spent month after recent month confined to the same-old house or apartment or condo that you have to clean and maintain, or pay someone else to.  You love sumptuous homes with high ceilings, gnarled furniture, unusual nooks (and unexpected crannies), perhaps a ghost or two, interesting ownership histories, and lovely gardens with comfy lawn chairs on which to read a book and listen to the whippoorwills.

Inviting, eh?  Who has time at home to make the place so welcoming?

Inviting, eh? Who has time at home to make the place so welcoming?

A little pampering’s nice, too.  When you arrive at the B&B, you’ll likely be offered a glass or two or three of sherry or a local wine and some nibbles.  Your pillows will be soft and fluffed.  The place really will be “nestled” in a lovely and quiet neighborhood.  Unlike a bored motel clerk, your enthusiastic innkeeper and her or his mate will know all about nearby attractions, and can recommend a truly good place to have dinner.

Next morning, she or he, not you or your partner for a change, will be the one rising early, rustling up breakfast, and doing the dishes afterward.  You can picture it now: not a B&B but an R&R: a rest-and-relaxation inn. Read the rest of this entry »

Flickertailing

Posted October 1st, 2010 at 5:05 pm (UTC-4)
7 comments

 

Even Americans who travel a lot often manage to miss one or two U.S. states.  Perhaps distant but unforgettable Alaska or Hawaii, but not usually both.  Quite often one of the last states on our wish list is North Dakota, our uppermost Plains state, hard by two equally obscure Canadian prairie provinces.  It could be the encyclopedia entry under “Off the Beaten Path.”

There are no world-renowned North Dakota theme parks or gambling resorts.  No majestic range or single respectable mountain.  No major-league team in any sport.  Not even a city of 100,000 people or more.

Just another winter day in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  (gfpeck, Flickr Creative Commons)

Just another winter day in Grand Forks, North Dakota. (gfpeck, Flickr Creative Commons)

There certainly are no alluring beaches, palm trees, or snorkeling coves — not just because there’s no ocean within 2,400 km (1,500 miles) in any direction, but also because North Dakotans endure some of the most brutal winters this side of Yatutsk.  The state’s record low temperature, set in 1936, was -51° Celsius (-60° Farenheit), and it was no fluke.  A few hardy folks still alive tell of that cold spell in which the temperature dropped below freezing on Nov. 27, 1935 and never reached the freezing mark again until March 1 of the following year.  During a 37-day period of that span, the thermometer reached zero degrees Farenheit — a deep-freeze benchmark —- only once. 

Like wide-open spaces?  There are plenty of them across sparsely settled North Dakota. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Like wide-open spaces? There are plenty of them across sparsely settled North Dakota. (Carol M. Highsmith)

No wonder that, save for a short growth spurt or two, North Dakota has been losing people, either to the warm and inviting Sun Belt or to states with big cities and promising jobs.  From a scant population of 3,000 in 1870, when the place and what is now South Dakota were part of a single “Dakota Territory” — though I doubt the census counted the sizable Indian population back then — North Dakota rode waves of European immigration to a high mark of 685,000 in 1930.  Read the rest of this entry »

On the Road Again

Posted September 24th, 2010 at 6:39 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Perhaps you’ve read Jack Kerouac’s coming-of-age novel On the Road or seen one of the classic movies about road trips across America: “Easy Rider,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Sideways,” or the comedies “National Lampoon’s Family Vacation” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

We came across this beautiful rapeseed field and farmstead in Idaho. (Carol M. Highsmith

We came across this beautiful rapeseed field and farmstead in Idaho. (Carol M. Highsmith

These stories offer a glimpse of the variety, vastness, and grandeur of the American landscape.  Maybe they ignited your wanderlust and left you determined not just to visit America but even to explore it, end to end.

Allow me to tell you what you’re in for.  I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than my spine and brake foot care to remember, most recently on the trip to and from Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway that I described last posting.  And along the way, I’ve made mental notes about some memorable and best-forgotten experiences.

Here’s my latest list, with ↑s denoting the highlights and ↓s marking the lowlights that you might run into on a grand automobile tour of America.

The magnificent rock formations of Monument Valley within the Navajo Nation in Arizona turn a succession of enchanting colors at sunset.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The magnificent rock formations of Monument Valley within the Navajo Nation in Arizona turn a succession of enchanting colors at sunset. (Carol M. Highsmith)

↑  Sunsets, especially on the empty plains, in deep mountain valleys, and along the rocky Pacific shore of the American West.  Their beams and palette of oranges and reds accentuate the splendor.  You’d think sunrises would have the same effect, but I find that sunsets linger and invite contemplation.  The morning sun, by contrast, climbs resolutely above the horizon and commands us to get on with the day.  We easterners — and foreign visitors who begin a journey in the populated East and wend into the wide-open West — can’t help but marvel at sunsets’ glow against the distant St. Louis Arch, the majestic Rockies, or the endless sea.

Read the rest of this entry »

T.L., Phone Home!

Posted September 17th, 2010 at 1:54 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

Nevada is so desolate that there isn’t even much of a highway between Reno in the north near Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas, far to the south near the mammoth Hoover Dam.  You drive mostly two-lane U.S. 95, amid low brown hills, scrub bushes, Joshua trees, and rattlesnakes along the 715 kilometers (445 miles) between the dusty western state’s two big gambling centers.

And if you’re really into scorpions and free-ranging cattle and more than 160 km without a drop of available gasoline, you can make part of the lonely journey on an even more remote — and spookier — alternate route to Vegas.  Carol and I took it, and in three hours of meandering passed exactly four cars and one truck.

Never in my travels have the words “fill ’er up” had more significance. (Carol M. Highsmith)

I got this birthday card soon after Carol and I got home. When it was delivered, I could have sworn I heard a whirring noise outside, and a faint metallicky voice calling, “Take me to your leader.” (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is Nevada Route 375, a place so far out, metaphorically as well as physically, that the state itself calls it “The Extraterrestrial Highway.”  When Nevada gave this long stretch of nothing that catchy name in 1996 — capitalizing on publicity surrounding the alien-invasion movie “Independence Day,” which involves a secret Area 51 government installation nearby — it erected a marker at each end and at least one additional sign reading, “Speed Limit Warp 7.”

The Extraterrestrial Highway name had first been used informally in 1959, after a physicist, Robert Lazar, who claimed to have worked on “reverse engineering” of alien spacecraft at a “secret flying saucer base” in the valley through which State Route 375 runs, gave a memorable interview to a Las Vegas radio station.

Radio, and thus no pictures of these disassembled outer-spacecraft.

This saucer is from the area that Robert Lazar described.  It hasn’t done much flying and doesn’t look very threatening, however. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This saucer is from the area that Robert Lazar described. It hasn’t done much flying and doesn’t look very threatening, however. (Carol M. Highsmith)

In the interview, recorded and later transcribed by Glenn Campbell, whom I’ll identify later, Lazar told the audience, matter-of-factly, “The craft have three gravity amplifiers on the bottom of ’em.  What they do is, assuming that they’re in space — it’s just easier to get this across that way — they will focus the three gravity amplifiers on the point that they want to go to.

“Now, to give you an analogy, if you take a thin rubber sheet, say, lay it on a table and put thumb tacks in each corner. You take a big stone and set it on one end of the rubber sheet and say that that’s your UFO or that’s your spacecraft.  You pick out a point that you want to go to, which could be anywhere on the rubber sheet, pinch that point with your fingers and pull that all the way up to the craft.  That’s how it focuses and pulls that point actually to it.

Hmm.  Maybe there are more UFOs hereabouts than we realized. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Hmm. Maybe there are more UFOs hereabouts than we realized. (Carol M. Highsmith)

“When you then shut off the gravity generators, the stone or your spacecraft follows that stretched rubber back to its point.  There’s no linear travel through space. It actually bends space and time, and follows space as it retracts.”

Got it?

That sounds pretty kooky.  After all, no one could find any record of a Robert Lazar at any of the schools he claimed to have attended.  But to people half a century ago, before anyone admitted there was anything but sand and salamanders and the remnants of the military’s atomic testing in the Nevada desert, this was juicy stuff. Read the rest of this entry »

Here, There, Everywhere

Posted September 10th, 2010 at 2:36 pm (UTC-4)
3 comments

I’ve been buzzing about the country for the past three weeks, getting as far from our Washington, D.C.-based home as the northwestern tip of the other Washington in the Pacific Northwest.  Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you about some places and things I encountered in this 11,000-km journey, and about the joys of long-distance automobile travel.

I’m kidding about the “joys” part.

As I travel, I read a lot of local newspapers as well as USA Today and, when I can get it, the New York Times.  The real, tactile versions, not the “e-book” editions.  With real newsprint, I can underline things, rip out articles, and stuff them in my travel bag, next to the shaving cream.

When I unpacked, the bag bulged with newspaper fragments, each telling an interesting, if not earth-shaking story.  Here are a few that I set aside:

****

Been Burgled? Complete Form 0673-B

American cities and towns have plenty of crime to fight.   Muggings, drug deals, gang violence, and worse.

Someone breaking in?  If you’re home at the time, you can probably call the 911 emergency line.  If not, don’t bother.

Someone breaking in? If you’re home at the time, you can probably call the 911 emergency line. If not, don’t bother.

But ordinary home burglaries, vandalism, and swindles are crimes, too, and they’re anything but routine to their victims.  They’re usually not violent offenses, but they can cause great anguish, outrage, and financial distress.  The victims want them solved and the crooks arrested.

But budget cuts and strains on resources brought on by the tight economy have forced both big cities such as Oakland, California, and small towns like Norton, Massachusetts, to tell victims of property crimes and theft, in so many words:

Really sorry to hear about what happened.  Here’s the URL of an online site where you can fill out a form and describe what took place.  We’re kind of busy right now and won’t be stopping by.  But rest assured: if we run across the evildoers, we’ll lock ’em up, lickety-split!  Have a good day, and send a copy to your insurance company.”

As an Oakland police spokeswoman told USA Today, “If you come home to find your house burglarized and you call, we’re not coming,”

Don’t call us.  And we won’t be calling you.

You’ll need everything but this pen when you report a crime online.  Where it goes from there, or whether anyone ever reads it, is a good question.

You’ll need everything but this pen when you report a crime online. Where it goes from there, or whether anyone ever reads it, is a good question.

Police in cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma — which lost 13 percent of its 839 officers to budget slashes — are finding that a lot of citizens, who figure that the paperwork will end up in the bottom of some drawer, aren’t even bothering to fill out reports.  In Norton, outside Boston, police told residents that there’s only a slight chance that anyone would show up to take reports on vandalism and other property crimes.  So they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the cruiser.

There’s a danger inherent in this cavalier attitude toward “petty” crime.  It brings to mind a word for one possible reaction when people think the protection of their homes, vehicles, and themselves is up to them and them alone.

It’s “vigilantism.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The Front Room

Posted September 3rd, 2010 at 7:45 am (UTC-4)
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In a recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog, Joan DeJean, a University of Pennsylvania professor of romance languages, wrote — not about Portuguese declensions or the Indo-European roots of Romanian — but about living rooms, of all things.

What exactly IS an American-style living room? the posting asked.

But instead of definitively answering that provocative question that burns in the minds of millions, she mostly traced the evolution of the living-room concept from the days when upper-crust homes were honeycombed with various parlors.  You know, like the one in black-and-white movies, where the family gathers ’round the piano to sing Christmas carols.  The less-grand of these parlors, DeJean wrote, “were the original living rooms,” without explaining in much detail.  I deduce that it was there, once a week or so, that stern mothers and sterner fathers allowed their kids, in their starched shirts and dresses, to play jacks, pet the dog, and study their multiplication tables.

The Château de Montgeoffroy might have a living room or two — or 10 — all right.   (Manfred Heyde, Wikipedia Commons)

The Château de Montgeoffroy might have a living room or two — or 10 — all right. (Manfred Heyde, Wikipedia Commons)

DeJean quickly dove into European architectural history; I dropped away as she was describing the Château de Montgeoffroy.

So that leaves me to write about America’s living rooms.

I guess I need a premise — a hypothesis about living rooms to support or refute.

OK, I would argue that, although their form may endure, their function has pretty much come and gone.

Not many families that I know gather in the “front room” to play Monopoly, or wrap coins together, or pull taffy any longer.  They’re chatting in their oversized kitchens with granite countertops, color-coordinated cabinets, hanging wine racks, and refrigeration “units” the size of Patagonia.  They’re out back on the deck or screened-in porch, feeding the hummingbirds or barbecuing lamb.  They’re in their respective “studies” — not studying, but tapping on computers.  They’re running the treadmill in the spare bedroom or vegetating in the “rec room,” watching football on screens as big as the field.

The empty living room might as well be a prop in a model home.  It’s not “living” at all.

Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Birthday, Whatsyourname

Posted August 26th, 2010 at 12:48 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Years ago, the late U.S. senator from Wisconsin, William Proxmire — well, he wasn’t the late senator back then — got good political mileage out of presenting his annual “Golden Fleece” awards to public officials who, in his view, wasted taxpayer money.

A “joint” task force, of sorts, caught Senator Proxmire’s eye. (Wikipedia Commons)

A “joint” task force, of sorts, caught Senator Proxmire’s eye. (Wikipedia Commons)

Winners included the United States Army for funding a study about how to buy Worcestershire sauce; the National Institute on Drug Abuse for an examination of marijuana’s effect on sexual arousal; and the U.S. Postal Service for an ad campaign encouraging us Americans to write more letters to each another.

Wonder what Bill Proxmire would have thought of some recent research at the public University of Illinois? Read the rest of this entry »

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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