Monday, October 31, 2005

Death to the Twizzler

Good news on the licorice front. The SJ-R reported yesterday the return of the Switzer-brand to candy aisles where it will once again do battle with the King of the Red Twine, Twizzlers.

The reason this is good news, at least for those of us with a tooth for such things, is that Twizzlers is, what is known in boxing parlance, a paper champion. It may sit on the top of the heap as far as sales go and it may demand top placement from rack-jobbers stocking the candy display, but when it comes to the true taste experience, Twizzlers is living a lie.

Twizzlers is remarkable for its distinct lack of flavor. Its taste is certainly unobjectionable and it has a passable pliancy, but ultimately, it disappoints. The return of the Switzer will provide a quality and readily available licorice for those without the means or inclination to partake in boutique brands.

There are other licorice options at most grocers. I recently discovered a brand at Wal-Mart, although the name now escapes me. It comes in niblet form and has a tangy, citrus-y taste that elicits that “can’t eat just one” quality one expects from a good candy. The consistency of this confection, however, is probably too close to that of the "juju" or the "gummy" to be taken seriously by true licorice aficionados.

That Twizzlers remains the top-seller in its category despite its short-comings and the availability of superior alternatives should not be a surprise to those who observe market behavior. McDonald’s is regularly given low marks in taste tests of fast-food burgers, yet it sells billions. Dominoes delivers pies at a Wal-Street pleasing pace despite the presence in almost every town of a quality pizzeria. And while many may swear that Starbucks does have the best-tasting coffee, they didn’t becomes this country’s favorite retailer of stomach-agitating liquids because of the quality of their beans or the superiority of their brewing methods.

The reason that these aforementioned brands have hit it big, and crushed many a competitor along the way, is that they have made themselves available in a way that would have made merchants from an earlier day blush like handmaidens. I read an article recently that debunked the notion that Starbucks success is based on a strong branding campaign, but is instead a result of setting up shop on every downtown block of every major city. Anyone who has ever been to Seattle knows that one wrong turn will likely land you in line for a latte. Given the addictive properties of their caffeine-intensive discharge, this is the equivalent of a street gang setting up a dealer on every corner, pretty soon they’re bound to control the city’s entire drug trade.

This tactic to dominate the marketplace reminds me of a Woody Allen quote: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Allen may be the exception to this dictum because despite putting out some truly great films, especially in the 70s, he seems to be showing up lately with some pretty dismal movies that garner but a fraction of his early success. Despite this, there is much truth to be learned from these words.

To entrepreneurs, it says to tarry not with perfection, but to get your wares to market.

As an axiom for the common man, it can provide succor to one with little to offer in terms of skills and intelligence. If that person can be relied upon to show up to work everyday, he should never want for gainful employment.

If you want to get all existentialist about it, then you need only to look to more wisdom from the Wood-man: "I don't want to achieve mortality through my work. . . I want to achieve it through not dying." In other words, every time you draw a breath you’re on top of your Earthly-game.

Although I kneel at the altar of meritocracy, I recognize that ambition often outshines ability. How else can you explain Steven Seagal? So it is our duty to encourage the Switzers of the world to enter the free-market fray and dispose those content to sit upon a throne made only of their own pretension.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Something Noxious This Way Comes

It’s been some time since I’ve critiqued an ad in this space. Today, I can not help but do so.

The Illinois Licensed Beverage Association ran a full page ad in today's SJ-R encouraging people to oppose a total smoking ban in Springfield. They attempt to do so by telling us that we're better off with smokers congregating in bars than lingering outside of our homes.

If this ad is to be believed, my quiet neighborhood nestled in our modest Midwestern town will transform itself into New York City’s famed Meatpacking District, with trendy club goers congregating outside my house, reveling raucously until the wee hours of the morning, and littering scads of cigarette butts down into the grates that the city apparently plans to install along the street so that street sweepers won’t be able to whisk them away. “For the love of God”, I suppose that I am being enticed to say, “don’t destroy the habitat of these displaced packs of smokers and force them to migrate beneath the window of our son's nursery.”

The one argument against a smoking ban that seems to be holding any sway at all with non-smokers is that businesses should be allowed to be self-determined in such matters. But they don’t pursue that line of reasoning. Instead, they want to try and scare us with a “Night of the Coughing Dead” scenario. Like most horror movies, the effect of this ad is more comical than frightening.

Obviously, a smoking ban in bars and restaurants will force smokers outdoors where they will instinctively and irresponsibly litter their butts. But how is this a reasonable argument against a smoking ban? Allowing 16 year-olds to drink legally in bars would reduce the number of empties that get tossed curbside before the teens return home, but that is hardly a compelling reason for lowering the drinking age.

Another problem with the message delivered here is that it admits that smoking is a dirty, disgusting habit and that no sensible person would want to be around it. Yet on its Web site, one of the groups behind the ad is adamant that smokers and non-smokers can continue to live harmoniously in bars and restaurants.

It's standard practice that when advocating for a certain cause that those supporting the cause be portrayed in a flattering, or at the very least, a sympathetic manner. Perhaps that proved too daunting a task in this case. Still, depicting smokers as a ravenous scourge that would be unleashed upon the city, leaving filth and muck in its wake, is a pretty curious way to sway people's attitudes.

Besides sending a dubious message, the ad itself is of a very poor ilk. The layout looks as if it was done in Word and it contains no design concepts that would make it appealing.

The picture quality is terrible. My first reaction was that this was intentional. I thought that the art director was attempting to visually convey the blurry haze our street corners will be shrouded in once smokers are forced to descend upon the outdoors in mass. Then I went to the Web site mentioned in the ad and discovered that the images are stills taken from a streaming video. I can only assume that the high cost of cigarettes has eaten into their advertising budget, forcing them to run a full-page ad that looks as if it were designed by a first-year receptionist student.*

As I have opined here before, I could be convinced to support some type of compromise on this issue, provided that smokers get a significantly shorter end of the butt. I'm decidedly less inclined to do so after this pathetic little scare campaign. Just as it's hard to find symphathy for the slasher victim who refuses to leave the house despite the carnage that surrounds her, I can't commiserate with those who can't read the "No Smoking" sign upon the wall and threaten the very behavior that contributes to their ostracism in the first place.

*This is by no means intended as a slam against receptionists. It’s just that they aren’t exactly noted for their graphic design abilities and they have been known to create some pretty horrendous Christmas Party announcements using Word and some third-rate clipart.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Damn it feels good to wear a Red Hat

I can’t say that I was surprised to see the letter-to-the-editor in today’s SJ-R complaining about the rude and confrontational behavior from an alleged member of the Red Hat Society. I am surprised that we haven’t been reading more about the notorious group of elderly revelers in Police Beat. History shows us that it is only a matter of time before this rapidly growing and increasingly influential band of frivolity seekers turns anti-social and bloodthirsty.

I’m not suggesting that the Red Hat Society was organized as a criminal syndicate. Their mission to bring golden years of fun to women across the world is admirable and true. But any sociologist worth his salt will tell you that such clubs, gangs if you will, are a breeding ground for organized crime. If I’m not mistaken, the mafia started out as a bocce ball league and the first pirates were fishing buddies who grew tired of dropping a line and sought more lucrative booty from passing merchant ships.

The signs are certainly pointing towards the Red Hat Society following down this path to infamy. The group’s growing popularity is one such indication.

Senior citizens, in particular women of this age group, often feel marginalized in our society. This is a generation that largely missed out on the empowerment that came about from the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Associating themselves with such groups as the Red Hat Society or the jack-booted thugs of the AARP buys them increased social status, or “juice”, out on the streets. In time, they become more emboldened and turn to menacing behavior to feed their insatiable desire for more cred and respect.

The transformation from fun-loving octogenarians to garden-variety hoodlums is slowly taking place and experts predict that businesses that cater to the group are especially vulnerable to being victimized. Restaurant owners, shopping malls, and tourist sites see the red hatted ladies as a desirable demographic to court. Seemingly well-behaved with a reasonable amount of disposable income, the women are often catered to and given preferential treatment by these businesses. Soon, however, they begin to see the special accommodations and extra niceties as their due propers. And should a business become delinquent or unforthcoming with these tributes, things can get ugly fast.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that one of their members went mad dog when the letter writer crossed her out on the streets. Members feel that by displaying their colours they are giving notice that they are on their turf and they set the rules. Any show of disrespect is dealt with swiftly and harshly. Today it was a verbal assault and an obscene gesture; tomorrow it will likely be a beat-down or worse.

Stories of irate, white-haired women breaking up tea rooms are going largely unreported in the mainstream media. Editors are hesitant to run with such reports due to tender feelings towards their own mothers, a transference of emotion that red hatters exploit to maintain their genteel reputations amidst a rash of covert rabble rousing. This same affection makes police hesitant to seek charges when some street-hardened Aunt Bea-type is found tagging the back wall of the local Presbyterian Church.

For their part, the police should treat the Red Hat Society as they do any other gang. When detaining one, they should take note of society-related tattoos or any other distinguishing marks that would help ID them in future crimes. Police should also keep track of aliases. Agnes Wittenberg might be known on the street as La Psycho Rojo or Mama Redd Dogg. Law enforcement must become familiar with the Red Hat culture if they hope to curb the inevitable lawlessness the group is about to throw down.

As for the public, they are advised to steer clear of these red-topped cut throats. Better to give up your place in line at the museum then get jacked-up in broad daylight by a mob of ill-tempered grandmothers.

In a skit from their television show, Monty Python keenly portended the existence of gangs of hyper-matriarchal seniors who wield hand bags like blackjacks and walk around with chips on their shoulders the size of marble ryes. Most took it as satire, but it now seems eerily foretelling of a scourge that is both inflicting our communities and placing a blight on what is considered the Greatest Generation.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

When you say Tap Water, you've said it all!

Anyone who has every visited Penny Lane has probably gotten a chuckle out of the little notices attached to certain paraphernalia that state they are intended for tobacco use only. There’s something quaint about such blatant misrepresentations when made by brain-charred head shop owners, who hope only to make enough money to keep the Microbus running and Mountain Girl turned on.

When a billion dollar corporation tries this same tactic, as Budweiser attempted to do by claiming their Bud Pong game is intended to facilitate the consumption of water for fun and sport, it comes across as patronizing. Their feigned amazement that people in a bar were actually playing their drinking game with - gasp – beer, stretches the limits of spin. Their assertion that this was never their intention is . . just plain stupid.

A more honest approach would have been to say something along the lines of this:

Upon receiving word from some of our distributors that Bud Pong may be indirectly responsible for some isolated instances of irresponsible drinking, we have decided to immediately recall all game kits. In their place, distributors will receive official Budweiser Beer Bongs, which are intended strictly as a transference mechanism in the performance of do-it-yourself oil changes. (Some nursing mothers have also found that, in a pinch, they can be useful as crude breast pumps. Be sure to thoroughly cleanse away all 10W40 before using it in this manner.)

Equally upsetting to me is that Budweiser’s pathetic act of obstinance has marred an otherwise fine and worthy sport.

My friends and I began playing beer pong back in the 80s, before corporate interests turned it into yet another bastion of ego and greed. Marked by fierce competitiveness, its aggressive, anything-goes set of rules made it perhaps the very first Xtreme sport. Of course we had no use for those trendy marketing labels back then. Like our forgotten brethren who went before us in baseball’s Negro League, we played for the love of the game.

The rules for beer pong are simple. Cups of beer (or Kool-Aid if you prefer) are placed approximately one foot from the edge of each side of the table. The object is to either hit the cup with the ball or get the ball to land in the cup. The defender can not return volley until the ball has passed the cup (no shot blocking.)

It is here where our version of the rules break even more significantly with traditional beer pong etiquette:

  • Play is not dead until the ball comes to a complete stop, usually in the corner of the room, under a couch, or under the foot of a spectator who has unintentionally trod upon it.
  • As long as the ball remains moving, a player is required to hit it, as many times as necessary on as many bounces, until the ball crosses the net.
  • In doubles, the recommended form of beer pong, a player retrieving an errant shot can pop the ball up to a teammate who can then take a shot.
  • Diving recklessly and throwing paddles at unreachable shots are the hallmarks of a great player.

As you can see, drinking is secondary to the all-out, wall-to-wall action that makes beer pong such an exhilarating sport. In fact, many beers are upended in the course of a game, the viscosity of the spilled liquid creating unpredictable hazards that further test a player’s skills.

The origins of our game can be traced back to too many parties where the girls failed to show up. Absent their reasoned presence and the need to maintain a measure of comportment as required by the mating ritual, we reverted to our primitive instincts and turned a low-impact recreational activity into an aggressive match of male dominance.

I’m not sure what the rules are for Bud’s version of the game. It’s obvious from all that nonsense about using water that their lawyers had a hand in writing them so they probably dictate a full complement of protective gear and a pre-game CT scan from a licensed cardiologist. They don't want anybody getting hurt before it's time to drive home from happy hour.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Get Back, Conde Nast

Advertising Age this week announced that People is the recipient of their 2005 Magazine of the Year award. Based on the Ad Age article, People carried the day based on the fact that they are the most profitable magazine being published. They were also given props for their efforts to include eight pages of Katrina coverage just hours before the deadline for their annual “Best and Worst Dressed” issue. I didn’t see that particular issue, but I hope they weren’t too snarky commenting on the fashion choices of the flood-ravaged, it can be exasperating trying to find just the right thing to wear to an evacuation.

Other than the aforementioned, Ad Age doesn’t really offer much glowing praise for People’s content, just it’s ability to stay ahead of their celebrity gawking competitors. I’m not much of a People-person. I’ll peruse it from time-to-time in a waiting room, but absent a broken bicuspid or a faulty fuel pump, I’m usually not inclined to look in and see how Julia and the twins are doing.

I tend to go for magazines that provide in-depth coverage of subjects and aren’t necessarily sensitive to any news cycle. Magazines such as this fit nicely between the immediacy of newspapers and the leisureliness of books. They also fit nicely in that small space between the toilet and vanity.

Smithsonian is among my favorites. I discovered it for the first time on my honeymoon, a fact I’m hesitant to mention lest I seem bookish and unromantic. But we were in a bed and breakfast in Seattle, not the Casanova Inn in Reno, so a little quite reading time didn’t contrast with the milieu.

The best thing about Smithsonian is that you’ll find yourself reading about things that you never would have thought interesting – pipe organs, C-list sea creatures, artists whose work didn’t make the cut in the board game “Master Piece” – and come away not only entertained, but a little wiser and more worldly as well.

The New Yorker is good for adding a little cosmopolitan flavor to your reading list. Famous for its cartoons, those little commentaries on contemporary mores, it also has excellent feature articles. And despite the skewering they took from Seinfeld, the cartoons are usually pretty funny, in a smart, non-Beatle Bailey kind of way.

Newsweek is my news weekly of choice, although I’m growing increasing bored with it. I much prefer the content on for this type of thing. The writing is a little edgier on Slate and the online format gives them move leeway as to the variety of topics that they cover. Unfortunately, there isn’t room for a computer between the toilet and the vanity so Newsweek still serves a need. If anyone can recommend a good news magazine that doesn’t sway too far to the left or right, please let me know.

Although my interest in sports has waned over the years, I still enjoy Sports Illustrated. I receive this magazine third-hand and often a month or more after its publication. It’s just as well because I really have no use for the pre-game analysis or post-game reports. You can usually count on at least one good feature article each week. One of my favorites was a story on the perilous world of deep-sea diving. It was utterly fascinating and led me to the book “Shadow Divers”, a riveting true-life account of divers who discovered a sunken U-Boat. Even if you’ve had no prior use for divers or U Boats, I recommend giving it a read.

As a contrast to SI, there is ESPN the Magazine. I once had the misfortune of turning back the cover of this hyperactive rag. It was like experiencing the fever dreams of an ADD afflicted music video director – and this in a static medium. There simply wasn’t a coherent thought to be found in the entire issue.

A common problem among many of the more popular titles is that they’ve determined what their demographic wants to read about and they refuse to stray from the formula. Women’s magazines are notorious for this. The same basic information is repackaged and reused issue after issue. Every cover is filled with teasers such as: “10 Ways to be a Better This”, “30 Days to a Slimmer That”, “50 Tricks for a Wilder . ..” Well, you get the point.

Men’s Health, which I take, suffers from a similar lack of fresh ideas. Not every workout can be the ultimate path to more powerful pecs and I swear that certain foods alternative monthly between being the key to a healthy heart and a one-way ticket to colitis. But the magazine does help one keep focused on health and exercise even if it does little to stimulate the mind.

There are many magazines that I've parted ways with over the years, but still remember fondly. Life. National Lampoon. Entertainment Weekly. Others left me while I still had feelings for them. Brill's Content comes to mind.

Often, magazine choices will reflect a certain point in a person's life. I first picked up a Rolling Stone in high school before switching to Spin after being exposed to alternative rock in college. After alternative went mainstream and lost its edge, I turned to Option to stay hip to the true indie scene.

Here at home, Springfield Magazine, to which I was a regular contributor, kind of lost its way when it attempted to become Illinois Magazine and then disappeared altogether. I’m not sure if Abe is still publishing.

Springfield could use a good magazine, if only to provide me with some freelance work. If there are any venture capitalists reading who want to play Rupert Murdoch and start a little media empire here in the Land of Lincoln, I’m ready to sign on.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Illinois Lottery: Have a Lawsuit!

The Illinois Lottery is feeling heat from the National Football League after using copyrighted materials in a promotion for a new game that features a trip to the Super Bowl as a prize.

I don’t blame the Lottery because really, why should the NFL even care. In fact, the Lottery probably didn't go far enough. Their ad agency should have scanned in a picture of Donovan McNabb and his mom, Photoshopped the soup spoons out and put in some lottery cards instead, and, presto, they’d have themselves a winning promotional campaign with none of those pesky endorsement fees to fuss with. Or they could have found an old tape of Kurt Warner or Phil Simms doing their post-Super Bowl spots for Disney and dubbed in the words “I’m going to Super Game XL. Thanks Governor Blagojevich’s Illinois State Lottery.” I don’t think that the quarterbacks’ agents would mind, theirs being such a philanthropic profession to begin with.

Wait a minute, Super Game XL? Apparently I’m being facetious in the preceding paragraph and Lottery officials are being a tad bit disingenuous when claiming ignorance to possible copyright infringements. As the SJ-R reported, Lottery ads used the term “Super Game” instead of “Super Bowl” in some print ads and drowned out the word “bowl” in some radio spots. Obviously they knew all was not fair game in their little ticket promotion. And if anyone there had been paying attention at all to the business side of sports in recent years, they’d realize that the suits are growing increasingly teenager-y about letting people use their stuff without asking first.

In 2000, the Illinois High School Association formed a limited liability company with the NCAA that has the power to assign rights for the use of the phrase “March Madness.” Last year, the Cubs were demanding a cut of the action from some of their Wrigleyville neighbors who were using their rooftops to peak over the ivied walls. WSCR, a Chicago-based sports talk radio station, is reduced to calling the Cubs and Sox the Northsiders and Southsiders in their promotions, presumably because that honor goes exclusively to the stations that paid for the right to broadcast their games. I won't even start on those litigious scoundrels over at the International Olympic Committee, except to say that your kid's preschool better think twice before holding a hamster Olympics.

It all sounds a bit silly to the common sports fan, but its serious business to those who want to squeeze every last cent out of their investment.

Most people can understand a team wanting to profit from the sale of their official merchandise – caps, sweatshirts and what not - but how many people would be willingly shell to out for this: 22-32-0-191

Those aren't winning lottery numbers as selected by your psychic friend. Those are Peyton Manning’s stats from last night’s victory over the Rams and there are some NFL executives who are of the opinion that they are the property of Peyton and the league. If those fantasy football geeks want to avail themselves of these numbers, the execs reason, then they better get out their credit cards.

The NFL is already raking in money because of the fantasy football craze. More people are watching more games which means the networks can charge more for advertising which means that the NFL can charge the networks more for the broadcasting rights. But you don't get to me the most successful sport's league in North America without shaking the loose change from your loyal fans.

The prevailing judicial opinion on this matter is that statistics aren’t intellectual property and are thus not eligible for copyright. If it is ever ruled to the contrary, then I plan to seek remittance from insurance companies every time they analyze Illinois traffic statistics, since my driving patterns, much like Marvin Harrison's pass patterns, are figured into those stats. Silly, I know. And of course they’d just raise my rates. You can’t beat the insurance companies.

Getting back to the Illinois Lottery, I think that most of their troubles can be traced to the fact that they are a sells-driven organization rather than one that is simply charged with preserving a budget, what state government-types are more instinctively given to do. They seem to lack the proper business acumen to operate in such an environment and that may be why they find themselves in precarious situations. Perhaps it would be best to outsource the whole operation to a private contractor.

Until some changes are made, might I suggest a special World Concatenation scratch-off to honor the Southsiders as they make their first championship appearance since 1959?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I'm all lost in the supermarket

After commenting yesterday on the vacuous trends that pervade our culture, I thought that I would continue the marketplace dialogue by offering my take on the trend’s more virtuous cousin – brand loyalty. While trends live in the superficial world of such places as bars and malls, customer loyalty can be best viewed in the sterile and unassuming environs of the supermarket.

A survey commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) indicates that 76 percent of consumers consider a product’s brand before pulling the trigger on the buying decision. At first glance, this might not seem that much different than the roots rockers cum copier salesmen who insist that theirs be a Pabst Blue Ribbon. But it is different. You aren’t on display when you’re traipsing down a grocer’s aisles, and neither are the contents of your cart. A trip to the grocery store is really a quest for sustenance and nobody has time to check out the other gatherers (hunters being unnecessary in a place where the meat is already dead and quartered..) Consumers are so confident in their incognito-ness that even the most prissified or dandified among them will show up on a Saturday morning sans makeup and with hair mussed. So what you buy is your own business, and also a reflection of what you hold dear deep inside.

Wonder bread. Crest toothpaste. Oscar Mayer bologna. These are just a few of the many name brands that have won the undying affection of shoppers. They earned it by being steady and always available. In return, they only ask for a little extra out of your weekly grocery budget, a trade that many consumers are willing to make. But others, like myself, have grown a little cold to the deal.

My loyalty to name brands first began to be tested when my weekly grocery bills started to consistently land in the triple digits. As my family grew, my eye began to wander to the modest store brands sitting somewhat less decorously next to their titled betters. Their lower prices shyly began to beckon me. I discovered that the ingredients were usually close to the same, give or take a heavily-consonanted word or two. In time, my taste buds would no longer notice the difference, but my pocketbook* would.

Soda, or "pop" to you Ohioans, was one of the latest allegiances that I broke with a name brand. For years I had played the field between Coke and Pepsi, but once the soda price wars ended a couple of years back and you could no longer buy a twelve-pack for under $2, I made the inevitable move to store brand soda. I’ve found that Meijer brand diet lemon-lime is a passable alternative to 7-Up, although it lacks the Uncola’s crispness. The Meijer caffeine-free diet cola, on the other hand, has a unique berry taste that has genuinely won me over.

I still patronize some name brands. Although my mac and cheese days are largely behind me, my palette having evolved as an adult’s will, I refuse to rain indignity down on my children by serving them anything less than the Kraft brand. I’ve found that there really is no alternative. My wife, who believes that cleanliness surpasses godliness, insists on Lysol-brand cleaning products to use during her weekly immaculation process. For these, I will pay a little extra.

In the GMA survey, 76 percent of respondents admitted to "chasing a brand" to a different store if it wasn't available at the initial store they visited. This is what most likely prompted grocery stores to seek some unconditional love for themselves by issuing loyalty cards, those credit card-like pieces of plastic that earn the consumer special pricing on select items.

I know that some have philosophical differences with the use of loyalty cards, believing that the very act of entering a store with the intent of exchanging cash for goods entitles one to the store’s best price. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t have a problem participating in their little game. Just as I don’t see the threat to my personal freedom through the use of traffic cameras, electronic voting booths, or DUI roadblocks, I really don’t care if Jewel wants to get a handle on my frozen pizza preferences. I suppose if the local methamphetamine task force breaks down my front door some evening because I purchased more that my allotted share of allergy medicine at Osco then I might change my tune. But for now, I’ll use their little cards. They just shouldn’t expect my loyalty.

At the risk of seeming a cad, I must confess to a brief and meaningless tryst that I had with Cub Foods recently. Flashing my Max Card like a megastore lothario, I picked up five gallons of skim milk and unabashedly took advantage of the seductive sales price of $2 a gallon. I was single-minded in my pursuit and purchased nothing else. Not only that, just the day before I had wantonly done my major grocery shopping at Meijer. I’m clearly not the type of shopper a grocery store wants to get serious with. But if they’re going to brazenly flaunt their sales items in the Sunday paper, then they have to expect guys like me to start hanging around.

So I suppose that the pursuit of brand loyalty can be just as cheap and tawdry as chasing the latest trend. Despite the ugliness inherent in rabid consumerism, I’m a big fan of our free market society. I don’t want to have my goods allotted to me by some "glorious" state-controlled cooperative. Besides, grocery stores are a great place to check out women.**

*I don’t really have a pocketbook, but if I did I would carry it in my waistcoat.

**So I learned when I was single, but a practice that I’ve since discontinued in deference to my beautiful wife.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Refresh, Rejoice, Regurgitate - Pabst Gets the Call

The sign outside of the Barrel Head is announcing that they now have PBR on tap. This totally misses the point. People don’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon because they prefer its taste over other brands of pilsners. They do so because PBR is enjoying a blip on the hipness meter, having been adopted as the libation-of-choice for snowboarders, neo southern-fried rockers, and other anti-establishment sorts. So you need that classic red, white, and blue bottle or can to announce to the rest of the patrons that you aren’t down with the Miller and Bud conformists. If you pour the PBR into a clear glass, all you are left with is another watered-down beer.

I give the people at PBR credit for letting their new cult status grow organically and not targeting millions of beer drinkers with an ad campaign touting its eclectic appeal, although they really couldn’t afford to even if they wanted. And there aren’t many people left at PBR to give credit to. Not even a brewmaster. The brand's management is based in Texas now and the beer is contracted out for brewing to Miller, a South African-owned company. We’re not in Wisconsin anymore.

I don’t put much stock in a lasting PBR renaissance. It’s riding the same wave that had city boys wearing seed company caps and Kid Rock exploiting the spurious talents of midgets and the future Mrs. Lance Armstrong. I’m hoping that I’ve seen the last of Kid Rock and while I harbor no ill feelings towards PBR, provided that I’m not made to ingest it, I’m guessing that it will go the way of ZIMA before long.

Something will soon replace PBR as the hipster drink of choice. Many marketers hire coolhunters or trendspotters to see what the young and impressionable are into so that they can strike quickly and make a few bucks before the fickle consumers move on to something else. It’s a tricky business.

Society is either blessed or besieged by constant communication, depending on how you look at it. Nothing stays on the periphery of the mainstream for very long. One of the results of this is that trends go from zero to passé in the time it takes Renee Zellweger to become a divorcee. Bands can go from "fresh and innovative" to "tired and derivative" in the course of one album. And, likewise, a beer that conveys “rural retro chic” at happy hour will degenerate to “dumb redneck wannabe” by closing time. Fifteen minutes? More like fifteen seconds.

Of course I could be wrong about the Barrel Head’s decision to offer PBR on tap. For all I know they’re selling the stuff pitcher over fist. If that is the case, I bet the guys tipping them back are wearing mesh-back John Deere caps and “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts that they recently bought at Famous-Barr.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Extra! Extra!

Now that the festivities surrounding International Newspaper Carrier Day are winding down, last Saturday was the official day for observation but you know how these holidays tend to stretch out, I would be remiss if I didn’t share my own experience as a newspaper carrier for the venerable SJ-R.

Yes, I “pitched the broadsheet” for a time during the late 70s/early 80s. It was a golden age for paperboys. The national feeling of optimism that characterized the Reagan years was palpable as citizens stood waiting on their porches at dawn’s first light, eager to discover what good news awaited them in the morning paper.

As the bearers of good news, paperboys enjoyed an exalted status in society that far exceeded our educational background and meager wage. Not since the Wells-Fargo men rolled their wagons into frontier towns a century earlier had delivery agents been so integral to the makeup of our social fabric. (It is believed that it was during this age of the newspaper carrier that mail carriers, jealous of the attention being lavished on their more celebrated daily deliverers, first began to act out in fits of homicidal rage and the term “going postal” entered our national lexicon.)

Even the word paperboy harkens back to a simpler time, when newspapers were wrapped tight and projected onto front stoops by young men pedaling banana-seated bicycles, the papers packed tightly into a canvas bag strapped to the handlebars. Today, the average carriers' age seems to skew a little older. The money that was once used for baseball cards or a bottle of sarsaparilla is now being used to supplement family incomes, perhaps even to provide allowances for lazy teens who lack the gumption to pursue gainful employment

As for my own experience, it started in the sixth grade when I began spelling a friend when his family would go on vacation. By the time I reached the seventh grade, he would move on to a larger, more profitable route and he bequeathed unto me the modest yet challenging route that encompassed 22nd and 23rd streets from Sangamon to Griffith. For seven years I worked those blocks with a dedication that bordered on mania.

My decision to enter the ranks of newspaper carriers was met with trepidation by my parents who had heard the horror stories from other parents who were forced into action each morning when young Johnny would oversleep and disgruntled customers would begin to call. But save for those rare occasions when the combination of inclement weather and a supplement-heavy edition made riding or walking the route prohibitive, I carried out my appointments self-sufficiently. It wasn’t long into my career when I didn’t even need the services of an alarm clock to arise at the proper hour.

It was the ability to consistently answer the early morning call that separated us paperboys from our contemporaries who chose pampered pursuits such as store clerk or burger flipper to earn a little spending money. While the rest of the town laid snuggly in their beds, we were setting the day into motion by greasing the wheels of civic life through the delivery of the local daily, the lifeblood of the community.

As vital a task as it was, in time a paperboy would learn to execute his route in a state of suspended consciousness. On Saturdays, when I could return to bed after making my rounds, it wasn’t uncommon to awaken in a panic an hour later because I couldn’t immediately recall doing it.

There was a camaraderie among paperboys that was common in groups of tradesmen from that era. A few of my fellow carriers and I would occasionally gather on the corner after completing our morning rounds and swap stories of confronting vicious dogs and espying comely housewives as they attempted to stealthily retrieve their paper while still in their nighties. Old man Fishburn, our district manager, would drive up to say hello while suspiciously eying our bags to see that all of our papers had been delivered and that we weren’t loafing on company time.

Make no mistake; there were bad paperboys during this time as well. Some kept milk delivery hours, dropping the newspaper and leaving it to yellow after the customer had already left for the day. Others held customers in contempt for complaining to the district manager about late delivery and would seek revenge. Metal storm doors were still very popular back then and striking the bottom quarter panel with a rocket propelled newspaper would result in a thunderous sound that would cause the house’s occupants to rise terrified in their beds.

I did my best to avoid hitting doors in this manner, believing that the sound would still be resonating in the customer’s ears come Christmas time and thus quelling the spirit of tipping the paperboy. Although I tend to side with the anti-tipping crowd, a little something extra for the newspaper carrier is just good form. I slipped my last carrier a double sawbuck after he announced he was hanging up his bag to pursue other avenues. A bright future surely awaits him.

On occasion, when I’m back visiting the old neighborhood, I’ll drive by my route for old time's sake. I still remember which houses took the paper. I remember the ones that wanted the paper delivered to the side door so it would be protected from the elements by their carport. There probably aren’t as many of them today that take home delivery. Paperboys are being replaced by Webmasters as more and more readership moves online. But I hope that the demand for the daily broadsheet remains so that my boys get the chance to join the paperboy fraternity. Esprit de corps may even move me to join them on those days when the weather turns hostile and the paper is leaden with circulars.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Petitio Principii

As I’ve said before, Sam Madonia is at his best when he’s discussing state and local politics with someone in the know. On Monday, that someone was Kent Redfield, professor of political studies at UIS. The conversation was interesting and insightful as the two discussed the Republican candidates for governor. But Madonia brought the discussion to a screeching halt, if only to my fastidious ears, by committing a language faux pas that I find particularly irksome.

Dear reader, “begs the question”, contrary to increasingly common assumption, does not mean “raises the question” or even “provokes the question.” It has its own unique and useful meaning. Begging the question is a fallacy in deductive reasoning that occurs when a person attempts to support his argument with a premise that assumes to be true the point that she is arguing for.

For example, a person attempting to prove that helmet-less motorcyclists are stupid by stating that you’d have to be stupid to ride a motorcycle sans cranial protection is “begging the question.” Discussing certain issues that raise larger or different issues is not “begging the question.” But unfortunately this second erroneous meaning is becoming the more common usage and some dictionaries are even acknowledging it as correct.

What bothers me most isn’t that “begs the question” has acquired a secondary meaning, it’s the reason behind its entry into the everyday vernacular. People who use it in place of the perfectly adequate “raises the question” do so, it seems, because they think it makes them sound more intelligent. This is the equivalent of demonstrating comportment by coordinating the spittoon cozy with the rest of the sitting room’s décor.

For some reason, the misuse is common in relation to politics. During the last gubernatorial election, I was compelled to email the Blagojevich campaign in response to their candidate’s insistence that questions were being begged all over the political landscape. The point of my missive was either lost on the campaign hack who responded to my email, or he was a dyed-in-the-wool descriptionist on matters of language.

When the issue turns to linguistics, there are basically two kinds of people: prescriptionists and descriptionists. The former believes that there should be a normative set of rules governing language. The latter believes that the study of language should simple describe how language is used. For fans of the Princess Bride, Vizzini is a descriptionist when he describes as “inconceivable” any occurrence that deviates from his preconceived plans during the kidnapping of Princess Buttercup. Indigo Montoya reveals a prescriptionist side to his character when he chides Vizzini over his choice of words by saying “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I am by no means a strict prescriptionist, some of whom can be dictatorial in their belief that a word’s meaning should hold steadfast throughout time. Nor do I associate too closely with the descriptionists who are the hippie-freelove, “if it feels good, do it” faction of the linguistics community and believe that a word’s meaning should be always evolving according to populist usage. I fall somewhere between the two camps, but I do see a greater danger to our language coming from the descriptionist side.

Take the word “fey” as an example. Its original meaning is “fated to die” or “foreboding of death or calamity.” It doesn’t conjure up happy thoughts. But because it’s such a precious-sounding little word, “fey” has also taken on a secondary meaning of “precious.” And because it rhymes with “gay”, which in addition to meaning “happy” is also used to describe homosexuals, “fey” is also used to describe someone who is “campy.” So imagine if you will a picture of Jesus Christ on his way to the cross at Calvary, being escorted by a prancing Shirley Temple on one side and a flitting Charles Nelson Reilly on the other. That all three could accurately be described as “fey” is confusing and carries with it a huge burden that I’m not sure the tiny word is up to.

While some words get tagged with unrelated meaning as the result of prevalent misuse, others face extinction. The word “gantlet” once described a punishment where the offender ran between facing rows of punishers who would inflict bodily harm upon the offender as he passed. But because so many people confused this word with “gauntlet”, a glove that is thrown down to signify the issuance of a challenge, gauntlet is now commonly used to express both meanings and gantlet is reduced to “alternative spelling” status.

While I find the loss of a good word lamentable, I do advocate the invention of new words in certain types of writing. For this to work, the meaning of the word must be obvious based on its derivation and the context in which it is used. This works well in comedy and some of its greatest practitioners write for the Simpson’s.

My favorite Simpsish word is “embiggen”, as in “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” “Craptacular” is another good one. A whole glossary of words created for the show can be found here.

I’m by no means a language expert; look closely enough and you'll probably find an error or two in this unedited post. Nor do I kneel too religiously at the altar of Strunk and White. I'm just a moderate prescriptionist in a world of flaming descriptionists who are content to sit idly by as our once proud language sinks into an unintelligible hodgepodge of acronyms and emoticons. And while this may be an insufficient pulpit from which to prevent the further decay of the phrase "begs the question", I will say this for my humble little blog: It's real and it's craptacular!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Kickin' It Private School

At the risk of sounding the bell for round two of MonkeyBoy versus La Lubu, I must speak the name of public education in light of the front page article in the SJ-R on a new program at Lanphier High School. The program was put in place in response to an astonishing low retention rate for freshmen in the 2003-2004 school-year when over 200 students (sic), around 40 percent, failed to finish the school year. At least I assume that these figures are astonishing, because if they aren’t, then the state of public education is much worse then I would have imagined and the Lions may need to be listed as an endangered species.

You can center much debate on the perceived character and fate of those that left school, although unless they return to finish their high school education it’s a pretty safe assumption that their future won’t be filled with hope for prosperity. What may be discussed less is the harm being done to the other 60 percent who are being educated in an environment that is obviously rife with chaos and disruption. While this may be evidence that teachers at LHS deserve to be paid more, I don’t see how bumping up their salaries will empower them to deal with a situation involving over 2,100 suspension-level incidents among a single grade, in a single year.

A year or so ago, a report was published that revealed that nearly 40 percent of Chicago public school teachers sent their own children to private schools. The Sun Times’ Neil Steinberg facetiously joined in the outrage by feigning shock that 60 percent of public school teachers care so little about education that they send their kids to public schools. Of course he was attempting to get a rise out of the humorless teachers’ unions, but he also meant it as an indictment of the state of public schools in Chicago.

I’m not one who thinks that kids can’t get a good education in Springfield public schools. In general, those students whose parents or guardians are committed to their learning will do just as well as their private school counterparts. To the same effect, those who are determined not to learn most likely won’t no matter where they attend. It is the kids that fall in the middle who are jeopardized. The ones who could just as easily be swayed to succeed in school as they could to give up or get by.

I feel confident that the public schools would provide my kids the education they need to succeed in life. On mild days, when the rattle from my well-traveled and ailing Nissan Sentra rings especially loud through the open window, I often wonder what kind of deal Walt Skube could make me on a sweet-humming new or preowned vehicle, if only I would free up the necessary funds by trading private school tuition for the carefree world of taxpayer funded schooling. But then I’ll read an article such as the one in the paper today, and the rattle becomes a little less embarrassing and quite a bit more affirming that the tuition is money well spent.

There are some who will level charges of elitism against those who remove themselves from the fray of the public education system. But my choosing to spend my hard-earned and tightly-budgeted money on what I perceive to be a more advantageous learning environment for my children is no more a sign of elitism than if I were to spend it on an SUV, a flat panel TV, or two-packs a day and a nightly visit to the tavern. It's a sacrifice that to me, is worth it.

Others believe that private schools shelter children and fail to expose them to the rich tapestry of a diverse society. This may be true if they are attending a boarding school in Switzerland but decidedly less so at an elementary school on Stevenson Drive. In my daughter’s class of 16, there is both an African-American and a Hispanic child, putting the minority percentage just below the stated goal for representative minority staffing on the city’s police and fire departments. And in this the age global communication, where the media is constantly filling every moment of life with images and messages that emanate from every walk of life, sheltering a child to the point of abject naivety would require a Branch Davidian-type effort.

It is true that my decision to send my kids to private school is an attempt to filter out some of life’s harsher elements. And I figure that it can only enhance the learning experience if their teachers don’t spend the better part of their day dealing with disruptive students.

When I attended the first parent’s night at my daughter’s new school and saw that the parents of all of her classmates had taken the time to attend, I knew that my decision, while fiscally demanding, would be ultimately rewarding. I suspect that many of you parents of public school students have similar feelings towards their schools. But I bet there isn't anybody at your fashion-permissive school who looks as cute as my daughter does in her plaid jumper.