Cory Farley, voted "Best of Reno" 26 times in 27 years by readers of his column in the Reno Gazette-Journal, takes an unconventional look at topics from presidential elections to the best way to cook Brussels sprouts.

Location: Verdi, Nev, United States

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The pieces fall into place, except where they don't

In response to practically no reader inquiry, I'm obliged to offer a lame excuse for not updating this thing for however long it's been, four or five days:
I've been busy with money-making activities. Working, as it were, for The Man.
First came the Reno News & Review, about which several people actually did inquire. I'll be doing a weekly column and occasional other stories. Editor Brian Burghart and his staff have done a good job for a long time, and I'm happy to be there.
I don't know if this is still true, but when I was learning to write boring stories in journalism school, most students imagined themselves working for aggressive "underground" weeklies, blowing the lids off scandals and sending mayors to jail while the Big Papers could only placate their advertisers and envy our freedom. Some of the attraction wore off after we learned about the starvation wages that usually go with those jobs, but a working wife allows a man options. I'm pleased to be part of a noble effort.
Second, I'll be doing commentary now and then on KOLO TV, Channel 8. The details are still vague, at least to me, but for now it will be a couple of minutes of comment on the 6:30 News on some or perhaps all Wednesday evenings, then a short segment on Daybreak, the morning snow, the next day. I did the first two this week and thought I was fairly bad, though not humiliatingly so...less wooden than Howdy Doody, for those who remember him, but not as riveting as, say, the early Al Gore. Somewhere around Mitt Romney.
My brief acquaintance with television news has been instructive, though. As a career print journalist, I had the usual print bias: Only newspapers do real news. TV was all hair and capped teeth.
Uh, no. I've sat in the KOLO news room through a couple of production cycles (I'm not sure if "production cycle" is real TV talk or if I made it up), and I was impressed. The pretty faces, including mine, are a tiny part of the operation. Back where the cameras don't go, real news people are writing real stories and real editors are making making decisions under pressures I believe are greater than those at a newspaper. If a paper's press run starts 10 minutes late, somebody gets yelled at but the readers never know. If a news broadcast starts 10 minutes late, people change the channel and don't come back.
It's actually pretty intimidating, and I say that as a guy who wrote on deadline for three decades. Plus you have to wear a tie, sit up straight and there's no Backspace key, so your mistakes just hang there in God's own air.
KOLO has fixed me up with an e-mail address,, on which I'm happy to receive comments, advice and suggestions for future commentaries. I'm struggling a little with remote access at this point, but that will get well, and meanwhile I'll be going by the office to check it out. E-mails containing the word "pathetic" will be discarded.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

If only they'd sum THEMSELVES up in 1 sentence

Help me out here: Is everybody sick of the campaign, or am I just a bad citizen?
I try to care. I do care--every election I can remember has been billed as "a turning point" or "a critical time in our nation's history," but this one really does have that feel. Bush & Co. have so unraveled the painfully knit gains of the 20th century that another four years could put us into a hole it would take decades to get out of.
Still: Sick of it. Even the debates (the personal ones, not the television variety) aren't as spirited as in a normal election. Most of my Bush-supporting friends are either no longer Bush supporters or no longer friends, so there's no amusement there. Despite the high number of allegedly undecided voters, most people know at least which party they're going to back in November. Nobody inclining toward, say, Mike Huckabee today is going to switch to Hillary Clinton in November. Nobody's thinking, "Well, I'm just bummed Dennis Kucinich dropped out. Guess I'll back Romney."
So we're musing along those lines the other night at dinner, and some cynic who wasn't me said, "What's the difference? They're all the same."
Then, over the murmur of disapproval, he challenged, "OK, then give me a one-sentence description of each one. Say I'm voting for the first time, and I don't know what to do. Convince me."
Actually I think I can give a one-sentence description of every candidate, with the possible but not definite exception of John Edwards: Blind ambition. As has been said before, the mere fact that a candidate wants that job and is willing to do what it takes to get it should disqualify him. We could pick presidents the way you choose a bail bondsman, by running a finger down the listing in the Yellow Pages until something strikes your fancy (judging by the Republican primaries, a lot of people do pick that way).
I like the idea of the one-sentence descriptions, though. A friend of mine writes television scripts, and part of his process is to condense an idea into one sentence. It's easier to expand on a good thought, he says, than to cut a bloated concept down to size.
So, the major candidates:
  • Hillary Clinton: Smarter than anybody, probably including Bill.
  • Mitt Romney: Sort of creeps me out.
  • Barack Obama: Right place at the right time.
  • Mike Huckabee: Ought to be selling miracle cleaner on late-night TV.
  • John Edwards: Looks like he's working in his Politics merit badge.
  • John McCain: Had me until he sold out to the fundy Christians.
  • Rudy Giuliani: Really creeps me out, but his saving grace is that he's the most liberal serial adulterer in the campaign.
Feel free to make up your own; those are just off the top of my head.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Where is the FCC when we really need it?

The Federal Communications Commission, protector of the public morals and bane of intelligent broadcasting, has been in the news the last couple of years more than any regulatory body ought to be unless fire trucks are rolling up in front of the building.
It began, if memory serves (the service has been spotty lately), when the nation except for me was horrified by not seeing Janet Jackson's boob during the Super Bowl halftime show.
There are boobs I'd rather see than Jackson's, but . . . well, you know, one in the hand. If I'd been watching, I would have looked. I wasn't, because it was halftime and I was in the bathroom or something. But I did check the tape 15 or 20 times, and here's what I saw: No boob.
Somebody must have seen one, though, because the FCC initiated a huge crackdown, supposedly responding to public outcry to clean up the airwaves (personally, I was crying out, "Could you either zoom in on that thing or stop titillating us with it?").
As is so often the case with the Bush administration, though, there was a catch: Nearly all the "public" complaints, way over 90 percent, came from one group, the Parents Television Council. These self-appointed deciders of taste flooded the agency and the Congress with mail. The FCC at that time was headed by Michael Powell, son of Colin (Nepotism alert! Nepotism alert!), who--along with Congress--folded like a cheap chaise longue. The FCC dealt out record fines, including one of nearly half a million dollars to Clear Channel Communications for a Howard Stern comment I won't repeat here (it was gross, but half a million bucks?).
As a result of all this moralizing, now we get to watch movies wherein two thugs beat on each other awhile, bullets fly, blood flows and one snarls into the face of the other as his hands close around his throat, "This is for what you did to Monica, you rascal!"
And yet (at last! The point!) Charter Communications roams the Truckee Meadows unchecked.
I've written about Charter, your local cable company, before. In a previous life, I got letters at least weekly from people complaining about crappy service, bad reception and the absolute worst customer relations team ever put together.
I didn't live in a Charter area, and I wasn't sympathetic.
"If you're unhappy with the service," I told dozens of readers, "cancel it. If enough people do that, they'll come around."
Then Charter moved into my neighborhood, and now I have to apologize to all those people.
No point in going over the details, which will be familiar to most people anyway, but let me hit the highlights:
  • Charter came to my neighborhood, replacing another cable company I previously believed to be the worst ever. Faced with the choice of Charter or no television at all, I signed up.
  • The reception was excellent and the channel selection was five times as large as we'd had before. I rejoiced.
  • The screen went blank. I phoned the only Charter number I had, to report the trouble. Before I could get service, though, I had to enter my account number. I hadn't received a bill yet, so I had no way of knowing my account number. After nearly 20 minutes in the automated answering system, I gave up.
  • I went online and got "live help" from a person who sent me a string of canned responses that didn't bear on my problem. When I asked if there were a supervisor or other sentient being available, he typed that his supervisor would tell me the same thing he had and disconnected.
Eventually that problem got fixed (I got the number of a local Charter person from a friend who's done this dance before). But then:
  • I didn't get a bill.
  • I didn't get a second bill.
  • I didn't get a third bill.
After not getting the second one, I called Charter to ask why I was getting served for free. Again, I was asked for my account number, which I still didn't have because: No bill. I eventually did get hooked up to a person through the 24-hour full service hotline. She told me to call back during business hours.
When I did, they asked for my account number.
A couple of days ago I got a letter promising immediate termination of my service if I didn't pay my past due bill, $140.10. That at least gave me the account number, so I called and--it's a miracle!--talked to an actual human.
After some linguistic accommodation, we figured out that they'd been sending the bills to my street address, which has no mail service, rather than the post office box, and the post office had been returning them. I gave the correct address, and the woman assured me she'd made a note on the account so the service wouldn't be shut off. I mailed a check that afternoon, returning the tear-off stub and tossing the rest of the paperwork, containing my account number, into the trash.
Next morning the service was shut off.
I called to report it, and the first thing they asked for was my account number. By this time I'd learned some tricks, and I managed to get to a person after no more than seven or eight minutes.
"Without your account number," she said, "there is nothing I can do."

Monday, January 21, 2008

A puzzle for our age

Just a quick word here on something that's developed in my mail. Note that I don't necessarily endorse the sympathies expressed ; I'm just passing along comments:
  1. People in general, especially Democrats, are fed up with the way things are going. That's why they turned out in such numbers for the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
  2. Most of them say they want "change," whatever that means (mostly it means "No more Bush," but that's going to happen anyway).
  3. Of the leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton seems least likely to effect change. I wouldn't mind seeing her in the White House, but she's as firmly wired to the power structure as anybody in either party. Obama is somewhat better, but still associated with the problem as it's commonly perceived.
  4. Only John Edwards, of the "serious" candidates, seems likely to bring the change Democrats say they want (I know, I know: Kucinich. And I'd vote for him. But he isn't going to be president, not in this lifetime or any other).
So: Why did these change-seeking Dems go to the caucuses and give Clinton and Obama, the candidates of more-or-less-the-same-old-stuff, better than 90 percent approval between them? If you WANT change, don't you have to VOTE for change?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What happened to Edwards, and what's it mean?

"The biggest mystery in politics," I heard someone say in 2004, "is how George Bush gets people to vote for so many things that will hurt them."

I'm not going to slide off into a Bush bash here, but it's true: Time after time, the neo-GOP has convinced people to accept ideas and policies that clearly, on the basis of any analysis at all, will be bad for them. If you're wondering where the middle class has gone, check under that pile of misrepresentations and half-truths out behind the White House. I think it's buried there.

Challenging that mystery this morning, though, is how Nevada overlooked John Edwards so completely in the caucuses.

I'm fine with Barack Obama, and I can do all right with Hillary Clinton, though I predict the amount of actual change she'll bring will be measured in fractions of a millimeter. A small part of me would like to see her in office just because it would discomfit so many people I like to see discomfited, but it's possible that's not the best basis on which to pick a president. Obama might do more, at least at first, but he's nearly as wired into the system as the Clintons and eventually Reality is bound to set in.

Edwards seemed like an attractive alternative for those who can't tolerate the Republiclones and worry about John McCain (listen carefully when he speaks. The number of mispronunciations seems to be growing by the day). He's appealing in person, worries about the right things and has some non-standard ideas about solving the same old problems politicians have been promising to solve in the same old ways for decades.

And yet in the caucus, he pulled 4 percent of the vote.

What the hell is wrong with this state? I didn't expect anything from the Republicans (and got it, too. I mean, Mitt Romney? Do you people do any reading at all?). The notion that only four out of 100 non-Bush voters would swing to Edwards, though, is weird, scary and sad all at the same time. It means the packaging really is more important than the product (not that that's news, but I always hope), and that when it comes to seeking solutions for what they perceive, accurately or not, as our Big Problems, voters will still take the Easy Path. Don't tell us how we can fix things, just tell us how you'll fix them for us.

I could be reading too much into the results from a still-fairly-insignicant state, but here's what I think: 2008 is not a lock for the Democrats, and whatever changes, nothing much is going to change.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why you should hate Republicans, if you don't

As if the nation needed more evidence that Republicans, perhaps not top to bottom but certainly at some levels, are unprincipled, degenerate scum:
A neighbor of mine is a Democrat married to a Republican of the non-scum variety. This morning he went with her to a Republican caucus where she lined up for John McCain. She's not certain she'll vote with the party in November, but she retains hope that it will come to its senses and become the fiscally conservative, forward-thinking body she joined 30 years ago.

While the couple were there, they saw something they described to me at a Demo caucus around noon: A group of "about 100" gathered in the parking lot, got their instructions (part of which my friends overheard) and then went various Democratic caucuses.

This came up because we saw four of them at our neighborhood caucus. They showed up late, claiming to have seen the light and the truth, re-registered as Democrats, and all four lined up with the Obama camp. Obama came out on top by a comfortable margin in our caucus, as he did in three others I checked with just before I started writing this (official results aren't in yet).

"That's what the guy (apparently leading the Repub group) told them to do," my neighbor said in disgust. "They think they can beat Obama because he's black."
Let me interject here that it's possible these were true conversions, brought about by understandable disgust with the incumbent and his party.

But I don't believe it was. I happen to know one of the switch-hitters, and while that's a small sample, the fact that he still says "nigras" and used to call Hillary Clinton "the first dyke" makes it a convincing one.
Is this legal? I'm assured that it is. I'm sure that would be the Rat Bastard Defense: "There's nothing illegal about it. We're working within the system."
Is it a crappy, Bush-era, dishonorable, slime-eating, underhanded, cynical and altogether typically neo-conservative perversion of Democracy?
You tell me. The Rat Bastards.

Just three words: Go caucus now

I'm on my way in about three minutes to make another vain attempt to prove that Democracy works: I'm headed for my neighborhood caucus.
What's a caucus? I'm not entirely sure. I mean, I've read the description and I know what to do, but I'm pretty vague on why we're doing this instead of an honest primary election.
Dennis Myers, my new colleague at my new gig at the Reno News & Review (watch for it, pick it up free all over town, read it, write to the editor expressing appreciation) and the best political writer around, says it's at least partly because of money. Primary elections cost a lot to stage, while caucuses are fairly cheap.
If that seems to imply a reluctance to spend money to insure an accurate reflection of voters' preferences . . . well, there's hardly anybody in office in this state that I voted for, so look in the mirror.
Flawed as the system may be, though, it's the system we have. The alternative to going and being heard is to let the kind of morons who generally get zealous this early in the process be the only ones heard, and we've seen where that leads.
It's an hour out of one Saturday of your life. Go. Take the kids. Show them how it works. Or else just accept what happens to you and for the next four years, shut the hell up.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Are you sure Charlie Gibson started this way?

I didn't have to call 911 to get rescued from my television debut, but it was close.
That was me on the 6:30 news on KOLO TV, looking wooden next to anchor Brent Boynton. I'll be doing commentary there occasionally, and Thursday I got to go on Real TV while Brent introduced me and I rambled on about something or other.
Next time will be better. For one thing, I'll try to have a plan. For another, I'll try not to lock myself in the lobby when I leave.
Getting into a TV station these days is about as hard as getting into the White House used to be. You check in, wait, and eventually somebody comes and gets you. They lead you back through a maze of hallways, offices and closed doors, treat you nicely, let you say a few words to God knows how many people, and then they send you home with dramatically lowered self-esteem.
In my case, most of the self-esteem problem was self-inflicted. After I got done saying whatever it was I said (something about the caucus, the pronunciation of Nev-ADD-a and polarization, I think), four people asked me if I could find my way out.
"Sure," I said, and I did: With only one wrong turn, I got to the next-to-last door, through which I could see the last door, through which I could see my car.
Piece of cake. I opened the next-to-last door, stepped to the last door and give it a shove just as I heard the next-to-last door click shut behind me.
The last door didn't move.
I turned back. The next to last door didn't move. I had locked myself in to the lobby, a tiny cubicle furnished with a couple of chairs and a copy of last month's Martha Stewart Living magazine.
In moments like this, I ask myself, "What would McGyver do?" Easy: He'd scrape the coating off the slick magazine pages, mix it with some kind of acid (as it happens, I was carrying a pretty good supply in my bladder), pack it around the door, let it dry, then blow the hinges off.
I actually thought of that, but I'm not sure magazines are still coated with the same stuff they were when the Army taught me to do it, and in this weather it wouldn't dry before I froze. Unfortunately that was both Plan A and Plan B, and I had no C. I tried the doors again. Still locked. I beat on the inner one, but everybody in the building at night is in the back, and busy during the news. The receptionist who watches for idiots goes home at 6.
After an embarrassingly long time, it finally occurred to me that I had a cell phone in my pocket. But the only KOLO number I could remember was Boynton's personal line, and he was on the air. Probably not a good idea to use that.
Call home? "Honey, I'm locked in the lobby at the station--could you bring that big crowbar from the garage?" Not just yet.
911? That would get me out, but I know some cops and firefighters, plus there's a scanner in every newsroom in the Truckee Meadows. Locking myself in at my new gig might even get me into the Gazette-Journal one more time, but not in a context I'd welcome.
Finally, from I don't know where, a number popped into my mind. I punched it up, not certain what it was, and Tad Dunbar's voice (recorded, I assume; I have no evidence they're holding him in the basement) welcomed me to KOLO. When he said to press 1 for the Newsroom Hotline I did, and when a woman answered.
My mind went blank. Finally I blurted, "This is Cory Farley. I've locked myself in the lobby and somebody needs to come let me out." i would have been a little suaver if I'd been able to think of a way, but I couldn't. I still can't.
In due course someone showed up and let me out, then led me down a hall I'd missed to a side door and freedom. My television debut was over, and I'm looking at the bright side: As long as I check my zipper, everything from now on is bound to be less embarrassing than this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Almost an embarrassment of riches

The old election-year line, "Just hold your nose and vote," isn't going to get much of a workout this fall if you're a Democrat.
I was going to say, "Sorry about you, Repubs," but I forgot that your senses of smell atrophied in 2003. How else to explain the election of '04 . . . well, yes, the Diebold machines, but other than that?
What brings this to mind is seeing two of the three main presidential candidates in person, and talking at some length with a representative of the third.
I've been of four minds over the coming election. In a perfect world, I'd like to send Dennis Kucinich in the White House just to see what would happen. He reminds me of Jerry Brown when he was governor of California in the '70s: He's right about a lot of stuff, but it's going to take another 30 years before most people realize it.
Since he's a no-hoper, I've been a reluctant Clinton man--reluctant because I really liked Bill at first, but he turned into such a Republican in his last term that he left a lot of things undone. But there doesn't seem to be much difference between Hillary and Barack Obama, and I think the election of a modestly liberal woman, especially a Clinton, would make a lot of people I don't like unhappier than the election of a moderately liberal Black.
I don't know what it says about the state of the nation that I'm choosing my presidential candidate based on which one will most piss off people I don't like, but there it is.
It's moot now, though, because I have a new favorite.
On Saturday, I spoke to a meeting of the Douglas County Democrats. It went fine; they bought me dinner and nobody threw anything.
On the podium after me was David Bonior, who's working for John Edwards. Bonior is often described as "the former renegade congressman," which generally means that when others are saying, "Right, sir! Good decision!" he's asking, "Are we sure this is a good idea?"
I talked with Bonior after the meeting, and he said, more or less, the following:
  • Washington is truly screwed up, even more than is obvious. "Broken" doesn't begin to describe it.
  • The country is run by Big Business, notably Big Oil, Big Drug and Big Insurance.
  • It probably isn't going to change under Barack Obama, and it sure as hell isn't going to change under Hillary Clinton.
OK, he's pimping for his boss. But then Wednesday I went to the Grand Sierra to a "town meeting" with John Edwards, and he's my new man.
Note, please, that I spent more than 30 years as a journalist listening to politicians, public relations people and other liars. My cynicism is deep and wide; I automatically dismiss about 90 percent of what they say, and examine the rest for weasel opportunities. I don't even like the elected officials I like.
But--I say this hesitantly--Edwards may be less phony than the rest. He has ideas, which can be dangerous but in his case isn't. Some of them aren't necessarily good ideas (I don't see how we can ban nuclear power and new coal-fired plants while simultaneously reducing greenhouse emissions and our dependence on foreign oil), but at least they indicate he understands that there are problems. That would be a new message from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: Everything isn't perfect just because Big Oil is making billions. And wait until you hear him on education and health care.
Look, I'm not saying vote for him. I'm saying don't disregard him automatically. It isn't his fault he's a rich, good-looking white guy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Walking among the smart people

When I was asked, months ago, to speak to Douglas County Democrats, I put a condition on my acceptance. It's an hour from home, and it would be January, so you wouldn't be able to count on the weather.
"I can do it if they're both there," I said. "But I'm not going all the way to Gardnerville for one of them."
My concern was experience-based: One of the first stories I did as a Nevada journalist, back in Ought-70something, involved person-on-the-street interviews in Douglas County. I'd just moved from Santa Monica, aka The People's Republic, where I was considered a right-leaning, suspiciously pro-business reporter with a modest flair for colorful expression. As countless newcomers have said since, I didn't know I was a liberal until I came to Nevada.
In any case, my introduction to Douglas County came when I interrupted a couple having breakfast and got a 15-minute lesson on the problems with America. One of them was the communist media hounding Richard Nixon for a perfectly innocent burglary (he would resign, one step ahead of impeachment, a few months later), and another one was me, for being part of the conspiracy to tear down America.
That impression has stuck with me for three decades, and that's more or less what I expected when I headed for Gardnerville Saturday night: Six or eight ex-hippies, not that there's anything wrong with those, gathered around a table in the back of a restaurant plotting the overthrow of George W. Bush, not that there's anything wrong with that.
The six or eight turned out to be maybe 250, and the table in the back of the restaurant turned out to be the main meeting room at the Carson Valley Inn, home of what I believe to be the best prime rib in northern Nevada, at least in the banquet division.
The overthrow of George W. Bush remains the goal. Which was a refreshing change from the company I've been keeping lately.
There were no political candidates in attendance (Hillary Clinton was in town the day before, Bill Clinton the day after, and John Edwards is due in Reno this week), but the major ones sent representatives. Former Michigan Congressman David Bonior, speaking on behalf of John Edwards, convinced me that Edwards is the best person for the job, and Army Major General (Ret.) Paul Eaton, talking for Sen. Clinton, convinced me she is, too. I walked into the place undecided and left the same way; I'll caucus for Edwards but vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination, not because of affiliation but because, just coincidentally I'm sure, the Republicans still don't have a sniff of what' s wrong.
But here's what struck me most strongly: Over the last 15 or 18 years, I've dealt mostly with people who are differently opinioned than I am. It's just the nature of commentary: People who disagree are more likely to complain than people who agree are to praise. And people who disagree are almost always dumber than I am.
Hold it. I know how that sounds, but consider: Whatever opinions you hold, you've presumably reached after careful consideration of the facts. If you didn't think those beliefs were right, you'd have different ones. So if people have looked at the same facts I have and reached wildly different conclusions, how smart can they be?
In this convocation of Douglas County Democrats, though, I was face to face with 250 deep thinkers who stand with me on the major problems of the day. I mean, maybe they like Bill Richardson and I like Edwards, or they want public transportation to be mandatory while I just want it to be convenient and cheap, but we can get together on that. When I have the same conversations with Republicans, I may want government to enforce health-based limits on industrial pollution and they trust industry to comply voluntarily with rules it writes for itself: Not much room for compromise there.
Also, compared to the normal run of my public discussions: better vocabularies, fewer knee-jerk opinions, lots more consideration of facts before reaching conclusions, and not a single misspelled word on the program or any of the literature. Damn, it's nice to be around smart people.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Didn't we learn ANYTHING in 2000?

In a journalism career that spanned parts of four decades, I had plenty of opportunities for embarrassment, and took advantage of many of them.
Nearly every blush, to be honest, was self-inflicted. I cringe now when I read some of the stuff I wrote Back Then, though for the record I'm still pretty proud of my forecast in 1988 that George Bush The First would be a reviled one-termer.
The No. 1 grovel-inducer of my professional life, though, as well as the second-place finisher, both were committed by big-J Journalism as an entity, and I think it's about to step on its crank again.
Just to get them out of the way:
No. 1, hands down, was the way the national media kowtowed to Bush II after the World Trade Center attacks. For a couple of years, the administration got no criticism. Subvert the Constitution, invade the wrong country, lose track of its primary target and then declare that Osama bin Missing wasn't so important after all--the "liberal" national media bought it all, faithfully passed along the party line and covered up more holes than a barrel of Spackle. Things got so bad that when journalists finally started doing their jobs again, a lot of people cited it as evidence of a liberal media conspiracy. Even now, some portray dissent as a form of treason.
No. 2 was the coverage of the 2000 presidential election, the early prediction of victory for Al Gore (who did, lest we forget, actually win), then the cack-handed failure to explain the mechanism of the forecast. There was a national epidemic of self-flagellation, mass donning of hair shirts and a blizzard of solemn vowing: We've learned our lesson, the media swore. We'll never do that again.
Yet here we are in 2008, and those same media have it figured out: It's over for Hillary Clinton and John McCain; Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee will fight it out for the White House. . . .
Oh, no, wait: That was last week. This week it's over for Obama and Huckabee; clearly, the battle will be between Clinton (whose one-loss campaign supposedly was "resurrected" by its current one-straight win streak) and McCain. And next week . . . who knows? But it will change again, and the experts will realign.
To be honest, I'm trying not to pay much attention to this yet. I know I'm going to vote for the Democrat no matter who it is because they're all palatable and all the Republicans are nuts except Romney the Robot, who's likely to get a boost in Michigan but then figures to sink slowly, slowly in the West. I mean, Mike Huckabee?
The fluttering fancies of the media, though, ought to disturb us all. Judgment, patience and reason seem to have gone the way of grammar, vocabulary and syntax: When they crop up here and there, you're never sure if it happened on purpose or if there were just enough monkeys banging on enough keyboards to get it right.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

If only there were another way...

Four hours shoveling snow this weekend, three of them Saturday and one Sunday, thanks to a long driveway I share with two neighbors who have four-wheel-drive trucks. If they don't go somewhere right after a snowfall and pack things down, we can't get the Mazdas out to the street.
Sometimes if they do go somewhere, we can't get out. The ground clearance on a Protege5 is pretty minimal; if there's more than about five inches of snow, it piles up ahead of the spoiler and the car g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n. Then I can either wait for the neighbors or shovel the snow out of the way, back up, get a running start and hit it again, repeating as necessary.
Climber measure their ascents in "pitches," the number of times they have to move the rope to reach a summit. My record in the driveway, in the Great Snow of 2004, is 10 pitches--10 times barreling along until forward motion stops, then getting out and shoveling.
Saturday was a five- or six-pitch day. I would have been out in two hours, but while I was clearing the last five feet, a snowplow came by and put up a two-foot berm.
"I can blast through that," I thought, but I couldn't. I high-centered the Mazda, lifting the front wheels off the ground on a ramp of snow. That meant hiking back to the house for a real shovel, a digging implement, because my cheesy snow shovel wasn't long enough to reach under the car or stout enough to dislodge the icy wedge. There was a reason I left Santa Monica, but in January I can't always remember what it was.
When I finally got the car out, I drove down the street and passed a neighbor, a livid and pudgy middle-aged guy with whom I've disagreed on nearly every major issue that's come up in the 20-plus years we've lived near each other. His driveway is paved and about 50 feet long, compared to my 100 yards of dirt, but it's never felt the blade of a manually operated tool. He clears it (at the slightest provocation) with a snow blower that probably cost more than my kids' cars.
I stopped to talk with another neighbor, and she offered coffee, and soon we were sitting inside watching through a window as the first guy struggled with his blower.
If I'd been working with my shovel, I think I could have cleared his driveway in 15 minutes. The snow was powdery, and the surface is paved and smooth, so you would pretty much just walk along behind the shovel and give it an occasional toss to clear the way.
It took Pudge 15 minutes just to get the blower started. The battery apparently was dead, and after he pulled the cord 60 or 70 times, it occurred to him to check the gas. Whatever he found inspired him to go get a can from the garage and top it off, and 15 or 20 pulls after that, the thing popped and banged and sputtered to life.
He cleared a strip a couple of feet wide and as long as the driveway at about half the speed I could have managed manually. When I stood up to go, 10 minutes later, the air on his end of the block was blue with smoke. He'd wrestled the unwieldy blower through about a third of the job, covered his front porch with hoar and nearly hidden his back gate under a coat of half-melted snow that was already freezing into an icy armor over the latch.
"How's that thing working?" I asked as I headed for my car.
"Slow," he said.
"Well, keep after it," I exhorted.
"Aah, it's a pain in the ass," he snorted. "I'm supposed to be at the gym in 10 minutes."

Saturday, January 05, 2008

What if Judge Green had never lived?

Full disclosure: The telephone company paid for nearly everything I ever ate, wore or owned for the first 20 years of my life. My dad put in 40 years with Pacific Tel, and my first real job was with The Phone Company back when there was only one. Counting three years in the Army, for which I got credit, I did more than a decade as a Phone Man.
People loved to hate The Phone Company in those days, in much the way they hate Microsoft today. I'll tell you what, though: Stuff worked. Phones lasted a lifetime. If something went wrong, which it hardly ever did, they'd come fix it free. When you needed a booth (this was long before cell phones), the things were ubiquitous, clean and operational. Sort of like Starbucks, come to think of it, only cheaper.
That didn't happen by accident. Platoons of people were employed to check, clean, test and repair coin phones. My dad supervised them on a regional level for awhile, and he took a personal interest. More times than I can count, I saw him phone his office, give the location of a booth he'd spotted that didn't meet standards and direct that somebody get to it today. And somebody did.
Then came Judge Harold Green, the jurist who broke up AT&T. Judge Green's decision ended a perceived monopoly, opened the telephone industry to competition, broke down the last thing in America that worked and led, eventually, to my doing without a phone until Tuesday.
"Moisture in the wires," surmised the telephone person to whom I reported No Dial Tone on Saturday morning. That would have been my guess, too: The wires bake in the hot sun all summer, the wind blows, the insulation cracks, it rains. Like magic, you have a ground in the circuit. No calls can go in or out.
Might this be something a phone company could anticipate and perhaps prevent? Well, yes. As is so often the case now that government isn't watching out for consumers, though, I suspect profit takes precedence over service.
High-quality equipment costs money, and preventive maintenance costs more. Over the short haul, roughly the career span of the people making decisions, it's often cheaper for a business to go lowest bidder and hope than to do the job well. By the time things start to go wrong, you'll be safely retired, or at least bumped up the ladder of blame. You see it everywhere.
In the old days of which I speak, there probably would have been a repairman in my neighborhood right now, climbing poles to track down the problem while it's still a problem. Post-Judge Green, though (and post- a lot of other stuff; it isn't all his fault), I'm told I can expect a service call maybe Tuesday, by which time I figure there's a 50-50 chance the wires will have dried out, the phone will be working and the leak will be impossible to find until the next time we have a storm, when the phone company will be busy and won't be able to get a guy out until Tuesday.
There's nothing wrong with a nice, efficient monopoly, you know, as long as somebody's authorized to crack the whip.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Why do we care what happens in Iowa?

That headline, which you headline-skippers should go back and read, is a dead serious question. I've been wrestling with it for years:
Here in the land of democracy, where the soul of our government is wise choices made by an informed electorate, why does anybody care what happens in the Iowa caucuses?
As I write this, the very early returns are beginning to come in. On the Republican side, the phony from Arkansas seems to be pulling out a surprise lead over the animatronic candidatoid creation from Massachusetts. That's good news on at least one level, and perhaps two:
  • Mitt Romney annoys me in much the same way Ronald Reagan did. He's just so obviously bogus it shakes my faith in human nature that people can't see through him.
  • Mike Huckabee is maybe too crazy to go very far. He'll probably do well in South Carolina, but so did George Wallace. Then it's bye-bye, Mike.
Maybe. I can believe it, sort of, if I don't think too hard about those polls showing that 25 percent of Americans expect Christ to return and carry them to heaven this year, or that about the same number think George W. Bush is doing a bang-up job.
On the Democratic side, where at least none of the candidates is openly loony, Barack Obama holds a slight lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards at this point (remember, it's very early). That choice is hard for me: I think I like Edwards, but the election of either a woman, especially a Clinton woman, or an American of African heritage would really piss off the kind of people I like to see pissed off as often as possible.
What still mystifies me, though, as I think I said up there before I got sidetracked, is why anybody outside of Iowa cares. A couple of hundred thousand people from a place normally dismissed as a "flyover state" or "one of those dreadful places that begins with a vowel" will shuffle around in somebody's den or the Grange Hall or somewhere this evening, and tomorrow morning the news will be full of portentous headlines about what their opinion means to the nation. The whim of a fraction of a percentage point of our eligible voters can shape, if not decide, the fate of the nation. How'd we get here?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

It's not too late for Mrs. Farley's cow pea soup

As everyone with roots south of Atlanta (not me, but my mother) realizes, the only way to be sure of a healthy and prosperous new year is to eat black-eyed peas on Jan. 1.
Black-eyes are a common legume in the south, but you don't see them much in Nevada. A few restaurants with country or southern pretensions serve them, but otherwise you're pretty much out of luck.
My mom was born in Florida, and while 20 years in California had buffed off her accent by the time I came along, she'd kept a few expressions and idioms from her homeland. Where in a moment of frustration I might blurt, "@#$%*!), for instance, she'd say, "Land sakes" or, "Well, I never!" I sort of get "I never," but I've been puzzling over the meaning of "Land sakes" for more than 40 years.
And she called black-eyed peas "cow peas," at least until my brother and I got old enough to laugh at "cow pea soup."
January 1 was also my father's birthday, and to the extent that Californians have traditions, his bowl game/birthday brunch was one of them. A pot of cow pea soup--dad's old bean pot, now that I think of it--is simmering on my stove right now, and the corn bread will go into the oven in a few minutes, thus guaranteeing us good luck all year.
I meant to mention this a couple of days ago to give people time to shop, but you only need a few ingredients, most of which you probably already have, and a pound of black-eyes is about a buck-fifty in any grocery store. There's still time.
Don't omit the cornbread; it's an important part of the meal. Use any recipe you like (I follow the one on the Alber's corn meal box), but there's one important rule: Preheat the oven with a cast iron skillet inside. When the batter is ready, drop a dollop of shortening or butter into the hot pan (handle it with a pot holder, or you'll get a new appreciation of the word "sizzle"), give it a quick swirl to coat the bottom, then pour the batter into the pan and quickly close the oven door. That's how real cooks get that crusty finish on their corn bread.
Black-eyes are traditionally eaten in a recipe called Hoppin' John, of which there are about a zillion versions online. They cook more quickly than most dried beans, so pre-soaking isn't really necessary no matter what the package says. Just plan to add a extra half-hour or so to the cooking time (that's true of all beans, by the way--I cook them a lot, and sometimes I soak overnight and sometimes I don't. I can't tell a difference in the finished product).
In addition to the black-eyed peas, you'll need some kind of porky meat (ham hock, ham, bacon, salt pork, kielbasa, whatever), an onion, half a red or green bell pepper if you like those, a clove or two of garlic and the usual seasonings. Don't get hung up on specifics or amounts; one of the good things about beans is that they provide a flexible palette for the imagination.
Finally, a pound of beans is a lot; for two people I often just cook up a cup or so, reducing other ingredients accordingly.

Put the beans, a bay leaf if you have one and enough water to cover them by an inch into a pot, bring them to a boil, then turn down and let them simmer until they're almost tender. This can take from an hour or so to two hours or more, depending on several factors we don't have room to cover here.
NOTE: If you're using a ham hock, put that into the pot, too. If you're using one of the other meats, don't add it yet.
While the beans simmer, dice the onion, pepper, garlic and a stalk or two of celery (including leaves) if you want. Cut up the bacon or ham and fry it in another pan for a few minutes, drain off excess grease, then add the cut-up vegetables to the same pan and saute them until the onion is golden. Remove from heat and set aside.
When the beans are half an hour from done (just guess; it's not critical), add the other ingredients, some cumin and thyme and one cup of white rice (per pound of peas--reduce if you're cooking less). Return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the rice is done, 25 minutes or so.
If the pot looks too watery, keep the lid off during this phase so some can evaporate. If it's too dry, add just enough water to cover, but keep an eye on it--the rice will soak up liquid as it cooks, increasing the chance of burning.
Serve with corn bread, minced green onion and Tabasco sauce. And remember you owe whatever success you achieve in 2008 to cow peas.