Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Adding a dirty word to some vocabularies

By Dick Hirsch

I wish I could remember with any certainty when I first heard and understood the word compromise. It could well have been at the schoolyard where baseball was played each day until dusk all during the summer.The bases were moveable objects and the foul lines were unseen but understood. There were no umpires. The players had to apply the rules of the schoolyard to settle any disputes.

Nobody was there to call balls and strikes so there were just three primary areas of dispute: Did the batter swing or didn’t he? Was the ball fair or foul? Was the player out or safe? Although those issues may seem simple when reduced to words on paper, they were difficult to resolve in the schoolyard. Arguments frequently ensued since there were no video replays. The participants had to rely on their own powers of observation and advocacy.

You may remember how it goes: depending on your point of view you are likely to see things differently. It didn’t happen on every play, but in such instances the players could either stand around shouting and bickering or they could negotiate a settlement that was satisfactory to both sides.

Most of them probably couldn’t even spell negotiate or compromise but they instinctively understood the game would come to a standstill unless they could find an agreeable middle ground. So they did and the game continued.

They reached a compromise. Life is filled with compromises. I do it all the time on matters large and small, mostly small. If you give the issue a little thought I’m sure you could make a list of the compromises you made last week. The process is central in our lives. Bargaining resulting in compromise takes place in every human endeavor and long ago it was legitimized, right? Wrong.

Many political officials, who in their early careers in public life must have embraced compromise, now reject it. They would rather fight than seek an acceptable alternative. Consider the famous interview that House Speaker John Boehner gave to Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” soon after Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives. Boehner said the Republicans were ready to govern and the interviewer said “Governing means compromising.”

“It means working together,” he replied.

“It also means compromising,” the Stahl said.

“It means finding common ground,” Boehner answered.

As the interview continued, she persisted, suggesting that Boehner was unwilling to use the term “compromise.”

“I reject the word,” he finally admitted.

So it goes. These are elected men and women who shun compromise. It is maddening to see the governing game brought to a standstill by those who know better, especially in Washington, where the hazards of a divided government are now apparent. Some of the players must be tempted to take the kind of action that occasionally transpired in the schoolyard: take their bats and gloves and go home. In the Congress and the White House compromise has become a dirty word.

Consider the dominant role that compromise plays in business. It is primary in the collective bargaining process, essential in labor-management relations. Each side understands that to achieve a workable agreement they will have to surrender certain demands. 

Even more critical in many businesses are the intramural relations between those in different departments who are single-minded: the sales people sell and the operations people produce. They do their jobs without regard to the big picture, a common scenario. Chaos can result when they approach their work without considering the consequences. The most typical example is the effort where the sales manager is so determined to increase volume that he encourages his staff to when necessary cut prices or make delivery promises that the production department is unable to achieve. Success requires compromise.
As I am sure you must realize, the editorial policy of this newspaper prohibits the use of the standard dirty words, the common ones with the Anglo-Saxon heritage, the ones everyone knows by the time they are in fourth grade. It is still possible to use “compromise,” even though, without fanfare, it has apparently been added to the dirty word glossary of elected officials at every level of government.

We are currently seeing proof that effective governing is impossible without compromise. As Edmund Burke said in a famous speech before the British Parliament in 1775: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act is founded on compromise.” Does that still apply in the 21st century?


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can you hear me now?

By Dick Hirsch
Most people would rather be talking than listening. Can we agree on that? I hope so because the statistics for years have shown that people are captivated by the sound of their own voices and while they take advantage of every speaking opportunity they generally don’t enjoy listening.

The result is that often most of what is being said in any meeting, forum or personal conversation isn’t heard. The International Listening Association, which has hopes of someday remedying that situation, claims to have found some dispiriting data, data that should dismay both talkers and listeners. They say that most people retain only half of what was said immediately after they hear it. With the passage of time the situation worsens; they only remember 20 percent of what they heard.

That is discouraging because of the quantity of spoken rhetoric that is available today. It comes at us from every direction, but we are not dealing here with 24/7 cable talk or any of the electronic media. We are talking about person to person engagement, real people having real conversations.

I make no special claims for unusual ability as either a talker or a listener. However, a recent interlude in my personal life brought the question of listening to center stage. I encountered a person with whom I am familiar at a social event. We greeted and exchanged pleasantries in the usual manner. Then the person asked me a question regarding a matter of general interest.

As you will understand, I spend much of my time asking questions. Yes, and since it is a necessary skill, I listen to the answers. The responses often become material for this column and other projects involving the written word. I’ve always been frank to admit that I am far better at asking questions than answering them, but it is always flattering to be asked. So I replied. It wasn’t a long reply because brevity is always a consideration.

As I spoke I noticed the eyes of the questioner began to refocus, peering beyond my face, scanning the activity in the background. I realized I was talking to a wall.

I’m sure you must have experienced that type of situation in your own life. It happens everywhere people gather and conversations take place, the office, the club, the coffee shop, or the territory where a potential seller intersects with a potential buyer. Most people think that being talkative is the essential characteristic of every successful sales person, no matter what product is being sold. However, sales training specialists insist that it isn’t the verbose person who usually gets the order. Rather, it is the competitor who is the patient listener, the person who is likely to later remember and understand the customer’s needs.

My early experience came when I was working as a door-to-door salesman during a summer vacation from college. The district manager advised me simply: “Look them in the eye and ask them questions related to the problems that can be solved by using our products. Then pay attention to the answers.” His concept was that the potential customer would be more likely to become a buyer if you seemed to be interested in his or her needs.
We all base our attitudes on past experience and role models. Many people don’t realize it, but role models come in two versions, positive and negative. If you develop a positive role model then you attempt to emulate that approach; if it is a negative role model, you do the exact opposite. Years later when I spent some time as a salesman, I was fortunate enough to recognize the boss as a negative role model. He was very effusive; the general view of him was that he talked himself out of many orders.

Listening isn’t simple. It is an indispensable ability for every journalist and I am still striving to improve that skill. As a young reporter I often became inattentive and impatient; stories couldn’t be recounted as quickly as I would have preferred. I soon learned that there are times that require speed and other times that require a more unhurried pace. Just a few weeks ago I had finished an interview and closed my notebook when the subject, as an afterthought, made a casual comment which really resonated and changed my approach.

This column gives no advice but my feeling is that listening is an art that deserves equality with talking. Can you hear me now?


Saturday, February 02, 2013

The breakfast roundtable

By Dick Hirsch
This was at a breakfast meeting of the committee, held in a private alcove at a suburban chain restaurant well-known for its breakfast offerings. There are nine persons at the rectangular table, all upscale professionals. As we join the group the discussion has been temporarily halted to enable the waitress to take the orders. She is well-organized, proceeding down one side and up the other to facilitate the later service.

Attendee number one, seated near the entry door, orders the Spanish omelet with French fries and coffee. That evolved as a trend-setting decision. It was promptly duplicated by attendee number two, seated to his immediate right. As we will later observe, attendee number eight, seated across the table, thought that would be an appropriate way to start the day. He didn’t speak for fear of confusing the waitress, but when his turn came, he placed the same order.

Omelets prepared there tend to be large. They are made with three eggs, plus whatever other additions the diner might which to add. When they are delivered, steaming and swollen with broccoli, peppers or mushrooms, they are very imposing. Of all the omelets, the ones with cheese are probably most popular, available with cheddar, swiss or feta.
Attendees number five and seven ordered the cheese.

That left two orders of two fried eggs, sunny side up---attendees three and nine---and one order of two scrambled for number four. We have skipped over number six who had made a significant departure from the norm. He ordered an egg white omelet.

Obviously he wanted nothing to do with the yolk of a normal large chicken egg each of which contains 186 milligrams of cholesterol. He was asserting his position as a consumer who is a member of the group that has read the various stories published over the decades that high cholesterol might contribute to clogged arteries and the possibility of coronary disease.

The other eight were expressing a degree of independence. They were surely well aware of the various anti-egg warnings, but they apparently sided with the nutritionists and other medical professionals who insist eggs are a healthy food that has gotten an undeserved bad reputation.
That difference of opinion has been publicized for years, with various scientists choosing sides and debating the risks versus the benefits of the egg. Those who disparage the egg stress the evidence that links high cholesterol levels with heart disease. They advise complete abstention, or at least moderation. The scientific director of a recently announced study in Canada claimed that an extra large egg contains 237 milligrams of cholesterol, more than a burger with three slices of  cheese and four strips of bacon. 

Meanwhile, the American Egg Board, the industry group that has been leading a valiant defense for years, says its research has shown that eggs can be included in a healthy diet without increasing the risk of heart disease.

“Eggs can be part of healthy diet for healthy people,” is the familiar refrain of omelet eaters.

That is obviously the contention of those at that breakfast meeting. I have attended many meetings with that group and always been intrigued with their choices. I don’t usually pay close attention to what others are ordering, but their loyalty to the embattled egg seemed notable.

As an advocate of full disclosure, I have an admission that must be made: I was attendee number six, the contrarian, the person who ordered the egg white omelet. I have ordered many egg white omelets over the years and have never enjoyed one of them. There are many terms suitable for use in describing them, starting with bland, pallid and insipid. Yet they are  available on many menus and are being ordered by those who believe the egg white omelet will enhance their health and lengthen their lives. I was guilty of adopting that approach.

But I changed on that particular day, changed as I looked at all my colleagues, delighted with their servings of eggs, while I was dousing my egg white omelet with ketchup in the vain hope of infusing it with some flavor. It was a hopeless effort and it motivated me to change. I have quit the group that abstains and joined the other team. No, I won’t be aggressive, with a daily ration. Moderation will be my strategy. Have you ever considered how attractive it is to have a pair of poached eggs staring up at you from a bed of rye bread? 

Monday, December 24, 2012

A victim of the guitar

By Dick Hirsch

Henry Chimes is in his mid-80s now, happy and content with his life, but his opinion of guitar players has never mellowed. He is a musician, but he has never had much tolerance for guitar players.

“Players isn’t the right word when talking about most people who use the guitar,” Chimes stresses. “They aren’t players, they are just strummers."

He makes no attempt to conceal his sour feelings about the instrument that has soared in popularity for decades, while his own instrument is considered an oddity, a relic.

Chimes plays the accordion. He still has some solo gigs around the holidays as well as some appearances with his band. He fondly remembers the days when his music store on Walden Avenue maintained a complete inventory of accordions in various sizes and price ranges.

Buffalo was a big accordion center, mostly attributable to two large ethnic blocs for whom the instrument was a part of their heritage. That would be the Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. It was the same in places like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, all places where the accordion was the instrument of choice for people young and old. Parents bought accordions for their children and, along with the instrument came a series of lessons. Christmas was the busiest time.

Henry Chimes sold hundreds of accordions and gave thousands of those lessons. Some children caught on and became celebrities around their schools while others tried but never could master the fingering of the instrument and the squeezing of the bellows. Playing the accordion among teenagers was an admirable pastime. Most of the players were boys and they soon discovered the instrument attracted the attention of girls, a notable benefit.

But trends are just trends and the only constant is change. Somehow the accordion plummeted from its lofty status. It succumbed to the guitar, which required little or no training to engage in a bit of social strumming. The accordion virtually disappeared from view and any mention of the instrument associated it with people generally looked upon as dorks, dweebs or nerds.

However, today I can report what may indicate a modest revival of interest in the accordion, based upon the experience of our daughter, Betsy, a pianist and composer working in New York for Steinway & Sons, the legendary piano manufacturer. Piano is her primary instrument but she dabbles with a number of others, including the guitar, the mandolin and the accordion. She became the owner of an accordion years ago at about the age of 10 when our neighbor, Murray, a dentist, was relieved to get rid of his. He had done some extensive dental work for the owner of a music store near his dental office. Alas, when the work was completed the patient admitted he didn’t have enough cash to pay the bill but would pay part in cash and part with an accordion plus lessons.

Murray agreed, somewhat ruefully. What else could he do? The dentures were already in place. After a few lessons he realized he had no future as an accordionist and had the idea of presenting it to Betsy, who was taking piano lessons. He took the accordion to our house one evening, along with instruction manuals.

The rest is a part of family history. Murray showed her how to strap it on; she played a couple of scales and suddenly she was serenading us with a few tunes she had memorized for the piano. Everyone was pleased,  especially Murray and Betsy. That was the beginning of her dalliance with the accordion. She played it for fun occasionally but mostly it was kept under her bed, first in Buffalo and then in New York. A few months ago one of her musician friends, a bass player, mentioned a group of Broadway musicians that needed a temporary replacement for their accordion player. Betsy volunteered. She tuned up, auditioned and was hired. After one performance she became an enthusiastic regular. She has detected a groundswell of interest in Manhattan clubs.

“Everything sounds good on the accordion,” she said.

That is an opinion she shares with ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson, the author of a new book about the accordion, published by the University of Illinois Press. The book, “Squeeze This!” A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, traces the history of the instrument from its invention in Italy in the 1820s through its spectacular popularity to its astonishing fall, swamped by rock ‘n’ roll and the guitar. If you are an accordion fan anticipating its full recovery, remember that patience is still a virtue.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

The return of the front porch

By Dick Hirsch

For years the front porch was virtually absent from contemporary home design, supplanted by the patio or the deck which were located far from public scrutiny in the seclusion provided by the backyard.

But I sense things are changing. I drove down our old street a few days ago and found that front porches of various configurations and sizes had blossomed on a number of homes. When we left about 20 years ago there was not a single front porch. Each home did have a concrete stoop with a wrought iron railing and three steps leading to the front door. Although sometimes children might sit there for a brief interlude, the stoop was merely an entry point, a passage leading from ground level to the house. The stoop never contributed any style to the appearance of the building. A front porch, however, creates additional living space and provides more opportunities for observation and socialization.

The front porch began to fade from construction plans during the suburban building boom of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. It is difficult to cite a specific reason; there were many contributing factors. Budget constraints would surely be one; it cost more to frame and a build porch than to have a stoop.

A more compelling reason may have been the desire for privacy. The new homeowners focused their attention on the backyard instead of the front. Relaxing moments were spent there. Homeowners might at first place chairs on the lawn and later decide to add a patio or deck, with direct access from the house. Thus was created a back porch, a place removed from the mainstream, where one could be undisturbed.

While the front porch encouraged casual contact among neighbors and passing strollers, the back patios or decks, being out of sight, emphasized isolation. The front porch seemed to provide an open invitation to passersby from those sitting there to exchange a few words and perhaps be invited to stop and take a seat on the porch. It was a seasonal living room, an especially welcoming place during hot, humid weather. Another factor contributing to the demise of the front porch may have been the availability of home air-conditioning.

I haven’t had much experience with front porches and maybe that is why I’ve always been intrigued by them. When I was very young my grandmother lived in an upper flat on a block long street on the west side and one of the attractions of a visit there was a chance to sit on her second floor front porch and look down on the passing scene. In addition to that, until recently I had just two specific memories of porches I sat upon. One is at the Hotel Lenhart in Bemus Point on Lake Chautauqua, where the rocking chairs on the big porch are all painted in bright primary colors. The other is in New Jersey where my college roommate lived in an historic home with one of those great wraparound front porches, the kind that encompass the entire front of the building as well as most of one side. When I visited he was well equipped with rockers and, as old grads we rocked, had a cold drink and reminisced.

I added a new chapter to my front porch experiences a few weeks ago, sitting with my wife, Lynn, on what may be the longest, most famous, front porch in the US. It is at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I had seen pictures in brochures but no photograph can portray the scope and the panache of that porch, looking down upon a lush expanse of lawn and gardens.

I paced from one end to the other. I measured it at 660 feet, but even if that estimate was a little generous, the porch is easily the length of two football fields. I did not count the chairs, mostly rockers, but there are plenty. We spent most of the time sightseeing on the small island, but reserved two interludes for just sitting, chatting and rocking. I realize that fitness advocates stress that it is advisable to keep moving, that the sedentary life is frowned upon. But, hey, a little time spent on that front porch---or any front porch---can provide some restorative benefits. Between jogging, walking, cycling and other activities, some occasional porch sitting must have its advantages.

Coming soon: the enduring appeal of the rocking chair and the important role it can play in a physical fitness regimen.


Monday, September 10, 2012

The case of the escaped pigs

By Dick Hirsch

I don’t mind admitting I’ve been doing it every single day for years and I have no plans to quit. This is not just a habit. It far surpasses the habitual category; it qualifies as an important part of my life and if I don’t do it I feel sluggish, bereft and jittery.

I am talking about reading the morning newspaper. Like many members of my generation I worry about the future of print journalism in the face of the rising tide of competition from the Internet. I am not a confirmed Luddite. Of course I routinely check my computer for news but it just isn’t the same. Even when the identical story is published on a newspaper’s own web site for me it doesn’t have the same impact as reading it on newsprint.

Here is an example, a story I found a few weeks ago in The Oneonta Daily Star. The headline read:

“Officer captures 1 of 2 pigs loose in Oneonta.”

Before we continue please ask yourself whether you would have read that story or whether you would have skipped over to an article about a City Council debate on reconstruction of a sewer line. I bet on the missing pigs.

The pig story began: “One of two pigs reported Sunday to be on the loose in Oneonta has been caught. The Oneonta Police Department is on the lookout for the other, Chief Dennis Nayor said Wednesday. “Callers reported the pigs were seen behind Morabito’s on Carbon Street.”

A three column photo of Tim Cuozzo, the animal control officer who took the pig into custody, accompanied the story, which detailed the successful investigation, apprehension and detention of the one and the search for the second. The story, by reporter Denise Richardson, also contained further details about the local ordinance that prohibits harboring domesticated pigs.

The pig was turned over to a local veterinarian who reported she was gratified that authorities did not resort to force in the capture. Instead a trap was baited with cat food. The vet reported the animal was frightened but in otherwise good condition, and available for adoption and placement in a suitable setting.

I was on a brief  visit to the Oneonta area when I picked up a copy of the paper, spotted the pig story on page 3, and immediately read it. I would imagine it was one of the best read items in whole edition. Why? Because it was a unique story with strong local interest, exactly the kind of news that differentiates true local coverage with the brain-numbing news reports that consume so much time and space in every medium.

The late Congressman Thomas P. ”Tip” O’Neill, once Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, is famously remembered for this axiomatic observation: “All politics is local.” Directly related to that opinion would be a similar comment about news; local news is the most valuable commodity for newspapers.

Warren Buffett stressed that approach in June when he paid $142 million and bought 63 supposedly failing newspapers. At the time he advised: “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.” The job of each editor, he said, is to make the paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in the city or town...”thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports.” That would include intense coverage of public hearings before various agencies, obituaries and feature stories regarding individuals and organizations. I’m sure that Buffett would have blessed the story about the capture of the one pig and the dragnet for the other.

What makes news? It has an indefinable quality but the compelling stories are the ones that affect the most people as well as those that are somewhat unique. One well-remembered adage often recalled by editors is this: “If a man bites a dog, that’s news.” The pig story certainly qualified in the Oneonta area and you can be certain that Officer Cuozzo saved a clipping.

Don’t underestimate the value of the clipping as a keepsake. It is one enduring advantage offered by print journalism that is unique, a benefit that cannot be duplicated by other purveyors of news on the Internet. Would the text of an Internet article laser printed on a sheet of bond paper ever qualify for pasting in anyone’s scrapbook? I doubt it. Will the historic or sentimental appeal of the clipping help to save print journalism? Time will tell. Remember: you read it here first.



Sunday, June 03, 2012

Regular trips to places you never wanted to go

By Dick Hirsch
Welcome to the unheralded but essential, reliable and profitable world of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a line you probably never heard of that schedules train trips regularly to places you probably never wanted to go.

An excellent example would be the morning train that departs six days each week at 4 AM from the B & P Tifft Yard in Lackawanna. By 8 AM it is already in Bradford, the first destination in Pennsylvania, after possibly stopping in places like Machias, West Valley and E. Salamanca.

The train is powered by two or more sleek diesel locomotives painted a stunning orange and black. It has a crew of just two, the conductor and the engineer, and it carries no passengers, just freight. The stops it makes are determined by the materials it is carrying that day. In a typical winter the railroad carries a huge amount of rock salt, mined near Mt. Morris, for use on roads and highways. In 2011 the salt shipments totaled 1.7 million tons. With 2012 remembered as a mild winter, the salt shipments were way down.

The train leaves Bradford and travels south, through rural Pennsylvania with signs along the way announcing stations like Mt. Jewett, Johnsonburg, Ridgway, Brockway, Dellwood, Falls Creek and DuBois. It is scheduled to arrive in DuBois by 3 PM and after a stop there it will head on to Punxsutawney, the supposed domain of the legendary groundhog and the best known destination of the day.

Meanwhile, as that train has been heading south, a second B & P train, originating before sunrise in New Castle, Pennsylvania, is making its way north, on the way to Buffalo. They meet and spend the night in Punxsutawney; crews restructure the cars and the trains continue toward their final destinations early the next day.

This process may not sound very exciting, but it renders an indispensable service and short line railroads like the Buffalo & Pittsburgh carry staggering loads using far less energy per ton and at rates far lower than the trucking industry. A loaded freight car weighs 250,000 pounds and the trains usually are comprised of between 50 and 100 cars. The railroads brag they can move a ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel, three times more efficiently than trucking.

The major products transported by the B & P include coal, steel, scrap metal, petroleum products, chemicals, plastics, lumber, paper, sand, gravel, animal feed, fertilizer and rock salt. 
The B & P, with headquarters in Rochester, is just one of 65 railroads in 10 regions owned by its parent company, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., named after those counties of New York where it began. It is now an international firm that had its start in 1899 when Edward L. Fuller and some associates bought the bankrupt railroad that carried salt 14 miles from their mine in Retsof to Caledonia. His great-grandson, Mortimer B. Fuller III, the current chairman, occasionally enjoys reflecting on his purchase of the Genesee & Wyoming in 1977. When he bought it, the railroad still had only that same 14 mile route. Today it has nearly 10,000 miles of track in five countries.

That growth was stimulated by the Staggers Act of 1980 which allowed major railroads to dispose of their unprofitable routes. Short line companies emerged from the shadows, grabbing those routes and watching as their operations expanded, evolving into successful businesses. They link with the big railroads like CSX, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific whenever necessary to carry the freight to the destination.

In a report to stockholders Fuller credited Warren Buffett’s 2010 investment in Burlington Northern Santa Fe with stimulating interest in the advantages of rail shipping. The rail industry had touted their advantages for years but businessmen started paying attention only after the Buffett acquisition.

It’s diverting to review the other railroads in the Genesee & Wyoming portfolio. They have names like the Chattooga & Chickamauga, Meridian & Bigbee, Luxapalila Valley, Tazewell & Peoria, Illinois & Midland, Riceboro Southern, First Coastal, Little Rock & Western. Many are concentrated in the northeast and southeast, but there are others in strategic locations, like Arizona Eastern, Utah Railway and Portland & Western. In Canada, some shippers rely on the Quebec Gatineau, St. Lawrence & Atlantic or Huron Central, while in Holland and Belgium, the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp are serviced by Rotterdam Rail Feeding.

Then there is Genesee & Wyoming Australia, where the major route is hardly a typical short line, about 1,400 miles from Tarcoola to Darwin. I can picture an Aussie watching a train passing through Alice Springs and saying: “I know what Wyoming is but what the hell is a Genesee?”