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

Monday, December 18, 2006

It was certainly above average....

By Dick Hirsch
Just the other day I suddenly realized that I am surrounded by people of various ages and status who have a new favorite word to describe something---make that anything---that impresses them. I lead a rather sheltered life, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear that description being used, either in routine conversation or in some radio or TV talk.
I’m proud---or should I say embarrassed?---to say that the last time I used that word in speech or in print was around 1981. It was a spur of the moment decision, as I recall, and it just came out from the heart and the head, since it wasn’t a fashionable, trendy or modish word at the time.
Now, although I like the word, I refrain from using it because I don’t want to sound like everyone else. When I mention the word, as I’m about to do, I’m sure you will have noticed its abundant overuse.
The word is awesome. Everything these days is awesome.
Pizza is awesome. I overheard some people recounting their experience at a recently opened pizza parlor in a northern suburb. None of them had ever dined at the place before, so they were assessing the quality of the product, compared to other pizza vendors. They agreed that crust was just the right thickness, the toppings were more than sufficient, the appearance was delightful and the flavor was memorable. After much discussion, they agreed on a judgment:
“That was an awesome pizza.”
When the deal was apparently finalized giving $66 million to Bass Pro to convert Memorial Auditorium to a huge haven for outdoor enthusiasts, its potential impact was described as awesome by a long list of public officials and journalists. Their conclusion: awesome. Mayor Masiello was in that group, and he has emerged as a leading user of awesome, finding it suitable for virtually any development, especially during his third term.
(Not to be outdone, County Executive Giambra has added the term to his own regularly employed lexicon of positive adjectives, words that are useful in describing any situation he deems important, from county highway projects in places like Evans, Brant or Sardinia, to economic development announcements.)
The term is also a favorite of radio talk show hosts who apparently believe it adds to their credibility if they can pronounce a certain development as awesome. They’re in the same category as the writers of television commercials for car dealers, for whom every new car price and deal is just awesome...”drive on over for an awesome deal.”
I first began to notice the increasing frequency of usage as a result of conversations with my grandsons, Jake, 15, and Nate, 12. They serve as windows which enable me to peer into the mysterious world of youth culture. Certain articles of clothing, video games, movies and TV shows were invariably elevated to the rank of awesome. Jake acquired his first electric razor, and although his jaw doesn’t require barbering on anything approximating a regular schedule, he immediately reported that the razor does an awesome job. He also established certain standards for the girls in his classes. Some of them were average or okay, he concluded, but a special few were, well, they were just awesome.
As for Nate, whether he was describing a bass he caught last summer or an ample portion of his grandmother’s banana chocolate chip cake, there was only one description that would do them justice: awesome.
After years of benign neglect, awesome has been propelled out of the language dustbin. The funny thing is that a lot of people will be surprised if they read the definition. Defining awe, Webster’s New Collegiate says: “DREAD, TERROR: the power to inspire dread; emotion in which dread, veneration, and wonder are variously mingled; profound and humbly fearful reverence inspired by deity or by something sacred or mysterious; submissive and admiring fear inspired by authority or power.” Awesome is then defined simply as expressive of awe or inspiring awe.
Those who have made the term such an important part of their vocabulary don’t realize fear, dread and terror are the essential elements of awesome. I didn’t realize it myself, but I deserve credit for occasionally looking in the dictionary.
A person might resort to the dictionary if seeking an alternative for awesome, but my advice is to avoid one potential choice, “terrific.” Surprise! The dictionary defines terrific as “exciting fear or awe.” You can look it up.


Friday, December 15, 2006

I'd rather freelance and shop without a list

By Dick Hirsch
Most people go to the supermarket to shop. The majority consider it a chore. Others clearly enjoy the shopping, walking the aisles and stopping to select an item.
I’m more of a shopping hobbyist. I like shopping as long as I don’t have a list. I realize that sounds peculiar, but I become extremely nervous when given a list of items. When presented with such a document, I invariably discover that most of the products are secreted on shelves far removed from the preceding item on the list and often in what appear to be the most obscure locations. No, for me the use of a list is very intimidating. It takes all the joy out of a trip to the market.
I would prefer freelancing. In using that system---I’m not really sure I should call it a system---I treat the store like a smorgasbord. I go wheeling up this aisle and down the next, surveying the inviting array of products, considering all the factors that are involved in making a purchase, and then making an on the spot decision about what to buy and what to leave behind for the next shopper.
I realize this is an approach that would never be endorsed by The Ladies Home Journal or any reasonable person responsible for the weekly shopping. It is a style that would probably be applauded by the supermarket management, because it plays directly into their clever marketing schemes.
They can be very sly. They arrange the store to merchandise certain items, often higher profit items, placing them in strategic locations, high visibility spots where they are certain to be noticed. They will probably be ignored by those dedicated people working from a shopping list, but they may appeal to a freelancer such as myself. So up and down I go, scanning the horizon for items of interest.
Every shopper has a favorite aisle. The produce is always a high traffic area. So are the meat department, and the place where they have all those naughty salted snacks like potato chips, pretzels and peanuts.
For me, perhaps the most compelling area in the store is the cereal aisle. I’ve been in supermarkets near and far, and the cereal aisle is always chock full of bright and spectacular packages, each laden with healthy contents that are supposed to be good for you. Vitamins and minerals abound, and the aisle stretches on and on. The prices are interesting, too, because it always seems kind of expensive for boxes that are half filled with air.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the cereal aisle is that more reading takes place there than any other place in the store. You are free to challenge that statement if your store has a major newspaper and magazine department, offering chairs for browsers. With that possible exception, I’ve found a tremendous amount of reading taking place in the cereal aisle. Often, those aisles are so crowded with people reading the cereal boxes that traffic comes to a complete stop.
I believe the primary reason for this involves the issue of fiber. Don’t laugh, but when I was growing up, fiber was discussed in terms of socks or underwear, not cereal. In those days there were occasional whispers about roughage or bulk, and what became known as “regularity,” but few people paid serious attention, and cereal was sold primarily based on taste. Some, such as Wheaties, raised the possibility of stardom on the athletic fields, but that claim was never substantiated.
People are reading all the boxes much more than years ago. It happens in other aisles, too, but there is so much more to read on the cereal boxes. One of my cereals claims that a mere half cup---hardly enough to satisfy the morning munchies of a working stiff---in fact provides 14 grams of fiber, which is 57 percent of the daily requirement. Wow! And it totals only 60 calories and zero milligrams of cholesterol.
Printed on the box is a guide to the presence of fiber in other foods which, if ingested daily, will help you achieve your fiber goal. That is the kind of information you cannot readily find in such a handy and succinct presentation. You could search for an hour or more at the library and never find that information, not to mention the intriguing sidelights on thiamin and riboflavin.
Yes, the boxes are truly educational. Meanwhile, there is also a school of thought that claims each box actually costs more than the contents.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Fire sale at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

By Dick Hirsch
Among other things, Louis Grachos presented himself as a very savvy guy during the three years since he became director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He is not merely a dilettante and an elitist, as are so many of his colleagues in the museum world. He has a certain panache, charisma or flair, call it whatever you wish. He is a promoter and a marketer, a man who, in a brief period, has emerged as a familiar figure in the museum corridors and media personality.
He masterminded creation of Gusto at the Gallery, a weekly multimedia presentation that attracted new bodies, young bodies, to the museum, by making admission free on Friday nights. It has been a great success. He has also made some startling acquisitions, pieces that surprised or astonished even those experienced gallery-goers familiar with the Albright-Knox policy of showing the latest contemporary art.
This appeared to be a savvy guy, a man who many believe is on his way up in the museum world. The trustees plucked him from a little-known gallery in Santa Fe, and since he arrived he has been a busy man. He rearranged the collection, revised the staff, repainted some walls and even revamped the operation of the restaurant. Presumably he has accomplished all of that with the blessing of the directors, who must be both impressed with and charmed by the Grachos regime.
Then he stumbled. Or did he? With board approval, he engineered a plan to sell off some 200 paintings and sculptures from the collection, with the proceeds available for purchase of contemporary works. As this is written, they have declined to provide a complete list of the works. Museums do sell extraneous pieces occasionally, but such a large number drew widespread attention, most of it negative.
The Albright-Knox occupies a unique position in Buffalo, even among those who rarely visit there. It is near the top of everyone’s bragging list when they emphasize the positives about the area. It has a palatial quality and is a revered institution, the kind of place you don’t want to tamper with, unless you are ready for controversy.
Grachos arrived in Buffalo with a reputation as a young scholar and innovator who enjoyed positioning himself on the cutting edge, just the type the board wanted to further the museum’s reputation for exhibiting and buying the latest, the newest, the most imposing and radical...But his museum administrative experience was skimpy. He had been director of a small and experimental gallery in Santa Fe, best known for supplying regular doses of shock and awe. His Buffalo mission: to build on the Albright-Knox reputation as a citadel of the modern.
Most people know that the gallery gained a hyphen in the 1960s, with Knox being added after Seymour H. Knox, aided by the director, Gordon M. Smith, went on an ongoing and amazing treasure hunt, buying hundreds of artworks and amassing a contemporary collection that catapulted the gallery into national prominence. I worked as a consultant for the gallery during those years, writing a seemingly endless series of news releases about the artists and the acquisitions. Those were heady times.
On buying trips, Knox and Smith hobnobbed with artists and dealers in New York, Paris and elsewhere. They visited Clyfford Still’s home in Maryland and Knox scampered up to the hayloft in the barn, territory no collector had before been permitted to enter. There he inspected Still’s storehouse of pioneering field paintings, paintings the artist had refused to part with. Still was so charmed by the duo, he gave---yes, gave---a group of 21 paintings to the gallery and the Knox reputation as a champion of the contemporary was dramatically enhanced.
But Knox never rejected the old. He especially treasured the English paintings like The Lady’s Last Stake by Hogarth, Cupid as a Link Boy by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others, many of which were early Knox family gifts. Interestingly, he shared with me a fascination with the contemporary look of the Cycladic idol from 3000 BC. The gallery may have sold pieces then, but you can be sure it never would have sanctioned a fire sale of the kind now on the table.
When he arrived, Grachos professed affection for the collection. Today’s board members probably agree but believe they are right in approving the dispersal of the pieces. With no potential major donors in sight, they must feel drastic action is needed to raise money for acquisitions. It’s a risky business when you dump the established in favor of the unknown and trendy, and then cross your fingers to await the judgment of history.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Turn out the lights and go home

By Dick Hirsch
I’d like to say a few words about sleep, a subject of importance to all of us. I have been a member of the sleep deprived group for decades, not because I stay up too late, but because I wake up too early. In our group, the hours slept are precious, worthy of safeguarding.
I mention sleep because of the news that some of the directors of Buffalo Place, the downtown business group, recently introduced the topic of 4 AM bar closings. They cited the relationship between the 4 AM closing hour and a number of shootings and assaults in the downtown area. Their recommendation: close the bars at 2 AM instead of 4 AM.
Would Buffalo be a better place if the bars closed two hours earlier? This has previously been described as a quality of life issue and I think that’s an apt observation. The truth of the matter is that the late closing issue transcends the behavior associated with drinking too much for too long. Instead it should focus on the sleep deprivation that must be widespread in our community and the impact it has the following day.
How do these people function the morning after? Are they as imaginative, efficient, personable and bright as their employer is entitled to expect? I have been up at that hour on a couple of occasions long ago and it took me days to recover.
I could name names here but I will not because some might consider it an invasion of privacy. While the men of whom I am thinking wouldn’t object, I worry about those gadflies who are quick to criticize writers for revealing details that could easily go unreported. There is no sense in inflaming the gadfly population, especially since I have occasionally been identified with that group myself.
I know some busy individuals of various ages who insist---some might say brag---that on weekdays they are asleep no later than 9:30 PM. Those individuals are men, because I believe women are less likely to share that kind of information in casual conversations. Those men want to be fresh and clear-headed when they arrive in the office the next morning, often before the sun rises. Is it reasonable to assume that a better work product would result if the number of hangovers was somehow reduced?
The bar owners surely will disagree with that assessment. I don’t blame them. They are protecting their businesses, but if they adopted a new game plan they might be able to ring up as many sales by 2 AM and get a little more sleep themselves.
Years ago I dealt with this subject and it proved to be an educational experience. In the interest of the peoples’ right to know, I visited some popular clubs and talked with a number of regulars. To my amazement, I discovered that many of them were closet nappers.
How did they manage the late hour regimen? One attractive young woman revealed her schedule. She went directly home after work, ate a light dinner and went to bed, probably by 7:30 or 8. She set the alarm for later, arose around midnight, took a shower, dressed and headed out to meet her friends and party. She insisted her approach was not unique, but was a common strategy employed by many. That revelation was a real eye opener for me; here was a whole group that slept while I was awake, then awoke while I was asleep, then, after a few hours went home to bed as I was rolling over and squinting at the alarm clock.
It contributed to my understanding of an active nightlife, but I have never been convinced that the two hours difference from 4 AM to 2 AM would be a major adjustment. As one of the Buffalo Place officials was quoted as saying, “Nothing good happens outside the bars between 2 and 4.”
I admit that I write this based on years of observation but limited firsthand knowledge. I have more experience going to bed early than staying up late, but I do have one vignette that is relative. Back in my early days of newspaper work, the late shift on the morning paper ended at 2:30 AM. Many people went home, but some gravitated to the Towne Tavern, a dingy but welcoming place. Closing time was then 3 AM so things moved quickly and when Pop turned out the lights at 3, the group sat in the dark. The only time I was there I dozed off in my chair. They woke me up and sent me home, not a bad place to be at that hour.