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

Friday, September 28, 2007

Those vanishing brain cells

By Dick Hirsch
I was impressed to learn recently that a baby is born with 100 billion brain cells. Yes billion, with a “b.” My first question, as you might expect, is: How many cells are still in place and functioning among individuals who are cruising through middle age and beyond?
Everybody I know would like to have the answer to that question, but it’s a very elusive number. We all know we are shedding cells like a guy with a chronic case of dandruff, but we want to know how many remain and whether they are operational.
We need those cells badly, very badly, much more than our parents did because life today is more complicated. There are so many more things to remember. Early generations were busy struggling to build a shelter and make a living, to shoot a wild turkey or catch a fish for dinner or grow parsnips or squash for winter storage. Those were challenging tasks, of course, but they were relatively simple. You got some seed and planted. If you saw a turkey or a moose, you shot it.
It didn’t require remembering a password, for example. We all have passwords and security codes. Sometimes it is a strain to remember them. That is just one of the obvious examples of the daily brain struggle that dominates many lives. Babies have all those brain cells, but nothing much to remember. You’ve heard the old saying about youth being wasted on the young; this is the logical extension of that, with brain cells being wasted on the newborn.
Remembering random facts is not just a problem of the aged. What is aged, anyway? Those definitions all changed when people realized they were living longer. Some in their 80s are still successfully managing businesses, running for public office, writing books, composing music or in other ways demonstrating their continued vitality. Yes, they have occasional trouble remembering, but so do people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. The problem is there is just so much, maybe too much, to remember. It could be that not all of it is worth remembering, but that is another story.
In a conversation just the other day a good friend, an attorney, was grimacing as he tried to recall some benign fact. It was a non-essential fact, unrelated to his work, about which he is able to cite certain obscure rulings without much effort. But ask the name of a pizza parlor where he ate last week and he suddenly can’t remember, although he can tell the location, give the nearest cross street and describe the antipasto salad in the most comprehensive detail. Do you know him or anyone like him?
Despite the rising tide of things I am supposed to remember, my memory usually works fairly well. Perhaps I can attribute that, in part at least, to the fact that I wasn’t exposed to television as an infant. A study conducted by pediatricians at the University of Washington was released recently and it contained another grim warning about the potentially negative impact of TV. We have been reading about studies like that for at least 50 years, and as far as I can tell, no one has yet paid much attention. This study claims to be the first ever conducted on the viewing habits of children under the age of two.
It disclosed that about 40 percent of three-month old children are watching TV or videos for an average of 45 minutes every day. By the time they reach the age of two, the daily TV viewing time of 90 percent of those in the survey has doubled to 90 minutes. Since the children are clearly too young to fill out a questionnaire or deal with a phone call from a survey taker, it’s fair to conclude that the responses come from parents. Many parents apparently still consider TV to be an educational medium, so they plop the kids before the screen, believing it will enhance brain development. The researchers believe it produces just the opposite result.
“Such early exposure to screens can have a negative impact on an infant’s rapidly developing brain and put children at a higher risk for attention problems, diminished reading comprehension, and obesity,” the report said.
The announcement didn’t explain how obesity crept into the forecast, although perhaps early TV watching eventually does lead to the development of adult couch potatoes. The long-range prognosis is ominous: both diminished brain capacity and an increased waistline.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Remembering The Courier-Express

By Dick Hirsch
After 25 years, we should be able to deal with the feelings of loss without tears. So, on the anniversary of the collapse of the Courier-Express, those old enough to remember the morning paper with any clarity, will likely be remembering it and saying how great it was.
It wasn’t great. It had its moments of greatness, of course, but it was just about average for a newspaper of its size in those days.
“It’s a damn daily miracle,” Joseph P. Molony, the state district director of the United Steelworkers, used to say on every appropriate occasion. “I open the front door every morning and, by God, there it is on the steps. Geez, I’m always surprised, but it’s always been there.”
Molony loved the paper. He loved it for its energy, its sassiness, its imagination, its derring-do. He frequently would unexpectedly arrive at night as the deadlines approached, just to cruise the City Room to kibbitz with editors and reporters, and regale them with stories, told with that twinkling brogue. He liked to compare the paper with what he often called “that dreary rag down the street.”
I earned my postgraduate degree at the Courier-Express. Right after college I was hired and put to work as a reporter, quite an opportunity for a kid with modest experience. Soon after I started, I happened to encounter an old friend of the family. He knew I was a recent graduate and asked what I was doing with myself.
“Working for the Courier,” I told him.
“No kidding,” he said. “Where is your route?”
Even now, as I think about that exchange, it makes me laugh. Yes, I was young but I learned fast and quickly proved they had made a good choice. While many of my friends were in graduate school, I was getting my advanced degree in the City Room, where I learned a great deal about newspapering and even more about people. I was long gone when it folded in 1982, but I grieved along with the rest of the community, grieved for the loss of a valued source of information and opinion, for the desolate future we would face with a single editorial voice.
Don’t misunderstand: I grew up reading both papers and always considered newspapers to be my primary source of news. But so many things have changed. Publishers then worried about competition from network affiliated TV stations. It’s a truly crowded landscape now, with news available at any moment on the Internet or cable news. Newspapers now are seeking ways to demonstrate their continued value as news sources.
In 1982, the key retail advertisers in the Courier-Express were L.L. Berger, Kleinhans and the Sample. They wanted to reach an upscale audience; the Courier accomplished that while they had no success with the Buffalo Evening News. Those businesses are all gone, and I’ve heard family members of Berger’s and Sample blame their eventual fate on the demise of the Courier, their key advertising vehicle. Meanwhile, the News was jammed with ads from Sattler’s, Twin Fair, Grant’s and Victor’s. Hens and Kelly and AM&A were primary News advertisers who also used space in the Courier. It’s shocking to realize that all those retailers are gone.
It’s ironic to think that the News today may find itself in a position in one way comparable to the Courier-Express in the 1980s. The News today appears to be enduring primarily thanks to the Sunday advertising. There isn’t much revenue being generated by the daily paper. That is the same situation that characterized the Courier; that changed when the News began a Sunday edition which captured a share of the ad revenue.
An entire generation of Buffalo readers had no exposure to the paper, but older ones remember certain favorite pages. The sports section, with all the late west coast ball scores and assorted race results, drew considerable attention, as did the political coverage and what were then known as the Women’s Pages. For years, the paper printed the list of deaths at the bottom of page one, with the full death notices inside. That was a popular space. I once heard a prominent attorney and dealmaker explain his dedication to that feature.
“I get up every morning and check to see whether my name is on the front page. If it isn’t there, I shave, get dressed, have breakfast and go to the office.”
That certainly could be called a positive way to start the day.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

About Kerry, my farmer friend

By Dick Hirsch
Individuals are often associated with what they do, whether it’s selling shoes, fixing leaky pipes or writing a column. That usually happens when the object or service with which they are identified is either very good or very, very bad.
So it was with my relationship with Kerry. I didn’t even know his name then. I’d seen him around, but never really knew him. He was the burly guy with the dark, bushy beard, the baseball cap and the ready smile. He not only looked like a farmer, he was a farmer. There was no special identity until that first box of green beans.
We saw them on his table at the market, a quart box of freshly picked green beans. They looked good and the box was stuffed and overflowing.
“Did you grow the beans?”
“Yup,” he said, looking at me as if I had just asked a dumb question. Maybe I had, but I like to deal with the grower.
“How much?”
“A dollar,” he said.
I nodded and gave him the dollar. He carefully emptied the box into a plastic bag and handed it to me. Little did I realize that with that simple act my perception of the man would change forever.
I try to refrain from superlatives, but believe me when I say this: When we took those beans home and cooked those beans, they were the finest, most tender, most phenomenal beans we had ever eaten. Somewhere there may be beans as good if you can find them, but there can be none that are any better.
The following Saturday we were back, buying another basket of beans at the same stand. I told him how great they were. He shrugged and seemed embarrassed at the testimonial.
“It’s been a good year for beans,” he said, attempting to deflect the praise and share it with the prevailing weather conditions, which had delivered plenty of sunshine and just the right amount of rain, never too much and never, too little. I asked his name and he told me. We bought some cherry tomatoes and some Swiss chard. The quart of tomatoes was a dollar and so was the bunch of chard. I detected an emerging pricing policy.
That lot of beans and future lots all proved to be absolutely peerless. Even as I write about them, I can feel the firmness, see the deep color and hear the crunch. Kerry’s beans withstood the test of time.
But...yes...there is a but in this saga: but during that same summer of discovery we found another vegetable from Kerry’s farm that actually surpassed...yes, surpassed the green beans. I could hardly believe it when I first saw it, the largest cabbage I had ever examined and hefted. It was dense and a lovely pale green color without a single cosmetic blemish from its days in the field. It was the size of a basketball. I am not exaggerating.
“That is some beautiful cabbage.”
“It’s been a good year for cabbage,” he said, once again downplaying his role in the planting, nurturing and harvesting of such a marvelous example of Western New York’s agricultural yield. There were several, all immense, but I chose the largest.
“How much for this one?”
“A dollar,” he replied.
I wasn’t surprised, of course. I bought the cabbage, which he gently dropped into a plastic bag. That was the first of many future cabbages I acquired from Kerry. It was so gigantic we took photos of it. While first I was hailed for my cabbage purchases, I was later chastised by my wife, Lynn, for repeatedly loading up on these enormous cruciferous specimens. I agree that I may have overdone it, but I must be a peasant at heart and she has these terrific recipes for coleslaw and stuffed cabbage.
As this harvest season started, I missed a couple Saturdays because I was out of town. When I arrived at the market last week, I immediately went to see Kerry, determined to inaugurate the homegrown bean and cabbage season. Another farmer was at his old stand. I knew something was wrong because Kerry would never miss a Saturday unless...
Kerry sat down in his favorite chair one evening and died. He was only 50. What shocking news for his wife, Wilma, his family, and people like me who never even knew his last name was Zuch. I’ll miss him, but I’ll always think of him whenever I see a cabbage the size of a basketball.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

My role in the international cookie trade

By Dick Hirsch
Throughout the fading summer, the big local story continued to be the delays on the international bridges to Canada. It became the lead item on the radio newscasts, where they were quoting the estimated waiting times in both directions. After leading the newscast with that report, some stations even began repeating it after a few assorted other stories of international or national importance. Thus, it was both the opener and the closer on the regular newscasts. Radio is a primary source of information, especially during the day. The TV stations jumped on board as well, sometimes even displaying that colorful banner screaming BREAKING NEWS as they reported a 90 minute delay on cars returning to the US via the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
When was the last time the bridge crossings received such attention? Never. Even the Buffalo News, struggling to portray itself as still in the hard news business, attempted to analyze the situation while continuing to publish reports of delays which had already transpired.
All this bridge business has had an impact on my behavior and I wouldn’t say that I am alone. I have always had a straightforward policy regarding bridges, but it was never more important than it is right at this moment. My policy was and remains:
I will cross no bridge until I get there.
This season I have reduced my crossings to the bare minimum. I have been willing to forego the legendary vegetarian delight or General Chow’s Strange Flavored Chicken and similar delicacies that made Fort Erie a regular destination for those who have a yen for Chinese food. I have eliminated loganberry and Silverwood’s ice cream from my snack list, and delayed trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford until the fall.
I accomplished all of that without stress, but there has been one bridge related consideration vital to my psychological well being that continues to cause me grave concern.
It has to do with cookies,
My friends will testify that I have never had the slightest trouble ignoring cakes, pies, brownies, fancy pastries, luscious tarts, muffins, eclairs and the most seductive petits fours. However, I stumble badly when it comes to cookies. I have never found a cookie I would reject; even fig Newtons or ginger snaps, disdained by so many, are OK with me. It would make little sense for me to list all the cookie types which are so appealing. I will reveal, however, that chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter are in the top rank, not necessarily in that order. All of those are readily available without any bridge crossing.
But there is one cookie that requires international travel, and as August ends, my supply is dwindling and needs to be replenished. This has become a matter of some urgency. I have never found an acceptable facsimile in the US for this Canadian cookie. Even if some well-meaning storekeeper claimed he could replicate or improve upon this cookie, I would insist upon the real thing. It is crunchy and tasty, two prime requisites, and it is memorable for its elegant simplicity. It is known as Mr. Christie’s Arrowroot Biscuit, and described as “The Original Arrowroot Biscuit.” There is a graphic on the box indicating it has been marketed since 1906.
This cookie is aimed at infants, but adults are missing a great experience. The box is adorned with photos of a very cute baby boy, hair neatly combed, who appears to be under a year old. There are no teeth visible, a clear indication that although a biscuit or two can satisfy a person’s sweet tooth, most of those who enjoy them are not yet old enough to even have any teeth. On the side panel of the box it explains:
“You may give Mr. Christie’s Arrowroot biscuits to your baby as soon as he or she is ready for solid foods. We advise parental supervision when this product is given to infants and young children.”
Am I too old for these cookies? Obviously, I don’t think so. I don’t ever remember eating one until I tried a package while browsing in a cookie department in Canada several years ago. I was immediately entranced. I love them. Furthermore, each biscuit is only 30 calories; thus, if you eat 10 or 20, you’re not hurting yourself too badly.
So if you notice me waiting in line at the bridge, you will know it was a very necessary trip, a buying trip of the utmost importance.