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

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A few words of advice about advice

By Dick Hirsch

There is so much advice available these days that it’s difficult to understand why things can get fouled up. But they do.

Advice has always been easily divided into two types. The first is the kind that might be called professional, for only the obvious reason: because you pay for it. The other advice sources are free. The area of free advice has been expanding exponentially in recent years, causing what might be characterized as an advice glut.

There has always been more free advice available than professional advice, but the free advice category has become so large and demonstrative that the amateurs now dwarf the pros. That growth has caused me to wonder whether the authorities should at long last rewrite the well-known estimate of the value of free advice.

The advice monitors have traditionally issued this definition of the presumptive assessment of its value: “Free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it.”

Years ago that might have been true. It may still be true today, but the horizon for advice has been substantially widened. Yes, there surely has been growth among the professional advisors, but it hardly matches the availability of free advice.

The vast majority of that free advice comes to us through the courtesy of the media. The Internet is surely the most prolific source of advice of every description. Got the hiccups? Just tell that to your search engine and in less than a second you will have over 2,820,000 sources of information and cures. Having trouble with your bed of petunias? No problem: here are 640,000 articles, more than anyone would ever, ever want to see.

Let’s consider the daily newspaper as another obvious example. Years go, every paper of any size had a writer who would offer cooking hints, typically advising on a new recipe for making a tuna casserole or a lemon chiffon pie. Many papers published a daily syndicated advice column on domestic affairs, offering husbands, wives, parents and others, sage counsel on family matters. The sports page often had “how to” columns on bowling or golf. That was about the extent of the available advice. The rest of the paper was filled with the news of the day, a concept which has apparently become obsolete and been growing less urgent as newspapers seek a different role. Newspapers have become primary advice givers in every phase of activity. TV, too, has an excess of advice, an endless supply that is both variable and seemingly inexhaustible.

Yes, we are in an era of advice overload and, welcome as advice has always been, there is an obvious downside. What do you believe? Some of the advice is conflicting. Much of the advice relates to health, often counseling both boomers and their parents on how to remain healthy and vibrant.

Is Vitamin D beneficial? If so, how much? If not, why not? What about the salutary effects of grape juice? Is it good or does it contain too much sugar? What about weight training? More and more men and women are at the health club, seeking new ways to forestall the inevitable. Should they be doing curls and benchpresses? Or will that cause unwelcome joint and muscle stress?

Yes, too much advice can be confusing, especially when it is acquired at no cost.

You understand that I wouldn’t be writing this if I had not recently adopted some advice that I read about in the paper or discovered recommended on the Internet.

That is exactly how I came to be doing pushups and crossword puzzles, not at the same time, of course, but on a regular basis. I don’t remember why I stopped doing pushups years ago. It surely is a basic exercise, but for some reason I stopped. Now I have started again, having read that it is effective and important for building upper body strength. It requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere. The same is true of crosswords. I never bothered with them, but I have known people for whom crosswords were considered ideal brain calisthenics. Cruising, as many of us are, through middle age, crosswords have a certain appeal.

Time will tell if any of this free advice proves worthwhile. Meanwhile, I just learned that Idaho has allocated funds to begin teaching chess to all second and third graders. Should I be considering chess lessons? I welcome your advice.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bar news that has nothing to do with lawyers

By Dick Hirsch
The truth is that I’ve never been much of a devotee of what has become known as the bar scene, but I definitely get a vicarious jolt from reading about all the many places I never before heard of and will never visit.

I think it must qualify as an out of body experience, and part of the reality is the utter disbelief that such stories actually qualify as news in what describes itself as a major metropolitan newspaper.

Attitudes are largely shaped by past experience. We all recognize that. During my reporting career, if somebody would propose a feature story mentioning some bar, the type of patrons who frequented the place, the kind of clothes they wore, and the kind of food and drink that was served, they would be laughed out of the office. The laughter would be followed by accusations that certain reporters were eager to write such stories in order to ingratiate themselves with the proprietors, and thus be entitled to regular servings of free beer and a choice of menu items.

I once wrote a column about what I considered a rather unique business operation in Wyoming County, a combination supermarket, service station, restaurant, tavern, post office and barber shop. There were semi-serious suggestions of professional malfeasance. Of course, I was absolutely innocent. Editors must have been more suspicious in those days. They were also intent on saving space in the paper for what they considered news. I’m not saying that any such stories turned out to be more interesting than today’s regular bar features, but at least some of them faintly resembled news.

The regular bar or “club” stories are yet another manifestation of the changing description of news as defined by today’s editors. They are searching for topics in which there is interest and the old primers of journalism no longer are applicable. Bars are part of sports/recreation/entertainment sphere, and apparently it isn’t necessarily bad to provide them with some free publicity.

For me, the the most illuminating and engaging aspect of all those bar stories has been the gender of the bartenders. I have not kept any statistics, but a high percentage of the bartenders are women. I realize that most of the traditional occupations related to gender have devolved, but for some reason I never noticed how many women are tending bar. It must be good for business.

In many places, the bartender creates the image of the establishment. They greet the customers, open the bottles, mix the drinks, keep track of the tabs, collect the payment, and keep things neat and organized behind the bar.

They also may provide an attraction that could not possibly be duplicated by some grumpy male cousin of the owner. By legend, bartenders were noted as good listeners. For generations, cartoonists have been depicting scenes during which an ever-patient barkeep is seen listening to the sad tale of one of the customers. The cartoonists have not yet realized that bartending is now a gender neutral job and that women must be just as patient listeners as men.

As I indicated earlier, my experience with bartenders has been limited but educational. The initial lesson was very revealing because it dealt with the synergistic relationship between bars and bartenders and politics and politicians. In college, I developed a liking for a place near the campus, a neighborhood joint, not frequented by many students. There I became acquainted with Henry Mikarski and Bud Mahon, the co-owners. Both were hard workers and personable, but Bud seemed to be able to greet everyone by name. He had a following, how big a following I never realized until the November day he was elected to the City Council. That provided me with an early insight into the role of the neighborhood tavern as a political springboard. Bud was the first of only three bartenders who ever knew my name.

The only other two were Ernie Cohn and Ray Flynn, men who had worked together for years, and who had grown old and occasionally cranky behind the bar. They had long memories and they talked as much as they listened. When Ernie died, Ray, who no one had ever described as a sentimental man, sighed and said: “He was my only friend.”

Times are different today and those guys probably wouldn’t draw much of a crowd; maybe it’s better to have a personable woman. The business must be good because although more churches are closing, more bars are opening.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Will it still be called Ralph Wilson Stadium after the Bills move?

By Dick Hirsch

Sometimes it is tempting to be ahead of the curve, to write the story before the news even breaks. This is one of those times, so I ask the following question and welcome your suggestions:

After the Buffalo Bills pack up and leave for Toronto, what are we going to do with the stadium? Is there an appropriate reuse? Or will Erie County be left with a lasting monument to the business practices and civic loyalties of professional sports owners? Will a building that once inspired pride eventually become a dingy relic that will be imploded, bulldozed and remediated, the costs to be paid by future generations? When they do vacate, I hope the county officials don’t hold endless meetings, debating potential solutions, wasting precious time while letting the place molder and the memories become increasingly bitter.

I am serious about this. Just the other day, since I am a season ticket holder, I received a letter from the Bills explaining how I could buy tickets to the two games the Bills will play in Toronto in 2008.

“Final ticket prices have yet to be announced,” the letter explained, “but it is expected that prices will range from $75 to $300 per game.” The Bills will play a total of eight games in Toronto over the next five years.

Incidentally, the Bills still insist on describing the venture as a strategic move to strengthen the franchise in Buffalo. “Our initiative in part of our continued regionalization effort aimed at keeping the franchise viable in Western New York,” the letter claims.

I have not encountered a single person who believes that statement.

The reality of the plan really came as no surprise. There have been other discussions in past years about moving the franchise to other venues that beckoned. They turned out to be brief dalliances which were never consummated, but we all knew that the owner, Ralph Wilson, would eventually find a way to cash in on his investment, reaping an enormous profit.

Along with thousands of others, I have considerable emotional equity invested in the Bills. What do we get out of the deal, just the memories? I always suspected that Wilson would break our hearts one day, leaving us muttering about the past and wondering what to talk about on Mondays each football season. While I am disappointed at the prospect, my own reaction to the Toronto plan surprised me; it isn’t as intense as I expected. I don’t feel shattered and bereft.

It’s a business. It has always been a business, even in the formative days in the cruddy confines of War Memorial Stadium. But with each passing season, it has grown more and more businesslike. The short term goal may be to score points on Sunday afternoons, but the long term goal is to make a profit, as enormous a profit as possible, despite being required to pay players those staggering salaries. Wilson paid $25,000 for the franchise which has an estimated value of over $820 million.

The Bills have a dedicated fan base, not because of the greatness of the team over the years, but because it has always been the hottest ticket in the area. I spent a Sunday in San Francisco a few years ago, with the 49ers at home against the Giants, certainly a confrontation of longtime rivals. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention, not at the hotel, not in the restaurant, not in Golden Gate Park. The 49ers are just one of so many attractions in San Francisco.

In Buffalo, the Bills---even in the bad years---have always been revered, occupying a special pedestal in the community. They haven’t even made the playoffs in eight years and still they sell out the place and command untold civic esteem. People perennially seek some solace talking about Marv and Andre, Bruce and Darryl, Thurman and Jimbo, all guys with last names that were never needed to identify them. It will never be the same for future Bills in Toronto. They won’t be idolized, even though there are apparently thousands of people there eager to reserve tickets for 300 bucks.

I digress. Back to the question. What can be done with that county owned concrete hulk in Orchard Park, covering 197 acres? When I started writing this, I pictured a landfill, but I’ve upgraded. How about a Hall of Fame for Former Owners including Walter O’Malley, Robert Irsay and Art Modell, who became villains in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Cleveland when they moved their teams?


Sunday, April 06, 2008

The button down: shirt or personality?

By Dick Hirsch

I went to a meeting recently where I encountered an old friend, a man I hadn’t seen in years. He remembered me, looked me over and said:

“I see you’re still buttoned down.”

How right he was. The button down shirt has been standard in my closet for years. The blue button down has always predominated and I even remember the acquisition of my first one. My father bought it for me when I was still in high school. I remember asking him the purpose of those two extra buttons holding down the points of the collar. He thought about it for a moment and his reply was something like this:

“I suppose it is to keep your tie from getting out from under the collar, but the real reason is that it is just a fashion style.”

I’ll agree with that. Button downs weren’t very prominent at my high school but when I arrived on a small New England college campus a couple of years later I immediately noticed that they were a standard. The most popular outfit was the button down shirt, usually blue or white, but occasionally pink or yellow, either tucked in or hanging out, with khaki pants. I never totally adopted that look, but I’ve been wearing the button down shirts ever since---both dress shirts and sport shirts---to the virtual exclusion of other collar styles.

Now I am wondering whether it is time for a change. After all these years I’ve concluded that the term has entered the language as the definition of a personal style or group of characteristics, a type that I don’t believe accurately represents my personality. The American Heritage Dictionary says button down, or buttoned down, in addition to being a shirt style, describes a person who is a conformist, “conservative, conventional or unimaginative.” Not that there is anything inherently wrong with any of those terms; they are just qualities I never aspired to have used to describe me. (Of course, I realize it has been said that we are the worst judges of the image we transmit.)

I noticed years ago that button down shirts seem to be exclusively American. The credit for creating the shirt style is generally given to Brooks Brothers, which first sewed on those extra buttons on and began selling them in 1896. You don’t see them in Europe, not in England, and certainly not in France, Italy or Germany. The only people seen wearing button down shirts in Europe---and I suppose that is also true of South America and Asia---are tourists from the US. There was a time when it was easy to spot another American in Europe because they were walking around in sneakers. That hasn’t been true in years because sneakers long ago seized the international market. Now the most reliable clue is to check the collar style of the men; if they are wearing a button down, you may be sightseeing in a place like Bucharest or Barcelona, but the shirt you are seeing is being worn by a man from someplace like Wheeling or Wichita.

I do have another reason for concern about whether the shirt is still stylish. I’ve been watching more TV than usual recently, mostly because of the presidential campaign. I saw no candidate of either party with a button down shirt. Whether wearing a tie or striving for informality with an open collar, all the shirts had straight collars. The same applies to the national and local anchormen, the so-called experts, the pollsters, the TV reporters, and the celebrity endorsers.

I interrogated a local authority, recognized as a leading haberdasher with a sharp eye for fashion trends, who emphasized that button down shirts are still big sellers, but much less dressy than straight collar shirts. He said any wardrobe without straight collars is incomplete, and further reported a resurgence in interest in French cuffs and cufflinks. He recommended that I stop at the store as soon as possible and stock up.

It was a sincere invitation, but I don’t know whether I am ready for that. For someone with my history, it could be a life changing experience, forever altering my self concept as well as my public image. Would I still qualify as buttoned down? But do I want to be buttoned down, with its connotation of conformity? I am not yet ready to answer either of those questions, but I sure would like to be imaginative.