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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Will the sleep studies ever awaken us?

By Dick Hirsch

I should be sleeping right now, yet here I remain, occasionally yawning but still able to sit, stand and stroll over to the window when necessary, while attempting to slip my mind into gear for the work ahead.

I know I should be sleeping at this very moment. You know it, too, if you are reading any of those recurring stories, often headlined “Study reveals adults not getting enough sleep,” or, those that are the product of more thoughtful copy editors “Not getting 40 winks? You’re being shortchanged.”

Each time I see a report on a sleep study the findings are the same: most people aren’t getting their share. That being the case, I have never understood why universities and public agencies insist on the tiresome habit of studying sleep patterns when they already know what the results are going to be.

The mattress manufacturers and retailers obviously know, too, or else why would they be among the major local advertisers in every community of any size? Those ads keep reminding viewers and readers of the importance of premium quality bedding. “You spend at least a third of your life in bed,” some of them claim. If only that were true.

In my own case, I am firmly convinced that I should be making up for all the sleep I lost years ago. I started losing sleep while in college, when it was a badge of honor to be able to nod off in class after either cramming for a mid-term exam or else just hanging around, staying up late because it was considered the most efficient use of the time available. It was illogical, but that didn’t matter. Few lights went out early. I can still remember the shock I felt the first time I heard somebody singing in the shower at 3:15 in the morning.

My situation was compounded by occupational requirements. I spent years as a newspaper reporter, when the race was still on to get the story into print before the opposition. That entailed frequently having late deadlines, with some shifts starting around 6:00 PM, and finishing sometime on the north side of 2:30 AM. One cannot readily drift off to slumber land while working such a schedule. Their stories may cite different causes, but many people I know lost sleep in the early years and have been unable to get even.

Years ago I assigned a magazine story to a writer, asking for a report on where the members of the so-called hip “in-crowd” were spending their evenings, and at what hour those evenings ended. The focus was on week nights, not weekends. The story was a big hit, reporting on certain places in our supposedly quiet city where there were people still waiting to get inside around the 4 AM closing. They were people who would be going to their workplaces the following morning, usually by 9 AM or earlier.

“How do they manage to do that?” I asked.

“Simple,” I was told. “They go home from work, have a snack, go to bed, take a nap for a couple of hours, get up, shower, get dressed and go out for the evening.”

That was news to me, but it was a knowing explanation of a lifestyle with which I was totally unfamiliar. I recently had the opportunity to observe the weekend nocturnal schedule of a university student during the summer vacation. Out he ventured around 11 PM. “I won’t wait up,” I said, in jest, and he smiled, knowingly. I suppose he was back by 3 AM because one night the light was off when I happened to awaken.

Going “out” to somewhere or nowhere isn’t the only late night attraction. There are distractions right at home, the compelling diversions provided by the Internet, cable TV and video games. Those are all useful technologies when properly employed, but they can also be tantalizing time wasters, especially during the quiet hours. As a result, it is simple to conclude there are far more excuses for not getting enough sleep.

Although a few experts say somewhat less is acceptable, eight hours continues to be the nominal standard and a recent survey reported by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) disclosed shortages. The survey found that 10 percent of adults studied complained of not getting enough rest or sleep every day for the most recent month. The CDC estimates that some 50 to 70 million people suffer from chronic sleep loss.

Yawn. Tell me something I don’t already know.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

...and some people collect everything

By Dick Hirsch

For many individuals who are otherwise approximately normal, life is an enduring treasure hunt, a relentless quest for items to add to their collections. Am I one of them? No. Do I have a collection of anything that delights and inspires me, with which I would like to be identified? No. In fact, as I write this, I’m not even sure whether the operative word is spelled collectible or collectable.

But I definitely do wonder about such people, about how their involvement started, about their motivation, their approach to the mission, and their goal. Did the passion develop in childhood and evolve over the years? Or did they have a significant vision in later life that prompted them to start acquiring? Is the goal to collect and own the items for the joy of possessing them? Or is the idea to search for items that can be bought cheap and sold at a profit?

It is certainly no secret that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Editors love those occasional stories about some impoverished and unsuspecting duffus who finds an apparently worthless painting in a Dumpster, takes it home, hangs it up, and somehow later discovers it is an early work by a now popular artist whose works are much sought after by private collectors and museums. He retains an auction house to sell the painting, quits his job, and retires to a condo at an undisclosed location, far from the clutches of media interviewers and persistent fundraisers.

But I don’t think most collectors pursue their mission for profit. I believe they are curious and acquisitive people, for whom the search and the investigation are almost as satisfying as the possession. Just recently I encountered such a man, a man who has a big house filled with his purchases. They are stacked, piled, shoved and displayed everywhere. There are paths through the rooms, but it is necessary to watch your step so as not to stumble on anything unique or appealing. Some might call the stuff detritus or worse, but it is the fruit of his labor, thoughtfully chosen and carried home, which is already filled with contents equal to at least 25 good size antique shops. His wife, who helped him amass the collections, is deceased, and he lives alone, except for a vocal parrot who spends most of his time in his cage, purchased at an estate sale.

In front of the home is parked a 1994 Lincoln Continental. It is appropriate that he bought the car at a yard sale in 2004 since he often drives it as he travels around from auction to yard sale to antique store or flea market, and then home with his newly acquired material.

His collection is both enormous and diversified, and although he rarely sells anything, he does occasionally wonder what will eventually become of it. The walls are festooned with artwork, ranging from paintings and drawings to ceremonial Japanese kimonos, the closets are crammed with ephemera, and china and crystal are stacked wherever space is available.

The man, a retired surgeon, has virtually total recall about the history of each piece, the location of the purchase, the price paid and the approximate current value. Many of the pieces are accompanied by a compelling story. Consider the glass table lamp purchased for $100 and placed on the night table in the bedroom. When he discovered it wasn’t glass at all, but Lalique crystal, he worried it would be smashed by his grandchildren during a pillow fight. So he turned it over to an auction house which sold it for $17,000. He put the money in each child’s college fund.

“You can tell a lot about families by what they throw away,” he observed, displaying an elegant set of china dinnerware. “I began collecting when I was a kid, stamps mostly, but my father was in the scrap business, so I started looking through some of the old books and other stuff that was hauled in each week.”

He believes collecting is not only an adventure, but also an opportunity for learning.

“I’ve learned a lot as a collector,” he said, “because as you become more interested you read about the type of objects you are buying. I find the whole process to be educational and relaxing, and I do think most collectors really enjoy owning their things and are never eager to sell them.”

In a way, he believes, collecting is a lot like prospecting; the ardent collector keeps looking and digging, sometimes striking gold, but not always.


Monday, August 18, 2008

A moment of introspection

By Dick Hirsch

Introspection is good. For those few who may not happen to know what introspection is, please don’t accuse me of using a big word and desert me by turning the page. I’ll be glad to tell you. Introspection is self analysis or soul-searching, examining your own inner self. For years this has been described as a very positive undertaking, comparable to exercising regularly, getting plenty of fresh air, and eating apples. However, in a typically busy life, there is often little time for introspection, so, when an opportunity presents itself, the experts say you should seize the moment and introspect.

Such a moment developed just the other day at the movies. I don’t go to the movies as often as some of my friends, so when I go I always make sure to arrive a few minutes early so I don’t miss any of the trailers, showing previews of coming attractions. It was during the preview of an upcoming action thriller that my attention strayed from the screen and I casually looked around in the half light.

I studied a man just arriving, walking down the aisle and sidling into the row just in front of me. I didn’t know the man, but his arrival stimulated an interval of introspection. That’s how introspection works, I guess. You’re just cruising along and then POW!...a random sight or an errant thought produces a moment of introspection.

It wasn’t just the man I noticed, I focused on what he was carrying, one of those enormous buckets of popcorn, the kind that sell for around $7 or so. Some might describe them as family size, but this man was alone, and he was already eating some popcorn as he walked down the aisle, searching for an appropriate place to sit.

I immediately embarked on introspection. It didn’t take long. The result? I realized that never, ever, not once in my entire life, have I ever eaten popcorn in a movie theater. I don’t know whether that discloses anything significant about my behavior patterns or personal shortcomings, but that is what that interlude of introspection yielded. By then it was time for the feature to begin, so for the next 140 or so minutes there was no further self analysis.

There was more later, walking to the parking lot. Of course, I knew that the sale of popcorn and other food items is a high profit for the theater operators. It has been said that more money is made on the popcorn than on the admission ticket.

I heard about that in my boyhood. My good friend, Arthur, who lived across the street, played an important role in my early movie-going schedule. His father was in the movie business, booking films for various theaters. In that role, he was in possession of a wallet filled with passes to virtually all the theaters in the city, good for “complimentary admission for the bearer and a guest.” Arthur was a good friend to have, since he had total access to all those movie passes. Thus, he was “the bearer” and I was “the guest,” roles we both enjoyed. Even though we went frequently, each time it continued to be an exhilarating experience to get in for nothing.

Often his father would issue an advisory before we departed for the movies: “Be sure to buy some popcorn,” he would say, once explaining occasionally that it was a way for the operator to at least make some profit while allowing us free admission. I think Arthur did buy popcorn, but I never enjoyed popcorn that much, favoring, instead, candy, such as a Butterfingers bar or a box of Milk Duds or Good & Plenty.

The “guest” phase of my life ended years ago, and I have been buying tickets ever since. The tickets cost much more today than in the past and so does the popcorn and candy. The popcorn portions are much bigger today, dwarfing the boxes sold years ago, and popcorn has emerged as an even larger revenue generator. Many theatergoers rely on popcorn and don’t seem to feel the prices are too high, although they surely know the raw material is inexpensive when purchased at a supermarket.

Expense has nothing to do with my situation. It would probably qualify as a personality quirk, the existence of which never surfaced until I experienced that recent interval of introspection. It’s another indication that even modest self assessment can produce unexpected results.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There is a reason it always sounds to good to be true

By Dick Hirsch

Yes, it was just the other day that I received yet another one of those big money e-mails from Nigeria. How do they find me? How much do they know about me? Do they know something that I don’t know?

Do I open those messages? Sometimes. Maybe they know that I sometimes open their e-mails and perhaps that encourages them to write me again, or to pass my name and address along to other correspondents in Nigeria. Yes, sometimes I do open them and other times I report them as spam or drag them to the trash. It all depends on how busy I am and how high my level of curiosity is at that moment.

The stories usually follow a similar pattern, reporting a few details about the writer’s huge and unexpected inheritance and the immediate need to get the money to an offshore bank account in a stable economy and to avoid taxation. Then there was the one about the cocoa brokerage and the opportunities connected to the rising and sometimes fluctuating market for cocoa beans.

Years ago those unexpected letters occasionally drifted in by airmail, typed on that onionskin paper. Later they were transmitted as faxes. Then the process evolved to e-mail, which, of course, is by far the simplest and least expensive manner in which to target the largest audience, some of whom will likely prove to be gullible. The letter writers have generated considerable international attention for Nigeria and it hasn’t been what would qualify as favorable publicity for the country. Nigeria is in west Africa, and is bordered by Chad, Niger and Ghana.

Although most of such correspondence sent in my direction originates in Nigeria, in fairness I should give Ireland a mention. While most of the Nigerian stories focus on unexpected wealth the writer is supposedly poised to share with a partner, the Irish continue to be fascinated by the lottery or the sweepstakes. With a winning ticket in hand, a generous ticket holder writes in the strictest confidence that he is eager to share the winnings with a citizen of another country, thus enabling both parties to avoid taxation.

Ireland has always possessed a sweepstakes mystique, based on the fabled Irish Sweepstakes which started in 1930 and was discontinued in 1987. The Sweepstakes was a legitimate undertaking, with the proceeds to be used to build hospitals in Ireland. During all those years when lotteries were illegal in the US, tickets on the Irish Sweepstakes held considerable fascination, especially since they were available only through shadowy sources. Buyers had to beware because there were always counterfeit tickets in circulation. I actually knew a man, Ed Lewis, who won $110,000 in the Irish Sweepstakes, which was big money in the pre-lottery days. He retired soon after.

The e-mails from Nigeria and Ireland are mentioned merely as examples of the type of communications that are so much a part of the information age, bombarding people at home and office with tantalizing proposals.

Hardly a week passes without some offer promising rewards that seem too attractive to ignore. In my mind they trigger memories of advice heard years ago: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Just this morning, as this was being written, I received a fax offering me a special price on a five day package trip to Cancun for a ridiculously low price, all inclusive: food and drink 24/7.

The number of relevant faxes sent and received has dwindled with the emergence of e-mail as a more facile means of contact. The decline of the fax machine was abrupt. One day it was a technological marvel, speeding communications, and replacing couriers and letters, quickly becoming an essential appliance in every business office. It is still necessary to have one, but most of the faxed pages I now receive are unsolicited sales pitches promoting trips to places like Acapulco or Paradise Island, advocating certain health insurance plans from companies no one has ever heard about, proclaiming exclusive “insider” investment news featuring low-priced stocks, or suggesting sources for low fee health insurance, inexpensive prescription drugs, “certified” home repairs or basement waterproofing.

Am I on some kind of universal sucker list? Yes, that must be it. At some point in my career did I make a decision that marked me as a yokel? Or are we all considered potential yokels in a world where there are so many easy ways to seduce the naive?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

We know about gas, but what about pizza?

By Dick Hirsch

I am trying to drive less, but it isn’t easy, is it? You’ve probably tried it yourself and discovered that bad habits are hard to break and shortcuts from here to there are difficult to find.

But I am not here today to issue a further warning about the steadily rising price of gasoline. That is old news. People haven’t yet grown accustomed to the prices, but I keep hearing my fellow drivers predicting that prices will continue escalating and suggesting that we should all become accustomed to seeing those astonishing numbers on the gas pumps.

But while driving is certainly a vital aspect of the American personality, there is another trait that many consumers rank as even more important than filling the tank and motoring. What could that be, you ask? That would be filling the stomach with pizza.

Eating is essential and there may be those few remaining traditionalists who would scold me for focusing on pizza, rather than developing some more general commentary on the rising food prices. Certainly milk, eggs, bread, vegetables and the whole list of groceries have seen prices rising. But I choose to make a statement on pizza because, besides being tasty and satisfying, it is a fun food, a sociable food, a nourishing food, a food that has appeal to different age and income groups.

Perhaps most importantly, it is a dish that is rarely produced in the home kitchen. It comes from a pizza parlor, and pizza parlors have been a major industry in our community for years. As the population has dwindled, the number of pizza parlors has grown exponentially. Pizza has always been a comfortable dish, inexpensive to serve to a family. One large pie goes a long way.

I have always enjoyed the act of ordering and buying a pizza. I love inhaling the pizza parlor fragrance while waiting for my pie to be ready. Much as I would have enjoyed personally visiting a number of pizza purveyors, my schedule won’t permit that kind of investigation. Instead, I contacted a number of bakers and added some anecdotal evidence gathered from other pizza consumers.

“It’s the price of flour that is killing us,” was the general response. While prices of other other ingredients are also rising, the jump in flour prices is being blamed for increases in the price of pizza ranging up to 30 percent.

One of the most painful experiences was reported by a very reliable source who was rejected in his negotiations involving the purchase at a pizza parlor in his neighborhood. He presented a coupon which entitled the bearer to a reduced price for a large pie with cheese and either pepperoni or mushrooms. The proprietor said the coupon was invalid and unacceptable because of the price increases and proceeded to give a passionate explanation of the uncertainties of the pizza business. A discussion ensued and the customer, with a family at home awaiting his arrival with dinner, eventually relented.

The very same man reported the experience of a colleague who showed up at another pasta and pizza restaurant, proffering an extremely unusual and valuable coupon, the rare kind with no expiration date. It offered an order of chicken wings with the purchase of a certain large pizza at a given price. He, too, was rebuffed, because the pizza price quoted on the coupon was woefully out of date.

Whether it is for pizza or another item, in this difficult economy, one of the most sought after coupons is known as the BOGO. A BOGO would never work these days in a pizza parlor. BOGO is short for “Buy One Get One,” and it means what it says. If you buy a product that sells for $10 during a BOGO promotion, you get two for the price of one, which brings the price to $5 for each. That is an offer that was seldom, if ever, made years ago, but it has become a useful merchandising strategy, adding volume and introducing products to new customers.

While I adore the BOGO concept, the sad fact is that I rarely can find anything I really need or even want that is being presented with BOGO pricing. BOGO is very alluring. It can sometimes be tempting to participate in the action and utilize BOGO even if you don’t really want what they are selling. After all, a bargain is a bargain. Or is it?