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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sex was fine, but money has replaced it

By Dick Hirsch

In the old days there were three dependable lunchtime conversational topics popular among the guys at the plant. I am not including all the usual complaints about the foreman and his utter lack of knowledge or the managers and their endless quest to find ways to eliminate waste, cut costs and reduce overtime. No, those subjects are all well worn, universally accepted gripes, that don’t command the complete attention of listeners.

I’m thinking of topics that are not directly job-related, but are still subjects about which everyone has some experience or at least an opinion.

I could claim that the current situation of the Buffalo Bills was the major topic, but that wouldn’t be true. It is a consuming interest, of course, but it is seasonal and by late winter it is exhausted until NFL draft time. Major league baseball is a solid contender, too, primarily because there is so much history and so many statistics connected to the game. Together, along with a dollop or two of hockey or pro basketball along with various college sports, they comprise a topic we can call sports talk.

The next subject of regular interest has traditionally been last night’s TV programs. It has become more difficult to conduct a thorough conversation about a program because there are so many choices. The world of TV has been spread over a multitude of channels.

In the old days, when the networks ruled, it was simpler to reach an agreement on a topic. For example, when almost everyone faithfully watched shows like Bonanza or Gunsmoke, it was common to have discussions about life on the Ponderosa, the big ranch operated by Ben Cartwright and his sons. Otherwise, the guys might be involved in meaningful dialogue about the routine in Dodge City when Matt Dillon, the marshall, often stopped at the Longbranch, never having a drink but always getting plenty of attention from Miss Kitty, who owned the joint. Those lunchtime TV reviews could be gripping.

Aside from sports and last night’s TV, there was another recurring topic. I hope you’ll think none the less of me for mentioning it, but it cannot be ignored, since it was frequently on the agenda: sex. There were never any secrets disclosed, but there were plenty of opinions expressed, jokes told and an occasional fantasy revealed.

Those were the topics of choice. Now they have vanished. It is almost as if they never existed. There is only one matter now:


Frankly, I’d rather be talking about those other subjects, but they are out of style. Money is in.

Not too many people were talking about money when times were good, before the Dow Jones dropped some 6,000 points over a few months. When the market was high and climbing higher, everyone was watching and calculating, but not too many were having discussions about it. They were delighted but not talkative. When the numbers began a long decline, the guys were virtually speechless, watching in awe as the numbers sagged and later plummeted, with worldwide consequences.

It was only then the conversations were inspired, but, alas, it was neither entertaining nor instructive. Terms like meltdown and bailout became just as common at the lunch table as on the cable channels. There were mentions of the influence of China, the fragile status of banks and insurance companies, the causes and effects, the need to hold on because it was too late to make a major move. IRAs and 401-Ks were discussed with increasing concern as the days passed and the goals of years of retirement planning suddenly needed revisions.

“I heard the primary cause involved those derivatives,” a man said one day.

Nobody had any idea of what a derivative was, but there was general agreement that they were playing a negative role. Somebody said he would find out about derivatives and tell us the next day. He forgot. Mortgages granted to homeowners who were ill-equipped to make the payments was a favorite topic. Everyone had a mortgage story, most of them stressing that it was a daunting process and recalling how selective the banks once were about who was granted a mortgage and who was rejected.

Years ago, a friend who lives and works abroad told me that co-workers in his country talked incessantly about money, how to invest wisely, protect what they had and avoid the perils of a changing market. Yes, I’d prefer to be talking about football or sex.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Matching the answers with the questions

By Dick Hirsch

It’s answer time, folks, that rhetorically esteemed quadrennial period when one of the biggest challenges is matching up the answers with the questions.

Let me present an example, an answer from imagined experience:

“With the major studios now governed by large corporations whose executives know little about the process, there are many questions for the average citizen to ask. Who are those responsible for choosing the subject matter and are they qualified to do so? In addition, there is the contentious issue of foreign competition and the use of offshore crews and sites in a growing number of productions. Furthermore, there is continuing concern among adherents about the future of the industry and whether or not it can remain economically viable considering the technological developments that continue to impact the entire communications industry, with potential for both good and bad. In view of that, I suppose the most appropriate response I can suggest at this time is ‘maybe.’”

With that as the answer, what is the question? Sorry, I am not yet ready to reveal it. Instead I will provide another example for the review of conscientious readers, with the hope that it will assist them in figuring out what the hell I am talking about. Here is another answer from imagined experience:

“Let me begin with a Biblical quotation you will surely recall from Sunday school: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted...’ and it goes on at some length, but there is little reason to recount it here, since the most definitive observation on the topic in modern times has been correctly attributed to the late and revered Erastus Corning, the long-time mayor of Albany, New York, who repeatedly expounded upon the seasonal changes and how his municipal people dealt with the natural occurrences of autumn. He succinctly summarized by repeatedly advising as follows: ‘God put them there and God will remove them.”

Are you with me? The previous paragraph is a response I have prepared especially for delivery when my wife, Lynn, asks:
“When are you going to rake the leaves?”

Would I dare use that answer? I don’t think so. I’d be immediately handed the rake and pointed in the direction of the back yard. Only political campaigners can sustain themselves and seek election using answers like that, answers that often have no relevance to the question. They usually sound like they are related to the question, but if you happen to look at a transcript, it often can be characterized as what my grandfather called “hokum.”

Let’s return to that first answer, up in the third paragraph. What is the question? If you said “Do you want to go to the movies?” you are not only correct, you are very perceptive and that must be the result of dealing with verbosity and convoluted verbiage on a regular basis.

Public officials at all levels become very adept at providing answers which have the aroma of responsiveness and authenticity but don’t match the question. It is a skill that is honed over the years, so state legislators are usually more skillful than local officials, and most members of Congress and other Washington veterans are world class.

I spent nearly 20 years interviewing candidates and elected officials on my weekly local television programs and I quickly learned about the most basic truth regarding answers in such forums. The politicians all recognize that in typical interview programs, situations where there are no specific time constraints such as two minutes per answer, there is an unspoken but widely accepted strategy. It provides that the longer each answer lasts the fewer questions can be asked.

The presidential campaigns and debates usually stimulate Olympian performances. This season the gold medal clearly goes to Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. As this is written, none of us know how history will deal with Gov. Palin. Perhaps it is better that way; we don’t know whether she will be elected and relocate to Washington or whether she will return to Wasilla and become a mere footnote in the history books. But she surely did provide some rhetorically supercharged answers, a few of them quite euphonious, that were virtually impossible to match up with the questions.

One final note for the record: I’m Dick Hirsch and I approve of this message.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How I learned the truth about Brussels sprouts

By Dick Hirsch

Much of what I know about vegetables I have learned over the years in North Tonawanda, a community not especially well known as a center for agricultural activity.

For example, it was there, in the City Market on Robinson Street, that I learned an astonishing fact about Brussels sprouts. The sprout is a tasty and adorable little cruciferous vegetable, one of my special favorites, but an item shunned by most of my friends and apparently considered undesirable by all the leading restaurateurs in the area.

Here is Fact One about the sprouts: they grow on a fibrous, woody stalk that grows to about three feet high and at the base has a diameter of nearly two inches. Each has to be harvested individually with a chainsaw, and when held aloft, the shaft, covered with mature and budding sprouts, has a majestic quality. It resembles a scepter, carried by a ruler on some ceremonial occasion.

Until that autumn day in North Tonawanda, I had only seen Brussels sprouts in piles at the supermarket or else packaged in those green pint-size containers. Seeing it in au natural elevated it even higher on my list of favorite vegetables.

There has been considerable recent news coverage emphasizing the merits of consuming locally grown produce. What is news about that? We have been going to the market on Saturday mornings for about 30 years, loading up with healthy stuff sold by the men and women who plant, grow and harvest it. A few weeks ago I made my usual trip to the market and they had a band playing in the parking lot, and the place was thronged with shoppers. A band? I never saw a band before, but this was a special Saturday, marking the 100th anniversary of the market. The celebration triggered memories of my market experiences.

It was there I repaired my long-fractured relationship with the beet. I have always liked vegetables; while I have friends who ignore such innocent specimens as tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, parsnip and eggplant, I like them all. In addition, I relish okra, cabbage, rutabaga, Swiss chard and any other you can name. The sole exception was the beet. For years, I wouldn’t bother with a beet.

There aren’t too many farmers selling beets at the market, but one of them, Don, one day extolled the wonders of his beet crop. I bought a bunch. Eating them resulted in a transforming experience. When I finished, I was ashamed that I had ignored and disparaged beets for so long. Now they are showing up on restaurant menus after a long absence, presented as a beet salad, a trendy dish, served with goat cheese, arugala and walnuts. I order it whenever it is available.

While the beet has been resurrected by certain chefs, the kohlrabi remains unknown and ignored. Many otherwise sophisticated readers have probably never heard of the kohlrabi. I never knew of its existence until I encountered it several years ago at the market.

When you see your first kohlrabi, you are either frightened or curious. It is probably the ugliest vegetable in the entire garden; tough, dense, bulbous and light green, slightly larger than a baseball. Its body is festooned with several long leafy tentacles, hanging in various directions. It is a distant relative of the cabbage and has an eastern European heritage. Most people would ignore such a seemingly loathsome object, but, after learning from the grower its identity, I bought two. When my wife, Lynn, learned of my acquisition, she took it in stride, having previously learned to deal calmly with my occasionally unpredictable behavior at the market. She spoke at some length with the farmer’s wife, who had several suggestions about preparing the kohlrabi. We tried one of her recipes with very positive results and I have since looked forward to having that dish each season when they harvest the kohlrabi patch.

There is a certain wholesomeness that is apparent at the market, and I am not talking just about the vegetables and fruits. I am talking about the people. Some of them are just re-sellers, but in North Tonawanda most of them are growers, and they plant, nurture and pick the crops, fill the baskets, load the trucks and are quick to answer questions with a smile. It’s a difficult way to make a buck, worrying about the weather as well as expenses and marketing. I am glad to be doing business with them.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Answering the sixty-four dollar question

By Dick Hirsch

The gurgling noise we’ve been hearing is the sound of money going down the drain and whether you’re heavily invested or not, whether you’re active or passive, with failures, bailouts and frantic market fluctuations, there was cause for grave concern.

Trying to decide on a course of action, I turned my attention to the gurus of cable TV. Those men and women make their living advising the rest of us about investments, suggesting when it is time to buy or sell. As they spoke, great investment houses tottered and retirees wondered about their pensions. Heads nodded all around; some reminded us of their past predictions that the bubble was going to burst.

“Do you think we have seen the worst of this collapse?” asked one expert of the others, after a particularly painful day.

“That” said the host of the program, “is the sixty-four dollar question.” Heads nodded all around. At home I nodded, too, only my head went from side to side, a negative direction, while their heads went up and down, in agreement with the host.

Was the host saying the question---and I suppose the answer---is worth only sixty-four dollars, when hundreds of billions were under discussion? A few days later, as stocks bounded back, I called my perceptive friend in New York, a former broker, retired entrepreneur, and day trader.

“Peter,” I asked, “how long do you think this market recovery is going to last?” Without a moment’s hesitation he responded:

“That’s the sixty-four dollar question.”

I suppose that response is suitable anytime, no matter the situation, but be frank: Isn’t $64 a rather paltry sum when some real big money is under discussion? No, said Peter, it is just a figure of speech.

I knew that as well as he did, but there are many more who have no idea where that phrase comes from. It is the response to queries of every type that have been propounded over the years. Often that is the rejoinder used with unanswerable or rhetorical questions.

When a person wishes to admit he or she has no idea of what the answer may be, it is a safe response: “That’s the sixty-four dollar question.” It’s not just about money. It has become an acceptable cliché retort for any question, for example: “What does she see in him? Would you buy a used car from that man? How did they expect to make the playoffs without decent pitching?” Those are all sixty-four dollar questions.

In my periodic campaign to enhance the understanding of readers, I’ve decided it is about time somebody explained the background of that phrase. It started in the early 1940s on a weekly radio network quiz program called “Take it or Leave It.” Contestants were asked a series of seven questions, each question designed to be more difficult than the previous one. Oh, I should mention there was a studio audience and there were cheers with each correct answer. When a contestant answered the first question, he or she won $1.

Yes, that $1 was worth much more then. But can you imagine millions of listeners sitting at home, staring at the radio, listening? After each correct answer, the contestants had to decide whether to take the money they had already won or go to the next question. The amounts doubled with each step---$2, $4, $8, $16, $32, and ultimately, $64. If the contestant gave a wrong answer, all the previous winnings were forfeited.

Eventually the weekly show switched from CBS to NBC and the name was changed to “The Sixty-four Dollar Question,” a tribute to the program’s singular achievement of creating a new phrase to be added to the vernacular of millions. The program had a 12 year run, ending in 1952.

Three years later the idea had been massaged and reworked for television, with producers and sponsors deciding a quiz show with big money might lead to top ratings. Thus, in 1955, “The $64,000 Question” went on the air at CBS. It was a huge success, leading to the creation of the age of the quiz show. That ended in disgrace four years later with the revelation that some shows had been rigged, with certain contestants being fed the answers in advance.

It was shocking news for the loyal viewers. Were people more naive then, compared to today? That’s the sixty-four dollar question.