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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Regarding the paper trial

By Dick Hirsch

The announcement just didn’t get the attention it deserved. With all the headlines being focused on the stock market’s continuing uncertain trajectory, the so-called financial advisors cheating their trusting investors, the stimulus packages and the plight of the banks and domestic auto manufacturers, there was little room for some deserving stories.

There seems little doubt the news merited page one consideration as well as some video on the national newscasts, but, much to the chagrin of the developers, that didn’t happen.

I learned about the news quite by accident. I was waiting in line at the Post Office when I overheard a fragment of conversation. I want to assure you that I am not the kind of person who goes around eavesdropping on conversations in public places, such as the Post Office, the supermarket or the pizza parlor.

The truth is, however, that it is now sometimes very difficult not to eavesdrop. The development and virtually universal use of the wireless phone is the major factor promoting eavesdropping. We have a whole cluster of cell phone users who adopt their version of the stentorian or broadcast voice whenever chatting on their phone in public places. In such cases, it is impossible to shut out and ignore whatever trivia they are recounting. They apparently don’t place much emphasis on the so-called private conversation.

A phone played no role in my experience at the Post Office. I merely heard a couple discussing the advent of a 3-ply version. They were asking themselves whether they should consider buying some of the three ply.

Hmmm, I thought. That really is news. In an economy where meltdown has become the favorite newly coined word, the manufacturers are introducing 3-ply, which certainly would be positioned at a higher price level than the previous standards, the 1-ply or the 2-ply. Well, I thought, it could be considered to be a positive sign for the economy, introducing a model which may be more expensive but which provides new benefits.

Frankly, I never differentiated between the plys in the past. Or is it plies? Whatever. I knew that some people preached of the effectiveness and competitive pricing of the 1-ply version. Yet, 2-ply has a growing number of adherents, most of whom stressed the resilience and value of 2-ply. It was a matter of habit and experience, I gathered. Those who endorsed the single ply considered it to be the standard of excellence upon which an entire industry was built. Considering its many features as well as the fact that it was the clear favorite of the majority of domestic users, they felt there was no need for a more expensive version. In recent years they also began citing environmental factors that favored the 1-ply.

They immediately rejected the 2-ply version when it was introduced, deeming it to be an needless enhancement that succeeded only in increasing the annual cost to the users of the product. Meanwhile, my experience indicates the 2-ply supporters often resorted to ridiculing in a very nasty manner those who continued utilizing the 1-ply without even considering an upgrade to the 2-ply.

Those 1-ply devotees would probably never entertain a switch to the new 3-ply, but what about the 2-ply partisans?
I’ve always been flexible. In early adulthood I decided there was no reason to be dogmatic about modest issues, certainly not the differences between the two existing versions. I can testify that I’ve used both versions successfully, but after years of use in which I developed a clearer understanding of the differences, I decided there were benefits that accompanied use of the 2-ply. I became a regular 2-ply user, however I would use the 1-ply without incident or complaint when necessary. I did feel, however, that having become accustomed to the 2-ply, I had to make procedural adjustments when circumstances resulted in my using the 1-ply.

I feel it is important to stay abreast of product advancements, for my own interest as well as for the edification of readers. Thus, after hearing of the new product’s quiet introduction, I immediately decided I should conduct a comparison test. The first retailer had no 3-ply in stock but I found a supply at the second. I returned home and looked forward to testing it at an appropriate time, which I did. It worked quite well, as advertised, but as far as any clear superiority to the 1-ply and 2-ply versions, I must report that the test was inconclusive.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

A dining experience to remember

By Dick Hirsch

I was on an assignment, staying at a remote crossroads in the Missouri Ozarks. My travel companion was gone until much later, along with our rental car, attending an evening meeting. It was time for dinner. I picked up the room phone and the gal at the registration desk answered.

“How late is the dining room open?” I asked.

“Dining room? she said. “We don’t have any dining room.”

I hadn’t noticed that when we arrived, checked in and hurried off for a quick look at the surroundings. So I couldn’t eat in the motel; I’d have to dine out.

“Where do you recommend for dinner?” I asked. “I don’t have the car so I’ll have to walk to the place.”

There was a long pause. Then it got longer. I thought she must be trying to decide which place to suggest. But I was wrong.

“We don’t have a real restaurant here,” she said. “All we have is Flo & Bill’s. It’s across the road and down a little ways. They serve dinner.”

So that is how I came to dine at Flo & Bill’s and it was my first experience having dinner at a gas station.

Gas stations have changed dramatically over the years. The gas is just one of several products and services available for purchase, and it’s often incidental. No longer is the proprietor often found stooping under a lift, servicing a car. No longer are there helpers and hangers-on, young and old, ready to give directions to motorists unfamiliar with the area. No longer are there guys to change a tire or listen to the sound emitting from a troubled engine and make an immediate diagnosis.

Instead we have attendants who understand how to operate a cash register and deal with credit card sales. They also re-stock the shelves with bread, motor oil, peanuts and flashlight batteries, and make certain the refrigerators are up to capacity with beer, milk and soft drinks.

Flo & Bill’s wasn’t exactly like that. There were four gas pumps out in front, no bay for servicing cars, and a typical inventory of convenience store items. But, in addition it had restaurant features, a counter with four stools and three tables for service. There was a visible griddle and some kettles on the stove. It was there that I would meet some of the locals and have my first meal in the Ozarks.

I think about that dinner occasionally when I see the sophisticated restaurant facilities that have evolved in some gas stations in recent years. The best example I can think of is DeltaSonic, the car wash and gasoline group, which has created attractive and inviting dining operations with diversified menus and quality food and service. Things have changed since my first gas station meal.

I’m not here to critique the Ozark cuisine. The menu had a selection of sandwich items, soft drinks and desserts. There were soup and dinner specials each night, and, after a long day of air travel followed by a 90 minute drive, I felt entitled to go for the top of the line. That evening it was chicken okra soup and either the beef stew or the macaroni and cheese.
“It’s all good,” advised Shirley, who was dividing her time between waitressing the counter and the tables. I was the only table occupant. “Flo makes the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had,” Shirley added.

I had been favoring the stew, but that endorsement convinced me to switch. I ordered the soup, the macaroni, and a bottle of Dr Pepper. The soup came with a bag of oyster crackers and the macaroni was accompanied by a bun and a pat of butter. The Dr Pepper was served in a can. The dishes were plastic.

I busied myself reading the house copy of the Fayetteville Observer, published across the state line in nearby Arkansas, but, as you can imagine there was little preparation time involved in ladling out the soup and then dishing out the macaroni. Both the soup and the macaroni were satisfying. I passed on the dessert, but lingered for a few minutes over the Dr Pepper. Shirley introduced me to a guy at one of the stools, and he raved about the trout fishing in the state park a few miles away.

I walked back down the road to the motel thinking that I could recommend Flo & Bill’s if anyone I knew was ever stuck in that part of the world at dinner time.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

With a small "b," buffalo is an icon for many

By Dick Hirsch

As far as buffalo with a small “b” are concerned, a defining moment in my life occurred several years ago when I saw a photo of then US Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White in The New York Times. I don’t remember the occasion, but as I looked at the photo, his necktie caught my attention. I wore ties more often then, so maybe that was the reason I noticed.

I was stunned. He was wearing a Buffalo tie, just the kind I had hanging in my closet. It raised an immediate question: What was an associate justice of the US Supreme Court doing wearing a Buffalo tie?

So I wrote him a letter---C/O The Supreme Court, Washington, DC---and asked how he happened to be wearing a Buffalo tie, the kind of “club” tie with images of a bison, that was then a popular item among men in Buffalo. A week or so later he replied with a kind and good-natured response, explaining that folks in Buffalo, New York, weren’t the only ones to take pride in and have an affection for the hairy beast. I suppose I should have recognized that because the Buffalo Nickel, minted from 1913 to 1938, elevated the status of the bison. I later realized it was no mascot; it was a symbolic creature, in the same league as the American Eagle.

I knew that Justice White had once been an All-American running back for the University of Colorado, then known as “Whizzer” White. He reminded me that his college team has always been known as the Buffaloes, hence his willingness to display his loyalty to his alma mater. He further explained that he had visited Buffalo briefly while on a summer driving vacation and bought several of the ties in different colors.

That incident---as well as other experiences in the west--- made me realize that the buffalo is an American icon, especially in places like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and the Dakotas. I’ve concluded that many of the patrons frequenting the bars and restaurants featuring Buffalo Wings in places like Moab, Utah, or Missoula, Montana, believe the dish is related to the mammal, not the city.

Speaking of cities, there are 18 states with places named Buffalo, and author Steven Rinella says the largest and best known, ours, is a place that “never had a population of wild buffalo living in the vicinity.” That’s just one incidental fact disclosed in Rinella’s recently published book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon (Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $24.95).

In addition to being scholarly and well-researched it is told in a fast-moving, compelling and highly readable fashion. The climax describes the exciting details of Rinella’s own hunt for a buffalo. It’s clear that he has great affection for the buffalo, but he was a determined hunter and wanted to experience the thrill of slaying the largest beast to ever roam North America in modern times.

In 2005, Rinella was one of many hunters who entered a lottery run by the State of Alaska. Of all those randomly selected to receive the seven month hunting permit, only four were successful in killing a bison. Rinella was one of the four and he reports on his mission with great detail, yet with both candor and sensitivity. He is alone in the vast winter wilderness when he brings down the bison in a moment of triumph tinged with sadness. The buffalo weighed about 1,000 pounds and he had to butcher it and transport it back to his distant campsite.

The book tracks the bison’s arrival in North America some 10,000 years ago, crossing the Bering Land Bridge from what we know as Siberia to what became Alaska. Rinella claims they moved south over the centuries and eventually numbered some 40 million in the US, becoming what he describes as “perhaps the most numerous large mammals to ever exist on the face of the earth.”

Then came the slaughter. For Indians, they were a major source of meat. Other hunters killed them for their skins or other commercial purposes and Rinella says that by 1890 there were only about 75 surviving. Steps were taken to protect and nurture, and there are now some 500,000 in the US and Canada, mostly on commercial ranches.

As for the Buffalo in New York, uncertainty about the origin of the name endures. I thought it came from Beau Fleuve, “Beautiful River,” but that apparently is still a subject of debate among local historians. We will never know for sure.


The rake's progress

By Dick Hirsch

This is the time of year when at the first opportunity---or even the first semi-opportunity---many people will grab a rake, rush outside and begin raking with total dedication.

Have you ever noticed that?

Many of those people are seldom observed handling such mundane pursuits. They favor less visible activities, mostly sedentary, like spending an hour or so at the computer, Internet surfing or playing video games, or else indulging in more traditional activities like reading a book, watching TV or dealing with a crossword puzzle.

But spring raking is not only a property maintenance and horticultural activity, it is therapeutic and makes a resounding statement about the personality of the rakers.

It seems appropriate to say a few words about the rake itself. It is among the most rudimentary of implements, and it requires no special training or dexterity to operate. It is light in weight, highly maneuverable, and involves no heavy lifting. Those qualities contribute to its general popularity.

Spring rakers are far different from those who rake in the fall. You must have noticed that there are far fewer rakers at work in the fall than in the spring. That is the case even though there are billions more leaves, twigs and other assorted detritus to rake and gather in the fall than in the spring. That being the case, fall raking is regarded as a necessary duty, a boring chore, while spring raking is clearly considered a much happier and upbeat task, an opportunity not to be missed.

Many otherwise community-minded people ignore raking in the fall, apparently citing the doctrine enunciated years ago by Erastus Corning, the longtime Democratic mayor of Albany. In a statement about leaves, made years ago and since repeated often by reporters and columnists, Mayor Corning, discussing the management of fallen leaves, reportedly asserted: “God put them there and God will take them away.” Thus, he relied on the wind to blow the leaves over to Schenectady or Troy, rather than have his community waste energy and money collecting them. He must have saved the city considerable overtime payments during his years in office.

I heard about that policy years ago and immediately perceived the wisdom of that approach. Since that time I have adopted that method in my own affairs. (If I am seen raking in the fall, I do so only in self defense, if you know what I mean.)

With that as background, let me return to the question of spring raking, a topic that is pregnant with profound psychological implications. Why, oh why, do the same able people who avoid raking leaves in the fall, hasten into action in the spring?

(There may be a regional aspect to this discussion that needs to be mentioned. My opinion is base upon experience and observation in the northeast, but may apply elsewhere as well. In other climates the seasonal behavior of both the foliage and the rakers may be different.)

In my view, raking is a cyclical issue. As surely as winter comes, it always ends and recedes into memory for another year. In the northeast, winter usually fades reluctantly, and residents, even those who claim to cherish winter as much as each of the seasons, are glad when the first signs of spring become apparent. The buds begin to burst. The birds begin to build their nests. There are so many signals that cannot be ignored.

It is the time of rejuvenation.

Rejuvenation. That is the key, the critical difference between the spring rakers and the fall rakers. The spring rakers are celebrating rebirth. They have prevailed, enduring and outlasting another winter, and now they need to demonstrate to themselves and to others that they are participants in the annual reawakening. Rather than dancing around the May Pole, they rush out and rake. It is an exciting and meaningful time. There is a spring in their step as well as on the calendar, and the rakers proceed with obvious enthusiasm and joy.

It’s a far different scene in the fall. Raking then is widely disregarded; rather than being uplifting, it is drudgery, an assignment to be delayed, postponed or ignored. Those who do fall raking derive little lasting satisfaction. It’s a doleful duty; they are merely performing the last rites for a summer that has passed and considering the looming prospect of another winter. Perhaps they’re already anticipating the coming spring and some raking they will then enjoy. I hope so.