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

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The decline of normal

By Dick Hirsch

So it snowed five and a half feet in places like Philadelphia, Richmond and Washington while in Buffalo, the city generally conceded to be the home office of winter, we received a barely measurable inch and a half.

Is that normal?

No, I suppose it isn’t normal, but, on the other hand, considering the state of affairs, some might call it normal. Huh? I can explain.

There is no more normal.

If you are old enough to be reading this you should consider your own situation and ask yourself whether what you once accepted as normal still qualifies for that status. Nothing stays the same. You’ve occasionally been advised---and occasionally warned---that the only constant is change. The demise of normal is just an example of the truth of that axiom.

Occasionally over the last few years I’ve heard people asking when things will get back to normal. They yearn for normal even though, as time passes, it should become obvious to them that normal is an obsolete word. In its heyday, normal meant standard, usual, typical or expected. People had a pretty solid understanding of what the meaning of normal was when they made an assessment of a person, place, thing or situation, and then defined it as normal.

Not anymore. I used the bizarre winter storms as an example at the outset. Let me propose another. For years a majority of drivers in the US grew to accept as fact that Japanese automobiles were technically superior to those manufactured by the domestic auto companies, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. I held that belief myself, although I’ve never been known for my brand loyalty when it came to cars. When I surveyed the brand of cars driven by my friends and acquaintances, I found that few of them chose the traditional US brands. They were supremely confident in the cars from Japan, led by Toyota, that most successful innovator and manufacturer of passenger cars. It was normal to believe Toyota exercised greater vigilance in the design and manufacture and, thus, marketed a better, more reliable product.

That was the normal opinion, wouldn’t you agree? It’s normal no longer. Toyota will still remain a popular brand but it will never recapture the rank it previously held, the rank with the golden glow. That Toyota trouble is merely a current event that can be used to illustrate the position that “normal” has become a very flexible category. Perhaps it always has been pliable and we just didn’t realized it.

Normal ebbs and flows and that movement requires regular redefining of the term. With new standards established, what once passed as normal would no longer be graded that way.

For generations the best known and most often quoted normal statistic was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the body temperature which healthy persons strived to maintain and ailing persons sought to regain. Then one day a doctor stuck a thermometer in my mouth---or was it my ear?---when I was recovering from a cough and cold. He checked the reading and said: “Close enough.”

“You mean it’s not normal?” I asked.

“Close enough,” he repeated.

I was shocked. Like so many others, I thought “close” counted only in horseshoes. But I accepted his verdict and that was the beginning of my awareness of the decline of normal.

That decline was hastened by the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 people realized the world had changed, yet they still asked each other how long it would be before things returned to normal. As the weeks went by it became clear that our lives would never again be the same as they once were. Since that day we have been preparing for new circumstances, adjusting to the realities of life as it is now.

In the 1920 presidential campaign, Warren G. Harding’s successful slogan promised a “Return to normalcy.” Teachers of English all across the US were outraged since they rightfully claimed there was no such word. The proper term, they said, was “normality,” but normalcy weathered that criticism, entered the language and is in the dictionary today, nearly a century later.

I don’t believe related conditions such as abnormal, subnormal or paranormal have been affected by the demise of normal. Why have they endured while the basic word has lost its prestige. The answer seems obvious: they’re not normal.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

One man's experience dealing with distractions

By Dick Hirsch

I never thought too much about distractions, if you know what I mean. In case you don’t, let me explain: I realized there were distractions here and there in various places and situations, and I knew I was distracted from time to time. But I wasn’t concerned because I felt confident I could ignore the occasional distraction and pursue my own agenda.

I also believed that as I matured two things would happen: the number of distractions would be diminished over time while my ability to overcome any lingering distractions would be increased. So far I seem to be wrong on both counts.

The number of distractions has been increasing at a dizzying pace and there has been no improvement in the human ability to resist them. I have asked around and, when interrogated in an understanding manner, people have admitted to being distracted on a regular basis in various settings.

When I was in grade school I often did my homework while listening to the radio, much to the chagrin of my parents. They were certain I would be an honor student if only I would turn off the radio and work in silence.

“You can’t do homework and listen to the radio at the same time,” my mother would regularly declare. “It’s very distracting.”

Under duress I would turn off the radio but only for a short while. I found silence to be oppressive and distracting and I soon grew fidgety, was unable to concentrate and could not do my homework. On went the radio, softly.

That was a distraction over which I had control. During my high school and college years there were many distractions, literally hundreds, which I could not ignore, but with which I learned to co-exist. I eventually prevailed and graduated. I won’t even attempt to list them here because the list is lengthy and the memory grows dim. But if you will recall your own experiences you’ll probably be able to enumerate some of the same ones that had an impact upon me. They ranged from the natural, like leaves seen out the classroom window quivering gently in the spring breeze, to the personal, such as an attractive silhouette noticed across the reading room at the library.

I’m still very proud of one distraction I overcame and I feel comfortable recalling here. I left the relative quiet of the campus and entered the workplace as a reporter on a large metropolitan newspaper.

“You can use one of those desks over there,” the editor said, so I chose a spot. It was from that vantage point that I was confronted with a distraction of sizable proportions, late each day as the deadlines approached. The typewriter was the machine of of choice then. I believe some readers remember the typewriter, a device that served us well for generations. Well, there were at least 50 or 60 typewriters in the large room, and all the users began hitting the keys with astonishing energy each day about the same time. It is a percussive sound, key striking paper, and as a solo it can be endearing. In a chorus of 50 or 60, it becomes a noxious clatter. Phones were ringing and there was usually some hollering in the background, too, both of which contributed to the din.

For some, it was a distraction that proved so humbling they were unnerved and had to seek a transfer to the day shift. A few chose to walk down the hall and use a typewriter in the advertising department, which was closed for the day. I had no problem. It could be a daunting distraction but I adjusted quickly and I believed that the experience would enable me to surmount any distractions I encountered in the future. I was wrong.

Those were simpler times. You understand that many lifestyle changes have taken place. It’s generally agreed that most of those changes were positive. Some cranks claim things were better in the good old days, but I disagree; things are better now. However, some of the technological advancements that brought benefits have been accompanied by distractions.

The cell phone in its various manifestations can be credited for countless distractions, yet the primary villain is the Internet. The Internet supplies an endless volume of material 24/7, much of which deserves to be ignored. It is a persistent cavalcade of distractions, the scope of which was unimaginable just a few years ago. I deal with it, but I prefer to do so with the radio playing in the background.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

This business story flew under the radar

By Dick Hirsch

There were several big business stories in the headlines recently. You surely noticed. The annual World Economic Forum was underway in Davos, Switzerland, with governmental leaders and corporate honchos from all over the globe jetting there to anguish about the present and worry about the future. They do a little skiing and fondue eating, too, but mostly they talk about the potential for a global monetary system, the status of banks, and the shift of power from the Group of 8 to the Group of 20.

I hope you’re up to date on your groups because I won’t try to explain what was discussed since, although I know it should interest me, it doesn’t. I don’t understand it. I suspect there are many who attended who don’t understand it, either. But we’ve come to realize that there must be many essential topics on the agenda when they convene each February in the Alps. Please note that one headline observed: “In Davos, Signs of Shift in Global Power.” So be on the alert for any shifts, either subtle or abrupt, although I suppose the result could be shiftless.

Meanwhile, as all of that deep thinking, accompanied by continuous rhetoric, was underway in Switzerland, there was major business news breaking simultaneously on the domestic front. After weeks of uncertainty, the Senate voted to confirm Ben Bernanke for another term as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. It was a decision not lightly arrived at; some portray Bernanke as a hero, while others claim he is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But the debate leading to his new term deserved coverage.

While those two stories were attracting widespread media attention, there was another event on the business front that received no attention whatsoever. As you have probably surmised, I am about to report on that development, which is creating a situation affecting millions of families. How does such news go unreported? I can’t explain that, either, except to say that sometimes in the rush to find what is regarded as “the big story” members of the media overlook other news that impacts innocent persons in households, schools and offices across the land.

Yes, a very newsworthy situation went unreported and, with the 24/7 news cycle, it would be interesting to know how a story that affects so many, a story of great magnitude, eluded the press. It involves peanut butter.

Peanut butter? Yes, peanut butter. Although it is ordinary, it has attained a remarkable status in our society, being nutritious, tasty and a favorite of Americans of all ages. It has always been a product deserving of attention since its invention in the late 19th century as a foodstuff initially created for persons whose ability to chew had been compromised by their poor teeth. Yet the major media outlets have failed to report on the peanut butter matter.

Here are the facts, uncovered while browsing in the jelly aisle: The peanut butter manufacturers have quietly reduced the size of their jars. To the untrained eye, it is hardly noticeable, but the jars, which for years were filled with 18 ounces of either smooth or crunchy, have been reduced to 16.3 ounces. That is a reduction of just under 10 percent. According to my calculations, the missing 1.7 ounces are about enough for a PB&J sandwich. And isn’t it a coincidence that the major brands dropped the size at about the same time?

Reducing package size is not a new strategy. It’s a way of improving profitability; keep the price the same, but reduce the amount of product and make sure the new package is difficult to distinguish from the old. When they reconfigured the jar of mayonnaise from 32 to 30 ounces, I never complained. And when they revamped the package of coffee from 16 to 13 ounces, I never uttered a word, even in the privacy of our own kitchen. Why did I remain silent? Neither mayonnaise nor coffee meant that much to me. However, I have a loving relationship with peanut butter that dates back to childhood and it has grown more intense as the years passed. While others were refining their palates to prepare for wines of rare vintages or ethnic specialties, I remained loyal to peanut butter under any one of several various labels.

I rant today not on my own behalf. PB ranks with Mom and apple pie and is on the shopping list of US families. There is something sly and underhanded going on here. Jif, Peter Pan, Skippy and the rest should be ashamed.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The time each year when exercise increases

By Dick Hirsch

Yes, I’ve been writing long enough to have learned that editors have certain preferences when it comes to personal descriptive terms. Thus, I’m well aware that the use of adjectives like “slender” or “stocky” is recommended, rather than such inelegant terms as “skinny” or “fat.”

I mention this only to set the stage for a report on the uptick in activity in health clubs around the area. This is the time of year when the locker rooms are crowded with new members. Starting in January, the TV screens are filled with the latest renditions of commercials aimed at emphasizing weight loss and fitness.

Those commercials arrive annually in the wake of the holidays, that challenging period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, after which people traditionally become remorseful about the weight they have gained during those celebratory weeks. Faced with the TV promotions and the evidence provided by the bathroom scale, they become increasingly guilty during January and by February they are eager to seek a life changing experience for $19.95 a month or less.

As a result of the joyous overindulgence combined with the strategic advertising, the clubs are filled with the newly determined, resolved to strive for improvement. Some are “slender,” hoping for bulging biceps, others are “stocky,” planning to shed pounds.

As they are fond of explaining: “It is time to get in shape.”

The target is often related to the waistline, which, as we all know, has a tendency to expand while most neighboring body parts remain the same. And, so, for many, it is the time for the regular trek to the health clubs, which are now equipped with a whole catalog of devices invented to offer new modes of exercise.

Gone are the games of old, with their volleyballs, basketballs, medicine balls and squash balls. They were all once considered useful for those seeking what was known as “a workout,” an undertaking that would provide both exercise and recreation. Recreation has been deleted from the agenda. Everything is much more serious these days, with treadmills, step machines, stationary spinning bikes and various other apparatus playing dominant roles.

Yes, there are the obvious “slender or “stocky” bodies in attendance, but they don’t really dominate as in the past. Instead, the new recruits fall into categories that are difficult to define. They are best described as indescribable, since they are absolutely average, aware of their condition and suddenly dedicated to self-improvement.
One of the new members explained his goals simply:

“I made a resolution. This is going to be the year I get under 200 pounds.”

Ahh, the resolution, that psychic application that motivates so many, driving them to work muscles that have been previously unflexed and expend energy they didn’t realize they had. But it is a daunting path upon which they have embarked. Many strive but fail. The arms and legs are willing but the motivation withers. The gym bags are filled with stale sneakers, soon consigned to the basement for possible use for summertime lounging.

This is the voice of experience speaking for the benefit of the recently enrolled, the newly dedicated.

I came to that task probably as you did, but soon discovered it is much like life itself, not a sprint but a marathon. If there are trophies, they are awarded not to those who demonstrate willingness in February, but to those who endure. There are relatively few who persist. In a typical April the crowds in the locker rooms have diminished and many of the once resolute have lapsed, returning to the old ways. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is dispiriting for all concerned.

I skipped gym as often as possible in my youth. Then, while blithely cruising toward middle age, I made an abrupt change. It was shocking to those who knew me well. I became what used to be classified as a “gym rat.” I met a psychiatrist at the gym and one day as we jogged our route along various city streets he turned to me and made this diagnosis of my condition, an opinion I hadn’t sought: “We both have a positive addiction,” he said. “Some addictions are negative and some are positive.”

Based on that finding, I feel qualified to offer this advice: adopt one of these approaches---persistent, single-minded, unswerving, unwavering, undaunted, obsessive, indefatigable, tenacious---and eventually you will need to renew your membership.