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

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A unique career path determined on campus

By Dick Hirsch

Nearly 40 years ago Mike Aldrich was clearly the most famous student on the campus at the University at Buffalo, better known than the captain of the football team or the president of the student body.

Not only was he famous, he had made up his mind what his life’s ambition would be. He pursued it starting in Buffalo and continues his quest today in San Francisco, where, at the age of 68, he looks back on a life he considers well spent, with more missions to embark upon, more goals to accomplish.

He can still quote the opening line published in the Courier-Express, the morning paper, which introduced him to the reading public of Western New York. It went like this:

“Amidst a sea of beards and long hair, a clean shaven graduate student named Michael Aldrich yesterday became Buffalo’s King of pot.”

Aldrich founded a campus group called LeMar, short for legalize marijuana, and history will show that action made UB the first university in the country to have such a group. That was in 1967 and two years later, in February, 1969, the university hosted the First International Drug Legalization Conference, with Aldrich as the chief organizer. LeMar had been recognized as an accredited student group, but the administration wasn’t exactly thrilled to be associated with that effort.

They were reading the papers down at Police Headquarters, too, so Aldrich became the subject of discussion there. All these years later he claims, with some pride, that he was high on the surveillance list of potential evil-doers compiled by the Narcotics Squad. He says the police searched the apartment on W. Tupper where he lived with other students and also tapped his telephone line. The unit was then headed by Detective Sergeant Michael Amico who achieved a degree of fame in that role, especially for well-publicized drug busts, and was eventually elected sheriff.

Aldrich, who graduated from Princeton in 1964, smoked his first marijuana as a college junior while attending a summer program at Harvard. Following Princeton graduation he was a Fulbright Scholar in India during 1965-1966.

“They were selling and smoking ganja legally on the street corners but you had to sneak around to the back room of certain places to get a glass or wine or liquor,” he recalled. “I was introduced to bhang, like a milkshake with a dollop of marijuana added. It is dynamite.”

Aldrich was at UB from 1966 to 1970, when he earned his Ph.D in English, writing a folklore dissertation on the use of marijuana and similar substances as far back as the twelfth century. So are there many job opportunities for a recent graduate with a doctorate in English and a scrapbook filled with articles about him urging the legalization of marijuana? Not exactly. So how did it work out? He defines his career this way:

“I have spent my life working so people will not be put in jail for smoking marijuana.”

He has worked toward that goal in a number of ways, primarily by researching marijuana’s history and conveying to the public that it is a substance that should be decriminalized. He has taught classes in various locations and for years was the curator of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Museum, which he describes as the nation’s largest collection of drug literature.

In 1972, he and a handful of others spearheaded an effort to place a proposal legalizing the possession, transportation and harvesting of marijuana on the statewide ballot in California. It was the first such proposal in the country.

“Ronald Reagan was governor and naturally he and most other elected officials were vehemently opposed. We had no money to publicize our arguments in favor, but we we must have struck a chord with the voters. Without any television advertising we got 33 percent of the vote, a figure that was far greater than anyone expected. There is another legalization referendum in 2010 and we should do much better.”

Aldrich is well known among proponents of modification of marijuana laws as well as those who oppose change. He is gratified that marijuana is seen today in a more favorable light and is commonly used for medicinal purposes. But he says much remains to be done. Naturally, he has a few suggestions, such as:

“People on Social Security should all get marijuana. It’s great for creaking bones, combats insomnia and is a better intoxicant than alcohol.” Even as a grad student, Aldrich could always be relied upon for a memorable quote.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fewer newspapers but more reporters

By Dick Hirsch

You probably haven’t realized this, but despite the decline of newspapers and the continuing layoffs in the remaining newsrooms around the country, there are more journalists than ever foraging around, hopeful of finding what they consider to be a story.

Welcome to the age of the citizen journalist. A purist would probably recommend making that title read “journalist,” with the quotation marks signifying the existence of doubts about the authenticity of some of those who work under that description. I am not going to do that, however, since I have always seen people with varying levels of ability operating with that designation. So, if somebody adopts that title, it’s fine with me.

They represent the new age of journalism, being bloggers in what has been characterized as the blogosphere. The word blog is a relatively new term, a condensation of web + log. All an aspiring blogger requires is a computer and access to the Internet in order to become part of the information explosion. There are any number of estimates of the number of bloggers operating in the US, the most conservative of which is about 20 million, with more signing on every day.

The blogs are generally a combination of news and opinion. I’ve always favored freedom of speech, but some words of caution seem appropriate here. There are some experienced and knowledgeable professionals, but most bloggers have no training in the essentials of reporting. What they have is an abundance of opinions and, like the loudmouth at the other end of the bar, they believe they have every right to express them. I suspect that most bloggers work in a vacuum; they don’t have editors examining, editing and approving their work before it is made public.

News judgment can be an elusive quality, with the merits of certain coverage often debated by professionals. There are no such controls with independent bloggers. Believe it or not, it takes a modicum of talent plus experience to prepare an objective news report. Those qualities appear to be scarce on many blogs. That’s why I suggest readers of such blogs proceed with care and read with discrimination. Maybe you admire a certain blog; it may be an outstanding example of today’s journalism, but the information superhighway is flooded with misinformation, much of it on blogs.

News sources are valuable for reporters, although you cannot believe everything someone tells you. That’s even a well-accepted premise in the world at large, outside of journalism. Somehow the facts must be gathered and weighed and a determination made about whether the result appears to be accurate and worthy of dissemination. Some sources don’t wish to be identified with the information they propound, and, thus, anonymous sources are of limited value.

For years I sought to develop a reliable source. When I first started my reporting career, it didn’t take long for me to notice that the older reporters all had reliable sources, people who would pass along information, making reporters aware of potential stories. Those sources wished to remain anonymous, but when their past performance proved to be credible their status was upgraded to reliable.

Even the managing editor, although desk-bound, had some such sources remaining from his old days on the street. When a major story was developing---a grand jury investigation or an industrial expansion, for example---he would get on the phone and begin contacting his reliable sources. When he finished, he would triumphantly pass the information over to the appropriate person who was gathering the facts for a story with these familiar instructions:

“Just attribute that to a reliable source.”

I’m proud to say I eventually developed several reliable sources to whom I could direct inquiries in certain situations. It worked very well for awhile, but there came a time when I was no longer satisfied. I wanted more.

I wanted to trade up and develop those ultimate gems of the news business, unimpeachable sources. You’ve surely seen references to unimpeachable sources, individuals of superior insight. Sources at that level never disclose their roles, even to spouses, siblings or close associates. Their information is golden, so reliable that it is never questioned, let alone impeached. After years of effort, I managed to develop several such contacts. We’re not in touch anymore, but just the other day I saw one at the mall. We exchanged greetings, but there was no reference to the old days. Ask yourself whether today’s average blogger has that kind of support.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I'll have mine on rye with a slice of onion

By Dick Hirsch

I remember the situation very well. It was a milestone in my life, the night I became a man, speaking in the gustatory sense. Realizing exactly what I was doing and the supposed risk I was undertaking, I ordered a limburger cheese sandwich on rye bread, with a slice of onion.

You don’t hear much about limburger anymore, but it once was a relatively famous variety of soft cheese, most closely associated with its supposed German background, but with a definite Swiss heritage. It was well-known not because so many people ate it, but because everyone knew about the negative side of the limburger persona even if they had never been near a slice.

To say it smells is an understatement. It reeks with a foul and penetrating odor and when people were attempting to describe an unpleasant, miasmic odor, they often observed: “It smells as bad as limburger cheese.”

The lexicographers, in a rare concession to slang, approve the use of stink in print when discussing limburger. I learned about limburger from my father who occasionally would come home with a small piece that was carefully wrapped and secreted in the rear of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I had smelled it on several occasions because, when exposed, it could quickly permeate the blandest atmosphere. I stayed away but I learned that certain taverns specialized in limburger and onion sandwiches on thinly sliced rye.

After years of wondering, I went to one of those locations with a friend one evening with an investigation in mind. We sat at the bar, and each ordered a beer. He ordered a ham and swiss cheese sandwich. I ordered the limburger and onion. As you can see, it was an experience I never forgot. I can assure the uninitiated that---thank goodness---it does not taste as bad as it smells. It has a distinctive flavor, yes, one that definitely ranks as an acquired taste.

It came to mind just recently when I was browsing at the cheese cooler in a supermarket. There, on the top shelf, selling for $8.99, was a 14 ounce brick of limburger, carefully foil wrapped and labeled as a product of The Cheese Factory in Blasdell, a village near Buffalo. I was intrigued and immediately wondered what it must smell like inside a limburger factory. I’ll never know unless I go to Monroe, Wisconsin, the home of what is described as the only limburger manufacturer in the country.

“We don’t make any cheese here in Blasdell,” explained Faye Hildebrand, who with her husband, Ed, owns The Cheese Factory. “We buy our cheese from various sources and sell it to retailers. We are distributors.” The couple bought the business 17 years ago and have become cheese authorities.

In addition to its distinctive aroma, Faye said, limburger retains a certain mystique that makes it a steady seller, so they usually maintain an inventory of over 1,000 pounds. The Hildebrands sell cheese to supermarkets as well as small grocers and the restaurants at private clubs throughout Western New York. They stock about 75 different types of cheese, some imported like Stilton and Cheshire from England and bleu from Denmark, but most come from domestic sources. Cheddar of various ages and degrees of sharpness are the top sellers, along with Swiss. Cheddar curds, a byproduct of the cheese-making process, also are in demand.

The Hildebrands suspect that most limburger aficionados are older persons who developed a taste for it years ago. They don’t have any firm evidence, but they believe many younger cheese eaters know its reputation but have never tried limburger.

Current buyers, serving a soft cheese, might gravitate toward brie, believing it has the strongest and most distinctive flavor. How wrong that assessment would be. Limburger outranks all competition.

For years limburger was a popular punch line for comedians, always worth a laugh. Abbott & Costello had a routine, easily available on You Tube, in which they were working behind the counter of a luncheonette. A customer orders a limburger sandwich and Abbott shouts the order to Costello: “Limburger on rye.” Costello, wary of even opening the brick of limburger tries to convince the customer to change his order to ham and cheese, egg salad, anything but limburger. Abbott insists the customer wants limburger. Costello finally shows up, delivering the sandwich, wearing a huge gas mask. Today it’s a rather lame attempt at humor, but in the heyday of limburger it must have had them rolling in the aisles.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Another benefit of being tall and thin

By Dick Hirsch

When I was a boy I would have preferred to have been tall and thin. Wouldn’t everybody? I never discussed it with any of the other boys of my age and size who lived in the neighborhood, but my instincts now tell me that they probably felt just the same.

No luck. I was patiently anticipating a growth spurt that never arrived. At some stage I must have decided that, at least size wise, I was destined to be average. Rather than cursing heredity, isn’t it amazing how a person can adjust and live contentedly in his or her own body?

When I was in sixth grade, some of those girls were taller than some of us boys, a condition not likely to result in the creation of a status known then and now as happy campers. But we succeeded in catching up with most of them by the time we were old enough to drive. Soon it was off to college where my roommate for three years was 6 foot 5 and over a yard wide. We were a striking combination strolling around the campus, he being some seven inches taller, often angered by a recurring question: “How is the air up there?”

Why do I embark on this reverie related to the value of height and leanness? I was motivated by the news that an old acquaintance of mine, notable for his unique combination of height and skinniness, had suddenly cashed in big time in his specialized area, based primarily on his amazing physique.

Some readers might jump to the conclusion that the news is related to professional sports, where tall players are much in demand. But, no, it has nothing to do with basketball, which once was a game dominated by adroit ball handlers and skilled shooters and became, over the years, a game ruled by giants. Although comparisons are distasteful, I believe its fair to conclude that basketball players are the most remarkable of all professional athletes because of their combination of size, speed, strength, endurance, agility and dexterity. Let me know if I have left anything out.

The most remarkable aspect of my friend’s leap to fame is that he is noted for standing around like a statue. Oh, it looks like he is moving, but, well, you’ve heard of slow moving catchers who are described as having feet of lead, right? Well, my pal has always been shod at a more elite level: he has feet of bronze. While his slender build and his serious mien have brought him great fame he can’t run or jump, yet the experts have marked him as outstanding in his field and said he is worth $104 million. That puts him in the same category as NFL quarterbacks and pitchers who are consistent 20-game winners.

My friend is that fabulous sculpture by Alberto Giacometti known as Man Walking, which has been in the collection of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery since soon after it was cast in 1960. It was a gift from Seymour H. Knox, made during that historic period in the 1960s when Knox and his friend and colleague, Gallery Director Gordon M. Smith, were buying art at a dizzying pace. The two men lived long enough to see many of the choices they made categorized as contemporary masterpieces.

Walking Man is one of them. It was cast in an edition of six, one of which has been captivating visitors to the museum ever since it arrived, with its pencil thin body, its deliberative expression, and its feeling of movement.

Early in February the sculpture made news when the owner of one of the casts, the Dresdner bank of Germany, decided to sell at auction certain prized pieces, including Man Walking. The auction in London attracted wide attention in the art world since the piece is so well known. The resulting top price of $104.3 million from an anonymous bidder broke the world record for a single art work sold at auction. That was like money in the bank for the Albright-Knox, since the gallery owns the same piece.

I have marveled at it since I first saw it years ago and try to see it, studying it from various angles, each time I go to the gallery. I always wondered about Giacometti, and what he looked like. Was he tall and skinny? He died in 1966, but old photos clearly depict him as a man of average height and weight, about my size, who created a skinny six-footer whose emaciated appearance made him extremely valuable.