Monthly Archives: August 2012

Mini-Rumination: Fed Ex vs. UPS

When you have a package that absolutely, positively has to be there, do you call Federal Express or UPS?  Does it matter to you?

Consider this morsel of information from the July/August edition of the magazine Washington Monthly.

Consider, for example, how FedEx Ground has long treated the men and women who drive its trucks.  The company obligated the drivers to lease FedEx trucks, to wear FedEx uniforms, and to deliver FedEx packages along routes assigned by the company.  Then the company insisted on classifying the drivers as independent contractors, a status that enabled FedEx to protect itself against unionization and to avoid paying benefits.

Well, in light of this information, it does matter to The Curmudgeon, and all he can say is:  “Go Big Brown.”

Missing the Old Ballpark

Philadelphia’s old Veterans Stadium wasn’t a great place to watch a baseball game.  Built to accommodate both baseball and football, as was the style in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, its seats were too far from the artificial turf-covered playing field for fans really to see the action up close unless they had very, very good seats or very, very good eyesight.  Once the Phillies decided they didn’t want to play there anymore, they neglected the stadium and refused to invest in talented players anymore, so if you attended a game during the team’s last ten or so years there, you usually saw a pretty mediocre team.

Most people think things are better these days, and in some respects they certainly are.  The team has been very successful on the playing field, winning only its second World Series ever and making the playoffs five years in a row – a streak that will end this year.  The team also has been very successful at the box office:  the new stadium has 30,000 fewer seats than the old one, and between the smaller capacity and the more successful team, the Phillies have sold out more than 250 consecutive games – more than three years worth of games.  That streak, too, will probably end fairly soon.

But it’s not entirely better, not for all fans.  For all of the praise for the new stadium, it’s really just a ballpark, no nicer than any other, with a large food court attached.  Even though it holds half as many fans as the old stadium, it’s twice as hard to enter and leave.  While plenty of serious baseball fans attend, baseball is more like football these days in Philadelphia in the sense that a lot of people go to games because it’s the fashionable or social thing to do.  They don’t know much about baseball and don’t really care, but they sure do enjoy being there and telling their friends about it the next day.  They are fair-weather fans, and when the team’s fortunes decline they will move on to other, trendier pursuits and a higher proportion of those who attend the games will be people who actually enjoy watching baseball.  Anyone who doesn’t believe this should just think back to when the Philadelphia Flyers’ glory days were completely over, in the late 1970s, the front-runners were gone, and the people who attended the games were there because they loved watching hockey.

The Curmudgeon enjoys watching baseball, but he doesn’t do it in person anymore.  In the old days you could always get a ticket to see the Phillies play, and several times a season, The Curmudgeon would make spur-of-the-moment trips to Veterans Stadium.  Sometimes, it would be four o’clock in the afternoon and he’d just decide to go to the game that night.  If he could find someone to join him that was great, but if he couldn’t, well, that was okay, too.  He always knew that if he got home from work, changed quickly, got back in his car, and headed for the ballpark, he’d be there in plenty of time to get an inexpensive ticket that would never be sold out, find a seat up in nosebleed territory, and then sneak downstairs a few innings later because there were 40,000 empty seats below.

He had his rituals, too.  Before Dwight Gooden let drugs ruin his career, The Curmudgeon made a point of going to a game when Gooden was pitching every year even though it meant putting up with the insufferable New York fans who poured down the turnpike to watch their team because it was easier for them to get to Philadelphia than it was to get to Queens.  Every year for more than ten years The Curmudgeon visited the stadium to see Greg Maddux pitch because he was the rare player whose artistry and skill could be appreciated in person if you sat in exactly the right spot – a spot that was always available.

But it’s all changed now, and for some fans, including The Curmudgeon, changed not for the better.  If you want to be sure to have a ticket to any game during the season, you pretty much need to buy that ticket before the season even starts – and you’d better be prepared to purchase tickets for a bunch of games, not just one, because Phillies tickets now are sold like grapes:  you have to buy them in bunches.  That means laying out hundreds of dollars, and in some cases thousands, for tickets.  Good for the team, perhaps, but for ordinary fans?  Not so much.

If that’s not the way you want to go, there’s always buying from scalpers.  They’ve legalized scalping now and given it a catchy name – “Stub Hub” – but it’s still scalping all the same.  Organized sports has collectively decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  Since they couldn’t stop people from scalping tickets, they found a better solution:  they take a share of the scalpers’ profits.  Worse, in the old days when you bought tickets from a scalper, you paid him cash.  Now, only credit cards are accepted, so those of us who think it’s frivolous to use a credit card to see a baseball game are out of luck.

So yes, the stadium is nicer, and yes, the food is better – The Curmudgeon will have to take the word of others about this because he tries not to eat that kind of swill – and at least for now, the team is better, although that kind of thing tends to run in cycles.  But for fans who just want to watch baseball, sometimes what appears to be a step forward is really a step backward and ends up pushing you away from the game you love instead of pulling you in closer to it.

And that’s too bad.

 

Mini-Rumination: Stating the Obvious

So the people from the Pew foundations – in this case, some highfalutin’ no-think tank called the “Pew Internet & American Life Project” – have issued a report that shows that more and more people are using e-readers and tablets to read books.

Talk about stating the obvious.  What’s next, Pew?  A study finding that water is wet?  That illness eventually leads to death?  That the sun’ll come out tomorrow?

Pew:  these are foundation people who use their millions and billions – or, in the case of old-school foundations like Pew, other people’s money – to try to tell people how to live their lives.  We don’t need them for that; if we want to listen to people tell us what we should think or how we should act, we have our priests, our ministers, our rabbis, and our mullahs.  In addition, the people on talk radio and the bozos on Fox and MSNBC are always pretty ready to tell us what to do and how to act.

And let’s not forget our mothers, either.

Pew.  It’s sort of onomatopoetic, isn’t it?

Suburban and Rural Living Can be Hazardous to Your Health

Back in 1994, The Curmudgeon was living in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia and his brother and his brother’s wife were living in the high-tone suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey when there was a murder across the street from his brother’s house.  The Curmudgeon called his brother and joked, “You’d better pack up your wife and stuff and move back to the city where it’s safe.”

The murder, as it turned out, wasn’t another example of how crime can occur even in the best of neighborhoods.  Instead, it was a sensational case in which a serially philandering rabbi hired a hitman to off his wife so he could be with his mistress.  The case captured the attention of the regional and, to a degree, the national news media and has been a source of entertainment and amusement for many people – aside from those who loved the victim, of course – for nearly twenty years.

But that conversation between brothers two days after the murder, when it was still thought to be a robbery gone bad because the victim was known to carry large amounts of money home every night from her place of business, is a fair reflection of the typical American perception of crime and its environment:  cities are dangerous, suburbs are safe, so if you want to feel secure in your own neighborhood and in your own home, get thee to a suburb post haste.

We hear it all the time:

“Detroit is murder city, USA.”

“Washington, D.C. – the most dangerous city in America.”

In the region where The Curmudgeon lives, Philadelphia is considered very dangerous.

A professional soccer team plays in Chester, just minutes south of Philadelphia, in a bright and shiny new stadium, but many people won’t attend games there because Chester is considered so dangerous.

And of course, Camden, New Jersey is, according to at least some of the ways authorities measure such things, truly the most dangerous city in America  – and made all the more dangerous in the past year because it laid off much of its police force when the city ran out of money and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told them that he feels their pain but all he’s prepared to do is sympathize.  Not to say Camden is dangerous, but years ago, when The Curmudgeon’s brother’s commuter train broke down on his way home from work, discharging passengers onto the mean streets of Camden to fend for themselves, his brother called his wife and asked her to pick him up.  “No,” she replied, and that was the end of that.

For this reason, The Curmudgeon finds himself fascinated by the recent history of mass shootings in the U.S.  The latest example, of course, is the July shooting in Aurora, Colorado:  12 dead, 59 wounded, a true tragedy.

But that got The Curmudgeon to thinking:  where have the other major American mass shootings occurred?

Of course he remembered Columbine:  13 school students killed in 1999.

And the first shooting spree The Curmudgeon remembers:  Charles Whitman gunning down 14 at the University of Texas, in Austin, in 1966.

And 32 killed at Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

And just a few years ago, the army psychologist who killed 13 and wounded 42 others in Fort Hood, Texas.

The Curmudgeon then did a little research and found a few more cases in which the death toll reached double figures:  14 killed by the postal worker in Edmond, Oklahoma whose actions led to the coining of the term “going postal” in 1985; the man who killed 23 and wounded 20 at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991; 21 killed and 19 injured in San Diego in 1984; and 13 killed by a gunman in Binghamton, New York in 2009.

Notice anything interesting here?

Sure you do.  Except for San Diego, none of these mass shootings took place in large cities.  Oh, The Curmudgeon knows, you think Austin is a big city, and it certainly is now, but back in 1966 its population was less than 200,000 and it was little more than a big college town (now, its population is more than 800,000).

In other words, all this mass gun violence is taking place in small towns and suburbs and rural areas, not in the big bad cities that everyone thinks are so dangerous.  These places in the American heartland that are supposed to be the very models of good old-fashioned American values are, it turns out, pretty serious breeding grounds for psychopaths and homicidal maniacs – and worse, Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife are in no way up to the challenge of identifying these guys before the powder keg blows.

Oh, sure, you might get mugged in a big city, you might get your purse lifted or your pocket picked, you might have someone break into your car, but it looks like you’re far less likely to meet your maker as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone decides to kill everyone in sight.  In other words, it looks like, after all is said and done, the people in this country who are supposed to reflect “true American values” are more a reflection of Bundy values or Kaczynski values or Charles Manson values than they are of anything else.

So mamas, tell your babies to grow up and live in cities.  If you’re not in one now, it’s time to get moving.

Your life may depend on it.

Mini-Rumination: Happy Hairstylists

As a single adult male, The Curmudgeon periodically participates in online dating web sites.  He has a pretty clear idea of what he is and is not looking for in a potential date or mate, and one of the things he’s always considered essential is education.  He realizes that there are plenty of very bright, very accomplished, and very successful people who never completed college or who ended their formal education the day they finished high school, but he’s never found temporary happiness or even compatibility with even one such women.

While reading through the endless number of profiles on one of those dating sites recently, however, The Curmudgeon had an epiphany:  the women on those sites who come across as the happiest and most upbeat are, without question…hairstylists!   Oh, some call themselves stylists, some call themselves beauticians, and a few who are probably self-conscious about their lack of formal education call themselves aestheticians, but regardless of what they call themselves, these women are happy and enthusiastic and just love their lives.  Maybe it’s because their work is fun, maybe it’s because they’re doing what they always wanted to do, and maybe it’s because their job is to make their customers look beautiful and those customers always look better when they leave their shop than when they entered, but The Curmudgeon finds himself looking at people at whom he never looked before with a new perspective and with a new interest and, at the very least, with a new respect.

Weathermania!

Local television news has long been a cesspool:  a combination of mindless local boosterism, sensationalism, and an “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality.  As a college junior The Curmudgeon took a course in communications in which the instructor pointed out the unusual frequency with which local television news leads with stories about fires.  The Curmudgeon also has long been amused by how often local television news uses its ability to broadcast live from crime scenes – but often doing so hours after the crime has been committed, the crowds have dispersed, the police have departed, and rain has washed away the chalk outline on the sidewalk.  How often have you watched a breathless reporter standing outside a dark, deserted building where the crime was committed, talking into the camera and trying to pretend there’s any value at all in a live report?

When a local sports team does well and gets an opportunity to perform in the post-season, the sports guys trade in their jock straps for pom-poms and even the anchors get into the act.  With some of them, you just hold your breath and hope they won’t refer to a player “kicking a touchdown” or “shooting a goal.”

Television news especially likes to sensationalize the weather.  When you think about it, there’s no reason why a television news program needs someone just to deliver the forecast.  No one believes television weathercasters formulate the forecasts themselves based on raw satellite data.  No, they just present the forecast provided to them by the national weather service or a private forecasting company.  Do we really care if a high front over the Ohio valley will push in a warm air mass and a high pressure front that will produce rain tomorrow?  Of course we don’t.  All we want to know is whether it will rain tomorrow.  The only reason television news uses different people for weather is that they hope such people will catch on as personalities and attract viewers.  (And if you don’t believe that, why else would one of The Curmudgeon’s favorite television features be the weather forecast on Univision even though he hablas not a single word of Espanol?)

Television news loves snow.  It loves to forecast snow, loves to exaggerate how much snow will fall, loves to talk endlessly about the dangers of snow, and loves to preempt regular programming to show reporters out in the field saying things like “It’s really piling up here in Broomall” or “downtown Haddonfield is covered in snow” or the Peggy Fleming special, “Roosevelt Boulevard is like an ice rink between Welsh Road and Grant Avenue.”

If it’s not all about the snow, it’s all about the cold.  It’s not good enough for weathercasters to say “Tomorrow’s high will be a nippy 25 degrees.”  No, they need to add “But the wind-chill factor will make it feel like it’s 14.”  Considering how many of their viewers will only be outdoors for the time it takes to get from their house to their car and then from their car to their office, it’s not really useful or important information, but 14 sounds a lot more dramatic than 25, doesn’t it?

Television weather people often exaggerate how much snow will fall.  The first snowfall of the season, even if only flurries are expected, is always the “first major snowstorm of the season.”  If they predict 6 to 8 inches, bet on about 4.  If they predict 2 inches, expect a dusting.  One dumb schmuck in Philadelphia predicted the storm of the century, talked his boss into breaking into a popular prime-time program so he could predict the apocalypse, and lost all of his credibility and many of his fans when his predicted two feet barely amounted to two inches (and, if he recalls correctly, ruined a very romantic weekend The Curmudgeon had planned).  Within a year he was more or less drummed out of town in disgrace, his reputation in tatters.

Now, though, the sensationalization of weather has taken a new turn:  exaggerating how hot it will be.

Forecasting that tomorrow’s high will be 97 degrees is nice, but 97 doesn’t cut it in the sensational department – but 100 does.  So far during this unusually hot summer, television and radio reports have routinely called for three-digit temperatures that have failed to materialize.

Why?

To fool viewers into watching their broadcasts.  Tease 100 degrees at the top of a broadcast, tease it a little more three minutes later, and then keep people watching for another 15 minutes before they get the full forecast.

Sometimes, instead of saying “high of 97,” someone will tell viewers and listeners “high near 100.”  When the forecast high is 78, though, you’ll notice that they never say “high near 80.”  If they think the high will be 78, they say 78, but if they think it will be 97, they tell you “high near 100 degrees.”

And suddenly they’re spending a lot of time talking about a hot-weather version of the wind-chill index:  the heat index, or as one outfit calls it, the “real feel” index.  This is a combination of heat and humidity, but mostly, it’s a gimmick so that the forecast can get into three digits.

“Forecast high of 97 today” doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as “high of 97 but the heat index will make it feel like 103.”

Feel this, jackasses.

Are those 3 to 5 degrees significant enough to merit drawing this distinction?  If they were, wouldn’t they also talk about the heat index when the forecast high is 68 – or 78?

But that’s not going to stop the television news people.  If there’s a story to be blown out of proportion, they’re going to do it.  If there’s a crime wave, they’ll try to instill fear in the people who live in the area where the crimes are being committed; if Philadelphia city workers threaten to go on strike, they’ll talk endlessly about trash piling up on city streets in mid-summer and the possibility of rats and disease; and if a local actor appears in a major movie, they’ll talk about that actor like he’s the star and not just a bit player with four lines, one of which was left on the cutting-room floor.

But when they have nothing better to talk about, they’ll gladly, even eagerly, talk about and exaggerate the weather.  They’ll lie about it, they’ll sensationalize it, they’ll make it seem like it’s dangerous and life-threatening.

Because that’s just what local television does.

Mini-Rumination: The Dumb Housewife of New Jersey

Gia, Gabriella, Milania, and Audriana – don’t you get the sneaking suspicion that if she heard a certain word at just the right time, Teresa Giudice might very well name her next daughter Chlamydia?

Chick-fil-A and Convenient Protesting

When The Curmudgeon was a teenager there was a “women’s center” in his part of town that was little more than an abortion clinic.  This women’s center went about its business without interruption or fuss Mondays through Fridays, but on Saturdays, a polite, well-dressed group of about twenty people would show up with protest signs to express their displeasure over the center’s activities.

It was all very civilized.  As far as The Curmudgeon could tell, the protesters never raised a great big fuss or harassed the center’s patients, and  women who wanted abortions came to understand that they shouldn’t visit the facility on a Saturday.  The protesters were neither loud nor obnoxious, didn’t curse people, didn’t try to flag down passing cars, didn’t throw blood on the health care professionals who worked in the building.

Just in case there were any problems, though, the Philadelphia police department’s civil affairs unit always sent a van on Saturdays to monitor the situation.  The police would park the van along the curb of a nearby building, just out of sight of the clinic and its protesters.  Around six officers would stand around or sit on the curb, sipping coffee or soft drinks, while one among them would separate from the group and peer discreetly around the edge of the building so he could keep an eye out for any activity that might require intervention.

The Curmudgeon always thought this was a very strange approach to protesting.  Here you had people who believed very deeply that something going on inside the women’s center was profoundly wrong, that it violated their moral and religious beliefs, yet they could only muster the will to protest about it when it was convenient for them:  on Saturday, their day off from work.  The Curmudgeon recalls finding it awfully hard to respect people who were only willing to stand up for their beliefs when it fit into their schedule.

This situation came to mind recently because of the Chick-fil-A controversy that started when Dan Cathy, the company’s president, stated publicly that he opposes gay marriage.  The man’s entitled to his views, of course, just as people are entitled to choose not to patronize his business as a way of expressing their displeasure with those views.  Chick-fil-A is owned by a deeply religious man, and The Curmudgeon has always respected that man’s willingness to put his money where his mouth is by closing his stores on Sundays.  Truett Cathy, the company’s founder and owner, could make a lot more money by selling his food on Sundays, but he chooses not to out of respect for his sabbath.

Of course, every big mouth and his brother (and now, including The Curmudgeon) has seemingly felt compelled to put in his two cents’ worth about this little tempest in a teapot, and among those big mouths is Jim Kenney, a member of Philadelphia’s city council.  Mr. Kenney, readers may recall, was taken to task in this space earlier this year after it was revealed that he had hired a consultant to administer his Twitter account because he admitted he was not intelligent enough to learn how to tweet for himself.  The Curmudgeon respectfully – well, let’s be honest here, not-so-respectfully – suggested that a man not intelligent enough to tweet might not be well-suited to participate in the formulation of public policy for a city of 1.5 million people.

In a letter to Mr. Cathy, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kenney wrote, “So please – take a hike and take your intolerance with you.  There is no place for this type of hate in our great City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”  The Inquirer also reported that Kenney will introduce a resolution at the next Philadelphia city council meeting condemning both the man and his company.

Of course, as any real Philadelphian knows, and as The Curmudgeon saw coming a mile away even before he read it in the paper, Mr. Kenney will have to cool his heels for a good long time because that next council meeting won’t be anytime soon.  You see, Philadelphia’s city council doesn’t work during the summer.  Like a bunch of third-graders, its members take a summer vacation so they can play stickball, go to the beach, and watch lots of television.  By the time the next council meeting takes place, on September 13, the controversy will have died down and people will have moved on to other, presumably more important matters than the political views of a fried chicken salesman.  Even if the council passes the resolution, no one will care anymore and the members who vote for it will look like they are wasting time on the public’s dime.

So it looks as if, just like the anti-abortion protesters of The Curmudgeon’s youth, timely action on a matter in which he supposedly believes deeply is just not convenient for Mr. Kenney.  Instead, he’ll get back to us when it becomes more convenient, in about six weeks.

If anybody still cares about it by then.