Wednesday, March 23, 2016

News - 140 Characters at a Time

Is social media creating a generation of people who are 140 characters deep on most subjects?  
Do Facebook posts now constitute what most people consider news?  
It’s a sad fact that many people now get their news from smartphones or banner headlines scrolling past their tablet screens.  Newspapers are disappearing, and the 30-minute nightly news broadcasts struggle for audiences. 
On the positive side, those who thirst for information can indeed find it—it’s everywhere and at any time of the day.  Unfortunately, most people don’t thirst for information. They want to be entertained.  Those man-on-the-street interviews started years ago by Steve Allen and most recently conducted by Jimmy Kimmel 1, Howard Stern, Jessie Watters and a host of others are clear illustrations of what little the American public knows about meaningful current events.   It’s amazing how many voting-age millennials can’t even name our vice president, yet they know where Kim Kardashian dined last night.
A 2014 Wall Street Journal sponsored survey 2 on “How Much Americans Know About the News by Age, Education and Politics” showed that across political, social, and economic topics, younger Americans (age 19-29) knew less than those in older age groups.   As an example, less than 20% of them could name the Prime Minister of Israel (Netanyahu) or the Chair of the Federal Reserve (Yellen), while for those ages 65+, correct responses more than doubled—much better, but still not great.  
It’s no wonder it has come to this.  We are living in an age where more media focus is given to immature Tweets made by our political candidates than to substantive positions any of them may have—the keyword being may. Political campaigns are now built around sound bites, Tweets, and posts.   Presidential debates don’t get into details, not because details aren’t important, but because candidates and cable news agencies know that style rules over substance.  Appearing authoritative is better than actually having the substance to back it up.  The appearance is what most people identify with, what they remember.  Off-the-wall comments rule the headlines, while candidates’ policies sit in obscurity on their websites, waiting for viewers.
The trend of getting news via cellphone Tweets and Facebook posts is unlikely to change anytime soon.   The days of families sitting down together for dinner before gathering to watch Walter Cronkite’s Evening News may never return.  To me, the way we get our news today, alone with our handheld device and without discussion, fuels more emotion than wisdom.  It identifies our differences more than what we share in common.  I fear it will take a generation of reaping what we sow before the pendulum reverses.     
In the meantime, get used to watching the world pass by 140 characters at a time.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Downsizing - It's Not Natural

One of comedian George Carlin’s funniest routines (and he had many) was one where he talked about people’s stuff.   The routine was, and still is, side-splittingly hilarious, mainly because much of what he said is true. Carlin is no longer with us, but you can still catch his act on YouTube.   It’s well worth five minutes of your time.
I thought of Carlin today because my wife and I are downsizing.  That’s where you move from a large home with rooms you haven’t dusted in months to a more appropriately-sized dwelling.  Unlike the lifelong practice of gathering and managing more and more stuff, downsizing is not a natural process.  It’s hard to reverse course after 35 or more years where success was measured by the size of your home and the possessions inside.
The main resistance to downsizing is the act of purging.  The longer you keep something, the harder it is to discard, even if it lacks value or a useful purpose.  While you were paying little attention, your home and attic somehow became a museum.   The only problem is, unlike the Smithsonian, no one wants a tour—not your kids, not even your grandkids.   It’s a museum where only the curator finds value in its artifacts, and there are rooms and rooms, and boxes and boxes filled with artifacts.
A good rule of thumb would be if a box hasn’t been opened, or you haven’t used an item in more than ten years, then it goes directly to charity or to the dump.  This rule would work great except for one thing—generational sentimentality.  Personal items get passed down generation to generation.  As an example, my wife’s first baby shoes were NOT in our attic because my wife saved them.   By the time she was three, she wouldn’t have missed them.   Her mother saved them, and now the shoes are in our museum.  Goodwill doesn’t want 61-year-old baby shoes, and you sure as hell don’t throw them in the dump at this point.  They are destined for our kids’ museum along with boxes of similar items.
It takes a strong-willed neat-nick in the family tree to break the chain.  My mother is such a person.  In my late 30s, I remember stopping by my parents’ home and finding my high school letter jacket atop a pile of clothes headed for the Salvation Army.  By that point, the jacket fit me like the leather gloves fit O.J.  Still, I couldn’t believe she was pitching it.  I grabbed the jacket, and it now resides in my museum.  Because of my mother’s assertiveness, many artifacts were spared years in my attic.  Mom didn’t want to pass along the burden of sorting through boxes of stuff, having me think that if she saved it, I must also.  For the most part, I appreciate her approach.
The purging has been a tough process for my wife--and for me.  It hurts to see the pain in her face as she analyzes each item.  While I make light of the situation, years of putting off what to do with all this stuff is finally at an end.  My wife has bravely reduced a mountain of boxes to twenty and then to ten—tough choices and tears along the way.  For the more difficult decisions, she calls to ask the kids who live far away if they want the items.  Surprisingly, they do agree to save a few, so back into our museum they go.
I just hope our children realize that one day they, too, will be curators. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Once Frugal, Always Frugal

I love my wife.  Claudia has many more attributes I admire than those I don’t.   She’s smart, spirited, kind, and we share many of the same interests. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, she’s also my editor.  However, there is one quality of hers that I find extreme.  She is possibly the most frugal person I’ve ever known.  We’re not talking driving-a-Civic frugal.  We’re talking taking-the-bus-to-work frugal.   But this is just where her thriftiness begins.
Claudia freezes everything.  As soon as any food approaches the end of its natural life, she rushes it into the freezer.  I don’t dare throw any of it away.  We have a loaf of bread in there that dates back to the Bush presidency--and that’s 41, not 43. I haven’t had a sandwich in years where the bread hasn’t passed through a toaster or microwave.  My taste buds have forgotten what fresh bread tastes like. 
I can understand not wanting to waste food, but Claudia even buys food that’s near the end of its edible life.  She hunts for these bargains.  She has a sixth sense for knowing when the Walmart deli is about to mark down their cheesecakes.   These aging delicacies have the remaining life expectancy of a mayfly, but she can’t resist the 50% discount. She’s been known to circle the rotisserie chicken display at Harris Teeter in the early evening, waiting for the BOGO sign to be posted.  She’s often the final person between those fryer hens and the dumpster.   “This food hasn’t killed you yet,” she reminds me--the key word being yet.
And don’t get me started on her affinity for generic brands. 
It’s the same M.O. with clothes. She’s a size four. Most women would love to go shopping and try on clothing if they had her figure.  Instead, Claudia gravitates to the discount racks where most of the “drastically reduced” offerings are size 12 and above. She’ll sort through each rack twice before giving up.  It frustrates her to pay retail for clothes, even when they make her look like a million bucks.
Claudia is also the queen of senior discounts.  I’ve yet to get my first senior cup of McDonald’s coffee.  I hate confessing that I’m old, or worse, having the clerk assume I exceed their age criteria.  Claudia, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to proudly announce to everyone in line that she qualifies.  After all, fifty cents is fifty cents. 

It’s not that we’re poor.  We both had long careers and saved responsibly, or in Claudia’s case, fanatically.  But regardless of our financial stability, it seems that once frugal, always frugal.  I doubt she’ll ever change.

I should consider myself lucky.  Many people have the opposite problem.  Their spouses spend money like there’s no tomorrow.  My only concern is that as I approach the end of my allotted time on earth, she’ll stuff me into the freezer.