Friday, January 19, 2024

POPCORN

 By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations about the absurdities of contemporary life  

  • I was a teenage cobra-venom extractor.
  • Headline: “‘Barbie’ leads Golden Globes with nine nominations.” (Slap forehead here.)
  • I’m thinking if “Citizen Kane” came out today, it would probably be roundly ignored.  Such is the zeitgeist—the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of the era.
  • If a doll (Barbie) could become a movie, what about a column?  Yes, “Popcorn, the Movie,” starring Jim Szantor as himself and Anderson Cooper as one of his nerdy interns.  (I hope “Popcorn, The Movie” wouldn’t get a bad review in Rotten Tomatoes!)’
  • Green olives, bottles; black olives, cans. Discuss!
  • Finally, my favorite day of the year is imminent: Jan. 2!  Because from Black Friday on, for about six weeks, the default excuse for everything being delayed, mixed up or essentially in a stranglehold is  . . . “because of the holidays.” 
  • Thank God, this Bermuda Triangle-like period will be behind us.  It’s amazing how “the holidays” (which are in actuality just two days . . . and the first one a religious holiday with, alas, little if any religious activity or participation for most) can throw the world into a tizzy for about 30-40 days, depending on when Thanksgiving falls.  But we in America seemingly have an uncanny knack for bending and distorting everything out of shape—going over the top over one-day events like the Super Bowl and performers like Taylor Swift, the Poster Girl for Overrated Talent.
  • News item: “To help alleviate urgent scarcity in the drought-prone state, California will allow sewage waste to be recycled into drinking water.” (Looks like “The Hotel California” has become a flophouse!)
  • One of the best things you can say about a restaurant is: “Even their off days are pretty damned good!” (Kind of a lefthanded compliment, but, hey, in a day when fast-food workers are shot over a cold order of french fries, such a compliment would be lovingly embraced.)
  • All this talk about 2024 and straw polls! What do straws have to do with politics? Are people throwing straw hats into the ring now?  When did that start?
  • I'm nostalgic for the days when the magazines I subscribed to didn't come in plastic bags.
  • I’ve never seen a service animal that wasn’t doing an exemplary job. People? Not so much. But their devices are always working overtime.
  • There are no slacker service animals. They’re so skilled, gentle and dedicated that it can move you to tears. 
  • Headline: “UNLV gunman was a professor who had repeatedly applied for a job.”
  • Reaction: I think I’d be extremely nervous if I were in a position to hire or fire someone these days. It doesn’t have to be a “disgruntled ex-employee” who comes gunning for you, it could be the ne’er-do-well you chose not to hire who puts you in the grave.  An increasingly perilous position, for sure.
  • One of jimjustsaying’s favorite media euphemisms: “Indecent liberties.”  Favorite noun?  Debauchery.
  • Speaking of euphemisms: Prostitutes have now apparently been elevated to the ranks of “sex workers.”  (I doubt that the new nomenclature makes the VD and the omnipresent dangers disappear.) 
  • I’ve never been to Bangladesh, but my pants have.  And some of my shirts have been to Taiwan!  I’m a walking sartorial man of the world!
  • Memo to medical/dental receptionists: We don't need to be told "You can have a seat in the waiting room" after we've announced our presence and given you that most vital “date of birth and insurance card.” 
  • I think we know to do that!  What else are we going to do?  Glare down at you until our name is called?  Stand on our heads in the parking lot?  Twiddle our thumbs in the basement next to the water heater?  We know what those chairs are there for, so save your breath and stop insulting our intelligence! (And get some better magazines.)
  • jimjustsaying's Word That Doesn't Exist But Should of the Month—“Inelvitable.” n. The uncanny ability of a band in an old Elvis Presley movie to materialize out of nowhere whenever Elvis starts to sing.--"Unexplained Sniglets of the Universe," Rich Hall and Friends.
  • Does the White House have a West Room?  We're always hearing about the East Room, the Oval Office and the Rose Garden, so maybe the West Room is the . . . restroom? Which would explain why it doesn't get much press . . . and, I hope, never will.
  • I was born in Kenosha, Wis.  For those who don’t know, it’s in the far southeast corner of the state, on the Illinois border.  Or, as I call it, Baja Wisconsin.
  • Has anyone ever seen a sterling silver spork? I haven’t.  If they’re such a great idea, why do they only come in plastic? 
  • Any nutritionist will tell you that brown rice is far better for you than white rice, but try getting it in a Chinese restaurant!  They think you mean fried rice, which, of course, is simply white rice made even less nutritious with oil, soy sauce and whatever else. 
  • I’m also amazed that the number of restaurants that don’t have low-cal salad dressings.  How much would it cost them to have a bottle or two on hand?  (And they wonder why business isn’t very good. Hey, folks, it’s 2024.)
  • Hard to believe, but there are 38 ingredients in the salad croutons at McDonald’s.  And they’re just little pieces of toast!
  • Guys are lucky in many ways.  For one thing, we don’t have to have pap smears, probably because, through the grace of God, we don’t have any paps!
  • It would be interesting if a sports sideline reporter sought out a guy who didn't even play in the game and say:  "How did it feel to sit there and contribute exactly nothing today? Do you think you're going to be released?" How refreshing that would be instead of those gushy, cliched “interviews”!  (In bad taste but refreshing--sort of like the Popcorn column.  😊)
  • Who invents all those "As seen on TV" products," the majority of which get panned regularly in Consumer Reports and on many Internet sites?
  • Imagine seeing a headstone with your name on it saying, "Here lies the man who invented the RoboStir and the Ped Egg."
  • Speaking of inventors, George Devol was the inventor of the mechanical arm used as a prototype for assembly-line robots. Sounds fairly impressive. But he also invented a hot-dog cooker called the Speedy Weeny, which--I’m thinking—may well disqualify him for induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
  • When was the last time you saw a new funeral home being built?   With the population increase over the last decades, you'd think you would see a new construction occasionally.  Are the existing ones just busier or . . . . What am I missing here?
  • More cremations?  The funeral home process is still required in many if not most states. People living longer?  They still die eventually . . . and then there is the off-setting phenomenon of the growing number of young people dying of gang violence, drive-by shootings, drug overdoses and Covid. I’m sure fentanyl is probably becoming more and more of a major factor by the day.
  • DRUDGING AROUND: Sugar shortfall leaves candy-makers scrounging . . . 70-year-old woman gives birth to twins . . . Study: Bowl of yogurt a day keeps mood disorders away . . . Italy’s “most handsome man” quits modeling to become priest . . . Handcuffed and sent to ER for bad behavior:  Schools sending more students to hospital . . . With human brain, size isn’t everything . . . Cops putting trackers in packages to catch porch pirates . . . Woman shouts “Happy Holidays” while bear-spraying store employees . . . Self-checkout reversal growing . . . Plastic surgeons say more MEN requesting butt implants . . . Private members’ club for DOGS opens in LA . . . Half-male, half-female bird spotted by scientist . . . Baby “sucked up” in tornado miraculously found alive in a tree . . . Texas family awakens to find drunk driver passed out in bedroom  . . . and mangled SUV in front yard with dead passenger inside . . . Santa falls to his death during stunt gone wrong . . . Man assaulted for burping . . . Florida woman arrested after 309 animals seized from mobile home! . . . Season’s Beatings: Woman arrested for attacking man with Christmas tree.  (Thanks, as always, to Matt Drudge and his intrepid band of aggregators.)
  • jimjustsaying’s Party Ice-Breaker of the Month:  “Say [actual partygoer’s name here], did you know that ‘rizz’ (n.) is the Oxford University Word of the Year?  It means charm, attractiveness, the ability to attract a romantic or sexual partner.  (Kind of hard to work into a conversation, but there you have it.)
  • Where does “rizz” come from? It’s Gen Z slang that’s probably short for “charisma.”  It won out—thank God—over “Swiftie” and two other words: “situationship” (an informal romantic or sexual relationship) and “prompt” (an instruction given to an artificial intelligence program).
  • Key Notes, Vehicle Division (from Quora):
  •  -­-"My cousin went to pick up family members at the airport. He gives the key to one of the younger cousins he was picking up and tells him, “It's the blue Datsun in such and such lane”. The kid goes down to the parking lot and finds two identical cars parked next to each other. He figures the key would only fit the correct one. First try, it worked. He drives up to the baggage claim, and when the guy who sent him sees the car, he exclaims, “That's not my car.”
  • --“I had a ‘61 Pontiac, and my trunk key would start my father-in-law’s ‘62 Pontiac!”
  • --"In the early ‘80s I had a ‘74 Maverick. I had a locking gas cap. That key fit my brother-in-law’s locking gas cap on his ‘77 Ford pickup.”
  • --"I recall many years ago that one company in particular had all trucks keyed the same. That way, if one driver locked his key in the truck, he only had to find another company driver to unlock it for him.”
  • --“Many municipalities have vehicles keyed alike. In the days of the Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers, all of our cruisers were keyed alike. We replaced a certain percentage of cruisers each year, and even the new ones were keyed the same as the old ones so, any Crown Vic in the fleet could be opened by the same key.”
  • Montana State of Mind: “In Montana, fame only counts for the first few minutes, then after that, you have to hold your own; Montanans don’t judge you on whether or not you’re famous, but on who you actually are.”--Longtime resident  (Probably not the Hollywood State of Mind.)
  • “The medical study will employ 10,000 mice as guinea pigs.”—“Still More Press Boners,” by Earle Tempel
  • jimjustsaying’s Media Word of the Month (a word no normal person ever uses but is often encountered in newspaper headlines and stories): Travails.
  • Shouldn't public-service ads (or those tag lines at the end of beer commercials) say, "Please drive responsibly" instead of "Please drink responsibly"? If you're home alone, I don't much care if you drink irresponsibly (as long as you don't "drunk dial" me!).
  • Overheard: “The best way to truly surprise someone at a surprise party is to hold it a week late.”
  • Today's Latin Lesson:  Is est ferreus reor callidus editio ut reddo sulum mensis.  ("It's hard to think of a clever statement to translate every month.")

Special thanks to Al Jazeera, this month’s Popcorn intern

A NICE SHOUT-OUT

From the Summer/Fall issue of THE NOTE, a celebrated quarterly publication devoted to jazz.  I knew they were running my interview with Willie Maiden, a genius of a composer/arranger/saxophonist and longtime confidant of Maynard Ferguson, but I didn't expect this!  (They said they would add "a little blurb" about me.)

Scroll down to Page 7 (and also enjoy the interviews with two of my all-time favorites, alto sax legend Phil Woods and clarinet virtuoso Eddie Daniels).

https://www.bing.com/ck/a?!&&p=6966ff0ee36d89b9JmltdHM9MTY4Njk2MDAwMCZpZ3VpZD0wNzAwMmUxNS1kNjE1LTYwOTctMTVmYi0zY2FlZDc4NjYxMGMmaW5zaWQ9NTE3MA&ptn=3&hsh=3&fclid=07002e15-d615-6097-15fb-3caed786610c&psq=The+Multi-faceted+Jim+Szantor&u=a1aHR0cHM6Ly9pbWcxLndzaW1nLmNvbS9ibG9iYnkvZ28vMzM5NjYyZmEtNzJkMi00ODI5LWE3MmItMzU0YWJmZjNkNWYwL1RIRSUyME5PVEUlMjBTVU1NRVIlMjBGQUxMJTIwMjAyMiUyMHdlYi1lMzJiOGM4LnBkZg&ntb=1

LAGNIAPPE

 


THE ONION MANIFESTO

By Jim Szantor

Some people do not cry when onions are peeled, chopped sliced or diced.  Others cry when they are merely mentioned or even implied.  What is it about the allium cepa that causes it to be de rigueur in recipes, seemingly mandatory at McDonald’s and compulsory in casseroles?

What magical properties accrue to this vile vegetable of the hollow, tubular leaves and edible, rounded bulb? What culinary clout does it hold? Do onions cure cancer, prevent baldness or remove unsightly age spots? Are they a surefire Covid killer?

Were onions served at the Last Supper?  Does Taylor Swift eat them?

Some answers, assertions and affirmations in a moment. First, though, a position paper of sorts on the plight of one who must make his way as a consumer in an onion-obsessed world.

If the onion does to you all the things it does to someone who cannot stand, bear, countenance, abide or otherwise tolerate its taste, you know what it is:

--To sit down to a meal anywhere and find the main dish (not to mention the appetizer, soup or salad) loaded with the loathsome ingredient.  How to negotiate this culinary minefield politely if not furtively without offending the hostess?  How to suppress the whimpering and retching attendant to the ordeal?

--To wait endlessly—punitively—at fast-food establishments that package the item with other, more respectable and comestible condiments.  Kudos to the franchises that make the onion an option; a pox on those that operate under the assumption that those little white, chopped interlopers will be loved and consumed with relish by all.

--To grab eagerly for a new entrée in the supermarket’s frozen food section, only to recoil when it is discovered that onions--dehydrated, flaked, powdered or fuel-injected--are part of the bargain, take it or leave it. (In the finest of print, of course.)

It is a mystery why the onions are so omnipresent in the gustatory scheme of things, when to some they are slimy if boiled, repugnant if raw and palatable only if fried to a crisp—to such a crisp, that is, that only the crisp, and not the actual onion essence, is tasted.  (Full disclosure: I recall quite fondly the Onion Straws served by a New Orleans eatery, a close encounter I have yet to live down, there being is a living witness.)

The true enemy of the onion feels not only persecuted but also triumphant when able to detect the faintest evidence of its flavoring.  Cook a beef stew with boiled onions in a mesh bag and remove them prior to serving? The congenital onion-hater can tell.   That’s because the onion has little subtlety, is totally devoid of finesse.  It always lingers near the scene of the crime, fouling the breath and otherwise making its ingestion hard to forget.  But this seasoned onion adversary survives each close encounter, his palate and olfactory glands able to detect its unpleasant properties everywhere.

It could be argued that eating a hamburger with onions is—dare I say it?—an antisocial act.  My hamburger with tomato and pickles flies under the radar, even in close quarters.  Someone eating one loaded with onions in whatever form?  He or she is, in effect, broadcasting with appallingly broad bandwidth, callously indifferent to the consequences!

The onion’s raison d’etre?

According to noted chef Jean Banchet of Le Francaise in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling’s fabled Restaurant Row, “Onions add a lot of flavor, a unique flavor, to soups, sauces and salads.”  He prefers cooked over raw, though, and opts for the shallot, an onion cousin, for fish and bordelaise sauce.

The onion, in the allium giganteum genus, is a real attention-getter, both in the garden and in cut flower arrangements.  It is one, however, that even Mr. Anti-Onion can appreciate, for this flowery version is not to be eaten.

But the more common garden variety is one that a former colleague, Chicago Tribune food editor Joanne Will, says “is worth crying over.”

“Onions not only enrich other flavors but they make a statement of their own.  Just think of some of the things onionophiles would have to give up: deeply browned and caramelized sweet onion soup, boiled baby onions saturated with cream sauce (a must with Thanksgiving turkey), crisply delicious, battered onion rings.”

To a close and cherished associate (one who has prepared this author’s meals for 53-plus years), the onion is an ingredient both pleasurable and problematic.  To cater to her husband’s unfathomable oddity, meal preparation is fraught with strategies, dodges, reluctant omissions and, sometimes, downright deceit. In short, to keep peace in the family, she has to keep the onions out of the crock pot.

There are untold hardships for one who was born unequal in that his tase buds are out of step with the rest of humanity’s.  The onion, in its ubiquity, has made coping more cumbersome, ordering more odious and tasting more tentative for the afflicted.  Unquestionably, the onion is an affront, an imposition, equally detestable, whether served by gracious hostesses, celebrated chefs or sullen countermen.

But if you are among the majority who cannot live without onions, by all means indulge and enjoy.  This is only an open admission of an aberration, a venting of a lifelong loathing, not a produce section polemic.  Some of my best friends buy, cook eat and even grow them. But they’ve never grown on me.

Until the onion makes the headlines (remember the Great Potato Famine, the cranberry scare of 1959, Red Dye No. 2 and other periodic pantry-related panics), it will be the same old story for those who can’t stand them, those who dream of the day when restaurant signs and menus everywhere will contain these words:

No smoking, no substitutions, no onions.


ODE TO THE GREASY SPOON

BY JIM SZANTOR

The chili could be malicious and downright unforgiving.  The omelets sometimes look like yellow Play-Doh flecked with foreign bodies.  The coffee isn’t strong enough to defend itself, and the waitress puts the plates down with an offhand finality.  Breakfast served any time.  Eggs any style.  The soup? It’s navy bean.

 It’s easy to put down the greasy spoon, that ubiquitous testament to the tacky and the Tums.  But by whatever name—luncheonette, diner, café, grill, coffee shop, ptomaine parlor—it used to account for 40-50 percent of the eat-out dollar, according to industry sources.  Now?  Not so much, as changing tastes and the sweep of urban renewal have relegated it into a virtual museum piece--a slow-food square peg in a round hole of a fast-food, instant-everything, drive-through and highly hyphenated universe. Some things just sort of happen, with no grand design or Machiavellian malice aforethought.

 But the greasy spoon was a slice of Americana that clung to the fork with nary a nod to fad or fashion.  There were no vegetarian plates, as meat and potatoes carried the day and the night and the mortgage.  The Serv-Naps filed out of their countertop compartments as the daily duet of eat-and-runs and lingerers played their way through an unconducted arrangement.  The beef was “govt.-inspected”—but did it pass?  There was a counter-top jukebox selector, with some pop, some country, some rock but definitely no Rachmaninoff.

You know the place.  Everyone, whether through happenstance, resignation or momentary indifference has ended up at one of these Edward Hopper-esque establishments, clutching a greasy knife or fork. How the spoon, which generally just stirred the coffee, got left holding the bag is a mysteryforever lost in the mists of time.

Whatever their culinary merits, one could develop an irrational affection for the emporiums of this genre.  And they were more than eating places.  Sociologically they could be an over-the-counter salve for the tattered psyches of the urban disenfranchised, who hoped they wouldn’t close on Christmas and trap them in their cheap hotel rooms.  They were sort of halfway hash house social clubs, with no membership list but plenty of dues, where the help was as transient as the trade.

Some of these motley establishments were actually respectable—sometimes good—and do not deserve to be painted in such tawdry tones.  Almost always locally owned, they were probably more consistent at their level than some tonier “destination dining” spots and had a more devoted clientele, who prided themselves on being regulars, never had to state their orders and were probably as good as the National Guard should someone get surly with the waitress.  Perhaps the key to their fate is how many such places are opening these days, not how many are closing.

But while there’s time, the eyes above the menu survey the scene and laugh and marvel at a few things:

--The waitress always looks like she is glad they are out of whatever they are out of.

--The catsup bottle says “restaurant pack,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

--The busboy is a strong man--a bit too strong—but he didn’t shower up with Irish Spring.

--There’s a fill-up-the-sugar-container fetish that is hard to fathom.  Today’s two fingers’ worth on top of yesterday’s two fingers’ worth.  The sugar at the bottom was refined in 1952.

--The “chef” has more tattoos than specialties and thinks “Guide Michelin” plays for the Montreal Canadiens.

--The cream pies and such are kept at a tongue-numbing 33 degrees.

--The sandwich plates are larger than they need to be, but the dinner plates. . . .

--The cashier/owner always seems to be eating ice cream out of a coffee cup on a stool near the cash register.

--They honor the “law” that says coleslaw shall be served in flimsy paper or plastic cups and in minute amounts.

--The spaghetti always comes with “rich meat sauce.”

--The menu always has an item or two that no one has ever ordered.  Who orders Red Snapper in places like this?

--If you want something to go, you have to stand in a special place, probably so they won’t confuse you with people who prefer to eat standing up with their hands in their pockets.

--The floor is usually brown-and-yellow tile squares, in accordance with the Seedy Restaurant Color Scheme Act of 1942.

--Some old guy always comes in about 10 p.m. and orders a bowl of bran cereal.

---The menu is a Sargasso Sea of misspelled names and fanciful if not fraudulent descriptions.  From the Broiler.  From the Sea.  But never From the Freezer.

--The server never fills in all those bureaucratic squares at the top of the “guest check” and writes diagonally across the lined form.  What’s more, she has a Ph.D. in abbreviations.

--One of the customers always looks like he is doing his income tax at one of the tables.

--Somebody always walks by the window and waves in just before he disappears.

--You’re the only one at the counter, and some guy walks in and sits right next to you.

--The french-fried shrimp comes with enough cocktail sauce to cover about two pieces.

--The table’s wobble is always half-corrected with a dirty folded napkin or three.

--The clock is always stopped at something like 2:42.

--The Muzak is always playing something like “Never on Sunday” or “Nom Domenticar.”

--The cook flip-slides the plates across the high stainless-steel counter, and they always stop short, as if equipped with disk brakes.

--The cashier always puts your change down on a spikey rubber thing that looks like an oversized scalp massager.

****************************************************************************

In the early morning lull, after the midnight rush hour subsides, the buzz of the fluorescent now equals the sizzle of the grill as the beat cop walks in and sinks into the house booth.

 “Say, where’s Sally?  She off tonight?”

“Nah, she quit.  Went back with her old man.”

“Oh . . . . Say, you got any a that meat loaf left.  Haven’t eaten all day.”

“Nah, meat loaf’s out.  All’s I got left is thuringer.”

“Thuringer, huh.  Well . . . gimme a piece of that blueberry.”

(Illustration:  Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” 1942)

Forecast Follies (or . . . "Here's Jim with the Weather")

Mark Twain famously said, ”Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” 

And since reports of Mr. Twain’s death were not highly exaggerated, I’d like to fill in for him and address something we apparently can’t do anything about, either—the nonsensical, downright insulting barrage of verbiage issuing forth daily from what used to be called TV “weathermen” (and they were all of that gender back in the day) but are now known as “meteorologists,” as if space rocks were an omnipresent factor in our lives.  As in, “60 percent chance of precipitation by daybreak, with 0.000001 percent chance of meteor collision.”  (Meteor showers do occur, but usually are not perilous enough to cancel your picnic plans. They have yet to be seen in the Bus Stop Forecasts or the Car Wash Advisories that “humanize” these bloated segments.)

The weather portions (there are usually two—a fairly brief “teaser” early on and later, the Big Production) of most TV newscasts are, first of all, way too long (and coupled with all those time-wasting teasers about “what’s coming up,” leave precious little time for what we actually tune in for—news).  We don’t need to know where the Alberta Clipper fizzled, that an El Nino is in mid-formation or that a front in central Montana caused a “dusting” in northern Iowa.  And as for those “pockets of snow” we were supposed to get last night, I looked in mine and, blessedly, found none. But the station has paid serious coin for all of the glitzy graphics and radar capabilities, and by God, they are going to be used, if even just to show us what the rainfall looks like in downtown Racine “right at this very moment.”  Gripping.

And then there is the universal, comically contrived “personalization” factor, apparently de rigueur on all stations. It’s never “Thursday’s forecast,” it’s (ahem), “the forecast for your Thursday . . . .”  One can only envision the rapturous glow viewers must feel when luxuriating in the warmth of that gratuitous pronoun! (As if that forecast applies only to you, no one else. Ah, exclusivity.)

If one were to awaken from a 30-year coma, he or she would probably be mystified not only by cellphones, laptops and GPS devices but also by the existence of a curious phenomenon known as The Weather Channel: All weather, all the time--a nonstop barrage of jargon, gaudy graphics and arcane factoids.  How did we ever exist without it? When it’s a slow weather day (and in this day of acute climate change, there’s always a crisis on the front burner somewhere), footage of past calamities will fill the bill for weather junkies or the aficionados of disaster porn.

Those with (ahem) backgrounds as editors find the nightly weather segments to be cringefests in the extreme.  Temps don’t just drop into the 20s, they “drop down,” as if “dropping up” were a physical possibility.  Is snow or rain in the forecast? No, we’ll have “snow showers” or “rain showers.”  And it’s never just “sun”; it’s “sunshine,” as if that extra syllable ramps up the warmth.  These folks never pass up an opportunity to gild the lily, because we’re often told of the possibility of “rain events” or “snow events,” which leads me, at least, to wonder if I will need a ticket, if there will be guest speakers and if refreshments will be served.  (Spotty Showers?  That was my clown name back in the day, a story to be told when the Vernal Equinox rolls around.  Which this year, in the Northern Hemisphere, will be at 10:33 a.m. CST on March 20.  Mark your calendar.)

But my pique rises to fever pitch in winter, when we’re often told during our seven-month layered-look season to “bundle up,” as if we lifelong Midwesterners have no prior experience with winter weather--as if we had all just parachuted in from Jamaica in our underwear and had no idea on how to adorn ourselves in these brutal climes.  We don’t need to be told how to dress when icicles form—we’ve been there, done that—and resent the insinuation. One of the local weather wordsmiths hails from San Diego, and he’s telling us what to wear?  Outrageous.  I’d like to send him back to sunny California on his surfboard or his skateboard, preferably when the barometric pressure equals the dew point and, optimally, on a jet stream.

More and more women are seen these days holding forth during TV weather segments, and they have proven themselves every bit the equal of the men—long-winded and grammatically challenged. Positive role models apparently are non-existent; the often-parodied “weather bunnies” are blessedly a thing of the past (their anatomical attributes far outweighed their academic credentials), and the first exemplary female trailblazer with any gravitas has yet to be found. 

So please, Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Meteorologist, do us all a favor:  Stop behaving as if you are getting paid by the word, spare me the details about weather phenomena that have no bearing on our locale and, most of all, stop insulting our intelligence.  Chill out, stick to the weather and let us worry about our wardrobes.  Failing that, my fondest wish is that I could take all of you, get you all bundled up and sent to the Sahara.  There’s a 99.99 percent chance that you won’t need an umbrella or have to worry about a lake effect, a polar vortex or banal banter with the anchor desk. 

And now here’s Al with the Sports.

--Jim Szantor  


THE LINK TANK

How 'Dateline' recovered its True Crime crown

When the 32-year-old TV show moved into podcasting, a few key assets helped it catapult beyond tough competition

That numbness you feel? There's a name for it

Empathic distress is all around us

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/01/opinion/israel-war-empathy-pain.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab-en-us

More women exploring midlife sexual fantasy 

Businesswoman behind sex-positive club says appetite for sexual adventure is growing in UK

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2024/jan/01/it-gives-us-control-rise-in-women-exploring-sexual-fantasy-in-midlife

Job? Check. Place to live? Not so much

Lack of affordable housing puts employers in a bind

https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/other/a-job-check-a-place-to-live-not-so-much/ar-AA1k8zsQ

Requiem for a newsroom

Nobody's going to make a movie about reporters and their cursors

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/29/opinion/journalism-newsroom.html

'Tiredness of life'

As scientists race to lengthen life, more elderly itch for early dismissal

https://studyfinds.org/tiredness-of-life/

Near misses, fires, severe turbulence . . .  

What’s happening to flying?

https://www.msn.com/en-us/travel/news/near-misses-fires-severe-turbulence-what-happened-to-flying/ar-AA18ERMu


jimjustplaying

THE SOCRATIC METHOD?

As Socrates famously wrote, "The unexamined life is not worth living." One would well posit  that the unchallenged life is not worth living.  Or, if it is,  not as satisfying.

Most of my music-related activity since leaving the Air Force Band in late 1969 has been as an author and critic, my playing restricted solely to playing along with records at home.

Soloist Jim Szantor as lead alto David Bixler gives the cutoff on the final chord.

But that changed on Aug. 11 when I performed as a guest soloist on clarinet with the fabled Birch Creek Jazz Orchestra, a big band made up of some of the best jazz players in the country, comprising as they do the faculty that teaches the students who come to Egg Harbor in Door County for two-week sessions of intensive training and performance opportunities.  It's sort of a musical boot camp but with kindly but highly decorated instructors.  

My feature spot was "Ballad for Benny" a tune written by the late, great jazz composer and saxophonist Oliver Nelson, who was commissioned by Benny Goodman to write new material for the band's historic 1962 tour of the Soviet Union.   It was such a  significant cultural/political event back then that Walter Cronkite often led the CBS Nightly News with the band's latest exploits.

The 17-piece Birch Creek Jazz Orchestra prior to my introduction.


This tune was recorded by the Oliver Nelson Orchestra (with the great Phil Woods in a rare outing on clarinet instead of his usual lustrous alto sax) but never performed publicly in this country--till now.  If you do an internet search on some of the illustrious players in the band behind me --Dennis Mackrel, Clay Jenkins, Doug Stone, David Bixler, Tanya Darby, to name a few--you'll see why I'm so proud to have been selected to perform with them.


Part of the evening's program.
It was an oppressively muggy night (close to 100 percent humidity) in the un-air-conditioned hall, making intonation more of a challenge than usual. It took some months of chipping away at the rust that had accumulated over the years on my woodwind chops, but I was determined to have one last dance, so to speak, with the idiom that I have loved for a lifetime.  To paraphrase the late Karl Wallenda of the famed aerial troupe The Flying Wallendas, "Life is the bandstand.  The rest is just waiting."  

Luckily for me, the wait is over.



THE QUOTE RACK

The new 'work ethic,' Gen Z style

Gen Z people are treating employers like bad dates: 93% ghost interviews and 87%have not even shown up for their first day of work.

Ghosting isn’t just for dating anymore. Now Gen Z folks are treating their would-be employers like bad dates and not showing up for job interviews or their first day on the job without as much as a phone call.

Employment website Indeed surveyed 1,500 businesses and 1,500working people in the U.K. and found that job ghosting is rife, with 75%of workers saying they’ve ignored a prospective employer in the past year.

But the youngest generation of workers are by far the worst offenders.

A whopping 93% of Gen Zers told the global recruitment platform that they’ve flaked out of an interview.

Worse still, a staggering 87% managed to charm their way through interviews, secure the job, and sign the contract, only to leave their new boss stranded on the very first day.

Their reason for doing so? According to the survey, it makes them “feel in charge of their career."

But it’s having the opposite effect on businesses left high and dry :More than half of businesses surveyed have said that ghosting has made hiring more difficult.

Businesses and millennials are at it too

Although Gen Z are the biggest culprits, baby boomers, Gen X, andmillennials aren't off the hook: Indeed’s data found that everyone isguilty of ghosting occasionally.

Almost half of those surveyed said they plan on pulling a disappearing act again, with a third deeming it acceptable to do so before an interview.

However, unlike Gen Z who feel emboldened by blanking bosses, older workers say they instantly regret it.

Millennials, for example, are most likely to feel anxious after ghosting and worried that ghosting will negatively impact future opportunities.

What’s more, while more than half of Gen Zers are repeat offenders, the researchers found that a candidate’s likelihood to ghost again decreases with age.

Even businesses are joining in: One in five workers complained that a prospective employer has failed to show up for a phone interview, while 23% have been provided with a verbal offer only to be left hanging.

It’s why workers today think that ghosting is fair game: More than half agree that since employers ghost job seekers, it’s okay to do it back.

And, perhaps surprisingly, over a third of companies agree that this sentiment is reasonable.

The data confirms suspicions—and offers a solution.

For many employers, Indeed’s data will finally confirm their suspicions that Gen Z has commitment issues.

Towards the end of last year, an MIT interviewer and finance CEO was so fed up with young candidates not showing up for their interviews that she ranted about it on X—and the now-deleted post went viral.

"One no-showed after picking the time on my calendar, Christina Qi, CEO of the financial services firm Databento and an MIT board member wrote. “Look, I know college isn’t for everyone, but this one meeting could affect where you go for these next four years of your life.”

Like MIT, Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) similarly found that Gen Z is hard to pin down.

The government body was forced to scrap key employment data because young people didn’t bother responding to its telephone surveys.

If employers want to get a hold of Gen Z, Indeed’s data says they should sweeten the deal: When suggesting ways employers could prevent being ghosted, workers ranked higher pay first, followed by better benefits.

Indeed found that the cost-of-living crisis has exuberated ghosting, with around 40% of those surveyed admitting that they're more likely to ghost if they find a job offering better pay or a cheaper commute.

Ultimately, it’s not just about getting the job. For young workers, it’s also about being able to afford to accept the offer.

Gen Zers are being forced to turn down the roles because they can't foot the bill for the expenses associated with starting a new job, like buying work-appropriate attire and a monthly train ticket.

“It’s clear that the financial offer is the biggest carrot for employers trying to attract talent, with pay, benefits and other factors that support the rise in cost-of-living likely to prevent a jobseeker from ghosting," concluded Indeed’s U.K. head of talent intelligence, Danny Stacy.

“Of course, not all businesses will be in the position to increase their offer, but being transparent about the financial package from the outset is likely to prevent jobseekers from ghosting further along the hiring process.”

--Orianna Rosa Royle, Fortune.com

No cash accepted’ signs are bad news for millions 
How many people don’t have a bank account? And just how difficult has it become to live without one? 

These questions are becoming increasingly important as more businesses refuse to take cash in cities across the U.S. People without bank accounts are shut out from stores and restaurants that refuse to accept cash. 

As it happens, a lot of people are still “unbanked”: roughly 6 million in the U.S., the latest data shows, which is about the population of Wisconsin. And outside of the U.S., more than a billion people don’t have a bank account. I am a business school professor who researches society’s transition from cash to electronic payments. I recently visited Seattle and was amazed by the mixed signals I saw in many storefronts. Numerous shops had one sign proudly proclaiming how welcoming and inclusive they were--next to another sign saying “No cash accepted.” This tells people without bank accounts that they aren’t welcome. 

Why would someone want to avoid using banks? Every two years, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation surveys households about their connections to the banking system and asks people without bank accounts why they don’t have one. People can respond with multiple answers. In 2021, the top reason--with over 40 percent of respondents choosing it--was that they didn’t have enough money to meet the minimum balance. 

This is consistent with data showing that poorer households are less likely to have bank accounts. About one-quarter of those earning less than $15,000 a year are unbanked, the FDIC found. Among those earning more than $75,000 a year, almost every person surveyed had some type of bank account. The second- and third-most common answers show that some people are skeptical of banks. Roughly one-third of survey respondents agreed that “Avoiding a bank gives more privacy,” while another one-third said they simply “don’t trust banks.” 

Rounding out the top five reasons were costs of dealing with a bank. More than one-quarter of respondents felt bank account fees were too high, and about the same proportion felt fees were too unpredictable. While many middle-class and wealthy people don’t pay directly for their bank accounts, fees can be costly for those who can’t maintain a minimum balance. A recent Bankrate survey shows basic monthly service fees range between $5 and $15. Beyond these steady fees, banks earn $4 to $5 each time people withdraw cash from an ATM or need services like getting cashier’s checks. Unexpected bills can result in overdraft fees of about $25 each time an account is overdrawn. 

The FDIC calls people without a bank account “the unbanked.” The latest FDIC data shows almost 6 million unbanked and 19 million underbanked U.S. households. Given that 2.5 people live in the average household, this means there are over 15 million people living in a home with no connection to banks, and 48 million more in homes with only a tenuous connection to banks. Combining the two figures means roughly one out of every five people in the U.S. has little or no connection to banks or other financial institutions. That can leave them shut out from stores, restaurants, transportation and medical providers that don’t take cash. 

The true number of unbanked people is likely higher than the FDIC estimates. The questions on being banked or unbanked are supplemental questions added to a survey given to people at their homes. This means it misses homeless people, transients without a permanent address and undocumented immigrants. These people are likely unbanked because you need a verified address and a government-issued tax-identification number to get a bank account. Given roughly 2.5 million migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2023 alone, there are millions more people in the cash-only economy than the FDIC estimates.

While the U.S. has relatively high rates of people with bank accounts, the picture is different in other parts of the world. The World Bank has created a database that shows the percentage of each country’s population that has access to financial services. The World Bank’s definition of being banked is broader than the FDIC’s, since it includes anyone who uses a cellphone to send and receive money as having a bank account. Overall, the World Bank estimates about one-quarter of the world’s adults don’t have access to a bank or mobile-phone account. 

But that varies dramatically by region. In countries that use the Euro, almost everyone has a bank account, while in the Middle East and North Africa, only about half the population does. A more inclusive economy Many of us swipe our credit cards, tap our phones or insert a debit card to pay without thinking. However, there are at least 6 million people in the U.S. and almost 1.5 billion worldwide who are unbanked. When businesses stop accepting cash, the unbanked are forced to use payment methods like prepaid debit cards. 

However, these prepaid cards are costly. For example, Walmart, one of the largest U.S. retailers, offers a reloadable basic debit card. The card costs $1 to buy and charges $6 per month in fees, in addition to $3 each time someone wants to load the card with cash at Walmart’s registers. Paying a minimum of $10 just to set up a debit card for a few purchases is a steep price. The next time you see a sign in a shop or restaurant window stating “No cash accepted,” you’re really looking at a business excluding many unbanked and underbanked people. Insisting that all businesses accept cash is a simple way to ensure everyone is financially included in the modern economy. 

--Jay L. Zagorsky, Clinical Associate Professor of Markets, Public Policy and Law, Boston University 

The pain of social rejection

“I’ve been ostracized,” Ellen told me, tearing up.

A decade-long member of a small and tight knit group of friends, she suddenly found herself persona non grata. The decision to cast her out was orchestrated by Tina, the alpha female of this klatch, someone she had considered a close friend and confidant.

“To say I was shocked is a gross understatement,” she reported. “Over the years, I was there to support Tina through her divorce, then a job loss and, just last year, a health crisis. I always had her back.”

“Do you know why she turned on you?” I asked.

Ellen’s attempts to get a straight answer to that question proved futile. Tina ended their final conversation by coldly stating that the “cost benefit ratio” for maintaining their friendship was no longer sufficient, but she never provided a clear rationale, leaving Ellen to ruminate about “Why?”

Empty Talk

The other members of this social confab told Ellen they wished to remain friends, but it proved mostly empty talk. Many of her invitations to socialize were turned aside with lame excuses, and when meetings did occur, there was a decided emotional chill in the air. Ellen imagined that Tina had not only kicked her to the curb but also poisoned the well.

“I’ve been surprised by how painful this has been,” she told me.

I was not. For most of us, social rejection proves among the more intense emotional wounds one can suffer. In fact, research shows ostracism can be more distressing and wreak greater psychological damage than bullying, intimidation or harassment. More than a few suicides, many by children and teens, can be attributed to this social tar and feathering, much of it exacerbated by social media.

“Two things are at work here,” I told her. “Being rejected is one thing, and that’s bad enough, but when you aren’t given a plausible reason, that makes it far worse.”

Studies show emotional suffering, whatever the source, is exacerbated by not knowing why it is happening. One’s distress seems meaningless and unjust. If Ellen had been afforded a rational explanation for being cast out, her hurt would have been somewhat easier to bear.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this,” she lamented, and rightfully so.

Move On? 

If you’ve ever had one or more of the important people in your life cast you out into the interpersonal cold while also failing to provide a cogent explanation for doing so, you realize how challenging it is to let go and move on. In her struggle to cope, Ellen ping-ponged between trying to forgive and practice compassion and feeling consumed with anger and bitterness. She recognized that resentment is a self-inflicted wound that only amplifies one’s suffering but was unable to transcend it.

As social animals, being ostracized stabs at the heart of foundational human needs, such as belonging and acceptance, and it undermines self-esteem. This causes myriad ill effects, including depression, grief, bitterness and even an inflammatory reaction in the body, and these impacts can persist for long periods of time.

“What can I do?” Ellen pondered.

“You can find someone else who has been shunned and include that person in your life,” I suggested.

And she did. Ellen befriended someone in her workplace who was excluded for her unconventional appearance, and then another from her church who was ostracized by the other congregants for what they perceived as her moral failures. In helping them salve their respective emotional trauma, she experienced some healing of her own.

Gradually, Ellen developed a mindset described by Oprah Winfrey, who said, “I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want me.” An attitude that may sound cold but one with the best odds of moving past the deep wound of social rejection.

--Philip Chard

Telling 'the youngs' how life was like

Dinner table conversations have Gen Zers asking their elders: How did you meet up with people? How did you find what you wanted to buy?

Between the lines: Even people who did grow up pre-internet find it increasingly hard to recall how things worked.By today's standards, things were more boring and inconvenient. You couldn't find the answer to whatever question popped into your head, and you couldn't reach anyone, anytime.

"Many who lived through these 'Dark Ages' will tell you how life seemed less busy, less stressful, and more enjoyable," Christopher McFadden writes on the news site Interesting Engineering. People got together in person more often since they couldn't text or Zoom.
Boredom begat creativity and useful ideas. 
Pop culture was a lot less fragmented since everybody had to watch shows when they aired.

--Axios PM

Why won't corporate America answer the phone?

When I recently called an MRI facility about an overcharge, a prerecorded voice told me, over and over again for 45 minutes, that call volume was “unusually high” and, by the way, the weather was compounding a labor shortage.

On another recent day, I needed to resolve a problem with a company with no listed phone number at all — which is how I found myself furiously pounding the keyboard in conversation with, yes, a chatbot at a vegan meal delivery service.

It shouldn’t be this hard to speak to a human. But, increasingly, companies large and small are making it difficult to access a real, live person when help is needed. Contact numbers are hard to find. Wait times to speak to an operator are long — one industry analyst estimated the average wait tripled from 2020 to 2022 and says he believes they still are a third worse than before the pandemic. Some phone lines are seemingly staffed entirely by robots, forcing you to go through menu after menu in quest of a live, real person. Or, increasingly, companies don’t offer a telephone option at all.

This is not simply inconvenient. It’s contemptuous. And consumers pay the price in emotional aggravation, in precious time and in literal money, as people give up on legitimate financial claims because they are unable to surmount the barriers in their way.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Abraham Seidmann, a professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “It’s a major abdication of corporate responsibility.”

Companies say they are reducing options for human contact by popular demand. They claim customers often prefer a virtual option — so said Frontier Airlines after it recently ceased offering customers access to live phone agents, directing them to text, chatbot or email instead. But as the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, Frontier is simultaneously telling its investors that call centers are “expensive,” while use of chatbots eliminates the customer’s ability to negotiate.

There are nods to surveys showing millennials and Gen Z’ers prefer online contact. (Little wonder, since they’re naturally phone-shy, but it’s worth noting that they have also come of age in a world of dreadful phone service.) Employers also say that in the post-pandemic world, they can’t hire enough help.

All of this is, for the most part, excuse-making. If there are humans clamoring to end customer contact, it’s the ones in the c-suite, where the suits are happy to save a few pennies on call services at your expense.

“I don’t want to put nefarious intent in people’s mouths, but I’m positive that a lot of these companies looked at it and went, ‘Hey, our service levels went down [during the pandemic], and we didn’t lose customers over it, so let’s keep them a little lower. Let’s see how hard we can make this before they start pushing back,’” says Jeff Gallino, the chief technical officer at CallMiner, an analytics firm.

A survey by OnePoll in 2021 found that more than two-thirds of respondents ranked speaking to a human representative as one of their preferred methods of interacting with a company, while 55 percent identified the ability to reach a human as the most important attribute a customer service department can possess. “When people are anxious or have problems, they really, really want to talk,” says Michelle Shell, a visiting assistant professor also at the Questrom school. “You need human contact.”

As for the claim they can’t find willing employees? Yes, turnover is traditionally high in the call center industry, and even higher in the wake of the Great Resignation. On the other hand, given that call centers are located around the globe, that’s quite the worker shortage.

What’s really going on here is a question of power. Increasingly, leverage belongs not to the customer paying the bills but to the company offering the needed service — sometimes one for which there is no competition. Foisting the work onto the consumer is a bet that the customer has no other options or won’t choose to exercise them. And often, that bet is a good one.

None of this to say is that it’s always necessary to speak to a human. It’s easy enough to make a restaurant reservation online. But we need a human touch when things go wrong. We want help, not to spend hours looking for a useful phone number for Facebook (in case you were wondering, it doesn’t exist) or navigating endless phone trees.

There are some models for better regulation. In 2018, for example, California passed legislation mandating that chatbots disclose when there isn’t a human on the other side of the conversation. But there is no pending legislation in Congress that demands companies offer a human point of contact.

The difficulty of reaching humans for customer support is an imposition on both our time and our finances, forcing us to spend what can be hours of labor — sometimes known as shadow work or a time tax — to resolve what should be simple problems. It’s one factor contributing to the sense that we as American consumers are fighting our battles alone, as so much prey for Big Business. And it’s not so unreasonable to say we deserve better than that.

--Helaine Olen, Washington Post