Saturday, June 16, 2007

Chinese Scooters and Paper Cranes

Last Tuesday I closed the deal on a barely used scooter, one of those knock-off Chinese faux Vespas. So for the past four days, sweaty of gloved palm, I've been riding around Portland on red alert, sporting a day-glow orange, hooded sweatshirt that you'd have to be blind not to see.

Talk about exposed.

Two days after my purchase, I read reference in David Reinhard's Oregonian column that he rides the very same model scooter. I happen to know David, disagree with him intensely and like him a lot. Yes, it is possible. Hint: He's a lot more personable than he comes across in his columns. So a call to David about his experience with the TN'G Milano (uh huh...) is in order. I'm hearing from reliable sources that I should expect "quality issues." David and I need to talk about things just possibly more dangerous than George W. Bush.

So far, I am having a fun adrenaline rush scooting about ever vigilant in a world of hazard — potholes, near-sighted drivers, loose gravel and wet, oily pavement.

The whole host of dangers is graphically described in the Oregon Motorcycle Driver's manual. Reading this dark little pamphlet is a little like reading the surgeon general's report on cigarette smoking. With this grim tract out there, it's a wonder there are any scooters in the state.

In an inelegant, disconnected transition from scooters to Origami, it's time to report that I've now tried my hand at folding peace cranes. I got lucky on my first attempt, a diminutive pink birdlike wad, but can't seem to replicate it. My plan, as reported earlier, is to fold (without spindling and mutilating) a string of cranes to "decorate" our Hillsdale bus stop's "Army Strong" recruiting sign. The goal is to make one paper crane for each of the 80 Oregonians who have died in the Iraq War.

It may take a while.

Tomorrow in the Farmers Market, while patrons savor chocolate-dipped strawberries, I'm hoping some patient soul will drop by my peace table and show this hardened visual learner a fool-proof way to turn a square piece of paper into a peace crane.

I know it can be done.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reading while waiting for the floor to dry

One of the best parts about volunteering for the annual Hillsdale Book Sale is getting to browse through the books as they come in.

This morning the ever-helpful Don Baack and I power-washed the grungy floor of the abandoned gas station where the sale will be held on Sunday, July 29.

After Don had left with his power washer, I sat on the station’s front step next to the five boxes of donated books we had moved out during the power washing. Now I waited for the floor to dry before moving the boxes back inside.

I reached over and picked up the top volume from a stack of old American Heritages. Dated July 1958, the hard-bound coffee-table issue presented an intriguing mix of articles and art.

Here was an excerpt of a Woodrow Wilson biography Titled “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson.” It was written by an author, Herbert Hoover, who was no stranger to presidential ordeals of his own. And, as Hoover reminds us, he had shared in much of Wilson’s own turmoil during World War I, the peace negotiations, and this country’s bitter rejection of League of Nation membership.

The local connection was obvious. Two blocks from where I sat is Woodrow Wilson High School, and perhaps 35 miles away is the boyhood home of Hoover in Newburg.

The nearly half-century old American Heritage volume offered another regional connection in the form of an article titled “The Legend of Jim Hill.” Hill was the bigger-than-life driving force behind the building of the Great Northern Railway. He went on to acquire the Northern Pacific as well and wage the “railroad wars” of central Oregon with railroad rival Edward H. Harriman.

Jim Hill is not to be confused with Sam Hill, who established the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia Gorge. Nevertheless, their lives intertwined as Sam married Jim’s eldest daughter after he went to work for Jim Hill and the Great Northern.

I’d like to be able to report that by pure serendipity, The Red Electric, which once stopped a stone’s throw from where I sat, figured in all this railroad history. But the distinctive looking (see header photo) interurban train was part of the Southern Pacific system. And that’s another story altogether.

But there were personal connections to think about as the floor dried and I turned the pages. As a Quaker, I noted that my doorstep reading had led me to two Quakers. Directly through Hoover and indirectly to Sam Hill, who also built the Peace Arch on the US-Canadian border.

The other find in the box next to me was a 1935 Graham Green novel that I had never heard of, I fondly remember reading most of his work by kerosene lantern when I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya in the Sixties. This Greene novel was titled “The Shipwrecked.” The reason for its obscurity is that it is better known as “England Made Me,” the title under which it was first published. The book was made into a 1973 film under its original title. It starred none other than Peter Finch and Michael York. I’d never heard of the film either, but on-line reviews suggest that it is worth a look.

Patch by expanding patch, the floor soon dried. I pulled down the three heavy sliding garage doors and drove home in the drizzle, wondering what riches the next load of donated books might yield.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Froot Loops and Red Boxes

They’ve done it again. Both the New York Times and The Oregonian have put a major media story, affecting millions of kids, on their business pages.

The story is that Kellogg Co., under pressure from a lawsuit brought by child health advocacy groups and two parents, is phasing out its advertising of sugary, fat-laden foods to children under 12.

The company will also stop using branded toys and cartoon characters to market products that fail Kellogg’s nutritional guidelines. A whole host of Kellogg’s products fail to meet the guidelines: Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies, to name the most familiar.

So much for food that’s “fun” to eat.

So why, pray tell, is this a business story? Because it might affect Kellogg’s stock? Because rice manufacturers might take a hit?

No, this is a story that belongs on the front page in 48 point type. Parents need to see it far more than investors do.

Couple the story with the surge (there’s that word again) in childhood obesity over the last few years. Food like this and inactivity caused by screen addictions and physical inactivity are the causes.

The business page of The Oregonian featured another related media story worthy of the front page. “Happy Meal and a McDVD to go” reads the headline. Seems that McDonald's patrons soon will be able to rent DVDs from vending machines at McDonald’s outlets.

The story carries a photo of a rotund woman selecting a DVD from one of the bright red vending machines. “Happy Meals” could well be her staple. One can hope, although it is unlikely, that she intends to watch her DVD while on an exer-cycle. According to, she’ll need to exercise for 91 minutes to burn off the 600 calories in a “Happy Meal.” If she’s into cheeseburger Happy Meals and soft drinks, which appears likely, she can add another 30 minutes on the bike.

But because this to is written and presented as a business story, the connection between “Happy Meals” and DVDs and obesity is unacknowledged.

By the way, McDonald’s founded the DVD rental company, Red Box, spun it off but still owns a large share of it.

It’s a deadly combo.

The larger question, and the one that is hard to track unless you have the stomach for a lot of TV, is how, and whether, these stories played on television. Most people in this country get their news from television, which may explain the fix we are in.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Loose ends: the States of War and Journalism

About that Army recruiting sign at the Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway bus stop.

Based on honking and thumbs up signals at our Friday evening peace vigils at the corner, I’d say that sentiment against the war runs about 85 percent in and around Hillsdale. One way to pull the plug on this war is if no one signs up to fight it.

So should Tri-Met confer with communities before selling advertising on transit display space in neighborhoods? Should, for instance, the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association be able to nix Tri-Met advertising for an “Adult shop” (a curious term, that), Wal-Mart or Army recruiting?

The other perturbing aspect of the advertising is that we, the taxpayers, are paying for it. But then we are paying for all of the Bush war misadventures, including contracted torture, privatized armies and new military bases around the globe.

A recruiting ad on a bus shelter is admittedly small change. Still, we have to begin somewhere — why not at the local bus stop?

Regarding the plight of “Old Media” and journalism education.

I’m sure the irony of my relying on “Old Media” for my updates on the demise of “Old Media” hasn’t escaped readers. Consider me a transitional figure. Unlike people under 30, “Honored Citizen” that I am (another curious term), I get my news from print. And like piker interested in disseminating his or her prose, I write about media and (too) many other issues largely on-line.

I probably have another year to go as a newsPAPER reader. I still like the way turning pages gives me just an instant’s moment for reflection. It can make a difference.

Finally, as someone who has taught journalistic writing for nearly 40 years, I believe there will always be a need for journalism courses in high schools and colleges. Journalistic writing teaches students to write for a diverse, unseen audience — certainly more diverse and unseen than their solitary teacher. I tell my students to write for me only as an editor, not as their teacher. Their real readers inhabit the world beyond the classroom.

The discipline of journalistic writing also demands clarity and conciseness, qualities sorely missing in much writing today. Significantly, the Web demands those qualities even more than print does.

Further, the craft of journalistic writing teaches the young writer how to reach readers where THEY are, not where the writer is. For many young people, that is a huge developmental leap — and one to be encouraged.

Finally, journalistic writing teaches accuracy, healthy skepticism and fairness.

Even though journalism may be in crisis (it was always thus), its skills are in great and growing demand and should be taught widely, vigorously and unapologetically.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Journalism's death and resurrection

The New York Times reported Tuesday morning that fewer mid-career journalists are applying for prestigious sabbatical fellowships. The reason: They’re afraid that they might not have jobs waiting for them when their sabbaticals end.

Case in point, in an adjacent Times story: The San Francisco Chronicle’s management is slashing away at the newsroom. In mid-May bean counters announced they were cutting about a quarter of the newsroom staff — 80 union and 20 management jobs.

So what’s going on? A short answer: falling advertising revenues and readership.

And Craig’s List. Classified ads were once the bread and butter of the newspaper business. No more. The real buying-and-selling action is on-line, and it’s free. (Confession: I just bought a motor scooter on Craig’s List and have sold a half dozen old typewriters there.)

So, with dwindling revenues to pay for the news, where are we going to go for it in the years (months and weeks ahead), and who is going to pay for it and will it be reliable?

In a sense each of us will end up editing (selecting) our own news from the gaggle of news and information (and rumor and hearsay) on the Web.

Perhaps we need some “Good House Keeping” seal of journalistic approval. Someone is bound to try it. But let’s face it, the Press has always been a grab back at best. And dead wrong at worst.

Consider how Mainstream media caved to public pressure and patriotism (some might call it jingoism) and gave George Bush a free ride after 9-11. If ever a vigilant Press was needed, it was then. Instead we got flag-waving, chest pounding and drum beating.

So the news never comes with guarantees. “Reader beware” then, now and forever. Never mind which medium — print, TV, radio or the Web.

Back to those fellowships going begging from pink-slip phobia. The Times quotes Boyce Rensberger, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at M.I.T, saying: “I feel a little queasy encouraging young people into journalism. It’s such a precarious business right now.”

I think Rensberger means “Old Media” journalism is a “precarious business right now.” Actually, it is moribund. As for “New Media” journalism, it's mysterious. No one has come up with a business plan that produces both profits and excellence.

Maybe this new media gives us the opportunity to finally break the business-model mold. How about not-for-profit news that answers not to advertisers or stockholders, but only to the public — a vigilant, demanding and, yes, outspoken public.

Significantly, that’s exactly the kind of public that the interactive, burgeoning Web is attracting and making possible.


Try “revolutionary.”

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 11, 2007

From one conflict to another, with love

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult. E. B. White

Before sun-up Saturday morning I altered the Army recruiting sign at the eastbound Tri-Met bus shelter/stop at Capitol Highway and Sunset Boulevard.

Beneath the sign’s “Army Strong,” I duct-taped a home-made sign reading “War is Wrong.” My small sign covered up the phone number of the recruiting office.

My actions left me conflicted. In fact the whole Army sign gestalt was, and is, a bit crazy-making.

Where to begin?

I have no great love of “outdoor advertising,” as the billboard industry likes to call its handiwork. It diminishes the outdoors.

Nor am I fond of public agencies foisting advertising on a captive, transit-riding public. I’ve actually testified on the matter of “sponsored” streetcar stops. And, in a related lost cause, I told this spring the Portland City Council to abandon the idea of selling naming rights (a form of advertising) to parks facilities.

The recruiting sign raised yet another issue —the little matter of war and the sleazy way the Army goes about recruiting kids who are, well, weak, and vulnerable to pitches like “Army Strong.” Add to that the irony of the Army’s macho description of itself as it tries desperately to keep up its troop strength — and morale.

Of course the sign, which is back-lit and glows at night, is attached to a bus-stop shelter heavily used by Wilson High School students, notably ones who take the bus.

So that’s one side of my conflict. The one that led me impulsively to put “War is Wrong” over the recruiting phone number.

The other side is that I have been known to rip down signs that are placed illegally on utility poles and in the public right of way. My garage is full of signs for 1-800-GOTJUNK, College Painters, Avoid Foreclosure and Jobdango.

Some consider me a zealot in this matter. They are right. I am.

So there I was staring at my illegal alteration of the Army recruitment sign, liking my message but feeling vaguely hypocritical.

I went away to think things over for a while. After two cups of coffee, my misgivings hadn’t disappeared.

Journalists have this rule that if something you write doesn’t sit well, delete it. That’s what I did with my amendment to the sign. Three hours after I did the deed, I undid it.

But I’m not finished with the “Army Strong” sign just yet.

I’m now toying with “improving” it by memorializing it. I have in mind making a string of those origami peace cranes. One crane for each of the more than 80 Oregonians who have been killed in Iraq. My idea is to festoon, ever so gracefully, my string of cranes around the margins of the sign.

People can make of it what they will.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Flying Alarm Clock meets E.B. White

So here I am leafing idly through the most recent Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, a point of entry into the minds of those who think they have everything but are about to find out that they don’t.

For instance, they don’t have:

“THE WORLD’S SMALLEST INDOOR REMOTE-CONTROL HELICOPTER.” For what? Reconnaissance of those hard-to-see cobwebs perhaps.

“THE 75-MILE RANGE THUNDERSTORM DETECTOR.” A must-have for the deaf who can’t hear thunder beyond five miles and feel a real need to know. Then again, they could go on-line to check out the local weather, but that’s not nearly so much fun as one of these little cherry-red detectors, with, mind you, an AC adapter and hard carrying case. A mere $429.95. Cheap at the price.

“THE FLYING ALARM CLOCK.” Turns out the clock doesn’t actually fly; it just launches an honest-to-God rotor when the alarm goes off. Again, very useful if you are deaf (I know of what I speak, but can’t hear). Next? For the really unresponsive, thick-skinned sleeper, expect HS to come out with a clock that launches an inter-bedroom ballistic missile. And next, an anti-inter-bedroom-missile missile.

Related item, “THE RUNAWAY ALARM CLOCK.” Let the catalog tell the story: “This alarm clock rolls away and hides from you when you hit its snooze button, yet it still emits a random pattern of beeps and flashes….”

And finally, “THE LOST ITEM HOMING LOCATOR.” I can relate. With this one, the “memory challenged” attach a special receiver tag to keys, glasses, hearing aides and the handheld transmitter searches them out when they are, ahem, misplaced. Problem: what happens when you lose the handheld transmitter? It happens. Coming soon in the next Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue — “THE LOST HOMING LOCATOR LOCATOR.”

There’s a lot more. Eighty pages of a lot more.

And now the strange part. Stunned by the very weirdness of it all, I put down the catalogue and stagger off to bed, where I pick up E.B. White’s “The Second Tree from the Corner,” a 1954 compilation of his writings. This particular bed-side volume is a 1984 republication with a new introduction by White. Still, he’s writing his introduction 23 years ago, at the age of 84.

On page two of the introduction, White is writing about a woman who was arrested by a game warden for living in a pup tent pitched in the Maine woods. The authorities, here I quote White, “turned her over to a mental health institution, presumably because the tiny tent contained nothing much to suggest civilized life, not even a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue in whose pages she would have learned of the many conveniences that are available today to any right-minded woman — a portable dry-ice maker, an ultra-sonic cool-mist humidifier, an English heated towel stand, an electronic wine guide, a digital alarm pillbox, an electric kitty litter box, an oversized electric heating pad, and a cordless electric peppermill. To the wardens the tent must have seemed bare indeed.”

White’s list left me doubly stunned.

And doubly perplexed. What happened to the woman? Do I need a Flying Alarm Clock?

Labels: , ,