Wednesday, April 23, 2008

News of the World or Fashion Statement?

A new line has been crossed blurring what is supposed to be a source of news and unbiased reporting and the ever present and truly all-powerful commerce. Back in the day Edward R. Murrow and his kind balked at blending the news with anything else. There was a sense that democracy was built upon an informed populous making it at least difficult for the powers that be to get away with things which were for the good of the few and the powerful and not the many and the deserving.
There is a great line from the play “Inherit the Wind”. A cynical newspaper reporter says the job of good journalism is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. It is more difficult to do this if you are worried about the bottom line. So, in the grand tradition of journalistic integrity the Cable News Network, better known as CNN, now makes it possible, with a few clicks of your mouse, to buy t-shirts printed up with the headlines from their website. The r.p.m.’s recorded as Mr. Murrow spins in his grave if harnessed on a turbine could light up the eastern seaboard as well as recharge my iPod for as long as I live. (Okay, so I threw a little something in just for me. Is that so bad?) This may not be a sign of the apocalypse or even an indication that we can no longer trust all news organizations. But, it’s darn close.
The next question I have to ask is: Who wants these t-shirts? Here are a few of the headlines available as I look at the website: “Pacing man stuck 41 hours in elevator”, “Synchronized swimmers faint in unison”, “Blind man grabs, pummels intruder” and “Rep calls workers ‘illiterate peasants’”. I’ll admit, the one about the synchronized swimmers is a bit of a giggle, but that doesn’t mean I want it emblazoned across my chest as I walk around the supermarket.
Whatever happened to the good old days? Remember when the smiley face populated many a t-shirt? This was long before it became an icon for the shameless greed of a certain retail establishment, which reported a profit of $12,731,000,000. No, my finger did not get stuck on the zero key on my computer. That is what Fortune magazine reported. It is not just what they brought in. It is the PROFIT even after they paid their C.E.O. an obscene amount of money which he and the six generations to follow him could not spend on anything but vile excess.
Back to CNN’s t-shirts. If we are going to trivialize the news, which often trivializes people’s pain and suffering, why not go whole hog? The Time-Warner Corporation (which is a distant 48 places behind the smiley face behemoth on the Fortune 500 list, making a measly profit of 4,387,000,000) could use a profit booster. They could use the headlines to make a comedy show with the headlines as the inspiration for the humor. For example: Pacing man stuck 41 hours in elevator suddenly realizes he was in his closet all along and feels most embarrassed for all the 911 calls he made. Synchronized swimmers faint in unison is a four second sight gag. Blind man grabs, pummels intruder and when police arrive they find a bruised, disheveled and disoriented UPS guy and a red faced blind man. Rep, meaning a state representative duly elected to the state house of Colorado, calls workers ‘illiterate peasants’ recants statement when he realizes just because he can’t read the language they use doesn’t make them illiterate, but rather, it just makes him an idiot.
The frequently asked questions page on the CNN website pertaining to the t-shirts proudly states, “With CNN Shirts you can wear the news.” They fail to say it would be much cheaper to fold this very issue of the Daily Globe into one of those Admiral Lord Nelson hats and wear that, than to spend fifteen bucks on a “high quality American Apparel t-shirt” sporting the words “Baby falls twenty feet onto postal worker.”
Here is, hands down, the most pathetic frequently asked questions I have read on any computer screen: “I took my CNN shirt on vacation and I have great pictures. Where can I send them?” I swear that is word for word off the website. You can look for yourself ( As for where he can send it I would have to suggest the level of purgatory in which people are forced to watch vacation slide shows for eternity.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Baby, that's expensive...

If I listen to the experts (and more particularly the marketing people) it is amazing I grew up without being unhappy, stupid or dead. Do not get the wrong idea. My family was an excellent group to grow up with and learn from. The issue is there wasn’t any of the stuff available then which is so intensely necessary to create happy, smart, and safe babies.
I slept in a crib which had gaps between the bars daring me to wedge my head through them and sustain an injury. My mother did not place musical speakers on her belly and play Mozart piano concertos to me prenatally thus increasing my intellectual powers exponentially. (I must be somewhat smart, because I use words like “exponentially” in a sentence, but I am not sure if the plural of concerto is “concertos” or “concerti”.) Many of the toys I played with were not academically designed but simply appealed to my imagination, gasp. I had wooden blocks (maybe even with lead paint) metal toy trucks and later in life an erector set with metal edges more efficient than a Ginsu knife.
Okay, I will admit moving away from choking hazards and other health and injury risks is a step in the right direction, but the baby product industry has gone well beyond that. I found a crib on which sells for $1,780. For that price is should not only double as a changing table, but it should actually change diapers. Speaking of changing tables, there was a very basic one made of teak for a mere $358. Considering that many baby experts (meaning experts about babies, not experts who are babies) say changing a diaper with the kid lying on the floor is the safest way to do it. Unless you are changing little Timmy at the top of a flight of stairs there is nowhere for him to fall if he is already on the floor.
Car seats are necessary. As a parent I always had my kids in car seats. Getting a car seat properly secured in the back of a two door Ford Escort requires Cirque du Soleil contortionist skills and the strength of a very unhappy Bruce Banner. (For those of you who grew up only reading educationally sound material, Bruce Banner is the mild mannered alter ego of the Hulk. See what you missed listening to Baby Einstein tapes and reading Charles Dickens for the Little Dickens.) A benefit is the occasional output of warm moisture spreads over the lining of the car seat rather than the pants of the parent. A drawback is the ability to soothe an annoyed baby tied like a teeny-Houdini into the car seat on a nine hour car ride to southeastern Missouri required listening to music tapes which would make Barney wish he was with his extinct brethren at the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits.
My wife and I took our babies for an outing in one of those lightweight umbrella strollers. You know the ones with wheels stolen from old shopping carts meaning one goes hard left at all times. It folded up for easy storage in the hallway so you tripped over it nightly. Now there are strollers made by a company named Bugaboo which cost $900 and come in a range of colors including sand. Here is another stroller listed on Amazon: Peg Perego Uno Convertible Carriage to Stroller System in Moka. It sounds more like a complex order at Starbucks.
There is even a heading at Amazon for the “Green” baby. This does not mean a baby who has eaten way too many jars of Gerber’s green beans. (Actually, one of my children was so fond of Gerber sweet potatoes and carrots she turned a bit orange.) It is referring to a little baby Al Gore who wants to be a good steward of the environment. One “green” product is Seventh Generation Chlorine Free Diapers. I think the marketing guys need to head back to the drawing board. A diaper is definitely one thing which should not be handed down for seven generations.
Here is the final product I found which made me go, oy. There is a kit you can buy to check the alcohol level in breast milk. In a mere two minutes a new mommy can see if her night on the town alters her output from “Got Milk?” to “Always smooth never bitter”.

Friday, April 11, 2008

It Never Seems to be Enough

There always seems to be something to want. I bet Bill Gates, who has more money than there are reasons to hate Bill Gates, wishes for something. I would like to have the skill set possessed by LeBron James, but I bet he still wishes for something (probably a good point guard). Tom Hanks has won two Oscars, seems happily married, and is financially set for life, but he might still want a writer to come up with the perfect big screen version of his sitcom Bosom Buddies. Okay, maybe not. True contentedness probably doesn’t exist.
When you think about it there are so many things to want it just makes sense to always feel like you are missing something. A person can want material goods, like a fancy car, the newest electronic doo-dad, or the complete library of Rocky and Bullwinkle on DVD. A person can want deeper understanding of the world around them, like answers to the eternal questions. What is the meaning of life? Are there intelligent beings beyond this planet? Why does Ben Affleck keep getting cast in movies? A person can want intangibles, the ability to paint fabulous works of art, an insight into human beings creating a talent to help people face the demons of their psyches, or the power to cloud men’s minds and show all that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit. (A fifty point bonus for the readers who know what hero did that.)
Just this week, I found myself wanting something which really would make no genuine difference in my life. I wanted the Kansas basketball team to win the game. There is no reward coming my way. T. Boone Pickens is not going to offer me millions of dollars to start rooting for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Mark Cuban is not going to draft me and pay me a huge salary to be a fan of the Dallas Mavericks. I won’t even get a free hat touting the ‘Hawks as the 2008 National Champions. I knew all that going into the game. I sat next to my daughter on the couch appearing to be a very calm person when suddenly I reached over, grabbed her shoulder with one hand and her knee with the other. I shook her hard enough to rattle her teeth and said, “I really want to win this game.”
Why? Why, would watching young tall people run up and down a wooden floor tossing a leather spheroid through an iron hoop more adeptly than another group of young tall people make my life better? I don’t know. But, you know what? I think it did. It was great fun. I yelled when Mario hit the three like I had just been named supreme ruler of Dodge City (meaning I get to decide where the special events center goes). I was keyed up for a long time after the game so I couldn’t sleep. I have to admit I was pretty smart. I had arranged for a vacation day for Tuesday well in advance…hmmm, maybe I should be the one to decide where the special events center goes.
I do understand why some people just don’t get fired up about sports, but I think they are missing something. Sports can be a unifying thing. The Friday before the Final Four was to be played a whole lot of people where I work wore KU shirts. This included people who are far more inclined to wear purple cats than crimson and blue birds. There was a bond. We are not talking about suddenly having Serbs and Croats sharing straws in a malted milkshake at the drug store, but there was camaraderie.
I can remember sitting in my family’s living room and watching the Jayhawks win back in 1988. I can see my father sitting in his recliner as we cheered Danny and his friends over the hated Billy Tubbs and the Sooners. My father and I had a good relationship so it is not like the only thing we shared was sports, but it was something we shared when I was in the room with him or hundreds of miles away pretending to be an adult. I am lucky enough that I watched Monday night’s game with my daughter. We too have a good relationship, but since she is a teenage girl she is therefore as foreign to me as, well, as a teenage girl. They were foreign to me when I was a teenage boy and matters have not improved with age.
I got the victory I wanted, but I still want more stuff.

Christopher Pyle would like to be discovered by a literary agent and given a huge advance on his first novel. All of the agents out there can reach him at

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Doing the right thing ain't always easy

Morality: a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong, whether by society, philosophy, religion, or individual conscience. As a father and an educator I spend a lot of time trying to instill the idea of right over wrong.
Recently I listened to a documentary broadcast from a New York public radio station (WNYC’s Radio Lab) all about the concepts of morality. Here is a morality conundrum discussed on this show, which is frequently used by scientists working with how people decide right and wrong.
There are five workers toiling away on some railroad tracks. There is a train headed their way. They are oblivious to the danger. You cannot get their attention. You have two choices. You can do nothing and allow the five workers to die or you can pull a lever which causes the train to go onto a side track where there is only one worker. Saving five, yet sacrificing one. The great majority of people asked this question say they would pull the lever.
Then there is a twist to the next question. There are still five workers facing impending doom. The new wrinkle is you are now standing on a bridge over the tracks. There is no lever, but there is a rather large man standing next to you. If you push him off the bridge he will land on the tracks which will cause the train to stop, saving the five workers. The great majority of people asked this question would not push the man.
The math is the same. Sacrifice one for the sake of the five. The difference seems to be how comfortable people are with the degree of “hands on” the sacrificing of the one is. What the scientists asking the question failed to do was go into more depth. If the rather large man standing next to me on the bridge is loudly singing “It’s a Small World” I would be much more likely to push him.
Let’s step away from the scientific, ivory tower version of morality and go more real life. What I am always trying to get across to children is that people should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because you get paid off. Unfortunately, the “what’s in it for me” mentality seems to permeate the culture.
I remember reading in some educational journal about a teacher of first grade kids. She was proudly describing how she would distribute Skittles (bite sized and, if I might say so in a blatant hope that someone from the Mars candy corporation will read this and send me a couple of free cases for giving them a plug in my column, a very delicious candy) to her class for behaving correctly. The problem for me arose when she just as proudly stated that when her class started acting up all she had to do was lift up her jar of mouth-wateringly delicious (maybe three free cases?) Skittles and shake it. The noise would cause the kids to get back on task.
Does anyone else out there find this frightening? Seven year old children are doing what they are supposed to do because, like seals in a circus, the “trainer” will throw them treats. This teaches them the only reason to be good is because you’ll get paid off. No concern about kindness, ethics, or even that selling your soul for bits of sugar, corn syrup, and hydrogenated palm kernel oil is actually pretty cheap.
I also have visions of this poor teacher forgetting to go to the store one Monday morning and her candy supply is gone. Her students progress from slightly unruly to focusing the sun through one kid’s glasses to start a fire using the math books as kindling while the poor teacher, who is tied to a stake, keeps violently shaking an empty jar. Lord of the Flies, all for want of a two dollar and ninety-nine cent bag of candy.
One quote from the radio documentary was, “If you remove empathy from the morality equation it all falls apart. It’s just a bunch of rules.” This seems pretty obvious to me. If I cannot understand what it feels like to have a hive of angry bees duct taped to my thigh what is to stop me from doing it to someone else. If it was just an e-mail from my boss saying I should not duct tape a hive of angry bees to another person’s thigh I might still do it.