Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Ol-Factory

I had a conversation with a seventh-grader this morning, in the midst of a field trip bus ride, that caused a long-forgotten fragment of memory to break loose and float around in the forefront of my mind.

The bus was careening eastbound on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and passed the exit interchange that as a little guy I always associated with home. I pointed out a set of office buildings on either side of the Pike that hadn’t even been built when I was small. My seventh-grade colleague, whose father works in the town we were passing through and so is probably more familiar with the area than most of his schoolmates, asked if the Mall had been there.

Oh yes, I said; the Natick Mall was indeed there during my youth. My mind flashed back to the indoor fountain; the Woolworth’s store dead in the middle of the place; the Spencer Gifts store which contained gifts a bit too adult for my grade-school self to look at; the rather poorly-lit York Steak House restaurant which featured cafeteria-line-style service, which somehow engaged this elementary-school kid’s imagination like no other fast food joint of the time; and the Sears and Filene’s department stores anchoring the mall at opposite ends.

Not the current Natick Collection, mind you. Not the overgrown, overengineered, over-upscaled, under-parking-lot-laden monstrosity that dominates Route 9 in Natick, then and now among the most densely-populated commercial zones in America.

Time was, you could pull off Speen Street, making a sharp right turn off the road, park your car in an actual parking lot, and get out and walk straight into that Woolworth’s – rather efficiently, in fact, without needing to negotiate labyrinthine patterns of access lanes into the current carpark which mysteriously doesn’t seem to actually park many more cars than did its gently-rolling asphalt predecessor.

And then I got remembering what was on the other side of the parking lot from the Woolworth’s entrance, and the entrance to the Sears hardware department, and the set of double doors that led into the mall (and past my childhood barber of choice).

It was a low-lying, probably-not-more-than-two-story-tall brick building, probably at least two football fields long. It was knocked over many years ago now, in order that a glitzy luxury-apartment complex could be built as an enticement to businesses to join up with the new and improved Natick Collection. Or was it that the Collection was being built to entice people to go live in the new apartments? I lost track. Either way, there are still big ol’ signs saying “Apartments Available”, even now. A good effort, I guess.

The building they knocked over was the Wonder Bread manufacturing plant.

On the Speen Street, mall-parking-lot-entrance end of the building was in essence a bakery outlet store; but the remainder of the building was, honest to heaven, where they made the bread that then was sent out to supermarkets in those clear plastic bags with the cheerful blue and red and yellow dots all over them.

If you timed it right, and if the wind was blowing from the right direction, the aroma of freshly-baked (often freshly-baking!) bread could pick you up and carry you from your car into Woolworth’s.

It was in that building that I smelled the strongest smell of my life, then and now.

 

When you’re a Cub Scout, you take all kinds of predictable field trips with your Cub Scout den. Ballgames, bowling, birthday parties, hikes, all of that. Whoever was the Den Leader during this particular school year (I was probably in the third grade) came up with an alternative field trip idea: let’s go tour the Wonder Bread plant.

I will admit that I don’t remember a whole lot of specific details from that tour, other than the behind-the-scenes, pull-back-the-curtain excitement, for which even now I am a complete sucker. But this I do recall: we were led from one rather typically vast, factory-floor-looking space toward a smaller chamber which exuded a golden-yellow glow, visible through the small square windows two-thirds of the way up each of the double doors. Our tour guide said, “get ready,” and the doors opened, and we walked in.

If an aroma is capable of pile-driving its way through your nostrils and straight into your cerebral cortex, then that’s exactly what this aroma did. The smell that was generated by literally tons of bread dough, sitting in Volkswagen-sized troughs, being treated with industrial-intensity yeast (or at least that’s what I think our tour guide was saying, as we passed through the doors) … would have stopped a charging herd of buffalo in its tracks.

A complete Den of Cub Scouts suddenly could hardly take a breath, the aroma was so intense. We wanted to, because it was Bread Smell! And Bread Smell is good! But perhaps the Cub Scout lesson of that day was that there actually can be too much of a good thing.

When we emerged, holding our collective and individual breath, from the doubledoors at the opposite end of that Chamber of Golden Glow and Olfactory Smackdown, it was with mixed feelings, I think: the smell of clear air was a decided relief … and yet not nearly as interesting as the almost-terminal-intensity wheat processing.

We earned our All Things In Moderation badge, that afternoon.

February 28, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Have We Learned?: Sochi Edition

And so the 2014 Winter Olympiad has come to a close. Its latter half happened to coincide with my school vacation week … which meant that all those pie-in-the-sky thoughts about how productive I could be went straight out the window (in the manner of movie heroes, which is to say with a battle cry and a shattering of glass). “What’d you do on your week off?” Olympics, and naps. Period.

And, as many of my Facebookian friends noted (with varying degrees of sarcasm), I couldn’t seem to accomplish the sports-watching part of vacation without expressing myself on social media.

And now that the Fortnight is concluded … time to assess. Here I offer my badly incomplete list of answers to the question “What Have We Learned?”, using as circumstantial evidence a selection of my social-media contributions, snarky and otherwise…

[1] I am capable of holding to disparate ideas in my head at once. On the one hand, it’s yay sports! On the other hand … this set of Olympic Games had more baggage than a 767 cargo hold.

I hate that my Olympics-watching is going to have such constant and overwhelming subtext, this time ’round.”

NBC is walking the tightrope this fortnight… the Sports division needs these Olympics to get great ratings and so must sand down talk of controversy and stupidity that may occur… and the News division (if it’s still that) will have to report on it. All under one corporate roof. Hmm. Brown water or gold medals?”

I would hate to think that Bob Costas’ tantalizing open about spending air time on the controversies … might turn out to be a head fake.”

Here’s a weird one for you: given all the stories of brown water and roofless hotels, and even though so many of the Sochi photos I’ve seen appear to be in grayscale even when they’re color photos… I was relieved and weirdly comforted to hear John Williams’ and Leo Arnaud’s brass fanfares played correctly.”

[2] The Olympic community … or at least the community of Olympians … made effective commentary about the various Russian laws pertaining to our LGBT brothers and sisters. There was at least one American car commercial that contained small visual clues about just how much the world may be shifting in this regard. (Cynically, one could suppose that the ads were done by rather large corporations that perhaps were seeing which way certain winds were blowing and decided it was in their best business interest to give those winds a nod. Hey, whatever works.)

Prior to the Opening Ceremonies: “Just thinking of the possible musical accompaniment choices ahead tonight. So many great Russian composers. I can’t help noting Mr. Tchaikovsky’s, um, orientation.”

During the Opening Ceremonies, the German team enters Fisht Stadium wearing undeniably rainbow-hued warmup suits. “Because,” I noted with a gentle air of snark, “all those colors are in the German flag somewhere.”

[3] And speaking of which … the Parade of Nations is still my favorite part of any Olympic Opening Ceremonies. I love the Parade of Nations. So much can go wrong, and right, and not just in terms of national-team clothing choices.

Parade of Nations wooooooooo! (Thumping Euro techno soundtrack not so much wooooooo.)”

“I do intend to be something other than snarky, during this Olympic fortnight. So let me put it this way: I’ve discovered a circumstance in which I will appreciate NBC’s choice of background music. #EuroTechnoRave #makeitstop”

Bermuda! … … … shorts.”

Get me a closer look at the outfit of the Kazakhstan flagbearer. Intricate stuff. Neat.”

“All the Olympic Christmas sweater jokes have been done.” But, not long after that post … “I’m going to go right ahead and give the Ugliest Opening Ceremony Outfit Award to Team USA, even before seeing the remainder of the nations. Now that I’ve seen everybody who came in beforehand, it’s fair to wonder ‘who greenlit that project?’”

I would hate it if the country of my heritage marched in while NBC was in commercial. Especially if the whole Ceremony was *on tape delay anyway*. (Turkeys.)”

[4] My opinion of Russian president Vladimir Putin did not start out especially high, and over the course of the opening evening it did not improve. The longer the Opening Ceremonies went on, the more often the cameras cut to him, and the less I liked him.

Mr. Putin’s applause for athletes of Ukraine was … tepid. Compared wth, oh, everyone else in the joint. Hmm.” And then, shortly thereafter: “Oh. My mistake. Putin applauds for everyone like that. (‘Ho hum; you’re not ME.’)” … “With every new view of Vladimir Putin on the TV this evening, my admiration for him diminishes further. Sorry, all.”

Here’s the thing about all the protests against Russian policies about LGBT folks (uniform choices, sign waving, clever TV commercials, government leader absences, etc.): ultimately they have a chance to make a difference everywhere except the actual Russia… because *Putin doesn’t give a wet slap what you think.* That is his real ‘schtick’.”

[5] NBC, by merely covering these Games, opened itself up to Media Criticism. Inevitably, whatever they did was going to be admired by some and detested by others.

I suspect NBC hired the same color commentator for cross-country skiing as it did for track and field. No need to shout and bellow, guy, no matter how hard a charge that racer is making. You have a microphone to help make it seem like *we’re right here next to you.*”

My only beef with Mike Emrick as a hockey play-by-play guy? Every shot, *every* one, is a potential overtime game winner.”

Biathlon (featuring staggered starts, therefore staggered finishes) announcer: ‘Garanichev is first across the line and he has the lead!!’ … I can well imagine.”

Maybe I’ve been watching at the wrong moments… but I have yet to see an actual medal ceremony. Is it just bad luck here?”

Today’s curling announcer is a more secure person than last night’s: he’s willing to suggest that some shots are good shots. Last night everything was a disaster and Announcer Guy wouldn’t have made *that* decision.”

Pretty high GE points for the NBC announcers Emrick, Milbury and Mlescko (sp?). They’re a hoot together.”

Different announcers for ice dancing tonight than earlier today. Lipinski and Weir were oddball fun, but whoever this is … is actually informative.” … “When Sandra Bezic is announcing the ice dancing… I feel like I’m *learning something* about the sport.” … “It’s not often– no, I take that back. I have never before agreed with every single thing a skating commentator says, all night long. Sandra Bezic makes total sense to me.”

Oh … yes … the actual athletic competitions.

[6] Some winter sports will not end well if I try them myself.

I just discovered another Winter Olympics sport that I would have zero aptitude for: slopestyle. Zero zilch nada.”

I don’t think I’d like to be *either one* of a luge doubles team.”

If I want to do seventy miles an hour on a downhill grade… I will also want a car around me. Have to admire these lunatic skiers.”

When I spin around and around and around, I get dizzy. Figure skaters and freestyle skiers and snowboarders appear not to. How IS that?”

[7] I renewed my attraction for ice dancing. (Not since Torvill and Dean, etc.)

Full disclosure: my dad was an ice dancer for a while.”

Why I like watching ice dancing but not so much regular figure skating: if figure skaters fall, it’s no wonder. If ice dancers fall, the world has ended.”

Goodness. The US ice dancing Shibutanis, cuurently (via tape delay) look Very Very Young.”

Maybe this is wishful thinking. But it looks as if these Olympic ice dancers actually, y’know, *like* each other.”

I know I’m supposed to be rooting for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and I am. Go USA and all that. But Virtue and Moir are just too cute. Hee hee.”

So tonight we’re up to about ’47th Street’ and ‘Sing Sing Sing Sing Sing Sing Sing Sing Sing’, I think. Makes you appreciate [Davis and White’s short-program musical choice] ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ that much more.”

Virtue and Moir ice-dance *close to each other* (i.e. how it’s supposed to be done) better than almost anybody. Bravo.”

Meryl Davis and Charlie White appear to be (gasp) actually having fun out there. Yay kids.”

‘Their temperament is a bit more… artistic,’ says Sandra Bezic of Virtue and Moir. What’s that a euphemism for, I wonder?”

[8] I still have what for many of my friends is an inexplicably dogged interest in the sport of curling. Which, admittedly, is a little like chess on ice.

Norway men’s curling: PANTS.”

US men’s curling captain John Shuster wasn’t exactly the Charlie Brown of the Vancouver Games four years ago… but he wasn’t far off it. Today… he got a win. And so begins the winning streak, yes?…”

US vs. Russia in men’s curling. The Russians are wearing these *pink paisley* disaster-area pants. C’mon, guys, you’re a lot of things but Norway you ain’t.”

One of the US curling women is this year’s oldest US Olympian. Age 45. Younger than I. #hadtohappensometime”

I never want to give any nice lady cause to yell at me with the force [with which] those curling women give each other advice.”

[9] Short-track speed-skating is just as nuts as I thought.

Small but crucial suggestion for next Olympics’ US speed skating suits. Aerodynamics aside… can we not have contrasting-color crotch panels? Looks like something important gave way.”

Oh yes, I remember now: the 5000-meter short-track relay race is the one that looks utterly, irretrievably *insane*.”

Short track speed skating seems an exciting but exceptionally cruel sport: train for four or eight years, and have it all taken away in half a second by the yahoo next to you who can’t keep *his* balance.”

[10] I already opined in this space about Bode Miller’s post-bronze-medal-winning-race interview experience. Later in the week, I had occasion to acquire a bit of perspective.

For the record, you gotta hear Christin Cooper comment on the *actual skiing*. She knows her business and can point out details that’ll teach you something new.”

[11] The earning of a silver medal, in certain Olympic activities, requires an individual or more often a team to be great for most of two weeks, and then to have their final act be a defeat. With regard to the US women’s hockey team, yes, you will see an equally dejected bunch of athletes – every time anyone loses the gold-medal match in anything. Whether that match featured controversy or not.

Give credit to Canada… down 2 goals with 3:30 to go, and they didn’t give up. Also be honest… that was two separate [Canadian] 5-on-3 power plays in the same *overtime* period… in the *gold medal* game. Words may indeed fail me.”

[12] Not long after that, I found myself watching medal-round matches and pulling for (in no special order) the US hockey women and men, the Great Britain curling men, and the Swedish curling women. And I began to sense a pattern. They all lost. To Canada.

Advisory to all participants in Winter Olympic team sports: if I root for you, you … are … doomed. (Just so we’re clear.)”

[13] Apparently, nothing happened during the Sochi Games, in spite of my early worries about security and geopolitical matters (read: terrorists) and such, to disrupt the competitions and other events. Certainly nothing that rose remotely to the level of the horrible days of the Munich summer games in 1972. Assuredly the NBC coverage showed none of the protests that were reportedly occurring in and near Sochi. But …

This has nothing (at this time) to do with political leanings. Just a question: I wonder what it would be like to be a Ukrainian athlete at the Olympics right now?”

NBC did not follow through on its promise to spend significant air time on the various controversies that surrounded the Sochi games. But they did take one moment, late in the Fortnight, to note that while the Games had gone on as planned, security-wise, they wondered whether the competition had really fully rid itself of the spectre of the still-repressive nature of the Russian government and its laws and policies: “Interesting to listen to Bob Costas ‘poke the bear’ a little bit there.”

[14] But through all the political controversy, and all the speechifying full of platitudes about international sportsmanship and cooperation that are set to rest by even one silver-medal-winning skater grousing about the judging or the coaching or the ice conditions or something, … I find that Olympic competition is great for at least one reason: with the not-insignificant help of the home-country media, one can discover (or be helped to discover) athletes whom one otherwise would never have heard of, whom one may find admirable. During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China, for me it was US crew coxswain Mary Whipple. In Sochi last week, it was unquestionably the US’ youngest gold-medal-winning skier, Mikaela Shiffrin – a stable and humble head on her shoulders, and two very slippery skis beneath her.

Glad to see that puff piece about Ms. Shiffrin, before she rocketed her way down the hill just now. Seems like a decent kid.” … “And in a post-race interview she makes a *funny*. Dang.”

Two years to Rio. In the wake of which we will probably not see all the “low-income housing” areas of town on the teevee coverage, but we’ll probably end up watching the whole thing anyway. I want to say something like, “and that’s okay,” … but it certainly won’t be.

This world is no more or less complex or controversial than it was in 1972 Munich, or 1968 Mexico City, or 1936 Berlin. But this much is true nonetheless, I think: Games like this can create opportunities for athletic people to parlay years of training (often accompanied by great personal and financial sacrifice) into Great Moments in their lives, whether they win gold or just skate in the rink.

[15] That, at least, is enjoyable to see.

February 25, 2014 Posted by | blogging, civil rights, current events, entertainment, Facebook, Famous Persons, government, Internet, media, politics, social media, sports, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is A Time And Place For Everything, And This Is Not It

Hey!

It’s me.

I know. It’s been a while. About a month, in fact, since I last offered up any pearls of wisdom in this space. (Some might argue that as for the pearls, it’s been much longer than that.)

The last time I went this long between blog items, I supposed that the gap had not been caused by a lack of inspiration, or interest in writing. Plenty of subjects have jumped up in the last month and said, “write about meeeee!” But I found that most of them were worth about one Facebook status post. In this space, I average between a thousand and two thousand words per post. Maybe it’s because I look at these blog posts as surrogate newspaper columns. After all, that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, at about age 12 … a swashbuckling newspaper columnist. Three times a week and an expanded column in the Sunday color supplement! I don’t write mere one-liners. I write substance.

Or I try.

Also, well … the Winter Olympics.

Folks who have the misfortune to be connected with me on the local Book of Face will have noted that during Olympic fortnights … I, um, don’t get out much. For every televised ice dancing twizzle, every bobsled skid, every hockey line change, every eye infection, there Must Be A Status Post!!

So it might be hypocritical to suggest that it’s best to pause and reflect before posting on this blog, if I continually join the rest of couch-bound humanity in Facebook-reacting instantly to whatever is on the teevee right this second. Don’t I repeatedly remind my students that “not everything merits an instant verbal response”? I do indeed.

But there are times when it’s probably best to pause and reflect. To hold off. To keep the knee from jerking.

A couple of nights ago on the NBC Olympic primetime telecast, there was a moment of squirm that got my attention because it took none of those exit ramps.

 

American downhill skier Bode Miller had just rocketed his way down a mountain some miles outside of Sochi, Russia … posted a possibly-medal-worthy time … and then stood watching as skier after skier, about two dozen of them in all, followed him down the hill. However many seconds it takes for two dozen skiers to ski that course, times about a thousand, is how long it probably felt to Miller, until all the results were recorded and he could be sure that indeed, he was going to be able to stand on a podium and have a bronze medal wrapped around him.

And, as is always the case when such events are televised, before he could enjoy the medal-application, he was obligated to do one more tiny thing: get interviewed.

Former US skier Christin Cooper was in the “sideline reporter” role for NBC’s ski coverage that day. There are usually very few post-event interviews that will win awards with Edward R. Murrow’s name on them. And of those few, nearly none are conducted by people who are thrust into the role of journalist by way of erstwhile athletic prowess. So Ms. Cooper had a number of factors working against her to begin with. Not her fault.

Cooper asked Miller how this, his sixth Winter Olympic medal, felt different than the others he’d won.

Cooper: “For a guy who said the medals don’t really matter, they aren’t ‘the thing,’ you’ve amassed quite a collection. What does this one mean to you in terms of all the others?”

Miller: “This was a little different. With my brother passing away, I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sends it. So this was a little different.”

Miller was referencing a difficult subject: his younger brother, Chelone, died last year after apparently suffering a seizure which may have been related to a brain injury suffered in a previous motorcycle accident.

Cooper followed up on this – as a good journalist would, whether she’d had prior knowledge of this subplot or not.

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here. What’s going through your mind?”

Sadly, this was a clunker of a follow-up question. Regardless of whether the audience had been alerted to the emotional baggage Miller was carrying (and NBC had made certain that its audience had, in spades), a proper follow-up question might have veered away from generic cliché and toward more establishment of context. Help your audience. But Cooper isn’t the only sideline reporter ever to ad-lib an interview question that failed to rise to the level of Shakespearean prose.

At her question, Miller’s composure slipped. It took a long while before he could muster a reply.

Miller: [long pause] “A lot, obviously. A long struggle coming in here. And, uh, just a tough year.”

At this point, I expected Cooper to observe that the interview was probably right on the edge of over thanks to Miller’s imminent inability to find his voice. I also expected her to head for the vaguely gracious “congratulations on a terrific race” and throw it back to her two colleagues “in the booth” somewhere nearby. The cadence of the average brief post-race interview had been adhered to. Wrap it up, let the other two voices create an audio transition while the camera lingers on the racing hero for a couple of beats, cut to the final-results leaderboard graphic, and we’re home free.

None of that happened. Cooper continued. I, a veteran of numerous journalism classes and televised sporting events, froze. I had a sudden sense that this train was in danger of vacating the rails.

Cooper: “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly experiencing these Games; how much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him? And was it for him?”

Miller: “I mean, I don’t know it’s really for him. But I wanted to come here and uh — I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.” [pauses; wipes tears from his eyes]

Okay, so we’ve really established that this is an Up Close and Personal Emotional Moment, the kind that network teevee completely adores. We have reached inside, past the Game Face of the Olympic athlete, and discovered that the athlete is in fact a human being, and does in fact have emotions, and we have witnessed them … in brilliant high-definition. Now we can wrap this up, at a level of only six out of ten on the Uncomfortable Scale.

No we can’t, apparently.

I heard Cooper draw breath, as if to speak again; and I heard myself, reflexively, and with complete lack of self-editing, whisper toward my teevee set, as if that would help, … “Oh my good Lord, please, back off!”

Time to stop being an investigative journalist – or whatever Cooper was in great danger of becoming. Time to be a sympathetic human. This is not 60 Minutes. You are not Bethany MacLean going after the Enron “smartest guys in the room”.

Cooper: “When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it just looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?”

I can’t remember the last time I heard that much “dead air” on primetime network teevee.

Miller physically could not answer the question. He sank to his knees and hung on to the fence that separated the competition area from the press. Cooper’s voice could be heard whispering “…sorry,” but it was too late. By what felt like several weeks.

 

The online Twitter universe essssploded. My Facebook timeline did likewise. In the next few hours, both Cooper’s journalistic skills and her essential character were assessed equally harshly.

And I could have leapt to the blog machine and joined in; might have cranked out a critique of her performance that would have made her ears bleed, from nine time zones away.

But it was late, and I suddenly just wanted to crawl into bed (also, the better to get up at Absurd O’Clock the next morning and watch the all-important US/Switzerland men’s curling round-robin match) (don’t judge; I’ll go another 47 months without this stuff). I opted to let it rattle around in my brain a bit and go find a transcript the next morning, so as to see if I’d heard what I thought I’d heard.

But as I closed down my computer, a thought occurred to me: there are at least two possible scenarios at work here.

One is this: Christin Cooper took whatever meager journalistic skills she may have had … and set them aside, seeing an opportunity to instead become no better than a gossip columnist, digging in on that one gap in Miller’s armor and ensuring an emotional scene that would make great headlines or great video. Lookee: I got a scoop.

Another is this: the suits in the corner offices at NBC Sports knew about Bode Miller’s brother way ahead of time. And they decided that if they could possibly find a way to bring that subplot fully into focus somehow – in any way that had more impact than any mere pre-packaged human-interest video segment – then they should do so. Great for ratings. And word was sent down to the broadcast personnel assigned to Miller’s races: “this is what we need. Get it.”

It could well be the latter scenario, since what I was watching that night was the re-broadcast of video that had aired live, earlier that day. Sochi is nine hours ahead of 30 Rockefeller Center. The producers and editors at NBC had up to nine hours to look at the raw video, make a couple of assessments, and decide what they wanted to air during primetime. And it’s possible, even likely, that somebody at NBC Sports (whose humanity license needs to be revoked) watched Cooper’s interview at least once, probably twice, maybe even thrice, and decided … “it’s perfect. Run it. As is.”

Welcome back to this week’s episode of “I Can’t Decide What’s Worse”!

The arguably hyperbolic backlash against Christin Cooper’s performance may or may not have been misdirected; but it was definitely not insignificant.  Because it came from decent human beings who instinctively felt the need to push back against a broadcasting decision which might have been placing “great teevee” higher than simple decency.

February 18, 2014 Posted by | blogging, entertainment, Famous Persons, journalism, media, sports, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments