Blockbuster Stores Folding

Another mainstay of my early adulthood seems to be going, going gone.  On the way up High St. to church this morning, I passed the Blockbuster store at High and Hudson Sts., and there was a giant GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign in the parking lot, and all the inventory was on sale.

I can’t remember the last time I rented a video.  During the last few years, I’ve mostly borrowed them from the public library, because the wait is well worth the money I save by doing so.  (It’s very rare that I’ll go to a first-run movie.  The last two first-run movies I’ve seen are Zodiac and Howl.  This year, it will definitely be The Conspirator.)  I would try renting from Netflix, but their pushiness when it comes to advertising has been a turn-off for me.  They definitely have a product I would use, but seeing their ads pop up all over my laptop screen has the opposite effect.

Much like other technology, I was a latecomer to the world of videotape.  I bought my first VCR from my friend Ivan at Ohio University in the spring of 1987.  He owned a Panasonic OmniVision which his parents gave him as a Christmas present when he was still in high school.  Ivan was, like many students, desperate for money once spring rolled around, so he sold me his ancient top-loader.

My first VCR.  Since I’ve never had a first car, I’m likely to be more sentimental about this.

In 1987, it was not common for all homes to have a way to record television shows.  Only the newer dorms (the ones on New South Green) were wired for cable in the individual rooms, and Athens was in a valley, so getting TV signals out of the air was next to impossible.  This meant I was making many trips to the video store on Stimson Ave. once I hooked the OmniVision up to my black-and-white TV.  I showed my friends the standard issue, such as the Star Trek movies, but used it also as a chance to show some of the classics of many genres.

That summer, I lived in a rented room above the Dairy Barn in Carthage, a neighborhood in the Mill Creek Valley just north of Cincinnati.  I was working (too few) hours as a typesetter at Feicke Web, producing the Homefinder magazine, a journal of real estate listings, and The Woman CPA, a trade publication.  As soon as I was settled in my new summer quarters, I joined the fledgling video club at the convenience store a few blocks down.  After work, I usually stopped there to pick up my usual dinner fare–a pound of cold meat, three cans of beer, and a loaf of bread.  Their selection of movies consisted mostly of action films–Chuck Norris, Schwarzenegger, the various Rambo and Rocky pictures.  Occasionally, when I plowed through the detritus, I found occasional gems.  This store was where I first rented Stand by Me and Psycho III.

By the time I had returned to Athens that fall, one of my friends had bought a VCR as well.  I went to Radio Shack and bought a set of patchcords, so if one of us had a movie that we wanted to own permanently, that meant we’d bring the two machines together and dub them onto blank VHS tapes.  (We knew there were criminal penalties for doing this.  How much did we respect this?  When showing movies in my room, a pre-movie ritual was everyone reading the warning aloud as it scrolled up the screen.  Occasionally, I would dub laugh tracks onto the warning.  I thought the worst-case scenario was brief incarceration in one of the minimum-security prisons with the golf courses and tennis courts.)

I’ve owned and worn out several VCRs in the meantime, both in my bachelor days and during my marriage.  I have narrowed down my collection of VHS tapes considerably, and finally own more DVDs than I do tapes.  I should probably shell out a little money to get the equipment to convert VHS to DVD, but it’s been on my “to do” list for quite some time.  (Yesterday, I mailed a VHS tape of the movie That Kind of Woman–based on a short story by my friend Robert Lowry–to a friend in Cincinnati so he could convert it to DVD for me.)

When I lived in Cincinnati, I very briefly considered buying a Beta video recorder.  It was at a yard sale, on sale for about $2, and Beta tapes occasionally still appeared at junk stores and library discard sales.  (This was when I was first becoming interested in old-time radio, and saw people ecstatic over getting three-record sets such as National Anthems of the World and pro-Bund propaganda broadcasts of the 1930s.) In some rare self-restraint, I opted not to, although I once had a Betamax ad hanging in my bedroom as a kid:

I knew it was unrealistic to expect our family to buy a Betamax–not where my father considered trips to the doctor and dentist unnecessary luxuries–but I loved an ad that acknowledged people who loved to watch late movies on TV, as I did at the time.

In the pre-Internet area, I frequently baffled the clerks at the Blockbuster stores in both Cincinnati and Columbus with my requests for odd titles.  Many stores provided PhonoLog listings of tapes that were available, and I would go through them whenever new pages arrived, looking in vain for B-movies I vaguely remembered from Channel 3’s All Night Theater when I was a teen.  (That Kind of Woman has yet to be released as a DVD or tape.  I obtained my copy only after joining a Sophia Loren fan club through Yahoo!Groups, and someone there was nice enough to dub me a copy.)  Even the older clerks and cashiers were completely baffled when I asked if they could order Gene Tierney in Whirlpool or James Stewart in Call Northside 777.

One industry that home video practically destroyed was the pornographic theater.  I live in Weinland Park, and it is close to the one- or two-block stretch of High St. called the Garden District, so named for the now-vacant Garden Theater, which was an X-rated movie and burlesque establishment.  When home video became the norm, people could watch their smut in the privacy of their own homes, and not have to feel embarrassed when a friend, employer, or clergy person saw them coming out at the end of the show.

When I lived in Boston, the one section of town I tried to avoid was The Combat Zone, on the edge of Chinatown and near the Tufts Medical Center.  As you can read here, I was wise to do so.  (I wasn’t always 100% successful.  Since I had no medical insurance with my job at The Harvard Crimson, I often went to the Medical Center’s free clinic whenever I needed to see a doctor.)

Arriving in Boston very low on money, but very much full of piss and vinegar, I decided to jump into freedom and independence with both feet, and applied for a job as a cashier and clerk at a smut bookstore on the edge of the Zone.  (I stopped in after an appointment at the Tufts Medical Center.)  The owner was straight out of central casting.  He wore a shirt that may have been white when Woodrow Wilson was President, a green eyeshade, his sleeves were balled up around his elbows, and he had a cold cheap cigar hanging from one corner of his mouth.)  I asked for a job application, and he passed me a clipboard and a ballpoint pen, I filled it out, and he hired me right on the spot, as long as I could pass a police check.  (The Boston police was keeping an eye on the area for prostitution and drug trafficking.  The outcry about bulldozing The Zone rose to high-decibel levels starting in 1976, when Andrew Puopolo, a Harvard cornerback, was fatally knifed outside a bar.)

I remember vowing to tell my dad that I had gotten a job “in a bookstore.”  Since it was Boston, there were more bookstores than gas stations, so I didn’t need to elaborate on what type of bookstore it was.  I was also relieved that my job did not involve mopping the floors of the private video booths in the rear, where you could spend a quarter to watch about 45 seconds of grainy 8-mm. smut footage.  (The owner elegantly described my job: Keep the minors out, make sure the “jerk-off technicians” didn’t shoplift the merchandise, make sure no drugs or child pornography were changing hands.)

But my career as a ground-level pornographer was not to be.  A day or two after I was hired, the owner called me and asked if I could start the job that night.  I said sure, but I was curious about the urgency, since I wasn’t supposed to start until a few days later.  He was quite casual about why.  The cashier who normally worked that night was shot the previous night during a robbery.  Could I work his shift while he recovered?

Suddenly the minimum-wage job washing dishes in a Brookline delicatessen sounded so much better.  I’m a zealous defender of the First Amendment, but being shot in a smut bookstore wasn’t as noble as publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The big question is what will occupy the soon-to-be-vacant Blockbuster site.  I can tell by the building’s architecture that it was at one time an A&P, another dying breed.  (The last one I saw was in Queens in the late 1980s.  The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company is no longer a corporate giant.)  Vacant buildings are much more the norm than the exception in many commercial neighborhoods in Columbus, and it seems that many businesses disappear overnight.  Denise’s Ice Cream, located in Clintonville, a place where I went with Susie and her friends many summer evenings after the pool, has closed.  I learned about this only as Susie and I were headed north for choir practice at the Unitarian Church, and I happened to look out the bus window and saw a big FOR RENT sign in Denise’s front window.

The day the last brick-and-mortar bookstore closes will be a day when I will truly grieve.  Borders’ Columbus stores are selling to the bare walls.  Coming home from church today, I saw a guy on the corner of High and Henderson holding a big EVERYTHING MUST GO! sign for the Borders on Kenny Road.  I am not as unhappy about the demise of McBookstores like Borders as I am about the small, privately owned stores.  The New Yorker best illustrated the problem in this cover:

Cards on the table: Even as I take to task for driving so many independent book dealers out of business, before I began typing this entry, I ordered a second-hand DVD of Exorcist III from a dealer via, at a cost of about $3.  The other side to this coin is the Website Abebooks, which has rescued many independent bookstores from total oblivion by expanding the customer base worldwide.  Several bookstores who were barely breaking even from foot traffic saw profits skyrocket when they listed on Abebooks, when customers from around the country (or world) began ordering.

Wishing I Was More of a Techno-Nerd

Since I last posted, I learned how to download pictures from my new (to me) DXG camera.  That was how I was able to share the pictures and YouTube footage I shot at the “Kill the Bill!” rally at the Statehouse on Tuesday.  Until yesterday, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that this camera features the ability to record audio files.  Between the lens and the shutter, there is a small microphone, and close to it is a speaker about the size of the nail on my pinkie.

Currently, I’m a little more than halfway through a taped letter (as in magnetic recording tape) to a friend in St. Louis, a tape I’ve been promising to mail him since before Christmas.  As I’ve been spending my breaks and lunches with my Memorex portable cassette recorder in my hand, I’ve also been wondering about the possibilities that the audio feature of my camera open up to me.

One thought has crossed my mind, the possibility of occasionally posting spoken-word entries to this blog.   I have made very short-lived attempts at keeping taped diaries in the past, never lasting more than a few days.  I was most prolific when I was carrying a microcassette recorder with me most of the time, a machine that has since conked out on me, but which I will replace this spring.

But for the moment, I am stymied as to how to proceed.  I made small sound files last night, of about 30 seconds’ duration max, consisting of little more than “Testing one, two, three.”  I was able to load them to the laptop, but how to get them from the hard drive to the blog is still a mystery to me.

And maybe it’s supreme arrogance on my part to think my life is so worth chronicling that I should endeavor to record it in yet another way.  I already have a voluminous diary, and I think that paper will ultimately keep longer than computer files.  I have this blog, which I’ve kept for four years (including its time on LiveJournal).  So do I need to turn on the microphone and open a vein?

I pondered this for awhile at work yesterday and today.  The surface of my work table here at home is too cluttered (beyond just the usual genius-at-work scattering of papers), but I did manage to clear away some of the detritus that has clogged my L-shaped desk at work.

Quite an odd assortment of inspirational figures.  I’m the only one who could hang up Abraham Lincoln, Jack Kerouac, Elvis, and Fritz the Nite Owl all in one space.  The picture of Susie is a school picture from second or third grade.  And, even though I make snide comments about my hometown of Marietta, Ohio whenever I can, a post card of the banks of the Ohio River, with Front and Greene Sts. in the foreground, hangs where I can see it many times daily.

Some more of the decorations adorning my pod wall.  Susie’s “mug shot” was from when she was in Bugsy Malone, Jr. at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts.  I didn’t have the money to buy a framed print of this New Yorker cover, so I hung up the original magazine cover.  The cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit hangs above a picture that a third-grade Susie drew (“I ♥ Chess”) of a chessboard and its pieces.

The only way I can guarantee not losing a memorandum or procedure list is to tack it to the wall, where my eyes will eventually light upon it.  This means there is usually very little cloth exposed.  Sergeant George Baker  published a comic called “The Sad Sack” in Yank, The Army Weekly during World War II.  One strip showed the hero of the strip at a paper-laden bulletin board.  He keeps burrowing deeper and deeper into the items tacked there until finally, by candlelight, he sees a yellowed order: “All men will fall out promptly at midnight to cross the Delaware River.  By order of General George Washington, 1776.”

The closest the Industrial Commission came to this was when an elderly woman in my department retired.  She had been there since about 1942, and she was hired quickly because most men were in the service by then.  She retired a year or two after I came, and when people cleaned out her desk, they found several uncashed paychecks.  (Compare that to me: If my paycheck is $50 short, I notice it immediately and I’m on the phone to payroll at warp speed.)  I am not sure of this woman’s precise age.  There are unconfirmed rumors that she waited tables at the Last Supper, while others claim she is Millard Fillmore’s illegitimate daughter.

Union Members Converge on the Statehouse to Stop Senate Bill 5

This is one of the rare occasions when I’ll let pictures and sound do most of the work.  I spent my lunch hour on the Statehouse lawn today, joining with other union members in condemning Ohio Senate Bill 5, which would take away collective bargaining rights, as well as salary increases guaranteed by contract.  It would also require state workers to contribute more to their health insurance.

As a union steward (for two different unions, past and present), I was there in the freezing cold to show the state senators debating inside that I am one of many opposed to this bill.  When I walked to the east lawn of the Statehouse, the crush of pro-union people, with the noise and the music (firefighters played their bagpipes), boosted my spirits.  I brought along my mini-camcorder, and christened it with the footage I’ve posted above.

I am most proud of this picture today.  The video’s quality leaves plenty to be desired, but I was fortunate to take this picture of former Governor Ted Strickland interviewed by WEWS-TV, Cleveland, on the east side of the Statehouse lawn.

I saw several people from church, both separately and together, and not all of them are unionists.  We only saw one counter-protester, a woman holding a sign saying that she was a “progressive Libertarian.”  (I think that means she hates both government and corporations.)

OCSEA (the Ohio Civil Service Employees’ Association) is my fourth union.  When I worked at Medco Health Solutions (which was National Rx, and then Merck-Medco–all during the course of my employment there), I belonged to the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union.  I served as recording secretary and as a steward, and represented Columbus at a regional convention in Cincinnati (ironically enough, at the same hotel which later hosted several Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Conventions).  This union became the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International Union while I worked at Medco.  While at the IRS, I was a proud member of the National Treasury Employees Union, which was a pretty impotent union, since Federal employees are forbidden by law to strike.  (The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization learned this the hard way–and they had endorsed Reagan in 1980.  The word karma springs to mind.  A former union president (Screen Actors Guild), Reagan wholeheartedly supported labor unions.  They just had to be in Poland.)

I have a small niche in Ohio labor history.  I was the only person to get back pay from the Medco strike.  In 1997, I was still working as an appointment clerk at the IRS, but moonlighting evenings and weekends at Medco, just as the contract was due to expire.  I decided that if they struck, I would go out as well.  I stopped showing up for work, and a supervisor fired me over the phone when I told her I would be back at work as soon as the strike ended.

This led to my spending several evenings in the OSU law library, giving myself a quick-and-dirty crash course in labor law.  I learned then that you cannot fire a bargaining unit employee merely for honoring a strike.  My evaluations had all been positive, my supervisors all liked me, and I was usually the first to volunteer for any extra work.

I won’t extend the story unnecessarily, except to say that I wrote to the National Labor Relations Board in Cincinnati and explained the situation.  They took an affidavit over the phone from me, I filled out several forms and mailed them to Cincinnati, and soon after the strike ended, a person in Medco’s human resources office.  I could come back, with back pay, and a three-week leave of absence when Susie was born.  (Steph was pregnant with Susie during the strike and during my battle to get the job back.)

It’s not the stuff of a made-for-TV movie, but I am proud of the struggle and the outcome, and not just because I kept a part-time job that would become full-time the following spring.

Slow Day at Mineral

This Presidents’ Day was the first Monday I haven’t been working for quite some time, so I put it to use.  My friend, retired R.N. Jacques Angelino, and I made the trip (72 miles each way) down to Mineral in western Athens County.  Jacques has made the trip at least 500 times, each time with his Toyota bursting at the seams with clothes, school supplies, personal hygiene items, and food to deliver to the Feed My Sheep food pantry.  He always brings his 97-year-old mother Jackie along, and she sits in the Faith Believers’ Ministry sanctuary and bags pasta and rice.

The turnout today was low.  We traveled down in the driving rain and low-lying fog and went to work filling food boxes from the shelves that lined the pantry walls.  Cans of tuna, corn, Spam, kidney beans, green beans, and soup went into the boxes on the worktable, all the co-workers prayed over them, and then when the cars began lining up outside at 1 p.m., they were ready to go.

I took this picture last June.  These are full boxes of food,
ready for distribution to the people coming by for them.

As the end of February nears, we expected there to be a long line of people coming to get food packages, but there were probably only 20 to 25 customers altogether.  My guess is the line will be bumper-to-bumper next week, the last day of February, but we took long breathers between cars, and many boxes remained on the worktable in the pantry, ready to go out next week.

Rev. Ray Ogburn, the pastor of the small Faith Believers Ministry (which hosts the pantry) justifiably takes pride in the fact that his is the only pantry in Athens County which has never run out of food.  In addition to filling the outgoing boxes, we restocked from the backup supply of food in the Sunday school room and the trailer next door.

Contributions are always a touch-and-go business, and Ray isn’t always flush to buy food from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank.  Since Athens County is the poorest of the 88 counties in Ohio, unfortunately there will be a need for his service for quite some time.  Jacques told me about an elementary-school girl from the church who came down one Monday with her mother to help hand out food, and she asked her mom, “Where do the people who come here go to work?”  Her mom explained that there were no jobs for them in this area, and this was why we were down here helping.  Employment is so scarce in the area (the Office of Workforce Development placed it at 8.2% in December) that people frequently car- and vanpool to day labor jobs in Columbus, Parkersburg, and Lancaster.

More and more I find myself in total agreement with the words of St. John Chrysostom.  (I have long been reluctant to cite his quotes, because he is also the author of some anti-Semitic sewage called Eight Homilies Against the Jews, which was Mein Kampf before there was Mein Kampf.  Rabbi Michael Lerner took him to task quite handily in his excellent book The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left.)

However, these words of St. John Chrysostom should be inscribed above the altar of all houses of worship:

It is not possible for one to be wealthy and just at the same time.  Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?

Jacques brought 10 lovely afghans from church and gave them to people with young children.  Women at the church spent many hours knitting these, and another woman crocheted the separate panels together, and now children in Athens County will sleep in warmth in the near future.  He gave one afghan to a woman who turns 85 next week, and I took a picture of it with his one-shot camera.  (I was going to bring my new DXG Model 506V mini-camcorder/still camera.  I got it at the end of January at the Really, Really Free Market, and it works just fine.  Unfortunately, it came minus the CD-ROM with the driver, so I have no way of loading my pictures and video clips into the laptop at present.  I sent an email to DXG asking about sending me the disk with the driver.)

He has also made it a point to include a children’s book or two in each outgoing food box.  He believes that children should start reading and learning at as young an age as possible, and I totally agree with this.  When Jacques taught elementary school in inner-city Washington, D.C., he was constantly appalled during his home visits when he saw the total lack of reading material in any of his pupils’ homes.  I live at the other extreme, where books consume every flat surface of my living quarters, but he would go to houses where there was nothing to read–not even a TV Guide or a Holy Bible, let alone a dictionary or a newspaper.

I was home by late afternoon, and the mercury dropped just far enough that the rain turned to wet snow.  The ground was already covered by the time I stepped out of the house for my weekly meeting of the Radical Mental Health Collective at Sporeprint.

I do not/will not elaborate on what happens at the meetings, because confidentiality is the first order of business for such a gathering.  The only chiseled-in-stone rule of the Collective is a mantra that members of Narcotics Anonymous use as a guide:

Who you see here,
What you hear here,
Let it stay here,
When you leave here.

The reply is: “Hear, hear!”

Bidding Adieu to a Service Deemed Antiquated

Portable Internet access is apparently so common these days that yet another longtime service has gone the route of the Edsel and the eight-track tape, at least in Columbus.  I’m talking about dialing the time and temperature on the phone.  As of the first of this month, (614) 469-1010 will no longer provide you with the current time, temperature (including wind chill during the appropriate season), and forecast.

I learned this one morning in mid-January, as I was getting ready for work, when I called the number to see what the outside temperature would be, so I could dress appropriately.  The recorded voice welcomed me to the Weatherline Forecast Service.  Instead of the usual brief commercial, a cheerful voice thanked me for my past use of the line, and that it would stop on February 1.

I marked the occasion by deleting the number from my cell phone.  I am sad for the loss, because there were times when, as a grade-school kid, there were many afternoons when I was confined to quarters.  Dad was teaching afternoon classes, or at Faculty Council, while my mother was upstairs, zonked out from a cornucopia of prescription drugs.  I tired of watching reruns of The Flintstones and The Big Valley, but still wanted to hear some human voice.

One early indication, I guess, of my Asperger’s syndrome was that yes, I wanted to hear the human voice, but I didn’t want much interaction.  This was why I didn’t call up friends from school or the few kids who were in the neighborhood.  If speed-dial existed at the time, Ohio Bell’s time service and the dial-a-prayer from the Sixth and Washington Sts. Church of Christ would have been on mine.

Forty years later, I can still remember, verbatim, some of the small statements that accompanied the time service.  I still remember the number (373-7641–the area code was 614 for Marietta when I was a child, but it has been 740 since 1998), and some of the introductory promotions: “Dial a wrong long-distance number?  No charge; dial the operator.”  “The Trimline phone combines the dial and handset to save steps and time!”  I formed a mental picture of the man whose voice I heard.  (My dad said he sounded like an announcer on a St. Paul radio station he listened to when he taught at the University of Minnesota, but that it wasn’t the same man.)

We lived only about a third of a mile from the Church of Christ, but we were nominal Episcopalians at the time, never going to church.  (My dad effectively excommunicated himself from the Roman Catholic Church when he married my mother, who was a divorcée.)  What little theological training I had came from watching The Treehouse Club early Sunday mornings while waiting for the morning paper (read: the funnies) to arrive, and from the recorded messages from the Church of Christ.  I was not comfortable with the theology–even then, my inner Unitarian was starting to show through–but the minister’s voice was a pleasant one, and when he ended his recording, the way he said, “This is Charles Brown from the Sixth and Washington Sts. Church of Christ, please call again,” he sounded like he was saying goodbye to a friend.  (I later met him at the public library, and found him to be a very personable and pleasant man.)  Since I yearned for mail not addressed to “Occupant,” I even took two or three lessons of the church’s correspondence course.  (Some Saturday mornings, I would watch Sunrise Semester before my cartoons came on, trying my best to absorb the NYU professors’ courses.)

Cincinnati’s time and weather (at (513) 241-1010) still seems to be alive and well.  Its number is in my cell phone, even though I only use it when I go to Cincinnati for the Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention in the spring.  In addition to time, weather, and forecast, they add the Ohio River stage.  Someone who did not grow up on the Ohio might find this puzzling, but it makes perfect sense to me.  Cincinnati suffered major damage during the Ohio River floods of 1913, 1937, and 1946, and the March 1945 flood endangered much of the wartime production industry in Cincinnati.  (These same floods devastated Marietta as well.  See below for the front page of The Parkersburg Sentinel from the spring of 1937.  The newspapers were as successful as predicting the crest of the river as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been at predicting the end of the world.)

So, I bid farewell to time and weather on the telephone here in Columbus.  USA Today used to print a number on the back page of the front section, where they print the national weather map, where you could text your zip code.  It would then return the current temperature and a 72-hour forecast.  This service has also gone kaput, apparently, because the number no longer appears.

As long as we’re on the subject of weather, I can say that right now (it’s almost 7 p.m.), the temperature is 50 degrees, the lowest it’s been today.  I have Monday off (Presidents’ Day), but took a cost-savings day today, so I could extend my weekend even further.  (Today was one of those 10 days per year for which I am not paid.  I wore a hoodie just to be safe, but didn’t need it.)

Every Wednesday, the tornado sirens blow all over Columbus, testing to make sure they’re in working order. This was confusing one day last summer, when the National Weather Service map was aglow with color like an overdecorated Christmas tree (or a menorah on the eighth day of Hanukkah), the sky was so dark the street lights were on, and rain was pelting the windows on the 10th floor.  At work, we heard the sirens go off, and my fellow floor wardens and I were wondering if this was a real siren–go to a safe place, a tornado is bearing down on you–or the weekly test.  I looked at my watch, and it was indeed 12 noon.  Maybe it was a little bit of both.

There was a different situation last Wednesday.  Noon came and went, and no siren.  The weather outside was pleasant, but the fact there was no siren was eerie, not unlike “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime” featured in “Silver Blaze,” a story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  (“The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”  “That was the curious incident.”)  Was there an unwritten understanding that if there was no siren at noon on Wednesday, adverse weather was just around the corner, and you had best make peace with your Creator and expect the worst?

Nothing of the kind.  At five after, they went off.  Someone must have been distracted and not kept track of the time.

The Incredible Shrinking Magazine

In addition to reading The Columbus Dispatch during my morning break, I often look through the current issue of Newsweek at the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation library.  Over the last year, I’ve noticed how wafer-thin it’s become.  There seem to be more and more graphics, less and less text, and long-running features seem to be disappearing, like slats from a picket fence.  I haven’t seen “The Periscope” in years, and “My Turn” rarely runs anymore.  There is maybe half a page devoted to editorial cartoons, when they used to be interspersed throughout the entire magazine, running alongside the news items they caricatured.

During Watergate, I awaited the arrival of the next Newsweek just as urgently as a letter from my pen pal.  I think it was the first time I ever started watching or following the news.  (Below is the best Watergate-related cover that any publication ever printed.)

Newsweek cover, July 30, 1973

In addition to drastically slimming down their format, it would seem that Newsweek has either done away with, or greatly reduced, their research and fact-checking department.  In the past, they’ve always seemed (at least to me) to be a magazine conscientious enough to step up to the plate and admit an error they’d made, no matter how grievous.  Now, they don’t seem to have the space or the integrity to do this.

Most of the January 24 issue last month dealt with the bloodshed in Arizona, with about equal parts armchair psychotherapy, hand-wringing, objective news, and finger-pointing.  The writer cited the October 1868 assassination of Rep. James Hinds (R-Ark.), murdered by Klansman George Clark, and said that Hinds’ assassination was the only murder of a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

I knew right away this was not true.  If you read my blog entry from the weekend of the Tucson shooting, you’ll see my reference to Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), the U.S. Representative murdered in Guyana in 1978 by members of Jim Jones’ cult while Ryan was on a fact-finding mission.  I got on Gmail and immediately began a letter to Newsweek.  (Just to be sure, I ran this by my friend Robert Nedelkoff, fellow Robert Lowry scholar and researcher and fact-finder par excellence.  Not only did he confirm to me that Hinds and Ryan were the only U.S. Representatives slain while in office, he reminded me that only two Senators–Huey Long (D-La.) and Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) were the only Senators assassinated while in office.

When I forwarded the email to Robert, I mentioned that other former House members had been assassinated, since all four assassinated U.S. Presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) had served in the House at one time or another.  He then added Allard Lowenstein to the list.  He had served one term as a U.S. Representative, but was not in office at the time of his murder in 1980.

I am vain enough to have hoped that Newsweek would have printed my letter pointing out their error.  They seem to have done away with the “Letters” feature altogether.  Nonetheless, I was hoping for a little box correcting the mistake about James Hinds and mentioning Leo Ryan.  Nothing.  Even The Boston Herald mentioned, however mutedly, that they were wrong about the Hitler diaries.  (In 1983, news about the “discovery” of Adolf Hitler’s heretofore unknown diaries dominated The Herald‘s front page for days that spring.  They were going to start printing excerpts beginning Sunday.  When document examiners established beyond doubt that the diaries were forgeries, the notice retracting the excerpt announcement ran in a very small box in classified ad-sized type.)

Super Bowl Malaise Hit Me Today

I didn’t watch Super Bowl XLV, and never had any intention of doing so.  I blissfully ignored all the football talk at work, never let my eyes settle on all the various Tweets and Facebook postings cheering on either Pittsburgh or Green Bay, and avoided Kroger like mad, figuring it’d be as chaotic as before a blizzard.

A sure sign of aging is when sloth surpasses lust as your most favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony comprise the list (I still had to look that up, despite Se7en being one of my favorite movies), and today was the day to yield to sloth.  I didn’t indulge in too much gluttony, although I thoroughly enjoyed the tacos Steph and I ate in the afternoon while Susie was at Youth Group.

Susie and I did go to church, but my mental and physical energy seemed to tank afterwards.  Even though there was no Diet Pepsi in the house, there was no way I was going to brave the pre-game crowd at Kroger stocking up on cases of beer and big bags of Doritos and potato chips.  Instead, I spent most of the afternoon on the couch watching USA’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit marathon, until long after Susie was home from Youth Group, even into when she went to the playground late in the afternoon and came home just before dark.

This kept me from tuning up my pen to ridicule the millions of Americans who were captive in front of the TV (Harlan Ellison wrote two books of television columns which he aptly titled The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat–very appropriate).  I spent the afternoon and into the evening watching crime dramas–although the distinction between the sports page and the crime report blurs more with each passing year.

I’m Usually Not One for Shout-Outs

…but I think this warrants an exception.  During my 10 o’clock breaks at work, I’m usually in the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation library on the third floor of the building where I work.  I’ll take a look at The Columbus Dispatch and maybe Newsweek or The Wall Street Journal.  I usually don’t read the books there, because most of them deal with safety issues and technology.  The computer manuals are also woefully obsolete.  I remember borrowing many of them from the library in the mid-’90s, when I bought my first computer.

One of the obsolete books that I did enjoy borrowing, and which I borrowed more than once, was the third edition of Prentice Hall’s Words into Type.  As a onetime typesetter, and as a person who sees the utility and necessity of word processing and computers, while simultaneously loathing them, I found the book fascinating.  Prentice Hall published a guide for proper hyphenation, punctuation, how to set up tables and charts in hot type, covered the merits of Monotype versus Linotype when it came to using many foreign characters (way predating holding down an ALT key and punching in ASCII characters on the numbers pad!), how to determine a word count, etc.

Yesterday, I came in for my daily perusal of The Dispatch and one of the librarians handed me their copy of Words into Type.  The librarians periodically go through their collection and weed out the woefully obsolete books, or books that no one has checked out for years.  They were nice enough to remember my fondness for this (now-) antiquated green volume, and rather than consign it to the Dumpster, were nice enough to give it to me.

Below is the personal reference library of a self-proclaimed “grammar fascista”, which includes Words into Type.  Her blog is one that I only discovered tonight, but will definitely follow.

Words into Type is the green volume between the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and The Chicago Manual of Style.

She seems to be much more strict in her choice of books she has to have at hand.  If I ever clear this desk enough of clutter for it to be photo-worthy, you’ll see that I have an array of books that have to be within reach.  Many of them are reference books (including the same edition of The Oxford English Dictionary), but I have an album of cassettes (Wisconsin Public Radio’s dramatization of Dracula), The Journals of John Cheever, The Art of Fine Words (a tribute to The Harvard Crimson‘s career linotypist Arthur Hopkins, who retired in 1965 after 36 years of service and died shortly thereafter–the book is inscribed by him), a tattered Doubleday hardcover of The Complete Sherlock Holmes (all four novels, all 56 short stories), Roger Pickenpaugh’s Noble County Vistas (since my mother’s family hails from, and helped to establish, Noble County, Ohio), the two thick trade paperback volumes of The Harper American Literature, and my father’s diploma from Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, W.Va.

There are several volumes of sacred literature and references as well.  I have a New English Bible (an edition I’ve liked since I took a course, “The English Bible,” at Ohio U.), Etz Hayim (Torah and Haftarah, in both Hebrew and English), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud, and Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.  The small plastic bottle that contains my gallstone sits atop the slipcase-enclosed copy of The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession, a fitting tribute to such a raging, whiny hypochondriac.

Sleet awakened me this morning just before 9.  I looked out and the sky was leaden, but I could see sleet pounding the sidewalks and lawns.  I couldn’t just observe from the safety and warmth of home, however.  I needed to go shopping, so I bundled up, got the two-wheel cart, and ventured out into the weather.  Steph was having some friends over for knitting later in the afternoon, so I started to break up the ice on our walk with the plastic handle of a broken mop.  (We didn’t have a snow shovel, and Kroger was out of salt.)  My neighbor took pity on me and let me borrow the snow shovel that was in the bed of his truck, so I got the job done a lot sooner than it would have taken with just the mop handle.  One of Steph’s friends donated about six pounds of salt when Steph mentioned that I had no luck finding any at Kroger.

My "Cut for the Stone" Anniversary

Last year, I got many people’s hopes up when I said “They’re going to remove my gall–” and I see the disappointment when I finished the word “–bladder.”  I have enough gall for 10 people, so the news that I was going to have a cholecystectomy was anticlimactic.  Exactly a year ago, at this time, I was back home from Grant Hospital, watching Criminal Minds and taking oxycodone.  I awoke in my own bed that morning with a gallbladder–complete with stone.  Twelve hours later, I was home, and the stone was in a small, orange-lidded plastic jar (where it sits right now, right in front of me).  I slept in my own bed that night.

Here is the account of the actual experience, written two days later on my old LiveJournal account.  I’m not celebrating the event with the same intensity as when Samuel Pepys (a hero to all diarists) celebrated being “cut for the stone”.  His procedure, removing stones from his urinary bladder, was in 1657 with no anesthesia and no sterile equipment.  (Pepys ended up sterile because of the operation, but the instruments most definitely were not.)

A year later, I have to look to find the scars.  Had I undergone the procedure about 40 years ago, I would have recovered in the hospital for about a week afterwards, and I would have borne a very visible scar for the rest of my life.

President Lyndon Johnson shows off his gallbladder surgery scar.  One journalist said, “Thank God he didn’t have a hemorrhoidectomy!”  LBJ opened the door for Dan Rather to show cross sections of Reagan’s colon and prostate on the CBS Evening News during the 1980s.

About all I did to celebrate was take off from work 2½ hours early.  It wasn’t to mark the event, but because there was so little to do.  I’ve begun the Books on Tape recording of William Landay’s The Strangler, and I’m on the third disk (of 11), but I couldn’t listen to it while I re-indexed scanned documents (a very hazardous task–the death rate from boredom rivals fatalities in coal mines) because my headphones disappeared sometime during the evening yesterday.  Luckily, no doctors’ reports were in the on-deck circle for me to transcribe.  I took some mini-walks.  The ice storm seems to be behind us (this one, anyway), but there are still many sidewalks that are rough and slippery.  I’m still fall-free so far, but each time I lose my balance, even for a microsecond, I’m less sure I’ll be able to right myself before going down.  Clintonville’s electricity only returned this evening, which means Susie will be back in school for the first time since Monday.

I’ve Become a 21st Century Equivalent of a Scribe, Thanks to the Ice

Two consecutive days of ice storms in Central Ohio has meant two days off from school for Susie.  However, it means that I venture out into the driving rain and the sheets of ice for work.  (The State of Ohio has not cancelled work for weather since the 1978 blizzard.)  And, once I arrive at work, it means skeleton crews and entire sections that resemble ghost towns.

The upside to this was that I learned a new task.  There wasn’t much for me to do in my own section, so I learned how to scan.  The usual scan person wasn’t in–he had enough common sense to hear the ice spraying against his window, look outside and see the glare of ice on the snow, and say “uh-uh.”

I was grateful for a break from transcribing doctors’ reports.  And scanning is a task that I quickly learned to enjoy.  I sat in a pod with a computer and the scanner, a machine that resembles an ink-jet printer where you stack in the paper vertically.  Page through everything to make sure it’s legible and scan-worthy, fill out cover sheets, keep a chart current, put the document in, and push the button.  This scans the document onto a database accessible to the Injured Worker, the employer, and their representatives.  Someone downstream edits these scans, omitting duplicated documents, rotating anything I may have scanned upside down, etc.  (I did that job for several months, so I try to be conscientious whenever I am at the point of origin, as I have been since yesterday.)

Despite the title of this blog, I think this is the first time I’ve come close to a Melville reference.  I was thinking of his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a chronicle of militant passive-aggressiveness.  In the days before Xerox machines, law offices employed scriveners, also known as copyists.  And that was what they did.  The attorney would give them a document, and their job was to copy it word for word, not omitting a single jot or tittle, and they had to make sure every i was dotted and every t crossed.  This was a very secular variation on the lives of cloistered monks in the days before movable type and the printing press.  They produced quite aesthetically pleasing illuminated manuscripts, sheet music, and Bibles, all of it in longhand.

When I began to think about how my job compared to the hero of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” my supervisor came with a thick stack of documents that had to be scanned tout de suite for a hearing later in the day.  I was quite tempted to say, “I would prefer not to.”  I didn’t, because I am finally learning a sliver of self-restraint in my old age, and also because this supervisor is not that well versed in literature, and I think the allusion would have completely flown over his head.  Why waste a good comeback?  (If this went totally past you, click on the above link.)

Since I’m alluding to a literary character, I see from CBS News’ Website that I won’t be reading Ulysses this year.  In addition to today being Groundhog Day, this is also James Joyce’s 129th birthday.  My late father taught English literature at Marietta College, and every year he threatened to assign Ulysses if the groundhog saw his shadow.  I’m not sure if he ever went through with this, but for the first few years since he died in 2000, I followed this tradition by listening to Recorded Books’ excellent audiobook of it–unabridged.  It was the only way I could ever get past the giant capital S on the very first page.

Tuesday morning, I ventured out to work at my usual time, but quickly realized I needed to tread quite lightly. The sidewalks and the alley behind our place were glazed with ice, so I hung onto every fence, garbage can, and telephone pole for dear life with every step I took.  As I glanced down the street, I saw the bus (which I prayed had been running late) breeze past my bus stop.  The sidewalks were so slippery that they demanded I focus on only one thing: getting from one place to another without falling.  I’ve walked while talking on my cell phone, and I’ve even done the comic-strip nerd routine of running into a lamppost or telephone pole because I was reading and not looking where I was going.

None of that yesterday and today.  I managed to make it to my bus stop without falling, although I did slip sideways once or twice, managing to catch myself both times.  I reached down to my waist, because I clip my cell phone to my belt, and found there was no cell phone.  There was no pay phone in sight, and they have become quite scarce all over Columbus, plus all I had on me were bills, no coins.  Once the bus did arrive, and we were heading south toward downtown, my seat-mate on the bus was nice enough to let me borrow his cell phone to call my supervisor to let her know I was en route.  She seemed relieved that she wouldn’t be completely flying solo.

Will Susie have school tomorrow?  Yes and no.  Columbus Public Schools will be open tomorrow, but seven schools are without electricity.  Hers is one of them.  As of now, her school will not be open, but if they restore electricity before morning, it will be.  This is crazy for parents who have to arrange days off from work to stay with their children on snow days.

During the night, during one of my bouts of wakefulness (when I’m awake, but still too exhausted to even contemplate getting out of bed), I saw a blue flash outside.  I am still not sure whether this was thundersnow, or whether a transformer somewhere in the neighborhood blew.  I tend to doubt the latter, because our lights never went out.  (If they had, it wouldn’t have made me late, because I use the alarm on my cell phone to awaken me in the morning.)