The Death of Local News—Why Gannett Media Sucks

I used to be “Part of the USA TODAY Network.” (Sigh).

Big fish eat little fish. That is the law of the sea as well as the law of business. Smaller companies get bought up by bigger companies. It’s happened in the telephone and cable business, and in many retail markets—giant box stores like Loews and Home Depot have put nearly all of the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores out of business. Big businesses keep getting bigger, until the government steps in and breaks them apart into a bunch of smaller companies again.

Publishing is a business like any other. Local newspapers and magazines were once family-owned businesses serving residents and business owners of a certain geographic area. Eventually those small weekly or monthly publications are bought up by a regional daily newspaper. Then the regional newspaper gets bought by a state newspaper, and, ultimately, the state newspaper gets consumed by a large publishing conglomerate.

FU TODAY ... and every day!
FU TODAY…and every day.

As a reader, this may seem beneficial at first. Your local newspaper is suddenly filled with a broader range of writers and articles than ever before! But, before long, readers find what’s gone missing from their local newspaper is local news. Big companies don’t want to pay a bunch of small-time, small-town journalists to cover local news. They’ve already got plenty of writers cranking out content under their corporate umbrella. Why waste money on more?

I’ve been a bystander to corporate buy-outs before. As an employee of the “little fish,” you’re made to feel about as important as an old office chair or outdated computer while the “new boss” assesses your functionality and worth. What does it do? Does it still work? Do we need it? Ah, let’s keep it around for a while until we either upgrade or scrap it altogether. My post-employment record after a buy-out is usually a year or two before the new boss cleans house. The big boys (and girls) at Gannett Media brushed me out the door in ten months.

So dashing in 1996. So fired now.

I’m not alone. Last month, Gannett fired me, Nancy Rubenstein, and a slew of other longtime writers from its “weekly” division—TODAY Newspapers, Dateline Journal, and the South Bergenite among other publications. I’ve been writing my column “Hmm…” twice a month for the last 25 years, covering issues and events that affect Wayne, Totowa, Little Falls and beyond. Nancy’s written “Believe Me” every week for 55 years!

When Gannett bought The Record in October 2016, its didn’t just buy a bunch of newspaper publications to use as advertising vehicles. It bought a staff of writers that embody the voice of hometown news, and a readership that appreciates and trusts those voices. With those local voices gone, I expect the readership will soon follow. Why read a local newspaper that no longer features local news and opinions?

Print journalism, kids! Wave bye-bye!

I knew I was in trouble when my contact person at Gannett was a “print planner” and not an editor. The “print planner” was more concerned with how I submitted my articles than what was in them. I’d occasionally submit story ideas to my print planner, who was supposed to pass them on to an editor, but I never heard back from anyone. I never got any editorial feedback from Gannett other than the email informing me of my dismissal. Are there still real, live people who assign, shape, and publish stories (aka “editors”) somewhere inside the giant Gannett machine?

By cutting local writers from its local newspapers, Gannett lost one of the major assets that made its weekly division valuable. Without real writers, weekly newspapers become nothing more than “shoppers,” advertising circulars without substance, and readers will view them as such, using them to wrap fish, line birdcages, and not much else. The readers will leave and the newspapers will die. Writers like me, Nancy, and the rest will try to find new markets for our work in the few remaining print publications or on the digital publishing frontier.

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A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul TremblayPaul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
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Fighting A Losing Battle Against Roots, Wings, and Time

She’s going, and that’s all there is to it.

My nine-year-old daughter got invited to spend a week with her cousins at their lake house in New Hampshire. It’s been in the planning stages for weeks, and she’s got everything worked out. She knows what outfits to pack, which shampoos to bring, and which stuffed animals will make the trip with her. She’ll be under the watchful eye of my brother and sister-in-law the entire time. She’s going to have a blast, the time of her life.

But I don’t want her to go.

“Look, Dad, you have to be reasonable,” my daughter says, her expression so serious, she looks 19 instead of nine. “I’ve been to sleepovers before. And I spent the whole week with my cousins when we were at the shore. I’ll be fine!”

She’s done two sleepovers. The first was a Girl Scouts campout at a park across the street from our house. I spent all day — and most of the night — staring out the window, wondering if she was okay. The second was a slumber party at a friend’s house. She was fine both nights.

But I wasn’t.

Home Alone

Our house feels strange when a family member is missing at lights out. I feel the same when my wife spends the night away. (A rare occurrence — the only times I recall her being gone overnight were when her Mom was dying, and when she was in the hospital following her stroke.) Our home doesn’t feel right — doesn’t feel like our home — if the entire family isn’t present and accounted for.

I know I’m fighting a battle that’s already lost. My daughter has her mother’s support.

“It’ll be good for her to get out of the house for a week. And she’ll be with family,” my wife says. “You know the old saying: ‘The best thing you can do for your kids is give them roots, and give them wings.’”

“Wings suck,” I say. “She’s only nine. Too young to fly.”

“Didn’t you have sleepovers at her age? Didn’t you spend vacation with your cousins?”

Yes, I had sleepovers, and vacations away from my parents at her age. I remember having fun. But what I remember most is the feeling of freedom and independence. I was a big boy. I didn’t need my parents so much anymore. I could take care of myself. I had my own life, and they had theirs.

It was the start of a detachment from my parents, my first stumbling steps toward adolescence.

I don’t want my daughter to detach from my wife and I. I don’t want her to taste freedom. I want to stop it, squelch it. I want to stunt her growth. I want to seal my wife and kids up in a bell jar, freeze time so none of us gets any older.

Like I said, I’m fighting a losing battle. But this isn’t about being an overprotective father, or a visit to my brother’s lake house.

I fear my daughter is growing up too fast (Well, too fast for me — too slow for her.) Before I know it, she won’t be lecturing me like a 19-year-old, she’ll be a 19-year-old, wings fully spread, and she’ll be able to fly wherever she wants.

I hope my daughter never gets an ugly "roots & wings" tattoo.
I hope my daughter never gets an ugly “roots & wings” tattoo.

I’ve seen my daughter’s wings. They are beautiful, powerful, colorful, and strong. I know they will carry her far in life.

But I’m also afraid that someday they’ll carry her away from me.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, August 2013
Blackjack spill

New Jersey’s Death Row A Comfortable Wait

Some people deserve to die. Jesse Timmendequas is one of those people.

In 1994, Timmendequas lured 7-year-old Megan Kanka to his home by saying he wanted to show her a puppy. He then raped her, beat her and strangled her with a belt. A day later, he led police to her body. His crimes lead to the passage of Megan’s Law.

But Jesse Timmendequas is not going to be executed for his crimes even though he was sentenced to death in 1997. Last month New Jersey became the first state in more than three decades to abolish the death penalty. A state commission ruled the punishment “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.” Jesse Timmendequas’ death sentence – along with the death sentences of the other 12 prisoners on New Jersey’s death row – was commuted to life in prison.

The way I see it, the standards of decency, both in New Jersey and abroad, seem to be devolving rather than evolving. Society is breaking down, falling apart. The only way to halt the decline is to draw a clear line in the sand: some crimes are going to cost you your life. Serial rapists and murderers. People who commit heinous crimes against the young, the old, or the vulnerable. There is no place in society for these people. If civilization were a tree these are the diseased limbs that need pruning.

Wait-Comfortably-Until Death Row

Just down the hall from Jesse Timmendequas (on what’s now called “wait-comfortably-until-you-die row”) is Robert Marshall, subject of the best-selling book “Blind Faith.” Marshall, a once-prominent Toms River insurance broker was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring three men to murder his wife, Maria, so he could collect $1.4 million in life insurance and begin a new life with another woman. Marshall, who maintains his innocence, also had his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

Jesse Timmendequas, the scumbag who inspired Megan's Law, enjoys a cozy life in prison courtesy of your tax dollars.
Jesse Timmendequas, the scumbag who inspired Megan’s Law, enjoys a cozy life in prison courtesy of your tax dollars.

Death penalty opponents have a million arguments, the most significant being “we’ve taken dangerous criminals off the streets; do we really need to take their lives, too?” I say yes. A life in prison is still a life. You can still read, write, pray, meditate, whatever. You can still grow as a person, even behind bars. I don’t think hardcore criminals deserve the opportunity to grow. They certainly denied it of their victims. Death penalty opponents also contend that, once you factor in all the appeals, it is more expensive to execute a prisoner than to keep him or her in jail for life. If this is true, it says more about the flaws of our legal system than it does about the quest for true justice. Three strikes and you’re out, three appeals and you’re done. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?

Perhaps a just resolve to New Jersey’s death penalty ban would be to put the former Death Row prisoners back into general population. A guy who kills his wife for insurance money like Robert Marshall would probably be allowed to spend the rest of his life in jail. But a child rapist and murderer like Jesse Timmendequas wouldn’t last more than a year or two before the other inmates kill him, in some way that is decidedly cruel and unusual. That’s what happened to Jeffery Dahmer, who was beaten to death with a piece of gym equipment by a fellow inmate who believed he was doing “the work of God.” Harsh as it seems, perhaps that is what’s meant to happen. There is an honor among thieves; rapists and murderers, too. All agree that child molesters are the lowest of the low. Even the wicked have a moral code, a pecking order of bad, a line they won’t sink beneath. Elected officials and bleeding-heart bureaucrats may bungle it, but maybe the “prison justice” of convicted felons can set it right again.

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Originally publish in Wayne TODAY, January 2008

Modern Concerts Are Big On Spectacle, Short On Feel

Once upon a time, I loved going to rock concerts.

It didn’t matter what the act was. Tickets were cheap in the 1980s: $15-$20; maybe $27.50 for fancy seats.

One week in the mid-80s I saw REO Speedwagon on a Monday night, and KISS that Thursday. I was at an Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica show where the crowd ripped open the seats and tossed seat cushions around the arena until a swirling cloud of cushions hovered over the arena floor. I thought there was a fire when Rage Against the Machine played the Lollapalooza Festival in 1993, but it wasn’t smoke; it was the mosh pit kicking up dry dust in front of the stage. A decade earlier Brian Johnson walked down our aisle with Angus Young on his shoulders during an AC/DC concert at the Brendon Byrne area. It really impressed my girlfriend at the time.

Back in the day, the Brendan Byrne Arena and Giants Stadium were the main concert venues for big touring acts. Both venues are still around but they’ve sold their names for corporate sponsorship; they’re the Izod Center and Metlife Stadium now.

Even though I haven’t been to a big rock concert in over a decade, I was happy to take my 10-year-old daughter and her friend to see One Direction at Metlife Stadium recently. Live music is awesome and I was eager to indoctrinate my daughter into the rock concert experience.

1D For Me

One Direction takes the stage.

Making our way into Metlife Stadium I noticed a trend; it seemed most parents were waiting in the parking lot, tailgating, while their kids went into the concert. Not me. I was there for the music, man! Plus, my daughter’s only 10, I wasn’t going to send her and her friend into Metlife Stadium by themselves.

One Direction played a fine set, though the emphasis seemed to be more on explosions, fireworks, streamers and balloons rather than the music. During the power ballad everybody held up the flashlight app on their cell phones and waved them back and forth. I wondered what happened to all the cigarette lighters, but then I realized that nobody smokes anymore, and lighters are dangerous.

The One Direction concert came off a bit impersonal, but I can’t blame the band. They’re just following a trend that began years ago, back when I was still a regular concertgoer.

Giant video screens have been around at rock concerts since the early ‘80s, and while it’s supposed to make big stadium shows feel cozy, instead they reduce live performance to a TV show. Why watch the little man with the guitar from 200 yards away when you can watch the video screen and get a close-up? Why even go to a live concert at all when you can watch the same video footage from the comfort of your home?

Cell phone flashlights have replaced lighters at modern concerts. Safer but boring.

Before the use of big video screens, bands used stage effects that enhanced the music rather than distract from it. From the mid-‘60s and into the ‘70s rock bands had liquid light shows or psychedelic light shows projected behind them while they played. The swirling, colorful amoeba shapes were eventually replaced by elaborate lighting rigs that synched with the dynamics of the music. The Genesis light show was a selling point for their live performances well into the 1980s.

Lost In Techno Translation

But as technology advanced, an intimacy was lost in the concert going experience. Giant video screens simultaneously brought audiences closer to the performers and reduced them to characters on TV. During the One Direction concert I saw several fans recording the concert with their camera phones, but instead of focusing on the members of the band, they were recording the images on the giant video screens. Why?

One thing that hasn’t changed about modern concerts is the energy created when fans gather together to celebrate the music they enjoy. This is the core essence of the concert experience, the same blueprint as religious gatherings. I saw many Grateful Dead concerts over the years, and the atmosphere was very close to a church mass. There was the same sense of reverence, respect, ritual, and release.

And hopefully that will never change. Long live rock-n-roll!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2014

Insect Omen: Wooly Bear Caterpillar A Sign From Above?

When life gets confusing, sometimes you look to the universe for answers or a sign. This is especially true if you’re facing a big life choice, making a major decision, or, like me, looking for a new job.I took our dogs out for a midnight bathroom break the other night, and I noticed a small, black shape on our landing. At first I thought it was a blackened leaf, or maybe a little “gift” from one of the dogs. I bent down for a closer look and the black shadow wiggled.

It was a big, thick, fuzzy black caterpillar. It was equal parts creepy and beautiful. I’d never seen one like it before.

Where did it come from? Maybe it fell from the trees above. It certainly didn’t belong on our back landing; that was way to close to being inside our house. This multi-legged, furry-backed creature belonged deep in the Great Outdoors. I helped Mr. Caterpillar get one step closer by flicking it into the grass with the end of a broom. It was better suited there among the roots, shoots, and dirt.

But after giving the dogs their biscuits and locking up for the night, I wondered if the mysterious black caterpillar wasn’t the heavenly sign I sought. Caterpillars represent change. They mean fall is coming.

Good Luck, New Birth

Some cultures consider caterpillars a sign of good luck and new birth. Caterpillars mean it’s time to start a new project or endeavor, shed the old and welcome the new.

Old farmers claim you can predict the severity of next winter’s weather based on the amount of fuzz on a caterpillar’s back. According to the guy I met the other night, we’re in for a rough one.

Caterpillars transform themselves like no other creature in nature. They’re built for change. Trading in ten little legs for a pair of colorful wings is what they do. Caterpillars become butterflies, and butterflies are free to fly, fly away. (Though I’m pretty sure the “wooly bear” caterpillar I met the other night will become a Giant Leopard Moth, but you get the idea.)

An Internet hippy named Presley Love puts it this way:

“Caterpillar holds the grand dream of becoming all that it can be, with no limitations. It reaches out to become its greatest expression of self, spirit, and soul. Putting everything aside, it follows the drive to evolve. Caterpillar teaches us to do the same, to find our power to transform in deep meditation, to go into the cocoon and emerge as a greater aspect of self…believing in the possibilities that with faith all things great and small are possible and to remember that the grand and beautiful things have very humble beginnings.”

Creepy Bug At The Door

What was my role in Mr. Caterpillar’s future? Did I sentence him to death by flicking him into our yard, where he might fall prey to birds and other wildlife? Or did I provide him with a “relocation opportunity,” a chance to start over someplace new, a place he’d never considered, a place he would have never reached, without my intervention?

Being unemployed gives you time to think (maybe too much!) Sometimes you feel like a caterpillar, or some other creepy bug, lying on a stranger’s doorstep, waiting to be either crushed or brushed aside. Other times you can feel the wings growing on your back, waiting for the right moment to break free and send you soaring skyward.

Either way, it’s time for a change.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2015

Cheap Gas Is Great, But Where Are The Other Savings?

“Can I have $40 regular? Cash.”

This used to get the gas tank on our SUV nearly full. But the other day something miraculous happened. The pump clicked to a stop after $29.50.

“That fills it,” the gas station attendant said, seemingly as astonished as I was. “Here’s your change, sir.”

Wow. I couldn’t have been more astonished if a chorus line of Rockettes had danced out to clean my windshield and check my tire pressure. Gas was cheap! Well, cheaper than it has been. Back in February 2009, at the tail end of the 2008-2009 recession, I wrote about Exxon’s record-setting profits ($46.6 billion in 2008 and $40.6 billion in 2007) that were due, in part, to gas selling for $4 a gallon the previous summer.

Why So Cheap?

So what happened? Why is gas selling for half of what it was? Did we unexpectedly find double the amount of crude oil underground? Have gas engines gotten doubly efficient? Are more dinosaurs dying off, increasing the overall reserve of fossil fuel?

No, no, no. Economists say it’s simple supply and demand; oil companies pumped more fuel than people needed, so gas prices dropped. But there are other reasons gas prices are so low, like:

  • Fracking Up—Environmentally un-friendly technologies like hydraulic fracturing (Fracking) and horizontal drilling have helped America increase its oil output by 50 percent over the last several years. Why import expensive Saudi Arabian oil when we’ve got plenty of crude right here under the slate bedrock in Texas and North Dakota? New drilling technologies are even extracting crude from oil-rich sands in Alberta, Canada. Oil extracted from shale or tight sandstone is called “tight oil,” and business is booming.
  • OPEC is a Mess—The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose oil embargo caused America’s “energy crisis” back in 1970s, can’t figure out how to stabilize current gas prices. Iran, Venezuela, and Algeria pushed to cut oil production to firm up prices, but Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations refused. Iran has actually increased its crude oil output. The leaders of OPEC met in November, but failed to come to an agreement, leading oil prices to tumble further.
  • Cold War Over, But Still Chilly—Soviet Communism may not be the threat is was 50 years ago, but Russian leader Vladimir Putin is still an unsettling world leader. By supporting rebels in former Soviet states like Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine, Putin seems on a relentless quest to return the Motherland to its “Glory Days” as a Soviet Union. But cheap petroleum is crippling the Russian economy, and may foil Putin’s expansionist plans. Economists estimate Russia’s Gross Domestic Product will shrink by at least 4.5 percent in 2015 if oil stays at $60 a barrel. Bad news for Russia, but good for those branches of American government responsible for keeping Putin in check.
The bad old days, when a gallon cost nearly $5

Gas prices in the US are expected to creep lower throughout 2015. Economists estimate US drivers will spend about $550 less on gasoline in 2015 than they did in 2014, and $750 less on home heating fuel. Great news!

But where are the rest of the savings?

Trucking is the backbone of American commerce. If fuel costs are half of what they used to be, then the cost of shipping and delivery is less, too. The price of groceries and goods everywhere should be coming down, right? When gas was expensive in 2008, NJ Transit raised bus and train fares. So where are the discount bus and train tickets now that gas is cheap? Why aren’t airline fares coming down? Consumers and commuters need a price rollback here!

Don’t hold your breath waiting.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2015

 

 

The Mystery of Superstar Forgiveness in the Age of Apology

A trio of talented awful people: Woody, Bill, and Roman.
A trio of talented awful people: Woody, Bill, and Roman.

We live in the Age of Apology, where knee jerk reactions are the norm, and thin-skinned political correctness reigns. Politicians, pop stars, athletes, actors, comedians, talk show hosts, and church leaders are pressured into insincere public apologies if they “offend” some special interest group or another.

But the Age of Apology has little to do with true forgiveness. Forgiveness in the court of public opinion serves another function altogether.

Send In The Creeps

Exhibit A: Woody Allen. Woody Allen was in a relationship with Mia Farrow for years, helping raise her adopted daughters. But in 1992 Allen separated from Farrow and began a romantic relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn (when Woody was 56, and Soon Yi was 19.) Recently, Woody Allen’s biological daughter with Farrow, Dylan, accused him of molesting her when she was a child.

Woody Allen is a creep.

But he’s also a brilliant artist whose career spans over 50 years. Critic Roger Ebert called Woody Allen “a treasure of the cinema.” Woody’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” is amassing award nominations. Audiences and actors alike look past Woody’s personal faults and continue to enjoy his art.

Roman Polanski is despicable, too. In 1977 he admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He worked out a deal that would spare him jail time, but when that deal fell apart, he fled the country and hasn’t set foot on American soil since.

But Polanski still makes great films. In 2002 he won the Best Director Oscar for “The Pianist.” Actors are eager to work with Polanski, and producers finance his films. Evidently his crimes can be overlooked, too.

Mel hates Jews, but makes awesome movies!
Mel hates Jews, but makes awesome movies!

Despicable Hollywood Creep #3: Mel Gibson. Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rants, and hate-filled voicemails to his ex-girlfriend show serious personal problems. Mel Gibson isn’t on Woody Allen or Roman Polanski’s level (either as an artist or a criminal) but — for whatever reason — he DOES NOT get a pass. Nobody wants to work with old Mel anymore … at least not at the moment or for the foreseeable future.

Why are some loathsome artists forgiven while others aren’t? Why is Alec Baldwin A-list and Mel Gibson on the blacklist? They’re both entitled jerks with explosive tempers. Why can we separate the man from his art in one case, but not the other?

Time heals wounds, and public perception and political climates change. Death helps, too. When an artist is long gone, his work can finally be viewed objectively, apart from the way he lived life. Charles Dickens was a terrible husband and father. Pablo Picasso was a philanderer. Writers Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were anti-Semitic, as was composer Richard Wagner.

“We Forgive You, Rock Star!”

Today we forgive Chris Brown for beating up girlfriend Rihanna, though a generation ago we couldn’t forgive Ike Turner for doing the same to Tina. We absolve Marv Albert of sexual assault and Michael Vick of animal cruelty, but come down hard on Paula Deen for racial slurs she uttered decades ago.

There are parallels in the world of sports. Alex Rodriguez (baseball cheat) is on brink of flushing his legacy down the toilet. Lance Armstrong (cycling cheat) already did, along with Barry Bonds (baseball cheat), and Aaron Hernandez (serial killer).

Others athletes are forgiven. Tiger Woods (adultery), Pete Rose (sports gambling), Kobe Bryant (sexual assault), and Ben Roethlisberger (sexual assault) have all outdistanced their checkered pasts.

My job as a journalist is to try to make sense of things, to look for repeating patterns, find consistency in apparent chaos. But I can’t find any logic or order in Public Forgiveness. Apparently it works on a sliding scale based on the severity of your crime versus the magnitude of your talent, but as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski show, the scale is far from accurate.

He may have been a kid toucher, but that didn't stop people from loving the King of Pop!
He may have been a kid toucher, but that didn’t stop people from loving the King of Pop!

Forgiving celebrity sins isn’t about true absolution anyway. It’s a plot device to move stories forward. People love familiar stories, and we look for them in the lives of wayward actors and athletes. We love to see the mighty fall. We love even more when they get back up and keep fighting, battling against the odds. Everybody loves an underdog. Forgiveness is the device that allows our heroes to rise from the ashes.

Disgraced actor Shia LaBeouf  (drunk/violent/plagiarist) is reinventing himself while begging Public Forgiveness. LaBeouf recently did a live performance piece called “#IAMSORRY” wearing a paper bag over his head with the phrase, “I’m not famous anymore,” written on it. LaBeouf sat silent and alone at a table full of props while art goers milled around him. Props included an Indiana Jones whip, a Transformer toy, daisies, a ukulele, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a bowl of nasty Tweets, a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, and a book by author Daniel Clowes, whom LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing. One reviewer of “#IAMSORRY” said, “it was apparent LaBeouf had been crying, and the experience was surprisingly touching.”

Maybe turning apology into performance art is the next evolutionary step in the Age of Apology.

If so, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen need to put on Oscar-worthy performances.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2014

Modern Junk: Buy the Best, Keep Getting Less

You’ve heard the old adage – “It pays to buy the best.”

Well, it’s a lie. Maybe it used to be true but it’s not anymore.

Here’s another ancient un-truth: “You get what you pay for.” That’s true sometimes, but not always.

I’m a cut-rate guy. I know this about myself and I accept it. I rarely pay full-price for anything. I rarely buy top-of-the-line merchandise. I look for deals, sales, “gently-used” items – anytime I can pay less, I’m in.

Cheese Factor

My wife calls this the “Rob Errera Cheese Factor,” but I resent that. I’m not just being cheap and cheesy. I’m being frugal and wise. I’ve been an “educated consumer” for more than 30 years now and the more shopping I do the more educated I become. In my experience I’ve found you have to strike a balance between cost vs. functionality and items that are marketed as “the best” are rarely worth the extra money they demand.

Case in point – my new headphones. For the past year I’ve been using a $10 pair of earbuds. They sound okay, but they’re “entry level” earbuds. I decided to treat myself to a fancy pair of ‘buds. Hey, I’m a music lover — it’ll be worth the extra expense, right?

Well, there are lots of choices. Earbuds range in price from $5 to $500. I settled on fairly upscale $100 pair. I was impressed with them – the sound is much fuller and rich. I can hear more detail in the music I listen to. I can hear the squeak of the violin bow during classical pieces, the creak of the drummer’s throne during a quiet moment in a jazz set. Yeah, these new earbuds sound good.

Wish I'd read this article before I bought my crappy earbuds!
Wish I’d read this article before I bought my crappy earbuds!

But they don’t sound ten times better than the $10 earbuds I was using, you know? They sound maybe, three times better. If these earbuds cost $30 I’d feel I got my money’s worth. But they cost more than three times that, and, as a result, I’m left feeling I overpaid for a “better product” that failed to meet my expectations.

Cost vs. Function

This whole “cost vs. quality” issue is something I encounter all the time when shopping. During these tough economic times you have to question the price of everything and ask, “is it worth it?”

A better question might be “Who decides what this is worth?” I’m sure there’s an elaborate science to “consumer price points” and figuring out how much to charge for various products. But the numbers they’re crunching don’t add up.

Why does a BMW SUV cost $40,000 and a Hyundai SUV cost $20,000? Is it really “twice the vehicle” as the Hyundai? Will it look and drive twice as nice? Will it only cost half as much to maintain? Will it last twice as long?

Apply this formula to all of your purchases. Is that $3 loaf of Wonder Bread three times tastier that the $1 store-brand bread? Is Poland Spring water 50-percent better than generic spring water?

Sometimes the answer is yes. (I’ll buy store-brand bread, but I won’t cut corners on paper towels or toilet paper — you’ll end up with a mess on your hands…literally.)

I’ll spend top dollar on something I feel is important. I bought my wife’s engagement ring from Tiffany’s in New York. Yeah, I could have gotten a bigger, better ring down in the Diamond District, but this one came in a swanky “little blue box.” My wife seemed impressed. She agreed to marry me so the ring fulfilled its desired function.

But if you ask yourself “is it worth it?” about the products you buy you’ll probably find the answer is often “no.”

So what are you to do? Just buy cheap stuff all the time?

Yes. You should buy the cheapest product around that meets your needs.

And once you do, you should immediately accept the fact that you’ve just brought a cheap product and it will not be as good as other products on the market (those products that cost twice as much but are not twice as good.) And when your cheap product breaks – which it will, soon – you won’t get it fixed. You’ll trash it and get another cheap product.

Built To Fail

Sound sad? It is. But that’s what manufacturing has evolved to. Everything’s disposable. Everything’s junk. Even “quality merchandise” has a limited lifespan and may not be worth fixing once it breaks. Nothing is built to last anymore.

A better plan is to bring your broken piece of junk back to the store where you bought it for a refund. Perhaps the store will exchange it for a working piece of junk of equal value. If there are enough returns, maybe manufacturers will stop building products so cheaply. I’m sure a lot of price points are based on consumer demand. If we all demand better stuff maybe we’ll get it.

And if, on your travels to over-priced stores to buy/return poorly produced junk, you should happen to see something shiny lying on the ground, stop and take a closer look. It might be the stone from my wife’s engagement ring, which fell out of its classic “Tiffany setting” years ago. The diamond might be in our house, or in our car, or anywhere else in Northern New Jersey.

If you find it, you can thank me for buying the best.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, May 2009

Curtain closing on cursive writing

maxresdefaultThe written word is dying.

Like dodo birds and dinosaurs, handwriting is facing extinction. Approximately 46 states have adopted the new Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of the school curriculum. Many school districts around the country are already starting to phase out handwriting courses.

Some argue this is a natural progression in educational instruction.

Everybody uses computers now, so it makes more sense to teach kids how to type on a QWERTY keyboard, right?

My gut instinct is no, handwriting is still important.

Writing in longhand connects you to your words in a way typing doesn’t. Pushing ink over paper with a pen is a unique sensation, a singular pleasure. There’s nothing quite like it.

But I honestly don’t do much handwriting anymore, and, from what I gather, neither does anyone else.

I still sign checks, but most payments are made electronically.

I write to-do lists by hand, and shopping lists. (Then again, the last two times I went to the supermarket I forgot the list, so my wife texted it to me. I shopped with phone in hand instead of a crumpled Post-It.) I handwrite thank you notes and greeting cards, and sometimes I’ll leave a dirty note and/or crude drawing in my wife’s purse for her to find later.

I edit with a pen, and make lots of handwritten notes (like this one!)

And I’ll still use pen and paper when I need to write something with a certain shape or rhythm. Sometimes I’ll write magazine coverlines by hand if I need to see how the words stack up. I write song lyrics longhand. Poetry, too (hey, no giggling!)

Ol' Honest Abe was down with cursive writing.
Ol’ Honest Abe was down with cursive writing.

I’m old enough to recall how important penmanship was in grade school.

It was never my best subject.

I remember my second grade teacher pacing the room while the class worked on cursive writing.

“Good, Sally!”

“Nice job, John!”

“Robert, your Cs are so sloppy! Stay in the lines!”

I tried, but my penmanship hasn’t improved much beyond grade school level. My mother says I have a “doctor’s signature.”

Evidently my horrendous handwriting is now in style.

Autograph seekers have found that younger stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, have barely legible signatures, while older celebrities have a more practiced hand.

“With stars ages 30 and above, they generally have a much more full, legible signature,” says Justin King, a Toronto-based paparazzi and independent autograph seller. “When you deal with these new people like Elle Fanning, you’re lucky if you get an E an F and a heart for her signature.”

My script is sloppy, but I write fast, a skill I acquired covering town council and school board meetings as a Today reporter.

You had to get the quotes right, along with the facts and figures. I even know a bit of shorthand.

Not too long ago my wife and her sisters were cleaning out their deceased father’s old office records, boxes upon boxes of ledgers filled with neatly-scripted dental records.

That’s something you’ll never see again. I felt a bit strange feeding the pages into the shredder, like I was destroying a bit of history.

Because history is written in longhand, from the Declaration of Independence, to the old tax records down at town hall, to the love letters your grandmother keeps in a box in the attic.

I suppose there comes a point when a culture needs to let go of an old-fashioned way of doing things to make way for new technology. Cave walls gave way to stone tablets, which yielded to paper, the printing press, and now, the computer screen and memory chip.

But if schools decide to no longer teach cursive writing, I hope they still teach students how to read it.

History depends on it.

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