Friday, November 20, 2009

One Man's Trash...

I went upstairs this morning with a heavy duty trash bag and opened up my standing dresser to find some rummage to give to the Vietnam Veterans of America.  Groups like the V.V.A. and Purple Heart call us at least once a week in search of our old clothes, books, shes and appliances, and more often than not, we manage to find some stuff for them. 

What's amazing to me is that we never seem to run out of stuff we really no longer want.  My dresser was literally bursting with clothes- it had been a while since I had cleaned it out.  By the time I was done, I had literally stuffed half of the dresser's contents into the bag to be given away. 

I don't know why I was holding onto to probably a dozen sweaters that hadn't been worn in five years or more.  I gave away a couple of perfectly good pair of sweat pants.  There was nothing wrong with them, except for the fact that I haven't worn them in years.  You know the routine... You get a couple of new pair for Christmas, and the old ones suddenly get shoved to the back.

My weight has been known to rise and fall over the years.  That, no doubt explains why I have at least a half-dozen pair of khaki shorts in assorted sizes... Or at least I did.  If I ever get that small again, I'll reward myself with a new pair. 

After I finished with the dresser, I went into my closet and examined the bar that is drooping with shirts and pants.  I suddenly found my enthusiasm waning at the thought of wading through that morass, and immediately decided that chore could wait until the next time - which should be any day now. 

Do you ever wonder whatever happens to all that stuff you give away?  Some of it goes to rummage stores, but much of it - especially the clothing - gets sold in bulk by the pound to be recycled into rags and for other industrial uses.  Ten years ago as a news reporter, I visited Rocky Mount, North Carolina to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, which devastated that town.  As people across the country responded to the disaster, the town was INUNDATED with old clothing. Tractor trailers full of it.  Perhaps five percent of it was used by the townspeople, with the rest piled ceiling-high in a warehouse.  It really became more of a liability than a help. So the next time you want to respond to a disaster, keep that in mind and write a check! 

As for your rummage, save that for the folks at Goodwill and Purple Heart.  I am always more than happy to take a tax write-off for my junk, but I'm even happier to have more room in my dresser and closet! 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hold The Line, Montgomery County!

I have spent quite a few column inches in this blog talking about Montgomery County, which I have called home, more because of inertia than anything else, for virtually my entire life.  The county government has a well-deserved reputation for taxing its residents and spending money like it's water, and its managers are now finding, in this miserable economy, that it's damn tough to turn off that tap. 

The county is now facing a 400 million dollar deficit for next year, and it's pretty much run out of options for finding that kind of cash.  Eighty percent of the county's budget goes to salaries for county employees, including cops, firefighters and teachers, and the county is going to have to ask all of those workers to forgo pay raises for a second year in a row. 

These kinds of pay freezes have become commonplace in other jurisdictions, as well as in the private sector, but it's almost unheard of in Montgomery, where employee unions have ruled the roost for too many decades.  As I've written before, this is the kind of power that can develop when there is no level of bipartisanship within the ranks of elected officials.  Montgomery County does not have a single Republican in power at the local or state level, and now we are paying the price for the myopia of our voters.  I'm not arguing that the GOP has better ideas, just that diversity and moderation is underserved here. 

The Washington Post has an op/ed piece today that makes an excellent argument to County Executive Isiah Leggett and School superintendent Jerry Weast to hold the line on pay hikes and cost-of-living increases, but it will be a mighty struggle for them to hold off the unions that have run roughshod over taxpayers for too many years. 

I say all of this despite the fact that my wife is a county schoolteacher.  We certainly could use the money that a pay raise or a COLA would bring in.  But we need fairness more than we need money.  As the Post points out, others are learning to make do with less.  Montgomery County workers need to join us.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Whole New Meaning To "This Bud's For You!"

I just want to give a quick shout out of congratulations to Bud Adams, the owner of the Tennessee Titans, who has been fined 250,000 dollars by the No Fun League after extending his middle finger not once, but several times, towards the Buffalo Bills, who were beaten by the Titans in an AFL-heritage grudge match this past weekend.  Here's Adams in action - but I must warn you...  his fingers are showing! 

I'm not going to bother commenting on the fine handed down by the NFL.  They don't want their owners tarnishing the league.  OK, whatever.  However, Adams' gesture is no different from any gestures I've been giving to the television nearly every week of every football season since I was 10 years old.  Sometimes, the opposing team is the recipient of my wrath... sometimes the referees... and sometimes, even the Redskins. 

I personally do not find the finger to be all that offensive.  Actually, I think its a quite effective tool at getting a message across!  And if an 86-year-old man like Bud Adams wants to flip a few birds, by golly, I think he's earned that right!  So Bud...  These are for you!

Remember - You Get What You Pay For!

I am not, by nature, a pessimistic person.  In fact, I tend to be quite adroit at compartmentalizing the bad things in my life and leaving them in a dark hole to be ignored for as long as possible, so I can focus on lighter fare, such as vacation planning or watching reality TV.   When I'm busy working at one of my freelance news jobs, it's easier to ignore the fact that I have no long term career prospects. But when I'm not working, it's easier to dwell on the fact that news reports point to a rather dismal future, at least in the short term. 

Two articles of note in today's news are conspiring to open up my "bad things" compartment.  First, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is giving a pretty glum assessment of where the nation's employment picture is heading.  Bernanke says "the best thing we can say about the labor market right now is that it may be getting worse more slowly."

And from that broad assessment, we go to another article that points specifically to my profession, journalism.  A new study finds that fewer than half of Americans say they would be willing to pay for news online, and that those who would pay - would only cough up three dollars a month for it.

In essence, Americans believe they have a God-given right to free access to news - and really, who can blame them?  The cost of news coverage has been borne by advertisers for hundreds of years, and consumers have never had to worry about that burden.

But because of the internet, ad dollars have been splintered into tiny pieces, and the news business model is irrevocably broken.  The degradation of the news business is well underway.  We've all heard about the sorry state of newspapers.  Just this past week, the Washington Times began to brace for a new round of cuts, and the Washington Blade - DC's voice in the gay community - shut its doors after 40 years in business.  

And then there's broadcast news.  Many -  if not most - local TV news operations have made significant cutbacks in recent years.  Some stations have discontinued weekend newscasts altogether.  More radio stations are dumping their news operations every day, and many of the newsrooms still operating are doing so with much fewer resources. 

With less competition, those news operations that are still in business are suffering from a lack of competition, leading to a new level of mediocrity in reporting that is being accepted as an industry standard.

And this is not just happening at a local level.  Network broadcast operations are making severe cuts as well, finding ways to sound and look healthy in hopes that the consumer won't take notice.

The sad thing is that most consumers WON'T notice - at least for awhile.  News on the internet seems to be thriving.  The problem is that most of that internet news is taken from the very same traditional media newsrooms that are in danger of collapsing. 

You don't want to pay for your news?  Just remember this truism, because eventually it will play out.  You get what you pay for.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ever Wonder How Some Businesses Stay In Business?

NOTE:  Let me say upfront that I hit a small speed bump in my quest to keep up almost daily with my blog.  It's just that I've actually been working this week - and unbelievably, that has a way of interfering with my blogging!  I might have to rethink this business of actually being employed!  Anyway - I'm back today, and hope to be back to cranking stuff out regularly by next week.  - ed.

You might recall that last week, I posted about my recent efforts to get quotes from contractors to replace my deck railing, which desperately needs replacing.  I did end up receiving four quotes... Three of them in the 2,000 dollar range, and one that came in at $6,700! 

I could not then, nor can I now understand why one bid was more than three times the estimate of the others, but I chose one of the other contractors, and have since scheduled the work.   I thought nothing else about it, until I received this e-mail today. 


Just checking in with you again to see if you made any final decisions on your deck repair. Please let me know if you want us to keep your file open still.


B__ D_____

(Name blocked to protect the stupid)

Mr. 6,700 dollars wrote to see if I had made up my mind on a contractor.  I decided to reply, and to let him know where his bid stood.

B__ - I have chosen a contractor from among four bids, but thanks for your interest. I should mention - in hopes this will help you - that your bid for the deck was more than three times the price of the other three bids.

Thanks again for the estimate.

Well, I expected to hear back from the guy - perhaps with an explanation for why his bid was so high.  But I don't think he closely reaid his email... Here's his reply:

Thanks for getting back with me. Let me know if I can be of service in the future.

You know what?  I don't think this guy has much of a future in home construction.  Maybe he can find work as a purchasing officer at the Pentagon!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Congratulations And Thank You, Ed Walker!

One of my true career Obi-Wans was honored over the weekend.  DC radio legend Ed Walker, who spent decades sharing the microphone with Willard Scott as one of the "Joy Boys", was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.   

Ed and Willard were about as close as you could get to being "bad boys' on the radio back in the 1960's, which is to say NOT very naughty, but still very funny.  As a boy, I knew them more through Willard's exposure on television more than I ever really did from their radio program, which was on the air during the afternoon and evenings.  You can see and hear the Joy Boys, and learn much more about their careers here

I really came to appreciate Ed once I arrived at WMAL, where he hosted a Sunday morning Big Band program, "Play It Again, Ed".  I was fortunate to be Eddie's producer for two years - it gave me a chance to sit and watch a master at work, and to absorb some of his humor and professionalism. 

Most people familiar with Ed Walker know he has been blind since birth, but I don't think anyone realizes how little that matters to Ed.  When we worked together, Ed ran his own audio board, played his own commercials, and even cued his own records. In fact, he ran a tighter ship than most people who have eyesight.  It was a wonder to watch him work, and it provided me with a valuable lesson - that the biggest handicaps people face are the ones we don't allow ourselves to overcome. 

Working with a blind person was also a lesson in how the rest of us take things for granted.  Eddie has a vast record library in his basement, and when I used to go to his house in Bethesda to help him prepare for a show or for a DJ gig, I would often help him gather his stuff.  Ed would open the door and invite me in, and inevitably,  I'd have to ask him to find a light switch, because it was always pitch black in there... Eddie had no need for lights! 

One of my jobs was to drive Ed to public appearances, and more than once, I would miss an exit on the Beltway because he and I would be in the middle of a conversation, and he would "forget" to remind me to exit.  Maybe Ed could have used a better driver! 

Otherwise, Eddie is just like any other guy.  He enjoys a good drink, a good smoke, and a pretty lady.  More than once, Eddie would get a hug from a woman out in public, and he would make his own judgement of her looks with his hands - not in a lecherous way, of course!  But after she'd walk away, Eddie would always ask, "How'd she look?"

Even as he closes in on his eighties, Ed is still working, hosting the old-time radio show, "The Big Broadcast" on WAMU Radio in DC.  I run into him every couple of years, and he's always ready with a dirty joke or a piece of industry gossip, along with a big smile and a firm-as-ever hansshake.  The Radio Hall of Fame is lucky to have him! 

Congrats and thank you, Ed!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Because It's Not The Thought, But The Discount That Counts!

Well, the holiday shopping season is upon us, and I am once again trolling the internet looking for bargains.  I understand some people still go to the mall, but for the life of me, I can't understand why.  Back in the day, I suppose you really could find the best deals on merchandise in actual stores, but that certainly in no longer the case.  Why pay the added marketing and payroll costs of retailers when you can buy it all online? 

Even the traditional retailers are getting in on the act - They don't want to lose any more market share to the likes of Amazon, and consumers are benefitting as a result.  Wal-Mart and Target are currently engaged in a pricing war for books and DVDs, and I have already made several purchases for the holidays (My poor kids have to "suffer" through both Christmas and Chanukah) - and made them all with free shipping, to boot. 

If you are like me, you care enough to send the very best - as long as you don't have to pay full retail.  And so, in the spirit of giving, I want to share a great tip with you.  It's a website -  I've been checking it a lot lately - at least once a day.  What's so great about Dealnews?  It's an aggregator - one that doesn't favor any particular retail operation.   The name of the site says it all - It's continuously updated news about great deals that can be found online, on everything from car tires to pizza... From blouses to hard drives. 

I first read about this site a couple of years ago in an article in the Wall Street Journal, and I've been checking it out ever since - especially around the holidays.  I've used the site to help me buy, among other things, two computers, a monitor, dvds, books and clothing.  It helped me land a one-year subscription to Vanity Fair for five bucks, and a TiVo magnet for free.  (It's the small things that bring me real pleasure!)

Now, I can hear you saying, "But John, you cheap bastard - we have to buy shirts and pants in stores, lest a return is required."  But there is even a solution for that in many cases.  The Missus buys a lot of clothes for our sons online at places like Old Navy and The Gap.  If a return is necessary, she can always go to actual physical store to return it at no charge.

See?  I knew those places were still good for something!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thank You, John Riggins.

The latest chapter in the continuing soap opera that is the Washington Redskins pits Hall of Fame running back John Riggins against his former team, and specifically against owner Dan Snyder.  Riggins told Showtime's "Inside the NFL" that Snyder "is a bad guy" and that his "heart is dark".

Harsh words.  It's never easy to see anyone outside of Adolf Hitler to be called essentially evil - especially when you're discussing an entertainment product.  Football is a pastime... a luxury. Snyder is not a political dictator.  He owns a football team, and he hasn't broken any laws, as far as I can tell. 

But still, as a Redskins fan, I am heartened by Riggo's words - essentially because it ensures that the frustration of Redskins fans are being heard and felt in Ashburn.  It's bad enough that the Redskins stink on the field, but it's even worse that we rarely receive any sense of feedback from the team's management.  Dan Snyder simply does not acknowledge the fans who buy Redskins merchandise,  fill the seats at Fed Ex Field and watch his team on television.  John Riggins' voice is too big to ignore, and he knows that. 

And now,  the drama continues.  Assistant head coach Greg Blache showed up in the press room at Redskins Park yesterday and spent four minutes defending Dan Snyder and attacking Riggins for his comments.  You can see the video and read a transcript of those comments here.  Blache praised Dan Snyder for being a kind human being, and as someone who has done plenty of good deeds for Blache personally. 

I respect Blache for speaking up, but I don't think he's helping the boss' cause.  First of all, Blache is never ever going to win over Redskin Nation by attacking John Riggins.  That was a losing battle from the moment Blache opened his mouth. Blache's comments also failed to address many issues that directly relate to fans - from restricting tailgating, to lawsuits against season ticket holders, to banning fans from bringing signs to games, to barring TV stations from interviewing fans on Fed Ex Field property.   The Redskins have an awful relationship with their customers, and Blache's comments addressed none of that. 

Not that they should have.  It's not Blache's job to address the way the team does business off the field - But considering that Blache is the only person from the Redskins' management to speak out, his comments put a spotlight on the team's biggest public relations problem - a glaring lack of communications skills.

In speaking out, Blache broke his own self-imposed media blackout.  He decided a month ago that he was not going to speak with the media for the rest of the season - something that senior coaches are not allowed to do under NFL policy.  In fact, the Redskins had to get a waiver from the league to accomodate Blache. 

When Blache did speak with the media, he did not take any questions from reporters - a move that only served to weaken his statement.  If Blache's words can't stand up to the scrutiny of a few questions from the media, how valuable can they be? 

I hope Riggins continues to speak out.  At least to this Redskins fan, his words speak louder than the team's actions.

Thank Goodness For Inertia!

If it wasn't for inertia, I'd have up and moved out of Montgomery County by now!  Just a quick folo to yesterday's story about the county's broken traffic light computer system.  As you'll recall, my main rant was that the county was providing free commuter bus service - a move that cost the county thousands of dollars to no apparent benefit. 

Well, today, there's good news!  The traffic lights are fixed!  And to celebrate, guess what the county is doing?  It's providing free commuter bus service again today!  More money down the drain!  But it's OK... This is Montgomery County, where the streets are all paved with gold! 

Spare me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Shining Moment For Montgomery County!

It's been a frustrating couple of days for commuters in Montgomery County. The 30-year-old computer that controlled more than 750 traffic lights in the county crashed the other night, leaving the lights with no way of adjusting their timing to account for rush hours. The lights still operated, but in many cases, their timing patterns made no sense, and thousands of commuters were left sitting through series of frustrating short-cycles.

This really falls into the unfortunate category of "sh** happens". No one likes it, but really - what are you going to do, other than frown and bear it until the problem is fixed? Well, here in the peoples' republic of Montgomery County, our leaders are loathe to sit on their hands and do nothing. Better to provide some kind of "fix", even if it does nothing and costs the county a lot of money!

The county, in all its wisdom, is providing its Ride-On commuter bus service for free today. Is this really supposed to provide some sort of relief? How many cars is this going to take off the roads? Are people who normally drive going to abandon their cars in favor of riding on unfamiliar buses? Will this get them to work any faster?

The answers are no, none, no and no. Regular Ride-On riders are getting treated to freebies today, and county managers are getting the opportunity to show they are doing "something" to address the traffic issues. I don't know what an average day's revenue is on Ride-On, but it has to run in the 10's of thousands of dollars. But now, we've given up that money, all to allow some bureaucrats to demonstrate they are "on the case".

Hey, Montgomery County! Sometimes NO solution is a better solution!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Excuse me... WHAT?

One of my current projects is finding a contractor to replace the railing on our deck. The current rail is 13 years old, and truth be told, it needed to be replaced probably 7 or 8 years ago. See the picture - you'll see I'm not kidding! I've been told the railing is made of untreated wood, and really should never have been used. We have a "model" home, which we've learned is both a blessing and a curse... It's a blessing because everything inside the home was decorated to the nines. It's a bad curse because everything else in the house was installed on the CHEAP! But I digress...

So I've been collecting estimates from builders, and they've generally been coming in within a couple of hundred bucks of each other - with one MAJOR exception. Builder X has sent me an estimate that is more than THREE times the cost of all of the others. THREE times! I thought perhaps that he has made a math error, but I added it up, and yes - he apparently wants to charge me nearly $7,000 for a job that others are asking $2,000 for.

I started to wonder whether he wanted to price himself out of contention - that for some reason, he didn't want the job... But then he dropped me an email to make sure I had received his bid. In fact, he was the only contractor who has followed up his initial visit.

A question... Do you think I should let the guy know that he has grossly overpriced himself, or should I let him hang? Very odd...

Moderation In All Things

One of the reasons I decided to start blogging again is so I could discuss topics that I just won't opine about on Facebook.... first and foremost - POLITICS! In our polarizing society, people are just far too quick to judge others based purely on how they vote, and I just think that is stupid. To me, Facebook is for sharing common interests, not driving a wedge between friends.

With that in mind, here on the Beach, I am eager to discuss this year's elections, which saw big victories for the GOP in the Virginia and New Jersey Governor's races. I found the outcome to be fascinating on a couple of levels. First of all, the spin-doctoring is hilarious. The Huffington Post this morning was essentially leading with "Voters Don't Blame Obama", while Drudge's lead was simply "Uh O".

The fact is that voters largely don't blame the President. Obama is still drawing a 50 percent approval rating, after all. However, I think the outcome DOES tell us a few things about how Americans want their government to be run - from the middle.

Folks - this is a moderate country. For all of the ranting from the right and the left, most Americans - 70 percent of us, myself included - are really in the muddled middle. And we like it that way. If the power in Washington goes too far in one direction, America will find a way to make a course correction, and I think last night's results in Virginia and New Jersey are just a symptom of things to come. Given that Democrats are in power right now, and also given that the quality of life is not getting much better very quickly, it's inevitable that 2010 will be a very good year for the GOP. This is not to say that Republicans have better ideas than the Dems - it's just their turn to gain momentum. The same independents that put Barack Obama in office 12 months ago voted 2 -1 in favor of the Republican candidates last night.

It's time for the Democrats to come to grips with the reality that last year's election of Barack Obama was a cultural phenomenon... a media moment... the coronation of a rock star. The election drew people to the polls who have never voted before and may never vote again. They were not voting for a party - they were voting for a brilliantly marketed brand name - Barack Obama. The fact that he is a Democrat is besides the point, and any politician who thinks he can use the Obama name to win an election is a fool - just ask Jon Corzine.

Both parties need to start listening more to constituents. The left has labeled those "tea party" and "town hall" protesters as right wing whackos, but the fact is that the GOP has only been able to tap into that anger because the Republicans are not the party in power. People who take the time to go to public meetings and to march on Washington are angry, and they are tired of useless debate - they want action.

Ironically, we could see a LOT of action in Washington in the coming months, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Pressure to pass a health care reform bill has just been turned up several notches, because the Democrats have to prove they can get something done. If health care fails to pass, then we might see a whole flurry of bills from the Democrats flying through Congress.

It'll be a fire sale to end all fire sales - getting those "pet" bills turned to law before the other party takes back Congress a year from now.

And the big wheel keeps on turning...

Back From The Wilderness...

I have, for some time, been trying to conjure up exactly what I would say when I returned to my blog. I have not posted in about five months, so you would think that I have plenty to say - and I do. It's just that to say it all here and now would be pointless, dated and, no doubt, more than a little self-centered (As if blogging one's thoughts wasn't already self-centered enough!).

I won't bother picking through my navel lint to search for a cause for my long break, either. If I did that, I'd likely never blog again... Therefore, I shall offer a quick recap of life, and then hopefully resume where we left off back in the summertime!

I had a very busy summer, working nearly full time at my various freelance gigs - in fact, for a while there, it almost felt like the good old days when we were truly a two working-parent household. It felt - gasp - normal! The family also enjoyed a 10-day vacation in California and Las Vegas, thanks to my favorite hobby of creative frequent-flyer mile collecting!

Of course, with the economy being what it is, it was fairly inevitable that life would raise its ugly head and kick me in the arse. Early last month, ABC News Radio essentially scrapped its DC bureau, and laid off eight full-time employees. I am still technically an ABC freelancer, but since all the people I used to fill in for no longer have jobs, it's kind of hard to say when or if I'll be getting any more work there. It's a real bummer, too, because I had a lot of work lined up at ABC between now and year's end that is now gone.

But life goes on... I still have my other gigs. I'll be on the air at XM next week, hosting "The Press Pool" on the POTUS channel - Sirius 110, XM 130 - and I have some other stuff lined up at both XM and WMAL next month. I also auditioned yesterday for another freelance gig that could keep me quite busy if I get it... More on THAT later (hopefully)!

Oh - and before I go on - a shout out to my friends on Facebook - you've certainly seen plenty of me these past months, and our daily visits will certainly continue. I think you will find this blog to be somewhat more sober than my flights of fancy on Facebook. I don't "do" unhappy topics over there - except the Redskins, of course!

And now... The Rest of the Story!