The vast wasteland

The old indian head test pattern – circa 1955

My friend and colleague, Lynn Gerlach, recently posted a most enjoyable article in her Speakeasy Blog entitled Has Fiction No Place in Our lives? (you can read it here).  She speaks of the wonder and enjoyment those of us who are “of an age” experienced as youngsters watching those great television shows back in the 1950s. Unbeknownst to us, we were, of course, witnessing the birth of an industry. In fact, prior to 1947, U.S. households with television sets could be measured in the thousands. But, by the late 1990’s, 98% of all homes had at least one. Fast forward to the current era and the introduction of cable and satellite and, as she notes, we have programing coming out our ears.

Speaking for myself, though, my viewing habits have evolved along with the industry. I now find that I tend to mostly bypass the network offerings, having graduated to video streaming (via Apple TV), which provides me access to a vast catalog of programs more to my liking, particularly in the form of documentaries (and, of course, major league baseball). As I’m sure you know, these can be found in abundance on YouTube as well as the Smithsonian channel, NatGeo, TED, History, PBS, and MLBTV, for example. By the way, the first baseball game was aired on TV in 1939 (Princeton vs. Columbia).

It was Newton N. Minow, newly appointed by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who marked the end of that golden age of programming with his famous assessment of television as a “vast wasteland.”  And, in many respects, it has only gotten worse. But, with respect to Lynn’s query, it seems to me our old fictional favorites from that era have been replaced with a plethora of offerings of both comedy and drama, ranging from The Big Bang Theory to Bluebloods: It’s still out there—we just have to look a little harder to find it (not counting daytime: that’s still a wasteland). And, in testament to the quality and timelessness of those old classics she mentions, some quick research reveals that The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason’s “Funny Money”) has been viewed on YouTube 1.3 million times.  Oh, and Princeton won, 8-6. I’m sure you wanted to know.


The handprints of Vanna White in front of Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at Walt Disney World’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.

A couple of nights ago, while biding my time until weeknight baseball comes back around (opening day: April 2), I found myself clicking through my 140 TV channels only to end up back at my usual seven p.m. default—The Wheel of Fortune, or simply “Wheel”, to which it is referred by its more avid followers. This simple game show, which draws heavily on the word-puzzle crowd (myself included—I do at least two crosswords most days, especially when there’s no baseball on TV), is one of the masterful creations of Merv Griffin, who also gave us Jeopardy. The show premiered in 1964 with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford as the original hosts and Pat Sajak and Vanna White taking over the controls in 1983.

Sajak, born Patrick Leonard Sajdak in 1946, is the son of a Polish-American factory worker in Chicago. He attended Columbia College in that city, during which time he won a contest on WLS radio’s Dick Biondi Show to be a teen guest DJ. He went on to a short run at Chicago’s WEDC radio as a local newsman on the night shift (midnight to six a.m.) and, in 1968, joined the U. S. Army, where he served in Viet Nam as a disk jockey on the Armed Forces Radio.

Sajak moved from broadcast radio to the small screen in the mid-1970s as a voice-over artist and anchor for five-minute newscasts during NBC’s Today Show. He soon moved up to a spot as weekend and substitute weatherman for the show and then, in 1977, was picked up by KNBC-TV in Los Angeles as a full-time weatherman. In 1981, he was discovered by Merv Griffin, who offered him the job of hosting Wheel.

Sajak has had a long career in radio and television, including a short-lived late-night talk show in 1989 and frequent guest host appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and Live with Regis and Kelly. His foray into acting has been limited to a small role in the 1982 comedy film Airplane II: The Sequel, and a part in Days of Our Lives in 1983. But his forte is clearly that of hosting games shows, which, over the years, have included Super Password, Password Plus, Just Men! and Dream House.

Vanna White was born Vanna Marie Angel in 1957 in Conway, South Carolina. Her father abandoned her family when she was a child and she eventually took the name of her stepfather, Herbert S. White, Jr. Her first appearance in a game show was in a 1980 episode of The Price is Right. She was selected in 1982 as one of three candidates to replace Susan Stafford as co-host of Wheel.

In addition to her career as a letter-turner, White has made numerous cameo appearances on various television programs and starred in the television film Goddess of Love, but to little acclaim. The film was widely panned by critics with TV Guide joking that White’s acting was “wheely” bad. In 1992, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as “Television’s most frequent clapper” (she reportedly claps more than 28,000 times each season, but who’s counting) and Vanna has worn more than 6,000 outfits on the show. In any event, in 2006 she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame.

Some people have suggested that the marketable skills of these two might be limited.  But, in keeping with the program’s title, it should be noted that in 1964 Chuck Woolery had an annual salary of $65,000, which, in 2015 dollars (adjusted for inflation) would have been about $500,000: Sajak is pulling down $12 million. And Vanna? $8 million. So, guess who gets the last clap on that?

Woods, campfires and dogs

Jay enjoying a walk in the woods of Alabama.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a rural environment. Behind our hilltop home in Southwestern Michigan my father owned twenty acres of rolling farmland where each spring he would plant fields of corn or wheat until the Feds offered to pay him NOT to plant fields of corn or wheat (it was a government thing, naturally). And just beyond those farmlands to the south was a vast expanse of virgin forest.

When not otherwise engaged, my younger brother and I and, oftentimes, our neighborhood friends, all accompanied by any number of family dogs, would spend countless hours entertaining ourselves in those woods. In fact, it was not uncommon for us to spend all day out there: picking wildflowers for Mom, playing hide and seek, building forts, chopping down trees, killing small animals, you name it.

Later, we became Boy Scouts and were taught how to survive in the woods without destroying it. We learned how to stay dry, start a fire without a match, pitch a tent and leave a campground in such condition that if one were to come upon it following our departure, it would hardly be known we had been there.

I retained my love of the forest into my adult years. My wife and my adolescent daughter and I would spend many a vacation night cooking over an open fire and sleeping in a tent in state and national parks from Florida to North Carolina. And banging the bottoms of pots with spoons in the evening to scare off the black bears, although I have a suspicion those bears considered that banging to be a dinner bell. It didn’t matter though, since at some point after dinner and before retiring for the night, my daughter would usually throw up somewhere in the perimeter of our tent apparently due purely to adolescent stress (my best guess). That worked better than the pots.

Some other members of my extended family up there in Michigan possess this same love of the outdoors. Hunting and camping and blowing up abandoned outhouses with black powder just for the fun of it. These activities are included among those that one can enjoy when spending time with these people outside the realm of most law enforcement agencies (seriously—I have the video).

I have reached the age when the mere thought of sleeping on the ground gives me a crick in my back. But I still love to get out there and get dirty once in awhile. Importantly, I have found that my penchant for the great outdoors is shared by my son, Jay. He and his friend, Jason, have gone on numerous hiking/camping trips to Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia, where one is still allowed to have a ground campfire. They are accompanied by Jay’s adopted canine, Wrigley (named for the friendly confines of the home park of the Chicago Cubs). And the three of them go up there to Cohutta and get, well, dirty—and tired.

 I think it’s a shame for kids to grow up without having had the opportunity to learn to appreciate where we all came from: the woods. You never know when we might be thrust back into that environment.

Batter up!

I must admit, following the conclusion of the Cubs’ World Series’ 7th game victory this past November, my appetite for viewing baseball games was completely sated: As you may recall, the game went ten innings and lasted nearly four-and-a-half hours. It was reminiscent of how I feel shortly after finishing the last bite of that last piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day—I couldn’t possibly ever eat another bite. And then six p.m. rolls around and its déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. And so it goes for baseball, as we impatiently count off the days till the opener on April 2nd.

I hate this time of year for weeknight TV viewing: pretty much nothing on the tube but basketball. Maybe a soccer match from somewhere or other (soccer’s a sport, right?). And airings of the earliest stages of the golf season. But I refuse to watch golf this early in the year. Doing so disrupts my circadian rhythms and can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression caused by imbalanced serotonin levels (this condition is also caused by living in Michigan in the winter, which typically runs from early September through June). Golf doesn’t really start until Pebble Beach as far as I’m concerned.

In the meantime, I have been biding my time by watching some old baseball movies: “A League of Their Own” and “Bull Durham” so far. By the way, here’s a bit of trivia: You might find it interesting to know that some of the early scenes in “A League…” were filmed at Wrigley Field in Chicago (cleverly disguised as “Harvey Field,” as if no one would notice the ivied brick walls in the outfield).

In any event, the World Champion Chicago Cubs have been having an off-season blast, and deservedly so, with all the TV talk show appearances, media interviews and being invited to the White House to provide the president with yet another success-by-association photo-op.  But, before long, it will be time for these guys to dust off their spikes, sticky up their bats and once again stand with their caps over their hearts for the first of 162 renditions of the national anthem. And baseball every night. So, get your subscription renewed and repossess the remote from your teenage daughter: it will soon be time to get your eye black on.

Turning corners


I have used a charcoal grill for my entire adult life, at least during those years when I had some place to store a grill when not in use. I long ago convinced myself that my grilled entree’s taste better when cooked over charcoal than when cooked over a blue, propane flame. In fact, I have convinced myself that it is so much better that it’s worth screwing around with all that ash removal and the setting of lit matches to jet fuel that is required to get it started. My son went to the dark side several years ago, buying a huge, stainless steel gas grill. His barbecue tastes pretty good. I may not be holding out much longer, but I have not yet turned that corner.

I have, however, turned other corners, not the least of which was the decision to forego the traditional hassle and expense of selecting and purchasing an actual North Carolina Scotch pine for Christmas and simply acquire a reusable, fake tree from Home Depot. This, of course, is contrary to one of my core beliefs in life that real is real and everything else is, well, not real. I have always been a purist at heart.

Despite that sentiment, I went ahead and paid forty dollars for this puny little tree. It’s only about five feet tall and came pre-wired with tiny, sparkly lights. But the good news is that all I have to do in order to get it set up for our annual Christmas festivities is to get the branches bent into some kind of natural-looking position and plug it in. And, since it goes into the attic in January instead of out to the curb, every year I use it I reduce my cost-per-year (that’s my Scottish genes at work).

Coincidentally, back in 2008, I made what seemed a practical decision to purchase my current residence even though its many features do not include a fireplace. That was a tough call in that I love fireplaces and over the years have enjoyed one in my home whenever I could. But, in this case, I didn’t want to pass up a really good deal on the house for lack of a fireplace that I would rarely use anyway (I do reside in Florida, after all). So, that was a corner-turn for me as well.

No fireplace.

As an alternative, I went on Amazon and bought a fireplace DVD. I have since, converted it to a streaming fireplace video that pops, snaps, crackles, and loops on my UHD TV screen, which is positioned just to the right of my little fake Christmas tree. And I have a really big TV, so it projects a really big fire. In fact, if the TV volume is a little too high, it sounds kind of like a house burning down. To put everyone’s mind at ease, I try not to get the little tree too close to the TV.

In the end, I find that together with this little fake tree, and all our gifts arrayed under it, well, around it, and my huge, rip-roaring, fake fireplace, it’s downright “Christmassy” in here. In a Walmart store sort of way.

And a merry Christmas to all.