VACATION DIARY, PART 1: IF HAMBURGERS WERE SOLD LIKE POLITICIANS
Saturday morning, Indianapolis airport. My sister Judy and I are waiting to board the plane for vacation with our brother Larry in his Hill Country home in Texas. Vacation is supposed to mean leaving behind the worries of our working lives, not so easy in my case. Just watching TV for a couple of hours last night and this morning, I encountered some of the most incompetent, selfish, evil, downright despicable people on the face of earth – candidates for public office. I know they are very, very bad people because that’s how they describe each other. We complain about negative political ads in Fort Wayne, but ours sound like a bridge club talking about the weather compared to the venom that is spewed on Indianapolis TV hour after hour. The candidates make each other sound like lowlife creeps you wouldn’t even want to be in the same room with, let alone spend your vote on. Hasn’t it occurred to them that such invective has a cumulative effect, making us despise all politicians, not just their immediate opponents? Imagine if McDonald’s and Wendy’s sold hamburgers that way, not just extolling the virtues of their own products, but constantly berating the competition’s service, price and product as not fit for thinking humans. That, too, would have a cumulative effect, and people would soon stop buying hamburgers. Well, guess what? People have mostly stopped buying what politicians are selling.
Agitated by all the publicity about security nightmares, Judy and I arrived at the airport a full two hours ahead of time. Of course, the things you worry so much about that you over-plan for are the ones you often don’t encounter. We breezed through the checkpoints in about five minutes, which meant we had a long, long time to wait in one of the most boring places there are. I amused myself for a while by watching a man play with his beagle, which he kept taking out of its carrier every few minutes. (You can take a dog with you on the plane if the carrier will fit under the seat). But cute only goes so far, and I started worrying about the dog. It was pretty calm in the airport, but an airplane trip usually takes the better part of a day: If the poor doggie has to, you know, go, where would it go? I spent most of the time reading the two newspapers I picked up at the terminal, The Chicago Tribune and the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal.
The Trib seems to be struggling, like most other papers, with how to be balance local and national/world news in a time when a 24-hour production cycle is not suited for stories people can find in so many other places so much sooner. The lead story on Page 1 tells me that “Militia storms Iraq city.” Already know all about it, thanks so much. And one of the stories displayed prominently below the fold goes on at great length about what a big issue abortion is in the South Dakota elections this year. Don’t really care. The two editorials on Saturday tell me that Hugo Chavez kinda blew it with his United Nations histrionics and that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is a really good guy. Snoozers.
The WSJ, on the other hand, is very good at telling stories of nationwide interest by the meticulous accumulation of compelling local detail. A story about college libraries reinventing themselves in the age of the Internet was crafted around the experience of Valparaiso University, which rebuilt its library twice the original size but with fewer books, greatly increasing student use in the process. There was also an infuriating story about how Ticketmaster wants to make it illegal for us to buy and sell our concert tickets online by prodding legislatures to give it a monopoly. And Peggy Noonan had a column in which she observed: “This in fact may be the year negative advertising reached critical mass . . . The irony of the ads: Their relentless tearing down may force voters to decide based on actual issues.”
Sunday evening, somewhere in Hill Country. We slept late today, had a leisurely breakfast, then spent some time on the deck watching all the animals that come up close to the house for the food my brother and his wife leave out for them: deer, raccoon, little gray foxes. The house sits on 35 acres just outside Wimberley, Texas, and all around it are distant neighbors separated by empty spaces. This is the perfect place to shrug off the everyday world and get into the leisure mode. But I kept screwing up and picking up the local paper or the Sunday one from Austin. I kept judging the news stories as well as reading them and, of course, every other page had something political on it – there are apparently plenty of bad, bad people in Texas, too.
I finally got fully into the vacation frame of mind when we went to a cookout at Mark and Diane’s, neighbors of my brother and his wife. There were 10 of us altogether, and we told jokes and traded family histories and swapped our favorite personal stories.
The best story of the night came from Steve and Lynne. They lived in Boulder, Colo., for a while and got to really missing their Bluebell ice cream – apparently so good that ex-Texans spend most of their waking minutes pining for it. So, Steve found himself back in Texas for a meeting or something and decided he had to get some Bluebell back to Colorado. He bought this incredibly huge cooler, filled it up with half-gallons of ice cream of various flavors, then went to a Baskin-Robbins and bought some of their dry ice to put in the cooler. There is a limit, the way Steve told the story, to how much dry ice you can have packed around something if you are shipping it by plane, “unless you pay the right person $15 or $20.” So he did that and got the ice cream on its way. In the meantime, Lynne had arranged to have a freezer for the ice cream trucked to their house and placed in the mud room. But a blizzard hit Boulder, which kept the truck from getting through. So when Steve and the ice cream got there, there was no place to put the ice cream . . . except there had just been a blizzard. So he took the ice cream and buried it in the snow bank in the back yard, putting stakes in the snow with the names of the flavors written on them – here is buried the vanilla, here is the butter pecan. The weather in Boulder is unpredictable, so naturally the blizzard was followed by several sunny days, and Steve kept having to go back to move more snow over the ice cream. And they had several people over every evening after that, always offering them ice cream and thoroughly enjoying the bewildered expressions when Steve went out to the back yard with a shovel to bring some in.
Now, that’s the kind of story that can fall apart in several places if you think about it too much, and you probably had to be there, eating barbecue and drinking wine or beer, to think it as funny as we thought it was. But it’s the kind of story you don’t see in newspapers – it’s personal; even papers trying to be local don’t go that far. If they did, they’d probably screw it up. “There is nothing quite like the taste of that ice cream,” his wife, Lynne, said. “We missed it terribly.” And even politicians who would say almost anything to get elected probably wouldn’t pick on somebody’s ice cream choice. Not this year at least.