Punching Down

You might say that Times Union food critic Susie Davisdson Powell did not enjoy the lamb-stuffed poblano peppers at Farmhouse Tap and Tavern.

In a single paragraph she compares them to a ball tucked in a sock, a comet with a meatball for a head, and — finally — a dick. She also adds that they’re hard to cut and undercooked.

One example would have worked, but she went with three. That’s commitment!

Davidson Powell recently ravaged Farmhouse Tap in a scathing review that was more of a bitter attack against the restaurant than a balanced critique. It was gleefully malicious, oozing anger and sarcasm with every tart observation and clever turn of phrase. But that’s her thing, isn’t it? Being nasty is much more entertaining than being fair.

It was about as bad as a local restaurant review gets — and it made me wonder why it’s OK for a big media company like the Times Union to take down a small local eatery?

Davidson Powell defends restaurant reviews, lumping them in with other arts criticism, like that for theatre or music productions. Bullshit, I say. A restaurant may be an expression of someone’s creative energy, but first and foremost it’s a business, and your review has the potential to ruin someone’s livelihood. The Times Union doesn’t review a car dealers or furniture stores, so what makes restaurants fair game?

Yes, I know — restaurant reviews are a staple of newspaper journalism. People are obsessed with content about food and can’t get enough. Six straight hours of Chopped anyone?

Now, full disclosure here: I’ve reviewed restaurants on Yelp — and that’s totally different. My lone opinion doesn’t hold the weight of a major media outlet, and in forums like Yelp and Trip Advisor, the view of one person is balanced by the other contributors. Not the same as taking almost a full page in the Sunday paper to fuck with someone. And this isn’t the New York Times going after Guy Fieri, this is people with power stomping on people without any.

Oh, one last thing: Farmhouse Tap is owned by the woman who runs 518 Foodies, a website that focuses on the local dining scene. Huh. You can draw your own conclusions, but something about this stinks like last week’s fish.

The Case Against Working From Home

You can’t read a paper or look at a news site without seeing a story about how the pandemic changed the rules for work — notably how working from home is the new norm.

But there’s nothing “norm” about it.

Covid forced everyone out the office and into their basements, bedrooms, and kitchens. And it sounds like it was a success. Many employers, the same ones who used to resist telecommuting, found that productivity actually increased without employees coming to the office.

Cool, people are doing more work. But here’s the thing: this is another intrusion through the wall that used to exist between work and your personal life. And it’s a huge one.

It’s a long time now that people have been unable to escape work thanks to email and mobile phones. More recently, folks can “remote in” and it’s just like being at your desk. Covid took things a step further, by literally moving your office into your house.

What used to be a refuge from the nine to five world is now just another cubicle.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good things about working from home, but overall, it signals the erosion of a sacred space.

How many of you have been on vacation and seen family or friends unable to unplug from work because of their phone? The next thing you know, they’ll just be full out working for a part –or all — of the day.

It wasn’t that long ago that no aspect of remote working was technically possible. And you know what? Shit still got done, even without you there. Imagine that.

Do yourself a favor: turn it off.

All the President’s Posts

Dammit! Donald Trump took down his blog before I ever had a chance to read it.

Trump turned to blogging after being banned from the world’s biggest social media platforms. Apparently, it didn’t go well.

Since being banned from the world’s biggest social media platforms, Trump turned to the medium that so many millions of people have used when they think they have something to say: a blog.

And like so many millions of other people, Trump soon quit blogging. But why should Trump be different? It seems Trump was disappointed with the number of people reading his stupid blog. See — he’s just like us!

The Washington Post says that Trump was peeved that the paper was pointing out the unimpressive size of his audience. They say:

A Post analysis of online data late last month found that the site was attracting fewer visitors than the pet-adoption service Petfinder and the recipe site Delish. The blog’s prospects hadn’t improved since, even though Trump had taken to writing on it more, a new analysis of online data shows.

Fake news! How is that fair? Obviously, people love pets and food more than Trump.

I just wish Trump had just done the usual thing: leave the blog up and stop posting for months and months. Then he could someday come back with a post explaining why he hadn’t posted anything.

Baby, It’s Ewe

If you enjoy visiting obscure corners of the Capital Region, you can’t do better than the Washington County Fiber Tour. It’s all backroads and small farms and goats and sheep – and a great excuse for a drive in the country to peek at places you wouldn’t ordinarily see.

On first stop on the tour there was a barn full of sheep and newborn lambs prancing around and some ladies spinning wool into yarn  — but when we walked outside to take in the view, things got real.

A brown sheep stood in the field with a large, bloody mass hanging from its hind quarters. We alerted the farmer. He found a dead lamb lying nearby in the grass. His wife went into action, like something out of The Incredible Dr. Pol, and found that what we saw was the sheep’s unattached placenta. But there was more. She reached half her forearm into the ewe and discovered  another lamb in breech position. Grabbing hold of its legs she gave a firm pull — and out came the second lamb, alive and well.

This picture was taken just minutes later.

Whoa.

I guess that’s the point of these events, to give city folk a look at what life is really like behind the fences and barns we drive by along the road. What’s business as usual to a farmer is like a miracle to us.

Coverage You Can’t Trust

Look at this Facebook post from NewsChannel 13.

The post includes a photo of a person sitting outside an Albany police station that was the scene of a recent clash with protesters. It’s excluded here because we don’t know if she did anything to warrant this kind of attention, and the police won’t say why they’re looking for her. However, that doesn’t stop WNYT from blaring in all caps with an exclamation point, ONE SHARE CAN HELP POLICE!

This is disturbing and irresponsible. It’s not unusual for the media to share a photo to identify someone who is clearly a suspect in a crime, but this steps over the line.

The accompanying story says, “Police aren’t saying why they want her, or what she might have done.” Don’t ask. None of your business. All you need to know is that we are the police and we want to find her. Take our word for it, she’s a bad one. Just look at her.

Maybe there’s a very good reason for the police to be looking for this woman, but if that’s the case, tell us why — and shame on WNYT for posting this without questioning the cops or asking for a justification. They not only skipped the basic journalism part, they then jumped into the fray to whip up their audience. Remember, ONE SHARE CAN HELP THE POLICE!

It stinks when these TV stations do the bidding of the authorities without considering what they may be up to. What happened between protesters and police was unfortunate, but it’s the job of journalism to question those in power, not become their lapdogs.

Nevertheless, ONE SHARE CAN HELP POLICE! Paging George Orwell.

Oy, Albany!

Oh, please, come for a visit to Albany! We’ll sit by the Waterway canal on Broadway and have a beer as we talk about old times. Then, maybe we can stroll to the Hudson through the park that used to be 787. Can you believe there was a six-lane highway here once? Then, let’s climb aboard the gondola to Rensselaer as the sun sets — because after all, that’s the best way to take in the skyline of our majestic capital city.

Yes, that sounds grand, doesn’t it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to dream big dreams, but these and other transformative ideas to improve Albany will never be more than that: dreams.

Here’s a city that can’t even figure out what to do with the parking lot district or the gloomy old Central Warehouse building — and you think they’re going to dig a canal through downtown or knock down an interstate? Yeah, right.

Maybe the city needs to aim lower. Instead of spending on pipedream projects, how about we put money into building home ownership in struggling neighborhoods, a proven strategy for urban renewal and growth. Create incentives for businesses to locate in the city and provide good jobs to local people. Maybe spend some money on the schools, perhaps.

Big fancy schemes will do nothing for this town, unless you think that making it a theme park for suburbanites will solve a lot of problems. It won’t.

Albany doesn’t need gimmicky development, it needs sound ideas and inspired leadership. And that’s harder than digging a moat or ripping down an overpass. It’s fun to dream of flying cars and hoverbikes, but to stay in touch with reality, always keep one foot on the ground.

Unfinished Business

If you are a devoted reader of the local obituaries, it always feels like a bonus when a well-known person dies. The obits for prominent figures are usually pretty interesting – and if you want to read an example of a really good one, check out what ran when Ed Dague died in 2019. It captures his humanity in a way I never appreciated when I worked with him – and it also contains this stirring sentence, something that stopped me cold:

Born in Buffalo to a violent and physically abusive father, Ed did perhaps the most challenging thing possible – he broke the cycle of domestic abuse that he was raised under and became everything his father was not.

Wow, heavy shit. This isn’t a remembrance, it’s a peek into his soul — and all of us should be memorialized so well.

So, how do you get something like that? Obituaries are often composed in haste and under the worst possible circumstances, so why not do everyone a favor and write your own? Sit down, get it done, and make sure it’s in the hands of your family. Believe me you’ll be doing everyone a favor.

Pick some things that are speak to your character and beliefs, the things you held dear, and the qualities strangers would seldom see. It’s your chance to shine.

For all my preaching on this subject – this is not the first time I’ve written on this topic – I haven’t done a great job of following my own advice. I pulled out my own obit recently to see if I could whip up a final draft, but was unable to complete it. I think there’s a part of me that’s reluctant, as if this is a Twilight Zone episode where the man who finishes his obituary dies.

As if I need another excuse to not finish a piece of writing. My wife keeps saying, “You better not die before giving me something. You don’t want me writing it.”

True. Few of us will have an Eliza Hamilton to tell our story, so best do it yourself.

Ink Stained Stretch

Back in local TV marketing land, we never went after the competition directly. Oh, it was tempting, and once or twice I even produced promos that weren’t allowed on the air because they took shots at WRGB. Instead, we stuck with advertising that put the spotlight on our own attributes.

This is not a universally accepted practice.

Last week the Times Union started running ads taking aim at the Daily Gazette over their local news coverage.

Click to enlarge

This is hardly Hearst versus Pulitzer stuff from the newspaper wars of the 1890s, but by today’s standards, it’s an aggressive position.

The headline:

Award-winning local news from local journalists.

OK. powerful message, accompanied by photos of four unnamed people who are presumably award-winning local journalists. It continues:

When you read your local newspaper, you should expect local, staff-written stories, not just wire stories.

Fair enough! And then:

The Times Union consistently writes more local stories by local reporters compared to the Daily Gazette

Ooof, that’s bold — but in fine print below, it says “Stats are attributed to a survey taken Aug 1 to Aug 31 comparing local stories in the Times Union vs Daily Gazette.” What? All that tells me is that they wrote more local stories in August 2020, not “consistently.”

The message isn’t the only thing that’s sloppy. The ad also contains a pretty huge layout error in the bottom paragraph where some copy is repeated. Mistakes happen, but if you’re going to do an ad about how much better you are than the competition, let’s have somebody proof it, OK?

So, why are they suddenly going attacking the Gazette? These are sophisticated people who don’t do things on a hunch, so I’m guessing that they saw some research they didn’t like and this is a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s fair to compete for readers, but today the stakes in that competition are higher than ever. Winning this swim race isn’t about going faster and finishing first, it’s about holding the other guy’s head under the water so he drowns. There’s no second place anymore.

Senior Superlatives

If there a place where there’s greater pettiness and stupidity than the high schools of America, I’m yet to find it.

Back in 2017, Susan Parsons, faculty advisor for the Wall Township High School yearbook was ordered to have the name “Trump” Photoshopped off some dumb kid’s senior picture. She probably figured, “Ok, not my call,“ and went along with the orders. That was fine until the kid’s equally dumb parents raised a stink and the whole thing erupted into a gigantic mess, described in the NY Times as, “a national firestorm over free expression and political opinion.”

The school superintendent, looking for a scapegoat, chose to blame Ms. Parsons, and she was suspended from her teaching position. Now, Parsons has been awarded $325,000 in a settlement with the district over the grief they caused her.

It brings back memories.

When I was in high school, I saw the administration harass and intimidate the advisor of our school paper over things the students wrote. As editor, I was personally targeted by several teachers over an editorial — and another time, given a ton of shit for going to the superintendent’s office and asking for a copy of the school budget. I will say, I never got in trouble as one of the yearbook editors. Yes, I was a huge nerd.

The school could have saved themselves a lot of trouble in this yearbook thing by just having some guidelines for senior pictures, like prohibiting branded clothing. No, you can’t wear a shirt with a slogan. Why? Because we say so, that’s why — schools do that stuff all the time.  Or – and this is a stretch – they could have just ignored the whole t-shirt situation because it’s so meaningless and ridiculous. But that’s never been the way of school administrators.

I wanted to love this story, but alas, one tiny snippet of copy spoiled it: “Ms. Parsons, who said in court papers that she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016…”

Oh, well. No winners here.