Friday, January 27, 2012

Blissfully mild winter (so far)

I no longer try to hide my contempt for winter. It is my least favorite season, and its primary purpose to me is that it is a bridge between my two favorite times of year (autumn and spring).

Yes, winter can be a bleak time. It is a time of little sunshine, cold winds, and prolonged periods of time indoors. I know going through times like these help us appreciate better parts of the year, but I think I have learned enough lessons and would like the warmer weather to arrive.

Unfortunately, we are only a little over one month through the season. Though I could look at this in a pessimistic way, I will not because we have been blessed with a relatively mild winter so far. Of course, this could all quickly change, but like I just wrote, I want to look at this positively.

Perhaps we are due an easy winter. The last two have been cold, and last year, it seemed like snow was in the forecast every few days. As a child, this would have been a wonderful occurrence, but as adults know, we can not just sit at home every time the weather is bad.

The best aspect of this is that we are only a few weeks away from exiting the portion of winter that typically has the worst weather. The coldest and snowiest part of the season is from early January until mid-February. So, we are roughly three weeks away from leaving our best opportunities for awful conditions.

But does this mean we are totally out of the woods? Of course not. In fact, the worst snow storm I can remember did not happen until mid-March. Known as the Superstorm of 1993, it was a weather system that paralyzed most of the eastern part of the country.

In Manchester, we got around 10 inches of snow. It was a remarkable storm. Though it was difficult to do, I can remember driving around town.

The hotels were packed with college students who were stranded here during spring break. The interstate was closed for a period of time so they had no place to go.

In an odd way, maybe they were foreshadowing the arrival of Bonnaroo years later. If young people could have fun here during a snow storm, I can understand why a music festival would succeed here on such a grand scale.

Still, I am anticipating the arrival of mid-February and the gradual turn of the season toward spring. The turn is a gradual one, and if a person is not looking for it, he will miss it.

Even now, daylight is lasting a little longer. By mid-February, this fact will be more noticeable. We will begin to notice that we are not driving to and from work in the dark anymore.

Also, cold snaps will be less frequent. If winter continues on the mild trek it is on now, maybe we will not notice this much either. Still, it is something that is noticeable if we will only pause to do so.

However, I am only speculating at what will happen. Just because things have happened in the past does not mean they will happen again this year. Predicting weather is often like a sophisticated form of gambling where the experts guess at what is most likely to happen. Meteorologists often do a good job of it, which is why they get to make a living out of telling us what the weather might do.

As for me, I will be patient. I will pray for an early spring and do so earnestly.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

'Ron's BBQ and Fish' worth a visit

I highly recommend 'Ron's BBQ and Fish' located at the corner of Antioch Pike and Blue Hole Road in Antioch. I had fried chicken, green beans and creamed potatoes. The potatoes were genuine creamed potatoes and not the lumpy mashed potatoes served at most restaurants. Additionally, my piece of chicken took up half the plate. It was a mighty tasty meal.

Meat and three's are the way to go. This year, I want to forget that fast food restaurants even exist.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

'The Office' in transition

Maybe I am a snob when it comes to comedy on television, but I do not like most of it. When I watch most comedies, I get the overwhelming urge to take a nap.

This is especially so when it comes to new shows, and while watching them, I wonder how most of them got made. Seriously, what network executive thought 'Whitney' is funny?

Still, there are some shows that are clever and funny. For most of its existence, 'The Office' has fit that category. Like most great shows in television history, the show has had a star, but its strength is the quality of the ensemble cast around the star.

We have seen this repeatedly over the years. Legendary shows like 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' 'The Andy Griffith Show,' 'Cheers,' and 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' all had a clear lead actor, but the show's richness was derived from the sheer quality around the leading character.

Until this season, Steve Carell was the star of 'The Office.' His performance as the tone deaf boss 'Michael Scott' was remarkable in many ways. We all have had bosses who were totally self-absorbed and had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the worst time.

In addition to Carell, the show's supporting cast thrived in his presence. Throughout the show's first seven seasons, viewers got to see these characters blossom. The budding romance and eventual marriage of 'Jim' and 'Pam' and the wacky antics of 'Dwight Shrute' brought a lot of flavor to the show.

However, at the end of last season, Carell left the show to devote more time to his film career. This is understandable because his career on the big screen has gained momentum over the last few years.

This left 'The Office' with a sizable hole to fill, and so far, the results have been mixed. While the show remains funny, the loss of his talent remains a void. The ensemble cast is still strong, but the changes caused by Carell's departure have yet to come together.

The primary example of this is James Spader's addition as 'Robert California.' The character is meant to be a kind of mysterious CEO that nobody can quite understand or feel comfortable around.

While this type of character might eventually develop into another offbeat person in an office of misfits, it really is not working at this time. The character as he has been presented so far disrupts the flow of each episode as everybody freezes in his presence.

Also, the elevation of the 'Andy Bernard' character (portrayed by Ed Helms) to the office manager is a work in progress. In some respects, maybe the show's executives wanted to cushion the blow caused by Carell's departure.

This is because the 'Bernard' character is similar to Carell’s character in that it is providing a lot of insecurity and buffoonery to the office manager position. True, the character is not being done with the same narcissism as the 'Michael Scott' character, but the similarities are obvious.

The bottom line is the show is at a crossroads. Will it transition into a new and creatively appealing period? Or has it started sliding downward as most long-running shows eventually do?

Time will tell, but decline is inevitable with comedies. At some point, the envelope cannot be pushed any further. Only a handful of shows have stopped while at the top, and many push forward until the decay is painful to watch (remember the final seasons of 'M*A*S*H*'?)

I am hoping for the best, but it may be time to be a realist about the situation. At least, the good seasons can be relived in syndication.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Tennessee Volunteers football schedule more inviting than last season

Put simply, the 2011 football season was one to forget for the Tennessee Volunteers. After a promising 3-1 start, the team fell apart in October and November because of key injuries and a difficult schedule. Of course, this does not really explain the disastrous loss to Kentucky to end the season, but I am doing my best to forget that happened.

As the new year begins, let us look at the 2012 football schedule:

Aug. 31 -- vs. North Carolina State (at Atlanta)

Sept. 8 -- vs. Georgia State

Sept. 15 -- vs. Florida

Sept. 22 -- vs. Akron

Sept. 29 -- at Georgia

Oct. 13 -- at Mississippi State

Oct. 20 -- vs. Alabama

Oct. 27 -- at South Carolina

Nov. 3 -- vs. Troy

Nov. 10 -- vs. Missouri

Nov. 17 -- at Vanderbilt

Nov. 24 -- vs. Kentucky

At first glance, the schedule is much more manageable than last year (of course, this point of view could change once the season begins). Gone from last year’s schedule are LSU and Arkansas. Since both teams figure to be ranked in the preseason Top 10 next season, I won't shed any tears about not having to play them. Mississippi State and Missouri replace them in 2012.

The non-conference schedule is similar to last year's slate in that the Volunteers play one pretty good team and three pushovers. The opener against North Carolina State is a key to the season. That last sentence alone is an indication of how far the Tennessee program has fallen in the last 10 years. Back then, a game against a pretty good team from the Atlantic Coast Conference would have seemed right up our alley. Not now, however. After last season's fiasco, a loss in this game will only ramp up the negative mojo. It could be a setback from which the team cannot recover.

For season ticket holders, it is good that both the Florida and Alabama games are at home. Last season's home slate was kind of weak, so at least bigger names are visiting Neyland Stadium in 2012. Of course, in recent years, it has become a lot easier for fans of opposing teams to get tickets to games. Therefore, expect to see a lot of blue and orange and crimson and white at those games.

I will break down the season as we get closer to it. Obviously, this is a critical season for head coach Derek Dooley. People speculate about how many wins he has to get to keep his job, but I do not look at it that way. I need to see substantial improvement from the team. We could win eight games next season, but that would not necessarily mean we are seeing substantial improvement. It is not only who we beat but how we beat them.

Vols fans will be sitting on pins and needles this fall to say the least.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Quote of the day: Mark Twain

"Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in." -- Mark Twain.

No more human touch

The opinion of many is the level of customer service people enjoy has dramatically slipped over the years. My initial response is to agree with this point of view.

However, after thinking deeply about this for a few minutes, I am not so sure. After all, we all tend to romanticize the past. Experiences from decades ago are often remembered as being sweeter than they probably were.

Still, the level of customer service we experience is an interesting topic. I recently watched a documentary on the CNBC television network titled 'Customer Disservice' that analyzed the efforts of big companies to provide customer service and the attitudes of people toward them.

The program focused mostly on the roll call centers play in servicing customers, and it was not a pretty picture. For all the rhetoric companies speak about taking customer needs seriously, they are streamlining more and more the processes they use to interact with the public.

The results are most people experience unsatisfying encounters with companies, and look forward to calling them with the same eagerness most of us have when visiting the dentist.

Let us not be so one sided though. Customers often view the relative anonymity of these phone calls as an opportunity to be rude and somewhat brutal. After all, we all tend to get braver when we do not have to stand face to face with the person we are telling off.

My primary fascination with this topic is that I used to work in the customer service industry. I worked in call centers for two large companies, and I have to agree with a lot of what I heard from that documentary.

I understand the frustration of customers. Companies have streamlined their interactions with customers so much that it has become cold and impersonal. All the marketing campaigns in the world cannot cheer up a customer if their experiences make them feel like a number.

On the other hand, I understand where companies are coming from as well. Customers want services provided as efficiently and cheaply as possible, and companies are under pressure to provide it. Customers can sometimes want the world, but they do not want the fall out that can come with that.

The situation is definitely a double-edged sword. With the situation, we find the customer service professionals that must deal with the demands from the public and the indifference they receive from their employers.

These people are in a tough spot. Depending on the company for which they work, they are expected to field about 100 calls per day on a variety of topics. On each of them, they are expected to balance the interests of their employer while helping the customer.

Even the best professionals are human, and therefore, make mistakes. Their employers micro-manage them with an assortment of metrics, and the weight of these expectations leads to high turnover and burnout.

So, when customers call a company, these are facts that are worth remembering. Nobody should settle for second-rate service, but understanding the circumstances of the people you are dealing with may help communication between the two sides.

It was my experience that successful resolutions to problems most often took place when a customer did call not talk to me like they were breathing fire. When both sides remained rational, it was a lot easier to make progress. When somebody screamed at me, it made it more difficult to get at the root of their problem.

This issue will likely remain a problem in the immediate future. Companies try to deliver more with less, and the breaking point may be coming soon...if it isn't already here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Republican race far from settled

After months of build up, the Iowa caucuses finally took place last Tuesday as Republicans began the process of choosing who their nominee will be for the 2012 presidential race.

Whew! The hype leading up to Tuesday’s caucuses was as bad as the hype will be when the Super Bowl takes place in a few weeks. Since last summer, GOP candidates have risen and fallen in the polls like the temperature.

First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, then Ron Paul. The only constant has been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who has been toward the top of the polls since the beginning.

It is almost as if the media and the Republican Party have been trying to manufacture a compelling race between two candidates. Romney is obviously one of them but the other changes by the week.

Now that the Iowa caucuses have happened, there has been a lot of talk in the mainstream media about certain candidates having momentum and others being in trouble. This may be so.

However, there is one fact everybody must keep in mind at this point. Only one GOP candidate since 1972 has won the Iowa caucuses and gone on to win the presidency. Just one.

So, what does this mean? It means a lot of twists and turns remain in the Republican campaign. As that factoid proves, an early win in Iowa does not guarantee a win in November or even the party nomination.

I often wonder why so much emphasis is put on the Iowa elections. It is just one state of 50 that will be going through this process this year. Demographically, it is pretty generic and does not represent the cultural diversity of the United States.

Maybe its importance has more to do with our nation's short political attention span.

We live in an instant gratification society, so there is often a rush to declare a competition complete before it is complete. It is like this in all aspects of American life. It seems experts like to be the first to declare somebody or something the winner.

Especially in politics, the public seems to fall in line with this. In recent years, the public has viewed the election process as a necessary evil, and most want it over as soon as possible.

Still, it is a big mistake to take this approach. The electing of a president should be a marathon and not a sprint. However, we appear to be going the other direction when it comes to this.

The primary season has been watered down to a couple of months. This was not always the case. A generation ago the primary campaign continued into June where it climaxed with the California primary.

Despite how difficult it can be to remain focused on the presidential campaign, it is important to follow it. I can understand why people get discouraged though.

There is a lot of negativity to it. It seems when one candidate surges he or she is attacked with ruthless precision. And everything is fair game when these attacks begin.

It may be a skeleton from a candidate's personal life that occurred decades ago. It may be a slip of the tongue a person makes when under the glare of increased media scrutiny. It may be one bad decision that has nothing to do with a person’s qualifications to be president.

The bottom line is running for president is not for the faint of heart. Following the process is also not for the faint of heart.

Electing a president is like watching sausage being made. We may like the result, but it is brutal to watch.

'It's A Wonderful Life' is a glorious film

Most people have traditions they like to observe during the Christmas season. Each of these traditions is special, and for many, they are reminders of a time in the past that was sweet and memorable.

A tradition that I recently dusted off was watching the film 'It's A Wonderful Life' starring Jimmy Stewart. As my life has unfolded, this movie has become required viewing in late December.

Though this film has become a part of Americana in recent years, it was not always that way. When it was released in 1946, it was something of a box office disappointment. I stumbled across the film by accident back in the 1980s.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was surfing through my television channels. I found the movie and only began watching it because I could not find anything else worth viewing. As I watched, its beauty unfolded in my heart.

In the following years, millions went through the same thrill of discovery I did. For a while, the film was broadcast dozens of times each December though in recent years it is not being shown as much.

For many, the film presents life as we wish it could be. The film follows the story of George Bailey (portrayed by Stewart), and it culminates with his friends rescuing him when all seemed lost. The film is a reminder that no person is a failure who has friends. The fact that its conclusion is set during Christmastime adds all the more to its holiday appeal.

Critics of the film have dismissed it for being too sentimental. Actually, sentimentality is a common thread through many of Frank Capra’s films. Capra directed 'It's A Wonderful Life' as well as other well-known films like 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.'

However, sentimentality is not necessarily a bad thing. Given how cynical our world has become, we need to look for it wherever we can. While I agree people can waste time living too much in the past, seeing where we came from can have a big impact on where we are going as a nation.

The sentimentality of the film can oversimplify the way life was generations ago. As an old chemistry teacher I had once said, "The good ol' days weren’t always so good."

And he was right. When this film was made, there were a lot of social issues that divided people. For example, legalized segregation still had a stranglehold on the South. For victims of that policy, I am sure they would argue the past was not as sweet as 'It's A Wonderful Life' portrays.

However, I do not believe that is the point. A movie like this is a reminder of what we are capable of and what we would like to be.

The film reinforces concepts like people working together and loving their neighbor as they love themselves. Simple concepts, but we do not see them flourishing in our communities as we should.

Films, like most forms of media, can have a tremendous impact on society. While people have the free will to make their own decisions, our decision making is easily influenced by what we see and hear.

While a lot of Hollywood's films today are lackluster and lack creativity, movies like 'It's A Wonderful Life' remind us this type of entertainment can be a bully pulpit when shaping mass opinion.

It is too bad that more filmmakers will not take chances and make statements with their films. I understand why they will not because movie making is big business, and if a person's movie flops, they often do not get a second chance.

Still, I would like to see somebody take a chance.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fun and brain injuries

Like most men my age, I enjoy sports a lot. Every season of the year is identifiable with a sport in my household.

Right now, I watch plenty of football. The college bowl season is about to hit its climax, and the National Football League is chugging toward its playoffs. Life is fun when it comes to this aspect of life.

However, like with most things, a dark cloud of seriousness hovers around these events. While football is exciting, we should not lose sight that it is a tremendously physical sport and leaves some of its participants with health concerns that are long lasting.

We were reminded of this recently when more than 20 former NFL players sued the league claiming it failed to adequately treat them for concussions they suffered while playing. These players claim the concussions have led to severe and permanent brain damage that is linked to the league's lack of action.

The NFL denies the accusations and plans to vigorously defend itself in court. This will likely be a long and drawn out process and will remain in the courts for the next several years.

Since I am neither a doctor nor an attorney, I have no idea how this will all play out in the courts. However, I am sure it will be as hotly contested as any Super Bowl.

As fans, we often lose sight of how dangerous this sport can be. It is physically punishing and from the security of our living rooms, we do not get the full impact of just how painful the contact is on the field.

Hip and knee replacement surgeries are common for many former players. These health problems can be very expensive especially for those who played before players began making big money.

In my lifetime, I can remember when even star players had to have second jobs in the off season. Now, many of these players have hit hard times because of the financial and personal toll their football injuries had on them.

In the coming weeks, there will be much hype as the NFL playoffs unfold, leading up to the Super Bowl in early February. Though there will likely be some debate on this topic, I do not expect it to dominate sports coverage.

This is because the NFL is probably the most effective sports league when it comes to shaping its image and guiding how the media covers it. If someone disputes this, keep an eye on how powerful networks like ESPN report on this issue.

ESPN has access to more resources when covering sports than any other outlet on the planet, but so far it has taken a pretty hands off approach to this issue. Why is this?

We can only speculate, but the network does have a multi-year contract with the NFL worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It may be cynical to suggest the cozy relationship between ESPN and the NFL has caused the network to play nice on this issue, but we do live in a cynical world, don't we?

As fans, we need to show more sensitivity toward the sacrifices players have made and continue to make. It is tough to show sensitivity toward people making millions of dollars, but it is an effort we must make. I agree nobody has forced them to make the career choices they have made, but that should not give us an excuse to be callous.

After all, they are on the field to entertain us. The concussions being received, and the bones being broken are for the benefit of us.

If we look at this so personally, maybe our attitudes will change.

Those commuting blues

As I begin writing this, keep one thought in mind: I am not whining.

We all face situations in our lives that are inconvenient, and when applicable, it is important to share this information with people in the hope that it will benefit them. In that spirit, I share this with you.

Commuting to Nashville can be challenging, and if anybody reading this is considering doing that, I want to share some ideas. I have been commuting from Manchester to Nashville for about 10 years for my job.

When I began doing this, I had no idea it would become a long-term situation, but this is the way it has turned out. With so many people out of work, I am not going to complain about having to drive a long way.

However, commuting is not for everybody, and I hope the following tips will be beneficial if somebody suddenly find themselves in this situation.

The first major point that must be accepted is that people in Nashville simply cannot drive, especially during rush hour. Multiply this fact by a factor of 10 if it is raining.

Once again, I want to emphasize that I am not whining. This is years of experience talking here. On days I wake up and hear it raining, I take a quick shower and get on the road as quickly as possible.

This is because rain adds about 30 to 45 minutes to my drive. As soon as I reach Sam Ridley Parkway in Smyrna, traffic grinds to a halt. We slowly creep our way to Bell Road where traffic mysteriously loosens up. Don't ask me why, but this happens like clockwork.

Also, the traffic reports given on the Nashville radio and television stations are an invaluable help and must be monitored at all times. If there is a wreck on Interstate 24, then I follow the same drill as when it rains. I get out the door as quickly as possible.

On days when it both rains and there are wrecks, the commute comes uncomfortably close to Thunderdome (see the film 'Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome' to know what I am referencing). When this happens, it has already been a bad day, and it is not even 8 a.m. yet.

An aspect of commuting I have never fully understood is how a wreck that happens early can still impact traffic hours after it is cleared. I know studies have been performed that examine this phenomenon, but I just do not get it. If a wreck happens at Old Hickory Boulevard at 7 a.m., a person can bet it will still cause problems later even if the automobiles involved have been cleared.

Also, Wednesday is usually the heaviest day for traffic during morning rush hour. I do not have the numbers to back that up, just years of experience. Mondays and Fridays are lighter because some people take those days off. Summertime is better because the impact of school zones is lessened, plus more people take vacations then.

So, if somebody reading this is considering commuting, take this information to heart. It seems more and more people in Coffee Country are doing this. Urban sprawl is leading more people to live here while working many miles away.

This is a great complement to our community. We live in a nice area that is certainly more affordable compared to the cost of living in Davidson County. The rent for small apartments up there is often as much as mortgage payments here.

In order to live the lives we want to, sometimes we must make sacrifices, and commuting is one many make.

Still do not like those rainy mornings though.