Tianjin – Everything is OK

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Everything is fine in Tianjin. The explosions hurt no one.

Written and produced by Barry Lank.

Film footage from DownloadDave.

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Father’s Day is for Girls

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Father’s Day is a holiday for girls.

Men didn’t think of it. We didn’t popularize it. We don’t perpetuate it. We don’t sentimentalize it. According to at least one historical account I’ve dug up (brownielocks.com. Don’t ask.), the first non-political group of men who even cared about Father’s Day were guys hoping to sell gifts — the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers of New York City, which set up the National Council for the Promotion of Father’s Day in 1938.

Men came up with Flag Day, Arbor Day, Christmas and Easter. But the ones behind Father’s Day have been women.

Initially, it was even inspired by another female invention, Mother’s Day. In 1909, one year after President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day as an official holiday, a woman in Spokane, Wash., Sonora Smart Dodd, heard a Mother’s Day sermon and decided her father deserved a similar honor. William Jackson Smart raised Dodd and her five siblings by himself after her mother died during childbirth. Dodd started a letter-writing campaign until President Wilson proposed that Father’s Day be proclaimed as a national day of observance. Later President Calvin Coolidge endorsed the idea as well. In the 1950s, Congress recognized it in a joint resolution. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation setting it on the third Sunday of June. Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon fully established it as a permanent national day of observance.

Thus, after a mere 63 years, Father’s Day was dragged sleepily into existence — mainly for the sake of symmetry. And it was a woman who thought of it, at least according to the most popular version of the holiday’s history. According to the second most popular version, it was also a woman. But a different one.

What are the traditions for Father’s Day? Well, some people who wrote in to parentcenter.com said their traditions included decorating T-shirts with handprints and footprints, picking strawberries, taking videos of the kids and having a family reunion. But wait, that sounds a lot like what other people wrote to the site about their Mother’s Day traditions — which included decorating a tablecloth with their children’s handprints, picking strawberries, taking pictures of the kids and having a big family bash.

Why do the two sets of suggestions sound so similar? Because they all come from women!

What do men say they want? When you finally pry an answer out of them, what their ideas really amount to is that they want one day to go by — one stinkin’ day — without any major screw-ups.

“What would be great?” said Mount Laurel resident Tom O’Brien, after considerable coaxing. “A nap. I haven’t had one of those since ’93.”

In fact, when first asked what he wanted to do on Father’s Day, the immediate reaction from this father of three boys (ages 10, 8 and 5) was “I’m not the one to ask.” Mark that: He’s not the one to ask what he — himself — wants. “I’m always the one who says I don’t want anything. I don’t make it easy for my wife.”

His answer turns out to be pretty typical, when you finally find that corner of parentcenter.com where men give their ideas for celebrating the day. While a few ambitious ones talk about going to a ball game or Disney World, most guys from all over the country sound like Josh Secunda of Boston — “Taking a family walk in the woods, with no imminent pressures to get anywhere (work, daycare, etc.). Then I want a cigar.” — or Peter Armour of San Francisco — “Having the kids pick up their rooms and make their beds — seriously!”

It’s not that men don’t like what their wives and kids end up doing for them. It’s just that, left to themselves, they would never have thought of the holiday or had any idea what to do with it. Whatever the little woman wants is fine.

Father’s Day is a great, big, pink, girly holiday.

The Lightest it Ever Snowed

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(This was first published on Feb. 23, 2003, when I lived in Philadelphia. I was also more sentimental back then. I have since lost all feeling about most things.)

Having just gotten through the heaviest snowfall of my life, I am reminded of the lightest snowfall of my life. That would be in 1967. Our third-grade teacher, Mrs. Plato, stopped whatever she was doing, stared out the classroom window and said, “I don’t want you to get excited, but I think it’s snowing.”

But let me back up for a second. This was in Diamond Bar, Calif., a dusty and very new suburb 28 miles east of Los Angeles. The area had been nothing but grazing land until the first tract homes went up in 1960. So in 1967, the town was only 7-years-old, as was I.

Much has changed in Diamond Bar since then. But one thing apparently hasn’t. According to weather.com, the average low temperature in the coldest month of the year is 41 degrees. That sounds about right.

Oh, just because we didn’t have seasons doesn’t mean we didn’t know what they were — in theory. Our textbooks were written in New York, so we learned that in spring, everything bloomed; in summer, it was hot; in autumn, the leaves turned dazzling reds and golds. And in the winter, there was snow. But as for our own lives:

Things bloomed in winter, so spring really never stood out. Summer was indeed hot — 100 degrees was normal. All the leaves turned dull brown in late April and stayed brown through summer, autumn, winter, the following spring and pretty much until people grew up and moved away. And as for snow: It snowed on the TV shows. It snowed in the comic books. But this was the first time in my life — and therefore the life of the town — that it ever snowed in Diamond Bar.

Hordes of us swirled out of every classroom and around the playground, with one swarming, communal yell of “Aaaaaaaaa!” — as if this had proven something we had been told wasn’t true. Snow was real. We were going to do everything with it that we’d always heard about.

Now let me back up again. This is what the snow looked like: Suppose you took three handfuls of very light corn starch and scattered it so high in the air that it drifted down over a space of 25 acres.

It was less than dust. Most of it vanished before it reached the ground.

Nonetheless, we attempted snowballs. We’d catch two or three snowflakes, crimp them together and try to hurl them at each other. We tried to examine the snowflakes, since no two were supposed to be alike. But they were too tiny — not like those big paper snowflakes we’d make in arts classes. We tried to catch snow in our mouths — which required chasing flakes halfway across the playground, running in unpredictable zigzags with our heads craned up and our mouths wide open, an ingeniously effective way to develop permanent spinal trauma. Someone even said they were building a snowman. In retrospect, with the materials actually available, a snowman could only have been made of grass and lunch meat. But it seemed reasonable at the time.

And then, after about five minutes, the flakes disappeared as subtly as they had arrived. Still, it had snowed for us. Just like it did for everybody else. Just like in the books.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last week, as I tried and failed to dig my car out of the parking lot Monday, and as ice water soaked into my socks and caused the pneumonia that led to my death early Thursday. This is my seventh winter on the East Coast, and I have acquired an ice chipper, a shovel and contempt for anyone who won’t drive a couple of doughnuts on the black ice. But snow still amazes me — the way it crunches in your hands and explodes into powder. I still play with snow. It’s still new.

And I keep thinking about our teacher, Mrs. Plato. I didn’t appreciate this at the time, but Mrs. Plato was from Minnesota. The temperature in Minneapolis as I write this is 17 degrees, and 50 inches of snow there is a normal winter. So in 1967, when it snowed for the first time in Diamond Bar and she watched all these desert kids engineer snowscapes out of two or three melting specks of ice, Mrs. Plato must have had a pretty good day.

My Picks for the Pulitzers

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Every year at this time, newsrooms buzz about something few reporters actually cover: Feb. 1 is the deadline to apply for a Pulitzer Prize.

So at the offices of every daily and weekly paper you pick up, reporters are searching intensely for articles from the preceding year that may be good enough to win American print journalism’s top honor. As a result, we look back over the past year and discover that, despite the daily ups and downs of the newspaper game, despite the frustrations, strain and heartache, our work throughout the year has largely been pointless.

Everything was written in a hurry. Corners were cut. We wrote one thing so a source would tell us about something else. And now, with the Internet, a new generation of reporters is wasting its talents in ways that would not have been possible 15 years ago.

But it doesn’t matter. Whether you write for the Boston Globe or the phone book, if your publication comes out at least once a week, you can still claim the dream of winning a Pulitzer – of gaining permanent respect from your peers and being able to wear a nightgown to your next employee review.

Just send the committee your articles, a $50 handling fee and a one- or two-page summary telling what your stories are about and what you went through to get them. It’s fun. It’s easy. You can do it while drinking. I’ve even gone ahead and imagined the summaries being written for honorable work last year from the following magazines:

Weekly World News

Title of the article: “Man’s head explodes in barber chair.”

Category of award: Meritorious public service

Why it deserves a Pulitzer: We modestly believe this story completely changed the way Americans get their hair cut. No longer do people visit the barber without wondering whether their heads – for absolutely no reason whatsoever – might burst like a white-hot cantaloupe. That’s why this story was the lead in our magazine the week it ran, getting top billing even over “Dead rock stars return on ghost plane,” “Faces of Howard Stern, Pamela Anderson and Satan appear in volcano Smoke” and “Woman with four legs opens dance studio.”

Socialist Worker

Title of article: “Bosses want workers to pay”

Category: Spot news

Why it deserves a Pulitzer: Our reporter was reading about the bankruptcy of United Airlines when he noticed (as he stated in the first line of the story) that it “highlights the destructive cost of free-market policies that lead to economic crises and destroy the lives of millions of working people.”

We scooped every other newspaper on this.

Cheese Market News

Title: “Land O’Lakes’ new Dairy Ease caters to lactose intolerant”

Category: Distinguished commentary

Why it deserves a Pulitzer: Self-explanatory.

Entertainment Weekly

Title: “Here’s what the cast of `Friends’ is up to these days.”

Category: Investigative reporting

Why it deserves a Pulitzer: After 11 months of research, a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act and several death threats, we established as publishable fact that Jennifer Aniston still looks stunning.

Every Paper I’ve Ever Worked For

Title: Kitten-a-thon turns heads

Category: Distinguished example of explanatory reporting

Why it deserves a Pulitzer: This entry started out as a press release from our local humane society, and more or less stayed that way. Nonetheless, the story took several weeks to assemble and was a personal triumph because the reporter was just then learning how to type.

(This was originally written in 2003, when I still actually worked for a newspaper.)

A Civil Forfeiture Christmas

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A civil forfeiture Christmas. You can make your dreams come true, if you’re just legally permitted to take everyone’s stuff. Written and produced by Barry Lank. Barry Lank – Narrator Jim Earl – Chief Steve Rosenfield – Sgt. Brickman Ebbie Parker – Star Jeff Hendrick – Various police officers and civilians

Rules for the Boss’s Surprise Party

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Welcome, everyone. Our CEO, Mr. Pennshaw, is not here to make today’s morning announcements. If he were here, the announcements would start out differently, since my first announcement is that Mr. Pennshaw is not here.

Also, while Mr. Pennshaw is out, no one is to go into his office or look at his files. There is no particular reason for this. Nothing is wrong. Mr. Pennshaw would be here himself to tell you nothing is wrong, but he is very busy buying groceries. Depending how things go with the Securities and Exchange Commission, he may be buying groceries for seven to 14 years.

In any case, the governing board of GlobCorp is taking this opportunity to say we will hold a surprise birthday party for Mr. Pennshaw. Attendance is mandatory.

My name is Mr. Roth. Many of you do not know me because, strictly speaking, my job has no assigned functions. But I rarely concern myself with matters outside this company. I did once try to concern myself with matters outside this company. But the individual with whom I concerned myself concluded she had no feelings in particular about me. So I am now dedicated to this surprise party – or, as we are calling it on our planning graph, the surprise party project.

Employees must adhere to the following ground rules during Mr. Pennshaw’s party:

1. Like any other employee, Mr. Pennshaw will receive a standard-issue cake with brown icing on top, neutral beige icing in the middle and corporate-issue gray ice cream.

2. We will sing one round of “Happy Birthday to You” as it was written and copyrighted. We will not add the tag “How old are you,” and we will not eat the cake, as the planning committee designed it around our corporate image, and neglected to specify that it be edible.

3. No one is to mention Mr. Pennshaw’s son Tom. However, if Mr. Pennshaw calls you Tom, the only acceptable answer is “Yes, Dad.”

4. The subject of Mr. Pennshaw’s divorce may be avoided if every employee takes care act as if marriage does not exist for most people.

5. No one is to ask Mr. Pennshaw whether he ever missed telling someone he loved them and, once it was too late, he suffered such despair that he had to go on leave. This question has been asked and answered.

6. Any gifts for Mr. Pennshaw must come from the following selection:

  •  Coffee mugs bearing the inscription “World’s greatest CEO.”
  • Gift subscriptions for magazines that Mr. Pennshaw already receives.
  • A humorously outlandish necktie that makes Mr. Pennshaw smile in that way that makes us wish he wouldn’t smile at all.
  • A “friend” or “escort.”

That is all.

Our School Will Have the Following Budget Cuts

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From: Office of the Principal – West Jadico Senior High School

As we continue cutting the budget here at West Jadico, some of you students may have noticed the changes, such as when we brought in prisoners to teach Home Ec.

Unfortunately, with more government cuts, that trend will continue this year. So we must figure out how to adapt, without any more incidents such as when one of the new Home Ec teachers showed students how to turn celery sticks into a rough but effective brandy.

With the following proposed solutions, I believe that students can learn as much in the classroom as they did before, or at least spend about the same amount of time there.

MATH

Students who study their algebra books closely may notice that many more numbers than usual have been replaced by X and Y. Books that frequently use X and Y as variables cost less than books with real numbers because variables have no assigned value.

SOCIAL SCIENCE

Using an interdisciplinary approach that employs psychology, statistical analysis and several pie charts, Mr. Eagerton will tell students why he is alone.

SPANISH

We will have to share textbooks with three other townships. Goldthwaite Middle School in Goldthwaite Township will get the first four chapters of the books, which means they will learn the present tense. Brian Hill Senior High in central Olenyn will get chapters five through nine, in which they will learn past and future tenses.

That just leaves us with chapter 10, the subjunctive mode. So while children in nearby towns will be able to speak of things as they are or were, students here will learn to talk about how things would be if everything were different.

LIFE SCIENCES

We cannot afford any pictures of plants, invertebrates or lower mammals. The only living things students will study this year are super models.

PHYSICS

Students will gather at the janitor’s room and play with matches.

ENGLISH LIT

Last year, we had to make do without vowels, leaving students to slog through F. Sctt Ftzgrld’s Th Grt Gtsby and J.D. Slngr’s Ctchr n th Ry. This year, we get our vowels back, but will only read book jackets. Students will be expected to read and identify at least three adjectives describing John Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief.”

HISTORY

Students may have noted a gradual decay in our history classes last year when our survey course “History of Western Civilization” had to be renamed “History of Every Second or Third Day of Western Civilization.” This year, all we can offer is “History of Every Second Friday.” As a result, the course will have to skip Dec. 7, 1941, which fell on a Sunday. Our textbook jumps right from Dec. 5, 1941, when the Football Writers Association of America was organized, straight to Dec. 19, when a U.S. submarine had already sunk a Japanese ship and the federal government created the Office of Censorship to control war information. Students will have to infer for themselves what the problem was.

Also, the textbook doesn’t go past 1962. History in this class will end with the TV premiere of The Beverly Hillbillies, which indeed is when history ended in real life.

GEOGRAPHY

At age 18, students will be shown the exits.