Monday, June 22, 2009

Dressing Like a Grown-Up (Especially if You Are One)

Right up front, don't think I'm advocating for the return of the bustle. Believe me, that is not my intention.

But take a moment and gaze at the drawing of these lovely Victorian ladies. What can you tell about them from what they are wearing?

First of all, you can see that these are adult women, not children or younger adolescents. You know that because, while little girls of the era wore clothes that were similar to what women wore, they definitely weren't miniatures of mature outfits (nor did women wear larger versions of clothing intended for teens and younger).

You can also tell that they're going somewhere special -- which is to say, out of the house.

In ye olden days, adults heading into public put a bit of effort into their clothes if at all possible.

Even the poorest women would trot out a ribbon or a bit of lace to show that they knew that they weren't at home scrubbing the kitchen floor but indeed in the world among their fellow citizens.

Men would put on a coat, perhaps a hat, and shine their shoes.

Looking just at how a person was dressed, you could make a reasonable guess about their age and whether they were going to church or a shop, or merely stepping out the back door to feed the chickens.

It was a question of respect, not just self-respect but respect for others and for the situation, place and circumstance.

These sorts of distinctions are much more difficult today, when an average middle-class adult might wear the same T-shirt, shorts and sneakers to church, to the mall, to the doctor's office, to the local park or to clean out the garage (or, in the case of some very indulgent employers, to work).

We all want to be comfortable. I'm sure these ladies loved comfort as well. No doubt, given the opportunity, a goodly number of them would have tossed out the crinolines, corsets and bonnets in favor of a tank top, cut-offs and flip-flops.

But I can't help but feel that more is lost in that than just a few yards of excess fabric.

I went to tea Sunday with some female friends, and we all wore skirts. Had we been outdoors, we might have donned hats as well. In the past, I've been to tea outings where the full kit was deployed, from cute shoes to a fancy chapeau and everything in between.

Gosh, it's nice to do that. I remember how special we felt, how we all appreciated each other's efforts to dress up the occasion. We weren't at a ball game or making a trip to the dump, and anyone looking at us would have been left in no doubt of that.

Like many people, I've gotten a little lax. I might throw on athletic wear and sneakers for church if I plan to go for a walk afterward, or be tempted to go to the store in my baggy pants and T-shirt just because it seems silly to dress up a bit just to get a quart of milk at Trader Joe's (OK, not that I ever leave Trader Joe's with just a quart of milk, but you get the point).

I actually saw a woman arrive at my local TJ's not more than a couple of months ago, decked out in an elderly T-shirt, leopard-print pajama pants and Ugg boots. I kid you not. And she was well over 18, and it was mid-afternoon.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't look a whole lot better (but at least I didn't have pajama pants on. Not quite, anyway).

A couple of days ago, after hearing about fortysomething Tony Hawk skateboarding through the halls of the White House -- the people's house -- and Twittering about eating Frosted Flakes there, I decided enough was enough.

At least he was wearing a suit (with sneakers), but even so, I fear we've lost any sense of what's appropriate, whether it's about what to wear or where to do things.

If a 41-year-old man doesn't respect the White House enough to act like an adult in it, then I'm not sure there's any place he wouldn't think catching a quick skateboard ride isn't perfectly appropriate.

Why not the National Cathedral? Great big shiny floor there. How about the Lincoln Memorial? Just grab the old guy's hand and whip yourself around. Bet you could could do a nice McTwist on the handicap ramps at the Smithsonian.

And since adults set the tone for kids, adults who refuse to stop dressing or acting like kids aren't doing the younger generation any favors.

It's still a tough, dangerous, competitive world out there, and the only way overgrown adolescents survive in it is because other people have decided to to put away childish things and become grown-ups.

If a 20-year-old soldier can throw on a uniform and pounds of gear every day to defend my freedom, the least I can do, safe and secure at home, is try every day to not let down my end of the adult bargain.

Also, looking to the future, with the job market shrinking and competition becoming more intense in a world where many workers are essentially independent contractors, the price of perpetual casual Friday could be high indeed.

So this Sunday, no sneakers in church. There might even a be a skirt. Heavens, who knows where this will lead...

Click here for "RedEye" host Greg Gutfeld's impassioned response to Hawk's most excellent White House adventure...

Here for the New York Times article about a book called "The Death of the Grown-Up"...

for's guide to dressing business casual...

Here for Virginia Tech's career-wear advice for its grads...

Here for a guide on professional dress for women...

Here for the same on the male side...

And here for those who might actually want to dress Victorian and go to tea, with advice from the always appropriately dressed friend who provided the illustration above.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Fought the (Natural) Law, and the Law Won

When I was younger, I was a serial killer of plants. Much innocent foliage gave its life until I got bright enough to acknowledge that I didn't know what I was doing.

So I bought some books, watched "The Victory Garden" (these were the days before HGTV) and talked to staff at garden centers.

As a result, my gardens when I lived in Northern New York State were healthy and flourishing, partly because I picked the right plants for the planting zone in which I was living.

Luckily for me, this zone matched my aesthetic, which runs to rambling, overgrown English country garden.

Then I moved to Los Angeles and resumed my murderous ways.

Here, I don't have a garden, I have a balcony. It faces southwest and so, even a few miles inland, gets whipped by the wind off the Pacific Ocean. It also alternately gets baked by the midday and afternoon sun, or fogged in by the marine layer (sometimes both in the same day).

It can be pretty chilly out there or stiflingly hot. And it's never, ever really winter, and it can be summer at any time of the year.

Over the next few years, Mother Nature resolutely resisted my every attempt to recreate the English country garden look, baking or rotting a succession of violas, Johnny-jump-ups, strawberry plants, double impatiens, miniature roses (OK, the squirrels eating the buds didn't help either), tuberous begonias, lamiums, sweet woodruff and other plants too numerous to mention and too painful to remember.

I also went through several varieties of rosemary and lavender, which usually grow well in Los Angeles, just not on my balcony. Too hot, too damp, too something.

Of course, other Mediterranean herbs did very well -- especially basil -- as did any kind of succulent, but they didn't fit my vision, so I didn't want to plant them. Oh, no, I preferred the ones that required daily watering, loads of insecticide and constant moving around the space to get optimal light conditions or to shield from the wind.

After dumping one last load of my expired horticultural experiments, I finally gave in.

Mother Nature won, but then she always does. You see, I had forgotten an elemental lesson.

You'd better learn to work with Mother Nature, because she has absolutely no intention of working with you.

Now, you can plant orange trees in a heated Adirondack greenhouse and circumvent the winter, or dump uncounted thousands of gallons of water and chemicals on a Los Angeles lawn to maintain lush green grass in a desert, but trying to push Nature's boundaries is inevitably extremely difficult and extremely expensive.

Better, perhaps, to plant a Macintosh apple tree outdoors in the mountain valley, or landscape with native plants in Southern California.

Or, in my case, better to plant those herbs, succulents, bougainvillea (pictured above) and scented geraniums that thrive in the environment I have provided for them. After all, I chose to live in a desert, in an urban apartment, not in a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a Saratoga Springs carriage house.

Rather than thumbing my nose at Nature and slaughtering plants with abandon, I have taken responsibility for my decisions and yielded to her greater wisdom.

Yeah, I still have a lavender, even though I'm quite convinced it will only get so big in a pot and then die. Or, maybe I'll give it then to a friend with a yard, where it can go in the ground and live a long and beautiful life.

The lesson in this is that no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we can control Nature, that we can tweak her systems and bend her rules, she will always have the last word.

And by the way, since I stopped trying to turn a patch of concrete in Southern California into a vision out of Beatrix Potter, I've saved a lot of money, time and effort, and my garden, while not my original vision, is a vision nonetheless, one I never tire of seeing.

For one of my favorite takes on the environment, visit, created by Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." I'd love it if you perused the whole site, but if you're in a hurry to get out and weed your own patch, just click here. Rowe's an advocate of "Brown Before Green," of which I am an eager acolyte.

As Mike says, "Like my friends who espouse all things Green, I want to live on a healthy planet. I really do. But I’m tired of the guilt. I’m suspicious of the manipulation. And I’m weary of being lectured by people who seem to care more about the planet than the people on it. Hollywood and Washington have shaped the issue, and now, all things Eco-friendly are up for sale. Well, that’s fine. But when it comes to jobs, the people who make a difference aren’t covered in green. They’re covered in Brown - dirt, mud, grime, grease, or maybe something worse. I’m no expert, but if we’re going to save the Earth, the color of Dirt makes a heck of a lot more sense than the color of Envy. The way I see it, if we really want to get clean and green, we’re gonna have to get down with brown. In other words, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty."

Check the site, there's lots more where that came from. Or you can click here to see where Mike and I discussed the topic for my other blog, Hot Cuppa TV.

Like Mike, when someone tells me how to save the Earth, I'd like to know they spend time with a bit of it under their fingernails.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Inky Newsprint and the Future of News in an A la Carte World

As a journalist (that's the day job), every day I hear the question, "What is the future of newspapers?"

My answer is, "There isn't one, if you expect the industry to look like it does today."

One can wander far into the weeds of monetizing online content, micropayments, content cannibalization, etc., etc. Far cleverer folks than me, and those that have actually worked in a major-newspaper newsroom (I've always been either a freelancer or a wire-service staff writer), have tackled these questions and no doubt do a better job of discussing these topics than I can.

Some recent sources for views on the subject are linked at the bottom of this post. But, as a newspaper outsider who is also a journalistic insider -- and vested in the outcome of this debate -- I'll default to what I do best, ask questions.

I'll offer a couple of answers for each, but you may have a very different perspective, and I hope you'll share it with me. Here we go...

What is a newspaper?

Literally speaking, it's a pile of inky newsprint, a delivery system for information, advertising and photographs. But when people say "newspaper," they usually refer to what I call the newsgathering infrastructure, the people and technology that produce what winds up on the inky newsprint.

For the record -- not fond of inky newsprint. I went more than a decade without a newspaper subscription, because I just detest dealing with inky newsprint. I get a Sunday paper now...for the coupons. The inky newsprint generally gets tossed.

But, I consume vast quantities of news, both on screen and online, much of it newspaper and magazine content. That's partly because it's free but mostly because it's convenient. If I had to pay, I probably would, but hardly anybody asks me to. Which leads me to another question...

Why do people buy a newspaper?

A few may get it for the paper itself, to wrap their fish or put at the bottom of a birdcage (it's also great for cleaning glass and absorbing odors in the fridge), and others enjoy the physical sensation of reading the paper, but mostly it's to get the information, ads and photos on the inky newsprint. The content, as always, is king.

In the past, buying the paper was the only way to get the content. And, you had to buy the whole paper to get the content that mattered most to you, which might be only the sports section, the stock quotes, the comics or the obituaries. Newspapers have always done surveys to determine which section of the paper people liked more and adjusted accordingly, but you still were stuck with an all-or-nothing choice.

Those days are gone. With the Internet and specialized cable channels, we can now seek out our favorite content and ignore the rest (whether that's good or bad in itself is a conversation for another day).

In restaurant terms, you could say we've gone from a prix fixe to an a la carte world. I don't have to get roast chicken, rosemary new potatoes and maple-glazed carrots just because that's what the chef or the restaurant owner put on the menu that day, if what I really want is roast chicken, sweet-potato puree and green beans almondine. Or maybe I just want the chicken, or the beans, or the puree. Or maybe I want pork chops or eggplant parmesan.

Or, I want dessert first (which I always do).

A similar problem faces TV networks, but since viewers can change channels, there's always been an element of a la carte viewing there. With DVDs, DVRs, On Demand and the Internet, viewers have even more freedom now, but it's never been the case that you had to watch all of ABC to just see "Desperate Housewives," and the advertising rates for TV networks have never been based on an all-or-nothing model.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have been doing just that. You've never been able to buy just the sports section, or just the obits, and the popular sections of the paper have often carried the financial freight for the more specialized or estoeric sections.

Yeah, that's going away.

Just because people have never had a choice doesn't mean they wouldn't jump on the chance to have one if only they could. Digital distribution makes it very hard, if not soon impossible, to herd people to content through a few carefully controlled gateways (where you pay the price of admission, of course). That's great for the unfettered dissemination of information but lousy for figuring out advertising rates or viable subscription models.

People want only what they want, when they want it, the way they want it, and on the Internet, unless it's merchandise or porn, they usually don't want to pay for it.

But let's face facts, we're not going to get professional journalism or professionally produced entertainment unless we pay professional salaries to the professionals that make it. Without a viable way to monetize digital distribution, we're looking down the barrel of a future dominated by blogs about other blogs and user-generated YouTube videos.

That stuff's fine as as an appetizer or a side dish, but the whole meal?

So, how to get people to want to pay admission to go through a gateway to get content?

Let's go back to the restaurant analogy. There are prix fixe restaurants, and people go to them and often pay top dollar. Why, when they could go to an a la carte restaurant and pick every element of their meal?

It's because they trust the chef to make good choices about what goes on the plate, perhaps better and more inventive and tastier choices than they might have made on their own. They're paying not only for the food, but for the expertise that went into choosing, preparing and combining the dishes.

And the chef won't give it to them any other way. No substitutions allowed.

If diners couldn't live with that, they'd go to a family buffet place or a fast-food joint or cook for themselves at home. Many do that, but not everyone, and even for those that do, maybe not every meal. And, as a side note, those who choose to trust the chef are often part of an upscale, highly desirable demographic.


Obviously, the restaurant thinks the combined cost of the ingredients and the preparation, and what they're paying for the chef's expertise and technique, means the food produced has value. Things that have value are generally not given away -- or if they are, only as a teaser to get you to pay up later.

It's hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay maintaining his reputation if you could walk into any of his restaurants off the street and demand a beef Wellington and a risotto for nothing but the lint in your pocket.

But, he might put a kiosk out front that gives you a sample bite, if the restaurant's on a highly trafficked street, but you certainly won't get the whole yummy meal unless you fork over some cash.

And if you were getting Gordon Ramsay's food for free, wouldn't you start to wonder how he pays for that? Is that really beef in that pastry? Doesn't bear thinking about.

One wonders then, why those that operate the newsgathering infrastructures think what they offer has no value and should be tossed out there for free. But now I'm getting into monetizing digital distribution and way out of my area of expertise. Back to the questions.

Again, what is the future for newspapers?

Dismal. But the future of news, very bright -- maybe just not primarily provided on those piles of inky newsprint (which, I know, is very bad news for those who work the printing presses and drive the delivery trucks, not to mention the kid on his bike with a paper route).

To prepare for this, journalists are going to have to learn some new skills, not just writing and talking, but also editing audio and video.

The survival of the mainstream news media also comes down to a question of trust. If you trust a chef to give you a quality meal, you'll pay the going rate and be a loyal customer. If you think he or she is sloppy, uses inferior ingredients or, because of an innate preference for garlic, insists on sneaking it into everything, including the creme brulee, you'll move on.

Just at the time they need their readers' trust and loyalty the most, too many newspapers have chosen to serve their own opinions and interests instead of the truth. Last year, a reporter actually said to me, "Truth has a liberal bias." He was serious.

I doubt that the Founding Fathers, when they decreed in the First Amendment to the Constitution that we should have a free press, had that in mind. But it is a free press, which means people can also let their biases run free, and the market will sort it out. Looking around, I suspect the market may have spoken.


What can we do?

As a journalist, I can try to do my best, day by day, and hope people at the higher pay grades figure out a way to keep the lights on. It's up to everyone else in the newsgathering infrastructure to make sure they're providing a service worth paying for, a balanced meal of news, information, images and interactive content that engages users and readers and makes them feel like they're getting good value for their time and dollar.

Oh, and serving the truth instead of themselves -- that's also helpful.

But it's you, as readers (or users or viewers), that have the final say.

Will you support good journalism where you find it?

What's it worth to you to know more about your world and the people making decisions that affect your life?

Will you just consume the results of others' efforts without ever paying the check?

If the answers to the above are no, nothing and yes, and the ad-supported model for online news doesn't pan out, we might as well just turn out the lights now, lock the doors and flip the sign over to "Closed."

Maybe one of the folks below will come up with a solution...

Eat, Sleep, Publish -- Thoughts on the future of publishing.

Content Bridges, linking old and new media.

A cheeky piece, posted just yesterday, from Boing Boing.

Jack Myers, from the Huffington Post last year.

A more hopeful vision, from the U.K., about a month ago.

From late May, a Greek news editor ponders the paperless future of news.

And some video of Charlie Rose, discussing the subject with a panel of news heavyweights, from February.

And finally, where I learn everything about what's happening in my home city of Los Angeles: Curbed LA and the L.A. Now blog from the Los Angeles Times (which has a pretty colorful past).

UPDATE: This former editor of the former Rocky Mountain News examines the results of a meeting of newspaper honchos, and he's seriously bummed; this journalism instructor isn't too jazzed about the value of journalism; Time Magazine's media critic plots out worst-case scenarios; and "Reflections of a Newsosaur does the same, relating it to the troubles of the auto industry, which I discussed here.

There's more out there, but you get the idea.