Wednesday, February 28, 2007


You'd think with my having been a writer all my life, and a technical writer and editor since--uh, we won't go all the way back there just now--that I would be a better cultural reader than I am. However, I am not so good at deciphering survival-critical pictograms. I'm pretty great at the game "Pictionary," especially if I personally well know the person who's drawing, but, darn, give me a widely and officially recognized standard international symbol and I'm frequently obliged to scratch my head until it's too late. I can easily decode bizarre sentences written by 10th graders, college freshmen, ESOL students, and deeply esoteric, technical academic material written by fresh-off-the-boat professors. But often I do not know what to do with these little minimalist line drawings on packaging. I've written about my frequent encounter with this intellectual defeat here before. It's like the line in the jazzy theme song for the old "Frasier" tv show: "I don't know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs . . . they're callin' again."

Several years ago my mom-in-law gave me a Tupperware thingy as a gift. As you'd expect, it's plastic; only this container was made of a kind of plastic that was reportedly safe to put in a conventional oven. That's right. Supposedly impervious to temperatures below 500 degrees. I loved the idea of the item, only I don't like the idea of putting anything plastic in the oven, not even the microwave. I'm pretty superstitious that it leaches toxic chemicals into the food. So I accepted the item and only used it as a fridge and freezer container.

The bottom part of the container's not the main part of this story, though. It's the lid. The lid and the container have different rules stamped on them. The lid's semi-transparent with five "international" symbols embossed on the outside. I have never understood the precise meaning of the symbols, and nothing came in the packaging to explain them. Here they are. I tried to take a digital picture of the lid, but my idiotic camera won't let me take a picture of anything closer than three feet, so it was a dismal failure. Scanning didn't work, either. Instead, I made my own idiotic drawings of them (although I must say they look remarkably close to the original icons):

My typically less-than-lucid interpretations follow.
  1. Tuck in! LET'S EAT! Let's poke this food with our tridents and quaff from the Holy Grail!
  2. Do not wear hand-knitted mittens purchased from the Swedish craft table at the Lucia Festival while using this product.
  3. Don't use as an oceanic flotation device. Or, perhaps, don't use this in an electrical storm.
  4. It's snowing. You'll like to eat the nice warm casserole from this "fully ovenable" cookware, because it's miserably cold outside.
  5. If you drop a fancy glass while you're washing it, it will break and you will be really sorry.
Well, I'll admit that I am sure #4 means "freezer safe." And maybe #5 means "dishwasher safe." But I think they're all rather poorly articulated.

I will also admit that when I was growing up and we went on a road trip involving any interstate highways and I saw those clusters of signs advertising what was available at the next rest stop, I was puzzled (ha, apropos!) by the blue one with the white question mark on it. I thought it meant that they didn't know what was there, or that they were about to build something but didn't yet know what it would be. And, doncha know, it means exactly the opposite of having no information.

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The Stupidest Fear Ever

I'm afraid of a lot of things. Almost everything. There's little point in reiterating the same obvious things everyone else is afraid of, too, so I won't beat that dead horse.

I have a special fear. Possibly I'm the only person on earth who's retarded enough to be plagued with it.

This morning I was watching part of the "Today Show" with Al Roker and Ann Curry. The past couple of weeks they have been running a contest in which viewers send in a videotape to try to win a spot as the show's "News Anchor of the Day." Today they eliminated one finalist and now they are down to two. The two remaining guys are kinda funny. Each day the contestants have to participate in some sort of newscasting challenge, and today they were recruited to deliver part of Al's job: weathercasting.

When the two men stood up against the greenscreen which would eventually bear the day's forecast, I started to quake. Suddenly I remembered the series of recurring dreams--nightmares, actually--that I had some years ago.

I dreamed that I had a job at a small TV station in (drumroll, please!) one of the Dakotas. My job involved (what else?) writing and editing and maybe a little graphic design. In the dream I drove a white pickup truck and arrived at the building, which was in the middle of flat dusty nowhere. I was dressed in sloppy casual clothes--since mine was behind-the-scenes work, every day was like a casual Friday.

I walked in the door of the sparse, white and small building and the receptionist practically leapt onto me. "Quick! You have to go in the back and get dressed right now! [Name of normal weathercaster] is sick and can't come in! We're on air in five minutes! You have to do the forecast! Hurry!"

I turn to ice in a panic. This is one of the things I've been most afraid of my entire life. I can't go on air! I will certainly lose my job! Not only have I never been in front of one of those green screens, but I also would have no clue how to point at the right things or how to not turn my back to the camera. I would be mixing up east and west and doing everything backwards. Also, how would I know what to say if I hadn't been studying the material beforehand? I always study and memorize things first! Would I get to be looking at a screen in front of me to help me out, or would I have to wing it? Even worse is the thing that bothers me the most: despite a whole lifetime of watching weathercasts and listening to the jargon, I HAVE NEVER UNDERSTOOD anything in a weather broadcast. Night after night, year after year, I have always felt like one of the dumb cats in a Gary Larson cartoon, who only hears "Blah blah blah, Ginger" when its owner talks to it. What are they actually saying? What language is this? What do all those stupid little arrows mean? What are the green patches? What is that thing that seems to look like half of a cog floating across the US map? What are those moving color blobs, clouds? What are "lows" and "highs"? And, most perplexing to me--what the hell is a "front"? They're always saying, "Here comes a front!" As if someone saw a car coming and said, "Here comes a radiator grille." How do they know it's not just the "back" of something else? Why isn't there such a thing as a "back"?

Anyway in my dream I go change and people in the newsroom are egging me on. They are people who definitely know much more about how to do this than I do, but they won't let me out of it. I put on some dumb skirt outfit that looks like hell, and they crank up the map and put me in front of it. My blood sinks to my feet and I'm sure I'm going to faint.

Then I wake up! Oh, thank God for saving me from having to see myself blow it entirely in front of all the (10) people in one of the Dakotas! The humiliation and failure would be too great.

So on this morning's show, the two gentlemen each had a turn at delivering the weather. I was intensely interested in whether they would be able to pull it off. And, actually, they gave me great solace, because they really didn't do such a good job! Hey, not everyone is a natural at weathercasting, afterall! One guy kept turning his back to the camera and walking across the weather map so viewers couldn't see the map. He was perfectly dyslexic and was trying to read a sheaf of copy at the same time he was demonstrating with his hands (of course, the one hand was busy holding the copy). All of this was further complicated by the practical jokes that the studio was playing--projecting silly stuff on the green screen, such as a smiling animated airplane looking as though it was going to crash into the guy, or a jungle monkey doing a stupid dance. The casters, of course, were required to announce whatever was being broadcast, including the plane and monkey. One of the guys was amusing when he broadcast something else that was featured on the show that day--the world's largest pot of cheese fondue. "Up to the north here in New England, we have a giant pot of cheese. If only we could have some pots of cheese over here in the Rockies."

Anyway, for a split second I felt much better about the dreams I'd had. But in a way, seeing these "applicants" just reinforced my fear. I felt better about the idea that, after all, perhaps I wasn't the only person who would find spontaneous weathercasting challenging and humiliating. On the other hand, it just went to prove that the fear of widely-broadcast failure is indeed realistic.


Monday, February 05, 2007


A while ago a daytime TV show came on called iVillage Live. It's, like, flipped media: a TV version of a website. The premise (IMHO) is idiotic: have a team of unknown nobodies do an onstage variety show somewhere in the middle of Universal Orlando resort, and have the audience vote electronically on stupid subjects no one cares about, such as "if you knew a co-worker was playing hooky, would you rat on him/her?" They have this guy-at-large who roams the park to pull practical jokes on park visitors, and he goes out to dare them to perform some silly action, such as put on swim flippers and a snorkel mask and go up to people with a megaphone and ask them a question. Gee, clever.

But worse. Add to that the idea that "viewers at home" are encouraged to log on to the iVillage website and "interact" with the show. They're supposed to give opinions by texting or sending email. So let me get this right: people at home are supposed to sit at their computers and "converse" with the tv show. They're sitting at home at their computers, watching their tvs, which show a girl sitting at two computers capturing and reporting the messages on tv. Also, snippets of the viewers' text is piped to the bottom of the tv screen.

This is meta-media gone wild. It's pretty much not mad skilz.

I'm sorry, maybe I'm just a dinosaur. I'm not electronically challenged, but I think the idea of "interacting" with a tv show is dumb. I don't really care how the viewers answer the "poll" questions. I don't want to see a "show" that comes from a stage in Florida. I don't want anything from Florida but seashells and grapefruit. I'm even the sort of person who kind of prefers occasional snail mail. I like when I open an envelope and the contents don't go all alive and animated on me. It's somehow comforting that I can choose to invite snail mail in or not and be in control of it; I can put it down on a table or in the trash can and darnit, I can count on it to just stay there. I don't want computing on my tv.

This happened all of a sudden: One day there was a Megan Mullally talk show (admittedly not very good but at least she was upbeat and sorta funny), and the next day Megan was simply kicked out and this other unwanted thing took over. Not like I mourn Megan or anything, but the replacement is a mistake.

And the other day I was computing separately from my tv, which is normal for me, and I was separately watching the tv which I was letting simply be a tv, and changed the channel and the end of this show came on, and one of the unknown "fun outdoor announcer" people said,
We'll see you here again tomorrow on iVillage Live.
Why, no. That doesn't even make sense. You did not see me there today. I wasn't there earlier, and I'm not there now. Not even one of my text comments was there. The live studio audience is who you saw today, and you'll see a live studio audience tomorrow. Even if I watched your tv show, you still wouldn't see me or any other television viewers. You're not looking through the box. You're not really in the box. Even little kids know that!

Grrrrrr. I need a media holiday.

Not in Orlando.