I recently received, as an extra special gift for subscribing to Motor Trend magazine, a digital watch of spectacularly shoddy construction.
I mean this timepiece could cause widespread suicides if you brandished it in the fine shops of Bern and Zurich.
But it’s not the watch itself, which I expect will stop working properly along about St. Patrick’s Day, that intrigues me.
It’s the one-page owner’s manual that came with it.
At least I think it’s supposed to be an owner’s manual.
This publication, which is printed on the kind of flimsy paper that lines tins of Altoids mints, combines illiteracy and bad translation in a way that is both frightening and hilarious.
Its mistakes are so frequent and so outlandish that I wonder whether the whole endeavor is intended as a joke.
If so it’s a devilishly clever one.
The watch, I should mention, was made in China. Probably you figured that out.
The lunacy starts with the very name of the thing: “Waterproof Cold-Light Sportwatch.”
The waterproof part I understand — although I doubt the watch could survive even a heavy dewfall.
But I’m clueless as to the significance of “cold-light.”
The watch’s LCD digits do indeed illuminate at the push of a button. But I can’t detect any change in the temperature of the watch, or of its immediate surroundings.
Apparently the makers of the watch consider the cold nature of the light a valuable attribute, though, because the manual uses the adjective consistently.
In one instance it’s the “cold night” button but I suspect that’s just a typo.
And it’s not the only one.
• “moreng” for “morning”
• “lighr” for “light”
• “agarn” for “again”
These misspellings are as nothing, though, compared with the tangled syntax and at times incomprehensible diction that permeates the manual.
I am, for instance, cautioned against wearing the watch “in broiling or freezing environment.”
I try to steer clear of broiling environments as it is, whether I’m wearing a watch or not, so no problem there.
But even in the more temperate environments to which I am typically exposed, I sometimes sweat. Including my left wrist, which is where I normally attach a watch.
Unfortunately, “the resin-made watchband may ageing crack or break when bear sweat or damp.”
I take this to mean that my sweat could foul up the watchband, or at least its constituent resins, whatever those might be.
Except what if the watchmaker means, literally, “bear sweat,” as in ursine perspiration?
I don’t know if bears actually sweat. But I imagine that if they do they’d have to get pretty riled up first, and I don’t want to be anywhere near a bear that’s so agitated it’s sweating. I’ll bet the sweat’s erosive effect on the watchband would be the least of my worries in that case.
In fact the manual says “any rough use or hard shock may cause damage” to the watch.
I’m afraid a sweaty bear could get pretty rough, and administer quite a lot more than a hard shock.
It turns out, though, that even if I’m scrupulous in avoiding sweat and bears and the like, that watchband, and specifically those mysterious resins, could give me trouble.
“If you find any white powder in the watchband,” the manual tells me, “wipe them off with cloth, the powder would not cause any burt to your skin and clothes.”
I’m not comforted by this, and not just because the watchmaker writes “burt” when it must have intended “hurt.”
Frankly I’m suspicious of any watch that, in the ordinary course of usage, produces white powder, no matter how benign the white powder is supposed to be.
The possible presence of powder also complicates the task of disposing of this watch. And I might need to do this even before it expires, because the thing sounds a chime at the top of every hour, a sound that annoys my wife and which I can’t figure out how to turn off, if indeed that’s even possible.
The manual, needless to say, is no guide, offering as it does such crystalline statements as: “Different types have different patterns, but have same functions and operation ways.”
For the time being I’ve stuffed the watch beneath a stack of summer shirts in my dresser. The layers of cotton and polyester effectively block the hourly beeps, although I confess that I worry about the fabrics’ resistance to resinous white powders.
Whatever happens with the watch I intend to hold on to this manual. It tells me to do so, for one thing:
“Keep well the operation instruction and other attached files for necessary use in the future.”
The manual was not accompanied by other files, attached or otherwise, but keep it well I will.
I might want to tell someone about this slip of paper years from now.
And I’d much rather be able to refer to the genuine article than to try to dredge its amusing incomprehensibility from my memory, which lately is about as reliable as, well, a Chinese-made Waterproof Cold-Light Sportwatch.
So it turns out you can get paid for being a bad driver in America.
If teenage boys ever find out about this, the auto industry might be in financial trouble beyond even the rescue of the federal government.
I probably could have graduated from college debt-free.
You can also get a check if you sold your car because you were afraid it was infected with the electronic version of the poltergeist that made the TV go fuzzy in that movie from the 1980s when Craig T. Nelson’s hair was brown.
Maybe it’s not only the lawyers who benefit from our litigious society after all.
This financial windfall is limited, however, to owners (or former owners) of certain Toyota models.
The Japanese company recently settled a class-action lawsuit related to a phenomenon that bears an egregiously misleading name: unintended acceleration.
This implies that your Toyota, right when you’re pulling into a parking spot, might decide it’s actually in the left lane on the Munich-Stuttgart autobahn and there’s a Porsche 911 Turbo looming behind, its headlights flashing frantically.
Indeed, I suspect quite a lot of people, were they asked about the controversy that embroiled Toyota a few years back, would today give an answer along the lines of: “Right, all those Toyotas that would accelerate out of control, even after the driver jammed on the brake pedal. Right?”
Sadly, the facts in this instance were rendered, if not meaningless then a lot less important, by an onslaught of photos of crumpled Toyotas and breathless descriptions of bewildered drivers.
And so we come to a situation in which the world’s largest automaker has to shell out an estimated $1.4 billion merely because some people claim that they think their Toyota was dangerous.
Even though experts — including some of those rocket scientists from NASA — say that’s not so.
This annoys me.
Not because I happen to own a Toyota. It’s an FJ Cruiser, by the way, a four-wheel drive that wasn’t involved in any of the recalls or lawsuits that have plagued the company since 2009.
Nor do I have any financial interest in Toyota (the FJ, fortunately, is mine free and clear).
What galls me, rather, is that people are going to get money because they, or some of their fellow citizens, occasionally push down on the go pedal when they meant to push, well, the other one.
(With most cars being automatics these days, there are only two pedals to choose from; it’s not as if driving a modern automobile is equivalent to playing a pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.)
Among the allegations that fueled the anti-Toyota crusade was that the company’s electronic throttle system was affected by some mysterious gremlin among its tens of thousands of lines of computer code.
(This is “drive-by-wire” technology, with no physical connection between the accelerator and the engine.)
A 10-month investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) put paid to that myth.
Which leaves two other potential avenues leading to Toyota’s liability.
Only one of those, though, seems to me legitimate.
On certain of the models implicated in this scandal, the accelerator pedal could “stick,” investigators found. Yet even in those cases, the vehicle’s brakes were more than capable of stopping even an accelerating car. Of course the brakes won’t work if you don’t push down on that left pedal.
The other culprit was beyond Toyota’s control — some thick aftermarket floormats could “trap” the accelerator pedal.
But again, as with “sticky” gas pedals, a driver can avoid a crash by simply putting on the brakes.
If Toyota is responsible for drivers who install floormats that look like shag carpet from the ’70s, then the company that makes those naked lady silhouette decals better beware the next time some guy with a couple of the things stuck to his back window reverses his truck and crunches a Prius.
“The sticker got in the way and I couldn’t even see the car,” the truck’s driver says.
Ultimately, though, this Toyota mess has little to do with sticky pedals and fluffy floormats.
The NHTSA investigators concluded that in the “vast majority” of the cases they studied, the driver of the rogue Toyota either stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or stepped on both pedals at the same time.
And in most of the latter cases, the brakes, as they were designed to be, proved more powerful than the engine, and the car stopped.
The bottom line, then, is that the term “unintended acceleration” is accurate only in the sense that the drivers who fouled up didn’t mean to push the wrong pedal.
But their mistake isn’t Toyota’s fault, any more than Specialized, the company that built my mountain bike, should be liable because I went over the handlebars and got dirt in my teeth after I thought I could swerve around the sagebrush.
I mean I didn’t intend to clip the thing with my foot, so my accelerated tumble into the puckerbrush could fairly be described as “unintended.”
Toyota is not altogether blameless, to be sure.
The NHTSA — the same agency that exonerated the company from the “ghost in the machine” lunacy regarding the electronic throttle — has fined Toyota about $83 million for failing to notify the agency soon enough about possible issues with floor mats and sticky gas pedals.
That’s seems fair to me.
As for the rest of this fiasco — and by far the more expensive part — I have nothing but contempt.
It’s bad enough that Toyota’s products are branded as dangerous based on a fictitious flaw.
Even worse that people are fattening their bank accounts on the fantasy.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
Statistically speaking, being afraid to fly on a commercial airliner has never been a rational reaction.
That cloying cliché — “you’re more likely to die in a car wreck while driving to the airport than in a plane crash” — happens to be true.
And today it’s even more true.
Last year was the safest for commercial aviation since 1945, when record-keeping began.
Flying is especially safe in the United States and other developed nations, where deadly crashes are as uncommon as cellular phones with retractable antennas and new cars with roll up windows.
Even during the infancy of the jet age, when engineers and pilots and air traffic controllers and airport designers struggled with the immense difficulties of dealing with planes that carried so many more people, at such higher speeds, than the piston-engined planes of the past, crashes were rare.
But when the big jets did go down, hundreds of lives could be lost in, almost literally, an instant. The inevitable torrent of publicity that followed each crash was guaranteed to contribute to the aura of dread and black humor associated with traveling by air.
This anxiety is understandable, of course, even if it’s not altogether rational.
Despite the indisputable data regarding car crashes, people feel that, when they’re driving, they are at least in control of their fate.
Besides which, driving a car is, for most people, an activity so common as to be routine, and the routine, unless you’re, say, a soldier, rarely is frightening.
Flying, by contrast, is for most of us an unusual, even glamorous, event. Few of us are pilots, so there’s an element of mystery to the endeavor that breeds distrust and, for some, fear.
Specifically, the notion of being belted inside an aluminum tube, utterly helpless while hurtling toward the ground at 600 mph, fosters a level of horror that a highway collision, no matter that it’s much more likely, simply can’t match.
That such disasters have nearly been eliminated from the major U.S. airlines over the past decade or so seems to me high on the list of technological achievements in human history.
From 1962 to 1971, a period that included the launching of the Boeing 747, the first “jumbo” jet, the death rate for airlines in this country was 133 out of every 100 million passengers.
Pretty good odds, those.
The rate for the last 10 years: 2 of 100 million.
During that span, four years passed when not a single passenger died.
This amazes me.
That airlines can haul 700 million passengers per year and not lose a single one of them (insert luggage joke here), despite operating in all weathers and with machines that, for all their immense complexity, can be brought down by a flock of geese or a wind gust invisible to the most sophisticated radar, strikes me in fact as very nearly miraculous.
I remember, while growing up during the 1970s and ’80s, that no year passed without an awful crash happening somewhere in the U.S., with its attendant death toll measured in the dozens or hundreds.
It is, I think, testament to the persistent power of irrational fears that although the last tragedy on that scale happened here more than 11 years ago — American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed just after takeoff in New York on Nov. 12, 2001, killing all 260 aboard and five people on the ground — the “person who hates to fly” remains a popular character in our culture.
It’s been almost that long since I last flew on a jet — at the end of December 2001, from Boise to Phoenix to watch the Oregon Ducks beat the Colorado Buffaloes in the Fiesta Bowl.
But I had occasion to ponder the matter this past weekend when my older daughter, Rheann, flew from Boise to Seattle to visit a friend.
And although I’m as powerless as any parent to be completely sanguine when it comes to the safety of a child, the only nagging worry I had while Rheann was gone was that she might be accosted by some creep in downtown Seattle.
That she was flying was, if anything, a relief. Better that, I figured, than her driving across Snoqualmie Pass during a cold snap.
Bill Ward, one of Baker’s inveterate watchers of wildlife, sent me an interesting email the other day.
He had seen a robin perched in his cherry tree on New Year’s Day.
“I had to take a picture of it to prove it was here this early in January,” Bill wrote. “I don’t know if it doesn’t have a calendar or global warming is responsible, but I do know it is earlier than we have ever seen a robin in my yard.”
I can’t answer Bill’s question.
But I too have seen a robin — several of them, in fact — in my yard this winter.
Which is nothing compared to what’s going on at my office.
The crabapple trees that border the Herald’s parking lot — specifically, the north side of Court Street between First and Second — are absolutely lousy with robins.
Their presence, though pleasant if you’re an avian aficionado, is rather less so for my unfortunate colleagues whose parking spaces are next to the trees.
The robins, after gorging themselves on the desiccated fruits, must, of biological and aeronautical necessity, rid themselves of excess ballast.
And the inconsiderable birds are ridding themselves all over hoods and fenders.
Which is unpleasant in any season.
But it’s especially troublesome during this chilliest January in more than 20 years.
Who among us is willing to head out to the driveway, clutching a bucket of sudsy water in one hand and a sponge in the other?
Although you might be able to sell your story to one of the medical journals.
Hypothermia tests can be fascinating.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
The berms have returned.
These icy vertebrae of Baker City streets, along with their slushy cousins, the white monoliths that loom over certain intersections, are of course nuisances.
And potentially dangerous ones, capable of concealing any of several models of subcompact car.
Not to mention a person of average height.
So it goes without saying: Slow down out there. No errand is so pressing that it’s worth showing up to it with a Ford Fiesta dangling from your front bumper like an eviscerated yellowjacket.
Yet these frozen eminences represent something else for me, something welcome. They are tangible evidence that this winter, at least temporarily, is the genuine article.
Occasionally a winter passes around here when snow is so scarce that the city’s public works crews never need to scrape off the streets.
Last winter was notably niggardly in this respect.
Which is a boon for the city’s budget, to be sure.
And for fenders.
But I’m invariably disappointed when the season fails to get up to the sorts of inclement dickens of which it’s capable.
That goes for all seasons, actually.
I feel similarly bereaved when, for instance, summer spawns not a single decent lightning show, or autumn goes by without a series of those 20-degree mornings when the atmosphere is so crystalline that the Wallowas seem to have moved 10 miles nearer during the night.
(Which would be nice, making for a shorter drive to Eagle Cap Wilderness trailheads. But alas, plate tectonics operates at a pace that makes that archetypal slacker, the tortoise, seem like Usain Bolt. Or the international space station.)
To put it another way, I’m not satisfied with having four distinct seasons — I want four distinctly dramatic seasons.
My affinity for arctic weather is influenced largely by my growing up in the Willamette Valley, where winter rain is prevalent but snow is rare, and sub-zero temperatures almost unknown.
I never learned, in my coddled youth, to hate the snow shovel. We never owned one, so far as I can remember, so it would have been strange anyway for me to take a dislike to the implement. My dad, whose ability to acquire tools is formidable, certainly would have had a snow shovel had he been able to make even a flimsy case to my mom that one was necessary.
It’s too early, of course, to yet brand this winter. The January thaw could intrude, and Februarys tend toward the dry and climatically banal.
But the season’s timing was at least fortuitous.
A heavy snow began to fall on Christmas morning and it continued through much of the day, creating the sorts of scenes Currier and Ives cashed in on.
The cold settled in on the holiday, too. The temperature didn’t go above freezing for the next 15 days, the longest such stretch in more than seven years.
(There was a 16-day spell, Dec. 4-19, in 2005.)
The chill kept the Christmas snow from going stale, as it were, from turning into the unpleasant slush of the city, marred by dirt and boots and the droppings of dogs.
The more scientifically inclined prefer the yardstick but I’ve long measured snow by way of the two steps that lead to the lawn on the north side of my house.
When the snow reaches a respectable depth — probably around 7 inches — the individual steps are no longer recognizable as such.
That’s what it looked like out there after Monday’s storm — a smooth white expanse, as yet unsullied by feline paws or mule deer hooves.
Nothing so pristine can last long, of course. If the animals don’t get to it the infuriating warm front surely will.
But it was, in that moment, perfect.
Which you can’t really say about those berms.
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
There is no subject which could conceivably interest me less than the exploits of French pastry chefs.
Pastry chefs from any country, come to that.
And so it is a testament to the skill of documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that I recently sat for nearly an hour and a half and watched.... the exploits of French pastry chefs.
But I didn’t just sit there, fuming about the time I had wasted and would never recoup, and wishing instead that I were watching “The Hobbit,” a film which, I suspect, doesn’t mention chefs of any sort.
I was in fact captivated by the stories that unfolded on the big screen at the Eltrym during a New Year’s Eve showing of “Kings of Pastry” sponsored by the Baker Art Guild.
I didn’t cry.
But it was a near thing.
Mainly, though, I cared.
I truly cared about a bunch of Frenchmen who whine because the sugar is too dry and because the egg yolks are too yellow and who grouse about the consistency of nougatine.
Whatever that is.
The reason I cared is that Pennebaker and Hegedus conveyed, with the almost voyeuristic intimacy that marks the finest documentaries, the absolute obsession that drives people to ascend to the pinnacle of their profession.
That obsession, and the ways it reveals itself, is so compelling that it renders the profession itself of only passing interest.
Well, maybe not precisely passing.
Watching people turn a substance as simple as sugar into sculptures that could easily pass for bouquets of tropical flowers is fascinating in itself.
Even for a person who considers a well-executed maple bar a major culinary achievement — that’s me — there is a strong element of “how in the heck do they do that?” in “Kings of Pastry.”
I’ve been similarly entranced watching master mechanics slip pushrods into a V-8.
The film’s focus is a competition that takes place every four years in France to determine which handful of pastry chefs deserve to wear a special blue, white and red collar.
There is, so far as I can tell, no equivalent event in the U.S.
Indeed, most food-related programming on our TV networks or cinema emphasize gluttony rather than artistry — how many pounds of bacon can you cram into that sandwich?
(Never enough, apparently.)
The obvious comparison with the French pastry chef contest, given the once-every-four-years interval, are the Olympic games.
And there are similarities — intense practice sessions interspersed with bouts of self-doubt, hugs with wives and children, a considerable amount of sweating.
The defining characteristic for me, though, about “Kings of Pastry” is how effectively it shows how vast the gulf is between the average practitioner of some pursuit — any pursuit — and the truly elite.
I know nothing of pastry, to be sure.
I could no more construct the sugar sculptures these chefs assembled than I could unclog a calcified aorta.
But now at least I understand that these Frenchmen have distilled their natural talents, through sweat and tears — and, given all the knives involved, probably blood too — into a skill every bit as formidable as that displayed by a surgeon in the operating room, or by a quarterback in an NFL stadium.
There is, it seems to me, a unique beauty to watching people who have honed a particular attribute, whether it be work or play, to the finest point achievable by human hands.
By the end of “Kings of Pastry,” as you watch the 16 chefs emerge from the ultimate competitive crucible of their lives, the likes of which hardly any of us will ever experience, I expect that you’ll understand why grown men would cry over matters as seemingly trivial as whether they get to wear a corny-looking collar.
You might even shed a tear yourself.
It doesn’t matter that you burn toast as often as you get it nicely browned, or that you consider the Pop Tart a landmark achievement in pastry history.
When the toil of four years and the dream of a lifetime can be rendered, in effect, worthless by a minor slip of a hand and the fragility of spun sugar, drama is guaranteed.
I have this pair of winter boots, a stout design made by Sorel, a firm famous for its long-lasting cold-weather footwear.
The breaks of the Snake River killed them.
Limestone fins shredded their thick rubber soles into something resembling the scraps you see strewn about the freeway after a semi trailer blows a tire.
The constantly angled terrain etched fissures in their leather flanks.
Stitches, which probably were sewn by a massive and immensely powerful machine, burst from the constant pressure of uphills and downhills and sidehills and the occasional cliff, simply gave up like the heart of a horse made to haul howitzers across the Somme in 1916.
To describe the eastern fringe of Baker County as rugged country is to indulge in colossal understatement. You might as well call Mount Hood a pretty big hill.
My first real boss was Dick Haynes.
I worked at Maxi Mart department store after school and weekends as a receptionist, answering phones and typing correspondence. I remember typing a letter from Dick to President Jimmy Carter, and wondering if the president would really read it, or respond.
One thing I knew, even then, was that many other people did pay attention to Dick Haynes. He had built the farm store Farmterials into a successful retail business and then developed the adjacent Maxi Mart department store. To boost summer sales and bring visitors in to Baker, he started a July mining competition and street dance in the Maxi Mart parking lot that became Miners Jubilee.
Let’s face it, over the course of 50-plus years in business, there have been a lot of us in Baker that have worked for Dick Haynes. Even more people here owe their jobs to him.
My son Max has the typically limited lexicon of a 21-month-old, but one of the favorite arrows in his modest verbal quiver is “light.”
He doesn’t just say the word. He proclaims it.
And when his audience fails to show a satisfactory level of interest he will repeat himself as often as he deems necessary, and accompanied by increasingly frantic gesticulations.
His zealotry can seem either cute or obnoxious, depending on how often the listener has been subjected to it.
Anyway he’s dedicated.
My daughter Olivia, who’s 5, pointed at the TV and yelled to me.
“Obama said ‘Olivia,’ ” said Olivia.
She was right.
The president, with whom Olivia has been on a last-name basis since his first term, did say her first name during his speech that aired on a whole bunch of channels Sunday evening.
Mr. Obama wasn’t talking about my Olivia.
He was referring to Olivia Rose Engel.
She was a little girl who sounds an awful lot like my little girl, and never mind that they share a first name.
Olivia Engel was 6. Like my Olivia she was a big sister. Both Olivias are fond of pink and purple. Both took art classes and swimming lessons.
These two Olivias made silly faces when you took their photograph.
Probably they would have been friends had they ever met.
That never happened.
Now it won’t ever happen.
Olivia Engel was one of the 20 students fatally shot last week by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
I don’t pretend to feel some uniquely strong sense of despair from this tragedy because my daughter has the same name, and the same goofy smile, as one of the Sandy Hook victims.
You don’t even need to be a parent to grieve at the loss of so much potential.
You only need to be human.
That said, the Connecticut massacre affected me in a way that Clackamas and Thurston and Columbine and the whole rest of the terrible litany of slaughter did not.
Mainly this was because of a photograph.
Probably you know the one I mean, as it’s become a symbol of the Sandy Hook shooting.
The students stand in a line, each little pair of hands resting on the narrow shoulders of the child just ahead.
The scene reminded me strongly of what I’ve seen when Olivia and her kindergarten classmates walk out of Baker High School.
Except for the fear.
The naked fear of a child for whom life will never be the same, never as innocent nor as good.
Olivia and the other kids never look that way when they gallop out to the parking lot.
Usually they’re giggling, most of them.
Which is how we want our kids to be all the time. Smiling and laughing and safe and secure, from the moment they bound into the living room in the morning, pleading for pancakes for breakfast, until the last glimpse we see of their faces after dark, blanket pulled up tight against their chins.
It doesn’t take a tragedy on the scale of Sandy Hook Elementary to scare a parent, of course.
It’s all too easy to succumb to the terrible lure of the daydream, to imagine your child run down in the street by a drunken driver, to watch, with nauseating clarity, as strong arms yank her into the abyss of an anonymous van.
You can ward off this fear with the reassuring magnitude of statistics, the lottery-like balm of odds measured in the millions to one.
But I suspect Olivia Engel’s parents must at some time have indulged in this mental calculus, that they never truly believed the worst could happen to their daughter, any more than anyone really expects they’ll win a jackpot.
Now their Olivia will always be 6.
I’ll watch my Olivia. I hope I’ll watch her graduate and marry and prosper and achieve everything she’s capable of.
I’ll remember when she was 6, a little girl who liked pink and purple and made the silliest face when we asked her to smile for the camera, and who never heard the president say her full name on TV.
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
No section of the newspaper prompts as many questions, and leads to as many complaints landing on my desk, as the page with “Opinion” printed at the top.
(That’s this page, 4A, by the way, and much of its fallout doesn’t literally land on my desk, with an audible thud, but instead arrives in my email inbox with silent, binary stealth.)
That the Opinion page would have such an effect is hardly surprising.
As its title implies, it’s the place where opinions are unleashed to mingle freely with facts — a sort of coffee klatch, only less visceral and without maple bars.
And since, as the saying goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts, the temptation to wage rhetorical warfare proves too powerful for many opinionated folks to resist.
I think this is a fine thing.
Maybe the finest thing, in fact, in our land where the freedom to express yourself is so vital our founders put it right at the top of the list of rights.
I hope I never become so jaded that I’m unable to appreciate the simple yet inestimable value of being able to have a go at the City Council’s latest endeavor and have your take printed and hand-delivered to thousands of households.
And it’s free.
The inky maelstrom of deeply held beliefs and occasional antipathy that is the Opinion page tends to be rather messy. Rarely does the page exemplify the sort of ostensibly objective balance of a “point/counterpoint”-style debate.
This is especially true for the letters to the editor section.
I field fairly regularly the complaint that the letters on a particular page lean strongly toward one side of an issue. This came up most recently during the Baker School Board recall campaign that concluded this week.
That one opinion predominates in a certain Opinion page has nothing to do with the Herald editorial board’s opinions, nor with some other unstated bias inside our office which conspires to silence alternative viewpoints.
Or, rather, a matter of timing.
Our system for letters is simple: We publish them in the same order we receive them.
Only rarely does the volume of letters exceed the available space, so most letters run in the first issue that’s published after the letter arrives.
As an example, if Monday’s and Tuesday’s mail (both traditional and electronic versions) bring a total of four letters, it’s likely that all four will appear in Wednesday’s issue.
Here’s another rarity: We receive a local letter that we decline to publish.
(By “local” letter I mean one written by a local resident, which means the letter is more likely to deal with a local topic. I prefer to reserve the space on Page 4A for them. We don’t often publish letters from, say, Texas or New Jersey; these missives, I suspect, are emailed to every newspaper that has a website, in a sort of shotgun approach.)
We give writers considerable latitude, which seems to me appropriate since opinions, being rugged individuals, don’t thrive under the confinement of sentence parsing and heavy-handed editing.
We don’t of course permit gratuitous profanity, or character assassinations which lack even a veneer of sober thought or legitimate purpose. We do limit writers to 350 words per letter, and at least 15 calendar days between letters.
I mentioned the editorial board several paragraphs back. I don’t much like that term — attaching “board” to an entity confers on it an elevated status which in this case is not warranted — but it’s the commonest way to refer to the people who come up with a newspaper’s editorial positions.
The Herald’s editorial board is rather smaller than what you’d find at a larger publication, consisting of three members: the publisher, Kari Borgen; reporter Chris Collins; and me.
This roster isn’t ideal, and not only because there are so few of us.
Reporters, generally speaking, don’t participate in formulating opinions — which of course is what editorials are — because reporters strive, in writing their stories, to be objective.
To avoid conflicts, then, when the editorial board is pondering a topic that Chris covers as a reporter, her role is to give Kari and me information — just as she does in her stories — but not to contribute toward the crafting of an opinion.
That crafting, by the way, is a democratic process rather than a dictatorial one.
The Herald’s editorials do not convey my personal opinion, or Kari’s, or Chris’.
Which is not to say, of course, that we never publish editorials that each of us agrees with, with little or no reservation.
Sometimes our individual opinions are pretty much identical.
Frequently, though, our three viewpoints diverge. So we discuss. Sometimes we argue and cajole and (at least in my case) gesticulate. The goal, in any event, is to conceive an opinion which is rational and reasonable.
Perhaps it’s even persuasive, although none of is either naíve or arrogant enough to expect anything more than occasional success in that sense.
I write most of the editorials, although my efforts to put on paper our combined work are always subject to editing from Kari and Chris (and inevitably, the better for it).
The other common elements on the Opinion page, with the exception of guest editorials from other newspapers, are generally the product of a single person.
These include columns and editorial cartoons.
The latter tend to be the most, well, flamboyant items on the page — not only because they are opinions rendered in pictures rather than just words, but also because editorial cartoonists, who don’t have a couple dozen paragraphs to make their point, tend to prefer the blatant over the subtle.
The satire in an editorial cartoon usually is more overt, too, and some readers are offended by the exaggerations that satirists necessarily employ.
But I don’t think the page would be earning its keep if nobody ever muttered epithets while reading it.
I’m not talking about opinions designed only to inflame or to anger.
But one byproduct of a logically expressed viewpoint can be that it frustrates people who, though they disagree, recognize the validity of the opposing arguments, and even admire the skill with which it was put forward.
That’s a healthy thing. Moreover, it can lead to spirited but respectful exchanges between people who agree on almost nothing, save, perhaps, the importance of whatever topic it is they’re tussling over.