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I stopped at the White Hen Pantry on my way home last night to pick up some coffee cream, and as I was getting out of my car I couldn’t help but notice the driver in the station wagon to my right, a woman in her mid-50s with salt and pepper hair and a slight frame.

She didn’t seem to notice or care that the cold fluorescent light from inside the store betrayed her privacy as she sat hunched over her steering wheel and scratched away at an instant win lottery ticket.

Inside the store I noticed another aspiring instant winner, this one an overweight, balding 30-something man sitting at one of the window tables, working through a scroll of scratch tickets.

When I got back to my car the woman in the station wagon was rifling through the change pocket of her wallet, presumably looking for enough coins to go back in and buy another ticket.

And to my left as I backed out of my parking space I noticed a man in a shabby pickup scratching away at a ticket.

Surrounded by aspiring instant winners I wondered how many of these people ever actually win anything.

The Mass. State Lottery tallies the winners of all of its offerings at Masslottery.com.

Here are the numbers of instant winners of prizes under $1M as of last week (it’s not clear whether these are annual or all-time totals):

I doubt that many would-be or frequent scratch ticket-buyers regularly scan this website, but I’d bet that a substantial number of the buyers have won something, even if it was only $1.00, a prize that’s hard to resist using for anything besides buying another ticket, considering that the odds of winning (also available on Masslottery.com) aren’t that steep.

For example the new $1 ticket “7 Come 11 2010” has a prize structure based on the sale of approximately 25,200,000 tickets.  For a $100 prize the odds are one in 4,000, but there are 6,300 winners per game.

These shots at instant wealth come cheap, too.  Even though every penny counts these days, a dollar isn’t that much to part with for a dose of hope.

But I saw a paradoxical mix of hope and despair on the faces of those White Hen Pantry patrons.  All three of them looked overdrawn, and in that state the fact that everyone has a slight chance of winning can be intoxicating.

Here are some statistics from the website for National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, which is coming up in early March:

  • 85% of US adults have gambled at least once in their lives.
  • Consumers spend more on legal gaming in the U.S. than most other forms of entertainment combined (1998 Gross Annual Wager Report, 1999)
  • Since 1975, the proportion of adults who “never gambled” dropped from 1 in 3 to 1 in 7.
  • In 1999 the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated the annual cost to society of problem gambling was $5 billion.
  • During fiscal year 2002, U.S. lottery sales totaled $42.4 billion; per capita sales were $168 (NASPL, 2003)

And these numbers are dated – imagine what they’re up to now, in the midst of the worst recession in decades.  I know these aren’t new or surprising facts and observations, but the scene at that store made me stop and think, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of those people.

I’ve scratched a handful of winners in my day, and I remember the fleeting sparkle of hope, the tiny burst in my chest as that tantalizing metallic gray coating gave way to a second 9, and then a third!  It always took a lot of will power to take what I won and walk, which I haven’t always done.

At this same White Hen Pantry my boyfriend recently bought me a $1 scratch ticket as an inside joke to cheer me up.  I won $1 and, feeling high on hope, I convinced him to go back into the store and use the winning ticket to buy another.

When he came back he made me promise not to scratch the new ticket that night, lest I go back to being sad.  Good move because I didn’t win anything as I learned a week later when I found the ticket in my wallet.

By the way, while researching this post I learned that this weekend Massachusetts becomes the latest of dozens of states (and the last of the New England states) to start selling Powerball tickets.  That popular lottery’s website says the odds of winning its grand prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

You can also read the stories of past Powerball winners on the site, including cattle rancher Neal Wanless of rural Mission, South Dakota, who won $88,504,147.00 after taxes last year.  He bought a ticket while on a supply run 35 miles from his ranch in a town called Winner.

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I’m not talking about the naturally occurring microscopic plankton that contaminate shellfish and render the tides a toxic scarlet along vast swaths of the Commonwealth’s shores.

Photo credit: Miriam Godfrey

I’m referring to the waves of out of state Republicans who quietly washed up across Massachusetts just after Christmas to bolster Scott Brown’s candidacy in a special election for the U.S. Senate.  They fed upon the frustration of ornery independent voters unaccustomed to relevance, lit a fire under them, then stood back while the national media fanned the flames to wildfire proportions.

The blaze quickly devoured the state’s presumptuous Democratic candidate, handing the GOP an historic victory that bodes well for the party’s plans to spark controlled burns in other states during the coming election year.

A few weeks ago, when Brown started raising a million dollars a day, I wondered (and should have pitched a story about) where the money was coming from.  It seemed obvious that the sudden support was imported, but by the time Brown’s candidacy made national headlines the press was too busy reporting on the third act twist to look behind the curtain.

Today, as Brown heads to Washington, there’s a story in the New York Times in which Eric Odom, a “Tea Party” organizer from Chicago, admits, “For us, this is not so much about Scott Brown as it is about the idea that if we really collaborate as a mass movement, we can take any seat in the country.”

The report goes on to say that FreedomWorks, an umbrella organization for Tea Party groups, “was intrigued by the notion that this could be a way to effectively derail federal health care legislation.  And so FreedomWorks sent out a query to dozens of its best organizers across the country. Within days, the clamoring response made clear that what seemed improbable suddenly seemed very attainable; within weeks, the Tea Party movement had established a beachhead in Mr. Kennedy’s home state.”

The Times shows 20/20 hindsight in this telling timeline.

I don’t usually feel compelled to write about politics here, but this time I can’t help but observe that the Republicans clearly had a better strategy and marketing muscle to match.

This is not to say that I agree with or condone the inane, perverse PR tactics used by some in the Republican party to disseminate misinformation and scare people into submission.  Au contraire.

But I do wonder if Tuesday’s loss in Massachusetts has seared a message on the minds of the Democratic party’s national leadership, whose complacency, arrogance and marketing ineptitude might finally have cost them enough that they’ll have no choice but to get a clue, then hopefully get a marketing makeover.

The last time I had the privilege of interviewing Senator Kennedy was in a coat room at a hotel in Boston, one cold Saturday night late last winter.

He and his wife Vicki met me there before his brief appearance to present a community service award, so that I could interview him in person for my public radio story about the perennial need for more federal heating assistance funds to help low-income Massachusetts residents stay warm.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Sen. Kennedy

The Senator was home from Washington just for that night and his schedule was packed, but his press secretary told me Kennedy wanted to find five minutes to talk to me for my story, which he thought was an important one, however perennial.

I asked him what it’s like to go back to the Capitol every winter and make the case for more money to help more poor people, and he said, “it’s a never ending battle. I feel my job is to continue to battle to try to make some progress.”

I’ve interviewed Senator Kennedy several times during my 7 years as a reporter, and I’d heard him say almost the same words on other occasions.  I might as well have asked him about any of the myriad moral imperatives that he literally spent himself addressing during his long tenure in politics.

He was, in a word, tireless.

In that closet, cramped among strangers’ coats, this historically and physically monumental figure sat across from me, his huge, broad shoulders hunched forward, and he continued, “Elected members of Congress [and] the President make decisions in terms of priorities; either you have a priority to look after working families or you have a priority to look after the wealthy and special interests, and the special interests have had the day.”

When I turned off my recorder I asked him if sailors would see him on Nantucket Sound for the Figawi sailing race that spring.  I’d survived one leg of the race several years earlier and remembered seeing him at the helm of his wooden-hulled schooner.  He laughed and said it was going to be up to his wife.  She laughed too.  Two and a half months later his doctors diagnosed his brain cancer.

He raced in the Figawi anyway, a few days after that, and in the coming months he spent what must have been precious waning energy to return to the Capitol and cast an unexpected vote on medicare legislation, and later on the economic stimulus bill.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

And in what I think it’s fair to call his final, and one of his greatest heroic acts, he helped shepherd our nation’s first black president into office.  It gives me chills to imagine what that meant to him, nearly a half-century after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that his brother, President Kennedy, fought so bravely for.

This man’s vigor always struck me as extraordinary, considering that it was his daily burden to shoulder his family’s heavy history, which contained some of the brightest and darkest moments in his country’s history.

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

Photo from the Office of Senator Edward Kennedy

In 1986, after he gave his niece Caroline away at her wedding, Jackie Kennedy wrote her brother-in-law a thank you letter that read, “On you, the carefree youngest brother, fell a burden a hero would beg to be spared. Sick parents, lost children, desolate wives. You are a hero. Everyone is going to make it, because you are always there with your love.”

I think it’s safe to say that millions of Americans share Jackie’s deeply personal sentiment and gratitude for Senator Kennedy’s advocacy.  He made mistakes in his life, and could understandably have shrunk from the limelight.  Instead he stood up, spoke loudly and eloquently for those on the margins who have no voice in our society themselves, and accomplished great things on their behalf.

He did this work with the drive of a penitent man who also seemed intent on accomplishing in their place what his brothers might have, had they too lived out their careers.

However he was drawn into politics and public life, and in spite of what he called the faults in the conduct of his private life, from were I’ve stood Senator Kennedy has always seemed real – flawed and admittedly fallible, yet forgivable – and ultimately, as Jackie said, heroic.

When I pitch story ideas to the various news outlets I report for, one word that comes up a lot during conversations with my editors is “surprise,” an essential, but often elusive ingredient of the successful story.

In any form of storytelling, surprise is like the baking soda in a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe; the dough might look good and even taste good without it, but if you don’t add enough or forget to add the baking soda altogether, the cookies will ultimately come out flat and forgettable.

By definition, surprise sounds simple enough:

Picture 1

But “unexpected” is the key word; finding new story ideas that the listener/reader/viewer does not expect can be extremely challenging.

For example, a lot of reporters who are looking for new ways to cover our country’s current economic trials end up re-telling the same stories using this tired formula:

the recession + (blank*) = a story

*chiropractors, campgrounds, caterers, etc.

The problem with a lot of the stories that follow this formula is that whatever goes in the blank is often something the listener would expect to be the case during a recession, so the story comes as no surprise to them.

By contrast, here are two examples of recent news stories that, in my opinion, got it right:

NPR ~ For Some Pilots, Home is an LAX Parking Lot: Commercial airline pilots have created a city of trailers and RVs in a parking lot along the edges of the nation’s third busiest airport.

New York Times ~ Living in Tents, and by the Rules, Under a Bridge: Other tent cities have sprung up recently around the country, but Rhode Island officials have never seen anything like this.  The community… established a five-member leadership council and a compact that read in part: “No one person shall be greater than the will of the whole.”

My family members come to me with a lot of good story ideas, but more often we won’t be talking about story ideas at all, and they’ll mention things they saw or heard in passing that are far more surprising.

This mystifies me!  Maybe the difference is in my journalism training and their lack thereof, or in their own low opinion of their storytelling judgment – I don’t know.  But this phenomenon makes me wonder what incredible untold stories are flying around out there in the world, waiting to be recognized and shared.

If you spot one, please drop me a line.


With my Uncle Chuck at Pheasant Acres Campground ~ Oct. 2008

With my Uncle Chuck at Pheasant Acres Campground ~ Oct. 2008

Charles C. Kessler Jr., my Uncle Chuck, died this week after a long fight against cancer, about a month shy of his 69th birthday.

“Towsy” as my mom called him, lived peacefully with his wife Diana for the better part of two decades at Pheasant Acres, the campground he owned in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.  They moved there from Washington state after he did some soul-searching and decided that he wanted to retire in a peaceful place like the farm he worked on in his teenage years.  He’d been around the world during his service in the Air Force, and when he found his niche in the rolling forests of St. James, MO, he said that there was nowhere else on earth he’d rather be.

I visited him there last fall during my road trip around the United States, and it struck me right away how content he seemed.  I thought of Thoreau’s words:

I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life, and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.

I don’t know many people who can say the same thing.  I think my Uncle Chuck could.

After living with what he said was a big ego for most of his life, when he got to Missouri he gave himself “a check-up from the neck up” and sought to live with more grace and humility.  He forgave some people he was holding grudges against, and tried to be a better person himself, easier to get along with.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, had an operation, and when it came back in 2007 his doctor told him it was not treatable, and he had about a year to live.  He decided to keep battling his disease with prayer, homeopathic remedies, and a healthy lifestyle.  He truly believed that he was on a path to “total recovery” with his faith to guide him.  Considering his lack of any medical treatment options, he had nothing to lose.  His own mostly holistic treatment methods bought him some time, and when his time came, he passed, I’m sure, the way he wanted to go.

Not long after the cancer returned, I asked him if he would consent to doing some taped interviews with me about his life.  He protested a bit at first because he didn’t understand why I was interested in his memoirs.  Moreover, he wasn’t the most expressive, loquacious man I knew, but he ultimately agreed.  I think he was pleasantly surprised at how much he enjoyed our conversations, and the fact that I was recording them, as he said, “for posterity.”  He’d always meant to start keeping a journal of some sort, but never did get around to it, so he supposed this audio diary would suffice.

He told me all about his life, and at the end of what amounted to more than five hours of talking, I asked him what advice he had for younger folks – his kids, me, his grandkids, etc. – after all his years.  “The hard part about a death sentence,” he said,” is it’s the people you leave behind who hurt.”

He didn’t like the word advice, and preferred instead to share some key reflections: “You should keep it simple.  When we try to make things complex in our lives, when we try to have reasons for everything, it’s not a good thing.  We need to just let life take us where it’s going to take us.  You’ve got to create inner peace somehow.  You’ve got to be at peace with yourself, the world, and especially with God.”

In other words, practice being content.  My mother, Chuck’s sister, says this to me on a regular basis, and I think it’s a good suggestion regardless of how much people differ in terms of what makes us content.

My Uncle Chuck believed that fear is a good motivator, that it can be inspiring.  I asked him if he was happy, and he said, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.”  He also told me he wasn’t afraid to die, and he had God to thank for that.

I do not share my uncle’s deep faith, but regardless of our spiritual differences, I have learned much from his example of how to live a good life:  pursue with determination those things which give you inner peace and contentment, and whatever purpose for which you believe you were made.

Goodbye Uncle Chuck.  Thank you, and may you rest in peace.

niki-and-joel-wedding28e1

Photo by Susie Bauer

I just got home from a brief visit to Milwaukee, where I had the pleasure of tasting frozen custard for the first time, at a charming establishment called Leon’s.

Locals boast that Leon’s makes the world’s best frozen custard, and they proudly recall that Bill Clinton insisted on stopping there whenever the campaign trail brought him through town.

(And all this time I thought cheese and beer were Wisconsin’s big draws…)

Indeed, Milwaukee also seems to be the unofficial “custard capital of the world”.

But from what I can tell, this frozen delight was first concocted on Coney Island in 1919 or thereabouts (though there’s evidence of earlier iterations).

Leon’s has been around for more than 50 years, family owned and operated, its proprietors serving as “consultants to the frozen custard industry since 1942.”

niki-and-joel-weddinge71

Photo by Susie Bauer

In addition to the standard midwest drive-in fast food fare, Leon’s serves malts, shakes and three frozen custard flavors daily – vanilla, chocolate and butter pecan – and one special feature flavor that changes every day.  I ordered a scoop each of vanilla and chocolate, and fell in love at first bite.

(Nice price too, just over $6 for 4 sizeable servings.)

Before long I got to wondering how frozen custard is different from ice cream.  Come to find out, its culinary specifications, at least in this country, are stipulated by federal law:

Frozen custard shall contain 1.4 percent egg yolk solids by weight of the finished food: Provided, however, that when bulky flavors are added the egg yolk solids content of frozen custard may be reduced in proportion to the amount by weight of the bulky flavors added, but in no case is the content of egg yolk solids in the finished food less than 1.12 percent.

Can’t you just picture those nerdy federal foodies haggling over egg yolk solid percentage points?  (For some reason, in my imagination, they’re wearing hair nets…)

Read on through their fine print (see paragraph f, section 1, “nomenclature”) and one learns that custard is a.k.a. “french ice cream”.

French?!?  Interesting…  I’ve also tasted something similar in Sienna, Italy.

photo_050309_004

Regardless of where frozen custard came from, Milwaukeans insist that theirs is some of the world’s finest.  I look forward to conducting many taste tests, the world over, to weigh their claims.


There was good news and bad news about the economy yesterday…

The bad news first: our economy shrank 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009. Yikes!!

Now the good news: consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of our GDP, rose at an annual rate of 2.2%, the most in two years.

So, you might wonder, what are we spending more of our hard-earned money on?  Apparently, consumers are snapping up long-lasting “durable” goods, including cars, furniture, household appliances… as well as (wait for it) pet products.

    Mila (on her L.L. Bean dog bed $89.99, with Kong $11.99, yellow bone $6.99, rope toy $6.99)

Mila (on her L.L. Bean dog bed $89.99, with Kong $11.99, yellow bone $6.99, rope toy $6.99)

The American Pet Products Association estimates that pet owners will spend an approximate $45.4 billion on our furry friends in 2009, $2.2 billion more than last year.

Giant pet supply companies are – gasp – posting earnings and opening new stores!

I spend between $75 and $100/month on food and a few toys for my black lab, Mila (age 1 1/2), and that’s when she doesn’t visit the vet!

But I have the sneaking suspicion that the APPA is not talking about food and a few toys, and I have evidence to support my theory.

My boyfriend’s dog has a congenital pēdal condition that, on occasion, results in sores between the digital pads of one of his hind feet.

He needs to wear a shoe to protect the whole foot, and he’s worn out several elastic-cuffed, leather-bottomed, velcro-strapped “boots” over the past few months.

His need for more formidable footwear gave me occasion to google “pet footwear” and I can report copious canine options, ranging the from seriously sturdy…

Bark'n Boots with Grip Trex from Ruffgear.com

Bark'n Boots with Grip Trex from Ruffgear.com - $55

to the utterly absurd…

sillyboots1

Um... fuzzy bunnies?! From PetEdge.com - $7

Don’t worry folks, if your dog doesn’t like bunnies, these also come in sheep and duckies, and for the holidays, santas and elves!

jollyball

"It's a ball within a ball that rolls and wobbles erratically as your pet lunges, chases, and chomps." Petco.com

I think pet spending is an interesting trend, at a time when many, many people are supposedly cutting back!  I’ve reduced my monthly expenditures to my bills, food, gas, laundry detergent, contact lens solution, and dog food.

OK, full disclosure, yesterday, I spent $11.99 on a new braided rope toy for Mila, but it was NOT the fancy version with the minty floss (which costs another $5 bucks).  Last year at this time I regularly bought her new Kongs (she destroys them in a week), Nylabone rings (these can last longer), some tennis balls for her Chuck-It, and I probably would have sprung for the minty-floss rope toy too.

And I’ll admit I was tempted to get her a Jolly Pet Teaser Ball (see picture, right), which I walked past on my way out of Petco yesterday. The premise behind this product had me daydreaming about being able to leave the two dogs outside for hours, unattended and unmonitored, without worrying that they’ll dig holes to China all over the yard.

But the price – $22.99!!!  Plus Mila would probably get so frustrated with the “ball within a ball” after five minutes of trying to figure it out, that in classic retriever fashion she’d dismember it inside of thirty seconds.

But I digress…

There’s something disturbing about the pet spending boom;  APPA President Bob Vetere says, and the aforementioned duckie dog slippers show, that one of the main factors behind this trend is society’s overall humanization of pets.   Dog pajamas?! Dog bathrobes?!

Now, to each their own; I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but come on!  Terry cloth with a hood?!

The APPA’s Vetere also cites an increasing number of empty-nest baby boomers who “have had their children leave home and move on, and they are looking for something else to care for.  Lo and behold, there’s Spike. He never talks back and doesn’t take the car out late at night, and it’s like, ‘I love you, Spike.’ This is a new child to hover over.”

And to garb in chiffon party dressesseriously

In fairness, pet products (Kongs and diva dog dresses alike) account for the second highest percentage of consumer pet spending, and veterinary care comes in third.

petfood

Number one is the price of pet food, which Reuters reports rose 13.5 % during just the last quarter of 2008.

The APPA predicts Americans will spend a record breaking $17.4 billion on pet food this year, up from $16.8 billion in 2008.

My guess is that the tainted pet-food fiasco of 2 years ago scared a lot of pet owners into switching to premium food brands with identifiable ingredients made closer to home.cuddlecouch2

I think the bottom line is that pets are a comfort to us, especially in tough times, and it’s clear that we’re grateful, whether the gesture comes in the form of a ball within a ball, internet sale price $11.99, or a canine “cuddle couch” also on sale at BeyondTheCrate.com for $1029.00.