unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Waxing Eloquent

This may be a guy thing, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about having a freshly waxed car.  Today the weather was perfect for waxing, so early this morning I parked the car in the alley right behind the garage.  The garage and a big tree kept the car (and me) nicely shaded.  To mark the occasion, I even retired a couple of old t-shirts to use for buffing.

I had first driven the car to a local car wash, figuring that the energy I saved washing it could translate into the elbow grease I would need for the waxing itself.  I was right.   Applying the wax is the easy part–buffing it out is not.  And then making sure the surface is completely smooth adds another layer (no pun intended) of effort.  I do it in sections starting with the roof.  The hardest parts are those closest to the ground since those require bending and buffing at the same time.

In high school, a friend once said that the best way to really “know” your car was to wax it.  He’s right.  A car is basically just metal, plastic and glass.  But after I run my hands over every square inch, I can’t help but develop more affection for it–dings and all.

Another thing I can’t help–once I put on one coat, it looks so good I give it a second.  My wife says this is the kind of overkill that’s typical of me.  Guilty as charged.

This will probably be the only time I wax the car this year.  But have you noticed that after you wax your car, it seems to cut through the air just a little easier and run with just a little more snap?  As I said–it’s probably a guy thing.

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A New Window to the World

World Cup in South Africa

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikkelz (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Some American commentators have complained that the World Cup is a snooze-fest–that there’s not enough scoring, that there’s too much theatricality when someone gets fouled, that games that end in ties are unsatisfying, and that, overall, the world of soccer is flat-out boring.

I couldn’t disagree more.  First of all, the action is non-stop and it’s over in 90 minutes.  Secondly, the athleticism and skill level of the players are astonishing.  And lastly, the sheer visual aspect of the game, with the players in their vivid uniforms in constant motion against a field of green, is just plain beautiful to look at it.   I find the matches mesmerizing.

And it’s also a fresh window to the world.  In a way, it’s almost cooler than the Olympics because you see teams from countries that may not be traditional Olympic powerhouses have their day in the sun — for example, teams from Ghana, Portugal, and Mexico.  Watching the World Cup is like being invited to a party with people you’ve heard of but never really had the chance to meet.  I’m glad to be a guest!

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The Essential Person

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of John Callaway’s death.  It goes without saying that John was a person of great achievement and of immense importance to Channel 11 in general and Chicago Tonight in particular.   But after his death I came across the following poem and I now have a copy taped to my door.  I think John would have agreed with its message.  See what you think.

The Indispensable Man
by Saxon White Kessinger

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room;
Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example
Is to do just the best that you can;
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

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Oh, That Voice

John Callaway died a year ago today.  To be honest, there’s a part of me that still finds it hard to believe he’s dead.  He had such a strong life force, his death still seems abstract, not completely real.  I know that others of us who worked with him and loved him feel the same.

So much has been said about him–his intelligence, his preparation, his talent as an interviewer, his commitment to stories that really mattered, his sense of fairness.

But what I miss most about John is probably his voice.  John was a tenor and, as you may know, he loved to sing.  In fact, if you gave him an opening, it would take nothing to get him to break into “Embraceable You.”  (His colleagues gave him such openings at their peril!)

And the lyrical quality in his singing voice was also a part of his speaking voice; it was supple, musical, expressive.  And, like any wonderful musical instrument, it had great range.  When I listen to his old taped pieces, I marvel at the inflection, the expression, and the drama in his voice.  As any good musician would, he used all facets of his instrument to connect with the viewer.  It was a compelling instrument and made you want to listen.  It conveyed empathy, warmth, intelligence, humor, wit–all qualities which made John so good at what he did.

John was probably the most important professional influence I’ve had; I really miss him.  And I consider myself lucky to be able to conjure up that unmistakable voice when I think about him.  To help you do the same, I invite you to go to our website where we have a great selection of John’s interviews and stories he narrated.  http://www.wttw.com/chicagotonight

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A Dog of a Boss

Some years ago when Rod Blagojevich was governor, I received a call from the office of his chief of staff, John Harris.  Harris wanted to have a breakfast meeting with me.  So we set it up and met at a corner restaurant right across from the State of Illinois Building.

The bottom line:  Harris conveyed the message that the governor thought “Chicago Tonight” was unyieldingly negative towards him in its coverage.  My response:  the governor had declined numerous and repeated  invitations to come on the program and if he wanted his “side” represented, no one could do it better than he.  (In fairness, the previous time Blagojevich had been on the program I had grilled him pretty well on, among other things, his borrowing spree to balance the budget.  At one point I even said, “How big a mess are you leaving that other people will have to clean up?”)

The meeting  with Harris was cordial and professional and he presented himself well.  He was smart, good looking, and had an air of authority.  And he had some personal charm.  (I was impressed when he spoke in Greek to one of the restaurant staffers.)  We talked briefly about our respective families and children.

Toward the end of the one-hour breakfast, I was inclined to like him.  And I almost said to him, “You seem like a good guy.  Given the person you’re working for, I hope you’re covering your backside.”  I came *this* close to saying it.  But I realized it would have been presumptuous.  Besides, he was clearly a bright guy and he didn’t need me to say something he must have known.

Anyway, when I see his picture and read about his testimony in the Blago trial, I think about the impression he made on me at that breakfast meeting.  Yeah, he should have known better, etc., but I still can’t help feeling bad for the guy.  And his family.  It reminds me of that old saying, “When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”  Boy, did he.   Did he, ever.

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Those Stressful Invitations!

Our HR department puts out a regular flier giving helpful hints for physical and mental well-being.  I almost jumped out of my chair when I read a piece in the June flier called “5 Simple Stress Busters.”  Item #1 spoke to one of my ongoing crusades.

It reads, “Say no to unwanted invitations and requests you’ll be unable to fulfill, either in your personal or professional life.  Saying yes only increases stress.”  Amen.

I find that saying yes to events, parties, gatherings that you really do not want to go to can be a big source of stress–especially during the all-too-short Chicago summer.  (See earlier blog “Fourteen Gold Coins.”)   If it’s an outside activity you have to do for your work, then it’s a no-brainer.  You do it because you have to.  But being guilted into doing something can generate dread and resentment which can translate into a double-dip stress cone.

Not long ago we had Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) on the program.  I was thrilled because it gave me the chance to thank her in person for a piece of advice she gave in one of her columns–advice that has come in handy.  The question came from a reader who always felt compelled to concoct a white lie or explain why she couldn’t accept an invitation.  Miss Manners advice was to simply say, “I’m so sorry, I can’t.”  Period.  Then silence.  No explanations, no white lies.  It works.

As Miss Manners pointed out, the momentary stress of turning someone down was nothing compared to the potential weeks and months of dread of having said yes to an unwanted invitation.  The only invitation I extend to you is to try the above approach.  No RSVP necessary.

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Rescue Me

The story of that 16-year-old girl who was sailing solo around the world and ran into trouble in the middle of the ocean got me thinking about the whole rescue business.  Isn’t there something mildly galling when someone undertakes a hazardous vanity stunt and then expects the world to come to their rescue when something goes wrong?

A rescue effort — with search teams, planes, boats, and helicopters — can not only be wildly expensive, but dangerous to the searchers.  I remember covering the story of a Chicago area sportswriter lost in the mountains of Colorado.  One of the planes searching for him crashed, killing at least one crew member.   (As I recall, the sportswriter’s remains were found the following spring.)

I’m not talking about rescue/search efforts to assist someone who had been engaged in the ordinary activities of life –including recreational activities.  That’s one of the traits of a caring society– we try to help someone in a jam, even when the rescue efforts are expensive and pose a risk to the helpers.

But when someone is trying to do something that smacks of  self-aggrandizement (“Look, Mom, I’m trekking across the Antarctic, solo, at age 13!), why should society have to go through heroic and expensive efforts to be someone’s personal back-up crew?  Just how much should the rest of us pay to be the safety net for somebody else’s quest for personal glory?

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A Gripping Experience


Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/enriqueburgosgarcia (CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I recently went to a dinner event. People were dressed nicely and the atmosphere was collegial and warm: good conversation, friendly greetings and firm handshakes. Wait, did I say firm handshakes?

There was one handshake that went well beyond firm. Vise-like is closer to it. It happened when I shook hands with an athletic-looking guy who looked like he could have once been a collegiate linebacker. And he had the hands to match.

When we were introduced, I extended my hand and he squeezed it like he was trying to crack a walnut. My fingers were mushed together like a bunch of asparagus. I actually exclaimed, “Ow!” and withdrew my hand pronto. But it was too late. It. Hurt. And it hurt for the next few days.

It made me feel sorry for politicians who have to shake hands a lot more than the rest of us and reminded me that Cindy McCain got a hand injury on the campaign trail from shaking hands.

Other than his torturous handshake, the “linebacker” seemed like a perfectly nice guy; I can’t imagine that he’d give a woman his death grip, too. But maybe I’d better warn Cindy McCain anyway. If she ever sees a linebacker coming at her, better have John run interference.

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A Smaller Workplace

Last Friday, there were lay-offs here at Channel 11, including some affecting people with whom I’d worked closely for years. I can’t imagine what they’re feeling or what a punch in the stomach it must be.  It’s more than painful to see their now-empty offices with their name plates still on the doors.  But the heaviness of the hearts of those of us who miss them is nothing compared to what they’re going through.

Work friendships are largely thrust upon us.  Most of us don’t pick our colleagues — the bosses do that.  But being in close physical proximity and working on projects together five days a week with smart, funny, and engaging people creates a bond that may not qualify as love, exactly, but can come close to it.  You learn about your co-workers’ personal lives, their families, and you can start to care deeply for them…even if you seldom, if ever, see each other outside the workplace.

Sure, it’s primarily a work/business relationship, but the human component is what makes it meaningful, strong, and gratifying.  We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves—so the saying goes—and when we lose someone we value from the group, we are all a little smaller.  It sure feels that way to me.

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No One’s Hero

Is there something in the air right now that’s causing politicians to embellish their military service?  I hope it’s not contagious.  If it were, here’s what I could say in my stump speech:

“I was wounded while in the military during Vietnam.  Furthermore, my actions were so noteworthy that they prompted a special gathering during which I received personal recognition from my unit for my actions and my injuries (you can still see the scars).  It was a day I will never forget!”

It’s true.  Everything I just said.  And if I were campaigning, I could trumpet it just as I’ve described above.  And it would all be completely accurate.

But here’s what really happened.  I was an Air Force reservist during the Vietnam War on a training weekend at a base in Colorado.  I was a clerk-typist and my assignment one day was to help paint an office.  But my co-reservists and I got bored and decided to have what we called an “office Olympics.”  The first event was to jump on to a desktop from a standing position.  A couple of guys successfully did it, then it was my turn.

But when I jumped, the front of my shoes hit the edge of the desk and my momentum caused my shins to scrape against the edge before I fell backwards onto the floor.  The horseplay left  my shins bloody.  I couldn’t find any band-aids to help stop the bleeding, but then I looked out the window.  There was the base infirmary.

So I went to the infirmary where they cleaned the cuts and gave me some band-aids.  But my visit to the infirmary triggered something else:  an official accident report!  And unbeknownst to me, our unit had a long-standing record of no accidents–my stupidity wrecked the streak.  So the next training weekend, there was a special assembly to go over basic safety principles because of what I’d done.  Apparently our commander was pretty steamed.  Oops.

I received no official reprimand for my boneheadedness, but I did get a story I can trot out if I ever run for office.  It could come right after the account of my time at Oxford…

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