Friday, August 22, 2008

Adventures in Television Land: Dry Lips and Echoes

Last Monday I appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The six-minute interview was taped the week before, but based on my prior experience (see Adventures in Television Land: Osama bin Laden and Me ), I told almost no one that the appearance was in the works. I thought the taping had gone pretty well, but once your interview has been recorded, you never know for certain that a radio or television show will use the material until they do. Fortunately, this time they did, and the reviews from family and friends have been quite good.

Being a pure talking head—a face in a box on the screen—is a daunting experience. In this case, I was in a small studio in New Haven, CT with bright lights shining in my face, staring at the black eye of a TV camera, and Jeffrey Brown, the correspondent for The NewsHour was in a studio in Arlington, VA. The video and audio of me were going to VA via satellite to be recorded on that end, and Brown’s questions to me were coming north over a phone line. There was no video signal coming back to me from the Arlington studio, so I could not see Brown. I just had his voice in my ear.

To be a successful talking head, you have to learn to make eye contact with the camera eye, or else you look like you are not really paying attention. This turns out to be a somewhat challenging skill, and the technicians at the Yale University studio reported that some inexperienced interviewees have spent the whole time looking at their shoes.

So under the best of circumstances, being recorded for television in this manner is a challenge, but I had two additional problems. First, I got dry lips. This is a problem I had once before while being interviewed for a video, and I learned how deadly it is to get caught licking your lips on screen. But my worst problem did not become evident until it was too late. The interview started very suddenly, and as I listened to Jeffrey Brown’s questions and tried to construct intelligent responses, I discovered that I could hear myself in the earpiece. However, because what I was hearing was my own voice playing in the Arlington studio and coming back to me over the phone line, the sound was delayed. So my powers of concentration, already strained by the demands of the situation (“...stare at the camera; don’t lick your lips....”), were further challenged by having to ignore my own voice echoing in my ear.

Somehow I managed to get through it without looking like a complete fool. After hearing the report of my ordeal, my brother gave me a great piece of advice for the future: lip balm.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Simple Pleasures: Soft Ice Cream

A while back I wrote an op-ed piece (“In Praise of Cheap and Local Eats”) extolling the virtues of eating at local diners, pizza places, and other inexpensive neighborhood eateries. No matter the venue, I consider eating out a luxury, and my appreciation for simple forms of restaurant food has been expressed in earlier blog posts.

Now that summer is well underway, I am reminded of one of my most abiding simple pleasures: soft ice cream. Soft serve is an odd product. I am not sure that the mix it is made from is entirely food, and then there is the wafer cone. What is that made of? I’m not sure I want to know. As a teenager, I worked at a Dairy Queen in Urbana, Illinois, and things went on there that I would rather not describe.

But I love the stuff. Vanilla just plain or dipped in that waxy chocolate coating. Chocolate soft serve or a chocolate vanilla twist is also very satisfying, but I steadfastly resist the new methods of injecting exotic flavors into the standard vanilla cone. This is soft serve trying to be something it is not, and I prefer the simple purity of vanilla and chocolate.

Soft ice cream is a less pretentious dessert than hard or gourmet ice cream, and it is strongly associated with summertime vacations and automobile travel, in particular. Here in the East, most soft serve is found at the roadside seasonal clam shacks and take-out ice cream places that close when the warm weather and tourists disappear. Your cone is likely to be handed to you by a high school or college student working for tuition money, and in my case, each lick conjures up memories of summers past.