I made the mature decision.

You know how it goes.

You arrive in Cedar Rapids late because the plane that you were supposed to board in Connecticut was struck by lightning, so rather than going through Chicago, you are re-routed through Charlotte.

When you finally arrive in Cedar Rapids, you're tired. A lightning strike and a five hour delay in Charlotte has made for a very long day. You arrive in your hotel room, flip on the television, and see that South Park is on.

You watch and laugh.

Another episode comes on. You watch that one, too. Laugh some more.

Then another. "Hey, it's a South Park marathon. Maybe I'll watch another and get some of this mindless business done."

Five hours later, I'm still watching South Park. It's approaching 4:00 AM, and I need to decide if I'm going to sleep for two or three hours of just stay up all night.

Tough decision.

I sleep.

Even when Elysha Dicks isn't around, I'm perfectly capable of making the mature decision.

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I missed so much of '90's culture. Unfortunately?

I was listening to an interview with Bob Saget, who once starred in a show called Full House, which featured the Olson twins. 

Other than what I just stated, I know nothing about this show. I never watched the show, and I wasn't even aware of its existence until well after it had ended its run. This may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that this show has enormous cultural relevance. 

The Olson twins, for example. They seem to be everywhere. John Oliver makes a joke about them on his HBO show all the time, and every time, I think, "Is this just a twin joke, or is there something more to this joke that I don't understand?"

There was also a guy on that show who wore terrible sweaters (I don't know how I know this or if it's even true) and a bunch of other kids, and Bob Saget, of course, who I know as a comic who tells jokes that are definitely for an adult audience only but who somehow appeared on a TV show with little twin girls. 

The show is a mystery to me.  

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I have similar problems with almost all of television, film, and music from the time when Full House was on the air. 

Boy Meets World, for example. I once worked with an attorney whose son was a star of the show, but I had no idea that the show even existed. I also work with a teacher named Mr. Feeney. When I mention his name to people, they often laugh and say, "Like Boy Meets World!" 

I have no idea what they are talking about. 

This is because from 1992 until about 1994, I didn't own a television. I was homeless and then living with a family of Jehovah Witnesses, working two full time jobs in order to pay the attorney who would represent me in court during the trial for a crime I didn't commit.  

Then, from 1994 until 1999, I was attending two colleges full time (earning two degrees) while managing a McDonald's restaurant full time and working in the college writing center part-time. I was also Treasurer of the Student Council, President of the National Honor Society, and columnist for the school newspaper. 

In 1997, I launched my DJ company with my partner.

Looking back, I really don't know how I did it all. But one way was to stop consuming almost all media.  Almost all popular culture from 1992-1999, and especially from 1992-1994, is lost to me. 

This means I have no understanding about things like Saved By the Bell, Family Matters, Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks, Home Improvement, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and many more.

I've managed to catch up on Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Friends, but not until much later.

I missed out on all those 90's slacker films like Dazed and Confused, Clerks, and Reality Bites. I missed classics like Boys in the Hood, Pulp Fiction, and The Usual Suspects. I've since caught up on many of these films, but it turns out that if you're not watching a movie like Reality Bites in the early 1990s or Clerks when Kevin Smith is still a relative unknown, it's just not the same. 

I missed out on the rise of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Radiohead. Again, I caught up with them later on, but if you're not listening to Nirvana in the '90's, you can't help but feel a little detached to what they are singing about.

And then there are shows like Full House. I'm never going to watch an episode of that show. Even if I had the time, I can't imagine that it's worth my time. Instead, I will move through life slightly lost, wondering if the Olson twins were two separate characters on the show or body doubles for each other.

Wondering why so many children live with three men and one woman.

Wondering if Uncle Jessie is a Full House reference (he seems to get mentioned in conversation surrounding this show) or a reference to the Uncle Jessie from The Dukes of Hazard. 

Wondering how a foul-mouthed comic like Bob Saget got cast to appear on a show alongside so many children. 

Dick Clark is dead. He is sorely missed.

My wife and I watched Mike Birbiglia's movie Don't Think Twice last night. 

Excellent film. Gillian Jacob's performance was especially good. 

At 11:57, we switched over to network television to watch the ball drop. We watched as a female singer (later identified as Mel B) pretended to beg off Carson Daly's pleas to perform. The two went back in forth in faux disagreement, and then with less than two minutes to go, she  threw off her large, fur coat, revealing a sparkly dress beneath and launched into "All That Jazz" as backup dancers conveniently appeared behind her and joined in. 

Even though Elysha and I joined the banter mid-stream, it was clear that it was a set up. We all knew that Mel B would be singing something. 

It was also the stuff of a middle school talent show. Truly.

About 30 seconds before midnight, Mel B informed us that she was so excited that she might pee. 

I stared at the screen and thought, "Someone was paid to write this bit. Millions of people are watching and listening this terrible dialogue."

Then another thought: "This is why network TV is dying."

It was especially depressing having just watched a film filled with excellent dialogue. 

Sadly, Elysha and I didn't even get to see the ball drop. Either ABC doesn't have the rights to air the ball as it descends or they screwed up their camera angles. Either way, we missed it. After the stroke of midnight, we quickly switched over to NBC, only to be greeted by a platform of shirt-tugging douchebags surrounding that guy from American Idol. 

Next year, I think we'll just count down to midnight on our iPhones. 

Cousin Oliver sucked.

Here’s my biggest complaint about The Brady Bunch:

The show ran for five seasons.

The writers had six kids, two parents, a housekeeper, a dog and a butcher to work with, not to mention a host of special guest stars ranging from Joe Namath to Desi Arnaz, Jr. to Vincent Price.

And yet they still needed to add stupid cousin Oliver to the mix in order to have enough material.

Not good.

Even stranger:

Wikipedia reports that Cousin Oliver was added to The Brady Bunch’s cast in hopes that his “with Dutch Boy haircut and wire-rimmed glasses, his resemblance to pop singer John Denver and juvenile appeal would help the flagging series.”

I confirmed this information on three other sites, including an interview in the Washington Post.

Let me say that again:

The producers of The Brady Bunch added a character to the show in hopes that his resemblance to John Denver would somehow boost ratings.

Bizarre.

I also found that Robbie Rist, the actor who played Cousin Oliver, appeared on John Denver’s variety show several times and won a John Denver Look-Alike contest.

This story gets stranger by the minute.

Which is funnier? Saturday Night Live? Trump's response to SNL? Alec Baldwin's response to Trump?

Follow this timeline, especially if you don't use Twitter and haven't seen any of the Donald Trump-Saturday Night Live sparring matches. 

I'm honestly not sure which is funnier:

Saturday Night Live's weekly skit on our President-elect:

Donald Trump's inevitable, almost immediate, thin-skinned, sad trombone response to the skit via Twitter:

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Alec Baldwin's eventual and always brilliant response to Trump's tweet:

All are truly comic gold.

Also, can you believe the world that we live in now? We have a President-elect who watches SNL and then tweets about how they make fun of him.

Does he not know how this show works?

Also, praise be to Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin, and anyone else willing to stand up and call out the ineptitude, dishonesty, immaturity, and ego-driven nature of our President-elect. These are the people who will bind us, make us laugh, make us think, and speak out against an Emperor who wears no clothes for the next four years.  

We need you Alec Baldwin. More than ever. 

My new TV gig

Tomorrow Seasons Up Close, a news program from the publishers of Seasons magazine, debuts on channel 3 at 11:30 in the Hartford market.

This will also mark my television debut. Much like my role in the magazine, I will be doing the final segment of the show (and future shows), which will be a short bit of humor and observation at the end of the show.

Sort of like the Andy Rooney spot on 60 minutes, but without a desk and far better looking.

I haven't actually seen the segment yet. They sent it to me, but I have decided to watch it live. If you're in the Hartford area and are free from 11:30 until noon, check it out.

And if it's eventually made available online, I'll be sure to share it here (if I don't hate my performance).  

Here's a little taste of what you may see:

How Pokemon Go is a lot like Hee Haw, and how that should both relieve you and frighten you

This video shows thousands of Pokémon Go players in Taiwan stampeding after a Snorlax — a relatively rare creature in the Pokémon pantheon.

It's kind of unbelievable.

You may think this is a sign of the apocalypse. A signal that human beings have lost all sense of what is good and right. End times.

People have suggested that at the very least, this is an example of priorities gone awry. 

I see it slightly differently.

From the 1950's through the 1980's, enormous numbers of human beings watched television with little choice over quality or time slot. In the United States alone, there were three television networks (CSB, NBC, and ABC), and viewers had no ability to record or time shift programming. Cable television did not exist, and services like Netflix and Hulu weren't even imaginable. Viewers were at the mercy of programmers who had very little competition and little incentive to innovate or experiment. 

As a result, atrocious television programs were oftentimes watched by huge audiences.  

For example, from 1969-1971, more than 20 million American households watched a program called Hee Haw, which is often identified today as the worst television show ever aired. Despite how truly terrible this show was, approximately one in seven Americans tuned in weekly.

But these viewers remained in their homes, unseen and unheard except when it came to the Nielsen ratings. 

Since 2010, more than 125 million people have played the video game Call of Duty for more than 25 billion hours, which is longer than the entirety of human existence. The numbers are truly astronomical, but like the viewers of Hee Haw, these gamers have remained behind closed doors.

Today Pokemon Go is played by about 10 million users daily, which is smaller than the audiences for both Hee Haw and Call of Duty. The only difference between Pokemon Go and the Call of Duty players and the Hee Haw viewers is that the Pokemon Go players have emerged from their homes and entered a world where people can see them playing their game. 

The world has not changed. We simply see it now. 

This is not to say that I support Pokemon Go, Call of Duty, or Hee Haw as good ways to spend your time. In moderation, they are probably fine (except for Hee Haw, which was never fine), but the problem is that many of these things are not pursued in moderation.

Instead, they are consumed to the exclusion of other important aspects of a well rounded life.

For the enormous numbers of people who sit down in front of the televisions every night from 8:00-11:00 or the gamers who plays during every free moment of their lives, these pursuits become questionable when they prevent people from enjoying other aspects of a whole and complete life.

But don't view this video from Taiwan as something new and frightening. People have been consuming questionable content in enormous numbers for decades. This is not new. It's simply visible. We can see what has previously been hidden behind closed doors.  

In 2015, the average American watched more than four hours of television daily.
The average video game player spent almost seven hours playing gaming. 

This - much more than the recent obsession with Pokemon Go - should frighten us all.

Writing advice from a toddler that authors should heed carefully

When my daughter was three years old, still unable to read, she taught me three invaluable lessons about the craft of writing. Specifically, she offered three specific pieces of criticism made an impression on me as an author and remain with me today.

1. Don’t overwrite. More importantly, don’t refuse editing. 

After watching some of its more famous musical numbers on YouTube, Clara and my wife sat down to watch Mary Poppins in its entirety for the first time.

Three years later, she still has yet to see the complete film.

While her interest admittedly waned throughout the film, her most telling comment came just over thirty minutes into the movie when she stood up from the couch and said, “Too long!”

She’s right. At 139 minutes, the film is far too long for most three-year old children, and it might be too long in general. As much as I loved Mary Poppins as a child, a two hour and nineteen minute children’s musical probably could have stood a little more time in the editing room.

Authors often have a great deal to say. We try to restrain ourselves as much as possible, but it often requires the expertise of an agent and an editor to bring our stories down to a length that will maintain a reader’s interest. It’s not an easy process. My agent has chopped whole chapters out of my book. My editors has murdered my characters. Hours and hours of work and strings of carefully honed, treasured sentences lost forever.

But better to lose an entire chapter than to have a reader toss down the book and shout, “Too long!”

2. Conflict is king. Backstory and resolution are secondary.  

With almost any television show that Clara watches, she exhibits the same pattern of interest:

As the conflict in the story rises, she remains riveted to the program. But as soon as the resolution is evident, even if it has not yet happened, her interest immediately wanes. She will walk right out of the room before the resolution even takes place if she can see it coming. 

It’s a good lesson for authors to remember. It is conflict that engages the reader. Backstory and resolution are necessary, but these elements should occur within the context of the conflict as often as possible and should probably occupy the fewest number of pages as possible. Keep the tension high throughout the story and keep the conflict ever-present in the readers’ minds and you will hold their interest throughout.

3. Keep your promises to the reader.

Clara does not appreciate when a television show goes off-book or changes genres midstream. Her favorite show for a long time was The Wonder Pets. It’s a program about three preschool class pets who moonlight as superheroes, saving baby animals around the world who are in trouble.

But occasionally the writers of The Wonder Pets decide to step outside this proven formula. In one episode, The Wonder Pets save an alien who is trying to return to his planet. In another, two of The Wonder Pets must save the third from peril. One episode is essentially a clip show in which the baby animals that they have already saved return to thank The Wonder Pets for their help. 

Clara hated these episodes. The alien episode scared the hell out of her. She fled the room saying, “Not this one! Not this one!” The other more experimental episodes never manage to keep her interest.

Clara is invested in The Wonder Pets because of the promise of baby animals being saved and returned to their parents by the three characters who she adores. 

It’s a good lesson for authors who sometimes offer the reader one thing but then give them another. This can happen when authors fail to remain faithful to the genre in which they are writing, infusing their fantasy novel with a sudden splash of science fiction or bringing serious social commentary into what was supposed to be an escapist detective or romance story.

Authors make promises to readers and then must deliver on them because readers are not simply empty vessels awaiting for the author to impart whatever wisdom he or she deems worthy.  Readers are discerning customers who need to be able to trust an author before investing time and money into a book. There are many reasons that readers purchase books, but it is rarely because they think the author is a wonderful person and whatever he or she has to say will be worthy. Most often, they buy books because of a promise made by the author. A promise of genre or character or plot or quality of the writing.

Authors must be sure to keep these promises or risk having their readers shout, “Not this one! Not this one!"

Reach out to a teacher. We want to hear from you.

My former second and third grade student - now a 24 year old woman - texted me this image along a message:

I know this answer because of you.

Being a teacher, this may sound a little self serving, but if you have the chance to reach out to a former teacher and let them know how their teaching still lives inside you, please do it.

We wonder how the kids who we loved like our own for a year and then left us forever are doing. We wonder if they remember us like we remember them, and we wonder if the year we spent with them helped them to become the people they wanted to be. 

We wonder more than you know.

Pick up the phone. Send an email or a text. Maybe even an old fashioned letter. It will mean the world to a teacher who you once meant the world to and probably still do.

When I watch children's television, I ask questions about fictional funding (or the lack thereof)

My kids are currently watching large amounts of the television show The Octonauts.

They also own many Octonauts toys.

I tend to avoid watching these shows with my kids, and when I do, I rarely pay much attention. I listen to podcast, work on stories in my head, and make excuses to leave. Despite my best efforts, I've become familiar enough with the show to understand the basic characters and plot. 

The Octonauts follows an underwater exploring crew made up of stylized anthropomorphic animals. This team of eight adventurers live in an undersea base, the Octopod, from where they go on undersea adventures with the help of a fleet of aquatic vehicles.

When I watch this show, I can only think of one thing:

Who is funding this organization? It must cost a fortune to maintain this fleet of aquatic vehicles and this enormous undersea base, not to mention the salaries of these undersea scientists, who seem to be on duty at all times. 

Is this a government sponsored endeavor or privately maintained?

The same goes for Paw Patrol. a show about A boy named Ryder leads a pack of talking dogs known as the PAW Patrol. They work together on rescue missions to protect the city of Adventure Bay. The Paw Patrol has an enormous home base, equipped with a variety of vehicles, all positioned to rescue the idiots in Adventure Bay who can't keep themselves out of trouble.

Who is funding this canine rescue team? Does the government of Adventure Bay have enough tax dollars to fund a police force and a team of canine rescue experts?

I know it's silly to be asking these questions about a show designed for little kids, but I also don't want me daughter to think that these people can act with economic impunity. 

When is it too early to introduce the idea that all things - regardless of the good they may do - cost money?

Why I think professional wrestling is stupid

My friends who watch professional wrestling have long argued that watching a fake sporting event is no different than watching a fictional television show like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. 

And it's true. As long as they are willing to acknowledge that all professional wrestling is staged for the sake of the storylines being written behind the scenes. this argument seemed to make sense to me.

Logically, it passed muster. 

Still, I couldn't help but think that professional wrestling was stupid. More stupid than even the worst scripted television program. But I couldn't put my finger on exactly why.

At last I have found the reason. 

The difference between professional wrestling and a show like Breaking Bad is that Breaking Bad doesn't pretend to exist in our world. It is a clearly taking place in a fictionalized world, even if that world closely resembles our own. We know that the locations in the show do not exist as we see them on the screen. We know that the show is probably filmed in a place other than where the characters claim to be. Fans of the show don't drive to New Mexico hoping to see Walt and Jesse cooking up meth in the desert. There is no implication that the characters or settings or events in the television show are taking place in the world in which we live.

Professional wrestling is very different. It is a fake sport that exists in our real world. Wrestlers want you to think that they are real and that their sport is real. Wrestlers never break character, even after the match is long over. You can go to a professional wrestling match and watch these actors pretend to compete. If you're a fan, you'll likely cheer on your favorite wrestler. Stand up. Shout. Pump a fist or two. I would argue that it's also likely that many of the fans will unknowingly suspend their disbelief at times, cheering their favorite wrestlers as if the competition was real. Fans of wrestling treat an admittedly fake show as if it's real by playing a significant role in the staging of the match.

They are a part of the show.

Imagine if Breaking Bad was shot before a live studio audience. 

No one would be cheering their favorite character. No one would ever think of Walter White as a real person.

The camera would never pan over the studio audience. Even if it was a comedy that was clearly being filmed before a live studio audience - an audience you could hear laughing - the camera would never pan over that audience. The fourth wall would never be broken. 

That would be insane.

Seeing the studio audience would break the fictional world of the show. It would somehow bring the characters into our world and turn them into actors instead of the people who we know and love. 

This is the difference between watching a fictional television show and professional wrestling. 

Fictional television creates world in which its characters operate.

Professional wrestling uses our real world to stage fiction that is often misconstrued as real. 

This is why I this it's stupid. 

Also, it's inherently a fairly stupid form of entertainment. 

Losing can be so entertaining when it's not you.

I'm not a fan of Jeopardy. Listening to other people answer trivia questions has never appealed to me, but if games of Jeopardy ended like this more often, I might start watching. 

I love this. The dismissive way that Alex Trebek responds to the contestants is brilliant. I love it so much that I've watched it three times already. 

I'm not sure what this says about me, but it can't be good.

Jim and Pam are still together. There is hope.

On the rare day that I'm feeling pessimistic about the world or sad about something in my life, I will often stop and think, "Jim and Pam are still married. As long as they're still together, there is hope."

Sometimes I go back and watch their wedding. It brings me such joy.

I miss those characters from The Office more than you could imagine. 

I thought I became a teacher because I love kids, but it turns out that the real reason was far more selfish and insidious

It appears that knowledge of your spouse is a highly effective indicator of satisfaction in your relationships. 

Knowledge of one’s partner and life skills are much better predictors of average satisfaction across relationships, according to Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein and student Rachel Smith, who have just presented their study at the Western Psychological Association in Los Angeles. Knowledge of one’s partner includes his or her preferences, dress size, hopes and dreams. Life skills refers to paying the bills on time or managing stress. “To me it shows that therapists need to rethink how they’re working with their clients,” Epstein says.

What shocked researchers the most was that 40% of the couples he studied had no idea about one another’s hopes and dreams.

No idea about one another's hopes and dreams? What the hell are these people talking about? Are they talking at all?

My wife and I have been working together in some capacity - either as elementary school teachers or as founders and producers of Speak Up - for almost 15 years, so in addition to our home life, we have spent an enormous amount of time working together.

I like to think we know each other really, really well.

In fact, I suspect that we sometimes know each other better than we know ourselves. 

Six years ago, during a book club presentation, I was asked why I became a teacher. I explained how much I love kids and how my role as the eldest of five siblings probably played an important factor as well. I also explained that when I was growing up, no one ever spoke to me about my future, so my vision of job opportunities were limited to only what I could see, so teacher was a natural landing spot for me. 

Elysha - who had joined me for this book club visit - shook her head. "That may all be true," she said. "But a big part of Matt becoming a teacher is much simpler. He doesn't like to be told what to do. So when he's in his classroom all day with his students, no one is telling him what he should or shouldn't be doing."

I had never considered this possibility, but as soon as Elysha spoke these words, they felt right.  I would prefer to describe myself as wanting a certain degree of autonomy and independence in my work day - which I also get as a writer and a business owner - but boiled down to its essence, Elysha is right:

I can't stand being told what to do.

The surprise of this discovery was quickly replaced by excitement over the idea that my wife might know me better than anyone ever. Since that day, she has proven this fact repeatedly, telling me things about myself that I am apparently too blind or obtuse to notice on my own.  

Since our wedding day in July of 2006, Elysha and I have only gotten to know each other better, and happily, we have only grown closer as a result.

It's not often that someone gets to know me better and ends up liking me more.

I chose wisely when it came to my spouse.

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This video encompasses so many of my fears for my students

I watch this video from the Jimmy Kimmel Show, and it encapsulates so many of my fears for my students.

  1. I'm afraid that they are growing up in a world with an African American President and legalized same sex marriage (two things I never thought I would see in my lifetime), and yet sexist, stupid, degrading beauty pageants like Miss America still exist and are watched by millions every year.
  2. I'm afraid that they might decide that competing in beauty pageants like Miss America is a worthwhile endeavor.
  3. I'm afraid that they might answer a question in the same inarticulate, imbecilic, and embarrassing fashion as our reigning Miss America.
  4. I'm afraid that they might answer a question in the same inarticulate, imbecilic, and embarrassing fashion as the people on the street who foolishly agreed to speak to Jimmy Kimmel's producers. 
  5. I'm afraid that they might become content creators who think that sticking a microphone in pedestrians' faces and recording them speak like morons makes for interesting or amusing television.

This is why I work my students so hard and insist on making every minute of the school day as productive as possible. The last thing I want is to see one of them appear in a video like this in any capacity. 

There’s nothing better than a little fire in your belly to keep you moving forward. Find something to hate.

"The rage you feel? Listen to me carefully. It's a gift. Use it, but don't let anyone see it." - Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire

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Nucky may be a fictional character, but these are words of wisdom. I may not feel actual rage on a regular basis, but I’m also not a gangster and mob boss who traffics in violence like Nucky.

But whenever I’m feeling lazy or unfocused, I immediately redirect my attention on all the things that I I have spent my life working against:

  • The poverty that I have experienced many times in my life
  • The teachers and guidance counselors in high school who never spoke to me about college despite my excellent grades and laundry list of extracurricular activities
  • The former stepfather who did so much damage to my mother and my  siblings and cost us our childhood home
  • The long, cold, frightening nights spent living in my car in Somerville, Massachusetts when I was homeless
  • The police officer who arrested me for a crime I did not commit
  • The hours spent in a tiny jail cell, awaiting my arraignment
  • All the McDonald’s customers who treated me and my employees poorly over the years because of our place of employment
  • The prosecutor who railed against me at my trial – calling me me a thief and a liar – while trying to strip me of my freedom
  • The college professor who told me that I probably wasn’t talented enough to publish novels and should think about a different career
  • The people with so many advantages in life – supportive parents, stable homes, parents who paid for their college tuition, family businesses that accepted them with open arms – who fail to do great things with their lives and good fortune
  • The anonymous villains who tried to destroy my teaching career

When I am not doing my best, working my hardest, trying like hell to succeed, these are the people I think about. These are the things that get me moving again.

While I don’t want my children to be impoverished or homeless or jailed or told that they aren’t talented enough to succeed, my hope is that they have a little fire in their bellies when they get older. A reason to prove someone wrong. Something that has hardened them and sharpened them a bit. Maybe a little anger residing somewhere within, kept hidden as Nucky advises, but always there, pointing them forward and onward to greater things.

Success really is the best revenge.

How did television meteorologists become household names, and why can’t I name a single one of these guys?

Everyone in my life seems to know the names of the television meteorologists. They say things like, “Brad Somebody is hosting this charity event next weekend” or “Bruce Gobbledygook says it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

Even my student’s know these names.

I can’t help but wonder:

These people can’t actually be watching the local news. Right?

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They can’t be sitting through reports on car accidents and house fires and gas station robberies in order to hear a weather forecast that they can get on their phone or computer at any moment. Can they?

And if not, how does everyone seem to know Brad Somebody and Bruce Gobbledygook’s names?