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Phone calls from way over the edge 

In the increasingly homogenized media landscape, corporate-controlled daily newspapers continually attempt -- and fail -- to appear locally engaged to their readership. This goes far beyond reportage. Dailies almost always get local, important news before anyone else does (whether they tell the whole story is something else altogether); their battalions of beat reporters and stringers see to that.

No, it's that intangible ability to tap into their community's psyche that routinely escapes a daily's power. Despite all the corporate think-tankery and focus-group remodeling, your average editor or columnist at a daily newspaper like the Orlando Sentinel is far too entangled in furthering his or her own agenda or simply attempting to wade through the bureaucratic morass that is his or her corporate existence. Thus, when you look to the Sentinel for a down-on-the-pavement feel for what life in Orlando -- your Orlando -- is like, it's somewhat difficult.

The problem seems to be that the Sentinel has a columnist for every possible niche: Mike Thomas for the smart people, Scott Maxwell for the people who like gossip but pretend they're reading about politics, Maria Padilla for Hispanic people (who, as we know, all think alike), Kathleen Parker for people who like for their heads to implode from the giant vacuum that occurs when all logic is sucked from the room. But with all these niches, there's no grand meeting place, no town hall, no place where everyone's ideas are equal and all readers can find a viewpoint to relate to.

No place, that is, except for Ticked Off.

In these times of heady issues -- a contentious war, threats of terrorism, a faltering economy, the new Mount Everest ride at Animal Kingdom -- it's enlightening to see what Central Florida is really thinking about. Cats jumping out of the back of pickup trucks. Noisy neighbors. Nosy neighbors. People who don't use turn signals. The intratroop politics of Girl Scouts. Ticked Off -- that section tucked away near the comics -- allows readers to vent, releasing their frustration (or, in smaller type, praise) about the things that truly occupy their lives.

Like a Letters to the Editor section of a mental institution's in-house newspaper, the ramblings in Ticked Off bristle with the pent-up rage of mediocrity gone terribly awry. You surely know how it works: Something pisses you off, you call in to a special voicemail box at the Sentinel to let it all out, and they print the cream of the crop. It's obvious that there's some twisted intern who compiles it all, as the entries are routinely bizarre, if not in subject, then in context (or lack thereof).

Take, for instance, this entry from April 3. "In regard to the blond redneck bimbos out there: All you wives and girlfriends need to understand why your husbands and boyfriends would be telling us they love us when they have such a control freak at home. Hope to see you in hell for the way you act!"

What the hell is that all about? Besides pure insanity, I mean. Can you figure out what's going on here? Is the caller "ticked" at the "redneck bimbos" or at the "wives and girlfriends"? Who should end up in hell? Is the caller a bimbo herself? Whatever the answer, it's a fascinating tidbit of mental pathology. And it's only the tip of the Ticked Off iceberg.

Recently, there was the whole "Deltona people going into Orange City restaurants" controversy. Apparently, the more "mature" patrons of several Orange City eateries had grown tired of the alarming influx of (gasp!) children and families into "their" places. After several callers voiced opinions -- both pro-"Deltona people" and anti-"Deltona people" -- the true nature of the dispute became clear. It wasn't all about kids invading oldsters' chow palaces. It was about the "low class" nature of those "Deltona people" who let their kids run around like animals. I mean, damn. Just coming out and saying something like that? That's some hot stuff.

Ticked Off, I'm sad to say, is far from an original idea. Dozens of corporate newspapers have introduced similar columns, whether they're The Vent or The Box or whatever. But Ticked Off has a certain Central Florida peculiarity to it. It's a harried combination of metropolitan woes, sun-baked eccentricity, tourist-town venom and, of course, that Southern mindset that demands -- but doesn't always deliver -- reciprocal politeness. It is also the best thing in the Sentinel.

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