Some are confused by Black Friday

November 25, 2011

The wave of fresh converts to evangelical Christianity appears to contain many who are confused about certain details of this, their first holiday season.

“I’m still learning my way around,” admitted Sonya Bennett. “I mean, I believe in Jesus and all that stuff; I’m just a little hazy on the reasons for some of these celebrations.”

Much of the bewilderment is becoming apparent during today’s so-called “Black Friday.” Large numbers of newly minted Christians showed up at post-Thanksgiving sales at Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers, thinking they were observing the day Jesus was crucified at Calgary.

“I guess I was thinking of — what is it? — Good Friday,” said Heather Thompson. “I thought Black Friday was the day the altar was draped in black cloth, and a somber service acknowledged our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Turns out, it’s more about low, low prices.”

Thompson said many of her friends were also confused about the day. She said she felt that the Church of Christ, of which she became a member earlier this year, and the nation’s retail sector were “just asking” for there to be such widespread misunderstanding.

“I mean, think about it: Good Friday marks an occasion when something bad happened, and Black Friday marks a good day, a day of door-busting bargains. That’s just plain screwy,” Thompson said. “You’d think it would be the other way around. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one expecting up to 60% off the cost of my salvation.”

Bennett, a recent convert to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, said the church calendar at first didn’t make sense to her. She said she had time to meditate and reflect on her faith while waiting in line from midnight till 4 a.m. outside the Valley Hills Mall in Seattle.

“I finally puzzled through it,” Bennett said. “It just wasn’t possible that Jesus was crucified in late November, then born in late December, and then ascended into heaven in March or April. I know He can do some amazing things, but this just seemed totally whack.”

Similar puzzlement was expected during next week’s “Cyber Monday,” which has become the day on which close to a third of on-line Christmas gift sales are made. Either that, or it’s something to do with Simon Peter, or maybe the Immaculate Conception, or maybe Zhu Zhu pets.

“The one that always messes me up is Maundy Thursday,” said Oscar Bennett, who joined the Southern Baptist denomination in February. “I mean, is it a Monday or is it a Thursday? I’m all for talking in tongues, but come on. How can we have effective outreach to non-believers with this kind of double-talk?”

Raymond Price, a new member of the fundamentalist Mercy Schmercy Catholic Church in suburban Atlanta, defended Christianity’s elaborate calendar as something that novices should study and become comfortable with.

“It’s really not that complicated when you put your mind to it,” Price said. “Ash Wednesday is the day we remember volcano victims. Palm Sunday celebrates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph after inventing the handheld personal digital assistant. Corpus Christi, in mid-June, marks the beginning of beach season on the south Texas coast.”

Price said his personal favorite day on the liturgical calendar was Ruby Tuesday.

“Any day that honors both the Rolling Stones and the Seaside Sensations combo platter is truly a holy day in my book,” Price said. “Ruby Tuesday — Fresh Taste, Fresh Price.”

A look at the turkey

November 23, 2011

As part of my occasional series titled “Lives of the Dead,” today’s post will look at the turkey.

This fabled American bird takes its place at the table with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Caesar Augustus, St. Patrick and Martin Luther as subjects of a DavisW’s blog profile. Not dead as a species but with plenty of specific casualties by this time tomorrow, the turkey becomes the first to be a living topic in this space. Let’s take a brief look at its history before we examine its innards over pumpkin pie and coffee at dinner Thursday.

In a way, it’s fitting the turkey be granted this exceptional treatment. As much as his species is appreciated as both a symbol of gratitude and a meat product, there have been no individual turkeys to rise above the rest and distinguish themselves. Other animals at least have had animated anthropomorphs to speak out on their behalf — Donald Duck, Porky Pigg, Sylvester the Cat, Fernando Lamas, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). There’s never been a single famous turkey.

It’s probably due in part to what’s come to be known in zoology circles as the “K Factor”. The K Factor is that rule which says any animal with a “K” in its name is automatically funny and disrespected. Your monkeys, your donkeys, your yaks and your kangaroos all suffer from this syndrome and can’t get anyone to take them seriously. We laugh at the poor dumb turkey even as we enjoy his succulent thighs simply because it’s fun to say anything that rhymes with “jerky” or “quirky”.

The turkey first came to the attention of an increasingly hungry Western Civilization when 16th-century Europeans exploring America encountered a bird similar to their familiar guineafowl. Since their larger poultry were imported into continental markets through Central Europe from Turkey, they thought of calling the wild Meleagris gallopavo a “Serbian” but eventually settled instead on “turkey”. (That’s why we also get the word “grease” from Greece, and the word “chili” from Chile).

The wild turkey can weigh up to 100 pounds and has a wingspan of almost six feet. They can fly for short distances, mainly when they’re being pursued by predators. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy wattle that hangs from the underside of their beak which, when combined with their huge breasts, make them resemble actress Pamela Anderson. (You can tell the two apart because the birds have too much sense to go anywhere near Kid Rock). They also have another protuberance growing off the top of their beaks and dangling off to the side called a “snood”. Links to recipes for these appendages, including the famous Wattle Supreme and the underappreciated Stewed Snood, will follow this article.

There’s a fairly extensive fossil record of the early turkeys, starting from the Miocene Epoch over 20 million years ago. Ancient remains have been found throughout the Western Hemisphere and, when they are, inevitably the wishbone is broken in two. The Aztecs called the creature huexolotl, and it was associated with their “trickster god” Tezcatlipoca when it wasn’t being killed and eaten. (Even then, the turkey was laughed at. Aztecs would’ve told each other “that wacky huexolotl and his pal Tezcatlipoca are at it again” if they could’ve pronounced either of the words.)

It’s only been in the last century or so that turkeys became a popular form of poultry. Though it’s likely the meat was served at the first Thanksgiving attended by the Pilgrims and the Indians, that’s probably only because they kept running around the food preparation area. It was actually too expensive to become a staple at holiday meals until just recently. Before World War II, goose or beef was more likely to comprise the common holiday dinner.

When the wild turkey was domesticated, its life became both easier and harder. Today’s birds could live to be ten years old if they weren’t slaughtered at about 16 weeks. They grow up on a factory farm, bred to have magnificent white feathers to make their carcasses more appealing. The male is the tom, the female is the hen, and the baby is a poult, though they don’t spend near enough time together as a family. Mature toms are too large to “achieve natural fertilization,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it, so their semen is manually collected and hens are inseminated artificially. Neither much care for this arrangement, but what are they going to do? Break out on their own and find a nice apartment they could afford on a turkey salary?

Turkeys are popularly believed to be unintelligent. Claims are made that during a rainstorm, they’ll look up at the falling precipitation until they drown. Recent research has shown, however, that many aren’t simply stupid but instead suffer from a genetic nervous disorder known as “tetanic torticollar spasms” that causes them to look skyward. Like human parents embarrassed by the poor performance of their offspring, turkey parents can point to a disorder similar to ADHD as the reason their brats are running around like madmen, toppling lamps and unable to stay focused for more than a few moments.

The turkey is now solidly a part of American lore, especially at this time of the year. Schoolchildren trace outstretched hands to create likenesses of the animal for fall craft projects. Coworkers abandon casual conversation in the breakroom and opt instead to gobble at each other. The turkey lobby brings one lucky tom to Washington so it can receive the traditional presidential pardon, though in an attempt to be seen as moving toward the political center after recent election losses, President Obama is considering slitting its throat this year.

By Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, all we really care about is how to prepare the bird for dinner. Available in the market as either fresh or frozen, the meat typically requires several hours baking or roasting in the oven to become fully cooked. A recent trend has seen the rise of a new method, deep-frying the turkey in an outdoor vat of hot oil for 45 minutes or until the entire set-up explodes and is next seen on YouTube under the title “Butterball goes fireball.”

Ultimately, the dish is surrounded by cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, and whatever that awful casserole is that your sister-in-law keeps bringing year after year. Extended families come together to share an all-too-brief moment of togetherness before heading back to their separate lives watching televised images of Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions facing their own slaughter. Soon, the notorious “tryptophan coma” descends on the gathering like a cloud of carbon monoxide until participants awake to find themselves waiting in line for Walmart to open at 2 in the morning.

As we pause during the next 24 hours to give thanks for all the bounty we share, let’s not forget to express appreciation to the noble turkey for his contribution. If Ben Franklin had his way, the creature would be our national bird, seen all over our money and other national emblems instead of all over our shirts and tablecloths. And we’d be eating bald eagles for dinner, arguing over who gets the bald spot rather than who gets the drumstick.

I’ve had deep-fried eagle before and, trust me, it’s not something you’d want to eat.

Note: To read more about Lives of the Dead, please visit the following posts:

http://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/happy-columbus-day-sort-of/

http://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/lives-of-the-dead-augustus-father-of-august/

http://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/lives-of-the-dead-st-patrick/

http://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/lives-of-the-dead-martin-luther/

He’d say “Happy Thanksgiving,” but the snood keeps getting in the way

Thanksgiving comes early in the office

November 22, 2011

The turkey carcass sits mangled on the serving table, looking like the victim of a bear attack. The sweet potato casserole has been denuded of its marshmallow topping, but you could probably scrape a few more servings out of the corners of the pan if you tried. The stuffing is completely gone, serving its stated purpose of stuffing those who now lounge around the edges of this scene, barely moving except for the effort it takes to moan.

No, you haven’t been transported several days into the future by the magic of the blog. This is the scene I left behind at yesterday’s office celebration of Thanksgiving, long before most of us will commemorate the occasion.

The corporate calendar of holidays is not something most of us are aware of until we walk into work one dark January day and discover we’ve neglected to bring the green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day, which the outside world celebrates on March 17. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much.

The government has imposed Monday observance of the more minor holidays like Presidents, Labor and Memorial days. Christmas and New Year’s are complicated by the fact that the days before them — the Eves — are in many ways more important than the actual holidays themselves. Many human resources departments have come up with the concept of a “floating” holiday for individuals to use in the religious observance of their choosing, such as Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa or Talk Like a Pirate Day. People in my mostly Christian office, for example, use their optional holiday for the day after Easter, prompting one observer to wonder if the “floating” had something to do with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

I guess having the Thanksgiving potluck yesterday made some sense on a gut level, considering few of us would want to gorge like that two days in a row if it were scheduled for Wednesday. The only opening left on the sign-up sheet when I got to it was “salad,” which seemed very un-Thanksgiving-like but worked for me since it was so easy to prepare (take one head of lettuce, rip to shreds, serves 20). Management was providing the ham and turkey, and everything else was being brought in by the staff, who would have a chance to dazzle coworkers with their best recipes, many of which involved green beans, cream soup and those crunchy onion things.

The sit-down time was scheduled for 11 a.m. so the organizers had the better part of the morning to set up the centerpieces, warm and then re-warm the hot dishes, and tempt us all with the smells of the season. This was to be an affair that combined our staff with workers from the front office, who we sometimes pass in the restrooms but about whom we know little else.

As the serving time arrived, I was unfortunate enough to be just outside their offices when a manager called out for me to summon them. At first I was confused about who exactly he meant, and nearly beckoned the 200-plus temporary work crew from the warehouse. That would’ve been a horrible mistake, certain to result in stolen plastic cutlery and tiny, tiny portions for everyone. Still, I didn’t want to call for these front-office folks I didn’t know (“hey, it’s the guy from the bathroom – what’s he want?”) so I went to hide in my car for a few minutes.

I hoped this would have the added benefit of allowing me to miss the inevitable speech-giving and prayer that would precede the food consumption. But as the schedule started running behind, I made it just in time to hear the department head note that though these are difficult times, we still have much to be thankful for, followed by a brief blessing.

Not being a currently practicing Christian myself, I’ve always felt awkward during this portion of the proceedings. It’s not because I take offense at having others’ religious beliefs imposed on me; rather, I’m bothered that I use the respectful silence to think of the sarcastic prayer I’d be tempted to offer if I’m ever called upon. Instead of beginning with “dear Jesus” or “holy Father,” the sacrilegious scamp in me wants to begin with a “good God” and then launch into several other James Brown references like papa’s brand new bag and how good I feel (so good). Fortunately for everyone, Edna does a nice reverent offering, and it’s finally time to chow down.

Office chairs were pulled up to the long row of covered work tables. After people made their way down the buffet, carefully gauging the decreasing capacity of their Chinettes against the promise of what appeared further down the line, we were told to squeeze into a seat and begin the scheduled conviviality. The randomness and closeness of this seating arrangement, not to mention my very real fear of being injured by flying elbows, caused me to linger toward the end of the buffet line in the hope the table would be too full. I lucked out and was able to return instead to my work station to eat, where I got a kernel of corn stuck between “F7” and “F8” on my keyboard.

I genuinely enjoyed the food, as did everyone else. I was also able to enjoy the air of warmth and geniality in the room without actually having to get any of it on me. We didn’t have any holiday music piped through the intercom as we’ll do at Christmas — primarily I guess because there isn’t any, except for the less-than-festive “Turkey in the Straw” – but there was a certain atmosphere that for a moment almost made me give some actual thanks.

I managed to avoid overeating, which was good since I had a long drive home to navigate in the next hour and I didn’t want to sleep through it. Others in our department weren’t so lucky, as they staggered back to their desks to face another three hours of duty. The combination of turkey, heavy carbohydrates and the kind of workload you might expect at a financial services firm during a lingering downturn must’ve been as tough to handle as an Ambien/opium blend injected directly into your forehead.

At least there were no Detroit Lions to send them over the edge and into lethal coma.

All ready for the office reorganization

November 21, 2011

My boss asked to see me in her office Friday. This is far from an everyday request so – considering the state of the economy and particularly concerns about the so-called “jobless recovery” we’re experiencing in which the unemployment rate still hovers near 10% and new job creation is at a virtual standstill – I was, like, freaking out.

A manager who wants to discuss potentially bad news with an underling is at a distinct advantage if they play their cards right. In this environment, the employee automatically assumes the worst is about to happen. Anything less than a pink slip, a box to collect your personal effects and a security-guard-escorted walk to the parking lot becomes welcome news.

If they put enough drama into the meeting, closing the door behind you as you enter and remaining grim-faced as you settle into your chair, you’ll accept almost anything else they have to say with enthusiasm.

“Dave, I’ve called you in here today to discuss some new directions we see your career here taking,” they can say.

“New directions,” you hear. As in, make a left as you leave the building, then a right at the second light, and you’ll see the unemployment office on the left? you wonder.

“We’ve got some new duties we want you to add to your current skill set,” they can continue.

“New duties,” you hear. A sign of hope?

“We need someone to scrub the floor of the men’s room each day using only their tongue,” they can offer. “And we think you’re just the man for the job.”

“I still have a job!” you think. Relief floods your mind. “That sounds like something I can handle,” you answer. “I’m all salivated up and ready to go. When can I start?”

So when my boss started talking about the reorganization our department is about to undertake, and how it will affect the hours I work and the place where I sit, I was more than happy to listen respectfully and nod my head in an affirmative motion at all the right places. I was not losing my job after all. That was what they call in the corporate world my “key takeaway.”

But now that I’ve had a few days to think about what she said, in the context of not having to trade my comfortable suburban house for a homeless shelter, I have some concerns about a few of these changes.

I’m not going to have to get used to a new chair, am I?

We all have the same type of chairs in my office, but after several years of use, not all of the features still work on every chair. I need more than just a flat horizontal surface to place my can. I need a certain level of lumbar support. I don’t like the armrests to be so high as to interfere with my typing, or too low to provide rest for my arms when I’m reading. The wheels need to work properly so I can scoot to the coffeemaker with a single thrust of my legs.

What about mousepads? Can we keep the ones we currently have?

I like the kind that has the little mound of gel you can rest your wrist on. I don’t like the kind that advertises Office Depot or the pharmaceutical industry’s latest anti-depressant. My wrist tends to get tired after a long day of clicking and dragging, and I’m not sure I can put in a full eight hours with a weary forearm.

The carousel of supplies at my current desk is organized just as I like it. Can I take it with me to my new desk?

A few years ago, in the throes of another reorganization that saw us sticking labels on everything that didn’t move, the different storage slots on my carousel got signs for what goes into each area: “staple remover” reads one, “red pens and pencils” reads another, “black/blue pens” reads a third. This seemed silly at the time, but I’ve grown used to it since then. When I’m through using a rubber band or a paper clip, I want to know where it should be returned to. These labels are the lifeblood of my sanity, and my whole worldview will be affected if I don’t know where to put the medium-sized sticky notes when I’m through with them.

Will I have a stapler and scissors at my new desk?

Right now, I don’t have ready access to these seemingly essential tools of office work. I don’t know whether we just have a shortage, or whether there might be some safety issue involved. I feel I’ve demonstrated a level of responsibility during my 30-plus years with the company to show I can be trusted to handle sharp instruments. If there is some training involved in how to properly attach one piece of paper to another, I’d be eager to learn. I believe learning is a lifelong pursuit and am always eager to gain new skills.

Can I be positioned directly beneath an air-conditioning vent?

Most people in my office seem to be suffering a chronic hypothermia that requires them to constantly fiddle with the thermostat until the room becomes a sauna. I’m originally from Miami, and grew up there in the days before air-conditioning. I appreciate a nice draft as welcome refreshment. You can even put me near the door if you want to; it’ll make it that much easier to slip out five minutes early at the end of the day.

Please don’t make me sit next to Kelly. Please. I beg of you. Have some basic human compassion.

Kelly is our office loudmouth. She chatters endlessly about every detail of her personal life. I don’t want to constantly be hearing about how her son has done at soccer practice, how she has a new cat, how her husband is going back to school again instead of getting a job, how she has this lump on her side that she needs to get checked out. If I want to know these things, I’ll sign up for her online newsletter.

Finally, I need both a recycling bin and a trash can at my new desk.

I’ll often work through lunch, eating a sandwich at my work station. When I’m done, I’ll usually save the Zip-Lock bag I packed it in, unless it’s been stained by mayonnaise dripping out the side of my turkey sandwich. When this happens, I’d like to be able to throw it away without getting up. I don’t want to put it into recycling, because that would destroy the Earth.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Don’t make me share a desk with Edwin on second shift.

Edwin is notorious for eating three-fourths of an onion-packed Subway sandwich and tossing the rest in his desk-side garbage can instead of — as we were specifically instructed in an email dated September 27, 2003 — putting any smelly trash in the breakroom receptacle. The maintenance people usually empty the office trash cans at mid-morning, so whoever shares a desk with Edwin has to smell old onions for half the day. This, I will not abide.

Somebody in management needs to have a talk with Edwin. Let him think he’s getting the ax, and he’ll be more than grateful to stop putting his onions in the regular trash.

Turkey time at the office

November 18, 2011

The food for the office Thanksgiving luncheon was all set up and ready to be eaten. Workers summoned for the feast from different departments stood about awkwardly, hungry but mindful of the need to wait for some kind of “GO!” command.

First, the district manager had a few words to say. He welcomed the 50 or so white-collar staffers, and spoke of an old tradition that he greatly admired. He’d heard of a family that asked everyone in attendance at their holiday dinners to talk briefly of something they were thankful for in the past year.

A few sidelong glances were exchanged among the famished professionals — “at this rate, we’re never going to eat” seemed to be the unspoken consensus. The manager sensed the crowd’s reluctance to talk about home and family matters at work.

“Anybody have anything they’d like to share?” he asked.

There was some lame muttering from the back about being thankful for friends. Another person said they had suffered a lot in the last year while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, then realized this wasn’t much of a reason for thanks and instead turned it into a “deep gratitude” that another accident hasn’t happened again.

I felt embarrassed by the silence and sorry for the well-intentioned manager, and almost spoke up myself. I was going to say I was just thankful to have a job in these difficult times, then realized it might prompt him to wonder “why is he still working here?” and decided to hold my tongue. When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak — unless we wanted to ask the people ringing our phones off the hook while the receptionist was away microwaving the green bean casserole — he moved on.

After a pause, he again looked around the room and asked if anybody wanted to say “a word” before we began eating.

Were this any other region of the country besides the South, the word people might’ve offered would be something like “c’mon” or “let’s go, already.” Down here, though, “a word,” especially when requested immediately prior to the consumption of food, means a prayer. Finally someone accepted the challenge, and asked everyone to bow their heads. I used the opportunity to study what a nice pair of running shoes the person next to me recently purchased, and how well their color coordinated with the office carpet.

The prayer (prayist?) proceeded through an acknowledgement of the usual litany of Christian superheroes. He thanked an unseen timekeeper who granted us the opportunity to join together. He gave a brief preview of the available entrees, specifically mentioning both turkey and ham. He said he did all this “in Jesus’ name” (though I bet he’d be resuming his usual role as Bobby in just a minute), then everybody said “amen.”

I’m really glad that I, an agnostic, have never been forced to deliver an impromptu invocation at a company function. I’ve had years of Lutheran training and could probably recall a doxology or two if pressed. I think I could fake my way through it.

Actually, I’ve been known to invoke the various names of the Almighty and His Posse on numerous occasions throughout the average workday. I’m not sure how good a prayer it would make, but I could improvise something like the following.

Good God
I can’t believe the last person to use the copier didn’t hit the reset button when they were through.
Now I have 50 copies when I only wanted two.
And they left blue paper in the legal tray.
Christ Almighty
Those people on the night shift have been using our creamer again.
And doesn’t that guy over in Legal realize that you’re supposed to pay to be in the coffee fund?
Mary, Mother of God
Why have these maintenance people vacuuming while I’m on this important call?
They now wear portable motors and bags on their backs.
I wish those were jetpacks and they’d fly the hell away.
Sweet Jesus
I’m out of sticky notes again.
And I think someone slid a different chair over here, because this one just doesn’t feel right.
Is there no respect for personal property in this place?
Holy Cow
They’re cranking up the thermostat again even though it’s already 150 degrees in here.
These women need to ditch the sleeveless tops already or else bring their Snuggies to work.
God Damn It
It looks like there’s another network outage coming in five minutes.
Tech says it’ll only take about thirty seconds, but by the time you have to restart and bring all your programs back up, you might as well call it a day.
They’re probably doing some upgrade that blocks even more websites.
Jesus H. Christ
Those new paper towels in the men’s room are so thin, they’re practically toilet paper.
I’m sure it’s cheaper than the old stuff, but don’t they realize we’re using twice as much?
I am sick of tiny disintegrated shreds of saturated paper sticking to my hands.
God Almighty, what is wrong with these people?

 

Sweet Lord

Watching too many TV commercials

November 17, 2011

Open with exterior shot of long white limo driving down a country road. Graphic points to car’s “blacked-out windows”.

Announcer overdub: “A lot of people don’t think food companies are honest about the source of their ingredients.”

Cut to interior shot of focus group sitting around a conference room table. Facilitator asks: “Do you think Domino’s wants you to know where their ingredients come from?”

Hispanic woman: “You should be able to know.”

Anglo woman: “Yeah. With Domino’s you assume the worst, so it would be reassuring to at least believe the ingredients are carbon-based.”

Black man: “I don’t know about that crust, man. Kinda reminds me of chipboard.”

Walls of conference room fall away.

Asian man: “Oh, my god. It’s an earthquake! The building is collapsing! Hand me that pizza so its rock-hard shell can protect my head from falling debris!”

Collapsing walls reveal exterior shot of expansive paper mill. Focus group surprised to find it’s now inside a large warehouse. Safety-helmeted plant worker approaches group and speaks:

“No, it’s not chipboard. Domino’s crust is made of only the finest corrugated cardboard, formed right here in this mill from virgin stands of California hardwood.”

Hispanic woman: “What’s that horrible smell?”

Worker: “That’s the smell of raw wood pulp being boiled and processed to make the grade-A cardboard that forms the base of our famous pizza.”

Black man: “So that’s how I can now order two medium-sized two-topping pizzas for only $5.99 each. You save on production costs by cooking the packaging right into the pie.”

Worker: “That’s right. By eliminating the box and building the pizza out of triple-laminated paper products, we save you money while also offering you the best quality possible.”

Announcer overdub: “Be sure to visit behindthepizza.com to see what else we’re baking into our product that you wish you didn’t know.”

Anglo woman: “I had a friend who worked at a Domino’s once. She said it’s not what’s behind the pizza you should worry about, it’s what’s behind the ovens, behind the counter, in the bathroom, under the fingernails of the workers. But seeing this paper mill somehow makes me feel better. Or at least light-headed. What are those chemicals I’m smelling, anyway?”

Asian man: “I always thought Domino’s was only slightly better than the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the subsequent world war that killed over 60 million people. My opinion of them is now much higher, considering the paycheck I’ll be getting for this commercial.”

Announced overdub: “Order your all-natural Domino’s pizza today.”

Small disclaimer type at bottom of screen: “Not responsible if delivery man slays your family. Our drivers carry less than $20 in change and make less than $15 per day. Must purchase at least 50 pizzas to receive advertised price. Must specifically ask for ‘limited time offer’ and use a cartoonish high-pitched squeak to place your order. Prices, participation, delivery area and charges may vary. We reserve the right to substitute a picture of a pizza for a real pizza.”

Possible alternate ending for release later in current advertising campaign: Focus group questions quality of meat toppings, and conference room walls fall away to reveal a slaughterhouse. Panicked cows cry out as they’re stunned before butchering. Focus group participants comment favorably on freshness of meat. “You can almost taste the blood,” one says. “Or is that the tomato sauce?”

+++

Fed up with partisan bickering among the nation’s three branches of government, Americans appear ready to install a new regime headed by the three most prominent insurance pitchmen currently on commercial television.

An all-powerful triumverate consisting of Progressive’s “Flo,” Nationwide’s “The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World,” and State Farm’s “Vaguely Mexican-Looking Guy Outside a Coffee Shop” has agreed to rule the land with a sympathetic but iron fist.

“I’m ready for any change at all that will get the Republicans and Democrats out of Washington,” said Alyce Jones of Chicago. “Those insurance folks offer a goofy sincerity that seems right for these troubling times.”

“The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World has really come into his own since being lured out of his backwoods cabin and back into insurance sales,” said Rob Fallon of Las Vegas. “He’s convinced me that Nationwide wants to know everything about me so they can tailor a product that meets my needs. Have you seen the one where he’s dealing with a lady named ‘Pam,’ and he offers to change the name of the company to ‘Nationpam’? That’s the type of can-do spirit we need if we’re ever to convince the Chinese to allow their currency to float on the open market.”

“Like a good neighbor, that Mexican-looking guy is there, always hanging outside of cafes and introducing people to State Farm agents,” said Ronald Henderson of Atlanta. “He puts a real friendly face on the problem of illegal immigration. I’d rather see him outside a Starbucks than offering to do day labor outside a Home Depot.”

The trio would govern by fiat, announcing a new round of federal laws several times an hour on all the major networks. Viewers who don’t follow their every command will be banished to a world where modern insurance products don’t exist, and yet people somehow survive by simply being careful about how they live their lives.

Tentative plans call for Flo to head up the nation’s judiciary as a one-person replacement for the Supreme Court. The World’s Greatest Spokesperson will replace both houses of Congress, and the Mexican guy will become the nation’s first Hispanic president.

“Flo’s perky haircut and headband will look just darling accented by judicial robes,” said Jones. “And the Nationwide Guy, with that signature blue rotary phone hanging from his hip, should be able to reach across the aisle in both the House and Senate to compromise with himself. I’m finally excited about the direction our nation is headed.”

“I think the new president is hunky,” said Phyllis Lee of Oklahoma City. “That could carry some real weight in the START Treaty negotiations with the Russians.”

Cancelling the Gutter Guy

November 16, 2011

Sometimes, voicemail can be a blessing. Other times, it only delays the inevitable.

Yesterday morning I had to call and cancel an appointment with a pushy salesman trying to get me to buy new gutters for my house. Under the mistaken impression that his firm would simply clean my gutters rather than propose a whole new installation, I made this poor man drive all the way from Charlotte to Rock Hill last week. I dashed his planned two-hour sales pitch about 15 minutes in, when I had decided that I (and he) urgently needed to be someplace else.

To peel him off of me, I had to promise he could come back when I’d be better prepared to carve out a good eighth of my waking hours to learn about the advantages of Guardian Gutters (or perhaps it was Gutter Guardians). Now, only hours from the appointed time, I was going to back out.

I called his office and listened carefully to their voicemail options, as it seems they had changed recently. Patience paid off when I learned that option 6 was to cancel a sales presentation. It looked like my rejection could be done automatically.

Unfortunately, after a few rings on the other end of the line, a machine belonging to “Ed Reynolds” picked up and claimed he was out of the office but would return my call when he returned. I didn’t dare simply leave a message and hope that my salesman, some non-Ed Reynolds guy whose name I think was Mike Something, would get word in time to abort his 2 p.m. appointment. So I hung up and re-dialed the main number.

This time, I chose option 2, to speak with an office manager. I mentally rehearsed the reasons I would give for ditching a perfectly serviceable gutter guy on such late notice:

• My aunt’s recently diagnosed hair cancer looked like it was spreading to her eyebrows and mustache, and family had been advised to prepare for the worst, plus
• I was expecting an urgent call from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, plus
• I damaged my hearing at a Mannheim Steamroller concert and couldn’t hear a word he was saying, plus
• It’s pretty hectic so close to the holidays, maybe we can reschedule after the new year.

The office manager was all business regarding my request and, to my relief, she didn’t demand an explanation. She did press for a January meeting, and I agreed, but didn’t settle on a year. When they do call back to remind me of that perceived commitment, I’ll deny all knowledge of gutters, eaves, fascia and soffits, and will adamantly insist that roofing in general is all a big hoax.

I did, however, want to make sure that the salesman was absolutely, positively not coming. I didn’t fancy the thought of again having to resist his sales superpowers and escort him off my property at the same time.

“You’ve definitely got the right appointment cancelled?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re in Rock Hill, on Brookshadow Drive. The 2 p.m.”

That’s the one. I thanked her for her time, apologized for the inconvenience, and ended up pretty confident that the salesman wouldn’t return that afternoon.

I got off early from work so I could be home in time to lock all the doors, draw all the curtains and hide under the covers of my bed until at least 3:30. Just in case.

From this angle, the gutters don’t look that bad after all.

Wallowing in the gutters

November 15, 2011

I am not what you would call “handy.” I do have hands — two, I’m proud to say — but I use them primarily for eating, typing and pointing at ugly people, not for do-it-yourself jobs around the house. My idea of a home-improvement project is buying a big-screen TV or spraying a room with air freshener.

Somehow, I’ve still managed to be a homeowner for most of my adult life without having the structure collapse around me. I’ve accomplished this through a strategic combination of not caring when the small stuff breaks, and hiring a contractor to take care of the bigger repairs.

If the sliding glass door is permanently stuck or the lights don’t work above the vanity, I can adapt to the small inconvenience. The tile on the floor of our half-bath is warping from shower seepage that may eventually rot the flooring, but who can name the day I’ll slide nude and lathered into the crawlspace beneath our home? We might all be living under North Korean rule by the time, which would make a hole in my bathroom floor pale by comparison.

As long as the embarrassing demise of my residence is happening in private, I can look the other way. But when it is taking place outside in public view, there are certain covenants in our subdivision’s homeowners association agreement that require me to give a shit.

I’ve had to deal with two of these issues in recent weeks. First, a windstorm sheared a backyard hardwood in half, dropping about 25 feet of lumber into a stand of shrubs. We called a tree service to offer an estimate of what it would take to fix. In just a few minutes, the tree guy told us he could cut down the rest of the trunk and haul everything away for $350. He made it sound so simple that we hired him on the spot, and within a few days the tree was gone. Once again, we were in compliance with the provision that commercial logging of old-growth timber should be kept to a minimum in Brookshadow Acres.

While we were outside and looking up, we also noticed that the gutters meant to collect rainwater from our roof had become packed full of fallen autumn leaves. I could scale a ladder and waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon digging decayed biomass out of the trough, or I could pay someone to do it. Much as I might enjoy the satisfaction of going elbow-deep into a 30-yard tube of acorns, mud and squirrel remains, I’d rather hire some poor bastard who does this for a living.

I noticed that our next-door neighbor recently had some gutter maintenance done on his home by a company called Guardian Gutters. I took down the phone number and set up an appointment for the next day to meet with a gutter professional.

Mike arrived promptly at 2 p.m. and barged into our sunroom with the breezy confidence of a well-polished salesman. He admired our decor, repeated my name frequently to show that he had remembered it, admired the decor again and remarked that — imagine the coincidence! — his wife was also named Beth. He had already launched into his carefully practiced sales pitch when I reminded him that the gutters were affixed to the exterior of the house, something you’d think a pro would know. I ushered him back outside, where I felt it’d be easier for me to run away if things got out of hand.

We stood shivering in a cold breeze as he began his presentation. The modern roof is the culmination of eons of trial-and-error by ancestors looking for the ideal way to shelter themselves from the elements, he said. Early dwellings were often covered only with twigs or animal hides, and did a poor job of protecting residents. The caves of the Neanderthal provided better protection, but since the collapse of the grotto bubble with the recession of 1 million B.C., these were generally outside the price range of most primitive families.

“If you look right up under here,” he directed, “you’ll see this long panel of wood stretching the length of your house. This is called the ‘eaves.’ Attached to the eaves is a strip that we call the ‘fascia,’ and it’s behind here that poor gutter work can lead to trouble.”

“And you can fix that?” I interrupted. “You can clean those things out for me?”

“Well, no,” he chuckled. “These gutters you currently have are going to require constant maintenance. We sell a far superior product called the Guardian Gutter, and we’re the only contractor in the area that offers this patented technology.”

While I had originally been interested only in having my gutter cleaned, I’d be open to the idea of getting a replacement that would free me from fascia-related worry. But I was getting cold, and he was getting nowhere near the bottom line of what his company’s work might cost me.

“If you notice that small bit of separation right there along the edge, you can see why the French aristocracy first used gutters in the early 18th century,” he continued. “Now, if we walk around to the front of the house…”

“Look,” I interrupted. “I’m kind of interested in wrapping this up pretty quickly. Is there any way you could hit just the high points for me in about 10 or 15 minutes?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I want to make sure you and your wife understand fully the value we offer with our product. We can finish this exterior inspection in probably 20 to 30 minutes, but then I’ll need another hour or so inside to lay out all the options we’re prepared to offer you.”

“Can you at least just tell me the price before we go any further?” I pressed.

“No, I can’t really do that without you knowing our features thoroughly,” he said. “If I told you right now that it would cost — say, $8,000 — you wouldn’t be able to appreciate all that your money would buy.”

Eight thousand dollars? I thought in italic. I’m not paying that kind of money to make sure rainwater is corralled down a drain spout unencumbered by putrefied leaves. I had obviously gotten in over my head, and needed to explain to this guy that I wasn’t prepared to make such a big investment, neither in thousands of dollars nor in hours of study about the history of modern roof drainage.

I would just have to explain that I misunderstood what his company offered, thank him for his time, and send him on his way.

“I’m sorry, we had an emergency visit to the hospital last night and I’m still a little distracted,” I lied. “My daughter was diagnosed with an immune-deficiency disorder, and I’m not going to be able to allow you in the house. Sorry.”

A salesman of this caliber, however, was not about to take “no” for an answer.

“Perhaps I could return at a more convenient time,” he offered. “While you’re thinking it over, let me show you this list of satisfied customers in the area. We have pages of names and phone numbers in here, and I would encourage you to call several of these folks to hear for yourself how they feel Guardian Gutters have made all the difference for them.”

“Okay, okay,” I relented. “Maybe we could have you back next week. Maybe Carla’s immunity will have returned by then, God willing.”

“Great,” he said, and dialed his home office to officially set up another appointment for 2 p.m. Monday.

Be sure to read tomorrow’s post, in which I describe how I call and cancel the appointment at the last minute.

My clogged gutter: A shame I may have to live with

Cleaning out some old pictures

November 14, 2011

I’m told our home computer is getting too full, that it has memory problems. Since I can relate to both of these issues on a personal level, I told my wife and son — the two resident computer experts in my home — that I’d do what I can to help.

I haven’t noticed any performance concerns myself. I looked behind the monitor to see if any bits or gigs had overflowed out the back and, unless they look exactly like common household dust or small dead spiders, I didn’t see anything. I have noticed a slight bulging in the tower but attribute that to the Reuben sandwich I accidentally inserted into CD-writer slot when I got confused at lunch one day.

Response times still seem quick enough for the programs I use, even a little too fast sometimes: I barely have enough time to feel triumphant about laying down a “VULVA” in Scrabble before my computer opponent counters with a “QUIXOTIC”. Not only am I suddenly down 87 points, but I’m reminded of my own quixotic quest for the vulva.

As far as I can tell, the system’s memory is fine. I tell it to save a file in subfolder “STUFF” inside subfolder “BLOG” inside subfolder “DAVIS” inside subfolder “MY DOCUMENTS”, and it’s I who can’t remember where to find it, not the computer.

Beth said she needed to “de-frag” or “de-frog” or “de-something” the system to consolidate files and free up more storage capacity. I told her to go for it, as long as she wore one of those bomb suits like in The Hurt Locker in case shrapnel suddenly erupted from the keyboard. Or frogs.

What I could do to help, I was told, was to get rid of all the photos I’ve taken over the past two years for use in my blog. There were also some other pictures that might be worth saving that I could offload onto a “thumb drive,” though somebody’s going to have to tell me which slot I need to stick my thumb in to make this happen.

It was kind of fun going through all the pictures I’ve collected. Many can be easily deleted, as soon as I figure out what I was thinking when I took a picture of a featureless patch of grass. Others represent fond memories of family life: a wedding picture of me and my wife, my son’s graduation from elementary school, the time our cat thought it would be fun to go for a swim in the toilet. Still others are from my business trips overseas.

There were a few I felt deserved one more chance in the light of day before they were consigned to the trash bin icon of history. And so, I present those here.

Then I right-click and I select “delete.”
 
This is a bunch of garbage. You might immediately recognize the soiled mattress and the rolled-up carpet, but it takes a discerning eye to pick out the broken office chair in the back. Why I would take a picture of garbage, I don’t recall.
 
That’s me, enjoying a 2007 vacation to New York City. You can tell what a wonderful time I’m having by the crossed arms and the sidelong grimace. When the city workers to my left finishes painting the fire hydrant, he’ll begin work on my gigantic walking shorts.
 
This is the office where I worked in Sri Lanka training a team of outsource proofreaders. I still recall my first lesson with this group of eager young office workers: “DOITRIGHTTHE” is four separate words, not one.
 
This is a mountain bike my wife won in a drawing. We thought it was a regular bike, so we don’t use it, except to take up space in our sunroom. I’d like to donate it to some deserving youngster who lives in a mountainous region — perhaps in wartorn Afghanistan — but I have no idea how to do that. I suppose I could sell it on eBay, but I don’t know how to do that either.
 
During one trip to an Asian nation that will remain anonymous, I encountered this sign in the men’s room. Note the mortification on the face of the worker who peed himself, and the stern condemnation from the supervisor who points out his error. It’s management techniques like these that have catapulted the powerhouse economies of the East right past the U.S.
 
In Hong Kong, a street vendor of meats and meat byproducts proudly displays his inventory. “How are the pig colons today?” I ask. “Only average,” he replies. “The elk diaphragm, however, is most excellent.” In the end, I opted instead to vomit on a side street.
 
Speaking of disgusting masses of sagging flesh, enjoy this world’s worst self-portrait as I wade in the waters of Subic Bay, near Manila. Moments after this shot was taken, we were hit by a simultaneous volcano and civil insurrection.

Trying to figure out the new cell phone

November 11, 2011

Often, I’ll write about being flummoxed by new technology.

When I first started this blog over three years ago, I wrote that one of the slots on the side of my laptop must be malfunctioning because twenties were not flowing out, like is supposed to happen when you have a blog.

When I discovered Wikipedia, I thought it was an online shopping site. I tried to buy three Christmas presents for my uncles there: Flucindole, a never-marketed antipsychotic drug; an Australian Wood Duck; and a Chartered Economic Analyst (ChEA).

I’ve told of the time I mistakenly recited my fast-food order into a trash can that I thought was the speakerbox interface to the order-taker.

“Ha, ha,” as we say in the humor business. “Very funny.”

Today, that is not my theme, although you’d think it would be considering that I bought a new cell phone on Monday. Today, I get to describe my mastery over at least a small sliver of the Digital World.

My old phone was so ancient that Motorola was still a respected producer of handheld sets at the time it was made. I had the Razr, a state-of-the-art device for about a month back in 2005. It had all the latest features, including a camera, internet access and text messaging. Some telecommunications analysts were even reporting you could make phone calls on it.

What I fell in love with was the text messaging. No more phone calls. No more “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?”, “Fine. How’s the wife and kids?”, “They’re fine. How about your family?”. Now, telephonic communication could be done in a direct, efficient, soulless manner.

And the bonus was, you got to typeset. I love typesetting, as my 35-year career in the business can attest. Now I could do it anywhere.

The problem with the Razr is that it has one of those old-fashioned keypads with three or four letters to a key, so to type something like the word “feces,” you had to punch different buttons 35 times, complete with occasional pauses. I might like typing and I might like the word “feces,” but that amount of time and effort was ridiculous. The more I got into text messaging, the more I realized I needed one of those slide-out QWERTY keyboards.

When we went to the local wireless provider, my wife and son helped me consider the dozens of sets on display. My primary criteria were that my new phone have a user-friendly keyboard and be less than $100, after mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract renewal, today only. Because I have a heavy swipe finger, I also would’ve chosen to avoid touch-screen technology if that were possible, but apparently it is not.

We settled pretty quickly on the Pantech Ease. Pantech is a South Korean company that has a long tradition in the telecommunications industry, going back to at least April. The Ease is one of their most popular models.

I cracked open both the phone and the Quick Start Guide as soon as I got home, and started noodling around with the features. A certain long-tenured female in my family believed that I should read the 200-page User Guide cover-to-cover (including the last half, which was upside down and written in Spanish) to figure out how it worked. I made a different choice, and basically just started pushing random buttons.

I looked occasionally at the one-sheet overview and for some reason, a certain phrase caught my eye.

“Ease is about options. You can get quick access to the features you need in easy-to-use, easy-to-read Easy Mode,” read one paragraph. My son noticed all these “easy” references too, and made a succinct observation.

“What you’ve got there, Dad, is one step up from a Jitterbug,” he said. I think he’s probably right.

Reading further, we saw other clues that confirmed this suspicion. In a segment on mobile email, the sample address is “silverfox2″. The Cool Tools section describes how to use the “pill reminder,” a kind of alarm to prompt you to remember your heart medicine. This feature even comes with a “snooze feature” to give you an extra 15 minutes in case you’ve already passed out from your bout with angina. A box describing the available accessories called the Velcro belt-attached carrying case “fashionable.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t take me a while to master the Ease’s rather limited offerings. I’ve spent the last 24 hours puzzling through the different screens and have figured out how to send a text, how to text a picture, how to shoot video and how to send an email from my phone to my office. With an attachment. I think that’s pretty impressive.

My studies haven’t come without some trial and error. I wanted to see if I could receive video, so I asked my son to make a short film of what our three cats were up to yesterday morning and send it to me at work. It came through loud and clear. Too loud, in fact, as I couldn’t find the volume button and when I did it wasn’t very responsive.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” rang a high-pitched chant audible throughout the department.

“What’s that?” snapped Regina over in customer service. “There better not be a cat in here.”

When I woke up at 4 a.m. earlier that morning to get ready for work, I grabbed the phone from my dresser and apparently hit the “Say A Command” button on the side of the device.

“Say a command,” instructed a woman’s voice in a stern but friendly tone.

I was only half awake during all this after maybe five hours sleep, and you can probably imagine how aback I was taken with this middle-of-the-night directive. I thought I was caught in the midst of some S&M-themed dream. Fortunately, the Ease’s voice-recognition software didn’t know what to make of the command “Wuh? Huh? Shit! Ouch!” as I stumbled through the dark. I’ll have to come back to this feature later.

I really think I’m going to like this cell phone. There’s still a lot to be learned, so I am starting to make my way through the large User Guide. I’ve already learned you can toggle over from the Easy Mode home screen to an Advanced Mode display with three pages of apps icons if you want to attempt things like mobile social net, mobile banking and mobile web. Frankly, though, I have enough trouble doing those things standing still.

The only thing I miss so far about my old Motorola Razr was the resounding metallic thunk it made when you were done with your telecommunications business. It made me feel important and plugged-in to the larger world. People standing nearby would look admiringly at me, whispering to their friends “Hey, that guy’s got a cell phone!”

Sliding the QWERTY keyboard soundlessly back into position after firing off a text doesn’t draw anybody’s attention. But maybe, if I keep studying hard, I’ll find there’s a feature to record everyday sounds, and I can capture the sound of my slammin’ Razr for use as a ringtone.

Out with the old …
… In with the new

Finding new uses for the coupon

November 10, 2011

One evening in 1803, Thomas Jefferson came home from his job as president of the United States with exciting news. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a $15-million transaction in which France handed over nearly a million square miles of territory to his fledgling nation. All lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would now be American.

“Soon we will span the continent,” Jefferson told his wife Martha. “Our manifest destiny to stretch from sea to sea has been set in motion by my presidency. We have purchased the future of America.”

“Did you use the coupon on the refrigerator?” a skeptical Martha asked. “Because, you know, Napoleon is having a special, and with any purchase over $10 million, they’ll throw in the French West Indies.”

“This is the best deal since we bought the island of Manhattan for $24,” Jefferson answered. “The size of our land has been doubled.”

“You didn’t use the coupon, did you?” Martha continued. “Oh, well.”

The coupon may not trace its origins quite that far back, but the hope of getting a better deal has always been with us. In mankind’s earliest history, hunters and gatherers would return to the cave with what they thought was an impressive array of roots, berries and elk chunks, only to have their pride deflated by the well-intentioned spouse who’d been hoping for a free order of tree bark as well.

Americans save billions of dollars a year with just a little foresight and a pair of scissors. The coupon (pronounced “kew-pahn” by the unwashed and “coo-pohn” by those of us with a continental flair) has made its way into our everyday retail buying habits. For almost every product or service you can name, there is the opportunity to save substantial amounts on your purchase by handing over a thin slip of printed paper with your cash.

To her credit, my wife does a fantastic job of watching out for bargains that benefit the bottom line of our family’s budget. The picture below shows just a part of our collection, hanging in plain sight on the refrigerator where only a blind moron such as me could miss them.

I frequently neglect to use these coupons despite repeated reminders. A silly sense of pride is part of this — I see myself casually accepting of any price announced by the cashier with the noble proclamation that I’m willing to pay “whatever the cost” — though it’s primarily a memory issue. I’m lucky to remember my car keys and my clothing before leaving the house on a buying errand.

I’m trying to do better. Even though the 1/20th of a cent in cash value doesn’t go as far today as it used to, it still pays to shop wisely. The image of the Coupon Queen hauling a file cabinet full of paperwork up to the checkout so she can save $3.67 is now little more than a stereotype. Even urbane men of the world are regularly seen these days pulling a wad of vouchers out of their finely tailored suits to save a few bucks on the business lunch that will seal the upcoming merger.

Keeping this in mind has helped me do a better job of using coupons. I’ve now become enough of a veteran bargain-hunter that I understand slight variations in how the coupon economy works. Once you’ve steeled yourself to the humiliation of a transaction that announces to the world how cheap you are, there are subtleties at work in different settings that are worth knowing.

The coupon is most commonplace in the supermarket. Some stores even have special double- or even triple-coupon Tuesdays, where essentially they pay you to cart their stuff away. It’s not at all unusual to see every one of your fellow shoppers racking up big savings, buying one and getting one free, earning a quarter off here and free bag-of-chips-they-don’t-even-like there as they stretch their grocery dollar to extraordinary lengths.

A casual attitude toward the coupon also exists in the fast-food industry. As long as you declare your intention at the drive-through speakerbox to use it (in addition to “I have a coupon,” also acceptable is “I had a suit on” and “I’d like some Grey Poupon”), they’ll often ring up your discount without even taking the thing from you. The deals are usually not that great, and often involve some leftover, failed promotional item, like the McSquid sandwich or the Whopper Super Extreme, an all-beef patty topped with battery acid.

It’s in finer dining establishments where things tend to get dicey. You’ll want to keep the coupon hidden until you’ve finished your meal, unless you want smaller portions and/or spittle in your salad. Produce the discount as you ask for your check, and have confidence in your right to use it. I usually say something like “I have this coupon I was hoping to use if it’s something you accept and you promise we’ll never meet again.” Beware of hidden details in the fine print that may disrupt your plans. My wife and I once had a coupon rejected because we tried to use it on Veteran’s Day Eve, because holidays were specifically excluded from the offer. (In the end, we were just happy to have found a reservation on a night as crowded with celebrating couples as Veteran’s Day Eve).

Finally, there are opportunities to use coupons to purchase services as well as goods. I’m frequently able to take advantage of an offer for $8.99 haircuts at Great Clips (regular price: $11). The good thing about this set-up is that you don’t pay until after the cut is done, and by then there’s not much your stylist can do to mess you up on purpose, short of holding you down and gluing your floor trimmings back onto your scalp. The bad thing, for me anyway, is that I usually feel so guilty about gypping a struggling single mom out of a few dollars that I leave an excessive tip that negates any savings.

Harking back to the Jeffersons, it seems the time is right to expand coupon usage to other kinds of transactions, like those involving the government. Maybe we consider additional incentives to sympathetic Afghan warlords to accompany their direct cash payments, maybe a coupon for half-off the latest ground-to-air missile technology. How about offering the Chinese a deal on Treasury bills, in which a piece of an American monument is thrown in for every $100 billion sold? They could be given Teddy Roosevelt’s eyebrow off of Mt. Rushmore and hardly anybody would notice. Or the Statue of Liberty’s exposed armpit, which could then be covered up with a Band-Aid. You could say she nicked herself shaving. It’d make her more human.

Regardless of what the nation chooses to do, I’ll keep trying to remember to use my coupons. Frugality and thrift are valuable traits in these bad economic times, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to show them. Our third president would’ve been wise to heed the encouragement of his wife. Imagine Martinique as our 51st state.

An editorial: Is it time for totalitarianism?

November 9, 2011

Much is made by some conservatives of the assertion that President Obama is actually a communist, a would-be dictator along the lines of Josef Stalin except with a better three-point shot.

While it might be true that the state apparatus has necessarily grown during his tenure as a response to the economic crisis, most regard this charge as an exaggeration. Bailouts and stimuli have worked to restart the economy but, at best, it’s only lumbering along. Liberals call for even more intervention, while the right wing counters with claims that the poor could learn better grooming techniques in unused prisons and that masturbation is a sin.

If an activist federal government is the answer to our current malaise, maybe we just haven’t taken it far enough. Instead of heeding calls to move to the political center, perhaps what is needed is even more control by the feds.

With this editorial, I’m calling for the institution of a complete and brutal autocracy here in the U.S. We’ve tried just about everything else; let’s give totalitarian tyranny a shot.

Total control of all aspects of society by the government has been attempted in the past with limited success. The French monarchs of the late 18th century tried it, but few people could take them seriously, what with their immense powdered wigs and totally gay wardrobes. Hitler eliminated the bad fashion sense and gave it another go in the 1940s, yet he too failed. Stalin in Russia and Mao in China staged purges and cultural revolutions to force their personality cults into every aspect of every citizen’s life, and ultimately all it got them was a lot of headaches.

So why might authoritarian rule suddenly be effective at rebuilding America’s fortunes and getting its people back to work? What is it that we have now that we didn’t have in the past that will suddenly make despotism a practical alternative to democracy?

The answer lies, as it usually does, in computers and online social networking.

Smart phones and Facebook and Twitter and interactive video gaming have given us the infrastructure that will make a dictatorial one-party state work more effectively than it ever could before. Mussolini had to stand on a balcony and rant for hours to get his point across to fascist Italy. President Obama would merely have to post a daily video on YouTube, maybe send out a few threatening tweets and organize the occasional flash mob to inject his agenda into every corner of our daily life.

Imagine, if you can, a utopian paradise where you didn’t have to make any personal decisions for yourself, where you were told what to eat for breakfast, how to get to work and when meet in the central square to worship our mighty leader. You don’t have to decide what shirt to wear today; there’s an email waiting each morning describing which jumpsuit is prescribed for that day. You don’t have to debate the merits of Burger King versus Wendy’s at lunch time; an order has already been placed by a government bureaucrat for your required combo meal. If you need to take a leak, simply consult the appropriate website (WhenToPee.gov) about your appointed schedule in the john.

And it could all be monitored with existing webcams, security cameras, Skype and the Kinect for Xbox 360.

Unemployment would be a thing of the past, as the government at all levels went on a hiring spree to find enough people to monitor everybody’s every move. Foreign threats would be neutralized when the likes of al-Qaida got an eyeful of what the all-powerful state does to crush its own citizenry. The baser elements of popular culture would be eliminated by fiat. Real Housewives are herded into federally run re-education compounds and entertainers like Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne are given new jobs in the propaganda ministry, writing dancebeat-heavy regulations on the operation of the heavy construction equipment.

True, there might be some opposition to my plan from the more libertarian elements in the Republican Party. I can imagine the objections they might raise to the perceived assault on certain basic liberties we’ve enjoyed for over two centuries. Too bad for them. They’ll all be rounded up and sent off to the gulag, where they can do all the complaining they want as long as they do it in solitary.

This might seem like a radical proposal to some, but I would counter that it’s the kind of fundamental change needed for desperate times. We might not like it when our Big Brother is constantly borrowing our stuff and always getting to sit in the front seat and punching us in the shoulder and holding his hand two inches from our faces while claiming “I’m not touching you.” Yet deep down inside, we know he cares for us and will provide us everything we need, as long as we submit to his authority.

Now that we have the technology to put the total in totalitarianism, let’s give it a try.

Long-time worker is honored

November 8, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 7) — DavisW was awarded the prestigious Certificate of Achievement Award, marking ten years of service with his company, in a gala ceremony held right after the 10:45 coffee break at work on Tuesday.

Supervisors called on all of Davis’s co-workers to put their projects aside for a moment and join them in the corner of the room where we keep the refrigerator. Only moments before, a tray of muffins and fresh fruit had been put out on the condiments table, hinting at the festivities to come. An envelope, a portfolio folder and a framed certificate were also on display as the employees shuffled reluctantly from their cubicles to the site of the observance.

“Come on, Kate, you can finish that up in a minute,” said general manager Eric Taylor to one lingering worker who was wrestling with an urgent deadline.

“I have to get this PDF emailed before 11,” Kate responded.

“Okay,” said Eric, “we’ll wait for you. Hey, did anybody watch the (football) game last night?”

Several people said they caught a few minutes of the early action, but most chuckled that it was “way past my bedtime” and didn’t really like football that much anyway. At last, Kate joined the group.

“I’ve called you all together so we can honor one of our own for his service to the company,” Taylor began. “We want to recognize Davis today on the occasion of his tenth anniversary.”

A smattering of hesitant applause rose from the crowd of about 20 people.

“I want to read from a letter sent to Davis by Hubert J. Moore, president and chief executive officer of the company,” Taylor continued. “He writes, ‘While businesses frequently talk about their experience in glossy brochures and during sales presentations, the truth is that companies do not have experience. People do.’”

According to Taylor, President Moore went on to tell Davis “thank you for the important contributions you have made during your ten years of service.”

Taylor shook Davis’s hand while presenting him with the beautifully framed certificate and the portfolio. The certificate echoed Moore’s praise, citing Davis’s “commitment and dedication,” while an instruction sheet in the folder telling Davis how to order his anniversary gift online pointed to Davis’s “dedication and contributions to the company.”

Asked to say a few words, an obviously emotional Davis could only say “thanks, everybody” and that it “seemed like only yesterday that I started here.” He considered joking that a certificate of achievement was really nothing special, since an “achievement” is just something that somebody has succeeded in doing, and not necessarily positive. He thought better of it at the last moment, however, offering instead a “thanks again.”

At that point, another manager stepped forward and gave Davis a $2.50 greeting card ($3.25 in Canada) that had been passed around the office for everyone to sign. On the front, the card showed fireworks explosions and said “Congrats” and on the inside were scrawled several personal messages.

“Best wishes,” offered one of the Karens. “Enjoy many more,” wrote Andy. “Hope you stick around for a few more,” said Robin. “Congrats,” inscribed Joyce, while Cheryl D. noted “congrats and many more.”

“Now let’s enjoy some of these snacks,” said Taylor, indicating it was time for everyone to get back to work. A few people took apples and oranges. Davis, however, exhibiting some of the traits that made him so successful over the past decade, picked several grapes and wrapped a blueberry muffin in a napkin that he would save for breakfast the following morning.

Among the online recognition awards Davis is considering are #267, a telescope; #419, a watch; and #577, a museum-quality fine art print on canvas, truly every color of the rainbow, no detail has been overlooked in this great painting of the reef and its wonderful residents. He’s leaning toward the print, considering he already has a frame that he won’t be using.

A proud, proud Davis

Helping out at the supermarket

November 7, 2011

Self-service in the retail world has come a long way in recent years.

I still remember when it required a partially toothed half-wit to pump gas into your car. Now, we dispense it into our own tank, and all over our clothes, with no assistance at all.

Fast-food restaurants used to pour drinks for us. Now, we do it ourselves at a free-standing fountain, and come away with a bonus application of industrial-strength adhesive on the soles of our shoes. If Earth’s gravity ever fails, you won’t see McDonald’s customers floating off into space, because they have sugary soft drinks all over the bottom of their feet.

Most of these advances represent a measure of progress for humanity. Businesses are able to save money by deploying workers to more cost-effective tasks, like sitting at home unemployed and watching TV. Store patrons can take better command of their time, moving swiftly to complete their transactions or, in the case of the woman always in front of me at Texaco, talking into the gas nozzle like it was a telephone, trying to tell the clerk inside that she forgot her purse.

One place where I think the jury is still out on the issue of convenience is the grocery store self-checkout. No longer do you have to stand in line to have a cashier wave your purchases over a scanner. You can do it yourself at U-Scan stations. On-screen prompts and pre-programmed voice commands guide you through the steps necessary to complete your transaction and, when this fails, a store employee descends from her centrally located turret to explain how wrong it was of you to jam your credit card into the receipt printer.

I don’t mind pitching in with the operation of my local supermarket. My sore back prevents me from going to the loading dock to help unpack their trucks, but I’d be more than happy to sneeze on the produce as I’m arranging it on the shelves. It takes a lot of effort to run that large a business and I’ll gladly do my part.

If only I can figure how the U-Scan is supposed to work.

It’s a bit daunting when you first step up to one of these hulking machines. There’s a large touch screen where you start by selecting your language (English is my personal favorite). If you’re in the frequent customer program and can find the appropriate card to prove as much, you swipe that past the laser reader and hear something like “welcome BiLo Bonus Card customer.” If you’re just an average citizen looking to buy a pound of coffee, I think there are provisions allowing you to proceed, though you may need a special dispensation from the regional manager.

Once you’ve been identified as friend or stranger, you begin passing your items over the scanner, turning them every which way until the barcode is detected and a reassuring beep is issued from the machine. (If you’ve turned a carton of eggs upside down to find the code and the eggs come tumbling out onto the floor, don’t worry. The customer in line behind you is taking the job of “cleanup at U-Scan station four” this week).

After each beep, the pre-recorded voice instructs you to “please place the item in the bag.” Plastic sack dispensers sit off to the side, and scales beneath these detect whether or not you’ve complied. If you’re buying something too big to fit in a flimsy plastic bag, too bad. Just cram that lawn rake in there as best you can, or prepare to explain yourself to the authorities.

You repeat this procedure for as many items as you intend to buy. (Fujitsu, the makers of U-Scan, claim to be developing a new generation of machines that will scan your whole shopping cart in one fell swoop, though I suspect we’ll see a man on Mars first). When you think you’re finished, the machine wants to make sure, because it still remembers that time you bought $150 worth of groceries, then drove off and left them at the curb.

“Do you have any items under the cart?” it asks helpfully.

“I don’t even have a cart,” I answer because, on this occasion, I’m buying only three things.

Now comes the hard part: the paying. The touch screen shows an overwhelming number of options — credit card, debit card, check, food stamps, gift card, cash, voucher. I’m trying to find “barter” because I want to trade a box of old Beanie Babies for my two frozen dinners and a bag of chips, but it’s not there. Finally, I choose credit card, as I don’t want to go through the ordeal I once endured of trying to use cash. (“Please enter coins first, from smallest to largest denomination. If you enter more than one coin of the same denomination, tender these by the date on the coin, with the oldest coins first. When entering bills, do so in chronological order by the birthdate of the historical figure portrayed on the bill. And good luck finding either the coin or the bill slot.”)

I swipe my credit card at yet another monitor to the side of the touch screen.

“Is $12.37 the correct amount?” reads a new display. I want to say that it seems a little high, that I thought prices would come down a little now that I’m doing all this work for them. But I’m given no such option.

Past experience tells me that I now have to find a third pad to record my signature, using the specially designed stylus provided for the occasion. Or maybe not. Some stores no longer require you to sign for purchases under $25 while others want not only your John Hancock (born 1737, featured on the rare $30 bill) but also several forms of identification to prove yourself. I stand by waiting to be told what to do next, ready to obey any command short of “kill”.

Finally, a couple of printers kick into action, indicating my receipt is ready as is the raft of coupons for products the computer knows I’ll want on my next visit. This is where you see another advantage of today’s obsessive data collection by scanners and customer-loyalty programs. Because I bought a bag of nonfat potato chips, shown in tests to promote frequent diarrhea, the computer suggests I may want to benefit from a coupon on Pepto-Bismol in a few days. Very impressive.

I do a little scanning myself, checking each portal and terminal in the array before me to confirm that I’m indeed done and can now leave the store. I glance over at the attendant, and she gives me a reassuring nod, and I think I’m finished.

However, the bag boy at the cashier-staffed line next to the U-Scan area has a temporary lull in his workload, and thinks he sees an opportunity for being tipped by an aging gentleman unable to carry his parcel to his car. He approaches with an offer to help.

I politely decline, wondering how much longer his job is secure with the eventual development of Roomba-style robots to automatically carry me to my car.

A typical self-checkout machine, or possibly the controls to a nuclear reactor.

Time to wonder if I’m an old man

November 4, 2011

On Sunday, I will turn 58. I used to think that 58 was pretty old but, with the wisdom and perspective that over a half-century of living has brought me, I realize now you’re not really “old” till you’re well past a hundred. And if I live to reach 100, I’ll adjust that definition further back to 150.

If I can’t admit that I’m old, I do at least have to acknowledge that I’m a “senior.” Being a senior is kind of cool, though, like you’re back in your final year of high school where you can date the teachers and pick on all the underclassmen. I’ll even take a “senior skip day” every now and then, calling in sick to work so I can prance around the neighborhood in a syncopated hop.

It’s hard to say exactly when one becomes a senior citizen these days. It used to be you could count AARP eligibility as a criteria, but I think they’ve moved that age down to something like 35 now as they attempt to increase their membership. Grey hair was once a pretty good indicator, until anyone with any sense of pride colored the grey away. Wandering off into the woods looking for your childhood pet, calling “Here, Augie! Where are you, boy? Where’s Augie?”, can be another symptom of advanced age. I’ve definitely got the AARP solicitations and the grey hair, but I haven’t yet mastered the meandering.

I guess what it really boils down to is the age that you act, and how other people treat you. If you’re one of these types you see in TV commercials – running a marathon at age 60, climbing Mt. Everest at age 70, falling down and yet still being able to get up at age 80 — those around you will view you as young at heart, even if you’re rocking an advanced case of hypertensive cardiomyopathy. I don’t personally know many of these vibrant seniors myself, and if I did I would resent them terribly.

What I increasingly rely on to know that I’m approaching decrepitude are the interactions I have with merchants and store clerks. I was dealing with one particularly chipper cashier not long ago who asked “and how are you today, young man?” I looked around to make sure I didn’t have a teenager hanging on my back before I realized he was addressing me. I guess he was trying to be kind, though it came off as more than a little patronizing, much like how they introduce the newly minted centenarians given birthday wishes on The Today Show for being “100 years young.”

I do appreciate the various discounts offered to seniors. I’m just never sure I properly qualify. Some stores use 50, some use 55 and some use 60 as the threshold for getting a dollar cup of coffee on Tuesdays from 10 to 11 a.m. At my favorite grocery store, they offer a 5% senior discount on all purchases but it’s store policy that the check-out people are not allowed to ask if you meet the minimum age requirement (in this case, 60), lest they offend any wizened-beyond-their-years customers. One creative employee who regularly waits on my wife came up with what I thought was a novel way to circumvent this well-intended rule.

“Oh, and let me be sure to apply the wisdom discount,” he said as he rang up her purchase. I’d be tempted to counter, “Why, thank you. In my wisdom, I also feel I should be given a cartful of free groceries and have your assistant manager serve as my personal slave.”

Restaurants often offer a senior menu that includes both reduced prices and smaller portions, but they rarely list the minimum age for ordering such a dish. I would happily pay less for my meal, yet I’m afraid I’ll be “carded” like some 19-year-old trying to buy beer. I can imagine nothing more humiliating than being challenged to prove my minimum age to a minimum-wage waitress, then rousted out of the establishment like some common grifter or, worse,  held inside the freezer locker until police can be called.

There is a certain measure of respect that comes with advanced age that I do enjoy, particularly in my work place. As the veteran proofreader at my location, I used to be the go-to guy for answers about style details of the assorted financial documents that we produce. After years of dispensing advice to my younger coworkers, many of them finally mastered for themselves most of the knowledge I had. Now, I’m called on only rarely, when there’s a particularly esoteric dispute, like I’m some mountaintop-based elder whose mystical omniscience is dispensed with cryptic parables.

“The spacing above a second-level subhead should always be greater than the spacing below,” I might rule. “It should be sufficient that a bird on the wing can easily pass through, yet not so much as to allow an angel to dance in the margin above the text.”

In the end, I guess, it all comes down to how good your health is. I’ve been pretty lucky to avoid any major illnesses so far in my life, and I continue to maintain an active lifestyle that includes jogging, travel and not getting into car accidents. I know some fields of medical research are attempting to make the case that aging is simply another malady that can ultimately be cured. You already see some of the early fruits of this effort being advertised during Sunday afternoon football games.

It’s not just the erectile dysfunction crowd I’m thinking of here. Now, middle-aged men who show symptoms like fatigue and loss of energy can wonder if such symptoms are due to a curable medical condition rather than the fact they just finished an 80-hour work week. We know there’s a pharmaceutical cure for just about everything these days (except, perhaps, for being a fan of the Carolina Panthers), so we’re tempted to investigate further when a commercial spokesman asks if our lethargy might be due to adequate testosterone.

“Do you have low T? Take the test at our website — IsItLowT.com — to find out,” we’re advised.

I went to this site and took the test, hoping for confirmation that I’m not a senior after all but simply need to spend $1,000 a week on a new medicine not covered by my insurance. It only took ten questions to reach a diagnosis. “Yes,” I’ve noticed a decrease in strength; “yes,” I’m falling asleep after dinner; “yes,” I’m sometimes grumpy, and “none of your business” if my erections are less strong. I should discuss with my doctor if various testosterone gels, patches, injections, pellets or a “buccal tablet” applied twice daily to my gums (!) are right for me and will restore my vitality.

I’d bring it up with my personal physician, but he’s a no-nonsense fifty-something man just like me, and I suspect he’d suggest not the IsItLowT.com website but one called NoYouAreJustGettingOld.com.

Like me, he’s a wise guy.

Old guys hang their heads in shame at the IsItLowT? website

An editorial: I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

November 3, 2011

We should’ve turned right on Caldwell Street, not Graham.

We’d be better off having a new kitchen trash can with one of those swinging lids rather than no lid at all.

We should’ve sat at a table, not a booth.

A successful marriage requires a lot of compromise on both sides. Husbands have to accommodate wives who have thoroughly researched every subject before arriving at the exactly correct decision. Wives have to accommodate their inconsiderate, thoughtless, dunderheaded spouses who are rarely accurate in their judgments.

It’s a lot of work. We men may look like we blithely toss opinions around with little to back them up when, actually, it requires considerable effort to be an uninformed oaf. If you don’t know what’s right, how else can you hold on so tenaciously to the wrong idea?

I was reminded of the importance of these complementary roles on a recent weekend running errands and enjoying an evening out with my wife.

First, we headed for a distant bakery we’d visited once before but whose exact location we’d since forgotten. I know how contentious the subject of directions can be for most married couples, so I tried to head off any conflict by asking Beth to Mapquest the trip. As navigatrix, she’d read the map and issue directives on which way to turn the steering wheel, and I’d be the driver, doing only as I was told.

“But let’s use Yahoo maps instead,” Beth said before we left.

“Fine,” I answered. “Whatever you think is best.”

We drove about 25 miles north of town on a familiar interstate until we came to the exit we were to take. At the end of the ramp, we were to turn onto Caldwell Street. But there was no Caldwell Street. The only option was a one-way right onto Graham.

“This is supposed to be Caldwell,” Beth insisted. I agreed, but noted my only options for turning were onto Graham or into a drainage ditch.

We continued up Graham for several miles, hoping we might find Caldwell. As businesses thinned and farmland grew more common, we realized we were unlikely to find the urbane little French-themed coffeehouse this far out in the country.

I wanted to continue driving, at least until we hit the Canadian border, but Beth insisted we stop at a gas station to ask for directions. As long as she’d do the asking, and as long as I could hunch down and hide in the car, I agreed.

She went inside for a few moments, then returned to the parking lot with an older African-American man. I watched in my rearview mirror as he pointed this way then that, then signaled a clipping penalty, then waved both arms like he was landing fighter jets on a carrier.

Based on this, Beth said we needed to turn around, make a left at the first light, look for Tryon Street, make a right, and we’d find Amelie’s about two miles down.

You can probably already guess that this didn’t work. We spent another 25 minutes exploring north Charlotte and its many challenging byways. At last we found the bakery, but not before exchanging a series of accusations that finally ended with the agreement that I was stupid for getting us so lost.

After the bakery stop, we went to Target to buy a new trash receptacle for the kitchen. I admired a model that resembled what we currently had, except it wasn’t ripped down the side and caked with bits of ancient refuse. Beth said she’d prefer a similar style that included a lid with a swinging opening. Better to keep the smell in, she said.

“But I won’t be able to toss stuff in from across the room,” I complained. I am famous in our home as master of the three-pointer, tossing unwanted drinks and unfinished food into the bin from what would be near the half-court line if our living area were a basketball court.

“That’s right,” she said. “You won’t.”

So we bought the lidded can.

Finally, we headed back to our hometown for a quiet dinner at a new restaurant we’d heard good things about. It was still early, so the hostess urged us to sit wherever we liked. I liked a booth. Beth liked a table.

“We’ll be a lot more out of the way over in that corner,” I argued. “There’s still plenty of room to be comfortable.”

“I can’t see the front door from there,” Beth countered. “If we take the table, we can see the whole place.”

I’m constantly forgetting that, before I met her, Beth was one of the top capos in the East Coast Mob. Her work in loan-sharking, truck-hijacking and protection rackets went a long way toward paying her way through a master’s degree in English. After graduation, she was ready to leave a life of organized crime and settle down with me. But she retained the habit of self-preservation so ingrained in Underworld types. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t assassinated over the linguine.

So we sat at a table.

With these three incidents as object lessons, I hereby call on myself to be a better, more accommodating, more thoughtful husband than I’ve been in the past. I was wrong about the directions, I was wrong about the garbage can, and I was wrong about the restaurant seating. I need to do as I am told, remembering that I’m the not-so-proud descendant in a long line of barbarian males made civilized only through the tender guidance of a female life partner.

I call on myself to no longer doubt the word of the wife.

Herman Cain on line one

November 2, 2011

So the phone rings last night about quarter till 7, and it’s Herman Cain calling.

Normally, you’d expect a call at that time of the evening, right in the middle of the dinner hour, to be someone asking if I’m happy with my wireless service. Instead, it’s pizza executive, motivational speaker, Republican presidential candidate, accused lady’s man and all-around black guy Herman Cain, asking if I’m happy with my presidential service.

I don’t think it was the actual Herman but rather a virtual one, a recording of his voice. The surprise leader in many national polls is ramping up his campaign in South Carolina before that state’s January primary, and part of that effort involves calling up voters and offering them a thick, topping-loaded slice of his odd recipe for fixing America.

It was pretty sophisticated for a robo-call, I thought. It sounded like the Hermanator was talking directly to me, rather than reading a script in some distant sound studio.

“Good evening, I’m Herman Cain and I’m running for president,” he began.

I thought about hanging up right away. Not only do I object in principle to telemarketers interrupting my home life, so too do I oppose just about every hare-brained scheme the fiery Cain has proposed. But I was curious about his pitch so I stayed on the line.

Cain spoke for a minute or so in general terms, hitting the same themes that he does out on the campaign trail. He wants to get government off the back of business. He wants lower taxes and lower government spending. He wants to take our country back. He longs for old-fashioned values, like the time when it was okay for an executive to ask his female co-workers if they’d mind taking off their shirts.

Actually, he said nothing at all about recent reports that he’d been accused of sexually harassing two women he worked with back in the ’90s. (Cain has claimed he only “joked about the women’s height,” teasing that he wished instead of coming up to his chin they stood about as tall as his zipper). He kept strictly to the issues.

Then he offered me a question: “Would you mind if I asked where you stand on a number of policies important to my campaign?”

There was a long pause. I hadn’t expected this to be an interactive call, but apparently Herman’s camp has invested in voice-recognition technology that allows him to gauge Americans’ sentiments on important questions of the day, as long as they could be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.

“No?” I answered tentatively.

Within moments, Herman was off on a vigorous round of interrogation.

“Do you agree with me that life begins at conception?” he asked. After accidentally saying he endorsed a woman’s right to choose in a recent TV interview, Cain has retrenched to the far right. His position now is that even victims of rape and incest should be denied abortions, and that if a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, tough toenails.

“No,” I answered.

“Do you believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?” he pried.

“No,” I said.

“Do you believe that the Second Amendment guarantees all Americans the rights of gun ownership?”

“Well, I don’t think it’s quite that simple,” I answered. “True, the Constitution does seem to endorse private gun ownership, though many legal scholars believe it’s in the context of a ‘well-regulated militia’. Now that we have a standing army, a militia is no longer necessary.”

The other end of the line was silent. This was a little too much detail and nuance for a candidate who prided himself on a black-or-white, us-versus-them world view.

“No,” I simplified.

Herman asked a few more questions, but these were mostly to identify my individual demographic. He asked if I was male (“yes”), if I was white (“yes”) and if I was Republican (“God, no”). He asked if I wanted to work for or donate to his campaign. I laughed, which I hoped would register as a “no”.

Cain thanked me for my time and wished me a good evening. The line went dead.

Hey, wait a second, Herm. I had a few questions I wanted to ask you:

Don’t you think it will be confusing to future history students if there’s a “Cain” running for president in 2012, so soon after a “McCain” ran in 2008?

Do you think we’re headed for a “Miss America situation” in national politics? Remember how, after the first black Miss America was named, that we had other African-American winners for several years following? Is that where we’re headed at the presidential level in this post-racial nation?

Can I get you Kim Kardashian’s phone number?

But Mr. Cain was gone. All that was left was a dial tone where once there had been a vital voice for a return to conservative American values, except the ones that prevented people like him from coming to political power.

Hopefully, we’ll all get the opportunity in the general election to learn more about how a future discounted down to $9.99 is the right choice for America.

Hello, it's me

Desperate pharmacy patients turn to desperate measures

November 1, 2011

News item: Rock Hill was hit by another pharmacy robbery Sunday when two suspects demanded pills at a CVS drugstore, then fled with police in hot pursuit. The incident follows a rash of similar stick-ups in the area.

Another news item: Workers signing up for annual enrollment in their employer’s health insurance plans are reporting sticker shock at a hefty increase in premiums, particularly for prescription coverage.

* * * * *

For those tired of an unceasing spate of bad news about health care costs, a new option is gaining popularity: robbing the local drugstore.

And it’s not just junkies, pillheads and career criminals looking for ways to juggle expenses that are committing the crimes. Increasingly, the elderly, the disabled, and just plain folk are threatening violence if they can’t get their meds at a reasonable cost.

“I have to have my flu shot. If I catch the flu, I’ll die,” said 62-year-old Sarah Johnson. “My insurance (company) says they’ll reimburse me for the $25 but there’s paperwork involved and it takes weeks. For me, it’s just easier to brandish a weapon and demand the shot. Bob is my regular pharmacist, and he knows I won’t shoot him. But obviously, he doesn’t want to take any chances.”

Johnson showed up at her neighborhood Walgreen’s to get the vaccine last week when the human resources director holding her company’s benefits meeting said it would be free. Told by store personnel it was free only as a reimbursement, Johnson became agitated and left, then returned later with a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.

“I held that gun on them the whole time they were prepping and  injecting me,” Johnson said. “It was tough because I usually shoot with my right hand, but the chair I sat at required me to get the shot in my right arm. Good thing I didn’t have to shoot because I’m wild as hell with my left hand.”

Johnson said her pharmacist was understanding but terrified during the armed encounter.

“I’ve known Sarah for years,” said druggist Robert Henderson. “She’s a regular customer and a good friend, so I didn’t pull out the Luger I keep behind the counter and kill her.”

A 32-year-old mother of three trying a similar technique at the Rite Aid wasn’t quite so lucky.

Marianne Burns said her insurance plan used to cover the allergy medicine her triplet second-graders needed, but the formula became generic during the summer. The over-the-counter variety costs about three times as much as what her insurance used to cover, so she arrived at the pharmacy last Sunday carrying an AK-47 modified to discharge armor-piercing bullets.

“I thought I might be able to just shoplift it,” said the former teacher from York County Jail, where she’s being held on assorted terrorism charges. “But one of my girls started crying, which drew the attention of the security guard. That’s when I had to start shooting.”

Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack, which prompted Burns to say the attempt “was worth it.”

“There’s a lot less paperwork to fill out when you’re preparing a defense on federal charges than there would be if I used my flexible spending account,” she said.

John Leeman, a 76-year-old retiree, faced a particularly daunting challenge on his trip to pick up a prescription. He’s lucky enough to be covered by health insurance from his old union job, but he’s also tapping into some Medicare coverage. The conflicts and duplication between the two plans were certain to be problematic, he thought.

“I needed my diabetes medicine. I wanted the EpiPen with the measured insulin dose and I was afraid they’d make me take the bulk stuff,” Leeman said. “So I brought my sword along.”

Leeman had picked up the souvenir saber during his service in Korea in 1952. It sat unused in a closet for over half a century before he realized it could be used in an armed assault.

“Sure enough, that’s what they tried to do to me,” Leeman said. “So I pulled out my sword and ran the pharmacy tech right through. As his lifeblood poured from the gaping wound, he staggered to the shelf and got me the EpiPen.”

“It’s just a pharmacy tech. No big deal,” said head pharmacist Andy Wells. “Now if it had been a cashier, that would’ve been different. But I know John — he’s a good ol’ boy — and he was just doing what he thought needed to be done.”

Pharmacy robber presents his CVS ExtraCare card to receive extra discounts on his haul

A zombie states his case

October 31, 2011

To honor the celebration of Halloween, I will assume the identity of a zombie for today’s post.

Greetings to the un-Undead!

I am a zombie. Woooo. (Or is that what ghosts say?)

Wait, I got it: “I want to eat your brains.” Or should I say “I vant to eat your brains.” (No, that’s Dracula’s accent.)

Since I’m too old at age 57 to dress up in costume and peer in through my neighbors’ front doors — and don’t want to end up spending all future Halloweens playing a registered sex offender — I’ll confine my disguise to the digital realm.

I am a zombie, and I’m writing a blog.

We zombies have really seen our star rising lately in popular culture. We seem to be everywhere. Horror movies featuring our lumbering attacks come out every other week. Video games like “Dead Island” and TV shows like “The Walking Dead” are extremely popular. Herman Cain leads all Republican presidential candidates in most national polls.

But one media we’ve yet to conquer is writing. Maybe it’s because we’re poor typists. A lot of my zombie friends have wanted to take to the keyboard to discuss their lot, but most complain they suffer from joint inflammation in their shoulders and that it’s too painful to lower their arms from the outstretched position they use to attack their victims.

I’ve found a way to overcome this obstacle. I kneel down on the floor in front of my computer, and can type just fine once my shoulders align with the desktop. (I look a little like straight-armed “Keyboard Cat”). It’s not the most comfortable technique, but at least it’s better than trying to type on an iPad.

I can’t claim to be a spokesperson for the entire Zombo-American community. We are a diverse group. Some of us are black and some are white. Some of us are gay and some are straight. We come in all shapes and sizes, except fat. (You never see any obese zombies because human brain is low in fat yet high in essential nutrients. Plus, we do all that walking.)

However, I can say with some certainty that we don’t appreciate the stereotypes being perpetrated among non-zombies. In the movies, we’re always portrayed as chasing down innocents and feasting on their flesh. Sure, sometimes that’s what motivates us. However, other times we’re just looking for a friend. Have you ever considered that maybe we’re extending our arms simply because we want a hug?

Now, see if you can spot the subtle discrimination in this entry on Wikipedia:

“Zombies are fictional undead creatures … typically depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses with a hunger for human flesh. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli. By 2011, the influence of zombies in popular consciousness had reached far enough that government agencies were using them to garner greater attention in public service messages.”

I hardly know where to begin. First of all, we don’t care for the term “undead” because it portrays us in negative terms. We prefer the more positive “post-alive.”

Yes, we do have a “hunger for human flesh,” but that doesn’t mean we always act on that hunger. Sometimes a conventional snack — a Triscuit, a handful of sesame sticks, a WeightWatchers power bar — will get us past that peckish mid-afternoon feeling and save potential victims from a gruesome fate.

Phrases like “mindless reanimated corpses” and “a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness” are just so judgmental. We don’t need hate speech like this if we’re to reach a better understanding between zombies and non-zombies. We need inclusive language, so it’s not always us who feel like the outsiders.

And as for that last sentence from Wikipedia, I’d say we have enough image problems already without being associated with “government agencies.” (What kind of public service messages feature zombies anyway? Do we really need a PR campaign by the feds to tell people to keep their brains under wraps? Sounds like the “nanny state” to me.)

While I make the argument that we have an image problem, I don’t dispute that there’s much we can do within our own zombie families to improve our standing. I’m not one to sit, er, kneel here and say all our problems are caused by others. Many of us need to reach deep down and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and just hope that our decaying arms don’t fall off as we try.

I also think it’s time for zombies to join their scary brethren in the ghost, vampire and witch communities so we can unite the forces necessary to bring equality and justice to our peoples. All of us are facing much the same discrimination, and we need to stop working at cross-purposes. I can say that ghosts are stuck-up and that vampires have hygiene issues and that witches are bitches, but that does nothing to advance our common cause. We are all brothers and sisters under the skin that hangs from our torsos.

In closing, I’d like to wish all my fellow zombies a happy and safe Halloween, despite the barriers we still have to overcome. Be kind and courteous to all the non-zombies you’ll encounter tonight, and don’t take it personally when they flee in terror at your approach. If you find yourself offered Snickers and Three Musketeers instead of the hippocampus and cerebella you’d prefer, just smile and say “thanks,” then shamble over to the next house and hope for a better future.

Zombie unite! (Either that, or it's another Occupy Wall Street march)

South Carolina preparing for its moment in the spotlight

October 28, 2011

It’s less than three months now before South Carolina enters the national spotlight with its Republican presidential primary, and the state is busy preparing for its close-up.

Some of the stories are related to politics, while others hint at the state’s historic position as the backward, inbred laughingstock of the nation.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum recognizes his people when he sees them, and has spent considerable time campaigning in the Palmetto State. The pious Pennsylvanian has visited 25 times more than any other candidate, spreading his message of social conservatism, family values, and not googling him.

For all the work he’s spent focusing his efforts on the nation’s second primary, recent polls show only 1% of the state’s Republicans say they’ll vote for him.

“These polls mean nothing, absolutely nothing,” Santorum insisted Tuesday, and he may have a point. Nationwide, it appears many voters have yet to tune in to the 2012 race, with a remarkably low 54% of all Americans able to name even one GOP candidate.

Santorum’s latest visit was in Spartanburg, where local Republican officials managed to find about 80 people willing to look at and listen to him. Santorum used the opportunity to talk about his Christian faith, using the story of his disabled daughter’s close call with death to elicit the crowd’s interest.

He compared his relationship with his daughter to his own relationship with God.

“That’s the way the Father looks at me,” Santorum said. “I am completely disabled in His eyes.”

“Amen” and “that’s right” responded some in the crowd.

“He’s strong on family,” said Alexia Newman, a Santorum supporter. “Before he’s through, he’ll have reached out to every (GOP) chairman in the state. It seems that sort of thing should matter.”

You’d think. But apparently, 99% of South Carolinians have their minds on other things. Like the legality of hauling their furniture out into the front yard.

Many towns and counties in this largely rural state have banned the unsightly practice, thinking it makes the place look like it’s inhabited by hicks. Now, anti-government fervor stoked by Tea Party types has reared its head, and a backlash against the laws has those who know how writing letters to the editor.

“I wonder how many of the county council have stayed in a house with no air conditioning during July,” wrote Rock Hill’s Peggy Murdock, a representative of the pro-beatup-couches faction. “A comfortable sofa outside in the shade might be a thing to be desired.”

It was probably while sitting on a mildew-saturated divan that several other South Carolinians had their thoughts wander toward plans for criminal mischief.

In Fort Mill, an 18-year-old student at MorningStar University (a Christian school that has its roots in the old Jim and Tammy Bakker televangelism ministry) could face disciplinary action for his actions. The unnamed man spent Tuesday night roaming the campus dressed all in black and jumping from behind bushes to scare fellow students.

“Many students ran away, scared and crying,” claimed a report in the local newspaper.

Sheriff’s deputies called to the campus to investigate suspicious activity quickly located the man. He said he was just playing a joke on some of his friends by peeking in their windows, but admitted his actions were “probably inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, in nearby Rock Hill, a man was accused of threatening a woman with a gun, then cutting her hair after an argument Monday.

Kenneth Abner, 35, was charged with pointing a firearm and criminal domestic violence. A woman visiting Abner was arguing with him when he reached into a drawer and produced a semiautomatic handgun. He then grabbed her by the hair, dragged her downstairs to the kitchen, and proceeded to cut her hair.

The woman kicked and hit Abner, then ran to a neighbor’s home where she called authorities. The police report did not state whether a shampoo, a manicure or the application of blonde highlights was included in the treatment.

Neither Abner nor his victim could say if they would vote for Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum: Glowing with righteousness, or simply blonde highlights?

Getting creative with the grocery list

October 27, 2011

I am fascinated by other people’s groceries.

When there’s someone in line checking out in front of me, I always review their items and try to imagine the lifestyle they lead based on their selections.

I envy the discipline of the middle-aged woman buying Greek yogurt and pretending to like it. I’m jealous of the college student purchasing the 12-pack of energy drinks to maintain his amped-up schedule of partying, studying and bonking coeds. I yearn for the day when, like the elderly man grabbing a pack of adult diapers, I won’t have to get off the couch to go to the bathroom.

Similarly, I’m always hopeful at the end of the checkout process that I’ll accidentally end up with someone else’s purchases. For one thing, I rarely pick up more than a few items at a time and, for selfish reasons alone, I’d rather have their hundred-dollar haul than my single plastic bag of pretzels, gum and dryer sheets.

But I’d also like to have the experience of wading through a collection of random products I’d never buy myself, and trying to figure out how to eat or otherwise consume them.

This would be a great way to get out of the rut I’ve dug after decades of being a big boy who could feed himself. I bought only what I needed to re-stock the routine things I ate every day. Early morning meant a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and a blueberry breakfast bar. At lunch, I’d eat a turkey sandwich and three Chips Ahoy reduced-fat cookies. Occasionally, I’d mix it up slightly — substituting mixed berry bars for blueberry ones, for example — but that was the extent of my adventure.

I longed for the day when serendipity would be my menu planner. I’d pull out a Boston butt pork roast, some PopSecret popcorn and a box of Sylvania micro-mini CFL lightbulbs, throw them all in a big crockpot, and have the kind of dinner I’d never imagine on my own.

While picking up a few things from the nearby gourmet organic supermarket yesterday, I came upon what may be the next best thing to this bizarre fantasy. In the parking lot, I found a wadded-up grocery list some careless shopper had dropped on the ground. Perhaps I could use this as my guide to an exciting new life full of exotic consumables.

The handwriting was a little tough to read, but that’s about what I’d expect from someone more focused on grabbing existence by the throat than on penmanship. This was a person with places to go, people to see, things to do and — if I’m reading this list correctly — “sour crougat” to eat.

Across the top of the list, in all caps, was the word “WALMART”. Though it is a publicly held company, and theoretically you could snatch it up for its market capitalization value of $194 billion, I doubt this is what the shopper intended. (If it is, I sure hope they had some coupons.) Maybe this was just their next stop.

The rest of the list read as follows:

Swiffer Dusters 360°
Prunes
2 – Cape Cod chips
40 gurg raisen boxes
Sour crougat – in Pic 6 RSF
Nail clipper – good
Anch. persporarv can
Tooth paste
Vitamin D
Diet Coke ?

Many of the items that were legible are things I’ve considered buying in the past.

I’ve seen the Swiffer commercials (where a housewife’s first marriage — to a mop — comes unraveled and they divorce, though the mop continues to stalk her from the backyard) and they seem like a good alternative to my method of cleaning (moving into a new house when the old one becomes too dirty).

Prunes and raisins seem like sensible fruit choices, if I want my exhilarating new way of life to include regularity. I’ve always neglected the health and well-being of my colon, duodenum, semicolon, etc.; maybe now is the right time to make some changes. I’m not sure what the “40 gurg” means, though. Could it be “yogurt”?

I already have about a dozen nail clippers in the backs of various drawers around the house. Whether or not they qualify as “good,” I’m not sure. Goodness would seem to be a desirable trait, and I’ll keep that in mind next time I need some grooming tools.

I already buy toothpaste, having long ago given up the practice of buying root canals instead. I’ve never been a believer in vitamin supplements, though if I were to start anywhere, I imagine I’d start with vitamin D (to match the letter my name begins with and because, in my book, you can never get enough fat-soluble secosteroids).

I may opt to skip those products whose spelling I can’t make sense of. If I had to guess, I’d say “sour crougat” is probably “sauerkraut”. I’m not familiar with the kind that comes “in Pic 6 RSF”, though I’d hope that’s the additive that converts the pungent cabbage concoction into actual food. The “Anch. persporarv can” could actually be a can of anti-perspirant or, at the other end of the smells-good spectrum, anchovy perspiration. My own sweat smells bad enough, thank you.

As for “Diet Coke?”, it does seem like a good question. I’ve frequently considered switching from my beloved Pepsi to less-sugary soft drinks, but the fact that most taste like overly sweetened brownwater discharge has hindered me.

I’ve still got the list, and still wonder what I should do with it. It’s been fun using the battered sheet of paper as a window into the world of an anonymous gourmet. I was hoping for something a little more extensive, something with a little more meat on its bones, but this could be enough to get me started.

Plus, it did have a small grease spot on it.

Maybe I’ll just eat the paper.

Lindsay Lohan confused by new developments

October 26, 2011

She seems even more troubled and confused than when she cut a stolen diamond necklace off her calf, then attended a movie premiere wearing an alcohol-monitoring shackle around her neck.

Actress Lindsay Lohan, facing multiple criminal charges and hoping to restart a sagging career, began a new phase of recovery yesterday with a bit of a hiccup. She showed up for community service at the Los Angeles county morgue ready to pose for nude photographs, then went to a Playboy photo studio to scrub toilets and wash floors.

“At least she was on time,” said county spokesman Ed Winter. “And, admittedly, she was kind of hot. But lounging on a corpse with her shirt off was not the kind of community service we had in mind.”

Lohan apparently is struggling with two big developments in her life: her sentence to spend 120 hours working at the morgue, and a reported $1 million offer to pose in Hugh Hefner’s men’s magazine. When the two events were scheduled to start the same day, Lohan reportedly became disoriented.

“I don’t think it was really that big a deal,” said Lohan’s publicist Steve Honig. “Those bathrooms at the photo shoot had gotten pretty scuzzy.”

Lohan arrived promptly at 6 a.m. at the coroner’s office as paparazzi’s helicopters buzzed overhead. She checked in with the community service coordinator, and was scheduled to start her day washing soiled linens. Instead, she doffed her clothes, wrapped herself in the blood-encrusted sheets, and began striking a series of provocative poses.

“You’d think she would’ve noticed that the only cameras around were the video security system,” said Winter. “But that didn’t stop her. She spent the better part of the morning romping among the corpses, teasing them with her discarded outfit and pretending to act surprised she was caught naked.”

Lohan spoke briefly with reporters after the morning-long session.

“They already had dozens of unclothed people in there, though I’ll admit they weren’t as animated as I was. And I was pert where they were sagging,” Lohan said. “The session was fun. I thought I’d be nervous exposing myself like that, but the crew was totally professional. They said nothing at all to make me uncomfortable. In fact, they were deathly quiet.”

After leaving the morgue, Lohan drove across town to the photo studio. There, she spent the afternoon wiping down equipment, cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash.

“I have to admit, it was a difficult session,” said one Playboy photog who refused to be identified. “It was hard to get her to sit still. We had to follow her around the office and watch for opportunities where she would bend over, then quickly snap the shot.”

“I’m not sure how provocative our readers are going to find pictures of her dumping the garbage,” he added. “She had a real good technique, and always managed to empty every last scrap of paper. But I’m not certain that’s what our readership is looking for.”

By the time Lohan had finished her busy day, the court official supervising her probation had been notified of the mix-up. Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner, a veteran of Lohan’s excuses for why she acts like a crazy person, sounded frustrated with the latest outrage.

“Didn’t she notice the smell, the cold lockers, the toe tags?” Sautner asked. “And the Playboy thing doesn’t sit well with me either. Next time, she gets more than a monitoring cuff on her leg. I’m putting her in a whole-body jumpsuit. If she tries to take that off, it’s back to prison for Miss Lohan.”

"Oooh, that smell," Lohan noted. "Can't you smell that smell?"

Just trying to help the Greeks back on their feet

October 25, 2011

Americans everywhere have been transfixed in recent weeks by the European sovereign debt crisis.

The unemployed stop their job search to review updates on the latest austerity measures. The uninsured ill worry that German banks will grow weary of bailing out neighboring Eurozone economies. Twenty-somethings who’ve given up on the American Dream join fantasy leagues to make a game out of which nation is most likely to default.

Not really.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t give two drachmas about economic problems on the Continent when we’ve got so many of our own. About the only time it comes up is when someone on the Right uses the crisis as an example of where “creeping socialism” is leading the U.S., or when someone on the Left wants six weeks of vacation.

The problems of Europe are centered for now in hot-headed countries like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so-called “PIGS” nations). The swarthy peoples of the Mediterranean have been spending beyond their means for decades, borrowing against their children’s futures so they can eat olives, attend bullfights and long for their fascist past. Now, bondholders who subsidized this lavish lifestyle are demanding repayment, and they don’t want it in oregano.

The Greeks have come in for the most scrutiny. Every day, it seems, there’s yet another boring headline that nobody reads announcing “Resilient Euro Edges Lower Over EFSF Confusion,” accompanied by a photo of Athenians engaged in sun-splashed rioting. Austerity is painful and Zeus forbid the Greeks should be uncomfortable.

I wanted to learn more about the underlying causes of the crisis, so recently I ate lunch at a local diner run by Greek-Americans. Maybe this meat-and-three-vegetables eatery could give me some insight into why the inventors of democracy, geometry and men-wearing-white-skirts have screwed up their finances so badly.

I got my first clue from the sign outside Charlotte’s Steele Creek Cafe.

“Try Momma’s Meatloaf,” it read. “More Than 22 Vegetables.”

I don’t know a lot about Greek cooking, but it seems like including that many vegetables in a meat loaf recipe is destined to turn out poorly. It wasn’t until I got to the counter inside that this apparent example of profligacy and waste was clarified for me.

“It’s two separate things,” said the cashier taking orders. “That’s why it’s on two lines.”

“The line-break alone is not necessarily sufficient, even in signage,” I countered. “There should be a period, or at least a comma or semicolon.”

“Can I take your order?” she persisted.

Much like the people of Greece have shown through their street protests that they need adequate time to get their economic house in order, so too did I need a minute to decide on my lunch.

The sign behind the counter was filled with more lunch choices than I could readily digest. I stepped back to join several other would-be diners stroking their chins and pondering the selection. There was certainly a lot of what I think of as Greek food — souvlaki, a gyro plate, the eponymous Greek salad — but there was also Calabash shrimp and Philly cheesesteak and French fries.

And there were at least 22 vegetables, assuming you count stuff like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and rice and gravy as vegetables, which we here in the South very much do.

I asked to see a printed bill-of-fare to better study my options. I grew slightly more optimistic about the health of the world economy when I noticed that “default” and “currency devaluation” were not on the menu. I also saw that several prices had been whited out, with new prices handwritten over them. This seemed to indicate the Greeks were getting serious about real-world costs, at least when it came to the Ultimate 8 oz. Hamburger with Cheese.

Finally, I decided on the “hot dog (all-beef) combo,” a meal that would include my drink and choice of fries or onion rings, all for $4.80. I’m guessing the raw ingredients cost about half that, and was confident the difference would make a nice dent in the nation’s €216-billion debt.

“I’ll have the number 13,” I told cashier Tai’Shiquá. “Hopefully, the profits will help your people in their hour of need.”

“Say what?” Tai’Shiquá answered. She sounded a bit put-out, but I knew deep down in her proud Greek soul that she was grateful for my purchase.

While I waited for the order to be ready, I looked around the restaurant for a table. A working-class crowd was quickly filling the joint, giving the appearance that this really could be a profitable business if a bit of fiscal restraint were in place.

They could start, in my opinion, with the ketchup. Not only were there individual bottles sitting in every booth; there were several more available at the napkin and condiment station. Plus, there were additional packets included with to-go orders.

Another bit of excess could be seen at the fountain drink dispenser. Diners tapped their own selections, and could easily choose not to fill most of the cup with ice, cutting severely into a potentially high profit margin.

In two corners of the room, up near the ceiling, a pair of televisions played non-stop. There was no fee to watch.

A shelf near the door held the day’s newspapers. Their wrinkled appearance hinted that an earlier customer had purchased them at breakfast, then left them behind for others to read. This, despite the fact that all three publications were being sold from newsstands just outside.

Over in the corner were the restrooms. These were also free, despite the fact that many patrons would be willing to pay dearly for bathroom privileges after finishing off a plate of deep-fried perch.

I vaguely knew the owner from a previous visit, and decided to seek him out after I finished my lunch. I wanted to congratulate Pete Kakouras for the tentative starts he had made toward economizing, and offer my suggestions for what more he could do to move his restaurant and his homeland toward prosperity.

But Pete is gone. I’m told he sold out about two months ago. The new owner, an Asian gentleman named Jun Park, would be glad to speak with me, as long as I knew Korean.

So that’s the way it is: the Greeks are in danger of pulling the rest of Europe down the (free) toilet with them, and all because globalization made it necessary that they sell out to foreign interests. No wonder they’re fighting against tough austerity measures so violently. The cuts are being imposed by outsiders from the Orient. Next thing you know, we’ll see kim chi on the menu.

Whatever. You try to step up and help a foreign country get its house in order, and this is the thanks you get – a mythological tragedy of epic proportions, and an undercooked wiener on a soggy bun.

It’s all Greek to me.

Protecting the last stand

October 24, 2011

As you might guess from the name of my neighborhood, Shadebrook has a brook and it has trees. The brook may be more like a babbling drainage ditch, but the trees really are magnificent.

The people who planned this subdivision some 20 years ago had a lot of respect for the woods that their homes were largely supplanting. From the hardwood canopy road at the entrance to the giant cedars that line the main drag, this place is a nature lover’s dream.

However, it could become the city arborist’s worst nightmare. A couple of weeks ago, the municipal authorities surveyed the area’s older-growth trees and decided that some were so sick they needed to be euthanized. No twilight sleep and potassium chloride for the doomed oaks and elms; they would be assaulted with chain saws wielded by government officials. Talk about a Tea Party fantasy.

When I was coming back from my afternoon run earlier recently, I noticed that a particular pine had suddenly sprouted a bright green patch of spray paint. I remembered the newspaper article about the upcoming pogrom said that the dying trees would be marked with green. It said that city planners originally wanted to use a dark brown marking, to better symbolize the sad but necessary task of culling the deadwood, until they realized that work crews would have trouble seeing it. Ultimately, they switched to the green, thinking it might signify the fresh new life the tree was about to experience as someone’s coffee table.

As you can see, the pine isn’t an especially handsome specimen. In fact, you could probably go so far as to say it’s about as dead as it can get.

Still, I have an obligation as an ardent eco-nut to protect this old gal from the lumberjack’s axe. And so, even though I’ve got a ton of stuff to do this week and next week’s going to be even crazier with a filing deadline approaching at work, I guess I have to chain myself to the tree.

It’s going to be really inconvenient. I’ll have to reschedule Friday’s dental appointment, and the weekend’s planned yardwork is definitely out of the question, unless I can find myself a long enough chain.

It’s supposed to turn much colder by mid-week, so I guess I’ll have to dress in layers to accommodate the sunny days and chilly nights. Wardrobe selection is shaping up to be quite the challenge. What exactly is proper attire to set just the right tone of civil disobedience while balancing that against the conservative fashion sense of the suburban South?

I’ll need something that’s easy care, because this is a pine and, though I don’t consider myself prejudiced against the common softwoods, some of their kind have been known to ooze sap. This tree probably doesn’t have a whole lot of lifeblood left in it but whatever remains, you can be sure it’ll make its way onto my slacks.

I don’t know how extended a protest this might turn out to be. I’m ready for the long haul if that’s what’s required. I will admit to concerns, however, about how the work crew will respond. Rock Hill is not familiar with the kind of strident and committed stand I’m prepared to take, and I’m a little worried their standard procedures won’t include removing a doughy guy from the base of the tree before chopping it down. I have my own lifeblood to consider, you know.

Maybe it’d be safer if I constructed a tree stand for myself, and conducted my effort to save the Earth from about 30 feet in the air. Nah. For one thing, I’m not that handy with tools, so treehouse construction would not play to my strengths of Excel and middle management. For another thing, I don’t care to plummet to my death.

I think if I switch a few things around, maybe ask my wife to cover for me at Tuesday’s board meeting of the credit union, maybe use a rope instead of a chain so I can duck out for a few minutes if I have an essential errand, I can pull enough strings to make this stand for ecology.

Defend our environment! End the rape of our Mother Earth! Don’t get any sap on me!

Asking the rhetorical questions

October 21, 2011

Have you noticed how many television commercials these days start with a question?

(And blogs too, for that matter.)

Maybe it’s an attempt to open your subconscious to the possibilities of life, including the possibility you might be interested in buying not one but two new sport utility vehicles during a single commercial break. Maybe it’s a subtle way of drawing you into the unfolding scenario, making you care about the hundreds of characters holding arrow signs over their heads while dodging midtown traffic and riding unicycles. Maybe it reflects marketing experts’ puzzlement at why anybody would buy their product, a roundabout way of asking “you don’t seriously want to buy this stuff, do you?”

Whatever the reason, I think the idea of opening with a question originated with the short teaser ads that local news operations inject into prime-time programming. They want to lure you into staying up late with the promise of some sensational breaking story, when all they really have for a lead is the new garbage pickup schedule.

“Is that someone I hear trying to jimmy the lock to your front door?” asks the inevitably blond anchoress. “Details at 11.”

“Did you know that poisonous fumes could be suffocating your children at this very moment, while you think they’re peacefully sleeping?” counters her competitor’s recently promoted sports reporter. “Don’t miss our eyewitness report later tonight. Unless you’re the type of parent who likes poisonous fumes. You’re not that kind of parent. Are you?”

Then, Fox News recognized that its viewers might wander off into the woods during even the briefest commercial message. So they started tantalizing their audience with an upcoming whiff of scandal to make sure they hang around during the break.

“Is Obama space alien, Hitler and LeBron all in one?” reads the bumper graphic leading into the ads. Then, when the news returns, it’s a story about a gerbil who paints landscapes while drumming out in Morse Code with his tiny gerbil claws that no, Obama is not these things. “At least,” taps the gerbil, “not that we know for sure.”

Now, I know these commercial queries are rhetorical questions, not designed to be answered. Playful copywriters have discovered a new way to grab your attention, and they’re just having fun with it. If you’re not smart enough to figure how to use a digital video recorder to zap through the ads, you’re certainly not smart enough to answer a rhetorical question.

Are you?

This past weekend, I kept track of this latest advertising trend, and present below a sampling of these questions. And, foolishly perhaps, I try to answer them.

The financial headlines can be unsettling, but what if there were a different story, of one financial company who grew stronger?
It would make the fact that I lost my job and that my house is in foreclosure so much more bearable to know that a giant bank is feeling better now.

Can a smart phone be its own guardian angel? Can it keep an eye out for itself? And tell you where it is, when you don’t even know yourself?
I think my mind is officially blown. Are they saying that if you lose your phone you can use your phone to find it?

What if a moment standing still could be just as beautiful when it breathes? What if photography moved us, and we moved photography?
Well, then you’d have that commercial with the little girl with the hair being blown all over the place as she looks at a flower. I don’t know why her father doesn’t roll up that window for her, considering how taken she is with the begonia. Isn’t this a form of child abuse? Admittedly, not as bad as where that insurance guy offers one kid a pony and tells the other kid he can’t have one because he doesn’t have the special “equine rider” in his homeowner’s policy. But it’s certainly right up there with the ad where a skinny boy angers the local bullies, then runs and jumps in the back of his mom’s minivan, and she backs over the bullies.

What makes a Hershey bar pure?
This is only a guess but I’m hoping — fervently — it’s because it’s never had sex.

Smooth skin?
Heh, heh — no. No thanks, but I appreciate the offer. I can smooth it myself.

The best thing about the Arby’s value menu?
That there’s not an Arby’s located in my home town.

Who says all birth control pills have to be the same?
I do. My name is Rick Lawrence, and I’m head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Task Force on Birth Control Sameness.

What’s the difference between Tylenol and Advil?
With Tylenol you take two, while with Advil you take one and wait for a while to see if it works and it usually doesn’t so you take another one. That’s why they have the “1-2″ imprinted on the pill. Or does that mean you’re supposed to take only one-half? Oh, God, I think I just OD’d on Advil.

Are you trying to sleep with someone who sounds like a chain saw?
That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think? I’ll only say that it’s not the sound of a chain saw I like as much as it is the vibration.

Hey Troy — have you been using my shampoo? Because it’s for guys who want thicker-looking hair
Yes, I’ve been using your shampoo, and everybody is noticing. This stringy mullet part that comes out the back of my helmet and obscures my name to make it look like “POL[hair]ALU” would be so unmanageable without it. If I didn’t have that built-in moisturizer and those seven essential botanicals, I’d frizz up so much there’d be no domed stadium that could hold me.

What’s in your wallet?
Well, I used to have a Capital One credit card. Now I leave it at home because, after seeing the newest contract terms you’ve sent me, I’m afraid to use it. I tried for a while carrying around the contract in my shirt pocket but it weighed down my upper body so much that I developed scoliosis. After that, I dragged it in a red wagon behind me in case I needed to consult the fine print while purchasing a bagel. Eventually, I just gave up and decided to pay for everything with cash. That piece of plastic still in my wallet that I use when I want to get screwed? That’s a condom, not a credit card.

Today’s post co-written by some gnats

October 20, 2011

We’ve been having Indian summer here in the South, which has allowed me to continue my afternoon jogs through the neighborhood wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.

Though I haven’t needed protection from the autumn chill, I do wish I had something that repelled the clouds of gnats that have emerged from a nearby tree stand. These tiny insects assemble into large mating swarms at dusk, and become so maddened by desire that they fail to notice the lumbering human who comes huffing into their midst.

Nothing like a big, sweaty fat guy barreling through your free-floating love-in to spoil a tender moment. Just as the guys have convinced the gals that they’re interested in a committed, exclusive long-term relationship — in gnat terms, about 30 seconds — the mood is ruined.

I hate to inconvenience any living creature (except perhaps those I eat) so I try to watch for these gnats and avoid them when I can. Trouble is, they’re so small as to be practically invisible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, they can still be easily detected by the other senses.

Like taste.

If you’re mouth-breathing your way through the second mile of your run, it’s not uncommon to suddenly find yourself with a maw full of small bugs. Were I halfway through a marathon, I might appreciate the protein boost. But since it’s just a short jog, I’d rather not be consuming the unintended appetizer so close to dinner.

And they don’t just get into your mouth. Some species, called “eye gnats,” are actually attracted to your eyes, feeding on the lachrymal secretions we know as tears. Others head up your nostrils, while their friends go in your ears.

I don’t know how many gnats I’ve absorbed into various head holes in the last few weeks. I bet it’s a lot. And I bet some of them are still in there.

So I must acknowledge that today, I am not working on this blog post alone. I don’t want to be so species-centric as to ignore the impressions that others involved have of this phenomenon. I think it’s only fair that the gnats have their say, and so am turning the rest of this piece over to them.

EYE GNAT: Thanks for the opportunity, Davis. A lot of people barely acknowledge our existence and, if they do, it’s only with a wave of their hand trying to disperse us from their face. We’re eager to tell our side of the story, and appreciate this chance.

You humans see us as pests, and yet we’re actually a very important part of the ecosystem. Our life isn’t much — we hatch from larva, we fly around a while, we mate, we die — but it shouldn’t be judged from the perspective of someone who has access to hundreds of cable channels. Just like other living creatures, we have good times and bad.

As my name implies, I have a thing for eyes. I love all colors and all lash lengths. I don’t care if you have poor vision or the eyes of a hawk. As long as you’re still moist enough to be secreting tears, I’m there.

What I like most about what your scientists call “lachrymal secretions” is the salt. If you’ve ever tasted your own tears, you know how flavorful they can be. We don’t have access to a lot of salt in the natural world.

My turn-offs include too much eye makeup (especially blue eye-liner, which I’m allergic to) and contact lenses. We can work our way in behind regular eyeglasses, but contacts are just too tight a fit. I had an uncle who managed to get behind one once, and he was never heard from again.

Gary, you want to talk some about ear gnats?

EAR GNAT: Sure, Hal, and thanks.

I’ll be glad to speak for those of us here in the ear, but I would like to make it clear that we’re not necessarily “ear gnats.” We just ended up here by accident.

There are many good things about the human ear. I’d have to say, though, that my favorite is the wax. While all of us get our basic nutrition from different places, there’s really only one sweet treat delightful enough to be considered a dessert in the insect world, and that’s ear wax.

You have to be careful how you approach it so you don’t get stuck. I try to remain airborne while I’m in the ear canal, then swoop down and get a little bit of wax on my legs. From there, it’s pretty easy to wipe off and eat.

I knew a guy once who did get stuck, and it was a pretty nasty affair. It wasn’t the wax that did him in, it was the host’s response to all the wiggling he did trying to get free. The human finally stuck a Q-Tip in there (even though the instructions specifically tell you not to do that) and basically crushed the gnat into the wax.

The other danger, of course, is going in too far and being unable to get back out. Once you reach a certain depth, you’re pretty much into the cranial cavity. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled raw human brain, but it’s pretty bad. You lose your appetite completely in there and then, because there’s not a lot of oxygen, you also lose your life. Hosts hate that, because many times your corpse will decay and cause a brain infection.

There are definitely safer places to hang out. Lynn, tell us about the nose.

NOSE GNAT: Yeah, it’s fairly safe in here, Gary, but again, it’s pretty much an accident when we fly into someone’s nose.

What I like is the cozy nature of the nostril. We spend the entire four months of our lives in the Great Outdoors, so to have the chance to chill out in a virtual cathedral, even for a few seconds, is a real treat.

I like the high ceilings, and the way the hairs grow up from the bottom and down from the top, much like the stalactites and stalagmites of a cave. You can usually find a nice corner out of the airstream, and it makes a great place to grab a quick nap.

People don’t realize how little sleep we get, and it’s amazing how refreshed I’ll feel after a few minutes chilling up the nose. If you don’t move around too much, your host will never even notice you’re in there.

I guess the one big concern is with nose-pickers. You’re snoozing away, dreaming some amazing fantasy, then all of a sudden a giant fingernail scoops you up and wipes you under a desk. Once that happens, you’re trapped forever. The most you can hope for is that your children come visit your grave.

Steve, what’s going on down there in the mouth?

MOUTH GNAT: Help! Help! This guy is starting to chew! What kind of a disgusting omnivore have I gotten myself involved with?

Help! Hel–. Argh!

Let’s throw it back to Davis.

DAVIS: Thanks, Steve. And, sorry about that. Didn’t know you were in there.

I’d like to thank you four, and the thousands of your nameless cohorts who feel so compelled to fly into my face. We’ve all gained some amazing insight into what it’s like to be on the lower rungs of the animal kingdom and, I think, gained a renewed appreciation for life in all of its forms.

Now, when I see you guys hovering in the distance, I won’t be so quick to put my head down and try to bull right through you. (Not that that would work. I bet you’ve got hair gnats in the swarm too).

With cold weather in the forecast as soon as this weekend, I imagine I won’t see much of you for the rest of the season. Here’s hoping that we can get back together in the spring.

See you then. And thanks for the help with the blogging.

HAL: Don’t mention it.

GARY: Glad to help.

LYNN: No prob.

STEVE: Aaahhh! Please stop with all the talking!!

Gary, the gnat

GOP continues its move to the right

October 19, 2011

You expect Republicans vying for the presidential nomination to stick to the far right lane of American politics, chugging along at 10 m.p.h. under the speed limit, flashers flashing, hands tightly gripping the controls as they peer fearfully through the steering wheel at the nation passing them by.

What you don’t expect is that the slow lane isn’t quite extreme right enough, that virtually all the candidates feel the need to veer farther right, over the rumble strips, through the guardrail, into the grass, into the woods, down an embankment and into the river.

The fundamentalist Christian governor of Texas — a man who presides over hundreds of executions and makes veiled threats about secession and lynching the Fed chairman — is criticized as too moderate because he allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

Building a fence along the border with Mexico isn’t enough for these yahoos.

“Build two fences,” urges Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.

“Electrify the fence,” suggests pizza guy Herman Cain. “And put up a sign warning that anybody who touches it will be killed.”

Each candidate is afraid his or her reactionary credentials aren’t quite backward enough to appeal to their Tea Party base. Each continues to lurch farther outside the mainstream. Each is afraid of being one-upped by an opponent with ideas even crazier than theirs.

Well, I’m here to help. After watching last evening’s Las Vegas debate, I stayed up all night trying to come up with some new hare-brained policies that Republicans can use to prove how right they are. When the lack of sleep proved insufficient, I took some peyote. When that wasn’t enough, I gave myself a Class III concussion. When cogent thoughts still plagued me, I watched late-night infomercials.

By 4 a.m., I had become warped enough in my thinking that I was ready. Now, before the light of day returns me to sanity, I’m prepared to offer new, even-farther-right policies that will guarantee no candidate gets outflanked by a constituency of bizarre biddies, pre-rapturous Bible thumpers and gun-loving high school dropouts.

Here are positions on all major issues in the 2012 race that I’m offering free for the taking to any candidate trying to find a place on the right that represents the ultimate in lunacy.

Immigration — Fences and walls, no matter how doubled or how electrified, will not be enough to stave off the crowd of Mexicans looking to take those landscaping jobs that native-born Americans so  desperately crave. These people are at their best when they’re outside, trying to figure the best way to conquer uncut grass and unblown leaves. And they’re supposed to be unable to figure their way over a fence? My solution: invade Mexico, and kill all 112 million of them.

Jobs — Create a force of jack-booted thugs to roam the streets and tell everybody what to do. Allow them to make money by threatening young children for their lunch money. But, God forbid, don’t make them government employees. Allow them to free-lance, and let the market decide what amount of extortion is appropriate.

Taxes, deficit and debt — Permit the ranks of the poverty-stricken to swell to the point where we can tax each individual $1, and still have enough to run the federal government. Tell the Chinese they can collect on our T-Bill obligations, but we’re going to pay them in tea. The debt ceiling should be replaced by a compression device you might see in old Batman episodes; the ceiling is slowly lowered until — SQUISH!!! — all Democrats are crushed.

The environment — Declare global warming is real, and that it’s a good thing. Promote the additional burning of fossil fuels, and market the resulting smog as a “smoky, chipotle-flavored atmosphere.”

Terrorism and defense — Expand the use of Predator drone strikes to track down jihadist sympathizers like Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie. Preemptively strike any nation that even looks funny at us. Increase troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until the weight of boots on the ground causes those nations to sink into the Earth’s mantle. Invade the nations of Abkhazia, Albania and Andorra, just to make the rest of the world think we’re working our way down to them in alphabetical order.

Entitlements — End social security and Medicare as we know it. Instead, issue block grants to the states. Require that these be fully funded by current revenue streams, and that they can only be used to buy actual blocks, preferably the heavy, concrete variety. Drop these blocks on the heads of the sleeping elderly.

Education — Abolish the Department of Education, and expunge all references to the fact that it ever existed. Start leaving some children behind, especially the fat ones. Fire all the teachers and replace them with church elders who can just make stuff up. Offer vouchers to students attending religious schools, and 50-cents-off coupons to those who prefer to remain in the public system.

Gay marriage — Pass a Constitutional amendment barring the possession of more than one penis per couple. Pass another Constitutional amendment prohibiting lisping. Pass one forbidding stylish dressing by men and flannel shirts on women. In fact, make it Congress’s full-time job to think up stuff that gay people do, or want to do, and pass a law against it.

Abortion — Life begins not at the moment of conception, but at the exact second when a couple agrees to dinner and a movie. During the act of coitus, there should be no semen allowed to go to waste. Remove your dirty sheets when you’re done, and insist that nearby women rub these into their privates.

Energy — Drill, baby, drill! Then hire all the babies that result from the above-stated abortion ban and put them to work on mid-ocean rigs. Continue the search for home-grown natural gas, expanding the use of fracking to release the resource. If the water from your faucet erupts into flames as a result, too bad. Just be glad you weren’t taking a shower.

Healthcare — Sickness is for the ill and infirm. Strong, right-thinking Americans are too busy looking for the faults of others to consider what might be wrong with themselves. Implement the use of a barter system for patients to pay their doctors. A schedule of fees could include “one appendectomy = 4,000 iced lattes” for a Starbucks barista, and “one heart catheterization = cleaning the floor of your physicians’ office by licking it with your tongue for the rest of your life” for those in the janitorial trades. Repeal ObamaCare and replace it with DoNotCare.

Government regulation of private enterprise — A totally free and unencumbered market is the answer to everything. If you don’t like e. coli in your food, trust that restaurants serving it as an appetizer will soon go out of business. If you don’t want defective hip replacements implanted in your body, you should keep your mouth (and all other orifices) closed. If you’re concerned about worker safety, don’t get a job.

Crime and punishment — Pass a federal ban on the use of Sharia law, which allows stoning, amputation and beheading as acceptable forms of punishment. Return instead to the laws of the Bible, where stoning, amputation and beheading are merely suggestions. Don’t allow condemned capital prisoners to order a last meal, unless it includes heaping portions of potassium chloride and a side of high-voltage electricity.

Republican hopefuls are ready to think up some crazy shit.

“Occupy” movement making inroads in the office

October 18, 2011

Fed up with corporate greed and the unwillingness of his bosses to acknowledge the increasingly desperate plight of workers, Michael Ash has joined with anti-establishment protesters around the country by occupying a conference room at his office.

“I’m just tired of being exploited and abused by the powers-that-be,” the 32-year-old project manager for Hewlett-Packard told reporters in his San Jose, Calif., office. “It’s time for the people to take back what’s been stolen from them.”

“Also,” he added, “I’ve been out of ‘stickies’ for a week now and still they’re not stocked in the supply closet.”

Ash and others have watched as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has grown from its start in New York to its increasing popularity in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Thousands have shown up at events to voice their support for the unemployed, the poor, the young and the disenfranchised, and to state their opposition to the entrenched interests of the business community.

Ash joined the surging movement yesterday as his frustration with the way his chair was adjusted, and with the person who keeps linking the paper clips at his desk into a chain, boiled over into action.

“They obviously care very little about us,” Ash said of his superiors at HP. “If they did, they’d put a hidden camera at my work station and see who’s messing with my desk.”

Ash set up his protest in Conference Room B on the second floor of his office building shortly after 9 a.m. Monday. He brought in a sleeping bag from his car, and posted several signs he created in Word around the room. One read “Reform Corporate America” and another read “I Am the 99%.” A third sign was largely illegible because of black splotches all over the surface.

“I’ve complained about the toner in that printer for a week now, but all I get is the runaround,” Ash complained. “Typical behavior from the corporate fatcats who are more concerned about their tax breaks than they are about the toner.”

By 11 a.m., several coworkers had stopped by the rarely-used conference room to express their support for Ash, or to ask if he knew when he’d be finished, because sometimes people eat their lunch in there.

“Most meetings are in Room A, down the hall and around the corner,” Ash told reporters. “I picked Room B because I didn’t think anybody would care.”

Ash continued his demonstration until 1 p.m., greeting well-wishers, debating the value of increased taxes for high-income earners, and occasionally marching through the halls to get a drink of water. Shortly after 1, he was asked to leave the conference room to make way for a safety committee meeting.

“Sorry about that,” Ash told committee members as they streamed into the room. “Just give me a sec to clean up this mess. Here, let me put those chairs back. Sorry. Sorry.”

Dislodged from his protest site, Ash relocated to the men’s room next door, and re-dubbed his rally “Occupy Second Stall From The Sink”.

“In a way, this is better,” Ash said at mid-afternoon Monday. “It’s symbolic of how our future is being flushed down the commode by Big Business, and of how we have a really crappy system for reserving conference rooms.”

By the end of the day, Ash had added to his list of demands. In addition to his desire to get last Tuesday counted as a sick day rather than a vacation day, he called on his corporate superiors to unblock YouTube from office computers, to crack down on lunch thefts from the refrigerator, and to say something to the guy in accounts payable who always sneezes so loud.

“Also, after spending the day in the toilet, I want to demand a new box of toilet seat covers,” Ash said. “The box claims ‘provided by the management for your protection’ but that’s a lie. Management doesn’t care about our protection at all, at least unless it affects their bottom line.”

Ash said he had received a lot of support from co-workers during his protest.

“Guys have been coming in here all afternoon, and I believe they’re behind me,” Ash said. “I think they know I’m in here. They should at least be able to see my legs.”

Ash said he was unsure if he’d continue the protest for the rest of the week. The sales presentation he’s working on for the vice presidents’ meeting next Monday still needs a thorough re-do, and he’s also looking for a bit of clip art to break up the monotony of his PowerPoint.

“It’s time for the rest of America to ask, ‘where’s my bailout?’” Ash said. “I just have to make sure I can squeeze it into my schedule.”

Safety committee talks about temporary inconvenience of "Occupy" protester

A relaxing stroll around the office park

October 17, 2011

One area where I doubt I’ll meet expectations in my upcoming job performance review is break-taking.

I’m not taking all the lunch and coffee breaks I’m entitled to. Not only does this place me in danger — “breaks are in place for the safety of employees,” warned our official policy after a third-shifter plunged his nodding head into his keyboard, injuring his nose and adding the word “poijasdpfjiopasdij” to an initial public offering — but it creates major headaches for accounting.

It’s not because I’m dedicated that I work so hard. Nor is it because I’m especially busy. The reason I’ve not been taking all my breaks is that (a) there’s little in or near my office’s industrial park worth breaking away to, and (b) when you already spend 90% of your day doing crosswords while waiting for work, you frankly don’t get all that winded.

I’ve tried to make myself step away to the breakroom, where I can while away 15 minutes of relaxation staring at my choice of one of four walls. (One of the walls is filled with posters about worker’s rights, informing us that even though we work in North Carolina, we still have a few.) There’s also a television in one corner, running an endless loop of Headline News. But hearing all the ways Michael Jackson’s doctor tried to make him sleep will quickly get me drowsy.

With pleasant fall weather here, I’ve started taking a walk around the office park. This offers both clean air and exercise, and I can return to my work station feeling refreshed, even though my sweat-soaked underarms may beg to differ.

As a scenic attraction, the SilverLake office park offers little to the casual tourist. Most of the tenants are trucking firms, so unless you’re big into loitering 18-wheelers, there’s not much to see.

The landlord does a pretty good job of maintaining nice landscaping, so there’s that. There’s wildlife, if you count worms and fire ants and diarrhetic Canada geese. And there is, in fact, a lake; its silverness may not be apparent beneath the algae-coated surface, but just knowing it’s under there somewhere is soothing.

I’ve assembled a small collection of photos into a travelogue, so you can see for yourself the scenery I’m now able to enjoy on an almost-daily basis. Why not transport yourself away from your dreary Monday, and enjoy a bit of what the Great Outdoors have to offer.

The natural beauty begins right outside our back entrance, with a view of the loading dock at the building next door. Note how the natural wilderness is barely kept at bay in this pristine part of Charlotte.

A crooked sign stands guard against outsiders who might attempt to skate, bicycle, loiter or be a dog. The wide, tree-lined boulevard forming the main access into the office park reminds many of Paris's Champs Elysees.

Keep your eyes on the road, and you may find yourself a treasure! Here, a discarded mouth filter serves as mute testimony to the adventure faced by warehouse workers trying to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

A serene Silver Lake laps at its embankments, its scum-sheen bright in the sun of a warm October afternoon.

Earthworms also need a break, so many take to the sidewalks for their daily constitutional. Unfortunately, most dry up and die during their outings.

Discarded truck parts gather to compare notes about their fate. Like other industries, logistics and distribution have suffered considerably during the current downturn. Like illegal aliens waiting near a Home Depot, these three axles hope to latch onto some day work.

Herman Cain. For a President You Can’t Refuse.

October 14, 2011

From an overheard telephone conversation …

Godfather’s Pizza: Godfather’s, can I help you?

American People: Yes, I’d like to order a President to be delivered, please.

GP: Go ahead.

AP: Yes, I’d like a medium … uh, I mean, a moderate. I want someone with both government and private-sector experience. Someone who understands that the poor and middle-class need more help than the rich do. Someone who isn’t locked into rigidity by their religious beliefs, or because they signed some anti-tax pledge. And no onions.

GP: No onions? Are you sure? You don’t want someone with the onions to stand up to the Washington insiders who have stolen our country from us?

AP: Uh, yes, that’s right. No onions.

GP: And what kind of crust do you want?

AP: I want extra-crusty. I think we need a cantankerous, grumpy sort, so we can negotiate aggressively with other countries.

GP: Okay, extra-crusty. Got it. How about a heartless immigration policy that will punish innocent children by denying them education?

AP: No. No, thanks.

GP: What about widespread deregulation of banks and other businesses that contributed to the financial meltdown?

AP: No.

GP: Would you like to deny affordable health insurance to all Americans?

AP: No, that gives me heartburn. Oh, and no anchovies.

GP: Okay. Do you need any drinks with that?

AP: Yeah, let me get a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. Does that come with the price of the President, or is that extra?

GP: No, it’s extra. We’re through with entitlements. That’s what got this country into such a mess to begin with. We can sell you tea instead, if you like. Our Tea Party makes a great brew.

AP: No, that’s okay. Now, what sorts of side orders or other extras do you have?

GP: We have the 9-9-9 tax plan, a way for the poor to pay more while the wealthy pay less. We have a promise to veto any bills that are more than three pages long. And we have the fact that our man is a black guy.

AP: A black guy? Oh, that sounds good. What about wings?

GP: No, he doesn’t have wings, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he sprouts some in the afterlife.

AP: I meant buffalo wings.

GP: No, we’re getting those next year. After widespread oil drilling in the West wipes out the habitat of the wild bison. Then, we’ll have all the buffalo meat we can handle.

AP: Alright, just the medium President then, I guess. Oh, and I have a coupon for $2 off.

GP: I’m sorry. Those are good on takeout only.

AP: Really? That’s not what it says on my copy.

GP: Oh, you’re going to get a lot of unexpected surprises with this order. But you do want delivery, right?

AP: Yes. And how long do you think that’ll take?

GP: Let’s see … the Iowa caucuses are in early January, then comes the New Hampshire primary, then the South Carolina one … I’m guessing it’ll arrive at your house in a little over a year.

AP: A year? That’s an awful long time to wait.

GP: Well, there’s always the chance that the Far Right will rise up in armed insurrection against the bloated, illegal, unconstitutional federal government some time before next November. So you might get your man earlier, but I can’t promise anything. No “30-minutes-or-it’s-free” deals from us.

AP: Alright. Maybe I can snack on something light while I’m waiting. There’s a Michele Bachmann around here somewhere.

GP: Now, you know you can track the making and delivery of your President online.

AP: Yeah, I was looking at that on my smartphone. It shows you’ve taken the order and you’ve started making it. That’s cool.

GP: You’ll be able to keep up as your President rises in the polls, then makes an offensive comment about gays, then falls behind in fund-raising, then releases financial statements showing he’s paid no taxes for five years, then exits the race in shame when it’s found he hired an illegal alien as a nanny.

AP: That’s pretty neat. And now I can see that you’ve accidentally dropped him on the floor.

GP: Don’t worry. He was topping-side-up. There’ll be dirt on the bottom but it’ll just look like marks from the cooking.

AP: Okay. So how much will that be?

GP: Let’s see … there’s the negative impact on our image around the world, there’s the fear from our allies that we’ve elected a simplistic hothead, there’s the bond agencies that will lower our credit rating, there’s a sharp drop in federal revenues … It’s going to cost you about $500 billion. And remember, our delivery guys don’t make change.

AP: Got it.

GP: Now, what is your name, address and phone number?

AP: Gee, I don’t know if I want to give out that kind of personal information. I thought Herman Cain was against unnecessary intervention in the life of average Americans. I’m not sure I like the idea of Big Brother knowing that much about me.

GP: Well, if you don’t give us your address, how do you expect to get the President delivered to your house?

AP: I think maybe I’ll come pick it up after all. So I can use that $2-off coupon?

GP: Yes, you can. So that reduces your total to $499,999,999,998.

AP: And you do take credit cards, right?

GP: No! No more credit! No more deficits! No more debt! We expect you to pay in cash and in full, not leave the bill for your children and your children’s children.

AP: Never mind. Cancel my order. My temporary fascination with Herman Cain is over. Maybe I’ll give Rick Santorum a call.

GP: That’s fine with us. But you might want to Google him first to find out about one particular topping I don’t think you’ll like.

AP: Such awful choices this year …

The man who could be our next president (right)

Hiding my defects from the brother-in-law

October 13, 2011

I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with a brother that I ended up so un-handy.

I’ve never mastered the husbandly skills that are the foundation of a well-maintained home. (Which reminds me: I need to have someone check a crack in our foundation). I spent more of my formative childhood years in pursuits of the mind than I did learning to become a Mr. Fix-It.

While other kids were learning how to bang stuff with hammers and poke the family Chevy with wrenches, I had no fraternal pressure to follow suit. I could stay indoors to master my typing skills, listen to music, and dream about the robots that would be handling basic home maintenance by the time I was an adult.

When I first became a homeowner after getting married, I barely had the skills to keep our three-bedroom brick ranch from collapsing around me. I knew how to change a light bulb. I knew how to mow the grass. I could paint the tiny tool shed in the backyard, as long as I took a week off from work to do it, and nobody minded that I used a coral semi-gloss intended for the bathroom.

Most importantly, I knew how to open a phone book to the yellow pages and find a professional who could handle the work for me. (Though, I’ll admit, it was pretty embarrassing to hire an electrician to show me how to open my fuse box).

So when my brother-in-law and his wife showed up at our home yesterday for an overnight visit, I should’ve regarded it as the next-best-thing to getting a brother. Instead, I felt threatened that someone had entered our premises who could challenge my limited dominion. What if he noticed that the bathroom sink had a drip? How could I face the humiliation?

Bob is a terrific guy. He’s been a caring husband to my wife’s sister for over 30 years, raising three children and building a comfortable life for his family in upstate New York. He’s a retired Air Force captain and, as once charged with the responsibility of keeping military aircraft from falling out of the sky because someone didn’t know how to tighten a screw, he’s pretty handy.

He’s so handy, in fact, that he spent most of his vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Charleston to help fix up her house. The stop at our place was happening at the tail end of this trip.

As I greeted them in the driveway, I hoped it was gloomy enough outside that they wouldn’t notice anything wrong with our exterior. I helped gather up their overnight bags and did my best to distract Bob from critically assessing the upkeep of our property. If I could just get them inside quickly enough, he wouldn’t have time to note how it appeared our walls were about to fall in.

Once inside, we exchanged the usual brother-in-law banter. First on the agenda, of course, was a review of his drive up from Charleston. He thought about taking U.S. 21 Bypass to get around some construction near Columbia, but ended up making better time staying on I-77. We also discussed the price of gas en route, and how the cruise control helped make his back less sore.

We stood around the kitchen for a good half-hour so they could stretch their legs after the four-hour drive, then adjourned to the living room. When we bled the topic of interstate driving completely dry, our attention turned to the television playing in front of us.

“So which one is your converter box?” Bob asked, gesturing toward the half-dozen devices beneath the set.

“Uh, I think it’s the one with the little red light,” I answered.

“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.

I have a decent fastball and a wicked slider for a 57-year-old, yet I no longer have the finger strength to put a splitter in the strike zone. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.

“Yeah,” I answered lamely.

“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.

How am I supposed to know? I was hiding in the bathroom pretending to have a stomachache when my wife and son handled the entire installation.

“Sure is,” I responded. “Is there any other kind?”

Before Bob asked any other questions I’d be unable to answer, I decided to go on the offensive.

“We’re thinking about getting rid of cable anyway and going with a satellite dish,” I lied. “What’s your opinion on the advantages of cable versus a dish?”

I was hoping he’d launch into a discussion of DirecTV, which would bring us to the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package of football coverage, which would get me back to the manly topic of sports, a topic I had some familiarity with.

“Hmm,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of trees on your lot. Let’s go out on the deck and try to figure where the satellites would be positioned.”

Well, that certainly backfired. Now we were headed into the back yard, where it was still just barely light enough for him to observe what a mess we’d made of our homestead.

Bob took a few minutes to get a directional fix, then announced that issues like “azimuth” and “perigee” would likely prevent us from ever locking onto a communications satellite. Still looking skyward, he seemed to be pondering our chimney when I tried another distraction tack. I pointed at the house behind us that burned down a few months ago and still hadn’t been cleared away.

“I don’t know when they’re going to remove that debris,” I said, making the clear suggestion that even though I can barely unclog a toilet, at least I hadn’t set the entire premises ablaze.

He seemed to agree that this gave me some cred as a Man of the House. I noted that a kitchen grease fire had been responsible for the neighbor’s calamity, then coolly segued the topic to our wives being hungry for dinner. He offered to take us all out, and I jumped at the chance.

We had a pleasant enough meal, except perhaps for the parts where he talked about how he’d repaired our mother-in-law’s deck, installed new gutter guards, rebuilt her sidewalk and put in a new, taller toilet for her. I half-heartedly mentioned that our toilets were already about the right height.

He also said he had to spend an afternoon balancing her checkbook and paying her credit card bills online, and suddenly I felt a stirring of competence. Paperwork, being a sort of “pursuit of the mind,” was right in my wheelhouse. As bad as I am standing at the top of a ladder and evaluating a soffit, that’s how good I am working with words and numbers.

Repairing endangered credit and painting over subtraction errors with correction fluid — that I can handle. Building and maintaining good relations with out-of-town relatives — not a problem.

Just don’t ask me anything else about my splitter.

Bob "caulks up" another home improvement

Occupy Wall Street is occupied with ‘issues’

October 12, 2011

The dirty, stinking hippies who make up the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York will see their “be-in” enter its second month this week, with participants still incapable of selecting only one thing to protest about and still in need of a shower and a haircut.

Meanwhile, pundits and other observers continue to struggle with how to portray the anti-corporate movement in terms that the American people can understand.

“They smell bad, and they don’t pick up after themselves,” said Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee.

“Most of the men need a shave, and the women are just plain ugly,” noted CNN contributor Erik Erikson.

“Many of them are soiled,” added Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report. “I’d personally give each one a good scrubbing in the bathtub if I could find a hazmat suit that would allow me to get close enough.”

Some who have watched the grassroots movement grow from a few hundred marchers to thousands of demonstrators in over 70 cities complain that the group can’t articulate its concerns in a few simple words.

“They talk about economic inequality, upper-class greed and the way that corporate money controls our entire political process,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “What does that even mean?”

“Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest?” asked civil rights lawyer and protest supporter Glenn Greenwald. “Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality, and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism — is destroying financial security for everyone else.”

“Ha, ha,” noted Noonan. “That’s too complicated.”

Noonan and others have said that the movement needs to articulate its message in simpler terms. Abuses of a long-entrenched hyper-capitalism that have resulted in a full-on attack of the middle and working class are hard to put your finger on, critics say.

“They could take a tip from Herman Cain and his ’9-9-9′ tax plan,” said Huckabee. “Pick some random numbers and say that these represent your stand on complicated issues. If nothing else, people can use them to play the lottery.”

“Better yet, pick a few key words,” added Noonan, a former Republican speechwriter. “I would suggest ‘grimy,’ ‘grubby,’ ‘filthy’ and ‘foul.’”

A few more-moderate observers have suggested that Occupy Wall Street protesters represent a movement with roots similar to the Tea Party. Both have anti-government tendencies and both have relied on widespread public frustration with a status quo they claim is not serving their interests.

“Whoa, there. I wouldn’t say that,” said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who many regard as a spokesperson for the Tea Party. “Folks in the Tea Party not only wash their hair, but they also style and color it. Many of the women wear tasteful jewelry while the men are careful to keep their shirts tucked in.”

Palin stressed that good grooming was the foundation of America, and that the Founding Fathers would’ve had spiffy crewcuts “if they’d had access to modern hair-cutting technology.”

David Raphael, founder of the Light Party and one of the spokespeople for the protest, said that demonstrators represent the 99 percent of the American people who struggle to survive, while the 1 percent super-rich exploit everybody else.

“This is a holistic, proactive, educational new political paradigm party dedicated to health, peace and freedom for all,’” Raphael said. “We have formulated a practical, synergistic seven-point program which addresses and serves to resolve our current socioeconomic and ecological challenges.”

Raphael added that he was reluctant to assume the role of official spokesperson, noting that most of those involved prefer that the movement remain leaderless. He used the so-called “people’s microphone” — a system of loudly repeating what each speaker says designed to get around the city’s ban on sound amplification — to confirm statements he gave to reporters.

“I’m saying we need to set the agenda for a New America,” Raphael told bystanders.

“HE’S SAYING WE NEED TO GET A GENERAL, AND THAT WE NEED A NUDE AMERICA,” the crowd repeated.

“No, wait,” Raphael corrected. “I’ll say we’re making a common statement about government corruption.”

“HE SAYS WE’RE MAKING A COMMUNIST STATE WITH A VOLCANIC ERUPTION,” the crowd said.

“No, no, I’ll say instead that we’re anti-consumerist and we want someone to address the growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions for those who caused the global financial crisis,” Raphael continued.

“OUR COMRADE SAYS WE NEED TO BURN OUR DRAFT CARDS, BURN OUR BRAS, LISTEN TO COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH, AND SLIDE AROUND IN THE MUD,” the crowd repeated.

“Oh, I’m just going to say ‘power to the people,’” Raphael finally said in exasperation.

“SOMETHING ABOUT A PEEPHOLE,” the crowd shouted in confirmation.

Look at these filthy protesters. Just LOOK at them. (Don't, however, smell them).

A salute to Columbus Day, one day late

October 11, 2011

Christopher Columbus went to his grave with the mistaken belief that his historic voyages of exploration had landed him in Asia. To honor the heritage of his error, it is today that I celebrate Columbus Day, even though the 519th anniversary of his discovery was actually yesterday.

Columbus Day was officially changed to the second Monday of October years ago. Such historical revisionism would’ve pleased the man credited with finding the New World, despite the fact the Vikings had made settlements in Canada 500 years earlier, and millions of natives already in the Americas had discovered themselves long ago.

The legacy of the fabled Italian mariner who famously sailed the ocean blue has swung from positive to negative in recent years. Historians stripped him of his title of “Discoverer of America,” giving him instead the wordier and more specific honorific of “the man who led to general European awareness of the American continents in the Western Hemisphere”. He got to keep the naming rights to Columbus, Ohio, Columbia, S.C., and the nation of Colombia, though he would’ve gladly traded those to Verizon for a multi-year deal when he toppled into bankruptcy in his later years. His legacy now is one of exploitation, genocide and enslavement, not much for even the best PR firm to work with.

So we (sort of) honor him with a holiday for mailmen, bankers and owners of liquor stores, a limited but fitting observance of the life of someone whose star has faded.

Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. His parents were middle class, with his father working as a wool weaver, tavern owner and proprietor of a cheese stand. (Years later, the Catholic Church almost agreed to fund his first voyage when a cardinal misunderstood his desire to “bring cheeses to the pagans.”) Young Christopher loved adventure from an early age, and longed to spread his influence throughout the known world. He became a semen in his late teens but, when he learned that sperm donation for cash was still centuries in the future, switched his career to seaman. He traveled extensively throughout Europe as a business agent for important Genoese families, going as far as West Africa, Britain and possibly Iceland to get away from his wife, whom he left for good in 1487.

He taught himself Latin, astronomy, geography and history, even though he is not regarded as a scholarly man. He made hundreds of notations in the books he read, and clung vigorously to the simple, strong and sometimes wrong ideas that a self-educated person gains from independent reading, making him something of a Glenn Beck of his time.

When he hatched his plans to sail west to Asia, Europe was confronting the challenge of how to maintain the spice and opium trade with the Indies after the Ottoman Turks closed the Silk Road in 1453. The entire continent was going through Vicodin withdrawal, and searching about desperately for cough syrup and/or new routes to the Orient. Columbus presented his “Enterprise of the Indies” proposal to the Portuguese king as early as 1485, asking for three sturdy ships and the title of “Great Admiral of the Ocean.” The king’s experts thought correctly that Columbus underestimated the distance he needed to travel, but he was only off by about 9,000 miles.

Next he sought an audience with Spanish monarchs and singing duo Ferdinand and Isabella. They also rebuffed Columbus, yet were intrigued enough by his ideas to offer him 12,000 maravedis to keep them to himself, lest rival nations somehow benefit from the cock-eyed notion that you go west to get east. But he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, despite the fact that it’s pronounced the same way in Spanish and Italian. Finally, the king and queen gave in to his incessant pestering, and Columbus was good to go.

In August of 1492, he set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Sea Yawl Later. In just over two months, this modest fleet reached land in the present-day Bahamas, at a site he named San Salvador but which is now known by the less-romantic name of Watling Island. Here he encountered indigenous peoples who were peaceful and friendly, much to their later regret. Columbus liked them a lot, noting that “they ought to make good servants, for they repeat whatever we say to them … I think they can very easily be made Christians.” He kidnapped a dozen or two to take back to Spain with him but most of them died en route. Even in those days, it was tough to find good help, or at least the kind that survived long ocean voyages.

Columbus continued this first of four expeditions, knocking around the Caribbean like a college dropout with a Eurail pass. Later in October, he sighted Cuba, which he thought was China. In December, he landed on Hispaniola, which he thought was Japan. There, he established a colony of 39 men and left them behind, which he thought was a good idea (when he returned on a later voyage to stop and say “hi,” all had disappeared). Nothing was what it seemed in this foreign world, at least not if you held 15th-century concepts of navigation and interpersonal relations. Columbus gathered up some gold and some spices – most notably basil, oregano and coriander that Isabella needed for her paella recipes – and returned to Spain.

There, he received a hero’s welcome. He had shown that great wealth lay just over the horizon to the east, regardless of whether you wanted to call it Asia, the Indies or America. He proved that the earth was round and that circumnavigation of the globe was possible. He opened up two whole continents whose riches over the next century would make Spain the most powerful nation in the world. And don’t forget the paella.

Columbus would make three more voyages over the next ten years, two of which were billed as reunion gigs while the last was a farewell tour meant to supplement his admiral income. On the second trip, he discovered Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Croix, to the everlasting thanks of twenty-first century rock stars looking for secluded beach getaways. During the third voyage, he explored the mainland of South America and had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. On his last trip in 1502, he was looking for the Indian Ocean which, you have to admit, does kind of look like Jamaica, which is what he actually found. He came close to discovering the Pacific Ocean in Panama, but he probably would’ve thought it was the World Showcase lagoon at Epcot.

Despite some legal problems that led to him being briefly jailed, Columbus enjoyed a good four years of retirement, living on the gold he had accumulated from the New World. He died of a heart attack reportedly brought on by arthritis, conjunctivitis and painful urination at age 55 in 1506.

Even though he was quite callous in his dealings with his own men, and is now widely recognized as pretty much a dick when it came to respecting aboriginal civilizations, Christopher Columbus still deserves recognition for the bravery it took to sail off into the unknown and expand the known world to its current size.

Even 518 years and 364 days later, he deserves to be remembered. If you had to work on this holiday meant to celebrate his life, drive a different route to the office than you might normally take, and just explain to your boss that you’re two months late in honor of the spirit of exploration. If you did get to stay home for the holiday, stroll next door to infect your neighbor with smallpox, then move into his house when he leaves for the hospital. If he complains when he gets out, tell him he’s mistaken his old neighborhood for Asia.

“You haven’t seen Asia around here anywhere, have you?”

Driving myself to distraction

October 10, 2011

I’d have to characterize myself as a good driver, primarily because someone has to do it and it sure isn’t going to be anybody who’s ever watched me drive.

I learned to drive as a teenager growing up in Miami. The experience provided me with an appreciation for intense traffic, a familiarity with high-speed interstates, and a convenient excuse whenever anyone accused me of recklessness.

“Hey, I learned to drive in Miami,” I’d tell anybody who objected to my wheel-screeching turns and frequent lane changes. “Get over it.”

(I use an advanced sign language to communicate this to those in other vehicles who can’t hear me; my extended middle finger means “hey,” and the upward motion of my hand means the rest).

While defensive driving was stressed in most parts of the country, those of us living in South Florida learned offensive techniques as a means to safe motoring. The peculiar demographics of that area made anything like considerate driving habits a sign of weakness.

In the late 1960s, about a third of the Miami population was elderly, and chronically crept along the highway at 15 m.p.h. under the limit. They were careful to keep to the left passing lane in case they needed to pull into the median for the sudden urge to reminisce about their grandchildren.

Another third of the city was made up of Cuban refugees. These folks tended toward the middle lanes, looking for the safety in numbers that successfully got them across the Florida Straights piloting a raft made of tennis balls. They never used turn signals (because the rafts didn’t have them) and they ignored STOP signs (because they weren’t in Spanish).

The final third of the city was made up of narcotics dealers and other criminals. These drivers typically used the right lane, the break-down lane, the shoulder and the adjacent, grassy right-of-way to evade pursuing police cars. They created exit ramps as needed, or would simply launch themselves off a bridge and into the Intracoastal Waterway, especially if movie cameras were filming nearby.

To survive in this frightening mix of questionable skills, I learned a motoring style I consider both efficient and rarely fatal. I pay such acute attention to the traffic conditions around me that I block out all other stimuli as I maneuver my vehicle down the road. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk on my cell phone. I don’t rubber-neck at the accidents I leave in my wake. Instead, I’m focused like a laser on getting where I intend to go, bringing most of my passengers and their limbs safely with me.

The concentration this requires is sometimes lost on those who ride along with me. Just this weekend, for example, my wife and I took a trip uptown to a yarn shop she wanted to visit. She had the directions and I had the steering wheel. I had reluctantly agreed to listen to the podcast she brought along, at least until we had to start watching for signs directing us to the right neighborhood.

“Turn that off. I have to really concentrate now,” I told Beth as we approached our destination.

“You can’t look for the right exit with this on?” she asked incredulously.

“No,” I answered. “I can’t.”

“You realize, of course, that auditory signals entering your ear canal should have little or no impact on your ability to see,” she reasoned.

“Quiet,” I snapped. “You’ll kill us all.”

The podcast went silent, leaving only Beth’s directions to be heard above the hum of the engine. Bear left. Turn right. Merge quickly, then get into the left lane. Don’t run over that baby carriage. Look out. Look out! LOOK OUT!!!

I did indeed look out, and what I saw was the yarn shop that was our goal. I pulled through the parking lot and into a spot just outside the store’s entrance. Beth was a nervous wreck, but we had successfully arrived where we intended in record time, if records were kept for routine crosstown drives.

After the yarn shop, we wanted to visit a new bakery we recently found in the same area. I needed to make a left out of the lot, despite a bunch of traffic coming at us from both directions.

“At least get out into the center merge lane,” Beth advised. “That’ll make it easier to turn left.”

“No,” I answered. “What if someone wants to use it as a turn lane? We’ll collide.”

As I waited for just the right moment to take advantage of an opening, Beth launched into her much-rehearsed testimony about the advantages of using the “merge lane.”

Years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter, she rode with a highway patrolman for a feature she was writing. He told her that the proper way to make a left on a three-lane highway was to creep across to the middle of the road when you can, then merge and accelerate from there into the far lane.

I would counter that such a maneuver is just asking for a head-on collision.

Since I’m the driver, it’s my decision to execute this turn as I see fit. Her job is to get mad at my reluctance to recognize her long-ago patrolman as the ultimate authority for how I should make a left.

After our stop at the bakery, we drove home in silence, allowing me to concentrate to my heart’s delight. We arrived at our house about 45 minutes later, our marriage scratched and dented but my 2008 Civic completely unmarred.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a reckless driver. I’ve been involved in and caused numerous wrecks.

But I know what I’m doing, and I know how I want to do it. The elderly and Cubans and drug kingpins have taught me well. If you’ll be an offensive driver, people will notice and watch out for you. If instead you’re defensive, I’d advise that you prepare for impact.

If you're aware of your surroundings, you'll be a good driver.

Revisited: In search of the perfect toilet paper

October 7, 2011

Life used to be so simple. 

You’d get a call at the office from the wife, asking you to stop at the store and pick up some milk and bread on the way home. The milk was offered in two, maybe three, varieties: regular, skim and, possibly, expired. Bread was just bread, not whole wheat, not ciabatta, not hemp, not gluten-free. You’d get your two items, maybe sneak a quick peek at the babe on the cover of Good Housekeeping, and pay the cashier. With something called cash.  

You’d leave the store, climb into the driver’s seat of your giant Chevy without worrying about sissy seatbelts, light up a Pall Mall, and harbor a deep prejudice toward races other than yours. It was that simple.  

When I got a call from my wife the other day asking me to pick up some toilet paper after work, I practically had an anxiety attack. Even though she was very specific about the kind of toilet paper we wanted – Cottonelle Ultra double pack, the purple label, NOT the blue – I’ve been in the bathroom tissue aisle of the grocery store recently, and it’s a very imposing corner of the universe. The options are tremendous, as you can see from the photo below.   

TP as far as the eye can see

Choice is a great thing but it’s increasingly obvious that we in America have taken it too far. From ketchup to dog food to beer to right-wing lunatics, there are now so many options available in the modern marketplace as to be overwhelming to the uninformed consumer. Even though I had clear instructions – don’t forget: purple label, not blue – I thought I could better prepare myself for the assignment with a little online self-education. 

“Toilet paper is a soft paper product used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination,” Wikipedia tells us. “However, it can also be used for other purposes such as absorbing spillages or craft projects.” (Note to Wikipedia: This article may need to be edited to meet your quality standards. Not clear that these are three separate and distinct uses, and that TP does a poor job of “absorbing … craft projects.”) 

I learn that toilet paper products can vary immensely in the technical factors that distinguish them, including size, weight, softness, chemical residue and some frightening feature called “finger-breakthrough resistance.” I learn that a light coating of aloe or lotion or wax (!) may be worked into the paper to reduce roughness. I learn that so-called luxury papers may be rippled, embossed, perfumed, colored, patterned, medicated or imprinted with cartoon animals. 

Thus prepared, I enter the local Bi-Lo and find my way to aisle 11. Any confidence I may have gleaned from my studies is soon dashed. The huge expanse of options on display reminds me of the sea of faces I saw upon exiting the Mumbai airport baggage claim, each face either searching for a passenger, offering their porter services or looking for a handout. Except the Indians were less quilted. 

I found some paper called “Aloe and E,” which I assume contains both lotion and vitamin E, or else the user says “eee!” when they use it. I found Angel Soft, Supreme Softness and Charmin Sensitive, all for the touchy bum. I found a bargain label called Clear Value, another brand aimed at the Hispanic market called Paseo (which I think means “pass” in Spanish), and a store brand named Southern Home, with equally unsavory connotations. One product promised the feature of “tuggable huggable softness.” 

As you can see from the photo above, I also saw Spic and Span cleaning wipes, Ziploc storage bags and rubber gloves. I want very much to believe these were in the neighborhood by coincidence. 

I found an Ultra Plush, which is not the same as the Ultra I was looking for. I mentally cordoned off the aisle into four sectors, to better zero in on the specific label for which I was searching. I felt like the field archeologist exploring for the one femur bone that would confirm the existence of a previously unknown subspecies of early man. Only by being methodical and patient might I eventually succeed. 

Still, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I knew my fate if I failed to succeed. Like the ancient hunter/gatherer returning to the home cave with an antelope carcass when his wife specifically told him she wanted zebra for dinner, I would be vehemently chastised. “Don’t you listen to me anymore?” I’d be asked. “And I suppose you got the wrong tree lichen too.” 

I could call my wife and ask if there were any acceptable substitutes, but I hate those people who wander about the contemporary supermarket, cell phone to their ear and listening to a recited list that should’ve been written down. They’re always running over my foot with their shopping carts. I didn’t want to be one of these people. I’d rather buy a half dozen items that might be close — including Ultra brand razors and Ultra brand saltines — and hope to luck into the right purchase. I’d prefer to return the others later rather than come home empty-handed. 

Just as I was about to give up, there it was, in all its purple-packaged glory. The label said it was “new – even more cushiony comfort” and there was a picture of a napping puppy lying under what looked like a thick blanket, right below the Cottonelle name. (I assume it was a blanket; it looked about two inches too thick to be toilet paper). No wonder I had trouble locating the right stuff. My wife should’ve mentioned the puppy. 

I threw my prize into the cart and headed for the checkout. A sense of triumph coursed through me, as did the satisfaction of knowing that I was providing for my family. 

I headed for home, my stomach gurgling with the accumulated tension of the hunt. Within moments, I’d be happy I had found the right stuff.

Palin not runnin’, though she won’t rule out bus-ridin’

October 6, 2011

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced yesterday that she will begin a three-month nationwide bus tour next week to remind people all across America that she is not running for president.

Palin released a statement to supporters revealing her decision early Wednesday evening, and it was front-page breaking news for about half an hour. Then, Apple founder Steve Jobs had to go and die, diverting media attention from the Tea Party darling.

“The nerve of that guy,” said Palin supporter Becky Beach. “He just stepped all over the coverage that should’ve been hers. Typical liberal-media-elite move.”

Others wondered, however, if Palin was a victim of bad karma. Her bus trip earlier this summer stopped in New Hampshire on the same day former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made his candidacy announcement. Next, the tour swung through Iowa on the eve of that state’s straw poll, deflecting attention from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s victory there.

“That’s ridiculous. We don’t even know the meaning of ‘bad karma,’” Beach responded. “Seriously, we don’t know what it means. It’s definitely not part of any Christian theology, that’s for sure.”

Palin had apparently timed yesterday’s announcement to follow the news Tuesday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would not seek the nomination. Sources say she was concerned Christie’s growing shadow over the GOP field would block out interest in her candidacy, not to mention the sun.

When Christie told reporters he felt he was not qualified to be president only two years into his term in the governor’s office, he seemed to imply that Palin’s similar lack of experience could hold her back too.

“Since when should ‘experience’ or ‘education’ or ‘having half a brain’ matter?” Beach continued. “Sarah is obviously way more attractive than Christie, and it’s that veneer that is most important to her base. I should mention, too, that she’s also more attractive than Steve Jobs was.”

Palin’s communications office said the so-called “Hey, Look At Me Tour” is still in the planning stages, but several stops are already set.

Tonight, Palin’s signature motorcoach will be parked outside Yankee Stadium during Game 5 of the American League Divisional Playoffs between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. Immediately following the game, the bus will be loaded aboard a jumbo jet and flown to Munich, Germany, where Palin will appear at Oktoberfest celebrations.

The 2008 vice-presidential nominee will then return to the U.S. in time for Halloween, when she plans to drive along behind random trick-or-treaters as they go house to house for candy. In November, the Palins will drive throughout the rural South, shooting wild turkeys from a stand they’ve built atop their bus. They will then deliver these carcasses to the hungry for Thanksgiving dinner, if in fact they can find anybody hungry in this Great Land of Plenty.

In early December, she and husband Todd will festoon the vehicle with holiday decorations for a trip to Disney World where they’ll park outside the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Then, on Christmas morning, she plans on showing up at your house and opening your children’s gifts for them.

In a video posted through her Facebook page, Palin said her decision not to seek the presidency was grounded in her desire to “devote ourselves to God, family and country, in that order.” She also noted that “that sweet, sweet Fox News cash” was also a factor, and refused to shut the door on a potential 2016 bid “when I still won’t be ugly.”

“You don’t need an office or a title to make a difference,” Palin said in the statement.

“And, by the way, let me tell you about my memories of Steve Jobs,” she added.

"Look, everybody, it's me," Palin tells a crowd of supporters.

Welcome to Taciturnia

October 5, 2011

Tell me if this is weird.

I work in a pretty standard office environment. There are about 15 people in my department – an open-floor space with no walls or cubicles — doing much the same work that I do. Most of us have been with the company for quite a while, 10, 15, even 20 and 30 years.

Though such long tenure (or having a job at all) is increasingly rare in the modern economy, that’s not the weird part. This, I think, might be: Most of us never talk to each other.

The lady who sits about 12 feet to my left, facing in my direction, has worked with me for about 11 years. I can’t remember the last time we spoke to each other.

Another lady sits about 20 feet behind me. Part of my job is to check her work and, if it’s correct, release it to the customer. She’ll wordlessly sidle up next to me and place her printout in my tray. I’ll take it, read it, press a few keys on my computer, and we’re done. We’ve teamed up together to successfully complete an admittedly small project, all without ever offering each other even a grunt.

The guy who sits about 15 feet over my left shoulder does the same kind of proofreading I do. Occasionally, we may have to communicate to coordinate our efforts, though we avoid it if we can. We’d rather duplicate each other’s work than allow air to pass over our larynxes, exit the voice box at the soft palette, and form into recognizable words and phrases.

I’m trying to figure out if this is awkward, unnatural, or possibly even dangerous. I think about those incidents of workplace violence where surviving witnesses say things like “he was always so quiet,” and wonder if one of my neighbors is a seething psychopath, just waiting to squeeze in a little gunplay amidst the filing deadlines.

I doubt it. Much more likely is that we’re simply jaded, bored with our jobs, marking time until the end of the day by keeping our heads down and our mouths shut.

The work we do requires that we be available at a moment’s notice to quickly edit and return pages to our clients. Sometimes we’re non-stop busy, but most of the time we’re just waiting for the next project to start. In return for parking our barely animate husks at a work station for eight hours a day, we’re allowed to use our computers to play games and explore the Internet.

I’m guessing that’s a big contributor to our inertia. Without the distractions of the web, we’d be looking for something to do. Human interaction would probably crop up as a possibility.

Instead, we stare blankly at our terminals, getting up only occasionally to shuffle about the facility in a zombie-like state.

Once away from our desks, there is much more of a temptation to reach out and talk to a fellow employee. It feels somehow peculiar to pretend the neighbor you’ve been ignoring for five hours straight doesn’t deserve at least a nod of the head when you pass them in the hall. But unless your brain rattles loose inside your skull, this still makes for a silent encounter.

Outside of the work environment, the customs are a little different. Occasionally, the whims of our respective bladders cause an unintended meeting in the restroom. I ran into the fellow proofreader I mentioned above in the men’s room a few weeks back and, despite the well-documented perils of talking to another man in the same room where urinals exist, we each felt compelled to exchange a brief greeting.

“Hey,” I said as we stood at the sink washing our hands.

“Hi,” he replied.

Each of us left it at that. We had each done the bare minimum to acknowledge the other’s existence, and yet wisely (I think) resisted the urge to engage in a homosexual tryst.

Even more awkward is to run into someone outside the building. There’s a diner about a quarter-mile down the road where individuals occasionally go to grab a bite. I once saw a co-worker waiting to order in the next line, and barely recognized her. Outside the context of our jobs, it was unsettling to realize the woman could not only type but also feed herself.

“How’s it going?” I asked, feeling like I had to say something. “Getting lunch, I see.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Got a little hungry.”

“That can happen,” I was tempted to continue but didn’t. “Once your body processes its available carbohydrates, you need to replenish these with additional sustenance. I have the same issue.”

There is some casual conversation as we sit at our computers waiting for work. A few have even developed what appear to be friendships as they discuss their kids, their illnesses, their plans for the weekend and their inevitably miserable spouses. These rarely rise above a muffled mumble and, if they do, the chatters are subject to stern glares from those who prefer silence.

As for me, there are about three or four people among the group that I’ll talk to. One is my team’s production coordinator, a man about my age that I’ve known for ten years and consider to be the close approximation of a friend. Several times a day, we’ll chat about sports or the weather, and I’ll offer up a heartfelt “here” when I hand him my finished work.

Another person I’ll talk to is the lady on my right. About four years ago, we began carpooling together, and to get that started we had to verbally agree on times, meeting places, reimbursements, etc. (This was during that brief period when formal hand-written letters had become passé and texting had yet to reach its full potential, so we just spoke).

I remember wondering how this would work, how we could sit next to each other in the front seat of a car for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon and retain the same veneer of restrained civility we exhibit in the office. I wondered if we would talk, or listen to the radio, or simply sit in silence as we commuted down the highway.

As it turned out, casual conversation came easily as we unloaded on each other about the frustrations of work and life in general. I got to know about her family (four kids and a husband), her likes (Neil Young) and dislikes (George W. Bush), her hopes (retirement) and her fears (that I drive like a maniac). We have become what I consider to be friends.

But only while we’re making that drive on the interstate. As soon as we sit down next to each other at work, the conversation stops. At most, she’ll offer a “three hours and fifteen minutes” announcement as we mentally count down to the end of the day.

I guess this is the way I prefer it. I am by nature a taciturn person myself, and don’t especially feel that just because I earn a living in the same physical space as another wage slave that we need to share our innermost thoughts. I guess we’re like the family that has lived together for years, and speak only to note that someone has died.

If it seems unnatural, I guess that’s just the way it is. Perhaps if I don’t mention it, no one else will notice.

Check this out, Bob and Sue. I've created a bar chart that shows just how much I loathe you.

‘Targeting hassling’ is new Obama strategy

October 4, 2011

President Obama’s success in killing off al-Qaeda leaders contrasts vividly with his inability to counter attacks from his political rivals. Now, however, the White House has begun using the same strategy that eliminated Osama bin Laden to blunt Republican criticism of his administration.

No, the president won’t be dispatching Predator drones to correct misstatements from right-wing opponents by dropping Hellfire missiles on their motorcades. But sources say he will soon begin using the CIA and its remote-control-warfare capacity to “hassle” potential rivals for the presidency in 2012.

“We’re not talking about anything that approaches the brutality of 100-pound missiles,” said an intelligence source who asked not to be named. “We just want to give them a hard time. The campaign will be more like what you might expect from a crazy ex-girlfriend than a full-on military effort.”

Similar to the “kill or capture list” that targeted bin Laden in May and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki last week, the “pester or annoy list” will inconvenience Republicans with anonymous strikes by computer-guided robots.

The effort may have already begun. Yesterday, one-time front-runner Mitt Romney reported to local police that somebody scratched a large gash on the door of his car while he was grocery shopping.

“It was the weirdest thing,” reported witness Jim Michaels of the incident in suburban Boston. “One of those motorized shopping carts for the handicapped came flying out of the store on its own and zeroed in right on his Mercedes. It left a pretty big mark.”

Romney was not hurt in the incident, though he missed the rest of the day campaigning while waiting at the Maaco shop for the gash to be buffed out.

In another apparent attack, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has asked his state highway patrol to investigate a rash of late-night phone calls that have awakened him and his wife several times in recent days.

“We must’ve had 50 calls since Sunday asking if ‘Jose’ is here,” said Perry’s wife Anita. “Then last night, ‘Jose’ calls and asks if there are any messages for him. It’s not funny.”

“Yeah, that one’s a classic,” said the source familiar with the operation. “They set it up through one of the president’s campaign offices, using their robo-call software.”

Other episodes that seemed unconnected at the time are now being checked out by officials with the Republican National Committee.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has reported that a “souped-up Roomba” vacuum cleaner skidded all over her front lawn Monday night, “turfing” large sections of grass.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul had pictures of an apparent impersonator posted on his Facebook page. The ersatz Paul was shown passed out and drunk on the floor of a fraternity party, then is later seen handing spare change to a homeless man.

“It’s obviously been Photoshopped,” said Bill Welch, Paul’s campaign manager. “Still, it does take time away from his campaigning to have to deny something as scandalous as giving money to the poor.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told friends that during a recent appearance at a Philadelphia-area school, someone put a sign reading “KICK ME” on his back. Surveillance video shows it was done by a glassy-eyed teenager who approached the Tea Party favorite from behind.

“Okay, technically, that wasn’t a drone,” said the CIA source. “But we did entice the kid with some crystal meth, so he was pretty much a zombie at the time.”

Officials in the Obama White House denied knowledge of the apparently widespread effort. Targeted killing has come under considerable criticism from human rights groups, though “targeted hassling” seems less likely to present legal obstacles.

“If we had a guy on a Segway, just riding in circles around (former House speaker) Newt Gingrich, getting up in his face and chanting ‘I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you,’ I think constitutional scholars would agree that’s not illegal,” said one anonymous White House insider. “I’m not saying we’d do that, however. Especially considering how his campaign is fading on its own, and how the battery would run down about the fifth time around Newt.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum meets with a supporter

How best to execute low-lifes?

October 3, 2011

The ascendency of Texas governor and execution hobbyist Rick Perry to the top ranks of Republican presidential candidates has re-opened the debate over capital punishment.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t so much the propriety of a death penalty but how it is to be carried out. The Tea Partiers at a recent GOP debate cheered loudly when Perry’s record of signing 234 death warrants was mentioned, and you get the feeling these merciless supporters quibble only about how painful the execution could be.

In saner circles, the debate centers more on whether current methods used to end the lives of the condemned constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Was it “cruel” to employ now-discarded methods like hanging, beheading, crucifying and throwing-off-a-cliff? Most agree the answer is yes. Is it “unusual” in modern times to administer lethal injections that may cause pain to the executed? Sure, it’s unusual — that’s what makes it so cool.

The thirty-some states that opt to use the ultimate penalty to punish their most unruly citizens are currently wrestling with how to find the right mix of chemicals to effectively end the lives of those on Death Row. The traditional three-part cocktail had to be reconstituted when one ingredient, sodium thiopental, stopped being made by its European manufacturer.

After failed experiments in which tonic water and crushed limes were added to the cocktail, most states now go with the anesthetic pentobarbital. It knocks the patient unconscious, so that when the other drugs paralyze the victim and stop their heart, they’re in no position to complain.

To further add to the prisoner’s distress, Texas has ended the traditional last meal when several killers ruined it for everybody else by ordering huge spreads, then leaving the food untouched. Gone were the elaborate recipes that rendered previous executions almost palatable. In their place, the doomed will now have to order from the standard Department of Corrections menu. No specials, no appetizers, no “have you saved room for dessert?” queries from their server.

I thought about this unfortunate turn away from fine cuisine as I wrestled recently with an execution happening a little closer to home. My wife had discovered a couple of garden slugs near the herbs she grows on our deck railing, and decided to dispatch them with a thick coating of salt.

“You’re no better than those heartless chefs in Texas,” I complained. “The condemned want cilantro and lemongrass and turmeric flavoring their last meal, not sodium. Besides, the salt is going to damage the paint on the rail.”

Which then got me to thinking about why we use salt in the first place to kill slugs. (And the corollary question, could we execute murderers and rapists by pouring a giant box of Morton over them?)

The “slug,” the common name normally applied to any gastropod mollusca that lacks a shell, has a body that is made up mostly of water. They thrive in damp places such as tree bark, fallen logs and South Carolina. Their soft, slimy bodies are prone to desiccation, so dry weather, direct sun and salt are their natural enemies.

But why can’t they be stepped on like other common pests? Why do they require a flavoring be sprinkled on them? And might other saline condiments such as soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce work just as well?

According to my wife, a simple stomping has the unintended effect of getting slime all over the bottom of your shoe. “It’s really hard to get off,” Beth said. “And it stinks.”

Further research confirms that she’s right. Slugs produce two types of mucus, a thin and watery kind that aids in locomotion, and a thicker, stickier variety that coats the animal’s body and helps protect it from predators. When snatched up by a bird, for example, the slug can roll into a ball, toughen its hide, and hope its predator has the ball-handling skills of a Tony Romo and that it will soon be fumbled to the ground.

I also found out some other interesting facts about the slug:

  • Like their relative the snail, many slugs do have a shell but it’s inside their body. Not going to do much good there.
  • Slug breeds that do have an external shell are disappointed to discover it’s only vestigial, and thus too small to retract into for protection. These are known as “semi-slugs.”
  • Slugs undergo a 180-degree twisting of their internal organs during development. This results in an even doneness throughout the meat when cooking.
  • Their optical tentacles serve as rudimentary, light-sensing “eyes.” These can be regrown if lost, a handy alternative to the $600 I’m being asked to pay in vision coverage this year.
  • The slime trail that slugs leave behind serves several purposes: it allows them to cling to a vertical surface, and they can use it to advertise for a mate. (Using slime as a “come-on” exists in only one other species, the Newjersey bachelor).
  • Some slugs secrete slime cords to suspend themselves in mid-air during copulation, a move believed to be the inspiration for the Cirque du Soleil show, “La Magie Gastropodoea.”
  • Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. (No plans yet to have one of them appear on “Dancing With the Stars.”) Their corkscrewed, entangled penises must be chewed off by their mates during separation, or at least that’s what one claims will happen if the other “really loves” them.
  • Some slugs can self-amputate a portion of their tail to escape predators.
  • As agricultural pests, slugs can be controlled with iron phosphate or copper. Salting of the fields is not recommended, as it will result in decades of barren land.
  • In rural southern Italy, people swallow the garden slug Arion hortensis alive and whole as treatment for gastritis and peptic ulcers. Wikipedia understatedly describes the merit of this homeopathic remedy as “questionable.”

Several days after Beth assaulted the pair she found near her herb garden, both the death-dealing granules and the dried slug corpses had vanished from the railing, probably blown away in an early-autumn windstorm. All that remained was a white salt stain etched into the paint in the shape of a slug, like some chalk outline at a crime scene.

So while salt is now confirmed as a preferred method of execution for the slug, society is left to debate the best way to irretrievably remove our most-reviled members. Let’s kill them if we must, but let’s do it in a humane manner that respects their humanity.

And if they want escargot for their final meal, I say let ‘em have it.

The common slug (unsalted)

Editorial: Time for a Little River ban

September 30, 2011

I was working in the yard, working not too hard, mostly leaf-blowing. The song came to me from out of nowhere. First the chorus, then the first stanza, then the endless loop that I still can’t get out of my head.

Hurry, don’t be late
I can hardly wait
I said to myself when we’re old
We’ll go dancing in the dark
Walking through the park
And reminiscing

The song, as you may be able to tell, is called “Reminiscing.” In 1978, it was released by an Australian soft rock group called the Little River Band. It shot to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, representing the peak of LRB’s popularity in America. In 1996 it was covered by Barry Manilow, and again released in 2001 by a band called Madison Avenue. It was used prominently in the recent Will Ferrell film “The Other Guys.”

Now, it must be expunged from all recorded history.

“Reminiscing” was hardly the most vile, mind-numbing affront to Western Civilization produced by the band. They had other hits in the late seventies and early eighties that were every bit as cloying. There was “Lady,” “Lonesome Loser” and ”Cool Change.” There was “Happy Anniversary” (“Happy anniversary, baby/Got you on my mind“), probably the most egregious abomination of the lot. There was “Help Is On Its Way” which, to this day, I kind of like.

But for some reason, it’s “Reminiscing” that’s stuck in my head, an earworm that has wrapped itself around my cerebral cortex and will not let go. Action must be taken to remove this sonic tumor from my brain, before it metastasizes to drumming fingertips, tapping toes and dancing feet.

I am proposing a four-pronged approach to dispatching this cancer.

First, we round up all surviving members of the band and confine them to an internment camp somewhere in the desert Southwest. This could be a bit of a challenge, not just because it smacks of Stalinism, but because the original five were subsequently joined and/or replaced by dozens of other musicians in the 30-plus years of the band’s existence. Original members like Beeb Birtles, Glenn Shorrock and Graeham Goble can easily be located; they still perform, though they do it under the name Birtles Shorrock Goble since the official “Little River Band” name is owned by former member Stephen Housden, who rents it out to transients. But obscure one-time players like Kip Raines (drummer, 2004-2005) and Hal Tupea (bassist, 1996-1997) are bound to be harder to find, unless we can subpoena the employment records of fast-food giants like Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

Second, we institute a worldwide buyback program. I’ve already lined up the philanthropic might of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish a fund of $4 billion, so that every vinyl record, every cassette, every eight-track cartridge can be purchased from the public and destroyed. Preferably by fire, though a giant crusher will do.

Third, I propose we begin a Manhattan-Project-style effort in the scientific community to learn time travel, so we can send a team back to 1975 to abort the band’s formation. Most physicists acknowledge that one-way travel into the future is arguably possible, given the phenomenon of time dilation based on the theory of special relativity. Going backwards in time is more problematic, given constraints of the so-called “grandfather paradox”. This concept raises the question of what would happen if the traveler killed his grandfather before he met his grandmother, and then his father would never have been born, and neither would he. This could easily be addressed, however, if the execution team could terminate both band members and their grandparents.

Finally, I am offering to perform a lobotomy on myself, boring a hole in my forehead with a common household power drill to allow the demons of “Reminiscing” to escape from my mind. If there’s any money left over from the buyback fund, I could use it to help defray my medical bills. However, I am willing to take on the entire risk and expense on my own IF I COULD JUST GET THIS AWFUL SONG OUT OF MY HEAD!

The world can’t afford to ignore this issue. We must pull together and act now. As LRB would themselves say: Hurry don’t be late/We can hardly wait.

If you encounter these guys, report them IMMEDIATELY to the authorities

Already, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a competitor

September 29, 2011

Following the introduction Wednesday of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, designed to be a competitor to both Apple’s iPad and other recent tablet releases, I am announcing today that I too will be offering a handy new mobile device for sale.

The CinnaBox 5000, a cardboard-based technology powered by crunchy cinnamon multi-grain cereal, will be available just in time for the holiday gift-giving season. At $5.49, it’s priced significantly lower than the Kindle Fire, the Apple iPad or any other wireless communications equipment currently on the market.

The new CinnaBox tablet will soon be flying off the shelves

“It’s a little bigger and a little thicker than most of the tablets out there now,” I’m saying. “But the big difference in price, and the fact that it provides 25% of a person’s minimum daily requirement for thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, will — I think — differentiate the CinnaBox from its competitors.”

“Plus,” I’m adding, “because we’re calling it the CinnaBox 5000, that automatically makes it 5,000 times better than other tablets.”

The CinnaBox announcement comes only one day after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told investors his company was releasing the new Kindle Fire. The Fire features a glossy seven-inch touch-screen with a dual-core processor that will allow users to access more than 18 million pieces of content in the Amazon catalog. It also offers a web browser, gaming capacity, 8 gigabytes of memory and a free cloud-based storage system.

By contrast, the CinnaBox 5000 offers ten ounces of artificially flavored breakfast cereal and a requirement that users employ a vivid imagination to pretend they’re accessing the digital realm instead of simply pawing at a marginally successful Kellogg’s product.

“I bought a box of the cereal about a year ago. I tried it once and it wasn’t very good,” I’m saying. “I just stuck it up on top of the refrigerator and forgot about it. Then, when I heard about the Amazon announcement yesterday, I thought ‘Huh — maybe I can market the stuff as the latest and greatest entrant into the lucrative tablet market.’ So I am.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings users might anticipate trying to read a book or surf the internet using only a cereal box, many analysts said they thought there was a niche to be filled by the CinnaBox.

“Not everyone can afford even the $199 that Amazon bragged yesterday was such a good deal,” said Scott Devitt, a tech analyst at Morgan Stanley. “At a price point under $6, the CinnaBox should be able to gain a significant market share.”

“It’s got tabs on the boxtop, much like you’d see tabs allowing you to open different websites on a browser,” I’m saying. “It’s a little disconcerting to hear loose stuff shaking inside the box, er, tablet. I just use earbuds to blot that out.”

Unlike the Fire and Apple’s iPad, the CinnaBox does not require periodic recharging of the battery. That’s because it has no battery. All its power is derived from the user’s ability to visualize bright video images dancing across the face of the box, rather than the static photo showing cereal bits inundated in milk.

“That could be a huge selling point,” said Morgan Stanley’s Devitt. “People hate recharging their batteries, whereas they love to eat Cinnabon-flavored breakfast grains.”

The CinnaBox promises to be just the first release of this new push to re-market simple consumer products as high-tech electronics. In early 2012, many are predicting introduction of the CinnaPhone, which will use much of the wheat- and corn-based technology seen in the CinnaBox.

“I can envision the day when you simply go to the nearest Cinnabon, buy yourself a sticky roll, and you can hold it up to your ear and start talking and texting with your friends,” Devitt said. “Just be sure to wipe the sticky white icing out of your hair when you’re done. If that stuff dries, you’ll never get it out.”

We are DEFINITELY not hoarders

September 28, 2011

My wife asked me Sunday if I knew where the power cord to the portable DVD player was, and what followed was remarkable. I knew where it was!

“It’s in the top drawer of my dresser!” I exclaimed excitedly. “Right next to the underwear I never use! On top of the socks I can’t find matches for!”

The reason for my exhilaration had little to do with the fact that Beth wanted to watch the movie “Hanna” and I didn’t. (I have a longstanding policy against watching anything starring actors whose names contain three consecutive vowels, disqualifying “Hanna” star Saoirse Ronan). The reason I was so happy was that I actually knew where something in my house was.

Our home is, to put it kindly, cluttered. We’ve lived in the same house now for almost 18 years, and some of the stuff we stashed in corners when we first moved in is still there. In addition, there’s almost two decades worth of other stuff accumulated in the interim.

We have crates of record albums, boxes of cassette tapes, and shelves of CDs. We have an entire table devoted to Beth’s knitting projects and an old sewing machine cart where I collect my bank statements. On the bar are all our medicines and medical bills, most of our photos and a lava lamp.

In the corner next to the piano is all of my son’s schoolwork, 12 years of crafts projects and term papers that come to about chest-high. On top of the piano is our jigsaw puzzle collection. Inside the piano bench is sheet music and other paperwork.

And of course there’s the piano itself — unplayed since my son stopped taking lessons in 1998.

Both Beth and I come from ancestors who grew up during the Depression when possessions were few, and who came of age during the unprecedented materialism of the late twentieth century. They held onto everything, and taught their children to do the same.

My mother carpeted our entire house in Miami with sample squares she collected from a nearby rug store. We had a utility room we could barely open without toppling stacks of junk.

When I first met Beth’s parents before we were married, I was shown to their guest room upstairs. To get there, I walked past her father’s life-long compilation of mementoes from his career in the Air Force, and enough carved monkeywood statuettes from his overseas travels to deplete the Philippine rain forest.

And there were stacks and stacks of his National Geographics going back to the Fifties. (He had wisely put the lifetime subscription in Beth’s name since she was the youngest family member; now that legacy piles up on our coffee table).

So, if we ever need any item that occupies space in the physical universe, we probably have it. Finding it, though, is another matter.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a “system.” We turned to ancient Mesoamericans and their famous burial mounds for a model of how we would store a lifetime of belongings. Each of our mounds has a theme that allows us to retrieve approximately what we need, approximately when we need it.

The closet in our office, for example, contains the gift-wrap mound, the office supplies mound and the outdated computer equipment mound. We use very precise archaeological methods to locate what we’re looking for. Near the top of each pile are recent additions to the collection, with older exhibits closer to the bottom. At the base of the computer pile, for example, is an ancient Underwood typewriter, last used by the Incas.

I love our house but it was not built with a lot of good storage space. Aside from the closets, there’s only a crude attic where we’ve stashed Christmas decorations and the crawlspace that’s taken up with all my murder victims. We did buy an outdoor shed shortly after we moved in, primarily so I wouldn’t have to keep the lawnmower in the bathtub.

I think it’s important at this point to note that we are not pathological hoarders, like you might see on certain reality TV shows. We can and do throw stuff away frequently. Just this morning, before leaving for work, I threw a bunch of food scraps and used cat litter in the garbage bin outside.

We participate in our city’s recycling program, discarding old bottles and plastics and newspapers on a weekly basis. (I’d hoped for a long time that municipal officials would add human waste to the list of acceptable recyclables. When my calls to our councilman promoting this initiative failed, I stopped collecting my urine in Mason jars).

But we are not hoarders. We have all our teeth, we occasionally comb our hair, and we’re careful not to wear sleeveless t-shirts and muumuus when television cameras are around.

I keep telling myself that one of these days, I’m going to get everything organized and cataloged. I’ve already started on the pile of household records in our office, putting them in a file cabinet of tabbed folders reading “phone bills” and “vet” and “restraining orders.”

After I’ve retired, I plan to take this on as a full-time job. I’ll go through the various mounds of junk and apply radio-frequency identification tags to every item. This mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions will then allow me to wave a scanner over each of the mounds and be able to tell exactly what’s in there and where.

Who knows what bounty I’ll discover when I go through this effort? Maybe we’ve got the Holy Grail in there somewhere. Perhaps I’ll stumble across a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or maybe that ultra-rare Ty Cobb baseball card, or — who knows? — the Great Emancipator’s rookie card from when he was a young catcher with the Cubs.

Maybe I’ll even find the DVD player that goes with the power cord I found Sunday.

NOT my home office (mine is much worse)

Dentist claims that work is necessary

September 27, 2011

ROCK HILL, S.C. (Sept. 27) — In a stunning development, it was reported yesterday that I have several cavities, some of which will require a simple filling but others that could need a full root canal.

Officials at Iredell Dental Care (IDC) made the surprising announcement following a routine cleaning and exam Monday afternoon. Even though I had a clean bill of dental health at my previous visit six months ago, now the dentist claims I need work done that could cost thousands of dollars.

“Are you serious?” I asked following the 45-minute-long appointment. “How can there be such a big change in such a short period?”

“I’m not sure,” said Dr. Leena Jones, who performed an examination that included jabbing at suspicious areas with a pointy metal thing. “Sometimes, cavities can develop quite quickly.”

In a Proposed Treatment Plan issued by IDC, I reportedly need a “posterior composite – 2 surface” on tooth number 2, a “composite resin, 1 surface” on tooth number 26, and a “posterior composite - 1 surface” on several other teeth. These procedures run between $139 and $204 each.

In addition, there’s a need for a “crown, porc. fused to high nobl” as well as “endodontics, 1 canal” on teeth 3, 22 and 27. Estimates for this work range from $647 to $997.

“Let’s see what your insurance would cover,” said the helpful lady (I think her name is Jane) at the front desk. “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’ve used up your 2011 allotment already. It was only $1,000 anyway.”

I’m tempted to get a second opinion from another, more-senior doctor who works with the practice. The lady dentist who performed my exam was certainly cute and friendly enough, and I freely acknowledge she’d be welcome in another setting to put her hands in my mouth.

However, the firm’s founding dentist — a man who’s about my age, and was probably pulling teeth before young Dr. Leena was born – has the gravitas I need to confirm the extensive work will be necessary. I’ll talk to him when I get a chance.

“What, do they think I just have thousands of dollars laying around to be spent on dental work?” I asked myself following yesterday’s visit. “They don’t even hurt. Why can’t I just wait till they hurt?”

According to WebMD, a delay in treatment could cause teeth which otherwise might be fixed with fillings to instead require the more-expensive root canal.

“Maybe I could just check a different online source,” I proposed.

Unfortunately, both Ask.com and a guy I play Farmville with confirm this likely scenario.

Dr. Leena did say that I might be able to prevent further cavities by improving my brushing stroke. She asked the dental hygienist to show me how to make a circular motion on the gum, then move the brush over the teeth “in the direction they grow.”

“You brush up for the bottom teeth and down for the top teeth,” said Angela Davis, hygienist and former vice-presidential candidate for the American Communist Party. “Like this. And make sure you do it every night before you go to bed.”

“What am I, some kind of child?” I wondered. “I know how to brush my own damn teeth.”

Dr. Leena also gave me a script for “prescription toothpaste,” marketed under the name “Prevident 5000.” Like I’m going to show up at some pharmacy and ask for prescription toothpaste.

“Maybe I can alter the script to get Vicodin,” I speculated.

IHC said I could study the Proposed Treatment Plan and get back to them about what I wanted to do. However, according to the fine print at the bottom of the page, “the above services and fees are valid for 90 days.”

“I don’t have $3,576 now, and I’m not likely to find it in the next three months,” I countered. “It’d be cheaper to hire someone to chew for me, then feed me like a baby bird.”

This could be me, unless I come up with thousands of dollars

Entertaining the Indians

September 26, 2011

I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.

I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.

Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.

As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.

“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.

“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”

This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.

“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”

We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.

I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.

We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”

“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”

I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.

The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.

I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.

We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.

When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.

Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.

“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”

Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?

While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”

Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50′s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.

Fun? Not really on our radar.

“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.

“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.

I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.

We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.

Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.

“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”

I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.

The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.

We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.

“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.

I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

Don't eat the clamshells (it's considered rude in America)

An editorial: Is it really a seven-layer burrito?

September 23, 2011

The seven-layer burrito, as created and sold by Taco Bell, is a wondrous thing.

Available at most locations of the popular fast-food outlet for as little as $1.49, it’s practically a meal in itself. A soft flour tortilla wraps around rice, beans, a blend of three cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole, like a protective mother wraps her arms around her children. Spicy scamps that they are, the ingredients try to ooze free as you eat the burrito. But they are doomed instead to satisfy even the heartiest hunger, except maybe for that glob that landed on your shirt.

There is little that one can editorialize against in this marvel of Mexican cuisine. Oh, sure, the food police will tell you that it’s got too much fat or sodium or cholesterol or insect parts-per-million. What they neglect to note, however, is that by ordering it “fresco-style” — with salsa serving as an able replacement for the cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella cheese sauce — you can cut the fat content by 25%. Also, it has 12 grams of dietary fiber, which sounds like a lot of grams.

Where the editorial board here at DavisW’s blog has a bit of a quibble is with the marketing of the product as “seven layers.” The dictionary defines a layer as “a single thickness of something that lies over or under something or between other similar thicknesses.” Once compressed into its cylindrical casing, the true meaning of “layer” is lost. What arrives through the window of your car at the drive-through is more a mish-mash of ingredients, randomly swirled about by the whims of the burrito’s creator, and by how it is jostled during its journey from the warming tray to your open maw.

Also, the use of the number “seven” to describe the quantity of components is a little misleading. If you count the three different cheeses as separate entities, what you’re actually getting is a ten-layer burrito. One could even make the argument that the tortilla itself should count as a layer, bringing the constituent total to eleven. Why, then, is it not named after a larger and presumably more desirable number?

This probably has to do with the storied history of the meal itself. As far back as the Aztecs, the number seven held mystical properties. When they sacrificed virgins to their primitive gods, all the girls had to be at least seven years old (something to do with what we now know as child labor laws). The ancients measured their year as consisting of seven months of 52 days each. When they slew their enemies in war, they ate the defeated heads as the original seven-layer burrito, oddly counting the nostrils of the nose as two separate ingredients while both the eyes and the ears counted as one item each. The tongue was the original “al fresco” option — warriors could choose to omit it if they were watching their weight.

What concerns those of us who reside in the 21st century is how to order the seven-layer burrito when we want to omit an item or two. Should we ask for a seven-layer burrito without the cheese and sour cream, even though such an omission makes it a less-than-seven-layer burrito? Would it be better to characterize this order as a five-layer burrito, or would that be too confusing for the marginally educated counter staff? Why not start instead from the bottom up, requesting a “zero-layer burrito” with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole? Or might this prompt them to leave out the tortilla entirely, instead handing you a ball of soggy starches and vegetables unrestrained by an outer casing?

We call on Taco Bell to clarify their position on this issue. Consider an a la carte menu option. Allow us to enter the food preparation area and construct the mass ourselves. Remove any number from the name of the product, and call it simply the “layered burrito.”

Just don’t make us do math — especially subtraction — when all we’re interested in is satisfying a hunger as primal and demanding as those Mesoamerican civilizations of centuries past.

Bothersome ‘facts’ don’t square with governor’s claim

September 22, 2011

To those who have wondered how Tea Party types with limited comprehension of subjects like “science” and “facts” would govern if elected — look no further than South Carolina.

Our governor, Indo-Hottie Nikki Haley, was swept into office last year after out-stupiding Republican opponents in her party’s primary, then cruising against a Democrat in the general election. She rose from being an obscure legislator to the state’s top office after getting an endorsement from fellow-dunderhead Sarah Palin.

Touting her experience as bookkeeper for her mother’s clothing firm, the former Nimrata Randhawa has staked out what she calls a pro-business agenda. This apparently includes a trip abroad costing in excess of $100,000 to lure European companies to move to South Carolina, an effort which not surprisingly has yet to yield results.

Though she spouts the standard anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party — even to the point of refusing federal funds that might mitigate the state’s horrendous education and employment rates — she’s all too ready to insert the state into people’s private lives through the drug-testing business. She wants those receiving unemployment and other government benefits to generate a drug-free stream of urine before they are qualified to avoid starvation and homelessness.

Haley bases this cornerstone of her public policy on a conversation she “thought” she had while campaigning at the Energy Department’s Savannah River nuclear site.

“We were on the site. There were multiple people in there. And that comment they made had a huge impact on me,” Haley told the Associated Press recently. “It’s the reason you’re hearing me look into whether we can do drug testing. Somebody can’t say that and it not stick you in the gut.”

The “that” which Haley vaguely remembers is this: half the people applying for work at the site failed their pre-employment drug test, and half the remainder couldn’t pass reading and writing tests. Since “learning” that “fact,” Haley has used the illustration to justify her attempt to link drug tests to benefits.

Haley said she’s probably repeated the story “a million times” since hearing it. Trouble is, the story is not even close to being true.

Department of Energy spokesman Jim Giusti says that less than one percent of workers failed pre-employment screening tests. This matches up with reports by Quest Diagnostics, a national drug testing company, that show on average less than two percent of people test positive for drugs nationally.

Haley now admits that she’s “frustrated” that she can’t document something that has so shaped her policy perspective.

“I’ve never felt like I had to back up what people tell me. You assume that you’re given good information,” Haley said. “And now I’m learning through you guys [the press] that I have to be careful.”

The people who misinformed her are “now all backing off saying it,” Haley offered. “And they know they said it. But now they don’t have the backup.”

“I’m not going to say it anymore,” Haley finally conceded.

As for the other half of applicants who allegedly couldn’t pass reading and writing tests, Haley has offered no similar concession. But it’s probably true that, thanks to education budgets gutted by successive Republican governors, close to half of a random sampling of South Carolinians could be illiterate.

One interesting footnote: Quest’s annual survey did show that the overall drug test failure rate for South Carolina was 6.5 percent, about four times the national average though still well short of Haley’s 50 percent claim. But all that proves is that you have to be stoned to voluntarily live in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley

Dancing with the Stars: Breaking it down

September 21, 2011

I finally broke down and watched “Dancing With the Stars” on television last night.

Most of the contestants joined me, either “breaking it down” with surprisingly adept dance moves (especially for a former federal prosecutor, a former woman, and a former Courtney Cox husband), or “broken down” in humiliation after their gyrations failed to impress judges and a TV audience of millions.

I came away from the viewing with several observations:

  • Dancing automatically looks better when you do it in front of fiery explosions
  • Ron Artest will now forever be called “The Basketball Player Formerly Known as Ron Artest”
  • Between hosting this show and “America’s Funniest Videos,” I don’t know how Tom Bergeron lives with himself
  • When we’re finally able to fully map the inky depths of the world’s oceans, I bet we come across several previously undiscovered Kardashians, living off the heat of volcanic fumaroles
  • It would be helpful if the “stars” could be outfitted in special garb that distinguishes them from the staff dancers they’ve been assigned as partners, because I can’t recognize either one as a celebrity (I suggest the “stars” either be painted entirely in gold, or be required to wear a crown)
  • Hostess Brooke Burke Charvet is no less palatable just because she added a third name
  • I have a headache

Oh, and one other thing: I’m glad I’ve never claimed to be a dancer.

Thus far, I’ve managed to make it through almost 58 years without significantly shaking a leg (unless you count my continuing bout with the neurological disorder Restless Leg Syndrome.) I have absolutely no grace and even less poise. My aptitude for rhythm is about what you’d expect from someone who’s last name is “whiteman.”

And yet I can still cite several examples from my personal history when I’ve attempted to “cut the rug” and somehow managed to avoid lacerating myself as well.

When I was about ten years old, I tried out for a local production of “The Sound of Music.” At the time, my actually-talented sister was involved in the South Florida entertainment scene, having made several local commercials, and taking voice, tap and acting lessons. Not wanting to leave me out, my parents arranged for me to join in the fun of show business.

The tryouts were held at a local college. I don’t remember much more than that. I assume I was up for the part of one of the von Trapp children who, in the story, learn about the glories of Bavarian music from their nanny nun in the run-up to World War II. I guess I’d be playing the fat, pimpled, sociopathic preteen, a part for which I had trained extensively.

I didn’t get the role, however, I did get my picture in the local newspaper, which was doing a feature on preparations for the musical. Somewhere deep in the photo archives of The Miami Herald, there’s a shot of young Davis leaping into the air, his arms extended high above his head. I’m not sure how else you’d describe the move, except to say it was strongly reminiscent of how fleeing Polish troops retreated before the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg.

My next opportunity to stomp about the room while music played in the background came during a junior high sock hop. A fear of dance combined with a fear of girls compounded this into a major trauma of my teen years. Somehow, I managed to convince one of the young ladies to stand across from me while I spasmodically seized to the tune of “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five.

These were the early days of rock dancing, when steps like the Frug and the Watusi and the Monkey encouraged creativity. I had watched “American Bandstand” in preparation for the hop, but the moves shown by those kids were nothing I could imitate. Finally, I became comfortable with a dance called “The Hammer,” in which you raised and lowered alternating arms in a motion not unlike the milking of a cow. I lost my partner some time after the third song, when she suddenly left with an irresistible urge to consume dairy products.

By the time I got to college, dancing to music was considered passé, even bourgeois. Martha Vandella, only a few years before, had called for “Dancing in the Street,” despite the obvious dangers of mixing vehicular traffic with choreography.

“It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there,” Martha claimed. “So come on every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world they’ll be dancing in the streets.”

In my circle of politically aware friends, dancing was a mindless way to waste energy that otherwise could be spent on the coming socialist revolution. We preferred to gather in darkened rooms, drifting in and out of a drug-fueled unconsciousness while listening to music. In a strict sense, it was still a form of artistic movement – we had to roll over periodically so we could vomit without choking.

My last exposure to dance as a means of personal expression came shortly before I was married. Beth and I were aiming to get back in touch with our German heritage by attending an Oktoberfest celebration and becoming ill from drinking too much beer.

While still only slightly inebriated, we were introduced to “The Chicken Dance.” We immediately fell in love with the quirky-but-simple steps: first you open and close your hands, like a squawking chicken; then you flap your elbows as if they were wings; then you shake your butt; then you clap your hands. It was so corny, so hokey, so trite, as to round the far bend and become ironically cool.

When we planned our own wedding and reception a few months later, we adopted a German theme for the celebration. My parents and my new in-laws opted for the more standard polka while our contemporaries absolutely adored the Chicken Dance. It was a great way to celebrate the beginning of our new life together, though our traditional first dance as Man and Wife — squawking and flapping and shaking our rumps — was not the charming memory my older relatives had hoped for.

Now, I’m closing in on 60 and can happily assume that my dancing days are finally over. I may someday face a forced “dance” at the retirement home, do-si-do-ing my wheelchair at the insistence of some sadistic physical therapist. After I die, I imagine my corpse might contort and shrivel in the flames of the crematorium. Then, of course, there’s the dancing on the head of a pin with my fellow angels in the afterlife.

Until then, the closest I plan on coming to the delight of dance is during my daily jog around the neighborhood. I swing my arms, I shuffle my feet, I barely avoid cars and I flee from dogs. The gestures are less than expressive, but I do work up a good sweat.

Which is more than you can say for the ever-delicate Nancy Grace.

The Chicken Dance (complete with chicken)

Job sharing could end unemployment

September 20, 2011

A little-noticed clause in President Obama’s new jobs bill could result in a dramatic drop in the jobless rate. However, the quality of the jobs, and the goods and services that result from them, could suffer significantly.

The proposal to encourage more “job sharing” — an arrangement that allows two or more workers to split a single job — could knock the current 9% unemployment rate to almost zero. But having multiple people performing a task that was previously done by a single individual could have a serious downside, economists warn.

“It’s bound to get a little crowded on the other side of the bank teller window,” noted Princeton’s Mike Brennan. “If you’ve got half a dozen clerks all trying to help you at once, I’d recommend you count your money carefully.”

The plan offered by the administration is based on the European model, where the workforce is allowed to keep up its skills and maintain benefits while working drastically reduced hours.

Republicans were quick to attack the bill.

“Based on a European model?” asked House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “What, does everybody have to start smoking and making themselves vomit to lose weight? I don’t think we need to have public policy in the United States dictated by a bunch of Eurotrash stick-figure models wearing the latest style in goofy hats.”

“The American people,” added House Speaker John Boehner, “are not prepared to wear goofy hats.”

Democrats seemed to be warming slowly to the idea of job-sharing. Some saw it as a way they might be able to hold onto their Congressional seats should there be another Republican sweep in the 2012 elections. Others said they wanted to wait and see how practical the plan is before deciding to oppose it.

The President could point to several pilot projects already under way that aim to prove job-sharing will work on a large scale.

“Let’s not use the pilot project as an example,” urged White House press secretary Jay Carney. “Those pilots couldn’t agree whose responsibility it was to deploy the landing gear, and the jet crashed killing all aboard. That’s probably not the illustration you’d want to use.”

Instead, Carney directed reporters to a print shop outside Washington, D.C., where a work-share arrangement has resulted in the hiring of almost 100 new employees.

“We used to have one typesetter who would key in all the menus, flyers, resumes, etc., which we produce for our customers,” said KwikPrint manager Gretchen Hastings. “Now, we have a whole staff of typists, with each one responsible for a particular letter or punctuation mark.”

Hastings said her newly expanded staff will gather behind the keyboard and step forward to key their individual character as needed. The workers will share the $15-per-hour salary allocated to the position, allowing each person to pocket a much-needed 15 cents an hour.

“We thought about paying more for those in charge of keying the most-commonly-used letters, but that would’ve been an accounting nightmare,” Hastings said. “The payroll department is already struggling to absorb its nine new workers [one for each digit, plus the original accountant] and we didn’t want to complicate things further for them.”

Most of the typesetters are simply grateful to have gainful employment.

“I had been looking for almost 18 months, so I was really glad to finally land something,” said Beth Barber, who’s in charge of typing all “g’s”. “At least I got my foot in the door. Maybe they’ll eventually expand my responsibilities to include the letters ‘f’ and ‘h’.”

“I’m so grateful to be here,” said Bruce Rabin, who lost his job in banking in 2008 and has been unemployed ever since. “I’m going to type the hell out of my ‘w’ while I’m there, and hope that I make a good impression.”

April Johnson, the veteran typesetter who had to move aside to make room for all the new hires, was not as happy with the change as her fellow workers.

“The pay cut obviously sucks. I’ve got to admit, though, that it gives me more time to spend with my family,” Johnson said. “I live close by and, since my new responsibility includes only the relatively rare ‘z’, I have time to run home and check on my ailing mother in between words.”

Press secretary Carney said other businesses are also starting to get on the job-sharing bandwagon.

“There’s a car dealership in Arlington where potential buyers meet with salesmen who sell only a particular part of the car,” he said. “And I’ve heard of several Wendy’s (hamburger outlets) who use separate order-takers for each item on the menu.”

Carney denied a report that even his job as press secretary would be split among several dozen previously unemployed workers.

“To have a crowd of people standing up here, each one separately in charge of saying their own particular word in response to your questions, just wouldn’t be feasible,” he said. “The White House needs to communicate a clear, focused message on this issue.”

Told that most Americans questioned in a recent poll said they felt President Obama’s communications on the jobs issue were “muddled” and “confusing,” Carney said only “oh”.

“Hey, we could use that guy,” print shop manager Hastings said. “Our ‘o’ lady just quit to take a job in the healthcare field. She’s in charge of opening the Band-Aids, then handing them off to another worker to be applied to the injured patient.”

Italian businessman Ronaldo Salerno (left) waits his turn to dress as a gladiator entertaining tourists in Rome.

‘Clumsy’ doesn’t begin to explain my problem

September 19, 2011

I’ve always held a deep-seated belief that fluids should be allowed to flow unencumbered.

As a political philosophy, it’s not much. But as someone who looks at the physical world and sees free-running rivers and churning oceans and new improved ketchup dispensers, I literally ache when I think of how water and other liquids that have been constrained by Man.

I guess that explains why I go to such great lengths to liberate fluids whenever I can. It’s also a great excuse for why I find myself constantly spilling stuff.

I don’t consider myself a clumsy person. I think I move rather lithely through life, knocking over remarkably little for such a big and aging guy. I once spent an entire afternoon in a china shop, destroying only small amounts of merchandise until I was asked to leave for trying to place a to-go order for moo goo gai pan.

Were I, however, subjected to a battery of genetic tests, I’m pretty sure results would show that I possess the so-called “lummox gene” deep within my DNA. I come from a long line of awkward men, as was demonstrated on an annual basis when one particular uncle would come to Thanksgiving dinner and inevitably drop the green beans to the floor. It’s a family tradition that we tend to spill things.

So yesterday’s disaster in my home shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

After meeting an old friend for brunch, I stopped at a Smoothie King to pick up a treat for my wife and son. My son wanted the chocolate-and-peanut-butter-and-banana concoction while my wife opted for the “Chocolate Shredder.” I carried both smoothies successfully to my car, and drove them 20 miles to my home without incident.

When I pulled into the driveway and began to gather up my things, I decided to carry both styrofoam cups on the iPad I had taken to Panera with me. I’ve seen professional wait staff do this balancing act a thousand times while bringing drinks to their customers, and it seemed like a good way to free my other hand to carry the newspaper and fumble with my keys. The iPad can perform thousands of functions; using one as a tray doesn’t even require paying for an app.

I made it through the side exterior door okay but when I tried to open the sunroom doors into the living room, both cups began to totter. I lunged in panic to steady them, which only made things worse, and the sticky-sweet drinks toppled onto the carpet.

“FFFFFUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” I observed as chocolate plasma splashed about my feet. “Damn it!”

What a royal mess the Smoothie King had delivered! I stumbled over to the kitchen counter to unload my other things, tracking the gummy goo on my shoes and onto the tile floor. Chocolate smoothie was everywhere — splashed onto the side of an adjacent bookcase, under the bottom edge of the door and soaking deep into the rug. My anguished cries brought my wife running.

“I’m such a clumsy idiot,” I told her in a pre-emptive move I hoped would quell any criticism she might be tempted to add. Gracefully, she offered only sympathy and help.

What had been looking like a quiet Sunday afternoon spent in front of televised football was now transformed into a marathon clean-up. For hours, we scrubbed and soaped the entire affected area, and by evening we had eliminated almost all of the visible smoothie. The parts that soaked through the floorboard into the crawlspace beneath our home would add a nice chocolaty flavor to the soup that had accumulated there from my other recent spills.

There was the evening just last week when I knocked a full glass of Pepsi onto its side next to the couch. Since my son keeps his beloved MacBook on the coffee table, I have to keep my drinks on a tray on the floor. (For some reason, he’s afraid I’ll spill something on the computer). Two of our cats had a case of “the rips” and were rocketing around the living room, so I reached down to protect the glass. In the process, I knocked it over myself.

Then there was the time I tried to apply marinade to a sandwich I was packing for my lunch. Functioning on too little sleep, I had imagined the sweet orange condiment would make a nice substitute for mayonnaise on my turkey sandwich. I loosened the lid, stepped away briefly to grab a newspaper, then returned to pick up the jar and give it a vigorous shake to blend the ingredients. Marinade flew about the room. I cleaned up the best I could at that ungodly hour. Still, later that morning, my wife had to wonder how a strip of candied orange peel had fallen from the ceiling into her breakfast.

There was also the time I tried to “flash-cool” a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew by putting it in our spare freezer. By the time I remembered to retrieve it a few days later, the bottle had expanded, then structurally failed, then exploded. Two frozen chickens and a pound of ground beef were mortally wounded.

And this doesn’t even count the incident at work about a month ago, where I spilled a fresh cup of coffee all over my desk and keyboard. I was answering a question from one of my proofreading trainees, and made a sweeping gesture to indicate the grand scope of errors we had to catch and correct. It made for a terrible mess, but also served as an effective display of how the unpredictable could go wrong.

After yesterday’s smoothie incident, I’d like to say I’m re-dedicating myself to grace and finesse, but I’m not sure it would do any good. I’m not trying — consciously, at least — to broadcast liquids to the four winds. But I don’t think any effort on my part is going to reverse the desire for entropy that runs through my family history at a molecular level.

Even though gene replacement therapy is not covered by my current health insurance plan, I think there might be help for me available from the medical community.

Either I can start taking all my fluids intravenously. Or, I can get me one of those cone-shaped collars that dogs and cats wear to keep them from gnawing at their stitches. If they seal tightly enough around your neck, you could just pour the drinks over your head, wait for the level to rise enough to reach your mouth, then enjoy hands-free beverage consumption without the possibility of making a ruinous mess.

Then, all I have to do is find a shampoo that claims to clean smoothie out of your hair.

Or, as the case may be, your fur.

Afterword: I dedicate today’s post to my Uncle Jack, who died over the weekend at age 86. He was the only local relative beyond my immediate family while I grew up in Miami, and came to be a favorite of my sister and me. Every holiday and every Sunday, Uncle Jack would take a city bus from his home downtown to visit us out in the suburbs. Inevitably, he’d bring us each a cash gift. We would’ve loved him anyway.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Jack.

Revisited: Blogging while jogging, and vice versa

September 16, 2011

Many great artists got their inspiration when they least expected it. John Lennon scribbled the lyrics to “A Day in the Life” on the back of an envelope after he woke up dreaming about them. Pablo Picasso began work on his masterpiece “Guernica” after a vigorous walk along the Seine. William Shakespeare was known to work out with weights and spend 30 minutes on an elliptical machine to clear his mind for wrighting plays.  

Hacks too can find exercise to be a stimulant to creativity. It’s often during my daily run that I come up with ideas for this blog. I’ll be loping along the sidewalk when — boom, out of nowhere — the idea occurs to me that it might be funny to write a history of the human foot, or about my plans to rob a liquor store.  

As soon as I get home, I’m quick to jot these nuggets down on a scratchpad I keep on my dresser (at least, I try to write them down, if I can find a piece of paper not already sodden with perspiration).  

I often think how much simpler it would be if I could just carry my netbook with me as I jog, and work simultaneously on my posting and my endurance. Then I think about how difficult it would be to type and watch for oncoming cars at the same time.  

So this weekend I tried the next best thing — dictating into a voice recorder as I ran, then transcribing the results when I got home. You, the reader, get to travel along with me at the moment this essay is first imagined. It’s like being in on the extraordinary moment of human conception, except without fallopian tubes.  

I hope you enjoy and, don’t forget, be sure to do at least 15 minutes of cool-down stretches when you’re done.  

Runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load

OK, so this is an attempt to record what goes on during an average run through the neighborhood, starting out in front of my house, and here I go…  

And this doesn’t look foolish at all, that I’m talking to myself while I’m running. This is the route that I do pretty much every day. It’s about 3 in the afternoon so there aren’t a lot of people around to wonder why some guy’s running down the street holding a microphone to his face.

There’s utility construction going on in the neighborhood, being done by a contractor called “Trenchco.” Apparently they build trenches or dig trenches or maybe they just like trenches. We don’t know what they’re putting in the trenches but I hope it might be better-quality cable. There’s a bunch of workers up the hill. My wife keeps saying we should ask them what they’re doing, but I doubt they know.

It’s about 87 degrees out here, which is pretty warm for somebody my age to be running. I was known to run in temperatures as high as 100 degrees when I was younger. People know me around the city as the crazy guy who runs no matter what. I once ran in an icestorm, but then I fell down.  

More cars as I turn the corner onto the main road. People are looking at me, wondering what I’m doing, wondering why I’m talking to my hand while running in such heat. I think one should explain the other.  

There goes a red truck.

My wife is at home right now playing Wii Fit with my sister-in-law, so they probably have the more sensible exercise idea than what I’m doing. I’ve always been told I should carry ID when I got out for these runs and I never do, so if I ever drop off the face of the earth, you’ll know what happened. Hopefully somebody will find my body before the raccoons do.  

Passing some private homes on the right, and on the left is a new subdivision they started building right before the recession. They got about half the houses built and pretty much gave up. I think they’re townhomes, which is kind of like living in a real home from what I’m told.

Glad you can’t transcribe panting because that’s what you’d be reading right now. There is a little bit of a breeze as I get close to the top of the hill. The sky is pretty clear, some high clouds not doing much to block the sun. I try to keep my head down while I’m running. Every now and then I’ll find money or something. I found $20 the other day, just laying in a parking lot.

Wow, there goes a huge truck from a nearby paper tube company. “World’s leading manufacturer of paper tubes,” it says. Not sure who uses them but I guess you have to wrap your toilet paper around something.  

Passing some apartments on the right, and another newish subdivision on the left. It’s called “The Pines at India Hook,” located interestingly enough on India Hook Road. The apartments are called Village Station and it’s an “apartment community,” not just apartments. So I guess they can charge an extra $50 a month for that.

There’s an older house here on the right that’s now a law firm, I think. Tall, beautiful hardwood trees out front. I’d say oak or maple or — what’s that other kind of tree they have? — elm. Could be any of those.  

Off to my left is an older neighborhood with a “Dead End” sign. I don’t think that’s the name of the community though, I think it’s just a street sign. On my right is the Spring Arbor Alzheimer’s Care center and there are some folks sitting out on rocking chairs today because it’s so nice. I’ll try not to talk too loud so I don’t disturb the Alzheimer’s people. I don’t want any of them wandering up this way.

And now here’s Chandler Place, a so-called independent retirement living facility. I think that’s sort of like an old folk’s home, but with fewer safety rails. There are some “shoppes” up here on the end, one little restaurant we go to sometimes. I’m going to try to cross the street now and go back down the hill toward my neighborhood.  

So I’m headed back on the other side of the street, a nice white picket fence to my right. This is a pretty nice part of town. I figure the distance that I’m running is about 1.6 miles maybe. I used to do it every day, lately not so much because of the heat. I guess that’s a good excuse.  

From this spot I can peek into some private backyards … not much going on at this hour of the day. Every now and then I’ll witness an illicit affair.  

Coming up on the right is what used to be another rest home but is now taken over by a church that does day care. It’s called “Taking the City Ministry,” and the childcare is called “God’s Blessings Christian Childcare”. I think the kids are all inside right now. Not sure of the church’s denomination. “Taking the City Ministry” sounds pretty aggressive but I think they mean it more spiritually.

There’s a flag over there …  might be the South Carolina state flag. It’s all ripped and stuck in some trees, so it’s kinda hard to tell. Maybe the apartment community has their own government and it’s their flag.  

Hitting a downhill part now and going past a shady area and becoming a little less self-conscious about talking to myself while running. Every now and then somebody from work who lives around here will say they saw me running, and I’ll say “oh.”  

OK, coming up now past that half-built Village at India Hook — “single-level villas, no maintenance, clubhouse/fitness center, two car garages,” says the sign. They look like nice places. I think they still try to sell them on the weekends. They’ll put signs up like “move in today” or “agent on duty” but I don’t think they’re trying that hard.  

So this will count as my exercise for the day. I remember back in junior high the most they’d make us run would be 600 yards which, when I think about the marathons and 10Ks I’ve run since, seems like nothing now. But at that time they called it a “walk/run” because they knew we couldn’t run the whole 600 yards and in fact I could not, except one time I got tired of coming in last and sprinted the first 100 yards and was out in the lead and everybody said “hey, look at fat Davis go!” and then of course I ran out of gas and finished last.  

Somebody just waved at me from a passing vehicle. Doesn’t necessarily mean they know me, it just means that I’m in the South. Running  past a patch of woods. Every now and then I’ll see deer coming out of here. They’re gradually putting up more and more homes in this area so the deer either have to go somewhere else or figure out if they want to rent or buy.  

Going past Heathwood and Heathwood Forest. Looks like the same neighborhood to me. I’ve run back there on occasion and I think there was a woodsy part so I guess that was the forest. Should be “The Forest at Heathwood” though, shouldn’t it?  

Almost to the place where I normally stop. Still not much traffic out … it’s basically the middle of the afternoon and most decent people are working. I guess I’m indecent, as my tightly clinging sweaty T-shirt will testify. They’ve got some election signs out at some of the houses. These people seem to want Tailor for Judge. Yeah, it says “Carolyn Tailor for Judge” … I thought maybe it was somebody named Judge who was running to be elected Tailor.  

Going to have to cross back over the road now and watch for traffic. Here comes a car but I don’t think he’s going to hit me because of the hassle of accident and insurance reports.  

Alright, well, coming back to my neighborhood. Just beyond where I’m turning is the Westminster Church — there goes a motorcycle, by the way — and there’s a bus from the Christian school that’s associated with the church.  

Back in the neighborhood now, not so many cars. Do have some blind corners I have to watch for in this area and no sidewalk, so some care is required here.

Think I’m going to knock off now because I’m getting back in the area where the neighbors may wonder about me. These are people that are more likely to know where I live and leave notes in my mailbox telling me to stop talking to myself while I’m running, so I’ll be signing off.


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