Archive for December, 2008

Doing the Charleston, Holy-style

December 31, 2008

A spokesperson for the travel industry estimated this week that at least 5 billion Americans made a trip of 100 miles or more during this holiday season. A large majority of these were on the airlines or driving on the road, though a growing minority of travelers are choosing clean alternative transportation such as paddle boat, skate, and sliding downhill on a piece of cardboard.

When my family and I decided to go the 200 miles from Charlotte to Charleston, S.C., to visit my great aunt, we debated the merits of flying versus driving. We could make it either way in about the same amount of time, when you consider the attendant hassles and time delays involved in modern jet travel. Did we want to pay about ten times what it would cost to drive so we could experience the stimulation of surly counter agents, body searches and a potential plunge from 20,000 feet, or could we endure the tedium of freeway motoring? We realized how close a call the decision was about 50 miles out of town when I almost fell asleep at the wheel, but in the end, we’re glad we decided to drive.

There’s little of the magnificent American landscape so idolized in popular culture on the stretches of interstates 77 and 26 that bisect the state of South Carolina. Brown flatlands give way to sulfurous marshes as you approach the coast, so you’re generally left to your own imagination to summon enough interest to stay alert.

One way to do this is to admire the creativity (and lack thereof) that’s been put into the naming of different locations along the route. Towns have been saddled with unimaginative monikers like Jedburg, North, Cope and, from mapmakers who gave up completely, Ninety Six. There’s also a “Townville” that apparently was judged to be better than “Cityberg” or “Villageton”. Meanwhile, interchanges between the federal highway and various county roads have been given elaborate names to honor prominent locals, I guess because “Exit 17” was just wasn’t inspirational enough. For example, there’s the Medal of Honor Recipient Eugene Arnold Obregon Memorial Interchange, the State Solicitor J. Robert “Bobby Joe” Adamson Jr. Interchange, and the Buck Mickel Memorial Southern Connector, to name just three of the dozens we passed. I can only assume that the memorials were put at highway exits to symbolize how these heroes left the mortal world in much the same way we drivers are forced to get off for gas and a Pepsi.

Though most of the old-time South is located too far off the highway to appreciate, we did get a good sense of the bygone era when we stopped in a tiny village called Restarea. The town had only two roads – “Cars Street” and “Trucks and Campers Avenue”. Though the manufacturing base of Restarea left long ago, there are still pockets of commerce among the 100 or so residents of this bustling community. The only shopping area is a bank of vending machines behind a beautiful wrought-iron gate. There’s a small park where families eat at picnic tables and dogs romp at the end of a leash. The city hall still shows an unfortunate remnant of segregation, with the community rooms divided into separate men’s and women’s facilities. Despite that, there’s still evidence of an active cultural scene inside, including an innovative arts installation where residents can leave their thoughts for others to consider, including thought-provoking folk wisdom such as “eat me,” “Goths and emo rule” and “your stupid.”

As we got further into the last half of our four-hour drive, amusements starting running low until we were passed by a large semi with a sign on the back that asked “How’s My Driving?” I’ve seen these for years and always wondered if anyone ever called, so I pulled out my cell phone and decided to give it a try. After a couple of rings, the operator answered “England Transport customer service, can I help you?”

“Yes,” I responded. “I wanted to offer a comment on the driving of one of your owner-operators.”

A pause, then skeptically, “How can I help you again?”

“I was just passed by one of your trucks on the interstate and a sticker on the back asked ‘how’s my driving?’ and gave this 800 number. I figured not many people responded unless they were mad about something, and I just wanted to offer another perspective.”

“OK,” said the woman. “Can you give me the truck number, please?”

“No, I can’t. It’s already passed. But I can tell you it had a metallic silver trailer, mud flaps on the back wheels and was heading south about 60 miles from Charleston.”

At this point, I got the distinct impression this woman was only pretending to care. “Oh… kay,” she said. “Can you give me your, uh, comment?”

“Yes,” I said. “The driver seemed to be doing an adequate job. Nothing dangerous, nothing dramatically good either. I’d say he was meeting expectations.”

Another pause. “Um, okay. England Transport appreciates your input. Thank you for calling.”

“Do I get a coupon or a discount or anything toward my next less-than-truckload haul?”

No response. She’d hung up. At least my grogginess had passed.

Rural South Carolina was now receding in the rear-view mirror as we headed toward the more metropolitan Low Country. We passed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker advertising the “Medieval Tattoo Studio,” and I couldn’t help but wonder how inked scarring of the skin could be more primitive than it already was. Maybe they splash you with flaming tar to give your etching a random effect. Soon, the “Holy City,” as Charleston bills itself, was all around us.

We had a pleasant two-night stay at our favorite Hampton Inn-Historic District (thanks for the one night free, Mr. Eichmann). We started to remember next morning at the lobby breakfast buffet some of the reasons for the “Holy City” nickname. A family at the next table grasped each others’ hands and bowed their heads, quietly but audibly thanking the Lord for the Honey-Nut Cheerios, banana and decaf that His Mercy had bestowed upon them. Later we met up with our aunt, and got to hear all the details about how her tiny evangelical congregation had schismed yet again, this time over something to do with casseroles. (They had been renting a movie theater for their weekly services when there were 40 of them; now that they’re down to 20, they’re looking at local self-storage facilities.) Aunt Vertie confirmed later that she had indeed erased the line between faith and lunacy. We commented on how well her Buick Regal seemed to be running, and she noted that it probably needed some brake work but she was hoping the occasional addition of fluid would allow it to last “until the Rapture.” This sounds like something that GMAC and other car loan financers should investigate – leasing options that are pegged to the End Times.

It was a short enjoyable vacation that made a nice respite during the holidays. Charleston is a great place to visit but I prefer my home just off the Ungodly Memorial Interchange.

You want my advice? (Pt. 7)

December 30, 2008

“You Want My Advice?” is a twice weekly feature (Tuesdays and Thursdays) of I look at questions of ethics, propriety, faith, technology, geopolitics, etc., and offer completely inappropriate, irresponsible and possibly even life-threatening advice. Heed my word at your own risk.

Q. I recently graduated from college and started working in the real world. My problem is that my name is gender-neutral, which my parents tell me was intentional. Many new business acquaintances, whom I meet through e-mail, mistake me for a man. I am often addressed as Mr. and worse, taken for my own secretary when they call. It’s awkward to explain and then embarrassing for the person calling. Is there a polite way to let people know my gender? – It’s Pat

A. I can definitely sympathize and may be able to offer some unique advice from the perspective of someone named “Davis Whiteman.” The “Davis” part comes from several previous generations of fathers and grandfathers, and is not to be confused with “David,” which I’m often mistakenly called. Because my father was also a Davis (actually he went by “Dave”), I became known as “Davie,” which I dropped as soon as I got to college. My son also has the first name of “Davis,” but we call him by his middle name, Daniel. I don’t know who or why somebody came up with the “Whiteman” part – it might’ve seemed like a good idea at the time (1800s), but is definitely awkward in this modern multicultural era. It’s actually pronounced “White-mun,” a small consolation.

Now what was your question again?

Oh, yeah … something about how you want to show your genitals at work. This is not something I’d recommend for most professional workplaces. While it may be essential for certain jobs in adult entertainment and, more recently, the real estate industry (“I’ll show you mine if you buy this house”), most of the dress-for-success literature out there strongly suggests dressing. If you’re a woman, you may want to stay away from pant suits; if you’re a man, I’d avoid putting flowers in your hair.

Electronic and telephonic communications are admittedly a little more problematic. For email, I think you can solve the problem merely by using pink paper for emails if you’re a girl and blue paper for emails if you’re a boy. On the phone, just talk in a real high-pitched squeaky voice if you’re a girl and a booming low-pitched baritone if you’re a boy. As an added flourish, make passing references to Barbie dolls or rocket-propelled grenades, as appropriate.

Giving until it bleeds

December 29, 2008

There was a lot of negative talk out there after my Friday posting claiming that gift-receiving was so much better than gift-giving The Internet was absolutely abuzz, if you count the guy who said I was a “seflish idoit” and the email I got from my mom asking if that’s the way she raised me.

To prove the point that I can also be a very caring individual who feels deeply the importance of giving back to his community, I’ll be hauling a load of stuff over to Goodwill at the end of the tax year on Wednesday. I also went to the bloodmobile Saturday to give the gift of life.

Talk about giving of yourself, this is the most selfless contribution one can make short of a lung. My wife and I have been giving this annual donation right around Christmas for the past five years or so. She’s actually way ahead of me in the quantity given, having started in college. I was only introduced to the concept when the local Starbucks began sponsoring the event with the incentives of free coffee and a baked good for all donors. I also wanted to see if it was true that you’d get drunker on a couple of beers after your body had been sapped of almost a quarter of its life-force.

We arrived early enough to be first on the list of those signing up. While the rest of the nearly overflowing coffee shop was lounging around concerned only about number one (that coffee goes right through you), Beth and I read through the pre-donation materials to be sure we were still eligible. Easily clearing the requirement that I was at least 17, weighed at least 110 pounds and had at least one arm, I signed where they told me and soon was called out to the parking lot where the bloodmobile was parked.

I was directed to the tiny interview room by a middle-aged South Asian woman. This was a good start: my past experience with the workers who staff these events was that they tended to be either young Hispanic- or African-American women who were fast on the take but still required several jabs to hit the right spot, or else they were older Southern white women who were equally jab-happy but much slower about it. I’ve seen enough cardiologist ads in the paper to recognize that Indians make great healthcare professionals. In addition, when it was discovered the scanner connection to the laptop wasn’t working properly, she was able to troubleshoot that without calling home.

We huddled together in a space about the size of an airliner bathroom while she ran through the extremely personal health history questions she kept assuring me she was required to ask. Was I a hemophiliac? No. Have I had an organ transplant in the last 60 days? I don’t recall one. Have I ever had sex with another man? No. Have I ever had sex with a hemophiliac or transplant recipient who was a man? Have I ever been in prison? Have I ever been to Africa? Have I ever killed and consumed the flesh of another person? If so, did that person have hepatitis? Was I bitten by a crazy cow in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996? No, no, no, no, and no, that unfortunate cow encounter was in 1997.

 Finally cleared to proceed, I walked out to the main aisle of the mobile. My interviewer asked which arm I wanted to use, and here’s where I must admit I puffed up a little with pride. If you read my previous posting about selling my body to a company that was doing shingles research, you might remember how exceptional the main vein in my right arm is. The inside of that elbow has been widely admired for the way in which the blue vessel protrudes in a come-hither fashion just below the thinnest layer of skin. Since the right-armed donation loungers were all full, I was asked if I wanted to offer my left arm instead. But when I showed the admiring circle of blood ladies my right vein, they all agreed I should wait. One of them marked the vein with a pen, then posed next to it for a photo to show her family. I took a seat to wait my turn.


Check out the vein

Check out the vein

After about ten minutes, Beth finished her session and I was able to take her spot. The needle went in effortlessly and soon the blood was flowing. I sat back and relaxed as much as I could while workers scurried perilously close to my connection and the intercom played Christmas songs. And, wouldn’t you know it, two of them were from my “Worst Christmas Songs of All Time” list and a third was Bob Seger’s boozy rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” (I don’t know if I was starting to get a little light-headed or what, but the line “the ox and lamb kept time” struck me as absolutely hilarious.)

My languor was soon interrupted when one of the workers reported that an “overflow situation” was developing somewhere in my vicinity. I tried to look behind me where my bag hung to see if the room was starting to look like a Quentin Tarantino film and I was preparing to bleed out. Apparently it was only a minor overflow so I was able to avoid infecting the whole bus with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or whatever it was that wacky British cow gave me.

I was disconnected from the tubing, had a gauze bandage affixed to my magnificent vein and was told to raise my arm high in the air. After a minute or so, a role of colored tape was brought out and a length was cut off and wrapped around my arm. Everyone else who’d been through this step in the process was asked what color tape they wanted, so I already had my eye on a nice pale green that would contrast nicely with my hazel eyes. But I was assigned the blue with no questions asked in what would turn out to be the only disappointment of the experience.

As Beth and I headed back into Starbucks to collect our premiums, I began thinking what kind of bakery item I’d be selecting for my freebie. When I placed my order at the counter for a tall-low-fat-mocha-no-whip and a slice of coffee cake, I flashed my bandaged arm at the barista and told her I’d just given blood. The point was to communicate that I shouldn’t be charged for my order but apparently the counter people hadn’t been told how this worked so she rang me up for $5.57. I got the confusion straightened out easily enough, but the embarrassment I endured for those few seconds when she thought I was just showing off my bandage to impress her lingered longer than it should have.

Now if I could’ve shown her my vein, that would’ve been a different story.


More new ideas of 2008

December 28, 2008

This is the second installment looking at innovations of the past year that have both the potential to make all our lives more comfortable and, at the same time, illustrate why researchers and inventors typically live such lonely, pathetic existences.

The Dog-Poop DNA Bank – The mayor of a small city near Tel Aviv wanted a more effective way to enforce regulations requiring pet owners to clean up after their dogs have done their business. So he turned to the city’s director of veterinary services to come up with a system that could use DNA fingerprinting technology to attach (so to speak) unclaimed feces to specific dog owners. An army of 13-year-old volunteers recruited by the mayor’s office fanned out across the city, going door to door to collect samples of poop with which to create a DNA bank. Surprisingly, about 90 percent of city residents who had kids showing up on their doorstep asking for some shit complied with the request. Once the problem of random canine defecation is solved, scientists will then turn to less pressing issues like genetic research on dog diseases and returning strays to their owners.

Eat Kangaroos to Fight Global Warming – An official with Australia’s wildlife services, which you’d imagine is supposed to be protecting indigenous species, proposes that raising and eating kangaroos instead of sheep and beef could cut methane emissions by as much as three percent. Unlike the ruminants we’re used to slaughtering and devouring, kangaroos have a different stomach structure with different organisms to digest their food — probably something to do with the pouch. Already considered a specialty meat that’s (not surprisingly) a bit gamy in taste, the hoppers-cum-whoppers sustained native Australians for 40,000 years before Europeans arrived with their stupid cows. Reaction in the land Down Under has not been especially positive: the official can’t find any funding to further his study, plus he’s battling newspaper headlines that read “Skippy on the Menu!”

Scrupulosity Disorder – Researchers from Brigham Young University suggest that as many as a million Americans suffer from this disorder defined as “obsessive doubt about moral behavior often resulting in compulsive religious observance.” Not to be confused with your standard evangelicals, sufferers worry about thinking bad thoughts, whether or not these thoughts are acted on in the physical world. An omniscient God, after all, sees past the bumper stickers on your SUV and into your heart, where you may be doing things like being aware of curse words. Though possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, there can be a fine line for chronic hand-washers like certain sects who observe such a ritual as part of ordinary religious observance. Treatment is thus problematic but another researcher says once patients are released from the crippling doubt about their own virtue, they can emerge with a new sense of faith, even if it means slightly more soiled hands.

The Spray-On Condom – The idea with this device is not so much the convenience of application but with the way it can made to fit a variety of sizes. Rather than asking retailers to stock a quantity of as many as 30 or so sizes, the spray-on condom can be customized to each man. The inventor, a German entrepreneur, got the idea in an automated car wash – not in the back seat while canoodling but while observing that the car was being inserted into a tube-like structure and then sprayed with latex from all sides. (Oh, baby). The only drawbacks reported in real-life testing were that the spray was a little cold and that the latex would take up to two minutes to dry. That, and the fact that the European Union’s strict product standards will make it difficult to bring to market, means the condom won’t be commercially available any time soon. I guess if you can wait two minutes, you can wait two years.

Vending Machine for Crows – An NYU graduate student (probably a marketing major) put coins and peanuts into a dish attached to a vending machine he created. The crows arrived and picked out all the peanuts, leaving only the coins. As they pushed the coins out of the way while looking for more peanuts, the coins were dropped into a slot which then dispensed more peanuts. When the crows figured out the equation that coins plus slot equaled more nuts, the more entrepreneurial birds starting looking for loose change on the ground to put into the slot. Realizing that the flock was quickly becoming his intellectual match, the grad student brought in a few more researchers to help him figure what all this might mean. Rather than arriving at the obvious answer (a fleet of trained ravens who could steal cash from the pockets of pedestrians, thereby giving the students the power to ultimately rule the world), they’re trying to do something positive. “Why not see if they can do something useful for us, so we can all live in close proximity?” they asked. They’re now busy trying to apply their techniques to train rats to sort garbage for us, instead of imagining a future in which they could practically bathe in dimes.

New ideas of 2008

December 27, 2008

The New York Times recently ran a feature in their Sunday magazine profiling what they called the “Year in Ideas.” They examined several dozen new concepts floated in 2008 that “helped make the previous 12 months, for better or worse, what they were” – an introduction that belied their alleged astonishment at the unlimited nature of the inventive mind.

I’ll admit that all the ideas are extremely imaginative, but that doesn’t mean that some of them can’t also be extremely bizarre. Today and tomorrow, we’ll look at a few examples:

Air Bags for the Elderly – In light of the fact that falls are the leading cause of death among people 65 and older, a Japanese company has begun selling a wearable set of airbags. Describing the device as looking “something like a fishing vest with a fanny pack attached,” it contains motion sensors that will inflate two airbags – one around the hips and the other around the neck – when a fall is detected. “Instant Michelin Man,” notes the Times. This innovation updates an earlier attempt to reduce injuries, the foam hip pads. Both the low-tech hip pads and the high-tech air bags could be a success from a bioengineering and cost standpoint and yet still fall victim to the elderly’s penchant for wanting to be fashionable. “One of the reasons people shy away from these is that they don’t want to make their hips look larger,” said one independent researcher. “These air bags look kind of parachute-y.”

The Biomechanical Energy Harvester – A knee-brace-like contraption has been developed by a Canadian scientist that reportedly can harness the power of your walk and turn it into something your cell phone and other small electronics can run on. Strapped to the back of your leg, the device taps the power of your muscles with each stride without making walking feel any more difficult. At less than three pounds, it’s small enough to fit under your pants (or, less subtly, just below the hemline of your skirt), which is a significant improvement on version 1.0 – a backpack that made its own electricity from the subtle bouncing of your walk but, unfortunately, weighed in at 80 pounds.

Bubble Wrap that Never Ends – Again it’s the Japanese leading the way to a better future. They’ve created a battery-powered keychain with a panel of eight buttons that simulate the tactile joy of bubble-package destruction. Roughly translated as “Infinite Pop Pop,” the company has already sold a million of the gadgets in its first two months of release, and it’s reportedly now available at American outlets such as Target and Wal-Mart. Makers of the real thing, the Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey, acknowledge the tension-relieving properties inherent in ruining their product, yet they won’t admit to feeling the stress of potential competition from the Far East. (Probably the same way GM felt when that first Toyota rolled onto the docks of California.) No word yet on whether the Biomechanical Energy Harvester could be used to power the “Pop Pop” keychain.

Carbon Penance – To assuage the guilt many of us feel about our contributions to climate change, a Swiss-born inventor (again with the foreigners) has built a leg band that monitors how much power you’re consuming. When levels have exceeded a certain threshold, the techno-garter slowly drives six steel thorns into the meat of your leg. The concept came to the inventor, who not surprisingly also refers to herself as an artist, while designing a device that punishes the wearer who doesn’t spend enough time talking to their houseplants. The leg band is apparently not quite ready for full-scale development and distribution because of a slight flaw: when the spikes dig in, they don’t hurt that much.

The Cloth Car – This is a concept car developed in Germany that substitutes fabric for the more conventional (and you’d think safer) hardened plastic and aluminum auto body. The shell, made of polyurethane-coated Lycra, is stretched over a car’s frame in four separate pieces. It creases when the door opens, can be unsealed if work needs to be done on the engine, and contains eye-shaped slits so the headlights can shine through. The interior is similarly flexible, featuring a steering wheel and dashboard that collapse to lie flat and create more interior space. Perhaps the seatbelt and upholstery will be made of steel.

Tomorrow: eatings kangaroos and a vending machine for crows

Giving vs. receiving — which is best?

December 26, 2008

They say that giving is better than receiving. This sounds to me like one of those counterintuitive urban myths, except with fewer unauthorized kidney transplants. I would contend that common sense dictates that it’s the receiving that’s better than the giving. Sure, there’s a rush of warmth when you see the look on that loved one’s face as they open your gift. But that tends to pass pretty quickly, whereas on the receiving end, you’ve still got the socks.

No matter how much joy I’ve ever experienced giving or receiving during the holidays, it can’t possibly match what one of my coworkers went through just the other morning. Lucy is widely known as, shall we say, the expressive type, never one to keep her thoughts or feelings unshared. The generosity with which she lays out all the details of her life is something I don’t always appreciate. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving.

The co-worker sitting immediately to Lucy’s right has become her close friend, which Lucy pretty much requires when you’re that close to her every day. Jen was nice enough to bring Lucy a gift, a contraption called the Pasta ‘n More. You may have seen the ads on late-night TV: features include a strainer lid, steam rack, storage lid and, if you order now, two handles. You can cook, drain, serve and store pasta all in one vessel constructed of FDA-certified materials. Makes a great gift.

But “great” didn’t come close to describing how Lucy felt upon opening the package. There were shrieks, there were yips, there were even tears. The entire production floor ground to a halt and got to hear how wonderful the gift was, how fantastic the pasta was going to be, and how unbelievably extraordinary was the two-quart capacity. Eventually, she had to be comforted and led to a chair.

Kind of made one of my most memorable gifts from childhood pale in comparison. I grew up in Miami, which sounds like an ideal place to spend your formative years but was actually quite lacking in many ways. I’d read in books at school about concepts like autumn leaves, mountains, chimneys and snow, though these were totally alien to the south Florida scene. Our Santa came not in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer. He came in a helicopter powered by Pratt & Whitney.

My grandmother, who lived in Pennsylvania, took pity on me one year and actually mailed me an oak leaf that had fallen in her yard. I removed the leaf from the envelope and marveled at how red and how leaf-shaped it was, not like the palm fronds and crocus spirals in my unnatural subtropical hell. She could’ve used the U.S. Postal Service to clear her yard like her neighbors used the city’s curbside vacuuming trucks if we could’ve figured out the logistics. Only the intervention of my parents kept me from requesting a snowball with the next shipment.

This is not to discount the value of the gifts I received from my own parents, for these were also very special. We lived in a modest working/middle class neighborhood but they always made sure my sister and I had one of the best Christmases in that part of town, and not just because all our neighbors were Jewish. My anticipation and gift list began in late November, when the 3,000-page Sears catalog would arrive at our door by flatbed truck. Up till about age twelve, I’d quickly flip to the last section of the giant volume where the toy section was spread out in its full black-and-white glory and begin to compile my list. (When my teens arrived, I tended to first make a furtive stop to check out the models in their industrial-strength bras and the sexiest girdles this side of J.C. Penney.) More often than not, I’d get most of the items I’d requested.

Aside from the conventional gifts that every boy of the ‘60s received – footballs, cap guns, the occasional bike – my parents were as accommodating as they could afford to be to some of my more unusual requests (no, not the bra). One year I asked for and actually received a full-size pool table. Our three-bedroom home contained modest floor space at best, yet we managed to turn that monster on its side and wrestle it down the hallway to my bedroom. There, it barely fit next to my bed, hard up against the other three walls. I still remember how impressed visiting friends would be as we stood in the closet banking shots into the corner pocket.

Other especially memorable gifts included a punching bag, a portable tape recorder and a slot-car racing set. As a nerdy, pimply overweight kid, my pugilistic skills were not the best. It was theorized the punching bag would build both the confidence and technique that would allow me to defend against those vicious Jewish bullies. The height of the bag on its spring was not quite right, so my most vivid learning experience consisted of the punched mass viciously returning back to my lower abdomen. I spent hours complaining about this to the tape recorder in an affected British accent, which I imagined would ultimately land me a job as radio deejay. The car racing set, much like the small stereo and the electric guitar I received at subsequent Christmases, was a mass of primitive electronics that alternately provided fun and dangerous high-voltage currents.

My folks were also open-minded enough to buy me some of them rock and roll records all the kids were so crazy about. I still remember the year I received the Beatles’ White Album, and the contortions I had to go through to hide the picture inside of a naked John Lennon. Though I succeeded at that, the Fab Four were eventually exposed when my mom overheard a playing of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which contained the line “everybody’s got a wet dream.” What had previously been just noise to her now took on the awkwardness of a subject the 15-year-old doesn’t especially care to discuss with his mother. A year later, she heard the lyric “nothing’s gonna change my world” on “Across the Universe,” and commented that John should “quit whining and do something about it if he doesn’t like the world.” That is one valid criticism you can make about the Beatles: they didn’t exert much influence on the culture.

So now it’s the day after Christmas, and I’m enjoying playing with this year’s gifts – peanut-butter-stuffed pretzels, a book of crossword puzzles and a hat. (“Whee!” I gushed as I spin the fedora on my finger. “It’s a hat!”) At least these gifts are unlikely to electrocute me.

You want my advice? (Pt. 6)

December 25, 2008

This is the sixth installment in my free but increasingly dangerous advice service. Today, rather than giving advice, I’ll be answering a deep theological question posed by one of our dimmer readers.

Q. Who created God? Everything else in the universe had a beginning, so why not God? – Just Curious

A. What an appropriate question for this magical day. The answer lies in the Christmas Story itself.

Hundreds of years ago, it came to pass that the Italians wanted to impose a tax on the people of Galilee, so they had to return to the land of their birth to register for a census. The tax was to be placed on wine and some of the Galilites protested this with a “wine party” in which they dressed up as Judeans, boarded a ship in the harbor and threw the wine overboard. Most of them, however, did as they were told.

A carpenter by the name of Jesus and his wife Mary were among those who had obeyed, so they rented a donkey to carry them to Bethlehem. But when they arrived, there was a big convention of the local medical association in town so no rooms were available. At the last hotel they checked, Jesus demanded to see the manager but while they discussed the matter behind the front desk, Mary went into labor and the child was delivered right there by the manager (now translated as “manger”). When the clerk came to check on the commotion and witnessed the scene, he shrieked “Oh my God,” so that was given as the new baby’s name.

Soon, there were Three Wise Men who arrived carrying gifts for the young God: gold, myrrh and a burning bush. The gold and myrrh looked on in silent awe, but the bush spoke up, saying “you must go find a man named Noah and get on his ark because there is a Great Flood on the way.” The young family headed for the mountain where Noah was known to reside. It was a two-day trip, so they had to stop for the night at a cave. When they woke up the next morning, someone had put a giant stone in front of the cave so they yelled and screamed till the Pharisees showed up and rolled back the stone. Finally they arrived at the ark and just as they were about to board, a giant whale ate them. But John the Baptist intervened, administering the Holy Emetic (later found to be syrup of ipecac) to the great fish. He swam as far as Gethsemane before he couldn’t hold it down any longer. Jesus, Mary and the young baby God were saved from the flood and the fish only to be injured by a stampeding cavalry (now translated as “Calvary”) of soldiers.

Some shepherds soon came to pass and carried the family to the nearby Garden of Eden. They were welcomed there by a talking snake who offered them a large meal consisting of apples, one fish, one loaf of bread and some communion wafers. The baby smushed his food all into one pile, creating the first shepherd’s pie. When the Holy Family recovered, they traveled to Rome to wreak vengeance on the Italians but soon became distracted and instead single-handedly built the Vatican.

And that’s roughly why we celebrate Christmas today.

Twas the parody before Christmas

December 24, 2008

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the land
The economy’s falling like castles of sand
The stock market tanked like a chimney of hair
Investment banks toppled, and wide roamed the bear
The Dow hit new lows, then fell even more
The middle class joined with the ranks of the poor
Retirement and pensions and 401(k)’s
And savings we’d kept for our golden-age days
Were gutted and shredded and eaten for lunch
And now try to borrow in this credit crunch
We’ve bailed out the autos, insurance and banks
And we’re thrown out of work — this is our thanks
Unemployment climbs higher, near seven percent
And foreclosures rise and yet so does the rent
The Internet’s fun but it’s taking our jobs
And turning us all into hypnotized mobs
Outsourcing continues, white-collar work prowls
To lands in South Asia with too many vowels
We tried “Buy American”, tried doing our part
But succumbed in the end to the lure of Wal-Mart
When all looked quite lost and we struggled to cope
We saw signs of life, we saw signs of hope
When what to our wondering eyes did appear
A president-elect a bit large in the ear
But he knows how to lead, even knows how to talk
And he goes by the uncommon name of Barack
His electoral victory o’er Old Man McCain
And that gal from Alaska, the one who’s insane,
Was truly historic, inspiring and cool
After eight years of piss-poor incompetent rule
Now he’s picking his cabinet, a quite able lot
Can’t remember them all but I’ll give it a shot
Now, Daschle! Now, Vilsack! Now, Holder and Duncan!
On Solis! On Salazar, Gates, Chu and Clinton!
From the right, from the left, labels falling away
Need just one from the South and one who is gay
Transition’s proceeding at an admirable rate
Less than thirty days now till the January date
That Cheney and Rove and their underling Bush
Return to their homes with one final push
To a life full of leisure while the rest of us work
To undo the disaster that’s left by this jerk
But we’ll hear him exclaim as he flies out of sight
“Sure I lost your life savings, but I coddled the Right”.

You want my advice? (Pt. 5)

December 23, 2008

This is the fifth installment in my free but increasingly dangerous advice service. Today’s topic addresses a spiritual matter that has occurred to all of us during this holiday season, but I’ll also be tackling interpersonal relationships, computer breakdowns, health problems, do-it-yourself issues, travel, and virtually anything else I care to. TODAY’S DISCLAIMER APPEARS IN ITALIC CAPITALS, BECAUSE IT SEEMED SOMEHOW FESTIVE: REMEMBER, I HAVEN’T THE FAINTEST IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.

Q. Now that the year-end holidays are here, I find myself once again in the sometimes difficult position of having to explain to acquaintances and coworkers why I don’t celebrate them. I am single, my parents died many years ago, and I have no family. Coworkers take time off at Christmas, but I take mine at other times of the year. Over time, I have found that I would rather spend a so-called holiday catching up on correspondence, taking a walk, reading a good book or sewing. I understand the religious and historical significance of these celebrations and keep them in my heart, but do not observe them in a visible manner. When people ask me what I’m doing for the holidays, it is an awkward moment. How can I gracefully explain that I choose to keep the holidays in my heart only and enjoy the day as a small vacation for myself? – Lonely and Pathetic Yet For Some Reason Upbeat

A. There’s actually a great but largely unknown tradition in Christendom that’s rooted in the activities of sewing and catching up on correspondence. It is written in the Gospel according to St. Mark that, shortly after Jesus was born unto Mary in Bethlehem, that He was asked by a wise man (more of a wise guy, actually) to do something to prove His divinity. The Holy Child proceeded to produce a sewing needle and skein of fine linen from the rear pocket of his swaddling clothes and rapidly stitched the shawl he would then carry throughout his life and which ultimately became the Shroud of Turin. Then, about 15 years later, the Holy Teenager began what would become a lengthy correspondence with the prophet Huldah, who was sort of the “Dear Abby” of her day, about His acne.

All this might be difficult to condense into a short answer for your prying coworkers, so I’m sending you a package of tracts titled “Busywork Is The Lord’s Work” that you can hand out to your acquaintances. Bring ‘em along when you take that Christmas Day walk along with that pile of books, and you can make yourself a small stage to harangue passers-by to adopt your One True Religion.

What a loser.

Monday musings

December 22, 2008

Two new products appearing in recent TV ads caught my attention:

The first is something called “ImmuGo,” which is supposed to increase the efficiency of your immune system. In fact, it bills itself as “the Official Immune Support Product of the Hollywood Movie Awards.” This is quite a claim. Not only have I spent my entire life failing to realize that such a thing as an immune support product exists, but now I learn there is an “official” one. This is one sorry licensing arrangement, if you ask me, not something I’d expect from the marketing masterminds of sister-product “HeadOn (applydirectlytotheforehead).” I guess they chose the Hollywood Movie Awards as sponsor after finding that the Arena Football League and General Motors were not available. If I ever have the need for my immune system to be improved, though, I’m definitely going to choose the ointment (salve? unguent? balm?) used by an organization that shows pictures of George Clooney and Keira Knightley on its website.

The second commercial was for a service rather than a product. I don’t remember the cosmetic surgeon’s name, but he was offering a special that gives you treatment of one “area” free for each area purchased. By area, I assume he’s talking about the part of your body that you want to be surgically revised. This seems a little gimmicky to me. With the exception of a few internal organs (whose physical appearance I can’t imagine anyone would care about), the human body is so symmetrical that virtually everything comes in pairs. You’d almost have to get two areas done at once, unless there are women who want one breast enlarged but not the other or men who want only half of their spare tire liposuctioned. I wonder if the surgeon would allow you to mix-and-match: could you perhaps have the dark bag under one eye eliminated, and then have a toe removed as your second “area”? I’m betting the contract has some fine print that disallows this.

*  *  *

Did you realize that the group of individuals who officially decide when the nation is in a recession is called the Business Cycle Dating Committee? They look at a variety of statistics to determine when the economy is trending positive and when it’s heading into a downturn and, I guess in their spare time, arrange for social encounters among eligible economists.

*  *  *

I’ve been thinking about the right kind of career advice to give my teenage son as he prepares to pursue his studies at college next fall. It seems that, between outsourcing and computerization, there’s really going to be very little left to choose from. The only sure bets that I can come up with are nail technician and the guy who puts tires on your car. I’ve read that even fields like anesthesiology and drive-through fast-food order-taker are being endangered, the former by a new software program and the latter by distant call centers that can handle hundreds of Wendy’s at a time. One of Daniel’s big interests right now is journalism, a respectable career to be sure but one that seems to be on its last legs. I’m encouraging the journalism, thinking it may survive on the web long after the last newsprint is recycled. I’m afraid, though, the only worse advice I could give would be to suggest he take courses that would allow him to major in United Auto Work.

*  *  *

I hate that most fruit flavors have been hijacked by the health, beauty and cosmetics industry. Cherry has become virtually intolerable, since it reminds me of either cough syrup or kids’ shampoo. Orange reminds me of baby aspirin. Somebody should be sued.

*  *  *

I’ve always wanted to be in a wheelchair, have a cast or be admitted to the hospital. I’ve long believed, as stated by George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” that pity is very under-rated, and I want some. I did have a kidney stone removed a few years ago (unfortunately on an out-patient basis) and I was able to take some advantage of the situation a few days later when I accompanied my family to Costco. I checked out one of the motorized chairs they provide for their more feeble customers and had myself a grand time roaming up and down the aisles. The world looks so different when your eye level is reduced by three feet – all these people look down at you with such sympathy.

I once thought about jumping off the roof of our house when I was a kid in order to break my leg and avoid a particularly arduous segment of physical education – tumbling or wrestling or square dancing, I think. Ultimately, though, I chickened out.

 *  *  *

I’ve always wondered who would win in a fight between a cow and a horse, though both are so even-tempered it seems unlikely ever to happen.