Archive for January, 2009

Impressions on an historic day

January 21, 2009

Observations on yesterday’s historic events:

  • My suburb of Charlotte, NC, was slammed by two inches of snow Tuesday, grinding everyday life to a complete halt. Transportation was paralyzed, schools were closed and people stayed home from work to eat French toast, made with all the eggs, bread and milk they’d purchased the previous night. Life slowly returned to normal later in the day when all the car accidents that could possibly happen did happen. In other news, the U.S. inaugurated its first African-American president, beginning an era of hope and promise not seen in decades.
  • When Chief Justice John Roberts bungled the first few lines of the presidential oath of office, I got the sneaking suspicion that he was laying the foundation for a constitutional challenge that Barack Obama was not in fact president because he didn’t say exactly the right words. What Roberts should have prompted was “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the president,” but instead he came out with “I do slovenly swear that I will facetiously execute the president of the office.” Fortunately, Obama saw what Robbie was up to and managed to recite the correct wording.
  • In an attempt to capture every possible camera angle, the networks at one point were focusing their cameras through the bullet-proof glass and onto the front line of dignitaries right before the oath was delivered at noon. An astute reporter observed that the giant foreheads seen on the distinguished guests were a “funhouse mirror reflection” and not actual giant alien foreheads.
  • I noticed that 10-year-old Malia Obama was fiddling with some kind of electronic device while waiting for her father’s big moment. TV commentators claimed it was a camera, but I got the distinct impression that she was texting her friends. I can only imagine the message that a pre-teen girl might send in the midst of so much attention being paid to her and her family: “OMG – my dad is becoming president – I’m so embarrassed!!!”
  • I was not particularly impressed with the invocation delivered by controversial preacher Rick Warren. He managed to avoid the verb “smite” while talking about the diversity of America, but still snuck in a few ingratiating references to his own personal savior, while giving only passing acknowledgment to everybody else’s. Then, for the last quarter of the recitation, he had the nerve to sample from the Lord’s Prayer. What is he, some kind of DJ Saddleback? I just hope he’s made to pay royalties to whomever it is who owns the rights to that “Our Father, who art in heaven” lyric.
  • I thought it was very sad when the Obamas had to get out of their GM-produced megamobile during the parade and begin walking because the vehicle couldn’t get above 2 mph. This was the Big Three’s opportunity for some impressive grill time before a huge national audience, and the giant Escalade broke down at least twice on the route. They were able to get it re-started both times and finally ended up at the reviewing stand in time to watch the rest of the parade.
  • During some of the postgame analysis on CNN, Democratic strategist and Louisiana native Donna Brazille talked about how great it was to be so close to the historic event up on the main stage. She said she ran into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at one point and, in the spirit of bipartisanship, resisted what had to be an overwhelming temptation to punch him in the mouth. Instead, she reportedly told the Savannah-raised justice, “Georgia in da house, Louisiana in da house.” Responding with classic Thomasonian wit, the soft-spoken arch-conservative responded, “duh?”
  • It was high noon, the historic moment was at hand, and inauguration coordinator Senator Dianne Feinstein takes the stage to introduce … an overhead backup band? Their set was mercifully short, just long enough for me to make a quick trip to the restroom before the presidential oath. They were just finishing when I got back, so I may not have the band lineup exactly right, but I think I know at least a few of them – cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Billy Joel and saxophonist Kenny G were immediately recognizable. It was only the tambourine player that I didn’t recognize.
  • Dick Cheney made his final appearance as sitting vice president literally sitting, in a wheelchair. He couldn’t have been happy with how diabolical that made him look. Reportedly, he suffered a back sprain while helping move furniture out of his office the day before (that man-sized safe isn’t going to move itself, you know). I’ve been through similar back pain myself, and I can tell you that sitting down is not the position you want to assume. When I had my most recent spell of back spasms, I wanted to either stand up straight or lay flat the whole time; any bending at the waist was extremely painful. I guess they couldn’t wheel him into the proceedings on a stretcher, since that would make it too hard to see unless he had one of those iron-lung mirrors you see in old movies. I suppose they could’ve slanted the gurney to a 45-degree angle so he might get an actual view. That was probably vetoed, however, when they realized how much it would look like he was doing a shout-out to waterboarding.
  • Since I had to watch the proceedings from the office, I had to rely on the magnificent architecture of the worldwide web to get my live feed, and things were not going well. I went to several sites I would’ve thought reliable – CNN, CBS, ABC, MSN, even, in desperation, Fox – and all of them said I could “click here for live video.” I’d click there and nothing would happen except for a circular graphic rotation. I could understand why CNN’s wasn’t working; they had to use up half their bandwidth to include inane but real-time comments from their Facebook connection (Allegra Bischoff is thinking Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are total foxes; Reza Gulastani is thinking I love everybody, God loves everybody, I think I need to study now). I finally got a site up and running just as Obama was stepping up to the podium for the main event, then … screen freeze. I rushed into the breakroom and was able to see the historic moment along with a group of African-, Asian- and Latino-Americans from our warehouse. When they broke into applause as the oath finished, it was a great moment.

Best of luck to all of us and to our new president.

You want my advice? (Pt. 13)

January 20, 2009

“You Want My Advice?” is a twice weekly feature (Tuesdays and Thursdays) of I look at questions of ethics, manners, faith, technology, geopolitics, design, etc., and offer completely inappropriate, irresponsible and possibly even life-threatening advice. Today, we hear from readers looking for a more open and honest relationship with their friends.

Q. Our best friends, “Bill and Melinda,” are financially well off. My husband and I make just enough to get by. We have been friends for a long time and always have a good time together. “Bill and Melinda” are always inviting us to go with them on expensive trips. When we say we can’t afford it, they insist on paying. They even offered to buy us a membership in their country club. When we explain we’re uncomfortable with them paying for everything, they tell us the money is no big deal. How can we make them understand that we appreciate their generosity but are uncomfortable accepting their charity? – Not Only Poor But Really, Really Stupid

A. I think that if you’re truly best friends with these folks, you should be able to have an honest conversation about your concerns. I suspect they don’t even realize your discomfort, and would try to be more understanding if they did. I also would bet that they consider your friendship far more valuable than anything they could buy, and that’s why they want to be so generous.

No – forget that. It’s entirely too reasonable.

I would make a point of entertaining them the best way you can afford, in the coziness of your own home. The fanciest restaurant in the world can’t compare with a home-cooked meal of spam-and-dog-food lasagna around the small bench you call a dining room table. Go all out for this event, setting a trash fire in the corner of the room to provide the right ambience and putting a block of cheese on the back porch to draw out all the rats. After your friends have had a few glasses of malt liquor, all class differences will be forgotten.

Then, when they return the favor by inviting you into their home, be prepared to thoroughly ransack the place looking for jewelry, cash and expensive electronics to be loaded into your pick-up truck and hauled away while they’re preparing the canapés. If they happened to surprise you during your looting spree, just laugh it off – in as threatening and maniacal a laugh as you can summon.

By the way, you say these people are named “Bill and Melinda.” That wouldn’t be Bill and Melinda Gates, would it? If so, make sure you also steal the Microsoft stock certificates.


Lives of the Dead: Martin Luther

January 19, 2009

Martin Luther (1483-1546), widely regarded as the father of the Protestant Reformation and a number of unintended babies, was a German theologian and religious reformer who challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He also had a vast influence on European concepts of politics, economics, education, language and hair styling, with his now-familiar bowl cut making him one of the most crucial figures in modern European history.

He was born in Eisleben (later Hitlerville, and then back to Eisleben) in what today is Germany. His father, originally known as Hans Luder, had wanted to name his son “Lex” but was convinced by his wife to go with “Abraham Martin and John,” later shortened to simply Martin. The family was descended from peasantry, but Hans made a nice living for himself and his family as a copper miner and part-time fletcher/cooper (roughly equivalent to today’s writer/director). Martin received his early education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, before enrolling at the University of Erfurt at age 17. Red-shirted during his freshman season, he became an outstanding left tackle for the Fightin’ Furter football team by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1502. He passed on an opportunity for a pro career — he was projected as high as the eighth round by some scouts — and chose to stay in school to pursue his master’s, which he received in 1505.

He began to study law, as his father wished, but didn’t have enough credits to graduate so he fell back on his undergraduate major – monking — and entered the Augustinian monastery. Within a year, he had so impressed his superiors that he was selected for the priesthood, ordained, and conducted his first celebration of mass. (“Celebration” might be overstating the case, as he kept stumbling over the unfamiliar phrasing, once mispronouncing “Madonna” as “My donut.”) He continued his studies in theology, including multiple re-takes of basic Latin, until he got his big chance to go to Rome and check out how Catholicism was done in the big city.

To put it mildly, he was not impressed. In fact, he was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy, especially the way they had substituted vodka shots for wine in the communions they conducted. This led him to question other basic tenets of church, and he gradually came to believe that Christians were saved not through their own efforts but instead by God’s grace. The church leadership was making a tidy fortune off the sale of indulgences, which were peddled to the peasants in the form of mugs, posters and t-shirts (“Rome Rules” was a common slogan for this merchandising). This crass effort disgusted Luther to the point where he suffered from nearly constant vomiting, though scholars recently discovered a sixteenth-century Domino’s menu that led them to believe that salmonella-tainted pizza may have been a contributing factor.

Luther finally emerged into worldwide prominence when in 1517 he was named Holy Roman Empire Today’s “Most Pious Man Alive” and became known for some graffiti he had scrawled on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. This posting of the so-called Ninety-five Theses has been greatly misunderstood by historians and only recently was clarified when the old door itself was located at a garage sale in East St. Louis, Missouri. It was long believed that Luther wrote the theses before-hand and then nailed them to the cathedral door as a sign of protest and to show his growing prowess as a construction worker. In reality, Luther wrote the seminal document on-site, meticulously painting it onto the oak with a fine single-haired brush. What bothered the church elders more than what the manuscript said was the fact that he was always in the way, blocking the main entrance almost constantly during the three weeks it took him to finish. Most of the demands were not that unreasonable – for example, he wrote of the need for sturdier pews to “accommodate the ample Germanic hind.” He also wanted Wednesday night services moved to Tuesday because most members couldn’t TiVo floggings in the public square like the wealthy clergy could, and he wanted the liturgy conducted in native languages because Latin “sounds too much like they’re just making it up as they go along.”

He made it all the way through the next-to-last thesis (“94. Enough with the incense already, it’s giving everybody a headache”) with church officials only mildly curious about the progress of the bowl-headed scribe. On the morning of his final day of work, he began writing the last entry as a crowd of onlookers grew around him. “The pope is not ni…” he began. The throng began buzzing with anticipation. The pope is not what? Nitrogen-based? Nihilistic? Luther slowly added a “c”. Nicene? Nickel-plated? Then he added an “e”. “Don’t get upset everybody – it could still be ‘Nicene,’” shouted one observer, trying to quell the growing distress of the crowd. Then Luther added the punctuation mark that would change European history forever, a period. “The pope is not nice.” The multitude gasped, but soon dispersed when they heard a beheading was being set up across the street.

The Roman Curia, which is kind of like a Senate subcommittee only crankier, began an investigation that eventually led to the condemnation of Luther’s teachings in 1520 and his excommunication a year later. He was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and asked to recant. His famous assertion of conscience in the face of certain punishment – “No Can Do!” – is most likely legendary, but still he was spirited away by Prince Frederick the Wise who kept him in virtual house arrest at his castle.

Luther was able to continue much of his other life work, though it paled in comparison to royally pissing off the entire Catholic Church. He made a little money doing some free-lance translations and sticking his nose into the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, where he supported the peasants’ political demands while repudiating their theological arguments, a fine distinction that was lost on all the people who had swords. He married a former nun, a widely acknowledged hottie by the name of Katharina von Bora, and continued his writing as his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe.

By the late 1530’s, his health began to deteriorate and he took on an anti-Semitic bent by accusing the Jews of exploiting the confusion he had caused among Christians. This made him virtually unable to locate a decent doctor, and he died on Feb. 18, 1546. His obituary, printed several days later in the Eisleben Picayune-Examiner, included a long list of his works, an even longer list of his children, and the name of his new religion: Martinism, which was later changed to Luthermania, then Lutheranism.

Now we’re cooking … with crackers

January 18, 2009

There’s been quite an explosion in culinary creativity in recent years. Things that just were not done with foods in the past are now being routinely cooked up by top-flight chefs as well as amateurs in their home kitchens. Taste combinations we couldn’t fathom ten years ago – lamb and Pez, free-range chicken and bubblegum, eggplant and Chloraseptic, pomegranate and mint-flavored toothpaste – are now so commonplace as to be almost ordinary.

Television, at least at some level, seems to have had a large part in driving this revolution. Shows like “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and “You Think You Can Cook? Well, Think Again” are all over the airwaves, showcasing cooks with stars in their eyes and eyeballs in their soups. Celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, known for using his lit cigarettes as a heat source for his famous fondues, and Andrew Zimmern, the “Bizarre Foods” guy who recently added blown-out retreads and chunks of asphalt to the carbon-based matter he’s willing to consume, are well known and admired, assuming they’re still alive as of this writing. Racheal Ray brings less exotic ideas like pasta-stuffed Mom jeans to dinner tables all over the country.

But even at the everyday level where most of us live, we see these changes. Fast food restaurants that once offered only regular French fries, now also offer curly fries and seasoned fries. Pizza toppings, the most exotic of which used to be anchovies, now include pine nuts, pine cones and pine tar. You can even buy a hamburger that has another hamburger on top of it.

Large corporations have been quick to join in on this anything-goes bandwagon with suggestions of their own, cooked up in the same kitchens that brought us such entrees as high-interest junk bonds and collateralized mortgage originations. It’s a great opportunity to team even the most pedestrian snack foods with exotic recipes in the interest of selling more Fritos and Twizzlers.

One such company is Nabisco, makers of not only nature’s most perfect food, the Oreo, but also saltines, more formally known as Original Premium Saltine Crackers. The quick and easy recipe on packaging now on the shelves is the Grilled Steak Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing. Below is the actual recipe:

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Sprinkle steak with chili powder. Grill steak 7 minutes on each side. Remove from grill and let stand 5 minutes. Meanwhile, toss lettuce with tomatoes, onion and olives. Place Italian dressing and avocado in blender and blend until smooth. Cut steak into thin slices; arrange over salad. Drizzle with dressing mixture.

And then, the final and, some would say, most important step: Serve with the crackers.

The mystery of health-food names

January 17, 2009

I absolutely love my neighborhood organic health-food store. They let me hang out in their small Wi-Fi-equipped café for hours at a time playing with my laptop, drinking cold bottled tea and raiding their free samples. Though the freebies don’t always complement one another — yesterday’s selections were chocolate brownie bites and garlic hummus — they’re always delicious.

My wife and I shop here on a regular basis, so I don’t feel too guilty doing this cyber-loitering. I blend in nicely with the houseplants and pistachio-nutshell artworks (I’m the one wearing sweatpants) and I try not to make a nuisance of myself. It’s become something of a home away from home since my hours at work were cut back a few months ago and I started getting on my wife’s nerves at home.

I’m not a big health-food consumer though I do enjoy just about anything that’s tasty and expensive. Browsing the shelves here I find a lot of products I’m sure I would enjoy, but I also see a lot of items that are something of a mystery to me. Health and organic food manufacturers have gotten very creative with their naming conventions. It does make them memorable, though often in an unintentionally funny way.

Here are some of the products I found while wandering around the store yesterday afternoon, and my guess of what they really are:

Wallaby yogurt – I’m sure it’s not made of wallaby, but I also want to know that it’s not made of wallaby milk.

Seventh Generation recycled toilet paper – Recycling is obviously a good and important thing, even in items like bathroom tissue. Taking it all the way to the seventh generation, however, seems a bit much.

Women’s bread, man’s bread, brown sandwich bread, kamut – These are all frozen bread products and are fairly self-descriptive, except for whatever the hell “kamut” is.

Dr. Praeger’s spinach pancakes – This sounds more like a prescription than a healthy side dish.

Amy’s tofu rancheros – Yee-hah, let’s round up those free-range tofus and slam ‘em into these rancheros.

Gaga’s SherBetter orange frozen dessert – I guess this is some kind of sherbet substitute. I thought sherbet was already healthier than other frozen desserts but, as the name suggests, this is even sherbetter.

Scandinavian-style Gravlax – This was displayed next to the salmon and crab dip, so I’m guessing it’s a fish product, possibly similar in nature to the notorious Norwegian lutefisk. Combining the word roots “grav” (as in “gravel” and “grave”) and “lax” (as in “laxative” and “lacks edible texture”) does not tempt me to buy it, however.

Chocolate hazelnut tea – Just doesn’t seem like a good taste combination.

Blackwing ostrich filet – “Blackwing” sounds like a disease sweeping through the ostrich population, not a brand of their tasty meat filets.

Uncured organic chicken corndogs – I know curing is considered a bad thing among whole-food purists, but it seems like if anything needs to be restored to health it’s chicken corndogs.

Ziyard vegetarian kibbeh – I had to go online to learn that kibbeh is a “Levantine dish made of burghul,” which wasn’t particularly helpful.

Quorn turk’y and chik’n products – I’m presuming these are made of corn and at least vaguely resemble the poultry products they sound like.

Dominex eggplant burgers – I’ve never before thought of the eggplant as a particularly assertive or strong-willed vegetable.

Baby Mum Mum vegetarian rice husks – Start your child out right in life with the kind of taste-free bulk that brightens the eyes of kids everywhere.

Venison jerky with sea cucumber – This product was in the pet food section, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more hard-core customers here have eaten it themselves.

Organic Ghee – Ghee is a clarified Indian butter that can be stored without refrigeration. Mmm!


Soon, I’ll venture into the neutraceutical (pill) section of the store and report on some of those names. Stay tuned.

Website review:

January 16, 2009

This … is … C … N … N.

So intoned the Lord our God, in his only commercial spokesperson role, some 40 years ago when the Cable News Network premiered. I was an early adopter of the cable news format when it was first made available in the 1970s, and have been a fan of its derivative networks since then. I enjoyed watching Braves baseball, Turner Classic Movies and the unchanging drumbeat of Headline News (now rechristened HLN) repeating the same stories over and over and over. I got a vicarious kick out of Ted Turner’s unsuccessful mergers, with both Jane Fonda and Time Warner. I’ve even taken the tour at the Atlanta headquarters, ascending the world’s tallest escalator to end up in a tiny room where they explain how the weather people can’t even see what they’re pointing at as they wave their arms in front of a green screen. Amazing!

Having seen the bricks and mortar of the operation, I was eager to take a look the digital and the virtual in the form of the network’s website, As you might imagine, the home page is heavy on the headlines of breaking news. Thursday’s highlights included must-reads such as: “Rabid fox attacks dad, son,” “Man complains about Buddhas at zoo,” “Cow gas tax not happening,” “Eighteenth Porta-Potty set on fire” and “Iowan: Cold hurts, makes ‘skin burn.’” There’s also promotion of a feature about what’s on schoolchildren’s minds (“Make Iraq war go away”) and an offer to update your Facebook status while you watch the inauguration on

CNN is working hard – some might say a little too hard – to make itself relevant in the new-media landscape that potentially threatens its very foundation. In its efforts to involve viewers and make them more a part of the news operation, it’s giving Average Joes nearly equal footing with its staff of veteran journalists. While participation from the grassroots can offer a broader perspective on the events of the day, it can be distracting to those of us used to a little more professionalism.

Take the concept of the “iReport,” a user-generated site containing stories that are “not edited, fact-checked or screened.” Just the kind of reliable information source you want. One recent example went beyond news into the realm of opinion and policy-making, allowing an iReporter to offer his views on how to fix the most severe economic crisis of our time. Zennie Abraham, also known as “Zennie62,” offered his taxpayer stimulus package to CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi. Zennie’s plan calls for a $3,500 stimulus check to those making less than $100,000 a year, presumably including Zennie. Velshi said such a plan wasn’t targeted enough to work but Zennie defended his idea: “$3,500, particularly for college students and their parents, can help pay for their housing.” (Sounds like someone trying to afford first and last month’s rent so he can move out of his parents’ basement.) CNN’s Velshi, after hearing the explanation – and mindful perhaps of the network’s changing demographics – started to agree. “That could work,” he said lamely.

Another new feature a little too close to the cutting edge for my comfort is the Rick Sanchez Show, wherein Rick attempts to moderate a Twittering free-for-all that’s taking place in a strip across the bottom of his screen. He tries his best to turn submissions like “great rap, agree … disagree no matter … all good. gots to go to bed. will do again morrow” and “hey, why’s ur girlfriend gaining weight again. u making her too happy?” into relevant commentary on the topic at hand. He squirms so hard at some points that you fear he’ll pull a muscle.

The website also includes details and extras about certain on-air personalities and the efforts they go to in making themselves more interesting. The “Today”-equivalent morning show on HLN is called “Morning Express with Robin Meade,” featuring a former beauty queen with a chatty manner, a smile as wide as  Heath Ledger’s Joker, and the kind of extreme makeup required in today’s high-definition production. Robin hosts the Morning Express Challenge, a news quiz where both the first correct answer and a randomly drawn player win the same prize – an autographed picture of Robin – but both are enrolled in a chance to win the grand prize, a trip to Atlanta to meet Robin in person. We also see Robin posed in what looks like the open bay door of a helicopter, the smile wisely turned upside down as she offers her “Salute to the Troops.” And, you can sign up for her daily email news preview, sent out early each morning in her signature lower-case style: “morning glory! let’s shake the sleepy out of you. this isn’t our top story, but i love this one: too much caffeine can make you hallucinate and see ghosts. okay, how much are we talking? more on that.” I actually subscribed to this service for a while, until I cancelled after realizing there’d be no pictures of Robin still in her baby-doll pajamas.

Other highlights around the site include pictures of Indo-hunk Surgeon General-designate Sanjay Gupta, promotions for the “News to You” show (a kind of “Best Week Ever” rip-off without the snark), and the obligatory nod to Nancy Grace’s all-consuming obsession with the Caylee Anthony case. I looked for something on CNN’s resident right-winger Glenn Beck, but he’s apparently left the company for a new and more welcoming home on Fox News. Either way, I’m glad to see network news offering a big enough tent to employ those afflicted with uncontrollable facial tics such as Glenn’s.

You can also sign up for CNN Mobile alerts, in case you want to be notified immediately via your cell phone should there be a warning about Vicks Vaporub or how “doctor [is] interested in seeing kids not kidney, lawyer says.” I tried to find out more about similar high-tech extras but crashed my PC twice when I tried to go to the Tools and Widgets section of the site.

All in all, it’s a respectable representation on the Web, almost deserving of the thunderous tones I quoted at the beginning of this post. If God is no longer in the promo business, maybe they can get James Earl Jones to splice a “… dot … com…” onto the audio for their site.

You want my advice? (Pt. 12)

January 15, 2009

“You Want My Advice?” is a twice weekly feature (Tuesdays and Thursdays) of I look at questions of ethics, propriety, faith, technology, geopolitics, design, etc., and offer completely inappropriate, irresponsible and possibly even life-threatening advice. Today, we hear from a reader in the midst of a spiritual crisis.

Q. Why should I believe in Jesus and give up my lifestyle right now, if God will forgive me anyway whenever I ask him? Why not wait until I’m about ready to die? I like the way I’m living. – Tweet from the Floor (And I Do Mean the Floor) of the S’Uptown Dance Club

     A. Is that right? God will forgive you a lifetime of sins even on the day you die? Hang on a second while I check

     Wow, you’re right! I did not know that. Right there in Revelations 13:35-36, it says: “For ye shall be able to do all kinds of unrighteousness — up to and including sins of the flesh, sins of the spirit, and sins upon thy brother and thy father – as long as ye shall call upon the Lord during your last days and ask that He give unto you a break.”

     So what’s the point of living a proper and sin-free life? If you can lie and steal and murder and work for the Bush Administration during your days here on Earth, and you can still get into heaven with a deathbed confession of your wrongdoing and a new-found faith in God, why wouldn’t you want to do as much harm as possible in the time you have? Because even the “God-less” can have some sense of propriety and a recognition of what’s right and what’s wrong? That can’t be true.

     In my role as a leading theologian and an Authorized Vessel through which the Lord speaks unto all the world, I would still advise that you not to be so callous and calculating in the timing of your final confession. What if you’re walking down the street and suddenly struck by a truck? By a meteor? By a runaway train? I have connections and can make it happen, just like that if I want to. You might survive for a second or two plastered on the grill of that speeding Freightliner but I wouldn’t count on having your wits about you. They’ll probably be lying in the road about a hundred feet back.

     Get right with the Lord now, I say unto you. I’m not kidding around.

This post not available in stores

January 14, 2009

With the poor economy continuing to affect TV advertising revenue, you see more and more direct marketing commercials selling items that are “not available in stores.” These ads typically feature extremely agitated pitchmen, a toll-free order number, a price that’s typically $19.95, and tiny-font shipping and handling charges that run you another $12. If you order now you can get two, and don’t forget that these items are not available in stores, probably because the idea behind stores is that they offer products people actually want and need to buy.

It used to be that you only saw these commercials late at night, when you were so worried about how you’d deal with sudden urges to fish that you couldn’t sleep. And mercifully, there would be an ad for the “pocket fisherman.” Now you’re likely to see these kinds of spots any time of the day or night. An NPR report recently explained the trend: as traditional advertisers reduce their budgets, local stations make leftover air time available to these low-end buyers at drastically reduced rates. One ad buyer interviewed admitted he was a “bottom feeder,” which I think would be an excellent name for a product: Try the BottomFeeder! You’ll never need to buy bathroom tissue again!

A lot of the trailblazers in this industry have unfortunately been made archaic by modern technology. The Ginsu Knives, famous for cutting through a can, were so sharp and awkward to use that most of their purchasers accidentally slashed their wrists. The Medic Alert bracelet, for when you’ve fallen and can’t (or simply don’t want to) get up, was antiquated by the cell phone. The Clapper, which allowed you to turn stuff on from across the room, was discontinued when seniors began using the Segway to travel effortlessly about their homes from light switch to light switch.

One of the promoters currently most in demand for these frenetic spiels is a bearded, raspy-voiced fellow named Billy Mays. Son of baseball’s Willie Mays, who roamed centerfield for the San Francisco Giants for over two decades on his way to 12 Golden Gloves and the Hall of Fame, Billy wanted to get out from the shadow of his famous father. His big break came in the ‘90s when he was selected to be spokesman for the Bedazzler, a tool that embedded plastic gems into jackets, jeans and that household pet desperately in need of a makeover. He later sold items like OxiClean, the Mantis Tiller and Miracle Whip (I can’t remember ever seeing him hawk the well-known mayonnaise substitute, so I can only guess this product was instead some kind of domination device).

Described by The Washington Post as having a “signature yelling approach” and being “known for screaming in lieu of talking during infomercials … a full-volume pitchman, amped up like a candidate for a tranquilizer-gun takedown,” Mays was last seen branching out into the service economy. He was recently named the new voice of iCan Benefit Group, “the first company offering health insurance Billy Mays has been excited to endorse.” (He’s endorsed many other insurance plans, but steadfastly refused to be excited by them until now.) I anticipate a not-too-distant future in which Billy sells everything from mutual funds to cremation services in his classic manic shriek.

Mays is not affiliated with the infomercial product that most recently has been all over the airwaves — I mentioned him mainly because I wanted to see how many readers would buy the Willie Mays connection. I’m talking here about the “Loud and Clear” sound-amplifying device that fits in your ear like a Blutooth cell phone apparatus. No longer will your difficulties interpreting sound be obvious to all who can see the electroacoustic device in your ear; now, they’ll think you’re just another self-absorbed tool enamored with pointless technology that hangs off the side of your head. I can hardly wait for the next-gen app that enhances your smelling abilities with the brushed-steel device that protrudes from your nose.

Rather than using a spokesperson, the Loud and Clear commercials feature actors pretending to go through their daily routines enjoying the life-enhancing properties of a monstrous hearing aid. There’s a guy in bed next to his annoyed wife, who’s giving him dirty looks because the TV is too loud for her to sleep, until he discovers the Loud and Clear and can turn that damn thing down. There’s a woman rocking out to the kitchen radio while her husband tries but fails to concentrate on his laptop work. Rather than asking him to get his stupid computer off the kitchen table, she’s seen moments later happily accessorized in her Loud and Clear. Others are involved in a number of activities designed to demonstrate that today’s seniors aren’t your father’s old people – they’re energetically playing bingo, strolling through the woods in tight jeans, and listening in on two neighbors having a private discussion across the street.

This last example hints at the more malicious uses of the Loud and Clear, which are also illustrated in the commercial with a surprising lack of guilt. One scene shows a guy, hopefully a private detective, sitting at the wheel of his parked car with the amplifier in his ear and a camera in his hands. He becomes suddenly attentive, clicks the camera at some off-screen scene, then nods in quiet satisfaction at how easily he was able to get naked pictures of his kid’s hot teacher. I’m not sure how the hearing device helped with this, unless maybe it keeps him on guard for the piercing sirens of approaching squad cars.

Generally, though, the Loud and Clear is shown engaging in harmless fun. There’s a party scene where a trio of attractive women are chatting, then the shot widens to show the eavesdropping stud who’s delighted to learn they’re talking about him. There’s a hunter in the woods — hopefully not the same woods with the tight-jeaned woman — using the hearing enhancer to listen for the rustle of live game. I only hope the L&C has a volume control handy, because when he lets loose with that shotgun, he’s going to get way more amplification than he bargained for. There’s a quiet conversation at home with the family, above a caption that reads “HEAR PEOPLE AROUND YOU!”

Probably the worst, most devious thing about this product is that I want one. I can tell that my hearing has declined in recent years, and I recognize that it would be nice to watch television and have some idea of why Howie Mandell is beating that guy over the head with a baseball bat. My world could be so much richer.

Actually, I think I’d like to have two, one protruding out of each ear. Maybe if I order now…


You want my advice? (Pt. 11)

January 13, 2009

“You Want My Advice?” is a twice weekly feature (Tuesdays and Thursdays) of I look at questions of ethics, propriety, faith, technology, geopolitics, design, etc., and offer completely inappropriate, irresponsible and possibly even life-threatening advice. Today, we hear from a reader in the midst of a home redecoration.

Q. We are starting to renovate our kitchen and are thinking about basic black and gray and white. We would like modern, but not too cold. Maybe a bit Oriental. We also wanted to install a backsplash that has the “wow” factor. We want to replace the current countertop, which is tropical brown granite, and the deep sill of the bay window over the sink also needs tile. We’re also removing a dated sunshine ceiling light, which leaves a 3-by-4 foot rectangle that is unfinished, plain gyprock. The rest of the ceiling is popcorn finish. We’re installing three pendant lights. Our kitchen is contemporary with cream cabinets. How can we unify the ceiling? –Worried, Perhaps Even a Bit Paranoid

A. You’re under arrest for possession and distribution of methamphetamine. Put down the trowel and step away from it slowly.

Seriously, what is it with you ambitious do-it-yourselfers and your plans for creating the perfect home? Can’t you think of anything better to do with your free time? Maybe you should take up a more soothing hobby, like golf, stamp collecting, or occasional sleep.

I can try to answer your questions, but I’ll tell you up front that my heart’s not really in it, considering I live in a house with 15-year-old carpeting that used to be tan but now tends more toward a muted shade of cat-stain.

I’d say black and gray and white sound just about right for your kitchen; you can avoid the cold feel and add an Oriental touch at the same time by adding a flaming Buddha to your breakfast nook. I don’t even know what a backsplash is, so instead of a “wow” factor you’d be getting the “huh?” factor from me.  I’d go counter-intuitive on the countertop and replace the granite with hard cheese, maybe a nice Gouda. I also don’t know what a “deep sill,” “sunshine ceiling light,” “gyprock,” or “pendant light” is. I’ve heard of rectangles and popcorn, though admittedly not in the context of home décor. So I’ll refrain from advice on these issues, except to note that popcorn is to be avoided on a low-res diet.

Your final question about unifying the ceiling I feel fairly comfortable answering. You’ll definitely want all parts of the ceiling to touch all other parts, so as to avoid rain and bees.

Good luck with your renovations! I hope you finish before the Rapture.

When I first learned to blog

January 12, 2009

The following is a piece I wrote as a submission to our local newspaper when they expressed interest in the subject of local blogging a few months ago. Though it “doesn’t meet their needs at this time,” I believe that by “this time” they mean “while humans walk the earth.” So rather than waste my efforts, I’m putting it in as today’s posting.

As a fifty-something middle-class European-American, I long ago gave up any aspirations to be on the cutting edge of modern culture. There was a brief period years ago when I might’ve considered myself marginally “cool” – I think it was for about a half-hour during my junior year of college – but once you find yourself with a family, a suburban home and a corporate career, you are so far past cool as to need only a light jacket.

I like to think, however, that I’m at least aware of all the latest happenings among the younger generation. Though I choose not to indulge, I know all about the discos, the hip-hop, the so-called “brake” dancing, where kids stop and reverse direction in mid-tumble. I’ve heard the music of Madonna, LL Coolio J-Z, and Fall-Down Boy. I have a cell phone and I’ve walked past the video game section in Best Buy. And I’ve learned enough about computers and the Internet to think I’ve found a niche where perhaps I can rekindle enough of my def self to put a toe in the kids’ pool.

I’ve started a blog.

The young people out there know what I’m talking about, but let me take a moment to explain this phenomenon to any of my contemporaries who aren’t familiar with the concept. The blog has nothing to do with Steve McQueen and meteors exuding a pink, gooey substance (that’s “The Blob,” as I was embarrassed to learn a little too late) and everything to do with chronicling your every thought, move and breath for a fascinated world to follow. It’s a little like being an exhibitionist from the comfort of your home, without the gross and illegal parts.

I went online and found WordPress and Blogger, two of the more popular sites that serve as portals to the time-space wormhole known as the “blogosphere.” This huge ball of Internet waves, sitting in geosynchronous orbit over south Asia, is where you choose your blog name, create your profile, even upload video, if you can find the VHS port on the side of your laptop. The setup is quick and remarkably painless (as long as you keep your power cord out of the water) and before you know it, you’re a blogger!

Now that you’ve got the infrastructure in place, you need to turn your attention to something known as “content.” This annoying but necessary part of keeping a blog requires you to think of something interesting to put in your postings so that when people open your webpage, there will be words instead of blank space, which tends to discourage return visits. From looking at some of the blogs already out there, it seems that your content doesn’t have to be especially pertinent – cats, lawyer jokes and death threats are a few common themes – it mostly just has to be there.

My favorite subject so far, as I hope you’ve been able to guess from the last 491 words that preceded these, is humor. Since standards aren’t especially high, what with the lack of editors, fact-checkers and other mainstream media flotsam, all you need to do is position your screen pointer on the “write” tab and click it to open a window that looks something like an email entry. Type until your hands get tired and then press the “publish” button.

At this point, you’re usually given the option to “view site” so you can see what you just wrote in a slightly different format, but one that is now being viewed by millions of people around the world. Or at least that’s how I thought it worked. Turns out that the hardest part of blogging once you’ve gotten this far is figuring out how to get people to actually visit your blog. I believed that once your posting went up, there’d be a flashing signal on every computer then online that would direct readers to stop whatever they were doing and read all about you. I kept watching for evidence of all this traffic to show up in the comments that record what visitors think of your hard work. It’s the positive reinforcement of these remarks – notes like “wow, you’re terrific” and “worst blog ever” – that provide the incentive for people to keep up their blogs for weeks at a time. It’s been slow to come in my case, though with networking, webcasting and poking people with sticks, I’m starting to build a respectable audience.

It’s certainly not money that provides the motivation for blogging. If you’re thinking about joining in this communications revolution as a way to add a little extra income during this time of tight cash, you’ll find out quickly that that’s not how it works. Though my laptop does have a slot on one side that looks about the right size to spit out fifty-dollar bills, they haven’t come yet, and I’m starting to think they never will. Still, I’ve achieved the satisfaction of joining a community of like-minded citizens to whom connectivity, even though it’s virtual, gives us all a sense that we’re involved in something very, very special.

Being cool.