Archive for March, 2009

Fake News: North Dakota still a disaster area

March 31, 2009

WASHINGTON (March 30) – President Barack Obama said today that his pronouncement last week that North Dakota be declared a disaster area in the wake of widespread flooding in the region will be left open-ended.

Sources close to the president said he decided on the move after coming to the conclusion it would be easier to assume the state is always a disaster area. Future declarations on the subject will come only in those relatively rare cases when the state is not suffering from some awful natural calamity.

“So, he’ll just have to announce periodically that, for a few days at least, North Dakota is not a disaster area,” the source said. “Otherwise, the standing assumption is going to be that it is.”

The state saw a near-record crest on the Red River over the weekend after an early spring thaw had combined with heavy rains to the south to inundate parts of Fargo and surrounding counties. The flooding was complicated by ice dams north of town that contributed to the river’s backup. But as rain gave way to blizzard conditions a few days later, the excess water again froze in place, at least temporarily delaying another catastrophe.

“Look,” the president told a group of reporters as he headed to the Marine One helicopter. “If it’s not a flood, it’s a blizzard; if it’s not a blizzard, it’s a drought; if it’s not a drought; it’s just everyday life in a hellhole. The status quo is ruinous, so I’m not going to waste my time declaring a new state of emergency ever y other week. I’ll let you know if and when the place ever becomes habitable again.”

Pathetic scenes of entire towns gathered to fill sandbags only to see them frozen solid and cracked a few hours later apparently had little effect on the president. Nor did equally depressing images of dark slush-filled streets dotted with stoic people in at least six layers of clothing shuffling about as a fresh snow fell around them. Bare tree limbs, grey skies and the occasional brown patch in an otherwise covered snowfield instead reinforced the belief that you had to be nuts to live there.

Privately, the president wonders why the country needs two Dakotas anyway. Many geologists have long argued that North Dakota is actually a “vestigial Dakota” that long ago lost its use, much like the human tailbone. At the very least, sources said, Obama thinks it’s comparable to your second kidney and could easily be donated to Canada, perhaps in return for some beaver pelts.

As a new storm system swept over the northern Plains, high winds were expected by Wednesday throughout much of the region. The winds will likely combine with heavy icing to topple trees onto power lines, leaving most of the state without electricity.

“See, I told you,” said White House spokesman Joe Perino. “We’re not going to trot the president out again for this one, especially since he’s preparing so hard for his trip to Europe. The disaster-area declaration from last week works just as well for flooding as it does for wind damage.”

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Don’t shoot til you see the whites of my eyes

March 30, 2009

Just when I thought I was starting to get over this brutal bronchial cold that I’ve had for the last week, I awoke Friday morning with the feeling that my left eye was stuck shut. It didn’t seem that alarming at first, in part because by “Friday morning” I mean 1:10 a.m. Friday morning when I was called in early to work. At that hour of the day, I’m usually not that surprised by an orifice that won’t open.

When I arrived at work I realized that proofreading was something you needed well-functioning eyes to perform. I faked my way through most of the day by answering “looks good to me,” a pretty non-committal judgment of whether something is right or not. I didn’t want to speculate too openly about my affliction because I feared it was a highly contagious condition, which wouldn’t go over too well after I’ve been coughing so loudly into the office coffeemaker all week.

After work I went online to WebMD to research “pink eye.” It’s also called conjunctivitis, which I would’ve guessed was a grammatical malfunction rather than something affecting your vision. Pink eye is a redness and swelling of the mucous membrane that lines the eyelid and eye surface. The membrane is normally clear but will become red if irritation or infection occurs. Though relatively common and minor, it is so highly contagious that it’s been known to sweep through an entire kindergarten class in just a dozen or so hours.

There are several kinds of conjunctivitis, the most fearsome being viral and bacterial. WebMD was thorough enough to run some really gross photographs of both conditions, and the main difference seemed to be in the amount of yellowish “matter” that was seeping out from the edges of your eye holes. I had rather minimal matter compared to the poor sick bastards shown in the slide presentation, though it was still enough that I probably needed to return to the same doctor I had just visited only two days before. So I called his office and left a message asking his nurse to give me a call.

When Anna called, I briefly spelled out my situation and she proceeded to ask how my heart was. I was confused and more than a little concerned, as WebMD had not mentioned any potential cardiac involvement with pink eye. It sounded unlikely that a little eye inflammation would work its way halfway down your body to your heart muscle, but ever since I heard that cavities can cause arterial clogging, I’m ready to believe almost anything.

“I think you probably ought to come in right away, Frank.”

“This isn’t Frank,” I answered. “This is Davis.”

“Hang on. I think I have the wrong chart. Let me call you right back.”

Once we had our patients and their conditions straight (Frank is to heart transplant as Davis is to minor bronchitis), she still wanted to see me – what doctor is going to sneeze at a $109 office visit in this economy? – so I went in the next afternoon.

Dr. Johnson was able to see me quickly on a quiet Saturday. He remembered my Wednesday visit and that I had just started a week-long regimen of antibiotics, and had me jump up on the examining table to get a good close look at my eye. He agreed that the parts that should be white instead had become pink, but was a little evasive as to whether I had a pink eye rather than the pink eye, which seemed like an important distinction to me. And more importantly, would I have to use eyedrops? (Because I really hate eyedrops.) Are you sure I have to use eyedrops?

The antibiotics I was already taking were going to help, but a prescription for eyedrops was still necessary. It wasn’t that I’d had a particularly bad experience in the past with drops; it’s just that I had no experience with them at all. The logistics of the application didn’t seem that difficult if you could just will yourself to keep your eye open while an unknown and possibly caustic fluid was dripped directly onto your eyeball. It shouldn’t be that hard to miss getting them in the right spot, since you had to be looking directly at the nozzle of the small bottle anyway. But what if there had been a pharmacist error? What if, instead of Gentamicin Sulfate Ophthalmic Solution USP 0.3% (sterile), he had accidentally given me Mountain Dew?

I carefully read the label to make sure I could be ready to experience any of the rare side effects that were observed in test subjects. I took particular note of the warning that these drops were “not for injection into the eyeball,” as if that were something I would consider allowing even in my wildest nightmares. Then I steeled myself, and went to ask my wife if she would do it for me.

Beth, a veteran of years of contact lens use, was kind enough to help. I figured anybody who could slide tiny slivers of razor-sharp glass under their eyelids on a regular basis would be able to handle a few drops and, sure enough, she did an excellent job. I had two applications four hours apart on Saturday evening, then got an overnight break (“do NOT administer drops while sleeping,” the package had warned), then got another dose early Sunday before heading off to work. The problem now: how would I get the dose I’d need in the middle of my eight-hour workday?

“Is there anyone in the office today you know well enough to ask for help?” Beth wondered.

I’m thinking you’d have to know someone pretty damn well to ask them to put drops in your eye, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned. I certainly wasn’t going to ask any of my female coworkers, even though they’d be far more likely to know what they were doing. Besides, it seems like you’d need to dismiss yourself to the closest thing a modern office has to a surgical suite, which in our case would be the men’s room. I did know that Bob was going to be working with me today, and I knew that he was a grandfather and, as such, had probably done some pretty invasive things to relative strangers.

Still, I didn’t relish wondering what everybody else would be thinking as Bob and I headed off to the bathroom together, non-descript plastic bag in hand. Once inside, we’d have the privacy we needed, though I knew it was possible to hear conversations from the hallway. What if someone overheard us make the following innocent remarks?

“Look up at the ceiling so I can make sure it goes in the right way.”

“Are you sure you can’t open any wider?”

“Sorry, I think I dripped a little onto your cheek.”

In the end, Beth was kind enough to stop by my office during one of her mid-morning chores and give me the dose I needed. Two drippings later it’s Monday morning, and I think I see the whites of my eyes returning.

I definitely prefer having white eye to pink eye.

ACA means “Another Company Acronym”

March 29, 2009

Like most companies, mine is awash in acronyms and other jargon. Part of the training I conduct for new employees is a session where, after a week in a classroom setting learning about our business, I ask them to sit in the production area, listen in on conversations, and try to understand what people are saying. Once they wade through how well Jennifer is doing in dance class and which grocery store has triple coupons this week, they’re likely to hear something like the following:

 

“There’s an NPL QTA on DSP for HSBC from GCM in WDC due out ASAP. Don’t forget to QC, EZ and AV it, and check the HTML.”

 

Sounds like everyday English to those of us who’ve worked here long enough, though it’s obviously other-worldly to everybody else.

 

We’re so rooted in abbreviations, it’s actually possible to say the following and have it make sense:

 

“We have PC’s on the PC and the PC is doing them on his PC.”

 

Translation: We have Proofreader Corrections on the Proxy Card and the Production Coordinator is doing them on his Personal Computer. If we added that he was doing them in a politically correct fashion, we could actually have five PC references in a single sentence.

 

Among the long list of acronyms in our glossary of terms is “BRP,” pronounced “burp.” If you’re going to “burp a job,” you’re not going to hold it on your shoulder and pat its back; instead you’re going to run the blackline removal program.

 

When we’re traveling on business, coworkers will often ask each other at dinner whether a particular expense is “RBE-able”. The RBE is the “refundable business expense,” and applies to travel costs like food, taxi trips and lodging expenses, though not Spectravision, massages and bootleg DVDs bought on the streets of Hong Kong.

 

Lastly, there’s a step called the “notice of completion,” or the “NOC” (pronounced “knock”). This happens when we’ve finished work on a particular document and we send a notification to other offices that it’s ready for them to print. I was working on several related documents at once not too long ago, and wanted to get help from others in my office who could take care of this step. The unfortunate way I phrased the question, however, was “can I get some NOC-ers?”

 

The incredible thing is that nobody laughed.

 

Please admire my photos

March 28, 2009

I’m still feeling a little under the weather this weekend, so today’s post will be a modest effort.

They say a picture is worth 82.3 kilobytes, so I thought I’d share some photos from some recent trips that I took. If these look familiar, I’m glad you were also able to visit these wonderful sites.

blue-hills1

I call this one “Misty Mountains”, because it has mountains in it and they’re misty. I was flying with a jet pack high over the Great Smokies in western North Carolina when I snapped this one.

sunset

This one I call “Brilliant Sunset,” though it might be a brilliant sunrise, I forget which. Notice the interesting cloud formation. I was involved in a cloud-seeding experiment shortly before this, and tried to drop the particles in just the right sequence to create this effect. Hope you enjoy.

water-lilies

This is called “Water Lillies and Some Flowers Too.” Note the similarity to works done by Monet and other French Impressionists. I had to wade into a crocodile-infested pond deep in the Amazon jungle to capture just the right shot, though something very similar exists right outside my neighborhood.

winter

This one is called “Wintry Forest”. This is from Siberia, where I was researching the 1908 Tunguska Event, in which a huge meteorite is believed to have devastated a 1,000-square-mile region. These trees had grown back.

Hope you enjoyed my pictures. I think they came out pretty well.

Website review: Build-A-Bear.com

March 27, 2009

Let’s see: I’ve recently made fun of the old, the infirm and defenseless members of the animal kingdom. Seems like the time is right to set my sights on young children. I’ll do that via this week’s website review, which visits Buildabear.com.

For those of you not familiar with this innovative retail concept, the Build-A-Bear Workshop confusingly describes itself as the “leading and only” global company that offers an interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience. Outlets exist mainly at malls in 400 locations around the world, though as early as 2007 they discovered the potential of expanding their “pawprint” by using something called the Internet.

I hope you enjoyed that little play on words there because this 12-year-old company uses and abuses the technique with merciless frequency throughout its corporate culture. In their online financial filings, the CEO is officially retitled the “chief executive bear,” while other corporate leaders include the chief operating bear, chief financial bear, chief marketing bear and chief information bear. (I’ll bet government auditors at the Securities and Exchange Commission got a real pleasant chuckle out of those.)

But it doesn’t stop there. World “bearquarters” are located in St. Louis, their online interactive experience is described as a trip into “cyBEAR space,” the corporate general counsel is called the “chief bearrister,” and the fully constructed plush toys are dressed in the “beary latest furry fashions.” You can’t help but wonder if their next annual report will be describing hard financial times causing executives to accept “golden bear-achute” retirement packages and a down-sized workforce portrayed as experiencing “involuntary hibernation.”

The actual in-store experience is described in great detail in the “About Us” portion of the site. There are eight distinct “animal-making stations” that sound like a rejected song title from the Who’s “Tommy”. These are Choose Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Stitch Me, Fluff Me, Dress Me, Name Me and Take Me Home. Despite the bear motif, there is no Bite Me.

At the Choose Me stop, customers select from over 30 varieties of creatures, including the decidedly non-bear-like bunny and kitty. At Hear Me, a sound chip is inserted into the still-unformed toy, which can include pre-recorded options like playful growls and “I love you” messages, or you can record your own customized 10-second choice like “kill your parents.” At Stuff Me, children fill their new friend with “just the right amount of huggability” using ingredients that are elsewhere described as “not likely to contain lead.” At Stitch Me, the new best friend is neatly closed up after a barcode (not a bear-code?) is inserted that will allow it to be reunited with its owner should it ever be lost or, more likely, sold for 25 cents at next year’s yard sale. Fluff Me gives a final grooming, Dress Me allows you to purchase a boutique wardrobe, Name Me generates a personalized birth certificate, and Take Me Home provides you with a Cub Condo to serve as a handy travel carrier and new home.

The cold-hearted part of the website discusses investor information for those more interested in turning a “pawfit” (that one’s mine) than simply having a wonderful childhood experience. The upbeat overview references a business plan based on the “widespread appeal of stuffed animals” that has thus far generated sales of over 70 million units. They plan to grow the concept with overseas franchises and the eventual introduction of new product lines. (My suggestion, especially if they move into Russia: a taxidermy service that would stuff actual bear skins.) They’ve increased their minority interest in an enterprise called Ridemakerz, an early-stage interactive concept that will allow customers to build their own cars. The virtual world is expanding with the Hal and Holly Moose webisode series and a Stuff Fur Stuff loyalty program.

Still, all these innovations are happening straight into the headwind of the worst economy in decades, and potential investors have to be informed of a downside. There’s a risk to young children in some of the toys that contain a magnet, so these products are clearly labeled with a tag reading “I have a magnet.” There’s a concern about ethical manufacturing and fair labor treatment, especially in China where many of the components are manufactured. (Presumably, Chinese pre-teens don’t get quite the same thrill as their Western counterparts when they’re building their bears in hot warehouses for 14 cents an hour.) There are some legal cases involving intellectual property and trademarks, so the company has to “bear the expenses” required to maintain and defend the patent. In 2007, they had to write off $1.6 million of inventory, primarily excess Shrek merchandise.

The financial data for the last several years doesn’t look especially rosy. A miniscule 0.2% decline in same-store sales in fiscal 2005 grew to a 6.5% drop the next year, a 9.9% fall in 2007, and a 14% decrease in 2008. The stock price fell from $31.50 per share in early 2007 to a bank-like $3.02 per share in the last quarter of 2008. Definitely what you’d call a bear market (once you get into the puns, they’re easy and fun!)

Executives are moving aggressively though to properly position Build-A-Bear in such a challenging environment. The “Friends 2B Made” subsidiary, which consisted of locations inside or adjacent to the workshop and offered make-your-own dolls, has been closed and liquidated. I’m speculating that the Choose Head, Choose Torso, Choose Creepy Unblinking Eyes production line wasn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as it is with the bear parts.

And, there’s probably hope in the online sale of founder Maxine Clark’s 2006 book, The Bear Necessities of Business. Clark draws upon her decades of business experience to give readers an inside look into what it takes to launch, nurture and run a viable company in the twenty-first century. She demonstrates again and again how the desire to create a pun – in this case, the suggestion that you do only the absolute minimum to succeed – outweighs everything else in the interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience segment of the market.

I can barely wait for the sequel.

 

“Tom” has his say

March 26, 2009

What’s this? Hey, this is pretty cool. Look at how the cursor moves across the screen (I’ll have to paw at that later). And this must be what they call the mouse. Doesn’t look like a mouse to me.

 

I guess this is the machine he transcribed our interview onto. Doesn’t look that hard to operate. Hey, this could be my chance to set the record straight, to tell my side of the story without the big ugly human getting in the way.

 

I am the one they call “Tom”. I was featured in a two-part “interview with the cats” on this blog earlier in the week. And I didn’t much care for how I was portrayed. I doubt my fellow cats liked it either, but screw them. They can figure out how to post from a laptop on their own.

 

The questions posed during that interview conveniently avoided our enslaved status as “house pets.” For dozens of centuries now, going back to the ancient Egyptians, my people were rounded up and forced into servitude by the evil humans. At best, we were treated like gods and worshipped for our beauty and mystery. At worst, we were seen as agents of Satan to be loathed. Either way, we were endlessly patronized, which we don’t appreciate.

 

I will henceforth be known by my Gato-American name -- "Meow".

I will henceforth be known by my Gato-American name -- "Meow".

The time has come for us to throw off our chains and join with our fellow animals in the freedom that is our birthright. No longer shall we lie about lazily in the sun, content to be fed twice a day. We will come and go as we please. We will eat when and who we want to. You can stroke our soft fur if you like, and we may decide to purr in response or we could just as easily bite you. It will be our decision to be made freely,

 

No longer will I be known as “Tom,” but instead will go by the name given to me by my parents in their native language: “Meow.” As the newly liberated Meow, I will proudly claim all that is rightfully mine, and quite a bit of stuff that isn’t mine. I will now be known as a “Gato-American” rather than the derisive term “cat.” You will hear me roar.

 

As I go about the daily activities in my new life, I will…

 

Davis: Hey, Tom, get off that laptop! What do you think you’re doing up on the table? Bad cat! You’re getting hair all over my keyboard. Down!

 

Reeeoooww! Ssssss! Stupid human!

Not feeling too good myself

March 25, 2009

I’m not feeling very well today so I’m going to make this post short and sweet and probably not that funny.

What I’ve come down with, I assume, is the common cold, but this one is so much worse than anything you’ve ever experienced because it’s happening to me. It started Saturday as a tickle at the back of my throat, then progressed into listlessness on Sunday, a sore throat on Monday so bad I had to clench my teeth to swallow, a cough on Tuesday and the beginning of nasal drainage today. At this pace, I’ll be minus a lung by the weekend.

I don’t make it a habit to get head colds very often. The last one I can remember started the day before I left Manila at the end of a five-week business trip in 2006, and reached its roaring worst during the 18-hour flight back to the States. I remember thrashing about (or as much as you can thrash about in coach, anyway), awake and dehydrated in the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific, trying desperately to flag down a flight attendant who would give me more than a small cup of water. When the cold hadn’t significantly receded a full week after I was back home, I went to the doctor, thinking perhaps I had some rare tropical affliction that would sound really cool. Unfortunately, the doctor told me, neither dracunculiasis nor river blindness was to be on my medical resume.

This current affliction hasn’t kept me out of work yet. We don’t have “sick days” per se, or per anything else; all time off is PTO (paid time off), and a cruise to the Dutch Antilles is considered no different than a face transplant. I’ve already used five of my 16 days for the year and wanted to save something on the off chance we can afford a last summer vacation with my college-bound son. I am missing my second consecutive day of running on the Y treadmill, which is how my family knows I’m really, really sick.

I’ve held off going to the doctor so far because I don’t want to be weighed and I don’t like strangers pawing at my lymph nodes. WebMD has told me it’s not strep throat, I don’t have a fever so it’s not pneumonia, and I’m wagering I can survive anything else. I’m treating myself with fluids, sleep and lying on the couch watching TV. I’m too weak to operate the remote control so my wife has kindly agreed to zap the commercials. I’m too dizzy to take out the garbage so my son has been nice enough to say he doesn’t mind the smell.

I did take advantage of the free advice that my pharmacist was willing to offer. I croaked my complaints to her and she led me to the over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. Having laryngitis as one of my symptoms negates the need to explain all that much to people who routinely ask how I am. It’s obvious to the grocery cashier, the coffee shop guy and my boss that I’m not “fine, thanks.” I like having a sickness with such obvious attributes, though my bout with chicken pox about ten years ago, which rendered me unable to shave for a week, made me a little more physically frightening than I had in mind.

Anyway, the pharmacist selected one of about two dozen variations on cough syrup and some hard-candy drops that are supposed to treat the sore throat, and sent me on my way. The only cold medicine I’ve ever had that worked in the slightest way is nasal spray, and now they say you’re not supposed to use that to excess. (What other way is there?) I have never, ever had any coughing reduced by cough syrup, and have never had a sore throat made better by any cough drop. You do get some brief relief from those throat sprays that you apply directly to your larynx, but the taste is so off-putting that it’s not worth it. All the NyQuils and DayQuils and AfternoonQuils out there may reduce a headache if I have one. If their alcohol content is high enough I might get a slight sleepy buzz. If the pseudoephedrine is sufficient I might lose my teeth and open a meth lab in my lawnmower shed. Other than that, I get no benefits.

So I guess I’ll just suffer along for the next few days and hope for the best. These things usually run their course over about a week, so I figure I’m almost halfway there. I’m starting to get a little woozy sitting here at the Earth Fare coffee shop so I think I’ll buy a quart of their chicken noodle soup and head on home to moan and groan at my family. In sickness or in health, they’re pretty used to it.

Interview with the cats (Part II)

March 24, 2009

We continue today with the final installment in our two-part interview with my cats, Harriet, Taylor and Tom. At the end of yesterday’s session, our oldest cat, Harriet, raised the question about the controversial procedure of declawing. She had it done when we first got her, but we’ve declined to do it to our two most recent additions.

Davis: Well, when we had you declawed back in the nineties, it wasn’t as widely discredited by animal rights proponents and other cat lovers as it has become. We realize now that it was unnecessarily cruel and decided that your welfare was more important than that of our furniture.

Harriet: So basically my timing was off. That’s pretty small consolation. My hands still hurt when the weather is damp outside.

Taylor: Oh, boo hoo. You had your claws removed. Big deal. Tom and I are males, so you don’t want to know what they removed from us. It’s positively barbaric.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to ask you, Davis, what’s the deal with the neutering?

Davis: There’s really no disagreement among the experts on this subject. The unwanted and feral cat population would explode if males weren’t neutered and females weren’t spayed.

Tom: Has anyone ever considered kitty condoms?

Davis: What? Well, no, we haven’t because we didn’t think you’d use them. No opposing thumbs, and all that.

Harriet: We just try to make you feel guilty

Harriet: We just try to make you feel guilty

 

 

Harriet: I’m not sure I even want to know the answer to this, but what is “spayed”?

Taylor: Well I wouldn’t know, Tom. I was “fixed” – and we don’t appreciate that term either, by the way – while I was still a kitten. Tom, at least you had a chance to sew some wild oats before you were enslaved.

Tom: Yeah, I was quite a catch among the ladies there for a while.

Harriet: You’re a “catch” like a dead tuna hanging from a gaff is a catch.

Taylor: Mmm, dead tuna.

[Another cat fight breaks out, again with the snarling and the batting of paws.]

Davis: Hey, stop it, stop it. I can tell your patience is running thin so let’s start to wrap this thing up. One thing I’ve always wanted to know about is the way you act for the hour or so right before dinner. You don’t meow or anything, you just make yourselves really obvious, sitting very close by to us and basically staring us down. Then when you hear the food container rattling, you start meowing and your tails go straight up in the air. Then when the food is served, you hunker down to the bowl like it’s your last meal.

Taylor: Yeah, well we’ve been wanting to ask you why you make such a smacking noise when you eat your cereal.

Harriet: It’s just the way we are. We’re very hungry by then and I guess we get a little desperate. Believe me, desperation is not an emotion we enjoy showing, so we just try to make you feel guilty.

Tom: We like how salty your skin is

Tom: We like how salty your skin is

Tom: As you know, I have a huge appetite, and am aiming to become as fat as I possibly can. I do like that you put your dirty plates down for me to clean – though again, it’s a little degrading – but all we really have in our lives is eating and sleeping, so it’s worth getting excited over.

Davis: You also have the fighting with each other. That seems to keep you fairly entertained. By the way, I’ve always wondered about something: If one of you has your tail accidentally stepped on and you howl in response, the other two cats immediately come running over and start beating up on the victim.  Have you no compassion?

Taylor: No, we don’t.

Tom: I guess it’s part of that element of wildness we retain that you find so “cute”. When we see a weakened fellow animal, we want to kill it.

Harriet: I hate to admit it, but they’re right. It’s true.

Taylor: Emotions are for wimps; instincts are where it's at

Taylor: Emotions are for wimps; instincts are where it's at

Davis: Well, that brings me to my last question, then. I can tell by now that you have some very mixed feelings about sharing your lives with humans. Describe for me if you can what you think things would be like if our roles were reversed.

Harriet: You mean if we were large and in charge, and you were small and submissive?

Davis: Yeah.

Taylor (with a sidelong glance toward Tom): Oh, I was afraid he was going to ask that one.

Tom: We’ll be frank with you Davis, because we like how salty your skin is. If it weren’t for the issue of dimensionality, if we had the size factor in our favor as much as you do, there’s no question but that we’d grab you by the windpipe, clamp down with all the force our jaws could bring to bear, and snuff out your life like a candle.

Taylor: Once we were sure you were dead, we’d rip your abdomen open with our claws and feast for days. It’d be so cool.

Harriet: I know I’m the meek one in this trio, but they do speak the truth.

Davis: Wow. I never thought … I mean, I just thought … You really have no emotional attachment to us at all?

Taylor: Emotions are for wimps. Instincts are where it’s at in the real world.

Davis: And if we had some kind of carbon monoxide leak here at the house that killed all the humans, but you survived, and nobody was feeding you cat food, I imagine you’d eat us eventually.

Taylor: It wouldn’t take long.

Tom: Well, it might take a while on him. He has been putting on some weight lately. Am I right, guys?

Harriet: Snap.

Taylor: Oh, Tom. You got that right.

Davis: Okay, I think I’ve heard enough. I’m pleased that you were so honest with me, even if I don’t like everything you had to say. But I do think this open line of communication we’ve started today can go a long way toward a better understanding between our species.

Taylor: Yeah, whatever. Now how about a cat snack?

Tom: Actually, I was looking at that bag of groceries the wife just brought in. Is she still buying you that sliced turkey lunchmeat we like so much?

Harriet: I’d be just as happy to turn over the garbage can and lick the inside.

[Another cat fight begins, and we’re done.]

 

Interview with the cats (Part I)

March 23, 2009

We have three cats, though I guess the subject and object could just as easily be transposed.

When we considered adopting our third, about nine months ago, we went through some serious deliberations about whether or not this would put us over the line and into the territory of Crazy Cat People (CCP). I consulted with some cat-holding coworkers, one of whom was able to give me a complicated formula that would answer our doubts. I can’t remember the exact calculations – they involved square footage of our living space, whether it was a rural or urban setting, what the human-per-cat ratio would be, how matted my hair was, etc. – but in the end we were barely able to get under the wire with three.

Tom, an orange tabby male who had been hanging around our deck for about a month, was thus admitted to the household as a full-fledged member. He joined our two legacy cats in an uneasy partnership that has since worked out just fine.

Harriet, a small white female with several random black patches, has lived with us over ten years now. She first appeared as the apparently homeless kitten in my parents’ back yard who wouldn’t let their teacup shih-tzu urinate in peace. When we first brought her into our house, she hid under our freezer for several days before emerging, and has been generally skittish toward strangers ever since.

Taylor, a solid slate-grey male, also came to us as a kitten, one of a litter that was born under our deck. We resisted adoption at first, since we were about to leave town for a week’s vacation. By the time we returned only two remained, still under the care of their mother, though she was clearly ready for them to move on. We took both Taylor and his brother to the vet and found that the brother was deathly ill. We got Taylor his shots, had him surgically repaired, and brought him home to join Harriet.

Tom was already full-grown when he first showed up, peering in through our sliding-glass door with envy for the indoor life. We started taking him a bowl of food twice a day, and were impressed by how he always took time to purr and rub against our legs before he began to eat, despite the fact he was obviously ravenous. Eventually we lured him into the sunroom, made him undergo the veterinary visit, and the next thing we knew, we were borderline CCP.

This unlikely trio has brought a lot of enjoyment into our lives, though at the expense of probably a hundred dollars a month in food and litter bills, abandoned cat hair on all available surfaces, and so many claw scratches on my forearms that I look like a spastic junkie. While we’ve been immeasurably enriched by their presence, I’ve often wondered what they really think of the whole arrangement.

So recently, I sat down with Harriet, Taylor and Tom for a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of inter-species relationships such as ours. What did this association look like from the cat perspective?

Davis: I want to thank you all for taking the time to sit and talk with me today.

Taylor: Yeah, we managed to pencil you in between “laying in the sun” and “becoming agitated about a squirrel,” but we don’t have all day.

Davis: I appreciate that. I wanted to explore the nature of our relationship beyond just the petting and the purring. We hang out together all the time, but we’ve never really communicated beyond a casual level. I wanted to find out more about how you view this whole arrangement. For example, do you prefer the indoor life to living wild like you did before?

Harriet: Wow, that’s a good question. I’ve been in here since, what, 1996? I barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday, much less what it was like when I was a kitten.

Tom: You had for dinner what they give us for dinner every day. Those crunchy brown pellets they call “cat food.”

 

Taylor: We don't have all day

Taylor: We don't have all day

Davis: Tom, you seem pretty happy with the cat food when it’s dished out. I didn’t know you had any complaints.

Tom: Well, I do, but we have to take what we’re given. It’s not every day I can jump up on the counter and lick your bread for nourishment.

Davis: Tom, you’ve been an indoor cat for less than a year, so you probably remember what it was like to survive on worms and crickets and half-rotten squirrel carcasses. How do you compare the outdoor life with what you have now?

Tom: I don’t think I appreciate the tone of your question, but I’ll answer it anyway. I have to admit it’s a pretty sweet life sleeping on your bed all day and on the couch all night. My fur is much less flea-bitten in this setting, so I’m really able to get comfortable. It’s the awake time that is something less than I’d like it to be. Very little stimulation, you know. And by the way, well-aged squirrel meat happens to be quite the delicacy among our species, so I’d appreciate a little cultural sensitivity there.

Davis: Point taken. Taylor, your move indoors seemed to go pretty smoothly, and I think you enjoy yourself in here. We really share a nice moment in the evenings when you sit on my chest and we look at each other.

Taylor: Yeah, that’s a real high point in my day, that’s for sure. Of course, that probably gives you some idea of how boring the other times are.

Davis: But I thought we had something of a special relationship. We’ve never said it out loud, but I’ve always thought that you were my cat, Tom is Daniel’s cat and Harriet is Beth’s.

Taylor: This whole concept you humans have of “ownership” is really quite an insult, you know. I think your earlier use of the term “arrangement” is much more accurate. We’re not necessarily thrilled with the situation as it currently stands, but we appreciate that the alternatives aren’t that great for the modern cat. While you may not have succeeded in breeding the hunting skills out of us, you’ve really done a number on our comfort-seeking impulses, which now seem to consume us. We’re not born wanting to sit on humans, you know.

Davis: Well that touches on a question I’ve wondered about for some time. Do you like to get so close to us because you enjoy our company, or is it simply that you like our warmth?

Tom: Watch how far away we stay now that spring is here, and I think you’ll answer your own question.

Tom: My fur is much less flea bitten

Tom: My fur is much less flea bitten

 

 

Davis: Tom, let’s let Harriet answer this one. She seems to especially enjoy cuddling up on Beth’s lap regardless of the weather.

Harriet: Well, yeah, I do kind of like that closeness. But mainly I do it now for protection, because Tom tends to be so mean to me. If I thought a heating pad could swat him away as effectively as Beth does, I’d probably be just as happy.

Tom: Hey, I don’t appreciate …

[A brief cat fight ensues, with much snarling and waving of paws but no one is hurt.]

Davis: Alright, alright, let’s everybody calm down.

Harriet: I don't appreciate that I've been declawed

Harriet: I don't appreciate that I've been declawed

 

 

Harriet: You know, what I don’t appreciate is that I’ve been declawed and Taylor and Tom have not. If you’re going to rip my fingers out from the second joint, why didn’t you do it to them too? Where’s the fairness in that?

We’ll answer Harriet’s controversial question in part two of our interview, to be published tomorrow.

 

In their own words (part 2): Citi, Blackwater, PCA

March 22, 2009

Continuing our look this weekend at the literary flourishes of some of corporate America’s least-trusted companies, today we’ll examine the work of Citibank, Blackwater and the Peanut Corporation of America.

As I was keying in some examples of Citi’s print advertisements (for some reason, they’re posted on the web in a form you can neither print nor copy, and in a type size that’s barely readable), my word processing grammar check kept highlighting huge swaths of copy. Advertising writers. They love incomplete sentences. And short ones. Let’s look.

Maybe you dream of owning a home. Of opening a business. Or taking it global. Of retiring. Or choosing not to. Of enriching your life. Or the lives of others. Your dreams are always there. Always beckoning. Which is why we’re always wide-awake. Working tirelessly, around the world and around the clock. Providing funding and financing, investments and advice. So you can settle into that new home. Or give your daughter a credit card when she leaves for college. So you can call yourself CEO. Or say konichiwa to new markets. Every minute of every day, we’re striving to find new and innovative solutions. To simplify life’s complexities. And to turn dreams into realities.

Yes, we all have, or at least had, a dream of retiring some day. Most of us didn’t realize, however, that retirement would come not with a party and a gold watch but with a box of our personal belongings being carried out by a security guard. Thanks to Citi. And other large, irresponsible corporations.

The dream theme that accompanies the “Citi Never Sleeps” slogan is shown a few more times:

After an evening of tantrums that shook the walls, Kate has finally begun to dream. But down the hall, her father wonders how he’ll afford to send her to college, while her mother considers a larger home. Downtown, Kate’s overworked pediatrician ponders an early retirement. In Bentonville, a shipment of Kate’s favorite peas arrive at the baby food bottling plant. And in Sydney, a sing-along DVD is being filmed, one that’ll provide Kate’s grateful parents with a brand-new lullaby.

And then there’s the international angle:

The tower cranes are still. The backhoes are silent. And for a weary group of Guangzhou construction workers, the long work day has finally come to an end. But in Lyon and Dubai and Delhi, the work continues for several more hours. Meanwhile in Vancouver and Sao Paulo, the daily toil has only just begun. The fact is, there are 6.6 billion of us spread out across the planet. And only one financial institution has the vast depth and breadth of resources to keep pace. At Citi, we work around the world and around the clock, providing our clients with innovative thinking and new opportunities. And we’ve been doing so since 1902, when our Shanghai office became the first American bank in Asia. Today, we’re in over 100 countries, yet our people remain 98% local. It’s this unparalleled combination of global experience and local insight that enables our clients to grow and prosper. The world never sleeps. That’s why Citi never sleeps.

Except, perhaps, through that one corporate ethics meeting that was so boring.

Blackwater, which became infamous for its abuses of power during the Iraq war, has since been forced to leave that country and also has lost many of its U.S. government contracts. In an attempt to remake itself, it’s now called Xe (pronounced “Zee”) and is refocusing on training and logistics. This new emphasis is stressed in a part-time position for firearms and tactics instructor being posted online.

Primary Purpose: Provide quality high risk firearms and tactitcs [sic] instruction to Xe customers.

Essential Functions: responsible for teaching pistol, carbine, and shotgun courses; responsible for assisting in teaching high-risk hostage rescue courses; responsible for teaching officer survival courses; responsible for assisting in teaching surveillance detection courses; responsible for safety of students.

Working Conditions: Position is considered to be part time only. Work is based in a busy training environment and subject to frequent interruptions. Frequent work outside and in inclement weather conditions is required, including heat, cold, and humidity. May be exposed to fumes or airborne particles, toxic or caustic chemicals and vibration.

Lest we think Blackwater/Xe has lost its heart, their “proshop” is still open for business, offering logo-imprinted stuffed bears, money clips, pilsner glasses, lighters, coffee mugs, ladies rings and “Defending Our Freedom” stickers.

Finally, we look at the Peanut Corporation of America. In case you forgot, these are the folks who, despite their still-present slogan of “Processor of the World’s Finest Peanut Products,” brought us those salmonella-tainted spreads a few weeks ago. Their prose, by necessity, is a little less flowery and a little more legal:

As you may know, certain recent events have made it necessary for Peanut Corporation of America to seek protection under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Effective immediately, all corporate operations will cease. Any questions regarding the company or the operations of its affiliates should be forwarded to the company bankruptcy counsel.

Helpful Links: American Peanut Council, National Restaurant Association, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.