Archive for April, 2009

Come see spring celebrated in Rock Hill

April 20, 2009

 Starting last Thursday and continuing until April 25, my little Southern hometown is celebrating its spring festival. Much like the SpringFests and SpringAlives and FestiFuns commemorating the arrival of warm weather you’ll find in other locations, the Come See Me Festival sponsors a variety of events to get people outdoors to experience the fresh air and sunshine of spring.

When I first moved here, I admit I was a little taken aback by the odd name. At the time, Rock Hill’s primary industry was an acetone processing plant that gave off a constant chemical smell, and it seemed to me that “Come Smell Me” might be a more appropriate label. As I got to know a few locals, they explained the name originated from the common expression of goodwill that Southerners would offer as they emerged from their winter hibernation. “Y’all come see me,” they’d say, warmly reflecting an earlier era of friendliness and civility when people kept constantly clean homes and there was no cable TV. Nowadays, you’d have to add, “but be sure to call first so I can vacuum the couch and set up the DVR to record ‘CSI’.”

Since then, the name has become second-nature to me, and the phrase “when is Come See Me?” no longer sounds like a recent immigrant trying to schedule a urologist to make a house call. My family doesn’t attend as many of the events as we used to; the large percentage devoted to children’s activities no longer appeal to my 17-year-old (who’s probably done his last “jumpy house” until he’s an inebriated collegian), and the number of marginally interesting activities has exploded as organizers try to fill the calendar from sunrise to sunset.

One event we do try to make is the so-called “Gourmet Gardens.” What began years ago as an opportunity for local restaurants to sell small samples of their specialties in the lovely venue of a flower-filled garden has gradually devolved into what we experienced Saturday – mostly out-of-town purveyors selling mostly barbecue and gyros at mostly ridiculous prices. One vendor sold his “gyro only” for $6 and his “gyro plate” for whatever amount it is when you handwrite an “9” on top of a “8,” or perhaps vice versa. Whether it’s $17 or $72, that’s one damn fine shaved-lamb sandwich.

My wife and I milled around the gardens, which is now actually the concrete-paved slab separating a collection of softball fields, trying to find something both palatable and affordable. After several loops around the circle, she settled on fried mushrooms and an ear of cheese-covered corn (the “fried” and “cheese-covered” modifiers would normally be implied, but I add them here for any readers overseas.) Looking for something a little different, I decided to experiment with the “Louisiana Boudoin Balls.” The guy selling them joked he wouldn’t sell me any till I attempted to pronounce the product, so I gave him my best French-inflected “boo-dawn.” He laughed, then handed over the fried, breaded and balled sausage-and-spice concoction. There were (disconcertingly) two of them, hot and peppery, rattling around the bottom of a cone cup, looking thoroughly not worth $3.50 per ball. I tried to convince myself the flavor was exotic, until halfway through the final ball I decided “bad” was a better description.

I’m pretty sure we won’t be attending many more Come See Me events this week, but I thought I’d describe a few of the other highlights still to come in case anybody out there wants to jet in for next weekend’s finale (rooms are still available at the Super 8, Rodeway and Microtel motels).

There’s both a Mayor’s Frog Jump and a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast (the frog, in the person of a “Glen the Frog” costumed character, is the festival’s mascot). In the frog jump, kids can either bring their own frogs — remember, we are in the South — or purchase one on-site. The youngsters then encourage the slippery hoppers to make the biggest jump in the competition by pounding on the ground behind them, blowing air up their hind end, or slipping them a little of Uncle Sonny’s crystal meth. The Prayer Breakfast is basically the same thing, except with city councilmen instead of frogs and pancakes instead of meth. You may be fortunate enough to attend one of these events in a year when organizers get a little confused, and you’ll see either a prayer jump or a frog breakfast.


Glen the Frog frightens children at Gourmet Gardens

Glen the Frog frightens children at Gourmet Gardens


There’s a Tuba Choir Concert, one of many musical presentations staged by the local college in the vain hope their musical performance students can get some experience in front of an audience. (Can you imagine a graduate trying to find a job in this economy with a tuba degree?)

There’s a community theatre performance of “Father Knows Best” running for several nights. I’m not sure if this production distills the entire story arc of the eight-season 1950s TV series down to a single night, or whether a selected episode is recreated (maybe the one where Latin dancer Rita Moreno plays an exchange student from India). But I don’t intend to find out.

There’s a highly regulated Tailgate Party in a grassy field near Winthrop Lake where no vehicles are allowed, no tailgating is allowed in the lot where you can leave your vehicle, and glass containers, beer kegs, pets, household furniture, wheeled toys, golf carts and tiki torches are prohibited. They don’t specifically disallow improvised explosive devices, kangaroos or investment bankers, so maybe those are permitted.

There’s a Be Seen Green Parade in which participants where green clothes to show off their environmental awareness and get one more use out of those St. Patrick’s Day ensembles. “We’re going to have some hybrid cars going through the parade this year,” said one organizer, though with any luck their weak acceleration will be such that anyone who’s struck won’t be hurt.

There are a number of other frog-themed events giving Glen a chance to show his humongous felt mug around town. There’s something called Frog Hoppin’ Fun that showcases amphibian-related games and crafts for the 2-to-6-year-old set while their parents can take advantage of free dental screenings. There’s a Frog Float where sponsored rubber frogs race toward a finish line with the winner getting a $1000 gift certificate (deceased participants from the Mayor’s Frog Jump are ineligible to join, as their bloating gives them unfair buoyancy). And, there’s a Frog Coloring Contest that’s totally fixed, as last year’s winner didn’t even stay inside the lines.

Rounding out the other highlights, there’s a barbecue competition featuring chefs and their smokers from throughout the Southeast (samples can be purchased, though pork is off the menu); there’s a mass kazoo march in which participants are asked to donate a bottle of lotion to a local children’s home; there’s a sheep-shearing, presumably because you can’t shear frogs; and there’s something called Everything Trucks!, where everything is a truck.

The festival finale takes place on the last evening this coming Saturday. In what I earnestly pray is a carefully scheduled climax, a team of airborne acrobats from the Carolina Skydiving Team will give a parachute-jumping exhibition, while a Fireworks Extravaganza will fill the sky with brilliant pyrotechnic displays. I can’t believe the organizers of these two separate events wouldn’t vigilantly coordinate their efforts to ensure the jumpers aren’t blown out of the evening sky by rocket-propelled mortars, though maybe the risk of that prospect is meant to draw even bigger crowds to the final night.

Only a dissection of the beloved Glen would be a more horrible way to end this year’s Come See Me.

Sunday photos: Hong Kong

April 19, 2009

Last Sunday I wrote about my “best business trip ever,” the five weeks I spent in Manila in 2006. During one weekend of that period, a co-worker and I took a flight north to Hong Kong for a quick two-day excursion through one of the world’s most exciting and international cities. It was a whirlwind 48 hours, with my co-worker – who had been there before on a month-long assignment – serving as my personal tour guide. Here are a few pictures from that memorable weekend.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Arrival in Hong Kong

 Two cool things about the airport, besides its incredible architecture and modernity: when we arrived, we had to go through a scanner that read our body temperatures to make sure we didn’t have SARS; and when we left, we had a small snafu because we had to prove our return to the Philippines was only temporary and we were in fact eventually going to the U.S. As if a couple of pudgy middle-aged white guys would conspire to illegally immigrate to Manila when they were really supposed to return to America. Actually, though, that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, considering all the creepy Anglo guys we saw predatorily stalking attractive young Filipino women.

Vegetarians, look away

Vegetarians, look away

My sincerest apologies if you happen to be reading this over breakfast (or any meal, for that matter). This is an open-air meat cart we encountered on the side streets of the Kowloon district. I won’t attempt to identify any animal types or body parts, since knowing that the leg-like pairing that’s hanging in the foreground were actually monkey lungs wouldn’t make them any less disgusting.

Me and James at high tea

Me and James at high tea

Right before we flew out on Monday afternoon, we stopped in at one of the most exclusive hotels in greater Hong Kong, the Peninsula, for high tea. I was vaguely familiar with the concept and only mildly interested, but my fellow traveler had it “high” on his priority list, so that’s what we had for what I would’ve called lunch. Interesting fact: apparently it’s called high tea because the food (mostly muffin- and scone-like objects) is stacked three levels high, and because there’s tea on the side. Note the glazed look on my face as a bolus of scone attempts to travel from my stomach into my upper intestines.

Twittering with Ashton, Oprah and Jesus

April 18, 2009

Yesterday may turn out to be the day we look back on from future generations to say that Twitter finally took over Western civilization.

Ashton Kutcher triumphed over CNN in their closely watched race to be the first to reach a million “followers,” while Oprah Winfrey sent her very first tweet then, moments later, discovered she already had accumulated 130,000 followers.

“We have shown the world that the new wave is here,” pronounced Leader Kutcher shortly after his victory. “It is present and it is ready to explode.” Then he added the somewhat perplexing “I can’t follow me,” implying he would if he could.

Newbie Winfrey’s first tweet was broadcast on her talk show.


So today seems like it might be a good time to reprint an article that appeared in our local newspaper last Monday about a hip, young church that incorporated Twitter into its Easter service.

 * * *

STALLINGS, N.C. — As Pastor Todd Hahn sermonized onstage Sunday about St. Paul’s take on Jesus’ resurrection, Scarlett Hollingsworth bowed her head and brought her hands together.

She wasn’t praying, though. Her eyes were open, and her thumbs were busy. She was pounding out a short message on her BlackBerry.

It was time to Twitter:

“I’m listening to the teachings of Paul,” wrote Hollingsworth, known to those following her tweets as beingscarlett. “& wondering how many people need to hear that we can face hardship in life without fear.”

Most churches ask worshippers to turn off cell phones when the service starts. But at Union County’s Next Level, a rock ‘n’ roll-style church where Hollingsworth attended the 11 a.m. Easter service, members of the flock were encouraged to Twitter away on their cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops. Their messages landed on other cell phones – as well as online for those who looked in from a personal computer at home.

“I hope many of you are tweeting this morning about your experience with God,” Hahn announced before launching into his sermon.

Churches have been using the latest technology since the 15th century, when the Gutenberg Bible – a product of the printing press and movable type – paved the way for mass distribution of Scripture.

Later came radio, then TV, then the Internet, and now Twitter – 140-character message bursts designed to pass on what the sender is thinking at that moment.

Still, some of those tweeting Sunday couldn’t quite believe where they were doing it.

“So excited for the nextlevel Easter service!!” wrote GamecockCB. “Tweet from church?! Are you kidding?!”

Hahn, 40, said the idea was hatched by the church’s Creative Team of twentysomethings. They wanted to do something special for Easter.

With so many old and new churches competing for young people, some like Next Level are trying to stand out by embracing the latest technology: Web sites, blogs, and now Twitter.

Charlotte native Hahn acknowledged that the church’s accent on Twitter is partly a marketing tool. But he said it can also enhance members’ religious experience and build community.

Hahn said evangelical churches have focused so much on the me-God relationship – with services full of what he called “prom songs to Jesus” – that “we lose the communal aspects.”

“Twitter is a social network … that can remind us we are worshipping with other people. We’re not in a bubble,” he said. “And when people read some of the (tweets) they may have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, and say, ‘A lot of others look at things like I do.”

On Sunday, photographer Kristen Hinson, 24, felt liberated by the Easter message – and her ability to pass it along via cell phone.

“I love Next Level Church,” she Twittered. “The resurrection is like a sales receipt from God, a guarantee of what’s to come!!!”

Hollingsworth, 44, a designer at Central Piedmont Community College and a self-described techie, said it was hard sometimes to pay attention to the sermon and tweet. But, she added, the world is changing, and the church needs to change, too.

“If you don’t jump on the new technology, you’re going to lose opportunities,” she said. “We use it for work and for life. Why not church?”

Tweet Tweet

Here are some of the Twitter messages from Next Level Church on Sunday.

melissajackson3: Awesome foo fighters song to start the service at nextlevel.

imkay: Nothing u do 4 the lord is in vain.

desimae: I remember the day when Easter meant dressing up against my will and being bored for three hours at church …thanks, nextlevel for change!

psalm46: Resurrection is real; … He is still raising us day by day from this level on to the nextlevel, higher up and further in.

renwicks_lady: Getting ready for Nextlevel church, getting my texting thumbs stretched and ready to go!!!!

charburns: nextlevel had awesome music today and yes i am twittering in church.


Website Review:

April 17, 2009

My wife arrived home from a bread-making class the other night with nearly a dozen still-warm, fragrant loaves. Within the next ten minutes, I found myself humming the following:

If a picture paints a thousand words

Then why can’t I paint you?

The words will never show

The you I’ve come to know

And when my love for life is running dry

You come and pour yourself on me.


As much as I’d like to consider myself a romantic, I don’t think this qualifies. Just about anyone who survived the soft-rock trends of the 1970s probably recognizes this as the song “If” by a miserable band known as Bread. Somehow, deep in an obscure neural pathway within my brain, I had made a connection between freshly baked bread and half-baked pop music from a quarter-century ago.

It’s probably a synapse much like this one that is responsible for the success of a company headquartered not far from my South Carolina home. Muzak, Inc. is now celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary, if it’s possible to “celebrate” on the brink of bankrupt dissolution. The firm responsible for making music as ubiquitous as the air we breathe is the subject of this week’s Website Review.

The original technology for Muzak was developed by inventor Maj. Gen. George Squier. For a time, it consisted of old-fashioned turntables playing records over a microphone, though the cost of sending out a repairman from the central office every time it started to skip quickly became prohibitive. Soon switched over to radio waves, it was pumped into factories during World War II to increase production, and later found its way into post-war offices with a signature bland background style that wouldn’t intrude on foreground tasks. This is where it acquired its label of “elevator music.”

When some members of the public discovered its attempt to manipulate behavior on a subliminal level, it was accused of brainwashing and hauled into court. It was later exonerated to such an extent that President Eisenhower had it installed in the West Wing and NASA used it to soothe nervous astronauts in space, where it’s well-known that no one can hear you scream. In 1989, rocker Ted Nugent offered $10 million to buy the company and shut it down but the bid was refused. Maybe showing off his collection of automatic weapons could’ve sealed the deal, though it’s too late for that now.

Today, Muzak is desperately trying to rid itself of a stodgy image, and claims at its website that it’s actually in the business of “audio architecture.” Clients can choose from a list of more than 80 programs, ranging from traditional categories like Environments (adult contemporary), Aura (new age) and Moodscapes (more new age) to modern offerings like Half Pipe (skate punk/hip-hop) and Ink’d (power metal). You can also customize a playlist that’s exclusive to your brand, as was probably done to torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay and dislodge loitering teenagers from convenience store parking lots. (It’s easy to worry that this weaponization of music degrades the beauty of the arts, but consider how the North Koreans might settle down if we laid a little dinner theatre on them.)

Muzak scientists can cite considerable research about how creating the right ambience in a business encourages clients to buy more, stay longer, spend higher amounts or even resist robbing the cashier. Customer Linda L. is quoted as saying “I’m so impressed with the music that’s being played at the 99 Cent Store that I found myself shopping longer just to hear the music.” So the addition of Hot Chocolate’s “I Believe in Miracles” to the retail experience has the potential to turn $1.98 in revenues into something approaching $4.95.

To broaden its appeal in our increasingly multimedia age, Muzak now offers not only music but also voice (professionally produced on-hold messages), video and, following a 2005 distribution agreement with ScentAir Technologies, fragrance systems that enhance the customer experience using smell. A press release at the time describes “aroma marketing solutions (that) create a unique in-store experience by engaging memory and emotions through patented scent-delivery systems.” Muzak uses a chocolate fragrance system in New York’s Hershey’s store, a leather aroma in Marshall Field’s furniture stores and, presumably, a cat-urine scent to keep people from tying up gas station restrooms for any longer than they can hold their breath.

As Muzak tries to evolve to meet twenty-first century demands, it faces more challenges than just the $438 million in debt that’s due to be paid in 2009. Fairly or not, it’s still saddled with a reputation that’s not exactly modern. The frequently asked questions portion of the website addresses this issue head on. “Is Muzak still elevator music?” is answered with a firm “No way!” A protest as vigorous as that is always suspect, and others in the industry acknowledge that although “they’ve been working hard at being perceived as hipper, Muzak has a giant elevator on its back.” Though being temporarily imprisoned in cramped box with strangers who could join you at any moment in a 50-story plunge to your death can be made marginally more enjoyable by Dexys Midnight Runners, it doesn’t seem like the best basis for a marketing campaign.

Muzak is also trapped by a level of brand recognition so high as to be almost detrimental. They are dangerously close to becoming the kind of term that passes into the public domain as a generic, much like Kleenex-brand tissue, Post-It-brand sticky notes and Syphilis-brand STDs. Nowhere in the website is there any hint of a possible name change – though CEO Steve Villa’s letter to customers mentions “many exciting opportunities” in the year ahead. If its proposed merger with rival DMX is ever approved, I suppose they could always work an “X” into their name. Perhaps Muxak, Muzax or Xuzak could create the kind of edgy, post-modern ambience that sounds and smells have thus far failed to deliver.

Fake News Briefs: Entertainment Edition

April 16, 2009

Deejay uses restraint

SEATTLE, Washington (April 15) — A morning deejay with the Spokane “J96 Zoo Crew” is reportedly the only media funnyman in the nation thus far to pass up making a joke about the new White House dog surviving tax issues to land his new position as First Pet.

Al “The Lunatic” Roberts barely avoided the nearly universal joke Wednesday when he did make mention of a “vetting process that involved de-worming and a flea treatment.” But unlike his high-profile cohorts on The Tonight Show, The Late Show and The Late Late Show, Roberts did not raise the tax question.

“Of course, it did occur to me immediately when the news came out, especially several days before April 15,” Roberts said. “But it just seemed so trite and obvious that I couldn’t bring myself to say it.”

The AM radio veteran, who writes most of his own material, did join the rest of America’s comedians by saying the new pet, named “Bo” by the Obama children, was “the first dog in the White House since Bill Clinton” and that “if the president thinks cleaning up the economic mess is a dirty job, wait till Bo has chili for dinner.”

Veteran actor wants to talk music

HOLLYWOOD, California (April 15) — Veteran TV actor Ed Asner made an erratic appearance Wednesday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, refusing to talk about his long sitcom career and instead focusing exclusively on his new polka band, the Asnertones.

The 79-year-old entertainer, known primarily for his role as Lou Grant in two popular TV comedies of the 1970s, looked disheveled and disoriented during his eight-minute segment with Leno, stopping at several points to wander toward the camera asking “Where’s my stapler?” He also removed his shirt at one point, revealing a tattoo he described as “a map of Croatia,” and demanded that band leader Kevin Eubanks replace his guitar with a mandolin.

The former Screen Actors Guild president and long-time political activist said he’s retired from acting to devote all his efforts to an upcoming tour with the Asnertones, which he described as a “grunge/doo-wop/accordion combo unlike anything you’ve ever heard.”

“I sing and I dance and I do a little light housework with the group,” Asner told an obviously perturbed Leno. “We open next week in Australia, then continue a world tour for the next three months. Or until I die.”

Asner’s bizarre appearance follows several recent attempts by actors to transform their careers from acting to music. Joaquin Phoenix staged a similar act on David Letterman earlier this year to promote his new hip-hop tour, and Billy Bob Thornton ranted through a Canadian radio spot last week trying to drum up publicity for an ultimately failed tour by his band.

“Let me tell you something about that Mary Tyler Moore,” Asner told Leno. “I’m going to ask her to be in my band.”

’Tea party’ event misunderstood

The convergence of college spring break with yesterday’s nationwide protest dubbed the “Taxpayer’s Tea Party” caused considerable confusion among revelers in several major U.S. cities.

Conservative and libertarian activists blended with hard-drinking undergraduates at a number of locations where the latter group thought free alcohol, music and scantily clad coeds would be making appearances, rather than loopy right-wing has-beens looking to advance their hopeless agenda.

“Woo-hooo! Partay, partay, partay,” said Neil Johnson of Tulane University, who attended the San Antonio Tax Day Tea Party, which featured Fox News personality Glenn Beck as a speaker. “I love Beck and can’t wait for the concert to start. I hope he plays ‘Loser’ and ‘MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.’”

Conservative organizers of the anti-tax event tried quickly to reclaim the agenda, with varying degrees of success.

“We are moms and dads, businessmen and women who are concerned for their country,” said U.S. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. “We are worried that our nation is quickly being taken in the wrong direction by politicians more concerned about the next election than the next generation.”

Another Fox newsman, Neil Cavuto, appeared at the Sacramento, California, tea-party rally, but also met with perplexed members of a large crowd.

“They call this ‘SAC Town’,” said hospitality services major Jeff Greene of nearby UC-Davis. “Imagine that – there will be tea-baggin’ in SAC Town. That is off the hook, man. That is totally crunk.”

Mike Leahy, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter, a primary sponsor of the protest, said organizers plan to deliver one million teabags to a Washington, D.C. park to demonstrate how the common man is fed up with high taxes and excess spending.

“This is about citizens who believe America can only survive if we protect the principles of liberty from a federal government that is out of control and must be reformed now,” Leahy said. “And that’s the real message of hope.”

Scott Glenn, a junior marketing major from Dearborn, Michigan, who attended the tea party in nearby Lansing, seemed to agree with that sentiment.

“I know what I hope for – I hope that ‘T’ stands for tequila and Tanqueray,” said Glenn. “I hear Joe the Plumber is going to be at this event. He may need to be standing by, because my buds and I plan on barfing our brains out. Yeee-owww!”

O America! I file now my taxes

April 15, 2009

There’s a little-known provision in the U.S. Tax Code that I think I’m going to use with this year’s income tax filing. Even though the Internal Revenue Service provides taxpayers with dozens of different forms to make it easier to communicate all the appropriate information, you are not in fact required to use any of these forms. As long as they get the data they need in a timely fashion, other formats are acceptable.

So instead of using Form 1040 like I might normally do, I’m going to file my 2008 income taxes in free verse, with inspiration from America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman.

O America!

Thy gleaming towers of commerce lie in rubble and ruin

Your once-proud people shamble through unending off-lays and sizings-down

They struggle to find work, both the learn’d and unlearn’d

The homefires they thought were theirs are possessed anew

Usury stalks the land where once there was a reasonable credit market

Lo, I watch the dark clouds of fate gather, yet hope I must

As it is in my American spirit!


Yes, you must levy a surcharge upon your citizenry

It is how we will pay for the stimulation and the bailing and the eventual recovery

That will someday soon return our land to its promontory on the mesa on the hill

Return its people to their hurrahs, so as to squelch the fury of rous’d mobs

(I’m looking at you, Fox News).


The security of thy corpus is bound up in a social net that numbers tens of myriads

My number is but one of these – 287-39-6312

This cipher is mine and mine alone, and I glory in its individuality

My love, my spouse, my lifemate, she too is joining me in this annual celebration

And her number too is of interest to thee – it is 365-08-4118

We file jointly, for we are married.


And, yea, we do want to pay the tripl’d dollar

To go toward the Presidential Election Campaign

Though we desire as well to register our strenuous protest and objection

To the ongoing war with Mexico.


You wish to know the assembled value of my wages, my salaries

You wish to know the value of even my tips, tho they pale in comparison

To the worth that was visited upon me by my father in heav’n

Forthwith I will divine these and show thee to a cent

The integer is sixty-seven thousand

Seven hundred and thirty-six dollars

Or so that is what I deign to report.


I have interest in life in all its aspects

In the brown ants and the little wells beneath them

And mossy scabs of the worm-fence, heap’d stones, elder mullein and poke-weed

I have interest in how you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d me over

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart

But I report no interest of the taxable kind

And no unemployment compensation and no Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.


No one shall claim me as dependent, for I am so fiercely independent

That sometimes it makes my head hurt, and my acquaintances annoy’d

At this point I shall claim a deduction of seventeen thousands and nine hundreds

For so it has been direct’d by statutes in the rule of levies

I shall subtract this from the previous line to arrive at my taxable income

Despite the horror of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events.


O America!

You have already withheld substantial fractions of my annual fortune

As I can see from the box numbered two on my Form W-2

I do not begrudge this contribution to thy welfare and that of my fellow citizens

For we all must labor together to build a nation of brothers, a nation of sisters

Tho I sure wish you didn’t spend so much on that folly of a program

To build a cow museum in the land of the Nebraskan.


I claim no earned income credit

I claim no nontaxable combat pay election

I claim no recovery rebate credit

For I have seen the worksheet on pages 17 and 18

I only claim to celebrate myself, and sing myself.


I will now add my total payments to calculate my tax

As it is express’d in the tax tables I must now consult

As once I consulted with the boatmen and the clam-diggers

The butcher-boy and the blacksmith and the runaway slave

(I think that butcher-boy had a thing for me, tho that shall be another sonnet)

And now, because line 10 is larger than line 11, I shall subtract line 11 from line 10

This is my refund, and I glory in its amount, even as I had hop’d for more.


I hereby direct that said sum shall be directly deposited

With all alacrity and without undue delay

To an account I designate as one of “checking”

And with a routing number that aspires to be the lofty 4732985

And yet in reality will never reach those hallowed heights.


You will hardly know who I am or what I mean

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless

I stop somewhere waiting for you

And so I affix my signature here

So you know that it is me.


Fake News: ‘Pirates’ considered too lovable

April 14, 2009

LONDON (April 14) – The World Terminology Assembly met in emergency session yesterday in an attempt to reach consensus on a word to describe the Somali “pirates” that made them sound more menacing.

Representatives from more than 130 nations arrived in Britain over the weekend with one mission in mind: the creation of a term that didn’t evoke images of sports mascots or Disney characters. A spokesperson for the group said the danger to international commerce posed by the so-called pirates that are threatening shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa was being trivialized by each new incident report.

“Whenever the news comes out that the ‘pirates’ have struck again, everyone kind of chuckles and thinks about Johnny Depp or perhaps some big-headed costumed character at a Pittsburgh baseball game,” said Abdul Ramahani of Malaysia, current chairman of the WTA. “As we’ve seen from events in just the past week, this threat needs to be taken more seriously.”

The morning hours of the conference were comprised of a “blue-sky” session where conferees tossed out suggestions for more-threatening synonyms that might be adopted. A facilitator stood at the front of the meeting hall, listing the ideas on a large whiteboard.

Among the dozens of substitute terms that were initially floated were buccaneers, brigands, rapscallions, swashbucklers, rogues, scalawags, racketeers, bootleggers, villains, rascals, Jolly Rogers, scamps and imps. Ultimately, though, all of these failed to rise to the level of implied dread that organizers were seeking.

“I know I said before there are no bad ideas, but you guys can’t be serious with some of these,” facilitator Johan Berkeley told the assemblage. “Scamps? Jolly Rogers? Villains? It sounds like we’re writing a screenplay for a Merry Melodies cartoon. These guys are threatening the high seas, they’re not tying damsels to railroad tracks.”

After a themed luncheon that featured servers with eye patches, shoulder parrots and leg amputations, participants seemed to “swashbuckle” down for more serious discussion in the afternoon. This meeting appeared to yield more original ideas, including seajackers, oceaneers, tanker wankers, aqua-terrorists, nogoodniks and horn dogs.

“We were trying to stay away from terms like ‘terrorist,’ ‘hijacker’ and ‘evil-doer’ because they have connotations associated with jihadists from the Arab world,” Ramahani said. “The threat that the Somali bandits pose is a serious one, but nowhere near that level.”

The American delegate to the conference, industrialist billionaire Harold Hayes, was a leftover political appointee from the Bush administration and seemed not to grasp what the point of the group’s effort was. His suggestions included the White Sox, the Thunder, the Panthers and the “Somali Tamales.”

“That last one suggests a ready-made mascot,” Hayes said. “I can imagine some natural tie-ins with Taco Bells that should really draw the Mexicans out to the ol’ ballpark.”

The WTA failed to reach a consensus by the end of the day and was forced to adjourn without a new term. In the meantime, Ramahani suggested that the international media adopt the term “bad guys” until the group could meet again later this summer.

“We’ve just got to eliminate ‘pirates’ as soon as possible,” he said. “We’ve even seen cases in some newspapers where typos got through and these guys were referred to as ‘pilates.’ The global community will never take this scourge seriously if that kind of thing keeps up.”


It seemed like only yesterday…

April 13, 2009

FRIEND: Jay, are you in there?

JAY: Mmmph. Go away.

FRIEND: C’mon, man. You gotta get up. Let me in, dude.

JAY: Hang on, hang on. I’m comin’.

FRIEND: What are you doing, man? Why are you still in bed? Aren’t you supposed to start your new job today?

JAY: I guess I slept through my alarm. Man, I feel awful. This is Saturday, right?

FRIEND: No, this is Sunday. Dude, did you sleep all day yesterday?

JAY: I guess I did. Last thing I remember it was Friday night. Man, it was a rough week. I can’t believe I slept almost the entire weekend.

FRIEND: Well let me at least help you get ready. I’ll put on some coffee while you start getting dressed. You can still make it in time if you hurry. Jeez, what is that smell? It’s like somebody died in here.

JAY: Sorry, I guess I let the place go a little. Haven’t had much chance to clean with all that was going on last week.

FRIEND: You can’t screw up this new gig, you know? This is the big promotion you worked so hard for. The job is a breeze and the benefits are fabulous. You’ve already done all the hard stuff to get there … you can’t blow it now.

JAY: I know, I know. You’re right. Thanks for helping, man. Let me grab my shirt. Ow! Oh, man, what did I do Friday night? My shoulders are killing me. I think one might be dislocated.

FRIEND: I didn’t stay as late as you did. You were just hanging out when I left. I don’t know what happened after that, but you look to me like you’ve been through Hell and back.

JAY: I gotta tell you, it’s all a haze to me. I barely remember anything about Friday at all. Seems I was being chased by some Italian guys – maybe Mafia – and the next thing I knew I was up in front of this big crowd, and I was supposed to give some kind of presentation but I was unprepared.

FRIEND: Were you wearing your underwear?

JAY: Yes, I was! How did you know?

FRIEND: Typical anxiety dream. You’re just worried about this job.

JAY: I don’t know – it seemed pretty real, but maybe not.

FRIEND: Last time we really talked was on Thursday, at that big dinner we had with all the guys. I wonder if you got some kind of food poisoning. Did you feel OK after that?

JAY: You know, I do remember being a little queasy. I wonder if we got some bad fish or something. But everybody else seemed alright, didn’t they?

FRIEND: From what I could tell they did. That jackass Jude cut out early and he did look a little shaken as he left, but he wasn’t green or anything like that. You left early too, right?

JAY: Yeah, I remember thinking I needed to go out and get some fresh air. I went and hung out at that park for a while and … wait, now I remember … I got busted by the cops! I remember they were just hassling me at first, giving me a hard time about talking to myself. Then they hauled me away.

FRIEND: Jesus Christ! This could really mess you up with your new job, man. If they find out you’ve got a record, they may not want you after all.

JAY: I gotta get in there fast and try to cover up as much as I can. How did I get myself into such a mess, anyway? I don’t know even know if I want this job. I can’t believe I have to work on Sundays.

FRIEND: From what you told me last week, Sundays are your busiest days. But you said you got Mondays and Tuesdays off. Maybe this first day will just be an orientation kind of thing – get your ID badge, get your email set up, etc. Maybe they won’t work you that hard. What’s that noise?

JAY: Hang on, I’m getting a text message. Ah, heck, I don’t have time for this. It’s Mary Mag – she said she’s on her way over.

FRIEND: She’s probably worried about you, man. You disappear for three days like that and your friends are going to wonder if you’re okay.

JAY: Let’s hurry. Maybe we can still get out before she gets here. I bet she brings that Thomas guy she’s been hanging out with lately. Man, I hate that guy – he’s always poking me in the side and laughing, just giving me a hard time.

FRIEND: Here’s a tie you can wear. You can put it on while we’re on the way.

JAY: Grab me a toaster strudel too, will ya? I’ll eat it cold. I’ve got to get there on time and make a good impression. If I can make it in this job, who knows how high up I might get the next time they’re looking for a top executive.

FRIEND: And it’s only a limited-time contract you’ve got, right? Just 40 days — isn’t that what you told me?

JAY: Well, that’s when the probationary period is over, yeah. I’m not real sure what happens after that, but surely I can hang on and do almost anything for 40 days. The job description I read was pretty vague and didn’t sound that hard – mostly making a few personal appearances, then a chance to move upstairs.

FRIEND: You’re right. How hard can that be? And there’s a fatty paycheck too, right?

JAY: I think they said something about my reward being in the next world. It’s related to how the deferred compensation packages are structured.

FRIEND: Alright, you look good to me. Let’s hit the road. If we hit all the lights, you’ll make it right on time.

JAY: Man, thanks a million for all you’ve done. I never would’ve made it without you.

FRIEND: Christ, you’re something else.


Sunday photos

April 12, 2009

The best international business trip I ever took was a 2006 excursion to Manila in the Philippines. Me and about a dozen others from the States spent five weeks setting up and training a “vendor site” (later called “outsource”, then later “offshore”, and eventually “what used to be my job.”) All the young Pilipinas were friendly, smart and eager to learn, and it was a real joy to work with them. We worked long hard hours during the six-day week but always had Sunday to enjoy a little sightseeing.

In the hammock

In the hammock

 The first excursion we took was to Subic Bay, about two hours outside the city. This former U.S. Navy base is trying with some success to remake itself as a tourist destination. We ordered up a seven-passenger van to take us there, but unfortunately it held seven petite locals rather than seven wide-ass Americans, so we had a rather unpleasant drive getting there and back. But for the eight hours we spent at the White Rock Resort, we had a splendid time. (The beautiful sunset you see in my masthead was photographed that afternoon). Here, I’m overflowing a hammock in one of the beachside cabanas.

In a boat

In a boat

 If you ever had a chance to read my post about climbing the Tal Volcano while in the Philippines (, this is what I looked like on the boat ride over. I’ll admit my face is pretty huge, but it’s not twice as big as the captain of my boat, as this perspective might suggest. Note the forced smile, as I’m pretending to have fun while in fact I’m scared to death.

In the classroom

In the classroom

 This last picture shows me in my official role as Wise Old American Teacher, training in a makeshift classroom. The hand gestures and animated look on my face suggest an enthusiasm that apparently isn’t shared by the young lady to my right. Actually, though, they were a wonderful group of students who continue to run a successful operation today.

GM-Segway joint effort — what could be cooler?

April 11, 2009

If you’ve ever heard grandma talk about her new “hi-pod,” or your dad say that he’s getting into “tweetering,” or Uncle Jack admit that he likes some of “Little Wayne’s” music, you probably had the same feeling I did when I read a story out of New York earlier this week.

General Motors executives announced that they’ve joined with Segway in an effort to produce a spawn of Satan called the PUMA. The two-wheeled, two-seat vehicle is designed to be a fast, safe, inexpensive and clean alternative to traditional cars for cities across the world.

With a bulbous design that reminded me of one of those claustrophobic motion-simulation pods you occasionally see at the mall, the 300-pound prototype was seen scooting about Manhattan on Tuesday in an introduction to the press. The vehicle runs on a lithium-ion battery and uses Segway’s characteristic two-wheel balancing technology and dual electric motors to reach speeds of up to 35 m.p.h.

GM apparently thinks there’s a market for people who want to be as cool as a Disney World employee while potentially being on the losing end of a collision with a SmartCar.

The GM marketing department engaged in some “acronymnastics” to come up with an abbreviation that is more catchy than it is descriptive. PUMA stands for “Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility,” when having the last word start with “V” for vehicle or “D” for doo-dad would make better sense but a more awkward acronym. Selling a product that doesn’t even have a noun in its name sounds like a risky proposition, or just about right for GM.

To make it even sexier for that hard-to-reach demographic of people who want to buy a Detroit-made car, the PUMA project would involve “a vast communications network that would allow vehicles to interact with each other, regulate the flow of traffic and prevent crashes from happening.” The network would use transponder and GPS technology that would let the devices drive themselves. They would “automatically” avoid obstacles such as pedestrians and other cars, assuming they would ever be allowed on the road.

And therein seems to be the problem. Current traffic laws in virtually every major U.S. city make the Segway too big and fast to be allowed on sidewalks with pedestrians, but at the same time too small and slow to drive on regular roadways. Executives at both firms said they were confident that urban planners would adapt their cityscapes to build news lanes and additional infrastructure for the PUMA. Yeah, that could happen.

In the meantime, the automaker is looking for a place, such as a college campus, where the vehicles could be put to use and grab a foothold in the market. Because, apparently, they’ve heard that college kids are cool.