Archive for August, 2009

When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you

August 31, 2009

People get complimented all the time for their smiles. “She has such a lovely smile,” they’ll say. “He has a smile that will light up a room.”

I am not one of those people. Sometimes I want to smile; sometimes I actually feel happy enough to smile. But my face is worn by over a half century of worry, scorn and general ill-temper, and there are some muscles that just don’t work well anymore. The exercise experts tell us to use it or lose it. I have totally lost it.

What remains, however, is something in which I take a measure of pride. If I can’t be near the upper extreme of pleasant facial expressions, I can boast that I’m near the bottom. I have, you see, what may be the world’s greatest frown.

It’s an almost-perfect half circle of gloom. The edges curl so far down from the apex that I almost need to borrow an additional face. Were the circle to be completed across the bottom, there’d be a ring of contemptuous mouth approaching 360 degrees of flawless roundness.

They say “let a smile be your umbrella,” but on this rainy Monday here in the South, I’d much rather have a replica of my sad grimace protecting me from the elements.

Check out this piteous mug:

Frowny Davis

When I first turned the camera around a looked at this shot, I was reminded of the photos from a recent colonoscopy shown me by my gastroenterologist. There’s a certain fleshy flabbiness not unlike what most people have six feet up their large intestine. The nostrils could be mistaken for an ileum or a duodenum. (Regular readers may note that I finally found a Wal-Mart that carries nose hair clippers).

Next, let me show you what I call my “greeting smile.” This is the expression I use when I need to stray from my default mode of misery long enough to acknowledge a passing coworker or neighbor. By pursing my lips, I can temporarily shut down the Super Frown and mold my mouth into something resembling a friendly face. With a nod of the head and a vague twinkle of the eye (not shown), I can almost pass for a nice guy as I acknowledge nearby fellow humans.

The Greeting Smile

Finally, here’s an example of my genuinely happy smile. This is a simulation, of course, since I had nothing to be genuinely happy about at the time except for the prospect of spending my Sunday afternoon doing laundry and, maybe as a treat later, mowing the lawn. Note that the lips are nearly horizontal — very close to a technical smile — and that the cheeks exhibit a roundness that suggests either genuine cheer or a really bad sinus infection. The veiny expanse of chin is no longer the center of the frown but a loathsome feature in its own right.

The Happy Smile

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Revisited: High-tech restrooms

August 30, 2009

It’s probably a good indicator that technology has gone too far when it shows up in the bathroom.

I don’t think it makes me a Luddite to complain that the last innovation worth a crap was the invention of indoor plumbing and that every improvement since has been merely gilding the lily. There are certain basics that seem totally sufficient without the addition of electronic circuitry and motion-sensing equipment. There’s only one movement I need to be sensing when it comes to using the facilities. I find everything else that’s going on in the modern restroom to be distracting at best and embarrassing at worst.

The men’s room at my office recently received such an unnecessary upgrade. You can’t help but wonder about corporate priorities when somewhere there’s a budget line item that pays for urinals that no longer require manual flushing. These appeared one recent Monday morning and caused quite a stir. I hadn’t noticed the innovation when I stepped up to do my business and was more than a little startled to find that a certain requisite shaking had set off rushing waters before I even had the chance to step away.

I think what bothered me more than the wasteful spending (pun intended) was the presumptuousness that flushing was necessarily the next logical step in the process. I admit it’s hard to come up with other realistic scenarios, but still I wanted to make the decision myself to reach up and depress the lever which would dispatch the urine. We already have enough standard process steps that don’t require any thought or creativity at work as it is. I resented this further incursion into my decision-making. If it’s meant as a labor-saving device, I can frankly use the exercise.

On my next several trips to the urinal, I brought along a sticky note to cover the motion sensor, allowing me to walk away and flush when I was damn well ready. Maybe there’s a person watching via the Internet in some business support services operation halfway around the world who was actually triggering the flush. I’ve never quite understood how motion-sensing works, so I can’t dismiss this other possibility in our increasingly globalized economy.

The next innovation to appear was not exactly as ground-breaking, since it’s been employed in gas stations around the country for the last twenty years. But when we got our hot-air hands-drying blower, it was installed under the guise of concern for the environment. “Save a tree” implored the home-made sign that urged us to forsake the paper towels. Now I’m all for environmental preservation but I just don’t see how my use four or five times a day of the flimsy sheets they give us is going to make much difference. Especially when these high-powered heat-belchers sound like they’re wasting as much energy as my lawnmower and take about as long to dry my hands as my mower takes to start.

The last upgrade we got came just a few weeks ago in the form of the scent-mister installed just above the urinal that periodically sprays some sort of antiseptic essence down a short tube and into the bowl. It’s not a motion-sensing device (nor an odor-sensing device as near as I can tell) but instead apparently works from an internal timer. So I guess the good thing about it is that you can’t take its activation as a commentary on the quality of your waste. But the down side is that the timer makes the scenting so unpredictable that the little “squeak-whoosh” it emits can scare you off your aim. It’s a pretty nice smell though – one of my coworkers said he might stop bothering to buy cologne altogether and just stick his wrists under the tube.

The final straw, I think, will be one of those motion-sensing spigots on the sink – the kind that require you to wave your hands around like some sort of airport tarmac guy in order to get any water. You’re never quite sure where the rays are coming from, so I’ve just gotten in the habit of dancing frantically in front of the sink when I encounter one of these (those Boomers who remember “doing the Freddy” with the sixties band Freddy and the Dreamers will have some idea of what my efforts resemble). It’s a bit embarrassing if someone else emerges from a stall during this display, especially if that someone is a Republican senator, but what else can you do? We Fifty-Somethings have to adapt to a modern world.

Even though I was perfectly happy with the status quo before this plumbing revolution started a few years ago, there are a couple of inventions I wouldn’t mind seeing in the next wave. One would be some kind of indicator that the urinal is currently in use for those entering our men’s room at work. The single stand-up unit is positioned around a tight corner past the last sit-down stall, and if you don’t know it’s in use – especially if your mission is urgent – you may find yourself running into the back of the current occupant.

The other thing I’d like to see is some sort of microwave device directed at my prostate that would get me out of this brave new world faster than the 8 to 10 minutes it’s currently taking.

Revisited: Hanging out at Panera

August 29, 2009

I was originally going to write this morning about the phenomenon of cafes, bakeries and coffee shops being transformed into mobile offices for today’s laptop-toting entrepreneurs. While doing some second-shift training last week, I was one of these latter-day squatters as I killed time between shifts at the Panera around the corner from my office. Clustered around the nearest electrical outlet like our ancestors in the cold prehistoric night hugged the nearest campfire, we sit tap-tap-tapping, oblivious to the genuine customers who give us the occasional nasty look as we nurse a single coffee with our paperwork spread over at least six table spaces.

I usually prefer to be the one giving the resentful glances rather than the one receiving. I was especially perturbed several months back when some sort of real-estate sales force regularly took over the whole back half of this particular cafe. Unlike those who work alone on their databases and spreadsheets, disturbing their neighbors only occasionally with forced-cheery cell calls to would-be clients, this group held actual full-blown meetings, complete with flip charts and loud announcements. At one point, the guy in charge of the group noted that sales were declining with quarterly targets right around the corner, and you can tell some of this group isn’t working their hardest, as I can tell by you, Bill, not wearing your tie, and if it’s in your car why don’t we all wait while you just go get it?

Talk about a big smear of humiliation with your cinnamon crunch bagel.

As I said at the beginning, I was originally going to write about this caffeine-addled new-economy workforce by visiting a similar Panera nearer my suburban home. I was going to walk around the room, looking over the shoulder of each of these workers, trying to get a sense of their place in the business world so I could make fun of them. But there’s just not as much to choose from in the suburbs as there is in the city.

When I first arrived about a half-hour ago, the only business types were a guy backed into a corner so no one could see what he was working on (porn or, equally embarrassing, talking points for an upcoming sales call) and another guy talking on his cell. Everybody else in the restaurant – probably 20 people or so – were obvious retirees who had turned this location into their senior center. They are literally gathered around the fire(place) in the center of the room, most clutching sweaters to their chests and complaining to management, “What is this, a meat packinghouse? It’s so cold in here.”

Finally a few other laptop slaves trickle in, nervously glancing about for those precious seating locations near the electrical outlets. At the in-town location I visited last week, great tangles of wiring were spread about the floor as people tried the ol’ electronic reach-around to tap into the precious and not-coincidentally free power. The etiquette of this social group apparently requires a polite request if you want to share the plug-in with a stranger — as if it were some potentially grievous breach of sexual space — but it’s also OK if you can slip your prongs in without having to ask. And God forbid if you should accidentally unplug your neighbor’s cord when you intended to disconnect your own. This premature withdrawal is NOT the kind that is appreciated.

Now a guy has sit down next to me, just beyond a low wall that separates my table from his. I can tell he’s eyeing my power source, and before I know it he’s hooked in without even the slightest attempt to get to know me. The cad! I guess he thinks the wall represents some kind of bathroom stall separator which makes an anonymous encounter possible. Before I know it he’s tapping away and munching on his artichoke-and-cheese quiche and sucking down both orange juice and coffee. So, he’s not only a bounder, but he’s also setting a bad example for the rest of us cheapskates by actually purchasing something with a profit margin. After a few more minutes, I hear a commotion behind the wall and see him rise and walk over to one of the bakery workers. Seems he’s spilled his quiche onto the floor and wants some help cleaning it up. Sorry, Panera, there goes your margin.

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I was originally going to write about… oh, sorry; seems like my initial intentions have panned out after all. The seniors have gathered up their caps and gloves to head out into the elements – it’s still pushing 85 here in the South despite the fact it’s mid-September, and they do have to get to their cars without freezing – and what looks like the mid-morning brunch crowd is starting to trickle in. One lady has just come to pick up a large tray of sandwiches for the luncheon meeting at her office – there are companies that still have the budget for that kind of thing? We once got a box of donuts for working Easter Sunday.

Well, I guess I’ve occupied valuable retail space long enough without making a significant contribution to this establishment’s bottom line. Let me grab a few free samples of the cherry vanilla scone, pick up a discarded USA Today from the rack on the side of the trash can, and check the stock market (or what’s left of it) on the free wi-fi . Yikes, the Lehman meltdown has pushed the Dow down over 300 points, sure to help the job security at my financial services firm when and if I return to work tomorrow.

I guess if I did lose my job and end up out on the streets, I know that Panera will take me and my laptop in.

Website Review: Facebook

August 28, 2009

Diving deeper and deeper into the new digital culture, I find myself this morning with what appears to be a Facebook account. How the hell did that happen?

I first signed up with the social networking site about nine months ago when I attended the WordPress conference here in Charlotte that turned out to be about almost everything except blogging. Twitter and Facebook were the two big topics that seemed to be distracting everybody who hadn’t already made the next great technological leap forward — wearing aluminum foil cone-hats and talking to themselves in small mirrors.

Like many newbies, I logged on, stashed my user name and password on a piece of paper, and thought little more about it.

Then, a few weeks ago came the big fuss about Sarah Palin using Facebook to address her supporters on the subject of healthcare reform and how she thought “death panels” would be a great idea to weed out the weak. Never mind that few of her ideological kin are savvy enough to know what a book is, much less one with a face; the message was still picked up by the right wing’s big media outlets — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and crudely scrawled notes wrapped around rocks thrown through windows — and became the talk of the news.

I decided to visit Sarah’s Facebook page, ostensibly to ridicule and degrade her, but couldn’t easily find those links. Instead I found “Sarah Palin,” a “politician” with over 800,000 supporters, someone named “I have more Foreign Policy Experience than Sarah Palin” with over 200,000 members, and a guy who calls himself “1,000,000 Strong Against Sarah Palin” who had not yet lived up to his name with 197,000 members.

To make a long story short, I thought I was making what’s called a “friend request” so I could poke around her site and see even more pictures of her wearing the same red jacket that now seems to be the only clothing she owns since that whole designer kerfuffle. (In reality, I believe she still owns the kerfuffle, a serged piece of cloth inserted next to the scalp to poof a beehive). Instead, I actually became a “fan,” which only entitles you to one-way missives, not the interactive conversation I was hoping to have in which I convince her to abandon the partisan thuggery and become my wife.

After about the third time she mentioned caribou on my “wall,” I figured out how to “de-fan” her, and moved onto the subject of finding long-lost friends and relatives. You start with a search field and the hope that your friend isn’t named something like “John Smith.” Actually, let me back up a step: you really start by having friends and relatives, something I seem to have overlooked in the last thirty years. So you scour your memory trying to remember that guy you biked to Wakulla Springs with in 1973, those nieces you vaguely remember being born in the mid-nineties, and that mother or father who might’ve nurtured and supported you for the first 18 years of your life, but you’re not sure.

Trying to come up with names of people you’ve encountered from over 55 years of living is not as easy as you might think. Roberto Clemente, Gordon Lightfoot and Spiro Agnew leaped immediately to mind, but I think they’re all dead or in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, essentially the same thing. You don’t want to be adding current-day associates to your friends list either — what would be the point of communicating electronically with the deadbeat legal aide who sits next to you every day when you can simply turn to your left and speak to him? (Now that I mention it, I can think of quite a few advantages.)

Gradually I assemble a mental list of people of the past and start sending out friend requests. Sometimes the location where the person lives makes you pretty sure the search yielded the same Paul Dixon you roomed with as a college freshman at Florida State and not the saxophone jazz great or the Nevada attorney general or the Philippine she-male who describes his current relationship as “it’s complicated” (I bet). Eventually, I send out 22 requests and wait patiently for an exhilarating reunion and a flood of wonderful memories or, equally possible, rejection and humiliation.

In the process, there are a couple of fun things to amuse you while your digital stalking proceeds. The first jolt of reminiscence comes with seeing faces you might’ve missed for decades: one old buddy is now a non-smiling poser with an attitude, another has sadly become a mere white-on-grey silhouette of her former self, your nephew-in-law-to-be appears to be a dog. I didn’t realize the “face” in “Facebook” doesn’t have to be your own personal face.

The other thing I enjoyed was the security code exercise designed to keep spammers away. These are the two randomly generated word-scrawls you have to read and re-type as a guard against the cyber-attackers who won’t figure out the character recognition software to beat this system until next Tuesday. Many of the word choices are randomly whacky and would make excellent emo band names: “spandex realtor,” “vital pancake” and “ersatz pancreas” are a few of my faves so far.

Now I’m sitting back and watching the acknowledgements roll in. Every day there’s a new blast from the past, bringing news of grandchildren, broken marriages and failed coup attempts. The subject lines are often a bit awkward — “hey,” “hi,” “remember me?” and “you can be bigger down there in only six weeks” are some common themes — but hardly necessary as a prelude to the fond memories that follow. I’m finally seeing the appeal of social networking: interacting with your fellow man without having to smell or lend money to them.

I’m continuing to learn the ins and outs of all that Facebook offers. I still don’t quite grasp the concept of the “wall,” except that it tells me when my 13-year-old cousin is “lmao eh pi oijp odf jpfd”. I’ve figured out how to upload photos of my vacation and purchase “gifts” like pictures of Britney Spears, two equally unlikely prospects. As I type this line, it’s being suggested that I add Adonis Bouhatab as a friend, even though I’m pretty sure he finished a distant third in the recent Afghan elections. I’ve only tried to “chat” with myself twice.

I figure it’ll be at least another week or so before I run out of recollections and grow tired of looking so far back into the past. I’m already getting the feeling that my next message to my absolute bestest friend from my college years in Tallahassee will be something along the lines of “can’t believe we haven’t ‘talked’ in over 20 years — it’s 2031 already?”

In the meantime, if you want to try your luck sending me a friend request and following me on Facebook, go ahead and give it a shot. I’m the “Davis Whiteman” wearing the blue shirt, not the “Jamie Davis Whiteman” who appears to be a schnauzer.

Fake News: Lyin’ in the Senate

August 27, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 26) — The Lion of the Senate is dead.

A 450-pound female, described by biologists as a 12-year-old member of the Barbary Lion subspecies, was found in the foyer of the Senate cloakroom by a night watchman late yesterday. The body of the animal, one of Africa’s largest predatory carnivores, was removed by members of the sergeant-at-arms office shortly after the discovery.

The lion is believed to have been stalking senators for the last two years since it was inadvertently introduced by an elementary school group visiting the upper chamber of Congress in 2007. The beast’s tail could frequently be seen wagging high above the Senate floor as it napped in the rafters of the Capitol.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but already there is suspicion of foul play. A comment by one of Washington’s largest lobbying firms fueled speculation that the beast had been killed.

“We need to put this in the proper perspective,” said Henry Childs, president of the Associated Federation of Jackals, Hyenas and Scavengers. “This cat was endangering the legislative process. We believe that wild beasts should be allowed to wander freely through the halls of Congress only under certain carefully defined circumstances, such as during a filibuster.”

The lion was believed to have taken up permanent residence when it saw the large number of elderly men in the Senate and reacted with its natural instinct to cull the weakest members from a herd. No senators were thought to have been consumed by the animal, though several key aides to the Senate Subcommittee on Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health believed to have returned to their home districts may turn up during the autopsy.

Members of this particular species generally hunt wildebeest, impala, springbok, eland and kudu on the sub-Saharan African plains. Those spindly-legged ungulates bear a striking resemblance to several of the Senate’s most senior members, particularly 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and 85-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). It is speculated that the big cat tracked these men closely before discovering they couldn’t meet it’s need for a minimum of 15 pounds of meat per day.

“This may be the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body’, but it’s not a body that can provide enough protein to sustain an apex predator,” said Senate zoologist Edward Notting. “We have reason to think it may have occasionally feasted on tourists in the Great Rotunda and Statuary Hall. If that regimen were supplemented with the carcasses of key floor whips and occasional raids of the House breakfast buffet, that could keep the animal alive and healthy.”

Lion deliberates eating Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Ha.)

Lion deliberates eating Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Ha.)

Sorry about almost running you over

August 26, 2009

Man’s relationship with his methods of transportation has always been a complicated one.

In earliest times, we rolled head over heels down a hill to get where we were going, until the rise of terraced agriculture made such tumbling impossible. In the Middle Ages, it was the catapult that sent us flying over great distances; it took centuries to realize the trade-off of speed and distance against the violent landings wasn’t good. Next it was animals like camels and horses and oxen that moved us about, a very efficient option until we realized how good they tasted.

Mmm — camels.

A little over a hundred years ago, we began our love affair with the automobile. Encased in steel, we lost a vital connection to the natural world but gained a cultural icon, a system of interstate highways, and more cupholders than we had hands. Those of us inside the modern motor vehicle traveled the world in comfort while those on the outside scrambled to get out of the way.

I’ve been fortunate in my nearly 40 years of driving never to have killed anyone with my automobile. I’ve had a few car-on-car mishaps, though these were almost all minor fender benders in the eyes of everyone except my insurance company. I did strike a mystery animal that had wandered out onto the interstate early one morning on the way to work (at least I was headed to work; I don’t know what he was doing out at that hour). I only caught enough of a glimpse to recognize it wasn’t a human or a yeti or a chupacabra, and that’s about all that concerned me at 2 a.m.

Aside from assorted small groundlings, the only other creature I’ve hit is the neighborhood dog known locally as “Ironside.” He’s a golden retriever mix that lives near the main access to our subdivision, and he loves to bob in and out of the shrubbery that separates the two entrance lanes. You can’t go fast enough in this spot to gain any real momentum, so though he’s struck constantly by all the neighbors he always gets up and trots away.

We do have a lot of pedestrians in our neighborhood so I try to be extra careful in the area. In general, I’d characterize my driving style as “efficient” (other might use the word “crazy”), which is to say I want to be in the car only as long as it takes to get from point A to point B. I don’t drive for fun or to listen to music or to “make the scene” in my sweet Civic ride. But I’m learning to be extra cautious near home, primarily because I know these people and colliding with them would be extremely embarrassing.

There’s a lot of trauma that comes with an automobile accident, however we’ve given very little consideration to the personal interaction that follows a near-miss. I once pulled up to a nearby intersection just as a jogger was stepping off the sidewalk and into the roadway. As a runner myself, I know how thoughtless motorists can be, honking when you get in their way, occasionally turning left, asking directions, or yelling critiques of your shorts. But when I’m the driver, it’s they who are the reckless jerks.

I stopped short just in front of this hapless fellow, and our eyes met across the hood of my car. He rightfully glared at me, and I had only seconds to come up with an appropriate response. I shrugged my shoulders and offered a weak smile, then held out my hand as if to say “after you.” I thought that was pretty gracious, though apparently not enough to avoid a mouthed epithet that would make a lip-reader blush.

Fortunately, he wasn’t from the neighborhood so I didn’t have to deal with any subsequent consequences that might’ve included having my mailbox bashed in with a baseball bat. Such was not the case a few months later at the end of my driveway.

We have a bushy magnolia tree on the edge of our property, and it effectively blocks the view on that side of the drive. There are only a few houses down that way before you come to the cul-du-sac, so the usual traffic from that direction is virtually non-existent. On this occasion, however, coming up just behind the tree as I was ready to exit into the road was a family of four out for their evening stroll. The mom was ugly and the dad was wearing an unflattering golf shirt, so there would’ve been no loss there, but the two young children were very cute and deserving of surviving into adulthood.

It didn’t really even qualify as a close call, as we all saw one other in plenty of time to avoid near-collision. Still, there was that awkward moment where we all looked at each other wondering what to say or do next. Since I was backing out, it was easy enough for me to turn away in an implicit offer to let them proceed first, and I assume they did eventually. I’d like to have said something to soothe any hurt feelings there might’ve been, but “sorry I almost killed you” seemed so inadequate.

Later, I remembered the events surrounding a parking lot accident I’d had a few years earlier. It was a terrible January Sunday, very foggy with a forecast of freezing rain. As I backed out of my parking place, a young Japanese man was also backing up and our rear-ends met in a crash. Nobody was hurt, and we briefly examined the two minor dents before hustling into the mall to call our insurance carriers. I tried to make non-incriminating small talk as we hurried along, only to discover he didn’t speak English. There was literally nothing I could say due to the language barrier. No excuses were necessary because no excuses were possible.

I guess that’s why I’m so comfortable hitting the retriever.

Monday musings on laptops and midriffs

August 24, 2009

Troubles with the laptop

My laptop is broken and, by extension, so am I.

The near-Mesozoic IBM ThinkPad I’ve been using for my blogging and surfing and Scrabbling for the last year lies mortally injured in a nearby computer repair shop. The tech tells me it might only be a “cabling” issue (I’m supposed to know that’s relatively minor) or it might be that my “mother’s bored,” an almost certainly fatal affliction. I am lost.

The first symptoms appeared about a week ago when the cursor froze and the keyboard became unresponsive. If I powered down and then rebooted, I could buy a few more minutes of life until the screen flashed black and everything shut down. I know next to nothing about the mechanics of laptops but I know enough to realize that a black screen is a bad screen.

My first attempt at getting repair was at a new shop just north of town called Nerd Net Café. Their ad promised free and nearly instant diagnostics while you relaxed with a cup of gourmet coffee and access to complementary wi-fi, not much good without a laptop but a nice gesture anyway.

The only guy in the shop balanced a couple of phone calls, repair work on other machine and one other customer while he gave my ThinkPad a once-over. I could tell he wouldn’t be able to do much while I waited; actually, I secretly wanted to leave it overnight so I could prolong my hope for recovery another 24 hours.

When I stopped by the next day during visiting hours, he was ready with a report. “You’re looking at a new computer,” he said.

At first I thought that was a good thing. He had apparently rebuilt the whole device to the point where it was like having a brand-new laptop. Then, I learned that what he meant was that the old computer wasn’t worth fixing, and that if I wanted to be looking at any computer at all, it would have to be a new one.

He pointed to the keyboard in the area between the “T” and the “U” and said something about cleaning the contacts underneath, even though it probably wouldn’t do any good. He thought it was something to do with the “power source,” which I interpreted to be an accusation that I had spilled my energy drink on it.

“There’s no charge,” he said brightly. I didn’t think this was as magnanimous as he did, as it seemed logical that compensation was not warranted for virtually no service rendered. But, as I said, I know next to nothing about computer repair.

“Are you sure it’s not the muffler,” I asked hopefully, and he was sure.

Now, I’ve got the machine admitted to another shop, one without Green Mountain Coffee and slices of carrot cake, though at least they had component parts spread on every available surface. Meanwhile, I’m using my son’s abandoned Dell Inspiron 1520, a Vista-infested device that feels compelled to tell me “driver blocked due to incompatibility” every time I turn it on.

Apparently, that’s how the new operating systems are supposed to work.

Looking for more clothing options

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I wish I could wear women’s clothing.

With the heat of August showing no sign of abating here in the South, I find certain regions of my body uncomfortably warm and moist on too many of those occasions when I’m clad. If I could wear a kicky little skirt, I think I’d be a lot cooler.

Maybe “cooler” isn’t the right word.

Women have to put up with a lot of injustices in modern American society — high heels, low pay, middling husbands — but at least they have a wide variety of clothing options from which to choose. They can wear pants or they can wear dresses. They can wear short shorts, thigh-length shorts or capri pants. They can wear shirts or blouses or tops or even halters, whatever they are.

They can wear sundresses. I would kill for the chance to wear a sundress to work and not find myself remanded to the human resources office.

We have the usual conflict in my workplace between men and women about the level of air-conditioning. The lady who sits next to me has a portable heater cranked to the max sitting underneath her desk, while I have a fan pointed at me. The men are so outnumbered that we’ve finally given up any attempt to have the central thermostat adjusted lower. This despite the fact that it’s much easier for women to put on additional clothing than it is for us to shed ours.

They have their hoodies. I’m not about to break out my swim trunks.

A sundressed coworker still found it necessary to complain about the temperature a few months ago, and I couldn’t help but offer a helpful comment.

“Have you considered wearing something that covers your shoulders?” I asked. “You know, that might help.”

I also would like the opportunity to display a bare midriff. Getting a little bit of extra airflow working around the waist has to do wonders for the heat of your core. I admit I don’t have the figure to pull off such a bold fashion choice, but neither do most other people and that doesn’t seem to stop them.

Revisited: The rewards of Sunday yard work

August 23, 2009

Well it’s Sunday and, especially here in the South, this is considered a day of rest. In fact we’re especially passionate about resting on the sabbath in my home county, going so far as to enact blue laws to require a certain level of tranquility (no alcohol-assisted leisure, for example). You will relax and you will enjoy it, as mandated per state statute 593.B(3)(a).

It’s actually not the rest and relaxation that’s so important to this God-fearing part of the country as another R&R – religion and repair. Now I thought I was raised a good Christian way back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when that meant something a little different than it does today. We went to church once a week, somehow enduring 30 minutes of Sunday school and an hour of formal church service in the tropical heat of south Florida, followed by a fellowship hour featuring the hot coffee so useful in replenishing our fluids. We threw in a Thursday evening of choir practice and the occasional potluck supper and it felt like we were seriously into Jesus. The most flamboyant I ever got was when, as an acolyte, I once got carried away lighting the altar candles and accidentally set the Easter lilies on fire. Fortunately, the baptismal font was nearby.

We could never compete though with the Southern Baptists here in the Bible Belt, who add in Wednesday night services, weekend-long retreats, letter-writing campaigns against progressives and group prayers before every gathering of more than a half-dozen people. We were Lutherans, a more staid denomination rooted in the sober background of the northeast and midwest. I attended the improbably-named Biscayne Boulevard Lutheran Church just up the street from the Orange Bowl parade and around the corner from the Playboy Club until my mid-teens. I was confirmed, whatever that means – my clearest memory now of classes in the pastor’s study was when I was scolded for cleaning my fingernails with the card-stock handout he had given us – but bailed shortly thereafter when my father began working overtime on Sundays and we no longer had transportation.

Lutheranism has gotten a certain reputation thanks to Garrison Keillor. However, I believe he’s glossed over one facet of the belief that stuck with me long after Nicene and Apostolic and Catechism had just become words that sounded like good Hollywood baby names. (Though I do fondly remember the benediction as extremely uplifting, as it came immediately following the sermon and meant we were almost done). To me, Lutheranism is the crystal meth of Protestantism. By that I mean it has made me feel that I can’t rest and relax until I’ve accomplished something, and even then I’m not so sure about it. I must keep working and working and accomplishing and accomplishing until I’m too exhausted to continue, and only then is it acceptable to collapse on the couch. This work ethic served me well during the years my job offered plenty of overtime, but it’s becoming a real handicap as the demand for our work ebbs and AARP solicitations start arriving in the mail.

Most homeowners in my situation are able to channel this need to achieve into their lawns, gardens or other home-improvement projects. My coworkers talk long and passionately about caulking and aerating and mulching and spackling, though I have only the vaguest idea of what these concepts involve. I’m sure I need at least some of them – my deck has loose boards, my edging woodposts are rotting to splinters and my gutters are flowering better than anything else on my property – but I’m not sure how caulking is supposed to fix this. I go to the home improvement store and buy a hot dog and a bag of ant killer, but for some reason that doesn’t help. When things get desperate enough, like when a dead tree is about to fall on my house or the air-conditioner stops conditioning air, I call a guy to come fix it. He pulls some fantastic dollar amount out of one of his impressive array of pockets and I pay it like the chump I am, rather than reveal my inability to ask an intelligent question about the project.

I’ve had to draw the line somewhere though, so I’ve managed to become pretty good at mowing the lawn. I know it’s not much, but it is one reliable way to get sweaty and dirty and bug-bitten like a respectable suburbanite. I know how to prime the engine and I can usually get the thing started after only several pulls of the rope. Maintenance-wise, I know you have to put gas in the gas tank thing and I understand there’s something about changing the oil every now and then, but fortunately it hasn’t come to that yet. Some things I’ve learned the hard way: don’t take it to the shop without checking the blades first to see that there’s no blockage of clippings (“heh, heh, I forgot all about that” I offered meekly); and don’t expect it to start in the spring if you haven’t run out the gas the previous fall. Oh yeah, and don’t reach underneath with your hand while the blades are running – I’m especially good at remembering that.

I’m working now on my second mowing season since our old yard guy apparently died (at least I guess that’s why he stopped showing up). I put on my special yard-mowing pants, my special hat and my old worn running shoes and I’m ready to crank about every other weekend. I thrill to the successful start, enjoy the mesmerizing zen of walking back and forth and back and forth across my patch of grass, then stand back and admire my work like a sculptor when I’m done. For that brief time, I’m exercising my domain over the earth and accomplishing something significant by reducing my blades of fescue from two inches down to a far-more-sane inch and a half. Then, and only then, I can rest peacefully.

I think Martin Luther would be proud of me.

Revisited: Saturday musings

August 22, 2009

Today being Saturday, I’m going to write about one of my favorite things: food. Or more specifically, the way food is served in restaurants.

 Unlike most family men in their fifties, there are many evenings when I prefer to go out to eat rather than dine at home. Because of my perverse work schedule, which prompts me to have breakfast at 5, lunch at 10:30, and then be ready for dinner around 4, I’ve made it difficult for my wife to cook. She’s an excellent chef, but with her own work schedule is often unable to sympathize in a constructive manner with my mid-afternoon hunger.

So I’ve become something of a regular at restaurants and a student of the way they serve their food. And I have a few suggestions:

  • If you bill yourself as a fast-food establishment, the food should be served fast. Forget any pretense of quality; the faster the better. Cook it if you must, but c’mon — let’s go, let’s go! Obviously, the drive-through is the best way to deliver this speed, and I’m glad to see these places putting more emphasis on the speaker-and-window than on the counter, which is typically staffed by poorly groomed statues. But it can still take as much as three or four minutes to get your meal this way, and that’s just not acceptable in the fast-paced twenty-first century. I consider a successful stop at the Wendy’s or McDonald’s to be one where I can pick up my order without having the wheels of my car come to a complete stop. But we could aspire to even more: how about a system where you beam your order and payment wirelessly from about a half-mile up the street, roll down your windows, then have the employees throw your food in as you drive by? They might have to super-size at their own expense to be sure you get a minimum quantity of nuggets (throw eight to make sure five get in, for example) and I can imagine there might be some health and safety concerns with the sun-baked asphalt of the delivery area. But I’d pay a little more for the convenience. And it’s not like there aren’t already bags of discarded food all around these establishments.
  • And speaking of trash, don’t make your garbage cans look so much like the speaker boxes. I’ve been embarrassed too many times already asking a swirl of flies for a Southwestern Salad with no bacon bits but extra cheese.
  • Counter service needs to be much more organized. You walk into these places and see people milling about. You can’t tell who’s in line to order, who’s just waiting for their order, and who’s returning inedible orders from the drive-through. When you do find the end of the correct line, you typically end up behind a gape-mouthed family staring blankly at the overhead menu, unable to understand the concept that having the turkey panini listed on the same line as the number “5.99” means that’s how much it costs. Then a cashier at an adjacent register asks if they can take the next order, and one of these morons breaks off from their group and ties up another line. There needs to be two clearly labeled lines: one marked “People who know what they want” and the other marked “Hello? Hello? You think you might want something to eat?”
  • Stepping up only slightly in class, I’d like to see a buffet restaurant where I feel cheated if I don’t eat like a stoned thoroughbred. I can’t enjoy the meal while trying to keep track of what my neighbors are managing to slam into their maws. (I can’t enjoy the meal anyway because it’s been moldering under a heat lamp since the Ford administration, but that’s another story). I had an uncle once who would show up for these things at the end of the lunch rush, eat his fill, read the Sunday paper, they chow down again at dinner time. That’s just not fair. I propose buffet restaurants have a weigh-in as customers arrive and as they depart, and charge them for the difference by the pound. I know figures could be skewed if someone uses the bathroom, though factoring that in is just too disgusting to manage.
  • If you’re eating at one of those so-called casual chains like “Applebee’s” or “Olive Garden” or “Thank God This Market Segment is Almost Bankrupt”, you don’t want to deal with a too-friendly wait staff. Please take my order without sitting down at my table, kneeling at my side, telling me your name or “taking care of me this evening”. A little more distance and a little less care, please. A chain in the South named “Fatz” – like I have to specify this is in the South – has installed a system that allows you to electronically buzz your waiter’s wrist bracelet when you want to request more tea. I think it’s a humane zap with no more than minimal voltage, but it seems to work. And when the main course is ready to be served, don’t have it delivered by another waiter, then show up a minute or two later like you’ve received a battlefield promotion to head of the franchise and want to know how the food is. I haven’t had a chance to taste it yet; that’s how it is.

With Americans continuing to migrate more and more to outside-the-home dining, I think these are entirely reasonable suggestions. Someone kindly get on it right away. Thank you and come again.

Website Review: survey.walmart.com

August 21, 2009

I made the mistake recently of needing a couple of items from the store and being near a Wal-Mart at the same time. I’m not a frequent patron of “Wally World” for the same reason I tend to avoid hitting myself in the head with a hammer. Though I do understand they’re having a great price on hardware.

The store I visited happened to be one of the so-called Super Wal-Marts, so the experience was unpleasant in the superlative. All I needed was a bottle of acetaminophen, to treat some back pain I’ve had lately, and an electronic nose hair trimmer, to treat the fact that I’m 55. I arrived during the late morning so the crowds weren’t bad and the parking was easy.

I gave the greeter who welcomed me only a casual nod at first, until I caught a glimpse of the vast interior and figured I needed the help of a Sherpa. Where in the mountain of merchandise that sprawled before me might I find the two things I was looking for? Make a left, he said, and walk till you can walk no further, then you’ll see the pharmacy area on the right, just below a row of Hindu prayer flags.

Even the health and beauty section by itself was immense. A pharmacist worked in the distance; maybe he’d spare me an Adderall to get a little focus. The other option would be to consult one of the locals stocking the shelves. In either case, someone was going to have a fixed stare, and I guessed I’d rather it be them.

Sheila tried to be helpful in leading me to the right spot, but that turned out to be an empty display case with pictures of electric razors across the top. She explained that for security reasons, they’d had to remove those items to a stock room, and if I was lucky enough to find a photo of a nose hair trimmer that she’d retrieve one for me. After taking a moment to admire the fine work of the photographer, I grabbed my Tylenol and headed for the checkout. I found the self-scan stations, pushed and touched and swiped at all the proper moments, and completed my transaction.

Looking at the receipt, I learned that I had just enjoyed the “Fast. Fun. Easy.” self-checkout, and also found that I could participate in a discussion of the previous ten minutes at an online location called http://www.survey.walmart.com. This becomes my Friday Website Review.

I’m warned at the beginning that this process will take about 15 minutes to complete, a full 50 percent longer than the actual shopping experience, so I imagine it’s going to be pretty thorough. However, if I make it to the end, I have a chance to win one of five $1,000 gift cards that Wal-Mart awards every three months. An annual expenditure of $20,000 on this program by a company with multi-billions in sales seemed less than impressive, especially considering the money has to be spent on Wal-Mart merchandise.

After a few perfunctory queries about my age, zip code, etc., I get to the survey. I’m asked if the Wal-Mart I visited offered photo processing, bill-pay, money transfers, optical services or a site-to-store delivery program. The store number is right there on the receipt! Don’t they know this stuff themselves? Or is this some attempt at crowd-sourcing an internal research effort to catalog all the pointless services now offered in mega-stores?

Next, they wanted to know the reason for my visit. The closest option was “to buy something special for myself,” though I also could’ve answered “to touch a product from Wal-Mart’s website” or “to have fun through shopping.”

Then I had to indicate all the areas of the store I had shopped in during this trip. Admittedly I did pass by several departments that I peered into, hoping they might have the nose hair trimmer: sporting goods, electronics, lawn and garden equipment (next to the hedge clippers?) and the toy department were momentarily considered, so I guess you could say I “shopped” there. I did notice, however, that I missed the pet supplies and large appliances departments; maybe I should’ve checked those too.

Next, they wanted to know about my general satisfaction with the store, on a scale of one to ten, with one being disgusted and ready to sue, and ten being spiritually transformed. How did it smell? How was the lighting? Was it clean? How did associates react when you were “near them“? (I sensed fear, confusion and concerns about communicable disease.) How friendly was the check-out person? (Pretty damn nasty actually, since it was me.)

Now I had to comment specifically on all those departments I had looked at. I checked some random scores and moved on to the screen asking about the qualities of the pharmacy area. More random numbers seemed appropriate, especially since the “percent of survey completed” progress bar at the bottom indicated I was not even halfway done yet. Then, even more questions about the pharmacy. By now, I’m running out of even the small amount of creativity required to select different digits, so I give a “5” all the way down. “You responded the same to several items — please consider your response carefully” came the reply. They sensed I was glazing over.

Too bad.

Finally, it appeared as though the end might be in sight. Overall, how satisfied was I with my visit? I was “4” satisfied. How likely would I be to continue shopping at Wal-Mart? I was “6” likely. How likely, if asked, would I be to recommend Wal-Mart to others? I could find no number that represented “I’ll never admit to anyone that I was ever here,” so they got another “5”.

Where else did I shop besides Wal-Mart? I answered Target, Michaels and the annual confiscated items sale at the County Jail. What percentage of the money I spent went to each? Like a good Wal-Mart customer, I couldn’t make the figures add up to a hundred without several tries. “Thinking about financial services,” the study asked, “which of the following do I use?” I equate Wal-Mart with financial services about as much as I equate J.P. Morgan with tube socks, so I selected “none.”

Who shopped with you today? Sadly, I had to answer “I shopped alone.”

“Are you of Hispanic or Latino origin?” Are these the only two choices?

“In which of the following groups would I place myself? White, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander.” I’d probably place myself with the islanders, preferably on a beach in Tahiti.

“Which best describes my employment status?” One of the options was actually “don’t know.” True, I had a job when I left for lunch break, but 35 minutes is a long time in this economy.

“Including myself, how many people lived in my household?” I answered “8.” How many were under three years old? “7.” They call me the “Septodad.”

“Would you describe the area in which you live as urban, suburban or rural?” Suburban, since there’s no “hellhole” option.

Finally, I was told I had reached the end of the survey. I had to claim to understand a bunch of legalese, most of which seemed aimed at preempting a belief I didn’t have before reading it – that phishing, online scams and fradulent websites were rampant, and I needed to be careful about disclosing personal information. Now they tell me.

To qualify for the drawing, I had to give my name and address, but by now they had me so paranoid I was wearing big sunglasses so no one would recognize me through the monitor. I gave a fake name – Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister who was kidnapped and murdered in the 1970s by the Red Brigade – and submitted myself out of there as soon as possible.

Next stop: nosehairclippers.com.