Archive for September, 2009

Working with babies

September 30, 2009

Everybody stop what you’re doing! There’s a baby in the office!

I’m not talking about that maturity-challenged assistant manager who seems to be eternally stuck in pre-K. I’m talking about the straight-up, hard-core, full-bore baby, the kind who was physically borne into the world sometime within the last year. The kind of newborn who is so adorable that everybody in the workplace has to stop what they’re doing — regardless of the urgency — and come admire the fact that before humans can be big, they have to be little.

You say you’re in charge of directing jumbo jets to land at a major international airport? Surely you can break away from the radar screen for a minute; he’s so cute in his little sailor outfit. You’re a 911 emergency operator with a suicide threat on the phone? Tell the distressed caller to stop by central dispatch as soon as possible to get a look at this charmer. In the midst of robbing a bank teller at gunpoint? You should be ashamed of yourself — you might startle the baby.

In most cases, these infants didn’t just wander in off the street of their own volition. Typically, they had to be carried into the office, usually by a parent who works with you, or by their spouse (unless it’s one of them fancy walkin’ babies). The new parent has been monopolizing the breakroom conversation about his or her ability to procreate since this Max or Emma or whatever you call ’em was merely a splotch of cells on the sonogram. Now they feel compelled to offer physical proof that their time off from work was spent bearing live young. Maybe it’s some kind of human resources requirement.

Now I don’t intend to come off as a curmudgeon who casually trashes toddlers. I’m actually a big fan of babies. As I’ve written in this blog before, I believe that children are our future and that, by transitive property, babies are our children’s future. We need to take care that they’re raised up properly, with all the values critical to a civilized society, and with as few missing limbs as possible. Part of the socialization process has to involve meeting with strangers and projecting a variety of protein spills at them. It’s how you interact with your boss, and it’s how your child will have to interact with his.

When we have a newborn stopping by my workplace, I’m always eager to join in the scene, smiling and cooing with the best of them. I’d even be glad to hold the baby for a while, if I could wrestle him or her away from the women who are beside themselves with excitement. It’s been too long since I got to cradle my young son in my arms, and I honestly miss the wiggling heft of the young child. It would also represent the rare chance to be less creepy than my fellow employees if I were not among those asking “is it okay if I steal him?”

I think I remember the basics of elementary tot handling. If they’re really young, you keep them horizontal, with the head in the crook of one elbow, the feet in the crook of the other, and the mouth as far from your breast as you can. If they’re slightly older — as distinguished by the fact that you can tell what sex they are, or perhaps they’re wearing a watch — they can be held in a more upright position. These are sometimes called “hip babies” in the parlance of my small Southern town, not because they are “cool” or otherwise “with it,” but because you sit them on the outer edge of your pelvis.

I also learned an early lesson about the wisdom of not holding the baby by its head. To this day, I remember the psychological trauma of an incident from my early childhood where I was called on to admire the new member of our neighbor’s family. I resorted to interaction practices I knew best from my own home, which were those I’d had with our dog, Augie. I patted the baby on the head.

Bad move. There’s this thing called the “fontanelle,” and it’s very much different from another feature I knew from 1950s Miami, the “Fontainebleau” resort hotel. The fontanelle is the area on the top of the infant’s head where the skull is not yet completely formed. If you touch it, the plates of bone will shift to the side, lava will erupt and brain damage will ensue. At least, that’s what I was led to believe. I was worried for days that I had severely disturbed the development of this young child and, sure enough, he beat me up a decade later.

Probably one of the best things about babies, aside from their portability, is that they’re not terribly discriminating in their dealings with other people. You could be Mother Teresa or you could be Hitler; it’s all the same to them. (In fact, they might even prefer Hitler, considering how much his moustache resembled a kitty). Still, I try to do what I can to impress them because, more than anything else, I want to be liked.

The whole “goo-goo, ga-ga” gibberish is not really something they relate to, and they’re more likely to think you’re patronizing them than trying for any type of meaningful dialog. Likewise, an adult-style conversation starter like “hot enough for you?” or “how ’bout them Cowboys?” tends to go over their soft little heads. Smiling and waving are good, or at least it seems to make the parent happy. When you’re meeting them in an office setting, though, there’s not a lot more you can do to entertain them. Makeshift amusements like staplers and push-pins are rarely a good idea. The last time we had a visiting baby, I offered her the prospectus supplement I had just finished proofreading which seemed to make her happy, at least until she turned to the “Risk Factors” section. A rolled-up ball of paper, a dangling string or a can of Red Bull (unopened) can also provide pleasant diversions.

Above all else, it’s important to remember that the experience of encountering a crowd of strange, contorted faces in an alien environment can be overwhelming. I’ve gotten used to it after thirty-some years in the workforce, but an infant is still adjusting to even the most basic stimuli. Make your movements slow, your speech patterns sing-song, and don’t expect too much. It’s not really all that different from working with grown-up fellow employees on an everyday basis.


Fake News Briefs: Safire and B-Ball

September 29, 2009

William Friggin’ Safire dead at, like, 79

William Safire, a speechwriter for presidents and a prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a treasury of articles on language, like totally died Sunday from a really wicked case of pancreatic cancer. He was way old, hanging out in this righteous realm for something like 79 years.

The conservative columnist, who feared no politician and was a master of the English language, croaked at the hospice where he was chillin’ while waiting to get his ticket punched to the Big Pressroom in the Sky. One of his last appearances in public came in 2006 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by another Dude of Significance among conservos, former President George W. Bush.

In the Safire world of politics and journalism, it was simple: there was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and the blubber of fools on the other. The Billster was never down with fellow writers at the Times, whom he regarded as gonzo honchos who thought they were (air quotes) kewl when in fact their judgments, offered with Olympian detachment and self-appointed expertise, were in fact both gimp and crunk.

A talented linguist widely cited as the consummate wordsmith, Safire wrote the “On Language” column for the New York Times magazine for 30 years. He was a pundit well known for his use of alliterative allusions, most famously in his description of Republican opponents as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” As an awesome aggregator of analism himself, he could barely keep his Pulitzer Prize-winning piehole shut as he pursued his erudition mission.

In its obituary printed yesterday, his former employer called him a “Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns.” Whoa.

He was sick with excellence for over half a century, and sick with the cancer for about six months. His wife of 47 years and two children survive his final am-scray from the ‘hood.

Duo thinks they got game

John Millard poured in 38 points while rookie Alan Garfield added another 29 yesterday as the team of guys who go through the day thinking every toss they make is actually a basketball shot soundly defeated a non-existent division rival.

The 113-94 victory appeared secured early in the fourth quarter when Millard banked a wadded-up paper towel into the corner trash bin of the employee breakroom from just next to the vending machine. Referees that exist only in his head at first ruled the shot a two-pointer but quickly upgraded it to a trey after reviewing the tape.

Garfield slammed the door shut on an opponents’ attempted comeback with a series of sparkling moves that included a hook shot of toilet paper into the commode, the lay-up of a paper clip into a magnetic cannister on his desk, and the thunderous dunk of a crumpled receipt into a bag of groceries he bought to restock the client refrigerator.

“This was a key game and I’ve been looking forward to it all day,” Millard said after the imaginary game. “Right from the moment I got up this morning, I felt I was going to be ‘on’ today. When I nailed a disposable razor shot into the heart of the trashcan in my bathroom before work, I knew the accuracy would be there.”

Garfield attributed his slow start of only 6 points in the first half to a lack of confidence following a devastating miss he made while preparing tea before leaving his suburban home.

“I tried to arch the teabag into the garbage disposal from only about four feet out, but I was just barely off-target,” Garfield recalled. “My cat was on the counter and probably would’ve been whistled for goal-tending in a live-game situation.”

He said that his confidence remained shaken until he spit out the window of the bus and hit a manhole cover on 32nd street. “That made all the difference in my play from that moment onward,” he said.

Time shifting with the NFL

September 28, 2009

I want to tell everyone how happy I am that NFL football is back on television. And I’ll do that, right after this message.

Ads for erectile dysfunction drugs, beer and not-for-children films abound on pro football telecasts, upsetting parents worried about the harm to younger viewers, the Associated Press reports. Earlier this year, a national media monitoring group urged the NFL to “clean up their act” after reporting that half the commercials featured sex, drugs or alcohol. A league spokesman said “we are comfortable with our policies and those of our network partners,” while the CEO of Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, noted that referencing possible side effects such as long-lasting erections was a hard and fast FCC rule.

Despite the best efforts by advertisers to lure me into watching their commercials by featuring sex, drugs, and alcohol, I’ve reached the point where I can no longer stand to view a live televised game. The way they mess with such a basic concept as the passage of time leaves me so disoriented at the end of a Sunday afternoon that I feel like a serf living in a prehistoric cave, preparing for the next day’s manned flight to Mars.

A football game supposedly lasts for 60 minutes but is slotted in the programming schedule to run for a full three hours, which it usually exceeds by another 15 to 30 minutes, unless there’s overtime, and then it could run into next month. The action itself — the time during which people are running frantically about and crashing into each other — is far less than an hour in length, since the game clock continues to progress between many plays. The clock is frequently stopped for time-outs, during which slow-motion or stop-action replays are often shown. Referees have even been known to put time back on the clock, tooting their whistles in blatant defiance of Newtonian cosmology.

Though the commercials might be entertaining, you’ll quickly tire of their adolescent themes and wish they’d hurry back to the part with the jiggly cheerleaders. A few years back, the quest for advertising dollars reached the point where, after showing a touchdown, there’d be a series of ads, then they’d return for the kickoff, and then head back to another round of commercials. This was more than even my bladder required.

Now, with the advent of the digital video recorder, I too can be a lord and master of time control. I can record the particular game that I want to watch and play it back later while skipping past the ads, the Burger King halftime update (“whoppers are still bad for you”), the news insert, the background profiles, and the statistical breakdown of which players have been suspended for having dog-fights in their pants while drunk-driving with a shotgun. I can cut right to the chase, watch all the highlights and learn the final score in a fraction of the time it would normally take.

There are some complications in watching sports on a tape-delay basis that I’m still learning how to handle. One has to do with the tense of my rooting. Most games that I record will feature one team that I prefer to win and another that I prefer to lose. So the convention is that you verbally exhort your favored team to perform well, even though — as my wife reminds me — it’s unlikely they can hear you, or would be considerate enough to accommodate your request even if they could. Since the action I’m watching has already occurred and the game outcome is decided, it really does no good to express standard cheers such as “go!” These have to be modified to a conditional past tense — “have gone!”, for example. You can’t yell “you suck” at the quarterback who just threw his third interception of the first half (you can probably tell I’m a Carolina Panthers fan); instead it has to be “you have sucked at some point in the recent past.” Even harder is the case where you accidentally heard that your team has already won, and you’re watching a decisive play that was later overturned by the instant-replay official: “You would have stunk!” is difficult to shout with much conviction.

I try to avoid hearing the outcome in advance, as it tends to ruin the suspense. I had a friend once whose wife had already learned that his favorite team was the winner of a key game, so he attempted to explain the concept of time-shifting to her as the reason he didn’t want her to tell him the score. She apparently didn’t get it, since she responded “I won’t tell you anything, but I think you’ll be pleased with the outcome.”

If you’re a really rabid fan, you also have to beware of the subtle cues that the rest of the world may be putting out. If you run out to the grocery store in the interim between the actual game and the one being played in your own private universe, it’s best to avoid eye contact with fellow shoppers, lest their look of  despair over the price of green seedless grapes be misinterpreted. I tried tape-delayed viewing one year when my hometown team was in the Super Bowl, and practically had to wrap my head in gauze to avoid clues about the results. If I’d heard shouting crowds and thunderous explosions in the neighborhood, it would’ve been a certain indication that either Pittsburgh had won, or else laid-off steelworkers were storming the mills to regain by force their rightful place in the U.S. economy.

When you find yourself in the position of being able to master time and space like this, you can not only speed past the boring parts but also prolong the drama of the game’s turning points. One of my favorite techniques is to hit the pause button, then advance the on-screen action one frame at a time. This is most effective when you’re watching the potentially game-winning field goal sail from the foot of the kicker into the direction of the goalposts. The ball seems to be heading wide left! Then one frame later, maybe it’s curving back toward the posts! Then one frame later, it appears President Kennedy has been shot!

Often the outcome is decided way in advance of the final gun, yet you hold out thin hope that a miraculous comeback from a 45-3 deficit can still be achieved in the remaining 5 minutes. So you run the game at triple-speed, concentrating not on the hulking Keystone Kops that have taken over the field but on the score and time remaining displayed in the banner across the top of the screen. You glance back and forth between the plummeting clock and the score, and suddenly get excited when the game has somehow become a tight 2-1 affair, only to realize they’ve interspersed scores from other sports, and you wonder who the hell is Manchester United?

At least I can take some comfort in the impending arrival of the post-season baseball playoffs. The passage of hours and hours during America’s traditional pastime is so much more predictable than what football can offer. Intense action on the field is much like the diamond itself; rare and compressed and not really something that goes with your faded Florida Marlins jersey. Capturing the essence of a 12-inning scoreless pitcher’s duel in a compressed DVR format is so ridiculously impossible that you might have better luck drinking water vapor from the air. It certainly has to be more entertaining.

Revisited: Fun doing yardwork

September 27, 2009

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy mowing my grass – the sweaty brow and the dirty clothes, the satisfaction it gives me to see such perfect results, how different it is from mowing through spreadsheets and seeing my 401(k) turn into so much mulch. But now the fall has arrived and the grass has mysteriously stopped growing (something to do with the credit freeze, no doubt). Time to run the gas out of the mowers, recall how I should also drain the oil but don’t know how, and turn my attention to a different kind of yard maintenance – stapling all those damn leaves back onto their trees.

Or maybe just gathering them up and putting them down by the road would be more practical. Our yard is actually pretty low maintenance compared to most others in our neighborhood. Though sheltered by trees, over half of the area is covered by a bark and decomposing leaf mixture that requires next to zero care, except for treating the chigger bites you get any time you walk near it. The few strips of grass are largely down by the road, so transporting the autumnal droppings only a few feet into the gutter shouldn’t be that difficult. We live inside the city limits, so we can count on a giant sucking machine (a type of truck, not the city council) coming by to dispose of the collected decay every week or so.

I tried the raking thing for several years, so I could righteously scoff at those gas-guzzling, noise-spewing leaf blowers that everybody else seemed to have. It was also easier to tell me wife I was going outside to rake rather than that I was going outside to blow. But even with such a small area to clear, it was taking me so long that during the peak of fall I’d have to start over again as soon as I stopped, like those painters of the Golden Gate Bridge. I finally invested in an electric leaf-blower, which is much better than the gas guzzlers because, if it’s anything like my understanding of the electric car, it doesn’t use any energy whatsoever.

The job became fairly easy to accomplish once I understood a few basics. My first few attempts though were pathetic. I didn’t know you had to stand there like a golfer with your wetted finger in the air to tell which way the wind was blowing. (When I saw my crazy neighbor doing this, I thought he was making a key point while speaking to the assembled foliage.) I was blowing the leaves into a stiff breeze and trying to figure out why I was getting so much blowback. Once I got the right idea, I had to learn that it takes a certain scooping motion to move piles taller than a few inches, and that you had to start in a corner and establish a cleared beachhead before fanning out from there and corralling the herd properly toward the street.

The thing I’m still not too sure about is how leaf-blowing and respect for your neighbors’ property are supposed to coexist. Before, I was mostly concerned that they were laughing at my feeble attempts to blow the stuff into a 25 mph gale. I’m sure they chuckled inwardly at my look of surprise when more leaves ended up in my hair than down the driveway, because they also chuckled outwardly, and did some pointing as well. Now, I’m worried that there must be some kind of unwritten rule that prevents you from simply jetting the debris into your neighbor’s yard. I’m right that you’re not supposed to do that, aren’t I?

On one side of our lot, there’s a bit of my grass adjacent to a “wild” area, which is adjacent to one neighbor’s yard. I don’t feel too bad about blowing leaves into this spot, especially since this is the guy who walks his leashed, pooping cat onto the edge of our property near the shed where he thinks we can’t see him. Since our house is on the corner, we have only one other adjacent neighbor who is mostly behind our house rather than to the side, so who cares what he thinks? Actually, I do, so I try to find the property line and aim away from it, though I’m afraid that looks too much like I’m being careful not to clear his grass in any way, but jeez I can’t blow the whole neighborhood.

Finally I maneuver the various piles closer and closer to the road. It’s rained recently, so the individual leaves stay mostly in place. The biggest hassle is working with the electric cord and its extension – if you try to stretch an extra foot to get one last area, you risk pulling the cord and having to walk all the way up to the house to plug it back in. To save extra steps, I’m probably being too careless putting the electric appliance on the wet ground, which I’m guessing could cause my death by electrocution, though on the plus side the ensuing fire would consume the leaf pile as well as my lifeless body. It’d be a good way to go, a fitting tribute to my corporate trainees in India who send off their dear departed on funeral pyres.

Now I’ve got to gather one last bit of bluster and deposit the leaves into the road. Does it have to be one pile – more work for me – or would three or four piles be OK? Or what about one long, thin pile all the way around the corner? Do I need to stay clear of the gutter? How neat do the piles have to be? Is it OK to blow the few orphans in the general direction of nowhere, like the professional landscapers I see swinging their machines back and forth? And what is my obligation in the hours or days after I’m done? Is every subsequent gust that comes along and undoes my work in the direction of a neighbor’s yard my fault?

I doubt the city cares but, as I said, I’m more concerned with the disapproval of my neighbors than I am with silly municipal ordinances. Having someone walk over and comment “you know, you’re not supposed to use the medium-high setting on a downhill lie during the third week of October” would be devastating. They (probably) can’t fine me, but they do know where I live.

Revisited: The Death of Bongo

September 26, 2009

(Note: All names in this item are real. The quotes, obviously, are not.)

Leaders with funny-sounding names from around the globe mourned the death yesterday of Gabon President Omar Bongo, who died of cardiac arrest in a Barcelona hospital. He was 73.

Bongo became the world’s longest-serving leader when Cuba’s Fidel Castro stepped down last year. Bongo had been in office since 1967, when he succeeded the former French colony’s only other leader since Gabon’s independence, Leon M’Ba. Most of the West African nation’s 1.5 million people have known only Bongo as president.

“The drumming of his heartbeat has ceased,” said Prime Minister Jean Ndong in announcing Bongo’s death. “No longer will his people feel the staccato percussion of his stirring words.”

Leading the chorus of tributes that poured in following announcement of the death were fellow sub-Saharan strongmen Tertius Zongo of Burkina Faso, Yayi Boni of Benin, and Ignacio Milam Tang of Equatorial Guinea. Also issuing statements of mourning were other African leaders such as Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast, and Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghaf of Mauritania.

“His weapons were his crystal eyes, making every man a man,” said Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama, secretary-general of the Wacky Named Leaders (WNL) confederation. “Black as the dark night he was, got what no one else had.”

The large representation of south Pacific nations in the group were quick to join in the Fijian’s tribute. East Timor’s Xanana Gusmao, Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyoho, Palau’s Johnson Toribiong, and Vanuatu’s Kalkot Mataskelekele added their condolences, as did Malaysia’s Yang di-Pertuan Agong Mizan Zainal Abidin, the world’s longest-named president. But it was the succinct homage released by Samoa’s O le Ao o le Malo Tufuga Efi that touched a special note.

“He is as if my pa,” Efi said. “O, we no do go on, my my.”

Bongo’s loss was also noted throughout mainland Asia. Igor Chudinov of Kyrgyzstan, Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, Oqil Oqilov of Tajikistan and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan sent messages of support – largely misspelled – to the people of Gabon. Bhutan’s king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, saying that all the world mourned with him, proclaimed “everyone Wangchuck tonight.” Oman’s Sultan Qaboos said he was so hurt by the announcement that “I felt like I was run over by a train.” Kuwait’s Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah told reporters he was “all sad, all gloomy,” but that he would eventually be “alright.”

European dignitaries were not as forthcoming in their praise, in part because Bongo had been widely criticized for failing to promote democracy, and because the Anglo-French-German heritage of many heads of state make their names less amusing to Western ears. But Albania’s Bamir Topi, Hungary’s Laszlo Solyom and Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker said they would be sending ambassadors to Bongo’s funeral, scheduled for Friday.

“We may not have agreed with all his policies, but he was a man who respected his people,” said Queen Elizabeth II (pronounced “eye-eye”) of England. “It is sad to say bye-bye.”

Website Review:

September 25, 2009

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a boring, mid-sized American city such as Louisville, Cincinnati, Fort Worth, one of the Springfields, or my own hometown of Charlotte, you may have already seen the photo-packed full-page newspaper ads. “GET MOTIVATED!” screams the headline for the day-long business seminar. “MOTIVATION! INSPIRATION! CAREER SKILLS! FOCUS!”

Immediately below the banner is a number of world-famous faces you find yourself amazed to be coming to your pathetic burg. In Charlotte’s case, we’re hosting the smiling heads of Colin Powell, Terry Bradshaw, Steve Forbes and Rudy Guiliani, though other cities may have interchangeable heads such as Gen. David Petraeus, John Madden, Mitt Romney, The Pope, The Queen or The Rock. Charlotte is also getting Special Guest Speaker Laura Bush, the entertainingly-named motivational expert Zig Ziglar, and some hottie named Tamara Lowe who, at first glance, I thought was “Tamara Love,” a great name for a motivator of porn.

The purpose of this dynamic seminar is to “increase your productivity and income” (most subsequent citations in this post will omit the implicit exclamation point that comes with every phrase on the page). There’s a handy pre-checked checklist that describes what you’ll learn during parts of the 9-hour focus-fest when you’re not fidgeting like a meth-head with a stored-value card from Starbucks. There’s customer service (check), business skills (check), time management (check), people skills (check) and leadership (check). In addition to check (cashiers), they’ll also accept credit cards and even cash.

But here’s the interesting thing about this self-described “Super Bowl of Success,” this “Feel-Good Tour de Force,” this “ad that seems too good to be true.” The cost for admission at the door is a whopping $225 per person, but if you take advantage of the limited time offer, it’s only $4.95 per person, or send your entire office for only $19. “Save!” says the coupon. “Save! Save!” That incredible 98% markdown has me wondering how they can possibly afford the stratospheric speaker’s fees of these mega-watt luminaries. Are their talks shortened for the sake of economizing? Does Laura Bush appear only long enough to sprint across the stage shouting “push back fear and face the future”? Does Steve Forbes make a low pass over the Time Warner Arena in his corporate jet, yelling “balance your personal and professional priorities and stay ahead of the pack” out of the open cargo door?

I wanted to learn more about this particular motivation group. I definitely need some serious professional guidance on the subject of focus, so I’m visiting for this week’s Website Review.

The founder and CEO of Get Motivated Seminars Inc. is a toothy nerd named Peter Lowe, who we later learn is husband of aforementioned babe Tamara. The site says their seminars are “energizing, action-packed, star-studded, fun-filled, spectacular stage shows,” which for me brings to mind a kind of Cirque du Soleil for the business set. Various TV networks and newspapers are said to rave about it, though probably through purchased ad space. “This motivational mega-show packs more inspirational firepower than a stick of dynamite,” claims the home page. Sure enough, there’s a picture of Peter with his arms raised triumphantly in the air and an explosives-damaged stump for a left hand.

There’s a lot more exclamation pointing under several of the pulldowns, but I’ve always preferred the gentle curve of the question mark so I’m drawn to the Frequently Asked Questions portion of this site. “Will I receive a Certificate of Completion?” asks one individual, who apparently wants to do some frame-shopping in advance of the event. “When is the lunch break and will food be provided?” Yes, there will be vendors with food. “I have difficulty hearing. Will there be help for me?” Yes, cochlear implants will be available for a nominal fee.

Then there’s a part for testimonials from attendees:

My team and I enjoyed the day as much as it is possible to enjoy anything!
Because of this seminar I will turn any setback I encounter into an opportunity for greatness!
Don’t keep treading water! Get moving to the Get Motivated Seminar!
How could anyone leave this seminar with a poor self image or feeling depressed? They must have been in the bathroom the entire time!
PASSION is born when you catch a glimpse of your POTENTIAL! Today, I know I am the Architect of my journey! I am committed to be a winner that doesn’t give up!

With rousing testimonials like these, I find myself interested in learning more about the concept of motivational speaking, so I make a quick visit to Wikipedia. It defines a motivational speaker as a “speaker who makes speeches intending to … motivate their audiences.” Not especially helpful, but they also include a list of well-known inspirational orators. Among the few names I recognize are Deepak Chopra, Anthony Robbins and Mr. T. There’s a link to more information about Mr. T. that I just can’t resist.

Born Laurence Tureaud, Mr. T. first created his now-iconic persona when he worked as a bouncer at a night club. He’d collect assorted gold chains and jewelry that were lost by patrons, and display them around his neck for easy identification when the customer returned. He eventually accumulated about $300,000 worth of unclaimed baubles, which took him about an hour to put on each day. Every night, he would spend several more hours putting them through an ultrasonic cleaner, or would sometimes simply sleep in the chains to see, as he said, “how my ancestors, who were slaves, felt.”

His early ventures into show business included a role in Rocky 3 and a Showtime sketch comedy called Bizarre where he fights and eats Super Dave Osborne. He also appeared on Silver Spoons where he explains his name to Ricky Shroder: “First name: Mister; middle name: period; last name: T“. After his star turn on The A-Team as “B.A.”, he made a motivational video (finally — an explanation for why he’s on the list) called “Be Somebody … or Be Somebody’s Fool!”, in which he inspires children to appreciate their origins, control their anger, deal with peer pressure, and “make tripping look like breakdancing.” In 2007, he made a commercial titled “Get Some Nuts” for Snickers in which he fires candy bars at a speed walker wearing tight-fitting shorts. The ad was pulled by candy-maker Mars after a group called Human Rights Campaign claimed it promoted violence against the gay community. He later made an ad for the Oregon lottery, referencing a fictional reality show called “Who Can Spend 30 Days in a Trailer with Mr. T.?”

His personal life has also been a source of interest to many of his fans. Though a born-again Christian, he was accused of fathering a child by a Chicago woman in a case that was never resolved. In 1995, he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. (That’s gotta be one of those Wikipedia pranks I’ve heard so much about.) He said in 2005 that he would never wear his chains again, after having seen the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but was in fact photographed in the signature jewelry during appearances in Australia and in a World of Warcraft ad. In April 2009, Mr. T. was called for jury duty in Chicago; he showed up in court but was not chosen.

As I said earlier, I need to learn to focus. Perhaps the Get Motivated Seminar really is for me!

Fake News: House drinks, paper torn

September 24, 2009

Pill swallowed with water

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (Sept. 22) — The entertainment industry was rocked Monday night when a lead player on a regularly scheduled television show used a glass of water to help him swallow a pill.

Dr. Gregory House, the character played by Hugh Laurie on Fox’s medical drama House, began the second half of a two-hour season premiere by accepting pills from the pharmacy at the fictional site where he is institutionalized, then using several gulps of water to ingest the medication. Until this landmark episode, virtually all lead characters ever seen on both television and feature films would swallow pills using only their own saliva.

The scene was staged to show that House, who was undergoing detox treatment for Vicodin addiction at the facility, was mending his errant ways. He had already been through withdrawal from the painkillers during the first hour, yet still exhibited an irascible nature that generally provoked irritation among his colleagues. At several times during that first segment, he took medication without the aid of water.

“Yes, it was meant to be symbolic that he was changing, or at least trying to change,” acknowledged producer Andy Wills. “But we were also aiming to inject a bit of realism into the role. Hugh himself suggested the glass of water. The original script had called for an unnamed carbonated drink.”

For hundreds of years, actors on both stage and screen rejected the idea of a liquid lubricant to help them take needed medicine or to abuse drugs. Not only did it save on the cost of props to omit tumblers of water from such scenes; it also lent a rebellious air to the character. Shakespeare used the device extensively in his early works, though later opted for giant chalices when he had become a more established and well-funded playwright. During the intervening 400 years of theatrical entertainment, only John Barrymore in the 1921 epic film I’m Really Thirsty used a drink to assist in the swallowing of a capsule or pill.

Wills speculated that later in the season, some character on the ground-breaking show will drive to a destination, only to arrive at the front door and find a “no parking” zone. He or she will then have to follow signs to a multi-level garage, where they will take a ticket from an automated gate-opener, circle up several stories to find a vacant spot, then take an elevator back down to the main floor before entering the building.

“In the hands of a skilled actor, this could be absolutely golden,” said Wills. “They can run through a whole range of emotions and internal dialog, both while circling and while riding the elevator. And we could easily kill four or five minutes that would otherwise be wasted on character development.”

Paper suspiciously ripped

THE NEXT CUBICLE OVER FROM YOU (Sept. 23) — A coworker in your office methodically ripped a sheet of paper into tiny pieces yesterday, causing everyone nearby to perk up briefly and peer across the room to see what could be so sensitive as to require such careful destruction.

The slow, rhythmic nature of the tearing caused widespread suspicion that the document contained either embarrassing personal information or material downloaded from the Internet in violation of company policy.

“If they just balled it up and threw it into recycling, no one would’ve noticed or cared,” noted administrative assistant Anne Purdy. “But that sound of deliberate ripping made us curious about what could be so incriminating.”

A team of several employees later retrieved the scraps from the trash bin and spent most of the afternoon piecing the puzzle together. Turns out, it was just an electric bill. What a disappointing waste of time that turned out to be.

In other sound-related news on the corporate front, when you went down the hall to the restroom earlier today and encountered that group of executives chatting with their backs to your oncoming approach, you deliberately raised the decibel level of your footfalls so they would hear you. Such a strategy enabled you to avoid speaking with them or fake-clearing your throat.

All but two of the group must’ve heard you, as they stepped slightly to the side while continuing their conversation. That one jerk who always wears a red tie never did slide over so you accidentally bumped his elbow, and later will dip your soiled fingers into his Sprite.

You hate that guy.

Arguments for the beard

September 23, 2009

About the only thing I remember from my high school philosophy class was a discussion about the “argument of the beard.” It’s the paradox that suggests there’s no difference between things which occupy opposite ends of a continuum, because there is no definable moment at which one becomes the other: day and night, childhood and adulthood, Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore.

“How many hairs does a man have to grow before he has a beard?” There’s no specific number at which an unsightly clump of hairs becomes a beard, though somebody apparently neglected to make this argument to about half the male stars at the Emmy Awards Sunday night.

The current fashion of sporting a three-day growth of facial hair has its genesis in the early 1970s, when I and my good friend Richard Nixon kept forgetting to charge our electric razors. As soon as my hormones had permitted, I opted for the scruffy look (I’m not sure what Nixon’s excuse was; probably something about Vietnam). It’s not that I didn’t shave on a regular basis; it’s just that the regular basis was every time Rod Stewart had a number-one single. Looking back, I guess my motivation was partly fashion, though sheer laziness played a pretty big role as well. Why should I spent an extra five minutes on grooming each morning when there was a cultural revolution waiting just outside my dorm room?

Unfortunately, my Scotch/Irish/Germanic/Pastywhite cultural heritage limited my bearding possibilities to random splotches on my neck and lower face. In my late-teen years, I looked like a Woolly Willie iron shavings toy that had spent too much time in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. Some hairs on the cheek, some under the chin, a few on the upper lip but most of them still hiding somewhere around the edge.

Eventually the bare spots started filling in, giving me the opportunity to forge yet another innovation — the Beardian Presidents style, later called the modified Taliban. Originally inspired by Rutherford B. Hayes, the look originated from an interest in post-Civil War history, when America’s chief executives were too distracted by the strains of Reconstruction to sit down for a little trim. If the likes of Grant, Garfield, Arthur and Cleveland had expressed as much interest in the Chinese Exclusion Act as they did in pogonology (the study of beards), we’d all be drinking green tea today instead of Full Throttle, and this whole civility debate would be moot.

(Stroking chin) "Hmm, would I rather veto the Pendleton Act or go to the barber?"

(Stroking chin) "Hmm, would I rather veto the Pendleton Act or go to the barber?"

During the late seventies, my beard reached a fullness that rivaled Amazonia. I was going through a period of introspection at the time, out of college but unsure whether to continue a counter-cultural lifestyle or to dive into corporate yuppiedom, which seemed to be paying a lot better than barefoot typesetting. My lack of confidence about the proper career course was reflected in my belief that the more of my face I could keep hidden, the better.

Photographic evidence of this period exists somewhere deep in the files of the State Department, as I had received my first passport during these years. In the innocence of pre-9/11 times, the fierce countenance I displayed didn’t raise much concern. They were letting anybody up to and including rabid abolitionist John Brown purchase a transatlantic airline ticket. The full beard in my passport photo would be flagged immediately by today’s facial recognition search programs, and I’d be put on a watch list faster than you could say “can I check my bags through to Helmand Province?” Then I’d be removed from the list when they looked at my ID and realized I had the most-benign, least-threatening surname (Whiteman) possible. 

"I demand an aisle seat!"

"I demand an aisle seat!"

When I moved from Florida to South Carolina in 1980, I soon realized that facial whiskers were making a different kind of statement than I had intended. In a college town like Tallahassee, the bewhiskered were respected intellectuals; in the rural South, the effort to grow a beard was more about obscuring absent teeth than offering a shout-out to Marxian anarcho-syndicalism. Still, I held on to the beard for several more years as I slowly built my corporate career. It was a kind of security blanket that tied me to a more idealistic past; a food-flecked blanket to be sure, but still a vague reassurance that I hadn’t completely sold out.

It wasn’t until the nineties arrived and my son was born that I finally made a break with the past and decided to become clean-shaven. I sensed my professionalism at work was being questioned, not to mention that sad incident where my two-year-old mistook his father for a Furby. I first experimented with the babyface look during a two-week cruise vacation so I could practice things to do with the visible jaw before a more sympathetic audience than coworkers could offer. I gradually mastered civilized chewing techniques and got past the fear of slashing my own throat with Norelco’s trimmer accessory. When I returned to work, one person exclaimed “he’s got a chin!” Actually, after all the late-night buffets, I had several.

Now I’m entering the twilight of my career, having spent the last 20 years with hardly a stubble, unless you count every weekend or holiday. My ambition in the business world is starting to subside a bit, as I reflect more and more on the warped values of hyper-capitalism and on the value of taking SSRI medication. The other morning, I was up early writing the blog and found myself running late for work. I remembered that extra five minutes you could save by not shaving and figured I’d give the stubbly look another try. At age 55, the whiskers come in as grey as head hairs, so I had the look of a certain grizzled dementia that was keeping people from bringing me work, lest I start rambling that proofreading this particular graphic reminded me how much my grand-niece liked to play with range-column charts, and about that time I was examined by aliens who listed my physical traits on a holographic scatter plot. More time for Bejeweled!

So my argument of the beard has come down to this: You say I’m looking a little scruffy today? Big hairy deal.

Fake News: Botched execution debated

September 22, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Sept. 21) — Observers on both sides of the death penalty debate weighed in over the weekend on the botched execution of an Ohio man whose collapsed veins couldn’t accommodate the lethal injection designed to kill him. Opponents argued the convict’s death penalty should be commuted and that he should be given a party, complete with frosted cupcakes. Proponents said he should be killed the same way he murdered his victim, except upside down and while watching an episode of “Gossip Girl.”

Gov. Ted Strickland issued a one-week reprieve on Sept. 15 to Romell Brown, 53, who spent more than two hours awaiting execution as technicians struggled to find a vein strong enough to deliver the three-drug cocktail.

As prison workers tried to administer the injection and failed repeatedly, a cooperative Brown volunteered at one point to hit himself over the head with a nearby fire extinguisher. The team met briefly in an adjacent room to consider the offer, but ultimately rejected it as a violation of prison protocol. Brown then offered to go out to an adjacent interstate highway and run in front of a truck. This was immediately rejected by the head of the execution team, saying he’d “probably try to run away instead.”

State officials denied that attempting a second execution this week would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Strickland had been notified of the difficulties about 30 minutes after the process began, and had offered to “come down there and beat the crap out of the guy, if you want me to.” Strickland ultimately opted not to make the 30-minute drive to the prison.

Prisons director Terry Collins said the effort to execute the prisoner was abandoned after about two hours of failed attempts. Doctors and nurses are forbidden by ethics constraints from participating in executions, so a group of cafeteria workers had been enlisted to insert the shunt into Brown’s veins. The prisoner slid the rubber tubing up his arm, moved the arm up and down, and flexed and closed his fingers, trying to get a vein to appear. When this failed, team members stabbed randomly at his legs with a fork, causing him to grimace in apparent pain.

At one point, a member of the execution team patted him on the back and appeared to mouth the words “it’s alright, you’ll be okay.” The condemned man covered his face with both hands, then began to wipe his brow with an ether-soaked rag the technicians tried to sneak past him. He appeared exasperated with the workers’ attempts to kill him, particularly after they took a second smoke break.

Ohio’s lethal injection protocol has been modified several times since it was introduced in 1993. In one change that I swear I’m not making up, the prison warden now shakes and calls out to the condemned after anesthesia is injected, to establish that he is unconscious before the lethal drugs are administered.

While liberals such as Richard Dieter of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center predictably complained about the missteps, his counterparts at the Coalition for Killing Not Just Convicts But Suspects as Well said the process simply needed tinkering. Alex Henderson said that instead of constantly trying to improve the capital punishment process, innovations such as lethal injection should be added cumulatively to standing procedures instead of replacing older methods.

“If we injected and electrocuted and gassed and shot and hung and beheaded these guys, then made them attend a Cleveland Indians twi-night doubleheader, there wouldn’t be any mishaps like this,” Henderson said.

Exclusive! Kanye and Taylor collaborate on duet

September 21, 2009

Now that nobody cares any more, Kanye West and Taylor Swift have co-written a new song which they had planned to debut at last night’s Emmy Awards ceremony. The duo, who famously met when West interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, collaborated on “Wait a Minute … For Our Love.” The pair had been promised a spot to close the Emmy presentation if the show didn’t run long, but darn if it didn’t go three minutes over.

The blog has received an exclusive copy of the lyrics for the new song, perhaps the first-ever fusion of rap and country, and premieres them here. Try to imagine a thumping bass and a banjo in the background as you read.

Taylor Swift:

I’m tall and thin and pale as can be
I could beat you one-on-one, I’m virtually a tree
I like your style, you’re a little bit crude
And I think we’d all agree I need a bad-ass dude
Didn’t know you much when you came up on the stage
‘Cept you seemed to be carrying a bit too much rage
The maze in your hair would be hard to get through
But my fingers want to try, can I touch your ‘do?
The ventilated shades are as cool as can be
The only problem is they don’t allow you to see
I heard you didn’t care for former President Bush
Only hope you don’t mind that I haven’t got a tush
Beyonce wears short skirts
I wear t-shirts
She’s a fabulous dancer
Look like I’ve got cancer
I shimmy when I can
But it looks like seizures
My doctor says I better
Stay put in the bleachers
If you could see that I’m the one who understands you
Been here all along so why can’t you see?
Why were you a dong? Why were you wrong to me?

Kanye West

Wait a minute, wait a minute
Can’t be falling in love
Remember Bruno at the last show
Flying in from above?
I can feel it in my bones
I know they needed a stunt
But the rejected my idea
In which I called you a … Yo!
Check it out
I know I hit the Hennessey a little too hard
May have had a toke or two out back in the yard
But I’m not so high as to be playin’ the foo’
And get myself involved with a mantis like you
Said I’m sorry and I mean it
I really am sincere
Wouldn’t mind if you would “clean it”
But I’d need another beer
Girl would you like a toy?
Here’s a Barbie, here’s a yo-yo
Now go find yourself a boy
Won’t make much more money
Now the Kanye name is mud
Can I be your golddigger?
And charge to be your stud?
Can I get a what-what?
More likely need a why-why
Still can’t quite explain
I’m usually just a shy guy
Get down Kanye, get down, get down
Get yo’ ass off that stage and get it out of town
That Taylor may be swift but I ain’t into ofays
Now they’ll never ask me back to the VMAs

Taylor and Kanye together

We know you’re sick and tired of seeing our faces
(We’re) pretty poor representatives of our respective races
We both produce music that’s banal and trite
And now we’re on the news just about every night
Neither country nor rap are exactly high art
They’re the two leading genres that sell at Wal-Mart
One has no melody and the other’s all twang
Listenin’ to both is like being sentenced to hang
Now we’re about to head out
And leave America alone
Go talk about your health care
And your subprime loan
You’ll miss us when we’re gone
It’s as clear as black and white
This is Kanye, this is Taylor
Finally saying our good night