Archive for September, 2009

Revisited: Hunting for pleasure

September 20, 2009

In spite of the fact that I’ve lived in the South for last 29 years, I never quite understood the lure of hunting. I get the part about how appealing it is to get up in the middle of the night to traipse around in the woods while wearing loud or unstylish clothing. In a way, I guess it’s not that different from what I do going off to my corporate job early every morning, if you substitute “cubicles” for “woods.” I understand the camaraderie of hanging out with fellow hunters, sitting for hours of uncomfortable silence in a tree stand and occasionally discharging high-powered firearms in random directions. Again, much like work.

I just don’t get it why the guns have to be pointed at animals.

Don’t mistake me for one of those PETA types. I believe animals have absolutely no rights whatsoever other than to provide us with meaty flanks and maybe entertain us in the home, zoo or circus (though I’m not sure what goes on at a circus qualifies as “entertainment”). But I don’t see the point in searching the outdoors for them when most of their best traits can easily be found in a canned format on aisle 7 or sealed in plastic along the back wall of the local grocery store.

Actually, it’s not even the tastiest meats that are available in the wilds of the South. Here you’re largely limited to deer, possum, squirrels, rabbits and assorted birds, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across an unguarded dairy farm. I sometimes see the deer gathered in the dark along the side of the road as I drive to work. They usually pause from whatever deer stuff they might be doing to watch me pass, then resume their wild life. Aside from the fact they’re usually clustered together like this, which makes me wonder if they’re talking about me or plotting some kind of deer terrorism, they’re not really that bothersome.

Squirrels (or as hunters say “squirrel,” as if singularizing them reduces the carnage) seem equally harmless. They’re running all through the trees in our yard and provide endless entertainment for our indoor pets watching through the windows — “cat television,” as my wife calls it. When you see them in the road, they’re either so panicked by your approach that they can’t decide which way to turn, or else already run over. The other assorted fauna – badgers and groundlings and such – are completely inoffensive, unless you try to cook and eat them.

Some hunters will argue that they pursue the sport not only for the food and entertainment, but that they’re also helping control the wildlife population. I dislike the idea of a ten-point buck tumbling across the hood of my car and antlers-first into my lap as much as the next person. But there seem to be so many more humane options for population control. Maybe Sarah Palin has some ideas, considering her experience with ruminant control and birth control. We know abstinence doesn’t work, but maybe that field-dressing we heard so much about (which I assume involves clothing the elk, moose and deer so they’re not so alluring to each other) could work.

With autumn now here, the hunting season in my state is now in full swing. This was recently brought to my attention by ads in the local paper for outdoors establishments that sell the necessary tools of death. The “dates to remember” column was particularly disturbing:

Sept. 1 – First segment of dove season. Limit 15 birds per day. We turn these graceful birds into symbols of peace and for their cooperation in this sham, this is the thanks we give them.

Sept. 1 – Canada goose season. Daily limit 15 geese. They’re talking about the same huge creatures we see waddling through the park and defecating at will? They have to be hunted? To me, they don’t seem all that hard to find.

Sept. 15 – Archery season for deer. Later in the season comes “muzzleloader” deer season, eventually followed by “modern weapons” deer season. So first they wound them with arrows, then give them powder burns a few weeks later, then finally escalate to laser-guided grenade launchers. Surely they can think of still more ways to kill deer. Hanging? Lethal injection? Beating them with a crowbar?

Oct. 12 – The start of National Wildlife Refuge Week. For one week, all is forgiven, and the animals are allowed to romp freely across the meadows. Just so they don’t get too comfortable, because next comes crow season and then quail season, both great opportunities for those who prefer eating feathers to meat.

I definitely sympathize with man’s inherent desire to master — or at least hassle — the natural world. The Bible tells us we’ve been given dominion over the Earth and all the animals and fish on it, and we have an obligation to handle this stewardship wisely. And I don’t see anything wrong with having a little fun at the same time by playing with archery equipment and muzzleloaders (whatever they are). I guess maybe it’s just a matter of how you choose your weapon and your victims.

Personally, I find there’s nothing quite so relaxing and invigorating at the same time as experiencing this mystical place where civilization meets the wild. With the scent of my freshly mown lawn still hanging in the air, I enjoy the crisp sound of a newly opened bag of fire-ant poison. The smell of the pesticide blends with that of the grass as I stalk across the back yard in search of those rounded mounds of reddish dirt. When I locate one, I dip my old jelly jar lid into the granular mix and gently disperse it across the ant hill, watching with a primeval sense of accomplishment as the doomed creatures fall prey to my caring but lethal stewardship.

In that moment, the hunter and hunted form a tandem as old as time. I brush furiously at my shoe to try to get them off of me.

Revisited: The importance of hand-washing

September 19, 2009

I’m glad to notice that the fourth week of September has once again been declared National Clean Hands Week. This is not one of those cheesy designations by Congress; instead, the week of Sept. 20-26 was chosen by the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) to “encourage a healthy home, workplace and office” with the purchase and use of the cleaning products and oleochemicals made by their trade association members.

I discovered the existence of the SDA with the aid of a framed document posted at my workplace, titled “A Checklist for Washing Hands”. As I’ve written before, my company is big into standard processes so it only makes sense that such a list would be posted in a position of prominence, in the men’s room. Because the document is dated February of 2002, I’m guessing this concern for our health and safety was some type of misdirected response to 9/11.

The checklist is prefaced by results from a survey conducted by the association which asserts that some 40% of American workers don’t wash their hands often or long enough (emphasis SDA’s). Consider that the SDA also claims that 58% of employers don’t encourage better cleanliness habits in their workers. “While most people employ good cleaning habits at home, they have less control in the workplace,” notes director of consumer affairs Nancy Bock, who holds a job apparently even worse than mine. I might think some less-than-positive things about my current employer but I sure can’t say they aren’t concerned about my cleanliness – I mean they posted the checklist in frame.

The list itself is in two parts: when to wash your hands and, of course, how. The “when” includes each time you use the restroom, before and after staff meetings if food is served (I assume that would also cover my company meetings, where bring your own pathetic sandwich is more the rule), after scanning newspapers in the breakroom, before and after a meet-and-greet activity (where you might have to touch grubby customers) and after disposing of freshly killed vermin. Actually, I added that last one myself. I guess it should go without saying, but if we’re going to have a checklist it needs to be thorough and allow no room for old-fashioned notions of common sense.

The “how” of hand-washing is stunning in its detail. You should wet hands with warm running water prior to reaching for soap, either in bar or liquid form; rub hands together to make a lather; wash the front and back of hands for 15 seconds or more; and rinse hands well under warm water. As Bock notes, “washing often, about eight times a day or more (emphasis both of ours) is the first step.” This seems to be bordering on the obsessive-compulsive to me, but of course I’m not selling soap.

I suppose I shouldn’t be mocking the sincere efforts of the Soap and Detergent Association. I really don’t want myself or my coworkers to end up like the little clip-art guy in the corner of the frame with a thermometer in his mouth and an ice bag on his head. Since 1926, under the leadership of a 25-member Board of Directors and over 40 committees, subcommittees, task forces and working groups, the SDA has been dedicated to advancing public understanding of the safety and benefits of cleaning products. I know lobbyists are currently under a bit of a cloud in the public eye, but I just can’t imagine these guys leaning on lawmakers for multi-million-dollar cleanser earmarks.

I decided to go to their website to learn more about the unceasing effort to keep the American public from being so disgusting. In addition to consumer education efforts like the one I encountered, the group is involved in research, government affairs and coordinating efforts with international associations. To encourage these missions, they sponsor two awards — the Glycerine Innovation Award, given in collaboration with the American Oil Chemists’ Society, and an award recognizing the best technical paper in the Journal of Surfactants and Detergents. I wonder if I might qualify for next year’s honor with this piece.

As I read on, I’m glad I took advantage of the immediacy of the web rather than relying on six-year-old messages on bathroom walls. Because it seems like things have only gone downhill since the 2002 report. The 2008 study reveals that only 85% of respondents say they always wash their hands after going to the bathroom, down from the previous 92%, and a mere 39% seldom or never wash their hands (emphasis necessary for everyone) after coughing or sneezing. A new feature of the study is an overall grade for the American public, who racks up a not-surprising “C-” for their hand hygiene habits. Once again, we’re excelling at mediocrity.

“Americans should prepare for the onslaught of cold and flu season,” warns Bock ominously. “Cleaning your hands regularly throughout the day can help keep you out of the emergency room.” On the good side, Bock has been promoted to SDA vice president of education since we last heard from her in 2002. I’m just glad to see she still has a job, considering the poor results of the study.

I guess she got credit for some of the additional features now available on the website. New this year are “tips on laundering flood-soiled fabrics,” which I guess is in response to recent natural catastrophes we’ve seen along the Gulf Coast. “As soon as the flood waters have receded, a new priority becomes how to clean up clothes and other fabrics that have been soaked by muddy flood water.” I’m sure that’d be my new priority as I maneuvered around the bloated corpses of cattle as I waded back to the shattered remnants of my life. In case I get some dead cow on my only remaining T-shirt, the SDA has me covered: “to help remove protein stains such as sewage and blood, add an enzyme presoak product to the prewash.” Any chance such a product is sold by your members? I sure hope so.

The SDA has also been busy bringing new demographic groups into the world of the clean and hygienic. They’ve established the “Scrub Club” for kids, which includes the Clean Hands Game and webisodes in which you can meet Gel-Mo, the gelatinous mascot of the S.C. And in an attempt to reach out to teenagers, a rap song was commissioned from the students at Sampson Smith Middle School. I’m sure some of the cred of the song is lost without the accompanying thumping bass-line, but if you can imagine the overwhelming rhythm, I can quote the lyrics:

“Yo stop touching that dirty can

Go to the sink and wash your hands,

If you want to go on a date,

Jump up and wash your hands for goodness sake.

Washing your hands is good for you

But if you don’t you’ll get the flu.”

Thanks to the SDA, sounds like we can look forward to a bright and shiny future.

Website Reviews:

September 18, 2009

I thought I’d mix in a little variety with this week’s Website Review by visiting three different URLs and offering one capsule report on each. So no, there’s no actual site called, and if there was, I can’t imagine what its focus would be, unless some obscure group had gotten worked up about Emperor Constans’ fourth-century ban of pagan sacrifices under the penalty of death, and his subsequent campaign against the Franks. While it’s true that everybody was always picking on the Franks, I like to think we’ve moved on to a post-Frankian society.

My first visit was to a site called Anyone who has ever listened to National Public Radio for five minutes any afternoon since 2003 knows that this is the home page for a seller of chairs. It features “all colors of the Herman Miller Aeron chair, now including true black.” I’ve been entranced by this mercilessly repeated tagline almost every day on my drive home from work, so I thought I’d check it out.

Since I was going by pronunciation rather than a visual representation of the website name, I first tried with no luck. I realize now that in modern Internet communications “4” has become the new “for,” saving busy potential customers the trouble of two extra keystrokes. This reminded me how annoyed everyone is becoming with these contrived URLs that are designed to make us sit up and take notice but instead simply confuse us and degrade the language. We don’t want to sit up; we that’s why we’re hunched over our keyboards.

The latest trend in this regard seems to be overly long site names that are either too descriptive or else way too precious. For example, Volkswagen has a site called, in the belief that there’s sales gold in appealing to a demographic that hasn’t been prominent for 40 years and, when it was, didn’t have any money. The new season of TV’s House is using in a confused reference to the fact that he uses a cane and is a practicing physician (snakes are featured on the AMA’s iconic Staff of Aesculapius and in a number of new less-invasive surgical techniques). Another favorite of mine is called

At least these haven’t backfired like the ill-conceived web presence of the makers of fine writing instruments known as Pen Island, whose website is getting surprising quantities of traffic, most of whom end up severely disappointed that the cylinders for sale spout only ink.

Anyway, back to Herman Miller and his truly black Aeron chair. The sit4less address offers a large number of office and massage chairs, as well as “home seating options,” by manufacturers you’ve never heard of and offered at prices you’d never pay. The Aeron is sold at a comparatively reasonable $849 but you can go as high as almost $6500 for the INADA Sogno Dreamwave massage chair. Other featured chair-makers range in comfort from the evocative Human Touch Perfect Chair to the Steelcase Leap Chair. There’s also the Zody Fully Loaded Black Chair, the Indie Expressivo Swivel Chair, and the HB Kneeler Perfect Fit Metal Kneeling Chair, one of those supposedly ergonomic contraptions that you mount rather than sit in. (Seems like mounting is not something you typically want to be doing at the office, especially if you have a performance review coming up.)

Speaking of awkward web names, I looked next at, a conservative political site that’s heavy into tea-bagging, tea parties, and all things associated to the world’s most popular beverage. These thirsty folks probably prefer a tall icy glass of Southern-style sweet tea unless your barbecue barn also offers the blood of Obama liberals, in which case they’ll have a large, no ice. You get the feeling immediately upon visiting this site that these are not patient folk.

“When Barack Obama won the presidency, we knew things were going to get worse for America,” writes chairman Howard Kaloogian. “We just didn’t know how bad it would be.”

Kaloogian, who signs off the opening letter with “conservatively yours,” goes on to detail some of the horrors our nation faces in the coming months. Not the least of these is a Teaparty Express bus full of fat, angry white guys who just spent the previous eight hours on the ride from Moline to Akron and are now ready to stretch their legs, and those of anybody who opposes their right-wing worldview. If that’s not bad enough, “entertainers” such as Marine Mom Deborah Jones, YouTube Sensation Rivoli Review and the always-hilarious National Tax Limitation Committee Chairman Lew Uhler will also be featured.

The site is full of dreadfully written and poorly fact-checked press releases. “The Tea Party rallies will play a major in helping Americans to take back their country,” notes one entry. They also oppose “the game of kissy-kissy Obama has played with the likes of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that will soon weigh down Obama’s administration, just as it did with President Carter’s administration some 20 years ago.” I guess you could consider the late seventies to be “some 20 years ago,” but I still don’t think Obama can compete with the Saudi-smooching, Merkel-massaging George W. Bush in the game of kissy-kissy.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at a no-nonsense URL that gets right to the point with its name:

For better or worse, society has grown more comfortable in recent years with honest discussions of natural body functions. When I was a kid, every family had their own secret language for those necessary conversations between a parent and a young child that extended through the potty-training years and slightly beyond. In my house, it was always called “going too-too,” though we were also familiar with variations such as the neighbor kids’ “I have to make.” (To this day, I can’t use the term “mass production” without giggling.)

Now, there’s a societal consensus that the proper term for the function is “poop,” as set in stone by the best-selling children’s book “Everyone Poops.” So naturally I was intrigued when I encountered the webpage for Doody Enterprises, Inc.

It’s not at all what I thought it would be. Doody Enterprises, founded in 1993, “specializes in targeted information update services for busy healthcare professionals and medical librarians that combine literature update emails with content-rich web sites.” They offer professional reviews of medical literature, a respected endeavor totally undeserving of the snickers that references to “Doody’s Core Titles,” “Doody’s Reviewers Club” and “Doody’s Star Rating System” tend to provoke. There’s even a “Doody Database,” which is available only to members.

If you are interested in the essential collection development tool for medical libraries of all sizes, I can strongly recommend Just as strongly, and for a number of reasons, I recommend you stay away from

Fake News: Ga-ga over GaGa

September 17, 2009

The confluence of the MTV Music Awards and New York’s annual fashion week has highlighted a new star on the entertainment horizon.

Lady GaGa, a product of the city’s cutting-edge house/electronic music clubs, has emerged as a brash fashion icon. Her display of elaborately self-designed outfits that combine the need to protect her personal modesty with apparently random combinations of fabric, accessories and found objects has revolutionized the concept of style.

Ga, who says she envisions songwriting and clothing design as parallel creations, was only barely upstaged by the controversial Kanye West at Sunday night’s awards show. She wore one costume that spurted blood, another that featured face-framing black feathers and a third that completely obscured her head in red lace. A performance earlier this year featured a flame-throwing bra that came close to setting her backup dancers ablaze.

Several other examples of her innovative get-ups are shown below.


In the piece above, Lady Gaga harkens back to America’s roots with elaborate makeup, a wig and a false nose in her interpretation of nineteenth-century Native American style.


Here we see Lady using wool in ways not previously envisioned by designers. Note the passive expression that she’s made a part of her total package.


In what doubles as a statement on the currently moribund U.S. economy, Lady GaGa dons a steel and carbon composite full-body suit that positively shouts “beep-beep.”


One of her most space-age concepts is this ensemble inspired by the planet Saturn. GaGa is truly becoming the gas giant of contemporary American style.

Lady GaGa has inspired several other avant-garde performers with her ground-breaking work in music and fashion. Archduke GooGoo recently premiered a set at several Los Angeles area hotspots in which he wore a surgically implanted javelin in his chest wall. Another disco pioneer, Senior Vice President of Human Resources PeePee, drapes his body in a knit blend combining Spanish moss, sweepings from a neighborhood Great Clips, and corn silk. His performance concludes with a prank phone call in which he threatens former secretary of state James Baker.

Out with the old, in with the new

September 16, 2009

A week or two back I wrote about my ailing laptop and my fading hopes for its recovery. Yesterday, I picked it up from the computer repair shop and brought it home to die.

The initial prognosis when I first had the aging IBM ThinkPad admitted hadn’t been good. Early optimism that it was just a screen problem quickly turned bleak when the frightening word “motherboard” started being mentioned. Heroic efforts — spending more on parts and labor than it was worth — might save T.Pad, but the work would be painful and the machine’s quality of life could be severely reduced.

Still, I held onto hope. I hoped that if I just left it in the shop, I wouldn’t have to pay for any diagnostic charges. Finally, compassion got the better of me and I called to ask if I could come and pick it up.

“We’re open nine to six,” said the receptionist sadly. “Except on Wednesdays when we close at two.”

When I arrived at the sprawling Metrolina Computer complex in a strip-mall storefront out on the bypass, I gave my name and my patient’s name to a young orderly. He started randomly looking at some shelves filled with ailing desktops and soon came across my startlingly thin machine. Initially shocked at the apparent emaciation, I soon remembered that’s how it looked when I brought it in, that thinness was the whole point of having a laptop.

I tried to get him to confirm the diagnosis I’d received on the phone, putting a hopeful spin on the question.

“They said it might be big problems but weren’t sure,” I said. “Maybe they were able to find something later.”

He scanned a piece of paper that had been lying with T.Pad for any notes detailing the condition. When he couldn’t find anything, he consulted with the nurse/receptionist who called up my order on her screen.  It almost broke my heart to see how snappy her computer response time was compared to the poor health of the machine that now lay with its power chord draped mournfully across its surface.

Finally a man in a lab coat stepped forward. He spoke with a comforting tone about how they had done some minor fix-ups in the beginning and “we had it on the stand running fine for a day or two. Everybody thought ‘great, it’s fixed,’ but then the previous problems returned and it hasn’t worked since.” I choked up at the thought it had briefly brightened the day (or two) of these hardened technicians.

I gathered up my patient, offered a heartfelt “thanks for trying” and headed quickly for the exit. The shop displayed a sign saying diagnostics were free and I wanted to make sure that was the case by getting out of there as soon as possible. They either didn’t have the heart to stop me, or else Obama’s newly installed socialized state was already working on my behalf.

When I got T.Pad home, I set him on the kitchen counter and tried to boot up just like old times. I opened the lid to find a loose screw sitting next to the keyboard, the most appalling display of sloppy repair I’d seen since my doctor left a lens cap inside during my last colonoscopy. I shuddered; somebody again had the air conditioning set too high.

I pushed the power button and the screen sprang briefly to life. I’d hoped to at least share some final memories, by quickly emailing a few key files to myself. However, the cursor soon froze and a blackness overtook the display face that told me the final moments had arrived. Other appliances like the microwave, refrigerator, toaster and coffeemaker had already gathered around in a touching show of support. I retrieved my cellphone and my iPod so “T” would have some younger contemporaries to relate to in this moment of passing. They quietly showed their respects, except for the phone which went off once telling me my reserved book had arrived at the library.

I pressed the off button for the last time. I had to hold it down for several seconds before all the display lights went out and the whirring ceased. It was a brave act of rage against the dying of the light that touched us all, or at least those of us who were sentient. Finally, there was quiet. I pulled the plug on ol’ gramps, knowing I could probably salvage the power chord for use on another machine. I ceremonially sprinkled a little dirt next to the keyboard in preparation for T.Pad’s eternal resting place in the backyard next to four generations of dead cats.

The late great T.Pad is readied for burial

The late great T.Pad is readied for burial

Then I went out and bought a new computer! It’s really awesome and I am so excited!!!

It’s actually not a laptop at all but what they call a netbook. It weighs less than three pounds yet still has 160 somethings that make the memory really big and 16 something-elses that make it as fast as any larger computer. It has a webcam (I’m waving at you right now — can you see me?) and a touchpad with multi-finger gesture input so I can make two mistakes at once. The keyboard is only 90% of normal size, requiring me to keep my fingernails neatly trimmed unless I want a bunch of random numbers sprinkled in with my blog post.

The brand name is one I’ve never heard of. It’s either called ASUS, which you know has to be American-made because it has “USA” mixed in there, or else it’s called Eee, if you find ASUS too difficult to pronounce. It does have the feel of a cheap plastic toy, especially the makeshift security feature that permanently records the fingerprints of anyone who touches its shiny black surface. The performance and reliability so far, however, are excellent. It’s working three days after purchase!

I’m still making my way through the instruction manual. I am forewarned about putting benzene on it, not operating it during a gas leak, not placing it on an unstable surface (that means you, Uncle Jeff), not leaving it on my lap for long periods, and not shoving any foreign objects into it. I also shouldn’t operate it if the temperature outside is below 41 degrees, so I better dive in and start computing before that forecasted cool wave hits later this week.

Much of the operation is intuitive — for example, you strike the “a” key when you want to spell something that has an “a” in it. There are also some helpful blue icons on a few of the keys, in case you want to block out the sun, forbid bullhorns or NumLK somebody. There are some tiny colored lights and a number of holes on either side of the machine, which I guess explains the shoving caveat.

It’ll never replace the special spot in my heart I’ll always have for my very first laptop. But I think it’ll be quite sufficient for me to go online to WebMD so I can finally look up “motherboard,” and also learn how to get that lens cap out of my ileum.

Fake News: The sorriest people around

September 15, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 13) — Mr. Wilson continued to insist over the weekend that the dang Obama kid is a menace who deserved to be yelled at for playing in front of his House.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) was widely criticized last week for calling President Obama a liar during his speech before a joint session of Congress. Mr. Wilson later apologized, but continued to criticize the president for allegedly deceiving the public about details of the health care reform package currently under consideration.

“Yes, I lost my temper,” Wilson said on Fox News Sunday. “However,  he was playing in my yard after I told him a thousand times to stay off my grass.”

When the host pointed out that changing demographics making white males an ever-diminishing segment of the American population mean that “it is no longer your yard,” the three-term Republican snorted gruffly.

“Aaannhhh,” he responded. “These young punks today. What do they know?”

Wilson did reiterate his apology for the outburst that brought condemnation from both sides of the aisle.

“I was told by the House Republican leadership that I needed to offer a sincere, heartfelt apology to the president, so I did,” Wilson said. “If (minority leader) John Boehner says I need to feel and express an honest remorse, I’ll do as I’m told.”

Wilson continued to resist calls to offer an additional apology to members of Congress for violating long-established rules of decorum. He said his phone call to the White House and a statement to several reporters was sufficient.

“You know, I’m starting to feel sorry that I was sorry,” Wilson admitted. “Why do I need to issue a separate statement to the House membership? Who else is going to ask for a specific apology? The people in the gallery? Anybody who happened to be walking past a television during the address? Each separate class of vertebrates? Bah.”

Meanwhile, in other apology news, tennis great Serena Williams offered her regret for an on-court eruption at the U.S. Open Saturday. Williams had claimed a call by the lineswoman was inaccurate, and strongly indicated her desire to shove the ball down the official’s throat.

“I want to sincerely apologize first to the lineswoman, (opponent) Kim Clijsters, the U.S. Tennis Association and tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst,” Williams wrote on her website. “I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to…”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” interrupted the blog of controversial rapper Kanye West. “If anybody should be apologizing here, it should be your sister Venus. She lost 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 in the third round to an unseeded player. Her serve-and-volley game just fell apart. It was terrible.”

West later apologized for his outburst, calling it “despicable, loathesome, contrary to all civilized standards of behavior, and perhaps the worst thing the world has endured since the meteor impact that destroyed thousands of species over 65 million years ago. I truly sicken myself.”

In a related story, Sarah Palin noted the flurry of publicity surrounding people who are not her, and took to her Facebook page to address the diversion of attention.

“Look at me! Look at me!” said the recently resigned Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate. “La-la-la-la, I’m dancing, I’m jumping, I’m twirling around and around. Aren’t I pretty?”

Walking my way to better health

September 14, 2009

We recently completed a get-healthy initiative at my work that encouraged employees to exercise by walking. My truly lame team finished way down in the final standings but, in a larger sense, we were all winners because we had spent eight weeks striding vigorously toward fitness. Not really. I probably weigh more now than when I started, and I know for a fact that I smell worse.

When the winning teams were announced, it was noted that as a company we had walked over 7 million miles during the previous two months. That’s equivalent to 280 circumnavigations of the globe. It’s as if we had walked to the moon and back 14 times. It’s like walking from New York to Los Angeles, turning left and heading to Peru, then boring into the Earth’s mantle and going halfway to the core, and then re-emerging to hike halfway to Venus. Any way you put it, it doesn’t make any sense.

As a runner for the last 30-some years, I’ve never had a lot of respect for walking. I guess I viewed it as the exercise of the weak and infirm, a great way to get to the men’s room perhaps but hardly a challenging physical regimen. Any sport that could be done by the elderly ladies around the retirement complex near my house was not for me.

Though I did spend numerous coffee breaks in recent weeks pacing up and down the road in front of my office like an expectant father, the only deliveries I saw were tractor-trailers backing up to the warehouse (less messy than the typical Caesarean but still smelling of diesel). I won’t say that I’ve gained a new appreciation for walking as exercise; I will admit, however, that my aging knees had better realize pretty soon that there’s a reason you don’t see many 220-pound sixty-year-olds sprinting down the street. We’re either dead or have adopted another workout habit.

Part of my problem with public walking is that, as a method of transportation and an exercise, it’s subject to misinterpretation by onlookers. Friends who drive past you in their cars will stop and ask if you need a ride. Other motorists look at you as a mobile information source, as if you’re circling the neighborhood in case they need directions, can’t find their lost cat or need an explanation of the local zoning codes.

Trying to make it look more like an exercise and less like a leisurely stroll does deter some of this. I’ve learned, for example, that moving your arms in a particular fashion will keep questioners at bay. If you adopt the motion of the race-walker, elbows bent and forearms punching the oncoming air, many observers will realize that you’re disturbed, and therefore best left undisturbed. If this doesn’t work, I try the stiff-armed march of the North Korean infantryman, lifting my rigid limbs high above my head as if about to cross the demilitarized zone. The next subdivision down from me remains on high alert.

Another deterrent to interruption is the iPod. Crank up your Who playlist to maximum volume and you won’t be able to hear the questions and taunts that are otherwise sent in your direction. Of course, you can’t hear oncoming vehicles either, but that’s their problem, not yours. If you get caught up in the song and start singing along — “Love! Reign o’er me!” — chances are good they’ll notice you one way or the other.

My wife used to belong to a martial arts group that occasionally practiced tai-chi in a public park. Most of the time, they remained under a sheltered picnic area but if the weather was nice, they’d sometimes break out this so-called “meditation walk,” where they’d pike around the lake at a slow, measured pace that was half-walking, half-Step-Forward-to-Repulse-Monkey. The kids playing basketball on a nearby court would tease them mercilessly while they practiced their forms in a fixed location, but as soon as the martial artists started marching methodically in a single file toward them, the fast breaks got really fast and tended to head in the direction of the park exit.

I’d be more than a little embarrassed to try this strategy (in fact, I’m generally humiliated to be seen in public at all). One of the biggest concerns with walking is what to do when you’ve reached the halfway point. Unless you’ve plotted out a circular route for yourself, there comes a time when you have to reverse your course. I’m always afraid someone is going to see me doing this.

There’s something inherently unnatural about suddenly turning on your heels and heading off into the opposite direction. It might be fine for exercise purposes, but it exhibits a certain indecisiveness in the real world, causing witnesses to wonder what you forgot. I try to get it over as quickly as possible, or otherwise make the most of it. I once took a stroll with two other family members and we agreed all turn at once, on cue, just as a school bus was passing. The sheer precision of the move left those kids dumbfounded.

I think, though, I’m going to continue walking as a physical activity. With fall right around the corner, it should be quite pleasant. It does clear your head and give you time to think. If I keep it up into the winter months, I’m going to have to consider some alternate venues. Some people from our office had taken to hiking around a nearby grocery store when the heat or rain got too bad during the summer, and that might be fun. Again, it seems like there might be concerns among store employees about what the hell you’re doing. I think if I circle the outer edge, cutting through the produce department and alternately picking up and putting back various melons and cabbages each time I pass, it might not look too weird.

Revisited: A new career, perhaps?

September 13, 2009

So it’s come to this: as I struggle to keep up in a declining industry in a declining economy at an advancing age, I’ve turned to offering my body up for medical research in return for $40 now and another $10 a month each time I call in and tell them I’m still alive.

I guess it’s not as bad as selling my plasma or a pre-owned kidney. I’ve volunteered to receive an anti-shingles vaccine that’s already been proven safe and/or effective for populations over age 60 and now the drug company wants to see if 50-somethings can survive it as well. It’s all above board and totally without risk, I’ve been assured by the Internet. Because it’s a double-blind study, I actually have only a 50% chance of receiving the real vaccine, but a 100% chance of receiving the money and feeling vaguely cheap and a little woozy only an hour or so after the procedure.

I arrive at the office park medical facility and fill out the requisite paperwork. No, I’ve never had cancer, diabetes, polio, HIV, hepatitis, cardio-pulmonary obstruction or a desire to do this before. Yes, I’m willing to pretend to read 12 pages of fine-print risks and sign at several different spots that I won’t sue if anything goes wrong. I finish the form and wait to be summoned from the lobby. A pink card left in the chair next to mine suggests “next time you have low back pain or spasms, please call.” They’re also interested in testing those who are “constantly running to the bathroom,” have decreased sexual desire, and abdominal bloating. But I have to complete this study first before I can aspire to those conditions and another $40.

When my Jennifer calls me back (seems there are several that work in this office), she reviews my paperwork and asks basically the same questions over again. I guess they’re trying to trip up anybody who claimed to have jaundice in the waiting room but has suddenly pinked-up when personally confronted. She takes my temperature, then explains how I need to keep track of any side effects I might encounter. For the first five days, I’ll need to watch the site of the vaccine and measure the size of any redness or swelling with the ruler they’ve printed across the bottom of the log. “If it’s over three inches, just check the box that says ‘3+’”, she says. I’m starting to worry a little. “The swelling might be over three inches high?” I ask. Fortunately, that’s a stupid question. The swollen area, if there is one, would be measured in width, not height.

Jennifer leaves again for a few minutes and promises that when she returns I’ll be taken to the lab for my blood to be drawn and to have the vaccine administered. Shortly after she leaves, I hear a god-awful pounding noise coming through the wall – blow after blow after blow. Are they also testing here for how people respond to physical beatings? I don’t hear any cries, so I figure they’re either cleaning a throw rug or trying a vaccine that keeps subjects from feeling the pain of an aggravated assault.

I’m finally escorted to the actual lab where an older lady in scrubs is prepping for my blood work. Apparently Jennifer, hot young babe that she is, handles only the interviews and doesn’t have to do any of the dirty work. The older lady – I don’t care what her name is, but I’ll call her Mona – asks which arm I’d like to have the blood drawn from and which will get the vaccine injection. I offer up the right arm for the blood draw. She takes a look at my extended arm and calls out to Jennifer, “Oh, look how good his vein is.” Jennifer comes over to check me out. She agrees it’s a really fine vein, and I figure that may be the last come-on I’ll ever get from a young lady 30 years my junior. “Yeah, I work out,” I say.

Off to my left, there inexplicably sits a small green brain. It’s probably not a real brain, because it’s just lying out in the open air and doesn’t smell bad. (I assume disembodied brains left unpreserved would smell, but I’m not a medical professional like these people, so maybe they know better). It’s about the size that would fit into an alligator, I’d say, but then realize it wouldn’t have to be the same color as the animal it came from. Maybe a dog brain. Finally I make the connection that it’s sitting next to a couple of rubber balls, and realize it’s meant to be that thing you squeeze on to make your veins pop out. I’m disappointed I won’t be able to squeeze the green brain. I so wanted my adventure in medical experimentation to be interactive.

Mona sticks my right arm to draw the blood. I wince a little and she apologizes. “Oops, did that hurt?” Yes. We repeat the same ritual on the upper left arm, where the vaccine is placed. I get a blue wrap-around tape holding down a cotton swab where the blood was drawn and a simple bandage at the site of the vaccine. Apparently, that’s it and I’m free to go.

“Don’t forget to call me,” says Jennifer as I rise to leave. Turns out she’s not into veiny guys, she just has to report to the drug company on my progress.

I take my symptom log, my $40 check and my bruised limbs and self-esteem, and head out into the parking lot and my uncertain medical future. It’s back to the office to study up on the coming annual health insurance sign-up.

Revisited: Proud to be South Carolinian

September 12, 2009

Rep. Joe Wilson, the churlish member of Congress who yelled at President Obama during his speech this week, is (not surprisingly) another proud son of South Carolina. Representing parts of the genteel Low Country, Wilson went off his rocker when emotions got the better of him and he felt compelled to shout “You lie!” at the nation’s chief executive. He’s since apologized, or maybe not. But he reminds us all again what a bunch of interesting people my current state of residence has produced.

Today’s “Revisited” post recalls a few other prominent Sandlappers who also made it embarrasingly onto the national scene.

In my website review of a few weeks back, I teased the good people and state of North Dakota, primarily for being a bleak barren winterscape but also because they considered the presence of a swimming pool to be a state attraction. It was all in good fun and hardly meant to offend, though readers from the Flickertail State contacted me to say … well … actually, I don’t have any readers in North Dakota. So screw you after all.

It did get me to thinking though about how people who live in glass houses should be foreclosed on for shear stupidity, and that they also shouldn’t throw stones. As a resident of South Carolina, whose unofficial motto is “thank God for Mississippi or we’d be last at everything,” I can honestly acknowledge that we have some serious image problems as well. I think it’s only fair that I examine these, primarily using the website that promotes tourism in the state,

Before we venture there, however, let me make an observation about U.S. states in general. Two things that North Dakota and South Carolina do have in common is an adjectival modifier in their names, and I believe it testifies to their lesser status. Think about other states that are easy to make fun of: there’s New Jersey, rather than just Jersey; West Virginia, rather than just Virginia (though Virginia is pretty laughable too); Rhode Island, rather than just Island. All of these, unlike powerful brands such as California, Texas and Hawaii, are commonly the butt of jokes. If I toss in Arid Zona, Mini Sota and Mass o’chusetts, I’m obviously stretching to make a point, so I think I’ll return to my original subject.

The part of the website I’m going to focus on is a subsection in the “Facts and Figures – Help with Homework” that includes a list of famous South Carolinians.

There was a time about 20 years ago when there was a noticeable trend of bozos in the news who called the Palmetto State home, and I remember being vaguely embarrassed every time I met someone out of state and had to say where I was from (“originally Florida”). In the late eighties, we saw disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker, game-show manqué Vanna White, corrupt congressman John Jenrette, political assassin Lee Atwater and toothless tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry almost constantly in the news. White and Perry both made the website list, the former as the 300-pound defensive lineman who helped the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl, and the latter starring as Venus in the TV movie “Goddess of Love”.  (Or do I have that backwards? I always get former and latter confused.) Bakker, Jenrette and Atwater were conveniently overlooked.

Also on the website list are a number of other well-known Sandlappers from throughout history of at-best questionable integrity.

There’s the legendary U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, now remembered primarily for fathering a child with a black teenager while race-baiting his way to a third-place finish in the 1948 presidential race. The state web page fails to mention either of those milestones, of course, choosing instead to focus on his more intriguing stints as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking member of the Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Business Rights and Competition.

There’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is acknowledged to have conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series as a member of the Chicago Black Sox. Despite having been the Jose Canseco/Roger Clemens/Barry Bonds/Jason Giambi/Alex Rodriguez/Andy Pettite of his time, he’s more fondly remembered as the holder of the third-highest career batting average in baseball history and having once played a minor league game in his socks. Big deal; I used to play tennis in my bare feet.

There’s James Brown, cited as the “Godfather of Soul” and “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business” though understandably not as “High-Speed Police Evader While Carrying an Unlicensed Pistol” or “Wielder of Steak Knife Against an Electric Company Repairman.” There’s Leeza Gibbons, a South Carolina native best known for her role as host for “Entertainment Tonight” and her own talk show, “Leeza!” (My editor tells me that the exclamation point should be outside the quotes, since the excitement is mine, not the show’s.) And there’s Darius Rucker, lead singer and guitarist for the hottest band of March 13, 1994, Hootie and the Blowfish.

Not yet on the list are two names I look forward to seeing in the not-too-distant future.

First is current governor Republican Mark Sanford. A right-wing purist, Sanford was in the news just yesterday for finally entertaining the possibility that he might accept federal stimulus money that is due his desperately poor state despite the fact that he opposes the package in principle. He said he’d comb through the fine print of the recently passed bill trying to find anything that would benefit the people of South Carolina, despite claiming “it’s a horrible idea” and has “real bad” ramifications for the country and economy. He’s also been in a feud with the state’s employment security commission because they’ve been unable to match 200,000 jobless people with 40,000 vacancies, conveniently overlooking the fact that by gutting education funding, he’s made it virtually impossible for janitor Clem from the closed textile factory to get a job in genome sequencing research.

Sanford was briefly considered a potential vice-presidential candidate last summer until he opened his mouth-like orifice on national television. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him how the economic policies of John McCain would differ from what the Bush administration had proposed. Sanford replied: “Yea, I mean for instance take, you know, ummm, ahhh, take for instance the issue of, ahhh (knocks on table) I’m drawing a blank. I hate it when I do that, particularly on TV.” If he thought that was embarrassing, imagine the egg on his face when he’s unable to enunciate launch codes during a Russian missile attack should he ever become president.

Second is Lauren Caitlin Upton, former Miss Teen South Carolina. Lauren Caitlin is the blonde knockout who became a YouTube sensation when she mangled her question about why so many Americans couldn’t find the U.S. on a world map. As you probably recall, she responded that “U.S. Americans” had such trouble because they didn’t have maps and “I believe that our … education like such as … South Africa and … the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or… should help South Africa … so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.” If you realize that she was a student leader with a 3.5 GPA at her South Carolina high school, you can’t help but recognize the imprint of Gov. Sanford on her education.

Maybe the two of them could team up to make a run at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. If they ended up debating Sarah Palin, we could witness the end of the English language as we know it. And that would make all of us South Carolinians so proud.

Website Review:

September 11, 2009

If you’ve ever arrived early for a Sunday afternoon matinee at the local cinema, you’ve probably wondered: what’s the deal with all the well-dressed white people hauling stuff out of the building? Even more curious, they’re often led by someone carrying a tall crucifix, followed by a flag bearer, then a retinue of folks schlepping folding chairs, tables and a podium or two. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church had merged with Staples for a joint venture in looting.

What you’re probably witnessing instead is the exiting congregation of a growing number of churches who’ve set up temporary lodging in rented movie theaters. As established churches split into sects over doctrinal disagreements — the recognition of gay clergy, or the rift between supporters of meatloaf versus mac-and-cheese for covered-dish night — they’re scrambling for space to hold their Sunday services. Building a sanctuary from scratch, even with currently depressed real estate prices, can be prohibitively expensive. Land might be cheap but steeples have gone through the roof.

Though not currently a church-goer, I have a long history of Christian worship so I do understand something of what goes on in there. (Once I’d nailed down the concept of  God=good/Satan=bad, continued attendance seemed superfluous.) However, I have a bit of trouble reconciling the sacred rituals I remember as a child with the comfort of heavily padded stadium seating. For example:

How do they stage a processional down those steep steps and through the dark? Can anybody eat popcorn, or is it saved for use as a communion wafer substitute for the gluten-intolerant? Do you still attend if says the Holy Trinity concept isn’t credible, and the sermon scene runs at least 15 minutes too long? Do they use those giant Coke cups as baptismal fonts?

Hoping for some answers to these fundamental questions, I recently visited the Internet site for one of these congregations, and offer my observations in this week’s Website Review.

The Element Church of Charlotte, located temporally at The Shoppes At Ayrsley Grand Cinema and spiritually at, is more of a new-wave church than a bitter bunch of separatists who hated the font of the new hymnals at their old congregation. This is a group of hip young singles and families whose mission is to help people “become fully engaged in their pursuit of Jesus,” with a strategy of “connecting people to Jesus,” while “committed to simplicity.” They are “focused on your heart, not on your clothes [so] wear what doesn’t itch” while “we play music you will want to download as soon as you get home.” The church’s motto is “where you belong” though, on the afternoon I drove by, it could just as easily have been “stay after church and see ‘All About Steve’.”

It’s in their “new to element?” pulldown where we find out more about their casual philosophy, as demonstrated by their avoidance of the extra effort it takes to capitalize proper nouns and the first words of sentences. Headlined “first things first … relax,” newcomers are told “you won’t be asked to stand up or make any type of contribution,” immediately addressing fears that congregants will do any hard work in their pursuit of spiritual truth. Instead, “here is what you’ll find: a hot cup of coffee, a live band, [and] speakers that will encourage you from the bible in ways you will understand.”

The “our leaders” section, which inexplicably has a large graphic of chess pawns at the top of the page, gives brief bios of what we used to call clergy but now hold titles like “directional leader/vision team,” “life groups leader” and “administrator.” A shaggy-haired Canadian says he’s “stoked” to be at element. The spiritual development leader lists among his “fav offline stuff” the opportunity to “take kelly’s $ at the texas hold’em table.” The children’s director enjoys walking (much like Jesus himself eschewed motorized transportation) while the California-born youth leader has a “fav kid memory of going to an MC Hammer concert,” so you know he’s cool.

Not exactly clear-eyed youth leader is totally 'vogue-ing'

Not exactly clear-eyed youth leader is totally 'vogue-ing'

There’s a part about life groups, which are mostly gender-specific aggregations who “hang out” so they can discover more about their inner chick and/or dude. There’s also a place where those with more ambition than simply sipping mochachinos and chillin’ can volunteer to actually do something in support of the church’s mission. They’re always in need of help at the “wee dock” nursery, to “assist with care of adorable babies” (the ugly ones are presumably kept occupied chewing on nitrate film stock in the projectionist’s booth). And you obviously can’t operate a modern-day ministry without a barista, an audio tech, a lighting tech and a video tech.

The self-proclaimed Jesus freaks at element church do have some totally awesome core values too, if anybody’s interested. “Jesus knew something about living,” they say, in some of their few concessions to using the shift key. “we are taking Him at His word and choosing to make life about what we can give away. as we give away what really doesn’t matter, we are receiving the stuff that really does.” There’s a handy three-part checklist to connecting with Jesus: first, start building relationships with others in a life group; second, start serving others (see barista opening); and third, consider partnering with us. “Partnering,” in case you don’t recognize the euphemism, involves a saintly little entity known as PayPal, which is at least twice as important as Jesus if capital letters are any indication.

To test your commitment, the church “helps people navigate their significant service decisions with a spiritual GPS (gifts, passions and struggles),” what they call a passion survey. This is a five-question online submission that, once you get past the multiple-choice first question about the kind of people you’d like to work with (prisoners, teen mothers, hospitalized, homeless, or all of the above), becomes a free-form essay opportunity. “At the end of life, I will look back and wish that … (maximum 500 words)” is one such fill-in-the-blank. “My friends say I’m passionate about … (maximum 500 words)” and “if I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d honor God by … (maximum 500 words)” are two others. There are no magic answers that immediately fill the void in your wretched life. “Because of the nature of this assessment, the answers themselves are the results,” reads a caveat at the end. “There will be no ‘results’ sheet.” All that hard work for nothing at the end? Jesus, this really is Christianity.

Finally, I’ll mention a few other handy features of the website. They actually do have a movie review section under the “elements of culture” pulldown, offering reviews “from a Christian perspective,” with the latest feature being “Star Trek,” which the appropriately named Grace really, really loved. They also have their own version of Facebook, which is not Facebook at all but does contain some pretty gnarly faces (see below, especially Eagerly Oral Guy in first row, Angry Toothy Guy in second row and Methed-Up Mohawk Guy in third row).

With Christians like these, who needs heathens?

With Christians like these, who needs heathens?

And ending on a serious note, there are the “elements of element,” not to be confused with the core values, beliefs, standards, morals, ethics, ideals, principles or tenets. Element is non-denominational yet effectively partnering with neighbor churches, they are focused on the local community yet invest across the country, they are team-led and, perhaps most importantly, they are located at 9110 Kings Parade Boulevard, just across from Fintastic Fish, with worship services starting each Sunday at 10:30 a.m., and don’t be late unless you want your eternal soul damned to see “Bruno” again.