Archive for October, 2009

Revisited: A bad time to start eating good

October 31, 2009

Food has always played a central role in my life. I know that’s something that everyone can claim, except maybe those lucky few who survive by photosynthesis. I use it not only for sustenance and pleasure but also as a major contributor to my overall sense of well-being and security. If I have an ample store of baked goods, take-out entrees and my favorite soft drink, I feel I’m ready to survive any calamity short of a thermonuclear holocaust. My wife accuses me of collecting cookies and cakes like a squirrel collects acorns, but where else am I going to find a chocolate-chunk blondie post-apocalypse?

We’ll all be thinking a lot about food in the coming days, with Thanksgiving just around the corner. Because of its carbo-centric theme, this has always been my favorite holiday, but it’s hardly the only day where I’m thinking about the menu days in advance. As I write this posting, it’s Saturday afternoon and I can tell you virtually every meal I’ll be eating between now and the holiday.

(This is what makes blogs so interesting).

During the workweek, I’ll have a blueberry breakfast bar, hazelnut-flavored coffee and pulp-free orange juice for breakfast, and a sliced deli turkey sandwich on Milton’s bread with two reduced-fat Oreo cookies for dessert. I’m very particular about these selections, and will not tolerate orange juice with medium pulp, some pulp, a little pulp, or one small suspicious glob you’d hope is only pulp. Pulp is for paper mills, not breakfast juices. I might allow some variation in this otherwise rigid schedule for a special celebration – the day after Obama was elected, for example, I treated myself to reduced-fat Chips Ahoy! (because of the exclamation point) – but I take great comfort in the predictability of this regime.

Dinner is my opportunity to allow a little variation in my food consumption. Tonight, for example, I’m considering the hamburger I bought but never ate at lunch today, some leftover Japanese food from my wife’s lunch, or I may just pick out some items from the prepared-food bar here at the grocery store coffee shop where I’m writing. I’ve already checked out the grilled hot dogs sitting under the warming lights and, though they look tasty, there’s a sign that says the buns are available behind the bakery counter, and I’m a bit reluctant to ask the worker there “do you have buns?” (especially since there’s a new hire sitting behind me who’s going through the company’s sexual harassment training DVD).

I may be able to attribute some of my quirky attitudes toward food to my upbringing. My mother created most of her meals out of her Pennsylvania Dutch background until she moved to a Miami neighborhood dominated by Italian transplants from New York. This allowed her to add things like lasagna and meatballs to hog maw and shoo-fly pie, though usually not in the same meal. Breakfast was typically skillet-fried potatoes and something called “scrapple” – more appetizingly known as “liver mush” in the South — and the lunch I carried off to school usually included a can of Vienna sausages (whatever rarely harvested parts of the pig that weren’t in the scrapple were probably in the sausages). It was all very tasty and very dense on a molecular level, and was probably a significant contributor to the fact that I weighed nearly 250 pounds by the time I graduated from high school.

When I went off to college, my eating habits didn’t get any better. “Healthy” eating was a concept still in the distant future in the 1970s; all foods that didn’t contain metal filings were considered healthy in those days. Despite the fact that my favorites at the time included the Burger Chef “Big Chef” and French fries covered in tartar sauce, and I remember celebrating my new-found independence early in my freshman year by eating a two-pound bag of Hershey kisses, I managed to lose weight throughout my college years. I briefly fell under the mistaken impression that there were other things in life besides eating, some of which suppressed your appetite when taken in illegal quantities. I rarely missed a meal – to this day when I hear someone say they forgot to eat lunch, it’s as astounding to me as if they forgot to properly regulate their body temperatures – yet I somehow found a way to metabolize the calories efficiently.

When I met my future wife after college, concepts like fat and cholesterol had become more widely known, as well as the idea that green plants could be used for something other than landscaping. Unlike many kids, I actually enjoyed most vegetables during my formative years. The cartoon character Popeye got me started on spinach and from there it was a slippery slope onto harder flora like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I never went for the likes of okra and squash because of their funny names, though that never kept me away from a McRib. My diet did gradually improve throughout my marriage, largely thanks to my wife’s vegetarian tendencies and a maturing of my tastes that allowed me to appreciate fine wines as well as fine Pepsi.

Now I have a son who eats like the typical teenager, and I find myself once again coming under negative influences. The appreciation I had cultivated of foodstuffs like tofu and tempeh is now being undermined by Rob’s affection for all things nuggety. I still enjoy good-for-you quality – right next to those hot dogs I have my eyes on is a loaf called “field roast grain meat”, the first two ingredients of which are filtered water and wheat gluten – yet I find myself increasingly drawn to fast foods. Maybe I can find a proper balance in the oxymoronically named taco salad.

One of my wife’s favorite sayings is “life is too short to drink cheap wine”. In these uncertain economic and geopolitical times, I’m tempted to agree, and extend the aphorism to include “…eat healthy foods”. I worked hard a year or two ago to lose about 25 pounds, suffering through sensible portions that bordered on the subatomic just to make my clothes fit better. Now I’m inclined to think that’s a pretty high price to pay for a single notch on my belt buckle, and find myself migrating back to comfort foods, so-called because you can trade your trim-fitting clothing for a comforter.

When I drove through KFC for my son on the way home from school the other day, and I got to smell the barbecue boneless chicken wings he ordered, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

That may yet be my fate if I don’t straighten up and eat right.

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Website Review: Exploritas.com

October 30, 2009

If you’ve ever heard of a group called “Elderhostel,” it likely struck you as something you wanted no part of. If you heard the name with no previous knowledge, you’re probably thinking of senior citizens who are very unfriendly, antagonistic, “hostile.” Like your mother-in-law, except not named Ruth. If you knew a little more background, you’re likely aware that this is a collection of aged adventurers who travel around the world in large packs, their giant tour buses descending on quaint European guest houses and turning them into ointment-scented gin-rummy dens.

That branding was apparently a problem for leadership of the organization, who recently changed their name to the contrived “Exploritas.” As President James Moses explains it, that’s a combination of the words “explore” and “veritas,” the Latin word meaning “truth.” If they’re really that concerned with branding, perhaps Mr. Moses should consider some rebranding himself, to make me stop thinking of a 120-year-old prophet leading the Jews out of Egypt, with an optional side-excursion to the beachfront hotels of Sinai.

You can even click on an audio link at his blog to hear him pronounce the new word, lest you think it rhymes with “margaritas.” (So it’s come to this — Moses has a blog).

Elderhostel was founded in 1975 and originally offered programs to those 60 and older who were interested in combining travel with learning opportunities. It’s grown from a small start-up in the Northeast to a worldwide organization, offering hundreds of excursions to its members. Not too long ago, it dropped its minimum age requirement to 55, then started allowing younger spouses to come along, then adult children, then well-behaved grandchildren. That slippery slope now results in the controversial name change, which Moses finds he has to vigorously and constantly defend.

Seems that the old-timers in Elderhostel became concerned they were about to be taken over by pierced whippersnappers and skateboard-riding jackanapes. As Moses himself revealed, “the erroneous idea that we will be seeking new participants as young as 21 has become a lightning rod, and led to the false fear we will be overrun with the overly energetic. We won’t be actively seeking any participants younger than Baby Boomers, but neither will we be turning them away.” Basically, he assures members that “most people in that age range choose to do other things with their available time” — such as avoiding anyone over 35 — so there’s no need to worry today’s youth will want anything to do with us.

Well, whether they’re called Exploritas or GrouchTrek or GeezerQuest or CootTroupe, the former Elderhostel has a comprehensive and interesting website, which I’ve chosen for this week’s Website Review.

The home page is a very busy affair, with colors and sounds and moving things that could frighten less-daring seniors, and confuse even the most adventuresome. At the top you see the world “ELDERHOSTEL” gradually transforming into “EXPLORITAS,” which if you happen to catch it in mid-morph will make you think you ended up at “ELDEXHOSTPLORITELTAS,” provoking you to look in the mirror to make sure the left side of your face hasn’t started to droop. Under that is a banner of destination categories such as Europe, Asia, Antarctica, etc., and under that is another banner featuring programs like Adventures Afloat and Road Scholar. Down the right side are a number of links for special offers and new features, and down the left side is a slightly edited site map of missions, histories and disclaimers. By the time I found what I wanted, I was ready to put my feet up, grab a lemonade (Sweet ‘N Low, please), and start telling you about that time in 1962 when I rode a bike.

When I finally get to the travel opportunities, I must admit I’m pretty impressed. You can take a trans-Caucasus odyssey through Azerbaijan and Armenia, float down Vietnam’s Mekong River on a barge, or even venture to obscure nations like Brunei, Uzbekistan and Africa. You can spend New Year’s Eve in Iceland (a so-called “celebration of fire and ice” likely to provoke memories of your hemorrhoid surgery), visit the Grand Canyon (though admittedly it’s “Oregon’s Grand Canyon”), or choose the mysterious option titled “Northern California: Byzantium Revisited.”

And what you’ll do once you get to these places includes so much more than simply not drinking the water. In Costa Rica, there’s the hike-kayak-snorkel package that allows you to do three different things that might get you killed. (Question: Can they just entubate me, strap me to the bow of the kayak, and then I’ll walk back to the hotel when I’m done?) There are pastimes like winter sports, birding and something called “homestays,” which I guess is the same thing as signing off of the website and going back to your knitting. Or you can pursue those learning opportunities they talk so much about, including history, local culture and how to work a computer.

Concerns about activity level are addressed in an honest fashion. Exploritas realizes that some participants will have limited functionality, so you can measure your own personal situation on a seven-level chart, to make sure that if you sign up for that Antarctic para-sailing outing, you really do know how to freeze. Level one requires only being able to get yourself out of bed and climbing a few stairsteps. At level two, you have to be able to stand for an hour, get off a bus and walk a few blocks. Levels three and four require you to walk on an uneven surface, presumably stuff like cobblestone streets and Afghanistan. At level five, you claim to be able to walk five miles; at level six, you can do up to six hours of strenuous activity; and at level seven, you must have a “high level of physical fitness, expect full days of strenuous physical challenges” and probably survive a total lack of oxygen.

There’s a new social networking option called “Exploritas Connection” which allows members to share their stories and photos, join groups and make friends on something called “line.” After creating yourself a profile, you’re ready to discuss all kinds of topics, most of them centering around how much you hate the new name. “Rather than make an effort to explain what an ‘Exploritas’ is, I’ll continue to tell others about Elderhostel,” writes Janice. “Click on this link to hear James Moses pronounce the name,” writes Andy.

A participant named Janice says she’d “like to trade in your catalog with the geographically-challenged maps,” which hints at an accuracy question that could prove troublesome in international travel. One of the package tours, titled “Quebec,” is sub-titled “Boston to Montreal: A Cultural and Historic Journey.” A trip to Virginia mentions “wildflowers, Thomas Jefferson, and 100 Years of Comedy in Film.” There are two women-only programs with confusing names — one is a “Wellness Retreat: Renew, Relax and Reconnect” while the next entry down is a “Women’s Retreat: Restore, Refresh and Renew.” Which is it going to be? You can’t have it both ways.

Finally, I’ll mention a pull-down that offers Last-Minute Adventures, featuring programs that are fast approaching their enrollment deadlines. There are some great values in expeditions to China, Polynesia and Honduras, though you have to be packed and ready to go within days of your sign-up. In addition to saving a few dollars, this seems like a great option for elders who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and can’t be sure they won’t slip from Level 5 to Level 0 in the coming weeks.

Though I think this website is a little overly ambitious for an audience not as tech-savvy as a younger population might be, it had lots of great information and excellent opportunities for seniors to break out of their everyday routines and explore the world around them. Just be sure you notify the day nurse before you leave the property.

Fake News: Something overshoots something else

October 29, 2009

I don’t want to, but federal regulations require me to write a satire of the recent news story about a Delta Airlines jet over-shooting its planned Minneapolis landing by 150 miles. The Humorists, Satirists, Comedians and Wiseguys Media Responsibility Act of 2008 states that I and every other humor writer must make up a story about the two pilots who were either falling asleep, playing laptop solitaire or engaged in a shouting match at 30,000 feet over the Midwest when, oops, wasn’t that our exit?

Because my heart’s not really in it, I threw together three different variations in hopes that one will fulfill my obligations and keep me out of Supermax. Take your pick.

Cruise ship overshoots port

MIAMI — A luxury cruise ship captain accidentally overshot the Port of Miami this weekend, travelling six miles up a canal and another 35 miles into the Everglades before realizing his error.

Capt. Arnold Shores was returning Royal Caribbean’s Hippopotamus of the Seas from a week-long tour of the West Indies when he was apparently distracted by a passing clump of seaweed, or it might’ve been a mermaid or mer-man. It wasn’t until he plowed a mammoth gash through the sawgrass west of the Miami International Airport that he realized he missed the dock.

“A lot of the passengers on deck thought it was a little unusual that we’d see automobile traffic on the high seas right next to us, but we just figured it was going to be one of the excursions,” said passenger Steve Nichols. “Our dining room table-mates then saw a couple of alligators and wanted to know if we could eat them.”

The giant ship appeared to be permanently lodged in the shallow waters, though most of the passengers insisted they were staying aboard at least through tonight’s Tropical Trivia Challenge in the pool bar. The captain, who several witnesses said appeared intoxicated, hopped aboard a passing airboat, commenting “let Flipper finish this stupid cruise.”

‘Balloon Dad’ overshoots media

DENVER — The unlikely story of “Balloon Boy” Falcon Heene continued to unravel yesterday, and it now appears the six-year-old parachuted out of the metallic flying saucer shortly after take-off. The helium-filled airship then overshot its planned landing at the high school down the street, veering off course for 70 miles before coming to rest in a cornfield.

“After his chute deployed, he apparently landed on the roof of his garage, magically transformed the chute into a pile of leaves, then scrambled into the attic where he hid from his parents,” said Sheriff James Alderden. “At least that’s what they’re telling me today, and I have no reason to doubt their story.”

Father Richard Heene had attempted to launch the family’s career in a new TV reality series with the publicity stunt, but underestimated the national clamor it would cause. What was planned to be a feel-good feature on local stations in the Denver area instead became a sensation that may result in charges against the Colorado space cadet.

“Admittedly, I may have aimed a little high in trying to get media coverage,” Heene said. “But when you’re competing against that ‘drunkest-man-in-the-world’ guy trying to buy beer at the Circle K and every piano-playing cat east of the Rockies, you have to think big.”

Obama administration overshoots recovery

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s economic recovery plan now looks like it has significantly overshot its goal, with the latest gross domestic product figures showing that every single American is now fabulously wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

The stimulus package that passed Congress earlier this year and other efforts to repair the burst mortgage bubble turned out to be so successful that millions of citizens have had their natural teeth extracted and replaced with diamonds. McDonald’s is updating its famous Egg McMuffin with the “Egg McMahon,” a robotic sidekick featuring Canadian bacon, a slice of American cheese, and a mechanical head that will chuckle at your every joke. Toilet paper has largely been replaced with a thin gold foil.

“Yes, we wanted economic conditions to improve and Americans to get back to full employment but frankly, this is ridiculous,” said top economic advisor Lawrence Summers. “I mean, somebody has to be poor and struggling desperately to get by, or else how will the rest of us be able to appreciate our wealth?”

Expensive homes financed by subprime mortgages that only last month were termed “underwater” because their value had fallen so drastically are now actually floating about ten feet in the air, kept aloft by powerful wind machines homeowners are spending their bonuses on. What had been a bleak unemployment picture has evaporated, with many workers now holding as many as five or six jobs. Even family pets are reporting six-figure salaries that include stock options, travel on corporate aircraft and country club memberships.

“Here, have a hundred-dollar bill,” Summers told reporters at a White House press conference. “Take several if you want.”

My trip to the fiber arts festival

October 28, 2009

Pretty. Lovely. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Pretty. Cute. Pretty.

These are some of the words that were used to describe the goods on display at the sixteenth annual Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair (SAFF) in Asheville, N.C. They were used mostly by me, repeatedly, as I ran out of ways to characterize the knitwear and other yarn creations about two hours into the day trip my wife and I took this past weekend.

SAFF staged the three-day event for knitting enthusiasts interested in seeing animal-sourced fibers transformed from simple coverings for goats, llamas and alpacas into elaborate shawls, wraps and socks for humans. It doesn’t seem fair for those of us who already have so many options in clothing to be denuding innocent farm animals. Organizers at least provided capes for the shorn sheep but it seemed like a poor substitute for natural wool, as you can tell by the perturbed look on the face of the ewe below.

sheepcoat “It’s not a cape if it doesn’t allow you to fly,” grumbled one sheep.

My wife has recently taken up the fiber arts as a hobby and, I must say (really, I must), she’s produced some excellent samples of woven accessories, two of which I wear on my feet as I write this. The least I can do in return is to be a supportive husband and accompany her to this huge gathering of thread-heads at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center on a gorgeous (lovely, beautiful) fall Saturday.

The fiber fair shared the fairgrounds with the Antique Farm Equipment and Engines Show. When we walked into the immense hall, I halfway hoped I’d see some cross-pollination between the two events — maybe a nice vicuna tractor cozy, or perhaps a diesel-powered loom — but the separate groups each stayed in their own separate worlds.

As we walked the circuit on the upper level of the main exhibition hall, I was astonished by the number of vendors who had travelled here from all over the South. Most sold items I hardly even knew existed, and my ignorance quickly showed through. “Look at the size of those number one needles,” my wife exclaimed at one point. “Wow, those are really big,” I responded, though in fact they were really small.

Amidst the tools of the trade, I’d spot an occasional item I was familiar with, and latched onto it with a carefully crafted enthusiasm. One merchant had dozens of scented soaps, many of which were made with extracts from some of the animals in attendance. Another one offered a goat-flavored fudge. One booth had a bank of caged rabbits, which I recognized primarily because they had carrots sitting next to them, not because they looked anything like rabbits under their heavy coat of angora fur.

“Can I pet him?” I asked, pointing at one of the open cages, and the owner said I could. “Kitty, kitty, kitty,” I cooed.

rabbit

You can tell by the carrot there's a rabbit under there somewhere

After completing the upper loop, we headed downstairs to the floor of the arena, where many of the higher-end exhibitors had set up shop. I saw a nice mohair coat for $700 that I bet I would’ve enjoyed wearing, were it not for the steep price and my uncertainty about what kind of animal a “mo” was. Another lady sold cleverly inscribed t-shirts, including the popular “Yarn It All” model and the classic “I Knit … Do Ewe?” There was a dyeing demonstration off in one corner that disappointingly did not include any death. And everywhere you turned there was skeins and skeins of yarn which, despite a tremendous variety of unnerving, completely unnatural colors, still made me hungry for spaghetti.

The ground level was also home for the workshops and classes held in conjunction with the fair. Actual course names from the catalog included “The Perennial Indigo Vat,” “Nuno Felting: Unleashed,” “The Oops Workshop,” “All This Equipment” and “Fecal Testing.” (I’m hoping that last one had something to do with the healthcare of the fiber-encased animals, not a how-to on knitted toilet paper). For some reason, all the classes were held in a central holding area, behind bars. I don’t think they were trying to keep participants from escaping; I think these were probably used as stock pens when the state fair came to town.

class

Crafters behind bars at the "Fabulous Felted Hats!" workshop

After a lunch of lamb casserole, goat-head soup and llama beans (just kidding), we headed outside to see the live animal displays. I was becoming weary of all the polite women and soft fabrics inside, and yearned for a little action, maybe some sheep-fighting. A tired boy trudging along behind his parents probably had much the same idea as I did — when told by his mom that they were going to the “competition” in barn #3, he asked “are they going to race?” Unfortunately, it was a judged 4-H-style competition, with teenagers showing that you can become good at animal grooming even though it’s not taught in a videogame format.

sheepshow

Sheeps compete in the "Best Peak-a-boo Midriff" competition. I know who gets my vote.

At the end of the day, I was tired and ready to leave the world of knitting and pearling in the rear-view mirror as we drove back home. I’m reluctant to admit how good a time I actually had day-tripping like this with my wife. I built up a lot of spousal capital by being such a good sport as to accompany Beth to something as drenched in lanolin and estrogen as this event was. And yet I can’t deny that the chance to get away like that, to an exquisite mountain setting at the peak of leaf season with my lovely wife, turned out to be a “SAFF-tastic” time.

I’m looking forward to the next event on the professional fiber arts tour. Hope to see you at the Carolina Alpaca Celebration on Feb. 13, 2010 in Concord, N.C. Be sure to bring your party hats, preferably crocheted from organic wool.

Fake News: Stalin says “I’m just an entertainer”

October 27, 2009

MOSCOW (Oct. 26) — Documents uncovered this month in a museum near here reveal that Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator widely viewed as architect of the Cold War and a butcher of millions of his own people, had considered himself “just an entertainer.”

“People take me way too seriously,” the tyrant responsible for the Iron Curtain and purges that destroyed Russian society for decades told an interviewer from Access Stalingrad shortly before his death in 1953. “Especially my opponents, or at least those who are still alive.”

Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with unfettered cruelty from 1924 until he died some 30 years later. Though his nation helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II, he is more remembered among historians for the ruthless elimination of all political adversaries, and purges that killed as many as 20 million of his own citizens and exiled untold millions more to Siberian work camps.

“What I wish people would remember me for instead is my love of the ‘old soft shoe,'” Stalin said of the dance form closely related to tap, but performed in soft-soled shoes with no metallic heels. “I’ll take an old Gershwin standard over the pogroms and the forced collectivization of farms any day.”

Stalin defended much of his record of terror and at the same time downplayed its significance. Even as far back as the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, the hated autocrat said his role in the rise of Communism was frequently misinterpreted. He pointed specifically to his backing of the Red Army of Vladimir Lenin against the White Army.

“I’ve shown over and over again that I have a deep-seated hatred of the White Army, and of White culture,” Stalin said. “I’m not saying I don’t like the White Army. I’m saying they have a problem.”

He dismissed widespread impressions that he was a racist by saying “of course I prefer Caucasians. I am, after all, from the region of the Caucasus mountains.”

Stalin also told the interviewer that other famous despots of the mid-twentieth century were equally misunderstood, and that all of them “just wanted to put a smile on the face and a spring in the step” of their peoples, even though that effort sometimes also included a knife between the shoulder blades.

“Adolf Hitler — I knew him as Glenn — he was a magnificent ventriloquist,” the late General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee said. “Even without the moustache, you could barely see his lips move. And Benito Mussolini (his friends called him Sean), he could amuse thousands of his fellow Italian Fascists with a magic act that was, quite simply, marvelous.”

Stalin said that even Imperial Japan’s wartime leader, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, was a simple performer who liked nothing better than staging his hypnosis act, during which he could make a volunteer from the audience cluck like a chicken while the rest of the crowd left to wage kamikaze warfare against the Allies’ Pacific Fleet in defense of the emperor.

“In private, he was just a regular guy, a real goofball,” Stalin said. “Mao called him a maniac, though he was technically more of a megalomaniac.”

Random thoughts for a Monday

October 26, 2009

The fire ants in my backyard are no more.

My full-out assault last weekend to rid the area of the killer insects appears to have succeeded. My generals had recommended a sharp increase in resources to battle the growing insurgency, so I poured large quantities of ant killer around and into the mounds. I refuse to help them rebuild their power-grid infrastructure or plan for democratic elections, because they’re ants.

The carnage I reviewed yesterday was fairly complete. The red dirt hills remained in place, but when you kicked at them there’d be no scurry of activity. I couldn’t be sure whether the fatal blow was dealt by my pesticide or by a recent spell of intensely cold weather, and I took comfort in this doubt. It allowed me the option of deniability should the guilt later overwhelm me. I was just one member of the firing squad; I’m not even sure it was my bullets that killed the victim.

In any case, it’s never a happy occasion to preside over the deaths of millions. They were definitely evil-doers and had to be dispatched, but there’s no joy in destroying over two dozen civilizations.

Maybe a little joy.

Should there be any survivors deep in the ground, or should future generations — sure to reappear next spring — want to honor their fallen forefathers, I left a small memorial at the site of one of the biggest mounds. Though they traditionally survive on seeds and the occasional cricket, I thought they’d appreciate something a little more substantial to remember those who had fought so bravely. The picture below shows the new Whopper Junior (No Mayo) and Small Order of Fries War Memorial that I hope will feed the proud history of the fire ants of 2083 Franklin Street, and any of their survivors.

Memorial combo

Memorial combo

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Our local neighborhood Blockbuster is trying desperately to survive by diversifying its product offerings. There’s an area where customers are supposed to wait for the next available clerk, sort of a throwback to those bygone days when Blockbuster had more shoppers in the store than people who worked there. In this waiting pen there are magazines, candy, drinks, ice cream and other assorted items they hope you’ll decide to buy on a whim. For the Halloween season, there’s also a rack of costume accessories, including a pullover ski mask featuring a design from some recent horror movie I’ve managed to miss.

Offering a ski mask for sale within steps of the cash register is either very negligent planning, or perhaps the work of a marketing genius. “Stop by Blockbuster this Halloween season,” could read the advertising tagline, “for convenient one-stop armed robbery.”

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Along with the usual warnings about not mixing with alcohol and keeping the medicine in a cool, dark place, there’s this sticker on the side of my bottle of Ambien: “Report Disturbing Thoughts or Behavior.” Report to whom? Would an oral report be sufficient, or do I have to compile a written presentation complete with footnoted citations? Or will recent posts of this blog provide sufficient documentation?

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I had not known this, but I learned yesterday that October is Spinal Awareness Month. I am now aware of the need for awareness. I’m glad to say I was already familiar with my spine.

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My wife encountered another example of an unfortunately named website over the weekend. The magazine Real Simple (typically logging in at about 400 pages a month, which is an awfully complex amount of simplicity) was offering holiday gift-giving ideas, and mentioned a site that sold Elvis Presley mementoes. The URL was shopelvis.com. I just hope it doesn’t get confused with the adult-themed website where people show photographs of their pelvis.

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I know you can’t necessarily take Wikipedia as gospel, but I want very much to believe the following phrase in the entry about Julius Caesar: “In 85 BC, Caesar’s father died suddenly while putting on his shoes one morning, without any apparent cause, and at sixteen, Caesar was the head of the family.”

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One of the less-than-sharp temps working in my office admitted confusion the other day about the terms “sudoku” and “tsunami.” I’m grateful that she doesn’t work at the U.S. Geologic Survey. I also wouldn’t want to sit within 500 nautical miles of her if she starts doing number puzzles.

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Also overheard at work over the weekend —

Person A: “My friend in Washington said the subway was packed this morning with runners in the Marine Corps Marathon.”

Person B: “Are runners allowed to take the subway?”

Person A: “Not during the race. Only to get there.”

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Is there anything — anything — more annoying that dropping a bar of soap while lathering yourself in the shower? I’d have to say it ranks right up there with the failure of government regulators to foresee the subprime-mortgage-fueled economic meltdown of last fall, and with the geopolitical fallout after World War II, which set up artificial national boundaries in many parts of Asia and Africa that still provoke internal social tensions to this day.

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Fun Fact from this weekend’s Fiber Arts Festival in Fletcher, N.C.: Did you know that you don’t have to butcher a llama in order to harvest its undercoat for purposes of knitting? It can safely be removed from the animal with other less-invasive techniques. Hopefully, some day this technology can be transferred to cattle and swine herds so we can simply carve off a flank for dinner and leave the larger animal otherwise unharmed.

No butchering necessary? I'm glad to hear that. No butchering necessary? I’m glad to hear that.

Revisited: Attending WordPress WordCamp

October 25, 2009

Originally published in November 2008.

Attendees at yesterday’s Charlotte WordCamp — you could tell it was a new media thing by how they took the space out of “WordCamp” — generally fell into two categories. There were the experienced bloggers looking to refine their skills and improve their social networking by actually meeting real people, and there were those like me, real (but old) people who had heard of blobs and inner-nets and wanted to get into this online action while we still lived and breathed. It was the twitterers and the twits. The avatars and the ava-tards.

The event was sponsored by The Charlotte Observer, respectfully called the “mature” media by symposium leaders who probably refer to it as the Observersaurus in private. I learned about it while reading an article in the paper a few months ago that promised an opportunity for new bloggers like me to learn the ropes. Publicizing the affair in the local section of the paper, right next to the article about Billy Graham “celebrating” his ninetieth birthday, apparently garnered little notice, and registration was wide open when I went online to sign up. When word finally made it out to the blogosphere a few weeks later, the location planned for 50 participants now had to hold in excess of a hundred.

I arrived early Saturday to make sure I could get an outlet for my laptop’s power cord. Going through the lobby and up to the third floor of the Observer building, it was painfully evident that such a long-respected bricks-and-mortar newspaper operation was on the wane. The faded paint, the tattered flooring, the creaking elevator that failed later in the morning, trapping its inhabitant into the identity of “Elevator Guy” for the rest of the day, all served to reinforce the transition now taking place in the media world. We signed in at the registration desk, wrote our names onto nametags in marker ink that soaked through two levels of clothing as it made you high, and headed into the conference room to begin the session.

It was pretty evident right from the beginning about the dichotomy we’d be struggling with all day. Mostly middle-aged representatives of the Observer stood around the edge of the room, studying the participants like we were lowland gorillas. Their sponsorship was obviously aimed at figuring out how to get in on this young demographic and turn them into eyeballs they could charge 37½ cents a piece each day. Sharing their background if not their status among the employed were about a third of the participants. As we learned during brief self-introductions, these folks had opted for a “midlife career change,” “early retirement” or “freelance writing” that all looked suspiciously like being laid off. The other two-thirds, including the people at the front who’d be doing the presenting, may or may not have had jobs and didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. They had Twitter, and that’s all they had time for anyway.

After the introductions, the first item on the agenda was a meet-and-greet for non-beginners and a general Q&A session for the rest of us. The meet-and-greet would take place in an adjacent room, so the non-beginners were told to adjourn for about 30 minutes while the newbies remained behind to ask their stupid questions. I probably had enough experience to go either way but the prospect of climbing through all those wires and aisles convinced me to stay behind, though it did occur to me that perhaps we were being separated like the concentration camp victims told to stay behind for the showers.

I don’t know what went on the other room (I suspect there was a fair amount of snickering and cootie vaccines) but my group took the opportunity to ask variations on the same question for the better part of the session. What was a tag and what was a category? How are they different? How are they the same? What’s a tag again? What do you mean by category? A tag cloud, what the hell is that? Should I have brought a laptop?

After a break, we were again allowed to commingle with the veteran bloggers. There was a technical and design panel that gave ideas on how to make your blog stand out from the 700 billion blogs out there. We were told how to steal a theme, copy a graphic and plug in a plug-in. Most of these tips were delivered in reverse top-ten formats, a la David Letterman, which I’m guessing was supposed to make the aged among us feel like we had taken a long afternoon nap and stayed up past 11 for the first time since college. The nap came in handy, as the discussion turned to FTP, future-proofing, subdomains, RSS and microblogging, and I turned to my version of the Internet to avoid boredom. I had AOL open for about five minutes before I realized this was probably the most embarrassing site choice anyone in the room could possibly make.

After a lunch break for pizza (exactly what I thought bloggers ate), we began the afternoon session with the topic of content development. Not surprisingly, a recurring suggestion from all five presenters was that a blog should actually have some amount of content, which may not have occurred to about half the room who were waiting for the part about downloading reliable cash streams. Content was described as “king,” “queen” and, ultimately, the “ten of spades.” We were told we’d need dynamic content to attract readers but probably wouldn’t have any readers to appreciate it in the beginning, unless you worked for the Observer or developed wide social networks in places like FaceBook, MySpace and the bulletin board at Goodwill.

Some of the ideas for good content seemed to be exactly what I was already doing. One slide read “picture = 1000 words,” which I initially took to mean that the picture of the perfect web posting was something that ran to a thousand words in length. Unfortunately, what this actually referred to was the assertion that you could put photos and other graphics on your blog. My thousand-long-word essays now seem to be serious overkill compared to many of the blogs we were shown, where perhaps as few as fifty words were needed as long as several of them were “tweet,” “Obama” or “my naked girlfriend.” Apparently you can also put video on your blog, and I plan to do that as soon as I can find the port on my laptop that accepts VHS tapes.

Of course, no seminar like this is complete without the inspirational speaker offering his formula for success. Right before the keynote address, we were told that promoting your site was as simple as (now write this down) “create” plus “serve” times “community” equals “wealth.” This was about the most useless formula I had heard at one of these things since a corporate development trainer had advised me that ambition divided by talent minus honesty to the third power is greater than or equal to the cosine of success. Nobody wrote anything down, primarily because pens and papers are such primitive technology that only the older folks even brought them, and most of us were back in the lunchroom by now trying to snag a few more Chips Ahoy. Among those who remained, I did hear some tap-tap-tapping followed by a long pause as they looked for the “equal” key.

At the end, we collected our decidedly low-tech T-shirts (not at all virtual or digital, like I was hoping), said our goodbyes to the new contacts we had made, and hoped that someone somewhere in the room would be visiting our blogs.

Revisited: Being neighborly in the subdivision

October 24, 2009

They say that good fences make good neighbors. Since the restrictive covenants in our particular subdivision forbid the installation of “fences, barriers or similarly containing obstructions,” we have lousy neighbors.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh. I’m actually quite fond of the neighborhood we’ve lived in now for almost 15 years. It’s a collection of perhaps 60 or 70 upper-middle-class homes built in the pre-McMansion era, when floor plans were sensible and pre-existing plant life was respected by not being slashed and burned. In fact the name of our subdivision – I think it’s “Shady Creek,” but it could be “Shadow River” or “Dappled Brook” – reflects both the old hardwoods that canopy the main road and the shallow creek that, if you don’t look too closely, runs cleanly alongside the main road.

We live on that road, on the corner of one of about a dozen cul-de-sacs. We have a nice mixture of young families and retired couples, many of them academics from the college about two miles away. We’ve seen little of the housing market distress that haunts Subprime Village at the Township at Cityplace across the way, and even enough of a progressive streak that we sported a few Obama yard signs during the recent election season. I nod to the people I pass on my occasional walks and raise two fingers off the steering wheel  (three if I’m feeling friendly) as I drive past them, and am on good if anonymous terms with everybody. Most of them know me as the Stocky Guy that Runs and would probably describe me as the quiet type should I ever be charged with some gruesome crime.

I don’t really know my immediately adjacent neighbors at all. Some community-minded type down the street recently collected names, professions and other basic data for a small directory she published, but several families on our block declined to participate in the census. So they are known to me as follows.

The retired couple on our right (they’re either retired or simply don’t work very hard) have lived in their house for about two years now. I thought about approaching them and introducing myself when they first moved in, but after a few near-miss encounters it grew increasingly awkward to do so. Now I mostly see the husband as he walks his harnessed cat in the yard behind our shed. Why our property is better suited for the feline constitution than his is a mystery to me, but what’s even more curious is that he does this activity in full view of my wife and me. At least he has enough shame not to wave when he sees us. I’ve seen his wife only rarely when, for some reason, a different antique auto appears in front of their home every weekend and she engages in a long discussion with the driver. Maybe they’re running a stolen vintage car ring and the cat on a tether is meant to be a cover for their criminal enterprise.

The family on our left, across the cul-de-sac, consists of a young couple with two school-age daughters. They all seem nice enough from a distance, if balloons occasionally displayed on their mailbox is any indication. I have no problem with them, but I do have a concern with one of their visiting mothers. She recently pulled up to the side of their house to witness both me and her son hard at work in our respective yards. It seemed pretty obvious that both of us were herding leaves toward the curb, where the city’s vacuum truck would pick them up in a few days. Rather than park her car in front of his home, however, she chose instead to put it on my side of the street. I was stunned at first by this blatant show of preference for her own flesh and blood, especially since she did it right in front of me. After she went inside, I continued shepherding my leaves to the curb and put them exactly where I had originally intended, leaving a small space for her late-model sedan in the center of my pile. At least the vehicle was still largely visible from the door handles up.

Behind our house is an African-American family that I also know very little about. They’ve lived there about five years now but it’s been hard to watch their comings and goings because of how our respective homes are positioned. They probably know us a lot better than we do them, since the sliding glass double doors leading into our family room let them look out of one of their bedroom windows and directly into our lives. We had a good bit more privacy until they cleared a stand of shrubbery just inside their property line about six months ago; I’m not going to ascribe any voyeuristic motives to this questionable bit of landscaping, though I cut a pretty dashing figure as I clomp around the kitchen in my pajamas. The only other thing I know about them is that, for some unknown reason, they have their grass cut by the retired Southern gentleman on their other side. I’m guessing it’s some sort of Civil War reparations arrangement.

Finally, across the street there lives a cluster of several hundred people. It’s not an overcrowded group home but instead a development of townhouses just beyond the creek. Though not technically a part of the subdivision, the only way they can come and go is via our main road so I’ll consider them neighbors enough to grumble about. My primary beef is that they and their landscapers use the grassy area visible through our front window as a place to heap their trash, in direct violation of some municipal code or other we discovered when we called the city to complain. A guy came out and posted a “no dumping” sign, which they promptly ignored except for knocking it over. When we put it back up, someone stole the sign leaving only a post, which is nice as posts go but mentions very little about the ordinance. I bet the mostly retired community that lives in this development would sympathize with our concern and might even mention it to the landscapers, if any of them spoke English.

All in all, it’s really a pretty good place to live. We may not be neighborly when it comes to borrowing cups of sugar and checking each other’s pets while on vacation, we do have a Neighborhood Watch program. I know this because there’s a sign (not yet vandalized) and because the neighborhood coordinator stopped at my door one day to ask if she could have our stepping stones. I suppose they are desirable as stepping stones go – cement, circular, about 2-feet wide, truly exquisite – but I wasn’t quite ready to simply give them away to the crazy lady who yells at passing cars to “slow down!” Perhaps, for the betterment of the community I should have.

Website Review: EdwinParrott.com

October 23, 2009

For this week’s Website Review, I’ll be cynically mocking a fine, upstanding citizen, a man who is an honorable public servant and a valuable contributor to his community. In the process, I’ll also be ridiculing his wholesome young family, as well as many of his all-American values. I do this because I’m envious and I’m petty, and those are two of my better qualities.

Edwin Parrott III is a city councilman in Charlotte, N.C., and host of the website edwinparrott.com. (I’m guessing he decided against “edwinparrottiii.com,” fearing it would look too much like a new generation of markup language, successor to “ascii”). I’ve always wondered what small-time locals have to say for themselves when they go to the trouble of setting up a whole website devoted to their presence on Earth. Usually these are realtors, insurance salesmen and politicians looking for a way to brand themselves in the digital world and, in the process, severely embarrass their children. This new-media method of self-promotion is only slightly more respectable than standing by the side of a major highway in a cow costume, and just begs to be ridiculed.

Like the good councilman, I am here to serve.

Edwin Parrott is a handsome blonde Republican family man first elected to the city council in 2007, in a race where he finished fourth in a race for four available seats. He may be “at-large,” but has decided to forsake the fugitive lifestyle long enough to set up a web page devoted to his reelection in 2009. The home page proudly announces that he’s already halfway there, having rounded up “over 21%” of the vote in a September primary, and is now preparing to do battle with an unnamed Democratic opponent in November.

“Greetings!” begins the exclamation-mark-riddled welcome. “I want to continue the job I’ve started! Thanks for visiting my site!”

In his biography, we learn that Edwin likes to be called “Edwin,” is a 39-year-old Charlotte native and works as vice president for the Pomfret Financial Company, what sounds like an investor in exotic french fry derivatives. He attended the private Country Day School, where he was co-founder of the Teenage Republican Club, then went on to the University of Georgia to get his bachelor of arts in political science, a certificate in global studies, a spot on the baseball practice squad and his future wife. As an active member of the Charlotte community, he also serves as an assistant T-ball coach and as a lunch buddy at Eastover Elementary School (2008 to present).

His blonde wife Amy is the mother of his two blonde children, Edwin Bruton IV and Avery Gail. Amy is a certified personal trainer with her own certified personal website (virtualathlete.com) where, not surprisingly, she lists her age as “39!” She is also certified in something called “CHIRUNNING,” which sounded at first like a new offering from Taco Bell but instead turns out to be a style of running that emphasizes a mid-foot strike and “opening up your flow of chi.” I still remember Grete Waitz’ brave performance in the 1986 New York City marathon when her flow of chi opened up around the 16-mile mark, and yet she still finished third despite the soiled shorts.

There’s a Frequently Asked Questions section that talks a lot about his stint on the council so far. He says it’s harder than it looks on TV but at least he got a chance to meet USAir hero pilot “Sully” Sullenberger. The part he likes most is how policy is made by interactions with others (so that’s how they do it!) and the part he likes least is the long meetings. He’s running again because “my job is not done,” a common bit of political reasoning that shows he’s got his eyes set on an eventual White House bid. His main issues are spending, planning and crime, he’s a “big fan!” of the current mayor, believes Charlotte may show future growth in the film industry, and gets an occasional “hall pass” from his wife to play golf and tennis.

Edwin does take this forum to discuss the only controversial question on the list, whether the videos that show up on his home page were paid for with taxpayers’ dollars. “Yes,” he says, but apologizes for “neglecting to disclaim this to the citizens.” To show his “special thanks to a concerned citizen” who was rude enough to bring this up, the council commissioned the city attorney to produce a six-page letter, breaking down the $12,000 expense in such embarrassing detail that we learn city staffer and part-time teleprompter operator David only made $27.40 for his hour-long brush with Charlotte’s nascent entertainment industry.

In the Viewpoint pulldown, Edwin shows as much disdain for the hyphen as he shows enthusiasm for the exclamation point in his discussion of issues like crime, diversity and the environment. He wants aggressive law enforcement in “high crime areas” (the mountains? skyscrapers?) and increased intervention to stop our youth from the “dead end path” of joining a gang, which he supports “whole heartedly” (the intervention, not the gang-joining). He characterizes his commitment to diversity as being “friendly,” even including a photo of him embracing it in the form of a fellow white person who, diversely enough, is not Edwin.

There’s even a section on the site called “For the Kids!” that documents the Parrott family’s commitment to a cleaner world. Wife Amy had noticed how much trash and debris there were along certain highways, so she made up a game for her children called the “Litter Hunt.” As they walk through their neighborhood, the kids enjoy an activity much like the annual Easter egg hunt, but with hypodermic needles and discarded condoms playing the role of colored eggs and sugar-coated Peeps. “People who litter should go to litter jail,” exclaimed young Bruton during one of these jaunts, and councilman Dad agrees, saying “too bad there’s not a jail large enough to put away all these offenders.”

Finally, I checked out the two semi-professionally produced video links, located right next to his Twitter account (he’s “EBPIII” for those interested, and he’s currently “pressin’ flesh at BBQ — boy am I enthusiastic!”). In the video, we see Edwin coming to grips with being the new guy on city council: “I thought I could end crime by myself, but I can’t.” We learn about how he preaches responsibility, both to his children and to the city at-large: “Practice picking up after yourself.” We see his wife reiterating that pro-environmental stance when she speaks of their children: “They’ve learned that trash isn’t good” and “they bathe only every other day.”

Lastly, we hear Edwin’s personal philosophy that has successfully guided him to this pinnacle of municipal government in a burgeoning mid-sized American city of the New South.

“Never make a poor man conscious of his poverty, an obscure man conscious of his obscurity, or any man aware of his inferiority or deformity.” Sounds like a great plan for improving the economy, empowering the faceless, and avoiding contact with the great mass of people who will never be as good as you.

Fake News: Haven’t I heard this before?

October 22, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 21) — A bomb blast ripped through a crowded street market in Pakistan’s capital today, injuring more than 50 bystanders and damaging storefronts in a three-block area of central Islamabad.

“You don’t mean today, you mean yesterday, right?” said U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. “You’re talking about the attack out by the airport. No? There was another explosion today? Damn.”

Patterson said the American government had already regretted the casualties from yesterday’s airport bombing, and already hoped that Pakistan’s anti-insurgency forces would continue to fight the terrorist threat from al-Qaida and its allies. She imagined she’d have roughly the same thing to say about this most recent attack, assuming it really was different from the one she had already heard about, which she was pretty sure was near the airport, not downtown.

Meanwhile, over in the State Department, reports were emerging of a renewed series of missile tests in North Korea, signaling that nation’s continued unwillingness to halt its development of nuclear weapons. Three medium-range missiles capable of carrying a small warhead were fired into the Sea of Japan, according to televised reports in Tokyo.

“Are you sure you’re not thinking of those tests about a week ago?” asked under-secretary of state for East Asia Ron Allen. “They said they were going to stop after that, and we have every reason to believe they are complying with the wishes of the international community. What channel did you see that on again? NTV — that’s channel 435 on the satellite, I think. I’ll be right back after I check the TiVo.”

Allen said that while he was at it, he would also check on a news flash coming out of Jakarta that there had been an earthquake in Indonesia. The temblor, measuring a preliminary 6.7 on the Richter scale, rocked the island of Java shortly before dawn local time. It’s definitely different from the earthquake reported in the same area last week, and also completely different from the one on Oct. 12 that briefly triggered tsunami warnings in the western Pacific.

“You’re sure you’re not thinking of that one that was centered right off the coast?” Allen said. “Because I heard about that one and we’ve already dispatched several cargo planes full of relief supplies. Maybe I should get another batch of blankets and drinking water together. You think?”

In other international news, the prime minister of Italy or France or one of those countries denied reports late yesterday that he had attended a wild sex party at his villa outside Rome or maybe it was Paris. The brewing controversy, documented with photos in the local tabloids, could undermine efforts of the Obama Administration to reach a troop reduction agreement with the European Union, since this guy was scheduled to become the next president of the EU.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not at all what it looked like,” said Defense Department liaison Daniel Maple. “He already settled that issue with his wife and the electorate seems willing to forgive. Wait, this was yesterday?”

Finally, a report from Hollywood confirmed by both TMZ and Us magazine indicated that Octomom Nadya Suleman definitely has the hots for Jon Gosselin, the father of sextuplets who recently quit his marriage and his TLC show “John and Kate Plus Eight.”

“Finally, some real news,” said one observer familiar with the scene. “At last, someone is telling me something I don’t already know.”