Archive for October, 2009

Death to the fire ants!

October 21, 2009

Now I am become Shiva — destroyer of worlds.

I did what I thought would be the last bit of lawn maintenance for the season this past weekend — a little mowing, a little raking, then free Sundays for the next six months. Instead, I came to find that my back yard was infested with fire ants, and that they have plans that differ significantly from mine.

The fire ant, an invasive pest found primarily in the South, came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. It is one of a variety of stinging ants found worldwide. The queen and her colony form reddish mounds of dirt that can reach heights up to 15 inches. The venom of the sting causes a burning pain, pustules and can even lead to anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. They have a pedicel with two nodes and an unarmed propodium, both of which sound really handy. They often attack small animals, and can kill then.

Fortunately, I’m a large animal, so for me they represented more of a nuisance than anything. As I pushed my mower up and down the yard, I had to be on guard for the domed hills that each housed hundreds of thousands of the insects, any one of which could scramble onto my shoe and threaten my life. I could run over the smaller mounds with the mower, though I doubted it would inflict much damage beyond a lacerated thorax or two. The bigger piles would clog the cutting mechanism and had to be avoided.

When I finished the mowing, I was left with a yard dotted with uncut clumps of grass and dirt. I looked closely at one, to learn a little more about the ants and their culture, so I’d be better equipped to return later and obliterate their carefully planned society.

Ants have long been admired for their strength, their work ethic and their intelligence. Americans could learn a lot from their industrious nature (specifically, how to overrun a country, then sting and consume the locals). The pie-sized circle of dirt I examined was quiet at first glance, at least till I jabbed it with a stick, and then it came to life. Teeming thousands of the tiny beasts instantly began looking for the intruder. When they saw it was a human, I noticed a look on their comically small faces that combined both fear and loathing. They were scared of what I might do, but also resented the fact that I resided in a comfortable brick home while they lived in dirt.

I knew I had to remove them from the property, and individually transporting each one to some distant ant farm just didn’t seem practical. I would have to rain death down upon them. But what form should the execution take?

A few years ago, I had a similar problem, and had limited success putting my teenage son and his best friend on the case. They had just helped me finish clearing leaves with the new high-powered blower I had purchased, and came up with what in hindsight was a poorly conceived plan: aiming a jet of compressed air directly at the anthill. True, it excavated a deep, ant-less hole where the colony had previously been. However, in the process, it flung countless drones and workers all over them, which none of the parties involved appreciated. I had heard that toothpaste could be a good makeshift antidote, but the boys were too agitated to consider how they would brush each individual ant mandible, not to mention the difficulties of flossing.

So if mowing them doesn’t work, and blowing them doesn’t work, I figured my next best option was poison. I found an insecticide formulated specifically for fire ants, and set out to wreak my vengeance. The instructions called for sprinkling four tablespoons of the product in a circle around each mound, but that just didn’t make sense, especially the part about the four tablespoons (I’m killing ants, not baking a cake). So I took a styrofoam coffee cup, filled it with the yellow flakes and poured it directly on the ants. I then added some water, either to soothe their pain or soak the poison deeper into the nest, I’m not sure which.

You could tell they weren’t happy about this turn of events, but too bad for them. At least it’s more humane than what they would face from their only natural predator, the phoridae. This is a small, hump-backed fly that doesn’t so much prey on fire ants as it does mock them in a merciless and fatal fashion. These flies lay eggs in the thorax of the ant, then the larvae migrate to the head and eat it from the inside out. After about two weeks, they dissolve the membrane that attaches the head to the ant’s body, causing the head to fall off. (Ouch!) The young fly then lives in the head for another two weeks before emerging. In the NFL, that would be called taunting, and would merit a personal foul penalty.

By the time I made my way all around the yard, I began to feel a twinge of remorse. I’ve never been one to callously destroy inconvenient forms of life. I’m not into karma or anything like that; it’s just that I’d rather trap a stray spider between a piece of mail and a cup and move him outside than risk a nasty stain in the carpet. So when I came to the last colony, instead of poison I decided to give them the core of the apple I had just finished. I’m not sure that fruit is part of their diet, though fiber is good for almost everybody. I did read that they like plants, seeds and sometimes crickets, and an apple seemed better than the only other thing I had, a cough drop.

The poison is supposed to work within 48 hours of application, so I’ll be checking back later this week to see how many millions of God’s beloved creatures I have successfully terminated. I also want to see what happens to the apple.

Eat death, ants. Or have an apple instead

Eat death, ants. Or have an apple instead

Fake News: No more eulogies?

October 20, 2009

The last truly decent person who always had a kind word for everyone and would light up any room they entered, died yesterday.

Ernest Hebert was described by friends and family as someone you could always count on in a time of need. He never let hard times get him down, and children always flocked to hear him tell stories about his youth. He’d give you his last dime if you were short of money, and was always available to do whatever favor you needed him to.

“He was truly a very special man,” said long-time friend Ken Cash. “There won’t be another one like him for a long time.”

In fact, experts believe there may never be another one like him. It is likely that Hebert could be the last honest, hard-working, conscientious, caring human being on the planet. Virtually every individual who has died in the previous decade was described by surviving friends and family in glowing, positive eulogies following their passing. If mathematical models for good versus evil are correct, Hebert represented the last upstanding person alive. Everybody left is either a jerk-off or a lame-o.

“We’ve been aware of this trend for quite some time,” said Marie Andrews, chief demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. “Whether it’s a celebrity or sweet old Mr. Johnson from the post office, people just can’t say an unkind word about the dead.”

Andrews pointed to two recent examples to illustrate her hypothesis. Pop star Michael Jackson, hounded for years as a washed-up singer, plastic surgery addict and probable sex offender, was instead found to be a loving father, loyal friend and brilliant artist during investigations begun immediately after his death last June. Also, Harriet Taylor, Andrews’ 78-year-old neighbor who constantly complained about kids making too much noise and the oak tree that wasn’t planted on her property but still dropped leaves and acorns on her side, turned out in death to be a kindly soul who left $10,000 to the local library.

“It’s pretty certain we’ve now reached the point that all the good people are gone,” said Andrews, who admitted that she herself was a shrewish harpy, a dangerous driver, a bad tipper and a full-on bitch. “You can expect obituaries to start taking an ugly turn as more awful, awful individuals begin passing away.”

How about a little help with MY life?

October 19, 2009

One could make the case that Republicans didn’t do such a great job of managing something as large as the federal government when they had the chance earlier this decade. Though I rarely find myself in agreement with them on most issues, I must admit they’ve recently shown some real potential.

Specifically, I’m thinking about many of the smaller-scale suggestions they’ve made recently about President Obama’s governing style. Certain members of the GOP have shown genuine insight into what might be better ways for the chief executive to be using his time.

Glenn Beck criticized Obama for his recent attendance at what he called a “Latin dance party,” otherwise known as part of a White House salute to the nation’s diverse musical styles. The president’s visit to Copenhagen in a failed attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago was roundly repudiated by Republicans as a poor use of time that could otherwise be spent on the nation’s economic woes. Even last week’s trip to New Orleans — which hosted no fewer than seven extended visits by former President George W. Bush, including a flyover where he looked out the window at them — was rebuked as too short, clocking in at a mere four hours on the ground.

He hardly even had time to get his feet wet.

I’m starting to think the conservatives’ strength lies in the minutiae of government. President Obama might have grand ideas for ways to address large and chronic problems facing America but, let’s face it, the guy is hardly a master of time management. The eye for detail that helped us find the WMDs in Iraq, capture Osama bin Laden and avoid the largest financial crisis in 80 years is a real strength for the Republicans. And since they’re so eager to pipe up with observations of every little thing the president is doing wrong (and since it’s unlikely they’ll get to use this insight in a real government any time soon), I’m hoping they might be available to help me run my own life more efficiently.

So if there are any Republicans out there who can offer me the same incessant advice they’re giving to Democrats, I’d like some help with the following pressing issues facing me on an everyday basis.

  • When I make a sandwich to take to work for my lunch each day, I’ve been adding a thin slather of mayonnaise to both slices of bread. Might it be better to add a slightly thicker layer to just one slice?
  • I’m getting a little tired of’s online Solitaire offering to get me through the slow times at work. What’s a better alternative — Rise of Atlantis or Cubis 2?
  • I’ve found myself putting on a little weight lately. Should I buy myself some new slacks that are a size larger, or simply diet myself down a few pounds? I know a shopping trip to Target would help the October consumer retail numbers, but I also realize any healthcare reform that passes is going to be so narrow that it’s unlikely to cover the gastric banding procedure I’ve been looking at.
  • When I go running on the treadmill at the gym, does it look better for me to wear ankle-high socks or those longer tube models that go halfway up my calves?
  • On my daily commute to the office, is it better to get off the interstate and deal with all the traffic lights on Westinghouse Boulevard, or drive about five miles farther and end up closer to work on South Tryon? I’d consider using MapQuest for help, but I’m afraid of the mainstream media.
  • Should I visit Starbucks or Panera on my coffee break? Panera often has abandoned copies of USA Today I can pick up for free, yet Starbucks is more likely to have free samples.
  • I love watching “PTI” on ESPN every day. I’ve got it set up to record on my DVR but I usually get home just as it’s halfway through. Should I watch the second half live, then back up to watch the first half on tape, or wait till the whole thing is over and watch it in order? Does the fact that I don’t like Guinness beer factor into this decision at all?
  • Should I personally invade Iran, or are the efforts of one person not going to make that much difference?
  • If there’s no one driving behind you and you’re making a right turn on a largely deserted street at 3 o’clock in the morning, do you really have to use your turn signal? I know it’s “the law” but it just seems like an unnecessary government intrusion. Also, do I have to stop at stop signs?
  • Is it worth the effort to offer cashiers a penny along with my paper money when a purchase ends in .01, .06, .11, etc.? I think I’m just confusing them.
  • Is it absolutely necessary that I add a comma after this phrase, or is it just as clear without?
  • I forgot to pay property taxes on my car, and had to show up at the assessor’s office to pay in person. The woman in front of me in line spent at least five extra minutes at the window telling the official that “people were getting fed up” and “I think we’re in the end times and ready for the rapture” because “I just heard on the radio there was another earthquake in Indonesia, and there are all those hurricanes in Mexico.” Is it okay for me to be steamed, or should I have added “yeah, and how about that tsunami in Guam?”
  • Paper or plastic? Credit or debit? Do I want fries with that? Can you help me decide once and for all?

Revisited: Sunday meanderings

October 18, 2009

It’s Sunday so of course I’ve just finished up a bunch of household chores, the last of which was leaf-blowing. We’re at the peak of fall here in my part of the South, which means my tree-covered lot can be cleared of fallen leaves just in time to start all over again. My right arm, with which I held the blower, is very weak and sore right now, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t type too many words from the right-hand side of the keyboard. Topics thus eliminated for consideration include hijacking, polkas, and PIN numbers (ouch!)

What I’m actually going to discuss today is a variety of short topics:

  • Is there any household chore more overwhelming than dusting? I made myself devote an hour to it this morning and I’ve barely scratched the surface (guess I should’ve used a softer cloth). Our home office with all its dust-attracting electronics was especially imposing — the shelving under our computer desk looked like a deserted alpaca refuge. After getting most of the obvious surfaces cleaned, I looked up at our wall of built-in bookshelves and realized that to do it right, I’d have to remove every book and wipe it down till the entire shelf was empty, then wipe down the shelf. Then repeat 16 times. Just as wrinkle-resistant clothing eliminated ironing and the modern blender allowed us to make smoothies without the use of a diesel engine, I wonder if technology will ever conquer household dust. Perhaps if our homes were converted into airless vacuums, there’d be no way for dust particles to travel from wherever the hell it is they originate. But then I guess breathing might be an issue.
  • I stubbed my toe badly as I came out of the shower after today’s yard work and it (eventually) hurt. The delay it takes for pain signals to travel from your foot to your brain and back is absolute torture. It’s like knowing the date three weeks in the future that you’re going to die. I kicked the tub hard and thought it was going to be a bad one, so I preemptively cried out in anticipated agony, then felt a little disappointed when the anguish didn’t materialize. This is what my life has come to.
  • Did you read the other day about the airline passenger who became so unruly during her flight that they had to subdue her by taping her to her seat? I wonder if the airline had one of those new a la carte pricing structures and charged her for the tape.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if you could live your life sequentially instead of on the normal space-time continuum? Do an entire life’s worth of a single task as soon as you’re born, then another, then another. You could take care of all the unpleasant, tedious and painful chores at one time and get them out of the way, so you’d be able to spend your final years doing nothing but the enjoyable. It might be difficult to spend eight months straight doing a lifetime worth of shoe-tying and the three weeks in the dentist’s chair would more painful than a tanker truck of nitrous could possible alleviate, but once done, they’d be out of the way forever.
  • Whenever I get a haircut, I typically ask for just a trim so it won’t be obvious. I’m trying to avoid that awkward conversation that inevitably ensues several times the next day when someone confronts you with “you got a haircut!” That’s merely an observation, not a compliment, so “thanks” isn’t the proper response and is in fact presumptuous. Maybe they’re being nice by not saying it’s the worst haircut this side of Chris Matthews. I think the most appropriate and equivalent response might be something like “you’re wearing a shirt.”
  • Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that long-haired female anchors on the 24-hour news channels invariably display half their locks cascading down in front of one shoulder while on the other side, the hair goes behind the shoulder. I assume this was test-marketed with focus groups who for whatever reason preferred this half-and-half look. I just want to know if there’s someone on set who’s responsible for making sure the hair-halves return to their proper position every time the anchor looks off to the side.
  • In these difficult economic times, there’s a no-risk way to make a little extra pocket change by visiting your favorite fast-food outlet. It’s called Teenage Cashier Roulette. Make whatever purchase you like and then give them a more-than-sufficient but wholly inappropriate amount in payment. For example, if your value meal comes to $3.88, give them a ten-dollar bill and 13 pennies. The correct amount of change would be $6.25 though, thanks to the American educational system, you could get back any amount between five and a thousand dollars. If you calculate what you’re supposed to get, you complain if it’s less and get out of there as fast as possible with your tidy profit if it’s more.
  • I was wondering out loud the other day why it seems that celebrities have such a high incidence of twins. My wife said it’s because they can afford fertility treatments and those have a greater chance of resulting in multiple births, but I think it’s because they’re at least twice as good as the average person.
  • When I get mad at fellow motorists during the morning rush hour, I tend to use under-the-breath name-calling rather than gunplay to get satisfaction. Over the years, I’ve developed a glossary of terms for different kinds of incompetent drivers that might be helpful for others to adopt. A “moron” is someone who’s driving slower than I am, an “idiot” is someone who was driving adequately until they plowed into that guardrail, and a “maniac” is someone who’s driving faster than me. A “jerk” is someone who makes a turn without a signal, won’t make a right turn on red even though the way is clear, or commits any other turning-related offense. An “imbecile” is anyone with a nicer car than me who commits even the most minor infraction (driving slightly off-center in their lane, for example). And finally, a “hat driver” is anyone older than me driving a big car at least 15 miles an hour under the speed limit while wearing brimmed headwear.

Revisited: Waiting in line

October 17, 2009

I’m writing today from our local EarthFare grocery store, which has kindly set aside – whether they know it or not — a table and a wi-fi connection for my almost daily use. For those of you not familiar with the chain, it’s in the organic/health/inedible food segment, featuring high-end gourmet offerings along side free-range sticks and locally grown chaff. How it ended up in my rather working-class neighborhood is beyond me.

Since I’m using their space and their power and their Internet waves, I’m careful to patronize them on each visit with at least the purchase of a bottled tea (today I’m sampling the “fair trade” flavor). When I approached the checkout, there were two lines open, each of which had a single customer with a significant basket-load of merchandise. I lingered back briefly because I hate being reluctantly waved ahead when the large purchaser feels obliged to let me and my single item go through. Once each of them had committed to their position by partially unloading their basket, I picked the guy on the left to get behind.

Usually, I’ll do some profiling of the people ahead of me before I commit to a line. It’s a sexist, ageist, racist, classist habit I have that you’d think would get me to the cashier faster. Obviously, I look at the quantity of items being purchased but that’s actually a very small factor in my assessment. The ideal people to get behind are young professionals who have that urgent on-the-go air about them. They’ll typically be paying with a debit card, usually swiping it crisply before the purchase is even completed, and the next thing you know they’re motoring out the door. At the other end of the spectrum is the harried working mom herding her kids while talking on her cell phone, the college student who’ll be digging through the 12 pockets in his cargo pants trying to scare up enough coin to pay, and the elderly couple fumbling through their belongings looking for the check book.

Today, I waited patiently as Guy on the Left fell slightly behind Guy on the Right in their unloading. Switching lines at this point is usually not a wise option, as inevitably that speeds up the line you left and slows down your new choice. Besides, you can’t switch more than once without looking like you’re planning an armed robbery. You need to commit to your choice and stay with it unless some serious misfortune befalls the line, like a price check, a register running out of receipt tape, or (God forbid) some once-in-a-lifetime calamity like a travelers cheque.

The line I didn’t choose is now wide open while in my line, the unloading has just finished and the customer is ready to step forward and acknowledge the cashier. I momentarily consider switching before two more carts pull in the temporarily cleared line and eliminate that option. That’s okay, though; I’m thinking my patience has paid off and I’ll be plunking my tea on the conveyor belt shortly. Suddenly, I’m horrified by a completely unexpected development: the customer in front of me knows the cashier’s mother! Soon there is chitting and chatting and reminiscing and banter, and I’m starting to wish my tea had a little more preservatives and a little less organic brown rice syrup, because it looks like I could be standing here a while.

While the grocery checkout system we have in America has its flaws, I still think it’s better than the foreign alternatives I’ve seen in some of my travels overseas. In Manila, where retail seemed to be on steroids with the humongous Mega Mall just a few train stops down from the even larger Mall of Asia, I was in a grocery store that had no fewer than 35 checkout lines, and each of them was staffed on the busy afternoon I visited. In addition to designating several lanes as eight items or less (I think they’re on the octal system there rather than the metric), they also had two lanes marked “elderly only”. I would’ve thought this was a great idea if they hadn’t defined “elderly” as 50 and over, so I decided to be offended instead.

In London, where I believe food stores are called apothecaries or chemists or something like that, I was too intimidated by biscuits that looked like cookies and cashiers that looked like earls to buy anything. In Bombay, the huge population apparently necessitates a whole different system that involves massing around the checkout and jostling for recognition like you were in some sort of commodities trading pit. Where there were lines, they didn’t seem to exist for any reason, as I had people literally step in front of me to make their purchase. In Sri Lanka, a rebel insurgency requires you to stand in line to go through security before you can stand in another line to do something else, so you’ve kind of lost interest by then and decide to order room service instead.

Then there are the lines to get out of these countries and back into the U.S. Unlike retail lines, where annoyance and a waste of time are the biggest risk, the immigration and customs lines feel like actual life-or-death scenarios. When I tried to get out of Hong Kong, I had to pass through a scanner that detected my body temperature to make sure I didn’t have SARs, bird flu or other forms of excessive hotness. After it was determined that I was cool, I was challenged again at the ticket counter to prove that I was eventually going back to the States instead of staying indefinitely at my interim destination in the Philippines. My pasty features and American passport apparently weren’t proof enough that I wasn’t Filipino; I had to go through back flips to produce documentation that I had an airline ticket back home.

Once I got to my final stop in Charlotte a few days later, my joy at being home after five weeks abroad was quickly dampened by the long, snaking line leading up to the immigration desks. About a half-dozen officers were on hand to service two jumbo jets that landed simultaneously for what must’ve been the first time in North Carolina history. Two subsections separately serviced American citizens and foreign nationals, though a third one for suspiciously dusky people who carried all their luggage on the plane with them would’ve been helpful. The perfunctory inspection that resulted in every one of the hundreds who were waiting being waved through eventually got me to my baggage and the customs officials. As soon as the official saw that I had visited something called Sri Lanka, I was ordered aside for a thorough search. The inspector was very chatty and very friendly, which I suspect was the result of some intense profiling training rather than a desire to be nice. Finally satisfied that my cheap souvenirs and even cheaper wardrobe presented no significant threat to national security, I got to meet my family and head for home.

I suppose it’s only appropriate that the profiling came back to haunt me.

Website Review:, for longer lashes

October 16, 2009

With very few exceptions, we seem to be a culture at war with our hair. In most cases, we want to obliterate it completely, as if it were some smaller, furrier version of the Taliban, but without the car bombs. In a few places, we hope simply to control the outbreak, like in our nostrils where we know the insurgents are necessary to retain some sense of local order, as long as they stay mostly hidden in caves.

I can think of only two places where we want our hair growing full and luxuriant. One is obviously the scalp; the other is more difficult for most people to recall. I’ll give you a hint: it’s a head-based hair common to both sexes, the best of them are thick and dark, and if we’re not happy with our natural ones, it’s possible to glue caterpillar-like appendages into place as fakes. No, not the moustache. It’s the eyelash.

The lash does perform a function from its sensitive place atop our eyelids. Face scientists tell us it acts much the same as whiskers in cats, providing a warning that an offensive intruder — an insect, a dust mite, Sean Hannity — is near, signaling the eye to close reflexively. However, even in our earliest history, the eyelash was also seen as decoration, a way for people from as far back as the Bronze Age to put down their bronzers for a minute and instead consider ways to make their eyes pop, without having their heads stepped on by a mastodon.

Now, the cosmetic pharmaceutical industry has been kind enough to step forward with its usual barbaric solution. Not quite as bad as needles stuck into your face or having to watch Cialis ads with your son, a new product called Latisse can give you longer, fuller, darker lashes in only 16 weeks of poking yourself in the eye with a chemical-covered wand. This week’s Website Review takes a closer look at this product.

Allergan is the creator of and the maker of Latisse, along with products such as Botox, Juvederm (a “dermal filler” to eliminate parentheses from your cheeks, while leaving other facial punctuation unedited), and the Lap-Band Adjustable Gastric Banding System. They also make Natrelle, described as the “world’s most elegant” breast implants, and allow you to order a “test drive” kit to help determine your “breast goals” from the over 140 different styles. Fortunately, my own breast goals simply involve touching someone else’s, so I’ll be saving a ton on shipping charges. (Still have to pay for handling, unfortunately.)

The home page of prominently features the product’s spokesmodel, actress Brooke Shields. I’d always thought she was known more for her eyebrows, yet perhaps that’s why she was chosen, to give women the confidence they might be able to grow lashes so long as to obscure the brow. The claims offered by Latisse are that you can make your eyelashes 25% longer, 106% fuller and 18% darker with only 16 weeks of treatment, so it’s worth considering how far along you could be after five to seven years. You may not even have to worry about how the rest of your face looks.

Throughout the website, Latisse is referred to as “the first and only FDA-approved prescription treatment for inadequate or not enough eyelashes,” an awkward phrasing perhaps but far better than the condition’s technical name of “hypotrichosis.” (Your eyelash deformation could be worse — among other conditions described in the medical literature are blepharitis, caused by small mites living in the lash; external hordeolum; or trichotillomania, a disorder that compels you to pull them out).

There are a number of pull-down menus to offer the curious shopper what they might be in for with a regimen of Latisse treatment. The How to Apply section includes a video of the five-step process, noting several times the applicator must stay on the base of the upper eyelash, because the product can cause hair growth wherever it lands, including your eyeball. There are Tips for Success that encourage a nightly routine, safe usage with the FDA-approved applicator (no Q-tips, toothbrushes or trowels) and the suggestion to chart your progress by marking a calendar and taking pictures for your own “before and after gallery.”

The What to Expect section warns that it may take up to eight weeks before most people start to see results, so patience is key. You might also want to keep an eye out for possible side effects, such as itching, redness and the color of your iris changing from blue to brown. Your new improved lashes could also grow in at different lengths, thicknesses and colors, and may grow in different directions, giving an unaesthetic bushiness to your look. If that’s the case, you may want to contact a member of the Hadza tribe of central Tanzania, where the custom is to trim your eyelashes rather than grow them long.

The Frequently Asked Questions section is always a good place to slip in a few of the less-desirable features of the product in the context of what appears to be a casual conversation. How does Latisse work? No idea. Is it a replacement for mascara? No. Can I get a prescription from any doctor? Possibly, though you might want to consult the handy on-line list of those they managed to take on golf outings. What are some of the scary-sounding but inactive ingredients? Citric acid, hydrochloric acid and lots of chemicals with sodium, which is known to be violently reactive with water. Also benzalkonium chloride. What should I do if I experience itching? Scratch your eye. Can’t you figure out any of this on your own?

Under a Before and After section, there’s extensive photographic documentation of how you’ll never be as beautiful as Brooke Shields, even if you have diamond grills instead of eyelashes. “From the silver screen to the red carpet, Brooke’s iconic eyes have always been front and center,” reads the introduction to Brooke’s gallery. You’d have to agree that front and center are good locations for eyes, though you’d probably prefer one eye to be slightly to the left and the other slightly to the right. The interactive slide show allows you to zoom in, zoom out and “mouse over” Brooke’s eyes as pictured at various stages during her four-month treatment, to see all the different angles at which her lashes are swelling to inhuman proportions. There’s also a Featured Women gallery showing results for model-types like Mekenna, Kelly and Sarah, and the Clinical Trial Gallery where they put the average-looking woman who, along with hamsters, were used during the testing phase of development.

Note how his eyes 'pop'

Note how his eyes 'pop'

Under the Testimonials pull-down, there’s a page featuring the compensated endorsement of Anastasia Soare, described as Beverly Hills’ “definitive brow expert,” as well as a collection of patient comments. “I literally had no eyelashes before and my eyes looked weird,” wrote Jeannie. “I never realized their value until they were gone. Now, I have beautiful long lashes.” Jolynn comments that “my eyelashes got so long, the tips hit the lenses in my sunglasses!” Ticklish, perhaps, but a great way to keep your glasses clean.

There’s a neat timeline on the “evolution of lash enhancers,” that goes all the way back to 4000 BC when ancient Egyptians used a mix of soot and metal to give them their distinctive look. In the European Middle Ages, cosmetics “flourished” among those whose faces weren’t hopelessly deformed by smallpox, plague or being British. In 1916, filmmaker D.W. Griffith featured the first on-screen use of false eyelashes, a technology that was successfully transferred a year later to the trench warfare of World War I. Modern lashes date their origin to the 1960s, as popularized by the model Twiggy, who had wood shavings for eyelashes.

There’s a place where you can Tell a Friend by sending an e-card to the lash-impaired acquaintance of your choosing. There are templates for the “social butterfly,” the “wedding belle” and of course the “modern woman,” who is told “you do so much, so well, so effortlessly, it’s amazing that you even have time to do things just for you. Ask your doctor if Latisse is right for you, since it’s available by prescription only,” though if you know a guy who knows a guy, you’ll save on that pesky co-pay.

Finally, there’s the obligatory nod to charity and good deeds. The Latisse Wishes campaign has teamed with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to raise money for children with life-threatening medical conditions who want to experience one final joyous experience that hopefully involves longer, fuller lashes. is a well-constructed, informative website with lots of pictures and video of Brooke Shields, and I can recommend a visit to those looking for improvements in the upper half of their heads. I come within an eyelash of giving it five styes on a scale of one to five.

Fake News: You call these benefits?

October 15, 2009

Opposition to health insurance reform seemed to be crumbling across the country this week as employees began receiving notification that it was time for their annual benefits enrollment.

“No! Anything but that!” said John Beck, head of the Atlanta-area Tea Party Movement and a systems analyst at BellSouth. “I’m not going to have to sit through one of those boring human resources presentations am I? I don’t think I can take that.”

“Oh, God. Is he going to use that same PowerPoint again?” he added. “No!”

Typically, most Americans who consider themselves satisfied with their healthcare coverage are receiving insurance benefits through their employers. The traditional process has been a painful autumn full of angst and frustration as workers learn how much will be deducted from their paychecks each week for medical and, in some cases, dental and vision coverage.

Enrollment is completed in November, then the holidays intervene, with most forgetting how much it’s costing them. By the beginning of the new year, most have returned to a vague notion that they’re getting healthcare for very little out-of-pocket expense.

At the moment, however, they’re wrestling with heavily shaded rows of spreadsheet data, clunky brochures and HR representatives whose answer to every question is “I’m not sure about that — you should really check out the website that Corporate has set up.”

“Was I supposed to be able to read those numbers?” commented Alan Jansen after he attended a presentation at the suburban Washington bank where he works. “They had like a 70% screen on the category that applied to my situation. I think they sent me something in the mail but my wife thought it was junk and she tossed it out.”

Jansen said he had been a strong opponent of the reform plan that seems most likely to pass the Senate next week, saying it represented a slippery slope toward socialized medicine. Now, he admits he’s reconsidering his position, especially since he’s forgotten both the user name and the password needed to sign up for his employer’s plan.

“It’s the same crappy routine every year,” Jansen said. “There’s always several smaller sites that are teleconferenced in to the meeting, and those people ask the dumbest questions. I can barely tolerate sitting through it.”

Harold Taylor, a part-time Republican campaign worker and a full-time document specialist at Chicago’s United Airlines headquarters, agreed. He complained about the flexible spending accounts, the health savings accounts and the so-called “wellness credit” that will reduce his premium by $1,000 if he completes a health questionnaire on-line and agrees to quarterly counseling sessions with some idiot grad student at the University of Michigan.

“I studied all the stuff they sent us before hand, and they still made me go to the meeting,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe there’s money taken out of our paycheck and yet we still have a co-pay, co-insurance and a deductible that would choke a horse. I’d take a death panel over this mess any day of the week.”

Tea Party leader Beck said he now feels like a fool for attending the anti-reform rally in Washington last month, and thinking that his employer and the big health insurance companies were giving him a better deal than the government could.

“I’ll admit, for maybe ten months out of the year, it feels like you’re well-covered,” Beck said. “Then you sit down and study the difference between ‘Plus’ and ‘Select’ and ‘Preferred’ and you think, aw, they’re just messing with us, now.”

“I hope I don’t have to try to get anything out of that ‘new dental partner’ they were talking about,” said Jansen after his company meeting. “Every year they say they’ve brought in someone new because the old plan was so bad. I could’ve told them that last year.”

“Long live Obama,” Taylor said. “I’m ready for Scandinavian-style socialism after watching that HR woman fumbling with her laptop. She didn’t even realize she accidentally backed up ten slides — she just read the same thing over again, in the same steady robotic tone. I say, bring on Big Brother!”

Traveling among the worksites

October 14, 2009

Today’s topic … well, I really don’t know.

Usually, I have an idea and a few notes when I sit down to write my daily post. Today, however, finally emerging from the mental mists of backache medication, I find myself feeling very unprepared. If only the buzz from anti-inflammatories could incite the same creative juices that liquor seems to inspire in famous writers.

Let me check my backlog of topics that seemed like a good idea at the time. “Live blogging of Ambien effects.” Talk ab0ut a snoozefest. “A critique of the pulmonary system, like you’d review a movie.” Makes me winded just thinking about it. “The over-automation of modern cars.” “People who always end their phone calls saying ‘I love you.'” “My cat’s opinion on the debate over health insurance reform.” “Some kind of fun link.”

I can at least do that last one …


…but I’ll need to do better than that.

Maybe I’ll write a little about the different venues I typically choose to work on blog posts. There are four of these, and I have a feeling it’s going to take a visit to each in order to finish this entry.

For starters, I’m sitting at University Fire Grill, a fast-food outlet located across the street from the university. They’ve only been open since the start of the school year, so workers have yet to sink into the sullen surliness featured at the larger chains. To the contrary, they’re annoyingly helpful, stopping by my table several times to ask if I need anything, maybe some extra ketchup, and have you tried our cookies? I’m trying to get by with the purchase of a soft drink in return for their free wi-fi.

“Just a small Coke for the moment,” I tell them as I set up my laptop. “I’ll be studying your combos while I work.”

“We don’t have small. Will medium be alright?”

“Yes, whatever is smallest.”

The first time I worked here, the manager didn’t even know he offered wi-fi. As I searched the available networks — wading through the dozens of slyly named routers I was picking up from a nearby dorm — I asked him what to look for. “Don’t really know how that works,” he admitted. “But we did make too many fried mushrooms this morning. Would you like some?”

I accepted the fungal offering then asked him to show me a wall outlet I could plug into. One was awkwardly located under a booth while the other was immediately beneath the self-serve soda fountain. Either I’d have to crawl on the floor of a burger joint, with all the health risk that entails, or combine a sticky keyboard with my greasy fingertips (maybe the two would offset each other). I decided to operate on battery power.

One last observation about the UFG work environment: They have some of the most thorough hand-washing signage I’ve ever seen in a public restroom. With everyone from the President to corporate managers encouraging hand hygiene during this flu season, it’s good to finally see someone telling us how to wash our hands. A bank of signs tells me that a 38-degree Centigrade water temperature, a vigorous scrubbing lasting at least 20 seconds that includes both the fingernails and the forearms, and a single-use paper towel are essential. Also, don’t handle dangerous chemicals or take out the garbage after you wash.


Moving on to the next location, it’s now about two hours later and I’m camped out in the EarthFare cafe. EarthFare tries to be a lot of things — purveyor of organic produce, friend to local farmers, profitable — but tends to fall short at all of these. Basically, it’s a grocery store, and that’s good enough for my tastes.

You see, I absolutely adore grocery stores. I would’ve gotten married in the cereal section if my wife’s relatives didn’t threaten to withhold the wedding gifts (talk about clean-up in aisle five!). I almost never go food shopping any more, as it seems to degrade and objectify the element I find so intriguing, the items offered for sale. I prefer to approach it instead like I would an art gallery, where guacamole, fusilli, cream of celery soup and cassava chips are museum-grade objets, and the meat department is a post-conceptual post-organic installation. Let us each summon our own impression of the aesthetics of each display, and remember that the coupons are tripled on Tuesdays.

It’s perhaps a little odd I would feel this way, since my first-ever job was a much-hated stint as a bagboy during high school in Miami. I only lasted eight weeks, with the last three of these spent loitering in the adjacent department store while my parents thought I still had the job. My primary memory now, 40 years later, is the urine stench of the employee’s men’s room, and the need to put cans on the bottom of the bag, boxed items in the middle and bread at the top. Oh yeah, and don’t pee in the grocery bag.

It’s starting to get a little crowded here in the cafe corner of the store, and I’m worried that security camera over my left shoulder may have picked that last phrase in the previous paragraph. So I’ll shut down for now, and resume early tomorrow morning at another favorite spot …

… the kitchen counter.

laptop 006

The challenge at this location is easy to see in the above photograph. Somehow, our home has become infested with three small furry automatons who generally operate in a sleep mode except when there’s activity in the kitchen. The cats haven’t yet learned the difference between me blogging at 2 o’clock in the morning and me stumbling around packing my lunch for work. All they know is that the Big Ugly One Who Sometimes Gives Us Food is active, so they need to be on the lookout because anything could happen.

I’ve started a bad habit of giving each of them a small shred of lunchmeat as I prepare my sandwich, and the whole thing has gotten out of control. Seems there’s this thing called a “conditioned response” and I believe they’ve used their studies in the field to purr and meow and rub against my leg to make me give them a piece of food. Apparently, intermittent reinforcement is supposed to work best, but I don’t think they made it to that chapter yet in their reading of the landmark work of L.Y. Abramson, M.E.P. Seligman and J.D. Teasdale on “Learned Helplessness in Humans” (1978 – Journal of Abnormal Psychology). (I found it hiding under their catbox.)

Otherwise, I actually enjoy working on my blog at this early hour when the rest of the house is asleep. I’ve got the pressure of a deadline driving me on (I have to leave for work by 4:30) and I can take occasional breaks on the couch watching updates of the news and learning about the details of ABC World News This Morning’s anchor Vinita Nair’s upcoming wedding. (The groom is from Texas!)

Great — now there’s a fight somewhere down the hall; they’re involved in their traditional post-prandial inter-cat squabbles brought on by the increased energy you get from a small slice of oven roasted chicken breast. I’ve got to break this up, then start getting ready for work, where I hope to finish this post in between projects before the daily 8 a.m. posting deadline…

I’m now at my desk at work or, I should say, I’m at my desk located at work. Business in the world of financial services is still a little slow, so I can usually squeeze in the last few paragraphs of a post in between the proxy statements and the offering memoranda. I just have to be careful about any cut-and-paste copy getting from a work document to the blog or, God forbid, vice versa.

The sterile environment of an office is not the best locale for creativity. All the background chatter, gossip and occasional need to do real work can be distracting. I’m usually able to prohibit or limit, by regulation or order, payments by any insured depository institution or its holding company for the benefit of directors and officers of the insured depository institution, though sometimes I can’t. And when I can’t, it really, really hurts.

Uh-oh. I see that I’ve just pasted a boilerplate phrase about banking regulations into the previous paragraph. That means that, some time in the next four to six weeks, common and preferred shareholders of First National S&L of Salleem are going to be getting notice of a special meeting at which I’ll be peeing into a bag of groceries. They can vote on the issue via the Internet, by proxy, or by attending the annual meeting in person.

I’m going to have to stop working at work.

Fake News Briefs: Nobel, Miley and flash mobs

October 13, 2009

Nobel efforts paying off

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (Oct. 12) — The final awards in the 2009 Nobel Prize competition are expected early Tuesday, wrapping up a surprising season that saw President Barack Obama given the Peace Prize late last week.

The Sweden-based selection committee, which announced the last major winner Monday in the economics category, will finish this year’s proclamations with several minor citations being added for the first time.

Prizes are expected to be awarded for transmission repair, punctuation, competitive eating, listening skills, parallel parking, credit score, TV meteorology, passing defense, sexual healing, teeth whitening and fashion. Critics have complained that these less-important categories diminish the seriousness of awards in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, but committee spokesperson Ingmar Torvaldssen disagreed.

“Have you ever tried to get reliable transmission repair at an affordable price?” Torvaldssen asked. “I need someone who will Keep My Car — √ — Road Ready.”

Following that comment, insiders believed that Mr. Transmission, a Midwest repair franchise with over 150 locations, may have the inside track for one of the $1.2 million awards. Favorites in some of the other categories include the late William Safire, Coney Island hotdog-eating champion Kobayashi, Dr. Phil, Kansas City’s own Stormy Rains, the Denver Broncos and the late Marvin Gaye.

For some reason, President Obama is also being mentioned as a possibility for a second award this year.

Miley to go fluid-free

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 11) — Following her surprise announcement over the weekend that she was quitting Twitter, teen singing sensation Miley Cyrus has reportedly confirmed that she will also stop ingesting water or liquids of any kind.

“Too much of my life was being taken up drinking water, tea and soda,” Cyrus told friends. “There are more important things to be done in this world. Things like shriveling up and eventually being hospitalized with dehydration.”

Cyrus has said she’ll continue to eat food, including fruits and vegetables typically rich in water content. These are expected to allow her to survive at least several days beyond the typical 48 hours it takes for someone to lapse into a coma. She has said she’ll use that extra time to record two more albums and star in three movies.

Cyrus, who rose to fame playing Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel series of the same name, is predicted to become as dry as a fallen autumn leaf by the coming weekend, at which point she will be raked to the curb and sucked up by a municipal vacuum truck.

Flash mob hits small town

ROCK HILL, S.C. (Oct. 12) — The first-ever flash mob to assemble in this small South Carolina town was an apparent hit with onlookers yesterday who were dumbfounded by the event held at a popular eatery here.

At precisely 5 p.m. Monday, an assembly of mostly elderly people appeared at the entrance to the Golden Corral buffet. When the country-style restaurant opened its doors, the group lined up at the cashier station, paid $7.95 each for the Columbus Day special (or an extra 85 cents if they wanted sweet tea), then paraded through the cafeteria line piling meats, potatoes, breads and vegetables onto their plates.

“We were flabbergasted about what was going on,” said assistant manager Kelly Farrell. “When a crowd like that appears out of nowhere, then everyone does exactly the same thing at the same time, it really blows your mind.”

Many of the mob participants had arrived together on a bus from the Westminster Retirement Village. All of them seemed to enjoy the event, a phenomenon popular since 2004 among social-networking young people in big cities around the country.

“I always get a double order of the squash casserole when we come on a Monday,” chuckled Harriet Thomson, an 81-year-old resident of the home. “That really seems to freak out the servers.”

Some of the mobbers seemed unaware of the cutting-edge nature of their gathering, telling observers they were “just hungry” or “felt like getting out.”

“Flash mob? I don’t know what you’re talking about, young man,” commented Tommy Bailey, 91. “I don’t think I like the tone of your question. We won’t be ‘flashing’ anything, I can assure you that. And to call a nice group of folks like this a ‘mob’ … I don’t know. Can you get me a refill on this coffee, or will that be extra?”

Restaurant manager Don Taylor didn’t arrive on the scene until shortly after the group had re-assembled as one near the exit, with each of the women taking a mint from a candy bowl and each of the men putting a toothpick into their mouths.

“I’m told they all did the same thing as if exactly on cue,” Taylor said. “We were completely amazed when that many people showed up to eat at our restaurant. They played a great joke on us. But I think they’ll find in about an hour that it’s we who will have messed with them when that food flashes right through them.”

Vacationing in Hipsterland

October 12, 2009

Combining recognition of our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary and the fact that we managed to take no vacation at all this summer, my wife and I went out to lunch together last Saturday. Celebrations tend to get progressively more modest as we age. For our thirtieth observance in 2012, we’re thinking of going to a parade.

To spice up the event, we chose a restaurant in the trendy redeveloped district just north of Charlotte called NoDa. NoDa is short for North Davidson Street, and a better choice we figured than SoFa (south of Farley Street), NoWay (north of Waverly Heights) and WeWee (west of Weeden Avenue). The residents of NoDa are mostly young professionals, artists and assorted hipsters who have gentrified this part of town with galleries, cafes and shoppes. They live mostly in lofts, where I believe they sleep hanging upside-down from the ceiling.

I obviously don’t know much about the hipster culture, except that if I were the proper age, I would aspire to be one myself. But I am fascinated by foreign peoples, so we decided to imagine this outing was actually an overseas adventure to an exotic land. The tattoos were simply a melanin adaptation of local inhabitants, and the plaid porkpie hats were a costuming choice mandated by distant forefathers and their abandoned trunks of vintage clothing.

We took the MapQuest-suggested route and quickly found ourselves at the interstate exit for Davidson Street. As soon as we hit the bottom of the ramp, we saw our first native, the driver of a retro Ford plastered with bumper stickers for alternative bands. Research we had done before the trip indicated the natives love it when you flag them down and ask them to pose for a picture. Actually, it turned out that they “love it” in quotes, which meant they actually hated it. Pinto Guy gave us a dismissive shake of the head and chugged off before we could set up our camera.

We followed the ordained route into NoDa, which circled us through an industrial area. Soon the abandoned warehouses gave way to older brick buildings with amateurishly painted storefronts and lots of newly installed no-parking signs, and we knew we had arrived.

There were two sites we particularly wanted to visit. One was a funky yarn store my wife was interested in. It seems knitting has become not only a way to create thoughtful gifts for friends and relatives, but also an ironic statement on how life weaves together different strands of being and yet all you end up with is a washcloth. The other location was the Crepe Cellar, just across the road and, not surprisingly, nowhere near a cellar.

We went first to the Yarnhouse, which had a sign that looked more like “Yamhouse.” (To me, a specialty shoppe featuring sweet tubers was only slightly less likely than one with yarn.) The front door opened onto a narrow retail space jammed with tufts of thread, knitting needles, four middle-class ladies slumming for crochet supplies, and one actual male hipster manning (I use the term loosely) the cash register. The only redeeming features I could make out were a sign on the wall claiming the business had free wi-fi, and a half-box of Dunkin Donuts, leftovers from an apparently retro grand opening ceremony held earlier that morning. Other than that, it was fiber arts as far as the eye could see.

I cowered in a corner while my wife shopped among the bins. I tried to look interested when she’d occasionally show me a particularly noteworthy aggregation of wool. I’d comment that it was “nice,” observe whatever feature that seemed to set it apart — “that label has a really unique font,” was one of my best — then return to my refuge near the crullers. A sign near the back directed customers to “notions,” but the one I had in mind (leaving the store) was nowhere to be found.

The most amusing part of the half-hour to me was when a confused local, obviously from the original neighborhood, stumbled in looking for one of those portable sewing kits used to make quick repairs on shirt buttons. With no visible piercings and an entirely too sensible haircut, he was obviously not among the shop’s target demographic. When he had the nerve to ask the cashier where he might locate such a kit, he was told “nowhere in NoDa. You might try the CVS drugstore. We don’t carry that kind of thing at all.”

Now if he wanted to knit himself a shirt from scratch, and use genuine virgin alpaca to do it, this would be the place.

We managed to get out of the shop with only a small purchase. Now, we had to cross the street to get over to the restaurant. It’s a pretty highly trafficked road but, as I learned during trips to the crowded cities of South Asia, it’s best to observe how the locals get past the cars, and mimic that behavior. (Taking hostages is most common on the mainland of the Indian sub-continent, while automatic weapons fire and elephant-riding are favored in Sri Lanka.) A couple of young women in low-slung pants and mauve hair walk out into the roadway completely oblivious to oncoming motorists. They have a right to be there, and besides, wouldn’t it be so ironically sweet to be struck dead by passing SUV?

The atmosphere in the restaurant is even more intimidating than the yarn store. It’s plain that no matter what we say, what we do, or what we buy, my wife and I are among the tragically unhip. It’s a very dark interior, mostly deserted, yet we’re still seated in a far corner where we won’t embarrass anyone except ourselves.

Our waitress brings us a menu and takes our drink order. What do people drink in this strange and foreign land? Mercury? Sap? The blood of tourists? It’s too dark to see the menu, so I lamely ask for a glass of water. My wife spots a sign on the wall advertising the grapefruit margaritas, and has one of those. I’d try a sip, but my Lipitor bottle specifically forbids grapefruit, and I don’t want to die in a “gastropub.” The waitress would thank me for giving her such a great story to tell her cool friends; still, that’s a high price to pay.

Speaking of high prices, my eyes finally adjust to the light enough that I can see the menu. Most items are followed by a single two-digit number, no decimals — always a bad sign. You obviously have to get the crepes at a place called Crepe Cellar, so we agree to order several different items and split them. Beth has the Spinach and Wild Mushroom Caramelized Shallots and Goat Cheese crepe while I ask for the Pesto Brie Hand Cut Pommes Frites, also known as French fries. These are priced at “6.5,” so I mentally scramble through my wallet looking for leftover euros. Hopefully, they take the exotic-sounding “Visa.”

On the back of the menu, there’s a little blurb describing the restaurant: “Cozy up to butcher-block tables to share a pint aside aspiring artists and hip-hop junkies. Open windows stir up the conversations of women dreaming and scheming their love lives, and candlelight basks across the faces of a first date match.” Unfortunately, no mention of a men’s room, which I’m starting to need. (Later, I find a small, very dark room behind the bar and what I hope was a urinal, not crepe-maker.)

The food arrives and it’s generally good, though the pommes are a little too frite-y. Portions are large so at the end, we want to ask for a take-out box, yet I know for a fact that’s not what Pinto Guy would do, and I’d so much want his approval if he were here. I offer up the credit card, leave a way-too-big tip trying to impress my emo-haired Giselle, and we slink out the door.

We return to our car, satisfied that we’ve had enough excitement in a two-hour trip for it to qualify as a vacation. At least for a couple of middle-aged adventurers in Hipsterland.