Archive for November, 2009

Tax incentive to buy guns? Only in S.C.

November 30, 2009

Once again, my adopted home state of South Carolina is in the news and, once again, it’s not in a good way.

Our primary claim to fame on the national stage has been oafish politicians (Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson and Gov. Mark “I Lie” Sanford), brain-damaged beauty queens (such as Miss Teen South Carolina) and weird news briefs (armed robbers brandishing a banana, Waffle House waitresses shooting patrons, etc.). Oh yeah, and we also started the Civil War.

Now, we’re once again the laughing stock for offering a Christmas season tax holiday on the purchase of firearms. For two days this past weekend, gun buyers enjoyed a 9% tax break, a so-called “Second Amendment Weekend” voted into law by a state legislature that still can’t decide if Gov. Sanford should be impeached.

Originally part of a bill that offered similar breaks on energy-efficient appliances, that measure was vetoed by the governor. The veto was over-ridden by the legislature, then the law was struck down by the Supreme Court because it violated the “one subject” provision of the state constitution, which bars multiple issues in a single bill. So they got rid of the appliance part and kept the gun part (though I guess you could make the argument that firearms do reduce energy use, especially when they render previously vital creatures lifeless).

“The great state of South Carolina is putting its own sick twist on Black Friday” with the state-sponsored sales incentive, wrote the New York Daily News last week. “Not cars. Not clothes. Certainly not books. Just guns.”

I decided to check out the event for myself Saturday with a visit to my area’s largest purveyor of weapons, Nichols Gun Store. Located in a rural area just outside of town and serving primarily hunters, Nichols provides a number of offerings besides fiery fusillades of death.

Out back is a deer processing service, which I recognized by the strung-up, skinned carcass being displayed to the delight of several young children as I pulled into the parking lot. There’s a collection of 30-foot-tall hunting stands (or as those at the Daily News might characterize them, third-floor walk-ups), where outdoorsmen can lie in wait high above the forest floor for their victims to appear. There are Bad Boy buggies, all-terrain vehicles that minimize the chance someone might get some exercise while hunting.

Inside the front door, you see what looks like a typical convenience store off to the left, featuring snacks, sundries and a huge refrigerated case of beer, just waiting to cloud the judgment of armed bands. To the right is a small cooking grill to feed hungry hunters who choose not to eat their kills fresh off the ground for lunch. A gift shop sells bumper stickers (“If you can read this, I’m aiming at you”) and cute camouflage outfits for children (“Serious gear for serious babies,” reads one package). There’s also an area for incidentals like deer bait, backpacks, turkey calls and urine, the scent of which is supposed to lure or repel something.

Dead ahead is the core of the business, a showroom featuring literally thousands of handguns, shotguns, rifles, pistols, crossbows and assault weaponry. The store is filled with shoppers, almost all male, almost all eager to take advantage of this tax holiday, and almost all looking at the blogger who has never before set foot in such a death-dealing establishment. A large counter wraps around the edge of the store, backed by eager salesmen waiting on small clusters of customers.

Looking around at the inventory, I recognize a few product names, such as a Luger, Glock and Remington, and I can vaguely tell there’s a difference between them, though my exposure is limited mostly to what I’ve seen in television and movies. There are James Bond-style guns, cowboy-movie-style guns and Sopranos-style guns. There are even a few firearms you might imagine seeing on Charlie’s Angels. These have been painted pink, in a pathetic attempt to appeal to the extremely limited female market (I guess trimming a semi-automatic in lace just isn’t practical in the field).

Looking out of place at the gun shop

As the overhead intercom booms out strange-sounding announcements like “guns, line two” and “blood cleanup, aisle five,” I’m debating how I’ll respond if I’m offered service by one of the guys behind the counters. On the drive over, I was thinking how it might be funny to say I was looking for a flamethrower to give my aunt who’s checking into a nursing home known for its rough crowd, or a grenade launcher for the nephew headed to Harvard. Maybe I’d actually buy something, certainly not the high-priced weapons themselves, but maybe a box of bullets, or even a single cartridge if they were willing to break up a matched set.

“I don’t believe in private gun ownership so I don’t actually have one myself,” I might joke. “But if I’m ever faced with a home intruder, maybe I could throw a bullet and try to hit him in the eye.”

Somehow, though, this doesn’t strike me as the right atmosphere for such a put-on. I think back to the Daily News article, and the reporter’s attempt to get a quote from Chad Holman, owner of Woody’s Pawn and Jewelry in Orangeburg.

“I don’t care to comment to anyone from New York,” he said.

When I am finally offered help, I tell the counter clerk I’m still “just browsing” and comment awkwardly about how the inventory is “nice.” I can tell that he can tell I’m not a legitimate customer, so I motion toward the back of the store and suggest to my wife that we go “check out the arrows.” We head in that direction, but make a quick left at the decapitated razorback boar and make for the exit.

It feels like every eye in the place is watching me as we walk out the door and into the pickup-packed parking lot. I just hope that none of the eyes are attached to a telescopic sight.

Happy holidays to all, and to all a good hunt.

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Revisited: I beg (urp) your pardon (achoo!)

November 29, 2009

I wrote not too long ago about my annoyance with the social convention that demands a verbal response from bystanders when someone sneezes. Just as we properly fail to comment when our friends and coworkers make other kinds of unprompted nasal or oral outbursts — like snorting or saying “hi” — so too should we mind our own business for the sneeze.

The most common response always seemed a little presumptuous to me anyway. “God bless” sounds too much like an order to the deity. He’s supposed to stop whatever grand enterprise He might be involved in so He can heed your command to bless Bob from accounting simply because he (Bob) had an irritation of the nasal passage that caused a sudden, forceful expulsion of air and God knows what else? Even the most focused of us has to concentrate when creating worlds or smiting errant Methodists; we don’t need to be distracted by requests for trivial blessings, especially when we all know that Bob makes it louder than he has to just because he craves attention.

Saying “God bless” is second nature to many of us, yet would other cultures similarly demand their gods do such casual bidding? Can you imagine hearing “Shiva, hand me that stapler,” or “Yahweh, tell that guy to knock off the humming”? I don’t think so.

If we’re all going to agree that spontaneous eruptions from the mouth or nose need some kind of acknowledgment, let’s at least be consistent and come up with some standards that make a little bit of sense. I think I’m as competent as anyone to start the discussion.

For sneezing, I proposed we switch over completely to the more secular “Gesundheit.” I believe that translates from the German to “good health,” which is probably too late to hope for if the cold germs are already in the trachea but seems like a nice sentiment anyway.

For coughing, I think we should say “Schadenfreude.” Again, turning to the Germanic tradition feels appropriate and, since the translation has to do with taking delight in the failure of others more successful than you, a certain bitterness is properly communicated.

For hiccupping, I would suggest something along the lines of “Sorry you’ve had a convulsive gasp caused by the involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. Let’s agree that it won’t happen again.”

For burping, let’s go with “Jacksonian democracy.” Admittedly it makes no sense, but it should at least prompt a change of subject to nineteenth-century American history. I think we also need to acknowledge the pause in conversation you’ll sometimes detect when someone just barely manages to suppress a burp. Your boss says “I really think that in order to cut costs further we’re going to have to (pause, slight puffing of jowls and slight lowering of jaw) lay off our entire workforce and outsource our production to Chimp Haven, the retirement home for lab monkeys” and you’re thinking “Wow, he almost burped; I should probably say something.” That something should be “Hail, Satan.”

For yawning, no response should be required unless the yawn is accompanied by an audible sound. If it is, let me propose either “need a nap?” or the equally appropriate “please close your mouth as soon as possible.”

For throat clearing, keep in mind that this is usually done as a preface to an interruption, so a good reply might be “what the hell do you want?” If instead, a true backup of phlegm was actually involved and the “ahem” was sincere, say nothing but instead evacuate the area immediately.

For chewing gum in such an insistent manner as to cause a cracking sound, we should say (into the nearest 911-enabled telephone) “The nature of my emergency is that my friend has apparently swallowed Bubble Wrap.”

For sniffing or sniffling, like when you’re try to get air through a slightly congested sinus, I’m tempted to suggest the caustic “Oh, boo-hoo, what a baby” but that seems a little harsh, even to me. I think I’ll recommend tactful silence unless – and this is a very important exception – the sniff is accompanied by a high-pitched tweet, which should prompt the response “There seems to be a bird in your nose; let’s join together to kill it.”

Nose-blowing, even the most subtle variety, is an abomination that I can’t believe is sanctioned in polite company. Considering that it’s far less spontaneous than other expulsions – the blower even premeditates (if we’re lucky) his or her move by producing a hanky – it should not be tolerated, much less tacitly endorsed with a friendly comment. Nose-blowing should only be done under the care of a healthcare professional on an in-patient basis at the nearest major medical center, or at least not in the same room as me.

Horking, mostly done by cats trying to expel a hairball though occasionally heard from elderly gentlemen, should be met with “bad kitty” (or “bad elderly gentleman”) followed by a stern “No!”

I think I’ve provided an adequate framework for the transition from our current methods of recognizing these outbursts to something much more fair and equitable. I realize that there may be some categories I haven’t covered, in particular those hybrid explosions that combine two or more of the above-defined events: the sneef (sneeze + cough), the curp (cough + burp), the york (yawn + hork) and the never-documented but often-theorized snickup (sniffle + hiccup). But I can’t both create and manage this new system, and will have to rely on the good sense of average citizens to take it to the next level if that’s what’s needed.

I don’t want to appoint a Language Czar to oversee my plans though, if necessary, I understand George W. Bush is available.

Revisited: Don’t forget to get Alzheimer’s

November 28, 2009

Like many people approaching late middle-age, I’m starting to have some concerns about my memory. I’m not sure where on the continuum from a few “senior moments” to full-blown Alzheimer’s I might be, and even if a neurologist could pinpoint it, I wouldn’t be able to remember what he said.

It’s that short-term memory that I seem to be having the most trouble with these days. I guess this is something everyone struggles with to an extent; even the twenty-ish cashier who I just paid for my tea had notes scribbled all over the back of her hands, including a scrawl that looked suspiciously like “kill.” (You’d think a chore that life-altering would tend to stick with you, but maybe she’s got a lot of holiday-related obligations – parties, cards, gifts for the nephews, etc. — on her mind.)

Now that I think of it though, my mid-term memory is also suffering. I recently made a list of all the places we’ve gone on vacations over the years so I wouldn’t forget the tremendous time we had in Montreal or that great walk along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. My wife would suggest that if these events were so memorable, then I’d remember them, and I suppose she has a point. But I did shoot photographs and took video on both of these trips, so why should I have to waste cranial storage space when I can just as easily root around in the dusty bags stashed in the top of the coat closet to recall such precious times?

What tends to be most bothersome to family members, and I’ve heard this is a symptom I share with the most desperately neuron-deficient, is that my long-term memory remains quite good. The problem is that it’s not important lifetime milestones like weddings and births that I remember with such clarity. I do vaguely recollect that my wife had some sort of child a while back, and I’m pretty sure it was a boy because that’s what we have walking around the house now 17 years later. But the details of that event are roughly equivalent to my recall of the ’63 Dodgers and the record-setting 104 steals made by Maury Wills on their way to the World Series. The emergence of a living being who represents my own flesh and blood from the womb of my beloved life partner is a truly magical experience but, c’mon… 104 stolen bases in one season?

What worries me is that it’s neither long- nor medium-term memory that allows you to get through the day in some sort of organized, survivable fashion. It’s the immediate stuff that’s most important to daily life. I can’t imagine arriving at the airport having forgotten my passport and yet getting a reprieve from the screeners because I can remember the actress who played Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies” (Irene Ryan).

For just one example, with this being the Christmas season, I am expected to remember hints dropped by loved ones about the type of gifts that would be most dear to them. I barely even realize that it’s the most wonderful time of year until we’ve run out of Thanksgiving leftovers, and that still hasn’t happened yet. My wife and son already have an estimated four presents either in-hand or on-order for me, and I’ve yet to visit a single retail website (unless you can count ESPN.com). I think Beth said she wants an iPod or socks or tea, or something in that general area. But these items come in such a huge variety of options that it’s very challenging to pick out exactly the correct item. Beth has kindly promised to get me to the website of choice this weekend and position the cursor directly on the gift she wants, then turn away as I click so that there’ll be at least some element of surprise.

It’s exactly this kind of immediacy that enables me to function with some measure of decency. I’ve borrowed a term from modern manufacturing techniques to give credibility to the technique I’ve developed. Called “Just in Time” – for the idea that you don’t build something until right before someone wants it – I want to learn what I need to know just before I need to know it. Don’t tell me several weeks in advance that my mom’s birthday is coming up. I need to know at the very last minute so I can spend three times the necessary amount on rush postage and still be two days late.

Aside from occasions like gift-giving and breaking the heart of my dear mother, the other major handicap I’m learning to live with has to do with following directions to get from one location to another. Visiting my son’s high school the other day, I asked at the main office to be directed to a particular room number. I was told go out this door, turn right, go down the hall and through the double doors, walk across the open area to building E and take the first hall to the right all the way to the end. I moved my head up and down and put the most understanding look I could summon on my face as the sounds being made by the secretary in front of me went whizzing by my head. It was at this point that I wished I’d put a Garmin GPS on my Christmas gift list.

There is one major benefit to a severely deficient memory, and that comes while watching television. I can’t tell a first-run TV show from a rerun even if it stars Bernie Mac, Heath Ledger and Pope John Paul II. I can blissfully sit through every episode of “Seinfeld” or “The Office” that I’ve ever seen and enjoy the jokes like I’m hearing them for the first time. This annoys my wife to no end, since she has the memory of a wolverine and can recite dialog from foreign films she hasn’t seen for years, and do it in French. Plot twists already known to millions hit me out of left field, like an errant throw from Orlando Cepeda trying to gun down the speedy Wills on his record-breaking dash for third base.

I’m just hoping to hang on till retirement, when I can while away my remaining days, remembering to drool now and then but not much else.

Thank you for not missing the Website Review

November 27, 2009

I don’t know about you but I’m just about thanked out.

The wellspring of gratitude and appreciation that flowed from our guilty consciences yesterday was enough to put anybody flat on their back. There’s just something about being a grateful person that makes you incredibly sleepy, seeking the nearest couch on Thanksgiving night for a much-deserved nap.

Scientists tell us that certain chemicals flood our bloodstream when we thank and honor those to whom we are indebted. The same hormones that prompt us to choke up when football commentator Howie Long thanks the troops and to make small talk with the uncle who gave us $5 every birthday eventually start to back up in the brain, prompting an overall feeling of fullness and, ultimately, coma.

Showing genuine humble emotion toward loved ones when we count our blessings tends to wear you out. That’s why I audit my assets and honor them with appreciation only twice a year — at Thanksgiving and on Tax Day, April 15.

Now I’m ready to go back to the old way of doing business, living in a whirlwind of meaningless, pre-scripted “thank-you’s” offered solely as a way to evoke a certain behavior, usually getting you to leave the premises. These are the devalued, distorted expressions we encounter a hundred times a day, the ones that have so removed the true meaning of gratitude that when we feel the real thing, it gives us a very bad stomachache.

My son and I made a drive around the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, because we always get a kick out of seeing roads emptied and businesses shuttered on major holidays. It’s kind of a fun preview of what he might expect when he drives around with his son some bleak distant day in our dismal economic future. “Your grandpa and I used to exchange script for services in these burned-out storefronts,” he’ll tell young Davis the Sixth. “It’s a lot like how you find roots and berries to eat, except you do it online and we had this thing called bricks-and-mortar.”

Even McDonald’s was closed Thursday, despite the fact that in desperation you could’ve molded a super-sized order of fries into the shape of a small turkey, or perhaps a hassock for that cousin you weren’t expecting at the dinner table. As we circled the parking lot to get a closer look at this rare sight, we saw the signs that direct customers through the take-out operation. The first stop, at the big board of burger pictures, simply says “Order Here.” The second stop has a sign which reads “Thank You For Having Your Payment Ready,” a directive poorly disguised as a polite request. Finally, when you pick up your order at the last window, the sign reads simply “Thank You.” What they really mean at this point in the transaction is “Be Gone!”

I get the same feeling at the automated car wash. There’s a large electronic sign that guides you through the steps in the process as you pull your car into the stall. There’s “Please Enter,” a clear enough signal that you drive into the bay. There’s “Drive Slowly,” “Stop” and even “Back Up” for those who have moved beyond the proper position. When the wash begins, you see a different series of signals, such as “Wash,” “Rinse,” “Underwash,” etc., apprising you of the progress of the operation. Finally, there’s a brief moment of silent inactivity, at which point the sign flashes “Thank You.” This is their friendly way of saying you’re done, though I imagine some dimwits may sit there a while awaiting further instructions. I have a feeling that if you don’t move it within ten seconds, that you get one which reads “You’re Through, Now Drive Away by Pressing your Foot on that Narrow Pedal on the Floorboard.”

Another insincere use of the “Thank You” comes at the large warehouse shopping club. Some of the purchases come in containers too large to put in a bag, which is the traditional way of showing that you’ve paid for the product. So instead, a bright orange sticker gets affixed to the box saying “Thank You,” which is secret code for “This Item is Not Being Shoplifted.” Innocent enough at the time, perhaps, but a little disconcerting when you face several weeks of having a tub of cat litter thanking you for God knows what every time you need a rake.

Finally, I’ll mention the forced gratitude you’ll often see on the fields of sport. I used to play a lot of tennis on the public courts when I was younger and, though I was far from good, I was generally skilled enough to keep the ball within the court. Occasionally, you’d encounter a twosome on the next court over that had difficulty controlling the trajectory of their ball, probably due in part to the fact they were wearing jeans, street shoes and half-drunk expressions. As their tennis balls dribbled from their court onto mine, they’d call out “thank you” as a signal for me to stop what I was doing and retrieve their miscue. Once, a young girl was so wild that she put her ball over my court and over the ten-foot fence next to it. “Thank you,” she called out to me. “No, no,” I responded, “thank you.”

She had obviously been well-trained by her parents to express appreciation when someone did something nice for her. I’m always amused by the teaching technique most moms and dads use when socializing their kids on this critical component of human interaction. The nice man in the sunglasses offers you an ice cream cone if you’ll come into his windowless van to help him look for his missing puppy, and your mom stands there and asks “What do you say?” Most children learn pretty quickly they’re being prompted to offer a shy “thank you,” though a fortunate few respond “should I really be doing that?”

By the way, thank you for not noticing that this is supposed to be a Friday Website Review. To get by on a technicality, I did check out several sites on the subject of thanks.

There’s one called thanks.com, whose home page reads “The spontaneous thank you: Such power it wields. To awe. To rally. To cheer. And to Motivate. But well-timed spontaneity takes planning. We’ve done that part so you can do the fun part.” As you might guess, this is a business set up to take the annoying and inconvenient element of sincerity completely out of the act of an employer showing gratitude to an employee. For a minimal fee, you can generate the “instant certificate, a quick and easy way to turn your heartfelt sentiment into a frame-worthy expression of gratitude.” This can even be customized with a personal message (like the person’s name, typed in all caps), then printed out in your own office in seconds. You can also buy tangible gifts to show Ingrid in accounting how much you appreciate her overlooking that Spectravision charge on your last expense report. For $12, there’s an origami goose, contorted in much the same way as the actress in that PayTV movie. Or, for a little more, you can get caramel candy apples dressed up in tuxedo packaging, or a customized footstool imprinted with the inspirational urging to “Reach Higher.” Or, you can stock up for any number of future needs with an $18 cache of “appreciation buttons,” including “Wizard of Awe,” “Wow Factor,” “Big Kahuna,” “Grand Poobah of Great Ideas” and “Hello My Name is Fran Tastic.”

The site thank.com offers thank-you cards, notes, letters and gifts. They include convenient templates; for example, the proper way to express appreciation for a recent job interview, where you simply print out a sheet and hope that your potential boss’s name is “Mr. or Mrs. Blank.” They offer other sample letters as well, though this part of the site was temporarily unavailable when I tried to look (thanks for nothing). You can also order funeral cards and memorial plaques from thank.com, though I’ve always thought it a little forward to thank someone for dying.

At thankyou.com, there’s a rewards program where you can earn points toward tomorrow’s purchases with today’s. What stood out for me here was the Testimonials section, letters written by satisfied customers who bought tires, rented a Cadillac for their Nashville vacation or “finally got that meat slicer I’ve wanted for some time.” Another writer says they also have great customer service, which goes so far as to suggest if you don’t have enough points for the item you want, you can make up the difference in cash.

Lastly, just for fun, I checked out nothanks.com. It bills itself as a “lifestyle resource” and includes such features as Christian dating, where I imagine “no thanks” gets said quite a lot.

Knock it off, you peckers

November 26, 2009

My Aunt Dora has a wonderful way with verbs. When she talks about a particular action, she’s usually close enough to the intended word that you get the idea, but the way she gets there is marvelous. “I saw that on NPR,” she’ll say about a news story she heard on the radio. “Did you eat the last beer?” she’ll ask her husband.

When I was getting ready to leave after a recent visit to her home, she asked me to do her a favor as I left. Her wooded home on a tree-covered lot draws many neighborhood woodpeckers, and she could hear one banging away on the siding outside her bedroom window. The bird had obviously confused her home with a nearby maple, an understandable mistake considering how concussed the poor animal must be.

Dora wanted me to shoo the bird off. “Tell him to go away,” she said.

I wasn’t sure how well the woodpecker would respond to a well-reasoned argument about the relative disadvantages of looking for grubs in a processed plank. I figured that throwing a pinecone at it would be more compelling. Still, I like the idea of reasoning with nature, and thought seriously about her proposal for dispatching the pest.

I knew that the Southeastern species of the Picidae Picumnus was notoriously poor at understanding spoken English. Along with its cousins the piculet and the wryneck, the woodpecker has evolved a number of adaptations to protect its head from repetitive motion syndrome. Among these, it’s developed an incredibly small brain. However, its widely acknowledged pecking skills made me think it might be pretty good at finding and reading something on the Internet, as long as it didn’t have to hold down the shift key.

So I’m laying out my case in this Open Letter to the Woodpecking Community of the Brookshadow Subdivision.

Dear Peckers,

(I hope that’s not considered pejorative.)

First of all, let me say that we all appreciate the ambience that the wildlife population lends to our neighborhood. The birds are particularly welcome. They bring color and song to our days and always seem to be able to get out of the way of oncoming cars, unlike some squirrels and chipmunks I could mention. Your droppings are few. Your appetite for bugs surpasses any plague of death that the exterminators could bring.

You generally have a good idea of where to find your meals without guidance from your human hosts. In fact, I imagine you could teach us a thing or two about the benefits of an all-natural diet, considering how rarely I see you inside a McDonald’s (except that one time your sparrow friend was trapped by the automatic door).

But let me explain a thing or two about our homes. We have constructed these to provide us shelter from the elements. We can’t protect ourselves with the ingenious feather covering you’ve devised, despite what you may have seen peeking in the window when we’re watching the American Music Awards. We have to rely on burly men, heavy equipment and expensive construction materials to make ourselves a place of comfort. Twigs and straw don’t cut it for most of us.

We spend a lot of time and a lot of money to maintain our homes. We paint and we stain and we reshingle the roof. We deal with deranged-looking transients who stop by periodically to clean our gutters and do any other odd jobs we can think of that we hope will distract them from killing us. We meet with equally unhinged insurance agents, purchasing their various riders and attachments simply because we’re told that’s what responsible adults do.

When you come along and mistake the surface of our house for the trees, it tends to create holes in our security. If these get big enough, the openings can admit bats into our living rooms, and we hate bats almost as much as you hate knots. The other bad thing for you is that a lot of the grubs can escape the outdoor environment and find their way indoors, where it’s much harder for you to get them. You can knock on our door and ask us to let you in but, I’ve got to be honest, that’s probably not going to happen.

I also might mention that we’re currently preparing to roasting a very large bird our oven. I’m not saying that could happen to you. I’m just saying…

So let me ask you to stick to the oaks and elms and pines when you feel the need to peck for a meal. We’re not thrilled with the idea that you’re bothering our landscaping like this, but we recognize that nature can be inconvenient. Some of those spindlier trees are starting to look a little diseased anyway, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be coming down in the first ice storm of the season.

So please stay away from our siding and stick to the trees. In fact, knock yourself out.

Sincerely,

The Guy Who Threw the Pinecone at You

My suggestions for Thanksgiving carols

November 25, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, and I think I know the reason it’s snuck up on us again. There are no warning songs, like you tend to get for weeks before Christmas. As much as I love the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s difficult to get in the spirit without appropriate musical accompaniment. (I think that’s why I always forget to buy everybody Labor Day presents).

To remedy this sad lack of audio cheer, I’m hereby submitting my ideas for new Thanksgiving carols. I’m suggesting existing holiday melodies, so once the turkey is done, we can easily transition into already familiar tunes for the rest of December.

[To the tune of “Joy to the World”]
Joy to the world
The bird has come
Let us remove his wings
Take out the heart,
Take out the lungs,
But leave the gizzards in
But leave the gizzards in
But leave … but leave the gizzards in
 
[To the tune of “Silent Night”]
Silent night, holy night
Hours until the first light
Time to hit the malls and stores
Time to start the busting of doors
TVs for $499
Xbox for $299
 
[To the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”]
Uncle Wenceslas looked down
On the feast from mama
Said she did a bang-up job
Then started on Obama
“He’s really Hitler in disguise, his policies are failin'”
Then the poor man gave us fright, said he’s reading Palin.
 
[To the tune of “What Child is This?”]
What time is dinner?
I need to know
Should I skip lunch
Or pick up “to go”
I’ll gladly starve
If we’ll eat at 3
By 4 though I’ll be crabby
 
[To the tune of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”]
I watched stupid TV marathons
Nothing else was on Thanksgiving Day
“Dirty Jobs” will make you sick
“Real Housewives” makes you thick
“Hell’s Kitchen” makes you want to bludgeon Ramsey with a stick
 
[To the tune of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”]
Lions stinking in the Silverdome
Cowboys rarely scoring ten
Watching football on Thanksgiving Day
It makes you want to leave the den
Go to the kitchen and help the people cleaning plates
Here there’s fellowship to see
While in Dallas they’re imploding again
As Romo blows another third and three
 
[To the tune of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”]
Rudolf the Grey Tofurkey
Had a very shiny glow
Made up of roots and veggies
Making your digestion slow
All of the other families
Eat a real bird of meat
However your hippie grandma
Likes to mix her food with peat
Then one foggy afternoon
Grandpa rose to say
“I refuse to eat this crap
That’s not gravy, that’s tree sap”
All of the other relatives
Jumped and shouted out with glee
“Let’s all run out to Wendy’s
For a burger and large Frostie”
 
[To the tune of “White Christmas”]
I’m dreaming of a Black Friday
Just like the one they had last year
Where the guy at Wal-Mart
Was torn apart
Because low prices started here
 
[To the tune of “Home for the Holidays”]
Oh, there’s no place for you in the dining room
Looks like you’ll have to sit back with the kids
Though they yell and they spit and they smell real bad
Now you know your life has really hit the skids
You met a girl from Tennessee
She looks just like your aunt
But you’re 21 and she is only eight
All she talks about is SpongeBob
While you like Gothic bands
They should have left her with a sitter
Man, you really want to hit her

Fake News: Toward a simpler healthcare reform

November 24, 2009

Concerns over the level of detail laid out in the 2,000-page health care reform package now before the Senate have prompted some to sketch out a simpler plan for keeping Americans well.

One proposal gaining in popularity would require doctors to keep records of their casual conversations outside the office and count these as delivery of medical services to millions of the nation’s uninsured.

“When a general practitioner runs into his neighbor at the store and asks ‘how are you?’, this should be considered a consultation,” said Ken Reddling of the National Insurance Institute. “If the neighbor responds ‘fine,’ the doctor would make a note that he’s had a patient encounter and that the patient checks out as healthy.”

Doctors could also record queries such as “how’s it going?’ and “you doing alright?” as similar meetings with positive outcomes, as long as the respondent answered that they were “great,” “pretty good” or “not bad.” Physicians practicing in the specialties could also include “how’s it hanging?” as a formal exam.

To reach even greater numbers of those needing health care, another plan would erect pedestals at major intersections throughout a city that were topped by a large Plexiglas box. Sealed inside the container would be an internist or family practitioner, dressed in a white lab coat and wearing a stethoscope around his or her neck. Passers-by would then “see the doctor” as they drove past, which would count as a formal visit, even though the encounter might be slightly longer than what the patient would experience in a clinical setting.

“We need to be creative in the ways that we deliver care to the public,” said Reddling. “The Hippocratic Oath calls on doctors to ‘first do no harm.’ We can at least do that much at a minimal cost to the taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, recent studies showing that many preventive tests are neither medically necessary nor cost-effective may result in a different type of screening. Previously routine exams to detect breast cancer, prostate disorders and cervical disease have been increasing anxiety and expenses without a corresponding improvement in long-term outcomes. Some are now suggesting a more casual “quiz” replace the formal tests.

“These don’t have to be complicated. We’re not talking about essay questions but rather simple true/false or, at most, multiple-choice queries,” said Maurice Lerner of the Council for Approximation. “You phrase questions like ‘my head really, really, really hurts — true or false?’ and if they answer false, you’ve determined that they don’t have brain cancer.”

More complicated conditions would merit a more detailed inquiry. Even mental health could conceivably be covered with a well-structured, carefully phrased question.

“You ask the patient to answer the following: ‘I feel like committing (a) a personal foul, (b) my PIN number to memory, (c) a faux pas, or (d) suicide,'” Lerner proposed. “Only if they answer (d) would any follow-up be necessary.”

Initiatives like those mentioned above are already causing senators currently debating reform to hesitate final passage of a bill until all available data is in. Scientific studies in many of these areas may be considered complete enough to set public policy that provides the most good for the most people at the most economical price. But even advocates of unbiased analysis admit that all the anecdotal evidence has yet to be considered.

“I think we need to delay this bill until we’ve heard everybody’s story,” said Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. “There are millions of aunts and uncles, and literally tens of millions of guys who knew other guys who wouldn’t be alive today were it not for some obscure procedure of highly questionable benefit. Numbers from long-term studies only tell part of the story. We need more anecdotes.”

People who need ‘People’

November 23, 2009

Alyssa Milano had been staring up at me for several weeks now, and I was starting to get creeped out.

The star of TV’s Charmed was smiling broadly, obviously enjoying the happiest day of her life. Her new husband David Bugliari was at her side, clutching her hand and beaming at his good fortune to be marrying one of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses. His stare wasn’t quite as unnerving as hers because, after all, we were in the men’s room and he, as a fellow man, was supposed to be in here. Alyssa was not.

The August 31 issue of People magazine had been lying on top of the tank behind the toilet seat for several months in the restroom at work. True, it was in the handicapped stall, which gave all three of us plenty of elbow room to do our respective businesses. But I had grown weary of the experience of having this happy couple — along with Kourtney Kardashian, Bradley Cooper and “celeb babies” Nahla and Dolly — watching as I evacuated my bladder several times a day.

The bride was radiant, the commode was fairly clean

So I decided to evacuate the magazine from its resting place in the lavatory library on the back of the commode. I’m sure it had provided a comforting diversion to my male co-workers during its eight-week tenure, just as its fellow publications, the June 2003 issue of National Geographic and the TV insert from last Sunday’s paper, were doing. But it was time to turn the page and get this filthy periodical out of circulation.

It had no doubt spent time during its tenancy on the floor, lying open in the bunched-up underpants of numerous squatters, and God knows where else. The magazine didn’t seem to have any pages ripped out, which was probably a good sign given the janitorial staff’s chronic inattention to toilet paper supplies. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to handling it one last time, even if it was for disposal purposes. I’m pretty sure a hazmat suit would’ve been overkill, so I grabbed an old grocery sack from my desk and managed to safely encase these megawatt celebrities in plastic. I washed my hands thoroughly, then I washed them again.

Somehow, though, I couldn’t bring myself to just toss this issue in the can. My interest in the lives of these personalities had been piqued, and I wanted to know more. For example, how was it possible that a Kardashian sister, even one of the lesser ones, could exclaim in a People exclusive that her pregnancy had been a “surprise”? (I know that’s not the brightest tribe in Tinseltown, but surely she knew certain fundamentals of how human reproduction worked.) And what did Jon Gosselin’s “gal pal” Hailey Glassman have to speak out about? I’ve only rarely been afflicted with constipation since I stopped taking that anti-inflammatory medicine earlier this fall, so I hadn’t had the chance to read all about it.

I decided to carry the magazine home with me (in the trunk of the car, and splashed liberally with windshield washer fluid, which I imagined had some antiseptic properties) and research the issue further. I found a pair of surgical gloves, to discourage me from absent-mindedly moistening my fingers as I turned the pages, and began my study of the people of People. Here are some of my findings:

According to an ad for the show Vampire Diaries, “love sucks.”

There’s someone or something famous named Minka Kelly, and apparently Kate Hudson is having a tiff with her or it.

There was something causing pages 8 and 9 to stick together. Gross.

The couple who juked down the aisle at their wedding and ended up with 19 million views on YouTube didn’t mean to promote girlfriend-abuser Chris Brown by selecting his song for the dance.

“It was wonderful to catch up with the cast of Saved by the Bell,” according to reader Jennifer Sherry of St. Paul, Minn.

Does Katie Holmes look better with or without bangs? Find out the results of a poll at People.com (I checked for the winning style, but got distracted by a new feature — Robert Pattison’s 30 hottest stares.)

Director Tim Burton does not look good riding the giant caterpillar at Disneyland with his family.

“Does Jessica (Simpson) want to replace Paula (Abdul)?” asks a headline. No, says the story below.

There’s a “trendwarning” out on denim shorts with the pockets hanging below the hem.

I'd be wearing a rubber glove to hold a picture of Heidi and Spencer even if the magazine hadn't been on the floor of the men's room.

Country music star Kenny Chesney hardly ever stays in a hotel on tour because he’s got “the most comfortable bed in the world” on his bus.

Miley Cyrus has a nine-year-0ld sister. In related news, NNNOOOOOOO!

Important safety information in the ad for a new birth-control device called “Mirena”: Less than 1% of users get a serious infection called pelvic inflammatory disease.

It’s been six years since the previous Third Eye Blind album, but don’t expect any major developments from the pop-rockers.

The book Homer’s Odyssey is actually a memoir about adopting a special-needs kitten.

One of the Real Housewives of New Jersey used to buy a lot more toys for her three daughters, but now she’s better, just buying the “supercute stuff.”

Celeb baby Anni, daughter of Grey’s Anatomy star Chyler Leigh, is a happy, easygoing baby who sleeps through the night.

Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu chose a bold font for her son’s birth announcement because “he’s a robust little guy.”

Former child actress Soleil Moon Frye, against all odds, is still alive.

Rachael Ray was 41 on Aug. 28. But within days, her size had ballooned to a 44.

Model Crystal Renn used to be a size 0, which made her pretty much invisible.

Oprah likes candied fruit slices dipped in chocolate.

Whether you choose a vibrant dress or just a strategic pop of color, there are lots of ways to work the purple trend.

Cash for Clunkers is a success — what else would you like the government to give you cash for? Dane Cook answered “refrigerators” because he has three broken ones he doesn’t know what to do with.

Correction: Alyssa Milano is not a hot young actress at all. She’s 36.

Revisited: Going to a rock concert

November 22, 2009

As a fifty-something man, it’s been some time since I’ve been to a live rock concert. I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I can remember (at least since 1966’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” assuming that counts) and grew up being inspired by rock’s energy and message (the Red Baron gets shot down in the end). Nothing beats a live performance of rock ‘n roll to celebrate those two magical elements in a community of like-minded people.

The last concert I can remember attending before just recently was during my final year in college when I drove 180 miles to see John Denver. Now I know a lot of the purists out there will claim that John Denver hardly qualified as a rocker, but let me tell you that the bespectacled moptop could seriously get down. He wasn’t all “Rocky Mountain This” and “Rocky Mountain That.” He actually had a drummer on several of the songs.

This past summer, I got to attend my first arena show in ages as I accompanied my 17-year-old son to a performance of Canadian rockers Rush. I was delighted to be invited, first because it indicated that Daniel wasn’t too embarrassed to be seen with his dad in public, and secondly because he was embracing a style of music that we could share an appreciation for. Also, I wasn’t on restriction, like the friend he originally planned to go with.

We made our way to the Verizon Amphitheatre just north of Charlotte on a hot July day. Walking through the parking lot, we saw numerous tailgate parties featuring abundant amounts of beer and suspicious smoky odors. The rebellious nature of rock was alive and well in these small groups who were openly defying the property-wide ban on cigarette smoking. When we got to our seats, we found ourselves situated in mid-row between a guy throwing back Bud Lites at an alarming pace and a 6-foot-8 student with limbs the length of a primate.

The three-man band took the stage and proceeded to rock long and hard through a set list of new songs and classics. We tried to care about selections from their new “Snakes & Arrows” album but were really there for oldies like “Tom Sawyer” and “Working Man.” To give something of a theme to the tour, they’d produced a short film featuring Jerry Stiller on a nationwide search for rotisserie chicken (I didn’t get it either), and stage props that included upright ovens that roasted rotating birds. The increasingly drunken guy to our left was really getting into this, repeatedly shouting “chicken! wooo!” and “wooo! chicken!” directly into my ear. As the afternoon heat and closeness of the crowd started getting to us, we retreated to the back lawn and spent the rest of the show looking up at the stars and considering how man should “put aside the alienation and end up with the fascination.”

Then, just this past Wednesday, I had an opportunity to join Daniel for another concert, this time with former Talking Heads front-man David Byrne. We drove through a soaking rain to arrive at a trio of venues clustered together on the east side of Charlotte. I had been to this site several times before but became confused about where exactly I was supposed to park. There’s an auditorium, an arena and a theatre, and they are forever changing labels as corporate naming rights come and go. Were we looking for the Bojangles Arena, which used to be the Blockbuster Coliseum after it had been the Cracker Barrel Arena for years? Or did we want the Papa John’s Theatre, formerly the Time Warner Cable Theatre, formerly the Slim Jim Turkey Jerky Performance Space? We found a line of cars queuing up for a parking lot, so we got in it and hoped for the best.

And the best is what we got. David Byrne put on an absolutely brilliant performance with all the quirky lyrics and bizarre choreography of the Talking Heads. Three back-up singers and three dancers lumbered frantically around the stage in hilarious chaos, at one point performing while lying flat on the floor and at another time scooting around in office chairs. The music was every bit as enthralling, with the new stuff as mesmerizing as the oldies. I will say nothing nasty or sarcastic about Byrne who is, remarkably, a fellow fifty-something.

The auditorium offered very comfortable amenities and seating, though the crowd didn’t seem to know how to use the latter. When the musicians first took the stage, we all stood and welcomed them loudly. We continued standing through the second song, and the third song, and I began to wonder why we had bothered to pay for the seats. When a slower-paced song began, most of the audience took the chance to sit down and rest, but then re-exploded onto their feet when a high-energy number followed. My back is not in the best shape and I was starting to wish we could pick a pose and stick with it; I didn’t care which one, I just didn’t like all the up and down. Perhaps the guidance of a program would’ve been handy, like those we used to have in church that prompted “the congregation rises” and “now you sit down.”

The other parts of the concert that gave me pause were the sing-along portions. It wasn’t a formal row-row-row-your-boat kind of thing. I’m talking about how enthusiastic audience members would chime in with the chorus of certain songs, whether they knew the lyrics or not. I wanted to hear Byrne singing “Life During Wartime,” not the bozo behind me who chanted “This ain’t no Hardee’s/This ain’t no Frisco/This ain’t no dueling in town/No time for potluck/Or heebie-jeebies…” and so on.

The end of the set arrived, a reasonable 90 minutes after the show began, and we gave a rousing ovation as the band bowed, waved and then left the stage. Then, more awkwardness – how exactly is this encore thing supposed to work in a way that doesn’t embarrass the performer and afflict the audience with repetitive motion injuries? We all know it’s a sham, that the musicians are going to return for another song or two. Still we play this little game where we pretend we can’t live without them and they pretend to be on their bus, halfway out of town already. Byrne and company seemed to stretch their luck a bit with the amount of time they stayed off-stage, and the cheers were starting to ebb when they finally returned. Embarrassing, yes, and yet we did it all over again following another song. After this one, though, we clipped our appreciation short and managed to get them to stay away.

Though awkward, uncomfortable and slightly scary to someone my age, I must say I enjoyed both of these concert experiences thoroughly, probably slightly more in retrospect than during the event itself. It was a great chance to bond with my son and allow us to share a common passion for a cultural phenomenon that will never die, even if most of its earliest fans will shortly.

Revisited: Thanksgiving comes early to the office

November 21, 2009

The turkey carcass sits mangled on the serving table, looking like the victim of a bear attack. The sweet potato casserole has been denuded of its marshmallow topping, but you could probably scrape a few more servings out of the corners of the pan if you tried. The stuffing is completely gone, serving its stated purpose of stuffing those who now lounge around the edges of this scene, barely moving except for the effort it takes to moan.

No, you haven’t been transported a week into the future by the magic of the blog. This is the scene I left behind at yesterday’s office celebration of Thanksgiving, a full seven days before most of us will commemorate the occasion.

The corporate calendar of holidays is not something most of us are aware of until we walk into work one dark January day and discover we’ve neglected to bring the green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day, which the outside world celebrates on March 17. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much. The government has imposed Monday observance of the more minor holidays like Presidents, Labor and Memorial days. Christmas and New Year’s are complicated by the fact that the days before them — the Eves — are in many ways more important than the actual holidays themselves. Many human resources departments have come up with the concept of a “floating” holiday for individuals to use in the religious observance of their choosing, such as Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa or Talk Like a Pirate Day. People in my mostly Christian office, for example, use their optional holiday for the day after Easter, prompting one observer to wonder if the “floating” had something to do with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

I guess having the Thanksgiving potluck yesterday made some sense on a gut level, considering few of us would want to gorge like that two days in a row if it were scheduled for next Wednesday. The only opening left on the sign-up sheet when I got to it was “salad,” which seemed very un-Thanksgiving-like but worked for me since it was so easy to prepare (take one head of lettuce, rip to shreds, serves 20). Management was providing the ham and turkey, and everything else was being brought in by the staff, who would have a chance to dazzle coworkers with their best recipes, many of which involved green beans, creamed soup and those crunchy onion things.

The sit-down time was scheduled for 11 a.m. so the organizers had the better part of the morning to set up the centerpieces, warm and then re-warm the hot dishes, and tempt us all with the smells of the season. This was to be an affair that combined our staff with workers from the front office, who we sometimes pass in the restrooms but about whom we know little else. As the serving time arrived, I was unfortunate enough to be just outside their offices when a manager called out for me to summon them. At first I was confused about who exactly he meant, and nearly beckoned the 200-plus temporary work crew from the warehouse. That would’ve been a horrible mistake, certain to result in stolen plastic cutlery and tiny, tiny portions for everyone. Still, I didn’t want to call for these front-office folks I didn’t know (“hey, it’s the guy from the bathroom – what’s he want?”) so I went to hide in my car for a few minutes.

I hoped this would have the added benefit of allowing me to miss the inevitable speech-giving and prayer that would precede the food consumption. But as the schedule started running behind, I made it just in time to hear the department head note that though these are difficult times, we still have much to be thankful for, followed by a brief blessing. Not being a currently practicing Christian myself, I’ve always felt awkward during this portion of the proceedings. It’s not because I take offense at having others’ religious beliefs imposed on me; rather, I’m bothered that I use the respectful silence to think of the sarcastic prayer I’d be tempted to offer if I’m ever called upon. Instead of beginning with “dear Jesus” or “holy Father,” the sacrilegious scamp in me wants to begin with a “good God” and then launch into several other James Brown references like papa’s brand new bag and how good I feel (so good). Fortunately for everyone, Edna does a nice reverent offering, and it’s finally time to chow down.

Office chairs were pulled up to the long row of covered work tables. After people worked their way down the buffet, carefully gauging the decreasing capacity of their Chinettes against the promise of what appeared further down the line, we were told to squeeze into a seat and begin the scheduled conviviality. The randomness and closeness of this seating arrangement, not to mention my very real fear of being injured by flying elbows, caused me to linger toward the end of the buffet line in the hope the table would be too full. I lucked out and was able to return instead to my work station to eat, where I got a kernel of corn stuck between “F7” and “F8” on my keyboard.

I genuinely enjoyed the food, as did everyone else. I was also able to enjoy the air of warmth and geniality in the room without actually having to get any of it on me. We didn’t have any holiday music piped through the intercom as we’ll do at Christmas — primarily I guess because there isn’t any, except for the less-than-festive “Turkey in the Straw” – but there was a certain atmosphere that for a moment almost made me give some actual thanks.

I managed to avoid overeating, which was good since I had a long drive home to navigate in the next hour and I didn’t want to sleep through it. Others in our department weren’t so lucky, as they staggered back to their desks to face another three hours of duty. The combination of turkey, heavy carbohydrates and the kind of workload you might expect at a financial services firm during the worst economic downturn in 70 years must’ve been as tough to handle as an Ambien/opium blend injected directly into your forehead.

At least there were no Detroit Lions to send them over the edge and into lethal coma.