Archive for December, 2009

Closed captioning and Alex Trebek

December 31, 2009

I love watching closed captioning on TV, especially when it’s done poorly. Trying to keep up with live broadcast feeds must be an incredible challenge, and it’s easy to understand how certain words get misinterpreted as they’re rapidly keyed onto the screen.

“This Justin. Please report manna study in banker library.” (Translation: This just in. Police report man in custody following bank robbery.)

While on the treadmill at the Y Tuesday, I was reluctantly watching a syndicated daytime talk show called “The Doctors.” In what must be a wildly inappropriate breach of medical ethics, viewers call in to describe their health problems and are diagnosed on-air by a panel of photogenic physicians. So much easier than trudging to a real exam with your ugly doctor and his even uglier co-pay.

Yesterday’s episode was something of a year-end wrap-up wherein the doctors answered the top 100 questions they had received in the last 12 months. It was the usual sensational afternoon pap, focusing on the titillating (can you get pregnant in a swimming pool?) rather than the mundane (what’s this thing on my neck and why is it green?).

Naturally, sexual health was a primary concern and the subject of at least a third of the questions. As a tease right before one of the breaks, the panel told the audience that coming up was a question about how frequently “relations” should be had (I’m guessing they were not talking about my aunts from Indiana, “relations” I’d had enough of over the holidays). The last words to appear in the subtitles were “… HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK,” and then they cut to an uncaptioned ad for insurance company Colonial Penn.

Unfortunately, the closed captioning remained on the screen throughout the commercial.

So we see a worker sitting in his cubicle and talking earnestly to the camera. Then Alex Trebek comes strolling up behind him, a disturbing development in any office.

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK, continues to read the caption.

“Apply now online,” begins the ad copy superimposed across Alex’s chest. “As close as a phone call away.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“Guaranteed acceptance. No physical exam. 30-day free look.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“We provide affordable coverage.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“You cannot be turned down because of your health.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“It’s so simple. Just takes a few minutes to apply.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“Lock in your premiums and benefits for 20 years.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

“Special situation? Add an optional rider.”

…HAVE SEX FOUR TO FIVE TIMES A WEEK

Finally, the worker appears to have had enough of Alex and his suggestive sell. The scene fades to black, with white overprint:

“For over 50 years, we have served the needs of our customers with a dedication to ‘old-fashioned’ customer service.”

By the way, in case you missed it, yesterday’s showing of “The Doctors” included a list of ways to improve your health in five minutes or less. These include:

→ Always stand when you flush the toilet to avoid getting bacteria from the water on you.

→ Don’t wet your eye shadow with saliva.

→ Use olive oil as a moisturizer.

→ Keep birth control pills next to your toothbrush.

→ Have your baby wear sunglasses.

→ Specialty flip-flops can help tone the body.

→ Avoid wiping your eyes with your fingers. Use your shirt instead.

→ Hugs help prevent heart disease.

→ Exercise toes.

→ Put aluminum foil or pepper on your counters and tables, because cats don’t like these on their paws.

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(What could’ve been) the Decade in Review

December 30, 2009

We never did come up with a definitive name for the decade we’re just now completing, though “the aughts” or the “oh-oh’s” seem appropriate. We ought to have done a better job managing our lives and our finances, we ought to have avoided a poorly conceived war in Iraq, we ought to have foreseen that a city built 12 feet below sea level would flood during a hurricane. Oh-oh, we accidentally elected George W. Bush president.

It was a mistake-filled decade, one I keep hoping some great replay official in the sky will declare as a “do-over.” What if that could happen? What if I tossed a red flag onto the field of life, the referees huddled around a monitor that displayed the passage of the years 2000 through 2009, and emerged to throw their arms in the air and wave off the last ten years?

“Upon further review, the last decade will not stand,” comes the announcement. “Let’s try that again.”

I’d like to imagine an alternate history that wasn’t as devastating as the reality turned out to be. How could that have transpired? Let’s check the timeline of what might have been.

January 1, 2000 — The Y2K bug turns out to exist after all, but its effect on computers and the Internet worldwide is that they can only be used for good. Productivity increases dramatically, education is available to everyone, and healthcare information is at our fingertips. Time-wasters like Facebook, YouTube, the blogosphere and Twitter are technically impossible to invent. Just to be on the safe side, a young computer geek from Massachusetts, would-be founder of Twitter “Biz” Stone, is accidentally electrocuted while trying to program a workaround.

Would-be Twitter founder "Biz" Stone

November 7, 2000 — Al Gore is elected forty-third president of the United States. Thousands of confused retirees in Arizona who thought they were voting for Wile E. Coyote accidentally selected Gore instead, putting him over the top in the Electoral College.

September 10, 2001 — Within a one-week period, three airline pilots are discovered to be drunk, another crew accidentally overshoots a destination by 150 miles while discussing their schedules, and a third squad falls asleep at the controls. The FAA orders the entire American fleet of passenger jets grounded for two days, demanding that airline personnel “shape up or go back to your jobs at the convenience store.” Flights resume on Sept. 12, including one that carries a frustrated contingent of Saudi travelers back to the Mideast.

September 4, 2002 — Kelly Clarkson narrowly defeats Justin Guarini for the title of first “American Idol.” However, results are overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court five weeks later, which declared in a 5-4 decision that the singing competition was “stupid” and installed Dick Cheney as the winner.

April 9, 2003 — President Al Gore, having completed his landmark negotiation of a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, thereby permanently settling the once-troubled region, travels to Baghdad for a well-deserved vacation. Long-time friends from his college fraternity days join the president for what they term a “shockingly awesome blast of massive proportions,” and paint the Iraqi capital red.

January 11, 2004 — The first legal marriage of a same-sex couple occurs in the U.S. It is totally gay.

May 1, 2004 — The largest expansion to date of the European Union takes place, extending the federation by ten member-states, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Slomotion, Sloeginia and Wal-mart.

April 2, 2005 — Pope John Paul II dies. The entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church goes into deep mourning for its loss, but then the Guy at the top remembers, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s him right over there.”

August 29, 2005 — The Katrina and the Waves Summer of Fun Tour stops in New Orleans, where concert-goers greet performance of the group’s hit “Walking on Sunshine (Tryin’ to Feel Good)” by staging a massive riot that guts the Louisiana Superdome. Survivors gather in the streets outside, spelling out “HELP US” with discarded souvenir tour t-shirts, but aren’t rescued by the National Guard until six days later.

Katrina and the Waves

October 9, 2006 — North Korea performs its first successful nuclear test, scoring an 86 and getting a “good point but remember that punct. counts” comment on the essay portion of the exam.

March 2, 2007 — Shiloh Jolie Pitt, daughter of actress Angelina Jolie and actor Brad Pitt, is introduced to the world. The world pretends to get an urgent cell phone call and has to step outside for just a minute, then sprints off across the parking lot.

May 2, 2008 — Cyclone Nargis makes landfall in Myanmar, causing massive flooding and widespread destruction. A butterfly displaced by the storm sneezes, causing a tiny atmospheric disruption that slightly raises the humidity half a world away. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain detects the change, and somehow interprets it as a sign that he should pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

September 14, 2008 — A collapse of Wall Street is narrowly averted when city engineers detect a faulty beam in the subway platform beneath the New York Stock Exchange and repair it just in time. Grateful investment banks thank the American taxpayers by subsidizing a nationwide “Merrill Lunch” on Sept. 30, during which anyone who buys a small order of fries from a fast-food outlet gets a free upgrade to a medium.

French fries, or perhaps President Joe Lieberman

November 4, 2008 — Following two successful terms working closely with President Gore, Vice President Joe Lieberman is elected forty-fourth president of the United States. That butterfly in Myanmar commits insecticide.

June 24, 2009 — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is the latest in a continuing parade of politicians who call a press conference to acknowledge loving their wife and family, and being unable to imagine life without them. Women nationwide ask their husbands why they can’t be more like that, while the men pretend to get an urgent cell phone call.

June 25, 2009 — Texas State Senator Mike Jackson (R-District 11), delivering a five-minute routine of jokes and other humorous stories to fellow legislators gathered with him at the Galveston Olive Garden, dies when nobody laughs.

Texas State Senator Mike Jackson

November 23, 2009 — Golfer Tiger Woods crashes his Buick into a Nike shoe outlet, apparently distracted by his AT&T phone and a bottle of Gatorade he had spilled in his lap. He checks his Tag Hauer watch to note the time of the accident for the police report, then calls Accenture to ask what the hell they do, so he can screw that up too. Fortunately, no endorsement deals are jeopardized.

December 30, 2009 — About 100 readers of an obscure, excessively wordy blog find something way better to do with their time.

Fake News: Terrorist threat canned

December 29, 2009

DETROIT (Dec. 27) — An attorney for accused terrorist Umar Abdulmutallab has denied that her client’s pants being on fire was evidence that the Nigerian was a “liar liar” when he failed to tell security of his plans to blow up Flight 253 Christmas Day.

Public defender Miriam Siefer said Abdulmutallab was never asked by authorities if he intended to detonate an explosive device aboard the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Friday. The 20-year-old student was overpowered by fellow passengers when fire erupted in his lap during the Delta jet’s final approach.

“We’re not saying he didn’t do anything,” Siefer told reporters. “We’re just saying that those who chant accusations of guilt in a sing-song manner have yet to fully review the evidence. Just because one’s trousers are ablaze doesn’t mean one has misled the authorities.”

Siefer said Abdulmutallab was “an innocent” who didn’t realize federal regulations prohibited in-flight destruction of a passenger airliner.

“Show us where it’s written on the ticket that you can’t do that,” Siefer said. “If it’s in there at all, I doubt it’s bigger than 7 point.”

Meanwhile, an al-Qaida website claimed responsibility for the attempted attack. In a post on imamblog.wordpress.com, a top official of the terrorist network said its operatives would “continue setting our junk on fire until the imperialist American presence in the Arab world is eliminated.”

“If the glorious martyr had not worn zippered pants with briefs, and instead wore the boxers and robe we specifically told him to wear, his crank would’ve properly exploded, raining death upon the land,” the statement said. “Regardless, his fiery tool has shown once again that we can strike any time, anywhere.”

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security continued to review how to tighten procedures so that last week’s incident would not be repeated. A new rule requiring passengers to remain seated during the last hour of international flights could make it harder for potential terrorists to assemble their bomb-making materials in airliner restrooms.

“We just have to make sure we don’t end up with a plane full of exploding bladders instead,” said transportation undersecretary Ronald Pierce. “Passengers who have been nursing cocktails since take-off in Europe have the potential capacity to bring down a 747.”

Pierce also said flight attendants would be instructed to watch for travelers who have covered their lower bodies with blankets and appear to be rubbing two sticks together underneath. Friction-sparked fires are possible in such a scenario, even though it’s just as likely other unseemly activities could be transpiring down there.

“Everyone needs to be vigilant to make sure we rub out this threat,” Pierce said.

The focus will continue to be the on-board toilets, however. A false alarm Sunday in which another Nigerian man was observed spending excessive time in the bathroom led a Delta flight crew to fear a second attack was being prepared. When the passenger did finally emerge after an air marshal repeatedly called to him, it was determined he was merely ill.

“Oh, yeah. You could tell right away he was sick,” said flight attendant Sandra Kirchner. “Everybody knew immediately as soon as he opened the door. Whew — I wish he had been making a bomb.”

Nigerian embassy officials in Washington cautioned against singling out its nationals just because of two incidents. The west African nation, one of the world’s leading oil exporters, is no more likely than other regions of the globe to have citizens who have to go to the bathroom, a spokesperson said.

“The oil, it has nothing to do with it,” said Akbar Amman. “It’s not making our gastrointestinal tract slipperier. It’s not like we are drinking the oil. We have the same rate of bathroom use as any country in the developing world. When you have got to go, you have got to go.”

Holiday weekend leftovers

December 28, 2009

Tip to film producers: How about if we, as the movie-going public, assume that your production will star Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Bullock, and you just tell us if that’s not the case. Just put “No Robert Downey Jr.” or “No Sandra Bullock” in the credits; otherwise, we’ll suppose they’re part of the cast.

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After listening to “Silent Night” for about the hundredth time over the holiday season, I began to think how awesome it would be to have “radiant beams from thy holy face.” The “holy” part doesn’t seem as critical, but having radiant beams emanating from your face (presuming they could knock bad guys to the ground or set them afire) would be a wonderful super-power.

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I tried to send the text message of “Merry Christmas” to a relative on Friday. Not only was that a big faux pas on a social level, it nearly led to a very significant misunderstanding. When I typed the first two letters into my ancient Razr phone, the auto-complete feature wanted to change my intended “Merry” to “Merely.” Once I corrected this and began typing the second word, the next suggestion was “Chronic” instead of “Christmas.” So my wishes for a joyous holiday season could have come out to be “Merely Chronic.” Even after I corrected the second error, and got as far as “Chri-“, my phone suggested “Christchurch” instead of “Christmas.” Are references to the second-largest city in New Zealand really more common the biggest holiday on the calendar?

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I know cats are supposed to be one of the cleanest creatures around, but surely people aren’t that far behind, are we? I hugged my sleeping cat the other day, and as soon as I let him go, he started licking all the human off his fur. Made me feel absolutely filthy. Tom, I’ve seen your cat box and, trust me, you have as many hygiene issues as I do.

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My wife and I donated blood on Saturday at a drive being sponsored by the local movie theater. As reward for our goodwill, we’ll each receive a free movie ticket. However, certain high-quality first-run showings currently in release are excluded from this offer, so I’m guessing there will either be Morgans or chipmunks in the film we see.

Incidentally, the email that reminded us of our blood drive sign-up included a Bing-created map with directions of how to get from the theater to the bloodmobile sitting in its parking lot. Apparently, you make a left turn out of the cineplex, walk 80 yards in a straight line, and you’re there. I did not realize that Web-based travel sites could be helpful on such a small scale. I’m going to try MapQuesting the way from my kitchen to my bathroom. Maybe there’s a shortcut I’m not aware of.

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I watched enough football games in the last few weeks to be severely disappointed that nobody gave me a new Lexus for Christmas.

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Probably the nicest Christmas gift I received was a handmade knitted piece from my wife that I can drape over my nightstand. It’s a beautifully woven work that she put a lot of time and effort into, and makes a wonderfully personalized present. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly what to call it when I described it to my mother during our Christmas phone call, and apparently “doily” is not the proper term (at least I didn’t use “placemat” or “coaster”). There’s apparently a thing known as the “dresser scarf” that “everybody” (except me and perhaps every other man on the planet) knows about. I stand humbled and corrected.

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I hate America. Not the nation, the seventies soft-rock band. I had forgotten how horrible their body of work was, remembering only vaguely the monotonic “Horse With No Name.”  Now, thanks to some random button-punching on my car radio yesterday,  I’ve been reminded of their 1971 hit “Sandman,” the lyrics of which still speak to us with poignancy almost 40 years after its release. “Funny, I’ve been there/And you’ve been here/And we ain’t had no time to drink that beer/Cause I understand you’ve been running from the man who goes by the name of the Sandman/He flies the sky like an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that’s abandoned.” So true.

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Actual “breaking news” headline crawl across the bottom of the screen from CNN the other day: “Dog Stuck in Hole.”

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The attack on the Pope during his Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was invariably described in the press as a case of the pope being “knocked down.” Why was this the action verb of choice? It makes him sound like an inanimate object, like a mailbox or a fence. The poor pontiff was physically assaulted by a madwoman, for Christ’s sake (well, maybe not Christ’s, but whatever demon she answers to). I can’t wait to hear the formal charge authorities place against her. Probably “premeditated shoving.”

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It’s been great to read all the Ten Best and Ten Worst lists being published at the end of the decade. I would agree that “H” was the best consonant in the last ten years, but would argue strongly that “V” was far worse than the survey’s choice of “P” for the bottom letter. I don’t think there can be any doubt, however, that leading the top ten for best member of the popular country singing group Brooks and Dunn was Brooks, while Dunn definitely belongs in the bottom ten.

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I’m standing in the ten items or less line at Target on Saturday. The guy in front of me has only three items, yet one of them is a big-screen TV that he’s using some combination of gifts cards, debit cards, credit cards, cash, store credit and, apparently, shiny stones, to pay for. Doesn’t this violate the spirit of the express lane? Shouldn’t the physical mass of the objects being purchased count as much as the number of separate articles? I propose a “ten cubic meters or less” line so that volume can be given proper consideration. Also, a “two-bottles-of-soap-and-a-DVD” line, because that’s what I was buying.

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The winner of Friday’s contest to select my personalized Christmas card for next year was the photo of dead leaves in the gutter in front of my house. Thanks to all who voted.

 

Revisited: A review of the bowl games

December 27, 2009

One of the great things about the global economic catastrophe has been the effect on certain corporate marketing decisions. High-powered multinationals have been forced to look at their priorities and re-evaluate how important it is to shareholders to have the company name plastered all over everything from sporting venues to golf tournaments to baby’s foreheads.

Two new baseball parks being built in New York City for the Yankees and Mets are struggling to find firms willing to spend multi-millions for naming rights, and may have to begin hosting games next season as Hank’s Place and Choker’s Field, respectively. NASCAR auto racing has seen a significant decline in its sponsorships, to the point where you can almost see a bare patch of material on drivers’ uniforms. Traditional suppliers like GM and Chevy are scaling back their involvement in motorsports and we may soon see a Daytona 500 featuring Mini Coopers and old VW minivans.

I’ll miss the occasional unintended consequences that resulted when corporate takeovers clashed with the best-laid marketing plans. For example, when First Union Bank acquired CoreStates, it also inherited the basketball arena that was home to the NBA’s 76ers. The “CoreStates Center” sign was coming down and the “First Union Center” sign was going up when it occurred to someone how headline writers were going to abbreviate the new name.

Before the college football bowl season finally began winding down, many of us (OK, a few of us) sat in front of our TVs wondering about this new crop of low-rent game sponsors. Slashed rates allowed local credit unions and regional trucking firms to have their images splashed across a national stage, prompting viewers to wonder how exactly they could patronize the San Diego Credit Union or R+L Carriers even if they wanted to.

To help these would-be customers, I’ve compiled a complete list of the games and their sponsors with a little something about each firm. I would’ve included the teams who played and the final score too, but nobody cares.

magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl – The magicJack is some kind of device you stick in your computer to make phone calls. Sounds like a good idea until you realize how awkward it is to hold the monitor up to your ear while you try to talk into the mouse.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl – R+L is an Ohio-based trucking firm founded in 1965. Ralph L. “Larry” Roberts was a mere teenager with aspirations of owning his own business. His dream became a reality with the purchase of a single truck he used to haul furniture. The firm then grew into … That’s really all you need to know.

SDCCU Poinsettia Bowl – Everyone living in San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties is eligible to join this federally insured credit union. If you watched the game from your home in Louisville, their competitive CD rates make a move to California worthwhile. I hear R+L is available to help with your couch.

Motor City Bowl – Not too surprisingly, this Detroit game failed to attract a big-name sponsor. Reports are that next year’s game will be called the Bailout Bowl.

Meineke Car Care Bowl – Meineke is a car maintenance franchise clever enough to have worked not only their name but also what they do into their bowl name. This might be something for the SDCCU to consider when they begin negotiations for next year’s Poinsettia Bowl, which could instead become the SDCCU Foreclosure Poinsettia Bowl.

Champs Sports Bowl – Champs is a seller of sports equipment even though I thought they were a sports bar. I must be thinking of some other company I’ll never patronize.

Papajohns.com Bowl – Most people are aware of Papa John’s Pizza, but they also want you to know about their website, which uses a PDF (pizza delivery format) to bring you hot pies through your high-speed Internet connection.

Valero Energy Alamo Bowl – Valero is a retailer of gasoline that managed to work a slight rule change into the Alamo Bowl. Team scores not only can rapidly rise, but they can plummet just as quickly.

Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl – Roady’s Truck Stops are the nation’s largest chain of truck stops, catering to the professional driver and traveling motorist in 45 states, meeting the humanitarian needs of people low on fuel for many years.

Brut Sun Bowl – As the final seconds ticked off the clock in this classic, the winning coach was drenched by a cooler full of Brut cologne. He’s currently recovering in the Augusta burn center.

Bell Helicopters Armed Forces Bowl – The rush to purchase helicopters from viewers who enjoyed this match-up drove Bell’s stock price to a three-year high.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl (formerly the Peach Bowl) – They dropped the “peach” out of a concern that fuzz is not something chicken consumers want to be reminded of.

Outback Bowl – This is much like the regular college game except the football is replaced with a Bloomin’ Onion.

Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl – This bowl game had more adjectives (4) than one of the participating teams had points (3).

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl – Makers of fine cameras until the next leap in digital technology sends them into bankruptcy.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl – Perhaps the winners of this game and the Meineke Car Care Bowl could meet in a playoff: the Sell ‘Em a Muffler When They Just Need a Spark Plug Bowl.

GMAC Bowl – A long, long time ago, people bought cars from a company named “General Motors” and frequently did something called “financing” with GMAC to pay for the car on credit. This bowl is a salute to those bygone days, and includes players using helmets made of leather that have no faceguards.

AT&T Cotton Bowl – AT&T is one of the few big names still in the bowl sponsorship business. Send me a 10-cent text message and I’ll tell you more.

FedX Orange Bowl – Another of the big names still in the bowl scene. Surviving despite the tremendous loss of business due to email attachments and zip files, FedX now has a business model that relies primarily on Amazon and eBay shipments, along with its recent diversification into mowing lawns.

Allstate Sugar Bowl – A curious combination considering New Orleans was wiped out by a hurricane and is still having trouble recovering because of tight-fisted insurance companies. You might be “in good hands” with Allstate, but watch out for their prehensile tail that may be picking your pocket.

Capital One Bowl – What’s in your wallet? Not much cash after you’ve finished paying the astronomical interest rates on their credit cards.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl – The most delicious, crunchiest game on the postseason calendar.

Insight Bowl – I challenge you to follow this one: Starting in 2000, this game moved to Bank One Ballpark, now known as Chase Field. The game moved yet again effective with the 2006 game, but remained in the Phoenix metropolitan area, this time in Sun Devil Stadium, which was left without a postseason game when the Fiesta Bowl moved to the University of Phoenix Stadium.  The game was formerly known as the Copper Bowl until 1996 when sponsorship was assumed by Insight Enterprises and it became the Insight.com Bowl from 1997 to 2001, and then the Insight Bowl. Insight, incidentally, is either a type of Honda, a broadband service, or a laptop maker.

Rose Bowl, sponsored by citi – Yes, the same “citi” as the Citibank that narrowly avoided financial collapse late last year. So their stockholders wouldn’t be pissed that they threw money at the little-known Rose Bowl, note how they put their sponsorship after the bowl name and lower-cased the first letter, hoping no one would notice.

Revisited: Doing the Charleston

December 26, 2009

A spokesperson for the travel industry estimated this week that at least 5 billion Americans made a trip of 100 miles or more during this holiday season. A large majority of these were on the airlines or driving on the road, though a growing minority of travelers are choosing clean alternative transportation such as paddle boat, skate, and sliding downhill on a piece of cardboard.

When my family and I decided to go the 200 miles from Charlotte to Charleston, S.C., to visit my great aunt, we debated the merits of flying versus driving. We could make it either way in about the same amount of time, when you consider the attendant hassles and time delays involved in modern jet travel. Did we want to pay about ten times what it would cost to drive so we could experience the stimulation of surly counter agents, body searches and a potential plunge from 20,000 feet, or could we endure the tedium of freeway motoring? We realized how close a call the decision was about 50 miles out of town when I almost fell asleep at the wheel, but in the end, we’re glad we decided to drive.

There’s little of the magnificent American landscape so idolized in popular culture on the stretches of interstates 77 and 26 that bisect the state of South Carolina. Brown flatlands give way to sulfurous marshes as you approach the coast, so you’re generally left to your own imagination to summon enough interest to stay alert.

One way to do this is to admire the creativity (and lack thereof) that’s been put into the naming of different locations along the route. Towns have been saddled with unimaginative monikers like Jedburg, North, Cope and, from mapmakers who gave up completely, Ninety Six. There’s also a “Townville” that apparently was judged to be better than “Cityberg” or “Villageton”. Meanwhile, interchanges between the federal highway and various county roads have been given elaborate names to honor prominent locals, I guess because “Exit 17” was just wasn’t inspirational enough. For example, there’s the Medal of Honor Recipient Eugene Arnold Obregon Memorial Interchange, the State Solicitor J. Robert “Bobby Joe” Adamson Jr. Interchange, and the Buck Mickel Memorial Southern Connector, to name just three of the dozens we passed. I can only assume that the memorials were put at highway exits to symbolize how these heroes left the mortal world in much the same way we drivers are forced to get off for gas and a Pepsi.

Though most of the old-time South is located too far off the highway to appreciate, we did get a good sense of the bygone era when we stopped in a tiny village called Restarea. The town had only two roads – “Cars Street” and “Trucks and Campers Avenue”. Though the manufacturing base of Restarea left long ago, there are still pockets of commerce among the 100 or so residents of this bustling community. The only shopping area is a bank of vending machines behind a beautiful wrought-iron gate. There’s a small park where families eat at picnic tables and dogs romp at the end of a leash. The city hall still shows an unfortunate remnant of segregation, with the community rooms divided into separate men’s and women’s facilities. Despite that, there’s still evidence of an active cultural scene inside, including an innovative arts installation where residents can leave their thoughts for others to consider, including thought-provoking folk wisdom such as “eat me,” “Goths and emo rule” and “your stupid.”

As we got further into the last half of our four-hour drive, amusements starting running low until we were passed by a large semi with a sign on the back that asked “How’s My Driving?” I’ve seen these for years and always wondered if anyone ever called, so I pulled out my cell phone and decided to give it a try. After a couple of rings, the operator answered “England Transport customer service, can I help you?”

“Yes,” I responded. “I wanted to offer a comment on the driving of one of your owner-operators.”

A pause, then skeptically, “How can I help you again?”

“I was just passed by one of your trucks on the interstate and a sticker on the back asked ‘how’s my driving?’ and gave this 800 number. I figured not many people responded unless they were mad about something, and I just wanted to offer another perspective.”

“OK,” said the woman. “Can you give me the truck number, please?”

“No, I can’t. It’s already passed. But I can tell you it had a metallic silver trailer, mud flaps on the back wheels and was heading south about 60 miles from Charleston.”

At this point, I got the distinct impression this woman was only pretending to care. “Oh… kay,” she said. “Can you give me your, uh, comment?”

“Yes,” I said. “The driver seemed to be doing an adequate job. Nothing dangerous, nothing dramatically good either. I’d say he was meeting expectations.”

Another pause. “Um, okay. England Transport appreciates your input. Thank you for calling.”

“Do I get a coupon or a discount or anything toward my next less-than-truckload haul?”

No response. She’d hung up. At least my grogginess had passed.

Rural South Carolina was now receding in the rear-view mirror as we headed toward the more metropolitan Low Country. We passed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker advertising the “Medieval Tattoo Studio,” and I couldn’t help but wonder how inked scarring of the skin could be more primitive than it already was. Maybe they splash you with flaming tar to give your etching a random effect. Soon, the “Holy City,” as Charleston bills itself, was all around us.

We had a pleasant two-night stay at our favorite Hampton Inn-Historic District (thanks for the one night free, Mr. Eichmann). We started to remember next morning at the lobby breakfast buffet some of the reasons for the “Holy City” nickname. A family at the next table grasped each others’ hands and bowed their heads, quietly but audibly thanking the Lord for the Honey-Nut Cheerios, banana and decaf that His Mercy had bestowed upon them. Later we met up with our aunt, and got to hear all the details about how her tiny evangelical congregation had schismed yet again, this time over something to do with casseroles. (They had been renting a movie theater for their weekly services when there were 40 of them; now that they’re down to 20, they’re looking at local self-storage facilities.) Aunt Vertie confirmed later that she had indeed erased the line between faith and lunacy. We commented on how well her Buick Regal seemed to be running, and she noted that it probably needed some brake work but she was hoping the occasional addition of fluid would allow it to last “until the Rapture.” This sounds like something that GMAC and other car loan financers should investigate – leasing options that are pegged to the End Times.

It was a short enjoyable vacation that made a nice respite during the holidays. Charleston is a great place to visit but I prefer my home just off the Ungodly Memorial Interchange.

Already thinking of next year’s Christmas card

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to everyone!

(There’s an original start to a blog posting for today.)

That being said, I’m already starting to look forward and plan for next Christmas, and I need your help. Christmas Eve is usually my favorite part of Christmas, in part due to the air of expectation of what the next day will bring, but also because everything is still open for business and people are scurrying about in merry preparation.

I spent yesterday cleaning up my yard, then took a brisk walk to the grocery store, then headed up to the big regional mall to buy one last Christmas present for my son. It was simultaneously chaotic, reflective and cleansing, and may end up being my fondest memory of the 2009 holiday season (especially considering we have pouring rain forecast for the entire day today).

In the process of yesterday’s activities, I snapped a few photos with my cell phone, and it occurred to me how great it would be to capture yesterday’s mood for repackaging in next year’s Christmas cards. Personalized cards are easier to produce than ever. Usually, they show a happy family wearing their Christmas finery and gathered around their tree, or perhaps a new baby in the family, or maybe a cow. Mine is going to portray one of the following joyful scenes from yesterday.

Please review the pictures, read a little bit about the context, and send me a comment about which one you think might make the best cover for my 2010 Christmas card.

I started Christmas Eve day leaf-blowing the final remnants of fall out of my yard and onto the curbside. See how nice my lawn looks and what a neat pile of leaves I’ve left in the gutter? This scene of blessed order amidst the randomness of nature could make a great representation of why this time of year is so special to so many people.

This is me, walking to the grocery store. I may not look particularly jolly on the face of it but, trust me, I’m literally bursting with good cheer. I think the light and shadow are nicely captured, as is the discount bridal barn I’m passing across the street. I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake me for Santa, but this shot does show I have the chunky old man part down pretty good.

This is the inside of the Apple store in Charlotte’s SouthPark Mall around 3 p.m. Christmas Eve. Notice the red-shirted elves helping all the customers decide how best to dispose of their life savings. (We opted for the hard-to-find “Magic Mouse” which had just arrived in the last shipment before Christmas). I was also wearing a red shirt, and would’ve enjoyed being mistaken for an Apple employee. “Yes, this model is just what you need,” I could say. “It even has a calculator and a clock!”

No obligatory ‘Twas the Night’ parody this year

December 24, 2009
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the press
All the pundits were searching for words to address
How insurance reform to improve our healthcare
Could be done if Joe Lieberman would only play fair
 
The Senators nestled all snug in their seats
While the House members clamored for pork barrel teats
Obama’s in Denmark, Glenn Beck’s on TV
All I want is a doctor who’ll help me to pee

Aw … screw this.

There will likely be thousands of parodies of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” published in the next 24 hours, with probably 90% of those about the healthcare reform debate going on in Congress right up till Christmas Eve. The more I think about it, the more I’d rather not be a part of that thundering herd of journalistic caribou.

I could just re-run the parody I wrote last year at this time. It’s a hilarious take on the difficulty President Obama was having selecting members of his first cabinet, and has as much relevance today as, well, as the Y2K bug and Garth Brooks. So maybe I’ll go in a different direction.

I’ve already done a lot of research on obscure Congressmen, how their vote could sway the final tally, and how well their name could fit into the rhyme scheme of the above-aborted parody. It was not looking easy.

“On Ruppersberger! On Frelinghuysen! On Faleomavaego! On Christian-Christensen! On Judy Chu! On Anna Eshoo! On Flake, Fudge and Stupak!”

Then there was the prospect of dealing with the leading Republican opponent of reform in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner. Does he rhyme with “insaner,” “moaner” or “Donner”? And if he did play the role of a reindeer in the poem, wouldn’t his orange pallor clash with Rudolph’s red nose?

I finally got distracted enough by the list of House members to abandon my attempt at parody, and simply enjoy a good laugh at the expense of certain representatives with amusing names. Now I realize we’ll never surpass the height of immature hilarity we had in the golden times earlier this decade, when the three most powerful men in government were George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, and their top legislative lieutenants were Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. (If only Secretary of Defense nominee Seymour Butz hadn’t been rejected in that nanny-cam scandal…)

So here I present members of the Funny Named Congressional Caucus. If you want to try to arrange them into some semblance of a poem, good luck.

• Steve Austria
• Joe Baca
• Brian Bilbray
• John Boozman
• Madeleine Bordallo
• Bobby Bright
• Norman Dicks
• Chaka Fattah
• Jeff Flake
• Marcia Fudge
• Al Green
• Dale Kildee
• Marcy Kaptur
• Jerry Lewis
• David Loebsack
• David Obey
• John Shadegg
• Adam Smith
• Zachary Space
• Bart Stupak
• Chris Van Hollen
• Zach Wamp
• Tony Weiner
• Joseph Cao
• Louie Gohmert
• Bob Goodlatte
• Mike Honda
• Chellie Pingree
• Eric J.J. Massa
• Bobby Rush

Christo: The reason for the season

December 23, 2009

Only two more days till the big day is here. Most of us have finished our shopping, finished our party-going, and are just about finished with being cheerful. The time has now come to settle back with loved ones, and let the true meaning of the holiday wash over us.

It’s time to put “Christo” back in Christmas.

The man whose birth we celebrate on Friday came from humble beginnings, only to emerge later in life as the transformative fabric artist we all know. Even if we don’t worship him as a God, virtually everyone acknowledges the positive impact he’s made on Western culture.

The performance/outdoor installation master we know today as Christo began life as Christo Vladimir Javacheff, born in a tiny Bulgarian town in 1935. His actual birth date was probably around June 13 (scholars have arrived at that date from contemporary descriptions of flocks in the field and from well-maintained birth records in the registrar’s office) though we now stage our celebration around the time of the pagans’ winter solstice.

His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, yet he didn’t allow unblinking loyalty to the scientific method to cloud the metaphysical belief that his son was the Christo Child. Mother Tsveta Dimitrova worked two full-time jobs, as both a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts and as a virgin (the latter position didn’t pay very well but had great benefits in a time when Europe was ravaged with venereal disease).

Young Christo displayed artistic talent at a very early age. Legend has it that once, when his mother experienced a chill, he picked up a throw rug and draped over Tsveta’s shivering shoulders, presaging a career that would see him wrap both natural and manmade objects in immense swaths of cloth and label it “environmental art.” He studied at the Sofia Academy and in Prague for four years, then spent the spring break of 1957 on a train trip to Austria after bribing a railway official to let him out of the Communist bloc.

In October 1958, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Precilda de Guillebon, the mother of the woman who would become his wife and partner for the next fifty years, and known simply as Jeanne-Claude. Initially attracted to her half-sister, he got Jeanne-Claude pregnant instead (sounds like a tragically missed encasing opportunity). Already engaged to another man, she proceeded with the wedding at Christo’s insistence — it’s said he was intrigued by the prospect of seeing so many covered packages among the wedding gifts — but abandoned her new husband immediately after the honeymoon. Jeanne-Claude’s parents were displeased with the relationship because he was a refugee, even though they had plenty of other good reasons.

By 1961 Christo had become wealthy with the invention and patent of the cooking oil Crisco, allowing the two young artists to begin their first major work, covering barrels in the German port of Cologne. In 1962, without the consent of local authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall (?), they blocked off a small street near the river Seine with a different set of barrels, while Jeanne-Claude convinced approaching police to let the piece stand for several hours. Somehow, this made them famous in Paris, which convinced them to leave for the U.S.

Flying to New York on separate planes to ensure that both would not die in the same accident, unless of course the two planes crashed into each other, the duo began their American careers. Christo struggled with the English language (as he had struggled with French, and Bulgarian, for that matter), which led him to simplify the crediting of work done by both he and his wife. Even though Jeanne-Claude was the natural organizer, the extrovert and the one who dyed her hair bright red and smoked cigarettes, it was “Christo” who was famous artist. It wasn’t until 1994 that he retroactively gave her half-credit for the work.

Christo loved the freedom of America, and loved how many things it had to wrap. He had been “stateless” since his arrival in Austria years before, and decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1973. He studied hard to pass the citizenship exam, and had to take it several times until it finally sunk in that cotton, denim, acetate, acrylic, nylon, flannel and microfiber were neither presidents nor provisions in the Bill of Rights. One of his proudest moments would come in 2005 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was okay with him if Christo wanted to erect his most famous project, “The Gates,” in Central Park, as long as he cleaned up after himself. It was that signature piece — 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric and placed on paths throughout the park — which cemented Christo’s image in the public consciousness.

His other most notable works included “Documenta 4,” an inflated air package that hovered 280 feet over Europe for ten hours in 1968; “Running Fence,” a curtain of fabric that ran through the mountains and into the sea; “Surrounded Islands,” the wrapping of eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay in pink woven polypropylene in 1983; and the 1995 packaging of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in fabric. He also installed thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California in a seven-year project appropriately called “The Umbrellas,” that ended colorfully (blue for Japan, yellow for the U.S.) but tragically (two people killed) in 1991.

Not all of Christo’s work was so serious as to be potentially fatal. An important part of Christmas is the fun and levity the season brings, and this is reflected in some of his most light-hearted work. After cartoonist Charles Schulz drew an episode of his comic strip “Peanuts” with Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in fabric, Christo constructed a wrapped doghouse and presented it to the Schulz Museum in 2003. The artist is also considering ways to enrobe some other popular animated figures, including the Taunting Robot who jumps up and down in the corner of the screen during Fox TV football broadcasts, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).

Tragically, Christo’s life partner Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm only a month ago, casting a pall over the current holiday season. But knowing Christo’s resilience and his central role in the seasonal theme of new life, he’ll probably take that pall and wrap it around something festive, much like he folded himself into sackcloth to create the Shroud of Turin during his early years in Europe.

So as you finalize your Christmas preparations over the next 48 hours, don’t forget to take time to remember the reason for the season. When you wrap up that last present and put it under the tree, don’t forget that it was Christo who was born into this world to save mankind and to offer the idea that gifts temporarily concealed by gaily colored swathing was a great way to celebrate the advent of a Savior.

Christo: He's in there somewhere

Fake News Briefs (holiday edition): Death, disease and Hitler

December 22, 2009

Woman described as “chicken” dies

TOPEKA, Kansas (Dec. 21) — Jane Hampton, 57, beloved wife and mother, and a friend to nearly everyone she met, died Saturday after a less-than-courageous struggle against Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Diagnosed with the fatal ailment almost a year ago, Jane did not fight tirelessly against the malady that would eventually claim her life. She pretty much knew there was no chance she would survive and she figured, why bother?

“We see so many patients who come through here battling with all their might to overcome their sickness. Jane was not one of these,” said Dr. Henry Emerson, chief of neurological disorders at Plains General Hospital. “She was scared to death. Well, not literally scared to death — that can be attributed to the spongiform encephalopathy that was eating her brain.”

“But I’ve rarely seen anyone who gave up so easily,” Emerson said. “What a chicken she was.”

Family members remember Jane reacting with dismay, then resignation when she learned she had what is commonly known as “mad cow disease.” When she found out that a new treatment regimen could prolong her life by as much as several years, she said there was no way she would allow herself to be poked with needles and given other types of aggressive care.

“I still remember the look in her eye when we spelled out her options,” said head nurse Ellen Jensen. “She told me in no uncertain terms, ‘No. Get away. That machine looks like it will hurt.’ They were just simple x-rays but she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, even though she was afraid of just about everything else.”

Vaccination fever spreading

ATLANTA (Dec. 21) — Widespread shortages in the swine flu vaccine reported earlier this year have apparently dissipated. Now, an excess of the medicine on the market is requiring health care professionals to get creative with ideas for how to dispense the drug to those not yet vaccinated.

The newest method of distribution is being seen at convenience stores. Vials of the H-1-N-1 vaccine are placed next to the take-one-give-one penny tray, with customers being encouraged to inject themselves as they pay for their gasoline, cigarettes and beer. It is hoped the similar rhyming meter of the two phrases will trigger a connection that encourages preventive care along with the attempt to reduce pocket change.

Some stores are also offering the medication as part of their fountain drink set-up. Capitalizing on the popularity of the self-serve “Big Gulp,” the Seven-Eleven chain is dispensing the anti-flu remedy through a drink nozzle. To eliminate the need for dangerous syringes in an area of the store so often inhabited by oafs and clods, specially hardened plastic straws will be made available for customers to jab themselves with.

Also joining in the effort to get most of the U.S. population inoculated by the first of the year are Subway sandwich shops and GameStop, a retailer of video games. Subway’s “sandwich artists” will have a vat of the serum positioned next to the vegetable toppings, so that patrons can have it sprinkled onto their orders along with lettuce and tomatoes. At GameStop, clerks will circle a phone number printed onto receipts and encourage people to respond to a customer service survey, noting that random callers will win an Xbox game version of the disease.

Perhaps the most innovative approach is being taken by the Harris-Teeter chain of grocery stores. As part of their “Very Important Customer” loyalty program, shoppers who spend a minimum of $50 per order for 12 consecutive weeks will win a free Easter ham that has been marinated in the flu vaccine. With a tag line of “When Swine Flew,” the campaign will borrow from the popular adage “when pigs fly” to encourage VIC customers to protect themselves and their families from the pandemic while “racking up savings that will make your wallet as fat as a hog.”

Hitler was mending his ways at war’s end

BERLIN (Dec. 20) — Newly uncovered documents at the German national museum reveal that World War II madman Adolf Hitler was just starting to turn his life around when he died in an underground bunker as Allied troops advanced on the city.

The Nazi murderer responsible for perhaps 30 million deaths during aggression on three continents had “come to see the negative impact his behavior was having on relatives, friends and co-workers” and had sought counseling to address his genocidal impulses. Only two months before the 1945 fall of the Third Reich, Hitler had embarked on a twelve-step program to curtail his more harmful urges.

“He was working his way down the list of people that he had wronged, trying to personally apologize to each and every one,” wrote Hermann Witzer, human resources manager of the Nazis’ Berlin office. “It really looked like he was headed in the right direction after so many years of difficulty. All of us had noticed a change in his manner.”

Several observers interviewed by Russian and American officers in the days following victory in Europe noted that “it was such a tragic shame” that he didn’t have time to show the world how his outlook on life had improved.

“We were starting to see a new Adolf, one who was more concerned with the feelings of others and less fixated on world domination,” said Witzer. “He had already been on probation twice so he knew we were watching him. He didn’t want to get written up again but, more importantly, I think, he wanted to improve himself for his own internal satisfaction.”

Hitler’s final desperate acts in April of that year — killing his dog and its puppies, then ordering mistress Eva Braun to take poison, and then shooting himself in the head — were “totally out of character with the person that he was rapidly becoming.”

“It’s so sad to see such backsliding,” Witzer told investigators. “There was such a potential there.”

Who's a good boy?