Archive for January, 2010

Fake News: Obama giving up?

January 21, 2010

WASHINGTON (Jan. 21) — President Obama marked his first full year in office yesterday with an acknowledgement to top aides that he has failed in his attempt to halt the universe’s continued tendency toward entropy.

Despite record popularity after his election and what was perceived as a broad-based mandate for change, the nation’s forty-forth chief executive privately admits that the universal trend from order to disorder reigns unchecked. This law of physics remains in place despite his ambitious personal agenda and filibuster-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.

“He realizes now he can only do so much,” said White House aide Arnold Woods. “A start toward economic recovery, a much-needed refocus on Afghanistan and progress toward healthcare reform are nothing compared the kind of change we really need. He tried but, eh, what’re you gonna do?”

Republican opponents of the president’s initiatives were quick to pounce on the disclosure as validation of their anti-everything stance.

“We already knew he had failed,” said GOP chairman Michael Steele. “Every time I drop a pen or spill a salad in my lap, I’m reminded that gravity’s tyranny over Americans of every stripe remains in place. If he can’t change the way stuff drops to the ground if not held in place, how can we expect him to succeed at anything?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed.

“When I take off my sweater and get an electric shock from the static, I’m reminded again of this administration’s failure,” McConnell said. “Electromagnetism, centrifugal force, black holes, dark matter, you name it, and the president has come up short. My face is puffy with frustration.”

The victory of a Republican in Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate race only reinforced the impression that this presidency has deteriorated into a sorry sack of solid human waste. The election of Scott Brown to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was widely seen as a death knell for healthcare reform, since Brown has said he’d provide a pivotal vote against the current bill.

Obama, speaking of the Massachusetts results before a town hall meeting in Canton, Ohio, seemed discouraged with the effect the election will likely have on the reform package now in conference committee.

“You know what?” the president asked, “the hell with all y’all.”

The vacuum created by the doom of healthcare reform will likely be filled by a new GOP proposal now beginning to emerge from the conservative Washington think tank known as Bend Over America.

The six-point plan awaiting final approval from lobbyists before its formal release to the public was leaked to the Associated Press over the weekend. Its major points for overhauling the way Americans use and pay for health care include:

• Suck it up

• Quit crying

• What are you, a baby?

• Put a band-aid on it

• I don’t want to hear your complaining

• Be a man (seriously, be a man, because we’re not covering obstetrical services for women)

A look back at high school writing

January 20, 2010

The 1960s were a great time to be in high school, as opposed to, say, fighting in Vietnam or dying in a race riot. Sure, we had the rumbles and shoulder-punch-outs that seemed earth-shattering to us, but it was mostly a time to try being free and creative in ways we were never allowed before.

My senior year at Miami Norland High School was when I first got interested in creative writing. Mrs. Massey taught a journalism class that seemed to cover everything but journalism. Inspired by the ground-breaking social upheaval of the times, she didn’t take attendance and she didn’t mind taking guff from her precocious students, most of whom were Jewish, upper-middle-class and looking for intellectual trouble.

She ran her class as something of an educational experiment, giving us the freedom to talk and write about whatever we wanted. My first essay for her was a call for America to give equal rights to broccoli. Later, I attacked a grading system that allowed me to get a 93 while my friend scored only a 79. “Does this make me 117.7% better a person than he?” I asked, quite the profound question when you stop to think in those pre-calculator days that I had to use long division

And then there was the horrible but creative (but, more than anything, horrible) poetry. A favorite stanza I wrote still lingers in my memory over 40 years later.

When I at last have breathed my final breath
And my remains are lowered in the ground
I wonder what will people think of me?
When I like them had walked upon the earth?

Heavy. And not at all like the man I’ve become, who doesn’t even care what people think while his remains are still up and walking around, cutting people off in traffic and sighing loudly as that lady in front of him pays with a check check in the supermarket.

Little of that early writing has survived. However, I think I can create a replica, and thought it might be fun to try. What follows is the essay I might’ve written for one of her final assignments of that last year of high school: Pick a topic, any topic, and write a minimum of 500 words.

+++

Any topic, you say? ANY?

“Any” is such an expansive word and yet also so limiting, a mere three letters in a language replete with words of considerably greater length. There’s an “A”, and then there’s an “N”, and then there’s a “Y”. Why, indeed?

(I’m assuming that letters count as words in your arbitrary call for a minimum of 500 of such fleeting entities).

Webster defines “topic” as “something dealt with in a text or in discussion.” He tells us to also “see subject, theme, matter or issue.” But one must ask, who is he to be telling us what to see, with his eighteenth-century perspective and prejudices?

No one is really sure who he is anyway, whether he is Daniel or Noah or perhaps another Webster entirely. Or maybe he is some yet-to-be-conceived Webster, a man-child who will inhabit a space in the media of the future, perhaps an urban Chicago setting in which his parents were recently killed in a car accident and he’s adopted by George Papadapolous, played by Alex Karras. And perhaps he shall be known as Emmanuel. You never know.

These are times that demand more focus than to throw open a discussion such as this to the whims of high school seniors. We are but buds, still unformed, still uninformed, still uniform in our adherence to societal demands, not to mention the school dress policy. Mere buds, I say!

Speaking of nature, we should consider the moon and the stars and the galaxies that swirl around us in their impromptu dance of celestial wonder. They would qualify as a topic, certainly, but what good would it do to attempt to put them into the categories, the restrictions that language demands? Plus, it’s daytime, and even if it were dark out, my telescope is broken, and my stupid younger brother now uses its tubular length as a baseball bat. His naivete is so sad that it makes me weep.

I qualify not, though, as a crybaby, for I am a sensitive lad. Even my mother says so.

You label this class as “journalism”. I repudiate your labels, as we have not been asked to keep any journal whatsoever. (I’m not suggesting it; I’m just making an observation.) I heap derision and disgust on your provincial concepts of “objectivity” and “facts.” I do this by putting certain words in “quotes,” as is the literary fashion. Fashion, though, is of little concern to me and my generation, as the afore-noted reference to the dress code infers.

In closing, I stop to take a look at myself in the mirror and at the mask I wear which society — and my acne — has demanded. I see in the reflection a challenged soul, a primordial man, an adolescent in a shirt that is really too tight, though it claims to be a husky. In the background of the reflection, I see a can of Right Guard deodorant next to the bathroom sink, and its implied assertion that I need to eliminate all traces of nature from my essence. It’s an effort that is doomed to failure.

Maybe I should switch to a roll-on.

Fake News Brief: North Korea is undecided

January 19, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea (Jan. 18) — North Korea announced yesterday that it will return to stalled international talks on its nuclear disarmament, then said no, probably not, after all; then said OK, we guess so; then said no way; then gave encouraging signs it was ready to negotiate.

The nation’s foreign ministry also repeated its call for a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, wondering “what’s taking so long?” The spokesperson went on to stress that the conflict couldn’t officially end until the U.S. removed its forces from South Korea, but it might be okay if American troops simply all jumped in the air at the same time so they were no longer technically on the ground.

“We at least want to see sanctions ended immediately,” said Park Kim. “The Americans have no right to align the rest of the world against us. Alright, maybe they do. Whatever.”

The six-party talks — which include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia — began in 2003 as an effort to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program in return for aid and security guarantees. Discussions were halted in 2005 when tensions on the peninsula rose, resumed in 2006 for six months, stopped in early 2007 after a chief negotiator got a little stomach bug that kept him out of work, and then began again for about an hour and a half. The group broke for lunch that first day but failed to continue in the afternoon session when the North Koreans decided they’d rather hang out by the hotel pool.

Representatives from the communist north have made some tentative overtures to their long-time enemies in the south in recent months that were seen as a cause for hope the long conflict could be resolved. A joint factory complex near the demilitarized zone houses companies owned by the South Koreans and employing about 40,000 North Korean workers. The factories manufacture mostly rubber bands, yo-yo’s and boomerangs.

It was hoped the economic cooperation could lead to a long-term peace. However, relations were again strained when the North Koreans test-fired a ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan in 2009. Initial concerns about the launch in the West subsided when the rocket turned out to be attached to a long Slinky™, which yanked it back into northern airspace with a loud “sproing!”

The communist regime has long been regarded as unstable and unpredictable. The indecision of the rulers apparently goes as far back as the country’s founding shortly after World War II, when two rival factions couldn’t agree on a name for the newly built capital city.

“The story goes that one side wanted ‘Yong’ and one side wanted ‘Yang’,” said the State Department’s senior East Asian analyst Tony Kent. “They argued back and forth for hours, then one of the leading generals said he would resolve the difference in a few minutes but had to ‘pee first.’ When he returned, the group had already misinterpreted his parting words by compromising on ‘Pyongyang’.”

Monday, briefly

January 18, 2010

Cats are lousy first-responders

I accidentally stepped on the tail of one of my three cats Friday. She was uninjured but let out quite a screech.

My other two cats immediately rushed to the scene, apparently to see what they could do to help. When they realized they didn’t have opposing thumbs or first-aid supplies or any EMT training beyond the application of cat saliva, they discovered there was little they could do to help.

So, they figured, what the hell — let’s attack the injured party.

Very catty.

A rare celestial alignment of my three cats

Excellence = survival

My wife and I accompanied a friend to a recent hospitalization for some tests he was having. We helped him recall his family’s health history for the admissions official. Both his parents are in their mid-80’s and still relatively healthy despite their age and the accompanying maladies one might expect at that point in your life.

As we recited those illnesses, you got the feeling the hospital lady was missing the larger point that, despite a case of high-blood pressure on his father’s side and a bout with diabetes on his mother’s, these people were still alive. Would she have preferred that they died disease-free from a double homicide in their forties? It certainly would’ve made her job a lot easier.

Soon, the on-duty nurse arrived to introduce herself. Like most hospitals, they hang a small whiteboard near the wall clock where they can write some basic information the hospitalized person will need to know: his room’s phone number, the names and hours of the nurse and her assistant, etc. After posting these, the nurse wrote the word “excellence” and an equal sign at the bottom of the board and turned to the three of us.

“And how would you define ‘excellence’ during your visit here?” she asked.

We looked at each other, puzzled, as we struggled to understand the question. The nurse waited, offering no clue about what the correct answer might be.

Suddenly it occurred to me, as a former trainer familiar with some of the nonsense that passes for continuous improvement efforts, that we were the victims of a corporate quality initiative. These poor nurses had been yanked out of service, yanked out of time that could’ve been spent training worthwhile skills like offering snacks and keeping people from dying, and run through some worthless quality course. “Find out the customer’s expectations,” I imagine they were told by a consultant, “and then find a way to exceed those expectations.”

As our silence continued, you could tell the nurse was starting to get embarrassed about the whole thing. She doubtless had a checklist on her clipboard reminding her to ask this question, lest she forget that one of her goals should be adequately caring patients. Maybe she thought about an earlier family who wanted to look up “excellence” on dictionary.com through their Blackberry, or the working-class parents who wanted to know “what they hell are you talking about? My kid is sick here.”

“Um, I guess we’d consider our stay an excellent experience if we find out what’s wrong with our friend, and you can help us fix it,” I said. “And then maybe exceed our expectations a little as well.”

The nurse smiled broadly. Oh, that’s a great answer, I could see her thinking; it’s just like the one the consultant gave during his role-playing exercise. She scribbled it into her notes.

I was happy I could heal her discomfort.

When a body meets a body …

As I drove toward home last week, I feared I had made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Juarez, Mexico. Lying in the gutter, just across the street from my house, appeared to be a lifeless corpse.

The subdivision homeowners’ association is going to absolutely freak. And they’ll think it’s my fault because it’s near my driveway. My annual dues are going through the roof after this.

When I got closer, the legs came into clearer focus. Poking out of the long beige pants were a pair of avocado green shoes. Odd, I thought, those colors don’t really coordinate very well.

Finally, I realized that it wasn’t a body at all, but rather a rolled-up shag carpet, likely dumped by one of the condo owners across the way.

Now I was really upset. We’ve complained about those people and their illegal trash disposal practices before. And shag carpet, no less!

Fortunately, not a poorly dressed victim

My thoughts are with you, I guess

There’s a nice guy who worked in our office several years ago who transferred to another division. We still see him occasionally. Recently, he and his family were called to New York, to be at the bedside of his mother who was in the final stages of heart disease.

Former coworkers who heard of his plight circulated a sympathy card in my department. It seemed to me that sentiments like “may your memories bring you comfort” and “others care deeply and are remembering your loved one with special thoughts” might be a little premature, even if well intended. It also occurred to me that I didn’t really know the guy, much less his mother, yet was being asked to sign the card.

What could I say about the pending, probable loss? How could I possibly find the right words to express how I felt about the sad passing of someone I didn’t even know existed? Maybe this would’ve been appropriate:

“Like others have written, your family is in our thoughts and prayers, though in my case it’s more of a vague awareness. I didn’t really know you, or your mother for that matter, yet I admire her courage for hanging on long enough to be appalled at getting this card. Assuming she does eventually pass, may it help to know that a total stranger wishes to add his acknowledgement that dying is bad.”

Revisted: Lives of the Dead — Martin Luther

January 17, 2010

Martin Luther (1483-1546), widely regarded as the father of the Protestant Reformation and a number of unintended babies, was a German theologian and religious reformer who challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He also had a vast influence on European concepts of politics, economics, education, language and hair styling, with his now-familiar bowl cut making him one of the most crucial figures in modern European history.

He was born in Eisleben (later Hitlerville, and then changed back to Eisleben) in what today is Germany. His father, originally known as Hans Luder, had wanted to name his son “Lex” but was convinced by his wife to go with “Abraham Martin and John,” later shortened to simply Martin. The family was descended from peasantry, but Hans made a nice living for himself and his family as a copper miner and part-time fletcher/cooper (roughly equivalent to today’s writer/director). Martin received his early education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, before enrolling at the University of Erfurt at age 17. Red-shirted during his freshman season, he became an outstanding left tackle for the Fightin’ Furter football team by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1502. He passed on an opportunity for a pro career — he was projected as high as the eighth round by some scouts — and chose to stay in school to pursue his master’s, which he received in 1505.

He began to study law, as his father wished, but didn’t have enough credits to graduate so he fell back on his undergraduate major – monking — and entered the Augustinian monastery. Within a year, he had so impressed his superiors that he was selected for the priesthood, ordained, and conducted his first celebration of mass. (“Celebration” might be overstating the case, as he kept stumbling over unfamiliar phrasing, once mispronouncing “Madonna” as “My donut.”) He continued his studies in theology, including multiple re-takes of basic Latin, until he got his big chance to go to Rome and check out how Catholicism was done in the big city.

To put it mildly, he was not impressed. In fact, he was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy, especially the way they had substituted vodka shots for wine in the communions they conducted. This led him to question other basic tenets of church, and he gradually came to believe that Christians were saved not through their own efforts but instead by God’s grace. The church leadership was making a tidy fortune off the sale of indulgences, which were peddled to the peasants in the form of mugs, posters and t-shirts (“Rome Rules” was a common slogan for this merchandising). This crass effort disgusted Luther to the point where he suffered from nearly constant vomiting, though scholars recently discovered a sixteenth-century Domino’s menu that led them to believe that salmonella-tainted pizza may have been a contributing factor.

Luther finally emerged into worldwide prominence when in 1517 he was named Holy Roman Empire Today’s “Most Pious Man Alive” and became known for some graffiti he had scrawled on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. This posting of the so-called Ninety-five Theses has been greatly misunderstood by historians and only recently was clarified when the old door itself was located at a garage sale in East St. Louis, Missouri. It was long believed that Luther wrote the theses before-hand and then nailed them to the cathedral door as a sign of protest and to show his growing prowess as a wallboard installer.

In reality, Luther wrote the seminal document on-site, meticulously painting it onto the oak with a fine single-haired brush. What bothered the church elders more than what the manuscript said was the fact that he was always in the way, blocking the main entrance almost constantly during the three weeks it took him to finish. Most of the demands were not that unreasonable – for example, he wrote of the need for sturdier pews to “accommodate the ample Germanic hind.” He also wanted Wednesday night services moved to Tuesday because most members couldn’t TiVo floggings in the public square like the wealthy clergy could. And he wanted the liturgy conducted in native languages because Latin “sounds too much like they’re just making it up as they go along.”

He made it all the way to the next-to-last thesis (“94. Enough with the incense already, it’s giving everybody a headache”) with church officials only mildly curious about the progress of the bowl-headed scribe. On the morning of his final day of work, he began writing the last entry as a crowd of onlookers grew around him. “The pope is not ni…” he began. The throng began buzzing with anticipation. The pope is not what? Nitrogen-based? Nihilistic? Luther slowly added a “c”. Nicene? Nickel-plated? Then he added an “e”. “Don’t get upset everybody – it could still be ‘Nicene,’” shouted one observer, trying to quell the growing distress of the crowd. Then Luther added the punctuation mark that would change European history forever, a period. “The pope is not nice.” The multitude gasped, but soon dispersed when they heard a beheading was being set up across the street.

The Roman Curia, which is kind of like a Senate subcommittee only crankier, began an investigation that eventually led to the condemnation of Luther’s teachings in 1520 and his excommunication a year later. He was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and asked to recant. His famous assertion of conscience in the face of certain punishment – “No Can Do!” – is most likely apocryphal, but still he was spirited away by Prince Frederick the Wise who kept him in virtual house arrest at his castle.

Luther was able to continue much of his other life work, though it paled in comparison to royally pissing off the entire Catholic Church. He made a little money doing some free-lance translations and sticking his nose into the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, where he supported the peasants’ political demands while repudiating their theological arguments, a fine distinction that was lost on all the people who had swords. He married a former nun, a widely acknowledged hottie by the name of Katharina von Bora, and continued his writing as his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe.

By the late 1530’s, his health began to deteriorate and he took on an anti-Semitic bent by accusing the Jews of exploiting the confusion he had caused among Christians. This made him virtually unable to locate a decent doctor, and he died on Feb. 18, 1546. His obituary, printed several days later in the Eisleben Picayune-Examiner, included a long list of his works, an even longer list of his children, and the name of his new religion: Martinism, which was later changed to Luthermania, then Lutheranism.

Revisited: Now we’re cooking … with crackers

January 16, 2010

There’s been quite an explosion in culinary creativity in recent years. Things that just were not done with foods in the past are now being routinely cooked up by top-flight chefs as well as amateurs in their home kitchens. Taste combinations we couldn’t fathom ten years ago – lamb and Pez, free-range chicken and bubblegum, eggplant and Chloraseptic, pomegranate and mint-flavored toothpaste – are now so commonplace as to be almost ordinary.

Television, at least at some level, seems to have had a large part in driving this revolution. Shows like “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and “You Think You Can Cook? Well, Think Again” are all over the airwaves, showcasing cooks with stars in their eyes and eyeballs in their soups. Celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, known for using his lit cigarettes as a heat source for his famous fondues, and Andrew Zimmern, the “Bizarre Foods” guy who recently added blown-out retreads and chunks of asphalt to the carbon-based matter he’s willing to consume, are well known and admired, assuming they’re still alive as of this writing. Racheal Ray brings less exotic ideas like pasta-stuffed Mom jeans to dinner tables all over the country.

But even at the everyday level where most of us live, we see these changes. Fast food restaurants that once offered only regular French fries, now also offer curly fries and seasoned fries. Pizza toppings, the most exotic of which used to be anchovies, now include pine nuts, pine cones and pine tar. You can even buy a hamburger that has another hamburger on top of it.

Large corporations have been quick to join in on this anything-goes bandwagon with suggestions of their own, cooked up in the same kitchens that brought us such entrees as high-interest junk bonds and collateralized mortgage originations. It’s a great opportunity to team even the most pedestrian snack foods with exotic recipes in the interest of selling more Fritos and Twizzlers.

One such company is Nabisco, makers of not only nature’s most perfect food, the Oreo, but also saltines, more formally known as Original Premium Saltine Crackers. The quick and easy recipe on packaging now on the shelves is the Grilled Steak Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing. Below is the actual recipe:

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Sprinkle steak with chili powder. Grill steak 7 minutes on each side. Remove from grill and let stand 5 minutes. Meanwhile, toss lettuce with tomatoes, onion and olives. Place Italian dressing and avocado in blender and blend until smooth. Cut steak into thin slices; arrange over salad. Drizzle with dressing mixture.

And then, the final and, some would say, most important step: Serve with the crackers.

Website Review: BabyNames.com

January 15, 2010

The year is 2050. Actress Dakota Fanning has been kidnapped by aliens. The extraterrestrials demand a ransom of Twizzlers (the cherry ones, not the licorice ones) in an amount that would cost nearly the entire GNP of the earth to produce and package.  

The Hollywood of the future springs into action the way it knows best: by staging a cheesy benefit to bring in donations to help fund the massive cost of Twizzler production. All the big names in show business are there to demonstrate their support, even though the captured actress’s most recent film work hasn’t been quite up to par.  

Mars Badu, daughter of singer Erykah Badu, is there, along with her brother from another father, Seven 3000, whose dad was Andre 3000 of OutKast. Audio Science Clayton, son of actress Shannyn Sossamon, is there. Moxie Crimefighter Jillette, daughter of magician Penn Jillette, and Speck Wildhorse Mellencamp, son of singer John Mellencamp, are a dating couple now, and have arrived together. Poet Goldberg, daughter of actress Soleil Moon Frye, and Elijah Bob Patricus Guggi Q Hewson, son of musician Bono Vox, are there, as are the daughters of singer Bob Geldof — Fifi-Trixibelle Geldof, Little Pixie Geldof and Peaches Honeyblossom Cheney (nee Geldof, and now the wife of reanimated former vice president Dick Cheney).

Even a few of the elders from previous generations make an appearance: Zowie Bowie and Diva Muffin Zappa join together in a duet written for the occasion, “It’s Not Our Fault Our Dads Were Rock Stars (Dakota Come Home).”  

Forty years ago, all the bizarre names in attendance might’ve taken focus away from the plight of Miss Fanning, now struggling so gamely to breathe in the thin atmosphere of East Pluto. But thanks to the creativity of parents everywhere, inspired by websites like babynames.com, virtually the entire world is now populated with goofily-named spawn. Today’s Website Review looks at this source of inspiration for parents and a lifetime of being bullied for their kids.  

Babynames.com is a darling site for prospective moms and dads looking to find just the right name for their bundle of Joiyieux, and not terribly concerned with the harmful effects that laptop radiation might pose for the unborn fetus. It has all kinds of helpful features to direct visitors to over 15,000 naming options, along with advice, games and shopping opportunities.  

The home page provides easy links to the top baby names of 2009, a search engine to allow you to browse for names by different categories, and a “Name of the Day.” Yesterday this was the two-star-rated “Verlee,” a combination of Vernon and Lee, and about as ugly as having two redneck dads might suggest. You can also buy an iPhone App to carry name ideas wherever you go, and can follow late-breaking names on both Facebook and Twitter. (If you sign up for these, you may want to consider not being pregnant quite so much).  

The most popular names for boys last year were Aidan/Aiden/Aden and Cayden/Caden/Kayden/Kaden, and for girls were Amelia/Emilia and Isabella/Izabella. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t saddle my child with all that slash drawing every time they had to sign their name, but I suppose it’s still better than plugging in a ∞ or a ∂ or a ‰. Other notable appellations to make the top 100 include Logan, Rhys and Xander for boys, and Isla, Esme and Aurora for girls. The once-popular John barely makes the list at the final spot.  

If you’re interested instead in a name that reflects a certain cultural background, there’s an option for you too. Most major nationalities are represented as well as some you’d think were long buried in ancient history. While there may be no Sumerian, Neanderthal or Australopithecus names, there is a nice list of Aztec names including Tlalli, Quetzalxochitl and the unfortunate Atl, who’s likely to spend a lifetime being constantly diverted to Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.  

If you’re not sure which of several names you’re considering are best for you and your baby, there’s a place to list your finalists and have site visitors vote on their favorites. Obviously, there’s no requirement that you go with majority rule, which is a good thing if you want to avoid Internet trends like Stephen Colbert, Megan Fox or LongerPenisCanNowBeYours.  

There’s an Info and Advice pulldown that features message boards, a celebrity baby blog (‘just barfed again,” reports Atlas Tupper, son of Anne Heche), and a name consulting service. “Tips for Writers” suggests romance authors steer clear of exotic names like Chesapeake Divine or Rod Remington, and that science fiction writers avoid unwieldy titles like Zyxnrid.  

The predictably named Jennifer hosts an “Ask Babynames.com” forum to answer specific reader questions. No, she tells Anna, you shouldn’t name your twin girls “Tara” and “Clara.” Danielle is concerned that her choice, “Akuji,” was copyrighted by a videogame of the same name, but turns out it’s not. Kimberly wants to name her son “Dresden,” but is concerned it will recall the German city firebombed into ashes during World War II; not great, Jennifer advises, yet still better than “Hiroshima” or “Pearl Harbor.” Tyler wants to know the derivation of the name “Stamatina” and is told its root is “stop” in Greek, and therefore a good name for a girl.  

In the Fun Stuff section, there’s a “Random Renamer” feature. I typed in my first and middle name and got options for the “wild” me (Juke Mason), the “stylish” me (Tempest Jareth), the “quiet” me (Jokull Seiko) and the “philosophical” me (Daytona Raul), all of which would also result in the m0rtified me. You can also guess the stage name of people who chose to change their birthname for show business. For example, R&B singer Akon was born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam. Audrey Hepburn was Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston. Della Reese was Delloreese Early, Elle McPherson was Eleanor Gow and Laura Nyro was Laura Nigro.  

A list of games that can be played at baby showers starts out fun but trends toward the creepy and ultimately the ghastly. A game called “Baby Got Back” directs players to “get five little plastic babies and put them in a cup, have guests shake up the cup and toss the babies onto a table. The player with the most babies with their ‘bottoms up’ wins.” The game “Dirty Diapers” involves putting eight different chocolate candy bars in eight different diapers, microwaving them, then having each guest guess what candy bars they were originally (no tasting allowed). “Ice-Ice-Baby” again uses miniature plastic babies, this time putting them in cups of water and freezing them. “Each guest receives one ice-baby,” the instructions read. “Whoever can make the water melt first and announces ‘my water broke’ wins a prize.”   

Of course, the obvious temptation at a site like this is to check out your own name to see how it rates, so you can know if you’re a worthwhile human being or not. I searched for “Davis” and found that it’s the 395th most popular name currently in use and is contained on the tentative name lists of 547 expectant parents. The origin of the name is English and it means, not surprisingly, “son of David.” Other notables with the name are Sammy Davis Jr. and Bette Davis, but they’re not really using it any more. Though not common, “Davis” is rated four stars on a five-star scale for desirability. For comparison purposes, I checked the name “Adolf” (German in origin, it means “noble wolf”) and it only rated two stars, so me and my fellow Davis’s are at least twice as good as, for example, Hitler. 

Below the name facts is a place to upload photos of your own special namesake. Adolf had “no pix uploaded, yet” but there was one cute little Davis, shown below: 

This one looks like a wise guy

I enjoyed reading through this website, and can definitely recommend it to anyone in the market for baby names. Readers of all ages who don’t have a name will find a virtually endless supply of possible things they can call themselves. And if people are already referring to you by some kind of label, you can still enjoy a few fun facts and diversions. Just watch out for those diapers and those frozen plastic babies.

Trying for freebies at the Chick-fil-A

January 14, 2010

The taste of humiliation I have in my mouth doesn’t blend well with the chicken-y goodness of the golden-fried white-meat strips I’ve just eaten. I think I prefer honey mustard sauce to shame as a condiment.    

Earlier this week I tried to pull a fast one on the fast-food industry, and had a decidedly “combo” experience. I got a free dinner but paid for it with embarrassment and disgrace that will cost me for a long time.    

Tuesdays, as cheapskates everywhere know, are better known as “Topper Tuesdays” at most Chick-fil-A outlets. Patrons at the drive-thru window may be treated to a pack of complementary chicken pieces with the purchase of a regular meal. So if, as my son and I did, you buy the tenders combo, it comes with three additional nuggets of chicken. (I think you can also get the meat formed into tetrahedrons or spheroids as well, and even droplets, if you can stomach what that suggests).    

All you have to do to qualify is have a promotional cow-headed antenna topper on your car. I didn’t have an antenna on the car I was driving at the time, so it didn’t make sense to have a topper either. I use an iPod rather than a car radio to get most of my musical entertainment while driving, and I can’t imagine affixing the cow to my earbuds — they’re uncomfortable enough as it is already.    

I didn’t think that someone making minimum wage working the headsets at Chick-fil-A would be conscientious (let alone conscious) enough, to enforce the topper requirement, so I figured I’d try to fake my way to a gratis appetizer. I didn’t exactly lie as we drove up to the order box; I figured a little creative deception would do the job.    

“What’s the deal on the ‘Topper Tuesday’ again?” I asked.    

“Dad! No!” objected my son, but I was intent on teaching him a lesson, in frugality if not honesty. He slumped deep into the seat as I continued our order.    

The voice explained the rules of the promotion. I placed an order for the number 6 combo, then added “and we’ll do that topper thing.”    

We pulled forward into a line of four or five cars waiting to pay and receive their food. It was only then that I noticed a security camera pointing mostly at the back door, where people come to rob the place, but also in our general direction. Uh oh, I thought, we’re going to get caught, as soon as we spend the next ten minutes waiting our turn. Now I was learning the anxiety-filled anticipation Mr. Abdulmutallab must’ve felt flying over the Canadian Maritime Provinces on Christmas Day, except I had to stay in my seat and he got to use the bathroom.    

When we finally made it to the window, we were greeted by friendly young Amanda. She leaned out of her glass turret and examined the top of my car. Not even one of those stubby antennae, much less the livestock she was looking for.    

“Where’s your topper?” she asked.    

“Oh. Uh…it’s not up there?” I asked, craning my neck as if I could actually see the roof from the driver’s seat.    

She peered into my car, but said nothing.    

“Shoot,” I finally said. “It must’ve fallen off. Or maybe it’s on my other car. I think maybe I have the wrapper here in my glove my compartment — can I show you that?”    

“You know it came with an adapter, so it should snuggly fit any style antenna,” she said.    

How can they possibly afford to incent employees like this with all the giveaways they offer? The three-dollar holiday calendar alone has coupons good for at least triple that amount, including September’s offer of a free poultry farm. Only chumps pay for food at Chick-fil-A.    

“Well, I guess you can take the free part back,” I offered lamely. By now, my son was so deep into his seat I was afraid he’d pop through the undercarriage.    

“We’ll let you go this time,” she smiled at last, as she handed over the large white bag.    

“Thanks,” I mumbled, and drove quickly away.    

“You know, we can never go to any Chick-fil-A ever again, don’t you?” my son said.    

He was right. I might be able to swallow my free chicken shapes with enough vigorous chewing, but I’d never be able to swallow my pride enough to return, except perhaps in a full-body disguise.    

+++    

“Important Consumer Information” from the wrapper of the topper package:    

1) If Antenna Topper impairs your visibility while driving, remove Antenna Topper.    

2) If antenna behaves erratically with Antenna Topper attached, remove Antenna Topper.    

3) Works well with most retractable antennas    

Warning: Choking hazard.    

Antenna topper of shame

Apologies expected

January 13, 2010
I’m sorry for the way things are in China
I’m sorry things ain’t what they used to be
More than anything else, I’m sorry for myself

Singer John Denver may have said it best in his 1975 song “I’m Sorry,” wherein he appears to be expressing regret for the Cultural Revolution and the resulting chaos that shook Chinese society to its core. Even though the massive upheaval that rocked the communist nation wasn’t his fault, Denver apologized anyway for the role he may have played, then went on to regret his own existence, just to be on the safe side.

I think we can all agree with John. We’re sorry for his self too.

More than anything else, we seem to have become a sorry society in general. Apologies are everywhere these days. Consider this lineup of news stories that greeted the nation yesterday morning.

First, we hear that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called President Obama to apologize for saying during the 2008 campaign that Obama was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect.” In announcing his regret to a packed news conference, Reid also noted that he had called every available African-American he could think of, and apologized to them too.

Next came the story that former baseball slugger Mark McGwire had offered a weeping apology to Bob Costas for having used steroids during his career. Choking back tears in much the same way he choked during key plate appearances, McGwire said he called the widow of Yankee great Roger Maris to express his remorse to her as well. Maris held the season home-run record before McGwire did, though I’m thinking Mrs. Maris responded to the call by wondering “who is this again?”

Then immediately followed a report that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in an Esquire magazine interview that he was “blacker than Barack Obama” (which is not saying much if you listen to Harry Reid). Even before many had heard about the interview, news reports said Blagojevich was “standing outside his Chicago home pointing out that it was a dumb thing to say.”

“What I said was stupid, stupid, stupid,” the indicted ex-governor and star of the upcoming “Celebrity Apprentice” series said about the comment, though he was unrepentant about the planned TV appearance. “I deeply apologize for having said it. Obviously, I am not blacker than President Obama.”

Blagojevich then went on to use the word “stupid” a reported 16 more times to describe what a complete and hopeless excuse for a sphincter he was.

So is there anybody out there in the public eye who hasn’t recently offered regrets for one transgression or another?

The aforementioned non-light-skinned president held a briefing last week to “accept responsibility” for security failures that allowed the Bulge Bomber aboard an airline flight into Detroit. Accepting responsibility is not quite the same thing as being sorry, though. Obama acknowledges that he should’ve spent Christmas Day personally air-marshalling all incoming international arrivals, and admits his failure to do so. Yet he hardly seemed contrite in his manner, and repeatedly failed to call himself stupid.

How about Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck? You’d think he’d have to plead to the occasional failing, what with the crewcut and all. Instead, he’s a man proud of his shortcomings, going so far as to list them as “credits” on the back cover of his newest book. “Glenn Beck is an idiot,” trumpets Discover magazine. “A frightfully strange man,” writes publisher Tina Brown. “Only in his wildest dreams could an actual suicide bomber hope to do as much damage to this country,” says the understated-as-usual Keith Olbermann.

Certainly not NBA star forward and gun enthusiast Gilbert Arenas. He said he was sorry for brandishing weapons in the locker room but it didn’t seem like he was sorry enough, because he was still smiling.

Not golfing great Tiger Woods. We know from a statement on his website that he was sorry at one time, though it seems from media coverage like he should be restating that every week or so, and that’s not happening.

Not recently fired football coaches from Texas Tech, Kansas and the University of South Florida. Sorry they lost their jobs perhaps, but if  pressed to abuse a concussed student-athlete with makeshift imprisonment again, they’d do it in a heartbeat if it meant putting one in the “win” column.

Not Kanye West and Chris Brown. “Sorry, bitches” doesn’t have a real penitent ring to it.

Not South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. He stammered through a June press conference during which he repeatedly asked his staff for forgiveness and in the end had to be reminded there was this matter of a wife and four sons who also might be a tad humiliated by his South American dalliance.

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey was sorry he had to stand at his press conference with his arm around his wife, when he really had his eye on a certain bearded lad back in CNN’s “Situation Room.”

Politicians Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards were sorry but no one really cares any more.

Jon Gosselin and Balloon Dad were sorry, but they’ve never done anything. Anything.

Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual harassment by a staffer, was sorry and only really needed a hug. Rush Limbaugh, charged with illegally obtaining prescription codeine, is so sorry that it hurts, and just needs a little something to get him through the weekend.

Dr. Conrad Murray, personal physician of Michael Jackson, wants everyone to know he’s sorry and that he always had the best interests of his patient in mind. He also wants you to start counting backwards from 100.

The tiger who mauled his trainer, and the elephant who trampled a mom, and the geese who keep flying into jet engines — all did so with the sincerest regrets.

The demographic that’s missing from this long sorry list is a group that you rarely hear admitting to error. They consistently go about their daily activities without the slightest twinge of guilt. They sweep through this world with impunity, confident that their actions are well-reasoned and beneficial and, most importantly, intentional.

Of course, women don’t do anything wrong, so there’s really no reason for them to ask our public forgiveness. If they ever do, though, we should expect an apology, because it’s the right thing to do.

NBC readies for life after Leno

January 12, 2010

HOLLYWOOD (Jan. 11) — NBC announced its lineup of new programming Monday to replace the ratings-challenged “Jay Leno Show” in its weekday 10 p.m. slot. The new shows, most of which feature test patterns as a central plot component, will debut in February.

The slate of hour-long dramas, half-hour comedies, reality series and British imports are hoped to draw more viewers than the former “Tonight” show host was able to do with his mix of interviews and stand-up.

Initial plans to air several innovative shows had to be scrapped to please affiliates who were concerned about the network taking any more risks, in light of the failure of the Leno concept. Among the promising pilots ditched at the last minute were “Stairwell 2010,” profiling life off the beaten path in a New York elevator building; “Paint (Drying),” a home-improvement reality show; and “A Year in the Life of a Rock,” about a year in the life of a rock.

Instead, NBC will rely on tried-and-true formulas that hark back to TV’s early days, when half the programming day was taken up with static images that allowed engineers to gauge pixel resolution. A sneak peek of the new lineup was shown to critics over the weekend. Given the best chance to return competitiveness to the fourth-place network were:

“Pattern” (Mondays)

This crime drama will feature a team of inner-city detectives who try to piece together seemingly random whole numbers, circles with targets in the center, and a variety of grey-scale screens into some semblance of a plot. Starring a plus sign and rapper-turned-actor Chart 156.

“What Pattern is Your Test?” (Tuesdays)

This reality show, adapted for television by HDNet and Zenith, offers contestants the chance to move down a ten-step ladder as they try to read progressively smaller typesizes. If they can pass this eye test in the allotted minute and 18 seconds, they qualify for a "Digitize the Experience" round in which they can win 40 of something by not going blind.

“Tic Tac Toe, With Puppets!” (Thursdays)

A comedy originally broadcast on Britain's BBC features a young girl and her fabric companion enduring countless ties at the classic game of X's and O's. They smile slightly off-camera while surrounded by colorful neighbors and angular rules.

“When I Saw Him Standing By” (Fridays)

A physician's assistant who leaves the Sioux reservation to assist doctors in a big-city hospital fights to keep his Native American identity and his gigantic war bonnet despite strict OR rules against feathers in the sterile field. Keanu Reeves returns to his TV roots as Chief Forceps in this star-studded romp.