Archive for February, 2010

If Sunday was super, why does Monday suck?

February 8, 2010

Notes from the weekend

My old Honda came down with a cracked windshield last week, so I had to call my insurance carrier to place a claim. The South Asian lady on the other end of the line was very polite, very professional and very well-scripted. Since they’re typically dealing with people who are reporting damage and injuries of one sort or another, they’ve been trained to express a sympathetic tone at mention of the accident. At each mention of the accident. 

She went through a long list of questions about my claim, which required me to repeat several times that I had a small fissure in my glass. Each time I mentioned it, she replied carefully, “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.” 

The first time I said “thanks.” The next time I said, “Oh, it’s not so bad.” By the third time, I was getting pretty annoyed at her pre-programmed compassion, and became tempted to amp up my response. 

“You have no idea how painful this is for me,” I wanted to say. “I’ve had that windshield ever since I bought this car back in 2001. Every day I looked through it at oncoming traffic, and every day it allowed my vision to pass through, even though I’m sure there were mornings when it would rather have been opaque than transparent. We had a very special relationship, and now it’s gone. Gone! It can never be replaced. 

“But if it can, I’ll have the car outside my home, located at 384 Brookside Drive, and can be there between 1:30 and 4 p.m. for the Autoglass replacement guys.” 

+++ 

Spent Sunday working (again). Note to management: When the men’s room runs out of paper towels, toilet paper is NOT considered an acceptable substitute. What kind of way is this to run a Fortune 500 company?  

+++  

I see the Animal Planet network showed the “Puppy Bowl” again yesterday. This annual bit of genius counter-programming to the Super Bowl involves numerous playful young dogs cavorting on a green carpet painted like a football field. I wonder if the Puppy Who played at halftime?  

+++

This year it was Pete Townsend’s turn to have a wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show. He had to constantly flip back the edge of his cardigan to keep it from interfering with his trademark guitar strokes, and then every time he jumped, we got to see his pasty sixty-something midriff. The head scarf he borrowed from Axl Rose and the fedora he borrowed from your hipster cousin further confused those who expected to see the seminal guitar hero and instead witnessed the reincarnation of Elvis Costello’s dad. Still, a great show. 

And they had fireworks! 

As for the ads, I’d like to thank all the old people (Betty White, Abe Vigoda, Jim McMahon), all the midgets and all the animals for allowing themselves to be run over. And to all the scruffy late-twenty-something protagonists of just about every commercial, thanks for being so cool and giving my son such a high level of slackery to strive for. 

And this just in: Queen Latifah has finally finished singing “America the Beautiful.” 

+++  

If you sit next to someone all day at work and barely speak to him, why do you have to say “hi” when you encounter him the bathroom?  

+++  

Another bizarre news story out of my adopted home state of South Carolina this week. Workers at a Columbia-area KFC arrived in the morning to find a car already waiting at the drive-thru window. When the driver did not respond to requests to take his order, the manager investigated and found the man dead in the driver’s seat.  

I think I was behind this guy in the line at McDonald’s last week.  

+++  

Shouldn’t our federal education policy leave at least some children behind? At least for the sake of future Wal-Marts.  

+++  

Speaking of America’s favorite big-box retailer, I overheard a couple of people talking in their seagull-infested parking lot the other day. (Just driving by — I swear). “The worst thing about working at Wal-Mart would be having to be nice to the people who shop there,” said the first man. “I don’t think the employees see that as an issue,” observed the second.  

+++  

And what is the deal with all the seagulls in the parking lot anyway? The birds presumably have a choice between floating softly on a sea breeze above a picturesque harbor, and eating garbage disgorged from people’s cars in Wal-Mart parking lots. And they choose the latter? Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing.  

+++  

Before the Super Bowl, the airwaves were filled with predictions of results for the big game. This always seemed like a pointless exercise to me. No one can tell with any certainty what’s going to happen, and anyone can make as good a guess as anyone else.  

That’s why I’m going to try something a little different. Instead of a prediction, I’m going to make a post-diction: New Orleans 37, Indianapolis 21.  

+++  

What exactly is the point of having Jesus' evil twin brother selling insurance all over the internet?

+++  

Tearful quote of the week, from a visibly upset mistress of Tiger Woods at her press conference: “I’ve come forward because I think it’s wrong to make a golf ball with my face on it.” She said she was really uncomfortable stepping into the public eye like that, but she’s doing it for all the other women out there, including daughters yet unborn, who may one day face the trauma of having their faces put on golf balls.  

And also, there’s the forthcoming book she wrote.  

+++  

Interesting story in the press this week about the so-called “greying of the blogosphere.” Apparently, keeping a blog has become something more likely to be done by older people, while the younger generation invests its time and energy into short forms like Facebook and Twitter. So once again, I find myself at the cutting edge of trend-killing.  

+++  

Have you ever noticed how tiresome observational humor has become?  

+++  

The safety committee at work came up with the very reasonable concern that electric space heaters could be a fire hazard. With highly variable temperature conditions throughout our office, some people were using company-provided heaters to stay warm. Somebody accidentally left theirs on one evening, so now we have a written standard policy and a “check-out” procedure for heaters.  

At the beginning of each shift, if you want a heater you have to sign a clipboard list indicating the date, heater number, time out and time in. The system is periodically audited by a mid-level manager.  

“Your safety is our number one concern,” explains the sign at the heater depository. Then it adds, somewhat off-topic I think, “Please be aware of others.”  

Incidentally, these small appliances feature the latest in modern design. They are so stylish, I believe the “space” actually refers to outer space, where their elegance would make them right at home. They even project an eerie red light onto the floor in front of them that indicates a danger zone of possible fire danger. Makes them look like a cousin of R2-D2, who was also available for checkout on the Millennium Falcon, as I recall.  

"Beep beep," says R2's cousin

Revisited: Thoughts on death and dying

February 7, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about death and dying, and there are a few things I don’t like about it.

Obituaries, for one. I find myself being drawn to reading the obituaries in the local paper, since I’m more likely to find people I know hanging out on that page than in sections like sports, weddings or commodities futures. As my young son used to observe as we’d drive past a cemetery – “that’s where the dead people live” – I think it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the concept of death notices.

Currently we get to read all about how old people were, who some of their survivors were, and which email address condolences can be sent to. We’re told that they “passed,” “departed this life,” “were funeralized” or “went to be with [their] Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” but are given few other details. Sure, some notices may say that the departed passed “peacefully but unexpectedly” or “after a courageous fight.” That doesn’t really tell us enough. What we don’t get to hear, unless we’re good at reading between the lines, is what everyone really wants to know – the cause of death. If, in lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to make a donation to the National Skydiving Association, there’s a decent chance that the dead guy fell 10,000 feet out of an airplane. If they were employed by Johnson’s Crushing and Hacking, Inc., it’s a fairly safe bet they were killed in an industrial accident.

I think it’s a shame that the dead and their family members have to be ashamed of the way in which they left this earth for realms unknown. We have a much better understanding these days of what’s involved in the cessation of bodily functions, and it’s usually not anything to be particularly embarrassed about. My face might be red (before turning ashen) if it’s reported that I died trying to hold down a mattress in the back of a speeding pickup truck before the mattress became airborne. But at least everyone would know I was the kind of guy to help move a friend to his new apartment.

Then there’s the issue of what to do if your passing is going to take a while. No one wants to die of a lingering, painful illness, though I can’t say for sure I’d prefer the quick and easy death involved in a head-on train impact. You hear people saying they don’t want to spend their last days lying in a hospital bed hooked up to all manner of mechanical intervention to keep them alive. “I’d rather be home with my family,” they say, conveniently forgetting the smell of the cat box, the annoying telephone solicitations and how far ten steps to the bathroom seems when you’re no longer the most continent person in the home.

Before I’m discharged to my cluttered, dusty bedroom, I’d want to know more about which particular machines I’d be hooked up to if I stayed in the hospital. Might there be morphine involved? High-definition satellite television? The ability to pee without having to get out of bed? Talk about being treated and released. I’d be tempted to sign up for that now if I didn’t have to start paying for four years of college education this fall.

Speaking of early enrollment, I read a science fiction story once where members of the aging population were given the opportunity to end their lives sooner rather than later in return for a cash reward, a fabulous vacation and a pain-free passing. The short-term expense to society would be offset by the decades in which the fading individual was not eating their meals on wheels and using up other social services that might be better dedicated to those who could chase down their own food. I think this proposal should be given serious consideration. Put me down for spending a week in a hot tub on cruise ship eating prime rib with Anne Hathaway.

There’s one important consideration to reconcile before this can become a workable public policy: how you would create the least difficult death. Humanity has had a long history of failing to figure out the easiest way to go, if you can use execution methods as any example. The intentionally cruel attempts of ancient peoples – stoning, crucifixion, being fed to whatever wildlife was handy and hungry – gave way in recent centuries to progressively more user-friendly methods. The guillotine, gallows, electric chair and lethal injection were all thought at one time or another to be humane choices, though I don’t think any are quite my cup of poisoned tea. I think more research is needed to figure the fastest way out, and might I suggest the cast of the movie “Twilight” as possible volunteers in this study.

Finally, there’s the question of the afterlife. Most organized religions regard self-destruction as a sin, probably because it can make such a serious dent in their membership rolls. If you get to the other side legitimately and have lived a relatively good life, most creeds will give you a pass to a magnificent paradise featuring angels, harps, virgins, clouds, cows, gods with lots of extra arms, and all your dead relatives, though presumably the grumpy ones will have found other accommodations. If you’ve sinned or, in the Southern Baptist tradition, done a disco dance, you instead are consigned to a hell that will likely include at least one Bee Gee as well as a lot of other horrible stuff.

I honestly don’t know what waits for me in the Great Beyond. My best guess is that it’s eons and eons of nothingness, kind of like what the A&E channel has become. It’s only because we have such difficulty imagining what that void would feel like that we’ve come up with all these elaborate afterlife scenarios. Since they can’t all have it right, and because I hesitate to cast my lot with a randomly chosen sect (with my luck I’d get Zoroastrianism, which preaches a final purgation of evil from the Earth through a tidal wave of molten metal — ouch!), I prefer to think that you get whatever it is you believed in while you were alive.

And for me, that’s where Anne Hathaway comes in again.

Revisited: More celebs to rewrite history

February 6, 2010

Film actor Tom Cruise revealed last week that he had a childhood dream of killing Adolph Hitler. While on a world tour promoting his new movie “Valkyrie,” Cruise told reporters he regretted that time travel was not available for him to show up in 1930’s Europe and personally take out the Nazi leader responsible for the deaths of millions.

“I always wanted to kill Hitler, I hated him,” Cruise, 46, said. “As a child studying history and looking at documents, I wondered, ‘why didn’t someone stand up and try to stop it?’”

News of the Hollywood star’s desire to transcend the laws of time and space in an effort to preemptively remove the brutal German tyrant represented a new high-water mark among celebrity do-gooders. No longer content to adopt Third World children and raise funds to fight disease, today’s idols won’t limit themselves to what’s physically possible as they aspire to help humankind and promote their vanity projects.

Here’s a look at what other kinds of murderous retro-vengeance are on the minds and lips of the stars:

Kirsten Dunst: “When I was a very young girl, probably not more than two or three years old, I harbored a desire to kill (Hall of Fame Detroit Tiger) Ty Cobb. He was a very racist, very mean man. He may have held the all-time base-stealing record for decades, but he did it with a cleats-up style that injured many a second baseman. I really, really hated him.”

Bruce Willis: “I’ve always had a very strong distaste for the Chinese Cultural Revolution that led to the deaths of uncounted thousands. I’m not saying I’d want to kill (then-Chinese leader) Mao Tse-Tung because he did some good things to fight the Japanese during World War II. I’d just like to have been on hand to advise him against some of the more heavy-handed aspects of his efforts to overhaul his society.”

Marg Helgenberger: “Given half the chance, I’d put fifteenth president James Buchanan on my hit list. He did virtually nothing to head off what everyone could tell was going to become all-out civil war, plus he was our only bachelor president. He was a real bungler, and we’d all be better off today if his sorry ass had been eliminated before his 1856 election.”

Carson Daly: “For me, it kind of depends on how far back in time I could go. If there was no limit, I’d want to kill Alexander the Great. His reputation, as the nickname implies, is that he was an enormous political and military talent. Though he did bring Western culture as far east as India, he was very pushy about it, killing many tens of thousands of innocent people. If, however, I’m limited to just the last century or so, I’d kill (Russian tyrant) Josef Stalin.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman: “Rather than bring physical harm to flawed-but-human creatures, I’d go back to 1935 to prevent so much devastation from the Labor Day hurricane that ravaged the Florida Keys. I’m not naïve enough to think I could’ve prevented formation of the storm, but I do think I could use my histrionic acting style to warn many hundreds of residents to move to higher ground.”

Meryl Streep: “I’d kill Vlad the Impaler and I’d do it with my bare hands. Even though he was the basis for the great dramatic character of Dracula, that whole impaling thing just rubs me the wrong way.”

Roger Moore: “I’d kill Ivan the Terrible. He was just terrible – what more can you say?”

Rene Russo: “I’m not sure I’d go so far as to kill him (Oliver Cromwell), but I’d definitely do something to seriously hamper his more vicious tendencies. While I sympathize with his anti-royalist tendencies, there were more constructive ways to achieve the ascent of the Parliamentarians without all the fighting and executions.”

Dennis Quaid: “I’d kill either (Roman emperors) Caligula or Nero, I’m not sure which. Caligula was mad, so I guess you could say he had something of a medical excuse for his virtual ruin of Rome. Nero, though, you know he fiddled while Rome burned. That’s very un-cool.”

Orlando Bloom: “There’s not one individual I could name, because I was never very good at history, but I’d definitely want to do something to prevent the Spanish Inquisition. I’m a big believer in freedom of religion, so you can imagine how I feel about the idea of Catholics burning alleged heretics alive. By the way, watch for the upcoming release of my film ‘Elizabethtown,’ coming to DVD on January 31.”

John Mayer: “I know Tom Cruise is already taking care of Hitler, so I’d say I’d want to kill (Italian fascist) Benito Mussolini. He would’ve been as bad as Hitler if he had the skills, but things just didn’t quite work out for him.”

Osama bin Laden: “I’d go back in time to kill the mother and father of Mike Meyers. That ‘Love Guru’ movie absolutely sucked.”

Website Review: Let’s hear it for QuietRelief.com

February 5, 2010

This Sunday, one of my favorite musical groups of all time will be performing at the Super Bowl halftime show. The Who, or remnants thereof, are scheduled to play a 12-minute gig bound to include their countless greatest hits. Leader Pete Townsend will windmill his way through the set, then hopefully smash his guitar to bits while the crowd roars its approval.

I can’t wait till they take the stage: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Who.”

“I said, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE WHO.”

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE WHO.”

Though the approval, and the introduction, might be roared, Pete likely won’t hear it. Decades of fronting one of the world’s greatest rock bands has rendered the poor man virtually deaf. He now wears a hearing aid, and probably most uses the legendary band’s name as the question he asks repeatedly when someone calls him on the phone.

“Who is this again? Who? Who?”

Like many his age, Pete could probably benefit from the product I recently saw advertised on late-night TV. Quietus is a homeopathic remedy dedicated to improving what it calls “ear health” by confronting a key cause of deafness — tinnitus. Characterized by a ringing or buzzing or humming tone that interferes with normal perception, the condition kills thousands every year. Okay, well maybe it doesn’t kill them, but it makes them very annoyed.

To learn more about tinnitus and the Quietus claim to alleviate it, I visited quietrelief.com for this week’s Website Review.

The home page features a rotating collection of sufferers, from the Rick Moranis look-alike clutching his noggin in agony, to the afflicted rock drummer, to everyday workers like machine operator Frank P., factory worker Nelda R. and construction worker Jerry E. They’re followed by the equally suffering doctor in his white lab coat, grinning into the camera while standing next to a giant caduceus that’s surrounded by the word “homeopathic,” a Greek work meaning “doesn’t work.”

The introduction describes the Quietus product as dual homeopathic medications designed to treat roaring, whizzing and hissing in the ear as well as feelings of fullness. People at risk are those working in industrial settings, airports, the military and carpentry (this might explain one of the “seven words of Christ” as He was being crucified, when He asked His followers “Where is my mother? And who’s frying bacon?”). A rising new risk group are people who don’t work at all but instead spend their days listening to “music from an iPod, heavy machinery and firearms.”

The introductory page also includes sound samples you can download to experience the agony of tinnitus for yourself. The ten-second segments include ear ringing sound, lower frequency roaring, high frequency humming, shriek buzzing and high frequency buzzing. These can be combined to create a hideous mix of whirring and droning that you can blend and sample, generating a sound to rival the best efforts of Justin Bieber and Ke$ha. Once you play these and try to turn them off, they continue on in your head, compelling you to buy the product.

Quietus offers a risk-free 30-day trial and 100% customer support from a lovely blonde wearing a headset and smiling earnestly as she contemplates a once-promising modeling career that has now descended into telemarketing poses. She’s followed by a small-type disclaimer warning that results described in the testimonials section are not typical and not the ordinary experience of users. “Each person’s experience with Quietus is different,” implying perhaps that though you may lose the buzzing in your ears, you could pick up interference in other sensory organs — maybe visions of serpents in your eyes or smells of rotting flesh in your nose. (Incidentally, the entire website never says how you consume these pills, so I’m making up that if you can stick them in your ears, you can also stick them up your nose and into your eyes.)

There’s a whole section that features success stories from users who offer what are frankly less-than-ringing endorsements of the product. Frank says it stopped the ringing in 40 days. Susan says “it tones down the ringing … I experience some quietness in my right ear now.” Terry notes that “my left ear is almost silent,” Lois said the ringing is “still there occasionally,” Stanley says it works about 70% of the time, while Guillermo gives it an 8 on a scale of one to ten. Perhaps somewhat off point but still worth hearing are Kenneth who claims “I’ve had all kinds of pills” and Ouida who notes “the ringing in my ears is not 100% but the ringing is 100%.”

A profile of the customer care department details how you can yank the pills out of your skull at any time and return them for a money-back guarantee. First, you must obtain return authorization, then pack up your tablets with the original packing slip and authorization number, then insure and ship it in a traceable form. “Orders paid by credit card cannot be refunded by check nor can phone check, check, or money order payments be refunded to a credit card.” If all that sounds too complicated, you can simply phone a customer representative but all you’ll likely hear from them is a loud screech, probably in a South Asian accent.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the website is the story of how it was “discovered by a rock drummer.” A man identified only as “Brad – Creator, Drummer” spent 18 long years suffering from jingling, jangling and clanging that sapped his energy and kept him awake at nights. “I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate. I heard it constantly, I couldn’t hide from it, it wouldn’t go away. It drove me nuts.” Like any proper rock musician, he experimented with different drugs in search of relief from the noises in his head. Gingko biloba, zinc and magnesium didn’t work, even when he smoked them from a bong. Finally he discovered the “active, all-natural, homeopathic ingredients of my new product Quietus … the same select herbs FDA compliant as Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the US.” What?

“Huh, huh,” he chortles at the end of the embedded video clip. “It’s awes–.” Then the audio goes dead.

Finally, we learn some hard facts about the reality of tinnitus. “Tinnitus is real. The symptoms are real.” It’s a phantom noise originating from within the ear instead of from the environment, and cause headaches and dizziness. There are three strains of tinnitus: tonnal tinnitus is most common, producing the constant ringing; pulsatile tinnitus sounds more like a beating heart; and objective tinnitus is an extremely rare condition where “sound is heard not only by the individual with tinnitus but also by others near the individual.” You know you’ve got some bad ringing in your ears when you’re also driving coworkers and relatives crazy with the noise. (A friend at work is always emitting strange rackets but they seem to be coming from areas behind and way below the ears.)

The makers of Quietus recognize that prevention is always the best medicine, so they wind up their discussion of the subject with advice for those yet to be afflicted. Always respect your ears, they advise, and wear protective hearing equipment when you’re around radios, driers and lawnmowers. Keep earplugs handy but never put anything in your ears, not LifeSavers, not quarters, not baked goods and definitely not pointy objects like pens or sticks or Ty Pennington. Avoid jet airplanes, artillery fire and lounge-grade rock bands, especially Brad’s.

Quietrelief.com is an informative website that appropriately offers a fraudulent cure for a made-up medical condition. What’s always worked for me when I don’t want to hear something is covering my ears with my hands and chanting “la-la-la-la,” though I can see how this might not be an effective treatment in certain professional situations, like going for a job interview or giving the weather report on TV. Maybe Quietus would at least be worth a try after all.

"I don't want to hear another word about tinnitus!"

Fake News: Terrorists, automakers do stuff

February 4, 2010

Bin Laden is going green

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Feb. 2) — Osama bin Laden put himself on record this week as the “Green Terrorist.”

No, it’s not effects of the long-rumored kidney disease reportedly being suffered by the Al Qaeda leader. Instead, bin Laden made a statement Jan. 30 criticizing Western industrialized countries for being responsible for the global warming crisis.

“Talk about climate change is not an ideological luxury but a reality,” bin Laden wrote on Al Jazeera’s English-language website.

Sources say the terrorist leader has begun a campaign within his own ranks to emphasize this new theme of environmental awareness among Jihadi fighters. Blue recycling bins have been spotted outside caves in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Old cell phones are being converted into improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and are being demolished throughout the Arab world. Discarded aluminum cans of Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and, bin Laden’s personal favorite, Dr Pepper, are being collected by newly homeless tribesmen whose farms had been transformed into a war zone.

The Saudi madman has even begun an “eat local” initiative, following a December incident in which he was unable to get Domino’s to deliver its sensational new pizzas to his cavern in South Waziristan. In that incident, which ended in a prolonged firefight between guerrillas and combined special ops forces from the U.S. and Great Britain, not only was bin Laden’s home judged to be outside the delivery area, but the local franchisee refused his request for goat toppings.

“Our guy taking the order thought he said ‘goat droppings,'” said Domino’s manager Abdullah “Pete” Mutallab. “We figured it was just kids playing around on the phone.”

Islamic fanatics have even begun working with local schoolchildren to drive home the point that “together, we can save the planet.” Second-graders at Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al-Zawahiri Elementary School recently showcased a project to use recyclable material in their artwork, with dryer lint collected from a nearby launderette being used to create beards in drawings the children made of their favorite extremists.

Even animal rights are being promoted by the now-environmentally-aware fighters. Sheep and camels are first being asked to give their permission before being ritually slaughtered. Most animals tend to agree to the request, in part because the word “mmeehh” means “go ahead” in the local Pushtan dialect.

Bin Laden also took the opportunity on Al Jazeera to praise the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner near Detroit, saying that the “carbon footprint caused by modern-day jet travel was contributing to deterioration of the ozone layer,” and that’s the main reason he continues to try blowing planes out of the sky.

Speaking of Detroit …

DETROIT (Feb. 3) — General Motors announced a recall of 380,000 Chevrolets, Buicks and GMC Trucks yesterday for what officials described as “sudden, intentional acceleration” in several dozen documented cases where drivers actually arrived at their intended destinations promptly.

Reports have surfaced in the media that a significant percentage of motorists in GM vehicles experienced forward movement when pressing their foot to the gas pedal. A few have even told authorities that the cars were unexpectedly responsive and were actually able to achieve the posted speed limit within the first five minutes of operation.

“This is not what the public has come to anticipate in General Motors autos and light trucks,” said spokesman Allen Gibson. “It’s an issue that we will address immediately with this recall.”

Most owners of vehicles purchased from GM in recent years have developed a habit of parking their cars uphill of wherever they want to drive to the next day, and then roll toward their destination, stopping occasionally to push as needed. They’ve relied on sturdy braking systems and solid front bumpers that allow them to stop close to where they want to. Most are surprised, however, when they find that in addition to stopping, they can also go.

“Frankly, I thought that pedal was a foot rest,” said Missy Stevens, a LeSabre owner in Fond du Lac, Wisc. “I’ve counted on having that arch support after a long day on my feet. To have it cause my car to move forward down the street came as quite a surprise.”

Spokesman Gibson said GM was already at work retooling its manufacturing sites to prevent the problem recurring in future models. He said the so-called acceleration pedals will be removed entirely and replaced with a comfortable and stylish hassock.

Water water everywhere, which now I have to drink

February 3, 2010

Life-giving water rains from the skies, cleansing our polluted air as it falls. It percolates through the soil, washes our streets clean and makes its way to the reservoir, bringing sustenance to the fish and fowl who breed and splash and die in it.

And I’m supposed to drink this stuff? I don’t think so.

I’ve never been much of a water drinker. As a kid growing up in Miami, my parents weren’t forward-thinking enough to allow us store-bought soft drinks. It was either an old mayonnaise jar of water with your name taped to it in the refrigerator, or refreshment straight from the yard hose. To this day, I fondly remember the taste of rubber hosing, and eagerly await its discovery by modern flavor-makers in the candy and fragrance industries.

As soon as I was old enough, I migrated to the popular cola drinks. Even as I took up running and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, I retained a fondness for the juvenile joy of gulping down a high-fructose carbonated drink, eagerly waiting for those bubbles to repeat the flavor of cola back from my gullet, popping over my tastebuds and into my sinuses. Running a marathon in my 30s, I turned down the offerings at the water stations and saved up a ravishing thirst that I enjoyably nursed for days with Pepsi after delicious Crystal Pepsi.

When I took several business trips to India a few years ago, I made it a point to drink a fair amount bottled water, primarily to combat the dehydration of jet lag and ward off that certain looseness one tends to encounter about the third day on the Subcontinent. I tried the Coke product offered at my hotel in Tamil Nadu but, like almost everything else in that southern region, it seemed to be sweetened with coconut milk. The local beer was only average, losing much of its zing after you finished boiling it. The orange juice turned out to be watermelon juice, and the coffee turned out to be tea. Bottled water was about the only choice I had.

A few years later, some of the coworkers I had trained in Chennai made a visit to the U.S. to continue their work at learning how to take my job. My wife and I met them at the airport, then drove them to their hotel and helped them settle in. They wanted us to call the front desk to ask where their bottled water was, and were surprised to discover that the tap was considered as safe a source as any. This didn’t make sense to their foreign ways.

“Why would you go to the trouble of making the water you use in your garden and your laundry clean enough to drink?” Sudhir asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier to sterilize just the small amounts required for drinking?”

Silly Indians. They didn’t realize that in America, we don’t do things that way. We have cars and trucks and giant SUVs to wash, and are willing to spend millions of tax dollars on filtration plants just in case a few drops accidentally bounce off the windshield and into our maws. I still remember the monumental inconvenience of having to keep my mouth closed while showering at the Taj Connemara hotel, for fear that I’d get dysentery along with my refreshing bath.

Now, I’m older and wiser, and find myself putting on weight that I can’t explain. How could I spend twenty minutes a day on a treadmill, live mostly on turkey sandwiches and bran breakfast bars and yet still find myself ballooning over 200 pounds? It couldn’t be the 300-calories-per-serving soft drinks, could it?

So my New Year’s resolution this January was to cut back on the sodas. I got off to a good start, but began feeling pretty thirsty by about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and realized you couldn’t just stop drinking pop. You had to replace it with something.

For a while, I considered trying to absorb moisture directly from the ambient air. It seemed to work well enough for plants, as a fern assured me it would. The problem was the hour or so a day I was spending in the musty YMCA; plenty of humidity was being generated in the cramped wellness center, though I didn’t exactly relish getting it inside me.

Finally, I realized I’d have to start drinking water. I began forcing fluids every opportunity I could, my enjoyable libation of the past now being replaced by an obligatory dosing that seemed more like medicine than refreshment. I put a bottle in my car, and tried to make it a habit to grab a swig every time I stopped at a red light. (I had to quit that practice when I found myself running the yellows just to avoid the bland liquid). I started to understand why so many dogs turn up their noses at the bowls of fresh water filled with such dedication by their masters, and instead head for the toilet to get a drink. At least the commode gives it some semblance of taste.

I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I still treat myself to maybe 15 or 20 ounces of Pepsi a day, but even that I dilute with seltzer. I’m drinking more coffee and more juice, and I’m realizing at last there are more productive uses for water than as a frame for the eighteenth green at Hilton Head or as the source of the glistening sheen on the slender limbs of a wet T-shirt contestant. It can provide my aging cells with the lubrication and health they need to keep me going into my golden years.

I’m still going to miss those complex carbohydrates, that intricate structure of the cola molecule that so succulently combines up to half the elements in the periodic table. (My personal favorite: polonium). Water is so plain and dull. There are only three homely atoms in H20, and two of these are hydrogen. What am I, the Hindenburg zeppelin?

Don’t answer that.

Fake News: High court looks at makeover

February 2, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 1) — Sources inside the U.S. Supreme Court report that justices aim to reverse recent negative portrayals with a series of reforms. Among the changes on tap are plans to murmur rather than announce newly decided opinions, corporate sponsorships of judicial precedents, and agreeing to hear cases of personal grudges as matters of constitutional law.

When six members of the nation’s highest court appeared last week at the State of the Union address, Justice Samuel Alito was seen whispering “not true” and shaking his head as President Obama criticized a ruling that allows unlimited corporate campaign contributions. The incident garnered so much attention for the typically overlooked bench that it may become the standard for the release of legal opinions.

“Our usual method of posting trial outcomes on our website wasn’t generating much interest,” said clerk Eric Stern. “Alito’s muttering had over a million hits on YouTube alone, and we’re thinking that’s publicity you can’t put a price on.”

Under the proposal, future decisions would be announced in understated tones by justices from the midst of large crowds at sporting events, concerts or theatrical productions. For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might whisper at the Daytona 500 that it’s been decided that lower courts do not have the power to release Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. Or Justice Anthony Kennedy might mumble the Court’s decision in Bilski v. Doll affirming key aspects of patent law during intermission at a Broadway musical.

“Anybody who really cared about the details — which, admit it, is virtually no one — could then check out the whole decision online,” Stern said. “But the Jumbotron would catch the essential up-and-down or side-to-side head movement. Any judgments or dissents that accompany the nodding could be captured by fellow audience members, who would meet with the media afterwards.”

The second reform floated would allow the financial underwriting of major rulings by large multinational companies. Since giving the green light to millions in campaign contributions, the Court has so far been unable to monetize this key affirmation of First Amendment rights and grab a little coin for its own pockets.

“There’s a case being considered right now called U.S. vs. Comstock which involves keeping sex offenders in prison after they’ve completed their sentences,” Stern said. “Obviously, neither side has much to offer the Court financially. But if we could rebrand the dispute as U.S. vs. Comstock, presented by AT&T, there would be significant income to the judicial branch.”

Finally, a plan for the justices to preside over minor disputes between individuals might be a way to connect with average citizens while provoking interest in matters juicier than cases like Salazar v. Buono, a battle over jurisdiction in the California desert. If minor barroom confrontations, misunderstood wager agreements or domestic quarrels were added to the docket, interest in proceedings in the third branch of the federal government could skyrocket.

“Who cares whether prosecutors can rely on crime lab reports unless they make analysts who prepared the reports available to testify?” Stern asked, referring to this term’s “hottest” case, Briscoe v. Virginia. “I’d like to hear what Chief Justice (John) Roberts has to say about how that drinking contest between Cooter and Junior ended up in a fistfight. Clarence Thomas would definitely have thoughts regarding why Elwood got home so late and forgot Lydia’s birthday (again!) that are worth sharing.”

Proposed changes are expected to be enacted before the Court’s term ends in April, though insiders admit that could be delayed pending the outcome of negotiations for a syndication deal with Fox TV for fall sweeps.

Monday observations following the snow

February 1, 2010

Tremendous Grammy Awards show last night. My grammy especially enjoyed Elton John. 

It completely amazes me how people are able to perform with such consummate talent. Regardless of your tastes in music, you have to admit that the logistics and physical demands of some of those production numbers were unbelievably intricate and yet mostly executed without a flaw. My personal favorite was the Black Eyed Peas. 

How do they ever remember the words and the moves and the stage direction and the props and how to avoid running into each other? If it were me and my memory, I’d be locked in on a handful of index cards with my carefully spelled-out directions: “Shimmy, then squat. Roll on the floor three times. Jump back up and pull your shirt off. Kick an audience member in the face. Turn to camera three and sulk, then back to camera two and spit.” 

Oh, no! I dropped my cards and now they’re all out of order! Who do I set on fire next? 

+++ 

A friend of mine just got a new watch as a tenth anniversary present at work. In addition to telling time, it also monitors your heart rate. Now, in the event of some potentially fatal cardiac event, he can look at his wrist as if checking the hour and observe, “Oh, it must be time to have a heart attack.”        

+++        

While researching my Friday post, a website review about a prophetic Christian organization called “7flames.com,” I looked online for the significance of that phrase. Either it represents the seven continents as spikes in the crown of the Statue of Liberty, or the seven sacred flames as described in the New Age collection “Telos, Volume 3: Protocols of the Fifth Dimension” (hope it has “Up Up and Away” in it — I love that song), or a prayer altar, offered for sale in conjunction with “the Planetary and Cosmic Hierarchy, as physically and etherically anchored and activated by the ‘I AM’ University.”  

Because I Googled the term as “7 Flames,” it also came back as the score of a 2004 NHL hockey game: “Blackhawks 7, Flames 1.”        

+++        

Sam’s Club announced the layoff of thousands of employees last week. Those affected had been involved in offering the tasting demonstrations in the warehouse club stores. CEO Brian Cornell said the operation would be outsourced to another company.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. Instead, he announced the following: “In the club channel, demo sampling events are a very important part of the experience. (The outsource company) specializes in this area and can take our sampling program to the next level.” Translation, to the terminated workers summoned to the mandatory meeting last Sunday morning: “You’re fired.”      

+++        

A person from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is known as a “Kirkuki,” pronounced “kir cookie.” Coincidentally, this is also a crisp sweet wafer flavored with black currant liqueur. I hope this isn’t too confusing for our brave troops fighting the war on terror.        

+++   

I don’t like to be considered a “regular” at restaurants or other places of business. It makes me feel too predictable, when instead I’d rather be impetuous.   

“Where to today?” I think to myself each morning. “Paris? The Levant? The Amazonian rain forest? Or instead, will I take a coffee break at the Steele Creek Cafe on Westinghouse Blvd., in southwest Charlotte?”   

Obviously, it’s the latter that I do on a too-regular basis. A short walk from my office, I can usually make it there and back in about 30 minutes. I stand at the counter long enough to order my coffee or, on a day when I want to splurge, coffee and a cookie, and then I beat it for a corner booth and my own private world.   

On Friday, I didn’t have time to prepare my lunch before work, so I called in a take-out order for the hot dog platter and picked it up at the drive-thru window. The woman waiting on me there was the same one who often took my coffee order at the counter. Apparently, I was rocking her world.   

“Are you the hot dog platter?” she asked. “Wow, I’ve never seen you get food.”   

First of all, I am not the hot dog platter. I am a human being, an individual worthy of basic respect. Secondly, just because I usually order only coffee doesn’t mean that I can’t occasionally break out in an entirely new and unpredictable direction.   

And finally, yes, I do sometimes get food. All of us do. It’s essential for our survival, in case they didn’t teach you that at cashier school.   

+++    

We had an ice and snow storm in the Carolinas over the weekend, making driving treacherous. Like thousands of others, my family had the bright idea of ordering a pizza. The nearby franchise was ready for us when they answered the phone: “Papa John’s Midtown/Take-out only today.” Interesting greeting.      

So we placed the order and it was agreed that I’d be the one to drive out into the storm and pick up the pie. The trip was uneventful, and my family was thrilled to see the piping hot pizza safely entering the house, followed by me (also safe but, more importantly, bearing food).       

On the side of the box, the following phrase was imprinted by the shop’s automated label maker: “Your pizza experience today has been managed by Michae…”. However many characters they had been allowed by this program had apparently not been enough to get Michael’s credit fully spelled out.       

So my so-called “pizza experience” — which involved eating, wiping up the sauce, tossing out the unwanted hot pepper, cramming the box into the garbage, and getting one awful stomach ache — turned out to be incomplete. “Michae” had inadvertently omitted the requested pepperoni.    

+++     

Next time I forget to pick up milk on the way from work, fail to clear dishes from the sink or otherwise underperform as a husband, I’ll take comfort in the example set by former Sen. John Edwards. Imagine the questions he faced when he arrived home after a long day at the office.     

“Honey,” his wife asks, “did you remember to avoid having a mistress, not father a child with her, then disown the poor child, all while I’m suffering from terminal cancer?”     

“Damn, I forgot,” John responds. “But I did remember to pick up the 12-pack of Deluxe Charmin.”     

“It was supposed to be Ultra Charmin.”  

+++        

Glad to report the malfunctioning toilet in the men’s room at work has been fixed. We were all quite alarmed by the scene that greeted us one morning last week.        

Is police tape with the warning "DO NOT ENTER" at least a little overkill for a broken urinal?