Archive for March, 2010

Revisited: A fairwell to winter

March 21, 2010

A rare March snowstorm marched across the South this time last year, causing power outages and slick roadways that led to a number of traffic accidents. At least six people were killed, most from heart attacks caused by the shock that it’s possible for frozen precipitation to fall from the sky during the wintertime.

Schools and businesses closed throughout the region in reaction to snow totals that neared four inches in some locations, and most Southerners decided to stay home rather than face the treacherous conditions outside. Some exercised even more care to avoid possible injury.

Residents at the home of Charlotte native Guy Pepper declined even to leave their beds lest they slip and fall. “When my clock radio came on this morning, the first thing they talked about was the inch and a half of snow we had outside,” said Pepper. “We’re not used to that kind of thing around here and I wanted to be extra careful. I just slept in bed all day.”

Neighbor Sue Walton said she considered visiting the bathroom about 15 feet away from her bed, but decided against it rather than take the risk. “It’s not that I don’t trust myself to walk across the carpet,” she said. “It’s the other people out there that I worry about. My husband, he walks like a crazy man in these conditions, and I don’t want him losing control and crashing into me.”

The family at a home down the street was a little more adventurous in dealing with the storm, acknowledging that they did “take a chance” by venturing out of bed and into the hallway, eventually making it to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.

“If you just take it nice and slow, it’s not that bad,” said Edwin Drew. “What you have to watch for are the slick patches that seem to come up just as you’re gaining some confidence. It took me almost an hour to carefully walk down the hall, but I made it.”

Only a few blocks away, resident Robyn Blackburn actually went so far as to open her front door and grab the newspaper that was just outside. “I lived in the north for about a year so I’m pretty familiar with these conditions,” Blackburn said. “I keep a set of chains at my bedside. I use them mainly for other purposes, but they can double as snow chains in a pinch. I wrapped them around my feet and lower legs and they gave me the traction I needed to make it to the door.”

Another Southerner who braved the wintry conditions was Ken Shelley, who went out to his driveway to check on the condition of his vehicle.

“I’m not insane enough to try to drive the thing, but I thought at least I could sweep some snow off the roof,” said Shelley. The South Charlotte man used what he called a “four-wheel drive equivalent” to navigate his way about ten feet down the slope of a small incline. “It’s probably more like six-wheel drive,” he said. “I get down on my hands and knees and crawl like a baby over the icy pavement. I have contact with two hands, two knees and two feet, so I feel I’m pretty likely to survive the trip without a skid.”

Revisited: The poetry of financial disclaimers

March 20, 2010

There’s a certain art and poetry to everyday life if you know where to look for it. One of the big differences, I believe, between happy people and sad people is that the happy among us are able to find joy and beauty in a bad situation. I often cite the great poet Raymond Stevens on this subject and his claim that “everything is beautiful in its own way/Like a starry summer night or a snow-covered winter’s day”.

In my real-life job working for a financial services company, I get to read a lot of writing that was never intended as anything more than stiff, informative prose: cash flow statements, auditors’ reports, etc. Occasionally, the author’s rhetoric will soar to unintended heights (perhaps while looking for a way to explain huge executive compensation packages, for example) but it’s usually pretty pedestrian stuff. Unless you can look at it a little differently.

The language that follows is a boilerplate disclaimer that appears in almost every financial document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. With a little imagination, an italic font, and the right line breaks, however, it’s a work of art:

These statements are intended to enjoy
The protection of the safe harbor
For forward-looking statements provided
By the Securities Exchange Act.
These statements can be identified
By the use of the word or phrase
“well positioned,”
“expect,”
“expects”
or “would have”
in the statements

These forward-looking statements
Are subject to risks, uncertainties and other factors,
Domestically and internationally,
Including general economic conditions,
The cost of goods,
Competitive pressures,
Geopolitical events and conditions,
Levels of unemployment,
Levels of consumer disposable income,
Changes in laws and regulations,
Consumer credit availability,
Inflation, consumer spending patterns and debt levels,
Currency exchange fluctuations, trade restrictions,
Changes in tariff and freight rates,
Changes in the costs of gasoline, diesel fuel, other energy,
Transportation, utilities, labor and health care,
Accident costs, casualty and other insurance costs,
Interest rate fluctuations, financial and capital market conditions,
Developments in litigation to which the company is a party,
Weather conditions,
Damage to the company’s facilities from natural disasters,
Regulatory matters and other risks

The company discusses certain of these factors more fully
In its additional filings with the SEC,
Including its last annual report on Form 10-K filed with the SEC,
And this release should be read
In conjunction with that annual report on Form 10-K,
Together with all of the company’s other filings,
Including current reports on Form 8-K,
Made with the SEC through the date of this release 
The company urges you to consider
All of these risks, uncertainties and other factors
Carefully
In evaluating the forward-looking statements
Contained in this release

The forward-looking statements
Made in this release
Are made only as of the date of this release,
And the company undertakes no obligation
To update them to reflect
Subsequent events
Or circumstances

Website Review: LawnMowing.com

March 19, 2010

Two events in the news are making for an interesting convergence. On Tuesday, we witnessed the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first dot-com, when a computer company called Symbolics became the initial corporate presence on the Internet to be represented by the now-ubiquitous postscript. Then tomorrow, it’s the first day of spring, a return to warm weather and all the outdoor labor that entails for those of us living in the American suburbs.

For me, the convergence also means that my yard guy now has a website.

Well, he’s not my yard guy yet, but he’s trying hard to be. In a decidedly old-media marketing move, Eddie blanketed my subdivision with flyers stuffed into mailboxes advertising his landscaping business. (About the only way he could go older media than that would be to stand at the exit from the neighborhood, shouting at cars and pounding on their windshields).

His introductory letter is printed on a nice glossy stock using surprisingly well-punctuated language, and it promotes an “attentive customer service and quality workmanship” that will make Cutting Edge Lawn and Landscaping an “excellent candidate for developing a business relationship with you and your family.” Yard guys have come a long way since the days they’d bang at your front door, offer their best toothless smile and ask “cut your grass?” (and the implied follow-up: “if not, can I invade your home and murder your family?”)

To honor Eddie’s initiative without actually contracting for his services, I decided I’d take a look at his internet presence with this week’s Website Review.

The awkwardly named mycuttingedgegrass.com is a fairly professional though simple domain. It exhibits a clean design pleasantly free of the mud and manure you might expect to find on such a site. The home page displays a pastoral photograph of four sprinklers spouting water onto a grassy expanse with a couple of tree trunks looming in the background. All very green, very healthy, very much unlike my tree-covered lot where the sun don’t shine enough for me to cultivate anything more verdant than moss and mold.

“Customer satisfaction is the #1 priority” at Cutting Edge, as we’re constantly reminded reading through the promotional copy. “We go the extra mile, one yard at a time.” We’re invited to look around the site, which won’t take long considering it’s only four pages, and “find us to be your one-stop shop for all your landscaping needs.”

Services include a number of dirt-related operations, as well as a few I wouldn’t expect from a guy with a trailer full of weed-whackers and edgers. I know what mowing, shrub care and gutter cleaning are, but I’m a little in the dark about subjects as esoteric as core aeration, overseeding, and mulch installation. The only core in my possession that I know of, aside this apple I just finished eating, is the one in the center of my body that my doctor says needs to be not too hot during my summertime jogs. If running me over with a device that fills my torso with tiny holes which allow cooling air into my trunk is what I need, I think I’d rather give up running. Overseeding I think I can handle quite well myself, as the unused bags of grass kernels in my shed will attest. As for the fertilization treatments, I think at age 57 my child-bearing years are over, but maybe I should double-check with my wife.

If you do become a client of Cutting Edge, you’re encouraged to tell your friends about your experience, because they have a “very exciting referral incentive program.” I would’ve guessed there some kind of discount involved if they get new customers through you, though I hardly consider this “exciting.” Perhaps Eddie has access to wood nymphs — that would definitely get my interest up.

If you want to contact Eddie for a free estimate, you can either give him a phone call or, for the more internet-savvy, you can enter your information into a long list of fields and press “send,” something that I, as a relative computer newbie, am reluctant to try.

In the “About Us” section, we learn that the proprietor takes great pride in the work that his company performs and, in case we forgot since reading the home page a few minutes ago, “the customer is of the utmost importance to me and I’m not satisfied unless my customer is satisfied.” Eddie has been in the lawn care business for ten years, and incorporates the knowledge and professionalism that he gained from his previous job of almost 15 years spent as a sales and customer service representative for a “large manufacturing incorporation.” I’m not exactly sure how customer service experience translates into yard work, though I’d imagine you should expect to be put on hold if you try to ask him any questions about the mulch.

There’s a “Special Offers” page that tells how new customers can get their first cut free when they sign on for a year-round full maintenance contract. You may also qualify for 10-percent off on a one-time mow, or discounted rates for a service called “pine needle installation.” My pines seem to do just fine growing their own, and I can’t see the necessity of sending poor Eddie 30 feet into the air to glue needles back onto branches that have shed them.

Finally, there’s a “Gallery” section that appears to still be under construction. During the 2010 season ahead, Cutting Edge will be posting pictures of some of their best work here. “We are very proud of our work and strive for nothing but perfection,” we’re reminded again, and are encouraged to check back later in the year for photographs of the most sparkling clean gutters you ever conjured in your wildest imagination.

For a website promoting a lawn-care business, I’d give mycuttingedgegrass.com pretty high marks. There’s no unnecessary virtual raking games or attempts to entertain the kids with interactive pruning of Mr. Bush, Ms. Shrub and all the little Hedges. There are no links to give Twitter updates (“Look — a bee!”), no Facebook status updates (“Just cut off my foot”) and no YouTube videos of Eddie gassing up his leaf blower. Such high-tech embellishments would merely distract from the basic work of tending God’s green earth.

So while this website might be cutting edge in name only, I’d say that’s good enough.

Fake News: Pilots re-exam results released

March 18, 2010

Last October, a pair of Northwest Airlines pilots overshot their destination, flying more than 100 miles past their intended target of Minneapolis. After having their licenses revoked by the FAA for operating a plane in an “extremely reckless” fashion, Capt. Tim Cheney and First Officer Richard Cole found themselves grounded.

Earlier this week, however, a final disposition of the case was made that will allow the two veteran pilots the chance to resume their careers as early as this summer. All they’ll have to do to become recertified as pilots is to go through a basic training program, including passing an exam on the operation of a commercial airliner.

Sources close to the FAA have obtained a copy of the multiple-choice exam as taken by Capt. Cheney, portions of which are printed below, complete with Cheney’s answers.

1. Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?
A. Nobody up here but us monkeys.
B. Sorry, we stepped out for a minute.
C. [no response]
D. All of the above √

2. So did you ever get your new flight schedules figured out?
A. No, too distracted by yammering flight controllers.
B. No, laptops crashed but fortunately plane didn’t.
C. No, computers are just too damn complicated. √
D. Yeah, turns out we’re grounded for a year.

3. Do you still claim you weren’t asleep at the wheel?
A. That is our official story.
B. We stand by our earlier testimony.
C. Our account of the events remains unchanged.
D. Zzzzzz. √

4. What would’ve happened if the flight attendant didn’t eventually bang on your door?
A. We would’ve caught our error and corrected it easily.
B. Our instruments would warn us if we ran low on fuel.
C. We’d be heroes for landing our plane safely on Lake Michigan. √
D. European vacation!

5. Do you feel like the flight was ever in danger?
A. We are professional pilots … so, yeah, maybe a little.
B. Only while we were in the air. √
C. And maybe while taking off.
D. We would’ve landed eventually, one way or the other.

6. Which button on your jetliner’s controls answers a radio call?
A. The one that says “eject”. √
B. The one that says “abort”.
C. The one that says “bring the pilots another round of drinks”.
D. This one here on my shirt.

7. What time is it right now?
A. 9:30 a.m.
B. 1:15 p.m. √
C. 4:45 p.m.
D. The year 2525

8. What does it mean when the ground sensor says “pull up … pull up”?
A. Make sure your belt is tight enough.
B. Check your socks.
C. Time for big-boy underpants. √
D. Check your laptop.

9. What will you do in the future to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again?
A. Pay closer attention to the equipment.
B. Land at a different airport than planned and pretend like nothing happened. √
C. I’d rather fly into a mountain than go through that media firestorm again.
D. Give up flying.

10. Did special protection by the pilots’ union get you more lenient treatment than you’d otherwise expect?
A. Yes.
B. Yes.
C. Hell yes. √
D. Damn right.

________________________________

That is the end of the exam. Put your pencil down and return test to examiner.

SPACE BELOW FOR OFFICE USE ONLY.

Cheney: I don’t understand this question. Is this an essay question? Something about “space below”? Are you asking how much space should be below an airplane? Well, generally, it depends on where you are in your flight plan, because as you’re taking off, this is a number that will gradually increase as your plane climbs higher into the air, then later on you tend to kind of level off and maintain a consistent altitude and then … hey — check out this new flight simulator game I got installed on my laptop!

When I at last rule Ireland …

March 17, 2010

Family legend has it that, if the monarchy is ever restored to Ireland, it is I who shall be king. I’m not sure how historically accurate that tale is, or what the likelihood is that such a regressive political system would ever be re-adopted or, if it did, where I’d go to fill out the application and take the pre-employment drug screening.

And who would crown me? The most prominent Irishman I can think of today is Bono, and I see him more as a usurper than a kingmaker. I imagine I’d have him and everyone else in U2 imprisoned. And not just because of that last album.

I bring this up today because of the St. Patrick’s holiday we’re celebrating, and because I want people to know what kind of a ruler I’d be. I’d be wise, kind and beneficent, since I read somewhere that that’s what all the best kings are. (I’m not even sure what “beneficent” is, but I think it has something to do with fiber). I’d be stern yet kindly, generous yet thrifty, regal but also a regular guy. (I already have “regal” on my resume, so no changes necessary there).

I’d sit around the castle all day working on my blog, through which my various decrees would be issued. Most of these imperial imperatives would be quite reasonable. Common sense would undergird my philosophy, and yet I’d reserve the right to keep the Irish people on their toes by crossing them up every now and then with the occasional bizarre request.

Here’s a first draft of some commands I’m already working on:

–Stop hitting your brother (or sister)
–Do not go gentle into that good night
–Have it your way
–Hand me that stapler
–Get a jump on your 2009 tax return by filing TODAY
–Eat more chikken
–All thee born of noble parentage, ye shall help me move into my new apartment this weekend
–No more monster trucks
–The new MSN is coming
–Look younger and slimmer in seconds
–Everybody, keep an eye out for my cell phone — I think I lost it
–You go, girl

Finally, while my rule may be enlightened by historic standards, I will be very strict about the necessity of wearing green to honor St. Patrick’s Day. Those who disobey will be pinched, then shot.

+++

And now, a gift unto my people. The following is a reprint of the biography of our hallowed Irish saint written for last year’s holiday.

It’s easy to forget that St. Patrick was a living, breathing person before he became better known as a Day and a Parade. Few people know much about him as a regular guy, so this seems like a good opportunity to take a look back through the ancient mists of time at who exactly he was.

Born as the unpronounceable Patricius Daorbae – he didn’t acquire the nickname “Saint” until later in his life – he was the son of wealthy Briton parents. The exact year of his birth is unknown, with some speculation putting his lifespan from 340 to 460 A.D., though most now believe he couldn’t have survived to be 120 with the pre-socialized healthcare system of ancient Britain. Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he took on the role for tax reasons rather than because he believed in anything in particular. That is actually true.

After a relatively uneventful childhood knocking around Wales and doing all the things that other Welsh children did at the time (trying to sacrifice each other, etc.), Patrick was taken captive at age 16 by a group of Irish raiders who had attacked his family’s estate. In a process strikingly similar to today’s NFL draft, Patrick was selected and transported back to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity, eventually becoming a first-team all-pro herdsman.

Despite his skill in the position, he wasn’t particularly happy. He was constantly outdoors and away from people, lonely and afraid, and morbidly scared of sheep. It was at this time that he turned to religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian and dreaming of converting the Irish people to Christianity. Only later would he realize how convenient it would’ve been to actually learn the Irish language, which would come in handy in his eventual attempts at converting them.

Patrick escaped from his captors after a voice, which he believed to be God’s, spoke to him in a dream and told him it was time to leave Ireland (at least that’s what he thought “baa baa” meant in Irish). He walked more than 200 miles from where he was held in County Mayo – later scholars believe he may have taken a cab – to the Irish coast where he found a boat that was able to transport him back to Britain. Back in the land of his birth, he had a second revelation from an angel who told him in a dream to return to Ireland as a missionary. Longing to be through with the back and forth across the Irish Sea, he began a religious study that lasted 15 years before his ordination as a priest and his return to the Emerald Isle.

Already somewhat familiar with the Irish culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. Since the Irish were used to honoring their pagan gods with fire, Patrick introduced them to the concept of the Bunny. They also viewed the sun as a powerful symbol so he grafted it onto a cross. Purists back in Rome probably would’ve had a fit if they’d known about all this accommodation, which probably inspired Patrick to develop his theology of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Surprisingly little is known about the details of his ministry. No link can be made between Patrick and any specific church. The Irish monastery system evolved after his time, as did the model of the church that Patrick had tried to establish. It is known that he had a way with the ladies, converting many wealthy women to Christianity, including some who became nuns.

His position as a foreigner was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts and protection from the powerful left him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity, and without whatever that was, he was sometimes beaten, robbed and put in chains. The Druids offered their impression of how Patrick and other Christian missionaries were seen by those hostile to them:

Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,

His cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.

He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;

All his people will answer: “so be it, so be it.”

(Sounds a little like a mashup between James Joyce and Bono.)

Patrick is believed to have died some time in the 460’s, coincidentally enough on March 17, which is now celebrated as his day.

Modern scholars debate whether in fact there may have been more than one individual who became tied into the legend that became St. Patrick. According to the so-called “Two Patricks Theory,” many of the traditions later attached to St. Patrick were originally ascribed to Palladius, a deacon from Gaul who was sent to Ireland by the Pope. Additional early missionary work was done by Auxilius, Secundius and Iserninus, so there may actually have been close to a six-pack of Patricks, which would somehow be appropriate.

That might explain how he was able to spend so much time not understanding the Irish language while still mixing in the job of driving the snakes from Ireland (talk about multi-tasking). The snake story, perhaps the best known of the Patrick legends, may have been symbolic, since post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. Because of the serpent symbolism of the Druids, it may in fact represent the expulsion of pagan beliefs. He was also known to carry an ashwood walking stick that he would thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing, and supposedly his message took so long to get through to the people that the stick had taken root by the time he was done. I’ve sat through enough Christian sermons in my time to believe this legend might actually be true.

Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, which seems appropriate for such a downer of a guy. He shares a graveyard with St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Columba, who are also considered patron saints of Ireland. All will be covered by a thick carpet of green, green grass to celebrate today’s holiday.

Fake News: Recent earthquakes ARE related

March 16, 2010

LONDON (Mar. 15) — Fears that a rash of earthquakes around the world may signal an impending geological cataclysm were debunked by a British scientist yesterday. However, he made the startling announcement that there is a connection between the quakes that could be even more frightening.

The common cause of major seismic events in Haiti, Chile, Turkey and Japan: fat guys falling down.

“Improbable as it may seem, we now believe that temblors of this magnitude have their origins with morbidly obese men losing their balance and toppling to the ground,” said Robert Holdsworth, an expert in tectonics at Durham University. “We’ve analyzed all the data and the results are very clear. Earthquakes are being caused by fat guys falling down.”

Holdsworth said Sunday’s 6.6-magnitude quake near Tokyo occurred only hours after a championship sumo wrestling match during which competitors were repeatedly thrown to the mat. The resulting tremor confirmed a hypothesis that Holdsworth’s team was preparing for release to the public.

“It’s not some fundamental weakening of the earth’s crust like you might see in a disaster movie,” Holdsworth said. “Instead, it’s the far more widespread problem of overweight people rising from their specially reinforced beds only to stumble and fall. This could happen anywhere, even in areas previously thought to be free of seismic activity.”

Holdsworth said the falling fatties don’t directly cause the subsequent quake, but instead create a shock wave that destabilizes the earth’s plates, which absorb the blow for a few brief hours before causing a massive shift. It’s this delay that prevented a quicker connection being made between the massive shocks that have rocked the globe since January.

“The final confirmation came with a compilation of security videos from the sites of this year’s biggest quakes,” Holdsworth said. “In every case, we’ve found that the faults gave way not long after a camera somewhere nearby captured images of a fat guy falling down.”

The March 8 pre-dawn quake in eastern Turkey, which measured 6.0 on the Richter scale, came after the previous evening’s huge Thanksgiving dinner tipped several revelers over the 600-pound mark. With “turkey day” celebrated daily in this part of Asia Minor, it was only a matter of time before someone became drowsy from all the carbohydrates and fell over.

The monster 8.8-magnitude temblor that rocked Chile on Feb. 27 followed closely on the heels of an empanada-eating contest in Santiago where part of the stage collapsed under the weight of the contestants.

“I think they were also eating chili rellenos in a preliminary event,” Holdsworth said, “but that might be the other kind of chili and possibly unrelated.”

“However, it’s no coincidence that Turkey and Chile — two countries with the same name as foods — were hard-hit. Based on this, we advise an immediate evacuation of Samoa, because of the Girl Scout cookie connection,” he added.

The most devastating earthquake of all in 2010 was the January disaster in Haiti. This event initially threw investigators off the trail, since so many people in that poor Caribbean nation are undernourished.

“But we found a video of what may have been the only fat guy in the entire country and, sure enough, he fell down only 90 minutes before the 7.0-magnitude shock,” Holdsworth said.

The geologist admitted that while his study showed a terrifying trend, there is something positive that people can do to prevent future events, short of hunting down the overly plump and physically dismantling them.

“A carefully planned system of municipal trusses, hammocks and trampolines, scattered throughout an endangered city, could catch some of falling fat guys, absorbing just enough of the jolt to prevent a major quake,” Holdsworth said. “It would take a monumental effort, but it’s got to be easier than improving the balance of the lard-bottomed.”

Aren’t you glad you didn’t eat an orange?

March 15, 2010

The orange and I go way back. I grew up in Miami, so I have many fond memories of this refreshing fruit — walking past the bakery that made orange cakes, the smell of the groves as my family drove up the Florida Turnpike, the carefully sectioned after-school snack prepared by my mother from the tree in our own backyard. Then there were all those barefoot summers when my skin turned a bright precancerous orange.  

Citrus was our tropical icon. It represented a primary reason my family and others had abandoned the north for a life among the fruits. It was the perfect symbol for being a Floridian, its thick, leathery skin so similar to those pioneers who cleared the swamps and built the railroad, those alligators that still thrived in the roadside canals, and that Gloria Estefan.  

Oranges were so cheap and plentiful in southern Florida that when they couldn’t be properly disassembled by a responsible adult, we kids would just cut a hole in the top, then suck out the juice and discard the rest. To this day, I drink OJ with my breakfast every morning without fail, except for the month I spent in India on business where they thought watermelon nectar was an adequate substitute. Silly Asians.  

The orange doesn’t give up its sweet sunny taste easily. I typically eat the flesh only when it’s been carefully extracted by a hired hand and put into a fruit salad. Some varieties have been bred to make it slightly easier to get inside, though that convenience is often traded for taste. Those bastards the tangerines come closest to attaining a proper balance, yet I feel like a traitor to my homeland to consort with such mutants.  

Recently at work, management has brought out various food pellets to encourage us to work longer and harder during our busy season without needing to leave the room for nourishment. (I half-expect a Porta-John to appear soon next to my cubicle, so other biological needs can also be taken care of with equal convenience). In addition to the candies, donuts and meth-infused lollipops, we’re also given fresh fruit to spur on our activity levels. Among these are several bags of oranges, so I thought I’d revisit my youth and try to eat one whole.  

The following photographs chronicle my attempt:  

The uncut orange stands proud and defiant. "Just try to get inside me," it seems to say.

Removing the skin by hand is awkward and, if you have any open paper cuts, extremely painful.

Attempts to peel with a knife quickly deteriorate into a stabbing (insert OJ joke here).

If you succeed at all using conventional methods, you're left with a tiny sphere of flesh and a lot of wasted orange juice.

GODDAM ORANGE! Running it over with a truck may prove to be the best option for reaching that sweet, tangy interior.

Finally, the interior is laid bare and I can pick the juicy morsels from among the gravel of the parking lot. Now all I have to deal with are the seeds, membranes reminiscent of discarded condoms, and stringy white hairs that serve as the fruit’s last defense. 

Orange, if you didn’t want to be eaten, why did you have to be so difficult to master?

Revisited: Drugs can be funny

March 14, 2010

Anyone who has watched much late-night television knows that drugs are funny. Just let the host mention “weed” or “roids” and listen to the audience howl. Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez jokes proliferate like octomoms on fertility drugs.

But are legal prescription drugs as funny as the illicit kind? I think so, and so do the writers on the hilarious “Colbert Report” in their frequent segment on Prescott Pharmaceuticals, the fake drug company in constant legal trouble (“the tingling tells you it’s working; the class action lawsuit tells you it’s Prescott”). Their line of medicines includes Vaxadrone, Vaxachub, Vaxascab and Vaxamaxx. It’s usually unclear what the intended effects are – something to do with 1980s 32-bit computing architecture, I imagine – but the side effects are absolutely riotous: vivid dreams of self-cannibalization, late onset albinoism, increased risk of vampire attack. Vaxadrine use is discouraged “if you plan to walk around.”

The items that follow are either brand or generic names from legitimate pharmaceutical giants. Either laugh along with me, or ask your doctor if one of these is right for you and, as Prescott advises, “if he says no, see another doctor.”

Accolate – for treatment of former Lutheran altar boys who continue to extinguish candle flames long past adolescence

Bambec – for the easily confused wild antlered mammal, such as the proverbial “deer stuck in headlights”

Zafirlukast – for inflammation of the pan flute

Faslodex – a high-speed computerized system for recording and maintaining business phone numbers

Modip – a flea treatment for dogs and cats that results in fur styles which resemble the leader of the Three Stooges

Gastroloc – an antidote to diarrhea

Avlocardyl retard – a California-grown salad and guacamole ingredient that can also be used to treat cognitive and learning disorders

Goserelin acetate – Canada Geese dropping refined into a film stock and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor

AscoTop – for treatment of pretentious English types who are too good to wear normal neckwear

Zomig Rapimelt – for treatment of ice-cream-induced brain freeze

Imigran – designed to turn illegal aliens into a bran fiber that can aid in digestion

Epzicom – a new Disney theme park designed for the treatment of patients with epilepsy

Bonviva – for the treatment of unusually annoying happy people

Twinrix – a rice cereal for fraternal twins

Rotarix – a rice cereal for plumbers

Integrilin – for treatment of the honest politician

Ipilimumab – for treatment of those who think they want to travel to India, but will realize when they get there that it wasn’t such a good idea

Baraclude – one ounce dropped in the ocean will eliminate vicious fish within a one-mile area

Aspergillosis – for treatment of green vegetable spears growing in the shaded parts of your body

Fablyn – an implant that provides instant fashion sense

Cymbalta – for the treatment of drum solos

Yentreve – a medication designed to get Barbra Streisand to appear in a quality movie

Humalog – for those who think going to the bathroom is funny

Survivin – for those interested in stayin’ alive

OpRA II – a cure for those who stay at home watching daytime television

Revisited: Remembrances of college

March 13, 2010

While my 17-year-old son considers his options for college in the fall, I’m reminded of the exhilaration of my own post-secondary educational experience some 35 years ago. As I’ve recounted to him numerous times — I’m hoping at least one account will make it past the iPod — it remains to this day one of the greatest experiences of my life, right up there with Daniel’s birth, my marriage to my wife, and the day I found 57 cents under a park swing when I was four years old. (It seemed like a big deal at the time.)

I graduated from Miami Norland High School in 1971, about 150 in a class of 991. As such a successful senior, I had my choice of virtually any public college in the state, primarily because they were legally bound to accept me.

I chose Florida State University in Tallahassee, over 400 miles northwest of Miami. My reasons were not the soundest: I longed for cooler weather, it had an active countercultural movement, and it was the farthest I could get from my dreary teenage life without leaving Florida. I was interested in pursuing a journalism degree but failed to notice in my research that such a program was not offered at FSU. Oops.

Since I couldn’t major in the field I wanted, I decided instead to work on the student newspaper. The Sunday before my first official day as a freshman, I showed up at the student union offices of The Florida Flambeau, wanting to be a reporter. I remember sitting in the hallway outside the newsroom, too scared to walk in and introduce myself but too overweight to avoid being in the way of the scurrying journalists who kept tripping over me. One of them finally asked what the hell I was doing on the floor, and my career in mass communications was launched.

I absolutely fell in love with the place and rose quickly through the ranks. My very first news story, on a new sleeping concept called the waterbed and students’ reaction to it (“they’re not allowed in the dorms”), soon gave way to meatier stories about all the political activity on campus. Both the draft and the Vietnam War were still in full swing at the time, and student protests had caught the attention of the state’s media. About the same time, a member of the state Board of Regents heard that male and female students were commingling, shall we say, in state-funded dormitories, which she colorfully labeled “taxpayers’ whorehouses.” By reporting on these events as an outsider instead of as a participant, I could share in the excitement without experiencing any of the risk (a good thing in the case of anti-war protests, not so good with the whorehouses.)

By the end of my sophomore year, I had become editor of the paper. I was spending all my free time in the newsroom, as well as a good bit of the time that I should’ve spent in lecture halls, laboratories and the library. We clustered around the ancient AP teletype machines and watched as the demise of the Nixon presidency unfolded in smeared black ink. We yearned for a similar scandal in our own corner of the world, so we found some faculty members who didn’t like the university president and started giving them press. But the excitement of the era was definitely on the wane. We could tell our chances of being shot by National Guardsmen were rapidly diminishing.

With the fad of opposing an unjust colonialist war losing its luster, it was time for a new craze, and I had an idea. I’d read a small article on the wire about a so-called “streaking” incident at a Midwestern school but the most compelling part of the story – photographic evidence – was missing. We ran the item, then I planted a fake meeting notice in our paper of the FSU Streakers Club for the following Friday night. Organizer Ed Mims failed to show up for the meeting, primarily because he didn’t existent, though about 20 others did come, including me as the reporter. When the group finally got tired of waiting for Ed, someone else took charge and recommended that FSU put itself in the national spotlight.

Within a few days, we got a tip to have a photographer ready at 1:30 p.m. in the parking lot near the Chemistry Building. In the interest of providing written documentation of the event, I went along and, sure enough, a naked guy emerged from a car and ran across a small grassy median before ducking into another car and driving away. We got five shots, two of which were genitals-free, and the least fuzzy of these made it into the next day’s Flambeau. The following day it was reproduced in the Jacksonville and Tampa newspapers and by the weekend, it made the pages of Newsweek magazine. FSU was being credited with starting the latest college fad as streaking broke out at campuses all over the country.

These were heady times as we attempted to capitalize and build on our new-found notoriety. We scheduled a mass “streak-in” on the campus’s main quadrangle, Landis Green, which brought out more local families and their picnic baskets than any actually nude people. Several locations did attract small aggregations of mostly male naturists – I still have a photo taken outside my freshman dorm of probably 50 or 60 streakers milling around the bicycle stands, frozen in a miraculous moment reminiscent of the Austin Powers openings, with all naughty bits hidden.

Soon the thrill and novelty of streaking began to wear off, despite our desperate attempts to lengthen its duration in the national consciousness to something more akin to Vietnam. We convinced a cub reporter to borrow his roommate’s cane so we could feature him on the front page as the nation’s first blind streaker. On April Fool’s Day, me and another editor got a guy to lie naked on the ground and we dragged him by his four limbs in front of the camera as the first dead streaker. For reasons that make sense in hindsight, we had to abandon attempts to record the first bicycling streaker.

Through it all, I never once participated in any actual streaking, not because of any quaint notions I had about journalistic integrity (ha, ha) but because I was rightfully ashamed of my own personal body. We had a ton of fun, nobody got hurt, and we all ended up with great stories to avoid telling our children.

The tire was almost as flat as the excuses

March 12, 2010

When I backed out of the parking space, I could tell there was something wrong with the car. More than the fact that it was ten years old and had nearly 150,000 miles on it. Japanese cars have been in the news lately for unintended acceleration, but mine seemed to have an entirely too purposeful sluggishness as I edged it into reverse.

Slowly moving through the parking lot, the clump-clump-clump told me that I had a flat tire. So did the guy waiting for my parking space, who began pointing his finger at my right front wheel and mouthing  through his windshield that either I had a “flat tire” or a “cat fire”. That wasn’t the kind of help I was going to need.

I’ve changed a number (three) of flat tires in my time and always managed to get it done correctly if not promptly. Like everything else about cars, it seems like it used to be a lot simpler than it’s now become. There was a standard jack, a bumper, a full-size spare and only minimal amounts of strength required to loosen the lugnuts. You rolled up your sleeves, applied yourself while also trying to avoid being sideswiped by passing traffic, and usually survived long enough to end up with a new tire on your car.

Or maybe I’m the one who’s become simpler. Modern design is supposed to make equipment and processes progressively easier, yet with automobiles, everything instead has become harder. Nowadays, you practically have to return the vehicle to the dealer and get professional assistance to open your glove compartment and pull out an aspirin. The jack no longer looks like a jack but instead like a small tool you might’ve used in high school geometry class to measure angles. The handle has evolved from a crowbar to something akin to a bendy straw. The tire looks like it would fit better on Barbie’s Mini B pink Corvette convertible.

Regardless, I had to figure out pretty quickly how I was going to avoid being stranded all night in front of a GameStop video game store. It was already getting pretty dark, and my understanding was that around 9 o’clock there would be a hoard of tattooed, studded skateboarders descending on the area, all too eager to use my stooped back as a ramp.

I found another parking place with no surrounding cars and limped into it. I stepped out to survey the damage and contemplate what I was going to do. I’m proud to say that an extra $35 paid once a year has garnered me status as a premium AAA card holder, so one serious option was going to be whipping out my cell and calling for free roadside assistance, as well as financial planning, a zero-percent-interest credit card and a lovely faux-leather mileage journal for only $5.99 shipping if I couldn’t resist the upsell I was going to receive. Or I could fumble around in the dusk only to end up with a pesky crush injury.

The last time I used the service was about eight years ago, and I remember to this day being belittled by the tow truck driver who responded to the call. In his opinion, if it was above me to be down in the gravel doing physical labor, then I didn’t qualify for the title of Southern Man. And I would agree, I don’t qualify. I’m not “ept,” as my wife puts it. Instead, I am inept in the use of most major tools, and shouldn’t be counted on for anything more handy than buttoning my own shirt. Still, I didn’t think it was the proper place of a hired servant to be pointing this out to me.

I called the AAA number and navigated through a number of voice mail options to finally get the call center worker who would record my request and dispatch the help I needed. She paraded me through a litany of questions, some of which actually pertained to the situation I found myself in. I can see why she’d need to know my member number, the type of service I needed and my physical location on the planet, although what my middle initial had to do with a flat tire still escapes me.

A long pause followed each of my responses to her questions. She sounded like she was probably new to the job and still following a checklist on how to key my answers into the various fields she found on her computer screen. After about ten minutes of this, she seemed to be wrapping up the interview with a request for the phone number I could be reach at.

“Three-six-seven, six-eight-two-eight,” I enunciated carefully.

“Eight-eight-two-eight,” she confirmed.

“No, six-eight-two-eight,” I said.

“Six-six-two-eight,” she responded.

“No, three-six-seven, six-eight-two-eight,” I answered slowly. “Or maybe the tow truck driver could just yell my middle initial out the window and I could send up a flare in response,” I thought of adding.

She read back all the information she had recorded about me to confirm my request, then told me it would be about sixty minutes before help would arrive.

“Yes, all that sounds right, but did you say sixty minutes?” I asked

“We try to tell you the maximum amount of time it will take,” she said. “It’s usually faster than that.”

I ended the call and turned to the back seat to get the crossword puzzle I was undoubtedly going to need to occupy myself. But it was only a few minutes later that the phone rang and “Gary” was reporting in that he was only five minutes away and would arrive soon to help me. I could watch for his yellow truck with the word “Interstate” written on the side.

Gary was the model of expertise after he backed into the space next to mine. It was reassuring to be in the presence to someone who had dedicated his life to helping his fellow man get out of ditches. He moaned good-naturedly that he’d just been nodding off to sleep when the emergency call came to him, as he’d been up since five that morning. I commiserated that I’d been up since four myself, and what fun it was to find myself going to bed in the evenings before my son did. He didn’t have any kids, and was barely able to find time for a girlfriend. Okay, enough chit-chat — let’s get this Honda back in working mode.

He wheeled a professional jack into position (I think they call it a “john”) and quickly hoisted my car off the ground. A compressed-air-powered drill made quick work of the bolts it would’ve taken me about a half hour to wrestle off. The flat was removed and the baby tire was put into its place. Four more whirrs of the drill and the wheel was secure. He checked the air pressure of the new tire and topped it off with yet another hose off the back of his truck. Now, came my part: signing a piece of paper, and explaining why I couldn’t change a tire by myself.

“Sorry to make you come out tonight, but I couldn’t find all my tools in the trunk,” I shrugged. “I was in a bit of a hurry and figured a pro could do it faster than I could. Plus, I hurt my back a few days ago and was afraid to strain it too much.”

I thought of adding that I was allergic to rubber, my left hand was missing a pinky, I was legally blind, and that I was expecting a call from Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking for advice on how to break out of his NASCAR racing slump, so I had to remain upright. But then I remembered what I heard Barbara Walters saying on “The View” just that morning: “Only give one good excuse. If you give more than one, it sounds more like you’re lying.”

As Gary gathered up his equipment and I climbed into my finally-functioning car, I realized it had now become official: I was not a Real Man at all.