Archive for June, 2010

Foods need context, and a little salt

June 30, 2010

I guess there’s something about encountering foods out of context that makes them more appealing.  

You wouldn’t normally associate a quality ice cream experience with standing in the road next to a truck blaring “La Cucaracha,” yet there’s no better summertime treat than buying a Nuddy Buddy from the neighborhood Good Humor man.  

We decline the stringy turkey leg at Thanksgiving, preferring instead a tender slice of breast meat. But put us at a Renaissance festival surrounded with busty wenches and nerdy knaves, and there’s nothing better than the smoked limb of a gamey tom.  

I guess that’s some of the psychology at play in my office. A lady from the adjacent department has recently begun delivering farm-fresh eggs directly to the desks of my co-workers. Reportedly, she has a friend who has a chicken, and if you supply your own crate and a small fee by Thursday afternoon, she’ll bring you a dozen eggs on Friday morning.  

“They’re delicious,” a friend told me. “You can’t get eggs like that in a grocery store.”  

Well, you normally can’t get eggs of any kind from an office chair wheeled through a maze of cubicles. Maybe it’s the smell of toner fumes from the adjacent copier that gives them a special flavor. Or maybe it’s the improbability of having the makings of a weekend’s omelets dispensed like so many payroll stubs that makes them unique.  

I haven’t yet joined this informal egg club, as the stress of the daily grind is taxing my heart enough as it is without adding a high dose of cholesterol. However, the Egg Lady from Accounting crossed my mind when I was driving down a country road last weekend and came across a yard containing a rickety table full of bright red tomatoes.  

Though my wife and I don’t grow a summer garden ourselves, it did seem like it was about time for the local crop to be coming in, and nothing beats the taste of a juicy ripe tomato fresh from your neighbor’s yard. I pulled into the dusty driveway and climbed out of my car, encountering a stiff-walking bumpkin who noted how hot it was, the traditional mid-June greeting in this part of the South.  

“Yup,” I countered. “Pretty dry too. We sure could use some rain.”  

Having been cleared with the proper code words, I was shown his collection of vegetables. Not only were there tomatoes, there were a few potatoes, squash, peppers and zucchinis. All were crudely displayed under a large shade tree, with the barking dog and beat-up tractor across the way clearly implying he had grown them himself. I felt up a few of the tomatoes; they seemed a little firmer than I might’ve hoped, though nowhere near the rock-hardness of the fruit trucked in from Chile that was in the grocery stores. I pretended to be discerning as I examined five and selected four for purchase.  

It wasn’t until I brought them home and proudly displayed them to my wife that I realized I had been scammed by a yokel. He had not grown any of this stuff himself. He had probably bought them at a store a few days earlier, let them soften a bit in the outdoor heat, then set up this country tableau to lure in suckers like me. I’d had no intention of buying vegetables while running from chore to chore Saturday morning, and yet seeing them whiz by the car window from out of nowhere made them irresistible.  

We tried making a BLT out of the tomatoes and I imagined they were palatable. My wife knew better and soon placed the leftovers way out of context, in our backyard compost pile.  

It got me to thinking about how I came to like or dislike the various vegetables I’ve encountered over the years. Having grown up in the sixties, where a regular schedule of mom-cooked meals was the norm, I didn’t develop the aversion to produce that haunts the dreams of modern kids. I had made pleasant if irrational connections to most of the common greens that allows me to enjoy them even today.  

I liked spinach because I liked Popeye. I liked broccoli because they looked like trees. I liked corn because I liked typing, and gnawing line after line of kernels felt like operating a typewriter (I still say “ding” at the end of each row). I enjoyed cauliflower because it felt like I was eating someone’s brain, which was considered a positive experience for a ten-year-old who enjoyed horror movies.  

By the same reasoning, I loathed dishes like lima beans, Brussels sprouts and peas. Not only did they fail to have a cartoon advocate who gathered super-human strength by eating them, they had terrible names. Squash and zucchini were in the same category; no good-natured sailor with bloated forearms was going to save Olive Oyl from the clutches of Bluto by downing a can of butternut squash. And okra, that Southern specialty with serious viscosity issues, was disgusting long before a certain extremely successful daytime talk show hostess could’ve rescued it just because her name rhymed.  

I didn’t even like tomatoes at the time, unless they had been rendered into ketchup or spaghetti sauce. I’m still not among those who can bite into one like an apple, but I can tolerate a few mixed in with wedges of lettuce. Salads themselves were repulsive until modern dressing technology brought us the ranch and green goddess sauces that gave them some semblance of flavor.  

Now, as I finish up this piece, comes word through an email from my wife’s knitting group that one member wants to share the bounty of her garden with anybody who cares to bring along a sack to that evening’s meeting. Exactly what’s being offered isn’t clear, though that hardly matters. If you were expecting to stitch together a nice scarf with a collection of friends and instead are confronted by cabbages, corn and green beans, they’re going to have to be good.  

Seemed like a good idea at the time

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Fake News: McChrystal in the job hunt

June 29, 2010

WASHINGTON (June 28) — Sacked by President Obama following publication of disrespectful comments made by his staff in Rolling Stone magazine, Gen. Stanley McChrystal now finds himself looking for a job where running eight miles on only one meal a day and sleeping just four hours a night are considered marketable skill sets.

“I’ve been going through the classified ads and thought I could find something under ‘general labor,'” the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said. “Apparently, they don’t mean ‘general’ as in Army officer; they mean ‘general’ as in ‘entry level cell tower builders.’ I’m more about nation-building than tower-building.”

The 56-year-old career officer said he could retire on his pension if he wanted to, but that he feels he has a lot to offer the right kind of company. That, plus his wife of 33 years doesn’t want him puttering around the Western Hemisphere.

“She says she wants me to find something nice in Asia, though I hear they’re not hiring right now,” McChrystal noted.

McChrystal said that he has been on a number of interviews since his dismissal last week, which he found encouraging when so many job-seekers have gone months without even a nibble of interest from potential employers. He credits his extensive military experience for opening doors and getting critical face time with hiring managers.

Despite recent negative experiences with the press, he allowed this reporter to accompany him on one interview.

“I started out in C Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, then moved on to the 3rd Battalion, 19th Infantry, 7th Special Forces Group,” the general proudly told Ross Bledsoe, personnel director for Safelite Auto Glass Replacement. “I was head of the Joint Special Operations Command when we killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.”

“I was in the Army myself,” Bledsoe chuckled. “I was stationed with the 23rd Psalm, 19th Nervous Breakdown, 7th Heaven, Second Grade. You have a very well-typed resume that reads like a Rambo movie, but I just don’t see how assassinating terrorist leaders lends itself to a career in repairing broken windshields. We’ll let you know if anything opens up.”

“My men were charged with dismantling car bombs,” he offered hopefully. “That’s kind of like auto glass replacement, if you think about it.”

An obviously disheartened McChrystal noted that he was also really good at counterinsurgency, if Safelite ever finds itself expanding into that field.

Afterward, the general said he had a few more irons in the fire for an afternoon session driving around suburban Washington. The crumpled newspaper in his hand had several opportunities circled, including a marketing specialist position at Storm Gutter Guardian, an office manager with Safety Equipment Company, and mailroom director at Dominion Community College. He also had a tentative interview at an Arlington Texaco, which was looking for a convenience store clerk/mechanic.

“Does Texaco still have that jingle about ‘you can trust your car to the man who wears the star’?” the general asked. “I’d think they’d be pretty impressed by a general who wears three stars.”

Tomorrow, he intends to knock on a few doors in healthcare-related businesses. He felt pretty confident he’d at least get a callback on a dental assistant position “because I know a guy who knows a guy,” and said he was “just about positive” he’d have a shot at a $13-an-hour pre-surgery scheduling job.

“Frankly, I’m hoping when they see ‘special operations’ on my resume that they’ll think I’m some kind of surgeon,” he said. “A surgeon could lend some real insight into how to obtain preauthorization from insurance carriers, as long as they don’t think I’d be overqualified.”

McChrystal said he was confident his background in overcoming adversity during heated battles in Kosovo, Kuwait and a stint as senior fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government would serve him well during the increasingly frustrating search.

“I’m a proud man though I won’t let that pride get in the way of landing me a job,” McChrystal said. “I’ll stand at an interstate exit ramp with a sign reading ‘will insubordinate for food’ if I have to. I’d have to get ‘insubordinate’ to fit on a piece of cardboard, but I am known as a real problem-solver.”

Mondays, or, Life in Shorts

June 28, 2010

I love playing Scrabble on my computer. I don’t do it interactively with other live humans (I think I’ve made it pretty clear in previous posts that I don’t particularly care for other live humans) but instead select a robot challenger from among the eight skill levels offered.

I generally play at the “elite” ranking, the sixth most difficult, and tend to win about a third of my matches. That low success rate keeps it challenging, giving me cause for exultation when I win. My coworkers think I’ve found some especially egregious typo when I shout aloud and raise my hands high above my head, when I’m just winning at Scrabble.        

The seven letters you’re assigned to play with are supposed to be randomly generated. I think, however, that this program has it in for me, and assigns me way more vowels than I should be getting. Consequently, I’ve come to adopt two vowel-heavy words as among my favorites.        

The first of these is “adieu,” not great for generating points though it does allow you to clear out your vowel inventory. My second favorite is “vagina,” and not for the reasons you might think. One day I had the opportunity to play this word for a respectable 22 points, leaving me with only an “e” remaining unplayed on my rack. Just for the heck of it, I stuck the “e” on the end of the “vagina” (something I wouldn’t advise anywhere but in Scrabble) and, turns out, “vaginae” is actually a word! Using all seven tiles gives you 50 bonus points, which propelled me to an eventual win.        

I looked it up later, and found that “vaginae” is simply the plural of “vagina,” a variation used more in medical terminology than everyday conversation, where “vaginas” or “you know, down there” tend to suffice.        

As a Scrabble fan, and as a 56-year-old man whose testosterone levels are on the decline, I find myself frequently thinking “adieu vaginae.”        

Please let me know if you can think of any words with six "i's" and a "u"

 +++       

Some final thoughts on World Cup soccer, now that the Americans’ expulsion means we no longer have to pretend to care:
–Wouldn’t setting up a single match with two balls, four teams and four goals, allowing two teams to play horizontally across the pitch while two others play vertically, be more interesting? Remember how much fun it used to be when you’d get a “multi-ball” bonus in pinball? It would be like that.
–Or how about if players could use neither their feet nor their hands, but only their heads? Everybody would be down on all fours, nudging the ball goal-ward as fast as they could crawl. Imagine the excitement of a mid-field breakaway that would take up to several minutes to complete.
–Or what if they added an extra referee, but he was really a neutral player in disguise? At some random point in the middle of the match, he could start kicking the ball around, and everybody would be all, like, “what?”
–If you think the vuvuzela is annoying, imagine if Australia ever gets the World Cup and everyone brings a didgeridoo. Or the U.S. gets it and fans bring banjoes and Sousaphones.
–Best name ever for a sports commentator is Steve McManaman. So manly.
–I don’t know why, but after watching Saturday’s match, I have an overwhelming urge to buy products from a company named Mahindra Satyam, even though I have no idea what they make. And I want to use Visa to pay for my purchase.
–Ghana deserved to lose that match, if for no other reason than that their uniforms made them look like McDonald’s employees      

Would you like fries with your humiliating defeat?

 +++   

I invite everyone to join my new Facebook group, LetsPeeOnTheFloorInBPGasStations. I meant to specify that we pee on the floor in the restrooms of BP gas stations, but ran out of characters. If you want to do it out in the open in the snack aisle, be my guest, but I take no responsibility for this.   

Think of it as a way to protest the Gulf oil spill. I know a lot of these franchises claim they’re not officially associated with BP, but there’s got to be some connection, and we’re a populace that’s extremely frustrated by this unprecedented environmental catastrophe and are looking to take action. Leaking our own toxic waste onto the floor of their bathrooms makes a very strong political statement, especially if you’ve eaten asparagus recently.   

If you’re somehow caught by the manager, simply claim that the volume of the pee compared to the volume of the entire restroom makes the spill inconsequential. You can also say that you followed all rules as prescribed by the proper regulatory authorities (your urologist) and still, inexplicably, the leak happened. If pressed, you can promise to clean it up, but admit it’s going to take you at least two months.   

And I wouldn’t advise using the defense that “at least in my case, no wildlife was affected” because the manager could make you spend the afternoon scrubbing down roaches with dish soap.   

+++

Sorry about the unintended theme in last week’s posts. On Monday I wrote about buying a pruning saw, on Wednesday I considered buying hospital scrubs, and on Friday I reviewed the operating instructions that came with my purchase of a fan. 

I’m thinking of buying a donut today but I promise not to write about it.

+++ 

Virtually every afternoon this summer, I’ll be tempting death. 

I’ve been an ardent jogger since my twenties and continue to run about a mile and a half at least five days a week. This despite the fact that I’m now 56 years old, probably a good 30 pounds overweight, and I face afternoon temperatures typically in the mid to upper 90s. Like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, it’s torture while it’s happening but it feels so good when you stop. 

Passing motorists are aghast at my exercise, both because it’s so obviously suicidal and because a tight sweaty t-shirt is not exactly complimentary to my figure. Still, I continue shuffling onward, oblivious to the ozone alerts and the high humidity and the teenage boys who think it’s funny to wolf-whistle at me. 

Should these daily posts at DavisW suddenly come to a halt, you’ll know where I am: the same dump where the city hauls all the possums and raccoons and squirrels and financial proofreaders who don’t realize that roads are for cars, not for creatures.

Revisited: Shoving epidemic in Washington

June 27, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 27) – FBI officials revealed yesterday they will begin criminal investigations into recent incidents involving top female officials who were thought to have tripped but may in fact have been shoved.

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fell and broke her ankle at LaGuardia Airport earlier this month, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shattered her elbow in a tumble last week at a State Department parking garage. Both incidents were at first reported to be accidents, but it’s now suspected that horseplay or hijinks by male colleagues could be to blame.

Investigators became suspicious of a more widespread plot after Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine narrowly avoided a fall over the weekend. She told agents that she discovered fellow Democrat Harry Reid sneaking up behind her on all fours shortly after Sen. Chris Dodd bumped into her in the Capitol dining room. She briefly stumbled before catching her balance and confronting the seven-term senator from Connecticut. A security camera recorded most of the scene.

“Quit it,” Snowe said to Dodd as she fell backward. “Stop being such a moron.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Dodd protested. “I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole. You’re ugly.”

“Harry, what are you doing back there?” Snowe then said, turning to the Senate majority leader from Nevada.

“What are you talking about?” Reid responded. “I… I was just looking for a quarter that I dropped. I swear.”

Snowe then repeated her demand to “cut it out or I’m going to tell” before both Reid and Dodd ran giggling from the scene.

“We take these threats to the security of government leaders very seriously,” said FBI Special Agent Ronald Murray. “Boisterous childishness like this will not be tolerated. These Congressmen are old enough to know better and if they don’t knock it off, we’re going to report them. It’ll go on their permanent Congressional record.”

Contacted by reporters about the charges, Reid said the alleged incident was “all in fun” and that Maine’s senior senator “needs to lighten up a little. Jeez.” Dodd, who is currently shepherding the Obama Administration’s health insurance reform effort through the Senate, said Snowe was “stuck up and whining like a baby” and that her charges were “totally without merit.”

Dodd added that he wasn’t afraid of the FBI, whom he characterized as “stupid,” but later retracted that charge with the claim that he “thought it was opposite day.”

Meanwhile, the Congressional sergeant-at-arms office said it would be beefing up personal security for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski and California Senator Dianne Feinstein in the wake of the FBI’s announcement. These three legislators are at particular risk, a spokesperson for that office said, because “everyone knows they’re snobs.”

“They think they’re, like, really cool and stuff,” said the official, who declined to be named. “I’d shove ‘em myself if I weren’t legally charged with upholding the law.”

Revisited: Forces in Iraq stuck indoors

June 26, 2010

BAGHDAD, Iraq (June 26) – Commanders of U.S. forces stationed in Iraq have begun complaining to Pentagon officials that “we really have our hands full” now that combat troops have been ordered off the streets of this nation’s cities.

Top brass in Washington acted to drastically reduce the visibility of the 130,000 soldiers in country to comply with agreements to turn more control over to Iraqi security forces by the end of June. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that “it’s really hot outside, and we don’t want our fighting men and women to get overheated.”

“I know it’s summertime and everybody wants to be outside,” Gates said. “But we have to use good judgment so we don’t risk widespread thirstiness and heat rash. There aren’t that many hoses for soldiers to drink from in the urban areas, and they’ll just keep on playing in the sand and forget to keep up their fluids.”

Army General Ray Odierno said it was his job to comply with orders from the top, but noted pointedly that keeping that many divisions indoors while the locals were able to burn off energy in the 130-degree afternoon heat was a “special challenge.”

“They’re really under foot here,” Odierno said. “It’s only been two days and already they’re driving the general staff crazy. It’s natural that they want to blow off their youthful energy, but I’m not getting any younger. I have a splitting headache.”

“Will you lieutenant colonels please knock it off over there?” the general was then heard to say. “I’ve just about had it up to here with you guys.”

Other top military officials who spoke off the record said that the scheduled arrival next week of three C-130 cargo planes filled with Wii consoles and an estimated 13 tons of the popular “Dance Dance Revolution” game should go a long way toward keeping the confined troops busy. Plans were being laid for several week-long sessions of Vacation Bible School in August in one of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s occupied palaces, and a “ball crawl” was also being setting up in an adjacent swimming pool.

Odierno said he understood that the removal of American forces from the streets of Baghdad and other large cities was critical to the establishment of true Iraqi sovereignty. He also acknowledged his forces still needed to remain nearby in case they had to bolster local police in fighting any renewal of the now-largely-dormant insurgency.

“Maybe there’s something good on TV,” Odierno said. “Or I could get out some of those old board games we put up in the attic last winter. I’m really running out of ideas though. This is not a ‘Scrabble’ kind of crowd.”

The general said, however, he remained confident that summer would soon be over and that armed personnel will probably be invading Iran in the fall, and he had to admit he’d hate to see them go.

“I just hope we can find some good ‘back-to-combat’ sales,” Odierno noted with a sigh. “A lot of our people are probably going to be at least two sizes bigger by then and will need all new gear. I complain a lot about them being all over the place now, but I know I’ll miss them when they’re gone.”

Book Review: “Important Safety Instructions”

June 25, 2010

With yesterday’s high temperature outside my home hitting a record 98 degrees, I thought it would be wise to supplement our air conditioning with a small fan. The local CVS store had an inexpensive model so I bought it.

As soon as I got home, I was afraid I’d made a mistake. True, there was a picture of what looked like a simple electric fan on the cover of the package and, because it was in color, I made the purchase. On closer inspection, though, what I bought turned out to be an “air circulator,” not a fan. I examined the appliance carefully trying to discern the difference. Like a fan, this gadget had blades that spun, a cord and an on/off switch. I took a chance and plugged it in and, sure enough, the blades began turning rapidly and a cooling breeze came humming out the front. All in all, very fan-like behavior.

Just to be on the safe side, I figured I’d better read the accompanying owner’s manual, and it revealed itself to be quite the page-turner. Who would’ve guessed there would be so much to know about how to operate a fan, or air circulator, or jet engine, or whatever this thing was. Unless I’m investing in something complicated like a blimp or a tactical nuclear weapon, I usually tend to intuit my way through the operating instructions. But once I started leafing through this tightly plotted 16-page volume, I was gripped by a narrative far more nuanced than the plug-and-play experience I anticipated.

After introducing its main character, the Honeywell Model HT-900 Turbo Force High Velocity Circulator, the story opens with a long list of do’s and don’ts. These are important guidelines to follow if you’re interested in your story having a happy ending in which your body temperature is slightly reduced without having a finger cut off. I don’t want to offer up too many spoilers in this review, but I think you’ll get a better feel for the arc of the story if I hit a few highlights.

Point one urges you to “use this fan only as described in this manual.” (Yes! Confirmation that it is indeed a fan!) Other uses are not recommended and can result in fire, electric shock or “injury to persons.” The only unprescribed use I could think of was hooking it up to a small generator and dangling it out the back of your rowboat so it might act as a makeshift outboard motor. This isn’t specifically covered, but you get the sense as you continue reading that it’s not a good idea.

Point four explains the reason for a “polarized plug,” which features one prong slightly wider than the other so you’re not faced with the debilitating question of how to plug it in. “If the plug does not fit fully in the outlet, reverse the plug,” advises the writer. “If it still does not fit, contact a qualified electrician.” This is the first of several occasions throughout the manual where the user is foolishly advised to spend more money than the $22.95 you forked over for your original purchase, so I’d recommend you also have some other electrical work standing by to fill the electrician’s minimum one-hour charge. Maybe you can have that cat rewired that is constantly shocking you.

DO NOT,” the author warns of the polarized plug, “attempt to defeat this safety feature.” If you manage to force the plug into your outlet by banging it with a hammer, your victory will be a hollow and short-lived one.

Most of the other opening 16 points are relatively common sense stuff. Supervise any children who attempt to fan themselves. Unplug the fan when moving it from one location to another. Do not operate the device in the presence of explosives or flammable fumes. (In fact, I’d probably expand on that point to advise against doing anything in the presence of explosives or flammable fumes except perhaps run.) Do not use the fan near an open flame or while cooking. Avoid contact with moving fan parts. Don’t hang the fan from a rope attached to your ceiling.

It’s only when you get to page 2 of this book that you start hearing the brighter side of fan ownership. One of the HT-900’s proudest features is its ability to provide an endless variety of angular options. Rather than oscillate from side to side, this design allows you to aim the fan upward in any number of directions. Prefer a precise 47-degree angle? Go for it. Change your mind and want to try a 71-degree slant? It’s a simple adjustment. You can even go the full 90 degrees to cool the ceiling above your head if such is your need.

“Upon using this fan, you will feel a strong and powerful air stream that will quickly move air in order to cool an area rapidly and efficiently,” says the introduction. Why, that’s just what I had in mind.

Page 3 serves to restate some of the main themes encountered earlier in the manual. Before you start your self-cooling, make sure the fan is in the OFF position, and only then should you plug it in. The control knob offers a choice of three speeds if you don’t count OFF as a speed: there’s “high” (or “III” as it’s called on the switch), there’s “medium” (or “II”); and there’s “low” (predictably, “I”). Some of the higher-end models have a child-resistant switch that you have to depress before turning, but that’s only in the more-expensive HF-series. If you sprung for the top-of-the-line HFT, you get left-right movement as well as the angular positioning, so you’ll be blessed with a machine that’s accelerating air all over the place.

Another feature proudly touted is the “concealed handle,” a small ridge of plastic along the back that allows you to easily grip and pick up the fan. Without this brilliant piece of industrial design, you’d probably have to kick the machine from one location to another.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to cleaning and maintenance, as if anyone ever bothers with that on a $23 purchase. You’re told to use “only a soft cloth or cotton swab” to gently wipe the fan clean, and either a pipe cleaner, vacuum cleaner, flexible dustwand or compressed air to clean between the grilles. Don’t immerse the fan in water to clean it, nor should you rub it with gasoline or paint thinner, though why someone would consider that is not stated. You can remove the grille for a more thorough cleaning if you want to, by following a six-step regimen of instructions, or you can throw it away and go buy a new one.

A small Consumer Relations segment gives you an address to mail any comments or questions. “If you experience a problem, please contact consumer relations first or see your warranty,” advises this section. “Do not return to the original place of purchase for repair.” That would be fun to try, though — walking up to the high-school student working part-time as a CVS cashier and asking him for advice on how to manipulate the capacitor to maximize the voltage while minimizing the capacitance.

The final chapter details the one-year limited warranty that comes with all Honeywell fans, with “limited” being the key word. Not covered is damage from “unreasonable use” nor is “normal wear and tear” nor is any “incidental or consequential damages” caused by the occasional rogue fan. And if you try to fix something yourself and fail, that also voids the warranty, as does not being the original purchaser. After all this, if you think you still might qualify for coverage, you can return the defective product along with $10 to cover handling and repackaging. You also have to prepay shipping charges, so now you’re looking at fees upwards of 75% of the original cost and hopefully wondering what kind of racket this is.

There’s another ten pages or so of basically the same story, but this time told once in French and once in Spanish. This exotic denouement does serve to carry you magically away from your pedestrian cooling concerns, to imagine instead what it would be like to “ne jamais tirer sur le cordon electrique” while sipping a fine Merlot at a trendy Left Bank cafe, the saucy waitress flirting as she takes the escargot order of a cosmopolitan fan-owner like you.

Such is the magic of great literature, to transport the reader from his slightly uncomfortable spare bedroom to a world filled with the promise of cool breezes angled in virtually any direction you might imagine. I highly recommend “Important Safety Instructions” — it’s not a heavy tract of abstract philosophy and moralizing that will challenge where you see yourself living in the universe, though it will make a quick and entertaining beach read. Especially when that summer sun gets a little too hot.

An editorial to myself: You need to wear scrubs

June 24, 2010

When I came home from the hospital with my newborn son 19 years ago, I was filled with joy. Yes, Daniel was everything you could ask for in a baby — spherical, compact, Homo Sapien, vaguely orange. But the really cool thing was that they let me keep the green pair of scrubs I had worn while staying in the hospital.    

This loose-fitting outfit that instantly identifies you as being somehow associated with the medical establishment was exquisitely comfortable. This was a necessity while I spent three nights “sleeping” at the hospital as my new family recovered from the trauma of cesarean childbirth. The scrubs were also the properly sterile fashion statement for the stint I spent in the operating room during the delivery itself, and so much more appropriate to the setting than the pilot’s uniform or sumo thong that some dads wear.    

Once back at home, I lounged around the house for several days in the scrubs, feeling every bit as special as a new father deserved to feel. I welcomed the well-wishers who brought us casseroles while wearing the scrubs. I made quick trips out to the store in the scrubs. I even attended at an emergency scene in the local market when a woman slipped on a grape in the produce section. I helpfully rocked her prone body back and forth while we waited for more accredited medical personnel to arrive, since I knew how critical it was to “shake it off” when dealing with possible spinal trauma.    

Now, it’s almost two decades later, and I want to go to the medical supplies store and buy myself an entire wardrobe of scrubs. But, no — my wife and son think it’s a stupid idea. I just want to be comfortable as my middle-aged spread plays itself out around my mid-section and, simultaneously, be admired by any onlooker who thinks I might be a neurosurgeon. Scrubs are like sweatpants, except without the whole giving-up-on-life vibe. And if you dangle a surgical mask around your neck and spring for the little cloth booties, you’re ready for a shift in the trauma unit, except for the eight years of medical schooling.    

Davis, I really think you should buy yourself some scrubs. Don’t pay attention to those who don’t want to see you cool and comfortable.    

Another thing I might want to consider as I remake my closet for the summer is one of those wearable babies. You’ve doubtless seen these cute little guys and gals, strapped in a harness to their parent’s chest, staring wide-eyed at this strange new world before them. With their adorable little faces only a few inches below yours, they make a truly eye-catching accessory. There was a young mom in line in front of me at the drug store the other day picking up her prescription, and the pharmacy tech waiting on her couldn’t stop smiling. I think the mom was just picking up some Lipitor for her husband, but you got the distinct impression she could get anything she asked for. All the cash from the register? Sure, and take these checks too. An armload of diabetes test kits and cases of beer? You’ll probably need a cart. Controlled substances with a street value in the thousands of dollars? Certainly, and don’t let me forget to swipe your frequent customer card so you get credit for those.    

Davis, you deserve a wearable baby.    

And let me just mention a couple more things while we’re in this mood of celebrating my individual “me-ness” and catering to my every whim. I’ve been wanting a wide-brimmed hat for some time, one that will keep the summer sun off my ears and neck. I mentioned this to my son a few weeks back, so he actually got me one for Father’s Day. The problem I’ve traditionally had with all hats is that my head — so chocked full of brain matter that it’s swollen to an almost inhuman size — is too big. I’ve managed to special order a couple of properly fitting hats from a large-headed Slavic nation. One is a baseball cap I wear while mowing the grass and the other is a tall, black top hat that I’ve yet to find the right setting for. (My niece’s recent college graduation is the most formal event I’ve been to in years and even that didn’t seem right for a top hat).    

So I’ve already got this new hat, a dandy of an outdoorsman’s bonnet of extra-large capacity ordered direct from the Amazon (or so says the box). The slight problem is that it barely fits. I can jam it onto my crown and tell that it’s not going anywhere until I’ve got the most terrific headache imaginable, but I’m not sure it looks good on me. You be the judge.    

Hatted, happy and healthy

On second thought, I don’t want you judging me at all. Davis, you ought to feel proud that your son gave you a hat for Father’s Day and that you have enough sense to protect yourself from damaging UV rays, regardless of how dorky you look.    

Finally, I want to note some issues I have with sunglasses. As you can see from the hat picture above, I wear eyeglasses to correct my near-sighted vision. I once sprung for a pair of prescription sunglasses, back in the days when employer-provided eye-care insurance seemed like a good idea for professional proofreaders, but now that’s a luxury. So I have two choices: I can wear just the stylish unprescribed Raybans that protect my eyes from glare while exposing the rest of my body to the potential of being blind-sided by a car, or I can wear a pair of those gigantic overglasses so popular among the geriatric set. Like these…    

Sign me up for some of that "assisted living" I've heard so much about

Davis, I call on you to wear whatever sunglasses you see fit to wear. This is not a time for caving to the passing fads of a fickle public so obsessed with not looking totally ridiculous. Be your own man. Wear what you want to. I urge you to adopt this position.

Fake News Extra: Gen. McChrystal is, like, “dude!”

June 23, 2010

Adolescent banter among Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides in Afghanistan may be at the root of the lagging war effort in NATO’s eight-year battle against the Taliban insurgency.

In the Rolling Stone article causing so much controversy for the top commander, one of his advisors jokes that the vice-president’s name is “Joe Bite-Me.” The general himself warned that implementing a strategy other than the one he proposed would result in the country becoming “Chaos-istan.” Now, military analysts suspect that such childish repartee in the top echelons of the command structure could have led to miscommunicated orders in the field.

“I understand how the pressures of war build a tight-knit group that uses immature humor to let off steam,” said one former Pentagon official. “But if they’re not careful, those who aren’t in on the jokes could misinterpret critical instructions.”

In one particularly embarrassing incident, McChrystal had information that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was making a secret visit to Kabul, so the general planned a drone strike to take out the world’s most-wanted terrorist. But the command he issued — “Yo-Mama is in Cobb-Hole. Hit him with a bone” — resulted in a mistaken assault on musician Yo-Yo Ma during a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The artist had to cut his concert short when a barrage of corn cobs and artificial penises thrown by a special ops unit from a balcony overlooking the stage severely damaged his cello.

On another occasion, the general wanted to lend support to an Afghan tribal conference, known as a “loya jirgah,” by ordering a meal delivered to the site of the meeting in Helmond Province. He told the caterer that a “royal jerk-off” was going on in “Hellman’s” and to use his imagination to come up with an appropriate meal. When hundreds of hotdogs slathered in mayonnaise arrived at the conference, tribal leaders showed their displeasure with the meal by getting into a massive food fight that ultimately led to exchanges of artillery fire.

Inside sources report that the planned assault on Taliban strongholds in Kandahar this summer is being delayed until fall because of yet another miscommunication. When the general’s top lieutenant said “we’re go for the attack on Candyland,” three Army divisions were redeployed to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, near the headquarters of Hasbro, Inc., maker of the popular children’s board game.

“He has to remember that when orders get repeated down through the ranks, there’s already a potential for misunderstanding,” the Pentagon officer said. “Using slang in a command-and-control scenario isn’t too bright.”

McChrystal has been known to show his disdain for civilians involved in the war effort by giving them derogatory nicknames. He routinely calls the Afghan president “Hamhead Karz-Face,” refers to Ambassador Karl Eikenberry as “Frankenberry,” and uses the name “Richard Holdork” for special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Even allies of the general have become unwitting victims of his verbal antics. National Security Advisor James L. Jones, a close friend of the general since their days together at West Point, was supposed to receive an antique German Luger as a birthday present. Instead, the weapon was delivered to Mad Men actress January Jones when McChrystal tried goofing with the order-taker at Amazon.com.

“All the soldiers in the field love General McWhiteCastle,” said Col. Charlie Flynn, using the pet name favored by McChrystal who is said to prefer the tiny hamburgers of White Castle over those of competitor Krystal. “Most of them would be willing to die for him if asked to do so. That is, if they could understand what he was asking. Otherwise, most would probably end up dying their uniforms.”

McChrystal was reportedly en route from Afghanistan to Washington yesterday to answer personally to President Obama for his blatant display of disrespect. He told associates he was prepared to “gay it up” and “be a total douche” if necessary to keep his job, and would “tell Barrack the Bam-Meister” whatever he wanted to hear. If, as is widely expected, Obama asks for his resignation, the general will likely take his discharge like a true soldier, then will make some infantile joke about how it’s far from the worst discharge he’s ever had.

Fake News: Oval office not first choice for speech

June 22, 2010

WASHINGTON (June 21) — Stung by criticism of last week’s Oval Office address, with many pundits saying President Obama looked awkward behind the majestic executive desk, the White House released a transcript of an alternative, more casual speech he considered delivering from historic mansion’s first-floor bathroom.

“We knew it was a risk to use the Oval Office as a backdrop to talk about the oil spill,” said administration spokesperson Heath Anderson. “In retrospect, using a different room may have conveyed more of the tone we intended.”

The president had already spoken on several occasions about the massive gulf disaster from the Rose Garden, the Blue Room, the East Room and the press office. That the chief executive’s private bathroom was considered as a setting for an address to the nation shows how close the administration came to averting the largely negative reaction to last Tuesday’s televised talk.

The speech itself would’ve been as different as the staging, according to a draft released Monday. The 20-minute address, shown during prime time on all the major television networks, would’ve begun with a disembodied hand knocking on a closed door, and the rest of the presidential speech shouted through that door.

“Someone’s in here,” Obama says in his opening remarks, indicating that the federal government is on the job of mitigating the spill and determining who was responsible.

“I’ll be done in just a minute,” the president continues, optimistic that the deep-sea gusher can soon be stopped and clean-up can begin in earnest.

A rustling sound follows for about 30 seconds, meant to represent how intense the executive branch’s response has been to the catastrophe. A mumbled “there’s another bathroom just down the hall” is followed by the assertion that “I’ll be right out” and “Hang on, I’m almost through in here.”

“He’s asking the American people for patience,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. “These quick bursts of decisive language would show he’s a president in charge of the situation. It displays an urgency to bring this sad episode to a quick and clean conclusion.”

After the camera continues focusing on the closed door for another 45 seconds, the voice from inside asks “can you find me some paper?”, hinting at Obama’s plan to use environmentally friendly products like tissue paper to gather up the crude now soaking Gulf coast beaches.

“We have a plan in place to make a full recovery,” the president continues from inside the ornate Oval Bathroom, constructed during the Hoover administration. “My team will not be caught with its pants down. I know there’s a spill, and I take complete responsibility for cleaning it up.”

At this point in the speech, Obama is heard to say “oh darn, the fan is broken,” an apparent reference to how some of the efforts to keep oil out of Louisiana marshlands failed when equipment there malfunctioned. Soon, the sound of a match being struck shows the president’s intention that efforts at recovery will be visible to the American public.

With the sound of flushing water from behind the door, the president indicates how levels of petroleum will soon be decreasing while the seawater is lifted by twice-daily tides to overtake the remnants of the spill.

At one point, Obama is heard shouting “Uh-oh, the water keeps rising!” which is followed by brief splashing sounds and muttered epithets of disapproval from the nation’s forty-fourth chief executive.

“Where the hell is the plunger?” he is heard to ask, calling on BP executives to offer more assistance in the recovery effort. Then, he reports, “oh, good, it’s going back down,” an apparent reference to outstanding financial claims made by fishermen and the tourist industry against the London-based energy company.

The address ends with Obama opening the door to emerge from the bathroom. He is flanked by an American flag towel on his left and an Office of the President towel to his right, the latter obviously soaked with water. Also seen over his shoulder are two small framed photos, one showing a heron wading in the surf and another portraying a variety of seashells.

“I told you I’d be done pretty quickly,” the smiling president tells a reassured nation, then adds “it’s all yours” to point out that the bathroom is now vacant and ready for another user.

Resisting the lure of the chain saw

June 21, 2010

I had a great Father’s Day yesterday, at least for a Father’s Day that didn’t include getting a chain saw as a gift.  

I was mowing the grass Saturday when I walked under a large tree and had to dodge the protruding sticks of an obviously dead limb. Looking up, I saw a swirl of similarly deceased branches and it occurred to me something should probably be done about this. The tree itself was healthy; I simply needed to prune away the unsightly stalks. I’ve written in the past about how extremely skilled I am with the lawn mower, and thought for a moment about running it up the trunk of the tree to give it a little trim, then realized this was probably too dangerous. What might be at least a little less deadly?  

A chain saw!  

I’ve always wanted a chain saw but could never articulate a mature justification as to why. They’re loud and dangerous and smell of gasoline and are frequently wielded by movie madmen, which all seem like good reasons to own one. Yet if I was a proper middle-class suburbanite, I’d have to come up with something better than that. Perhaps this clump of limbs was finally a good excuse.  

I’ve done my own yard work for a long time, concentrating primarily on the grass and the occasional shrubbery. My home sits on a tree-covered lot, and I guess I’ve always taken the trees for granted. It never seemed like they needed a lot of maintenance. We’ve had to cut a few down when it was obvious they were totally lifeless, but that’s no more technically challenging than making a phone call to a local tree service.  

The idea that a tree could be partially dead didn’t occur to me. I thought of barren branches as equivalent to a gangrenous toe that you might eventually need a (tree) surgeon to remove. As long as you didn’t walk on it, as a tree was unlikely to do, it’d probably be okay left alone, and would eventually fall off. Instead, I now realized that the branches were more similar to human hair or fingernails, and that occasional grooming was necessary, at least if you had a job.  

The tree does have a job — to cool my home, clear the air and beautify my neighborhood — and now I noticed that several of these were in need of manicures and/or haircuts. Since Great Clips was no longer an option after that nasty incident where I asked a stylist to trim my nostrils, I was going to have to take care of this on my own. Dismissing waxing, tweezing and Nair as practical options, I soon found myself contemplating the chain saw.  

I hurried inside to offer my wife and son this admittedly last-minute Father’s Day gift idea.  

“We’ve already bought your gift,” my wife said. “And besides, don’t you know how incredibly dangerous a chain saw is?”  

“But these limbs are really thick, and our regular saw won’t reach,” I said.  

“They’re not going to be any closer to the ground with a chain saw, you know,” she said. “How did you expect to reach them?”  

I’ll admit I hadn’t thought that part through. We do have a rickety old ladder I might be able to balance on the uneven ground beneath the offending elm. She quickly nixed that approach.  

“I could jump to them,” I offered. “I’m a good jumper.”  

Unfortunately, Beth had some experience in this kind of landscaping, working with her father when she was a young girl to clear an entire peninsula near Charleston. She knew exactly the right tool for the job I described: it was an “extendible pruning saw with lopper attachment,” something Leatherface wouldn’t be caught dead using to terrorize teenage campers, but adequate for my needs.  

So I jumped in the car and headed over to the local home improvement store. I was directed to aisle 37, home to a variety of old-fashioned tools like rakes, shovels and saws. Unfortunately, on the way, I had to pass aisle 36, which featured a broad assortment of high-tech equipment, including gas-powered trimmers, electric hedge hogs, power whackers and, of course, the forbidden chain saw. Some of these saws were small and inexpensive, and might even qualify as “cute”. Others were high-end monsters, their virility so profound that packaging couldn’t contain the blade, and it protruded erect a full three feet from a slit in the box.  

Soft porn for Father's Day

When a worker asked if I needed help, I felt a little like Sen. Larry Craig caught in an airport men’s room, but recovered quickly enough to ask where the manual pruning equipment was. He showed me several options that were close to what Beth had recommended, and I made a few notes to run past her before making a purchase. Now, I’m drooling over what I see on aisle 38 — tools for the home shop, such as sanders, drills, band saws, etc. If I couldn’t buy a chain saw, maybe I could pick up a nice electric drill. Seems like if you drilled enough holes into the base of a branch that eventually it would fall off. Nah, better not.  

On Sunday, then, we returned to Home Depot and settled on a “power-lever tree pruner” made by Fiskars. (“That’s a good brand,” my wife noted. “I thought they made cat food,” I responded). It extends to 14 feet in height and includes a “WoodZig” saw that you can attach next to the snippers, giving you a two-pronged approach to tackle unsightly limbs, be they on your tree or on your torso. I carried the long tool carefully to the checkout, holding the handle down with one hand and the blades up with the other, feeling like a spear-carrying extra in a gladiator movie.  

When we got it home, I had to try it out immediately. Beth handled the minimal assembly required and I reviewed the safety instructions written for idiots: “Don’t cut near electrical wires, don’t stand on a ladder while cutting, and don’t stand directly under the branch you are cutting.” My wife continued admiring the craftsmanship of the tool while I pointed out a minor typographical error on the packaging — “Carefully remove the saw blade from the packaging and (unnecessary double space between words) align blade end openings with carriage bolt,” it read. She said I was missing the point, though I still maintain that typography is important.  

Don't fear the reaper, kitty

With the curving blade now the most prominent feature, I became the Grim Reaper, heading out to the yard to carve my sloppy hardwoods into shape. The work was simple, yet it was easier said than done to avoid standing under a branch you were cutting. I found it pretty effortless to dodge the falling lumber, though if I’d had that chain saw, I could’ve swung it through the air, turning the thick branches into hundreds of beautiful coasters before they reached the ground.

Or I could’ve created a beautiful ice sculpture! “Beth, don’t we need a beautiful ice sculpture?”