Archive for August, 2010

Revisited: Sorry about almost running you over

August 21, 2010

Man’s relationship with his methods of transportation has always been a complicated one.

In earliest times, we rolled head over heels down a hill to get where we were going, until the rise of terraced agriculture made such tumbling impossible. In the Middle Ages, it was the catapult that sent us flying over great expanses; it took centuries to realize the trade-off of speed and distance against the violent landings wasn’t good. Next it was animals like camels and horses and oxen that moved us about, a very efficient option until we realized how good they tasted.

Mmm — camels.

A little over a hundred years ago, we began our love affair with the automobile. Encased in steel, we lost a vital connection to the natural world but gained a cultural icon, a system of interstate highways, and more cupholders than we had hands. Those of us inside the modern motor vehicle traveled the world in comfort while those on the outside scrambled to get out of the way.

I’ve been fortunate in my nearly 40 years of driving never to have killed anyone with my automobile. I’ve had a few car-on-car mishaps, though these were almost all minor fender benders in the eyes of everyone except my insurance company. I did strike a mystery animal that had wandered out onto the interstate early one morning on the way to work (at least I was headed to work; I don’t know what he was doing out at that hour). I only caught enough of a glimpse to recognize it wasn’t a human or a yeti or a chupacabra, and that’s about all that concerned me at 2 a.m.

Aside from assorted small groundlings, the only other creature I’ve hit is the neighborhood dog known locally as “Ironside.” He’s a golden retriever mix that lives near the main access to our subdivision, and he loves to bob in and out of the shrubbery that separates the two entrance lanes. You can’t go fast enough in this spot to gain any real momentum, so though he’s struck constantly by all the neighbors he always gets up and trots away.

We do have a lot of pedestrians in our neighborhood so I try to be extra careful in the area. In general, I’d characterize my driving style as “efficient” (other might use the word “crazy”), which is to say I want to be in the car only as long as it takes to get from point A to point B. I don’t drive for fun or to listen to music or to “make the scene” in my sweet Civic ride. But I’m learning to be extra cautious near home, primarily because I know these people and colliding with them would be extremely embarrassing.

There’s a lot of trauma that comes with an automobile accident, however we’ve given very little consideration to the personal interaction that follows a near-miss. I once pulled up to a nearby intersection just as a jogger was stepping off the sidewalk and into the roadway. As a runner myself, I know how thoughtless motorists can be, honking when you get in their way, occasionally turning left, asking directions, or yelling critiques of your shorts. But when I’m the driver, it’s they who are the reckless jerks.

I stopped short just in front of this hapless fellow, and our eyes met across the hood of my car. He rightfully glared at me, and I had only seconds to come up with an appropriate response. I shrugged my shoulders and offered a weak smile, then held out my hand as if to say “after you.” I thought that was pretty gracious, though apparently not enough to avoid a mouthed epithet that would make a lip-reader blush.

Fortunately, he wasn’t from the neighborhood so I didn’t have to deal with any subsequent consequences that might’ve included having my mailbox bashed in with a baseball bat. Such was not the case a few months later at the end of my driveway.

We have a bushy magnolia tree on the edge of our property, and it effectively blocks the view on that side of the drive. There are only a few houses down that way before you come to the cul-du-sac, so the usual traffic from that direction is virtually non-existent. On this occasion, however, coming up just behind the tree as I was ready to exit into the road was a family of four out for their evening stroll. The mom was ugly and the dad was wearing an unflattering golf shirt, so there would’ve been no loss there, but the two young children were very cute and deserving of surviving into adulthood.

It didn’t really even qualify as a close call, as we all saw one other in plenty of time to avoid near-collision. Still, there was that awkward moment where we all looked at each other wondering what to say or do next. Since I was backing out, it was easy enough for me to turn away in an implicit offer to let them proceed first, and I assume they did eventually. I’d like to have said something to soothe any hurt feelings there might’ve been, but “sorry I almost killed you” seemed so inadequate.

Later, I remembered the events surrounding a parking lot accident I’d had a few years earlier. It was a terrible January Sunday, very foggy with a forecast of freezing rain. As I backed out of my parking place, a young Japanese man was also backing up and our rear-ends met in a crash. Nobody was hurt, and we briefly examined the two minor dents before hustling into the mall to call our insurance carriers. I tried to make non-incriminating small talk as we hurried along, only to discover he didn’t speak English. There was literally nothing I could say due to the language barrier. No excuses were necessary because no excuses were possible.

I guess that’s why I’m so comfortable hitting the retriever.

What’s in a name? Sometimes too much.

August 20, 2010

Neil Patrick Harris announces he’s expecting twins (though how he’s going to squeeze them out is uncertain). A gravely ill Zsa Zsa Gabor has summoned a priest to give her last rights — at least, that’s what they think she asked. Dr. Laura Schlessinger quits her radio talk show, mad at the world because the world is mad at her. Osama bin-Laden continues to elude American forces.

So what do these seemingly disparate personalities have in common? They all go by three names. At least if you count each “Zsa” separately.

Celebrities have come to be so numerous that they’re running out of things to call themselves. The conventional two-name format that served us so well for generations may have worked for the likes of Bob Hope and Gary Cooper, but people aspiring to the limelight today apparently feel the need for a little something extra to set themselves apart. So they add a third name.

It used to be that only notorious assassins would go by more than two monikers. You’d have thought parents would’ve learned not to give their children three names unless they wanted them to grow up to be killers. Even their childhood playmates had to know the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Mark David Chapman weren’t destined to become astronauts.

Or maybe they used only two names in their pre-criminal days, but when the criminal justice system got mad at them, it sounded just like angry parents: “Sara Jane Moore, get over here, young lady! Did you try to assassinate President Gerald Ford? How many times do I have to tell you: don’t try to murder leaders of the free world. If I told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times! Now go to your room for a minimum of 30 years and don’t come out until you’re sorry.”

Now, every Tom Dick Harry to arrive on the brink of stardom in the world of entertainment seems to be sporting the triple-name. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Jennifer Love Hewitt. Evan Rachel Wood. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s like they think their chances of success are increased by half if they sport 50% more names.

There may have been a few trinomials back in the old days, but they were rare indeed. I can only think of people like Mary Tyler Moore and Martin Van Buren off the top of my head, and only then because of their hilarious turn as co-stars of the 1965 rom-com “She’s the President.”

The current trend may have actually begun with famous actresses who got married, and wanted to take on their husband’s names while still holding onto the label that made them famous. I’m thinking here of Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Patty Duke-Astin. Both soon learned that divorce was common in Hollywood, and that adopting the surname of someone like Lee Majors was just asking for trouble. There are a few modern-day actresses who have yet to learn this lesson — Eva Longoria Parker, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Courtney Cox Arquette — but I have a feeling it’s going to dawn on them real soon what a bad idea that was. I’m just grateful that we don’t have a Catherine Zeta-Jones Douglas.

The only male actor to fall victim to this trend was martial arts star Jean-Claude Van, whose marriage to Albert Damme actually helped kick-start a career that led to a series of action hits of the early Nineties like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and Universal Soldier. This rare four-namer has recently enjoyed a resurgence in a French comedy/drama titled JCVD, wherein Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself as a down-and-out former movie star.

Some figures in the industry may be extremely creative when it comes to thinking up blockbuster thrillers and quirky TV hits, and they want that extra boost in recognition that additional letters can give them. But they just can’t seem to come up with fully realized ideas. So we have folks like M. Night Shyamalan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael C. Hall, Samuel L. Jackson and John F. Kennedy. Not surprisingly, most of these people experienced “initial” success but have since faded onto the “B” list or — in the case of our 35th president — worse.

The other strategy certain stars are using to deal with the shortage of two-name labels is to create a title so bizarrely spelled that they can hope at least a vague impression will stick with the public. (“I know her — she was that cheerleader on that ‘Heroes’ show”). There was little wrong with a name like Marion Morrison, besides the fact that it sounded like a girl, and yet this iconic actor felt compelled to change it to John Wayne. No such concern exists for Jake Gyllenhaal, Demi Lovato, Shia LaBeouf, Peter Sarsgaard, Hayden Panettiere and Mariska Hargitay. The old publicity adage that “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right” will never apply to these figures.

Finally, I’ll mention the minimalists who have decided to go in the opposite direction and use only one name, as well as a disturbing sub-genre that is experimenting with new concepts in name technology. Mostly found in the world of music, the mononymed include Shakira, Bono, Pink, Diddy, Usher, Prince, Eminem and Rihanna. Their pioneer hero was Cher, who had little choice but to get by with a sparse four letters after the “Sonny and” part of her act skied into a tree and killed himself.

The newest trend, one that threatens to end civilization as we know it, involves adding either punctuation or unnecessary articles to a name. The groundbreaker here was Ann-Margret, the sexpot movie and singing star of the Sixties whose use of a hyphen sent many a young boy’s hearts (mine included) soaring. Following in her footsteps today are the unlikely trio of basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire, singing sensation Ke$ha, and hip-hop artist The-Dream. Lacking the punctuation but still in the same approximate category is U2 guitarist The Edge.

So what options lie ahead for celebrities of the future who want to make a unique name for themselves? There are still some unused articles left, and we might eventually hear from the actor “An Oliver” or the singer “Some Steve”. Punctuation possibilities still abound, so maybe the next teen sensation out of the Disney machine will be somebody like “#arold” or “Ho!!y” or “(harles” or “+homas” or “Virgu/e”.

I just hope that by then I’ll be known as “The Late DavisW”.

Mosque and other controversies could average out

August 19, 2010

NEW YORK (August 18) — A compromise to settle the uproar surrounding plans to locate an Islamic mosque within two blocks of Ground Zero appears to be in the works.

Rather than following quaint concepts like freedom of religion and assembly, a plan has emerged to let the will of the people — or at least those people who feel compelled to speak on the subject — decide where the community center will be built.

The Nielsen Company has compiled data from the hundreds of interviews done with pundits, politicians, bloggers and blowhards. Some have called for the proposed mosque to be moved an additional three to four blocks farther away. Others have said several miles uptown in Manhattan would represent a more sensitive approach. For still others, putting a gathering place for New York Muslims in Mecca would be too close.

“We took all the distances that have been suggested so far and converted them into miles, and then came up with an average,” said Karen Miller, Nielsen vice president for research. “We’ve given planners a map with a circle showing all possible locations at 78.4 miles from Ground Zero that represented the consensus.”

“Since our founding fathers somehow neglected to address local zoning ordinances in their writing of the Constitution, this may well represent the best course,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The circle begins straight north of the city in Poughkeepsie, heads southwest through the Delaware State Forest and into Pennsylvania, passes into central New Jersey between Trenton and Philadelphia, then encompasses large swathes of the Atlantic Ocean before skirting the Hamptons on Long Island and returning to the mainland in Connecticut.

“There are several good options in there,” said New York City zoning chief Albert Newby. “Particularly attractive at first glance is the Sesame Place theme park in Pennsylvania, the abandoned Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskills, and several offshore drilling platforms virtually within walking distance of the Jersey shore. My sentimental favorite would be the first choice, as I think Elmo would make a great assistant imam.”

Constitutional scholars aren’t sure such a plan would be in keeping with what framers felt were fundamental rights that couldn’t be taken from citizens by popular will.

“But, what the hell,” said Professor Ryan Lehman of the Yale Law School. “Most people now recognize the Constitution as a living, breathing document. So why not let opinion polls and referenda, used with the law of averages, decide more of the pressing controversies of the day.”

One issue that could be impacted by this new philosophy is the subject of gay marriage in California. Though voters narrowly opposed the concept in a 2008 vote, a federal court has recently ruled the marriages could go forward, since they fell under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. So what to do when the will of the people and the law of the land conflict? Compromise.

“I’m proposing a plan that would allow gay marriages to take place, but with certain stipulations that might satisfy the opposition,” said California attorney general Jerry Brown. “Gays and lesbians would be considered legally married, but at the ceremony they’d have to say ‘I would’ rather than ‘I do.’ They’d have to apply Saran wrap to their faces before exchanging the post-ceremony kiss. And instead of being called something like ‘Mr. and Mr.’, they’d be known as ‘Homo and Homo.'”

A similar compromise could be applied to the debate over illegal immigration and whether or not the 14th Amendment allowing children born in the U.S. to become citizens should be struck down.

“How about this?” asked Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon. “Local police are required to ask for citizenship papers at traffic stops. If drivers don’t have them, they’re taken into custody, but the men and women are put into the same jail cell. If nature takes its course and they start producing babies, then the children become temporary citizens of the jail. The parents are deported but the kids are kept around to make coffee for the jailers, run errands and do light housekeeping. Basically, they become mascots of the prison, like the stray kitten you might be feeding in the parking lot. When they turn 18, they become full U.S. citizens.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” said immigration rights attorney William Cash.

“So crazy that it just might work,” countered Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

Trashing the convenience of recycling

August 18, 2010

In long-ago America, people gathered in the town center to share stories, friendships and a sense of community. Today, we have little time for such nonsense.  

In the city, we might exchange a brief glance of recognition with a fellow occupant at the local coffee shop, where Jason Your Barista has replaced kindly old Mr. Johnson, and frigid air conditioning and reliable wi-fi play the role of the park bench.  

In rural areas of the country, however, it’s been a little harder to find a fitting substitute. The feed store went belly-up when agribusiness took over. The seed store closed when everybody started ordering off the internet. The speed store was busted by the Drug Enforcement Agency.  

Just outside our city limits, in a magical land known as Unincorporated York County, a settlement called the “convenience center” is making a name for itself as the new community hub for country folk. It’s hard to say how it came about its name, a euphemism for a trash and recycling collection facility. (It seems like it’d be a lot more convenient just to throw your garbage wherever you wanted to.) Instead, the county government has set up a dozen of these locations where you can toss old mattresses, discard unwanted kitchen grease, and generally trash up the place.  

But it’s also become a location to go and meet your neighbors, where you can swap tales or swap refuse. Saturdays are an especially popular time for folks to pull up their trucks, dump a huge stinking load of rubbish, then set a spell to catch up on what people are doing.  

I decided to join in the scene this past weekend when I had to get rid of some boxes and other junk. I had been to the Mt. Gallant Road location several times before, and it always struck me as a friendly and welcoming place. There’s a large volume of visitors, but a well-constructed traffic flow allows those who want to do their business and be gone to do exactly that, while there are enough pull-offs for those interested in more leisurely dumping.  

The crape myrtle, and other more powerful scent producers, are in full bloom

In the center of the traffic circle sits a grassy island shaded by three flowering crape myrtle trees. My plan was to ditch the boxes, then swing back around and park in the shade, pull out a lawn chair from the trunk, and enjoy a picnic lunch while soaking in the hubbub around me. I even brought my netbook, on the off-chance I could get an internet connection.  

A healthy emphasis on recycling has prompted debris officials to set up various stations where your rejects may be able to start a new life helping someone else. There’s a station for old electronics and latex paint, though I’m not sure how they’re connected. There’s a bin for tires, for newspapers, for cardboard, for large bulky items, for chipboard and for junk mail. There are smaller receptacles for glass of different colors. Around back, kept discreetly out of sight and smell, are vats for antifreeze, motor oil and animal fat.  

Greases, oils and fats are recycling favorites

I knew where to put my cardboard boxes, but I also had about a dozen styrofoam coolers stuffed with what I’ll claim to be thawed freezer packs. I don’t particularly care to disclose what purposes these containers originally served (except to say categorically that they never — I repeat, never — held human organs), which made me feel guilty when I asked one of the two orange-shirted attendants on duty where I should discard them.  

“Put ’em in the ‘open’ bin,” said the elderly fellow. “That’s for everything that doesn’t go in another category. But no dead animals or construction materials.”  

My dumping complete, I began the leisurely part of the excursion. I decided to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of my car, at least long enough to eat my roast beef sandwich, because the thick summer air was lending a certain olfactory ambience to the scene that wasn’t conducive to successful digestion. Besides, I was afraid it might look weird to be enjoying myself too much.  

People of all kinds could be seen passing through the convenience center on that muggy afternoon. There were moms hauling black plastic bags, country squires in their plaid shorts and sandals, young children helping dads get rid of every remnant left behind by that slutty ex-wife. And there were plenty of representatives from the lower social classes as well, including an apparent militia-man in camo Bermudas and head scarf, and a mostly toothless man who seemed to be collecting more than he was disposing. Many patrons brought their dogs along, treating them to what I’d guess is a canine version of a fine restaurant.  

Attendant prepares to compress a young mother

I sat in my car and took some notes, snapped a few photos out the window, and gave a try at hooking up with the web. The only available router I could pick up was for the “Pogo Family,” but it was too weak to get me a connection. Also, it was secured. The Pogos may be dumb enough to live next door to a dump, but they’re not so dumb as to allow a hacker like me to check a few baseball scores at their expense.  

The longer I stayed, the more suspicious I felt. I don’t think I was doing anything illegal, but I sure wasn’t joining in the camaraderie that all the other rubbish hounds seemed to be enjoying. I noticed one of the attendants looking in my direction, probably wondering what’s up with the guy taking pictures and scribbling in a notebook from behind the darkened windows of a late-model sedan. Might he be planning a terrorist action of some sort? You know, those al-Qaida guys are supposed to be looking for so-called soft targets these days, and what’s softer than a silo full of used oil filters?  

I decide it’s probably time to leave. I finish up my Arby’s combo meal, wad the packaging into a ball, and walk over to the open bin to discard my “Arbage.” I sense the attendant is relieved to see me dressed in shorts and a T-shirt instead of long flowing robes and a bandolier. We exchange a nod, and that becomes the extent of my communion with the locals.  

Returning home to the city, I feel an uncomfortable sensation that I’ve intruded into a landscape where I didn’t really belong. People were going about the honest business of cleaning out their homes, making their best efforts at recycling what they could and properly disposing of the rest. And I sat there and watched them like they were zoo animals, and now I’m posting a blog that ridicules their sincere toil.  

I feel somehow unclean.  

Oh — right. I’ve been hanging out at a dump.

An editorial: Build the salad outpost elsewhere

August 17, 2010

It’s been years now since the site had become something sacred. And yet it seemed like only yesterday that the awful event occurred. In the interim, the location had grown to be a symbol of how recovery is possible, how life goes on, how we can try to forgive even if we’ll never be able to forget.

The left side of the middle shelf in our office refrigerator may not be special to everyone. But it’s where all who bring sandwiches to work store their lunch.

It’s not just a tradition; there are reasons why we sandwich-lovers prefer this spot. It’s not too warm, like the top shelf is, and it’s not too cold, like the bottom one. Because of how the refrigerator door opens, it’s easy to get to. And there’s a great comfort in being with others of your kind, knowing your roast beef and mayo can sit next to Bob from Accounting’s tuna fish salad and Angie from Human Resources’ ham and swiss.

Recently, a proposal has been made by those who bring salads for lunch — the so-called “saladists” — that they be allowed to use a portion of the left side of the middle shelf. They say there’s not enough room on the right side of the shelf. Their claim that salads are bulkier and need more room, and also that they’re more conducive to employee health, appears to be winning the support of management.

But the current management team wasn’t here nearly nine years ago on that day when Sue’s salad “went bad,” so bad in fact that fumes of rotting romaine permeated every cubic inch of the refrigerator, but hit the adjacent sandwiches especially hard.

“I’d brought a turkey sandwich that day,” remembers Joel of the maintenance staff. “It was tightly sealed in a Zip-Loc bag and yet still, it was ruined by that awful rancid salad smell.”

A spokesperson for the saladists said they’re not asking much — just a two-inch strip down the middle. They claim there should be room enough to accommodate the lunch preferences of everyone, that a fundamental principle of American life is that followers of all different lunch styles can live together in harmony. They say it would be a tribute to this nation’s tradition of accepting people of all appetites.

They point to the top shelf, where those who bring frozen dinners set them to thaw, because the department microwave needs a head start since the rotating thing broke. The Stoufferites would seem to be a community of the like-minded who also think diversity is fine as long as it’s kept on a lower shelf. The saladists claim, however, that the variety of french bread pizzas, savory chicken and rice, and low-fat chicken quesadilla flatbread melts represent pluralism at its finest.

We Sandwiccans also aren’t getting much support from the bottom shelf, where people who bring remains from the previous night’s dinner store their lunches. These Leftoverians claim they need a whole shelf because their Tupperware containers are so many different shapes that they need the extra several inches of height on that shelf. They’d love to have a few salads join them, they say, but there just isn’t enough room.

We hear the logical arguments being made to stake an outpost for salads in sacrosanct sandwich territory. We even agree that a rational analysis of the situation favors their position.

But this is a decision that can’t solely be made by the mind. It must also be made by the heart. Yes, we may appear to be emotional in our efforts to preserve the spot that is so dear to us and our memories. The saladists have many salad days to remember. To those of us who prefer sandwiches, there was only one salad day, and it was a day of inconvenience, if not horror.

Yes, you should be allowed to have more room to store your leafy lunches. We just ask that you be more sensitive to our pain, and look to build your salad outpost elsewhere.

Headline goes here (hope it fits)

August 16, 2010

In between forcing the college president to resign and kicking off the streaking fad, I did a brief stint as layout editor at my college newspaper back in the seventies. Part of the job involved writing the headlines.

The task was challenging for two reasons. One, you actually had to read what the reporters had written, understanding every nuance of whatever issue they were covering before coming up with the all-purpose standby, “Meeting Held”. (Journalism’s most flexible headline — use it to cover everything from the crucifixion of Christ to man’s first steps on the moon).

Secondly, you had very precise parameters to work with in constructing a heading that would fit into the space allotted. There was a character count posted above my desk, telling how many letters I could use per column inch. Each lower-case letter counted as one character, except that the “m” and “w” counted as one-and-a-half, and the “f,” “l,” “i” and “t” counted as half letters.

Usually, we were extremely tight on space, and had to get very creative in our word choice. My proudest day in this position was when the Gay Student Union went to the state capitol to speak with legislators, and I got to use the word “flit” to describe their angry protest march down College Avenue. Likewise, I lived in dread of the day a story might cross the AP Wire reporting that “Wham-O Wows Moms” or “Woman’s Womb Meows”.

So I have some sympathy for modern-day newspaper editors as they go about this task. It’s tough enough to succinctly craft a headline that draws the reader in; plus, you have to worry about the fact that you’re probably going to get laid off next week.

The following is a brief sampling of headlines lifted (there’s another good headline word) from local newspapers in my area. Most of these examples hint at a story entirely different from what was being reported, a story that would’ve been far more interesting than what the reality turned out to be.

Player’s death makes words hard
Emergency personnel worked feverishly to pump air into his lungs, but still he refused to comment on what had happened to him.

Wisconsin looking for another stop
This heading hints at an exciting tale of how state officials are trying to locate a pipe organ component that admits pressurized air to the instrument, or perhaps how a small town is dealing with the theft of its single stop sign. Unfortunately, it was far less interesting: tourism officials are hoping to land a golf tournament on the PGA Men’s Tour.

Hootie and the Blowfish help to round up school supplies
It’s good to see they’ve found productive volunteer work ever since the concert bookings stopped coming.

Wanted: ‘People person’ for animal control post
The previous holder of the position, an “animal animal,” was too sympathetic to the wild tendencies of the captured creatures and allowed them to have parties and stay up way past their bedtime.

Host of cockfights too sick for prison
There are two possible meanings here: (1) a multitude (or “host”) of chicken-on-chicken bouts were judged too tasteless to be staged for the entertainment of convicts; or (2) an impresario of animal blood sports felt just fine while he was allowing poultry to be mutilated on his property, but now that he’s been sentenced for the crime, the thought of the whole gory sham makes him ill.

Money could be available as early as October
This could go a long way to preventing that much-feared double-dip recession.

John surgery advances
Plumbers are using medical techniques honed in the operating room to perform less-invasive repair on the stopped-up toilet.

Stabbing suspect wanted in Israel
The Israelis have such a difficult time dealing with life-and-death security matters and the constant threat of external terrorist attack or internal uprising from Palestinians. They would just die for the opportunity to solve a simple knifing case.

Ke$ha brings inner ‘Animal’ to ‘Today Show’
I just hope it’s a tapeworm and not some kind of exotic badger that she’s attempting to smuggle in a body cavity following her recent smash tour of South America.

Does language matter?
I’d say “yes” but then I’d be using language which would prejudice the whole discussion.

Mom’s beloved bike rolls on to daughter
The actual story was about a mother who was passing on to her college-bound daughter the old Schwinn they had ridden together for years. The only reason I learned that, however, is because I’d hoped there’d be a lurid description of a crush injury.

Two trapped men rescued from clothes dryer
Were they trapped in wet clothing and became much dryer after they were rescued from the sodden duds? Or — surely this can’t be the case — did the two of them become so entwined in the Maytag during whatever God-forsaken thing they were doing in there, and become somehow entrapped?

Man injured after he falls in front of bus
The ankle sprain would’ve healed on its own but the being-hit-by-a-bus part of the accident is not so easily treated.

N.C. State plan targets athletes who miss class
Football and basketball stars alike fondly recall the challenge of the collegiate classroom. Some, however, develop a deep depression once they’ve left their studies behind and land a multi-million dollar pro sports contract. So their alma mater is offering a counseling program to help those who simply can’t deal with the loss of scholarly studies on their own.

China to remember 1,200 killed in flood
They almost forgot, what with the landslide that killed 1,500, the typhoon that left tens of thousands homeless, and the earthquake that decimated an entire province. Someone in the government should write these things down, so they don’t have so much to remember.

Barbecue to be held
Be careful. It’s still pretty hot.

Revisited: Fun with flag disposal

August 15, 2010

Let me start by saying that I love America. I love the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the Green Mountains and the Orange Bowl. I’m crazy for fruited plains. Skies that are spacious are among my top ten turn-ons.

And I also love and respect the American flag. Its asymmetrical design and color absolutely pop off the surface. Its lines are clean and simple, a graphic design concept that was mocked at the time but which now represents all the best in flag composition. I admire the integrity of the Founders, who felt it was best not to sell the back side to corporate advertisers of the day, despite a great offer from Travelocity. I also think cloth was an excellent choice, as opposed to the buffalo hide that was originally considered.

So when I found a discarded flag in the shed of a rental house I was cleaning out this weekend, I was a little uncertain what to do. I knew there were strict rules regarding proper disposal of Old Glory, and I could tell that my previous tenants knew nothing about these rules, as the banner lay in a crumpled heap next to a one-armed chair and an old can of latex stain. It was as tattered as its much-scarred forbearers over Ft. McHenry and Guadalcanal, except this damage looked like it was inflicted by a lawn edger.

Wanting to do the right thing, I discussed options with my wife. We both knew that burning the flag was both a highly provocative act viewed by some as treason, as well as a proper method of disposal. We couldn’t do it in our yard though, because a recent drought might start a wildfire. I supposed we could do it out in the street at the entrance to our subdivision, but doubted our mostly Republican neighbors would view this as the patriotic act we intended.

I also remembered that burial was an acceptable course. Again, however, our yard was not a good location, since tree roots make it very hard to dig; the only soft spot was just off the back deck but to entomb it there might lead to an unpleasant reunion with some dearly departed cats.

If burial and burning were okay, maybe other verbs starting with “bur” were actions we could take: Is “burnish” something that would get it off our hands? Could we turn it into a burka?

We started brainstorming ideas that would allow us to continue our clean-up without bringing down the wrath of all right-thinking Americans. Since the idea is to show proper respect for all that the star-spangled banner represents, and since that was pretty much a non-issue because of its three years already spent inspiring mostly crickets, I thought we might be able to discard it with the rest of our household refuse. Maybe if we did a little ceremony before hand – I thought I had some sparklers left over from Independence Day – we could lay it respectfully across the top of the bin.

“That’d make it look like a casket,” a tactless friend noted. “The garbage men might think there’s a veteran inside.”

Maybe we could unravel the threads so we were left with only red, white and blue fibers, which wouldn’t be so problematic. We could enlist a local seamstress to create a more-respectful new life for the fabric – perhaps a bikini, or an Uncle Sam hat, or some kind of super-hero costume.

This looks like the time I should turn to the Internet for some advice. A site on American flag etiquette notes that it should be lighted at all times, never be “dipped to a thing,” and not used for advertising. It shouldn’t be used to deliver anything and should never touch the ground. When it’s no longer fit to serve our country, it should be destroyed by “burning in a dignified manner” (i.e., not surrounded by ecstatically dancing foreigners). references the “dignified way” without much further guidance, other than to say it shouldn’t be “dumped into a trash can amidst of bunch of rotting garbage”. Might it be allowable if the garbage is fresh?

Probably the best option I could find is also the most expensive. A firm called American & State Flag Disposal will also accept municipal and local government banners, as well as those from “friendly foreign governments.” (You’d think they’d love to get their hands on an Iranian flag, just for kicks). Fees are on an escalating scale: $5 for a small flag, $10 for a flag larger than six-by-ten, and “contact us for individual quotes” on those super flags you see over car dealerships.

But what about the pole? The flag I found was wrapped around a two-piece aluminum shaft that was capped with an eagle. Doesn’t the pole deserve an equal measure of regard, serving as it did as the supporting base for that most revered of American symbols? Partial burial seemed like a workable choice, and if I did it vertically and spaced them just right, I could string up a badminton net between the two. If I dubbed it the Rock Hill Memorial Net Sports Park, I could be killing two birds with one stone, three if you count the eagle.

While still pondering what to do, I was watching ESPN and caught the highlights of Usain Bolt setting his new world record in the 100-meter dash. While he celebrated his victory, he held the Jamaican flag high over his head, then waved it to the crowd, then wrapped it around his shoulders like a shawl. I know the Jamaican flag is nowhere near as important as its American counterpart, but it did remind me of how U.S. Olympians literally wrapped themselves in the flag, even after some pretty mediocre performances in Beijing. Perhaps I should hold onto this one in case I qualify for the 2012 Games in London (I heard they’re considering adding speed-typing as a new event.)

In the end, I took the easier, least expensive route, and let it lay in the back seat of my car while I remained frozen with indecision. The flag is currently on tour with daily trips between my home and office, and occasional stops at gas stations, convenience stores and Starbucks, where I believe an endorsement deal may be in the works.

Post Script: Reading back over this piece, it occurs to me that I should’ve added my great respect, thanks and admiration to those who have fought in defense of our nation. It’s the sacrifice and bravery of our vets that give us the freedoms we enjoy today. Those who are fallen deserve the ultimate esteem of a grateful nation. And to the vets who walk among us – you’re doing a terrific job of administering health care to our beloved pets, though I’ve got to say you could’ve done a better job with my cats.

Revisited: I was at Woodstock — I think

August 14, 2010

Well I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going?
And this he told me
Said “I’m goin’ down to Yasgur’s farm”

So wrote Joni Mitchell some 41 years ago this weekend when she ran into me during my journey to the epic music festival that would become a touchstone for the entire baby boomer generation. For many my age, Woodstock fills the imagination with what it was like to be free and young and extremely high during the turbulent Sixties. For a fortunate few of us, though, it’s an actual memory of joining a half-million people in peace and love on a farm in upstate New York.

You see, I was at Woodstock.

As you might imagine, my recollections are a little cloudy after all these years. I was 15 years old on that August weekend my family was visiting my cousin in Binghamton. I was getting a little tired of the living room chats about long-lost aunts I had never known when I decided to slip out of the house for what became the adventure of my life.

I wasn’t normally a rebellious teenager, but there was just something in the air that called to me. I caught a ride with my cousin’s neighbor to the next town over, where I was dropped by the side of the road and started hitch-hiking north. I tried for over an hour to catch a ride when I came across three slightly older “hippie” types who “turned me on” to what was “going down.”

We traded only nicknames at the time although I later came to learn that the trio included then-reigning homerun king Roger Maris, a crazy dude named Fred Sullivan (son of TV host Ed Sullivan), and a young cowboy named Bobby McGee. We finally caught a lift as far as Bethel, NY, but the New York State Thruway was, as famously announced by Arlo Guthrie, “closed to man.” We were lucky enough to be spotted by the low-flying helicopter of singer Richie Havens, a remarkable pilot despite his lack of sight. Richie set down in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen, invited us aboard, and soon we were landing behind the stage where he’d be performing just a few hours later.

It quickly became apparent that festival organizers were overwhelmed by the unexpected turnout, so we were pressed into service as stage hands. We’d be getting a front-row seat to rock-and-roll history.

In between the routine roadie chores of hauling amps, separating M&M’s by color and periodically wiping down the members of Canned Head, we found ourselves offering advice to some of the legendary performers in attendance. I still remember telling Pete Townsend to “turn it the hell down – people are trying to sleep here” as The Who ran through their 4 a.m. set from the rock opera “Tommy.” On the final night, I saw Jimi Hendrix pacing nervously before the final set of the concert. He was debating whether he should close with “America the Beautiful” or “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It was I who suggested that instead he play the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

We were worked pretty hard during those four days and got hardly any rest. We did take a break one afternoon and Roger, Fred and Bobby tried to get me onto that mud-slide you’ve probably seen in film clips from the time. They became totally soaked and dirt-encrusted while I remained neat in the crisply pressed dress pants I had been wearing…

Wait – something doesn’t sound right. I may be a little confused about my presence at Woodstock. Something just doesn’t ring true about these memories, and I bet I’ve gotten the highlight of the Age of Aquarius confused with a 1995 business trip I took to Washington. Both locations start with “W”. I’ve always gotten Woodstock and Washington mixed up.

What I actually attended was billed as the “Woodstock of Statistical Process Control (SPC),” a four-day conference and training session for corporate quality administrators interested in being certified as ISO 9000 auditors. I was joined by three coworkers in a suburban Ramada Inn while we studied day and night to learn the proper ways to document workflow and process variation. It was an event unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since – four days of modes and tolerances.

To this day, it remains the only business trip where I was forced to share lodging with a roommate, but the hardship forged a lasting bond between us that was only slightly frayed by his questionable Spectravision and pajama choices. We’d get up early each morning for a vigorous jog around the hotel grounds, then spend the day with our noses buried in loose-leaf binders. We kept thinking we’d get at least one evening free to see the sites of the capital but the organizers of the event, a couple of Brits from Lloyd’s of London, were real taskmasters. (It was those English accents that probably reminded me of The Who).

On the evening before the last day, we were grilled during a “live-job scenario” wherein we pretended to be inspectors looking over the books of a company seeking ISO certification. The instructors played the parts of defensive company executives, trying to mislead and distract us, and we were supposed to insist on seeing the records. We did badly enough to realize we had to spend the rest of the night studying for the Friday exam.

Again, my recall might be a little off, but I do know the test was not at all what we expected. After the grueling preparations, I thought there’d be serious questions presenting difficult circumstances that required us to prepare, in extensive essay form, what our responses would be. Instead the questions were so simple as to be confusing.

“Give me an F… give me a U… give me a C…” began the examiner standing before a conference room of puzzled participants. He gave us the final letter, then yelled the question: “What’s that spell? What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” The rapid-fire interrogation made it impossible to think straight, and I flunked the spelling portion of the test.

Then, came the multiple-choice questions: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?” One, two and three? Is this how they do it in Britain? What about A, B, C or D (all of the above). D is almost always the answer when questions are phrased in this format, but we don’t have that choice. Again, I fail.

Finally, there was the essay question: “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” I had learned that SPC was all about reducing variation, and that any singing out of tune could only be acceptable if it were within a predefined tolerance. I wrote something to this effect on my paper, but this too turned out to be wrong.

I tried commiserating with my coworkers on the flight home, but they actually had performed pretty well on the exam. They understood there were fundamental truths underlying the event, that it was impossible to quantify the heady experience we’d just been through, that “answers” were a fleeting concept and sometimes the questions were more important. In other words, they had been certified while I had failed.

I could’ve gotten by with a little help from my friends.

Lives of the Dead: Augustus, father of August

August 13, 2010

It can easily be said that August, without any equivocation or debate, is the suckiest month of the year. It’s way too hot. Students are dreading the start of the school year, just around the corner. There are no holidays, unless you count Ecuadorean independence day. Pre-season football is a joke, TV reruns abound and our only other source of entertainment — a dysfunctional Congress and its pathetic antics — is on recess.

Why do we even bother with such a poor excuse for a month? As with most of our modern-day blights, we can blame the Romans.

August, the month, was named for Augustus, the Roman emperor. Actually, Augustus is only one of several names used by the man who succeeded Julius Caesar and governed the world’s greatest empire around the time of Christ. He was born “Gaius Octavius Thurinus” in 63 B.C., then became “Gaius Julius Caesar” when his great-uncle was assassinated, and later “Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.” It’s probably only due to the Roman Senate’s decision to add the “Augustus” (or “revered one”) that this isn’t known as the “Gaiest” month.

Though it sounds like California is going ahead with that designation anyway.

Augustus appeared to take full advantage of the confusion around what to call him. (Imagine how far you could go in your career if you decided to change your name every now and then — “You say Bob failed to turn in his report yesterday? Good thing my name is Al.”)

His beginnings were fairly humble for someone who was the nephew of a man they’d ultimately name a surgical birthing procedure after. His father died when he was 4, and his mother remarried a man named Philippus. This guy claimed to be descended from Alexander the Great, so you know he was a bit on the self-absorbed side and had little time for young Octavius. Because of this, he was raised by his grandmother, Julia Caesar.

When she died, he gave such a terrific eulogy that his mother and step-father decided he was a good kid after all, and took a more active role in raising him. He held several part-time jobs typical for Roman teenagers — a member of the College of Pontiffs, staging the Greek games that honored the Temple of Venus Genetrix — but what he really wanted was to join his great-uncle’s military campaign in Africa. At first his mom said no, then she said okay, then he got sick and couldn’t make the trip.

Finally, he was well enough to sail to the front, if you can call becoming shipwrecked “sailing.” He made it to shore and crossed hostile territory to reach Caesar’s camp, greatly impressing the mighty general. Since Caesar didn’t have any children of his own, he decided to dash off a new will naming Octavius his heir, and deposited the document with the Vestal Virgins, who were kind of like the probate court of the time, except even more virginal.

After the Africa gig, he spent several years in military training until that fateful Ides of March in 44 B.C. It was only after the assassination that he found he had been adopted by Julius, so of course he felt obliged to mass some troops and arrive in Rome to claim his newly acquired birthright.

There, he encountered Marc Antony — the consul, not the Jennifer Lopez husband — who was to be a rival for succession. They actually got along pretty good at first, though Antony started losing a lot of political support when he opposed the Senate initiative to declare Julius Caesar a god (seems like they should’ve thought of that before he was knifed; he might’ve survived). Octavius, by now called “Octavian,” convinced Antony to take a prolonged vacation in France, which is probably where the modern-day French got the idea to take the entire month of August off.

After everybody chilled out for a while, Antony was allowed to come back to Rome where he, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus (kind of a Sarah Palin who came out of nowhere) formed the Second Triumvirate. They would rule equally for a period of five years, after which they would be term-limited out of office.

The trio set in motion a series of “proscriptions” for some of the senators and other elites who had opposed them. A proscription was not something you got filled at CVS and took twice a day; instead, it meant your property would be appropriated and if you complained at all, you’d be killed. This is even worse than waiting 45 minutes for your meds and then finding out they’re not covered by your insurance.

Octavian’s family life became as complicated as his public career. He wanted a divorce from Clodia Pulchra, who happened to be the daughter of Marc Antony’s first wife. Naturally, Antony’s wife was unhappy with this turn of events so she did what everybody did when they got pissed off in those days — she raised an army. Octavian didn’t much care, and proceeded to marry Scribonia, who gave him his only natural-born child on the same day he dumped her and married Livia Drusilla. (Attention, Newt Gingrich). Meanwhile, Antony married Octavian’s sister, but he soon started diddling Cleopatra on the side. This was the final straw, leading to a great naval battle between Octavian and Antony. Antony lost, and fell on his sword, probably not by accident. Cleopatra did her famous snake-handling shtick and soon both were dead.

Now Octavian could return to Rome and rule unchallenged. This is when the Senate granted him the name Augustus, and gave him power over Rome’s religious, civil and military affairs. They still claimed they’d act as an “advisory body” to Octavian/Augustus, but mostly this ended up consisting of telling him what a great job he was doing.

And in fact, modern-day historians now agree with that assessment. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war, maintained an honest government, improved the infrastructure and fostered free trade. Art and literature flourished under his patronage. The empire expanded to Spain, France and Dalmatia, a small but important region of only 101 inhabitants.

Despite this success, he remained modest when he wasn’t murdering people, and refused to hold a scepter, wear a diadem or don the purple toga of his predecessor, though the latter was due more to the inability of ancient dry-cleaners to get out blood stains.

Augustus died in 14 A.D. while visiting his father’s grave. Always a great fan of the theater and a bit of a drama queen himself, his final words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” His body was returned to Rome for a huge funeral at which he was eulogized by Tiberius, the stepson/former son-in-law/adopted son who became the next emperor by virtue of being one of the few family members Augustus decided to leave alone. Augustus was declared a god (again, a little late, if you ask me) and cremated on a pyre close to his mausoleum. There, his ashes rested in peace until Goths sacked Rome in 410 and used them for kitty litter.

Despite a job-hopping resume that included positions as triumvir, general, senator, consul, proconsul, princeps, imperator, tribune, censor, pontifex maximum and pater patriae, Augustus is generally regarded as perhaps the most successful of ancient Roman autocrats. His nature so matched the restlessness that we all feel during this hottest month of the year that naming August after him seems like a fitting tribute.

Let us gaily hail Augustus even as we count the days till a cooler September.

Fake News Briefs: From Uncle Ted to Wilson Pickett

August 12, 2010

Stevens and Rostenkowski find peace at last

HEAVEN, D.C. (August 11) — Newly elected representatives Ted Stevens and Dan Rostenkowski are already exerting their powerful influence here. St. Peter has appointed Stevens to the Celestial Senate and Rostenkowski to the Heavenly House, and neither has wasted any time in resorting to the pork-barrel politics they were famous for on Earth.

Both men have joined together to co-sponsor legislation that would fund the construction of an express lane from the physical world to the afterlife for those who have devoted their lives to conscientious, bi-partisan public service. The $644 million project would provide a “pathway to sainthood” to politicians who rise above the current Washington environment of petty bickering and instead work toward improving the general welfare of their nation.

Opponents in both the Celestial Senate and Heavenly House were quick to criticize the proposed project as a “bridge to nowhere.”

Passenger frustrations boil over

NEW YORK (August 10) — A would-be terrorist who planned to force a Pittsburgh-to-New York JetBlue flight to proceed smoothly with no delays and a pleasant experience for all was thwarted by a group of disruptive passengers Tuesday.

Ahmad al-Malawi, a software salesman from Albany, N.Y., who described himself as a frequent business flier, commandeered the plane’s PA system when unruly passengers began arguing about space in the overhead luggage bin.

“The Muslim people of the world just cannot take this anymore,” he reportedly announced. “We try to explode a shoe bomb and you interrupt us. We try to explode an underwear bomb and all we get is a painful Brazilian. Now, I try to force you to behave like adults and even that fails. It is all so frustrating.”

Al-Malawi then uttered what was believed to be an Arabic curse — “fuq u-Al” — grabbed two cans of beer and deployed the emergency chute. When he remembered his Islamic faith forbade him from drinking alcohol, he returned the beers and instead took two cans of sugar-free cherry Dr. Pepper. When he realized that the current celebration of Ramadan forbade him from drinking anything during daylight hours, he returned the sodas and selected two copies of JetBlue’s award-winning in-flight magazine Airways. He then jumped on to the inflated chute, landed on the tarmac and calmly walked toward the rental car counter where his mid-sized sedan was waiting.

More are making music to politics transition

DETROIT, Mich. (August 11) — First it was Wyclef Jean, reggae and hip-hop artist, announcing he was entering the race to be the next president of Haiti. Now, another legendary musician has said he’ll make a bid to cross over from the music world to international politics.

Wilson Pickett, a major figure in the development of American soul music, told reporters yesterday that he will seek the office of president in the Land of 1,000 Dances.

Though dead since 2006, Pickett said he could still help the long-suffering citizenry in the imaginary land he created in his 1966 hit, which peaked at Number 6 on the Billboard charts.

“The Land wasn’t a real place, and I’m no longer a real person, so I think there’s a certain synergy there,” Pickett said. “Hey! Uh!”

Pickett said his main focus if he’s elected would be to halt the threatened extinction of many of the 1,000 dances. He noted that the watusi and the pony were in particular danger, and that preserving all of the various gyrations was critical to maintaining the cultural heritage of the imaginary nation.

“C’mon, y’all, let’s say it one more time,” he said in announcing his campaign slogan. “Na na-na-na-na na-na-na-na na-na-na na-na-na, na-na-na-na.”

Pickett said that by paying personal attention to each individual “na,” he hoped to restore the once-proud country to the fame and glory it knew almost five decades ago. He called on both current and expatriate Dancians to “aah, help me … aah, help me.”