Archive for November, 2010

Fake News: WikiLeaks show inside story

November 30, 2010

WASHINGTON (Nov. 29) — Almost as shocking as the contemptuous attitude that American diplomats conveyed toward our allies in the latest WikiLeaks release was the pettiness and immaturity shown in the wording of their communications.

In fact, both friend and foe alike are studying the first of a quarter-million confidential cables to learn what those phony-baloney Americans really thought about them behind their back.

State Department officials are seeking to minimize the impact of the leaks, collected over several decades from embassies all over the world. A White House spokesman downplayed the content of the reports, saying they included “often incomplete information.” Analysts were quick to point out, however, that calling British Prime Minister David Cameron a “douchebag” and Afghan President Hamid Karzai “a dweeb and a douchebag” seemed pretty thorough.

In addition to the personal slurs, the release contains more substantive details about how major foreign policy initiatives were apparently drawn up during Foggy Bottom keggers. Carefully gathered intelligence collected from often-hostile nations around the world was evaluated by Washington diplomats who reduced international relations to the level of high school politics.

Among the more startling revelations in yesterday’s publications:

  • Americans mounted a secret effort to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan in a trade that would bring three tons of fuel rods to the U.S. in exchange for Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. “They like cricket over there, and he plays baseball, which is sort of the same thing,” said an official in one communiqué. “If that’s not enough, we’ll throw in coupons for 15% off a future purchase of sophisticated military hardware.”
  • When attendees at a Fourth of July picnic at an American consulate in India were served vegetarian hotdogs and coconuts painted to look like watermelons, a historic nuclear cooperation deal between those two countries was nearly scuttled. “I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY SERVED US TOFU DOGS!” read the cable. “TOFU DOGS! THESE PEOPLE CAN’T BE TRUSTED.”
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel was characterized as a “CILF” (“Chancellor I’d Like to …”) and the “hottest piece in the Bundestag since Hitler.”
  • Efforts to relocate Guantanamo detainees to other countries often involved questionable incentives. The island nation of Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to take several Chinese Muslims. Belgian officials were told that if they took some, it would be a “low-cost way for Belgium to attain a prominence in Europe that didn’t involve waffles.” Slovenia said they would take up to a dozen suspected terrorists if the U.S. would throw in actress Rachel McAdams and comedy ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and his sidekick Walter.
  • During a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said his country would take credit for attacking itself with missiles rather than expose the U.S.-led strike. “Get a load of this … he also wants credit for inventing rock-and-roll and self-defrosting refrigerators,” wrote a Petraeus aide. “He’s such a tool.”
  • Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has a number of peccadilloes, including traveling with “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse who, according to one diplomat, “knows his routine, if you know what I mean.” He is also reportedly afraid of flying over water, refuses to stay in the upper floors of a hotel, and will have any Libyan summarily executed for speaking the name of seventies singer-songwriter Carole King.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “really, really like each other and, in all probability, are homos,” according to an American posted in Rome.
  • A plot to get Iranian President Malmoud Ahmadinejad to put on a tie was hatched by CIA operatives in Teheran in the belief he would be discredited for acknowledging Western fashion sensibilities. “ADDED PLUS,” read the cable, “WE CAN GRAB IT AND CHOKE HIM.”
  • Somalia narrowly averted a cruise missile attack in September of 2009 when their Office of American Interests in the French Embassy offered awful-tasting mints in the reception area during a visit by an American trade mission.
  • During Google’s feud with the Chinese government, the Communist Politburo hacked into the company’s computers. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took personal responsibility for turning the corporate logo on Google’s home page into unidentifiable psychedelic train wreck during major holidays. When the American Embassy in Beijing was informed of the sabotage, an assistant manager responded to the State Department with the message “WHATEVER”.

Less substantive but potentially even more damaging to the U.S. reputation were the personal characterizations by veteran diplomats of past and current foreign leaders. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is officially referred to as a “retard,” Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is a “doofus,” South Korean President Lee Myung-back is a “dickwad,” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is a “knob” and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a “wanker or spaz, depending on his mood.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement late Monday to address the growing controversy over the WikiLeaks disclosures.

“We are so screwed,” Clinton told reporters. “So very, very screwed.”

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Getting rid of some old photos

November 29, 2010

I’m told our home computer is getting too full, that it has memory problems. Since I can relate to both of these issues on a personal level, I told my wife and son — the two resident computer experts in my home — that I’d do what I can to help.

I haven’t noticed any performance concerns myself. I looked behind the monitor to see if any bits or gigs had overflowed out the back and, unless they look exactly like common household dust or small dead spiders, I didn’t see anything. I have noticed a slight bulging in the tower but attribute that to the Reuben sandwich I accidentally inserted into CD-writer slot when I got confused at lunch one day.

Response times still seem quick enough for the programs I use, even a little too fast sometimes: I barely have enough time to feel triumphant about laying down a “VULVA” in Scrabble before my computer opponent counters with a “QUIXOTIC”. Not only am I suddenly down 87 points, but I’m reminded of my own quixotic quest for the vulva.

As far as I can tell, the system’s memory is fine. I tell it to save a file in subfolder “STUFF” inside subfolder “BLOG” inside subfolder “DAVIS” inside subfolder “MY DOCUMENTS”, and it’s I who can’t remember where to find it, not the computer.

Beth said she needed to “de-frag” or “de-frog” or “de-something” the system to consolidate files and free up more storage capacity. I told her to go for it, as long as she wore one of those bomb suits like in The Hurt Locker in case shrapnel suddenly erupted from the keyboard. Or frogs.

What I could do to help, I was told, was to get rid of all the photos I’ve taken over the past two years for use in my blog. There were also some other pictures that might be worth saving that I could offload onto a “thumb drive,” though somebody’s going to have to tell me which slot I need to stick my thumb in to make this happen.

It was kind of fun going through all the pictures I’ve collected. Many can be easily deleted, as soon as I figure out what I was thinking when I took a picture of a featureless patch of grass. Others represent fond memories of family life: a wedding picture of me and my wife, my son’s graduation from elementary school, the time our cat thought it would be fun to go for a swim in the toilet. Still others are from my business trips overseas.

There were a few I felt deserved one more chance in the light of day before they were consigned to the trash bin icon of history. And so, I present those here.

Then, I right-click and select “delete.”

When I brought home our prepared Thanksgiving dinner last week, I first removed the turkey from the box and put it in the refrigerator. I turn around and there sits our cat Taylor, in the box next to the squash casserole (Taylor, left; casserole, right). I'm told that cats are among the cleanest of creatures but I still don't want them sitting on my food. In Taylor's mind, however, it was a simple equation: box + turkey = Heaven.

This is a bunch of garbage. You might immediately recognize the soiled mattress and the rolled-up carpet, but it takes a discerning eye to pick out the broken office chair in the back. Why I would take a picture of garbage, I don't recall.

That's me, enjoying a 2007 vacation to New York City. You can tell what a wonderful time I'm having by the crossed arms and the sidelong grimace. When the city workers to my left finishes painting the fire hydrant, he'll begin work on my gigantic walking shorts.

This is the office where I worked in Sri Lanka training a team of outsource proofreaders. I still recall my first lesson with this group of eager young office workers: "DOITRIGHTTHE" is four separate words, not one.

This is a mountain bike my wife won in a drawing. We thought it was a regular bike, so we don't use it, except to take up space in our sunroom. I'd like to donate it to some deserving youngster who lives in a mountainous region -- perhaps in wartorn Afghanistan -- but I have no idea how to do that. I suppose I could sell it on eBay, but I don't know how to do that either.

During one trip to an Asian nation that will remain anonymous, I encountered this sign in the men's room. Note the mortification on the face of the worker who peed himself, and the stern condemnation from the supervisor who points out his error. It's management techniques like these that have catapulted the powerhouse economies of the East right past the U.S.

In Hong Kong, a street vendor of meats and meat byproducts proudly displays his inventory. "How are the pig colons today?" I ask. "Only average," he replies. "The elk diaphragm, however, is most excellent." In the end, I opted instead to vomit on a side street.

Speaking of disgusting masses of sagging flesh, enjoy this world's worst self-portrait as I wade in the waters of Subic Bay, near Manila. Moments after this shot was taken, we were hit by a simultaneous volcano and civil insurrection.

Revisited: Thanksgiving week musings

November 28, 2010

Among professional writers, I think the best job would be working in the press office at the State Department and the worst job would be as an editorial writer. At the State Department, every time there was some international catastrophe, it’d be your job to come up with the modifier that expressed the unparalleled level of concern all Americans felt in this time of tragedy.

“Hey, Bob,” your boss would instant-message you, “how concerned are we about Finland being invaded by space monsters?”

“Pretty darn concerned, I’d imagine,” you’d respond, stalling while you reached for your thesaurus. “I’d say we’re either ‘profoundly concerned,’ ‘gravely concerned,’ ‘momentously concerned,’ or ‘really, really super-concerned’.”

“Good job, Jim,” the boss would reply. “We can always count on your sympathy.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the poor editorial writer, whose job it is to be outraged by mass murders, supportive of the local blood drive, and troubled by the rise in teen pregnancies. Only blatantly obvious and widely agreed-upon opinions are allowed. It’s only if you want to end your career in a hail of indignant letters to the editor that you could endorse an armed revolution against the government or a boycott of Girl Scout cookies.

* * *

I went to the mall this weekend, not because I needed anything but because it’s required by federal statute. I avoided the so-called Black Friday like the plague, which was also black but not as popular. Anyway, my wife and I went on a rainy Saturday afternoon, mostly just to see the crowds and punish ourselves for eating too much turkey.

What I like best about a crowded mall is a game I made up that I call “mall-walking”. It’s not the slow-paced circuits made by energetic seniors, but rather an attempt to dart as fast as possible through crowds of zombified shoppers, imagining I’m avoiding tacklers while returning a kickoff for a touchdown. It’s best to walk quickly rather than run, unless you want to really be tackled by security guards. You start on the clockwise side, so you have a few “blockers” going in your direction but most everyone else is coming toward you. Extra hazards include kiosk merchants trying to rub you with cologne samples, restaurant workers trying to hand you teriyaki chicken, slow-moving family blobs who spread out six-wide, and fast-moving professional shoppers erupting unpredictably from storefronts. If you make it to the goal line (a pod of easy chairs containing heavy-eyed husbands who, before the mall was redesigned last summer, had to seek out the bedding section of Sears to recline their slumping figures) without being touched, you win.

I still think this would make a great video game, where you could use famous malls or other high-traffic areas – Times Square, the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo, penitentiaries serving the U.S. Congress – as different game fields. Electronic Arts, are you out there?

* * *

One of the most embarrassing situations I’ve ever encountered happened recently in my office. Coworkers were circulating a card to send to someone’s father who was about to have a serious operation. I was vaguely aware that someone in that family was in the midst of a health crisis, and had wrongly assumed that a death was involved.

When the card got to me, it was left at my desk with the inside open, so I could add my thoughts and/or prayers but I couldn’t see the message printed on the cover. Too quickly, I scrawled my message: “Thinking of you in your time of loss.” It was only when I closed the card to pass it on to the next person that I realized it wasn’t a sympathy card, it was a get-well card.

My callous lack of sincerity was captured in permanent ink. It didn’t matter that my sympathy was in one sense technically suitable – there probably was going to be loss involved in the anticipated amputation of his arm. But it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the kind of loss I was referencing and, even if it was, it was a pretty insensitive way to express my wishes.

Switching into recovery mode, I considered my options for fixing the hideous error. I obviously couldn’t run out and buy a replacement card, because of all the original messages already affixed. I considered white-out, but the glossy smear would only draw more attention and some curious individual would inevitably scratch it off to see what was underneath.

The only other choice was to work with the existing ink-strokes and modify them to change the message. After about 20 minutes of work, I got it to read “Thinking it’s your time to floss.” I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. My hope, however, was that my coworkers would think it was a friendly inside joke that only the patient would get, and that the patient wouldn’t know who I was anyway.

* * *

I called my insurance company this morning to investigate an apparent error in billing that cost me about $250. I was almost positive I was right, but even the smallest doubt seems magnified when you’re dealing with a sophisticated multinational computer system. I actually got through the automated voicemail system relatively unscathed and in touch with a real live person, who turned out to be quite helpful. After the usual small delays (“our computer seems to be a little slow today,” he says as he looks at my premium history in a grid that dictates how nice to be) he located my account and the source of the problem. “Yes, I think our records may be in error,” he says. “Will it be okay if we make the correction in your next billing period?” Yes, of course, that’s great, I say.

Then comes the little trick they’ve apparently taught every help desk in the world in the last year: “Before I let you go, can I interest you in our new 3.5% APR certificate of deposit?” While you’re still in the throes of relief over your billing being corrected, there’s a piece of your willpower against solicitation that has become slightly weaker, and they’re damn sure going to take advantage. I very much want to return the favor of helping this individual like he’s just helped me, and $5,000 does seem like a small price to pay. But in the end, I recover enough to politely decline.

Revisited: Church calendar confusing to many

November 27, 2010

The wave of fresh converts to evangelical Christianity appears to contain many who are confused about certain details of this, their first holiday season.

“I’m still learning my way around,” admitted Sonya Bennett. “I mean, I believe in Jesus and all that stuff; I’m just a little hazy on the reasons for some of these celebrations.”

Much of the bewilderment became apparent during yesterday’s so-called “Black Friday.” Large numbers of newly minted Christians showed up at post-Thanksgiving sales at Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers, thinking they were observing the day Jesus was crucified at Calgary.

“I guess I was thinking of — what is it? — Good Friday,” said Heather Thompson. “I thought Black Friday was the day the altar was draped in black cloth, and a somber service acknowledged our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Turns out, it’s more about low, low prices.”

Thompson said many of her friends were also confused about the day. She said she felt that the Church of Christ, of which she became a member earlier this year, and the nation’s retail sector were “just asking” for there to be such widespread misunderstanding.

“I mean, think about it: Good Friday marks an occasion when something bad happened, and Black Friday marks a good day, a day of door-busting bargains. That’s just plain screwy,” Thompson said. “You’d think it would be the other way around. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one expecting up to 60% off the cost of my salvation.”

Bennett, a recent convert to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, said the church calendar at first didn’t make sense to her. She said she had time to meditate and reflect on her faith while waiting in line from midnight till 4 a.m. outside the Valley Hills Mall in Seattle.

“I finally puzzled through it,” Bennett said. “It just wasn’t possible that Jesus was crucified in late November, then born in late December, and then ascended into heaven in March or April. I know He can do some amazing things, but this just seemed totally whack.”

Similar puzzlement was expected during next week’s “Cyber Monday,” which has become the day on which close to a third of on-line Christmas gift sales are made. Either that, or it’s something to do with Simon Peter, or maybe the Immaculate Conception, or maybe Zhu Zhu pets.

“The one that always messes me up is Maundy Thursday,” said Oscar Bennett, who joined the Southern Baptist denomination in February. “I mean, is it a Monday or is it a Thursday? I’m all for talking in tongues, but come on. How can we have effective outreach to non-believers with this kind of double-talk?”

Raymond Price, a new member of the fundamentalist Mercy Schmercy Catholic Church in suburban Atlanta, defended Christianity’s elaborate calendar as something that novices should study and become comfortable with.

“It’s really not that complicated when you put your mind to it,” Price said. “Ash Wednesday is the day we remember volcano victims. Palm Sunday celebrates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph after inventing the handheld personal digital assistant. Corpus Christi, in mid-June, marks the beginning of beach season on the south Texas coast.”

Price said his personal favorite day on the liturgical calendar was Ruby Tuesday.

“Any day that honors both the Rolling Stones and the Seaside Sensations combo platter is truly a holy day in my book,” Price said. “Ruby Tuesday — Fresh Taste, Fresh Price.”

Last-minute shopping for Thanksgiving

November 26, 2010

We don’t have any nearby family to entertain and my wife had to work past midnight the evening before, so our Thanksgiving dinner plans yesterday were fairly simple. We ordered a pre-made meal from the local grocery store and simply stuck it in the oven. Maybe we had to remove everything from the cardboard box first — I’d leave that detail for my wife to figure out — but it was certainly going to be much easier than making everything from scratch.

While Beth caught up on her sleep, my assignment was to pick up this meal, as well as several ingredients for a specialty cranberry dish she wanted to make. She’d left a list on the kitchen counter carefully detailing what she needed: one orange (juicy), one lemon (juicy), one Granny Smith apple (juiciness not specified), waxed paper, and three-fourths cups of chopped walnuts. Instructions so simple even a husband could follow them.

I used to enjoy making trips to the grocery store, as long as there was no pressure to buy anything. I’d stroll up and down the aisles, admiring the colorful packaging, enjoying the piped-in music, pretending my shopping cart was a racecar, enjoying a mini-vacation. The sites weren’t quite as awe-inspiring as the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, though one shouldn’t discount the awesomeness of a Great Pyramid of canned soups.

Everything is so bright and contemporary, it’s almost like a visit to a museum of modern art. Except that not only can you touch the displays, you can actually eat them. Try that at the Louvre.

Lately, I’ve tended to experience a little anxiety around grocery shopping when there are specific things I need to locate and purchase. The variety of offerings at the modern supermarket makes the visit feel like you’re involved in the Human Genome Project, trying to find the one bit of DNA (or low-fat blueberry breakfast bar) amongst the tens of thousands of options that will cure leukemia (or provide me with a quick morning snack). I clutched Beth’s list tightly in my fist, grateful for the focus it would provide.

My first stop was at the deli where I would pick up the dinner. Once I’d felt the confidence from accomplishing this initial task, I’d be much better equipped to succeed with the rest of the chores. I told the lady behind the counter the name the turkey was reserved under. She disappeared briefly into a back room and emerged with a large white box, putting it directly into my cart. That’s all there was to it. I thought there was a lot of work involved in preparing a Thanksgiving meal. This was easy!

Next, I headed for the produce section to pick up the fruits. The apples were no problem. Though they were large and green and shiny enough to use as a mirror, they were clearly apples, as the “Granny Smith” sign hanging above them confirmed.

The citrus selection was a little harder. There were only a few loose lemons available, and all the oranges were bagged. I examined the three or four lemons left, trying to ascertain their juiciness without crushing them under my shoe. I shook one, hoping to hear a sloshing sound similar to that made by the milk inside a coconut. That didn’t work. I tried squeezing, thinking that excessive squishiness might indicate something. But they all felt about the same. Since they weren’t that expensive, I just bought ’em all. I finally found some loose oranges in the organic section, and selected one of these with a little more abandon, figuring their organicity would more than offset any lack of succulence.

Next it was on to the waxed paper. I found the aisle displaying paper towels and food containers and figured I was at least in the right neighborhood. There were plenty of sandwich bags and plastic wraps. There were foils of the finest aluminum. There were many papery items though few seemed to be coated in wax. I felt the anxiety starting to rise up the back of my neck as I stood perplexed before a sea of choices. Finally, I just grabbed the nearest roll of paper towels and figured we could drip a candle onto it later.

Now it was time to seek out the nuts, and I had a feeling this was going to be the hard part. I checked the store directory attached to the cart for a clue as to where one might find them, but got little help there. They weren’t under “N” for nuts nor “W” for walnuts nor “T” for things measuring three-fourths of a cup. I’d be reduced to walking up and down every single aisle. Great exercise, perhaps, but fruitless if I couldn’t find my nuts.

Finally, in a section called “baking needs,” I located the walnuts. They had been conveniently shelled, placed in packaging and hung from dozens of different tiny racks. Beth had clearly requested “chopped” walnuts, so I scanned the offerings looking specifically for that descript0r. I found “slivers,” “slices,” “pieces,” “chunks” and “bits,” but nothing called “chopped.” One bag described itself as “recipe-ready” which I imagined could be the same thing as “chopped.” I definitely didn’t want the large container of “walnut meat,” primarily because it cost $9.99.

At last, in an obscure corner of the display, I found two different bag sizes of chopped walnuts. One was 2 ounces, or 56 grams, and the other was 6 ounces, or 168 grams. Neither offered a clue on how many fourths of a cup that translated into. DAMN THAT METRIC SYSTEM TO HELL! I’d rather have been told to get 497 pieces and have to count them out individually than deal with conversions. Finally, I grabbed two of the two-ouncers and decided that if they weren’t enough, I’d pick up a few acorns from around our yard and hope that nobody’d be the wiser.

Having fully completed the list, I now felt free enough for a little impromptu shopping, and celebratory enough to head to the alcohol aisle. I’d round off what was looking to be a lovely, nut-and-waxed-paper-chocked Thanksgiving feast with a bit of the bubbly. In a canyon of wine bottles, I searched for the champagne. There were hundreds of Merlots, all with cute names like “Rancid Dog” and “Runover Coon,” and equal numbers of Zins, Burgundies, Syrahs and Chardonnays. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto a small refrigerated section of the aisle that I found three “California Champagnes” to choose from. One had a Wine Spectator rating of $8.99, one was rated $10.49 and one was $14. I sprung for the deluxe offering and headed to the checkout.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” asked the cashier.

“Yeah, I guess,” I responded. “But I seem to have dropped my self-esteem in here somewhere. If anybody locates it, will they return it to lost and found?”

Chopped walnuts: The key to a Happy Thanksgiving

Revisited: Thank you for just about everything

November 25, 2010

I don’t know about you but I’m already just about thanked out.

The wellspring of gratitude and appreciation flowing from our guilty consciences today is enough to put anybody flat on their back. There’s just something about being a grateful person that makes you incredibly sleepy, seeking the nearest couch on Thanksgiving night for a much-deserved nap.

Scientists tell us that certain chemicals flood our bloodstream when we thank and honor those to whom we are indebted. The same hormones that prompt us to choke up when football commentator Howie Long thanks the troops eventually start to back up in the brain, prompting an overall feeling of fullness and, ultimately, coma.

Showing genuine emotion toward loved ones as we count our blessings tends to wear a person out. That’s why I audit my assets only twice a year — at Thanksgiving and on Tax Day, April 15.

Tomorrow, I’ll be ready to go back to the old way of doing business, living in a whirlwind of meaningless, pre-scripted “thank-you’s” offered solely as a way to evoke a certain behavior, usually getting you to leave the premises. These are the devalued, distorted expressions we encounter a hundred times a day, the ones that have so removed the true meaning of gratitude that when we feel the real thing, it gives us a very bad stomachache.

My son and I made a drive around the neighborhood last Thanksgiving, because we always get a kick out of seeing roads emptied and businesses shuttered on major holidays. It’s kind of a fun preview of what he might expect when he drives around with his son some bleak day in our dismal economic future.

“Your grandpa and I used to exchange script for services in these burned-out storefronts,” he’ll tell young Davis the Sixth. “It’s a lot like how you buy roots and berries to eat, except you do it online and we had this thing called bricks-and-mortar.”

Even McDonald’s was closed. As we circled the parking lot to get a closer look at this rare sight, we saw the signs that direct customers through the take-out operation. The first stop, at the big board of burger pictures, simply says “Order Here.” The second stop has a sign which reads “Thank You For Having Your Payment Ready,” a directive poorly disguised as a polite request. Finally, when you pick up your order at the last window, the sign reads simply “Thank You.” What they really mean at this point in the transaction is “Be Gone!”

I get the same feeling at the automated car wash. There’s a large electronic sign that guides you through the steps in the process as you pull your car into the contraption. There’s “Please Enter,” a clear enough signal that you drive into the bay. There’s “Drive Slowly,” “Stop” and even “Back Up” for those who have moved beyond the proper position. When the wash begins, you see a different series of signals, such as “Wash,” “Rinse,” “Underwash,” etc., apprising you of the progress of the operation. Finally, there’s a brief moment of silent inactivity, at which point the sign flashes “Thank You.” This is their friendly way of saying you’re done, though I imagine some dimwits may sit there a while awaiting further instructions. I have a feeling that if you don’t move it within ten seconds, that you get one which reads “You’re Through, Now Drive Away by Pressing your Foot on that Narrow Pedal on the Floorboard.”

Another insincere use of the “Thank You” comes at the large warehouse shopping club. Some of the purchases come in containers too large to put in a bag, which is the traditional way of showing that you’ve paid for the product. So instead, a bright orange sticker gets affixed to the box saying “Thank You,” which is secret code for “This Item is Not Being Shoplifted.” Innocent enough at the time, perhaps, but a little disconcerting when you face several weeks of having a tub of cat litter thanking you every time you go in the utility room.

Finally, I’ll mention the forced gratitude you’ll often see in sports. I used to play a lot of tennis when I was younger and, though far from good, I was generally skilled enough to keep the ball within the court. Occasionally, you’d encounter a twosome on the next court over that had difficulty controlling the trajectory of their shots, probably due in part to the fact they were wearing jeans, street shoes and half-drunk expressions. As their tennis balls trickled from their court onto mine, they’d call out “thank you” as a signal for me to stop what I was doing and retrieve their miscue. Once, a young girl was so wild that she put her ball over the ten-foot fence surrounding the court.

“Thank you,” she called out to me. “No, no,” I responded, “thank you.”

She had obviously been well-trained by her parents to express appreciation when someone did something nice for her. I’m always amused by the teaching technique most parents use when socializing their kids on this critical component of human interaction. The nice man in the sunglasses offers you candy if you’ll join him in his windowless van to help him look for his missing puppy, and your mom stands there and asks “What do you say?” Most children learn pretty quickly to offer a shy “thank you,” though a fortunate few respond “shouldn’t I be wary of strangers?”

By the way, thank you for not noticing that I don’t do Website Reviews any more. However, I did recently check out several sites on the subject of thanks.

There’s one called thanks.com, whose home page reads “The spontaneous thank you: Such power it wields. To awe. To rally. To cheer. And to motivate. But well-timed spontaneity takes planning. We’ve done that part so you can do the fun part.” As you might guess, this is a business set up to take the annoying element of sincerity completely out of the act of an employer showing gratitude to an employee. For a minimal fee, you can generate the “instant certificate, a quick and easy way to turn your heartfelt sentiment into a frame-worthy expression of gratitude.” This can even be customized with a personal message (like the person’s name, typed in all caps), then printed out in your own office in seconds.

You can also buy tangible gifts to show Ingrid in accounting how much you appreciate her overlooking that Spectravision charge on your last expense report. For $12, there’s an origami goose, contorted in much the same way as the actress in that PayTV movie. Or, for a little more, you can get caramel candy apples dressed up in tuxedo packaging, or a customized footstool imprinted with inspirational urgings to “Reach Higher.” Or, you can stock up for any number of future needs with an $18 cache of “appreciation buttons,” including “Wizard of Awe,” “Wow Factor,” “Big Kahuna,” “Grand Poobah of Great Ideas” and “Hello, My Name is Fran Tastic.”

The site thank.com offers thank-you cards, notes, letters and gifts. They include convenient templates — for example, the proper way to express appreciation for a recent job interview, where you simply print out a sheet and hope that your potential boss’s name is “Mr. or Mrs. Blank.” They offer other sample letters as well, though this part of the site was temporarily unavailable when I tried to look (thanks for nothing). You can also order funeral cards and memorial plaques from thank.com, though I’ve always thought it a little impolite to thank someone for dying.

At thankyou.com, there’s a rewards program where you can earn points toward future purchases. What stood out for me here was the Testimonials section, letters written by satisfied customers who bought tires, rented a Cadillac for their Nashville vacation or “finally got that meat slicer I’ve wanted for some time.”

Lastly, just for fun, I checked out nothanks.com. It bills itself as a “lifestyle resource” and includes such features as Christian dating, where I imagine “no thanks” gets said quite a lot.

Lives of the Dead: The turkey

November 24, 2010

As part of my occasional series titled “Lives of the Dead,” today’s post will look at the turkey.

This fabled American bird takes its place at the table with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Caesar Augustus, St. Patrick and Martin Luther as subjects of a DavisW’s blog profile. Not dead as a species but with plenty of specific casualties by this time tomorrow, the turkey becomes the first to be a living topic in this space. Let’s take a brief look at its history before we examine its innards over pumpkin pie and coffee at dinner Thursday.

In a way, it’s fitting the turkey be granted this exceptional treatment. As much as his species is appreciated as both a symbol of gratitude and a meat product, there have been no individual turkeys to rise above the rest and distinguish themselves. Other animals at least have had animated anthropomorphs to speak out on their behalf — Donald Duck, Porky Pigg, Sylvester the Cat, Fernando Lamas, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). There’s never been a single famous turkey.

It’s probably due in part to what’s come to be known in zoology circles as the “K Factor”. The K Factor is that rule which says any animal with a “K” in its name is automatically funny and disrespected. Your monkeys, your donkeys, your yaks and your kangaroos all suffer from this syndrome and can’t get anyone to take them seriously. We laugh at the poor dumb turkey even as we enjoy his succulent thighs simply because it’s fun to say anything that rhymes with “jerky” or “quirky”.

The turkey first came to the attention of an increasingly hungry Western Civilization when 16th-century Europeans exploring America encountered a bird similar to their familiar guineafowl. Since their larger poultry were imported into continental markets through Central Europe from Turkey, they thought of calling the wild Meleagris gallopavo a “Serbian” but eventually settled instead on “turkey”. (That’s why we also get the word “grease” from Greece, and the word “chili” from Chile).

The wild turkey can weigh up to 100 pounds and has a wingspan of almost six feet. They can fly for short distances, mainly when they’re being pursued by predators. Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy wattle that hangs from the underside of their beak which, when combined with their huge breasts, make them resemble actress Pamela Anderson. (You can tell the two apart because the birds have too much sense to go anywhere near Kid Rock). They also have another protuberance growing off the top of their beaks and dangling off to the side called a “snood”. Links to recipes for these appendages, including the famous Wattle Supreme and the underappreciated Stewed Snood, will follow this article.

There’s a fairly extensive fossil record of the early turkeys, starting from the Miocene Epoch over 20 million years ago. Ancient remains have been found throughout the Western Hemisphere and, when they are, inevitably the wishbone is broken in two. The Aztecs called the creature huexolotl, and it was associated with their “trickster god” Tezcatlipoca when it wasn’t being killed and eaten. (Even then, the turkey was laughed at. Aztecs would’ve told each other “that wacky huexolotl and his pal Tezcatlipoca are at it again” if they could’ve pronounced either of the words.)

It’s only been in the last century or so that turkeys became a popular form of poultry. Though it’s likely the meat was served at the first Thanksgiving attended by the Pilgrims and the Indians, that’s probably only because they kept running around the food preparation area. It was actually too expensive to become a staple at holiday meals until just recently. Before World War II, goose or beef was more likely to comprise the common holiday dinner.

When the wild turkey was domesticated, its life became both easier and harder. Today’s birds could live to be ten years old if they weren’t slaughtered at about 16 weeks. They grow up on a factory farm, bred to have magnificent white feathers to make their carcasses more appealing. The male is the tom, the female is the hen, and the baby is a poult, though they don’t spend near enough time together as a family. Mature toms are too large to “achieve natural fertilization,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it, so their semen is manually collected and hens are inseminated artificially. Neither much care for this arrangement, but what are they going to do? Break out on their own and find a nice apartment they could afford on a turkey salary?

Turkeys are popularly believed to be unintelligent. Claims are made that during a rainstorm, they’ll look up at the falling precipitation until they drown. Recent research has shown, however, that many aren’t simply stupid but instead suffer from a genetic nervous disorder known as “tetanic torticollar spasms” that causes them to look skyward. Like human parents embarrassed by the poor performance of their offspring, turkey parents can point to a disorder similar to ADHD as the reason their brats are running around like madmen, toppling lamps and unable to stay focused for more than a few moments.

The turkey is now solidly a part of American lore, especially at this time of the year. Schoolchildren trace outstretched hands to create likenesses of the animal for fall craft projects. Coworkers abandon casual conversation in the breakroom and opt instead to gobble at each other. The turkey lobby brings one lucky tom to Washington so it can receive the traditional presidential pardon, though in an attempt to be seen as moving toward the political center after recent election losses, President Obama is considering slitting its throat this year.

By Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, all we really care about is how to prepare the bird for dinner. Available in the market as either fresh or frozen, the meat typically requires several hours baking or roasting in the oven to become fully cooked. A recent trend has seen the rise of a new method, deep-frying the turkey in an outdoor vat of hot oil for 45 minutes or until the entire set-up explodes and is next seen on YouTube under the title “Butterball goes fireball.”

Ultimately, the dish is surrounded by cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, and whatever that awful casserole is that your sister-in-law keeps bringing year after year. Extended families come together to share an all-too-brief moment of togetherness before heading back to their separate lives watching televised images of Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions facing their own slaughter. Soon, the notorious “tryptophan coma” descends on the gathering like a cloud of carbon monoxide until participants awake to find themselves waiting in line for Walmart to open at 2 in the morning.

As we pause during the next 24 hours to give thanks for all the bounty we share, let’s not forget to express appreciation to the noble turkey for his contribution. If Ben Franklin had his way, the creature would be our national bird, seen all over our money and other national emblems instead of all over our shirts and tablecloths. And we’d be eating bald eagles for dinner, arguing over who gets the bald spot rather than who gets the drumstick.

I’ve had deep-fried eagle before and, trust me, it’s not something you’d want to eat.

Note: To read more about Lives of the Dead, please visit the following posts:

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/happy-columbus-day-sort-of/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/lives-of-the-dead-augustus-father-of-august/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/lives-of-the-dead-st-patrick/

https://davisw.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/lives-of-the-dead-martin-luther/

He'd say "Happy Thanksgiving," but the snood keeps getting in the way

A prayer for the workplace

November 23, 2010

The food for the office Thanksgiving luncheon was all set up and ready to be eaten. Workers summoned for the feast from different departments stood about awkwardly, hungry but mindful of the need to wait for some kind of “GO!” command.

First, the district manager had a few words to say. He welcomed the 50 or so white-collar staffers, and spoke of an old tradition that he greatly admired. He’d heard of a family that asked everyone in attendance at their holiday dinners to talk briefly of something they were thankful for in the past year.

A few sidelong glances were exchanged among the famished professionals — “at this rate, we’re never going to eat” seemed to be the unspoken consensus. The manager sensed the crowd’s reluctance to talk about home and family matters at work.

“Anybody have anything they’d like to share?” he asked.

There was some lame muttering from the back about being thankful for friends. Another person said they had suffered a lot in the last year while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, then realized this wasn’t much of a reason for thanks and instead turned it into a “deep gratitude” that another accident hasn’t happened again.

I felt embarrassed by the silence and sorry for the well-intentioned manager, and almost spoke up myself. I was going to say I was just thankful to have a job in these difficult times, then realized it might prompt him to wonder “why is he still working here?” and decided to hold my tongue. When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak — unless we wanted to ask the people ringing our phones off the hook while the receptionist was away microwaving the green bean casserole — he moved on.

After a pause, he again looked around the room and asked if anybody wanted to say “a word” before we began eating.

Were this any other region of the country besides the South, the word people might’ve offered would be something like “c’mon” or “let’s go, already.” Down here, though, “a word,” especially when requested immediately prior to the consumption of food, means a prayer. Finally someone accepted the challenge, and asked everyone to bow their heads. I used the opportunity to study what a nice pair of running shoes the person next to me recently purchased, and how well their color coordinated with the office carpet.

The prayer (prayist?) proceeded through an acknowledgement of the usual litany of Christian superheroes. He thanked an unseen timekeeper who granted us the opportunity to join together. He gave a brief preview of the available entrees, specifically mentioning both turkey and ham. He said he did all this “in Jesus’ name” (though I bet he’d be resuming his usual role as Bobby in just a minute), then everybody said “amen.”

I’m really glad that I, an agnostic, have never been forced to deliver an impromptu invocation at a company function. I’ve had years of Lutheran training and could probably recall a doxology or two if pressed. I think I could fake my way through it.

Actually, I’ve been known to invoke the various names of the Almighty and His Posse on numerous occasions throughout the average workday. I’m not sure how good a prayer it would make, but I could improvise something like the following.

Good God
I can’t believe the last person to use the copier didn’t hit the reset button when they were through.
Now I have 50 copies when I only wanted two.
And they left blue paper in the legal tray.
Christ Almighty
Those people on the night shift have been using our creamer again.
And doesn’t that guy over in Legal realize that you’re supposed to pay to be in the coffee fund?
Mary, Mother of God
Why have these maintenance people vacuuming while I’m on this important call?
They now wear portable motors and bags on their backs.
I wish those were jetpacks and they’d fly the hell away.
Sweet Jesus
I’m out of sticky notes again.
And I think someone slid a different chair over here, because this one just doesn’t feel right.
Is there no respect for personal property in this place?
Holy Cow
They’re cranking up the thermostat again even though it’s already 150 degrees in here.
These women need to ditch the sleeveless tops already or else bring their Snuggies to work.
God Damn It
It looks like there’s another network outage coming in five minutes.
Tech says it’ll only take about thirty seconds, but by the time you have to restart and bring all your programs back up, you might as well call it a day.
They’re probably doing some upgrade that blocks even more websites.
Jesus H. Christ
Those new paper towels in the men’s room are so thin, they’re practically toilet paper.
I’m sure it’s cheaper than the old stuff, but don’t they realize we’re using twice as much?
I am sick of tiny disintegrated shreds of saturated paper sticking to my hands.
God Almighty, what is wrong with these people?

 

Sweet Lord

Our thoughts turn to food

November 22, 2010

Ah, there’s nothing like the bustle of the neighborhood Panera on a late Sunday morning.

Families going out for a once-a-week breakfast together, with youngsters running to and fro, dads gingerly balancing the Sunday paper and two trays of bagels, moms herding the kids to their seats. Older couples stand studying the extensive menu, carefully deliberating their decision. Soccer teams flush with recent victory in the 8-and-under league, celebrating their teamwork with a cookie and some hot chocolate.

MAKE UP YOUR MIND WHAT YOU WANT, ALREADY! PLACE YOUR ORDER AND GET OUT OF THE WAY! THERE ARE OTHERS WAITING IN LINE THAT HAVE THINGS TO DO TODAY!

+++

The popular soft drink known as Dr Pepper was once described by David Letterman as “liquid manure,” but it’s not really that bad.

Otherwise, why would there be so many imitators?

Generic supermarket versions of the cherry- or pepper- or whatever-the-hell-flavored cola include Dr. Perky, Dr. Bob, Dr. Sparkle, Dr. Thunder, Dr. Pop, Dr. Skipper, Dr. Bold and, missing the industry theme entirely, Dr. Publix.

(There was a popular rival for a while called Mr. Pibb, but the lack of a medical degree led to his downfall. He tried to go back to school to regain market share but had significant difficulty with the chemistry requirement and eventually dropped out. For a while, he simply lied on his resume that he was a doctor. When this deceit was uncovered, he changed his name to “Pibb Xtra”. Apparently, spelling wasn’t his strength either.)

There are still some names available out there to those interested in addressing our national need for yet another sugary drink. I’m looking forward to the introduction of courtesy-titled sodas such as Dr. Raper, Rev. Pooper and Assistant Vice President for Human Resources and Corporate Governance Pepster.

Not to be confused with Dr Pepper, or any other medically trained soft drinks

+++

Inadvertently caught the last half-hour of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last night, and I have several observations.

Despite the obvious advantages of being the half-man, half-horse Centaur, the half-bull, half-man Minotaur, and the half-man, half-goat Satyr (you could hack of flanks of yourself for dinner if you got desperate), there would seem to be few other benefits.

The Centaur (man from the waist up, horse from the waist down) could still go on job interviews and take skills tests like typing and Excel, but he’d have to be careful about leaving any road apples behind, as that could ruin an otherwise good impression.

The Minotaur (bull from the waist up, man from the waist down) will probably have his employment opportunities limited to the rodeo and the bullfighting ring. Both office work and retail would seem to be out of the question, what with the hooves and all.

The Satyr (goat from the waist up, man from the waist down) might be well advised to look for work in the goat-oriented economies of Africa and Asia, since he’d be limited in the West to providing the key ingredient in a certain exotic soup, and he’d have to give up his head for that.

+++

As you make plans for this week’s Thanksgiving dinner, don’t forget to consider the fine broth products made by the folks at College Inn.

They offer superior stocks made from chicken, beef, turkey and vegetables. Healthful variations like low-sodium, fat-free and gluten-free options are also available.

Surprisingly, College Inn offers no collagen broths, as connective tissue, fibrous ligaments and cartilage tend to make for mostly inedible soups and gravies.

+++

Speaking of near-food products, what used to be called “high-fructose corn syrup” has been officially rebranded by its industry as either “corn sugar” or “corn nectar.”

Please take note in all your future communications on the subject.

+++

When Donald Trump awards “Apprentice” winners with a job in his company, I wonder what it is exactly that they end up doing.

Is there a “department of apprentices” in the Trump organizational flowchart, where narcissistic go-getters spend their days re-typing phonebooks until they get bored and quit?

Does Poison lead singer and “Celebrity Apprentice” winner Bret Michaels serve as supervisor and chief proofreader, between brain hemorrhages? And can you take sick days for a stroke, or do you have to dip into your vacation days?

+++

With news of the hardships faced by the stranded cruise ship passengers who had to subsist on canned pig fragments rather than lavish buffets last week, I became curious about the potted meat product known as Spam.

I had eaten Spam as a child, when my mother used to fry and then impale it on toothpicks next to chunks of pineapple. “Hawaiian kabobs” she called them, and we all thought she was joking until I read that our 50th state, along with other far Pacific outposts like Guam and Samoa, are America’s largest consumers of Spam. And not because they’re stuck in the middle of the ocean, but because they like its taste.

There’s a Hawaiian restaurant not far from where I work, and their menu advertised a dish called “spam musubi”. Pictures of the item showed a sushi-like concoction, with the Spam slab snuggled tight against a block of compressed, congealed white rice, both surrounded by a thick wrap of “nori,” a Japanese seaweed. I bought one for myself and another for a friend from work who also thought it would be ironic to enjoy a spam-themed lunch so close to Thanksgiving.

Usually, where a story like this proceeds next is with the food critic being pleasantly surprised by an item they thought they’d dislike. “For all its sordid reputation as the lowest form of protein, the Spam was surprisingly bright, offering a not-unpleasant texture and a subtle meatiness not unlike your finer paté,” they might write.

I, however, would write “It’s hard to imagine that in a trio including cold tasteless rice and over-salted kelp that Spam would not rank in at least the top two. But, as usual, Spam defies expectations, finishing a weak third.”

I choked down about half a musubi before giving up. My friend, Eat Anything Andy, thoroughly enjoyed his exotic bolus and was kind enough to finish mine off as well.

In the end, I was glad for the first time in my life not to be a resident of Hawaii. If I were, I’d introduce a referendum asking that the state be mercifully towed into San Diego, so we would eat some real food.

Incredibly, Spam loses out to rice and seaweed

Revisited: My suggestions for Thanksgiving carols

November 21, 2010

It’s Thanksgiving this week, and I think I know the reason it’s snuck up on us again. There are no warning songs, like you tend to get for weeks before Christmas. As much as I love the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s difficult to get in the spirit without appropriate musical accompaniment. (I think that’s why I always forget to buy everybody Labor Day presents).

To remedy this sad lack of audio cheer, I’m hereby submitting my ideas for new Thanksgiving carols. I’m suggesting existing holiday melodies, so once the turkey is done, we can easily transition into already familiar tunes for the rest of December.

[To the tune of “Joy to the World”]
Joy to the world
The bird has come
Let us remove his wings
Take out the heart,
Take out the lungs,
But leave the gizzards in
But leave the gizzards in
But leave … but leave the gizzards in
 
[To the tune of “Silent Night”]
Silent night, holy night
Hours until the first light
Time to hit the malls and stores
Time to start the busting of doors
TVs for $499
Xbox for $299
 
[To the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”]
Uncle Wenceslas looked down
On the feast from mama
Said she did a bang-up job
Then started on Obama
“He’s really Hitler in disguise, his policies are failin’”
Then the poor man gave us fright, said he’s reading Palin.
 
[To the tune of “What Child is This?”]
What time is dinner?
I need to know
Should I skip lunch
Or pick up “to go”
I’ll gladly starve
If we’ll eat at 3
By 4 though I’ll be crabby
 
[To the tune of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”]
I watched stupid TV marathons
Nothing else was on Thanksgiving Day
“Dirty Jobs” will make you sick
“Real Housewives” makes you thick
“Hell’s Kitchen” makes you want to bludgeon Ramsey with a stick
 
[To the tune of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”]
Lions stinking in the Silverdome
Cowboys rarely scoring ten
Watching football on Thanksgiving Day
It makes you want to leave the den
Go to the kitchen and help the people cleaning plates
Here there’s fellowship to see
While in Dallas they’re imploding again
As Romo blows another third and three
 
[To the tune of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”]
Rudolf the Grey Tofurkey
Had a very shiny glow
Made up of roots and veggies
Making your digestion slow
All of the other families
Eat a real bird of meat
However your hippie grandma
Likes to mix her food with peat
Then one foggy afternoon
Grandpa rose to say
“I refuse to eat this crap
That’s not gravy, that’s tree sap”
All of the other relatives
Jumped and shouted out with glee
“Let’s all run out to Wendy’s
For a burger and large Frostie”
 
[To the tune of “White Christmas”]
I’m dreaming of a Black Friday
Just like the one they had last year
Where the guy at Wal-Mart
Was torn apart
Because low prices started here
 
[To the tune of “Home for the Holidays”]
Oh, there’s no place for you in the dining room
Looks like you’ll have to sit back with the kids
Though they yell and they spit and they smell real bad
Now you know your life has really hit the skids
You met a girl from Tennessee
She looks just like your aunt
But you’re 21 and she is only eight
All she talks about is SpongeBob
While you like Gothic bands
They should have left her with a sitter
Man, you really want to hit her