Archive for December, 2010

DADT to be repealed? Do tell!

December 21, 2010

Actual quote from Marine Pfc. Alex Tuck, as reported by The New York Times, on how he felt about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
“Showers will be awkward. But as long as a guy can hold his own and protect his back, it won’t matter if [someone] is gay.”

As Congress scrambled through the final days before its holiday recess, the volume of legislation under consideration became almost unmanageable. Lame duck though it was — even lamer a duck than usual — the flurry of bipartisanship that only a looming vacation can inspire saw a record number of measures headed to the president’s desk.

Among the more groundbreaking was the repeal by the Senate Saturday of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s long-running game show in which losing participants see their careers reduced to ruin. After almost 20 years of a policy that allowed gays to serve in the armed forces as long as they marched instead of minced, homosexuals would be allowed to admit their sexual orientation — though they may want to think twice about doing it in a nation of Islamic fundamentalists.

Several Republicans broke party ranks and voted in favor of the repeal. And not just the gay ones. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House and Senate were nearly united in favoring the repeal, led by openly Democratic Rep. Barney Frank (Gay-Mass.).

But it was Republican Sen. Eric Newby of Wyoming who may have been the most surprising proponent of a new policy. He wants the enacting legislation called “Do Ask, Do Tell, Provide Video” (DADTPV).

“If there are men who actually participate in this kind of deviant behavior, I think they owe it to the public to be very openly gay,” Newby said. “I’d like to see videotape of just what’s going on here, so I can condemn it and condemn it until, well, who knows what will happen?”

With a full plate of bills to act on in just the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Congress is wasting little time. Legislators have sometimes been criticized in the past for not even reading the details of a measure. Now, there are many who don’t even have the vaguest idea of what’s coming up for a vote.

Take, for example, the START Treaty, designed to reduce the number of nuclear missiles held by both the U.S. and Russia. About half the opponents think it’s a preschool program, similar to Head Start, that would trade many of our nation’s two- and three-year-olds to Moscow for oil and natural gas resources. Others plan to oppose the treaty with a revised bill they’re calling STOP.

“It stands for ‘Something to Oppose Proliferation’ or ‘Something to Offset Pyroclasty,’ something like that,” said Rep. Eric Cantor. “So far, all we really have is the acronym, and even that is a work in process.”

Another measure subject to widespread confusion is the so-called DREAM Act. It would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military. But that’s not how Rep. Joe Hampton (R-Tex.) sees it.

“A law that requires American citizens to file a daily report with the government on what they dreamed about the night before is just plain intrusive,” Hampton said. “What if I start dreaming about DADTPV?”

Two other proposals that representatives had hoped to act upon were a bill strengthening food safety regulations, and a fund set up to help cover health insurance costs of first responders to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps inspired by the compromise that saw Democrats agree to temporary extension of the Bush-era tax cuts in return for an extension of unemployment benefits, legislators paired the seemingly unrelated plans together. It was Rep. Martin Mayo, D-Fla., who suggested combining the two issues and subjecting them to an up or down vote.

“Obviously, we’re in no position to fund a huge medical payout with the deficit so high,” Mayo said. “So how about if we instead offer a healthy snack to the brave firemen, policemen and EMTs who responded on that fateful day. We’ll overnight each of them a fruit basket from Harry and David’s. And we’ll bombard it with gamma radiation first to make sure it’s safe.”

I get a Snuggie! Then give it away!

December 20, 2010

It started innocently enough as a trip to Best Buy to pick up a few electronics gifts for my teenage son. By the time I left the store, I was equipped to conduct secretive raids on Taliban strongholds while enjoying hands-free comfort and warmth.

I impulse-bought a Snuggie while standing in line at the check-out. Not just any Snuggie, mind you, but one printed in a classic camouflage pattern.

Like the entire civilized world as well as several adjacent planets that get cable, I was familiar with “The Blanket That Has Sleeves!” from its ubiquitous and intentionally corny television advertisements. Long before I joined the trend Friday, more than 4 million Snuggies and another million or so “Slankets” — a bastard relative that you can wear without becoming dehydrated by excessive perspiration — had been sold. Marketing gurus who realized that combining a desire to stay toasty while making a kitschy fashion statement was a formula for success in these ironic times have made manufacturers millions of dollars since the product was introduced in 2008.

(It is important to note here that, while additional knock-offs go by the name “Snuggler,” “Toasty Wrap,” “Cuddlee” and “Freedom Blanket,” do not make the mistake of ordering a “Snugli.” This is a completely different product that also requires the purchase of an infant, who is hung on display from your chest. I suppose you could use the baby-hauling Snugli as a Snuggie for a small amount of warmth, but would not recommend vice-versa usage unless your baby is really tiny and can fit in the small Snuggie pocket reserved for the TV remote.)

For those of you trapped in a Chilean mine or holed up in an deep-woods lair for the past several years, the Snuggie is a body-length blanket with sleeves, usually made of fleece, and similar in design to a bathrobe except worn backwards. Models pictured on the box I bought show that you can enjoy a hand-held game, answer the phone or even play cards while wearing the Snuggie, tasks that would be otherwise impossible while wearing other cold-weather gear. More vigorous activity — rodeo events, scaling Mt. Everest, chairing the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee, or going to the kitchen for a drink — are not recommended, despite my above-stated desire to assist in the War on Terror.

Proclaimed the “ultimate kitsch gift” by the Associated Press, consumers have (wink-wink) fallen in love with the Snuggie. The cast and crew of NBC’s Today Show all donned the Snuggie for a segment in which they were described as looking like a gospel choir. Mass Snuggie-wearing has appeared in pub crawls and at large sporting events. Earlier this year, over 22,000 fans showed up at a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game to claim the “world record for sleeved blanket wearing” (and they wonder why LeBron left), which was broken a month later when 40,000 spectators wore the outfit to a Los Angeles Angels baseball game. And just last week, the lame-duck session of Congress passed the massive tax-cut compromise while wearing Snuggies.

The display I selected my purchase from offered two designs: the camouflage print I chose and another version covered in pink and yellow peace signs. Seems both warmongers and peaceniks alike could make a statement about their politics and worldview, in addition to the statement that they are complete idiots for spending $19.99 on what is basically a slightly thicker, slightly furrier, slightly larger plastic dry-cleaning bag.

Later that evening, after I smuggled the Snuggie into my home past a spouse whose respect I had hoped to maintain, I began to feel a slight chill and wanted to try out my new purchase. I reminded Beth there were several items we needed at the grocery store and, as I watched her drive away, I broke open the box. The Snuggie was a massive swath of fleece (a.k.a. 100% polyester, according to the fine print in the corner of the box), measuring four-and-a-half-by-six-feet. I flung the piece about like a manic matador, trying to figure what was up, what was down, and what was that static crackling sound that was lighting up my bedroom like a late-summer thunderstorm?

I finally found the armholes and donned the garment. My first impulse was to break into a Gregorian chant, since I felt suddenly monk-y. The next impression I got was that I was in a military hospital and had just put on one of those backless hospital gowns. Drafts swirled up my back as I did my best to gather the voluminous drapery that hung from me on all sides. I cinched and tucked the fabric as best I could, and settled into a favorite TV-watching chair, just waiting for the bliss to kick in.

You may not be able to tell amidst all the camouflage, but it's me wearing a Snuggie!

What has made the Snuggie such a success is the fact that at first blush, it really is quite comfortable and warming. With just my head and hands protruding from the mound of camouflage I had become, I was a cozy camper, snug as a bug on a drug that gives you night sweats. But it only took a few minutes to realize the advantage of breathable fabrics versus the disadvantage of being virtually shrink-wrapped in plastic. What had started out as toasty comfort very quickly evolved into what I imagine yellow fever feels like.

I peeled the Snuggie off the front of my chest as it hissed in protest, and thought I might try wearing it like a conventional robe, with the opening in the front. Again, a few minutes of inviting comfort was quickly followed by a fast-forming prickly heat rash starting at the base of my neck and working its way toward my lower back. Pinning the synthetic fleece between my skin and a leatherette Barcalounger gave me a few ideas for possible  nuclear-fusion-inspired energy research but little in the way of relaxation.

By now on the verge of heat stroke, I stripped off the Snuggie, gasped for air and slung it over the back of a nearby chair, never to be worn by me again. I may keep it around in case I ever need to start a fire, as I imagine it’s as flammable as a pile of kindling. Or maybe I’ll toss it in the back of my car, in case I ever get that job as ice-road trucker I’ve always dreamed about. Or maybe I’ll hold onto it as an investment, in case world polyester prices spike and I can cash in on the ensuing bubble.

Or maybe I’ll give it to a friend at work. Arnie is an occasional hunter, and would probably appreciate the camouflage design. He’s also a big fan of taking advantage of recycled merchandise, from out-of-date foods at the local discount grocery store to half-disassembled hi-fi’s from the Goodwill shop. And, he told me once, he absolutely loves to sweat like a farm animal in the noon-time heat of a South Carolina August.

My Snuggie can provide all this and more …

These guys stay toasty while apparently joining each other on the can

You can also wear the camouflage version while fishing, though don't expect anyone to find your body if you slip off the bank and into the river

Revisited: Christo, the reason for the season

December 19, 2010

Only a few more days till the big day is here. Most of us have finished our shopping, finished our party-going, and are just about finished with being cheerful. The time has now come to settle back with loved ones, and let the true meaning of the holiday wash over us.

It’s time to put “Christo” back in Christmas.

The man whose birth we celebrate Saturday came from humble beginnings, only to emerge later in life as the transformative fabric artist we all know. Even if we don’t worship him as a God, virtually everyone acknowledges the positive impact he’s made on Western culture.

The performance/outdoor installation master we know today as Christo began life as Christo Vladimir Javacheff, born in a tiny Bulgarian town in 1935. His actual birth date was probably around June 13 (scholars have arrived at that date from contemporary descriptions of flocks in the field and from well-maintained birth records in the registrar’s office) though we now stage our celebration around the time of the pagans’ winter solstice.

His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, yet he didn’t allow unblinking loyalty to the scientific method to cloud the metaphysical belief that his son was the Christo Child. Mother Tsveta Dimitrova worked two full-time jobs, as both a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts and as a virgin (the latter position didn’t pay very well but had great benefits in a time when Europe was ravaged with venereal disease).

Young Christo displayed artistic talent at a very early age. Legend has it that once, when his mother experienced a chill, he picked up a throw rug and draped over Tsveta’s shivering shoulders, presaging a career that would see him wrap both natural and manmade objects in immense swaths of cloth and label it “environmental art.” He studied at the Sofia Academy and in Prague for four years, then spent the spring break of 1957 on a train trip to Austria after bribing a railway official to let him out of the Communist bloc.

In October 1958, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Precilda de Guillebon, the mother of the woman who would become his wife and partner for the next fifty years, and known simply as Jeanne-Claude. Initially attracted to her half-sister, he got Jeanne-Claude pregnant instead (sounds like a tragically missed encasing opportunity). Already engaged to another man, she proceeded with the wedding at Christo’s insistence — it’s said he was intrigued by the prospect of seeing so many covered packages among the wedding gifts – but abandoned her new husband immediately after the honeymoon. Jeanne-Claude’s parents were displeased with the relationship because he was a refugee, even though they had plenty of other good reasons.

By 1961 Christo had become wealthy with the invention and patent of the cooking oil Crisco, allowing the two young artists to begin their first major work, covering barrels in the German port of Cologne. In 1962, without the consent of local authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall (?), they blocked off a small street near the river Seine with a different set of barrels, while Jeanne-Claude convinced approaching police to let the piece stand for several hours. Somehow, this made them famous in Paris, which convinced them to leave for the U.S.

Flying to New York on separate planes to ensure that both would not die in the same accident, unless of course the two planes crashed into each other, the duo began their American careers. Christo struggled with the English language (as he had struggled with French, and Bulgarian, for that matter), which led him to simplify the crediting of work done by both he and his wife. Even though Jeanne-Claude was the natural organizer, the extrovert and the one who dyed her hair bright red and smoked cigarettes, it was “Christo” who was famous artist. It wasn’t until 1994 that he retroactively gave her half-credit for the work.

Christo loved the freedom of America, and loved how many things it had to wrap. He had been “stateless” since his arrival in Austria years before, and decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1973. He studied hard to pass the citizenship exam, and had to take it several times until it finally sunk in that cotton, denim, acetate, acrylic, nylon, flannel and microfiber were neither presidents nor provisions in the Bill of Rights. One of his proudest moments would come in 2005 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was okay with him if Christo wanted to erect his most famous project, “The Gates,” in Central Park, as long as he cleaned up after himself. It was that signature piece — 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric and placed on paths throughout the park — which cemented Christo’s image in the public consciousness.

His other most notable works included “Documenta 4,” an inflated air package that hovered 280 feet over Europe for ten hours in 1968; “Running Fence,” a curtain of fabric that ran through the mountains and into the sea; “Surrounded Islands,” the wrapping of eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay in pink woven polypropylene in 1983; and the 1995 packaging of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in fabric. He also installed thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California in a seven-year project appropriately called “The Umbrellas,” that ended colorfully (blue for Japan, yellow for the U.S.) but tragically (two people killed) in 1991.

Not all of Christo’s work was so serious as to be potentially fatal. An important part of Christmas is the fun and levity the season brings, and this is reflected in some of his most light-hearted work. After cartoonist Charles Schulz drew an episode of his comic strip “Peanuts” with Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in fabric, Christo constructed a wrapped doghouse and presented it to the Schulz Museum in 2003. The artist is also considering ways to enrobe some other popular animated figures, including the Taunting Robot who jumps up and down in the corner of the screen during Fox TV football broadcasts, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).

Tragically, Christo’s life partner Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm last year, casting a pall over the current holiday season. But knowing Christo’s resilience and his central role in the seasonal theme of new life, he’ll probably take that pall and wrap it around something festive, much like he folded himself into sackcloth to create the Shroud of Turin during his early years in Europe.

So as you finalize your Christmas preparations, don’t forget to take time to remember the reason for the season. When you wrap up that last present and put it under the tree, don’t forget that it was Christo who was born into this world to save mankind and to offer the idea that gifts temporarily concealed by gaily colored swathing was a great way to celebrate the advent of a Savior.

Christo: He’s in there somewhere

Revisited: Getting into the Christmas spirit

December 18, 2010

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m definitely starting to get into the Christmas spirit. But if being joyful and merry means I have to start being nice to people, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to make that commitment.

See, I have a problem with goodwill toward men. I’m usually too impatient going about my daily activities to take the time to stop, chat, and have something akin to normal social relationships. It seems that if you took every opportunity during the course of a day to “chew the fat” with every acquaintance you met, your arteries would be hopelessly clogged and you’d never get anything done, except perhaps an emergency balloon angioplasty, and you’d have to squeeze that in.

Take, for example, my almost-daily stop at a cafe near my house, where I’m working right now. There are several regulars that join me each afternoon, and by “join” I mean that we share approximately the same coordinates on the face of the globe. (Once, we shared exactly the same coordinates, but that’s only because they didn’t look behind themselves before sitting down). I’ll exchange at most a nod with these folks, because I’ve seen what happens when you do anything more.

This one guy in particular is also working on his blog, as well as a book about why African-Americans should be flocking to the Republican Party (talk about a Christmas miracle). I’m not sure how he gets any work done, as he’s constantly shooting the breeze with baristas, cashiers, and anybody else that comes within a six-foot radius.

“Are you on Facebook?” he asks the blood-spattered EMT tech who stopped for a quick double espresso. “What’s your email address again?” he inquires of a passing toddler.

The other day he sighed loudly and said, to no one in particular, “I’m so glad I’m almost finished writing this book.”

“Oh, you’re working on a book?” the friendly man sitting behind him might ask, though it’d probably be the last thing he says for the next half-hour.

I am not that friendly man. I’m the bitter curmudgeon who responds in one of two ways when I see a familiar face enter the store — I switch to the other side of the table to put my back toward the door, or I’m suddenly transported into ultra-focused concentration on my work, internally debating the merits of comma or semicolon, dashes or parenthetical aside, new paragraph or yet another run-on. (Oh, damn, here he comes anyway.)

However, it’s Christmastime, and even I am experiencing a buoyant spirit that pushes me beyond my normal inhibitions. I want to do something to reach out to others and share in the seasonal cheer, but I don’t want it to be mistaken for anything more than a limited-time offer. Don’t expect this kind of amity when January rolls around, because I’ve got the whole month penciled in for being dour.

Maybe I could just hand out twenty-dollar bills. I tried that once with the homeless guy off the interstate exit ramp, however I ended up beaten in a culvert three states over.

What I’m considering now is, for me, a radical step. I’m thinking of attending a holiday church service. This would allow me to kill two birds with one stone: devote a concentrated period to fellowship then get on with my life, and also soak up a little of the yuletide pageantry that I seem to be lacking in the broken 1989 Mannheim Steamroller cassette that continuously loops through the same song and a half. Three birds, actually, if you count saving my soul from eternal damnation.

I come from a Christian family tradition, and regularly attended church as a youth, until I was confirmed at age 15 and promptly found better things to do. I have extremely fond memories of those times, as they’ve now become a colorful blur that fortunately excludes those excruciating sermons about how it’s good to be good, and bad to be bad. The music and decorations and family warmth, though, were wonderful.

So I made a tentative recon sortie this past weekend, attending a “cookie walk” at the local Methodist church. Not exactly a formal date on the liturgical calendar, the annual sweets sale on the second weekend of December does provide a great opportunity to get a quick taste of the season with minimal human interaction. For $6, you get a small box from a friendly-but-distracted church lady, then walk down a row of decorated tables, pointing at the baked goods you want to be stuffed into your box. It’s a little like communion, only these dispensers handle the goods with sanitary gloves and don’t mumble quite as much.

I made my way down the aisle with limited conversation, mostly a mix of “that one,” “this looks good” and “are those chocolate chips or raisins?” I was friendly without being grating, sincere without being affected, and completely superficial, just as I like it.

When my box was full, I headed to a cake table where another slightly more eager Methodist stood watch. As I admired the Amish friendship bread, I heard the question I feared: “What church do you attend?”

“Uh, none locally,” I stammered, hoping she’d think I was from a land far away.

But now, I’m thinking I might be ready for a deeper experience that centers more on my eternal soul and less on my weakness for red-sprinkled shortbreads shaped like Santa. I’m looking at the church directory in our local newspaper for a house of worship that might possibly accommodate my belief that it’s possible a single small South Carolina parish is not the only group to have cornered the market on everlasting life. As you might imagine, there are many that don’t look particularly hopeful: the Real Life Assembly of God, the New Vision Freewill Baptist Church and the Calvary Ultimate Life Shield of Faith Evangelical Ministry, to mention a few.

These don’t sound especially flexible in their theology (though I bet all the jumping up and down they do makes them quite agile physically), so I harken back to my Lutheran heritage. There’s a Missouri Synod branch called Epiphany Lutheran, though I believe I read that this synod maintains a strict belief in bad pro football teams (the Kansas City Chiefs, the St. Louis Rams, etc., hardly what you’d call solid rocks on which to build a church, especially their offensive lines). There’s Emmanuel Lutheran on Main Street, probably the town’s old-school congregation with old-school parishioners.

I think I’m going to choose Grace Lutheran, not far from the local college. It offers both traditional and contemporary services and has a pastor named E. Ray Mohrmann, a great name for a Lutheran. They do claim to have communion at all services, not something I’d necessarily brag about but not a deal-breaker for me. Maybe there will also be communion in a larger sense, and I’ll get the chance to fraternize with cheerful, Christmas-addled types and consume wheat-based foodstuffs at the same time.

“Take and eat, for this is the Body of Christ,” I imagine E. Ray will ask me. And I’ll be ready to respond: “Thanks for the snack. Hope you’re ready for the holidays. Have you gotten all your shopping done? I can’t believe those lines at the post office. I hear we might get some snow next week. Give my best to your family.”

Ask Mr. Ethiquette: Several questions today

December 17, 2010

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,

I’m a working-class white Southern male, except that I’m not technically working because I’ve been unemployed for over a year. My job in the textile industry was eliminated when the company moved production to China, and I can’t find anything new, especially with just a high-school education.

My wife lost her job in state government last month, just as my unemployment benefits were running out. Our 19-year-old son can only find work at McDonald’s and is thinking about joining the Army instead, except he’s a little concerned about the whole dying-in-Afghanistan thing. My 11-year-old daughter was doing well in school until funding was cut and her teacher was replaced with a mannequin.

Meanwhile, all around us, roads and bridges are crumbling, families are losing their homes and average Americans have given up all hope that the future is going to be any better.

Can you explain to me why I continue to support Republican policies that give more money to the wealthy and have virtually no regard for my situation? Why would I vote so consistently against my own self-interests? What is wrong with me?

— L.P., Columbia S.C.

Dear L.P.,

Gays are going to be allowed to marry each other!

Democrats want to take away your guns!

There’s a war against Christmas being waged by liberals who aren’t as God-loving as you!

Muslims are building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York!

African-Americans and Hispanics continue to walk among us!

Have you forgotten about all this?

— Mr. Ethiquette

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,

You’re right! I forgot all about that. Sorry, I guess I was distracted by trying to figure out how I was going to feed my family.

— L.P., Columbia, S.C.

Dear L.P.,

And don’t forget Congressional earmarks! And Nancy Pelosi! And the lamestream media!

— Mr. Ethiquette

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,

Right, right. So sorry to waste your time.

— L.P., Columbia, S.C.

Dear L.P.,

That’s OK. In stressful times like these, it’s easy to forget what’s important for America.

— Mr. Ethiquette

+++

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,

What is considered proper these days when holding open a door for someone? Is this only something a man does for a woman, or is it a common courtesy that should be extended to all?

What do you do when they’re coming up behind you, but they’re far enough away that you have to hold the door for a few additional seconds? They often break into a trot to keep you from waiting, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of why you’re trying to be nice to them. Especially when old people are involved — I hate to make grandma jog across the parking lot because she doesn’t want to inconvenience me by waiting for her.

And what about automatically opening doors? Should I stand in front of the sensor to keep the doors open for a straggler, or can I count on their own physical bulk to take care of this for them?

Modern life is so confusing for a person like me who wants to do right by their fellow human beings.

— H.R., Denver, Col.

Dear H.R.,

Truly you are a dying breed, but I’m glad there are some of you still out there who want to be nice to strangers.

If there is someone immediately behind you as you enter a door, it is proper to hold the door for them, regardless of their gender. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if it’s a man or a woman anyway, what with all the trans-sexuals and trans-gendered and transvestites out there. And don’t even get me started on the gays.

If the straggler is more than a couple of feet behind you, do not hold the door. The whole idea of this exercise is to be polite, so you kind of defeat the purpose by making them sprint forward so you’re not holding the door so long. At that distance, you can’t really be sure they’re coming in the same door as you anyway. Maybe they plan instead to scale the wall to a second-floor window and enter that way. Maybe they have superhuman strength and prefer to bash a new entryway into the building. Maybe they’ve mastered teleportation and plan on reassembling their atoms inside, without ever even using a door. You don’t know.

As for automatic doors, I believe these are a scourge upon the land. They encourage weakness in our population, and have contributed immeasurably to the decline of Western Civilization. What’s next to be automated? Zippers? Car doors? Will we soon require attendants to bring a glass of water to our lips so that we may drink without effort? No wonder we have an obesity problem in this country.

I think I’ve answered your question in there somewhere. Thanks for asking.

— Mr. Ethiquette

+++

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,

So what exactly is the point of this advice column anyway? You’re trying to address that area where ethics and etiquette intersect? I can appreciate the need to apologize to a neighbor that you almost ran over with your car, or the prison inmate you’re about to execute. And you covered those two topics nicely in your first two installments.

I’m not sure what else is left. How are you going to make this a regular feature of this blog with such a shortage of issues?

— D.L., Toronto, Canada

Dear T.L.,

You know what? I hate to admit it, but you’re right. It was a stupid idea to begin with.

Today’s post therefore marks the end of the “Ask Mr. Ethiquette” feature. Like Larry King, I’ve enjoyed my tenure entertaining and informing America, even if he did it for 60 years and I just started earlier this month. But there comes a time for all things to end, so I’ll take my cue from Larry and Oprah and Barbara Walters and all the other retiring titans of infotainment, and I’ll say goodbye.

Thanks for reading.

— The Late Mr. Ethiquette

An editorial: Is gravity still necessary?

December 16, 2010

Getting ready for work the other morning, I dropped a knife while mayonnaising my sandwich. Moments later, in the bathroom, I dropped my hairbrush.

Maybe I’ve got a mild case of Lou Gehrig’s Disease and will feel better by the weekend. Maybe I’m just getting a little old.

Or maybe — in these days when we’re re-considering dozens of other societal institutions — it’s time to revisit the value of gravity. Has this fundamental interaction of nature lost its appeal? Do we still want to live in a universe in which objects with mass attract one another? Or is it time to shop around for other systems of physics?

I’m suggesting that we look at this issue with fresh eyes, especially since it hurts my back to be bending over so much.

Gravity was invented in 1687 by Sir Isaac Newton, who famously watched an apple fall from a tree to the ground and thought, “Huh — that’s weird.” Before this invention, people and objects would just drift off into space with nothing to hold them Earth-bound. Jesus ascended into heaven. Moses got the Red Sea to rise up so the Jews could escape from the pharaoh. Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes were able to invade and defeat rival civilizations because they rode on flying horses.

After Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was published, the world started to settle down. Modern economies were able to develop because shopkeepers could put goods on a shelf and they’d stay still. Western culture and civilization flourished, at least until 2008 and the collapse of the world financial system.

Now, as we question other once-dear fundamentals of life, perhaps it’s time to consider at least a partial revocation of Newton’s law.

I’m not proposing such a radical change as to allow people to be floating off into the sky, never to return (though that might be nice to contemplate for certain pop singers, maniacal dictators and the loud woman with the twangy accent who sits next to me at work). I’ll leave it for the Tea Partiers and other radical thinkers to contemplate what that kind of world would be like. I acknowledge that there’s a need for at least some gravity — just not as much as we have now.

Think of the problems that less gravity might be able to solve:

–Illegal immigration would be a thing of the past, since undocumented Mexicans wouldn’t actually be walking on the soil of the United States, but instead hovering several feet above it
–Traffic congestion in major cities would be dramatically improved, as long-dreamed-of rocket cars that sail through highways in the sky become a reality
–Overpopulation in the poor nations of Asia and Africa would be mitigated when it becomes possible for whole families to live on top of one another’s shoulders
–War-torn regions of the world would put aside their conflicts so they could concentrate on not running into helicopters
–Global warming would no longer be a concern, as large parts of our atmosphere dissipated into the voids of space
–The American obesity epidemic would disappear overnight, as people who once weighed thousands of pounds are able to log in at a trim 185 pounds
–Everybody would be hopping about like those brave Apollo astronauts romping on the moon’s surface back in the 1970s, lending an air of childlike joy to everyday life

Yes, I admit there would be some disadvantages. This holiday season’s hottest gift idea, the Fushigi Magic Gravity Ball now on sale at Walgreen’s for only $19.99, would no longer “mesmerize the mind and confuse the senses.” (Well, it might continue to confuse the senses as to why people ever considered spending almost twenty bucks on a simple silver ball.) Suction shoes would become the new sensation.

I recommend that the president set up a national commission to study whether the laws of gravity are something that Congress might want to consider repealing. I know partisan divides are quite stark these days; yet I strangely have faith that this is one issue where the right and left might agree.

All it would take is to track down Sir Isaac’s descendants and ask them to revoke their famous ancestor’s lifetime of study. Singer-songwriter Juice Newton, whose 1981 smash “Queen of Hearts” hit number one on both pop and country charts, still tours and can currently be found playing at the municipal auditorium in Missoula, Montana. Recent Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn is busy in his Alabama dorm preparing for finals and the Jan. 10 BCS title game against second-ranked Oregon. I’m sure both would be amenable to refinements in the law that would give us all a good chuckle.

Let’s give reduced-gravity existence a try. We have nothing to lose, as long as we tie it all down.

I’ve been watching too many TV commercials lately

December 15, 2010

Open with exterior shot of long white limo driving down a country road. Graphic points to car’s “blacked-out windows”.

Announcer overdub: “A lot of people don’t think food companies are honest about the source of their ingredients.”

Cut to interior shot of focus group sitting around a conference room table. Facilitator asks: “Do you think Domino’s wants you to know where their ingredients come from?”

Hispanic woman: “You should be able to know.”

Anglo woman: “Yeah. With Domino’s you assume the worst, so it would be reassuring to at least believe the ingredients are carbon-based.”

Black man: “I don’t know about that crust, man. Kinda reminds me of chipboard.”

Walls of conference room fall away.

Asian man: “Oh, my god. It’s an earthquake! The building is collapsing! Hand me that pizza so its rock-hard shell can protect my head from falling debris!”

Collapsing walls reveal exterior shot of expansive paper mill. Focus group surprised to find it’s now inside a large warehouse. Safety-helmeted plant worker approaches group and speaks:

“No, it’s not chipboard. Domino’s crust is made of only the finest corrugated cardboard, formed right here in this mill from virgin stands of California hardwood.”

Hispanic woman: “What’s that horrible smell?”

Worker: “That’s the smell of raw wood pulp being boiled and processed to make the grade-A cardboard that forms the base of our famous pizza.”

Black man: “So that’s how I can now order two medium-sized two-topping pizzas for only $5.99 each. You save on production costs by cooking the packaging right into the pie.”

Worker: “That’s right. By eliminating the box and building the pizza out of triple-laminated paper products, we save you money while also offering you the best quality possible.”

Announcer overdub: “Be sure to visit behindthepizza.com to see what else we’re baking into our product that you wish you didn’t know.”

Anglo woman: “I had a friend who worked at a Domino’s once. She said it’s not what’s behind the pizza you should worry about, it’s what’s behind the ovens, behind the counter, in the bathroom, under the fingernails of the workers. But seeing this paper mill somehow makes me feel better. Or at least light-headed. What are those chemicals I’m smelling, anyway?”

Asian man: “I always thought Domino’s was only slightly better than the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the subsequent world war that killed over 60 million people. My opinion of them is now much higher, considering the paycheck I’ll be getting for this commercial.”

Announced overdub: “Order your all-natural Domino’s pizza today.”

Small disclaimer type at bottom of screen: “Not responsible if delivery man slays your family. Our drivers carry less than $20 in change and make less than $15 per day. Must purchase at least 50 pizzas to receive advertised price. Must specifically ask for ‘limited time offer’ and use a cartoonish high-pitched squeak to place your order. Prices, participation, delivery area and charges may vary. We reserve the right to substitute a picture of a pizza for a real pizza.”

Possible alternate ending for release later in current advertising campaign: Focus group questions quality of meat toppings, and conference room walls fall away to reveal a slaughterhouse. Panicked cows cry out as they’re stunned before butchering. Focus group participants comment favorably on freshness of meat. “You can almost taste the blood,” one says. “Or is that the tomato sauce?”

+++

Fed up with partisan bickering among the nation’s three branches of government, Americans appear ready to install a new regime headed by the three most prominent insurance pitchmen currently on commercial television.

An all-powerful triumverate consisting of Progressive’s “Flo,” Nationwide’s “The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World,” and State Farm’s “Vaguely Mexican-Looking Guy Outside a Coffee Shop” has agreed to rule the land with a sympathetic but iron fist.

“I’m ready for any change at all that will get the Republicans and Democrats out of Washington,” said Alyce Jones of Chicago. “Those insurance folks offer a goofy sincerity that seems right for these troubling times.”

“The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World has really come into his own since being lured out of his backwoods cabin and back into insurance sales,” said Rob Fallon of Las Vegas. “He’s convinced me that Nationwide wants to know everything about me so they can tailor a product that meets my needs. Have you seen the one where he’s dealing with a lady named ‘Pam,’ and he offers to change the name of the company to ‘Nationpam’? That’s the type of can-do spirit we need if we’re ever to convince the Chinese to allow their currency to float on the open market.”

“Like a good neighbor, that Mexican-looking guy is there, always hanging outside of cafes and introducing people to State Farm agents,” said Ronald Henderson of Atlanta. “He puts a real friendly face on the problem of illegal immigration. I’d rather see him outside a Starbucks than offering to do day labor outside a Home Depot.”

The trio would govern by fiat, announcing a new round of federal laws several times an hour on all the major networks. Viewers who don’t follow their every command will be banished to a world where modern insurance products don’t exist, and yet people somehow survive by simply being careful about how they live their lives.

Tentative plans call for Flo to head up the nation’s judiciary as a one-person replacement for the Supreme Court. The World’s Greatest Spokesperson will replace both houses of Congress, and the Mexican guy will become the nation’s first Hispanic president.

“Flo’s perky haircut and headband will look just darling accented by judicial robes,” said Jones. “And the Nationwide Guy, with that signature blue rotary phone hanging from his hip, should be able to reach across the aisle in both the House and Senate to compromise with himself. I’m finally excited about the direction our nation is headed.”

“I think the new president is hunky,” said Phyllis Lee of Oklahoma City. “That could carry some real weight in the START Treaty negotiations with the Russians.”

Cancelling the gutter guy

December 14, 2010

Sometimes, voicemail can be a blessing. Other times, it only delays the inevitable.

Yesterday morning I had to call and cancel an appointment with a pushy salesman trying to get me to buy new gutters for my house. Under the mistaken impression that his firm would simply clean my gutters rather than propose a whole new installation, I made this poor man drive all the way from Charlotte to Rock Hill last week. I dashed his planned two-hour sales pitch about 15 minutes in, when I had decided that I (and he) urgently needed to be someplace else.

To peel him off of me, I had to promise he could come back Monday when I’d be better prepared to carve out a good eighth of my waking hours to learn about the advantages of Guardian Gutters (or perhaps it was Gutter Guardians). Now, only hours from the appointed time, I was going to back out.

I called his office and listened carefully to their voicemail options, as it seems they had changed recently. Patience paid off when I learned that option 6 was to cancel a sales presentation. It looked like my rejection could be done automatically.

Unfortunately, after a few rings on the other end of the line, a machine belonging to “Ed Reynolds” picked up and claimed he was out of the office but would return my call when he returned. I didn’t dare simply leave a message and hope that my salesman, some non-Ed Reynolds guy whose name I think was Mike Something, would get word in time to abort his 2 p.m. appointment. So I hung up and re-dialed the main number.

This time, I chose option 2, to speak with an office manager. I mentally rehearsed the reasons I would give for ditching a perfectly serviceable gutter guy on such late notice:

• My aunt’s recently diagnosed hair cancer looked like it was spreading to her eyebrows and mustache, and family had been advised to prepare for the worst, plus
• I was expecting an urgent call from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, plus
• I damaged my hearing at a Mannheim Steamroller concert and couldn’t hear a word he was saying, plus
• It’s pretty hectic so close to the holidays, maybe we can reschedule after the new year.

The office manager was all business regarding my request and, to my relief, she didn’t demand an explanation. She did press for a January meeting, and I agreed, but didn’t settle on a year. When they do call back to remind me of that perceived commitment, I’ll deny all knowledge of gutters, eaves, fascia and soffits, and will adamantly insist that roofing in general is all a big hoax.

I did, however, want to make sure that the salesman was absolutely, positively not coming. I didn’t fancy the thought of again having to resist his sales superpowers and escort him off my property at the same time.

“You’ve definitely got the right appointment cancelled?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re in Rock Hill, on Brookshadow Drive. The 2 p.m.”

That’s the one. I thanked her for her time, apologized for the inconvenience, and ended up pretty confident that the salesman wouldn’t return that afternoon.

I got off early from work so I could be home in time to lock all the doors, draw all the curtains and hide under the covers of my bed until at least 3:30. Just in case.

From this angle, the gutters don't look that bad after all.

Wallowing in the gutter

December 13, 2010

I am not what you would call “handy.” I do have hands — two, I’m proud to say — but I use them primarily for eating, typing and pointing at ugly people, not for do-it-yourself jobs around the house. My idea of a home-improvement project is buying a big-screen TV or spraying a room with air freshener.

Somehow, I’ve still managed to be a homeowner for most of my adult life without having the structure collapse around me. I’ve accomplished this through a strategic combination of not caring when the small stuff breaks, and hiring a contractor to take care of the bigger repairs.

If the sliding glass door is permanently stuck or the lights don’t work above the vanity, I can adapt to the small inconvenience. The tile on the floor of our half-bath is warping from shower seepage that may eventually rot the flooring, but who can name the day I’ll slide nude and lathered into the crawlspace beneath our home? We might all be living under North Korean rule by the time, which would make a hole in my bathroom floor pale by comparison.

As long as the embarrassing demise of my residence is happening in private, I can look the other way. But when it is taking place outside in public view, there are certain covenants in our subdivision’s homeowners association agreement that require me to give a shit.

I’ve had to deal with two of these issues in recent weeks. First, a windstorm sheared a backyard hardwood in half, dropping about 25 feet of lumber into a stand of shrubs. We called a tree service to offer an estimate of what it would take to fix. In just a few minutes, the tree guy told us he could cut down the rest of the trunk and haul everything away for $350. He made it sound so simple that we hired him on the spot, and within a few days the tree was gone. Once again, we were in compliance with the provision that commercial logging of old-growth timber should be kept to a minimum in Brookshadow Acres.

While we were outside and looking up, we also noticed that the gutters meant to collect rainwater from our roof had become packed full of fallen autumn leaves. I could scale a ladder and waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon digging decayed biomass out of the trough, or I could pay someone to do it. Much as I might enjoy the satisfaction of going elbow-deep into a 30-yard tube of acorns, mud and squirrel remains, I’d rather hire some poor bastard who does this for a living.

I noticed that our next-door neighbor recently had some gutter maintenance done on his home by a company called Guardian Gutters. I took down the phone number and set up an appointment for the next day to meet with a gutter professional.

Mike arrived promptly at 2 p.m. and barged into our sunroom with the breezy confidence of a well-polished salesman. He admired our decor, repeated my name frequently to show that he had remembered it, admired the decor again and remarked that — imagine the coincidence! — his wife was also named Beth. He had already launched into his carefully practiced sales pitch when I reminded him that the gutters were affixed to the exterior of the house, something you’d think a pro would know. I ushered him back outside, where I felt it’d be easier for me to run away if things got out of hand.

We stood shivering in a cold breeze as he began his presentation. The modern roof is the culmination of eons of trial-and-error by ancestors looking for the ideal way to shelter themselves from the elements, he said. Early dwellings were often covered only with twigs or animal hides, and did a poor job of protecting residents. The caves of the Neanderthal provided better protection, but since the collapse of the grotto bubble with the recession of 1 million B.C., these were generally outside the price range of most primitive families.

“If you look right up under here,” he directed, “you’ll see this long panel of wood stretching the length of your house. This is called the ‘eaves.’ Attached to the eaves is a strip that we call the ‘fascia,’ and it’s behind here that poor gutter work can lead to trouble.”

“And you can fix that?” I interrupted. “You can clean those things out for me?”

“Well, no,” he chuckled. “These gutters you currently have are going to require constant maintenance. We sell a far superior product called the Guardian Gutter, and we’re the only contractor in the area that offers this patented technology.”

While I had originally been interested only in having my gutter cleaned, I’d be open to the idea of getting a replacement that would free me from fascia-related worry. But I was getting cold, and he was getting nowhere near the bottom line of what his company’s work might cost me.

“If you notice that small bit of separation right there along the edge, you can see why the French aristocracy first used gutters in the early 18th century,” he continued. “Now, if we walk around to the front of the house…”

“Look,” I interrupted. “I’m kind of interested in wrapping this up pretty quickly. Is there any way you could hit just the high points for me in about 10 or 15 minutes?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I want to make sure you and your wife understand fully the value we offer with our product. We can finish this exterior inspection in probably 20 to 30 minutes, but then I’ll need another hour or so inside to lay out all the options we’re prepared to offer you.”

“Can you at least just tell me the price before we go any further?” I pressed.

“No, I can’t really do that without you knowing our features thoroughly,” he said. “If I told you right now that it would cost — say, $8,000 — you wouldn’t be able to appreciate all that your money would buy.”

Eight thousand dollars? I thought in italic. I’m not paying that kind of money to make sure rainwater is corralled down a drain spout unencumbered by putrefied leaves. I had obviously gotten in over my head, and needed to explain to this guy that I wasn’t prepared to make such a big investment, neither in thousands of dollars nor in hours of study about the history of modern roof drainage.

I would just have to explain that I misunderstood what his company offered, thank him for his time, and send him on his way.

“I’m sorry, we had an emergency visit to the hospital last night and I’m still a little distracted,” I lied. “My daughter was diagnosed with an immune-deficiency disorder, and I’m not going to be able to allow you in the house. Sorry.”

A salesman of this caliber, however, was not about to take “no” for an answer.

“Perhaps I could return at a more convenient time,” he offered. “While you’re thinking it over, let me show you this list of satisfied customers in the area. We have pages of names and phone numbers in here, and I would encourage you to call several of these folks to hear for yourself how they feel Guardian Gutters have made all the difference for them.”

“Okay, okay,” I relented. “Maybe we could have you back next week. Maybe Carla’s immunity will have returned by then, God willing.”

“Great,” he said, and dialed his home office to officially set up another appointment for 2 p.m. Monday.

Be sure to read tomorrow’s post, in which I describe how I call and cancel the appointment at the last minute.

My clogged gutter: A shame I may have to live with

Revisited: The worst Christmas song of all time

December 12, 2010

Yesterday, I listed what I thought were four of the five worst Christmas songs of all time. Today, we learn who the winner is and, of course, by “winner” I mean “loser.”

The perhaps unlikely recipient of this honor is “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” by Band Aid. I will admit that this song had at least two positives going for it: (1) it was a genuinely catchy and inspiring arrangement, and (2) it single-handedly saved the African continent from the ravages of hunger. Those are pretty strong plusses, so you can imagine the kind of negatives it would take to offset all that good, and transport this effort to the status of worst Christmas song of all time.  

I know he’s already considered something of a “Gloomy Gus,” but consider what singer Morrissey had to say about the song. “I’m not afraid to say that I think … (Band Aid creator) Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. The record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. It was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.”    

Another critic suggested “the song presents a very bleak view of Africa, which the lyrics appear to refer to as a whole. Some of these, such as the suggestions (if read literally) that the continent has no rainfall or successful crops, have been seen as absurd by critics. The lyrics as patronizing, false and out of date.”    

Well, let’s take a look and see what we, and by “we” I mean “I”, think.    

It’s Christmastime (for the half of the African continent that is Christian)
There’s no need to be afraid
(yes there is, if you’re living in many part of Africa)
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade (thank you, ‘80s British rockers)
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy (that’s your best idea?)
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
(just not practical) 

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it’s hard when you’re having fun
(please, don’t put yourself out)
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you
(that just seems terribly selfish)
 
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime (Accuweather calls for humid)
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
(except the Nile, Niger, Zambezi, Victoria Falls, etc.)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all? (do these people have no calendars?)
 
(Here’s to you) raise a glass for everyone (we’ll have champagne; you drink the tears)
(Here’s to them) underneath that burning sun (thanks for that shade banishment)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
(OK, OK, we heard you the first two times)
 
With only a few weeks left till Christmas, I think I can avoid radios, malls, medical offices, elevators, etc., long enough to avoid this song for the rest of the season. If you can’t hole up quite the way I plan, then all I can say is

thank God it’s you instead of me.