Archive for January, 2011

Taking a trip into the Sahara

January 31, 2011

A new restaurant opened near my home about a year ago. Locally owned and operated rather than yet another franchise outlet, I figured it would go away soon enough. Folks in my small South Carolina town aren’t exactly the adventurous type when it comes to dining out and, since this place had neither drive-through nor dollar menu, it seemed doomed.

Add to that the fact that the Sahara Restaurant offers “Mediterranean fare” such as falafel, baba ganoush and kabobs both shish and adana, and I’m thinking their fate is sealed. Only if the hookah bar draws nearby college students looking for a high, or rednecks looking for prostitutes, is there a chance it’ll succeed long term.

Surprisingly enough, though, it remains in business, so my family and I decided to give it a try Saturday night.

The owner is wise to present his eatery as Mediterranean. South Carolinians aren’t known for their geography skills — remember that our former governor confused Argentina with the Appalachian Trail — but they know enough about that part of the world to think of Greeks, Italians and Spaniards when they hear that particular inland sea mentioned. Were they to know the truth, that Middle Eastern dishes with a distinct Egyptian theme are on the menu at the Sahara, they’d immediately be thinking of Ay-rabs, and how they weren’t about to try any foods that might be favored by al-Qaida.

“The only thing they know how to barbecue is themselves, in a suicide vest,” many of my neighbors might say. “I ain’t eatin’ that.”

That Egypt has been an ally of America for over 30 years is lost on many in this part of the country. One look at a swarthy wait staff that doesn’t include a single Mexican, and most patrons would be executing a U-turn back to the parking lot, then using the remote start feature on their SUV to make sure it hasn’t been fitted with a car bomb.

When we arrived for dinner around 6 p.m., there were only a few other parties already seated. The atmosphere of the small establishment doesn’t offer much to transport you away to the Levant. It was brightly lit and featured standard-issue tables and booths. There were a couple of hookah pipes to the right of the entrance, and artwork featuring the pyramids, the Sphinx and scenes from the world’s largest desert on all the walls.

Unfortunately, the most overt representation of Egypt came from the wide-screen television hung directly adjacent to the table where we were seated. From there came CNN’s coverage of the developing story about rioting in the streets of Cairo, clashes among protesters, police and army units, and calls for the ouster of the Egyptian president. It didn’t help make for a pleasant dining climate to have the angry face on the TV screen crying “Death to Mubarek!” bear a striking resemblance to the waiter asking if we’d care to try an appetizer.

Still, I’m an open-minded man with some worldwide traveling experience, and tend to have an adventurous streak when it comes to trying the foods of other cultures. I look at the list on the menu and considered the starters. Among the offerings were “foul maddams,” “meggadara,” “fried kibba” and “french fries.” The first of these made me think again of hookers, the second of a heavy-metal rock band, the third of dog food, and the fourth of McDonald’s. None had the appeal I was looking for, so we decided to wait instead to order an entree.

While we considered the other dishes, I got the distinct impression I was being watched by every worker in the restaurant. Or rather, they seemed intrigued by my hair, as none of them met my eyes but instead looked several inches above them. When I saw my wife and son, sitting across from me, doing the same thing, I realized that everyone was being transfixed by the violent images on the screen behind where I sat. The cook, the cashier, the greeter, the dishwashers, all peered out to watch the news playing out halfway around the world. I wondered if an ancient peoples’ desire to throw off the yoke of an authoritarian leader and breathe the sweet air of democratic reforms was going to affect my dinner preparation. I don’t like my lamb overcooked while the chef worries about his imprisoned countrymen and I don’t like tear gas as a spice.

When the waiter returned, we had settled on our orders. My son had the chicken kabob with fries, my wife had the adana kabob (parenthetically labeled as “kofta” on the menu, as if that would help) and I had the mixed grill. We were also brought a complementary plate of hummus, some pita bread and a too-salty salad with cucumbers, a vegetable I hate only slightly less than death itself.

The main courses arrived promptly and were actually quite tasty. My college-age son struggled a bit with the whole kabob concept, uncertain whether to remove the meat from the skewer by sticking it deep into his mouth and impaling his larynx, or simply gnawing at it from the side until it came loose and fell in his lap. My wife’s dish turned out to be a browned, formed cylinder of ground beef, quite tasty if you could get past what it looked like. My mixed grill included chicken, lamb and a third meat I hoped wasn’t camel. It was all a tad dry but became more moist and flavorful when combined with the basmati rice and a white sauce I imagined had yogurt in it.

When we finished our meal, the waiter returned with a shrink-wrapped broadsheet that showed pictures of the desserts available. Baklava, I was familiar with, though I can’t say the same for “harrisa” and “konafa”. The fourth option was New York cheesecake, probably a tribute to all the Middle Eastern cabdrivers in Manhattan. We politely declined the desserts, as news came across the TV behind me that looters had attacked the Egyptian Museum and were carrying off bits of mummy, a distinctly unappetizing development.

All in all, we had a pleasant dining experience I can recommend to anyone in Rock Hill who doesn’t mind having their weekend outing complemented by an armed insurrection that could unbalance the fragile peace of the world’s most volatile region. My only complaint, other than the fact that the staff seemed more concerned with distant family than they did with refilling my water glass, was that the Sahara did not serve alcoholic beverages. I chalked this up to Islam’s intolerance for drunkenness but found out later that it was due to a city ordinance that prevents liquor licenses being issued to businesses located within 500 feet of a church. So it was the righteous Baptists across the street who deserved the blame, not similarly busybody fundamentalists from another of the world’s great religions.

If, God forbid, you ever find yourself in Rock Hill and longing for a good “fattush” (a salad tossed with toasted pita chips, lemon and sumac, not the mashup of a ZZ Top/Sir Mix-a-lot song), please give the Sahara a try.

Revisited: Mind if I text you?

January 30, 2011

My trainee sat quietly as I explained what her temp job with my company would involve.

“You’ll want to make sure the changes have been made to the document,” I instructed.

“Hmmm,” came the response.

“We’re not responsible for typos the client has created,” I added.


“And be sure that you make your marks legibly,” I said.

“Mmmm,” she seemed to say. “Mmmmm. Hmmmm. Mmmm.”

Finally, it occurred to me that this rather stout woman wasn’t voicing acknowledgement that she understood my instructions. Instead, the low vibrating noise was coming from the vicinity of her lap. Perhaps she was pregnant instead of chubby, and the baby, ready to be delivered, was clearing its throat to get her attention. Or maybe she had swallowed an electric razor and it was getting ready to pass.

No, wait — that’s right, this is the twenty-first century. It must be her cell phone set to vibrate.

“Do you need to get that?” I asked, gesturing toward her crotch, and immediately regretting the move.

“Oh, it’s just my cell getting a text,” she said. “It can wait till later.”

Text messaging is one part of the wireless revolution that I can vigorously endorse. Like most people my age, I feel I should be annoyed by others talking on their cell phones. For one thing, they’re almost inevitably younger than I am, which I resent. They also seem to have friends, friends who want to talk to them with such urgency that they can’t wait to get near a land line. The conversation must be had now, regardless of whether they’re in the middle of outpatient surgery, being sentenced to prison, or sitting on the can.

I prefer texting to phoning for a number of reasons. I like to type. I like to get to a little thing I like to call “the point.” I like to know that I’m not interrupting something important on the other end of the line.

When I do have to call someone’s cell phone, I’ll typically text them first and ask if it’s a good time to talk. The portability of cells means they’re being carried everywhere, and not all of these places are places that civilized people want to talk. My sister finds this habit highly amusing, but I think she genuinely appreciates the opportunity to avoid talking to me.

Then there’s the issue of concern for who might overhear the other end of the conversation. I’m really more amused than bothered when I listen in on strangers’ discussions. It’s a little peek into lives almost always more interesting than mine, and I enjoy the voyeurism of it all. I wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of allowing this to happen on airline flights, as is now being considered. The babble of several hundred businesspeople confined in a space where they have nothing better to do than talk is an even more frightening prospect to me than catastrophic decompression at 30,000 feet. Allow wireless on jets and too many of us will be thinking about which type of explosives cause the least amount of chafe in our shorts.

It is a little irksome hearing about all the things going on in my coworkers’ lives while I’m trying to earn a living. I was minding my own business at my terminal the other day when a woman walked up behind me and cooed, “I love you so much.” Needless to say, she wasn’t talking to me but instead to a distant boyfriend. Another employee gets calls from her daughter asking what time it is. Several have idiot husbands who think their wives can mystically triangulate where their favorite shirt is from 20 miles away.

Worse than the chatter are the ring tones. For security reasons, we’re really not supposed to be taking calls on our cells at our desks, so one dutiful data entry lady always jumps up and heads for a small alcove near the door whenever Michael Jackson starts crooning “got to be there … in the morning.” Even if I need her to be here instead of there, to enter my sales order, she sprints off to learn the latest developments in Bob’s half-hearted search for employment.

Of course, the worst scenario is in the bathroom, where a surprising number of people have no problem at all mixing the sound of their voice with less musical tones being emitted from elsewhere on their persons. There’s little that’s more disconcerting than to hear a conversational opening in the stall next to you, and wondering if it’s you who’s being addressed or some distant acquaintance tuning in via satellite. Even once you’re relieved to learn it’s Frank, not you, who’s being told “yeah, I thought that was a great game [gurgling noise] but I felt sorry for Favre,” I still feel compelled to muffle my own sounds. Nobody wants to see, smell, taste or feel what’s going on in a presumably private setting; why would they want to hear it?

Cell phones have become so common that it now strikes me as unusual not to see them. When I stop by the local college to visit my son, I feel sorry for the two or three people in the crowd of pedestrians who have to be content listening to their iPods rather than phoning a friend. They seem lost, and frequently fall down from sheer loneliness. I even imagine there will be cell phone conversations in the afterlife, though the angels will obviously be having fewer dropped calls (because of the antenna-like haloes) than will their counterparts suffering eternal damnation downstairs. You’ve got to think all that hellfire will play havoc with decent reception.

I’ll take texting over talking any day, even though I realize there are safety concerns when you try to do it in a moving vehicle. I saw in the news yesterday where the Department of Transportation has banned texting by truck and bus drivers, probably a good idea considering the size of their rides compared to my Honda Civic. But I think, at the same time, we’re missing a great opportunity to open up the conversation on America’s roadways as a way to stifle road rage and other aggressive driving habits. Think about how much better we’d all get along if every car had its driver’s cell number posted in the rear window, and we could openly discuss constructive suggestions for improved motor vehicle operation.

I could preload “you goddam moron :)” into my Quick Notes and be ready to meet the world head-on.

Revisited: Sportswriters look for feel-good stories

January 29, 2011

MIAMI (Jan. 25) — With the matchup now set for pro football’s Super Bowl, members of the media have begun their desperate annual search for the “up close and personal” angle that will portray aggressive hulking millionaires as the kind of human beings we can all relate to, even though we’re pitifully inferior to them.

Unfortunately for sportswriters, family and friends of NFL players are generally in good health, thanks to of modern medical techniques that keep most people from hovering near death. Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon’s parents are originally from Haiti, a promising lead in light of the tragedy that struck that nation. But it’s expected that by the February game, the devastating Caribbean earthquake will be so Jan. 12, and therefore out of the news cycle. Saints quarterback Drew Brees knew a guy who knew a guy who thought he had AIDS there for a minute, but it turned out he just had smudged some toner on his face.

Preliminary reports by writers already investigating players’ backgrounds hint at some of what we could be seeing in the run-up to the Big Game.

The spotlight could be falling on the ill-fated brother of Colts QB Peyton Manning, a young man named Eli who has endured numerous severe beatings in the last five months while in New York. The younger Manning had hoped to carve out a career for himself in the NFL, but instead ended up being repeatedly ambushed by street-wise toughs despite a contingent of burly but inept bodyguards.

“It’s a really sad story,” said ESPN writer John Rich. “He had such a promising future a few years back, but it all came crashing down.”

Saints cornerback Malcolm Jennings might do a good job arousing sympathy. Several in his immediate family have seen recent hardship, including a brother who lost his cell phone, a nephew who got short-changed by a vending machine, and a health scare recently experienced by his father.

“He had a thing on his neck that was kind of crusty and misshapen, like a scab but yellow around the edges,” said a friend of the family. “We thought for a while it might be malignant. It wasn’t.”

Colts tight end Justin Snow has a sister who was thought to be battling cancer. Snow said she received a note from her doctor following an annual physical that she needed to get treatment for a “canker,” but the physician’s handwriting was so bad she thought it said “cancer.”

“I was really worried there for a day or so, and I thought about dedicating the NFC championship game to her,” Snow said. “Fortunately, the confusion was cleared up pretty quickly. Good thing too, because I didn’t get into the game since I’m not that good.”

Saints linebacker Marvin Mitchell actually did lose his mother to heart disease about ten years ago, though he was in junior high school at the time and no one could foresee he’d later be in such a premier game.

“I’ll always remember her final words. She said ‘ouch, cardiomyopathy sure does hurt.’ I’ll remember that forever,” Mitchell said. “I only wish she could’ve been here with me now so I could use her to get the sympathy of millions of Americans who will watch the pregame show.”

Like Garcon, Colts offensive tackle Charlie Johnson has a heart-rending Haiti connection. While on a honeymoon cruise in 2006, an on-shore excursion to an exclusive island off the coast of Cap Haitien had to be cancelled when not enough people signed up for it. Later that same day, the ship had some problems with its stabilizer, causing the deck to roll excessively in a mild storm.

“It almost felt like an earthquake. Sort of,” Johnson said. “I know the self-leveling pool table in the Windjammer Lounge was completely out of commission.”

Saints defensive end Bobby McCray is a native of New Orleans and still lives year-round in the city that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. He has voiced strong support for the rebuilding of neighborhoods in the city’s hard-hit Ninth Ward, especially since he drives through there on the way to practice yet can no longer take a favorite short-cut.

“Those folks have been through a lot,” McCray said. “If they could only get that Bypass Bridge fully repaired, the whole community could be opened up to people like me passing through.”

There’s still a chance a more sympathetic story can be found before press coverage hits its peak by the end of this week. There was an unconfirmed report that one player had a cousin who was born without a head, and that another player feared his playing days could be cut short because he has severe osteoporosis and brittle bone disease, preventing him from ever blocking or tackling. The Colts defensive line coach thinks he hit something with his car in the dark the other night, and hopes it was only a dog or a deer.

“Every year we go through this search process, and every year we eventually find someone who’s vaguely sympathetic,” said writer Rich. “We can always use a player’s pet if we have to.”

Still more highlights from my mini-blog

January 28, 2011

Please enjoy the following highlights from my new mini-blog,


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced yesterday he was decommissioning his landmark website following a meeting with pop songstress Katy Perry.

“I started Facebook to meet girls and, now that I’ve met Katy, my work here is done,” Zuckerberg said in making the announcement. “Anybody want to buy some used servers?’

Perry had stopped by the company’s headquarters to participate in a live chat and indulge in the office’s famous “Nacho Wednesday” menu at the Facebook cafe. While looking for the ladies’ room to scrub cheese sauce out of her hair, she stumbled into Zuckerberg’s office.

The “California Gurl” snapped the photo below posing with the world’s youngest billionaire and posted it to her Facebook profile.

“Ya know just hangin’ @ ‘the’ facebook with ‘the’ CEO. Baller style,” she wrote in the caption. “I like him!”

“Did she really say that? Did she really?” Zuckerberg asked a meeting of venture capitalists and other investors shortly after hearing the news. “You’re not pulling my leg, are you? Wow! She likes me.”

Zuckerberg said he was giving up on the digital frontier that his company had helped forge, and would now devote his life to stalking Perry.

“She smelled really good,” he added.

“Look whose head I’m pointing at,” Katy said.


Following news that there now exists a cordless heated “warming jacket,” a garment that can be charged for up to six hours of heat through sewn-in carbon fibers …

Jacket and charger

…comes news of the latest technology in modern comfort, the nuclear-powered snuggie (pictured below).

All the warmth of a reactor meltdown

Requiring only a bachelor’s degree in nuclear energy management to operate and six years of experience working in the core of a light-water reactor, the nuclear snuggie (not to be confused with the atomic wedgie) provides thousands of degrees of cozy comfort with only minimal doses of lethal radiation.

Next time you find yourself shivering through another icy winter day, consider installing a nuclear snuggie around you. Licensing reviews are going on now, so be sure to act fast to take advantage of this incredible offer.


Though (nominally) still alive, former Price is Right host Bob Barker may want to think twice before he considers any Mediterranean vacations.

ROME — The body of Mike Bongiorno, who was Italy’s top quiz show host for more than 50 years and a close friend of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was stolen from his grave, officials said Tuesday.

Bongiorno, who died in September 2009 at the age of 85, was buried in Arona, near Milan. A pensioner who regularly visits the cemetery alerted police that the grave had been violated and emptied. Italian media said no ransom had been demanded so far.

Bongiorno, a fixture in Italian television since its first broadcast in the 1950s, helped Berlusconi launch commercial television in the 1970s.

It is not the first time that the body of a famous personality has been snatched in Italy.

In 2001, in a cemetery near the one where Bongiorno was buried, the corpse of investment banker Enrico Cuccia was stolen and a ransom demanded. The thieves were identified and arrested.


Chinese President Hu Jintao (left) met with President Obama (right) last week for an intense round of negotiations covering everything from international monetary policy to potential sanctions against Iran to the six-party talks now taking place to curb North Korean aggression. Hu spoke frankly about what he saw as America’s need to reduce its deficit and curb its military expansion, especially in the Middle East and South Asia. Obama was equally blunt, calling on the Chinese leader to respect civil and religious liberties in his country, and to create a more democratic economic model that would foster the rise of a middle class that could serve as a market for U.S. exports.
CORRECTION: Snooki and Kim Kardashian notice a cute guy.


The new-look American Idol kicked off its tenth season last week with two new judges sitting in front of the panoramic window that serves as their backdrop.

During tryouts for would-be singing stars from New Jersey and the greater tri-state area, a stunning variety of vessels — from small sailboats to ocean-going supertankers — floated by on the waterway behind Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson.

Despite the impressive display of watercraft chugging slowly downstream, ratings for the Fox mega-hit plunged an estimated 15% from last year, continuing a decline that’s been taking place for the last several seasons.

“I thought the show was as good as it’s ever been,” said Arthur Sachs, editor of Jane’s Ships. “You can’t beat the variety of boats that can be found plying up and down the Hudson River. My only complaint is that sometimes the judges, in their effort to be edgy and wacky and totally unpredictable, wiggled around too much and got in the way of some of the ships.”

Sachs predicted that once the new judges are comfortable, they’ll settle down and allow viewers a better look at what’s going on behind them

“Some critics say American Idol has already seen its best days, but I’m optimistic there’s more quality viewing still to be had,” Sachs said. “This week’s show, their first visit ever to Milwaukee, will give us a great opportunity to see some of the magnificent barges of the Great Lakes.”

Fake News: Everybody has a response

January 27, 2011

WASHINGTON (Jan. 26) — President Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to challenge Americans to unleash their creative spirit, set aside their partisan differences and come together around a common goal of outcompeting other nations in a rapidly shifting global economy.

In the Republican response delivered shortly after the address, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) implored citizens to keep their creative spirit to themselves, put their partisan differences front and center, and come together around a common goal of rolling over and playing dead while other nations outcompete us in a rapidly shifting global economy.

Meanwhile, arch-conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) delivered a response on behalf of the Tea Party asking the nation to spirit their creativity into the manufacture of dog leashes, look inside the differences between atomic particles, and ask hip-hop superstar Common to rapidly complete the loose-fitting shift he’s been sewing so it can be sold around the world.

Obama used the annual speech before both houses of Congress to outline his plan to “win the future” by investing in critical areas such as education, transportation, clean energy and improved Internet access, claiming that “the rules have changed.” Ryan countered that we should “not only win the future but trounce and humiliate it” while Bachmann called for “tying the past before losing narrowly in overtime.” Both Republicans disagreed with the assertion that the rules have changed, with Ryan claiming they were the same but simply typeset in a different font, while Bachmann claimed they were also “in a different pointsize.”

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” Obama said in his speech. “We have to make America the best place on earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper.”

“Nuh-uh,” countered Ryan, newly appointed chairman of the House Budget Committee. “We want America to be the best place in the universe to do business, not just the earth.”

Bachmann urged the American people to “in-outovate, ed-outucate and blow up the rest of the world.”

It seemed like everyone had a response to the nationally televised address, despite the fact that the president spoke in very general terms about vague goals that seemingly everyone could agree on. In a response aired nationally on all four major networks, the wise-cracking smart-ass who sat behind you in tenth grade government class mocked the president’s assertion that “this is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

“Did he say this was America’s ‘butt-lick’ moment?” asked Randy Buxton. “I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.”

Buxton also criticized Obama’s anecdote about how salmon are under the purview of the Interior Department while in fresh water and managed by the Commerce Department while they’re in saltwater.

“You can’t manage salmon, everybody knows that,” Buxton told the nation. “Tuna, yes. Perch, maybe. But the best you’re going to do with salmon is to loosely supervise them and try to keep them from spawning in front of the children.”

The joys and sorrows of life in the workplace

January 26, 2011

I work in an office with a three-shift operation, which means I share a desk with two employees who work nights. We all try to be considerate of each other, cleaning the desktop before we leave, wiping down the keyboard to remove any sticky soda stains, being judicious about which trash goes in the desk-side receptacle (candy wrappers, empty water bottles) and which has to go in the bin outside (animal flesh, blood-stained clothing).

Minor comforts and conveniences that need adjustment from one person to the next are left for the incoming person to deal with. The short-statured lady who follows me on second shift pulls out a footstool so her legs don’t dangle like a baby in a high chair. The guy on third shift adjusts the chair back so he can recline easily and sleep during the wee dark hours of late night.

Some of us like the gel-filled wrist rests (I stick mine in the microwave for 30 seconds because, when warmed, it feels like my sleeping wife) and some of us don’t. Some of us like the extra desk lamp turned on, while I prefer not to have a clear view of the pages I’m reading, in case it makes me legally culpable some day down the road. I like the wind-blown ambience of a fan (it makes me feel like I’m out on the open prairie) while others would rather not chase their proofs down the hall. All of us recognize we can customize these features for ourselves.

We share a small easel to prop up certain papers we need to reference frequently during our work. It’s a simple black rectangle of metal, unadorned except for the “Fellowes” logo at the top right. Though fully utilitarian as it is, the guy on third shift has felt the need to tape a single sheet of paper to it. On the paper is one word, shouting in bold, 240-point type — “JOY”.

I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I assume he uses it as a reminder to be happy, despite his dismal circumstances of working in a modern American office, a wage slave pushing paper. You’d think he needs a verb in there somewhere. “Joy,” a noun, can’t just sit there by itself. More appropriate, you’d imagine, would be something like “EXPERIENCE JOY” or “BE HAPPY”. Just knowing there’s joy out there somewhere, and not knowing what to do with it, seems worse than nothing at all. It’s a tantalizing but inaccessible prospect that I wouldn’t care to be reminded about in the middle of my Excel spreadsheet.

Maybe it’s the name of his wife or significant other. Maybe just seeing her name every time he removes a work order from the easel lifts his spirits. Personally, I’d rather have a picture of a loved one instead of the letterforms that make up their name, but maybe that’s something he doesn’t care to share with his coworkers. Or maybe she’s ugly.

My other theory is that he’s a religious person who manages to find joy in the spiritual world. I don’t get to talk to him much, just a passing word or two as I arrive and he leaves, so I can’t know this for a fact. I did ask him once “how are you doing?” and he answered “I’m blessed,” which seemed a little odd. So maybe he’s just weird enough to think the bliss and ecstasy of the supernatural world can be summoned onto the production floor of a financial printer by keying three simple letters into a Word file and hitting “command P.”

Whatever the case, I’m tolerating this intrusion of optimism without making any big fuss about it. Though it has crossed my mind to freak him out one day by replacing his sign with one that says “DESPAIR.”


My efforts on the job are managed by a person we call the production coordinator. He’s responsible for bringing in the work and making sure it’s started promptly and finished by its deadline. In such a role, he needs to keep tabs on the people he works with, knowing whether they’ve stepped away from their desk for just a moment or will instead be away for an extended period.

I have a good relationship with my coordinator, and would probably go so far as to call him a friend. So we’ve worked together to come up with a system that allows me to notify him with just a glance of how long I might be away. This way, I don’t have to interrupt him if he’s on the phone or talking with someone else.

If I flash Aaron a “one,” holding my pointer finger skyward, it means I will be gone for the length of time it takes to void my bladder. That’s not necessarily what I’m going to do as I head down the hall; it’s merely an indication that he can expect me to be gone for between two and four minutes, about the duration of the average pee.

If I show a “two,” in a rough approximation of a peace sign, it means I’ll be away for the time it takes to tend to the other excretory function. This would be about five to ten minutes, unless we split an order of spam musubi from the Hawaiian restaurant that just opened around the corner, in which case it may be as much as 15 minutes.

We’re also working on developing two other hand signals. I flashed him a “three” the other day and he gave me a quizzical look. I stopped to explain that simple arithmetic should tell him this meant I’d be gone for up to 20 minutes, the time it would take to address number one and number two consecutively. He countered that “three” should mean no more than ten minutes, since most people can handle the two functions simultaneously. So we still have some work to do hammering out an understanding on that one.

The other signal I’ve tried looks like this:

It’s meant to indicate “one half”. This does not mean, I explain, that I’ll be away between one and two minutes. It means instead that, because of recently diagnosed prostate problems, I may be gone as much as a half-hour and, even then, I’ll only be half empty.

I like to think of these as our gang signs, though I’m sure you’ll agree it would be one of the least fearsome crews on the streets today.

Fake News: Other ideas for blending Congress being considered

January 25, 2011

WASHINGTON (Jan. 25) — Inspired by a push to commingle members from both parties during tonight’s State of the Union address, some congresspeople are trying to take the concept several steps further to show a more diverse legislative body to the nation.

Ever since Colorado Sen. Mark Udall asked Democrats and Republicans to mix together instead of sitting on separate sides of the partisan aisle, others have been looking for additional ways to bridge the traditional divide with a symbolic act of unity.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has asked members of both the House and Senate to swap shoes with the person sitting next to them. He would then adjourn Congress for a 30-minute recess right before President Obama’s speech tonight so members could “walk a mile in those shoes.”

“I think seeing representatives from both the left and the right hobbling a lap around the Capitol will give the American people a chance to realize just how hard we’re trying to work together,” said Schumer, a self-acknowledged size 13EEE who admitted he’d face a tight squeeze inside fellow New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand’s size 6 pumps.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) looked to take that idea to the next level, offering to exchange entire ensembles with fellow representatives.

“I’ve had my eye on that lovely teal pantsuit that (Louisiana Democrat) Mary Landrieu wore last week,” the usually conservative Coburn told reporters. “Hopefully, she’ll also be able to lend me the darling brooch that accessorized it perfectly.”

Congress is hoping to change the impression that they can’t agree on anything and prefer instead to bicker rather than negotiate and reason together. At last year’s annual address by the President, Republicans booed and threw garbage when Obama said he wouldn’t allow budget constraints to eliminate the nation’s social safety net. Similarly, Democrats made the “I am not worthy” bow-down motion to acknowledge their agreement with the president’s announced intention — later rescinded — that he’d open the gold reserves at Ft. Knox to the homeless.

Other plans to mix members into a more diverse group may not have been organized in time for tonight’s address. Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin wanted both houses to sit boy-girl-boy-girl until it was pointed out that men vastly outnumber women. He amended his proposal to make for a boy-girl-boy-closeted gay Republican-boy-girl arrangement, but that too could not be put together in time.

Additional proposals to sort Congress by age, height, good cholesterol numbers, attractiveness, facial hair and zodiac signs will have to be delayed until next year, at the earliest. There was still hope at press time that idealistic newcomers could be blended in with veteran legislators who basically no longer give a shit.

Some White House sources indicated that the president himself would make a symbolic effort to represent both the left and right during his speech. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged there was the possibility the president would deliver one sentence with a Kenyan accent while wearing a Che Guevara-style beret and delivering the Nazi sieg heil salute, and the next sentence in a calm, reasoned tone.

“The president recognizes the need to reach out and find common ground with all political perspectives,” Gibbs said. “We’ll probably put him on a swivel so he can more easily rotate without getting motion sickness.”

The care and feeding of cats

January 24, 2011

Even though I have three, I’m not sure I understand the point of owning cats.

They seem like such an arbitrary choice for domestication in our homes. How exactly did they win out over every-bit-as-good choices like ferrets, muskrats, weasels and other ungrateful groundlings? Can the beaver not catch a mouse? Can the squirrel not meow loudly in response to be a natural gas leak in your house?

OK, maybe not meow, but they could chirp and throw acorns.

It’s said that the cat is a fastidiously clean creature, however that’s only because they seem to be licking themselves every time you turn around. I’m sure some of this is done in the pursuit of cleanliness and I’m just as sure some of it is done for purposes of self-gratification. Where they really need to clean themselves up — in the crevices of their paws where soiled cat litter tends to accumulate — goes virtually unattended. That only seems to come loose when they leap unauthorized onto the kitchen table, hopping over my cereal bowl of granola and making it a little more crunchy than I’d prefer.

I do appreciate how they virtually house-train themselves in proper user of the catbox. I look out the window on wintry days at some of my dog-owning neighbors, gingerly carrying their poodles and miniature dachshunds into small snowfields, and placing the animal down to do his business. The dog looks up at its shivering master, as if to ask “what am I supposed to do with this?” They sniff the ground for a while, perhaps paw it once or twice, then refuse to cooperate. Meanwhile, my cats are in our warm, cozy utility room, peeing like there’s no tomorrow.

Not far from their catbox sits their dinner bowls, in what would be a highly questionable bit of feng shui to those of us higher up in the animal kingdom though perfectly acceptable to my cats. I guess they like the convenience of managing input and output functions in such close proximity to each other. And there’s also the fact that their food smells only slightly better than their waste, so why not lump it all together in the same room? They may have to leave the vicinity to barf on the couch or your favorite throw rug. Other than that, though, they’d probably be just as happy to spend most of their waking hours sharing quarters with the washing machine and the dryer, especially when the dryer is running at a low, warm purr.

Ever since my wife began working nights about a year ago, I’ve taken over responsibility for the evening feedings of our three cats, Harriet, Taylor and Tom. They’re on a twice-a-day meal schedule, as is the tradition with household pets. (How they ever got screwed out of lunch remains a mystery). Having enjoyed their first meal of the day shortly after I get up around 6 in the morning, they have become plenty ravenous by the time evening arrives.

Using passive-aggressive techniques that can’t have worked very well in the wild, they emerge from their various sleeping positions and slowly gather around as I sit in my easy chair watching TV. There are no overt requests at first, just a kind of assertive loitering designed to remind me they are creatures who require sustenance, and they require it pretty damn soon. Taylor sits erect on the back of the couch next to me, trying to appear as obvious as he can. Tom takes up a position on the floor nearby, ready to jump up and rub against my leg if I head anywhere near the utility room. Harriet, the oldest and boldest of the three, leaps onto my lap to cuddle.

These food-gathering techniques can’t have worked very well 10,000 years ago just before they gave up the wild for domestication. I can’t imagine their original prey grasping the subtleties of the small desert carnivore who patiently requests that they give up their bodies for meat. I’m eventually guilt-tripped into feeding them but I doubt the rats and insects of ancient Egypt had a similar capacity for sympathy.

If I’ve become too engrossed in the Xavier vs. Western Kentucky basketball game playing on ESPN (hey, it could happen) and don’t notice their sudden desire to be close to me, it’s usually Harriet who takes the request to the next level. She moves from my lap up onto my belly and begins a steady round of loud, nasal meowing. If that doesn’t work, she starts rubbing her wet nose against my arm, which she knows I hate. That’s the point where I usually give in and make my way to the big bowl of cat food.

All three leap up in excitement, making a beeline for their pre-assigned dining positions. Tom has to dine separately in the sunroom because he has a tendency to overeat his and everybody else’s food, born of his early desperate life as an outdoor kitty. He heads for that door while I play the role of the maitre d’ escorting him to his alfresco seating. I then serve the other two in the utility room before returning to Tom with his cup of Meow Mix. “Will the gentleman be having cat food this evening?” I’ll joke with him, though cats — especially hungry ones — usually don’t appreciate my wry sense of humor. (I’ve tried to tell them about the success of my humor blog, but they just look at me with a blank stare. They’re not much for the Internet, I guess).

They hunker down for some serious eating, tails straight out behind them as they crunch their way through the dry pellets. This is perhaps the only time during their day they act with such intense purpose, and it only takes five minutes or less for them to wolf down their meal. Freshly energized, it’s then time for a session of what we call “the rips,” where they take turns running up and down the hallway. This soon exhausts them to the point that they’re ready to settle down for another episode of the twenty-hour-a-day sleep schedule they need to remain fresh.

It’s a pretty easy gig for me, and I really do enjoy having them around the house. For a relatively low amount of maintenance, my family and I get to enjoy watching them doze, drawing inspiration from their ability to relax so effortlessly. When I arrive home from work, tired and frustrated from a long day on the job, I can take one look at the lump under my bed covers and know that Taylor lies therein. He’s not worried about mortgage payments or the upcoming tax season; he doesn’t even care if he gets enough air to breathe. His indolence inspires me to take a nap free of guilt.

I doze fitfully for perhaps 45 minutes before I feel a slight commotion at my feet, followed by the lightweight footsteps of Harriet up my back. I try to pretend I’m still unconscious and unable to respond to her, until that becomes virtually impossible when I sense her breath on my cheek, followed by a nudge of my shoulder, followed by that nasal twang that passes for a meow.

It’s getting close to the time, she reminds me, that we begin our routine once again.

Before dinner, it's time for the cats to make themselves known

After dinner, Harriet (top), Tom (left) and Taylor (the undercover lump at right) begin another round of snoozing.

Revisited: It’s time to leak the truth

January 23, 2011

In 1979, there was an accident at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania called Three Mile Island (TMI). Initial reports indicated there was a small explosion and perhaps some minor injuries. It wasn’t until later in the first day that it became known there was a significant leak of radioactive materials, into both the air and the ground.

As details unfolded in the week that followed, the public learned that we had narrowly avoided a so-called “China Syndrome,” in which the core of the reactor would melt deep into the earth. Groundwater could’ve been contaminated and the air could’ve been filled with poisonous gases. Pennsylvania could’ve become even more inhabitable than it already was. Fear gripped the nation as more and more details were released and we imagined what might have been.

Ever since this near-catastrophe, whenever anyone is given too much information about something fearsome and repulsive, we call it “TMI”.

The following post may contain TMI. Sensitive readers should — wait, this is the Internet; sensitive readers shouldn’t be a problem.

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I didn’t do a real good job this year of coming up with worthy New Year’s resolutions. In the past, I’ve promised myself I’d lose weight or be more thrifty, and generally did a good job of follow-through all the way into February. I’ve put the ambitious agendas aside this year, and decided instead to work on smaller, more achievable goals.

The main improvement initiative I’m undertaking currently is to pick up things that have fallen on the ground. I’m still okay with stuff that’s supposed to be down there — pebbles, earthworms, the drunken homeless — but I’m trying to put forth a real effort to make my world a better place with the simple act of bending down and retrieving discarded litter. Some people have chosen to help earthquake victims; I’m thinking that charity begins at home, in an approximately three-foot radius of where I’m standing.

Pride is picking up

The real fact of the matter is that I’m contributing a lot of this debris on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t be so self-congratulatory for picking up after myself, and yet it still gives me a warm feeling to know I’m working to clean up our environment. Just because the trash is of my own making shouldn’t discount the substantial effort it takes for someone my age to squat.

It’s because of these “warm feelings” that I’ve been creating such a mess in my wake. You see, I have a problem that confronts many men in their 50s, and I’ve been using small wads of paper stuffed into my shorts to address it. I have a problem with dribbling.

In my younger days, I enjoyed many an afternoon in a robust workout on the basketball court. I’ve never had much of a vertical leap and my three-point shot rarely found the hole, but I’ve always been a good ball handler, even perfecting a behind-the-back crossover that frequently left me open for a layup. What’s been hurting my game in the gym lately is that the floor tends to get a little slippery when I have to splash through a puddle of my own urine.

Really, that’s an exaggeration. My touch of incontinence doesn’t result in the kind of fashionable gushers we’ve recently seen in concert from a certain female singer for the Black Eyed Pees (spelling?). The difficulty I have isn’t the uncontrollable release that wetted Fergie in the midst of all her booming and powing; rather, what I’ve experienced is the drop or two trickle that lies in wait until I’m all zipped up and heading back to my desk. It’s not outwardly noticeable, and I don’t think it’s causing any kind of hazardous spill that could injure or sicken my co-workers. It’s just that warm, then cold, moistness that suddenly shocks your upper thigh and reminds you a little too vividly of what it was like to be young. Very young.

Fellow incontinent Fergie

My solution to this embarrassment is to wad up a piece of bathroom tissue, forming a hood that contains the tiny spill. My slacks hold this cap in place just long enough to catch any fleeting beads, until the wad gradually works its way down my leg and I can pull it out and deposit it in the can. It’s a pretty good system, as long as you can subtly pivot at every turn to check your tracks and make sure you’re not depositing a trail of crumbs like some latter-day Hansel and Gretel.

So that’s how I’ve gotten into the habit of stooping down to pick up debris. If I’m doing it often enough that people who witness the act think I’m just being a conscientious employee concerned about the appearance of the office, then they won’t be suspicious if they happen to notice the tile comet sliding down my ankle. Only once has anyone commented on the emergent hat, and I was able to laugh that off by claiming it was a dryer sheet.

Well, I’m tired of laughing at myself over a situation that plagues so many otherwise hygienic people. “No matter how you shake and dance, the last drop’s always on your pants” makes for a playful adolescent rhyme, but I’m sick of having it ringing in my ears every 90 minutes like some particularly bizarre ABBA tune. For too long, the slightly incontinent have hidden in the shadows, peeing themselves in shame, paralyzed by the ever-present fear that someone will shine a light into that shadow and scare us into a lethal blockage. I say enough is enough. It’s time I was praised for my ingenuity instead of disgraced for a thoroughly natural glitch in my plumbing.

If we’re going to leak, let us leak with pride. Let’s take the steps we must in order to preserve a sanitary home and workplace, yet let us not feel as guilty as if we were responsible for some awful catastrophe.

It’s not as though the leak were radioactive.

Revisited: A look back at high school writing

January 22, 2011

The 1960s were a great time to be in high school, as opposed to, say, fighting in Vietnam or dying in a race riot. Sure, we had the rumbles and shoulder-punch-outs that seemed earth-shattering to us, but it was mostly a time to try being free and creative in ways we were never allowed before.

My senior year at Miami Norland High School was when I first got interested in creative writing. Mrs. Massey taught a journalism class that seemed to cover everything but journalism. Inspired by the ground-breaking social upheaval of the times, she didn’t take attendance and she didn’t mind taking guff from her precocious students, most of whom were Jewish, upper-middle-class and looking for intellectual trouble.

She ran her class as something of an educational experiment, giving us the freedom to talk and write about whatever we wanted. My first essay for her was a call for America to give equal rights to broccoli. Later, I attacked a grading system that allowed me to get a 93 while my friend scored only a 79. “Does this make me 117.7% better a person than he?” I asked, quite the profound question when you stop to think in those pre-calculator days that I had to use long division

And then there was the horrible but creative (but, more than anything, horrible) poetry. A favorite stanza I wrote still lingers in my memory over 40 years later.

When I at last have breathed my final breath
And my remains are lowered in the ground
I wonder what will people think of me?
When I like them had walked upon the earth?

Heavy. And not at all like the man I’ve become, who doesn’t even care what people think while his remains are still up and walking around, cutting people off in traffic and sighing loudly as that lady in front of him pays with a check in the supermarket.

Little of that early writing has survived. However, I think I can create a replica, and thought it might be fun to try. What follows is the essay I might’ve written for one of her final assignments of that last year of high school: Pick a topic, any topic, and write a minimum of 500 words.


Any topic, you say? ANY?

“Any” is such an expansive word and yet also so limiting, a mere three letters in a language replete with words of considerably greater length. There’s an “A”, and then there’s an “N”, and then there’s a “Y”. Why, indeed?

(I’m assuming that letters count as words in your arbitrary call for a minimum of 500 of such fleeting entities).

Webster defines “topic” as “something dealt with in a text or in discussion.” He tells us to also “see subject, theme, matter or issue.” But one must ask, who is he to be telling us what to see, with his eighteenth-century perspective and prejudices?

No one is really sure who he is anyway, whether he is Daniel or Noah or perhaps another Webster entirely. Or maybe he is some yet-to-be-conceived Webster, a man-child who will inhabit a space in the media of the future, perhaps an urban Chicago setting in which his parents were recently killed in a car accident and he’s adopted by George Papadapolous, played by Alex Karras. And perhaps he shall be known as Emmanuel. You never know.

These are times that demand more focus than to throw open a discussion such as this to the whims of high school seniors. We are but buds, still unformed, still uninformed, still uniform in our adherence to societal demands, not to mention the school dress policy. Mere buds, I say!

Speaking of nature, we should consider the moon and the stars and the galaxies that swirl around us in their impromptu dance of celestial wonder. They would qualify as a topic, certainly, but what good would it do to attempt to put them into the categories, the restrictions that language demands? Plus, it’s daytime, and even if it were dark out, my telescope is broken, and my stupid younger brother now uses its tubular length as a baseball bat. His naivete is so sad that it makes me weep.

I qualify not, though, as a crybaby, for I am a sensitive lad. Even my mother says so.

You label this class as “journalism”. I repudiate your labels, as we have not been asked to keep any journal whatsoever. (I’m not suggesting it; I’m just making an observation.) I heap derision and disgust on your provincial concepts of “objectivity” and “facts.” I do this by putting certain words in “quotes,” as is the literary fashion. Fashion, though, is of little concern to me and my generation, as the afore-noted reference to the dress code infers.

In closing, I stop to take a look at myself in the mirror and at the mask I wear which society — and my acne — has demanded. I see in the reflection a challenged soul, a primordial man, an adolescent in a shirt that is really too tight, though it claims to be a husky. In the background of the reflection, I see a can of Right Guard deodorant next to the bathroom sink, and its implied assertion that I need to eliminate all traces of nature from my essence. It’s an effort that is doomed to failure.

Maybe I should switch to a roll-on.