Archive for February, 2011

Apparently, it’s no longer wrong to be wrong

February 28, 2011

Inerrancy can be a tremendous burden. Just ask the Bible.

For one thing, there’s the whole issue of consistency. In one place the Holy Scripture says “thou shall not kill” while in another it says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (though many Biblical scholars interpret that as a reference to the prophets’ vision and dental plan). Those who claim homosexuality is wrong cite a passage that decrees “a man shall not lie down with another man” even though only two chapters later it says “have a yabba dabba doo time/a dabba doo time/you’ll have a gay old time.”

Lord, where is thy continuity editor?

Then there’s the whole issue of what is truly right and what is truly wrong. Situational ethics aside, there’s really very little in our modern world that is 100%, unassailably correct. You can say that two plus two always equals four, but that’s only true in base ten. You might contend that gravity is an unyielding force of nature, but try telling that to Superman.

A greater acceptance of other cultures and the diversity they bring to our own is widely viewed as a positive step forward for modern society. So the enlightened man generally tries to withhold judgment about whether alien ideas and practices are appropriate. Returning to the gay lifestyle (just as an example, I’ll stress), we might believe that homosexuality is awkward, messy and often physically painful, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.

Still, there has to be some level of moral absolutism in the world, or we lose our right to feel superior to animals, who have no qualms at all about walking around naked, licking themselves inappropriately, and picking catfights just because dinner is served a half-hour late. Surely Hitler was “wrong” to start a world war that resulted in the death of tens of millions of people. However, we have to ask, was he “wrong” as in “evil” or was he “wrong” as in “mistaken”? Had he survived to face justice at the Nuremburg trials, could he have made the defense that “oops, I didn’t mean to invade Poland; it was supposed to just be a vacation for the Wehrmacht”?

For much of my working life, I’ve been regarded as an arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. I work as a proofreader in the financial services industry. I spend most of my day examining the good-faith efforts of my fellow workers and telling them where they’ve made mistakes that need to be corrected. In fact, virtually a third of the staff in our 70-person operation is made up of others like me, whose entire raison d’etre for eight hours a day is to point out the faults of others.

If you take this role too seriously, as I’ve done for decades now, it can turn you into a bitter, judgmental misanthrope (at least, that’s my excuse). It can be hard to turn off your tendency to come to indisputable conclusions about the world around you after you’ve clocked out for the day. A dedicated proofreader will go home at night, happy and eager to point out all the flaws that exist in his family and friends, not to mention TV plotlines, his neighbor’s landscaping and the proper use of the serial comma in the note he received from his son’s teacher.

When I was younger, I took quite the hard line about enforcing the rules of written communication and typography. I still remember one particular incident that left me bitter for days afterward.

One of our clients was an outfit called “Mom ‘n Pop’s Country Ham”. Hard as it might be to believe that anything called “Mom ‘n Pop’s” is subject to regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission, this shareholder-owned corporation was required to file a proxy statement. While proofreading this document, I pointed out that — technically — the single apostrophe which preceded the colloquial “n” should be accompanied by a similar apostrophe after the “n”.

“The apostrophe indicates that a letter is missing,” I told my supervisor. “And since both the ‘a’ and the ‘d’ are missing from the ‘and’, the proper spelling would be ‘n’, not ‘n.”

He said he’d point this out to the client. The next day, I got the following response:

“They’re spelling it like they want to spell it,” I was told. “It’s that way in their logo.”

“Well, that doesn’t make it right,” I countered. “Aren’t they concerned they’ll lose business from customers who won’t respect them and their product because they don’t know how to spell?”

“Their customers are people who like country ham,” the supervisor responded. “They’re not going to notice.”

I stewed for quite a while after this and only gradually got over my outrage. I considered for a time making the short drive to the company’s Claremont, N.C., headquarters to confront Chief Executive Officer Mom and Chairman of the Board Pop to convince them of the error of their ways. Even if they wouldn’t let me past security, I could still deface their building sign by spray-painting a “sic” next to the offending ‘n. But thinking it through further, I realized that’d give me little satisfaction, especially considering most would think I meant “sick” and was making a commentary on how the ham made you feel.

After this incident, a certain disillusionment set in and I began a slow slide into moral relativism. We saw a never-ending stream of errors supplied in the word processing files created by our clients, but the proofreaders were now under strict orders to simple query anything that looked wrong and let it go. I resisted this edict for a while, feeling compelled to at least mark the error and then “stet” it, so I’d at least be on record in the cause of right. It made me feel better, but no one else seemed to care.

Now, we find ourselves in an age where spelling, punctuation and grammar can be “creative”. English is a living language, we’re told, so Sarah Palin can make up words like “refudiate” and companies can name themselves things like “adidas” (no capital letter), BellSouth (no space between words) and “Yahoo” (exclamation point no longer needed since they’ve fallen so far behind competitors like Google). Even the small appliance repair shop down the street from me can call itself “Jerry’z Vacuums”.

Meanwhile, the Internet and wireless telecommunications push the boundary even farther. Texting has proven especially revolutionary in its remaking of the language. “U” means “you” and “R” means “are” and conventions like capitalization and punctuation are completely discarded. If you tell someone of the digital generation that their 😉 is incorrect because the semicolon should always go on the outside of the parentheses, they’ll simply smile and wink at your provincial ways.

It’s a tide of change that’s impossible to resist. I don’t want to be seen as an ancient grandpa clinging to his old-fashioned ways. I’m aging in so many other ways, I’d like to appear young and with-it in at least this one area I’m familiar with. So when one of my co-workers brings me pages to proofread that are of questionable quality, and they ask me how it looks, I have a fairly standard post-modern reply:

“There are patterns of black toner all over the surface of this bright white paper product,” I’ll say. “Some are shaped like what appear to be letters while others look like numbers. I think there’s a cohesive pattern to their arrangement, so I’m going to say it looks good to me.”

Madman, yes, but a surprisingly good speller

Revisited: At the Movies (In the Breakroom)

February 27, 2011

February is not the best of times in the world of cinema. The winter crap, er, crop of movies are generally artistic cast-offs designed not to distract voters considering Oscar nominations. Instead, we’re given fluff, misguided children’s fare and some guy named “Duane Johnson” who I swear looks exactly like The Rock.

With so few films of merit currently on the market, it only makes sense that you don’t need a New York Times egghead to help suggest what might be the best choice this weekend at the local cineplex. Your expectations are already pretty low. About all you need for guidance is the good word of a friend who liked that one scene where the guy and the girl sort of kissed but not quite, and in the background was that song — you know, that “la-la-la” song from the seventies — played on a harp.

So let’s turn to the voice of the commoners for some recommendations about the hits and the misses currently in first run. Overheard in an office breakroom that could be your own, let’s meet our critics. Rachel is also known as “Old Rachel” to distinguish her from the attractive young intern Rachel. Old Rachel has two preteen children who help define her worldview of Hollywood. We’ll also hear from The Lady From Accounting, a late-middle-aged divorcee who has the nerve to go to movies to be entertained, not challenged. There’s not a romantic comedy she’s viewed that she didn’t “jess loooovvvve.”

So what do you nice ladies suggest?

OR: I don’t like that “Shutter Island” movie. It looks too dark. It’s depressing. Leonardo DiCaprio was good in “Titanic,” and he was a cute kid on that TV show when he was young, but I don’t like him lately.

TLFA: I saw that preview too. No thanks.

OR: You know what I did like, though? I liked “The Squeakqual”. It was actually better than the original, and those Chipettes were just darling, I don’t care what Alvin says.

TLFA: Everybody says they don’t like Chipmunk movies, but everybody goes to see them anyway. Speaking of squeaky, I kind of liked that Sandra Bullock movie, you know, the one about the football player she adopts and he wins the World Series. They say she might win a Grammy for that.

OR: Right, right … I think it was called “All About Steve,” and she’s been kidnapped by a hijacker on a bus, then she wins the Miss Firecracker beauty contest. She’s so cute.

TLFA: You know what else was good? “Invictus.” I didn’t think I’d like it, what with all the soccer and Nelson Mandingo and Ben Affleck (or was it Matt Damon)? Anyhoo, I meant to see “The Wolfman” but I had looked at my ticket stub upside down, and I thought theater 7 was theater 1, and I didn’t even realize it was the wrong movie until about 45 minutes in. But “Invictus” was actually okay, at least for a movie without any werewolves in it.

OR: I was gonna see “Valentine’s Day” on Valentine’s Day — wouldn’t that be wild? But my car got all tore up and I couldn’t make it.

TLFA: Oh, I want to see that one. It’s got so many stars! And I just love romance movies. I heard it’s just great. It’s kind of like that old TV show — you remember “Love American Style”? [singing] “Truer than the red, white and blue, ew, ew, ew, ew …”

OR: Honey, that was before my time. But if you want to see a good, funny movie, go see that “Dear John”. These two kids fall in love and then 9/11 happens and he has to leave and she’s like all boo-hoo. It’s funny, but it’ll make you sad too. That’s what makes a good movie, if you ask me.

TLFA: Talk about sad, my friend was telling me how she cried the whole last half of “Tooth Fairy.” You’d think it was going to be funny, because it has The Rock dressed up in a tu-tu, but he learns some valuable lessons about helping poor kids whose teeth are falling out. It even has a message, if you like that sort of thing: Always brush after every meal.

OR: I love The Rock. I’d even see him in some Shakespeare movie, if he took off his shirt.

TLFA: You got that right!

OR: I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to, and that’s “Alice in Wonderland”. It’s got Johnny Depp in it, and I think that singer April Lavigne is the one who says “off with her head.”

TLFA: You know, that Alice, she was on drugs.

OR: Well, she fell down a hole!

TLFA: That’s true. Anyway, I just loved Johnny Depp in that “Chocolate Factory”. That’s what he looks like in this movie, except I don’t think it has as much chocolate.

OR: Well, if you only see one movie this year, you gotta see “Michael Jackson, the Olympics and the Lightning Thief.”

TLFA: Wasn’t that his concert film? The one he was practicing for when he died?

OR: No, wait, not Michael, some other Jackson.

TLFA: Janet? I always thought she’d make a good actress, how much she looks like Michael and all.

OR: No, this one is about a teenage boy whose dad is God. Well, not the God, but a Greek god. And he’s flinging lightning bolts all over the place and it’s kinda like “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings,” one of those kind of movies. The boy is real cute, too. My girls are crazy about him.

TLFA: And it has Olympics in it too? Is there ice dancing? Did you see where that guy riding the luge got killed? That was so sad.

OR: No, it really didn’t have that much Olympics in it. I was surprised. What’s been your pick for the best movie of the year so far?

TLFA: I really liked “Lonely Bones”. Where that girl gets murdered and tells her story from up in Heaven.

OR: Percy Jackson goes to Heaven too. Wouldn’t it be cool if those two met? Now that would be a great movie.

TLFA: That would be awesome.

OR: Well, I’d better get back to my desk. My spreadsheet just crashed and I’m about to throw some lightning bolts myself!

TLFA: Ha, ha. Okay, then. Maybe I’ll see you At the Movies.

Revisited: Feature writer pitches in periodically.

February 26, 2011

The call came early in the morning. The city editor said the crime reporter had called in sick, and they needed someone to cover the police beat.

“But I’m the features writer,” I said. “Crime reporting requires complete sentences, with verbs and commas. I deal in short, punchy phrases. I’m not sure I can do it.”

The editor cracked a silent smile. At least, that’s what I’m making up.

“You can handle it,” he said. “I like your style.”

Would I still be able to use lots of short paragraphs?

“Go for it, kid,” he answered. “And be sure to bring your bag of periods.”

Carolina Avenue is just two blocks from Arlington Avenue in the city’s South Central neighborhood.

Two streets where the best and the worst happened within three weeks of each other — and involved the same man.

Carolina Avenue is a street with a burned-out house on it. Arlington Avenue is where two police officers were wounded while serving a search warrant. Trying to keep crack cocaine out of the hands of children.

Police say the same man who shot the officers had told them 20 days earlier that he tried to get into a burning house to save a stranger.

Thirty-one-year-old Tymon Wells.

“The same guy,” said Lt. Brad Redfern, of the city police department.

In other news, a man trying to sell watches outside a liquor store told police he was robbed Tuesday.

The suspect snatched two silver watches from the vendor’s hands. Threatened to shoot him. In the face. With a gun. A gun that had bullets in it.

The victim described the suspect as light-skinned. Black. Male. Between 20 and 30 years old. Wearing a white coat and a white hat.

White hat, maybe. But definitely not one of the good guys.

Meanwhile, a York woman was arrested on assault charges after police says she threatened her daughter with a knife.

That’s right: her daughter with a knife.

Ebbie Hines, known fondly by her neighbors on Turkey Creek Road as “that crazy old bat,” told police she only grabbed the knife because her daughter grabbed another knife first.

“She was a kind woman, always letting others go first,” said somebody or other.

Hines said that earlier in the day, the daughter threw a salt shaker at her, striking her in the chest. It left a bruise.

On her chest, and in her heart.

Hines was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with intent to kill.

In Rock Hill, it was 2 a.m. Saturday. A time when most people are asleep. Unless they decided to stay up late.

No work on Sunday, you know.

But somebody was working late at the Sportsman, a hunting and fishing equipment store. They drove their GMC Yukon through the front door in an apparent robbery attempt.

The crash caused $15,000 in damage to the store. Enough to buy a toy for a thousand poor kids in Haiti. Or make 500 care packages for troops in Afghanistan. Or buy a golf cart for a mentally challenged teen.

Instead, a store has a destroyed foyer.

Officers followed footprints in the snow, but at the time of the report it was not known who was involved in the break-in attempt.

Hopefully, it wasn’t Santa Claus. Or Rudolph, that famous reindeer with the nose of red. Probably not, since Christmas was two months ago.

Finally, the back door of a Chinese restaurant was pried open during a burglary in which thieves stole $1,500.

That’s a lot of hot-and-sour soup with extra tofu.

Police said an unknown person or persons cut the phone line and ripped out the alarm system. The thieves first searched the front desk area, then entered a storage area.

A safety deposit box was stolen during the incident.

Not so safe after all, huh?

End of story.

My plans for a new hospital

February 25, 2011

I’ve been thinking about building a new hospital in my home town. Rock Hill is a fast-growing area with an aging population and a lot of younger people with bad health habits, so it seems like the effort might be successful, even though we already have one major medical center in the county.

There’s an abandoned Blockbuster Video store not far from here that I bet I could rent for next to nothing. I’ve browsed in what was their music/comedy section and think it would convert nicely to an emergency room. I looked in the window and they still have the display racks for candy and popcorn, which could serve as a nice head start on the cafeteria. And I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a nurse, so I might have a leg up on hiring staff.

Unfortunately, the meddling, bloated government and its job-killing regulations are keeping me from fulfilling this dream I’ve had since last Tuesday, or maybe it was Wednesday. There’s something called a “certificate-of-need” law that requires would-be entrepreneurs like myself to receive approval from the Department of Health and Environmental Control before they can just go off and build hospitals on every other street corner.

In fact, there are three other outfits looking to do the same thing as me. The owner of the one hospital we already have, as well as two other large healthcare networks from adjacent counties, have been battling since 2004 for the right to build a new hospital just north of town. All three are now involved in a heavy media blitz, advertising in newspapers, and on TV and billboards to convince citizens to show their support for their particular effort. Apparently, if enough letters are received by the bureaucrat in charge, one of them will be awarded the right to build the hospital.

They’re making a strong pitch to convince people that their plan is best. “A growing county deserves choice … and that’s what Novant Health offers us,” reads one full-page ad. Carolinas Medical Center used its ad to reprint one of the letters it’s already received, a note from Sherry W. saying that CMC is “kind” and “always ready to help solve your medical problems.” Tenet Healthcare Corp. warns that if it doesn’t win, “the healthcare you trust is in danger.”

I can’t afford to compete with huge corporations such as these. Even if I could somehow fund the public relations campaign that’s apparently required, I don’t have the $76.2 million Novant would spend on a 64-bed facility, much less the $126 million Tenet would use on its proposed 100-bed location. And it’s a shame, because we all know how competition is the lifeblood of a free-market economy, and that if I could just have the opportunity to make my own innovative pitch, then the people of York County would be flocking to the Blockbuster site in numbers unlike anything seen since 1987, when Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold was one of America’s top rentals.

All I have is this modest little blog to make my case for what would be a hospital like no other hospital. So I’m listing here some features I would include that would capture the imagination of the hospital-going public and make confinement there a lot more enjoyable.

Stuff I would offer if I could be awarded the certificate of need to build my own hospital:

Free Chick-fil-A sandwich with every outpatient surgery

Commemorative DVD of your balloon angioplasty procedure, complete with a “blooper reel” and commentary from your surgeon, your anesthesiologist, and South Carolina’s “favorite daughter” Vanna White

Certification from the Department of Health that all food served in the hospital cafeteria does not contain meat surgically removed from humans

Half-off all aspirins dispensed in the chest pain clinic

Nurses from Hooters

A chapel not just for Christians but also one for believers in evolutionary theory (Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” will be displayed under a spotlight on an ornate easel at the front of the room)

A “fun” way of notifying colonoscopy patients of the results of their procedures: chocolate Tootsie Pop presented at checkout for clean results; cherry Tootsie Pop presented to those who show a small amount of blood in their stools; lemon-lime Tootsie Pop given to those who are told to call their physicians immediately

Olive Garden-style beepers given to patients waiting to be seen in the emergency room, with a free order of breadsticks offered to anyone who has to wait more than four hours

Emergency transport system includes not only conventional ambulance vehicles and a helicopter on call, but also Segways, jet-packs and pneumatic tubes leading from local doctors’ offices to the hospital. Parachuting patients from low-flying plane will also be offered to the more adventurous and/or desperately ill.

In-room video poker to replace conventional entertainment, complete with a $100 stake

Unique gift shop offering items left behind by patients who didn’t survive their hospital visit

Dads have the option of coaching their laboring wives via a closed-circuit video feed from a separate wing of the hospital where they can’t be slapped or choked by the new mom

Prescriptions dispensed from a vending machine

Community charity care will take the form of offering random procedures to the poor.

Hospital bills will be handwritten by a trained calligrapher

A Thursday peek at the mini-blog

February 24, 2011

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


Teen singing sensation Justin Bieber struck back yesterday against critics of his new hairstyle, calling them “cockroaches and greasy rats” that he will “seek out and kill house by house in a river of blood.”

Bieber’s signature locks were lopped off Monday afternoon in preparation for a music video he’s planning to film with the country band Rascal Flatts. In a photo released later in the day, a spikey-haired Justin appears next to band member Jay DeMarcus. The 16-year-old Grammy winner sports a dazed look that has led some to suggest he may have been drugged, hypnotized, or held against his will.

“I am vowing to die here as a martyr, fighting to my last drop of blood, to defend the new ‘do,” Bieber tweeted to his fans. “You men and women who love Bieber … get out of your homes and fill the streets. Leave your homes and attack them (haircut opponents) in their lairs.”

Bieber suggested that many who preferred his old shaggy look were “serving the devil.” He charged that opponents were “drugging the children with hallucinogens, making them drunk and sending them to hell.”

Celebratory gunfire by Bieber supporters rang out in towns across the U.S. after the singer’s tweet, while in protester-held enclaves near major cities, people threw shoes at TV screens showing his image, venting their contempt.


I join with the people of Egypt to celebrate their great political victory. The removal of a long-entrenched tyrant who restricted his people’s freedom while looting their treasury is to be heartily commended. Let us hope it sets the precedent for outbreaks of freedom across the entire Middle East.

I also have a somewhat selfish reason for being glad to see the last of the man who ruled that ancient land for over 30 years. President Hosni Mubarak was last reported seen at a luxurious resort on the Red Sea, but it was thought this was just a prelude to him being exiled abroad. He can’t disappear from the world stage soon enough for my tastes.

That’s primarily because the rhythm of his name always reminded me of the 1978 disco hit “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. Say them one after the other. Hosni Mubarak. Copacabana. See what I mean?

Here’s the song that’s been ricocheting around in my head for the last two weeks now:

His name was Hosni, Hosni Mubarak
He made the Egyptians feel heartsick
For he was Hosni, Hosni Mubarak
Graft and oppression were always in session with Mubarak

Now, with the vicious autocrat finally removed from power, perhaps I can think of some other Manilow song.

Oh, no! Not that one!

Well you came and you gave without taking
But I sent you away
Oh Kadhafi
Well you kissed me and stopped me from shaking
And I need you today
Oh Kadhafi
I’m looking forward to the NBA All-Star game on TV tonight, but it’s been almost as much fun watching the lesser events surrounding the big weekend in Los Angeles.
Last night’s dunk contest featured a spectacular winning performance from Blake Griffin. Victories by James Jones in the three-point contest and by Stephen Curry in the skills competition weren’t quite as dramatic, yet still offered fans a chance to watch their heroes having a little fun.
I’m hoping that next year, we’ll see an expansion of these auxiliary events. I even have a few suggestions:
  • The 360-degree dunk is one of the most exciting moves in the sport. Taking it to the next level, a 720-degree move, seems physically impossible. But if you take the dunk out of the equation, I bet professional basketball players could rotate in mid-air along with the best ballerinas in the world. Let’s have a competition where they simply run to mid-court, jump, and twirl as much as possible before landing. The scoring would be based on the number of degrees completed. For extra entertainment value, make the players wear tutus.
  • Stage a game with a team made up entirely of child stars versus retired NBA veterans. Since Justin Bieber appointed himself so well in the celebrity game, there’s no reason to doubt that the likes of Dakota Fanning, Abigail Breslin, Jaden and Willow Smith and Angus T. Jones (the fat kid from “Two and a Half Men”) could make up a team competitive enough to take on Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, etc. To even up the competition a little, the young ones will be allowed to inflict blatant personal fouls on their much older, much taller opponents.
  • Pit the players whose last names begin with A through L against the players with names beginning with M through Z. Have the game officiated by employees from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Players names will be called when it is time for them to take a shot; otherwise, they need to wait patiently in their seats.
  • Have a game between the black all-stars and the white all-star. The white all-star will be able to choose four teammates from the audience.
  • Other possible ways to break up the teams: players under 6-2 versus players over 7 feet; players with tattoos versus players with headbands; and assist leaders who excel in passing against the “chuckers”. (Detail that’d need to be addressed in the latter format: the passing team might never score).
  • Stage a lay-up contest as a complement to the dunking contest. The ten tallest players would take turns making uncontested lay-ups, perhaps the simplest shot in basketball. As each player misses, he’d be eliminated until only the winner — who would be crowned sometime in late summer or early fall — is determined.
  • Set up two additional baskets at either side of the midcourt line so there’d be four goals total on the floor. Divide the all-stars into four teams by salary level. Use two basketballs instead of one, and enjoy the free-for-all that ensues.
  • Stage a game between players convicted of felons versus those convicted of misdemeanors. Overflow facilities could be set up out in the parking lot.
As spring-like temperatures spread through much of the country this weekend, watching The Weather Channel has become decidedly less fun.
A month ago at this time, TWC was my first choice for viewing whenever I sat down in front of the TV. Even if my own local weather wasn’t especially dramatic, I could watch the pitiful people who live farther north struggling with monstrous snow storms and assorted icing events. There’s little that’s more comfortable than snuggling into your heaviest blanket and watching others suffer through perhaps the worst winter in recent memory.
I’d like to see The Weather Channel take a cue from the folks at ESPN. That cable channel has branched out to a “family” of networks, offering ESPNU for college sports, ESPN-Classic which rebroadcasts especially memorable contests, and ESPN2 for people interested in games where the final score contained the number “2″. Why couldn’t The Weather Channel take on a similar expansion?
I would definitely watch a channel showing nothing but extreme weather, from snow and ice to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and even volcanoes and asteroid strikes, if those latter two count as weather. Once every ten minutes, they’d have the “Local on the 8′s” insert, with forecasts for your area that include temperatures below zero, frozen locusts and thundersleet. You could even enjoy playing tricks on your friends and family, showing them the dire-but-fabricated forecasts and watching them turn as white as the melting snow.
Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath for this premiere. Not if I expect it to come from people who don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.


How can we cover the weather if we’re not being pummeled by it?

Watching out for the future

February 23, 2011

There’s a good reason they call it a “watch.”

The timepiece that first filled our vest pockets before migrating to our wrists basically just sits there all day, waiting for those few occasions when you look at it to determine where the sun is in its transit across the sky, and if it’s time yet to turn on “Oprah.” You watch the watch to get periodic updates about how you’re progressing toward your eventual demise. One minute it’s a quarter past, and the next thing you know it’s time for your last rites.

In this technologically advanced era, the watch is becoming an anachronism. We need so much more information to operate effectively in a complicated world than just the time. Certainly, it helped a few decades back when watch-makers added features like calculators and the day of the month. If you found yourself urgently needing to know how much 36 times 18 was, you had the answer right there at your fingertips, assuming your fingers had the circumference of a pencil point.

Now, we need to know not only the time, but we also have to keep constantly apprised of the latest stock quotes, what’s going on with our Twitter feed, and exactly how angry the birds have become. So we all carry smartphones, and the older ones among us look on with regret as the watch is being inexorably replaced.

Recently, the plastic band on my Timex Ironman Triathlon wore out. At first I thought renewed efforts to lose weight were starting to pay off, and my shrinking wrist was no longer able to hold the watch securely in place. Then, it dropped to the floor, and I realized the strap had worn completely through.

For years, Timex and the other leviathans of the time-keeping industry have marketed products so reliable that they virtually never broke. You could buy a digital mechanism at almost any retail store and it would run forever. When manufacturers figured out how negatively this could impact their profits, they built obsolescence into the straps, sending us scurrying over to Target every six months or so to buy a new band. Then we had to sign up for a special course at the local community college to figure out how to put it on.

This time, though, I looked at my old watch and its broken band, and I looked at my new touchscreen cell phone, and I figured I didn’t really need both. So now my trusty Ironman sits collecting dust on my dresser while I try to get used to the idea of looking at my phone display when I want to know the time.

I was a relatively late adopter of the watch when I was growing up. You didn’t really need one while you were going to school, as a giant clock invariably hung from the wall at the front of the classroom showing a constant display of how much longer Mr. Blaskey was going to drone on about the Napoleonic Wars. For kids, time tends to drag slowly by. You don’t need an incessant reminder of how long it takes for an hour to pass.

About the only thing worse than watching the big Westclox above the door in third-period history was sitting in church through a 30-minute-long Lutheran sermon, and monitoring the passage of time by only the incremental changes in the inflection of the minister’s voice. When he finally said something like “and so my friends,” you knew it was almost time to “praise God from who all blessings flow” and make a beeline for the free cookies in the fellowship hall.

Even when I first went off to college, I didn’t wear a watch. In the turbulent seventies, we regarded time as an oppressive manifestation of The Man trying to control our lives. We’d shamble from class to class, stopping a while to sit cross-legged in the Quad and admire the beauty of a tiny wildflower before wandering in to Econ 201 a few minutes late. Promptness and tardiness were concepts we were only vaguely aware of. It was far more important to experience the fullness of life through a few tosses of the Frisbee and a few tokes of a joint than to be seated in a lecture hall at precisely 10:20 a.m.

Besides, it never felt natural to me to have foreign objects like watches attached to different parts of my body. I didn’t wear any jewelry or rings, and certainly didn’t have any piercings or studs. I had a few pieces of amalgam implanted in teeth that had been invaded by cavities, but that was about the extent of my adornment.

It wasn’t until toward the end of my college years that I first bought a watch and started wearing it. This was around the start of the jogging craze, and as I picked up what would become a lifelong exercise habit, I thought it might be interesting to track my progress around the neighborhood. Using the chronometer feature and the “lap/reset” button, I could pursue my goal of breaking the ten-minute mile.

Gradually, I got used to the idea of having several ounces of plastic wrapped around my forearm, and it proved to be increasingly helpful as I entered the business world to know the precise time. I started getting a kick out of checking in with the master atomic clock in Washington, D.C., and synchronizing my own timepiece down to the second. Showing up at places you said you’d be at the time you promised to be there became a critical skill in staying employed.

It became even more important when I started to travel on business. The major airlines weren’t especially forgiving of those who ran a few minutes late, as I learned the hard way one winter night spent looking for a hotel near the Chicago airport when I was instead supposed to be high over the Atlantic on my way to India. When I finally did make it to the subcontinent, I was careful to advance the numbers on my watch by ten-and-a-half hours into the future, so I could better appreciate how the developing world was starting to move as fast if not faster than life in America.

Now, as I get to that time in my life when I can see retirement on the distant horizon, I’m faced again with adjusting my relationship with the temporal world. The travel opportunities have gone away, and I’m now spending most of my time at work sitting in front of a computer terminal that constantly displays the current hour in the bottom right-hand corner. As I get older, I notice that time seems to be moving more quickly than it ever did while I was waiting for the bell to signal the end of the school day.

So maybe this is the right opportunity to decrease my dependence on arbitrary measures of the aging of the universe. I’m not going to replace my watchband but instead will rely on my cellphone and the countless other displays of the time we seem to have all around us these days. I’m going to ease into my golden years with less stress on punctuality, and a greater emphasis on less stress.

If only I can get used to this new installation on my arm …

Ally and Alli looking to become allies

February 22, 2011

In a move that had many analysts shaking their heads, it was announced yesterday that a merger-of-equals will take place between Ally Bank, an Internet financial institution based in Utah, and the makers of Alli, a leading anti-obesity drug.

The new firm, to be called “Alliy Consolidated,” will attempt to achieve a unique corporate synergy by bringing together two companies that seemingly have little in common. Ally Financial is the former banking arm of GMAC, involved primarily in automobile loans but trying now to attract savers by offering simple banking products at competitive interest rates. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline distributes Alli, the medication known generically as tetrahydrolipstatin, which uses fecal incontinence in conjunction with a reduced-calorie diet to promote weight loss.

“This is a great day for our customers interested in saving for retirement while looking to trim down in time for bathing-suit season,” said Joseph Crouse, who will become president of the combined firm. “We’ll be using economies of scale and the power of two well-known brands to stake out an innovative niche in two growing markets. Alliy will offer one-stop shopping for tubby clients interested in leveraging the convenience of online banking with the inconvenience of steatorrhea, a condition characterized by oily, loose stools and excessive flatus.”

The similarity of the two companies’ names had long confused many potential customers. People who logged onto in search of urgent or frequent bowel movements instead found themselves reading about no-penalty certificates of deposit (CDs) and money market accounts. Meanwhile, those looking for modern financial products offered over the Internet were encountering information about controversial aversion therapy techniques that associated eating fat with unpleasant “treatment effects.”

“We’re taking the negatives associated with that confusion and turning them into a positive,” Crouse said. “Now, people will have time to be constantly in and out of the bathroom because they are spending less time and effort managing their personal finances.”

Crouse said the new business, which he called the “first bankaceutical,” will hit the ground running once federal regulators approve the merger later this spring. He said a management team is already in place that “will use that same sense of urgency that Alli consumers feel on a daily basis and apply it to the creation of the world’s greatest online depository institution.”

“We’re redefining the whole concept of ‘making a deposit,'” Crouse told reporters.

Observers of the mergers and acquisitions market expressed reservations that the new company could succeed. They cited the well-known failure last year of an effort by the makers of Flomax, who tried to pick up remnants of the collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers. Despite a lavishly financed marketing campaign featuring the tag line “Piss Your Money Worries Away,” that attempt was abandoned in the wake of the recession.

“I’m just not sure they can make it work,” said Eric Royster, an analyst from Bank of America. “Their offer of transparent financial products may or may not be successful with a customer base that is constantly shitting itself.”

Crouse said he hoped the new name will blur negative memories some may have of Alli. In 2007, the consumer group Prescription Access Litigation awarded the medicine its “Bitter Pill Award,” asking the question “with allies like this, who needs enemas?”

“Our attorneys are already working with the FDA to include new safety information on our packaging about the risk of severe liver injury,” Crouse said. “We think that’s a small price to pay for no-fee ATMs.”

Crouse said the new Alliy will continue to offer FDIC insurance for deposits up to $10,000, while limiting its customers to “no more than five withdrawals per day.”

“Ally Financial has long been known for its liquidity, even during the height of the 2008 banking crisis,” Crouse said. “I think this merger will take that reputation to the next level.”

Meanwhile, speculation grew that yet another company could be snatched up in this current round of merger mania in corporate America. The makers of All laundry detergent were said to be in preliminary discussions with the new Alliy. That combination would result in the biggest player yet in the lucrative field of firms whose names start with “All”.

“There’s more synergy there than one might think at first glance,” said a financial reporter from The Wall Street Journal. “It may seem counterintuitive, but loose, oily stools can actually be processed into a very effective cleanser. It’s an all-natural alternative to the processed phosphates that All is using now. If they get the go-ahead from regulators, I see the board at Alliy being so flushed with success that they just may try to make this play.”

Protesters demand a better life

February 21, 2011

Thousands of protesters flock to the city center to register their dissatisfaction with a government that’s out to destroy their way of life. The ruling regime, made up of conservatives beholden to an entrenched power elite that is chipping away at citizens’ rights, says it will not be swayed. Meanwhile, the protesters complain that hardships they’ve endured for years will be compounded yet again while the wealthy give up next to nothing.

The scene is not from Egypt or Yemen or Bahrain; it’s from Madison, Wisconsin. The newly elected Republican governor is delighting his Tea Party base by threatening members of state workers’ unions with massive job cuts in order to balance the state’s budget. And the workers are taking their protests to the state capital to demonstrate that they don’t like it one bit.

Teachers, prison guards, police and hospital personnel face the prospect of seeing their positions eliminated, privatized or outsourced. Proponents of these cuts say that if they can’t enjoy a comfortable middle-class lifestyle based on a living wage, then no one else should either.

“These jobs don’t have to be unionized,” said Allen Gustav, one of the arch-conservatives supporting Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to slash benefits and de-certify unions. “I know an unemployed guy with a hunting rifle who’d be glad to take any one of these jobs at half the pay. He’d probably make the best fit as a prison guard, but I’m sure he could also be a teacher or a nurse.”

“Let the forces of the free market play out,” said another Walker ally. “We can get cheap labor from India to fill these roles. Threaten prisoners that they’ll have to watch ‘Outsourced’ on NBC if they fail to lock themselves down for the night.

Other conservatives pointed to the closing of a nearby Sears as a possible source for replacement workers should the union members be terminated.

“Those ladies who re-fold the clothes, I bet they’d be real good at changing the dressing on a wound,” said Republican county chairman Mike Mathers. “And the appliance salesmen could become excellent educators. The desperation they’ve learned on the job can be taught to the workforce of the future.”

Little progress at reaching a compromise was achieved over the weekend, despite the presence of a crowd outside the state capital that numbered 70,000 people. Democratic lawmakers continued their strategy of boycotting senate sessions to deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass the Walker proposal. Meanwhile, the issue has begun simmering in a number of other states that are also facing a budget shortfall and are looking to the shrinking middle class to shrink just a little more so they won’t face a tax increase.

“I’m pretty scared they’re going to be coming after me,” said Bob Sullivan, identified as the only unionized worker left in the state of South Carolina. “Our Democrats tried that boycott thing about 20 years ago, and we’re still looking for them.”

“What’s a union?” asked another South Carolinian. “Is that those pungent white vegetables they put on salads at fancy restaurants? I hate onions, and I hate all they represent. We’re proud to be a right-to-work state. Chronically poor dental care has already made our state’s breath virtually unbearable. We don’t need to be eating raw onions too.”

In other states, members of local police benevolent associations feared that hard-won protections would be lost in the wave of state budget cutting.

“I already have to buy my own body armor,” said patrolman Harold Isaac of Cleveland, Ohio. “The best handcuffs I can afford I got at a close-out sale when the local sex shop went out of business. I know I can’t afford to buy my own gun. I’d just have to borrow my son’s toy pistols and yell ‘bang-bang’ if I need to protect myself while on duty.”

Back at the Wisconsin capital, six days of occupation by protestors was beginning to take a toll on the historic building. Sleeping bags littered the floor of the rotunda, trash cans overflowed with discarded food containers, and a rancid odor hung low in the air. The sergeant-at-arms responsible for security blamed the smell on a radical group of union members from the northern part of the state.

“They fashion themselves after the Cheeseheads, the fans of the Green Bay Packers,” said Lt. Steven Monroe. “They call themselves the ‘Cheesepants’ because they’ve taken to wearing limburger underwear as a sign of protest. That stuff is pretty rank to begin with, so you can imagine what it smells like if worn as briefs for almost a week. P-U!”

The union rank and file are starting to get a little rank

Revisited: Stalling in the stalls

February 20, 2011

I think when I say that I don’t enjoy bumping into other men in a public rest room, I am not alone.

Perhaps I should be a little more specific. What I don’t like is coming out of a stall after I’ve done my business, and encountering co-workers wandering amidst the sinks and urinals. It’s such an intimate setting, it feels as though we should be talking to each other, sharing in the brotherhood of fellow men who have similar biological needs to ours. Yet it’s that very intimacy that intimidates us into fears that any overtures could be misinterpreted.

Besides, I don’t like talking to most people at my desk or in the hallway; why should I want to engage them in the bathroom?

So when I’m using a stall, and I can tell from the shuffle of feet or the splashing of water or certain olfactory indicators that others are in the room, I tend to linger in the privacy of the commode cubicle. It’s usually only a few minutes before I hear the exit door closing, signaling me that it’s safe to emerge into an empty room.

I actually view this respite as an opportunity for a little quiet time in the midst of a hectic day, and have created some diversions for myself to make the moments pass more quickly. Using only the common fixtures found in most restrooms, I’ve devised something of a “play time,” and thought I could share these ideas with others who yearn for both privacy and fun.

Fine dining and bathing?

I don’t know what these three devices are intended to do, but I won’t let that limit my imagination. The circular thing at bottom left appears to unscrew and so would make a fine plate for an impromptu meal, or perhaps a frisbee. I presume the spigot will release water, allowing a quick sponge bath with sopping tissue. The other piece of plumbing, attached to the toilet tank itself, looks like a fire suppression sprinkler, so I probably shouldn’t mess with it. I don’t want to set off any alarms. I’m here to evacuate myself, not the whole office park.


Feel the burn

Here are two opportunities for a quick workout while waiting on the urinator next door. The handicap grips can be used as uneven parallel bars for a speedy upper-body burn to build those biceps. (Don’t swing so high that your feet appear over the top of the stall — that could arouse suspicion). The plunger can double as a pogo stick.


Explore the dark side

Many stalls have a little metal door in the wall leading to places unknown. If you can stuff yourself through, it could be a chance for a wonderful and mysterious adventure. (Or, you could end up trapped between the wallboard and the insulation). Use the spray deodorizer to lube yourself down for the tight squeeze, then pretend the can is a weapon to fend off the dragons and satyrs of this mystical realm in the Land Beyond the Janitor Closet.


Me Tarzan, you hot

Catch up on your National Geographic reading from the library of periodicals atop the commode tank. This classic journal of world cultures has spiffed itself up since you probably last checked it out as a teenage boy. Gone are the half-naked native women of Amazonia, replaced now by fully naked lowland gorillas, like this seductress treed in a Tanzania national park. Her threatening gaze may say “no-no-no” but the romance of the primeval jungle will eventually convince her submit to your manly ways.

Revisited: Tea Party reaches out to the young

February 19, 2011

MIAMI, Fla. (Feb. 18) — Organizers of the conservative Tea Party movement are looking to the future by recruiting more young people to join the anti-government cause.    

One such example can be found in “Lady Ann and Lady Diane’s Teas,” a group of Libertarian 6-to-12-year-old girls who fondly recall an America where ladies could dress in gloves and pearls, enjoy tiny flower-shaped sandwiches and celebrate the days when Queen Victoria was president.    

“Dressing up is so much fun!” said chapter president Lady Diane. “In our party, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported back to a time when only the gracious held power in this country. Each of our elegant soirees will provide an atmosphere of refinement and charm in which to rail against the socialist Obama and his Stalinist henchmen.”    

The collection of lace-bedecked young ladies espouse the same anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-stimulus position as the national Tea Party organization, but do so in a setting festively decorated with pink bow sashes, antique china plates, minks, wraps and fans.    

“It’s time to get the Washington bureaucrats out of office and let real Americans take their country back,” said a 7-year-old who identified herself only as Madelyn. “And while you’re up, I’d like another scone, if you please.”    

Unlike the boisterous crowds that often heckled congressmen during town hall meetings, this new generation of arch-conservatives and white supremacists are mindful of the proper etiquette necessary to stage a reactionary coup with poise and style.    

“I just adore the old country roses and the Lady Carlyle fine English serving pieces,” said 11-year-old Addison. “And the sterling silver tongs would be just right to impale (former House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi.”    

Members are careful to stress that despite their fondness for all things crystal and gold-rimmed, they remain committed to the cause of a smaller government that stays out of private enterprise, offers no health care to its citizens, and detests all who are not as darling and precious as they are.    

“And we’re dead-set against any liberal reform of immigration law that lets more undesirables cross over our borders,” said Chloe, age 8. “Especially boys.”    

Dressed in a lovely hat with netted veil and carefully holding a tasty tea savory in one hand and a placard reading “No Publik Opshun” in the other, 10-year-old Caitlyn described herself as a former Republican who grew disenchanted over the party’s close relations with Wall Street.    

“I prefer a tea cozy, not a cozying up to the big banks,” the delightful little lady said.    

“Show us the birth certificate,” demand (from left) Abigail, Hannah, Leah and another Abigail. “Or get the hell back to Kenya.”