Archive for March, 2011

It wasn’t a drill, but we still got screwed

March 31, 2011

For once, the high-pitched screech that reverberated around the office wasn’t the sound of the twangy, hyper-talkative Southerner telling everyone the latest news about her new hobby of coupon-collecting. Blessedly, this time, it was the sound of the fire alarm, warning occupants that the building was about to erupt in an inferno.

Let us be grateful for simple gifts.

My workplace has excellent plans in place to ensure the safety of employees in the event of fire or other calamity. Just like everything else we do here, there is a standard operating procedure and there is a checklist. According to the Emergency Action Plan, a 300-page tome kept on the wall next to the exit that I guess we’re supposed to read before we run screaming in flames from the building, there are numerous “attachments” that describe in detail our proper response. Number 10.4 is the “fire/explosion checklist.” Number 10.7 is the “earthquake checklist.” Number 10.13 is the “suspicious package response policy.”

I haven’t actually seen any of these checklists, but I imagine just about all of them end by making the same point:

√ Try not to die. If you do, be sure to have your survivors contact human resources to update your status to reflect this Qualifying Life Event.

Then there’s the unofficial procedure for handling the periodic fire drills we stage, and this we all know by heart. A strange woman from another department appears, removes the action plan from its place by the door, studies it briefly before making a few notes, then huddles with the department manager to make sure this is a convenient time to have everyone go stand outside for five minutes. If it’s not convenient, if we’re working on a pressing deadline for a high-profile client, the drill will be delayed.

I only hope potential terrorists are considerate enough to do the same scheduling check before striking the nuclear power plant located about seven miles away.

Everyone sees this routine happening right in front of them, so we all know a fire drill is imminent. Many find this is a convenient time to take a coffee break at the diner down the road, and will clock out and leave to avoid the exercise. Everybody else gathers their valuables and their coats, exits whatever embarrassing web page they’ve been browsing, and patiently waits for the screech to begin.

When the alarm went off mid-morning earlier this week, none of these preliminaries had taken place, so we were a little suspicious it might be the real thing. We headed briskly for the exit and gathered in the pre-appointed patch of grass, as much to get as far away as possible from the shriek as to save ourselves.

It was a cold, misty morning, and we shuffled our feet and clutched our arms close to our chests to keep warm in the chill. A few people speculated they were certain this wasn’t simply a drill, because the company wouldn’t be thoughtless enough to send us outside in such inclement weather. This gave everybody else the opportunity to get their blood circulating with a hearty laugh.

People gathered in clumps of three and four, to spend a few minutes talking with their real friends instead of having to endure the inane chit-chat they’re used to engaging in with their cubicle mates. The less sociable folks gravitated toward the exterior of the perimeter, pretending to check their cellphones for messages. A few people lit cigarettes for an impromptu smoke break, despite the fact that on page 179 of the action plan, subparagraph 8.6.2 explains that the evacuation could be in response to a natural gas leak, in which case smokers will blow themselves and those around them to Kingdom Come.

After a few minutes of standing awkwardly in the grass, wondering what was so special about this particular wet plot of ground that we were required to stand here and not over there on some perfectly good (and dry) concrete, we heard the sound of an approaching siren. Up the street came a fire engine, lights flashing and horn blaring. The driver pulled up near the front door, and several firemen hopped out to meet with the site manager and safety officials who formed the welcoming committee. In another minute, an official-looking car with “Fire Chief” printed on the side dipped briefly into the parking lot, then U-turned out, apparently convinced his managerial talents weren’t worth wasting on a building that remained unconsumed by fire.

The important people talked to each other for a few more minutes, while those of us who were the would-be victims waited across the way in the relative safety of the early-spring storm. Finally, the manager looked in our direction and wheeled his right arm in a broad windmill motion, indicating it was safe for us to return to our work stations. Like an eager herd of sheep, we ambled across the parking lot and back indoors to resume our work.

It was “all-clear” for us to once again debate the relative merits of an em-dash versus an en-dash to set off a subjunctive clause in a proxy statement that nobody was going to read anyway.

We heard later that there was a genuine cause for concern that prompted our evacuation. Somewhere back in the warehouse, a lighting ballast had emitted several puffs of smoke before burning completely out. A worker had promptly shut off power leading to that fixture, and any remote prospect of danger had evaporated almost immediately. But it hadn’t evaporated as quickly as the smoke, so procedures required that we go stand in the rain, I guess to make sure we were fireproofed.

Unlike those who enjoyed their cigarettes during the drill, the ballast will be cited for smoking, and the violation of corporate policy will be referenced during its next performance review.

Nature's sprinkler system protects workers by drenching them

News from a day in the life of South Carolina

March 30, 2011

The following news stories were taken from today’s edition of The Herald, my hometown newspaper in Rock Hill, S.C.

Was the bleach intended as seasoning?

Raccoons are okay in the woods. But their meat should never be for sale in a store cooler, says the state department of health.

Earlier this month, acting on a tip, health inspectors found bags of chilled raccoon meat in a cooler at a Gadsden convenience store, and told the owner to get rid of it.

“This is not something we see even on a rare basis,” said a spokesman who in his 28 years with the agency could not recall a single time raccoon meat was found in a store cooler.

Raccoon meat is not properly certified by state and federal meat inspectors as being safe for humans to eat, he said. Raccoons are known carriers of the rabies virus.

The spokesman said when inspectors made a second visit to the store, the raccoon meat was still on the premises.

Inspectors told the store owner to put bleach on it and throw it in the trash.

A bad sign that the flag was still erect

A Clover woman found an unexpected package at her mailbox Monday.

The woman, 38, told officers someone taped a Polaroid of a naked man on her mailbox, according to a county sheriff’s report.

She said she noticed that the flag on her mailbox outside her residence was up around 7 p.m. Monday. When she got closer, she saw a picture of a naked man she didn’t know taped to the mailbox flag.

The man had a “69” tattoo on his right forearm.

Deputies took the picture as evidence.

Democrats fight for education, but with guns

Legislation weaving its way through the state House would increase the number of places that gun owners can carry their weapons to include daycare centers and churches.

“It puts criminals on the defense,” said Rep. Thad Viers (R-Horry), a co-sponsor of the bill and the owner of about 25 firearms. “They don’t know if you’re carrying or not.”

Unlike some other states, South Carolina Democrats back gun rights too.

“We believe in the Second Amendment, but still believe in fighting for public education,” said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg.

Sellers said he has never heard of an anti-gun organization in South Carolina.

“They wouldn’t have any members,” he said. “Everybody has a gun.”

In 2009, a new law was passed allowing people with concealed weapons to keep their guns in their cars while dropping their children off at school.

The world’s worst bucket list

From the weekly gardening column…

Several of you wrote to say you’ve belonged to the bucket fan club for years and even more reported they were bucket-less and had promptly gone out and bought one. Or more.

More is better. I’ve always got three or four filled with manure, compost, weeds, fertilizer — something.

Another reader, also commenting on a recent column, said she was happy I’d used the S-word as opposed to spelling “it” out. However, instead of the S-word, she prefers “no shoulders,” as suggested by a golfing buddy.

Fake News: Basketball semifinals feature real novices

March 29, 2011

HOUSTON (March 29) — Cinderella has taken over the Big Dance in the NCAA Final Four basketball championship this coming weekend. And not only will she be beautifully coifed, but she’ll also know how to drive safely, how to make clay pottery and how to count to ten in Spanish.

None of the four teams that will play for the men’s collegiate hoops title were expected to survive this far into the tournament. Top seeds and traditional powerhouses alike fell before inspired efforts by some of the smallest schools ever to make it this far in the annual 68-team competition.

In this Saturday’s first semifinal game, the Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School of Akron, Ohio, will face off against the World Famous Comedy Traffic School of Los Angeles. The evening matchup will pit Sunshine Divine’s Pottery Cooperative of Bangor, Maine, against Mrs. Haroldson’s third-grade Spanish immersion class from Delray Beach Elementary School in Florida.

“We didn’t even watch the tournament selection show on television, that’s how small we thought our chances were,” said coach and teacher Mrs. Haroldson. “It was only when one of the kids came in the next morning holding his father’s brackets and shouting ‘¡mira aqui!’ (look here!) that we knew we had made the tournament.”

Mrs. Haroldson said her class will often use some of their recess time playing with one of those multi-hole playground contraptions, throwing whatever balls, rocks or clumps of dirt they had handy into the hoops. She thinks it’s this experience that has allowed her collection of seven- and eight-year-olds to knock off the likes of Kansas, Ohio State and Georgetown in the run-up to the Final Four.

Opposing the children will be members of fabric artist and potter Sunshine Devine’s collective of aging hippie women from coastal New England. This group of 18-20 regulars has met every Tuesday night for over a year to learn how to turn unmolded wet clay into carefully crafted ceramics that often sell for upwards of $40 to $50 in the gift and curio shop run by Devine’s cousin.

“We got a lot of people into our little group by offering a free first lesson at throwing pottery. We called it ‘free throw’ night,” Devine said. “I guess I didn’t understand the basketball connection at the time, but we’ve really come on strong since then. Especially since (6-11 center) Windsong Anderson has developed into such a force in the paint.”

The first contest Saturday could be the more exciting match of the evening, when GED graduates from lower-class northeastern Ohio neighborhoods do battle with California drivers forced to attend traffic school to regain their licenses following DUI convictions. The beauty school attendants cite their experience of “being around basketball-shaped heads all day” as a primary reason for their rise to the top of the sport. The traffic school attendees claim their ability to weave in and out of traffic on crowded freeways has given them the knack to break free from the crowd and crash the glass in an attempt to claim rebounds.

“We’re the easiest online traffic school in the state. We show lots of videos and require very little reading,” said coach and actor/comedian Regan Burns, who also goes by the name “Captain Traffic.” “That gives our students’ minds the chance to wander, and set up some awfully creative inbound plays.”

LaTonya Carter, assistant professor of toenails and leg waxing at the Mitchell School, thinks her group of “wide bodies,” as she calls them, will allow the Fightin’ Beauticians to prevail in what’s expected to be a physical, defensive contest.

“Don’t you try to get all up in our grills, because we’ll beat you down,” Carter said. “My girls will put yo’ haid through the hoop just as easily as they’d put a basketball there.”

I find comfort in sacred music

March 28, 2011

As I cast about for solace and comfort in my currently troubled life, I can’t help but wonder if organized religion might provide an answer.

Generally, there are two ways that people come to their god in a prayer of “Hi, how’s it going? Maybe we should hang out.” Most people are born into the faith of their fathers. This is how I came to be a pious Lutheran during the first 16 years of my life. I was an altar boy, I was an off-key alto in the junior choir and I was confirmed at age 14 following a year of catechism study. (To this day, I remember a key tenet: God good, Devil bad). I believed in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and any other god they might want to come up with.

One of the Gods

Then, in 1969, I experienced a revelation. It came in the form of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, revealing his private parts during a concert performance in my hometown of Miami. An outraged community of South Florida Christians, led by songstress Anita Bryant, decided to stage a “Decency Rally” in the Orange Bowl. The goal was to demonstrate that most area teens were repulsed by the idea of breaking on through to the other side, lighting fires, and touching Jim, no mater how many times he pleaded “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon”.

My church youth group planned to organize a bus trip to attend the rally. By the time they got around to calling and inviting me, my conversion had become complete.

“Gee, I kinda like the Doors,” I told Pastor Papke. And that was the end of my life as a Lutheran.

After a few years had passed, Morrison died of a heroin overdose in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, and Anita Bryant began a long and fruitful career promoting orange juice, homophobia and uplifting music. I had made the right choice.

Now, I am contemplating the possibility of arriving at a religious belief by the second most-common means: a conscious, intentional decision. It’s not a choice I’m quite prepared to make. I’ve spent over 57 years leading a mostly charmed life, free of the major trauma that usually inspires such conversions. (I thought about coming to Christ once around 20 years ago when I got a $280 ticket for speeding in a school zone, but when the judge said he wouldn’t put any points on my license, I lapsed back into apostasy).

Most of American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by right-wing political ideologues and, while I might otherwise consider adopting a mythical worldview involving angels and resurrections and miracles, I’m not quite ready to give up on my belief in national health insurance and the rest of the progressive agenda.

For now, I’m holding onto my plans for a death-bed conversion to each of the top 20 world faiths, hoping the scattershot approach will buy me entrance into somebody’s heaven. (I just hope it’s not Zoroastrianism that turns out to be the One True Religion; I hear they let vultures pluck at your deceased body rather than bury or burn you. Vultures, you may have noticed, are ugly).

See? Ugly, I tell you.

While I might, for now, be able to deny the lure of Christianity, it’s a good bit more difficult to deny that the creed sure has a great soundtrack. Just as I might hate the TV show “Glee,” I still find myself singing along to the cast’s spirited rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. (Ironic, huh?) By the same token, I’ve begun recently to search out the traditional hymns and sacred music I recall from my youth as a halfway measure to giving my life over to Christ.

The Lutheran songbook is a rich and inspirational collection of mediocre music that instantly transports me back to those early years of piety. I listen to “Just As I Am” and remember the procession down to the communion font, where I’d get my first sip of wine. I recall “Bless’d Be The Ties That Bind” and remember having to don a too-tight necktie every Sunday morning. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art” remind me of Protestantism’s appreciation for architecture and the classic paintings of the Renaissance.

But there was no piece of sacred music I’ve ever found more uplifting than Handel’s “Messiah.” My parents incessantly played the Eugene Ormandy/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version on their ancient hi-fi while I was growing up, and ever since I’ve been spiritually moved by the soaring 18th-century oratorio. When I went off to college in 1971, that record occupied as hallowed a place in my collection as did Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Deja Vu” and the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Past.” Though my classical purist roommate scoffed at the flaws of the work while simultaneously pointing out it was “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” and Handel was actually pronounced “Hen-del,” I was inalterably down with George Frederick.

The great "Hen-del"

(The only part I didn’t care for was that you were supposed to stand up during performance of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus,” which I always found to be awkward and arbitrary. Why did you have to alter the position of your body just because somebody was playing a catchy tune? Next thing you know, we’d have to bend over for each playing of Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” or put our hands over our ears during Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Actually, that last idea kinda makes sense).

So now, I while away a Sunday afternoon in search of succor, watching funny YouTube videos while Handel’s masterpiece plays over and over as the great composer always intended, on iTunes. Though this particular recording clocks in at just over 100 minutes, the libretto is surprising sparse, encouraging listeners to sing-along.

I love how Handel goes to such lengths to stretch out the lyrics in creative ways. The Mormon Tabernacle singers pronounce “accomplished” as “accomp-li-shed” and turn one- and two-syllable words like “shake” and “desire” into virtual arias of their own: “… and the de-si-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-re of all nations shall come.” He makes it fun to come up with misunderstood lyrics during the few boring parts: “his yolk is over easy and his permanent is light.” Or, “Are we like sheep?” Some of the phrasing is pleasantly cryptic: “He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.” Sing it!

There’s even a bit of frivolity that the Baroque master tosses in near the end, inserting what was meant to be a stage direction — “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised” — that later interpreters have sung as a lyric. (Though I’d love to see someone stage a back-to-the-original performance that actually included bugle-playing zombies).

By the end of “Messiah,” I feel spiritually lifted up, ready to face my modern-day trials with a faith that there is one who is greater than I. Actually, there are probably millions who are greater than I, and just knowing that takes off a lot of pressure.

Even though I may feel guilty spending the Lord’s Day watching piano-playing cats and the evolution of dance, I know that my soul is at peace and that my burden (and my permaent) is light.

Revisited: A bug’s life, transformed

March 27, 2011

Spring has arrived and so have the bugs. Though I’ll be the first to acknowledge that all creatures in God’s wondrous creation are worthy of respect and the right to live, I think I stepped on a caterpillar when I went out to check the mail Monday afternoon.

I swear, it wasn’t on purpose. It’s just that we have a lot of trees on our property, and these furry things have suddenly appeared everywhere over the last few days. I realized at the last moment what was about to happen, and I lurched sideways in an attempt to save him, or her, or it. It was too late.

I wiped my shoe in the grass after the unfortunate incident, which hardly seemed like a fitting ceremony to honor this bug’s brief life. But I wasn’t about to dig my high school “Taps” bugle out of storage because I think it’s covered in spider webs. I didn’t want this insecticidal spree to spiral any further out of control.

It did make me pause to think, however, how we immense humans swagger through the natural world with so little thought for the beasts beneath us. We swat flies, squash roaches and eat Wendy’s hamburgers, all with complete disregard for the welfare for the lower life forms we are destroying in the process. To me, it seems about time we do a little something special for the entomological kingdom to show that we care.

There are literally trillions of these guys and gals scurrying amongst us, so it’s impossible to show my gratitude to each and every individual for whatever purpose it is they serve in the grand scheme of life. All one man can do is bring one pest into his home, give that bug a special day he will always remember, and hope that the karma and the word of mouth when he returns to the wild will allow me to live a slightly less guilty life.

“There is at least one good, honorable man among the humans,” he can report to his colleagues. “Don’t sting the chunky guy with the glasses.”

Below are some highlights from the day I tried to balance the scales in my little corner of the world.

Keeping up online

Humanity has developed some awesome technological devices to entertain and educate us, so I thought I’d share one of these with the Giant Peruvian Dinosaur Ant I brought into my house. Here, the ant gets a chance to check his email and catch up with a few friends on Facebook. You may recognize the home page from AOL on the screen behind him, but we can’t fault a creature who has barely emerged from the Mesozoic era for visiting such a primitive webite. Besides, where else could he catch a quick update on whether or not Kate Gosselin was going to be leaving “Dancing With the Stars”?

Exercise is a great stress-buster

Too often, insects encounter us via the soles of our shoes, and that rarely makes a good first impression. I thought I’d turn the tables a bit by offering to bring my new ant friend along with me on my mid-day jog, allowing him to ride along on the top of my Nikes. We had a great run in the warm air heavily scented with azaleas and dogwoods. I think he struggled to hold on at a few points in the route, but that simply meant he got a good workout as well. We smiled as we passed the playground at the daycare center, where children laughed and squealed with innocence we can barely recall. We chuckled at the passing SmartCar that would barely hold the two of us. We recoiled in horror as I accidentally inhaled a gnat. We were tired at the end of the two-mile jaunt, but it was a good kind of tired.

A well-earned supper with the family

By dinnertime, the giant ant had virtually become a full-fledged member of the household, and joined my other animal companions for their evening meal. Taylor (left) and Harriett didn’t mind at all sharing their food with their new brother. There was enough for everyone in the bountiful indoor world, where predators and prey are merely movements on the other side of a thick, protective sliding glass door. When Taylor was finished with his bowl, the ant leapt off his back, directly into the remaining Cat Chow, frolicking in the plenty that was unknown out in the yard, where he had to fight thousands of rivals for the smallest scrap of potato chip. Soon, both his abdomen and thorax were full, and a contented evening of relaxation could begin with his new family.

Bath time

As the day drew to a close, it was time to scrub away the accumulation of grime that comes with a busy schedule of fun. I wasn’t about to allow this disease-carrying vessel of filth and bacteria in my bathtub or shower so we arranged a quick dip in the toilet. He splashed merrily in the water as I tried to work a loofa into the crevices of his exoskeleton. He wanted some tub toys to play with, so I wadded up a ball of toilet paper and tossed it in. Tragically, the wad knocked him into the deep end of the bowl. His drowning was quick and mostly painless for him, and quite convenient for me, as I simply had to flush him away.

Somewhere, in a sanitary sewer deep beneath the city, he’ll whisk past millions of his insect friends, who will offer a touching final tribute to one who was briefly able to bridge two worlds.

Revisited: When silence is the best policy

March 26, 2011

The preparations I made for my annual performance review at work were simple. I was going to say as little as possible while my boss sat in judgment of me. I would allow my mutism to serve as a silent protest against corporate culture, rampant capitalism, globalization and the same measly raise I heard everyone was getting, regardless of how well they did their job.

We actually have a pretty enlightened system in our company, even though it seems to change every year. A manager will look at objective data on your job skills and work habits, then assemble a smattering of buzzwords like “teamwork” and “communication” and “doesn’t mind being touched” onto a template. These phrases are read aloud as you follow along in your copy, much like the Lutheran church services of my youth, except you don’t have to stand and be seated at random points. (Also, worshipping the almighty leader is optional). At the end, you’re given a piece of paper with the only information you really care about, your new hourly rate.

Your active contribution to the process doesn’t have to amount to much at all. In one of the previous systems we had, the employee was required to evaluate themselves in about two dozen categories, including skills that seemed irrelevant to financial document analysis, like hopscotch and clay modeling. You had to come up with several sentences on each topic, then pick a number between one and six to rate yourself (one being “peak performer,” but secretly also the percentage of your increase). Objectivity was encouraged, so you had people admitting they let their sister’s boyfriend borrow the company helicopter, just to lend a ring of truth so that the rest of their self-promoting answers sounded plausible.

They also tried this thing one year called the “360 review,” wherein they’d solicit feedback on your accomplishments from your peers as well as your underlings. It was good to hear that Nancy in the next cubicle admired my organizational skills, but I could’ve done without knowing that Rick the janitor thought I discarded too much facial tissue.

In the end, whatever song-and-dance you prepared didn’t really matter, so now it’s all a one-way meeting. You can speak if you like, coming to your own defense in the matter of unexcused absences or admiring the splendid cut of your manager’s suit. I imagine you could bring an attorney if you want, though on balance I’d imagine that’s not a good idea. Or you can just sit there and take it like a man, and get out that much sooner.

My advanced planning consisted of visualizing how I would restrain myself from saying anything that might harm their impression of me as a quiet, conscientious worker. I’m generally not the talkative sort, but for some reason I can get oddly passionate about the most minor issues, and then there goes my carefully constructed facade. One minute, I’m the consummate professional and the next, I’m ranting wildly about how stupid it is that we condone 2-em paragraph indents. Then they think I care, and I end up with some unwanted assignment.

This year, I would remain largely silent. I had practiced diligently at home the night before. I asked my son to throw rocks at me while I stood quietly and took it. I said not a word for virtually the entire evening, though admittedly I was unconscious for much of the period. I even refrained from sleep-talking during a dream in which dogs had invaded the Vatican, and it was my job to get them out.

The next morning, when the person who alphabetically precedes me was called into the office, I made a final review of my strategy. I’d decided that the bowed head and raised fist, as exhibited in the 1968 Olympics black power salute, would be too overt. I couldn’t remain completely silent during the 30-minute session without appearing suspicious, so I’d offer up a few well-placed grunts and moans if it seemed I needed to comment. I’d tell myself I only had 25 words to expend, and that if I went over the limit then Glenn Beck would become our next president.

When my name was called, I passed the desk of a co-worker who’d had her review the previous day.

“You might want to take along some snacks,” she advised. “Maybe some pretzels.”

Our manager was a notoriously long-winded individual who typically got his way in any argument by wearing down his opponent until they had to abandon their position to attend their infant’s college graduation. In previous years, I might’ve at least packed an overnight bag so I could make the point that our vacation scheduling process was too cumbersome. But I had learned my lesson and was determined to remain taciturn.

The session started benignly as I was given an overview of the new salary structure. There was a range and a mid-point and something about skill sets, which prompted me to give a knowing nod. Next he moved on to a new data collection model he was obviously proud of, which showed how many pages I had processed in the previous year. “Hmm,” I observed, which I count as — at most — half a word. Then I heard there’d be some vaguely defined departmental reorganization in the coming months, which I hoped included cleaning out the refrigerator. “Uh-huh,” I said. Hyphenated perhaps, but one word, tops.

Now we were moving on to the piece that had the potential to get heated. Did I realize that my tardiness rate had increased this year? “Hunh,” I said. And I didn’t seem to have the drive to pursue certain projects that I used to. “Ha,” I chuckled. My initiative to seek out pages to read was noticeably sagging. “Well,” I offered, “you know how it is …”.

He returned to positive territory, noting that I was still a much-respected employee and extremely valuable to the company. He hoped that some upcoming corporate initiatives would challenge me, and that I’d rise to those challenges like I’ve always risen in the past, and I thought “I bet you do hope that” but said only “OK.” He looked forward to another productive year working with me, and I again noted “OK”.

We were just about finished, and it looked promising that I wouldn’t have to fake a urinary emergency to get out of there before dinner. He said that our location had been recognized by headquarters as a key component to the company’s success, and that my pay increase was commensurate with my contribution to that success. I thought about how bad our economy had become if my 23-cent-an-hour raise was an accurate reflection of how the company was embracing twenty-first century technology while becoming a leader in markets it chose to dominate.

That’s what I thought. But I said only “thanks, Jim,” and returned to my desk, confident that a Beck administration had been averted, and that I could continue flying under the radar for yet another year.

Fake News: Libyan forces won’t be exterminated

March 25, 2011

WASHINGTON (March 25) — Confusion and disarray reigned among NATO allies this week, as deployment of the No-Pest Strip in Libya failed to halt Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s campaign to rout insurgents protesting his tyrannical rule of the North African country.

A United Nations resolution to provide cover and air support in the eastern parts of Libya called on the U.S., European and Arab allies to deploy necessary force to keep Gaddafi from attacking poorly armed rebels fighting near Benghazi. The Libyan leader had been using armored tank columns as well as modern warplanes and helicopters to fight rock- and bottle-throwing protesters wanting to end his 40-year regime of oppression.

“The Shell No-Pest Strip is just too hard to find. We can’t get our hands on enough of them to make a strategic difference,” said American Gen. Lewis Hartman. “Their production was discontinued in 1979 after carcinogenic properties were discovered in addition to their bug-trapping and killing attributes.”

“No, no, they wanted us to use the Hot Shot No-Pest Strip 2,” insisted French commander Marcel Dupre. “It’s a reformulated version that utilizes controlled release technology to slowly diffuse a deep penetrating vapor for up to four months.”

“I’m not sure the U.N. even wanted us to be dropping insecticides over the desert,” countered Qatar’s Abdul Hamman. “I thought Security Council Resolution 1973 called for no-bake cookies to be deployed. Or maybe it was extension of the No Child Left Behind Act to include Libyan student protesters.”

Gen. Hartman insisted that it was the Shell product that the United Nations intended be used. He said the bright yellow adhesive ribbons, often seen in the 1960s hanging outdoors and covered with trapped and dying insects, contained enough deadly chemicals to turn the tide against the Gaddafi forces.

“It’s the same chemical that’s used in flea collars, but it was tactically too difficult to try attaching collars around the necks of soldiers in the Libyan army,” Hartman said. “We think the No-Pest Strips can be effective, but there’s a critical mass that we need to turn the tide, and Shell hasn’t been producing them for over 30 years.”

Meanwhile, the Libyan leader scoffed at efforts to defeat his battalions.

“The brave Libyan people will triumph over this ridiculous, petty, ill-fated campaign by the West,” Gaddafi told Arab news network al-Jazeera. “Oooh. You know what? I don’t feel so good.”

Death rains down on flies, gnats and Libyans

A truck conversation: Something in the way it moves

March 24, 2011

A coworker approached me at my desk with a question.

“Davis,” he said.

“What?” I responded.

“Whoa!” he said half-jokingly. “Don’t bite my head off. It’s just a simple request.”

Apparently, answering “what?” when someone says your name is now considered brusque, even rude. In my mind, it cuts right to the chase, but apparently our hypersensitive society now requires us to soften our response to something more polite. I should’ve said:

“How can I help and/or serve and/or do your job for you on this fine spring morning?”

In my efforts to become a friendlier, more charitable individual and less of a raging douchebag, I’m trying to learn the social graces of casual workplace conversation. In the past, I never was one to spend much time chatting with my fellow employees. If I wanted information about the weather, I’d check it online. If I wanted an opinion on who was going to make the Final Four, I’d consult the pundits on ESPN. If I wanted to know what it felt like to give birth to a Super Duty® Ford Tough™ pick-up truck, I’d hang around the stage door at a monster truck rally and try to catch up with Truckzilla.

Actually, my production coordinator Anthony hadn’t technically borne the huge shiny new truck sitting in the parking lot himself. But he was acting like a proud new father the first day he drove his recent purchase to the office, telling anyone who appeared half-animate about all the wonderful specs of Ford’s top-of-the-line offering for the manly man.

So I summoned up all the patience I could, brought along a small snack in case the conversation lasted past lunchtime, and pretended to be interested in learning all about Anthony’s pride and joy. The conversation went something like this:

Anthony: Something something hemi something powertrain something torque.

Me: Is that so? Wow, those words connote such strength that it’s hard to imagine how you control the thing driving down the road.

Anthony: Something power-stroke something something turbocharger something something workhorse.

Me: Are you going to be driving it much in the wilderness? I’ve seen some of those trucks propped up on a pile of rocks in the TV commercials. Yours, I bet, could conquer Mt. Everest if it wanted to. I can Mapquest that route for you if you like.

Anthony: Something 6.7-liter diesel something displacement something something exhaust manifold.

Me: That’s a hell of a lot of liters. Point-seven, you say? Looking at it from the outside, I would’ve guessed no more than maybe a 6.3 or 6.4 on the Richter scale.

Anthony: Something something payload package something horsepower something something V10.

Me: Well, I sure know who to turn to now if I ever need to ask help with some heavy-duty hauling. I was thinking about excavating for gold in my backyard as a summer project. Maybe I could get you to carry away the tailings. I’ll throw in a couple of nuggets for your trouble.

Anthony: Something TorqShift® something something RPM something super cab.

Me: That’s pretty cool how they combine two words into one, and then throw a register mark on the end. Are you sure you pronounce it as “circled R”, though?

Anthony: Something four-by-four something running ground clearance something ramp backover angle something twin-coil monobeam axle.

Me: Are you sure it’s the twin-coil monobeam and not the mono-coil twinbeam? Because I think I heard they were having trouble with some of those, and there was going to be a recall. Yeah, yeah, I remember now — they said there was a typo in their original engineering drawings, and it was supposed to be a “moonbeam,” not a “monobeam.”

Anthony: Something something wheelbase something something wheelhouse something something steering wheel.

Me: We’ll have to see how that works out, ha-ha. Get it? We’ll? Wheel?

Anthony: Compacted graphite iron block something something roller rocker shaft.

Me: I had a pencil once that had graphite in it, but it got terrible mileage. What’s the fuel efficiency on that baby? Oh, that’s right, we don’t care. Did you have to pay extra for the rock-and-roll shaft, or was it standard?

Anthony: Something stabilizer bar something something number of studs something rotor diameter.

Me: I know what you mean. It’s gotta take every ounce of energy you have to keep that thing in your pants. That truck is a total chick magnet. Or else a dude magnet; I’m not sure which.

Anthony: Something something something something.

Me: That’s really something. Hey, I think I hear my phone ringing. I’ll talk to you later.

That's one solid piece of trucking! How many innocent pedestrians do you plan on crushing?

Enjoying the first day of my blogging retirement

March 22, 2011

Brett Favre, here.

First, let me offer a sincere thanks to those readers who were nice enough to comment on the Monday post announcing my “retirement” from blogging. Kym, Valerie, Paul and someone or something called “deyank,” I assure you that your kind words mean a lot. Your offer to commandeer a small plane and fly down to my Mississippi farm to physically drag me back to cyberspace was most appreciated.

Having had a full day now to think about my decision, I’m not quite ready to rescind it. It was very relaxing last night to attend to the routine details of everyday life — going to the dentist, taking a brief jog around the neighborhood, suffering a gut-wrenching session in the john thanks to some disgusting sealant hygienists are putting on people’s teeth these days — without having the pressure of producing a post hanging over my head.

Now, it’s Tuesday morning, and I’m sitting at work, getting tired of playing Scrabble and reading online stories like “Hillary Duff debuts new bangs on Twitter” and “Woman goes to court with monkey in bra.” (Sadly, no details on the monkey’s hairstyle). So rather than do any actual work, I’d like to try and explain further about my retirement decision.

One of the “undisclosed personal matters” I referenced yesterday has to do with a very ill member of my family. I got to thinking how counterproductive it must be to my karma to be constantly sniping snarkily at every subject under the sun. I’ve long prided myself on being a cynical curmudgeon, but that just seems like the wrong attitude to have when you’d give anything to see a close relative return to health. Doctors, friends and associates are much more willing to help and sympathize with a normal human being than with an anti-social a-hole.

My feelings began to crystallize when I was watching the NCAA basketball tournament over the weekend. I was griping to my son about not just the quantity of commercial interruptions, but also the lack of variety in the ads. With some of the games broadcast on small-time cable outlets like TNT and TruTV, there are only so many advertisers they’re able to round up. So the viewing audience is left to either watch for the twentieth time as the president of Sprint tells us how he looked up the word “unlimited” the other day, or blow their brains out.

However there was one commercial that, despite its incessant repetition, genuinely pulled at my heartstrings. It was the one of the dad offering safe-driving advice to his five-year-old daughter sitting behind the steering wheel of the family sedan. As he runs through the usual cautions, the fidgety little girl stops him cold with two words: “Daddy, okay.”  The interruption is so sincere, so true-to-life, and so touching, that I couldn’t help but tear up briefly at the thought of how fast our children grow up. In the next scene, the pre-schooler has evolved into a sexy hot teenage blonde beautiful young woman, and the voiceover notes how time passes so quickly where our kids are involved.

Then, to top it all off, Knut died. Knut was the zoo-born polar bear rejected by his mother at birth, slated for euthanasia, then saved by attendants who hand-raised the youngster while the world fell in love with the doe-eyed cub, forgetting that he’d grow up to be more than happy to sever your carotid with a single swipe of his paw. We all remember where we were the moment we heard that Knut had passed away. I was driving down a highway near my home, and had to pull over into the breakdown lane so I could break down.

Now, I’m trying to be a kinder, gentler Davis. And I’m trying to figure out how I can do that and at the same time write scathing, topical satire. As I work through this minefield, I anticipate I’ll be producing two or three new posts a week, published at no particular time of day, whenever the mood and the muse move me. If you’ve been a regular reader in the past, please continue to watch for me. And the occasional kind comment will be a thrill for someone in such a fragile, needy place right now.

So, like Brett Favre, I still want to play. I still think I can make an amusing contribution to someone’s day, I’m just not sure when and where it’s going to be. Brett is limited in how he can display his talents — scrambling away from adoring shoppers at the local Bi-Lo or throwing a quick down-and-in to a puzzled mailman surely give him some satisfaction. I hope to get the same feeling with my occasional posts.

And in a final homage to Brett, please enjoy the following photo of my lower torso. Sorry it’s draped in pants, but the New Davis doesn’t show his junk.

Farewell, at least for now

March 21, 2011

Hear me, America.

(One of the cool things about being on American Idol has got to be the opportunity to address the entire nation as one. It’s not just host Ryan Seacrest who gets to drop the frequent imperative “America, do this” or “America, do that.” Even the contestants are allowed to implore all 307 million U.S. citizens to “vote for me, America.” Since I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to appear on this top-rated talent show (not because I can’t sing — that hasn’t stopped the current crop of would-be Idols — but because I have a pathological fear of Jennifer Lopez), I’m using my blog instead to address the .00009% of America that views my writing on any given day.

Today, I announce my retirement from DavisW’s blog. This will be my last new post for the foreseeable future. I’ll continue to toss up some stale retread of a previous posting on a daily basis for a while, at least till I lose interest in that. Then, I’m out of the blogging business.

There are several reasons why I’m making this move at this time.

One, I’m tired and I’m stressed out. Since December of 2008, I have written a fresh post virtually every single weekday. In over two years, I missed only a Tuesday in February ’09 when my son had major abdominal surgery, and a week at the end of 2010, during which I suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown, or maybe it was just a head cold. It’s become too much pressure to produce something new on a daily basis.

Second, the concept of “blogging” has become passé. It’s yesterday’s news, something grandpas do to keep their friends and families apprised of their bowel movements. I was never able to fully get into the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and am too technologically backward to try to anticipate the next big thing. I thought for a while that the latest in new media was going to be sneaking up behind people and shouting into their ears, but I’m not sure my 1,200-word essays lend themselves well to that format.  Seems likely I’d get punched before I was halfway through my treatise on the commercial that sells “privately-enhanced” two-dollar bills, in which five-year-olds color pictures of Yellowstone National Park all over Thomas Jefferson’s face.

Thirdly, I’m not getting a lot of comments from the readers indicating how enthralled they are with my prose. A kind word from someone who got a chuckle out of my observations goes a long way in re-energizing me, and these have become few and far between. About a year or so ago, someone contacted me online and said I’d get a lot more response if I went into the “settings” portion of WordPress and checked some box. I waited and waited for the avalanche of feedback he said I should expect, and instead the three or four comments I had been receiving each day trickled down to next to nothing. In retrospect, I have a feeling this person was up to no good, and actually convinced me to sabotage my own site, and now I’ve forgotten which box I checked. I still get occasional comments from a deranged ex-roommate, though that’s proven more frightening than rewarding.

I’ve tried to “monetize” the blog by offering it for sale on Kindle, and have actually made a number (47) of sales. How pathetic this revenue stream is became clear the other day when I met with my CPA to review my income taxes for last year. He asked about the W-2 I received from Amazon declaring an amount of $21.65 as taxable income, and I told him I made this money as a professional blogger.

“I guess we should report this,” he said reluctantly. “I’m seeing more and more of these online sales: there was a guy just in here who made a couple thousand dollars last year selling half-used cans of old paint through Craigslist. Maybe that’s something you should look into.”

Finally, I’m dealing with some undisclosed personal matters that require me to step out of the limelight for a time. Like Disney singer and actress Demi Lovato, I’m currently trying to resolve ongoing physical and emotional issues that I prefer to address in private, away from the glare of publicity. Like Demi, I too am a sensitive artist who has rocketed to international fame at a trajectory that my psyche has had difficulty keeping up with. Demi reportedly had eating disorders, was beginning to cut herself, and exhibited inappropriate behavior such as punching out a back-up dancer travelling with her on last fall’s Jonas Brothers tour. My issues would be viewed by most as less severe (I don’t even know any back-up dancers, as their presence isn’t widespread in the financial printing industry where I work), however they are plenty serious for me.

Also going on indefinite hiatus will be my so-called “mini-blog” A third blog that I announced at the beginning of the year never materialized. I had hoped to be selected by the Charlotte Observer newspaper to be a part of their “Pounding Away” series, in which a trio of husky Carolinians would chronicle their weight-loss efforts, but my application was passed over in favor of the three goons seen below.

At least I didn’t have to pose for a silly photograph.

What kind of retirement I’ll have I cannot say. It could be a Brett Favre-style affair, and I’ll continue showing up day after day to miss wide-open receivers despite the fact they’re wearing Wrangler jeans. Or, it could be something more along the lines of what Johnny Carson did, slipping out of the public view with incredible dignity and conveniently dying a few years later.

If the urge to write humor returns, and I can view the exercise as exhilarating rather than obligatory drudgery, I’ll be back. If not, I’ll see you around.