Archive for April, 2011

Maybe I should get a tattoo

April 20, 2011

Watching the NBA playoffs on television this week, I can’t help but wish I had some tattoos. I also wish I were young, athletic, adored by millions of fans, making tens of millions of dollars, and had a cool name like Nenê or Luol Deng or Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Unfortunately, none of these things are going to happen to me. Including the tattoos.

As a 57-year-old middle-class white guy, I am too old and too out-of-it to get a tattoo, even if they could find some skin that still had enough tone and elasticity to hold the ink. I’d be laughed out of the tattoo parlor. Especially if I called it a “parlor.”

Still, enough of the spirit of rebelliousness and nonconformity I had as a youth has survived into late middle age that I think I’d get me a “tat” were I about 35 years younger. Sure, there’s a big part of me that scoffs at the foolhardiness of those who permanently mar large swaths of their body, creating a youthful indiscretion that will long outlast their memory of why they did it. There will be some awkward explanations to the grandkids of the future about why “Pop-Pop” has a deformed vulture on his back — “It’s an eagle,” the elderly Zack answers. “Okay, then why do you have an eagle on your back?” responds little Sarah.

But today’s youth live for today, as well they should since their parents’ generation have virtually destroyed the earth and economy they’ll inherit. They want a sign to show the world that they’re cool. And nothing says “cool” like enduring hours of painful injections administered by a quasi-surgeon wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt extolling the virtues of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Tattoos have been around since the Neolithic era some 7,000 years ago. The remains of a fellow nicknamed “Ötzi the Iceman” (not to be confused with Ozzy the Osbourne) were found frozen in the Ötz valley of the Alps with 57 distinct carbon tattoos on his back and legs. The word itself is derived from the Samoan “tatau,” chronicled in Capt. Cook’s journal as he explored the South Pacific in the mid-1700’s. The custom of sailors sporting skin art began as a way their families could identify them should they drown at sea, and their bodies just happen to wash up on a shore near their home.

Despite some taboos surrounding tattoos, they have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years. A 2008 poll found that 14% of adults in the U.S. have a tattoo, with the percentage soaring to more than a third of all American adults under age 29. Only a tiny 8% of those aged 50-64 sport the tat, with most of these consisting of parolees, carnival workers and weird uncles.

Besides making a statement about what a staunch individualist you and 42 million other Americans are, there are many other advantages to having toxic chemicals inserted about four skin layers deep. For one, you don’t have to worry about the appearance of cleanliness. If you have the urge to flop around in a mud puddle, you can still head straight to that business meeting afterwards and few will be able to distinguish the dirt from your body art.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, which dryly notes in the caption that "conspicuous tattoos can make gainful employment difficult in many fields"

So, if I could get some tattoos of my own, what are some of the options I might consider in defacing myself and doing it in a unique fashion?
  • I’d like some cryptic symbols. Everybody gets the symbolism if you’ve got a heart or a butterfly or barbed wire, but I’d like some artwork that’s a bit more mysterious. I think I’d put the image of a handheld calculator on my back, a hydroelectric dam on my chest, and a pair of Shake-Weights on my posterior.
  • Being a writer and a proofreader, I’d obviously like to throw some words in there too. It would be really cool to have the word “TATTOO” tattooed on your arm. Then, right next to that, I’d have the words “ANOTHER TATTOO.” Then, further down toward my wrist, I’d have “THIS ONE’S A SKIN CANCER”.
  • I’d like to permanently wax off my eyebrows and replace them with a tattoo in the likeness of perfectly groomed brows. I’m at the age now where the eyebrows tend to grow a bit bushy, and I hate to risk poking out an eye trying to trim them with scissors. Also, I eagerly await the tattoo technology that will make it look like I don’t have Afros growing out of my nose and ears.
  • I’d like a slacks tattoo covering the lower half of my body so I can stop wearing pants.
  • Keeping with the literary theme I’d try to convey, I would have an entire short story tattooed onto my belly, and a map of the world etched into my lower abdomen. When I revealed the map (at the beach or by the pool at the Y), I could then enjoy people coming up to me and pointing at various locations they’ve visited around the globe. (Hey, ladies: Any of you ever seen Antarctica?)
  • I know it would be tremendously time-consuming and unimaginably painful, but I’d like to replicate a healthy, full-body tan with the use of permanent pigments.

Who knows? Maybe, someday I’ll work up the courage to recapture the heady days of my youth and become one with the “In Crowd,” as I understand they call themselves. A couple of radical tats, a few pieces of random metal piercing through some assorted appendages, and a shock of purple hair spiked into a mohawk may be all that stands between me and the life of the hip. Showing an image like that may stop the mailman from delivering all those AARP solicitations.

Fake News: Facing off against the newest terrorist threat

April 19, 2011

Federal authorities have uncovered a terrorist plot already in its implementation phase that is drastically reducing America’s vigilance and defenses.

Called “sleep,” the virus-like attack renders average citizens as well as military and political leaders virtually impotent for almost eight hours a day. During this time of unconsciousness, so-called “sleeper cells” can be activated by al-Qaida and its allies to attack key targets while those who are supposed to protect them snooze.

“Wake up, America!” President Obama encouraged the nation in an emergency address broadcast on all four major networks last night. “We can’t afford the luxury of letting our guard down against this terrorist threat for even one minute. I am leading the way in this effort by drinking lots of Five-Hour Energy Drink and using toothpicks to keep my eyelids open.”

The sleep problem first became apparent in recent weeks when several air traffic controllers were caught slumbering at their overnight posts when they were supposed to be reminding airplane pilots not to crash into each other. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has since made a tour of major airports, delivering a two-hour-long address to controllers reminding them not to nap on duty.

“And I will tell you once again — in the strongest terms that a dull, uninspiring speaker like myself can deliver — that you need to resist the calls of Morpheus,” LaHood monotonously droned at about the 50-minute mark before this reporter dozed off. “Just keep chanting to yourself in a low, soothing tone: ‘I am not getting sleepy, I am not getting sleepy.’ I bet that might work.”

By the time LaHood returned from his tour, more incidents of sleeping Americans were being reported. In Georgia, a man going house to house in the middle of the night and peeking in people’s windows reported that a large percentage of those he witnessed were asleep, and a significant number were also naked and about to bend over. In an Oregon hospital nursery, newborns dozed innocently despite the fact that at least one of the attending obstetricians had an Arabic name. Drivers at interstate rest stops caught catnaps while “lot lizard” prostitutes banged furiously on their windshields reminding them of the need to defend America at all times, and of the affordability of anonymous oral sex.

With the plague seeping deeper into American life, President Obama has appointed a special commission, to be headed up by Vice President Joe Biden, that will study why people feel they need to periodically lapse into unconsciousness.

“I know the vice president will do an excellent job getting to the bottom of this infiltration,” Obama said in announcing formation of the group. “Won’t you, Joe? Joe?”

Biden and, over his left shoulder, commission vice-chair Monica Sikes

Biden briefly took the podium following the president’s announcement to say that his group has already come up with some potentially workable solutions to the threat.

“I propose we mobilize a force of people who suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, and deploy these folks to seal our borders,” Biden said. “Even if they nap off, there’s still a good chance that they’ll be able to kick at any invaders.”

Republicans were quick to offer their own plan to address this menace that puts an entire nation in bed at roughly the same time every night. (Not the same bed).

“As is typical, President Obama is not showing the type of leadership we need in this hour of peril,” said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “He’s asleep at the wheel on this issue.”

Palin proposed shuttering all federal offices during the daytime, and requiring government employees instead to work third shift. This, she predicted, would both make it easier for the nation to remain on alert throughout the night, and would slash the size of the federal staff once half the people quit because they hated their new hours.

“We really need more ‘sunshine laws’ to enable an open and transparent government that will root out waste, corruption and inefficiency,” Palin said. “I think we can best do that in the middle of the night.”

The Miami trip that didn’t quite happen

April 18, 2011

I just turned down an all-expense paid weekend trip to Miami. Will someone please commit me to a mental institution? (All I ask is that it not be one of those franchise chains like McCrazies’ or Batshit Barn, but instead have an idyllic name like The Heather On The Lakes at Woodcrest Home for the Disturbed.)

The free trip didn’t come without substantial strings attached. No, I wouldn’t have to hear a brief presentation on the glories of owning a time-share in the Everglades called Mosquito Cove. No, it wasn’t a transfer stop on my way to Guantanamo where I would stand trial for looking up al-Qaida on Wikipedia that time. And no, I wasn’t being presented to the press as the new quarterback of the hapless Miami Dolphins.

It was to be a business trip. I would be “helping out,” as we call it in the trade, on a session in which attorneys, accountants, bankers and assorted others would pull all-nighters to finalize the wording of some obscure financial document. My role would be as proofreader, assuring that the document retained the highest quality possible while the attorneys added a comma, then twenty minutes later the accountants took the comma out, then the bankers got into a drunken fistfight with the underwriters before everybody compromised on a semicolon.

I seriously considered taking the trip before telling my boss I’d have to decline for undisclosed reasons (I needed to do laundry and I didn’t want to miss elimination night on “American Idol”.) I honestly regretted not taking my proofreading talents to South Beach because I knew, from past experience, it held the potential of being very little work and a whole lot of waiting around in a 36th floor conference room with a view of Biscayne Bay. I’ve done this many times before and could guess that what was predicted to be an intense round-the-clock drafting session might easily devolve into me sitting by the pool all afternoon. This, despite the best efforts at financial regulatory reform.

About a decade ago, I’d jump at these opportunities all the time. Most trips then were to the Tampa/St. Pete region. I’d move in to a nearby Residence Inn for several weeks at a time, then show up for eight hours a day at a beautiful office park where I’d eat shrimp salad pitas and correct the occasional typo.

I got so good at this that other trips soon followed: to Atlanta, to Pennsylvania, to Miami, and to New York. The best business trip I ever took was to the Big Apple in 2000, when I spent two entire weeks in a lavish Hilton right across from the World Trade Center, working maybe five hours a night for a high-profile client who demanded a proofreader on-site, even though that reader read mostly The Village Voice with only occasional glimpses at the boring details of the ill-fated AOL-Time Warner union. (I tried to tell them “No! No! It’ll be a disaster!” but they’d just keep hissing “synergy” and ask me where else would people be going in the next ten years to hear “you’ve got mail”?)

I had the best time spending the day roaming lower Manhattan in those pre-9/11, pre-financial meltdown days. The weekend was even better. Saturday, the first warm day of spring, I hiked up through the Village, up Broadway, all the way to Central Park where I saw both the spot where John Lennon was shot and Cindy Crawford pushing a baby stroller. I tried to walk back downtown but got caught up in a Gay Pride Parade and nearly converted in the excitement until I hailed a cab for a return to the financial district and heterosexuality (thanks to free Spectravision). Sunday was also fun in an entirely different way; a cold front brought snow showers to the city, coating the lovely homeless people in a raiment of white.

After a three-year hiatus during which business travel was sharply reduced by my company, I returned to the road but this time for a different purpose. I was one of several people designated to act as an outsource trainer, bringing the civilizing influences of two-em paragraph indents and ragged right margins to the heathens of South Asia . Between 2003 and 2008, I made six trips to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and can claim at least partial credit for creation of the Asian Tiger that ate up so many American jobs. (You’re welcome.)

The biggest difference between travelling to “help out” a drafting session and being a visiting trainer has to do with control. Under the former scenario, you pretty much have to do what your hosts tell you to do, which can vary from simple proofreading to collating some paperwork to taking the blame for the ill-conceived merger between Bed, Bath and Beyond and the American Nazi Party.

When you’re the trainer, it’s you who calls the shots. Especially when you’re the mighty American and everybody else is eager-but-dusky Asians. The local management team caters to your various training essentials — “I’ll need a case of Pepsi, three dozen dry-erase markers (the kind that you can ‘huff’) and a cadre of young boys to wash my feet,” I typically demand. “Chop chop!” — then pretty much leaves you alone with your class of trainees. As a conscientious employee, I’ve always tried to inject a fair amount of useful information into my presentations, but have few qualms about giving a connect-the-dots assignment for the afternoon I want to skip out and visit a volcano.

The temptation to be avoided in such a situation is to train them completely wrong as some kind of guerilla effort to halt the march of economic globalization. Rather than introducing them to the techniques of scanning through a converted word processor manuscript to watch for corrupted characters like ξ and ♥, I could tell them they want to be sure to insert the phrase “Death to U.S. imperialists” into little-noticed corners of proxy statements. A few well-placed errors like this could restore the U.S. to economic dominance and give me a hearty laugh at the same time.

Unfortunately, I always chickened out, especially in Sri Lanka where a civil war with the Tamil Tigers meant armed troops on every street corner who’d be more than happy to machine-gun me down for such whimsy.

So, instead of spending a balmy few days romping on the beach with LeBron James, Gloria Estafan and Don Shula, I opted for another boring weekend at home, dreaming of what might have been. I hope that Miami survived without me.

Revisited: Now I lay me down to accessorize

April 17, 2011

I’ve been off the Ambien for a couple of months now and what sleep I get does feel a little less artificial. With the help of a prescription sleeping aid, it did seem as though the nights were restful, or at least those parts that I remembered the next morning. The problem with Ambien is that it’s more of a memory eraser than it is a good crack on the skull, so your unconsciousness might come with the unanticipated side effect of a drive to Maryland.

I’ve watched my cats slip into slumber as effortlessly as they steal my food when I’m not looking, and they make wonderful role models for people trying to get some shut-eye. Taylor in particular can drop on a moment’s notice. He doesn’t have to put on his pajamas, or turn on his sound machine, or have the room temperature and the pillow and the covers just so. He’s rocketing off the walls with a case of the “rips” one minute, and curled into a spherical, comatose mass the next.

Scientists claim to know very little about what makes us sleep, and it’s good to hear a little humility out of those guys for a change. I’ve thought it through myself during many a restless night, and I’ve come up with my own theory. The harder you consciously try to make it happen, the harder it is to achieve. Giving up on the attempt completely can be a very effective strategy in getting to sleep.

It was during a jet-lagged trip to Asia that this revelation first came to me. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning some 35,000 feet above Iran, and as I look around the plane at my fellow passengers, I feel more like a dentist than proofreading trainer headed to South Asia. Mouths are hanging open everywhere as people lose themselves in dreamland. Meanwhile, I’m watching half the remaining subcontinent dance furiously on the tiny TV screen in front of me, stirring futilely as Akshay sings of his undying love for Devi and for frantic, high-pitched violins.

A few days later, I’ve arrived at my destination and am still struggling to get into a pattern that gives me a nightly rest. I call up room service on my third night in Sri Lanka and order a piece of cake to soothe my frustration. If I can’t get to sleep, I figure I may as well have dessert. I lie in bed with the dish on my chest, and the next thing I know it’s about ten hours later and I’m coming out of the best slumber I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I’m covered in frosting, and will have to suffer the suspicious glances of my maid for the next three weeks for what I’ve done to the sheets. But I finally got a good night’s sleep, all because I gave up trying.

Either that, or the Tamil Tigers had poisoned me.

Once back in the U.S., I was ready to try out my new strategy. If I didn’t make such an effort out of the nightly routine, if instead I prepared for bed by preparing to do something else entirely, perhaps I could trick my subconscious into letting me surrender to Morpheus.

The first night of the experiment, I simply left my socks on. Normally, I prefer to sleep barefoot so as to enjoy the sensation of cool sheets wrapped around my ankles (this is what passes for “pleasure” as we sail through middle age). If I tricked my mind into thinking that clothed feet meant no rest was expected, maybe the reverse psychology would kick in and I’d doze off.

It worked pretty well although, not unlike prescription medicines, it required increased doses on subsequent nights for its efficacy to continue. When the effect of the socks wore off after several evenings, I graduated next to placing the TV remote on my belly. Again, I fell quickly asleep, though my wife complained about how I changed the channel every time I rolled over, usually just as she was becoming interested in the merits of buying cubic zirconia for only $49.95 plus shipping and handling, but only if she ordered within the next 15 minutes.

For the next attempt, I put on a pair of heavy-duty work gloves as I climbed into bed. There’d be no snuggling for me this night, of that I was certain. My brain, however, thought I was planning to install a new water heater instead of catching 40 winks, so it quickly shut me down for seven hours of nearly lifeless bliss.

When the gloves wore off, I next tried sunglasses. When the sunglasses wore off, I donned a wool cap. When the hat stopped working, I put on my favorite tie. That was almost too effective, as I awoke gasping desperately for air when the neckwear became tangled in my sheets and I nearly strangled.

Now I was riding a downward spiral that seemed destined to end badly. I pulled out the dark blue suit I got married in some 28 years ago and wore it for several nights. It was a little tight around the waist, and the shoes left some scuff marks on Beth, which she justifiably objected to. This is about the time I gave up on the wardrobe strategy, and graduated to the hard stuff.

I tried carrying a toaster with me. One night I brought a 1996 copy of Hoover’s Handbook of American Companies with me. I dug around in my son’s closet and found an old Darth Vader bank that played the Star Wars theme every time you put in a coin, though now I was concerned I’d be accused of sleeping with a dolly.

When props started failing, I turned to activities. I brought my 401k and IRA statements with me and planned to diversify my investment portfolio, which knocked me out like a left hook from Manny Pacquiao. When that wore off, I started updating my resume, including fictitious stints as a rodeo clown, mayor of Hallandale, Fla., and a former member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (the one who played autoharp). Finally, I plotted an armed insurrection against the state of South Carolina, rallying my armies in a pincer movement just south of Columbia before descending on the Five Points area and kidnapping Gov. Mark Sanford while he dined on the Big Mo platter at Maurice’s Barbecue.

At this point, I realized I had become seriously unhinged and needed professional help, and that’s when I reported to the doctor and picked up my Ambien prescription. I think that eventually I would’ve arrived at a more natural solution to my insomnia, though I feared that would involve imprisonment and mostly feigned sleep to keep my cellmate at bay.

Now I’m off the Ambien and back to the nightly struggle for rest that millions of Americans pursue. I may be dragging my haggard self through the work day, nodding off during meetings and losing focus on assorted tasks at hand. But at least I’m saving a few dollars by not having to accessorize so much.

Revisited: Your morning Constitutional

April 16, 2011

Some people enjoy a daily “constitutional,” following up their evening meal with a vigorous walk. Some get themselves all worked out at the mere mention of the Constitution itself. These are typically right-wing anti-Obamites who think the founding charter of America includes a clause preventing the election of a president they personally disagree with.

Whether carried around with them in their shirt pocket or tattooed on their lower back, these folks claim to know the U.S. Constitution inside and out, and assert that it’s being violated at every turn by the current Administration. “A mandate to purchase health insurance is unconstitutional,” they shout at their Tea Party rallies. “He was born in Kenya, bows down to foreign royalty, and enjoys the company of young boys,” claim others. “It says so right there in Article 13, Section 4.”

I hadn’t read the Constitution myself since being forced to do so back in high school by Mr. Arena, the same guy who confused a generation of Miami-area history students by writing “the world is your oyster” in their yearbooks. So my vague memory of the document was that it had something to do with shellfish. Now, I wanted to learn more about the foundation and source of the legal authority underlying the existence of the federal government, and I’m asking you to join me in this journey of re-discovery. C’mon along — I promise it won’t hurt nearly as much as a tattoo.

The Constitution was adopted in 1787 in Philadelphia by the constitutional convention. It was hand-written by Jacob Shallus and placed in a nice frame after being signed by all the delegates. Hence, we often refer to the Founding Fathers as the “framers” of the Constitution.

The word itself is comprised of four syllables, which clearly state its meaning: “con” means “with”; “sti” is shortened from “still”; “tu” refers to the ballet garment known as the “tu tu”; and “tion” is a variation of the word “shun”. So those who follow the Constitution come together to this day to spurn those who clothe themselves in dancewear, in other words, those who are different from us. It was designed as a cudgel, or weapon, to beat political opponents into submission.

Following a rambling preamble that’s both a spoiler of what’s to follow and a poorly-spelled, arbitrarily-capitalized run-on sentence, there are 12 articles describing the three branches of government, and enumerating that government’s power over its citizens and its states. As articles go, these are not nearly as interesting as what you might see on the front page of the America Online news pages (like this morning’s leads: “Why You Should Consider a Pole Pruner” and “Stefani Caught Without her Makeup”). But they’re probably more important.

The writers of the Constitution lived in a time before dictionaries and spell-check, so it contains all kinds of editorial gaffes. Among these is an annoying tendency to capitalize certain letters for no apparent reason.
See if you can tell which of the two quotes that follow is from the Constitution, and which is an example of juvenile “intercapping” as often is used by pre-teens:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.”
“wuZup evErYOne Heres A lIttLle abOUt Me fiRSt oF All I aM 19 aboUt 5’0 i cAnT sAy ThAT i LoOk gOOd ThAs YOuR pEoPlES OpInIoN BUt i Can SAy I hAvE A Fly PeRsoNaLiTy i Get AloNg WiTh EvEryBodY THat Treat me With ResPect Yall FeeL mE!. I m hISpaNiC w/DArk bRoWN HaIr And dArk brOwn eyEs Im ORiganiAlly FRom ThE EAst Side of SaN jo.”

Article I spells out the role of the legislative branch of government and the rules for belonging to Congress (must be at least 25, you have to live in the state you’re representing, no fatties, etc.). Members of the House and Senate are empowered to “chuse” their leaders, which explains why letting the Democrats “choose” Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker of the House was unconstitutional. Section 6 says congresspeople will be paid for their services, and are exempt from arrest during their attendance, except for “Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace”. For example, former Sen. Larry Craig could still be arrested in a Minneapolis airport men’s room for lowering his “breaches” and offering strangers of “peace” of himself. Section 8 allows Congress to borrow money on the credit of the U.S. (a rarely used power), promote the “Progress of Science and useful Arts” (no taxpayer funds for scrapbooking, for example), and grant “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” (permission to cross an international border to exact revenge, like the just-completed Billy Joel European tour).

Article II — note that article titles use roman numerals to simulate the gravitas of Super Bowls — spells out the powers of the executive branch, or president and vice-president. This is where the archaic Electoral College is defined as the method for electing a president. If written today, this part would probably allow us to simply text our favorite candidate’s name to a toll-free number for at least two hours following the final presidential debate, but in its time, convening electors a month after the election was about as high-tech as it got. This is also the article that names the president commander in chief over the armed forces, requires him to make a yearly State of the Union speech, and mandates that the Yankees visit the White House to celebrate last year’s World Series victory.

Article III defines the Supreme Court and the various “inferior courts” that make up the judicial division of government. This branch is given the power to hear cases regarding disputes between states, and the power to grow extremely old without having to retire. Nothing in this article states that women, or liberals, or women liberals, can legally be appointed to the high court, so Obama better watch himself on this next nomination or he’s going to have a constitutional crisis on his hands.

Article IV spells out the powers of individual states. Sections 1 and 2 say that states have to recognize each others’ laws, but we’re going to pretend we didn’t notice this part because of what it might do to promote widespread gay marrying. This article forbids new states from being formed out of parts of other states so we can avoid the prospect of a Jerseyssippi. It also guarantees that every state will have a “Republican Form of Government,” clearly indicating that all elected Democrats are unconstitutional.

The remaining three articles are far less consequential than articles one through four. They seem like something of an afterthought, not unlike the final few tracks of the last Lady GaGa album, except not quite as danceable. Article V lays out the provisions for offering amendments to the Constitution. Basically, the Founders say here that “if we forgot to cover anything, you can add it later on, we won’t mind.” This has been done 27 times in the 200-plus years since, including the ten in the Bill of Rights that came up, like, two days after the original document was ratified. (Imagine if your company had this provision in place for the report you submitted last month that caused all that flak; you could continue revising until the year 2233.) Article VI says any debts the nation had before the Constitution would still be acknowledged after the fact, that the new country would not change its name to the “United States of Smith” and move to Sacramento without telling anybody. Article VII said that ratification by nine states would be sufficient to mark passage of the measure.

The U.S. Constitution is the shortest and oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world today, which for some reason is considered a good thing. It has a central place in American law and political culture, and that place is the National Archives in Washington. Thousands of tourists flock to see the historic artifact every day and gaze respectfully upon its withered glory. A few may even take the time to read it, though that’s not recommended.

Website Review:

April 15, 2011

It’s tempting to think that life is easy for the Bald.  

No combing of the hair every time you wake up from a nap or come in from a hurricane. You can wear any kind of hat you want, and it’s bound to look better than you’d otherwise appear. You’re never frantically maneuvering your tongue amidst your teeth and gums, trying to remove a hair that somehow slipped in there. Everyday existence is a sweet ride.   

Turns out, however, that there’s a dark side to being hairless. We were reminded of all the obstacles that bald people have to overcome recently when the newly crowned Miss Delaware, Kayla Martell, announced that alopecia would be her Official Cause, should she prevail in the Miss America pageant. Kayla’s tiara fit quite snugly over her bald head once she had secured her victory and could remove that silly blonde wig she wore during the competition because there’s no way she would’ve won otherwise.   

In addition to the cruel mocking of an intolerant society obsessed with furry heads, there’s the issue of sunburn. There’s the issue of being blinded every time you look into a mirror on a sunny day. There are apparently challenges in skin care, and how to keep any unwanted stubble in check, and what to do if your bone structure is too pocked with peaks and valleys.   

To the rescue of those who are bald yet still seek to be at least marginally presentable comes the products of BaldGuyz, a company headquartered in New Jersey that specializes in skull care. I’m visiting for this week’s Website Review, and also to get a good chuckle at the expense of those less fortunate than I.   

I first encountered the company’s merchandise in the “reduced” bin at the local grocery store, mixed in with watermelon-flavored Kool Aid and blank VHS tapes. So I was a little surprised to read on the home page that their flagship product was proudly returning to the market after an unplanned hiatus. “Head Wipes are Back!” screamed the headline and, sure enough, there they were, now available in a fragrance-free formula. (It seems that an unspecified mishap at the factory in Switzerland had briefly interrupted the supply chain, but the product should now be back in stores everywhere, hopefully free of the taint of chocolate or cheese or army knives or whatever it was that interrupted earlier shipments.)   

The “head wipe,” in case you’re unfamiliar, is not the manager of all the assistant wipes. It’s a disposable cloth, packaged much like a condom (in an apparent homage to Howie Mandell), that’s infused with chemicals which “clean and moisturize and cool and refreshen” when you rub it into the top of your bald head. The newest line includes a “green tea formula” because, like everything from oil spill dispersants to lethal injections, you gotta have green tea.  

Besides the head wipes promotion, the home page contains links to other products and tie-ins and about a half-dozen hairless guys, all looking manly, happy and – in the case of Bald Guy of the Week “John M.” of Orem, Utah – extremely self-confident, except about the public release of his last name.  

There’s a “Clubhouse” pulldown that includes a Bald Guy Gallery, the Off The Top blog, the Head Stylin’ Tips blog, the BaldGuyz Buddies and the BaldGuyz Club. The gallery features photographs of nearly a hundred men in various states of repose that all include staring blankly at the camera. According to the intro, “there are many famous, and not so famous Bald Guyz. Here you can [missing verb] the different galleries of bald guys” and have fun filling in the dropped action word (“ponder”? “laugh at”? “consider defacing”?) The site, as you might’ve surmised from the company name, is littered with typos and punctuation errors, but who has time for proper writing techniques when you’re so busy being bald?  

The two blogs contain some very helpful and reassuring information for the denuded demographic. There’s a link to an article about the genetic origins of baldness, quoting the chromosomal studies of Felix F. Brockschmidt, which is a scientist name if I ever heard one. There’s a shout-out to “Financial Baldies,” noting the proliferation of “fellow chrome domes in the financial sector” — Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former treasury secretary Henry Paulson, among others — and asking “if they vcould [sic] all agree on the process for moving the country forward … and gor [sic] for it, fellow bald ones”.  

The styling tips discuss how to address the problems of dry skin, flaking, redness and uneven tone, and debate the relative merits of head shine. “Some ask how to get a good one (shine) and others ask how to eliminate one,” hinting at possible sectarian violence in the cueball community down the road. If you prefer the shine, “some use a wax while others use butters and oils.” If instead you’re on Team Matte, “we’ve heard stories of people using baby powder or corn starch to dull the shine.”  

Wisely avoiding the urge to take sides in this budding conflict, the company instead prefers to offer a slate of products to reinforce individuals’ own particular world view. There’s the daily wash and shampoo, “a concentrated gel made to clean and moisturize the skin and wash the hair (if any)”. There’s an SPF 30 sunscreen that includes both green tea and aloe vera, as well as cholecalciferol, hydroxypropylcellulose and fragrance. There’s a pre-shave scrub, a moisture gel, a shave gel and a BaldGuyz coffee mug, presumably to combine all these unguents into if you prefer to drink them. And there’s a fascinating contraption called a head massager “to tingle your senses and stimulate the blood flow of your cranium.” It features perhaps a dozen flexible metallic prongs radiating out from a central handle that you can use to arouse your scalp or, in a pinch, serve as a really bad toupee.  

The Frequently Asked Questions section of the website gives some excellent insight into the dreams and fears of the bald populace. “What makes a bald head special?” is answered with the reassurance that “the pores secrete natural oils that attract pollutants and dust which can cause the head to be grimy.” If you want to clean your oily head during the day or if your head is dry and flaking, you’re referred back to the “Products” section for the appropriate wipe and/or salve. “When my head gets sunburned it hurts, and I have tried all the aloe products which leave my head sticky,” notes another questioner. “What can I use?” I’d suggest a morphine hat, although this page leans toward another balm.  

In the News pulldown, there’s a reprint of a 2007 New York Times article recounting how baldness has become almost fashionable. Gone are the days, it says, when it took formidable personalities and names like Kojak, Yul, Ike and Mr. Clean to pull off the look. Now, it can work for everyone, and the piece cites former combover-wearer and BaldGuyz founder Howard Brauner as an example. It’s obvious that Brauner is the pioneer in the field, though props are also given to some rival firms like HeadBlade and Bold for Men. These, however, seem aimed at a younger market niche. Abe Minkara, the awesomely rad dude who started Bold for Men, said he never uses the word “bald.” “I prefer being called ‘bold,’” he said. HeadBlade makes x-treme products like ClearHead (a salicylic acid), HeadSlick, HeadShed and HeadLube, and temporary head tattoos. (I wonder if you could get a hair tattoo). 

In closing, I think it’s worth returning to Miss Delaware to put the issue of hairlessness into a perspective that only a beauty queen could enunciate. 

“I hope to show people that beauty comes in all different kinds of packages,” she said. “No beauty queen should fit into a box and look like a Barbie every time they wake up. Whatever makes you different, you should embrace it.” 

Even if it makes you look like the love child of Bruce Willis and an Airbender. 

Miss Delaware: Bald and beautiful and (sort of) proud

A penny for my thoughts

April 14, 2011

Question: The most disgusting feature in the above photograph, taken of the ground outside a Burger King drive-through window, is:

A. The crushed, discarded cigarette butt
B. The black splotches in the upper half of the photo (probably sun-dried gum or pickles, though possibly dried droplets of catsup or blood)
C. The poor-quality construction and fit of the concrete slabs
D. The penny

Answer: The penny. Not only has it probably sat on the ground for days, being repeatedly run over by cars full of Whopper-munchers, but before that it was handled by who-knows-how-many grubby hands. Were I forced at gunpoint to lick any of these four, I’d choose the penny last.


One of the few memories I have of my preschool days in Miami involved finding a bunch of lost change under a swing set. First I saw a nickel, picked it up and ran to my mother to show off the found treasure. Then I went back to the same spot and found a dime, repeating the same reportage to my mom. (Already, I was on a career track toward becoming a journalist). Next came a quarter, then another dime, then another quarter. Obviously, someone had swung too close to the sun.

The last coin I encountered was a penny. It was mostly buried, deep in the sand. Only Abe Lincoln’s receding hairline and the sentence fragment “GOD WE” were visible. Already enriched to what in 1958 was a virtual fortune of 75 cents, I decided to leave the penny behind.


The Lincoln head penny first entered the circulation of U.S. currency in 1909. Within only a few years, its value had become so small that the 16th president rose zombie-like from the grave, demanding that Congress authorize his picture be put onto something more substantial. In 1928, following years of lobbying efforts by Zombie Lincoln, his portrait was added to the five-dollar bill.


In junior high school, if you picked up a found penny from the schoolyard and a bully saw you do it, you’d be subjected to a half-dozen bicep slugs and the taunt “penny-pincher!” Non-bullies would hold the punishment at three punches.


I paid for my take-out lunch from the local diner in cash the other day. The bill came to $5.98. I gave the cashier $6 and waited dutifully for my change, but she moved on to the next customer without forking over my two cents.

It made me feel cheap to be taken advantage of in such an inconsequential way.

She would’ve gotten the two cents in any case. I would’ve put it in her tip jar.


One of the first pennies used in the British South Africa was nearly two inches across and weighed an eighth of a pound. The coins were very unpopular due to their large weight and size. Plus, the impression on the coin showed Britannia holding a trident in her hand, but locals thought it was Satan. They called it the “Devil’s Penny” as they assumed only the Devil used a trident.


I’ve taken to carrying a few assorted pennies in my wallet so I can pay bills that come to $4.01 or $13.16 without receiving four additional pennies in change. As long as I have that one penny with me, though, those totals rarely seem to happen. Everything is nice and rounded — $11.25, $21.80, $57.10, etc.

While fumbling for cash at a convenience store the other day, the penny fell out of my wallet. There were several people waiting in line behind me, but all of them were nice enough not to punch me in the arm.


In case you’re curious, the penny I have in there now is dated 1989. Imagine how far this coin has travelled in the last 22 years, assuming it didn’t spend all of that time behind the cushion of someone’s couch.


The penny currently costs the U.S. government a full 1.6 cents to mint. If we could decide to eliminate this smallest coin from production, the federal deficit of $14 trillion could be reduced to nothing by the time the Earth crashes into the sun as the entire solar system is engulfed by supernova.


How much money has to be lying on the ground in front of you these days for you to go to the trouble of bending over to pick it up and pocket it?

I stepped right over a dime the other day, then felt guilty about how the coin would’ve fed my grandfather and his entire family for three months.

Currently, it takes a quarter or more for me to risk lower back injury.


To “spend a penny” in British idiom means to urinate. The etymology of the phrase is literal; some public toilets used to be coin-operated.  British Rail gradually introduced a better public toilet (called the “Superloo”) and the charge was raised to about two-and-a-half pence.

Fake News: Remembering the Civil War, sort of as it happened

April 13, 2011

In the largest Civil War-era re-enactment ever staged, the entire South has elected conservative white chief executives whose anti-government positions, belief in state’s rights and the maintenance of a permanent underclass closely mirrors the region’s status of 150 years ago.

“On this sesquicentennial of the start of the War of Northern Aggression, we can take pride in looking back over a century and a half to see that — really — not that much has changed,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “Blacks and poor whites living in the region are mere pawns in our effort to re-establish a right-wing Confederate States of America that serves only the wealthy, entrenched interests. Yee-haw!”

Barbour, being backed by many arch-conservatives as a potential presidential candidate in 2012, was asked about the large number of written accounts that claim the Union army defeated the Confederates in 1865.

“Hogwash!” the governor said. “Maybe that’s what they say in all those fancy history books written by progressives. But we can see the reality for ourselves. The South has risen again! As soon as we get the proper paperwork in order, we’ll be reinstituting both slavery and a plantation economy that marginalizes 95% of the white population.”

Smaller re-enactments and living history exhibits around the South have focused primarily on individual battles or issues. For example, a group in Charleston, S.C., staged a mock attack of Ft. Sumter early Tuesday. Later this summer, the fateful clash at Gettysburg will be re-imagined as a country music festival. Efforts have begun to plan a re-telling of the Lincoln assassination in 2015, with attempts at recruiting the last Southern liberal to play the slain log-splitter already underway.

“This is a region that takes great pride in its heritage,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has hinted that his state might be willing to lead the way to a second secession. “We also like to dress up and play soldier and make bang-bang sounds with our guns. So it’s natural that on the anniversary of the conflict that ripped this nation apart at the cost of 600,000 lives, we’re going to pretend like we won. I mean, look at the rednecks controlling state houses all across the old Confederacy — as lily white and reactionary as if Col. Robert E. Lee had developed the atomic bomb in time to avoid the surrender at Appomattox.”

When told that the current list of Republican governors in the South includes two Indian-Americans — Louisiana’s “Bobby” Jindall and South Carolina’s “Nikki” “Haley” — Perry said he counts them as white.

“That Jindall boy is a little on the extra-tan side,” Perry admitted. “But that Nikki, she’s as pale as pale can be.”

“And fine, too,” Barbour added.

Perry, Barbour and several other Southern executives are encouraging their citizens to participate in the anniversary spirit of America’s bloodiest war by attacking any representation of the federal government that they can find.

“Beat up a mailman. Lynch a nurse from the VA hospital. And if you don’t have the stomach to physically assault another human being, just grab a handful of postage stamps and rip ’em up,” Barbour said. “We want this commemoration to be special.”

Still hoping for a royal wedding invitation

April 12, 2011

With the British royal wedding between Prince William and fiancée Kate Middleton only two weeks away, I have somehow failed to receive my invitation. I don’t mean to be pushy or presumptuous, yet I think I have every right to expect one.

Just in case it got lost in the mail — considering the English call this “the post,” I’m thinking it ended up on a telephone poll somewhere — I sent the following reminder to Buckingham Palace earlier today. (I used snail mail in deference to royal protocols against e-mail, which also allowed me to slip a twenty into the envelope in case that can grease the wheels). With this bit of pluck and a bit of luck, I hope to hear back from the Windsors by the weekend, then I’m off to Britain for the social event of 2011!

Dear Queen,

(I know this is probably not the proper way to address you but hope that, rather than being offended that I’m not calling you a “majesty” or a “highness,” you’ll instead be charmed by my bumpkin ways).

I would like to be invited to the upcoming Royal Wedding. I’m not sure who exactly is handling these arrangements so I thought I’d go straight to the top with my request. Feel free to delegate this task to your vice-queen if you’re too busy to see to it personally. I trust Elton John to handle my plea fairly.

I read that the official guest list has come out and I didn’t see my name among the invitees. I hope that this was merely an oversight. If it’s not, let me say right now that being excluded from a group that includes actor Rowan Atkinson (aka, “Mr. Bean” from the horrible movies of the same name), as well as Prince William’s ex-flame and world champion hyphenate Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, and a former Spice Girl, and Kate’s “yoga instructor” (advice to William: wake up and smell the coffee!) is okay by me.

Truthfully, though, I really really really would like to come. I have a number of fine traits that would make me an excellent guest. I am a proficient speaker of the language of your homeland. I spent a week in London in 2006 on business, and found it to be nowhere near as awful as everyone says it is. I was and continue to be a huge Beatles fan. Plus, I’m trying to get into that new “Upstairs Downstairs” series being shown on BBC America; if nothing else, I’ll have it on my TiVo for that day in the not-too-distant future when “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” are finished for the season.

In addition to being probably the biggest Anglophile in my small South Carolina hometown, I am a diligent student of your long and historic history. I am intrigued by a royal family whose lineage extends back into the mists of time, especially considering I can’t even name my own grandfather. I am impressed by the ancient kings known as Ethelred, Athelstan and Egbert, and how they could rule an expansive kingdom while being mercilessly teased about their names. I admire Henry VIII, even in this day when it’s not considered politically correct to chop off your wife’s head. I even like the stuttering king, at least when I could understand what he was saying.

Now I know you modern royals have had your issues, including divorce, infidelity, more divorce, and difficulties in choosing limo drivers who won’t crash into road abutments. But it’s those all-too-human weaknesses that I think have made your family more interesting than most. And I must say that your young grandsons, William and Harvey, have already gone a long way toward erasing memories of some of the recent embarrassments. They appear to be fine young men, even though the younger one looks nothing like the older one (I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying).

If you do invite me to the wedding, I will be willing to pay for my own transportation and I will give a very nice gift, if you or Elton can tell me where the happy couple is registered. I will be well-behaved at the Westminster Abbey ceremony. I won’t stand and object when the minister asks if anybody wants to, I won’t bang on the exterior windows yelling “Kate!” like Dustin Hoffman does at the end of “The Graduate,” and if anyone in the wedding party tries to pull one of those juking-and-jiving processionals like you see on YouTube, I will personally extend my foot into the aisle and trip them.

Please consider my request and get back to me as soon as possible. While I’m sure the pageantry and memories will be priceless, I need to make a reservation with Virgin Atlantic in the next few days if I want to get the best fare. If I miss that window, I can still drive, if I can figure how to negotiate the notorious storms of the North Sea.

Hope to see you on April 29. I know you’ll have your hands full on that busy day — especially considering that two of them will have a death grip on your purse — but if we spy each other across the room, a gracious nod will do.


Davis Whiteman

P.S. For the rehearsal dinner, if the choice is chicken or fish, put me down for the chicken. If it’s chicken or roasted suckling pig, I’d prefer the pork.

How yardwork became a religious experience

April 11, 2011

Older folks out there might recall a childhood game we played called “Pickup Stix.” The point of the game was to drop a collection of colorful sticks, each about the circumference of a toothpick and the length of a pencil, then pick up as many as we could without disturbing nearby sticks.

You younger people brought up on your fancy, hi-tech video games won’t be able to appreciate a contest played in the physical world, of course. Actually, I’m having a little trouble myself reading a description of the rules and trying to fathom how we viewed this as a “game” rather than simply cleaning up a spill. Regardless, we found it fun at the time, especially compared to mourning the assassination of one political leader after another.

Saturday, I spent the afternoon engaged in an adult version of the game. Not “adult” in the sense that you got to be naked; adult in the sense that you do it not because it’s fun, but because it’s your responsibility.

It was the first warm, dry day of the spring that I haven’t had to work. A winter’s worth of twigs and small branches covered my yard, made all the worse by several spring storms in the last few weeks. It’s traditionally the first bit of yardwork of the season to clear away this debris so that mowing and raking and seeding and mulching and all those other chores can take place. Besides, my neighbors were starting to give me dirty looks over a lawn that was beginning to look more like a lumber yard for robins.

I know of no automated way to accomplish this task. We’d never consider cutting the grass one blade at a time, or picking up each individual fallen leaf instead of super-sonically blowing them onto the property next door with a leaf-blower. If the technology didn’t exist, we’d simply accept nature’s ways and allow our lands to grow wild. But picking up twigs — even though it has to be done by bending over and selecting each one individually — we grudgingly do by hand, over the course of any otherwise gorgeous spring afternoon.

I had forgotten, during the long indoor months of winter, just how exhausting it can be to bend over. You watch athletes doing it effortlessly on television all the time, but forget that they’re professionals who have invested a tremendous amount of training into the process of bowing at the waste and going into a half-squat. I bent over perhaps a half-dozen times during the cold-weather months, and most of those occasions were due to deep abdominal pain. I was hopelessly out of shape.

Still, I gave it my best effort as the heat built and the sweat saturated my clothing. I soon learned to conserve energy by picking up more than one stick with each stoop, and what had looked initially like a week-long task now might be mostly finished in a day. Occasionally, I broke the tedium by plucking branches that hadn’t fallen all the way to the ground out of the trees themselves. I was particularly proud of the effort I made to free a 20-foot branch that had dangled and swayed outside our living-room window for months from a crook high up in an oak. I nearly gouged my face out when it finally broke free, yet I was willing to take the risk rather than allow a hardwood with half my education to get the better of me.

About three hours into the effort, I started to see how my work was making a difference. The yard still looked pretty junky, but an impressive pile of sticks was growing ever-larger next to my driveway. I walked around the back of the house to survey an area I thought wouldn’t need much work. Unfortunately, it was every bit as bad as the front yard had been. More hours of physical toil lay ahead.

“Jesus,” I muttered to myself in disgust. Then, as if on cue, I looked up to see a pair of smartly dressed women walking down the driveway from my house. They had just been speaking with my wife to inform her of a man who lived 2,000 years ago … a man who, though now presumably dead, was ready and eager to turn her life around. Rudely awakened after having just finished up a Friday night shift of work at the office, Beth was less than rapturous to hear of such Good News. I, however, looked at it as an opportunity … an opportunity to stop working and start reading the brochure they had left behind.

The green pamphlet was a simple affair, notifying us of two upcoming events sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would explain how Jesus “takes away the sins of the world” and would explain “how does he do so?”, “why is this necessary?” and “how can you benefit?”. They would’ve had me if they said He could make the sticks and the twigs rise up and ascend into Heaven.

I was ready to discard the handout and head back outside when a strange feeling came over me. I looked again at the artwork, and had a feeling I had seen this man somewhere before. The figure in the robe and flip-flops, reaching his hand out and beseeching that I join him, bore a striking resemblance to George Clooney. With maybe a little Zach Galifianakis thrown in. And just a touch of American Idol contestant Casey Abrams.

I looked deep into the eyes of Jesus/George/Zach/Casey, hoping to find answers to problems that have left me world-weary in recent months. My eyes wandered slightly higher to the Holy Perm, teased just so. His mouth was formed into a word that I couldn’t quite lip-read. It could’ve been “peace” or it could’ve been “love,” or it could’ve been a lyric in Casey’s rendition last week of the Credence Clearwater classic “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

I immediately dropped to my knees, even though I knew it would mean yet one more time I had to struggle later to get myself standing again.

“Oh Lord Jesus, or George Clooney, or Zach, or Casey, or whoever you are,” I cried out. “Deliver me from this world of pain and sorrow! I am going to be so sore tomorrow, and I know my doctor won’t give me any more Vicodin. Please, make me whole again.”

I stopped my work for the day, took a refreshing shower, and waited for the Almighty Intervention I’ve sorely missed for so long.

It never came, though we did get hit by a tremendous hailstorm later that evening, freeing a whole new batch of debris and rendering all the work I had done earlier completely useless.

Mysterious ways, I guess.