Archive for June, 2011

Michele Bachmann stand-in offers blunt words

June 30, 2011

Last year, this blog produced groundbreaking political coverage of the race for South Carolina governor.

(Also breaking that day was the beer bottle I held when I fell while taking pictures of eventual winner Nikki Haley. I had wandered off from her Rock Hill rally into a nearby pizza place after she started getting all preachy and, three beers later, I fell to the ground not far from the candidate, but not before snapping the following award-winning photo.)

Haley, in there somewhere

Now, the 2012 presidential election is looming, with the South Carolina primary destined to play a key role in picking which lunatic-fringe Republican will challenge President Obama. This citizen-journalist will again be taking to the campaign trail to cover GOP candidates as they traipse through our state.

Today’s first installment in this series reports on a visit last night by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. The Tea Party favorite’s profile has risen sharply in recent days. Not only did she make a positive impression during the New Hampshire debate where she announced her candidacy, but she’s also drawing attention for her creative interpretations of objective reality.

Last November, she criticized Obama’s trip to India for costing “$200 million a day,” which was not even close. She said then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran up a “$100,000 bar tab … on the military jets she’s flying,” when Pelosi doesn’t even have a pilot’s license. In Iowa last week, she praised Waterloo native and iconic actor John Wayne when in fact it was mass murderer John Wayne Gacy who had lived there.

The night before her arrival in South Carolina, she told a local newspaper reporter “I’m genuine, I’m authentic, and I have a titanium spine.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact.com rated this statement as “pants-on-fire false,” reporting that her spine is actually made of pre-osteoporotic bone.

I had planned to cover Bachmann’s appearance at a Winthrop University dining hall. However, she proved so popular with local Republicans that the place was packed, and I was unable to get in. So, in the Bachmann spirit, I went to another dining establishment just across the street from Winthrop, and pretended that the speaker there was the arch-conservative evangelical.

* * * * *

ROCK HILL, S.C. (June 28) — GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann said a bunch of stuff before a crowd of about 450 people Wednesday night, and the audience seemed pleased that she stood in front of a giant American flag, wore a yellow dress and waved her arms around a lot.

Meanwhile, in a nearby McDonald’s, a cashier behind the counter who looked a little like the Minnesota Republican if you squinted your eyes and imagined that Bachmann was an African-American teenager, offered her comments on the current state of the country and what we might do to address our super-sized problems.

“We’re not serving breakfast now,” Taquisha Adams announced to one of thepotential voters who could anoint a front-runner in the state’s first-in-the-South primary next February. “You can’t get an ‘egg-a-muffin’ after 10:30 in the morning.”

Analysts said Adams’ forceful commentary on what many see as an entitlement culture in the U.S. indicated she’d be willing to offer some unpleasant-but-necessary leadership direction.

“We don’t have Whoppers,” Adams informed the next audience member to step forward. “That’s Burger King. Can’t you read the menu behind me?”

Adams appeared to be suggesting that citizens may have to revise their expectations of the American dream in light of geopolitical realities that have sent many jobs overseas.

“The coffee won’t be ready for another five minutes,” Adams told the third voter to step forward. “You’ll have to wait.”

“I think this allegory is meant to warn people that it’s going to take time to turn the country in the right direction,” said Winthrop political science professor Wilfred Harper. “We’re talking about what many people consider a ‘sea change’ in how the government conducts its business and interacts with its citizens.”

The next citizen to step forward seemed more ready than most to challenge Adams’ command of the issues.

“I think this is a human finger that got deep-fried and put into my chicken nuggets,” said Arlan Marks, a 68-year-old retiree from nearby York, S.C. “I want my money back or a new batch of nuggets.”

“Ain’t no finger, man,” Adams said with an authority refined during her ten years of public education before she dropped out last year. “That’s just a big ol’ nugget.”

Marks began to press his assertion more forcefully, but Adams waved him aside with a brusque “Next!” that sent him scurrying.

Next in line was schoolteacher Missie Monroe. She wanted the number five combo.

“I’m on break now,” Adams countered, turning the woman away. This seemed to be an indication that Adams, despite her strong pro-business stance, was willing to concede that workers should retain certain key rights.

“She’s definitely got a quality that many of the other candidates in the race are lacking,” said local Republican Party official Ed Wilson. “She tells it like it is, while Romney and the rest of the pack seem to say only what they think people want to hear.”

When Adams returned from her smoke break, her manager directed her to clean up a spilled soft drink near the front of the dining room. She half-heartedly poked at the puddle of Sprite.

“This nation made the difficult transition from a manufacturing-based economy to more of a service-based one,” she said to no one in particular. “Now, our challenge is to move on to a knowledge-based economy. And I know for a fact I don’t want to clean up this mess.”

As her six-hour shift came to an end, Adams punched the timeclock and exited through the back of the store, avoiding questions from what more and more Republicans are referring to as the “lamestream media.”

Meanwhile, back over in the Winthrop University dining hall, Rep. Bachmann concluded her remarks with a call for something or other, and left for the overnight drive to Myrtle Beach, where she’ll be meeting with the Horry County Tea Party Thursday.

"What do YOU want?" Taquisha Adams asks America

Advertisements

Happy birthday to Beth

June 29, 2011

Today is my wife’s birthday. The fact that I haven’t bought her a gift yet is testimony that I have “married up” to a much better person than I could ever be.

I mention Beth occasionally in this space, and she’s always a good sport about it. I think she’s glad I’ve found a creative outlet that doesn’t involve dreaming up wild schemes to upend our family, like past proposals to build a privacy fence in our backyard, buy a Chrysler Crossfire, or move us all to India.

She didn’t even mind Monday’s blog, in which I compared her to a totalitarian regime just because I didn’t want any of her cucumbers. She’s a long-time Sinophile who studied Chinese martial arts and visited that nation several years ago, so she may have even taken it as a compliment.

She could’ve beaten the crap out of me with her expertise in kung fu and tai chi, though using the latter might have taken a while.

The fact that I was fortunate enough to find Beth almost 35 years ago while we were both students at Florida State (she attending grad school in mathematics, me studying how I could extend my pursuit of an undergrad degree indefinitely) is the single most defining event of my life.

I shudder to think where I’d be today without her. Certainly, no other woman would have me. Except maybe the lady who runs the local homeless shelter.

We were friends before we became romantic, which I think is no small contributor to the fact that we’ve been happily married since 1982. We met while working at the student newspaper. First, I was an editor and she was an underling reporter, and then we reversed roles. This laid the groundwork for each of us to boss the other around periodically without resenting it.

We’d hang out casually together after making each night’s deadline, in part because no one else was awake that late. I usually got off a little before she did, and would suggest she’d drop by my apartment on her way home. I could hear the squealing brakes of her vintage VW bug even from the third floor, giving me a few moments for a quick clean-up and a quick thrill that maybe this was evolving into something.

In 1977, she invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her parents in Charleston, after which we’d spend a weekend skiing in the North Carolina mountains. Snowfall that far south in November was extremely rare, but we got lucky and had a great weekend, both on the slopes and in several interior settings as well.

As our relationship blossomed, she finished her studies and began looking for a full-time job in journalism. I was happy to continue knocking around Tallahassee indefinitely but she had the drive to look for something better. She found it hundreds of miles away in the small South Carolina town just outside of Charlotte where she’d received her undergraduate degree.

In April of 1979, she packed up her stuff and moved away. (We retained at least one small connection — she trusted me to keep her cat Marie because her new apartment wouldn’t allow pets.) It was small consolation, though. I cried like a baby as she and the squealing VW left town.

We kept up a long-distance relationship for the next year or so, each taking turns shuttling back and forth between Tallahassee and Rock Hill. I soon saw how empty my life was without her. I kicked myself constantly for missing what may have been my one opportunity for happiness. After one particularly bruising session, I resolved to leave my dissolute life behind and follow her north.

We moved in together in June 1980. It was perhaps the best month of my life. Not only was I now with the woman I loved, but I also found a job I liked enough that it continues to be my career over three decades later.

One night we were lying awake, batting around ideas for a vacation. Having grown up in Miami, I had always wanted to take a Caribbean cruise, and Beth was willing to go along with the idea.

I forget which one of us noted that such a trip would make a great honeymoon. So we decided — what the hell — let’s schedule a marriage right before the sailing date.

(This wasn’t the last time we put the cart before the horse, planning-wise. Eight years later, we’d decide to have a child, in part because I ran out of things to tape with my new video camera).

We planned the whole wedding ourselves, and it turned out great. Since it was October, and we both came from German ancestry, we decided to have an Oktoberfest theme for the reception. We even hired an accordion player so that our beer-sodden guests could polka.

After the honeymoon, we settled comfortably into domestic life. We both advanced in our careers, with Beth eventually becoming the managing editor of her newspaper. We bought a house. We travelled. I took up jogging and tennis while Beth pursued her own separate interests, including writing.

We had resolved not to be a couple “joined at the hip” in everything we did, and that turned out to be a wise decision. (In 1990, however, we did manage to get our hips close enough to conceive our first and only child, Daniel.)

Beth tackled pregnancy with tremendous enthusiasm. She read all the books, and resolved to have as natural a birth experience as possible. We took classes in the “Bradley Method,” an extreme form of Lamaze that emphasized sitting cross-legged on the floor each Friday night with a bunch of hippie types and chiropractors.

Despite our plans, Daniel decided to have a big head and try to come out face-first. Beth labored all night and much of the next day before we (meaning “she”) had to give in and have a cesarean.

To be the best mother she could, Beth left her job at the paper. We saw a lactation specialist so Daniel could nurse despite some initial difficulty in latching on. She gave him full-time attention right up until he left for preschool, and it paid off as he excelled academically.

They say that time flies when you watch your child grow up, and that’s certainly been the case. During the next 20 years, Beth started her own freelance copy-editing business, allowing her to bring in a much-needed second income and still remain at home. We continued to travel, with Daniel in tow, to places as far away as Alaska. When our son was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating intestinal ailment, we pulled together to get him the best treatment possible.

Now that he’s stabilized, Beth is back in the labor force, working nights on a “temporary” basis for the last year and a half to help pay for his care. There’s not much sleep to be had as she works the graveyard shift five nights a week. She gets home at 4:30 in the morning, tries to “sleep fast,” as we call it, then is home to answer calls from her editing clients, deal with plumbers and handymen, and help Daniel.

When she returns home in the middle of the night, she tries to come in quietly through the sunroom. But the door into the living room has a squeaky hinge, so I get to hear that she’s arrived safe and sound, even as a lie in bed mostly asleep.

I suppose I could put some grease on that hinge. But it brings back such fond memories of her arrival at my apartment in that noisy old VW some 35 years ago that I think I’ll leave it alone.

Happy birthday, Beth. Thanks for being so loving and patient with a loser like me. I promise I’ll get you that birthday present soon.

New social games not so sociable

June 28, 2011

Operating under the belief that online social games have become too benign to accurately reflect our increasingly contentious society, one software maker is hoping to create a new niche in the fast-growing market.

“Angry Words With Friends” is the first release from Ms. Anthropic Technologies. The game combines the crossword-building skills of “Words With Friends” and the playful action of “Angry Birds”.

“Between Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and all the rest of that crap, we thought it was time for more realistic personal interaction online,” said MAT founder Gloria Redstone.

“You’re not friendly with fellow motorists; you give ’em the finger. You’re not friendly with fellow countries; you invade ’em,” Redstone said. “You kick your dog and you bicker with your spouse. Why should you be nice to all those anonymous assholes on the Internet?’

The company’s initial creation hints at what some future releases might come from the start-up firm. In AWWF, players are represented by small birds who are given a collection of seven random letters, and must assemble these into a word that is then hurled at a house built by pigs. The more profane and lengthy the word, the more points a player scores.

“Each letter is imprinted on a ball of animated hog waste,” Redstone said. “The more letters you can use, the bigger the ball, and the more likely it will cause damage to the structure built by the pigs.”

Points are awarded much like they are in “Words With Friends,” a Scrabble-like contest that has grown in popularity in recent months.

“If you can only build a small epithet, like ‘ass’ or ‘dork,’ you might only get 10 or 15 points,” Redstone noted. “Come up with something like ‘jerkwad’ or ‘rectum’ and you can score much higher.”

The background narrative of the game is about a family of birds that build their nest downwind from an industrial hog farm. The waste from the pigs, normally stored in lagoons, begins to overflow into a local stream which runs near the birds’ nest.

The birds have tried to reason with county zoning authorities over the issue, but soon become frustrated with the slow pace of government bureaucracy. They take over the fight personally, hurling feces at the pigs even as the animals look to expand their facility with new construction.

“We’ll even give players an option to have their words posted directly to Twitter and Facebook, so they can abuse all their so-called friends,” Redstone said.

Sources in the social gaming industry report that several similar products are also in the pipeline for release during the 2011 holiday season. One game will reportedly merge “Hanging With Friends,” a recent offering that allows acquaintances to play a virtual version of the kids’ game Hangman, with the wildly popular “Farmville.”

“Farm animals ready for market will be slaughtered, not with electric stun guns, but instead will be hung by the neck until dead,” one analyst reported. “They’ll already be strung up, so that step won’t have to be repeated at the packing house where the meat is butchered.”

Another concept still being fleshed out would combine “Mafia Wars” with standard text messaging so that players can threaten their friends with being decapitated and dumped in the river, while at the same time inviting them to meet up for a flash mob.

Redstone began her company only last year, claiming she became tired of the never-ending “GG” (for “good game”) and “LOL” messages being exchanged among relative strangers who would never be so kind to live people they actually knew.

“But what pushed me over the edge to start my own company was when ‘Words With Friends’ wouldn’t allow me to play ‘HOBA,’ which I contended was a female hobo,” Redstone said. “I phoned the headquarters of (WWF maker) Zynga and verbally abused the CEO. That’s when the light went off in my head to create something completely new and hostile.”

Tom versus the pepper

June 27, 2011

It’s the season of bounty from our summer gardens, and if one more neighbor offers me a free peck of cucumbers, I’ll smile pleasantly, say “thank you,” and toss the whole lot in the county landfill.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the “generosity” of the contribution, though I suspect their motives are more related to retaining a small amount of space in their kitchens for things other than cucumbers, such as refrigerators, dishwashers and a narrow walkway with enough room for the film crew from “Hoarders”.

It’s more that I don’t understand the whole point of cucumbers.

As a food, they don’t seem to have very many uses. If it weren’t for pickles – and this rather tenuous connection to necessity – they’d be as obscure and pointless as Asian vegetables like nira grass, lo bok and the yummy-sounding bitter melon.

Most of the recipes I found online involve dropping the cucumber into some type of salad, shaved as thin as possible to minimize its taste. The closest I could find to something other than a salad was the Salmon and Cuke Mini Smørrebrød, a Danish concoction that uses a type of matter called “gravlax” to combine the glories of Scandinavian cuisine and the phallic fruit known to botanists as cucumis sativus (Latin for “that shit”).

I suppose you could bake, roast, boil, microwave, sauté, grill, stuff or broil the warty schlong and possibly come up with something edible. If not, at least it will have been destroyed.

My rage against the existence of the cucumber has unfortunately gotten me off-topic from what I meant to write about today. Such, I guess, are the wages of hatred.

My wife did accept a small donation of cukes along with a few other vegetables from a friend’s garden, and they sit now next to our sink. I’m not sure if we’re continuing the ripening process by leaving them there, or if we simply hope they rot quickly so we can toss them into the compost heap.

Beth does enjoy simple cucumber sandwiches, an effete treat enjoyed primarily by British nobility. I ate these once, dragged to “high tea” at Hong Kong’s posh Peninsula Hotel by a co-worker during a business trip. I didn’t really want them, but I didn’t want to upset the Communist Chinese. Beth can sometimes be almost as insistent as a totalitarian regime, but at least she won’t initiate a Cultural Revolution or Great Leap Forward if I politely refuse.

Anyway, back to the other vegetables currently on our kitchen counter. One of these is a cayenne pepper, a long, green, wrinkled veggie used primarily as a spice. It is considered a “hot pepper,” generally only edible in the smallest of quantities by the heartiest of individuals. On the Scoville scale, which measures the amount of the chemical capsaicin present in a chili pepper, the lowly jalapeno measures about 8,000 Scovilles. The cayenne, by contrast, measures 65,000 Scovilles.

As it turns out, one of our cats also thinks we have too many surplus and largely inedible foods on our counter but, unlike me, he has the temerity to do something about it. Saturday night, he launched a full-scale frontal assault on the cayenne.

Only he thought it was a snake.

Tom begins his attack on the fearsome vegetable

The rest of the family was enjoying a quiet evening in front of the TV when we suddenly heard a scuffle coming from the kitchen. There was a great thud on the floor, and we knew immediately that our muscular, aggressive tabby named Tom must have fallen to the ground. He had been pawing at the pepper from an arm’s-length distance, and had snagged a corner with his claw, causing the pepper to move. He interpreted this to be a counter-attack by the snake, and skedaddled himself away as quickly as possible.

The three of us intervened immediately, not to rescue Tom from his situation, but to be entertained by his antics. Tom spent about the first year of his life in the wild before we adopted him, and we imagined he’d encountered all kinds of snakes and other wildlife that he regarded as food. He was reverting back to his kittenhood, interested in a tasty if venomous snack.

Within moments, Tom was back on the counter, and back on the offensive. He continued his strategy of keeping his distance, using his greater reach to his advantage, much like a boxer softening up an opponent who had no arms. He jabbed. He prodded. He poked. He feinted. The snake/pepper was obviously tiring, but he had no manager to throw in the towel.

Finally, Tom landed a series of blows that did some serious damage. The veggie was deeply wounded in the midsection, tottering on the edge of the counter. Tom stood victorious over his victim, wanting to finish the match by wolfing him down, but too put-off by the scent of capsaicin to consume the now-defeated rival.

The pepper lies mortally wounded

It’s not quite the iconic photo of a young Cassius Clay dancing in triumph over the unconscious form of Sonny Liston, but Tom had achieved his victory, and was proud of his achievement.

Now if I can only get him to work on those cucumbers.

Revisited: Time to feed the cats … again

June 26, 2011

As I write this, it’s the unholy hour of 2 a.m. About 15 minutes ago, I was awakened by a wet nuzzling on my cheek. It can’t be my wife, as she’s working nights right now. It can’t be a dolphin, or there’d be the smell of fish. Then I hear a loud meow directed straight into my ear, and I realize it’s a hungry cat.    

About six months ago, I took over the chore of keeping our three kitties fed. For years, my wife and son had maintained a routine of twice-a-day feedings: a dry mound of colorless veterinarian-approved senior formula around 7 in the morning, then at 9 in the evening, just for a little variety, a dry mound of colorless veterinarian-approved senior formula. Everybody was fat and happy.    

When I took over, the gravy train started slowly going off the tracks. I’d prepare my turkey sandwich before work each morning, and toss Harriet, Taylor and Tom a scrap of lunchmeat. When I’d get home from work around 1:30, they’d recognize me as that big, awkward human who was an easy touch, and would circle my legs, their faces plaintive and irresistible. I’d succumb and offer up a few morsels of cat treats, then repeat the same ritual several hours later. Discipline and order were spinning out of control.    

This was turning out to be a bad role for me. I pretend not to care whether other humans like me, but I always felt I had a special bond with the animal kingdom, that my simple nature and base instincts gave us a common bond. We don’t have dogs, yet most of those I encounter on the street like me enough to repeatedly bark “hello” when I jog past their homes. Birds and squirrels seem to regard me as a kindred spirit, at least when I’m not accidentally running them over with my car. I have an innate confidence that if I ever encountered a bear or wolf or tiger out in the wild, that they’d like me too, and not just for my well-marbled meat.    

So now the cats are spoiled, and think they can demand food from me at any hour of the day or night. The trio is led by Harriet who, at age 14, apparently won the job of chief beggar by virtue of her seniority and her more piercing meow. I’ll be under a blanket taking an afternoon nap, and suddenly feel a commotion working its way from my feet toward my upper body. She starts by rubbing my shoulders with the side of her face, a move I resist by turning over and snuggling deeper into the blanket. Little vocalizations follow – nothing too disturbing, mostly just a polite announcement that she’s a cat and not a home invader and, if it’s not too much trouble, would I be kind enough to hand over all the cat food. When this fails, she resorts to the wet nose.    

As much as I like animals, and as much as I acknowledge the cat’s reputation for cleanliness despite the fact they bathe in saliva and tromp through a litter box every few hours, I can’t stand to feel their spittle on my skin. Harriet knows this, and so saves her ultimate weapon until the nudges and over-dramatic purrs have failed to rouse me. I burrow deeper into the sheets, trying to keep every square inch of my body covered. No matter how thoroughly I try to hide, Harriet always manages to find an exposed elbow or finger, and starts lapping away.    

My wife enjoys this show of affection, and can lounge for long moments while Harriet or Taylor methodically work a small patch of skin, searching for what she claims is love and I contend is salt. (Tom, who’s only been indoors for a year, prefers a more fang-based interaction with humans). I, on the other hand, can’t stand it. Maybe it’s the constant drumbeat of mandatory safety training at work that puts bodily fluids on par with nuclear waste or Newt Gingrich as a hazardous material. Maybe I need to distinguish between the lick, which involves simple saliva, and the nasal nudge, which involves mucus. Maybe I need counseling to realize that animal slobber is a natural and organic thing, soon to be available in health food stores.    

So when Harriet announced herself at my pillow early this morning, I took the easy way out and got up to feed her. She may have had a legitimate point in this one case. For their actual dinner hour, I’ve started recently to give them only a half portion around 9 o’clock and the other half about 45 minutes later. Taylor has taken up the sport of competitive eating, and will wolf down a full portion so rapidly that he ends up “refunding” (look it up at ifoce.com, the website for major league eating, if you dare). Last night, I dozed off before I could offer up the second course, so her complaint was a valid one.    

Still, I need a solution to this problem that doesn’t require any responsibility or self-control on my part. And I may have found it.    

During a recent visit to the vet, we picked up a brochure from the makers of Invisible Fence. For those of you not familiar with this product, it involves burying a small power grid around the perimeter of your yard which transmits a mild electrical shock to a collar worn by your outdoor dog when he tries to pass over it. It’s basically a self-tasering device that eliminates the need for ugly chain link to surround your property. After a few jolts to the throat, even the dumbest dog learns to avoid the invisible fence.    

The concept is a very clever one, and it didn’t take long for the sales folks at IF to come up with some other applications. My first choice for venturing outside the doggie market would’ve been electric collars to keep weak-willed humans away from bars, fast-food establishments, pawn shops, me and the like. Perhaps the company thought that metallic chokers with a transmitter attached would not be an acceptable fashion statement, though a visit to any high school could’ve convinced them otherwise.    

Instead, the Invisible Fence people are now offering an option to keep cats geographically controlled. And it somehow works not only out in the yard but indoors as well. The brochure doesn’t explain this in any detail, so I’m left to assume they won’t be digging up your living room and sinking high-powered cable around your sofa, but instead employ computers and perhaps a GPS connection to track your kitty. When Puff jumps onto the dinner table and starts gobbling your chicken — as shown in one picture in the brochure that’s captioned “does this look familiar?” — a geosynchronous satellite is duly notified and space lasers offer a virtual “no!” from 150 miles above the Earth.   

Not sure how Harriet, Taylor and Tom would react to that. You could make a strong argument that the punishment is a bit harsh for the “crime” of curiosity and hunger. Electrocuting your pet for the slight annoyance they occasionally cause doesn’t seem to give them enough credit for that whole love and companionship package they offer. But those wet noses sure will help with the conductivity.   

Time to be fed … again

Revisited: Just running a few errands

June 25, 2011

My wife and I had a few errands to run the other afternoon. She cracked me up several times with the casual banter that goes on between two people who’ve been together so long, and I realized how little credit I give both her and my son for suggesting funny ideas for me to blog about.

I started scribbling notes for multiple topics when we got home, then realized perhaps a raw transcript would give a more accurate flavor of what happens on just an average day, doing and talking about average things.

+++

We were allegedly ready to leave five minutes ago, but Beth is still rounding up stuff for the journey. I’m slightly annoyed, though we husbands rarely think this common annoyance through. We’ve got our keys, our wallet, maybe a cellphone, maybe some clothing, and we’re ready to go. Wives have to anticipate anything else that might be needed, and be sure to bring that along.  

We complain about the delay, yet when we need a tissue, a lozenge, a piece of paper, a nail clipper, an egg crate or a copy of the Articles of Confederation, we turn to them and they’re prepared.  

+++  

Where do we go first? Arby’s is farther away and open till late, Earth Fare is much closer but they sometimes close down the hot bar early.  

Nearly 30 years of marriage yields a quick consensus: Arby’s first, then Earth Fare.  

It’s easy to be on the same page with this one. Arby’s food might lose its heat faster, yet the taste and nutritional value will be the same as it would be a year from today. Earth Fare carries organic food, which everyone knows has to be consumed within 30 minutes of whenever the animal or vegetable involved has been killed and/or uprooted.  

+++  

“Have you noticed how the squirrels seem to have taken over the neighborhood this year?” I observe as we pull out of the driveway, narrowly avoiding squishing one.  

Beth postulates that it’s because we adopted Tom. We lured the hulking, scar-faced tabby in from his outdoor existence about a year ago and successfully converted him to the domestic faith. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the ecology of the subdivision has since been transformed. The red-tailed hawks have been unable to keep up sufficient air power without the ground support that Tom had provided, and now we’re overrun with squirrels.  

“You’re probably right,” I say. “We removed an ‘apex predator’ from Brookshadow food chain.”  

Now Tom has a new nickname (“A.P.”) and my son Daniel has a name for his rock band, should he ever choose to form one.  

Tom now lives with Man, the ultimate apex predator

+++  

I get a chance to ruminate about the new effort I’ve been asked to take on at work. I’m heading up a project team that will look at our internal processes and suggest improvements that will both cut production time and improve quality. I’m supposed to solicit ideas from all 54 people in our office, synthesize them into coherent action plans, and then take responsibility when none of them work. I’m kind of like a walking suggestion box, except I prefer to be stuffed with Baked Lays sour cream and onion flavor chips than slips of paper containing illegible rants against management.  

We’ve been told the “blue sky” is the limit for what we might propose, and after only two weeks I’m already trying to think how I can get my boss on the next space shuttle.  

The problem is that we can only suggest process changes, not people changes, despite the fact that there is a core group of incompetents who are always screwing everything up.  

“How do you come up with a step-by-step process that everyone can do the same, when not everybody has the same mental capacity?” I wonder aloud.  

“Maybe you have two separate flowcharts with a decision point right at the beginning that asks ‘are you a moron?’” Beth suggests. “If you answer ‘yes,’ you take one path, and if you answer ‘no,’ you take another.”  

“Nah, that won’t work,” I answer. “We just had mandatory sensitivity training a few weeks back, and we’re not allowed to think people are morons anymore.”  

+++  

We drive past a Blockbuster store about halfway to Arby’s. They’re “open” — if by open, you mean they will theoretically still serve people willing to drive halfway across town rather than get their movies from Netflix, Redbox or the Internet. However, there’s not a single car in the parking lot.  

+++  

We pull into the Arby’s drive-thru line. There’s only one car ordering in front of us, usually a good sign that we’ll be in and out quickly. However, there are four people in the car, and the person placing the order is doing so from the back seat.  

“They can’t do that,” I protest to Beth. “It’s the driver that has to order. This is going to take forever.”  

“You forget,” Beth notes, “that we live in the freedom-loving state of South Carolina. No helmet laws for motorcycle riders, legal fireworks sold on every other corner, and pay-day loan franchises everywhere. Our forefathers died at Fort Sumter so that people could order fast food from the back seat.”  

“But you were born in Massachusetts,” I remind Beth.  

“Oh,” she answers. “Right.”  

+++  

We finally get up to the speakerbox to place our order: a three-piece chicken strips combo and two junior roast beefs (just for once, I’d love to use the proper plural and ask for “junior roast beeves,” but I’m afraid what they would give me).  

“Mmmph rmphh phmmph arumm,” comes the distorted reply. Beth and I look at each other, not quite knowing how to respond.  

“I think he said ‘will there be anything else?’” Beth guesses.  

“I’m thinking it was ‘would you like a drink with that,’” I tell her.  

So I try to phrase my reply in a way that would answer both questions.  

“Just the chicken and the sandwiches, that’ll be all,” I say.  

“Mmmph rmphh,” he answers, which in this context we think means pull ahead to the pickup window.  

+++  

The guy takes our money and hands us a receipt, but there’ll be a brief delay in delivering the food. I once drove away in a similar situation without getting my order. This was at a Taco Bell, so I was out only $2.17. When I realized my error, I was not about to go back and make the case to a manager that, while I might be stupid enough to order a beef soft taco, I am not yet not so mentally challenged that I would pay them money to keep it.  

+++  

We get the bag of food and drive away. Though the combo is for my son, I’m quick to exact our family’s “baggler tax.” This is our policy that allows the person picking up the food to eat any french fries that have fallen from their cardboard sleeve and into the bag (hence, the name “baggler”), delivering a slightly diminished collection of potato tubes to whoever is waiting at home.  

Might this practice be adopted as a government tax policy? Any income you earn that is fried or greasy and drops out of your pocket on the way home from work goes toward federal revenues, and you get to keep the rest.  

+++  

Now we’re headed off toward Earth Fare, and Beth tells me about her visit earlier that afternoon to Books-A-Million.  

“They have a whole aisle and end-cap devoted to nothing but Bible covers,” Beth marvels. “Some are psychedelic, for the teens; some are camouflaged for hunters; some are all lacey, for elderly women, I guess.”  

“Why would a hunter want to camouflage his Bible?” I wonder. “Wouldn’t he want the deer and wild turkey to know how the Living Word of God could save them? Not from the hunter, maybe, but at least from the fires of Hell.”  

“You should write about that in your blog,” Beth suggests, and so I have.  

(L-R) Football Bible cover, girly Bible cover, camouflage Bible cover

+++  

We pull into the Earth Fare parking lot. It’s hot, so we’re on the prowl for the spot closest to the door. We see one that’s empty, then realize it’s being reserved for the employee of the month.  

“That space is always empty,” notes Beth, a frequent patron of this store. “I think their employee of the month quit.”  

+++  

Inside the store, there’s a well-dressed young woman just standing in the deli. Just standing there. She’s obviously not shopping, she’s just shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot while a group of young children wait for their free “Family Night” meal.  

A new family walks into the area, a little confused at how this free meal promotion works, and the woman steps forward to offer assistance. She’s been employed to be standing by in case anyone needs help filling out a cartoon order form using a variety of crayons made available for that purpose.  

“I saw her here earlier and wondered if she was a living mannequin or something,” I told Beth. “I’m glad to see she’s a professional loiterer. That seems so much more respectable.”  

+++  

Regular readers of this column might remember the debate Beth and I had recently on the subject of bringing your own re-usable bag to the grocery store. She asserted I was “anti-bag” and therefore “pro-environmental degradation,” while I countered that I simply forgot half the time and, besides, it kept me from buying more than I could carry in two hands.  

Now, on this particular visit, as we’re checking out, I notice that Beth has forgotten her bag. Aha! Just the chance husbands watch for — exposing inconsistency or even hypocrisy in their wives’ arguments.  

“But all I bought was a container of soup and a sandwich, and I’m taking it with me directly to work from here,” she said. “I didn’t need a bag.”  

“So you will admit, then, that there are scenarios where it is acceptable, even appropriate, to not bring your own bag?” I countered.  

I thought I had her on the ropes of logic when she reached deep into the voluminous body of case law that exists to address minor domestic disputes such as these.  

“Just shut up,” she suggested good-naturedly.  

I couldn’t argue with that.  

+++  

Apparently, I need to remember to change the cat litter when we get home. Or so I’m told.  

I should never have brought up the whole bag thing.

New warning labels could apply to candidates

June 23, 2011

Following the lead of the FDA, which announced this week that graphic images would have to appear on cigarette packages warning of the dangers of smoking, the Federal Election Commission is considering a similar rule.

The FEC proposal would require presidential candidates to alter their physical appearance to show what effects their proposals would have on the nation.

“Showing the ravages of smoking so vividly may well deter people from starting to smoke,” said FEC chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly. “We hope the same principle can be applied to politicians. If their policies will cause the nation to become a ghostly shell of its former self, it’s only fair advertising that they present a similar image.”

Most Republican candidates who’ve already declared their intentions to run in 2012 immediately objected to what they called unnecessary government regulation. Surprisingly, however, one who did not object is the most libertarian candidate in the race, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

Ron Paul

 “‘A ghostly shell of its former self’?” Paul said. “That’s me! I plan to abolish about half of the current federal departments, gutting the government so that it is doddering and ineffectual. I think I look the part of someone who would do that.”

Paul has been judged the most conservative member of Congress among the 3,320 people who have served since 1937. He opposes all foreign intervention as well as global trade agreements. He believes private property rights are more important than environmental legislation. He supports the abolition of all drug laws. He’s even against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, considered the foundation for over 50 years of improved race relations.

“I’m disheveled and old and white, and I often talk like someone who’s been smoking crack,” Paul said. “I love this new proposal.”

The only real change he says he’d have to make in his look would be to appear slightly more stupid. Removing federal assistance to education would make the population even dumber than it is now, and Paul — trained as a medical doctor — still appears to have at least half his marbles.

“What if I put those marbles in my mouth while making speeches?” he said. “That might just be the finishing touch for the truth-in-advertising that my image needs.”

Another Republican candidate who appears already poised to be in compliance is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Newt Gingrich

“I envision an America that is bitter and mean-spirited. We should do little if anything to help those who are less better off,” Gingrich said. “And I’m fat. Let’s not forget that. All those guidelines for improving the diets of obese citizens are out the door if I’m elected. Even the most healthy among us would look like me.”

Gingrich said he hoped the FEC’s proposal would only cover the candidates themselves, and not their spouses.

“My wife is a beautiful woman, but she’s also a strong woman,” the Georgia conservative said. “That doesn’t mean I support other women being strong. They need to be subservient to their husbands, not have abortions, and not demand expensive jewelry.”

“She will not agree to look like a trailer-park floozy, tramp-stamped and toothless,” he said. “Even if that is what my economic policy would do to the middle class.”

Yay! It’s naptime!

June 22, 2011

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

Huh? Whuh? No, no … I’m awake, I’m awake.

Just catching a quick “desk nap” here at work. If I put a couple of number-filled pages on the proofreading easel in front of me, no one even notices if I doze off for a few minutes. In fact, I challenge anyone — even the most alert, meth-addled reader out there — to stay awake while perusing column after column of financial numbers.

It’s a technique that anesthesiologists and executioners could learn a lot from.

At this stage in my life, I’ve pretty much mastered the art of the power nap. I’ve discovered over the years that even as little as five minutes of unconsciousness can prove to be quite refreshing. Somehow, I always manage to catch myself almost as soon as the sleep has done its rejuvenating job, and snap awake before my head flops back and my mouth starts leaking.

I first developed this useful practice back when I was in college. Several times a semester, I’d make the 480-mile drive from Tallahassee, Fla., to Miami to visit my parents. Anyone who’s ever driven on the Florida Turnpike for almost 250 miles of that journey can testify how dull it is. You almost wish giant, fire-breathing alligators would emerge from the Everglades and start consuming motorists whole, just to provide enough stimulation to keep you awake.

Since most of these mega-gators have become threatened due to encroachment on their habitats, I started refreshing myself with mini-naps while barreling down the highway at 70 m.p.h. Sounds dangerous, I know, but I was always able to catch myself in time to avoid a side-trip into the canal.

Those were good times.

Today, I’m in the same boat as most other hard-working Americans, and it’s a boat that’s likely going to run aground soon because everyone is so drowsy. We’ve packed so many activities into our busy schedules that, in order to make room for it all, we steal from the time we should be sleeping.

Stories of the consequences of this trend are all over the news. A bus driver heading from North Carolina to New York tries to catch 40 winks, and around the 35th one — oops — his motorcoach goes off a bridge, killing four. Airline pilots headed for Minneapolis end up halfway to the North Pole before realizing their passenger jet was on autopilot while they snoozed.

Even Vice President Biden was caught napping during a presidential address to Congress. Had al-Qaeda chosen to attack the U.S. during that vulnerable moment, Biden’s slumber would likely have been disturbed, rendering him grouchy and out-of-sorts for the rest of the afternoon.

On a typical day, following what is a typical night of about five hours sleep, I’ll take two planned naps. First comes the one I take in my car during what is supposed to be my lunch break. I’ll turn on the air-conditioning, drive to the back of our office park, recline my seat and crank up the NPR. Within moments, the soothing voice of Terry Gross and her “Fresh Aire” guest (hopefully, a poet) have me nodding.

If I need to wake up by a predetermined time — say, to keep my job — I set my virtually fail-safe internal alarm clock and inevitably find myself jarred awake at that precise moment. Somehow, I’ve been blessed with what is arguably a super-human skill in this regard. I just have to figure out now how to use it for the good of all mankind.

The other planned nap occurs when I get home from work, about 3:30 p.m. I get to do this one in my own home, usually with two cats already snoozing in my wife’s half of the bed.

Taylor and Harriet can be a bit of a handful when they want to eat or poop or whatever else it is they contribute around the house. But at this point in my day, with the heat soaring outside and the AC going full blast inside, they provide a tremendous amount of inspiration for those who want to sleep. What a great role model the modern housecat can be! I lie down, pulling the covers tight up to my chin. I reach over and give Taylor a gentle stroke, a muttered “kitty, kitty” and — boom — I’m out like a light.

As skilled as I may claim to be in the art of the “fast sleep,” I still often have trouble embarking on longer ventures into dreamland. Never was this more apparent than during several intercontinental flights I took to Asia a few years back.

It is nighttime. My body clock doesn’t believe this, however. After making a sleepless overnight flight from Charlotte to Germany, killing most of a morning in Frankfurt before boarding another nine-hour slog toward India, it really could be any time at all, including the 23rd century. It’s dark outside the plane, though only a couple of window-seat passengers have their sliding shades open.

The incessant thrum of the jet engines speed us through the high altitudes above Iran. All around the cabin, fellow passengers are sleeping blissfully. Some have blankets pulled over their faces. Some heads are held in position by inflated neck pillows. A few have collapsed onto the shoulder of the person seated next to them, who might normally object if they so weren’t comatose.

Throughout the plane, Muslims are lying down with Hindus, Hindus are lying down with Christians, Asians are lying down with Europeans, and that young couple sitting on the bulkhead are sort of lying down, but on top of each other.

And me? I’m wide awake, trying to decide whether chapter 13 of a Sandy Koufax biography or an episode of “Who’s The Boss?” translated into Hindi will make my wakefulness less painful. Even with a double-dose of Ambien coursing through my veins, I remain wide awake.

Fortunately, within a few more hours, I’m comfortably tucked into my luxurious bed at Mumbai’s Leela Hotel, and the sleep comes easily. For days at a time.

Too bad I couldn’t have stepped outside that Airbus A320 for a power nap. I feel confident the lack of oxygen at 35,000 feet would’ve put me right out.

Incredibly, Pledge flap still being discussed

June 21, 2011

A group known for its radical demands that English be used properly in all areas of communication has joined the fray over NBC’s controversial decision to edit the Pledge of Allegiance in Sunday’s broadcast of golf’s U.S. Open.

During a patriotic montage preceding the telecast, a recitation of the Pledge by a group of children left out the words “under God”. Conservative critics took to the blogosphere to accuse the network of undermining America’s status as God’s most-favored nation.

But members of the United Nitpickers Demanding English be Right (UNDER) maintain that this criticism is missing the point.

“Most religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian one, say that God is everywhere, not simply floating in the sky above,” said Marie Janeworth, executive director of UNDER, in a communique issued from her compound hidden somewhere in California’s Sierra mountains. “It’s time to reconsider whether ‘under’ is really the proper preposition to describe His position compared to ours.”

Janeworth’s group has previously gone on record with suggestions for alternative wording of this fragment of the Pledge. They’ve recommended several options: “one nation near God,” “one nation around God,” “one nation regarding God,” “one nation during God,” “one nation by God” and “one nation close to but not crowding God.”

“We have no problem acknowledging there’s probably some kind of god and that he thinks pretty highly of the United States. We’re not atheists or agonistics,” Janeworth said. “We just want to see the King’s English used properly.”

Meanwhile, NBC expanded on its apology Monday. Chris McCloskey, vice president for NBCUniversal Sports, said “As soon as management became aware of this decision and the controversy it justifiably created, it immediately offered an on-air apology.”

“It was not the intent of NBC to upset anyone,” McCloskey added. “We’ve made an apology and accept responsibility, even though we suspect it was actually the fault of those kids in the video.”

One of the children involved, seven-year-old Ethan Harris, of Arlington, Va., denied that any omission was intentional.

“I know that Sarah H. standing next to me had the hiccups that day, and she may have ‘hicked’ right past the ‘under God’ part,” Ethan told reporters.

“Nu-uh,” countered Sarah H.

In another twist to the still-developing story, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said his message has become “dramatically more relevant” following NBC’s controversial edit. Promoting his book “A Nation Like No Other” on a conservative radio talk show, Gingrich said he will make the gaffe a centerpiece of his upcoming campaign for the 2012 nomination.

“I know people say jobs, the economy, three wars, massive deficits and our out-of-control debt to China are important,” Gingrich said. “But this denial of God during a minor feature on a golf telecast is far more critical.”

UNDER’s Janeworth observed of Gingrich, “you know, his book title should be ‘A Nation As No Other.'”

Sarah H. (right) probably hates America

Keeping our training world-class

June 20, 2011

It’s not just through an under-funded, shoddy educational system that the American workforce of the twenty-first century will continue its decline.

It’s also through on-the-job training — at once both superficial and way more thorough than it needs to be — that we’ll continue our transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy to a system where everyone makes their living by being on reality TV.

We had a couple of “training initiatives” at work last week that might serve to prove the point. We had to learn both how to operate the new copier and how to use a new internal email system. This was on top of our ongoing studies of how slowly we can walk to the coffeemaker, thereby avoiding work, without being mistaken for the walking dead and hauled away to the zombie re-education center (a.k.a. the Human Resources department).

Neither of these two new technologies has to be a big deal. To make a copy on the fancy new Xerox WorkCentre 5655, I assume you place your original face down on the glass and press some kind of “start” button, then wait for your duplicate to eject into a tray. If, instead of “start,” the appropriate button is something like “begin” or “commence” or “go” or “initiate,” I think I can puzzle through that without any extensive training.

The problem is, this latest high-tech upgrade from Xerox has to do more than just make copies to justify its massive footprint on our production floor. It has to collate. It has to staple. It has to reduce or enlarge. It has to lighten or darken. I think there’s even an option that offers transubstantiation, allowing you to place your ham sandwich and Diet Coke lunch on the glass and have it become the body of Christ.

And, there’s the ability to fax a document, in case I’m doing business with someone from 1998.

The machine was installed about a week before the formal training was to begin, giving everyone the opportunity to poke it with sticks and marvel at its sleek design. We were afraid to use it for copy-making without being certified by the trainer being sent by Xerox. Who knows? Maybe the “clear all” button would wipe humans from the face of the Earth.

Then on Tuesday, a car rolled into the parking lot bearing the new Xerox logo, the one that makes it look like they’ve diversified into making red-and-white hackeysacks. A woman came in, spoke briefly with a manager, then we were summoned to gather ’round the new machine.

“Anyone interested in learning about the new copier, the trainer is here,” came the announcement.

When no one stood up to signal their commitment to the lifelong learning experience so critical to career success in the global economy, the manager felt sorry for the trainer. She went to retrieve a few managers from other departments to pretend to be interested.

About four people eventually showed up. They snuggled in close to the WorkCentre 5655 like it was a warm fire on a cold night. (It puts out about as much heat). From my desk 20 feet away, I could hear “oohs” and the occasional “aah” as the Xerox lady ran through her agenda.

After about 30 minutes, people began shifting from one foot to the other, signaling either boredom or a regret that they hadn’t chosen a career in dance. The trainer sensed she was losing the crowd, and wrapped up her presentation, asking “any questions?”

I was tempted to offer one from my perch halfway across the room — “wouldn’t it have been easier to tell us what it doesn’t do rather than what it does?” — but resisted. One manager asked if the machine was prone at all to jams, and another manager said it actually “preferred jellies and preserves instead” and everyone else said “ha, ha.” Then, the training was over.

And off drove the Xerox lady in her hackeysack car.

The email training presented a similar challenge to our managers, except this time the trainer was driving in from out of state and planning to spend two days in a conference room, fielding questions about how to use perhaps the most elementary system on the market today: Gmail.

We knew we were changing from our old email system, despite the use of verbs like “transition” and “migrate” in the notices we’d started receiving last month. At first, we thought these communications were spam, and felt comfortable ignoring them. Soon, however, some of the new hires, who weren’t familiar with how many useless emails we get on an everyday basis, started asking questions.

“The subject line says ‘Google Apps June Wave Pre Go Live Log-in Information’,” said Janet. “If I knew what it meant, I’d say it sounded important.”

Normally, 90% of the non-spam email we get addresses two topics: (1) some system almost nobody uses will be down for an outage; and (2) some office somewhere in the world has moved to a new location. Reluctantly, I read the Google email.

“We are extremely excited about your upcoming conversion!” effused the Google Apps Project Team. “Moving to Google Apps is an exciting time for you. See you in the cloud!”

If I have to learn sky-diving as part of this new system, I’m outta here.

So the Google Guy shows up, and a co-worker and I are asked by the department head to meet with him. We show up, expecting to watch a presentation. He shows up, thinking he’s just answering questions. We stare at each other.

The only question we can think of for starters is “Hi, I’m Davis and this is Andy. And you are …?”

Turns out he’s Enoch, and he’s ready to answer any questions we might have about Google Apps. And “why are the three of us standing here awkwardly looking at each other?” doesn’t count.

Now, I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, but somehow I know that Enoch was the 365-year-old grandson of Adam, one of ten “pre-Deluge Patriarchs”. The function of the Patriarchs in Genesis was “primarily to mark the passage of immense periods of time.” So perhaps I need to reschedule my lunch plans.

Enoch (the Google one, not the Genesis one) is a nice enough guy, and we’re able to humor him for a good 20 minutes with questions that are approximately pertinent. The essential “takeaway” is that you require a user name and password to use Gmail, and that there’s a million other things Google Apps can do for us that we’ll never need.

We’re fortunate at that point that the manager from a different department has arrived and is having a particular issue with his account, way over on the other side of the building. We wish Enoch well on his pilgrimage across the vast, desert-hot warehouse, assuring him it’ll take well less than a century to get there.

When we returned to the department, others began peppering us with questions. We refused to answer, since we were never told we were to do anything more than show up for this face-to-face with Google Guy. Enoch was seen again the next day, dispensing free donuts as his way of buying our devotion and loyalty, and a few of my coworkers got to ask questions of their own. My favorite was “Why did Google decline to buy Skype and let it be snatched up by Microsoft?”

I think he answered with some reference to his great-grandson Noah, and how Gmail would work well even in the event of a worldwide flood.