Archive for August, 2011

My deepest sympathies on your loss, delivered via new media

August 17, 2011

After five people were killed in a freak accident at the Indiana State Fair Saturday, condolences came pouring in from around the nation. First among these was a message from Sugarland, the country music act whose stage it was that fell on dozens of fans.

“We are all right,” band members tweeted somewhat self-centeredly. “We are praying for our fans and the people of Indianapolis. We hope you’ll join us.”

Other show business figures were quick to join in acknowledgement of the disaster, as long as they could do it via the convenience of Twitter.

Kelly Clarkson tweeted “oh my gosh that is maybe one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.” Singer Michelle Branch said “just heard about Sugarland and the stage collapse in Indy.” Ryan Seacrest added “saw the vid of the stage collapse in Indiana … unbelievable.”

While these messages may be lacking in empathy for the victims — containing instead personal impressions upon hearing the news — they can’t be faulted for the speed with which they were delivered. Twitter has made it possible for us to be remorseful at the click of a button.

I don’t know much about Sugarland, other than the fact that they’re not the same as Lady Antebellum, which I had previously believed. But if someone as backward as country musicians can use social media to convey their regrets, I guess all of us can now enjoy the ease of modern communications to express our grief at a time of loss.

This is great news to me, as someone who always felt awkward hobnobbing with survivors. I am lucky not to have known many dead people in my life. I’ve attended only a handful of funerals in my 57 years, and therefore never quite developed the knack for conveying sympathy, much less genuinely feeling it.

As a child, the only funeral I remember attending is that of Uncle Buck, my grandfather’s brother. He passed when I was about 13. My only recollection of the memorials that followed was how appalled I was at the concept of a “viewing,” our visit to the funeral home to look and point at the lifeless body.

People in attendance seemed to be having a wonderful time, munching on snacks, laughing, seeing still-alive friends and relatives, and working into conversations as much as possible what a good guy Uncle Buck had been.

“This cheese dip is really good,” I think I recall a cousin saying. “And you know what else was good? Uncle Buck.”

I doubt I offered much comfort to the widow, Aunt Ethel. As a teenager, I didn’t really know what to say, and have long suspected that my “hey, how’s it going?” did little to soothe her raw emotions.

It’s a shame that my late uncle didn’t die in 2011, and not just because he would be world-famous for having lived to the ripe old age of 140. Here in the twenty-first century, we use high-tech communications to offer sincere-if-electronic condolences.

And it’s not just Twitter that allows us to instant-message our deepest regrets as long as they don’t exceed 140 characters. Now, you can even sign a virtual guest book and thereby avoid setting foot in those houses of death known as mortuaries.

Most local newspapers now offer a link from their obits page to a site that will record your thoughts. In days past, guest books made for wonderful keepsakes that families could take home after the funeral and peruse for comfort in the coming days of agony and despair. The electronic version is presumably just as soothing, assuming you know how to use the “print screen” feature on your computer keyboard and don’t use the back of recycled spreadsheets to print your hard copy.

And don’t worry if you can’t come up with just the right words. Instead of going to all the trouble involved in typing your own message, you can click on one of 47 “suggested entries” to locate exactly the right sentiment you’d come up with yourself if you weren’t such heartless, vocabulary-challenged soul.

Some examples:

“May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow” (or, for agnostics, perhaps something like “may the dark void of eternal nothingness somehow manage to bring you comfort”)

“As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life’s routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friends” (or, the more-practical “hope you get a good insurance settlement”)

“Take comfort in knowing that now you have a special guardian angel to watch over you” (and the implied “hope you’re not afraid of ghosts”)

“Grief can be so hard, but our special memories help us cope” (or “might I offer an Ambien? — it’s a great amnesiac”)

You can even offer a poem or song as long, as the small print warns, you don’t use copyrighted material. So Longfellow’s “Nature” with its “So nature deals with us/And takes us away” refrain would be okay, while Lady Gaga’s “Disco Heaven” and its lyrics “Oh Disco Heaven/Get back Bunny!/It’s getting cold in here little honey” would be inappropriate.

There’s even a place that suggests what not to say, complete with testimonials from people who’ve had to endure the heartfelt but misstated wishes of certain block-headed relatives.

“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s funeral. We had broken up but kept in touch,” wrote Susan. “A neighbor asked me if his wife was pretty.”

“I am an only child, and I lost my mom in 2001 and my dad in 2004,” recalled Victoria. “A relative said to me, ‘So you’re all alone now, right? What a shame.’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

“My aunt told me at my husband’s funeral that I am young and will find someone else,” wrote Sandra. “Holy crap! I could’ve slapped her.”

Besides Twitter and online condolences, there are other modern choices for sending your sympathies winging through the ether.

Facebook is popular with some. Loving survivors can create a “death page” that mourners can “like” as a way of showing respect. I imagine there are also some Skype, LinkedIn and Groupon applications, though I don’t know how appropriate it is to offer coupons toward discounts on Last Rites. You could even use my personal favorite — Words With Friends — to send one-word Scrabble-like messages such as “SORRY,” “SAD” or “REGRETS” (bonus points for using all seven letters, not counting possible triple-word-play!)

I would assume simple texting is also acceptable. This might be another choice for those who have difficulty coming up with the right words, and prefer instead to send memorial emoticons, like:

😥 — crying, with an apostrophic tear

>:o — surprise or shock

D:< — horror or sadness, with a giant “D” pasted to your forehead

<°))>< — a fish, as in “he sleeps with the fishes”

Whatever media you choose, the benefits of not having to deliver your message of remorse in person are a welcome part of our new Digital Age.

And I look forward to the day when the showing-up-at-the-funeral part can become as optional as our communications. Imagine how impressed the deceased will be in that not-too-distant day in the future when you send either your own personal robot, or a hologram of yourself wailing inconsolably.

Talk about heaven.


Maybe ‘Little Michele’ is our answer

August 16, 2011

There’s no shortage of wacky ideas coming from the pouting lips of GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.

She came out in favor of having the U.S. default on its loans. She wants to virtually eliminate Medicare and Social Security. She believes married women should be “submissive” to their husbands, to the extent that she pursued a career as a tax lawyer at her husband’s insistence, even though she admitted “I hate tax law.”

She condemns homosexuality as wicked and believes people can un-gay themselves with a little help from Jesus. She believes so strongly in conversion that she’s working on her own personal project with her husband, who is rapidly becoming known as “Mincing Marcus” among those who believe more in Gaydar than in evangelical Christianity.

There’s also no shortage of shortness in the Bachmann camp. The petite eye-liner model from Minnesota’s Sixth District is showing that you don’t have to be willowy to run for president. She stands on stumps not only to deliver fiery campaign oratory, but also to see something other than the bellies of those who crowd around her.

When the right-wing ideologue first appeared on the scene, her diminutive stature was reported as being about five-foot-two. Later, that was cut back to 5-1, then “5-1 in heels,” then recently four-foot-eleven.

As her prominence in the Republican field grows, her physical size appears to be shrinking. This might be a problem for some — like members of the news media trying to cover her campaign who complain she’s “hard to find” — but not for me.

While normally I might abhor the anti-progressive nature of her politics, I must admit I am drawn to the prospect of a miniature president. The full-size models we’ve elected repeatedly over the years never seem to be quite up to the job. Perhaps if we selected a chief executive you could hold in your hand, she could better navigate the gridlock of Washington and make something happen.

I, for one, would be ready to look the other way on some of her more outrageous positions if she is in fact working her way down toward the molecular level. My outlook is strongly influenced by reading I did in my youth — not the utopian tomes of conservative philosophers like Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk, but rather comic books featuring the exploits of “The Atom.”

The Atom was the super-hero alter-ego of physicist and professor Ray Palmer. He was a full-fledged member of the Justice League of America along with better-known figures like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Green Lantern. This council spent the 1960s in an alliance to battle evil and spread freedom around the world, when they weren’t obsessed with trying to avoid stepping on The Atom.

The Atom’s super-powers were never clearly defined in the reading I did. It was said that he retained the power of a full-sized man despite his wee stature. Critics noted that average strength contained in a vessel the size of a neutron was not that impressive, but The Atom simply dismissed this as “sizeist propaganda,” or would have if his voicebox were large enough to be heard.

The origins of The Atom are also a bit sketchy. Professor Palmer used a “mass of white dwarf star matter to fashion a lens allowing him to shrink down to subatomic size.”

“Originally, his size and molecular density derived from the star material of his costume, controlled by mechanisms on his belt, and later by controls in the palms of his gloves,” sources report. “Much later, he gained the innate equivalent powers within his own body.”

Huh? I wondered as a child.

But now I’m an adult, and I’ve come to understand that what makes sense on a conscious level may be total nonsense on a subliminal level, and vice versa. Perhaps this invisible world and its tiny denizens are just what we need to shake things up in Washington and get this country back on track.

As tiny president, there are admittedly many things that Michele Bachmann might find to be a challenge. Signing documents of state with the typical pen would be next to impossible when the pen towers over you. Meeting with foreign leaders would require not only a translator familiar with both languages, but also someone who is half in the full-size world and half in the microscopic. (I know Gary Coleman is dead but Emmanuel “Webster” Lewis is reportedly available.) Congratulatory visits to the White House by championship basketball teams would be problematic at best.

But in these difficult days, perhaps it’s the right time to abandon these largely ceremonial duties. Pardoning White House turkeys and attending Betty Ford funerals are not what we need to address our current slate of overwhelming problems. Radical solutions, thinking outside the box, and hiding inside the shoes of our enemies could be the actions we need.

In a Bachmann presidency, I envision a world that’s properly been turned upside down. The commander-in-chief becomes less an impotent figurehead and more of an action-oriented (if pint-sized) go-getter.

Imagine these headlines:








If we open our eyes to the possibilities that a Bachmann administration could bring, it’s possible she could get under our eyelids, causing minor irritation or perhaps even a sty.

Or, we may discover an entire new world, previously invisible to the human eye, that could replace our bloated, over-grown society with one that is neat, trim and, most important of all, incredibly small.

Bachmann shows that size -- even when it's small -- matters

NFL is back, (almost) better than ever

August 15, 2011

NFL teams returned to the gridiron this weekend to the delight of football-starved fans across the country.

Unfortunately, the shortened training camp caused by the three-month lockout had both players and coaches running ragged. Though the games were only pre-season exhibition matches, the effects of the prolonged hiatus on the quality of play were apparent.

In Thursday’s games:

The Philadelphia Eagles, viewed by many as the NFC’s team to beat this year, won a tight defensive battle with the Baltimore Ravens, 13-6, despite much of the team taking the field wearing baseball uniforms.

“I knew I played one of the three major professional sports, I just forgot which one,” said embarrassed quarterback Michael Vick, sporting a Phillies uniform. “As soon as I got knocked down on the third play of the game, I remembered I’m supposed to be wearing a helmet.”

Vick threw for 74 yards and a touchdown in the single series he played. His throwing motion appeared somewhat hampered by the first-baseman’s mitt he wore on his left hand. However, his receivers still managed to get open, even though some spent much of the first half sliding cleats-up into the goalposts instead of running their assigned routes.

“I’m really proud of how our defense played,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid. “I’m not sure our pass rush will be as effective when our linemen are no longer able to beat their offensive counterparts with baseball bats. Still, it was a good-if-bloody start to the season.”

The New England Patriots, another pre-season favorite to go deep into the playoffs, overwhelmed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 47-12.

This time it was the Jaguars who seemed unprepared. Patriots rookie quarterback Brian Hoyer went 15-of-21 passing, possibly benefitting from Jaguar players who seemed more concerned with hissing, growling and making other cat noises than in playing an effective 3-4 defense.

“I believe they must’ve thought they were actual jaguars out there,” Hoyer said. “They weren’t able to react to their own defensive audibles because they were largely indecipherable. I was just glad I could still find my targets amidst the defensive backs crawling on all fours out there.”

In Friday’s games:

The Detroit Lions crushed the Cincinnati Bengals 34-3. The Bengals seemed even more chronically inept than usual after the long layoff.

The Bengals managed just 205 total yards on offense, due in part to the fact that they ran the same offensive formation throughout the first quarter.

“I could hardly believe it when they emerged from the huddle and lined up in one long single-file queue behind the ball,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “It looked like the DMV out there. They just couldn’t keep up with their blocking in that alignment.”

The Bengals did make some adjustments after the first series — running offensive sets that included a “ring-around-the-rosey” circle and a flash-mob dance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — but by then the Lions enjoyed a 24-0 lead.

The Miami Dolphins edged the Atlanta Falcons 28-23 despite the fact that many of the Dolphin players failed to have their dreadlocks in mid-season form.

Rather than the long strands of hair flowing down the back of their uniforms, many instead sported mullets, live raccoons and carpet samples stuffed into their helmets as substitutes for the flowing locks they had become famous for.

Falcons coach Mike Smith complained to officials that the raccoons, which got lose several times during the game, distracted his players into tackling the wrong creature.

“That’s something we’re going to have to work on to be ready for the regular season,” Smith said. “I guess small woodland creatures have become a part of the game, and we have to modify our defensive sets accordingly.”

In Saturday’s games:

The Cleveland Browns bested the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers by a score of 27-17.

The Pack kept it close during the first half but faded in the second, when the effects of poorly executed celebratory chest bumps caused numerous injuries.

“We can’t be bumping heads with the same intensity that we bump chests,” said Packer coach Mike McCarthy. “That seemed to create a lot of concussions among our guys.”

Helmets protected some of the players from the severe head-on-head cracks. However others — who arrived at the stadium with their helmets on backwards, trying to see out of the two small ventilation holes in the back — avoided concussions only because they avoided the game itself, instead wandering around in the parking lot.

The Carolina Panthers defeated the New York Giants 20-10 in a game that featured the NFL debut of number-one draft pick Cam Newton.

Newton did not start at quarterback but did put up some impressive numbers while he was in the game. He was relieved in the third quarter by his father.

“We knew from the controversy at Auburn that his father would be closely involved in his son’s career,” said Panther coach Ron Rivera, alluding to the elder Newton’s attempts to solicit a cash payment for his son to play at another school. “But we didn’t expect him to take the field and actually play. We might’ve guessed that was going to happen if only we’d had a few more practice sessions.”

Several other games also saw confusion resulting from the shortened training camps.

The Arizona-Oakland matchup ran three hours longer than a normal game because Raider players gathered in the huddle thought they were conducting a botany experiment rather than planning their next offensive play.

“I thought we had a team project to measure how many separate grass plants were growing in each square meter of sod,” said Raider running back Michael Bennett. “I had forgotten all about our West Coast offense.”

In the Washington-Pittsburgh game, the opening kickoff was marred by the return team’s attempt to advance the ball down the field by soccer-kicking it to each other.

“I didn’t know we were allowed to use our hands,” said return specialist Chris Hadley. “Is that something new this year?”

Even on the periphery of the nation’s favorite spectator sport there was confusion. When Tennessee defeated Minnesota 14-3, new Titans coach Mike Munchak had a cooler-full of human growth hormone (HGH) poured onto his head rather than the usual Gatorade bath. The long-time offensive line coach, promoted to the top position during the off-season, quickly grew to over a hundred feet tall and rampaged through the stadium, killing 12 and injuring 34.

And, in what has almost become an annual rite of summer, Packer legend Brett Favre reported to a local high school in his home state of Mississippi to work out with the team in hopes of impressing an NFL squad to sign him. But even a veteran like Favre was obviously out-of-sorts after the long lockout.

“He started launching passes at the marching band,” said school principal Paul Poole. “I guess he didn’t know we had moved the football team indoors because of the heat.”

Favre was oblivious to the confusion, however, bragging to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he may have lost a step, but that his accuracy is better than ever.

“I put just about every ball I threw squarely into the sousaphone,” Favre bragged. “I am definitely back on my game.”

Lesson 1: This is a football

News is good … no, it’s not

August 12, 2011

The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted over 500 points on Monday before soaring to a 400-point advance on Tuesday, then dipping to unprecedented lows on Wednesday before rocketing to new highs on Thursday.

“It’s a sign that investors are wary about the debt ceiling deal,” said Merrill Lynch analyst Bob Manson. “No, wait … it’s an indication that underlying  fundamentals remain strong. Rather, what we’re seeing is a lack of faith in our political will to make tough economic choices. No, I take that back … America is still the safest haven for investments in the world.”

Manson alternately smiled and grimaced while keeping watch on the market via his computer screen Friday morning. Later, he was admitted to the Manhattan Psychiatric Care Center for treatment of a bipolar disorder.

“Abadaba abadaba abadaba,” he noted as he left his Wall Street office strapped to a stretcher. “Inky dinky doo.”

Conspicuous volatility continued to dominate several other areas of life as well.

Following the military operation that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin-Laden in May, President Obama’s poll numbers reached an 18-month high. Oops, he’s back down again as negotiations to raise the debt ceiling dragged on. Wait, wait … it looks like he and House Speaker John Boehner have agreed on a “grand bargain” that significantly reduces the deficit. No, no … turns out the deal stinks and his base has turned against him.

“Uncertain times likes these are difficult on the national psyche,” noted social psychologist Ray Dellrose. “Yet still, we find a way to adapt and survive. One minute we’re up, the next minute we’re down. We’re riding high in April, shot down in May.”

Unrest in the Middle East has resulted in a spike in gasoline prices that quickly leveled out when supply chains were restored, then shot up again as the summer driving season began before retreating again just recently.

“I cut way back on my driving, then took a trip to the beach, then started carpooling with a neighbor,” said Atlanta-area motorist Angela Haverty. “This morning, I stopped by the gas station and pumped about 100 gallons into the ditch because now it’s so cheap.”

In related news:

The anti-tax Tea Party is viewed in a positive light by most Americans … no, it isn’t … yes, it is … no, it isn’t.

Europe’s elaborate social safety net provides workers with more benefits than Americans … no, it’s contributing to their unsustainable debt load … no, it’s August and time for them all to go on holiday … no, riots are breaking out to protest the existence of a chronic underclass.

In Libya, anti-Qadaffi rebels have taken control of the oil-rich eastern part of the country … no, they’re being crushed by the military … wait, they’re using Twitter to coordinate their protests … no, the Internet has been taken down … oh — wait, wait — NATO forces have bombed Qadaffi’s headquarters, but they only managed to kill his family.

Republicans swept into Congress in the 2010 mid-terms have vowed to make jobs their number-one focus … no, it seems like they’re tackling the ballooning federal deficit first … now they’re refusing to raise the debt ceiling without concessions from more moderate factions … no, wait, now they’re back talking about jobs as well as how extremely Christian they are.

The National Football League has ended its lockout and players are reporting to camp with the season just around the corner … but the NBA 2011-2012 season looks like it may be completely cancelled by labor unrest — wait, now there’s a strike in baseball but it’s only the kind where a batter swings at and misses a pitch, not a full-scale work stoppage.

C'mon, world ... make up your mind

Local government to fund sludge fight

August 11, 2011

After the recent debacle in Washington surrounding the deficit and the debt ceiling, it’s easy to think that all government is ineffective and/or corrupt and/or run by spineless chuckleheads.

But the passage of a measure Monday night by my hometown’s city council demonstrates that some agencies survive, even thrive, wading in the knee-deep muck and grime that is the people’s business.

Months of preliminary work by a Rock Hill official has resulted in the “Fats, Oils and Grease Initiative,” passed by a vote of 5-1 at this week’s meeting. The measure will guarantee that the city inspects grease traps at the area’s food-service establishments to make sure gunk is stopped before it invades the sewer.

Assistant city manager Jimmy Bagley has spent much of 2011 working with utilities and other departments on the project. He presented his findings to the council during a workshop in April, then followed up with weeks of heavy lobbying to drum up support for the new regulation.

A grease trap is a plumbing device used to intercept most greases and other repulsive semi-solids before they enter the wastewater system. When traps are not properly maintained, fats and oils get into the sewer lines. Pipes that were once 8 inches in diameter can rapidly be clogged to only 4 inches.

“The cold grease begins to clog and get hard,” Bagley told the council. “As soon as it hits a pipe or anything in the line that’s an obstruction, it stops up. Then you get a back-up, or manholes overflow, or it goes back into people’s homes.”

While elsewhere the nation’s infrastructure crumbles in the face of Tea Party-inspired frugality, South Carolina’s fifth-largest city is tackling needed maintenance head-on.

But not before several of the council’s conservatives asked some tough questions.

Council member Kevin Sutton reluctantly agreed to vote for the ordinance, despite the government intrusion it might mean for local businesses. Councilman John Black could not be convinced that keeping revolting sludge out of citizens’ homes was a priority, and cast the sole vote against the proposal.

The state Department of Health requires any establishment generating wastewater containing fats, oils or grease to have and maintain a grease trap. However, there is no enforcement provision.

It’s a bit like having laws against murder, but no police force to enforce them. Except that rotting, coagulated lard smells slightly worse than the decomposing bodies that would litter the landscape under a small-government system of law enforcement.

During the April session, several members expressed concern about the cost to businesses of the grease traps. Assistant manager Bagley pointed out that all local businesses already have the traps; they would just have to be working.

“Oh,” said one councilman at the time.

The new ordinance goes into effect in five months (if all Rock Hillians haven’t abandoned their increasingly repellent hometown by then). It will place fines on non-complying restaurants; a first re-inspection would cost $250 and a second one would run $500.

A full-time staff member will be hired to conduct up to 25 inspections a week, eventually getting to all 400 city establishments. No word yet if this job opening has been posted, nor if any of the county’s 20% unemployed work force will step forward to take a job as sickening as this one.

Conservatives surprisingly opted not to allow free-market forces to clean up the grease traps. Some libertarians may have suggested that diners not patronize offending restaurants until they made their own individual inspections and were assured that organic mire was being kept in check. Only then would they return to their seats and enjoy their appetizers.

Bagley said he hoped the ordinance would achieve three goals: education, inspection and enforcement.

“It allows us to participate in programs to let folks know that on a residential level, they can do their part as well,” Bagley said.

One of the main suggestions he had for residents is that they too refrain from pouring grease down their sinks.

“If everybody does their part, hopefully it’ll all fall into place,” he said.

“They’re asking private citizens to be responsible by not dumping shit into the city sewers?” a local Tea Party representative was expected to ask. “Americans should have the freedom to behave like animals in their own homes if they want to. As long as it doesn’t involve extramarital sex.”

Sludge and shit

Breaking real bad

August 10, 2011

I’m afraid I’m about to be disciplined by my supervisor for not taking enough breaks.

I’ll try to explain but, unless you’re familiar with the topsy-turvy world of workplace rules and regulations, it’s going to be tough.

By all outward appearances, I have a normal white-collar office job. I sit at a desk with a computer, wade through tons of paperwork on a daily basis, and have the beaten-down attitude of a corporate drone. How hard my co-workers and I choose to labor depends more on our personal motivation than on a boss standing over us demanding “do this … now do this.”

The one oddity that seems out of place here is that we have to punch a timeclock as we come and go, not just at the beginning and end of the day, but also for lunch and coffee breaks.

Demeaning and petty? Sure. Is that a problem? Not in this employment environment.

For years, we were able to basically come and go as we pleased as long as we clocked out. We were allotted two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute break, and given the flexibility to schedule these when we wanted. Some folks combined two of the breaks into a longer 45-minute lunch. Some took ten six-minute smoke breaks. Occasionally, when it got really busy, we’d work through the breaks and be appropriately compensated for our dedication.

There were some abuses of the system — like suddenly becoming hungry just as the printer cranked up indicating work was at hand — but most people still successfully balanced their need for rest with our clients’ need for speedy turnaround.

Then, about six months ago, structure was imposed on this chaotic free-for-all. Management issued an email detailing exactly when breaks could be taken. Between 8:15 and 8:45 in the morning, and between 1 and 1:30 in the afternoon, we had to take our coffee breaks. Between 11 and 11:45, we had to take our lunch.

The problem, at least for me, is that after arriving at the office at 7 a.m., I don’t particularly need a break only an hour and fifteen minutes later. It already takes a good 20 minutes to arrange my workspace, sign on to all the programs I use, check email, etc. For some people — those OCD sufferers who disinfect every available surface lest they touch a co-worker’s discarded atoms, those who need to set up a space heater to counter the effects of the 95-degree temperatures outside — it took even longer.

Just when you finally get settled in, oops, time for a break. (Didn’t realize how exhausting that heater set-up was going to be.)

So, after following the new directive for the week or so we follow all new directives before lapsing back to our old ways, I stopped taking the morning break.

I expect this insubordination to be dealt with, and dealt with severely. The original email cited breaks as being “in place for the safety and well-being of employees.” We take safety very seriously around here, and don’t want any employees hobbled by exhaustion to start falling on the floor.

I’m mentally preparing my defense for this confrontation, despite the fact that there’s no chance on God’s green earth that I’ll be able to convince the powers-that-be how hare-brained this policy is.

“The breakroom is boring,” I might offer.

“Time-motion studies have shown that even staring at the wall for 15 minutes can increase a worker’s effectiveness,” I expect to hear.

“There are too many people microwaving fish in there,” I could continue.

“We must respect diversity in the workplace and embrace those with ethnicities different from our own,” would come the corporate line. “Even those who eat disgusting things for breakfast.”

“At 8:15 in the morning, I’m not tired yet,” I might say.

“Well, you get tired,” will say the manager, rapidly losing her patience.

There are other options for how to spend break time besides sitting in a sterile room and reading three-day-old newspapers. We’re not confined to campus during our breaks (this isn’t elementary school, after all) and could venture out to explore the neighborhood, as long as the expedition can be completed in a quarter of an hour.

There are several other office/warehouse buildings in our park, and I could stroll among these, dodging the 18-wheelers that barrel through periodically. The exercise is bound to wake me up. Except right now, it’s too hot for that.

The closest retail establishment is a hair salon just around the corner. Maybe there’s relaxation to be had studying the Big Book of Haircuts and considering a new ‘do for myself. However, I’m a little leery of the place, especially after they put a sign out front offering 20% off all “grooming services” to truckers, with “massages by Yelena.”

I have already tried simply sitting in my car and playing with some of the dashboard controls I’ve been too afraid to try while driving. But I don’t like the judgmental looks of other workers who see me sitting there, and I’m pretty sure covering all the windows with towels would only look worse.

I do have a tentative compromise in mind. I’ll take the damn break if I have to, but they can’t make me enjoy it. I work better when I’m tense and agitated, anyway. I’ll simply make a crude sign that says “ON BREAK”, tape it to the back of my chair, and spend my 15 minutes noodling around on the internet.

If someone tries to bring me work, I’ll point over my shoulder at the notice and report that I’m pursuing safety and well-being in my mind, even if my body remains hunched over my work-covered desk.

Whether or not this satisfies my manager, I’ll have to wait and see. As they should be able to tell, my spirit is already broken. Why does the rest of me need a break too?

S&M downgrades America

August 9, 2011

S&M, the sado-masochistic ratings agency best known for abusing itself and others during a seven-year reign of terror, announced over the weekend that it was downgrading America’s credit rating.

“Look at you, America. You’re pathetic,” S&M said in a statement released Friday in the wake of last week’s debt ceiling deal. “You’re not fit to lick my boots. C’mon, let’s see if you dare. Let’s see you lick my boots.”

The U.S. government reacted quickly to the downgrade, pleading with S&M to reconsider the move that has caused markets to plummet this week.

“No, don’t do it!” said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner of the downgrade. “I mean, yes! Yes, you must make us pay for our naughty, naughty fiscal policies.”

“You are our master and we are your slave,” Geithner continued. “Yet we are not worthy to lick your boots. We need to be punished for the way we’ve let ourselves go, the way we’ve allowed spending to outpace revenues, the way we’ve allowed Tea Party zealots to hijack our national debate.”

“The United States is a bad, bad boy,” the secretary concluded. “I think you and all the other ratings agencies need to tie us down and beat us with a coat hanger.”

S&M noted in its release announcing the downgrade that Treasury notes and other government-issued bonds might not be as safe as originally believed. After rating U.S. debt at Triple-A for decades, the change to AA+ has roiled stock markets worldwide.

“We needed to issue a warning to the bondage market,” said S&M President and Chief Domination Officer Deven Sharma. “We can’t just look the other way and ignore how the bondage has deteriorated.”

Sharma dismissed allegations from some quarters that his agency’s reputation, soiled by inaccurate ratings that led to collapse of the housing market in 2008, undermined the credibility of the downgrade.

“We’re not the ones who are soiled,” Sharma said. “It’s the U.S. government that has the filthy, dirty diaper.”

Some have also noted that S&M’s figures contained an error in calculations of over $2 trillion.

“Our figure is fine. It’s just the spandex that makes us look fat. Look, this isn’t about us anyway,” Sharma responded to a reporter who questioned him outside of S&M’s Manhattan headquarters yesterday. “This is an issue between two consenting entities, and it’s none of your business.”

U.S. officials said they thought the economy could weather the downgrade, which some analysts had feared would cause interest rates to rise across the board.

“If things get too bad, to the point where we can’t take it any more, we do have a ‘safe word,'” Vice President Joe Biden told a Washington, D.C., chamber of commerce meeting. “All we have to do is say the word ‘Moody’s’ and all this rough play will stop.”

America (right) meets with S&M official

A prayer for more prayer

August 8, 2011

I laid me down to sleep for years with a goodnight prayer before I dozed off. As childhood prayers went, it wasn’t particularly comforting.

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

To a four-year-old and his limited understanding of Lutheran theology, the sing-song rhyme did little to mitigate the fatalism of the third and fourth verse. I was already scared of monsters and robbers and the dark in general; now I had to add sleep apnea to the mix.

Within a few years, my parents suggested adding a series of blessings to the recitation. I was to name everyone I could think of who was dear to me, and ask that God bless them.

God bless Mommy and Daddy,
God bless Sis,
God bless Uncle Jack,
God bless Augie Doggie,
God bless Creepers

I was told after the first few nights that the blessing request for my dog and cat was inappropriate. I countered that ordering God to bless a long list of vaguely identified people seemed like an imposition on Him anyway, that He’d have to look up exactly who “mommy and daddy” were, that He’d bless whoever He felt like and surely didn’t need suggestions from a third-grader. My parents said that still, He liked to be asked, and don’t be such a wise guy.

After my confirmation in the church around age 13, I decided on my own to add the Lord’s Prayer to my nightly address to the Almighty.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.

But within a year or so, teenage sarcasm had crept into the missive. “So what is our Father’s name anyway?” I wondered. “Is it ‘Art’ or is it ‘Harold’?”

And so began my decline into agnosticism.

I’ve often wished I could be a believer in the power of prayer. How handy it would be to implore an all-powerful being to positively influence the hassles of everyday life. Just by closing your eyes, bowing your head and muttering under your breath, you could breeze through any number of minor inconveniences.

“Please God, make that traffic light stay green until I get there.”

“Dear Lord, let there be no one in front of me at the McDonald’s drive-thru.”

“Sweet Jesus, will You tell that moron to turn off his left-turn signal?”

So naturally, I became interested in this weekend’s “The Response,” the seven-hour prayer-fest held Saturday before 30,000 Christian congregants in Houston’s Reliant Stadium. The event had garnered much attention in the press, primarily for the role Texas governor and possible GOP presidential aspirant Rick Perry played in turning the event into a call for miraculous intervention to heal the nation’s problems.

The event was actually the inspiration of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group founded as the National Federation for Decency in 1977. Its original leader, Rev. Donald Wildmon, has fought for decades to clean up the popular media with campaigns against obscene music lyrics and sex-obsessed TV shows. (Great job there, by the way). Now, under Wildmon’s son Tim, the group is trying to hitch a ride to the White House on Perry’s back.

By all accounts, the event was a success. Perry kept his message largely apolitical, though he couldn’t resist praying that the Lord “impart Your wisdom” upon President Obama and noting that God is “wise enough” not to be affiliated with any political party. I’m sure God appreciated the non-partisan shout-out.

Other participants were not so filled with love and goodwill. Mike Bickel from the pancake-themed International House of Prayer of Kansas City, implored God to get busy and “heal the financial crisis in this nation, heal the families in this nation, forgive us for abortions,” to which the deity probably thought “that’s a lot for a Saturday, my day off.”

There were some heathens in attendance, and not because they were looking to be saved. Barry Lynn, of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Gov. Perry was trying to “out-Jesus” other candidates of the far right like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.

Protester Brandy Deason, a self-described atheist, said it was not cool for a government official to hold a religious meeting to try and solve our problems, offering the absurd premise that “logic and problem-solving is the only way to go with this, not by prayer.”

I certainly sympathize with those opposed to the increased mixing of piety and politics. Many people who would otherwise be attracted to the bone-headed ideas of the Tea Party fringe may be turned off by excessive God-loving. Some may think that standing in the 115-degree heat index of an August afternoon in Houston demonstrates not fealty to a higher being, but rather an inability to recognize Hell on Earth. Others would contend that core Republican policies — more money for the rich, less for the poor — are not exactly Christian sentiments.

But I’m starting to think that maybe there’s something to this whole prayer thing. If there is some kind of Omnipotent Being out there — be it called God, Allah, Vishnu, Yahweh or Oprah — isn’t it worth at least asking them to intervene on our behalf in this hour of need? The worst that could happen is that they’d say “no.”

I suppose they could call down plagues of disease and famine to punish those cheeky enough to ask a favor of the divinity, but that seems very much out-of-character.

So, I say, let us pray. Let us pray that the Dow rebound to its mid-July highs, and that the Fed decide against another round of quantitative easing. Let us pray that we’ll see a rebound in the manufacturing sector which could help push unemployment down below 9%. Let us pray that the Islamists fighting us in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere see the light and turn to Christ.

And, for God’s sake, let us pray that it rains in Texas so that the string of 100-degree-plus days stops frying the brains of those without the sense to come in out of the elements.

Revisited: Living the corporate lifestyle

August 7, 2011

Just recently, I marked my thirtieth anniversary with the same company. That’s not something many people can claim in these days of job-hopping and employment insecurity. In honor of the occasion, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned over the years to ensure anyone’s success in the corporate world.

Always be on the lookout for people approaching you with projects. If they’re carrying a large sheaf of papers and a strain on their face, there’s a chance they may be headed to the restroom but more likely they’re about to dump something on you. Act preemptively. Ask the oncoming coworker the question, “hey — did you hear who died?” This tends to immediately remove the wind from their sails, lest the one who died turns out to be one of your spouses. Then throw out a random celebrity name, either someone who in fact did recently pass or else the first name you can think of.

“Britney Spears” or “Troy Aikman” or “The Queen of England” are three of my favorite show-stoppers. Note that you may want to adapt your selection to the generation of the person approaching you. I wouldn’t suggest using “Harry Truman” on the twenty-something IT guy or “Lady Gaga” on the soon-to-retire human resources director.

I used this technique with considerable success just the other day. Allen was slowly walking in my direction with that look that says “I need help here” so I immediately reacted.

“Did you hear who died?” I asked. ”Mitch Miller.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember him. He used to do those TV sing-alongs,” said Allen, who is about my age.

“He was 99 years old. Imagine that,” I said. “Did you ever watch his shows? He’d be conducting a chorus standing behind him while he mugged for the camera. ‘Follow the bouncing ball and sing-along with Mitch,’ he’d say.”

Then I’d simulate the arm motions Mitch did. Allen began laughing and recalled a time he’d watched the show with his aunt and cousins back in Iowa. Next thing you know, we’re reciting the lyrics to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and before long, Allen had turned and walked away, taking his project with him.

Avoid people working on long-term “off-line” projects. The danger here is not that they’re necessarily going to ask you for help. Rather, because they’re so desperately bored by what they’re doing, they welcome any interruption from their drudgery, even if it’s a conversation with me.

Currently, at my office we have Kelly working by herself in a quiet room away from the larger cubicle farm. I’m not sure what she’s doing — maybe testing a software patch that will allow us to start using the letter “q” in our financial typesetting — but it goes by the generic name of “piloting the next release.” Though this might sound like an exciting trial of a new seat-ejection system for the Air Force’s next generation of stealth fighters, the pallor on her face and hunched posture in front of her computer terminal indicated no such exhilaration.

I step into the room to retrieve something, and Kelly immediately brightens at the opportunity to be interrupted.

“So how’s your son doing?” she’ll ask my back as I rapidly turn to leave.

“Oh, he’s fine,” I shoot back over my shoulder. “They grow up so fast, you know.”

I keep walking out the door as she launches into a narrative about how her son is liking his new job, but it’s a lot of work and he’s not crazy about the hours, and then there are some more muffled sounds I can’t quite make out because by now I’ve left.

A corollary to this is dealing with those who work the night shift. I generally arrive for work at 5 a.m. when many of these people are at the depths of their exhaustion, five hours down but three still to go. It’s as quiet as a tomb, until someone realizes that there’s no better pick-me-up than getting into a spirited discussion with those privileged first-shift people.

I’m barely signed on to my computer when one of these folks walks up to me, demanding to know why we go to the trouble of adding an en-space to the right of all em-dashes that appear in numeric columns of financial tables.

Not exactly the kind of contentious debate you might encounter in a real-world discussion of racial politics or how big an idiot last night’s Bachelorette loser was, but something that’s a very controversial topic in my narrow world.

If I’m not careful, soon there’ll be a mob of people surrounding me, adding their two cents to the subject and deliberately ratcheting up the tenor of the discussion to include hyphens and — God forbid — even piece fractions.

This is about the time I remember that I left my lunch in the car.

Choose your words carefully when calling in late. I always like to say I’m “running” late, as that word has a much more active tone to it. Obviously, if I was really “running” at all, I’d be there by now instead of having just turned off the snooze alarm. But the implied verve in my effort to arrive as soon as possible at least gives the impression that I’m trying harder than I really am.

Send your emails at the end of the day. There are two benefits to this habit: (1) it looks like you’ve spent all day composing them, and (2) it puts the ball in the recipient’s court for a good 16 hours. There’s little or no chance they can respond while you’re still in the office if you time your correspondence carefully. I’ll typically work on several of these throughout the course of the day, then have them all standing by as I shut down the other programs running on my computer. I gather up my briefcase and my thermos, then step about ten feet back from my computer to get a good running start. As I sprint past the terminal, I’ll reach out and mash the “send” command and by now I’ve built enough momentum to get out the door before the “you have mail” message can appear on the recipients’ screens. Occasionally, someone will chase me down in the parking lot, but that’s rare, because I can be a very reckless driver.

Suppress all sneezes. I know it’s bad for your sinuses to do this. What’s even worse, however, is to provoke a “bless you” or “gesunheidt” from a nearby employee that can rapidly escalate into a discussion of whether or not our company should acquire a new tranche of public debt in order to finance that takeover we’ve been considering.

Use catchwords carefully. For example, the term “no-brainer” is good to apply to a fresh idea, but not so good to hang around the neck of the new hire who seems to be catching on a little slowly.

Be careful where you clean your cereal bowl. The dregs of my milk-soaked granola won’t go down the lunchroom sink because it doesn’t have a garbage disposal. Instead, I have to use the men’s room to throw the leftover cereal down a toilet. ALWAYS remember to flush if you have to do this, since you don’t want to put your coworkers through the trauma of having to guess what that milky, grainy material is that you’ve left behind, especially if there’s a dried raspberry remnant in there as well. And listen to make sure there are no other occupants in the room before you exit the stall carrying a bowl and a spoon.

Kill sprees are career killers. The modern office is a frustrating and difficult place to work. Some days it feels like you can do nothing right. Other days, it’s more than a feeling — it’s a fact. Discuss your grievances with your spouse or your clergyman. Seek out your human resources specialists so they can tell you about the wonderful website their department has set up so they no longer have to talk to actual humans. Take a “mental health” day off. But do not, under any circumstances, smuggle large-caliber weaponry in your pants and then open fire on your fellow employees. I cannot stress this enough. An incident such as this is certain to get you poor marks in the “works well with others” portion of your annual performance review, and will almost definitely impact your next scheduled pay raise in a negative way.

Revisited: Lives of the Dead — Augustus, father of August

August 6, 2011

It can easily be said that August, without any equivocation or debate, is the suckiest month of the year. It’s way too hot. Students are dreading the start of the school year, just around the corner. There are no holidays, unless you count Ecuadorean independence day. Pre-season football is a joke, TV reruns abound and our only other source of entertainment — a dysfunctional Congress and its pathetic antics — is on recess.

Why do we even bother with such a poor excuse for a month? As with most of our modern-day blights, we can blame the Romans.

August, the month, was named for Augustus, the Roman emperor. Actually, Augustus is only one of several names used by the man who succeeded Julius Caesar and governed the world’s greatest empire around the time of Christ. He was born “Gaius Octavius Thurinus” in 63 B.C., then became “Gaius Julius Caesar” when his great-uncle was assassinated, and later “Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.” It’s probably only due to the Roman Senate’s decision to add the “Augustus” (or “revered one”) that this isn’t known as the “Gaiest” month.

Though it sounds like New York is going ahead with that designation anyway.

Augustus appeared to take full advantage of the confusion around what to call him. (Imagine how far you could go in your career if you decided to change your name every now and then — “You say Bob failed to turn in his report yesterday? Good thing my name is Al.”)

His beginnings were fairly humble for someone who was the nephew of a man they’d ultimately name a surgical birthing procedure after. His father died when he was 4, and his mother remarried a man named Philippus. This guy claimed to be descended from Alexander the Great, so you know he was a bit on the self-absorbed side and had little time for young Octavius. Because of this, he was raised by his grandmother, Julia Caesar.

When she died, he gave such a terrific eulogy that his mother and step-father decided he was a good kid after all, and took a more active role in raising him. He held several part-time jobs typical for Roman teenagers — a member of the College of Pontiffs, staging the Greek games that honored the Temple of Venus Genetrix — but what he really wanted was to join his great-uncle’s military campaign in Africa. At first his mom said no, then she said okay, then he got sick and couldn’t make the trip.

Finally, he was well enough to sail to the front, if you can call becoming shipwrecked “sailing.” He made it to shore and crossed hostile territory to reach Caesar’s camp, greatly impressing the mighty general. Since Caesar didn’t have any children of his own, he decided to dash off a new will naming Octavius his heir, and deposited the document with the Vestal Virgins, who were kind of like the probate court of the time, except even more virginal.

After the Africa gig, he spent several years in military training until that fateful Ides of March in 44 B.C. It was only after the assassination that he found he had been adopted by Julius, so of course he felt obliged to mass some troops and arrive in Rome to claim his newly acquired birthright.

There, he encountered Marc Antony — the consul, not the Jennifer Lopez ex-husband – who was to be a rival for succession. They actually got along pretty good at first, though Antony started losing a lot of political support when he opposed the Senate initiative to declare Julius Caesar a god (seems like they should’ve thought of that before he was knifed; he might’ve survived). Octavius, by now called “Octavian,” convinced Antony to take a prolonged vacation in France, which is probably where the modern-day French got the idea to take the entire month of August off.

After everybody chilled out for a while, Antony was allowed to come back to Rome where he, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus (kind of a Sarah Palin who came out of nowhere) formed the Second Triumvirate. They would rule equally for a period of five years, after which they would be term-limited out of office.

The trio set in motion a series of “proscriptions” for some of the senators and other elites who had opposed them. A proscription was not something you got filled at CVS and took twice a day; instead, it meant your property would be appropriated and if you complained at all, you’d be killed. This is even worse than waiting 45 minutes for your meds and then finding out they’re not covered by your insurance.

Octavian’s family life became as complicated as his public career. He wanted a divorce from Clodia Pulchra, who happened to be the daughter of Marc Antony’s first wife. Naturally, Antony’s wife was unhappy with this turn of events so she did what everybody did when they got pissed off in those days – she raised an army. Octavian didn’t much care, and proceeded to marry Scribonia, who gave him his only natural-born child on the same day he dumped her and married Livia Drusilla. (Attention, Newt Gingrich). Meanwhile, Antony married Octavian’s sister, but he soon started diddling Cleopatra on the side. This was the final straw, leading to a great naval battle between Octavian and Antony. Antony lost, and fell on his sword, probably not by accident. Cleopatra did her famous snake-handling shtick and soon both were dead.

Now Octavian could return to Rome and rule unchallenged. This is when the Senate granted him the name Augustus, and gave him power over Rome’s religious, civil and military affairs. They still claimed they’d act as an “advisory body” to Octavian/Augustus, but mostly this ended up consisting of telling him what a great job he was doing.

And in fact, modern-day historians now agree with that assessment. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war, maintained an honest government, improved the infrastructure and fostered free trade. Art and literature flourished under his patronage. The empire expanded to Spain, France and Dalmatia, a small but important region of only 101 inhabitants.

Despite this success, he remained modest when he wasn’t murdering people, and refused to hold a scepter, wear a diadem or don the purple toga of his predecessor, though the latter was due more to the inability of ancient dry-cleaners to get out blood stains.

Augustus died in 14 A.D. while visiting his father’s grave. Always a great fan of the theater and a bit of a drama queen himself, his final words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” His body was returned to Rome for a huge funeral at which he was eulogized by Tiberius, the stepson/former son-in-law/adopted son who became the next emperor by virtue of being one of the few family members Augustus decided to leave alone. Augustus was declared a god (again, a little late, if you ask me) and cremated on a pyre close to his mausoleum. There, his ashes rested in peace until Goths sacked Rome in 410 and used them for kitty litter.

Despite a job-hopping resume that included positions as triumvir, general, senator, consul, proconsul, princeps, imperator, tribune, censor, pontifex maximum and pater patriae, Augustus is generally regarded as perhaps the most successful of ancient Roman autocrats. His nature so matched the restlessness that we all feel during this hottest month of the year that naming August after him seems like a fitting tribute.

Let us gaily hail Augustus even as we count the days till a cooler September.