Archive for September, 2011

Editorial: Time for a Little River ban

September 30, 2011

I was working in the yard, working not too hard, mostly leaf-blowing. The song came to me from out of nowhere. First the chorus, then the first stanza, then the endless loop that I still can’t get out of my head.

Hurry, don’t be late
I can hardly wait
I said to myself when we’re old
We’ll go dancing in the dark
Walking through the park
And reminiscing

The song, as you may be able to tell, is called “Reminiscing.” In 1978, it was released by an Australian soft rock group called the Little River Band. It shot to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, representing the peak of LRB’s popularity in America. In 1996 it was covered by Barry Manilow, and again released in 2001 by a band called Madison Avenue. It was used prominently in the recent Will Ferrell film “The Other Guys.”

Now, it must be expunged from all recorded history.

“Reminiscing” was hardly the most vile, mind-numbing affront to Western Civilization produced by the band. They had other hits in the late seventies and early eighties that were every bit as cloying. There was “Lady,” “Lonesome Loser” and ”Cool Change.” There was “Happy Anniversary” (“Happy anniversary, baby/Got you on my mind“), probably the most egregious abomination of the lot. There was “Help Is On Its Way” which, to this day, I kind of like.

But for some reason, it’s “Reminiscing” that’s stuck in my head, an earworm that has wrapped itself around my cerebral cortex and will not let go. Action must be taken to remove this sonic tumor from my brain, before it metastasizes to drumming fingertips, tapping toes and dancing feet.

I am proposing a four-pronged approach to dispatching this cancer.

First, we round up all surviving members of the band and confine them to an internment camp somewhere in the desert Southwest. This could be a bit of a challenge, not just because it smacks of Stalinism, but because the original five were subsequently joined and/or replaced by dozens of other musicians in the 30-plus years of the band’s existence. Original members like Beeb Birtles, Glenn Shorrock and Graeham Goble can easily be located; they still perform, though they do it under the name Birtles Shorrock Goble since the official “Little River Band” name is owned by former member Stephen Housden, who rents it out to transients. But obscure one-time players like Kip Raines (drummer, 2004-2005) and Hal Tupea (bassist, 1996-1997) are bound to be harder to find, unless we can subpoena the employment records of fast-food giants like Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

Second, we institute a worldwide buyback program. I’ve already lined up the philanthropic might of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish a fund of $4 billion, so that every vinyl record, every cassette, every eight-track cartridge can be purchased from the public and destroyed. Preferably by fire, though a giant crusher will do.

Third, I propose we begin a Manhattan-Project-style effort in the scientific community to learn time travel, so we can send a team back to 1975 to abort the band’s formation. Most physicists acknowledge that one-way travel into the future is arguably possible, given the phenomenon of time dilation based on the theory of special relativity. Going backwards in time is more problematic, given constraints of the so-called “grandfather paradox”. This concept raises the question of what would happen if the traveler killed his grandfather before he met his grandmother, and then his father would never have been born, and neither would he. This could easily be addressed, however, if the execution team could terminate both band members and their grandparents.

Finally, I am offering to perform a lobotomy on myself, boring a hole in my forehead with a common household power drill to allow the demons of “Reminiscing” to escape from my mind. If there’s any money left over from the buyback fund, I could use it to help defray my medical bills. However, I am willing to take on the entire risk and expense on my own IF I COULD JUST GET THIS AWFUL SONG OUT OF MY HEAD!

The world can’t afford to ignore this issue. We must pull together and act now. As LRB would themselves say: Hurry don’t be late/We can hardly wait.

If you encounter these guys, report them IMMEDIATELY to the authorities
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Already, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a competitor

September 29, 2011

Following the introduction Wednesday of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, designed to be a competitor to both Apple’s iPad and other recent tablet releases, I am announcing today that I too will be offering a handy new mobile device for sale.

The CinnaBox 5000, a cardboard-based technology powered by crunchy cinnamon multi-grain cereal, will be available just in time for the holiday gift-giving season. At $5.49, it’s priced significantly lower than the Kindle Fire, the Apple iPad or any other wireless communications equipment currently on the market.

The new CinnaBox tablet will soon be flying off the shelves

“It’s a little bigger and a little thicker than most of the tablets out there now,” I’m saying. “But the big difference in price, and the fact that it provides 25% of a person’s minimum daily requirement for thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, will — I think — differentiate the CinnaBox from its competitors.”

“Plus,” I’m adding, “because we’re calling it the CinnaBox 5000, that automatically makes it 5,000 times better than other tablets.”

The CinnaBox announcement comes only one day after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told investors his company was releasing the new Kindle Fire. The Fire features a glossy seven-inch touch-screen with a dual-core processor that will allow users to access more than 18 million pieces of content in the Amazon catalog. It also offers a web browser, gaming capacity, 8 gigabytes of memory and a free cloud-based storage system.

By contrast, the CinnaBox 5000 offers ten ounces of artificially flavored breakfast cereal and a requirement that users employ a vivid imagination to pretend they’re accessing the digital realm instead of simply pawing at a marginally successful Kellogg’s product.

“I bought a box of the cereal about a year ago. I tried it once and it wasn’t very good,” I’m saying. “I just stuck it up on top of the refrigerator and forgot about it. Then, when I heard about the Amazon announcement yesterday, I thought ‘Huh — maybe I can market the stuff as the latest and greatest entrant into the lucrative tablet market.’ So I am.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings users might anticipate trying to read a book or surf the internet using only a cereal box, many analysts said they thought there was a niche to be filled by the CinnaBox.

“Not everyone can afford even the $199 that Amazon bragged yesterday was such a good deal,” said Scott Devitt, a tech analyst at Morgan Stanley. “At a price point under $6, the CinnaBox should be able to gain a significant market share.”

“It’s got tabs on the boxtop, much like you’d see tabs allowing you to open different websites on a browser,” I’m saying. “It’s a little disconcerting to hear loose stuff shaking inside the box, er, tablet. I just use earbuds to blot that out.”

Unlike the Fire and Apple’s iPad, the CinnaBox does not require periodic recharging of the battery. That’s because it has no battery. All its power is derived from the user’s ability to visualize bright video images dancing across the face of the box, rather than the static photo showing cereal bits inundated in milk.

“That could be a huge selling point,” said Morgan Stanley’s Devitt. “People hate recharging their batteries, whereas they love to eat Cinnabon-flavored breakfast grains.”

The CinnaBox promises to be just the first release of this new push to re-market simple consumer products as high-tech electronics. In early 2012, many are predicting introduction of the CinnaPhone, which will use much of the wheat- and corn-based technology seen in the CinnaBox.

“I can envision the day when you simply go to the nearest Cinnabon, buy yourself a sticky roll, and you can hold it up to your ear and start talking and texting with your friends,” Devitt said. “Just be sure to wipe the sticky white icing out of your hair when you’re done. If that stuff dries, you’ll never get it out.”

We are DEFINITELY not hoarders

September 28, 2011

My wife asked me Sunday if I knew where the power cord to the portable DVD player was, and what followed was remarkable. I knew where it was!

“It’s in the top drawer of my dresser!” I exclaimed excitedly. “Right next to the underwear I never use! On top of the socks I can’t find matches for!”

The reason for my exhilaration had little to do with the fact that Beth wanted to watch the movie “Hanna” and I didn’t. (I have a longstanding policy against watching anything starring actors whose names contain three consecutive vowels, disqualifying “Hanna” star Saoirse Ronan). The reason I was so happy was that I actually knew where something in my house was.

Our home is, to put it kindly, cluttered. We’ve lived in the same house now for almost 18 years, and some of the stuff we stashed in corners when we first moved in is still there. In addition, there’s almost two decades worth of other stuff accumulated in the interim.

We have crates of record albums, boxes of cassette tapes, and shelves of CDs. We have an entire table devoted to Beth’s knitting projects and an old sewing machine cart where I collect my bank statements. On the bar are all our medicines and medical bills, most of our photos and a lava lamp.

In the corner next to the piano is all of my son’s schoolwork, 12 years of crafts projects and term papers that come to about chest-high. On top of the piano is our jigsaw puzzle collection. Inside the piano bench is sheet music and other paperwork.

And of course there’s the piano itself — unplayed since my son stopped taking lessons in 1998.

Both Beth and I come from ancestors who grew up during the Depression when possessions were few, and who came of age during the unprecedented materialism of the late twentieth century. They held onto everything, and taught their children to do the same.

My mother carpeted our entire house in Miami with sample squares she collected from a nearby rug store. We had a utility room we could barely open without toppling stacks of junk.

When I first met Beth’s parents before we were married, I was shown to their guest room upstairs. To get there, I walked past her father’s life-long compilation of mementoes from his career in the Air Force, and enough carved monkeywood statuettes from his overseas travels to deplete the Philippine rain forest.

And there were stacks and stacks of his National Geographics going back to the Fifties. (He had wisely put the lifetime subscription in Beth’s name since she was the youngest family member; now that legacy piles up on our coffee table).

So, if we ever need any item that occupies space in the physical universe, we probably have it. Finding it, though, is another matter.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a “system.” We turned to ancient Mesoamericans and their famous burial mounds for a model of how we would store a lifetime of belongings. Each of our mounds has a theme that allows us to retrieve approximately what we need, approximately when we need it.

The closet in our office, for example, contains the gift-wrap mound, the office supplies mound and the outdated computer equipment mound. We use very precise archaeological methods to locate what we’re looking for. Near the top of each pile are recent additions to the collection, with older exhibits closer to the bottom. At the base of the computer pile, for example, is an ancient Underwood typewriter, last used by the Incas.

I love our house but it was not built with a lot of good storage space. Aside from the closets, there’s only a crude attic where we’ve stashed Christmas decorations and the crawlspace that’s taken up with all my murder victims. We did buy an outdoor shed shortly after we moved in, primarily so I wouldn’t have to keep the lawnmower in the bathtub.

I think it’s important at this point to note that we are not pathological hoarders, like you might see on certain reality TV shows. We can and do throw stuff away frequently. Just this morning, before leaving for work, I threw a bunch of food scraps and used cat litter in the garbage bin outside.

We participate in our city’s recycling program, discarding old bottles and plastics and newspapers on a weekly basis. (I’d hoped for a long time that municipal officials would add human waste to the list of acceptable recyclables. When my calls to our councilman promoting this initiative failed, I stopped collecting my urine in Mason jars).

But we are not hoarders. We have all our teeth, we occasionally comb our hair, and we’re careful not to wear sleeveless t-shirts and muumuus when television cameras are around.

I keep telling myself that one of these days, I’m going to get everything organized and cataloged. I’ve already started on the pile of household records in our office, putting them in a file cabinet of tabbed folders reading “phone bills” and “vet” and “restraining orders.”

After I’ve retired, I plan to take this on as a full-time job. I’ll go through the various mounds of junk and apply radio-frequency identification tags to every item. This mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions will then allow me to wave a scanner over each of the mounds and be able to tell exactly what’s in there and where.

Who knows what bounty I’ll discover when I go through this effort? Maybe we’ve got the Holy Grail in there somewhere. Perhaps I’ll stumble across a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or maybe that ultra-rare Ty Cobb baseball card, or — who knows? — the Great Emancipator’s rookie card from when he was a young catcher with the Cubs.

Maybe I’ll even find the DVD player that goes with the power cord I found Sunday.

NOT my home office (mine is much worse)

Dentist claims that work is necessary

September 27, 2011

ROCK HILL, S.C. (Sept. 27) — In a stunning development, it was reported yesterday that I have several cavities, some of which will require a simple filling but others that could need a full root canal.

Officials at Iredell Dental Care (IDC) made the surprising announcement following a routine cleaning and exam Monday afternoon. Even though I had a clean bill of dental health at my previous visit six months ago, now the dentist claims I need work done that could cost thousands of dollars.

“Are you serious?” I asked following the 45-minute-long appointment. “How can there be such a big change in such a short period?”

“I’m not sure,” said Dr. Leena Jones, who performed an examination that included jabbing at suspicious areas with a pointy metal thing. “Sometimes, cavities can develop quite quickly.”

In a Proposed Treatment Plan issued by IDC, I reportedly need a “posterior composite – 2 surface” on tooth number 2, a “composite resin, 1 surface” on tooth number 26, and a “posterior composite – 1 surface” on several other teeth. These procedures run between $139 and $204 each.

In addition, there’s a need for a “crown, porc. fused to high nobl” as well as “endodontics, 1 canal” on teeth 3, 22 and 27. Estimates for this work range from $647 to $997.

“Let’s see what your insurance would cover,” said the helpful lady (I think her name is Jane) at the front desk. “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’ve used up your 2011 allotment already. It was only $1,000 anyway.”

I’m tempted to get a second opinion from another, more-senior doctor who works with the practice. The lady dentist who performed my exam was certainly cute and friendly enough, and I freely acknowledge she’d be welcome in another setting to put her hands in my mouth.

However, the firm’s founding dentist — a man who’s about my age, and was probably pulling teeth before young Dr. Leena was born — has the gravitas I need to confirm the extensive work will be necessary. I’ll talk to him when I get a chance.

“What, do they think I just have thousands of dollars laying around to be spent on dental work?” I asked myself following yesterday’s visit. “They don’t even hurt. Why can’t I just wait till they hurt?”

According to WebMD, a delay in treatment could cause teeth which otherwise might be fixed with fillings to instead require the more-expensive root canal.

“Maybe I could just check a different online source,” I proposed.

Unfortunately, both Ask.com and a guy I play Farmville with confirm this likely scenario.

Dr. Leena did say that I might be able to prevent further cavities by improving my brushing stroke. She asked the dental hygienist to show me how to make a circular motion on the gum, then move the brush over the teeth “in the direction they grow.”

“You brush up for the bottom teeth and down for the top teeth,” said Angela Davis, hygienist and former vice-presidential candidate for the American Communist Party. “Like this. And make sure you do it every night before you go to bed.”

“What am I, some kind of child?” I wondered. “I know how to brush my own damn teeth.”

Dr. Leena also gave me a script for “prescription toothpaste,” marketed under the name “Prevident 5000.” Like I’m going to show up at some pharmacy and ask for prescription toothpaste.

“Maybe I can alter the script to get Vicodin,” I speculated.

IHC said I could study the Proposed Treatment Plan and get back to them about what I wanted to do. However, according to the fine print at the bottom of the page, “the above services and fees are valid for 90 days.”

“I don’t have $3,576 now, and I’m not likely to find it in the next three months,” I countered. “It’d be cheaper to hire someone to chew for me, then feed me like a baby bird.”

This could be me, unless I come up with thousands of dollars

Entertaining the Indians

September 26, 2011

I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.

I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.

Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.

As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.

“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.

“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”

This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.

“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”

We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.

I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.

We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”

“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”

I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.

The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.

I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.

We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.

When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.

Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.

“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”

Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?

While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”

Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50’s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.

Fun? Not really on our radar.

“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.

“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.

I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.

We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.

Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.

“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”

I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.

The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.

We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.

“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.

I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

Don't eat the clamshells (it's considered rude in America)

An editorial: Is it really a seven-layer burrito?

September 23, 2011

The seven-layer burrito, as created and sold by Taco Bell, is a wondrous thing.

Available at most locations of the popular fast-food outlet for as little as $1.49, it’s practically a meal in itself. A soft flour tortilla wraps around rice, beans, a blend of three cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole, like a protective mother wraps her arms around her children. Spicy scamps that they are, the ingredients try to ooze free as you eat the burrito. But they are doomed instead to satisfy even the heartiest hunger, except maybe for that glob that landed on your shirt.

There is little that one can editorialize against in this marvel of Mexican cuisine. Oh, sure, the food police will tell you that it’s got too much fat or sodium or cholesterol or insect parts-per-million. What they neglect to note, however, is that by ordering it “fresco-style” — with salsa serving as an able replacement for the cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella cheese sauce — you can cut the fat content by 25%. Also, it has 12 grams of dietary fiber, which sounds like a lot of grams.

Where the editorial board here at DavisW’s blog has a bit of a quibble is with the marketing of the product as “seven layers.” The dictionary defines a layer as “a single thickness of something that lies over or under something or between other similar thicknesses.” Once compressed into its cylindrical casing, the true meaning of “layer” is lost. What arrives through the window of your car at the drive-through is more a mish-mash of ingredients, randomly swirled about by the whims of the burrito’s creator, and by how it is jostled during its journey from the warming tray to your open maw.

Also, the use of the number “seven” to describe the quantity of components is a little misleading. If you count the three different cheeses as separate entities, what you’re actually getting is a ten-layer burrito. One could even make the argument that the tortilla itself should count as a layer, bringing the constituent total to eleven. Why, then, is it not named after a larger and presumably more desirable number?

This probably has to do with the storied history of the meal itself. As far back as the Aztecs, the number seven held mystical properties. When they sacrificed virgins to their primitive gods, all the girls had to be at least seven years old (something to do with what we now know as child labor laws). The ancients measured their year as consisting of seven months of 52 days each. When they slew their enemies in war, they ate the defeated heads as the original seven-layer burrito, oddly counting the nostrils of the nose as two separate ingredients while both the eyes and the ears counted as one item each. The tongue was the original “al fresco” option — warriors could choose to omit it if they were watching their weight.

What concerns those of us who reside in the 21st century is how to order the seven-layer burrito when we want to omit an item or two. Should we ask for a seven-layer burrito without the cheese and sour cream, even though such an omission makes it a less-than-seven-layer burrito? Would it be better to characterize this order as a five-layer burrito, or would that be too confusing for the marginally educated counter staff? Why not start instead from the bottom up, requesting a “zero-layer burrito” with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole? Or might this prompt them to leave out the tortilla entirely, instead handing you a ball of soggy starches and vegetables unrestrained by an outer casing?

We call on Taco Bell to clarify their position on this issue. Consider an a la carte menu option. Allow us to enter the food preparation area and construct the mass ourselves. Remove any number from the name of the product, and call it simply the “layered burrito.”

Just don’t make us do math — especially subtraction — when all we’re interested in is satisfying a hunger as primal and demanding as those Mesoamerican civilizations of centuries past.

Bothersome ‘facts’ don’t square with governor’s claim

September 22, 2011

To those who have wondered how Tea Party types with limited comprehension of subjects like “science” and “facts” would govern if elected — look no further than South Carolina.

Our governor, Indo-Hottie Nikki Haley, was swept into office last year after out-stupiding Republican opponents in her party’s primary, then cruising against a Democrat in the general election. She rose from being an obscure legislator to the state’s top office after getting an endorsement from fellow-dunderhead Sarah Palin.

Touting her experience as bookkeeper for her mother’s clothing firm, the former Nimrata Randhawa has staked out what she calls a pro-business agenda. This apparently includes a trip abroad costing in excess of $100,000 to lure European companies to move to South Carolina, an effort which not surprisingly has yet to yield results.

Though she spouts the standard anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party — even to the point of refusing federal funds that might mitigate the state’s horrendous education and employment rates — she’s all too ready to insert the state into people’s private lives through the drug-testing business. She wants those receiving unemployment and other government benefits to generate a drug-free stream of urine before they are qualified to avoid starvation and homelessness.

Haley bases this cornerstone of her public policy on a conversation she “thought” she had while campaigning at the Energy Department’s Savannah River nuclear site.

“We were on the site. There were multiple people in there. And that comment they made had a huge impact on me,” Haley told the Associated Press recently. “It’s the reason you’re hearing me look into whether we can do drug testing. Somebody can’t say that and it not stick you in the gut.”

The “that” which Haley vaguely remembers is this: half the people applying for work at the site failed their pre-employment drug test, and half the remainder couldn’t pass reading and writing tests. Since “learning” that “fact,” Haley has used the illustration to justify her attempt to link drug tests to benefits.

Haley said she’s probably repeated the story “a million times” since hearing it. Trouble is, the story is not even close to being true.

Department of Energy spokesman Jim Giusti says that less than one percent of workers failed pre-employment screening tests. This matches up with reports by Quest Diagnostics, a national drug testing company, that show on average less than two percent of people test positive for drugs nationally.

Haley now admits that she’s “frustrated” that she can’t document something that has so shaped her policy perspective.

“I’ve never felt like I had to back up what people tell me. You assume that you’re given good information,” Haley said. “And now I’m learning through you guys [the press] that I have to be careful.”

The people who misinformed her are “now all backing off saying it,” Haley offered. “And they know they said it. But now they don’t have the backup.”

“I’m not going to say it anymore,” Haley finally conceded.

As for the other half of applicants who allegedly couldn’t pass reading and writing tests, Haley has offered no similar concession. But it’s probably true that, thanks to education budgets gutted by successive Republican governors, close to half of a random sampling of South Carolinians could be illiterate.

One interesting footnote: Quest’s annual survey did show that the overall drug test failure rate for South Carolina was 6.5 percent, about four times the national average though still well short of Haley’s 50 percent claim. But all that proves is that you have to be stoned to voluntarily live in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley

Dancing with the Stars: Breaking it down

September 21, 2011

I finally broke down and watched “Dancing With the Stars” on television last night.

Most of the contestants joined me, either “breaking it down” with surprisingly adept dance moves (especially for a former federal prosecutor, a former woman, and a former Courtney Cox husband), or “broken down” in humiliation after their gyrations failed to impress judges and a TV audience of millions.

I came away from the viewing with several observations:

  • Dancing automatically looks better when you do it in front of fiery explosions
  • Ron Artest will now forever be called “The Basketball Player Formerly Known as Ron Artest”
  • Between hosting this show and “America’s Funniest Videos,” I don’t know how Tom Bergeron lives with himself
  • When we’re finally able to fully map the inky depths of the world’s oceans, I bet we come across several previously undiscovered Kardashians, living off the heat of volcanic fumaroles
  • It would be helpful if the “stars” could be outfitted in special garb that distinguishes them from the staff dancers they’ve been assigned as partners, because I can’t recognize either one as a celebrity (I suggest the “stars” either be painted entirely in gold, or be required to wear a crown)
  • Hostess Brooke Burke Charvet is no less palatable just because she added a third name
  • I have a headache

Oh, and one other thing: I’m glad I’ve never claimed to be a dancer.

Thus far, I’ve managed to make it through almost 58 years without significantly shaking a leg (unless you count my continuing bout with the neurological disorder Restless Leg Syndrome.) I have absolutely no grace and even less poise. My aptitude for rhythm is about what you’d expect from someone who’s last name is “whiteman.”

And yet I can still cite several examples from my personal history when I’ve attempted to “cut the rug” and somehow managed to avoid lacerating myself as well.

When I was about ten years old, I tried out for a local production of “The Sound of Music.” At the time, my actually-talented sister was involved in the South Florida entertainment scene, having made several local commercials, and taking voice, tap and acting lessons. Not wanting to leave me out, my parents arranged for me to join in the fun of show business.

The tryouts were held at a local college. I don’t remember much more than that. I assume I was up for the part of one of the von Trapp children who, in the story, learn about the glories of Bavarian music from their nanny nun in the run-up to World War II. I guess I’d be playing the fat, pimpled, sociopathic preteen, a part for which I had trained extensively.

I didn’t get the role, however, I did get my picture in the local newspaper, which was doing a feature on preparations for the musical. Somewhere deep in the photo archives of The Miami Herald, there’s a shot of young Davis leaping into the air, his arms extended high above his head. I’m not sure how else you’d describe the move, except to say it was strongly reminiscent of how fleeing Polish troops retreated before the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg.

My next opportunity to stomp about the room while music played in the background came during a junior high sock hop. A fear of dance combined with a fear of girls compounded this into a major trauma of my teen years. Somehow, I managed to convince one of the young ladies to stand across from me while I spasmodically seized to the tune of “Glad All Over” by the Dave Clark Five.

These were the early days of rock dancing, when steps like the Frug and the Watusi and the Monkey encouraged creativity. I had watched “American Bandstand” in preparation for the hop, but the moves shown by those kids were nothing I could imitate. Finally, I became comfortable with a dance called “The Hammer,” in which you raised and lowered alternating arms in a motion not unlike the milking of a cow. I lost my partner some time after the third song, when she suddenly left with an irresistible urge to consume dairy products.

By the time I got to college, dancing to music was considered passé, even bourgeois. Martha Vandella, only a few years before, had called for “Dancing in the Street,” despite the obvious dangers of mixing vehicular traffic with choreography.

“It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there,” Martha claimed. “So come on every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world they’ll be dancing in the streets.”

In my circle of politically aware friends, dancing was a mindless way to waste energy that otherwise could be spent on the coming socialist revolution. We preferred to gather in darkened rooms, drifting in and out of a drug-fueled unconsciousness while listening to music. In a strict sense, it was still a form of artistic movement — we had to roll over periodically so we could vomit without choking.

My last exposure to dance as a means of personal expression came shortly before I was married. Beth and I were aiming to get back in touch with our German heritage by attending an Oktoberfest celebration and becoming ill from drinking too much beer.

While still only slightly inebriated, we were introduced to “The Chicken Dance.” We immediately fell in love with the quirky-but-simple steps: first you open and close your hands, like a squawking chicken; then you flap your elbows as if they were wings; then you shake your butt; then you clap your hands. It was so corny, so hokey, so trite, as to round the far bend and become ironically cool.

When we planned our own wedding and reception a few months later, we adopted a German theme for the celebration. My parents and my new in-laws opted for the more standard polka while our contemporaries absolutely adored the Chicken Dance. It was a great way to celebrate the beginning of our new life together, though our traditional first dance as Man and Wife — squawking and flapping and shaking our rumps — was not the charming memory my older relatives had hoped for.

Now, I’m closing in on 60 and can happily assume that my dancing days are finally over. I may someday face a forced “dance” at the retirement home, do-si-do-ing my wheelchair at the insistence of some sadistic physical therapist. After I die, I imagine my corpse might contort and shrivel in the flames of the crematorium. Then, of course, there’s the dancing on the head of a pin with my fellow angels in the afterlife.

Until then, the closest I plan on coming to the delight of dance is during my daily jog around the neighborhood. I swing my arms, I shuffle my feet, I barely avoid cars and I flee from dogs. The gestures are less than expressive, but I do work up a good sweat.

Which is more than you can say for the ever-delicate Nancy Grace.

The Chicken Dance (complete with chicken)

Job sharing could end unemployment

September 20, 2011

A little-noticed clause in President Obama’s new jobs bill could result in a dramatic drop in the jobless rate. However, the quality of the jobs, and the goods and services that result from them, could suffer significantly.

The proposal to encourage more “job sharing” — an arrangement that allows two or more workers to split a single job — could knock the current 9% unemployment rate to almost zero. But having multiple people performing a task that was previously done by a single individual could have a serious downside, economists warn.

“It’s bound to get a little crowded on the other side of the bank teller window,” noted Princeton’s Mike Brennan. “If you’ve got half a dozen clerks all trying to help you at once, I’d recommend you count your money carefully.”

The plan offered by the administration is based on the European model, where the workforce is allowed to keep up its skills and maintain benefits while working drastically reduced hours.

Republicans were quick to attack the bill.

“Based on a European model?” asked House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “What, does everybody have to start smoking and making themselves vomit to lose weight? I don’t think we need to have public policy in the United States dictated by a bunch of Eurotrash stick-figure models wearing the latest style in goofy hats.”

“The American people,” added House Speaker John Boehner, “are not prepared to wear goofy hats.”

Democrats seemed to be warming slowly to the idea of job-sharing. Some saw it as a way they might be able to hold onto their Congressional seats should there be another Republican sweep in the 2012 elections. Others said they wanted to wait and see how practical the plan is before deciding to oppose it.

The President could point to several pilot projects already under way that aim to prove job-sharing will work on a large scale.

“Let’s not use the pilot project as an example,” urged White House press secretary Jay Carney. “Those pilots couldn’t agree whose responsibility it was to deploy the landing gear, and the jet crashed killing all aboard. That’s probably not the illustration you’d want to use.”

Instead, Carney directed reporters to a print shop outside Washington, D.C., where a work-share arrangement has resulted in the hiring of almost 100 new employees.

“We used to have one typesetter who would key in all the menus, flyers, resumes, etc., which we produce for our customers,” said KwikPrint manager Gretchen Hastings. “Now, we have a whole staff of typists, with each one responsible for a particular letter or punctuation mark.”

Hastings said her newly expanded staff will gather behind the keyboard and step forward to key their individual character as needed. The workers will share the $15-per-hour salary allocated to the position, allowing each person to pocket a much-needed 15 cents an hour.

“We thought about paying more for those in charge of keying the most-commonly-used letters, but that would’ve been an accounting nightmare,” Hastings said. “The payroll department is already struggling to absorb its nine new workers [one for each digit, plus the original accountant] and we didn’t want to complicate things further for them.”

Most of the typesetters are simply grateful to have gainful employment.

“I had been looking for almost 18 months, so I was really glad to finally land something,” said Beth Barber, who’s in charge of typing all “g’s”. “At least I got my foot in the door. Maybe they’ll eventually expand my responsibilities to include the letters ‘f’ and ‘h’.”

“I’m so grateful to be here,” said Bruce Rabin, who lost his job in banking in 2008 and has been unemployed ever since. “I’m going to type the hell out of my ‘w’ while I’m there, and hope that I make a good impression.”

April Johnson, the veteran typesetter who had to move aside to make room for all the new hires, was not as happy with the change as her fellow workers.

“The pay cut obviously sucks. I’ve got to admit, though, that it gives me more time to spend with my family,” Johnson said. “I live close by and, since my new responsibility includes only the relatively rare ‘z’, I have time to run home and check on my ailing mother in between words.”

Press secretary Carney said other businesses are also starting to get on the job-sharing bandwagon.

“There’s a car dealership in Arlington where potential buyers meet with salesmen who sell only a particular part of the car,” he said. “And I’ve heard of several Wendy’s (hamburger outlets) who use separate order-takers for each item on the menu.”

Carney denied a report that even his job as press secretary would be split among several dozen previously unemployed workers.

“To have a crowd of people standing up here, each one separately in charge of saying their own particular word in response to your questions, just wouldn’t be feasible,” he said. “The White House needs to communicate a clear, focused message on this issue.”

Told that most Americans questioned in a recent poll said they felt President Obama’s communications on the jobs issue were “muddled” and “confusing,” Carney said only “oh”.

“Hey, we could use that guy,” print shop manager Hastings said. “Our ‘o’ lady just quit to take a job in the healthcare field. She’s in charge of opening the Band-Aids, then handing them off to another worker to be applied to the injured patient.”

Italian businessman Ronaldo Salerno (left) waits his turn to dress as a gladiator entertaining tourists in Rome.

‘Clumsy’ doesn’t begin to explain my problem

September 19, 2011

I’ve always held a deep-seated belief that fluids should be allowed to flow unencumbered.

As a political philosophy, it’s not much. But as someone who looks at the physical world and sees free-running rivers and churning oceans and new improved ketchup dispensers, I literally ache when I think of how water and other liquids that have been constrained by Man.

I guess that explains why I go to such great lengths to liberate fluids whenever I can. It’s also a great excuse for why I find myself constantly spilling stuff.

I don’t consider myself a clumsy person. I think I move rather lithely through life, knocking over remarkably little for such a big and aging guy. I once spent an entire afternoon in a china shop, destroying only small amounts of merchandise until I was asked to leave for trying to place a to-go order for moo goo gai pan.

Were I, however, subjected to a battery of genetic tests, I’m pretty sure results would show that I possess the so-called “lummox gene” deep within my DNA. I come from a long line of awkward men, as was demonstrated on an annual basis when one particular uncle would come to Thanksgiving dinner and inevitably drop the green beans to the floor. It’s a family tradition that we tend to spill things.

So yesterday’s disaster in my home shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

After meeting an old friend for brunch, I stopped at a Smoothie King to pick up a treat for my wife and son. My son wanted the chocolate-and-peanut-butter-and-banana concoction while my wife opted for the “Chocolate Shredder.” I carried both smoothies successfully to my car, and drove them 20 miles to my home without incident.

When I pulled into the driveway and began to gather up my things, I decided to carry both styrofoam cups on the iPad I had taken to Panera with me. I’ve seen professional wait staff do this balancing act a thousand times while bringing drinks to their customers, and it seemed like a good way to free my other hand to carry the newspaper and fumble with my keys. The iPad can perform thousands of functions; using one as a tray doesn’t even require paying for an app.

I made it through the side exterior door okay but when I tried to open the sunroom doors into the living room, both cups began to totter. I lunged in panic to steady them, which only made things worse, and the sticky-sweet drinks toppled onto the carpet.

“FFFFFUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” I observed as chocolate plasma splashed about my feet. “Damn it!”

What a royal mess the Smoothie King had delivered! I stumbled over to the kitchen counter to unload my other things, tracking the gummy goo on my shoes and onto the tile floor. Chocolate smoothie was everywhere — splashed onto the side of an adjacent bookcase, under the bottom edge of the door and soaking deep into the rug. My anguished cries brought my wife running.

“I’m such a clumsy idiot,” I told her in a pre-emptive move I hoped would quell any criticism she might be tempted to add. Gracefully, she offered only sympathy and help.

What had been looking like a quiet Sunday afternoon spent in front of televised football was now transformed into a marathon clean-up. For hours, we scrubbed and soaped the entire affected area, and by evening we had eliminated almost all of the visible smoothie. The parts that soaked through the floorboard into the crawlspace beneath our home would add a nice chocolaty flavor to the soup that had accumulated there from my other recent spills.

There was the evening just last week when I knocked a full glass of Pepsi onto its side next to the couch. Since my son keeps his beloved MacBook on the coffee table, I have to keep my drinks on a tray on the floor. (For some reason, he’s afraid I’ll spill something on the computer). Two of our cats had a case of “the rips” and were rocketing around the living room, so I reached down to protect the glass. In the process, I knocked it over myself.

Then there was the time I tried to apply marinade to a sandwich I was packing for my lunch. Functioning on too little sleep, I had imagined the sweet orange condiment would make a nice substitute for mayonnaise on my turkey sandwich. I loosened the lid, stepped away briefly to grab a newspaper, then returned to pick up the jar and give it a vigorous shake to blend the ingredients. Marinade flew about the room. I cleaned up the best I could at that ungodly hour. Still, later that morning, my wife had to wonder how a strip of candied orange peel had fallen from the ceiling into her breakfast.

There was also the time I tried to “flash-cool” a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew by putting it in our spare freezer. By the time I remembered to retrieve it a few days later, the bottle had expanded, then structurally failed, then exploded. Two frozen chickens and a pound of ground beef were mortally wounded.

And this doesn’t even count the incident at work about a month ago, where I spilled a fresh cup of coffee all over my desk and keyboard. I was answering a question from one of my proofreading trainees, and made a sweeping gesture to indicate the grand scope of errors we had to catch and correct. It made for a terrible mess, but also served as an effective display of how the unpredictable could go wrong.

After yesterday’s smoothie incident, I’d like to say I’m re-dedicating myself to grace and finesse, but I’m not sure it would do any good. I’m not trying — consciously, at least — to broadcast liquids to the four winds. But I don’t think any effort on my part is going to reverse the desire for entropy that runs through my family history at a molecular level.

Even though gene replacement therapy is not covered by my current health insurance plan, I think there might be help for me available from the medical community.

Either I can start taking all my fluids intravenously. Or, I can get me one of those cone-shaped collars that dogs and cats wear to keep them from gnawing at their stitches. If they seal tightly enough around your neck, you could just pour the drinks over your head, wait for the level to rise enough to reach your mouth, then enjoy hands-free beverage consumption without the possibility of making a ruinous mess.

Then, all I have to do is find a shampoo that claims to clean smoothie out of your hair.

Or, as the case may be, your fur.

Afterword: I dedicate today’s post to my Uncle Jack, who died over the weekend at age 86. He was the only local relative beyond my immediate family while I grew up in Miami, and came to be a favorite of my sister and me. Every holiday and every Sunday, Uncle Jack would take a city bus from his home downtown to visit us out in the suburbs. Inevitably, he’d bring us each a cash gift. We would’ve loved him anyway.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Jack.