Archive for October, 2011

A relaxing stroll around the office park

October 17, 2011

One area where I doubt I’ll meet expectations in my upcoming job performance review is break-taking.

I’m not taking all the lunch and coffee breaks I’m entitled to. Not only does this place me in danger — “breaks are in place for the safety of employees,” warned our official policy after a third-shifter plunged his nodding head into his keyboard, injuring his nose and adding the word “poijasdpfjiopasdij” to an initial public offering — but it creates major headaches for accounting.

It’s not because I’m dedicated that I work so hard. Nor is it because I’m especially busy. The reason I’ve not been taking all my breaks is that (a) there’s little in or near my office’s industrial park worth breaking away to, and (b) when you already spend 90% of your day doing crosswords while waiting for work, you frankly don’t get all that winded.

I’ve tried to make myself step away to the breakroom, where I can while away 15 minutes of relaxation staring at my choice of one of four walls. (One of the walls is filled with posters about worker’s rights, informing us that even though we work in North Carolina, we still have a few.) There’s also a television in one corner, running an endless loop of Headline News. But hearing all the ways Michael Jackson’s doctor tried to make him sleep will quickly get me drowsy.

With pleasant fall weather here, I’ve started taking a walk around the office park. This offers both clean air and exercise, and I can return to my work station feeling refreshed, even though my sweat-soaked underarms may beg to differ.

As a scenic attraction, the SilverLake office park offers little to the casual tourist. Most of the tenants are trucking firms, so unless you’re big into loitering 18-wheelers, there’s not much to see.

The landlord does a pretty good job of maintaining nice landscaping, so there’s that. There’s wildlife, if you count worms and fire ants and diarrhetic Canada geese. And there is, in fact, a lake; its silverness may not be apparent beneath the algae-coated surface, but just knowing it’s under there somewhere is soothing.

I’ve assembled a small collection of photos into a travelogue, so you can see for yourself the scenery I’m now able to enjoy on an almost-daily basis. Why not transport yourself away from your dreary Monday, and enjoy a bit of what the Great Outdoors have to offer.

The natural beauty begins right outside our back entrance, with a view of the loading dock at the building next door. Note how the natural wilderness is barely kept at bay in this pristine part of Charlotte.

A crooked sign stands guard against outsiders who might attempt to skate, bicycle, loiter or be a dog. The wide, tree-lined boulevard forming the main access into the office park reminds many of Paris's Champs Elysees.

Keep your eyes on the road, and you may find yourself a treasure! Here, a discarded mouth filter serves as mute testimony to the adventure faced by warehouse workers trying to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

A serene Silver Lake laps at its embankments, its scum-sheen bright in the sun of a warm October afternoon.

Earthworms also need a break, so many take to the sidewalks for their daily constitutional. Unfortunately, most dry up and die during their outings.

Discarded truck parts gather to compare notes about their fate. Like other industries, logistics and distribution have suffered considerably during the current downturn. Like illegal aliens waiting near a Home Depot, these three axles hope to latch onto some day work.

Herman Cain. For a President You Can’t Refuse.

October 14, 2011

From an overheard telephone conversation …

Godfather’s Pizza: Godfather’s, can I help you?

American People: Yes, I’d like to order a President to be delivered, please.

GP: Go ahead.

AP: Yes, I’d like a medium … uh, I mean, a moderate. I want someone with both government and private-sector experience. Someone who understands that the poor and middle-class need more help than the rich do. Someone who isn’t locked into rigidity by their religious beliefs, or because they signed some anti-tax pledge. And no onions.

GP: No onions? Are you sure? You don’t want someone with the onions to stand up to the Washington insiders who have stolen our country from us?

AP: Uh, yes, that’s right. No onions.

GP: And what kind of crust do you want?

AP: I want extra-crusty. I think we need a cantankerous, grumpy sort, so we can negotiate aggressively with other countries.

GP: Okay, extra-crusty. Got it. How about a heartless immigration policy that will punish innocent children by denying them education?

AP: No. No, thanks.

GP: What about widespread deregulation of banks and other businesses that contributed to the financial meltdown?

AP: No.

GP: Would you like to deny affordable health insurance to all Americans?

AP: No, that gives me heartburn. Oh, and no anchovies.

GP: Okay. Do you need any drinks with that?

AP: Yeah, let me get a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. Does that come with the price of the President, or is that extra?

GP: No, it’s extra. We’re through with entitlements. That’s what got this country into such a mess to begin with. We can sell you tea instead, if you like. Our Tea Party makes a great brew.

AP: No, that’s okay. Now, what sorts of side orders or other extras do you have?

GP: We have the 9-9-9 tax plan, a way for the poor to pay more while the wealthy pay less. We have a promise to veto any bills that are more than three pages long. And we have the fact that our man is a black guy.

AP: A black guy? Oh, that sounds good. What about wings?

GP: No, he doesn’t have wings, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he sprouts some in the afterlife.

AP: I meant buffalo wings.

GP: No, we’re getting those next year. After widespread oil drilling in the West wipes out the habitat of the wild bison. Then, we’ll have all the buffalo meat we can handle.

AP: Alright, just the medium President then, I guess. Oh, and I have a coupon for $2 off.

GP: I’m sorry. Those are good on takeout only.

AP: Really? That’s not what it says on my copy.

GP: Oh, you’re going to get a lot of unexpected surprises with this order. But you do want delivery, right?

AP: Yes. And how long do you think that’ll take?

GP: Let’s see … the Iowa caucuses are in early January, then comes the New Hampshire primary, then the South Carolina one … I’m guessing it’ll arrive at your house in a little over a year.

AP: A year? That’s an awful long time to wait.

GP: Well, there’s always the chance that the Far Right will rise up in armed insurrection against the bloated, illegal, unconstitutional federal government some time before next November. So you might get your man earlier, but I can’t promise anything. No “30-minutes-or-it’s-free” deals from us.

AP: Alright. Maybe I can snack on something light while I’m waiting. There’s a Michele Bachmann around here somewhere.

GP: Now, you know you can track the making and delivery of your President online.

AP: Yeah, I was looking at that on my smartphone. It shows you’ve taken the order and you’ve started making it. That’s cool.

GP: You’ll be able to keep up as your President rises in the polls, then makes an offensive comment about gays, then falls behind in fund-raising, then releases financial statements showing he’s paid no taxes for five years, then exits the race in shame when it’s found he hired an illegal alien as a nanny.

AP: That’s pretty neat. And now I can see that you’ve accidentally dropped him on the floor.

GP: Don’t worry. He was topping-side-up. There’ll be dirt on the bottom but it’ll just look like marks from the cooking.

AP: Okay. So how much will that be?

GP: Let’s see … there’s the negative impact on our image around the world, there’s the fear from our allies that we’ve elected a simplistic hothead, there’s the bond agencies that will lower our credit rating, there’s a sharp drop in federal revenues … It’s going to cost you about $500 billion. And remember, our delivery guys don’t make change.

AP: Got it.

GP: Now, what is your name, address and phone number?

AP: Gee, I don’t know if I want to give out that kind of personal information. I thought Herman Cain was against unnecessary intervention in the life of average Americans. I’m not sure I like the idea of Big Brother knowing that much about me.

GP: Well, if you don’t give us your address, how do you expect to get the President delivered to your house?

AP: I think maybe I’ll come pick it up after all. So I can use that $2-off coupon?

GP: Yes, you can. So that reduces your total to $499,999,999,998.

AP: And you do take credit cards, right?

GP: No! No more credit! No more deficits! No more debt! We expect you to pay in cash and in full, not leave the bill for your children and your children’s children.

AP: Never mind. Cancel my order. My temporary fascination with Herman Cain is over. Maybe I’ll give Rick Santorum a call.

GP: That’s fine with us. But you might want to Google him first to find out about one particular topping I don’t think you’ll like.

AP: Such awful choices this year …

The man who could be our next president (right)

Hiding my defects from the brother-in-law

October 13, 2011

I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with a brother that I ended up so un-handy.

I’ve never mastered the husbandly skills that are the foundation of a well-maintained home. (Which reminds me: I need to have someone check a crack in our foundation). I spent more of my formative childhood years in pursuits of the mind than I did learning to become a Mr. Fix-It.

While other kids were learning how to bang stuff with hammers and poke the family Chevy with wrenches, I had no fraternal pressure to follow suit. I could stay indoors to master my typing skills, listen to music, and dream about the robots that would be handling basic home maintenance by the time I was an adult.

When I first became a homeowner after getting married, I barely had the skills to keep our three-bedroom brick ranch from collapsing around me. I knew how to change a light bulb. I knew how to mow the grass. I could paint the tiny tool shed in the backyard, as long as I took a week off from work to do it, and nobody minded that I used a coral semi-gloss intended for the bathroom.

Most importantly, I knew how to open a phone book to the yellow pages and find a professional who could handle the work for me. (Though, I’ll admit, it was pretty embarrassing to hire an electrician to show me how to open my fuse box).

So when my brother-in-law and his wife showed up at our home yesterday for an overnight visit, I should’ve regarded it as the next-best-thing to getting a brother. Instead, I felt threatened that someone had entered our premises who could challenge my limited dominion. What if he noticed that the bathroom sink had a drip? How could I face the humiliation?

Bob is a terrific guy. He’s been a caring husband to my wife’s sister for over 30 years, raising three children and building a comfortable life for his family in upstate New York. He’s a retired Air Force captain and, as once charged with the responsibility of keeping military aircraft from falling out of the sky because someone didn’t know how to tighten a screw, he’s pretty handy.

He’s so handy, in fact, that he spent most of his vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Charleston to help fix up her house. The stop at our place was happening at the tail end of this trip.

As I greeted them in the driveway, I hoped it was gloomy enough outside that they wouldn’t notice anything wrong with our exterior. I helped gather up their overnight bags and did my best to distract Bob from critically assessing the upkeep of our property. If I could just get them inside quickly enough, he wouldn’t have time to note how it appeared our walls were about to fall in.

Once inside, we exchanged the usual brother-in-law banter. First on the agenda, of course, was a review of his drive up from Charleston. He thought about taking U.S. 21 Bypass to get around some construction near Columbia, but ended up making better time staying on I-77. We also discussed the price of gas en route, and how the cruise control helped make his back less sore.

We stood around the kitchen for a good half-hour so they could stretch their legs after the four-hour drive, then adjourned to the living room. When we bled the topic of interstate driving completely dry, our attention turned to the television playing in front of us.

“So which one is your converter box?” Bob asked, gesturing toward the half-dozen devices beneath the set.

“Uh, I think it’s the one with the little red light,” I answered.

“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.

I have a decent fastball and a wicked slider for a 57-year-old, yet I no longer have the finger strength to put a splitter in the strike zone. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.

“Yeah,” I answered lamely.

“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.

How am I supposed to know? I was hiding in the bathroom pretending to have a stomachache when my wife and son handled the entire installation.

“Sure is,” I responded. “Is there any other kind?”

Before Bob asked any other questions I’d be unable to answer, I decided to go on the offensive.

“We’re thinking about getting rid of cable anyway and going with a satellite dish,” I lied. “What’s your opinion on the advantages of cable versus a dish?”

I was hoping he’d launch into a discussion of DirecTV, which would bring us to the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package of football coverage, which would get me back to the manly topic of sports, a topic I had some familiarity with.

“Hmm,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of trees on your lot. Let’s go out on the deck and try to figure where the satellites would be positioned.”

Well, that certainly backfired. Now we were headed into the back yard, where it was still just barely light enough for him to observe what a mess we’d made of our homestead.

Bob took a few minutes to get a directional fix, then announced that issues like “azimuth” and “perigee” would likely prevent us from ever locking onto a communications satellite. Still looking skyward, he seemed to be pondering our chimney when I tried another distraction tack. I pointed at the house behind us that burned down a few months ago and still hadn’t been cleared away.

“I don’t know when they’re going to remove that debris,” I said, making the clear suggestion that even though I can barely unclog a toilet, at least I hadn’t set the entire premises ablaze.

He seemed to agree that this gave me some cred as a Man of the House. I noted that a kitchen grease fire had been responsible for the neighbor’s calamity, then coolly segued the topic to our wives being hungry for dinner. He offered to take us all out, and I jumped at the chance.

We had a pleasant enough meal, except perhaps for the parts where he talked about how he’d repaired our mother-in-law’s deck, installed new gutter guards, rebuilt her sidewalk and put in a new, taller toilet for her. I half-heartedly mentioned that our toilets were already about the right height.

He also said he had to spend an afternoon balancing her checkbook and paying her credit card bills online, and suddenly I felt a stirring of competence. Paperwork, being a sort of “pursuit of the mind,” was right in my wheelhouse. As bad as I am standing at the top of a ladder and evaluating a soffit, that’s how good I am working with words and numbers.

Repairing endangered credit and painting over subtraction errors with correction fluid — that I can handle. Building and maintaining good relations with out-of-town relatives — not a problem.

Just don’t ask me anything else about my splitter.

Bob "caulks up" another home improvement

Occupy Wall Street is occupied with ‘issues’

October 12, 2011

The dirty, stinking hippies who make up the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York will see their “be-in” enter its second month this week, with participants still incapable of selecting only one thing to protest about and still in need of a shower and a haircut.

Meanwhile, pundits and other observers continue to struggle with how to portray the anti-corporate movement in terms that the American people can understand.

“They smell bad, and they don’t pick up after themselves,” said Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee.

“Most of the men need a shave, and the women are just plain ugly,” noted CNN contributor Erik Erikson.

“Many of them are soiled,” added Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report. “I’d personally give each one a good scrubbing in the bathtub if I could find a hazmat suit that would allow me to get close enough.”

Some who have watched the grassroots movement grow from a few hundred marchers to thousands of demonstrators in over 70 cities complain that the group can’t articulate its concerns in a few simple words.

“They talk about economic inequality, upper-class greed and the way that corporate money controls our entire political process,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “What does that even mean?”

“Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest?” asked civil rights lawyer and protest supporter Glenn Greenwald. “Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality, and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism — is destroying financial security for everyone else.”

“Ha, ha,” noted Noonan. “That’s too complicated.”

Noonan and others have said that the movement needs to articulate its message in simpler terms. Abuses of a long-entrenched hyper-capitalism that have resulted in a full-on attack of the middle and working class are hard to put your finger on, critics say.

“They could take a tip from Herman Cain and his ‘9-9-9’ tax plan,” said Huckabee. “Pick some random numbers and say that these represent your stand on complicated issues. If nothing else, people can use them to play the lottery.”

“Better yet, pick a few key words,” added Noonan, a former Republican speechwriter. “I would suggest ‘grimy,’ ‘grubby,’ ‘filthy’ and ‘foul.'”

A few more-moderate observers have suggested that Occupy Wall Street protesters represent a movement with roots similar to the Tea Party. Both have anti-government tendencies and both have relied on widespread public frustration with a status quo they claim is not serving their interests.

“Whoa, there. I wouldn’t say that,” said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who many regard as a spokesperson for the Tea Party. “Folks in the Tea Party not only wash their hair, but they also style and color it. Many of the women wear tasteful jewelry while the men are careful to keep their shirts tucked in.”

Palin stressed that good grooming was the foundation of America, and that the Founding Fathers would’ve had spiffy crewcuts “if they’d had access to modern hair-cutting technology.”

David Raphael, founder of the Light Party and one of the spokespeople for the protest, said that demonstrators represent the 99 percent of the American people who struggle to survive, while the 1 percent super-rich exploit everybody else.

“This is a holistic, proactive, educational new political paradigm party dedicated to health, peace and freedom for all,'” Raphael said. “We have formulated a practical, synergistic seven-point program which addresses and serves to resolve our current socioeconomic and ecological challenges.”

Raphael added that he was reluctant to assume the role of official spokesperson, noting that most of those involved prefer that the movement remain leaderless. He used the so-called “people’s microphone” — a system of loudly repeating what each speaker says designed to get around the city’s ban on sound amplification — to confirm statements he gave to reporters.

“I’m saying we need to set the agenda for a New America,” Raphael told bystanders.


“No, wait,” Raphael corrected. “I’ll say we’re making a common statement about government corruption.”


“No, no, I’ll say instead that we’re anti-consumerist and we want someone to address the growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions for those who caused the global financial crisis,” Raphael continued.


“Oh, I’m just going to say ‘power to the people,'” Raphael finally said in exasperation.

“SOMETHING ABOUT A PEEPHOLE,” the crowd shouted in confirmation.

Look at these filthy protesters. Just LOOK at them. (Don't, however, smell them).

A salute to Columbus Day, one day late

October 11, 2011

Christopher Columbus went to his grave with the mistaken belief that his historic voyages of exploration had landed him in Asia. To honor the heritage of his error, it is today that I celebrate Columbus Day, even though the 519th anniversary of his discovery was actually yesterday.

Columbus Day was officially changed to the second Monday of October years ago. Such historical revisionism would’ve pleased the man credited with finding the New World, despite the fact the Vikings had made settlements in Canada 500 years earlier, and millions of natives already in the Americas had discovered themselves long ago.

The legacy of the fabled Italian mariner who famously sailed the ocean blue has swung from positive to negative in recent years. Historians stripped him of his title of “Discoverer of America,” giving him instead the wordier and more specific honorific of “the man who led to general European awareness of the American continents in the Western Hemisphere”. He got to keep the naming rights to Columbus, Ohio, Columbia, S.C., and the nation of Colombia, though he would’ve gladly traded those to Verizon for a multi-year deal when he toppled into bankruptcy in his later years. His legacy now is one of exploitation, genocide and enslavement, not much for even the best PR firm to work with.

So we (sort of) honor him with a holiday for mailmen, bankers and owners of liquor stores, a limited but fitting observance of the life of someone whose star has faded.

Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. His parents were middle class, with his father working as a wool weaver, tavern owner and proprietor of a cheese stand. (Years later, the Catholic Church almost agreed to fund his first voyage when a cardinal misunderstood his desire to “bring cheeses to the pagans.”) Young Christopher loved adventure from an early age, and longed to spread his influence throughout the known world. He became a semen in his late teens but, when he learned that sperm donation for cash was still centuries in the future, switched his career to seaman. He traveled extensively throughout Europe as a business agent for important Genoese families, going as far as West Africa, Britain and possibly Iceland to get away from his wife, whom he left for good in 1487.

He taught himself Latin, astronomy, geography and history, even though he is not regarded as a scholarly man. He made hundreds of notations in the books he read, and clung vigorously to the simple, strong and sometimes wrong ideas that a self-educated person gains from independent reading, making him something of a Glenn Beck of his time.

When he hatched his plans to sail west to Asia, Europe was confronting the challenge of how to maintain the spice and opium trade with the Indies after the Ottoman Turks closed the Silk Road in 1453. The entire continent was going through Vicodin withdrawal, and searching about desperately for cough syrup and/or new routes to the Orient. Columbus presented his “Enterprise of the Indies” proposal to the Portuguese king as early as 1485, asking for three sturdy ships and the title of “Great Admiral of the Ocean.” The king’s experts thought correctly that Columbus underestimated the distance he needed to travel, but he was only off by about 9,000 miles.

Next he sought an audience with Spanish monarchs and singing duo Ferdinand and Isabella. They also rebuffed Columbus, yet were intrigued enough by his ideas to offer him 12,000 maravedis to keep them to himself, lest rival nations somehow benefit from the cock-eyed notion that you go west to get east. But he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, despite the fact that it’s pronounced the same way in Spanish and Italian. Finally, the king and queen gave in to his incessant pestering, and Columbus was good to go.

In August of 1492, he set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Sea Yawl Later. In just over two months, this modest fleet reached land in the present-day Bahamas, at a site he named San Salvador but which is now known by the less-romantic name of Watling Island. Here he encountered indigenous peoples who were peaceful and friendly, much to their later regret. Columbus liked them a lot, noting that “they ought to make good servants, for they repeat whatever we say to them … I think they can very easily be made Christians.” He kidnapped a dozen or two to take back to Spain with him but most of them died en route. Even in those days, it was tough to find good help, or at least the kind that survived long ocean voyages.

Columbus continued this first of four expeditions, knocking around the Caribbean like a college dropout with a Eurail pass. Later in October, he sighted Cuba, which he thought was China. In December, he landed on Hispaniola, which he thought was Japan. There, he established a colony of 39 men and left them behind, which he thought was a good idea (when he returned on a later voyage to stop and say “hi,” all had disappeared). Nothing was what it seemed in this foreign world, at least not if you held 15th-century concepts of navigation and interpersonal relations. Columbus gathered up some gold and some spices – most notably basil, oregano and coriander that Isabella needed for her paella recipes – and returned to Spain.

There, he received a hero’s welcome. He had shown that great wealth lay just over the horizon to the east, regardless of whether you wanted to call it Asia, the Indies or America. He proved that the earth was round and that circumnavigation of the globe was possible. He opened up two whole continents whose riches over the next century would make Spain the most powerful nation in the world. And don’t forget the paella.

Columbus would make three more voyages over the next ten years, two of which were billed as reunion gigs while the last was a farewell tour meant to supplement his admiral income. On the second trip, he discovered Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Croix, to the everlasting thanks of twenty-first century rock stars looking for secluded beach getaways. During the third voyage, he explored the mainland of South America and had some of his crew hanged for disobeying him. On his last trip in 1502, he was looking for the Indian Ocean which, you have to admit, does kind of look like Jamaica, which is what he actually found. He came close to discovering the Pacific Ocean in Panama, but he probably would’ve thought it was the World Showcase lagoon at Epcot.

Despite some legal problems that led to him being briefly jailed, Columbus enjoyed a good four years of retirement, living on the gold he had accumulated from the New World. He died of a heart attack reportedly brought on by arthritis, conjunctivitis and painful urination at age 55 in 1506.

Even though he was quite callous in his dealings with his own men, and is now widely recognized as pretty much a dick when it came to respecting aboriginal civilizations, Christopher Columbus still deserves recognition for the bravery it took to sail off into the unknown and expand the known world to its current size.

Even 518 years and 364 days later, he deserves to be remembered. If you had to work on this holiday meant to celebrate his life, drive a different route to the office than you might normally take, and just explain to your boss that you’re two months late in honor of the spirit of exploration. If you did get to stay home for the holiday, stroll next door to infect your neighbor with smallpox, then move into his house when he leaves for the hospital. If he complains when he gets out, tell him he’s mistaken his old neighborhood for Asia.

“You haven’t seen Asia around here anywhere, have you?”

Driving myself to distraction

October 10, 2011

I’d have to characterize myself as a good driver, primarily because someone has to do it and it sure isn’t going to be anybody who’s ever watched me drive.

I learned to drive as a teenager growing up in Miami. The experience provided me with an appreciation for intense traffic, a familiarity with high-speed interstates, and a convenient excuse whenever anyone accused me of recklessness.

“Hey, I learned to drive in Miami,” I’d tell anybody who objected to my wheel-screeching turns and frequent lane changes. “Get over it.”

(I use an advanced sign language to communicate this to those in other vehicles who can’t hear me; my extended middle finger means “hey,” and the upward motion of my hand means the rest).

While defensive driving was stressed in most parts of the country, those of us living in South Florida learned offensive techniques as a means to safe motoring. The peculiar demographics of that area made anything like considerate driving habits a sign of weakness.

In the late 1960s, about a third of the Miami population was elderly, and chronically crept along the highway at 15 m.p.h. under the limit. They were careful to keep to the left passing lane in case they needed to pull into the median for the sudden urge to reminisce about their grandchildren.

Another third of the city was made up of Cuban refugees. These folks tended toward the middle lanes, looking for the safety in numbers that successfully got them across the Florida Straights piloting a raft made of tennis balls. They never used turn signals (because the rafts didn’t have them) and they ignored STOP signs (because they weren’t in Spanish).

The final third of the city was made up of narcotics dealers and other criminals. These drivers typically used the right lane, the break-down lane, the shoulder and the adjacent, grassy right-of-way to evade pursuing police cars. They created exit ramps as needed, or would simply launch themselves off a bridge and into the Intracoastal Waterway, especially if movie cameras were filming nearby.

To survive in this frightening mix of questionable skills, I learned a motoring style I consider both efficient and rarely fatal. I pay such acute attention to the traffic conditions around me that I block out all other stimuli as I maneuver my vehicle down the road. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk on my cell phone. I don’t rubber-neck at the accidents I leave in my wake. Instead, I’m focused like a laser on getting where I intend to go, bringing most of my passengers and their limbs safely with me.

The concentration this requires is sometimes lost on those who ride along with me. Just this weekend, for example, my wife and I took a trip uptown to a yarn shop she wanted to visit. She had the directions and I had the steering wheel. I had reluctantly agreed to listen to the podcast she brought along, at least until we had to start watching for signs directing us to the right neighborhood.

“Turn that off. I have to really concentrate now,” I told Beth as we approached our destination.

“You can’t look for the right exit with this on?” she asked incredulously.

“No,” I answered. “I can’t.”

“You realize, of course, that auditory signals entering your ear canal should have little or no impact on your ability to see,” she reasoned.

“Quiet,” I snapped. “You’ll kill us all.”

The podcast went silent, leaving only Beth’s directions to be heard above the hum of the engine. Bear left. Turn right. Merge quickly, then get into the left lane. Don’t run over that baby carriage. Look out. Look out! LOOK OUT!!!

I did indeed look out, and what I saw was the yarn shop that was our goal. I pulled through the parking lot and into a spot just outside the store’s entrance. Beth was a nervous wreck, but we had successfully arrived where we intended in record time, if records were kept for routine crosstown drives.

After the yarn shop, we wanted to visit a new bakery we recently found in the same area. I needed to make a left out of the lot, despite a bunch of traffic coming at us from both directions.

“At least get out into the center merge lane,” Beth advised. “That’ll make it easier to turn left.”

“No,” I answered. “What if someone wants to use it as a turn lane? We’ll collide.”

As I waited for just the right moment to take advantage of an opening, Beth launched into her much-rehearsed testimony about the advantages of using the “merge lane.”

Years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter, she rode with a highway patrolman for a feature she was writing. He told her that the proper way to make a left on a three-lane highway was to creep across to the middle of the road when you can, then merge and accelerate from there into the far lane.

I would counter that such a maneuver is just asking for a head-on collision.

Since I’m the driver, it’s my decision to execute this turn as I see fit. Her job is to get mad at my reluctance to recognize her long-ago patrolman as the ultimate authority for how I should make a left.

After our stop at the bakery, we drove home in silence, allowing me to concentrate to my heart’s delight. We arrived at our house about 45 minutes later, our marriage scratched and dented but my 2008 Civic completely unmarred.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a reckless driver. I’ve been involved in and caused numerous wrecks.

But I know what I’m doing, and I know how I want to do it. The elderly and Cubans and drug kingpins have taught me well. If you’ll be an offensive driver, people will notice and watch out for you. If instead you’re defensive, I’d advise that you prepare for impact.

If you're aware of your surroundings, you'll be a good driver.

Revisited: In search of the perfect toilet paper

October 7, 2011

Life used to be so simple. 

You’d get a call at the office from the wife, asking you to stop at the store and pick up some milk and bread on the way home. The milk was offered in two, maybe three, varieties: regular, skim and, possibly, expired. Bread was just bread, not whole wheat, not ciabatta, not hemp, not gluten-free. You’d get your two items, maybe sneak a quick peek at the babe on the cover of Good Housekeeping, and pay the cashier. With something called cash.  

You’d leave the store, climb into the driver’s seat of your giant Chevy without worrying about sissy seatbelts, light up a Pall Mall, and harbor a deep prejudice toward races other than yours. It was that simple.  

When I got a call from my wife the other day asking me to pick up some toilet paper after work, I practically had an anxiety attack. Even though she was very specific about the kind of toilet paper we wanted – Cottonelle Ultra double pack, the purple label, NOT the blue – I’ve been in the bathroom tissue aisle of the grocery store recently, and it’s a very imposing corner of the universe. The options are tremendous, as you can see from the photo below.   

TP as far as the eye can see

Choice is a great thing but it’s increasingly obvious that we in America have taken it too far. From ketchup to dog food to beer to right-wing lunatics, there are now so many options available in the modern marketplace as to be overwhelming to the uninformed consumer. Even though I had clear instructions – don’t forget: purple label, not blue – I thought I could better prepare myself for the assignment with a little online self-education. 

“Toilet paper is a soft paper product used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination,” Wikipedia tells us. “However, it can also be used for other purposes such as absorbing spillages or craft projects.” (Note to Wikipedia: This article may need to be edited to meet your quality standards. Not clear that these are three separate and distinct uses, and that TP does a poor job of “absorbing … craft projects.”) 

I learn that toilet paper products can vary immensely in the technical factors that distinguish them, including size, weight, softness, chemical residue and some frightening feature called “finger-breakthrough resistance.” I learn that a light coating of aloe or lotion or wax (!) may be worked into the paper to reduce roughness. I learn that so-called luxury papers may be rippled, embossed, perfumed, colored, patterned, medicated or imprinted with cartoon animals. 

Thus prepared, I enter the local Bi-Lo and find my way to aisle 11. Any confidence I may have gleaned from my studies is soon dashed. The huge expanse of options on display reminds me of the sea of faces I saw upon exiting the Mumbai airport baggage claim, each face either searching for a passenger, offering their porter services or looking for a handout. Except the Indians were less quilted. 

I found some paper called “Aloe and E,” which I assume contains both lotion and vitamin E, or else the user says “eee!” when they use it. I found Angel Soft, Supreme Softness and Charmin Sensitive, all for the touchy bum. I found a bargain label called Clear Value, another brand aimed at the Hispanic market called Paseo (which I think means “pass” in Spanish), and a store brand named Southern Home, with equally unsavory connotations. One product promised the feature of “tuggable huggable softness.” 

As you can see from the photo above, I also saw Spic and Span cleaning wipes, Ziploc storage bags and rubber gloves. I want very much to believe these were in the neighborhood by coincidence. 

I found an Ultra Plush, which is not the same as the Ultra I was looking for. I mentally cordoned off the aisle into four sectors, to better zero in on the specific label for which I was searching. I felt like the field archeologist exploring for the one femur bone that would confirm the existence of a previously unknown subspecies of early man. Only by being methodical and patient might I eventually succeed. 

Still, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I knew my fate if I failed to succeed. Like the ancient hunter/gatherer returning to the home cave with an antelope carcass when his wife specifically told him she wanted zebra for dinner, I would be vehemently chastised. “Don’t you listen to me anymore?” I’d be asked. “And I suppose you got the wrong tree lichen too.” 

I could call my wife and ask if there were any acceptable substitutes, but I hate those people who wander about the contemporary supermarket, cell phone to their ear and listening to a recited list that should’ve been written down. They’re always running over my foot with their shopping carts. I didn’t want to be one of these people. I’d rather buy a half dozen items that might be close — including Ultra brand razors and Ultra brand saltines — and hope to luck into the right purchase. I’d prefer to return the others later rather than come home empty-handed. 

Just as I was about to give up, there it was, in all its purple-packaged glory. The label said it was “new – even more cushiony comfort” and there was a picture of a napping puppy lying under what looked like a thick blanket, right below the Cottonelle name. (I assume it was a blanket; it looked about two inches too thick to be toilet paper). No wonder I had trouble locating the right stuff. My wife should’ve mentioned the puppy. 

I threw my prize into the cart and headed for the checkout. A sense of triumph coursed through me, as did the satisfaction of knowing that I was providing for my family. 

I headed for home, my stomach gurgling with the accumulated tension of the hunt. Within moments, I’d be happy I had found the right stuff.

Palin not runnin’, though she won’t rule out bus-ridin’

October 6, 2011

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced yesterday that she will begin a three-month nationwide bus tour next week to remind people all across America that she is not running for president.

Palin released a statement to supporters revealing her decision early Wednesday evening, and it was front-page breaking news for about half an hour. Then, Apple founder Steve Jobs had to go and die, diverting media attention from the Tea Party darling.

“The nerve of that guy,” said Palin supporter Becky Beach. “He just stepped all over the coverage that should’ve been hers. Typical liberal-media-elite move.”

Others wondered, however, if Palin was a victim of bad karma. Her bus trip earlier this summer stopped in New Hampshire on the same day former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made his candidacy announcement. Next, the tour swung through Iowa on the eve of that state’s straw poll, deflecting attention from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s victory there.

“That’s ridiculous. We don’t even know the meaning of ‘bad karma,'” Beach responded. “Seriously, we don’t know what it means. It’s definitely not part of any Christian theology, that’s for sure.”

Palin had apparently timed yesterday’s announcement to follow the news Tuesday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would not seek the nomination. Sources say she was concerned Christie’s growing shadow over the GOP field would block out interest in her candidacy, not to mention the sun.

When Christie told reporters he felt he was not qualified to be president only two years into his term in the governor’s office, he seemed to imply that Palin’s similar lack of experience could hold her back too.

“Since when should ‘experience’ or ‘education’ or ‘having half a brain’ matter?” Beach continued. “Sarah is obviously way more attractive than Christie, and it’s that veneer that is most important to her base. I should mention, too, that she’s also more attractive than Steve Jobs was.”

Palin’s communications office said the so-called “Hey, Look At Me Tour” is still in the planning stages, but several stops are already set.

Tonight, Palin’s signature motorcoach will be parked outside Yankee Stadium during Game 5 of the American League Divisional Playoffs between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. Immediately following the game, the bus will be loaded aboard a jumbo jet and flown to Munich, Germany, where Palin will appear at Oktoberfest celebrations.

The 2008 vice-presidential nominee will then return to the U.S. in time for Halloween, when she plans to drive along behind random trick-or-treaters as they go house to house for candy. In November, the Palins will drive throughout the rural South, shooting wild turkeys from a stand they’ve built atop their bus. They will then deliver these carcasses to the hungry for Thanksgiving dinner, if in fact they can find anybody hungry in this Great Land of Plenty.

In early December, she and husband Todd will festoon the vehicle with holiday decorations for a trip to Disney World where they’ll park outside the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Then, on Christmas morning, she plans on showing up at your house and opening your children’s gifts for them.

In a video posted through her Facebook page, Palin said her decision not to seek the presidency was grounded in her desire to “devote ourselves to God, family and country, in that order.” She also noted that “that sweet, sweet Fox News cash” was also a factor, and refused to shut the door on a potential 2016 bid “when I still won’t be ugly.”

“You don’t need an office or a title to make a difference,” Palin said in the statement.

“And, by the way, let me tell you about my memories of Steve Jobs,” she added.

"Look, everybody, it's me," Palin tells a crowd of supporters.

Welcome to Taciturnia

October 5, 2011

Tell me if this is weird.

I work in a pretty standard office environment. There are about 15 people in my department — an open-floor space with no walls or cubicles — doing much the same work that I do. Most of us have been with the company for quite a while, 10, 15, even 20 and 30 years.

Though such long tenure (or having a job at all) is increasingly rare in the modern economy, that’s not the weird part. This, I think, might be: Most of us never talk to each other.

The lady who sits about 12 feet to my left, facing in my direction, has worked with me for about 11 years. I can’t remember the last time we spoke to each other.

Another lady sits about 20 feet behind me. Part of my job is to check her work and, if it’s correct, release it to the customer. She’ll wordlessly sidle up next to me and place her printout in my tray. I’ll take it, read it, press a few keys on my computer, and we’re done. We’ve teamed up together to successfully complete an admittedly small project, all without ever offering each other even a grunt.

The guy who sits about 15 feet over my left shoulder does the same kind of proofreading I do. Occasionally, we may have to communicate to coordinate our efforts, though we avoid it if we can. We’d rather duplicate each other’s work than allow air to pass over our larynxes, exit the voice box at the soft palette, and form into recognizable words and phrases.

I’m trying to figure out if this is awkward, unnatural, or possibly even dangerous. I think about those incidents of workplace violence where surviving witnesses say things like “he was always so quiet,” and wonder if one of my neighbors is a seething psychopath, just waiting to squeeze in a little gunplay amidst the filing deadlines.

I doubt it. Much more likely is that we’re simply jaded, bored with our jobs, marking time until the end of the day by keeping our heads down and our mouths shut.

The work we do requires that we be available at a moment’s notice to quickly edit and return pages to our clients. Sometimes we’re non-stop busy, but most of the time we’re just waiting for the next project to start. In return for parking our barely animate husks at a work station for eight hours a day, we’re allowed to use our computers to play games and explore the Internet.

I’m guessing that’s a big contributor to our inertia. Without the distractions of the web, we’d be looking for something to do. Human interaction would probably crop up as a possibility.

Instead, we stare blankly at our terminals, getting up only occasionally to shuffle about the facility in a zombie-like state.

Once away from our desks, there is much more of a temptation to reach out and talk to a fellow employee. It feels somehow peculiar to pretend the neighbor you’ve been ignoring for five hours straight doesn’t deserve at least a nod of the head when you pass them in the hall. But unless your brain rattles loose inside your skull, this still makes for a silent encounter.

Outside of the work environment, the customs are a little different. Occasionally, the whims of our respective bladders cause an unintended meeting in the restroom. I ran into the fellow proofreader I mentioned above in the men’s room a few weeks back and, despite the well-documented perils of talking to another man in the same room where urinals exist, we each felt compelled to exchange a brief greeting.

“Hey,” I said as we stood at the sink washing our hands.

“Hi,” he replied.

Each of us left it at that. We had each done the bare minimum to acknowledge the other’s existence, and yet wisely (I think) resisted the urge to engage in a homosexual tryst.

Even more awkward is to run into someone outside the building. There’s a diner about a quarter-mile down the road where individuals occasionally go to grab a bite. I once saw a co-worker waiting to order in the next line, and barely recognized her. Outside the context of our jobs, it was unsettling to realize the woman could not only type but also feed herself.

“How’s it going?” I asked, feeling like I had to say something. “Getting lunch, I see.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Got a little hungry.”

“That can happen,” I was tempted to continue but didn’t. “Once your body processes its available carbohydrates, you need to replenish these with additional sustenance. I have the same issue.”

There is some casual conversation as we sit at our computers waiting for work. A few have even developed what appear to be friendships as they discuss their kids, their illnesses, their plans for the weekend and their inevitably miserable spouses. These rarely rise above a muffled mumble and, if they do, the chatters are subject to stern glares from those who prefer silence.

As for me, there are about three or four people among the group that I’ll talk to. One is my team’s production coordinator, a man about my age that I’ve known for ten years and consider to be the close approximation of a friend. Several times a day, we’ll chat about sports or the weather, and I’ll offer up a heartfelt “here” when I hand him my finished work.

Another person I’ll talk to is the lady on my right. About four years ago, we began carpooling together, and to get that started we had to verbally agree on times, meeting places, reimbursements, etc. (This was during that brief period when formal hand-written letters had become passé and texting had yet to reach its full potential, so we just spoke).

I remember wondering how this would work, how we could sit next to each other in the front seat of a car for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon and retain the same veneer of restrained civility we exhibit in the office. I wondered if we would talk, or listen to the radio, or simply sit in silence as we commuted down the highway.

As it turned out, casual conversation came easily as we unloaded on each other about the frustrations of work and life in general. I got to know about her family (four kids and a husband), her likes (Neil Young) and dislikes (George W. Bush), her hopes (retirement) and her fears (that I drive like a maniac). We have become what I consider to be friends.

But only while we’re making that drive on the interstate. As soon as we sit down next to each other at work, the conversation stops. At most, she’ll offer a “three hours and fifteen minutes” announcement as we mentally count down to the end of the day.

I guess this is the way I prefer it. I am by nature a taciturn person myself, and don’t especially feel that just because I earn a living in the same physical space as another wage slave that we need to share our innermost thoughts. I guess we’re like the family that has lived together for years, and speak only to note that someone has died.

If it seems unnatural, I guess that’s just the way it is. Perhaps if I don’t mention it, no one else will notice.

Check this out, Bob and Sue. I've created a bar chart that shows just how much I loathe you.

‘Targeting hassling’ is new Obama strategy

October 4, 2011

President Obama’s success in killing off al-Qaeda leaders contrasts vividly with his inability to counter attacks from his political rivals. Now, however, the White House has begun using the same strategy that eliminated Osama bin Laden to blunt Republican criticism of his administration.

No, the president won’t be dispatching Predator drones to correct misstatements from right-wing opponents by dropping Hellfire missiles on their motorcades. But sources say he will soon begin using the CIA and its remote-control-warfare capacity to “hassle” potential rivals for the presidency in 2012.

“We’re not talking about anything that approaches the brutality of 100-pound missiles,” said an intelligence source who asked not to be named. “We just want to give them a hard time. The campaign will be more like what you might expect from a crazy ex-girlfriend than a full-on military effort.”

Similar to the “kill or capture list” that targeted bin Laden in May and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki last week, the “pester or annoy list” will inconvenience Republicans with anonymous strikes by computer-guided robots.

The effort may have already begun. Yesterday, one-time front-runner Mitt Romney reported to local police that somebody scratched a large gash on the door of his car while he was grocery shopping.

“It was the weirdest thing,” reported witness Jim Michaels of the incident in suburban Boston. “One of those motorized shopping carts for the handicapped came flying out of the store on its own and zeroed in right on his Mercedes. It left a pretty big mark.”

Romney was not hurt in the incident, though he missed the rest of the day campaigning while waiting at the Maaco shop for the gash to be buffed out.

In another apparent attack, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has asked his state highway patrol to investigate a rash of late-night phone calls that have awakened him and his wife several times in recent days.

“We must’ve had 50 calls since Sunday asking if ‘Jose’ is here,” said Perry’s wife Anita. “Then last night, ‘Jose’ calls and asks if there are any messages for him. It’s not funny.”

“Yeah, that one’s a classic,” said the source familiar with the operation. “They set it up through one of the president’s campaign offices, using their robo-call software.”

Other episodes that seemed unconnected at the time are now being checked out by officials with the Republican National Committee.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has reported that a “souped-up Roomba” vacuum cleaner skidded all over her front lawn Monday night, “turfing” large sections of grass.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul had pictures of an apparent impersonator posted on his Facebook page. The ersatz Paul was shown passed out and drunk on the floor of a fraternity party, then is later seen handing spare change to a homeless man.

“It’s obviously been Photoshopped,” said Bill Welch, Paul’s campaign manager. “Still, it does take time away from his campaigning to have to deny something as scandalous as giving money to the poor.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told friends that during a recent appearance at a Philadelphia-area school, someone put a sign reading “KICK ME” on his back. Surveillance video shows it was done by a glassy-eyed teenager who approached the Tea Party favorite from behind.

“Okay, technically, that wasn’t a drone,” said the CIA source. “But we did entice the kid with some crystal meth, so he was pretty much a zombie at the time.”

Officials in the Obama White House denied knowledge of the apparently widespread effort. Targeted killing has come under considerable criticism from human rights groups, though “targeted hassling” seems less likely to present legal obstacles.

“If we had a guy on a Segway, just riding in circles around (former House speaker) Newt Gingrich, getting up in his face and chanting ‘I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you,’ I think constitutional scholars would agree that’s not illegal,” said one anonymous White House insider. “I’m not saying we’d do that, however. Especially considering how his campaign is fading on its own, and how the battery would run down about the fifth time around Newt.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum meets with a supporter