Finding new uses for the coupon

November 10, 2011

One evening in 1803, Thomas Jefferson came home from his job as president of the United States with exciting news. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a $15-million transaction in which France handed over nearly a million square miles of territory to his fledgling nation. All lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would now be American.

“Soon we will span the continent,” Jefferson told his wife Martha. “Our manifest destiny to stretch from sea to sea has been set in motion by my presidency. We have purchased the future of America.”

“Did you use the coupon on the refrigerator?” a skeptical Martha asked. “Because, you know, Napoleon is having a special, and with any purchase over $10 million, they’ll throw in the French West Indies.”

“This is the best deal since we bought the island of Manhattan for $24,” Jefferson answered. “The size of our land has been doubled.”

“You didn’t use the coupon, did you?” Martha continued. “Oh, well.”

The coupon may not trace its origins quite that far back, but the hope of getting a better deal has always been with us. In mankind’s earliest history, hunters and gatherers would return to the cave with what they thought was an impressive array of roots, berries and elk chunks, only to have their pride deflated by the well-intentioned spouse who’d been hoping for a free order of tree bark as well.

Americans save billions of dollars a year with just a little foresight and a pair of scissors. The coupon (pronounced “kew-pahn” by the unwashed and “coo-pohn” by those of us with a continental flair) has made its way into our everyday retail buying habits. For almost every product or service you can name, there is the opportunity to save substantial amounts on your purchase by handing over a thin slip of printed paper with your cash.

To her credit, my wife does a fantastic job of watching out for bargains that benefit the bottom line of our family’s budget. The picture below shows just a part of our collection, hanging in plain sight on the refrigerator where only a blind moron such as me could miss them.

I frequently neglect to use these coupons despite repeated reminders. A silly sense of pride is part of this — I see myself casually accepting of any price announced by the cashier with the noble proclamation that I’m willing to pay “whatever the cost” — though it’s primarily a memory issue. I’m lucky to remember my car keys and my clothing before leaving the house on a buying errand.

I’m trying to do better. Even though the 1/20th of a cent in cash value doesn’t go as far today as it used to, it still pays to shop wisely. The image of the Coupon Queen hauling a file cabinet full of paperwork up to the checkout so she can save $3.67 is now little more than a stereotype. Even urbane men of the world are regularly seen these days pulling a wad of vouchers out of their finely tailored suits to save a few bucks on the business lunch that will seal the upcoming merger.

Keeping this in mind has helped me do a better job of using coupons. I’ve now become enough of a veteran bargain-hunter that I understand slight variations in how the coupon economy works. Once you’ve steeled yourself to the humiliation of a transaction that announces to the world how cheap you are, there are subtleties at work in different settings that are worth knowing.

The coupon is most commonplace in the supermarket. Some stores even have special double- or even triple-coupon Tuesdays, where essentially they pay you to cart their stuff away. It’s not at all unusual to see every one of your fellow shoppers racking up big savings, buying one and getting one free, earning a quarter off here and free bag-of-chips-they-don’t-even-like there as they stretch their grocery dollar to extraordinary lengths.

A casual attitude toward the coupon also exists in the fast-food industry. As long as you declare your intention at the drive-through speakerbox to use it (in addition to “I have a coupon,” also acceptable is “I had a suit on” and “I’d like some Grey Poupon”), they’ll often ring up your discount without even taking the thing from you. The deals are usually not that great, and often involve some leftover, failed promotional item, like the McSquid sandwich or the Whopper Super Extreme, an all-beef patty topped with battery acid.

It’s in finer dining establishments where things tend to get dicey. You’ll want to keep the coupon hidden until you’ve finished your meal, unless you want smaller portions and/or spittle in your salad. Produce the discount as you ask for your check, and have confidence in your right to use it. I usually say something like “I have this coupon I was hoping to use if it’s something you accept and you promise we’ll never meet again.” Beware of hidden details in the fine print that may disrupt your plans. My wife and I once had a coupon rejected because we tried to use it on Veteran’s Day Eve, because holidays were specifically excluded from the offer. (In the end, we were just happy to have found a reservation on a night as crowded with celebrating couples as Veteran’s Day Eve).

Finally, there are opportunities to use coupons to purchase services as well as goods. I’m frequently able to take advantage of an offer for $8.99 haircuts at Great Clips (regular price: $11). The good thing about this set-up is that you don’t pay until after the cut is done, and by then there’s not much your stylist can do to mess you up on purpose, short of holding you down and gluing your floor trimmings back onto your scalp. The bad thing, for me anyway, is that I usually feel so guilty about gypping a struggling single mom out of a few dollars that I leave an excessive tip that negates any savings.

Harking back to the Jeffersons, it seems the time is right to expand coupon usage to other kinds of transactions, like those involving the government. Maybe we consider additional incentives to sympathetic Afghan warlords to accompany their direct cash payments, maybe a coupon for half-off the latest ground-to-air missile technology. How about offering the Chinese a deal on Treasury bills, in which a piece of an American monument is thrown in for every $100 billion sold? They could be given Teddy Roosevelt’s eyebrow off of Mt. Rushmore and hardly anybody would notice. Or the Statue of Liberty’s exposed armpit, which could then be covered up with a Band-Aid. You could say she nicked herself shaving. It’d make her more human.

Regardless of what the nation chooses to do, I’ll keep trying to remember to use my coupons. Frugality and thrift are valuable traits in these bad economic times, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to show them. Our third president would’ve been wise to heed the encouragement of his wife. Imagine Martinique as our 51st state.

An editorial: Is it time for totalitarianism?

November 9, 2011

Much is made by some conservatives of the assertion that President Obama is actually a communist, a would-be dictator along the lines of Josef Stalin except with a better three-point shot.

While it might be true that the state apparatus has necessarily grown during his tenure as a response to the economic crisis, most regard this charge as an exaggeration. Bailouts and stimuli have worked to restart the economy but, at best, it’s only lumbering along. Liberals call for even more intervention, while the right wing counters with claims that the poor could learn better grooming techniques in unused prisons and that masturbation is a sin.

If an activist federal government is the answer to our current malaise, maybe we just haven’t taken it far enough. Instead of heeding calls to move to the political center, perhaps what is needed is even more control by the feds.

With this editorial, I’m calling for the institution of a complete and brutal autocracy here in the U.S. We’ve tried just about everything else; let’s give totalitarian tyranny a shot.

Total control of all aspects of society by the government has been attempted in the past with limited success. The French monarchs of the late 18th century tried it, but few people could take them seriously, what with their immense powdered wigs and totally gay wardrobes. Hitler eliminated the bad fashion sense and gave it another go in the 1940s, yet he too failed. Stalin in Russia and Mao in China staged purges and cultural revolutions to force their personality cults into every aspect of every citizen’s life, and ultimately all it got them was a lot of headaches.

So why might authoritarian rule suddenly be effective at rebuilding America’s fortunes and getting its people back to work? What is it that we have now that we didn’t have in the past that will suddenly make despotism a practical alternative to democracy?

The answer lies, as it usually does, in computers and online social networking.

Smart phones and Facebook and Twitter and interactive video gaming have given us the infrastructure that will make a dictatorial one-party state work more effectively than it ever could before. Mussolini had to stand on a balcony and rant for hours to get his point across to fascist Italy. President Obama would merely have to post a daily video on YouTube, maybe send out a few threatening tweets and organize the occasional flash mob to inject his agenda into every corner of our daily life.

Imagine, if you can, a utopian paradise where you didn’t have to make any personal decisions for yourself, where you were told what to eat for breakfast, how to get to work and when meet in the central square to worship our mighty leader. You don’t have to decide what shirt to wear today; there’s an email waiting each morning describing which jumpsuit is prescribed for that day. You don’t have to debate the merits of Burger King versus Wendy’s at lunch time; an order has already been placed by a government bureaucrat for your required combo meal. If you need to take a leak, simply consult the appropriate website (WhenToPee.gov) about your appointed schedule in the john.

And it could all be monitored with existing webcams, security cameras, Skype and the Kinect for Xbox 360.

Unemployment would be a thing of the past, as the government at all levels went on a hiring spree to find enough people to monitor everybody’s every move. Foreign threats would be neutralized when the likes of al-Qaida got an eyeful of what the all-powerful state does to crush its own citizenry. The baser elements of popular culture would be eliminated by fiat. Real Housewives are herded into federally run re-education compounds and entertainers like Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne are given new jobs in the propaganda ministry, writing dancebeat-heavy regulations on the operation of the heavy construction equipment.

True, there might be some opposition to my plan from the more libertarian elements in the Republican Party. I can imagine the objections they might raise to the perceived assault on certain basic liberties we’ve enjoyed for over two centuries. Too bad for them. They’ll all be rounded up and sent off to the gulag, where they can do all the complaining they want as long as they do it in solitary.

This might seem like a radical proposal to some, but I would counter that it’s the kind of fundamental change needed for desperate times. We might not like it when our Big Brother is constantly borrowing our stuff and always getting to sit in the front seat and punching us in the shoulder and holding his hand two inches from our faces while claiming “I’m not touching you.” Yet deep down inside, we know he cares for us and will provide us everything we need, as long as we submit to his authority.

Now that we have the technology to put the total in totalitarianism, let’s give it a try.

Long-time worker is honored

November 8, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 7) — DavisW was awarded the prestigious Certificate of Achievement Award, marking ten years of service with his company, in a gala ceremony held right after the 10:45 coffee break at work on Tuesday.

Supervisors called on all of Davis’s co-workers to put their projects aside for a moment and join them in the corner of the room where we keep the refrigerator. Only moments before, a tray of muffins and fresh fruit had been put out on the condiments table, hinting at the festivities to come. An envelope, a portfolio folder and a framed certificate were also on display as the employees shuffled reluctantly from their cubicles to the site of the observance.

“Come on, Kate, you can finish that up in a minute,” said general manager Eric Taylor to one lingering worker who was wrestling with an urgent deadline.

“I have to get this PDF emailed before 11,” Kate responded.

“Okay,” said Eric, “we’ll wait for you. Hey, did anybody watch the (football) game last night?”

Several people said they caught a few minutes of the early action, but most chuckled that it was “way past my bedtime” and didn’t really like football that much anyway. At last, Kate joined the group.

“I’ve called you all together so we can honor one of our own for his service to the company,” Taylor began. “We want to recognize Davis today on the occasion of his tenth anniversary.”

A smattering of hesitant applause rose from the crowd of about 20 people.

“I want to read from a letter sent to Davis by Hubert J. Moore, president and chief executive officer of the company,” Taylor continued. “He writes, ‘While businesses frequently talk about their experience in glossy brochures and during sales presentations, the truth is that companies do not have experience. People do.’”

According to Taylor, President Moore went on to tell Davis “thank you for the important contributions you have made during your ten years of service.”

Taylor shook Davis’s hand while presenting him with the beautifully framed certificate and the portfolio. The certificate echoed Moore’s praise, citing Davis’s “commitment and dedication,” while an instruction sheet in the folder telling Davis how to order his anniversary gift online pointed to Davis’s “dedication and contributions to the company.”

Asked to say a few words, an obviously emotional Davis could only say “thanks, everybody” and that it “seemed like only yesterday that I started here.” He considered joking that a certificate of achievement was really nothing special, since an “achievement” is just something that somebody has succeeded in doing, and not necessarily positive. He thought better of it at the last moment, however, offering instead a “thanks again.”

At that point, another manager stepped forward and gave Davis a $2.50 greeting card ($3.25 in Canada) that had been passed around the office for everyone to sign. On the front, the card showed fireworks explosions and said “Congrats” and on the inside were scrawled several personal messages.

“Best wishes,” offered one of the Karens. “Enjoy many more,” wrote Andy. “Hope you stick around for a few more,” said Robin. “Congrats,” inscribed Joyce, while Cheryl D. noted “congrats and many more.”

“Now let’s enjoy some of these snacks,” said Taylor, indicating it was time for everyone to get back to work. A few people took apples and oranges. Davis, however, exhibiting some of the traits that made him so successful over the past decade, picked several grapes and wrapped a blueberry muffin in a napkin that he would save for breakfast the following morning.

Among the online recognition awards Davis is considering are #267, a telescope; #419, a watch; and #577, a museum-quality fine art print on canvas, truly every color of the rainbow, no detail has been overlooked in this great painting of the reef and its wonderful residents. He’s leaning toward the print, considering he already has a frame that he won’t be using.

A proud, proud Davis

Helping out at the supermarket

November 7, 2011

Self-service in the retail world has come a long way in recent years.

I still remember when it required a partially toothed half-wit to pump gas into your car. Now, we dispense it into our own tank, and all over our clothes, with no assistance at all.

Fast-food restaurants used to pour drinks for us. Now, we do it ourselves at a free-standing fountain, and come away with a bonus application of industrial-strength adhesive on the soles of our shoes. If Earth’s gravity ever fails, you won’t see McDonald’s customers floating off into space, because they have sugary soft drinks all over the bottom of their feet.

Most of these advances represent a measure of progress for humanity. Businesses are able to save money by deploying workers to more cost-effective tasks, like sitting at home unemployed and watching TV. Store patrons can take better command of their time, moving swiftly to complete their transactions or, in the case of the woman always in front of me at Texaco, talking into the gas nozzle like it was a telephone, trying to tell the clerk inside that she forgot her purse.

One place where I think the jury is still out on the issue of convenience is the grocery store self-checkout. No longer do you have to stand in line to have a cashier wave your purchases over a scanner. You can do it yourself at U-Scan stations. On-screen prompts and pre-programmed voice commands guide you through the steps necessary to complete your transaction and, when this fails, a store employee descends from her centrally located turret to explain how wrong it was of you to jam your credit card into the receipt printer.

I don’t mind pitching in with the operation of my local supermarket. My sore back prevents me from going to the loading dock to help unpack their trucks, but I’d be more than happy to sneeze on the produce as I’m arranging it on the shelves. It takes a lot of effort to run that large a business and I’ll gladly do my part.

If only I can figure how the U-Scan is supposed to work.

It’s a bit daunting when you first step up to one of these hulking machines. There’s a large touch screen where you start by selecting your language (English is my personal favorite). If you’re in the frequent customer program and can find the appropriate card to prove as much, you swipe that past the laser reader and hear something like “welcome BiLo Bonus Card customer.” If you’re just an average citizen looking to buy a pound of coffee, I think there are provisions allowing you to proceed, though you may need a special dispensation from the regional manager.

Once you’ve been identified as friend or stranger, you begin passing your items over the scanner, turning them every which way until the barcode is detected and a reassuring beep is issued from the machine. (If you’ve turned a carton of eggs upside down to find the code and the eggs come tumbling out onto the floor, don’t worry. The customer in line behind you is taking the job of “cleanup at U-Scan station four” this week).

After each beep, the pre-recorded voice instructs you to “please place the item in the bag.” Plastic sack dispensers sit off to the side, and scales beneath these detect whether or not you’ve complied. If you’re buying something too big to fit in a flimsy plastic bag, too bad. Just cram that lawn rake in there as best you can, or prepare to explain yourself to the authorities.

You repeat this procedure for as many items as you intend to buy. (Fujitsu, the makers of U-Scan, claim to be developing a new generation of machines that will scan your whole shopping cart in one fell swoop, though I suspect we’ll see a man on Mars first). When you think you’re finished, the machine wants to make sure, because it still remembers that time you bought $150 worth of groceries, then drove off and left them at the curb.

“Do you have any items under the cart?” it asks helpfully.

“I don’t even have a cart,” I answer because, on this occasion, I’m buying only three things.

Now comes the hard part: the paying. The touch screen shows an overwhelming number of options — credit card, debit card, check, food stamps, gift card, cash, voucher. I’m trying to find “barter” because I want to trade a box of old Beanie Babies for my two frozen dinners and a bag of chips, but it’s not there. Finally, I choose credit card, as I don’t want to go through the ordeal I once endured of trying to use cash. (“Please enter coins first, from smallest to largest denomination. If you enter more than one coin of the same denomination, tender these by the date on the coin, with the oldest coins first. When entering bills, do so in chronological order by the birthdate of the historical figure portrayed on the bill. And good luck finding either the coin or the bill slot.”)

I swipe my credit card at yet another monitor to the side of the touch screen.

“Is $12.37 the correct amount?” reads a new display. I want to say that it seems a little high, that I thought prices would come down a little now that I’m doing all this work for them. But I’m given no such option.

Past experience tells me that I now have to find a third pad to record my signature, using the specially designed stylus provided for the occasion. Or maybe not. Some stores no longer require you to sign for purchases under $25 while others want not only your John Hancock (born 1737, featured on the rare $30 bill) but also several forms of identification to prove yourself. I stand by waiting to be told what to do next, ready to obey any command short of “kill”.

Finally, a couple of printers kick into action, indicating my receipt is ready as is the raft of coupons for products the computer knows I’ll want on my next visit. This is where you see another advantage of today’s obsessive data collection by scanners and customer-loyalty programs. Because I bought a bag of nonfat potato chips, shown in tests to promote frequent diarrhea, the computer suggests I may want to benefit from a coupon on Pepto-Bismol in a few days. Very impressive.

I do a little scanning myself, checking each portal and terminal in the array before me to confirm that I’m indeed done and can now leave the store. I glance over at the attendant, and she gives me a reassuring nod, and I think I’m finished.

However, the bag boy at the cashier-staffed line next to the U-Scan area has a temporary lull in his workload, and thinks he sees an opportunity for being tipped by an aging gentleman unable to carry his parcel to his car. He approaches with an offer to help.

I politely decline, wondering how much longer his job is secure with the eventual development of Roomba-style robots to automatically carry me to my car.

A typical self-checkout machine, or possibly the controls to a nuclear reactor.

Time to wonder if I’m an old man

November 4, 2011

On Sunday, I will turn 58. I used to think that 58 was pretty old but, with the wisdom and perspective that over a half-century of living has brought me, I realize now you’re not really “old” till you’re well past a hundred. And if I live to reach 100, I’ll adjust that definition further back to 150.

If I can’t admit that I’m old, I do at least have to acknowledge that I’m a “senior.” Being a senior is kind of cool, though, like you’re back in your final year of high school where you can date the teachers and pick on all the underclassmen. I’ll even take a “senior skip day” every now and then, calling in sick to work so I can prance around the neighborhood in a syncopated hop.

It’s hard to say exactly when one becomes a senior citizen these days. It used to be you could count AARP eligibility as a criteria, but I think they’ve moved that age down to something like 35 now as they attempt to increase their membership. Grey hair was once a pretty good indicator, until anyone with any sense of pride colored the grey away. Wandering off into the woods looking for your childhood pet, calling “Here, Augie! Where are you, boy? Where’s Augie?”, can be another symptom of advanced age. I’ve definitely got the AARP solicitations and the grey hair, but I haven’t yet mastered the meandering.

I guess what it really boils down to is the age that you act, and how other people treat you. If you’re one of these types you see in TV commercials – running a marathon at age 60, climbing Mt. Everest at age 70, falling down and yet still being able to get up at age 80 — those around you will view you as young at heart, even if you’re rocking an advanced case of hypertensive cardiomyopathy. I don’t personally know many of these vibrant seniors myself, and if I did I would resent them terribly.

What I increasingly rely on to know that I’m approaching decrepitude are the interactions I have with merchants and store clerks. I was dealing with one particularly chipper cashier not long ago who asked “and how are you today, young man?” I looked around to make sure I didn’t have a teenager hanging on my back before I realized he was addressing me. I guess he was trying to be kind, though it came off as more than a little patronizing, much like how they introduce the newly minted centenarians given birthday wishes on The Today Show for being “100 years young.”

I do appreciate the various discounts offered to seniors. I’m just never sure I properly qualify. Some stores use 50, some use 55 and some use 60 as the threshold for getting a dollar cup of coffee on Tuesdays from 10 to 11 a.m. At my favorite grocery store, they offer a 5% senior discount on all purchases but it’s store policy that the check-out people are not allowed to ask if you meet the minimum age requirement (in this case, 60), lest they offend any wizened-beyond-their-years customers. One creative employee who regularly waits on my wife came up with what I thought was a novel way to circumvent this well-intended rule.

“Oh, and let me be sure to apply the wisdom discount,” he said as he rang up her purchase. I’d be tempted to counter, “Why, thank you. In my wisdom, I also feel I should be given a cartful of free groceries and have your assistant manager serve as my personal slave.”

Restaurants often offer a senior menu that includes both reduced prices and smaller portions, but they rarely list the minimum age for ordering such a dish. I would happily pay less for my meal, yet I’m afraid I’ll be “carded” like some 19-year-old trying to buy beer. I can imagine nothing more humiliating than being challenged to prove my minimum age to a minimum-wage waitress, then rousted out of the establishment like some common grifter or, worse,  held inside the freezer locker until police can be called.

There is a certain measure of respect that comes with advanced age that I do enjoy, particularly in my work place. As the veteran proofreader at my location, I used to be the go-to guy for answers about style details of the assorted financial documents that we produce. After years of dispensing advice to my younger coworkers, many of them finally mastered for themselves most of the knowledge I had. Now, I’m called on only rarely, when there’s a particularly esoteric dispute, like I’m some mountaintop-based elder whose mystical omniscience is dispensed with cryptic parables.

“The spacing above a second-level subhead should always be greater than the spacing below,” I might rule. “It should be sufficient that a bird on the wing can easily pass through, yet not so much as to allow an angel to dance in the margin above the text.”

In the end, I guess, it all comes down to how good your health is. I’ve been pretty lucky to avoid any major illnesses so far in my life, and I continue to maintain an active lifestyle that includes jogging, travel and not getting into car accidents. I know some fields of medical research are attempting to make the case that aging is simply another malady that can ultimately be cured. You already see some of the early fruits of this effort being advertised during Sunday afternoon football games.

It’s not just the erectile dysfunction crowd I’m thinking of here. Now, middle-aged men who show symptoms like fatigue and loss of energy can wonder if such symptoms are due to a curable medical condition rather than the fact they just finished an 80-hour work week. We know there’s a pharmaceutical cure for just about everything these days (except, perhaps, for being a fan of the Carolina Panthers), so we’re tempted to investigate further when a commercial spokesman asks if our lethargy might be due to adequate testosterone.

“Do you have low T? Take the test at our website — IsItLowT.com — to find out,” we’re advised.

I went to this site and took the test, hoping for confirmation that I’m not a senior after all but simply need to spend $1,000 a week on a new medicine not covered by my insurance. It only took ten questions to reach a diagnosis. “Yes,” I’ve noticed a decrease in strength; “yes,” I’m falling asleep after dinner; “yes,” I’m sometimes grumpy, and “none of your business” if my erections are less strong. I should discuss with my doctor if various testosterone gels, patches, injections, pellets or a “buccal tablet” applied twice daily to my gums (!) are right for me and will restore my vitality.

I’d bring it up with my personal physician, but he’s a no-nonsense fifty-something man just like me, and I suspect he’d suggest not the IsItLowT.com website but one called NoYouAreJustGettingOld.com.

Like me, he’s a wise guy.

Old guys hang their heads in shame at the IsItLowT? website

An editorial: I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

November 3, 2011

We should’ve turned right on Caldwell Street, not Graham.

We’d be better off having a new kitchen trash can with one of those swinging lids rather than no lid at all.

We should’ve sat at a table, not a booth.

A successful marriage requires a lot of compromise on both sides. Husbands have to accommodate wives who have thoroughly researched every subject before arriving at the exactly correct decision. Wives have to accommodate their inconsiderate, thoughtless, dunderheaded spouses who are rarely accurate in their judgments.

It’s a lot of work. We men may look like we blithely toss opinions around with little to back them up when, actually, it requires considerable effort to be an uninformed oaf. If you don’t know what’s right, how else can you hold on so tenaciously to the wrong idea?

I was reminded of the importance of these complementary roles on a recent weekend running errands and enjoying an evening out with my wife.

First, we headed for a distant bakery we’d visited once before but whose exact location we’d since forgotten. I know how contentious the subject of directions can be for most married couples, so I tried to head off any conflict by asking Beth to Mapquest the trip. As navigatrix, she’d read the map and issue directives on which way to turn the steering wheel, and I’d be the driver, doing only as I was told.

“But let’s use Yahoo maps instead,” Beth said before we left.

“Fine,” I answered. “Whatever you think is best.”

We drove about 25 miles north of town on a familiar interstate until we came to the exit we were to take. At the end of the ramp, we were to turn onto Caldwell Street. But there was no Caldwell Street. The only option was a one-way right onto Graham.

“This is supposed to be Caldwell,” Beth insisted. I agreed, but noted my only options for turning were onto Graham or into a drainage ditch.

We continued up Graham for several miles, hoping we might find Caldwell. As businesses thinned and farmland grew more common, we realized we were unlikely to find the urbane little French-themed coffeehouse this far out in the country.

I wanted to continue driving, at least until we hit the Canadian border, but Beth insisted we stop at a gas station to ask for directions. As long as she’d do the asking, and as long as I could hunch down and hide in the car, I agreed.

She went inside for a few moments, then returned to the parking lot with an older African-American man. I watched in my rearview mirror as he pointed this way then that, then signaled a clipping penalty, then waved both arms like he was landing fighter jets on a carrier.

Based on this, Beth said we needed to turn around, make a left at the first light, look for Tryon Street, make a right, and we’d find Amelie’s about two miles down.

You can probably already guess that this didn’t work. We spent another 25 minutes exploring north Charlotte and its many challenging byways. At last we found the bakery, but not before exchanging a series of accusations that finally ended with the agreement that I was stupid for getting us so lost.

After the bakery stop, we went to Target to buy a new trash receptacle for the kitchen. I admired a model that resembled what we currently had, except it wasn’t ripped down the side and caked with bits of ancient refuse. Beth said she’d prefer a similar style that included a lid with a swinging opening. Better to keep the smell in, she said.

“But I won’t be able to toss stuff in from across the room,” I complained. I am famous in our home as master of the three-pointer, tossing unwanted drinks and unfinished food into the bin from what would be near the half-court line if our living area were a basketball court.

“That’s right,” she said. “You won’t.”

So we bought the lidded can.

Finally, we headed back to our hometown for a quiet dinner at a new restaurant we’d heard good things about. It was still early, so the hostess urged us to sit wherever we liked. I liked a booth. Beth liked a table.

“We’ll be a lot more out of the way over in that corner,” I argued. “There’s still plenty of room to be comfortable.”

“I can’t see the front door from there,” Beth countered. “If we take the table, we can see the whole place.”

I’m constantly forgetting that, before I met her, Beth was one of the top capos in the East Coast Mob. Her work in loan-sharking, truck-hijacking and protection rackets went a long way toward paying her way through a master’s degree in English. After graduation, she was ready to leave a life of organized crime and settle down with me. But she retained the habit of self-preservation so ingrained in Underworld types. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t assassinated over the linguine.

So we sat at a table.

With these three incidents as object lessons, I hereby call on myself to be a better, more accommodating, more thoughtful husband than I’ve been in the past. I was wrong about the directions, I was wrong about the garbage can, and I was wrong about the restaurant seating. I need to do as I am told, remembering that I’m the not-so-proud descendant in a long line of barbarian males made civilized only through the tender guidance of a female life partner.

I call on myself to no longer doubt the word of the wife.

Herman Cain on line one

November 2, 2011

So the phone rings last night about quarter till 7, and it’s Herman Cain calling.

Normally, you’d expect a call at that time of the evening, right in the middle of the dinner hour, to be someone asking if I’m happy with my wireless service. Instead, it’s pizza executive, motivational speaker, Republican presidential candidate, accused lady’s man and all-around black guy Herman Cain, asking if I’m happy with my presidential service.

I don’t think it was the actual Herman but rather a virtual one, a recording of his voice. The surprise leader in many national polls is ramping up his campaign in South Carolina before that state’s January primary, and part of that effort involves calling up voters and offering them a thick, topping-loaded slice of his odd recipe for fixing America.

It was pretty sophisticated for a robo-call, I thought. It sounded like the Hermanator was talking directly to me, rather than reading a script in some distant sound studio.

“Good evening, I’m Herman Cain and I’m running for president,” he began.

I thought about hanging up right away. Not only do I object in principle to telemarketers interrupting my home life, so too do I oppose just about every hare-brained scheme the fiery Cain has proposed. But I was curious about his pitch so I stayed on the line.

Cain spoke for a minute or so in general terms, hitting the same themes that he does out on the campaign trail. He wants to get government off the back of business. He wants lower taxes and lower government spending. He wants to take our country back. He longs for old-fashioned values, like the time when it was okay for an executive to ask his female co-workers if they’d mind taking off their shirts.

Actually, he said nothing at all about recent reports that he’d been accused of sexually harassing two women he worked with back in the ’90s. (Cain has claimed he only “joked about the women’s height,” teasing that he wished instead of coming up to his chin they stood about as tall as his zipper). He kept strictly to the issues.

Then he offered me a question: “Would you mind if I asked where you stand on a number of policies important to my campaign?”

There was a long pause. I hadn’t expected this to be an interactive call, but apparently Herman’s camp has invested in voice-recognition technology that allows him to gauge Americans’ sentiments on important questions of the day, as long as they could be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.

“No?” I answered tentatively.

Within moments, Herman was off on a vigorous round of interrogation.

“Do you agree with me that life begins at conception?” he asked. After accidentally saying he endorsed a woman’s right to choose in a recent TV interview, Cain has retrenched to the far right. His position now is that even victims of rape and incest should be denied abortions, and that if a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, tough toenails.

“No,” I answered.

“Do you believe that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?” he pried.

“No,” I said.

“Do you believe that the Second Amendment guarantees all Americans the rights of gun ownership?”

“Well, I don’t think it’s quite that simple,” I answered. “True, the Constitution does seem to endorse private gun ownership, though many legal scholars believe it’s in the context of a ‘well-regulated militia’. Now that we have a standing army, a militia is no longer necessary.”

The other end of the line was silent. This was a little too much detail and nuance for a candidate who prided himself on a black-or-white, us-versus-them world view.

“No,” I simplified.

Herman asked a few more questions, but these were mostly to identify my individual demographic. He asked if I was male (“yes”), if I was white (“yes”) and if I was Republican (“God, no”). He asked if I wanted to work for or donate to his campaign. I laughed, which I hoped would register as a “no”.

Cain thanked me for my time and wished me a good evening. The line went dead.

Hey, wait a second, Herm. I had a few questions I wanted to ask you:

Don’t you think it will be confusing to future history students if there’s a “Cain” running for president in 2012, so soon after a “McCain” ran in 2008?

Do you think we’re headed for a “Miss America situation” in national politics? Remember how, after the first black Miss America was named, that we had other African-American winners for several years following? Is that where we’re headed at the presidential level in this post-racial nation?

Can I get you Kim Kardashian’s phone number?

But Mr. Cain was gone. All that was left was a dial tone where once there had been a vital voice for a return to conservative American values, except the ones that prevented people like him from coming to political power.

Hopefully, we’ll all get the opportunity in the general election to learn more about how a future discounted down to $9.99 is the right choice for America.

Hello, it's me

Desperate pharmacy patients turn to desperate measures

November 1, 2011

News item: Rock Hill was hit by another pharmacy robbery Sunday when two suspects demanded pills at a CVS drugstore, then fled with police in hot pursuit. The incident follows a rash of similar stick-ups in the area.

Another news item: Workers signing up for annual enrollment in their employer’s health insurance plans are reporting sticker shock at a hefty increase in premiums, particularly for prescription coverage.

* * * * *

For those tired of an unceasing spate of bad news about health care costs, a new option is gaining popularity: robbing the local drugstore.

And it’s not just junkies, pillheads and career criminals looking for ways to juggle expenses that are committing the crimes. Increasingly, the elderly, the disabled, and just plain folk are threatening violence if they can’t get their meds at a reasonable cost.

“I have to have my flu shot. If I catch the flu, I’ll die,” said 62-year-old Sarah Johnson. “My insurance (company) says they’ll reimburse me for the $25 but there’s paperwork involved and it takes weeks. For me, it’s just easier to brandish a weapon and demand the shot. Bob is my regular pharmacist, and he knows I won’t shoot him. But obviously, he doesn’t want to take any chances.”

Johnson showed up at her neighborhood Walgreen’s to get the vaccine last week when the human resources director holding her company’s benefits meeting said it would be free. Told by store personnel it was free only as a reimbursement, Johnson became agitated and left, then returned later with a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.

“I held that gun on them the whole time they were prepping and  injecting me,” Johnson said. “It was tough because I usually shoot with my right hand, but the chair I sat at required me to get the shot in my right arm. Good thing I didn’t have to shoot because I’m wild as hell with my left hand.”

Johnson said her pharmacist was understanding but terrified during the armed encounter.

“I’ve known Sarah for years,” said druggist Robert Henderson. “She’s a regular customer and a good friend, so I didn’t pull out the Luger I keep behind the counter and kill her.”

A 32-year-old mother of three trying a similar technique at the Rite Aid wasn’t quite so lucky.

Marianne Burns said her insurance plan used to cover the allergy medicine her triplet second-graders needed, but the formula became generic during the summer. The over-the-counter variety costs about three times as much as what her insurance used to cover, so she arrived at the pharmacy last Sunday carrying an AK-47 modified to discharge armor-piercing bullets.

“I thought I might be able to just shoplift it,” said the former teacher from York County Jail, where she’s being held on assorted terrorism charges. “But one of my girls started crying, which drew the attention of the security guard. That’s when I had to start shooting.”

Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack, which prompted Burns to say the attempt “was worth it.”

“There’s a lot less paperwork to fill out when you’re preparing a defense on federal charges than there would be if I used my flexible spending account,” she said.

John Leeman, a 76-year-old retiree, faced a particularly daunting challenge on his trip to pick up a prescription. He’s lucky enough to be covered by health insurance from his old union job, but he’s also tapping into some Medicare coverage. The conflicts and duplication between the two plans were certain to be problematic, he thought.

“I needed my diabetes medicine. I wanted the EpiPen with the measured insulin dose and I was afraid they’d make me take the bulk stuff,” Leeman said. “So I brought my sword along.”

Leeman had picked up the souvenir saber during his service in Korea in 1952. It sat unused in a closet for over half a century before he realized it could be used in an armed assault.

“Sure enough, that’s what they tried to do to me,” Leeman said. “So I pulled out my sword and ran the pharmacy tech right through. As his lifeblood poured from the gaping wound, he staggered to the shelf and got me the EpiPen.”

“It’s just a pharmacy tech. No big deal,” said head pharmacist Andy Wells. “Now if it had been a cashier, that would’ve been different. But I know John — he’s a good ol’ boy — and he was just doing what he thought needed to be done.”

Pharmacy robber presents his CVS ExtraCare card to receive extra discounts on his haul

A zombie states his case

October 31, 2011

To honor the celebration of Halloween, I will assume the identity of a zombie for today’s post.

Greetings to the un-Undead!

I am a zombie. Woooo. (Or is that what ghosts say?)

Wait, I got it: “I want to eat your brains.” Or should I say “I vant to eat your brains.” (No, that’s Dracula’s accent.)

Since I’m too old at age 57 to dress up in costume and peer in through my neighbors’ front doors — and don’t want to end up spending all future Halloweens playing a registered sex offender — I’ll confine my disguise to the digital realm.

I am a zombie, and I’m writing a blog.

We zombies have really seen our star rising lately in popular culture. We seem to be everywhere. Horror movies featuring our lumbering attacks come out every other week. Video games like “Dead Island” and TV shows like “The Walking Dead” are extremely popular. Herman Cain leads all Republican presidential candidates in most national polls.

But one media we’ve yet to conquer is writing. Maybe it’s because we’re poor typists. A lot of my zombie friends have wanted to take to the keyboard to discuss their lot, but most complain they suffer from joint inflammation in their shoulders and that it’s too painful to lower their arms from the outstretched position they use to attack their victims.

I’ve found a way to overcome this obstacle. I kneel down on the floor in front of my computer, and can type just fine once my shoulders align with the desktop. (I look a little like straight-armed “Keyboard Cat”). It’s not the most comfortable technique, but at least it’s better than trying to type on an iPad.

I can’t claim to be a spokesperson for the entire Zombo-American community. We are a diverse group. Some of us are black and some are white. Some of us are gay and some are straight. We come in all shapes and sizes, except fat. (You never see any obese zombies because human brain is low in fat yet high in essential nutrients. Plus, we do all that walking.)

However, I can say with some certainty that we don’t appreciate the stereotypes being perpetrated among non-zombies. In the movies, we’re always portrayed as chasing down innocents and feasting on their flesh. Sure, sometimes that’s what motivates us. However, other times we’re just looking for a friend. Have you ever considered that maybe we’re extending our arms simply because we want a hug?

Now, see if you can spot the subtle discrimination in this entry on Wikipedia:

“Zombies are fictional undead creatures … typically depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses with a hunger for human flesh. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli. By 2011, the influence of zombies in popular consciousness had reached far enough that government agencies were using them to garner greater attention in public service messages.”

I hardly know where to begin. First of all, we don’t care for the term “undead” because it portrays us in negative terms. We prefer the more positive “post-alive.”

Yes, we do have a “hunger for human flesh,” but that doesn’t mean we always act on that hunger. Sometimes a conventional snack — a Triscuit, a handful of sesame sticks, a WeightWatchers power bar — will get us past that peckish mid-afternoon feeling and save potential victims from a gruesome fate.

Phrases like “mindless reanimated corpses” and “a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness” are just so judgmental. We don’t need hate speech like this if we’re to reach a better understanding between zombies and non-zombies. We need inclusive language, so it’s not always us who feel like the outsiders.

And as for that last sentence from Wikipedia, I’d say we have enough image problems already without being associated with “government agencies.” (What kind of public service messages feature zombies anyway? Do we really need a PR campaign by the feds to tell people to keep their brains under wraps? Sounds like the “nanny state” to me.)

While I make the argument that we have an image problem, I don’t dispute that there’s much we can do within our own zombie families to improve our standing. I’m not one to sit, er, kneel here and say all our problems are caused by others. Many of us need to reach deep down and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and just hope that our decaying arms don’t fall off as we try.

I also think it’s time for zombies to join their scary brethren in the ghost, vampire and witch communities so we can unite the forces necessary to bring equality and justice to our peoples. All of us are facing much the same discrimination, and we need to stop working at cross-purposes. I can say that ghosts are stuck-up and that vampires have hygiene issues and that witches are bitches, but that does nothing to advance our common cause. We are all brothers and sisters under the skin that hangs from our torsos.

In closing, I’d like to wish all my fellow zombies a happy and safe Halloween, despite the barriers we still have to overcome. Be kind and courteous to all the non-zombies you’ll encounter tonight, and don’t take it personally when they flee in terror at your approach. If you find yourself offered Snickers and Three Musketeers instead of the hippocampus and cerebella you’d prefer, just smile and say “thanks,” then shamble over to the next house and hope for a better future.

Zombie unite! (Either that, or it's another Occupy Wall Street march)

South Carolina preparing for its moment in the spotlight

October 28, 2011

It’s less than three months now before South Carolina enters the national spotlight with its Republican presidential primary, and the state is busy preparing for its close-up.

Some of the stories are related to politics, while others hint at the state’s historic position as the backward, inbred laughingstock of the nation.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum recognizes his people when he sees them, and has spent considerable time campaigning in the Palmetto State. The pious Pennsylvanian has visited 25 times more than any other candidate, spreading his message of social conservatism, family values, and not googling him.

For all the work he’s spent focusing his efforts on the nation’s second primary, recent polls show only 1% of the state’s Republicans say they’ll vote for him.

“These polls mean nothing, absolutely nothing,” Santorum insisted Tuesday, and he may have a point. Nationwide, it appears many voters have yet to tune in to the 2012 race, with a remarkably low 54% of all Americans able to name even one GOP candidate.

Santorum’s latest visit was in Spartanburg, where local Republican officials managed to find about 80 people willing to look at and listen to him. Santorum used the opportunity to talk about his Christian faith, using the story of his disabled daughter’s close call with death to elicit the crowd’s interest.

He compared his relationship with his daughter to his own relationship with God.

“That’s the way the Father looks at me,” Santorum said. “I am completely disabled in His eyes.”

“Amen” and “that’s right” responded some in the crowd.

“He’s strong on family,” said Alexia Newman, a Santorum supporter. “Before he’s through, he’ll have reached out to every (GOP) chairman in the state. It seems that sort of thing should matter.”

You’d think. But apparently, 99% of South Carolinians have their minds on other things. Like the legality of hauling their furniture out into the front yard.

Many towns and counties in this largely rural state have banned the unsightly practice, thinking it makes the place look like it’s inhabited by hicks. Now, anti-government fervor stoked by Tea Party types has reared its head, and a backlash against the laws has those who know how writing letters to the editor.

“I wonder how many of the county council have stayed in a house with no air conditioning during July,” wrote Rock Hill’s Peggy Murdock, a representative of the pro-beatup-couches faction. “A comfortable sofa outside in the shade might be a thing to be desired.”

It was probably while sitting on a mildew-saturated divan that several other South Carolinians had their thoughts wander toward plans for criminal mischief.

In Fort Mill, an 18-year-old student at MorningStar University (a Christian school that has its roots in the old Jim and Tammy Bakker televangelism ministry) could face disciplinary action for his actions. The unnamed man spent Tuesday night roaming the campus dressed all in black and jumping from behind bushes to scare fellow students.

“Many students ran away, scared and crying,” claimed a report in the local newspaper.

Sheriff’s deputies called to the campus to investigate suspicious activity quickly located the man. He said he was just playing a joke on some of his friends by peeking in their windows, but admitted his actions were “probably inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, in nearby Rock Hill, a man was accused of threatening a woman with a gun, then cutting her hair after an argument Monday.

Kenneth Abner, 35, was charged with pointing a firearm and criminal domestic violence. A woman visiting Abner was arguing with him when he reached into a drawer and produced a semiautomatic handgun. He then grabbed her by the hair, dragged her downstairs to the kitchen, and proceeded to cut her hair.

The woman kicked and hit Abner, then ran to a neighbor’s home where she called authorities. The police report did not state whether a shampoo, a manicure or the application of blonde highlights was included in the treatment.

Neither Abner nor his victim could say if they would vote for Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum: Glowing with righteousness, or simply blonde highlights?