Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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?

Getting creative with the grocery list

October 27, 2011

I am fascinated by other people’s groceries.

When there’s someone in line checking out in front of me, I always review their items and try to imagine the lifestyle they lead based on their selections.

I envy the discipline of the middle-aged woman buying Greek yogurt and pretending to like it. I’m jealous of the college student purchasing the 12-pack of energy drinks to maintain his amped-up schedule of partying, studying and bonking coeds. I yearn for the day when, like the elderly man grabbing a pack of adult diapers, I won’t have to get off the couch to go to the bathroom.

Similarly, I’m always hopeful at the end of the checkout process that I’ll accidentally end up with someone else’s purchases. For one thing, I rarely pick up more than a few items at a time and, for selfish reasons alone, I’d rather have their hundred-dollar haul than my single plastic bag of pretzels, gum and dryer sheets.

But I’d also like to have the experience of wading through a collection of random products I’d never buy myself, and trying to figure out how to eat or otherwise consume them.

This would be a great way to get out of the rut I’ve dug after decades of being a big boy who could feed himself. I bought only what I needed to re-stock the routine things I ate every day. Early morning meant a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and a blueberry breakfast bar. At lunch, I’d eat a turkey sandwich and three Chips Ahoy reduced-fat cookies. Occasionally, I’d mix it up slightly — substituting mixed berry bars for blueberry ones, for example — but that was the extent of my adventure.

I longed for the day when serendipity would be my menu planner. I’d pull out a Boston butt pork roast, some PopSecret popcorn and a box of Sylvania micro-mini CFL lightbulbs, throw them all in a big crockpot, and have the kind of dinner I’d never imagine on my own.

While picking up a few things from the nearby gourmet organic supermarket yesterday, I came upon what may be the next best thing to this bizarre fantasy. In the parking lot, I found a wadded-up grocery list some careless shopper had dropped on the ground. Perhaps I could use this as my guide to an exciting new life full of exotic consumables.

The handwriting was a little tough to read, but that’s about what I’d expect from someone more focused on grabbing existence by the throat than on penmanship. This was a person with places to go, people to see, things to do and — if I’m reading this list correctly — “sour crougat” to eat.

Across the top of the list, in all caps, was the word “WALMART”. Though it is a publicly held company, and theoretically you could snatch it up for its market capitalization value of $194 billion, I doubt this is what the shopper intended. (If it is, I sure hope they had some coupons.) Maybe this was just their next stop.

The rest of the list read as follows:

Swiffer Dusters 360°
Prunes
2 – Cape Cod chips
40 gurg raisen boxes
Sour crougat – in Pic 6 RSF
Nail clipper – good
Anch. persporarv can
Tooth paste
Vitamin D
Diet Coke ?

Many of the items that were legible are things I’ve considered buying in the past.

I’ve seen the Swiffer commercials (where a housewife’s first marriage — to a mop — comes unraveled and they divorce, though the mop continues to stalk her from the backyard) and they seem like a good alternative to my method of cleaning (moving into a new house when the old one becomes too dirty).

Prunes and raisins seem like sensible fruit choices, if I want my exhilarating new way of life to include regularity. I’ve always neglected the health and well-being of my colon, duodenum, semicolon, etc.; maybe now is the right time to make some changes. I’m not sure what the “40 gurg” means, though. Could it be “yogurt”?

I already have about a dozen nail clippers in the backs of various drawers around the house. Whether or not they qualify as “good,” I’m not sure. Goodness would seem to be a desirable trait, and I’ll keep that in mind next time I need some grooming tools.

I already buy toothpaste, having long ago given up the practice of buying root canals instead. I’ve never been a believer in vitamin supplements, though if I were to start anywhere, I imagine I’d start with vitamin D (to match the letter my name begins with and because, in my book, you can never get enough fat-soluble secosteroids).

I may opt to skip those products whose spelling I can’t make sense of. If I had to guess, I’d say “sour crougat” is probably “sauerkraut”. I’m not familiar with the kind that comes “in Pic 6 RSF”, though I’d hope that’s the additive that converts the pungent cabbage concoction into actual food. The “Anch. persporarv can” could actually be a can of anti-perspirant or, at the other end of the smells-good spectrum, anchovy perspiration. My own sweat smells bad enough, thank you.

As for “Diet Coke?”, it does seem like a good question. I’ve frequently considered switching from my beloved Pepsi to less-sugary soft drinks, but the fact that most taste like overly sweetened brownwater discharge has hindered me.

I’ve still got the list, and still wonder what I should do with it. It’s been fun using the battered sheet of paper as a window into the world of an anonymous gourmet. I was hoping for something a little more extensive, something with a little more meat on its bones, but this could be enough to get me started.

Plus, it did have a small grease spot on it.

Maybe I’ll just eat the paper.

Lindsay Lohan confused by new developments

October 26, 2011

She seems even more troubled and confused than when she cut a stolen diamond necklace off her calf, then attended a movie premiere wearing an alcohol-monitoring shackle around her neck.

Actress Lindsay Lohan, facing multiple criminal charges and hoping to restart a sagging career, began a new phase of recovery yesterday with a bit of a hiccup. She showed up for community service at the Los Angeles county morgue ready to pose for nude photographs, then went to a Playboy photo studio to scrub toilets and wash floors.

“At least she was on time,” said county spokesman Ed Winter. “And, admittedly, she was kind of hot. But lounging on a corpse with her shirt off was not the kind of community service we had in mind.”

Lohan apparently is struggling with two big developments in her life: her sentence to spend 120 hours working at the morgue, and a reported $1 million offer to pose in Hugh Hefner’s men’s magazine. When the two events were scheduled to start the same day, Lohan reportedly became disoriented.

“I don’t think it was really that big a deal,” said Lohan’s publicist Steve Honig. “Those bathrooms at the photo shoot had gotten pretty scuzzy.”

Lohan arrived promptly at 6 a.m. at the coroner’s office as paparazzi’s helicopters buzzed overhead. She checked in with the community service coordinator, and was scheduled to start her day washing soiled linens. Instead, she doffed her clothes, wrapped herself in the blood-encrusted sheets, and began striking a series of provocative poses.

“You’d think she would’ve noticed that the only cameras around were the video security system,” said Winter. “But that didn’t stop her. She spent the better part of the morning romping among the corpses, teasing them with her discarded outfit and pretending to act surprised she was caught naked.”

Lohan spoke briefly with reporters after the morning-long session.

“They already had dozens of unclothed people in there, though I’ll admit they weren’t as animated as I was. And I was pert where they were sagging,” Lohan said. “The session was fun. I thought I’d be nervous exposing myself like that, but the crew was totally professional. They said nothing at all to make me uncomfortable. In fact, they were deathly quiet.”

After leaving the morgue, Lohan drove across town to the photo studio. There, she spent the afternoon wiping down equipment, cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash.

“I have to admit, it was a difficult session,” said one Playboy photog who refused to be identified. “It was hard to get her to sit still. We had to follow her around the office and watch for opportunities where she would bend over, then quickly snap the shot.”

“I’m not sure how provocative our readers are going to find pictures of her dumping the garbage,” he added. “She had a real good technique, and always managed to empty every last scrap of paper. But I’m not certain that’s what our readership is looking for.”

By the time Lohan had finished her busy day, the court official supervising her probation had been notified of the mix-up. Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner, a veteran of Lohan’s excuses for why she acts like a crazy person, sounded frustrated with the latest outrage.

“Didn’t she notice the smell, the cold lockers, the toe tags?” Sautner asked. “And the Playboy thing doesn’t sit well with me either. Next time, she gets more than a monitoring cuff on her leg. I’m putting her in a whole-body jumpsuit. If she tries to take that off, it’s back to prison for Miss Lohan.”

"Oooh, that smell," Lohan noted. "Can't you smell that smell?"

Just trying to help the Greeks back on their feet

October 25, 2011

Americans everywhere have been transfixed in recent weeks by the European sovereign debt crisis.

The unemployed stop their job search to review updates on the latest austerity measures. The uninsured ill worry that German banks will grow weary of bailing out neighboring Eurozone economies. Twenty-somethings who’ve given up on the American Dream join fantasy leagues to make a game out of which nation is most likely to default.

Not really.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t give two drachmas about economic problems on the Continent when we’ve got so many of our own. About the only time it comes up is when someone on the Right uses the crisis as an example of where “creeping socialism” is leading the U.S., or when someone on the Left wants six weeks of vacation.

The problems of Europe are centered for now in hot-headed countries like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so-called “PIGS” nations). The swarthy peoples of the Mediterranean have been spending beyond their means for decades, borrowing against their children’s futures so they can eat olives, attend bullfights and long for their fascist past. Now, bondholders who subsidized this lavish lifestyle are demanding repayment, and they don’t want it in oregano.

The Greeks have come in for the most scrutiny. Every day, it seems, there’s yet another boring headline that nobody reads announcing “Resilient Euro Edges Lower Over EFSF Confusion,” accompanied by a photo of Athenians engaged in sun-splashed rioting. Austerity is painful and Zeus forbid the Greeks should be uncomfortable.

I wanted to learn more about the underlying causes of the crisis, so recently I ate lunch at a local diner run by Greek-Americans. Maybe this meat-and-three-vegetables eatery could give me some insight into why the inventors of democracy, geometry and men-wearing-white-skirts have screwed up their finances so badly.

I got my first clue from the sign outside Charlotte’s Steele Creek Cafe.

“Try Momma’s Meatloaf,” it read. “More Than 22 Vegetables.”

I don’t know a lot about Greek cooking, but it seems like including that many vegetables in a meat loaf recipe is destined to turn out poorly. It wasn’t until I got to the counter inside that this apparent example of profligacy and waste was clarified for me.

“It’s two separate things,” said the cashier taking orders. “That’s why it’s on two lines.”

“The line-break alone is not necessarily sufficient, even in signage,” I countered. “There should be a period, or at least a comma or semicolon.”

“Can I take your order?” she persisted.

Much like the people of Greece have shown through their street protests that they need adequate time to get their economic house in order, so too did I need a minute to decide on my lunch.

The sign behind the counter was filled with more lunch choices than I could readily digest. I stepped back to join several other would-be diners stroking their chins and pondering the selection. There was certainly a lot of what I think of as Greek food — souvlaki, a gyro plate, the eponymous Greek salad — but there was also Calabash shrimp and Philly cheesesteak and French fries.

And there were at least 22 vegetables, assuming you count stuff like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and rice and gravy as vegetables, which we here in the South very much do.

I asked to see a printed bill-of-fare to better study my options. I grew slightly more optimistic about the health of the world economy when I noticed that “default” and “currency devaluation” were not on the menu. I also saw that several prices had been whited out, with new prices handwritten over them. This seemed to indicate the Greeks were getting serious about real-world costs, at least when it came to the Ultimate 8 oz. Hamburger with Cheese.

Finally, I decided on the “hot dog (all-beef) combo,” a meal that would include my drink and choice of fries or onion rings, all for $4.80. I’m guessing the raw ingredients cost about half that, and was confident the difference would make a nice dent in the nation’s €216-billion debt.

“I’ll have the number 13,” I told cashier Tai’Shiquá. “Hopefully, the profits will help your people in their hour of need.”

“Say what?” Tai’Shiquá answered. She sounded a bit put-out, but I knew deep down in her proud Greek soul that she was grateful for my purchase.

While I waited for the order to be ready, I looked around the restaurant for a table. A working-class crowd was quickly filling the joint, giving the appearance that this really could be a profitable business if a bit of fiscal restraint were in place.

They could start, in my opinion, with the ketchup. Not only were there individual bottles sitting in every booth; there were several more available at the napkin and condiment station. Plus, there were additional packets included with to-go orders.

Another bit of excess could be seen at the fountain drink dispenser. Diners tapped their own selections, and could easily choose not to fill most of the cup with ice, cutting severely into a potentially high profit margin.

In two corners of the room, up near the ceiling, a pair of televisions played non-stop. There was no fee to watch.

A shelf near the door held the day’s newspapers. Their wrinkled appearance hinted that an earlier customer had purchased them at breakfast, then left them behind for others to read. This, despite the fact that all three publications were being sold from newsstands just outside.

Over in the corner were the restrooms. These were also free, despite the fact that many patrons would be willing to pay dearly for bathroom privileges after finishing off a plate of deep-fried perch.

I vaguely knew the owner from a previous visit, and decided to seek him out after I finished my lunch. I wanted to congratulate Pete Kakouras for the tentative starts he had made toward economizing, and offer my suggestions for what more he could do to move his restaurant and his homeland toward prosperity.

But Pete is gone. I’m told he sold out about two months ago. The new owner, an Asian gentleman named Jun Park, would be glad to speak with me, as long as I knew Korean.

So that’s the way it is: the Greeks are in danger of pulling the rest of Europe down the (free) toilet with them, and all because globalization made it necessary that they sell out to foreign interests. No wonder they’re fighting against tough austerity measures so violently. The cuts are being imposed by outsiders from the Orient. Next thing you know, we’ll see kim chi on the menu.

Whatever. You try to step up and help a foreign country get its house in order, and this is the thanks you get — a mythological tragedy of epic proportions, and an undercooked wiener on a soggy bun.

It’s all Greek to me.