Posts Tagged ‘thoughts’

Protecting the last stand

October 24, 2011

As you might guess from the name of my neighborhood, Shadebrook has a brook and it has trees. The brook may be more like a babbling drainage ditch, but the trees really are magnificent.

The people who planned this subdivision some 20 years ago had a lot of respect for the woods that their homes were largely supplanting. From the hardwood canopy road at the entrance to the giant cedars that line the main drag, this place is a nature lover’s dream.

However, it could become the city arborist’s worst nightmare. A couple of weeks ago, the municipal authorities surveyed the area’s older-growth trees and decided that some were so sick they needed to be euthanized. No twilight sleep and potassium chloride for the doomed oaks and elms; they would be assaulted with chain saws wielded by government officials. Talk about a Tea Party fantasy.

When I was coming back from my afternoon run earlier recently, I noticed that a particular pine had suddenly sprouted a bright green patch of spray paint. I remembered the newspaper article about the upcoming pogrom said that the dying trees would be marked with green. It said that city planners originally wanted to use a dark brown marking, to better symbolize the sad but necessary task of culling the deadwood, until they realized that work crews would have trouble seeing it. Ultimately, they switched to the green, thinking it might signify the fresh new life the tree was about to experience as someone’s coffee table.

As you can see, the pine isn’t an especially handsome specimen. In fact, you could probably go so far as to say it’s about as dead as it can get.

Still, I have an obligation as an ardent eco-nut to protect this old gal from the lumberjack’s axe. And so, even though I’ve got a ton of stuff to do this week and next week’s going to be even crazier with a filing deadline approaching at work, I guess I have to chain myself to the tree.

It’s going to be really inconvenient. I’ll have to reschedule Friday’s dental appointment, and the weekend’s planned yardwork is definitely out of the question, unless I can find myself a long enough chain.

It’s supposed to turn much colder by mid-week, so I guess I’ll have to dress in layers to accommodate the sunny days and chilly nights. Wardrobe selection is shaping up to be quite the challenge. What exactly is proper attire to set just the right tone of civil disobedience while balancing that against the conservative fashion sense of the suburban South?

I’ll need something that’s easy care, because this is a pine and, though I don’t consider myself prejudiced against the common softwoods, some of their kind have been known to ooze sap. This tree probably doesn’t have a whole lot of lifeblood left in it but whatever remains, you can be sure it’ll make its way onto my slacks.

I don’t know how extended a protest this might turn out to be. I’m ready for the long haul if that’s what’s required. I will admit to concerns, however, about how the work crew will respond. Rock Hill is not familiar with the kind of strident and committed stand I’m prepared to take, and I’m a little worried their standard procedures won’t include removing a doughy guy from the base of the tree before chopping it down. I have my own lifeblood to consider, you know.

Maybe it’d be safer if I constructed a tree stand for myself, and conducted my effort to save the Earth from about 30 feet in the air. Nah. For one thing, I’m not that handy with tools, so treehouse construction would not play to my strengths of Excel and middle management. For another thing, I don’t care to plummet to my death.

I think if I switch a few things around, maybe ask my wife to cover for me at Tuesday’s board meeting of the credit union, maybe use a rope instead of a chain so I can duck out for a few minutes if I have an essential errand, I can pull enough strings to make this stand for ecology.

Defend our environment! End the rape of our Mother Earth! Don’t get any sap on me!

Today’s post co-written by some gnats

October 20, 2011

We’ve been having Indian summer here in the South, which has allowed me to continue my afternoon jogs through the neighborhood wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.

Though I haven’t needed protection from the autumn chill, I do wish I had something that repelled the clouds of gnats that have emerged from a nearby tree stand. These tiny insects assemble into large mating swarms at dusk, and become so maddened by desire that they fail to notice the lumbering human who comes huffing into their midst.

Nothing like a big, sweaty fat guy barreling through your free-floating love-in to spoil a tender moment. Just as the guys have convinced the gals that they’re interested in a committed, exclusive long-term relationship — in gnat terms, about 30 seconds — the mood is ruined.

I hate to inconvenience any living creature (except perhaps those I eat) so I try to watch for these gnats and avoid them when I can. Trouble is, they’re so small as to be practically invisible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, they can still be easily detected by the other senses.

Like taste.

If you’re mouth-breathing your way through the second mile of your run, it’s not uncommon to suddenly find yourself with a maw full of small bugs. Were I halfway through a marathon, I might appreciate the protein boost. But since it’s just a short jog, I’d rather not be consuming the unintended appetizer so close to dinner.

And they don’t just get into your mouth. Some species, called “eye gnats,” are actually attracted to your eyes, feeding on the lachrymal secretions we know as tears. Others head up your nostrils, while their friends go in your ears.

I don’t know how many gnats I’ve absorbed into various head holes in the last few weeks. I bet it’s a lot. And I bet some of them are still in there.

So I must acknowledge that today, I am not working on this blog post alone. I don’t want to be so species-centric as to ignore the impressions that others involved have of this phenomenon. I think it’s only fair that the gnats have their say, and so am turning the rest of this piece over to them.

EYE GNAT: Thanks for the opportunity, Davis. A lot of people barely acknowledge our existence and, if they do, it’s only with a wave of their hand trying to disperse us from their face. We’re eager to tell our side of the story, and appreciate this chance.

You humans see us as pests, and yet we’re actually a very important part of the ecosystem. Our life isn’t much — we hatch from larva, we fly around a while, we mate, we die — but it shouldn’t be judged from the perspective of someone who has access to hundreds of cable channels. Just like other living creatures, we have good times and bad.

As my name implies, I have a thing for eyes. I love all colors and all lash lengths. I don’t care if you have poor vision or the eyes of a hawk. As long as you’re still moist enough to be secreting tears, I’m there.

What I like most about what your scientists call “lachrymal secretions” is the salt. If you’ve ever tasted your own tears, you know how flavorful they can be. We don’t have access to a lot of salt in the natural world.

My turn-offs include too much eye makeup (especially blue eye-liner, which I’m allergic to) and contact lenses. We can work our way in behind regular eyeglasses, but contacts are just too tight a fit. I had an uncle who managed to get behind one once, and he was never heard from again.

Gary, you want to talk some about ear gnats?

EAR GNAT: Sure, Hal, and thanks.

I’ll be glad to speak for those of us here in the ear, but I would like to make it clear that we’re not necessarily “ear gnats.” We just ended up here by accident.

There are many good things about the human ear. I’d have to say, though, that my favorite is the wax. While all of us get our basic nutrition from different places, there’s really only one sweet treat delightful enough to be considered a dessert in the insect world, and that’s ear wax.

You have to be careful how you approach it so you don’t get stuck. I try to remain airborne while I’m in the ear canal, then swoop down and get a little bit of wax on my legs. From there, it’s pretty easy to wipe off and eat.

I knew a guy once who did get stuck, and it was a pretty nasty affair. It wasn’t the wax that did him in, it was the host’s response to all the wiggling he did trying to get free. The human finally stuck a Q-Tip in there (even though the instructions specifically tell you not to do that) and basically crushed the gnat into the wax.

The other danger, of course, is going in too far and being unable to get back out. Once you reach a certain depth, you’re pretty much into the cranial cavity. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled raw human brain, but it’s pretty bad. You lose your appetite completely in there and then, because there’s not a lot of oxygen, you also lose your life. Hosts hate that, because many times your corpse will decay and cause a brain infection.

There are definitely safer places to hang out. Lynn, tell us about the nose.

NOSE GNAT: Yeah, it’s fairly safe in here, Gary, but again, it’s pretty much an accident when we fly into someone’s nose.

What I like is the cozy nature of the nostril. We spend the entire four months of our lives in the Great Outdoors, so to have the chance to chill out in a virtual cathedral, even for a few seconds, is a real treat.

I like the high ceilings, and the way the hairs grow up from the bottom and down from the top, much like the stalactites and stalagmites of a cave. You can usually find a nice corner out of the airstream, and it makes a great place to grab a quick nap.

People don’t realize how little sleep we get, and it’s amazing how refreshed I’ll feel after a few minutes chilling up the nose. If you don’t move around too much, your host will never even notice you’re in there.

I guess the one big concern is with nose-pickers. You’re snoozing away, dreaming some amazing fantasy, then all of a sudden a giant fingernail scoops you up and wipes you under a desk. Once that happens, you’re trapped forever. The most you can hope for is that your children come visit your grave.

Steve, what’s going on down there in the mouth?

MOUTH GNAT: Help! Help! This guy is starting to chew! What kind of a disgusting omnivore have I gotten myself involved with?

Help! Hel–. Argh!

Let’s throw it back to Davis.

DAVIS: Thanks, Steve. And, sorry about that. Didn’t know you were in there.

I’d like to thank you four, and the thousands of your nameless cohorts who feel so compelled to fly into my face. We’ve all gained some amazing insight into what it’s like to be on the lower rungs of the animal kingdom and, I think, gained a renewed appreciation for life in all of its forms.

Now, when I see you guys hovering in the distance, I won’t be so quick to put my head down and try to bull right through you. (Not that that would work. I bet you’ve got hair gnats in the swarm too).

With cold weather in the forecast as soon as this weekend, I imagine I won’t see much of you for the rest of the season. Here’s hoping that we can get back together in the spring.

See you then. And thanks for the help with the blogging.

HAL: Don’t mention it.

GARY: Glad to help.

LYNN: No prob.

STEVE: Aaahhh! Please stop with all the talking!!

Gary, the gnat

Hiding my defects from the brother-in-law

October 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.

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

“Yeah,” I answered lamely.

“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob "caulks up" another home improvement

Driving myself to distraction

October 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I answered. “I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisited: In search of the perfect toilet paper

October 7, 2011

Life used to be so simple. 

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

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

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

TP as far as the eye can see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Taciturnia

October 5, 2011

Tell me if this is weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial: Time for a Little River ban

September 30, 2011

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

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

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

Now, it must be expunged from all recorded history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you encounter these guys, report them IMMEDIATELY to the authorities

We are DEFINITELY not hoarders

September 28, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT my home office (mine is much worse)

Dancing with the Stars: Breaking it down

September 21, 2011

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

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

I came away from the viewing with several observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chicken Dance (complete with chicken)

‘Clumsy’ doesn’t begin to explain my problem

September 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as the case may be, your fur.

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

We’ll miss you, Uncle Jack.