Friday, March 12, 2004

Don's Night Out

During the late seventies, I attended a large state university. I lived in the dorm for a couple of those years. It was sort of like institutionalized Sodom and Gomorrah. Pretty much anything could happen, and it frequently did. We were young and free.

I had a friend named Don who I had known since the eighth grade. We attended high school and now college together. Don was always a bit of a character (in many ways, that's a generous description, but no matter). The previous summer, Don had married his high school sweetheart, Sandy. From the beginning, they were something less than the ideal couple. Sandy was a practical and domestic homebody. Don was a wandering free spirit dedicating to taking advantage of every opportunity life might offer. These two couldn't have been more different. However, their inevitable split was, at this time, still fifteen years and two kids in the future.

Don and Sandy lived in the separate married student housing operated by the university. It was clear across campus about three miles away from my dorm. The university obviously wanted to ensure that married and unmarried students didn't mix. To this day, I wonder which group they were seeking to protect from the other. In any case, Sandy's concept of domestic bliss was for Don to sit on the couch with her every night and watch television. Don's view of nirvana was a bit rowdier. Like any healthy 21-year old American guy, he wanted to get out and have some fun. Sandy and Don therefore made a pact. Don was permitted to escape one night per week, on the condition that he spend the other six at home. I thought he was nuts to agree to such a deal, but at this stage, he really seemed to want his marriage to work.

In the spring quarter, Don's big night was Thursday. He often came to visit me in the dorm on those evenings. We'd then go out to a bar or a game room or, occasionally, an impromptu party at somebody's house. One week, it think it was in late April, Don called me on Monday afternoon. He told me that he needed to really break loose. He was going stir crazy sitting on that couch and viewing lame prime time soap operas like Dallas. Don said he wanted to do some serious partying during his Thursday visit. To tell the truth, what he'd been doing all along looked reasonably serious already. Nevertheless, we prepared a special good time for poor pitiful old married Don.

Don arrived after dinner, late as usual. I enlisted a couple of the local dormies to join in the evening's proceedings. My brother Slim was also present. True to his word, Don partook of every vice at his disposal. Over the next two hours, he rapidly consumed several bottles of Carlsberg Elephant malt liquor (think nasty and strong). He also enjoyed a variety of other legal and illegal intoxicants. The man was on a mission.

Before the evening's proceedings began, Don asked us to tell him when it was quarter of ten. This was when he had to leave in order to catch the last bus back to the married student housing complex. It stopped behind the student union, about a block from my dorm. We notified Don when the appointed time arrived. He was sufficiently coherent to recognize the need to depart, but walking in a straight line seemed to be a bit challenging. Nevertheless, he insisted he was fine and wandered off into the night. We were a little concerned about Don's inebriated condition, but we figured that so long as he got on that bus, he'd be fine.

Don walked across the street and found the bench next to the bus stop. It must have been a comfortable bench because the next thing he knew it was nearly 1:00am. He had fallen asleep and missed the last bus. He now set off across the campus in a quest to walk home. He stopped at least once along the way for another nap. This resting spot might have been on the ground. Being April, it was a bit damp. Quite unfortunate. Don pressed on. For the final leg of his hike, Don elected to take a shortcut across a cow pasture that was part of the university's experimental farm (the running joke was that the dorm food consisted of experiments that failed). The pasture was more than a little muddy.

It was after 2:00am when Don knocked on the front door of the unit he shared with Sandy. Upon seeing his condition, her mood quickly shifted from concern to anger. I have no doubt she read the riot act and all its amendments. I am equally certain that she was wasting her breath. Don proceeded to walk across the apartment with his muddy shoes. He then got into bed fully dressed, shoes and all. It was right about this time that Sandy found his bag of pot and flushed the contents down the toilet.

Don called me the next day to tell me what had happened. He said that Sandy wasn't talking to him, but he was certain that he wouldn't be able to come over the following Thursday.

I still occasionally run into Don and Sandy, separately of course. Don laughs about the episode today. I'm not sure what Sandy thinks. Nor am I inclined to inquire. She gave me the evil eye for quite a while afterward. Her memory of these events might be less amusing.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

State of the Blog

I see other folks' blogs where they talk about what's current in their lives. I think that's cool. I don't think I would want to update it with every message as some do, but I can take a few minutes to bring you, my readers, up to date.

Last Book Read: In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters by Merrill Chapman

Currently Reading: The Suess, The Whole Suess, and Nothing But the Suess: A Visual Biography of Theodor Suess Geisel by Charles D. Cohen

Favorite TV Show: The Sopranos

Last Great Restaurant Meal: Arturo's in Boca Raton, Florida

Current Song: Stevie Ray Vaughan / Lenny

Last Museum Visited: The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida

Last Play Seen: Copenhagen

Favorite Shakespeare Play: Much Ado About Nothing

Last Concert: Santana

Favorite National Park: Crater Lake, Oregon

Last Movie Seen: The Triplets of Bellville

Favorite Junk Food: Anything Chocolate

Guilty Pleasure TV: Lost in Space

Favorite Sports Team: The Cleveland Browns

Favorite Holiday: Thanksgiving (food, family, friends, and football)

Favorite Magazine: Scientific American

There. That wasn't so bad...

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Houston, We Have Another Problem…

When I was a young teen, my family lived at the edge of a small town in the lower Midwest. There were plenty of organized activities for kids, but we avoided them as much as possible. My brothers and I joined the Boy Scouts. We wanted to go hiking in the woods. That lasted for about a year. We gave it up because it was entirely too structured. We’d much rather find our own brand of fun. For a while, my brother Slim played organized sports. He encountered small-minded, sadistic coaches. Every time adults became involved in our recreation, enjoyable activities stopped being enjoyable. This is why we always believed that the natural state of children was to be free.

We spent our summers, evenings, and weekends riding our bikes and building contraptions. We rode out in the fields and along country roads. We were often gone all day. Our mother had no idea how widely we roamed. Perhaps, that’s just as well.

As for the contraptions, we built a little bit of everything. We assembled go-carts (the best one featured roto-tiller wheels that we bought from the junkyard). We used the trunk of a downed tree to construct a regulation size football goal post. I built cool electronic gizmos that screamed and squawked and made other weird noises. When my brother was studying the French revolution in his junior high history class, we made a working guillotine and took it to school. It was all good, clean fun.

Then there was the whole matter of pyromania. Even on the scale of rowdy boys, we were abnormally fond of fires and explosions. We learned that cattails soaked in gasoline will burn like a torch for many minutes. We also knew how to make a blow torch from an aerosol can and a burning stick match. We concocted special recipes for stink bombs and smoke bombs.

It’s little wonder we loved to blow up things. We grew up watching recreational explosions on television. Warner Brothers, Tex Avery, and Tom and Jerry cartoons all prominently featured firecrackers and assorted bombs. What could possibly be more fun than our brother’s model aircraft carrier filled with gasoline and a cherry bomb, floated in the creek, and set afire? OK, there was the matter of said brother moments later running down the hill toward us and screeching “Nooooooooooooooooo!” We later explained to Mom that he never played with that boat.

In those days, firecrackers were illegal. They’re still illegal today, but there’s a lot more “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more…” Even so, we had our contacts. My dad knew a guy who could buy firecrackers wholesale. One summer, we spent all our money and every cent we could borrow ordering fireworks. These pyrotechnics provided many hours of entertainment. We tried to blow up all sorts of unusual items, just to see what happened. When we tired of explosions, we used bottle rockets for target practice.

Our next door neighbors weren’t quite as fond of these activities. All I can say is that it wasn’t our fault they had a white shag carpet and a dog with a nervous bladder.

For several consecutive years, our family vacationed in the South. Down there firecrackers were perfectly legal and available to anyone who had the money to purchase them. Better still, if you asked real nice, the old guy might pull from beneath the counter a coffee can containing M-80s or cherry bombs. These big firecrackers were illegal, then as now. But this merely increased their allure. An M-80 could easily blow up a cantaloupe or a jar of peanut butter.

It should be no surprise that we also liked model rocketry. One year at Christmas, I received a red and white plastic rocket and bright yellow launching pad. It came with detailed instructions about how to launch the rocket safely. This was cool, but in time we found it was faster and easier to dispense with the launching pad and its fancy electronic ignition system. We pulled the fuse out of a small firecracker and shoved it up into the nozzle of the rocket engine. Eventually, we also abandoned the factory-made rockets for those we built. We learned from experience that it was better to not get too emotionally attached to any particular launch vehicle.

My younger brother, Wally (the one with the unfortunate aircraft carrier), wanted to get in the game. He built his own little rocket from a toilet paper tube and half a roll of Scotch tape (this kid kept 3M afloat). He showed us his creation after dinner one night. It was funny looking, but we thought it might fly. Of course, nothing could be left to chance. While Wally was enjoying one of his fabled 30 minute tank-draining showers, Slim and I made a minor enhancement to his rocket design. We took an M-80, cut off the fuse (so it would explode immediately upon being lit), frayed the fuse stub (to ensure it would light), and then installed the firecracker at the top end of the model rocket engine. Most rocket engines, when their fuel is spent, will fire upwards to either light the next stage or release the parachute. We knew from experience that this feature could be employed to ignite a warhead. When the modifications were complete, we resealed the rocket using the other half of the Scotch tape roll.

The next morning dawned warm and sunny. The sky was clear and blue. Wally was thrilled by the idea of launching his creation into the stratosphere. Into this bright morning we three brothers walked carrying the rocket and all our rocketeering toys. At Mom’s insistence, we unleashed our rockets, fireworks, and bombs far out in the fields (I can still hear her saying “take that thing way, way out.”). We found an appropriate clearing and set up for the launch.

When all was ready, we sounded the traditional countdown from ten as Wally crouched to light the fuse. Suddenly, we heard a “Whoooooosh!” as the rocket rapidly lifted into the sky. We watched as the engine stopped and the rocket glided to its apex. The next sound was a remarkably loud “BOOOOM!!!” Wally stood stunned for a moment before he turned to us. His eyes were squinted and his lips were puckered to display his peculiar version of rage. “I’m telling Mom,” sneered Wally. He turned and stomped off, swinging his arms with an exaggerated back-and-forth motion. If there was anything left of that rocket, we never found it.

Mom was none too pleased about our latest practical joke, but in time that storm blew over. Wally, on the other hand, has extracted his revenge in small ways at every family gathering ever since.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Names, Euphemisms, and Political Correctness

I learned today that KFC will hereafter be known as "Kitchen Fresh Chicken." Obviously, some marketing genius decided that either the word "Kentucky," the word "Fried," or both words were a problem. The latter seems like the obvious issue in today's diet-conscious world, but we cannot discount the disdain felt by all New Yorkers for anything originating west of the Hudson. From this vantage point, how could a product from Kentucky be a smart choice?

This name change joins a long line of product and brand name shifts meant to adapt to changing times. In the eighties, sugar came under attack. Sugar Pops became Corn Pops. Sugar Smacks morphed into Honey Smacks. Sugar Frosted Flakes are now known as simply Frosted Flakes. I have no reason to believe they changed the recipe, merely the moniker.

It gets worse. I'm not certain precisely when it happened, but one morning a while back we all woke up to a world where used cars became "pre-owned" vehicles. This term reminds me of the Doctor Grabow tobacco pipes they used to sell in drug stores. Their packaging claimed the pipes were "pre-smoked." Somehow, the thought of having someone else smoke a pipe before it was purchased always seemed even more disgusting than merely smoking the pipe.

About the same time, the infamous used car salesman became an automotive sales consultant. This title suggests you ought to want to hear their opinion about which "pre-owned" car to buy. Not likely.

I used to go to a barber. I now visit a hair designer. All I really want is a haircut, though I do sometimes wonder what happened to the peppermint striped pole.

Sometimes, there's a good reason to change names. For example, ValuJet Airlines tried to escape a bad safety record (complete with planes falling out of the sky) by changing their name to AirTran. Too bad they didn't move their operations to some other part of the world as well.

The problem is that when companies change names, I always assume that they believe that any goodwill associated with the old name has been pretty well used up. This stunt is particularly problematic when banks do it. I want my bank to have been in the same place and operating under the same name for a long time. This arrangement helps to convince me that the manager won't head to South America with my deposits. Nevertheless, banks are the worst. They are forever buying and merging and spinning off and changing their names all the while. These practices don't inspire confidence.

Telephone companies are almost as bad. Many of them have legitimate reasons to want to hide from their history. In a break from traditional branding strategies, they clearly don't want us to be able to keep them straight.

How far can this rebranding process go? Let's find out. Here are some of my ideas for extending the concept into new territories.

There is great power in names. Those who name products and services can manipulate our perceptions and sometimes even our purchasing preferences. Our challenge as consumers is to look beyond the labels and the hype. When we do, we’ll see that a Twinkie by any other name is still a Twinkie.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Suburban Spelunking

When I was a kid, my friends and I got a kick out of exploring the sewer systems. No, not the sanitary sewers. Any kid would know immediately that wasn't a good place. I'm talking about the sewers that carry away rain water. Most towns have mazes of such sewers beneath the streets.

I have little doubt the local parents wondered what was up when they spotted a group of boys heading toward the creek carrying flashlights. It was sort of like Huck Finn meets the Little Rascals.

We made maps and compared notes about subterranean landmarks. Believe it or not, there were some interesting sights down there, at least from a ten year old's perspective. Our favorite was a big room where several pipes converged. There were ledges that appeared to us to be seats all around the outside of the walls. This was our secret meeting place.

Every so often, we'd come to a curbside drain on a busy street. It was fun to freak out pedestrians by hailing them from within the sewer. These openings also gave us bearings so we could associate underground locales with their topside addresses.

My mother was quite naturally horrified by the idea that her little darlings were playing in the sewers. She never quite understood the attraction. She made us promise not to go down there if there was, or even might be, rain. To her credit, she never forbade us to go underground. She figured that eventually, we'd find other ways to amuse ourselves. As usual, Mom was right.

Looking back, this whole business was pretty much insane. I did gain some insight into why Ralph Kramden's upstairs neighbor, Ed Norton, on the the Honeymooners was so odd. He worked in the sewer. Back in those days, I guess my friends and I must have been odd as well.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Pizza Life Cycle

This blog has been entirely too serious lately. It's time for something a bit lighter. On second thought, this topic might be as heavy as any discussed here. Nevertheless, tonight we examine the pizza life cycle.

Imagine sitting around with some friends watching a football game. It's the second game on a Sunday afternoon and it's almost halftime. Lunch is a distant memory and that bowl of stale corn chips has long ago lost its attraction. Everybody is hungry. The discussion subtley shifts from the counter trey to that tray on the counter.

At a time like this, one's imagination drifts through the wide world of potential culinary delights. There's wings or Wheaties, ribs or roast beef, moo shu or mud pie, chicken or chili, burgers or burritos, subs or soup, hot dogs or hot fudge, fried rice or Italian ice, turkey or Twinkies, nachos or noodles. Then, of course, there's that most American of all snack foods - Pizza!

Ah, pizza... The creamy cheese, the tangy tomato sauce, the crispy crust, and all those delectable toppings. During our hypothetical game, pizza is a natural. It just sounds perfect. It's sweet. It's salty. It's hot. It's delicious. The very thought of lifting that first steaming slice is enough to make the mouth water in anticipation.

So we call for pizza. Guys will inevitably order twice as much as any starving army could possible eat. After all, no one wants to have to take the last piece. A good hour later, the pizza dude finally appears at the front door. There are no established rules for determining gratuities for such folk. My system is to round up to the nearest multiple of $5 and tell pizza dude to keep the change.

Now comes that magic moment. The box is opened to reveal the glorious pie within. A shaft of light appears from Heaven as the clouds part. The singing of angels announces the arrival of our perfect meal. Guys, however, have little interest in the spirituality of this special moment. They invariably dig in, grabbing pieces without bothering to locate optional amenities likes plates, utensils, or napkins.

Pizza tastes great when you begin. Ordering pizza seems like a brilliant strategy. The more you eat, the more you want, at least for a while. Then, suddenly, the tide begins to turn as the crowd gets full and the grease congeals. Hot pizza becomes warm pizza, and ultimately cold pizza. At this stage, only the hard core pizza eaters are still in the game. The rest are now wallowing deep in their chairs and emitting low growling noises.

About this time, I begin to question the whole pizza decision. It rests like a greasy mass in my now bloated belly. The very sight of the leftover pizza remnants makes me queasy. At that point, I hate pizza. I hate the dude who brought the pizza. I hate myself for eating that pizza. I even hate the box in which the pizza arrived. In time, I will determine that the pizza and I can no longer remain within the same house. The box must go out into the garbage immediately. It simply can be no other way.

Now the cycle is complete. In time, I will forget the less attractive portions of this episode and retain only the memory of that first delicious slice. That will be the day when I again call for pizza.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Quoting Ronnie

Do you remember Ronnie Ray-Gun? Back in the eighties, ketchup qualified as a vegetable in school lunches. James Watt said there was no need to protect the environment because Jesus was coming back soon. Drug addicts were told to "just say no." Budget whiz-kid David Stockman thought cutting taxes would increase revenues. AIDS was God's punishment for sodomy. Reagan himself once told us that pollution was caused by trees. In short, our nation spent eight long years down the rabbit hole with Alice.

Conservative Republicans now portray Reagan as a saint, a drooling saint, but a saint nonetheless. This was a guy who couldn't even stay awake for his own staff meetings.

I recall when the news services announced that Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's disease. It was very much like George Michael telling the world that he was gay. Both revelations seemed pretty redundant.

All abuse aside, old Ronnie once asked the voting populace a question that is worth recalling today. During his first campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan asked us, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

This question truly resonates in 2004.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Cultural Relativity

I'm a Midwesterner - born and raised. I have ancestors who have lived in this state since the late 1700s. I'm comfortable here. I have no particular desire to live elsewhere.

That's not to say, however, that I don't occasionally enjoy seeing another region and observing how life can be different. I particularly love the West. The mountains, deserts, forests, and coastline are a salve for my soul. The people there often act much like the Midwesterners with whom I am familiar. It's an easy and enjoyable place to vacation.

Last week, we visited my father in South Florida. This environment is a gumbo of cultures - Cuban, Haitian, old Southern, African American, and most notably, East Coast urban. This last one I find particularly unnerving each time I encounter it. Southeastern Florida is a haven for senior citizens from places like New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. These are people who have spent their lives talking fast and loud. They expect everything around them to happen just as quickly. They routinely push and shove in stores and interrupt clerks who are waiting on others. Their driving is pretty much the same, except with gestures.

All this carrying on strikes me as incredibly rude. These folks appear to have no consideration for anyone.

However, as I watched more closely, I made an interesting observation. This odd behavior is actually a cultural norm among this group. They see nothing wrong or unusual about it. They aren't particularly angry or upset with anyone. This is simply how they have been conditioned to go about their lives. How truly foreign this place is.

I've heard it said that one should travel the world in order to better understand oneself. For me, I don't even have to leave the country to gain new insights. Nor do I have to travel far to recognize how good life can be here in the heartland.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The American Dream Debate

This entry is a replay of a spirited discussion in which I've engaged many times with female friends, partners, associates, near strangers, and even my mother. I had at least one relationship end over my position on this (apparently) critical issue.

In contrast, my male friends and relatives don't give a hoot about this topic. Nor do they see any need to save me. We simply don't talk about it.

The issue is home ownership, that much ballyhooed "American dream." I don't think the benefits outweigh the costs, at least for me.

I don't bring up this subject, ever. Why would I willingly subject myself to that kind of abuse? Answer: I wouldn't. Nevertheless, the topic simply keeps coming up.

So, in hopes of simplifying my life (always a personal goal of mine), I will post the debate here. People who want to have that discussion can read it here and perhaps save both of us the aggrevation. The following conversation is with a fictional composite to whom I refer as FF (for female friend). All of the points presented are derived from real conversations.

FF: So are you still living in that apartment? (with derisive emphasis upon that last word)

Every Fool: Yes, I am. (sensing danger)

FF: Aren't you going to buy a house? (spoken with a tone that awaits a negative answer)

Every Fool: No. (hope of escaping this conversation is now itself escaping)

FF: You know, of course, that you're just throwing your money away on rent. (OK, now the debate is officially underway)

Every Fool: I'm not throwing it away. I'm getting precisely what I pay for, a place to live. (ducking as I utter those inflammatory words)

FF: (now clearly disgusted) But you're missing out on all of those tax benefits.

Every Fool: You mean that I could deduct interest that I don't pay at all today?

FF: Oh, you pay it all right. It's just bundled up in your rent check. (thinking she has me trapped now)

Every Fool: Writing fewer checks and having simpler taxes sounds like a good thing to me. (smiling)

FF: Never mind that, you're not getting any equity. (eyes rolling)

Every Fool: With my lower monthly payments, I have money left over for more lucrative investments.

FF: Believe me, home ownership is a good deal. (quite sure of herself on this point)

Every Fool: When you count in the interest, fees, and taxes, I can pay $400,000 for an already overpriced $200,000 house I don't need in the first place. How can that possibly be a good deal? Besides, 25 years from now when I'm retired, how on Earth would I make those huge monthly payments?

FF: (long exasperated exhale) You don't actually have to make all of those payments. You can keep the house until you're done with it and then sell.

Every Fool: I can't imagine agreeing to buy something I don't intent to pay for. That seems dishonest to me. If I want the flexibility to relocate when the situation changes, an apartment is an ideal arrangement.

FF: (pausing to regroup before beginning again from a different angle) Most people derive enjoyment from having a place of their own - a yard to work in, a place to grill out, you know?

Every Fool: I work hard all week. The last thing I want is to come home to chores like mowing grass, pulling weeds, raking leaves, cleaning gutters, or shoveling snow. If that's enjoyment, please let me be miserable.

FF: Aha! If that's your objection, then you need a condo! (closing in for the kill, or so she thinks)

Every Fool: I'll grant you that option is a little better from the upkeep standpoint, but condos are a terrible investment, especially when you factor in those skyrocketing condo fees. In this economy, many sellers can't even recoup their original purchase price.

FF: You know, you would have a lot fewer low life neighbors if you lived in a nice condo community.

Every Fool: Yes, but if there's even one loser, then I'm stuck with them for years to come.

FF: You're just afraid of commitment. (when all else fails, hit below the belt)

Every Fool: That's a cheap shot. Let's get back to the point.

FF: Don't you want to be able to decorate your living space without a lot of restrictions?

Every Fool: What restrictions? My concept of decorating is pounding nails and hanging pictures.

FF: You certainly have low expectations.

Every Fool: I've always said that I could be happy in a nice dry, well-ventilated cave. My needs are simple.

FF: I just don't understand you. (looking both baffled and frustrated)

Every Fool: What, because I have no female nesting instinct?

FF: Now you're hitting below the belt.

Every Fool: Yeah, OK, sorry. Let's just agree that we have different perspectives on this issue. We can still be friends and I'll forgive you for not saving me from the evils of apartment living. I promise to never again raise the subject in mixed company. (never mind that I didn't raise it this time)

FF: Fine by me, but you'll be sorry...

Every Fool: Have you eaten yet?

So, that's pretty much how it goes. I can't win, but neither can I give in. It's a classic Sisyphian stalemate.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Blogging on Blogging

I've been recording my words here for a couple of weeks now. In the process, I've learned a little more about myself.

First, I actually have something to say (at least *I* think I do). That was the concern that prevented me from trying this medium long ago. Sometimes the topic is serious and other times it's silly. But that's a reflection of me.

Secondly, I enjoy writing for pleasure. I do a lot of writing in my work, but it's just that, work. Whenever my colleagues need some words dispensed, I get the call. That's not to say that I don't like creating a slick turn of phrase. But I seldom get to choose either the subject or the timeline.

This wild ride we call a lifetime offers up some unpredictable twists and turns. When I was in school, I never received all A's at any level. I was a pretty good student for most of my school career. I could usually get an A in social studies or science without too much effort. I even received A's in math when things went well.

English class, however, was always my nemesis. I don't recall even once receiving an A in English. The teachers didn't like my writing and I didn't like their lessons (diagramming sentences was particularly painful). I used to dread those essay assignments. I recall topics like "Write a 1000 word essay about your most unforgettable person." I was fourteen! We lived in a small town. What chance had I had to meet unforgettable people? I made up something lame because I had to submit an essay. I hated writing.

I improved my writing when I attended college, mostly through repetitive practice. I still didn't like it much, but it was a means to an end. In graduate school, I learned that the professors rewarded flowery writing with unusual words and complex sentence structures. I wallowed in purposeful obfuscation. It was kind of fun, but it didn't help my style. It took a couple of years for me to get back to simply stating what must be said.

In my thirties, I agreed to author a monthly article for a computer publication. This was probably the first time I truly embraced writing outside of a work situation. I wrote about computer-related subjects, but I blended in humor and insight whenever possible. In many ways, this blog is a logical extension of those columns.

That brings us back to today. Now I get to say what I want when I want. I'm having a good time writing this blog and I hope you gain some satisfaction from reading it. For the time being, at least, I'm going to keep pushing these words out into the ether.

Friday, February 20, 2004

It's Still the Economy, Stupid

The current president's father was ousted from office in the 1992 election largely because of a widespread perception that he failed to deal with an ailing economy. Democrats repeated the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," as both taunt and rallying cry.

It's now twelve years later and the sitting president appears to have precisely the same vulnerability. Like his father, he led a high profile war in the Middle East. However, also like the original George Bush, the son seems intent upon running on that record alone.

Since the current administration came into office, America has lost 2.2 million jobs. 231,000 of these losses were in Ohio alone. Behind these faceless numbers lie real people and real tragedies.

Even for those of us who are fortunate enough to still be employed, the impact of recession is evident everywhere. In the past week, two different restaurants I have patronized for years closed their doors.

I visited a media superstore last night. To my surprise, the store had been dramatically reorganized. Where once stood densely packed shelves of books, music, and video, I saw open floorspace and sparcely populated racks. I estimate they had 25% of the merchandise I had seen last summer. These guys are in trouble too.

Last month, a grocery chain founded in our city back in the 1930s was ingloriously liquidated. Even though this firm had been on the ropes for several years, the finality of their death was a bit startling.

An economist might observe that the free market system, like ecological systems, works by thinning the weaker members of the herd. After three years of recession, however, I would argue that the weaker members are long gone. The current generation of victims, both human and corporate, are those who should be helping to build our future.

Without a renewed focus upon the economy at home, this recession will claim many more victims. America needs to realign our priorities. Resources that should be used to improve our competitiveness in world markets have been diverted for dubious military adventures, corporate handouts, and tax cuts for the wealthy. It's as though the US is running a race while wearing a ball and chain.

George Bush Jr. might still be able to win re-election, but only if he can address the country's economic problems in a meaningful way before November.

My Ten Favorite Minor Simpsons Characters

I love the Simpsons TV show. I think the great characters are a big part of the reason why the writers have been able to keep the show fresh after so many years.

The minor characters are especially enjoyable. They are used again and again in lots of different ways. Sometimes, they get an entire episode dedicated to them. Other times, they're simply a member of the crowd.

Here are some of my favorites.
  1. Waylon Smithers, personal toady to Montgomery Burns - One can imagine few leaders less deserving of idolization that the weasely, conniving Mr. Burns. Yet Smithers positively relishes that role. We can despise him for mindlessly adopting the shallow greed of his boss, yet at the same time, we must pity Smithers for giving Burns years of ceaseless and utterly unrewarded devotion.

  2. Comic Book Store Guy - A big part of what makes this character so humorous is that we've met him! He's a very big fish in a very small pond. The comic book store guy is an absolute expert. Trouble is that his chosen field is one so trivial that most people aren't even aware it exists. He sneers at those less knowledgeable, all the while completely unaware that his special skill has no applicability outside the walls of his store.

  3. Apu, proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart - It would be easy to label Apu as a cheap stereotype, and sometimes he acts that way. Yet the writers have given him a personality and a life (complete with a wife and octuplets). That wasn't easy since he seldom leaves his 24-hour convenience store. He sells disgusting food at ridiculous prices, but never touches the stuff himself.

  4. Krusty the Klown - Krusty does all of things that children's entertainers shouldn't do - smoke, drink, swear, gamble, chase women, associate with underworld characters, and so forth. At least for a while, Krusty was wealthy thanks to a line of signature products.

  5. Captain McAllister - Though he appears relatively infrequently, the captain is a colorful character. He talks like a pirate and always smells like fish.

  6. Hans Moleman - This pathetic guy is pretty much the designated random victim. He can be easily identified by his rodent-like appearance, croaking voice, and coke-bottle eyeglasses.

  7. Jasper (Abe Simpson's buddy at the Springfield Retirement Castle) - Foil to Grampa, Jasper only occasionally gets a few lines of his own to growl. More often, he stands around with an expression that blends amazement with bewilderment.

  8. Chief Clancy Wiggum - The number one law enforcement agent in Springfield always seems to be around trouble. Unfortunately, he never seems inclined or able to do much about it. He always holds a trusty donut, and by the looks of him, he does more than just carry them around.

  9. Mayor Quimby - This corrupt politician talks like a Kennedy and stands for anything that will get him re-elected.

  10. Disco Stu - This character is too cool for words. He's also too cool to appear very often. Disco Stu is trapped in the age of disco, but somehow sees nothing wrong with that fate.

What fun!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The Scream Heard 'Round The World

I saw today that Howard Dean gave up his bid to be president. I had no strong opinion for or against this guy. His message about the need for change had some appeal (though politicians affiliated with the party out of power always want change). In any case, he's officially finished.

Lots of politicians have bowed out of the primaries over the years, and for lots of reasons (besides just not getting enough votes). In 1968, Michigan Governor George Romney left the Republican primary race after claiming to have been "brainwashed" by the US military regarding the Vietnam war. In 1972, George Wallace's third presidential campaign was stopped by an assassin's bullet. In 1988, Gary Hart made a rather inglorious exit after the press revealed that he had an extramarital affair aboard a boat appropriately named "Monkey Business." This year was certainly not the first time a candidate left the race under unusual circumstances.

For months before the primary season began, Dean was viewed as the consensus front-runner among the Democratic candidates. He was said to have a modern, well-run organization, lots of eager young volunteers, and enough funding to stick around for the long run. Article after article praised his high tech approach to sharing his vision of hope for the future.

Then came that fateful day, January 20, 2004. Howard Dean had just finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses. He spoke before his loyal supporters. He offered but a hint of concession before vigorously spurring the faithful to carry their message throughout the nation. After listing the states he planned to visit, Dean did the unimaginable. He unleashed a maniacal scream unparalleled in the annals of American stump speeches.

Pundits labeled it the "I Have a Scream" speech. Late night talk show hosts replayed the audio clip endlessly. Radio DJs set the scream to music. Even mild-mannered public broadcasting had fun with this bizarre sound effect. By the next day, the general populace had decided that Dean was clearly out of his mind.

Afterward, Dean campaigned on, but never regained his momentum.

How strange it is that a single non-verbal utterance could sink an otherwise viable campaign. Is this really the basis upon which we select our supreme leader? I guess it must be.

I've already heard the conspiracy theories about how the media conglomerates plotted to get Dean out of the race. These stories seem a bit far fetched. Those guys are no angels, but I don't see how they could get Dean to squawk like a crazed parrot on espresso.

No, if this story has a moral, it is that the American people don't want their leaders to act like fools.

Too bad. In times like these, a little levity might be just what the country needs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Driving the Spike

Have you seen the Spike channel? It's the cable TV station that used to be known as the Nashville Network until they ran Lil' Abner, Daisy Duke, and all those singing cowboys out of town. Now they bill themselves as "the first network for men." I guess I thought that distinction belonged to ESPN, but no matter. Welcome to the clicker rotation, Spike.

I can only imagine the corporate thinking that produced this outlet. Picture if you will, a boardroom filled with stuffed chairs and stuffier executives. Each dark wood wall is lined with portraits of scowling ex-leaders. An ambitious junior suit proclaims "We've got a network for women, two in fact. They play all day tear-jerkers, health information, fashion tips, and intimate interviews about life, love, and relationships." The plumb chairman in the three piece suit shifts restlessly in his seat and growls back "Yeah, so what?" The eager assistant continues by posing the question, "What if we invented a channel just for men?" "Like ESPN?" inquires the now slightly interested chairman at the head of the table. "Well, um, yes," stutters the increasingly nervous executive-in-training, "but without the, uh, sports." The assembled heads of the media conglomerate look at one another with a mixture of puzzlement and awe. Repeatedly they whisper, "ESPN without sports..." "I like it," roars the chairman, smiling for the first time. "Make it happen!" Thus was born Spike (at least in my imagination).

They show a lot of Star Trek reruns. That's good. There are also plenty of car crashes and police chases, or maybe it's the other way around. There's Baywatch. I suppose there was no getting around that. There are the inevitable lame reality shows and Jackass rip-offs. Spike celebrates traditional male holidays like Super Bowl Sunday with special programming like Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on parade.

Then they have one show that almost defies description (I'll try anyway). The show is called MXC. It stands for Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (yeah, I know). Anyhow, they took a bizarre Japanese TV show called Takeshi's Castle and dubbed it into English. I have no idea what the show was like in Japanese, but it's astonishingly idiotic in English. They have two teams that compete, though we never find out what, if anything, the winners receive. The contestants are incredibly enthusiastic about performing stunts that are embarrassing at best and life-threatening at worst. They swing on ropes, slam into walls, and fall into brackish water. They dress like giant Chicken McNuggets and then slither down a greased slide. They run a crazy obstacle course while half-wits sit on the sidelines and throw things at them. The dubbed dialog is right out of a middle school locker room and has little relationship with the video. The whole experience borders on the surreal.

All of this carrying on is fine, but if Spike really wants shows men like to watch, they've missed a few great concepts. Here are ten new programs that appeal to real men:

Are you listening, Spike?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Chernobyl by the Lake

First Energy Corporation recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission again for permission to restart the problem-plagued Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Port Clinton, Ohio. The Davis-Besse plant has been shut down since February, 2002 when a large corrosion hole was discovered in the 6.5 inch thick reactor lid. Only a thin stainless steel liner prevented a major disaster. Experts believe the corrosion resulted from coolant leaks that had been present for several years. Routine inspections by First Energy should have revealed the problem long before it reached these proportions.

Computers at the same plant were temporarily out of service in January, 2003 when they became infected with a computer worm known as Slammer. Fortunately, the plant was not operating because of the reactor problem.

First Energy was also implicated in the massive blackout that struck the eastern US and Canada in August, 2003. Apparently, their grid operators failed to contain the blackout and permitted it to spread to other parts of the electrical grid. The estimated cost of this episode was $6 billion. That figure does not begin to capture the impact upon the 50 million people whose lives were disrupted, and in some cases, endangered.

I think there's a clear pattern of institutionalized negligence here. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that First Energy is more interested in profits than in safety. Several million people live directly downwind from Davis-Besse. Should the plant release radioactive material, the safety and heath implications could be staggering. This facility should be retired. First Energy has proved they cannot be trusted with ensuring the quality of the extensive repairs and establishing credible safety programs. Whether First Energy should be permitted to operate other nuclear power plants is a subject worthy of public debate.

The current administration tends to be very supportive of energy interests. However, no politician ever wants to be associated with a disaster. If they recognize the danger that Davis-Besse represents, pragmatic politicians might be willing to jettison it in order to safeguard their reputations (not to mention their constituents' lives). I encourage you to contact your elected officials. Let them know how you feel about the proposed reactivation of Davis-Besse.

Surf Guitar Remembered

I lived an analog childhood. TV, like society, was black and white. Every kid learned through careful observation just the right spot to slap the television set to stop the picture from rolling. We had three channels and much of the time there was little worth watching. We watched anyway.

In the music world, there was a time when payola scandals had almost silenced the voice of rock and roll. The Beatles had yet to arrive. One light that shone brightly through this darkness was beach music. This was genuine American rock and roll. These pioneers crooned about big waves, fast cars, and pretty girls wearing bikinis. What surrounded these slightly exotic lyrics was even more remarkable. The surf guitar sound featured a whammy bar and good old-fashioned reverb so thick it sounded as though the guitarist was in a cave. Sometimes, they added a piano. Other times, it was a saxophone. But that haunting guitar was always the centerpiece.

Even though Duane Eddy had already assembled most of these components back in the late 1950s, there was something incredibly fresh about beach music and the young musicians who created it. It was the first music aimed squarely at the emerging baby boom generation. This world seemed, at least to us, new and exciting.

I had heard beach music on AM radio, but the first big dose came at the movies. In those days, the best way to spend a warm summer evening was a trip to the drive-in movies. Beach movies, like Beach Party, were my favorite. I know Frankie and Annette seem ridiculous by today's standards, but these movies were more entertaining than a lot of films of that day. Harvey Lembeck was superb as the clownish bad guy, Eric Von Zipper. Lest we forget, they did, of course, have plenty of cute half-dressed girls. Best of all, the beach movies always featured a great band like Dick Dale and the Deltones. Even through those goofy metal drive-in movie speakers, that guitar twang was unmistakable.

Unlike most popular music from the first half of the sixties, beach music has held up pretty well over the years. It no longer sounds fresh and new, but the jangly sound retains its appeal. Here is my top ten song list, presented in stream of consciousness order:

      1. The Ventures / Walk, Don't Run - Perhaps the best instrumental rock song ever
      2. Dick Dale and the Deltones / Miserlou - You know this song from movies and commercials
      3. The Belairs / Mr. Moto - A lost classic
      4. The Pyramids / Penetration - Totally under control, but could break loose at any moment
      5. Ronny and the Daytonas / GTO - Trademark falsetto chorus
      6. The Chantays / Pipeline - My favorite
      7. The Marketts / Out of Limits - The Twilight Zone theme goes to the beach
      8. The Rivieras / Warm California Sun - Just sounds like a good time
      9. The Safaris / Wipeout - Every drummer wants to play this song
      10. The Beach Boys / Surfing USA - Thank Chuck Berry for that cool riff

Perhaps the real proof is that forty years later, the influence of this music is still heard in contemporary songs. Listen, for example, to Sleepwalker by the Wallflowers.

Beach music takes me back to that gentler, more innocent time. We can't go back (nor would I choose to), but it's fun to recall an age when we were all simpler too.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Planning is Only Half the Battle

Anyone who knows me is aware of my inclination toward planing. There are few things I enjoy more than a great plan well executed. My best work almost always results from careful prior consideration.

Please understand there are many things in life I fully recognize cannot (or at least should not) be planned. Nor do I create plans so intricate or rigid that they can't be adapted to a variety of unanticipated circumstances (though sometimes, I try to plan the contingencies as well).

Most of my plan plans work, if not flawlessly, then at least reasonably well. Once in a while, however, my plans simply don't yield the desired outcome. Last night was one such occasion.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day - that most romantic of all holidays. It's a time when married people buy the obligatory card and hopefully remember to tell each other how much they are still in love. For single guys like me, it's a different kind of event. Valentine's Day represents a golden opportunity to demonstrate to that one special woman how much I value her presence in my life.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. So I crafted my plan accordingly. I had a V-Day card. I had a dozen red roses. I had dinner reservations at a truly excellent restaurant. I had premium tickets to a very entertaining performance. Every box was checked. I was running ahead of schedule and had everything I needed.

When I arrived at the home of my beloved, I encountered a reality upon which I had not planned at all. My poor dear partner was not feeling well. Trooper that she is, she was all for making a go of it, but I could tell she'd have been better off staying home. She was, at least in part, playing along for my benefit.

She liked the roses and the card. She enjoyed our five course gourmet dinner. She laughed at the silly happenings on stage. But I worried about my unfortunate partner all evening. She was clearly exhausted and simply not her usual lively self. I felt a little guilty dragging her all over town in search of a good time she was unlikely to fully appreciate.

While I may get credit for a good effort, fate prevented us from having that magical evening I envisioned.

So what did I learn from this episode? Not much. Next year, I will be striving to create an even better plan. I will get it right next time!