Friday, February 16, 2007

Creepy Weather Alert

Here is another reason to be glad you live in Maine, especially if you have regained any of the feeling in your fingers and toes after going out to get the mail.

A 66-year-old man in Brazil had to beat a 16-foot anaconda snake with rocks a couple of weeks ago in order to save his eight-year-old grandson. Anacondas don't normally attack humans, according to an Associated Press report, but it does happen once in a while.

In case you're not sure, a 16-foot snake is considered “heavy-duty.” The anaconda kills its prey like a boa constrictor, gradually squeezing until you can’t breathe.

As you know, we don't have such creatures in Maine. The closest thing we have matching this description is Wal-Mart, which has proven immune to all wildlife management efforts and can adapt itself to any environment.

But the fierce anaconda could not survive our winter, at least not without one of those remote car starters. To live in Maine, you have to take the weather in stride.

That’s why it perplexed me last week to see Governor Baldacci declare a “State of Emergency” before it even started snowing.

Does that inspire a lot of confidence in your state leadership? That the Governor himself would roll out of bed and start screeching spasms of panic before he even looks out the window? Maybe he just can’t get that creepy “StormCenter” music out of his head.

Anyway, it turns out that “State of Emergency” is a legal term that allows the government and certain businesses to ignore some laws (like behind-the-wheel time limits for truck drivers, or 55 percent state funding for education) for a specific period of time (years on end, apparently).

So a “State of Emergency” may or may not reflect what a non-government person would consider an “emergency.” We need some extra terms to let the public know the governor’s approximate armpit humidity level.

Here's what I propose:

State of Paxil-Induced Relaxation: Default setting.

State of Mild Nervous Twitches: Some troublesome weather which might cause inconvenience for tourists and other people who have no idea how to drive.

State of Genuine Concern: A storm of some kind that might require certain people to work for 154 hours straight and later require therapy. Maybe a few power outages.

State of Severe Anxiety: We might need the National Guard for a while, but things should return to normal before the next election.

State of Underwear-Staining Alarm: Extreme loss of life and property. Good luck finding anything from your previous life among the piles of rubble But things will still return to normal by the next election, at least as far as the national media are concerned.

State of Massachusetts: Complete apocalyptic chaos.

My system sure beats the terms we have now. Does anyone know the difference between a “winter storm watch” and a “winter storm warning?” We also have the “winter weather advisory,” “wintry wonderland watch,” “advisory on watchful weather warning,” and “wicked-high-wind wariness of doom.”

I’m just waiting for there to be a “snake advisory.” I want to see how the governor reacts to that one.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Valentine's Day / Gag Reflex

My wife and I settled into the couch, the giddy beneficiaries of a rare early bedtime for our kiddo.

We chatted for a while. Then, our eyes met and we exchanged a long, life affirming gaze. Sensing a rare opportunity for intimacy, my wife “made the first move” by absentmindedly picking at the callous on her foot, which I had already marked on my list of her Top Ten Most Disgusting Habits. It’s right up there with Talking With Her Mouth Full of Toothpaste, which activates my gag reflex.

Let’s face it: it’s not like I can understand her while she’s trying to mouth some peculiar incantation, her failing effort to contain all that foam resulting in a speech pattern resembling that of a Korean head trauma victim.

“Uooua-poomoad-dou-eempdeee-aaa-diwuaauaa,” she said with a stern look as I walked into the bathroom a few nights ago.

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” I replied, wincing.

She spit into the sink, and said, “You promised to empty the dishwasher,” a declaration of such urgency that it apparently could not have waited until after the sacred oral hygiene ritual.

Anyway, back to the couch. Not wanting to let the callous thing ruin the moment, I whispered, “Babe, would you mind not doing that right now? I’d really like us to focus on each other.” It was about that moment that she pointed out a stray hair protruding out of my nostril; efforts to correct the situation resulted in further excavation than I originally anticipated, to the point where I had to spend a couple of minutes looking for a tissue or some discreet place to deposit my discovery. My grossed-out wife may not develop any sincere emotional interest in me again until my wake. But at least I could breathe freely for a while.

I share this story because chances are you fall into one of two categories as Valentine’s Day approaches:

1) Crap, what am I going to get her this year?
2) I hate everyone and I want to die.

If you’re in the second category, you are single on Valentine’s Day. There is no help for you, other than to boycott the holiday in the vain hope of salvaging some pride as you head into the all-important President’s Day sales weekend.

If you’re in the first category, you’re in a long-term relationship whose shiny wax coating has faded, exposing the functional dirty brown callous underneath. For a holiday that’s supposed to be about romance, Valentine’s Day is damn depressing.

Relationship experts stress the importance of doing the “little things” to remind your spouse or partner that you haven’t forgotten how important she is.

“Hi, sweetie, just wanted to call you during my lunch to let you know I’ve been thinking about you.”

“Oh, how sweet!”

“Well, it is getting close to Valentine’s Day, so I thought—“

“No, I meant Rose [our daughter]. She just ran up and gave me a hug.”

“Awww. I wish I’d been there to see that.”

“Yeah, she’s really starting to learn what it means to show affection. Anyway, you were saying…”

“Right. I was saying that it might be nice for us—“

“We can’t pour water on the cat, honey, it’s not nice.”

“--to call the babysitter and maybe set up some time—“

“If you spill the water again, we’ll have to put it away.”

“-- for ourselves, just the two of us.”

“Yeah, that sounds great. No, we’re not going outside, honey, it’s too cold. But we can color if you want to.”

“Because I was thinking about having an affair with a school bus driver who has three teeth.”

“Okay, well, do you want me to make the arrangements, or do you have time to do it?”

“I’ll take care of it on my way home from the brothel.”

“Sounds good. Let me know if you change your – OW! Sweetie, do not kick Mommy while you’re nursing! You have to be gentle!”

“I love you. I gotta go.”

“I love you to. See you when you get home.”

When you get right down to it, if your marriage is not brimming with soul-bending fiery passion, it should at least amuse you. If it doesn’t, what else have you got?

Friday, February 2, 2007

Not at Home at the Home Depot

Every time I walk into the Home Depot, I wonder who else is as clueless as me, and who else might actually know something about carpentry.

Almost every guy there looks competent. Pencil behind the ear, tape measure clipped to the belt, they all wear blue jeans and thoughtful expression, ready at any moment to grab a radial arm saw and get down to business building that shed, or that condominium, or, in my case, that Oddly Trapezoidal Collapsing Flower Box.

In the store, they masquerade as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. They stare intently at different flooring options, as if calculating the exact square footage they need. In truth they are trying to figure out if they can get by without a floor, and if The Wife would notice.

Observe how the male specimen follows the ethos of his gender when approached by an orange-aproned drone. “Can I help you with anything?” asks the employee, who is really saying, “I know you don't know anything about insulation; you've been staring at it for a half-hour.”

And yet the male must maintain the image of competence, the same primal urge to have everything under control that keeps him from asking directions. So he says, “I think I'm all set.” If desperate, he might say, “Well, I'm really leaning toward the Owens Corning R-13, what do you think?” Saying this much is a risk, because what if Owens Corning R-13 is a stupid choice, not at all what one would use to weather-proof the outside of a doghouse?

I imagine there are hundreds of thousands of Americans ready, like I am, to sue The Home Depot for false advertising. Their slogan, “You Can Do It, We Can Help” is completely misleading.

I suppose they could wiggle out of any liability by pointing out how their ad doesn't specify what they mean by “it.”

If “it” means “getting out of the store without waiting in line for 45 minutes,” I'd have a case.

If “it” means “getting bad advice from a guy in the plumbing section whose only expertise about plumbing comes from showering every five or six days,” I could be in for a long day in court.

But supposing “it” refers to anything having to do with successfully completing a home renovation or repair project, payday for me.

If they really wanted to “help,” they would set up booths in every department where experienced handymen or handywomen would point out how much money and time I would save by hiring them, particularly when you include the cost of marriage counseling.

Painting is the worst. Our most recent home renovation called for me to paint a ceiling white, which was the most physically demanding task I'd had to undertake since playing racquetball the day before, so naturally I resented having to do it while my wife took care of the baby.
When it looked like we might run out of paint, I strategically avoided covering a few inconspicuous spots. I didn't pay much attention to drips and such, mainly because I got distracted into the groove of Led Zeppelin on my mp3 player.

When my wife came in, she frowned. An act of war. She was disappointed over me doing a 100% pristine Michelangelo-quality job on our ceiling.

Having endured almost 90 minutes of tortuous backbending labor, I lost it. I threw a berserk temper tantrum like you wouldn't believe. I'm pretty sure I got the neighbors' attention, which is hard to do because our neighbors are horses.

How dare she live the life of luxury and then jump down my throat with her nitpicky demands?

We called in a friend for a third opinion. “Dude,” he said, “it looks impressionist.” I guess that's not what one looks for in one's family room.

Some friend. Real helpful, thanks. I told him he missed his calling. He should have gotten a job at the Home Depot.


Keeping Tabs on the News

It's a shame we don't have any cheesy tabloid newspapers covering Maine. All the news we have now is responsible, official-sounding and... boring.

This is why we need tabloids. Of course, when people hear “tabloid,” they think National Enquirer, which covers space aliens giving birth to a 275-pound reincarnated Elvis. There are “tabloids” that cover “real” news, just in a more creative way than the mainstream media.

Imagine how much more interesting Maine news would be if we had a newspaper like The New York Post. Here are a few recent headlines from The Bangor Daily News; I'll show you how a scrappy tabloid like The Post would have handled the story:

The headline “Bucksport Targets Youth Drinking” would have been written “No More Drunk Bucks.”

Similarly, “Overcrowded State Prisons Lack Funding” would become “Wardens Whine for Crowded Cons.”

“Airport Plan for Jonesboro Dropped” transforms to “Just Plane Jonesin'.”

“Former Officer to Serve Five Days for Slashing Tires” would become “Ex-Cop in Clink For Firestone Filet.”

Okay, one more: “Warden Awaits Safe Ice to Kill Deer Hurt on Lake” equals “Bambi Execution Stayed.”

I could do this all day long, but you get the idea.

The downside, of course, is that The New York Post is one of the raunchiest, most irresponsible newspapers in the world. It cannot be relied upon for truthful information.

A recent article on the New York Yankees is a perfect example. The Post splashed a big article on its sports page about how shortstop Derek Jeter and third baseman Alex Rodriguez need to repair their friendship in order for the Yankees to succeed.

The problem: the only source for this analysis was Daryl Strawberry, a former ballplayer-turned-crack addict who, according to the article, was basing his information solely on “a vibe he gets from watching the games on TV.”

With those kinds of editorial standards, they might as well just make stuff up.

Still, the tabloids have an important function in our society. They tend to take more risks and report stories more aggressively, which occasionally results in breaking some actual news earlier than other papers.

But most importantly, they add spice to the news. The Post wakes me up, gets me interested in the world. Then I turn to The Boston Globe or The Washington Post to find reality.

The news is depressing. As comedian Steven Wright once said, “Depression is anger without enthusiasm.” We need a tabloid to add the enthusiasm – to give us a reason to get emotionally interested in the news, and to act (even if that action amounts to tossing the paper aside in a disgusted manner).

Are the people of Maine just going to lay down and take all this responsible, classy journalism? We deserve better! Are we just going to let the local media bludgeon our enthusiasm with thoughtful, high-minded, and carefully-crafted reporting that has limited bias? Where is our New York Post, our Boston Herald? Where is our God-forsaken FOX News, for crying out loud?

If I am fortunate enough to continue writing this column for an audience, I will do my best to fill the void. I will work tirelessly to deliver the freshest, most important news while adhering fiercely to the highest ethical standards of the entertainment industry.

It won't be easy, but I hope you'll agree I have a knack for it.


Consolidate This!

By Chuck McKay

If anyone thinks the Baldacci Administration’s plan to consolidate school districts will actually save money in the long run, please insert the following information into your brain and press “liquefy.”

Sure, they predict a savings of $250 million or so right off. But it won’t take long for the savings to become extinct (or, as we say in the education business, “to go the way of the lottery-proceeds-for-schools idea”).

The consolidation plan assumes that reducing the number of superintendents to 26 will mean 125 or so former superintendents wandering around looking for other work, rather than continuing to be relatively highly paid educators.

Right. Can you imagine your local superintendent of schools, sitting on a bench downtown, playing a guitar in hopes of passers-by dropping spare change into his cap, temporarily boosting his otherwise crushed spirit? That would be fantastic! I am suddenly 100 per cent in favor of consolidation!

Except that’s not what will happen. Instead, current school administrators will assume new, re-named assistant positions making almost the same amount of money. You’ll have giant school districts full of Assistant Curricular Coordinating Directive Superintendents and Administrative Special Education Director Liaisons for Coordinating the Curriculum, each with at least one secretary.

In ten years, these 26 districts will have engorged themselves in a gluttonous fit of hiring that will make each of them larger and more powerful than the entire state government. Or they will, God forbid, go on an uncontrollable binge of spending on resources for the actual children.

What stops them from doing this now is the angry mob that shows up at annual town meetings, fueled by rumors started by guys with no teeth named Bob or Earl who walked into the school one day and counted a few too many suits or newfangled computers for their liking. These periodic, indiscriminate tax revolts, more common in the smaller towns of Eastern Maine, keep local school boards honest (read: petrified) and frugal.

But once school districts consolidate, suddenly the angry mob may have to travel a ways to have its voice heard. Who wants to carry a torch and a pitchfork 30 miles? Sure, each town may have a local representative, who will have to limp his or her burned and bruised body to a meeting in some other town, where his or her vote may be one of dozens.

Adding a buffer between citizen and government action reduces accountability. (Augusta ought to be proof enough of that; people pay about as much attention to Augusta as they do to the new season of Survivor.) Less accountability means less incentive to keep taxes down and more incentive to hire a personal masseuse and budget it under “central office supplies.”

Meanwhile, Baldacci claims to be targeting the fat cat administrators; he’s less vocal about the fact that his plan calls for reducing the number of teachers in Maine. He wants to increase the statewide average student-teacher ratio to the national average of about 17:1. So instead of Sandy Ervin performing on the park bench, you’ll have a chance to hear the acoustical stylings of Little Johnny’s Favorite Science Teacher and his Quartet of Ed-Techs.

Another reason to feel great about the future of public education in Maine.


Achieve Happiness Through Immaturity

By Chuck McKay

Survey comes in the mail. “Please list major events or accomplishments since graduation. Tell us what you've been up to.”

In this situation you suddenly want to impress a bunch of strangers, people you haven't seen in ten years, and people you won't see for another ten years.

It's hard to do. Got a family? Big deal, even the biggest losers in the world can have kids with another loser. Making six figures? You pretentious snob. Traveled the world? Why don't you settle down and figure out what you want!

I solved the conundrum by reverting to my Personal Life Philosophy: never pass up an opportunity to stain a serious, good-faith effort with immature creativity.

My response looks like this:

1996: Took up ping-pong, placed second in imaginary New England Championships.
1997: Befriended a cow.
1998: Speeding ticket.
1999: Paroled.
2000: Answered the age old question, “How much sex can one man not have?”
2001: Mmmmm... chewable Tylenol.
2002: Purchased lawnmower.
2003: Confirmed Pythagorean Theorem.
2004: In bloodless coup, seized control of the government of Tennessee, demanded that they adopt English as their official language and stop pronouncing “milk” as “mealk,” decided Third-World politics was not for me, turned state back over to tacky Dolly-obsessed souvenir-hawking strip merchants.
2005: Saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to unicycle.
2006: Used a stick to poke at dead thing in my yard.
2007: In devastating display of military might, reduced Lego city to a pile of rubble.

No feeling matches that of filling up you class reunion survey with so many impressive accomplishments that you have to start writing up the side of the page, in really tiny print, like a poorly-planned yearbook message.

Ugh. Don't even get me started about my yearbook.

“Dear Chet, You've been such a great friend these four years! Where did the time go? Seems like I barely got to know you [probably because you are an awkward, acne-infested pathetic stick figure with Rush Limbaugh's body odor]. Perhaps our paths will cross again some day. If you ever need a friend, give me a call [or stare at my cheering photo]. Sincerely, Trisha.”

As you can imagine, I didn't go to my class reunion. I probably missed out on some more opportunities for immature fun. But why stop with class reunions? My Personal Life Philosophy can help you impress complete strangers any time.

My grandfather loved to tell the story of how a telemarketer once offered him a terrific deal on a vacuum cleaner. “I'd love to have one,” he replied, “but it probably wouldn't do much good because our floors are made of dirt.”

The telemarketer, apparently well-trained despite his skull being filled with organic peanut butter, did not give up, and suggested perhaps the vacuum would make a great gift. “Nobody I know has time for cleaning, anyway,” my grandfather responded. “In fact, I haven't even been able to get down to the creek for a bath in three or four days!”

Some people, particularly my wife, would have you believe this kind of good-natured fun serves only to exploit others for a cheap laugh. Perhaps people don't appreciate me using them for my entertainment.

Am I too insensitive? I remember a cat I used to have in college named Yermom. I named the cat Yermom so I could say things like, “We need to make a vet appointment; Yermom is way overdue on her shots.”

Yermom did not seem to enjoy the humor. A few times I wondered if she knew how much fun we had at her expense, depressed because her name was a complete mockery. Then I realized she was a cat, and cats, like people, take themselves way too seriously. They prioritize avoiding embarrassment over being interesting or funny. It's sad.

When I moved out of my bachelor pad I had to give Yermom away, and I think she got renamed. I miss the cheap laughs. Sometimes they're the only ones I can afford.


676 words

Beware the Plow Guy

By Chuck McKay

It's a scary combination, a retired guy with a plow.

I once had a retired neighbor who plowed his entire two-acre yard, including the lawn, every time it snowed more than a dusting.

This sometimes resulted in large snowbanks spilling over onto my property, but that didn't bother me because it blocked my view of him snorting baking soda through a garden hose.

At least that's what I imagine he was doing, because there is no other way to explain his insane behavior.

He once offered to plow us out after a particularly heavy storm, and we graciously accepted his offer, being new to the neighborhood and somewhat fogged in the head from the early hour (9:00 is harsh when you live in a bachelor pad).

Ninety minutes later, he had pushed into the woods behind our house all the snow he could find, baring areas where we would not have dreamed of parking, such as the ditch.

Then he knocked on our door to ask for $20. “We don't have the money,” I said. “We thought you were just doing us a favor.” He didn't budge. Eventually I gave him our box of baking soda from the fridge and he scampered away.

When I was a kid, a plow guy tried to get my parents to pay his towing bill after he got stuck. We pointed out to him that he had driven off our property and into a swamp, but the mad plow-guy distemper prevented any logic from penetrating his puny skull.

You can imagine how nervous I got when my father retired and bought a truck with a plow on it. Fortunately, Dad has plowed only reasonable, necessary amounts of snow so far. But it was hard keeping him from plowing his bare gravel driveway every few days to “smooth it out.”

Anyway, let all this be a lesson to you. When confronting all of life's little catastrophes, the simplest solution is usually the best, unless it involves bending over and lifting things with a shovel.

That's what I spent the rest of my winter doing after the falling-out with our obsessive-compulsive neighbor. It has resulted in life-long back problems, to the point where every time I do any degree of physical labor, such as carrying our bills back from the mailbox, I am required to lie down and receive a back-rub from a beautiful woman. It's my cross to bear.

That's why, after I moved to a new house, I started salivating when I saw our new neighbor, Phil, zipping back and forth along his driveway with a spiffy little walk-behind snowblower. Before I could find my shovel, he had his whole driveway looking spic & span, with all his excess snow neatly piled up on trees and other people's windows.

I couldn't afford a new snowblower, so I got a used one for $100 from my brother-in-law (whose sales motto is “good riddance”). When I finally had a chance to use it after a storm, I quickly discovered two complications:

1. Phil's driveway is newly-paved, whereas mine contains various pieces of rock, dirt, garbage, etc.
2. Not all snowblowers are created equal.

This second point dismayed me the most. My snowblower tried its best, dutifully picking up chunks of whatever-it-ran-into and depositing them right in front of itself. Even after I figured out how to maneuver the chute-thingy, I still had, at best, a rather inefficient means of moving snow.

So I scrapped the snowblower and invested in a collection of snow-scoops. This has been the best solution so far. All I have to do is ram the scoop into a section of snow, then slide it along until I find a suitable place to dump it off (Phil's driveway). Moderate exercise, no back problems, no little engines to maintain, no bizarre plow-guy behavior.

I highly recommend the snow-scoop method. But if you must hire a plow guy, you could always give my dad a call. We all know he's not too busy.


Important Life Lesson: Don't Take Canned Food Too Seriously

By Chuck McKay

As I sat down to enjoy a can of Hormel Chili with Beans, a few thoughts meandered through my brain.

1. It’s a little sad to have nothing better to read during breakfast than the back of a chili can.
2. Hormel is taking itself too seriously.

The second thought arrived as I noticed the label urging me to visit Hormel’s website, as if I should sacrifice some part of my busy schedule to explore whatever life-altering experiences were available at

Don’t open up a new explorer window yet; I’ll save you some time. If you click on the site's “Knowledge” link, you can learn fascinating stuff. For example, they have information about every kind of egg you can imagine.

“Ostrich eggs are hard to find,” they observe astutely, “but one egg goes a long way.” In fact, one ostrich egg equals about 20 to 24 chicken eggs.

“One egg can be made into several large omelets or it can be scrambled.”

I don’t know about you, but if I get hold of an ostrich egg, I’ll do everything in my power to let the sucker hatch. Then, I would have a pet ostrich named Sven. I would be the envy of the neighborhood. Think of the gas I could save riding around on that thing. Then I would have a terrific surprise for my family at Thanksgiving. Did Hormel think of this? Of course not.

Recipes are the main attraction at You can browse and search thousands of them. Under “appetizers” you can find out how to make Bacon Wrapped Water Chestnuts. Imagine serving those at your Super Bowl party.

You can also find various chili recipes. If you are the kind of person who is inspired to take chili advice from Hormel after consuming one of their products, you deserve to eat whatever you get.
Let’s face it; Hormel chili is about as spicy and flavorful as Kleenex. Plus, each can contains (no exaggeration) 102 percent of your recommended daily allowance of sodium. From looking at the ingredients list, I can’t tell where all that salt comes from, other than perhaps the ingredient listed as “flavoring.”

If you want a real chili recipe, contact me, and I’ll share the recipe for my Seventeen-Alarm, Imaginary Neighborhood Chili-Cookoff Honorable Mention-Winning Chili of Doom, which includes jalapeno peppers, cilantro, diesel fuel, and tons of garlic.

Speaking of spices, you probably didn’t know that Hormel is the company responsible for SPAM. The official SPAM website, does not take itself seriously at all. Even the Hormel people know better than to take SPAM seriously. The site offers a great deal of cheesy fun and is certainly worth a couple of minutes if you’re bored. It also answers the age-old questions, “What is SPAM?” (compressed animal organs with “flavoring”) and “Who would actually eat it?” (the maniacally insane).

The Hormel website also offers recent Hormel press releases, where I learned about their new “brand unification campaign,” which basically means they’re trying to make all their packages look more alike. “The unified packaging effort. . . alerts consumers about the expansive Hormel product line in both refrigerated and grocery products, while providing a contemporary look and feel for the brand.”

Notice the word “alerts.” The Hormel label made me “alert” enough to fall asleep face-first into my bowl.