Friday, August 31, 2007

“Steamed Crap:” A Chinese Delicacy

I don’t know if it’s good news or bad news, but soon you will no longer be able to order “steamed crap” in Shanghai.

As a result of the approaching 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has decided to clean up its act, starting with translation problems on restaurant menus.

“Steamed crap” was supposed to read, “steamed carp,” according to the Associated Press, which also reports that dishes such as “virgin chicken” and “temple explodes the chicken cube” are off the menu.

The fact that they didn’t bother to fix these mistranslations before now tells me the evil communist regime at least has a sense of humor.

If you’re wondering why the government has to be involved with restaurant menus to begin with, you’re forgetting that the government controls everything in China.

But that’s starting to change a little, too, with the Olympics on the way. China agreed to relax its normal limitations on journalists, for example, hoping to receive more positive worldwide press coverage during the games.

Normally, writing stories that expose protests or unflattering views of the government can get a journalist in China beaten up or jailed.

Thankfully, the situation in the good ol’ U.S.A. is different. Here, if a foreign journalist writes negative views about our government, he or she instead gets an all-expense-paid extended vacation in sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ha! I’m just joshing, obviously. We have it much better here in the West. I can’t imagine any government agency setting up surveillance on journalists or intimidating them (hmmm… Watergate… Patriot Act… NSA surveillance without court approval…).

But I’m getting off track. By all accounts, reporters in China have it much worse, and their government would like to disguise that fact for a couple of weeks or so.

With 30,000 foreign journalists expected to visit during the Olympics next year, Beijing has decided some of them might notice police beating up protesters or forcing pregnant women into late-term abortions. It might be bad PR if more than a few hundred of those journalists noticed these events and ended up behind bars or repeatedly jabbed with cattle prods for telling us about them.

To ensure that you can enjoy liberated coverage of the games (which I’m sure will also remain untainted by the interests of corporate sponsors), China agreed to allow journalists to travel freely throughout the country without first getting government permission.

Also, correspondents are no longer required to include the phrase “China Rules!” in their broadcasts, and they won’t have to dispatch 74 stories a year about captive pandas attempting to mate.

However, it appears China may not be living up to its word, as multiple news sources indicate the police still detain and harass journalists whenever they feel like it, even though the government had agreed to end this practice back at the beginning of the year.

In light of this, how could we summarize the quality of news and sports coverage we should expect to see in the Olympics? Is there some word or phrase that seems fitting?

If there is, you’ll probably find it on some restaurant menu in Beijing.

Friday, August 24, 2007


It's 3:30 in the morning and I've been kicked out of bed.

No, it’s not because of snoring, malodorous gas, or some late-night argument.

I'll explain, but first I'd like you to try something.

Imagine yourself mowing the lawn on a bright, crisp fall afternoon. The breeze keeps your lungs full of fresh, vibrant air, which only adds to the newly-discovered pleasure of wearing underwear designed for the opposite sex (just bear with me, please).

As your mind begins to wander, the lawnmower runs over a chicken carcass someone left laying around. The resulting noise startles you so much that you scream, lose your balance, and fall down.

Your clothing gets caught on the lawnmower somehow and you find yourself no longer wearing enough of it. As you pick yourself up off the ground, you notice your neighbor across the street sprawled on the ground in a heap of helpless laughter.

There was no point to that exercise. I just wanted to see if you’d do it. You sick pervert.

But here's one that does have a point: Imagine yourself in a foreign world where you don't understand anything. The only familiar and comforting presence you've ever known has abandoned you in a cage. You cry out until you’re hoarse, but there's no response.

Eventually you realize there is no point to expressing your needs, and you gradually become a mistrustful cauldron of repressed anxiety, like Rush Limbaugh.

Sadly, this is the reality for many American babies, whose misguided parents think they have to “teach” them to sleep independently, or else... God only knows what horrifying consequences could result if babies didn't learn independence. We would end up raising a generation of sissies!

This is just one of the myths my wife and I decided not to buy into once we started reading up on the increasingly popular trend of “co-sleeping.”

Another myth is that parents unknowingly injure or suffocate their babies. Recent studies have pointed out that this only tends to happen when the parents fall asleep drunk or high (it's a good thing Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have kids).

It's amazing how your sleeping patterns can change. Before our child was born, I slept like a meth-addicted howler monkey. Then I had an infant whose sleep I valued more than life itself because it was so elusive. My wife had to dance her to sleep to really fast music, and then remain with her all night.

(Often, it didn’t matter, because the dog would sneeze or something and we’d be in for another two hours of Brian Setzer Orchestra.)

Anyway, I learned to remain curled up on the edge of the bed without causing the slightest disturbance. Meanwhile, our daughter has gradually developed reasonable sleeping habits, although she sometimes insists on arranging herself lengthwise between her parents, thus forcing me out of bed with her feet.

Some people have told me they could never co-sleep because it would be too disruptive to their intimate relations. I say if your sex life was confined to your bed, it probably wasn’t all that exciting in the first place. And, as you’ve learned today, you can always explore alternative avenues to pleasure while mowing the lawn.

Sure, co-sleeping requires some sacrifices. But waking up to giggles and smiles instead of anguished crying has made it all worthwhile.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

My Vacation Diary

Once in a while I take my friends' advice and go away.

So this week I'm a travel writer. Travel writers gush over exotic places using the words “nestled,” “offers,” and “delight” over and over again.

As in, “Nestled in the southeastern corner of Penobscot County, Bangor is a lost tourist's delight, offering plenty of seedy gambling and second-rate lodging.”

Except travel writers are never that honest. As I present my vacation diary from last week, I'll do the best I can to describe my vacation last week without lying too much.

Day 1. If it were up to me, packing would be easy. Certain members of my marriage, however, find it necessary to plan for every conceivable circumstance, including the spontaneous random urge to make banana cream pie.

The Conventional Wisdom is, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, even if you can't operate the manual stick shift because it's blocked by your spare mixing bowl.”

Day 2. We're here. Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, nestled between bland Portsmouth and surprisingly hip Exeter, has much to offer the discriminating traveler, such as armies of senior citizens who delight in turning themselves the color of beef jerky, and various pregnant women smoking and cursing at random men.

But wholesome families like us can still enjoy the acres and acres of soft sand, the warm surf, the gentle ocean breeze, and the carnival atmosphere.

Though there are a thousand people on the beach at any given moment, it's easy to delight in my own personal experience, be it riding the powerful waves at high tide or dozing off to the sounds of happy children and squawking gulls, only to awake and find that my family has covered my with a seven-foot tall mound of sand, probably in revenge for me packing the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cooler, where they soaked up all the melting ice.

Our campsite is lovely, as well, although we are definitely “roughing it.” Public restrooms are a full twenty yards away, and we have to march all the way around to the other side of the camper to get to a fresh water spigot.

Day 3. Today we couldn't really get going, probably because our two-year-old got up in the middle of the night in order to announce, 34 times at the top of her lungs, that we need to be QUIET because people around us are trying to SLEEP.

So we spent most of the day poking around the campground. We notice that most of the sites are occupied by permanent residences, RV campers nestled between trees and surrounded with screen porches, landscaping, and satellite dishes.

Why pay a bunch of money to spend the summer in what is essentially a trailer park when you could have just stayed home and had basically the same lifestyle?

Day 4. We're back at the beach, enjoying the weekly free concert and mammoth fireworks display, along with overpriced calzones that I managed to get covered with sand. The next time I delight in offering to handle the food responsibilities, my wife is going to in nestle her fist into my teeth.

Day 5. You always hear that it's a bad idea to come back into Maine on a Friday afternoon, but the traffic was not all that thick, except around Kittery, Kennebunk, Portland, Freeport, Topsham, and Augusta. Also, some place called “The Yorks.”

Anyway, we made it home, just in time to nestle into bed and delightfully miss the deadline for this column. It was all worth it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

G.O.P. Astrology

I have avoided writing about the war in this column because I'm supposed to be writing humor and there's very little about what's going on in Iraq that is funny.

But we have to be amused at how so many politicians, especially Republicans, have backpedaled and waffled in their support of the President.

The most plausible explanation for this, of course, is that Venus is in retrograde.

Venus, you may remember, is the second planet from the sun. If there were an Interstate Highway stretching from here to the sun, Venus would be the next exit, although you would likely run out of gas before you even got to the Lunar Rest Area.

Venus, with its murky atmosphere full of thick, poisonous gases (sort of like Worcester, Massachusetts), orbits in such a way that it appears to move away from Earth for a few weeks every 18 months or so. Of course, it's actually not moving away from Earth, it's just turning around so it can modestly change into its bell-bottoms and leisure suit in preparation for a night out with Motor Booty Affair.

Astrologists call this “Venus Retrograde,” and they say it is responsible for people stepping back, taking stock of their lives, and re-connecting with their values.

Apparently, this causes a lot of problems in relationships, as old, unresolved issues resurface and couples tend to lose communication skills, as evidenced by this recent conversation I had with my wife:

Wife: Honey, I know you work hard and have a lot on your mind, but would you please put away your cereal bowl when you finish with it? We're starting to attract ants.

Me: I want a divorce.

So this retrograde is the most likely explanation for the falling out between congressional Republicans, who have done some soul-searching and decided they would really like the war to end so they can get re-elected, and Bush, who, despite his best intentions, comes off as an oblivious, ego-maniacal nincompoop.

The only noteworthy Republican who has not flip-flopped on Iraq is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Presidential candidate who, near as I can figure, says and does what he thinks is right, even if the American People do look fat in that dress.

As a result, polls indicate he has about as much chance of being elected President as Minnesota's transportation commissioner.

A former Prisoner Of War during Vietnam, McCain continues to support the Iraq War, probably on the grounds that the United States has already exhausted its quota for inexplicably invading foreign nations and leaving the chaos-stricken locals to rebuild the charred remains of their infrastructure all by themselves.

Or perhaps McCain believes we still have something meaningful to accomplish in Iraq.

Maybe our nation's greatest legacy will be to create a viable and peaceful democracy in a region soaked in blood and ethnic hatred for thousands of years, and, in so doing, secure the American Dream for generations to come, and, more importantly, enable us to lay claim to enough oil to finally build that Interstate Highway to the Sun.

Friday, August 3, 2007

ipod, iphone, ifreeze

August is here. (This is why you read this blog, to pick up such valuable tidbits of obscure information.)

As the last sands of the summer hourglass slide away, your kids will notice their furlough is nearly finished. They will make the most of their remaining freedom by attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for consecutive hours spent sleeping and watching TV.

Of course your child needs two months of dormancy after ten months of school. School is hard work; kids who don't wear themselves out keeping up their grades put just as much energy into figuring out their social life and maintaining a body temperature somewhere above 90 degrees.

Drive around between 7 and 8 AM on a weekday morning in January and you'll see what I mean: countless kids shivering, sucking their necks and hands into flimsy jackets or sweatshirts, hunched over like the elderly as they wait for the bus (ironically, many of these sweatshirts carry the popular brand label “South Pole”).

Warm clothing tells everyone you are a geek.

True story: My mother used to bundle me up for my bus wait: I wore massive coat, thick pullover hat, mittens, and galumphing heavy boots with wool socks. I did not object, because it was four degrees outside and I had a functioning brain.

When I climbed aboard the bus one day, an older boy, wearing a light wind breaker, his ears and fingers discolored from frostbite and his sneakers still encrusted with snow, looked at me like I had maggots in my hair, and asked, “doesn't your mother love you?”

That was 20 years ago. Nothing has changed. The school where I teach sometimes has heating problems. When I tell kids to bring their coats to class, they look perplexed, like National Geographic anthropologists trying to understand the language of a newly-discovered indigenous culture, and they say things like, “tell us more about this so-called 'coat' object.”

So the first thing you should do to prepare your child to go back to school is compile all his/her warm clothing and set fire to it.

Next, make sure your kids are equipped with a healthy variety of electronic gadgets to keep them connected to everything except their classes. The Blackberry, the ipod, and the cell phone are especially crucial.

Actual conversation:

Student: Can I call my boyfriend?

Me: I'm sorry, you're not allowed to use your cell phone during class.

Student: But I have to... uh... tell him when to pick me up from school!

Me: Wait until lunch.

Student: (after three-second pause) Umm... Can I use the bathroom?

Sending children to school without electronics impairs their ability to socialize. They may have to find something else to concentrate on, which for many of them will be an emotional hardship.

I can't emphasize enough: if you don't keep your kids “plugged in” and dress them in the right clothes (i.e. The same clothes all the other kids wear), you don't love them.

And you have to buy new clothes in August, because prior to that point they've been running around naked, and they can't very well go to school like that.

Although, don't be surprised if a kid tries it on some winter morning, just to prove that his mother loves him.