Friday, March 28, 2008

Humanity's Best and Worst Inventions of All Time

It's time for my first annual review of the Best and Worst Inventions in the History of the Human Race.

Let's start with the WORST:

1) The Debit Card. Whether you're swiping it for $145 worth of groceries at Hannaford or for a soda and a bag of chips at the Blue Canoe, never has there been a more convenient way for someone to suck all the money out of your bank account in a matter of seconds.

Do you feel secure punching in your PIN number as complete strangers stand just a few feet away, and a store surveillance camera watches your every move?

And does it irritate you when people say “PIN number,” even though PIN already stands for “Personal Identification Number?” There are all kinds of educated people going around mentioning their “Personal Identification Number Number” and their Vehicle Identification Number Number (VIN).

Get a clue, people.

2) Woman's Day magazine. This publication survives on disease and fear. It should be renamed “Hypochondriac's Day.”

The 110-page February issue had 16 different full-page ads for medication for everything from cholesterol to constipation.

Other pages shill unhealthy foods, like Spahetti-O's, or products with known disease-causing toxins, such as bleach, candy, and Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Meanwhile, a featured article enumerated 50 different health risks, including eight things that make you more likely to get cancer, such as driving, drinking, eating, having a mother with wide hips, and getting too many mammograms.

I wish I were joking.

3) Toilet Paper. I don't really have much against using trees to clean off the remnants of my personal waste, but I'm tired of seeing those stupid bumper stickers:

“If you object to logging, try using plastic toilet paper.”

First of all, anyone who has used a public restroom knows what it's like to sit in a stall and wonder about all the things you wouldn't do to get some plastic toilet paper, or some 80-grade sandpaper, or anything else more comfortable than the substance you've been forced to use as bathroom tissue.

Secondly, how on Earth do you suppose people managed before Charmin? Probably with a piece of soft cloth.

If an old T-shirt was good enough for George Washington, it will good enough for me, if and when it comes down to a choice between that or breathing.

Speaking of which, it's time to move on to the BEST inventions:

1) The toilet. I should not have to explain this one.

2) The Internet. As I write this, I'm listening to my own personal radio station, created at Enter your favorite recording artists, and they start playing lots of music you like, including wonderful songs you've never heard before. It doesn't cost a dime, and the ads aren't even that annoying.

I entered Conway Twitty and Rage Against the Machine at the same time, just to see if their server would explode or something, but it just started playing a lot of angry love songs.

Finding out about Pandora probably elicits a low-key response from most people, such as “huh,” or “neat.” Fifteen years ago it would have sent us into absurd spasms of excitement.

Put simply, The Internet has made it easy to get stuff for free that used to cost money.

Or to buy stuff that you didn't know existed, such as:

3) The right to adopt a wild horse or burro from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

I bet they'll accept your debit card.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Blazers of Glory

Your arms ache, you're covered in sweat, and your thumbs suddenly have enormous callouses on them. A faint odor of burning rubber pokes its way into your nostrils.

No, I'm not describing what your night would have been like if you had accepted that invitation to dinner with Eliot Spitzer.

I'm describing what it's like to play wheelchair basketball.

I've never had as much fun as when the New England Blazers of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) visited Nokomis Regional High in Newport a couple of weeks ago for a charity tournament.

The Nokomis faculty team employed a strategy of Mock and Distract, donning nerdy helmets and pads to try to look as pathetic as possible.

It worked. We only lost by 45 points.

Mac Williams weaved around all the other players as if his chair had been fitted with rocket boosters and power steering. Megan Anderson played bruising defense, and Player-coach Paul Cowan led fast breaks that would have made the Showtime-era Lakers proud.

Craig Popper, a student of mine who plays for the Blazers, prevented me from crossing half court several possessions in a row until I finally threatened him with an F.

Yours Truly managed to score two baskets. I also dominated the boards, adapting the rebounding philosophy of Charles Barkley (“Go get the damn ball!”) to my skill level (“Wait for the damn ball to fall in your general direction!”).

It turns out you do have to dribble in wheelchair basketball. Paul explained how to do this, but applying the skill turned out to be ... shall we say... a low priority.

And there is no feeling in the world like shooting a layup while rolling along at 25 miles per hour, only to watch the ball ricochet off the bottom of the rim and as you helplessly careen into the wall.

When it was all over, it felt good to get out of the chair. And it occurred to me, as it would have to, that the players on the other team didn't have that option.

Before you start expecting this to turn into some cheesy inspirational sermon, I want to point out that I don't feel sorry for those guys at all, and not just because they kicked our butts.

Why would I boo-hoo for those who have found passion and pride in playing their sport, who seem like some of the happiest people I've ever encountered? I have more compassion for the man in line at the grocery store whose wife left him because he didn't know how to communicate with her.

Or how about the woman scanning my groceries who drifts through life without a sense of purpose, surviving only on some peculiar pill that makes it hard for her to identify what code number to punch in for my nine-pound bag of ugly tomatoes?

If you look closely, you can see pain or listlessness in people's faces, or in their posture and their gait. But we instead get caught up superficial differences.

I don't know what happened to Paul Cowan's legs, but I'll never forget his Cheshire cat grin as he explained how we could keep from tipping over.

Craig Popper will readily admit that he hates being stuck in a wheelchair, but he doesn't talk much about that. Instead, he prates incessantly about how great he feels when he's in the weight room or on the basketball court.

I wish more people had his good fortune.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I Miss Information

I would like to apologize for using this blog/column (blogumn?) to recklessly and shamelessly promote the sport of badminton.

If you have been a regular reader of my work, you might be a little confused, since I have written more than 60 of these things and have never once mentioned badminton by name.

Bear with me. I'm following the logic of Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, a conservative activist group that opposes a new gay rights law in California.

According to the Sacramento Bee, a daily newspaper with a tremendous reputation in spite of its absurd name, the law prohibits public school personnel from “demeaning gay, bisexual or transgender orientation.”

The law is intended to prevent teachers from telling students that homosexuality is immoral.

Thomasson's take: "If you can't say anything negative (about homosexuality) … that means you have to promote it."

So, again, I must apologize for not saying anything negative about badminton. I hope my fervent support of this lawn game has not offended those of you who prefer croquet.

While I'm at it, I should also apologize for constantly pressuring my readers to love and accept carpet mold, swordfish, Sweet-n-Low, brothels, Idaho, and the St. Louis Blues.

I am ashamed of myself.

My regret would not be so intense if it weren't for something I read in a recent Bangor Daily News column by Pastor Lee Witting.

Witting wrote about this law, telling his readers that it prohibits the use of the term “mom and dad” in public schools so as not to offend kids with homosexual parents. He also said a similar regulation had been instituted in Britain against the the terms “mum and dad.”

As someone with more than three functioning brain cells, I immediately suspected this was complete hogwash; such a bill would never be signed into law by a Republican governor, not even a steroid-crazed one from California.

I emailed Witting and asked him to tell me where he got this info. He was kind enough to reply with a link to a website called WorldNet Daily, a pseudo-news organization with an obvious conservative agenda (the giant Ronald Regan T-shirt ad was my first clue).

A quick Google search turns up other sites, some of which repeat WorldNet Daily's claims about the law, and some of which identify them as products of a false “e-rumor.”

Whom to believe?

Eventually I hacked my way into the California legislature's public database and read (gasp!) the actual law itself. It says: “No teacher shall give instruction nor shall a school district sponsor any activity that reflects adversely upon persons because of their race or ethnicity, gender, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion.”

As the Sacramento Bee points out, the law “does not specify what kinds of statements or activities would 'reflect adversely' upon gays.”

So it turns out Pastor Witting and WorldNet Daily were spreading lies.

At least, that's how it looks until you read between the lines.

Just like if you've been reading between the lines of this column, you would realize I'm actually trying to convince you to convert your children to a diet of monkey entrails.

You have to be careful where you get your information these days.