Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cut. Paste. Laugh.

Some weeks, it's not easy to spit out this column.

Like when my wife comes down with the flu, which puts me in charge of all the child care, all the housework, all the football watching, and all the undecorating and removing the Christmas tree before it finally turns orange.

So much for my weekend.

Under these conditions, I hope you can forgive my format this week, which was conceived at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, and my deadline is Sunday at dawn.

I encourage you to browse sometime, if you haven't already. It's a site that compiles oddball news stories. The best feature is the headlines they write to link to each story, some of which made me laugh so hard I nearly puked up my egg nogg.

If you need any extra incentive, take a look at these gems from their 2009 "Headline of the Year" contest (I almost hesitate to show them to you, since they make my weekly efforts to amuse you look rather pathetic, but I am quite desperate at the moment):

- Marilyn Monroe hormone discovered. Or should it be called Norma Gene?

- Plane crashes in Florida panhandle, no pilot found. Well, there's your problem.

- North Andover Andover Andover man survives SUV rollover.

- Adolf Hitler's family won't see any money from the sale of his paintings, since their past efforts raised a little furor.

- Bristol Palin graduates from high school, despite failing Trig.

- Peephole in door of girl's dorm room reversed; police are looking into it.

- One killed, six injured in pie factory explosion. Blast heard up to 3.14159265 miles away.

- The Pope encourages young people to use the internet, but says they have to use the same computer for the rest of their lives and they'll go to hell if they use any anti-virus software.

- Man gets called into work so he can be fired, returns home to find his house on fire. Wishes he had been laid off.

- Truck carrying a load of pigs overturns on interstate, witnesses report multiple cases of swine flew.

- Misplaced period lands man in jail, rather than the more traditional marriage.

- 80-ton wave generator works briefly as advertised when it falls into the ocean.

- Millions of women find sex unbearable. They can be identified by a ring on the fourth finger of the left hand.

- That foot found at a NY recycling center? Turns out it belonged to a bear. You'd think police could recognize a bearclaw when they see one.

- Police in London solve 1 crime for every 1000 closed-circuit TV cameras. Or about 2 for every 1984.

- Gay couple handcuffed and cited for trespassing after one kissed the other on the cheek in the Mormon temple plaza. Church officials say they've never seen such an inappropriate display in all their wives.

- Feet are washing ashore at Cockey Creek in Maryland. And you don't want to know what's washing up at Footy Beach.

- Group finds high levels of lead in Disney, Barbie toys, which can cause irreversible brain damage. The lead can be harmful too.

- Judge rules that City of Chicago can use eminent domain to relocate cemetary for O'Hare expansion. The move is expected to displace almost 1,100 potential voters.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

We Aught Not Relive this Decade

As if those God-awful year-end retrospectives the media keep feeding us weren't bad enough, now we have to put up with decade retrospectives, as well.

It's almost an insult that nearly every mainstream media outlet in the country is about to assume I don't remember September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War.

I'm ready for them to remind me that 2009 saw the deaths of Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and all the equity in my house.  If I wasn't paying attention when it happened, what makes you think I'm paying attention now?

The only thing worse than seeing all this drivel in the news media is knowing that people actually read it.

One critical function of the media, I've realized, is to validate our reality. We want to see that someone else remembers it the same way we do, even if that someone else is the same people who told us about it in the first place.

It's lame.

I understand journalists have to fill air time and copy inches during the news void that is the week after Christmas. But why not go back and fill me up with interesting stories that I probably missed the first time around? Let's see something new, not something old.

Let's give it a try:

2000: I manage to graduate from college, despite commuting to class on Firestone tires, spending 30 hours a week downloading songs from Napster and playing "Twisted Metal" on the Playstation 2.

2001: The United States experienced an event of soul-chilling violence that exposed our vulnerabilities, left us confused and scared, and sucked us into intense conflicts. Or, as people in the Jerusalem call it, "Tuesday."  

2002: I took a leave of absence from my job and drove around America for four months, searching for the soul of a nation, wondering what I might see that someone could hate so intensely. I quickly learned that the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico is not open when it claims to be.

2003: The United Nations proclaimed 2003 the "International Year of Freshwater," which President Bush observed by standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declaring that everyone in the world already had ample access to fresh water.

2004:  A dead whale exploded in downtown Tainan City, Taiwan, while being transported to a university for study. The bursting whale splattered blood and whale guts over surrounding shop-fronts, bystanders, and cars, proving that Americans really do need to pay closer attention to international news.

2005: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma bully and batter a lot of people we don't know living in places that are far away. Gas prices jump well over $4 per gallon. Yikes!

2006: Upon noticing that the decade is not going well, the world takes a year off.  

2007: Caught up in the hysteria over Bird Flu, I buy 50 pounds of extra non-perishable food and store it in the shed. It has since perished.

2008: Somehow, "Kung Fu Panda" becomes the third-highest grossing film of the year, finishing behind some Indiana Jones movie and some Batman movie. Ridiculous.

2009: Wake me up when it's over. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Clean-Up Time

As you watch a news update about the global climate summit in Copenhagen, where politicians debate if we should lower our carbon emissions by an eensy-weensy bit, or just a teeny-tiny bit, a neighbor walks up to your swimming pool and dumps a few gallons of some mysterious liquid into the water. Are you concerned?

I would hope so.

I know what you're thinking: "I don't even have a swimming pool." Fine. Poor example.

Let's try this one: I poured a bottle of unmarked pills into your well a few days ago. I found them in the back of a friend's medicine cabinet. The label was missing. They were pink and white.

I have no idea what the pills do, but I can't imagine they can be too harmful. A doctor prescribed them to someone, after all. They're meant to be ingested.

You've already had two or three glasses of water since then, with no problems so far. So what are you all worked up about?

What? You're calling the police? Pressing charges? Interesting.

Now ask yourself how you feel about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

No big deal? Carry on as normal?

Global warming skeptics insist there's no proof that man-made carbon emissions are causing any problems.

Whatever. What they don't say is that no one can prove our carbon emissions are NOT causing problems.

I assume you'd like to keep your drinking water the same. I vote we keep the atmosphere pretty much the same as when the first neanderthals started beating each other with mammoth tusks, or whatever they did.

Even if you think science hasn't proven anything about global warning, you also can't assume fundamentally changing the Earth's atmosphere is harmless.

The International Energy Agency, which is considered conservative in its carbon estimates, says we're on pace to more than double the CO2 in the atmosphere this century. Meanwhile, the Earth has less than half the carbon-eating rain forest it had a couple hundred years ago.

So: my daughter could live to see a global temperature change severe enough to suck our soil dry, turn vast swaths of temperate zones into deserts, and melt the polar ice caps, which would put just about every lobster pound on the coast of Maine out of business. (Are you paying attention now, Baldacci?)

But even if you remain skeptical that an atmosphere absurdly thick with CO2 is contributing to a serious climate change problem; even if you're not convinced there is a scientific consensus that man-made CO2 emissions are bad news, tell me what good could possibly come from futzing around with the atmosphere.


You wouldn't dump anything into your well if you didn't know exactly what the risks were. Why are we so quick cling to doubt when it comes to the air? When there are plenty of legitimate scientists shouting "Catastrophe!" and their opponents, mostly energy industry lackeys, can only muster, "maybe not."

Fine. Even though it's an absurd violation of everything we know about peer-reviewed science, I'll grant you your lack of consensus. "Maybe not" it is, then.

Big deal.

Let's clean up after ourselves, anyway.

And not like your nine-year-old cleans his room, by shoving everything under the bed and hoping it disappears into a convenient black hole. We actually have to get rid of our waste, and stop making so much of it to begin with.

It's the right thing to do.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Top Five Things That Prove America is the Greatest Nation in History

5.  Juice in a bag!

You know you live in an advanced society when liquid refreshment is widely available in bags. 

The bag is a container traditionally reserved for substances that don't leak, seep, drip, or permeate. But not in America, dammit. 

Our space-age metallic juice bags will not only wet your palate, but they'll still be piled up in landfills 1 million years from now, just to let future space alien archaeologists know how much ass we kicked.

Don't even start in about how difficult it is to stick that flimsy little straw into that little hole in the top without bending it all to hell. Your failures in manual dexterity need not reflect poorly on our genius scientific advances. 

Besides, your frustration may eventually force you to heave the bag of juice against a wall. Don't tell me it wouldn't feel satisfying.

4. Disability benefits!

According to the AFP news service, a woman in Quebec suffering from "crippling depression" recently lost her disability benefits when her insurance company discovered a photo of her on Facebook, relaxing at the beach, wearing a bikini and a smile. How typical of those commie canucks to yank this woman's livelihood just because she decided to share with friends the one rare moment of non-anguish, when she forced herself to smile for the camera on a doctor-ordered vacation. 

This would never happen in America. We call this behavior "living the American Dream." She can afford a beach vacation without having to work? No wonder she's smiling! Any loyal yankee would have to tip his hat to her, even an insurance agent.

3.  The Clean Air Act!

I recently read a book called "Lost on Planet China" by J. Maarten Troost, who pretended to be a real estate investor so he would be allowed into China to make fun of it. The primary target of his ridicule is the air, which, by his account, is about as fit for human lungs as used motor oil. The sun does not exist in much of China. The smog blots it out.  With four cities larger than New York and 16 larger than Los Angeles, it's easy to see why.

Leaving aside the fact that China is ruled by insecure and paranoid government officials representing a dysfunctional political ideal, the fact that we've managed to keep our air clear enough to see celestial bodies through it is reason enough to be thankful to live in the good ol' U.S.A.

2.  The best health care system in the world!

In Middleton, Nova Scotia, an 81-year-old man was having a heart attack in the parking lot of a hospital. His wife went in to get help, but they told her to call 911 or bring him in herself. 

After paramedics arrived and took her husband into the hospital, she was told she'd have to pay for the ambulance trip.

All this was reported in The Canadian Press last week, with no mention of a lawsuit. Obviously, they have no idea how to operate a health care system up there. Malpractice makes perfect, that's what I say.

1.  Bizarre scented candles!

I just discovered, where you won't find the sissy traditional aromas like "French Vanilla" or "pumpkin spice." 

Instead, they specialize in unusual odors, including: "bacon," "beer," "mouthwash," "new car," "sawdust," "stripper," and "urinal cake."

Yes! I can finish my Christmas shopping early this year!

Thank you, America. 

Friday, November 27, 2009

Read it and Reap

Unless you teach elementary school, you may not know about the "reading wars" going on as we speak.

According to John Reyhner at Northern Arizona University ("Home of the Tourists Headed to Vegas"), the outcome of these wars could determine how your child or grandchild learns to read.

On one side are those who believe in phonics -- memorizing how letters sound in certain situations and then "sounding out" new words.

As a little tyke, I had an easy time with phonics. You might even say I was hooked on it.

By first grade, even words like "laughter" I could pronounce easily, just by making the sound for "l," then the sound for "a," then the sound for a cow getting sucked into a jet engine. No problem.

On the other side are those who support a "whole language" approach, which emphasizes connecting the appearance of a word with a concept, so a child can recognize it on sight, without having to figure out the spelling.

This was the philosophy behind those infernal "Dick and Jane" books, in which words were repeated enough times on each page so kids would absorb what they look like.

Because it is very important for every first grader to know the word "Dick" before anything else.

Nowadays, there is a commonly accepted list of "sight words" that the little tykes actually need to make their way through most children's literature. It contains not just the obvious ones like "snd" and "lol," but other words they frequently encounter in their formative reading experiences, such as "run," "from," "the," "scary," and "pervert."

The very first "sight word" most children learn is their own name, which is why modern parents feel they can get away with choosing names like "Mykaelya" or "Khloe." If I ever have another child, I'm going to call it "Ptragvknic" (pronounced "Kevin").

You might think the main problem with ignoring spelling is that children don't learn how to spell.  Does recognition of a word in the reading process translate to being able to reproduce it when you write?  The process of writing involves inscribing one letter at a time from left to write -- in other words, it functions phonetically.

But, as you wel no, a compleat understanding of fonix is no garantee of speling abilitee.

Anyway, which side has the upper hand in this epic battle? 

The cynic in me wants to say, "which ever one costs less."  In reality, there may be room for the two methods to cooperate, after all.

Some experts have pointed out that a kid can learn a word phonetically, then come to know it by sight after seeing frequently enough. It works both ways.

And, as NAU's Jon Reyhner points out, children who come from "high literacy" households--where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly--tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used."

So, read to your kids a lot, and don't worry about it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

All I Need to Know about Women I Learned from Oprah Winfrey

No human being has been hated more for making absurd amounts of money in a way that is ostensibly altruistic than Oprah Winfrey.

As I write this, Oprah just announced that she is quitting her daytime talk show in 2011. It's hard to find a woman alive who has not felt her influence. Therefore, any serious effort to understand females must involve a careful study of Oprahness -- her magazine, her show, the whole works.

I undertook this grueling task, which absorbed all my free time and attention for many, many minutes.  Gentlemen, I highly recommend you take note of my findings. They will change your life.

The most common complaint women have about men is that they don't communicate. We fellas just don't see what there is to talk about once the relevant biographical details (who you've slept with) are out of the way.

Suppose you hear the question, "What are you thinking about?"  Why do women ask this question? Because no one taught them how to fish, so they have no other way of building bonds with people.

Typically, the honest answer will be something like "baseball" or "sex." These answers won't do.

Women want to believe their men are deep thinkers.  But there is no need to lie, because you are, in fact, a deep thinker. You're just thinking deeply about a topic she hasn't learned to appreciate, and it's not a priority for you to frame it in the proper context for her.

But give it a try.

Women love context.

(It also helps if you start with the words "I'm feeling.")

So if you're thinking about sex, for example, your answer needs to be "intimacy;" or, even better: "I'm feeling intimate/a lack of intimacy." 

Now you're speaking her language.

If you're thinking about whether or not the Red Sox will continue to use Ortiz at DH if his power numbers stay down, you need to say: "I've noticed that I like to feel like I can accomplish a lot athletically, so when I ponder the drama played out by highly paid athletes, in a sense it helps me feel more powerful. Watching one hero in the declining stages of his career gives me a parallel to my own fears that my best days are behind me."

Get the idea?

More examples:

Wrong: "I'm thinking I'd like to put in a new tree stand down by the property line."

Right: "I'm feeling frustrated by limited recreational opportunities, so I'm pondering some specific strategies to address that issue."

Wrong: "I'm thinking about maybe washing and waxing the truck."

Right: "I wonder if I'm doing enough to maintain our vehicles, because feeling like I can providing for us is very important to me."

Wrong: "I was remembering a Sylvester Stallone movie I saw a few years ago."

Right: "I was remembering a Hugh Grant movie I saw a few years ago."

Okay, that one probably requires a fib. This is hard, even for me! Again, better to stick with the truth, but reframe it:

"I was reflecting on how Hollywood war films promote reckless loyalty and violent physical domination as masculine traits. This is probably a side of myself that I need to explore more deeply in one of my four therapy sessions this week."

Hey, the ancient Greeks said "know thyself." Oprah reminded us that to be absorbed in your own self-improvement might be the greatest gift you can give to those around you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Playing Chicken with Needles

It's nice to know the government is always right.

The Maine legislature has killed a bill that would have made it illegal for the government to require vaccination for all citizens, according to the Bangor Daily News.

“If we don’t have the right to control our own bodies, what gets injected into our bodies, what rights do we have?” asks Rep. Doug Thomas (R-Ripley).

Well, for starters, you have the right to put blind faith in scientists and politicians.

A Nov. 12 BDN editorial argues, incredibly, that the government "must retain the power to protect people" if some horrendous virus starts killing off vast chunks of the population.

"It is hard to imagine any scenario," so sayeth the BDN, "setting aside any Big Brother-inspired paranoia, that would have [government] tapping this power with reckless or bad intent."

Yes, politicians are such nice people.  And it's not like there's any money involved in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, so the whole process is bound to remain pure and innocent as kittens selling Girl Scout cookies.

First of all, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to have a healthy skepticism about vaccine, or anything else you are asked (told) to put into your body. And those who choose not to protect themselves would only be harming themselves.

Secondly, there is no reason to believe the government is capable of making enough vaccine to protect millions of people at a time from some horrible new bug, so protecting its authority to make vaccines compulsory seems a bit peculiar. It's sort of like insisting I should have the right to bring my gerbil with me when I vacation on the moon.

Vaccines are still grown in chicken eggs, a method widely criticized as being not just a little creepy, but also way too slow.  What, is there a shortage of eggs?

Maybe I could help.

Back in July I wrote about how my wife and daughter brought home six fuzzy chicks in a cardboard box. Two of them were "broilers," which meant that eight weeks later they had grown too large to support their own weight, barely able to move from the feeder to the water pan.  Sort of like General Motors.

At that point, we were left with only one logical option, which was to put the broilers out by the road with a "free" sign on them, and hope a hungry person with experience in humane slaughtering and evisceration happened by.

Unfortunately, that is not what we did. Instead, I absorbed the responsibility for giving two fat fowl a dignified finish.  I'll spare you the details.

But we still have four hens who need a home (my wife and daughter will insist that they already have a home, since I managed to nail some pieces of wood together until they formed a chicken coop, but pay no attention to them).

So, on second thought, let's make vaccination against any and all flu viruses mandatory for all Americans. The demand for chickens and eggs will go through the roof, and I'll be able to make some quick cash.

The owners of the Bangor Daily News will be happy, too, since they can always count on their editorial writers to lay an egg once in a while.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Brief Civics Lesson

Apparently some people think the state constitution is an infallible document that should never be tampered with under any circumstances.

That's the only conceivable explanation for rejecting Question 7, which 53% of voters did on Nov. 3.

The constitution gives city and town officials five days to verify signatures on petitions. The amendment would have allowed ballooned this deadline all the way out to ten days.

Yikes! The revolution is at hand! Call in the National Guard!


First of all, let's clear something up. The constitution is not perfect. 

If it were perfect, it would contain the following clause: "No citizen shall be compelled to view or listen to any advertising that contains an unrealistically hyper used car salesman who exhorts people to 'come join the party' in a voice that sounds like the love child of Tim Sample and an over-caffeinated red-tailed hawk."

Yeah, I'm talking about you, Glenn What's-his-face from Bangor Car Care. You recently made a commercial you promised would be "serious" because of "these tough economic times," but then you slipped back into buffoonery by breaking Television Personality Rule Number One: "always talk into the camera."

Dude, I'm over here! Look at me when you're insulting my intelligence, dammit!

So, yeah, that guy needs to go. But no matter how much we all agree on this point, or any other, there's no way we can put it in the constitution, because it's a pure and sacred document.

We citizens exist to protect and preserve its welfare. Not the other way around.

Suppose I own a company, and an employee asks me for a few extra days to complete a project. The extension would have no tangible impact on our operations. This employee happens to be the only one who does not spend half his or her shift in the break room, pumping inane status updates into Facebook.

Am I a jerk boss for not granting this request? No, because I'm preserving The Way We've Always Done Things.

I probably don't have to tell you where I'm going with this.

People voting "yes" on Question 1 were most likely conservative. If you're a conservative, you like to conserve. Conserving is sometimes good. I hope people 50 years from now still know how to quilt, or who Elvis was, or what trees look like. 

But conservatism sometimes takes the form of cainotophobia (fear of change).

The margin of victory for Question 1 looks remarkably similar to the margin of defeat for Question 7. Is it a stretch to suppose all the same conservative fogeys who turned out to "preserve marriage" got carried away with preserving stuff and voted down a constitutional amendment for absolutely no logical reason?

Is the state constitution so completely infallible that it should never be tampered with -- except to ban gay weddings?

Let's find out. If you voted "no" on Question 1 and on Question 7, please email me at Kindly include your name, what town you live in, and a quick explanation of what the hell you were thinking.

If I hear from anyone, I'll let you know. Otherwise, you can assume what 47% of us have already started to suspect:

Maybe we're not doing this democracy thing quite right.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

When Dweebs Reproduce

I'm still haunted by memories of high school dances, where I watched others crowd into the middle of the floor, jumping and laughing and writhing around in the luscious elixir of their popularity and their deafening dance beats, while I sulked alone in the corner, waiting for it to be over.

And that's just chaperoning. When I was actually a teenager, it was even worse.

Occasionally I’ll encounter people who claim to recall their high school years fondly, as “the best years of my life,” and I’ll wonder how these people are classified in the same species as me.

For the record, I belong to the Dweeb family, which taxonomically speaking, falls under the Nerd kingdom.  Never confuse your Nerds with your Geeks.  Refer to this chart for assistance:

Geeks are smart people with an obsession, usually related to an alternate reality or some realm of hyper-specialized knowledge. Nerds are smart people who lack social skills. The differences among the sub-categories of “Nerds” are subtle, but perceptible if you spend enough time around them.

Observing high school dances has taught me that nerds are rarely happy, geeks are only happy when actively engaged in what they like, and everyone else is only happy if they have music, friends, and no current love interest.

Now that I’m a parent, I want my child to grow up happy. What can I do to make sure she inherits my wife’s confidence and popularity, and not my dweebness?

I found the answer by reading Neil Swidey’s Nov. 1 article in Boston Globe Magazine, titled “Why an iphone Could Actually Be Good for Your 3-Year-Old.”

The idea of giving my pre-school aged daughter some handheld wireless device seems completely absurd.  But by the time I made it halfway through the article, I was almost ready to do it.

Then I came to my senses again.

Swidey quotes several child development experts citing the benefits of putting the Internet in the hands of your preschooler. The iphone or itouch interfaces are much more friendly to little fingers than a mouse and keyboard, putting them in control of whatever applications you choose to install for them. They become active, confident knowledge seekers, rather than passive learners.

Sounds wonderful, right?

Swidey forgets that, though they are marketed as social lubricants, these gadgets actually forge isolation. The idea that my daughter could become curious about “Kipper the Dog,” look him up online, and be done, without any aid from me, feels icky; not just because I want to feel needed, and not just because Kipper creeps me out, but because interaction with me is more meaningful (in theory, at least) than interaction with a machine alone.

Obviously, we have books around that she’ll paw her own way through once she learns to read. For now, lets watch “Kipper” together.

Because, invariably, the kids who are happiest are actually the ones who have strong relationships with their parents.

Even if one of the parents is a colossal dweeb.