Saturday, June 27, 2009

Children: Priority or Nuisance?

Back in college -- probably the same semester a very attractive 22-year-old pre-law major asked if I wanted to visit her apartment to “study” together, and I said, “No, thanks, I’m pretty much ready for the test,” because I thought she actually wanted to study – I took a course in political theory, featuring Plato’s Republic, a text even more gargantuan than the sentence you’re reading right now.

In The Republic, Plato outlines his idea of the perfect city-state, where one “philosopher king” rules over everything, but nobody minds because he’s too enlightened to do anything wrong. Justice is always served, peace and prosperity are the norm, and the public bathhouses are open 24 hours a day for your man-boy loving convenience.

Plato’s vision abandons all possessions. No one would have spouses or children in his ideal world. Instead folks would apply their skills for the common good. Those who were adept with children would look after them in daycare-type environments, and the rest of us would do important things, like figure out where truth comes from.

Even as a college freshman who could never get a date because I didn’t know what one looked like, and was therefore eons away from enjoying a family life, I could see that Plato was on to something.

I could recognize, even in my late-teen stupor, that any society that treated children as a nuisance -- a biological necessity to keep the species going -- rather than a cherished responsibility would certainly advance and thrive.

Not convinced? Too bad, because we’re already moving toward Plato’s ideal. These days it’s fairly common for babies to enter daycare at six weeks old while both parents (if there are two parents) work. To wait until your child is six months old before returning to work is considered a long wait to return to the workforce.

This is not meant as a guilt trip. Putting a child in daycare can be an excruciating ordeal. We live in a fast society with a massive economy, and, in many cases, two or more incomes are required to keep pace.

In many ways, we live in Plato’s Republic right now, except that our leaders are far from enlightened. Observe President Obama’s education policy (yes, he does have one, though he doesn’t say much about it). It emphasizes expanding childhood education.


True, studies suggest kids who start school earlier tend to do better academically. But so do those whose parents haven’t abdicated responsibility for educating their offspring.
If the choices are school or neglect, obviously, school is a better choice at any age.

I know senior citizens who remember when Kindergarten was an add-on. Now we have full-day kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, Head Start, Early Head Start, etc. Even responsible, attentive parents feel they have to enroll their kids so they can “keep up,” or not miss out.

No one questions the merits of early childhood education. But at what point is a child better off with a parent rather than an “expert?”

At this rate, you’ll live to see the day when children are whisked away from their parents at birth to enter some sort of infant enrichment program, not to be seen or heard from again until they graduate high school.

Ever wonder why children don’t respect their parents as they used to?

Maybe it’s because, after being shuffled from one adult to the next since toddlerhood or before, their parents are simply less important to them.

And vice-versa.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tales of Fail

To honor my new favorite website, (it won’t disappoint you, I promise, unless you’re one of those demented freaks who gains no pleasure from others’ mistakes and misfortunes), I have decided to compile my own list of incredibly stupid behavior.

Thanks in part to Failblog (whose content is not always 100% wholesome, just be forewarned), current slang calls such acts “FAIL.” The word “failure” is no longer necessary, Mr. Webster.

I’ll start with a letter that I received recently from a company called Oriental Trading, a company I'd never heard of.

I tore open the envelope because the words “pay to the order of” showed through the window. Sweet!

Turns out it was only a voucher fort ten dollars off my next purchase of $30 or more. I’m so disillusioned!

The attached letter was addressed to my wife. Good thing, because her name is easy to spell. I, on the other hand, have often been called “Chuck” or “Carles” in these correspondences.

I went by “Charles” until 4th grade, when Mr. Betterly caught me standing in the back of the classroom, urgently but discretely scratching myself in a personal area. (FAIL!) He announced, with all the discretion of a recently-divorced drill sergeant, “If you’ve got something to take care of, Charles, you probably ought to use the bathroom.”

Since then, I have gone by numerous aliases.

Anyway, I don’t use my wife’s name in my column, because then she might have to start using aliases, so I’ll just pretend the Oriental Traders letter is addressed to me. It says:

“Dear Charles,

You know the old saying, ‘New friends are like silver but old friends are like gold?’ Well, that’s how we feel about you. You’re an old friend we haven’t seen in a while. And frankly, we miss you!”

Somebody get me a Kleenex.

To drive home the idea that I’m special to them, a fake stickie note appears at the bottom of the page, with phony handwriting offering the chance to “enjoy exclusive savings when you sign up to receive our weekly emails.”

This, somehow, fails to entice me.

People, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: you can set your blender on crush, puree, pulverize, blend, liquefy, dismember, obliterate, masticate, humiliate, or incinerate, but, at the end of the day, it’s just some metal blades whirring around really fast so you can enjoy a relaxing fruity beverage, and that’s all.

My next example of Fail comes from Scrabble, where my friends and I compete at the highest level, measured in terms of our effort in convincing everyone how awful our rack is at any given moment:

“I’ve had the worst luck. I have all vowels.”

“Yeah, well I’ve had six Ps and a Q for three turns in a row.”

“That’s nothing. The last four turns my rack has held nothing but nine V’s, two Chinese symbols that look like a hot dog stand, and a small sample of llama dung that I’m pretty sure contains some e coli.”

Lately, I’ve taken to playing Scrabble on Facebook, which allows you to cheat unabashedly.

It’s a shame that a whole generation of Scrabble players might grow up without learning the gamesmanship involved in playing a word like “blurve” on a Triple Word Score just to see if an opponent has the gonads to challenge.

“Sure, it’s a word. I keep seeing it in my junk mail.” Since no one but me reads junk mail, it works every time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Coffee, Tea, or Validation

The arson at that topless coffee shop in Vassalboro has become the story that won’t go away.

Even national media outlets are making sure the world stays abreast of the situation.

Apparently, they want every detail of the owner’s hardship permanently implanted in our brains, along with his plans to erect a bigger and better shop on the site, even though he’s practically broke.

The news organizations have nursed the original controversy, focusing on the tit-for-tat arguments that have cleaved neighbors since the Grand View Coffee Shop opened last winter.

Meanwhile, we know very little about the arson investigation, and even less about potential suspects. What about those who attended a meeting that night at which the owner announced plans to expand?

And no one has bothered to try to explain why people would have a problem with such a wholesome presence in their town.

What harm can a few topless waitresses do? The “Grand View” is nothing to get excited about.

For one thing, the same “View” is readily available on the Internet. Why bother to go out and pay for something you can get freely in the privacy of your own home?

The answer to this question points to a monumental fact that all these news outlets, even the big-city newspapers and cable TV networks, failed to notice: this coffee shop offered a critical public service not available on cyberspace: the chance to use someone else to feel better about yourself.

If you go to a normal restaurant, someone serves you. Being served lets you feel in control. The waiter or waitress pretty much has to do what you say, within reason.

This is why going out to eat remains popular, even in a poor economy. The convenience of not having to cook and clean up after your own meal enters into it. A serve-yourself, cafeteria-style eatery can accomplish that, and more cheaply, too, but generally people will choose the sit-down-and-be-served experience, instead.
Everyone needs to feel superior to someone else from time to time.

Now, imagine yourself at your favorite restaurant. Then, subtract essential clothing from the waitress that would cover up what would commonly be considered a private area. Not only does she have to do what you say, but you are free to make visual use of her body for your entertainment.

Meanwhile, your clothes stay on (thank God), meaning you, unlike your server, don’t have to feel any vulnerability or fear of judgment and rejection (I’m sure they get used to it).

Visiting a topless eating or drinking establishment must be such a boon for the self-esteem! Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone could have this experience from time to time?

In fact, I think Vassalboro should have passed an ordinance requiring each resident to visit Grand View Coffee Shop at least once a year. Wouldn’t they all feel more confident, content, and self-assured?

Except for the waitresses, I suppose, but hey, nobody forced them into the job, and I’m sure they’d be happy to milk it for all it’s worth.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Life Insurance Required for Healthy Marriage

Today’s cautionary marital tale is brought to you by the insurance industry.

“Insurance: If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t do without it.”

Often, the most insidious insurance policies are the ones with the most cheerful names.

When you eat two platefuls of undercooked Shepherd’s Pie at the East Loserville Snowmobile Club’s Annual Bluegrass Festival and end up in the hospital for three days heaving all your internal organs into a little plastic tray, your “care” is paid for by “health insurance, “not “sick insurance.”

When the hospital accidentally switches your chart and you end up having open-heart surgery, your settlement is covered by their “liability insurance,” not by “incompetence insurance.”

And when you have an unexpected allergic reaction to the anesthesia and croak on the operating table, your family becomes wealthy via “life insurance,“ rather than “death insurance.”

If we called these things what they really are, people would realize how evil they are and not buy them.

Insurance companies spend most of their resources on two things: 1) advertising, and 2) trying not to give you the product you thought you paid for.

Last week, my life insurance company terminated my policy without warning.

True, my payment was late. I use my bank’s electronic bill pay system, because the money it saves me on postage will almost offset the amount that gets stolen from me when a hacker gains access to my accounts.

But my bank suddenly changed the system on me, so I had to click two buttons, “submit” and then “confirm,” to get a payment through. I didn’t realize this in time.

The insurance company, which I won’t identify here because they’re all the same anyway, sent me a nice reminder notice, alerting me to the problem, and leaving me plenty of time to get the money to them during the “grace period.”

Ha! If only.

In reality, they “terminated” my policy (odd choice of words on their part, but whatever), and said I could get it back if they received my payment in seven days.

I sent the check immediately, and they cashed it eight days later.

Then they sent me a nice form asking me to apply for a new policy – pretty convenient for them, seeing how rates have increased since I first signed up for the old one.

They still had my 280 bucks, and apparently no intention of giving it back. Meanwhile, it would take 27 days, they said, to process my form.

My wife had a serious problem with the lapse in coverage. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little uncomfortable with her sudden intensity about getting me insured again as soon as possible.

What were the chances I would die in the next month? Apparently, pretty good. We had been bickering a lot lately. Every married couple goes through these stretches when you constantly expect your spouse to have better perspective and emotional control than you do.

But I then had one of those important breakthroughs in which I realized everything was my fault. I had apologized, and thought we were squared away.

Apparently not.

So I got on the horn with the insurance company and told them, in no uncertain terms, that my wife really wants to stop over to East Loserville this weekend for the Bluegrass Festival, and my policy darn well better be in effect by then.

Thankfully, they heeded my urgency, and everything’s back to normal.

Right, honey?