Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beach Vacationing: Bring Your Own Toilet

If you've ever wondered where all those Canadian drivers are going, the answer is:

Hell, if they don't change their ways.

And the other answer is: Old Orchard Beach.

I recently studied the appeal of the OOB experience by taking my family down there. I was determined to capture every detail of the experience in my column so I could write off all the expenses.

Day 1: We arrived at Wild Acres Majestic Corporate Resort Campground of Relaxing Bliss and managed, by requesting no water or electricity, to get one of the few camp sites actually surrounded by trees.

Pitching the tent took several hours. We had stopped at L.L. Bean, where my wife found a massive "Eureka Copper Canyon" that had accidentally been mispriced $100 in our favor. She lugged it around for 45 minutes while I made my way through the maze of parking lots. When I finally got there, I told her we didn't need a tent that gargantuan, even if it did have an upstairs apartment that we could rent out.

In matters of shopping, I don't often get my way. It was probably best that we had the extra space, anyway, because we tend to over-pack, and by "over-pack," I mean we could have roto-tilled part of our campsite in case we felt the sudden urge to plant a garden.

Day 2: A day at the beach, re-applying SPF-60 sunscreen every 15 minutes and wondering why everyone except me was hairless from the neck down, was just what the doctor ordered after listening all night to slamming doors and the repetitive bass rhythm of French techno music from somewhere on the other side of the campground. Campground Etiquette Rule Number One: Everyone wants to hear your fabulous collection of music. "Quiet Hours" begin at 11 p.m., so feel free to be as obnoxious as possible the rest of the time.

Day 3: Our four-year-old daughter and her new friend ran around naked for a few minutes while adults attempted to coax them into bathing suits and clean up from breakfast at the same time. A campground worker came by on his little golf cart and told us this was not acceptable. Moments later, at the campground pool, dozens of sexually mature humanoids, including plenty of young teenagers (and one old lady who looked like a bronzed Jabba-the-Hut) strutted around in less clothing than it would take to cover the genitals of a dragonfly. Where were the decency police then? Hm?

Day 4: We visited the downtown shops. From about 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., my wife spent 11 hours trying on bathing suits, asking me which ones were most flattering while I rolled my eyes and stared at my watch. I kept telling her that I was biased toward any suit that revealed more of her yummy curvaceous body, so maybe she should ask somebody else, but she is a stubborn woman, and was having none of it. Later, I set out to find the perfect pair of swim trunks that would make me look like one of those young, muscular surfers we saw down by the pier. This took me about five minutes.

Day 5: Does a HealthGard (TM) paper toilet seat cover really offer any significant protection in a campground toilet stall with slimy floors and hundreds of repressed sexual desires carved into the toilet paper dispenser?

If only we had packed our own composting toilet like my wife suggested.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Letter to Aspiring NASCAR Driver

Dear Driver of the little sedan that passed me at 85 mph,

The phrase "behind the wheel" has always puzzled me.

As you sit in the driver's seat, I'm pretty sure the part of the steering wheel that faces you is its front. If you were sitting behind the wheel, you would be on the dashboard, blocking the view of the speedometer.

Perhaps that is what was happening in your car as you drove through Bangor on I-95 on a recent lazy, sunny afternoon.

Did fate bring us together? There I was, meandering along in the passing lane at 65 mph in a 55 mph zone (how dare I?), creeping up to go by a grandmotherly person in a Buick, when you careened up to the bumper of my pickup, close enough to count any microscopic scratches on the tail gate.

And there you patiently waited, for close to ten seconds, as we snaked through Maine's third-largest city. Then you started honking your horn, leading me to suspect there was some emergency. You were too close to my bumper for me to see your four-way flashers.

So I squeezed between two cars in the other lane and let you by. No flashers, but your passenger did signal me with your middle finger as you blew by so quickly that I couldn't even see what state your license plate represented.

Forgive me for not recognizing that the driver of a 1998 Saturn dictates the flow of heavy traffic, not the dozens of other cars comfortably cruising along at 60 to 65. How could I have not seen how important you were? Your authority as a motorist was obvious, in retrospect. You must be the kind of person the insurance companies hire to talk on the radio about how many discounts they get because they're such good drivers. The rest of us are just nose-picking Sunday-driving numbskulls who couldn't drive our way out of a paper bag.

True, my four-year-old daughter sat next to me in the truck, and I'd rather she not be traveling at unsafe speeds in any vehicle. But I also would rather she not see someone's middle finger, so I am guilty of subjecting her to your wrath. Why did I not allow your poor planning and apparent lateness for work to take precedence over her safety and innocence? O, the shame!

I nearly called the cops on your pretentious, spoiled, vomit-inducing, wart-covered stressball narcissistic ass, but I quickly realized this would put me on the cell phone while driving at law-breaking speed, and I might threaten your candidacy for Driver of the Year. I decided you were not worth it.

Look it's not like I've never done some stupid things behind -- er, in front of the wheel. Back in my wild youth, I hit 90 mph trying to get to Boston in time for a hockey game. But at least I did not blame the other drivers for the fact that I was hoping to cover 250 miles in under two hours. That was strictly my tomfoolery.

But if I had killed somebody's four-year-old, that would be inadequate consolation, to say the least.

But these things only happen to other people, right?

So forget I said anything.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ubiquitous Stupidity

It's time to introduce a new regular feature in "Tongue-in-Cheek." I'm calling it "People Are So Stupid."

If you read this column regularly (God help you), you know that last weak I had to acknowledge an error I had made. Not just any error, mind you. I catastrophic brain botching that was so foul, so heinous, so dreadfully, soul-siphoningly humiliating and inexcusable, that I dare not rehash it here.

To mitigate the sting, I'm going back to what I'm good at, which is pointing out the flaws in everyone around me.

If I gain enough momentum, I might just rename the whole column "People Are So Stupid."

You might have heard about the city code enforcement officer in Tulare, CA who shut down an eight-year-old girl's lemonade stand earlier this week because she is not a licensed street vendor?

What a nice lesson in civics for the young lady. I feel better about myself already.

Often, though, numbskull behavior is more difficult to spot because it is so ubiquitous that we don't question it.

Take landscaping, for example. Everyone I know owns a lawnmower. My neighbors all have lawnmowers -- more than one, in some cases. Even my nieces and nephews have little toy lawnmowers.

My own lawnmower comes out of the shed once per week to spend a couple of hours clipping grass and eviscerating little rubber duckies, ponies, and froggies that my daughter keeps leaving in the yard. Sometimes it will inexplicably attack a rock, which sends my pulse rate into the triple digits, presumably to supply more blood to the part of my brain responsible for cursing.

Why is my lawnmower so psychotic? Well, it sits in the shed with nothing to do but sulk and make fun of the weed-whacker and the chain saw, which get even less attention.

I assume yours suffers similar confinement. And so do your wheelbarrow, lawn sprinkler, barbecue grill, children, socket set, circular saw, birth control, fishing pole, crock pot, and gas-powered toilet plunger with built-in mp3 player -- none of these items see the light of day more than once in a while, but you've still got to have your very own.

How much money could you save with just a little willingness to negotiate and cooperate with your neighbors? Yes, actually speak with them. "I'll use it on Mondays, you use it on Tuesdays," that sort of thing (plan your clogged toilets accordingly).

Answer: it doesn't matter, because you'll never do it.

For one thing, this isn't the 1940s, when people's neighbors were not (openly) jaded, drug-dealing pedophiles. But more importantly, there's just something about having our own widgets that gives us Americans the jollies.

It's that spirit of self-reliance handed down through our rugged New England culture from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau -- although, when they discussed "self-reliance," they meant using your ingenuity to live simply and frugally (i.e. sharing land or tools) so the government doesn't start thinking it has to buy your health insurance.

But never mind that. We're Reagan/Bush Americans, now. We're not about to have some freeloading hippie messing around with our weed whacker or our Salad Shooter or our bunker full of restricted weaponry and ammunition. If you need something, even just once, go buy your own. It's every man for himself if we are to maintain our historically unparalleled standard of living, fueled by hyper-independence and consumption.

At least until the code enforcement officer shows up.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

I am a Big Fat Dunce

I should apologize to you non-baseball fans, who might find this column a little boring or confusing.

But first, I need to apologize for a foolish, insensitive error in last week's column.

I poked fun at Fox News and Washington Post Writers Group commentator Charles Krauthammer for, among other things, being stiff on camera, looking as though he had hurt his back. Then a reader pointed out to me that Krauthammer did, in fact, suffer a paralyzing back injury when he was in medical school. I was not aware of this celebrity tidbit, mainly because it was not mentioned in his biography on the Washington Post website, and I didn't bother to do any other research on him.

Obviously, my comment was grotesquely inappropriate and I feel like a big fat dunce.

Worse yet, this type of thing strains my marriage. My wife contends that you should never make fun of anyone for anything that isn't their own fault. If a person looks stiff and awkward on camera, it could mean he's a paraplegic, or it could mean he's nervous, but what gives me the right to slam him, either way? Compassion should be my impulse, not ridicule.

And here I was, ready to write my annual summer column slamming the Boston Red Sox for falling behind in the standings and generally not playing up to their potential.

Instead, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. I can't fathom how hard it must be, day after day, to be a bunch of drooling, loafing, pampered, overpaid, prima-donna, slack-jawed-hick pseudo-athletes who use more needles more than the Pine Tree Quilters' Guild, and are suddenly playing like the Keystone Cops now that steroid testing has gotten serious.

As I write this, five Red Sox starters are hitting below .250. The pressure of having to justify those giant salaries must be getting to them.

They just traded for Victor Martinez, who is an excellent player, but plays positions (catcher, first base, DH, hot dog vendor) already occupied by excellent players.

"Big Papi" has spent most of this season flailing around in the batter's box like sugar-hyped, blindfolded six-year-old trying to bust open a pinata, but you have to give him the chance to get back to his old, 'roided up self again.

Varitek, the captain, is suddenly a back-up. That should work out well. It's not like these guys have egoes.

Lowell just had hip surgery and now walks like a pregnant woman with plantar fasciitis, but he's still hitting .295, just had a 5-RBI game, and wears one of the top five goatees in the Major Leagues.

Oops, sorry, there I go again. My apologies to Mike Lowell, in case he really is pregnant or has plantar fasciitis. I should check his player profile... nope, no mention of either. Whew!

Anywho, they should have traded for Roy Halladay. Obviously, they would have had to give up more to get the best pitcher in baseball, but consider this equation: Beckett + Lester + Halladay = Yankees fans weeping in the streets, Hal Steinbrenner coughing up pieces of his internal organs in a fit of anguish and disgust, automatic World Championships for Boston this year and next.

Isn't losing inconsistent Clay Buchholz and a couple more hyped-but-unproven prospects worth all that? Even if the Jays own the league five years from now, who cares? We could all be dead from swine flu by then.

If you have swine flu, please, please, please forgive me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Health Care: A Fair Assessment

The Washington Post employs a man named Charles Krauthammer, who you'll sometimes see on Fox News, looking and speaking like he has an enormous wad of tissue jammed up each nostril.

Krauthammer's job is to be George Will without perspective. That is to say, he criticizes the left, but fails to account for the big picture.

Take his recent column on Democratic health care proposals, which he complained would place an extra burden on the "investor class," a cute euphemism that refers to people who have enough spare cash laying around to buy stocks and real estate and rare Ronald Reagan commemorative chinaware.

Yes, Charles, the useless, unnecessary urinalyses that come with the threat of malpractice lawsuits are a huge problem, and it's true, tort is not on the table. But the larger reason health insurance is expensive is because it is in high demand. Any free-market apologist should know that.

Somewhere in our nation's recent history, someone discovered that people will spend whatever they can to put off dying, or at least to feel less sick.

Staying healthy is becoming more of a challenge, as Americans consume mass quantities of foods manufactured for their cost-effectiveness, rather than their nutritional content.

It's been said many times: If we are what we eat, Americans are cheap and easy.

Whole and organic foods, lacking in preservatives, hormones, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals, are time-consuming and expensive to prepare. So virtually no one buys them. They'd rather pay for colonoscopies and dialysis.

So while politicians blame insurance fat cats and trial lawyers, the rest of us enact history's latest demonstration of how the "haves" exploit the weaknesses of the "have-nots."

Think of it this way: the "investor class" owns Mrs. Butterworth. They sell a nice looking bottle of syrup with a wholesome image, and if you don't have a Master's Degree in nutrition or biochemistry, and your favorite news source sells advertising to the food industry, you're unlikely to realize that Mrs. Butterworth is in cahoots with the Keebler Elves to make sure you don't see your grandchildren graduate from high school.

Krauthammer's typical myopia occupied my mind while I wolfed down a dough boy at the Central Maine (non-organic) Egg Festival recently.

It was remarkable, first of all, that I was able to think about anything besides photography, since my wife demands hundres of pictures of our daughter every time she gets on a new ride that goes around in a circle at 2 mph.

It was also remarkable because of the disproportionate number of people at the midway who did not appear to represent the "investor class" (unless I've been misinformed about what happens over time to the value of tattoos and lit cigarettes).

I realize I'm operating on stereotypes here, but as I dumped extra powdered sugar on my $3 indulgence, I considered taking a random poll of how many fair-goers have their health care paid for by the government, versus those who exceed the income guidelines but still can't afford decent coverage for their families.

It would just be nice to live in a world where one person's full-time wages were enough to meet his or her family's basic needs.

I don't begrudge MaineCare for those who qualify. But you won't see me get too choked up if we have to bite into some of Charles Krauthammer's stock dividends to expand coverage for those who don't.