Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Leaks, LePage, and Leftovers

“There is NOTHING to eat in here,” I often grumble, even after dutifully sealing a plate of leftovers in a Tupperware container the night before, only for it to sneak behind a bag of celery, lost forever.

When I open the refrigerator, I always expect whatever I’m looking for to position itself front and center. The idea of moving stuff aside to see what might be hiding under or behind that milk carton simply does not penetrate the tiny cluster of nerve cells I call a brain.

As most students of human behavior know, if I really wanted to find something to eat in the refrigerator, I probably could. Deep down inside, I would rather order pizza, or visualize a plate of nachos and meat loaf so it might magically materialize in front of me.

Our political system, in many ways, is like my refrigerator: there’s a lot of stuff in there we’d like to see, but not badly enough to actually look. So we ignore it until it starts to smell.

We can thank, the group responsible for publishing 90,000 classified military documents about the War in Afghanistan, for reminding us that we really should do something about the string bean casserole from last Thanksgiving that still lurks way in back, behind the milk carton.

The documents reveal atrocities galore, but nothing new or surprising. Still, they have value because we live in a society in which it is easy to forget about the realities of war (unless you have a son or a brother or a cousin serving in the military).

Afghanistan has been a problem since the Russians invaded in the ‘80s. Remember that? No? Oh, right – you were ordering pizza. Well, if you think the U.S. just stood on the sidelines and crossed our fingers, hoping the Mujahideen guerrillas would defeat the Soviets without help, I have some yummy green bean casserole I’d like to sell you.

We say we want transparency in government, but when it comes down to it, we’d actually rather not know what’s really going on.

Take the race for governor. Republican Paul LePage recently accused a Democratic party official of inciting talk that LePage would not make a good governor because he is French Catholic.

You have to feel for LePage, because he seems to understand politics about as well as I understand microbiology. Racist comments by bloggers were not a story until he called out the Dem’s. His reaction makes it look like he can’t take the heat.

The best strategy would have been to ignore the fringe racists. If a reporter asks you about it, say, “It’s unfortunate that some people have to resort to ignorant tactics, but that’s politics.”

Instead, LePage attacked the Democrats, and when the media reported his attack, LePage responded by saying he would not longer talk to reporters.

Oy. Welcome to big boy politics, Paul.

We can conclude that if LePage somehow wins, he will pilot the government machinery like a Glaucoma victim at the helm of the Hindenburg. He will get nothing done.

Baldacci, a master politician, got things done. They may have been terrible things, but at least they got done.

Why? If someone insulted Baldacci’s Italian heritage, it’s hard to imagine him saying, “I know just the scumball who’s behind it. His name is So-And-So, and we’ll make sure he sleeps with the fishes tonight.”

LePage’s mistake was impulsively trying to uncover something (fringe nutjob mudslinging) the general public would rather ignore.

He opened that six-week-old leftover tuna salad, and how he has to live with the stink.

And so do we.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Thoreau Analysis

Most regular readers of this column -- at least the ones whose anti-psychotic medications are managed properly -- have probably noticed that I try offer a big-picture perspective, like a Renaissance painter, while remaining topical, like an anti-fungal cream.

I might get around to that today, but first I have to tell you about my vacation.

I just got back from camping in Vermont and New Hampshire, where I spent most of my time trying to find an ATM so I could buy a key card that would operate the campground’s laundry machines, thus enabling me to dry my sleeping bag just in time for the next thunderstorm to roll through.

But I enjoyed living simply for a few days. With fewer electronic distractions and life management tasks, I could focus on my family and my insect bites.

President Obama recently vacationed at Acadia National Park, but it’s too bad he did not get the genuine tourist experience there: fighting traffic in Ellsworth, taking the Park Loop Road by mistake and having no way to turn around, nearly running over absent-minded pedestrians in Bar Harbor.

No, he has lackeys and secret service agents to do all that for him, so all he has to do is look at the lighthouses, trying to seem Presidential for photographers while gazing upon Maine’s most cherished phallic symbol.

Come on. Without some degree of stress in getting there, how can you feel like you really earned that view from Cadillac Mountain?

Just like Obama, my getaway was far too short, and I returned home to find all sorts of major problems waiting for me.

First, I had to deal with the pool.

The lethal mystery mix of chemicals we mix in had worn off, so we undertook emergency procedures. We were pool paramedics. We checked vital signs, we shocked, we billed insurance.

I feel awkward even telling you that we have a swimming pool. It feels immodest. When I grew up, they were reserved for the wealthy. I must have been 9 or 10 years old when my grandparents got an above-ground pool; I thought they must be loaded.

(They probably were, just not in the way I imagined.)

Nowadays, you’ll see these “pop-up” pools next to run-down trailers with rust stains on the siding, and no one thinks this is particularly odd.

We paid $75 for our eight-foot “pop-up,” a financial decision I vigorously opposed at first. Perhaps part of me felt subconsciously unprepared to claim pool-worthy status. The other part of me knew that we lived five minutes from a lakefront, making a pool seem unnecessary.

Besides: In Maine, it only gets truly hot about five days out of the year; five days of relief (which could otherwise be obtained from the lake or the shower) did not feel worth an entire summer of pool maintenance.

I’m not the type of person who wants to sit around worrying about the pH level in a vat of water.

On the other hand, I also don’t like worrying about my daughter. Now that we have a pool, she is already a better swimmer, at age 5, than I am.

So I caved, of course, and we got the pool, and now we have to go spend even more money on camping trips so we can feel what it’s like to have a simple life for a little while.

Our lives are full of conveniences that somehow do not make things feel any easier, and products that add a measure of security but don’t enable us to worry any less.

Well, at least my bed is almost always dry.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

“Learning About Her World”

My five-year-old daughter, who shall remain nameless here because I will someday need her to fund my nursing home care, has already developed a frightening interest in certain offensive cable TV programs.

Don’t blame me. I’ve worked very hard to keep the objectionable influences of television out of my home. In fact, we don’t even own a TV. We have friends who think nothing of dropping $900 on a high-def, flat-screen plasma state-of-the-art box that does basically the same thing as my old Philco did 25 years ago.

Our living room, on the other hand, features a wood stove and a globe. The chairs face each other, if you can imagine that.

But I’m no cultural snob. I just don’t see the point of paying for cable or satellite when there are plenty of good shows available on the Internet, shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “Blues Clues.”

We recently started watching “The Jeff Corwin Experience,” in which a crazed biologist tromps through jungles and swamps so he can capture snakes, alligators, and other dangerous creatures. Each capture comes with scary background music, followed by a two-minute lecture about the animal, which is a little awkward. I mean, have you ever been talked about on camera while someone is gripping you firmly by the neck? No wonder the snakes always look so ticked off.

On the other hand, an Indian elephant looked relatively calm while Corwin cured it of constipation, using a method I’d rather not describe, except to say it required him (Corwin) to don a latex glove covering the entire length of his arm.

And you thought our health care system was bad!

Anyway, there are plenty of quality television programs available in my house. “House Hunters: International” is not one of them.

Each episode features a person or couple seeking a new dwelling in some exotic place. Through obviously scripted and staged interactions with a realtor, the potential buyers usually lament their “limited budget,” which typically turns out to be at least double or triple the cost of an average house in my neighborhood.

“House Hunters” offers all the tension and unpredictability of a public radio telethon. They look at three properties, two of which are completely disgusting because they have (gasp!) only five bedrooms or something. At the end they reveal which house they selected, only for the building inspection to reveal a termite infestation and animal carcasses used for attic insulation.

I wish.

(I can’t wait for “House Hunters: Maine,” in which a family of five looks at three different trailers, and eventually picks the one with the tarp on the roof, but only because it already comes with three junk vehicles and two cord of firewood in the dooryard.)

I don’t get it. My daughter could not watch “Elmo In Grouchland” because it was too intense. She still fears unplugging the bathtub because she might get sucked down the drain, and she spends most of her day pretending to be fairies or furry animals or fairies tending to the needs of furry animals. And she keeps asking to watch this real estate show.

What’s going on here?

My wife, who enjoys “House Hunters” but acknowledges that it spews near-criminal levels of materialism and superficiality, thinks I’m getting worked up over nothing.

“She’s learning about her world,” she says.

I guess as long as this “world” includes adventuring with a talking monkey that wears boots and sticking your arm into a pachyderm’s colon with no discernible consequences, I can live with that.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tale of a Fill-Up

So I pull up to the gas pump, even though I’ve got a solid quarter-tank left, because I was raised to believe that you never know when you’ll see another gas station, so you might as well fill up now.

Words to live by, no?

Anyway, I then whip out my brand new Discover Card, having decided that it’s worth putting up with customer service that’s as responsive as a coma victim because they want to pay me five cents on the dollar every time I buy gas.

Hey, free money is free money, and the only thing I got for free when buying gas before was a headache from all the fumes.

So I slide the card into the little slot, and then the message flashes, “remove card quickly.” This gives me pause, because “quickly” is a relative term, and I wonder if Irving Corporation knows how many of their customers are geriatrics whose quickness has abandoned them.

I remove the card in what I think is a quick manner, but then I get the “error - try again” message. Not quick enough, apparently. I try again. Still no dice. Maybe too quick. So I try a nice, slow, sensual removal of the card, as if I were using tweezers to pull a splinter from a supermodel’s genitals. Then it cancels my transaction completely.

Okay, my fault for getting fresh. I wait a few minutes, then try again. Because you never know when you’ll have your next chance to get gas.

This time I shove the card in there, and I practically break the sound barrier, pulling it out with blinding speed. Yes, I smashed my knuckles into the car window in the process, but the machine finally accepted my card.

“Remove nozzle.” A necessary step, one I would hope most drivers would not need to be reminded of.

“Select grade.” This part, fortunately, is easy, as there are only three kinds.

Pasta comes in about a thousand different varieties, from Angel Hair to Ziti, and every absurd shape in between, including sea shells and wagon wheels. My underwear drawer contains boxers, briefs, boxer-briefs, bikini briefs, trunks, and (sure, why not) the occasional thong, all with different designs and patterns.

Heck, Discover Card even offered me several dozen different options for my card design (I eventually chose Monet’s “Water Lilies” to honor my five-year-old daughter’s inexplicable interest in that French impressionist).

But when it comes to gasoline, your choices are Regular Unleaded, Unleaded Plus, or Supreme Unleaded. Period.

(At what point are we going to drop the “unleaded,” anyway? Gas with lead in it has been illegal for about 30 years. This is no longer a selling point.)

I select “Regular,” because a friend of mine who worked in the auto industry once told me that there is no reason to buy anything else, unless you drive a high-performance sports car or a military aircraft.

As I’m filling, I notice that this particular station is selling “CLEAN Regular Unleaded,” “CLEAN Unleaded Plus,” and “CLEAN Supreme Unleaded.” Thank goodness I stopped here; otherwise, I might have been filling my 13-year-old truck with 185,000 miles on it with the filthy gasoline from the station down the road!

The idea that any product derived from petroleum could be labeled “clean” was quite curious to me. Next they’ll be selling “clean” bait, “clean” loam, and “clean” gangsta rap.

I resolved to boycott any gas station advertising its fuel as “clean,” presuming any other station will accept my credit card without me tearing a ligament in my elbow.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Real Problem

The last time the oceans endured such a drastic change in chemistry was 65 million years ago, about the same time the dinosaurs went extinct.” -- Dr. Ken Caldeira, Stanford University

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has already produced a surface slick larger than Delaware, along with vast plumes of oil of untold size lurking beneath the surface. The spill, when and if BP manages to stop it by drilling relief wells (God, I hope that works), will probably total about 1 percent of the total volume of the Gulf of Mexico, based on current estimates.

We’re talking about a arge problem here, and I started researching for this column with the idea that the media were not covering it to the extent that it deserves. If BP does not manage to stop this leak (and they haven’t proven terribly adept at anything except making asses of themselves so far), there is no telling what irreversible damage could occur.

This could conceivably bubble into a 9/11-scale disaster, but we are not seeing 9/11-type coverage of it in the media, and the government is not showing a 9/11-type response. What gives?

Looking for facts, I stumbled into the above quote from Dr. Caldeira, a leading global ecologist. At first, it seemed to affirm my fears.

But, it turns out, he was not referring to the oil spill.

He was actually referring to ocean acidity. As oceans become more acidic, sea life finds it harder and harder to survive.

Why does this matter? Oceans absorb about 30 percent of all human-produced carbon, making them the largest carbon sink in the world. Microscopic plants called plankton are largely responsible for absorbing carbon and turning it into oxygen, much like land-based vegetation does.

Plankton, along with coral, mollusks, and everything that feeds on them, are vulnerable to increased acidity. The Pacific is already In fact, ocean water may become acidic enough over the next 50 years to corrode sea shells.

What is causing the increased acidity?

You guessed it -- too much carbon.

Too much burning coal and petroleum, in other words.

We’re fortunate to have plankton to clean up that mess for us, but it looks like we’re overloading their capacity. The result: worldwide plankton growth has steadily declined for the past 20 years.

The Gulf of Mexico situation, estimated at 500,000 to 800,000 barrels spewed into the ocean so far, is a colossal disaster. But Americans consume 25 to 50 times that much oil every single day.

Dr. Caldeira appeared on Good Morning America April 22, two days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, before anybody knew about oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. He said, “We’re risking something that will change the way oceans are for the rest of human civilization.”

That seems optimistic. Without healthy oceans, there could be no human civilization.

At some point, the majority of us are going to realize that we depend on the Earth in a lot of ways we haven’t even discovered yet. We survive thanks to a delicate balance of unique circumstances.

Then again, those windmills are kind of an eyesore.