Friday, December 9, 2011

One way to have a white Christmas

Anyone who pays attention knows that one job often spawns another—or, more typically, a Duggar-sized family of nagging little tasks. That’s what we learned when we tried to fit back into the basement, following our springtime waterproofing, most of what had been there before. And to get rid of items ruined in our past floods, such as unused paint. It surely had us longing for the past.

No, not the past of pet rocks, invisible dogs and mood rings. I mean the days when you could leave unneeded paint cans, even full, at the curb with your garbage. The truck would come once a week. And the cans would go away…somewhere.

By contrast, our little town has issued very specific instructions for disposing of all these cans. First, we have to dry out the paint in those cans on our own. (Our green-minded county wants the poisonous paint fumes to go away…somewhere.) They suggest kitty litter, preferably unused, to dry out the liquid portion of the paint. Once solid, the paint can go out in the garbage bags; the empty cans, alongside the garbage.

Sounds easy, right? Not when you have twelve full cans holding court in the garage. No matter how much you stir it, kitty litter tends to solidify the paint in the upper half of a full can, meaning lots of splashing paint when you crack the top layer apart. There has to be a better way, I thought…which was when I came up with my scheme. I could get a few pieces of scrap wood and paint them repeatedly, two or three times a day on weekends. Once I’m all done, I can throw away the scrap wood with the empty cans.

Who, again, was that idiot who just said one job spawns another? I learned quickly that since I have a house, not a wood shop, there just isn’t much scrap wood around. And at this rate, I’d never get the car back into the garage.

It was time to explore my possibilities. Surely there was something else that needed to be another color! Elena quickly took the house off the list; for some reason, she didn’t want a coating of multi-colored paint laden with rust specks. Ditto for the deck, cars and driveway. The lawn, too. So, like any dutiful husband, I blame her for what ensued.

I was considering my very options when a Greenpeace activist came to the door to talk about fracking. Sorry, yes, I admit: It is indeed inappropriate to sign a petition with a paint roller. The young lady left our doorstep a Beigepeace activist. Didn’t her mother teach her not to talk to strangers?

Next, I walked into the backyard to have a talk with the neighbors’ dogs. I reasoned that the mongrels would better hear their masters’ voice if they had, um, a communications upgrade. It took a few minutes, but I now live next door to the world’s first Bluetooth-enabled Chihuahua. Especially after the four-legged doofus got the bright idea to run off with a brush dripping with Cobalt Blue paint in his mouth.

Apparently, during that exchange I’d also painted over the glass of my moral compass—which, considering the circumstances, pointed me in just the right direction. It was high time for a drive. I loaded up the car with all eight cans and an armful of brushes.

The Redbox DVD-rental kiosk, at least in our local supermarket, is now Graybox. Some kids outside who were wearing Red Sox hats are now White-Sox fans—not that it’s an improvement. The nearest White Castle burger joint is now Olive-Green Castle. (It matches the hue of the customers’ faces.) And although I realized I had the wrong colors to paint the town red, I could do wonders across the river in Orange County.

My plans were going fine till I had too close a brush with the boys in blue—er, marigold. I’d now had only a half-gallon left, though I realized it would now take some doing to paint anything with handcuffs on. A big van pulled up, and some fellows in white walked toward me. Hmmm, they’d look much better in—

I’ve solved our problem, but in the process spawned another. It’s now my turn to go away…somewhere. I’ve already been told the walls are soothing pastels. They like them just fine.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shop till they drop

Zero hundred hours was quickly approaching, but we were ready. Still, we had a few moments for one last check. Flak jackets were a given, but we needed plenty more. Weapons, ammo, optics, navigational equipment, first-aid kit…. Elena glanced at me and nodded with a faint smile just visible from beneath her helmet. It seemed that was everything. Oh, one more thing: The credit cards.

We emerged from the side of the building in our new mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle. Its V-shaped hull and independent suspension were just the ticket for such operations, though the ATV cost most of the money we were saving for Andrew’s college tuition. Especially the requirement that its specs match those intended for use in Afghanistan. But hey—we couldn’t mess around. In 30 seconds, 29, 28…we were heading in. With all our preparation plus a little bit of luck, we’d make that back and more with all the savings that lay in wait for the survivors.

It’s not called Black Friday for nothing.

With me as the driver, Elena was gunner. She peered through her scope as a line, blocks-long, came into view beneath the appropriately designed Target logo. “This is it!” she shouted over the rumbling of the engine. Fifteen seconds till the store opened. The shoppers took cover and cocked their weapons. One had an RPG, but Elena spotted her before she could load a grenade. “Nice going!” I shouted.

“She always illegally parks in Handicapped, so she’s had it coming,” my darling replied.

From the rest of the line, nothing they had was a match for our vehicle. Gunfire erupted from every crevice and landscaped hedge, but nothing penetrated our armor. Three, two, one…the doors opened. But instead of the wave of shoppers, in we went with a crash of flying glass and twisted metal. I steered right toward our first stop—where the real danger would begin. We’d eventually, after all, have to leave the safety of the ATV.

The store was already filling with smoke, so we’d have to use Bluetooth-enabled GPS at the ear to guide us to the right aisle. The red uniforms were friendly, we knew; still, we wouldn’t put it past the enemy to wear the same colors and, through the smoke, offer help as they aimed their heat-seeking automatics. I tapped Elena’s shoulder, for it was time. We exited the vehicle.

We knew our targets and ran down different sides of the lengthwise aisle toward our respective shelves. Ah…I’d found my first item already. It wasn’t every day I found a 6-ounce tube of Colgate Total Whitening toothpaste for $1.29! My second stop, at the next aisle over: Suave Professionals Shampoo Plus Conditioner, $2.09 for a 32-ounce container. It lay dead ahead, nobody else in the aisle, but therein lay the trap. I almost blundered right over a mine—a COD, for Customer Obliteration Device—that someone had painted the same color scheme as the vinyl floor tiles. I grabbed the heaviest thing handy, a big bottle of mouthwash, and threw it toward the detonator. The explosion was deafening.

“Eddie...are you okay?” Elena was calling. Still dizzy, I grabbed the last shampoo standing and yelled back. Time to regroup. Along the way I snatched my third goal, a 12-pack of twin-blade razor cartridges for $6.99, and we almost ran into one another.

“I got the white-cotton shoelaces—49 cents,” Elena reported above the blaring of the fire alarm, “and a box of six handkerchiefs for $1.99.” We had time for a quick high-five.

“Did you….”

“Affirmative!” she said, producing a Totes automatic umbrella, with case, that was selling for $5.99. “We might need it sooner if the sprinklers go off, so I got two.”

“Good thinking.”

The next five minutes were crucial, for the shoppers we hadn’t flatted beneath our continuous-track wheels now took positions behind us. Worse, they headed for the same aisles with a vengeance—and reloaded weapons. It was time for some smoke, so my bride and I together lobbed a few M-18 smoke grenades. “Let’s go!” I shouted.

A 28-ounce bottle of ketchup for a buck twenty-nine, a 12-ounce Starbucks Pike Place ground coffee for $4.99 and the best prize of all: eight-ounce yogurts, three for a dollar. The list went on, but it was too soon to claim victory. We were at the opposite corner of the building from the ATV, and that smoke wasn’t going to hang around till we returned. I sighed—we would have to leave without the 99-cent LED Christmas lights and the $2.99 angel slated for the top of the tree.

Gunfire erupted through the smoke, but it was nowhere near us. We’d taken another route to the registers, past the electronics department manned by one idle, gum-chewing clerk. Who wanted any of that? A few more steps, and we peered around to spot the registers. One was free! Elena emptied our pouches onto the counter as I watched our backs. One sniper was a little too obvious in his perch atop the greeting-card aisle.

“Would you like to donate a dollar to Operation Gratitude?” the cashier recited from behind her gas mask. Elena nodded, and swiped her credit card. We grabbed our bags, hurled two more smoke grenades and, moments later, were safely back in the ATV without too much further bloodshed.

Later that evening, our vehicle stowed safely in hiding, we celebrated our triumph with grim acknowledgment of the weeks to come. We’d made it alive through another Black Friday. Still, we’d barely get an hour of sleep before our next objective: Small-Business Saturday. So many bargains, so little time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Say hello to my little friends

Last week’s freak storm saw our family, by the third night without power, clearing out for warmer climes. Which was probably a-okay with two of our next-door neighbors.

To this particular duo, what we might once have considered an old-fashioned polite disagreement about property lines has devolved into, two or three times a week, a shouting match. Not that we’re the ones doing the shouting; we’d look pretty stupid.

Then again, the subject never seems to come up when I’ve fired up the leaf blower.

A little clarification is in order. On one side, we’ve had the wonderful family we’ve known since the mid-nineties, when we bought the house. On the other, to the rear behind the shed, are much newer neighbors that, we've learned, prefer to keep to themselves. The humans, that is.

The Chihuahuas are quite another matter.

There are two. The one I’ll call "Tony" is actually the only Chihuahua; his sidekick, “Manny,” is another toy breed (alas, no off switch there, either) but might as well be a Chihuahua for the similar pitch and volume of his bark—not to mention his enduring reverence for borders. And, of course, there’s his penchant for following Tony out to bark at me each and every time I even open the back door. And once while I was in the kitchen with doors and windows closed.

You wouldn’t know from this situation how well I get along with most dogs—including “Omar,” ironically another Chihuahua, across the street. In one of our few conversations with Neighbor Father, he was holding Tony. The dog was shivering from the January cold and also in pain from a soccer ball that, said Neighbor Father, had hit him by accident. Without having been there (honest!) I knew there’d been no accident. I let Tony sniff me, which with most dogs meant the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Tony sniffed.

Tony growled.

The relationship has only gone down from there, mostly because Tony and sidekick Manny like to do to our yard what a few folks in the OWS crowd have been doing to Zuccotti Park. Silly me. Why walk your dogs in the rain or snow when you can let them out the door to roam the neighbor’s yard? For that matter, why wait for the rain or snow?

To be fair, I have to give Neighbors Mother and Father some credit. Once I began to chase those rodents—er, dogs—back to their yard swinging whatever yard implement was handy, Neighbor Father and Neighbor Mother took notice.

An invisible fence went up…or so they said. The dogs trotted right past the little white flags in defiance. Eventually, a metal chain-link fence followed. It’s four feet high; the dogs couldn’t jump over it no matter how hard they tried. Not that they’d need to try. Even small-brained dogs, after all, quickly deduce when a fence borders a rectangular property on only three sides.

Now that I think about it, the backyard has been strangely quiet since last week’s nor’easter. This past weekend, Elena and I picked up leaves for at least two hours with nary a yip from next door. Now I’m wondering. Could…could the storm’s high winds have carried the poor little things away?

Well, you know, it’s hardly my place to tell God where to aim His leaf blower.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Time to reset relations

I don’t play many tricks on my wife, but this one was a doozy. In the early days of PCs (and our marriage), we owned a Leading Edge computer that I apparently spent a little too much time using for Elena. “Leda,” as Elena dubbed her, was her competition, the “other woman.” And one day, Leda spoke her mind.

These pre-Windows machines ran a text-based operating system that fogies-in-training will recall as DOS, and when the computer was done booting up it would say so by displaying what was called a prompt; “C/:>” was the usual one. But geeks like me knew you could change the prompt to whatever you wanted. So one morning I asked Elena to turn on the computer while I was shaving, and—to keep her at the screen—to launch a certain program. This time the prompt read: “GET AWAY FROM ME I WANT MY EDDIE:>”

That behavior could be explained. Today, we’re ready to call in an exorcist.

The letters “O” and “X” stand for hug and kiss, so I guess her name is Hug Kiss Hug. In retrospect, that alone should have raised a flag for Elena, but it’s not like a kitchen timer could name itself. It was electronic and could time three events at once, with a different alarm for each timer. And we found the five-ounce doodad (here’s a picture) at Williams-Sonoma, Elena’s fantasyland. What could go wrong?

Plenty, we were to learn. It wasn’t that it was complicated to set up or use. Once its clock was set, once whenever we replaced the battery, all we needed was to press a button for which timer we wanted to set, use the numerical keypad to set the duration and press stop/start. It seemed simple enough.

One day, though, we noticed something peculiar—the timer’s clock had reset. No big deal, we thought. You didn’t even need the clock at the right time in order to use the timers. But OXO seemed to notice one certain geek who couldn’t stand to have a digital clock suddenly displaying “12:00.”

Things at home were never quite the same. OXO began resetting her clock several times a day, each time with a four-beep announcement we took to mean “Me! Me! Me! Me!” It would often happen when we set something too close by on the counter. But over time we could be on the other side of the house, several steps from the kitchen, when we’d get the call: “Me! Me! Me! Me!” She knew, after all, that I’d soon appear to reset her clock. To make things worse, OXO would not reset if Elena was out of the house or in another room while I was alone (with her) in the kitchen.

Eventually, we couldn’t even set the timers for anything whatsoever. Whether I noticed her clock wrong and tried to reset the clock, she would cry out with all three timer frequencies simultaneously, show unfamiliar symbols (Babylonian pictograms, maybe?) on her little LCD screen, and screech multiple sets of her four-tone cry. Elena has stopped asking why I use the pronoun “she,” for she knows I will keep resetting the clock, over and over, giving her the attention she demands until I can walk away quietly.

This very moment, in fact, I have her sitting quite complacently beside me as I write. No clock-resetting, no shrieking. She has what she wants. For now.

Okay, a little correction. That day everything began…it wasn’t quite an accident. Daughter Katie was over, and it seems she’s inherited a smidgen of my geekdom. At the same instant, we wondered aloud: “What would happen if we set all three timers to go off at exactly the same time?” Apparently it was too existential a question for OXO’s little Chinese-made processor.

Her time may be coming. Resetting her clock and distorting her display, we can deal with. Polyphonic screeching, okay during daytime. But the night she starts levitating or speaking in tongues other than tones, out she goes.

Unless Elena gets her with the sledgehammer first.

Friday, September 30, 2011

When apartment life was a project

There’s lots of yapping these days about owning one’s home as a way toward grasping the American Dream. I can relate to that, all right. Just the thought that every bit of mowing, raking, tightening, replacing, fixing, painting, weeding, planting, cleaning, watering, drying, trimming, oiling, and myriad other ings is solely ours to do is surely the stuff that dreams are made of. Nightmares, too.

Still, as someone who grew up in one of “the projects,” those New York City-subsidized apartment buildings sprinkled throughout the boroughs in the ’50s through the ’70s, I often think back fondly to my youth. Apartment living, I must admit, is something I never fully appreciated.

Even in the apartments Elena and I once called home, we learned early that we’d always have company besides one another. Almost like gated communities, both had sentries at the entrances. We certainly felt secure from the day we moved into our first apartment, when one accompanied us in to check the condition of the cabinets that had just been put in—but not into hers. (She was so, let us say, congratulatory.) In our second apartment, the other sentry cared so much about making us feel safe that we could bring nothing into the building without, all the way to our door, explaining where we’d gone and what we were carrying. You can’t get that kind of security just anywhere.

Once it was just the two of us, apartment life was only looking up; they were the first years of our marriage, after all. But in my earliest years, in the New York City-subsidized apartment I lived in with my parents and five older siblings, life was better described as a series of ups and downs. What else could it be since I lived on the 10th floor and needed the elevator just to check the mail?

After the kindness of most of our neighbors—I’ll get to the others shortly—the next-best part of the projects was the elevator. Regular readers of this blog will recall my everlasting appreciation for riding up with the next-door neighbor we affectionately called Mouth. But he clearly didn’t make that big a splash in my early years. No, the big splash is what seemed to hit the elevator floor, several times a day, moments before I stepped in to use the elevator for its intended function. Every apartment in the building, I was to learn, really did have a bathroom.

But I clearly benefited. Riding the elevator after such routine generosity taught me how to stand on my toes, a skill I’ll recall the day I take up ballet. It taught me to hold my breath for a whole minute, longer if the previous occupant had thought to press all the buttons before getting off. That will help when I become a deep-sea diver. And from the occasional instance when the entire elevator floor was awash, I exercised my biceps by pressing the opposite elevator walls while holding my feet aloft. Trust me…I’ll come in very handy the day we’re together pushed down a narrow, watery pit of snakes.

In my late teen years before I entered the military, I trained for boot camp by habitually going both up and down the stairs. For that, I have neither Mouth nor the wayward weer to thank. My true inspiration? The rampant practice of “stucking.”

Before you decide I’ve lost my grip on the English language—and welcome me at last to the Internet community—let me explain stucking. Most elevators today have inside and outside doors that open in unison, either from one side or from the middle. Our elevators instead had an inside door that opened by itself, plus a hinged outside door that required a person on the floor to open it.

Here’s where it got interesting. Once the inside door closed all the way, the outside door locked. But in the instant before the outer door locked, if you pulled it open only, oh, about an eighth of an inch and held it, the elevator’s passengers (typically me) would be stuck with the inner door closed tight and the elevator going absolutely nowhere. To these kindest of neighbors, I owe thousands of dollars of therapy for curing me, in advance, of any claustrophobia I’d been planning to develop.

As an adult visiting my parents, I’d sometimes run into some of the same kids, now grown with kids of their own, who’d delighted in stucking me. The obvious temptation, nice fellow that I am, would be to ask their thoughts on how life had stucked them from rising out of public housing. But it never was to come up: All smiles, they treated me almost like family.

Still, I’m still taking no chances. Someday, keeping up a house will get to be too much for us. That’s when we’ll downsize to a smaller place. But if it’s an apartment, I’ve just a couple of preferences. A first-floor unit…a secret entrance….

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A little too much for women to swallow

You might think that after 26 years of marriage, a woman would feel she knows her man. Elena certainly would. And she did…until she walked in and saw me watching that show again.

I guess I know what you’re thinking. Browse your own TV channels, and you never know what is suddenly there before your eyes—never mind if you’ve got young, impressionable kids. It’s there. And I got caught dead to rights. Even worse, it’s time I admitted…I’m a fan.

Of Man V. Food.

“You’re watching that again?” she inquires. As a matter of fact, I am.

In case you haven’t seen this Travel Channel show or the successor show Man V. Food Nation, I’ll spoon-feed the details: A fellow named Adam Richman tours the country, taking on the challenge to eat whatever humongous entrée some bar or restaurant says nobody can eat. That nobody should eat it somehow never enters into it, which is part of the fun. And it looks nothing like the new food portions the government has begun recommending—to replace a food pyramid that turned out, for a populace growing in girth, to be merely the tip of an iceberg.

During the show, he leads up to the actual meal by describing the restaurant, interviewing its cooks and showing how the dish in question is prepared (make that “piled”) and, in the process, building what passes for suspense. His experience? Besides having eaten food every day of his life, he has a Masters in Fine Arts from Yale. No, I don’t know how that explains things, either. Maybe more food in my stomach would help.

“It would be a better show if they didn’t always have the same stupid guy.”

When I first heard of Man V. Food, I was attending a trade show in Las Vegas. As it turned out, the Nascar Café in the very hotel I stayed at served a dish that was featured on Man V. Food. The Big Badass Burrito (B3 for short) is an 18-inch, six-pound missile aimed at your heart, not to mention your ego. The good news? You can have one for free. The bad? You have to finish your whole meal to dodge the bill. And those rules. You have only 90 minutes to finish the burrito, and you can just forget about going to the bathroom—or even standing up—till you're done or the clock runs out. I have a feeling most of every B3 served stays in Vegas.

Fail to finish the B3, as one foolish guy did as I dined nearby, and your photo joins those of many others before you on the “B3 Weenies Hall of Shame.” And you pay $20 plus the cost of whatever drinks you foolishly thought would provide lubrication. Alas, the B3 itself might be doomed—the Sahara Hotel, which included the Nascar Café, closed this spring. Guess somebody was eating up the profits.

“I can’t believe you watch that show. Every single one is the same.”

No, I explain, they’re not all the same. Sometimes Adam finishes the dish and, well, sometimes he doesn’t. And there’s another part I must explain. I myself am trying to eat less these days, barring the occasional buffet on the road. And pizza. Pulled pork. Okay, okay, those Drake’s Apple Pies, too. But besides all that, I’m watching portions more than I ever used to. I scan labels for the sodium, the high-fructose corn syrup and those dastardly trans-fats. What I won’t eat, though, I ingest through my eyes—which were always bigger than my stomach. What better escapism than to watch a guy stuff himself silly on meals prepared contrary to all medical advice…before a cheering crowd?

The more I think about it, the more I realize Elena has a point. In fact, I’ve conceptualized a better spin-off to Man V. Food than the unimaginative Man V. Food Nation. The new show I envision wouldn’t just give a truer challenge to our hungry friend Adam. It would also keep my wife glued to her seat. Somehow, though, I’m not sure I myself would watch Man V. Dishes.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Farewell to the Age of Aquarius

My wife and I have been paying dearly this spring for not paying more attention in those mythology classes. I’d written last Spring about our visit from Neptune and the soaking that resulted. What we’d come to realize is that he hadn’t gone far. He’d set up a honeymoon suite in the basement—complete with waterbed, natch—for him and his bride, Salacia, the female divinity of the sea.

And from the several little holes through which water seeped in this spring, we know the pair had offspring.

Since these two are gods, it was a no-brainer to assume the proud parents weren’t going to take their critters with them as they sailed off to the next home with a leaky basement. In whose hands do you think they left them?

From the two heavy rainstorms that hit us in early March, it was obvious: Neptune and Salacia’s progeny were ours to take care of. And oh, their cry! It came in the form of several water alarms I’d put down at the various places where water would flow after leaking through the cinderblock. And while Elena managed to rush from puddle to puddle during a few long days, armed with sponge mop and a wet-dry vacuum, the nights were mine to do the same. Just without the noisy vac.

Though I needed to work the next day after one such adventure, it wasn’t all bad. We have a little TV and an old VCR down there, and for the first time I got to watch episodes of Law and Order without missing the murders that occur in the first five minutes and, hence, the point of the episodes. I also got to watch such Hollywood masterpieces as Sharktopus.

We also heard of plenty else going on that helped us to keep our perspective—trees falling on houses, basements with swimming pools, and so on. During the second storm here, the earthquake and tsunami were also hitting Japan. So no, we couldn’t shed too many tears for ourselves. Besides, one tear in the wrong place and we’d have to hear another of those damned water alarms.

Nevertheless, it was time for a change. This very day, in fact, The Professionals are here. We’d done our research. We conducted multiple interviews of experts and signed the contract with one we thought would do the best job, using the latest in technology developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And next spring, we can sleep soundly, knowing that each and every leak in the basement will allow in no more water.

I’m left with only one question: What do you feed a troop of little Dutch boys?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Of universal appeal

I’m sure you’ve already read it. How could a book with this title not fly off the shelves? At least in some universe. And that’s what this book is about. It’s long been cliché to say, “We are not alone.” But now it’s our whole universe that has some company. We’re already seeing the effects.

First, a short step backward in time—to where I was supposed to tell you what book. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, besides having too long a title for a blog’s first paragraph, is physicist Brian Greene’s presentation of a new theory going around these days. You’ve heard of the Big Bang theory? It’s scientists' explanation for how the universe began. But now they’re changing it. Just like how they renamed the Brontosaurus the Apatosaurus and took away poor, poor planet Pluto.

According to Dr. Greene’s theory, the Big Bang resulted in not one universe but a “multiverse” of many universes. And maybe there were lots of other big bangs, each resulting in the creation of other universes. Whatever did happen, for all we know every universe might have created doubles and triples, et cetera of each of us. Just imagine, for the sake of argument, forty-two Justin Biebers! And in some of these universes, he might star in action films while the corresponding Vin Diesels croon to tweens.

My first thought about this theory is, how does a physicist prove it? Second, how are readers supposed to imagine a multiverse? For me, it’s like a ball bath with each ball representing a universe. Alas, here’s where my brain starts spinning to the point I go off the deep end—and not into a real ball bath. (I’d squash the toddlers and end up in jail.) In the ball bath of universes I’ve conjured up, the balls lack the hard-plastic shell of the usual kind. They can even, when a child jumps into the bath, blend temporarily into one another. Yes, yes…sounds like trouble. But from where I stand, it sure explains a lot of what makes the news these days.

Take the Minnesota man, last January, whose friend photographed him on his pitched roof. Ordinarily, this would not be odd. Except that his roof was covered in snow. And was clearing it using his snowblower. Haha, we say. What a doofus! But by my educated interpretation of Dr. Greene’s theory, we might instead ask which universe he came from. One, maybe, where the roof serves as a launchpad for people heading off to work, where news covers the latest air-rage skirmish between drivers.

In the same week, a woman tried to send a puppy across the country by priority mail. The box was taped shut with no air holes. We might wonder, what was she thinking? (In the old days of a single universe, we’d ask what planet she was from.) But if we have multiple universes, who’s to say that dogs from other ones even need food, oxygen and the occasional hydrant?

The list goes on, from these events last year:
• The drunken driver in East Lansing, Michigan, who called 911 on herself;
• the deputy at the jail in Collier County, Florida, who shocked a female colleague with his Taser as a joke; and
• the Story, Indiana, woman who accepted a “Village Idiot” award for setting her hair on fire.

Sure, it’s possible that the rest of us really are smart, and those who end up in these news reports are doofi. But who’s to say, in a multiverse populated by many versions of ourselves—all reading The Fog Bell at this very moment—that people from other universes didn’t occasionally slip into ours? In their own universes, maybe we’re the dunces.

Now that I think about it, though, multiple universes could present bigger problems than an inter-universal migration of the daft. Before you know it, trial lawyers will hear about the notion and put it to use. Accused of a crime? Why, you can use The Greene Defense: “It wasn’t me.” Sure, this defense dates back to the Book of Genesis. But armed with Dr. Greene’s theory, the argument that one of the defendant’s myriad doubles blew in, committed the crime and then left again (on the universe he rode in on) is bound to cast some smidgen of reasonable doubt for some jury…from some universe. And just wait till these aliens start getting elected to political office—no, wait, that’s already happened.

Yesterday came the news that the founder of Paypal is building commercial rockets; potential destinations include the moon, an asteroid or Mars. But he’s in need of paying customers. I have just the candidate, someone who’s caused quite enough trouble for one universe. Oh, Dr. Greeeeene…?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

G whiz, stop it already

You might have seen the AT&T commercial with four people who are riding together in a car when one receives a funny email over his smart phone. While two of his co-workers wait for their ohhh-so-slooow phones to download the same email, he watches it and squeals in delight. Yes, like a pig. By the time the two companions’ downloads via some other network are done, they break out into laughter over the same email. Him? When his colleague beside him taps his shoulder—for some discordant reason, he isn’t hysterically laughing along—he nods distastefully about what, to him, is now a very old joke.

I’m thinking about the implication of all this. It seemed like yesterday that everyone was rushing out to get the first iPhones and other so-called "smart phones" that access the Internet in the time it once took to fetch the phone book. With the advent of smart phones, the occasion arose to create a retronym for what everyone used before. Nobody did. They didn’t have to—the message was clear. The phone I first bought solely to tell Elena I’m stuck in traffic or haven’t drowned at sea while fishing is now, shall we say, a "stupid phone."

It’s one thing for me to call something I own stupid; you might say it’s my mantra. But silly me, I find it hard to call a phone smart that lets anybody from work email me any hour of every day—and expect an immediate response.

But these smart phones, using such breathtaking monikers as "3G" and even "4G," are presented as so utterly cool that, well, you’d be stupid to resist. The key to their time-saving technology? You’d better sit down for this. You’ll save time whenever you brag about the technology to some schmo without a smart phone…by saying "G" instead of "generation." Trust me. In the weeks before the next G shows up, rendering current smart phones obsolete, those syllables add up.

Having covered technology for the first half of my career, I’m allowed to have a certain level of skepticism. What’s with this 3G and 4G stuff? If every new version is going to render all previous versions obsolete—it’s at least what AT&T wants us to think—why not hold out for the highest G you know? I happen not to know, for instance, the next round number after a quadrillion. That works for me.

Yet these toys have their pull, don’t they? For years we’ve been told to forget about our TV’s two tiny speakers and hook the cable box to a receiver that can drive six speakers or more for "surround sound." I thought it was silly and held out as long as I could. Today we have, um, our TV’s two tiny speakers. Let me try this again: Who wanted one of those clunky CRT TVs when store shelves were overflowing with flat-screen sets? That would be me. Besides, I might find it too hard to turn away from a flat-screen set when it’s time to go to the window, lean out and yell, "I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!"

Nevertheless, I feel the pull whenever I’m with someone who’s telling me some news flash, some clever thing a friend said on a social network, or a colleague’s email reply we both needed to see—all because he had a smart phone and I had my stupid one. I first joined Facebook one night that I was feeling my age. Other sites came next. Anyone who goes on such sites daily, then misses a day or two, gets the feeling of needing to catch up. How much more up-to-date would I be if I just got….

In the meantime, it’s all too much. I even dreamed about it the other day. I had a smart phone of my own and was walking in a rustic park I’ve never seen. A little dog runs over as I head toward what looks like a brook. Cute little guy, so friendly—if he had a Facebook page, I could “like” him. And oh, this lovely brook; I watch as it meanders around a bend. If only I could follow it. But no, I’d never find it on Twitter.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Overtaxed in the nanny state

You don’t have to be a parent to understand. Even if your babies are dogs, cats or something else non-human, you can probably appreciate the perils of seeking quality childcare. Just think of leaving what you value most in all the world to a total stranger—or, worse, a politician.

I’m not exactly looking for childcare at this point. No, not with daughter Katie finishing college and son Andrew beginning his own college planning. But something about sending out the last check for Katie’s tuition has gotten me looking back to…those days.

It surely didn’t help that we knew many people who’d found one nanny early on in their first child’s infancy, loved her dearly and kept her on till their kids started getting their Social Security checks. Elena, back then, was working full-time; I was freelancing with a fairly steady workload. And no matter where or how we looked, we invariably unearthed the same form of critter.

Oh, a few seemed very kind and might have worked out. One who came close, Madeline, was a 50-ish mother who said all the right things. Everything, that is, till we asked her how she would get to our place, then an apartment, when we needed her. And everything changed. “Well, you want me here by nine, so I would…I’ll get up at five and see if my husband could drive me. Or I could take the bus—oh, but the bus doesn’t go to…. No, the train! Oh, but I would need to take it to White Plains—oh, but no, it doesn’t go there. I would need to get off in Tarrytown, and then probably a bus across the county to White Plains, and then—oh, but maybe my husband could…but on the days he works, he…mmmmmm, and I have a friend who might be able…oh, but—”

The candidates got more entertaining from there. One fine fellow called about the position and, with all earnestness, told us he qualified because of his past experience. In a childcare setting, perhaps? No such luck; he’d been a zookeeper. (I wanted to call back and explain she wasn’t yet a teenager.) We still talk about the woman who phoned and, to our answering machine, detailed why she was right for the position. In the background as she spoke, a brawl was in full swing. (Crash!) My favorite, though, might have been the man who apparently needed to consult the ad again, twice, during the message he left. “Haalloo…I am calling because I want to…take care of your…of your keed.”

One we did like, a older woman named Eva, told us over tea about her many children plus countless others she’d watched over the decades. But for all her vast experience, she must have misunderstood the notion of a day’s probation. Elena walked with Eva, Katie close to asleep in the stroller, as they strolled around the building’s parking lot. Everything was going fine, no concerns, until Katie yawned and let her pacifier fall to the asphalt. No problem, Elena thought, we had a couple of spares to use till we could wash this one. But before she could get another out, Eva picked up the pacifier, coated in grit where it had touched the pavement, and plunged it toward Katie’s waiting mouth. It was inches away when my wife stopped her. Incredulous, Elena clearly told her we did not do that.

Anyone can make a mistake, right? It’s quite possible that her many children had immune systems of steel…if not tar. But we’re no monsters. It wasn’t that particular gesture that dissolved our arrangement. It was what happened, minutes later, when the pacifier fell again. Eva picked it up from the ground. Without blinking, she aimed it home once again.

By the time Andrew showed up, we’d nearly had our fill of nannies. And yes, those days are now distant memories. Why, sometime in the next ten years or so, we might be enlisted again ourselves.

I suppose I can find our way over from the zoo, where I’ll be volunteering in my retirement. I can probably, by then, stay out of fistfights. And once I’m done forgetting everything I ever learned about sterilizing bottles and pacifiers, I’d be more than happy to help take care…of our keeds’ keeds.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The breakaway dash isn’t just for football

My beloved, Elena, loves to watch women’s gymnastics during the Summer Olympics. It’s her sport, after all. But not the part with the running, flipping and somersaulting. Naw, her favorite part comes at the end of the “floor exercise,” when the gymnast lands upright, arms spread skyward, in a dramatic ta-daaaa. She does that part very well.

I enjoy football in the same way. Only I’ve never had the build, the patience or the grasp of the rules actually to play the game. No, my favorite part comes after the quarterback throws to someone who, occasionally, breaks free from everyone chasing him and runs elatedly for a touchdown. That’s me all over. No, not on the football field—there, I’d be under the beefy mass, losing a dimension. It’s me at big store and malls. Stadiums. City streets. In short, wherever other people are in numbers.

Though few seem to share my viewpoint, for me it’s not much different from driving. Take your average highway at rush hour. Nobody is getting anywhere quickly, but everybody knows it. All drivers have, in other words, some notion of when they think they deserve to reach their destinations. Plus absolute knowledge of who needs to get over already.

Once they leave their car, most people leave such crisp awareness of their surroundings behind. Not me. You won’t, of course, see me walking several steps ahead of friends or family, making them run to keep up with me. (They, um, wouldn’t.) And on a completely empty street, I’ll actually take my time in tranquil contemplation. But once you sprinkle a few people in my way? First off, I’ll pay anything, anything, to get that sprinkler from you. Second, the part of my brain that controls locomotion will floor whatever passes for a pedal.

Those walking ahead of me might be very nice people. They’d probably give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if I suddenly passed out.

They’d better step aside if they know what’s good for them.

It’s not that this sort of thing is never helpful. In the supermarket, I’ll often go to get things at the opposite corner of the store to save time. The way Elena tells it, she’ll ask me to get something, turn away from the cart for an instant and, when she looks back at the cart, I’m there. “Didn’t you…?” she might once have started asking. But after 25 years of marriage, she knows I did. And she still talks about when we made the mistake of visiting the Museum of Natural History the day after Thanksgiving—when parents from apparently all over the world, even other planets and galaxies, bring their kids. Late in the day, I realized I had only a few minutes to get the car, four blocks away, before the meter ran out. With the kids so young, we’d never make it unless I went alone. From my wife’s perspective, she left the gift shop when I did and took the kids out to the door to wait for me. I was already out front, idling the car.

My problem is that, as if we were on the road, I cannot fathom the possibility that people don’t know who is coming up behind them (isn’t everyone from the projects?) and how quickly. In the mall, I’m the unfortunate one who knows precisely which store he’s headed to—and what he wants to buy. The others? They mosey. Of course, it’s their right to walk at whatever speed suits them, to spread their party six abreast if they want and to stop at whatever shop windows they feel like. Just don’t expect me not to take the long way around, say, a fountain to get around you.

In the store, I’ll whoosh down the wrong aisle to go around to the other end of the right one. On the street, I’ll pass a city bus or cab—on the street side—to go around a congested stretch of sidewalk. And if I smell the cigarettes of people even a half-block ahead, I’ll quicken the pace even more. Last I checked, it’s still their right. But they won’t even see me till I’m upwind, exercising mine.

I suspect this particular piece of madness owes to both nature and nurture. My dad was always a brisk walker and, in his '70s, took up competitive racewalking—as fast as walking gets before it's a jog. And two blocks east of my building was the human beehive known better as the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, New York. We often passed through this intersection, at which more than a dozen bus lines originated—not counting the cabs. Myriad stores and restaurants lined the streets in all four directions, and each corner of the intersection had a 7-line subway staircase that further impeded foot traffic. As a teenager, I avoided the intersection altogether when I could. In a pinch, I’d run down the subway stairs and cross the street underground.

In her wisdom, Elena has told me that I give people more credit than I should for being alert. However deliberate I might think people are as they walk more slowly through a foot-traffic bottleneck, they really didn’t notice me coming—and would probably make room if they knew it mattered so much to me. “They’re in their own little worlds,” she says.

Even wisdom, however, needs fertile soil to take root. Instead of shrugging off people’s harmless foibles, I’m much more likely, when someone is in my way, to think my unspoken mantra: “What are you, stupid?”

God willing, I’ll also have my stride well into my ’70s. And once I don’t, I hope eventually to become like the fellow in the motorized wheelchair who raced past my daughter, Katie, who’s a fast walker herself—but was in high heels that evening. A few yards in front of her, he turned his head toward her. “Ha!” he cried and sped away.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A goon by June

Of course, the many of us who celebrate Christmas know it isn't about the gifts. Still, there’s one certain present that—sorry, sweet family, I feel terribly ungrateful—I wish I’d found under the tree. Or standing, rather, beside it.

You see a perfect example of one in The Godfather. In the early wedding scene, a photographer apparently decides to approach the tables one at a time and take pictures of everyone seated. He takes only one photo, but that shot happens to include Don Emilio Barzini, the head of one of the so-called five families. Before the camera’s flash fades, Barzini makes two gestures. He taps a henchman who’s inches away, then points. The man grabs the photographer. A second man grabs the camera, and they rush the film to their boss, who pulls it from its casing into the light, ruining it. End of problem.

No, I’ve nothing against photographers, certain school shutterbugs excepted. I just want a goon of my own. Is that so much to ask? I’m even giving plenty of notice. Father’s Day, after all, is more than five months away.

The possibilities are myriad. Most problems people have in the world, after all, involve other people. Even Italian friends I have who consider Mafia movies and shows insulting to Italians have to admit this particular notion has a certain attraction to it. And the position is equal-opportunity—only obedience is required. Someone give you a hassle? Tap. Point. End of problem. What’s not to like?

Goons aren’t for just any problem. Sure, I’d be tempted to reach back to my goon—tap, point—when someone at the supermarket checkout decides to argue with the cashier about a debit card that should work even though the machine repeatedly says no. I’d even consider using him when a service technician comes hours later than we were promised.

But the goon is most suited for those everyday situations we face that render us feeling utterly helpless. He’s just right for a visit to the homeowner-insurance agent who was always in my face when trying to selling me cruise tickets, his side business—but appeared to be cruising himself, unavailable, when I needed to submit a claim. Tap. Point.

Take the guy in the men’s room who leaves without washing his hands, his germs on the doorknob anticipating my touch. Tap. Point. The people who blab and play cellphone games throughout a movie I paid to see. Tap. Point. And the driver, while we’re walking walk from our car to the mall, who decides he’s not in a parking lot but on the Autobahn. Lunge for safety. Reach. Tap. Point. My goon will be one good shot.

And who couldn’t use a personal goon in the workplace? Not so I could sit around all day and do nothing—last I checked, I didn’t drive a New York City plow. But I could surely have used one in my first job, in which the brothers who ran the company required employees to sign in each morning with their time…yet never cared to know how late after five, six or seven we needed to stay. Tap. Point. Point.

Before you ask, I truly do understand that while this is the business I have chosen, all this must end. Some day I expect to find myself at Heaven’s pearly gates, awaiting judgment from Saint Peter. He’s bound to look me up in his big book and begin shaking his head, muttering some nonsense about “meting out my own justice.”

My saving grace, though, is how many people leave this planet a day: about 300,000. There’s one set of gates, and one very exasperated-looking guy who probably takes a lot of abuse from a good percentage of people who didn’t appreciate waiting in line on Earth, either, and are letting him know it. I’m not unreasonable. He’s going to take one look at me, then glance at my goon. He’ll whisper in my ear. We’ll shake on it.

It’ll be a win-win, you see. I’ll get to spend eternity with my loved ones. And the line outside will suddenly become a lot more orderly.