Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Because absolutely everything relies on you

Election Day seems right around the corner, and if you’re like most of us, you’re paying no attention whatsoever to what’s actually going on. But some people are rooting for certain trusted candidates to win their elections. If you’re among them, I have some news for you: You’re doing absolutely nothing productive for your candidate. Ask any sports fan.

Oh, I can hear you already. “But I’ve donated money!” “I put a bumper sticker on my car!” “I…I….”

Save your breath, for you’ve been wasting your efforts. Allow me, if you will, a little latitude to demonstrate what I mean.

For starters, you might recall that I’m a Met fan in a Yankee household. The Mets don’t get much play in our house, not because I get outvoted but because I’m no masochist. As a result, the Yankees are on TV an awful lot. So while I tend to avoid my own team, I seem to have played an important role in the Yankees’ having reached the postseason 15 of the past 16 years. And this one, too.

Here’s how I apparently do it. At the simplest level, it begins while my wife, Elena, is watching a game. Let’s say the Yankees are losing, with the opposing pitcher making them look pretty lame. I happen to walk into the room, and moments later a Yankee gets a home run. Well, I didn’t really have any plans for the rest of the game, did I? If so, I’d better just forget about them. Because my very step into the room initiated a sequence of events in the universe that resulted in the batter’s seeing the coming pitch in a wholly different way—and blasting it to the next county. So whatever else I was planning, I’m no longer allowed to leave the room to do it. What kind of husband ignores his wife’s pleas?

My actions, though, seem to represent only one of a host of variables. (I’ll thank you not to ask how many are in a host.) If it isn’t Elena or myself, it’s someone else, maybe across the country, who’s pulling the strings of a given game. It’s someone standing—or sitting. It’s sitting in a certain chair. Legs straight down or crossed. Looking up at the TV or not. Eating the proper snacks, and using the correct hand. And wearing the right hat, jacket, socks and shoes. The list goes on and on. But when everything fits together just so, it’s nothing less than an aligning of the stars.

Now let’s get your candidate into the postseason. Granted, politics is not a game, so eating the right brand of chips alone might not do the trick. For maximum effect, attend a speech; watching it online might not do. You can sense the mood of the crowd; the candidate is scoring points, or he’s not. If he isn’t, you yourself are obviously doing something wrong—you doofus. Bring every hat you own; try them on one at a time and gauge the change in the crowd’s applause. And pray you bought the right shoes, whether or not they still fit.

If nothing happens, it must be because you attended the speech. So walk away. Come to think of it, perhaps it isn’t just about you. Here’s where your leadership qualities come in. If your being there or not makes no difference in how well a speech is being received, it’s possible that everyone in the audience needs to randomly walk in and out of the meeting hall, or at least change seats, until the correct permutation is achieved. Don’t worry: From the length of some speeches, you’ll have plenty of time to experiment.

Of course, it’s also possible that everyone was seated in exactly the right place to begin with…but that one of them needs to be wearing your hat. Pass out those hats, then, with everyone in the audience trying them on until the level of excitement reaches fever pitch. True, chances are they'll sport some nice, thriving colonies of parasitic insects by the time you get them back. But with the country’s future at stake, better that than a lousy candidate. Are you in to win or what?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Higgs Boson and what really needs finding

Let me apologize in advance for interrupting your musings over important matters—you know, things like why J.Lo and Steven Tyler have left American Idol and what their exit means for the future of mankind. But the scientific community recently celebrated an important breakthrough. Sure, the Higgs Boson can’t compete with even the watered-down, post-Simonic remnant of that show. But what its discovery represents is hope for us all.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me tell you what the Higgs Boson is. I don’t know. And I’m in good company. Journalists are already champions at writing their stories before doing their research. Who has time for facts? In the case of the Higgs Boson, though, they had to make the effort to do more than sound smart. Still, the resulting attempts at the subject had poor Peter Higgs, the Boson’s namesake, rolling in his grave. Which was a pretty mean feat considering that Higgs is still alive.

So being a true journalist, I’m going to break from tradition and look out for you instead of my editor. In other words, forget about what the Higgs Boson is. That it’s the smallest particle now known to man, what gives everything on earth its mass, doesn’t matter to you. Or to me. Let’s instead do a search for…all those socks.

Yes, you heard me right, socks. It shouldn’t take a $10-billion particle accelerator to find what seemingly travels to another dimension—or perhaps, since the voyage of these garments begins in a washing machine, to a planet orbiting the luminous Energy Star. Yet you can’t sort laundry after a wash without noticing at least one sock is gone.

In our house, socks are only the warm-up act. True, the TV’s remote hasn’t dissolved into particles since the kids hit middle school. And it’s hardly high technology to phone a misplaced cell phone to listen for its ring, except that before losing my phone I pride myself in turning it off. But Elena’s glasses? Our keys? My credit-card bills, which sit plainly in view for weeks till it comes time for me to pay them?

The scientists found the Higgs Boson using a machine called the Large Hadron Collider, which sounds like a shopping cart that strikes fear in the heart of anyone who parks his shiny new car, a Porsche Hadron, outside the supermarket. If it takes one of these to find all the things that get lost in this house, I want one for Christmas. It shouldn’t cost much now that it’s used. And because physicists are finished using it to find the Higgs Boson, it’s just going to sit around, right?

What most needs finding around here, though, is the result of a certifiable good deed. A friend of son Andrew was, for a time, selling Cutco Cutlery. Sure, they’re fine products, but they’re very expensive. And when you’ve been married for 25-plus years without throwing knives at one another even once, you still have the ones you got a quarter-century ago. So we ordered a few things, including a pair of pruners.

They’re great pruners. The 18-year-old sales rep said they’ll last for years. They will, too. Wouldn’t you agree, since they’re wrapped up carefully in the box they came in? Sure, I know exactly where they are—in that little box. Just don’t ask me where that box is.

The Higgs Boson might tell us how keys, glasses, bills and even those pruners have mass. But someday, I’ll discover where all these things are. When I do, I will be lauded the world over. I can already envision, in fact, the day I go to Oslo to accept my Nobel Prize. My name will be called, and I will stride up the aisle to thunderous applause.

The ordinarily reserved crowd in the seats will be all abuzz. So much so that after I receive my award and all those cameras and phones start clicking away, the award’s presenter will announce that, however unusual, he’d like to ask me a question before I step any farther from the stage.

“Would you kindly tell us why you have a sock stuck to your back?”

Monday, June 4, 2012

They’ll just have to throw the book at me

I’ve come to a painful decision, and my answer is no. If you’ve been following this year’s national elections, you know it’s a very divided race. Giving both sides their deference, it’s a contest between shameless power and shameless wealth. Since I have neither, I was the obvious happy medium—or so insisted my candidacy’s myriad supporters on Facebook.

We all know, after all, how thoroughly a potential candidate’s every past moment is sure to be prospected. Somewhere in all that gold, there has to be some mud. So, with a heavy heart, I spare my supporters further disappointment and, while I’m at it, put legions of fiction writers out of work. If anyone is going to reveal my sordid past, it’s going to be me.

First, let me get the obvious one out of the way and admit it. I’m sorry, yes, I did kick my mother. Repeatedly. I did it while she was in a weakened state, and I thought nothing of it.

What the media won’t reveal, no matter how extensive their coverage, is one important detail: I was in her womb.

Which brings us to the other one, and I might as well give you the press version first—especially since I think the statute of limitations has run out. In short, I was a burglar. I entered a college campus with the sole intention of breaking into a building for the purpose of theft. And once I found the building unguarded, I smashed my way in with tools I’d purchased over the Internet. I found what I was looking for in its metal casing and snatched it. Within minutes I was miles away with the spoils of my crime, plotting my next caper.

I would have had to be an evil genius to purchase burglary tools over the Internet in 1980. But that isn’t the only way that what you would have read differs from what actually happened, and here’s the scoop. I did not enter the college campus with the sole intention of breaking into a building; that came later. It was a weekend, and I was in the middle of finals. I needed access into a building, I explained in detail to my college’s security guard in charge, and asked as reasonably as possible to be allowed in for a few moments.

Public servant that he was, his salary paid by my CUNY tuition and resident income tax, he gave the expected answer: No. “Come back on Monday,” he said. But I had more finals then, I explained, and needed what I needed today. He threw up his hands.

Soon after, I found myself sitting on the steps of a classroom building, casing another that was a few hundred feet away. It was one of several single-story temporary buildings Queens College had at the time—no air conditioning—and I was guessing at least one window had been left open. But a college-security sedan idled just outside the building…five minutes, then ten. Maybe the guard had gotten a warning call on his radio?

Eventually the guard drove off. I waited till he was out of sight and walked slowly past the little building. With a glance over my shoulder, I ran to its side. The window I needed was locked, but another wasn’t. I shoved it open and fell into the room. I listened for company, the only sound my heavy breathing. There was no time to lose! I ran from the room, down the hall and into the room I needed: the classroom where I’d had a final exam the day before. I looked under the desk where I’d sat—nothing. I looked toward the front of the room. Yes

In the trashcan was my multi-subject notebook, which I’d left behind the day before. Presuming I’d return to the car without being apprehended, I would soon resume studying for Monday’s tests.

So there you have the real story, and I have back my private life. No more campaigning, no more worries. And besides, even if the statute of limitations hadn’t run out, I could hardly be charged for burglary and theft in a building that didn’t exist anymore. Right?

But excuse me, someone’s at the door. A few people. And what are those bright flashing lights outside? Hmmm…on second thought, considering the charges, maybe I’m back in the race after all—for Congress.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Because Ayatollah you so

Reading the news these days can be very depressing. I myself, though, have been finding some of it very instructive. For instance, I can’t help but notice how a country called Iran has been throwing its weight around, making demands and making other countries step lightly in negotiations. How can this country, the 18th in size in the world, ever get its way? Simple: Its rulers say they have nuclear weapons—and we believe them.

I don’t happen to have a nuclear weapon. (Amazon doesn’t sell them with Free Super Saver shipping.) But neither do I dangle almosts and maybes in the faces of my various nemeses. Since my last birthday, I have something else that I consider far more personal than a nuclear bomb, which wouldn’t fit in the trunk of the Corolla anyway. And now that keeping up with the news has taught me I don’t even have to show a weapon to get my way, I realize it’s time to make my quiet declaration and take some control in my life.

Just think of the potential. Of course, my plan would work anytime I’m on a line in a store and the cashier decides to wait on his friend, who’s just walked in, before me. But that’s the easy stuff. I’m thinking more about our regular health-care provider, teamed up as usual with our insurance carrier. Do you recall the schoolyard game of salugi, in which two kids play catch with a hat, throwing it back and forth above the reach of the hat’s helpless owner? That’s what provider and carrier play today, only it isn’t a hat; it’s my wallet. Unrecorded co-pays, coverage allowed or disallowed depending on the mood of the agent…the list goes on.

Today, when we have a problem, Elena contacts them, tells them where they screwed up and sends receipts to back up what should be obvious. On rare occasion, I’ve called them. How much more productive I could be if, at the first sign of bureaucratic obstruction, I made a simple statement: “You don’t understand. You see, I have a chainsaw.” Call it my contribution to the health-care crisis. You’re welcome.

In my twisted mind, nearly everyone in the world has seen some version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, at the very least, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. So by uttering those simple words, without even having to fire up the machine, I could benefit on a personal level from a strategy unfolding, so far successfully, on the international stage.

With son Andrew’s college years quickly approaching, I’m weighing my options—with a look back five years, to when daughter Katie was accepted at NYU.  Hoping to talk our way into the school’s raising her amount of financial aid to the level another school had offered, we walked up to what looked like a teller window. An officious young man, probably a grad student, looked down his nose at our handful of papers and flatly suggested that our firstborn go to that other school instead.

Were that exchange to occur today, we would not bring that handful of papers. I would only take along a photo of the chainsaw. I’d have shot it outdoors, with a ray of sunlight reflecting off a few sharpened teeth of its hungry blades. “Maybe this will change your mind,” I’d say. The temptation would be, if it were the same agent, to follow through on my threat whether or not we got the money.

Alas, there are limitations to this strategy. A chainsaw might not have its intended effect were I to announce it during, say, an IRS audit or a similar dispute with a government entity. People with real nuclear bombs, along with drones, F-22 Raptors and other instruments of death aren’t folks to threaten unless you’ve got comparable firepower.

There’s another limitation that I’ve saved for my most devoted readers who are reading to the end. My chainsaw is not one you’d have seen in those horror classics, or one with which you could compete in Maine’s Lumberjack Show. In fact, it’s a rather modest plug-in model from a brand better known for electric razors. Remember Victor Kiam? And if I were chasing you with it, anyone with legs could easily run out of reach of the extension cord. If you didn’t have legs, well, there’d be no point.

I know I can count on you. We’ll keep this to ourselves, won’t we? No putting my secret on the Internet or anything. But if you do, just remember one thing. I have…

Oh, never mind.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

‘And the fries are simply to die for…’

The Perratore household is all abuzz this month with the news that Andrew has made Vassar. I’ve so much to say to my son, so much wisdom to impart. Of course, being a normal, 21st-century 18-year-old, he’ll have to take off his headphones to hear it. Ignore the buzzing of texts on his cellphone, too, and put down that chicken parm and penne ala vodka sandwich for a minute…breakfast can wait.

Once I do get his attention, my first piece of sage advice applies to whatever he does during and after his college years: “To thine own self be true.” You know, one of those droll parental platitudes.

Not that it’s advice I followed from the get-go. Before I even open my mouth, I recall a column to which a few staffers of the Ridgewood Times contributed while I worked there as a college student. It was called “Feinschmecker,” a word the largely German population of that part of Queens knew to mean “gourmet” or “epicure.” It was a restaurant-review column…though one with a secret.

To anyone who understands the usual weekly newspaper, it was business as usual. The restaurants the column featured were advertisers. In exchange for a freebie meal for two—pretty cheap rates for a 500-word ad—the newspaper would run a review of the restaurant. And as that part of Queens is renowned the world over for its culinary fare, we at the paper knew before reading a word that the review would be glowing.

The first place I covered, my then-girlfriend Elena at my side (no jokes about cheap dates, please), was a local German haunt. We were served food I was having for the first time, such as Goulash Soup, Leberkäse a la Holstein and Kieler Rollmops, and I was expected to write about its quality with, ahem, authority. This from a kid who, given his druthers, was most likely to be found in the nearest McDonald’s or pizza place when it came time to chow down.

Anyway, I muddled through so with indecipherable gems such as “Yours is a virtual free-for-all of caviar atop Russian dressing over hard-boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and tomato, all of which make fast friends when forked into your mouth.” To tell you the truth, I was very proud of myself for a different reason: When writing about the caviar, not once did I use the phrase “trout bait.”

My second assignment, at a more mainstream establishment on busy Queens Boulevard, took me to less charted waters. The owner himself seated us. And, as we looked at the menus—I “studied” it—he sat down at our table. “So…” our host began in a German accent that seemed to have thickened over the past minute, “you are der feinschmecker!”

I suddenly found myself in a surreal scene reminiscent of those World War II movies in which an American must bluff his way past a suspicious guard. Through a long silence, during which he wonders where he will be tortured and shot or merely shot, he holds his breath. But unlike those movies, I could not get away with merely chuckling and replying “Ja, ja!” To which he would laugh and reply, “Ja!” Followed by five minutes of back-and-forth “ja-ing,” with knowing smiles and nods—the meaning of which would mercifully escape me.

What I mostly wondered, though, was whether this man truly didn’t have the same wink-wink-nod-nod understanding of this food-for-praise arrangement. If I said the wrong thing, why, I could envision what came next—the owner throwing a napkin to the rustic stone floor, gauntlet-like, and hissing through clenched teeth, “You…are…no…feinschmecker. Get out of here, get out!”

So I winged it. “I guess so!” To which he told us the specials, recommended an entrée or two and went away.

After that escapade, I was only too happy to do a pizza place and restaurant for my third and last venture as a restaurant reviewer. Here, at least, I had genuine opinions.

We just took Andrew on another trip to his new college, and I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of the campus newspaper. I opened it randomly—to see a restaurant review. And I almost opened my mouth to utter the second piece of sage advice: Write restaurant reviews and get lots of free food!

But considering that he’s never truly had to pay for his own food, I don’t think that advice would go over well, either.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

So many meals, so little time

It has taken some soul-searching, but I have come to a realization: I am a dismal failure. The first warning came more than a week ago, when I hit the buffet restaurant Golden Corral, my favorite feed trough, on the first night of a recent business trip. I’d paid homage to it once before.

What, you haven’t heard of Golden Corral? It’s where you stride in for a bounteous, all-you-can-eat meal at low cost—and afterward wonder how you’ll get back out to your car. If the song “Rawhide” (with its chorus, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’….”) isn’t being blasted from speakers above the exit door, it should be.

But to the hush of the cooks, the wait staff and my fellow patrons, I ate my dinner and left the restaurant without the aid of a wheelbarrow. In disgrace, I trudged the mile and a quarter back to my hotel.

It happened again the other day, when Elena and I dined at a local Italian restaurant. I’d ordered my favorite dish, veal parmigiana, which came with pasta and a small salad. But near the end of the meal, as my wife asked the waiter to wrap up what she couldn’t finish, I found myself pointing to my own plate with a trembling finger I recognized as my own. A voice croaked the words, “M-mine, too.”

Understand something about me: I have not been one to take prisoners. More than 70 percent of American men are overweight, and it would hardly be me to leave food uneaten and shame such a…um…sizable portion of the population. And sorry, Michelle, but I’ve considered it my duty as a natural-born citizen of Earth’s sole superpower to super-size a few meals a year.

Best of all, I could always get away with it. As a child, I fully expected to grow up to be Mac, the skinny guy who gets sand kicked in his face in those Charles Atlas comic-book ads. (I didn’t care as much to become the Hero of the Beach as much as attract a loyal girlfriend.) Even if I couldn’t beat up bullies, those early years taught me a lasting lesson: No matter how much I ate, my speedy metabolism would keep even a forkful of fat from sticking to my scrawny frame.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when eating has come to represent my complete reward system. It isn’t exactly impeccable timing, for cheap junk food since my teen years has permeated the shelves of stores across the nation. And alas, I’ve discovered a device, called a bathroom scale, that apparently responds to my eating habits. A friend at work, Kimberly, tells me I’m lucky to have gotten away for so long without having to worry about gaining weight. I have a different perspective: Those decades left me totally unprepared. I’m a babe in the woods, and a chubby little one at that.

You’ll be happy to know I’ve already come up with a solution. It’s so easy, in fact, that it’s a wonder anyone is overweight. All I have to do is eat as little as possible in between those unavoidable occasions, during which I allow myself an extra calorie or two.

I’m talking about those major holidays, plus Super Bowl Sunday. And Valentine’s Day. The birthday celebrations of all family members, friends and colleagues. Add in meals away from home: business trips and office lunches, dining out with the family, meals during vacations and visits to friends and family. Barbecues at home. Ballgames, including at the stadium. Samples at supermarkets, country fairs and farmers’ markets. Snacks my coworkers put out. Movie-theater treats. Italian dinners at home, too. Not to mention pizza—no matter when or where it calls me by name. And did I forget Saturday breakfast?

In between those occasions, don’t even think about offering me food.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And we adapt so well to captivity

You get to a certain age, and you start thinking you’ve seen much of what life has to offer—at least at the mall. But there it was, no bigger than my hand, and the furry critter was crawling all over the sales rep who insisted that a sugar bear was just what our household needed.

Last I’d heard, Sugar Bear was a cartoon bear that adorned boxes of Super Sugar Crisp, wearing a preppy blue turtleneck sweater. Related to koalas and kangaroos and also called “sugar gliders,” these have appeared on Animal Planet and are billed as the perfect ‘pocket-pets.’” They’re well behaved and appropriate for young children. They bond to their human “families,” they get along with non-slithering pets, they’re loyal, and they love to play. When you have one, in fact, you’ll think of yourself in a whole new way: as a set of monkey bars.

Other people aren’t so complimentary. Sugar bears bite. They love to play so much that you can just forget about anything else you like to do, like read things online. Cats and dogs love them…the way women love chocolate. And they can’t be potty trained, though they tend to pee and poop on members of their human “families,” especially in their pockets. What do you expect? They’re marsupials—they know pockets from birth. Oh, and you don’t spend hundreds on just one; it needs a friend. So you should get a second, of the opposite sex. Of course, you know what comes next.

I’m sure the truth, other than their curious aversion to snakes, lies somewhere in between. But I have a bigger problem with a creature that’s captured in the rainforests of Australia or Indonesia and transported ten thousand miles to press me into servitude. Really now: If I so wanted something in my pocket that required incessant attention, a smart phone is all I’d need.

When Katie and Andrew were much younger, they received Tamagotchis in a birthday-party goody bag, and I considered it a credit to their intelligence that within scant weeks they left the beeping slave drivers for dead, virtually doomed to starvation. I have no doubt the kids would do the same if they played Farmville—and on the scale of Tyson Foods. It makes a father proud.

Yet today’s web-enabled handhelds have become today’s Tamagotchis, and there’s no condemning these critters. They text us, they comment on our status, they play music and videos, and do myriad other things with all the apps—little software programs, for the uninitiated—you can download to them. (Alas, there’s no virtual sugar-bear app.) They never shut up. And they’re creating a race of sub-human beings who walk while looking downward, banging into one another and into the path of cars—whose drivers are also checking their little screens instead of the road.

I know…because I’m trying not to become one. With my new iPod Touch, occasionally a very handy doodad, I’m still trying to find all the settings I need to set so it stops calling me with every IM, email and social-network comment someone sends my way. It doesn’t yet feel like a sugar bear in my pocket.

But the day it does, I’ll just have to download a Pampers app.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dial 00:00:00 for murder

“…'Cause if my baby don't love me no more,
I know her…sister will!”

It’s a safe bet that Jimi Hendrix wrote “Red House” about a far more shapely subject than a stainless-steel kitchen timer. But sadly for the Perratore household, the closing lines of this ’60s song have taken on a whole new meaning since we opened our Christmas gifts.

Regular readers of this blog will remember well that during the fall, a shadow lay over our family. Its name was OXO, a three-event timer that took on a personality and took to devilry whenever I was within her—yes, her—vicinity. Even placing my hand inches away was all it took for her to reset her clock to noon or shrieking like a banshee.

Shortly after she got what she wanted, publication of her story for a worldwide audience, OXO promptly expired. But she didn’t exactly go to meet her maker, which would probably have meant being shipped back to some Chinese labor camp. The next day, her lifeless shell showed up into the backpack I take to the office. She resides on my bookcase, where she can sit in judgment for eternity—not counting evenings and weekends—on my every deadline.

End of story, right? I thought so, and so did Elena. Until she reached into her stocking on Christmas morning, our favorite Bing Crosby LP playing softly on the stereo, and pulled out…Sister.

Despite our experience with OXO, I alone knew that my wife still wanted to have a kitchen timer she could use to time a few parts of a dinner at once. But don’t look at me; I was as surprised as Elena. What we quickly dubbed Sister was soon situated at the same post her fallen twin once manned.

From several feet away, I regarded the newcomer with suspicion. I drew closer, staring, and finally had the nerve to reach over and nudge the timer. That alone would have produced, from her predecessor, the polyphonic screams of feigned injury. From Sister, it resulted in nary a sound; I might as well have poked the toaster.

Next, I picked her up and unceremoniously held down her Clock button to reset the time. OXO would already have been livid—and let us know it by resetting her clock faster than I could set it. But Sister, a cooler character indeed, was not about to show her hand so easily. I reset the clock, pressed the Clock button again, and set her back down. My hands were shaking.

This morning, Elena asked me how I’d slept. The answer was easy: hardly. For the realization hasn’t escaped me that Sister has the same number of built-in timers as this household currently has people. With no weapons but a countdown—isn’t that, in the end, what we all face?—I suspect Sister’s first buzzer is for me. And my time draws nigh.

The day they find me at home, an expression of horror betraying my last moments alive, a cleaning attendant at my office will hear tones from a bookshelf in my office. From a device that hasn’t known batteries in weeks, midnight will flash…and flash…and flash….