Wednesday, November 30, 2005

#161 Gussie

The other night one of us around the household got a little more dressed up than the others as we were about to go out to dinner. One of the not-so-dressed-up people then made sarcastic mention of the dressed-up one getting “all gussied up.” Naturally, being a student of that fine language we call English but should really go by the name American, or, if you are even more verbally anal, United States-ian, I wondered where the heck the word “gussied” came from. Perhaps it’s the whole phrase “gussied up” I should have wondered about, since you never hear of someone being gussied down or gussied sideways.
I went to an online slang dictionary and it was no help. “For shizzle” et al were included but old slang terms like “gussied up” and “that was hairy” and “twitchin” were sadly absent. I then went to an etymological dictionary to trace the origin of the term. No luck, can’t get an origin if they don’t even list the word. Ah, I thought, an orphan word. No origin, no slang family. So I checked the online dictionary and voila, there it was. The listing read: “gussied up; true origin unknown (what did I tell you) speculated to possibly relate to the earlier use of the term Gussie (derived from a proper name) for effeminate man.” Interesting, I thought, the first time I remember hearing the word, Minnie Pearl was holding forth at the Grand Old Opry about her sister getting all gussied up.
The online dictionary listed as synonyms for gussied up “tricked out” and “fancied up” and just plain “gussie.” Fancied up I get, but tricked out? That’s listed in my slang dictionary as a synonym for pimped out. So, “Man, why are you getting all gussied up?” has been replaced by “Dude, how come you’re so pimped out?”
Each of the synonyms was highlighted in the dictionary. That’s one great thing I like about online dictionaries, following word trails doesn’t involve hefting giant volumes and riffling potential paper-cut engendering pages. I clicked the link for gussie and discovered that gussie was an Australian term for an effeminate man and that it derived from Augustus. Augustus, as you may know, was the fellow who re-conquered Rome and half the known world and became its first emperor. Delicate fellow.
I X-ed out of my dictionary in disgust. Australian English is even worse than United states-ian
America ya gotta love it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

#160 401-OK

It was with a surprise of revelation that I looked at my 401(k) statement the other day―I was concerned directly about the stock market. Did I have enough energy stocks to reap some retirement profit from the recent price gouging? Did I have investments in the construction industry, and did they have contacts with the feds so they might get some of the carpet-bagging deals coming down the pike after Hurricane Katrina? Did I have enough diversification in my portfolio to include investment in the pharmaceutical industry, and did that include any companies that were working on a vaccine or treatment for the avian swine flu?
In short: Was I invested in the sour things that are happening now, in a craven and profitable enough way that my retirement later would be a little sweeter? Would I profit from other’s misfortune? And more importantly, would I profit from my own?
You see, as I pointed out before, where Karl Marx went wrong was not attributing to capitalism the ability to change. When capitalism—albeit unwillingly at the hands of the early unions— capitulated to the needs of workers and started paying them a decent wage, it discovered that it had also created a whole new class of consumers. And voila, capitalism thrived. It was Consumerism saved Capitalism from Communism. Which is why the mystical Consumer Confidence Index is one of the most paid-attention-to indices on Wall Street.
But the really elegant co-option and revolution-neutering of the working class by the Capitalist elite is the 401(k). Now, not only do workers have a better paycheck to spend their money, and have an interest in the performance of the company they work for, they have a direct vested interest in the performance of Wall Street as well. The young un-retired side of their brains gets upset about the oil companies reaming them with high pump prices. The other soon-to-be-retired side of their brain runs to their portfolio to see if they have any energy stocks. Talk about conflicted.
Gone are the days of rallying to the barricades, making common cause with the poor, joining together to lift everybody up and tearing down the corrupt and exploiting bourgeois money temples. Now, like me, much of the working class is working for a golden retirement, and has a little room in the money temple all its own.
What is it they say about chains of gold?
America ya gotta love it.

Monday, November 28, 2005

#159 Need a ride

Heard an interesting news story a while back. Seems a disabled individual stole a bus. Apparently, this dial-a-ride transit bus was called for a pick-up to a certain hospital or convalescent clinic. When the driver arrived, he went inside. At that point, a recent amputee got into the bus, leaving his wheelchair behind, and drove off. He was caught a little later after not too much ado. Perhaps busses have the mass transit equivalent of Onstar. Do they call it Onboard? Not that it wouldn’t be an easy APB. “Um, 1-Adam 12, we got a dial-a-ride transit bus that’s been misappropriated. What’s the new universal post-Katrina terror code on that? Ah hell, be on the look out for a large square unwieldy vehicle with horrible gas mileage covered with unsightly advertising billboards.” In fact, rumor has it that it was those ubiquitous busboards that both saved and perhaps caused the day. The signs on the side of the bus were described to the surrounding police jurisdictions. And helped apprehend the culprit. But what those signs said in the first place may have actually been the origin of the crime. They implored, for all to see: “Need a ride? Take the bus.”
Signs can get you into trouble. The other day I was showing some color copies to a friend of mine. He asked where I’d got them and I told him “Fed.”
“Fed,” he said, “What the hell is Fed?”
“It’s on Pacific Avenue,” I said, “Over by Albertson’s.”
“I don’t know anyplace called Fed.”
“Sure you do,” I insisted, “It’s the place that used to be Kinkos. They even say so.”
“If you mean Kinkos, why didn’t you say so?” I could see he was getting a little testy.
“Don’t get a little testy with me,” I said, “I told you, it’s called Fed now. I like to be accurate. But they’re also are trying to help nimrods like you caused they mention right in their sign that they’re the ex-Kinkos.”
“Their sign says they used to be Kinkos?”
“I guess,” I said sarcastically, “Ex-Kinkos means used to be Kinkos I’m guessing.”
“Then where’d you get the Fed thing?” he asked.
It was my turn to be a little testy. “The same dang sign.”
A light seemed to go off in his head. “I’m from Missouri,” he said, “Show me.”
So we got into my car and drove up Pacific. I pointed to the sign in triumph. “See,” I gloated. “Fed, and then they tell you right there. ex-Kinkos.”
“Um Funny Guy,” he said quietly, “I think you need to read the sign quicker. I believe it says: Fed-ex Kinkos.”
Oops. Time for a quick escape. Where’s a bus when you need one?
America ya gotta love it.

#158 Electioneers

The soon to be conducted all mail election in Thurston County offers a sad sidenote. Displaced election volunteers. If you’re like me, most of the times you’ve gone to vote in the last few years you’ve gone to your polling place. And that polling place is, inevitably, a church. It makes sense. Voting takes place on a Tuesday. Churches almost never have anything going on a Tuesday. As far as I know there are no “Second Day Adventists.” Or is that third? In any event, if you’re also like me, you’ve noticed that when you walk into that place to vote it always smells the same. Like a church. Any church, anywhere, they all have the church smell. Like the new car smell, you wonder if someone has a spray bottle somewhere and goes around spritzing church smell on all the carpets and pews. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the smell does actually emanate from the pews—certainly not an article of furniture you’re bound to encounter anywhere else. Or maybe it’s a conglomeration smell, like the smell of a tavern—that accumulated odor of decades of tobacco and stale beer and occasional urps—but in this case the combo of old lady perfume and pledge on the pews and damp mold on the hymnals. The semi-annual duty of democracy doesn’t seem to change it much, no matter who comes in reeking of what in their endeavor to exercise the franchise. Truth is, I think it may be that no one has ever had the gall to pass gas in these hallowed halls, and it is the absence of residual odor rather than its presence that lends a church its unique angelic aroma.
In any event, what are we going to do with the election volunteers, the old ladies and gents that help us when we vote? Who is going to peel off the “I Voted” sticker? Who is going to check my signature against the one in the book? Who is going to rip off my ballot stub afterwards? And, more importantly, what are these people going to do to replace this wonderful diversion?
I have this vision of elderly ladies not getting the memo and showing up on the first Tuesday in November to a deserted church. They sit there and they sit there, their lavender cachets and scented blue hair emanating that old people’s smell, which mingles effortlessly into the aforementioned atmosphere of the church, like a soul ascending into heaven. They have nothing to do. They chatter about grandchildren. They break out their crochet hooks. They trade yarns about elections passed. One of them mentions souvenirs and another, inspired, digs into her voluminous purse, and amongst the discarded tissues, cellophane butterscotch candy wrappers and nearly empty rouge tins, she finds and reveals, to the oohs and ahhs of her cronies, a bag of old chads, dimpled, bulging, and yes formerly hanging. For everything, there is a season.
America ya gotta love it.

#157 Distraction

Read a story the other day. It was about a call center that was helping victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In one way it was good. It was an experienced call center, used to handling thousands of calls daily dealing with software compatibility problems with a major computer operating system. The bad thing was; it was based; in you guessed it; India.
I’m all for making the world a smaller place and reaching out to non-English speaking peoples the world over. But I do think in emergency situations where a good grasp of the vernacular can make the difference between life and death, and a possibly higher insurance claim, that speaking with someone who knows American English as a first language may come in handy.
Case in point: Recently a young lady ran in to my car. She had taken a little bit of a shortcut across a painted traffic island instead of going up to the corner of said island and taking a full right turn. It wasn’t an easy distinction to describe—a painted traffic island versus say, a curb or something. It required an ability to communicate the distinction to someone else in a way that was convincing. She cut across, she took a short cut, she made a bee-line instead of turning her car at right angles. Hell, even the policeman on the scene didn’t get it at first. And he saw the positions of the cars. He viewed the painted traffic island as flat and therefore cut across-able. I had to remind him that if it’s painted on the pavement, it’s just like it’s ten feet tall. You ain’t supposed to cut across it.
Anyhow. Later, on the phone, my insurance adjuster sounded as if he was from Cambodia. Worse, his accent made it difficult to communicate with me. At one point during the taped deposition, he asked if at the time of the accident there had been any destruction. Well yeah, I replied, I already told you, to my left front quarter panel. “The destruction of your left front quarter panel caused the accident?” he asked. No, I replied, the destruction was caused by the accident. It took us a while to sort it out. “No,” he asked, “destruction, was there any destruction?” I finally figured out that he was saying distraction. It’s going to be a long insurance claim.
I feel for the poor victims of the hurricanes, who already have enough BS to deal with because their weasel-ly insurance companies are even now trying to deny claims by saying it’s flood damage not hurricane damage. I hope they don’t have their claims denied because the adjuster decides there ruined homes are only an example of the distraction caused by the hurricane.
America ya gotta love it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

#156, Half-baked

The other night I was watching Andy Rooney. Like all columnists, I aspire to sit in the shadow of Andy Rooney’s eyebrows someday. Andy only has about a minute or two to harp on one idea. But I found out in this particular episode that he’s just like me. He’s found that essay writing is kind of like cooking. He ends up with a lot of half-baked ideas, leftover ideas and ideas that just can’t quite make a whole main course. His column that day purged a few of them.
Who am I to do differently?
First, in the leftover department: I was talking the other day about Americas shortcutting their communication by—instead of talking—wearing wristbands and bumper stickers and magnetic emblems. What I forgot to say was some marketer should come up with a combo thing. You could buy a “personalized” sentiment package. A wristband, two magnetic ribbons for your car and a flag for your porch all in one full meal deal.
Leftovers are never as good.
And how about your half-baked? The other day I was marveling at the smallness of the Ipod Nano and remarking to my friend, too bad they couldn’t combine that with a cellphone so you’d have one less thing to carry. I mean face it. With his company phone, his personal blackberry, his Ipod and his Mini-gameboy the average wired youth is starting to have a utility belt worthy of Batman. Holy pants sag Robin! Anyhow, next day there’s a commercial for I-tunes on your cellphone.
Heard from a visitor from the other side that Rock-in-Roll heaven has had to go the same way as MTV. They opened up a rap section. Hip Hop and heaven. Oh yeah... The Big Bopper and the Notorious B.I.G.; Tupac Shakur and Buddy Holly; Ritchie Valens and P. Diddy. Oh that’s right, P. Diddy’s not dead yet, he just put his P to rest.
Lastly—and this dish I can’t even bring up to temperature—the governor of the state of Alabama, in a response to the call by President Bush to conserve fuel resources, has decided to cancel two days of school, figuring that the amount saved on busses alone, much less private transport of Alabama munchkins to and fro, will go far towards easing the state energy crisis. There’s your long term thinking for you. Talk about the dumbing down of America. Since when has educating anyone ever been immediately bottom line accountable? Education is an investment in the future. One of these kids might get the inspiration in those two days to invent the first efficient solar battery or something. And who’s gonna pay for the kids childcare during the unplanned holiday? Should the parents stay home and conserve fuel too? Hell, let’s just shut down the whole state. Maybe the governor should replace his limo with a civic hybrid.
It’s enough to send Andy Rooney to curmudgeon heaven.
America ya gotta love it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

#155, Katie Courage

Oh Katie. I thought I knew ye. But I guess not. The other night I saw a news clip of Katie Couric, of Today show fame. She was apparently helping Habitat for Humanity construct prefab buildings for the Hurricane victims. That’s when the story went desperately, insidiously wrong.
Katie, not Kathryn not Kate, Couric, as everyone knows, is a former cheerleader turned serious newscaster slash talk show host. Capable of fluff or tough. Katie has been there for us through thick and thin, through all the tumults of the last 15 years. She held our hand during Di’s demise, she sat it in shock and awe during 9-11, she took us where no TV camera has gone before when she had a colonoscopy on the air to promote colon cancer awareness. That, my friends, is taking one for the team. In short, Katie is no puff muffin. She is the real thing; someone for women everywhere to aspire to.
So why did she have to do this? Apparently, the producers have decided the Today Show needs a lighter tone. Perhaps they’re worried that Good Morning America is snapping at their heels and are trying to soften Katie’s image. Here’s what I saw. The camera cuts to Katie Couric. Matt Lauer appears to be in the studio. Katie is at some place where they are building stuff. She is adorned in work clothes—Donna Karin makes work clothes doesn’t she?—and a large carpenters tool belt. She is hefting a battery-powered drill. She says: “Someone’s crazy. They should know better than to turn me loose around tools. Like this drill... at least I think it’s a drill. Tee hee.”
That’s right. Tee. Hee. The next shot shows her digging into her tool belt. “I got everything I need,” she says, “a screwdriver (she pulls out a screwdriver) some pliers, (she pulls out a pair of pliers) and most important, my compact and lipstick” (she pulls out compact and lipstick with a flourish.) Oh. My. God. I’m just a bubble-headed former cheerleader after all. Every one knows when you’re out saving humanity you can’t live without your make up. Not that sacrifice...
Way to go, Katie. You just set back the women’s movement about 45 years. Since when does a story about helping the needy require a reference to personal grooming, for pete’s sake? You know what? It’s okay to be inept with tools. It’s okay to poke fun at yourself. But it’s downright crazy, Katie, to act as if face-decorating implements have any place in your tool belt, especially when you’re supposed to be using those tools to help humanity.
Good Morning—
America, ya gotta love it.

#154, Excuse me I flattered

I always wonder about words, and when I don’t have an etymological dictionary handy, I sometimes wonder and wander a little far. I heard this preacher on TV the other day talking about being redeemed and I thought: Coupon. Are members of his flock coupons? Did someone promised to honor them or buy them back? And if you are a coupon, are you redeemable in other faiths, or just your own? Is the First Baptist coupon honored at the First Methodist church? Do the Catholics take you at communion, but only while supplies last? Can you be both a Buddhist and a Christian or are you not valid with any other offers?
Turns out the Latin meaning of redeem is “to buy back.” At some point in early Christendom, the idea emerged that Christ did, in fact, buy back your everlasting soul with his sacrificial blood. Fair enough. At no point were or are you an actual coupon. That whole redemption thing didn’t come up till the first supermarket. Like I said, I need to keep a dictionary close.
Because I was led in a similar direction the other day by the similarity between the first syllables in the words “flattery” and “flatulence.” Flattery, as we all know, is the empty praise heaped upon someone by someone else intent on getting something from them. A coupon perhaps. Flatulence is also empty, in the sense of solids. It is the scientific name for the act of passing air.
Passing air. How genteel. Sounds like a wanna be star quarterback doesn’t it? Going through the motions without actually having a ball in his hand to hurl. The fact that a sour note on a wind instrument is also spoken of as going “flat” seemed to clinch the case. Wind instrument--sour note, flattery--hot air, flatulence--, well, heck, fill in your own blanks. Bottom line, flattery and flatulence both involve hot air. And the origins of each are suspicious, or at least not socially honorable.
Wrong again. The word flatulence comes from flatus, which comes from the Latin flatus, meaning “breaking wind.” Nothing mysterious about that. Dead languages know no subtlety. The word flattery, it turns out, derives from the old French flatter, meaning to caress with one’s hand. Softly, with deference, gentleness and respect.
Still, I’m not that far off. Flattery is verbal caressing to puff up someone else’s vanity. And that puffing, I assume, must eventually find an outlet...
America, ya gotta love it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

#153 Talk out of the Box

I noticed something the other day. Two rednecks were talking about Afghanistan of all things; carpet bombing the Taliban or something. When they said jihad it sounded a lot like yeehaw. Interesting that that sort of balls-out-mad-dash-to-destruction thing would evoke in entirely different languages the same sounding syllables.
Which is one good reason why inventors of artificial speech-recognition devices are continually frustrated: The human mind is capable of appreciating the nuances of English spoken with a Dutch accent and English spoken with a Bronx accent but your average computer just doesn’t have the processing capacity. Even when it comes to sight, computers have a struggle. Look at the word-spelling recognition things websites have installed to prevent splogging in comments pages and what not. A curvy, bloated, sixties, version of the key word is perfectly recognizable to you and me but it’s enough to make a computer freak out.
Which is what I did the other day when I went shopping for a vacuum: I was at one of the big box stores and when I went up to the various vacuum display models one of the boxes had a button on it that said “press here.” Always one to take direction, I pressed where indicated. The box started to talk. That’s right, some dinky little computer chip started to try to sell me on the virtues of this particular vacuum. Being a salesman myself, I was shocked, I was appalled, I was worried that my profession would never be the same. Sales is, and always has been, the last bastion of the think-on-your-feet, unstructured, take-the-chances-that-are-offered, independent communicator. A job that will never, ever, be outsourced. Who would have thought a computer chip, an amplification device, and a box could come so close? Big Box stores are tiring of hiring minimum wage help. Now they’ve got robots. The robot did a pretty good job to. It itemized the differences in its vacuum from the competition, it even threw in a little humor as the artificial vigorously vacuuming noise in the virtual background appeared to run over a small shitzu, “Oops,” the pseudo salesman intoned, “Thank goodness for the screen guard on the beater bar.” I was ready to buy. But I had one question, about where I could find bags afterwards. No soap. The box couldn’t answer. It just started its schpiel over, and over, and over. Frankly I’d rather watch the Home Shopping Network. A prime example of how live salespeople, even when you know they’re presentation is canned, can still sell the socks off a catalogue.
So look out robots. YeeHaw.
America, ya gotta love it.

#152 Festooning

Is it just me, or does it seem like no one talks anymore? I know that sounds odd, here in the age of right-wing talk, and over-the-top shock-jock radio, but that’s not really talk. That’s just planned pontification. Entertainers purposely pricking the anger pustules of pimple-brained people. The reason they say “ditto head” is because there ain’t much else between the ears of those folks. Mindless agreeing with someone is no testimony to the wit and wisdom of the oxycontin-enhanced person agreed with, only to the ovine qualities of the agreer. When the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top there’s usually a reason.
What I mean is the tendency of one and all to festoon one’s opinion on vehicle or person. For instance, you got your ribbons on the car. Now I often agree with the sentiments expressed by said ribbons, but really, it’s kind of getting out of hand. The idea back when was to have a little handmade ribbon pinned to one’s chest. Then the magnetic sheet manufacturers got involved and started manufacturing what are essentially magnetic pictures of a ribbon. See, the first ribbon was a symbol of the sentiment. Now the second picture of the ribbon is a symbol of the symbol of the sentiment. It’s all about ease of message delivery, don’t you know: I support whatever, and I’m sticking a magnet to my car to prove it. Again, the sentiment is good, but the work that went into expressing it is minimal. Unless you count buffing the ribbon shadow out of the paint when you trade in your car. Perhaps if every dollar spent on one of these magnets went to support the cause in question that would be a step towards real support. But I worry that the support one feels in one’s heart is being exploited by the people manufacturing the sentimental representation. American business sometimes picks a tawdry road to profit.
Or how about the newest sentimental support accessory: The thick rubber band bracelet. Yellow for testicular cancer, pink for breast cancer, rainbow for strength in the face of adversity generally. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a support-the-troops camouflage wristband in production as we speak.
Used to be you could get a take on folks by the clothes they wore; blue collar, white collar, hemp collar-and-dreadlocks. Nowadays, with the gap-i-fication of fashion, and the mindless gab-ification of cellphone-disconnected people generally, all we’re left with is thick rubber wristbands.
No one talks any more. Our beliefs are on our wrists and on the back ends of our SUVs. I hope one day we’ll have ribbon that says simply: Communicate.
America, ya gotta love it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

#151 Rummy

I was going to a rendezvous with someone and I was a little nervous. I decided I would act nonchalant and it occurred to me: What the heck is all this French stuff? Why “rendezvous” when “meeting” would have done equally well? And what the heck is non-chalant? Does that mean when you are concerned you are chalant? I’m chalant about your welfare. Susie’s grades slipping has me acting chalant. Its English synonym, “indifferent” is even worse. If I’m indifferent about a situation and that means I’m relatively unconcerned, then if I really am interested in the same situation, am I different to it? She told me she loved me but I was different. Hmmm.
I saw an interesting invitation the other day. At the end of it, it said “RSVP Please.” Always a pet peeve of mine. My one quarter of high school French rears its ugly head every now and then and winces. RSVP means “respondez s’il vous plait.” Which is French, roughly, for respond please. “S’il vous plait” sort of means “if you please.” So when someone says “RSVP please” they are saying “respond if you please please.” Oops. Normally, I expect to see that on invitations from people who don’t know better. All well and good, we Americans bend language to our needs, for shizzle, not the other way around. But this invitation came from St Martin’s University. Not only, mind you, a university, but one steeped in a Catholic and presumably Latin tradition. French kind of has a, ahem, Latin origin. Maybe they just really wanted me to reply. Respond Please PLEASE...
I’m never sure if anybody has any idea what words mean. Frankly, it all makes me a little rummy sometimes. The other day I was driving behind this big gas-guzzling truck. It was about four stories tall and had giant tires on it. Its body was streamlined of course, but by the time the owner had got done tricking it out, there were so many fuel-inefficient un-streamlines on it that I’m sure it lost an extra mile or two a gallon. Anyhow, it had a vanity license plate which said “Overtaxed.” Now, granted I’m a blithering idiot sometimes. But if I felt overtaxed I probably wouldn’t pay extra for my license plate. I mean, didn’t the whole Eyeman tax revolt start with voting down higher license fees?
Maybe my problem is, I’m just too different sometimes...
America, ya gotta love it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

#150 Earl’s Hot Meal

America is a land of shortcuts. Especially when it comes to names. I once had a French Teacher who bemoaned the tendency of Americans to always give each other nicknames. Robert becomes Bob or Bobby, Samuel becomes Sam or Sammy, Charles becomes Chuck. Maybe that was what he hated the worst, all of us whippersnappers calling his then president and legendary war hero, Chuck De Gualle. He said in France everyone got their full name, no diminutives, thank you, much too informal and lacking in respect.
So it is in our language generally. We don’t leave an acronym alone for long before it becomes the word itself. Personal Identification number, P-I-N-, became “pin” in no time, and Vehicle identification numbers, VINs, weren’t far behind. Cellular Telephone quickly devolved to Cell, Television to TV. Even the venerable Microwave oven, actually invented before the TV, went through a brief nominal stint as a Radar Range, employing the old time acronym (what I call an acro-nism) of Radio Detection and Ranging, “Radar,” in a different time and range altogether.
So why is it our great land of nicknaming and computer geek slacking has not come up with a suitable nickname and or acronym for URL or HTML. URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator. People type in URLs all the time. Web address is an alternative phrase, but cumbersome. Website is okay, but really, URL is perfectly fine as a word. It has a vowel, it has a couple of consonants. Let’s just pronounce the dang thing. How about Earl? It’ll have a flavor of nobility. Type in the “earl” for the “Queen” concert and get a good head “count.” What’s the “earl” for the “Dukes” of Hazard website? Yeah, that’ll work.
But what about H.T.M.L? HyperText Markup Language. Ain’t nobody came up with a workable short-form for it. Do you know HTML people say, or I learned HTML so I could really fix my website up good. HTML. Hmmm, quite a linguistic challenge. Normally in times like this, a user will supply missing vowels to create a pronounceable word that still includes the major consonants. Like the initials YHVH, the Hebrew symbols for the inexpressible name of the Lord, became Yahweh and then Jehovah. So let’s see, HTML. How about Hotmail? Oh yeah, already taken. Okay, HatMall. No sounds like a superstore. How about Hitmole? Ahh, sounds like a rodent gangster. Or Hut mile. No, sounds too much like a training march. I got it, Hot MEAL. Perfect, everybody likes a hot meal. Especially Earl...
America, ya gotta love it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

#170 Tough Luck

It was one of those cold mornings. You know, kind of clammy and kind of foggy. It was the opposite of that statement: Yeah it’s hot but it’s a dry heat. Cause it was cold, but it was a wet cold. There’s nothing like a fall Washington morning to really chill you to the bone. It feels like the cold is just seeping in, deep into your core, like some freezing lineament that paralyzes your muscles and leaves your flesh goose-pimpling like a plucked turkey.
I stood there shivering at the street edge, looking for an address, and noticed this guy standing at the bus stop, lightly dressed, apparently none the worse for the weather.
“Cold, huh?” I said. He just shrugged his shoulders. I envied him the ability to move. “You must be pretty tough,” I said, pulling my coat a little tighter. He shrugged again. The possibility that he was an off-duty mime skittered across my mind. “Got a tough job?”
“No,” he finally replied, “I work for the state.”
“Raised in Alaska?”
“Nah, I’m just a smoker.”
Oh yeah, that explains it. Vestibule toughness. Year after year, exposed to the scorn of his fellow workers, the inconvenience of going outside, and the ravages of the weather—the blistering heat and the freezing cold and all the Washington wet in between—you just gotta develop a tough skin.
“What do you think of the new law?” I asked. Washington newest initiative-law calls for smokers to be outdoors and at least 25 feet from any bus shelter, building entrance or air intake vent.
He shrugged again. “You know what,” he said. “I don’t suppose it makes a damn bit of difference whether I‘m wet, cold, and freezing in a vestibule or under a tree. But what I aim to do is blow so much smoke up the underside of my soaked umbrella that when I bring it back inside the whole damn office will smell like a wet ashtray. And next session they’ll have to pass an “anti-umbrella” bill. And then I’ll blow it into my coat, and next session they’ll have to pass and “anti-coat” bill and then a “must take a quick shower” bill and then a “must wear a deodorizer around my neck” bill. And you know what? They’ll still let buses and cars full of sanctimonious, hypocritical, do-gooders belch all their crap into the air.”
Just then, as if to punctuate his tirade, the bus pulled up, belching clouds of “bio”-diesel exhaust. As the lightly-clad smoker ascended the steps I couldn’t help but notice the buses’ exhaust billowing through the foggy air and, as if by cosmic karma magic, find its way right into the intake vent of the building nearby. America ya gotta love it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

#148 Comb and earring

A lot of how we interpret the world has to do with how we perceive it. And a lot of how we perceive the world has to do with how we interpret it. That is what we call prejudice. We have pre-judged reality to fit our expectations. You know what I mean. If you expect to see a certain thing, or your mind is so inclined, you may actually think a lump of covers is a corpse in your bed, or a cloud is a dragon. The man-in-the-moon, widely seen by many in western culture, is, in fact, more like a shrimp-in-the-moon when you see it full. Especially in the early hours right after dawn. Or if you’re from Asia. There is a pretty strong body of psychological evidence that supports the notion that our brains try to recognize faces from the least stimulus. Try staring at mottled wallpaper some time or heavily textured plaster. It’s amazing the number of almost eyes, noses and mouths that come together to look like almost faces.
And I’m not on drugs when I say that either, or when I saw it. We used to recognize druggies in the restaurant I worked in the Seventies. Seventies pot smokers were pretty blatant. The first surge of rebellion was over and pot culture had settled into that blasé “That Seventies Show” indifference about pot. In the restaurant where I worked, we could always tell the pot smokers cause they were the ones trying to order a plate of snickers and gravy. Always a little suspicious.
My perception was put to the test the other day. I heard this Papa Murphy ad on the radio. It talked about every pizza coming with a bake and serve tray. Of course the announcer was talking kind of fast and to me it sounded like a bacon serve tray. And I thought what’s that? Some layering thing like Emeril does on the food channel? Lay down a couple of strips of bacon and cook the pizza over them for extra flavor? Or some Canadian bacon pineapple upside down pizza deal? My mind was prejudiced when I heard the ad. I wanted to hear bacon, they said “bake and.” Close enough.
Kind of like the interesting reporting of the news we saw during the Katrina aftermath. Poor black people were looting and poor white people were looting. And newspapers and TV broadcasts had identical photos of all the poor and desperate people trying to get supplies during the flood. Granted, some of the supplies included big screen TVs. But almost without exception the captions and the announcers said the black people were looting and the white people were commandeering.
America, ya gotta love it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

#147 Floaters

As news comes done the pike about another hurricane, this one perhaps stronger than the last, it makes me stop and wonder if this whole global warming thing is getting out of hand. The ice caps are melting, the hurricanes are strengthening and getting more frequent, the smog is thickening and the ozone hole is expanding. Perhaps we should take another look at that Kyoto protocol thing we opted out of. The big reason America chose to bow out of Kyoto, other than the horrid prospect of letting someone else actually have a say in or national destiny, was that the costs to business would be too great.
Maybe I’m the dimwit so many people like to call me but, isn’t the cost to business of having your shoreline factories swept into oblivion kind of high too? Isn’t relocating your shipping and manufacturing centers a hundred miles inland a big chunk out of your debit column? How is having to throw up a levee around New York going to build up the bottom line of the financial district? Roads underwater? No problem, we’ll just build interstate commerce trucks with taller tires.
Better insulate those power transmitters while we’re at it. The Northeast power grid may not function quite as well with its coastal sections shorting out. Hell, they could have brown-outs all the way to the Great Lakes, and I’m just talking about power.
And how about cellphone transmission? Cell towers need power and if the main supply is cut off and the emergency back-up generators are swamped by water, cellphones don’t work.
One of the biggest lessons we can take from hurricane Katrina is what happens when floodwaters swamp everything in sight. Our based-on-dry-land infrastructure collapses and bobs to the top like a floater in a cesspool.
People may disagree about why, but sea levels are rising. The other night the president was talking about shipping mobile homes as housing to the hurricane-stricken gulf area. My first thought was, oh yeah, they’ll hold up real good come next hurricane. Like a trailer park in a Kansas tornado. But then, I thought: Wait a minute. He may have something here. It’s the foundation that gets us in trouble. Mobile homes don’t have any. If some entrepreneur could invent a floatation collar for the bottoms, they could just ride out the storm on the top of the waves. Floating mobile homes, yeah, that’s it, they could call them “flo-bile homes.” U.S. ingenuity will get us out of this crisis yet. Global warming? Flobile homes.
America, ya gotta love it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

#145 H-E-Double Whammy

Recently, when Hurricane Katrina cut is path of destruction across the South, one of the areas most affected was the Bi-lux-i area of Mississippi. I learned a few things. I learned that Biloxi was pronounced Bi-lux-I and not Bi-lox-i. And I relearned that to locals Louisiana is Looziana.
I also learned that a huge part of the economy of the fair state of Mississippi is Casinos. And that those casinos are on barges. I’m sure you all remember scenes of giant building-size barges swept up on shore. They were so complete, at first you thought they were on a foundation in the parking lots where they ended up. Then you realized they were on a barge.
Naturally, being from the casinos-strewn-all-over-the-place Northwest, I wondered why all the casinos in Mississip’ had to be floaters. Turns out some arcane law had an even more obscure loophole. The way I understand it, and don’t sue me if I’m wrong here, the law allows gambling, but only if it’s not on the land of Mississippi. It has to be in the water, a la riverboat gambling. Rather than change the law, something difficult to do in the heartland of the Christian Coalition, the cynical legislators of said god-fearing country expanded the concept of riverboat to include giant football stadium-sized buildings floating on barges, slightly off shore—connected only by concrete footpaths, paved bridges and whatnot. The pseudo-sanctity of the land of Mississippi was preserved and, more importantly, the economy of said land was enriched by the heathen lucre-worshipping water people.
Word now from Mississippi is that new casinos will be built. This time, gosh darnit, on land. Maybe even not on the hurricane-prone coast. Turns out the state economy is more important than legal hypocrisy. It’s about time. I mean who were they trying to kid? Gigantic Barges for pete’s sake. Yoo Hoo! It was still gambling. It’s either a sin or it isn’t. I don’t think God was fooled by that whole water thing. The Ten Commandments aren’t waived just cause you’re SCUBA diving.
Reminds me of this devout Mormon fellow I used to work with. Whenever he was angry he’d say: “Oh, H-E-Double toothpicks!” I said to him Don, you think god isn’t sharp enough to get what you mean?” Let’s see, all-knowing, all-powerful, ruler of the universe. I can hear the lord now: “There he goes again with that that double toothpick thing, I wonder what he’s talking about?”
America, ya gotta love it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

#144 High-phenation

America is about to face a crisis. And it will happen to the next generation, when it will reach epidemic proportions. It is, arguably, one of the most difficult social diseases to come down the pike in a long time. I’m talking about AHD: Accumulative Hyphenation Disorder. That’s right, second or third generation hyphenated names.
Parents, think of your kids. Decide on a freaking name. Take his name, take her name, but please, please don’t hyphenate. And friends and relatives, put in your two cents worth too. Cause friends don’t let friends hyphenate. Tell them no. Explain to them the social stigma, the societal scorn, and most importantly, the inconvenience of always spelling out a cumbersome hyphenated name. It’s the next generation that will pay.
On the face of it, hyphenation is an attractive prospect. Your checking account has both names, most of your legal documents can remain the same and if you get a divorce, you just split the names apart again. They’ll be kind of like a new coffee. De-hyphenated. But that’s short tem thinking. Suppose, even though hyphenated name marriages are 50% more doomed to failure than non-hyphenated ones, suppose you manage to stay together, and have kids. The kids will most likely have your hyphenated name. Forget for a moment the horrendous numbers of man-hours teachers, administrators, employers, and the kids themselves will have to devote to laboriously spelling out the name. Forget the endless questions your kid will have to answer about family heritage and marriage dynamics. Forget all the jokes about Ellen Bursten marrying Peter Boyle and becoming Ellen Bursten-Boyle, What happens when your kid is old enough to marry and he or she meets someone with a family upbringing just like his or hers. And they’re hyphenators too.
Formerly, his name was Tom Smith-Blumberg. Her name was Jennifer Torand-Goldfarb. When they hyphenate too, their new name will be Smith-Blumberg-Torand-Goldfarb. Sounds like a frickin lawyers’ office. Or an accounting firm. And now, what’s their kid gonna do? On the first day of school, always missing out on the first recess cause he’s still spelling his name on the blackboard? Running out of space on employment and loan applications? Spending his whole life ordering oversize checks?
Stop the cycle. Quit ruining people lives. The institution of marriage is too important. Break the hyphen now.
America, ya gotta love it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

#143 AFL-CEO

The Marxist revolution never happened. Ordinary workers never rose up and overcame their capitalist masters, shook off their Walmart chains and took over the means of production. Why? Because they became consumers. Round about the thirties, when unions first came to full strength, the capitalist powers-that-be were forced to acknowledge a new paradigm. Hey, if we pay these guys more instead of keeping then hungry and poor, they might turn out to be consumers of the exact same widgets they’re making. Hungry and poor mean revolutionary. So the key capitalist survival adaptation—and that’s where Marx went way wrong, capitalism is nothing if not adaptable—was to make the worker the consumer and pay him or her enough so they felt they had a vested interest in the success of the capitalist economy as a whole. But just barely enough.
A well fed, mostly, and well-entertained populace is less likely to take to the streets in a we-got-nothing-left-to-lose general strike that could cripple the economy. Enter the next strokes of capitalist brilliance, the NFL and Hungry Man dinners. And beer. Lots of beer.
Somewhere along the way, the capitalist class, of which the worker was now a willing participant, also found a way to blame the Dominatrix Bureaucracy for everything cruel about life, and high taxes as her lashing whip. So it wasn’t pork barrel projects for their districts that congressmen could blame for high taxes but the evil bureaucracy, and it wasn’t gouging gas companies that were responsible for three dollar a gallon gas it was the gas tax. Witness the recent attempt to remove the tax to give the poor consumer relief at the pump and let the poor little old oil companies make their “tiny” dollop of obscene profit.
I recently got a mailer from my two local state legislators. Turns out every program they voted against that cost tax dollars was a bad, other party, tax-and-spend, unnecessary, business-killing act. Every program my legislators voted for that cost tax dollars was an economic stimulus act designed to build business so they could turn around and give poor people a hand, not a hand out. Politics is a very oral enterprise. High in the necessary skill set is the ability to toot your own horn. Right up there with blowing smoke.
Workers of the world unite, football’s back and so is Bud Light.
America, ya gotta love it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

#169 Trick or Bum

Halloween was interesting this year. Some of the kids forsook the normal notions of All Hallows Eve—the princesses and witches and goblins—and instead appeared to be dressed in more topical gear. These are the kids that dressed up much at all. Every year you kind of expect a certain amount of popular culture offerings, your Batmen and Spidermen and Cruellas Deville. But this year most of the costumes seemed rather last-minute and lackadaisical. It was the parents accompanying the kids who were really decked out. “Come on kid, get your begging done, we got a party to go to at nine.” Really. Halloween seems to have been taken over by adults and each year their costumes get more elaborate and more costly. And it’s not just here. Nationwide, Halloween spending is second only to Christmas. Unfortunately, its not little Billy and Susie that are reaping the benefits. It’s their parents. It’s as if the first generation raised to the refrain of “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys-R-Us kid” took it seriously. And heck, even Billy and Susie’s candy size has shrunk—from “mini” to “snack” to the current “fun” size. Fun appears to be a relative term. Halloween candies have shrunk faster than a budget surplus.
In any event, the haphazard costumes of the youngsters and the elaborate excesses of the elders notwithstanding, there wasn’t a lot of creativity out there this year. Ya seen one bloody hacked-up goblin you seen ‘em all, if you know what I’m saying. But I did have a couple of kids come to the door who I thought were pretty clever. They were dressed as bums. Kind of your classic bum stereotype look, too; smudged-on three-day-growth of beard, red nose from too much drinking, battered hats, tattered clothes, expensive substantial shoes. I was pretty impressed. Who made your costumes? I asked. We did, they said. Obviously, they had spent more than one minute waiting at off ramps observing the real thing. What really capped off the outfits though was that when I opened the door to their bell ringing, instead of the chorus of kids voices I was accustomed to, they held up cardboard signs. One of them said: “Trick or Treat.” The other one said: “Will work for candy.”
I think I’ll tell my favorite freeway bum about it. Next year I could give him a mask with the face of little kid. And then he could hold up a similar sign at the off ramp. I’m thinking even a fun size piece of candy would be appreciated.
America ya gotta love it.

#142 Pawnee

Every now and then, I encounter something so strange I gotta share it. Like when I was driving down the street the other day and I passed this pawn shop. It had a sign on the front that said “Back to School Sale” Hello! Since when does a pawnshop worry about back to school? Uh oh, its school time, don’t forget your used stereos, pawned rings and big banded watches.
But perhaps it’s a reflection of society in general. In the investment business, they talk of non-correlative stocks, stocks that go counter to the economic trend, and stocks that do well when other stocks are sucking. Kind of like now. If your portfolio is heavy in energy stocks, most notably oil, especially on the retail end, then you are one happy camper. If your stocks are in the trucking industry, forget it. It’s time to see if you can pawn a couple of 18-wheelers.
And so it is that pawn shops proliferate in times of economic woe. And so does the newest aberration in the “can’t pay it, figure out a way to borrow it” economy we have today, the cash advance store. The last line of defense for the “have-nots” or at least the “don’t-have-too-muches” is the pawnshop and/or cash advance store.
Used to be, you couldn’t charge incredibly high interest for a loan. There were laws against it. They called it usury. But laws were made to be circumvented by the people that pay off the lawmakers. The banks are no help. Truth be told, more than one bank has its sticky little fingers in the usury game. It makes sense that the traditional banks have a vested interest in charging such high check bouncing fees that the cash advance places can say, legitimately, that they are saving you money. Acquiring a high fee cash advance is cheaper than bouncing a check. Forget for a moment that revolving fees on the same 500-dollar not-paid-back-yet increment can amount to 50% interest. That stills leaves 50% to live on, or pay that car bill, or dare I say it, fill up that tank of gas so you can drive your old beater to your minimum wage greeter job. Of course, the head honchos of the big banks who own hidden interest in the cash advance places will tell you poor people are poor because they’re lazy. Yeah lazy, that’s it. Both parents working, each of them with multiple part-time minimum wage jobs because the big chains won’t let em work full time. Saving costs on that whole benefit thing, don’t you know, makes the company more attractive to shareholders. Be sure to lick the cream of your paw, fat cat. “Oh those poor people, they are so stinky. Don’t they sell deodorant at pawnshops? Hand me some cake, Marie.”
America, ya gotta love it.