Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kids These Days

As I was driving home from work today, I had an inspiration – one of those flashes of creativity that can’t be predicted or managed in any way. But it was Halloween, and I knew I would have to do it.

My wife and daughter were away visiting friends for the evening, so it was going to be my job to hand out candy to the neighborhood children. It’s kind of a delightful chore, but it can become a bit tedious and repetitive. And the more I think about it, Halloween is a holiday in which we celebrate urban terrorism and greed. It’s worse than Christmas, where we can threaten children with no toys if they don’t behave. On Halloween, we let them disguise themselves and demand protection payoffs, much like the Mafia.

So I thought it would be cool to turn the tables a little bit. What I needed was a candy bucket, a fake hand, and a sock. Fortunately, I had the fake hand already. I have two of them, actually. Don’t ask.


I didn’t have much time before the first Trick-Or-Treaters started to show up, so I needed to get moving. First, I cut a hole in the bottom of the candy bucket with my craft knife. The hole was partly on the bottom and partly on the side, large enough for me to slip my hand in.


Next, I cut the foot portion off the sock and glued the resulting sleeve around the opening of the hole with my hot-glue gun.



I had to glue the fake hand onto the bottom of the bucket, but for some reason, the glue from my hot-glue gun wouldn’t stick to the rubbery surface of the fake hand (it stuck to the bucket just fine). In a panic, I tried superglue, and it worked great.



Now all I had to do was slip my hand into the bucket through the sock sleeve, fill the bucket with candy, and when kids came to the door, I’d hold the bucket out for them to grab a handful. But just as they reached into the bucket, my hand would spring out and grab them! It would scare the little rugrats half to death! It was really going to be cool!



I sat anxiously, waiting for the doorbell to ring, trying to watch TV and suppressing a nervous giggle. Finally, at about 7 pm, someone showed up and rang the bell. I slid my hand into the bucket, covered it with candy, and opened the door. There stood a couple of little boys, dressed like ghouls, their parents smiling on the sidewalk. “Trick or Treat!” they cried. I bent down to show them the goodies in the bucket, and they both reached in simultaneously. Suddenly, my hand shot up and grabbed one of their hands! It was the moment I’d been waiting for!

They both stopped fishing for candy, and looked up at me with a weird, “What are you trying to pull” look on their faces. It was almost as though they were embarrassed by my pathetic lame joke. They quietly slipped their candy into their bags, turned and walked off, glancing over their shoulders to make sure I wasn’t following them down the walk.

It was the same with the next group of kids, and the group after that. Nobody was scared, nobody was impressed. I showed the rig to a few parents, who seemed genuinely appreciative of the work that went into it, but my target audience has clearly labeled me as the creepy guy in the neighborhood. To be completely fair, I did score a shriek from a group of young teenage girls, but they shriek at anything.

I think maybe kids have developed a sense of entitlement about Halloween, and guys like me were just making things difficult. It’s their holiday, and they were just there for the damn candy. The adults who actually live in the houses are mere obstructions.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Spy's Dilemma

My wife teaches at a school, and occasionally arranges for speakers to appear for the benefit of parents. These speakers cover a variety of subjects that should concern all parents, but for some reason, attendance is always sparse. This week, the speaker was a deputy from the Sheriff’s Department, and the subject was the danger of social networks such as MySpace and FaceBook.

The problem is that there are sexual predators who troll online chatrooms and social networking sites. Every year, some underage kid in our area winds up victimized by a sexual predator as a direct result of contact that was made (or information that was revealed) through these Internet sites. So it’s a very real problem, exacerbated by several factors. First, kids lie about their age to open MySpace accounts. Second, kids think their personal information is private. Third, kids think they’re invincible.

You can ask your kid to show you their MySpace account, and some of them will. But some of them will lie and say they don’t have one. Even if they show it to you, you can’t relax, because as the deputy explained, “Some kids have two MySpace accounts; the one they use and the one they show their parents.”

The level of ignorance in the audience surprised me. Most of the parents attending were very nearly computer-illiterate. They all had children who were much more sophisticated than they were on the subject of computers. Their ignorance drove them to elevated levels of fear.

“Can’t we just forbid them from using the Internet?” a parent asked. The deputy responded, “You can do that, but they’ll just use the computer at someone else’s house where you can’t monitor them.” Another parent stated, “My daughter is a good girl, she would never reveal personal information on her MySpace account.” The deputy pointed out that in a social network, you may be very careful, but your friends may not. Then she showed us some MySpace pages she found where teenage girls posted the real names and cell phone numbers of their friends.

The solution to this problem, as presented by the deputy, is to spy on your kids. She explained about keylogging software and screenshot recorder software, designed to track every Web site your kid visits, record every conversation, every password, every download. You can’t be selective about it, it’s all or nothing.

Some parents perked up at the prospect of using such tools, but were confronted by the Spy’s Dilemma. In conventional espionage, spies report on secret activities that are of great interest to their home governments. At some point, this information must be acted upon. But the moment such action takes place, the existence of the spy is revealed, and the source of information is cut off.

So one parent asked the obvious question, “If I find out about something and tell my son about it, won’t he hate me and never tell me anything again?” The police officer responded with an answer that sounded well-rehearsed and rang completely false: “Just tell them you did it because you love them.”

I don’t think spying on your kids is such a good idea. Maintaining a close relationship is important. Knowing who their friends are is important. Checking up on them while they’re using the computer is important. Keeping them educated about risky behavior is important.

Law enforcement officials are well aware that the vast majority of children who are abused grow up to become abusers themselves. I wonder if it’s occurred to them that spying on your kids and using love to justify it will only breed a kid who sees spying as acceptable behavior, and confuse them about the meaning of love. Now I’m going to go and spend some time with my kid to make sure she knows how I feel about her, and who she can talk to when she has questions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I watched the American League Championship Series with great interest last week, because the Boston Red Sox were competing. As a former Boston resident, I follow the team with mild interest that develops into intense interest in August, passion in September, and fervor in October.

Unless they’re having a bad year, in which case my mild interest turns to bleak depression in August. By September, I manage to ignore the sport entirely, pretending to be indifferent when the New York Yankees make it to the playoffs.

My question is, why do I care? I no longer live in Boston, so they can’t be considered my “home team.” And even if I did, what is the difference between the Red Sox and any other team? The teams trade players around like commodities, so the home-town hero one year is often the hated enemy the next. Fans find it hard to feel loyalty to players who don’t control their own fate, or free agents who will sell their loyalty to the highest bidder.

Worse, the cost of actually going to the ballpark has become so ridiculous that it’s now a form of entertainment reserved for the wealthy. Sure, you could probably afford to go sit in the nosebleed seats a couple of times a year, but it would be much cheaper and more comfortable to watch the game on TV at home. When I was a kid, the only games you could watch on TV were local games. As the technology of cable television developed, you could view games between teams anywhere. So it seems the geographical proximity of a team has become meaningless. I call this phenomenon “dislocation.”

When I was a kid, I believed that people had to be fans of their local team, as though it was some kind of regional genetic imperative. My old friend Sally is from Oklahoma, which has no professional sports teams (other than an Arena Football League team). The population of that state is so starved for sports entertainment that Sally thinks nothing of driving over 3 hours to Dallas to see a Texas Rangers game. Because of this dislocation from any specific team, she has no team loyalty. She views all professional sports teams equally, and enjoys any game between any two teams. This used to confuse me, and I thought of her as some kind of sports mutant, like an albino.

I suspect that younger generations of sports fans will have more in common with Sally than with me. They can be fans of any team, or not be specific fans of any team – location is no longer relevant.

About 15 years ago, a phenomenon called “fantasy sports” blossomed. It was the product of two factors: technology and dislocation. It enables players to construct their own imaginary teams of players – teams they control in the same way the real professional teams are controlled. Statistics are compiled on player performance, and the team composed of the best players wins. Now the fans are the owners, turning the game on its head. A billion-dollar industry has emerged that feeds on the statistical exhaust of professional leagues. Because fantasy sports enthusiasts can “own” any player they want, location is not a factor.

Fantasy leagues seem to satisfy a craving I’ve never had – the need to control the makeup of a successful team. I suspect this is a natural evolutionary step for any serious fan, which I am not. Except for tonight, when the first game of the World Series is being played between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox. Tonight, I care.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My Mental Health is Tested

My friend Norberto is heavily involved with charitable and humanitarian non-profit organizations in Central Florida. Because of his experience and political connections, he’s often a valued member of the board of directors, and in some cases, elected chairman. Such is the case with the Mental Health Association of Central Florida.

The Mental Health Association of Central Florida works to identify and obtain proper treatment for at-risk individuals, many of whom are homeless or incarcerated in prisons. It’s a good cause, run by caring people, but they need money.

Like many such organizations, they have fund-raising events during the year, and present awards and honors to members of the community who help them further their noble goals. This year, the Mental Health Association of Central Florida held their major fund-raiser at the Hard Rock Hotel. Norberto bought a table at the event, and generously invited us to join him and his family. Then he gave us the bad news: The theme was “Friday Night Fever,” and guests were asked to dress in 70’s outfits. However, they said that “semi-formal” attire was also acceptable, thank God.

We drove down to Universal and parked in their enormous parking garage. An elevated walkway leads to the CityWalk area, where the hotel is located. We were surrounded by thousands of teens and 20-somethings, dressed very casually, all on their way to experience Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. I envied them, because I was stuffed into a suit, and was on my way to experience the horror of the 70’s.

The Hard Rock Hotel is crammed full of quasi-significant rock and roll memorabilia. Here I am with one of Elvis Presley’s jumpsuits:


Some people took the whole 70’s theme quite seriously, dressing in costumes that were not only hideous, but highly flammable. Here’s a photo of a very high-ranking member of the Orange County Judiciary, with his dinner companion. I’ve blurred their faces, because I don’t want their ridiculous outfits to jeopardize his chances for reelection:


The event was preceded by speeches, introductions and presentations, conducted from a temporary rolling lectern set up on the dance floor in front of the stage. Some marks had been taped on the floor to indicate where the lectern should be placed, so that the speakers would be illuminated by a spotlight that had been attached to a gantry for the occasion. However, as people gave their prepared remarks, they kept pushing the lectern forward a few inches at a time, until the spotlight only illuminated their foreheads. In this photo, you can see the marks on the floor where the lectern is supposed to be:


The hall had been decorated with a giant disco ball, which was kind of mesmerizing, like staring into a bonfire. When it was time to eat, we lined up for the buffet, which was quite good. “Eat a lot of it,” Norberto urged us. “It cost a fortune.”


During dinner, a Bee Gees “tribute” band performed, outfitted in disco-era suits and platform shoes. They weren’t particularly good. My daughter and Norberto’s boys cringed when the music started, then ducked out onto balcony where they could hide out till it was over. I wondered if the band was a generic “tribute” band, with lots of costumes in their closet to suit any occasion. One week they’re the Bee Gees, next week, they’re the Doors, the week after, they’re Dion and the Belmonts.


My favorite part of the evening came during the honors presentations. Everyone who received an award gave a little speech. Some people are better at this than others, but some people just shouldn’t speak in public at all. For years, my company required every employee to take a drug awareness training program which was always presented by the head of Human Resources. He was a terrible public speaker, and he kept making one hilarious mistake. Year after year, he would consistently refer to the “Drug-Free Workplace Policy” as the “Work-Free Drug Policy.” Eventually, he retired, and the training presentation is now delivered online, which is much less entertaining.

One deserving individual who received an honor at this affair kept confusing the term “mental health” with “mental illness.” So he would make statements like, “This organization works hard all year helping people who suffer from mental health.”

The fake Bee Gees band completed an ill-advised costume change and finished the evening with a medley of disco-era “classics.” I fear that like Barry Bonds, popular songs of that era will always be marked with an asterisk, calling attention to the fact that despite their popularity and record sales, musicians the world over consider them to be suspicious artifacts of a time when we all questioned our mental health.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Day in Court

Back in August, I was issued a speeding ticket. I suppose I deserved it, but I was hoping that the officer would give me a break considering my advanced age, clean driving record and lack of intoxication. I was wrong.

The ticket stated that I could simply declare myself guilty and pay the $185 fine by mail. However, if I took that option, I would receive four points on my driver’s license (which would raise my insurance rates), and I would be required to pay for and complete a half-day “safe driver” course. The other option was to request a court date.

I discussed my options with a lawyer who plays pool with me on Monday nights, and she told me I should just go to traffic court and plead “No Contest.” This would leave the disposition of the infraction up to the hearing officer. The hearing officer is typically a local attorney appointed to preside over traffic court for a day, so it changes from day to day. Some days you can get a reasonable person, some days you get the other kind. I decided to take my chances, because I had never been to traffic court before.

In addition, there was always a possibility, no matter how small, that the police officer who issued the citation wouldn’t show up, and the hearing officer would dismiss the case. I calculated that there is about a 4% chance of this happening. It’s not much, but it’s worth a shot. So I requested a court date and today was it.

The traffic court was a large, semicircular room with two sections of theater-type seats in front of a large elevated desk with about 8 chairs behind it. In front of the desk were two “witness docks” and a small conference table with office-type chairs around it. The theater-type seats were narrow, and every other one had a small fold-up writing table, such as you might see in a university lecture hall, in case you wanted to do courtroom sketches of the proceedings, I suppose. The room had seating for about 200 people.

Glum-looking traffic violators filed into the courtroom, mixed with the police officers who had issued the tickets. The police hustled down to the front of the courtroom to grab those office chairs from around the conference table, which they wheeled to the back of the hall. I figured that this was because the office chairs were wider, and they could sit more comfortably with all that junk fastened to their utility belts. I was dismayed when the officer who issued my ticket wandered in just before the proceedings started.

The hearing officer divided the room, requiring all “defendants” to sit on one side of the aisle, and the police on the other. Then, he announced that he would take the cases of individuals represented by attorneys. Two attorneys took turns standing in the docks, entering pleas and accepting judgments on behalf of their clients, who were not present. It seems like a crappy way to earn a living, running to traffic court for your clients, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

All of the people who were pleading “Guilty” or “No Contest” were then asked to line up and the hearing officer took them one by one. Some of the chronic offenders in line with me were debating the pros and cons of pleading “Guilty” versus “No Contest” in nervous whispers. A few of them insisted on embellishing their plea with sob stories, and it was immediately apparent that such efforts were wasted breath. Others were clearly resigned to their fate, entering a plea with their head down, waiting for the axe to fall. In almost every case, the fine originally assessed on the infraction was raised by $20 - $100.

When my turn arrived, I stated my name and my “No Contest” plea and otherwise kept my mouth shut. The hearing officer glanced at my driving record, declared “No Adjudication” (which means no points on my license) and “No ‘safe driver’ course.” He raised my fine $40, which I suppose is intended to cover court costs, but I secretly suspect they all just divide it up at that conference table when court is over.

When I left, there were a handful of defendants remaining, who had elected to plead “Not Guilty.” These individuals had brought witnesses and file folders containing photographs or other documents. They all had weird, righteous looks on their faces, believing that they were going to beat the system. I was dying to stay and see how they presented their cases, but I had to leave. Maybe I’ll take a day off sometime and hang out just to see that part of the show.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

First Time in a Bar

Do you remember the first time you went to a bar? I sure don't. Last night, I took my daughter to a bar.

My daughter is a sophomore in high school, and is absorbing that accelerated high school experience with enthusiasm. Apparently, one of her classmates is in a band called “Seconds From The End.” They actually landed a gig at a seedy little place called "Uncle Lou's," and my daughter excitedly begged us to let her go. This is the flyer announcing their appearance:


Because members of the band are only 15 or 16 years old, the bar had an “All Ages” policy for the night. After a few phone calls, my daughter convinced one of her girlfriends to go with her. There was the expected awkward phone call between the parents, in which we assured her mother that we would go along and sit through what was sure to be a painful evening of high school death metal.

We drove in the rain to the address, and couldn’t find the place, because it’s literally the size of our family room, tucked between a tattoo parlor and a dry cleaners. When we entered, my wife and I slipped to a table in the back (which meant we were no more than 8 feet from the front), and the girls hopped on stools in the front.

The crowd, such as it was, consisted of a few high school kids, a few twenty-somethings, a few older alcoholics permanently attached to barstools, and a bunch of musicians who were all in the bands that were going to play that night. It was like they were playing for each other.

“Seconds From The End” played first, and I have to say, in all fairness and honesty, that they sucked. They even admitted that they sucked and played one song twice, because, as they said, “we sucked the first time.” I kept praying that their name was an indicator of how much longer I’d have to endure it.

During their set, I amused myself by sipping on a beer and watching the Yankees lose to the Cleveland Indians, putting them 2 games down in the playoffs. The bartender was a Red Sox fan like me, and we were high-fiveing each other when the Indians won, laughing at the prospect of George Steinbrenner having an aneurism in his luxury sky box.

When “Seconds From The End” finally finished, another band called “Back Alley Brawler” set up. They were all older guys, late 20s – early 30s with “day job” haircuts. Within 3 chords, I could tell they were good. The music was polished, the musicians were accomplished, the songs were actually interesting. Of course, it was loud and fast and barely intelligible, but within a couple of minutes, my daughter sent me a text message: “They’re good.”

After “Back Alley Brawler” finished, the headliner, “Modern Day Arcade” set up. Within 30 seconds, I sent a text message to my daughter that said: “This band SUCKS.” She responded, “Maybe just this song.” Just after the second song began, she sent me another: “Maybe not.” The song wasn’t very easy to understand, but I think the lyrics went something like:

      Die! Die!
      Everybody Die! Die!
      Everybody Die!
We told my daughter and her friend we’d wait outside for the song to end, and we ducked out to stand in the drizzle, which was preferable. While outside, I saw the members of “Back Alley Brawler” with a box of t-shirts they had for sale. I complimented them on their set, and bought a t-shirt.

On the way home, my daughter was bubbly from the experience. Despite her enthusiasm for seeing a classmate perform, she reluctantly agreed that “Back Alley Brawler” was a much better band. Now she wants my t-shirt.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Things I Don't Get

There are a lot of things that other people claim to enjoy that I just don’t get. Church is one of them. I think most people go to church because they fear what may happen if they don’t. But there are some people who seem to genuinely enjoy the experience, taking comfort in familiar ritual, conducted by someone they trust. These are people who are intimidated by the gray areas of real life, who are terrified by the need to make decisions. Go to church and someone will tell you EXACTLY what to do. Turn to this page. Read these lines. Sing this hymn. Dress like this. Smile and keep your opinions to yourself. Some people who sing better than other people sing louder than others, turning their faith into a kind of offensive exhibitionism.

Another thing I don’t get is dancing. Why do people dance? Maybe they fear what may happen if they don’t. Or perhaps it’s more that they fear what WON’T happen if they don’t.

As a kid, I remember watching old people dance their peculiar old-fashioned dance steps: The Foxtrot. The Waltz. The Cha-Cha. The thing that struck me was that they never looked like they were enjoying themselves. They danced in rigid postures, grim or blank expressions on their faces, running mechanically through the moves and then applauding the band politely.

When I was in high school, there were a dozen different dances that everyone was expected to know, and new ones were being generated by the vast Pop Music Industry as fast as they could develop them. The Twist. The Fly. The Frug. The Mashed Potato. The Watusi. The Locomotion. Learning those dances was like owning designer clothes, which was a form of conspicuous consumption I despised. So I refused to learn them, and spent high school in self-imposed social isolation.

In college, the hippie movement washed over the youth of America like a vast, cleansing wave, destroying the consumer-oriented dance market in one fell swoop. Dancing became a free-form type of exercise. Do your own thing and nobody will judge you. During this period, I danced like crazy. I was young and full of energy and it was a great time to blow off steam in a big party atmosphere full of people jumping around in a kind of random Brownian motion, all doing it for the love of the music.

But then the 70’s came in like a frigid ice age glacier and disco ground freestyle dancing beneath its monstrous platform heels. Dancing became rigid again, until the punk movement developed the concept of the mosh pit, and then it became downright dangerous.

I don’t know where dancing is today, because I just don’t do it. I don’t see the point. Originally, it was a way that guys could hold girls in their arms in front of their parents, and nobody would say anything about it. Then it became ritualistic, something people did on Saturday night because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. At some point, some people realized they were better dancers than others, and started doing it to show off, turning it from recreation or ritual into offensive exhibitionism.

Not long ago, I attended a wedding where the bride and groom danced their first dance at the reception. In the middle of the dance, the band broke into swing music, and the bride ripped off the voluminous satin bottom portion of her dress, which had been specially made to tear away with Velcro, revealing a short pleated skirt underneath. She and her new husband began to jitterbug with those “aren’t we cool” expressions on their faces. It was such a hideous display of narcissism, I wanted to puke.

So tonight, despite my misgivings about the entire concept, I took my daughter to a salsa dance lesson. She’s actually enthusiastic about it, and the instructors are very nice. They kept urging me to join, but I stubbornly sat in the corner, watching my daughter fumble and stumble, determined to learn the moves. The moves have interesting names, like “The Double Cross” and the “Hammerlock.” It sounds like fighting, not dancing. But my daughter pluckily stuck with it, and wants to go twice a week until she’s good at it. I just hope she’s not TOO good.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An Invisible Wall

One of the most contentious political issues in American politics is that of illegal immigration. For a country of immigrants, it seems hypocritical to limit immigration in any substantive way. But I wonder if immigration policy back in the early 1900’s would have been different if the immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Russia, Poland, and other European countries could have simply waded across the Atlantic. Back then, immigration was controllable, manageable and profitable, all qualities that a government backed by big business interests would find appealing. The tax base swelled, steamship lines, railroads and slumlords made piles of money, and a whole generation of desperately poor, often ignorant workers was available for exploitation by largely unregulated corrupt monopolies.

But today’s immigration problem has none of those qualities. The government can’t manage illegal immigration and the immigrants are benefiting by filling schools, emergency rooms and consuming other resources produced by the government agencies that can’t benefit from their goodwill in an election because illegal immigrants can’t vote.

Big businesses find themselves unable to exploit these workers because of undocumented worker laws. It would be disastrous PR if a big corporation was caught running illegal sweatshops. Instead, it’s the small businesses that are providing low-paying jobs to these workers – businesses that are willing to take the risk of being shut down in return for a chance to compete against corporate muscle.

So our government, ignoring the lessons of history, has chosen to build a fence along the Mexican border. The Great Wall of China didn’t prevent the Mongols from invading; all it took was a bribe to a gatekeeper. The Maginot Line didn’t stop the Germans from invading France; they just drove around it. The Berlin Wall worked pretty well, but at ruinous political cost.

As long as that border fence exists, it will be used by domestic and foreign opponents of exclusionary immigration policies as a broad, obvious target – a symbol of failure to manage and control a perceived problem. So I have a solution: An invisible fence that eliminates itself.

The US government should buy huge volumes of grain products from Mexico, which ought to be inexpensive because of cheap labor costs. Load this grain onto C130 Hercules aircraft, fly them along the US/Mexican border and dump the grain. That’s right, dump it into the desert, in the barren stretches between border cities.

Desert-dwelling rodents, such as mice and rats, will consume this bounty and propagate like crazy. Predators that prey on mice and rats will have their best year ever. One of them in particular will thrive: Crotalus atrox, the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The gestation period of this venomous reptile is 167 days. Three years later, their offspring will reach sexual maturity. The population will explode, and anyone attempting to cross the border without a suit of armor won’t last long. Our current Border Patrol agents can handle border-crossers in the urban areas; the Diamondbacks will deter the rest.

Meanwhile, conditions in Mexico will improve, as farmers find that they’re actually making money selling grain to the Americans. They’ll need farm workers to help with the planting and harvest. The farm workers will have money to spend on things for their families, passing the bounty along to the merchant class. Everyone will pay taxes to their government, who will suddenly have money for schools and hospitals.

The number of individuals attempting to cross the border will drop to a trickle, all in the space of a single Presidential term. The administration that follows this policy will be credited with its effectiveness, not their successors. Who knows? In 15 or 20 years, when Social Security goes belly-up, it may be the Mexicans that have the illegal immigration problem.