Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas at the Beach

A generous friend of ours loaned us the use of their beachfront condominium in Ormond Beach for the week of Christmas. It was a nice getaway, even though the weather was kind of stormy the first couple of days. It was a little raw to be out on the beach, but the gale-force winds attracted kite-surfers, who zipped around in the roaring waves, catching big air and possibly pneumonia.


After the cold front passed through, the weather warmed up to the high 70’s and we took to the beach, which was nearly deserted in December.


Someone brought a dog down and I watched in amazement as she raced up and down the beach at breakneck speed, the embodiment of pure joy.


After a while I got bored, so I drove down to the nearest bait shop to buy some shrimp. Outside the bait shop, I saw this:


At first I thought it was a disabled person who wanted help to get across the busy A1A, but on closer inspection, I realized it was a dummy in the wheelchair. I asked the person in the bait shop why it was there, and she just shrugged and said, “We always put him out there.” Every time I drove by the bait shop, the dummy was there, and I’m still wondering why.

I fished for awhile, but my streak of bad luck as a fisherman remains unbroken.


Eventually I took a walk on the beach, disturbing the sandpipers.


Lots of these starfish were washed up from the heavy surf of the previous few days. They get tossed onto the sand at high tide and die.


I took the liberty of deputizing myself.


On Christmas day, we drove down to Ponce Inlet and poked around in the tidepools for awhile. I noticed something moving and found this little squiggle of sand being extruded by some unseen creature buried beneath it.


There’s a long breakwater at the entrance to Ponce Inlet, and it has a walkway constructed for fishermen. We walked out onto it and noticed that 90% of the people fishing were Chinese. Most stood on the walkway, but some climbed out onto the wet, treacherous rocks for a little solitude.


The weather started to turn ominous, so we headed back, watching dolphins slip through the water on their way into the lagoon for the night.


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Two Hour Discrepancy

My wife and I have a deal: she cooks and I clean. This seems fair on the surface, but I grumble about the arrangement all the time. The reason for my discontent is that my wife and I have vastly different kitchen habits. I clean as I go, leaving very little mess. My wife cleans nothing, because that’s the deal. So when she’s finished cooking, I’m confronted by a mess that would challenge the EPA.

This arrangement has kept me out of the food-preparation business for about 24 years. It’s not that I’m a bad cook, but I don’t have a large repertoire. In my entire life, I’ve never cooked a chicken or a turkey. Yesterday my culinary skills and my marriage were put to the test.

My wife had purchased an 18.65 pound fresh (unfrozen) Butterball turkey. Because it was a fresh turkey, it wouldn’t keep in the refrigerator as long as a frozen turkey, so we decided that it should be cooked on Thursday night. This is normally a night my wife works late, so she left me in charge of cooking the bird. We weren’t going to eat it that night, just cook it. We’d use it for a variety of dishes for the next week or so. She gave me some brief instructions for making the stuffing, and a few suggestions about basting, and then she left.

I opened the package and discovered a little pamphlet provided by the Butterball company, which gave clear instructions for roasting their product. According to this timetable, the stuffed bird should take a little over four and half hours to cook in a 325-degree oven.


I washed and stuffed the carcass, closed it up with metal skewers, oiled it up with olive oil, and put it in the oven at 2:45 pm. According to the timetable, it should be done by 7:15 – 7:30.

A couple of hours later, my wife called to check on me. Swollen with pride, I told her how smoothly things had gone, and that I expected to be eating turkey by 7:30.

“That’s impossible!” she declared. “A turkey that size will take much longer to cook!”

“No,” I assured her, “the roasting timetable that came with the turkey was quite clear about it. Only about four and a half hours.”

“Get out my Good Housekeeping cookbook,” She demanded, “And look it up.” My wife’s Good Housekeeping cookbook was printed in 1955. The tattered and yellow pages are full of antique recipes that nobody has cooked since the 60’s.


I was a bit offended, and asked her, “Who would know better about cooking this turkey? Good Housekeeping, or the company that produced the turkey?”

“Look it up!” She insisted, and hung up.

I took out the cookbook, and found this roasting timetable:


There’s a TWO HOUR discrepancy between the Butterball timetable and the Good Housekeeping timetable. How is this possible? Determined to solve the mystery, I stuck a meat thermometer in the leg joint and waited.

At 7:15, I took a look. The thermometer was hovering at 160 degrees, which was far too low. Exactly two hours later, at 9:15, the thermometer read 180 degrees, which was perfect.



The turkey looks golden brown, succulent and delicious, and I’m secure in the knowledge that it’s cooked thoroughly. I feel very badly for anyone who cooked a fresh Butterball turkey for Thanksgiving according to the roasting timetable provided with the bird, because they’ll probably have diarrhea until Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pink Handcuffs

As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, my friend Norberto is a judge who presides over family court. They deal primarily with child support cases. Norberto has invited me to observe this process, so today I took him up on it.

Family court is held in a hearing chamber, rather than a courtroom. There’s no jury, no witness box. A staff of four people presides over the proceedings: Norberto, Judy (the court clerk), John (a lawyer representing the Department of Revenue) and Jerome (a silent but very imposing and heavily-armed sheriff’s deputy).

Most of the time, the proceedings are a matter of public record, although there is no viewer gallery. Sometimes a case will cover paternity, which can involve privacy issues, so admitting the public is left up to the presiding magistrate. Norberto had me sit in a chair near Jerome's desk.

On Wednesday, the court handles contempt cases. Contempt citations are automatically generated when a parent who has been ordered by the court to pay child support falls behind on payments.

One by one, the cases were called. Sometimes both parents would appear, sometimes just the father (all of the offenders were men on this particular day). They were sworn in, and then the attorney from the Department of Revenue began questioning the deadbeat dad with quiet, ruthless efficiency. It was squirm-inducing.

“How much money do you have in your pocket right now?” He asked. “How much money could you obtain if you sold all of your possessions?” “How much money could you borrow from friends or family members?” Within 30 seconds, the offender was stammering and sweating bullets.

When the attorney was finished setting the guy up, Norberto delivered the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart punch. “You realize my only option is to put you in jail for 179 days, right?” he asked. “Or, you can come up with 500 dollars by Friday and another 500 dollars by the 16th and that will keep you out of jail. Fail to make those payments, and I will put out a warrant for your arrest.” Usually, that did the trick. However, sometimes Norberto lectured the offender, piling on several layers of guilt and shame.

On two occasions, men appeared who had worn out their welcome. Norberto explained the situation and then ordered the man to stand and put his hands behind his back. Jerome reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of pink handcuffs that he clipped on the offender’s wrists and led him out to a holding cell, wearing a look of stunned surprise. I asked Jerome why the handcuffs were pink, and he told me they had spray-painted them to ensure that the court officers in charge of the holding cell returned them.

I’m convinced that there should be a viewer’s gallery in family court. High school freshmen should be required to spend half a day observing contempt cases, to give them a little perspective on the consequences of irresponsible parenthood.

At noon, Norberto gave me a tour of the courthouse, which is a large, modern building. He showed me their “Internet-enabled courtroom,” where pretrial proceedings in the Casey Anthony murder trial will be held, and where Lisa Nowak (the lovelorn astronaut) will be tried for attempted kidnapping. Here’s the holding cell where the accused must wait for their day in court:


Here are two views of the courtroom:



The jury box is equipped with flat-screen monitors, enabling evidence to be presented to the jury without passing around papers and photos:


It was all very high-tech and efficient-looking. Norberto has invited me to tour the county jail as well, which I expect to be low-tech and depressing. I may do it anyway, because I have time on my hands, and no outstanding warrants.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oh Horny Night

In an attempt to curb spending, I’ve been sitting at home a lot lately. Joblessness sits heavy on my shoulders, making me irritable and depressed. So my wife and friends have been finding ways to get me out of the house. I don’t care what the entertainment is; as long as it’s free, I’ll go.

My friend Norberto and his wife, Jodi have been a terrific help. Jodi invited me to a touring stage presentation of The Wizard of Oz recently. Artistically, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was fascinating to see how a show like this is staged in front of live audience. I kept trying to imagine how they packed up all the elaborate sets and fit them into the single tractor-trailer we saw parked outside.

Last night, they invited me to see a concert of Christmas music performed by a 30-piece English-style brass band in a large Lutheran church. The sanctuary was dominated by this huge sculpture of Jesus, caught in the act of stomping an innocent lamb to death:


The church had enormous video screens on either side of the altar. Wireless cameras were strategically placed around the hall, controlled by some hidden media guru in the choir loft. Unfortunately, the video display was delayed by about half a second, so you would hear the cymbals crash a moment before you actually saw them crash on the screen.

But the media guru was merciful, and switched to coverage of the University of Alabama versus University of Florida football game during the intermission. This elicited cheers from the men in the audience, many of whom had been dragged there against their will.


Every instrument in the band was a brass instrument except for the percussion section. Norberto and Jodi’s son Jonathan was one of the three percussionists. The percussion section consisted of a wide variety of instruments: a drum kit, cymbals, a xylophone, a marimba, kettledrums, bells, wood blocks, and one of those Latin scratchy gourd things.


The percussionists moved in a graceful dance from one instrument to the other during the show, often disappearing completely during a musical number that didn’t require percussion (I found out later they were in a back room watching the football game). In the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” only Jonathan remained on the stage, and his only duty was to ding a triangle one time. Hey, I could do that. I wonder how much that job pays?

After the show, we went out for a late supper, the sounds of flugelhorns and Christmas cheer dancing in my head. Norberto was driving his older son’s car for reasons that can only be explained by a clinical psychologist. Unbeknownst to Norberto, the car has an alarm system, and somehow Norberto triggered it. The lights flashed and the horn blared in the restaurant parking lot: BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Nobody knew how to turn it off, and Norberto quickly became frustrated and upset. After 10 minutes of everybody shouting instructions, the alarm was finally silenced. We went inside and had a nice meal, but afterwards, Norberto set off the alarm again. I drove home, the sounds of car horns and cursing dancing in my head.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Unit Pricing Conspiracy

I’ve been a big fan of the unit pricing labels that were introduced in US supermarkets about 30 years ago. However, sometimes retailers deliberately post this information in obscure measurements. For example, toilet paper is often shown with the price per square foot, rather than the price per sheet, forcing consumers to do more complex math to figure out the best deal. Most people will simply buy the lowest cost package.

The thing that bothers me about unit pricing labels is whether or not I can trust them. Suppose, for example, that an unscrupulous retailer got a great deal on a premium brand of macaroni, and bought more of it than will fit on the shelves. It has to be sold quickly to clear out the excess stock in the back of the store before the fire marshal drops by and discovers that it’s stacked in front of the fire exit.

So the retailer fraudulently lowers the unit cost of the premium macaroni, even though the package cost is properly displayed. Consumers comparing the unit prices will buy the product with lower unit cost, not bothering to check the math. Of course I had no evidence to prove that such shenanigans take place. Until yesterday.

In my local major chain supermarket, I discovered two products, side by side: Scotch Brite Multi Purpose Scrub Sponges and Scotch Brite Heavy Duty Scrub Sponges. Each product was sold in a package containing three sponges. The package cost was identical for each product - $2.89.

I’m sorry about the poor quality of these photos, but as you can see if you look closely, the unit cost on each product is different: 96.33 cents (correct) for the Multi Purpose and 72.25 cents (wrong) for the Heavy Duty.



I suppose it could be a simple mistake. After all, the Heavy Duty sponges would cost 72.25 cents apiece if there were four in a package, so maybe somebody just made a keystroke error. But it’s also possible that the fire exits are blocked with Heavy Duty sponges.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Time of the Signs

Everywhere I go these days, it seems as though I’m overwhelmed by signage. It’s everywhere. Some people might claim that this is a testimony to the high literacy rate in this country, but it seems to me that it’s often a testimony to the high ignorance factor, or a new form of tyranny by proxy.

One of my least favorite signs are the legitimate-looking Stop signs that are peppered throughout parking lots. Those signs are on private property; they weren’t erected by the city. You can’t get a ticket for blasting through one of them. But there they are, erected with good intentions, but nonetheless bearing as much official weight as those tin Detective badges you can order from the back of a comic book.

Some signs are just fun to read. Here’s one from the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando:


Seriously? Tape measures? Why are tape measures forbidden?

Here’s a sign from a local burger joint:


I suppose they didn’t intend to imply that their food is equivalent to dog food.

In another burger joint, this stern sign was posted on the soft drink dispenser:


Do people really save their cups and come in day after day expecting continuous refills of Diet Sprite? Apparently it’s a real problem at this place.

Sometimes, clever smartass kids modify otherwise routine signs. In Florida, the 7-Eleven convenience stores sell hot dogs, which you can enhance using the chili and cheese machines. The cheese dispenser oozes toothpaste-like streams of yellow goo, and the chili dispenser sputters out a disgusting lumpy brown glop. Both of these products distract you from the probability that the hot dog itself is made from undesirable body parts. In the bathroom, I found this sign:


You can just make out the graffiti at the bottom that reads, “They clog the chili dispenser.”

This sign posted at the payment window of the service department at a local car dealership contains a subtle political message:


In other words, “It’s not our fault; it’s the bozos YOU elected.”

At the movie theatre, I now see this sign on the way in:


Cell phones have become the new boom boxes.

Obsession with cleanliness is now turning bathrooms into signage hell. At one company I worked for, a sign was posted on the back of every stall door informing us that it was polite and considerate to flush the toilet. In public bathrooms where food is served, you often see the “Employees must wash hands” sign. But in this bathroom, they had three of them:


Apparently, you can overcome illiteracy through sheer volume.

If you’re a true germophobe, this new technological development will please you: the no-touch bathroom door:


Simply wave your hand in front of the sensor and the door opens all by itself. Then you can return to your table and eat your meal that was prepared by a cook who didn’t wash his hands.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Bush Recession: Part 2

When confronted by the possibility of a long siege, people hoard things. As hurricanes approach the coast of Florida, grocery stores run out of bread, milk and other staples. Filling stations run out of gas. ATMs run out of cash. It’s natural human behavior.

Tomorrow I’ll be 61 years old. Like most people my age, I’m troubled by a number of typical age-related ailments, though none of them are life-threatening, thank goodness. I have to take several medications every day to control my symptoms. The problem is, I lost my medical insurance at the end of last month.

All of these medications are expensive. But they’re absurdly expensive if you don’t have medical insurance. Yes, I can pay for COBRA coverage, but if there’s one thing more absurdly expensive than my medications, it’s COBRA coverage. I have 62 days to elect whether to pay for COBRA insurance or not. I’m hoping it won’t be necessary, because I currently have no reliable source of income.

Once I realized I was going to lose my medical insurance, I went to my doctor and asked for a prescription for 90 days’ worth of my meds. But some weird law prevents me from purchasing a 90-day supply of these medications at my local pharmacy. Instead, the order has to be delivered by mail, from the approved mail-order fulfillment center. My doctor graciously offered to fax the information to the fulfillment center.

Weeks later, I still had not received the meds, so I called the fulfillment center. They told me that the form submitted by my doctor’s office was incorrect, and they had faxed back the correct form the same day. My doctor’s office claims they never received a return fax from the fulfillment center. Somebody’s lying, and in the meantime, my insurance coverage ended.

Today, I ran out of one of my medications. I can’t afford to buy it at normal retail prices.

In this country, medical patents expire in 17 or 20 years, depending on whether the patent was filed prior to 1995. When a pharmaceutical company invests R&D capital in a new medication, they have every right to enjoy patent protection to recover those costs and earn a handsome profit. Once the patent expires, any company can make the drug and prices drop as the companies are forced to compete in the marketplace. This mechanism serves as encouragement for those companies to invest their patent-protected pricing profit in further R&D on new medications, and the cycle continues. But there’s a problem.

Pharmaceutical companies invest 250% more on the marketing of new drugs than they spend developing them. Recovering these costs drives the costs of these drugs up even further. Worse, when a popular drug is reaching the end of its patent protection, pharmaceutical companies invest those precious R&D funds to create a variation on the formulation that differs by some insignificant amount. They then declare this to be a new drug and invest huge amounts of those R&D funds on marketing, intended to convince doctors to prescribe it in place of the older, perfectly suitable drug.

So instead of encouraging the development of new, effective drugs, the system encourages pharmaceutical companies to game the system, putting old drugs in new packages and charging ruinous prices for them. Why work on a new problem with no guarantee of success, when you can repackage an old solution and sell it as a new solution without competition?

There are a lot of things wrong with the American system of health care and medical insurance. Our new president has promised to look into it. I hope he looks at it pretty quickly. I don’t feel very well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


My wife works in an elementary school, and like any elementary school, the children work on projects that are often put on display in the hallways. Every time I visit, I find something amusing hanging on the walls. Today, I was creeped out.

The halls were hung with effigies of American Presidents, created in a variety of media by 4th grade kids. One of the most popular (and eerie) methods was to stuff a real business suit and then glue some kind of head on it.

Hallway of Effigies

All I could think about was that in America such images aren’t burned in the streets as often as they are in other countries.

Here’s Andrew Jackson. Apparently, the student read somewhere that he had “silver hair.” So Old Hickory’s image was graced with an aluminum-foil helmet, which probably helps shut out the voices in his head.


Teddy Roosevelt is resplendent in a cowboy outfit. But viewed from the side, it’s clear he’s just an empty hat:



This is Groucho Roosevelt, Teddy’s comedian brother, who looks worried about the company he’s keeping:


Tricky Dick Nixon looks positively cartoonish, slinking around the corner:


I was amused by this image of JFK, who appears to have been thrown up against the wall by juvenile delinquents who want his lunch money:


Here’s George W. Bush, performing “Burning Down the House:”


My favorite was Bill Clinton. Here’s the full-length view, drawn in crayon on a large piece of cardboard:


Here’s his well-polished trademark smile:


But the diligent student who produced this image included one very important detail.


In my opinion, this is almost a good likeness of our 42nd president. Close, but no cigar.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Bush Recession: Part 1

On the 21st of last month I was laid off from my job, right at the start of the worst economic conditions to hit this country since the Reagan Recession of 1990. I’ve been too depressed to write about it until now.


Back in March, I left a job that I had held for 10 years, only to be let go from my “new” job 7 months later. This can be attributed to two primary factors: The rotten economy, which was precipitated by a global banking crisis, and slipshod management at my new company.

The banking crisis hit close to home because I work in the banking software industry. It’s not surprising that banks and their suppliers are hitting the wall. Whole financial empires are crumbling, exposing the shaky foundations of what we believed to be our most stable institutions. It’s clear that the entire mess was avoidable, but because of inadequate controls on trading instruments, the whole system burst like an infected pimple.

The company I joined managed to attract me through a combination of excellent benefits and a gross misrepresentation of the job. It seems the company had partnered up with another company on a 5-year project. They were going to convert a software product that had been written in Spanish for the Spanish market to English, and adapted for use in markets all over the world. I was assured that I would be working on documentation using XML, for Web publication – something I’d been dying to do in my previous job.

Once I started working, the sad truth was revealed. The partners would be working in XML, but not me. The product was currently installed at one customer site in Thailand, so my supervisor told me that the quality of my work didn’t really matter, since none of them speak English anyway. The job was all about meeting contracted deliverables, not about achievement. It was like working on a loading dock.

Worse, there was barely enough work to keep one competent person busy, and we had two people dividing up the work. If I had questions or problems, nobody knew the answers, nobody knew who might have the answers, and if by some miracle I found someone with the answers, they were far too busy or important to provide the answers. It took six months for the company to arrange an Internet meeting for someone in India to train us on the product we were writing about.

I felt angered and betrayed. All along I thought I had been hired for my knowledge and experience, only to discover that my supervisor had been too busy and important to bother sifting candidates. I was just one of the first warm bodies to apply for the job, so they told me what I wanted to hear, plunked me down at a desk and abandoned me.

In all fairness, my previous employer (another banking software company) went through a round of layoffs also, and there’s no guarantee I would have made the cut. But had I stayed, I would have been entitled to almost 5 months of severance pay. My new job offered me one week of severance for my 7 months of service.

The elections are going to play a huge role in the recovery of the American economy. The financial system runs on three elements: Fear, Greed and Faith. Fear puts the market into reverse, Greed puts the market into drive, and Faith is the fuel that keeps the money moving.

We’re teetering on the brink of a disaster, and whoever wins the presidency must restore Faith. Personally, I feel this can only be achieved by introducing legislation for new, thorough regulatory oversight. Whatever you believe, get out and vote on Tuesday.

Oh, and let me know if you hear of any open jobs. There's a 7-Eleven application sitting on my kitchen table. It's supposed to be for my daughter, but it's looking pretty attractive right about now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cumulative Tipping

I’ve never been much of a fan of tipping, even though I’ve worked for tips before in the restaurant business and as a taxicab driver. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s entirely subjective. Most people agree on what constitutes a reasonable tip for reasonable service, but the definition of “reasonable” is painfully elusive. Another problem with the current system is that tipping is based on the size of the bill, not on the quality or amount of service provided.

One of the biggest problems I have with restaurant service these days is the "fake service:"
  • Waiters who suggest “superior” entrees, as though they’re offering you an inside tip on a winning horse. If the entrees weren’t all good, they wouldn’t be on the menu.

  • Waiters who congratulate you on your choice, as though you clearly have a keen culinary eye. I know what I want, I don’t need validation.

  • Waiters who return to the table again and again, interrupting your meal or dinner conversation, to ask if everything is OK. If it wasn’t OK, you’d already know.

  • Managers who creep up to the table just to make sure the waiter has been asking you if everything is OK often enough. If it wasn’t OK, the waiter would have told you about it.
So I’m often tempted to reduce a tip based on the amount of bogus service I’m forced to endure, which of course is the opposite of what the restaurant intended.

The amount of service a waiter is able to perform for a customer is limited, which limits the opportunity to do it well:
  • Service must be prompt, with an understanding that there are busy times in restaurants and times when they are short-handed. If service isn’t prompt, waiters have to expect a reduction in tips, even if it’s not their fault.

  • Service must be accurate. Duh. If you can’t get the orders straight, find another line of work.

  • Waiters must be knowledgeable, able to answer questions about the items on the menu and how they are prepared. Waiters must know before they take an order if a menu item is no longer available. However, waiters can fake knowledge about wine, because wine snobs are just bullshit artists anyway.

  • Service must be flexible, allowing for the little peculiarities of diners. Salad dressing on the side? No problem. No onions? Just remove them. Whole wheat toast instead of hash browns? Yes, sir.
Simple, right? But the hard part is the small intangible things that distinguish a good waiter from an ordinary one:
  • Eyes in the back of your head. Waiters must be able to spot an unhappy diner from across the room, at any moment, drop what they’re doing and race to the rescue. There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering you don’t have silverware and spending ten minutes trying to flag down your waiter who is rushing around and NOT LOOKING while the gravy on your steak is slowly coagulating.

  • Personality. If you’re good at what you do, and it’s a busy night, you won’t spend much time at the table with your guests. So you have a brief period of time to make your guests feel welcome. However, you’re not auditioning for a part in a movie, so know when to shut up. If you don’t have a personality, please don’t try to manufacture one, it’s always a horrible failure.

  • Obsessive attention to detail. Nothing makes a better impression than a waiter who handles things you didn’t even expect them to handle. Once, while having coffee after a meal, I poured some cream into my cup. The waiter, rushing by with a tray of drinks for another table, ducked and grabbed my cup from me before I could stir it. He quickly returned with another cup of coffee and another pitcher of cream, because he had noticed that the cream was curdling in my coffee, indicating that it had gone sour. Now THAT was a waiter.
Even waiters who meet the minimum requirements and are able to excel at the intangibles run a risk of being stiffed by difficult or disgruntled diners, it’s just the way tipping works. So I propose a new system to replace our current, unreliable system. This system ensures that diners get the service they demand, and that waiters provide the service the diner requires. I call it Cumulative Tipping.

When diners are seated, they will find a slip of paper on the table, containing a list of service objectives the restaurant is trying to achieve, each with a little space to write in an amount. So a list might look like this:
    Waiter arrived promptly__________

    Drink order taken and delivered correctly__________

    Waiter courteous and knowledgeable__________

    Meal arrived within a reasonable time__________

    Order accurate and complete__________

    Extra service__________
As the evening progresses, diners write in small amounts for each service item, which are visible to the waiter with each visit to the table. Cheap diners will get less attention than generous ones, and can’t really complain about it (although they will). When the meal is complete, diners may add to the cumulative tally any additional amount they desire to further compensate the waiter, which will typically be a proportion of the total bill.

Oh, and there will be one last item on the list:
    Guy who thought this up________

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Hair Apparent

My dad is 85 years old, and is getting to the point where his vision is failing, his hearing is failing, his memory is failing, and his ability to multitask is seriously compromised. Recently, he overstayed a visit at a friend’s house and was forced to drive home at night, in the rain. He came to a stop at a crosswalk that is protected by a stop sign, and then stepped on the gas. Unfortunately, a pedestrian trying to get home in the rain dashed into the crosswalk in front of his car, and my dad clipped her as he pulled away.


He stopped immediately, and someone called the police. The careless pedestrian wasn’t seriously hurt, but of course she’s suing his insurance company. It shook my dad up pretty badly, and he’s starting to think about not renewing his driver’s license, which would be a huge relief to his children.

But mostly, we’re worried about his grooming habits. My father has impossibly thick, wiry eyebrows, and dangerously fertile nose hair. It’s a wonder he can breathe.


He’s also blessed with a full head of hair, which he has cut regularly. But he refuses to trim his eyebrows or nose hair in the belief that doing so “stimulates growth.”

Most of his children have inherited these characteristics, and while we’re happy there’s no baldness in the family, the eyebrows and nostrils are a problem. My sisters pluck and wax their eyebrows. I trim them all the time, or they’d quickly become functional awnings. I didn’t ask my sisters about their nose hair issues, but I’ll reveal my personal grooming secret: I pluck them.

Some people react with horror or pained expressions when I tell them, but trust me, you only cry for the first 200 or so. These days I don’t even blink.

To prepare my father for my brother’s funeral, my sister Peggy dragged him outside for a touch-up. She needed heavy artillery to work on the eyebrows, so she used a pair of poultry shears:


After the eyebrows were trimmed down to pre-puberty dimensions, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her husband Lee’s nose hair trimmer, which whined and chattered like a weed trimmer.


When she was finished, she returned the nose hair trimmer to her husband. To his credit, he only voiced a token complaint about the use of his grooming tool. I suspect he threw it away when nobody was looking and bought a new one. I would. I mean, he's my dad, but still.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Melancholy Journey

My brother Patrick died a week ago, the growing tumor in his brain finally squeezing off the last of his life functions. His widow arranged for his remains to be cremated, and set up a funeral service to be held at the local Catholic church the following Monday.

After receiving the bad news, I made arrangements to fly to St. Louis on Saturday, then went home and took one of my suits out of the closet. Suspecting I had gained weight, I tried it on and discovered to my horror that I couldn’t even button the pants closed. None of them fit. I raced out and bought a suit, begging the tailor on staff to make the alterations the following day so that I could pick it up on Friday night.

I flew out on Saturday, my mind fighting depression by focusing on things I normally don’t notice. For example, I kept re-reading this message on the back of the seat in front of me:


What does this mean? There’s no other time I could fasten my seat belt. I can’t wear it while I’m standing up. Shouldn’t it just say, “Fasten Seat Belt?”

Usually I take an aisle seat, but on this trip, I was able to slide over to the window seat and marvel at the view that I normally ignore. Here we are crossing the mighty Mississippi, with huge rafts of barges waiting to be loaded or unloaded and moved along what was once North America’s greatest commercial highway:


I stayed with my sister Peggy and her husband Lee as members of the family assembled from other parts of the country. They have a sweet, friendly Golden Retriever named Phoebe who kept me amused, and reminded me that it’s important to be enthusiastic about visitors:


On Monday morning, we drove to the church for the funeral Mass. I saw family members and family friends I haven’t seen in 10 years or more (often with good reason). There are a lot of stories I could tell you about them, but I won’t. I was trying not to dwell on the family nonsense when the service started, and I realized I was in for a treat.

The priest must have been a frustrated thespian, unable to find his calling in the theater. So he drew upon what he believed to be his greatest strength and applied it to the Catholic Mass. When reciting the words of Jesus Christ, he lowered his voice a couple of octaves and spoke in a manner I can only describe as a poor imitation of William Shatner. When consecrating the wine, he bent over the altar and spoke directly into the chalice, as though talking to God via a cup-and-string mechanism. People’s heads were swiveling, stifling laughter, staring at one another in disbelief. As for me, I got my money’s worth.

After the service, people headed down to Patrick’s house for a reception. The house is located out in the woods in a secluded area, and you see sights like this along the way:

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Patrick’s widow described the reception as an “Irish Wake,” which suited Patrick’s friends perfectly. Patrick liked social events that involved alcohol consumption, and he would have been right at home at this one.

After we left, I drove back to Peggy’s house and passed this ostentatious marble mausoleum, which I thought looked like the headquarters of some comic book superhero:

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