Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Unintentional Insults

Did you ever use a common term or phrase in complete innocence, only to realize that you’ve said something unintentionally insulting?

There’s a guy who works in my office who is Indian. The other day he was telling me about a serious problem confronting him, and I said, “Holy cow!” The words had not even crossed the distance between us when I realized what I had said. Thankfully, he didn’t react. He’s probably heard it before.

So I started to think about other, similar situations that could arise. For example:

    Saying “Bless you,” when an atheist sneezes.

    Asking a Japanese friend in a bar, “How about a nip?”

    Asking a black guest at Thanksgiving, “Do you like dark meat?”

    Listening to a blind person explain something complicated, and then saying, “I see.”

    Telling a Native American that you want to “Stay home and watch the Redskins.”

    Asking to borrow a dollar from a dwarf because you’re “A little short.”

    Asking a Muslim if he wants to join you at a buffet and “pig out.”

    Greeting an old friend with glaucoma using the expression, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

    Telling an amputee, “The shoe is on the other foot.”

    Describing a “sobering” experience to an alcoholic.

Can you think of other examples?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wait a Minute and I'll Tell You Today's Date

All my life, I’ve bought the cheapest watch available that will tell me the time and not fall apart the first time I smack it into a door jamb, or fill up with water if I accidentally wear it into the pool. Typically, they don’t last more than a year or so, but during that year, they have served my needs perfectly.

I have very simple requirements: It must have an analog face with numbers (not Roman numerals or hash marks), and it must tell me the date, because I can never remember the date. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable list.

In the past, I’ve always bought cheap plastic watches with plastic bands that have a small digital date display. But when my most recent one finally bit the dust, I decided it was time for a “real” watch – one with some visual appeal. Unfortunately, there are only two kinds of watches: Cheap plastic timepieces or expensive jewelry that tells time.

I shopped around carefully, and bought a nice, elegant one that isn’t too gaudy or heavy, with a mechanical day/date display.


I’ve been wearing it for about a month now, and I’ve discovered something unbelievable. Once an hour, the day/date display is obscured by the minute hand:


Twice a day, the day/date display is obscured even more thoroughly by the hour hand and the minute hand:


All of the day/date display watches I looked at come in this exact same configuration. To be fair, Rolex makes a watch that separates the day and date displays so that only one is obscured at any time. But of course, I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars for a wristwatch.


Clock-making has been a respected craft for hundreds of years. The best clocks have always been precise and reliable. It seems antithetical to make an instrument that fails to provide the information needed by its owner 24 times a day. Surely someone other than me has noticed this problem in the past four centuries. Is this the best they could do?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Yesterday was very likely the last day I will see my brother alive.

There are lots of phone calls you can receive that can be categorized as bad news. But the worst are bad things happening to people close to us; things we are powerless to change.

Two weeks ago, my sister called to tell me that my brother Patrick had been diagnosed with an untreatable glioblastoma - an aggressive type of brain tumor. He’s been given six months or less to live.

I’m the oldest of 10 children. My brother Patrick is the next oldest boy, 3 years younger than me. I always felt that as the oldest, I’d be the first to go. As long as I took care of myself, the rest of them would be OK. This seems pretty na├»ve, but it’s worked for 60 years.

I was told that Patrick is deteriorating quickly, so I made arrangements to travel to St. Louis for a visit. On one leg of the trip, I flew on an EMB145, the smallest passenger jet on which I’ve ever flown. The seating configuration is one seat on the left side of the plane, and two on the right. The seats themselves were designed for hobbits. You can tell that the couple in the foreground of this picture are not hobbits.


When I visited Patrick and his wife Ann in their secluded house out in the woods, I was greeted by their two dogs who barked furiously for about 10 minutes. They know Patrick is sick, and they’re very nervous and protective. One of them is a Boxer/Shar-Pei mix who always has drool bubbles.


The other is a 3-legged Labradoodle.


Patrick is in pretty good spirits, although he’s been having trouble sleeping, which makes him crabby sometimes. He first noticed symptoms when he experienced balance problems. This was quickly followed by double vision and partial paralysis on his right side. He sometimes wears an eye patch to help with the double vision, but he can’t stand to wear it for long.


The balance issues caused him to fall a lot, and one of them resulted in a little cut on his elbow, which he failed to clean properly, and it became infected. The elbow is his only source of pain right now.

Once he was diagnosed, he was placed on hospice care, but that’s only a couple of times a week. His wife Ann stopped working and sticks pretty close by.



Patrick is convinced he can get out of bed by himself to use the commode, but of course, he falls immediately. So Ann has to lift him. He’s been given steroids to slow the swelling of the tumor, which have caused him to develop an insatiable appetite. He’s always been skinny, but now he’s gaining weight, and Ann is losing weight taking care of him. So he’s getting heavier and she’s getting weaker. Fortunately, Patrick’s youngest son Joey, still lives at home. The kid is a monster, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 240 pounds. He wears size 15 shoes. He’s 18 years old and still growing.

My family has an unequal distribution of mental acuity. I have one brother with schizophrenia, one with a brain injury, one with bipolar disorder, one who’s dumb as a box of rocks, and then there’s Patrick and me. My sister and I joked that we could get all the boys in the family together and produce a game show called “Guess Who Has the Brain Tumor?”

Here’s three from the shallow end of my gene pool:


Here’s Joey with one of my brothers that supposedly does not have a brain tumor:


One of my brothers is married to a Brazilian woman, and he’s constantly kissing up to his in-laws in Brazil. He brought a couple of pounds of Brazilian coffee and a box of Brazilian candy that his in-laws had sent. He wanted to assure his in-laws that the gifts had been delivered, so he borrowed my camera and then, treating Patrick like a prop, arranged the gifts on his chest and took a picture to send to Brazil. I’m sure that somewhere deep inside his thick skull this made perfect sense, but it was demeaning, and Patrick was not happy about it.


Patrick and I chose different paths in life, so we’ve never been close. But we always knew that of the boys in the family, we were always the smartest, and that bound us together. It’s painful to see him so helpless. He can’t move very well, and his speech is labored and slurred. But he still has a witty, subversive sense of humor. So he motioned for a piece of candy, stuffed it into his mouth, and asked me to take this picture to send to Brazil, as clear evidence that he was enjoying the gifts.