Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Radiant Glow of the Redneck Subculture

Subcultures arise from their primary host cultures either by forced marginalization or by shared interests that deviate from the cultural mainstream. When I was growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s, the only obvious American subcultures were defined by ethnicity, religion or economic status. However, when I entered college in the late 60’s, the vibrant hippie subculture emerged.

Defined by music, art, fashion, drug experimentation and a philosophy of peace, it came to be identified as a “counterculture,” because it was in direct opposition to the mainstream of the time. This opposition let to a politicizing of the movement, which fractured it, and the pieces scattered to the winds like dandelion seeds. Who would guess that those seeds would germinate decades later?

Today there is a drug subculture, a wide variety of art, fashion and music subcultures, and philosophies are a dime a dozen. The vast, impartial presence of the Internet has enabled subcultures to flourish like never before. I’m constantly amazed by the odd groups people form that seem to have little appeal.

This week we visited my brother-in-law for Thanksgiving. He’s a classic redneck, with two RVs parked in his full-acre back yard. One runs, the other functions as a clubhouse for his sons, where they can play violent Xbox games and listen to loud, offensive music in air-conditioned comfort free from parental supervision. The boys also like to tear around on ATVs – yet another odd subculture. I understand dirt bikes, but 4-wheelers? I don’t get it at all.


My brother-in-law’s property is full of citrus trees, like this grapefruit tree groaning under the weight of ripe fruit.


Nobody in his house eats grapefruit, so we were encouraged to take all we could carry. My nephew helped with the harvest.


At the far end of the back yard there is a burn pit, and my brother-in-law throws every piece of wood and brush onto it until it gets too big.


Then, usually when there is company in the house, he waits until dark and burns it. The pile goes up in an intense, towering column of fire, and my brother-in-law runs around it with a hose, trying to keep it from spreading.



We stood around sipping cold drinks and looking at the stars, and then a totally new subculture was revealed to me.

It seems that my sister-in-law has discovered something called “glow parties,” where people get together to exercise in the dark, using various types of gear that are illuminated by LEDs. One type is something called Poi Balls, which are swung around in rhythmic patterns.


It’s hypnotic to watch, because the persistence of vision effect renders the balls as swooping, multicolored loops in the air.

Another example is the LED hula-hoop, which my sister-in-law demonstrated.



While people were playing with the hula-hoop and the Poi Balls, I found myself wishing that such technology had been available back in the late 60s. It would have been well-received, I think.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Can't Talk About It

You may have noticed a long period during which I haven’t blogged. In part, this was due to my recovery from Shingles, a process that is far from complete. I didn’t feel like writing.

But lots of things have happened that are worth writing about. The problem is, I can’t write about them.

This is because the events of the past month or so are related to experiences at work. Yes, I have a real job. And it’s a real job in an industry that takes itself very seriously. The kind of industry that fires people for writing about their job experiences.

Trust me, there have been events of high drama and outrageous humor. Events involving people who hold elevated corporate positions and would not like to read about themselves. It is killing me to not write about it.

Instead, I have to content myself with the comparatively mundane events that take place outside of work, and those events just don’t seem to measure up. It’s hard to feel inspired by my silly, predictable life when I go to work and it’s like watching Clash of the Titans.

So here are a couple of quotes from my lunkhead brother (I’ll call him Albert).

ALBERT: “Hey Tim. Do you ever go online and check the value of your house? My house is worth less than I paid for it! I’m getting screwed!”

Apparently, Albert has been living under a rock.

ALBERT: “Hey Tim. A message keeps appearing on my computer saying that there’s something wrong with Internet Explorer. What the hell is Internet Explorer?”

TIM: “It’s a program you use to go on the Internet.”

ALBERT: “No, I use AOL.”

Yep, under a rock.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write about this. Once I blogged about my knee replacement surgery and my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I decided that this wasn’t going to turn into a chronicle of my medical problems. Most illnesses just aren’t that interesting, and usually, they’re not very funny.

About a month ago, I developed an ugly, miserable disease with a silly, misleading name. When you’re a little kid, you get chicken pox. The virus stays in your body, and can return in later years (typically after the age of 50) in a different form, known as “Shingles.” Shingles is a disease of the nervous system, although it manifests itself in the form of a rash.

There’s a vaccine to prevent it, but it’s not commonly given because Shingles strikes less than 1% of the population. The medical community, in their wisdom, has decided not to publicize the availability of the vaccine to the 99% of the population who don’t need it. Instead, they’ll recommend it to those who have a known susceptibility to Shingles. The only way to demonstrate susceptibility is to develop a case of Shingles. Once the symptoms subside, your doctor will suggest the vaccine. You can ask for the vaccine, and your doctor will give it to you.

Ask for the vaccine. Trust me, you don’t want Shingles.

I’ve been suffering from it for a month now, and it shows very few signs of abating. I’ll describe it for you, even though I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested enough to read it, other than to convince themselves to demand the vaccine.

The whole thing started as a spider bite on my upper thigh. I have no idea if the spider bite triggered the Shingles, but the location of the bite and the timing just seem a bit too coincidental. The bite became inflamed and itchy, so I went to the doctor, who prescribed a course of antibiotics. At the same time, I started feeling a backache, as though I had pulled a muscle.

I followed my usual backache protocol, taking a muscle relaxer at bedtime. But by the morning, the backache hadn’t abated. Instead, it had intensified into a rolling series of intense, extremely painful spasms. I couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes an hour. The back spasms kept me out of work for a week. The spasms struck 3-4 times an hour, and each one felt like I was being stabbed by a red-hot stiletto.

Because the muscle relaxers hadn’t solved the problem, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the problem wasn’t muscular. So I let my wife talk me into visiting her chiropractor. I’m not a fan of chiropractors, but when you’re suffering, you’ll grasp at straws.

By this time, I was aching from head to toe, and had developed a rash in my crotch. When I say “rash,” I want you to think of old Biblical movies depicting lepers. The rash was blackish-purple, blistery and hot to the touch. It extended from the crease of my right leg up to my right hip, and around to my lower back. At times it felt as though biting bugs were crawling all over me.

The chiropractor attempted to “adjust” my back, but failed. The conclusion was that my problem wasn’t skeletal. I showed him the rash, and he rushed to the sink to wash his hands and insist that I see a “real” doctor.

The “real” doctor diagnosed the problem as Shingles, and prescribed an anti-viral medication designed to shorten the lifespan of the symptoms. By the end of the second week, the back spasms had diminished significantly, but the rash had grown and expanded. As it crusted over and gradually diminished, it left behind another problem, from which I am currently suffering.

The legacy of Shingles is something called “postherpetic neuralgia.” In simple terms, Shingles damaged my nerves, and the symptoms of the damaged nerves may persist for weeks, months, years, or even for the rest of my life. Everybody’s different, so I have no idea what to expect.

An area of my skin the size of two textbooks extending across my hip to my lower back has become hyper-sensitive to touch. A housefly landing on it feels like the talons of a hawk. A fold of silk brushing against it feels like a cheese grater. A cool breeze from a ceiling fan feels as though I’m being pelted with thumbtacks. Wearing clothes is agony. The spray of the shower is the seventh circle of hell. The back pain I initially experienced was the virus attacking my sciatic nerve. This nerve still occasionally provides me with sharp, painful reminders of the battle waged there.

I’m currently taking Vicodin and Lyrica to manage the symptoms, and they barely touch the problem. During the work day, I wear adhesive pads infused with Lidocaine to keep my clothing from grating against the most sensitive areas of my skin.

Lots of diseases have forbidding names: Gonorrhea, Eczema, Schizophrenia, Hemorrhoids, etc. Shingles sounds like the name of a children's party clown. If it was up to me, I’d change the name of Shingles to something more indicative of the pain and misery it causes, like “Roofing Nails.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Downside

One of the things I’ve been telling myself about Parkinson’s disease is that at this point, it’s just cosmetic. My right hand performs the classic “pill-rolling” spasm when I walk, or sometimes wiggles uncontrollably when I’m relaxed, but otherwise, there’s no impact on my life. I’m not stupid – I know that eventually, simple tasks may become difficult, or I may be unable to work. But for now, there’s no reason to try and control the symptoms except for the sake of my own vanity.

Sure, I’ll have to stop certain activities as the symptoms worsen. For example, I’ve already stopped eating soup in restaurants, because by the time the spoon gets to my mouth, there’s often nothing in it. It’s a shame, because I love New England clam chowder. Maybe I can train myself to use cutlery with my left hand without appearing as though I was raised by wolves.

So until recently, I’ve been brushing it off, acting as though there’s no real problem; it’s no worse than a birthmark on my face. Until I got a haircut.

There was no way to see it coming. You walk in, sit down, and someone else does all the work. How could Parkinson’s disease possibly have a negative impact on this experience?

I drove to my local Great Clips, and was surprised when I was greeted by a young gay man who I’ll call Lyle. Usually, the staff at Great Clips are exclusively female. Lyle was friendly and professional, as he seated me in the chair and covered me with the smock. He made pleasant conversation as he moved around me, snipping and combing.

Suddenly, I realized that my right hand, which was sitting in my lap, had begun its uncontrollable wiggle. The smock covered my lap, but it was painfully obvious that something was going on there. I tried grasping my right hand with my left, but that only seemed to stimulate the shaking, which becomes worse when I’m nervous or agitated.

Lyle must have noticed. Perhaps he was flattered, although if I was in his position, I’d be pretty horrified.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Three and Out

Our team assembled for our first round matches that started at 11 pm on Monday night. The league had set up two gigantic rooms full of pool tables – one for the tournament, and one for the pay-to-play mini-tournaments.


In the mini-tournament room, a dozen or so vendors had set up booths selling cues, t-shirts, accessories, instructional systems, etc. One guy had set up a table with a radar system, inviting players to try their luck at beating the fastest break speed of the day. Three shots for $5.


The main tournament hall was packed with throngs of players from the US, Canada and Japan. The elegant trophies were on display – very tempting prizes indeed.


In each round of play, the first team to win 3 matches wins the round. We would have to win four rounds to get into the money, eight rounds to get into the sweet sixteen, and four additional rounds to win it all - twelve grueling rounds total.

Our first set of matches was with a team called Eagles from Lansdale, PA. We were assigned to table number 13. I’m not superstitious, but we lost. I didn’t play. The tournament is a double-elimination format, so the loss pushed us into the loser’s bracket. We didn’t play badly, just not well enough.

We trudged back to the hotel, dejected. By then it was 4 am. Our next match was scheduled for 11 pm on Tuesday night, so everybody slept late and didn’t get too crazy during the day, trying to conserve energy and stay focused. One more loss, and we would be out of the tournament.

At 11 pm, we faced a team from Abilene, TX called Crazy 8’s. Their team captain was a tiny, skinny woman who had an incredibly smooth, powerful stroke. But she played one of our aces, and he beat her. Then, our team captain put me up against one of their low-skill players. I have to say, in all fairness and honesty, that I sucked. I’m a naturally high-strung guy normally, but that night I was shaking from head to toe. The combination of first-match nerves and Parkinson’s disease was causing me to suffer from uncontrollable spasmodic twitching. About two-thirds of my brain shut down. It looked like there were 100 balls on the table, and I was unable to calculate a shooting pattern. She beat me in two games, but our team went on to win that round anyway.

Once again, we went back to the hotel at 4 am. However, this time it was with a combination of elation and dread, because our next match was at 9 am, only 5 hours away. A couple of guys didn’t even bother going to sleep – they just walked the length of the Strip all night.

At 9 am, we played a team from Richmond, VA called 6-Pack. My team captain put me up against a player of equal strength. But this time, the first-match nerves were gone. I played extremely well, moving the cue ball around the table confidently, and beat him easily. Our team captain is a smoker, and the tournament is a non-smoking event. When our team captain played, he was desperately craving a cigarette, and it was obvious that it affected his game. He made one stupid error that cost him his match, infuriating one of our other players. We eventually beat them around 1 pm, and moved on to our third round, which was at 2 pm - only one hour later.

At 2 pm, we played a team from Crescent, PA who call themselves Fuego Pelota (flaming ball). If we won, we would move into the money and win $1,000 for the team. Fuego Pelota won the first two matches, so our backs were against the wall. Worse, our earlier victories had come with a price. The league monitors the matches carefully, reviewing the skill rankings of every player. If it appears that a player is winning too easily against an equally skilled (or higher skilled) opponent, that player will be raised in rank. The league chose to raise two of our players. One of our aces was raised to the point where we would be unable to play him, because there’s a limit to how many skill points we can play.

We put up a player who won, and then our team captain played. He had to win four games to beat his opponent, and he won the first three handily. In the fourth game, he had a simple, short cut shot on the 8-ball to win the match, but his nicotine craving had reached crisis proportions, and he missed the shot. His opponent came back strong and won four games straight to eliminate us from the tournament. It was a shame, because I was scheduled to play the final match of the round, against an equally skilled opponent. Unlike my first match, I was actually looking forward to it.

It's a Dry Heat

Because of the time zone difference between Las Vegas and my home in Florida, our entire pool team went to bed by 10:30 on Saturday night. All except for the one I’ll call Gordon, who stayed up until 4:15 am playing Texas Hold ‘Em.

The pool tournament takes place in the Riviera hotel, across the street from where we’re staying. The opening round was scheduled for 9:30 pm on Sunday, so we had all day to goof around.

I woke up at 5 am on Sunday, and I just hung out in the casino playing Blackjack until my team members started to wake up. Some of us went to one of the famous “all you can eat” buffets, and I ate so much, I didn’t feel hungry for the rest of the day. Say what you will about the quality, it’s a great deal.

Later that morning, we found out that our team would not compete until 11 pm on Monday, which meant we had all day Sunday and most of the day on Monday to goof around as well.

On Sunday, my good friend (who I’ll call Wilbur) arrived to lend moral support. He’s the guy who taught me the game of pool. He’s an expert, and was looking forward to playing in some of the mini-tournaments run by the league, that pay cash prizes. Unfortunately, he was shut out because the league only admits league members into the mini-tournaments, and Wilbur no longer plays in the league. Nonetheless, we shot a lot of pool in a practice room set up for that purpose with large windows overlooking the Riviera swimming pool.


At one point, we ventured out to see the sights. But in August, the most noticeable characteristic of Las Vegas is the unrelenting, blistering, furnace-like heat. People say it’s a dry heat, but I wasn’t dry. Every crevice of my body was dribbling sweat. Wilbur and I were appalled by the way it sucked the life out of us. One of my teammates took a scooter tour of Red Rock Canyon, and he described the experience with the words, “like a blow dryer in your face.”

I’m convinced that Las Vegas is owned by cab drivers. They have a cheesy monorail system, but it’s expensive, and it only runs to a few destinations on the Strip. It doesn’t go to the airport. There are buses running up and down the Strip, but they’re expensive, crowded, and infrequent. They don’t go to the airport either. Taxis charge you 13 times a mile.





At one point, we went up to the top of the Stratosphere tower, a Las Vegas landmark, and according to a cab driver, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi river – although I don’t believe it. The view is a massive testament to urban sprawl.



I realize that vacation pictures can be boring. It’s even worse when someone shows you pictures that they took of famous sights you’ve already seen. So I was trying to think of a simple way to bring some new life to familiar images. I brought a rubber glove with me, and had Wilbur take a few shots with me putting on the rubber glove in incongruous circumstances. Instead of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,” perhaps the motto of this town should be, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”





Saturday, August 20, 2011

Off to a Flying Stop

It’s time for the National Championship 8-ball tournament in Las Vegas. I’ve been anticipating this day with nervous excitement all week long. Unfortunately, that same excitement causes my Parkinson’s symptoms to act up, so my hand has been fluttering like a butterfly for days.

Halfway to the airport this morning, I realized that I had forgotten to pack my migraine medication. If I develop a migraine during the tournament, I’ll be unable to play, so I’m facing a hassle getting the prescription transferred from my pharmacy in Florida.

We took off on a clear, bright morning, weaving through puffy cumulus clouds.


Over Texas, I noticed these odd “crop circles,” created by circular irrigation systems.


Soon they were everywhere, stretching to the horizon.


Eventually, the land became more arid and mountainous.


After landing at the Las Vegas airport, we collected our bags and our pool cues from baggage claim. Pool cues have to be checked as baggage, because they’re classified as potential weapons. We then split a couple of cabs to our hotel. The league is putting us up at one of the worst hotels in Las Vegas – Circus Circus.


It was built in 1968, and by Las Vegas standards, it’s pretty lame. For example, the swimming pool is tiny and adjacent to a parking lot full of RVs. Worse, it’s packed with little kids. By comparison, the pool at the Riviera across the street is huge, and packed with nubile women in bikinis. Sorry, no pictures.

We were met at the hotel by our league operator, who delivered some aggravating news. It was 10:30 am Las Vegas time, but we wouldn’t be able to check in to the hotel until 3 pm. We would have to find some way to occupy ourselves for four and a half hours. Our team captain and I wandered around in the furnace-like heat, ducking into the noisy casinos when it got too oppressive.

Finally, weary and drained, we got our room keys. I’m rooming with another player from our team, who I’ll call George. George isn’t exactly a Rhodes scholar. We opened our luggage, and George said, “I don’t own a pair of flip-flops. This isn’t my suitcase.”

George had picked up the wrong bag at the airport. He quickly panicked, realizing that he faced a week without clean clothing. I found a name tag on the bag with a phone number, and we called it. Luckily, the guy who owned the bag (also named George) was staying at Circus Circus as well. He gratefully came to our room and picked up his bag.

Next we called the airline baggage office. George spoke to a stern woman who threatened to keep his bag unless he brought back the bag he had picked up by mistake. We had to call the other George and ask him to call the baggage office and straighten everything out. Later, another member of our team drove George to the airport so that he could pick up his bag.

The whole day has been exhausting, and I think I’m getting a migraine.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Side Effects

In my last post, I talked about the potential side effects of a drug my neurologist prescribed to control my Parkinson’s symptoms. I didn’t list them all.

My doctor had prescribed a drug called Ropinirol, which is available in two forms: high-dosage timed-release tablets, and low dosage regular tablets. The advantage of the timed-release version is that you only need to take one a day. The regular tablets must be taken three times a day. Naturally, I chose the timed-release tablets.

I've been building my tolerance to the drug by cutting the timed-release tablets in half for a week, and then taking them full strength for a week. But I’ve been dissatisfied with the effectiveness of these timed-release tablets, so I spoke to the neurologist, and he changed the prescription to the 3-a-day regular tablets. The theory is that the drug will enter my system quicker, and enable me to take a fourth tablet per day if needed.

Yesterday morning I took the first one.

I got into my car and started the drive to work. My wife and I had stayed up late watching a bad sci-fi movie called “I Am Number Four,” so I felt like I needed a cup of coffee to start the day. I pulled into 7-Eleven, poured a cup, and got into the line of other caffeine-dependent wage slaves.

Within a few moments, I started to feel queasy, so I glanced at the display of greasy breakfast taquitos spinning on the heated rollers, wondering if some food might settle my stomach. I felt a brief head-rush sensation, as though I had gotten out of bed too fast. And then I opened my eyes and discovered that I was lying on my back looking at the ceiling, with a half a dozen 7-Eleven customers clustered around, eyeballing me curiously. I was drenched in sweat, and I had wet my pants.

A concerned Hispanic man had placed some towels under my head, which apparently had smacked pretty hard on the tile floor. He was urging me to lie still, telling me that someone had called 911. Against his wishes, I sat up and instantly felt nauseous. Someone brought me a bucket, but I had no desire to puke in front of a crowd of onlookers. I stood up, the Hispanic man clutched my arm, and I staggered to the rest room where I dry-retched horribly until the ambulance arrived.

The EMTs strapped me onto a gurney, attached electrodes to my chest, placed an oxygen tube in my nostrils, inserted an IV, and took my vitals while we sped to the hospital, lights and siren blaring.

In the emergency room, their primary concern was to determine if I had experienced a heart attack or stroke. They took an EKG, a chest x-ray, and an MRI of my head (to make sure I hadn’t fractured my skull in the fall). This process took hours, and I was lying in bed in my wet pants the whole time.

The nurse was a soft-spoken older guy named Don. I asked if there was anything he could do about it, and he immediately brought me a hospital gown and then cleaned me up. He was very kind, going about his business with gentle efficiency. But at one point, I was lying on my side, and he was washing my ass. “So, do you have any hobbies?” he asked. It was clearly the funniest moment in an otherwise very unfunny day.

The general consensus was that Ropinirol was to blame. Two potential side effects of the drug are “Nausea” and “Fainting,” so as far as I’m concerned, the culprit has been identified. I’ve been forbidden to take any more of it until I meet with my neurologist on Monday (he’s out of town), and I’ve been forbidden to drive all weekend.

I want to express my gratitude to the unknown Hispanic man who looked after me in the 7-Eleven, the EMTs and Don who washed my ass. I’d also like to thank the producers of “I Am Number Four.” If I hadn’t watched that awful movie, I wouldn’t have stopped for coffee, and this episode might have played out on the Interstate with very different results.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Honey, I Lost the House

When my neurologist settled on the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, I had a mild, intermittent tremor in my right hand, and a bit of a hitch in my right leg that caused me to drag my heel. If I concentrated, I could stop the tremor and walk with a normal gait. But it took a bit of effort.

Over the past couple of months, the tremor has become more pronounced. When I’m sitting or standing and I’m relaxed, it ranges from barely perceptible to nonexistent. But when I walk, some connection in my brain is closed, and my hand does a jitterbug. I’ve learned to walk with my thumb tucked into a fist.

My doctor prescribed Azilect, which is a mild drug used to control Parkinson’s symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s also expensive. With my insurance, it costs me $75 a month. For that kind of money, I want a drug that not only controls my symptoms, but makes me smart and good-looking as well.

Before long, I noticed that the Azilect wasn’t really doing the job. My hand still fluttered when I walked, or when I got nervous or excited. And, it was getting much more difficult to will it to stop. So I returned to the neurologist.

The doctor informed me that the next level of medication for Parkinson’s symptoms is called “dopamine agonists.” Dopamine is a hormone produced in the brain, and people suffering from Parkinson’s don’t have enough of it. Dopamine agonist drugs function in much the same way as dopamine, alleviating the symptoms of the disease. There are quite a few variations of this drug, and it’s a guessing game which will work the best for any specific individual. My neurologist flipped a mental coin and prescribed Ropinirole. One excellent benefit I noticed immediately is that this drug is cheap compared to Azilect.

Because Ropinirole is more powerful than Azilect, my doctor has to prescribe it in staged dosages, working me up slowly over a period of weeks to full strength. I thought this was excellent, because of my upcoming trip to Las Vegas to play pool in the National Championship Tournament. By the time I have to leave, I should be at full strength.

And then, my doctor explained the potential side effects.

Some are unpleasant or downright scary, like “nausea,” “insomnia” or “hallucinations.”

Some actually sound kind of cool, like “weight loss” or “increased orgasmic intensity.”

But there was one potential side effect that is so cruel, I swear I can hear God laughing: “A reduction in impulse control, leading to pathological addictions, such as gambling.” Great. Just in time for Las Vegas.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Green Irony

When we first moved to Florida, we lived in a community that did not offer curbside recycling. Three years later, when we moved into our current house, the former owners left us their old beat-up recycling bin. It was covered with dings and holes and cracks. Because I had no experience with community recycling, I just assumed that the guys on the recycling truck would replace it when it became too shabby. That was thirteen years ago.

It finally reached the point where it was so broken and brittle that I was afraid it would fall apart. So I called the recycling center to ask what I had to do to get a new one. The person on the phone took my name and address, and promised that someone would stop by during the week to drop off a new recycling bin.

“Do you want me to leave the old bin out by the street?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “They won’t pick up the old one.”

“Why not?”

And then she said something I could scarcely believe: “Because it’s not recyclable.”

Staggering under this crushing irony, I asked, “How do I dispose of it?”

“Put it out by the curb on trash day. You have to put it into a trash bag, or the trash collectors won’t pick it up.”

So somewhere in our local landfill are thousands of old recycling bins, concealed in garbage bags like the bodies of Mafia snitches, unable to perform the one service they were designed to provide.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Five Rounds

The unimaginable has occurred.

Readers of this blog are probably aware that I play pool in a league, and have been doing so for at least six years. We play about 210 matches a year, struggling to finish in the top 3 in our division. If we do, we go into the playoffs, playing two of the best teams in the division to determine the division champion.

If we finish first in our division, we are entered in the regional qualifier tournament, in which we play the best teams in other divisions around Central Florida. The regional qualifier is a 3-round single elimination tournament, which means you have to beat three other champion teams. Lose once, and you go home.

But if you win three times, your team goes on to play in the regional championship tournament. The regional championship tournament is a grueling race – a 5-round double elimination tournament. This means you have to beat five of the best teams in Central Florida. Because it’s a double elimination format, you can lose once, but not twice.


If this seems like a lot of effort, it is. But if by some miracle your team wins the regional championship tournament, the league pays to fly your entire team to Las Vegas for the national championship tournament. It’s a fantastic, seemingly unattainable prize, but every year, teams achieve it. This year is our year. Last weekend, in a 2-day, 26-hour marathon, we defeated five excellent teams to win the big prize:


Hundreds of players competed in four brackets at the local Moose Lodge. Here’s what we had to go through to win. In each round, the first team to win three matches is the victor.

Round 1 (9:00 am – 12:30 pm Saturday)

    We played a team called “Bottoms Up,” which consisted of four women in their 20’s and 30’s, and two men. One of the men was named Norm, and he was 88 years old. The captain of the team was a 20-something in a hoodie and a backwards baseball cap named Ryan.

    Bottoms Up quickly won the first two matches. Ever the pessimist, I figured we were done for. But I won my match, one of our players beat Norm, and then one of our players beat Ryan, sending Bottoms Up to the loser’s bracket.

Round 2 (1:00 pm - 4:30 pm Saturday)

    Our next opponent was a team called “Here’s Your Sign,” and they absolutely slaughtered us. They beat us 3 straight matches, to send us to the loser’s bracket.

Loser’s Bracket Round 1 (5:00 pm – 8:30 pm Saturday)

    We had a bye in the first round of the loser’s bracket (which doesn’t count as a victory). We had 3 hours to kill, so we went to a local bar and practiced, because the tournament tables were all occupied.


Loser’s Bracket Round 2 (9:00 pm Saturday –12:30 am Sunday)

    We played a team called “Yes We R,” which had a very highly-skilled player named Greg. I won my match, although I was so horribly nervous, I made a couple of stupid mistakes. The match was tied, but I finally sucked it up and won once I realized that if I lost, my team members would kill me. The match took over an hour and a half to play, which became an issue later, as you’ll see.

    Eventually, we had the lead, 2 matches to 1. But because of my slow play, the next two matches were designated by tournament officials as “sudden death.” This meant that those two matches would be decided on the outcome of a single game each.

    In the fourth match of the series, we put up one of our best players, and they put up Greg. Greg won the lag, broke the pack and ran the table down to the 8-ball. Unfortunately, the 8-ball was snugly nestled in a pack of our player’s balls. Greg was in a tough position where he could only hit about a third of the 8-ball. He studied the layout for a long time, and then stroked the cue ball into the 8-ball, which caromed off two of our player’s balls and slipped into a corner pocket that was half blocked. One of the umpires commented, “That shot should be on ESPN.”

    With the round tied 2-2, the deciding game seesawed back and forth, until our player had only one ball left on the table before the 8-ball. He had to make a tough cut shot on the ball using a lot of English. The ball sliced into the pocket, but more important, the cue ball spun perfectly down the table, leaving him with a straight-in shot on the 8-ball for the win.

    We went home exhausted, but nobody slept.

Winner’s Bracket Round 4 (10:00 am - 1:30 pm Sunday)

    By this time, the number of teams competing had been winnowed down, and the competition got very serious. You could hear a pin drop. The tension in the air was palpable. It felt like someone was driving wood screws into my shoulders.

    Because so many teams had been washed out, we could now practice on some of the tables. I met a guy named Hoagie who told me that his team had made it to the fourth round, but that he was struggling. “My confidence is shot,” he confided.

    We had to play a team called “P’s and Cues,” which was captained by an older guy whom I had befriended the previous day. Once again, the matches were tied 2 -2 and our player won the deciding match.

Winner’s Bracket Round 5 (3:00 pm - 6:30 pm Sunday)

    Remember Round 1? We sent the team called “Bottoms Up” to the loser’s bracket, but like us, they fought their way out and we had to play them again.

    We jumped ahead quickly, winning the first two matches. But we lost the next one, which left us in the lead, 2-1.

    They put up Norm, and we put up a 23-year old. It was a classic “Youth vs. Experience” matchup. Norm shambled around the table, his cue shaking in his hand. I noticed a lot of older members of the Moose Lodge gathered around, silently watching, rooting for the old-timer. Norm won three straight games to tie the round at 2-2.

    It came down to our player and Ryan – the guy with the backwards baseball cap. He shoots with cocky arrogance, hitting the ball harder than necessary to look authoritative. Our guy is a cool and methodical player, and he had it under control, winning the first 3 games (he needed to win 4). Ryan won the next, but in the 5th game, he made a mistake and gave our guy ball-in-hand with only three to go out.

    We took a time-out and there was a lot of discussion about the correct shooting pattern. Our guy made the right choice, but in the shot before the 8-ball, he choked. He made the ball but left himself with a tough cut on the 8. He settled down on the cue ball, stroked it smoothly and the 8-ball cut perfectly into a corner pocket.

Nobody could believe it. We’re going to Las Vegas in August to play in the National Championship tournament. It’s like an amazing dream.

Meanwhile, on the table next to us, Hoagie won his match decisively, and his team won the round, so they're going to Las Vegas as well. I suspect Hoagie's confidence is restored.

I remember one indelible image from the competition. Players are obligated to sit in isolation seats set up away from their team members, so they can’t be coached. One woman, having missed a shot, sat sobbing uncontrollably in the isolation seat, believing she had lost the deciding match on the error. Moments later, her opponent flubbed his shot, and she jumped up and won the game. Misery to joy in less than a minute.

Our team won a hideously ugly trophy, which we're obligated to give to the bar that hosts our team. It will be prominently displayed, with a plate engraved with all of our names. I asked the lovely barmaid to pose with it to soften the grotesque contours. The trophy guy came by and offered to sell us exact replicas for our homes at a cost of $45. We're all getting them, of course.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011


A very long time ago, I was working as a printing press operator. One of the tasks I had to perform was to watch for “hickies,” which are bits of lint or dust that get stuck to the inked areas on the printing plate and leave blotches on the printed piece. To remove a hickie, you can stop the press, but most printers save time by dabbing at the plate with a wet cotton ball while the press is running. It’s a dangerous practice, and one day I got the middle finger of my right hand caught between the rollers.

The press stopped, because the belts were old and loose. Had it been a newer press, I’d have 9 fingers today. The finger was squashed pretty flat and popped open like a bratwurst on the grill, but thankfully was not broken. I lost most sensation on one side, and couldn’t bend it very far. Once the stitches healed up, the doctor told me that I would probably never get a full range of motion or restore the damaged nerves. I resolved to prove them wrong.

I bought a book on card tricks, and spent hours every day learning manipulations. They are hard skills to master even with a full complement of working fingers, so they were agonizingly slow for me. In less than a year, I recovered my range of motion and all of the sensation in the finger. Here’s one of the tricks:

About a month ago, I was at work, typing. I’m an excellent typist - fast and accurate. But on this particular day, I typed the word “appear,” and it came out “appppppear.” I held my right hand up to my face and demanded to know what was going on, but got no answer. Later that same week, I woke up one morning to the insistent chime of my alarm clock. I reached over with my right hand to hit the button that turns it off, but my hand hit the button repeatedly, oscillating up and down. Eventually I rolled over and used my left hand to turn it off, but it was enough to send me to the doctor.

The doctor sent me to a neurologist, who conducted several tests, including a brain MRI. He concluded that I have the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. There are medications I can take to control the symptoms, up to a point. There’s no cure. The disease will progress at its own pace, different for everyone. The most I can hope for is that it progresses slowly, and that over the remainder of this decade, new medications or surgical procedures are developed to treat it.

However, the neurologist did tell me that I can take some steps to slow the progress of the disease. These include aerobic exercise and coordination exercises for my affected hand. So I’m working out on the exercise bike 4 – 5 days a week, and I’m back to card tricks and one of my favorite mindless activities, juggling:

When I first got the diagnosis, I was shocked and depressed. Now I have mixed feelings. Yes, it’s incurable, but it’s not going to kill me, so there’s hope. However, I’m angry about my game of pool. I’ve worked hard to develop my skill, and it’s already starting to deteriorate. I started playing the game because I felt that nothing could make me stop. There are elderly players, players with missing limbs, players in wheelchairs. But it looks like in a few years, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines, shaking and cheering them on.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Joint Chiefs Meeting

President Obama: Gentlemen, it's confirmed. We've located the hideout of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. I want a small team of tough, highly trained American soldiers to breach his compound and kill him. No collateral damage. A nighttime operation, in and out in under an hour. It will be dangerous, difficult and I will not tolerate failure. Admiral, are the Navy SEALS up to the challenge?

Admiral Roughead: Yes, sir, I'll get right on ...

General Dempsey: Sir, the Rangers are ready to undertake this mission.

President Obama: I'm thinking of using the SEALS here, Marty.

General Dempsey: But sir, with all due respect, this is a ground op. It's 600 miles from the nearest boat. Army is the way to go.

General Amos: If I may interject, the Marine Corps has a long, proud history of both land and sea ...

General Dempsey: Shut the hell up, Jimmy.

President Obama: We're gonna go with the SEALS, this time. Sorry Marty. Maybe the next international terrorist mastermind.

General Dempsey: The next one? The next one? What next one? You've been using robot aircraft to take them out!

General Schwartz: Very effectively, if I may say so. Cheap to operate, no risk to American soldiers, ....

General Dempsey: You sons of bitches sitting in La-Z-Boys playing video games while my boys are sweating and bleeding to earn a chance to be heroes! Please, sir, please. You gotta give this one to the Rangers. They work so hard. They've all got your picture on their lockers. I take back those things I said about you and the SEALS at the Foreign Press dinner after that Somali pirate thing. I was outta line.

President Obama: SEALS, Marty. Rangers next time, maybe. Meeting adjourned.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

She Won't Go Down

There’s a young woman in my office who has been clumping around in an orthopedic boot for weeks. It’s the kind of thing a doctor makes you wear when you break an ankle. I asked her about it in the elevator the other day, and she told me that it was “the result of spending too much time in uncomfortable shoes.” No broken bones, no plantar fascitis, no hammer toes or bunions. Just painful and lingering nerve damage.

I started doing an informal research project, paying close attention to women’s shoes. I work in a very large company, and there are probably 350 people in my office alone, at least half of them women. The office requires “business casual” attire, and 90% of the women wear heels. Of those wearing heels, at least 75% wear high heels, often so high that the movements of the women wearing them appear stiff and graceless. The small minority who wear flats appear relaxed and comfortable.

The other day, I was on the elevator by myself as I was leaving the building. It stopped on the second floor, and two women got on.

“I feel so guilty taking the elevator,” one of them said. “But I hate using the stairs.”

“Yes,” the other woman agreed, “I know what you mean. I’ll go up, but I won’t go down.”

I asked them what they were talking about, and one of them said, “It’s the high heels. When you go down a flight of stairs, it really hurts to put your weight on that heel.”

“Many women have told me that the reason they wear high heels is because it’s attractive to men,” I said in a mock-serious tone. “But as a man, I feel obligated to tell you that we genuinely don’t care what kind of shoes you wear.”

They chuckled, and one of them said, “Yes, but sometimes we like to look a little taller.”

The doors of the elevator opened, and we stepped into the lobby.

“But don’t women all claim that they want men who are taller than they are?” I asked. “Why make yourself taller and limit your options?”

They minced painfully towards one building exit, and I headed for another. But as they left, one of them said to the other, “He’s right. Why do we do this?”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Praise of the Penny

People who collect coins are called “numismatists.” I’m not one of them, because I realized early on that the coins we get in change aren’t very valuable, due to their condition. If you take collecting seriously, you have to pay big bucks for mint-quality coins and hold them for a very, very long time.

Nevertheless, I often examine my pocket change just out of casual curiosity. I check out any new designs and read the dates. Today, I was stunned by a penny.

I vividly remember, as a kid, finding the occasional Indian Head penny, which ceased production in 1909. I don’t ever recall finding one older than 1900, so most of the ones I found were around 40 – 50 years old.

The coin that replaced it is commonly known as the “wheat back” penny. In 1959, the back of the penny was changed to a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial. “Wheat back” pennies started to get scarce. Sometime in the mid-70’s, I started separating them from my change, tossing them into a drawer. 25 years later, they had doubled in value, so I sold them for a whopping 2 cents apiece.

Today I dumped a handful of change on a counter and spotted this “wheat back:”


When I turned it over, I was shocked to see that it was minted in 1930:


This coin, still in circulation, is 81 years old. And yet, it’s less worn than pennies half that age. It’s been around since Herbert Hoover was President. Assuming it hasn’t spent a major part of its life languishing under a sofa cushion or soaking in a wishing well, this penny has probably been handled by nearly 10,000 people.

It’s easily the oldest coin I’ve ever found. I only hope I look that good when I’m 81.

There is a movement (I prefer the term "conspiracy") dedicated to the elimination of the penny from U.S. coinage. The arguments are that it's costly and that pennies have almost no buying power. Personally, I feel that the elimination of the penny will cause an almost instantaneous form of inflation that would be tiny in scope, but make a few very wealthy people much wealthier without having to lift a finger.

I have faith that at some point, the dollar will rebound, becoming a strong currency once again. When that happens, pennies will regain value as currency. I say wait it out. I have a penny in my pocket that has been waiting for 81 years.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Rational Fear of Zombies

At some point in our lives (usually by the age of 6), we have to admit to ourselves that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real. This revelation is both depressing and liberating, germinating the seeds of skepticism and logic that govern our lives as adults. Rational debate is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of adulthood.

For reasons I cannot understand, movies involving vampires, werewolves and zombies remain immensely popular, despite the simple logical arguments that render them into implausible childish myths. All of these creatures are proposed as physical beings, not supernatural or magical. And yet, all but one of them could exist without the aid of some unspecified force that is not part of the natural world.

Vampires, for example, must consume human blood to live. What is the component of human blood that enables them to survive that is not present in rabbit blood or cow blood? It’s never explained, because there is no such component. Animal blood would be much easier to obtain, and reduce vampires from a terrifying threat to ordinary neighbors who have an unusual diet and work the night shift.

And does anyone really believe that vampires can be repelled by crucifixes or garlic? Or that they can transform themselves into bats or other creatures? (See werewolves, below.)

The one thing I can believe about vampires is that they have a sensitivity to light. Not the blistering, screaming, bursting-into-flames sensitivity that we see in the movies, just the kind of thing that could be handled by 30 SPF sunblock, a floppy hat and a pair of Oakleys.

Werewolves are supposedly human beings who have contracted a disease from another infected human. Every 28 days, for no apparent reason, the human is forced to change into a wolf for one night, which makes no sense at all. Becoming a wolf does not serve any purpose. I like to imagine the werewolf virus mutating every year, like the flu. One year, you’re a panda. Next year, you’re an armadillo.

The thing I find laughable about werewolves is that nobody bothers to calculate the metabolic cost of transforming from a human form to that of a wolf (and back again) in the space of a few minutes. You couldn’t consume enough calories in a lunar month to accomplish it, and the stress of the transformation would undoubtedly kill you.

The problem with zombies is that there are two kinds (depending on your literary source) - a reanimated corpse or a living human infected with some germ or toxin. Regardless of the zombie definition, both of them want to kill non-zombie humans. They are universally depicted as profoundly retarded creatures, so how do they tell a zombie from a non-zombie? And why humans? What’s the appeal? Why not pigeons or cats?

The idea of a rotten corpse somehow developing the ability to move and produce enough energy to dig itself out of a grave and walk around is just absurd. The degraded tissues would be incapable of such actions, not to mention the indignities imposed on corpses by morticians. I suppose an argument could be made that fresh corpses are available everywhere, but I think the living would outnumber them by a large margin, so they wouldn’t pose very much of a threat.

That leaves the “infected living” zombie. It’s easy to imagine a human being turned into a psychopathic killer, because psychopaths already exist. Of the three, it’s the only one that has no logical barriers. So far, nobody has developed an infectious agent that will accomplish this goal. The only thing we know for sure is that somewhere, deep in an underground lab, somebody is working on it.

So I’m not sharpening stakes or making silver bullets, but maybe a shotgun wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


The problem with mental illness is that typically you don’t know you have it until someone else tells you, or until you diagnose yourself. Most people are unwilling to diagnose themselves. However, recently I’ve begun to feel as though I might suffer from a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

I don’t wash my hands a dozen times a day or eat my food counter-clockwise or lock the door repeatedly. I read automobiles.

For example, I read vanity plates, often maneuvering in traffic to get a better look. Because of the character limit, some of them can be cryptic puzzles. “NGOTI8R,” for example, or “RCKTMN.” Others are simple, such as the two I saw in one day a few months ago: “HUGEEGO” and “FREUD.” How funny would it be if they were involved in a collision?

I know this doesn’t seem like much of an obsession, but if I can’t figure one out, it bothers me all day. But that’s just a small part of the problem. What really consumes me are bumper stickers and decals.

Most are textual, so they’re not especially hard to figure out. Others are in the form of symbols or images that don’t make immediate sense. I try to group them into categories. The top two categories are Decorative and Affiliations. The Decorative category holds those items that are displayed solely for their aesthetic value.

The Affiliations category holds those items that indicate the preferences or formal memberships held by the driver. They fall into sub-categories: Religious, Military, Professional, Sports, Ethnic, Political and Entertainment. Usually, I can pick the category from a distance, and identify the exact affiliation when I get a little closer. Entertainment is the hardest, because unknown bands often have unintelligible names or strange logos.

On my daily commute, I often see the same vehicles, which have become familiar to me. There’s the lady with the “Never, Never, NEVER Shake a Baby!” bumper sticker. And the guy with a dozen stickers: 11 espousing extremist political opinions and one that says “Coexist.”

But there’s one car I see all the time, that bears this indescribable image, along with the message, “XD28NE:”


The image resembles a scarab beetle, or perhaps a radiation warning sign. I thought it might be an image from a video game, or a band logo – but a Google search of “XD28NE” reveals nothing.

The unsolvable mystery of this image is driving me insane. Please, if you have any idea what this represents, let me know. I’ll be eternally grateful, and far less likely to run this person off the road to demand the answer.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Mysterious Newport

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and left immediately after completing college there. Back in those days (40 years ago), St. Louis was a classic example of urban blight. People fled to the suburbs, and the inner city deteriorated into a dangerous mixture of empty, decaying buildings, and poor, desperate people. I couldn’t wait to get out.

During the time I lived there, the Gateway Arch was constructed, Sportsmen’s Park was replaced by the “technologically advanced” Busch Stadium (which itself has been replaced recently), and the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project was built, only to be demolished 16 years later after becoming a rat-infested slum.

All of these construction projects had one thing in common: Acres of shabby, condemned buildings were bulldozed to make room for them. But it wasn’t just urban renewal that scoured entire neighborhoods from the St. Louis landscape. Gaslight Square, the well-known nightclub district vanished during my college years, a victim of crime and neglect.

It’s hard for me to believe that anything remotely historic survives in St. Louis. On my visit there last week, my sister took me to the Crown Candy Kitchen. This place opened in 1913, but despite the fact that I grew up in St. Louis, I had never heard of it.

It’s a tiny remnant of a genteel time. Part restaurant, part soda fountain, part confectionary, you can easily imagine clean-cut teenagers hanging out and playing the jukebox during the 1950’s. Today it survives in a formerly-depressed neighborhood that desperately wants to gentrify, but can’t quite get over the hump. The Crown Candy Kitchen has become something of a hipster lunchtime destination. My sister took me there because she wanted me to try the Heart Stopping BLT.


This sandwich differs from a normal BLT in that proportionally, the lettuce and tomato contribute almost nothing to the taste. Nearly a pound of bacon is crammed between two slices of white bread.


My sister and I split one, but my 88-year old father never met a meal he couldn’t finish.


The Crown Candy Kitchen is a charming old building, with hand-made booths, a pressed-tin ceiling, and hand-lettered signs. The menu over the soda fountain listed prices for Sundes, Special Sundaes, Deluxe Sundaes, and something called “Newports.” A waitress explained to us that a Newport is a normal sundae, but it’s topped with whipped cream and crushed pecans.


I’m fascinated that I’ve never heard of a Newport before. If this is a regional delicacy, you’d think I would know about it, having grown up in the region. I know about frappes and jimmies in Massachusetts, scrapple in Pennsylvania, and prairie oysters in Nebraska. Maybe the Crown Candy Kitchen is like the last of a dying species, the only place left that retains once-common cultural knowledge.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Salesmen, Lawyers and Alcohol

When it comes to alcohol consumption, I’m kind of a lightweight. Some men approach it as a competition, racing toward a finish line they can never reach. Others are like children with a big bag of candy on Halloween, greedily consuming too much of a good thing. I prefer to think of it as medication, taken in measured doses to relax the bonds of social convention.

Over my career I’ve met lots of salespeople, who I believe are a separate species. This is because the successful ones all share certain characteristics that are not shared by successful people in other professions. These include vanity, deceit, avarice, thoughtlessness, desperation and a monumental appetite for alcohol.

Occasionally, I’ve been invited to join members of this species for meals paid for by their company expense account. These are always ridiculously expensive events, almost as though the restaurant was specifically selected for the outrageous prices. I have no training as a psychologist, but I suspect that this is one mechanism that salespeople use to value themselves.

At one memorable event in Washington, DC, I was invited to dinner by two salesmen. Between the three of us, the meal cost over 500 dollars. And this was over 15 years ago. The men ordered five bottles of wine in the course of the evening, and sucked it down like lemonade. They often topped off my glass, urging me to drink more. I enjoyed the wine, but I cautiously drank just enough not to be ridiculed. When we stood up to leave, the salesmen wove their way unsteadily through the tables occupied by human diners. We got as far as the restaurant lobby when one of the salesmen suddenly covered his mouth and raced to the bathroom. After spending all that money on fine food and wine, he didn’t even get it out of the restaurant.

I sometimes wonder if other professions attract members of other species as well. For example, many people believe that lawyers are a species of blood-sucking parasite.

Last week I flew to St. Louis to visit my elderly father and other family members. One evening, my sister, my niece and her fiancée (who I will call Perry), went out to a local bar for Trivia Night. Perry is a law student in his last semester. Here is my niece and Perry:


Trivia Night is held once a week, and the bar quickly fills with eager patrons, who form teams. You can have as many people on your team as you wish, but the prize structure discourages teams larger than five people. A master of ceremonies asks general-knowledge trivia questions, and the teams write down their answers. There are five rounds, fifteen questions per round. If your team wins a round, you win a bucket of five beers. If your team records the highest score for all five rounds, you win $50. My niece and her fiancée do this all the time, and frequently win the grand prize.

Perry is a quiet, cerebral guy who takes Trivia Night very seriously. Our team tied for high score in the second round. When this happens, another competition is held to determine the winner. The tied teams each elect a single competitor. Each of them is handed a pint of beer, which they must chug. The first to finish wins. Perry took it upon himself to compete.


Unfortunately, Perry had just finished a large meal, and was competing against a guy twice his size. He got about half the beer down, gave up and raced for the bathroom. I predict a long and successful career for him as a sober blood-sucking parasite.

We tied again for the final round, and I offered to compete. This is very unlike me, but I was already one beer over my normal maximum. I met my opponent, who was a third my age. To everyone's amazement, I beat him.


Unfortunately, the reward for my success was more beer. We were only able to finish three of them, and gave the remaining two to the big guy who defeated Perry in the chugging contest.

We came in second in total points for the night, which gnawed at Perry. Instead of enjoying himself, he kept reviewing the missed questions in his head. I treated the whole evening as a raging success. A new personal best in per-hour beer consumption, a chugging victory, and I retained my dinner. Life is good if you avoid salesmen and lawyers.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Life as a Woman

Over 10 years ago I developed a thickened callous on the heel of my left foot, which then dried out and cracked open. It was ugly and painful to walk on. So I went to a podiatrist who sliced at it with a scalpel, explaining to me that this can happen at any time in a person’s life, for no known reason.

After he pared the callous down to normal thickness, he recommended that I treat it with a particular moisturizing cream made from pure lanolin. I went to the drugstore and was mortified to discover that the cream is only available in the section of the store reserved for infants and mothers. The cream is used primarily by women who breastfeed, when their nipples become sore. This fact is prominently declared all over the package: “Breast Feeding Cream,” it says, “For breastfeeding mothers.”


I had to limp to the front of the store and buy it from some teenage kid, who stared curiously at my nipples while he rung it up.

Not long ago, after my knee surgery, my doctor suggested that I take a daily multivitamin to restore my energy. “Get one with vitamin B-12 and iron,” he told me.

So I went to the drugstore and entered the unregulated war zone called the “Vitamin Supplement Aisle.” There are dozens and dozens of supplements available, and the multivitamins are subdivided into marketing segments: Children, Men, Women, Older Men, Older Women, Pregnant Women, Athletes, and probably Pregnant Athletes.

Naturally, I read the labels of every “Male” multivitamin package – a 30-minute task. Some contained vitamin B-12, some did not. However, not a single multivitamin supplement marketed to men contains Iron. Not one. But almost every “Female” multivitamin contains iron, because women lose blood during the menstruation cycle.

So every day, I have to take a vitamin prominently labeled “For Women.”


I hope I never develop varicose veins, because it's gong to be tough to find pantyhose in my size.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid

My 18 year old daughter wants to pursue a cosmetology license. I can’t really argue with her decision, because it’s something that interests her, and nobody is outsourcing those jobs.

There are several schools in our area that offer certification programs. Some are low-rent vocational schools, and some are snooty, fashionable and expensive. You can probably guess which one my daughter wants to attend.

The one she’s interested in is named for a well-known New York hairdresser, who has used his name recognition to franchise a branded curriculum all over the country. The school is known for its “method,” which is a rigid protocol for the practice of cutting and styling hair.

One of the primary requirements (in addition to the outrageous tuition) is that each student must purchase a “kit” of equipment and branded hair products for $2,000.

I recently attended an event with her, and we met a guy named Michael. He’s a trim, neatly-groomed man in his fifties who is a hairdresser with his own business. I peppered him with questions about the profession, while my daughter listened eagerly to his answers.

He asked which school she was planning to attend, and she told him. He grimaced and said, “Well that’s fine, but let me give you a bit of advice – ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.’”

I glanced at my daughter and saw a facial expression that can best be described as “Huh?” I realized instantly that she had no idea who Jim Jones was. Fortunately, she’s a smart girl and kept her mouth shut.

We had a good laugh about it later in the car. It made me wonder what other expressions that make sense to me would be meaningless to people her age. So I tried out a few with a group of her friends.

“Sufferin’ succotash!” – They got this one immediately, because old cartoons are constantly recycled for new generations.

“I am not a crook!” – One kid got that quickly, because as he said, “They mentioned it on an episode of Family Guy.” So even new cartoons represent their primary source of information.

“We’re more popular than Jesus.” Finally, that one stumped them.

Can you think of any other good ones?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Month Without Posting

I didn’t write a single blog post during the entire month of December – an unusual and troubling lapse. It’s not that I didn’t have ideas, because I have those all the time. Usually, I ruminate on them for a day or two and then start writing when I have a spare hour or so. It’s the hours that have been lacking.

It all started when we rearranged the furniture in one room of our house. Let me rephrase that: It all started when I rearranged the furniture in one room of my house while my wife supervised. In the process, I had to empty a bookcase. Two shelves of the bookcase contained commercial VHS videotapes that my daughter had watched when she was little. Most were produced by a giant entertainment conglomerate associated with a cartoon mouse.

We deposited most of them in the Goodwill box, but about a half a dozen tapes were designated as my daughter’s favorites. My wife, realizing that VHS tapes were prone to disintegration over time, asked me if I could find those titles on DVD. I was surprised to discover that the giant entertainment conglomerate is hoarding their back catalog, releasing titles on DVD only when it suits them. This probably has something to do with annual earnings, but I suspect that the creative well has run very dry and it’s the only way they have left to make real money.

So my wife asked if there was any way to copy them onto DVD, which would enable my daughter to watch them with her own children someday without fear of destroying the tapes. I did a little research and discovered an inexpensive device that converts analog VHS signals to digital files that can then be burned onto DVD fairly easily.

We were down to one VCR in the house, which I moved to my computer room and hooked everything up. I was unprepared for what happened next. My wife walked in with a gigantic armload of the videotapes we had taken of my daughter during the first 10 years of her life. She dumped them on the desk and said, “Copy these, too.”

For those of you unfamiliar with this process, there are several steps. The first step is to digitize the videotape, which is a real-time process. In other words, ten 6-hour videotapes will take 60 hours to digitize. Each file is hundreds of megabytes in size. You have to take each file, cut it up into DVD-size chunks, add a DVD menu with chapter divisions, and burn the DVD. I’ve done over 40 of them in the past month.

They include videos of the pregnancy, the birth, first steps, first birthday, first pony ride, first roller skates – you get the idea. She’s an only child and we had a video camera and lots of time. Mixed in with all of the usual nonsense are some genuinely adorable moments. I’m sure every parent probably feels the same way about their kid, and has hours and hours of shaky, blurry videos, so I’m not going to post any clips here, even though I’ve invested a month of my life making them.

If you have any videotapes you want to digitize, drop me a line and I’ll tell you what to buy. But don’t ask me to do it for you, because once this project is finished, I’m going to smash this little box with a sledgehammer.