Thursday, December 29, 2005

Trickin' Out the Ride

An article in yesterday’s SJ-R told of puckish Illinois motorists who are attempting to sneak one by the censors in their attempt to obtain risqué vanity license plates. As related in the story, it’s being played as a cat and mouse game between the two sides, but it probably won’t be long before someone sues the state for denying them their URSTPD plates.

In the late 1980s, Alabama passed a law making it illegal to display bumper stickers that contained vulgar language to describe sexual or excremental acts. A judge later ruled that the law was a violation of free speech. I assume that ruling wouldn’t apply here, but it’s not hard to imagine someone making that argument.

Vanity license plates are the natural extension of bumper stickers, the popularity of which has waned over the years. It’s a subject I’ve studied in the past and as such can speak on it with some authority.**

Studies showed that bumper stickers were more prevalent in lower class, White neighborhoods and could be found more often on older, less expensive vehicles. Studies also showed that the stickers found in this demographic tended to be more negative in content than those found in more affluent neighborhoods and on more pricey cars.

This is not surprising when one considers some of the more popular stickers over the years. There’s the one that suggests dialing an extremely distasteful 1-800 number should anyone take issue with the driver’s “motor” skills. Another popular one from the 70s gave notice that the car’s owner would “breaka you face” should you “toucha my car.”

Theorists speculate that lower income individuals took to bumper stickers in the early days as a form of public self expression. Since the media was controlled by the elite and urbanization, and subsequent suburbanization, eliminated the town square as a place for open discourse, many people were left without a public voice and bumper stickers helped to fill that void (this is also the prevailing theory attributed to the rise of caller-driven talk radio and probably applies to blogging as well.)

It’s interesting to note that while the stickers are a form of public expression, they still offer a good deal of anonymity since the driver, hunkered down inside, is essentially hidden from view. Again, this is similar to many callers to talk radio and anonymous bloggers.

There are several reasons that bumper stickers have fallen out of favor. The rise of the Internet has provided more meaningful forms of public expression to the masses. More people lease their cars these days. Even the cars themselves are less receptive to becoming rolling billboards. Where the earliest incarnation of the VW Beetle seemed to come standard with a Green Peace or peace sign sticker on its chrome bumper, the molded fiberglass bumper of the reincarnated Bug is indistinguishable from the rest of the car and as such is less suited as a marquee.

Bumper stickers, it has been found, aren’t a good way to advance a cause and their influence is limited to a “preaching to the choir” role. The only real effect you would have noticed by having a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on your car is that Kerry/Edwards supporters would have sped on by had you found yourself broken down on the side of the road. Why let your political views get in the way or a prompt rescue.

In a somewhat related article in yesterday’s paper, police are on the look out for vehicles that are doubling as rolling porn palaces. They have apparently received reports of in-dash video monitors showing bawdy videos in plain view of other motorists.

Not to get into a whole civil liberties issue here, but there is something truly twisted and potentially dangerous about a person who engages himself in such a manner on public thoroughfares. I would think that the average, non-threatening aficionado of adult entertainment could easily pry himself* away from the on-screen action long enough to run to the store for whatever sundries they require. That some are compelled, by whatever deviant force lurks within them, to rig up video equipment in their vehicles so they can take the perversion along for the ride seems to hint at a compulsion that crosses the line from peruser to predator.

As a parent it concerns me that these people are skulking about in public spaces without a proper cooling down period. It’s apparent, to borrow a line from Spinal Tap, that they are “treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality.” I fear that they are determined to take others under with them.

Aside from addressing any violations associated with the hazardous practice of watching a video while driving, I’m not advocating for any real legal remedy to address this issue, just a simple information campaign. Anyone caught driving under the influence of their triple-X collection should be publicly identified so that they can be unsystematically denied gainful employment and can be prevented from intermingling with polite society. Perhaps this could be accomplished by affixing a bumper sticker to their vehicle, one that bears the warning: Sociopath on Board.***

*I had considered using the gender-inclusive himself/herself or alternating between the two pronouns as shout-out to all of those women of the perverted persuasion, but we all know that the male of the species is the predominate offender in this arena so why pretend otherwise.

**Not a lot of authority, but some. If you’d like to read the grad school paper I wrote on the subject, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t, drop me a line and I’ll email you a copy. Just promise not to sell it to some derelict college student as I am personally opposed to plagiarism, but not so much so that I would affix a bumper sticker to my car condemning its practice.

***The State of Florida tried the Scarlet Bumper Sticker thing with convicted drunk drivers in the 80s.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Seasoned Greeting

The Christmas card letter is a common subject among newspaper columnists this time of year, probably more common than the letters themselves. Hardened scribes decry the rose-tinted recaps of a family’s affairs, finding the good-natured and overly optimistic look back as too trite for their callous souls. Their columns often anguish over the insufferable banality of poring through the glowing words penned by proud parents describing their children’s crowning achievements of the past year. Thanks, at least in part, to the harsh assessments made by these opinion makers, it is considered declass to mail out anything more than a picture card and the most basic holiday greeting. And that’s a shame.

I had a holiday letter all set to go with our Christmas cards this year, but havered over its release before deciding that I wouldn’t bore friends and relatives with it. But now I realize what a dim view this takes of their humanity and I intend to make a stand against those who would have us deny others a glimpse into our lives. Although belated, I submit to you a holiday wish in the hope that you will find inspiration and good cheer in a recounting of a year in the life of our family. Admittedly, I glossed over the trials and tribulations we experienced. Call me a cockeyed optimist if you will, but I prefer to define my life by the good things.

We hope this card finds you well and that you don’t have too much shopping left to do.

I’m proud to say that 2005 was another red-letter year for us. There’s much to tell and little space to tell it, so let me give you the year in review, Headline News-style.

As many of you know, I got a new job last January and after that it was all work, work, work. By the fourth day I’d had enough, so I “accidently” shot myself in the foot with a nail gun. I’ve been sailing on the good ship Workmen’s Comp ever since. Sorry Qik-N-Ez, but if you’d have bothered to check with my past employers you would have seen that one coming. LOL!

By far, the year’s biggest highlight was Tammy’s successful stint in rehab (her sixth for those of you scoring at home.) It was a very trying time for all us, but it turns out that coming down off crank isn’t nearly as bad as kicking amphetamines and we all feel really blessed for that.

Maria started school this year and is doing great. She had us a little worried at first with her choice of friends (some bad seeds). But we sat her down and explained to her that the rich kids have much nicer stuff that she can “borrow” and that she’d be better off cozying up to them. Maria’s definitely running with a better crowd now and has a new (to her) bike and CD player to show for it.

Victor surprised us all by stealing his first hubcap this year, from a Lincoln no less. The funny thing is I hadn’t even taught him how to do it yet, thinking that he was still too young. It’s amazing what he is able to learn by watching his older sister. I told him that stealing off of Lincolns is kind of risky because people who drive them also tend to pack heat, but you know kids – in one ear and out the other. So incorrigible.

Mark has become quite the little socialite. He’s all smiles and hugs, plus he’s a handsome little guy. Everybody just loves him to death. You can bet that he’ll con a lot of women and business partners out of their money someday.

Tessie? I don’t know what’s going on with her. If she thinks that kissing-up to her teacher and coloring within the lines are going to help her in the future, she’s in for a rude awakening. We thought about sending her to foster care (we could sure use the space), but Tammy’s sobriety seems to have unsuppressed some sort of dormant maternal instinct and she insists we keep her. Tessie did break a pint bottle (sorry Nana) at Thanksgiving and tried to blame it on her brother, so maybe she’s turning over a new leaf.

We are all looking forward to spending Christmas as a family this year, as long as DCFS keeps their big fat noses out of it. We haven’t decided yet if we will celebrate at home this year or travel. It will probably come down to whether or not I can get the electricity turned back on. If not, you might wake to find that Santa left you a little something extra sleeping under your tree this year (except for me, I’ll probably be passed out in the vicinity of your liquor cabinet. Ha Ha)

Merry Christmas!

This is, of course, satire. My wife is not a drug addict, my children are neither thieves nor con artists, and I have never defrauded an employer through the intentional misuse of a pneumatic device. It does make for a ripping good Christmas letter though. Better than that self-obsessed drivel that most people send out.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Weihnachten /Schadenfreude/Festivus

Every holiday season has a unique theme that permanently places a distinguishing mark on it and is immediately recalled when remembering Christmases past. Sometimes it's based on the hottest new toy; who can reminisce on the Christmas of '84 without visions of mutant-faced Cabbage Batch Dolls gaping back at you from under the tree. Other years, inclement weather is the big story, although none immediately come to mind. And this year, if I may be so bold as to predict, will be remembered for the wave of Germans who descended upon our city, taking hold in kiosks at White Oaks Mall where they engaged in an aggressive form of salesmanship that contrasted greatly with the morose approach taken by most domestic retail associates.

These Germans* didn't come bearing schnitzel, beer steins, or even lederhosen, as stereotype would have it, but rather the latest in home nail care technology.

I was approached by one of the young frauleins while shopping during my lunch hour. She proceeded to take my hand and demonstrated some sort Bavarian buffing technique on the nail of my right thumb, followed by a quick application of what she called an all-natural cuticle remover. Danielle then asked me to compare thumb nails and I admit that never had I a nail that was shinier, although I'll have you and Danielle both know that I was without cuticles even before the spritzing.

I also admit to being a bit taken with her accent. I'm a lonsome shopper by nature and doubt that I would have succumbed to her request for a demonstration had her sales pitch rang with a Midwestern twang. In the end, however, I found the asking price for sparkling nails too steep, even after she confidentially agreed to lower the price on the condition that I keep her counteroffer confidential.

Not everyone, however, will remember the Teutonic wave of 2005 with fondness. The local Korean** community has long had the nail market cornered. I'm sure that they weren't very impressed with the German interlopers' highfalutin emery boards and magic cuticle water. Although I do not trade in the keratin care market, this blog does maintain open diplomatic relations with both the European Union and manicurist-producing Asian states, so I won't take a position on this dispute. But every time I notice a dull cast on my thumb nail, I'll remember the year when I was touched by the spirit of Weihnachten and, for one brief moment, my nail shone like the star that announced the birth of baby Jesus.

Great Gift Ideas
A couple of posts ago I wrote about the time-honored tradition of finding personal joy in the misery of others. For those who want to give the gift of schadenfreude*** this Christmas season, I have two helpful gift ideas.

The first is a novel by Jonathan "I don't need no stinkin' Oprah's book club" Franzen. "The Corrections" is a great, albeit lengthy read. But what's best is that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone on your gift list as miserable as the Lamberts as they attempt to spend one last Christmas together as a family. The ennui runs thick like eggnog and there's enough self-loathing to make even the most Scrooge-like person on your gift list seem giddy with cheer.

If music is more your bag, pick up a copy of the Essential Pogues that contains the delightfully downtrodden "Fairytale of New York." Like most Pogue's songs, it's perfect to lift a pint to. Like most things Irish, it's bittersweet and tinged with caustic humor. The blog format prevents me from a humming a few bars, but you can get a taste of how it plays out by considering these lyrics to this dramatic duet sung by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl:

So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

But then later in the song, the situation deteriorates:

You scum bag
You maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God
It's our last

Play it for someone you love this Christmas.

Finally, I whole-heartedly endorse the Festivus celebration that Nick Rogers writes about in today's SJ-R. Although I've never attended the event, it sounds as if the demented spirit of Frank Costanza is well-preserved. Plus it has Rosie Flores, who does a rollicking-good version of "Red, Red Robin" on one my kids' CDs.

I don't know if I'll be able to go this year, as it conflicts with the BlogFreeSpringfield Christmas party, which consists of me drinking a beer, congratulating myself on a good year, and handing out a bonus based on 2005's advertising revenue. Since I failed to generate any advertising revenue, however, there will be no bonuses this year. I probably can't even afford to spring for the beer. So I guess I'll just dial the Pogues up on the old iPod then curl up with my copy of "The Corrections."

*I'm not sure they are German, but I had to ascribe an ethnicity to them for literary purposes. They are definitely of the Eastern European variety.

**I'm not sure they are all Koreans, but see above.

***Clever how I carry the German theme throughout, isn't it.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Now is the time for all good bloggers to come to the aid of their blogs.

Although late to the game, I thought I'd comment on a topic that my betters in the local blogosphere have been on top of since early last week.

Blogging was a hot topic of coverage in the SJ-R this week, sparked by some gubernatorial campaign chicanery uncovered by Rich Miller at his Capitol Fax Blog site. This lead to an editorial that, among other things, cautioned readers as to the veracity of information that is found on blogs, and in doing so, held newspapers up to a greater light.

I wasn't initially taken aback by this stance. There is, after all, a lot of nonsense being posted on blogs. And, overall, I think that newspapers are a more trustworthy source of news. But after considering the matter further and reading the opinions of others, I do understand the minor blog-roar that erupted in reaction to the editorial.

The newspaper wasn't referring to the billions of blogs being run by pajama-clad conspiracy theorists and randy teenagers, they were addressing Capitol Fax specifically and other high-traffic, news-driven local blogs such as Abelog. When you also consider, as Dave at the Eleventh Hour points out, that the editorial fails to make the distinction between bloggers and those who post comments on blogs, a rather important distinction, then it's understandable why journalists such as Miller and Jim Leach would be offended. I read both blogs regularly, and while I don't always agree with their opinions, I've never come across anything in the content that they produce that was false or intentionally misleading.

In defense of the SJ-R, I do think that generally they give local bloggers a pretty fair shake. When I was researching blogs two years ago for a class assignment, I read all kinds disparaging remarks from newspaper people who had nothing but contempt for this new medium. One of my favorite columnists, the Sun Times' Neil Steinberg, regularly takes shots at what he considers a trite exercise in journalism. In comparison, the SJ-R comes across as cheerleaders for the home bloggers.

And if it seems that I'm kissing-up to our local daily because they included a quote from one of my posts in an article on food blogging last week, well, I never. I didn't even get credit for the quote since it originally appeared on Look Back Springfield where I'm known only as Dan. Probably just as well though. It's a rather sappy piece of drivel that laments the loss of a chicken sandwich. But in deference to you BlogFreeSpringfield completists, I've reproduced it in full below.

Thanks to Marie at Disarranging Mine for informing me that the SJ-R was cribbing my stuff.

Remembrance of Birds Past

When they remodeled White Oaks Mall in the early 90s to include a food court, an egregious offense was perpetrated on the people of Springfield, the ramifications of which are still being felt to this day. I speak of course of the elimination from our locality of the premiere fast food restaurant this country has produced: Chick-fil-A. This is my tribute, a love song if you will, to this dearly missed franchise.

For the true believer, there is no equal to the Chick-fil-A experience. Connoisseurs only differ as to their preference for the nuggets or the original chicken sandwich (the grilled chicken sandwich does not qualify and was meant only to appease those egotistical waifs who value their trim waistlines over all else.) The mixture of spices and the juicy tenderness of the chicken surpasses even that that can be found in the world’s finest bistros. Its ambrosial savoriness knows no equal.

chick fil a

How else is Chick-fil-A great? Their corporate fiat to remain closed on Sundays has taught temperance to a society overtaken by gluttony and selfishness. Their refusal to dabble in the ways of Angus beef demonstrates a single-minded approach to excellence, a quality often missing in a world driven only by profit.

As is often the case in these situations, I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone. In high school, a good friend rose to the ranks of assistant manager of Chick-fil-A and was granted the honor of closing the store on occasion. Here, presented to me by some otherworldly grace, was my Charlie in the Chocolate Factory opportunity. Yet I let it pass without attempting to discover the secrets of the franchise. Ah, the folly of youth.

A couple of years after returning to Springfield from college - wiser, more worldly - the opportunity to atone for my youthful indiscretions was short-lived as Chick-fil-A lowered its gate for the final time.

But fortune would again smile on me many years later when I started dating the woman who would become my wife. She was working in retail management at St. Claire Square in Fairview Heights, IL, a mall that is blessed to this day with a Chick-fil-A. I was a frequent visitor to their food court, grateful to again have access to the food that remained my mania. It was a glorious relationship, one that sadly ended when I gave the woman who reunited me with my true love a ring, and she moved to Chick-fil-A -less Springfield to become my wife.

St. Claire Square was also the scene of an event that left me questioning the egalitarian nature of man. One day, as I stood at the counter awaiting my usual order, a person exhibited the crudest, most base act of culinary malfeasance I have ever witnessed by ordering a chicken sandwich from the Hardee’s stand that was located right next to the venerable Chick-fil-A site. “Philistine! Get thee to a church and repent!”

In 2003, during a debate on AM Springfield, Sam Madonia asked the two mayoral candidates to name one business that they would strive to bring back to Springfield if elected; Tony Libri immediately spoke lovingly of Chick-fil-A. At that point, Libri could have come out for a double digit tax increase, mandatory state militia service, and prohibition - he still would have had my vote. The glow that emanated from his candidacy was only diminished when Tim Davlin seconded his adoration for the tastiest bird known to man, leaving the two in a virtual dead heat leading up to the general election.

Mayor Davlin has not come through on what I perceived as a promise to return Chick-fil-A to Springfield, devoting his time instead to such trivial matters as libraries and lawsuits.

On occasion, I still visit the mecca of my youth. My in-laws spend winters in Florida, a land rich in Chick-fil-A’s. A brother in Indianapolis lives just minutes from a freestanding outlet. But for the time being, my children will be forced to endure an existence without it. And for that, we are all the lesser.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Always look on the bright side of life.

People (my wife) often bemoan the negative stories that seem to dominate media coverage and claim that faithful following of the news is nothing but a pathway to terminal despondency. To them (and her) reading the newspaper isn’t akin to the morning’s first cup of coffee*, an eye-opening exercise that prepares you for the day ahead. Rather, it's like that last cup of Joe, the one that jolts us back into despair after an evening spent inside a bottle trying to forget about life’s harsh realities. That’s not the kind of drinking buddy that would compel one to sign-up for home delivery of the local daily.

It’s for this reason that I didn’t suggest to my wife that she read Bruce Rushton’s cover story in last week’s Illinois Times. It was a well-reported and chilling account of a local miscreant who has been skirting justice* for years while leaving a trail of victims in his wake.

Granted, there is nothing the least bit heart-warming in Rushton’s account, but I think that it is important to be aware of the monsters in our midst. I also think that it is important for the media to do what they can to spur justice when the wheels are spinning too slowly and to subject those who indulge in their vilest impulses - who treat those who fall for their deceit as nothing but toys in their twisted playgrounds - to as much public humiliation as possible. And if those who defend these reprobates are sullied by the same cloth, let it be their punishment for the treason they commit towards the victims.

While Rushton’s story stirred up many emotions – anger, hatred, frustration – I have to admit that I also came away from it feeling somewhat better about myself. Whatever my faults, I’m not a serial abuser. And whatever my misfortunes, I’ve never been damaged to the extent of the victims in the story.

Contrast this with a front page story Dave Bakke wrote in the SJ-R this week. It was a moving tale of a man of limited means who gives selflessly and humbly to those less fortunate who have the good fortune to cross his path. Despite being raised by uncaring parents and being ostracized throughout his life, the Good Samaritan doesn't lash out at society as one would expect, but does whatever he can to make it better.

Although the story was intended to warm the cockles of our hearts and perhaps bump up contributions to the Friend-in-Deed campaign, it also served as a harsh reminder to me that I fall considerably short of the mark in the humanitarian department. Bakke’s article definitely didn’t inspire any feelings of self-satisfaction as I headed off to work that morning.

I’m not alone in measuring my self-worth by comparing it to that of others. Last week, Dick Durbin joined Jim Leach to talk about his recent trip to Africa. One of the senator’s first comments was something along the lines of “if you want to feel better about yourself, you need to see how these people live.” I’m sure Durbin didn’t mean to sound as if he were Dr. Phil dispensing with self-help advice, but I couldn’t help but imagining recovering depressives everywhere ringing up their travel agents and asking them to book passage to this season’s most blighted holiday hot spot.

Which leads me to this: Is it wise (or healthy or ethical) to seek personal affirmation in the suffering, misfortunes, or shortcomings of others? Sure we need to count our blessings, but should we also measure them against lesser blessings? And is it morally acceptable to short-change our children on Christmas gifts by using the excuse that some poor kid somewhere got even less?

For what parent among us, upon hearing even the most subtle sigh of disappointment from a child on Christmas morning, doesn’t immediately try to shame our young charge by pointing out that a young lad in Indonesia received nothing this sacred morn. Never mind that the boy being held up as an example is a Muslim and as such is theocratically prohibited from accepting Santa’s largess, our children should be happy that they received anything.

But of course they aren’t happy with just anything. We instill in them expectations and they haven’t yet learned to rationalize when reality falls short of their dreams, as we ask them to do by considering hypothetical children in faraway lands who have never known the pleasure of cauliflower.

Speaking of dreams (actual sleeping dreams, not aspirations), I've always postulated that bad dreams are healthier than good dreams because real life looks better by comparison. For example, I’d much rather wake up shaken but relieved from a nightmare, than be flung into cruel reality when the cold light of day reveals that I haven’t been hired as a personal assistant on the next Lara Croft: Tomb Raider*** sequel. That's also pretty consistent with my experience reading the two stories.

The obligatory Angelina Jolie reference now out of the way, I would say that the road to happiness isn't paved with the misfortune of others. It's important that the media informs us of the evil, calamity, and tragedy that surrounds us and that we not shelter ourselves from it by heading straight for the funnies.**** That someone else has it worse off - or in the case of the miscreant, is just plain worse - however, shouldn't be cause for contentment, but a source of inspiration. Which is what Bakke's story was all about.

*Although I am addicted to the morning paper, I eschew coffee in all of its evil, nerve-gyrating forms.

**The SJ-R reported today that this animal will be sentenced to three years in prison for some of his crimes, a number that needs a couple of zeros after it.

***I haven’t seen any of the Lara Croft movies, but I have seen the movie posters and that’s enough for me to know that I want the job.

****Which, by the way, aren't that funny but at least Calvin and Hobbes is back for an encore.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fishing with John Lurie

Imagine sitting in a restaurant (it’s easy if you try) and being told that the entrée you selected comes standard with twenty or so side-dishes that varygreatly in their ability to provide gustatory escort to the main dish. You might well feel put-out upon realizing the impact this all and sundry approach to dining would have on your final tab. On the other hand, among these culinary interlopers might be some savory concoction that wins you over with its unconventional appeal.

This, as demonstrated in a rather disjointed analogy, is how the cable companies serve up heaping helpings of news and entertainment to its subscribers. Insight's Classic Cable lineup is a veritable smorgasbord of programming from which the viewer can gorge himself. Except that even the most ardent of TV viewers have shown themselves to be finicky about what they consume.

A recent study showed that on a standard 88-channel cable package, the average viewer only watches 17, meaning that the other 71 channels reside in click-over country – that vast expanse of TV wasteland where the cast of Saved by the Bell perform in the final throes of celebrity.

In an age when consumers will no longer fork over $15 for a CD's worth of filler just to hear one or two hit songs, people are starting to question the distribution model for cable television.

Actually, the big push for an a la carte menu of channels comes from parents' advocacy groups who no longer want to pay for the possibility of having their children stumble upon the latest beach house bacchanalia showing on MTV. After years of being told to exercise their right to remote and change the channel if they didn't approve of what is showing, they've decided a more sensible approach would be to send the offending channels into exile.

I can't say that I disagree with their approach. It also makes sense from a consumer standpoint. Why pay for something that you don't want. And if it means that our cable lineup shrinks by a few dozen channels as viewer preference trims away the fat put on by too many late night infomercials, then so be it.

The only way that quaint little boutique channels ever made it into our homes in the first place is because their parent company, usually a media organization, used their clout to get it added to a cable company's regular lineup. With a sufficient number of potential viewers able to dial them up, these channels could generate a sufficient amount of advertising revenue to stay afloat. The bastard offspring of ESPN, MTV, and NBC, in their various manifestations, are all the product of this type of nepotism. So who needs them?

Well, we do. Or at least we might have if only they would have tried to maintain some type of niche appeal.

Take NBC's little sister the Bravo Channel. At first she was the cool bohemian chick on the block who dressed in black and had great taste in movies. On Friday nights she'd show Slacker (not to be confused with Slackers) or My Life's in Turnaround, followed by another episode of Fishing with John. I'm not sure if you're familiar with John Lurie, the NYC jazz artist who has been described as the epitome of downtown cool, but watching him drop a line from a bass boat while engaging in fishing banter with the dazzling eccentric Tom Waits was infinitely more interesting than anything Ross and Rachel did during their entire 10-year Friendship.

This was the promise of having too many cable channels - eccentric, offbeat programming that the networks avoided for fear of confusing the masses. But alas, it didn't last.

Now the Bravo Channel is wearing Chanel, working on Madison Avenue, and keeping her eye on the bottom line. She's riding the Texas Hold 'Em craze for now, while James Lipton gives the full master thespian treatment to John Goodman's role as Fred Flintstone. And John Lurie and Tom Waits are fishing alone.

Even with the threat of increasingly homogenous entertainment, I think that we are destined to see a shift towards more on-demand programming. What this will do to the fitness equipment industry or the careers of Christy Brinkley and Chuck Norris - I can not say. I just hope that in this future realm of television that is sure to be dominated by constant re-airings of Pretty Women, that there exists some space for a show such as Mystery Science Theatre 3000, lest future generations get the impression that our age was given to idolatry of impossibly beautiful hookers.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

We'll be right back, after this.

Postings have been light this week; a freelance assignment has cut into my BlogFree-time.

You probably wouldn’t guess based on the rambling, often pointless blathering that I put on display here, but I have become quite adept at writing concise and poignant copy for marketing and PR purposes. I manage to eliminate the sarcasm, irony, and general smart ass-ity that I'm so naturally given to, while maintaining enough style to distinguish it from the jargon-laced piffle that too often passes for persuasive writing.

Yes, this is a sales pitch, in the off chance that someone reading this blog might want to avail themselves of my services. Ads, brochures, newsletters, sales letters, news releases, articles – if you need to communicate a message, I’m your scribe. I’m working on a Web site to promote this little freelance enterprise of mine, but in the meantime, I figured I’d take a timeout here for this brief commercial announcement.

I'll be back soon with a BFS column on the recent FCC recommendation that cable companies consider offering their channels a la carte. I generally agree with yesterday’s SJ-R editorial supporting the recommendation, but do see a downside. Forced to make it on their own, many of the lesser-viewed boutique channels that adorn our cable lineup would soon disappear from the spectrum, denying us our nightly viewing of Road House and effectively killing the post-One Day at a Time career of Valerie Bertinelli.

In consumer news, I’ll cast a critical eye towards the way local grocery stores arrange their wares in a report that will have absolutely no effect on how you shop for food in the future, but will allow me to air a few grievances.

Finally, I’ll tell you how the Red Hat Society is ruining Christmas for thousands of local and area children. You won’t want to miss this hard-hitting exposé. Coming soon to BlogFreeSpringfield.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Born to Be Mild

I’ve tried to avoid using this blog as a medium to air every thought that pops into my head or to recount the minutia of my daily life. Instead, I use it to provide a public service on issues of importance to the people of Springfield. You may recall that it was I who exposed the criminal underbelly of the Red Hat Society and who campaigned vigorously for the use of non-vulgar yet whimsically expressive swear words. Given my record of tireless work on behalf of the common good, I believe that I am entitled me to expound on a rather trivial matter that I find particularly troubling.

I was riding the elliptical trainer in my basement the other morning when the episode of Arrested Development I was watching on DVD finished before my allotted 40 minute training session had expired. I switched over to cable, stopping at VH1 to take in a video of Alanis Morissette doing a cover of Seal’s 1991 hit “Crazy.”

Mlle Morissette gives a pretty faithful recreation of the original; the only real difference is that the accompanying storyline in the video has a little twist at the end that should play well with lesbians and their admirers. She also has a much better complexion than Seal. But none of that is what I find troubling.

Listening to Alanis sing Seal’s words, it occurred to me for the first time that the song has a different message than the one that I, and perhaps you, had assumed.

Consider this line from the song:

In a world full of people, only some want to fly,
Isn't that crazy?
Here, Seal is lamenting the fact that so many people exist in a lemming-like state instead of breathing deep the wondrous and unlimited experiences that life has to offer, if only we’d spread our wings and give flight to our ambitions. “Where is the joie de vivre?” Seal seems to be asking. “Embrace the madcap now for without a degree of recklessness in our daily life we are sentenced to an existence fraught by tedium.” He goes as far as to call it “crazy”, this languid lifestyle that grounds so many. I don’t doubt that he means it.

Fair enough, but what is Seal saying to us here:

But we're never gonna survive, unless...
We get a little crazy
This sentiment, if taken on its own, would seem to affirm his message. Our future as a species, Seal is telling us, is dependent on our shaking loose of temperate and confining attitudes in favor of a more unorthodox and revolutionary approach, i.e., we need to “get a little crazy.”

But note his use of the word “crazy.” In the first instance, “crazy” describes the condition that causes people to settle for a sedentary lifestyle. So when he tells us later that survival is dependent on craziness, is he not, contrary to appearances, imploring us to retreat to that lemming-like state? Can we then assume, after a more careful listening, that rather than an anthem for the audacious, this song is merely a call for complacency? Sadly I think we can.

I’m wondering if we really ever knew Seal at all. The Gap featured him in advertisements to parlay some of his cosmopolitan appeal; little did they know that he has the mindset of a Moonie. Behind the supermodel wife and the bevy of Grammys lies a man with the heart of Stuart Smalley.

And what now to make of Alanis who chose to cover the song. Perhaps she isn’t the feisty “jagged little pill” we all came to see her as. Who knew that the provocative hellcat whose explosive jealousy caused her to over enunciate the word “theatre” in her debut single “You Ought to Know,” would someday be asking everyone to just relax and go with the flow. What’s next Lani, planning on whistling a little “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for us.

One could argue that I'm over-analyzing this and Seal is simply ascribing two different meanings to the word "crazy," one negative and one positive. I don't happen to believe that such contrary interpretations can be accommodated in a four minute pop song. It's also lyrically lazy. Patsy Cline never made such demands on us.

I should know better than to fall for Benetton-style pop songs. It’s probably best if I don’t listen too closely to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” lest I discover he’s advocating for the complete resignation of personal fulfillment in exchange for universal tranquility. Serenity now, insanity later - indeed. I don’t have this problem when I listen to the Replacements.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Get the Check Out of Here!

Try to settle up at the drug store by producing a pouch of cowries and the clerk will likely respond with a dumbfounded gape. Fork over a few wampums in exchange for that basket full of groceries, and the cashier will immediately reach for the switch to his blinking distress light. Yet despite modern merchants’ aversion to primitive currencies, for some reason they still accept checks.

'Tis the season to have the holiday spirit squashed by some emptor from an earlier age who forces you to wait in line while she scratches out an IOU on check #542220 from the Deluxe Garfield the Cat series.

I’ll spare you the usual harangue about check writers clogging up the checkout lane. How they always seem surprised when after watching $200 worth of groceries pass over the scanner, the cashier suddenly and unexpectedly asks them to pay for it. How they are always unprepared, and sometimes put out, when they are asked to show their driver’s license, invariably buried deep in their purse. How they believe that their place at the head of the line entitles them the extra time needed to balance their checkbook before packing up and moving on. I won’t get into all of that.

What makes the check’s continued propagation in the retail environment frustrating is that thanks to recent legislation, merchants are no longer required to process the paper copy. Many retailers now scan the check, much as they would a debit card (hint, hint), and immediately return it. See, they don’t like your handcrafted tender either.

So why do some people insist on “spinning their 78s” when there is a more efficient means for cashless transactions?

I’ve heard some champions of checks claim that using a debit card would make it too hard to track their account balance. The obvious solution to this concern is to point out that retiring the checks doesn’t mean you have to stop using the check register. There is also something called a receipt that comes free with every purchase and can be used for record keeping purposes.

The more complex solution, however, involves facing up to the fact that an irrational fear of debit cards is a symptom of a deep-rooted fiscal irresponsibility that will eventually, if left untreated, spiral into personal bankruptcy.

Belying their fate, some check writers will try to pass themselves off as throwbacks to an earlier time or as rebels resisting the swarming tide of technology. I understand the intimate appeal of a handwritten letter when compared to an email, or the retro panache of a rotary dial telephone in a world besotted by wirelessness. But check writing does not lend an air of classicism or portray a vintage appeal. Rather, it divulges a profound “fogieness” that serves no purpose except to shave valuable minutes off of the lives of those stuck in the queue while the check writer snubs his nose at progress.

There is a matter of fraud and debit cards are certainly not immune from foul play. But the key information coded on a debit card, the user’s bank account and tracking number, is also printed for all to see on the bottom of a check. I suspect the real concern involves people’s suspicions as to what other personal and confidential information might lurk on that magnetic strip. Technology is always ripe for conspiracy.

I’m not the environmental movement’s most loyal soldier, but I will play the “green” card when it suits my purposes and ridding the world’s checkout lines of checks is certainly one of my more noble causes. So here goes:

Why must our nation’s once lush forests continue to be depleted because of antiquated methods of monetary exchange?

How many more majestic trees will be toppled because of unfounded fear of electronic transactions?

Why can’t Pamela Anderson use her considerable persuasions to lead a boycott of Image Checks, as she did of KFC?

It's nice when the resolution of a pet peeve can also serve a greater good. Someday paper checks will surely go the way of the cowrie and the wampum. Let’s just hope their passing isn’t preceded by the pine’s because I’ll never give up my morning newspaper.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Art Imitates BlogFreeSpringfield

Readers of this blog who caught last night’s episode of the Simpsons* must be marveling at my prescience.

If you didn’t see it, Marge joined a social organization made up of fun-loving women “of a certain age.” They called themselves the Cheery Red Tomatoes, a thinly veiled nod to the notorious Red Hat Society. And just as I predicted here not long ago, the seemingly jovial and law-abiding bunch had morphed into a syndicate of bandits, coercing a vulnerable and unsuspecting Marge into doing their unlawful bidding.

Granted the Simpsons strayed from my original premise that had the mad hatters adopting a criminal lifestyle as the result of psychological degradation brought about by societal pressures. Perhaps fearing reprisal, Groening and company decided to play it safe and made the group out to be righteous vigilantes attempting to exact revenge on Monty Burns who had reneged on a $1 million pledge to the local children’s hospital. Cowards. It’s easy to always make Burns out as the bad guy. The story would have been much juicier if it would have skewered the seamy and sinister side that we all know pervades the Red Hat Society.

I’d like to think that the show’s writers visit this blog for story ideas, but I’m not that delusional. I’ve read that episodes are written months in advance so that they can be sent off to Chinese sweatshops for the laborious illustration process. But I am delusional enough to think that I’m at least on the same wavelength with the creators of one of the best television shows of all time.

*Correction made. I have only my inattentiveness to blame.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Go Cyclones? They're Finally There

I was at the 1975 championship game between Griffin High School and Joliet Catholic, a wee lad I. A beer can collector at the time, my fondest memory of the day was my first exposure to 7oz. cans of Strohs. The guys in front of my family were drinking them, but crueling crushing them before depositing them under the bleachers. Not only did the Cyclones lose that day, but I didn't get any new pieces for my collection

I saw my school and classmates come close in 1982, when I was a GHS sophomore. Tis heartbreaking and still too hard to talk about.

In 1995, I fought through a nasty case of influenza to attend the championship game in Normal. But my grit and determination weren't enough. Again the Cyclones came up short.

I wussed out in 2003. While SHG was playing bridesmaid to Joliet Catholic, I was basking in the Florida sun, oblivous to the heartbreak that thundered through Cyclone Nation.

But I made it to Champaign yesterday, and never was I prouder to be a Griffin grad. There was a huge contingent of fans, all boisterous in support of the home team without being obnoxious or belittlering. Coach Leonard is without a doubt a class act. And the Cyclones finally got what they deserved.

I don't buy the accusation that Griffin-SHG's success is the result of improper recruitment of players. Despite the allegations, nobody has offered any reasonable proof. There were no freaks of nature donning the black and gold yesterday. Just a bunch of undersized Catholic boys who worked hard and were bolstered by the spirit of those that had gone before them. The IHSA can multiple enrollments in an ill-informed attempt to level the playing field, but they can't divide and parcel out the hardwork of the SHG program. Parity absent legitimacy is chicanery.

Should SHG decide to take the low road and offer improper incentives to would-be students, I would suggest that they concentrate on brass players and percussionists because the marching band is in need of some serious help.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Yosh Schmenge Meets the Jerk

Hollywood has traditionally given short shrift to Thanksgiving, preferring Christmas-themed movies. Recent movies such as the Ice Storm or the Myth of Fingerprints do use the November holiday as a plot point, and while these are both fine films, the only feelings of thanks they inspire is a sense of profound relief that our lives aren’t as dysfunctional as those depicted on the screen. But there is one movie that fits into the tradition of heart-warming holiday fare, featuring Capraesque characters who discover the true meaning of Thanksgiving after enduring a tumultuous journey: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (PT&A)*

Since the movie is a staple on basic cable, I’ll assume that everyone here has seen it and won’t bore you with a summary of the story. Instead, I’ll bore you with my take of what makes this decidedly mainstream flick rise above the mass of mediocrity that Hollywood regularly churns out.

Director John Hughes ventures outside of his high school milieu for this film and proves equally adept at finding the heart-filled center of this rather broad adult comedy. One of Hughes’s strong suits is his ability to create multi-dimensional characters rather than merely falling back on stereotypical roles from which the obvious jokes can spew. In PT&A, he relies almost exclusively on the talents of Steve Martin (Neal Page) and John Candy (Del Griffith.)

Martin plays the straight man, the Schlimazel to Candy’s Schlemiel.** He pulls off the understated roll well, although he can’t seem to help but throw in some of his “wild and crazy guy” pantomimes on occasion. Martin basically does an extended slow burn that finally erupts at the car rental counter in St. Louis's Lambert Airport.

The profanity-laced verbal assault Neal Page fires at the hapless rental attendant is one of the film’s most memorable scenes. The reason that the scene works so well is that up to that point in the film, there hadn't been any profane language. Had Neal or any other character been dropping F-bombs from the start, the scene would have lost its shock value. This scene holds true to my theory that profanity works best when used sparingly. Profanity can be quite effective in punching up a joke or intimidating a rival, but with each utterance, its power to excite is diminished.***

It’s also interesting to note the class warfare that underscores this scene. Already enraged that he is kept waiting while the attendant talks on the phone to a relative, Neal is further incensed when she mentions that that her family will be having Ambrosia with Thanksgiving dinner. The mention of this Jell-O and miniature marshmallows concoction offends Neal’s more refined tastes and further lowers her standing in his estimation. It may seem that I am reaching in my analysis, but trust me; people have written dissertations on less than this.

For his part, Candy creates a tender, sensitive side to his buffoonish character. We’ve seen this before from Candy. His empathetic portrayal of a security guard confronted by a Magnum PI-wielding Clark Griswold stands as one of the most moving scenes in National Lampoon history. As Leutonian polka star Yosh Schmenge, Candy gave an emotional performance during a scene in which the adult males in his extended family exchange socks in a time-honored Christmas tradition.

It’s this ability to elicit compassion that drives the scene that serves as the movie’s emotional core and upon which the plot takes its most dramatic turn. When Del reveals through his self-debasing soliloquy that his beloved wife Marie is dead, we realize that the aggravation and torment being outwardly suffered by Neal is nothing compared to the pain and heartsickness that Del is suffering through behind his brash demeanor. When Del becomes aware of his companion's plight, the spirit of Thanksgiving is revealed to him.

Unlike typical Hughes films, there isn’t a lot in the way of secondary characters. Edie McClurg as the rental car attendant does her usual good work as a delightfully insufferable underling. Martin Ferrero's performance as the motel clerk recalls Brian Doyle Murray’s work in a similar role from Vacation (“We like to send out a mailer. Sphlttt”). Both are understated in their delivery and reveal an inner shyster, but Ferrero adds a measure of dreariness befitting the exhaustion felt by the lead characters towards the end of the film.

PT&A also doesn’t have a lot of imitable lines, but it has made a modest contribution to those of us who like to infuse our dialogue with pop culture references.

Although not a common water cooler occurrence, I can usually expect to hear a couple of impersonations of McClurg’s turkey call this time of year. I’m sure Lowe’s employees catch people holding shower rings up to their ears from time to time. And “My dogs are barking today” has found some favor with the foot weary.

But the movie's true legacy is a line that plays to the homophobia that exists in all heterosexual men (metros excluded.) Whenever two straight guys find suddenly themselves in an uncomfortably close position, there is a 93 percent chance that one of them will say: "See that Bear's game last week? Hell of a game."

Perhaps my favorite line in the movie is when Del and Neal are riding in the back of Owen’s pickup truck. Icicles forming beneath his nose, Neal asks Del what he thinks the temperature might be. Here, most screenwriters would have gone with a hyperbolic response (It has to be a hundred below!) or a jokey metaphor (It’s colder than a well digger's ass!) But instead, Del gives an honest and simple assessment of the situation and replies with a singular “One.” His abrupt response is both brutal and innocent. It sums up perfectly the opposing worldviews of Neal and Del at this point in the movie. And for some reason, I found this really funny.

Although I wouldn’t rank PT&A among the top 10 best comedies, when it plays on the USA network it is usually better than 99 percent of what is showing on the other channels at that time. And it’s certainly one of the best Thanksgiving-themed movies that Hollywood has given us.

*I’m a proponent of the serial, or Oxford, comma, but since the official movie poster dispenses with it, I’ll follow suit in this instance.

** Recognized by most gentiles as the opening words to the Laverne and Shirley theme, Schlemiel and Schlimazel are common characters in Yiddish folklore. In common terms, the schlemiel is a bumbling doofus and the schlimazel is a hard-luck type who usually bears the brunt of his associate’s bumblings.

*** I tried explaining this to Richard Pryor but he just wouldn’t listen.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Urgent Reply Requested

If there is a more giving and trusting people gracing this Earth than the Nigerians, I’ve yet to come across them. For the past couple of years, nary a week has passed without one of these fine souls offering to share with me great amounts of wealth if only I will return but a fraction of their good will. It is with great shame that I must admit that I have yet to respond in kind to their good turns.

Based on the large number of solicitations I receive, they must be having a difficult time finding confederates who are as given to anonymous acts of reciprocity. This speaks volumes to the decline of Western culture. Have our lives become so insular that even the promise of millions of dollars isn’t enough to compel us to lend our fellow man a hand? Are we so attached to our personal cell phones that we are cut off from our own humanity and do not hear the calls of those who wish us only prosperity?

I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone, but no more. So it is to you, Barrister Joseph Onudu, that I say “Yes! I will heed your call to help. I will share in your vast fortune, not out of desire for earthly possessions, but to respond to a higher calling as a member of the human race.”

For those of you not familiar with the good barrister’s plight, apparently his father, Ekwu Onudu, was tragically poisoned by adversaries posing as well-meaning business associates. Onudu the elder was a wealthy gold merchant who, judging by Joseph’s glowing comments, had a 24-karat heart. The two shared a special bond after the death of Mrs. Onudu years earlier. And now that bond has been severed by evil doers driven by greed and impervious to love. It's all in the email he sent me.

Ekwu’s dying words to his beloved son revealed the location of a hidden bank account containing $30 million of legitimately earned savings. Knowing that his father’s killers would be stalking his every move in an attempt to poach the proceeds, Joseph wisely surmised that he must spirit the cash out of the country into the bank account of a trusted American.

Here’s where I come in. Joseph found my name in the “country directory.” I wasn’t even aware that there was such a document. At the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that my listing must be particularly impressive to have been selected out of the millions of entries. I'm guessing that there is probably a mention in there of the time when a friend and I found a wallet ditched along the road and we made the necessary contacts to return it to its owner. And now that good deed is about to pay off to the tune of $15 million American, minus an initial contribution of good faith to assure Joseph that I can be trusted.

Joseph’s plan is so simple and legal that it is virtually risk-free. He assured me so. And besides, he is a barrister and thus, bound by honesty. I don’t have the details of the plan yet, we’re still in a “feeling-out” stage, but so far everything seems to be strictly on the up-and-up.

This being the season of giving, I’ve decided that I will follow Joseph’s lead and allow the faithful readers of BlogFreeSpringfield to share in my good fortune. Anyone who would like a cut of my take should go to the comments section and post your name along with your bank account and routing numbers.*** You might also want to include your home address and a quick rundown of your holiday travel plans. Thanks to the wonder of the World Wide Web and its magical ability to connect altruistic Nigerians to good-hearted Americans, we'll soon all be rich beyond our wildest dreams.

***Disclaimer. Please don't post your financial information on this blog. The preceeding dramatization is a public service announcement intended to increase awareness of common Internet scams. Joseph Onudu is a fictional character created by the author. Any resemblance to an actual Nigerian scammer, living or deceased, is accidental.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Defenestration of Malboros

I know that the smoking issue is starting to get stale, so this will be my last post on the issue for awhile, provided that the pro-smoking cartel doesn't come out with another asinine advertisement that demands to be disparaged.

A letter writer in today's paper voiced his displeasure at cigarette butt litter. Right before I started BlogFreeSpringfield, I had an editorial published in the SJ-R that addressed this very issue. So return with me now to June 15, 2005. The reference to Michael Jackson's trial dates the piece a bit, but overall, I think that it has held up remarkably well.

Outside the entrance to a local grocery store, cigarette butts litter the pavement. Ten feet away, a receptacle sits idly by for the convenience of those entering the smoke-free store.

Swept against the center median on a city street, discarded cigarettes huddle together in a mass state of abandonment, denied their rightful resting place inside a vehicle by a handful of loose change.

Not only is Springfield home the home of a beautiful new presidential library, it’s also the ashtray of choice for many local smokers on the go.

This is not merely a local problem. The Ocean Conservancy reports that tobacco-related items are the number one littered item in the United States and made up 38 percent of the debris collected in their 2003 coastal clean-up effort. But since Springfield is continuing to spruce itself up for tourists, it’s time people here gave a second thought as to what is and what isn’t an ashtray.

As a way to combat litter, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn is proposing that the state impose a five-cent deposit on beverage containers. He could further curry favor with the Retail Merchants Association by requiring that cigarette butts be made redeemable as well.

The idea isn’t unheard of. In 2001, a bill was introduced in Maine that proposed tacking on an extra dollar to the price of a pack of smokes that would be refunded when all 20 butts were safely accounted for at a redemption center.

It’s unproven if the prospects of a shiny new nickel would provide a smoker the necessary impetus to dispose of his butt in a more responsible manner anymore than it would keep a nineteen year-old from tossing her empty into a roadside ditch before returning mom’s car to the garage.

That nickel, however, might prove attractive to civic groups and non-profit organizations that figure they can fund their endeavors by mining street curbs, beaches and parking lots, and redeeming in mass.

This became one sticking point with the Maine bill. Concerned opposition had visions of Cub Scouts who would, rather than employ pointed sticks to pierce the cigarette butts Felix Unger-style, scoop them up by the handful. This, they argued, would pose a particular health risk, one presumably absent when the adopted guardians of highways handle worn-out shoes and sucked-dry bottles.

So why do so many cigarette butts get littered? Put-upon smokers’ rights organizations blame car manufacturers for the mass defenestration of Malboros because they no longer offer ashtrays as standard equipment in many of their models. And they blame a hostile society that no longer feels the need to accommodate their habit by providing ashtrays in public spaces.

For many smokers, however, flicking a butt earthward seems every bit as reflexive as coughing, suggesting that the cause just may be behavioral. One study claims that the average smoker will only make use of a public ashtray if it is within 3-5 meters at the time of his last drag. This means that if a shopper takes his final puff right as he exits his car, that ashtray all the way up by the store’s entrance may just as well be a donation kettle for the Michael Jackson Defense Fund, it won’t be receiving any contributions.

As a result of this behavior, smokers, already exiled from enclosed spaces, are increasingly finding themselves regulated against in the great outdoors. It’s not just the smoke they release, but the butts they leave behind.

Cigarette manufacturers and smoking rights groups don’t want to lose the war on smoking and so are willing to cede the battle on littering. Regardless of whether their true intent is to protect the environment or the image of their beleaguered customers, Phillip Morris is among those that use their Web site to encourage the responsible disposal of cigarette butts.

Clearly smokers are under attack in today’s society as they fight for their right to enjoy a legal product. But with rights come responsibilities. Their case for the former would be a lot more compelling if they saw to the litter* and kept their cigarette butts off the streets.

*The published version used the word "latter" here. I just realized that it would be the very height of clever wordplay to replace it with the word "litter."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Dearth of Kool*

The smoking issue continues its extended run in the local media spurred on by an impassioned public who are flocking to the fray in great numbers. Amid all of the arguments concerning health and rights and economics, one question intrigues me: Why do people smoke?

Of course, scientists will go on and on about how prolonged smoking results in reduced levels of monoamine oxidase B in the brain, which in turn leads to enhanced dopamine activity, blah, blah, blah. We get it already. But the real reason people smoke, and you don’t need to conduct positron emission tomography scans to figure this out either, is the common misconception that sucking on a smoldering stick of tobacco looks cool. It’s as plain as the leather jacket on Fonzie’s back.

There are other reasons people smoke. It’s relaxing. It curbs the appetite. It’s incredibly addictive. But those only come into play after a person has already made the unnatural decision to regularly introduce smoke into their lungs. Before the addiction and the side benefits of a deadly habit, comes a deep-burning desire to look cool.

This wasn’t always the case. Once smoking was a white bread habit that drew retribution from only the most fervent of vice marshals. But ever since tobacco manufacturers have been made to carry those dire warnings, the raison d'etre of smoking is as a signifier of a free-spirited soul. The ultimate prop for the rebel without a clue.* A magic wand that smokers can wave around to create an air of mystery that others will be entranced by even as they are succumbing to a fitful and most unbecoming cough.

Advertising and movies are certainly guilty of helping to perpetrate this myth, although I’m not a big fan of the current movement to pressure filmmakers into only putting butts in the mouths of villains and other unimitable types. Artistic vision must be respected and besides, there’s no way to stop Angelina Jolie from smoking on screen even if you do ditch the cigs.

I’d rather concentrate on the anti-smoking efforts to combat this filthy habit. The most potent arrow in their quiver, from a practical standpoint, is the overwhelming evidence that smoking is connected to a lot of nasty diseases. The problem with this strategy is that by the time smokers reach the age where they become concerned about their future health, they’re already hooked - line and sinker. Many smokers lament ever having started to smoke but feel powerless to quit. So the key is to stop people before they start.

Studies show that most people start smoking in their teens or early twenties. At that age, young people are no more concerned with the possibility of getting cancer from smoking or tanning beds than they are of becoming irregular due to a lack of fiber. If they do contemplate their own mortality, it’s a romanticized version of living fast and dying young that would only be accentuated by expiring with a cigarette dangling artfully from their lips.

I believe that the best way to de-glamorize smoking is to counterattack, aiming directly at the vanity of those who would be puffers.

Several years ago, one of the television news magazine programs conducted an interesting experiment with a small group of teenage girls, all of whom were smokers. They brought the girls together and presented to them the facts, in grizzly detail if I remember correctly, of all of the health dangers that they would be subjected to as smokers. When they reconvened a month or so later, a couple of the girls said that they had quit briefly, but all of them continued to smoke.

Then the producers tried a different tactic. Instead of concentrating on the calamity that would befall the insides of their bodies, they focused attention on the outside. They explained how smoking yellows teeth, causes the pores of the face to expand, and promotes other unnatural aging effects. To drill this point home, they took headshots of the girls and had a graphic artist digitally apply the ravages of a decade or so of smoking. When the girls caught a glimpse of the future and the hideous creatures that they would become, they were scared smokeless.

Although this experiment provides only limited anecdotal evidence, I think that it speaks to a larger truth about young people. That is: they can’t bear the thought that others might find them unattractive. It’s a powerful insecurity, one that can unfortunately have devastating effects. But since not ending up looking like a Virginia Slims hag or a Marlboro hobo is something within their control, future anti-smoking campaigns should make that appeal.

There’s a comical and unflattering facial expression that nearly all smokers make from time to time, and it should be featured on the next anti-smoking billboard that is erected. You’ve probably witnessed it firsthand. It occurs when a smoker has a cigarette in her mouth, but can’t remove it because her hands are occupied with other matters. As the smoke curls up into her eyes, her face attempts to retreat through to the other side of her head. One eye closes while the other fights to remain operational. In this instant, even the prettiest starlet can look like Imogene Coca.

All of the impassioned pleas to save thyself from cigarettes' deadly charms are falling on deaf ears. Show these young people the rebarbative fate that awaits them should they succumb to RJ Reynolds’ sickening siren. It may be disingenuous to claim that a pack of smokes is equivalent to twenty whacks with the ugly stick. But not more so than claiming that it will make you look cool.

*Title based on Miles Davis' classic recording "The Birth of Cool."

**I don’t know who originated this phrase but I always credit Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. Tom Petty fans will give their man credit, but "I'll Be You" was released before "Into the Great Wide Open." Besides, "I'll Be You" is a better song. Besides, besides, somebody else probably said it before either one of them.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Crap Tablet Redux

A syndicated article that appeared in yesterday’s SJ-R (linked here to the KC Star version) serves as evidence that the cultural climate is ripe for a new, lower-case expletive. In the story, the author looks into a growing trend that has young and old alike steering clear of bold-faced obscenities, either out of fear of retribution or simple common decency, and in their stead employing sound-a-likes (freakin’) or words tinted in a lighter shade of blue (blows). Society is obviously clamoring for a midly-intoned interjection that will adequately express their slight dismay without making them seem coarse or vulgar. "Crap tablet", anyone?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This one's for posterity

There’s a particular word that always gives me pause when I hear it; see if you can guess what it is.

It’s used to lovingly describe our toddlers when at their most precocious. We use it to jokingly describe our adolescents when at their most Eddie Haskell-esque. And it’s often used, sometimes in derision but usually good naturedly, to describe co-workers caught in the act of kowtowing. It’s spoken in “polite” company, by “nice” people and seldom is its utterance met with disapproval or a turned-up “nose.” All with no regard to the word’s scatological origins.

Can you guess what it is? If you didn’t catch the hint in the previous paragraph, the word I speak of is “brownnose (er) (ing) (ist) (phile) (oholic).” I described the contextual definition of the word in the previous paragraph. Decorum, however, prevents me from delving too literally into its etymology. Besides, most everyone knows, if they give it a second thought, that it is derived from the phrase and is the result of engaging in: “the kissing of the posterior.”

It’s quite a cringe-worthy word when you think about it, which is why it is probably best not to think about it. You could seek out a synonym, although the choices are disappointing. “Ingratiator” is too formal, lacks punch, and really isn't a word. “Bootlicker” is perhaps too descriptive, along with being idiomatic to a certain leather- and chain-bound segment of society that many find unsavory. And “apple polisher” is too cumbersome and could be perplexing to younger generations for whom the act of giving an apple is not readily interpreted as a symbol of toadyism. So we are left with “brownnoser” and must resign ourselves to its rather gross derivation.

You may have noticed that I’ve been spelling “brownnose” as one word. It usage has become so common in our lexicon that it is no longer considered a two-word phrase and, at least in Webster’s view, it has evolved beyond a compound word and as such we are allowed to ditch the hyphen. Contrary to popular opinion, the phrase “brownie points” derives from the merit system of the respected pre-Girl Scout organization and does not, thankfully, refer to the accumulation of . . . well, you know.

The word’s origins date back to the 1930s and is largely credited to our boys in the military who have been known to coin some vivid expressions. Had I been in a foxhole and overheard it being uttered for the very first time, I would have never imagined that someday its use would become ubiquitous in all walks of life.

As someone who enjoys words, I aspire to coining a word or phrase that will someday be judged worthy by those prescriptionists over at the OED. And I think that I’ve discovered it: crap tablet.

“Crap tablet” is a mild to middling expletive that is intended to fall between “shoot” and “sh**. It’s easy to say, fun even. The “AP” “AB” sounds produce a rhyme to give the phrase a lyrical flow that most people will find appealing.

As for its meaning, let’s break the phrase down to get a better understanding. The scatological definition of “crap” is now secondary in usage, the word is more commonly used to describe something of inferior quality, or as an expression of frustration or disgust, as it is intended here. “Tablet” connotes medicine, something that you are reluctant to ingest because it tastes bad, but you are forced to anyway (the part about medicine being ultimately good for you does not apply.) Basically, “crap tablet” means “I am miffed, but not to the point where I need to cuss.” Or more succinctly, "D'Oh!"

Perhaps its use will be clearer if explained in context. If you were playing poker and lost a small pot when your two Jacks were bested by two Ladies, you might say “crap tablet.” If you went all-in on a full house only to fall short to a flush, you’d probably prefer something a little stronger.

Another scenario where it would be appropriate is if you spill a small amount of coffee on your blouse - provided that the coffee isn’t scalding, in which case you would again look to something more robust to convey what you are feeling.

The phrase can be made more potent by growling the initial letter blend “crrrrrrrr” for a few extended counts before barking out the final “ap tablet!!!” This would be useful to your more crotchety types, but all things being equal, I prefer a more benign interpretation.

The only variation on the phrase that I’m currently advocating is “Gigantic Crap Tablet”, largely on the basis that it can then be sung to the tune of "Hakuna Matata", leaving the door open to go completely Weird Al on the rest of the lyrics, if that is your want.

Before going public with my creation, I did my due diligence by spending about 10 minutes researching Google to see if anyone else is laying claim to the phrase. It is in usage, but not in the context which I am suggesting. In most cases I found, the word “crap” is being used as an adjective to describe a dysfunctional tablet PC. So I feel safe in proclaiming myself its originator.

The adoption of “crap tablet” into the patois of Western society is my one shot at immortality, so I am asking you, dear reader, to help me by introducing it into your vocabulary. Give it a try, it’s fun. You don’t have to be obvious about it – say it as if it is the most natural thing in the world to say. At the office, in the grocery store, on air, even if you’re all alone stuck in traffic, let the “crap tablets” fly and know that you are on the cutting edge of an etymological phenomena that will soon be sweeping the land.

You don’t have to credit me if you use it in a published work. If you are asked where you picked up such a colorful and expressive phrase, you might mention my work here at BlogFreeSpringfield.

Crap tablet – God willing, it will be my epitaph.