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.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

If I, were the king, of the forrrrest!

If I were in a position of leadership in District 186 - a position that I neither aspire to or am qualified for but why should that keep me from piping up - here is the statement that I would have released to the media upon announcing the expulsion of 13 students for their role in a gang-related fight outside of Lanphier High School:

High School
will not allow disruptive students to poison the academic environment of our school or jeopardize the academic progress of our students, the majority of whom come to school each day with the desire to learn. Every effort will be made to impress upon these expelled students the importance of education to their future. If and when we are satisfied that they understand and are ready to abide by the rules set forth for every student, they will be allowed to return after fulfilling the requirements set forth in their punishment. Until that time, our teachers will continue to focus on teaching, our students will continue to focus on learning, and anyone else who would see fit to disrupt the vital pursuit of education with their barbaric behavior will expelled as well.

I would think that most parents of LHS students would be comforted by these words amid fears that their children’s school is turning into a cross between the Jerry Springer Show and Girlz N the Hood. They would be reassured that their child’s pursuit of an education isn’t being impeded to ensure that no delinquent gets left behind. And they would know that the school’s leaders have their children’s best interests at heart.

Instead, we get this from Superintendent Rutledge as reported in today's SJ-R: “It was a very sad day for us. We are not proud of that kind of thing.”

It’s a compassionate statement to be sure, and I don’t doubt her sincerity. However it’s incredibly weak-kneed and if the threat of an expulsion is going to serve in anyway as a deterrent then it should not be conveyed publicly that such things are entered into reluctantly and with a heavy heart.
Kids sense weakness and are quite adept at exploiting the wishy-washiness of their elders. There are times when being a bit ironhanded is the proper way to go. In other words, when dealing with street fighters, it’s better to sound a little more like Judge Roy Bean and little less like Oprah.

What’s even more troubling is that one school board member was given to wringing her hands over the situation, wondering if the school’s new curriculum might be to blame for these secondary school insurgents turning their backs on scholarship in favor of brawling. An increased emphasis on math, writing, and science has reduced the opportunities for electives and this, she concludes, could be causing students to lose interest in school and “act out.” Euclid, Shakespeare, and Newton aren’t to blame for anti-social behavior, more visual arts classes aren’t going to solve gang problems, and displacing blame only serves to exasperate the ordeal.

Age 14 is much too young to write-off a person’s future, and I don’t expect that District 186 will do so. But it isn’t too young for them to get the message that they need school more than school needs them. Statistics show that not finishing high school is a one way ticket to a life of poverty (Andrew Carnegie aside) with all of the pain and suffering that goes with it. It's a lesson every student should be made to learn.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

We don't not need no education

Jim Leach had a very interesting interview on Tuesday with Barbara Strauch, medical science and health editor for the New York Times and author of the book “The Primal Teen.” Her book attempts to make physiological sense of teenagers’ often irrational and perplexing behavior by looking at the brain development and function of adolescents.

While I'm probably misrepresenting her work and I’m certainly oversimplifying it, the crux of her dissertation is that teenagers aren’t stupid, but rather they, like everyone else, are ignorant of many things. Well, some teenagers are stupid, but it’s hard to identify them as such until they turn 30 and we find that they’re still giving wedgies and hitting on high school chicks.

You really don’t need to be a brain surgeon (literally) to understand the frequent synaptic misfires occurring in an adolescent’s head. What sets the teenage years apart from childhood is that teenagers are increasingly asked to figure things out for themselves and to learn from their mistakes, and they just aren’t fine-tuned to do that with any degree of consistency. Erraticism is a sign of lack of development more than dysfunction and rebelliousness arises out of confusion probably as much as it does belligerence. Except for James Dean for whom rebelliousness had no cause.

Many people, mostly parents of teenagers, would probably be relieved if it were discovered that their children’s whacked-out behavior could be tied to some physiological cause they could be remedied with regular rounds of shock treatment. The cure however, in my humble opinion, is much less severe. This may sound hackneyed, but if they stay in school and remain diligent in their studies, they will soon be able to weather life's many storms with the deftness of a well-seasoned captain.

Anyone who has attended a liberal arts college, at some point in their matriculation, probably questioned the requirement that an English major take an economics course or that a math major be required to sit through a poetry seminar. What these budding Flauberts didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize until well after graduation, is that we were never expected to find much use for Laffer Curves in our daily lives. In a liberal arts education, it is the journey, not the destination that is important.

The best definition of a liberal arts education that I’ve heard is that it "teaches you how to learn.” It presents you with subjects that you know nothing about and, in a semester’s time, teaches you how to apply logic and reason to its principles until you have a good enough understanding to pass an exam or write a passable essay. The more you do this, the better your brain gets at doing it. By asking analytically-inclined math majors to explore the visceral world of poetry, the brain is cross-trained and becomes even stronger. The applications for this in daily life are endless.

This type of learning can be honed outside the classroom as well. In earlier times, the ability to quickly make sense of the unknown and derive a favorable course of action was often the difference between life and death. Even today, in a more civilized time, learning is the ultimate survival skill.

That my parents raised 10 children on a single, modest income is a testament of their love, but it is also a demonstration of higher brain function developed as a means to get by. When the washing machine would break down, my dad would fix it, perhaps calling on some of the knowledge he gained fixing the dishwasher the week before or the car the week before that. When the first of seven girls prepared to head down the aisle, my mom made her wedding dress and the ones for those that followed. In today’s dollars, those gowns would be worth in the tens of thousands. In short, they supplemented the family income, probably a hundred-fold, by learning to do things for themselves. This is becoming a rare art.

People today are becoming more and more specialized, both in their professional and their personal lives. This has given rise to a large service industry in this country that has been a boon to our economy, but has stunted our ability to cognitively adapt. We’ve grown helpless in many ways. Not only do we have more plumbers, electricians, and mechanics, we also have professional organizers for those who lack the spatial awareness to arrange a closet or the inventory skills to make out a shopping list. Those with stunted interpersonal skills can seek out a dating service. Even such basic skills as cooking and cooking can be farmed out to someone else. As such, there’s just no incentive to grow beyond our present interests or develop new talents or proficiencies.

I attempt to expand my mind to new ideas by reading books that fall outside my normal interests and by tackling the occasional plumbing problem. But I fall short in many areas. I’ve yet to complete a tax return on my own, I’m befuddled by anything mechanical, and after many years, I still can’t play the guitar very well.

But back to those deranged teenagers, I think that it’s obvious they need guidance and direction to accompany their independence. They need to learn that if they go out and get drunk it isn’t the end of the world, but if they drive drunk it could be. They needn’t be chastised for dying their hair purple, but they should know that a tattoo is forever while Bre’anna’s love may not be. It doesn't take a neurologist to realize what's going on with teenagers, just parents who remember what it was like to be a teenager. But if you must consult a doctor for advice, consider these words from one of the wisest:

So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life's
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.