Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A "Grammar Revolution", Close Quote

Astute readers of this blog will notice my fastidious habit of flouting one of the long-standing rules of grammar, boldly and intentionally.

(In addition to my use of snappy sentence fragments instead of sentences, that is.)

To wit: I cannot -- will not! -- place a comma, period, or other punctuation before a closing quotation mark if it is not part of the title, word, or phrase being signified in the first place.

This goes whether the referenced item is an actual title or merely a "gaggle of words" which, if you were to "speak aloud", you would "enunciate archly" while holding up two "waggling fingers" on each hand.

To illustrate, here are some examples from previous posts:

      Grammatical but Dumb: Scrabble People watch Patrick McGoohan in
          "Secret Agent."
      Much, Much Better: Scrabble People watch Patrick McGoohan in
          "Secret Agent".

Dagnabbit, if the producers had wanted to call the show "Secret Agent." with a period at the end of the title, they would have called it that!

      Grammatical but Dumb: The Dresden Dolls describe their niche as
          "Brechtian Punk Cabaret."
      Much, Much Better: The Dresden Dolls describe their niche as
          "Brechtian Punk Cabaret".

If Hal Prince had included a period at the end of the word "Cabaret", Liza Minnelli would have come to a full stop in mid-chorus. We'd never have heard her call us "Old Chum". How tragic!

      Grammatical but Dumb: I know how to spell and pronounce
          "Schenectady," "Schaghticoke," and "Rensselaer."
      Much, Much Better: I know how to spell and pronounce
          "Schenectady", "Schaghticoke", and "Rensselaer".

No Rensselaer-educated computer programmer would dream of placing commas that separate instances of listed string variables inside the quotation marks that demarcate those string variables! Can you say "Syntax Error"? Hel-lo, World!!!

Clearly, Strunk and White never read Programming for Dummies.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this revolution -- Our Revolution! -- Your Revolution! -- is gaining momentum! The need is urgent; the time has come. Our representatives in Washington must hear our voices. With your letters and, more importantly, generous contributions to the Committee to Avoid Misplacing Punctuation (CAMP), we will turn Congress in our favor on this "crucial issue".

(Right after it deals with the financial crisis and split infinitives, that is.)

Scrabble People & Upwords People

I was raised with affection by Scrabble People. Perhaps you know the type: research scientists, math homework helpers, bridge players, dictionary readers, Tchaikovsky listeners, amateur genealogists. Scrabble people are all about the information.

My beloved spousal unit is an Upwords Person. In Upwords, unlike Scrabble, all tiles count for one point only, but you can stack tiles atop one another, creating three-dimensional patterns. Upwords people are all about the patterns.

Scrabble People feel best about making high score. Upwords People feel best about connecting two previous plays on the board with a really clever word.

Scrabble People use their knowledge. Upwords People use their imagination.

Scrabble People email. Upwords People create greeting cards out of fancy art paper.

Scrabble People do the acrostic puzzle in the Sunday New York Times. Upwords People play rummy on their Palm Pilot.

Scrabble People attend the ballet. Upwords People go to the ballpark.

At the ballpark, Scrabble People keep score with a mechanical pencil and keep the pitch count. Upwords People keep score with art markers, color in the diamonds, and doodle in the margins.

To relax, Scrabble People read history and historical fiction. Upwords People create three-dimensional craft projects.

In the Old West of the 19th Century, Upwords People organized and ran the Pony Express, risking life and limb to get the mail to the destination, over dusty trails and through dangerous territory, by sheer determination and persistence. Scrabble People invented the telegraph.

You want Scrabble People to design your nuclear power plants. You want Upwords People to organize the emergency response.

Scrabble People like routine. Upwords People like road trips.

Scrabble People subscribe to magazines. Upwords People buy 'zines at the newsstand.

Scrabble People file their taxes online in mid-February. Upwords People mail in the forms on April 15th. In the evening. The late evening.

Both Scrabble People and Upwords People like "Monty Python's Flying Circus", which is one reason they end up together. Scrabble People like the witty, verbal sketches of John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Upwords People prefer the more cinematic Michael Palin and Terry Jones sketches as well as Terry Gilliam cartoons. (Nobody's sure about Eric Idle.)

Scrabble People dig Groucho Marx. Upwords People dig Harpo Marx.

Scrabble People watch Patrick McGoohan in "Secret Agent". Upwords People watch Patrick McGoohan in "The Prisoner".

At the core, I'm still a Scrabble Person. Being with an Upwords Person, however, has truly enriched my life. Besides, she's the one with the Ph.D.! "Be seeing you" on April 15th at the post office -- right after the ballgame!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Coyote Reads?

Remember the large coyote that we saw hanging out in the park near the Denver Tech Center? I saw it again -- at least I think it was the same one -- crossing South Holly Street near the Koelbel Library in the adjacent Denver suburbs. This raises the obvious question: Why did the coyote cross the road, anyway?

* To borrow the library's only copy of How to Catch Flightless Birds Using Acme Rockets?

* To skulk away from the park slowly, as the atypically empty swings at the playground sway back...and forth...back...and forth...

* To continue its homeward trek after the Lobo-bama inauguration?

* To enter an Oscars(TM) betting pool at the neighbors?

* To attend a Carnivores Anonymous meeting?

* To catch up with the chicken?

* Or was it, as I strongly suspect, to scare two impressionable, recently transplanted Northeasterners who don't know coyotes from cacti, just for fun?

All I know is, Wile E. was grinning at me like he knew something that I didn't. What he doesn't know, of course, is my vehicular history with respect to the animal kingdom. Heh, heh, heh...

Further reports as events warrant. That is, assuming I'm still here and have avoided becoming one of said events.

Friday, January 23, 2009

While We're At It, O Canada Too!

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette humor columnist Samantha Bennett composed a witty, detailed travelogue of her trip through Western Canada last summer. I defy any red-blooded American to peruse the photography-rich blog of her adventures and not resolve to exchange massive quantities of U.S. greenbacks into Canadian loonies at the earliest opportunity. Here it is:

2 Weeks in the Provinces

Highlights include some of the most scenic railroad rides in the world and a new version to Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song" in tribute to Canadian Rail, composed by Ms. Bennett and read out loud by a willing but Python-deficient conductor. Add to that a blog entry entitled "Pining for the Fjords" and you have a good sense of the Palinesque spirit of the endeavor (Michael, not Sarah).

Western Canada apparently includes anything that's not Montreal or the Maritimes, for her eastbound journey continues all the way to Toronto, with wonderful and quirky sights documented along the way. Travelers to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver seeking an extended journey in rail-accessible Canada before or after the Games will find plenty in this entertaining blog to whet their appetites.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ten Things I Know

1. How to spell and pronounce "Schenectady", "Schaghticoke", and "Rensselaer". Extra credit for "Oconomowoc" and "Fond du Lac".

2. The suburban backyard in Upstate N.Y. where a Volkswagen is buried.

3. The famous frozen custard stand in Milwaukee where MLB Commissioner Bud Selig eats his lunch daily (two hot dogs with relish).

4. How to make a killer French Onion soup; and how to get kicked out of a bar in Paris using only a French-English pocket dictionary.

5. The precise moment during the chorus of Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" when the Pips chime in with "Whoo-whoooo". (Hint: It's a beat later than you think.)

6. The B-52's song that requires both a cowbell and a door buzzer.

7. The family recipe for chocolate jumbles -- and the crucial baking tip.

8. How to get a two-minute penalty in adult rec hockey for "Unnecessary Roughness: Board Checking". (Hint: It's easy if you can't stop all that well.)

9. Where in Wheeling, West Virginia to get the best blueberry muffins on Easter Sunday.

10. How to sing "Rubber Ducky" ("Quietsche Entchen") in German.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How to Become a Klingon, in One Easy Lesson

Let's get serious, matey. Talking like a pirate is fine one day a year, with a mug of grog, a fake eyepatch, and a parrot on your shoulder. Pirates get to shout "Ahoy!", sing about rum, and make disagreeable people and revenue agents walk the plank. Everybody loves a pirate. (N.B.: Except Mets fans.)

But you are a True Leader, a Man of Action, a Warrior of Destiny. You have missions to fulfill, battles to fight, galaxies to conquer. You want -- you need -- respect from your shipmates, that sniveling crew, year-round.

And while we're at it, no more freakin' parrots.

You want to be a Klingon.

My friend, you've come to the right place. You don't need to carry a weighty Klingon-English dictionary in your Warrior's satchel, made from the carcasses of your vanquished enemies. It's much easier than that, not to mention tidier.

Simply use the word "Mokkh-Vah" in as many different situations as possible.

In battle:
"Our Leader has the Mokkh-Vah of a Warrior!"

Dealing with the organizational hierarchy:
"You speak lies! I can no longer be part of this Mokkh-Vah!"

At the dinner table:
"Summon the cook. I wish to consume some Mokkh-Vah immediately!"

At the ballpark:
"I have dishonored the team with my performance. I shall now perform ritual Mokkh-Vah!"

On the dance floor:
"I suddenly find your Mokkh-Vah...strangely alluring..."

In bed:
"Do not touch my Mokkh-Vah!"

Using this word, and this word alone, you instantly assume your Klingon identity. In our advanced course, we introduce you to the proper use of Klingon makeup. Apply directly to forehead.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Famous Moments in College Radio, Part II

"The two-oh pitch. Biondi hits it deep down the right field line, but it's heading out of play...hooking...hooking...FAIR BALL!"

They Had Me At "Brechtian"

It's fun to be 20 again -- especially when you're pushing 50!

Two years ago, my long-time best friend, an RPI engineer who owns some timberland, gave me a CD by The Dresden Dolls, a Boston-based rock duo that describe their niche as "Brechtian Punk Cabaret". He said some of the clever lyrics reminded him of Tom Lehrer, although his beloved spousal unit thought they were "too angry".

As a former German language student, they had me at "Brechtian". And again at "Cabaret". I would add: New Wave, expressionistic, confessional, theatrical, intense. The Dresden Dolls are a magically matched pairing of incredible lead vocalist, lyricist, keyboardist, and art party impresario Amanda Palmer with the equally leading, theatrically talented drummer Brian Viglione. The combination of Amanda's pounding rock piano and Brian's perfect punctuation and talent for expression creates a full orchestration with only two instruments. The music videos that they've produced are visual and aural wonders, artsy and polished, bringing out the duo's dark, angsty humor and dangerous edge.

Two years on, I've collected three Dresden Dolls CDs, two concert DVDs, plus the new solo CD by Amanda Palmer. I've attended one concert by The Dresden Dolls and one by Amanda solo, supported by an Australian performance art troupe, The Danger Ensemble. I've stood in an autograph line -- Amanda and Brian are famously welcoming to their fans -- and attended an afternoon sound check and photo op, where my beloved spousal unit gave Amanda & Co. three loaves of bread fresh from the bakery for their pre-concert table.

I've ironed the band's logo onto a t-shirt. Seriously, dude.

I once introduced myself to Amanda as a fan with the "Geezer Brigade". She responded to my self-deprecation with a cheerfully emphatic, one-word barnyard epithet. My redeeming encounter with the muse. It's good to be 20 again!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Arms Race

I collected my fourth public library card in Colorado today. This puts me one card ahead of my beloved spousal unit, who has only three and is totally envious that my new Douglas County card has a really cool oval shape.

However, as she reminds me, she has access to the University of Denver's library as an adjunct faculty member; moreover, her campus ID card has a nifty color photo. So it's possible that she has, in fact, pulled into the lead.

Don't you wish the U.S., Russia, and China would compete like this? It's cheaper than missile defense, and they could all chill out with some audio books from the library while waiting for the next intelligence report.

Suburban Cowboy

Few retail clothing establishments are more fully realized in concept, and match my sartorial style less, than Shepler's, the Western-wear outfitter. I stopped in their Denver Tech Center location today to investigate.

First observation: the store is in the Denver Tech Center, nestled among the gleaming, high-tech office buildings filled with computers and surrounded by parking lots. The RTD light rail trains serving the congested I-25 commuter corridor travel north and south, only eight or ten lanes of freeway traffic away from the store. I've heard Denver called a cow town before, but there isn't a dogie to punch for miles around.

Fully 20% of the floor space holds boots, in five basic form-factors: work boots, steel-toed work books, low-cut cowboy boots, high-cut cowboy boots, and absurdly high-cut cowboy boots. Any higher, and they'd touch the rim of your cowboy hat; which naturally they can also sell you, in sizes ranging from Huge to Even More Xtra Huge. The Texas insult "All hat, no cattle" could have originated at Shepler's.

Then we have the jeans: boot cut, cowboy cut, slim fit, classic fit, relaxed fit, pre-shrunk, unshrunk, pre-faded, unfaded, black, blue, dark brown, tan, Levi's, Wranglers, etc. Surely these are the same, authentic selections that were available to Centennial State homesteaders in 1876.

Racks of polyester plaid shirts with faux-pearl snap-fasteners in lieu of buttons were on "Clearance", marked all the way down to $24.95. By the way, what's the deal with those snaps on the front of Western-style shirts? It seems to me they'd be awfully cold against your belly tattoos, especially in winter, while you're out riding fences, corralling your herd, or oiling your six-gun in preparation for the climactic shootout.

Speaking of firearms, I saw an advertisement for local shooting lessons posted on the community bulletin board, next to the private-party notices of Winnebagos and quarterhorses for sale. The logo on the shooting lessons ad depicted a human skull with two crossed rifles. Yee-haw!

I walked out of Shepler's empty-handed, steered out of the parking lot past the steakhouse that looks like a funeral home, and motored back onto the interstate. You might take this cowboy out of the Northeast, but you'll have to pry the L.L. Bean catalog from his cold, dead fingers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Summer of Sam

A Wall Street programming intern, I was walking on the streets of midtown Manhattan after work on a hot summer evening in 1977 when the lights went out. As in: out out. The Big Out. Street lights, traffic lights, office buildings, storefronts; everything but car headlights and emergency lights went dark.

The remaining sounds of cars and voices echoed eerily. You don't notice the pervasive 60-cycle hum of the urban, electrified world until it suddenly stops.

A few brave, most likely inebriated citizens took it upon themselves to stand in intersections to play traffic cop. That didn't work so well. Yet the Manhattan scene in my vicinity wasn't all that chaotic; it was only in the aftermath that I read reports of the smash-and-grab storefront looting in various sections of the city.

Being a suburban college kid from Upstate New York, where blackouts are considered almost cute, it didn't occur to me at first that my situation on the Midtown streets was possibly perilous. Then it did. I hustled back toward my room at the Vanderbilt Y, and ran into a friend who was gathering up a posse. "They're filming Superman at the Daily News building," he said in earnest. "They've got huge floodlights!" This seemed important at the time. We had to investigate.

We first saw the glow of the movie lights from a few blocks away. The Daily News building had been renamed The Daily Planet using an overlay facade. There was no sign of Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, or Margot Kidder, but dozens of cops in uniform swarmed the set. I thought they were there to prevent vandalism, until I noticed their uniforms: each officer's shoulder patch said "City of Metropolis". (The thick facial make-up should probably also have been a tip-off.)

Still the same kid from Upstate N.Y., still oblivious to the paralyzing effects of a wee little power outage, I actually tried to go to work the next morning. Figured out that the subways wouldn't be running, so I took the bus; but I forgot that the elevators (not to mention the computers - duh!) wouldn't be. Fortunately, I phoned upstairs before climbing the 27 stories. The phone rang and rang...

Excellent! I did what any Wall Street flunky with a suddenly free day and little cash should do, even today: I took the Staten Island Ferry and back, a.k.a. the poor man's guided tour of New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty is magnificent, but it's nothing compared with the sense of freedom that's experienced by a summer intern who's escaped the office on a sunny day!

Two decades later, Spike Lee portrayed 1977 New York City in his movie, "Summer of Sam"; the "Son of Sam" serial murders had gripped the city. ESPN recently aired its terrific serial docudrama, "The Bronx is Burning", about the player-manager-owner melodrama on Reggie Jackson's 1977 Yankees. CBGB's, the iconic underground rock club that closed last year, was in full swing, and Judy Collins, Harry Chapin, and Bonnie Raitt played to mellow summer crowds in Central Park. Disco ducks wore leisure suits.

Completed only four years prior, the World Trade Center was still acquiring new tenants. The city itself was all but bankrupt, needing a federal bailout from the Carter Administration. Its fiscal woes led the voters to usher out the diminutive Mayor Abraham Beame and send in the brash Edward "How'm I doing?" Koch, with Mario Cuomo and Bella Abzug also in the running. The record-setting heatwave scorched the city, and the massive blackout roiled the populace. Apparently, I experienced a pivotal time in the storied history of New York. Who knew?

Did I mention that my Dad's name is Sam?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Famous Moments in College Radio, ca. 1979

"Top of the fifth. Two on, two out; one run in. The 1-2 pitch to Lavery...fouled off again. Uh...wait a minute...that's not Dartmouth at bat..."

Coyote Waits

We've enjoyed our living situation since moving to Colorado, even while still in transition. We're lodging in a second-floor, west-facing studio room that opens to the outdoors, with magnificent views of the Front Range on the horizon. The snowcapped peaks behind the darker hues of the lower ridges provide a spectacular contrast. Wildlife is evident in the open field next door, which used to be a Par 3 golf course; from the yips of coyotes at night and the multitudinous rabbits upon which they munch, to a large Cooper's hawk that swoops and dives around, to huge squirrels, as big as small cats.

Walking around a nearby park two days ago, replete with geese (watch your step!), we saw our first coyote in person, a large one, being chased out of an adjacent yard by a territorial dog guarding its McMansion-sized house. It rested under a tree, barely taking notice of us as we walked away swiftly, looking over our shoulders.

All this within a mile of the Denver Tech Center, and walking distance to the RTD light rail. We may be in compact quarters in our temporary residence, but there are most definitely compensating factors.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Flying Circus

So there I was, riding shotgun in the Cessna, when the Primal Scream Therapist told me to keep the wings level...

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

A Carnegie Mellon grad student in the early 1980's, on a schedule and a budget, I needed to travel from Pittsburgh to Richmond, Virginia one weekend for a family wedding. I was rueing the cost of flying on the one hand and the time it would take to drive on the other. Buses and trains were indirect options at best.

By chance, I came across a 3x5 card posted in the student union: "Fly to Washington, D.C., any weekend, $50 round trip." Even in the era of People Express Airlines, I couldn't beat that. My parents would be driving from Washington to Richmond for the wedding and could pick me up. Terrific!

The pilot flew a rented Cessna four-seater. With my (ahem) exceptional ballast compared to the two other young passengers, it was decided I should ride in front for balance, putting me within close reach of the auxiliary steering wheel. (You're probably way ahead of me here...)

We're airborne. About halfway to Washington, the college-aged girl in the back announces, quite calmly, "I'm going to scream now." And she did: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" I looked around. The pilot was seemingly untroubled by this outburst. Okay...

Again, as we got ready for the approach: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" By then, I was reviewing in my mind a lengthy checklist of due diligence questions that I'd failed to ask before flying with this particular airline. Licensure? Insurance? Parachutes? Issues that never arise when one flies United. (Or never used to.)

We landed safely and taxied to General Aviation. The pilot swore under his breath as the Block Hours meter clicked once last time before shutdown, costing him an extra five bucks. We disembarked. Once more on the tarmac: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" Naturally, heads turned from all directions: what manner of brutality had these men been inflicting on this pale, young lady in the blue skies above?

I got the full story from the pilot during the return flight. Yes, he was a therapist specializing in Primal Scream techniques, living in Pittsburgh, leading weekend group sessions in Washington. Yes, those were his patients in the back seat. Yes, he was licensed and insured. (I think.)

At the pilot/shrink's request, I held the co-pilot's wheel and tried to keep the wings level while he checked the aviation map, surely an apt metaphor for psychotherapy. Surely also an illegal act, for which the statute of limitations has hopefully expired for both of us.

In retrospect, it's probably best that we didn't know more about each other before I took the wheel. Had he known of my Driver's Ed encounter with the pigeons, he might have screamed.

A Different Look

"The thing about the Redskins' defense is, they give you a different look every time," said John Madden on the NFL game broadcast.

Not long afterward, I started to notice other things that give you a different look every time.

On Christmas morning, the Yule log in the fireplace gives a different look every time we stop smiling at each other long enough to catch a glimpse of it. (Never mind that it's a video loop on our TV screen.)

Seen from Bradford Beach in Milwaukee, Lake Michigan can look indescribably brilliant or exceedingly gray. The water can be a shocking deep blue or a muddy brown, placid or choppy, rippling or white-capped, roaring or calm. The shoreline can be a seagull's paradise or caked with ice, the beach a haven for sunbathers or a foreboding no-man's-land of storm fences. The sky over the horizon can be featureless or filled with cottony clouds, wispy cirrus clouds, or thunderstorms, sometimes minutes apart. Sometimes you can't even see the horizon.

Lake Michigan gives you a different look every time.

Here in Denver, it's the Front Range of the Rockies that gives you a different look, its alternately snowcapped and barren black and purple peaks changing both daily and with the seasons under spectacular violet, pink, red, yellow, and blaze-orange cloud formations that reach to the high sky.

In New York, it's the Hudson and East Rivers, flowing under commuter bridges to New York Harbor. In Boston, it's skulls being rowed on the Charles River; up by Dartmouth, it's the Connecticut River; near my Upstate New York hometown, it's the Mohawk River; all changing constantly, always the same. "All-ll this time/The river flowed", as Sting's song lyric puts it. The rivers give you a different look every time.

In Washington, D.C., lots of things give you a different look every time. The stately Potomac River; the reflections of the monuments off the Tidal Pool; the exhibits at the Smithsonian; the ballroom dancers at Glen Echo Park; the insane traffic patterns around Crystal City; the crystal lattice that forms from the branches and twigs in Rock Creek Park after an ice storm.

From January 20th forward, the White House will give us a different look, too. It's about time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Domination (a.k.a. Risk)

If you've ever enjoyed strategy board games, you might enjoy an excellent computer simulation of the classic "Risk" game, called "Domination". It's freely downloadable at


If you want to play the game solo, I recommend deleting all of the players except the human (you, hopefully) and adding opponents using the Easy AI setting. Once you get the hang of it, try playing several Hard AI opponents.

You'll probably want to start with the traditional, six-continent Risk map that is the default setting. Later, you can experiment with a variety of game maps and their associated territory cards. Though not a Tolkien fan, I like the "lotr" (Lord of the Rings) map for its intricacy. The "europass" map makes for a good continental game. Additional maps are downloadable; some of the novelty maps like "tube" (London subway map) and "solar" (planets map) are fun, while some like "cow" (beef cuts diagram) are just silly and don't play as well.

It's open source, so you can examine the A.I. strategy engines and tweak them to your heart's content. There's also a map designer, which I haven't tried; just playing the game has kept me up late into the night.

Recommended. You too can realize your Napoleonic fantasies!

A Walk in the Park

It's a privilege for a weekend duffer like myself to play the Brown Deer Golf Course, a tree-lined county course that serves as home to the PGA Greater Milwaukee Open (or whatever it's called this year).

Once a season, I would stray from the municipal goat tracks that are more suitable to my well-hidden skills and treat myself to eighteen at Brown Deer. A final exam, as it were, that would almost assuredly result in my having to repeat the grade.

Not that that's a problem. My philosophy of playing golf is more Parks and Recreation than Competition. I love walking on a lawn that somebody else has mowed. Grouped by the starter in a foursome with three Brown Deer regulars, however, I became aware that my amateur-hour, isn't-this-a-nice-day approach wasn't shared by my low handicap partners.

One competitive business type, not even trying to relax on his day off, strode up to the tee box on a particularly picturesque hole. The scene: a beautiful, sunny day; lovely, lush shade trees; green grass; decorative flowerbeds; a challenging water hazard. Canada geese waddling across the fairway. A perfect natural setting in a gorgeous public park. Lucky-to-be-alive gorgeous.

Oblivious to it all, Pinhead executed a low, straight drive, scattering the geese. Pinhead's next words: "I don't know why they have those geese here. They don't add anything to the course."

Sometimes, there's nothing you can say. Factually, I'm pretty sure he was incorrect. In any case, I really hope he stepped in some ecology during his red-assed trek around the park.

Driver's Education

"Go ahead," said Zubes, the Driver's Ed teacher, as three dozen cheeky pigeons bobbed their heads, scuffling around on the pavement in front of the bumper of our student car.

Having executed a perfect stop at the stop sign, a rare triumph, I was hesitant to proceed through the ad hoc aviary. The prior week, Zubes had asked the kids in the back seat following my turn at the wheel, "Now, which of you thought Bob was in proper control of the vehicle the whole time?"

I was determined not to screw up again. Pigeon stew would not be on the menu today.

"It's okay, Bob. You'll never hit them. They'll move," he insisted.

I proceeded.


Zubes looked over at me with a combination of astonishment and, I maintain, grudging admiration. "I've never seen that before!" he said.

A tip of the cap to Mr. Zubal, and all the Driver's Education teachers out there. Would you want that job?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Favorite Cheer Ever

Heard during intermissions of college hockey games in Troy, N.Y.:

          Gimme an R! [R!]
          Gimme an E! [E!]
          Gimme an N! [N!]

(The cheerleaders proceed to spell out "Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute".)

          What's that spell? ['Tuuuuuuute!]

Now that's dedication.

Memo to World Leaders

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

                    - Isaac Asimov, Foundation

Hockey Central

          Announcer Man says,
          We take you now to Hockey Central
          For an update.

          Hockey Central.
          Sounds like a magical place
          With colors and speed and slashing blades
          And fresh air wafting off the ice.

          Do you need a passport to go there?
          What kind of food do they grow there?
          What’s the exchange rate with the Euro there?
          I think about these things.

          When they update you in Hockey Central,
          Are you fully informed on the issues,
          Or do they leave you wondering why?
          Does the First Amendment apply?

          Lighten up, you say;
          It’s just for fun, you say;

          Well if that’s so,
          If it’s all about the play,
          Then why’s that puckhead coach
          So angry in the face?
          Always getting on the ref’s case.
          Is his necktie on too tight?
          Did he lose too many fights?
          Did he forget how to pass, how to shoot, how to skate?

          Maybe he needs to go to Hockey Central
          For an update.

          [Revised 8/23/2018]

My New Hobby

Several years ago, I rented a U-Haul trailer, drove to a parking lot next to an out-of-business bowling center, and bought two 8' sections of sawed-up maple bowling alley for $80 each. They sat in my garage, untouched, for the better part of a decade.

What lunacy inspired this inexplicable action? Early midlife disease; more specifically, the usual but insane male fantasy of building the perfect 8' woodworking bench. Careful, kids; this is what happens when you turn 30 or 35 and watch Saturday morning PBS shows hosted by Norm Abrams. It's an insidious sickness, further fueled by lunch hours at used bookstores buying up back issues of Fine Woodworking and drooling over the glossy, four-color photos of perfectly polished benches.

Why two 8' bowling alley sections, you ask? Consider: if one is good, how could two not be better? (I'm informed by reliable sources that this logic is hereditary and related to the Y chromosome.)

After eight or nine years of tripping over these immovable monstrosities, it slowly dawned on me that my inability to saw the perfect dovetail joint was uncorrelated to contentment in life generally. Besides, I had purchased two enormous BOWLING ALLEY SECTIONS and regrettably told a few people at work about it (see "Laughingstocks, Office"). I advertised my treasures for sale.

An astrophysicist from the nearby university inspected them but declined, saying they didn't meet his need for precision within a small, measurable tolerance. Hey Professor, did I mention that these are BOWLING ALLEY SECTIONS?

I finally sold them to a machine shop owner for the same $80 per treasure that I'd paid for them. He wanted to make workbenches out of them. I think he got a heck of a deal, don't you?

My old hobby was woodworking. My new hobby is reading about woodworking. I'm much happier now.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

How about Blog-opoly?

I bought a Monopoly game the other day. To get to it on the shelf, I had to browse past Star Trek-opoly, Star Wars-opoly, MLB- NFL- and NBA-opoly, the Batman, Beatles, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox editions, and the Christmas Story edition (no doubt a heartwarming holiday tale of mortgaging your toy train while it's still under the tree to buy a luxury condo). There's a Monopoly for Indianapolis and one for Minneapolis, and in the Superman edition, you can buy up Metropolis. There's the Lord of the Rings edition, the Harley Davidson edition, and an edition for seemingly every syndicated TV show from the past 30 years. M*A*S*H-opoly, The Simpsons-opoly, SpongeBob SquarePants-opoly. Even I Love Lucy-opoly. "No, Ricky, stop! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!"

I bought a computer book the other day. To get to it on the shelf, I had to browse past Visual Basic for Dummies, Windows for Dummies, MacOS for Dummies, Linux for Dummies, Java for Dummies, C, C++, C# for Dummies (I didn't see the Bette Midler edition, C-Minus for Dummies), ASP, PHP, SQLServer, Oracle, and SAP for Dummies. There were Excel for Dummies, Access for Dummies, Word for Dummies, PowerPoint for Dummies, and to provide equal time, OpenOffice for Dummies. There were references for Dummies on computer languages I've never heard of and ones I wish I hadn't. Reeling, I sought refuge in the other aisles and found that the entire target market for retail book consumers now comprises nothing but Dummies. This was likely the conclusion of some publishing executive who'd read Market Research for Dummies on his lunch hour.

Only one place to go with all this madness: "Dummies-opoly". The first one to trade in four independent bookstores and erect a hotel on wins.

Love You, Honey!

          De Sue-Bee beekeeper needs bee-doo
          Doin' Sue-Bee from bee-doo's his cree-doo
          When de bee-doo be new Sue
          Den he redo de cree-doo
          Den de cree-doo be "Redo de bee-doo!"

Friday, January 2, 2009

When the Horse Comes Through the Wall

"Slumdog Millionaire" deserves its popular acclaim. I wish the reviews had given some hint of the human cruelty depicted, not to ward off moviegoers but to prepare them to brace themselves on the way to the feel-good, Bollywood payoff; it's not only a game show fairy tale involving a plucky kid from the Mumbai slums but a full-on, Dickensian exploration of the harshness of poverty, including the often brutal, other-than-heroic actions of people facing that circumstance.

That's a different topic. Today I would like to perform humanity a service, one far greater than the entertaining, yet gritty depiction of authentic life in the slums of India for worldly, media-saturated Western audiences that somehow have remained staggeringly unaware of the world's inequities.

Namely, I would like to retire the tired cliche, "jumping the shark" and offer the world a replacement.

As we all know, "jumping the shark" is what happens when Hollywood writers, rewriters, script doctors, directors, producers, studio executives, and interns have run out of new ideas and say the hell with it, let's just stitch up the plot with a spectacle and move on.

Only Dickens' Mr. Scrooge would deny the orphans of "Slumdog" every possible small triumph in their two decade adventure of youthful survival. But when these vagabond train riders on a random journey are forced to jump, and they JUST HAPPEN to land within a kilometer of the Taj Mahal, they are jumping an entire school of SeaWorld sharks at the same time.

This won't do. Rather than tagging the screenwriter's picaresque plot points with an overused metaphor derived from Fonzie's motorcycle stunt jump in a "Happy Days" episode, I would like to propose a fresh, new cliche.

In Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", we begin from the opposite end of the credulity spectrum. We expect from the outset to be led on, lied to, and stretched beyond recognition by the Baron's tall tales. That's the story, after all. In context, riding a cannonball over the siege to conduct reconnaissance is plausible. Nobody bats an eye when Eric Idle's character Berthold revs his feet in Flintstones fashion and zooms across the landscape at cartoon speed. We cheerfully suspend disbelief when Vulcan crushes a lump of coal into a diamond for his true love, Aphrodite, who tosses it in a pile with all the others.

However, near the end, when our heroes have not so much jumped the shark as been swallowed by one, and are hanging around in the sea creature's belly digesting the circumstances, as it were -- and then, the Baron confidently whistles for his gallant white horse who comes riding through the wall into the belly chamber to rescue them; well, excuse me, Mr. Gilliam. Even compared to your inferno of intentional implausibility, you've tossed one too many logs on the fire.

Which brings us to our New Metaphor Opportunity.

We're willing to believe Jamal, Salim, and Latika could survive the urban slums by the force of their wits, willingness to accommodate, and eternal hope; millions do. We're even willing to suspend disbelief that Jamal has found his way onto "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and answered each question, because that's the story. But when our youthful unfortunates jump from the train and JUST HAPPEN to land in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, I propose that we henceforth characterize such a deus ex machina as "The Horse Coming Through the Wall" instead of "Jumping the Shark".

Rest in peace, fish tank hurdlers everywhere.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Primary Significance of New Year's Day

Only 45 days until pitchers and catchers report!


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