Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mind

The last time I traveled via airline was early 2007, when the family visited Austin, Texas, and Boston, Massachusetts, so I could run a couple of marathons. The wife and kids were happy to go on some big trips and, to a lesser degree, to cheer me on near the finish line. Except in Boston where it was near-hurricane conditions, and they would have preferred to stay in the hotel with the cable TV.

Each time we passed into an airport terminal, heading east or west, we had to take off our shoes. Ten separate feet, some more stinky than others; then we huddled together, leaning on each other so as not to fall over while trying to put on shoes in a standing position. I hadn’t the forethought to put everyone in slip-ons.

The reason we were subjected to this terrible treatment, of course, was the infamous shoe bomber from December 2001. He tried to blow up an airplane by secreting explosives in his shoe, so we must now all present our footwear to screening agents who scrupulously check for the same. I don’t believe there has ever been evidence of a second shoe bomber, yet this “security measure” continues. Certainly the Baxter five passed easily through the screening process.

Eight years after the shoe idiot we met the underwear bomber, who—using the same basic chemicals, and also buying his airline ticket with a large amount of cash and checking no luggage—tried to blow up his own airplane. Just like his predecessor, he failed.

If we haven’t learned anything throughout this process, all airline travelers will soon be presenting their underwear for analysis. This will no doubt slow the access points even further, although it might be fun just to hang out at the airport and watch our fellow citizens being debased and degraded.

Instead of once again chasing tactics after they have been attempted, I suggest we simply begin profiling passengers. There have been no terrorist incidents involving grumpy men traveling with their wives and teenage children, so I wouldn't experience any difficulty personally—other than putting up with the teenagers. Conversely, anyone buying a full price ticket over the counter with cash and checking no luggage despite a lengthy—and possibly international—flight should immediately be pulled aside and interviewed.

I don’t care if his name is Abdul or Bob. Something weird is going on, and either he is a terrorist or he is a terrifically bad planner. Either way he could use some solid advice from the authorities.

The protection of civil rights in these United States is important, but it should not preclude rational thought and reasonable safety measures. A few questions by a trained professional should be enough.

“Are you carrying any explosives?” “Do you promise you are not carrying any explosives?” “Would you mind if I waved this lit match near your crotch?”

If we don’t put some simple profiling steps in place, not only are we at risk of further attacks by lunatics, but we will also face more invasive techniques that are currently being developed. One of those is the full body scan, which apparently might show some private parts. Other than the screener snickering from behind his little station, I don’t know why I would worry about that. Is it an invasion of my privacy to make sure that I don’t have explosives taped down there? Perhaps those ACLU nuts would prefer the open flame routine.

Another idea being thrown around is the mind scan. Have each traveler look at a flurry of images and monitor their pulse, blood pressure, and eyeballs, all the while analyzing their autonomic responses.

Baby chick. Check.

Birthday party balloons. Check.

AK-47. Pulse rate quickens.

Dewy forest glen. Check.

“Wait a minute, go back one.”

I think this possibility actually makes some sense. Lie detectors work the same way, and Mr. Subliminal made a similar point on Saturday Night Live many years ago. You can’t check every two-ounce bottle and every body crevice for every kind of possible weapon. As soon as you focus on what the last guy did they come up with something new.

Let’s learn from what already works. Where is the safest large airport in the world? Israel, where they unashamedly profile airline passengers. Security personnel talk to every single flyer even if just to ask how they are doing, and if there is a hint of suspicion the person in question is taken aside for a more in-depth conversation. Guess what? They have very few problems (other than the tiny packages of Israeli peanuts given to passengers). And even though there are plenty of lawyers in Israel, they are not lining up to sue the airlines for invasion of privacy.

The safety and well being of the average Israeli is increased; we just don’t want to do the same because we don’t want our feelings hurt.

Sometimes it seems as if ACLU lawyers are more of a threat to our way of life than terrorists.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Linoleum

I am immersed in yet another home improvement project gone out of control. It is the kind when the simplicity of “insert tab A into slot B” is absent, and so I have to bring in the experts. I can paint unevenly over the most even of walls, and I can install grounded electrical outlets without being properly grounded. I even installed a new garbage disposer a few weeks back that only rarely drips. But some jobs exceed my capabilities.

This new debacle is centered smack dab in the middle of the kitchen, and from wall to wall. It is the floor on which I walk on a daily basis. Where the dog sheds while I cook dinner and the kids leave scuff marks as they race out the door.

“Bye!”

“Did you finish your homework?”

Slam!

Oh well.

I rolled out some linoleum many years ago in two small rooms in a different house, and despite having the aid of a much more handy person than I, it was a borderline fiasco. I ignored the time-honored handyman’s credo of “measure twice, cut once” and cut one of the rooms one foot short.

Instead of resolving that problem appropriately, I tried to cut corners (what a pun!) and everything got worse. I tried to lay a one-foot strip along one wall and lacked the proper equipment to flatten it effectively. Then it, too, was short, and I was left with a small square in the final corner.

Generally the entire mess was hidden under a sofa and end table, but every time someone had to move the furniture it would inevitably get caught on the curling edges of the linoleum. “Oh yeah,” the furniture mover would say out loud (especially if I was in the room), “this is where Matt tried to lay the linoleum.” Hilarity would ensue.

I swore I’d never attempt such a job again.

Nearly eighteen years ago we had linoleum installed in the kitchen. The house was new (to us) and I was too busy to consider such back-breaking labor. I would rather spend my time getting fat and lethargic behind a gray desk in a gray cubicle. Instead of being clever and industrious, I would use the vast sums I was earning behind the desk to pay others to be clever and industrious.

They were, indeed, clever. In the bathroom they erred making the cut around the base of the vanity in this relatively small area, and instead of just starting with a new piece they cleverly cut a small shape from some scrap and nicely matched the rest. Very clever, indeed. I wasn’t aware of their chicanery until many years later when the seam started to slowly pull apart.

They were clever in the kitchen as well. It looked nice for at least fifteen years, but eventually those seams started to show. Three seams, that is. In a room approximately 11x21 they used four different sections. I was convinced that I had been duped by merciless handymen, trying to improve their profit margins by using small bits rather than one long piece of linoleum.

“No,” the salesman said at the floor covering store last week, “it was probably the high-end Armstrong product from back then. The rolls were only six feet wide. Otherwise they were too heavy.”

“Oh, so they didn’t take advantage of me,” I said sheepishly.

He turned his attention to Kristin. He didn’t like me disparaging linoleum workers.

When it came time to choose the pattern, a familiar song-and-dance routine commenced. Kristin wanted to look at each and every possibility and complete a variety of compare-and-contrast charts and slowly pare down the original 500 possibilities to somewhere near 100 and then have me rank my top 30.

I can’t do it that way. First of all, I have very few requirements when it comes to linoleum patterns. I don’t necessarily want some diagonal scheme of cherries and lizards, but other than that I am likely to be pleased by whatever Kristin would choose (if she would just do that . . . choose!).

My other dilemma is that I just can’t get worked up about the minor changes in shading. Even when Kristin had chosen her favorite pattern, we had to go back and forth on several shades ranging from blinding white to black as night.

“Can’t we choose the one in the middle?” I asked, but both she and the salesman ignored me.

When he showed up at the house the next day to measure the kitchen, the first thing he said upon walking in was, “Oh, hmm, they should have had this in a twelve foot roll back then.” He shrugged his shoulders because he didn’t really care. I thrust my arms out to my sides and looked at Kristin, mouth agape. She ignored me and said to him, “What about the coving?”

But I guarantee I will be lurking during installation, ensuring that no corners are cut. By me, or by those we have hired.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gone

The first time a young child is left by its parents so they can go out clubbing or scuba diving (or whatever new parents are doing these days), it can be traumatic. After all, baby has grown accustomed to those faces, and this other face, the face that is now in charge, while possibly familiar, is still different. “Waaahhhhhhh!” says baby.

Babysitter feels bad, but what are you going to do? What are new parents to do? Not go clubbing? I don't think so.

What baby learns is that mommy and daddy come back, they don’t walk out that door and leave forever. This is some sort of developmental step missed out by those unfortunate babies whose parents are too clingy and could never ever leave their precious offspring with someone else. This child goes on to become homeschooled and quite possibly the national champion of the Spelling or Geography Bee.

The trophy looks very nice sitting in the closet, where the antisocial and friendless child sits as well.

I distinctly remember the first time Kristin and I left our first child with her first non-family babysitter. Kate was screaming holy murder as we walked out the front door. Kristin was a little worried, I waved and walked on (because I am, after all, a heartless knave). Babysitter announced upon our return several hours later that Kate stopped crying mere moments after we left.

And thus, the baby learned. Parents come back. And the knave is exonerated of his callousness, although he likely does something else unkind within a very short period of time. He is, after all, a knave, with a long history of knavishness.

It is different, however, when it is the kids that go. As our three children have grown they have disappeared for days or weeks at a time on school trips or with various family members or friends, and I have never been sad about that because they always come back. Plus, during their absence I can satisfy my lust for tacos and doughnuts without having to share.

Kate, Kelsey, and Kyle are reaching the age when their disappearances become lengthier and more often self-generated. When they are gone it seems like they are really gone, and any hours spent in their presence are the exception rather than the rule. Two of them drive now, and the third is aching to, and so sometimes a car is missing and a note is on the counter. They have earned the right to come and go as they please—to a certain extent.

When Kate went off to college last fall her departures naturally lasted for weeks at a time. A phone call once in a while, an email here or there, but her face had never been gone for so long.

Now she has taken her work and school goals to Arizona! I imagine the reunions will be even more infrequent, unless I get a job as a long-haul truck driver. Since that is unlikely to happen, I’ll just have to settle for the voice on the landline and the notes over the Interweb, and whatever joyous face-to-face encounters await in the future.

I can count on my fingers and toes the months until Kelsey performs her own collegiate disappearing act, so that is going to pass extremely quickly. Then another college will be sending me a monthly bill, or maybe she’ll be building schools and digging wells in poorer nations. Or enjoying the high seas trying to save the whales. One thing I know for sure is I shouldn’t waste time trying to predict what my children will do!

Even Kyle is going to have to fly the coop at some point. He threatens to stay with us until he’s thirty, and while that might sound cute, trust me, it isn’t. I have always said that I don’t want grown children living with me, because I think that stunts them. It prevents them from living their own life.

Plus, it begins to feel as if they are just waiting for me to die so they can get the house.

Children need to grow up. Children, eventually, need to go out on their own as well. But I have come to find that such departures create strange and unexpected feelings, at least for me. Now that I am in the process of being left by the children, I think that I just might cry at first, but I’ll get over it.

After all, they handled it with aplomb when I did it to them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Palaver

There are a lot of words in the English language that are underused. There are also too many that are overused, such as when my children say “like.” Ugh. It almost makes me, like, throw up in my mouth, like, just thinking about it.

Of course, “like” isn’t bad in and of itself. It serves a purpose at times, especially when it comes to similes, but unfortunately it has become one of those automatic utterances that are unbearable. The same thing happens every year when dictionary publishers peruse a list of possible additions for their grand books. Are they truly words of importance, or are they just popular buzz words that will soon wither and die?

I think any word to be considered for inclusion in the vaunted dictionaries of our time should be ignored if our grandparents never said it. The fact that the Oxford English Dictionary has recently added “staycation” to its list of worthwhile words is proof that we as a species can’t properly judge the merit of new words. At least fifty years must pass before a word is added to our approved lexicon. Otherwise we are faced with a cheapening of the language that I, as wordsmith, cannot stomach.

I am reasonably certain that no one will be saying “bromance” in 2020, and I likewise hope that “teachable moment” also eventually fades away. Both are trite and gimmicky, too clich├ęd to survive. Their overuse condemns them to obscurity.

Underused words, however, have staying power. Even if they are, well, underused. Every once in a while one slips out from a book or in a conversation with a friend and you can think, “Hmm, nice word.” Here’s a word that’s been around since the early 1700s (if my inadequate research can be trusted) but no one really uses it anymore: palaver.

That’s a good word! Palaver. It just sounds cool. It smacks of some wild west hombres sitting around a campfire, striking matches off their boot heels to light their hand rolled cigarettes, horses loosely tied to some nearby mesquite. I would sign up for just such a life, as long as there was somewhere I could plug in my iPod.

Palaver generally means “prolonged and idle conversation.” I wonder why no one really uses it anymore. Probably due to the lack of availability of hours-long campfire chats. Perhaps it is underused due to lack of familiarity, or just garden variety laziness. Regardless, I am here to return it to the public venue. Say it with me: palaver. Ahh, doesn’t that feel good?

The funny thing is I am generally not very good at palavering (the gerund form of the noun, or it might be a present participle, but remember: I rely exclusively on inadequate research). Prolonged conversation is scary for me because I am an impatient person. In my experience, most people use twenty-seven words when three will do, and very soon I just wander away.

Idle conversation is also problematic. Besides being impatient, I am also a control freak, and I want to have a plan and I want that plan to be implemented. An idle dialogue sounds too willy-nilly, and that can mean only one thing: everybody begins repeating their stories. The same things are being said by the same people who said them the last time. And there I go again, disappearing into the distance.

I realize I don’t often bring much new to the table either. My stories repeat, my observations are mere echoes of earlier ones, my opinions are tired and jaded. Sometimes I just stop talking mid-sentence because I am boring myself to death, and I pity the face(s) looking back at me. I can just imagine what they are thinking, so I walk away before they can tell me.

However, I’ve got a pal I’ve known for nearly forty years. We get together every once in a while, and the hours can just spin by if we don't pay attention. A couple of years ago our wives were both separately out of town, and I bicycled over to his house (I had mistakenly left my horse tied to the mesquite).

We sat and chewed the fat for a long time. A little reminiscing, but a lot of nothing more than “prolonged and idle conversation.” Eight hours went by before we looked at the clock. I can’t pull that off with too many people.

What I have to figure out is how to take what I have with this one guy and modify it for use with others. Unfortunately I have driven off most of my companions. Family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, have tired of my taciturn nature and my constant walking away.

Maybe I’ll start a little campfire in the backyard and invite over some hombres, ditch the tiki torches for some cactus and a fake mesquite plant if I can find one at Cost Plus. Then it’ll be time to chat.

C’mon, folks, let’s palaver. I promise I’ll try harder this time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cyst

Once upon a time there was a cat. It followed me from Campbell, California, to Palo Alto, and on to San Jose. Through the shadows, across time, from zip code to zip code, it was a haunted feline that lived to torment me. For years, it went wherever I did go.

Okay, you animal lovers, yes, it was the family pet, but it sounds creepier my way, doesn’t it? Almost like a Stephen King novel. Brrrrrrrrr.

Back when this cat spent five years with Kristin and me in Palo Alto, it got into a couple of scrapes. We never knew if it was with another housecat, or perhaps a wild animal—possums were always a possibility—but Naugles (that’s the cat) required two surgeries within a matter of twelve months or so. Each cost about five hundred bucks, to remedy an abscess, back when five hundred bucks was . . . well . . . five hundred bucks.

I swore the second would be the last, and that we’d not shell out such serious money again for the cat. Lucky for Naugles, it never happened again, and she lived a good ‘nother twelve years or so. Some people think I’m coldhearted enough to have actually denied a third surgery if it had become necessary, and I’m not going to attempt to dissuade anyone of that belief.

Now in the new millennium I wish that such a procedure would only cost me five hundred bucks. It turns out that prices have gone up since 1990. Who knew?

Daughter Kelsey, a creature doubly as active as Naugles the cat, had experienced some pain in her right wrist for at least two field hockey seasons. I, of course, wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a passing ache, so I waited a couple of years before we took her to the doctor.

If only she had been the family pet rather than a human being. A scalpel and a quick, impersonal procedure would have done the trick. Instead, Kelsey was subjected to x-rays and an MRI before a ganglion cyst was diagnosed. Surgery was suggested, although I was aware of a cheaper and quicker method using a bible, dictionary, or other large book. Just smack the thing! It is supposed to work well, although the smacked ones have been known to return.

Being a human being and not one of the lower species, and with a mother who has a mothering instinct, Kelsey earned the privilege of proper medical attention. Damn the cost and full speed ahead! The bills are just beginning to arrive from the surgical center, and the doctor, and the anesthesiologist, and it appears they’ll amount to more than $500, even with an insurance policy in place. Something to do with deductibles, and patient co-pays, and fees for not reading the fine print.

But, hey, it is Kelsey. It’s okay to spend that kind of money to improve the quality of her life, right? Sure, as long as it doesn’t keep happening. I’ll have to make sure that Kelsey reads “The Story of Naugles.” Another ganglion cyst might just be her ticket to the great beyond.

While Kelsey was resting at home two days post-op—with some highly enjoyable Vicodin tablets—Kristin took the latest incarnation of the family beast to the veterinarian. Zen the dog had a small lump on her chest that had appeared a couple of months earlier. Like the humans in the house, Zen doesn’t rush to the doctor with every possible infirmity. She takes the “wait and see” approach. Or we do for her.

Do me a favor, though, and don’t point out to Kelsey that we waited two years for her wrist, because Zen only waited about four months. This is simply because we figured the vet bill would certainly be less than Kelsey’s, and the dog’s might even turn out to be elective surgery. In which case I would elect “no.”

Still, the canine lump could be cancerous or something more unpleasant and so we figured we needed to know. Kristin took the dog to the vet, where she got a ton of compliments. That is, Zen got a lot of compliments. She was eager, friendly, curious, smart, and puppyish, despite her advancing years. (Really? Almost seven years old? Does that make surgery even more optional?)

The lump also was complimented. It was small, not intrusive, and simply a fatty deposit. Nothing malignant. Liposuction was an expensive possibility, but there was no way we were going to sign up for that. Zen got a couple of shots to keep her up-to-date on her vaccinations and to make sure she doesn’t spread rabies around the neighborhood again this year.

Just kidding. She didn't spread rabies around the neighborhood last year.

It was two years ago. (Kristin asks that I point out that I am still joking; ha ha, you be the judge.)

Anyway, Zen and Kelsey are both on the mend, and under strict orders from me: no more doctor visits! Or they will quickly learn just what the American icon Sarah Palin means by “death panels.”