Sunday, November 28, 2010


It has always been my goal to avoid prison. At least in regard to going in and not being able to leave when I wanted. I’d be more than happy to visit a friend or family member who might find themselves behind bars. I’d submit to the x-ray and the pat down if necessary to get in (hey! visiting a prison is now a lot like going to the airport!) and I’d even be willing to talk to the prisoner through the two inches of bulletproof glass.

After all, dear friend or family member, it’s the least I can do, as it is likely you have taken the fall for me. Which I really appreciate! I’m working on the appeal right now, so please maintain our code of silence. Remember: given my previous record it was better that you accept responsibility for our crime.

So far I have succeeded in never doing any serious jail time. If there is any reason I might be suddenly and swiftly incarcerated, my attorney tells me I am under no obligation to tell you. Take that under advisement, as I have.

But enough about me. What do you think of me?

Despite my pathological avoidance of the penitentiary, plenty of other people are willingly going to prison. In this case it is not the conclusion of a legal battle, but instead it is a career move. As we Americans have continued to incarcerate more and more of our fellow citizens, we need places to put them and we need people willing to point guns at them if they don’t follow directions.

Communities are thriving with new prisons, or at least they hope to. It is a growth industry, replacing oil production in Colorado, coal jobs in West Virginia, and farming in California. Mississippi and Alabama and others are also seeking their fair share of the criminal element—as long as handcuffs and shackles are used liberally.

There are plenty of ways for people to make money in this new world order. It begins with the extensive construction process and continues through to the day-to-day operation. Ironworkers are needed, as are carpenters. Because these new prisons are so high-tech, they need electricians, too. And the guard jobs aren’t for dummies; they need to be able to count heads in the cellblock and keep track of which gates are open.

Instead of putting on a suit and tie and pushing paper from one side of the desk to the other like the stereotypical modern office worker, prospective prison employees must be willing to holster a gun and pepper spray. Even more important, they must be willing to use them. We are told these are the jobs of the future.

After all, teaching jobs disappear (because the economic horror in [your state or county] has forced all of the parents to flee with their families to other parts of the country) and no one wants to open a bookstore or boutique or tavern if all of the potential customers have moved away. Workers would rather listen to tin cups rattling against the iron bars of jail cells for eight hours a day.

Prisons used to fall under the edict “not in my backyard.” They were unsightly and with the caliber of their population they immediately made the neighborhood a more dangerous place to live (although as George Carlin once pointed out, wouldn’t escaped convicts likely run far from the prison, not hang around to torment the neighbors?) and no one wanted to include “turn left at the prison” when giving directions to their home.

Frustration with crime has led us to be more forgiving. We agree to lock up increasing numbers of inmates, and because we don’t want to become China we must house them in humanitarian ways. This creates lots of jobs, and with that the small town nearby just might come back to life as the newly sworn in prison guards need grocery stores and boutiques (and taverns—I would imagine working in a federal penitentiary would be a highly stressful job and good for the business of selling alcohol).

If manufacturing is never coming back as the great American economic model (as many doom-and-gloomers are saying) and the so-called “knowledge industries” of the twenty-first century are boring you to death, go to prison! This will work up until the point that there are too many convicts for the rest of us to keep under control.

Then we might have to try something else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The best kind of product reviews are those where the author is highly opinionated, has never actually seen or used the product in question, and instead relies on preconceived notions formulated over many years of being skeptical and sarcastic. It works for movie reviews as well, I suppose, but that’s a bit off topic at the moment.

Let us consider, then, the Colgate Wisp. I first heard about it from a televised commercial. A handsome woman clad in a skimpy outfit and sitting in the backseat of a luxury car parked outside a popular nightclub had a sudden emergency. Her breath was not fresh! Possibly she had shreds of spinach caught in her teeth from her dinner salad as well.

She needed help, and it arrived in the form of a small brush with a pre-applied bit of mouth cleaner. After a quick swipe, she grinned widely in the rearview mirror and went inside the club to dance erotically and probably drink too much. The commercial didn't show her four hours later when the club closed, but I presume she would need to freshen up again.

Sadly, the item she used in the car was designed to be thrown away. No concern for landfills and bulky plastic garbage. Nope, she tossed the first one and probably got another one from her purse later, just in case her kissing bandit showed up again.

The “emergency” that propels people to buy the Colgate Wisp is slightly fictitious, and even if it wasn’t, that particular problem was solved decades ago. I know fresh breath and clean teeth are important, but it seems unnecessary to have them both twenty-four hours a day. As human beings, we sometimes have to eat and drink, and that affects our ability to perpetually smell like sunshine and love.

I don’t eat two dozen garlic cloves and expect anyone to get too close, but here’s the thing: I rarely eat two dozen garlic cloves, and even less often is anyone trying to get too close. Kristin does on occasion, I think it happened once or twice this past summer in fact. But there is usually plenty of time to react.

The folks in the ad who need this product are the ones who are flying around town in a constant state of excitement and, quite frankly, never know who they are going home with. Anyone in a long-term relationship can say, “Hold on, sweetheart, let me take care of something,” and then proceed to look for a toothbrush, mint, or mouthwash. If it takes a few minutes no one cares, because they don’t live in fear of the person running off.

Pity, then, the hot number in the mini-skirt (or his date) who can’t turn away for even a moment for fear that the object of their affection will immediately look elsewhere. A quick check in a pocket or clutch bag and he, she, or it has disappeared. Fresh breath ain’t no fun if you don’t have anyone to share it with.

What they don’t realize is this: it’s not a real emergency if you smell like your dinner. That’s normal. It happens to everyone about once a day and we all should expect that from each other. To have the fish stew and then smell like a peppermint candy is what’s weird, not breathing out the cod. It’s only bad if you don’t like the smell of cod.

Some people like beer breath on their paramour, others not so much. But there have been ways to deal with this for years. The folding camping toothbrush from my youth, for example. I used to take it to school after I got my braces on so that I could brush during lunch. Not because I was making out with any classmates or the teacher, but because I was ordered to by my orthodontist. He was a scary dude.

I’ve seen people dab toothpaste on a finger and swish that around. There have been fast acting mouthwashes—and “curiously strong” mints that can easily override any chilidog with extra onions—available for purchase for many years. We didn’t need this new product, the Colgate Wisp. Certainly our landfills don’t need all the crap generated from just one mouth cleaning, and I’m not even a rabid environmentalist.

I just don’t like stupid.

If you’re worried about offending someone, breathe in another direction. If you are pretty sure you are going to be kissing someone later, but you don’t know who that person is because you haven’t met him or her yet, I suggest you have a bigger problem than bad breath. In the meantime, brush before you leave the house.

And don’t have the spinach salad.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


The only way to truly keep a secret is to not tell anyone. Doesn’t matter who you tell, or how “besties” you think you are with your best friend. Once you’ve spilled the beans, the beans will eventually be shared, and it will be out of your control. Guaranteed.

The bigger the secret, the easier it is shared, as well. Maybe it is not easy to share, but it is hard to keep to yourself. You want to be the one known for knowing it. You want to be the first. You want to get something for it. When it is an earth-shattering, I-can’t-believe-it kind of secret, it will slip between the lips of whoever you’ve told quicker than you can say, “Hey, listen to this!” and then it will spread like wildfire from there.

That’s why I knew those Chilean miners were doomed. The worst part of their experience won’t have been the 69 days they spent half a mile underground. It is going to be the weeks and months after being returned to the world. Being swallowed by the earth will seem like good times compared to trying to keep their pact to stay united.

Like most people I was captivated by the initial reports out of Chile of the cave in and the subsequent plans for rescue. It was horrific to imagine being in their position, and the aggressive plans for retrieval were awe inspiring. Then the rescue was coming sooner than first imagined, and it went off like clockwork, and suddenly the 33 men were once again living under the blue sky and everyone wanted to hear their story.

The plan to work as a team was to be lauded. They could share in the proceeds of whatever might fall their way, and surely they were due whatever people were willing to pay. After such a story (longest buried alive, tight living quarters, mistresses vs. wives, etc.) they should be able to turn it into a few bucks. The more the merrier. Each penny being split 33 ways was a great plan.

Except it was never going to work. The human animal ain’t built that way.

There was no chance that someone wouldn’t go rogue. Too many agencies, too many publishers, too many offers would be coming from too many different directions. All they had to do was flash enough green and one of the miners would cave (ha!) and like a house of cards it would all implode.

Though these might not be technically secrets the miners are going to disseminate, it is a story that only they can tell. If they do it together, great! If it comes out piecemeal, it will only decrease in value. There are too many variables. There are too many miners.

Sometimes they are in the news as a cohesive group, attending a Chilean soccer match together or being nominated as Time Magazine’s persons of the year or being photographed in matching Oakley sunglasses (donated by the company and worth $180 each, the first payout other than the 48 hours of free medical care when they first surfaced).

Sometimes, though, we hear about dissention in the ranks. One guy was the strong leader type underground but another more gregarious fellow has become the face of the group aboveground because he is always willing to smile and talk. One miner recently ran the New York City Marathon, and unless he paid the entry fee and hotel costs himself, according to their pact his compatriots should have received something of equal value. The same guy was on the Letterman show and was offered a trip to Graceland because he is a big Elvis fan.

Do all the miners get to go to Graceland? Do they all want to? Would some rather visit the Colorado Territorial Museum, where they flaunt their history of 77 executions (45 by hanging, 32 by gas) and inmates such as Alfred Packer, the only man convicted of cannibalism in the U.S.?

I am beginning to sense a strain in the whole team concept. If they can stick together, the group, as a whole, will be better off. There will be colossal amounts of money from books, movies, videogames, interviews and other appearances. It’s not exactly a zero sum game, where anyone’s gain is offset by another’s loss. They could share equally in the bounty.

But the pot of money is in some ways limited, if not in dollar amount then at least in time. The story will be superseded eventually by a political scandal, weather catastrophe, or a surprising upset in sports. And if one miner goes out on his own in an attempt to benefit himself or his family, or because he thinks he is not getting his fair share, instead of hearing stories of triumph and courage we will be told of backstabbing and infighting.

There will be no way to tell if things were fair. Which makes sense, because this is life, ladies and gentlemen, and life isn’t fair. The miners might give it their best effort, but there is possibly too much working against them for everything to go smoothly. They just might have been doomed from the outset.

And I’m not talking about the cave-in.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Every day the future arrives and it seems pretty much like the thousands of days that have gone before. Instead of the flying cars we were promised, we get traffic nightmares as cities try to add one more lane to the already congested freeways. And Dick Tracy’s wristwatch with the two-way communication to headquarters pales in comparison to any throwaway cell phone used by fourth graders with permissive parents, but we don't seem better off as a species just because we are talking more.

“But, Matt,” you say as though I were in the room, “aren’t cell phones the modern day equivalent of the Star Trek communicator? Aren’t the Robomow automatic lawn mower and the Roomba autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner the next step in human evolution? Now we can just sit around with TV images being displayed directly onto our video display goggles.”

No. And no. No, no, no! We don’t have food replicators or the ability to transport solid matter from one place to another. Captain Kirk and the Jetsons were lying to us. Our space station barely has enough room for grown men and women to maneuver comfortably. Every time they talk to us from space they are crammed together and look like five or six people trying to use a single-seat outhouse.

The idea of technology making our lives futuristic, culminating in the personal robot servant that roles around on one wheel answering our every beck and call, has not happened, and it never will. We are going to sit on this planet for some time to come (I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we are going to sit on this planet until we are extinct) and find joy in simple things that seem futuristic, like cruise control, web cams, and robotic litter boxes for pampered cats.

The rest is a pipe dream, good for science fiction movies but nothing else. Certainly not for how people should plan to live out the rest of their days.

Advancements will continue as scientists and explorers and inventors tinker with existing knowledge and expectations, but not on the order of the flying car. If we can’t even manage two-dimensional travel without coming up with new psychological afflictions like “road rage,” there’s no way we could successfully deal with adding “up” to our choices of “left” and “right.”

Similarly, those of you expecting moon colonies and x-ray glasses have to get your noses out of your comic books and take a look at real life. Other than having a curiosity for discovery, we humans are just another life form trying to get food into our mouths and finding shelter in inclement weather. We should be grateful that our grocery store clerks only have to drag our frozen food packages over the bar code reader rather than trying to find an iced-over price tag.

We should also be grateful that there are still people willing to do such an interesting job, but as I’ve been saying for many years, in the future we will still need cab drivers and grocery store clerks and soccer coaches. We will not be populated entirely by highly educated and overpaid computer programmers ever.


The day when we can fill the grocery basket and simply walk out the door as a scanner instantly tabulates the cost of each and every item (and accurately deducts the amount from our bank account) is not going to arrive. Don’t waste your time waiting for it.

If I’m right, then, what exactly are we waiting around for? Am I all doom and gloom and waiting for the 21st century equivalent of the Dark Ages?

Well, yes. And no. Mostly no.

As our expectations settle in and we become better able to discern between realistic advancements and science fiction buffoonery (even Captain Kirk occasionally walked into a malfunctioning automatic door), we will realize that we don’t want to relegate what constitutes real life to a bunch of unfeeling machines. We (or at least most of us) will not want to be part of the Matrix.

The point of the future is that there is one. Having the next day arrive, be it sunny or foul weathered, is better than the alternative. In the meantime, the average citizen will have to be happy with the fact that they can buy shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle, and that they can track down old high school chums on a social media platform only to discover why they never kept in touch with old high school chums.

That’s the real future, folks. Forget about the robots.