Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pluto we hardly knew ya

Okay, what else are they going to change their minds about? It appears the International Astronomical Union (I bet the hotel doesn’t have to hire extra security when this convention comes to town) has decided to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. I wouldn’t worry about the little fella getting his feelings hurt. It is 2.66 billion miles from the Earth to Pluto. The scientists aren’t willing to pay the extra postage for next day delivery, so by the time he finds out we will all have been reincarnated so many times it won’t matter.
It seems this group of telescope nerds has decided Pluto does not fit into the new definition of what a planet is. The definition, as quoted by CNN on their website, goes like this: “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit." This can either be a planet or that overweight bully you had to contend with in sixth grade.
I bet these scientists had no idea how far reaching the ramifications of this decision would be. First of all people of all ages will have to expunge from their minds that handy little mnemonic device: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza pies. This taught us the order of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). Now all of us who learned this so many years ago will be left hanging. My very educated mother just served us nine…nine…nine what?!? The sentence doesn’t end! My wife suggested a new sentence: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles. I guess this will work. It puts the planets in the right order and it is also much easier to fit into the household budget. Nine pizzas would cost around fifty dollars, even with a coupon. But you can feed the entire population of Roswell, New Mexico (little green men included) Ramen noodles for about six dollars and fifty-seven cents.
Someone else who will have extra work is the highway department of Kansas. There are signs placed outside Burdett touting itself as the boyhood home of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto. The state is now going to have to remove those signs. They could update them but having a sign which says “Burdett, Kansas – The boyhood home of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of a great big rock which used to be called a planet but isn’t any more” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Plus it would cost too much to make a sign big enough to say all that. The conspiracy theorists in Kansas will probably say if the guy who discovered the planet came from California or New York they would have left it a planet. But, since it was puny Kansas they just don’t care. I guess we don’t have a strong enough Famous Kansan Lobby in the ol’ International Astronomical Union.
Come to think it of these space guys keep changing their minds on things. A few years back we had to change how we pronounced the names of things. Halley’s Comet went from a “long a” sound to “short a” sound. The seventh planet from the Sun was pronounced “your anus” and now we are supposed to say “urine us.” Both pronunciations invoke large amounts of tittering in fifth grade classrooms, but then again so does the word “tittering.”
I’m not sure this is a precedent we should be happy about. The names of the planets were things we learned early in our educational lives. There was even a “School House Rock” song. Kids will now question so many other things. Maybe conjunctions don’t function to link words and phrases. Maybe laws are not made from cute little scrolls of paper laboriously climbing the steps of Congress.
What we all need to learn from Pluto’s demotion is nothing is beyond question. Will the medical profession figure out sitting in a tiny room for an hour wearing only a paper robe is not a good idea? Will politicians realize they are in office to make life better for others, not just themselves? Will the people of France finally realize Jerry Lewis isn’t funny? I don’t think we will suddenly find out the world is flat or Pamela Anderson is a better novelist than William Faulkner (it would be more of a shock to find out Pamela Anderson is flat), but we may be surprised one day to learn when a tree falls in the woods and there is no one around to listen it makes the sound of one hand clapping.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Portent of Doom or Tasty Treat

The other day I came across something which I thought was a completely unnecessary product. It was a box of miniature Tootsie Rolls. I like Tootsie Rolls so I didn’t see the reason for them to be made in a very small form. Maybe it was to make people feel less guilty for eating seventy-five of them at one sitting. Actually, the size was not what made me see them as odd. These miniature Tootsie Rolls were chocolate covered! (Covering Tootsie Rolls in chocolate is like getting a big pot of cheese fondue and dipping hunks of Velveeta into it.) Needless to say I bought a box. Just because it seems pointless doesn’t mean it won’t be good.
America is known for its conspicuous consumption. Back in the old days of the Cold War the “Communists” referred to us as decadent. Decadent means excessive self-indulgence, which chocolate covered Tootsie Rolls are good examples of, to the point of moral decay. Now, I do not want to be an alarmist but we are spending so much time pointing to the unrest in the Middle East and the mess in Mesopotamia as signs of the apocalypse it may just be less belligerent than that.
It could be Nostradamus and other prognosticators only pointed out the signs of doom they felt everyone could easily see. You have to admit if you live in the 16th century and want to make a name for yourself as a seer of the distant future predicting violence in a portion of the world where there has been violence as long as there have been people capable of throwing sticks at each other makes for better copy than predicting a sign of moral decay consisting of small hunks of chewy chocolate covered by a thin layer of milk chocolate. Also, I do not believe Nostradamus’s predictions ever revolved around anything that can in any way be construed as pleasant. His best work revolved around famines, floods, droughts, invasions, and the occasional individual murder.
Here is an example of a Nostradamus quatrain:

The two armies will be unable to unite at the walls,In that instant Milan and Pavia to tremble:Hunger, thirst, doubt will come to plague them very stronglyThey will not have a single morsel of meat, bread or victuals.

This guy had to be a kick at parties. You have to wonder if he ever wanted to go off his usual material and try a little more light-hearted stuff. Maybe deep down he wasn’t all doom and gloom. He probably had a fun side. Let’s try a quatrain of a more upbeat nature:

The two poultry will be unable to meet at the street,
In that instant Colonel Sanders and Popeye’s to tremble:
Uncertainty, confusion, bewilderment will come to plague them
They will not have a clue why the chicken crossed the road.

Okay, so overly chocolatized candy is probably not a sign the culture is dropping into an irretrievable abyss of moral decay. It is a sign that shows people have a tendency to see the world as a pretty bitter place. When there is so much in the world that is pretty awful, people need everything candy coated, even candy.
This disguising of the crummy-ness of the world explains something which is soon to happen. Katie Couric is going to anchor the six o’clock news on CBS. If Edward R. Murrow hadn’t smoked and drank himself to death already he would be starting his car in a closed garage at the thought of the Queen of Perky being chosen to illuminate the world on the important occurrences of the time. Really, imagine it.
Murrow was the voice, the man who brought the palpable fear of the London blitz into homes throughout the world over the radio. Radio had no imagery other than words. Yet he did it. He said things like: “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” Now flash forward to present day. Katie is more famous for saying things like: “So how can a girl tell if he’s just not that into you?” or “What’s the weather going to be like at the Annual Rutabaga Festival in Cumberland, Wisconsin, Al.” Not the same is it?
I say even if the world has things in it which cause distress we do not have to candy coat everything. The “Mary Poppins” attitude advocating a spoonful of sugar for every dose of medicine is not always correct for fully grown men and women who need to see the world for what it is. We need to save it for the big things. Things like Paris Hilton’s new album.

Christopher Pyle makes no claim of clairvoyance, but he did have a very strong feeling Kansas would go Republican in the last presidential election. Spooky, huh?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Returning to School

It is just a week away. A date that every kid and parent knows is coming. The kids and parents have very different reasons to anticipate this date. We all remember similar times in our childhoods. Of course I am talking about Fess Parker’s birthday. It is hard to believe that ‘Daniel Boone’ is 82 years old. (Remember how the only person on that show who spoke proper English grammar was a guy named Mingo.)
Okay, so Fess Parker’s birthday is not what every one is thinking about. It’s really Kathie Lee Gifford’s birthday. Sorry, I’ll get back on task. It is the beginning of a new school year.
The sense of anticipation has been mounting. Kids looking at the slow, inexorable lessening of summer days like a honey covered man watching the march of fire ants towards his feet. While, on the other hand, the parents countdown the days like a solitary confinement prisoner counting the days until his new issue of Redbook arrives in the mail. Maybe that’s a bad example, but you get the idea.
Thinking back to my own experiences as a kid it seemed there was less lead-in time. Nowadays, as soon as the Fourth of July has passed the stores start putting up their back-to-school advertisements. Since everything is now bottom line driven I guess it makes sense. The retail world limps from one minor annual event to the next hoping to make it to Christmas, the ultimate everyone-max-out-your-credit-card-making-Sam-Walton’s-family-just-that-much-richer occurrence. As a parent of three school age children I am pretty sure this is the second most check book exhaustive time of year.
School supplies have gotten much more complicated over the years. From the days of a Big Chief notebook (which consisted of seventy-five cents worth of newsprint bound together and topped off with cover art depicting a racially insensitive portrait of a Native American wearing a many feathered headdress) to a notebook personal computer (which consists of a thousand dollars of technology making it possible to surf the internet and find racially insensitive material that would make Archie Bunker cringe).
At the risk of sounding older than I wish to, when I was a kid I carried my books home, loose. I just made a stack with the three ring binder at the bottom, tucked them under my arm and carried them. Now kids need an ergonomically designed backpack made from a space age polymer equipped with special compartments for a cell phone, an I-pod, and with a built-in GPS device making it possible for parents to track them as they go to the mall instead of the library which is where they told their mother they were going in order to finish their report entitled “How Bovine Flatulence Effects Global Warming.” But, I was the guy who through the majority of his high school career carried his lunch to school in a black Ralph Kramden-like metal lunchbox, complete with a thermos in the lid, which my wife gleefully points out marked me as a nerd extraordinaire. So, I guess I am not the person to go to when it comes to figuring out the “right way” to outfit a student.
There are pleasant memories attached to the return to school. There is nothing quite so aesthetically pleasing as a brand new box of crayons. The pointy, but not sharp, pigment sticks standing in their perfect rows in the box with that distinctive smell. The smell which takes most everyone back to the time in their lives when art was best appreciated hung with magnets on a refrigerator and the birds and horses looked remarkably similar. I’m not talking about the boxes numbering into the hundreds, but just the ones whose color names are understood by anyone. Colors like: red and green and blue. Not colors with names too arcane for a five year old. How many kindergarteners remark they really wish their box had a periwinkle in order to capture the proper shade of their cat’s eyes? (There is “raw sienna” and “burnt sienna”. Is there “properly cooked so it reaches its optimum level of doneness” sienna?) As wonderful as a new crayon is the truly remarkable thing about crayons is you can break them cleanly in two and they still do their intended use as well as when they were pristine, just out of the box. What else can make such a claim? Try it with that multi-function calculator capable of figuring the square root of pi as well as the statistical likelihood Suri Cruise actually exists, or at least what chance she has to grow up without needing years of intensive psychotherapy. It won’t work.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

I'm Mad

I yelled at people this past week. Yelling is not my usual style. My kids might disagree, but I do not really yell at them. It is just there are times I need to be loudly emphatic to get my point driven into their less than receptive heads. I mean, no one would blame me for getting a little loud when for the nine millionth time I have to ask the kids to turn off at least a couple of lights in the basement. Great Cesar’s Ghost, does it really cause too much strain in one’s life to get his or her lazy behind off the couch just long enough to flip a switch? Is it truly that difficult to think about the little things that make Dad happy and do them once in a while?!? (Huff, puff, pant, pant….sorry)
Most people would probably characterize me as a calm person and I have always prided myself on possessing a good amount of self-control. Self-control is what differentiates the outward manifestations of people who are angry. Everyone has their point of no return, their straw that broke the camel’s back, their line in the sand, their threshold when they become so annoyed that they finally blow their top, lose their cool, blow a gasket, or flip their lid. It may be caused by something as minor as a person using too many clich├ęs to make a point. Others have to be pushed quite hard to elicit a display of out of control anger.
It is all a matter of priorities. Some value the image they project as one of calm control. They maintain this level of decorum even in the face of frustration and if they do lose control they feel bad about it afterwards. There are others who do not. The examples I think of come from my experience with the United States Basketball League. The head coach for the Dodge City Legend is Dale Osbourne. He is very calm and doesn’t even curse very often. When he gets mad he stomps a foot or claps his hands together. There was the time he slapped the water cooler at the Salina Bicentennial Center like it was a West Nile carrying mosquito, but he apologized for that over and over again. The other side of the coin is Bryan Gates, the head coach of the Oklahoma Storm. He has two assistant coaches. Does he have two assistant coaches to work more complicated offenses and more stifling defenses? Nope. Does he have two assistant coaches to work with the big guys and the smaller guys? Nope. He has two assistant coaches because then he has an assistant coach for each arm, so then can grab him and stop him from getting not only ejected from the game but also to avoid the assault charges as he “takes exception” to a call made by a referee.
Some people are quite entertaining when they get mad. When Bobby Knight has an anger fit it is shown on every sports network nearly as often as the Zapruder film was screened by Oliver Stone. Every one of us had a teacher in school we liked to torture to the point of entertaining anger displays. I’m not talking about the ones who got all quiet like they were about to cry. That wasn’t any fun. I’m talking about the guy who got the veins in his forehead throbbing so fast he was actually spelling out curse words in Morse code. Or the lady who would threaten with outlandish impractical punishments, like: “If you students do not settle down right this instant you will stay in your seats until the Moon spins off of its axis and plummets to Earth destroying all human life, allowing the cockroach to become the highest life form on the planet.”
Actually, there are times I wish I could really cut loose and get out of control angry. It has to feel good on some primordial level. Look at a two year old. When he gets mad about something he can really let loose. He yells. He stomps his feet. He drops to the floor and pounds his fists on the ground. All of this is because the pudding is butterscotch and not chocolate. Then three minutes later his is totally gleeful as he finger paints with the butterscotch pudding on the dog. Transfer that behavior to the adult world. Admit it; you would love to yell, stomp your feet, drop to the floor and pound the ground with your fists when the boss comes in and tells you the report you thought was due next Thursday was actually due last Thursday. It won’t make the report any less overdue, but you might get some pudding.

Christopher Pyle has promised himself that the next time he feels like yelling at someone he will stop, count to ten, and then poke them in the eyes like Shemp and Curly.