Wednesday, December 31, 2008

To heck with Guy Lambardo

The song which has come to be synonymous with ringing in a new year is probably the most performed song in the country to which nobody knows the lyrics. Admit it, after “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind” you, like nearly everybody else, start to make unintelligible vowel sounds until you get to the “auld lang syne” at the end.
Not only do I have a problem remembering the lyrics I have a problem with the apparent sentiment of the single lyric I can remember. I don’t really want to forget all my old acquaintances and never bring them to mind. I like some of my old acquaintances better than a lot of the people I met recently.
Many people do not believe me when I tell them I am a shy person. I admit it is somewhat counter intuitive when there was a time in my life I would wear short pants and cowboy boots and purposely cavort in goofy ways in front of more than a thousand people at the Dodge City Civic Center (I was Marshal Hoops the mascot for the Legend basketball team). I also performed in several productions for what was then the Boot Hill Repertory Company, often in very silly roles. It is just my shyness manifests itself in that I would rather stand in front of a couple hundred people than a couple people.
Because of this basic shyness I don’t make new friends all that often. My wife is the truly gregarious one. She adds friends to her list more frequently and with greater ease than I do. There have even been times in the past when she tried to fix me up. She’d think I was being too reclusive and would arrange for us to spend time with another couple. She was friends with the wife and would scout out the husband to be sure there were compatibilities.
I would tell her I was perfectly content staying home and she would point out “Fred” (a fictitious name used in order to allow anonymity for these innocent by-standers in my blind, man dates) was a sports fan, had similar tastes in music and agreed with many of my political beliefs.
I have to admit most every time she did this I had a fine time. She has a good eye for people I will be compatible with and with whom I can carry on an interesting and entertaining conversation. If my wife ever decides to leave me just how pathetic would it be for me to ask her to find my dates for me when I’m single again?
Even with the success stories of these fix-up friends I still refuse to practice the “acquaintance Alzheimer’s” suggested by the song. In 2008 I celebrated the fortieth anniversary of my longest friendship. Rob and I met the first day of kindergarten at Wiley Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas,1968. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States, the Green Bay Packers were the reigning champions of the National Football League, nobody had walked on the moon yet, a single computer was the size of those gigantic Easter Island stone heads and phones were heavy enough to cause severe blunt force trauma if thrown at someone and the dials were rotary. That was a long time ago. 1968 was the year Celine Dion, Vanilla Ice, and Molly Ringwald were born. Our friendship is the same age and infinitely more talented and entertaining.
Also, 2008 marked the 18th year of my marriage. If our marriage was a person it could now vote, buy lottery tickets and could have been married itself for the past four years if it lived in Arkansas.
The long term relationships are more important to me. Between Claudia and Rob, they possess the knowledge of every stupid move, irretrievably dumb decision, and patently dim-witted action I have ever undertaken, yet they still treat me well and do things which make my life better. Part of this may be due to the fact I also possess some information they may not wish to be made public, heh, heh, heh.
No matter what Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians tell us I suggest everyone out there take a moment to remember old acquaintances, to value what they have added to our lives and how they have helped form us into the people we have become. Also, to remember the time he walked directly into the pillar in our high school lobby making me laugh until I was in danger of losing proper control of my bladder.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For want of something better

‘Tis the season to want things. I am not just talking about base greediness. Not to say there isn’t base greediness in the world (a student at my school when asked what he wanted for Christmas said he wanted two Xboxes, one for the living room and one for his room), but there is also altruistic wanting. The wanting to do good deeds for others, the wanting of a better life for all as the calendar turns from 2008 to 2009, and the wanting of a diminishing number of movie opportunities for Ben Stiller are examples of non-greedy wanting, but rather wanting for the greater good.
This begs the question: why do we want what we want? Recently I have explored several different facets of how our brains work and one of those facets revolves around how we make such decisions.
The basic conflict within our minds is between the forces of emotion and the forces of rational thought. Allow me to put it into simplistic imagery in order to clarify the concepts. The emotional forces, not surprisingly, look like one of those Orc things from the Lord of the Rings movies, a hulking creature of great strength and atrocious personal hygiene. It is not easily distracted from its primal goals.
Rational thought shouldn’t even be referred to as a “force”. It looks like a ninth grade civics teacher. This means the rational thoughts part of the brain is pleasant enough, erudite, introspective, conscientious, ergo rather boring and easily turned into a quivering mass of terrified gelatin.
Think about it. For those of you who went to Liberty Junior High the same years I did, would you place your wager on Mr. Zahorsky (ninth grade civics teacher in 1977) or an ax-wielding, knuckle dragging denizen of the Middle Earth underworld in a one-on-one grudge match?
Actually the two forces don’t even have to get into direct conflict for the emotional side to win. One university study illustrated the general weakness of rationality. It had been previously proven that the typical human mind can hold seven, plus or minus two, bits of information in the forefront of its memory, so some smarty pants college professors designed an experiment. The participants would go into a room and were told a list of numbers to remember. They were then asked to go from the first room to another room and recite the numbers to the person there. Some people were given very short lists and others were given a list at the top of the difficulty level of seven digits.
As the participants went from Room A to Room B an accomplice of the professors stopped them and offered a snack as a way of thanking them for helping with the study. They were offered either a piece of chocolate cake or some fruit. This is where the real experiment was taking place.
The great majority of the participants who were only asked to memorize a couple of numbers asked for the fruit and the majority of participants who were laboring to remember seven digits asked for the cake. The professor folks took this to mean the rational mind was so over burdened by trying to remember the seven numbers the emotional mind was able to make the selection. “Me want cake!” slathered the Orc and since the civics teacher was too busy reciting “one, three, seven, six, uh, blast, what’s next?” it wasn’t able to have the mouth ask for the much healthier and ergo more rational choice of fruit.
I use this learned experiment to explain why I sneak to Dillon’s after work and buy doughnuts. My rational mind is so preoccupied with the pursuit of enhancing the educational opportunities for the eager young people, who, after all, are the hope for the future of our nation, nay, our entire planet, I cannot be bothered to use my rational brain power to select a food which can sate my hunger without contributing to the unhealthy state of being well over the surgeon general’s recommended weight. This is a sacrifice I am willing to make for the benefit of today’s youth. You can thank me later.
Another tidbit of decision making is emotions really are necessary to make a choice. A man who suffered from a brain tumor was changed into a person who relied exclusively on logic. This man would spend hours working out the merits of using a pen with blue or black ink, sometimes not arriving at a decision. This shows extreme rationality is wishy-washy. The emotional person knows how to choose the best pen. Oooo, I like the shiny one.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dear Santa, uh, I'll have to get back to you

I seem to have crossed over into a new stage of life. I don’t want anything for Christmas. On one hand this could mean I have reached a level of contentment in my life, a sort of serenity in which the base desire for material goods has been supplanted by higher thoughts leading to greater understanding of what is truly important in life. On the other hand it might mean I’m old.
When you’re a little person, with the wonder of Santa Claus fresh in your consciousness, it is easy to make a Christmas list only slightly longer than the collected works of Leo Tolstoy. This is not a sign of greed. This is a sign of the belief that the world is full of possibilities, that there is magic at the North Pole, and that the latest Major Matt Mason action figure will make life complete.
I can personally attest to that last fact. When I tore the paper from the green headed alien, Callisto, adding to my collection of Sgt. Storm, Astronaut Doug Davis, and Lt. Jeff Long there was a sense of joy not rivaled by many things in the life of quiet desperation pursued by most folks who work for a living.
As we get past the enchantment of those early years, Christmas often does get slightly tainted with greed. We want stuff for the sake of stuff. After the days of action figures, slot car race tracks (which worked until New Year’s Day) or for the girls, the Crissy doll (which had a knob on her back to retract her hair back into her head and a button in her stomach which made it possible to pull her hair out to a greater length - that was just weird) teenagers tend to want the latest and coolest gadgets and part of this desire is simply for the boost in status amongst their friends.
My stint in this time of life was before Blu-Ray, before MP3 players, before Nintendo, before DVDs, before CDs, before cell phones, before video tape players, before the wheel, oops, went just a bit too far there. I very distinctly remember getting a cool radio. Yes, I said a radio. It was AM and FM. It was designed so it looked like a bottom heavy circle, but it had a hinge of sorts which meant you could swivel it so it looked like a bloated “S”. With this ooh-neat-cool-wow radio I could listen to Casey Kasem tell me Debby Boone was at the top of the charts for the nine hundred and twenty-seventh week with an intensely insipid love song or Dancin’ Don Hall send out good night kiss dedications on KWHK (never to me, sigh).
Later the Christmas list shows signs of maturity. You start asking for things you can actually use. The ultimate sign a person has grown up is when he wants socks beneath the Tannenbaum. What was once the crummy present you resented wasting the time it took to unwrap goes from representing an unfeeling great aunt with a twisted utilitarian sense of gift giving to something else entirely. As a college student I saw each pair of socks as one more day I could avoid going to the Laundromat.
During the first few years of being an honest to goodness grown up it is still easy to make lists of desired stuff. Much of the stuff was placed on the list because it would make life a bit more interesting, fun, or easy to do. My lists would contain a smattering of things not unlike items from lists I made in other stages of my life. I would ask for toys because I thought it really didn’t count as Christmas if there wasn’t something to play with down there on the floor amongst the tattered paper and bows. I would ask for the latest gadgets partially for the coolness factor and partly because they were the toys of people over ten. I would ask for socks because I still preferred putting off laundry for as long as possible.
This Christmas I really don’t want anything. If I was forced to write what I wanted it would sound sappy. I want my children to be happy and healthy. I want my wife to be well taken care of and never to feel she goofed up by marrying me. I want my friends to be successful in what they pursue. For me, I want to expand my horizons as a writer and continue being with my wife, children and friends. Oh, and a couple of pairs of socks would be nice.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Truth, Justice and the Milky Way

Philosophers and artists of all kinds have spent centuries looking for just the right thought or image to sum up the human condition. People are complex and there are innumerable points of view but occasionally one of these extraordinary individuals hits upon something which speaks to each and every human being who considers himself a seeker of the truth. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart, and Picasso, have transcended with word, tone or image into the world of truth and the planet is enriched because of it.
I realize I am just some yutz from Kansas who plays with words but I think I have found an image which illustrates the eternal struggle faced by man each day as he forces himself out of bed and forays out into the maelstrom that is life. This image comes from a dispenser. Not a dispenser of wisdom like the collected writings of Socrates. Not a dispenser of insight like the Oracle at Delphi. Not even a dispenser of down home good judgment like Poor Richard’s Almanac. I’m talking about a dispenser of hedonistic gratification: the snack machine in the break room at work.
It has to be a very specific sort of snack machine. It has to be one of those machines which has a glass front and all the tasty treats are visible. Laid before the seeker are all the tantalizing objects of his desire. The goals of life are just hanging there on those curly post thingees waiting for the proper button to be pushed. When that button sends its message to the curly post thingee it slowly begins to rotate, teasing the seeker. Will the object of desire drop into the catcher tray or will something cause it to get hung up just out of reach, taunting the pilgrim?
Today I visited the break room in search of solace, refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a salve to soothe dealing with people who would rather create problems out of thin air than work to make the world a better place, or more precisely, chocolate. As I gazed into the newly refilled automated giver of joy I saw something which went beyond mere melts in your mouth euphoria. This was a lesson, a piercing insight.
Curly post thingee number 17 had extra large size peppermint patties. A candy which gives the consumer a bracingly clean cool minty taste sensation while in the same bite offering the dark warmth of chocolate, the yin and the yang of sweetness. That in and of itself was a moment of insight, but the lesson did not stop there. When the omniscient manipulator of the snack machine had reached in to replenish the waning choices he had placed the enticing candy treats behind the last remaining lonely bag of CornNuts.
The symbolism was too stark. In order to get to the nirvana of creamy sweetness one must first shell out one’s hard earned money to chew one’s way through the hardest foodstuff ever invented. As I gazed at this eternal truth before me it dawned on me there might be a shortcut. If someone else would throw themselves on the curly dispenser sword and buy the bag of CornNuts it would clear the path to the soft goodness without me having to endure the callous hardness of life.
I went back later in the day. Blast! Nobody had the guts or strength of character, not to mention the proper density strength of teeth, to sacrifice for the good of the rest of us. The CornNuts still lay between me and the peppermint patties.
Since I am trying to adhere to a budget I have only allotted the price of one snack treat per day. So here was my dilemma: I could use today’s money to by a lesser treat giving less fulfillment or I could buy the CornNuts thus surrendering my own daily pleasure for the sake of others or I could not buy anything, save today’s prearranged allocation of coinage so tomorrow I could buy the CornNuts and then immediately drop the next set of quarters into the machine, buying the peppermint soothing the pain of masticating my way through a crunch so loud it can drown out the laughter of children, the twitter of songbirds and all other sounds of elation known to mankind.
That is when it came to me. My wife actually likes CornNuts. I’ll go get her.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Buddy Can Ya Spare a Billion

It seems the economy is suffering through a bit of a down turn. This down turn is somewhat akin to falling off Mount Everest and landing near the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Look at the newspaper. Oh, I guess you already are. I mean look at the depressing parts of the newspaper. The government is doing more bailing out than a Hell’s Angels lawyer on New Year’s Eve.
Can anyone explain to me why banks need money? Banks are where money lives. Banks are to money as dairies are to milk. Banks are to money as Blockbuster is to DVDs. Banks are to money as the Kansas City Chiefs are to football players…okay, bad example, but you get what I mean.
The government has already committed $700 billion to bailout various financial institutions. If you laid 700 billion one dollar bills end to end the line would reach from Dodge City to the desert planet of Tatooine and continue to the planet Mongo returning to Dodge City with enough left over to get to Jetmore. Okay, I actually started to do the math for a real-life analogy but after figuring 700 billion one dollar bills come to over 4 trillion 200 billion inches of money I gave up.
Now the car companies want $25 billion in what I believe they are calling some sort of loan. So does Congress mail them a coupon book which has sixty little perforated pages asking for monthly payments of four hundred sixteen million, six hundred sixty-six thousand, six hundred sixty-six dollars and sixty-seven cents to be mailed to United States Capitol Building, Independence Avenue, Washington, DC 20001? (Quick digression: When looking for the mailing address of the Capitol Building I found out it is common to use the abbreviation SOB when sending things to United States Senators. At first I thought it was a strange version of truth in advertising until I found out it stood for Senate Office Building.)
One more mathematical juggling act. If the government took the $25 billion the car companies are asking for and divided it into checks of an equal amount they could give 833,333 people enough money to buy a new car, cash on the barrel head. That might boost the economy for a few folks.
Since the government is not likely to offer any of us a couple of billion dollars to get ourselves out of debt we will have to figure it out on our own. One thing used by many different companies and groups is to sell advertising rights.
Remember when sports teams played in venues with names like Memorial Stadium, Soldier Field, or Boston Garden? Now most teams have sold their souls, uh, sorry, now teams have sold the “naming rights” for their home fields. The Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball at PNC (a bank) Park. The Pittsburgh Penguins play hockey at Mellon (another bank) Arena. The Pittsburgh Steelers play football at Heinz (a condiment company) Field. I always thought there should by a 57 yard line at Heinz Field. (I used that joke in a column I wrote in 2004 but I still think it’s funny. I may be alone in that thought, but I do.)
A math teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School in California has latched on to this idea to pay for supplies he needs for his students. He has sold ad space on his quizzes and tests. This makes sense to the kids raised on Sesame Street. They go from toddlers who hear “today’s episode was brought to by the number 4” to high school kids who read “today’s calculus test is brought to you by Fantastic Sam’s Hair Salon.” The ad ought to read: “If you bomb the test you can get your parents off your back by getting that haircut your mom keeps bugging you about.”
If this catches on companies will target the demographic groups at whom to aim their ads. Vo-tech automotive tests will have ads for Pennzoil. Advanced trigonometry classes will have ads for Apple computers. English literature classes will have ads for McDonald’s because that is where liberal arts majors end up working.
I am willing to do this at a high level. I have no problem telling people the Pyles live in Dr. Pepper House. It would be fine with me if Viagra wanted to pay me to paint my car blue and plaster their logo all over it. For the proper price I am even amenable to have the registered trademarks of and Google tattooed on my forearms.

Christopher Pyle has made it obvious he can be bought. All that is left is to haggle over the price. To put in your bids e-mail him at