Saturday, December 31, 2005

Year-End Apathy

Bloggers everywhere are writing year-in-review entries about their chosen topics, but I just can't muster much interest. As one who often dwells on the negative, it is probably just as well. Some people see the glass as half-full, but I see it smashed on the floor with several shards of glass embedded in my bloody feet. Eric Zorn put out the call for Bloggapalooza for anyone reviewing state and local happenings, and I considered participating for, oh, a nanosecond or two.

I'm politically exhausted lately, so I won't write about any of that. I could write about pro cycling, but most of my favorite riders have been charged with using performance-enhancing drugs, so it would be embarrassing. I can't even write about music since I don't own any 2005 albums. Oh wait, I bought a greatest hits CD produced in 2005 last week, but that's old material anyway. Forget about books, too -- I read such a broad range that I can't imagine picking favorites.

That leaves only myself to write about. Gee, what a great year -- our dog Teddy died in August, and my parents' dog could die anytime. Our other dog Rosco needed $3,000 knee surgery. My wife's grandmother died on my birthday so we never celebrated it. Our old car died after I sank $500 into it. My desktop PC died this summer too.

What else? My two-year weight loss experiment has officially ended with my current weight being exactly what it was when I started. Look for my new book: How to Lose 65 Pounds, Gain it All Back, and Loathe Yourself More Than Ever. The great thing about putting the weight back on is that I have become a walking billboard for my own failure. Every time I see someone, they are thinking, "Gosh, his cheeks weren't that chubby the last time I saw him." Or, "Isn't that shirt a little tight?" Or worst of all, "Jesus, he's put it all back on!" It's much worse to be the fat guy who used to be skinny than to have been the fat guy all along. Now I wish I'd never bothered, which pretty much nullifies my biggest accomplishment of 2003. You know it's been a great year when it retroactively ruins other years.

What about my bicycling? Not much to say. Sure, I wrote a book about it, but aside from those 60 great road and trail rides, I probably didn't ride more than a hundred miles. My heart just wasn't in it, and not just because riding was my "job." In fact, I haven't been on a bike since the day I did my last three rides for the book, more than four months ago. Okay, what about business? I managed to postpone the aggressive launch of my copywriting business for the entire year with one excuse after another. I got my first copywriting client, but one of my jobs has gone unpaid thus far (seems to be just an oversight, and it's not for a lot of money, but still). I finished writing my first book, Biking Illinois, but I didn't manage my time as well as I had hoped and slipped my deadline by nearly a week (Teddy died days before, which didn't help). Being late may not matter much in the long run, but it deadened the joy of completing a huge project. Finances? Well, we spent as much on Teddy in his final month on Earth as we did on Rosco's knee. The expenses incurred writing my book were far greater than the advance I received (though I knew that would be the case when I took the assignment). I lost out on more than $120 worth of expired product rebates over the year. And I'm still fighting with our dental insurer over a $2,500 bill which they reimbursed so generously with $155. But I still have my health, right? Well, in addition to my unhealthy blubber, the cough that I blogged about before Thanksgiving never quite disappeared. It's probably tuberculosis (on the bright side, at least I'd lose some weight).

Of course there were a few good things about this year. I didn't beat my head against the wall until I lost consciousness, no matter how sorely tempted I was. I didn't start taking crystal meth, or any other controlled substances for that matter. I didn't commit any felonies, at least none that anyone witnessed. My wife hasn't filed for divorce yet.

So it's been a great 2005. I can't wait to see what 2006 will bring. War with Iran? The collapse of the dollar? Yippee.


Our neighbors invited us to their New Year's Eve party this year. We went several years ago. Lots of people dancing, drinking, socializing, having a great time... ugh. I've always hated New Year's Eve, and I refuse to celebrate. One of my favorite bands is playing downtown tonight, but since it's New Year's Eve tickets cost an outrageous $85 instead of the usual $20. Since my wife is working, I'll just lay low here with the lights off, eating the Reese's peanut butter trees mentioned in a previous post, and pretending to be out having a good time. Resolutions? Heck, just read this post backward.

Bayberry Candles for Luck?

Today I was walking to the drug store when I saw this sign in front of a local flower & gift shop:
Burn a bayberry candle for good luck in the new year!
I never heard that one before. It sounded to me like a certain proprietor had too many bayberry candles in stock and was trying to clear them out before January 1. A quick phone call to my mom seemed to confirm my suspicion since she had never heard of such a tradition. And my mom has enough candles to remake the Police video "Wrapped Around Your Finger!" Not only that, but she eats herring for luck at the stroke of midnight. If there was an easier way out just by burning a candle, I figure she would do that instead (actually, she doesn't seem to dislike herring the way I do, although she only eats it once a year).

When I got home from the drug store with my half-price clearance Reese's peanut butter trees, two bottles of Diet Rite, and two bags of Brach's malted milk balls (now with eight ounces per package instead of seven in the ongoing conspiracy to make me too fat to leave my home), I checked with my trusty friend, Google. Well, call me a sock 'cause I'll be darned. This page says
According to tradition, a bayberry taper candle burned all the way down on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve brings good luck for the coming year. As the saying goes:
"A bayberry candle burned to the socket
brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket."
That's probably the last thing I'll learn in 2005. But I still didn't buy a bayberry candle and I'm not eating herring tonight, so I guess it's my own fault if I have bad luck in 2006.

Missing the Real Wiretap Story

I know UPI isn't what it used to be -- ever since it was purchased in 2000 by Reverend Moon's News World Communications (which also owns the always objective Washington Times), it cannot really be trusted. But this article is particularly amusing. The headline says, "Bush was denied wiretaps, bypassed them." Aw, poor George. He had to authorize his own spying because the court wouldn't.

The first two paragraphs of the story portray Bush as victim: "...the 26-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court modified more wiretap requests from the Bush administration than the four previous presidential administrations combined." How dare they deny King George? They must be activist judges!

The third and fourth paragraphs give hard numbers, and that's where the real story is found. The court "modified only two search warrant orders out of the 13,102 applications approved over the first 22 years of the court's operation." You can feel the Limbaugh-esque indignation in this statement: "But since 2001, the judges have modified 179 of the 5,645 requests for surveillance by the Bush administration."

Whoa, hold on there! You mean that there were 13,102 requests over 22 years and 5,645 requests in the past four years? That is the story! I cannot speak for the court, but perhaps their interference had something to do with the Bush administration's unprecedented volume of warrant requests. I know this sort of thing probably ebbs and flows, but let's look at the average number of requests in the first 22 years: 596 per year. Now what about the last four years? 1,411 per year! It sounds to me like this administration is going wild with surveillance. Did the United States really become suddenly, dangerously overrun with enemies of the state? Of course it didn't. But four years ago, an administration came into power with a strong desire to quash all dissent.

Gotta keep an eye on those Quakers. You never know when they might decide to sow their wild oats!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Damnazon.com

Thank you very little to those losers at the online Goliath who spoiled our family Christmas this year. My mom told me around Thanksgiving how she had gone to Damnazon.com and carefully picked out all of my brother's CDs ("usually ships within 24 hours"), only to find at checkout that many (most?) of them wouldn't be shipped until after Christmas. Oddly enough, the "late" items included several recent releases that should not have been in short supply. She wondered if it was their way of trying to get her to upgrade to a paid shipping option. It didn't work -- instead, she bought some of those CDs at a different store (Target, with its broad selection!).

Alas, my tastes are generally more obscure than my brother's, so the discount store CD bins were not so accommodating. This year I got the following gifts from my grandparents (Mom shopped for them at Damnazon.com): When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops by George Carlin and Both Sides of the Line by Jason & the Scorchers (the latter is a combination of their 5-star EP Fervor and their 5-star debut LP Lost & Found -- simply some of the best music ever made). My grandparents usually spend a lot of money on me, so it seemed odd that I received only two gifts... until I saw the little piece of paper listing the items that Damnazon.com hadn't shipped yet. One book, one DVD, and six CDs! Yes, that means 80% of my gifts were not sent on time, and the order was placed on December 5.

Looking for yet another reason to loathe the online behemoth, I looked up the missing items that are expected to ship between January 11 and 26:
The Fine Art of Surfacing by The Boomtown Rats - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Rumble! The Best of Link Wray by Link Wray - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Blood of the Ram by The Gourds - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Dem's Good Beeble by The Gourds - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Mr. Bill's Disasterpiece Theater DVD - "Usually ships within 24 hours"
Made to be Broken by Soul Asylum - "Usually ships within 7 to 10 days"
Hitchhike to Rhome by Old 97s - "Usually ships within 7 to 10 days"
Signspotting by Doug Lansky (book) - "Usually ships within 4 to 6 weeks."
Well, isn't that interesting? So if I were to order these items today, I should expect five of eight to be shipped within 24 hours? And yet the order my mom placed on December 5 is not expected to arrive for at least two more weeks? Why do some people love this company when clearly they suck?

Of course, it could be -- and may very well turn out to be -- worse. A year or two ago my mom ordered a CD for me from Damnazon.com which, after repeated delays, was finally declared impossible to deliver, vanished from the face of the Earth. Come to think of it, she never let me pick out an alternate selection!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Bittersweet Christmas

Our dog Teddy was a part of our Christmas celebrations since he showed up in our backyard in 1998. In our family, the dogs go everywhere -- Mom & Dad's house, Grandma & Grandpa's house. One Christmas Eve there were nine dogs at my grandparents' house! I guess having a dearth of children and a multitude of dogs makes this seem perfectly reasonable to us, though some people think we're just nuts. Of course, Rosco, our other dog, has been part of the festivities since 1999, although he was unofficially banned from Grandma & Grandpa's a few years ago. It was bad enough that he barked vociferously at my grandmother when she donned a fur coat (my wife said he was jealous that she had caught so many animals to make it!), but when he lifted his leg on the kitchen wall, he became canis non grata. I guess it was just as well since Teddy was uncomfortable that night. He was getting older, and visiting my parents in the morning and grandparents in the evening was just too much for him. He was hiding in the closet and pawing at the front door to go home. So in recent years we have taken the dogs to see my parents but left them at home in the evening.

It would have been hard enough to celebrate Christmas without Teddy, who died this summer, but it was even harder celebrating with Maggie. Maggie is my parents' dog, a yellow lab mix. Since they got her a couple years before I moved out of the house, she's my dog, too. She is the one who made me a dog lover. I always liked dogs, but Maggie just has a way of getting into people's hearts. In April 1997 I took care of Maggie at my condo near Lake Michigan while my parents went on vacation. In the preceding weeks, I had been telling everybody that Maggie was going to be a babe magnet. With my pathetic dating history (if I were an ancient Greek, I would have been named Platonicus), my friends got a laugh out of that. Sure enough, the first day I walked Maggie on the lakefront, a woman stopped to pet her. Twenty-one months later, we were married. We even had a yellow lab statuette atop the wedding cake beside the traditional bride and groom.

Just before Thanksgiving, Maggie was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. The vet said she had two weeks to six months, that with some luck she'd be there to celebrate Christmas, but we'd better cherish every day after that. Needless to say, we've been visiting my parents more often than usual. Although she has been losing weight, Maggie is doing okay (my mom says that's because nobody told her she's sick). But having Christmas without Teddy and knowing that this would very likely be Maggie's last made it difficult to enjoy the holiday. My parents gave us a calendar with photos of the family dogs (Maggie, Molly, Teddy, Rosco, and Ellie) and a throw with a photo of Teddy stitched into it. Somehow we managed not to cry.

Maggie also made the trip to my grandparents' house, although in her old age she growls at the other dogs whenever they come near. After all the gifts were opened, my dad was in a sour mood so my parents abruptly left; I hardly got to say goodbye to Maggie. I hope I get to see her again. At least I spent several hours petting her while everyone was opening presents that night.

We do most of our gift-giving on Christmas Eve, and then we go to my aunt & uncle's house on Christmas Day without our dogs. There my mom told me she had been looking through old photos and found one of Maggie. Years ago (probably in 1999), I had run a race before going out to their house. I had received a finisher's medal (as opposed to a medal for a top placing -- I was never even close), and I put it on Maggie. I had forgotten all about that, but I knew what my mom was going to say next... the picture reminded her of the photo of Teddy I posted on my blog, the last picture I ever took of him.

After four months it still hurts. My wife sometimes worries that he wouldn't have wanted us to put him to sleep or that he could have lived a bit longer. I try to reassure her and remind her of his condition at the time, how he couldn't do the things he loved anymore, and how we had done all we could. I feel like sometimes I remember too much about his final month instead of all the happy years that came before. We still think about him every day, and maybe we always will.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Neon Flickers, Blinks Its Last

I'm posting a few things belatedly -- this is from Friday, December 16, 2005...

It's only a $650 water pump/timing belt repair.

But considering the other mechanical shortcomings of my wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon (so old that neither the make nor model exist anymore), we have reached our limit. We could replace the leaking water pump and its attendant timing belt. But we still would have dashboard instruments that work only intermittently (a $600 repair so common that the garage owner said Chrysler should have recalled the circuit boards). And we still wouldn't have air conditioning next summer (the A/C system failed so many times that my wife gave up on repairing it), so I'd have to listen to my wife complain about it. The door windows still wouldn't have frames (we have to roll them down and up after closing the door in order to quiet the wind noise). The trunk lock still wouldn't work (we have to release the latch remotely from inside the car). And worst of all, a huge repair bill for the next thing to go wrong could be right around the corner.

So after putting several hundred dollars into prepping it for winter just two short weeks ago, we're throwing in the towel. Of course, it is the nature of cars that this problem couldn't manifest itself before I made that investment. Believe me, it pains me to throw away a car with two new tires and a new battery, but it's not worth fighting it anymore.

My brother, a former mechanic, recommended the new tires as well as the cooling system flush. Since that possibly caused the water pump leak that put the final nail in the Neon's coffin, and since he's my brother, of course I blame him. He never liked the Neon anyway (he abandoned his wife's Neon at her parents' house several years ago), so I have my suspicions. He called it the Peon, or was it Pee-on?

While I'm at it, I'll blame my wife and her horseback riding hobby. It's 80 miles roundtrip to the barn where she rides weekly. While that may not seem like much, it has increased our annual miles driven by 50%. Theoretically, we could have squeezed a few more months out of the car without those extra trips.

My brother and my wife -- it's a conspiracy to make me spend money on a new car. I haven't bought a car since 1992 and haven't made a car payment in more than ten years. I do not miss either experience.

While my brother is thrilled that he won't be working on that car anymore (he did a lot of work for low prices or free so I can't really complain), I do have a bit of a soft spot for the old Neon. My wife bought the car before we met, and I rode in it on our first date. Our first kiss was in that car, too. We took our first weekend trip together in the Neon, the 1997 Illinois Route 66 Association Motor Tour. We also drove our Neon on our honeymoon in early 1999 (my wife almost ran over my head and crushed it like a grape in Beaumont, TX but that's another story).

My only consolation is that my wife said she would have given up on the Neon several years ago. As the person in charge of the household budget, I feel like at least I succeeded in deferring a major expense for a while. All told, she got ten years out of that car and maybe 125,000 miles (can't say exactly since the odometer doesn't change when the gauges aren't working). On the bright side, our marriage has outlasted the car, which is better than many other marriages these days. The big question is, will our marriage survive the next car?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

O'Lielly Remembers Rommel, Forgets Montgomery

There is no doubt that Bill O'Reilly of Fox News is one of the most boneheaded commentators on television and radio. Right now I am reading The "Oh Really?" Factor, a surprisingly short book about his warped world of untruth (there is plenty of material; perhaps the Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly web site's book will be longer). If you subscribe to the e-newsletter from Media Matters for America, you can receive his nuggets of ignorance and misinformation on a daily basis. Here is one of the latest:
Summary: On The Radio Factor, host Bill O'Reilly called the San Francisco Chronicle's use of the term "field marshal" a "Nazi reference;" the Chronicle labeled O'Reilly "a field marshal for the conservative counter-campaign against the 'war on Christmas.' "
While it is true that Erwin Rommel, a brilliant general regardless of his political affiliation, held the title of field marshal (as did more than two dozen other Nazi generals), O'Reilly must have been daydreaming about loofahs in history class the day they discussed the British side of World War II. Bernard Law Montgomery was the first British field marshal to come to my mind, though many other British military leaders have earned the title over the years -- in fact, there have been several times more British field marshals than Nazi field marshals! Plus there are field marshals in other British Commonwealth nations such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Since O'Reilly's favorite response to criticism is to claim he was quoted out of context, here's what he said on the December 15 edition of The Radio Factor:
O'REILLY: San Francisco Chronicle, one of the nation's most secular newspapers, says today, quote, "Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a field marshal" -- notice the Nazi reference -- "for the conservative counter-campaign against the 'war on Christmas' will be happy to know that San Francisco has called [sic] its 'Dreaming of A Green Christmas' tree program.
O'Reilly's ranting aside, the tree program is a great idea. For $90, the city delivers a live, potted tree to your home. When Christmas is over, you give your tree back to the city, which plants it in a neighborhood that needs more trees. It sounds like a great way to reduce waste. And perhaps best of all, a live tree is unlikely to dry out, leave hundreds of needles on the floor, and become a fire hazard.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Identity Theft Paranoia

"Is it okay to put return address labels through the paper shredder? Or will the adhesive cause trouble?"

"Uh, why would you shred return address labels?" I asked.

"Well, I'm worried about identity theft."

I won't say who recently asked me this question, but it is a fine example of the paranoia spawned by the media surrounding the crime of the new millennium, identity theft. They say people are going through garbage cans to get personal information, and the next thing you know, someone is afraid to casually toss out anything so "personal" as an address.

I replied, "If all they needed was an address to steal your identity, they would use the phone book!"

Santa Derailed

Every year the Chicago Transit Authority runs a special Holiday Train in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It features red and green lights, as well as a flatbed railcar with Santa Claus on board. CTA employees are dressed like elves. I've never been on this train, but I once saw it out the window of our guest bedroom (known as "the Train Room").

Yesterday, for the second time in three years, the Holiday Train derailed... in the exact same spot! Wendy McClure, author of I'm Not The New Me, was there and took pictures. (hat tip to Gapers Block)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Why I Hate Driving the Expressways Late at Night

I love it when there's no traffic, but it seems like this sort of thing happens all the time in Chicago, especially on the Eisenhower and Kennedy Expressways:
Police suspect a motorist was going 110 m.p.h. early this morning when he crashed into the rear of a semi-trailer truck on the Eisenhower Expressway in west suburban Hillside, CLTV reported.
What the heck are these idiots thinking? I mean, I'm no prude about speed limits, but this is ridiculous. And it happens late at night every night without fail. I'll be cruising along at 70 mph in the right lane with the flow of traffic (speed limit 55), and someone will fly past like I'm standing still.

Urban highways just were not designed for that kind of driving. Sometimes these guys get lucky and don't hit anything. Other times they kill themselves, but far worse, they often kill innocent drivers or passengers. I'm afraid some night I'll be the one who gets rear-ended by one of these lunatics.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I Dream of Muffins

At least this morning, I did. I was in a bakery sampling an all-you-can-eat muffin buffet. I'm not usually a big fan of muffins unless they are blueberry, especially hot from the oven. But in this dream, I was eating everything. It was such a "sweet" dream that I reset the alarm to sleep another hour.

The weirdest part was when I asked whether they had any apple-cinnamon muffins, and they seemed surprised and intrigued by the idea ("We'll have to try that sometime!"). I mean, I didn't think apple-cinnamon muffins were anything new, and this bakery already had more than a dozen other varieties.

Today I took the car in for more work (engine overheating). Walking home, I passed a Dunkin' Donuts. Naturally, I had to go in and order a muffin. They didn't have apple-cinnamon, but they did have pumpkin. Let me tell you, those pumpkin muffins (limited time only) are pretty darn tasty, almost as good as Mom's pumpkin squares, but without the cream cheese frosting (photo and recipe here, but I didn't check to make sure it's exactly the same).

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chicago Cop Shot by "Cell Phone"

In June 1999, a Chicago police officer shot a woman who was using a cell phone, LaTanya Haggerty, because her phone was mistaken for a gun. The media had a field day with that story and everyone piled on the Chicago Police Department. The city paid Haggerty's family $18 million.

Last night on the South Side a Chicago police gang crimes officer was wounded:
The officers saw a man in the group raise an object, which the officers initially thought was a cell phone but turned out to be a gun, Camden said. The man fired the gun, striking one of the officers in the thigh, Camden said.
Let's see how much coverage this story gets in comparison with the Haggerty shooting. People are quick to criticize police when they make the wrong decision and shoot innocent citizens. But no one talks about the times when police err on the side of caution, assume they are not in danger, and pay with blood or their lives.

In a similar context, it will be interesting to see how the Miami air marshal story plays out. Already, an eyewitness is questioning their actions at Time magazine online.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Tribune's Pointless Editorial about R&R Hall of Fame

I was flabbergasted by Corey Franklin's guest editorial in the Chicago Tribune about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame titled "The fossilization of rock 'n' roll." His sole qualification is being "a physician at Stroger Hospital," and frankly, I don't know why the newspaper accepted this drivel for publication.

Franklin begins with a meaningless complaint from Def Jam founder Russell Simmons about hip-hop artists being ignored. Well, apparently neither Simmons nor Franklin could be bothered to look at the requirements for consideration:
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include the influence and significance of the artist’s contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.
Hmm, so how many hip-hop artists made their first record at least 25 years ago? That would be 1981. Even Run-D.M.C., probably the first widely recognized rap artists, released their first album in 1983. Grandmaster Flash? 1982. Besides, Franklin later criticizes the Hall for inducting Miles Davis:
Miles may be a jazz immortal, but inducting him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like putting Jim Thorpe in Cooperstown for playing a couple of years of baseball in the National League. Great player, wrong sport.
How would inducting a hip-hop artist be any different? There is some hip-hop that I enjoy, but I wouldn't really call it rock and roll. They should start their own museum. That leads to one of Franklin's better points, albeit a tired one dating back to the Hall's founding in 1983 -- that rock and roll is rooted is rebellion, and a Hall of Fame reeks of "establishment." The same could be said for the spirit of hip-hop.

Franklin briefly and weakly critiques the latest inductees: Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Miles Davis. Davis was covered above. The others were all giants in their respective genres: heavy metal, punk, new wave and Southern rock. I will allow that they aren't on par with people like the Beatles, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis (it would be a small Hall if that were the requirement), but all were important in their time and influenced those who followed. Franklin pretty much writes them all off, so apparently they aren't his kind of rockers. He lacks either the background or maturity to recognize their value.

Franklin really loses credibility in his criticism of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- clearly he has no sense of the original band's influence and importance, maligning them as "definitely" members of the "Mullet Hall of Fame." If you can listen to "Free Bird" and forget that you've already heard it a million times, it really is one of the greatest guitar songs of all time. And I could name a dozen Skynyrd songs that are better than that one. (Another criticism from others is that the current Skynyrd has so few original members, but that's nonsense -- even the Stones are down to Mick, Keith and Charlie. The Stones weren't inducted for their latest work, but for their greatest work.)

While the best Franklin can come up with for future inductees are John Mellencamp, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Patti Smith, I'd like to weigh in once more for an overlooked rock and roll legend -- Link Wray. Anybody can sing some dirty words for controversy, but this is a guy who had an instrumental banned from the radio. If that doesn't capture the spirit of rock and roll, then what does?

I can't figure out why the Tribune published this uninformed editorial in the first place. It starts out whining about people who aren't even eligible not being inducted and proceeds to dismiss every inductee with little explanation. When it comes to music criticism, Dr. Franklin, I think you'd be better off tending to your patients.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

No Chreasters at the Megachurches

My mom calls the people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter "Chreasters." Oddly enough, some of the biggest Protestant churches in the country, citing low attendance, are closing on Christmas Day! And on top of that, Christmas is on a Sunday this year! You'd think people would show up just out of habit.
"This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" said David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."
Is this what Christianity in America has come to? Bill O'Reilly can't shut up about people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" (don't get me started on him), and these Protestant megachurches don't even bother to unlock the doors on Jesus' birthday. Pretty pathetic.

Last Call for the Walnut Room?

First off, Federated Stores says that the famous Walnut Room of Marshall Field's flagship store on State Street (follow link for ironic headline) will survive the store's conversion to Macy's next year. But I cannot imagine our family's December tradition of having lunch beneath the tree in the Walnut Room followed by an afternoon of shopping in this retail cathedral without the Marshall Field's name on the doors and the menus.

Wednesday was the sort of day that those of us who work at home love -- the frigid forecast was an invitation to fix a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the 15 inches of insulation that I finally had installed on Tuesday. Alas, it was the one day when everyone (grandma, grandpa, mom, three aunts, an uncle, a cousin and her two daughters (so I guess that's three cousins)) was available for our annual Field's trip. I had a special responsibility this year. As the one who lives closest to State Street, that Great Street, I was expected to arrive early to reserve our table.

The commute downtown went well. I just missed a Brown Line train, but I scored an instant transfer to the Red Line at Belmont (I swear the coldest spot in the city is on the elevated platform waiting to transfer, with the wind cutting through your clothing and frosting your skin). In the store, a waiting elevator took me to the seventh floor where there was no one in line at the Walnut Room. In recent years they have switched to a beeper system to manage the crowds, but there is still a long line later in the day (just to get a beeper). I was so early that I feared that I would be paged before the rest of the family arrived, so I lurked nearby reading a book (Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists by Joel Best) for 15 minutes. When I took a pager, I was told that it was for the 11:00 seating, the first of the day.

I had given my cell phone number to my mom the night before and assumed that she would at least have her phone on, but I was wrong. I tried to call her at 10:15, 10:30, 10:40 and 10:50. I waited near the beeper line, which began to stretch around the corner and down the hallway. By 10:55 I was getting nervous -- I might be sitting at a table for 11 by myself! Finally everyone showed up, and fortunately my pager didn't go off until 11:15 or so.

Shopping at Field's is one of those things I only do for tradition. While I once followed in my mom's footsteps as a power shopper, I have become less and less interested in "the hunt" over the past decade or so. In addition, the Walnut Room's food and service seem to be a little worse every year. And the Harry Potter-themed tree they had a few years ago was just ghastly. The merchandise has declined, too, especially for Christmas decorations. I usually get the most enjoyment out of making fun of everything. Besides, with more Christmas junk in the basement than we could ever be bothered to display already, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about ornaments or even the ever-expanding line of Department 56 buildings (every year I am disappointed to see that they still haven't added a brothel).

This year, however, the Walnut Room was surprisingly good. Service has improved -- I said everybody was working extra hard because they were afraid of losing their jobs when Macy's takes over. The BBQ spice chicken sandwich I had was downright fabulous. I removed the too-generous onion topping, but the multi-grain bun was tasty and satisfying. The chicken itself, while a bit drier than I expected (I had misinterpreted "BBQ" to means "BBQ sauce"), was quite flavorful. Even the seasoned fries were good, not over-seasoned like Bennigan's, Friday's, et al. On the other hand, my grandparents seemed less impressed with the chicken pot pie that I've eaten there so many times over the years. Halfway through her meal, my grandma quipped, "Look, a piece of chicken!" We finished with the traditional round of cinnamon toast (a hot drink with apple cider and amaretto that comes with a souvenir Field's Santabear glass) for dessert.

We walked past the Great Tree on the way out, but we went up to the eighth floor to take pictures. This year it was decorated with Swarovski crystal ornaments, a great improvement over Harry Potter. My mom had said it was something-ski, so I took to calling it Grabowski. Imagine a tree full of Ditkas. Now that would be cool.




I have no idea what Blogger did to this photo I took with my cell phone, but if you click on it, it looks normal.








The shopping went as expected. I got to make fun of a lot of goofy stuff and didn't buy anything. The offerings in the Christmas store were odd. For starters, they had evergreen feather wreaths. The weirdest thing is that they were displayed around the waists of sewing mannequins (the kind that go from the neckline down to the hips). They looked like feather hula skirts. There were some neat but way too expensive ornaments, but my favorite was one I called "the food chain ornament:" a cat looking intently at a fish jumping out of its fishbowl. I suppose it would be okay for someone who likes cats, but I don't think goldfish lovers would appreciate it! I don't know -- a predator-prey ornament just doesn't seem to be "in the Christmas spirit."

My grandma waited forever to make her purchase, and my mom waited forever to get gift boxes at the gift wrap counter. Maybe Field's improved the service at the Walnut Room by taking people away from the other departments! While waiting for my mom to get her gift boxes (you've gotta love that Field's touch -- they gave her 15 boxes for 15 ornaments she had purchased for $3.03 each), I noticed that there was a voice mail on my phone. My wife said that our dog had eaten the apple dumpling pie she had left on the kitchen counter. On the bright side, each of us had tried a slice and decided it wasn't so great anyway. On the other hand, our dog would probably get sick later.

The rest of our day was so-so. My mom found a great gift for my brother, and I think one of my aunts bought something. I spent time looking around and soaking up the architecture of the place. Granted, Macy's won't tear down the Tiffany ceiling, but it just won't be Field's anymore. In that respect, it was a sad goodbye yesterday. I don't know if my family will be going to the Walnut Room in 2006, but I can't imagine it being Macy's Walnut Room. The quintessential Chicago temple of retailing will become just another location of the New York store. We might as well hand over Wrigley Field to the Yankees.

Somewhere Osama Bin Laden Is Smiling

That's my reaction to the tragic news out of Miami yesterday. Two federal air marshals shot and killed a mentally ill man who ran down the aisle of a jet and said something about having a bomb. This is what terrorism is all about -- putting people on edge to the point where everyone becomes a suspect and innocents are killed. It happened in London after the subway bombings, and now it has happened here.

I'm not saying the marshals were right or wrong to suspect this bipolar Home Depot "paint guy." He was acting suspiciously, and they only had seconds to decide what to do. But in the end he is another victim of the war on terror. As a country we have to think about what it is costing us to assume the worst about everyone. One has to wonder how many plots are thwarted versus how many innocents are imprisoned or killed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

WWJD?

You've gotta love these "Christians:"

A college professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled after he derided Christian conservatives said he was beaten by two men along a rural road early Monday.

University of Kansas religious studies professor Paul Mirecki said the men referred to the class when they beat him on the head, shoulders and back with their fists, and possibly a metal object, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Mirecki was going to teach a course in the spring called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies," but he recently asked the university to cancel it. Maybe those two thugs should take a remedial course in Christianity. I don't remember that part of the Bible where Jesus beat up people who didn't agree with him.

As the legendary comedian Bill Hicks said when confronted by some Christians in the South who didn't like his show: "You're Christians? ... Then forgive me!"

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension

My wife's birthday was Monday, and as usual, she coerced me into handing over her gifts a day (or at least a few hours) early. I can't recall whether I've blogged about it before, but my wife has this really annoying habit regarding books. Say I'm enjoying a book, maybe reading her a few excerpts aloud. Then I go to the kitchen to get a can of pop or something, and when I come back, she has my book firmly in her grasp. Worst of all, she doesn't relinquish it until she's finished!

I got even on Sunday night. I gave her several books for her birthday, and one of them was Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension: What Really Happens Behind the Badge, a memoir written by former Chicago cop Richard Solita (for those who don't know, my wife is a Chicago police officer, too). After she opened her gifts (tastefully wrapped in a Barnes & Noble bag), I picked up this book, opened to a random page and started reading. And laughing my butt off. It was a vignette about a robber whose life was saved by his Bible. A storekeeper shot him in the chest, but the Good Book stopped it from penetrating. Alas, the man was dead because the storekeeper also shot him in the head. The punchline was that he should have started reading his Bible instead of just carrying it. I flipped back to the start, and that turned out to be one of the less amusing tales that Solita had to tell.

Solita's 20 years on the force have given him lots of great stories. He works patrol to start, then the gang unit for many years. When things go sour there, he transfers to traffic (hit & run), and in his last few years he gets shuffled around by vindictive bosses. As a patrolman, he has some of the funniest and most absurd experiences. In the gang unit part of his career, he talks more about "real" police work, getting into the nuts and bolts of how he and his partner nailed thugs. He matches wits with gang bangers, FBI guys, supervisors and Internal Affairs investigators. His later years pass quickly in the book as he grows tired of the department.

This book is an addictive page-turner. I never went more than three pages without laughing out loud. Of course, the nature of police work is such that there are lots of bittersweet or tragic moments, too. Solita doesn't ignore common police vices like alcoholism and infidelity; indeed he sometimes trivializes them. He writes about the politics of the job and how you can't get anywhere without a clout (he had one who helped him twice). The only thing that stopped me from reading the book straight through from cover to cover was my late start -- around 4 AM I couldn't concentrate anymore so I went to sleep.

Something that struck me was how much has changed and yet how little. One recurring theme is how the department brass values quantity over quality. They would rather see someone write three moving violations (i.e. speeding, running a stop sign, etc.) than nail one felon. Police had lots more leeway in the old days (Solita started in 1968), but aside from that I could have been hanging out at a bar listening to my wife's co-workers telling me these stories (my wife doesn't really get into that -- I repeat her stories to others more often than she tells them herself). Solita's conversational style rolls along steadily, and the narrative never lags.

Yesterday afternoon I gave my wife's book back to her. This morning I got up at 7 AM because the insulation guys were coming. She was just going to sleep, having spent all night reading Twenty Years of Vaudeville and a Pension. For an excerpt, click here.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Gullible's Travels

Gullible's Travels: The Adventures of a Bad Taste Tourist was a bargain book I found this summer in Tuscola, IL when I was working on my book (hey, everybody needs a break sometimes). I had never heard of author Cash Peters or his "Bad Taste Tours" on National Public Radio, but we share a peculiar affection for odd tourist attractions. And lately I've been on a roll (or more accurately, rolling on the floor) reading work by smart-aleck Englishmen, so this was a great choice to pass the time as I waited for the car to get new tires the other day. I enjoyed it so much that I wound up reading the second half out loud to my wife.

We found it hilarious. Peters marches wearily through Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Memphis, experiencing famous and not-so-famous tourist sites. In Chicago, for example, he visits the Dr. Scholl Museum/Feet First Exhibition (which apparently has moved since the book was written -- I dated an aspiring podiatrist when the school and museum were on the near north side, but now it looks like they've shuffled their feet to the suburbs as part of Rosalind Franklin University) and Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Parlor in Palatine, which features a miniature golf course in the basement. Peters isn't always off the beaten path, though. His visit to Memphis includes standards like Sun Studio, the Peabody Hotel (to see the ducks; he doesn't stay in such posh digs) and Graceland.

Along the way, Peters battles PR flacks who want to direct him to the city's "approved" sites and make sure he writes/speaks favorably of them. He also struggles with his career, having vowed to give it up before he started writing this book about it (the book chronicles the tail end of his NPR freelancing gig, though he rarely mentions his actual radio reports). Anyone who enjoys sarcastic commentary and weird museums should enjoy Gullible's Travels.

Peters now has a television program on the Travel Channel called Stranded. The premise is that he gets dropped off somewhere with no money, food or accommodations and must depend on the locals to make his way. It sounds interesting, but we'll probably never see it since we don't have cable.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Car, Again

This has been a good week for getting things done and tying up loose ends. So I began yesterday with a solid plan and great expectations. For starters, I would replace our seven-year-old car battery and go to the grocery store.

I got in the car and began driving down the street. Immediately, I knew something was wrong and pulled over. Sure enough, one of our brand new tires was flat! I backed the car in front of our house and set about doing exactly what replacing the tires was supposed to spare me from doing -- digging the space-saver spare tire out of the the trunk and installing it. Of course, with the dry rotted tires this could have happened at 75 mph on the Tri-State Tollway, so this was a little better.

I cannot imagine how pissed I would have been on the shoulder of the Tri-State when I discovered that my wife had several bags worth of crap piled up in the trunk, everything from three-year-old greeting cards to Baskin-Robbins cups. Since I was home, I stormed into the house, cursed a blue streak about the flat tire, and asked her to empty all the crap out of her trunk.

After I changed the tire, I called the tire place. They said they were swamped and asked if I could bring it in later. Fine, I guess I'll change the battery first. It shouldn't be too hard. Dave's First Law of Automotive Repair: It is never as easy as you think it will be.

I went to AutoZone and bought an inexpensive (~$45) battery. Unlike the last time I replaced the battery, this time I had a car to drive to get the new one. And although I lamented that I didn't do it on Monday when it was warmer, it was still 20-30 degrees warmer than it was the last time I did it. Besides, I was already off to a good start since I found my battery brush in the first place I looked.

Disconnect the negative, disconnect the positive, detach the plastic shroud, loosen the nut holding the metal bracket that secures the battery... A slight tip, a yank, and out came the old battery, a battered Die-Hard that I had waited in a line of 20 people to buy on the coldest night of 1999.

Just slide in the new battery... Sh!t. Dave's Second Law of Automotive Repair: The slightest difference between the old and new parts will cause a world of hurt. In this case, the plastic moldings that held the new battery in place were thicker than those on the old battery. I tried again to loosen the nut on the bracket at the front. After struggling to move it about half a turn, I decided that wasn't going to work. Maybe if I could file down the plastic at the back that was to hold in the new battery, I could slip it in without removing the front. Besides, this gave me an excuse to use one of my brother's favorite tools -- the bastard file (his other favorite is the bunghole mixer). I filed away until my arms got tired. I was making progress, as evidenced by the shreds of black plastic below, but it wasn't nearly enough. I considered filing the plastic on the battery, which would have been much easier, but I was afraid it might void the warranty.

Let's try the bolt again. This time I sprayed it liberally with WD-40. By the way, both the bastard file and the WD-40, although I haven't used either in years, were in the first places I looked for them, so at least something was going right. I brushed the corrosion and dirt off the battery cables to pass the time while the WD-40 soaked in and worked its magic.

When I tried the nut again, I managed to turn it almost a full revolution... Then suddenly sheared the bolt clean off. Damn! Dave's Third Law of Automotive Repair: No job is done until you break something. Well, at least the battery would fit in easily without the bracket in the way... Except that the purpose of the bracket was to hold the battery in place. Oh well, nothing I could do about it now. I slid the new battery in and put on the plastic shroud, hoping it would prove to be stronger than it looks. I put the fuzzy washers and gel that came with the battery (to prevent corrosion) on the terminals, connected the positive and negative cables, and tried to start the car.

It worked! For an hour of work (though it should have been a 20-minute job) and a couple of bloody knuckles, I saved nearly $80 versus having the tire shop replace the battery (that's more than two months worth of electricity!). Back in the house, I warned my wife that she might lose her battery if she slams on the brakes too hard. Of course, the nice thing about having a cramped engine compartment is that there really isn't room for anything to move very far anyway.

I traded in the old battery for a refund of $8.72 and headed for the tire place. They managed to squeeze me in, but naturally there was more bad news. The tire hadn't failed (I figured as much since I didn't see anything in the tread), the wheel had. The rim was corroded so the tire bead didn't seal properly. The mechanic was going to clean the rim, apply a sealant, and remount the tire. If that doesn't work, I'll have to buy a new wheel, which they estimated at $90-120. I can't believe a plain old black wheel costs that much.

I never made it to the grocery store since I barely got home in time for my wife to drive to work. This morning I nervously walked toward the front window to see if the tire had gone flat overnight. It didn't! Let's hope the sealant did the trick. After a trip to Dominick's (always an adventure since I shop at Jewel 98% of the time), we are fully stocked with Charmin Ultra ("like wiping your a$$ with a cloud," as I always say) and Entenmann's apple strudel.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Is This Man Guilty?

He hasn't yet had his day in court, but this is a pretty damning photograph of his attempt to elude police! As you can see from the handcuffs, it didn't quite work out for him.

Winterizing The Car

Yesterday I finally took our car (technically my wife's car since her name is on the title and she's the primary driver) in for a radiator flush and two new tires. The radiator flush was just in time since the temperature is forecast to dip below 20 degrees tonight and into single digits early next week. Plus the $49.95 coupon was about to expire, and the regular price was $30 more. The rear tires had plenty of tread but were dry rotted after five years on the car. Notes about the day:
  • I went out for lunch since I hadn't eaten all day and had 2-3 hours to kill. The waiter was adequate but had an unsettling posture that made me feel like I was being stalked or he was plotting a way to kill me in the parking lot.
  • The service guy was supposed to call if I also needed a four-wheel alignment ($69.95 -- ouch, I can remember getting 2-wheel alignments on my first car for only $25). I had my cell phone out on the table in case he called while I was eating. Afterward, I decided I might as well use the bathroom before I went out to run errands. Sure enough, I stepped up to the urinal, unzipped my pants, and the phone rang! Oh well, at least he didn't catch me mid-stream, so to speak.
  • I did need an alignment, which was not surprising. He said I also needed a new battery, which I already knew. I asked what he would charge out of curiosity... $132! Not only wouldn't I put a $90 battery in a car with 110,000+ miles on it, but I wouldn't pay $42 labor for something I've done myself. Indeed, seven winters ago I installed the current battery on a brutally cold night.
  • I did some Christmas and grocery shopping, and then I went back to the repair shop. I had a book to read, of course, so the next hour passed quickly.
  • Along with my bill, they gave me a list of recommended service that I had "declined." Actually, the battery was the only thing they had mentioned on the phone, but the list included a fuel filter, front struts (though ours are only 2-3 years old), and, to my amazement, windshield wiper blades for $26. We put new wipers on the car just 94 hours before I took it in for service! And they weren't cheap wipers, either, about $15 for the pair (since I change them only every few years, I figured I might as well spring for the best).
  • Best of all, I asked for and received the police discount! After all, it is my wife's car. The funny thing is that usually she doesn't ask. I don't know if she thinks it's nervy or presumptuous or whatever, but as far as I'm concerned, a deal is a deal! It saved us about $25.

Now all I have left to do is replace the battery and we should be ready for another winter, knock on wood (with an old car you can't take anything for granted).

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bike Shop Joins Anti-Wal-Mart Crowd

Cheap department store bicycles have been a thorn in the side of bike shop owners and mechanics for decades. First the shops lose out on sales, and potential customers don't understand why their bikes are "so expensive" when Wal-Mart has bikes that cost a third as much. When the cheap bikes inevitably break, the purchasers get mad at bike shop mechanics who can't fix them (of course, department stores don't do any repairs).

Unfortunately, many buyers of cheap bikes like those sold at Wal-Mart just get frustrated and stop riding altogether. And although I have no statistics to prove it, I would guess that a good number of cyclists are injured when their cheap bikes choose to break at the most inopportune moments.

Mike McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia, calls Wal-Mart bikes "bike-shaped objects." He explains, "One of the biggest threats I see in everyday biking is BSOs... They're not fun to ride, and they break a lot. They turn any bicyclist into an unskilled bicyclist."

McGettigan hosted one of thousands of nationwide screenings of Robert Greenwald's new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price earlier this month (which I reviewed here). Though the film doesn't mention bicycles or even say much about product quality in general, it does provide plenty of other reasons not to shop at Wal-Mart. Indeed, it was the way the company treats its employees that led McGettigan to host a screening.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Conservation Elation

We just got our electric bill for the month of November. For the first time I can remember, it was under $40 -- only $36.29 (292 kWh for 31 days). Our daily electricity usage was about two-thirds as much as last November and only half as much as our daily October usage. How did I do it?
  • Installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in almost all fixtures. The only exceptions were the spherical bulbs in one bathroom and the chandelier bulbs in the dining room. The fluorescent chandelier bulbs I have found are too big for that fixture so I did the next best thing: unscrewed half of the six 25-watt bulbs. Thanks to a ComEd instant rebate, I bought ten 60-watt equivalent GE bulbs at Ace Hardware for only 99 cents each!
  • Switched from desktop to laptop. My Pentium 4 desktop PC finally died completely, and my Pentium M ThinkPad is much more efficient.
  • Turned off porch and foyer lights. My wife turns these on when she leaves for work. I turn them off when she drives away. Porch lights only invite solicitors, and I don't even answer the door (if you want to "drop in" at our house, you should call first). I turn the lights on about 15 minutes before my wife comes home. They're compact fluorescent too.
  • Minimized hair dryer use. No one cares what my hair looks like most of the time anyway since I work at home. I towel dry and air dry it instead.
  • Paid more attention to turning off lights. In grade school there were orange stickers on every light switch that said, "If you don't need 'em, don't feed 'em."
  • Turned off moisture control feature on refrigerator. This isn't necessary in winter anyway.

There is much more that I can do, and maybe we can break $30. I still need to aggressively clean the dog hair out of the refrigerator coils. I need to keep nagging my wife to do only full loads in the washer and dryer (the latter is gas-heated but still uses electricity). I also need to remind her to unplug rechargers when they are finished charging (they stay warm, so they are still using electricity). I should put the stereo equipment on a power strip that I can turn off (the receiver has a standby light, so it's always drawing power). I need to remember to put my laptop in standby mode when I won't be using it for a while -- the AC adapter stays cool in standby mode, so I know it isn't using much juice. And finally, I need to buy three compact fluorescent globes for the bathroom. Most of these improvements will be minor, but they can add up.

Best of all, this is just "bonus savings" from tips I have come across while focusing on our gas bill. In that area, I am anxious to see the benefits of insulation and radiator reflectors. Of course gas savings will be harder to measure since the variable outdoor temperature has such an impact on usage.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald is one of the most popular directors in the world of progressive films. Last year he released Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which examined the tactics and influence of reporters and commentators at the staunchly conservative Fox News Channel. This year he turned his attention to Wal-Mart, the ubiquitous retail chain that is America’s largest employer.

Like Greenwald’s other films, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price was released direct-to-video. His reasoning is that a theatrical release would draw people who already agreed with the film’s message, but informal viewing parties could influence a much broader range of people. The goal is to show how Wal-Mart’s success comes at everyone's expense and then to move people to action.

More than 7,000 people or groups have hosted viewing parties in living rooms, churches, union halls, and universities across America this month.

The old anti-Michael Moore charge that it is just propaganda, not a documentary, will surely be made about this movie, but any critical thinker knows there is no such thing as an unbiased documentary. Besides, being biased doesn’t make it false. The movie certainly isn’t a balanced look at Wal-Mart’s operations, but it does not purport to be.

The movie focuses on people. Some characters are predictable, such as the small town store owners who had to close their doors when Wal-Mart came. Others are less so, like the woman who was attacked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The movie also explores unaffordable company healthcare, factory life in China and Latin America, anti-union practices, environmental violations, racial and gender bias, and labor law violations such as making employees work unpaid hours.

It’s easy to get depressed watching the stories in this movie.

A common argument from Wal-Mart apologists is that people want and need to save money on their purchases and so benefit from Wal-Mart’s low-price tactics. One point the movie makes is that shoppers are not necessarily saving. For starters, the company’s poorly-compensated employees receive nearly $1.6 billion in state and federal aid (healthcare, school lunches, etc.). Essentially, taxpayers are keeping Wal-Mart’s prices low.

Not only does a new Wal-Mart turn downtown into a ghost town as mom-and-pop stores close (old news by now), but local governments give the company huge tax breaks that offset much of the supposed economic gain. The money a consumer saves at Wal-Mart is made possible by the consumer's own tax money – in the end, the consumer isn’t gaining anything. (The claim that Wal-Mart is economically beneficial is tenuous at best – when Wal-Mart says their store will sell $100 million worth of merchandise, those are not new sales, rather they are largely sales taken away from existing businesses.)

The movie left a lot of fertile territory unexplored. For example, a PBS Frontline called "Is Wal-Mart Good For America?" revealed how every year Wal-Mart coerces suppliers to cut their prices, essentially reversing the traditional wholesaler-retailer relationship. This eventually forces companies to close factories and move production overseas. That special also pointed out that Wal-Mart does not necessarily have the lowest prices on everything; they simply built a reputation as being the cheapest and customers take it on faith that they are.

Greenwald instead hones in on the most personal, human stories. He clearly was going for maximum dramatic effect and working to get viewer empathy for his subjects. In that respect, it makes sense not to discuss the concerns of factory owners when more people can identify with those of Wal-Mart employees with sick children. On the other hand, one might have expected to see a displaced factory worker or two in the movie.

The movie ends with an inspiring call to action. It lists dozens of towns that have successfully opposed the opening of Wal-Mart stores, encouraging viewers to say no to Wal-Mart.

The flaw in this approach, say city officials nationwide, is that nothing stops Wal-Mart from building outside the city limits instead or finding a neighboring town whose residents are just a little more desperate.

Greenwald tries to portray this as a groundswell of Wal-Mart opposition, the beginning of a movement perhaps. But as a rallying cry it is weak, especially because it doesn’t offer anything to those in the thousands of towns that already have Wal-Marts.

After viewing Outfoxed, one cannot help but notice that Greenwald employs techniques similar to those of Fox News to tell the Wal-Mart story. Patriotism and religion are frequently employed to show that these are “good American Christians” being crushed by Wal-Mart. While that may be true, it comes across ham-handed in the film.

Some of the biggest Wal-Mart malfeasance stories are buried in the DVD bonus material. When workers voted to unionize the Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec (the only successful union vote ever in Wal-Mart, a company that actually has an anti-union hotline and response team), the company declared the site unprofitable and closed its doors.

A woman says she hopes all Americans are not like this. While Wal-Mart is neither the first nor worst American corporation spreading ill will around the globe, the sentiment illustrates that Wal-Mart has more influence than Americans realize.

A man talking about Wal-Mart’s affiliate in the United Kingdom explains that when the store says cabbage is on sale this week two for one, customers don’t realize that the store went to farmers and said, “This week we’re only paying for every second cabbage.” In other words, the store makes itself look good, like it is providing value, when clearly the suppliers are making all the sacrifices.

Some say it isn’t fair to attack Wal-Mart just because they are successful capitalists, but Greenwald argues that their profits have come at the expense of not only workers, but all U.S. taxpayers. And because the company is so successful, one must wonder whether they could still achieve reasonable success being a better corporate citizen. Certainly Wal-Mart has made admirable advances outside the realm of human resources, such as in inventory control and data analysis, which ought to give them enough competitive advantage without resorting to tactics like doctoring employee timesheets.

Overall, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is interesting and entertaining but incomplete. The aforementioned Frontline episode would be a great companion piece. Those who have been following the Wal-Mart story won’t find much new information in the movie.

Ultimately a movie like this is not judged on its cinematic virtues so much as its ability to convey its message and change the minds of viewers. Will Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, along with the coordinated push coming from progressive organizations and media, make a difference? Will it serve as a catalyst for change? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

RIP Link Wray 1929-2005

Rock and roll legend Link Wray died November 5 in Copenhagen. He's the most important guitarist you probably never heard of. His Los Angeles Times obituary (published yesterday) lists many of the most famous names in rock who were profoundly influenced by him. Pete Townshend once wrote, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." And Neil Young said, "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Wraymen." Bob Dylan, who first saw Wray live in Duluth in 1958, opened his November 20 concert in London with "Rumble" in his honor.

The obituary tells the story of "Rumble," his biggest hit. To get the raw, distorted guitar sound, Wray used a pencil to punch holes in the speakers of his amplifier. In some places it was banned from the radio -- and it was an instrumental! That's some serious rock and roll that can threaten the Establishment without using any words.

Alas, the LA Times' obituary for Wray peters out in the mid-1960s. In fact, Wray was just getting started. He returned to religion (his parents were preachers) and turned his home into a commune. Then he channneled his energies into crafting the greatest hippie Jesus freak music ever made. He had a recording studio in an old chicken coop called "Wray's Three Track Shack."

His 1971 album Link Wray is legendary among music collectors. Wray was able to stretch out as a guitarist, moving deftly from rock to blues, electric to acoustic. His lyrics were deeply moral but came across as heartfelt warnings more than preaching. And for the first time, he was the featured vocalist. He lost a lung to tuberculosis in the Army in 1953 and lacked range, but he had enthusiasm and intensity that suited the material perfectly. Put it on your Christmas list if you don't have it yet. (If you can't find it alone, it is included in the Wray's Three Track Shack and Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years compilations.)

Wray found new success in the late 1970s when he paired up with retro crooner Robert Gordon for a pair of albums (most notably including Bruce Springsteen's "Fire"). He moved to Denmark and kept recording both live and in the studio. Numerous American bands touring Europe were privileged to have Wray join them onstage for a song or two. Cowpunk legend Jason Ringenberg wrote an eponymous tribute to Wray for his latest album, Empire Builders. In liner notes, he writes
I've known Link Wray for 20 years now and his enthusiasm and commitment to performance never cease to amaze me... In my opinion, he possesses THE soul of the rock and roll guitar. One of my main long-range career goals is to still be able to rock lke he does when I am 70 something.
Wray really did rock right until the end. He finished a lengthy US tour four months ago at age 76.

Tonight Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra played "Rumble" during one of David Letterman's commercial breaks, showing once again why they are undeniably the greatest band on television. I wonder how many viewers noticed and how many recognized this as a farewell tribute to a guitar legend.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Out Of The Woods & A Walk In The Woods

Since I've shared thus far, I may as well continue the sickness diary. Sunday was better than Saturday, thank goodness, but it was still a long night. My condition improved on Monday, and maybe tonight I'll move back into the bedroom. I slept a total of seven hours this morning, about equal to Friday and Saturday combined. My eyes are back to normal. I'm still coughing, but it's almost under control now as long as I don't breathe deeply. Maybe I won't look like the guy in the Theraflu commercial on Thanksgiving.

For the past couple days I've been reading Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail. As much as I would like to fancy myself being a backpacker someday (after the bike tour, I've been looking for something to do), there is just no way. Bryson also talks about English hiking, and that would be more my speed -- walk all day, stay at a nice inn, then walk back the next day. Sleeping in mouse-infested shelters just doesn't appeal to me. I'll settle for the vicarious adventure in this case. It's a great book with Bryson's usual blend of fact, commentary and humor.

California Boating Safety Billboards

These are pretty funny, especially the last one.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Relapse - More Tales Of Illness

I thought things were getting better. During the morning and mid-afternoon, I felt like I was getting over my illness. While I still cancelled my weekend plans, at least I wasn't coughing as much. Thoughts of seeing (gasp) a doctor, entertained late Friday in a conference call with wife and mom, were put to rest as I was confident that the worst was over. The day declined slightly but steadily from there.

My first disappointment was discovering that despite my best efforts, the sty in my right eye had jumped across my nose to the left one. Though I was careful about which hand wiped which eye, I think the volume of fluids flowing from the infection made it inevitable.

My lagging appetite showed little sign of improvement. Around 1 PM I remembered that I hadn't eaten all day, so I forced down about half a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Rosco was happy to eat the rest. Later my wife suggested Pillsbury cinnamon rolls; obviously she was craving them. I only managed to eat two, and I've been known to eat an entire roll of eight in one sitting. For dinner I tried to eat some chicken nuggets, a comfort food for me. Again, normally I can eat a whole package of more than twenty. Tonight I barely managed eight (I would have stopped at six but I had heated up two more).

Since my wife had taken off work (note cancelled plans above), we watched the DVDs I received this past week: Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which has been greatly anticipated in progressive circles, and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, which only cost $5 with a pre-order of the Wal-Mart movie. I intend to review the Wal-Mart movie soon.

After viewing every DVD feature, we watched the 10:00 news and a decent episode of Saturday Night Live. Their all-commercial episode must have been very popular because they did a lot of commercials this week, including a couple of replays. Of course, it is not a good idea to watch comedy when one is fighting a cough -- laughing set me off every time.

I wasn't as worried about going to sleep tonight as I have been on previous nights. I thought last night's results were reasonable, so I set out to mimic my routine exactly. Same medicine, same body position, etc.

Despite my best efforts, everything went horribly wrong. I couldn't suppress my cough long enough to fall asleep, and I had bizarre visions flowing through my head. Like commercials for Barbie dolls of Paris Hilton (whom I loathe, in case there was any doubt) and a broad array of action figures depicting characters from movies I've never heard of. Do they put psychedelics in Robitussin? I lay there coughing intermittently for a restless couple of hours, wondering what I had done to draw God's ire, or maybe which particular sin had been the deciding factor for Him. Wacky dreams plus religion -- it would be a long night.

Around 3 AM I awoke with the most intense coughing ever. I tumbled onto the floor to get myself upright in hopes of clearing myself up, but the paroxysm worsened to the point where I feared I might lose all ability to breath. As I knelt on the floor leaning over the couch, I told myself that if it came to that, I had to shove the couch hard into the wall to wake up my wife in the bedroom on the other side to save me.

When my coughing fit eased, I staggered toward the bedroom. My wife was still awake, and she insisted on making me some tea. I'm not much of a tea drinker, but she was sure that would clear out the devils in my throat. When she asked what I thought of her first concoction, I said, "Squirrel piss." She had mixed cinnamon tea, honey & lemon tea, honey, and a splash of Seagrams 7. While I have never truly sampled squirrel piss, it must be similar. Then she made just cinnamon tea, which was okay, and blackberry tea, which was weird but drinkable. Altogether, the tea guaranteed I wouldn't sleep too long -- my bladder wouldn't let me.

I took a different Robitussin, "honey cough," which made me think they could get together with the famous Russian dancer and market "Baryshni Cough." It was a huge dosage of three teaspoons, and there should be a warning for diabetics on the package -- it was super-sweet. It promised to suppress coughs for 6-8 hours, but its true range was more like 30 minutes, not quite long enough for me to fall asleep again. At least these honey coughs were not like the throat-ripping or trachea-blocking coughs I had earlier. After coughing for another half-hour, I gave up all hope of sleeping and went upstairs to read e-mail. I'm still here, and the best I can hope is that I won't be coughing when my body decides it's too tired to stay awake anymore.

This wound up being my worst night yet. If Friday night had been like this, I surely would have visited a doctor on Saturday, assuming we could find one in our HMO that was open. A Sunday doctor visit is out of the question, though, so I'll just have to see if I get better by Monday.

Obligatory gross-out story: Just before going back to bed again at 5:30, I blew out the largest booger I have ever seen in my life. An appropriate shade of green, it measured roughly 1.0"x0.5"x.25". I was truly impressed, even excited (surely I wouldn't have to blow my nose again for a long time). Although Rosco begged, my wife wouldn't let me feed it to him.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

No Bad Dreams But Still Coughing

I thought I had it all figured out last night. I found Friday afternoon that if I was lying on my stomach, I didn't cough much. Alas, when it came time Friday night to try this, it didn't work at all. I kept coughing. Oh well, I hate sleeping on my stomach anyway. I tried lying on my side instead, and it actually worked, more or less. I slept about 2.5 hours and had a dream where I was in this huge industrial complex, as if my coughs were being turned to productive labor. But unlike the last two nights, my dreams weren't punctuated by coughs.

When I awoke, I expected to be surrounded by lots of aluminum or steel products. Instead, I was alone on the couch, still on my side, just a lump with a weak cough. That damned Robitussin again. After taking six doses over the past two days, I have confirmed my complaint from a previous post -- the stuff lasts only three hours but you're supposed to wait four before taking more. I stayed up for half an hour drinking cold water and cleaning the eye goo off my sty. Then, like last night, I bent the rules at 3.5 hours and took more cough syrup. This time I slept another 2.5 hours and awoke to sunshine. I seem to be getting better, but not soon enough to enjoy the weekend.

Super gross-out story (you've been warned): After finishing my oatmeal on Friday morning, I kept the bowl at my side and used it to spit out all the greenish-brown lumps of stuff I was coughing up. My wife was so disgusted that she wanted me to throw away the bowl (I didn't, but I washed it myself). Now here's the worst part... Our dog Rosco tried to drink the bowl when I wasn't looking!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Another Sick Dream

I was scared last night, scared to try to sleep. Wednesday night was so awful, and I still had a terrible, rapid-fire cough. I spent an hour in bed, but I couldn't fall asleep. I decided to try the recliner sofa instead, hoping that being upright might help. Plus I felt guilty about keeping my wife up all night with my coughing and moaning. I think it helped, but I still woke up two hours later. And why is it that the effective lifespan of a dose of Robitussin is three hours when you're not supposed to take it more frequently than every four hours?

My wife was up (so much for sleeping in the living room so she could sleep, although she said I didn't wake her up). I knelt on the bedroom floor and lowered my head to the carpet, much like a Muslim praying toward Mecca. Except I wasn't praying, though maybe I should have. Instead I was coughing up all sorts of foul stuff and spitting it into a tissue. When I finally stopped coughing, I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I feared that any change in position would set me off again. After a couple amazing minutes of silence, I started coughing again.

At this point I was only half an hour early with the Robitussin, so I took it and went back to the living room. Oh, I forgot to mention that I managed to get a sty too, so the tears and eye goo form a glue between my right eyelids when I sleep. Anyway, it was about 5:30, so I hoped that I could at least sleep until sunrise.

Here's the dream. I'm building sets for Saturday Night Live skits. We keep trying to build them in one particular spot, the spot that makes me cough. Then I'm getting mad because these are all Jewish skits, and Al Franken isn't there anymore so we can't even use them (nothing anti-Semitic intended of course, and in retrospect anyone can play a Jew on SNL -- considering how many cast members change genders for skits, playing a Jew is pretty easy). I'm getting really frustrated because they keep telling me to build these sets in the exact same spot, but it keeps making me cough, which doesn't allow me to ever finish these sets that no one will use. I wake up around 6:30 and then drift in and out of consciousness, coughing of course, for the next hour. I keep trying to build the sets and keep coughing. Finally I give up, even though I've only slept 4-5 hours total.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Hungry Years: All Kinds of Hunger

Note: I wanted to write a more personal review for my blog, but I'm just not up to it at the moment (see previous post). For now, here is the review I wrote for HermesNews.Net.

Although the subtitle of William Leith’s The Hungry Years is “Confessions of a Food Addict,” the author’s addiction problems extend far beyond food. At various times Leith also has been addicted to alcohol, cocaine, painkillers and one-night stands.

The book begins with Leith, an English journalist, flying to New York City to interview Dr. Robert Atkins. After a lifetime of weight control problems and failed diets, he is inspired by Atkins to try a low carbohydrate diet. The appeal of low carb is that Atkins presents weight control as a chemical problem instead of a personal one. In other words, obesity is not caused by a person’s lack of discipline, but rather by the insulin rush induced by refined carbohydrates.

Leith describes in painful yet amusing detail his life of binge eating and dieting. He even discusses Cannon’s Conundrum, the theory that dieting causes obesity because each cycle of dieting conditions the body to store more fat. He recounts the history of French fries, reprising Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. He tells about his own visit to a McCain factory, which reveals the surprising complexity of turning potatoes into consistent, perfect servings of fries.

The Atkins diet works very well for Leith. He loses weight and feels better about himself. Just as he is reaching his target weight, he realizes that the emotional issues that drove him to overeat, get drunk and snort cocaine over the years have not disappeared. Dieting only treats a symptom, not the cause.

Inevitably, Leith relapses into drinking and snorting.
One thing that irks me is that, if you have problems with alcohol or drugs, some people think that you’re just slacking off for a while, having a great time. Just like some people look at a fat person stuffing pizza into his face, and think it’s all about enjoyment. People think greed is all about enjoyment. But it’s not. Greed, as any self-help guru will tell you, is a compensation for pain. Greed is about deprivation… pure masochism, pure self-harm, every mouthful a self-administered laceration.
Ultimately it is not food that forces Leith to seek professional help, but rather his other recurring addictions.

Leith takes a very journalistic approach to this memoir, exploring many facets of weight and addiction with interviews and research. He discusses every angle from the fat acceptance movement to the capitalist conspiracy behind low fat diets (carbs are where the money is, so the government and its corporate backers claim fat is the culprit instead). There is enough useful information packed in these pages that an index would be helpful to reference them later.

At the same time it is very personal, as a memoir should be. The mixture of facts and recollections is well-balanced; the book rarely gets bogged down in one or the other. Anyone who has ever been disappointed by the numbers on the bathroom scale should find something useful in The Hungry Years.

A Sick Dream

I don’t get sick very often, but that just makes it worse when I do. I freely admit to being the stereotypical male baby when I’m under the weather. This week I’ve had congestion, coughing, sore throat, and hiccups triggered by coughing (the worst). I’ve been miserable. People say to get plenty of rest when you’re sick, but I haven’t slept more than two consecutive hours all week. On the surface, it looks good to say I slept from 2 AM to noon, but not so good when you consider that I was up at 3:00, 5:00, 6:15, 8:00, 9:15, and 10:00. To make matters worse, sometimes it took 15-20 minutes to fall asleep again. It’s been like this for three nights in a row.

Against that backdrop of unrestful sleep, last night I had a dream. Like most dreams, the particulars are hazy. There was some sort of disaster in a city, and reporters were trying to get in to cover it. In my dream I could see the whole city spread out before me. I was responsible for granting access to the media -- anything that the world learned about what was happening had to pass through me first. Every time I gave out information, it was accompanied by a cough (or two or three). It became hard to tell whether I was asleep or awake. The dream continued through several bathroom breaks, picking up where it left off. I was on the verge of tears because I had a job to do, but every time I coughed it hurt worse. I felt trapped, even doomed -- my throat became raw and my chest ached, but I couldn’t escape the awesome responsibilities connected to this disaster. After hours of this, I finally realized that I didn’t have to know everything that was going on and began to let the reporters do their own thing. I felt like a tremendous burden had been lifted, and I seemed to cough less. Or maybe it was just that Theraflu strip I put on my tongue at 6:15.

The dream interpreters would have a field day with this, I am sure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Cycling Championship Of Our Own

For the past two decades, the U.S. national road racing champion has been determined by the USPRO championship race in Philadelphia. But there was always a catch -- the race was open to all nationalities. While talented European riders added some excitement to the race, this has been an awkward arrangement because the first U.S. rider to cross the finish line, whether first or fiftieth, was crowned the champ (this year I was glad to see U.S. riders take the top five spots, but the 2003 and 2004 USPRO champs finished fourth behind foreign riders). This mixed-nationality national championship has also been a sore spot for many American cycling fans -- every other country has its own championship race (generally the weekend before the start of the Tour de France), even places like Luxembourg and Estonia, so why aren't our riders good enough to have their own race?

When the USPRO race started in 1985, there were few U.S. cyclists worthy of the European peloton. It seemed like a good idea to bring in some European riders to liven up the race. Nowadays, Americans riders more than hold their own. In the Tour de France, three Americans finished in the top ten with two more making the top twenty. In the ProTour, a collection of the most competitive cycling events on the planet, the U.S. finished second only to Italy, handily outriding traditional superpowers like Spain, Belgium and France. And it wasn't just because of now-retired Lance Armstrong -- three other U.S. riders were near the top of the individual rankings.

Big news today for American pro cyclists and cycling fans -- in 2006 the USPRO championship road race will be comprised solely of American riders. The race will be moving, too. Not only will it leave Philadelphia, where it has been for 21 years, for Greenville, SC, but also the date will change from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. Aside from conflicting with the Vuelta a Espana, this is a better date in a quieter part of the season when Americans racing in Europe may be able to get back to the U.S. It is positioned a week before the San Francisco Grand Prix, a race for which many riders have returned to the States over the past five years.

The new format gives more opportunities to domestic riders. In 2005, more than 80 starters were foreign; without them, there will be room for more U.S. riders to take a shot at the championship. There also will be a USPRO time trial championship two days before the road race.

UPDATE 11/16/2005 - It figures. As soon as I mention the San Francisco Grand Prix, a story arises putting the event in jeopardy (again).

Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow

When the organizers of "Domino Day" in Amsterdam set about breaking their own record for falling dominoes, they overlooked something -- an open window. A sparrow flew in and knocked over 23,000 dominoes. The damage could have been worse since workers were in the process of setting up 4.3 million dominoes for Friday night's record attempt. Fortunately for the domino people, they had prepared for a mishap by deliberately leaving 750 gaps in the chain. Unfortunately for the sparrow, an exterminator killed the bird with an air rifle.

(insert your own joke about smoking legalized marijuana and watching dominoes fall for several hours -- or about how legalized prostitution should give the Dutch better ways to spend a Friday night)

Judging from these photos (click on each photo to see the next), it's a pretty elaborate, artistic show. No, these are not your father's black dominoes with white dots. It looks like they have a literary theme, at least this year, with Don Quixote, Pinocchio, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea represented, among others. (hat tip to Ross for leading me in English to the German (corrected) site)

By the way, this spectacle is put on by Endemol, the same company that has foisted the reality TV programs Big Brother and Fear Factor on American audiences. I guess I'd rather sit through three hours of dominoes falling than three minutes of someone eating a sausage made of live leaches.

Okay, I've Been Living Under A Rock...

Too bad I didn't post this for Halloween, but I just found out about it (I'm probably the only blogger in the world who missed it last month). "Climate Mash" is a hilarious spoof of "Monster Mash" featuring our favorite rogue administration. It includes Bush reprising his roles as frat boy and cheerleader, and best of all, it is sung by the original artist, Bobby "Boris" Pickett. Incidentally, it was created for Clear the Air with Macromedia Flash, which of course was how quickly the "Monster Mash" caught on.

Pickett has his own Web site where he sells merchandise. Bobby "Boris" Pickett trading cards? Who buys this stuff? Perhaps his autobiography would be more interesting, but I can't imagine paying $21.95 for it. Check out his nifty outfit.