Friday, November 25, 2011

Act Now; Think Later

I don't know, but I think as answers go, "I don't know" doesn't get much respect. This is strange in an age when "straight talk" is said to be greatly admired. Yet it is the people who spout nonsense with conviction who are esteemed for their straightforward manner, while those who offer a humble but absolutely truthful "I don't know," are thought to be devious and untrustworthy.

Whether this is the human condition or something uniquely American is hard to say. Certainly the insufferable know-it-all hero has been a mainstay of American entertainment. There was the tall, handsome, arrogant stranger who walked into the saloon. Standing at the bar, he systematically examined the souls of the patrons. By the time he had finished his whiskey - which did not affect his gait or his judgment - the stranger knew who was rustling cattle. This was surprising, since the locals weren't aware that cattle were being rustled.

The stranger pushed the empty bottle toward the bartender and left. Outside, he tipped his hat and said "Howdy, ma'am," to the town's old maid schoolmarm. He stepped off the sidewalk and, with steely determination, walked down the middle of the dusty street, while the honest citizens scurried into the barbershop and general store. Then he stopped, spun around, drew his gun, and fired at the solitary figure standing outside the livery stable, sending the rustler-in-chief to his great reward. Although the stranger had been in town for about an hour and had spent most that time in the saloon, the person on the receiving end of his bullet was always an evildoer, never the minister, or stable boy, or the man on his way to the station to meet his wife and kids who were coming in from Abilene on the 12:57.

The stranger's ability to hone in on the bad guy and rid the community of him with a single shot might seem miraculous, but with the help of a seasoned screenwriter it was just another day in the cow town. The miracle is how the hero in the 21st Century has managed to deduce so much more, more quickly and with less thought. Not that he's had much choice. In a ninety-minute movie, the strong, silent hero had a few moments to look pensive. On television, where the function of the story is to give the viewer a momentary break from commercials, the hero hardly has time to react and no time to ponder, no time to think. Fortunately, the hero, usually a cop, has an array of state-of-the-art forensic tools. All he needs is a sneaking suspicion that there is a vital piece of evidence somewhere and a couple lackeys to fetch it. Within seconds of arriving at the crime scene, one of the cops will spot a single strand of hair in a shag carpet twenty feet away. The hair is rushed to police headquarters and run through a battery of tests, which inevitably prove the hero's suspicion was in fact correct. On television, one of the telltale signs of a heroic person is that he knows when he is correct he is not merely correct, he is in fact correct.

Those of us on the couch do not have the benefit of a screenwriter and can't always be sure that what we think is in fact brilliant and incisive. The truth is, what we think is more likely foolish. And if we do have a brilliant notion, chances are we'll mistake it for foolishness and do something idiotic instead. That never stops us. We blunder on, determined to make our next half-assed decision in half the time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Pursuit of the Purse

“A Cleveland Court resident told police her purse was stolen while visiting a friend Thursday morning.”
Star Beacon November 19, 2011

“Chief, we’ve got another one.”
“Another what, Hennigan?”
“Stolen purse. A Mrs. Elsie Greenwood called and said her purse was stolen.”
“Hennigan, it’s the 21st Century and this is a big city. Purses are stolen all the time.”
“I know. I wasn’t born yesterday. Jeez, I’ve been on the force for fifteen years,” Hennigan said. “But this one’s different.”
“You said, ‘We’ve got another one.’ Those were you’re exact words. Right?”
“Well, if we’ve had other ones, how can this one be different? Tell me that, Hennigan.”
“OK, OK. Let’s just say this purse was stolen in a unique manner.”
“Get with the program, Hennigan. My dictionary says unique means ‘existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics.’ This purse snatching can’t be unique if there were others like it.”
“Chief, if you would bother read all the definitions, you’d find that unique can also mean ‘not typical; unusual.’ And this case is certainly unusual.”
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place? All you people playing fast and loose with the language are putting the nation and all of Western Civilization at risk.”
“Sorry, Chief.”
“Yes, you’re one sorry cop, Hennigan. So, what is so unusual about Elsie Greenwood and her stolen purse?”
“It seems Mrs. Greenwood’s purse was making a social call when it was filched.”
“The purse had gone next door and was having an intimate moment with Mary Erbell’s purse when it was stolen.”
“And Ms. Erbell is in custody, I hope.”
“No, she isn’t, Chief.”
“Why not, Hennigan? I bet this Ms. Erbell broad stole her neighbor’s purse. Lock her up.”
“We were going to, but Mrs. Greenwood says her purse was on the kitchen table when she ate breakfast. She knows this because she made a shopping list while she ate and then put in her purse.”
“So when did the purse go missing?”
“Mrs. Greenwood said she did the dishes right after breakfast, and that’s when her purse went next door.”
“The purse just got up and went next door?”
“That’s right, Chief. They say the new purses have that capability.”
“And you believe them?”
“This is the third report we’ve received in the last month of a purse being stolen while visiting a friend. Remember, I thought it was unique, but you corrected me. This has happened a few times before, so it is unusual. Highly unusual, I would think.”
“And I think you are uniquely credulous, Hennigan. While Greenwood was doing her dishes, Erbell sneaked in and swiped the purse. That’s what happened.”
“Chief, Greenwood said her purse disappeared sometime between nine and nine-fifteen that morning. According to three people in the neighborhood, Erbell was outside at that time, yelling at a woman named Mitzy, whose beagle left a calling card on her tree lawn. Even Greenwood says she heard the altercation. Besides, Ms. Erbell is a large, clumsy woman. If she was creeping around in your kitchen as you did the dishes, you’d notice.”
“So, how do we know Greenwood’s purse was visiting Erbell’s?”
“Erbell says she saw them on the stand in the hallway.  Apparently their straps were entwined and they were doing the pocketbook equivalent of making eyes at each other.”
“ No, I’m serious, Chief. All these Smart Phones and other gadgets women put into their purses, make it possible for the purses to do things they’ve never done before. Some purses even develop emotions. Apparently, the Greenwood and Erbell purses were having an affair.”
“Says who?”
“Greenwood and Erbell.”
“I think you’re all crazy. But if it wasn’t Erbell, are there other suspects?”
“Well, a woman called Candy Barr lives down the street, and her purse was involved with Erbell’s for a few months. From what we’ve determined, Candy’s purse is no sweetie. In fact, it became insanely jealous when it discovered the Greenwood purse was seeing Erbell’s.”
“So the Greenwood purse had the Erbell purse in its clutches, eh?”
“That’s right, Chief. And we figure Barr’s purse snapped.”
“Now what?”
“We’re going to get a search warrant for the Barr place. If we find Greenwood’s purse, Candy will have to shoulder the blame, and once we have the case in hand, we can bag her for receiving stolen goods.”
“Good job, Hennigan. And for you, that is unique”

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thanksgiving at its Verse

Some Fowl Words

Oh, the turkey is in despair

As he frets about Thanksgiving.

The fowl calls "Foul," says it's unfair.

Oh, the turkey is in despair,

"What's wrong with steak, well-done or rare?

Have you no shame or misgiving?"

Oh, the turkey is in despair

As he frets about Thanksgiving.

'Tis the Season Opener

Christmas comes but once a year, which is just as well,

although all the retailers would like to have more

so every single week there would be a Black Friday,

with hordes of crazed, lusting shoppers outside the store

at three-ten in the morning, credit card in hand.

Christmas: a great excuse for a shopping orgy.

The proudly religious also up and orgy

over "Season's Greetings," a term they don't take well.

And "Happy Holidays" gives the devil a hand,

they say. "And we'll not shop here, not even once more

unless the cash registers in your godless store

tell the clerks to say "Merry Christmas" by Friday.

That way, when the saved go shopping on Black Friday

they can revel religiously in the orgy

and shop with wild, untamed abandon in the store,

certain that big spending makes God love them so well.

With every smile and proper greeting, they spend more,

and piles of cash go into the store owner's hand.

"Merry Christmas:" a small price for cash in the hand.

No wonder retailers so enjoy Black Friday

and hope consumer greed will lead to more.

Shoppers spend money they don't have to fund the orgy,

pulling buckets of cash from the credit card well,

forgetting that dunning notices are in store.

A timid person faces danger in the store.

A Type-A shopper might hit him with her purse or hand.

He'll leave in an ambulance, and she'll say, "Oh, well.

Wimps should know better than to shop on Black Friday;

you've got to be tough to survive this mad orgy.

He's out of the way now, and I'm going to shop more."

The retailer is so glad she keeps spending more;

If she's got money, she's welcome in his store.

Voyeuristic economists watch the orgy

to see if it's giving business a fiscal hand,

or if it's just another nondescript Friday,

when despite the madness, the stores do not fare well.

The annual orgy, set to begin once more.

To get things going well, you must spend big at the store.

Credit cards in hand, go deep into debt on Friday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Exacerbating Exasperation

While reading today I came upon the word exacerbate. It's been a while since an author told me a situation had been exacerbated. That seems strange, because even the most cockeyed optimist would have to admit there is a whole lot of exacerbating going on. There might be a situation out there that is not being aggravated or increasing in severity, bitterness or violence, or just plain getting worse, but I don't know what it is. Still, no one, or hardly anyone, says our current problems are being exacerbated. Present day pundits, like those who preceded them, are sure that every problem is getting bigger by the hour and is well on its way to becoming unsolvable. Depending on his or her point of view, the problem is the incompetents in the White House, or the idiots in Congress; the one percent with the wealth, or the ninety-nine percent without it; the greedy unions, or the money-grubbing capitalists; the armed-to-the-teeth NRA, or the soft-on-crime ACLU; the educational system that doesn't educate, or the effete, ivory-tower intellectuals who are educated; the decaying industrial base that can't compete, or the rascally Chinese who have rigged the rules.

But as all our problems get bigger, it is a rare pundit who opines, "the crisis is being exacerbated by..." It wasn't always this way. In the 1980s and 90s, commentators constantly told us that the crisis du jour was being exacerbated. Now, hardly ever. And, as it turns out, the book I was reading had a 1998 copyright.

Like the moon, the popularity of a word waxes and wanes, and right now iconic is waxing more than S.C. Johnson. Anything that has been around a week-and-a-half is iconic. There are iconic TV shows, iconic movies, iconic stars, iconic personalities, iconic sports heroes, iconic buildings, iconic automobiles, iconic places, iconic candies, iconic fashions and, presumably, iconic icons. The increasing use of icon has nothing to do with something found in a Russian Orthodox Church and everything to do with those things found on your computer's desktop. If the high-tech types had called the pictograms pictograms there might not be any iconic people, places or things.

But trite or not, it would quite an ego boost to be called iconic. Too bad by the time someone refers to me as iconic, all our difficulties will be exacerbating again, iconic will be listed as archaic and, alas and alack, so will I.

Memories of Max

Maxine died Monday. These few unforgettable moments are from August 2010.

     There were fifteen of us at the Edgewood Diner, most of us retired from the Ashtabula County Board of Developmental Disabilities, where we had worked in the Adult Services Program at Ash/Craft Industries. Three or four were looking forward to returning to Florida at the first sign of winter.
     After a few minutes of politely bringing everyone up to date with our lives, we began talking of the past and getting raucous. Like the eight million in the Naked City, we each had a story - in fact, most of us had several to share. We laughed at ourselves, we laughed at each other and we laughed at former colleagues who weren't there. We laughed at our frequent ineptitude and marveled at the even more frequent insight and brilliance of the people we were supposed to be helping.
     I had been told several times over the years that I would know when it was time to retire. As it turned out, Multiple Sclerosis intervened and forced me to retire before I was ready. A few years earlier, I had a job that kept me on my feet most of the day, and at home I cut the grass, shoveled snow, cleaned the gutters, often made dinner, sometimes did the ironing, played ball with the kids, went to Little League games and band concerts, and took long, meandering walks. But now I spent most of my waking hours in a wheelchair.
     Maxine was there, and she put it all in perspective for me. She is seventy-one, originally from Nova Scotia and has the most wonderful accent and self-deprecating sense of humor. She also has cancer, and she wore a baseball cap to hide the smattering of hair that had sprouted since her last series of treatments. Not long before I had heard Maxine might have just a few months to live. If she was suffering that night from either the disease or the treatments, it didn't show.
     "Tom, tell me the truth now," she said when she came in, "do your loins still long for me."
     It was vintage Max. Then she spent the evening telling her stories, wonderful stories. Like the time an Ash/Craft client - a woman who in appearance and attitude resembled the Maxine of greeting card fame - asked her if she had found a man.
     "No, not yet," Maxine told her.
     "Well," the client said, "if you'd fix yourself up a little maybe you could get one."
     One day, Maxine was talking to the staff psychologist about care for the aged, and a client walked by and heard just a snippet of the conversation. Later in the day, the client went up to Maxine and asked: "So, how's your new boyfriend?"
"What new boyfriend?"
     "Yeah, Jerry. You know, Jerry Atricks."
     And there was the time a client put a bag of chocolate chip cookies on Maxine's desk. Maxine said she couldn't accept them, but the client kept insisting.
     "I went to the doctor the other day," Maxine said, trying another approach. "He told me chocolate cause me to get cysts."
     "Well, it doesn't give the shits," the client said.
     As the gathering was breaking up, Maxine asked me, "How did this happen to two such wonderful people as ourselves?"
     Neither of us had an answer, of course. I told her, in many ways I feel fortunate: I'm not suffering and I have good insurance. But the not being able to do all the things I once did gets me down.
     "I know two things," Maxine said. "I'm not in control of this, and I have to take things one day at a time. This is my life, and I'm going to make the most of it."
     Sometimes, the ebb and flow of life, like the tides, cannot be controlled. But sometimes, in small ways, it can. And I thank Maxine for reminding me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

All Set

After I set the challenge for myself, I set about searching for the English word with the largest set of definitions. Hoping to be set straight, I went to Google, which set before me an extensive set of websites that might provide the answer. Opting for the link to, I was set back on my heels when I discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a set of several volumes, set forth 496 definitions for "set." "Set" not only set the record for definitions, it set it in convincing fashion, topping runner-up "run," which merits a mere 396 definitions.

But as I set out to set forth my thoughts on the word "set," I was beset by doubts that in my hurry to set my ideas on paper I might inadvertently set myself up for failure. What if I wrote something foolish and set tongues wagging about my idiocy? Then, as I was about to set two books and a tablet on the table, I realized the table was set for dinner, and with our best set of Melmac dishes. I knew at once it would be a while until I could set to work, and so I set my stuff on the recliner and waited for dinner to be set before me.

After we ate and the dishes had been set aside, I set my mind to the matter at hand and set a time limit of three hours to complete an essay. I hoped a glance at all the definitions would set off an explosion of creativity. But, no. My mind remained set in its unimaginative mode, and even my efforts to set aside a few ideas in order to set a solid foundation for thought the next morning came to naught. It was unsettling. I was dead set against giving up. It was no use. I should have called my tennis buddy and set a date to play a set or two. Instead I sat there trying to set things in perspective. Alas, the little exercise turned out to be another set back.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Maple Tree

Yesterday, a single shaft of sunlight broke through the ominous clouds and fell upon the maple tree across the way. And the maple, resplendent in its autumn leaves, like a star in the spotlight at the Oscars, dazzled all who saw it.

It stormed last night: lightning, thunder and a fierce wind. By morning, the maple was disheveled, half dressed, tattered and lifeless. Soon its naked arms and fingers will be clothed in snow – until spring, when life begins again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All News is Old News

Is Africa a preview of the world's future?

With apologies to D'Arcy Egan, the Plain Dealer's outdoors writer.

I have taken the liberty of rewriting a portion of Mr. Egan's article "Is the Illinois River a preview of Lake Erie's future? The Battle Against Asian Carp," which appeared in the October 22, 2011 edition of the Plain Dealer. After all, the Asian Carp isn't the first invasive species.

The Wooly Mammoth Press-Prevaricator, Oct. 22, 55,001 BC

SOMEWHERE IN AFRICA - There have been experts who say human beings won't survive outside of this small enclave in Africa. The rest of the world is too cold, they suggest, and will not provide the level of comfort the funny looking bipeds need in order to thrive and reproduce.

But nobody needs to tell the saber-tooth tigers and mastodons how amazingly adaptable and resilient humans are, and how they can easily overwhelm and change a way of life. The humans are thriving here, and many mammoth scientists firmly believe they would flourish in other parts of the globe, especially in places where there is plenty of game and a wealth of fish in the lakes and rivers to encourage them to eat heartily.

As you travel through Africa, it is startling to watch the humans become comfortable on the lands they have claimed for themselves. The humans are seemingly everywhere, from smart-mouthed youngsters to behemoths who can weigh 300 pounds and much more.

It is impossible not to imagine what would happen should these erstwhile apes continue to come down from the trees and migrate to other areas.

Humans have proven they can dominate an ecosystem, displacing the native animal species. In some sections of Africa, humans already make up 90 percent of the population. Day by day, the humans are expanding their range, with new populations most recently found in a place called Europe.

If they make it to other parts of the world, experts say the humans could overwhelm the native species and, given their ravenous habits, deplete the food supply.

In the worst case, various species could face the danger of flying spears and arrows, and predatory species could see their prey disappear.

A 15-mile tour of one river provided a clear picture. Humans were everywhere, ready to grab rocks and spears at the sound of approaching wildlife. They could be spotted all along the banks of the river. They jumped up and down, yelling for their young to bring them weapons. The erratic "thumps" we felt were caused by humans hitting us with rocks they tossed from the shore.

When the number of humans increased in Asia Minor a few years ago, native species were amazed. They couldn't believe humans used weapons to obtain food, and sometimes made a game of killing native species. Dangerously armed humans were stalking the same animals local species relied on for nourishment.

"Of course they're dangerous," said one lion. "A tiger cub was recently hit by a flying spear. The spear punctured his chest. He needed to have it removed by his parents."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Preposterous Predicament

The assignment was to have fun with words beginning with P-R-E. I had fun doing this. Whether or not anyone else will find any fun in it remains to be seen.

Jackie was surprised to see Herman, her husband, in the middle of the living room attempting to touch his toes.

"What, pray tell, are you doing?"

"My preamble," he said, slowly raising himself to the full-upright position, although his stomach remained several inches below his belt. "These are the stretching exercises I do before taking my walk."

"Your walk usually ends up a prebendary."

"I know. I know," Herman said. "There were times when I walked to the bar and bent the elbow for a few days and usually wound up in the gutter. But those days are over. I'm jumping on the wagon."

"If I were you, I'd be careful. As fat as you are, if you jump on, you'll probably put the wagon in a prefixed condition."

"They'll just have to repair it," he said. "Besides, I'm going on a diet and I'll soon be a sight to behold."

"I bet," Jackie said. "I'd love to stay and watch your preamble. But I've got an appointment with the doctor, and I want to be prelate. They get so angry when I'm not on time."

After Jackie left, Herman wandered into the bedroom and looked at himself in the full-length mirror. He wasn't proud of the rotund reflection, but he thought he should have Jackie take a picture of his prefigure. Then, when he got down to a buff one-sixty-five, she could take a picture of his post-diet form. Maybe he could sell his weight-loss secrets and get rich.

A financial windfall would solve many problems. Right now, they had enough money, but with wage freezes, inflation and a balloon mortgage, the future would require some belt tightening beyond that needed to keep Herman's pants up around his soon to be slimmer waist. The pretension was obvious every time Herman and Jackie talked about finances. In a month or two, he was sure they'd have to start making difficult choices, and their fiscal fears and anxieties would dominate thoughts and discussions.

At lunchtime, Herman looked for something healthy in the kitchen. He found some prepared apples, but he didn't like to eat the skins and he didn't want to take the time to remove them. So, he went to his stash of Snicker's bars and devoured seven of them. He would have had more, but he heard Jackie come in.

"So, Mr. I'm on a Diet, who ate all the candy bars?" she asked, sneering at the empty wrappers on the counter.

With no time to prefabricate, Herman had invent a story on the spot.

"Little Johnny from next door came over and I let have a few Snicker's. It made him happy, and it got rid some temptation. I'm serious about this diet, you know."

He could tell Jackie was in a prevent mood. She wanted to tell Herman exactly what she thought of him, to yell, and shout, and scream at him. She managed to hold herself in check, but Herman knew he was just one wrong move from setting off a torrent of vitriol.

Two days later, the stress was too much for Herman. He had always thought he was a presage and would one day be renown for his wisdom. But now he was curled up on the couch in his underwear, sucking his thumb and mumbling endlessly in prediction. Jackie smiled. The doctor, who was also her lover, had told her that when Herman began babbling like a child not yet able to speak clearly, she would have no trouble getting him committed and getting a divorce. The doctor had also said he would marry Jackie. But once Herman was out of the way, he said he'd have to give marriage some thought.

"And when do you think you'll think about it?" she asked.

"I'm really busy right now," the doctor said. "I might be able to preponderate some in a couple weeks. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do any actual thinking for at least six months."

Jackie slammed the phone down. "He might be predeceased now," she thought. "But he won't be for long."

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

According to an article on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's website, a person with MS is up to three times more likely to exper...