Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Doctor Swinehart or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love H1N1

blah blah blah swine flu. blah blah blah we're all gonna die. Blah blah blah ahh-choo?

But seriously, I'm enthralled by this media spectacle for more reasons than I can count. And I can't say that I'm entirely immune to the overexposed and relentless over-the-top coverage of what may be yet another in a long line of influenza bugs that continuously sweep over the globe. The early spin on this media fastball was that this flu was more dangerous because... well, why exactly was that again? Dig even a little bit below the surface and you discover the gross exaggerations and outright lies that have been spread, maliciously or not, and eagerly accepted by your average fairly well informed human being. 24 hours a go I actually thought there was a chance that my days were numbered and that I might actually die from this thing. Then my dear wife helped me come to terms with my obvious hypochondria. It seems I've read too many sci-fi "End of Days" pulp novels.

In one such novel, Stephen King's The Stand, a horrific portrait of a flu pandemic is illustrated in the story's earliest chapters. The army has designed a 'super-flu' that is 99.99% communicable and incredibly lethal. The fear of disease is swiftly circumscribed by a government response, equal parts cover-up and violent suppression until things fall apart and the center doesn't hold. (See, although in a completely different context, even King knows you can't trust the media...) However the spread of the virus must have been researched very carefully because the recent strain of influenza has spread in an eerily similar manner. In the novel a few cases in Texas end up spreading first to NYC and California, popping up in isolated towns in the midwest before blanketing the country.

It is very obvious that the kind of latent fear of death and disease that makes this horror story so effective is the same one that has led the media to blow this thing up to elephantine proportions. News outlets offer us a service, at a price. The want us to follow current events, but most of all they want ratings. And people will tune in to this kind of story, at least for a while, because it is downright scary. It is frightening to think that in our modern age of superior health care, there are things that can sweep up over night and kill people. Never mind the fact that nobody outside of Mexico has died, and that those fatalities might be the result of extreme poverty. It is scary because it appears downright unstoppable. One can take all the proper precautions, but this might very well be one of those 'if you're gonna get it, you're gonna get it' phenomena. You know, the kind of flus that are out and about every year that kill people just as easily, but that everybody has seemingly forgot about.

I loathe disease. It creeps me out. I am a complete germophobe and am continuously washing my hands, spraying my work keyboard, mouse and phone, which cowrokers occassionally share, with disinfectant. I always get my flu-shots. Why is this? Because the flu is annoying as hell. Two weeks of feeling like shit? Where do i sign up? But I'm not going to go so far as to stockpile Tamiflu and bottled water (although I offhandedly suggested the very same to my wife the other night). Maybe I'm not entirely convinced as I thought.

What is stunning is the amount of misinformation out there that is greedily gobbled up and spewed out all over the place. The very name of this bug, for instance, is completely inaccurate. People aren't getting this from pigs. But that won't stop them from costing the pork industry millions of dollars in losses. Seriously people? You think you are going to get sick from eating bacon? Cooked bacon? More for me then. From what I've read the strain is a new combo of swine, avian, and human influenza that is passed from person to person exclusively. Many have hollered that it shouldn't be called swine flu at all, but perhaps 'novel' flu or as one wag has put it, 'media' flu.

The one good thing that I can see coming from this is that maybe, just maybe people will stop being quite so gross for the next few weeks. Masks here and there, sure. But hands being washed too. Coughs and sneezes being covered up. You know, like actual human beings. Funny how it sometimes takes a virus, something scientists aren't even sure to classify as alive or dead, to achieve this.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry

Hell, I wouldn't like me when I'm angry. Which is fine since I rarely get all riled up. Once in a great while. Most people are surprised to hear I can emote anger as I am generally cool as a cucumber (a vegetable renown for its calm handling of tense situations). But this morning I nearly flipped out. That's actually exaggerating quite a bit, but my dander was certainly up. And all because of a stupid bagel.

I was running a bit late because I had elected to go to the gym this morning, and I still needed to stop and get something for breakfast. A bagel sounded perfect. Now I like my bagels (as I like my women?) lightly toasted with nothing on 'em (Zing!). Normally an easy thing to procure (again, we're talking about the bagels, not women). However at the Hyde Park Bagel Dispensatorium there was a dreaded new person working the line. If that wasn't enough, this coffee shop has the ridiculous practice of relaying what the customer orders at the register to someone else who actually fixes the sandwiches, etc. Ever play elementary school game 'Telephone" where one person whispers a phrase in their neighbor's ear and they pass it on and so forth? Yeah, that is slightly more effective way of accurately getting a message across. The following conversation took place immediately before I ordered:

Jill Q. Customer: "Yeah, I'd like a regular coffee and a plain bagel with everything."

Register Monkey: "That'll be $4.73. Hey New Employee, I needa plain bagel with everything."

(Fairly Incompetent) New Employee: "With Everything? Like everything?"

Above this riveting drama is a large menu with various suggested fixings. One of the options is, 'Everything.' Now 'Everything' does not actually mean everything. It is tricky like that. Because nbody actually wants a dab of each kind of cream cheese combined with several forms of breakfast meat and eggs and so forth. I could actually feel the stiff breeze from everyone in line behind me rolling their eyes.

Needless to say I had high hopes that (Fairly Incompetent) New Employee would be able to fulfill my much more simple request without any hang-ups. However as I waited for the bagel to go through the toasting shute, and the other folks behind me placed their orders it dawned on me that perhaps my order was too simple. Surely no one just orders a plain toasted bagel with nothing on it. Already exasperated by the comedy of 'Everything', I began to lose my patience as my bagel dropped down, and before I could say a word, it was generously schmeared with a healthy dollop of seemingly randomly selected peanut butter.

(Fairly Incompetent) New Employee: "Plainbagelpeanutbutter!" (she announces to the gathering crowd of customers waiting for their order) I purse my lips and look to the side, disevowing ownership all the while knowing that this reject construction is meant for me.

Bagel after bagel is made correctly (astonishing!) and I continue to stand, patience slowly simmering away like so much coffee left on the burner. Not gonna make it to work on time, but suddenly this doesn't matter. All that matters is my fascination with the fact that someone could be so bad at something relatively simple. With no system of checks and balances or failsafes there is no way my actual order will be completed unless I speak up. Thankfully the Register Monkey, a very nice person actually who knows my order by heart, sees me still standing there and sighs, apparently this sort of thing was happening with some frequency this morning,

"We got a plain bagel just toasted back there?"

No, no they did not.

But one was hastily made, and I walked away with what I wanted. And I assume they had what they wanted as well, you know, aside from efficiency, namely, my money and their limbless corpses not strewn about their establishment.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Yee Olde Work Email Spam Comedy Hour

Let's lighten the mood a little bit, shall we?

It's always fun for me to return to the store after a nice relaxing weekend and take a look at the old work email. Why? Because my work email is a spam black hole. No spam can resist it's immense gravity and as a result I get quite an assortment of intriguing fare. And man have some people gone a long way to make sure their spam doesn't get filtered out into my junk folder. There appear to be a great many creative (and hilarious) ways to achieve this desired outcome. These include the use unfamiliar euphemisms in place of more common blacklisted words, incorrect spellings and odd chunks of concrete poetry, which I can only imagine help the email reach a predetermined requirement of enough different words to defeat various filters. The end result of course is a chuckle or six.

Some great email subject lines:

"Hoist Your Sexual Times" (with "the assistance of Good Medicaments,")
Oh boy, this one made me laugh. I'm sure 'hoist' has been employed as a sexual innuendo as long as there have been masts and rigging, but the addition of 'sexual times' kicks it into another gear altogether. And finally, the inclusion of some fancy English like 'medicaments'? Inspired.

"Empower Your Sexual Experience"
A minority group can be empowered. A political cause that desperately needs some legal or financial backing can seek to become empowered. Sexual experience? I'd love to see the legalese in the draft of that document.

"Your Power Will be so Strong that You will think you are Sleeping."
Um, I'm not quite sure that reads how you want it to read, Mr. Spam-bot.

"Raise Your Darling Bed Event"
This one actually makes syntactical sense. Mostly. But the hoops the author of this gem must have had to run through to make it 'see print.' I'm pretty sure nobody has ever called what happens in the bedroom a 'bed event' and to couple it with a snuggly word like darling, well...

And last some concrete spam poetry:

The wasn't any reason for the malfunction
Woman was on bad terms with her husband
he drinks.
Foreplay PPPlay it right!
In a different way, namely:
from the wild game a pleasant
middleaged man who, in spite of his better
have some supper
Pierre's face lightened than her form.
High cheeks had she
and a face strained voice that sounded like a dirge.
It imposible to describe the expression to be correct.

All I can say of this monday morning ritual can best be summed up in yet another borrowed spam tagline:
"satisfaction result assured!"

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where Does Your Honor Lay?

Independent as fuck!

You've probably seen this phrase, most likely embossed in neon on a sticker affixed to a skateboard, streetlamp, or an otherwise "alternative" retailer's storefront window. It can mean various things, and i do not mean to suggest i am comprehensively aware of them all. But I do have a certain perspective, having worked for several years in an independent bookstore. I take a great amount of pride in where i work, and what I've been able to accomplish. And I've only just begun to understand the challenges and benefits of being independent.

Independent bookstores are dying, there is no denying this. Curiously, big chain bookstores are also doing downright poorly as well, but people have to be getting their books from somewhere, right? Turns out Amazon is that somewhere quite often. Amazon is wonderful for a great many reasons, some of which include information gathering, price discounts, and used goods. Serving a buying public in the hundreds of millions, Amazon purchases its products in massive quantities, often on consignment (i.e. under the premise that the goods are theirs forever, even if they do not sell). As everyone knows, the more of something you buy all at once, wholesale, the less you pay for it, and this is essentially how Amazon can offer such great prices.

An independent bookstore is a small operation, and cannot purchase things in large quantities. As such the products we receive are more expensive and need to be sold as such if we hope to break even, let alone make a profit. But this leaves us with a huge conundrum. Why on earth would anyone ever buy something through us, that they can get for cheaper elsewhere? In the end, we cannot hope to compete financially, but we can compete in the community, and that's where the 'Independent as Fuck!' attitude comes back into play.

Amazon is great in a lot of ways but it isn't a place and indie stores have some advantages. Some of these are tangible. You can't go to Amazon to see your favorite author give a reading. Some are less readily observable, and bit more, well, how can i say this without sounding like a bleeding heart liberal... economically moral. It is a difficult argument to make, and i do not even pretend to think that i can adequately explain myself here, but i will give it a try.

Every penny that comes in our front door goes to purchase more books for the store (and to pay our modest salaries etc.)
With all of us living and working in the community, much of the money we make goes right back into the restaurants, bars, stores and venues around us. We also give small sums to various local charities and charge sales tax that goes to fix roads, fund schools, etc.

(Except in New York) Amazon does not charge sales tax. And with revenue in the billions, that's a lot of lost funds that could be used for all sorts of important things. As a 'store' that is not a place, Amazon does not give to your local charities. how could it unless it gave to all of them? So there is a whole lot of money coming in that has to be going somewhere, right? Amazon may even be very fair to it's many employees, I do not know. But what I do know is that the founder, Jeff Bezos is worth 6.8 billion dollars, and he is just one of it's board members. I'm sure that kind of corporate financial underpinning can make a great deal of good things happen, but that kind of accumulation and consoldation of wealth strikes me as exactly what your local community does not need. Surely some of that 6.8 Billion should be yours, yes? But then again you did not earn it, in fact, you may even have saved significant amounts of money by purchasing goods on Amazon for far less than you could elsewhere. you see how complicated this gets so fast?

I try and look at things as fairly as possible. This is less an us versus them scenraio, and more of a choice. You have a choice to buy independently, and a choice to buy from some entreprise like Amazon. It is not necessarily good versus evil, but do know that your choice has repercussions. Should you need to save those extra dollars by all means, do what you have to do to get by in increasingly difficult times. But also know that if you can afford to do so, shopping independently has its advantages. And a great many folks will benefit from your decision, not just a few.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

The Thing in the Basement

Basements are gross. They are dark, cluttered with crap you don't even want to keep upstairs in your closets, let alone out in the open. They usually have big clattering appliances like washers, dryers and hot water heaters. And more often than not there's a funk. A basement funk of stale air, the vaguely septic quality of water moving through the plumbing and on the other sides of the walls and floor, and of forgotten things. And if your landlord is our landlord, you get to look at that hideous painting which was banished down there years ago. blech.

Speaking of our landlord, she's awesome. She's the sweetest lady, living right upstairs, often out of town, leaving us silly little notes and things. She sends us emails warning about attempted robberies in the neighborhood (it is Chicago after all) as well as letting us know the dates of various art fairs in the area. But she is also sort of absent-minded. Case in point: repairs.

The inner doorknob of our building has been hanging by a thread of a screw for several months. Our furnace has kicked itself off several times for no reason--the temperature gauge has gone a little soft in the head and sometimes thinks it's hotter inside the furnace there than it really is. Our bathroom was plagued with clogs of the non-human variety (a bunch of sand and silt had built up over decades deep in the pipes) and now the opposite has happened just under the kitchen sink in the basement. A pipe elbow that looks to be at least 50 years old (probably much older, the apartment dates back to the late 1800s) finally blew out.

At first the hole was the size of a pin-head. Then a dime, followed by quarter and half dollar. Now the water just flies right down our sink and out into the air between our dryer and furnace. Spraying bits of chicken and asparagus and all sorts of food particles that had built up inside over the years. All that filth is laying in a pool that drains slowly into the floor. Needless to say the funk has grown more powerful than can be imagined. Doing laundry has turned into a whelk hunting adventure in Ireland, replete with tall boots and rain gear.

But its getting fixed next week. It only took a month or so. *rolls eyes*

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Clash of Kings

I heart George R. R. Martin. There. I said it. In particular I love Martin's epic 'high fantasy' series the Song of Ice and Fire. I write 'high fantasy' in scare quotes because it seems that wherever I read this descriptor it is employed as defense against lowly ole genre fiction. I for one have nothing against lowly ole genre fiction. I like my pulp just as much as I like my Proust. More helpfully I think, is the kind of sci-fi/fantasy that 'high fantasy' implies. The scattered and often underwhelming forces of a few Good eggs versus a seemingly unstoppable tide of Evil. We're talking a broad scope, insurmountable odds, hundreds of characters, and thousands and thousands of pages. Tolkien is often the name folks cite when invoking 'high fantasy'. But Martin's world of Westeros, while it does contain fantastic elements, seems much more focused on people and how they deal with each other.

I have just finished the second volume of the saga,
A Clash of Kings. Like all good sequels, it builds off the foundation without rehashing whats already come before. Straight out of the gates we're introduced to characters who previous played minor roles now creeping to the forefront after the treacherous political moves of Game of Thrones decimated some the kingdom's more honorable figures. While there was war in Thrones, there is carnage in Kings. Loosely based on the War of the Roses, Martin's epic features several rival families all clawing and stabbing to rule a continent. There is incest, backstabbing and blackmail aplenty. There are bitter sibling rivalries. There is religious fundamentalism. And there is Martin's trademark; no matter how important you think a character may be, nobody is safe.

Unfortunately I'm way behind. There are 2 giant-sized novels to go, and fifth due out in September. L has read everything that has seen print, and smiles whenever I mumble 'Good Lord' under my breath as my fingers rifle through pages. She knows what is in store for me and it's time to catch up.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Know Your 2009 Cleveland Indians

Major League Baseball is just days away. 5 if both my math is correct, and the world continues to revolve around the Sun in the same speed and frequency for the next week or so. After that the Sun can do whatever the hell it wants. I mean, it should probably go on nourishing all life on this planet and everything, but if it wants to put a Kenny Chesney album on it's thermonuclear Ipod, who am I to frown upon a celestial body's taste in music.

Considering the fact that a majority of my readership isn't interested in baseball, or if they are, not in the Cleveland Indians specifically, I thought I would write a little piece introducing some of the players on my favorite team in an unorthodox manner. I've tried to gather some unusual facts on these men to retain your attention. The accuracy of some of these statements is certainly contentious. However if you are thinking of hitting the brakes and running off to your Twitter, now would be the time. And away we go...

Asdrubal Cabrera. Nicknamed "AstroCab" or somewhat unfortunately, "Droobs". Cabrera plays second base and is just 23 years-old. He was born on an oil-rig off the coast of Puerto la Cruz, Venezeula. In fact, 'Asdrubal' is Spanish for 'Petroleum Child' and his outstanding defense is just as slick. *rim shot*

Victor Martinez. Curiously, Victor has no known nicknames and demands to be called by his first, last and middle name (Jesus) at all times, which I will immediately fail to maintain. Vic is the Indians primary catcher. Baseball Insiders call playing this position 'donning the tools of ignorance' which is largely because catchers in general are incredibly stupid.

Kerry Wood. This oft-injured former Chicago Cubs relief pitcher will serve as the Indians closer. It is said that his right arm, from rotator cuff to the third joint on his middle finger is composed of chewing gum, rubberbands, sawdust and a surprising number of small tacs. What would hamper a normal man only increases the velocity of Kerry's devastating fastball.

Shin-Soo Choo. One of the majors few Korean born players, the "Choo-Choo Train" is actually still required to serve in the Korean military and may miss some MLB time in the near future because of this stipulation. Or he could just change his name to 'Dan Heimerdinger' and go into the witness protection program. I hear they have excellent house-boats.

Anthony Reyes. This starting pitcher joined the Tribe late last season after spending too much time in the St Louis Cardinal doghouse. This isn't strictly true, however with his pitiful salary of just under $400,000, Anthony was unable to afford a large home and was teased mercilessly by the team, particularly manager Tony La Russa who refered to his 7 bedroom riverfront apartment as a doghouse.

Carl Pavano. Another of the Tribe's new starting pitchers, I need not make up anything silly about this man, Wikipedia has done the heavy lifting for me: "In 2006 the Yankees expected [Pavano] to be healthy but he began the year on the disabled list after brusing his buttocks in a spring trainging game. Pavano would subsequently miss the entire 2006 season." That's one hell of an ass bruise.

That's if for this edition of "Know Your 2009 Cleveland Indians." I hope you found this as informative as I did.