Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Here they go again

I've said many times that people should be allowed to practice whatever sort of religion makes them happy and fulfilled. Worship Jesus? Great. The Prophet Muhammad? Good for you. Create a cult around William Shatner? Why not? But when religious entities want to shove their beliefs in my face or, worse, get the government to help them in that effort, I'm inclined to resist. Such is the case in Florida, where some Christians are pressing the Legislature to approve a specialty license plate that includes a Christian cross, a stained-glass window and the words "I Believe." The plates would require a $25 annual fee, with the proceeds going to a nonprofit group called Faith in Teaching Inc., which supports "faith-based" school activities. It seems obvious that this is a violation of the separation of church and state, in that the state of Florida would seem to be endorsing a particular religion. One of the legislative supporters of the plate, Republican Sen. Ronda Storms, said the state, by offering a variety of specialty license plates, had created a "public forum," and that blocking access to that forum is also unconstitutional. I find it hard to equate a license plate touting a religious belief system with one reading, "Save the Manatee," but that's just me. According to the Associated Press, the plate appears unlikely to win approval during the current legislative session, and its backers, of course, are threatening legal action. I have a couple of options for the "believers" that don't involve relying on the government to help promote their religion or deliver their "message" to schoolchildren. If you want to say "Look at me! I love Jesus!" you could buy a couple of bumper stickers for your car. I've seen ones that say "Jesus is My Co-Pilot" or "My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter." Catchy. Heck, buy hundreds of them and cover your car. Buy a cross for use as a hood ornament. Put stained glass in your taillights. Or, come back to the Legislature next year with a proposal for not only your "I Believe" license plate, but license plates touting Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism, Taoism, Wicca, Baha'i and many more. And, just to be fair, how about a license plate for the atheists saying, "The Bible is a Fairy Tale"? I'm guessing that's a longshot.


The district might "respectfully" decline

Teachers in Canon-McMillan School District are banging the drum again, seeking to pressure the district into offering dozens of the more senior educators an early retirement incentive package. The issue has been a matter of bitter dispute for more than a year, and while I am not privy to all the facts and by no means consider myself an expert on education finance, I'm inclined to believe the district is correct in proceeding very cautiously on the issue. About 30 teachers showed up at the district school board's budget workshop Monday, all of them draped with signs saying, "I will retire on June 11, 2008, if offered a respectful retirement incentive." My first reaction was ... well, I can't tell you my first reaction, because it involves words not permitted on O-R blogs. My second reaction was: Hey, if you're tired of making 50 grand or more a year and having a three-month summer vacation, don't let the door hit you in the backside on the way out. Go to work pumping gas or handing out carts at Wal-Mart. You folks are not owed an early out. If it's in the best interest of the district, sure. But is it? The teachers contend that the district can save money by getting rid of their higher salaries and hiring entry-level teachers to replace them. On its face, that may be true. But what level of buyout is required for them to feel "respected?" And what's the total cost of paying off people who are no longer going to provide any benefit to the district or its children? Also, if these teachers are relatively close to retirement, why not let them retire naturally over the next few years and then replace them with the lower-paid new instructors? Board Vice President Kathy Smith noted that the district has to consider the long-term cost, both financially and in quality of instruction. She pointed to a bill working its way through the state Legislature that would significantly increase the level of teacher pensions. "I would be just another huge unfunded mandate," she said. As for quality of instruction, I'm pretty sure that a mass exodus of the district's most experienced teachers will not improve the education the students are receiving. Is it a benefit to replace someone with 30 years of experience with a person who just a year earlier was a college student? At McGuffey many years ago, I had a lot of very good teachers - people like Jim Carroll, Frank Nelan and Gus Mantalis - but I also had some who couldn't teach an Eskimo how to make ice. And most of the latter were the newer, younger teachers. I am in no way anti-teacher. I have many friends and acquaintances who are educators, and I greatly appreciate what they do for our children, often with a lack of support from parents who should be their partners in education. But there seems to be some sort of feeling among the Canon-McMillan teachers that they are entitled to a golden parachute to help them float into retirement. The school board should not be swayed by the pressure tactics. They, as always, should simply do what's best for the kids.


That small print's a b@#$%

The missus and I maintain a joint bank account for the majority of our financial transactions, but she keeps an account active at another bank, which shall remain nameless (although the illustration above might give you a clue), for occasional, minor expenditures. For instance, if she's taking a trip, she'll throw a little money in there so she can use that debit card for incidental expenses. Last Thursday, before we departed on a brief out-of-town trip, she deposited a check of about $300 in that account. She was aware, of course, that it might not be posted, and the money available, until the next day. It wasn't until Saturday that she used the debit card for that account, and she made another purchase on that account on Sunday. We were barely back in town before the letter arrived from the bank telling her she was being docked $70 for two insufficient funds transactions. A call to the bank provided the following explanation: Only $100 of the deposit was immediately available on Friday. Oh. The rest would be available on the next business day. Shouldn't that have been Saturday? The bank was open that day. Are you kidding? For purposes of the deposit, the next business day was Monday. Oh. So, it took four days from the time of the deposit for the money to be available in her account. They got a letter out to her telling her she was overdrawn quicker than they put the money into her account. What kind of B.S. scam is this? It's not like the check was from the Nigerian Lottery System. It was from my wife's employer, a well-respected local church, for God's sake. And I'm thinking that in this age of electronic banking, it would take about three seconds for the computer at my wife's bank to check with the computer at the church's bank to determine that, yes, the funds were there to cover the check. The most laughable thing in all this is that she could have just cashed the check and walked out of the bank with the full amount. Ridiculous.


Driving others to starvation?

An Associated Press story Tuesday quoted senior scientists from a global anti-hunger network who called for a halt to the use of food-based biofuels such as ethanol in an attempt to reduce corn prices amid a world food crisis. At the same time, the story said, President Bush was calling on the country to increase its use of ethanol to fuel vehicles, citing national energy security and high gasoline prices. What he didn't mention is that diverting more corn to fuel production leads to increases in our food costs. So, what we may save in gasoline - Yeah, right - will probably be erased by our rising grocery bills. Where's the benefit? Ohio State University Professor Rattan Lal, who is not affiliated with the aforementioned global network, had this to say: "We need to feed the stomach before we need to feed our cars. We have 1 billion people (around the world) who are food insecure. We can't afford the luxury of not taking care of them and taking care of gasoline." A pending analysis from the International Food Policy Research Institute targets biofuels as the cause of 30 percent of the overall increase in food prices between 2000 and 2007. A study financed by the biofuels industry put the figure at 4 percent. Gee, I wonder which might be more accurate? Bush said the international food crisis "is of concern," but he said it's in the best interests of the United States "that our farmers grow energy, as opposed to us purchasing energy from parts of the world that are unstable or may not like us." That's pretty much all of the world these days. The whole ethanol push is a drop-in-the-bucket approach to the serious energy issues facing our country. There are many other options that could be pursued that don't have the unwanted side-effects of ethanol reliance. One would be to raise - yes, raise - the gasoline tax significantly to force conservation and, as a result, lower demand for foreign oil. A second approach would be to significantly increase the mileage standards for all vehicles sold in this country. The fact that Hummers are produced, and that people buy them, is obscene in and of itself. Why not offer greater incentives for people to buy hybrid vehicles? We also need to further explore clean, efficient, alternative energy sources, not just for our vehicles but for our homes. I don't speak from an unassailable position. I don't live in a solar-powered hut, recycle pop bottles or ride a bike to work, but at the same time, I don't like seeing my country go down a path that could cause someone on the other side of the Earth to shrivel up and die.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rethinking that lawsuit?

Roger Clemens has carefully crafted a public image as a devoted husband and father, and he has categorically denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs. The ex-pitcher (unless he pulls another midseason reappearance) put his reputation at center stage when he filed a defamation suit against his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, who contends Clemens did use performance-enhancing substances during his stellar career. Now comes a report from the New York Daily News alleging that Clemens, shown above during his testimony before Congress, carried on a decade-long relationship with country singer Mindy McCready that started when she was 15. The newspaper says the relationship became intimate after McCready became a singing star in Nashville. Clemens' attorney, Rusty Hardin, denies that there was an "inappropriate or improper relationship," but McCready, who has a history of drug problems and is shown above left after a scuffle with her mother and police last year that landed her in jail, told the newspaper, "I cannot refute anything in the story." Hardin also described McCready as a "longtime friend of Roger Clemens." Sure, that makes sense. They're just pals, and what guy doesn't enjoy sitting around talking ball with a hot little blonde? You'll have to trust me that McCready once looked a lot better than she does in the police booking photo. I caught an interview on ESPN yesterday with McNamee's lawyer, who guaranteed that McCready will be called to testify if Clemens' suit comes to trial. He also suggested that the McCready allegations might be joined with other unsavory stories from Clemens' past in an effort to show Clemens is not the clean-living family man he claims to be. What Clemens should have known, or his attorneys should have told him, is that when you accuse someone of sullying your good name, you'd better be damn sure you have a good name to protect, because the person you're suing is going to dig up anything he can to make you look like a bad guy and a liar. Maybe Clemens didn't think things through. I always thought he was a great pitcher, even when he bolted from my beloved Red Sox, but I never thought he was much smarter than the average house cat. Maybe I was right.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Some "whine" with that cheese?

Monday was not the best of days for me. The weather was miserable. I picked up a bad head cold. I blew my diet totally while away for the weekend. My wide-open-prairie of a yard, which is a ball-buster in the best of times, has grown out of control through a combination of inclement weather and my recent absence from home. And, on top of that, my dog tried to eat one of my best friends (see item below). Other than that, a pretty OK day. But I, being the typical American, was feeling all sorry for myself, at least until someone caught my eye as I was moping my way out of the Giant Eagle. It was a guy, younger than I, who is spending his life in a wheelchair. Instant attitude adjustment for me. We all are guilty sometimes of turning our molehill problems into mountains and failing to realize that many people are a lot worse off than we are. We need to remember that.

Dog - 1 Dogsitter - 0

At left is a photo of our 100-pound puppy, Booda. I also originally had a photo here of my friend Bess, but it was not the most flattering shot, and in the interest of my personal safety, I have substituted another photo to represent her for the purposes of this blog entry. Now, back to the story. Bess has watched our dogs for us on numerous occasions when we have been out of town, typically without incident. Sadly, that was not the case this past weekend when the missus and I went on a short trip. Oh, the dogs are fine. Bess, not so much. Booda is generally an easygoing guy. He's a perfect gentleman when I take him to the office, and he's well-behaved when we have company. He does like to roughhouse with Jenny and me, as most puppies do, but he seems to have no idea that he's grown into a monster, and he can be a bit overwhelming, particularly with Jenny, who sometimes finds it difficult to fend off his chewy advances. Enter Bess, who is close to being smaller than the dog. Exit Bess, who, being a sane person, no longer has any interest in subjecting herself to Booda. When the weekend was over, despite her best efforts to occupy Booda with sticks, bones and toys, Bess apparently looked a lot like the loser in one of those old NWA Wrestling cage matches. Booda, noticing that I wasn't around to monitor his behavior, seemed to view Bess as some sort of walking, talking chew toy. Needless to say, we are aghast at his misbehavior and the treatment we have subjected our friend to. We are sorry. He is sorry. I have beaten him. His mother has beaten him. Kidding. That's dialogue from an old "Leave It To Beaver" episode. But we are sorry. And Booda, miraculously, has been on his best behavior since our return. I'm not really sure that he's sorry. It's probably just as likely that his big, slobbery jaws need a rest.


Philly Part I - The Good

Despite gasoline prices that require taking out a loan in order to fill the tank, it's nice once in a while to take a road trip and get away for a few days. The missus and I spent the past weekend in Philadelphia. The main reason for a trip was a major Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We were not disappointed. Not only did it feature dozens of Kahlo's works, there also were scores of photographs of Kahlo, her husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera, and their family and friends, including Leon Trotsky. If you're planning to be in Philly within the next couple of weeks, I would highly recommend it. The museum also featured a nice collection of French Impressionist works, exhibitions featuring Juan Soriano and photojournalist Lee Miller, and a collection of Ansel Adams photographs. The museum also had a collection of what passes for "modern art." I'm the kind of guy who wants to understand what the hell it is I'm looking at when I'm viewing a piece of art. If I could do it myself, I generally don't consider it "art." There was one so-called artwork that was nothing more than a bunch of carpet scraps piled in a heap. Another work was a string of lightbulbs curled up on the floor. But perhaps my favorite from this group was about a dozen rocks that had been placed in a circle. If that's art, then my scoutmaster when I was a kid was Vincent Freakin' Van Gogh. But, all in all, it was a nice museum. The food in Philly also was very pleasing. I had some outstanding "street pizza," a great meal at a diner called, go figure, "The Dining Car," and a fine cheesesteak sandwich at Jim's Steaks that was worth the 45-minute wait as we stood in line outside the restaurant. I know I barely scratched the surface of what Philly has to offer culturally and cuisine-wise, but what I took in was worth the trip.


Philly Part II - The Bad

I didn't see enough of Philadelphia to offer an educated opinion about where it ranks among America's great cities, but I saw enough to say Pittsburgh is a much more picturesque place. There were a lot of eyesores in Philly, leading me to understand why some people call it "Filthy-delphia." Also, traffic was worse than what I generally have run into in Pittsburgh. On our way to dinner Friday night, we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper, barely moving traffic for a good 45 minutes, and when our speed finally picked up, I couldn't for the life of me see what the traffic jam was all about. And this wasn't at 5 p.m. It was more like 7:30. We ran into the same kind of inexplicable mess coming out of Philly the next day. But my favorite "poor rube in the big city" story came when we were sightseeing on South Street in Philly. We parked in a nearby parking garage and spent about two hours on South Street. When we returned to the car and went to the booth to pay, I couldn't hear clearly what the girl said. "Did you say $7.18," I asked, thinking that was an odd figure. "No," she said. "17. 17 dollars." For two hours of parking. At that kind of rate, I sort of expected the girl working there to facilitate some sort of "happy ending" for me, but, alas, that was not the case. It would be a long walk from King of Prussia to downtown Philly, but I had the fleeting thought that it might be faster and, with gas prices and the exhorbitant parking fees, a lot cheaper.


Philly Part III - The Ugly

After a long day at the art museum and sightseeing in Philadelphia, a meal in the cozy confines of our hotel room seemed like a good idea. I had seen a brochure in our
room about a deli that was relatively close, so I placed an order for pickup. Since I had virtually no knowledge of the local area, I asked the lady at the front desk of the hotel how to get to the deli, and she gave me a little card showing directions to King of Prussia Mall. She said the deli was about a mile past the mall, and she gave me a landmark to look for that would help me find the restaurant. Well, I won't get into all the details about how far wrong she led me, but I am pretty sure that based on her directions, Magellan, armed with a GPS and a pair of bloodhounds trained exclusively with corned beef and sour pickles, could not have found this deli. (The photo above shows a map of Romania, which would have been just as useful as what the desk clerk told me.) I eventually located the place, no thanks to the directions, but I also had the pleasure of speaking with a gentleman working at a BP station in Norristown who, based on his command of the English language, had been in our country for about 20 minutes. In the old days, the guy running the local filling station could give you directions to pretty much anywhere within a 25-mile radius. These days, you might get a Slurpee, if you're lucky.


Common law, but where's the common sense

I don't know Mark Spaid, but I feel sorry for the guy. The Western Pennsylvania resident has been through a living hell for the past 16 years, involved in a protracted court battle and paying more than $10,000 in support for a child that everyone agrees isn't his. According to an Associated Press report, the whole mess started when Spaid, who works as a laborer, sought a court order for a DNA test to prove the child delivered by his then-wife was the result of her dalliance with some other guy. Spaid was pretty sure of what the outcome would be, because he had a vasectomy two years earlier. What he didn't know was that Pennsylvania law, when it comes to cases like this, presumes that a husband is the legal father of a child born during his marriage. No ifs, ands or buts. Based on English common law, it's supposedly aimed at securing the child's financial and emotional future. What it actually does is royally screw guys whose wives are worthless skanks. Instead of getting his DNA test, Spaid got an order to pay child support and, during his long court battle, spent some time in jail for failure to follow the order. Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, told the AP that presumption of paternity means "it's OK to perpetrate a fraud on a man with respect to what he believes are his children, and we are rewarding mothers for doing that." Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce lawyer, disagreed, saying "I get angry with these guys who say, 'It's not my kid, it's not my kid' ... Remember whose ox is getting gored here. Who is the one who is going to suffer? The child." With apologies to Ms. Gold-Bikin in advance, I would say this to her: UP YOURS. The person who caused the suffering is the woman who violated her marriage vows and slept with another man. Not the unwitting husband. And in this day and age, we have DNA testing that can find the actual father, who should then be forced to meet his obligations to HIS child. That is, if the mother can remember his name, or bothered to even get it in the first place. When it comes to issues of custody and support, it seems that men typically get the short end of the stick. I'm sure our regular contributor Priguy could tell us a couple of his horror stories with the system. For Spaid, the whole mess had a somewhat happy ending. His ex-wife was giving up custody so that a couple could adopt the now-teenage daughter for whom Spaid was paying support. During that process, in which Spaid was asked to give up his parental rights, he finally got his court-ordered DNA test. Lo and behold, he wasn't the father.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Now that's harsh

Every once in a while, I run across an item on the news wire or on the Internet that stops me dead in my tracks. Such was the case with a Reuters dispatch today out of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Reuters, police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers who have been accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises. I'll let that sink in for a minute. OK, back to the story. Police also took 14 alleged victims of sorcery into custody. The men claimed that the black magic practitioners touched them to make their genitals shrivel up or disappear. Some say the assailants' aim was to extort money in exchange for a cure. The arrests of both the alleged shrinkers and shrinkees were carried out to prevent bloodshed, according to police in Kinshasa, who said 12 suspected penis snatchers were beaten to death by angry mobs in Ghana about 10 years back. Reuters quoted Kinshasa police chief Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, who had this to say: "When you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that, I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it.'" Sound advice. So, we may have plenty of problems here in the good old US of A, but I've never had someone threaten to harm my penis. Well, maybe a couple of ex-girlfriends, but certainly not a witch doctor. By the way, the photo you see with this post is of Michelangelo's David. I know it has nothing to do with the Congo story, but it's not easy finding photos to go with penis stories, at least without offending anyone. Who can argue with high art? I'm hoping to have an update on this story later in the year. My friend Dave is planning a trip to Africa in the fall, and we'll see if he can bring up back a first-person report. Watch your goodies, buddy!


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Balancing the scales of justice

I have some very mixed feelings about the federal prosecution of the South Carolina teenager accused of plotting to blow up his high school in a suicide attack. Ryan Schallenberger of Chesterfield is facing a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction after he was found to have ordered ammonium nitrate, the same substance used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He reportedly had made detailed plans for an attack. The Chesterfield County prosecutor, Jay Hodge, said "society requires jail time" for the plot, although in the same breath, he said "the kid needs help." That's the balancing act. Should authorities put the 18-year-old in prison for the rest of his life? That's the sentence he's facing if convicted on the WMD charge, and a guilty verdict would seem likely. Or should the straight-A student, who clearly has exhibited some level of mental illness, receive some mental-health help to see if the demons inside him can be tamed and he can live a productive life? I'm leaning toward the latter. What do you think?


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Who are your musical heroes?

Outside of politics and religion, nothing gets some people more riled up than suggesting that their favorite singers or musical groups are bums. The missus and I have a long-running "discussion" about the relative merits of her favorite artist, Sting, and mine, Elvis Costello. We'll be seeing them together in the same Star Lake show in late July. Call it a mini Battle of the Bands. We might even be speaking at the end of the evening. Everyone has artists who they think are unfairly overlooked, and others who have gotten way too much attention in proportion to their talents. I'll offer a list of my most underrated and overrated performers, and I'd like to hear yours.
Overrated: Norah Jones (nice voice, but a cure for insomnia after a while), Jennifer Lopez (Do I need to elaborate?), Britney (one great song and a long, slow trip to Hell), Phil Collins (Su-Su-Sudio?), the Grateful Dead (Yeah, Mike, I just don't get it), Billy Joel (One iconic song, "Piano Man," one killer album, "The Stranger," and a 30-year descent into irrelevancy) and, finally, my No. 1 most overrated "artist" of all time, Madonna. Never before has anyone, through shameless self-promotion, gained such fame for so little talent. For God's sake, there have been people with 10 times more talent than her playing at May'rz Inn on South Main. The wife likes her, too.
Underrated: Jonatha Brooke (the antithesis of Madonna), Joshua Radin, Anna Nalick (based on only one album, but very promising), Pernice Brothers, Cary Brothers, Dr. Joyce Brothers (kidding), Kathleen Edwards, Amos Lee (two great CDs), Iron and Wine, Fountains of Wayne (the indisputable kings of power pop; you should get all their CDs), James Hunter (a white guy from England who plays a bad-ass guitar and has a voice that sounds as if he's Sam Cooke and Ray Charles' love child) and, finally, my vote for most underrated artist in America today: Matt Nathanson, shown above. If you like moderately mellow singer-songwriter-type stuff, download or otherwise purchase his albums "Some Mad Hope" and "Beneath These Fireworks." They are stellar.
These are just my opinions, and as we all know, opinions are like ... um, opinions. Everybody's got one. Please share your views with the rest of us. Help us find more good music for our collections, and steer us away from the crap. Thanks.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Racists still among us

I'm not surprised that bigots still exist in our country. They're in every country around the globe. But I am distressed by the findings of a new Associated Press-Yahoo! poll. The main thrust of the poll was that a significant majority of Democratic voters now believe Barack Obama has a better chance than Hillary Clinton of beating Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain in November. That wasn't all that shocking. But there were some surprises in the poll, not all of them pleasant. Fifteen percent of the poll's participants still believe that Obama is a Muslim. C'mon people. Get your heads out of your backsides. But what really disturbed me was the finding that about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black candidate to lead the country. The poll suggested very few Democrats would feel that way, but an estimated 13 percent of Republicans would have that opinion. If you extrapolate that beyond the polling group to the entire country, it suggests to me that there are millions of people in our nation who would be reluctant to support a candidate solely because of the color of his or her skin. I have lived in the South before and traveled extensively in that region, and I can tell you from personal experience that there are plenty of racists there. But they don't have that market cornered, not by a long shot. Right here in our area, there are people around us every day who are, pure and simple, haters. And that makes us a lesser country than we could be.

Life-or-death decisions

This item was brought to my attention by friend and co-worker Christie Campbell. Angel Ridge Animal Rescue is running a newspaper ad in the O-R seeking donations to cover a $5,000 vet bill for an Australian Shepherd mix named Bandi (those are other Aussies shown above). According to the group, the dog was hit by a car, and when the owner took her to the vet and found her back legs were paralyzed, he said he planned to take her home and put her out of her misery. But someone intervened, an operation was performed and now Angel Ridge is seeking $5,000 to cover the costs. There are some times when, despite our love for animals, the best thing we can do for them is end their suffering. And, as Christie pointed out, imagine what that $5,000 could do for animals who had not suffered such a catastrophic injury. I once had a golden retriever who was suffering from an incurable ailment. There was zero chance of recovery, and the dog was clearly in distress. After much deliberation, I took him up over the hill and shot him, as country people often do in these instances. I loved that dog, and I cried like a baby. But I did what was right for the animal. According to the Angel Ridge ad, even after the surgery, the Aussie mix still cannot walk. I have two Australian blue heelers, very similar in temperament to the Australian Shepherd, and they are EXTREMELY active dogs. It seems cruel to me to consign such a dog to a life in which it might be dragging its back legs behind it. I applaud the work that Angel Ridge is doing, and I would encourage people to financially support this group and others like it, but sometimes we have to make difficult decisions about what is best for a sick and injured animal, and sometimes life can be a fate worse than death.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Please help us, we're stupid

In another example of government believing we're dumb animals who need watching over, beginning Monday in New York City, some chain restaurants will be forced to post calorie counts alongside their menu offerings. City health officials, according to the Associated Press, contend that providing calorie information will save 150,000 New Yorkers from obesity and will prevent another 30,000 from getting diabetes and other ailments over a five-year period. I'm really skeptical of those figures. They sound made up. And the rule doesn't even apply to most upscale restaurants or the many Mom-and-Pop delis and pizza shops all over the city. It's just places such as McDonald's and Burger King that have at least 15 restaurants nationwide. Do the health nannies believe people are going to be shocked that some foods are better for them than others? I really don't need a government agency to provide me with the stunning news that a side salad with diet dressing is much healthier for me than a Double Whopper with Cheese.

Same old *&%$

While I'm on the subject of movies (see below), I'd like to express my frustrations about the films we are offered in Washington. I realize we're not living in the center of the cultural universe (I generally like that about our area), but the people who decide what movies are going to play at our local theaters apparently believe that there's no market whatsoever for art films, foreign films or the more "fringy" independent offerings. I beg to differ. I know plenty of people just among my circle of friends and acquaintances who would pay to see such films. I often have to drive to suburban Pittsburgh to see movies that I know have no chance of coming to Washington, or might show up weeks after their release. Some that I'd like to see never even make it out to the 'burbs. What got me thinking about this issue this morning was a listing on the Yahoo! home page of the half dozen "Most Anticipated Summer Movies." They included a remake (a new Indiana Jones movie), yet another Jackie Chan kung-fu movie, a film based on a TV show ("Sex and the City"), a movie derived from a cartoon ("Speed Racer") and two films that had their genesis in comic books (the latest Batman movie and "Iron Man"). Of those six, I might see the Batman film. I'm not a movie snob. I think "Animal House," "Caddyshack" and "Slapshot" are American movie classics. But I have zero interest in most of the middle-of-the-road, mindless crap that Hollywood churns out for mass consumption. I don't expect the local theaters to turn over half their screens to foreign or artsy movies. That would be financial suicide. But would it be too much to ask for "special interest" movies on one screen, one day a week?


Customer service counts

As an American consumer of more than 30 years' experience, I've seen the good and bad of customer service. I've found that no one does a worse job of communicating than the phone company. Go figure. I also was once threatened with a visit from police during a heated dispute over a malfunctioning lawn mower at Wal-Mart. But sometimes a company understands that just a small gesture can make all the difference in its relationship with its customers. Such was the case for me yesterday at Hollywood Theaters at Washington Crown Center. I went with the missus and a co-worker to see "Smart People," which had a start time of 12:55 p.m. The missus and I both arrived about 12:30, which was the posted time for the box office to open. There was no one in the box office, or anywhere to be seen inside the theater, but I wasn't overly concerned because we still had nearly a half hour until the movie was to start, and my co-worker, who shall remain nameless, is well known for being fashionably late (Yeah, it was Bess). But by 12:50 (Bess still not there), it became apparent that we and the other six or eight people waiting to buy tickets might have a problem on our hands. About 1 p.m. (as Bess was finally sauntering over), one of the theater owners showed up and explained that there had been a change in middle management at the theater that apparently had created a snafu in worker scheduling. A few minutes later, someone appeared with keys to open the place, and the owner told us that we would be getting in free, and that our movies would be started once everyone got into his or her seats. True to her word, we had been seated no more than five minutes before the previews started playing, and nobody minds getting something for free. It might have cost the theater a little money to let us in without charge, but it bought them a lot of goodwill. People will remember that theater management apologized to us and did something to make the situation right. It also provides a lesson for other companies that using a little common sense and treating your customers fairly keeps them happy, and coming back.


Monday, April 14, 2008

In politics, honesty is not the best policy

Barack Obama has found out the hard way that providing an honest opinion can be a real problem in the world of politics. At a recent private campaign event, Obama opined that some people in rural areas who have been victims of economic downturns have become bitter and cling to issues related to guns, religion or a distrust of those who are unlike them. Hillary Clinton and John McCain were lightning quick in trying to paint Obama as some sort of elitist who looks down on the "common man." It's pure politics. While Obama probably could have chosen his words more carefully, there are undeniable truths in what he said. There are a lot of people out there who are bitter because of their lot in life, and there are plenty of single-issue voters, folks who make gun control, abortion or an immigration crackdown the be-all, end-all when it comes to judging a candidate. Obama made a deadly mistake for a political figure: He gave an honest answer to a question. Guess what? People don't want to hear the truth from candidates, because the truth, as Al Gore might put it, can be very inconvenient. Some voters do their homework and carefully consider the pros and cons of candidates. But, collectively, we are a bunch of sheep who can be swayed by any charlatan who promises us tax cuts, full employment and a chicken in every pot. My advice to Obama would be to stick to the script and duck and cover if someone asks him a question that calls for a controversial answer. Just avoid a direct reply and spout off a few vaguely relevant campaign themes. If he's having trouble grasping this concept, he might want to try picking up some pointers from the competition.


The foolproof way to avoid addiction

The sad case of Shawn Paul Bellicini came to a close in a Washington County courtroom last week. Bellicini, 33, was a teacher at Bethlehem-Center High school until his June 2007 arrest for selling 10 Oxycontin pills to a confidential police informant in Bentleyville. He entered an open plea in February to a charge of delivery of a controlled substance and was sentenced last week to 11-and-a-half to 23 months in the county jail. One would hope that a seller of illegal drugs such as Mr. Bellicini will never again be put in a position of teaching young people. He's already let down one group of youngsters who probably looked up to him. Of course, Bellicini blames his actions on his own drug addiction. That kind of excuse doesn't hold much sway with me. Anyone who is not a blithering idiot knows full well that if they take a drug such as Oxycontin, heroin, methamphetamine or crack cocaine, there's a pretty good chance they'll become addicted and that their life may well be ruined as a result. Some people have to take heavy-duty painkillers because of severe medical conditions, and one can understand that sometimes they become dependent on those drugs. But for the rest of society, it's very simple. Don't take the drug the first time. I'm pretty sure that's a guaranteed way to not become a junkie.


Blaming the wrong people

One sentence stood out in a recent Associated Press dispatch from Philadelphia about the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Timothy Goode Jr. by police in January: "Goode's family faults police for the shooting." Now, if young Mr. Goode, who was a great-nephew of former Philly Mayor Wilson Goode Jr., had been collecting money for the poor or helping a little old lady across the street when he was shot to death, one could understand the family's position. But, police say, Timothy Goode aimed a gun at officers and dropped 45 vials of crack cocaine during the altercation. The family apparently believes it's OK to point a gun at an officer and to carry mass quantities of illegal drugs. It seems every time someone gets killed by a police officer, it's always the fault of the police. And if the victim happens to be black and the officer white, the outcry is a thousands times louder. Well, you know what? Sometimes people do things that warrant their being shot by police. And sad as it is to lose a young life, maybe Mr. Goode got exactly what he deserved.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Stupid, stupid, stupid

The political correctness police were summoned again this week, and they brought along the real cops. The Associated Press reports that Linda Ramirez-Sliwinski, a local elected official and Obama delegate from suburban Chicago, was issued a $75 ticket for disorderly conduct after using the word "monkeys" to describe black children playing in a tree. The two kids, under the supervision of their parents, were climbing in a tree next to Ramirez-Sliwinski's house. She expressed her concern because of fears about the boys' safety and the fact that the small magnolia tree was being damaged. The father of the kids told her to butt out, and Ramirez-Sliwinski said she replied that "the tree is not there for them to be climbing in like monkeys." That's when the mom of one of the kids called police and, if you can believe it, an officer issued Ramirez-Sliwinski a ticket under an ordinance that bans conduct that people might find disturbing or alarming. According to the AP, one of the kids told police he was scared by Ramirez-Sliwinski's comment. Are you kidding me? I guess I shouldn't be surprised. We've been headed down the path to the point where everyone is offended by everything for quite some time now. A friend and former co-worker, while working at the O-R, once quoted a police officer who said a couple of dumb gas station robbers "showed the intelligence of a box of raisins." It wasn't long before a black gentleman called to complain because one of the robbers was a fellow "person of color." He must've made some connection to those noted black icons, the California Raisins. A few years later, the same friend, in another job, wrote a story about the increasing use of the Internet by automotive engineers, and he used the headline, "Gentlemen, start your browsers." A female engineer quickly e-mailed him a complaint stating that his "callous headline" had effectively "ignored half your readership." Being the fun-loving sort, he sent her a smart-ass reply and, fortunately, never heard back from the dolt. I don't know whether to laugh hysterically or be very angry about the recent incident in Illinois. Monkeys do climb in trees. I've seen it on National Geographic Channel. And sometimes kids - white, black, red and yellow - swing around in trees like ... MONKEYS! This whole Ramirez-Sliwinski thing has released some repressed memories of my own. When I was a kid, I now recall that my parents referred to me as a monkey when I was tree-climbing. I really should retain legal counsel and sue their asses off. The fact that Ramirez-Sliwinksi is a supporter of a black man who is running for president, on its face, makes me doubt that she's a virulent racist. I really don't believe she intended to suggest that the children in the tree were descended from apes, any more than we all might be, but if this is the route we're taking, I'm issuing my own warning. A few years back, some scientists reported that all mammals, including humans, are descended from an aardvark-like creature. So if one of my co-workers compares me to an aardvark when I'm rooting through the mess on my desk, I'm calling the law.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Yearning for children?

As hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who are crying "religious persecution" after authorities raided the Texas compound of a fundamentalist Mormom sect in which girls as young as 13 allegedly were married off to and sexually abused by middle-aged men. Child welfare officials say that as soon as girls in the sect were physically capable of bearing children, they were "spiritually married" to much older men. The 16-year-old girl whose phone call prompted the recent raid already had a child and claimed she was sexually assaulted and beaten by her husband, who had six other wives. Texas authorities have taken custody of more than 400 children who lived at the site, which went by the name of Yearning for Zion Ranch. If the allegations are true, it might better have been called "Yearning to Get Naked with 13-year-olds and Get Away With It Ranch." One wonders what sort of sick mind is involved when a parent would allow his or her underage daughter to be victimized in such a way. America has a long history of religious freedom, even extending protections to groups whose origins and tenets most people find fantastic or even laughable (Do yourself a favor and watch the applicable South Park episodes.), but I think it's high time for a major crackdown on those kooks who think it's proper to prey on children. Religious freedom be damned.


Watch your balls

Police in suburban Pittsburgh are investigating an assault on a golf course that landed two guys in a hospital. The Associated Press reports that a 66-year-old man and his 46-year-old nephew required treatment after a fight with two other golfers, a 71-year-old and his 66-year-old playing partner. The older victim was knocked cold. It appears the altercation began when the suspected attackers hit one of their balls close to the cart the victims were riding in. I've played hundreds of rounds of golf in Western Pennsylvania, and most of them were highly uneventful, but there have been times when I have had harsh words, and came close to fighting, other golfers. In pretty much every case, the impetus for the altercation was, plain and simple, lack of common courtesy. And very often, the offending parties are old guys. They may not have anywhere else to go or anything else to do, but a lot of the rest of us are not interested in playing a six-hour round. And, yes, sometimes, as we get more and more frustrated, we might not wait as long as we should for them to get out of range before hitting our next shots. Many is the time I have played in a group that was walking the golf course, only to held up interminably by four old guys in carts. And it's not just the senior citizens. It's the guy who surveys six different angles before hitting a four-foot putt. Or the guy who decides a busy golf course is the perfect place to teach his girlfriend how to play the game. Or the guy who spends 15 minutes looking for a two-dollar ball and wouldn't think of suggesting that the faster group behind him play through. Or the Yuppie with $2,000 clubs and 50 cents' worth of skill who takes six practice swings before hitting a chip shot. These are the reasons people get angry. When you put these things together with my observation that there seems to be an inordinate number of a-holes on golf courses, there are times when violence will result. Golf courses that simply take the players' cash and then make no effort to police their play bear a large share of the responsibility for uncivil behavior. The real cure is for everyone to exercise common courtesy, but that attribute seems to be sorely lacking in our society as a whole, and even more rare among today's hackers.


Never mind that hair on your tongue

We have been witnesses, over the past few decades, to incredible advances in medical science. Life-saving transplants. Huge gains in cancer treatment. Joint-replacement surgeries. Minimally invasive surgeries. The list could go on and on. But I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who would be highly reluctant to take some of the drugs that the pharmaceutical industry is pushing these days. I saw a TV ad the other day for the arthritis drug Celebrex, and it seemed like most of the ad was spent warning potential users of the risks associated with the drug. You've heard them run down the laundry list of potential complications: stomach pain, rectal leakage, headaches, nausea, heart attack, stroke, loss of vision, skin eruptions, swelling of extremities, etc., etc. Not to mention those four-hour erections and, oh yeah, death. I recently had a nasty case of poison ivy, and the side effects from the oral steroid I was given by a doctor were so horrific that I had to get off of it. We also recently learned about a study that found the two-drug, anti-cholesterol combo known as Vytorin - they have the ads comparing your Aunt Mabel to a ham on the table, or some such thing - was no more effective than one of its components, the older cholesterol drug marketed under the name Zocor. The study also found that Vytorin carried a slightly higher risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular death. That study was completed in 2006, but for some strange reason, it wasn't released until this year. I wonder how much money the pharmaceutical companies Merck and Schering-Plough make off Vytorin in the interim. And where in the hell was the FDA in all this? My cholesterol is not currently out of control, but if it gets much higher, my doctor is going to suggest that I go on one of these drugs. And I'm going to decline. From what I gather, pretty much all of these drugs pose some sort of threat to one's liver, and I need that liver to process the red wine I drink. It's supposed to be good for my heart. That's MY kind of medicine.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Free willies

We've all heard about kids being tossed out of school for such major transgressions as bringing nail clippers to class or sporting a rubber sword with a Halloween costume. I even commented recently about the ridiculous story of a youngster being severely punished for buying a bag of Skittles from a classmate. Now, there's an investigation under way in Johnstown because three kindergarten boys allegedly waved their privates at a female classmate and suggested that she touch them. I'm not saying this is proper conduct, but we also have to remember that these are children of a young age who are still very curious about their own bodies and the bodies of others. The school in question has actually called in the police to investigate. Are you kidding me? They're wasting the time of the police department to probe a "willie waving" by 5-year-olds? Let me tell you how this would have been handled if I and a couple of friends had done this at good old Claysville Elementary back in the '60s. The teacher would have dragged us, possibly by our ears, up to the principal's office, and Mr. Haberlan, after extracting our confessions, would have given us a good chewing out and instructed us about the errors of our ways. At that point, he would have called our parents, secure in the knowledge that they would see to it that we got a sound butt-whipping, which we would have. We would have felt shame, and we would not have done it again. Sounds a lot simpler and more sensible than calling in the cops.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Never mind

As might have been expected, Steelers linebacker James Harrison has walked away scot-free on domestic violence charges. The Allegheny County district attorney's office dropped assault and criminal mischief charges Thursday. It appears Harrison's girlfriend decided she didn't want to pursue the case, and Harrison's attorney pointed out that his client already had completed anger-management counseling. Wow. The incident occurred on March 8, and in less than a month, all the demons that caused Harrison to whack a virtually defenseless woman have been exorcised. He must've gone to the same therapist who "cured" the Rev. Ted Haggard of his homosexuality in a couple of weeks. I just wonder what kind of woman would absolve a so-called "man" of responsibility for breaking down their bedroom door and smacking them in the face. Someone with very low self-esteem? Someone with a strong belief in second chances? Or maybe someone who heard the whistle as the "gravy train" started to pull out of the station? I can't comprehend it. Despite what Dan Rooney might say, there's never an excuse for a 250-pound man to hit a woman in the face. Anyone who does that should spend some time in jail.


Another "valuable" study

If you want to get ahead in life, my advice to you is to head to your nearest shoe store and stock up on sneakers. Hey, I know it sounds crazy, but the online ad network Mindset Media has released a study, in connection with Nielsen Online, that says people who buy more than three pairs of tennis shoes a year are 61 percent more likely than the average Joe to have leadership qualities. According to a PRNewswire report, the study found those who buy more sneakers also are likely to be very assertive and very spontaneous. I apparently have missed the boat here. If I buy one pair of tennis shoes a year, it's a big year for me. I currently have two pair - one for yard mowing and the other for casual wear. Put those together with my single pair of Crocs and two pair of what I generously call "dress shoes," and you can see that I don't spend a whole lot of time picking out footwear. The missus, on the other hand, must be one helluva leader. She may, indeed, be the Imelda Marcos of Hopewell Township. I'm pretty sure she has more shoes than I have underwear, socks and pants combined. My theory has always been that since one can wear only one pair of shoes at a time, it doesn't make sense having a bunch of them just lying about. But then, I apply the same policy toward blue jeans. I have one pair. I launder them as needed and replace them when I bust the crotch out of them. It's not that I have an overly active crotch. It's just that when a fat man bends down, that seems to be the point where the trousers say, "Enough, already!" But I digress. I would like to address the three points of the study. First, the assertion that people who buy three pairs of tennies a year are leadership material. My guess is that someone who would buy more than three pairs of tennis shoes a year is someone who already is in a leadership position and has the wherewithal to waste money on shoes. Second, the claim that frequent sneaker buyers are very assertive. Maybe it's possible that they're just look-at-me, status-conscious pains in the ass, the kind of people who are blabbing on cell phones while driving their SUVs and then flip you the "bird" when they cut you off in traffic. And then there's the spontaneity. My take: "Oh, look, shoes. They're $100 a pair, but the commercials told me they're really cool, so I should buy them." I think we should give this study the boot.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Next target: Professional curling

Since Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues more than 60 years ago, baseball has been open to players of all races. It took some teams a few more years to begin adding players of color to their rosters, but by the 1960s, black players were no longer an anomaly in the game. Many of the greats of the game in the '60s, '70s and beyond were black. Frank Robinson. Ernie Banks. Henry Aaron. Willie Mays. The list goes on and on. Today, we find fewer black players in baseball (but many more Latin players), and at a recent roundtable discussion held in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Game in Memphis, folks such as Hank Aaron and Martin Luther King III said something needs to be done to reverse that trend. Said King, according to the Associated Press, "Somehow we must find better ways to bring young people, particularly black Americans, into the sport of baseball." My response to this is ... What?!?!? I'm not sure if Aaron and King are aware of this, but there is no rejuvenated Jim Crow system attempting to keep blacks out of baseball. Though there may be socioeconomic factors involved in some cases (i.e., cost of equipment), for the most part, black youngsters, themselves, are choosing not to play baseball. They have drifted to football and basketball, two sports, it can argued, they now dominate. I'm not even going to attempt to analyze why black athletes are no longer greatly attracted to baseball. It's so low on the scale of importance as to not be worth our pondering. Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams, who is black, had a much more thoughtful take on the so-called issue. Said Williams, "I'm less concerned about young, inner-city, African-American kids playing baseball than I am about the murder rate or the lack of high school diplomas." Well said. Convening a roundtable discussion on the declining percentage of black athletes in pro baseball is on a par with investigating why there are so few Asians in professional calf roping. Maybe it just doesn't appeal to them.