Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Race Without Arms

The restrooms at my office now have motion-sensing towel dispensers. I don't get it.

Yes, we live in the 21st century, and technology is advancing at a faster rate all the time. But maybe that's a problem too.

Our relationship with technology always seems to follow a certain pattern:

1. We acquire it.

2. We study it just long enough to figure out how we can use it.

3. We immediately market products that are stupid and self-serving.

We do not need laser beams to help us get paper towels. And anyway, if we have to use our hands to activate the laser, what's the point? It's a hands-free device for hands.

I don't even want to think about the ratio of useful-to-stupid technologies. For every surgeon who uses robotic arms to operate on a patient from across the country, we probably have twenty towel dispensers equipped with lasers. In time, one of two things will happen:

1. We will accidentally evolve beyond the need for arms, which will shrivel up and fall off. Then we won't be able to cover our coughing, dry our hands, or pull up our own pants, and the resulting germ parade will destroy our species and monkeys will inherit the earth.

2. Paper towel dispensers will become sentient, enslave humanity, and dry off the entire world.

It's either monkeys or towels.

Whether we're fighting for more time or fewer germs, our capacity to pervert new technology always seems to eclipse our respect for it, and we end up with lamps that can turn on and off because we clap our hands at them, or antibacterial soap so strong it could eat the bark from a tree. It's no wonder aliens are trying not to be noticed. They don't want to be caught gawking.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Talent: The Eighth Deadly Sin

I was at work the other day and had a sudden moment of zen. My eyeballs stopped focusing and the work in front of me disappeared.

I knew it wasn't blindness, because moments of clarity are kind of the opposite of that.

Anyway, the thought I had was this:

To everyone else, our talents are excuses.

People are show-offs. We have to be. From the time we're kids, we want others to notice what we can do. And even though it's supposed to demonstrate strength and character, the motive is always a selfish one because it requires attention from another person to work.

But if the observer doesn't care, then it comes across as a cry for attention, unless you're really good, in which case it is passed off either as talent or luck and puts that observer in a jealous mood that he was not in before you showed up.

And if he does care, he's probably wondering how he can exploit you.

So, regardless of what you originally wanted to prove, a jealous person now cares more about the talent you have than who you are, and is plotting to exploit your gift to his own end and prove to another person that he can beat you at your own game before you even finished it.

Then my vision returned and I saw a sentence that needed a comma.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Electing to Vote

Voting is important. Do you know how I know? Because I have been told by other people. I have also been told why it's important, by other people. But no one has ever asked me why I think it's important.

And if they do, they will be really disappointed.

Because it's just as important to recognize your right to vote as it is to recognize your right not to vote.

I'm not being unpatriotic, that's simply the freedom of choice. And if you try to put more value on your pro-voting viewpoint, that's fine.

But if you spin it into why it's right for me, that's unpatriotic. For now, let's call it ballotism.

I talked to someone today who was planning not to vote. Instead of lecturing her, I said, "Okay." Because for her, it's the right choice.

Then I talked to someone else, who grilled me on who I would vote for. Just for the insinuation, I replied, "Whoever's the Democrat."

I hate when Republicans do that, but for a different reason.

Anyway, that answer was not correct. "Okay, who's the democratic candidate for governor?" "The Democrat." "But who is it?" "It doesn't matter, it will tell me on the ballot." "But it's important to know who it is!"


Will he do a better job tucking in my child at night?

Will he do a better job watching Firefly with my wife?

Can he sauté asparagus better than me?

The answer to these questions, of course, is "Get out of my house."

Soldiers who gave their lives for our right to choose did not do it so we could act like children on the political playground, singling out others in their name just because they do not want to vote. That's a choice too. Let them be.

"But their vote counts!"

That's because they're in a free country. Let them be.

The easiest mistake to make is assuming that, if it's important to you, then it should be important to everyone. By that logic, it should be important for you to wash your whites in warm water because I do. No. It's important for me to wash my whites at all. You can do whatever the hell you want. That's freedom. And I'm not going to get up in your face on Laundry Day because you don't want to do yours. That's your choice. Plus you might smell bad.

I survived through all eight of the Reagan years and sixteen years under two Bushes. If I learned anything, it's that you can live on less and get really jaded, so I understand the importance of voting. But in this politically polarized country, I also learned the fine art of self-preservation that comes with choosing whether or not to participate. It restores reason, calms the nerves, and hands the choice back over to you. That's the power of free thinking, and that's where your vote should come from.

So why do I think voting is important? Because it makes me a better man in my small, ample world, not a tally mark among the millions on the winning or losing side. (Either way, it definitely doesn't make me more intelligent.)

Politics is an endless losing battle fought by the richest one percent of this country's most stubborn, sunshine-blowing morons, which makes it a matter of philosophy I can't possibly condone.

I vote for peace of mind.

Besides, if the other guy gets elected, then I get to exercise my freedom to bitch.

Which is really what voting is all about.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Perdition's Bolts

I have been to Hell, and the sign at the gate reads "Joann's Fabrics - abandon all hope ye who enter here."

Traditional stories of the Depths of the Damned abound with descriptions of searing flame and unbearable heat, but here the fires have been replaced with fleece, satin, denim, silk, gingham, and a whole bunch of other kinds of fabric that I'm embarrassed to know the names of. Demons with beehive hairdos swarm around in aprons with pockets for their scissors. Babies, who were apparently very bad in life, wail in agony. Horrible renditions of songs you think you might know are piped through tin cans.

Unlike Dante's Inferno, there is only one level here. But it is a labyrinth, and every fabric-lined corridor leads into another one. As one might expect, all signs in Hell read "50% off" to distract you from leaving and give you a false sense of happiness. If you try to leave a trail of bread crumbs, the demons will inform you that they do not allow food in Hell. (That is the only part that seems to make any sense to me. I mean, it wouldn't be Hell if you could walk around with a cheeseburger.)

Posy, my guide, advised me to take up several bolts of fine-woven hellcloth, I assume to keep me from being tormented by one of Hell's employees. Meanwhile my daughter, Poppy, darted about the place with reckless abandon, fawning over every yard of fib-spun fabric adorned with puppies, peace signs, or princesses. I cautioned her on the dangers of enjoying herself too much in Hell, but my wholesome fatherly wisdom was lost in a smothering sea of adorable puppy fleece.

As little as I like to admit this, I carry a light burden of masculinity, but with each passing moment I vowed to God that I would recant my hatred for power tools and spring for the first piece of electrical equipment I could find. God didn't hear my prayer, but Hell did, and when I turned the corner I was met with a bunch of sewing machines.

No cries in Hell are met with mercy, no timeline for escape given. The only respite -- O, to call it that in such a place! -- is in Hell's catalogs. In the pages of Simplicity I found a small measure of comfort, and the walls of cloth fell away around me as pages of beautiful vixens proudly sported about in fetching outfits. But all too soon we resumed our journey, and entered back into the cute-patterned halls of Hades.

After one and one-half eternities we found ourselves at Hell's checkout counter, where we paid the ferryman 44 dollars and were granted passage back to the land of the living. With the fabric we brought back, a Halloween costume for Poppy will be fashioned in the image of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, a solemn reminder of how far from Kansas we have truly been.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Martian Dust Devil

A dusty whisper
lifts like a ghost and crosses.
A breath without life

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Rock swallows river
River drinks from rock and gives
away its secrets

Saturday, October 09, 2010


Planted feet like roots
Huge trunk and two gentle knots
An oak tree with eyes

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On Being 40

This post was written two months ago, on my 40th birthday. I just realized I hadn't posted it yet. So here you go.

PS - No joking about forgetfulness and old age. I've been forgetting since I can't remember when.

And now, the post.

This is the first day of my 40s, and I've been asked by several people if being 40 means we're old. My answer is no. Here's why:

1. Many people are older than 40. Some are even 50.
2. The Earth is 4,000,000,000 years old. The Universe is 14,000,000,000 years old. I'm 40. In those terms, that's barely enough time to realize that you even think you're old.
3. Many people do not get to live to be 40, so I consider myself lucky.
4. There aren't actually any rules about being 40, except that you can't run around with no pants on, but that one starts when you turn 30.
5. No laws of physics state that 40 will be a bad time. Except maybe the one about gravity.
6. "40" is actually a number. I am not 40. I am John.
7. Only you can make yourself become older. 40 can only make you wiser.
8. "40" is the atomic number of zirconium.

I don't really feel like I'm 40. I just want some good sushi.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Easter Egg Hunt at Memorial Park, 1977

I didn't find a single one. I'm smiling into an empty basket.
I carry that feeling with me to this day, especially if I'm trying to find an airport.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Carry On, My Wayward Neanderthal

I try not to follow the news too much, but I keep coming back to the story about the airline employee sent to jail for cussing out a passenger, who had accidentally hit him over the head with a bag but refused to apologize.

Which brings me to cavemen.
Cavemen do not understand the intricacies of capitalism. They do not care if you are the customer. If you hit a caveman over the head with anything softer than granite, he will think one of two things:
1) You are interested in courtship.
2) You need to be removed from the gene pool.
Our ancestors did not pour hundreds of thousands of years of survival instinct into our genes so that some idiot with an entitlement complex could bonk us on the head with a carry-on bag.
Which is why capitalism is evolution in reverse.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On a Roll

On walking into the men's room today, I saw several rolls of toilet paper sitting out. The brand name was "Preference."

It was one of those moments of zen that stops all conscious thought. Then:

Who gets to name toilet paper? Is there a contest? Does the name have to convey dignity? What do these people look like? Are they embarrassed to talk with others about their jobs? "It's true, I'm the one who came up with 'Preference.' That one took all night. Hey could I get another martini over here?"

I know that my job as a medical copyeditor is pretty unique, but I mean, I don't get to name toilet paper.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

For a point of reference, I am 14 and in marching band. She is 6 and entering Kindergarten.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thursdays on First was created by Rochester's planning committee as a way to make people come out of their offices each summer for one day a week, and into actual sunlight.

As Midwesterners, we don't see a lot of sun, so we are more apt to miss the cues (ie, sunshine).

But more importantly, we have a proud tradition of appearing as if we're not enjoying ourselves very much. Thus, we need the proper stimuli to coax us from our fluorescently lit environs and emerge en masse. (Self pity is less effective if people are seen in large groups, purposefully enjoying something tangible.)

The methodology is simple: flood the immediate downtown area with local vendors selling everything from homemade jewelry to homemade scarves. Then add music, sugar, and meat, and you've got 2 blocks of a full-blown, unadulterated nice time.

I don't go often myself, but when I do, it's mostly to take in the smoky aromas of sizzling food, get some vitamin D, and practice my weaving skills.

Unless it's raining.

Monday, July 26, 2010

An observance of trees

I just read an article on the Web site Science Daily about the healing power of forests. They mentioned the cleansing properties of the outdoors, the color green, and how nature has an ability to calm that urban settings can't provide.

And that's all true, but they didn't mention the simple mystery of trees, which I've always been drawn to.

Trees are full of knowledge. We can see it in their rings, what they've been through, how long they've lived.

They soak in nutrients from the sun, rain, and soil, grow without seeming to move, and still provide shade and oxygen, and sap for pancakes. Food and shelter for birds and bugs. Books and beds for people. Just by quietly standing in one place for years.

The older ones are stiff and silent, their bark etched in wrinkles. They are sacred. Saplings are softer, eager, untempered by time but easily bent in the wind.

Where the autumn years bring gray to humans, trees unleash colors like fire, then dim like embers against a setting sun that yawns for winter.

I really don't know where I'm going with this. It just seems like the ancient poetry of trees has been diminished by the duller shade of green it lends to the drooping faces of dead presidents.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


When I joined Facebook two years ago, I couldn't wait to reconnect with people. But the Web site wouldn't get out of my way, so I wrote down a few of my friends' emails and left.

If Facebook was a real person, he would tell you who your other friends should be. What "gifts" to send. Who you should talk to.
He would try to sell you things based on what he heard you talking about. He might tell others about it.
And he would give you a 2-week grace period to come back to him if you left.
I miss chatting with my friends. But I'm not going to do it while the Man looks over my shoulder. The value I put on my interpersonal relationships can't be bought by some nosy, lonely brat who thinks he knows what I should do with my social life.

Plus, who would name their kid "Facebook"?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Makeup Specialist of the Gods

A few years ago I had a small role as a non-speaking, out-of-focus extra in the background of a video being shot at Mayo Clinic. There was a makeup lady there. She didn't put too much on me, because I'm already so dashing, and also because I was an extra. Anyway we talked, and she was nice, and then the video shoot was over and we parted ways.

Yesterday I saw her picture on the home page of Mystery Science Theater 3000. She was the makeup specialist for my favorite TV show.

Can you believe it never came up in conversation? Her standard greeting to everyone should be, "Hi, I'm Andrea DuCane, and I worked on Mystery Science Theater 3000! Can you believe that?!"

I can now say that I had the honor of getting my face caked by the same person who did Joel Robinson, Mike Nelson, Dr. Forrester and his mother Pearl, TV's Frank, the Observers, Professor Bobo, and every incidental character who stepped into the laboratory of Deep 13 or boarded the Satellite of Love.

Thank you, Andrea DuCane, for making me feel a little closer to my dream, in a bittersweet way that also involves makeup. I can now die happy. And with a bit more eye liner.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Claiming My Baggage

The other day, I went to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to pick up my wife and daughter from their trip to visit her sister's family in Germany.

This should not be news, but it's a big deal.

I'm not even talking about their trip to Germany. I'm talking about my trip to the airport to pick them up from their trip to Germany.

I don't like to travel. I hardly ever drive long distances. Airports, like all crowded places, make me nervous. And I have no sense of direction. As a result, it would be easier for me to drive, even with a map, GPS, and travel guide, off the business end of a Norwegian fjord before I could find my way to an airport a hundred miles away in the same state. And I don't like to admit this.

So it's a big deal.

After entering the city and navigating 16 lanes that were actually one lane before the continental drift, I found short-term parking. I paused for a solemn moment and wondered if Christopher Columbus would have felt this way, had he suddenly discovered short-term parking.

I entered the airport and saw two sets of escalators, a stairwell, and several elevators, each going to a different level. And a lady pedaling around on a cart full of flowers. I picked a ramp that led down into the belly of the beast, where people crawled around with their own, visible baggage.

Arrow-studded signs unwrapped from every corner, all at once, from walls, ceilings, and lit-up displays, labeling hallways that branched off in every direction and were designated by colors. Red, blue, yellow, green. I felt like a disoriented Christmas ornament.

None of the signs said "This way to pick up your family from their trip to Germany," so I gave up and headed for a desk with a big yellow question mark on it. I asked the man, who had one crossed eye, how to get to gate 17 (where their flight was coming in). He pointed to a sign that said "tram," and asked if I had my boarding pass, because I would never get past security without my boarding pass.

Then I realized, out loud, that I was supposed to go to baggage claim to meet them, and that Gate 17 was for boarding passengers. (Does it make sense to anyone else that, since I have no luggage, naturally I wouldn't go to baggage claim?)

He kind of looked at me like I had something else in mind besides flying, so without trying to explain ("I hate airports"), I said thanks, smiled, and walked away. After all, how many grown men ask for directions to a boarding gate when they have no intention of boarding?

The intercom then announced that the terror alert for that day was "elevated," for those of us who weren't already walking around with knotted stomachs.


While I waited for Posy and Poppy, someone from London asked me to help him count out the correct change for a phone call. I never felt more useful in my life.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The sound of stupidity

People who use leaf blowers would never survive in the natural world. They can't even control leaves without using a motor.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The lightness of being unbearable

I'm a pessimist.

The beer glass in front of me is half empty. (My liver, though, is half full.)

And now I'm reading my fortune cookie. It says, "A pound of pluck is worth a ton of duck."

I don't know what pluck is, but I bet I could beat it senseless with a ton of duck.

I never liked pep talks, but the ones that rhyme are the worst. They take all the soul out of struggling and replace it with crappy frosting, the kind that's made from egg whites and air and food coloring.

No. I want someone to tell me that it is going to SUCK ON TOAST until it's over and everybody knows it. The will to keep things in an honest light is way more encouraging than a mere "atta boy."

And I know. It's supposed to inspire. But it sounds like you're just spreading fertilizer. Do you think plants can live on poop alone? Can you picture a row of dung-laden potatoes crying, "No pain, no gain"?

Well, okay, I just did, and it was hilarious.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Watt the...

The circular, florescent ceiling bulb in my room, which couldn't spit out more than 30 watts and was once outshone by a lightning bug, had burned out. I went to the store for a new one and they had exactly what I needed. In 22 watts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cut from a different cloth

In 1985, our science club took a trip to Mayo Clinic. It was noon, and all the courtyards were crammed with people in three-piece suits, sprawled out on the grass, trying to recharge themselves like a bunch of dying, well-dressed batteries. It all looked so pointless. I promised myself that I would never be like that.

And even though I now work at that exact same clinic, I'm still not like that, because three-piece suits are ridiculous.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

At the Movies: District 9

If you get anything out of this movie, it should be the alien kid. He is the soul of this movie. He will make you hope the crap out of yourself that everything turns out okay.

Thirty years ago, an alien spacecraft limped its way into the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens inside it were rescued like cats from a dilapidated house, and grouped into a refugee camp called District 9.

In that time, they have done nothing but scavenge hopelessly around, with a little help from local gangs.

The cultural differences between these forced neighbors eventually escalates from racism to violence to rioting, so the government steps in to send the aliens somewhere else. Wikus Van De Merwe is the adorably naive nice guy who gets chosen to lead the task force in District 9, where he immediately sprays himself in the face with an unfamiliar canister he finds in one of the shacks. (This is important, but they don't dwell on it. They let the story unfold on its own.)

The movie seems to say that we treat each other so poorly that we would extend a hand in violence even to alien life, a habit they adopt, but the pace is steady and keeps it from getting too preachy. It stays interesting. The story is always a step ahead.

Special effects are worth mentioning because they are used correctly, like window dressing, not the product they are trying to sell.

Having said that, they should have won an Oscar for Most Realistic Display of Guys Getting Killed With Alien Weaponry. It was seriously unbelievable, and I didn't have to rewind it because it happened a lot. But they don't do it for it's own sake. They only blow someone up if they absolutely have to.

See this movie, but not for all that. See it for the alien kid. He trumps any human kid I've ever seen in a movie. (Want a good example? Compare him to the kid in The Mummy Returns. No 8-year-old has been alive long enough to be that smart, witty, resourceful, and unafraid of a mummy.)

This little guy finds his way into the scenes and makes you see the face of unassuming vulnerability, and suddenly you really care about what happens to him. He doesn't seem to understand how dire things are (how could he), he just wants to help his dad and it's inspiring to watch. If he wasn't a made-up alien, he would be your kid.

Let this movie tell you its story. It's as good as science fiction gets.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The eight different flavors of blueberry, according to Poppy, are:

1. normal
2. sweet
3. medium
4. sour
5. sort of sweet
6. sort of medium
7. sort of normal
8. sort of sour

This information is provided to help anyone else who, like me, has 12 remaining taste buds.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

At the Movies

Clash of the Titans opened tonight, and I was all set for that familiar giddy thrill I got from watching the 1981 version.

It sucked.

Liam Neeson (Zeus) looked bored. So did Ralph Fiennes (Hades), probably because the two normally great actors were hidden, even as gods, behind stage makeup and fly wires that were better used on the marionettes in The Sound of Music. Sam Worthington was Perseus. He looked mildly constipated.

The story follows Perseus, whose father, Zeus, falls for a human woman who is married to some non-god, so no problem there.

Anyway, Perseus the half-god must kill Poseidon's pet Kraken, because otherwise it will eat his girlfriend in order to spare her home town. He could use his godly powers, but he hates his father, the creator of everything, and doesn't want to be like him. (I'll give him that. It's a lot to live up to.)

Some soldiers go with him so that the movie doesn't have to kill the hero. They visit three blind witches who share an eye the size of a softball and like the taste of people.

The witches tell him to find the Ferryman, cross the river Styx to the Underworld, and bring back the head of Medusa, a woman-snake hybrid who can turn anyone, including the Kraken, into stone with just a glance.

At this point I'm sure you want to see this as much as I did, but the real jaw-dropper is how they managed to make a great story like this so boring.

A cgi effect played the Ferryman. He took the actors across the river Styx and into Hades, a journey so bland that I felt like I was repeating my stroll through the theater's parking lot.

A pretty good cgi effect starred as the Kraken, hopefully worth all the money they spent giving him one minute of screen time.

There were also giant scorpions. They were awesome.

Whoever played Medusa had a fun, wicked laugh, but she was upstaged by her snake half, and when I saw her gaze I thought, hey, a computer did that. (As an armchair filmmaker, I think that gaze of hers would be much scarier if she did it with her back to us. That applies to the original film as well.)

The action scenes were good, they made me dig for the popcorn. But, like vacations, they were few and far between, with much labor from one to the next.

All the other gods looked like chess pieces hanging out in the lobby of Mount Olympus.

This movie was nothing more than an exercise in special-effects showboating, designed to blow your mind without actually expanding it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on Neutrinos and Cotton Candy

I'm reading about neutrinos.

The reason I mention it is because I'm not sure what their purpose is, but they're really interesting, like cotton candy.

Let me explain.

Neutrinos are particles that go through everything at the speed of light. And every time they do they oscillate, or morph, into a new form that becomes undetectable. In fact, there are only three kinds -- or flavors, according to physicists -- that we do know of: electron, muon, and tau.

Like cotton candy.

Neutrinos are so hard to catch that when it happens, it's called an "event." In 1998, some folks decided that the best way to do that would be to line an underground, mineral-fortified cave with stainless steel and fill it with 50,000 tons of purified water. It worked, and they demonstrated that neutrinos have very little mass.

Again, like cotton candy.

You can even make your own neutrinos. Just get some hydrogen atoms, shoot their electrons off with an over-the-counter electrified iron chamber, spin the remaining protons through several miles of progressively spiral pipe until they reach the speed of light, aim them at a small, magnet-engulfed tube on the other side of the world, and fire.

After being shot I-don't-know-how-many miles and getting sprayed through several mineral-related filters at about a zillion miles an hour, the protons are stopped by 50 feet of iron -- what's known as a "beam dump" -- to simmer.

I once saw someone make cotton candy this way at the Watonwan county fair.

Some of what cools off will be neutrinos, which are then aimed at the detection laboratory in Gran Sasso, a mountain east of Rome. If you're lucky, some of them will not pass through the lab and into infinity, but will hang around for observation, much like the sugar from cotton candy after it gets stored as fat and appears on your waist as love handles.

The only thing I don't get is why it's so important to study them, but then, I'm not a scientist. And scientists think that the uncountable number of neutrinos (which, collectively, outweigh every star and galaxy in the universe) might be responsible for up to one-fifth of the dark matter that holds everything together.

Like cotton candy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On Pants That Fit

Last week I bought a new pair of pants for work. They're great, because they're the correct length.

Apparently, the innumerable pairs of pants I'd been wearing for the last decade were a little too short. Not short enough to be floods, but one of those things where you look at someone and think, "There's something 'off' about that guy." About an inch, to be exact.

I also found out that just because the waist says "32" doesn't mean that it's so. For example, let's say that you buy a pair of slacks. And the reason you bought slacks is because you thought you were buying khakis. But they were on hangers -- so they're slacks -- and not on the khaki shelves, where the khakis are, and you find that the button has been replaced with a metal clip cinched so far back that it aligns with your left kidney, next to a button even farther back in case you want to fasten your slacks to your spinal column. You have now hiked yourself into a pant-flapped lie that cost 12 more inches on top of the $20 you pulled out of your other pair of pants, which still fits. (You're still a "32," but now you look like someone who swallowed a balloon filled with cookie dough and just hasn't gotten around to buying bigger pants.)

Anyway, I'll hem up my story and just say that it's great to own pants that fit.

Now if I could just get the automatic door of the men's room to close faster, people waiting for an elevator in the lobby nearby wouldn't have to pretend that they didn't just hear my extra-loud zipper.