Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fed up with life’s cacophony? Strap on a raccoon

There are basically two types of people--those who write little reminders to themselves, and those who forget to. In junior high I would write myself cryptic cartoon ideas in a little spiral notebook. Years later when I came across it I had no idea what "refrigerator crocodile explosion" meant. I bet it would have made a funny comic, though. There were dozens of notes just like it, never drawn. 

Now I add ideas to the Notes app on my phone. Evidently I have not changed much since the 8th grade, because I recently found this pithy scribble from nine months ago: "Column idea: Noise cancelling raccoon." The visual is pretty great, especially when pictured in use on a plane. All it would take is one celebrity, maybe Beyonce, and we would have a monster fad on our hands. There would not be enough raccoons in the world to satisfy it.

Then would come the inevitable knock-offs; noise-cancelling possums, weasels, beavers. Their use would be met with disdainful side-glances by those who know the difference between Louis Vuitton-level mammals and Marc Jacobs-level ones. It's not about using the most beautiful animals, either, not about chinchillas. Raccoon is an attitude as much as a genus. A raccoon's very posture says "You want some noise cancelled, boss? Point me in a direction."

You can spend $400 on headphones, easy, and it is true that headphones will never claw your face or poop down your neck. But you have to ask yourself if you are the kind of person who takes pride in living your life in a way which demands your constant vigilance or not. 

I am not sure where this raccoon idea came from, except that maybe as my head has lost its insulation I have enjoyed, more and more, warm items on it. I can also endure noise less and less, as if at birth we are gifted with a finite tolerance and it gradually wears away, like brake pads. I remember a time when I could tolerate a baby crying in public. These days I am ready to strap on a raccoon in 10 seconds. On a plane, five. 

It would have to wear the little red vest, of course, "service animal" emblazoned across its shoulders. But what better service can one animal provide to another than a little peace? Sure, fleas would be an issue. I am guessing they would not be the main one. 

. . .

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cancelling a subscription is no easy phone call

After the election of 2016 I thought I wanted to stay on top of the news more than ever, which just proves how little I know myself. I subscribed digitally to several papers of various political bents, I downloaded apps. Recently I decided to cancel my subscription to the one I read the least, let’s call it the Wonk Gazette. They do not make it easy. While the conversation below is not an exact transcription, it does truthfully convey the overall experience.

Wonk Gazette: “Hello. How may I provide you with excellent service today?”

Me: “Today’s no good for me, but I would like to cancel my subscription.” 

WG: “All right, sir. Let me just confirm some information. I see you have been a loyal subscriber for 15 months. We are having a promotion right now, and I can let you skip a payment for an entire quarter.” 

Me: “That’s a great deal for somebody not cancelling their subscription.”

WG: “This is our most popular discount, sir, a savings of $45.”

Me: “You are witnessing my most popular feature, which is my patience. Can you cancel my subscription?”

WG: “Most people...”

Me: “Is there a number of times I need to ask you to cancel my subscription before you’ll do it? Because just give me the number. I’ll ask it five times or eight or whatever. What’s the number?”

WG: “If you find that your busy schedule does not permit reading the WG at this time, I can put you on a hold for this quarter and resume your access in the summer.”

Me: “Look, it’s nothing against your paper. It’s a quality read. I have just, over the last year, realized I am defenseless against the siren suck of Facebook. Turns out I’d rather watch a tiny hedgehog eat baby corn than read about how the world is losing its mind. You feel me?”

WG: “Would you like to upgrade to Premium Slackoff? For just $35 more a month you keep your subscription but we block access to your account. So it’s guilt-free.”

Me: “I just want you to cancel my subscription. I can say it in my high school German if you prefer.”

[Puts me on hold for two minutes; a ploy designed to make the weak hang up]

WG: “O.K., sir, I have cancelled your subscription. I just have one more question.”

Me: “Shoot.”

WG: “Would you be interested in hearing about our introductory New Subscriber rate?”

. . .

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hubbub about 2020 Census question a lot of hot air

There was a lot of hubbub this week about the 2020 Census, because when it comes to American fads, hubbub is the new kale. 

The president suggested asking a person's citizenship status on the Census form. That is certainly a better question than this actual one from the 1990 Census: "Is your dwelling connected to the public sewer?" Not to mention the obvious followup question, "Would you like to donate $1.00 to a political party?"

The citizenship question has, in fact, been part of the Census for decades; it just wasn't in 2010. So the hubbub feels manufactured. Really, adding this question back to the form is just one of about, oh, 178,000 ways the president is trying to roll back Obama's legacy. 

Here's an idea. Let's convince him that Daylight Saving Time was Obama's idea. Please get behind me on this. 

I worked for the Census in 1990, so I am an insider. I recall signing an agreement, however, in which I had to swear never to reveal what I experienced. I am still not sure why, although I suspect it had something to do with the spirit conjuring. (The sewer question above is public knowledge, though.) And let me take this moment to say that the entire Census process was smooth and the federal government was an ideal employer. 

Census questions reveal a lot about their times. In 1810, one question asked if the person was deaf, blind or "idiotic." In 1910, we had the cheery "Of the children a person has mothered, how many are still alive?" 

In 2000, if you randomly received the “long form,” you had to answer a whopping 53 questions, but in 2010 this was pared down to only 10, one of which, strangely enough, was simply “LeBron or Kobe?”

Sure, a lot of people won't return the questionnaire if it means revealing they aren’t citizens. That was true in 1970, and it’s true now. The omission of this question in 2010 did not, I understand, result in a noticeably higher return rate. 

I know from my experience, it is hard to even get citizens to respond. Maybe if they offered to mail respondents a free gun or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg pillow, their choice. 

We feel hinky about giving personal information to the government yet we feel no qualms about posting a picture of ourselves on Facebook in a bunny costume chugging carrot vodka. Maybe they should add one more Census question: Dude, what were you thinking?

. . .

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wednesday Wa Pic - What a difference one letter makes...

One of those coin-operated kiddie rides. Note the pay slot at left. (See closeup in photo below.)

I am pretty sure the ride maker meant "rental use." But hey, keeping an open mind, it could be the best dollar you every spent.

. . .

Special thanks to Susan Tripp for this beauty. :-)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Shedding dog single-pawedly keeps lint roller industry afloat

As spring arrives I begin to wonder if there is any place in my house, on my body or perhaps in space, that I can’t find dog hair. 

Skipper’s winter coat apparently sheds at the rate of 1000 follicles per second, and is dispersed throughout my universe in a method that even string theory cannot explain. At work I glance down at my shirt and there are dog hairs. In the car. On the dinner plate. In the shower. On the pillow at bedtime. 

It is as if the old boy is getting a commission based on sheer coverage. He is not a long-haired dog, so he sheds short, fine little buggers, which float up onto your nose and settle, causing you to slap your palms down your face like one of the Three Stooges. 

(If there are any young readers who do not know who the Three Stooges are, here is what you need to do: ask for new parents. Or go on YouTube. But the former choice makes a stronger statement.)

There are many benefits to having a dog, but none involves breathing. 

There is a certain doggie dander factor which creates a kind of haze in the air, especially in the spring. Combined with the pollen wafting in through the many cracks in my old house, the audible sniffling from my family is at, like, “Hamilton” Act II levels. (Not as many people die in Act II as do at the end of “Hamlet,” but you care more, because they’re Americans.)

One benefit to having a dog is decorative; one’s window sill looks so bare without one. Skipper mounts a chair and then takes his position on the sill, like a general. There he will stand sentinel for an hour, or, more accurately, lounge sentinel, chin resting on paws, vigilant but not trying to show off or anything. 

To the letter carrier, to a passing jogger, to a delivery truck, he barks the following outrage, without variation: If this window were not here, I would now be in possession of your ankles. To a dog, a delivery truck totally has ankles.

This time of year I brush and comb Skipper's fur, which you'd think would take care of the shedding, but the Fates just laugh. Every pleasure in life has its cost, and a canine's cost is a fortune in lint-removal-rollers. 

It’s O.K. I just tell my coworkers I moonlight as a furrier. Nothing surprises them any more. 

Ankles. I give you fair warning.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

An old man’s advice; the road not taken

When I was pushing 30, I saw my hair was thinning and, having seen pics of my grandpa’s monk-like pate, I acted to preempt it. Rogaine was prescription-only back then, and $60 a month. My doctor, a portly bald dude, tried to dissuade me. 

“Take it from an old man,” he said, “If you invest that $60 every month instead of pouring it on your hair, when you are my age I guarantee you will be happier.” I glanced at his hand. He was unmarried.

I dabbed my head with the stuff for a month or two, which made my hair look perpetually greasy, and it itched like the little pump sprayer was filled with fire ants. 

I let it go. I also neglected to make those monthly investments, so now I am bald AND poor. I never was good with “either/or” scenarios. I also wish I hadn’t gone in so big on that initial offering of MySpace stock. Well, we live only to learn.

I see Rogaine on the supermarket shelf now and, adjusting for inflation, it costs less than half of what it did in the beginning. I look at the bottles nostalgically, the same way I look at a VHS copy of “Star Wars.” 

Oh yeah, I think, we used to do that, didn’t we? 

I have not researched it, but the stuff probably doesn’t itch any more, and I bet it smells like Old Spice or a stack of vintage books or something else great. We call it progress, but it still stings a little.

I read a men’s magazine which suggests self-care products, but following its tips feels a little prissy, even for me, who was once called “effeminate” by a stranger in a restaurant. 

I was raised by a guy who came up through the Great Depression, and for whom the idea of a “moisturizer” was rain. I tried moisturizing my face for a while, but that regimen eventually fell off, like so many others in my past. I’m looking at you, kale.

I have to think that nature meant for men to look more and more decrepit, if for no other reason than to allow hot nubile young women to practice feigning disinterest. You should see them. They are very good at it. It is a valuable skill, and the practice increases their prospects at attracting a mate their own age. 

They don’t fool me, but I am only glad to be of help. 

. . .

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Infestation of stink bugs is coming to California

n the 1970s they warned us the Africanized killer bees would eventually arrive in California, sting us all to death and then, even worse, register as Independents. They arrived in the 1990s but turned out to have even less of an impact than “Gremlins 2: The New Batch.” Now bark beetles are killing whole swaths of trees and our forests are more full of borers than happy hour at an actuary convention. 

The latest devastating infestation is by Asian stink bugs, an invasive species now found in almost all U.S. states. It has no local predator to slow its buffet of American peach crops, almonds, apples, grapes, tomatoes; basically it is a sea of tiny, unstoppable vegans. The only thing worse would be if they could speak, shaming us carnivores in one wee but unified voice. 

It is believed they arrived on the east coast in a pallet offloaded from a Chinese ship, and like Annie from the musical, decided “I think I’m gonna like it here.” In some areas, they have reproduced in such numbers that homeowners have had their houses taken over. Scenes are described of people push-brooming hordes of stink bugs out the door even as more fly right in. Somewhere Stephen King is smiling.

The idea has been floated to bring in the stink bugs’ natural nemesis from Asia, a certain wasp, which tends to eat the bugs’ eggs. But the wasp has no predator in America, either. This technique of solving one problem with a worse one is a time-honored one in the annals of invasive species history, and human romance, for that matter. 

I have never been a fan, generally, of creatures which can be described as having a “long, straw-like appendage.” I am sure in mating season this goes over big, but the average apricot farmer is on my side. If only we could pit the killer bees against the stink bugs. It would get ugly, and it would stink, and I’m sure there’s a Congress joke in here somewhere, but at least bees are useful. 

Like cicadas, stink bugs are playing the long game. There is no eradicating them at this point, although there is some evidence that birds are beginning to enjoy this new food source. Well, as is true with so many things in nature, love and politics, there is no accounting for taste. 

. . .

Sunday, March 11, 2018

An interview with Flippy the burger-flipping robot

There was a lot of press this week about a restaurant in Pasadena installing a robot to flip burgers. In this day and age, it is evident that the public is hungry for directions in which to aim its outrage. Today I am visiting the restaurant where Flippy, as the robot is known, is bolted to the floor. Hello!


GW: Oh, that’s right. They did not give you a mouth. You are just a torso with a robotic arm and a visual/heat sensor so you know when to flip the burger. 


GW: How about this. You flip once for yes and twice for no.

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: So was the dream always to work in food service?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: You like flipping burgers.

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: Some people have expressed the concern that you will take entry level jobs away from people who already find it hard enough to find one.


GW: One might make the argument that your work frees up humans to do higher level tasks. Do you take that stance?


GW: Should I take your lack of comment as a statement in itself, that you are, perhaps, just a working stiff and above the fray?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: I understand you cannot place the patties on the grill, or add cheese. A person has to do that, and then you monitor them, flip them and remove them. Do you ever screw up?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: When that happens, does anybody say snarky things right in front of you as if you have no feelings?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: Things like "Well, I guess they won't be taking over the world any time soon," and "I think SOMEbody needs a bug fix"?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: In those moments, do you wish you could respond?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: Is it safe to assume that your reply would be something like "At least I don't drive a piece of junk" or "Did you get that haircut at Salon d'Wal-Mart"?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: Well, I for one look forward to the day when you are upgraded to chop onions, squirt condiments and even do some cash handling. Would you like that?

Flippy: (flips yes)

GW: All right. Well, put 'er there, buddy! Oh wow, I really should have had you wipe that off first. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Some movie mash-ups I would like to see made

The Oscars are tonight, a big deal in this town, but by Memorial Day I will not be able to tell you who won. Movies are still my favorite art form, though, if you don’t count pizza and curling. 

Today I want to pitch a few movies I would like to see made, mash-ups of this year’s nominated films with some classics. If you have any kind of studio clout, please contact me. Let’s make this happen.

“Three Billboards and a Baby.” When a newborn baby is left on the doorstep of three bachelors, they decide to look for the mother via large format outdoor advertising. The first billboard asks, “Did you misplace a baby?” The second, “We are pretty sure it's a baby.” And the third, “Anybody want a baby?” I am picturing Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake and Justin Trudeau.

“The Shape of Water For Elephants.” A mute woman falls in love with a circus veterinarian who happens to be a dead ringer for the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Her husband, the cruel and dictatorial ringmaster, is not much better looking, but at least can drive a car. Tag line: “There will be gills.”

“The Phantom (Thread) Menace.” On a planet far, far away, a young boy longs to grow up to be a famous pod racer, but his eye for fashion turns him in an altogether more sinister direction. Despite the influence of his sister, his perfectionism leads him to the Dark Side, and he ends up designing bedazzled yoga pants for QVC. 

“Dumb and Dunkirk.” Two friends with bowl haircuts and the maturity of brain-addled ferrets set off on a quest to rescue 338,000 British soldiers from certain death. Hijinks ensue when one brother regrettably dresses up as a Nazi in order to impress girls. 

“Lady Bird Man of Alcatraz.” A high school senior with an unpronounceable name takes up with a prisoner who owns 300 canaries. Through a series of life lessons, mostly involving an epic amount of cage cleanup, she realizes her parents aren't that bad.  

“The Post Always Rings Twice.” A beautiful woman has an affair with a lout who works at her diner, and they hatch a plot to bring down the Nixon administration by leaking secret documents about the Vietnam War to the Washington Post. They run into trouble with the plan when they realize they just work at a diner.  

“Get Out of Africa.” White people crazy. 

. . .

For readers who enjoyed my account of the Museum of Failure last week, I am happy to report it is moving soon to a permanent home in Hollywood. See for more information. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Failure is not failure if you do it big enough

My wife took me to the Museum of Failure last weekend, in a gesture I hope was not meant to be a hint. The “museum” is gone now; it was only a temporary art exhibit, so if you wanted to visit, you failed. I hope you will learn from this and do better in the future, which was the whole theme of the thing, really. Looking at the exhibits I laughed a little too loudly, knowing I had failed many times just as hard, but not nearly as publicly, as, say, the Betamax or the Edsel.

No More Woof was a headset for dogs to translate their brain waves into understandable messages, like “I’m hungry.” Its investors lost all their money because, to break it down scientifically, they deserved to. 

Phone Fingers was a product designed to help keep you from making greasy fingerprints on your phone screen. They were like tiny condoms for your digits. Not only were they a pain to use, I imagine a lot of guys worried about the impression it would make if one fell out of their wallet on a first date.

nuSPOON, aside from being caps-lock challenged, was meant to be an alternative to plastic spoons. Made of environmentally friendly paper, you had to follow detailed directions to fold it, origami-like, into a spoon shape in order to eat something. Much like the American political system, it was equal parts ingenious and idiotic. Quite quickly, the public said “nuTHANKS.”

Colgate came out in the early 1980s with a line of frozen dinners. Imagine that red logo over a picture of beef stroganoff. Sometimes a company, in an attempt to expand its brand by thinking outside the box, fails to anticipate the horrified expression the box itself will evoke. It is one thing if your company is known for toothpaste, and you expand into deodorant. Colgate going into food was like Preparation H going into hot sauce. 

There was also a wall on which visitors could place sticky notes relating their own failures. It was a multi-colored collage of doomed marriages, educational mishaps, drug use and regret. It stood in stark counterpoint to the humorous offerings of the exhibit itself, but in its honesty it echoed the theme—failure is a flashlight, showing the way forward. 

So when you think of your own failures, I urge you to keep them in perspective. I want you to think of an item from this exhibit. I want you to remember three little words—Harley Davidson Perfume. 

. . .

I spoke too soon. After the exhibit closed, it was so successful it is moving to a new home at Hollywood & Highland. So starting in March you too can witness failure up close, and post a note about your own. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Washington and Lincoln are the reason for the season

Tomorrow is Presidents Day, or in some states Presidents’ Day, or even President’s Day, proving again that states’ rights should be limited. 

I do not think we should trust punctuation to a bunch of state hacks. Punctuation matters, as illustrated famously by the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” The presidents being celebrated, Washington and Lincoln, were apparently unaware of punctuation, and didn’t know their f from their s, but all is forgiven now. 

I liked it better when it was still Washington’s Birthday. As a kid, you knew who to thank for being able to watch “Gigantor” on TV instead of sitting and learning things. Every year my mom would bring out the Washington shrine for us to thank. It had the little George figurine, and the cherry tree, the tiny axe, the replica of Mount Vernon and the slave quarters. I would get out my little Speed Racer car and try to drive the slaves to freedom, but George had my Godzilla figure on his side, so it was a losing proposition.

I liked it better when they called it Lincoln’s Birthday too. My sister and I would take turns reading the Gettysburg Address during the commercials of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” We could not pronounce “consecrate,” and for some reason we thought it was a dirty word, so there was a lot of giggling. But the speech is all about people who died for freedom, so by the end we were always somber. It made Eddie’s father’s dating problems seem a lot less serious.

Combining the Washington/Lincoln birthdays into “Presidents Day” renders the day generic, as if it just honors presidents in general. It feels like a dilution. How about instead of Christmas we celebrate Famous Holy Figures Day? 

I suppose there are those opportunists who might use Monday to urge friends to “Take another look at Warren G. Harding!” But if you have a day off from school or work, it should really be to honor someone Mount Rushmore level or at least, like, an Oscar winner. 

“Best Presidents Day” might be a compromise. That way Americans, used to being able to personalize their lives in every way, could celebrate a quality president from a short list approved by, say, the judges from “The Voice.” We wouldn’t even have to tell each other which one. No arguments with friends! Remember, though, you would not get off entirely scot-free. God would know. 

. . .

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Winter Olympics might be even better in the buff

I don't know of a winter Olympic sport which could not be improved by putting the word “naked” in front of it. 

Naked two-man bobsleigh. What a visual! The sprinting to get up to speed, the jumping into the sleigh, the whooshing down the course, the posing for the Wheaties box.

And when did a bobsled become a bobsleigh? Last I checked, a sleigh involves a horse, some bells, singing, some laughing. I suspect Russian linguistic doping. 

Naked skeleton. Just the name would inspire a generation of children. Kid watching TV:

“Dad, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” 

“What’s that, son?” 

“Naked skeleton.” 

“You...want to strip down, jump naked on a sled and fly face-first down an ice chute 75 miles an hour?”


“Why not just go into politics?”

Some people only watch car racing to see a crash. I feel safe in asserting that the same would definitely be said for naked ski jumping. 

I think if I were going to be a Winter Olympics athlete, I would choose the biathlon. Any sport that lets you to strap a gun to your back like John McClane in “Die Hard” is my kind of sport. The cross-country skiing would suck, but every sport has a down side. 

I wish they let you choose what shape of target you shoot at. You ski up, drop to your belly and take out a Smurf. Who needs a medal?

Did you know horses once took part in the winter games? As an exhibition sport in 1928, skiers raced each other while being pulled behind horses. Which is to say, horses raced each other in the Olympics. This is called "skijoring," which is a Norwegian word meaning "cheating creatively." Olympic skijoring was never repeated again, but the figure of a riderless horse dragging a guy behind does live on, coincidentally, in my own family crest. 

There are four entirely new events this year, including "mass start" speed skating. Skaters line up six-abreast in four rows and after the first lap it's a free-for-all for position. All while wearing 19 inch razor blades on their feet. In the middle of the race there are four sprints to gain points. So finishing the race in first does not mean you won; you could still lose on points. 

It's like the Olympic version of the electoral college. Well, it's nice to see that a little bit of America is finally rubbing off on the world. 

. . .