Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Take the swine flu quiz!

We were having a family dinner last night, something we always try to do before I fly off on a business trip. After explaining to the kids that Dad would be flying to Tucson, Arizona, my wife changed the tone of the conversation with one simple question:

“Will you be wearing a mask?”

Nothing like a swine flu pandemic to make dinner seem less appetizing. By sheer coincidence, we were eating pork chops.

In just a matter of days, swine flu has replaced Britain’s Got Talent singer Susan Boyle as the world’s number one topic of conversation. CNN’s Anderson Cooper “tweets” about the subject so often that I have stopped “following” him on Twitter. Seriously, I don’t know how Cooper finds time to host a nightly news show, provide minute by minute updates of swine flu victims and still maintain that perfectly off-white head of hair. Sooner or later something has to give.

Thanks to Cooper, I’m aware that the disease is in Mexico City. Wait, now it’s in Europe. Hold on, it just flew across the ocean to New Zealand. Now it’s in New York City. It was photographed partying with Kim Kardashian at a swank Miami Beach hotspot. has EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS.

In spite of the virus’ viral spread, I told my wife that no, I did not have a surgical mask and was not planning to wear one on my three hour flight to Arizona.

Call me an eternal optimist but I just don’t believe I’m going to catch a disease, no matter how many people have it. I’m just the opposite of people who are afraid to come in contact with other members of the human race. We watch Deal or No Deal enough to know that host Howie Mandel is a notorious germaphobe and will only “fist bump” contestants who appear onstage with him. After watching this show, I think Mandel is afraid of catching a chronic case of stupidity from contestants who refuse to go quietly with half a million dollars and instead scream, “NO DEAL.” The show always ends the same way: the lucky player opts to open one more case and leaves the stage with enough money for bus fare.

After stand-up comedy performances, I shake dozens- sometimes hundreds – of hands. Sure I wash my hands afterward but I don’t drown them in anti-bacterial liquid. I don’t eye the pretzel dish at the bar with a look of unbridled horror. Sometimes I will actually eat the pretzels, even though the dish is half full, meaning other hands have been there prior to mine.

I’ve consumed yogurt past its expiration date, sat on toilet seats without paper covers and allowed dogs to lick my face. I’ve drank from public fountains, walked barefoot in locker rooms and shared a bottle of Gatorade with my kids.

I’ve eaten food after dropping it on the floor, used gym equipment without wiping it down and typed on computer keyboards at public libraries.

I’m still here and, as far as I can tell, I’m perfectly healthy.

Okay, I did catch a doozy case of the flu about a year ago. Knocked me on my butt for two days. Ironically, I think I picked it up in Mexico, as the virus swooped down on me just days after returning from a family vacation in Cabo San Lucas.

But prior to that, save for the common cold, I can’t remember the last time I was sick. I’ve remained healthy even while flying more than 1 million miles, performing in 45 states and visiting numerous foreign countries. I’ve also never had a flu shot.

But now, as I get ready to board the plane to Tucson, I see the flight attendant wearing surgical gloves while collecting tickets. A person in line behind me sneezed. Anderson Cooper just tweeted that the virus is in Indiana. Should I get out of line and find a surgical mask kiosk in O’Hare?

I’m 46 and this is the first alleged pandemic that I’ve experienced. True, I want to protect myself but it just doesn’t seem as easy as strapping on a mask and going about my daily life. For starters, wearing a mask gives me the creeps. Even in non-pandemic situations, I will occasionally see someone walking through an airport wearing one. To me, they might as well have a sign around their neck that says, “I’M THE ONE WITH THE DISEASE. STAY AWAY FROM ME!”

Michael Jackson is often photographed in public wearing a surgical mask. Okay, show of hands. How many people think Michael Jackson is a normal human being?

That’s my point. A surgical mask is today’s equivalent of a scarlet letter.

“So what?” countered my wife. “Why not take EVERY precaution to protect yourself.” She went on to announce that she would definitely wear a mask if she were traveling right now.

That’s her choice. But eventually everyone will have to decide just how seriously they want to take this threat. And with that, I’ve come up with a brief swine flu quiz. What would YOU do in these situations?

Question 1: You’re sitting on a plane and you have a mask in your carry on luggage. Midway through the flight, the passenger next to you sneezes. Do you…
A) Immediately put on your mask, regardless of how offensive it looks to your seatmate?
B) Offer the mask to the sneezer?
C) Ask to be reseated
D) Update your will

Question 2: You walk into a restaurant wearing a mask. The hostess warily leads you to a table in the back. After 10 minutes, nobody has waited on you. Do you…

A) Take off your mask and loudly say, “I was only kidding.”
B) Casually mention that you are a food critic for the New York Times.
C) Leave the restaurant and realize that, until this pandemic ends, your restaurant meals will consist solely of drive through fast food.
D) Cook at home, providing you have enough food in your pantry so you don’t have to go to a grocery store wearing your mask.

Question 3: You and your fiancĂ©e are about to board a nonstop flight from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, where you will exchange vows. Mechanical problems force cancellation of the flight. A gate agent says there is another flight leaving in one hour, albeit with a brief stop in Mexico City. Do you…

A) Decide this is a bad omen and call off the engagement but vow to always “stay in touch” via Facebook
B) Ask the airport chaplain to marry you
C) Purchase “his and hers” surgical masks from a New York City street vendor
D) Take the flight, take your chances and pledge that, if one of you contracts swine flu, the other will make every effort to get it too. After all, marriage is about sharing, isn’t it?

Question 4: You wake up in the morning with a slight headache and a temperature of 99.7 degrees. Do you…

A) Take an aspirin and go back to bed
B) Call in sick and say, “it’s probably nothing but it might be swine flu.”
C) Get out of bed and say to yourself, “now is NOT a good time for me to catch swine flu”
D) Tweet Anderson Cooper

Question 5: Tyler and Ashley, two kids at your child’s school, have flu-like symptoms. Officials decide to take “precautionary measures” and close the school. You have an important business meeting and no childcare available. Do you…

A) Decide that today would be a perfect “Take Your Child to Work” day.
B) Take a personal day and see if this home schooling thing is all it’s cracked up to be
C) Stay home, lose your job and join the ever expanding ranks of the nation’s unemployed
D) Give your kids surgical masks and quickly arrange a play date at Tyler’s house

See what I mean? Pandemics just aren’t as cut and dried as they were back in the Middle Ages. We have busier schedules and, as much as we hate to admit it, we worry about how we might be perceived by others.

I’m made my decision: No mask for me. I’m going to get on that plane, fly to Arizona, do a good show, shake hands, wash them and continue believing that, if swine flu wants to get me, it will find a way and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Except maybe avoid the bar pretzels.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Have a question? Ask the vegetables

I was watching the Masters golf tournament last weekend from my weekend perch, also known as the “Dad recliner.”

I watch golf on TV not because I enjoy it but because I’m usually in need of a mid-afternoon nap and nothing puts me to sleep faster than the soothing sounds of golf.

When I’m watching golf, nothing fazes me. It’s hard to get overly excited watching a guy in bad pants spend four minutes pondering whether to hit a 63 degree lob wedge or a 64 degree lob wedge.

Golf announcers are so calm that I think they should switch jobs with CNBC commentators, if only until our financial markets right themselves. Face it, one of the reasons this country is panicking is that we are constantly being bombarded with the likes of Jim Cramer on CNBC screaming, “SELL. NOW BUY. HOLD. HOLD THEN BUY BEFORE YOU SELL. WAIT! FORGET EVERYTHING I SAID”

I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be holding, buying or selling but I feel like I should be doing something before Jim Cramer’s arteries explode on live television.

If golf announcers ran CNBC, nobody would have needlessly panicked last September. Companies wouldn’t have laid off thousands of workers and General Motors might still be a viable organization. Golf announcers can make even the most dire news sound about as troubling as a smudge on eyeglasses.

GOLF ANNOUNCER 1: Let’s go down to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Steve, you have some sort of announcement?

GOLF ANNOUNCER 2: That’s right Jack. It appears Bank of America only has $2,500 left in its vault. And an elderly lady from Scranton just walked in with a withdrawal slip in her hand. Back to you.

If I heard that information, delivered on CNBC by the honey sweet voices of the CBS golf crew, I’d probably react by adjusting the headrest on my Dad chair and repositioning the remote.

On the other hand, I also would be thoroughly entertained watching Jim Cramer stand behind Tiger Woods on the 18th tee of the Masters and say, “HE’S GONNA HIT THE THREE WOOD. WHAT IS THIS GUY THINKING? YOU GOTTA BE AGGRESSIVE. HIT THE DRIVER!”

However, since Cramer is probably not allowed on the Masters grounds simply because of his reputation, I stared at the TV and slowly drifted into dreamland. I jolted awake only during commercial breaks.

IBM dominated the commercials. During every break, I was forced to listen to actual IBMers, or actors who said they were actual IBMers, talk about systems. Apparently everybody at IBM is working on a system of some sort. They spent the rest of the commercial vaguely explaining what these systems do.

Except for one female IBMer. Her definition was very clear. At least four times during the Masters telecast, she looked directly into the camera and told me that she was working on a system that “allows carrots to tell truck drivers how fresh they are.”

I’m not kidding.

IBM is close to perfecting talking carrots.

Now I was wide awake.

Okay, I’m sure the carrots don’t actually say, “hey buddy, I’m getting a little moldy back here. Might want to pull over at the nearest compost heap and do something about it.”

More likely, the containers are tagged with some IBM-created bar code that’s chock full of information like when the carrots were planted, harvested, packed and when they should wind up on the plate of a four year old, where they will be aimlessly moved around with a fork before being tossed, uneaten into the trash.

But that’s not what she said. She actually said the carrots could tell something.

The only thing this commercial told me was that I never want to drive a truck. Not if it means taking orders from vegetables.

Personally I don’t think the world needs talking food. Don’t enough inanimate objects already talk to us?

My BMW X5 has an on-board navigation system. It’s powered by something called iDrive. These days, anything with a small “i” in front of it can only mean one thing: it’s too complicated for anyone to understand other than the person who invented it.

The iDrive is no exception. Basically I now have a computer mouse in my car. By scrolling up and down, side to side and clicking various links on the iDrive screen, I can change radio stations, control the air conditioning, change the time zone or wrap my vehicle around a light pole because my eyes were on the iDrive screen as opposed to the road.

The iDrive also controls the on-board navigation system. When I click “navigation,” a flashing icon on a map shows me precisely where my car is and can even program directions to a nearby destination. When I do this, the vehicle begins speaking to me.

I mean it actually speaks to me. A perky female voice enters the car and verbally gives me step-by-step directions, often saying things that give new meaning to the word “obvious.”

“Continue driving on the road.”

As opposed to driving through a building.

“Make a legal U-turn.”

She says that when I decide to take a shortcut that only I know about. I’m a guy after all.

“In two and a quarter miles, bear right.”

Two and a quarter miles? Thanks for the early warning. I just spent the last two miles trying to figure out how to get the iDrive to wash my windows.

I thought the woman inside my iDrive was pretty cool until recently, when I realized BMW sold me the laziest talking iDrive system in the world. I live in a neighborhood near a major interstate that was recently extended with federal funds. These are the same kind of funds that President Obama says will be readily available to put Americans back to work “building roads and repairing bridges.”

I question his plan only because I don’t know anybody who knows how to build a road or a bridge. Most of my unemployed friends are salesmen and, like me, are useless when it comes to building anything.

The extension is now open to traffic. Problem is, I purchased my BMW with iDrive and talking female companion before the work was completed. Therefore, the software doesn’t feature the new section of road.

As a result, whenever I enter this new piece of roadway, the screen in my iDrive shows my car driving over a cliff. I have driven over this cliff at least a dozen times.

Not once did Miss Know it All say ANYTHING.

That’s right. Nada. Not, “the road ends in one mile,” or “make a U-turn, even if it’s illegal,” or “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” or “you are about to die.”

The least she could do is notify a local police department and let the dispatcher know that I’m about to cause myself great bodily harm. But noooo! She remains silent. Should I survive the impact, however, this gal is more than happy to locate a restaurant for me.

My point is that talking computers don’t have feelings. They don’t show passion or concern or respect. They provide limited instructions or information but have no idea how to improvise. Only humans can do that.

Has a voice prompt or voice-activated software ever solved a problem for you? Think about it. I can book a plane ticket simply by screaming my frequent flier number into the phone and letting America Airlines’ automated system do the rest. But what happens if I have a question about luggage? Or meal service? Or a lower fare? Suddenly the computer isn’t so smart and admits it by saying, “I’ll pass your information on to an agent.”

So if you’re an IBMer and you are reading this, stop working on the talking carrot system. We don’t want it. I’ve been eating carrots for 46 years counting the strained variety. They are always fresh, delicious and silent.

Instead, work on a system that lets us talk to each other. Using real words and not voice prompts. While you are at it, please convince my daughter that text messaging is the only form of communication. Verbal sounds work even better.

Let me know what you come up with. In the meantime, Phil Mickelson is about to putt.


Monday, April 06, 2009

A crack crackdown

I am tired of looking at butt cracks.

Sorry to shock you with that opening sentence but Richard Haney, my first Northwestern journalism instructor, was adamant about the “strong lead.” Haney, rest his cantankerous soul, would have been proud of that one. I can almost hear him now.

Nice job Greg. (COUGH, WHEEZE, GASP) Short and to the point. Makes me want to read on.

Fact is, the exposed butt crack is everywhere. And I’m sick of it.

My breaking point occurred recently at a neighborhood ski outing. Four families sharing a cabin in Northwest Illinois. Kids of various ages running through the house dressed in their fashion of the day, which means plaid sweatpants and t-shirts for the girls. I didn’t really notice what the boys were wearing because I don’t have boys. But boy’s fashions haven’t really changed since the days of the Roman Empire, have they? If photos existed back then, you would have seen boys wearing Tom Brady jerseys and jeans under their armor.

Girls, on the other hand, change their styles as often as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie change their family makeup. The hair gets more colorful, the shirts get tighter and the pants get lower. I try not to notice, except when it’s my own daughter, but I couldn’t take it any longer when I observed one of my daughter’s friends, also 12, eating a bowl of cereal one morning while standing in the kitchen. Her back was to me and the aforementioned plaid sweatpants were creeping down lower and lower until I saw it. Her butt crack.

I tried to avert my eyes, as there is definitely something wrong with a 46-year-old man staring at a 12-year-old’s butt. I wanted this nightmare to be over. “Please, please cover that up,” I thought. “Pull up your pants. I mean it.”

As if my thoughts had been relayed to her by psychic powers, she put her cereal bowl down and nonchalantly reached around to the back of her waist.

“Thank God,” I thought. “She must have felt the breeze.”

With both hands now firmly in place, she gave a yank and pulled her sweatpants…DOWN! That’s right, she went in the OPPOSITE direction, pulling south instead of north. Apparently she realized that her crack was about to be COVERED UP. Oh, the horror!

She resumed eating her breakfast while I went into the bathroom to regurgitate mine.

Why is this happening? Why is the butt crack suddenly a fashion statement? I thought exposing your butt crack meant you had to have a plumbing license. Now butt cracks are as visible as the crack of dawn. My most recent encounter came only yesterday when a 40-something woman was re-tying her shoes after retrieving them from the airport security scanner. As numerous passengers reached over her to get their belongings, she casually bent down and …HELLOOOO!

Whenever something puzzles me, I turn to the two most accurate sources of information in today’s society: Wikipedia and Google.

I typed “butt crack” into Google, unsure whether or not to insert a space between “butt” and “crack.” I believe two words are correct because “butt crack” resulted in 2,450,000 hits while “buttcrack” netted only 661,000. Also, the Microsoft spell checker feels a space is necessary so now I’m convinced.

The first hit led me to Flickr, the photo sharing service, which actually contains a folder called “buttcrack clusters.” Have a picture of a crack? Send it to Flickr and share it with the world! Note: You can also put it in the “butt,” “booty,” “arse” and “crack” groups if you are so inclined.

Other hits lead me to photos of what were purported to be various celebrity butt cracks including Britney Spears’ and Kim Kardashian’s. Sandwiched in the middle was a hit for a 1998 film called simply, “Buttcrack.” A comedy horror story, according to the Internet Movie Database, it tells the tale of a “gun-totin', Bible-thumpin' Preacher Man Bob (who) must right the universal karma accidentally set wrong when Brian inadvertently kills his obnoxious butt-cleavaged roommate, Wade.”

Must have missed that one at the multiplex.

Speaking of cinema, I did click on a semi-funny YouTube video that spoofed Google Earth by showing the technology honing in on a man’s butt crack as he worked in his backyard garden. While humorous, it still forced me to look at a butt crack.

Wikipedia takes a more clinical approach. Type “butt crack” into its search engine and an entry for gluteal cleft appears along with the following definition: “the groove or crack between the buttocks that runs from just below the sacrum to the perineum, so named because it forms the visible between the external rounded protrusions of the gluteus maximus muscles.”

But you probably knew that, didn’t you?

The gluteal cleft entry also contained a photo of an anonymous butt crack. Just think, right now somebody is walking around completely unaware that his or her (from the photo, it looks to be “his”) crack is on display in the world’s largest free encyclopedia.

Many of you probably feel I am overreacting. After all, everyone is born with a cr- er gluteal cleft. Television commercials for diapers and baby powder routinely show naked toddlers romping before the camera, cracks fully exposed.

I’m okay with that but only because baby’s cracks look the same. Face it, when you’re born, the playing field is level.

But like everything else in this world, cracks eventually turn into the “haves” and the “have nots.” My brother-in-law’s home contains a black and white poster of a woman stepping out of a shower, back to the camera. Her butt, if I may be so bold, is PERFECT. And when I say perfect, I mean everything, including the crack. Small, shallow and indiscrete, almost as if God had said, “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to add this. Here you go.”

But even if I encountered this woman’s crack at airport security, I would still want her to cover it simply because it encourages others who think they have good looking cracks to expose them. Some women have great breasts. But you don’t see fully exposed breasts in airports, do you?

It appears I am not alone in my skittishness with the crack. I expanded my Google inquiry by typing “but crack fashion statement” and was greeted with the following discussion thread from Yahoo Answers:

Question: If I’m gonna show butt crack via low rise jeans, how much should I show?

Answer: I really hope this is a joke. You shouldn't get pants that are low enough to show your crack. I don't know of anyone that considers it sexy, so please try to avoid it!

Answer: None.

Answer: You are a stupid slut.

You know who else shares my anti-crack sentiment? Tennessee state Representative Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who recently introduced a bill outlawing pants that fall below the waist.

“I call it the anti-crack bill,” Towns told the Knoxville News.

Specifically, the bill states it is “an offense for any person to knowingly wear pants below the person's waistline, in a public place, in a manner that exposes the person's underwear or bare buttocks.”

Still want to show your crack in Tennessee? If Towns’ bill becomes law, it could cost you $200 and 40 hours of community service. Hopefully that community service will be something other than picking up trash, as that would require bending over, thereby defeating the entire purpose.

I applaud Rep. Towns for taking the crack issue to the state level. I doubt it will get any higher as it appears President Obama has enough on his plate right now. But at least it’s a start. I’d be happy to spend some time in Tennessee if it meant I didn’t have to look at cracks during the entire visit. Heck, I might even purchase some fireworks and bootleg whiskey, both of which are readily available in that state.

Until we hear if Towns’ law is even constitutional, I suggest everybody conduct a “self crack” test, much like women do self breast exams and men feel their private areas for any sign of testicular cancer. It’s very simple and takes only a few seconds:

1) Put on your favorite pair of pants
2) Bend at the knees while reaching a finger around to your gluteal cleft area
3) Now bend at the waist and do the same thing
4) If you felt anything other than skin while performing steps two and three, get some new pants

Thank you. In the meantime, my daughter is having a sleepover this weekend with 15 of her friends.

I won’t be there.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

My advice for the president at G20

President Obama heads to the G20 summit today, a move that is being looked upon with great anticipation by everybody, particularly the staff of Air Force One. After all, the guy has never been on the plane for this long. I know I get cranky when I fly internationally.

This marks the president’s first chance to hobnob with other world leaders, most of whom he has never met. So far his only “foreign” trip has been to Canada and that doesn’t really count. Most Americans who go to Canada these days are just trying to get out of Detroit any way they can.

Some critics fear that, because of the president’s popularity, any serious financial discussions will turn into “The Barack Obama show.” I disagree only because I think the world economy has gotten past the point of “serious financial discussion.” That ended the moment CEOs from the Big Three automakers admitted they flew to Washington on corporate jets. Now discussing the world’s economic situation usually begins and ends with giggles.

That aside, I think the G20 will be a chance for Obama to score some serious points on the world stage. For one thing, he’s a tall guy which will make him look powerful in group photo ops. Any time I see photos of world leaders standing together, I always think the tall ones command the most respect. President Bush was tall and he looked extremely powerful standing next to his shorter European counterparts. Of course that perception ended the instant he opened his mouth.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t stand a chance at the G20. From what I’ve seen, she looks to be about 4’9” in heels. She’s liable to be mistaken as a member of the catering staff.

Besides Merkel, leaders from the following countries will be attending: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. The last time these leaders were in the same room was the day Michael Phelps swam for his eighth gold medal and they all managed to score tickets.

The “who’s who” of world leaders gives Obama a great chance to get to know everybody in a very short time. Obama, we all know, is a skilled communicator and conversationalist. We know that from watching his recent appearances on 60 Minutes, The Tonight Show, ESPN, The Bachelor, Survivor, Extreme White House Makeover and “I’m the President! Get Me Out of Here!” But in case he gets tongue tied, I have compiled a list of “ice breaker” questions and opening lines when he approaches each head of state during a meeting, in line at the bar, the bathroom or wherever. Here you go, Mr. President. Don’t forget, jokes work too!

Gordon Brown, UK - “If all the Beatles were still alive, do you think they would have played at my inauguration?”

Dr. Manmohan Singh, India - “Do you see the day when residents of your country will call residents of my country to get their computers fixed?”

Angela Merkel, Germany - “Germans really seem to enjoy beer. Are you currently drunk?”

Kevin Rudd , Australia - “I don’t have to ask. I KNOW you’re drunk.”

Taro Aso, Japan - “Please let me know when the new Wii comes out. Sasha and Malia have been asking.”

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil - “If it comes down to Chicago vs. Rio de Janiero for the 2016 Olympics, let’s settle it with a game of H-O-R-S-E.”

Hu Jiutao, China - “If the United States borrows one billion dollars from your country, will we feel broke again in 20 minutes?”

Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa – “I’m half black and half white. I’ll bet that freaks out people in your country.”

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia - “We’re at about $2.13 a gallon. What are you paying?”

Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea – “Is there a television show in your country called Seoul Train?”

Romano Prodi, Italy – “Any idea when the Pope might be visiting the White House? I’ll need to make sure the Rev. Jeremiah Wright doesn’t pick the same weekend.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, France – “Think Lance Armstrong stands a chance this year?”

Felipe Calderon, Mexico – “We will send federal troops to help eradicate your country of drugs. If that doesn’t work, we’ll send college students.”

Dimitry Medvedev, Russia - “Seriously, what did you do with Gorbachev?”

Abdullah Gul, Turkey – “Tell me again why you’re here?”

Mirek Topolanek, Czech Republic - “What do you call it when two Czechoslovakian families get together? Czechs Mix!”

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia – “Did you notice that Topolanek guy has no sense of humor?”

Stephen Harper, Canada – “We’ve already met. Catch you later.”