Monthly Archives: April 2012

Remember Mad Cow Disease?

I am going on holiday, so luckily for all of you there won’t be any new columns here next week.  The horror resumes May 10.

I hear that mad cow disease is back for the first time since 2006.  Ah, 2006.  The year the iPhone was released, putting millions of other cell phones out of work.  Cell phones that have long since run out of unemployment benefits and are now taking odd jobs such as cleaning gutters and producing reality television shows.

When I heard about mad cow disease in those days, I pictured cows sitting in their living rooms with scowls on their faces.  A bull comes in from the kitchen with a beer and newspaper.

“What’s wrong honey,” he asks his wife, who is sitting on the couch and looking upset.

“Oh, nothing,” she says, looking away.

“Really?  You’re not mad about anything?”

“No really.  I’m not.”

“I don’t know, honey.  Usually this means you’re mad about something.  Is it because I wore that wrinkled shirt to your parents’ last night?”

“Hm.”

“I knew it.  Look, I told you, I was in a rush.  That old McDonald has been breathing down my neck about those reports, and I just didn’t have time.  Okay?”  He takes a sip of his beer.  “Well…I’m going back in the kitchen.”

But no, apparently the “mad” of the mad cow disease, aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is characterized more by a cow’s inability to stand.  In male humans, this symptom takes the form of an inability to mow the lawn or check that the garage door is locked, even though it was checked an hour ago and the male human is already in bed and half asleep.

A major concern with mad cow disease is controlling its spread.  This is accomplished by not feeding cattle meat to other cattle.  But a glitch in the system is that cattle meat may be fed to pigs, whose meat is in turn fed to other cattle.  And then those cattle are fed to humans at steak restaurants, many of which give a choice of two sides, or sometimes two helpings of the same side, but never any substitutions.

Of course, the most important question surrounding mad cow disease, more than the beef industry or whether the safety record of triple-decker cheeseburgers will be besmirched, is the name.  Wikipedia is entertaining input as to whether “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy” should be re-filed under “Mad-cow disease.”  I support the change.  As much as I like the way “spongiform encephalopathy” rolls off my tongue and bespatters the face of the person I’m talking to, I don’t think the scientific terminology would have captured the public’s attention the same way.

Because everyone knows what “mad” means.  Everyone has been mad at one point or another.  Maybe people are mad just reading this blog post.  And I’m sure that they would have classified a “mad human disease” a long, long time ago, had it not been apparent that the infection rate would be close to 100%, and that there would be no cure.

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Filed under Current Events, Eating and Drinking

Remember William Shakespeare?

They didn’t have birth certificates in Elizabethan England, so no one knows for sure the date of William Shakespeare’s birthday, something that I imagine created a lot of problems whenever Shakespeare tried to pick up a prescription at CVS.  But we do know that Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616.  So don’t forget to wish him a Happy Deathday on his Facebook profile.

In his honor, I thought I would re-read Hamlet and give a brief summary of the Bard’s greatest work featuring goblets and someone named Ophelia.

We are in Denmark, and Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark.  His uncle, Claudius, is the King; his mother Gertrude, the Queen.  Queen Gertrude used to be married to Hamlet’s father, when Hamlet’s father was king.  But Hamlet’s father was murdered, and Gertrude found being married to a corpse unbearable, as she could never get it to mow the lawn.  So she married her brother-in-law, and was spared the hassle of changing her last name on her driver’s license.

One evening Hamlet is approached by his father’s ghost, who tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear while he slept.  After that, the Danish kings appointed sleep testers.  The sleep tester would fall asleep before the king would, and if no one poured poison in his ear, the King knew it was a safe place to nap.

Hamlet’s father, the ghost, wants revenge on his brother Claudius for murdering him, seizing the throne, marrying his wife, and eating the last piece of Halloween candy.  Hamlet knows he has to avenge his father’s murder by murdering Claudius, perhaps with nose poison, but Hamlet is not in any great hurry.  Hamlet instead walks around the castle philosophizing and making poetry and not working.  This explains why Hamlet is 30 years old and still living at home.

In a later scene, Hamlet stabs what he thinks is his uncle behind a curtain, but is in fact his uncle’s counselor, Polonius, pretending to be the Wizard of Oz.  Hamlet now must flee, having just killed a human being and all.  King Claudius sends him to England, where a Dane will surely blend in when he’s not driving on the wrong side of the road. 

Claudius also has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s friends, accompany him to England.  Hamlet never really liked them ever since Hamlet’s father made Hamlet invite these two wet blankets to Hamlet’s tenth birthday party.  Hamlet was forced to say, “Thank you for coming to birthday.  I hope you have a good time,” through clenched teeth, and even had to write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a thank-you note for the colorful shirt they gave him.

In England, however, Hamlet convinces the English King that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to be executed for always wanting to go back to the hotel instead of sight-seeing. 

Hamlet returns to Denmark.  He’s hanging out with his friend Horatio, walking through a graveyard because it’s the cool thing to do, and sees two clowns digging a grave.  Hamlet speaks to one of the clowns, who tosses up a human skull.  Then another ten clowns come out of the grave.  Hamlet learns that the grave is for Ophelia, this girl he used to date before things got weird.  Hamlet talks to the skull, and pretends it is talking back to him by moving the jawbone with his hands and speaking in a high voice.  Horatio is starting to feel a little uncomfortable, but doesn’t say anything because people at odds with this Hamlet seem to have short life spans.

In the last scene of the play, Hamlet has a duel with Laertes, Polonius’s son, who is avenging his father’s death.  We don’t know if Polonius appeared to Laertes as a ghost.  Maybe he did and then Hamlet’s father the ghost got angry for having his idea stolen, and challenged the dead Polonius to a duel of ghosts.  Or maybe Hamlet’s father the ghost did not care that the ghost idea was being stolen, until his father, Hamlet’s grandfather, appeared as a ghost and told Hamlet’s father the ghost that the ghost-infringement by Polonius the ghost had to be avenged. 

Hamlet and Laertes duel in front of Claudius and Gertrude, who sit at a table with goblets and food like they are at Medieval Times.  Gertrude has ordered another drink but the waitress is taking so long she decides to drink from Claudius’s goblet.  Unfortunately for her this goblet has poison instead of Diet Pepsi, and Gertrude falls dead.  As it turns out, Laertes has been fighting with a poisoned sword, and stabs Hamlet with it.  Hamlet, however, does not die right away, but is able to go on for a while, saying witty things and deciding what he wants to TiVo that night. 

Hamlet, even while poisoned, somehow wrestles the poisoned sword from Laertes and stabs him with it, and, at last, stabs Claudius.  Now everyone is dead, except Horatio, who tries to stab himself but is stopped because without him there will no one left on stage to start the slow clap.  The play ends with the bodies being cleared away by the same people who clean up Times Square after New Year’s Eve, and the Norwegians enter to sell their celebrated skin care formula.

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Remember When You Didn’t Have to Worry About Online Tracking?

I recently read an article about how companies track Internet searches to aid in marketing of products and rejection of credit applications.  It is certainly easy to see what banks will do with credit applicants who search for “do I have to pay my mortgage,” or what life insurers will do with policy applicants who search for “skyscrapers that let you bungee jump.”

But Internet searches do not always fall into such neat categories.  What will companies make of someone who searches for how long mayonnaise can stay on the counter before it can no longer be served to his in-laws?  Or who trolls YouTube for the opening credits to the 1980s cartoon “He-Man and Masters of the Universe”?  Or who wants to know if Marilyn Manson is really the same guy who played Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years”?  (For the record, he is not.)

I can see the corporate scientists in the laboratory now.  There is a monitor showing me sitting at my computer, searching for the video of “The King Is Half-Undressed,” the hit single by the 1990s pop band, Jellyfish.

“What is he looking at?” asks the Google overlord to his underling at the monitor.

“Well, sir, he’s watching a Jellyfish video.”

“Like one of those squishy things at the beach?”

“No, sir.  Jellyfish the West Coast pop band that, true to its name, was short lived yet influential.”

“What’s with all the tambourines?  Every member of the band has a tambourine.  There’s even a tambourine coming out of that guy’s head.”

“I think it’s supposed to be a conceptual video, sir.  How shall we proceed?”

“Charge him an extra three points on his mortgage,” says the overlord, taking a sip from his coffee mug that says “World’s Best Dad” and shifting focus to a monitor focused on someone searching for videos of people falling down the stairs.

What will health insurance companies make of my visits to the Internet Movie Database, where I’ve analyzed the career paths of the actors who starred on the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show “You Can’t Do That On Television”?  Perhaps they will call it a pre-existing condition, and raise my co-pays for hospital stays and prescriptions for green slime.

Perhaps this is all for the better.  Perhaps online search tracking will enable companies to bring us better products.  Perhaps one day I’ll finally come home to a cat that plays the piano.

A positive use of online tracking would be to tell us what our friends have been searching for.  Then we would know what to buy them for their birthdays.  Maybe one day I’ll sign in to Facebook and get a reminder that it’s so-and-so’s birthday, along with a note that so-and-so is really interested in action figures that don’t melt in the microwave.

Of course, the real issue with online tracking is privacy.  No one wants to go through cyberspace labeled as someone who likes hats and pictures of skin diseases.  And I’m sorry, but it is no one’s business if you need to know how much Jennifer Aniston spent on cereal last month.

So I’m confident that Congress will move heaven and earth to pass an online privacy law that will be thousands of pages long and will do absolutely nothing to stop online tracking.  But maybe the law will make the companies at least tell us why we’re suddenly being sent samples of mayonnaise that do not need to be refrigerated.

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Remember When You Could See Around Most Vehicles?

We’d come to the end of another Saturday lunch at P.F. Chang’s, and I was chewing gum so that if I got pulled over at a police checkpoint my breath wouldn’t smell like gluten-free ginger chicken with broccoli.  I turned the ignition, adjusted the rearview mirror, released the emergency brake, popped in my “Drive Time Gaelic” compact disc, and put the car in reverse.  And then I realized I couldn’t see to my left because we were flanked by a van that had plunged my gluten-free sedan into night.           

“How am I supposed to see around this thing?” I asked my wife who was gazing into a compact mirror by the light of her smartphone.  The van had a sticker on the rear right passenger bay window.  It said, “I brake for large objects.”

Then I remembered a scene from the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan.  I asked my wife for her compact mirror.  Then I took the gum out of my mouth and stuck it to the back of mirror.  I affixed the mirror and gum to the snow scraper that had been lying idle on the floor of the backseat, opened my window, and stuck the whole apparatus out and angled the mirror so that I could see around the van.  It was the most use the scraper got all season. 

“I think I can pull out after this Honda and Panzer tank,” I said.

“Okay, Field Marshal.  But you’re buying me a new mirror.”

I got pretty handy with the scraper-scope.  Any time I needed to see around a Suburban or Avalanche or Hummer, I just stuck the scope out the window and ignored the birds that came to perch.  Sure there were stares from passerby, and even a few inquiries from police officers who wanted to know which facility I’d escaped from.  But soon everyone recognized me, like you recognize that guy who drives around with a flag on his antenna that says, “Make Lemon Bars, Not War.”

Then one day I noticed other people with scraper-scopes.  Except they didn’t all use scrapers and compact mirrors.  Some used dentist’s mirrors.  Others used shaving mirrors with metal accordion extenders.  I even saw someone who had trained his dog to stick its head out the window, carrying in its mouth a long bone that had been wrapped in reflective foil.  We the oppressed…we the downtrodden…we the great unwashed masses of coupe-, sedan-, smart-, and zip-car drivers were united in our quest to behold the other side of sport utility vehicles.  When we passed on the highway we would waive to each other with our scopes.

It was another Saturday afternoon and I was in my car, savoring the interplay of the gluten-free “Buddha’s Feast” with the flourless chocolate dome.  As usual my car was in eternal night thanks to a Dodge Durango and a minivan with seven gables.  I stuck out my scraper-scope, angled it to see what I could see, and just happened to focus the mirror on the mirror of another scope sticking out of a Civic three spaces down.  The two mirrors instantly produced an infinite number of smaller and smaller reflections inside each other, ending in a point of light so blazing that I was unable to see for a few moments.

And when the purple splotches finally cleared from my vision, there was nothing left of the compact mirror but some smoldering dust.

“Well, that’s it,” I said to my wife.  “That was our only hope of getting out of here.  Now we’ll have to wait until our sun becomes a super nova and swallows up all the SUVs on Earth.”  I started looking for something good on the radio.

“Is that all?” she asked me.

I thought for a few seconds.

“Or I guess I could always back out slowly.”

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Remember Trapper Keepers?

Everyone had one and I wanted one too.  It was called a Trapper Keeper.  A plastic binder with sliding plastic rings and a flap that folded over the front, so that all the notes were “trapped” inside this latest assault on parents’ school budgets.

I remember when I sat my parents down and told them I wanted a Trapper Keeper.  “So it’s just a binder with sliding plastic rings and a Velcro flap?” they asked.

“No, it also has a picture on the front.  Jimmy has one with a Ferrari and I’d like to do something similar.  Not the same exact thing, of course.”

“Of course.”

I chose a Trapper Keeper with a Ferrari on the front.  I liked to sit in class and flip the switch that slid the plastic rings in and out of each other.  The Establishment didn’t understand what an innovation that was.  The metal rings in regular binders snapped together with a loud and irritating snap—if the rings snapped together at all!  After a few days the male and female parts of the metal rings would fail to line up, and you would have to use your finger to bend the metal and force the rings closed.

The Trapper Keeper closed with a whisper.  I would sit in class, opening and closing the plastic rings like a latter-day telegraph operator.  I also liked to work the Velcro.  Over and over again I would rip open the Velcro flap, open the front cover of the Trapper Keeper, open the plastic rings, close the plastic rings, close the front cover, and seal it with the Velcro flap.

“Mark, do you need to sit in the back of the room?” my teacher said, “Why don’t you choose one state for your folder and join the rest of the class?  We are listing all the different uses of manila paper.”

I thought I could give her one pretty good use of manila paper that was not on the list, but then I remembered something Oscar the Grouch once said on Sesame Street: “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

I rejoiced in the feeling that my notes on the Civil War—also known as the War Between the States and the War to End Mutton Chops—were secure in style.  The Trapper Keeper even accelerated my transition from carrying all my books in a backpack to the far more efficient method of carrying all my books in my arms, as I wanted all the world to behold my glorious plastic portfolio emblazoned with a red Ferrari.  And as I traveled throughout my little school, I imagined that I too was that Ferrari, fast and sleek, until I was yelled at for running in the halls and had to appear in traffic court.

At home my infatuation with my Trapper Keeper was no more subdued.  I would sit on the couch with the pretense of working on my thesis on the influence of Casio watches on youth culture.  But all I did was open and close the Trapper Keeper, open and close its silent plastic rings, remove and inspect and reorder and replace its folders with the pockets on the sides, and sit and look at the way its plastic cover captured the glint of the twilight sun coming through our bay window.

And then one day the unthinkable happened.  One of the plastic rings did not line up.  I quickly realigned the ring-halves, but it was only the beginning.  The other two rings started having their problems, too, and I noticed that the beautiful folders with the side pockets were getting mushy at the corners.  Even the plastic cover had started to tear, and the Velcro on the front flap had a coat of orange cat hair.  Father Time had not forgotten my Trapper Keeper.

I looked to my classmates for support, but they had all moved on to ever more efficient ways of keeping their notes together, such as folding them up into little squares and shoving the little squares into pocket books or duffel bags.

It was time to say goodbye to my Trapper Keeper.  I opened and closed the plastic rings one last time, gently using my fingers to help them lock with dignity, folded the flap over, the Velcro fibers barely catching anymore, ran my hand over the Ferrari as a final salute, and laid the Trapper Keeper to rest in my parent’s basement where it could spend eternity next to Candy Land.

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Remember When Sugar Wasn’t the New Cocaine?

Last week Sixty Minutes aired a segment titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” that reported scientific evidence that the added sugar in various foods causes a variety of ailments such as heart disease, cancer, and looking like a whale.  One neuroscientist, Eric Stice, stated that his studies show that the effects of sugar on the brain are similar to the effects of cocaine.  I pictured frenzied people tapping out Domino packets onto pocket mirrors and snorting lines with plastic coffee stirrers.

When did sugar get to be so dangerous?  Was it really that bad?  I remembered summer camp when a fellow camper put 19 packets of sugar into her tea and spent the rest of the day in a spin-art machine.

Years ago, when I was a young and impressionable smart-aleck, Nancy Reagan told me to “Just Say No” to drugs.  “It stands to reason,” I said to myself after the Sixty Minutes segment ended and segued into a commercial for Keebler fudge cookies, “that if they were still printing those green t-shirts with the ‘Just Say No’ printed with the line across it, sugar would be included in the campaign.”  I decided that I was going to clean myself up for good, and eliminate sugar from my diet.

That night I created a “Quitting Sugar” event on Facebook and announced to my friends and family that I was quitting sugar, and that under no circumstances were they to give me any, even if I asked them pretty please with sugar on top.  I had one last sugar blow out in my kitchen, feasting on Kit-Kats and Pixie Stix and the candy corn left my basement by the previous owners of the house.

The next morning I grabbed a giant garbage bag and went around collecting oatmeal creme pies and Yodels and pretty much anything that came individually enclosed in a little clear plastic wrapper.  I took the giant bag out to the garage, recited a farewell sonnet to Little Debbie, and then spent the next hour trying to figure out if the products should be placed in a landfill.

The first few days without sugar were not that bad.  I have an armchair that is really good for gripping, and there is a clinic nearby that dispenses free doses of Equal, no questions asked.  But the addict does not die so quickly.

I started inventing reasons so that I could just “so happen” to have to put sugar in my food.  “Isn’t tilapia supposed to be eaten with maple syrup?” I asked my wife over dinner.  “I’m pretty sure I saw that on Rachel Ray.  I don’t make the rules.”  I would suggest an office ice cream party as a team-building exercise, and then resign myself to eating ice cream since there is no “diet” in team.  I said that I just ate sugar at parties, and then crashed the birthday party that my neighbors were throwing for their 4-year-old son, attacking the cake in the kitchen while he was opening his presents.

Yesterday I came home to an intervention.  My family members each read pieces they had written about how my sugar addiction had torn me away from them and made it hard to fit my entire body in the viewfinder of their cameras.  There was a professional counseler in the room, who patted me down for sucking candies and then explained how my family was sending me to rehab where I could get the help I needed.

And that is where I am right now.  I just finished picking at the plate of broccoli they slid under the door, and in a few minutes I’m going to a group session where I and the other residents will talk about the nightmares and shakes and disgusting taste of plain water.  I know I can’t expect instant results.  But as long I never enter a supermarket or restaurant again, I know my future’s looking bright.

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Remember When We Were Slaves in Egypt?

When I was a kid we didn’t have television or hand-held devices.  We had to make bricks from bitumen and pitch.  My friends and I liked to say “bitumen” over and over until our mothers yelled at us for being obscene.  She said we didn’t even know what it was.  But we found out soon enough.

I remember what it was like having to build the pyramids.  Talk about a fat-burning exercise.  There wasn’t even any Snapple.  If we were lucky our Egyptian taskmasters would give us water, and sometimes Gatorade when the Pharaoh and Players’ Association were able to work out a contract.

The work was horrible.  We had to mix straw with this sticky black stuff by stomping on it all day long for days and days.  At first it was kind of fun, and I would sing songs to go along with the stomping.  Then a taskmaster whipped me and told me to sing something in a lower key.

Then they had me moving these giant blocks on rollers.  On the third day I developed a persistent ache in my left calf and asked the nearest taskmaster where I could find some cortisone.

“You Hebrews are always complaining,” he said.  “Get back to work or I will whip you to death and then make a note in your file.”

“But why do these blocks have to be so big?” I asked.  “Couldn’t you build pyramids with small bricks?  Or maybe wood planks or vinyl siding?  I hear vinyl siding does very well in the desert.”

The taskmaster raised his whip again and I made the sound of it cracking and threw myself back violently, leaving the taskmaster looking confused.

In the evenings I would hang out with my friends.  It was always a big debate about where we would go.

“How about your place?” I would ask my friend Yaakov.  “What’s going on there?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying for the deliverance that is supposed to be coming.”

“What about you, Naftali?  Anything cool going on at your hut?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying—”

“Okay, okay.  Hmm.  Let’s see who’s at the Dairy Queen.”

It wasn’t easy coming of age during this time.  Everyone was depressed because we were slaves, and the rumor that we were going to be saved by divine intervention was starting to sound like one of those stories parents tell their children when they won’t go to bed.  I myself was pretty skeptical and suggested that we Hebrews all go on strike until we were released from the house of bondage and given a lower co-pay on our health insurance.

“We could do it during the holidays,” I said.  “All the last-minute shoppers will be screwed.  The store owners will lose millions!”  But then the elders cited a law that said any striking Hebrew would be tossed into the Nile and then barred from attending the annual picnic.

And then one day we were told to pack everything up because we were leaving.  Apparently this guy Moses and his brother Aaron had performed some dog and pony show for the Pharaoh and gotten him to agree to let us go.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the Promised Land.  The land of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“Well my father’s name is Steven,” I said, “and his land is right over there behind that pile of animal dung.”

But it was true—we were leaving Egypt and I had to spend the whole day going through all the boxes filled with all my notebooks and artwork from school.

“Mom, look,” I said to my mother who was racing around the kitchen shoving food in cloth bags.  “Here’s a story I wrote in second grade.  Didn’t I have fantastic penmanship?”  Then she shoved a piece of unleavened bread in my mouth and told me to hurry up.

I’ll spare you the boring details of the days that followed.  It’s all written down somewhere anyway.  We left Egypt and wandered around the desert for years and years, and I was surrounded by all these smarmy teenagers who knew nothing of the Pharaoh or what had been like to be slaves.  I tried to tell them about it, about the history of our people and what it meant to be free.

But all they cared about was their rock music and who was going to the Dairy Queen.

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