Tuesday, January 30, 2007

All Thumbs, and That's Cool

There are many reasons we humans have opposable thumbs: opening doors, holding a pen or paint brush, gripping the steering wheel, and flipping through the channels on TV faster than a cheetah can close the distance between it and a three-legged warthog. These are but a few of the reasons, but they all boil down to the simple fact thumbs separate us from the animals. (True, monkeys and apes also have opposable thumbs, but until they can demonstrate that they can balance a checkbook and order a Led Zeppelin t-shirt off the internet, I’m keeping them in the “animal’ category.) Now, more than ever, is it important that I make this point because many of our fellow humans are blurring the line.

Thought to be a great convenience for a pet owner, the doggy door was merely the beginning of “humanification” of animals. Do you realize the message you’re sending to Fletcher or Fang (both names of a dog and a cat I had as a youth) by giving him free access to your abode? We make fun of the IQ of a caveman, but he was at least smart enough to understand the significance of the “Thumbed” v. the “Thumbless”. Although you don’t read about cave people having doors with twisting knobs, neither do you read about Thag coming home from the hunt one afternoon in search of a nice rock to sit down on and kick up his feet only to be gobbled up by a Tyrannosaurus Rex who let himself into the living room through the dog door.

I was on an airplane one day when two people behind me were talking and I heard one of them say, “So, I had the rest of the afternoon to argue with the cat.” The ensuing conversation confirmed that I had heard correctly. It took a great deal of restraint not to turn around and say, “In the name of all that is holy (and human), what are you talking about? It’s a CAT. What do you think Mr. Tinkles is going to do if he’s not happy with your decision – write a letter to his Senator or call Oprah? He has no thumbs with which to hold a pencil, he can’t talk, and – oh, yeah – HE’S A CAT!”

I’ve had people tell me that they get the impression that their animals think they’re superior to them. That statement in and of itself sends chills up and down my spine: these people are enabling an animal – the same animal who licks its butt, drinks out of a toilet, and eats its food with the same tongue – to impose an inferiority complex on them! All the while, they’re revealing this to you as they’re shopping for dog food that costs more per pound than the prime rib they fed their family for Sunday dinner.

The blurring of the line I mentioned earlier may be too late for some – have you seen the recent roster of “persons” running for President next year? Be that as it may, I have a solution that may seem to be completely contradictory. You’ve seen those misguided individuals who dress up their animals in human-like outfits and take them out in public or include them in family photos. Taking a cue from them, this is the answer to all our problems. Train your Shitzu to walk on her hind legs and make her wear three-inch heels all day; force your Tabby to wear a heavily starched collar and a tie from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. If everyone were to do this, the animal kingdom, in its own non-verbal and thumbless way, would beg us to allow them to be put outside and fed kibble – the politicians may not know that’s an option for them, too.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Plumbing the Depths of History

Traveling on a regular basis presents certain challenges. In addition to the fact you’re hoping that the airplane will physically get you to your destination, you also hope that your luggage will arrive at or near the same time. Also, you’re always wondering who will be your seating companion and whether he/she used deodorant that morning and if he/she will be civil when it comes time to share the arm rest. But those challenges are minor in comparison to some of the other things that await you at home when you’re off “gallivanting” (it’s a word my mom always uses) about the country.

While it is distressing to be sitting in a remote hotel room that seems to get smaller each night you’re there and hear your spouse recount to you over the phone the rainbow of colors your son spewed all over the new carpet – four times – there’s nothing quite like coming home to a toilet that is mere centimeters from spilling over the brim with a substance that looks like only Hollywood special effects artists could create. And come to find out, it’s been like that for the last three days!

So, as I am delicately trying to insert and work the plunger without upsetting the “water” – I have to put that in quotation marks because I’m not exactly sure it can be called that – my two sons are standing behind me absolutely fascinated with the process. Of course, they want to help, and the first instinct is to shoo them away with a rubber-glove-clad hand. But that’s when it hits me. Not the malodorous muck brewing in the commode but an economic epiphany of the same magnitude as the inspiration for Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The money in our public school system would be far better spent teaching our kids plumbing skills than about the diverse cultures that dot the Saharan region of Africa.

Rather than paying a guy $75.00 just to show up at your house, plus materials, you could call one of your kids into the bathroom and say, “Have at it, champ.” They would love it, and they might even offer to pay you or waive future allowance for a crack at the next stopped-up toilet or the installation of a new garbage disposal. And all the while you have the peace in knowing that your kids are up to the task when they bring home their report cards.

“Mason, I see you got an A in pipe fitting, and an A- in septic systems. I know you can pull that up to an A, too, son. Just remember, it’s all about routine maintenance.”

Not only would such training in early childhood be an economic boon to us, the taxpaying adults, but I believe we would see a payoff later on down the line, too. For instance, had this training been instituted back in the early twentieth century, we wouldn’t have seen the rise of Communism or the aggression known as the Korean War. In both instances, they were just looking for the right to affordable indoor plumbing for the masses.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Naked Truth

At the age of three, my brother was outside one afternoon building a sand castle and fielding bids from developers to subdivide it into condos. In the midst of this flurry of activity, he spied the family cat, Sam, from the corner of his eye and noticed that the Siamese was in need of cleaning. (How he determined this “need” is still an open debate at family gatherings.) He scooped up the filthy feline beneath his arm and started toward the house. (Most cats choose the time and place that they’ll allow a human to pick them up, and this is usually done with both arms cradling them. So, being hooked under the midsection with a small and somewhat-less-sure arm was surely an affront to this cat’s dignity.) My brother entered the house and made for the bathroom.

Kicking open the bathroom door, he noticed the air was warm and steamy. Someone had already run a bath. Happy day! So, he slid open the glass door on the shower/bath and discovered my dad was already in the water with soap bubbles floating on the surface – someone to whom he could delegate the cleaning chore and get back to the sand castle! Gathering his wits about him, my dad greeted my brother and asked if there was something he needed. My brother simply looked at him, cat still squirming to get free from his captor’s devilishly tenacious grip, and said, “Sam needs a bath.” Before this could register in my dad’s brain, my brother flung the helpless feline into the water with my dad and summarily closed the glass door.

This little family vignette touches upon a number of issues: real estate development, early childhood education, animal rights, hygiene, the fact most grown men won’t admit to indulging themselves in the quiet and therapeutic pleasure of soaking in a tub – my dad will probably kill me for telling this story – and the need to have a fully stocked first-aid kit readily available when you have small children around. However, the most interesting thing about this story is what it tells you about yourself.

1. Concern for the cat: If your thoughts went immediately to what became of the cat after being tossed into the tub with a naked man, you like long walks on the beach by yourself (because you know your cat’s not coming close to the water), you prefer to work in a cubicle, and you tend to pick your toenails on the couch.
2. Concern for the dad: You fall into the category in which you and others like you like to watch sports on big-screen TVs, you’ll eat anything if it’s covered in Ranch dressing and/or cheese, and you will drive ten miles out of your way to get gas for $.01 cheaper.
3. Concern for the son: This indicates that you are most likely under the close supervision of a physician, you identify most with Batman (the only major superhero with no real super powers), and you have a proclivity for crème-filled treats.
Although you must agree that this analysis is dead on the numbers, I won’t be so cruel as to not tell you what happened to the parties involved in this little fiasco: the cat had to be brought down off the ceiling by two men wearing body armor and the gloves you see worn by people who handle hawks and eagles, my dad proved far more agile than we had ever seen him in the past or since, and my brother refused psychotherapy and went on to West Point and later to Harvard for an MBA – that explains why so many CEOs are just plain nuts!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Names: The Ultimate Birthmarks

(Author's note: the idea of this was originally written and placed on my blog as "Hortence's Revenge", but I've changed it enough that it takes on a new life.)
I recently received an e-mail from a reader wondering if I was the same Grant Greene who attended school with her. My response to her was that, although I have always wondered what would possess someone to name a man-child "Grant", coupled with the fact I have met very few people who spell "Greene" with the "e" on the end, it's hard to believe that there is more than one Grant Greene out in the world – and some of my school teachers might be wishing that there wasn’t even one out there.

My first name, when employed by small children, is a disaster waiting to happen – but we’ll get to that in a moment. However, when you marry it up with the last name of “Greene”, it takes on a whole new dimension of bad choices. Take a moment and say “Grant” and “Greene” together with no pause in between. It’s the sound you would think a frog with indigestion would make, isn’t it?

My parents tell me they named me after a man they really respected - personally, I think my dad lost a bet of some sort. With a name like Grant, my adolescent years weren’t exactly easy. The cute girls would call me names such as "Granty", or they’d all get together (and I swear they had a choreographer help them with this) and dance this little jig as they chanted, "Grant, Grant, the big fat ant!" Some thirty years later, those chilling words still echo in my mind. Can you imagine what it was like live? I’m not even going to go into the things people did, and still do, with the extra (but silent) “e” at the end of my last name.

Looking to the dignity of generations to come, a government bureau should be put in charge of giving an OK on names. These offices should be located in convenience stores so while you wait, you can get a burrito and a slushie – wouldn’t the Motor Vehicle Department experience be better with that? The application paperwork would consist of the child’s name-to-be, the names of the parents (for obvious reasons), and an essay of 50 words or less about their choice of that particular name. Having quite a sense of humor and a very haunting laugh, a clerk reviews the paperwork and decides if the parents are allowed to give their child that name. For example, if the parents were trying to name their child "Hortence", they would need to include in their essay the fact she kicked a lot in the womb and the labor was 175 hours long – you know, justification. If approved, the clerk simply stamps OK on the application and the parents go on their merry way. However, here’s where the haunting laugh enters the picture (you know, the Vincent-Price-horror-movie laugh that makes the nipples on your chest quiver). If the name is found to be truly absurd or spelled in some needlessly exotic way, the clerk walks over to the parents, throws the application in their faces, and delivers “the laugh”. I suggest that people with pace makers and anxiety disorders have their spouses do the filing.

I have to admit it would be tempting to play with the names of your children. In my younger days, I always thought it would be cool to name my first son "Gang", and if I had a girl, "Salad." It would be interesting to see if "The Bureau" would pass them, but I don’t think my nipples could take it. E-mail me your unfortunate naming stories at grant.greene@gmail.com.

Silly Putty: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Emily Post I am not. In addition to the fact I lack years and years of experience with manners and etiquette, I don’t have the hips to wear those high-brow society dresses either. Well, now that we have any and all identity (and perhaps gender) issues out of the way, we can move on with the matter at hand.

From some of your recent letters and e-mails, I find comfort in the fact I’m not the only one out there who finds the whole thank-you-note issue a bit confusing. One astute reader shared the phenomenon of having given a simple gift to someone and in return receiving a thank-you card that could rival War and Peace in the number of words employed. Me, too! I remember one such instance, and the whole time I was reading their literary litany, I kept wondering, “How can a container of Silly Putty bring so much joy to one person? It’s simply inhuman.” Conversely, that begs the question of when you’re the recipient of, say, a gift card from a local retail establishment, what more can you say than “thanks for the gift card”? You feel silly saying anything more than that, but the vast dead space on the thank-you note taunts and dares you to expound upon your gratitude.

Your letters have also indicated that there are some situations in which it either feels weird sending a thank-you note or you plain don’t know how to “thank” that certain someone. Although I’m still not going to try and put on one of Ms. Post’s dresses, I’ll wear her hat for a moment and give you some guidance in just two areas:

Gift from a boss: Regardless of the form of the gift, you feel a bit icky sending a thank-you note because you don’t want to be thought of as a suck-up, but you know that if you don’t you’ll be labeled as the office ingrate. Whether it’s a gift that seems to have an agenda – you’re in a customer-service-related business and your boss gives you a book titled How to Give Great Customer Service – or a loaf of banana nut bread that tastes like an armpit, you have to acknowledge it. And while you may be tempted to give him a book titled How to Stop Being a Crappy Boss, or give him a note saying that you’ve donated his gift to the local food bank, take gratitude to a new level and pen a short note that says, “Thanks for keeping me around long enough to receive your gift. Let’s do this again next year.” Ha ha!

Gift card from a store you never frequent: This is a tough one, no doubt! As it’s highly likely that you’ll never use the gift card for yourself or someone you love, the best use of this card is to turn it back on the giver of the gift. Let’s say the card is for Beads, Clogs & Pool Sticks. Given the fact you’re not dealing with a conventional person, there’s no need for a conventional thank-you note. Go all out and make an outfit for their cat (these people always have cats, take my word for it) using as many different colored beads as possible and send along a short note that says, “Your generosity was so inspiring, I made this for Chudwick. I can’t wait to see him in it.” Ask for photos.
Next week we’ll see how Ms. Post weighs in on what to wear to a jello wrestling match.