Thursday, August 30, 2007

Don't Call a Rose "Red"

After having a flat tire repaired at the local garage recently, I opened my car door to find a largish sheet of paper set over the floor mat of the driver’s side. No surprise. At first blush, one would think that this is the garage’s way of saying, “Hey, we realize we’re pretty messy – it’s sort of your car’s fault – but we didn’t want to get your car dirty and have to pay for a carpet cleaning.” Good form. What was actually written on the paper is what made me laugh: in big letters right smack in the middle were the words “Eco Barrier”. Eco barrier? Are they trying to tell me that the guys out in the bays are wearing haz-mat suits and walking through toxic waste and biological ooze that would best be kept from making contact with the carpet in my car? If that’s the case, is a piece of bleached white paper really going to act as a “barrier” against such an eventuality? One word: marketing.

Someone in the corporate office was sitting there thinking, “There will be people stepping into their car, reading the words ‘Eco Barrier’, and saying, ‘Thank all that is holy that they spared my car from possible toxic contamination.’ I should get a healthy raise for that little piece of brilliant word play. That’s way better than Bob’s idea of writing ‘Stain Stopper’ on the paper mat. Way too pedestrian!”

The marketing folks’ job is to make us feel good about our purchases and spur us on to make more purchases. Right now, there’s a commercial running on TV for a feminine pad in which you see the product on an animated roller coaster doing loops and dives. Seeing how much fun that pad was having made me wish I could wear one. It’s like having a roller coaster in your pants – that could be a great slogan!

Speaking of slogans, marketing makes sure just the right word or words are used to paint an enticing picture. Quite often, marketing has to put this valuable word play into just the name, so they choose their words very carefully. For example, that gas-guzzling, blind-spot-the-size-of-Texas vehicle that is so ever present on the road isn’t called an OSW (Overgrown Station Wagon) or a 2T2S (Truck that Seats Seven). It’s called an SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle). Although the name may be completely off the mark, we want to feel like it perfectly defines our tastes and who we are. But seriously, whom are we kidding? If going to the grocery store and taking up two parking spots – because you can – is an NCAA-sanctioned sport, then okay. Or, if driving around the block by yourself to a Pilates class is classified as a utility, fine.

Clothing companies employ armies of wordsmiths to come up with thirty-seven different names for the color red. They’re not about to tell you that the shirt is “orangeish red” – if they did, they could only charge you a mere fraction of the price they’re trotting out there. The shirt you are considering is “heather cayenne”. “Heather cayenne? That color could only come from blind monks who dye each yarn by hand high up in the Andalusian mountains and carry them by mule down to the nearby town to sell in the market square. At $274, this T-shirt is steal. I’ll take two.” That may not happen with anyone you or I may know outside of Hollywood, but it’s the stuff of marketing folks’ dreams.

Here’s the rub, though: even when the marketing people have their lapses in judgment, we blindly follow them down the primrose path of post-industrial purchasing. What do I mean? Two words: Leisure suit (a.k.a. the Iron Man). There was so much polyester in those puppies, you wouldn’t have to worry about haz-mat suits or Eco barriers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Suburban Madness

I’m either pregnant or I have reached a point of total and utter gastronomic abandon. Tonight, while sitting in my hotel room, I felt the need to go out and get some dinner. As I mentally ran through a list of possibilities ranging from pasta or pizza to fajitas or fish, I was suddenly overcome by an insatiable craving for – are you ready for this – a gas-station burrito. Technically, that’s not true: I was craving TWO gas-station burritos. Adding to the lost-my-mind-hell-bent quest for my dinner is the fact I went to three separate gas stations to find my quarry.

Sure, we’ve all been on road trips where we’ve eaten our body weight in yellow peeps and cheese log. That’s largely because you’re in the middle of nowhere and that’s the only thing you can get at the gas station. (It makes you wonder what the people working at those out-of-the-way gas stations eat on a regular basis – and judging by some of the ones I’ve met in my travels, yellow peeps and cheese log pretty much sum it up.) However, I’m in a very suburban setting with full-service grocery stores and every restaurant imaginable – my culinary options are limitless. Regardless of the bounty that surrounds me, though, I’m single-mindedly after gas-station burritos.

After failing to find what is to the food pyramid as The National Enquirer is to newspapers, I left the first store, got into my car, and proceeded to the next gas station. (I would imagine the people working the counter at a mini-mart aren’t used to people strolling in just to browse.) The second location produced the same result as the first, and I must say that I was weakening. For a couple of seconds, I was strongly considering two Polish hot dogs with off-color sauerkraut. Is it possible I grew up in a house full of lead paint?

At this point, I’m getting a little loopy (too late, some of you might say). I honestly can’t remember driving from the second gas station to the third gas station, or Shangri-La as I have come to call it. It’s quite possible that I ran over a line of traffic cones and caused a group of nuns crossing the street to scatter because I ran the red light – it was all a blur. I didn’t quite come to full consciousness until I was inside the store and standing before the heated case in which the burritos were awaiting my retrieval. The attendant either cleared his throat or barked like a dog to arouse me from my fugue state. I can’t remember.

Suffice it to say, the burritos did not disappoint. I’m not sure if every gas-station burrito is prepared and cooked in one location by one company or if there’s a universal recipe that all purveyors of gas-station cuisine share with one another out of professional courtesy, but they taste the same whether you’re in Bangor, Maine or Bakersfield, California.

I’m hoping a good night’s sleep will bring me back to my senses and tomorrow will see me eating a more healthful fare like salads and lean meats. Failing that, I might make a midnight run back to Shangri-La. I just hope it’s not too late in the season to get yellow peeps.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Indignity Knows New Lows

There’s no beating around the bush: cargo pants/shorts are men’s equivalent to women’s purses but worse – I’ll get to that in a moment. (I’ll pause here for all the men reading this to make that funny face that communicates the absurdity of such a statement and do something singularly masculine like spit a giant loogie across the room or pick up a sofa with one hand.) Sure, one can make the argument that cargo pants/shorts are pretty straightforward and remain uncorrupted by the likes of Kate Spade and Louis Vuitton, but the reality is that we men stuff the ever-living crap out of those extra pockets just as a woman does her purse. If you don’t believe me, stop any man you see in public wearing the apparel in question and ask him.

I wouldn’t recommend phrasing the question thusly: “What do you have in your pants?” That’s just asking for trouble, especially if you’re in a place like West Hollywood. Nevertheless, when you ask to see the contents of their cargo pockets, some may give you an odd look. If this happens, the best way to get around their consternation is to lie to them by pointing to a tree or shrub somewhere over your shoulder and telling them you’re a television host and they’re on hidden camera. More often than not, you’ll get their full cooperation.

As they empty their pockets you’ll see everything ranging from a bus map and short umbrella to a half-empty pack of chewing gum and pen advertising a local real estate agent. You might think the only things separating a man’s cargo pockets from a woman’s purse would be a tube of lipstick and a compact, but if the guy’s married, and he’s strolling with his wife, you’ll find those items, too. No lie!

The makers of cargo pants/shorts think they’re geniuses (especially those women who have figured out this is the best way for them to get men to “hold my purse”), but they’ve obviously never stood behind a man wearing the diabolically designed apparel at the airport security screening. A woman instinctively places her purse (which holds all of her personal effects) up on the belt of the x-ray machine; the business traveler places his/her briefcase in a similar manner. The dude in the cargoes, however, forgets he’s carrying the equivalent of the inventory of a small business and tries to walk through the metal detector. He’s turned back and asked if he is wearing a belt or a watch. He shakes his head and tries the pass through one more time. Beep! He’s asked if he has an artificial hip made of titanium or a plate in his head. Nope. Beep! All the while, the line is piling up as long as opening night of the latest Harry Potter movie. Scratching his head, the benighted TSA agent starts to ask if the man is wearing a necklace or a large ring. Before Mr. Cargoes can answer, you scream out, “For the love of all that is pure and Disney-licensed, have him empty out his cargo pockets!”

You would do well at this point to turn around and change your travel plans while your fellow travelers hale and applaud you, but you have to make that meeting in Des Moines come hell or high water so you march on to the security checkpoint. However, you know full well that you are now a marked man on TSA’s list of “agitators”. You’ll get the extra screening from now on, and you’ll be lucky if the agent checking you out is only wearing rubber gloves because of an aversion to touching the paper stock used for airline tickets.

From now on, when your wife or significant other asks you to hold her purse, don’t delay. But make sure it matches your shoes. That would be embarrassing!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Horror!

My wife is shamelessly corrupting our children. When we married over 15 years ago I had about $500 in savings, a baseball card collection, and a 1985 Honda Civic with well over 100,000 miles on it, so it didn’t even cross my mind that a prenuptial agreement would be needed. I should have had more foresight. Obviously, I was captivated by her beauty and the fact she would be a college graduate before our wedding date – I still had a year left in school, so I was going to need a Sugar Mama to take care of me and support my Big-Gulp-a-day lifestyle. But that’s neither here nor there. I had no idea she was going to melt the minds of my children by subjecting them to Country music and getting them to like it.

One would think that half the blood coursing through my sons’ veins – a blood suffused with a love for music ranging from U2 and Led Zeppelin to Elvis Costello and The Clash, along with a deep-seated loathing for all things Country music – would at the very least give my sons the strength to resist the guitar’s twang and the lyric’s longing to bring the girl back (along with the singer’s pickup truck). The young mind is a mercurial thing. Getting my sons to see the logic behind the need to take a bath/shower on a regular basis (read more often than once in a lunar cycle) is apparently on par with astrophysics, but getting them to like a musical genre that sounds like a cat undergoing a wax treatment and the singer is actually singing about it is like breathing or picking their noses.

The little minx (that’s what I’ve taken to calling my wife) has extended her evil to the kids in carpool. How do I know this? One morning, I was filling in on carpool and the youngest of the group squeaked from the backseat, “Grant, can we listen to _________?” (I don’t even dare mention the name of the band.) Before I could steer this youngster right by lying to him (the only proper thing to do in the face of this miscarriage of musical justice) that my radio didn’t receive Country stations, my oldest son reached over and slid in the CD in question and selected number 13. Now my own children are complicit in this crime! I’m not sure how to broach this subject with the carpool parents.

I can assure you I’m not taking this lying down – it would make the driving all the more difficult. The only way to fight this cancerous cacophony of Country is head on. Whenever I have the boys with me in the car, I’m flying around the radio dial in search of examples to which I can both expose them and teach them to recognize what they should appreciate in good music. The opening to “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, the mesmerizing stylized guitar in “How Soon is Now” by The Smiths, the angst-filled lyrics of “Baba O’Riley” by The Who, and the passion of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop – these are just a few of the arrows with which I am hoping to fill their quivers against this insidious foe coyly masqueraded as Good Old Boys just having a good time. However, the ranks of the opposition are filling, and I think I’m fighting a losing battle.

In many ways, it feels like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Good, close friends of mine – friends with whom I’ve rocked out to White Stripes – have declared to me that they like, say, Garth Brooks or Toby Keith (it hurts just to write that). And they say it like it’s the most natural thing in the world! I don’t dare challenge them on this for fear they’ll let out that blood-curdling scream and expose me for one who is not like them. I’m not sure if my wife is one of them or if she’s just independently evil. Either way, it’s clear I don’t stand a chance – she spends way more time with my sons doing things like teaching them to say their prayers, helping them with their homework, baking them cookies, etc. It’s absolutely shameless the depths to which she will go!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Darwin's Mistake

This may come as quite a surprise to most of you, given the lengths I have gone to decry my objection to such a thing, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it: we now have a dog. Funny thing is, though, that for the first little while when I would admit my lapse in judgment to a friend and tell them not only about the dog’s existence but what type of dog it is, many would reply, “I thought you said you got a dog.” See, the animal in question is a Chihuahua/Terrier mix. Her name is Lola, but she’s not a showgirl nor is she a cross-dressing man who likes to go to clubs in Soho and pick up on other men. She’s still growing; however, at present, she’s bigger than your average rat but still much smaller than a rat you would find roaming the New York City subway system.

Another common response I get is, “My dog could eat your dog for breakfast.” While many of you may be wondering why I’m hanging out with Michael Vick, suffice it to say that I’m not, but I have a number of acquaintances who have canines of a much larger variety like a Boxer or German Shepherd. These are what they like to refer to as “a man’s dog”. I’ve never pinned my proof of masculinity on the pedigree of a dog, but I guess it’s cheaper than buying a Corvette.

Living with a dog has given me a glimpse into the behaviors of that species and caused me to reflect on how we, as humans, have come to accept those behaviors as normal. For example, when Fifi or Baxter is unhappy with something, the dog in question will quite often choose to display his/her dissatisfaction by dropping a steamer on the imported area rug in the living room – no, not the cheap one from Ikea in the family room. We’re none too happy with this “outburst”, but we quickly shrug it off by cursing (a singularly human behavior) and muttering under our breath, “What do you expect? It’s a dog.” Nor do we find it altogether odd that the family dog goes around the perimeter of the house and pees everywhere to mark their territory. (This one may be less due to our simply accepting this canine proclivity as a given and more because we’ve had young boys full of orange juice and soda – far beyond potty-training years – let it fly all over the bathroom and hit everything but the water in the bowl. Maybe that’s just my house.) At any rate, we believe these behaviors are what separate us from dogs.

Unfortunately, these are not the things that separate us but point to our similarities. For example, when a politician gets caught breaking the law, he or she does the same thing to the nation’s area rug, the Constitution, by getting off with a mere slap on the wrist. And we wring our hands, curse a little, and mutter under our breath, “What do you expect? It’s a politician.” Some sports stars, rather than for the love of the game but for the love of the glory, get full of juice and then let it fly all over the field of play to leave their mark. More often than not, we just want to watch.

My wife tells me that we need to take Lola to Obedience School to break her of some of her nasty habits. I’m all for that, but I’m a little sketchy on the cost of this whole affair and just exactly what it will yield. Having our dog learn how to sit, stay, and roll over is fine and dandy, but it would be more worthwhile if we could teach her how to mow the lawn and take over the driving on long road trips. On second thought, driving seems to bring out the cursing and we want to preserve that trait for us humans – perhaps the only thing truly separating us from dogs.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Inspiring a Felony

I was having writer’s block with the deadline for this column looming over me, so I did what any normal person would do: I looked for any and every excuse to walk away from the keyboard and do something else. This is not a new habit of mine.

Among the many things I learned in college (business management, communications, statistics, humanities, the proper manufacture of a dry-ice bomb, etc.), perhaps the most useful skill I acquired in my collegiate career was Procrastination. Sure, I had an entire semester to absorb the material and make it a part of my consciousness so I could not only recall the pertinent points for the final exam but use my new knowledge throughout my life whether I was in a business setting or auditioning for Jeopardy. That was the plan. However, the reality was I would wait until two days (or two hours) before the exam and start memorizing as much as possible. I would then approach the test in the hopes that I could, figuratively, unlatch the upper part of my skull and pour out the answers onto the paper before me. Although it’s a reality that many have trouble understanding (much like Stonehenge or the Electoral College), I somehow graduated and got a degree, so it worked.

I’m the youngest of four children, and there were a lot of things that my other siblings were better at doing. However, I excelled at complaining about having to perform any type of manual labor. It wasn’t that I thought such work was beneath me – I was just lazy! With that said, my well-developed talent of Procrastination helped me overcome that childhood tendency yesterday. I saw my neighbor had just begun the chore of moving six tons of decorative rock from the street to his backyard, and I made a beeline to my garage to grab a shovel and help. Deliverance from having to think about the looming deadline!

However, after about the third or fourth shovel full of rock, I quickly realized that the beautiful Siren song of Procrastination had lured me in and crashed me into the very rocks I was scooping. (Oh, the irony!) At any rate, I was stuck until we were done with the pile. Noting that we only had one wheelbarrow between us, it was obvious that we needed a second one to move things along. While some might say this new-found virtue of helping others through manual labor was quickly replaced by a vice (or a felony for that matter), I choose to look at my next move and say that Procrastination spurred me to think creatively: I hopped the fence of another neighbor who I knew was out of town and “borrowed” his wheelbarrow. The addition of this implement moved things along and helped me preserve just enough energy to handle some of the more pressing matters of the evening, namely hold the remote control in one hand and a Coke the size of Delaware in the other while I sat in my recliner (and continued to avoid finishing this column).

Between yesterday’s rock-moving experience and now, I have continued my efforts to avoid writing this column. I came up with a list of ten questions men should ask themselves at the end of each day (#6: Was it really wise to eat that?) and seven retirement options for Bob Barker (#4: Herbalife distributor). Benjamin Franklin is said to have “discovered” electricity by flying a kite in a lightning storm. Don’t you think he knew the dangers of this? Sure, but he was probably putting off writing another Poor Richard’s Almanac entry.