Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Neat Box of Tricks

Rapid Packing Container

Boxes within boxes within boxes....

Like many lucky houses at this time of year, mine is filled with a stack of cardboard boxes in which gifts arrived from the glorious internet. Here they are teetering in my basement. This is nowhere near the number of boxes there actually are, because they are nested one inside the other, to reduce the size of the pile. They are still in my basement because I am one of those people afflicted with the inability to waste a perfectly good box that might, at some distant future time, be needed for somethingorother.

But they take up space and remind me, every time I see them, to feel a pang of guilt about all the wood pulp shopping via the internet uses.

This is why I love folks like these guys from Cooper Union, Henry Wang and Chris Curro, who re-designed the humble cardboard box to be easier to use, less wasteful, take up less space, and be reusable to boot.

They are seeking funding to get their box — the rapid packing container — out into the world.

Packaging has always been important, but the way we purchase and use foods underwent an enormous change in the 1970s due to he invention of the Tetrapak — that now ubiquitous folded card-based box that your milk (and juice) comes in. It made the Rausings (the family whose company developed and owns this technology) into billionaires.

Nearly everyone in the world has used one of these

Some might say that the aesthetic charm of the bottle as a packaging medium was lost when the almighty Tetrapak made its way onto shelves, and they’d be right.

Tetrapaks don't clink like bottles, but they don't break, either

But bottles are heavy, round, breakable, and it takes a lot to recycle them. If you want the pleasure of storing and pouring your milk and juice from bottles, then buy some and decant your Tetrapakaged liquids into them once you get home. Then you can squash the empty box flat and recycle it.

Good luck, Wang and Curro — I hope to see Amazon invest in your box in time for next year’s holiday season. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Carpenters at Christmas: Brought to you by 1977

Hey, Kids! If you're bored with your iPads, Wii, Xbox or phone, you might want to check out what TV used to be like when I was a kid. There were these things called "TV Specials" which took the form of a "Variety Show" where a celebrity starred in a series of hyper-scripted skits interspersed with "musical numbers" on sets with poor lighting. The entire "show" lasted an hour, and usually followed a premise of some sort that delivered a loose narrative. Sponsors advertised during the commercial breaks. 

"What did the people at home do while they watched a "TV Special?" you ask. Well, they sat on their sofas and drank tumblers full of whiskey and chain smoked cigarettes, which they disposed of in "ashtrays." 

"That doesn't sound like fun," I hear you say. Well, you're right. It was an excrutiating ritual engaged in by desperate people with nowhere else to turn for entertainment. They drank because it's impossible to watch sober, and they smoked because they had nothing else to do with their hands. During the breaks, they would visit the bathroom and down handfuls of pills — valium, mostly, but also quaaludes and aspirins — even antacids and antihistimines if they were very bored. By the end of the show (or the "closing number"), either the folks at home would have fallen into a deep stupor or destroyed the house in a drug-fuelled frenzy. 

"If these shows were so awful, why did they exist?" you ask. Good question. They existed solely to serve the satin and polystyrene industries. Most costumes consisted of yard upon yard of colored shiny fabric and fake fur, and the sets were cheap and highly flammable. 

Usually, singers were pegged to show off their acting skills by pretending to be themselves. Here, for example, Richard and Karen Carpenter play a musical pair of siblings called "The Carpenters" who live in California and entertain people with their wacky hijinks. Richard mopes about wearing suits with outrageously large shoulders, a pageboy haircut, and frilly shirts with giant bow ties. Every now and then he plays the piano in the contemporary style of Van Cliburn or Liberace, which is to say, theatrically. He can also be heard lisping through lines of dialogue. Karen is rarely seen out of a tight satin suit, looking ghoulish while feigning interest in a make-believe party she's throwing for her back-up dancers. Meanwhile, she lip-synchs her way through a selection of seasonal classics with a modern twist. 

Occasionally, "traditional" forms of vaudeville entertainments found their way into such shows, often as a nod to the very elderly viewers or the very young, neither of whom can be counted on to have developed a sense of horror when presented with puppets and talking mannequins. 

If you can make it through this entire Christmas Special, you win. But if you can't, just keep leaping ahead to watch snippets, for an idea of what life was like in 1977. 


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Female - by "Anon"

Check it out, bitches. McGraw Hill chose me to represent the epitome of the Female of the species in their textbook Teen Health. Boo-ya. I was all “will there be hair and make-up, yo” and they said “no — you’re perfect just as you are.” Hear that? “Perfect.”

I’ve lost weight recently — can you tell? Check out my upper arms and the huge gap between my thighs. We tried loads of different poses, but they went with this one. I was fed-up. It was, like, five, and I’d been standing all day. I was all “Imma stand here till you clowns make up your minds,” and they said “show us more attitude, Baby,” so I tilted my hips, but they said “not that much attitude.”

You might be wondering about that lump under my arm. It’s not what you think it is. Don’t be rude, gutter-brain! It’s an in-grown hair that got a little out of control. I’m getting it seen to next week.

Speaking of hair, I said “since this is a paying gig, can I submit the receipt for my wax?” They said no. Cheap bastards. When I asked why, they said “we don’t require a wax.” WTF? I said “I will be naked, you know,” and they said “naked-schmaked.” “Is this a legal term?” I asked, and they said “kinda.”

One thing I am disappointed with is that you can’t see my face. That’s what happens when they show you from behind. 

The Battle of the Bulge, Explained

First of all, some people called this “offensive,” then “counteroffensive,” but history has called it The Battle of the Bulge. For reasons that will not be immediately obvious (because this diagram is based on photographs taken from above), you cannot see the bulge. You just have to imagine that it’s there.

Oh Jesus. Wrong slide.

(Illustration taken from McGraw Hill's textbook Teen Health.)

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Best A Man Can Get? In Praise of the Beard

Brett Keisel #99 Phwoar.

Dear Gentlemen: if you want to enhance your masculinity, if you want to make other men quake in their soft-sole shoes and women go all tingly in their lady parts, then go with what nature intended: grow a beard.

Not some facial hair that has been tamed and maintained by a setting on your trimmer; an actual beard, the kind that grows unhindered and lends an aura of mystery and glory to your face. No artful shaving of the cheeks and neck to keep it in check, either; go full-on mountain man.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have a fine sporting chap by the name of Brett Keisel. He’s a defensive end for the Steelers. He’s 6’ 5”, has two Super bowl rings, and what he calls “the greatest beard of all time.” He’s not modest about it. He knows he’s playing the alpha male card every time he looks in the mirror or into the eyes of an opponent. There's even a fight song dedicated to it. 

A beard that says "don't mess with me," and "form an orderly line, ladies."
This Sunday, the snowfall was measured in Pittsburgh by examining how much of it collected in Brett Keisel’s beard. This is a town that loves its football players, but you rarely see a Roethlisberger shirt; instead, you see a lot of Polomalus and Keisels. What do those guys have in common? Famously abundant hair.

If you need any more convincing, then take a look at what Keisel looks like without his beard — which he periodically shaves off to raise money for charity.

Just another lunky dork.

Ask yourself why Duck Dynasty is so popular. Are we that interested in duck calls? No! It's the sexy beards!

Case. In. Point. 

And don’t let the Gillette people fool you: ladies do not prefer the smooth-all-over look. Stop shaving your chests, your legs, your armpits and your balls. That’s just weird. Gillette has a financial stake in getting you to act like a clown and engage in something they call “body styling.” They do this by paying three hot models to suggest they like hairless men. This is reverse psychology! They’re playing on the likelihood that men prefer hairless women (and that shaving each other’s private parts is some acceptable form of hanky-panky. It isn’t.). They try to ensnare you by using words like “confidence” with the underlying implication that if a man is confident with his penis, he won’t mind letting it hang there out in the open with no place to hide. There’s a reason why it’s called the “happy trail,” Gentlemen. Think about it.

So please, dear Gentlemen: when making your new year’s resolutions, consider being the best a man can get — and toss out your razor. For good. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013


David Bowie Is…

… the name of the exhibit devoted to Bowie which is currently showing in Toronto. It bears all the hallmarks of a show originally curated by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which is to say heavy on the costumes and distinctly and proudly British.

I have always been a so-so, take-it-or-leave-it Bowie fan, fond of a handful of early works, but rather inclined to let the more burlesque stuff go. I was vastly surprised, then, to find myself loving this exhibition so much and coming away with a newfound appreciation for the man and his art.

The first time I knew something very good was afloat was early on in the show, when all of a sudden the obligatory headset one wears around one’s neck kicked in and made sense as an integral part of what has been designed to be a truly multi-media presentation. Whatever makes the individual headsets work, really works; the audio feed comes in crisp and clear and perfectly in synch with whatever you’re standing in front of. 

Stepping into the “Space Oddity” room, you are assailed with the sound of the song and video, at once as familiar as the back of your hand yet completely new: hearing the song on headphones brought it suddenly into focus as a multi-layered stereo masterpiece. This, combined with the visual of the video playing behind a holographic earthrise (the famous 1972 photo) floating in the darkness of the room said more without words than any wall-mounted gallery plaque ever could. I understood, perhaps properly for the first time, what a rush it must have been to experience stereophonic sound to a generation used to mono. I thought of Chris Hadfield’s recent recreation of the song from actual space, and how it brought this one melody full circle.

Also from this era was the “Starman” room, which was given over entirely to a large screen playing Bowie’s seminal 1972 Top of the Pops performance. What struck me most was how good a singer Bowie is — and how fantastic Top of the Pops was back when artists actually sang. I was only little, but I distinctly remember seeing this at the time.

There is a lot to see. There is so much to see that to do it justice you need to visit twice. Perhaps this is why it was so packed, and why they have to time entrances. The overarching feeling I got was that both Bowie and the exhibit were incredibly erudite; seeing Bowie’s career laid out allows one to appreciate the entire arc of an artist at work; the movements between phases and constructs made sense. Seeing the stage costumes was startling not only for how familiar they were, but for how thin a man he is. 

By far the emotional highlight, costume-wise, was Alexander McQueen’s union jack greatcoat, made when McQueen was just starting out. The tailoring is impeccable and daring, and it’s shocking to see it is deliberately shredded with holes. Seen from the back, it reconfigures both the flag (and the idea of nation it represents) and the man. It’s astonishing.

Although the exhibit does into detail, covering every aspect of Bowie’s output, it does shy away from the mid-80’s Let’s Dance / China Girl era — perhaps in favor of the more interesting Germanic influences that informed the Thin White Duke.

As you approach the end of the exhibit, you come into a vast room dominated by a giant screen on each of three walls, which play a variety of concert footage. Behind the screens are banks of costumes one can see when the lights come up. The sound you hear depends upon what direction you’re facing, so that if you move around, different things become apparent. The curators have utilized this technology very well here: in one sequence, “Heroes” plays from three different eras; early, from Live Aid, and from the 911 benefit — yet the sound is synched so that no matter which version you’re listening to you can “see” him singing all three at once. Another sequence aligns all three screens to make you feel as if you are on stage at a single show.

I left the exhibition in a daze, completely overloaded with sights and sounds. Well worth seeing if you’re close to its next stop. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Say Wha?

I love the English language and I love teaching the English language. I love beautiful and witty cartoons that make explaining the history of the English language easy to understand. I'd love to show my students this one, but it contains the words "penis," "vagina," and — deal-breaker — "clitoris," thus rendering it completely off-limits.

Why, Open University, why.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It's Christember!

Jangle Bells, Jangle Bells

Thanks, Cracker Barrel!

Nothing says "Welcome to Fall" like a display of Christmas decorations in September.

Forget Halloween. Forget Thanksgiving. Just go straight to Santa.

Ho ho ho.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

All By Myself: Felicity Aston’s Epic Journey into the Heart and Psyche of Antarctica

Felicity Aston, Arcticnaut
As someone who considers themselves a bit of an Antarctic buff — having written extensively on leading figures from the golden age of Antarctic exploration, I am often asked if it’s a place I’ve ever been. I have not. Well, people ask, don’t you want to go?  Surely, they think, someone with such an abiding obsession about a geographic locale would want to experience it firsthand. The answer is no. Nope. No thanks.

I am in fact horribly sensitive to the cold and don’t think I’d last five minutes on the planet’s bleakest and most inhospitable continent. Oh, they reply, clearly disappointed and puzzled. Perhaps they wanted someone more willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of their topic, because we like to live vicariously through the gung-ho type. That way, we can ponder how an ordinary human being could possibly survive conditions, journeys and self-imposed hardships that beggar the imagination.

They would have a completely different and far more fulfilling conversation with Felicity Aston, an English lass who pluckily decided to become the first woman in the world to ski, by herself, across Antarctica — and lived to tell the tale.

Epic selfie
That tale is told with compelling aplomb in her memoir Alone in Antarctica — a to-the-point title if ever there was one. Not more than a few pages in you realize that she not only accomplished a feat of astounding stoicism and endurance, but that she’s a darned good writer too. As she takes us along on her perilous expedition, she shares details about the unique geographies and weather conditions she encounters along the way with fluid, sensory language. Of the mountains, for example, she says “Those at the back were chiseled into spires that stretched for the sky while at their feet smaller hills and nunatuks crowded together creating an overlapping pastiche of rock and ice. The rise and fall of the saddled ridges and lower summits resembled the regular ridge and scoop of a scalloped shell.”

All frozen up
This memoir is also noteworthy for the intimacy with which the author invites us into her head, which we soon discover is the really dangerous terrain. It was the “isolation,” she says, she found “far more terrifying than the temperature.” The mental landscape and the hazards it poses when one undergoes such a journey alone is a remarkable account of self-examination and discovery. The end of the earth is a long way to go to find the end of your rope, but hanging at the end of it is wisdom that cannot be gained otherwise.

Get it here: Amazon
It was possible to follow Aston’s journey in real time with the internet, as she updated her progress via satellite phone to Twitter. I kept up-to-date through Facebook, and distinctly remember the frustration she expressed as she waited out bad weather before she could begin, and again at the end, when a remarkably moving bit of video footage was posted to let us all know she’d made it to her destination, Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf. With the camera up close so all we can see is a tight shot of her face, Aston struggles to come to terms with her historic achievement, shedding tears of what feels like sheer relief while she waits for the plane to come and pick her up from the ice.

Aston’s obsession with Antarctica, a place whose allure has drawn her to dwell in its remoteness many times over the years, is one in which her interaction with the land is repeatedly erased. The blank canvas upon which she treads retains no footprint, no physical memory of her passing. This has always been the case. Those explorers who fought to imprint themselves upon the land — Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson, Fiennes et al. — also had to do so from a distance, in ink on paper. Their accounts have inspired me as a thinker and writer, and this book does too.

I will always be grateful that someone else has braved the cold to report back on what it’s like to be truly alone, so I don’t have to be. Aston has taken a page from the old boy’s books and made Antarctica her own.

Felicity Aston's WEBSITE.
Some of my other writing on Antarctica from The Paris Review

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Oh, Snap!

Three cheers for Baby George’s official portrait! Hip Hip Hooray!

In case you haven’t seen it, here is the legit, official first portrait of England’s future king and his happy parents.

But, you say, it’s a rubbish photograph! It’s a bit blurry and poorly lit and the one dog’s nose is cut off and William’s got a funny mouth and the other dog’s looking in the wrong direction entirely! You might also note that the proud mother is holding her swaddled in fact a tad awkwardly, and that the second in line to the throne is wearing jeans (!), has his shirt unbuttoned and has his hand on his wife’s ass!

Photographic enthusiasts among you might also sniff at the apparent lack of filters or Photoshop, which might have brought the color balance into harmony (especially those blues), and sharpened things up a bit.

In short, there’s a complete absence of thrones, gold-buttoned blazers, brooches, frills and frowns. It’s not very royal.

And yet it’s perfect. This is because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a snap taken by a doting granddad of a young family who unlike the rest of us, know that their mugs are required for the rest of their lives to be published for all to see and not just limited to their Facebook friends.

Kate looks beautiful — a far cry from the official portrait that caused a furor earlier in the year when it was unveiled at the National Portrait gallery. Her smile seems genuine. The composition is quite charming, with the slightly naff Dad hoisting his wife in with his hand, their left hands mirroring each other. Even the dog’s off-camera glance tells a story, indicating that there’s other, more worthwhile things going on elsewhere.

This is a far cry from the excruciating first photos of William, which screamed discord and claustrophobia. Lord Snowden, a professional, remember, took this horrific picture back in 1982. Unnaturally posed, each hand looks as if it’d rather be anywhere else, baby Wills startled by the bright lights that wash all the cream and white into one big overexposed fog (against a completely blank background), and Charles and Di’s expressions revealing more about their impending marital woes than anyone knew. Diana’s smile looks like it was cracked for the camera, her watery eyes giving off a look of panic. Charles meanwhile can’t even manage a smile, looking about as forlorn as a man can get. He looks mighty uncomfortable with his shirt open, miffed perhaps that he’s been asked to dress down for the occasion.

Things weren’t so much better a little later on, when a completely unrealistic photo was staged on the lawn of Government House in New Zealand for the cameras. There the royal family sit on a rug, dressed to the nines, including their son — yes, son — in a peach colored frilly monstrosity of a romper. Well, big frills were in back then, as evidenced by his mother’s collar and hair. Charles sits apart from his wife and child, looking down at his heir with distant bemusement as if he’s wondering where on earth that thing came from and what happened to his life.

William looks like he’s ready to make a run from it all — and in releasing his version of a family photo (which, by the way he owns the copyright to), proves he made that escape after all. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Living Off The Grid

Like me on Facebook! 

Now that I’m in the throes of promoting the upcoming publication of my second book, It’s Probably Nothing…, it’s become very clear, very rapidly, how important the internet is to sales.

When my first book came out ten years ago, there was no Facebook or Twitter. There was no Goodreads. Amazon was still sort of new and changed the price of items in your basket according to how long they’d been there, in a ploy to get you to buy them. Literary journals lived decidedly offline. People read actual newspapers instead of hitting up TMZ for news.

Become a fan at Simon & Schuster! 

No-one I knew back then had a personal website, and if you wanted to dabble in that sort of thing, you coded html by hand. It was all very rudimentary, and book promotion meant word of mouth and handing out fliers.

Today, you can find me at my author page at Simon & Schuster, my author page on Amazon, and my author page on Goodreads. You can become a fan of me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. You can hit the first search result that comes up on Google, which is my website, and link to everything else from there. If you’re reading this, you have already come across my blog — but I have others too; three others to be precise, each with their own theme: Scott’s Last Blog, The Inky Jukebox, and Yuckylicious. You can find many of my published articles and poems online.

In short, I am all over the web. If you wanted to find me, I can be found.

That is not to say I am free and loose with my personal information, of course. You have to actually know me to get that.

Check out my Goodreads page! 

It is with some surprise then, that I still can’t find so many of my cousins in far-off shores or old school friends. Do they have jobs? Email addresses? Have they ever gone to college? Do they belong to any social media site anywhere? Apparently not. How can this happen? How can one live a normal life in this day and age and be hidden in plain view? Are they people who manage without a mobile phone or a laptop? How do they do their banking, pay their bills — and more importantly, buy their books?

I live in Pittsburgh, a city that has been nearly wiped clean of bookstores in which one can buy an actual book. We have a few Barnes and Nobles, and some outlying neighborhoods have a quaint independent store or two (I’m guessing here) that might sell books, and there are, it must be said, some university bookstores which have some things for sale that are not textbooks. But the reality is if you want to buy a book here, you do it online.

Pre-order at Amazon! 

Which brings me back to my point: so much of what I am currently doing takes place through a screen that I am hoping multitudes of potential customers are looking at too. At the end of the day, more will be written in the service of promoting this book (which is excellent, by the way — you should buy it) than were written in the book. The aggregate of words heap up against it like snow. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No Backbone

In other news... humans can now do this. Well, small female Chinese ones.

Quick! Touch your toes.

Quick! Touch the back of your head to the small of your back.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Verizon's friendly service staff

When a customer wants service — as in customer service — they would like to speak to a human being who understands their concern and can make sure it’s taken care of or directed to the right person and/or department. The customers of a large telecommunications company may have any number of reasons for wanting service, from questions about products to billing, to troubleshooting equipment, to repair.

But like many other large institutions with many customers, customer service has been outsourced to cut costs. It's expensive to employ knowledgeable and competent people to read or listen to other people with all their quirks and accents. This is why when you call your bank your call is handled by someone called “Steve” in India. Even this is preferable to finding yourself in conversation with a voicebot who requires you to state your case clearly and seeks to assure you it understands by repeating your words back to you. Increasingly, it’s why when you look online to find the number to call for a human being you find instead an automated customer service agent.

Verizon employs (as in uses, not pays), one of these. Anticipating squeamishness about typing questions in a blank type window, Verizon provides an array of computer-generated avatars from the shoulders up who actually blink at you as if they are listening. If you don’t like the first one which pops up you can change it to one you feel more comfortable opening up to. They offer five to cater to every cultural taste by blending a range of non-threatening, quasi-professional features and thus look far more like pixels than people. Their names, too are interestingly generic yet exude a distinctly Anglo-Saxon air: Amy, Jake, Lisa, Alex or Kate.

You’re invited to type in a question. Not a statement; a question.  It’s like playing Jeopardy. “Will the repairman you promised would arrive three days ago actually turn up or what?” is not considered a valid question, mostly because it’s too long, but also because the program cannot interpret anything other than keywords like “Tell me about high speed internet.” It’s also because the program does not recognize frustration or sarcasm, unlike actual human beings.

If your phone line is out of order and you would like it to be fixed (seeing as you’re paying for it and would like to make and receive calls), the avatar will be of no help to you, because let’s face it: they are simply sales reps disguised as customer service agents. In that case, Verizon provides you with a phone number to call. This is useful when your phone is not functioning. You’d think that a telecommunications company would figure that one out. But no.

If you borrow a phone and call this number it’s actually a dead end, much like the customer service avatar. No-one ever picks up. In the meantime, as you wait hopefully, you get the sensation that you are being subtly teased by the ringing phone which clearly does work, unlike your own.

So if you can’t write and you can’t call, how on Earth can you get their attention?

Despite all the avatars in the world, never fall for the illusion that this is a two-way conversation. They may be programmed to blink to suggest they can see you, but they can’t hear a damn thing. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

My Cherry Amour

Alas, I have had to come to terms with the end of what was once a beautiful relationship. For many years, cherries and I had an annual affair filled with passion during which time I devoured as many as I could before the season turned.

Holding a cherry to your lips, feeling the smooth, tight skin stretched over the yielding flesh, trembling slightly as it dangled from its slender stalk, before a tug with the lips pulled it into my mouth. The first squeeze of teeth releasing a rich squirt of juice. Using the tongue to extract the pit. Again and again.

But this year I have to admit that the noble cherry, for all its beauty, has proven to be a lover I have no stomach for. Literally. My human digestive tract has no means of processing the cellulose which forms their skin. Let’s just say that the undigested cellulose does not make friends with my lower abdomen.

The trouble is that otherwise, cherries are really good for you. Packed full of vitamins A and B, and anthocyanin — the stuff that makes fruits and vegetables dark in color and which acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory. The trouble with summer is that there is such a wealth of delicious fruit that it’s all I want to eat.

Every year I make a mental Note To Self when my belly becomes so bloated I feel like I could float away: maybe it’s time to end this affair. Fruit salad — goodbye. Clafloutis – farewell.

See you next year. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Going Postal: Adventures in Customer Service

While I understand that the credo “the customer is always right” isn’t applicable or appropriate for all occasions, the basic tenet behind it is that because someone chooses to give you their business, you ought to treat them with care and respect — even if this occasionally means you take one for the team in order to maintain good customer relations.

An essential component in that credo is that customers have a choice as to where they take their business; the free market promotes good behavior on the part of businesses in order to keep turning a profit. Monopolies eradicate choice and the need for good customer relations, because they are the only options. You can expect them to behave badly simply because they can.

The United States Postal Service used to be the only game in town when it came to sending mail. This is no longer the case. With email and package carriers competing for trade, the USPS has seen a marked decline in recent years. Raising the price of postage and cutting substations and deliveries is not doing enough to shore them up. Usually, when a couple of bigger boys join the gang, the former bigwig tones it down a little for the sake of self preservation.

The trouble is that the USPS is that it still thinks it can steal your lunch money and have you thank them for it. Here’s a list of diabolical events that have occurred most recently to yours truly:

      Package of rare books arrives torn to pieces, the box half missing, delivery person says nothing.

      Wrong mail delivered to wrong houses on a regular basis; when confronted, mail carrier just shrugs and walks away, continuing to throw mail in boxes randomly.

      Mail was put on hold by someone — not me — for three weeks. I could not stop the hold (I didn’t have the confirmation code because I wasn’t the one who ordered the hold), in response to my complaint, the USPS left a message on my machine advising me to find whomever did it. Gee, thanks. That was helpful.

      My request to purchase a book of stamps was refused by the counter person because I was told “you could be mailing a bomb.” When I explained that I needed to affix the stamp to an SASE to go inside the envelope before it was sealed, she said "yes, but if I sell you stamps for an unsealed envelope, you could put a bomb in it." We are talking a regular manilla envelope, just to be clear. 

      Stack of 50 regular sized envelopes all containing the same thing which should have been given regular rate stamps (whatever it is now) were determined to cost over $1 each because, well, just because. Counter person refused to sell me 50 regular stamps if I was going to use them to mail said letters. Thus ensued tragicomic dialogue about the USPS deciding for me what I could or could not put stamps on if they would or would not sell them to me in the first place. I pointed out that I could always buy stamps from the automated machine in the lobby, and was told "well, don't blame me if none of them arrive," which I interpreted as a specific threat to my mail in particular. (All 50 of the letters affixed with regular stamps did, in fact, arrive unmolested, but I did take the precaution of mailing them from a postbox instead.)

      Stood in a queue at local busy high street post office for 15 full minutes waiting for a USPS employee of any kind to appear behind the open counter. Literally a human being of any kind. There was apparently no-one in the building. I gave up after that. Who knows how long everyone else in line waited?

And this brings me to today’s happy scene. A single female USPS employee was working behind the counter. There was a long line. When a mother with a young child approached with a parcel to mail, the worker decided that some print on the recycled box — which was in Italian and included the word “pollo” (chicken) — was in fact an old box in which bottles of pinot grigio had at one time been packaged. She therefore refused to take it on the basis of a rule that says the USPS cannot ship anything with the name of an alcohol on it. (Actually, the USPS cannot ship alcohol as content, not simply wording.)

Despite the mother’s calm requests for some packaging tape with which to conceal the offending print, or some paper and tape — or a marker to blot it out — the worker steadfastly refused to touch it. The box, the mother explained, contained DVDs, not alcohol. She was told in no uncertain terms that she had to leave the post office and return at a later date with a different form of packaging. “But,” the mother protested, “I have already waited a long time, and you’re telling me to leave?” Then the worker offered her a barrage of insults and rebukes — in full voice in front of a large line of people — for her stupidity.

There were audible gasps from the queue. The word "postal Nazi" were uttered. The mother and her child left. 

First: clearly the USPS worker couldn’t read Italian. I know of no pino grigio with the word “chicken” in its name.

Second: how can the USPS expect the vast swath of its customers to know every arcane rule about packaging?

Third: it would have cost her nothing to conceal the print with a bit of tape, but she didn’t out of sheer meanness.

Fourth: Here’s what the USPS says in its official guide to packaging: “Choose a box with enough room for cushioning material around the contents. Sturdy paperboard or corrugated fiberboard boxes are best for weights up to 10 pounds. If you are reusing a box, totally remove or obliterate all previous labels and markings with heavy black marker.”

Fifth: have you ever tried waiting in a long line with a toddler and a heavy package? Show some Goddamn humanity.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Floating In My Tin Can

Space Poignancy

I showed this to all of my middle school students today. Some of them couldn't believe it was made in space, or at least without special effects. I am not sure what this says about their sense of wonder.

I don't know how this can't be your new favorite version of this song ever.

Here is Commander Hadfield reflecting on his time on the ISS.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

One day, right before my 40th birthday six years ago, I received a call that changed everything. By “everything,” I mean my identity. I was no longer just an ordinary Mom; I was a Person With Cancer. Up until that phone call I had assumed that I was the very picture of glowing health.

When I told a neighbor about the diagnosis, the first thing she did was give me a plastic bracelet embossed with the name of an organization which sought to raise awareness for brain cancer. “You’ll need this,” she said, as if my life depended on it.

For her, she probably did think her life depended on it; she had brain cancer. I said thank you and as soon as I got home I tossed it in the trash. I knew immediately that I would not be one of those people who cling to plastic bracelets as if they were life rafts or badges of courage; I would wear no pink ribbons and I would not walk, race or run for The Cure. I am not a jogger. I do not wear plastic jewelry. I did not want to be a Person With Cancer.

The only thing that had changed was that I knew about my cancer. I had been carrying it around for years, blissfully unaware. But I had been a Person With Cancer for a long time — since before my children were even born. I was still in robust good health. Having cancer did not make me suddenly feel sick — but it made everyone else think I was sick.

I did not want to be a Survivor. Sure, I didn’t want the cancer to kill me, but reaching for that label made me feel like I wasn’t currently surviving. Yet we are all surviving, every day; it’s called living. Being a newly-minted Person With Cancer, however, thrust me into a world in which guilt was a strongly motivating factor — guilt about things I had never thought to feel guilty about.

I was supposed to feel guilty about not wearing a plastic bracelet or joining a fun run. About not collecting yogurt lids or wearing pink. Women are supposed to feel guilty about not doing monthly breast exams or getting annual mammograms. I felt guilty about getting fake breasts. I knew I was supposed to feel a pang of survivor’s guilt every time I ran my fingers through my hair. I felt guilty about feeling sexy. I felt guilty about not feeling guilty: it was a mess.

Soon enough, once treatment began, I was decidedly not in good health and I certainly looked like a Person With Cancer. I felt guilty about having wrecked my health in order to get healthy. Cancer is a countdown that begins on the day of your diagnosis, regardless of the status of your tumor — as if the news itself trips a timer on the bomb that has become your life.

The Race for the Cure is run on Mother’s Day — an obvious choice. As a Survivor, I would be entitled to a discount and free pink hat identifying me as one of the Lucky Ones if I signed up. I’m not a pink hat-wearing kind of girl. I run this race every day when I chase my children or lug laundry up and down the stairs.

I honestly don’t know if we can “cure” cancer, or even if that’s a logical goal. Cancer has been around a long time; it’s a process that happens to cells in your body for one reason or another. For most of history, life killed you before cancer could. There are far more people living with cancers which have yet to be detected — and with cancers which will not kill them even if they go undetected — than there are People With Cancer.

The “with” is the important word here. We can fight cancer; we can beat cancer for the time being — but we never really know if or when it has returned, usually until it’s too late. So we must live with it.

We have to drag it through life’s finish line with us whether we like it, or know about it, or not. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Snack On

My children attend public school. They are regularly given candy “treats” for completing basic tasks and good behavior. When taking the PSSA tests, they are given chewing gum because, they are told, it makes them concentrate better. Or more better. Or betterer. "It's good for you!" my daughter reports, dutifully echoing her teacher. 

They are bombarded with fliers sponsored by food companies selling books and, well, food. Mostly candy. The official reading program is sponsored by Pizza Hut which gives coupons for a free pizza if you read enough books. My daughter tells me that the school busses have fast food logos inside them.

Meanwhile, they get 20 minutes for lunch, which includes getting to and from the cafeteria, lining up for food, eating it and clearing up. My kids take a healthy packed lunch but often trade items from it for junk food from the cafeteria. The school’s food is shipped in by the same company that supplies sporting venues and prisons.

The K-5 lunch menu features these items (with alternates):

Monday: Meat Ball Hoagie (Toasted Cheese Sandwich)

Tuesday: Cheese Filled Bread Sticks (Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich)

Wednesday: Pizza Crunchers (Deli Sandwich)

Thursday: Hamburger (Toasted Cheese Sandwich)

Friday: Breaded Chicken Strips (Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich)

Pizza Crunchers are “a breaded cheese item…with pizza sauce on the side so there’s virtually no mess.” A full half the calories in a two-piece serving come from fat. There are 210 calories in two pieces. Most kids actually eat five pieces (although some eat up to ten). That’s 525 calories (225 calories from fat). 1000mg of sodium. 61 grams of carbs.

The Cheese Filled Bread Sticks are a bread stick filled with cheese. They come in a packet of two (even though the company says a serving size is one stick). Kids usually get two packets; that’s four sticks. That means they are consuming 840 calories total. That’s 252 calories of fat.

The Marinara Dipping Sauce which accompanies the breaded cheese items (kids can have as many packets as they like; most get two) provide another 90 calories (and a lot of sugar). Half of the kids also get ketchup.

All of this is before the additional sides, dessert, and drinks. And it’s only lunch.

The Smuckers Uncrustables Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a product you can gum, because the selling point is that it doesn’t have even a crust. What it does have is a mind-boggling amount of carbs, and — importantly — can be eaten without the need for cutlery, as is everything the school serves. What you really don’t need when eating any of this food is teeth — and with the amount of sugar in each and every item on the menu, these kids might not grow up with teeth, so I suppose it’s good they get used to not needing them.

Anna Lappe’s TED talk gets to the heart of the problem with truly disturbing facts (check out how many cans of Coke you have to drink to “win” a plastic playset for your school!). I mean skool. Sorry, Skule. Actually, Tuck Shop.