Sunday, August 29, 2010

QUARANTINE

UPDATE No. 2: So get this. Early in the week, a fan attending a game at the previously discussed minor league baseball stadium threw back a foul ball that he'd caught, which hit an opposing team's player in the leg. The team banned the fan from the facility for life. No, I have no idea how a minor league team plans to stop him from attending a game next spring, hell, next week, since it's not like they ask for ID or anything. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig described the absence of any straws or lids at the scene as "ominous" and immediately banned the use of baseballs at minor league games. (No, he really didn't say or do that. I made it up. It's called satire, you jack-booted thugs from the MLB Office of General Counsel. The rest of it, however, is true).



At 6:00 p.m. Friday, things were looking pretty rosy in my neck of the woods. The kids were in a great mood, we were headed for dinner with friends, and I had plans to meet a few buddies at a friend’s river cottage on Saturday for the night.

Fast forward six hours. All plans in the crapper. This would be like the beginning of I Am Legend, right after Emma Thompson’s character announces that she’s discovered the cure for cancer, and the scene cuts to a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, Will Smith’s character stalking the empty streets, hunting for his dinner. By midnight, my son had spiked a fever of 102, and I had developed a bad sore throat. Sorry, Friday night dinner hosts. Um, this is awkward. My daughter was on the tail end of a cold, but she had her own surprise in store for us on Saturday.*

These are the times you dread. When it comes to the Gigantic List of Things that Suck, Seeing Your Kid Sick is this week’s No. 1-ranked team in the country. Amazingly, it’s been the No. 1-ranked team in every USA Today/CNN poll ever released and will continue to be the top-ranked entry for eternity. And truth be told, we’ve been fortunate to avoid any major illnesses, outside my oldest kid’s very scary bout with a stomach virus a while ago.

But seeing them in any pain or discomfort makes me want to vomit. Sometimes, depending on the particular microorganism, it actually does make me vomit. Hey, guess what? Not only do you get to see your kid suffer, we’re going to toss in some personal suffering as well. It is undoubtedly the worst part of being a parent, and unfortunately, it’s the price of admission.

I’ve frequently wondered what the point of getting sick is. I’m currently reading a fascinating book by David P. Clark called Germs, Genes and Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today. I’ve been reading it for a couple weeks, but I’m only about halfway through it -- namely because (1) it’s not a Stephen King novel and (2) it is non-fiction and contains many, many long words. Lest you think I’m sort of literary snob, please see Point #10 from my Random Thought Patterns column. Anyway, I used my massive intellect to deduce that the author’s hypothesis is that epidemics shaped who we are today.

Basically, the point is this: if you are healthy enough to read this column, you are one lucky S.O.B. – not because you’re reading this column, but that you’re even here at all. For you to be born, every ancestor you have ever had to be fortunate enough to not die before reproducing. And that took a hell of an effort for both your mother’s and father’s ancestors. Because it sounds like there was a damn union of infectious agents – with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Viruses 228, United Bacteria Workers 138 and Fungi for a Democratic Society – all skipping around the early and middle ages just thinking up with ways for us to bleed to death internally and feel every ounce of pain in the process.

So the next time you watch Cops, just remember that dude wearing the dirty t-shirt is a freaking miracle of evolution and luck, his entire lineage having been selected to survive and ultimately produce him. Somewhere along the line, one of his ancestors likely survived an outbreak of pneumonic plague that wiped out 90 percent of his village. And then ten generations later, another one of his ancestors survived smallpox. That blows my mind. It’s a funny thought – that guy on Cops, his face blurred because he is, in fact, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (as opposed to a Wal-Mart, I suppose), missing a handful of teeth, suspected of beating up his girlfriend, is a towering biological achievement.

Also mind-blowing is the author’s theory that disease allows civilizations to flourish by withstanding outside assaults – the reason being that bands of invaders have rarely built up the same disease resistances that urban population centers have (because disease spreads quickly and becomes more virulent in dense populations), and so those Vikings will all die of diarrhea before they breach the city walls.

Granted, the price of this disease resistance is the fact that every once in a while, the entire civilization is going to be wiped out by some pathogen, so nature can select even MORE disease-resistant generations. The lesson is that evolution might care about all of us, but it doesn’t care about you. Think about that the next time you catch a cold. This must be why infectious disease specialists don’t sleep much. They must have been pooping themselves in the early days of the swine flu outbreak in 2009. Or breaking out the good scotch.

So really, in the end, when you cut out Facebook and summer vacations and Fox News and minivans, does it really come down to this? That some of us get sick and suffer and die so that the rest of us can propagate the species? I gotta tell you, that is a harsh truth. This is why I sort of envy the non-human members of the animal kingdom. They don’t sit around dwelling on this stuff. Granted, a Canada goose doesn’t necessarily want to die of bird flu, but it’s not flying around looking for hand sanitizer. If it makes to Canada for the summer, great. If not, well, it did all it could.

In the meantime, someone get me some effing Purell.

*My daughter was diagnosed with a sprained knee. She’s 2. You haven’t seen anything more pathetic than a 2-year-old limping around the house, using the wall for support. I have no idea how she pulled that little stunt off. I’m putting her on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Wednesday.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Any Room on that Bandwagon?

First, an update on the Dumbest Thing I Heard All Week situation from last week's column.

A couple of readers chimed in with their understanding that the lid/straw ban prevents people from chucking full drinks onto the field. OK, fine. Riddle me this, Minor League Baseball. I was at another game last week, where I witnessed the sale of 32-ounce frozen fruit drinks, complete with straw AND convex lid, presumably so you can pump some extra frozen goodness in there. It’s like a rainbow slushy dirty bomb.

Quite a safety measure. It’s like finding out that the Department of Homeland Security scans only about two percent of the shipping cargo entering the United States.

Wait a minute…

Moving on to this week’s column.

One of the strangest byproducts of the Obama presidency has been Hillary Clinton's service as Secretary of State. Incidentally, if, back in 1993, I had gotten a visit from my 2010 self, and I told 1993 Me that Hillary Clinton had become an effective Secretary of State, I'm fairly certain 1993 Me would have been terrified, convinced that the Terminator movie franchise had actually been a prophecy, and Skynet had, in fact, taken over. What's more amazing, I hear very little Republican criticism of Clinton’s performance as America's top diplomat. Either the Republicans hate President Obama even more than they hate Clinton (possible but once unimaginable that Republicans would hate ANYONE more than Hillary Rodham Clinton - although this may have more to do with the fact that those eager little beavers at Fox News only have 24 hours in a day in which to broadcast), or they actually think she’s doing a decent job (astonishing). Or maybe they’ve actually forgotten she’s Secretary of State. I can’t decide which of these is the weirdest reason.

Whatever the case, it's like the Republicans just lost their passion for hating her.

As a fan of the Cleveland Indians (manager change -- October 2009), the Washington Redskins (coaching change -- January 2010), and the University of Virginia (basketball coaching change - March 2009; football coaching change - December 2009), my feelings about sports sort of mirror the Republicans' toward Hillary. I haven’t had a lot to root for in the last decade. I used to get all kinds of riled up about each team’s game, cussing, perhaps taking it out on a defenseless remote control, but eventually, the losing took its toll. I stopped caring. I watch, they lose, I go on with my life.

I halfheartedly root for these teams these days, but I’m having a hard time putting up the front anymore. I am a U.Va. alum, and so that connection is hardwired. But my loyalty to the two professional teams stems from arbitrary and capricious choices I made nearly three decades ago, which makes it even harder to care about professional sports.

Honestly, if I could change one thing about my childhood (that cold gust of wind you just felt is my parents leaping out of their chairs, yelling, “what did you have to complain about, we gave you everything!”), it would be to have grown up in a city with a professional sports franchise, preferably baseball or football (at ease, Parental Units). Even now, my hometown remains one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country that still doesn’t have one of the four major sports. There are a number of reasons for this, all of which are boring and hard to make fun of. But the bottom line is that I wish I’d had a default team that I would be obligated to root for forever. I’d have others to commiserate with when they sucked. I could pass it on to my kids, imbue their DNA with it. And if that team did suck perennially, well, you don’t get to pick your family either.

I do have vague memories of my dad rooting for the Yankees and the Cowboys in the 1970s (he also roots for antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and so early on, I rooted for them too. Danny White and Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones were my favorite players, and the first short story I ever wrote involved me playing for the Cowboys. At some point, sometime before the 1983 season, I switched my football allegiance to the Redskins, for whom I have rooted ever since. I don’t know why I did this, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that I was a gigantic pain in the ass as a kid, and it seemed like a good way to get on my dad’s nerves. Sometimes, I wish I had just stayed a fan.

About the same time that I ditched the Cowboys, I started playing Little League baseball, and my first team was the Indians. Hence, I became an instant fan of the Cleveland Indians, which was sort of like buying stock in Enron after Moody’s downgraded its stock to “soggy Nilla wafers” status. No one could ever accuse me of being a bandwagon fan, even if I didn’t know what that meant. That being said, did they even HAVE bandwagon fans back in the 1980s? That seems like more of a recent development. Anyway, I was beyond thrilled by the mid-1990s, when the Indians had become the class of baseball and beyond devastated when they blew a 9th-inning lead in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series to the Florida Marlins. (It’s been seven years since the Marlins won the Series – how can their fans stand to go on?). In the 13 years since, the Indians have been back to the playoffs only twice, including their 2007 implosion when they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Red Sox (BANDWAGON ALERT!).

Now that I have kids of my own, I wonder what I should do about guiding their pro sports allegiances. Like I said, we have no hometown team, and it’s not like I’ve got any Redskins or Indians championship gear lying around to brainwash him with. On his own, my son has become a big Steelers fan and loves watching Big Ben (now THERE'S an awkward conversation we’re going have to have someday). He’s not crazy about baseball, but he has gravitated to the Boston Red Sox. Hmm. I’ve been to Boston! Once. He has become a big fan of my alma mater. Unfortunately, because the football and basketball teams have been so wretched for the last few years, joining the team’s fan base is about as happy an occasion as being assimilated into the Borg collective. If that’s the way he goes, if our house is plastered with Red Sox and Steelers gear, I’m not going to do anything to stop it.

I was probably well into my 20s before I could accept the fact that players sometimes left the teams they came up with or that you identified them with. I once believed that players should stay in one place for their entire careers because they got to play a game for a living, and that really should’ve been enough. (Mr. Corner, Mr. Corner, please pick up a white courtesy phone in Concourse A and use it to smack that idealistic nonsense out of yourself). On a related note, now that we’ve had six weeks to digest it, when it comes to players changing teams, will we ever see anything like Lebron James’ handling of his decision to leave Cleveland? I suppose the only betrayal to top it would be if the greatest player of his generation was actually born on the court to a miraculously virgin mother, later took that team to the NBA Finals, intentionally scored the winning basket in the opposing team’s basket with no time left on the clock in Game 7 (or whatever the appropriate football or baseball equivalent would be), and then took a dump on the court. Wouldn't it take something of that magnitude to top The Decision?

That said, if you don’t come from a city or state that has a team, you’re left adrift, like Sawyer, Jin and Michael in the Season 1 finale of Lost. My son rooting for the Steelers and the Red Sox makes as much sense as my rooting for the Tribe. Seriously, why the hell not? Like Jerry Seinfeld joked back in the 1990s, we really don’t root for the players, we root for the uniforms. It was true then, and it’s even truer now. Virtually every superstar in every sport has changed teams – some more than once – and, so what is it I’m rooting for? I don’t know squat about Cleveland. I lived near D.C. for a year, but it’s not like it’s my hometown or anything.

Why shouldn’t I direct him or my daughter to the teams with the national followings and the big-spending owners, the teams that might actually win a championship? Am I supposed to feel all hip and trendy because I’ve rooted for the Indians since 1985? That I'm somehow a real-er sports fan? Because you know what that’s been worth for the last 25 years? Zip! Zilch! Nada! If you’re into sports, you’re going to be disappointed more often than not, so why would you pick a team that all but assures misery for the rest of your days? I read that the Indians could be a decade away from being competitive again. Are you freaking kidding me? I’ll be pushing 50 by then!

Sports are entertainment, right? Well, I don’t read books or watch movies that suck. Do you? (obviously, the Indians’ suckage is an objective, quantifiable fact, whereas you may question my subjective opinion that Will Ferrell is the greatest comic actor of the last twenty years). So if sports are entertainment, don’t you want to pick a vehicle that will allow you to enjoy them?

It’s too late for me. I’ll lukewarmly root for the Indians and Redskins for the rest of my life. If they don’t deliver a championship, whatever.

Or maybe, just maybe, 2027 Me has some good news for me.

Although it'll probably be something like Lindsay Lohan has become the fifth woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Random Thought Patterns

Look, I’m going to be perfectly honest. I had a hell of a long week, and I briefly considered announcing that I would be taking a week off from this column. But the idea actually made me feel like a slacker, and so I went to work. I am totally saving this one as an example of “work ethic” to use with my kids. I can just see how that conversation will go.

Me: Blah, blah, blah, and I stayed up late to come up with a new column for that Sunday morning.

Kids: Dad, your blog sucks. And it’s embarrassing us. Please stop.

Me: Oh, and there’s something else about the Internet you need to know. It’s forever.

Kids: Terrific.

Anyway, in my eternal quest for interesting topics, stumbling around my subconscious like it was my fraternity house circa 1993, I will often come across random thoughts in the corners of my mind that, while interesting, may not initially support a 1,000- or 1,500-word column. I collect these and wait to see if any will grow a pair and give me an entire column’s worth of material. To date, these have not. Although they may be things you’ve thought as well.

First, let's start with the Dumbest Thing I Heard All Week. In fact, this is a frontrunner for the Dumbest Thing I Heard in 2010. I was at a minor league baseball game last week, and while getting our food, I asked for a straw and lid for my soda. The cashier told me and my friend that straws and lids were banned at minor league baseball games because of an apparent epidemic of people throwing them on the field. At first, we gave her the understanding head nod; as we made our way back to our seats, we realized how stupid that sounded, because if I were inclined to throw something on the field, wouldn't I go with something a little more aerodynamic than a f-cking straw? Like maybe the CUP? The more we thought about it, the more perplexed we became. If anyone has further insight on this, please email me immediately.

1. The thing that bothers me about Giada de Laurentiis from Food Network is that, as sultry as she is, she has a disproportionately large head and she over-enunciates every word she utters. And yet I can’t look away -- I once found myself making fried polenta on a Friday night because she convinced me about how LighTTTT and TAYS-TEE it would be with a PATTT of BUTT-TERRR.

2. I find it very unsettling to hear about the end of a friend’s or acquaintance’s marriage. It’s not just sadness for the people involved, even if it’s best for all involved, although that’s part of it. It also has to do with the fact that divorce seems very grownup, very adult, and no matter how old you are, you still see yourself as 16 with your whole life in front of you. That's probably why they call it adultery.

3. I remember thinking a few years ago that it would shatter my faith in humanity if it came out that Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs en route to winning all those Tours. Think of all those Livestrong bands! Now I just don’t care. I never thought that we’d get to the point that we wouldn’t care about the fact that the greatest athletes of our generation were juiced up. No, seriously, I don’t give a crap. And, I’m guessing, neither do you.

4. I figured out why the last hour of sleep is so fantastic, and I can attribute this revelation to my college economics class. Let’s say you plan to go to bed at 11:00 and wake up at 6:00. For the most part, at 11:00, you can probably come up with something you’d rather do than go to sleep -- maybe you’d rather eat a bag of Doritos and watch Family Guy, perhaps try and woo the spouse, perhaps both simultaneously -- even if rationally, you know should go to bed because the kids will be up at 5:00, or you need to be at work by 7:30 or whatever.

At 11:00 p.m., the night’s supply of available sleep is at its peak, and you’re not as tired as you will be three hours from now. So your demand for sleep is at its lowest. Fast forward to 4:58 a.m., when you’re suddenly awakened by the dog barking. You get up to pee and crawl back into bed, and suddenly, there is nothing better than hunkering down for that last 62 minutes of sleep. Because the supply of sleep now mirrors that of, say, the available iPad inventory, and because you can never have enough sleep on weekdays, demand for sleep suddenly shoots through the roof, thus making the last hour of sleep an extremely precious commodity. You should be able to buy and sell sleep futures.

5. The city of Richmond made a poor showing on its episode of Man v. Food. Honestly, it didn’t look like Adam Richman really had that tough a time with Caliente’s Stupid Wing Challenge. Sort of made our fair city look weak in the spicy-wing department, even with the cleverly named “Container of Poor Judgment.” For God’s sake, in one spicy wing challenge, where the wings were coated with sauce derived from something called the Ghost chili, Richman couldn’t make it through one wing. I was a little embarrassed for us.

6. Boycotting BP gas stations is an exercise in futility for a reason entirely unrelated to the fact that you’d be hurting the local franchisee and not BP Corporate. I was getting gas the other day and was halfway through filling up my tank before I even realized it was a BP station. And the fact that it was a BP only registered because every other sentence I hear on television or read in the news includes the initials “BP.” I don’t know the corporate name of any gas station that I frequent. There’s “the one up by Panera Bread,” there’s “the one up near Food Lion,” and there’s “the one by my kids’ preschool.”
6(a). On a related note, is there any stranger descriptor of a natural resource (or, for that matter, any other tangible or intangible item in the universe) than describing oil as “light, sweet crude?” I always picture maple syrup.

7. If a car passes me on the highway, and I notice it’s got a bumper sticker, I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m probably going to speed up so I can read the sticker, and I’m going to be annoyed if I miss my chance. I have no rational explanation for this.

8. There is no stronger evidence of malevolence in the world than the existence of the Little Einsteins. We're going on a trip all right. I hope there are ice picks I can poke into my eye when we get there.

9. For years, the concept of living in the suburbs with two kids and a dog was the ultimate cliché. Recently, I’ve noticed that that cliché has been subsumed by the cliché of being aware of the cliché that is your own life. I will sometimes perform suburban tasks and think, “man, this is some clichéd sh*t I am doing here.” I then drive over to Starbucks and get a big-ass coffee to soothe my jangled suburban nerves. You didn’t know “big-ass” was an actual Starbucks size option? Yeah, it’s not on the menu.

10. I have downloaded, and will continue to do so, a number of books for my Kindle that I will never, ever read. Because they were free.

11. I really don’t get the worldwide fascination with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is not a good book. For a while, I worried that my contempt for the novel stemmed from the fact that I’m an unpublished novelist and Dragon Tattoo is one of the biggest publishing phenomena of the last decade. Then again, Stieg Larsson has been dead for six years.

So, I guess the lesson in all this is: if I kick it prematurely, someone please get my manuscripts to an agent and help pay for my kids’ college.

12. I’m unnecessarily proud of myself if I make it to the end of the day and I have not used the Internet. Somehow, you feel all superior because you don’t know what’s been going on in the world, like it takes some sort of intellectual or moral firepower to not log onto CNN.com. That is f-cking strange. I’m not sure what this says about me, the Internet, or the world.

13. I own a number of movies on DVD that I have never removed from the case. However, if I stumble across one of these very movies on television, commercials and all, I’m watching to the end. A Few Good Men and The Shawshank Redemption, I’m looking in your direction.

14. I confess that I’ve rooted against my favorite professional sports teams (the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians) because it would benefit my fantasy football and baseball franchises. Because let’s be honest, since I started playing fantasy sports in 1998, neither team has had anything to root for. I’m a little ashamed of this, and so with all due respect to the Mustache Farts franchises, I won’t do it again. Because it’s hard to pass on the glory and splendor of sports to your son when your favorite team’s logo is a screenshot of Peter Griffin with Brian the dog affixed to his upper lip as a mustache.

This concludes this week’s tour through my subconscious. I’ll be back with something more focused next week.

I hope.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

And Now ... A Word from Our Sponsors.

OK, I don't really have any sponsors, unless you count the alphabetical and numerical monoliths that have sponsored every episode of Sesame Street ever made. Anyway, this week, I'm trying something a little different and bringing you a little commentary on a segment of American culture that permeates almost every aspect of our lives – the Palin family.

No, not the Palins. I mean advertising. We'll save Sarah for another day.

I'm confident that I’m the right guy for this job because I’m pretty sure I'm immune to the power of advertising, that I've got a bit more intellectual firepower than someone whose will is bent by the forces … ooh! A new iPhone!

See?

Also, a new season of Mad Men is underway, and watching our anti-hero Don Draper stumble around like a common drunk is really unsettling, given that his polish, his cool are the things that drew us to him in the first place. I have a feeling it's going to get ugly for Don.

I have a tiny sprinkling of advertising experience -- in the summer of 1994, I worked as the advertising manager for my college newspaper, which was published weekly over the summer. Basically, I called local vendors and begged them to buy advertising space in the paper. I remember that being quite a trick, given that most college kids are broke (if you’ve ever withdrawn $5 from an ATM machine, you know what I'm talking about), but somehow, we filled that paper with advertising every week. I don’t recall having a full bar in my office like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but I do remember one night working until dawn to get the advertisements laid out on the page before the paper went to the printer. Good times. I miss college sometimes.

So anyway, I thought it would be interesting to review a couple of hours of primetime television and comment on the ads that we’re constantly subjected to. The whole concept is fascinating; advertising’s sole purpose is to brainwash you, and it usually elicits one of two reactions: either visceral anger and/or the embarrassing desire to watch it again. Admit it, you've rewound a commercial just to see it again.

This series of advertisements aired on NBC on Wednesday, August 4 between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. I watched them over the weekend, when I wrote this commentary.

Lastly, this column is almost 3,000 words, so I apologize for the length. I had no idea that this many commercials aired in a two-hour block of primetime television – and I even left out the movie commercials (with one exception), the promos for NBC’s own shows, and duplicate commercials from the same vendor. The good news is you can snack on this one a little bit at a time.

HOUR 1

Vendor: Subway
Product: Steak & Bacon Melt Sandwich


Voiced over by a Barry White knockoff, this delightful offering is hawking a steak-and-cheese calorie bomb via some sort of urban marketing approach. When they film these commercials, do they have to tie Jared up and leave him in a closet? Is he even allowed to order one? What would happen if he got loose in the test kitchen?

Vendor: Downy
Product: A bottle of Downy


Downy is like the crazy old man of commercials, unafraid to bring it old school. That bottle looks the same now as it did 30 years ago. Anyway, they're pushing the idea that your sheets can smell great all week, not just the first day, because of something called “scent pearls.” I don’t know much, but I do know that Scent Pearls sounds like the name of an adult entertainment website.

Vendor: Sprint
Product: Evo 4G


This is the one with the evolutionary game of dominoes – a stone wheel knocks over the steam engine, which crashes into a phonograph, and continues a journey through a continuum of America’s technological advancement up until we reach the pinnacle of human civilization – a gigantic wireless phone that doesn’t fit in your pocket.

Vendor: Mars
Product: Pretzel M&Ms


I’m thinking if you need an advertisement to convince you to buy M&Ms, you didn’t have a very happy childhood. Although I guess I can’t give them too much grief – they are pushing a revolutionary new product that no one has ever thought of before – chocolate-covered pretzels.

Vendor: McDonald’s
Product: Frozen Mocha Frappe/Frozen Caramel Frappe


You ever get the feeling that every time McDonald’s rolls out a new product line, an entire specialty chain just files bankruptcy papers? Ordinary folks enjoying an 800-calorie coffee drink as they trudge through the monotony of their workaday lives. It’s like an Upton Sinclair novel in thirty seconds.

Vendor: Samsung
Product: Galaxy S


Cue scene of Gladiator-like battle, revealed to be occurring on a mobile phone screen. Hey! You know what sucks? Watching movies on a screen the size of a credit card! Has anyone actually watched a movie from start to finish on their phone? Yeah, neither have I.

Vendor: Wendy’s
Product: BLT Cobb Salad


I get it. You sell healthy salads.

Vendor: Nabisco
Product: Wheat Thins


The good people at Nabisco apparently operate a Mobile Incident Response Team command vehicle, which arrives at the door of a young woman who, it’s revealed, has Tweeted that her life is over because she is out of Wheat Thins. A forklift drops a pallet of Wheat Thins in her driveway.

Look, I’m craving an Oreo Blizzard right now. It doesn’t mean I want 600 of them in my kitchen.

Vendor: Taco Bell
Product: Cantina Taco


The best part about running the Taco Bell test kitchen is that you can create a whole new menu using items you’ve already got on hand. The Cantina taco has steak, lime and cilantro. Really reaching there.

Full Disclosure: I worked at Taco Bell in college. And after college. That foreign affairs degree sure came in handy.

Vendor: Toyota
Product: A terrifying ride down the interstate after the brakes fail


Woman stands in front of holographic images (picture the Department of Precrime from Minority Report) selecting options for her new Camry, intimating that buying your car can be done via the magic of the Internet. Not that I would want to test-drive it or anything like that.

Vendor: Honda
Product: Vehicles that aren't Toyotas


Honda has been riding this cartoon Mr. Opportunity campaign for much of the last decade. I can’t help but think about Roger Rabbit when I see these commercials. It doesn’t make me think I want to buy a Honda.

Vendor: Crest
Product: Crest Pro Health Toothpaste


I love how they make this sound like’s it’s the special stuff the dentist keeps in a safe.

If you put a gun to my head and told me my life depended on correctly identifying the brand of toothpaste in my bathroom, there’s a thirty percent chance you’d have to kill me. I’m pretty sure it’s Colgate. Could be Crest. But go ahead and keep spending $10 million a year on advertising, toothpaste guys! It’s totally working!

Vendor: Shout
Product: Color Catcher


Apparently, this product, which looks like a sheet of fabric softener, lets you run whites and darks together the same load. You know where else you can do this? College. On Cold.

It must take a hell of a leap of faith to use this product for the first time.

Vendor: Dunkin’ Donuts
Product: Jalapeno Cheddar and French Toast Twist Bagels


Young guy in a corporate cube getting work dumped on him from, as they say in Office Space, “eight different bosses.” Takes a sip of his coffee and confidently declares, “let’s do this.” The twist ending is that this is the trading floor at Lehman Brothers the day before it filed for bankruptcy.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood people who pick a side in the Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Krispy Kreme debate. It’s like announcing you like the new version of the $20 bill and refusing to have anything to do with the old one. Personally, I love all the colors in the doughnut rainbow.

Vendor: Oral-B
Product: Toothbrush


Because you need somewhere to put all the super-secret toothpaste.

Blindfolded woman walking aimlessly up and down a grocery store aisle, bathed in white light, of row after row of toothbrushes. Then … nirvana! Sharp-looking dude in a suit somehow makes his way across the River Styx-like aisle of endless toothbrushes to the wonder and terrible majesty of the Oral-B.

Not sure what the lesson is: Either men know more about toothbrushes than women, or women who go to hell are doomed to spend eternity shopping for toothbrushes.

Vendor: Applebee’s
Product: Sizzling Entrées


The Maplewood softball team is doing its postgame at Applebee’s. The players are gathered around a table, obviously recounting what I am sure was just a spectacular display of human achievement. A server goes by carrying a Sizzling Entrée, the enticing sizzle of which immediately silences the team. Because nothing says appetizing more than Applebee’s.

Vendor: O’Charley’s
Product: Two meals for $14.99 deal


By God, this plan is so crazy it just might work! Narrator explains the deal quickly and clearly. OK, I have nothing really bad to say about this one. This is in part because I got super-excited about the next commercial in the lineup, which started while I was still writing the last sentence.

Vendor: Nationwide
Product: Insurance


Insurance is really nothing more than legalized, heavily regulated gambling. You, the customer, are betting something bad is going to happen, whereas the insurance company, is betting that you’re gonna be just fine. Granted, if your bet really pays off, there’s an excellent chance that you’re dead.

I’m very excited about this commercial because I think Nationwide has hit on perhaps the dumbest advertising campaign of the last decade – “The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World.” Allstate’s Mayhem guy would totally kick his ass.

Vendor: Pizza Hut
Product: $8/$10 pizzas


On an old episode of The Office, Kevin described a local pizzeria’s pie as a “hot circle of garbage.” I tell you this for no reason whatsoever.

Vendor: McDonald’s
Product: Happy Meal


Because parents don’t have enough to worry about, those devious little bastards at McDonald’s are marketing the old school Happy Meal boxes in the hope you will happily recall your own childhood, pack your kids into the old minivan and toddle on down to the Golden Arches.

Oh, and one more thing: McDonald’s also wants you to know, via the voice of an adorable six-year-old, that “some of the money” from every Happy Meal is going to the Ronald McDonald House. Funny how Junior is vague about how much money. I can tell you how much – whatever their tax lawyer says.

Vendor: Uncle Ben’s
Product: Ready Rice


I think this commercial may actually be trying to hypnotize me. Concentric circles of rice, alternating between a ring of unopened packages of rice and a ring of bowls of rice, spinning all psychedically.

Unexplained 18-minute break…

I have forty packages of rice in my pantry.

Vendor: ACT
Product: Restoring mouthwash


You think it’s possible that in some version of hell, you have to rinse with mouthwash for eternity, never able to spit it out?

Vendor: Target
Product: Back to school crap


Showcasing Ella, Elisabeth and Emily, adorable triplets whose lives are made immeasurably better by applesauce, safety scissors and nail polish. I don’t know what the hell kind of private school (my assumption based on their identical uniform-looking outfits) these girls are attending, but I didn’t see a single second of actual learning going on.

Vendor: SC Johnson. A Family Company.
Product: Swiffer sweeper


It’s 2010. Anyone else feel weird that women are always the stars of the cleaning product commercials? I’ve swiffed the ever living piss out of our kitchen floor.

HOUR 2

Vendor: Orville Redenbacher
Product: Popcorn


Oh, the old family-in-an-RV-someone-makes-popcorn-and-Dad-gets-up-from-the-driver’s-seat-while-the-RV-is-still-moving gimmick!

Classic! Just textbook stuff right there!

Vendor: Burlington Coat Factory
Product: Back to school


For reasons that I cannot articulate, I’ve always been a bit leery of the Burlington Coat Factory. For starters, I’ve never set foot in one, nor have I ever known anyone who’s been to one. That just strikes me as strange. Honestly, you could tell me that the Burlington Board of Directors was made up of an extraterrestrial advance team, here to prep the human race for colonization and enslavement, and it wouldn’t surprise me.

Vendor: Kmart
Product: Back to school


The jingle, sadly enough, is the Go-Gos’ We Got the Beat. Every time I hear a song from my childhood in a commercial, part of me dies. Really Belinda? Not making enough off the residuals?

Vendor: Kohl’s
Product: Kohl’s cash


Ha. This is actually pretty funny. Cashier gives customer a rewards card, and then the customer is accosted by a lawyer type who tells her that her rewards points can’t be used on anything she might possibly want because of exclusions. You can thank a lawyer for every exclusion ever written in the history of the universe.

Vendor: AT&T Wireless
Product: AT&T’s dignity while Steve Jobs makes a call from his Verizon Droid


Orange silks rippling everywhere. On trees, dams, streets, telephone poles, coffeehouse music playing in the background. At the end, a disclaimer advises that “the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude have no direct or indirect affiliation or involvement with AT&T.”

Question 1: Who in the hell are Christo and Jean Claude?
Question 2: Do the silks belong to them? If so, did AT&T just borrow them for a couple days?
Question 3: Am I correct that Jean Claude and Christo are artsy hippie types who wouldn’t know what the f--- a wireless phone is and will likely never see this commercial?

Vendor: Yoplait
Product: Yogurt


Yogurt reminds me of soccer. People who love it, love it. For the rest of us, no commercial is ever going to convince us to buy it.

Vendor: Kroger
Product: Groceries


In my area, it’s just all out grocery store war. Kroger just detonated a funkadelic bomb, opening the largest Kroger in the state about 5 minutes from my house.

Vendor: SunTrust
Product: Banking services


This commercial pisses me off. The narration starts with this little gem: “Once, money was simple. Then, it got more complicated.” And by complicated, SunTrust means that they bankrolled a truckload of $300,000 mortgages for people making eight bucks an hour, and then acted all surprised when the borrowers, who themselves were surprised when they discovered their debt-to-income ratio was 450 percent, started defaulting,

The commercial wraps up with this platitude: “SunTrust is here to help you better understand money.” Gee, thanks, Giant Bank!

Live solid. Bank solid. Get evicted solid.

Vendor: Alcon Entertainment and Warner Brothers
Product: Lottery Ticket (In wide theatrical release August 20)


This is a movie, starring L’il Bow Wow, about a guy in the projects who’s discovered he’s won a gigantic lottery jackpot and then, after word gets out in the neighborhood that he’s got the ticket, having to survive a long holiday weekend before he can cash the ticket.

Those of you who've been kind enough to read my most recent manuscript will understand why this movie may well drive me insane.

Vendor: Verizon
Product: Droid X


This new Droid is going to have mobile hotspot capability, which is a really cool feature. If only there was a way to get this capability on my iPhone!

No, I've never been to jailbreakme.com. Why do you ask?

Vendor: Chili’s
Product: Handmade Burgers and Fries for $5.99


You could take your family of four to Chili’s, have everyone order the $5.99 burger special and walk out an hour later having dropped sixty bucks. This astounds me.

Vendor: Kia
Product: Sportage


Don’t you just want to give Kia a big hug? Look at their cute little SUV!

Vendor: Unknown Movie Studio
Product: Diary of a Wimpy Kid DVD


Awesome. Just what my kids need. Another DVD.

Vendor: Dairy Queen
Product: Mini Blizzard


Like I’m getting the Mini Blizzard. If I were in the CIA and I was captured in the field, the North Koreans could just ply me with a medium Cookies-and-Cream Blizzard and I’d be telling Kim Jong Il the nuke codes.

You know, if I were in the CIA.

Which I’m not.

Hey, look, a new iPhone!

Vendor: Procter & Gamble
Product: Bounty


Bride plops her wedding dress on a white countertop, presumably more interested in showing off the fact that her Bounty paper towels can keep her countertops operating room clean. As Mrs. Corner just asked, who in the hell puts their wedding dress on a countertop anyway? And I don’t know about your kitchen, but in mine, the paper towel is the first of about four steps I take to get the kitchen counter clean.

Vendor: Ford
Product: Fusion


Guy in baseball cap noting that the Fusion is going to hold its value better than the Toyota Camry. Not impressed. These days, Wile E. Coyote’s ACME rocket pack holds its resale value better than Toyota.

Vendor: The Dump
Product: Furniture


Yet again, those crazy guys at The Dump … wait for it… bought more mattresses than they have room for! Do they even have Orientation there?

Vendor: Red Lobster
Product: Crabfest


How has humanity not exhausted the supply of shrimp and crabs?

Full disclosure: As I've previously discussed, I have a sordid past with Red Lobster.

Vendor: Macy’s
Product: Housewares


I considered leaving this out because I can't think of anything snarky to say about Macy's. When the holiday season rolls around, who's pulling your ass out of the fire? At ease, Macy's.

Vendor: Verizon Wireless
Product: Verizon Wireless


We’re not AT&T! Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap! We’re not AT&T! Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!

Vendor: Mexico
Product: Traveling to Mexico


Come visit Mexico! The odds that you won’t be killed by drug gangs are really good!! Like 90-95 percent

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Yes, I Love My Kids. Why Do You Ask?

For better or for worse, my kids have been in day care since they were three months old, and a few weeks from now, my son will complete his five-year preschool journey and toddle off to kindergarten. It seems as good a time as any to weigh in on the whole concept of day care. Now before you get all in a tizzy, ready to defend your position like it’s an old barn with zombies trying to crawl in the windows, I’m really not interested in pumping out a diatribe about the mommy wars. What I am interested in is the $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds that you have stored in your vault. And the computer controls the vault.

Whoa. Sorry about that. Wasn’t Die Hard an awesome movie?

What I meant is that I am interested in poking a little fun at both camps, and rest assured, I plan to skewer both equally. I picture a stay-at-home parent (Tennis, Amphetamines, and Wine Drinking = Yummy, or TAWDRY, for short) might be reading this and thinking “boy, maybe if he worked a little harder at his paying job and less on frivolous pursuits like this silly blog, he could make more money and then his wife could stay home with those little angels.” On the flip side, a working parent (Career Oriented Love Denier, or COLD, for short) might be thinking, “I am super busy. I drink expensive coffee and make inappropriate jokes with my co-workers. Those kids are in day care so you can work, not blog. Loser.” I’m kind of picturing Tom Cruise’s witch of a fiancee from Jerry Maguire here.

As for me, I was a stay-at-home kid until I was about four, and I’ve turned out to be a total basket case, so there you go. Put them in day care. Don’t put them in day care. Your call. We didn’t have much choice in the matter, given that my wife and I both have an astounding amount of law school debt, and, strangely, the monthly invoice always reads:

Amount Due:
Payoff Date: NEVER

So, about four months before our first child was due, we began searching for the right place to enroll our son, Cat’s in the Cradle playing softly in the background. We quickly learned that starting your day care search four months before the birth of the child is really much too late. You should start looking long before that, ideally before you and your spouse even meet, if not earlier. We quickly settled on our first choice, but there was a long waiting list to get in. There was a happy ending though -- we finally enrolled our son when he turned 23. Honestly, it seemed about that long -- we waited 2½ years to get into that place.

While we COLDs waited to get off the waiting list, we had quite a whirlwind tour of two other facilities. He spent ten days at one place where I learned that the staff did not know you’re not supposed to feed a baby from the same bottle of milk all day. (Score one for you stay-at-homers. I still get the chills thinking about that place, which, fortunately, went out of business not long after). We moved him to another school, where he spent two totally uneventful years. Except for the day that the aunt of one of the students assaulted the teacher in class, in front of the children, and then we didn’t find out about it until three weeks later when the main witness’ brother told me. I mean, OTHER than that, it was totally uneventful. Yeesh.

Fortunately, we’ve had a great experience at the third place, where we’ve been since 2007. In my son’s class, there’s been very little staff or student turnover, and so these kids are a tight group, bonded like … [Hmm, I made the “bonded like they were a group of survivors after a zombie apocalypse” joke in a previous column, so I need to come up with something different] … bonded like… like… ooh, I got one… bonded like customers at the post office having to deal with a crazy woman who loudly insisted on paying for her envelope from the middle of the line while demanding that President Obama assign more workers to this particular branch. This happened to me the other day.

At this point, not only can I easily identify each kid, I can tell you the names of their naptime stuffed animals and which ones have peanut allergies. And when you have that kind of stability, you start to catch the rhythms of the place, the personalities of the kids, the stench of parental guilt, and so on. Certain things, though, remain mysteries, like Stonehenge or why there’s a setting higher than 2 on any toaster ever made. For example, that mom who always looks like she's getting ready to head over to the pool with a bottle of pinot. For all I know, she’s an orthopedic surgeon and that’s what she wears under her scrubs. Then again, on the occasions I’ve dropped my own kids off wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I wonder if other parents think the same thing about me.

Yes, I know that no one will love them the way that we love them. Quite frankly, I don’t care if they even love them at all (and I’m not at all implying the teachers don’t love the kids -- I think the teachers do become very attached to the kids), as long as they are safe. If the kids are safe, then learning and fun are inevitable byproducts, and the teachers could moonlight as hitmen for Tony Soprano for all I care. I know that was a roundabout way of making my point, my point being that I just wanted to make the Sopranos joke.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder what life would have been like if one of us had stayed home with the kids. Lately, my impressions have been influenced by NBC’s family drama Parenthood (it would be cliché to say I’d watch Lauren Graham read a dictionary, whereas the truth is I would watch her eat a dictionary), in which one of the female characters is the hard-driving litigator and her husband stays home with their daughter. He’s surrounded by other saucy TAWDRYs who eye him like Brett Favre eyes media attention. There are worse ways to pass the time.

If I had been the TAWDRY, I would have liked to see the reaction of my relatives back in the old country. Cue Crimson Jihad voice. She works? He stays home? This is not a man. I will destroy one gallon of hummus every hour until he goes back to work! I also wonder if the kids’ personalities would be any different if they had spent more time in a less dynamic environment, or whether that’s something that’s hardwired from birth. I’m guessing hardwired, because my mom kept me until I was about four and I’m louder than just about anyone you’ve ever met.

I have to give my mom credit (oh, my God, she’s going to be hanging this over my head for the rest of my natural life) because, as you may recall, they did not have the Internet, DVDs, Mommy-and-Me groups, or Barnes & Noble (when I tell my son that we couldn’t pause live television when we were kids, he looks at me like he’s swallowed a large bug). Oh, and did I mention that English was her second language? And she was 23 when I was born, an age I was spending most of my time playing Playstation and drinking beer? Then again, there were an awful lot of empty Robitussin bottles in our house. No wonder my bedtime was 4:30 p.m.

Having taken care of both kids all day with no assistance on a few occasions, I can only assume that to keep the whole thing from devolving into some Lord of the Flies-like existence, TAWDRYs need some sort of battle plan. I interviewed a local TAWDRY, who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. This was the schedule posted on her refrigerator.

Monday: Tour of Children’s Museum, lunch at Chick-Fil-A.

Tuesday: Storytime at Barnes & Noble, lunch at Chick-Fil-A.

Wednesday: Total Wine & Beer, lunch? Sh*t, I forgot the kids’ lunch!

Thursday: Open student loan invoice, weep, lunch at Total Wine & Beer.

Friday: Direct passive-aggressive anger at COLD spouse; bottle of wine for dinner.

It’s always important to have a plan.

So my son’s time in day care is drawing to a close. He’ll spend a few hours a week there in aftercare, but for him and his classmates, kindergarten beckons. The kids know that something’s up, even if they don’t fully grasp the idea that they’ll be going their separate ways soon. Their classroom has taken on this apocalyptic last-days-of-Rome aura. A few kids have already left, off to spend their summers elsewhere. I hear increased reports of misbehavior from other parents. Last week, my son flipped over a police car and set it on fire. OK, that part didn’t happen.

All in all, I wouldn’t trade the experience he’s had for anything. I love watching him on the playground, hearing about all the different skills he’s mastered, watching him interact with his buddies, and hearing the schoolyard gossip at the end of the day.

So join me as I raise a box of fruit punch to my little man and his classmates, hoping that a great adventure is waiting for them beyond the cozy walls of preschool.

And for those stay-at-home kids that will be heading to school for the first time and joining my son in kindergarten, watch him like a hawk. Or you might end up with two broken Silly Bandz, and he’ll have all your pudding.