Thursday, December 30, 1999

true confessions (more or less) of a survivalist

If this is the last thing you ever read that I wrote, blame it on my brother Brian.

I say to blame it on him because we have a 29-year-old policy of passing the buck to each other, and so history and tradition support my decision to make him a scapegoat. Besides, Brian is a computer programmer and therefore, it stands to reason, the responsibility for the end of the world lies entirely on his shoulders.

I'm writing of course, about Y2K, that programming bug in human nature that will cause people to lose control and go into a full-scale panic at midnight New Year's Eve when some smart aleck -- that would be me -- turns off all the lights in the building just to see how people react.

I've always had a morbid fascination with Doomsday scenarios. There's something especially appealing about human civilization ending because of a stupid error like a programming shortcut that considers only the last two digits of the year.

Given the chance of global collapse from an extinction-level meteor hit, a virulent plague or Y2K, I would pick Y2K every day because of the delightful irony in being done in by our own stupidity.

It would be even more appropriate if the problem is fixed -- which it supposedly is -- but the world ends anyway because people overreact to the millennial rollover.

A colleague of mine recently told me about the water and food supplies he had stockpiled in his cellar-turned-bomb shelter, along with enough firepower to hold off an invasion.

"Ooh, can I come by and borrow some bullets if I run out?" I asked him.

My colleague looked straight at me, and deadpanned, "Yes. Stop by any time after New Year's, and I personally will give you an entire clip of bullets. I'll give you all the bullets you can take."

I've decided not to visit him on New Year's after all.

Somebody -- I forget who -- once observed that no society is ever more than 30 years from barbarism. Personally, I think this person was an optimist.

Given the comments I've heard and read from several people who really do think Armageddon is around the corner, I would give civilization 20 minutes before it starts to unravel on New Year's if the power fails for any reason, including a downed electric pole.

If I worked at Public Service Electric and Gas Co., I would have a field day on New Year's Day playing Tic Tac Toe on the power grid with my co-workers.

The real fun with Y2K is going to start when everyone realizes the world still exists. I figure it's going to work like this:

First, the goofballs who actually wanted the world to end either will try to make it end, or, more amusingly, will claim that it actually did end, but the government is covering it up to avoid a panic.

Secondly, experts in the computer industry will give those of us in the media something else to write about by drawing attention to the "Y2038" bug, which will cause all sorts of problems with computers in another 38 years.

(Honest, that's a real problem, though I still don't understand it after having it explained to me three times. Apparently the current thinking is that the problem will have been fixed by the time the Year 2038 arrives. Sound familiar?)

Thirdly, supermarkets and other businesses that have made a killing the last few months selling supplies to worry-prone shoppers are going to see their sales bottom out.

After weeks of record-breaking sales -- I myself spent $160 in two trips to the supermarket this past month, more than twice what I normally would spend -- they're suddenly going to be short on income.

The last bit of fallout will be more personal. After I spent all that money stockpiling food in case there was a run on the supermarket or a disruption in distribution, it dawned on me that I would have no way to cook if the gas goes out.

Hmm. Maybe if you don't see anything else with my byline you should start the investigation with my wife.

Thursday, December 16, 1999

what dreams may come

People sometimes ask me where I find things to write about. In this case, it's a dream.

This particular dream I had was a nightmare that struck about 5 a.m. Dec. 14. It was the first real nightmare I recall having since I was 14 years old and dreamed our basement was being invaded by the Sleestak from "Land of the Lost."

That particular nightmare turned out well, because my brothers also were in the dream, and although the Sleestak grabbed Herb, the other three of us got out just fine.

I never found out what happened to Herb in the dream, since Sleestak never do more than walk around with their arms outstretched, and hiss. Whatever it is, I'm sure it couldn't have been too pleasant, since Herb hasn't had a cameo in a single dream of mine since.

In this more recent, Herb-free dream, I was outside, talking with my wife in the parking lot behind our house.

There are three things rather odd about this. To begin with, our house was a church I attended while I lived in Easton, Pa. Secondly, the parking lot doubled as a runway for a private airport we ran out of our house. Thirdly, my wife in the dream is not my wife in the waking world.

I suppose that's not too unusual, since, as everyone knows, dreams are a strange phantom world where people change identities fairly easily and reality is never stable.

In the Sleestak dream, for example, my oldest brother Brian at one point suddenly became my younger brother Herb, and this went unremarked-upon by everyone. If this happened in reality, several of us would at least raise our eyebrows in consternation.

In any event, my wife -- who looked suspiciously like a member of the board of education of the last school I taught at -- and I ran a private airport out of the house, and at the start of the dream, she was saying goodbye because she had to fly somewhere in our only plane.

Once my wife left, I entered the church-turned-house/airport-combination and met Scott, a friend of mine who probably will be as surprised as I was to discover that he was in my dream as an employee of mine.

Scott and I went to the kitchen and walked over to the stove, where -- this is very important to remember -- there were six beings of infinite evil confined, one in each burner.

Scott for some reason decided it would be a good idea to free these creatures, and persuaded me to do so by writing their names on the burners in the same code I use for formatting the newspaper.

In other words, I wrote "<Satan>" on one burner, and then lit the burner. Somehow this arcane form of black magic freed the Devil from his prison. One wonders what would have happened if I had tried to boil an egg instead.

I don't remember the identities of all six evil people. One of them was Satan, and another was Dr. Doom, the arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four in Marvel Comics. It could be that a third was Herb, now long-since corrupted by the Sleestak, but I honestly don't recall.

It was when Dr. Doom and Satan started to burst free from the stove that I woke up, breathing fast, sweating, and horrified that I had unleashed such tremendous evil on an unsuspecting world.

Only inches away, my daughter Evangeline stirred in her sleep, disturbed either by my sudden movement or more likely by the malevolent Dr. Doom himself, who had been freed at last by my intervention from the stove where he had been trapped for untold years.

So there you have it. You are now privy to one of my dreams, and like my wife (my real wife, not the one I had in my nightmare), you're probably laughing at me and at the terror I felt. If you're a psychologist, you're probably having a field day with this one.

I mentioned my daughter earlier, and thinking about dreams makes me wonder what she sees when she sleeps. I expect that in another three years or so, Evangeline will wake me late at night with screams brought on by her own nightmares.

I just hope they make more sense than mine do.

Thursday, December 02, 1999

the unacknowledged elephant

Have you ever felt like there's an elephant in the living room, and you're the only one who notices it?

It's an odd feeling. You watch in disbelief as the rest of your family and all your guests walk around or under the elephant. You expect at any minute for someone to chase the elephant away, or at least to say, "Why is there an elephant in the living room?"

Oddly enough, no one ever does, and after a while you wonder if there's a problem with you for even noticing the stupid thing.

That's the way I've felt for the past week or so. Well, all right, that's not true -- I've felt that way all my life, but that's beside the point.

During the past week, I've watched in profound mystification as first regional media and then national news media began to give air time to a dispute between Lorraine Zdeb and the Borough Council in Millstone, N.J.

Back in September, when Hurricane Floyd struck New Jersey, Ms. Zdeb went into neighboring Manville and Bound Brook, and saved nearly a hundred pets from drowning. Dogs, cats, snakes, you name it -- probably even an elephant or two -- she saved them.

It was a touching story, and when someone wrote a lengthy letter to the newspaper describing Ms. Zdeb's efforts, I was moved enough to recast it as a guest column, giving it a little more attention than it would have received as a letter.

Still, it's worth noting that earlier in 1999 Ms. Zdeb had applied to the Millstone Planning Board to build a permanent-standing animal shelter on her five-acre property, but the Planning Board denied her request. So it should come as a surprise to no one that Millstone slapped Ms. Zdeb with a fine when she sheltered the animals on her property in September, since she was doing what the Planning Board had told her she couldn't.

In the ensuing weeks, I have watched from my editorial desk as Ms. Zdeb's star has risen higher and higher into the stratosphere. Some area newspapers took an interest in her plight, and then one of the New Jersey 101.5 talk show hosts focused on her for an hour or so. It was when the Associated Press ran a story on her that things really got going.

Toward the end of November, my curiosity got the better of me, and I punched Ms. Zdeb's name into a few search engines on the Web. I found hits on, on, and a few others. On Nov. 30, ABC News called one of my reporters and asked him to fax them the stories he's written about Ms. Zdeb.

Celebrities like actress Mary Tyler Moore and model Rachel Hunter have taken an interest in her case. Ms. Zdeb has -- unwittingly, she claims -- become an overnight celebrity of sorts herself.

Not surprisingly, with all this attention, the Millstone Borough Council agreed to drop the case, which would have gone to trial Dec. 1.

Maybe I'm stupid, or maybe my brother hit me in the head with that log harder than I thought at the playground when I was 6, but I just don't get it. All I see is an elephant.

I'm not unsympathetic to Ms. Zdeb or her love of animals. If my dog Hamlet had been caught in flood waters, I would have been in the thick of things too. But I can't help feeling my colleagues in the national news media really missed the mark on this one.

When Hurricane Floyd hit Manville back on Sept. 16, it put more than a third of the borough under water, according to some estimates I've heard. About 200 people have asked the state to buy their homes because the flood damage was so severe.

Visit, if you can, Manville's Lost Valley section. There are people whose homes remain uninhabitable, putting them in trailers while they try to rebuild and find a way to pay for it all.

I was on the phone earlier today with a woman whose house has been hit four times in as many floods. She's hoping the government will buy her house from her so she can leave. Is her story worth less than the story of a couple parrots?

Then there's Main Street. A number of businesses have reopened, but there are many that haven't, and some that may never again, including businesses that have been part of the community for decades. Should they be ignored in favor of dogs and cats?

And don't forget the children whose homes were hit, and who probably won't have as big a Christmas this year as they have in years past. There's real tragedy in their stories, as well as real joy. Their stories are worth hearing.

When Hurricane Floyd hit Manville, it appeared as though the local news media were the only ones to give a rip; the national media were more concerned with the drama of fires in Bound Brook and the tragedy of the two deaths there.

A little more than two months after the flood has passed, and now the spotlight is turned back to Central Jersey, not to highlight the people who are digging out and deciding what to do with their lives, nor on the real fiscal problems Manville and Bound Brook will face if state buyouts proceed and they can't make up their lost population somewhere else.

It's a shame that Millstone wanted to prosecute Ms. Zdeb for giving animals temporary lodging on her property, and I'm glad the Borough Council dropped their case, but that's not where the real story is.

The real news about the flood is found in places like Manville, amid the continuing heartache of the losses and in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To pretend otherwise is an insult.

Thursday, November 18, 1999

senator learn

After much consideration, even though hordes of people have not been urging me to, I am not announcing that I will seek the office of U.S. Senator this coming election year.

There are several factors that connect to this decision. Among them are a schedule already too full for a campaign, a vague sense of purpose (what does a senator do anyway?), and a firm belief that the two major political parties, and therefore the Senate, are run by cheese-heads anyway.
My interest in seeking office began about two months ago, when I realized I would be old enough to run for governor in 2000.

My hopes of taking the state house by storm next year and writing a series of columns detailing my none-too-serious campaign were dashed prematurely when I discovered that as a two-year resident of Iowa, I don't meet the state's requirement of seven-year residency.

I was disappointed by that setback to my budding political career, partly because it meant I couldn't get revenge on the state Division of Motor Vehicles for having such long lines, but primarily because I couldn't use my great campaign slogan: "Vote for Dave Learn. He can't possibly make it any worse."

My disillusionment lasted less than five minutes, the time it took me to realize that other public offices, perhaps not as glorified as governor, still are available to me.

A quick search of the Internet revealed that I could run for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. I chose the Senate since that meant I could get my picture in newspapers all across the state.

The first thing any aspiring politician should do is create a platform. At the presidential-campaign level, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are dickering over who is a bigger loser, Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer are arguing over how far back they should turn the clock on America, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush is trying to demonstrate that a clear knowledge of current events isn't necessary for running the country.

My platform, as I've detailed elsewhere, would have been one I think most voters could agree with readily: thinning out the political ranks with a hunting season; making government employees go to work on stupid holidays; requiring check-out lanes to go quickly, especially express lanes; and eliminating the income tax (and therefore much of the IRS).

With a platform like that, I figured I had as good a chance to win as any other irreverent journalist whose entire political experience is a failed bid to be treasurer for the Trafford Middle School Student Government. (I got two votes from the entire seventh grade.)

The second thing a politician has to decide is which political party to run with. There are very serious philosophical differences in the two major political parties.

For starters, the national Republican Party has the image of being an elite group of white men with a lot of money who want to protect their money and position in society.

The national Democratic Party, on the other, has the image of being an elite group of white men with a lot of money who want to protect their money and position in society, while still being identified with the masses.

Since I’m not rich, it didn’t seem likely that I could find party backing there. And anyway, if you were a party leader and had your choice of fielding a candidate with experience or a complete unknown who thinks you're a cheese-head, whom would you endorse?

I would have thought so too, but to my surprise, the party head indicated he would rather back the seasoned political veteran.

It appeared that if I wanted to have party backing, it would have to come from a third party. The Reform Party, due to the election of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, is the strongest one of these, but I'm not a billionaire like Donald Trump or Ross Perot, a professional wrestler like Gov. Ventura, or otherwise sufficiently bizarre that I would fit into such a zoo.

After much thought, I finally settled on the Free-Soiler Party. The Free-Soilers, as you may recall, were a protest political party formed before the Civil War for the express purpose of keeping new states from practicing slavery.

At last, here was a party whose line I could firmly embrace and that I could use to my advantage in political debate:

"My esteemed opponent has been outspoken on human-rights issues in China and on the matter of Social Security, but I feel I must point out that I am the only candidate to raise the issue of keeping slavery outlawed in our territories. I also support the right of women to vote. My esteemed opponent has said nothing on these issues."

It all seemed like a go. All I would need was to get 800 signatures by registered New Jersey voters backing my candidacy, and my name would go on the ballot next November for the Senate.

I'm sure I could drum up at least two of those with no effort just from within my own family. Well, one of them anyway, if my own signature counts.

So back in mid-October, I pitched the idea to my boss. I knew that as a former spokeswoman for a congressman, she would appreciate the great need to make Capitol Hill a saner place.

I also figured that her connections could help, so I offered to make her my campaign manager, a position of greater prestige than media spokeswoman and -- in my case, at least -- less time-consuming as well.

So as I say, I asked my boss what she thought of the idea. Trying to mask the "forget it, kid" tone in her voice, she said she would check it out with her boss. He said he would check it out with his boss.

When he said he would check it out with his boss, I knew it was over. Unlike many other politicians, my campaign had been nuked over ethics.

The chief concern was that running for office as a joke, while it might be fun, would make a mockery of the system.

My immediate reaction was that it's too late to stop that from happening. The national Democratic and Republican parties already have made a bigger mockery of politics than I ever could.

But instead of fighting the decision from on high, I simply accepted the untimely end to my nascent run for the Senate. After all, I'll have met the residency requirement for governor in another five years, and I wouldn't want to leave a Senate seat early to run, would I?

Thursday, November 04, 1999

while you're sleeping

Dear Evangeline,

As I write this letter, you are nearly one week old, and sound asleep at your mother's side. It's going to be a few years before you can read this, and even longer before you understand exactly what I'm feeling right now.

This letter is one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. I've made my living from words for nearly four years, but they're failing me now. Nothing can describe the sublime joy and wonder I have felt since 3:36 p.m. Oct. 30, 1999, when you were born.

You were born weighing 8 pounds 14 ounces, and when they told me you were a girl, I felt so excited my heart could have burst.

I guess the best way to describe what I'm feeling right now is "surreal." Babies are something that happen to other people, generally people who are older than your mother and myself, or at least it's always seemed that way to me before. I've long wanted to be a father, but somehow I don't think I ever really believed it was going to happen.

But now you're here, and a week after your birth, I still haven't settled down. I can honestly say that I have never felt this strongly about anyone before, except for your mother. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you, and no danger I wouldn't face to keep you safe.

Now that you've been born, I do all sorts of positively saccharine things. I sit for minutes, doing nothing but watch your chest rise and fall, as though the fate of the entire world hung on each breath.

I still feel a sense of wonder as you kick and squirm about whenever you wake up, or when you stretch your teeny-tiny limbs, wrinkle your little face, and cry.

I never thought I would say something so patently ridiculous, but I even enjoy changing your diapers. I enjoy it even at 2 a.m. when you drag me, sleepy-eyed, from my bed, and you choose that moment to christen my bed and my hand.

Then there are those other times, those what-if moments when something doesn't seem quite right. You'll understand these better when you become a parent yourself.

Your mother and I went on an emotional rollercoaster your first few days because you weren't eating well. Last night, I was on one again because you hadn't dirtied your diapers for about 14 hours.

Both of those are completely ordinary in newborns, but I wasn't comfortable until I was assured that nothing was wrong. That's just the way parents are about their children, I guess. I'll try not to embarrass you unduly when you reach middle-school age, but if I do, please understand that I mean it for the best.

Over the years to come, you and I -- and your anticipated siblings -- will do a lot together. I'm sure I'll let you down, and there'll be times you'll wish you had someone different for a father.
But I want you to know that I'm always going to be there for you, and that you always will hold a top place in my heart, along with your mother and future siblings. (I admit, your wedding day will be hard on me.)

There are a few things you'll need to know:

First and foremost, the visible world isn't what it's all about any more than the hokey-pokey is. It's hard to grasp, even at the age of 29, but the only reliable measure of character is how far ahead of ourselves we place other people.

The most important thing I can tell you is to serve God and love him with all your heart. The second-most important is that you can do that only by loving other people as much as you love yourself.

Thirdly, suck the marrow from life, but don't choke on the bone. Enjoy life as much as you can. There are always more people to meet, more places to go and more things to do.

All of them have something you will sorely miss if you don't find them -- particularly the ones everybody else ignores. Seek them out, but stay true to the values your mom and I will try to teach you.

That's about it right now. Later on, we'll get into the specifics of brushing teeth and washing behind ears, making good friends, and what to look for in boys you want to date.

Right now, I'm happy just to change your diaper when it's dirty and listen to you breathing as I hold you against my shoulder.

Right now, I just want to treasure that moment, and enjoy it while it lasts.


Thursday, October 14, 1999

ahab:white whale::me:hedge

When I was a child, certain TV commercials came with advisories like, "Professional test pilot. Do not attempt at home with Radio Flyer."

I always found these warnings useful, and many times I know I was dissuaded from attempting to fly in my little red wagon, eating fire, or jumping the Grand Canyon in a specially modified motorcycle because of these warnings.

Now that I'm older, I wish certain pastimes came with similar advisories. Who wouldn't benefit from caveats like, "Mr. McCandless is a professional landscaper -- do not attempt this by yourself."

I know I would benefit.

I say this because my struggle with the Ugliest Hedge in the World has extended into its fourth month. More than six feet tall when I moved in, the hedge now looms even larger in my mind.

By day, it dances tantalizingly before me, as ugly as the girl who put paste in my hair in kindergarten. By night, it robs me of my sleep and fills my dreams with horrible visions until at last I awake, screaming, "The clippers! Get me the clippers!"

For the first time since I read "Moby Dick" in sixth grade, I understand Captain Ahab. I, too, have a white whale to chase.

I hate the hedge. I want it gone. I'd chase it round the maelstrom and through Perdition's flame just to get rid of it. If it could walk, that is.

I'm not sure why I hate hedges so much, but I've always considered them to be among the ugliest plants known to the front yards of mankind. If I had my choice of having a hedge, the living disembodied head of Richard Nixon or a queen-size mattress in my front yard, I would pick the mattress every time.

As it happens, I do have the mattress, but Natasha and I keep that on the side of the house, completely out of sight. We briefly considered getting Nixon's head, but we decided that after "Futurama," that just wasn't original enough.

I'm stuck with the hedge, but I want to be rid of it.

Burning it out would do the trick, and could even reinvigorate the yard, just as the 1987 fires out West took Yellowstone National Park to previously unknown heights of glory. The problem is those fires first had to burn a third of the park to a crisp. I'm not yet ready to risk losing the house.

Because the hedge has grown up along the edge of my property, I feel compelled to chat with my neighbor and sound him out before I avenge myself upon this monstrosity.

I've dropped by time and again, but my neighbor is never around. I finally decided the hedge has to go anyway. Last week I took my hedge clippers outside and, as a blue corona of energy illuminated them, not unlike St. Elmo's Fire as it lit Ahab’s harpoon, I swore I would bring the hedge down or die trying.

Last month, I had trimmed off everything the hedge had grown during the summer, and a little bit more. This week, I cut off an entire foot.

That's my strategy. The hedge will grow new leaves to replace the canopy it just lost, and eventually, it will look fine, only shorter than it used to be, and then it will be time to strike again. Right now it looks shorter than it used to be and -- hard as this is to believe -- uglier. All the cut and leafless branches stick out on top.

I figure if I can maintain a subtle pace, my neighbor eventually will look over at my house, think to himself, "Didn't there used to be a hedge over there?" and, unable to remember a clear delineation between hedge and no hedge, will simply scratch his head in confusion and go back inside.

It may sound implausible, but it's worked for a number of my friends with their hairlines, particularly the aforementioned Mr. McCandless.

My struggle this past week was arduous. Previous trimmings have left the hedge armed with pointy sticks to poke me with, and its branches in many places are too thick to trim effortlessly and too dense to trim quickly. By the time I finished, I had spent more than two hours on the job.

"No, you can't get away," I gasped as I tried to cut one particularly troublesome stalk at the base. My breath was coming in rasps, and the trimmers grappled ineffectively with the thick stem. I had to add my left hand to my right to find the strength to squeeze the trimmers through the wood.

"From hell's heart, I stab at thee." The blade cut into the thick branch. "For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee." With one last squeeze, the blades cut the hedge trunk right through.
I watched in great delight as the harpoon sank into the flesh of my personal white whale and left a rather satisfying scar. With a crash, it fell.

Unlike the good captain, I've survived my ordeal. Moby Dick dragged Ahab to his death. All I have is a few dozen scratches on my arm and a sore hand. I'm a winner.

Of course, there are still about five feet of hedge left to go.

Thursday, October 07, 1999

issues for today's politicians

There are two things that disappoint me every election cycle, without fail.

The first is that we still haven't initiated a hunting season to thin out the ranks. Anyone familiar with the ongoing political process at the federal level has to agree that some thinning is needed.

The herd has become so large that politicians are foraging for voters earlier and earlier each year. Some of the most promising candidates are getting bumped off because they can't compete with the less interesting, albeit more powerful, ones. Hunting season is definitely in order.

The second thing that annoys me about elections is that no one tackles the really important issues, the ones everyone really cares about. Most politicians discuss programs and projects that are more involved than quantum physics and less comprehensible than tax laws.

Saving Social Security, paying back dues to the United Nations and gun control are all important issues in their own right, but none of them are issues that really get masses of people up in arms.

Any politician who steps forward with a commitment to tackle these issues is going to get my vote:

1. Stupid holidays. Most holidays serve some purpose, at least originally. Memorial Day has been demeaned to merely the first barbecue of summer, but at least its stated purpose is to remember all the fallen in our nation's wars. What's the story with Columbus Day, anyway?

The whole point of Columbus' trans-Atlantic trips wasn't to seek out new lands and new civilizations or to embark on an age of discovery. All he was after was finding a new way to get to India to avoid the bandits along the established trade routes, and he couldn't even get that right.

Off course by more than an entire hemisphere, Columbus still refused to admit to the queen or to his crew that he was lost.

"I know it's around here somewhere," he'd say in typical-guy fashion, bumping into one Caribbean island after another.

If Columbus at least had taken his wife with him, she would have made him stop at a gas station and ask for directions. Then he could have discovered the alternate trade route and done something worthy of history.

2. Check-out lanes. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I thought the whole idea of an express lane was that it was supposed to go fast. At this point, I'd be happy if "express" meant the same thing in a supermarket that it means to express mail delivery; i.e., it takes less than 24 hours.

3. Tailgaters. In the 13 years I've been driving, I have seen exactly one driver respond to the recommended practice of taking one's foot off the gas and coasting.

Much more frequently, these goobers actually have continued to tailgate me, even when there are other lanes they can move into and pass me to their hearts' content.

4. Police who just want to give out tickets. Most of the men and women in blue I've met are decent folks, but it seems like there's one Constable Elbow in every department.

These are the officers who follow you for 30 miles, just waiting for you to do a California stop or for you to go one mile faster than the speed limit.

One time, I was pulled over in Bridgewater, N.J., for speeding, even though I had already had slowed down to the established limit. Officer Elbow pulled me over anyway, and hit me with three tickets.

If the police are that hungry for excitement, maybe they should help thin out the political herd or pull over some tailgaters.

5. Parents who give their children common names. There ought to be some sort of running tally somewhere in Washington, D.C., that monitors name use, similar to the way e-mail providers keep track of user IDs.

If too many people have the same first name, hospitals would have to tell new parents, "Sorry, that name is already in use. Can we suggest Dave3124?"

6. English measurements. There is nothing more frustrating than trying again and again to find the right ratchet socket, only to discover the car manufacturer is still using an outdated measurement system. It's even worse when other parts of the car are in metric.

Nothing tops the recent fiasco around the Mars Climate Orbiter, a $125 million spacecraft of NASA's, paid for with our tax dollars, that burned up in the Martian atmosphere.

Lockheed Martin Co., the contractor for the project, used English measurements instead of the metric ones employed by every other member of the scientific community in the world.

As a result, our tax money is a slagged monument on Mars to the lack of intelligent life here on Earth.

My wife and I have a couple friends who work for Lockheed. The next time I see either Astro or Dan, I plan to hit them on the head with my metric ratchet set until they get the idea.

7. People who complain too much. Enough said.

I should add that I used to be bothered by political posters that say "Vote Drake, Quince and Elwood for Township Council" and put the party mascot on the sign as if that were all that matters.

Such signs say absolutely nothing about who these jokers are or what they hope to accomplish if they get elected. It does, however, say that they frivolously spend money on shallow campaigning efforts that do nothing to educate the public, in keeping with standard practice for upper levels of government.

This no longer annoys me, however, since I've decided to look at the entire issue from a new perspective. They're investing in the local economy, which means the people who put up the most and gaudiest election signs care the most for local business.

Now if we could just get them to do something about those checkout lines.

Thursday, September 30, 1999

armageddon by science

Somehow I always assumed that if it weren't the politicians and lawyers who would destroy the world, it would be the used-car salesmen.

Or the newspapers. I never could decide.

Instead, to my horror, I discovered recently that it will be none of those. For once, this is a calamity we can't blame on the lawyers, the godless liberal media or the guy who sold me that maroon Chevrolet Celebrity that always had something wrong with it.

A group of nuclear physicists associated with Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island may be setting in motion events that could end the world sometime this autumn.

I can't help feeling disappointed by this discovery. If the world ends in mid-November, I'll have done my Christmas shopping for nothing, I won't get to see if Y2K is as bad as some people say it will be, and I probably won't even get to eat the drumstick at our annual Thanksgiving dinner.

The biggest disappointment, of course, is that I wouldn't be able to cover the end of the world because it would have happened outside my coverage area.

Lest you think that I've been reading too much bad sci-fi, I must assert that I base my statements on news reports disseminated by several notable media, including The Times of London, Scientific American and, all fairly respectable news outlets, despite their shortcomings.

See, the folks at Brookhaven, who have more degrees than my kitchen thermometer, hope to smash atoms together at high speeds -- much higher speeds than the traffic goes on the Garden State Parkway when there are no police about to enforce speed limits -- in a relativistic heavy ion collider.

The purpose of this experiment, besides gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for "largest electricity bill," is to play a game of chicken with two gold nuclei and see which nucleus veers off first to avoid being smashed into quarks and gluons, which in scientific parlance means "itsy-bitsy pieces of matter."

The experiment promises to be interesting, even if the world doesn't end, since its stated goal is to recreate the conditions that theoretically existed in the universe a few milliseconds after the Big Bang. Scientists hope to get a better idea about the origins of the universe.

It sounds interesting, and even I can't wait to see what sort of complicated ways they'll find to say, "There were lots of little thingies flying around at high speeds and it was very hot."

The downside of this experiment is that some physicists -- particularly Stephen Hawking -- have theorized that a few milliseconds after the Big Bang is about when the universe's first black holes burst onto the scene.

Black holes, to the scientifically unaware, are nature's equivalent of vacuum cleaners, the chief difference being that you don't get to change the bag when it fills up. As soon as you get too close, the vacuum grabs onto the bunny slippers you do your housework in -- the ones you secretly enjoy wearing, even though you tell everyone that you wouldn't be caught dead in them -- and pulls them in.

Before you know it, you've been sucked right up the vacuum -- bunny slippers, ugly bathrobe and all -- and stuffed into a bag with all the dust and even those annoying pieces of string that ordinary vacuums can't seem to suck.

You, of course, really don't notice this very much because by this point the vacuum has smashed you and your precious bunny slippers to the thickness of ant's left molar or the number of people still reading this column, whichever is smaller. (Don't ask me. I'm not even sure ants have teeth.)
According to Stephen Hawking, black holes formed by colliding nuclei would fizzle out pretty quickly -- unless they happened to be located near a sufficiently large mass like, oh, say, a planet. Let's call it "Earth."

In other words, forming a black hole on the surface of the earth -- even if it is on Long Island -- is what physicists, in their highly technical, scientific jargon, call A Bad Idea.

How bad? I quote Walter L. Wagner, in his letter to Scientific American, which I found on that magazine's Web site:

"If this happened on the earth, the mini black hole would be drawn by gravity toward the center of the planet, absorbing matter along the way and devouring the entire planet within minutes," writes Wagner.

"My calculations indicate that the Brookhaven collider does not obtain sufficient energies to produce a mini black hole," he writes, to my considerable relief. But then he adds: "However, my calculations might be wrong."

I don't know about you, but I know I'm greatly comforted by that display of confidence.
Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., responded to Wagner's letter in that same issue of Scientific American.

"In the case of the Brookhaven RHIC, dangerous surprises seem extremely unlikely," Wilczek wrote.

He went on to explain in layman's terms -- which is good, because my knowledge of math never advanced beyond engineering calculus and my grasp of physics never progressed further than "Green Lantern" -- that Brookhaven is using less energy in its atomic collisions than hits the earth's atmosphere in the form of cosmic radiation. In other words, if a black hole were going to form under such conditions, it would have done so by now.

Still, I can't help but notice that Wilczek carefully specified "extremely unlikely" rather than "impossible," so that in the event the world is destroyed we'll have no grounds for suing him. I suppose in a society as litigious as ours, you can't be too careful.

I have to admit that given the knowledge and intelligence backing his and similar statements, I'm not too worried about the end of the world coming from experiments at Brookhaven.

After all, if the scientists fail to deliver Armageddon, we still have the politicians.

Thursday, September 16, 1999

a better mouse

Like a number of other people around the nation, I read with great interest news accounts of the recently announced gene-splicing success at Princeton University.

A team of researchers, including Princeton University neurobiologist Joe Tsien, announced Sept. 1 they had engineered a super-intelligent mouse they named Doogie, after the teenager on the TV show "Doogie Howser MD," the rationale being that the character was an annoying little pipsqueak too (The Princeton Packet, Sept. 3).

This announcement immediately raises a number of questions among thoughtful folk. For starters, why on earth would an Ivy League institution pick a name with the initials PU? Even the University of Pittsburgh had the sense to put the U before the P so that the worst students at rival schools can say is only "Boy, your school is a real Pitt."

Why on earth would someone want to make a better mouse? With the sort of brains Princeton University attracts, you would think they could put their effort into something more useful, like designing a better mousetrap and dumber mice.

My first year living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we developed a serious mouse problem. The tracking ball kept getting stuck, so it was next to impossible for me to get a high score on our laptop computer's copy of Solitaire during the relatively brief periods that we had electricity and I could turn the thing on.

But besides that, for a couple months we had problems with little brown furry creatures sneaking in and making off with food, including food in airtight packages. Haitian cats, of course, often are used for human consumption, with the result they're not easy to find, and we were forced to rely on mouse traps and our guard dog Gideon.

Gideon's own brush with rodent control came during my second year in Haiti, when a large rat climbed in the window while we were eating dinner. For half an hour, three of us chased the rat through the living room, trying to hit the rat with a sauce pan, a baseball bat and a can of Raid (kills rats dead?).

Gideon was the only one to connect with the rat, although Dan and I both beat a chair senseless trying to flush it out of hiding. Gideon grabbed the rat in his jaws for about three seconds, until it scratched him on the nose and got away.

The rodent problem persisted, even after we introduced a variety of poisons and rat and mouse traps. All we succeeded at was increasing the intelligence level of the average mouse in our home.

At first the smarter mouse -- no doubt also engineered by Dr. Tsien and his fellow researchers -- would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions.

As time went on, the mice would find ways to get the bait without getting caught, and find all sorts of escape routes from a trap that would keep even James Bond in maximum security.
Ever since "Tom and Jerry" debuted, mice have been getting uppity. Believe me, they don't need any extra help from Dr. Tsien.

My whole point, of course, is that mice are a pain in the neck to get rid of as it is. By adding the gene NR2B, Dr. Tsien allowed mice to learn faster and double their SAT scores with only a few extra hours of study. The experiment succeeded so well that two of the mice plan to take a full class load at Princeton University in the Class of 2004 if they can get enough financial aid.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking these recent discoveries and what they mean for the human race years down the road. With more research, the work Dr. Tsien and his colleagues have done could become the foundation for treating Alzheimer's disease, a few mental disabilities and generally making people smarter.

Who knows? One day gene therapy might even make a scientist smart enough to invent a better mousetrap.

Thursday, September 09, 1999

the downside of home ownership

There are many stops on the passage from boyhood to manhood that we all know and celebrate: attending college, choosing a career, getting married and starting a family, and earning the Arrow of Light in Cub Scouts.

Another important step is home ownership. It's not hard to buy a home -- anyone can buy one who doesn't mind slaving away for 30 years to get out of debt -- but home ownership is rife with responsibilities.

There are obvious ones common to homeowners: set up the baby's room, cut the grass, water the garden after the lettuce dies, replace the basement stairs before they collapse, add a banister to the main stairs before someone falls, remove the world's ugliest hedge and hire an exorcist to drive out the ghosts that torment guests and do weird things to the toilet.

The work is never-ending, but I am proud to say that Natasha and I finally are making some headway. The baby's furniture has been arranged, we have plans for the banister and basement stairs, and the hedge, while still in our front yard has been trimmed and is not quite as ugly as before.

Natasha and I don't live in Amityville, so we don't have any ghosts to deal with; instead, we have a queen-size mattress. The mattress doesn't drag chains across the floor, it doesn't give me nightmares, and it hasn't ever gone to the bathroom and forgotten to flush the toilet, but in its own way it's just as disconcerting.

When we moved in, the mattress was leaning against the fence in the back yard. Natasha and I left it there, under the impression that someone was coming by to pick it up. That was three months and one hurricane ago.

The mattress now sits out of view on the side of our house, covered with leaves, cobwebs and other indescribables. If the owners wait much longer, it won't be useful for a bed anymore.

We could get the trash collectors to pick it up, except we don't want to pay the extra pick-up fee. We could ignore it, except there's probably some obscure law on the books in New Jersey that says mattresses must be kept inside the house.

Our best hope for disposing of it appears to be saving it for kindling at our Y2K "Collapse of Civilization" extravaganza this coming Jan. 1.

The mattress lingers on my list of "Things we must get rid of," along with that hedge and the collection of branches, brambles and other yard debris stacked up in the back yard. My mind dwells on that unholy triune with all the obsession a dog gives a well-gnawed bone.

"Maybe we could bury it in the back yard," I told Natasha. "We could dig a shallow hole, toss the mattress in and cover it up. After the grass goes to seed, no one would ever know it's there."

If you think about it, it makes sense. In "Arsenic and Old Lace," Teddy buried 12 bodies in the basement at the behest of his aunts, and no one objected. Compared to that, a mattress in the back yard is nothing.

Natasha wouldn't go for it. She put her foot down immediately. If she had been on the basement steps at the time, they would have collapsed.

"You're not going to bury a mattress in the back yard, and that's final!"

This is in keeping with my track record on other holes in the back yard. Longtime readers may remember that earlier this summer I dug a compost pit for the garden out of a sense of family tradition; that is to say, my father had a compost pit when I was growing up, and by gum, I wanted to have one too.

Well, I did. For about four weeks.

The compost pit was filling nicely with corn cobs, potato peels and other sundry organic matter, except for what the squirrels stole. I was thinking there might be hope next year for our garden, which this year produced about $1.25 worth of tomatoes before the bugs ate them.

(According to one school of thought, the value of those tomatoes should be equated with the cost of the house since the tomatoes are all we've received from our investment so far. In that case, we had more than $100,000 worth of tomatoes this year, far more than my father harvested the first year of his garden.)

The Monday before Labor Day, Natasha and I had some friends up for dinner. My friends, who I won't identify here, except as "Dan" and "Kathy," brought along their three children, whom I'll call "Tim," "Tyler" and "Anna" to protect their privacy.

While Dan and I barbecued chicken on my grill, Tim, Tyler and Anna gave me a dramatic lesson on childproofing homes. Their lesson took the form of a game that involved kicking Natasha's basketball around the back yard and bouncing it off various stationary objects and the odd person or two.

The only complete write-off was a flower I had planted by the patio. My hosta plants, sufficiently large to withstand the judgment of the flying basketball.

I was secretly disappointed when the basketball plowed into garden, not because it killed anything, but because it didn't. If they had aimed a little more to the left, Natasha and I would have lost our entire crop of brussels sprouts. Now we have to eat them.

(I tried to get the kids to kick the basketball into the hedge and mattress, but my attempts were unsuccessful.)

The compost pit became a magnet, first for the ball and then for the children. I don't think any of the trips into the hole were accidental, but just to be safe I filled the pit that week.

With the compost pit filled, there are no more jokes about the grave in my back yard. All that's buried there are half-rotted vegetables, and if a mad scientist stitches old potato peels together and reanimates them, just give me a deep-fryer. I'll have Frenchenfries eaten out of my hand in a matter of minutes.

But that mattress won't go away. At least, it hasn't yet. Nor have the sticks and fallen branches.

"I wish we had a wood-chipper," I said one day, my imagination filled with images of mulch I could put on the flower bed out front.

"You're not going to mulch a mattress!" Natasha protested.

"I was talking about the sticks," I explained, but immediately I began to warm to Natasha's suggestion. "That's not a bad idea. The wood-chipper could grind up the stuffing in the mattress, as well as the fabric and we could mix it in with the rest of the mulch, or blend it in with the garden. It'll biodegrade eventually."

And so it continues. The hedge remains. The mattress is slowly growing a crop of mildew on the side of the house. The pile of sticks in our back yard is growing steadily larger, and other chores are starting to pile up as well. There's no escape.

I have only one regret: I wish I had finished my Arrow of Light while I was still in Webelos.

Thursday, August 26, 1999


I've always felt that if a superhero is allowed to do something, I should be allowed to do it too.

Now that I'm 29 years old, some people think I should have put comic books behind me, along with my childhood skateboard and a love of children's books like Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Well, the truth is that I read "The Giver" as recently as two years ago; I still think Narnia is a fun place to visit, though not as appealing as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth; and the I only got rid of my blue skateboard because the back right wheel always got stuck anyway.

Who wouldn't get swept up into Mark Waid's coming-of-age story "The Return of Barry Allen," in which Wally West, the Flash, grows out of the shadow of his predecessor? Who could ever forget the psychological problems of Alan Moore's heroes in "Watchmen?" And who wouldn't want a ponytail like Superman had in the mid-1990s?

Back in the 1950s, Superman fought for Truth, Justice and the American Way, all with capital letters and a huge gut, and that meant he had his hair cut short. But after his resurrection around 1992, the man from Krypton came back with long hair. As a means of concealing his secret identity from his arch-enemies, he wore it as a ponytail as Clark Kent.

Ponytails make a statement about their wearers. On a large hairy man who rides a motorcycle and has the word "Ma" tattooed on his bicep, a ponytail says, "Call me a sissy and I'll break every bone in your body."
A ponytail on the head of a business executive, on the other hand, says, "Don't even think of calling me a sissy or I'll get my Dad to fire you. He's chairman of the board, you know."

In the case of Clark Kent, the ponytail clearly said, "OK, so I have rippling muscles, disappear whenever there's a crisis and just before Superman appears; and maybe I do survive the most incredible accidents, but I'm obviously just a dweeby investigative journalist."

Who wouldn't want a ponytail like that? Heck, forget the ponytail. Just give me super hearing like Superman's, and I'll start getting better stories than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Pulitizer-winning coverage of Watergate.

It can be hard to grow a decent ponytail, even without the benefit of Superman's invulnerable hair. (I have an old issue of Action Comics in which Lois breaks a pair of scissors on Clark's mop.) For the past two years, I've been engaged in an on-again/off-again struggle for a tail that gets regularly thwarted just before the moment of triumph.

For me, I have to admit that the appeal in ponytails lies in their "hippiness" and the noncomformist approach they help to project. I don't like to be like everyone else, and one of the ways I can express that is through my hair length.

Ponytails on men have become somewhat acceptable socially, but they still convey more than a hint of that nonconformist image. So I've long wanted to grow a ponytail, perhaps for the same reason I've grown a beard.

Back in 1998, I was off to a good start. After nearly eight months without a trip to the barber's, it was getting long enough that even the mayor of Montgomery Township remarked that it was starting to become a decent ponytail.

As luck would have it, that was in May, and Natasha and I had set our wedding date for June 13. If my hair had been another inch or two longer, I could have tied it all back and kept it. But it wasn't, and the progress of eight months was undone by a single trip to the barber's.

The committeewomen, who had hated the tail from day one, cheered. Natasha was indifferent. I was crushed, but I resolved to try again.

Slowly my hair got longer, and inch by painstaking inch, it reached first my collar and then beyond. In front, my hair grew longer and longer, making it hard for me to see when it fell down my face. There was no doubt in my mind. I was going to make it.

Less than a month before my hair would have been long enough to tie the front hairs back into a tail, the managing editor position for the Hillsborough Beacon and The Manville News opened. It meant a raise, more control over a newspaper than I had as a mere reporter, a chauffeured limo and a personal trainer, all at company expense.

Well, I made up the bit about the limo and trainer, but this is a position of some local importance. I tied my hair back one final time, and made the fateful trip to the barber one cold morning.
Snip snip.

That was six months ago, but I've given up. My hair was getting long again, so this week I made a trip down to the Hillsborough Barber Shop, paid my $14 and got it whacked off again.

I just wish I'd get X-ray vision to compensate.

Thursday, August 19, 1999

baby names redux

About a month ago, I asked readers to send me their suggestions for baby names. The response was, shall we say, memorable.

My wife and I are expecting our first around the end of October -- right around the time, I might add, that the United Nations expects the world population to reach 6 billion.

Never let it be said that I don't have any readers. I have received more than 100 suggestions for baby names, and I assure you Natasha and I gave each one the individual attention it deserved.

As expected, several people suggested their own names for the baby. Kimberly may be "a lovely name," as noted by Kimberly Brooks; and Minx may be "the best name ever," as stated by free-lancer Minx McCloud; but neither of those names is what I really wanted.

Surprisingly, only one reader submitted a name that was a play on the baby's last name. That reader was Lynn Winters Mineo, and in an e-mail, she asked me, "How about Olivia Anne Learn? Her nickname would be Liv Anne Learn."

Ba-boom-cha. I won't ask Ms. Mineo what names she picked for her own children, but you can rest assured my heart goes out to them.

That was it for the common names. Among the more unusual names suggested were Latrine and Garage Door, again suggested by Minx McCloud.

"These names are good because they are nongender-specific," she wrote.

Thankfully, Minx doesn't have any children, so we don't have to worry about how she might have warped her own progeny with sobriquets like Encephalitis McCloud and Cholera McCloud.

Several people suggested themes. John Harris, in addition to suggesting names from the recent -- i.e., later than 1970 -- Star Trek TV shows, suggested a few guidelines based on the "Dragonriders of Pern" fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey.

"Use variations of more traditional names, varying the spelling or pronunciation, or inserting an apostrophe in unconventional places," he said. That would present suggest like B'Lair, or Jahn.

Another theme was suggested by Sam Clover:

"The novelist Nicholson Baker, author of 'Room Temperature,' called his baby girl in that novel 'the bug,'" he wrote. "You could follow suit on the insect theme with 'beetle' or 'butterfly.'"

My big fear with having a daughter named Butterfly Learn is that some demented entomologist will try to collect her, or if we go with Cockroach Learn, that someone will step on her. But Musca Domestica Learn does have a certain appeal, and the first two names even end in A, which makes it an automatic girl's name.

Andrew Yoder suggests the following:

"A good masculine name would be Atilla the Learn. For that matter, you could always try for Feminine Learn or Estrogina Learn and Masculine Learn or Testosterone Learn."

Other names on his list include: Bar Bell Learn, Southern Belle Learn; geographical names like Newark Learn, Easton Learn, and Egg Harbor Learn; and cartoon names like Shaggy, Velma, Bugs, Daffy, Goggles, Ricochet and (of course) Bullwinkle Learn.

The scary thing is, I know this guy, and he does have children.

A few people suggested Star Wars-type names, ranging from Ewok Learn to Jar Jar Binks Learn. My favorite suggestion along these lines came, again, from Sam Clover, who suggested a combination of letters and numbers, a la R2D2 and C3PO.

All things considered, the single most impressive list of names came from someone identified only as Ted. (Well, I have his e-mail address too, but it really would be rude to print that here.) Ted included a list of fonts that he took from Microsoft Word 97, complete with what these names would suggest about the baby.

A partial list: Arial, if the child appears to be overtly attentive; Bookman, a studious child; Braggadocio, a boisterous, overconfident child; Colonna, a fibrous child; Lucinda, a clairvoyant child; and Webdings, a scatterbrained Internet-ensconced child.

And of course, Helvetica. "Don't know what kind of child would have a name like Helvetica, but what a great name!" Ted writes. "Perhaps her middle name could be '12.'"

I'd like to thank everyone who suggested names for us; at this point, I think Natasha and I are stocked up on names for at least 50 more children, and neither one of us is anxious to have that large a family.

There was one final contributor worth noting. Michelle Graham, an old friend of Natasha's, sent me a list of unusual words from the dictionary, and also included this note:

"When I was in elementary school, I wanted to have fraternal twins (a boy and a girl) and name them Oreo and Orea. Hmmm ... maybe you shouldn't ask me for advice in the area of nomenclature."

Thursday, August 12, 1999

the heartbreak of psoriasis

Something about a medical condition brings out the nascent expert in everyone. It doesn't matter if you have the hiccups or acute appendicitis; once people see you have a problem, they're all over you with advice.

This is not my back. But it could be.
I know this because I have psoriasis, a stress-related condition that produces dry skin flakes that rain from my scalp and arms like the dandruff from hell. The flakes themselves leave behind unsightly raw patches of skin, which attract questions and sometimes concern over what happened to me.

I prefer the questions to come from children, who assume I have some sort of "booboos." No adult would ever believe me that an airplane hit my head, or that my wife rubs my arms with sandpaper every night to leave them all rough and crusty.

One boy at church to whom I've told the latter story several times recently wised up to my fallaciousness. He wants to know what my wife really does to me.

Adults usually assume I have poison ivy. Now I'm aware people can get poison ivy in unusual places, particularly when they're out in the woods without toilet paper, but don't you think it would be a little odd to rub poison ivy all over your scalp, back, arms and legs?

I'll admit I do some weird things, but having a poison ivy fetish just isn't one of them.

To my knowledge, the only real cure for psoriasis is ultraviolet light; everything else -- like coal tar, topical steroids or whatever else -- simply makes the affected skin more sensitive to that light. But that doesn't stop all sorts of other remedies from hitting me on all sides.

"Yessir, I once had psoriasis, but then I found by rubbing a quart of 10W30 motor oil into it and wrapping it in a fresh boneless chicken breast every day, I was able to clear it right up," said one fellow. "If you like, I can get a chicken poultice for you right now."

Um ... no thanks.

"There must be some sort of antibiotics they can give you," another person said.

Not really. Antibiotics fight infections, not genetic conditions, and I don't want someone rewriting my DNA. That's too "Gattaca." Unless they give me some sort of superpowers. If they help me grow a nice rack of antlers, or give me the superhuman ability to read road maps, gene splicing would be okay.

"Maybe they could irradiate your skin to get rid of the psoriasis," another person once suggested.

Psoriasis is bad enough; I don't want skin cancer too.

"Skin grafts."


Despite the homegrown quacks, there are some people with legitimate success stories I want to look into, usually involving one topical cream or another. Phil Murphy, a fellow missionary I knew in Haiti, had something that worked just fine for his wife.

"Lonnie used to have psoriasis like you," Phil said. "But it all cleared up when she gave birth to Michelle."

That would be really handy in another two months if I were the one pregnant, but since my wife is carrying the baby, somehow I doubt it will help me much at all. If anything, the increased responsibility will just make my psoriasis flare up even more.

My experiences with psoriasis go back 12 years, when I was an exchange student in Rotorua, New Zealand. The first patch I ever grew was located on my lower back and was about the size of a silver dollar. It finally cleared up when I was in college, but not before my scalp had erupted in it.

Since college, work-related stress has caused the psoriasis to flare up again and again. It's all over my scalp, where it's mostly covered by my hair, except on the top of my forehead and behind my ears.

I have other spots the size of small pancakes on my arms and legs, a particularly large one Natasha refers to as "the goose egg" and enough smaller ones on my arms, legs, sides, back and stomach that I look like a living connect-the-dots puzzle.

Once or twice we've tried looking for shapes like people often do with clouds.

"Does that look like a camel to you?"

"No, it looks more like Mount Rushmore. See? Here's Washington's head, and Lincoln's ..."

In biblical times, people with psoriasis were considered lepers and consigned to leper colonies, where they would spend their lives as social outcasts, and eventually get the real thing. Today, that's true only of a little less than one person in three.

My wife is a traditionalist, however, and wants me to ring a bell as I walk about, and shout "Leper outcast unclean," the treatment the Bible prescribes for lepers in Leviticus 13.

In the end, I'm told it will all become moot. Psoriasis fades away with age, so by the time I'm 80, I'll just have to worry about liver spots instead.

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

curse of the garden

Recently I have come to feel the full weight of an ancient curse God once levied upon humanity.

It's worse than the curse of Tutankhamen, worse than the mummy's curse that legend credits with the fate of the Titanic. This one's a real doozy: Children are destined to do the same thing their parents did.

Now you should understand that at my parents' home in Saunders Station, Pa., my father has a huge garden, I would guess 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Dad loves that garden, and spends several hours in it every weekend, pulling weeds, watering the plants and generally avoiding any housecleaning.

One summer in the mid-1980s, Dad planted three rows of Swiss chard. For the entire summer those bitter leaves showed up in everything we ate. We had Swiss chard salad, Swiss chard sandwiches, Swiss chard casserole, Swiss chard on our hamburgers, Swiss chard with our cereal, and Swiss chard in our pancakes.

Dinner became a screaming match as the four of us would shout in unison, "No! Not Swiss chard again!" and Dad would say, "It's good for you; have a no-thank-you helping." (No-thank-you helpings were my parents' way of making us eat things they knew we hated. I once tried to outsmart Dad by asking for a thank-you helping, and regretted it immediately. To this day, I insist on serving myself lest I make the mistake again.)

Relief finally came that summer when we offered to help Dad weed the garden. First we weeded out the actual offender, followed shortly afterward by anything that looked remotely like it. Many innocent plants were martyred for the great cause before we felt safe.


"Dunno. Could be related. Rip 'em out."


"Don't take any chances."

Dad still plants the stuff, but only half a row, and he never serves it to Mom or to us when we visit. He's probably afraid that if he tries, we'll soak his garden in gasoline and burn the whole thing down.

Now one of the other things I should note about Dad's garden is that it's made entirely of red clay. Red clay, to the horticulturally challenged, is really bad for growing things. It has virtually none of the nutrients plants need to grow up healthy.

Dad's solution was to conscript my two older brothers, and later my younger brother and myself, to dig a compost pit. Into that pit went pulled weeds; old litter from our menagerie of rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils (they themselves eventually were composted separately in small cardboard boxes buried throughout the back yard); raked leaves; bad produce and other organic waste.

The result of 20 years of composting is that Dad's garden now rises noticeably above the surrounding yard. This is handy in the spring, when rain turns the yard into a swamp, but it makes life difficult for the local topographers, who have to update their maps every couple years to show the steady increase in elevation.

The irony is this: Even with all the composted leaves, egg shells, potato peels and God knows what else, Dad's garden is still made of red clay. It's fertile clay now -- he gets better produce than some farmers -- but it's still clay, as he found last summer when the sun dried it up and nearly killed the entire garden.

Despite my childhood travails in Dad's garden, I was thrilled to discover when Natasha and I moved into our new house that the previous owners had planted a garden in the back yard themselves. There are a few things in there I could do without -- like the brussels sprouts -- but there also are tomatoes, onions and a few herbs I'd never heard of.

As I was saying, the curse is coming to fulfillment and I am following in Dad's footsteps, albeit without the benefit of forced labor.

This past weekend I dug my very own compost pit. It's not as big as the pits we dug for Dad since our yard is smaller and since he's not here to make me dig it any deeper, but it should be big enough.

"It looks like you're digging a grave," Natasha said as she stood over me in the hole.

"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "Hey, could you do me a favor and lie down in this for a minute? I want to see if it's long enough."

She muttered something inarticulate and walked away.

I was feeling proud of myself for having done something so useful, so I called my younger brother Ward, who said I'd have been better off with some above-ground palettes. Such a set-up helps aerate the compost, encouraging actual decay instead of just putrefaction.

"You only dug one because Dad had them when we were kids," he said. To his credit, Ward not only was right, but also tried to share my pride. "Well, how big is it?" he asked.

"Probably about 5 feet long, about 2½ feet deep and about as wide," said I.

"That's it?" he said, and started laughing like a howler monkey. "I thought you dug a big hole or something, the way you were talking about how long it took you!"

I thought of getting even somehow, but it's all right. Ward is two years younger than me, and I figure it's just a matter of time before the Curse of the Garden catches up with him. And when that happens, I'll be ready to help him out. You see, I know where I can some seeds for Swiss chard ...

Thursday, July 22, 1999

baby names

My wife and I are in a sort of baby-name hell right now. It's been virtually impossible to find one we like.

We've chosen baby names twice so far, but we still keep searching for anything that might be better than what we already have selected. It's only natural. We'll be out at the movies, shopping for groceries or reading a book, and a chance association will suggest a name to one of us.

"What about Natasha?" my wife asks.


"What's wrong with Natasha?"

"Nothing," I say. "Except it makes me think of Boris and Natasha from 'Bullwinkle,' and besides, as Jeff Holton pointed out back in college, Natasha spelled backward is 'Ah, Satan!' and I don't want my daughter to have to live with that stigma."

And so it goes with name after name. We've rejected names from Ozymandius and Sennecharib to Zachary and Nicholas, and from Lilith and Hester Prynne to Helen and Kinsey. With only three months to go, there's a growing chance the baby will be born with no other handle than "Hey, you with the diaper."

The hell we're in is quite real. It's located within the Eighth Circle, sandwiched between the simoniacs and the grafters, with all the other futurists.

Everyone knows that unusual first names have the power to ruin a child's school years, and a child with a truly cartoonish name could plunge down The Dark Side faster than Anakin Skywalker and become U.S. secretary of defense, like Caspar "the friendly ghost" Weinberger did in 1981.

Natasha and I have to be especially careful in this regard since, in my experience, the last name Learn can be bad enough on its own. In fifth grade, one girl loved to call me "David Learn About Words," after the vocabulary section in our reading class, and other children were quick with jokes about David "has a lot to" Learn. (Actually, some people still do that.)

My fellow students weren't the only ones keen to start an early career in comedy. Just about every teacher of mine thought it was clever and original to say on the first day, "Well, Mr. Learn, with a name like that, I don't think you'll have any trouble in this class."

So if the pressure isn't great enough already to come up with a good baby name, a group called the Society of Kabalarians has determined an exact mathematical formula for determining how your first name will shape your personality, personal relationships and physical health, as well your personal and business success.

I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work, but they have all sorts of impressive-sounding babble and 60 years of experience of cultish thinking to back themselves up.

"Your name is your life! It is how you identify yourself. It is how others identify you," says their Web site. "The more insight you have into the powerful influence of your name, the greater opportunity to enjoy the success you are capable of achieving."

For only $60, they'll furnish the expectant parents with an in-depth name analysis that considers the baby's first name, last name and birthdate, as well as any lawn ornaments the baby may resemble in appearance.

I have to admit: I'm impressed. I thought only astrologers were this whacked-up.

But just to be sporting, I punched in the name Orpheus. I received a 255-word analysis that said a child with the name Orpheus would develop a quick, active mind, a desire to associate with people and a love of artistic expression, just like the mythological Orpheus.

The downside is a lack of organization and perseverance, a tendency to overeat, and a strong likelihood to get ripped to pieces by the bacchante after a failed bid at rescuing someone from the Underworld. So the name's not as great as it sounds.

In my search for good names, I've scoured great literature ranging from the Bible and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, to the Berenstein Bears' "The Spooky Old Tree" and "Uncanny X-Men," issues 99-142.

Natasha summarily rejected the names Lucio, Ma Bear and Cyclops, but I wasn't daunted. I have other irons in the fire. As soon as I learned we were pregnant, I asked friends and co-workers for help.

One person, with a clear love of "Popeye," has suggested names like "Sweet Pea" and "Bluto." Other co-workers, evidently the sort of people who made middle school so awful for the rest of us, suggested "Ubetta Learn," "Univer Learn" and "Livand Learn."

Even colleagues I have little direct contact with have suggested their ideas.

"I have always thought that 'Gordo' makes a lovely name for either a boy or a girl," said one fellow, whose nickname -- by purest coincidence, he assures me -- happens to be Gordo.

So I give up. If I can't come up with a show-stopping name myself, I'm sure my readers can do the job for me. What would you name my baby, if you had the chance?

Send me your thoughts, and I'll print the best responses here on a future date. Make sure you include your name so I can be sure to give credit where it's due.

It might not get me out of the Eighth Circle of Hell, but I'm sure it will make the stay a bit more pleasant.

Thursday, July 15, 1999

senior moments

You have not lived until you have tried to keep step with a senior citizen on the dance floor, and failed.

Now it's not that I expected to be able to hold my own at ballroom dancing, or at any of those other formal-type dances that have been beyond my ken as long as I can remember. But I would have liked to think that as a 28-year-old, I would be able to hold my own on "The Electric Slide."

No such luck. My wife and I attended a dinner this Sunday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hydesborough Senior Citizens, and I was thoroughly put to shame. Disgraced. And not just on "The Electric Slide," but on "YMCA" as well. I held out fairly well on "The Twister," but by that time the damage was done.

I'm not sure what I expected when Lou Possemato, president of Hydesborough Senior Citizens Chapter A, invited me to attend the anniversary dinner. I don't recall ever seeing either of my grandmothers dance, but if I had, I'm sure it would have been done to the music of Bing Crosby or someone else truly sleep-inspiring at 16 RPM.

My maternal grandmother did enjoy listening to music. One of her favorite songs was "Why can't the English learn to speak?", the song Henry Higgins performs in "My Fair Lady." When my grandfather was alive, she would play that song on their gramophone so loudly that Queen Elizabeth II once sent her a letter asking her to turn it down or risk an international incident.

I credit my grandmother with my love of the English language and my decision to enter first teaching and now journalism. As a writer, I get to break with impunity all those rules she guarded so zealously, on the grounds that I'm doing it "for effect."

The bulk of my remembered activities with my grandmothers involves stories. A question about what there was for breakfast usually elicited fond memories of Uncle Webster, who in 1927 bought a boat for $50 -- which in those days was quite a lot of money, you know -- and took it south from Rhode Island to Florida with his one-armed nephew Cyrus, my second cousin, three times removed, as his only crew.

I usually enjoyed listening to those stories, and even when I didn't, I was too polite to leave. By the time she finished, four hours would have passed, and it would be lunchtime.

I rarely ever actually got to eat breakfast when we visited Grandma Ergood.

Somehow I never expected a senior event would be so, well, active. When I decided to attend the dinner, I think I expected to have a good meal since, in my experience, senior citizens nearly always eat well. After eating, I would be subjected to some boring speeches and more stories of Uncle Webster and Cousin Cyrus.

After that, there would be some rousing games of Scrabble or Bingo, and of course the regularly scheduled organ concerts. ("Oh, my heart"; "Oh, my liver"; "Oh, my kidneys" ...) Any dancing would be something suitably old-fashioned, like a waltz.

The last time I tried to waltz, I was an exchange student in New Zealand attending a dance run by a seniors group in Rotorua. Three different girls tried to show me to do it. I was in heaven with that much female attention, but I remained a miserable failure at the waltz.

Worst of all, the music was ballroom arrangements of songs like "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" with extra verses thrown in for the seniors in attendance. Every time I started to get the hang of the steps, the little old lady at the piano would croon, "How much is that kidney in the window?" and I would lose my ability to concentrate.

In all, I was quite surprised with the dinner Sunday afternoon. The food was good, as expected, but most of the speeches were short, and Possemato lightened his comments with amusing stories that had nothing to do with Uncle Webster's rock band or Cousin Cyrus' wooden prosthetic arm eaten by termites after they reached Florida.

There was some traditional dancing, as expected, but after most of the honored political guests had left, about 30 seniors ran up front to do "The Macarena." I joined them on "The Electric Slide," and I'm embarrassed to say that they know the steps much better than I do.

I'm not sure I really was at a seniors dinner on Sunday. They seemed too young. Either everyone there was dressed up in elaborate costumes to make them look older than they were, or getting old is going to be a lot more fun than I thought.

Thursday, July 08, 1999

summer frost

Now that July is here, I've decided it's time to break out my sweatshirts and other heavy clothing. I'm worried about getting frostbite.

This might seem odd, considering that the temperature for the past week has rarely dipped below 100 degrees, but I stand by my statement. For some reason, Americans have a fascination with air conditioning that drives us to get the temperature inside as cold as it is hot outside.

Maybe I don't mind the heat so much because I grew up without air conditioning. Maybe my blood is still thin from living in Haiti from 1992 to 1993. Or maybe everyone else has thyroid problems.

I just don't understand why we feel the need to freeze ourselves during the hottest season of the year. Humanity lived without air conditioning or fans for at least five years before they were invented. At least 3 percent of the world survives without those things today, even in the tropics, but you would never know it by visiting most public places around here.

The advantages to over-air conditioning are pretty clear for restaurants, since they can increase their freezer space by the size of the dining room, but it still boggles my mind.

One restaurant Natasha and I visited awhile ago had the air conditioning turned up full-blast before the season's heat had even begun in earnest. It might have been 80 degrees outside, warm enough to wear shorts, but not necessarily warm enough to go shirtless.

Inside, it was so cold that the hair on my arms and legs stood on end. I shivered uncontrollably. Hanging on the wall next to me was a frozen side of beef.

"Could you turn the air conditioning down?" I asked the waiter when he came to get our drink orders. I had to repeat myself twice because my teeth were chattering. "It's freezing in here."

The waiter looked down his nose at me, out of a fur-lined parka that looked like it had once been an Arctic seal.

"You're the only who thinks so," he said coldly. His breath misted in the air in front of him.

"Fine," I snapped, wondering if it would be bad form to chop the table up for firewood. "Leave it alone. But bring me a cup of hot chocolate."

Natasha grew up in the desert, so she's usually even more affected by the cold than I. This spring, when everyone else in our church was wearing shorts and light shirts, Natasha was still wearing her long johns under her jeans, and had a T-shirt and a flannel shirt under a heavy sweatshirt she's had since college.

"I have a high surface area-to-volume ratio," is her most common defense.

The members of our church have been running a pool since April on when Natasha finally would be hot and come to church in shorts and a T-shirt. Now that she's five months pregnant, Natasha finally did just that, much to the delight of the elderly woman who won the pool, which passed the $5,000 mark in late June.

Natasha impressed even me with how hot she's been feeling lately. When we moved into our new house, the previous owner told me he was leaving behind a some functional air conditioning units in the basement.

Since air conditioning units are great at driving up the electric bill, I figured at the time that we wouldn't use them.

Wrong. Last week Natasha said she'd really like to have one in the bedroom so she can sleep. Who am I to tell her no?

At least we got some extra freezer space out of the deal.

Thursday, July 01, 1999

house shopping

There are times in life when madness overtakes the best of us.

The first time I had a brush with insanity was when I decided between my junior and senior years of college to write an honor’s thesis on the religious themes of classic Star Trek. It cost me the respect of all three of my friends, but fortunately Mr. Spock appeared to me in a vision and showed me the Vulcan way to peace.

Then there was the time I asked Natasha to marry me, even though I knew there was a risk that she might squeeze her toothpaste in the middle of the tube. (Actually, I’m so in love with her that I still pop the Question on a regular basis, especially since she uses her own toothpaste, but she tells me she's already married me once, and that was enough.)

The most recent dance around the fringes has been with buying a house. I’m not sure why we thought we needed to buy a house, but we closed recently, and so we are now the proud owners of a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage.

The first step we had to go through was deciding whether we really wanted to buy one. Conventional wisdom has it that buying a houses is better than renting an apartment.

When you rent, you pay large sums of money on a monthly basis to some megarich cementhead with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget. With a house, you have to pay money on a monthly basis to some megarich lending institution with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget.

It’s a remarkable improvement.

Additionally, houses come with a lot of extra responsibility. As a new homeowner, it is my responsibility to procrastinate fixing the basement stairs and cutting the grass. When I rented an apartment, it was always the landlord’s job to put off that sort of maintenance.

Once we decided to buy a house, we had to find a good Realtor. A Realtor’s job as a superfluous middleman is to complicate unnecessarily what might otherwise be the rather simple task of finding and buying an affordable house.

Our Realtor took us on a wild searching spree all over Middlesex and Somerset counties at breakneck speeds to look at houses that cost $20,000 more than we could afford.

"You need to tighten your belt a little to get a good place," April told me when I objected to the cost of some of the houses she wanted to show us.

"I don’t mind tightening my belt a little," I said. "I just want to have a waist after it’s all over."

(I’m willing to bet April does squeeze her toothpaste in the middle.)

I soon learned that finding the right house is more difficult even than finding the right spouse. Before I met Natasha, I dated at most a half-dozen women, and went steady with none of them. During the week April was running us ragged, we must have looked at close to 20 houses. We saw townhouses, condos, tool sheds, caves with doors on them -- you name it, we saw it.

Some of the houses were downright frightening. One in North Brunswick was a two-story house selling for something like $120,000. That’s not so bad, but the second floor was really a converted attic, and every room was built on an angle -- a different angle. Oddest of all, the only way to the second floor was the staircase that was built in the bathroom.

"What were they thinking?" I asked once we made that discovery. I pictured our child bursting through the bathroom door to go upstairs or down while I sat there reading a magazine.

"They’d have to lower the price to $60,000 first, and I still wouldn’t take it," Natasha said, after we finished touring the place.

Fortunately, Mr. Spock appeared to me in a second vision, and showed us the only logical course of action. We settled on a two-story Colonial less than a mile from the apartment we had been renting.

The next step was easily the hardest. In a civilized arrangement, we would have called the sellers, dickered over the price and some minor repairs, settled everything, and then been able to close after a few weeks.

But I live in New Jersey, and civilized arrangements are usually against the law. Both the sellers and we had to hire attorneys to represent us during the discussions over how to handle minor repairs -- there was no railing on the stairs -- and major ones -- the roof wasn’t capped correctly.

Imagine coordinating a discussion with one middle party. Now picture two. Now picture four -- two attorneys and two Realtors. Then for good measure toss in a home insurance company, a mortgage lender, an entire religious order, a woman named Edith, and 27 gallons of tapioca pudding. That should give you a rough idea what we endured.

Somehow -- I still don’t understand how -- Natasha and I managed to close. Most frightening of all, we’ll probably have to do this again in the next five years as our family grows.

I’ve stopped flirting with madness. Mr. Spock is here to stay. But at least he assures me that Vulcans squeeze their toothpaste at the end of their tubes.

life as a movie

Life would be a lot simpler if it were like the movies.

Think of the angst that could be prevented just by adding a musical score. The minute someone walks into the room, you would know if the newcomer were an evil intruder because of the foreboding music. If there's romance in the air, the slow violin music would be a dead giveaway every time. It would have saved me a lot of trouble back in junior high.

If life were like movies, all problems could be solved within two hours, women would all be drop-dead gorgeous, men would be muscle-bound, and justice would prevail every time. (Women also would be inexplicably attracted to men three times their age, but I digress.)

Best of all, having a high-quality life wouldn't be a prerequisite for success. Just look at the most recent Star Wars offering.

(Not that I can afford to pay George Lucas $112 million to upgrade my life with computer enhancements. I would be more popular - except possibly for the Jar Jar Binks factor - but I'd hate to compromise my artistic integrity for Dave Learn action figures and Lego sets.)

There have to be ways to compensate for this deficiency. One idea that occurred to me recently was that stores and restaurants could distribute flare guns to their customers as they walk in the door.

See, my wife and I recently went on a quest to buy a toaster oven, which we finally found at a Target store -- sort of. They had a floor model with everything we wanted, but none of the boxes on the shelves corresponded to it.

In a movie, the camera would pull out to a wide-lens shot, and it would have been obvious to the entire store that something was wrong.

Instead, I had to work hard to get the attention of store employees. I marched up and down the aisles calling "Bartender! Bartender!" like a demented Daffy Duck, and still no one came to our assistance.

After a fruitless search, I grabbed the display model and carried it around the store until an employee stopped chatting long enough to scowl at me and see if I needed help. (I wonder what gave it away.)

The whole melodrama and spectacle could have been skipped if the store had given us a flare gun. Picture this: We reach the toaster section and find they're all out. Before panic sets in, Natasha pulls out the flare gun and fires a blue flare up into the ceiling. The light show alerts a manager, who grabs a walkie-talkie and sends help at once.

"Francine, this is Freddie at the customer-service desk. We have a mayday over in Aisle 12. The fat guy and his wife can't find the Iridium Pyew-39 Explosive Space Toaster."

Suddenly the time lost hunting for a toaster oven that they won't sell me - they don't sell floor models -- is cut from an hour to just under a few minutes. Department store owners, take note: Provide shoppers with something simple like flare guns, and customer satisfaction will go through the roof -- literally.

The other advantage to making life more like the movies is that you get unconventional solutions to problems, especially if you watch some of the same movies I do.

That would have come in handy last Thursday, when Natasha and I went to get our first ultrasound done of the baby at St. Peter's in New Brunswick. Darth Grappler -- our working name for a baby boy -- was every bit as reluctant as me to be captured on film, and so steadfastly looked down at Niki's spine.

The doctor, whom I will identify as Dr. Goosehead, decided the best solution was to shake Natasha's abdomen vigorously with the sensor like he was stirring a bowl of chocolate pudding. I won't print Natasha's thoughts about this here, since this is a family newspaper.

Had this been a movie, all sorts of sci-fi solutions would have been possible. We could have got Geordi to back up the toilets into the warp drive, couple the deflector dish to the impulse couplings, and plug in the Pac Man cartridge on Deck C. With all that done, Dr. Goosehead could have pressed the button on his command console, and Darth Grappler would have rolled around.

Another possibility was suggested by "The Phantom Menace." With a high enough concentration of midichlorians in his cells, Dr. Goosehead could use the Force to rock Darth Grappler gently in the womb. Alternatively, if Darth Grappler had a high concentration of the double-speak critters instead, he could have rocked Dr. Goosehead and not so gently. Actually, that would have been a lot more satisfying, ultimately.

And just think: If life were like a western, touchy confrontations would be great occasions for deadpan comments, like the immortal "Yep. Nothing like a good piece of hickory" from "Pale Rider."

After the ultrasound, Natasha and I made an appointment for a second one to pinpoint the baby's development more clearly. Dr. Goosehead walked over and told the receptionist, "I want them to come in for genetic counseling," without telling us what that was or why he wanted us to come in for it.

"Hello," I wanted to shout. "We're the parents; you can talk to us."

A much better solution comes from "A Fistful of Dollars." I can see myself standing before Dr. Goosehead in a Clint Eastwood posture.

"I don't mind a doctor who's rude," I could tell him. "But my horse is sensitive, and you hurt his feelings. I think you ought to apologize to my horse before someone gets hurt."

Ah, the drama we miss out on. Still, it's just as well life isn't more like the movies. With my luck, I'd be played by Jim Carrey.