Monthly Archives: May 2010

I Can Relate

Yesterday this appeared in our (real, not virtual) mail box:


I really want to help this kid.  Aside from the fact that I have a lot of distasteful chores around the house that I can outsource to him, I admire his attitude.  At least he wants to earn the money.

But the main reason this flyer caught my eye is because it brought back memories of my adolescence when I was a “kid slave.”  In those days we didn’t have school trips to China to fund, but we did have parents who thought that instead of spending our summer vacation indulging our proto-hippie tendencies and listening to rock music and growing our hair, we should be working.

Invoking the child labour laws did no good.  My father informed me that they didn’t extend to what he called “casual labor,” which has to be one of the cruellest oxymorons ever invented. 

My lack of enthusiasm in finding casual labor resulted in parental intervention.  One of my father’s friends heard about some old lady who I will call Mrs. D.  She was looking for someone to cut her grass.  Everyone thought I would be perfect for the job. 

Everyone but me.  Working outside?  In public view?  I was hopeless—beyond geek or dork, I was charting new territory for the terminally uncool teenager.  I had friends in rock bands.  And I was “volunteering” to help old people.  I could picture them jeering at me as they drove by in their VW vans on the way to the lake.

The next day I reported for duty. 

You know how in every neighborhood there is a house that the little children say is probably haunted?  Or that a crazy person lives there?  Well, that was Mrs. D’s house.  It looked like it was full of cats and newspapers dating back to the Civil War.  It was in a shocking state of disrepair and the grass, the cutting of which was my objective that day, was knee high. 

I so wanted to be somewhere else.

“Hello Mrs. D, I’m Tom.”

“Hello Steve.  Nice to meet you.”  She always called me Steve for some reason.

 “So you want me to cut the grass?”

“Yes, Steve.  The man who used to cut the grass brought his own mower.  But I have one in the garage.”

She escorted me to the garage.  I guess it could be called a garage in that it was a small structure at the end of the driveway.  There wasn’t a ninety-degree angle in the entire building.  And although at some point in its existence it may have been painted, now it was just bare gray wood covered with leprous chunks of flaking paint.  It was right out of a William Faulkner novel.

“I want you to paint the garage, too, Steve.”

Alien abduction seemed like a preferable alternative.  “I won’t have time today.”

“No.  Not today.  Maybe tomorrow. First we have to cut the grass.  And get the doors open.”

That’s right.  Because of disuse, warping and shifting, the garage doors would no longer open.  The structure didn’t have a normal garage door.  It had double doors that were supposed to open out.  You have no idea how ludicrous I felt pushing and pulling on those doors and succeeding in opening one of them with the help of this 75 pound octogenarian.  “Please don’t let anyone I know see me,” I prayed to the same God who had already brought me into Mrs. D’s employ.

After about fifteen snarling cats ran out, I looked inside.  The windows had either been painted over or opaqued by about a hundred years of dirt.  The only light came through the slightly open door.  If the painting of the windows made me think that perhaps at some time in the past unspeakable rites had been performed in that garage, the stench convinced me.  It was like opening a newly discovered tomb.

Except in this case the mummified corpse was the object of our entry into the garage.  There, covered with spider webs and cat pee was the lawn mower.  I only recognized it from pictures.  I’d never seen a real one before.  A push mower with two wheels.  Just wheels—two rusty metal circles with no rubber on them.  No way!

I wrestled the device out of the garage and the rush of fresh air to my oxygen starved brain led me to see the true horror of my situation.  I couldn’t run away. Sure I could walk home–preferably run.  But she would find me.  And she had an ally in my father.  Together they would make sure the sick ménage a trois of me, that lawnmower and the jungle she called a lawn would be consummated. 

I was able to finish the job only because I had no mind for physical pain.  My mind was solely focused on coming up with an exit strategy for getting Mrs. D out of my life and vice versa. 

But that didn’t happen.  I continued to suffer through the summer and into the fall, riding my bicycle over when I could to do odd jobs.  Artful procrastination meant I never did paint the garage, but we did get the yard looking respectable. 

The final perverse twist to the story came later that year in school when I met my first girlfriend.  Everything was going along nicely and one day we were staying after school for some reason and I offered to walk her home.  She agreed, and when I asked what street she lived on, she gave me the name of Mrs. D’s street.  I was too young for a coronary, so the symptoms I was suppressing must have been a panic attack.  What if Mrs. D was outside and saw me.  How would I explain that?

We walked past the house, which looked unchanged.  Fortunately, no one was around and as we passed the house Laura said quietly.  “A crazy lady lives there.  She has a zillion cats.” 

I couldn’t say to her, “I know.”

Travails of Modern Youth

My sister in law is doing student teaching this semester, so we are keeping an eye on the boys, ages 9 and 7, after school.  Up until recently I had been meeting them at school and walking home with them.  But now I’ve decided to outsource the walk to them–part of growing up is learning to walk home from school unsupervised. 

Plus I was getting tired of having the yummy mummies look at me as if I was something they might have scraped off the bottom of their Balenciaga Boho Chic boots.  They really do dress up to pick up the kids after school.  I don’t.

Yesterday, the boys were a little late and I decided to go out to check on their progress.  I spotted them halfway down the street, limping painfully along, backpacks unslung and dragging on the sidewalk.

I knew there was no problem.  In fact, their exaggerated air of fatigue and exhaustion made me think they were trying out some histrionic ploy in the hope of avoiding extra math drills or something like that.

On reaching the front door they threw themselves over the threshold and collapsed like beached dolphins. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

They emitted groans so patently manufactured I burst out laughing.

Seeing that the game was up, the younger boy slowly got to his feet.  “We had cross country today.”

“What’s that?”

“The whole school had to run from Coyle Park back to the school.  Twice.”

I wouldn’t want to do it, but it wouldn’t exactly qualify as “cross country.”  Or even a marathon.  It’s about four kilometres, or two and a half miles.

We made it to the kitchen and my wife provided cold drinks while they related the tale of horror.  Once every semester, in order to promote fitness, the entire school goes on this, admittedly poorly named, “Fun Run.” 

The boys think that even their normally sadistic and unreasonable teachers would never make them do anything so awful and that it must therefore be a government mandate that all children be made to suffer by running. 

They confessed that they had prayed for rain.

I decided to find out more about the dynamic of fitness in today’s elementary schools.  And, as usual, learned that things are very different than when I was in school.

First, technically, everyone has to participate.  According to the older boy, only “people with broken legs” are exempted.  But further questioning revealed that any malady can get you a pass, but if it is not obvious (e.g., you’re not in a cast) you need a parental note requesting that you be excused. 

In this era of all-inclusiveness, the non-participants are not excluded.  In order to make them feel as if they are almost participating, the walking wounded are brought to the start/finish line where they are allowed to sit on the ground (as befits their incapacity) while the rest of the students run.

“You know, a lot of people cheat,” the nine year old informed us.

“How can you cheat?”

Apparently, Wall Street instincts are present even among elementary school students.  Some of them have found a way to beat the system.  Plus, like Wall Street, the regulatory system isn’t what it should be. To be excused, you have to give your parental note to your own teacher in class.  But when everyone gets out to the starting gate, different teachers might be supervising.  So a bunch of future Madoffs without notes just sit down with the infirm and watch the rest of the suckers run.

Once the running starts, the teachers form a gauntlet to protect the kids and also to exhort stragglers and the lazy to actually run.  I asked, “What do they do if you just walk?”

“They tell you to run.”

“But what if you still don’t?”


Now that is another big difference.  In high school I had a gym teacher named Mr. Bonfiglio, who I’m sure was in the witness protection program.  He had tattoos before it was fashionable. 

He used to run with us and if you finished behind him you were subjected to verbal abuse that would make a rapper blush.  Worse, you then had to “give” him as many push ups as he thought you needed to do in order to build character and prove your worth. 

Plus he would not suggest that we run faster.  He didn’t know the meaning of the terms “request” or “recommend.”  He would say things like “If you don’t get moving, I’ll put my foot so far up your ass your breath will smell like shoe polish!”

In those days they could get away with things like that.  And we believed him.

Things have changed.

Adventures In Consumer Products

The other day we bought a new vacuum cleaner for the farmhouse.  It was been a great learning experience. 

First, much to my amazement, there is a shop here that does nothing but sell vacuum cleaners.  They are specialists.  We chose to go there rather than one of those home appliance places because I’ve always been sceptical that the kid who has just sold someone an iPod and someone else a flat screen TV will be able to answer all of my questions about vacuum cleaners.  Not that he won’t try.

We were greeted by a salesman who exuded knowledge of vacuum cleaners.  He even had a uniform that made him look like a cleaner.  After half an hour of Vacuum Cleaner 101, we knew everything we ever wanted to know. We settled on a named brand plus got fifty bucks off the list price and an extra pack of bags!

We went away happy.

So I took this thing home and unpacked it.  I hadn’t noticed it in the store, but I was struck by the model name of the machine.  It is called the Tranquility. Who thinks these things up?

I had a brief pang of buyer’s remorse.  I don’t know about you, but to me a vacuum cleaner should be called something like Hurricane or Cyclone or Death Vortex.  Tranquility doesn’t quite sound up to the job.  It sounds, well, wimpy.  Like, “Excuse me, dirt, do you mind if I gently suck you up?”


I started to think that the manufacturer might not have a total appreciation for the expectations of the consumer.

Then I decided to read the user manual.  You are probably saying to yourself, What kind of dork reads the user manual for a vacuum cleaner?  Fair enough.  But I did it out of curiosity rather than a need for enlightenment.

But guess what?  It was enlightening.  The manual is seven pages in length.  Four pages are just pictures.  One page is devoted to the “Guarantee.”  It is basically incomprehensible but is a shining example of the dictum “The Large Print Giveth And the Small Print Taketh Away.”

That leaves just two pages for “How To” verbiage.  But you won’t find anything that tells you how the thing works in those two pages.  One third of one page is taken up with one of those “Troubleshooting Guide” tables.  As I mentioned, I found myself wondering what the manufacturer was thinking when they named the machine “Tranquility.”  But I was positively intrigued at their perception of the skill level of their customers based on the content of the troubleshooting guide:





Motor does not start. No power Check plug
Suction inadequate Dust bag full Replace dust bag


The remaining one and one third pages are given over to safety warnings.  The most frequently repeated words are “Do” and “Not.”  In juxtaposition. 

I’ve always thought that the stuff that they warn you about in these manuals are things that real people have done.  Legally that means that the manufacturer has reason to believe that there is a risk and would be remiss if the consumer weren’t warned.  That’s why when you buy a gas powered lawn mower it says “Do not use to trim bushes.”  Or why we are warned not to use electric hair dryers in the shower.

These are some of the vacuum cleaner warnings:  “DO NOT pick up flammable liquids such as petrol, etc.”  Or “DO NOT pick up hot ashes or charcoal,” and my favorite:  “DO NOT use on people or animals.”

And how about “Turn off when not in use.”  That is important enough to be repeated three times.

I now have a profile of the average vacuum cleaner user (at least in the eyes of the people who make vacuum cleaners).  They can’t figure out how to turn them on, if they manage that, they vacuum up hot coals and then forget to turn the machine off. 

That, I think, is why they feel they can get away with saying something like this, which appears right below the troubleshooting guide:

Due to our program of continuous product improvement and innovation, sometimes the product you buy may differ slightly from the one shown on the product carton.

I guess we are supposed to believe that they are improving so continuously and so rapidly that they haven’t had time to print new boxes.  But what I think it really means is “In order to squeeze every last cent out of our manufacturing process, we can’t be bothered to make sure we put the machine you buy into the right box.”

And this appears on the last page:

Our policy is one of continuous development and accordingly we reserve the right to change specifications without prior knowledge.

I’m not sure what a “policy of continuous development” is, but it must have a life of its own if product specifications are changing without anyone knowing about it!

Reading the Tranquility manual got me thinking about my days as an agent of global capitalism.  I imagined the effort that would have gone into creating the manual.  It would have been an interdisciplinary process with endless meetings and focus groups and drafts.   If the company that makes vacuum cleaners is anything like the place I worked, producing the manual would have been more time consuming than making the machine.

I remember one time we were trying to get out a memo to the staff telling them that the office would be closed the day after Thanksgiving.  It went through a series of iterations before we launched it toward the Human Resources and Legal department event horizons for their “input.”  Sometime after Christmas it came back from some dank corner of HR with the notation “Superceded by the passage of time.”

So I imagine that hours would have been spent on the vacuum cleaner book debating whether it should be called an “Instruction Manual” or “Instruction Book.”  Executives would ponder the issue and demand to know: “What is the competition doing?”  “What does legal say?” 

Marketing consultants, brand image consultants, lawyers, engineers all would have had input to make sure that the book was responsive to the customer and portrayed the image the company wanted to create.

And the scary thought is that all that talent decided that it did!

I’m going to go plug it in.  Wish me luck!

PS—You will note that I made it through this entire post without a single pun on the word suck!

Am I A Bad Person Because I Laugh?

The younger of our two nephews, the 7 year old, is going through a phase.  Of late, he finds a way to introduce the concept of farting and pooping into every conversation and situation.

He doesn’t get into trouble for doing it, but I do.  That’s because I find his utterances and observations hysterically funny, can’t help laughing, and ultimately, according to conventional wisdom, serve only to “encourage him.”

I can’t help it.

For example, the older boy and I were reading a book together.  The book mentioned that some words are the same when they are spelled forward or backward.  “Racecar” was the example. 

Seizing upon the opportunity to increase knowledge, I explained to him that such words were known as palindromes.  We took a short break from our reading to see how many palindromes we could think of.  While in the middle of this esoteric discussion, the 7 year old came in wanting to read a story about Vikings and their strange names.  To occupy him while we finished our earlier story, I suggested that he come up with a “palindromic Viking name” while he waited.  We explained what a palindrome was and sent him away.  I figured we wouldn’t see him for the rest of the afternoon. 

He returned in two minutes and claimed he had come up with a name.

“Oh yeah?” I asked smugly, thinking he must have misunderstood the task at hand.  “Tell us a palindromic Viking name.”

“PooP BoB.”

How, I ask you, can you maintain a decorous learning environment under such circumstances?

Then there was the time they got goldfish.  Their parents know them well enough to have taken charge of the naming process so they have been given nice goldfish names like “Mr. Spots,” and “Finny.”  I made the mistake of asking them how they were enjoying the goldfish.  The younger boy said that he liked them but would have preferred a turtle as a pet.

“Why?” I asked, innocently.

“So I could name him Turd.  Get it?  Turd the Turtle!”

It is scary when you get a pang of why didn’t I think of that when you are talking to a seven year old.

And I must confess, I participated in the ensuing game to see how many times one could use the word ‘turd’ in a sentence describing the eponymous amphibian.

The boy’s parents (and my wife) are hoping that the passage of time will resolve the issue.  And in a way I can’t blame them.  Any word with a ‘fa sound in it can be guaranteed to be transmogrified.  Poor Mrs. Farquhar is now known as “Mrs. Fartronic.”

They know that the cure for developmental issues like this is to ignore them.  So I am attempting to stifle my giggles.

Although Dr. Freud is no longer mainstream in the psychology world, he would have had a lot to say about this sort of thing.  According to Freud, everyone goes through these sorts of phases in childhood and if they are not adequately resolved (e.g., because of excessive parental control) you will have problems later in life as your mature superego attempts to tell you that you shouldn’t laugh at fart jokes.

Freud even came up with a description of the personality types of people like that.  Say what you will about his psychology, you have to admire Freud for the terminology he came up with and he referred to the set of characteristics that these people exhibit as the “Anal Triad.” 

No jokes about the Chinese mafia, please.

Anyway, the characteristics of the anal triad are orderliness, obstinacy and parsimony. 

I suddenly realized that I know a lot of people like that.  But what struck me the most is that a lot of modern problems have been caused because parents stifled their kids’ fart stage and those kids went on to be bankers and businessmen. 

Without naming names, think back on the congressional testimony of business leaders over the past few years.  They have been getting called on the carpet by Congress because they seem to have messed up the economy.  Messing things up is a big no no to people who didn’t adequately resolve their fart issues.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that we are hearing a lot of denial.  But you’ve also got the rest of the anal triad as well:

Orderliness:  “There is nothing wrong with the securities markets.  The market is a self-regulating apparatus.”

Obstinancy:  “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Parsimony:   “Last year’s bonus of ten million wasn’t enough.  I need more.”

Just think.  If parents of old had been more tolerant about fart jokes, the economy might still be booming. 

A lot of parents have a lot to answer for!