Remember When You Could Vote to Leave the European Union and Not Regret It?

Two weeks ago the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.  It was a close vote and was based on a lot of false claims and promises that cannot be kept, such as the prediction that the English Channel will be widened so that all the swimming records will be invalidated.

As soon as the results were in and the markets went down instead of up, people in the UK started calling for a re-do of the vote, arguing that the first vote was a mistake because too many people thought they were just taping an episode of “House Hunters International.” Politicians who had not already been forced to resign over the Brexit vote promised that once the UK voted to undo the first vote then the UK would remain in the EU. There was a lively campaign both in favor and against the “Un-Brexit” and in another close vote the results were in favor of undoing the original Brexit.

The rejoicing was, however, short-lived.  By the first Brexit vote, the UK technically left the EU, and voting to undo that vote had no legal effect. The only way for the UK to return to the EU was for an affirmative vote to rejoin it, rather than voting to undo a vote that had already taken place.

The politicians who had advocated for the “Un-Brexit” vote were then forced to resign, and their replacements, most of whom had no political experience beyond elections for class president, now had to push for a formal vote to join the EU, called the “Brejoin” vote, a combination of “Britain” and “re-join” that was a little confusing to explain. After more campaigning and another close vote, the UK voted affirmatively to rejoin the European Union.

But then there was a joint meeting between the Council of Europe and the European Council, and once everyone understood that these were actually two separate entities, it was determined that Britain would not be able to re-join the EU until it was formally invited.  Some people asked why this legal snag was not mentioned earlier, and the only answer offered was that it had something to do with differing keyboard layouts.

In the weeks leading up to the pan-European “Brinvite” referendum, there was much campaigning on both sides. People on the “yes” side explained how allowing the UK back into the EU was the only way to end the Hundred Years’ War.  People on the “no” side warned that allowing the UK back would lead to increased amount of Shakespeare in schools. There was a healthy amount of false information on both sides and the experts predicted another close vote.

By the narrowest of margins the “no” vote won and those who were in favor of Brinvite immediately demanded a re-vote, claiming widespread voter confusion over mistranslations of “Brinvite” that led many to believe they were just voting on whether to allow Syrian refugees free consumption of oxygen. And of course the markets tumbled, but because the markets had already been tumbling, the new tumbling caused some markets to become stronger, and economists were quick to highlight this as proof that economists did not know anything.

There was another spirited campaign for the re-vote on Brinvite after the failed Un-Brexit of Brexit, and the debate was centered on what to call the vote.  Conservatives advocated for “Re-Brinvite” but liberals pushed for “Un-Brexit Secundum.” The argument over the name of the vote became so contentious that by the time the voting cards were printed up, the choices were just over what to call the vote. There were no euros left over to have the cards re-printed, and, in any event, the voter turnout for the “name of the vote” vote was better than for any European-wide balloting since the referendum to replace war-making with soccer.

The voter turnout was so great that, unfortunately, the votes are not fully tallied and the vote counters have all gone on vacation, which they call “holiday.”  Markets have completely shut down in anticipation of the final count.  We will keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep calm and…just keep calm.

Remember When Greeting Cards Were Affordable?

“And when I’m elected President of the United States,” the candidate said to the adoring crowd, pounding the podium with every word, “I’m going to take on those greedy greeting card companies, and make them offer cards at a price that people can actually afford!”

The cheers were so loud that no one could hear the rest of the candidate’s speech. No one would have believed that the exorbitant price of greeting cards would become the biggest issue of 2016. But the candidate was the first to grasp the importance of affordable greeting cards to working families, and rode the resulting public response right into the White House.

In the weeks between the election and inauguration, the President’s transition team drafted legislation that certain member of Congress would be introducing on the first day of the new administration and new Congress. This particular representative owed his re-election to the President’s endorsement during the campaign season, which was made at great political risk to the President since the representative had been implicated in a “dollars-to-doughnuts” gambling ring.

With the legislation introduced, the first hundred days was marked by an intense effort to get enough votes in the House and in the Senate to guarantee the passage of the greeting card bill, which had been quickly nicknamed “Hall-Markdown.” Conservatives quickly formed a cabal against the bill and would not even allow the bill to be brought to a vote. Any time someone tried to call the bill to a vote, these obstructionists would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” very loudly, so that no one could hear what was going on.

Finally one of the bill’s co-sponsors – a Congressman who as a child had been forced to make his own cards out of McDonald’s place mats because his parents worked for minimum wage and had to choose between food on the table and store-bought greeting cards – thought of hosting a combination pancake breakfast and gun show several miles away, and while the opposing representatives were stuffing their faces, the bill passed easily with only one “Nay” from a Congressman who did not eat gluten.

The bill was stymied in the Senate as well. One Senator who had accepted campaign contributions from several greeting card companies tried to filibuster the bill, but the President’s supporters broke the filibuster by telling the filibustering Senator that it was snowing outside, and then seizing the floor when the excited Senator ran to the window.

Even on the President’s desk the bill had trouble.  It passed the Senate just before 5 p.m. and was placed on the President’s desk late that night for signature, long after the President had retired to binge watch Season 3 of “Game of Thrones.”  The President met with foreign policy advisers early the next morning, and placed a thick confidential memo titled “More Middle East Stuff” on top of the greeting card bill and did not see the bill until just before it was set to expire along with all the President’s reward points.

At the eleventh hour the bill was signed into law where it was officially codified as the “Affordable Card Act” and ushered in new era of fairness and level playing fields.  No longer were people charged $5 or $6 or $7 for a birthday or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card.  The Act created a new class of cards that cost only $0.99 apiece, the price proudly emblazoned on the back of each card next to a tiny picture of the President and the words, “You can thank me at the polls!”

I should know. I received one of these Hall-Mark-Down cards the other day.  And I don’t know quite how to say this, but the card just didn’t have the panache of the expensive ones.

Remember When It Was Safe to Eat Processed Meat?

The President of the Happy Swine Processed Meat Company was not having one of his better days.  He sat at his desk, atop which stood an anthropomorphic plastic sausage, the company’s mascot, head in his hands.  There was a knock at the door and in walked the President’s assistant.

IMG_1065.JPG “Sir, I came as soon as I heard,” the assistant said.  “I knew we could never trust the World Health Organization.  And after all the nice things we said about it.  How dare they say that eating processed meats causes cancer?  That should be a matter of personal choice.”

The President shook his head.  “No, it’s over.”  He looked at the mascot, a sausage beaming a huge smile.  “We are just going to have to find a different way to bring people the magic of processed meat.”

The marketing campaign for the “Desk Sausage” was received initially with skepticism.  The idea of a having a real sausage on your desk to keep your papers from flying off was seen as rather unorthodox, especially since the sausage would leave little grease stains on anything it touched.  Yet thanks to a couple of intrepid celebrities, within weeks everyone had a Desk Sausage on their desk.

“I don’t know how I got anything done without it,” said one customer in one of those candid customer commercials.  “I can’t explain it,” said another.  “It just makes you want to do more work.”  Said a third, “The Desk Sausage has changed the way business is done.  We recommend it to all our clients.”

Soon the Happy Swine Processed Meat Company branched out into other products, making Desk Bacon, used to cushion one’s elbows from an especially hard desk surface, and Desk Salami, which was pulled out of dispensers like Post-It notes, and used as bookmarks, or placed between the fingers as a way to reduce stress during a hectic day.

One could travel the entire country and not find an office untouched by Happy Swine office products.  As people lunched on kale, beet greens and chard, they had sausage, salami and bacon keeping their work space organized and chic.  Desk Hot Dogs were particularly good monitor risers, and the gift that everyone wanted that holiday season was the 2016 Corned Beef Planner, known for its distinctive cover and briny pages.

By the following year, Happy Swine office products were global.  It shipped to more than sixty countries, and its products were known for surviving even the longest and most difficult journeys without a single change in appearance.  So successful was the transition, that people forgot that processed meats had once been sandwiched between slices of bread instead of staplers and paper clip caddies.  Happy Swine was more successful than ever, and it now praised the World Health Organization, for breathing life into a dying company.

And then the World Health Organization released its report on kale, and Happy Swine’s unchallenged domination of office gear was at an end.

Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

Remember the Cold War?

Is it East versus West
Or man against man?
Survivor, “Burning Heart”
Rocky IV Soundtrack
(Volcano Records, 1985)

The President of the United States wasn’t having one of his better days.

“He wants to annex what?” he asked into the phone. “Moldovia? I’ve never even heard of Moldovia…What’s that you say?…It’s ‘Moldova’ and not ‘Moldovia’?…Well, I’ve never heard of Moldova, either…I don’t care how many athletes they sent to the Olympics.” An advisor walked into the Oval Office and the President glanced at him briefly. “Listen, John, I’ll have to call you back.” The President slammed the phone into its cradle.

The advisor spoke without preamble. “Mr. President, the President of Russia says he won’t withdraw Russian troops from Crimea and he won’t give Crimea back to Ukraine.”

“Really? Did you make him the offer?”

“Of course, Mr. President. And he said thank you, but that he already had a neck basket.”

The President frowned and nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “Time to think outside the box.” He went up to a white board along the wall of the Oval Office and wrote “military action” in red erasable marker. “Let’s brainstorm. Give me some options for dealing with Russia.”

“Military action, Mr. President,” said the advisor.

“Great! Now, let’s flesh that out a little. What are some things that go with military action.”

“Um, troops,” said the advisor.

“Yes, okay.” Underneath “military action” the President drew a dash and wrote “troops.”

“What else?”

“Tanks.”

“Okay, great.” The President wrote “- tanks” under “- troops.”

“What else?”

“Planes.”

“Great. We’re moving right along.” The President added “- planes” to the list.

There was a knock at the door.

ya

“Come in!” yelled the President, wiping away some stray marks from the white board. In walked the Secretary of Defense.

“Mr. Secretary!” said the President. “Come on in. Take a doughnut. We’re just doing a little brainstorming on what to do with Russia. As you can see, we’re off to a great start.” He presented the white board with his hand, palm turned up.

“That’s very good work, Mr. President. But I don’t think military action is going to work. The Russian forces are well set up inside and around Crimea, and our forces are frightened of going into a country that has a backwards ‘R’ in its alphabet.”

“Hmm, that’s a good point. I never trusted that backwards ‘R’ either,” said the President, shuddering.

“Mr. President,” said the Secretary of Defense with a tight smile, “may I offer an alternative strategy?”

The media did not respond favorably when it was announced that the President of the United States had formally challenged the President of the Russian Federation to a game of Flappy Bird to determine the ownership of Crimea and Russia’s overall designs on world domination. The criticism was especially sharp over the fact that the challenge had been issued over the President’s Twitter account. But to everyone’s surprise, the challenge was accepted, and the coverage shifted from anlysis of foreign policy to analysis of the two leaders’ video game skills.

American historians noted that when the President of the United States was in law school he had won a Super Mario Bros. tournament against the other students in his constitutional law class.

But Russian historians noted that the President of the Russian Federation had been the top scorer in a first-player combat video game developed just for Russian government officials, called KGB versus Journalists.

Flappy Bird was a two-dimensional, side-scrolling game with primitive graphics, like Super Mario Bros., but required laser-like precision and impeccable reflexes, like KGB versus Journalists. So both Presidents had an edge.

As the time of the match approached, people were anxious. No one wanted to be unpatriotic or find themselves imprisioned. But Vegas odds never lie, and the odds on the two contestants were neck and neck.

TV stations had arranged to broadcast the match during primetime. Since Moscow is nine time zones ahead of Washington, DC, to prevent either President from playing the middle of the night, the match was arranged for 10 a.m. eastern standard time, and 7 p.m. Moscow time, on the same day. Video cameras were set up so that in the left corner of the screen would be live video of the American President, and in the right corner would be a live video of the Russian President, and the middle of the screen would be the video screen of the leader who happened to be playing Flappy Bird.

The rules were simple. A coin flip would decide who would go first. Then they would take turns, and whoever had the most points at the end of ten rounds would be declared the winner. If the American President won, the Russians had to withdraw from Crimea and forget about the Soviet Reunion.  If the Russian President won…well, no one really wanted to think about that.

Everyone – East and West – was nervous as the coin was tossed at a live video feed in Reykjavik. As the coin flipped end over end the Russian President said “Golovy!” – heads.  And the coin landed heads.

Immediately there were arguments all around the world over whether it was better to go first or last. The Russian President chose to go first, and his compatriots cheered him for taking the initiative. But the Americans were, for the most part, relieved, as more than a century of baseball had taught them the value of last licks.

In the end it didn’t matter who went first.  Flappy Bird was so hard that even after ten rounds neither man had scored a single point. There was no winner and nothing changed in the geopolitical world. But since it had stayed unchanged without a single shot being fired, both sides declared victory and were wrapped in the flags of their respective nations by the warm embraces of their citizens.

I’d like to wish Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson a hearty welcome back to blogging.  It’s good to see that familiar title in my inbox again. – MK

Remember When the Affordable Care Act Wasn’t In the News Every Day?

The Director knew it was time for a staff meeting.

“All right, everyone. The deadline’s almost here. The President’s promised a smoothly functioning healthcare website by tomorrow. Now, I know everyone’s been yellow capletsworking hard. Visits to non-work-related websites like Facebook and Above the Law dropped by 40% in November. I’m proud of that figure and will make sure that New York Times knows about it. But the fact remains that despite our intense efforts the website is, in a word, still not working. So we’re down to our last option – paper applications.”

The following day, when millions of Americans visited the federal government’s healthcare website to see who won the bet, they were confronted with a perfectly functioning, non-glitch riddled single webpage, with no links or forms or fields or even photographs, but one toll-free telephone number.

When the number was called, the caller would be put in touch with someone who took their information and then read back to them the different health policies that were available to the caller and the price. It was clear from the very beginning that the “qualified healthcare agents” that took the calls had been greatly influenced by technology and faced challenges adjusting to world run by humans.

“Thank you for calling healthcare.gov,” the agents would say in their best cheerful machine-voice. “Press 1 if you are calling about individual policies. Press 2 if you are calling about family policies. Press 3 if you have experience building large websites.” When they realized they couldn’t tell which number had been pressed, they would say, “Why don’t you just tell me what you are calling about?”

After a day the telephone lines were hopelessly congested. The Director had to call another meeting.
“Okay,” said the Director at another staff meeting, “the telephones aren’t working out so hot, either. The average wait-time has grown so long that people are complaining about the hold music. And here I thought people liked Lawrence Welk. All right, well, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. What’s a drawing board? I don’t know. Look it up on Wikipedia.”

The only thing left to do was to have people sign up in person. People were annoyed at having to drive all the way to Washington, D.C. just to shop for medical insurance, but the complaints subsided a bit when the President issued Executive Order 94029 which authorized valet parking.

The wait time to see an agent was still very long. And the long journey made it even longer, since people figured, “Well, if we came all this way and waited all this time, we may as well ask as many stupid questions as possible.”
The wait time to meet with a federal healthcare agent became so long that people were practically living in the lobby. They had to miss appointment, including doctors’ appointments. The government had to arrange for doctors to visit the lobby and examine the people waiting in line. The convenience more than made up for the lack of privacy.

The people in line started liking the lobby doctors so much that they lost their interest in procuring health insurance that would require them to find a new doctor. They started letting others go ahead of them in line, hoping to extend their stay. “Oh, you go on ahead of us,” people would say. “We haven’t decided what we want yet.”

The lobby grew ever more crowded, and eventually some members of Congress introduced a bill to expand the lobby and the number of doctors that serviced it. The bill won bipartisan support, largely on the strength of a rider that increased the Netflix subsidies for senators and their staff. The Affordable Care Act Sign-Up in Person Waiting Lobbies proliferated around the United States, so that whenever people had to see the doctor they would just go to one of these lobbies, get in line, and wait for the doctor to come around with the stethoscope and little rubber hammer.

A cottage industry of lobby-care grew, and almost overnight people started seeing everything from examination tables on wheels to mobile MRI apps for smartphones. Around the time that they started adding operating tables to the lobbies, the website was finally fixed. No bugs, no glitches, no crashes. But no one bothered signing up. The millions of Americans waiting in line already liked the plan they had, and wanted to keep it.

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

My first Valentine’s Day  involved a second-grade class and a sheet of perforated Valentines.  We had to give them out to every other kid in the class, and I’m pretty sure I gave them out to the boys as well as the girls, and signed “Love, Mark” at the bottom of each one.  Even in the midst of Freud’s latency period I felt a vague uneasiness, but did not see how I could discriminate.

My phrase of choice that year was “Holy Baloney,” which I said every time the teacher told me I answered something wrong, or assigned another project involving construction paper and paste.  One girl in my class laughed out loud every time I said it, and on her Valentine to me wrote “Holy Bologna” just above the salutation.  I was touched by the thought, and figured that I could accept her even if she did not know how to spell.

Valentine’s Day was so simple in the second grade.  No flowers, no dinner reservations.  I even think my mother bought the sheet of perforated Valentines, and instead of chocolates we snacked on those little hard and powdery candy hearts that said “Be Mine,”  “I Luv You,” and  “We Need to Talk About Your Choice of School Bag.”

But Valentine’s Day was not always this romantic.  There were many a year where Valentine’s Day was spent seeing how many beers I could drink before the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of my bedroom looked like a work of modern art.  If was lucky, there would be a friend who was also single, and we would go to the local dive and watch ESPN with the sound off, hoping that with each round we’d forget our loneliness and be able to read Mike Krzyzewski’s lips as he yelled at his players and, sometimes, the referees.

And then one Valentine’s Day I proposed to my now-wife, and my perception of this day of flowers and chocolate changed forever.  I don’t see Valentine’s Day as an obligation.  I see it as an opportunity.  For 364 days of the year (or 365 days in a leap year, like this one), I sit in my house and look at my wife and think to myself, “She’s so beautiful and wonderful.  I’m such a lucky man.  I wonder what she’s annoyed at me for this time.”

I wish there were answers in the back of the book, or a teacher’s edition, but there are not.  I have to make educated guesses of how to make my soul mate view me as less of a parasite who watches football.  Could it be the glass I left on the kitchen counter instead of putting it in the dishwasher?  Could it be that bowl with four floating Cheerios that I left in the sink instead of washing out and putting in the dishwasher?  Could it be that pair of dirty socks that I left on her laptop instead of washing them out and putting them in the dishwasher?  The greatest fear in any relationship is the fear of the unknown, and for a marriage that fear is codified in statute.

But for one day a year I am relieved of that fear, and handed a game plan with three simple steps: bouquet of roses, reservations at a nice restaurant, and then…you know…HGTV.  It is as simple as snap, crackle and pop.  My grandfather used to say that problems that can be solved with money alone are the kind of problems you want to have.  I’m sure that he had Valentine’s Day in mind when he said that.

So fellow husbands and boyfriends, my brethren in arms and credit cards, do not fear Valentine’s Day, but embrace it and its obligations with gusto, and be thankful that for one day you get to enjoy the greatest pleasure you can enjoy in a relationship: not having to think.

And to the ranks of the single who complain that there is no single person’s day, I respond: every day is single person’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to the students of Mrs. P’s second grade class.  I meant what I wrote on those perforated cards.

Remember Whitney Houston? (A Tribute)

The book that I have been writing opens with a scene where the protagonist is attending a live performance of his favorite artist, when a nearby person’s cell phone rings with a digital snippet of “How Will I Know,” one of the many hits by Whitney Houston during her great career as superstar singer, a career that despite its accomplishments was still too short.  I had picked that song because I always liked it.

My favorite “How Will I Know” memory takes place at Lowe’s on a Saturday morning.   The song was playing over the loudspeaker, and I was trying to sing along.  But Whitney’s powerful yet playful voice kept getting interrupted by the same monotoned request for someone from plumbing to report to customer service.  I was on my way to complain to the disc jockey until I remembered that a very special woman in my life was waiting at home for a working shower head.

It seems like just yesterday I was riding the bus home from elementary school while “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” played on the radio.  And when Whitney sang the line “I wanna feel the heat with somebody,” I thought she was singing, “I wanna compete with somebody.”  Why would you want to dance with someone (who loves you) just to compete with them?  Was this a dance competition?  That I could not reconcile these lyrics only raised my assessment of Whitney Houston’s and her songwriters’ art.

And I will never forget the scene in “American Psycho” when the title character plays “The Greatest Love of All” for two lady friends, and one of them says, while laughing on ecstasy-laced chardonnay, “You actually listen to Whitney Houston?”  Of all the gruesome deaths in that movie, I was the least horrified by hers.

The real horrors, however, were saved for the real Whitney Houston.  For all her success, and all her failures, she should have listened to the American Psycho’s interpretation of her song:

“The Greatest Love of All” is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves.  

When I came home last night and heard the shocking news, I couldn’t help but think about what this did to the beginning of my book, which I had not shown to anyone except my wife.  Whether I keep the song reference in or not, I know that I will never be able to think about it the same way again.  Whitney’s music and talent will outlive the tragedy of her death, but will always remind me of the sadness of a life cut short.

Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.  You will be missed.

Remember When People Didn’t Have Cameras in Their Cell Phones?

Gisele Bündchen’s classy retort to an even classier heckle as she left Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday night, and Rob Gronkowski’s NKOTB impersonation at the Patriots’ post-Super Bowl non-party, are, by now, news as ancient as Julius Caesar’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-one when he was trailing the Teutons by only a field goal.  But if I may add to the over-analysis of these off-the-field distractions, I’d say that the question should not be whether they should have done what they did, or not.  Instead, the question should be: If people did not have cameras on their cell phones, are we even having this conversation?

I remember the days when you could fight with someone eating spaghetti on the subway without worrying that someone might be taking a video for posterity.   One day, in second grade, spaghetti was on the menu.  I wasn’t feeling the Italian cuisine that afternoon, and opted for a piece of pink construction paper instead.  I told a story while we dined and accidentally shot out a morsel of paper onto a classmate’s spaghetti, piled in the corner section of the divided Styrofoam plate.  I tried to buy her silence with some crayons, but she stood on principle and reported me to the closest member of that enigmatic sorority known as the lunch ladies.  Exiled to the front of the cafeteria, a punishment neither cruel nor unusual in those days, I wondered if anyone would ever forget what had happened.

How different would my life have been if someone had captured my shame on a cell phone?  I picture myself at a job interview, and the interviewer says to me, “Well, Mark, you’ve got impeccable credentials, the skills we need, and everyone on the hiring committee was impressed by your work with Shrinky Dinks.”  I smile and say, “Oh, thanks,” as if I was not expecting this praise.  “All that’s left is a quick check,” the interviewer says as he punches the keyboard, “to see there are any comprising videos of you.  Company policy, you understand, and I’m sure a mere formality for a candidate of your caliber.  We really can’t wait to welcome you aboar—”

He frowns at something on the screen.  “What’s this about a spaghetti incident?” he asks, and the next thing I know I’m back on Monster.com, looking for something that requires primate insurance.

But who cares about the person whose gaffe is captured for all time?  What really matters is the audience.  I can’t remember how I spent my time before I could spend sunny afternoons watching a slow loris holding an umbrella, or a report on the phenomenon known as planking, something I wish my grandparents were alive to see, so they would know that fighting World War II was worth it.

In the introduction to the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library 1985 edition of The  Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes, “In the place where the storyteller was the coming of night was marked as it was not in towns nor in modern houses….There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night….He was a storyteller because he was attuned to this rhythm and had in his memory the often repeated incidents that would fit it.”

Even in modern times, people used to be attuned to this rhythm of the day and rhythm of the night (especially after DeBarge released their 1985 hit “Rhythm of the Night”).  People would have to use their language skills to recreate, for example, a drunk wedding speech, or a clawing fight over the last copy of Soap Opera Digest at the supermarket checkout.

And all too often their storytelling abilities would come up short.  They would see the bored faces of their audience, the eyes scanning the background for celebrities, even celebrities washed up from reality shows of washed up celebrities, and would see that their language skills could not compete with video.  And they would resort to that phrase, that phrase we used to hear all time but not anymore, a phrase no longer needed in a world where story-worthy human shame can be captured by hand-held telephones, and history-changing retorts by supermodels and subway skirmishes can be relived again and again by anyone with an Internet connection and a cushy job; in short, a phrase that even I resorted to when mere words were not enough:  Guess you had to be there.