The Pincushion Perspective

When I was a kid, it seemed like every visit to the doctor’s office was an occasion for getting some kind of shot. Mom was a fiend for making sure that her kids had every form of inoculation and immunization known to medical science, and she kept careful track of each one on individualized cards that she took to our appointments.

Smallpox, polio, MMR — all were reason enough for a Webner kid to have to drop drawers and Fruit of the Looms and get stuck in the butt by the needle-wielding family doctor. Often, the shots were accompanied by the kind of brook-no-argument statement that only mothers can plausibly deliver. My favorite bit of motherly injection-rationalizing wisdom came when I got my first tetanus shot: “You don’t want to get bitten by a rabid dog and get lockjaw, do you?” It was phrased as a question, but it clearly wasn’t an honest inquiry that you could answer in the negative. I didn’t know exactly what “lockjaw” was, but it sure sounded bad–and if Mom thought I needed to get the shot to prevent it, that was good enough for me.

Then I reached adulthood, and the frequency of shots abated. I’m sure I received some stabs, but for the most part my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s seemed to be largely needle-free. But when the calendar told the doctor I had hit 60, the syringe impalements resumed with a childhood-like frequency. Flu shots, multiple COVID shots, and pneumonia shots have all come my way in recent years, and today my doctor–who uses reason rather than the flat assertions of a decisive mother–strongly suggested that I should get another COVID booster, scheduled me for a shingles shot, and told me that when the autumn appointment rolls around it will be time for another tetanus shot, just in case I encounter a rabid coyote or scrape my hand on a rusty nail and need that protection against the dreaded lockjaw.

Somewhere, I am sure that my mother nodded approvingly.

So, I’m back to assuming the pincushion perspective on medical appointments. The only difference, for which I am supremely grateful, is that i have enough muscle tissue in my upper arm to allow the shots to be administered to a less embarrassing location.

Your Future Robot Companion

Loneliness is a problem for many elderly people. Older people who are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or long-time companion often struggle with health problems that are related to their solitude: the National Institutes of Health reports that studies have shown that isolation among senior citizens, and the resulting lack of regular social interaction, can lead to depression. cognitive decline, and heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, has now released a product that seeks to address that problem. ElliQ is an artificial intelligence device that looks vaguely like a lava lamp on a stand. It is designed to serve as a companion, rather than an assistant like Siri or Alexa. As the Post describes it, “ElliQ offers soothing encouragement, invitations to games, gentle health prodding, music thoughts and, most important, a friendly voice that learns a person’s ways and comforts them in their solitude.” The article includes this quote from a company representative:

“This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s chief executive and co-founder. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”

is humanity on the verge of a future where lonely humans find comfort in interaction with machines? Some would argue that that future is already here, with computers serving as the anti-isolation device, and that our increasing acclimation to smartphones, other smart devices, computers, and other electronica has created fertile ground for acceptance of robot companions. It’s an interesting question. Many elderly people who aren’t house-bound could increase their interaction with other humans by joining clubs, or churches, or support groups. If they don’t do that, will they respond to a robot? Or is a device like ElliQ a little easier, and less threatening, than putting yourself out there in a conscious effort to make friends? Could ElliQ and similar devices have the effect of promoting less human contact?

We’ll have to see about that, but I will say that the Post article’s description of ElliQ’s conversational gambits makes the device seem like a bit of a nag. If I’ve got to have a robot companion one of these days, I’d rather have one like Bender from Futurama. I suspect that Bender’s raucous approach to life would be a lot more likely to get me out and about.

Ozark Snark

This week we binged the last part of the last season of Ozark. The lure of finding out what happened to the Byrde family and what train wrecks (and, in this case, car wrecks) lay in their path was irresistible. Now we’ve done it, so we’ll have to get a bit snarky about it.

Warning: Ozark Spoilers Ahead

The last part of the last season of Ozark suffered from two problems that are common in successful “seemingly normal people behaving badly” shows. First, you have already killed off many of the good characters to keep injecting shockers into the show, until you get to the point where you are looking around, most of the interesting characters are gone, and you’ve got to figure out who the few remaining characters are going to interact with. That often means injecting less familiar, and almost always less interesting, new characters into the last season of the show. Second, the main characters who have been behaving badly have already experienced all of the plausible bad behaviors, so you’ve got to push the envelope into implausibility territory–and the show becomes a bit ridiculous and suffers as a result.

Ozark experienced both of these problems. By the end of the last season Buddy and the original Langmore crew are long dead, Wendy’s brother is dead, Helen Pierce is dead, the Snells are dead, Wyatt is dead, and so are countless others. That left the Byrdes, Ruth, the cartel lords, and the pesky private investigator. There really wasn’t anyone left for Ruth to scheme with, which is why the long-departed Rachel character had to be lured back from Florida to promptly (and implausibly) become Ruth’s stalwart partner in sticking it to the Byrdes. That’s why Wendy’s Dad, the new necessary Wendy foil, suddenly became a key figure, too. And once nephew drug lord got killed, the show had to promptly introduce mother/sister drug lord and make her (implausibly) even more cold-blooded, murderous, and connected to the Mexican drug culture and assassination cult than her son. A key indicator that Ozark had killed off too many of the good characters was that Ruth ended up having daydreams about talking to Wyatt and seeing the other Langmores again.

And the last season of Ozark had the implausibility problem in spades. It wasn’t just the new and revived characters I’ve mentioned above, it was the plot lines. I’ve written before about how the Byrdes set new standards in crappy parenting, but the last few shows made even the Byrdes prior parenting efforts seem credible by comparison. We’re supposed to swallow Marty the ace accountant going down to Mexico to act as the head of the cartel, and all of the hardened criminal lieutenants are going to fall in line? Wendy’s Dad is going to get a custody hearing set in three days? The Byrdes and their string-pulling buddies are going to be able to change extradition status and get the FBI to do whatever they suggest whenever they make a phone call? The Byrdes get into a high speed, rollover car crash and everyone walks away without a scratch? And the high rollers and kingpins of the Midwest are all going to gladly contribute to a charity headed by people who’ve just been arrested for assault and have the sketchiest imaginable background? And, perhaps most implausibly of all, none of the countless criminals the Byrds had screwed would ever go over to their hopelessly insecure house and gun down the entire family, just to be done with them?

I accepted these issues and enjoyed watching Ozark through to the end, notwithstanding these issues, just to finally seeing what happened to the Byrdes. My only complaint is that the execrable Wendy, one of the most annoying and truly despicable characters in the history of television, wasn’t killed off in some extremely painful way that included impaling her through those dimples she always showed during one of her creepy charm offensives. Seeing her on her knees about losing her kids and checking herself into a mental institution wasn’t enough for me. I wanted Marty or one of the kids to slug her when she said, as she did again and again, “we are so close” and then have her gutted, drowned, set on fire, dropped from an airplane, dragged behind one of those boats on the Lake of the Ozarks, and experience any other ultra-painful demise the show’s writers could think of.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Perhaps the creators of the show wanted to leave open the possibility of a sequel, realizing that a considerable portion of the Ozark viewing audience hates Wendy Byrde with a burning passion and would gladly watch a new show in hopes of seeing her get her final comeuppance.

Cutting The (Linguistic) Mustard

Recently I mentioned, with some asperity, that a particular effort didn’t “cut the mustard.” Two of my colleagues looked at me in bewilderment. They’d apparently never heard the phrase before, and had no idea that “cutting the mustard” meant meeting a desired standard of performance. To them, it was just another inexplicable saying that would have to be added to their growing list of quaint “Bobisms.”

Where does “cut the mustard” come from? Like many idioms, its lineage is disputed. Some sources contend it is British in origin and refers to the physical act of cutting down mustard plants, which requires sufficiently sharp tools; dull tools therefore would not “cut the mustard.” Others believe that it is an Americanism, perhaps originating in Texas, where a use of the phrase was found in a Galveston newspaper in the 1890s. O. Henry also used “cut the mustard” in some of his popular short stories in the early 1900s, which may have helped to spread the saying to the United States at large. One source argues that mustard has long been associated with being strong or sharp, and “cutting the mustard” relates to that notion.

I have a related, but slightly different, theory: I think that because mustard can be so powerfully flavored, the other ingredients of your sandwich or dinner must be sufficiently tasty to hold their own and make their presence known. I’m guessing that, out on the dusty plains of Texas, a cowboy took a bite into a sandwich and realized that the meat and other sandwich makings were so insubstantial and bland that they were overwhelmed by the pungent mustard. He then packed his saddlebags, spurred his horse, and ruefully concluded that the unsatisfying sandwich wouldn’t cut the mustard.

Can it really be that “cut the mustard” has passed totally out of usage by anyone under, say, 60? If so, that’s too bad. It’s one of those idioms that adds flavor — pun intended — to our language.

The Borg In Our Yard

Two very full days of gardening — more on that later — have convinced me of one thing: weeds are the Borg of the plant world. They are relentless in their quest to assimilate every tidy garden area and turn it into a snarled, disheveled, grotesque, tumbledown mess. And weeds, like the Borg, don’t care about you. They are oblivious to your aching back, your hamstrings that seem to be on fire, your muddy knees, or the knuckles that have been skinned on rocks. And while you may need sleep, the weeds never rest.

You can’t really get rid of weeds, either. Like the Borg, they will keep coming back. You might spend hours digging them out, carefully removing them from the footprints of the plants you want to keep, and tossing them into the compost area, but you know they will return. Spend hours turning a weedy area, above, into a neat, well-tended bed, below, and you may as well take a picture to remember it by, because when you return the weeds will have encroached again.

When I weed up here, I half expect to see a grim black cube hovering overhead. The weeds are ever on the march

In Dangerous Times

Earlier this week Dave Chappelle was ending a show at the Hollywood Bowl when he was assaulted by a man who came up on stage and tried to tackle the comedian. The attacker, who was armed with a fake gun that contained a knife blade, was subdued by security as Chappelle finished his show. Ironically, during the show Chappelle had apparently just been joking about having increased security in the wake of the Will Smith-Chris Rock-Oscars incident, and Chris Rock–who was at Chappelle’s performance–came on stage and jokingly asked Chappelle whether the assailant was Will Smith.

We can tip our caps to Chappelle and Rock for their faithful adherence to “the show must go on” tradition in show business, but the attacks on performers obviously aren’t funny. The Hollywood Reporter has published a piece headlined “Nobody’s Safe: Dave Chappelle Attack Raises Concerns For Performers” that addresses the incidents that reflect the increasing risks involved in performing in public. The concern is that the invisible but previously respected barrier between the stage and the audience has been breached, and that performers now have to be wary of the possibility of being physically confronted by some lunatic every time they go before the public to do a show. While that is a risk for any live performer, the risk is greater for a comedian, who is up on stage, alone, and might just make a joke that some unbalanced person in the audience finds personally provoking. And the Chappelle incident, coming on the heels of the Will Smith-Chris Rock assault, raises heightened concern that copycats might be lurking out there, ready to charge the stage at any comedy venue.

Chappelle, who is a real pro, issued a statement after the attack saying that he “refuses to allow last night’s incident to overshadow the magic of this historic moment.”  I hope that turns out to be true, and that performers everywhere continue to perform before live audiences, albeit with enhanced security and greater attention to their safety. There is a certain magic in seeing a live performance that simply can’t be replicated in a Netflix special, and I would hate to see that lost. But if these kinds of incidents continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if some performers decide that live acts just aren’t worth it. In dangerous times like these, who could criticize them for being unwilling to take that risk?

Button Crushing

Since I’ve started to wear suits and sport coats and button-down shirts and ties to the office again–just because I have a lot of suits and sport coats and shirts and ties, and feel like I might as well wear them and maintain what I consider to be a professional appearance–I’m using the dry cleaners again. That has the advantage of supporting a part of our economy that got hit hard during the pandemic, and also providing me with crisp, fresh clothing.

This disadvantage of using dry cleaning, of course, is the fatal button impact. Dry cleaning is the mortal enemy of all buttons on men’s clothing. Eventually a garment is returned from the dry cleaners and the buttons have met their maker. They’ve been smashed. Crushed. Destroyed. Splintered. Pulverized. Shattered. Atomized. Ground to a sad collection of fragments and powder, barely clinging to their home clothing.

On suit and sport coats, it’s the sleeve buttons that usually bear the brunt–as was the case with the sport coat above. With button-down shirts, it’s typically the collar buttons that get crunched. That’s irritating, incidentally, because you don’t notice the button failure until you’ve donned the shirt, put on your tie, and started to button down the shirt, only to realize that one of the collar buttons has gone to the great beyond, leaving only a pathetic nub behind so that the shirt can’t be buttoned down and you have to find a new shirt and start all over again.

What is it in the dry cleaning process that causes buttons to look like they’ve been in a combat zone? That’s not entirely clear, but it appears that the chemicals used in dry cleaning, the tumbling, and the pressing weaken the buttons to the point where they break–which is why some high-end dry cleaners specifically advertise that they will pay special attention to your buttons and, if the buttons are shell and bone, remove them before the outfit goes into the dry cleaning process and restore them after dry cleaning is done. I don’t have any buttons that fall into such exalted categories, so I endure the crushing.

The button mangling impact of dry cleaning makes me groan, but I expect that button manufacturers aren’t unhappy about it.

Just Shy Of The Cuckoo’s Nest Line

Yesterday I went to get my hair cut. In recent years, my haircuts have been an exercise in getting my locks clipped progressively shorter and shorter, because I find that I really don’t like longer hair and the work it involves at this point in my life. So I go to my hair-cutting emporium, say I’d like to have my hair trimmed a bit shorter than the last time, and my stylist responds with numbers that I don’t understand.

“Okay,” she says, with a look of knowledgeable determination. “Today we’ll try a 3.5 on the sides.” I recognize she is referring to some kind of setting on her professional-level electronic clippers, but I have no context for what that means in reality. It would be like the produce manager at your neighborhood grocery store earnestly telling you that the onions in the bin are a 3.5 on the Pyruvate scale. You might nod knowingly at that information, so as not to appear stupid to a guy wearing an apron, but you wouldn’t know what a 3.5 means until you actually taste the onion to see what that amount of Pyruvic acid tastes like.

As a result, it seems safer to approach things incrementally, and inch toward the ideal cut as the stylist gradually ratchets down the settings.

In my mind, I’ve got a pretty clear sense of what I ultimately want to get to: the same on the sides but a little bit longer on top than the haircut Christopher Lloyd sported in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, shown above, so that the hair on top can just barely be combed. I’m reminded of the old Jerry Seinfeld line about how they develop “maximum strength” pain relievers: apparently they determine what amount of pain relief will kill you, and then back it off just a bit. I want to find a haircut just shy of the Cuckoo’s Nest line.

The World’s Oldest Dog

Happy belated birthday to TobyKeith, a chihuahua who lives in Florida. The pooch turned 21 on January 9 and was recently confirmed to be the oldest dog in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.

21 is remarkably old for a dog–even small breed dogs, which tend to live longer than the larger breeds. If you are trying to figure out what TobyKeith would be in “human years,” note that the American Veterinary Medical Association urges an analysis that is more precise than the old “7 dog years for every human year” rule of thumb (which would put TobyKeith at a mere 147 in human years). The AVMA now takes the position that a dog’s first year equals 15 human years, a dog’s second year equals nine human years, and every year after that equals five human years. By that calculation, TobyKeith comes in at 119 human years. Either way, TobyKeith has reached a ripe old age.

TobyKeith’s human pal, Gisela Shore, adopted him from a shelter when he was a puppy and has lived with him ever since. She’s a lucky person. Anyone who has shared a home with a dog inevitably wishes their canine friends could have a lived, and enriched the household, for a little bit longer. Having a dog that has survived for the age of 21 is a great gift.

Ms. Shore says TobyKeith’s awesome longevity is attributable to good genetics, a healthy diet, and a loving home. That’s a pretty good recipe for longevity for anyone, dog or human. And, as the photo above reveals, apparently being dressed in embarrassing outfits isn’t a barrier to a long life–although, judging from the expression on TobyKeith’s face, he doesn’t particularly care for it.

The No-Sock Look

Has anyone else noticed that, more and more, male executives of start-up companies are being photographed wearing suits and shoes, but no socks?

No executive these days gets their picture taken without careful forethought to their attire, their pose, and their setting. I get the suit-and-no-tie ensemble, to convey professionalism but not rigidity. But what message is supposed to be communicated by the no-sock look? Cutting edge interaction with evolving social mores? A salary that is so reasonable in the era of nine-figure CEO compensation that it doesn’t even allow you to afford an essential article of clothing? Supreme confidence in the positive impact of odor eaters and the appeal of exposed ankle bones? What am I missing here?

I can’t imagine the no-sock look would be very comfortable, with your bare foot sticking to the lining of the shoe by the end of the day. And with all of the fashion statements that can be made by socks these days, can’t you display your cutting-edge chops by making deft sock selections instead?

My grandmother used to say that whenever she met a man she looked first at his feet, believing that the appearance of his shoes communicated something important about his hygiene, his manners, his attention to detail, and other character elements. It’s probably a good thing that she’s not around to see the no-sock look.

The Countertop Question

Our old place had black granite countertops in the kitchen and on the kitchen island. Our new place, on the other hand, has much lighter countertops that are almost white with some gray speckling. The difference has raised the eternal home decorating question: should you go with dark or light countertops in your kitchen?

If you haven’t participated in that Great Debate–or even thought about this compelling question–you’ll be surprised to learn that oceans of internet ink have been devoted to exploring to ramifications of the choice. (Run a search for “light versus dark countertops” if you don’t believe me.) The most hotly contested issue seems to be whether dark countertops, or light countertops, are more likely to show accumulated bread crumbs, stains, and spills. This is a weird point of contention, when you think about it: you’re basically assuming that you’ll be too lazy to actually clean off the countertops when they are looking a bit used and making a home decorating decision on the basis of personal indolence. Until I delved into this issue, I had no idea that for anyone other than Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs were such a point of emphasis.

But there are other facets of the dispute, too. You will see claims that dark countertops look “exotic” and are a bolder decorating choice. Some people contend that lighter countertops make your kitchen look bigger, while others insist that a large square of dark countertop better conveys the spaciousness message. Some people even go so far as to argue that if your kitchen doesn’t get much natural light, you should get light colored countertops because they better reflect the overhead lighting (which is certainly true of our new place, as shown in the photo above) and make your kitchen look brighter and more welcoming.

I’m agnostic on this issue, although I will say this: it’s nice to see bright white countertops when I get up first thing in the morning, before the sun is up. However, I inevitably will get out the paper towels and cleaner to wipe them off and make sure I’ve cleaned every spot.

The Cross-Species Lure Of A Good Doughnut

Everyone knows that doughnuts are an irresistible food for human beings. Now there is evidence that the appeal of those ever-tempting, soft, sinfully sugary pastries isn’t limited to homo sapiens.

In LaBelle, Florida, a man and his horse have become regulars at the local Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru line. Once a week, David Bosselait and his mount, Jackson, make a 12-mile round trip from their home to the doughnut emporium so Bosselait can get his cup of coffee and Jackson can enjoy his standard order: a plain doughnut hole. Jackson also gets a lot of love and attention from the Dunkin’ Donuts employees when he visits.

Bosselait says the weekly visits to the doughnut shop have had a positive impact on the horse, who is getting used to being around cars and staying “focused.” I’m not sure that introducing anyone–or any horse–to the wonders of doughnuts can really be described as a positive thing, because once you’ve enjoyed a doughnut you can never go back. Jackson may be getting better in traffic because his real “focus” is on getting that scrumptious doughnut hole every week.

The Power Of A Room

Since my trip to D.C. included a Georgetown University Law Center class reunion party, I figured I should visit the law center itself. It has changed a lot since I was a student in the early ‘80s, but the lecture halls look pretty much the same as I remember.

As I opened the door to this lecture hall—where I think I attended my very first law school class in 1982—I felt anew the angst and concern about whether I could handle law school that a much younger me experienced 40 years ago. The ghosts of professors and cases and Socratic method questions of the past still live on in those halls.

I’ll probably have a fresh set of nightmares about being late for an exam as a result of this visit.

The Shape Of Things To Come?

Staying at a new hotel often can give you a glimpse into the future. If the hotel has recently been constructed or refurbished, the rooms are likely to involve new design configurations, furnishings, fixtures, and space-saving approaches that look to summon the future rather than reflect the past.

I’m staying in a new hotel in Washington, D.C., and the future here looks . . . well, square. Everything in my room is very angular and cornered, from the desk, chairs, and lamps, to the bed frame and, finally, to the bathroom sink and toilet. In my room, the hotel vision of the future involves a lot of right angles and sharp edges.

I was especially intrigued by the square commode, pictured above, that thoughtfully includes both right- and left-handed toilet paper dispensers. After decades of using standard toilets and training new generations of humans in their operation, can square toilets be in our future? Fortunately, this one works like the others. The only real difference is that the square design provides a lot more of a seating area.

Deadpan America

Yesterday I conducted a random, admittedly somewhat anal check to make sure that I knew where our passports were. I flipped mine open and looked at the passport photo and shook my head. Between the fact that I wasn’t permitted to wear my glasses and the fact that the photo taker instructed me not to smile, the passport photo doesn’t look much like me–in my humble opinion, at least. The same is true of my Ohio driver’s license photo, where the employee at the deputy registrar’s location told me sternly that no smiling was permitted.

The U.S. State Department has published a series of rules and answers to FAQs that apply to passport photos, including several that address smiles. The answer to the FAQ “What pose should I be in for my photo?” is: “Face the camera with your head centered in the frame and not tilted with a neutral expression or natural smile.” And in response to the question “Can I smile in my passport photo?” the State Department advises: “Yes, but it must be a natural, unexaggerated smile. Both your eyes must be open.”

So, what’s a “natural, unexaggerated smile,” which is not a phrase I’m familiar with? The sample photos on the State Department webpage show people with no more than a hint of a smile–and no exposed teeth. Far from looking “natural,” they look like the kind of forced expressions you might see from somebody who really doesn’t want to get their picture taken but knows they have to, anyway. The passport photos you see therefore don’t exactly show people who look very happy about the fact that they are taking a trip overseas.

Why the encouragement of deadpan expressions? Since the whole point of identification documents is to allow the government to identify you, facial expressions that can interfere with identification–either by an immigration officer or a scanning computer–are frowned upon. (Pun intended.) Toothy grins that cause crinkles in your eyes and changes to other facial features fall squarely into that category. (In the case of driver’s license photos, one website advises: “It is best to simply wear a friendly expression, the same one you would be wearing if you were pulled over.” Yikes! That advice, if faithfully followed, is sure to wipe any happy expression from your face.)

The upshot is that passport and driver’s license photos show a deadpan America that is inconsistent with daily reality. If you saw such expressions on the faces of everyone you encountered, you’d question whether the general population has been replaced by pod people–but at least the computers would be happy.