Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day 2008

Get out and VOTE!

I could say a lot more, and probably will, but I have very little patience for those who are eligible to vote and are either not registered or don't bother.

Correct that; I have NO patience.

Too much was paid to obtain that right and to keep it.

All elections are important, but this one is particularly so. We have serious issues that this country must deal with. It's not a time to talk "patriotic" and not do anything about it.

If you're one of the ones who can't be bothered or just makes lame excuses (excuse ME, but there's early voting in many states, there are absentee ballots, and employers are supposed to make allowances to help their employees get out to vote), from here until the next election, SHUT UP. I don't want to hear any moaning or complaining from people who had every chance to participate and did not. Such people should lie back and take what they get, no questions asked.

As for those of you who have already voted, or will by the time the polls close, thank you. Whichever way you voted, it MATTERS. It says that you care about what happens to and in this country, and to its people and the people of this world. Myself included.

It isn't too much to ask, is it?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Taking It to Belgium

And let's face it; they have it coming.

My European friends tell me that in Europe, they tell "Belgian" jokes much as we used to tell Polish jokes. This, of course, has generally fallen out of favor because 1) We've maturely moved on to apply the same jokes to other ethnic groups, and 2) They aren't so damn funny to begin with, unless you're still stuck in a fourth-grade mentality, which is why these jokes are very popular in the White House.

Passing those by, there's not a lot to work with here. There are simply not enough clever lines to plague the Belgians with based on what they're known for: Waffles, chocolate, Brussels sprouts, banking, and postage stamps. What kind of material is that? Antwerp jokes? There are about two. No, clearly this must be a dull country if that's the best that they can come up with.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention Hercule Poirot, who is a fictional invention of Agatha Christie, but Belgian nonetheless. What a simpering, prissy, fussy and condescending fellow he is. What with all the time he spends meticulously grooming his famous moustache and eating like he's got 12 gourmets hiding inside of him, it's a wonder that he had time to solve anything. Think of Monk on steroids and sporting a high-cholesterol addiction. There. I just saved you the trouble of reading a lot of books. You can thank me later. Cash is the preferred form of thanks.

Belgium is also known as hospitable, to the point of surrendering even faster than France in World War II. "You need a way around the Maginot Line? Sure, come on into the Low Countries! There's more to see than you think!" Some countries shouldn't be allowed to have tourist bureaus.

However, now I have them where I want them, and this time, I'm striking at a source of considerable national pride. Something so important, that they'll be celebrating the whole year over it, this being the 50 year anniversary of its humble beginnings. Will there be parades and statues erected? I don't know, I suppose they will. Anything for a bank holiday. They have exported this product, this phenomenon, all over the world and boast of its genius and yea do they gloat because no one else can lay claim to them.

What could possibly be so important, so incredible, and so pervasive that you've been distracted by them so thoroughly that it escaped your attention entirely that they came from Belgium? What has Belgium chosen to be their symbolic presence in the world? Well, I'll tell you:

Smurfs.

That's right: Smurfs. It was just over 50 years ago that Pierre Culliford first committed these little abominations of nature onto paper. If he weren't already dead, he'd deserve to be for foisting these blasted, uber-annoying twerps (oh, I guess that's three) things on an unsuspecting world. What I really want to know is this: What the hell was the matter with that guy, and what is the deal with these things? More to the point: Why are they popular??

I could theorize for years about the latter and still not come up with a reasonable answer. The only observation I care to throw in that direction is a quote from Lazarus Long: "Never underestimate the power of human stupidity." Well, that, and the fact that the US electorate voted for four more years of George Bush in 2004, which is only proof of the first axiom.

But I digress.

Doesn't the "social structure" of the blue things bother you? There's one old guy, one chick, and seemingly thousands of guys. Right there, you have problems. Now, I don't generally have a problem with Papa Smurf, except that he's the only one who seems to be a parent, and the Smurfette is way too young for him. I don't care if there are some May-December relationships that work (shut up, Michael Douglas, you lucky bastard), it just isn't that way in cartoons. Ask Disney. Disney keeps it age-equivalent, even if there are too many Caucasian couples involved. No, from the dialogue I overheard from the countless times my younger sisters had this drek on the TV on Saturday mornings, Papa Smurf seems to be Smurfette's papa, too. If there's only one Papa, then all the male Smurfs must be his, too, so to reproduce, there's going to be incest involved. Is this the sort of thing you want your children to be watching?? Furthermore, you can't help but notice the tight white pants on the Smurf guys; clearly, there ain't no "package" going on there. So, if the Smurfette doesn't seem interested in any of them, you can understand why. And, if they can't get Smurfette to put out, no wonder the damn things are all blue. Apparently, it must spread.

Then there's the way they talk. One adjective in their whole vocabulary: "Smurfy". What is that all about? There is some logic attached to that, though: Yes, they really are that stupid. What else? Adverb = "Smurfily". Sounds like a venereal disease. Profanity: "Go Smurf yourself!" Considering how idiotic the whole Smurf thing is, that's actually a pretty harsh thing to say. What's the pluperfect subjunctive version of the verb "Smurf"? I don't even want to know.

The thing is, most cartoonists are observational in some way, directly or indirectly. Where did Culliford get his inspiration for Smurfs and their little society? Well, I think that we can say for certain that they don't resemble and human culture that we know of, nor anything in nature. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Smurfs are nothing but vacuous. That's human culture that we know of. Now, my question to you is: What do you really know about Belgian society? I'm betting the answer is bupkus. Nothing. They don't teach it in school, there's nothing in the papers about Belgium, nothing in everyday life that reminds you of Belgium.... except the Smurfs.

Logically, then, we can only conclude that life in Belgium and its people are represented by the Smurfs. Sure, I'm reasonable, and I'll bet that they don't all wear the same outfit, especially since it does get cold there, and I'll bet that there's at least more than one old Belgian. Outside of that, I'm not sure. It explains a few things: How did the Germans march straight through Belgium to invade France in WWII? Simple: How much resistance are a bunch of six-inch-high androgynous twerps going to put up? What's the deal with the waffles with the really big squares? Easy: The squares are for the Smurfs to curl up and sleep in. The famed chocolate? I'm afraid the only source that they have must be Smurf poo. Personally, I'm allergic to chocolate and can't say if Belgian chocolate tastes substantially like some brand of poo, but look at the stuff some of their neighbors eat. The French eat snails. Snails are gross. How do I know? I tried them once, and trust me, they're no kind of aphrodisiac. More like an emetic. The Norwegians eat lutefisk, which is fish cured in lye. You know, lye. The stuff that's the main ingredient in Drano. Case closed.

The only further proof I need to convince you that all of this is true is to use the deft logical reasoning of our friend, Hercule Poirot. He'd stick by me and my contentions, and we can trust his brain exercises much more than anything truly Belgian because he's a fictional character made up by a British writer. How was anyone to know that his existence was impossible, and that Belgians are all actually some mutant version of Smurfs? Because apparently nobody goes there. They don't have to. Banking is all electronic now, we have the waffle recipe, and the little boxes of poo, er- chocolate keep arriving.

No, I think you can have Belgium. I don't want to go there, I've read enough Agatha Christie, I can live without fattening food like waffles, and I am not touching the chocolate. I used to wonder how Belgium even got into the European Union, and then I found out that it came down to a very close vote. It was all tied up, with one faction wanting to dissociate themselves from the lowland blue demons, and the other side thinking how tacky it would be to leave a hole that big on the map. It came down to the Swiss delegation, and they're so persnickety about being neutral that they can't make up their minds about anything, so Belgium got in by default. That makes about as much sense as Guam having a delegate to the major parties' conventions. Why is Guam a possession of the US, considering where and how small it is? And who cares what the people on Guam think, in the larger picture? No offense, Guammarians, but you're not a Super Tuesday state. I'm sure you're all very nice people, and interesting to meet.

Plus, you're not little blue Belgians. Thank God for that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Freakin' Valentines Day

I hate "greeting card company" holidays. This is an axiom.

Life isn't difficult enough without some stinking corporate group taking out a monopoly on yet another date on the calendar? We're not smart enough, on our own, to know when it's time to do "that something special" for someone?

Actually, rhetorical in nature as they may be, the answer to both questions is "yes". Yes, life is plenty damned difficult. And yes, we're generally not smart enough to know when to do something special for someone; in this day and age, we generally stink at doing little things such as calling or writing someone just to let them know we care. That's a great pity, and a loss to us all.

This, however, is no excuse for Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is no excuse for Valentine's Day.

It's generally agreed that the day is Saint Valentine's Day, in observance of the martyrdom of some Roman named Valentinus in approximately 269 A.D. Defiantly did he cling to his faith in the face of persecution, the legend says. To his heathen detractors and their strenuous arguments in favor of free love and other fun ways of living, did he scoff "Your words don't even have a smidgenth of a point!" This made his detractors very angry. For one thing, they resented being patronized with a fallacious argument based on something as weak as mere diminuitive hyperbole. For another, they were mad because they didn't know what a "smidgenth" was, but they were pretty darn sure that it meant that Val was saying that something of theirs was small. Jumping to the usual conclusion along those lines, they decided that they'd show him that they had a point, after all. Lots of them. So they tied him to a tree, sharpened up a bunch of arrows, and shot Valentinus repeatedly through the heart. Normally, this is fairly lethal, but apparently he lived long enough to pose for several famous paintings before expiring, his eyes turned to heaven in that dramatic look saved for martyr icons which cries out "I didn't sign on for this!" Always just a smidgen too late.

By the way, the contention that this murder was carried out by a bunch of Juvenal delinquents from the theatre is just a nasty rumor.

But I digress.

That Valentine story always gets me all hot, bothered and libidinious, how about you? Don't feel bad, the Vatican wound up bailing on it and officially dropped St. Valentine from canonical celebration in 1969, coincidentally just two years after the historic Summer of Love. Coincidental because it didn't matter what the Vatican said, a lot of Catholics went and used Valentine's Day as an excuse for a lot of casual sex. Other days, they used completely different excuses in addition to fresh- well, perhaps I'm going into more detail than I need to. Let it pass.

Now, I could go through the whole bit about the obvious sexual symbolisms of the heart & arrow, and the sociological evolution of the exchange of thinly velied, sanctioned invitations to various forms of social intercourse, but it's been done to death already. It's not the point that I'm eventually trying to get at. Or rather, back to, since I already broached the subject.

Corporations. Doing their bidding for their profit, while we're supposed to blithely go along and think that it's our idea, spending billions of quatloos that we don't have each February 14th to let our "significant others" know that we love them. No, we dare not try to ignore it or risk failure; the fiendish truth is that they've so carefully contrived this "tradition" that it isn't our significant other we have to worry about looking bad to. It's everyone else!! Think about it: Are we not trained to ask each other what we gave/got for Valentine's Day to make sure we "meet the standard"? Haven't we been cornered into worrying about what everyone besides our significant others will think? Look, we have 364 other days of the year to get it right or wrong at home (personally, I think that a little bit of honest effort on a daily basis beats the concept of risking blowing the whole wad on 2/14), but people are not going to shut up about Valentine's Day for months, especially if you gave your wife a blender. If you give your wife a blender for Valentine's Day, you deserve what you get. I've done a lot of intense research into the field of innuendo, and there's nothing remotely sexual about a blender.

So, who are the robber barons in this sham of a holiday? Easy: Greeting card companies, florists, chocolatiers, jewlers, and plastic surgeons. Leaving the latter behind for another time, this group of corporate thieves are what finally bring me around to the center of my argument proving my point that it is mere money-grubbing, and that center is: Buddha.

No, not that Buddha. This was the nickname of a friend of ours, now sadly gone. However, he came, in his own way, to be the proof incarnate of the underlying insinuation of this whole enterprise: That if you give a woman the right gifts, then she has to have sex with you. Oh, don't look at me like that, that's what the whole Valentine's industry is focused on. Let me tell you a little story....

I was working with a local producer on a couple of television commercials for a very loyal supporter of the local theatre. As a way of thanking him, we were going to help put together a couple of TV commercials. This is a guy who doesn't fool around. He started off as a jeweler, and now sells jewelry, flowers, chocolates, cards, and fine wines and more, as a sort of one-stop guilt assuagement center. He is deadly serious about Valentine's Day. We made two; the first one I was in, but the second featured Buddha. Why was he called Buddha? Well, tipping in at 480 pounds, he kind of looked like a Buddha. Actually, what he really looked like was a grown-up Eric Cartman from South Park, and had many a personality quirk shared with Cartman. My concept was simple: We collected together ten very attractive women.... then took clips of them variously enjoying all the wonderful products from the store. Well, one thing led to another and soon it became a competition between them, seeing who could render a more "sensual" appreciation of their flowers, or candies, or whatever the case was. Then we cut to a group shot of them all together, all these women who were totally enchanted by these wonderful goodies..... suddenly the group split apart, revealing Buddha, who stood up and said "Yesssss!!" and thanking the store for his good fortune. Then there was some music, and he did a little dance.... all in all, this was a really cute 30 second spot. The gag, of course, was that even an overgrown Cartman could score with gorgeous women if he came to this store and bought the right things. Not just one, either; TEN of them! Obviously, this must be one hell of a store.

The commercial had been playing for a while, when I got a call from the owner telling me he was pulling the "Buddha" spot. I asked why, and he said he'd gotten a few complaints from callers saying that the commercial was overtly sexual, and that it implied that women could be bought with jewelry, flowers, chocolates, wine, and all the rest. This confused me for a moment, as I weighed the news and tried to put in in perspective, since we're talking all of three callers. I said "Tom, isn't that more or less the whole point of your store?" He paused on the other end and said he'd think about it. Prudes be damned, the commercial soon returned to the local airwaves.

So there you have it: "Insider information" that proves that the whole Valentine's Day scam is about profits and nothing else. We should be ashamed of ourselves for falling for it, but the effect is endemic. True to the deBeers commercials, I actually know men who have saved up and spent exactly two months' salary on an engagement ring. I'm sorry, but I refuse to buy into this whole Pavlovian response business. I prefer to do things my own way, thank you very much.

Which, uh, does not mean that I didn't send my wife flowers today. Yeah, I did, but I did it because I wanted to, not because of the expectations of---

You're not buying this, are you?

OK, I caved. I sent two dozen roses in red, pink & white to be delivered conspicuously to her at work. I did pass on the optional singing stripper, it seemed excessive. The bottom line is, while I feel perfectly comfortable (yea, entitled; I even feel obligated) to make fun of people for falling into this trap, I'm not comfortable with those same people making fun of me for falling down on the job when it comes to VD. That's "Valentine's Day", for those of you who just took the perverse meaning of the acronym. For it is we, who are of snide mind, who are best qualified to figure out a way to put an end to all this nonsense.

Uh, maybe next year.... right, guys?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Organized Stupidity

It's one thing to have stupidity present. It's another thing entirely to institutionalize it.

Case in point: We made the mistake a year ago of signing up for one of those IRS-approved Flex Spending Accounts for medical expenses. Such expenses do add up, and the advantage is supposed to be that you pay for them through this account with pre-tax dollars, therefore saving you money. I did the math, concluded that this could be true for us, and calculated a pretty darn accurate figure to have diverted from my wife's salary (since it's through her employer) into this account. The kicker, the dangling carrot, if you will, was that now they gave you a debit MasterCard which you could use at the health care provider (another overdone term that has crept into the vernacular) and access those funds directly. It sounded cool at the time.

Never, never get involved with one of these; what a mistake that turned out to be. For every single expense, down to one under $4.00, they insist on you providing more documentation than the IRS itself would ask for. What with the enormous amount of time I've spent dealing with this bureaucracy, and my time being valuable, I figure that we've actually lost money. In fact, we nearly lost a lot. We had a series of disputed amounts that added up to quite a bit. Specifically, $2,480 of our money. I had to send in the documents four times, the last one with an ugly letter saying what I was going to do if they didn't get it right this time.

Son of a betcha thought I was gonna swear! I got an update notice from the bureaucracy today saying that our submissions have been approved and that payment is pending. All $2,480, which has been already paid out of our pockets because the card stopped working early in the year. Naturally, I'll believe it when it's in my hands, banked & collected (like I trust the fools), but apparently someone must have read the part of my cover letter that said where I'd begin filing complaints. Either that, or we just got lucky for a change. I'll take it either way.

Naturally, it's the beginning of the year, so something on the health coverage just has to be changed. This time, it's the company serving prescription coverage. Now, this is a sensitive issue because the raw retail cost of what I take each month is rather a lot. Of course, drug prices are obscenely overblown here, but still.... our out-of-pocket is about $250 a month for all that, UNLESS you use the mail-in service which will save you 1/3 of the cost for most of what I take, because they'll send you three months' supply for the price of two (with me so far? LOL). Well, last year's company was so incompetent on the mail-ins that we gave up on it. However, for this year, they made a bureaucratic blunder: They accidentally went back to the company that's been by far the best in our experience. Imagine that! Let's see, that means we could save.... well, somewhere around $700 right there. In plainer English, I am expensive and a lot of trouble to have around. Whereas before I needed these medications, I was merely a lot of trouble.

Everything, it seems, is getting dumbed down, and this whole experience I've been having with these people is just another example. The basic forms you have to fill out are actually pretty simple (the rules and demands for accompanying documentation are more complex), so an "average" clerk ought to be able to dispense with one of those claims in maybe 5 minutes. Personally, I could do it much faster. However, these people take days, weeks, and in some cases, most of the year before getting it right. Where did they find these people? Another thing to beware of: The low bidder on a government contract. You can't even talk to these faceless (and nameless, as they don't tell you what it is in order not to be held accountable) drips on the telephone. That leads to a whole other set of headaches.

At least the medical plan covers the headaches. That's what some of the medication is for.

Isn't it aggravating when you call some business or agency (first, having to endure their automated answering systems, which is bad enough) where their "service representatives" don't know as much as you do about what you're talking about? Then there are their "scripts", which they deny having, but I used to work for a large corporation and I know that they swutting well do. The scripts are clearly designed for the lowest-common-denominator customers, and the clerks are so thick that they can't talk "off the page" and try to force you through the "stupid" path, refusing to actually listen to what you're saying, lest, all the gods forbid, they should wind up thinking. I mean, are people really that stupid? OK, maybe not the fairest way to put it. Yes, there are certainly SOME people that are that stupid. But, are there so many of them that it's necessary to construct all of society around them? Yes, there's plenty of evidence that there are that many, and a lot of this evidence is displayed at the voting booth. And television ratings. Why do people watch drek "reality shows"? Star-search me. Anyway, surely these people I've been dealing with are inbred relatives of the all the ones you've been dealing with in other places. Walk across the gene pool of your average telephone customer service representative or middle manager, and you won't even get your ankles wet. Where is Bob Barker when you need him? "Spay and neuter your morons", he would say. Maybe. If the price was right.

Today, one of the ultimate insults occurred. I don't know if you have this where you are (and I hope you don't), but now some companies are using automated dialing systems that call your number, and when you pick it up, they tell YOU to hold while you wait for the next available rep. What in the zarking fardwarks??? Do NOT call my phone and then tell me to hold; how rude can you get? I'd have hung right up, but I'd just been dealing with that other idiocy, and I let the woman who came on have it. I was loud, profane and probably abusive, and yelled at her to never again do such a thing. The nerve! If I call someone & am asked to be put on hold for a moment, fine. As long as I'm not left there interminably, I can have some patience for a working person. However, I'M the one who pays for my phone, and I'll be damned if I'm going to hold for some solicitor who shouldn't be calling me anyway, because I'm on the "do not call" list for solicitors. These same people who don't seem to understand the meaning of the two-letter word "No". Smoothly (for once), they move into the "overcoming objections" portion of their scripts, and won't be derailed by you saying "Excuse me? Didn't you just hear me say 'No!'?" Funny, I could swear that "no" means "no". Negatory. Unh-unh. No dice. Forget about it. Eventually, you often have to resort to rudeness, either by simply hanging up (which is your right, since it's your telephone), or by shouting them down and telling them to stop it! The latter happens more often for me, because I want to make sure that they take me off their calling list. "After the Apocalypse is when it's a good time for me", I say.

This is of no help, of course, when you're the one calling and you need something out of them, such as finding out if they've lost your paperwork (of which they disapprove merely because it represents some actual work they'll have to do) yet again. "Well, surely it must be your fault, sir; it says so right here on the script on my screen". It's enough to make you want to bite through steel.

But you can't, because your dental plan doesn't cover that.

Besides, that would mean dealing with the dental plan's bureaucracy, which is separate from regular health care, and they have their own fiendish methods of driving you mad. And they don't even give you a "happy" sticker anymore when you've had a good check-up.

I suspect that the whole purpose of this intricately-woven idiocy is to get you so frustrated that you'll give up, and then they don't have to give you any service at all, even bad service, and they get the bonus of keeping your money.

Well, it's not going to be that easy with me for these brain-impaired "friends". One, I don't give up easily. Two, from past work experiences, I know "where the bones are buried", I know exactly which people and agencies to complain to to make their lives miserable. I'm fair about it and let them know this, and tell them quite plainly that it will be much simpler for them if they just do what I'm asking them to do. Now & then, that works. Now & then, I go straight from a dimwitted supervisor to thermonuclear tactics. Do any of you want to waste portions of your life dealing with untrained parrots who never listen? 'Cause I don't.

The maddening topper to all this is that they could do better, but they won't. It's enough to give you an ulcer. But watch out; there's a clause in the health insurance plan that says they don't have to pay for injuries that they cause you, unless, for some reason, it involves a ficus tree.

Maybe I shouldn't have planted that one by the front door.