Archive for the “Random Musings” Category

Dear Microsoft –

Well, my old ThinkPad laptop finally got too long in the tooth to be useful, so I bought my first PC with Windows 7 installed.  Wow, what a difference.  Now I finally understand those “Windows 7 – it was my idea!” ads you were running awhile back.

I sell a software system I designed to law firms, so I was already aware of some of the fabulous Windows 7 features.  I want to thank you for those, because they keep me busy.  Once my clients started switching to Windows 7, I went from almost never receiving tech-support calls to receiving them on a regular basis.  That’s when first discovered that you had incorporated one of my favorite ideas:

When an installation program creates a new folder and writes files to that folder, the files should all default to being read-only with permissions denied to everyone.

“This is Tom Naughton, may I help you?”

“Yes, I’m trying to attach the database, and I know I’m doing it exactly like you showed in the tutorial, but I keep getting an access-denied message.”

“Hmm, let’s fire up TeamViewer so I can see your system.  Okay, the database files are in the correct folder … the script is pointing to that folder … what the? … Let me look at the permissions … Oh, boy, everything is set to read-only and permissions are denied to everybody.  You have to manually grant yourself permissions on the database files.”

“I have to give myself permission to use the database files I installed on my own PC?”

“Yes.”

“I have no idea how to do that.”

“Well, you right-click the files, then choose Properties, then Security, then you have to click the Continue button, then … ah, never mind, I’ll do it for you.  Let me take control for a few minutes.”

I never got that call when my clients were using Windows XP, and I have to tell you, it’s great to get to actually talk to so many of them on the phone.  With email and Facebook and Twitter and all that, people just don’t spend enough time actually talking.

Here’s another one of my ideas I already knew you had incorporated:

Some common folders should be automatically marked read-only, and when users de-select the read-only option, the folder should remain read-only even after they click the Apply button — with no warning that the read-only setting wasn’t removed, of course.

I learned about that terrific feature when I started hearing from clients that they could no longer use the mail-merge feature of my software.  As per your instructions, my software installs itself in the Program Files directory.  It’s been doing that for several years without creating any problems.

So you can imagine my surprise when (after several hours of detective work) I realized the mail-merges were failing because sub-folders created within the Program Files directory are read-only and – this is the fun part – that setting can’t be changed by anyone!  Since my software could no longer create a mail-merge data file in a permanently read-only folder, the merges failed.

Brilliant!  What kind of crazy software program would ever need to write a data file inside one of its own folders?  You must have had countless software vendors beg for that read-only feature – because again, that gives us the opportunity to spend time on the phone with our clients as we walk them through moving a program out of the Program Files folder.

But I didn’t realize just how many great ideas you incorporated into Windows 7 until I bought my own Windows 7 PC and started trying to install software.  I know from working in corporate environments that the corporate IT people in charge of PC security believe the ideal computer is one that doesn’t allow anyone to actually do anything (we all stay out of trouble that way), but I didn’t expect you’d apply that philosophy to an operating system with “HOME” in the version name.  Pure genius.

I really appreciate the multiple warnings whenever I try to do something that would make the computer useful.  For example, I double-click an installation program, select “I agree” on the license-agreement screen, enter my serial number, and then – BANG! – up pops a dialog box:

A program is attempting to make changes to your computer.  Do you want to allow this?

Thank goodness for that feature.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally double-clicked an installation file, agreed to a license and entered a serial number, only to discover to my great horror that this series of inadvertent mouse-clicks and keystrokes was about to make changes to my computer.  Always being given another chance to correct this situation was my idea.

And I especially appreciate the constant warnings that only an Administrator can do whatever it is I’m about to do.  Sure, I made myself an all-powerful Administrator on the PC immediately, but the ego-boost was disappointly brief.  So I enjoy being reminded of my lofty position when I’m presented with frequent dialog boxes that say, in effect:

Only someone in the powerful role you already occupy can do this.  Click OK to continue, Oh Mighty One.

That was definitely my idea … as was this one:

When people logged into the PC as an Administrator copy files from a backup drive, they should have to go through several steps to grant themselves permission to use the files before actually using them.

Again, even with an operating system clearly named as the “HOME” version, you can’t be too cautious about security.  Just because you’re an all-powerful Administrator, that doesn’t mean you should start accessing files willy-nilly without having to take a moment and reconsider whether or not you want to give yourself permission to do so.  You may just decide you’re not trustworthy and refuse to grant yourself access.

It was also my idea to keep Administrators on their toes by making them consciously run installation programs as an Administrator even though they’re already logged in as an Administrator.  You’d be surprised how often Administrators get lackadaisical about this.

Just today, for example, I was attempting to install a package of programming tools, only to see the installation roll back time after time after the progress bar had reached 90%.  So I had to get on the phone and call a tech-support person (who no doubt appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone for a change).

“Oh, in Windows 7 you have to install that package using Administrator privileges, or it will fail.”

“But I am an Administrator.”

“Yes, but if you just double-click the .exe, you’re not installing it with Administrator privileges.”

“Say what?  I am the Administrator.”

“I know, but instead of double-clicking the .exe you have to right-click it and choose Run As Administrator.”

“So I’m the Administrator, I’m logged in as the Administrator, but if I just run the installation program, I’m not installing it as an Administrator?”

“That’s right.  You have to choose to do that by right-clicking and then clicking Run As Administrator.  Otherwise you’re not installing as an Administrator.”

“Even though I am the Administrator?”

“That’s right.”

“Who the @#$% thought that was a good idea?”

Then I remembered:  I did.

Windows 7 … it was my idea.

Thank you, Microsoft.

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It was a mid-week standup show on the Norwegian Dream, and the small auditorium was rocking.  Cruise-ship audiences are a comedian’s dream — they’re on vacation, they’re relaxed, they’re ready to have fun.  Some of them started laughing at my first setup, before I even got to the punchline.  It was one of those “I can’t believe I get paid for doing this” shows.

Partway into my set, I noticed a big man with graying hair sitting in the front row.  He was laughing as much as anyone, but also writing on a yellow pad.  A reviewer? I wondered.  Someone the cruise line sent to get feedback on my act?

An hour later, after changing into jeans and a t-shirt and then grabbing a late supper at a buffet, I was walking past one of the many bars on the ship when I heard someone call my name.  It was the note-taking man, sitting at the bar and waving me over.  A muscular young guy sporting a crew-cut was sitting with him.

“Can I buy you a beer?”

“Sure, that would be great.  Guinness.”

“Good man.  That’s my beer too.”

He shook my hand and told me his first name, then introduced me to the crew-cut.  They told me how much they enjoyed my act.  They appreciated that I kept it family-friendly and clean.  I told them that’s what the cruise ships require, but it’s also my style in the comedy clubs.

The crew-cut saw a friend making time with some attractive young women at a nearby table and went to join them.  The older man pointed to his yellow pad, which was sitting on the bar.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I took some notes during your act.  I’m not stealing your material or anything, but … well, I hope this doesn’t sound too strange for a guy my age, but now that I’m retired, I’ve been going to some amateur nights at a comedy club.”

“No kidding?  How’s it going?”

He gave a dismissive wave.  “I’m no good yet.  I see someone like you, getting all those laughs without having to do dirty material, and I just don’t know how you do it.   So I take notes, trying to figure out what makes your stuff so funny.  I hope you don’t mind.”

Over another Guinness, I gave him my quick seminar on humor, the various forms a standup bit can take, how to create the surprise that gets the laugh.  He jotted down more notes as we were talking.

“I really appreciate you taking the time to help.  I tell you, I just admire the heck out of what you people do up there.  You’re spreading joy, you know?  It’s a great thing.  If I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d want to do, spread some joy, make people feel good.  I’m hoping I can still do that now.”

“You said you’re retired.  What did you do?

“I was in the Marine Corps pretty much my whole adult life.”

“No kidding?  Doing what?”

“Ahhh …”  He took a sip of Guinness.  “Well, I hope you don’t think any less of me, but I was a sniper.  Then when I got too old for that, I trained snipers.”

“Why on earth would I think of less of you for that?”

“Sorry.  I guess it’s just my stereotype of Hollywood and show-biz types.  You know:  anti-military, thinking snipers are all bloodthirsty killers, that kind of @#$%.

“Yeah, that is a pretty common attitude in Hollywood.  But between you and me, I can’t stand Hollywood.”

That seemed to perk him up.  “Let me buy you another Guinness.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you.  I really appreciate you letting me pick your brain.”

I told him he could return the favor by telling me a bit about his life as a sniper, since I’d never met one before and probably never would again.  So, somewhat hesitantly at first, he did:  being in the field alone, disguised as foliage, crawling toward a target at a rate of maybe a couple of feet per hour to avoid detection.  No meal breaks, no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, bugs crawling up in your clothes and biting at you, all the while knowing one sudden movement or one sneeze would get you killed.  Finally, you’re in range, and then …

“It’s not like being on the line,” he said.  “You don’t fire at enemy soldiers a couple hundreds yards away and watch them drop.  It’s one man in your sights, you’re looking at his face, probably looking into his eyes.  Then you pull the trigger.  It’s personal.  It can get to you.”

“Wow.  I guess it could.”

“Well, I did what had to be done, you know?  But that’s what I mean about if I had a chance to do it over.  You get to a certain point in your life, you want to do something meaningful, something that makes people happy.”

It was only because of the Guinness that I was willing to disagree with a rather large retired Marine who’d been drinking.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m flattered that you like my act and admire what I do.  But in the scheme of history, guys like me aren’t worth a @#$% compared to guys like you.”

“What?  How the @#$% do you figure that?”

“How many standup comedians you figure they’ve got in North Korea?”

He smiled.  “Never thought about it.  Probably none.”

“Right.  And there probably aren’t any standup comedians in Iran either, and if there are, they sure as hell have to watch what they say if they want to keep on living.”

A chuckle.  “I guess they would, yeah.”

“I can be a standup comedian because I live in a free country.  And the only reason I live in a free country is that at certain times in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War, some really tough mother@#$%ers like you stood up and did what had to be done.  I read a lot of history, and I don’t remember any of our presidents ever responding to a national emergency by yelling, Holy crap! Get the Secretary of War on the phone and tell him to send in the standup comedians!

He laughed and slapped the bar.  Whew.

“I think it’s great you want to try being a comedian.  I hope you do.  But even if it doesn’t work out, I hope you remember guys like me get to do what we do because of guys like you.  So let me buy you a Guinness now.”

“No, I’m buying you a Guinness.  But I appreciate what you said.”

The crew-cut eventually rejoined us, and over the next few hours I learned it’s not a good idea for a middle-aged comedian to go drink-for-drink with a couple of Marines.  When my head started spinning, I stood up and announced I should get myself to bed.

The retired Marine stood up and said he should do the same.  He reached out and shook my hand, slipping something into it, then walked away.  The other Marine noticed what I was holding.

“You know what that is?”

“Some kind of coin.”

“That’s a Scout-Sniper’s coin.  It’s an honor.”

“Cool.”

“Seriously, don’t lose that, and don’t sell it on eBay, okay?  The man just let you know he considers you a brother.  It’s an honor.  I don’t even have one of those yet.”

“I won’t lose it.  I promise.”

Five years later, I still have the coin.  I’m looking at it right now, remembering my Marine buddy from the cruise.  Tomorrow night, as I enjoy the Independence Day fireworks with my wife and my girls, sitting on a blanket in a public park and feeling happy and safe and free, I will remember him again.

I hope you’re well, my friend.  I hope you made it onto a comedy stage somewhere and spread a little joy.  But even if you didn’t, I hope you understand that men like you have been spreading joy for 235 years now.  The joy is called freedom.

Happy Fourth of July.

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Ever since we moved to Tennessee, my wife has been dreaming of buying a big plot of land somewhere and becoming more self-sustaining, raising chickens and goats, growing our own vegetables, and fishing in the many nearby waterways. We currently live in a subdivision and will for at least another year, but when school let out for the summer, she reminded me we don’t need our own mini-farm to go fishing.

My girls are huge fans of Man Vs. Wild, Survivorman, Dual Survival, The Alaska Experiment, and pretty much any show where people have to kill their own food, so as soon as they heard my wife mention fishing, they began begging me to take them shopping for fishing rods. So I did, figuring two fishing rods would be enough for the family. Then both girls selected pinks ones. Frankly, I’m not secure enough to stand around in public waving a long pink stick, so I chose a third fishing rod in a manly shade of deep green.

The trouble with owning fishing rods is that after a couple of days of using them for make-believe fencing matches, the kids actually demand to go fishing. Since there’s a public fishing area on the Harpeth River less than three minutes away, I quickly ran out of excuses. We went fishing on Monday.

I’ve held a fishing rod in my hands maybe three times in my entire life. My dad’s interest in lakes and rivers was limited to figuring out how to retrieve his golf balls from them, and when I once asked about perhaps taking my brother and me fishing someday, he patiently explained that fishing is just an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer, which we could do in our own back yard.

So even though I’m 52 years old, this whole fishing business was all new to me … which became painfully evident when we climbed down the steep banks of the Harpeth River and opened our little plastic boxes of tackle.

“What’s that for?” my wife asked as I stood there flipping a wire semi-circle back and forth over some spool-thing attached to the rod.  (This was after I’d spent ten minutes figuring out how to keep the spool-thing from falling off the rod.)

“Uh … I think the line goes around it. Or over it. Or under it. I don’t know.” We took turns seeing who could spend the most time fussing with the spool-thing without accidentally accomplishing anything useful.

Fortunately, two teenage girls who were fishing a bit downstream recognized that when a grown man stares at a fishing pole for more than two minutes without moving, it’s a subtle cry for help. With the born-and-bred southern hospitality that makes this area such a pleasant place to live, they set down their poles and came over to serve as instructors. After feeding the line through some ring-things on the pole (which, as it turns out, you have to screw together first) and demonstrating how a reel works, one of them even tied a hook onto my line for me. Then they both moved a safe distance away.

Much as I adore my wife, she has a couple of annoying habits … one of which is being good at things she’s never tried before. On my birthday several years ago, she joined me for a round of golf on a par-three course. Since she’d never so much as taken a practice swing at the range, I gave her a two-minute lesson while we waiting on the first tee. Apparently wanting to flatter me as an instructor, she responded by landing five of her nine tee shots on the green. If she could putt a little better, we’d be divorced by now.

So I wasn’t surprised when she pulled a decent-sized fish from the river about thirty seconds after casting her first line. She held up the fish for the obligatory picture, then dropped it into a cooler filled with ice.

I spent the next three hours proving that if water-logged sticks provided complete protein, I could feed my family with nothing more than a fishing pole. I also caught several large rocks. Unable to reel in the rocks, I kept having to cut my line and start over. That’s how I discovered that fishing line is specially formulated to tangle itself into impossible knots no matter how carefully you try to unwind it. I also discovered that with the proper flick of the wrist, it’s surprisingly easy to toss a hook into the highest branches of a tree. (Since I was facing the river, the tree limbs I hooked were of course above and behind me.)

My six-year-old caught a fish that was too small to consider eating, so she threw it back. By the end of the expedition, my wife’s fish was the only one in the cooler.  But it was big enough for a meal, so we drove home feeling victorious. We came. We saw. We caught our own wild food.

After thumbing through some recipes for fish, my wife set the cooler on the kitchen counter and reached in to retrieve the main course. At that point, she turned to the rest of us with an excited expression and said, “BWAAAAAAHHH!!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “I know I’ve been expressing a lot of enthusiasm lately for getting back to nature and sourcing more of our food by raising chickens and goats on our own mini-farm someday and learning to fish in the local waters in the meantime, but up to this point in my life the only fish I’ve cooked came from grocery stores and fish markets where you know for a fact the fish are really and truly dead when you pick them up, and while I assumed putting a fish on ice for four hours was 100 percent fatal, it turns out this fish is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I found somewhat surprising.”

After dropping the wriggling fish back into the ice chest, she ran to her computer to read up on how to humanely kill it. Then she went to the toolbox to retrieve a flat-head screwdriver. I was beginning to wonder if she’d just learned how to disassemble the fish and remove the spark plugs, but then she grabbed it, set it on a cutting board, and jammed the screwdriver into its head behind the right eye.

“Uh, honey … are you sure you didn’t get your instructions from an online guide for mob enforcers?”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do with a fish. That’s where the brain is.”

Confident she’d dispatched the fish once and for all, she grabbed a knife and made an incision in the belly. Then she stopped cutting to remark, “BWAAAAAHHHH!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “It turns out I missed the brain and jammed the screwdriver into whatever you’d call the fish version of a neck, which you would think would be enough to kill a fish even if you do miss the brain, but it turns out they’re tough little creatures, and this one is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I find somewhat surprising.”

The fish — which by this point had been frozen, stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver and partially gutted with a knife — was looking at her with a fish-eyed expression I interpreted as “For the love of God, lady, just @#$%ing kill me already!” I suggested she might also want to water-board the fish for good measure, but she explained that fish don’t mind water-boarding and I should really shut the @#$% up now. Then she grabbed a cleaver and did a Marie Antoinette number on the thing.

To her credit, she calmly finished cleaning the fish and cooked up a tasty fish-and-tomato stew. When I asked later if this experience had dampened her enthusiasm for becoming a latter-day pioneer woman, raising and catching and killing her own food, she said no.

Good. I’m looking forward to the first time she goes after a live chicken.

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Snow in Chicago on Christmas Day

Snow in Chicago on Christmas Day

Almost Ready to Go

Before we even left Tennessee, we had to perform some Santa Claus tricks. Alana, my five-year-old, began asking for an electric car months ago, and we decided we were okay with getting ripped off and bought it for her. No, it’s not a Smart Car … but the pink Barbie Camaro we ordered from Wal-Mart is approximately the same size, only with more leg room.

We managed to keep the big box hidden in the garage — one of the many advantages of having a garage full of large, useless items — and informed Alana that even though we’d be in Chicago on Christmas morning, we’d asked Santa Clause to leave the car under the tree at our house. (Fortunately, Santa doesn’t charge extra for multiple deliveries.)

We’d also picked up a Wii for Sara, my seven-year-old. She didn’t ask Santa for a Wii, but after playing with one at a friend’s house some weeks ago, she came home and declared it “totally cool.” We decided to leave that under our own tree as well, if only to maintain a state of sibling equilibrium when we returned.

So after loading up the car and getting the girls strapped in, I had to make an excuse to go back inside and move the car from the garage to the living room. I was worried the girls might become suspicious. They’re used to seeing their mommy run back inside. In fact, my wife likes to play a travel game called Is The Coffee Pot Off?!  The object of the game is see how far from home she can get to me to drive before turning around so she can run in and check the coffee pot. But that’s her role in the game.  Once I leave the house to take a trip, I don’t go back inside unless I see flames in my rearview mirror.

I announced that I may have forgotten a suitcase and went inside. The girls never wondered why it took Daddy 10 minutes to determine if a packed suitcase was sitting inside the front door. During those 10 minutes, Daddy — who has a bad shoulder that will probably require surgical repair soon — was trying to lug a big box up a short flight of stairs while mostly using one arm to do it. Daddy was also saying lots of words that weren’t very Christmas-like.

Off We Go

With Santa’s extra deliveries in place near the tree, we took off for Springfield, Illinois. On most car trips, my daughters counter-synchronize their bladders to make sure I’ll be exiting the highway in search of a bathroom at least every 45 minutes. For some reason, they forgot this time. I was impressed with myself for making good time until I saw a sign announcing the distance to Louisville, Kentucky. I experienced a strange mental discomfort … something didn’t feel quite right. Then it hit me: we pass through Louisville on the way to Chicago, not Springfield. I’d been driving on auto-pilot. So we got to see far more of the Kentucky countryside than I’d planned as we spent two hours working our way west on two-lane highways.

Springfield

It was while we were staying at my mom’s house in Springfield that I began to suspect my daughters might be on their way to having a perfect Christmas. (It seems to me we get perhaps one or two perfect Christmases during childhood — I remember two.)  They built a snowman in my mom’s front yard. They charmed my mom with compliments such as “Grandma, I just love the floppy skin on your neck!” They loved the presents they opened after our big family dinner on December 23rd. They were delighted to see their cousins (my brother’s three sons), who are all old enough to be their uncles but also young enough to get down on the floor for piggy-back rides and wrestling matches.

Sara was also delighted to discover that my sister owns a Wii, which is attached to my mom’s big-screen TV. I was somewhat less than delighted (late at night, when no one was watching) to discover that my ineptitude at real sports is exceeded only by my ineptitude at Wii sports. Wii not only kicks my butt at tennis (on the beginner setting), it then insists on replaying each of my bad shots in slow motion. All that’s missing is an audio track recorded by one of the playground bullies from my childhood, saying, “You call that a backhand, weenie-boy? Man, you really suck!” But that would be cruel, so Wii settles for finishing each round by showing my Wii character bowing its head in shame as YOU LOSE appears on screen.

After trouncing my sister at tennis, golf and bowling, Sara again declared Wii “totally cool” and told me, “I wish I would’ve asked Santa Claus for one of these!” I reminded her that Santa wouldn’t be leaving the North Pole for another day and promised I’d try to get a message to him. She said to tell Santa it was okay if he left a Wii at our house, along with Alana’s electric car.

Perfect.

Off We Go Again

Word of advice to people still out there looking for love: forget about looks, personality, and other inconsequential traits. Marry someone whose parents live within driving distance of yours. That way you don’t risk winding up in divorce court after one too many debates about which family to visit each Christmas.

Springfield to Chicago is less than four hours in the car — unless it’s snowing, which it was when we left for Chicago on the morning of Christmas Eve. Eventually the snow was blowing more or less sideways, so the wipers on our van stepped up and responded by efficiently clearing the splatters from the entire windshield, except for a large area at eye level on the driver’s side. I alternated between making myself artificially tall and artificially short to see where the heck we were going.

After spending winters in both Illinois and Tennessee, I realize there’s a difference in how southern bad drivers and northern bad drivers respond to snowy roads. The southern bad drivers assume any amount of snow makes driving impossible and stay home, living off the canned goods they ran out to buy when they first heard snow was in the forecast. The northern bad drivers assume traction on a snowy road is exactly the same as traction on a clear road and continue zipping along at 75 miles per hour. Both sets of bad drivers end up ceding the roads to us cautious-but-willing drivers … but the southerners are sitting at home, while the northerners are sitting in their cars, hoping their cell phones can find a signal down there in the ditch. In a 100-mile stretch on Interstate 55, I saw nearly a dozen vehicles that made unplanned exits.

Chicago

My girls and their six-year-old cousin Marzhan all know that Santa won’t slide down the chimney into a house where any kids are still awake. We emphasized the urgency of the situation by browsing to NORAD’s Santa Tracker on a computer and showing them that Santa was already in South America and could turn north at any minute. They understood. They wanted to go to sleep. They just couldn’t.

Every 90 seconds or so, one of them would appear at the top of the stairs and announce, “I can’t sleep!” They said this as if we were refusing to hand over the magic sleeping potion and were perhaps conspiring to deprive them of gifts from Santa. I finally informed them that if they crawled in bed and didn’t make a sound, Santa would probably be fooled into thinking they were sleeping and leave them their presents anyway. Once they were persuaded to stop jumping out of bed to tell us they couldn’t sleep, they fell asleep.

I’m a natural night-owl and didn’t bother crawling into bed until 2:00 AM. My girls bounced on the bed roughly 47 minutes later and announced that the sun was coming up and therefore it was clearly time to go downstairs. It’s only after becoming a parent myself that I finally understand why my dad always looked so exhausted on Christmas. (Given my dad’s famous lack of ability to use simple tools, I suspect he was often up until nearly daybreak, cussing about labels that read: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.)

Once again, the girls were delighted with their gifts — then delighted all over again when they found notes from Santa in their stockings, informing them that the electric car and the Wii would be waiting for them at home.

They ate several pounds of treats constructed entirely from high fructose corn syrup and/or white flour, then burned off the excess fuel by engaging in an all-day snowball fight with a gang of cousins. The snow was deep enough to look like Christmas, but not enough to shut down the city.

Perfect.

And Back Again …

After a few more days of visits with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and relatives I can’t quite identify, we drove home. Sara spent much of the trip listening to her new MP3 player. We figured it must’ve come with a few songs pre-loaded, which it did, but it turned out she was mostly listening a Suze Orman audiobook titled Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. I suspect she’ll be asking for a bigger allowance soon, and perhaps a 401k.

The closer we got to home, the more often Alana reminded us that she was soon to be the owner of an electric car, courtesy of Santa Claus. She didn’t see any good reason she shouldn’t take it for a test drive in the dark after we got home. Fortunately, it was raining when we pulled into the driveway, so she decided the test drive could wait. My wife hurried inside to turn the big box so the Wal-Mart delivery sticker wouldn’t be facing forward (something Daddy forgot to check while lugging the box upstairs and muttering bad words).

The girls bounded inside after her. As my wife and I carried in the luggage and the gifts, the girls were practically bouncing around the living room.

“Look! That’s my caaaaaaar!”

“Santa got me the Wii! Look, Alana, I got a Wii!”

“This is the best Christmas present EVER!”

“This is the best Christmas present ever, too!”

Yes, they’re just toys. Yes, Christmas is too commercial, Christmas shopping can be a hassle, and Christmas travel can be tiring. But kids don’t know that, and they shouldn’t. For them, Christmas can still be perfect. And when it’s perfect for them, it’s pretty darned good for us too.

Snowball warriors taking cover during battle

Snowball warriors taking cover during battle

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For the first time in three years, we’ll be spending Christmas in Illinois, visiting both sets of grandparents. Last year, we were still newcomers to Tennessee, and I wanted the girls to experience Christmas in their new home. The year before, we elected to stay in Burbank — mostly because the year before that, we made the mistake of flying during Christmas week.

The trip to Illinois was merely a hassle … up at 4:00 a.m., carrying kids and luggage and car seats to a taxi, then into the airport, then through the terminal and onto the plane, then through another terminal and onto another plane, then to a shuttle for a two-hour ride from St. Louis to Springfield.

The trip back from Chicago, however, was a nightmare. The first sign of trouble came in the form of snowflakes as my father-in-law was driving us to O’Hare. They weren’t big snowflakes, mind you, and there weren’t many of them yet. But I’d spent most of my adult life in Chicago and knew a blizzard could be following those little snowflakes into town.

Yup. By the time we boarded the plane two hours later, snow was piling up on the runways, and delay notices were piling up on the departure and arrival boards. I tried to remain very calm and zen about it all, just accept that we were going to miss our connecting flight in Dallas, but the pilot suckered me into optimism by backing away from the gate a mere 20 minutes after our scheduled departure. Well, how about that … our layover in Dallas is nearly two hours, so we’ll even have a time to spare.

As it turned out, we’d backed away from the gate just in time to be approximately the 100th airliner in line for takeoff. An hour or so later, when we were perhaps third in line for takeoff, the pilot announced that the wings were covered with ice and he couldn’t risk flying. I was hoping a platoon of mechanics would drive out to the runway and jump on the wings armed with little plastic ice-scrapers, but the pilot taxied to the terminal, where greenish liquid sprayed from a huge nozzle removed the ice.

Still feeling cautiously optimistic, I convinced myself we might just make that connecting flight … after all, when O’Hare slows down, the whole system slows down, so the connecting flight could be delayed somewhere as well.

An hour later, after our second long stretch sitting in line to take off, the pilot announced that we needed another de-icing and taxied to the terminal again. I checked my watch. Without the snow, we would be landing in Dallas right about now. I become psychologically disjointed in these situations because while my body is where it is, my soul moves on to where it’s supposed to be — in this case, walking through a terminal in Dallas. The two would have to get along without each other until we arrived home in Burbank.

We finally landed in Dallas hours after our connecting flight had taken off. The airport was so over-crowded, I expected to see hordes of people bathing in a river somewhere in the middle of the terminal. I walked to the American Airlines desk at what was supposed to be our connecting gate and asked the uniformed, perky blonde if there was a later flight to Burbank.

“There’s one more flight leaving in three hours, but it’s sold out.”

“So what can you do to get us home?”

“Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going smile sincerely and suggest we put you on the stand-by list for that flight, then overcome your doubts by reminding you that since you have small children, you’ll receive priority stand-by status. Now of course, you don’t actually stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting on the plane since we overbook our flights even when it’s not a jam-packed holiday week, but this way I appear to doing something to help, when in fact I’m really just looking forward to watching you, your wife, and your two little girls spend three hours trying to avoid cramping up while sitting on the hard floor since, as you’ve noticed, there isn’t an empty chair anywhere within 10 square miles of the airport. The good news is that you’ll get some much-needed exercise every time one of the girls has to pee, because we broke the plumbing in all the nearby bathrooms.”

That isn’t exactly what she said, but it’s what she meant.

Three hours later — after the uniformed, perky blonde had herded all the passengers onto the plane and bribed some overbooked ticket-holders into surrendering their seats — I asked her what we should do now, seeing as how the priority stand-by status didn’t work out. She told me I’d need to go ask someone at the American Airlines ticket counter and pointed towards a security exit.

My wife stayed with the girls, who’d long since dozed off, and I walked the five or six miles to the American ticket counter. The line was only half as long as I’d expect if John and George came back from the dead and announced that the Beatles would perform exactly one reunion concert, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, we missed our connecting flight. When’s the next flight to Burbank?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Fine. I need four –”

“It’s sold out. They’re all sold out tomorrow.”

“What?”

“Everyone’s trying to fly to the Burbank-Pasadena airport for the Rose Bowl.”

“So when’s the next flight with open seats?”

“Sunday.”

“This is Friday.”

“I know that, sir. Would you like to book a flight on Sunday?”

“No. Put us on another airline, fly us into LAX, just get us home tomorrow. I’m not spending two days in Dallas.”

“Let’s see … here’s the best I can do. You can fly to Seattle tomorrow morning, then take an Alaskan Airlines flight from there to Burbank in the afternoon.”

“Dallas to Seattle to Burbank.”

“That’s right.”

“How long is the layover in Seattle?”

“Four hours.”

“I’ll take it.”

So I bought the tickets and stood in yet another line to get through security. The crack TSA agent examined my tickets then held up a hand.

“You can’t come in here, sir.”

“Why not?”

“These tickets aren’t for today.”

“Yes, I know that. They’re for tomorrow. These are the earliest flights I could get. But my wife and girls are inside waiting for me because I hoped I’d find a flight for tonight.”

“Well, you can’t go inside with these tickets.”

“Okay, then, now what? Is someone going to make an announcement so my wife knows I’m stuck out here and can’t get back in?”

“We don’t do that.”

“Uh-huh. So … I guess I’m supposed to stand here for, say, an hour or two until she finally comes looking for me?”

“Can you call her on a cell phone?”

“If she had a cell phone I could call, why would I be talking to you right now?”

“I don’t know. She ought to have a cell phone.”

“Look, you can have somebody follow me in there if you think I’m security risk, but I need to let my wife know I’m out here and we’re stuck in Dallas until tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a logical and reasonable request, but I work for the federal government and was therefore specially trained to follow rules for the sake of following rules, even when they make no sense whatsoever. In fact, if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”

That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

As I was wondering exactly much jail time I’d pull for punching the crack TSA agent in the nose, an older African-American woman whose badge identified her as being on the janitorial staff heard part of our conversation and took pity on me. She volunteered to find my wife inside and asked for a description and gate number. Fortunately, the crack TSA agent didn’t consider this bit of kindness to be a terrorism threat and let her through.

So we caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel and spent $95 for a room — that was the stranded-passenger discounted rate — and another $50 or so for room-service sandwiches. The girls, whose bodies and souls were still together, considered a night in a hotel a grand adventure and spent much of the time chasing each other around the room and jumping on the beds. By the time we all fell asleep, it was after midnight.

Our flight to Seattle was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. Not wanting to risk being stuck in Dallas another day, we arrived at the terminal at 6:30 a.m. The line to get through security was only half as long as if Jesus had announced he’d make an appearance on earth for exactly one day to heal the sick and answer all metaphysical questions, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.

As we eventually discovered while moving forward at the rate of three millimeters per minute, the crack TSA team only had one scanner working. Waves of college kids heading to the Rose Bowl entered the terminal, spotted friends far ahead of us in line and nonchalantly cut in to join them. The crack TSA team did nothing about it.

We finally made it through the one working scanner at 8:02 a.m. — two minutes after our flight was supposed to leave. I was just pulling our bags off the conveyor when a crack TSA agent approached me.

“Excuse me, sir, you and your family need to step over here with me.”

“What?! Our flight is leaving!”

“Random security check, sir. We have to search your bags.”

“Did you hear me? Our flight is about to take off!”

“Sorry, sir. If your number comes up, we have to search your bags.”

“You’re kidding, right? In all of aviation history, has an airplane ever been hijacked by parents traveling with their little kids? Just write down that the bags were fine and let us go.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a reasonable and logical request, especially since there’s a very good chance I’m about to make you miss your flight after you just spent 90 minutes standing in line because most of our security equipment isn’t working. But I work for the federal government and am therefore allowed to draw a paycheck without any concern whatsoever for pleasing the public I’m supposed to serve. In fact, unlike someone with a real job in the private sector, I can regularly annoy the hell out of the public and still remain employed, which is great, because I happen to be an incredibly stupid and annoying person. And even if I weren’t naturally stupid, I’d still have to pretend to be stupid, because if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”

That isn’t exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

So the crack TSA agent ambled over to a table, took my tickets and examined them as if they might contain secret go-codes for an Al Qaeda operation, then opened our bags and examined the contents as if I’d bet him $500 he couldn’t guess the thread count on the girls’ t-shirts. When he finished with their bags and moved on to mine, I told my wife, “Go! Go to the gate and tell them I’m on my way.”

When the crack TSA agent finally closed my bag, I yanked it off the table and ran. Halfway to the gate, I reached into the coat pocket where I’d been carrying our tickets. Nothing. Empty. Then it hit me: the crack TSA agent had taken them before beginning his bag-search.

I ran back to the security station and saw the tickets sitting on a counter, unattended. Anyone could’ve taken them. The crack TSA agent looked over just as I snatched the tickets. I held them up and hissed, “Nice job, genius. Very secure.” Then I ran faster than a 49-year-old with a bum knee is supposed to run. A flight attendant was waiting at the gate, ready to close the door behind me.

In the Seattle airport, we found a play area for kids. The girls played, my wife read a book, and I drank coffee. Lots of coffee. We ate lunch in a food court, walked around the airport, went back to the play area.

We boarded the Alaskan Airlines flight for Burbank, and the plane pulled away from the gate on schedule. As we were in line for takeoff, the pilot clicked on the intercom:

“Uhhhhhhhhh …. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been informed that the Naughton family is on board today, so we’re going to pretend we have an electrical problem and go back to the terminal and have our mechanics spend an hour and a half pretending to fix it.”

That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

So an hour and a half later, we were in air. When we landed in Burbank, I went to the baggage claim and watched one person after another pluck bags from a dwindling collection on the conveyor until I realized ours weren’t going to show up. I walked to the Alaskan Airlines counter.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, we just landed and our bags aren’t here.”

“Can I see your ticket?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s see … oh, you were originally supposed to come in on American. Your bags got here yesterday. American has them.”

“They didn’t put us on a plane, but they put our bags on the plane?”

“Yes. You’ll need to get your bags from them. Unfortunately, they’re gone for the day.”

“Say what?”

“They don’t have any more flights coming or going today, so their people are all gone.”

“So they have my bags locked up somewhere and I can’t get them.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

“They also have the car seats for my girls.”

“Oh. Oh, yes, that is a problem. I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”

We hailed a cab outside and hoped the cabbie wouldn’t notice that two of the passengers were very much on the short side.

“Where you going?”

“San Jose Avenue in Burbank. Near Magnolia and Glenoaks.”

“Okay, let me … wait, where are your car seats?”

“Locked up in an American Airlines closet somewhere. We can’t get them until tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t take the kids without car seats. I could lose my license.”

My wife tried calling some friends who drove mommy vans with car seats. Nobody was home. I spotted a starter for the taxis and asked him if he had any suggestions.

“Some of the taxi vans have flip-down car seats. Let me get on the radio and try to find one. It could be awhile.”

It was awhile, but a van finally came to rescue us. We walked through the door of our townhouse a mere 28 hours later than we’d originally planned. We put the girls to bed and ordered a pizza. I watched TV, drank Guinness, and waited for my body and soul to merge.

This year, we’ll wake up when we feel like it, toss the suitcases in our van and drive home for the holidays. No security checks, no naked-image scanners, no TSA groping, no missed connections, no sitting on the floor in an airport. Yes, it’s a day-long drive, but I don’t mind driving. Compared to what the airlines and the TSA put us through these days, eight hours on the road is a walk in the park.

Just one more reason I’m glad I left California.

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After waging a three-room battle with a wasp and narrowly avoiding getting myself stung, I decided it was time to call in a paid mercenary.

More accurately, I decided to call the mercenary a few hours later, when two wasps were literally bouncing against our kitchen window, trying to find a way in.  With still more wasps hanging around both the front door and the kitchen door, I was starting to feel like a character from “Night of the Living Dead,” afraid to leave my own house.

As a fan of King of the Hill, I immediately searched the phone book for a service named Dale’s Dead Bug, but ended up settling on A-1 Exterminators. I was half-expecting the guy who answered the phone to listen to my story and then beg off with something like “Sorry.  I don’t mind spraying itty-bitty termites and ants, but only an idiot goes looking for a wasp nest.”  But nope; he just asked a few relevant questions:

“How many stories is the house?”

“Two.”

“You got an attic I can get into from inside?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I’ll want to spray the outside first, then set off a bug bomb up there. That’s probably where the nest is.  Now, are these black wasps or red wasps?”

“Most of them have been black, but I had a real battle with a red one a couple of hours ago.”

“That’s not surprising.  The black ones are a bit more docile. But the red ones, hell, they’re aggressive little suckers.  They’ll spot you 20 yards away, decide they don’t like you, and go after you.”

“The red one did seem exceptionally hard to kill.”

“Uh-huh.  They can be.”

“I take it you have some kind of sting-proof suit.”

“No sir, I don’t, but I haven’t been stung in seven years.”

At this point, I was expecting him to show up bearing an eerie resemblance to Sergeant Barnes from Platoon.  But when he arrived the next day, he was just a regular guy with an irregularly large canister of insecticide.  He worked his way around the outside of the house, spraying high and spraying low, then came inside and climbed up the attic, bug bomb in hand.  He’d already warned us we’d have to leave the house for an hour.

I couldn’t believe he was voluntarily approaching a wasp nest while clad in jeans and a tee-shirt.  I would’ve been covered in Kevlar.  I started wondering what I’d do if he suddenly screamed bloody murder up there.  Dash into a hail of stingers to save a fellow human being?  Slam the attic door shut and call 9-1-1?  Ditch his truck somewhere and pretend I’d never met him?

Fortunately, he emerged un-stung.  Standing by the curb before leaving, he told us the wasps would probably attempt to return to their nests several times.  Some would die for the effort, and some would get the hint and go away for good.

How right he was.  Later in the day, as I was peeking through the window in the front door, I noticed a wasp tail sticking out from the base of a lamp that hangs from the front-porch awning. The tail was moving.  The wasp was alive.

I grabbed the rifle-shot can of RAID and slowly opened the front door, took aim, then realized the colorful plastic leaves that decorate the door sill were obstructing my line of fire.  I had to crouch halfway to the floor to aim up from under the leaves.  I squirted the RAID, missed to the right, then guided the stream into the base of the lamp.  Then I slammed the door shut.

Two wasps squeezed out of the base immediately and flew away.  Then two more squeezed out and flew away.  Then a fifth wasp squeezed out, fluttered, and fell onto the porch, where it kicked and buzzed and screamed promises to rip my larynx out.  I yanked open the door, delivered a fatal shot, then slammed it shut again.  I flipped the deadbolt before I had time to reflect on the action feel stupid about it.

At least five wasps had been squeezed into that little lamp base — probably illegals.  The lamp base may have been their nest all along, or it may have been the only place they could they congregate after the mercenary did a shock-and-awe number on the rest of the house.

You’d think after I doused the lamp base with RAID, they’d give up once and for all.  Nope.  Within an hour, three of them were buzzing around it, making attempts to squeeze in, then backing away.  Eventually two of them landed in the colorful fake wreath attached to the front door.  Fabulous; that door swings in.  Open the door, and you’ve just let wasps inside.

I observed them from my sniper’s perch until they flew back up under the awning and made another go at the lamp base.  Then I creaked open the door, took aim from down low, and blasted the lamp with RAID.  One wasp dropped, another flew away, and the third flew towards the crack in the door.  I barely managed to avoid slamming the door on my own arm.

That all happened yesterday.  Today I haven’t seen any wasps by the proch lamp or anywhere else near the house.   The bug-bomb apparently caused some collateral damage, because we found dead spiders and cockroaches around the house.

I’d like to hang a big sign out front reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED … but we all know how that could turn out.

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The body count in the ongoing battle of Man vs. Wasp is now four — all wasps.

Today’s incident began after my daughters ignored two of my most commonly-repeated commands: “Stop running in and out!” and “Close the door!”  Soon after running in (just moments after running out) the younger one yelled, “Dad!  There’s a wasp flying around in here!”  I crept to the living room to reconnoiter the enemy’s position and immediately noticed the still-open front door.

After I issued three separate and distinct “Close the door!” orders, my daughter finally realized I was talking to her and, amazingly, closed the door.  Then she left the room so Daddy could deal with the wasp.

I put on my battle gear and went to the laundry room for a weapon.  My wife recently accepted my conclusion that while organic pesticides are better for the environment, they can also produce unexpected side effects — such as being stung in the face by an orange-scented wasp — so there was a brand-spankin’ new can of RAID sitting on the shelf.  I picked it up and bounced it in my gloved hand, enjoying the heft of it.  Now that’s a weapon that inspires confidence.

I crept back to the living room and found the wasp flying around the ceiling, which is two stories high.  No way to get close.  I kept my distance and observed, not wanting to lose visual contact.

Finally the wasp decided to land on a wall at the top of the stairs.  Great.  If I have to retreat in a hurry, it’s a choice between moving quickly enough to outrun the wasp and slowly enough to avoid tumbling head-first down the stairs … which would probably result in the wasp stinging my newly-paralyzed body.

“Did you feel that, Mr. Human?  No?  Bummer for you.  Let’s try a few spots above the waist until we figure out the exact point of the break.”

A little closer … a little closer … a little closer … just close enough now to ensure accuracy … maybe two more steps to ensure a sufficiently concentrated blast … Okay.  This will have to do it.  Time to open fire.  I said Time to open fire.  Hey!  Stop shaking and pull the trigger, soldier!

PFFFFFFZZZTT!!

“What the @#$% is this?!”

From this distance, the last can of RAID produced a six-inch splatter pattern.  The new can was busy squirting out a pinpoint stream, which struck the wall about two inches to the right of the wasp.  Fabulous … I’ve been training and fighting with shotguns, and now — in the middle of a battle — I find myself armed with a sniper rifle.

I jerked my aim wildly to the left, grazing the wasp, which still managed to achieve liftoff.  Damn, they’re tough.  By desperately shooting side-to-side, I finally landed a direct hit before the wasp could ascertain the origin of the fire and counter-attack.  When it landed on the carpeted stairs just in front of me — still buzzing furiously — I beat it to death with the can.  At some point in the hand-to-hand portion of the battle, the top of the RAID can popped off.  I don’t actually remember it happening; but I had to repair the weapon afterwards.

I’m glad I keep winning these battles, but I’m starting to worry about post-traumatic stress.

PART FIVE, ONE HOUR AFTER POSTING PART FOUR
(No, I’m not kidding.)

This time it was a run-and-gun battle that spanned three rooms.  Another wasp, once again buzzing around the ceiling, apparently on a mission to find his missing comrade.  After a five-minute flight, it finally landed on the ceiling light in the upstairs hallway. 

I armed myself with both the sniper-rifle RAID and the shotgun RAID, which was nearly empty.  I crept closer and closer.  

My first shotgun blast blew the wasp off the ceiling light.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that it made an abrupt turn and flew directly at my head.  I held the can in front of my face, pressing the nozzle non-stop, but I’m pretty sure at this point the can was delivering more air pressure than insecticide.   The wasp was finally repelled just short of impact, then flew into the bathroom.  It tried to escape by flying through the bathroom mirror.   While it was busy trying to figure out what sort of strange window was blocking its flight, I reached my arm in and took a shot with the sniper-rifle RAID, barely missing.

The wasp flew at me again, was repelled by a weak blast from the shotgun RAID, then flew into the guest bedroom.  I watched from the hallway as it flew random patterns around the room.  When it landed on a wooden chair, I dashed into the room before normal intelligence could prevail and scored a glancing blow with the sniper-rifle RAID.

Amazingly, the wasp managed to lift off again, but then crashed to the carpet.  As I was taking aim for the fatal shot, the damned thing scurried under the bed.  When my daughters crawl into our bed at night and start kicking me (which happens most nights), I sleep in that bed.  Now there’s an interesting choice for you … get down on the carpet and go looking for an angry wasp under a bed, or crawl into that same bed later, knowing the wasp may still be alive under there … or in the sheets.

Fortunately, a moment later I heard a little squeal of “Banzai!” followed by the wasp making a last, desperate attempt to overrun my position in a ground attack.  I opened fire.  After three direct hits, the little demon stopped moving.

The guest bedroom now smells like RAID Country Glade.  I don’t care.  The wasp is dead, and the smell of victory is sweet.

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Before we moved to our small town in Tennessee and again shortly after, residents told us how much we’d love it.

“Y’all are going to be so happy here. It’s a great place to raise kids.”

“The people here are so much nicer than in Los Angeles.”

“These are the best schools in the state.”

“Wait until you see the trees around here in the fall. The scenery is gorgeous.”

“It’s the best of both worlds. You can be in downtown Franklin with all the good shopping, then drive for five minutes and you’re in the country, with horses running around in the fields.”

They were correct on all counts. The scenery is lovely, the people are nice, the schools are excellent, and the traffic is so much lighter, my ability to maneuver and simultaneously exchange hand signals with other drivers has atrophied.

However, after a year of living here, I realize they omitted a key bit of information. The full disclosure sales pitch would’ve gone more like this:

“Y’all are going to be so happy here. It’s a great place to raise kids.”

“The people here are so much nicer than in Los Angeles.”

“These are the best schools in the state.”

“Wait until you see the trees around here in the fall. The scenery is gorgeous.”

“By the way, during the summer we get some seriously BIG-ASS bugs.”

It’s not that the other places I lived were bug-free, you understand. There are bugs everywhere. In Chicago, I once moved into a townhouse that had just been vacated by a family of slobs who apparently considered it beneath them to clean the kitchen. I spent the first month conducting chemical warfare against an army of cockroaches. One of them even volunteered for a suicide mission that involved hiding in my slippers and inducing cardiac arrest. It nearly succeeded.

But here’s the difference: In Chicago, if I happened to walk into a dark room occupied by roaches, I was alerted to their presence by the sound of my shoes crushing them. In Tennessee, I’m alerted to their presence by tripping over them. If I found a roach in my kitchen in Chicago, I reached for a magazine. Here I look for a hammer or frying pan … and only because I don’t own a gun. I’ve even backed away from a couple of cockroach confrontations after realizing I lacked the weaponry to assure victory.

That’s the downside of living in an area with gorgeous, green scenery: The scenery is gorgeous because trees, grass and other plants love water and humidity. So do bugs.

One of the few advantages of living in the glorified desert known as Los Angeles is that mosquitoes were nearly non-existent. I could walk for an hour at night and return home without a mark. Not here.

This summer was, according to our neighbors, supposed to be light on mosquitoes. We had three snowstorms and record-cold temperatures last winter, which was supposed to decimate the mosquito population. Perhaps it would’ve worked out that way if not for the Great Nashville Flood of 2010, which blessed the area with countless pools of standing water. The mosquito population may have been decimated in winter, but the survivors bred like crazy in the impromptu swamps a few months later. Consequently, when I walk at night now, I have three choices:

  • Wear long pants and long sleeves despite the hot, humid weather
  • Spray toxic chemicals on my skin
  • Return home with my skin looking like a 3-D map of the Andes and feeling anemic from the loss of blood

During last night’s walk, a large bug with wings landed on the hand that was holding my Romeo & Juliet cigar. I didn’t scream like a girl, but I did a frenzied, Irish-jig sort of thing that ended with me retrieving the still-burning cigar from a neighbor’s lawn — about 50 feet from the site of the jig.

What kind of bug was it? No idea. That’s the other downside of living in a moist, lush area: I’ve been introduced to bugs I didn’t know existed. I recognize a rat-sized roach as a roach, and I recognize swarms of mosquitoes as mosquitoes. But at least a dozen times this summer, I’ve killed worm-like creatures with approximately 6,000 legs — always in the downstairs bathroom. I still have no idea what they are. I just know they like being near indoor plumbing.

Twice now, I’ve come across a species of exceptionally long-legged and exceptionally fast spider. Both times I saw this spider (once in the TV room, once in the living room), I attempted to kill it. Both times the spider managed to spring across the room and escape into a vent as I was chasing it. When a 5’11″ man with 34-inch legs loses a foot race with a 5-inch spider, something is wrong. If I had the same proportional speed, I could play for any team in the NFL and guarantee a string of 98-0 victories.

Last week I made the mistake of practicing my golf swing in the back yard while wearing shorts and chasing a wiffle ball into the bushes. When I woke up the next morning, my legs were covered with red, circular welts that itched like crazy. I looked like someone who lost a kicking contest with a gang of pepperoni pizzas.

Then there are the wasps. Like mosquitoes, wasps are hardly limited to the South. As I recounted in a previous post, I was stung twice during my youth in the Midwest, and in California, a wasp made a sortie in my direction after squeezing through an open window in the shower stall.

But in the past few weeks, despite being vigilant about keeping the doors and windows closed, I’ve had to kill three wasps inside my own house. I now keep my wasp-hunting gear — long pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a hooded jacket and winter gloves — laid out on a chair so I can slip into them at a moment’s notice, like a fireman.

Two days ago, my girls ran downstairs to my office to inform me a wasp was buzzing around their mid-level playroom — again. No idea how the flying demon found its way inside.

I put on my gear and went to the laundry room to arm myself with a can of RAID, only to discover that my wife had succumbed to the Go Green movement:  our bug spray was now a can of “organic” pesticide made from orange-peel oils. I might have fallen for the Go Green pitch if not for the fact that she’d already informed me the orange-peel mosquito repellent she’d tried previously was worthless. So there I was, all geared up, imagining the results of spraying a wasp with organic bug-killer.

“Hey, thanks for the refreshing orange-peel spritz there, Mr. Human. Believe it or not, I’ll actually be dead in a few hours, but in the meantime, I’m just really, really pissed. You should probably commence screaming like a girl now, because I’m going to sting your ass at least 50 times before the orange-peel oil begins to weaken me.”

Fortunately, I dug around and found the can of RAID. It was nearly empty, so I took that as my primary weapon and carried the can of organic spray as a backup in my other hand. Shortly after I entered the playroom, the wasp — perhaps having heard warnings about humans wearing winter gear during summer — flew at me. I raised a can and sprayed, only to find myself noticing a pleasant orange aroma. Wrong weapon.

The wasp reacted by flying to the other side of the room and dropping behind a bookshelf. I’m pretty sure I heard it snickering back there. I tossed a toy against the bookshelf to try to roust it. Nothing. A few minutes later it flew out again, and this time I scored a direct hit with the RAID. Chemistry wins. Wasp loses. Orange-peel oil flunks battle-testing.

I love living in the South. I love the people, the attitude, and the scenery. But I’m praying for that first frost.

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To: Mr. George DiPaolo
Director, Studio I.T.
Walt Disney Pictures & Television
Burbank, CA

From:  Tom Naughton
Franklin, TN

Dear George –

I regret to inform you that after some serious soul-searching, I no longer feel it would be ethical for me to continue writing software for Walt Disney Pictures & Television, or for any other company.  I know I recently reported being about 75% finished with the updated version of the DVD Trailer Management System, which was true (actually, it’s closer to 85% as of today), but for the good of the company, you should delete all my code files from the SourceSafe database and hire a real programmer to begin the project from scratch.  You should also get rid of all the other systems I’ve programmed for Disney over the years, as it’s highly unlikely any of them actually work.

Bear in mind, I’m not quitting in reaction to anything you’ve done.  You’re a fine project manager.  The soul-searching began after several people posted notes on my Fat Head blog and YouTube channel, pointing out that I’m “just a comedian” without a degree in nutrition or any other health science, and therefore I have no business critiquing studies or challenging conventional health and dietary guidelines — especially any nutrition advice handed down by doctors, who spend several years learning to prescribe drugs.

Obviously, these critics are correct.  For several decades now, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that since my college education consisted of reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures, I could become educated in other fields by reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures.  So once I started doing research for Fat Head and became fascinated with nutrition science, I began reading like crazy.  I ordered dozens of books and downloaded more articles and research papers than I can count.  I listened to online lectures by MDs and PhDs, and sometimes even attended in person.

But it was all for nothing.  As one of my critics informed me, reading books and research papers on my own doesn’t count as an education since I wasn’t supervised by professors who could correct the errors in my thinking.  I must admit I see the point, even though I had a few professors in college whose errors in thinking were so profound, some of us wondered how they’d made it through graduate school.  But they did, and that’s what really matters.

Which brings me back to the programming work:  honestly, George, what the hell were you thinking when you hired me as a software contractor?  Programming large, complicated database systems with dozens of end-users (or hundreds, in the case of the DVD Trailer sytem) requires an awful lot of high-level skill and knowledge.  And yet you gave me those assignments in spite of the fact that I made it perfectly clear I never took a single programming class.  If you’ll recall our first interview, you asked me specifically about my education in computer science, and I replied that I’d bought some books and taught myself how to write software programs.

So while I apologize for my role in all of this, you’re the one who works for Disney, and you’re the one who kept calling me every other year or so with another big assignment.  You’re the one who let me program two of those systems in languages I’d never seen before, telling me to just order some books and get up to speed.  (God only knows how messed up those programs are.)  And you’re the one who offered to set me up with a remote computer at the studio so I could continue taking on assignments after moving to Tenneessee.  So now that we know my programming work is illegitimate, you have to accept your share of the blame.

If it’s any consolation, you’re by no means the only one paying the price for my lack of formal training.  I need to notify at least 25 law firms that they must immediately cease using my trademark and patent tracking software.  Worse, several pharmaceutical companies must now replace the hugely expensive clinical-trial management system sold to them by a company that hired me to build it.  Man, were they fooled … they told me I was the fourth programmer they hired, but the only one they kept.  One of the owners even said, “I don’t get it.  The last guy had a degree in computer science and every Microsoft certification you can name, but he didn’t have a @#$%ing clue how to build a decent system.”  I have no choice now except to urge that company to dump my work, re-hire the guy with the degree, and rebuild the whole thing.

The really frustrating part of all this for me is that I’m not even “just a comedian” now.  I never took a class in standup comedy either, so I can’t even go back to working the clubs and cruise ships.  Since my degree is in journalism, I’m stuck with hoping a newspaper or magazine somewhere is interested in hiring a 51-year-old rookie reporter.

Anyway, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.  I was really looking forward to showing you the new features I added to the DVD Trailer Management System.

Best,
Tom

p.s. –  If there are any electric light bulbs in your office, I suggest getting rid of them before they explode and start a fire.  Thomas Edison only attended school for four months, and his instructor described him as “addled.”

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About an hour ago, I was sitting in the TV room, scanning through the on-screen guide, when my six-year-old came in to chat.  After a moment, she looked up toward the top of a window and said, “Daddy, what kind of bug is that walking around on the glass?”

I followed her eyes, then answered, “Well, Sara, that looks a … HOLY @#$%!!”

I try not to teach her four-letter words, but the shock overcame my inhibitions.  I hustled her out of the room and exchanged my shorts and tee-shirt for what is apparently becoming my official wasp-hunting gear:  jeans, a shirt, a sweatshirt with a hood, a windbreaker with a hood, and winter gloves. 

I went to the laundry room, picked up the can of Raid, and was dismayed to find it felt nearly empty.  I gave it one little test squirt … okay, it wasn’t empty, but I hate going into battle with a flying demon short on chemical ammunition.

The window goes all the way to the ceiling, so of course that’s where the wasp was when I returned:  right up by the ceiling, still prancing around on the glass.  I climbed up on the sofa near the window and balanced one foot on an arm, another on the back.  I extended my weapon slooowwwly until I was sure I close enough to guarantee a direct hit.

PFFFFFFFFFFFT!! 

The wasp fell, and I was sure for a moment it would wind up behind the sofa, leaving me with no option but to get back there and look for it … thus assuring myself of an ambush by one very pissed-off wasp.  Fortunately, the wasp landed on a window sill, rolled onto its back, and kicked its legs for awhile, calling me a mother@#$%*! the whole time.

It’s in the garbage can outside now.  I would’ve written about this earlier, but my hands just stopped shaking a minute ago. 

Damn, I hate those things.

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