Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Before I go, some swine flu info

The rest of you should probably go ahead and panic, but it's too late for me. I already have swine flu. When I got out of bed this morning I had certain aches and pains, not a lot of energy and the vision in my left eye was a little fuzzy. Also, that large bowl of popcorn I consumed before bed was not setting too well. These symptoms are eerily similar to the ones I experience every morning, but given the national news it seems clear that swine flu has arrived in east Wichita.

I just wish they'd come up with another name for it. "Grim Reaper" would be good, even if it seems a slight exaggeration at this point, with U.S. lethality hovering around zero. "Captain Trips" is not bad either, assuming the World Health Organization can wrest the rights from Stephen King. I'd even settle for "common cold." But "swine flu" is just so '70s. And I'm really not comfortable dying from anything related to pigs.

Anyway, while I'm still well enough to type, here are some quick answers to frequently asked pandemic questions:

Q: I need to run to the store to pick up some pork rinds. Should I wear a surgical mask?
A: Pork rinds? Are you sure? The "experts" say you can't get swine flu from eating swine-based products, but why take a crazy chance? And yes on the mask, especially if you supplement it with a big Target bag, as in the picture. If you can afford it, a full set of scuba gear offers the best protection of all.

Q: I need accurate, up-to-date information as this deadly pandemic brings the world to its knees. Where should I turn?
A: I use Twitter, which can instantly echo and amplify all data on the disease, pertinent or not. It's the most trusted source of information on what somebody's brother heard on the radio that one time. If you're not on Twitter, try Glenn Beck, who should be bouncing off the walls right about now.

Q: Is diarrhea a symptom of swine flu?
A: Yes. But it's also a symptom of too many bean burritos, so keep that in mind when Tweeting.

Q: Can I have your stuff when you're dead?
A: No. I'm putting it on eBay as we speak.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Something to be said for staying put

It says here that Americans are moving less, another one of those symptoms of the crappy economy. It's also a cause, since Bekins and Mayflower and U-haul and Ryder could really use the work right now. But maybe it's not such a bad thing if people stay put for awhile. Maybe they'll get to know the neighbors. Maybe they won't have to face how little the house is worth if they give up trying to sell it.

I've moved a couple dozen times in my life. It was almost always for better job, although once it was for a better view and the time after that it was because of the divorce. I always thought it made sense at the time. There's something invigorating about moving on, packing up what you really need and getting rid of what you really don't. There's also something poignant about it, looking around the empty rooms for the last time, aware of the echos and the memories and the knowledge that you won't be back. Like a funeral, a move concentrates the passage of years into a day or two. It reminds you again that all things pass.

Thanks for the tip, right? At certain age you don't really need to change houses to make that point. It's gotten so I can't wrestle a mattress or a dryer into a new place without picturing the day I must wrestle it back out. If the bad economy postpones that day, fine with me. I'd rather have this couch in the living room than in the truck.

But move on we must, sooner or later, good intentions and bad economy notwithstanding. No doubt there are few more ahead, before that final move to the big gated community in the sky. For that one, fortunately, there's no need to pack.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In spring, an autumnal point of view

If you're looking for an excuse to stay in shape, consider this: One day a truck might pull into your driveway and two taciturn men will unload tons of compost, mulch and shrubbery. And then you'll have to haul it all into the backyard and plant everything.

Trust me, in a situation like that, it helps to have a little upper-body strength. Or at least I'm assuming it does. My own upper-body strength appears to have gone the way of disco and drive-in movies. Not sure how that happened. Hard to believe, but I once was capable of bench-pressing something larger than a clock radio. Back in the day, I'd be toting these bags of compost three at a time, instead of dragging them individually across the lawn with a rest break along the way.

I know: The older we get, the better we were. Those of us with gray hair like to brag about the glory days, even if they weren't so glorious. Why not? Nobody can prove we're lying. And sometimes it seems important to emphasize that we weren't always this way, that we were occasionally up to it when muscle mattered. Youth goes, but vanity sticks around.

Too bad vanity tends to disregard the evidence. This morning a number of long-dormant muscles have lodged formal protests. I'd be happy to give them a break, but I notice that the rest of those shrubs have not yet planted themselves.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Music for a song? That's theft

I'm not outraged that Apple has bumped the price of its music downloads a cool 30 percent, a move followed a day later by Amazon and then by Wal-Mart. I'm not sure why they don't raise the price 50 percent, or 100 percent, or 1,000. The music industry is on the ropes, after all, and it needs every extra freaking dime you people can spare. Screw Darfur; let's step up for Sony and EMI.

All these music retailers have taken pains to point out that not all songs will cost more. Some will cost as little 64 cents -- really great songs by Yoko Ono (above) and assorted American Idol alumni who did not make it to the top 10 in season three. It's quite a bargain. Just think: Under this new pricing structure, you can have 100 tunes nobody wants for the low price of $64. Pennies, really -- 6,400 of them.

I'm for anything that helps this beleaguered industry survive. I'm for anything that will put food on the table for Madonna and Britney Spears and, to a lesser extent, Kanye West. These people have to eat too, and occasionally adopt Africans, and a 30 percent raise is certainly not too much to ask of you, the consumer, in these economic times. Same for the suits at Warner: think it's easy having no talent and being forced to feed on the lifeblood of those who do? Think again. I think we should all show some genuine compassion -- and fork over the extra 30 percent without grousing.

I know, this isn't going to go down well with a lot of people. A lot of them might turn to sites like Soundsbox.com, which offers a comprehensive catalog of completely DRM-free music for about 14 cents a track. Some of these people, who shall remain nameless, having been buying music that way for years. Some of these people roll their eyes and smirk when they see other people buying iTunes gift cards, which are now worth about 30 percent less than they used to be. Some of these people rationalize their behavior by noting that nearly everything they buy this way is something they've already bought numerous times in now obsolete formats: LPs and cassette tapes and CDs. I mean, how many damned times must I -- that is, these people -- buy the Beatles' White Album or Fleetwood Mac's Rumours?

Forget that last part. Buying music through our Russian friends is stealing from the American music industry. And if there's any stealing to be done, far better that the industry steal from you, rather than the other way around.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Anna of the two religions

Turns out even the Episcopal Church, widely known for its tolerance and understanding, can get a little impatient when its ministers can't make up their minds about the religion thing. Just ask the Rev. Anna Holmes Redding. She's been with the church for 30 years. When she converted to Islam and accepted Muhammad as the prophet in 2006, it raised some eyebrows. But she kept showing up for work, so the church waited to see how this thing would play out.

And waited -- for three years. Talk about tolerance. But even Episcopalians have their limits; Redding was finally defrocked this week. Tough break. Losing a fulltime job is going to hurt in this economy, even if you've got Allah pulling for you. Redding expressed regret at such narrowmindedness. "It simply hasn't been my experience that I have to make a choice between the two," she said.

I wish her all the best. But maybe she'll want to rethink the career track. I don't darken the doorway of a church very often, but when I do I like to think the person up there preaching knows exactly what she believes. I've got enough vagueness and doubt to fill every pew; I don't need any more of it emanating from the pulpit. If you believe everything, after all, you really don't believe anything.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hancock, we hardly knew ye

Yesterday I sent the movie Hancock back to Netflix unwatched. Sorry, Will. But I've had it laying around here for about a month and the time just never seemed right to spend two hours with a surly superhero. It appears Knadler's Law applies to Netflix movies the same way it applies to things decomposing in the refrigerator: They never seem more attractive the next day. You think that potato salad is a bit iffy now, wait until Monday.

Sending a Netflix movie back unopened usually means it's time to cancel or suspend my subscription. I do that about once a year, after realizing I've seen all the newer movies I care to see and crowding the queue with stuff I might not pick up if I saw it lying on the sidewalk. I've got a few of this year's more obscure Oscar nominees on there, but they're all marked "Short wait," or "Long wait," or "releases sometime in the distant future." I wonder: Do I really want to see Doubt or Milk? And if I have to wait, why not wait without the inconvenience of a subscription fee?

Which, incidentally, has just gone up. Netflix recently notified me that they're bumping the cost of getting Blu-Ray movies. It's just an extra three bucks a month, but since I'm not watching the Blu-Ray movies I'm getting now, maybe there are better uses for the dough. Donuts from The Donut Whole, for example.

I'll think about it. The question is always whether to run out the queue or just go cold turkey. If I quit now, it'll mean a very long wait indeed for such films as Quantum of Solace, Hard Candy, and, way down at the bottom of queue, Help. If I stay, it's probably hurting the environment somehow and is certainly depriving me of much-needed donut money. Not to mention the guilt I'll feel when I send them back unopened.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

These errors are starting to add up

A year and a half ago I got a letter from the IRS. They wanted more money. The letter pointed out that while I had declared as income the few hundred I'd made from selling a story, I'd neglected to pay the self-employment tax. The upshot was that I'd better remit another $70 posthaste, or there'd be trouble. I got the letter not long after filing my return. And I hadn't even been nominated for a cabinet post.

I always think about that when I hear about the little tax problems of those who have been nominated: Tom Daschle and Tim Geithner and, most recently, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Between them, their unpaid taxes come to well over 200 grand, but only Geithner managed to raise eyebrows at the IRS, and that was well after the fact. Stories like these are beginning to add up. You wonder: Does anybody pay the taxes they owe? Have I been a sucker all this time?

No, I don't think any of these people are crooks. No doubt all of them made understandable mistakes, just as I did when I inadvertently cheated Uncle Sam out of his $70. But there's something wrong with a system that detects tiny discrepancies and lets the big ones slide, a tax code that even the political elite can't seem to figure out. My $70 mistake triggered a red light somewhere at the IRS; Gov. Sebelius' cool $8,000 went unnoticed. There's the whole appearance-of-fairness thing. Of course the system's not designed specifically to screw the obscure and coddle the connected. It only looks that way.

Finally, can we retire the phrase "unintentional error" in connection with these tax stories? Sebelius used it again yesterday. Kathy: If it's intentional, it's not an error. It's a crime.