Archive for the 'junk about me' Category

Too much information

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

I’ve been trying to think of something clever and blogworthy to say about my bronchoscopy last week, but there’s really not much there to work with. They went in, they looked around, they took some samples, I went home. That pretty much covers it. I won’t know for sure what the results are and what they might mean for at least a few weeks yet, as my doctor left town for an extended vacation immediately after performing my procedure, no doubt thanks to the huge windfall he reaped from my insurance company. I expect to at least get a postcard.

However, before donning his Serengeti polarized Lucca sunglasses and jetting off to the French Riviera, he did share with me that my CT scan this time was virtually identical to that done in May of 2006, which indicates that my pulmonary fibrosis has not advanced further into my lungs in over a year now. The implications of this are unclear, as this leaves me in a state of medical limbo with no established course of treatment. While there’s no denying that this is fantastic news, it’s also a bit disconcerting in that it calls into question the entire diagnosis of IPF; one of the defining hallmarks of this disease is its insidious progression over time. Of course, the sixty-four dollar question here then is “if it’s not IPF then what the hell is it?” and my doctor is hoping that the lung samples he obtained will shed some light on this puzzle.

Any number of things can cause scarring of the lungs, and he did say that from all appearances, it looked to him as if I experienced some “event” which damaged my lungs and then just … went away. However, this means that at some point during the last five or six years I would had to have inhaled something vile which would have caused me considerable distress, and would surely have been something I would remember — and I can recall no such experience. Another less likely possibility is that I was exposed to something in my environment slightly less toxic but for a longer period of time (asbestos? mercury? sulphuric acid? Republicans?) to where I might not have noticed the gradual irritation. As I say, hopefully micro-examination of the samples of lung tissue removed this week will give us a clue.

The upshot of all of this is that if my condition continues to remain stable, there’s a chance that I will NOT need to have a lung transplant after all, and I have seriously mixed emotions about this. Transplantation is and always has been a treatment of last resort, when there is no other option for survival. Although there have been tremendous advances in medical science even within our own lifetimes, major organ transplantation is still fraught with imperfections and complications. Because the body will always consider the transplanted organ to be an invading foreign object (or, the way a nurse once described it to me, the internal cells say to each other, “This is not me! Attack!”), the immune system must be suppressed to the point where even the slightest little infection or virus could be life-threatening. Even under the very best of circumstances, typical survival after a lung transplant is perhaps five to seven years, although a few individuals have done much better, getting ten years or more. If the doctors think I have a good chance to live at least that long without it (at one low point in 2004 my remaining life expectancy was estimated at 18 months), then I will be more than happy not to face what has until now been the looming specter of this complicated and risky surgery.

But on the other hand, what has inspired me and kept my spirits up as I have battled IPF over the last several years is the thought that once past the recovery stage, a transplant would allow me to do the things I love that I can no longer do with ease. I’ve said this before, but what I miss most is my ability to do those simple little things I used to take for granted, like riding a bike or washing the car, not to mention the esoteric stuff like walking down a beach at sunset. The idea that I will be chained to this oxygen hose for the rest of my natural life is a bit depressing, but I am coping with it by realizing that this is buying me valuable time. Who knows what kind of breakthrough procedure or medication might emerge in the next few years? The Holy Grail would be the discovery of a way for the lungs to regenerate tissue and “heal” themselves, perhaps using stem cells which could theoretically adapt to whatever part of the body was required. However, this is not likely to happen any time soon, thanks in large measure to George Bush and his continuing veto of funding for this area of medical research. Instead, he would prefer that surplus embryonic tissue be simply dumped in the trash as it would be anyway. I can’t tell you how much it galled me a year ago when Shrubya stood at the White House on a platform surrounded by cooing babies allegedly “adopted” from frozen embryos and claimed that stem cell research “would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

To this I say “bullshit”, but perhaps a more civil and articulate response came from Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin who said, “Those families who wake up every morning to face another day with a deadly disease or a disability will not forget this decision by the president to stand in the way of sound science and medical research.”

That sounds a whole lot better than “bullshit,” but it means exactly the same thing. We are one of those families.

Whoops, got off-topic there for a bit, sorry! I will say that my procedure last week was about as pleasant as it could possibly be considering the circumstances, and dare I say, almost enjoyable. It’s an unfortunate fact that over the last few years I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of hospitals, having been treated, poked, or prodded in at least six major medical establishments since 2002. Last week’s experience at St. Luke’s in Houston was one of the best. Check-in paperwork was smooth, fast, and efficient. The nurses treated me like a VIP. The mutual respect and camaraderie between my doctor and the support staff in the operating room (at least, as best as I can remember before the Versed kicked in) was obvious; everyone present was good-natured — dare I say “saucy”? — yet extremely professional. It was about as much fun as one can have under anesthesia (me, not the staff, that is). The doctor chatted with Mrs. Toast about the results for a good fifteen minutes afterwards and I was released in short order. They even gave me a lollipop. What more can one ask from a medical institution?

In fact, it was so much fun that I am going back tomorrow to be probed again, only this time from the opposite direction. I will spare you the details, my friends, except to say that this procedure has safely been performed on millions of ordinary people, and by “ordinary people” I mean “those who have reported being abducted by aliens”, only without the “prep”.

“Prep”. That’s such a friendly, innocent-sounding word isn’t it? Let’s all say it together: “prep”. Just rolls off the lips, almost like a kiss. So simple and unoffensive, like something you’d do for an exam, a business meeting, or a vacation. Just four little letters.

Which give no freaking clue as to the horror that will follow.

Indeed, there is so much vast potential for mining boffo material from this event, that surely more than one stand-up comic has based an entire 30-minute routine around it. But this ain’t the Improv here, folks.

Nevertheless, it’s been recommended that I do this asap, so I’m going to get it over with. While y’all are enjoying your traditional Fourth-of-July family backyard BBQ today, think of me and the liquid diet I will be on, and the … well, maybe it would be better if you didn’t think about it at all, actually. I will promise you this: even though I finally solved my digital camera conundrum and bought a brand-new supercool Fuji Finepix (more about that in a later post), I will not, I repeat, will NOT pull a Katie Couric on you and post full-color, er, “interior” photos of the procedure afterwards. Some parts of Mr. Toast are just too frightening to be seen in public.

Anyway,

Happy 4th of July!

Back to the Big House

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

I’m setting off to Houston next week for yet another Hospital Adventure; this time, my doctors are going to try and dig a little deeper — quite literally — in an attempt to determine exactly what’s going on inside my lungs. The continuing relatively stable state of my pulmonary fibrosis has the medical establishment a bit perturbed, so they have come up with this fresh plan to surgically extract more cash from my insurance company. Oh wait, and it might benefit me as well.

On Tuesday, I’ll get a CT scan so my doctor can pinpoint the specific area of interest, and the following day I’ll have a transbronchial procedure to remove some tissue for closer examination and biopsy. Fortunately, this minimally invasive technique involves no external incision, only snaking a slender tube through my windpipe and into my lung. Mounted on the end of this tube is a tiny video camera and a delicate surgical instrument (see magnified photo, right) which will be used for tissue removal.

Ha ha! Just kidding, although the analogy to this tool (except miniaturized and maybe a bit more sterile) is probably not that far off the mark. The good news is that my recovery time will be short, and I should be released from the hospital after only a few hours. I won’t be under total anesthesia, but will likely get a dose of Midazolam, which will leave me conscious enough during the procedure to respond to directions (i.e., “turn your head to the left”, “say ahhhh”, “open your wallet and give the doctor all of your money”, etc.), but also produces amnesia so that when I come out from under I will have no recollection of what happened. It’s a fairly common surgical drug which I had during my upper endoscopy last year. I’m told that patients often wake up asking “are we ready to start yet?”, after the operation has been completed.

I’ve also been told there is a small chance (about 5%) of complications during the procedure, specifically a collapsed lung. But I’ve also been reassured that they prepare for this unlikely possibility, and should it happen, they will be able to take care of me. I envision them calling “Hey Leroy, get in here!” as a gas station mechanic in coveralls races in to the O.R. with an air hose to re-inflate my lung. Leroy no doubt has a Swiss Army Knife in his pocket as well.

I will post afterwards and let y’all know how things turn out. Wish me luck!

Mr. Gadget Guy

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Yes, yes … I have been shirking my blogging duties of late, sorry folks. Sometimes RL (Real Life) does intrude on the cyber world; don’t you just hate it when that happens?

In fact, I’ve been so out of touch that apparently I’m the last person on Earth with Internet access to discover the very bizarre “Shoes” video, or even worse, Gary Brolsma the Numa Numa guy. I mean seriously, ten million freaking people have seen this video since he released it in 2004, and I’m just now hearing about it? Damn, my “hip quotient” has got to be in negative numbers here.

But wait, there may be some hope for me yet. In the photo on the left, I hold in my hand the latest toy I acquired this week, an iPod clone made by Sansa and sporting the decidedly un-sexy name of the “e-250″. (Sansa also nicknames the device “The Li’l Monsta”, a tag I like even less; I think instead I will simply call it my “Faux-Pod.”) With two gigabytes of memory, it will hold oodles of choice tuneage and also plays FM Radio, photos, and videos … although I suspect I might go blind trying to watch them on its tiny screen. Despite a few very minor but occasionally frustrating quirks in the interface, I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Unlike some other lightweight plastic MP3 players I looked at, the Sansa has a rugged “liquid metal” back panel which gives it a nice, solid heft. Battery life is excellent: I’ve been using it all week for at least an hour or two a day and have yet to need a recharge. Best of all, I got it for a mere $89, which is a great deal compared to $149 for a 2-gig iPod Nano.

Techno-nerd that I am, I confess that I’ve always been a bit of a gadget freak. I do loves me my digital toys, so it’s a bit surprising that I have yet to decide on a new camera. In the last installment of this thrilling saga posted here more than two months ago, you may recall that I was torn between the Canon S3-IS long-zoom P&S and the well-respected Nikon D-40 Digital SLR. Since then I’ve been able to put my hands on both models at my local Big Discount Store, which unfortunately did little to help me decide between them. I liked the D-40 for its solid feel and excellent quality, and according to my nephew the professional photographer, Nikon is the only brand on the planet worthy of serious consideration. But given how few photos I take, I have a hard time getting past the $549 price tag, and also thought the 27-82 mm zoom range was a bit limiting. I also was hesitant about its proprietary battery pack, lack of image stabilization, and the fact that the 2.5″ LCD screen can’t be used as a viewfinder when composing shots (which, to be fair, is the case with any DSLR). The Canon, on the other hand, uses common AA batteries, has a more flexible 36-432 mm zoom range, and also shoots video — which the Nikon does not. But when I actually held the S3-IS, it didn’t have the same “pro” feel as the Nikon, in fact it seemed more fragile and almost toy-like. And to muddy the waters even further, Canon has just announced that this model is being discontinued, to be replaced with the S5-IS which ups the megapixel count from 6 to 8 and increases the size of the LCD screen from 2″ to 2.5″ along with a host of other upgrades. The downside is that the S5 will not be available until July, and for at least the first couple of months is likely to command a price close to its suggested retail of $499. However, the introduction of this new model could cause some dealers to discount the S3 even further in the next few weeks.

Now, to confuse me even more (if such a thing is possible at this stage), I’ve been reading glowing reviews of a new Fuji superzoom comparable to Canon’s, the Fuji Finepix S700 (right). With seven megapixels, a 10X optical zoom giving an effective range of 38-380 mm, picture stabilization, a big bright 2.5″ LCD screen, and full VGA movie mode, this camera seems to be one heck of a deal at only $215. At that price, I might go ahead and get this thing just for grins, and if for some reason I really don’t like it, at least I haven’t blown a big wad of cash. But to be honest, I can’t see what’s not to like. If anyone has any personal knowledge about this model, please drop me a line. At the moment it’s looking like this camera could very well be my next gadget.

Law and Order

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

I did my civic responsibility and reported for jury duty today. OK, that makes it sound like I had a choice in the matter; a warrant would have been issued to arrest me if I hadn’t shown up in response to the summons I received in the mail.

The last time I was called to serve was several years ago, and in that instance I was selected to be on a panel hearing the case of a teenager who had been charged with making a “terroristic threat” at his high school. Apparently in the course of a verbal altercation with one of his teachers, the boy made a remark to her that had been construed as threatening. He later claimed he was “just kidding”, and after hearing the evidence I was tempted to believe he had simply opened his mouth in the heat of the moment before engaging his brain, with absolutely no intention of acting on it. I initially held out on convicting him, but my fellow jurors managed to convince me that in our post-Columbine climate, any such remarks should be taken extremely seriously regardless of intent (just like you don’t make jokes at the airport about having a bomb in your suitcase), and that the counseling and discipline he would receive as a result would serve to straighten him out. We therefore found him guilty, and I hope he’s a better person for it today.

However, that trial lasted a couple of days and was not exactly what I considered a barrel o’ fun, so I was not looking forward to the prospect of being chosen again when I went to the courthouse this morning. While I am certain there are many people who consider the opportunity to participate in the American justice system to be an honor and a privilege, most of the other potential jurors sitting around me during the first round of voir dire appeared to be thinking not so much about civic pride, but more along the same lines as I was: “Oh God, please don’t let them pick me.”

I was also a bit self-conscious about the portable oxygen equipment I need to bring with me whenever I go out anywhere, which was making its customary “click-whoosh” sound with each breath I took. It’s not that loud, really, but in the hushed courtroom it seemed quite noticeable, and I was aware of getting “the look” from a few people in my vicinity — the one I sometimes get when people see me wearing an oxygen cannula in public, and think “what’s wrong with him?” and perhaps worry that whatever it is, they might “catch” it.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, when the judge gave us a 15-minute recess following the first round of jury selection, the court clerk walked up to me while I was standing in the lobby waiting to go back in. She asked my name, and politely told me that since I appeared to have a serious medical condition, I could be excused if I would like. I hesitated only momentarily before saying, “OK, thank you!” and getting the heck out of there.

Now I’m wondering if I should have declined and stayed, or if I was dissed without realizing it. Just because I have trouble breathing doesn’t mean my other faculties are impaired. But I’ll be an optimist: the courtroom was full, and the clerk knew she had a much larger candidate pool than needed, so she was most likely being kind to offer to let me leave.

Anyway, as a result of my experience today, several quotes come to mind, the first by comedian Norm Crosby: “When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”

More recently, humorist Dave Barry said: “We operate under a jury system in this country, and as much as we complain about it, we have to admit that we know of no better system, except possibly flipping a coin.”

My favorite line, however, comes from Otto Bismarck, who remarked over a century ago, “People who love sausage and people who believe in justice should never watch either of them being made.”

Headin’ down to Alamo-town

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Hope everyone had a nice Easter weekend. After our unexpected snow storm on Saturday, the weather warmed up a bit and we were able to enjoy the festivities with the family yesterday. The only problem was our grand-niece and nephew, who became so irritably cute while playing with their pet Easter Bunny (named “Winston”) that we just couldn’t stand it any more and were forced to lock the children in a pen for the rest of the day:


Ha ha! I’m kidding – please don’t call the DFPS on my ass. But seriously, they were really adorable, and I hope that this photo of rabbity cuteness brings me oodles of comments. After all, it seems to work for Schnozz. Oh what the hell, here’s another pic:


Hey, if we’re going to pander, we might as well go all the way! I would actually consider getting a rabbit ourselves, if we didn’t already have three highly territorial cats who would no doubt be less than pleased at the obvious competition for the petting and ear-scratching. So, I guess whenever we need a bunny-fix we’ll go visit the relatives. (“Hi, we just came over to see Winston. Oh, and how are you guys, by the way?”)

In other news, we’re about to depart here tomorrow morning to spend a few days in beautiful San Antonio. Mrs. Toast is making a presentation at the annual meeting of the Texas Library Association, so I’ve decided to tag along, seeing how no air travel will be involved.* She will also attend various meetings and seminars as she learns all about the latest hoop-de-doo in Libraryland. (Pardon me; I’m using this technical jargon because I know that occasionally Actual Librarians may read this blog.) Those of you who have been following this journal for a while now may remember our previous trip to the Alamo City last year for ALA, when many margaritas were consumed and general hilarity ensued as we hung out with a bunch of other wild ‘n crazy liberrians, er librarians, from all over the country. We’re hoping that this visit will be equally exciting, although this gathering will be strictly Texas librarians … only a small subset of the greater information-resource culture that includes some serious party animals from Boston whom we were with last year. We’ll do our best, however, and depending on Internet availability at our hotel, I’ll hopefully have some further adventures and photos to post later in the week.

*Honestly, since her presentation also involves a laptop and digital projector, I suspect she is bringing me along mainly for the technical support.

The good news would be the lack of bad news

Saturday, March 31st, 2007

I’ve been in the hospital in Houston again this week for my quarterly ritual of being poked, prodded, and stuffed into an airtight box while I blow into tubes. It’s so much fun, I just can’t tell you. While there’s been some minor variation in my pulmonary function numbers, the one that’s the most general indicator of the state of my health (FVC, or Forced Vital Capacity) has remained steady at 57%, exactly where it was when we went through this procedure three months ago. The fact that I have not declined further since then is great news, considering that my doctor had been concerned that my December numbers, which had dropped from the previous summer’s high of 61%, might have indicated that I was on the verge of cratering. A rapid falloff in lung capacity after a period of relative stability is not uncommon in Pulmonary Fibrosis patients. Had I continued to drop below his “magic number” threshold of 50%, I would right now be anxiously eyeballing a beeper, expecting a call to come at any moment summoning me to report to the hospital to have my lungs transplanted. The fact that I don’t have to worry about this for at least the next three months is a tremendous relief.

But at the same time, it also means that I will continue to remain stuck in this limbo state of not sick enough to be transplanted, yet not well enough to carry on most normal activities. As long as I am sitting still and not exerting, I feel fine … and in fact at these times it’s easy for me to forget that there’s anything wrong with me at all. However, once I stand up and start moving around, I am quickly reminded that pulmonary fibrosis has rendered my lungs unable to efficiently do their biological job of exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen in my bloodstream. I become severely out of breath after just a few seconds, like someone in normal health would get from running around the block. It’s only with the help of supplemental oxygen that I am able to do much of anything at all. Like anyone else with a serious illness, I go through phases in my struggle to deal with it. Sometimes I’m grateful that medical science allows me to live with a condition that would probably have killed me outright within a year or two had I been born a century ago. Other times I feel resentful to be chained to this fucking oxygen hose. But fortunately, the good days overwhelmingly outnumber the bad. I can get out and about OK if I wheel my O2 tank along with me, and I have decent mobility with my little blue Buzzaround scooter (in fact, it can be actually fun to ride).

But I have to confess I’m getting tired and frustrated with remaining in limbo; after two years of this, part of me wants to get on with the transplant surgery and get it over with. With any luck, I will be able to regain somewhat of a normal life again post-transplant. I’ve met other patients who, several years after their surgery, say they feel better than they’ve ever felt before, which makes me very hopeful. The idea of being able to do the simple things I love again — travel, walk on the beach, go dancing, ride a bike — fills me with optimism, so I think “all right, cut me open and let’s get this show on the road.”

Of course, once I start really thinking about it, how one in ten transplant patients don’t make it out of the O.R. alive, how the average post-transplant life expectancy is only about five years, it scares the crap out of me. Medical science makes amazing discoveries every day: could lung tissue someday be regenerated, or grown externally to preserve the DNA structure in such a way that the body’s immune system doesn’t try to expel it as a “foreign object”? (Rejection is the single-most common reason for organ transplant failure.) Who knows what miracle “cure” could come along in the next year or two that might even eliminate the need for the surgery? With that in mind, the longer I can postpone it the better.

So in the meantime I’ll continue to wait, follow my medication and pulmonary rehab regimen, and try to stay as healthy as I can. I’ll remember to keep a positive attitude, and do my best to enjoy life … three months at a time.

Unky Funkle

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Every family has its “black sheep”, and mine was my Uncle Larry. When I was growing up in Massachusetts in the late 50′s, I seldom got to see but often heard about my father’s brother, whom my mother referred to — with obvious disgust — as “your drinkin’ uncle”. Larry lived in Montreal, and for most of his life eked out a meager living as (gasp!) a musician, a career choice my parents considered to be somewhat less than respectable. They couldn’t understand why he never seemed to want to find, as they put it, “a real job” like my dad had at The Shoe, (United Shoe Machinery Corp., a major New England employer and 20th-century North Shore landmark).

But the nine-to-five life was not for Uncle Larry. He played sax and clarinet in a jazz/swing orchestra and toured all over Canada and the Northeast, where his band appeared most often in night clubs. It was probably due to spending so much time in these venues that he acquired a taste for drink (thus my mother’s nickname), and he could well have been an alcoholic. But back in those days, alcoholism was not widely regarded as an illness worthy of medical treatment, but rather as a personal weakness, and in my mother’s eyes Uncle Larry was just a drunk, plain and simple. Looking back on it with what I know now, it’s also altogether possible that he may have occasionally indulged in something stronger than booze (as was the custom of a number of jazz musicians of that era), although I can’t say for sure. My dad hinted at this once or twice, but I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, and it’s impossible to know now if he ever had any actual proof or was merely suspicious.

On at least two occasions, my family took me along on the 300-mile drive from Boston to Montreal to visit him. Of course, at the tender age of ten or eleven, I would hardly have been allowed into any club where he might have been appearing to hear him play. But Uncle Larry always seemed to have a special fondness for me, his only nephew, and would serenade me on the sax at his home while I sat at his feet, listening in raptured amazement. Until that point in my life, the only music I had ever heard coming from a live instrument had been my school’s marching band; this was something totally different. It might have been Goodman, Coltrane, or Monk, but I had never heard anything like it before. It damn sure wasn’t John Phillip Sousa, I knew that — and I loved it. He would close his eyes and blow these incredible licks, then look at me with a twinkle as he curled a smile around his reed. He wasn’t just playing the music, he was feeling it and breathing it with “soul”, although that’s not a word that was heard much back then. I’m pretty certain that if I have any musical genes in my body (which I like to think I do), I got them from him. I know without any doubt that I got my love of music and improvisation from my Uncle Larry. I worshiped him, and could never understand why my parents were so ashamed of him.

I only saw Uncle Larry a few times before he died from a sudden illness in the mid 60′s, when I was about 14 or 15. I’ll never forget my mother’s reaction when she learned of his death: “good riddance,” she said. I was shocked, and angry. In retrospect, it seems very strange to me that my parents were less than forthcoming when I asked for details of how he died, and why only my father went to his funeral, leaving me and my mom at home. It bothers me that those questions will never be answered, but that’s water over the bridge now.

Today, nearly 40 years later, the tables have turned and I am the Funky Uncle to my only nephew whom I am incredibly fond of. (I may not be considered the “black sheep” of the family, but my earlier career in the radio and record business brought me awfully close.) My nephew Jeffrey will be mortified if he should happen to read this, but I recall that when he was a very little tyke, I used to bounce him on my knee. Back then he had trouble saying his own name, which came out “Reh-ree”; we uncles and grandparents thought this was incredibly cute, and for the longest time that was our nickname for him. I suspect he hated the name (particularly when we still called him this long after he turned 21), but tolerated it because, well, that’s just the swell sort of kid he was. If I were to call him this to his face today, however, I suspect I might get a fork in the eyeball or at the very least a very dirty look, so I will refrain.

In any case, the kid is all grown up and is making one heckuva name for himself as a photographer based in Noo Yawk City. He also has galleries in L.A. and Tokyo. Before starting his own business, he spent many years in fashion photography, and you probably saw his work if you ever looked at any glossy glamor mags like Vogue or Vanity Fair. These days, he specializes in what I would call “organic” photography: the relationship between light, space and color in objects such as plants, animals, glass, and water. While many of his images look digitally manipulated, he shoots on film and then uses chemical processes in the darkroom to create stunning works of art. Here are but two small samples:


In the last year or so, he has made some major scores. A number of his photographs were selected to grace the set of “My Super Ex-Girlfriend“, starring Uma Thurman. Here are two low-res screen shots from the movie of Uma standing in front of his artwork:



Later this year (scheduled release date, 12/17), look for his artwork to appear in “The Tourist” with Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, and Michelle Williams. He’s also been featured on the cover of the Miami Herald’s Home and Design magazine (the green photo in the center):


Jeffrey Rothstein: remember the name. He’s going to be big-time megawatt famous, and his Funky Uncle Toast is proud as hell. His Great-Uncle Larry would be too.

Mrs. Toast goes to Washington

Friday, March 9th, 2007


I am pleased to announce today that, following the lead of Hillary Clinton who has suggested that American voters might be ready to elect a woman president in 2008, Mrs. Toast is hereby declaring her candidacy for President of These Here United States. She feels that not only is the time right for a woman to occupy the Oval Office, it is also high time for a Librarian president, someone who will restore order to a chaotic White House by cataloging all that junk that past presidents have just left lying around, you know, in closets and stuff. I think Abe Lincoln may have left an old pair of boots in one of the bedrooms, and God only knows what (or who) Harry Truman might have stashed away in the attic. Another major item on her agenda will be a proposal to balance the federal budget by forcefully collecting unpaid fines on overdue books. This may sound like a difficult proposition until you realize that, under the Patriot Act, the government knows where every single one of you literary scofflaws lives. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Once she is elected by a landslide (unless Florida screws up, again) it will then become my patriotic duty as First Toast to do, er, something. I’m not sure what yet; perhaps a campaign to make beer the National Beverage. Oh well, I’ve got plenty of time to work on it before her inauguration.

But seriously, folks (insert rimshot here, bada-BING) I am proud to report that my wife has just returned from attending a library conference in Washington, DC, where she has learned the latest skills to assist in her work spearheading the “Digital Projects” department at her library. This involves cataloging not just books, but a variety of physical objects in digital form so they can be researched and accessed electronically. As anyone who has done a Google search realizes, the future of libraries is becoming inextricably linked with that of Information Technology. Some people even wonder if brick-and-mortar libraries may eventually become obsolete; but in response to the question “do we still need books in the digital age?”, Jessamine West at librarian.net writes:

Yes.

I guess my question for you is “Whose digital age?” because where I work, at public libraries in Central Vermont, the digital age is unfolding much more slowly and to much less fanfare than it is elsewhere. In a state where only 15-25% of the residents use broadband, the digital age is as much about hurdles and the threat of being left behind as it is about bold and shiny technological innovation and synthesis. Libraries and librarians help people not get left behind by technology, by democracy, and by people who think that libraries and technology can’t coexist and thrive symbiotically.

We need libraries in any age, they’re the human scale measurement for the information age.

While a vast quantity of information is available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection, sometimes the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming. Not only that, but how do you know if a source is trustworthy? The quality of information found on the web is not always accurate or reliable, and someone skilled in “knowledge management” — a librarian — can be an invaluable resource to separate the good data from the bad.

The “human touch” is still, and always will be, another important consideration. Public libraries typically provide services free of charge to anyone who wishes to use them. Many also provide literacy programs, reader development promotions, and act as a resource for the availability of local public services. They also help with special-needs groups such as children (including story-telling programs), or those who are housebound or visually impaired. Academic librarians like Mrs. Toast are especially important in educational institutions; they develop a wide range of services to meet the objectives of the students, faculty and administration. They encourage reading and research, and are among the most advanced in developing electronic services, including sophisticated teaching tools. The library is a centerpiece of college life, and one major factor affecting how Universities are ranked and compared is by the quality of their libraries.

In connection with her work, Mrs. Toast has been traveling extensively this spring. Prior to D.C. last month, she gave a presentation at a conference in Atlanta, and has other trips scheduled in the next couple of months. This means that I will have to fend for myself here at home for weeks at a time, and may need to call upon old long-lost bachelor skills such as ordering pizza and preparing frozen chicken pot-pies. I hope I survive.

Can anyone tell me how to open an orange without involving an electric drill?

Extra!

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

MR. TOAST SHAVES HEAD, GOES INTO REHAB!

TEXAS (AP) – The blogosphere was still in shock this evening after the pop icon known as “Mr. Toast” unexpectedly shaved off all his hair before a stunned group of onlookers earlier today. The stock market plummeted, rivers reversed their flow, and planes fell out of the sky as the world reeled from the astounding news. Major television networks interrupted their regular programming to trot a non-stop parade of behavioral experts including psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists (with a couple of phlebotomists thrown in for good measure) in front of the cameras, all seeking to answer the endless public cries of “Why? Why would anyone do such a shocking thing? Why? Oh my God, Why?”

Paparazzi from all over the world converged on the Lone Star state trying to snap pictures of the newly bald Toast, however he remained secluded at an undisclosed location, releasing only one publicity photo (shown above) to the media. When it was pointed out that the image strongly appeared to be Photoshopped (and poorly at that), Mr. Toast responded that anyone foolish enough to consider going to this website to place a minimum one million dollar bid for the locks of a former Pop Icon also might conceivably be dumb enough to fall for this stunt as well.

In an attempt to escape the media circus, I, er… that is, Mr. Toast then checked into Rehab. Seriously. OK, we’re talking about cardio-pulmonary rehab here people, where you work out on exercise machines at the local hospital while a nurse monitors your vital signs. Yeah sure, it’s supposed to help people with heart or lung problems stay healthier and technically speaking it’s a “multi-disciplinary program of care for patients with chronic respiratory impairment that is individually tailored and designed to optimize physical and social performance and autonomy” but it’s still rehabilitation and maybe I was kidding about the hair thing but hey give me a freakin’ break already.

At least I’m wearing underwear.

Stupor Bowl

Saturday, February 3rd, 2007

I hear there is some sort of football game scheduled for tomorrow. Oh yeah, the Super Bowl. (yawn.) While a few previous year’s games have felt like national holidays to me, please excuse me if I fail to get too excited about it this year. I think there are a number of reasons for this:

  • Who’s playing again? The Chicago Bears and, ah … lemme think … The Detroit Pistons? Oh yeah, The Indianapolis Indians, or something like that. In the past I may have had a regional affection for certain teams (New England, Miami, Denver, and Tampa Bay for example) because I’ve lived in or had close friends in that part of the country, but with no connection to either of this year’s participants, I could frankly care less who wins.
  • In other years the Super Bowl has been a fine excuse for a bacchanalia of food and fun. We’ve consumed a mountain of pizza, chips & dip, hot wings, BBQ weenies, nachos, and other things that aren’t good for you … not to mention buckets of beer. In fact, icing down a variety of imported bottled beers in a huge aluminum tub the day before the game so it would be barely a degree above freezing by kickoff time on Sunday had become somewhat of a tradition around the Toast household. This year, however, my doctor has me on a serious diet due to my possible future transplant surgery, so consuming a mound of junk food is out. And considering all the medications I’m taking, the beer is a definite no-no as well. What’s football without beer? I mean, c’mon.
  • Most people look forward to seeing the Super Bowl commercials as much, if not more so, than the game itself. But for the last couple of years, the ads have been widely available on the Internet so there’s no reason to have to slog through boring football plays to see them. This year, many of them can be seen on YouTube, and there are also a number of other sites like this one especially devoted to the “art” of the game day pitch.
  • Another spectacular element to the Super Bowl in the past has always been the halftime show. But following Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 event, the entertainment has become so bland and family-friendly as to be unexciting. Paul McCartney’s appearance in 2005 was boringly dull, and I was hugely disappointed with last year’s walk-through by The Rolling Stones, who seemed to practically phone in their performance. This year’s entertainer, Prince, is a bit edgier, but I’m still not expecting His Purpleness to come up with any big surprises.

Nevertheless, I’ll probably watch the event tomorrow along with the other millions of world-wide viewers. For one thing, it beats actually going to the game, where ticket prices go for an average — average, mind you, of between $4,000 and $5,000 (although The Miami Herald has reported that due to a comparative lack of excitement for the teams this year, tickets can be found for the “bargain” price of around $1,500). And if the game action gets too ho-hum, I can always switch over to the Puppy Bowl.

Tilting at windmills

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

curmudgeon (kər-mŭj’ən), noun. A crusty, difficult, irascible, cantankerous, ill-tempered old person full of resentment and stubborn ideas. (Origin unknown.) Synonyms: grouch, grump, crank, bear, bellyacher, sourpuss, crosspatch, malcontent, sorehead, complainer.
(From the Random House® Unabridged Dictionary)

One of the things I am most proud of from my restless youth is that during my college years, I had a girlfriend at another University in a nearby town who was active in the student protest movement of the day. One week I visited her at her school and while there, helped to organize busses to take people to a demonstration which was being held at the state capitol. The local newspaper got wind of this upcoming event and wrote a story about it in which I, personally, was referred to as an “outside agitator”. I was thrilled beyond words.

Fast-forward to the present, and you’ll find that over the years, this mindset hasn’t changed much. You could charitably say that I sometimes have a tendency to stand up and buck the prevailing winds, an attitude that occasionally gets me in trouble. No matter how noble your goals, being the gad-fly in the ointment will often win you more detractors than it will friends. Take Ralph Nader for example, a (arguably) well-meaning yet crusty old crank if ever there was one. Don’t get me wrong, I would hardly place myself anywhere near on a par with such a notable malcontent, however, one thing I do share with other such activists is that I particularly chafe when I perceive that “the little guy” is being screwed over by some soulless MegaMcCorporation. And these days, if I can’t actually do anything about it, I can at least complain about it, which, you may note if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I do. Often.

It seems that my curmudgeonly tendencies have been on particular display lately, and while I make a conscious effort not to “sweat the small stuff”, it still seems that sometimes I get my shorts in a wad over relatively trivial issues more often than should be necessary. For example, our cable TV and Internet service provider has recently changed, and the quality of service from the new company has plummeted. Attempts to resolve the problems have so far been fruitless…and that irritates me.

However, nobody likes a grumpy old coot, and I really do try to stay serene and keep things in perspective. I’ve already got enough legitimate stuff to worry about, and even though I may have some serious health concerns, at the same time I recognize that I’m very fortunate in so many other ways; all it takes is a scan of the headlines to make me count my blessings daily. So then, it’s with a sense of humor and good nature that today I’m going to rant about two giants of the corporate world who have recently been jerking my chain: Bank of America, and Staples. On the former I can claim victory after a six-month-long battle; with the latter, the skirmish has just begun and the outcome is by no means yet clear.

Last August during the final day of the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip, I spent the night in Jackson Mississippi at a little hole-in-the-wall motel. As the result of a snafu caused by an inexperienced desk clerk, I was charged twice for the room, which I did not realize until I received my credit card bill a month later. Calls to the motel went unanswered, so I disputed the amount with Bank of America. The resulting six-month foray into Customer Service Hell, including impenetrable circular voice-mail systems, rude and clueless agents (often located in offshore call centers), letters requesting documents that had been sent weeks earlier, charges, credits, faxes and re-presentments, is something that the U.S. military should seriously look into as a way of extracting confessions from Guantanamo Bay detainees. It can’t be any less torture than what they’re doing to them now.

I’ll admit that a couple of times I got so frustrated that I was tempted to just give up and write it off to experience, but finally this weekend, a credit of $66.24 appeared on my charge card account. Whoopee! I figure if I divide this figure by the amount of time I’ve wasted on the phone and writing letters trying to settle this matter, I’ve earned approximately 36 cents per hour on the deal. But I eventually got what was rightfully owed me, so I’m a happy camper. Justice has prevailed.

On to Staples. Three weeks ago, the office supply superstore (company slogan: “That was easy!”) ran a flyer in our Sunday newspaper which featured a Toshiba notebook computer on sale for $849. This machine was configured with Intel’s latest Core 2 Duo processor, a huge hard drive, and a 15″ widescreen. Best of all, the advertised sale price was a GREAT DEAL, beating any other price I’d seen on this same model by at least $200. (I’ve been in the market for a new laptop since before Christmas, and have had my eye on Toshiba in particular.) So I decided this must be fate: the time was right, the deal was right — let’s do it! Let’s buy that sucker!!

Not so fast, Geek Boy.

First I try my local Staples store, but they don’t have any available. I check the web site and find that the computer is in fact listed there, but when I try to place the order, it says “out of stock”. So I call Staples 800 number and the cheery sales representative tells me she’s sorry, they don’t have any in stock right now, but they should be getting more soon so would I like to put it on back order? I do, and she takes my credit card info (note: this time not my Bank of America card) and phone number.

Two days later I get a call and it’s Ms. Cheery Staples again to say the item is available now and would I like to go ahead and place that order? “Hell, yes,” says I, and even get a confirmation number and expected delivery date. I’m pleased as punch: oh boy, a shiny new computer is on its way!

In the meantime, Sunday rolls around again to bring another Staples newspaper flyer, and lo and behold, the exact same model Toshiba laptop is in there again, only now the price has been marked down to $799!! Although I’m just a little bit cheesed to think I could have saved another fifty bucks if I had waited a few days, I don’t get too concerned about it until my “scheduled delivery date” comes … and goes … and no package arrives at the door. So I call Ms. Cheery Staples back to see what happened, only by now she is not so cheery.

“That item has been out of stock for weeks,” she tells me, sounding tired and irritated, adding, “It’s not going to be restocked, either.” I get the distinct feeling she’s had this exact same conversation with other customers many times today. So why was I told it was available, and my order placed, I ask?

“It must have been a computer error,” she replies flatly, clearly ignoring the irony of that statement.

She then sends me an email cancelling the order which contains the classic “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you” line that corporations spout when they can’t say what they really mean, which is “tough shit, pal”.

toshiba.jpgAlthough I was disappointed and a little pissed, I probably would have let it go there — until a new sales flyer came out in today’s paper, and guess what, folks? It’s freaking still there! They are continuing to advertise this product when, apparently, not a single one of these machines is available for purchase anywhere in the entire Staples system!

I realize that these flyers are printed well in advance, and that they must have grossly underestimated the demand the low sale price would generate for this item. The ad does say “while supplies last”, which gives them a back door to weasel out through. Still, while I wouldn’t exactly call this false advertising or “bait and switch”, the fact of the matter is that somebody screwed up here, and I think they should take responsibility for it.

So, Professional Curmudgeon that I am, I intend to write a letter to Staple’s president and CEO at their company headquarters in Framingham, MA, politely yet firmly expressing my frustration. I don’t think anything will come of it other than I’ll get it off my chest, and might get another “we apologize for the inconvenience” form letter in reply — but who knows? Maybe a nice shiny new laptop will show up on my doorstep after all. We’ll see; sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the grease.

Thank you for allowing me to rant; the cranky bear is now going back into hibernation.

Radio contests (good and bad)

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Today’s post continues the “radio” theme from earlier this week, and is a peculiar mix of humor and tragedy.

A first-year marketing student will tell you that contests and promotions are the life-blood of any radio station. The radio broadcasting business has a unique and intangible “product” in that it’s something that you can’t see, smell, taste or touch. It exists only as waves in the ether, something which can only be “consumed” by the end-user if they take the pro-active step of turning on their radio receiver and tuning it to your particular spot on the dial.

Therefore, radio is as much a state of mind or “image” as anything else, and throughout the history of radio, stations have relied on contests and promotions to make the potential listener aware of their existence and get them to tune in. Of course, once you get them to listen, you then must figure out the best way to keep them listening, but that’s another story.

Program directors and promotion managers are always under pressure to come up with innovative, wacky ideas to intrigue listeners. Many years ago, when I was the P.D. of a rock station in Sarasota, FL, I cooked up a partnership with a local drive-in movie theater (anyone remember those?) to do a weekly “Friday Night Fright” promotion, where the theater would show all-night horror films on Fridays. The station gave away free tickets during the week leading up to each show, and as a bonus, we also featured a live appearance by “Count Dracula” — me, in costume — who would go around to the cars on the lot during intermission, giving away free stuff and scaring the crap out of little children. Every Friday night that summer, I donned my full Drac regalia including cape, fangs, and gruesome makeup. I had a blast doing it, and the listeners loved it too.

On another occasion, I devised a contest for a Pizza restaurant which we dubbed “The Big Quacker”. It starred a fictional giant waterfowl who was located “somewhere on the North American continent”, and the person who could call in and guess exactly where would win a respectable cash prize. The station gave out cryptic clues to his location over the air (increasing our ratings), and additional clues were available at the restaurant (an incentive to visit the sponsor). Much to my surprise, the prmotion was wildly successful and the whole town got caught up in “Quackermania”; after someone finally won the prize, I naturally had to get dressed up in a giant duck suit and make a highly-promoted appearance at the restaurant to award it. Not only was it a lot of fun, I got free pizza there anytime I wanted it from then on. (Ah, the perks of show biz.)

So, many of you have no doubt heard of or participated in similar radio station promotions: concert ticket or record album giveaways are common, and the bigger the market, the more money a station can afford to spend on prizes. Elaborate contests, sometimes offering glamorous trips and thousands of dollars in cash or prizes, can have a significant impact on listenership and make the critical difference in ratings that generate huge advertising revenue for a station.

Sometimes a station will pull out the stops, and the more wacky and crazy a contest is, the more “buzz” it tends to generate; listeners have shown time and time again that they’re willing to do almost anything to win a prize and get their name on the air. Last June, for example, Chicago’s WLUP-FM offered baseball fans a chance to win tickets for the sold-out “Crosstown Classic” game between the White Sox and the Cubs by participating in what was advertised as the “Crosstown Classic Ass Kissing Contest.” Listeners who had qualified earlier were summoned to plant a kiss on a live donkey outside of Wrigley Field. “The fan who keeps their lips on the donkey the longest wins tickets to the game,” according to the contest rules.

These contests are called “marathons”; they of course have their roots in the classic old-time radio dance marathons of the 30′s, and tend to generate a lot of publicity. Who hasn’t heard of the car dealership contest where a number of challengers try to keep their hands on a new car or truck longer than anyone else, with the winner getting to drive the vehicle home? In these events, the health and safety of the contestants due to such factors as sleep deprivation, dehydration, etc. can become an issue, and it’s understood that any responsible planner of such a contest will have medical personnel on hand to supervise potential problems.

Therefore, I was shocked to hear about a station in Sacramento, CA, who recently sponsored a contest that went horribly awry. Called “Hold your wee for a Wii”, the contest at Entercom’s KDND(FM) was to see who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom; the prize was a Nintendo Wii video game system. A few hours afterwards, Jennifer Strange, a 28-year old mother of three who had participated in the contest, died in her home of what the local coroner’s office called “water intoxication“. Reportedly, Strange drank nearly two gallons of water in the kitchen of the station’s Madison Avenue office.

To make matters worse, an audio recording of the show reveals the DJs joking about people dying from water intoxication. As contestants chugged bottle after bottle, a listener called in to warn the disc jockeys that the stunt was dangerous, and could be fatal. “Yeah, we’re aware of that,” one of them responded. Another DJ laughed: “Yeah, they signed releases, so we’re not responsible. We’re OK.” At one point, they even alluded to a Chico college student who died during a similar hazing stunt in 2005. “Hey Carter, is anybody dying in there?” a DJ asks during the show. “We got a guy who’s just about to die,” the other responds, and all the DJs laugh. “I like that we laugh about that,” another says. “Make sure he signs the release. … Get the insurance on that, please.”

Not surprisingly, the two DJs — and eight other people responsible for the contest — have been fired. Attorneys said they plan to file a wrongful death suit against the station, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. Earlier in the week, Entercom Sacramento VP/GM John Geary (a respected broadcaster well-known to me and others in the industry for his visionary programming skills during the 80′s and 90′s) had posted an online statement that the “Morning Rave” show had been canceled. “All of you are probably aware of the tragic death of a contestant, Jennifer Strange, following her participation in a contest on the Morning Rave last Friday,” he wrote. “First and foremost, our thoughts and sympathies go out to Jennifer’s family and loved ones. I also want to assure you that the circumstances regarding this matter are being examined as thoroughly as possible. We are doing everything we can to deal with this difficult situation in a manner that is both respectful and responsible.” However, no doubt due to the pending legal action, any mention of the contest or the station’s reaction to it has recently been pulled from the station’s web site.

You can bet that this tragedy will be discussed in staff meetings at virtually every radio station in the country over the next few weeks as an example of how not to do a contest. Ironically, KDND’s on-air tagline is “107.9-The End”; unfortunately for Jennifer Strange, the “Hold your wee for a Wii” contest was exactly that.

The Great Christmas Tree Caper

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

I’ve been thinking about Christmas trees since Supacoo wrote a funny post about her experiences with Christmas trees as a youth, and shared a photo of the damn fine-looking specimen which stands proudly in her home this year. Way to go ‘Coo!

My own youthful recollections of Christmas are tainted by the amazing cheapness of my father, who when I was five or six years old made what was probably to him a quite logical and financially sound decision: “why should we waste twenty bucks on a live tree every year when we can buy a fake one and use it year after year?” This might have been forgivable had the fake tree been a huge and gloriously green, perfectly-shaped model of arboreal artificiality, but no: my dad insisted on buying the most cheap-ass, skinny, ugly silver tree one could find on sale at K-Mart, and I had to look at that sucker every single year for the remainder of my childhood. No present placed under it was able to redeem the pure ugliness of that aluminum metal monster.

Therefore, it’s probably not surprising that I vowed when I was old enough to have my own place, by George, there would be no more fake trees for me, and I’ve had a real one ever since. Some years they came from the grocery store or a corner lot; for many years we went to the local Christmas tree farm and cut our own, which was always fun. And during a couple of really fine years when we celebrated Christmas with the in-laws at their home in Colorado, we’d actually go out into the National Forest (with the proper permit, of course) to find the ideal tree. Those were the best years of all.

But this particular year was 1988; the place, Houston, Texas. In the city there aren’t too many options for cutting down a live tree, so one is relegated to buying one from a Big Discount Store or a commercial tree lot. We had scoped out the choices and decided that a lot not far from where we lived had the freshest and best-looking trees in the neighborhood. Not only that, they were open 24 hours a day for the convenience of the late-night tree-seeker.

On this evening about two weeks before Christmas, a good friend of ours had come over to our house for dinner. During this meal, much wine was consumed. Further consumption of wine (and other items) continued after dinner. By about 1 AM, we were feeling no pain whatsoever, which apparently is why the decision to jump into my little red Toyota pickup truck in this toasted condition, drive to the tree lot and get our tree in the middle of the freaking night must have seemed like a good idea.

We arrived at the Christmas tree lot which was well lit, but (understandably for that hour of the day) completely deserted. At the entrance to the property stood a small travel trailer where the attendant stayed; we didn’t see anyone around, so we decided the most logical plan would be to pick out a tree, then bring it back to the trailer and check out. The trees were all tagged with prices, and after much searching and general hilarity due to our less-than-sober condition we found what we thought was the ultimate holiday tree, a glorious seven-foot Noble Fir marked with a tag of $39.95. This was a bit more than I had intended to pay, but it really was a beautiful tree. All the others we had looked at were nice, but each had at least one minor blemish which kept it from being The Perfect Christmas Tree. This one, however, was absolutely flawless.

We carried the tree to the trailer, leaned it against the truck, and went in to pay. Inside the tiny trailer, the attendant was stretched out in a lounge chair with a ball cap pulled down over his eyes, his hands folded in his lap. A rather unkempt looking gentleman with a scraggly beard, he appeared to be asleep. A small black and white TV set was playing above the whirr of an electric space heater which was keeping the trailer toasty warm. I figured that with tax, the price of the tree would be about $45, and I had three twenty-dollar bills in my hand. In a tone of voice only slightly louder than normal so as not to startle him, I said “Sir?”

He didn’t move.

I tried a little louder. “Sir? Excuse me, I’d like to buy this tree.”

Nothing.

By now I was yelling at the top of my voice. “Hello, sir? Hello? Can I pay you for this tree? Sir?” When he still didn’t wake up, at that point we began to wonder if he was, in fact, alive. Strange crimes happen in the city, and it seemed entirely possible that some homicidal maniac could have robbed the man of the lot’s mostly cash proceeds and killed him in order to leave no witness. However, we could see no blood or other physical signs of trauma, and closer inspection revealed he was indeed breathing. As if to reassure us, at about that moment he began to snore.

My friend and I looked at each other, both thinking the exact same thing at the exact same moment. Without a word, we dashed out of the trailer, threw the tree in the back of the pickup, and raced out of the lot and back home, laughing like idiots all the way.

In retrospect, he had probably gotten drunk and passed out. Being an attendant at an all-night Christmas tree lot is not a highly skilled occupation, and who knows what kind of low-life the owners of the lot had hired for the temporary job. I suppose we could have shaken the man to wake him up, or left two of the $20-bills (or even one of them!) on the small desk next to the guy. But for whatever reason, we didn’t; instead, we gave in to the lure of larceny that fate presented to us.

It was, however, a very special Christmas. Once the tree was decorated, it was the most magnificent holiday evergreen I have ever had in any year before or since, and it will be remembered not only for its classic beauty but for the manner in which it was obtained. In fact, while visiting Houston this week we had dinner with my former partner in coniferous crime, and once again shared a hearty laugh as we recalled The Great Christmas Tree Caper of 1988. The tag on the tree may have said $39.95, but the memory of it will always be priceless.

Over the river and through the woods…

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

…we’re off on a Houston drive!
For my hospital tests
I’m feeling quite stressed
I hope I get home ali…ive!

Ho, ho, ho! Time to get out the sleigh bells and put a wreath on the front grill of the van, as we’re about to hit the road for the holidays. In addition to visiting the relatives, it’s also time for me to go back to Methodist Hospital for another pre-transplant evaluation of my lung functions for my IPF, so I’ll be spending the better part of Wednesday and Thursday being poked, prodded, stuffed into a little airtight cabinet, and blowing into tubes. What jolly fun! After quite a few of these pulmonary function tests, I think I’ve about got the routine down by now.

The good news is that I seem to still be doing fairly well considering that two years ago, I was told that I had perhaps 18 months left to live … and I honestly feel better now than I did then. I can’t help but think that my experimental pirfenidone treatment has had something to do with that (and of course, all that clean living – hah!) so I’m optimistic that the test results this week will show that I’ve remained relatively stable in the six months since my last exam. I have noticed that I’m coughing more and seem to be getting tired more easily than I did over the summer during my whirlwind New England road trip, but we’ll see what my pulmonologist has to say. Most likely, I expect he will tell me to come back in another three months (or six months if I’m lucky) and we’ll do this drill all over again. It’s a bit frustrating to be stuck in limbo like this: dependent on supplemental oxygen and not well enough to be able to carry on “normal” activities, yet not sick enough to need immediate transplant surgery. But hey, I am not complaining! On the contrary, I consider it a major blessing that I’m doing as well as I am, and have learned to cope with the limitations imposed by my condition. This glass is definitely half-full. (Which, being an engineer, reminds me of the old joke that an optimist sees a glass as half full, a pessimist sees it as half empty, and an engineer sees a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.)

But once this business is out of the way Thursday afternoon, it’s on to more pleasant things including some shopping and dinner at a nice restaurant in Houston, and visits with friends and family there. We’ll be back on Christmas eve to spend a quiet holiday at home, and may find a few minutes for an occasional blog post here and there. I’m sure most of you will be busy with your own family gatherings, but please stop by and say “hi” if you get the chance. I know one blogger friend in particular will be quite busy with having a baby over the holiday; please visit April’s blog and wish her congratulations once her little bundle of holiday joy arrives (any day now). Talk about a great Christmas present!

I’ll leave you for now with this sacred and uplifting tune that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment of the season; I think it captures the true spirit of the holiday. Just click on the little “play” button below. If I’m not able to post again before the weekend, let me take this opportunity to say…

Merry Christmas to All
And To All a Good Night!

Rampant consumerism

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

By all accounts Black Friday was a huge success, and I can proudly report that I did my part yesterday to help kick off the great American orgy of economic gratification known as the “holiday shopping season”. Getting out of bed at 5:15 AM, I was standing in line at my nearby Staples office supply store when their doors opened at 6 o’clock, and one hour later I had scored the following goodies that only a fellow geek will truly appreciate:

  • A 200-gigabyte Maxtor internal hard drive for $19
  • A one-gigabyte SanDisk USB flash drive for $7
  • A Brother plain-paper fax machine for $15

And were these presents for the tech-savvy people on my gift list, you might ask? Hell, no. They were all for me. Me! Meeeeeeee! Muawh ha ha ha!! I actually needed these items, and Staple’s discount prices were just too good to turn down. I’ll shop for other folks later, perhaps on Cyber Monday, when many Americans will get on the web to search for bargains from the high-speed comfort of their office Internet connections. According to this story, nearly half of us will purchase at least one gift item online this season, compared to less than thirty percent three years ago, and for many folks it’s going to be a total point & click holiday.

For anyone who may be new to the world of online commerce, I can report to you that I’ve been shopping online for many years, and have found it to be safe and convenient. In addition to saving time, gas, and money, you also have the advantage of incredible variety. So if you’re having trouble finding that Sony Playstation III or Tickle Me Elmo TMX you’ve been desperately searching for, I’m sure that Captain Danger Stunt Monkey will be a more than worthy substitute.

Let the shopping begin!

Holiday Greetings

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Hello friends! Not much to blog about today; we’re getting ready for the big holiday tomorrow, and plan a traditional celebration of turkey, apple pie, football, and copious napping. Also, Mrs. Toast is warming up her credit cards in anticipation of Black Friday. Unlike last Thanksgiving when we went to visit relatives, this year we’re staying at home so there will be lots of leftover turkey for sandwiches. However you spend it, I wish you a safe and blessed holiday.

Can you see me now?

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

I like to think of myself as a fairly tech-savvy guy, as you might expect from someone with a career in broadcast engineering. My “data center” at home has five networked computers, all of which I built from scratch parts (with the exception of my laptop). I maintain two servers that are online 24/7, and love my pocket MP3 player.

This fondness for electronic gadgetry dates back to my childhood, when I would tear apart anything electric from lamps to radios in my dad’s basement, just to see how they worked. Then I’d use the parts to build something completely different. I learned to solder when I was 12 years old.

So it might come as a surprise that I am a total Luddite when it comes to today’s most modern and versatile gadget, the cell phone. I do not want a phone that is a clock, camera, calendar, web browser, map, walkie-talkie, music player, data center, photo album, video game, toaster oven, secret decoder ring, or whatever the hell else they’re building into cell phones now. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I only want a device that will make and receive phone calls. Is that asking too much?

Apparently so, because each new generation of phones seems to contain more whizz-bang features than the last, whether we want them or not. I personally think this is a ploy on behalf of the service providers to get us to use more airtime. Anyone remember when wireless phones first came out, and what a novelty they were back then? You could make a telephone call while you were driving down the road! Wow! What a concept! In exchange for this miracle breakthrough in technology, we were willing to accept its limitations: the service was expensive, and call quality was poor, with frequent disconnects. Moreover, you had to be very stingy with your cell phone minutes back then, as airtime was limited and you’d get stuck with “roaming” charges of a dollar or so per minute if you ventured out of your local area.

Of course all that’s different now, as wireless networks have added tremendously to their capacity in the last few years. Service costs less than half of what it used to, and most plans allow nearly unlimited nationwide calling with no roaming charges. So as a result, providers have had to come up with added services like custom ring tones, music downloads, photo sharing and the like in order to squeeze more money out of generate more revenue from their customers. Some folks, like me, merely don’t care much for this; others think it’s the source of all evil.

The latest ploy, which I have been following for a while, is to offer phones with embedded GPS locating devices to track the exact location of the phone’s user and their immediate circle of friends. One reason for this trend is regulatory; the government (i.e., The Federal Communications Commission) has demanded that all cellular companies be able to provide 911 operators with the location of anyone calling on a cell phone so help can get to the right place. Companies can already do this to a certain degree by placing the user within the range of the nearest cell tower connecting them to the network. However, GPS provides a much greater level of detail, fixing the user’s exact location on the planet within a couple of meters. From an article by Randall Stross in today’s New York Times:

Two wireless providers recently made separate announcements about new positioning services. Two weeks ago, Helio — a wireless service owned jointly by SK Telecom, a South Korean cellphone company, and Earthlink, the American Internet service provider –€” introduced the “Buddy Beacon” in its new phone, the Drift, which costs $225. With the press of a button, the Drift shows on a map the location of up to 25 friends, if each is also carrying a $225 Drift. Last week, Boost Mobile, a unit of Sprint, unveiled “Boost Loopt”, a similar offering described as a “social mapping service”

The privacy implications of this are mind-bogglingly enormous. It’s one thing for a parent concerned with safety to be able to track the location of their child, but do you want your spouse, boss, the government, or a stalker to know your exact position (both present and past) for every moment of the day? Buddy Beacon addresses this issue by making the user press a button on the phone when they choose to update their location, however Boost Loopt has a feature which automatically updates the user’s position:

Boost Loopt’s service has offered its first-generation users an option to automatically send current coordinates every 15 to 20 minutes. Anticipating potential security problems, it urges its users to admit only “good and trusted friends” into the closed circle that can follow their movements. Loopt suggests that all prospective invitees pass a number of tests of trustworthiness: Do you have their phone numbers? Do you know where they live and where they grew up? Would you lend them your car? Would you give them your house keys to feed your dog?

Isn’t this a little much to ask of someone just to include them in your cell phone’s address book?

The public is only vaguely aware of the trend toward these locator services, and legislation to control them is virtually nonexistent. According to the Times article, Dr. David Mark, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo who specializes in this issue, has said recently that it will probably take “a horrific incident involving a celebrity” before lawmakers pay attention. He also notes that when families adopt positioning cellphone services, a new problem will likely emerge: the very act of turning off one’s location beacon may itself be seen as suspicious. “œIf you don’t want your location known”, Dr. Mark asks, “does that mean you intend to do something improper?”

A provocative question, and this is one reason why I’ll keep my older cell phone, thank you very much, but want nothing to do with these so-called “advanced features”. If you care about privacy and anonymity, this is some pretty scary shit.

Random Friday bits

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Happy Friday! The weekend is almost here, and by next week at this time I will be burping the remnants of my Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Of course, that means Christmas is not far behind, as this little countdown page will remind you; 37 days and counting as I write this.

Adding to my usual bout of Holiday Anxiety this year is the fact that I totally wasted a day of my life yesterday by making a 300-mile round trip to Houston and back for … absolutely nothing. I had been supposed to see the doctor who is administering the clinical trial of the experimental meds I’m taking for my lung condition, but when I got to the clinic for my 1:30 appointment, they had no clue that I was scheduled to be there. It turned out that the trial coordinator totally dropped the ball, scheduling the date with me but forgetting to call the doctor’s office. It was a moot point anyway, as the doctor was out of the office on an emergency and wouldn’t have been able to see me even if I had been on his schedule. Oh well, we’ll try again next month. To be honest, I wasn’t all that upset about it; it’s not like I had any other big plans yesterday, and it was a beautiful sunny day for a drive, with nice cool temperatures. Plus, I really credit this medication with extending my life … so giving back one day seems more than fair. My coordinator was very sorry for the mistake, and by way of apology gave me a $50 Wal-Mart gift card, which will help with the Christmas shopping.

Speaking of shopping, are you stumped by what to give that special someone on your list this year? Well here’s a suggestion: how about a pocket laser stun gun?

Finally on my list of random thoughts for today: are you one of the millions of people who will be using online search engines this year to find Christmas gift suggestions, or for that matter any other tidbit of information? Sure, Google and the others return good results, but that plain white page can be awfully boring. Are you looking for a search engine that will talk to you? Preen, pout, entertain you, and tell you jokes? Ms. Dewey (played by actress/singer Janina Gavankar) does all this while using the new Microsoft LiveSearch to display the answers to your queries.

She can be a bit annoying after a while, and the site makes extensive use of flash graphics so you better have a fast broadband connection. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely reports: “As stealth marketing campaigns go, this one may live to haunt its creator. Ms. Dewey is sexy but she’s not fast — at least when it comes to search results — and her shtick wears thin rather quickly. Like many things on the Net, you start out hot and bothered and end up just bothered.” Still, this unorthodox search tool from Microsoft is definitely worth checking out.

Have a great weekend!

Rant o’the Day

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

I really hate it when…

television commercials address me as a geographical area, as in “Hey East Texas, stop by and check this out!” or “Buy our product, America!!”. It’s lazy advertising, and makes me feel like part of an amorphous glob instead of a unique individual. Speaking of advertising, can someone please tell the owners of car dealerships and furniture stores that insist on using their precocious little son, daughter, niece or nephew to pitch the tag line for their company that viewers outside of the immediate family do not find this cute and appealing? The only reason such advertising might make us want to run in to your place of business is not to buy your product, but to find that annoying kid and bitch-slap the shit out of them.

Thank you, I feel better now.

Regional identity crisis

Monday, November 13th, 2006

A pine tree by any other name would be — what? Still a pine tree. And therein lies the absurdity of whatever marketing brain-trust has convinced area civic leaders and chambers of commerce of the need to “re-brand” the part of Texas I live in. For many years, our chunk of the state — roughly bounded by Houston and Beaumont to the south, Tyler to the northwest corner, and the Louisiana state line to the east (see the green shaded area of the map on the right) — has been simply known as “East Texas”, or “The Pineywoods”. But apparently that’s no longer good enough to lure tourists and new residents, so these geniuses are attempting to come up with a regional moniker that will somehow make more people want to visit and/or relocate to this area. Examples of successful regional names used by other parts of the country might include “The Texas Hill Country”, “The Rocky Mountains”, “The Golden Triangle”, “The North Country”, “The Gulf Coast”, and “Las Vegas”, just to name a few.

For years, “The Pineywoods” has seemed like an appropriate description of this area, because the main topographical feature of East Texas is trees, lots and lots of them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ll take a peaceful forest, with secluded lakes and gentle rolling countryside, over a crowded, polluted city any day. (Except, of course, when shopping and dining is involved.) But according to an editorial in the local paper:

“The emphasis on trees might lead those who have never been here to imagine that we’re nothing but a giant tangle of trees, and only one kind of tree, at that. Certainly, there’s no mistaking that we abound with trees and forests, but we’ve got much more to offer. We’re a region rich in Texas history. Our area abounds with lakes and rivers, national and state parks. Most people who have never been to East Texas have no idea that there is a part of Texas — our part — that more resembles an English countryside than it does a Hollywood version of Texas.”

But what to call it? Here are a few ideas from a recent contest soliciting suggestions (somehow I suspect that some of these may be more tongue-in-cheek than others):

  • Abitibi’s Bitch (Abitibi is a big local lumber/paper company)
  • Baja Rivercrest
  • The land north of the Gulf of Mexico, East of Interstate 45, South of the Red River, and West of the Sabine, excluding Houston and Dallas
  • BeauTylerAna (Beaumont-Tyler-Texarkana)
  • Angelachia (from a prominent area river, the Angelina)
  • Hoo-Hooville
  • Greater Rivercrest

With the possible exception of “Hoo-Hooville”, I don’t really care for any of these either. Over at The Critical Poet, a Steve Morgan writes:

“As far as I can tell there are about three things in East Texas: mobile homes, Baptist churches, and catfish restaurants. Lord, the catfish restaurants. Crazy Catfish, Ken’s Catfish, Catfish Cabin, King Catfish. None of these features of East Texas lend themselves to a catchy moniker, though I suppose the local boosters could go with Catfish Country — requiring everyone to overlook the the fact that a catfish is a hideous looking, bottom dwelling scavenger.”

Hey, there we go: “Land Of The Hideous-Looking Bottom-Dwelling Scavengers”. Perfect.