Monday, February 23, 2004

If You Read This, The Terrorists Win
In order to get into the building where I work, all employees must use an electronic ID badge to unlock the doors. You hold your badge close to a scanning device and, with a jaunty beep, it lets you in. This sophisticated barrier purports to enhance homeland security by keeping the bad guys out. Of course, within minutes of its installation, employees made it obsolete by doing what's known as "tailgating."

Being Kentuckians, we are polite. We were raised to say "please" and "thank you," let cars merge in traffic, and hold doors open for people. So if you are a terrorist and you want to get into our building, you don't have to break in or get a fake badge or hatch a sophisticated plot involving plastic surgery, rental trucks, or small aircraft. All you have to do is tailgate: walk behind an employee entering the building and he or she will hold the door open for you. He or she might even offer to help you carry your explosives.

But in the wake of the federal government's comforting, rainbow-hued alert system, we employees have been getting stern e-mails warning us not to tailgate. Instead, we are supposed to scan our badges, each and every one of us. So if I'm walking into the building along with another person -- no matter how well we know each other -- we are both supposed to scan. It doesn't matter if you're walking in with your spouse, your best friend from grade school, your boss, your fishing buddy, your mom, your attorney general or your own personal Jesus. Scan, scan, scan, scan, scan, scan, scan.

Because we employees like to make our own individual fashion statements with our badges, this can be tricky. Some wear them necklace-style, like on The West Wing, and bend forward slightly to scan them. Some wear them on their waistbands, using a retractable string to pull the badge up to the scanner. Some keep their badges on a retractable string inside their underpants and dramatically unzip their trousers, pull out the badge, scan it, and let it snap back in place. (That practice is discouraged; those badge edges are sharper than they look.) Some like to keep their badges in their back pockets and simply wave their asses at the scanner, letting it read right through the material. So, as you can imagine, rush hour can be quite the clumsy ballet.

Still, not tailgating seems to be a small price to pay for not getting blown to smithereens. I personally am more than willing to be down with the new American self-delusion security paradigm. So I always cheerfully scan my badge even if someone else holds the door open for me, to reassure him or her that I am allowed to work there and am in all likelihood not a terrorist, while making no promises about my level of disgruntlement (a badge-swipe can only do so much).

I believe that takes care of my part of the tailgating bargain, but what about other people who try to tailgate on me? Am I not supposed to hold open the door for them? What if it's a close friend or the guy I just carpooled with? I trusted him to drive. Shouldn't I trust him not to blow up the building? What if it's a disabled, elderly, pregnant co-worker carrying food for the homeless, supplies for the office blood drive and candy bars to send to the troops? Am I supposed to let the door slam in her face? That might be fine for you Bostonians or you Montpelierites, but that shit won't fly in Kentucky.

Plus, being shy and non-confrontational, I'm not sure I can work up the nerve to tell somebody else he or she can't sneak in on my badge-swipe. Heck, I'm usually too much of a pussy to tell the loudmouth in the movies to pipe down or the teenager at the Bets 'n' Butts Fuel Center to put out that cigarette before he blows us all to kingdom come. I'm sorry, America, but I'm afraid if it's up to me to tell the next Mohammed Atta to hand over the box cutter, we are all fucked. When I say, "Let's Roll," I mean into the fetal position.

So what I need to know is this: Is my government asking me not to be polite or shy? I sincerely admire the efforts of those fighting the war against terror, but exactly what is expected of *me?*

I decided to visit some government Web sites to try to find out. One site, Ready.Gov has tons of advice on how we regular ol' citizens can prepare for a terror attack. For instance, it offers this helpful suggestion to prepare for a nuclear holocaust: "Plan to speak with your health care provider in advance about what makes sense for your family."

Of course, considering that most health care providers can't agree on what causes headaches, obesity or interest in NASCAR, I probably won't bank on my doctor's ability to give advice regarding nuclear war:

Me: My knee's been acting up when I jog. Also, what makes the most sense for my family if there's a nuclear blast?

Doctor: It's difficult to say for sure, but I think they're both indications that jogging is not right for you.

Over on the government's Radiation Threat page, there's this helpful advice to follow if you're worried about a dirty bomb: "... you should watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet often for official news and information as it becomes available."

Gee, I never would have thought of that. That is downright comforting. Especially because I'm reminded what a great source of reliable, factual information the Internet is. Plus, I'm told there are tits. I don't know about you, but they always make me feel better.

And what about the kids? If we're going to establish a national awareness of the increasing risks of terror and the decreasing need for politeness, we're going to have to start teaching kids early. Fortunately, The Corporation for National and Community Service is on that. According to a press release, "The Corporation believes that young people are an important untapped resource that can be engaged to help address a range of problems, including the growing challenges associated with homeland security and disaster preparedness and response." I'm thinking Teletubby nuclear-radiation shields and Boobah smallpox filters.

But try as I might, I could not find comprehensive guidelines on tailgating. Even a thorough analysis of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001 and the Acronyms Can Really Obscure Nefarious Yes Men (ACRONYM) Act of 2003 turned up nothing.

Then, bleary eyed from all the browsing, I began to wonder: Are these Web sites really designed to help us loyal, patriotic Americans combat terrorism? Who's got time to do all this research and prepare in advance, when there are so many reality TV shows to watch and so much shopping to do?

Could it be -- gasp! -- that these sites are really just bait for terrorists?! Could the CIA and the FBI be investigating the IP addresses of people who visit them? And -- Oh, no! I *have those sites open on my screen right now!* And, hey, who's that at the door?! Ow! OWW! STOPPIT! ... Ow! Ow! I WAS ONLY TRYING TO HELP! Oww! I SWEAR I'm not a terrorist! .. Ow! l;lahgn eirtugv;hs;mtmvyhecvs;tj;ldsv. gggg pfh.. nnnnnnnnnn

Monday, February 16, 2004

No Vampire Jokes, Please
Last week, in a very special Oh, For God's Sake, I described our family visit to the University of Kentucky to examine its potential to provide our son Ben with a quality postsecondary education that -- you know -- has the great taste that won't fill him up and will never let him down. After touring UK, we thought it only sporting that we attend the open house at Lexington's private, liberal-arts institution of higher learning, Transylvania University.

Ben has gotten a propaganda mailing from Transy almost every day so we figured they would not play hard to get and we were right. Fearing a new avalanche of mail, we chose not to register in advance for the open house, but to merely show up instead. It started at 9 a.m., so we arrived promptly at 10:30. Five hours of an open house is too much of an open house, we all agreed.

Unable to sneak past the security-checkpoint spokesbabes, we signed in and pretended to have no idea why our name wasn't on the list. Predictably, they added our names (The Heines, from Assville) to the list lickety split. They then directed us to the gymnasium, where a gaggle of professors was extolling the virtues of the college. We listened in on this for a few minutes, when they redirected everybody across the street to a convention-style room, where each school in the college had a booth set up. So we'd timed it perfectly, missing a hearty chunk of the Why-our-school-is-better-than-sex-and-Milanos-combined speeches.

We visited a few booths and talked to several current Transy students, extremely good-looking kids each and every one [Note for future research: does being rich somehow make people better looking or is it simply easier for good-looking people to become rich?] and got a pretty good feel for the curriculum and the careers Transy is well-suited to prepare Ben for, such as Philosopher-King, Renaissance Poet, or possibly Robber Baron.

Because we'd arrived late, we were assigned to the last group to depart for a walking tour of the campus. So we hid our color-coded papers inside our marketing brochures and snuck into the first tour group that was getting ready to depart.

Leading our tour was a shiny, slightly skinnier Monica Lewinsky look-alike named Lauryn, decked out in a petal-pink jacket and impossibly high-heeled fuck-me shoes, and a goofy but charming fellow named Brandt, who wore a leather Kenneth Cole New York Hipster jacket. Lauryn was obviously nervous and talked way too fast, but Brandt calmly chimed in whenever Lauryn lost her place (which was fairly often).

Lauryn was good for pointing out some of the quirkier aspects of Transy, while Brandt spoke more of conceptual things. He pointed out that Transy, unlike larger state schools in the vicinity (that suck and shall remain nameless, but whose initials are UK), provides its students with a well-rounded liberal-arts education, which teaches kids to think deeply and profoundly. One glance at Lauryn seemed to bear this out. Clearly, she had thought deeply and profoundly about such ultimate questions as: Is the shampoo you buy at a salon really better than the shampoo you buy at Walgreen's?

Transy actually has quite a history. It was the first college west of the Alleghenies and has dorms named after Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis. Brandt mentioned these two statesmen as if they were contemporaries and completely ignored the fact that Davis' claim to fame was defending the South's right to slavery, probably an issue that rarely comes up at Transy, considering there was not a soul in sight who was anything but lily white. The ever-bubbly Lauryn cheerfully pointed out that a duel had once been fought on campus and shivered visibly at the thought. It was a dramatic performance that brought tears to the eyes of those of us who were trying hard not to laugh.

Transy's campus is gorgeous. It's extremely small – about four city blocks in all – with one handsome brick building after another and huge old-growth trees. Lauryn told a charming story about a tree on campus that used to be known as the "Kissing Tree" in the days of panty raids, back before coed dorms. She sadly noted that they no longer call the tree that and I quietly speculated to Mary and Ben that nowadays they probably call it the "Oral Sex Tree," which got me a look of admonishment from Mary and a spit-take from Ben.

Unlike UK, Transy led us into an actual classroom and it was very impressive. The whole campus is wireless and the desks (left-handed ones available!) all have T1 lines so you can plug in your notebook computer. The windows have blinds you can close with a remote control (goofy, I know, but I was intrigued) and all the rooms have high-tech audiovisual equipment. For being older than Deuteronomy, Transy is very high tech.

We toured several academic buildings, a dorm (a little nicer than UK's but not much), the library (a big disappointment after touring UK's, but anything would be), and several other buildings. At one point, Lauryn gave a rather creepy speech about the police on campus, which I'm sure was supposed to give parents a sense of security but scared the crap out of us instead, with her talk of weapons and brute force. When she proudly read off a list of weapons the Transy rent-a-cops might employ in the event of an Orange Alert, Ben glanced at me, trying hard to squeeze in the laughter.

After the tour, we were directed to the cafeteria, where a complimentary lunch was underway, to be followed by a ball-squeezing Amway session in which parents and students would be separated. Deploying the family serpentine pattern, we made our escape, darted for the car and drove the hell out of Lexington, spraying mud all over the pursuing Lauryn's petal pink jacket. Soon, the infinite four-board fences of the horse farms flew past us and we got lost in our thoughts, which were dominated by denial. Denial that Ben was going to move away from home; denial that having Transylvania on one's resume would lead to a bunch of Dracula jokes; denial that you really do get what you pay for.

All in all, Ben was about equally impressed with UK and Transy. Choosing between them is sort of like choosing whether to live in a big city or a small town, with distinct advantages to both. While UK is big, it offers a lot of advantages (that killer library; a wider diversity of people, thought, and resources; students with nicknames other than "Biff" or "Buffy;" fewer yachts parked in the student lot; and so on.). Likewise, while being tiny, Transy offers a very collegial experience, much better attention from teachers, an overall more challenging classroom experience, and expert advice on how to jut one's jaw while chewing the butler a new one.

In the end, the tours were very helpful, as Ben was finally able to decide which school was perfect for him: Murray State.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Ben Visits UK
My son Ben is a senior in high school, a stage that seems to be one of those defining moments in the relationship between how smart we are and how smart we think we are. The next leg of that frustrating journey is college, and we believe it's important to choose a school carefully. Making the decision tougher is the fact that all schools seem to be highly qualified to present Ben with his top school-selection criterion: cute girls.

But just to make sure, he's been taking field trips. Recently, Ben went to Lexington to tour the University of Kentucky, or as it's known locally, U-Kai (and in some corners, U-a-Kai). His mom Mary and I tagged along, in order to investigate the university's non-girl-related educational offerings.

The visit began in a hideously blue auditorium with a surprisingly corporate PowerPoint presentation delivered to a large group of dirty teenagers accompanied by their world-weary parents. A chirpy, middle-aged woman monosyllabically delivered the PowerPoint presentation, filling us in on the finer points of the campus layout, housing, financial aid, keg-tapping, STD ointments, and many more need-to-know facts about college life. After a full hour of such torture, we got to tour the campus. Our tour guide, Chad (whom Ben quickly nicknamed "Hanging Chad"), was a slender chap in a UK blue golf shirt with impossibly blond hair.

Hanging Chad led us through a drizzling rain to our first stop, a building that curiously houses both the School of Dance and the rifle range for the ROTC. I shit you not. Said Chad: "If you like shooting or dancing, this is your spot." I made my index finger into a pistol and said, a little too loudly, "Some people like both!" and pantomimed shooting at Ben's feet, wild-west style, while he danced. This pantomime endeared us to the crowd, which ever after looked to us for comic relief.

We continued on through the drizzle, passing outside one charming brick building after another, but curiously never setting foot inside any of them. The campus is beautiful but massive. We walked what seemed like a hundred city blocks and Chad finally allowed us inside three buildings: the William T. Young Library, the student fitness center and a dorm. The dorm was exactly like my college dorm room: tiny, stinky, and cramped. Basically, fine. The brand-new Johnson Center was not the School of Urology but rather a fitness center that is probably a considerable amount fancier than God's Y in heaven. It has scores of basketball courts, nautilus equipment, and a climbing wall, where presumably students can practice escaping the campus police. But by far the most impressive place on the whole campus is the William T. Young Library. Wow! I would almost be willing to enroll at UK myself just to have access to this place. It houses four stories of books, plus study rooms, wireless Internet throughout, and free notebook computers to check out. The library and books were largely funded by William T. Young, a thoroughbred zillionaire and local legend who has almost single-handedly renewed my belief in capitalism.

Continuing the tour, Hanging Chad briefly gave us the downlow on practically every building on campus (which we then promptly forgot). We walked through a shabby Fraternity Row where the infantile behavior was palpable, even though it was raining and all the frat boys were presumably inside, sleeping off something involving grain alcohol and melons and perhaps centipedes. We saw the "Freshman part of campus" and all the Schools – Engineering, Communications, Dentistry, Free Throws, Dribbling, Three-Point Shooting, Fine Arts, and so on. Amazingly, we never saw a classroom. We kept expecting Hanging Chad to take us inside some buildings and at least let us peek into a classroom, but it never happened. (We later speculated that maybe UK doesn't actually *hold* classes. Perhaps a follow-up e-mail to Hanging Chad is in order.)

One cool aspect of the campus layout is that almost all freshmen attend their classes in one tower and a couple of smaller buildings located at an "L" intersection in the middle of campus. This setup means that not only do freshmen stick together and get to know each other's unique scents, but that when you're new to UK, you don't have to scramble across the sprawling campus to get from class to class. Also, the L is very close to most of the dorms. So you could conceivably attend this huge school but rarely leave a tiny portion of its geographic center, which seems very handy for young people who sometimes get lost looking for their own body parts, as well as convenient for students wishing to participate in an impromptu study group, say, or a spur-of-the-moment spliff.

And huge it is: there are over 25,000 students at UK and that doesn't even include the adjacent Lexington Community College, which has another 7500 Starter Cats.

After the L, Hanging Chad took us through the yard of the President's Home, which is right in the middle of campus and quite charming, with lovely gardens and a voyeur's view inside the outer portions of the manse. Hanging Chad claimed you could often see the Prez and the Missus inside sharing a scone or perhaps a nooner. No, really, he didn't say that; but he did say you can sometimes see them having lunch, an image that left the high-school seniors on the tour wholly unimpressed but one that the pigment-challenged Chad seemed quite enchanted with.

Back at the student center, we ran into some of Ben's high-school buddies and their parents and we all agreed to go to lunch at a ridiculously loud joint called Ramsey's. The food was fine (fried green tomatoes!) but a bad place to try to have a conversation, so we parents all made small talk over the din, while our minds reeled with wild-eyed thoughts like Can you fucking believe our sons are almost ready to leave us and go to college and how much does that suck when it was only yesterday they were on the nipple and needing their goddamned Huggies changed and gazing up at us like we were the only true people on the planet and now look at them sitting here casually munching away, tingly with the anticipation of being on the cusp of something truly mind-bending and checking out the butt on that server and barely even remembering we're alive?! But instead of that, we talked about college and what we thought about the day and ultimately Ben decided not to scratch UK off his list.

And so we continue to shop.

Next week: Transy

Monday, February 02, 2004


Dear Oh, For God's Sake,

If Bush and Cheney win re-election, will you move to another country, like Massachusetts or San Francisco?


Dear Soledad,

No, I won't. While I've often fantasized about Amsterdam and I've had naughty daydreams about Canada, I love my country. In fact, I love her so much that, no matter who wins the election, I plan to cook her a romantic, candlelit dinner (serving her a little wine or maybe even champagne), and, later, lead her gently to a cloud-soft, animal-fur rug (I know how she loves dead animals) in front of the fireplace, undress her, cover her in honey and lick it back off while she succumbs to the toe-clenching, swooningly undeniable reality that I can have her (unlike cake) and eat her too and that even when I inevitably stray, her memory of me will not be bitter like that of those other cads but fondly romantic because she knows that deep down I know that capitalism and democracy, while being the cruller and diet cherry coke of political/economic systems are, as Churchill pointed out, the world's worst except for all the others. Also, I'll quit reading the newspapers.

Sincerely, Oh, For God's Sake


Dear Oh, For God's Sake,

You seem like such a pussy. A tree-hugging, tofu-eating, tire-recycling, tax-and-puke crybaby liberal pussy. Do you mind if I call you Topanga?

--Ronald Prescott, III

Dear Ronald,

Not at all!

Sincerely, Topanga


Dear Oh, For God's Sake,

What about Minnesota? I hear good things.


Dear Lakshmi,

Hmmm. Are y'all trying to get rid of me? True, Minnesota is lovely and in many ways similar to America. But not only could I not leave America, I could not possibly leave even my beloved Kentucky, no matter how much smoking and shooting and shooting while smoking happens in my home state, because of the way complete strangers call you "honey" or "sweetie" and invite you into their homes for dumplins and chawklat pah and a soft couch pillow no matter what manner of harelip or socioeconomic or ethnic disability you have and will fix you a casserole dish of corn puddin or lasagna when somebody you love dies not because it's duty or even custom but because they have reached deep into your soul and felt it and known it and despite what people from other places think, they know that a corn puddin, fixed just right, Can So Too help get over a death, even the really bad kind. Oh, and the way alfalfa smells when it's sprouting next to red clover. And the way one-syllable names like Jim or Ben are two-syllable -- Jee-um and Bee-un -- as if to say We got plenty of time, No need to rush the pronouncin' of them names. Also, brachiopods in the river and that girl with the freckles in her cleavage.

Sincerely, Oh For God's Sake


Dear Oh For God's Sake,

How does straw help grass to grow?


Dear Calvin,

Many people think it's the way it holds in the moisture and warmth, enabling truer germination, but the truth is, it (like a lot of things, in fact) is just fuckin' magic.

Sincerely, Oh, For God's Sake


Dear Topanga,

Do you really think capitalism and democracy are the best way? I'm surprised to hear you say that.

-- Ronald Prescott, III

Dear Ronald,

Oh, no. In America, where capitalism is stronger than ever and democracy is weaker than ever, the former is destroying the latter. Greedy and power-drunk evildoers are serial-boning the masses, who were reluctant rulers in the first place. The masses don't want to rule; the masses want to watch TV and eat snack foods that end in "itos" and go out to supper on a Friday night and bowl and mow the lawn and smoke a little weed and make love while some horrible classic rock music plays, like Styx or Kansas or fucking Golden Earring. Eventually capitalism will completely annihilate democracy and even poor people (and, really, isn't this the magic trick that makes capitalism work? Getting poor people to buy into its glitzy promise of future wealth, future capital-gains tax cuts, and future inheritance-tax cuts because how dare the government take away their kids' inheritance even though they will never, ever actually get to bequeath them jack shit, never in a billion years?) will stop believing in it and the whole caboodle will cave in and, boy, then won't Adam Smith's two-hundred-year-old macroerection go limper than a 1970-issue greenback that's been through the washing machine's hot/hot cycle fifty million times? But that is Whenever and this is Now and so far we haven't found anything better. But -- and here's my goddam point -- shouldn't we try? Just because communism bred bureaucracy and corruption in the Soviet Union and just because socialism lead to five-hour waits at the clinic and just because owning a bicycle and a goat and a moderately sharp knife makes you Bill Gates in half the world, does that mean capitalism is good? Especially since we have such overwhelming evidence that it just slightly better than sucks? Isn't that like saying because Benson was better than My Two Dads there was no need to make Seinfeld? Shouldn't we try? And isn't the fact that the staunchest proponents of the American Way, the man-in-the-tower ubercapitalist, the one with the American flag on his luxury SUV and the Support President Bush sign in his yard is so damn insecure -- in the same way the ultra-homophobic guy who can't shutup about how being gay is unnatural is the one most likely to draw cartoon penises going into his cartoon mouth all over the spiral notebook of his unconscious mind -- because deep down that ubercapitalist knows the system that is propping him up isn't propping up EVERYBODY and so it's not really working and instead of a Seinfeld is basically a My Two Dads when it comes right down to it because if President Bush really deserved everybody's support instead of just the McMansion owners who tend to post those yard signs and the Lincoln Navigator owners who tend to sport those flags, there wouldn't really be a need for the signs and the flags in the first place? Shouldn't we try? Because a nice, classroom-style segue to a better system would be much less bloody and much more civilized than the revolution that's coming? Shouldn't we try is all I'm asking.

Sincerely, Oh, For God's Sake


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