Podcast: Only to Find Gideon’s Bible

Who are these Gideons and why do they keep leaving their Bibles in hotel rooms?

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Podcast: Mind Trip

Staying sharp and keeping an engaged mind on a long road trip is a tricky business!

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Mind Trip

Driving makes me drowsy, so I am anxious as I contemplate my solo drive from my writer’s retreat in Montpelier, Vermont to my home north of Chicago.  On most long drives, I wisely stop for refreshing naps.  Once a wavering median line prompted me to pull over in Milwaukee just one hour north of my starting point.  I fell asleep for a solid two and a half hours, wakened only by a ripening bladder and thickening saliva.  On this cross-country trip, I cannot afford any such therapeutic dallying if I want to avoid the withering Fourth of July traffic through Chicago.

In preparation I have selected audiobooks that tread that fine line between entertainment and distraction.  A prior choice of Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita cost me dearly.  Iron’s reptilian voice coupled with Nabokov’s seductive prose had me so enraptured that I lost track of my accelerator foot in rural Michigan.  It wasn’t until I heard the siren that I realized I was speeding.  As I rolled down my window, I wanted to tell the cop about the mitigating details, about Nabokov’s use of words like “sibilant” to describe Lolita’s childlike lisp, or “crenulated” to describe the pattern that an elastic band might make on soft flesh.  But the argument wasn’t going to work on this young cop with a peach-fuzzed and acne-stippled face.  Forty-five minutes later, now in rural Wisconsin, I got a second ticket, but I considered the tickets as money well spent for the privilege of quality time with Jeremy Irons and Nabokov.

Since then I have sought safer entertainment with biographies or history.  I am a World War I and II history buff, but the slow measured tones of the narrators can put me in a dangerous trance.  Besides sometimes I am just not in the mood for Hitler.  For this trip, I decide that a murder mystery will hit the right balance – a zippy plot that will keep me awake, but not encroach on the required concentration needed for safe driving.  My friend recommended the author Louise Penny, and I pack in a couple of her books.

Within one hour of Montpelier I am in traffic hell.  In my eagerness to avoid the Chicago traffic, I have plunked myself in the middle of arriving traffic on this holiday weekend. Lumbering campers, sharp turns and winding roads suck up too much attention to focus on a book.  I must entertain myself in the odd moments of calm.  I think about the Bingo game my mother made decades ago to entertain us kids during long vacation drives.  She replaced the dreary entries of store-bought Bingo, such as “bird on a wire, or “cow” with spicier entries, such as “road kill, “religious lawn decoration,” or “dangling bra on a clothes line.”  As I inch along, I spot additional entries for her Bingo cards, such as “driver really picking his nose,” “kids fighting in the back seat,” or “man with a hairy back mowing his lawn.”  I make a mental note of the man as a potential character in a story.

Finally, after six hours, I reach New York and the blessed interstate, a shimmering ribbon unspooling all the way to Chicago.  With no more jockeying for position or white-knuckled passing, I can just hit cruise control and motor on.  This driving will only require a fraction of my attention.  Time for the murder mystery.

I have chosen poorly.  The plot line is familiar, involving a murder at a dysfunctional family reunion; every member has a plausible motive.  I shift my focus to the author’s prose style, but it is simple and unadorned.  I think of my hero Nabokov whose command of imagery is remarkable given that English is his third language after Russian and French.

Louise Penny’s occasional attempts at literary flourish fall short.  She writes of scudding clouds and dappled shadows.   What else scuds besides a cloud?  I can only think of the Scud missiles featured in the Iraq Gulf War and the embedded reporter referred to as the “Scud Stud.”  Besides shadows, only horses are dappled.  Well okay, maybe vitiligo can dapple skin, and I think that there is such a thing as a dappled dachshund, but that’s about it.

And then there is the word “scamper,” which Penny uses to describe how ants move.  I think about all the words at Penny’s disposal – scamper, scurry, scoot, skulk, scuttle, slither and skitter – each conveying intent as well as movement.  Skulk and scuttle imply clandestine or evil intent – cock roaches scuttle – skitter suggests disorganized movement, while scurry is more purpose-driven.  Penny’s scampering ants just don’t work for me.  Scampering implies a joy and playfulness that is just not within the emotional repertoire of ants.  Squirrels scamper, ants scurry.  I ponder the infinite shades of movement in language and thrill to the idea that both Nabokov and I like to dissect words.

I spend a nervous night in Geneva, New York during a massive manhunt for two prisoners who have tunneled beneath the wall of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility.  They are still on the loose when I leave in the morning, directly on my route through upstate New York.  I am safe whizzing along in my cocooned world of the front seat, but I feel vulnerable as I pull into the Niagara Falls oasis for gas. They have already hijacked one car.  Do I park amidst many others, seeking safety in numbers, or perhaps park in the open where it would be more difficult for a crazed criminal to sneak up with piano wire, garrote me and commandeer my maroon Honda CR-V?  I park the car in plain view but quickly scuttle in and out, relieved to be on my way again.

This would be a much better murder mystery than Penny’s, I think.  Maybe the man with the hairy back could be one of the escaped prisoners, his back a defining feature that he cannot disguise.  This would be my first foray into fiction and I relish the freedom to make up whatever I want.  Why not pile on other quirks to my character?  What the hell, I could give my prisoner a sibilant lisp, and/or a pock-marked face, crenulated from old acne scars.

New York turns into Ohio and finally I see signs for Cleveland, where my grandmother lived.  I see her exit for Kirtland and am tempted to take a quick loop to rekindle fond memories, but I stick to my time schedule and keep heading west.  As I squint into the afternoon sun, I remember my grandmother’s firm opinion on the superiority of the east side residents compared to those living west of Cleveland.  “The people on the west side have to commute into the sun in the morning and then again when they go home at night,” she said.  I think it does something funny to their brains.  They’re just not as smart as us east-siders.  We never have to look into the sun when we commute.”

Here’s another possible story line, I think, perhaps a parody of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love that rips apart affluent families living in competing suburbs.  My car has turned into an enforced writer’s retreat.

I finally reach the Ohio Indiana border.  One more state to go.  I gaze ahead at the featureless landscape.  Sometimes I am just not in the mood for amber waves of grain.  Indiana is a skinny state and I feel I should be almost home, but I am wrong, so wrong.  I am reminded of the scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole must cross the searing Nefud desert to reach his goal of Aqaba.  The local Bedouins say it has never been done. Camels with wrinkled, dehydrated humps stagger onward and O’Toole’s only sign of life is a determined glimmer in his piercing blue eyes.  He will get there or die trying.  Well, Indiana is my Nefub desert and Chicago my Aqaba.  And surprisingly, Indiana seems to agree.  The license plates contain the state motto, “Indiana, the Crossroads of America.”  Even the residents think that Indiana is meant to be endured and not enjoyed.

I trundle on, tempted to pull over to revive my softening brain, which Nabokov might describe as “all ooze and squid-cloud.”  Vigorous shoulder hunches and sustained butt clenches that raise me off my seat provide temporary stimulation.  Finger clenches on the steering wheel are less successful, but I do notice that they make my hands look like wizened claws of a 100-year-old chicken.

The setting sun hits the rear-view mirror at the perfect angle to highlight the delicate crepe-like wrinkles on my face.   I notice my left nostril is larger than my right and there is more grey hair on my right temple than my left.  My glasses are crooked on my nose and I wonder if my ears are alop.  As I run my tongue along my teeth, I detect a slight misalignment.  I remember a funky Peruvian sweater I bought years ago.  The tag read, “The minor irregularities in this garment are part of its hand-made charm.”   I hope this describes me.

I am as weary as O’Toole’s droopy camel, drifting dangerously.  An inventory of my asymmetries no longer keeps me awake.  I return to mental games, this time focusing on idioms.  How many millennials know that the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” describing mindless obedience, comes from the mass suicide engineered by Jim Jones in the remote jungle of Guyana?  Years from now will the phrase “Land it in the Hudson” still be in play to describe a heroic rescue?  I try to come up with an idiom that transcends time.  “Stew in Your Own Juices” is as apt today as it was when a caveman first conquered fire and put a carcass in a pot.  Who was that clever linguist?  Perhaps Shakespeare, the towering genius of word play, or maybe even Chaucer.

Ah, finally, I see it, my Lake Michigan peeking through the skyline of Chicago. I have beaten the weekend traffic.  I swing around the base of the lake and shoot out the north side of the city, a horse to the barn streaking towards the northern suburbs.  I briefly wonder if this timeless idiom was invented some 6,000 years ago when horses were first domesticated.  But no, I no longer need contrived entertainment.  My mind pivots like a heat-seeking missile to focus on home, where I will find good potato chips, reruns of Law and Order, and a blank piece of paper just calling out for a man with a hairy back.


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In the System


I sat in the windowless bowels of O’Hare Airport waiting for my face-to-face Global Entry interview.  Nick had urged me to sign up not because I deserved recognition as a trusted traveler, but solely to bypass TSA and immigration lines.  I have objected to such elitist programs on principle – line-cutting in the grade school cafeteria was my first brush with social injustice.  Now such behavior has been institutionalized for those willing to pay the $100 fee.

My interview was quick.  A snoozy customs officer asked me a few perfunctory questions about my job and then casually asked me to place my hand on the digital fingerprint scanner.

I hesitated, but I had made the trip to O’Hare and had paid the fee.  I set aside my aversion to line-cutting and placed my hand on the sensor.  Within fifteen seconds another uneasiness set in.  I imagined my fingerprints – my right-hand pointer through pinkie – winging their way across the country into the growing FBI database.  I was now indelibly, inexorably, inextricably, embedded“in the system.”  Continue reading

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Podcast: In the System

What kind of mistake did I make in giving our government access to my precious fingerprints?

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People Sitting in Front of Me: The Man with the Sun-Damaged Skin

The train trip across the Southern Alps of New Zealand was billed as five solid hours of verdant alpine meadows dotted with high country sheep interspersed with braided rivers descending from glaciers.  Yes, I did get occasional glimpses, but I was also challenged by the subtler beauty of heavy mist.  When all else failed during periodic white-outs, I entertained myself by staring at the head of the man sitting in front of me.  It wasn’t his baldness that captivated me.  It was his sun-damaged skin.

He was an elderly man, and his mottled scalp suggested a lifetime in the sun.  I imagined him as a sheep-farmer spending unwitting hours directly beneath the ragged hole in the ozone layer.   His pinkish skin looked paper-thin and shiny, and salmon colored splotches were strewn across his crown.  I could see the crusty tip of an earlobe.

This panorama created an intriguing coincidence with the book that I brought along to fill our idle travel hours.  I had wanted a seminal book that had impacted our Western world, one that I had heard about but never read.  My three candidates were the Bible, the works of Charles Darwin and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  I could always leaf through a Gideon Bible at one of our hotels, and thought it might be a bit off-putting if I toted around a copy of Mein Kampf, so I settled on Darwin’s classics.  Continue reading

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Podcast: The Man with the Sun-Damaged Skin

As I looked at the man in front of me, I tried to think like Darwin.  What is the evoluationary advantage of our sun-sensitive skin?

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Lists: Four Misnomers and One God’s Honest Truth



1. Daylight Savings Time

In the late 1950s I was eight years old, a time when my mother routinely told us to clean our dinner plates because “children were starving in Armenia.”  I did not grasp this logic but her stern voice convinced me it was my patriotic duty to eat all that dreadful liver and squash.  So when I heard the call for “daylight savings time” I wanted to step up and do my part.  I went outside with a mason jar, let some daylight in, tightly sealed it and then proudly saved it in my closet.


Congressional bills are required to have both a number and a name. Bill sponsors have seized this opportunity to create market-friendly acronyms.  The 2001 PATRIOT act is actually an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”  Hastily passed after 9/11, the act expanded the government’s ability to monitor its citizens, including a search of telephone and financial records without judicial review.  An important check and balance was thus eliminated.  The sponsors of the PATRIOT Act knew that their clever title would successfully demonize those who objected to the bill’s incursion into our civil rights, particularly the 4th Amendment’s prohibition of unlawful search and seizure.  Imagine the reception the bill would receive if it was given the equally apt acronym POLICE STATE:










mednments (to)



Don’t get me started on the misnomer that is the “Affordable Care Act.”  In fact, this is such a travesty of a name that few dare to say it out loud, instead referring to it merely as the “ACA.”

 3. Starbuck’s Tall drinks

By age five, children probably have a firm grasp on size based on the standard trio of small, medium and large orders of McDonald’s French fries.  Starbucks is an outlier.  They refuse to use the word small.  Their sizes ae classified as tall, grande and venti.


Okay, I’ll agree that grande and venti give Starbucks the international flair it seeks, but Tall standing in for small?  Maybe Starbucks is playing a psychological game with us, divorcing the link between size and price.  I might not be willing to fork over $4.00 for a “small” frapuccino, but the price seems more justified for a “tall” drink.

Another possibility is that Starbucks is sensitive to men’s general discomfort when the word “small” is bandied about.  This is a lesson well-learned by condom makers, whose sizes include “regular,” “large” and “extra-large.”  Men can live with regular but not small.  But if this is Starbuck’s strategy they are ignoring women’s embrace of the concept of small.   Aside from breast size, small is an aspirational goal, with women squeezing into single digit sizes.  Women are all about self-control, and a tall drink may seem overly indulgent while a small drink is just right.

4. Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Flight 

From the perspective of my usual seat in the far reaches of economy, the only true word in this familiar phrase is “flight.”  The slogan might have been appropriate in the early days of commercial flight when the novelty of flying created some possibility of enjoyment.  Those were the days when people dressed up for a flight – my mother wore pearls, my father his coat and tie – and well-coiffed stewardesses served macadamia nuts.  Now air travel has all the appeal of an overcrowded city bus.  I propose the following slogan revision in the interests of managing expectations.

“Try to get comfortable, calm down and endure.  You’ll get there eventually.”

God’s Honest Truth

1.  Imitation Crabmeat

I am not a fan of sushi, but have found refuge in “California Rolls,” which ostensibly contain a dab of crabmeat, avocado and maybe a bit of a crunch from a cucumber.  Restaurants are not required to list ingredients, so when I bought some California rolls at the grocery store, I took a closer look at the label.  And there it was – “imitation crabmeat.”  Restaurants have been accused of secretly substituting trash fish for high-priced fish, so this label was a blast of the God’s honest truth, no dissembling, no attempt to hide the fact that I was eating fake stuff.

My initial spasm of joy subsided and I thought, “Hmm, the label has only told me what this wasn’t.  If it is not crab, what is it?  Is it even fish?”

It turns out that imitation crab is a finely pulverized paste of a variety of fish combined with starch and the ubiquitous “artificial flavors.”  The paste is painted red in homage to real crab, and then molded into whatever shape is wanted.

I was severely disappointed, mostly with myself, when I discovered that the labeling was an FDA requirement.  How could I have been so naïve to think that a marketer would voluntarily advertise that their product is fake?  Sec.540.700 of the FDA Compliance Policy Guide addressing processed fish states:

“For example, a processed and blended seafood product made primarily with fish protein that is a substitute for crabmeat, resembles crab meat, and is nutritionally inferior to crabmeat, must be labeled ‘imitation crabmeat.’”

Perhaps sushi makers were initially aghast at this requirement, but then, taking a page from the clothing designers who proudly sell “fake” or “faux” fur, the industry decided that having the word “crab” in the label, even if it was imitation, was far more appealing than the alternative of “pulverized fish paste.”



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Podcast Lists: Four Misnomers and One God’s Honest Truth

Daylight savings time, the PATRIOT Act,  Starbuck’s Tall drinks, Sit Back Relax and Enjoy the Flight and Imitation Crabmeat.

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5 Best Idioms Using the Word Shit

Every language is enlivened by its array of idioms and my impression is that English is particularly well-endowed, perhaps because Shakespeare played for our team.  I have collected dictionaries of idioms, including specialized references, such as idioms of the army (i.e. FUBB) or idioms of the sailor (i.e. son of a gun).  Each year there are new board games that are based on the origins of idioms, and I have even tried to create my own game called “Sweep the Nation.”

While many idioms are based on local history, religion, geography or contemporary culture, the word “shit” has spawned an impressive variety of expressions.  At first I thought these idioms would be understandable and embraced across languages and cultures. However, my preliminary research (i.e. in cabs with international drivers), suggests Americans seem particularly besotted with the word “shit.”   Culled from a list of hundreds, the following idioms represent the best shit has to offer. Continue reading

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