Thursday, May 31, 2007

Which Part of No Don't You Understand?

Which Part of No Don't You Understand?
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are firing up the WayBack machine and reprinting a column for 2003.

It's not something I like to talk about, but when I was in college I did something I'm not proud of. I was a telemarketer.

Okay, I was only a telemarketer for about three hours, but it was still pretty traumatic.

It was my last summer in college, and I was looking for a part-time job. I called a company I found in a classified ad, and I was hired right over the phone. I should have been suspicious when I was hired based purely on how I sounded. There was no application, no background check, and no questions about whether I became easily disgruntled or owned any guns.

The "business" was a single room in an office complex with three folding tables, six folding chairs, six phones, and two windows that didn't open. And I was the only one who didn't smoke. Everyone else smoked like the New Jersey Turnpike.

My job was to call local businesses from a stack of index cards and get donations for the Fraternal Order of Police. I was supposed to get paid 50 percent of any donations. But I realized the deck was literally stacked against me when I got all the small businesses, while my boss's buddy got all the big businesses and previous donors.

I coughed and hacked my way through three hours without a single donation and enough smoke in my lungs to set off a fire alarm. So when I left for lunch, I didn't go back.

That experience left a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of the week, although it may have been the second-hand smoke. After that, I've had mixed feelings about telemarketers.

On one hand, I feel sorry for the people who try to earn a living by calling complete strangers. On the other hand, it bugs the crap out of me when they call my house.

So I'm torn: do I put myself in their tobacco-stained shoes and be as kind as possible when I say no? Or do I hang up as soon as they stumble over my name and start reading their script?

It's not that I get annoyed that they call me at all. It's that some telemarketers are so pushy they won't take "NO!" for an answer, even when I've said it 37 times.

One guy even started talking louder when I tried to explain that I wasn't interested in new windows for my house, considering it was less than five years old.

I finally said, "All right, you've convinced me. I'll listen."

He stopped talking. "Really?"

"No," I said, and hung up.

My problem was solved when the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communication Commission launched the national "Do Not Call" list, which you can join if you VISIT www.donotcall.gov or CALL (888) 382-1222 RIGHT NOW. (Not that I'm trying to convince you to stop unwanted phone calls from sales pests. I'll let you decide that on your own.)

But the telemarketers aren't happy that people would REGISTER at www.donotcall.gov or CALL (888) 382-1222. They think that if you CALL (888) 382-1222 RIGHT NOW, it's an infringement on their First Amendment rights.

According to an Associated Press story, Tim Searcy of the American Teleservices Association said ". . . the FCC ignored its obligations under the federal law and the Constitution to carefully balance the privacy interests of consumers with the First Amendment rights of legitimate telemarketers."

What Searcy doesn't seem to understand is that the First Amendment only guarantees the right to free speech, it doesn't mean that I have an obligation to listen. Especially at dinnertime.

It means I don't have to sit through TV commercials, listen to protest groups, or read literature pushed on me by radical cults. And it certainly doesn't mean I have to listen to pushy telemarketers asking me if I'm interested in getting new windows for my house. It means I can VISIT www.donotcall.gov or CALL (888) 382-1222 RIGHT NOW, and get rid of unwanted pests.

So I have a painful, but much-needed message for the telemarketers: We. . . how do I put this. . . ? We, uhh. . . we just don't like you like that.

I'm sorry. It's not you. It's not you at all. It's us. We need our space. We like our privacy. That's why we will REGISTER AT www.donotcall.gov or CALL (888) 382-1222. So please don't call anymore. Maybe someday, when we're both older and more mature, we can try again. But until then, we want to talk to other people. So don't call, don't write, and don't send email.

In the meantime, we'll use our caller ID to screen "Out of Area" calls. Or we'll dial *77 on our touch-tone phones to reject anonymous calls.

But we'll be thinking of you. Especially in five years when our registration expires and we have to VISIT www.donotcall.gov or CALL (888) 382-1222 to get you to LEAVE US ALONE.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

You Want Me to Go Where?

You Want Me to Go Where?
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Imagine if I told you to go to Hell. What would you do? Run away and cry? Punch me in the nose? Or visit the little town in Michigan?

If you didn’t know, Hell is an unincorporated community of 266 souls, situated about 20 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, in Southeast Michigan. It’s a well-known place, because of the giggle factor of its name, and its various festivals, such as the annual Run Through Hell 10 mile race.

It was a combination of these factors that inspired Michael Sattler, a 16-year-old student at Fillmore Central High School, in Fillmore Nebraska, to create a brochure for a place he’d like to visit as part of an English class assignment. So why did he get a zero on it?

Because “. . . I used the word Hell in every part of it,” Sattler told the Ann Arbor (Michigan) News. “It was all about Hell, Hell, Hell.” Sattler’s English teacher apparently took umbrage with Sattler’s choice, because he used a bad word in it. A lot.

Well, duh. I suppose you only had to read the brochure and, oh I don’t know, look at a map to see that Hell, Michigan is a real place.

But Ms. Kovanda was unmoved by simple things like facts and geography.

Sattler’s parents, feet firmly planted in the boy’s corner – and in reality – sent a copy of the brochure to the head devil – er, unofficial mayor of Hell, John “You Smell Good” Colone.

“It was good,” Colone told the Ann Arbor News. “It had all the right information on it. The layout was great. It had good pictures. It was creative.”

See, even the mayor of Hell agreed it was good. And if you can’t trust the Mayor of Hell, who can you trust?

To show that he appreciated Sattler’s predicament, and to prove that there really is a Hell on Earth, Colone sent Sattler a package of Hell merchandise to share with his class, including a document granting ownership of one-square-inch of Hell to Sattler.

Now Sattler can say he has a place in Hell reserved just for him,

Colone also included a “Grumpier Than Hell” coffee mug for Ms. Kovanda. He should have included a “Meaner Than Hell” t-shirt for Principal Jim Rose, because Rose intercepted the box and intends to mail it back unopened to Colone.

“There are two sides to this,” Rose offered lamely to the News. “If this student had just presented the facts and not taken such personal amusement in his topic, it might have been OK. He used this topic as a freedom to ‘express’ this word nonstop in class. I was afraid passing out these things would take that to new heights.”

(A student -- *gasp!* -- enjoyed an assignment. What is our educational system coming to?!)

Great move, Principal Skinner. This is much better. Rather than one kid’s brochure that’s read only by his teacher, it’s now a national news story about an English teacher and a high school principal who just alienated 266 Michiganders.

To top it all off, Rose has also committed a felony by stealing mail. How is that a better example to set for the kids?

“Hey kids, stealing is much more acceptable than saying Hell.”

Rose also said that passing out the merchandise would weaken Kovanda’s authority in her classroom.

No, I think that was pretty much weakened when this made national news, and everyone saw what passes for educational "leadership” in Fillmore, Nebraska.

It’s simple: if you want to draw attention to something, ban it, forbid it, or protest against it. Child development experts and public relations practitioners have known it for years. It’s why the movie “Basic Instinct” was such a success. It’s why kids drink alcohol while they’re still in high school. If you want to make a kid do something or enjoy it more, tell them that they shouldn’t do it.

However, to give Kovanda a little credit, she tried to make the best of a stupid situation. She admitted that she did not set guidelines ahead of time on what places were appropriate , so she let Sattler pick a different location for the assignment.

So, in an extreme sense of irony that highlighted Kovanda and Rose’s hypersensitivity, he picked Comstock, Nebraska for his travel brochure. Comstock is the location of “Godstock,” Nebraska’s biggest Christian music festival, which is why he got 100 percent on that one.

It’s only too bad he didn’t pick Burp Holler, Oregon. I hear that place is a blast.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is Being a Hypochondriac Contagious?

Is Being a Hypochondriac Contagious?
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

As veteran parents, my wife and I have quit worrying about illnesses. We give the kids their medicine, tell them where to find the 7-Up and Saltines, and let them watch as much TV as they want. Not like when we were new parents, when Oldest Daughter (known as Only Child back then) would get sick.

Back then, a childhood illness was cause for a major freakout for us. At the first sniffle, we would look at each other with horror and race to the "So, You're a First Time Parent?" emergency home medical guide. We hovered so much, the local TV station asked us to do the morning traffic reports.

"What do we do?!" my wife would wail to her mother at 11:30 at night. Her mother was an expert at childhood illnesses, and I was sure she knew every instant cure in the book.

"What'd she say?!" I'd ask. "What sort of expert advice did she give?"

"Just give her plenty of liquids and rest."

"Liquids and rest?! What's next, blood letting and leeches?! There's got to be a cure. What about chicken soup? Or green tea? Or lemons?"

Truth be told, I wasn't that worried about Only Child. I knew she would be fine. She barely even knew she was sick, and was annoyed when we made her lay down, because she had to stop playing.

I was more worried about me. I knew that if Only Child was sick, I wasn't too far behind. I didn't want the personal suffering and agony that often followed my daughter's illnesses.

I'm a wuss when I'm sick. The problem is, I can't act like one, since my wife handles her illnesses like a tough guy. She only gets bed rest when she's at death's door. I, on the other hand, start whining and fussing as soon as I enter death's zip code.

But I've gotten much better since the time I nearly had meningitis.

It was 1991, and I was a residence hall director at Illinois State University. We had heard on the news that a student from the University of Illinois -- just down Interstate 55 -- was in the hospital with it. And as everyone knows, killer germs will often travel the freeways, looking for unsuspecting victims.

A day or two later, I began feeling a little sick. I was a little warm, my head hurt, I was coughing a lot, and my sinuses felt like they had been sprayed with lemon juice. Plus, we had just been advised that residence halls were perfect breeding grounds for meningitis, and as the guy in charge, I was Target Zero. I had never heard of this mystery disease before, but I was pretty sure that's why I was feeling so lousy.

"I think I've got that thing that kid from the U of I has," I said to my friend, Heidi.

"What thing?"

"You know, the kid in the hospital. They said the symptoms were a headache, coughing, and a fever. I've got it."

"You don't have it."

I pleaded with her to go to the school health center with me. "What if I collapse on the way there?" I whined. She went.

"What's the problem?" the nurse asked. She had just come out to see why I was bothering her.

"I think I've got that man thing," I said.

"What man thing?"

"The thing that kid at the U of I has."

A look of understanding flashed across her face, followed by a much longer look of annoyance. "Do you mean meningitis?"

"Yeah, that's the one. Will I need to go to the hospital?"

She clapped her hand to my forehead, rather more forcefully than was necessary. "You're not very hot."

"My girlfriend thinks I'm handsome." Even at death's door, I was still witty.

"Do you have a productive cough?"

"No, I've been coughing so much, I can't get any work done."

She sighed. "I mean, does stuff come out when you cough?"

"No. Is that bad?"

"It means you have a cold, not meningitis. Go home and get plenty of liquids and rest."

Know-nothing quack, I thought. I could be dead by morning.

But ever since I became a dad, I've had to learn to suck it up and quit complaining. When my own kids won't even stop playing for a major illness, I can't start whining for "crackies and drink" whenever I get the sniffles.

But if I ever die from a sinus infection, I told you so.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Living in Mother Goose's Neighborhood

Living in Mother Goose's Neighborhood
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

"Well, that's the last of the boxes. We're finally moved into our new home."

"I know, isn't it a great house?"

"I don't know who built it. Look at the plaque by the front door."

"'This is the house that Jack built.'"

"I don't know who he is."

"I wasn't gone that long."

"Outside meeting some of our new neighbors."

"I don't remember. One of them was Jack. . . uhh, Pratt. . .Kratt. . . Spratt. Oh yeah, it was Spratt."

"He's that really skinny guy we saw on the way in.

"Kind of short and meek looking.

"That wasn't a bear, that was his wife. She's huge!"

"I'm not kidding. It was like talking to a beach ball and a bean pole."

"Jeez, what DIDN'T we talk about? They told me all about the neighbors, their house, even their dietary restrictions. I just wanted to know when the trash was picked up. I didn't need their whole life story."

"Mondays."

"Get this. Apparently Jack is on a strict Ornish no-fat diet. Won't ever touch the stuff. Won't butter his toast, uses only non-fat salad dressing, and only eats grilled fish or baked skinless chicken."

"Oh, she eats anything. She says she's on Atkins, but she's doing it all wrong."

" She actually bragged about it -- porterhouse steaks, hamburgers, Cheetos, ice cream. It's not a marriage, it's some kind of dietary symbiosis. She eats what he can't, he eats what she won't."

"No, he's not the same Jack who built this house. I already asked."

"I think he's an accountant."

"Well, I would have been in right after that, but one of the other neighbors came along."

"Alexander Leslie, who's originally from Scotland. He's this bent-over, crooked little guy. He lives in that crooked house on Stile Street.

"Around the bend, right off Sixpence Road."

"It's not that far. He goes from his house to that big oak at the end of the road. He said he loves meandering around all the twists and curves in the area."

"About a mile."

"Maybe so, but he knows a lot about the neighbors."

"Alex said there are still a couple of small family farms on the outskirts of the neighborhood."

"One of them is a sheep farm."

"Some woman named Bonita. She divorced her husband, Frank Peep, last year, and he left her the farm."

"Alex says she's pretty bad at it."

"They keep getting out of the pen, and wander around the neighborhood."

"They don't do much, but the neighborhood association has called animal control out to her place a few times."

"The farmers co-op has even helped her with animal management, but the pen keeps getting unlocked."

"Could be that Tom Tom guy we heard about on the news, but he only steals pigs."

"Oh, and Bonita has a daughter, Mary, who is just the opposite when it comes to sheep. She's got this lamb that keeps following her around everywhere."

"No, seriously. Everywhere."

"The store, church, school, you name it. Sounds like some creepy stalker lamb."

"The health department has already banned them from three restaurants because of health code violations."

"No, the Greek place still lets them in."

"They probably want to make gyro sandwiches out of it."

"Actually Jack's wife says their gyros are excellent. She'll eat three or four in one sitting."

"Yeah, gyros do sound pretty good tonight."

"Alex said we have to go to Horner's Bakery. It's on St. Ives Street."

"Their Christmas pie is supposed to be outstanding."

"Walnuts, apples, and plums."

"Before I forget, Alex said to keep an eye on Bob Porgie's kid, George. The kid's only eight years old, but already has a reputation for being something of a Lothario."

"Bonita apparently threatened to sue the Porgies for sexual harassment."

"George keeps kissing Mary whenever they play together."

"No, he does it to all the neighborhood girls. Makes them cry and everything."

"It's not cute! The kid's a coward."

"Whenever the boys come out, the little punk runs off."

"Well, he's not playing around our girls, that's for darn sure!"

"Alright, alright, I'm calm."

"I like the neighborhood pretty well so far. It seems a little weird though."

"I keep thinking I've met these people before, but I can't quite put my finger on it."

"I don't know. When I was a kid, I guess."

"I'm sure I'll remember it later,"

"Oh yeah? When are you going to start planting?"

"I'll put up a small fence to keep Bonita's sheep out."

"What are you planting this year?"

"Pumpkins?!"

"Uh, you may want to rethink that. I met our neighbor Peter earlier today."

"He lives in that little orange house behind us."

"You think that's small? You should see where his wife stays."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Heartbreak of BlackBerryitis

The Heartbreak of BlackBerryitis
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

My BlackBerry is ruining my eyesight.

I got a new BlackBerry at work recently, and I can't stand to be away from it. For those of you who don't know what a BlackBerry is, it's sort of a mini-computer that handles your email, schedule, address book, web browser, and even a cell phone. Some people have taken to calling them Crackberries, because they're so addictive.

I carry mine on my belt, eagerly waiting for the little vibrating buzz that signifies someone has sent me an important email that I absolutely have to read right this second.

BZZZZZ!

As my BlackBerry buzzes, time slows to a crawl. My eyes narrow, my palms get sweaty, and the theme song from "Pale Rider," echoes in my brain. In a flash, my hand drops to my holster like a gunfighter, and I whip the BlackBerry out faster than Wild Bill Hickock.

("Do'nt misse out on this grate stokc! You cna make M--ILLIONS!").

Dang. The last thing I need is to buy stock from some mouth-breathing spammer who thinks I'm going to invest my life's savings into an investment this idiot can't spell. Never take financial or pharmaceutical advice you get by email.

I blow across the top of the BlackBerry, spin it around my finger, and reholster it. I relax a bit, but my hand never strays far from my belt.

Unfortunately, my BlackBerry is also wreaking havoc on my eyesight and attention to detail. The problem is that when I read my emails, I don't always see every word on the screen. As a result, I sometimes miss important information.

"Do you want to meet for coffee?" fellow humorist Dick Wolfsie wrote to me one day.

"Sure, what day?" I tapped back.

"Let me see if this clears it up. Do you want to have coffee ON TUESDAY."

I checked the first message. He had said Tuesday the first time.

Uh oh, I thought. Selective vision.

"I think I have BlackBerryitis," I wrote back. "I'm missing some things when I read my emails."

"Wow, that's too bad," Dick wrote back. "I'll take you to St. Elmo's for a steak for lunch."

"Cool, I haven't been to St. Elmo's in years!"

"Not St. Elmo's, picklehead. I said 'that's too bad. I'll take a few minutes to stop by your office with my friend Elmo. He sells steak knives. Can you meet us after lunch?'"

I rechecked the old message. He was right. Absolutely no mention of St. Elmo's anywhere. Which is too bad, because his friend's steak knives would have come in handy."

"Sorry about that," I typed back. "Looks like my BlackBerryitis is--"

Ow! A sharp pain shot through my thumb, and I nearly dropped my beloved PDA. Another symptom is crippling tendinitis in the thumbs from constant typing. I tried to look up the symptoms of BlackBerryitis on the BlackBerry's Internet browser, but quit after a painful hand cramp. That, and the browser is as slow as a dead turtle.

Painful hand cramps, I found later, are another sign of BlackBerryitis.

So I massaged my hand and looked up BlackBerryitis on my computer. As the pain subsided, I read up on the condition, what causes it, and what famous celebrities use BlackBerries.

Noted rich strumpet Paris Hilton and celebrity whack job Britney Spears are both famous for typing away on their BlackBerries while they're out night clubbing. So is Lindsay Lohan, whose drunken, rambling email to Robert Altman's family after his death made the news for several days.

I breathed a sigh of relief. My condition hasn't gotten too serious yet. I haven't shaved my head, I still wear my underwear to parties, and I save my drunken ramblings for late night phone calls to people from my high school.

("So I suppose that's why I feel so strongly about that today, Principal Seaver.")

But now my friends say I need to cut back a little bit. Quit using the BlackBerry so much. I'm getting hooked, and depend on it for constant companionship.

Bull! I'm fine. I can quit anytime I want to, I just don't want to right now. Besides, I get some pretty important emails that require an immediate response.

BZZZZZ!

"Dear Friend, I am the son of Nigeria's former oil minister, and I have $25 million that I need to smuggle out of my country."

Stupid #&@%! BlackBerry.