Thursday, June 28, 2007

At Least I'm Not 50

At Least I'm Not 50
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

The inevitable finally happened. I'd known it was coming for years -- known the exact date and time. I planned, stalled, and fought for as long as I could, but it still happened despite my best efforts.

I turned 40 this past Wednesday.

There's really nothing special about 40. I don't feel any different than I did the day before, when I was 39.99726 years old. But 40 is such a vastly different age than all my previous ages. Not only did my decade change, now there's a zero at the end of it. It's sort of how Western Civilization felt when the calendar year changed to 2000 (although the millennium didn't officially begin until 2001!). We had reached a major milestone, but we didn't know how to feel.

I was born exactly at midnight on June 27th, so on the night of the 26th, I watched the second hands march slowly toward 12:00 on my bedroom clock until they reached their target.

"I'm 40 now," I mumbled to my wife, wondering how much longer I would be able to stay up so late.

"Happy birthday, old man." She kissed me on the cheek. We watched a "Scrubs" rerun, and I fell asleep before it was half over. Dangit. I thought old people didn't need as much sleep.

My older friends and family scoffed at my worries. "Forty is nothing," they would say. "Wait until you hit your fifties."

On the other hand, Oldest Daughter would remind me 12 times a day for three weeks, "Wow, 40 years old. That's four decades."

"Oh yeah? Well, you're one decade."

"I know," she'd laugh, fully aware she had a good six or seven decades of life left, while I had just reached my halfway point.

"Just you wait," I'd warn. "You'll be this age sooner than you think, and it'll be your kids making fun of you." But my predictions went unheeded. Thirty years is an eternity to a 10-year-old. When I was 10, I was convinced 40 would never arrive. Shows what I know.

"You're only as old as you feel," my friends told me, which presents its own problems. I've got the knees of a 60-year-old, but I still have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old. In other words, "doody" make me giggle, but my knees grate and grind when I climb the stairs.

I've tried reframing how I think of my age. It's the 11th anniversary of my 29th birthday. Or better yet, the 19th anniversary of my 21st birthday. Or I'm not 40, I'm $39.95. But Oldest Daughter's words keep ringing in my ears: "Wow, 40 years old. That's four decades."

I was born in 1967, in the year of the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pops festival, and the Central Park Be-In. In 1967, gas was 33 cents a gallon, a new house cost $24,600, and Frank Sinatra won a Grammy for "Strangers in the Night." (Summer of Love, indeed!)

In June 1967, the Beatles release their greatest album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, bans on interracial marriages were declared unconstitutional, and Winneconne, Wisconsin seceded from its home state and declared war, only to rejoin it a day later. 1967 was a momentous year, and it defined "The Sixties."

It was also 40 lo-o-o-o-ong freakin' years ago, which brings me back to my original whine: I'm 40 freakin' years old!

"Don't be so mopey," my wife said. "They say 40 is the new 30."

"But I liked the old 30 better."

She has a point though. With advances in personal health, nutrition, and exercise, 40 is a new beginning for many, not the beginning of the end. Of course, this means I'll have to start eating right and exercising more, so I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. But if I want to see my fifth decade, I should probably start.

Wow, 40 years old. That's four decades.

"You think that's hard," my friend, Dick, told me on my birthday morning. "Try being 60."

"Yeah, but you've had 20 years to get used to the idea. This is my first day."

But it was my friend, Darrin, who made me appreciate my new age.

"You've reached the age of Wisdom. This is a major milestone among men. You're at the age where you can dispense counsel, and give advice," he said.

I was stunned at the thought: I have reached an Age of Importance. I am wise. I have experience. I have gravitas. (Best of all, I have the wisdom and experience to know what "gravitas" means.)

But some things haven't changed, even though I'm in a new marketing demographic. I still like listening to loud music. I can still play soccer and Ultimate Frisbee. I still won't wear dark socks with shorts.

And most importantly, I still think "doody" is hilarious.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

British Teachers to Offer Walking Lessons

British Teachers to Offer Walking Lessons
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Have you ever been in a situation where you said, "Boy, I wish I knew how to walk better?" Complex tasks like carrying a bag, walking over rough terrain, going out for a Sunday stroll, or -- *gasp* -- walking and chewing gum at the same time?

You've cursed your embarrassing lack of knowledge of this basic skill. You've stumbled and dragged yourself to your therapist's office, and filled his ears with stories about how your parents only taught you the basic walking technique. You broke down and sobbed when you realized they never taught you how to walk on different terrains and situations.

You've prayed that this new generation of students aren't cursed with your same shortcomings, forced to shuffle and shamble through life, while the smart kids -- the lucky kids -- walk, mosey, and meander their way down Easy Street.

If you're one of those unlucky few, take heart. There's a new voice to speak for the non-perambulators of the world. An educational beacon to show schoolchildren the way to proper walking. The British educational system is about to be changed as we know it by one man: Martin Johnson, acting deputy general secretary of England's Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

According to a March 2007 article, in England's Daily Mail newspaper, Johnson said he wanted to do away with the national curriculum, and teach important life skills, like how to walk. He said children could learn a lot from walking, because they need different techniques for different situations, whether they are – I'm not making this up – going for a Sunday stroll, exploring cliffs, or trying to catch a train.

I'm no education expert, but I always thought walking was walking. But Johnson disagrees.

"Since in a green world people will be walking more than Western societies are currently doing, it would be as well that we spent an hour or so of compulsory education in teaching young people how to walk efficiently, and the joy of walking," Johnson told the Daily Mail. With a straight face, no less.

Shows what I know. Here I thought the old "left foot, right foot, repeat as needed" would pretty much cover any situation in which I might find myself. But apparently I've been doing it all wrong.

(Which means my newly developed style of swinging my arms windmill-style and giving a short hop on every fifth step probably wouldn't meet Johnson's definition of efficient either.)

According to the Daily Mail, Johnson calls Britain's national curriculum "totalitarian," because it favors academic education over other types of knowledge. He thinks physical and manual skills should carry more weight, and that the curriculum should no longer prescribe facts, figures, or specific subjects.

"For the state to suggest that some knowledge should be privileged over other knowledge is a bit totalitarian in a 21st century environment," Johnson said. In other words, he thinks the old standards like reading, math, and history should be replaced by walking, running, and eating with a fork.

A few years ago, I wrote about some American schools that were eliminating certain tests, rather than work harder and teach better, because students were failing them. But those guys look like geniuses compared to Johnson, who is proposing to do away with entire chunks of a standard education, so the teachers can measure whether students walk correctly. I just can't see how that will help later in life.

Interviewer: So, Mr. Gillespie, why do you want to become a nuclear engineer?

Gillespie: Because I was the best walking-to-catch-a-train student in my school.

It gets worse. A few days later, after everyone in the free world made fun of Johnson, the ATL said they stood by his remarks and moronic ideas.

A spokeswoman for the ATL told the Daily Mail, "It was an aside. He was thinking on his feet trying to find an example of a physical skill which children need."

THAT is thinking on his feet? Teaching children different walking techniques is the best he could come up with at the spur of the moment? I wonder what brilliant life skills he could have thought of if he'd had more time. Eating Noodles? Turning Book Pages? Going to the Big Boy Potty?

The mind staggers at the sheer lunacy of it all. But thanks to the education revolution, British children will stagger no more. And who knows, maybe one day, they'll even offer private lessons to those of us who have been walking wrong all these years.

I would call to find out, but no one taught me to dial the phone.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Weapons of Mass Flatulence

Weapons of Mass Flatulence
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

While most people believe the U.S. Department of Defense only wants to kill people, that's not entirely true. They also want to make enemy soldiers get stung by angry wasps, get blamed for farting, and turn them gay.

My brother sent me a story from the BBC about a project proposed by the U.S. Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. The report, "Harassing, Annoying, and 'Bad Guy' Identifying Chemicals," came to light after the Sunshine Project, a military watchdog group, obtained a copy through the Freedom of Information Act.

In 1994, Wright Labs sent a proposal for a six-year, $7.5 million project to develop chemicals to turn soldiers gay, attract angry wasps or rats, cause severe halitosis, and simulate flatulence among enemy troops, also called the "Who? Me?" bomb.

My brother and I have the maturity of a couple of 12-year-olds, so he knew this story would appeal to me greatly.

The "love bomb" would have caused widespread homosexual behavior among enemy soldiers, resulting in a "distasteful, but completely non-lethal" collapse of the enemy's military.

Edward Hammond, a Sunshine Project spokesman, told KPIX-TV in San Francisco the chemical was supposed cause the enemy's army to become ineffective because "their units (would) break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another."

(I'll leave any jokes about little blue pills and broken-down units to you.)

The report did not mention what effect the "love bomb" would have on soldiers who were already gay.

Military officials told KPIX-TV that while they did consider the love bomb, they quickly rejected it.

But Wright Labs didn't put all their heat-seeking chickens in one basket. They had several other non-lethal ideas, including a "sting me/attack me" chemical weapon that would attract swarms of angry wasps toward enemy troops. Personally, I don't see what damage a bunch of middle-class Protestants from Connecticut can do, but I have to give Wright Labs credit for thinking outside the box.

According to the report, the "sting me/attack me" chemical was supposed to attract "stinging and biting bugs, rodents, and large animals." Given my own experience with stinging and biting bugs, they could achieve the same effect by sending half a million enemy combatants on a Sunday picnic.

My personal favorite was the "Who? Me?" bomb, a silent, but deadly idea that has been around since the mid-1940s. This little gem was supposed to simulate flatulence among enemy ranks. I don't know what effect it was supposed to have, but it's clear the researchers weren't clear on the expected results.

Do the math. Female soldiers notwithstanding, militaries around the world are made up primarily of Guys. Guys who think bodily functions are hilarious. Guys who will fart at each other to get a laugh. Guys who think "pull my finger" is sheer comedic genius.

Guys like me and my brother.

What did the researchers expect to happen if they dropped this particular dirty bomb? Would the soldiers become so overwhelmed they would flee in terror? Shoot each other in disgust? More likely, they would collapse in a giggling heap, shouting, "Dude, that's nasty! What died inside you?"

Unfortunately, for humorists everywhere, the researchers decided the fart bomb was doomed to fail. According to the BBC story, they concluded "people in many areas of the world do not find fecal odor offensive, since they smell it on a regular basis."

But if fart bombs aren't your cup of beans, the researchers also proposed a chemical agent that would cause severe halitosis. With horribly bad breath, enemy troops wouldn't be able to blend in with civilians, making them easy to identify. The downside is that it would also negate the effects of the love bomb, since nothing kills a sex drive like killer morning breath.

Ultimately, all these ideas were turned down by the Pentagon. Captain Dan McSweeney of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate told the BBC they receive "literally hundreds" of project ideas similar to this one, but none of Wright Labs' suggestions ever made it past the proposal stage.

Still, the Non-Lethal Lads of Dayton shouldn't give up, just because of one little setback. There are a lot of devices and agents they could create. How about a chemical that makes people want to watch Oprah and boxes of eat diet cookies? Or an amber liquid that, when drunk in large quantities, makes fast cars driving around in circles exciting? Or a device that makes people forget about all the important global current events, and focus all their attention on Paris Hilton's prison stay?

Boy, it's a good thing no one has invented those things yet.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

I Just Want to be Alone

I Just Want to be Alone
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Privacy is one of those priceless commodities you can't get enough of. Like gold, vacation, or pizza. No matter how much you get, you always want more. And while I love my kids, there are times I just wish they would go bug someone else for a while.

I realize I don't see my family during the day, and I should spend as much time as I can with them. And I do. But I also want to spend some time with my wife, to talk about something other than work. To have a normal conversation about normal things. But it's a little difficult at times when everyone else is competing for my attention.

My wife: You won't believe what I heard today! Do you remember Susie from the library? Well, her husband caught her--

Son: Daddy, look at my Legos! I put them in a pile!

Me: Good job, Buddy. That's quite a big pile.

Son: Watch me put them into a new pile.

My wife: So anyway, Susie went out for drinks with --

Youngest daughter: Daddy, look at this bug I found! I put him in a jar.

Me: Wow, cool. Why don't you let him go?

Youngest daughter: But I want to keep him.

Me: I know, but bugs don't make good pets.

Youngest daughter: But I named him Herman.

Me: Why don't you take Herman outside and play with him?

My wife: So anyway, Susie was having drinks with a few women and Jeremy from work. Innocent enough. Susie's husband walks into the bar, sees them all and goes ballistic. He grabs Jeremy by the collar and --

Oldest daughter: Daddy, guess what they did on Fear Factor today.

Me: I'm guessing they ate gross stuff and let icky things crawl on them.

Oldest daughter: Did you see it too? Wasn't that cool?!

Me: No, that's just what they do every show.

My wife: Aren't you going to pay attention?

Me: I am. Tell me the story.

Youngest daughter, bursting in the door: Daddy, Herman got away!

My wife: You know what? Forget it. You're obviously not interested.

Me: But. . .

And if it's hard enough to have a conversation with three kids around, imagine trying to get some private time by yourself.

My wife often does yoga in the morning, and locks the door so the kids won't interrupt her morning meditations. One morning, as she was in the middle of Downward Dog or Ridiculously Limber Ostrich, or whatever those poses are called, there was a knock at the door.

"Moooommmmyyyyy! What are you doing in there?"

"I'm busy, kids. I'm doing my yoga."

"Mommy? Why is the door locked?"

"I'll be out in a few minutes!"

"Mommy, the door is locked. Can you open the door? Mommy? Mommy?"

"WOULD YOU KNOCK IT OFF?! I'M TRYING TO RELAX!"

Needless to say, the Downward Dog has just done his downward doots on the lawn, and that morning's relaxation has become a lost cause. It's a little hard to reach a state of quiet contemplation when two little kids are banging on the door, wondering why you're not devoting every waking moment to them.

This is typical of our day, until we can finally get the kids to bed, and steal a few moments for ourselves. Some nights, my wife and I will sneak downstairs for our weekly ritual of a DVD and a bowl of cereal. The good kind. The kind we won't let the kids have because "it's filled with sugar and preservatives." So we have to keep it a secret.

We settle down on the couch and start enjoying our snack, when we hear our oldest daughter ka-thunking down the stairs. We nearly knock each other over trying to get into the laundry room to hide our contraband.

"Mommy? What are you guys doing in there? Daddy? Why is the door locked? Mommy? Daddy? Mommy? Daddy?"

"Nothing. We're. . . uhh, we're kissing."

"No, you're not! You're eating cereal again!"

I open the door. "How do you know we're eating cereal?

"Because that's the only time you guys ever hide in the laundry room."

Some days, I wonder if I'll ever get any privacy. Will my life be filled with constant interruptions, disturbances, and invasions? Will I be forced to bear every disruption with good grace and without raising a fuss?

Probably. But I'll get my revenge when my kids grow up and I move in with them.

"Buddy! What are you doing in there? Buddy? Why is the bathroom door locked? Buddy? Buddy? Buddy?"