Monday, November 29, 2010

Of Mice and Water Bugs

In the weeks preceding Thanksgiving, I was visited by a couple of God’s creatures: a mouse and a water bug. Now, the latter is a periodic caller to my ground floor lair here in the Bronx, most especially in the heat and humidity of summertime, which can be pretty bad in these parts. But the former is rare, which is good because I’m not as nimble as I once was.

As there are infrequent sightings of water bugs at this time of year, this particular visitation was an anomaly of sorts. The bug's stomping grounds, too, were unusual—not along my kitchen or bathroom floors but in my bed and on my head. I awoke feeling something in my hair—the little that remains of it—and brushed my hands through it. Must have been nothing, I initially reasoned, in my nighttime torpor. However, seconds later, feeling something once more, I ran my hands over my head and hair again. This go-around propelled this uninvited intruder to the far end of my bed, which was illuminated by a night-light. I could now distinguish the silhouette of some small creature slowly but surely meandering away from me. And I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating, either.

Having been visited by a mouse only a couple of days earlier—coming out of the early season cold and pitter-pattering through the enclosed heating pipes along my ceiling—I initially feared the worse—that I had had a mouse on my head only moments before, which was now somewhere in my bed. But as I grew more alert and my senses sharpened with each waking second, I knew the zigzag gait of the creature on the unsteady terrain of my bed's blanket bespoke water bug, and not a more fleet-footed mouse.

Water bugs are pretty harmless. I suspect Andrew Zimmern has very likely even sampled a few in some outdoor marketplace or barbecue. As far as I know, they don’t bite or any such thing. But they are still creepy-looking. Sure, this misunderstood insect is judged largely by its grisly appearance, which as bugs go is downright sinister. They have quite a disagreeable crunch when you squash them, too.

It was about three o’clock when this incident played out. I subsequently got out of bed and switched on my bedroom light. The bug was gone. I searched high and low for this meddling insect, but it had evidently made its escape into some unseen nook and cranny. Still, I thoroughly examined all of my bed’s trappings from sheets to pillows to blanket. I just don't trust water bugs. They have this knack of quietly looming and returning for encores. But there was no sign of it—anywhere. I don't know why, but I opted not to return to my bed, and slept the rest of the night on an uncomfortable easy chair in another room. I let the water bug win. There must be a life lesson here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Magoo's Heresy

Recently, I stumbled upon a vintage television commercial on YouTube. It was for a beer called Stag, which I never had the pleasure of sampling. From the early 1960s or thereabouts, its pitchman was none other than Mr. Magoo, a legally blind, beloved cartoon character. The ad’s a bona fide classic featuring the always-frenetic Magoo bumbling about in search of his preferred brew and singing its praises the entire time.

The individual who placed this fifty-year-old commercial on YouTube obviously didn't approve of its underlying message. In fact, he dubbed it “sleazy," and at once indicted and convicted the animated Magoo for “cracking open a few frosties in front of impressionable young minds.” Now, considering that a half-century has passed since the advertisement first aired, pardon me for finding it a bit strange that so many contemporary men and women (see the YouTube comments) get exorcised over TV programming from long before they were born. Come on, when Mr. Magoo salivated over a cold glass of Stag, John F. Kennedy was the president.

And no, I wouldn't condone old Magoo hawking a brand of beer today or, for that matter, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble puffing away on Winston cigarettes and promoting this lethal and filthy habit. But really, while they weren’t exactly on par with Family Guy or South Park, both cartoons from yesteryear were sold to predominantly adult audiences, and, I suspect, the aforementioned ads weren’t aired during Saturday morning cartoon times, either.

Not too long ago, somebody uploaded a video on YouTube who disabled the comment option with these words: “I don’t care in the least what the idiotocracy has to say about my video. If you want to watch it—watch it. If you don’t—don’t.” Indeed, it seems that the virtual woods are chock full of folks with agendas these days, not to mention a never-ending parade of crass imbeciles champing at the bit to have their vulgar say on matters great and small.

Again, while I wouldn’t sanction a cartoon colossus like Mr. Magoo promoting a beer in the here and now, pardon me for being skeptical of the notion that we’ve come such a long way vis-à-vis uplifting impressionable minds. I wonder how many innocent youths reached for a Stag brew because the hyper-Magoo liked his few? My friends and I played with toy guns and plastic soldiers as boys, but it never occurred us to bring the genuine articles into school and mow down our classmates. That said, I’m truly glad today's youngsters aren’t exposed to anything like Mr. Magoo on a beer-fueled high. It's at least something to be grateful for.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Remembering a Pit Bull with Panache

With the omnipresent Sarah Palin weighing in on matters far afield in her latest tome, America By Heart: Reflections of Family, Faith, and Flag, including on the historic, reasoned, and rather eloquent JFK "separation of church and state" speech (which she’s now found fault with), I was reminded of a political personage from the past. His name: Spiro Agnew, at once revered and reviled by competing segments of the population.

I was an eleven-year-old boy when Agnew pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of tax evasion and resigned as Vice President of the United States. Embroiled in a separate but more epic scandal known as Watergate, his boss, Richard Nixon, followed suit ten months later. Agnew was the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency for almost five years, and that possibility positively exhilarated a portion of the populace, while simultaneously sending frightful shivers up and down the spines of others. Not unlike Sarah, Spiro was the antithesis of a neutral personality in the antithesis of neutral times.

When Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate in 1968, it stunned most political observers and regular folks as well, who had never heard of the guy. His credentials on the eve of being tapped for bigger and better things: not quite half of a four-year term served as Maryland's governor. Does the man's résumé—or lack thereof—ring a little familiar? Still, it didn’t take Spiro very long to become nationally known on the campaign hustings, and an even more recognized personality as the Pit Bull vice president with the big vocabulary.

Nowadays, we would probably say that Agnew very shrewdly branded himself. And I believe credit should be given where credit is due. Amidst the ongoing and increasingly contentious debacle known as the Vietnam War, Spiro’s speechifying in the early 1970s assumed a life of its own. Regardless of whether one believed he was fanning the flames of division, or a welcome breath of fresh air—my father loved the guy—some of his speeches were bona fide classics. In the gutter world of politics, even calling them literary masterpieces wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Agnew had an uncanny way with words and a forensic aptitude that very few pols before, or since, have exhibited—sorry Sarah.

Political reporter Jules Witcover dubbed Agnew’s delivery “a deceptive calm” in which the vice president unleashed a fusillade of blistering attacks on those whom he perceived as the enemies, which invariably included members of the fourth estate. In the book Very Strange Bedfellows by the aforementioned Witcover, a compelling read that chronicles the improbable pairing and rocky five-year political marriage of Nixon and Agnew, the author reveals that while Spiro employed speechwriters, he also wrote some of his best and most effective lines, including an attack on the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” His frequent use of alliteration became known as “Agnewisms,” with such memorable hits as “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Really, if we are going to be subject to divisive, bloviating politicians anyway, I’d just assume be entertained along the way. And I’d like to, perhaps, learn a few new words in the process. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drunks and Lampposts

Legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, not illumination.” I’ve since seen this same sentiment applied to people and their preferred sources of news and information.

In other words, most of us want our worldviews bolstered by the news programs we watch, as well as the books, newspapers, and magazines that we read (assuming we do). We are not on eternal quests for understanding and enlightenment. After all, such unquenchable pursuits necessitate, at the very least, some measure of reflection on the front end and a whole lot of digestion on the back end. And with our ever-waning attention spans in full throttle, locating support for what we absolutely believe is true—the way things are—invariably circumvents Illumination Road, where alternative views and gray areas on matters great and small, significant and trivial, reside.

There’s nothing quite like an election to bring out the worst in people—in all niches of the political spectrum. In today’s Information Age—with more interaction between and among individuals from both our pasts and the present—a regular dose of unsolicited ravings is wont to come our way whether we like it or not. Food for thought: Talk of politics and religion in drinking milieus is considered a no-no—not good form. And perhaps this same dictum should be applied to the social-networking bailiwick and the e-mailing habits of certain over-zealous friends, relations, and acquaintances. But, honestly, this noble prohibition is often ignored on the barroom scene. Drunks under lampposts—enjoying support and not appreciating the illumination in the least—are, I suppose, as American as apple pie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Another Deficit Worth Fretting Over...

A recent news story reported how television commercials have gotten shorter and shorter to complement our waning attention spans. Whereas once upon a time many ads ran for a complete minute, fifteen-second spots are preferred nowadays because we the people cannot remain wholly engaged for a full sixty seconds.

The obvious downside of instantaneous communications and a mother lode of information at our fingertips is this corresponding, and apparently ever-widening, attention-deficit chasm. Harking back to my youth, I often wonder how we all survived without computers, the Internet, and only a dozen or so TV channels from which to choose. But we somehow managed and, I daresay, were hardly a less informed and less curious bunch. Running around all day long text messaging, Tweeting, and playing iPhone games hasn’t exactly made us a more literate and interesting lot—quite the contrary. Engaging in personal phone conversations everywhere from the supermarket checkout line to a crowded subway car to a claustrophobic ATM alcove have not ushered in a more cultured, conscientious, and sociable society, either.

Theoretically, with this surfeit of knowledge in the virtual ether, we should—by osmosis—be a more informed and inquisitive brood all across the spectrum. But it appears that not exactly everybody is sampling from the cornucopia of riches at their disposal. The bottom line is that if we cannot remain alive, alert, awake, and aware for a clock minute, or even half of one for that matter, sheer logic dictates that we’ll also read fewer books and newspapers (including online)—the very things that necessitate greater than one-minute attention spans, and that cannot be encapsulated in fewer than 144 characters. The insatiable thirst for less in-depth and multi-layered information is evidently where it's at. Granted, sometimes in life, less in better. However, all too often less comes up short because— as the old saying goes—“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It's even worse, I fear, than none at all.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

In Search Of...

In 1976, a pioneering television program for its day debuted. It was called in Search of, a half-hour documentary of sorts that investigated everything from “lost civilizations” to “extraterrestrials”; “myths and monsters” to “missing persons”; “magic and witchcraft” to “strange phenomena.” Hosted by none other than Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who did a splendid job at conveying a sense of the mysterious, sometimes even unsettling so, the show boldly went where no TV show had gone before.

After watching in Search of Bigfoot, there was no chance in hell I was ever going hiking or camping in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. And upon seeing in Search of the Bermuda Triangle, forget about me ever flying over, or sailing through, this voracious and unforgiving expanse of ocean brine. Happily, the Bermuda Triangle, aka the Devil’s Triangle, appears to have been consigned to the Much Ado About Nothing file, and is no longer considered an unsolved mystery. And Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, too, may not exist at all, the latter perhaps being nothing more than an over-sized eel, a big fish, which stuck its over-sized cranium above the lake's surface every now and then, created a few big waves, and frightened a lot of people in the process. With snowballing technology and countless in-depth tools of study at our disposal, so many of these esteemed monsters of the past, as well as purported extraterrestrial visitations, have been put to bed for good. It's actually kind of sad.

Despite the in Search of team of “scientists, researchers, and a group of highly trained technicians” warning us of a possible Ice Age in the offing—this on the heels of the brutal Buffalo, New York winter of 1976-77 and some 200 inches of snow—it was well-done television and indisputably a TV trailblazer, supplying us with ample food for thought on a broad range of diverse topics from Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance to the legend of Dracula; from poltergeists to the efficacy of ESP. This show was in fact in the vanguard of the New Age.

I think the in Search of opening theme’s disclaimer—and what a resonant and memorable one it is—nicely summed things up with: “This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.” Theory and conjecture are always welcome and should be encouraged, but in the end we must defer to hard facts, hard as that sometimes is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Toilet Paper

I recently read an article headlined: "Why Your Toilet Paper Is Shrinking." I thought it oddly coincidental, only because just this past week I detected a very strange phenomenon within arm's reach of my toilet bowl. Whereas my roll of toilet paper used to barely make it into the compartment carved in the wall—the very snuggest of fits—now ½” or so of breathing space exists. I could only draw one conclusion: The manufacturer, Scott, had altered its toilet paper formula without informing the consumer. Perhaps they didn't think we would notice.

I’ve long been aware of this sort of thing—from the can of coffee, which once upon a time was a pound, then thirteen ounces, and now is eleven ounces, to half-gallons of ice cream and cartons of orange juice, which are yesterday's news. Have you noticed your bars of soap lately? Before even the first bath or shower blast, they have considerably shrunk in size. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but these new and smaller soap bars seem to implode more rapidly, too, breaking into pieces, falling into the tub, and clogging the shower drain after only a handful of uses.

I'll plead guilty to having sheepishly accepted all of this less-for-more corporate slight of hand for many, many years now, where companies roundabout raise their prices by making things smaller. But I think they’ve finally gone too far. There’s something downright nefarious with this toilet-paper legerdemain. I’d rather pay twenty cents more for a roll of the original size than suffer the indignity and daily reminder every morning—after a few cups of coffee—of the incredible shrinking roll of toilet paper. Just what can we the people do? Boycott toilet paper? The next time you're sitting on the bowl and reach for a sheet, which is a shadow of its former self, take a moment and reflect. After all, if they are willing to tamper with our toilet paper, then nothing, I fear, is sacred.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This Is Your Life...

It was a night unlike no other and, very fortunately, largely forgotten by me. Well, not quite. I recall all too many details from that evening—of both things that were and things that weren’t. But happily, the sheer terror of that night in question has been wholly transformed into a comical, albeit dramatic, reminiscence of a certain life adventure of mine.

As far as putting things in my mouth and swallowing, or inhaling things through my nose with the objective of flying to the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter, I’ve pretty much been a good boy all these many years. I can honestly say that I never desired to trip on a hallucinogen to conjure up Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or even Yogi Berra for that matter. Popping a pill in the hopes of being embraced by light has never been on my agenda, either. After all, encouraging one’s brain to boldly go where no neurotransmitter has gone before is just as likely to erect a prophet fellow whose name begins with “M,” and a corresponding hallucinatory fatwa, which would be awfully scary.

This is a roundabout segue way into my hallucinatory story. It occurred in a hospital milieu a little over four years ago. Apparently, some thing or things within the medley of meds I was prescribed while vegetating in intensive care caused me to both see and hear things that didn’t actually exist—not a good thing—and, worse still, believe the doctors and nurses on duty wanted to cast me asunder in my hospital bed. My drug-challenged brain was further convinced that an all-encompassing conspiracy was afoot to drive me completely mad. You're nobody until you believe somebody's out to get you.

When my sorry excuse for a leg—thanks to a gnarled mass of tissue and massive blood loss—was undressed and then redressed on this fateful night, I watched a doctor employing a couple of slices of pizza in lieu of bandages to cover the gruesome thing. Pizza had recently been delivered to somebody on the premises. I saw that as well. And the vitals monitor—or whatever it was called— hovering above me no longer recorded blood pressure and heart rate, but instead a This Is Your Life…Nick Nigro facts and information crawl. Boy, were these hospital folks going through a lot of trouble to punish me for my earthly sins. Oh, yes, and they had definitely turned the heat up in my little corner of the world—it had to be at least 120 degrees. Also, I absolutely knew that if I pushed a button to give me pain medicine, which I desperately needed and was told to use, the medications would kill my pain all right.and me right along with it.

Could my eyes have been deceiving me all along, and my brain taken a bizarre and Byzantine detour into the shadowy Land of Paranoia? Well, to make a very long story short, the next morning when I received family visitations, I informed my father that they had to get me out of the hospital and toot sweet, because my life was in imminent danger courtesy of a malevolent staff out to do me bodily harm. Now, this little exchange really shook the old man up, and not because he sensed murder in the sterile ether. He was in pretty bad health at the time, and hardly needed to see his son so physically wracked, but this out-of-the-head addendum was more than he could bear.

It was my mother who eventually clued me in that I was, in fact, hallucinating, and that not a single one of these ghastly things happened, or were happening, to me. I was literally seeing ominous handwriting on the wall and on the ceiling, too. However, once I received this most welcome reality check, the extreme fear and runaway paranoia, which totally gripped me, evaporated.

I was my old rational self again, yet nonetheless still seeing things that weren’t there, and occasionally hearing them as well. Despite the nasty medications playing dirty tricks on my brain, I could at least now separate the real from the unreal. And, trust me, the real was bad enough at the time and the worst was yet to come. Finally, as a footnote here, I apologized to an always patient and compassionate male nurse for accusing him of plotting my demise. He said, “No problem…it happens all the time in this place.” 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Meets New...

Tomorrow is Election Day. It’s an especially significant one here in New York City. Oh, not because of any particular person on the ballot, or some earth-shattering proposition that will radically alter our lives. No, tomorrow is the day New Yorkers vote with paper ballots for the first time in a general election, joining the vast majority of Americans in voting that way. All my adult life I have cast my ballots, as it were, in an antiquated machine with a big red lever that closed a shower-like curtain. In the privacy of the voting booth now, there were little black levers next to the names of candidates, which I pulled to cast my votes. Xs would appear upon my making these selections. The final voting act—pulling that large red lever again—both officially recorded my votes and, equally important, opened the curtain to let me out.

I must confess to being fond of the old machines, but can certainly see why their time has come and gone. New York City—the most renowned metropolis in the world—has got to get with the program and vote in step with the twenty-first century. Still, I have this lingering fear about what tomorrow will bring, and it doesn’t revolve around any worries of possibly soiling my ballot and disenfranchising myself. I will figure out the thing. After all, I have rather competently filled in ovals before, starting in the third grade or thereabouts. But it’s the mayhem that I presume will besiege the polling place that fills me with some dread.

From what I've experienced through the years, things are more often than not discombobulated in the vicinity of voters and voting, particularly when there’s reasonably high turnout. The paid volunteers who oversee this annual extravaganza are a diverse hodgepodge of locals with a median age of eighty-seven, I’d guess. I might also add that general crankiness and conspicuous hearing loss appear to be prerequisites for many of the positions. And then, of course, there are the voters from all walks of life and of all ages. When the aforementioned poll workers and the voting populace butt heads, it’s rarely pretty, and even less likely to be so this year with the new voting apparatus in place.

For a whole host of reasons, I have never been especially confident in the integrity of NYC elections. And it’s only partially because of the dedicated, but frequently hapless folks in charge of everything on the ground. It's the city’s Board of Elections, which turns over the whole shebang to this cross-section of regular Joes and Janes, that isn’t exactly on top of the really important things and the nitty-gritty. For starters: Who’s eligible and who’s not eligible to vote? For many, many years now, I’ve spotted dead people on the eligibility rolls—and some rather long gone at that—as well as folks who have vacated the hustle and bustle and crime and grime of Gotham for greener pastures, and who are now registered to vote elsewhere.

If a dead man walking, or current resident of Paducha, Kentucky, showed up to vote in my Bronx precinct tomorrow, the odds are that a ubiquitous table manned by three volunteers would not suspect foul play. But, fortunately, nothing like this ever happens in real life.