Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Homeless Man And His Couch

originally published in the New Britain Herald, July 31, 2009


We met Dennis Lorenzetti late on a Monday afternoon, as he sat on one of the granite benches by the bus stop on Bank Street. As we walked past he waved a small, faded photograph at us, obviously trying to get our attention. There’s no particular reason this homeless man should have caught our notice when so many more seem invisible, but we stopped to chat.

The photo showed his parents. Lorenzetti said his father died of Alzheimer’s and his mother of breast cancer. He also said his sister Lori had died in a car accident the night before (though we found no mention of her when we searched online). Lorenzetti said he used to live in Bristol, but now sleeps in New Britain since he lost his job two years ago.

We asked if there was anything we could do. He started to cry. “Give me my sister back,” he said. “Can you do that?”

No, but we could give him two dollars we had on hand. He said he didn’t want the money, though he did eventually put it into his battered wallet which, except for the photo and his social services card, was empty. Otherwise, his total possessions consisted of the clothes on his back and a filthy plastic shopping bag filled with aluminum cans salvaged from garbage bins.

He talked about many things: how he spends a lot of time in Central Park because he has no better place to go. The unfairness of the police who, he says, sometimes kick him out of the park although he has a legal right to be there. People who would kill him because he knows too much.

“I have problems with alcohol, I don’t deny that,” he said, though when we met him his eyes were clear rather than bloodshot.

We asked where he sleeps. “I sleep on a couch,” he said. “An old Puerto Rican man — I don’t know his name — he said he owns the building. I asked him if I could sleep on the couch, and he gave me a blanket and a pillow, too. Then he said ‘Wait right there, don’t move,’ and I thought he was going to call the police, but instead he came back with a big platter” — he held his hands more than a foot apart to show how big it was — “filled with chicken and rice and beans and bread and soda.”

We realized he was talking about an outdoor couch. We asked if we could see it. The question surprised him, but he led us through a few blocks of downtown streets to a litter-strewn alleyway between some old brick buildings. There we saw an incongruously colorful sofa with a blanket and pillow on it. The sofa hadn’t been there long; there was none of the rotting or waterstains you’d see had it been in a rainstorm.

There was no tarpaulin or waterproofing over it. We didn’t ask what he would do the next time it rained.

“I keep it clean,” he said, and sure enough the litter strewn through the alleyway stopped a couple feet from the sofa.

He wouldn’t let us take his picture, though he did let us photograph his bed. As we walked out of the alley some church bells started chiming.

“It’s like the voice of the Lord,” he said.

We turned in one direction to go back to our office, and he turned in another to go wherever he goes.

It rained the next morning. We returned to the alley and found no sign of Lorenzetti. His sofa and bedding were ruined.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Quitting Cigarettes No Help For State Budget Woes

Orignally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 15,2009


Do you find your wallet depressingly light compared to a year ago? If so, take heart in knowing it’s not just you; the whole state’s broke these days. Connecticut’s facing a budget deficit of $8.7 billion over the next two years, and that deficit will only grow deeper after what I did last week.

Before discussing my responsibility for the state’s budget woes, I’ll point out that the human brain has a hard time grasping such abstractly huge numbers as “eight point seven billion.” Maybe this will help you picture it: If you made a million dollars a day, weekends and holidays included, amassing $8.7 billion would take almost 24 years.

How did a rich state like Connecticut wind up in such a fiscal mess? Charles Dickens figured it out over a century ago, when he had Mr. Micawber tell David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

In other words, don’t spend more than you have. But if you change pounds to dollars and make the numbers exponentially bigger, you’ll describe what happened to us. During the go-go bubble years, when property values and the tax assessments on them reached the stratosphere, not one local government — neither the guys running my town, nor the guys running yours — thought “Hey! Let’s take this opportunity to pay down some debt and build up savings.” Instead, they spent every dollar they had and borrowed even more, with the vague idea of paying off this debt sometime in the future.

Which would’ve been a fine plan, if not for the future’s nasty habit of eventually becoming the present. In Connecticut’s case, this happened at the exact moment the bubble popped. Now the state faces bills much higher than the twenty-ought-six Mr. Micawber warned against, and these revenue problems are compounded by my decision, last week, to stop paying state cigarette taxes.

There’s multiple ways to do this. You can buy tax-free smokes on New York State Indian reservations (disclaimer: this is extremely illegal if you get caught), or you can buy tobacco and roll your own, but I took the simpler method known as “Buy nicotine patches and quit smoking altogether.”

Naturally, this made my non-smoking friends turn Supportive with a capital S. “Congratulations!” they gushed. “Statistically speaking, you’ve just increased your lifespan by seven years!”

Which, in turn, only intensifies the government’s budget woes. The problem with increasing your lifespan by seven years is that those years are added to the wrong end of your life. I won’t get to spend seven extra years in my 30s; instead, I’ll spend additional time in the “retired old person collecting checks from the government” phase of my existence. I did a quick calculation on the back of an envelope: assuming Social Security and Medicaid still exist, then between lost cigarette tax revenues and increased old-age payouts, my decision to quit smoking will cost the state and federal government over 600,000 dollars, not counting inflation.

So, to all you people suffering in the wake of severe state budget cuts: I sincerely apologize for making your troubles worse. I was tempted to keep smoking, for the sake of The Children, but ultimately I’m just too selfish.

Who Gets A Raise? The Government

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 8, 2009


“Hey, you!” I said to my boss. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know the money you’ve been paying me? It’s not enough. I want more.”

“Sorry, no can do,” my boss said apologetically. “We can’t afford more than we already pay. You know how dismal the economy’s been.”

“Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem,” I insisted. “My problem is, I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”

These are serious consequences. Most people, when told “Gimme more money or give up your house and driving privileges,” have no choice but to pay. Not my boss, though. He only laughed, and after a few confused moments I realized why.

“Oops,” I said meekly. “Never mind. For a moment there, I thought I was a government worker and you were ‘My Boss’ only in the sense of being ‘The taxpayers who fund my salary.’ But I forgot: unlike a taxpayer, you have the right to say ‘no’ when folks demand more than you can afford, don’t you? Dang.”

I blame my mistake on geography. I live in Connecticut, where towns and cities get most of their money from “property taxes,” which is the tax people pay if they want to own property. Unfortunately, owning “property” doesn’t always mean you have actual “money,” especially in today’s economy.

For the past umpteen years, Nutmeg municipalities had the habit of passing annual tax increases equal to or greater than the rate of inflation. When the economy was expanding and people’s wages rose each year, this was merely an annoyance. But nowadays, taxpayers facing pay cuts or wage freezes (if not complete loss-of-job) simply can’t afford higher tax bills. Yet their local councils are inflicting them anyway.

Even worse, tax bills are an all-or-nothing proposition. Most living expenses can be cut one way or other; turn down the heat to lower your utility bill, or buy cheaper cuts of meat to slash grocery costs. But if your city assessor says “You owe $7,000 tax on your house,” you can’t counter with, “How about I seal off the den, and you knock a thousand off my bill?”

Municipalities don’t write budgets the same way you do. When you plan a budget, you count how much money you have and then decide what you can afford to spend. Government does it backwards: count how much money they plan to spend and then set tax rates so they can afford it.

And if you say “Sorry, I can’t give you any more,” the government (unlike me with my boss) really can tell you, “Whether you can afford it isn’t my problem. I want more money and if you don’t hand it over I’ll put a lien on your house or revoke your driver’s license or something.”

I’ve lost count, these past few weeks, of how many stories this newspaper has printed about city-government workers getting wage increases while their private-sector counterparts do without. The rationale seems to be, “A basket-case economy is no problem when we can force taxpayers to fill the basket with money.”

Enjoy your pay raises, guys! I’ll be subsisting on oatmeal and memories so I can afford to fund them.

Change Liquor Laws, But For Right Reasons

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 1, 2009


Behold what a badass I used to be: One weekend, back in my wild and tempestuous grad school days, I bought a bottle of bourbon at 9:17 p.m. And Scotch, and mixers too.

“I don’t get it,” you might say if you live in most parts of the country. “What’s badass about an over-21 adult buying liquor so early in the evening, then taking it home to share with age-appropriate friends?”

But if you live in Connecticut, as I do, you’ll recognize the rebellious nature of my youthful actions. Bottled alcohol sales here are illegal after 9 p.m., and all day on Sundays. Even 9 o’clock is permissive by historical standards; in my school days, alcohol’s witching hour fell at 8 p.m.

Of course, you can still buy liquor until 1 or 2 in the morning, if you go to a bar and drink it there. You just can’t take the safer option of driving home before drinking what you bought.

That’s what made my student self such a badass party hostess by Nutmeg State standards: I bought those bottles an hour and 17 minutes too late.

But I’m not confessing to any crime here. I obeyed the letter of the liquor law even as I violated its spirit — I simply crossed the nearest state line to a still-open liquor store. That’s easy in a tiny state such as Connecticut, where the border is rarely more than an hour away and usually less than that.

Ah, nostalgia. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Good Old Days, when I was younger and the economy hadn’t started doing cliff-diver impersonations. Now with everything in free­fall, some Connecticut lawmakers — even the governor herself — are suggesting we dismantle certain laws, such as the alcohol ones, written solely to make it harder for in-state consumers to spend money — and pay sales tax — close to home.

To that end, three state representatives from the border town of Enfield have proposed legislation allowing liquor stores open on Sundays, while Gov. M. Jodi Rell suggested allowing Indian casinos to serve alcohol far into the wee hours of the morning.

Naturally, there’s opposition to both proposals. Some argue the state has a moral duty to prevent alcohol purchases at certain dates and times. Others say the law should be changed only if it makes money for the state, and there’s no evidence expanded alcohol hours would do that. Sunday openings are even opposed by liquor-store owners far from the border towns, who enjoy taking time off with no fear their competitors might make sales in the meantime.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I rarely drink, never gamble, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything as bureaucracy-intensive as getting a liquor license. But I support these proposals all the same: Let the stores open Sundays, let the casinos serve drinks all night. Heck, let bars and restaurants do it too, if they wish.

Would this make money for the state? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not the question to ask, unless you like the implication “Citizens should only do things if the state makes money off it.”

Of course, I belong to the demographic old enough to engage in nostalgia. Maybe that’s why I get all crotchety at the suggestion I’m just a revenue source for the government, rather than the ostensibly free citizen of a democratic republic.

Stimulate Me

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 22, 2009


You know those history-book photos of 1920s German housewives shoveling banknotes into their stoves? The captions explain that runaway inflation in the Weimar Republic made burning money cheaper than buying coal.

This will never happen to the American dollar, because anyone who tries burning it will have 15 environmental agencies write him up for pollution violations. Financial writers might discuss how dollar bills make an economical substitute for toilet paper, but there won’t be iconic photos for the history books.

Interesting times ahead, now that President Barack Obama has signed the stimulus bill. I personally couldn’t feel more stimulated if I wore a wet bathing suit and threw myself against an electrified fence. But I’m not bashing Obama for this. The stimulus proposal predates his administration, and a President John McCain would’ve signed one too.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Humankind has known for centuries that the world is round. Therefore, if the economy tumbles down after falling into a deep debt hole, the solution is to dig even deeper until you tunnel completely through the Earth and climb out the hole again.

If a principle works in geography class, it applies to economics too. Right? The stimulus builds upon last autumn’s Wall Street/banker/big-company bailout, which said the way to fix a trashed economy is to hand your money over to the folks who trashed it.

I remember when then-President George W. Bush speechified the bailout. “It will help American consumers and businesses get credit to meet their daily needs,” he said.

“That’s how we got in trouble in the first place!” I shouted. “  ‘Get credit’ is a euphemism for ‘Go into debt,’ and consumers shouldn’t do that just to meet their daily needs!”

“Stop yelling at the television,” my roommate said. “The TV people aren’t listening to you.”

“I know,” I said. “If they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Long before the terms “housing bubble” or “subprime mortgage” entered the zeitgeist, I smelled a problem when, as a recent college grad owing nearly a year’s salary in student-loan debt, I kept hearing from banks who wanted to lend me more money than I’d make in 10 years.

“Are you nuts?” I demanded. “I couldn’t pay down a mortgage that size unless I won Powerball.”

“Stop yelling at your junk mail,” said my roommate.

“Yelling at junk mail is healthier than taking its advice,” I pointed out. So I ignored those mortgage offers and stayed in my apartment while the bubble ballooned.

“Houses historically cost about three years’ salary for the buyer,” I thought. “I’ll buy when they drop back to that level.”

So I smiled when the bubble started deflating last summer. My debts are paid off, I thought. I’ve saved a big down payment. Soon I can buy a house of my own.

But I didn’t reckon on the stimulus bill. Its backers think affordable housing is bad for America, so they’re spending nearly a trillion dollars to prop up house prices, whereas I’ll get up to $13 in tax rebates per paycheck.

I’ll use the money to buy an enormous novelty lollipop. This symbolizes what a sucker I was, rejecting a mortgage just because I couldn’t afford it. Turns out the smart move would’ve been going over my head in debt, crying victim when the bills came due and waiting for that sweet stimulus money to bail me out.

Safe At Last From Teen Terrorists At Taco Bell

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 15, 2009


People of America, rejoice! I passed my Homeland Security check with flying colors, which means you can safely read my articles without worrying that you’re endangering the security of the homeland or anything.

I’m serious. When I started working for this paper full-time, I expected the HR lady to hand me a thick pile of forms to fill out. And she did.

I did not expect one of the forms to feature the words “Department of Homeland Security” written prominently atop it. Yet it did.

Why, you might wonder, is the identity of the arts and entertainment reporter for a couple of central Connecticut dailies considered a homeland security matter? Good question. Turns out it’s not just my identity they’re worried about; that Homeland Security document is the standard citizenship form everyone in America must fill out to take a job.

It probably makes sense for Homeland Security to keep track of such folks as nuclear-plant operators and secret-weapon manufacturers. The wrong person in a job such as that could cause serious damage. But art reporters? Retail workers? Every single job in America? How does Homeland Security find time to root out actual terrorist threats when they’re keeping files on every teenage Taco Bell employee in the country?

I can’t answer that question; I’m still struggling to figure out why three ounces of shampoo in a flier’s carry-on luggage is fine, while four ounces is a terrorist threat worthy of confiscation. But I have a theory. Maybe “national security” is just a catch-all excuse to justify government involvement in even the most minute aspects of ordinary American lives.

Think I’m kidding? Then consider this: Ten years ago, I would’ve laughed at anyone paranoid enough to say the federal government would claim jurisdiction over the toiletries I take on vacation with me. Today they can laugh at me for doubting them instead.

But I’m drifting away from my original point, which is: My presence here at the newspaper in no way threatens the safety of our country. Though this has more to do with editorial vigilance than anything Homeland Security’s up to. Fact is, I’ve been trying to hide secret security-threat messages in most of the stories I write, but whenever I do this, the damned editor and his so-called “improvements” ruin it every time.

For example, I tried giving one recent story the headline:

popular WEekend

AT The blACK

hisTOry MOnth aRRt shOW

The editor changed this to “Art exhibit reports high Saturday turnout,” then called me into his office and made tsk-tsk finger gestures while he lectured me about brevity, spelling, proper capitalization and other things I’m professionally obligated to care about. I responded with a finger gesture of my own, though I waited until after he’d turned his back.

In other news, unemployment rates have risen again, as the American economy shed another few dozen thousand jobs last month. Which is a terrible strain for the newly unemployed, but consider the silver lining framing those dark economic clouds: with less jobs for the government to keep track of, maybe they’ll have time to pay attention when the next “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside The U.S.” memo lands on some overworked security officer’s desk.

It's Time To Wake Up And Smell The Marijuana

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 8, 2009


Remember in “The Wizard of Oz” when Toto tugged at the curtain and revealed the fraudulent, unsustainable nature of Emerald City’s whole wizard-centric way of running things? For some reason that image occurs to me whenever our fine elected officials give their latest “My fellow Americans, regarding the economy, we’re screwed” speech.

Of course we are. Economies based on unpayable debts, rulers claiming fake magic powers — sooner or later, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” stops working, so you witness the “Come out and fess up” stage instead.

It happened in Connecticut last week. Things are so bad here, our governor went on TV to speechify the state’s economic woes. (Note to out-of-staters: This was a big deal because it’s the first televised speech she’s given in her four and a half years as governor. M. Jodi Rell usually prefers communicating with the masses via more traditional methods, like parade appearances.)

State tax revenues dropped sharply because people have less money to tax, which means they can’t afford another tax increase. Rell, to her credit, said she recognizes that. No tax hikes, she says, but budget cuts will be “painful” and require “sacrifice.”

She later noted, “We can do with fewer laws on the books.”

Amen. I personally favor a constitutional amendment mandating zero-growth legal codes: For every law enacted, an old one must be repealed.

Meanwhile, we’d save lots of money with the proposal of state lawmakers Martin Looney and Toni Harp of New Haven, who suggested following Massachusetts’ lead in decriminalizing marijuana on the grounds that we can’t afford to keep arresting and prosecuting people who use it.

The monetary cost is high enough. There’s also the question of whether an ostensibly free country should have the world’s highest prison population. One-fourth of the world’s prisoners are serving time in the United States, and half of all American prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges. That’s one-eighth of the planet’s prison population whose only crime was using or selling intoxicants no worse — and in many ways better — than alcohol.

If you think marijuana should remain illegal, then repeat after me: “America should take more than 40 percent of its adults, and 50 percent of its high school students by the time they reach graduation, and put them in prison. They all deserve criminal records.”

Seriously, that’s a conservative statistic of how many Americans have violated marijuana laws. Generally via smoking it. Often more than once. Most of us turned out fine.

If full enforcement of a law requires arresting and prosecuting nearly half of a country’s 300 million people, does this suggest something inherently wrong with the law? Or does it instead argue for the selective enforcement we have now, where poor and dark-skinned offenders become “drug felons” while their paler and wealthier cousins largely escape police notice?

Now a practical question. If a decriminalization bill passes the legislature, will Rell sign or veto it? In 2007 she vetoed medical marijuana, which is why Connecticut still prosecutes and imprisons sick people for treating themselves with the “wrong” medicine.

But these prosecutions happened before the economy entered meltdown mode. The threat of statewide financial collapse might change Jodi Rell’s mind where simple human compassion did not.

Belligerent Design Left Her In The Snow

originally published February 1, 2009 in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald


The theory of Belligerent Design states that the universe was created by an intelligent being with a chip on his shoulder, who takes his aggression out on hapless humans such as you and me.

This theory isn’t taught in schools, due to opposition from the so-called scientific community over the lack of so-called evidence, but there’s no reason science and belligerent design can’t co-exist. Science concerns itself with “how” things happen. Belligerent design explains “why.”

For example, a scientist can tell you how natural forces such as evaporation, wind currents and temperature gradients combine to make winter storms like the one we had last week, which started off with snowfall before switching to ice that froze itself onto everything it touched.

But science can’t explain why — this is true — the snow-to-ice switch happened at the exact moment I started shoveling snow off my car to get to work. Science is also silent regarding why, when I left work that night, I spent 20 minutes chipping my car out from a block of solid ice, and the second I finished, the temperatures rose above freezing so the remaining ice melted off all by itself.

This was not coincidence. These were the actions of a belligerent designer.

Another reason I wholeheartedly embrace the theory of BD is that the alternative — at least for me — is admitting my problems are my own fault.

I swear, leaving the Southland and moving to Connecticut specifically for the weather sounded like a great idea when I first conceived it, on a hot August night after college when I drove home from a friend’s party at 2 a.m. and the bank-clock thermometers read 92 degrees.

“I’d rather have cold weather than hot,” my deluded young self explained to her friends as she boxed up her worldly possessions and moved north. “If you’re too cold you can always put on another sweater, but if it’s too hot you can only strip down so far before you start looking indecent.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to winter than dressing for the cold. I thought I understood that. “There’s nothing more picturesque than a New England landscape after a fresh snowfall!” I gushed. “Not like the gray, dreary rain we get down here. I’d rather have the snow.”

Idiot. I based this theory partially on fond memories of living here as a child. Sledding downhill on white blankets of snow before coming indoors to drink steaming hot cocoa … turns out the best way to appreciate the beauty of a Connecticut winter is to move away from it when you’re 6 and then, years later, when you’re all grown up and living in Virginia and it’s 92 degrees at 2 a.m., you can dream of northern climes and make a terrible decision ultimately leading to indignities such as the ones I suffered last week.

Not until too late did I realize my 6-year-old self had always been too young to drive and too short to scrape ice off the windshield. What did she know of winter? Nothing of relevance to adults.

The moral of the story is, don’t base important life decisions on your memories of first grade. But if you do anyway, Belligerent Design theory teaches that this is the Creator’s fault, not yours, for belligerently designing the human brain to make childhood memories so untrustworthy.

Spending And Saving, Saving And Spending

originally published January 18, 2009 in the New Britain Herald, Bristol Press and Middletown Press


You know those free online e-mail accounts where you’re guaranteed no-cost access from every Internet connection in the world in exchange for being constantly pummeled by annoying flash ads, fluffhead celebrity news links and the occasional virus attack that crashes your entire hard drive?

I have one, and in recent days it’s been impossible to check my messages without seeing headlines raving about the hot new fashion trend gaining popularity in today’s pre-Depression economy: Shop your closet.

In other words, ladies (and a few gentlemen, too): Instead of buying new clothes, just wear the ones you’ve already got. It’s easy if you’re a grown-up who’s worn the same size for several years now.

Fashion writers didn’t invent “Shop your closet”; they gave the name to a trend already in existence. More Americans every day are shopping their closets, attics and even local food banks, because the economy keeps creating more people whose only choices are “shop your closet” and “don’t shop at all.”

I’m all set for clothes these days, so these articles tell me nothing I don’t know already. What would really help my finances is a story explaining how, if you’d like to save gas money and the Earth by driving a hybrid, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars because you can just “shop your garage.”

Except I don’t have one, since I live in an apartment. Even with a garage, I doubt I could reach in back and find some adorable little automotive ensemble I forgot I had. Neither can you, unless you belong to that tiny minority of Americans who own automotive junkyards.

But that’s good. If all car buyers could just shop their garage, the auto industry would demand more bailout money and when tax time came, you’d pay for it anyway. Since the garment industry hasn’t asked for a bailout yet, you can still safely shop your closet.

If too many people do this, however, our economy will sink even lower. Behold a paradox: You, personally, are better off if you have low spending, high savings and no debt. So is everyone else you know. But such habits provide none of the gasoline needed to keep our consumer-based economic engine running.

Picture two mirrors set up to reflect endless images into each other: one labeled “As more people lose jobs and investments, fewer can afford to buy things,” and the other “As fewer people can afford to buy things, more lose investments and jobs.”

It almost makes your conscience hurt, to think your economic survival runs counter to the common good. Is that an indictment of you or the system?

Things were easier after 9/11. Remember when Americans asked “What can we do as individuals to strike back against the terrorists who attacked our country” and the president said, “Go shopping?”

I bought socks the Saturday after the attack. I’d noticed, in the waning days of the pre-9/11 era, that my old socks were pretty stretched out, so when I replaced them it was very empowering to think “These socks won’t just keep my feet warm this winter, they strike a blow in defense of freedom and Western civilization. Take that, Osama!”

But there’s no way President Bush — or the President Obama we’ll have this Tuesday — can tell contemporary Americans “Buy more things and we’ll be fine.”

Meanwhile, I need warm socks because there’s a bone-numbing cold snap freezing my little corner of New England. I’ll shop my sock drawer to see if I have any old freedom socks left.

Bureaucratic Blunder Gets Into Your Pocket

originally published in the New Britain Herald, Middletown Press and Bristol Press, January 11, 2009

With the economy careening toward Great Depression 2.0, socially responsible writers like me produce helpful news-you-can-use articles in the “How to save money for the tough times ahead” genre. So here goes: Clip coupons, brown bag your lunches, turn down the heat and put a sweater on.

And a bonus tip for parents whose children are in their “growing like a weed” phase (birth through college): Since your kids outgrow their outfits every three months anyway, you can save a bundle by shopping at consignment stores, thrift shops and other used-stuff emporiums.

Until Feb. 10. That’s the day a law called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act is slated to come into force and effectively make it illegal to sell used clothing, toys or any other item for children below age 12. Goodbye, Goodwill. Sayonara, Salvation Army. Farewell, flea market.

What the law actually requires is that all such products for sale first be tested for lead and other harmful chemicals. If you’re a large, established company with an enormous operating budget, this’ll be inconvenient, but at least you can probably afford it. If you’re a little mom-and-pop business, a startup on a shoestring or a charity thrift store subsisting on donations, you probably cannot.

So if the law isn’t changed, on Feb. 10 all untested children’s clothes and toys for sale in new and secondhand shops across America will be legally deemed “hazardous waste” and dumped into landfills.

This is to protect The Children. Remember the thousand or so “poison Chinese consumer product” stories you saw last year? And all the outraged Americans who demanded government do something about them?

Government did. If you watch pharmaceutical commercials, you know that any prescription comes with nasty side effects, and it’s just too bad the prescription “Test every children’s item sold” has the side effect “Drive everyone out of business except the big chain stores and manufacturers.”

To lawmakers’ credit, they had the grace to act embarrassed when small at-home clothing and toy makers said these testing costs would drive them out of business. So there’s talk of exempting all-natural items, such as cotton or wool, from the test mandates. But no exemption for artificial materials such as synthetic dyes and polyester threads that are still found in every kid’s item in America. No exemption for hand-me-downs, either.

The Act passed unanimously in the House of Representatives (all five of Connecticut’s Congresscritters voted for it) and by an overwhelming majority in the Senate (both of Connecticut’s Senators voted for it) before President Bush signed it into law (at least he’s leaving).

So if you’re happy with the child-safety boost scheduled for February, make sure you call your elected officials and express your gratitude. “Thanks for driving up the cost of new items and making the sale of used ones impossible,” you can say. “And thanks for giving big retailers a boost, too. Obliterating the competition ought to help their bottom line.”

Perhaps the politicians — or their flunkies assigned to speak with constituents — will harrumph and tell you, “We’re looking into it. We didn’t realize how far-reaching this law actually was.” In which case you can reply, “Oh. Thanks for voting on a law without knowing what the hell you voted for, then.” And if you’re feeling double-extra-super grateful, you can add, “No wonder Congress voted itself a pay raise last year. You guys deserve it.”

You May Have Survived, But It Isn't Over

Originally published in the Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, January 4, 2009


The last presidential election was also the first one with voters too young to personally remember the 1980s. But this newly voting generation grew up hearing their elders speak of a decade dominated by mullet haircuts, Reaganomics and gory slasher flicks featuring a maniac who slices and diced his way through dozens of sexy (despite the mullets) teenagers until one of them finally manages to kill the maniac instead.

Of course, by the time this happens, the maniac’s already murdered most of the characters in the movie. There’s only one or two left at the end, but you get the idea that they’ll turn out all right: “Now that the Bad Man’s gone, our troubles are over.”

Too bad things don’t work that way in the nonmovie world. Imagine the real-life survivor of an ’80s slasher spree trying to explain this to the police: “I know I’m drenched in blood that isn’t mine, and there’s a lot of fresh corpses in that abandoned summer camp just behind me, but I swear: It was the serial killer you thought you gunned down umpty-squat years ago this very night. Or the evil school janitor who died in a fire and kills kids in their dreams.”

Cops almost never fall for stories like that. So if I were a character in an ’80s horror flick and managed to outlive the psycho killer and make it to the end credits, I’d turn to my surviving friends and say “The Bad Man is gone, but we’re still in a world of hurt.”

Which, coincidentally, is exactly how I feel when contemplating the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. Granted, I expect he’ll do a much better job than his predecessor. Of course, I’d say the same thing if America elected a Magic 8 Ball with half its fluid leaked out.

“Look here, Mr. President, another wad of Congressional legislation just plopped onto your desk. Do you want to sign it into law?” [Shake clunk shake clunk shake clunk] “‘Ask again later.’ Ah, you want to give it some thought, do you? That’s an encouraging sign. Especially considering all the troubles our country faces.”

But they’re not the sort of troubles you can relate to in an ’80s slasher movie. Contemporary American problems hearken back to the 1970s, the decade in which our country had to admit failure in a foreign war while our domestic economy and international prestige levels went straight to hell, followed closely by horror-movie writers in search of inspiration.

That’s why ’70s characters had it worse than their ’80s counterparts. “All right, I made it to the end of the script, but I still live in a world where the devil regularly possesses little girls or takes over a suburban home or knocks up a housewife with the Antichrist. And there’s earthquakes and sharks and ships that tip over, too.”

Problems such as these won’t vanish just because you get rid of one man. Neither will the problems facing America today.

Then again, the first time Americans faced ’70s-style problems, we were also cursed with ’70s-style presidents. Maybe this time we’ll get lucky.

Job-Hunting Tip: Sell Your Soul To Satan

originally published as "Who do you call to get a better job?" Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, December 28, 2008


The other night I tried selling my soul to Satan in exchange for a secure, fulfilling job offering a decent salary and opportunities for advancement (yes, America, that is what it takes nowadays).

Unfortunately, the growing world economic crisis has even hurt the soul market. With so many souls offered for sale, prices are dropping even faster than the real estate and stock markets combined. Forget about making a profit on any sales; you’ll be lucky if you get enough to cancel out your losses.

“I’m cutting back on personal spending these days,” the Devil said to me. “Who isn’t? If you’re selling your soul for a job, the most I can afford to offer right now is a temp gig warming office seats for big-industry CEOs while they fly to Congress to collect their bailout checks. Pays 20 bucks an hour plus travel costs. No bennies.”

I’m not desperate enough to even consider such an insulting offer. Yet. “Come back in a few months,” I told him. “Maybe I should see how the new year and new president work out, before committing to anything drastic.”

“Suit yourself,” Satan said. “The longer you wait to sell, the less you’ll get when you do. And that’s not even counting what inflation will do to the value of the dollar. C’mon. I can have you on a plane flying to Detroit tomorrow. Just sign here.”

But I shook my head, in lieu of saying “No,” and Lucifer vanished in a sulfurous puff of smoke.

The moral of this story is: Don’t try selling your soul to Satan, because whatever he offers won’t be worth it. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea.

The idea of leading a major company, I mean. I don’t suppose anyone reading this belongs to the board of directors of some huge corporation looking to hire a high-ranking executive officer? If so, look no further than me.

Granted, I have no idea how to run such a business. If you put me at the helm of your company, I’ll probably drive it into the ground, flush its stock value down the toilet and add most of its work force to the unemployment rolls.

What everyone else is doing, in other words. So why hire me instead of them?

Most corporate executives who trash their companies charge hundreds of millions of dollars each year for their services. I’m willing to trash your company for a mere half-million, plus health and dental.

This enormous salary differential could shore up your stock value. Preserve hundreds of jobs. Or fund your next round of executive bonuses and corporate retreats in Maui.

Also: I am a woman who was raised in the South. This means I know how to shed realistic-looking tears on demand. Maybe I can use this skill to finagle an extra few hundred billion out of the (mostly male) members of Congress when I visit Washington and tell them why the taxpayers need to pay for my company’s bailout.

Of course, “Trashing the economy and using taxpayer money to do it” is the sort of job you can’t take unless you sell your soul first. I’ll call Satan again tomorrow morning.

Soldiers In The War On Christmas

Originally published as "Tis the season of many holidays," Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, December 21, 2008


Happy Holidays! If you’re naïve, you read that and thought, “How nice. The writer’s expressing a goodwill message to all of her readers who celebrate various religious or secular winter-themed festivals this time of year.”

Which is ridiculous. When you see “Happy holidays” in December, the sane and savvy default interpretation is, “That’s a deliberate slap in the face of every good American who celebrates Christmas.”

Seriously, Christmas-tree owners, “Happy holidays” insults us all. And I’m not just saying that because I drank too much spiked eggnog; I’m saying it because I drank too much spiked eggnog while watching TV pundits and stop-animation specials pontificate about the War on Christmas.

Balls and nutcrackers! That wasn’t an epithet; I’m cataloguing the Christmas decorations on display in my house. Balls, nutcrackers, stockings and a tree. This is the nth consecutive year I’ve celebrated the holiday, and TV shows about how it’s threatened are part of my annual tradition.

Sometimes Christmas is in danger because there’s a fog so dense Santa can’t fly through it unless Rudolph with his nose so bright agrees to guide the sleigh that night. Or perhaps Christmas hinges on whether it snows in Southtown, and it looks like the Heat Miser won’t let it.

While flipping through the channels this year I heard Christmas Warrior Bill O’Reilly announce a new threat: mean scary people in America want to repeal Christmas as a federal holiday, and make everybody work instead.

Was this before or after Burgermeister Meisterburger outlawed toys in Sombertown? I don’t remember; these cartoon Christmas threats all blend together after awhile. Either way, I’m sure something will save the day before the last commercial break, and O’Reilly will still get to celebrate Christmas with his family.

That said, if life really does imitate children’s holiday specials, I don’t want to side with the bad guys. So why didn’t I start this column with “Merry Christmas,” rather than insult you with “Happy Holidays?” God knows, given the current state of the newspaper industry, writers like me can ill afford to insult our readers.

But I also can’t afford to insult my friends, especially not the ones who invited me to parties celebrating “Hanukkah” or “Eid” or “the solstice” or whatever. I’m not picky, this time of year; friends are friends and a party is a party, no matter which holiday justifies it.

That said, I’m glad that my parents refused when my childhood self asked them to convert to Judaism so we could have eight days of Christmas every year. Not all holidays are created equal, and “We had a day’s worth of lamp oil last over a week” doesn’t compare to “Santa Claus comes down the chimney and gives you cool stuff.”

The problem with Hanukkah is that the whole “eight days of lamplight” thing stopped being impressive once humanity discovered electricity. Nobody cares about lamp oil anymore. The holiday would hold more appeal for modern Americans if it switched focus so that a day’s worth of gasoline lasted over a week. And the menorahs and dreidels could be decked out with festive strings of colored light bulbs shaped like little gas stations.

Wow. That last paragraph might be the single most offensive thing I’ve ever written. Especially to embattled soldiers in the War on Christmas, under fire from annoying reminders that other people celebrate winter holidays, too.

Of Shooting Galleries And Gun-Free Zones

Originally published as "Who has advantage in a Gun-Free Zone?", Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, December 14, 2008


You know those amusement-park shooting galleries where you use an air rifle to knock down multiple rows of moving mechanical ducks? The way they work is, you shoot at the targets all you want, and none of the targets can shoot back.

Most schools and workplaces operate on the same principle. Aside from that, they’re quite different from arcade gun ranges. When you read about shooting sprees in gun-free zones, you’ll notice that the shooters wield weapons far more lethal than any air rifle. And they don’t fire at plastic ducks, either.

Behold one of the great paradoxes of modern criminal psychology: Signs that say things such as “This is a gun-free zone” or “Guns are absolutely not allowed here” don’t deter the sort of people who are already ignoring society’s much-stricter prohibitions against mass murder.

Too bad. Gun-free shootings are common enough that English has evolved clichés to describe them: post-office fatalities gave Americans the phrase “Going postal,” while “School shooting” even has its own Wikipedia entry.

But don’t panic. School shootings that lead to fatalities occur in America roughly once every two months, on average. That’s statistically negligible, in a country of more than 300 million. Even when you add office and workplace shootings to the equation, you’re still more likely to die in a car accident than from a bullet fired in a gun-free zone.

Yet the shootings draw interest in ways that car accidents don’t. Why’s that? Maybe the sense of legally enforced helplessness has something to do with it. Accidents happen all the time. Everyone accepts that. As for deliberate attacks ... it’s unlikely some nut on the highway will come gunning for you in his car. But if one does, well, at least you’d be in a car, too. There’s no defensive-driving equivalent to the gun-free zone, no legal requirement that grants attackers advantages over their victims.

And no shortage of well-meaning people who think disarming law-abiding citizens will make it harder for criminals to shoot people.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “the right to keep and bear arms.” Of all freedoms in the Bill of Rights, it’s the only one that Americans can’t legally exercise without written permission from the government. If you’re looking to get this permission for yourself, I can’t tell you how to do it, since the requirements vary from state to state and even city to city.

But whatever the gun laws in your locality, I can tell you this: If you’re unlucky enough to get shot, the guy who did it was probably ignoring those laws anyway.

No matter how many speeches a politician gives in favor of gun control, it’s a safe bet that his own bodyguards are still packing heat. Even if he’s giving a speech at a school or post office or other gun-free zone. The Secret Service and other professional-bodyguard types apparently don’t trust the ability of “No guns allowed” signs to keep shooters from hitting their targets.

That’s the difference between public servants and the public they serve. Our servants’ lives are considered much too valuable to risk in a gun-free zone.

Unreasonable Search In This Free Country

Originally published in the Bristol Press, Middletown Press and New Britain Herald, December 7, 2008


Click it or ticket. And pity my old junior high civics teacher, for if he’s still in the education biz he’s had to write all-new lesson plans. The ones he used to teach my class about the Constitution and its amendments are obsolete.

For example: When he explained the prohibitions against “unreasonable searches and seizures” without “probable cause” (segue here into lesson about search warrants), he led a class discussion in which we mentioned the police checkpoints we saw on old movies showcasing the unpleasantness of life under the Nazis or Soviets.

But not in America. This is a Free Country — you could hear my teacher pronounce the capital letters, when he said that — and one benefit of living in a Free Country is this: Unless government has good reason to suspect you, personally, of wrongdoing, they have to leave you alone. And “You’re traveling on a public thoroughfare” doesn’t count as probable cause.

Civics teachers can’t say that anymore. And I’m dating myself by telling you this story; my classes obviously took place before 1990, when the Supreme Court decided that American police could hold checkpoints so long as the cops agreed to first say “We’re looking for drunken drivers” (though they can still keep, rather than toss back, any other fish swept up in their net).

Americans who live within 100 miles of an international border have been driving through checkpoints since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed police to have them so long as cops agreed to first say “We’re looking for illegal immigrants.” This Fourth Amendment rollback failed to result in a situation where Americans 33 years later could think, “Wow, sure is nice living in a country where illegal immigration’s not a problem,” but the courts still continued adding to the list of acceptable checkpoint excuses. Nowadays, even pippy-poo excuses such as “We’re looking for unbuckled seat belts” are justification for cops to ignore the probable-cause clause.

And brag about it on billboards and TV. Click it or Ticket. Over the Limit, Under Arrest.

As a frequent driver who lives in Connecticut, I’ve lost track of how many checkpoint encounters I’ve had the past five years. Even when the cops see I’m all sober and buckled up, they still grill me about what I’m doing and where I’m going, since driving at rush hour, or 8 p.m. on a Friday, now qualifies as probable cause.

Check out this excerpt from a recent news story about a seat belt checkpoint in the little town of Plainville: “The police department concluded the two-week national Click It or Ticket Campaign [and] conducted 36 safety checkpoints ... which resulted in 277 enforcement actions.”

No mention of how many hundreds or thousands of drivers were affected when police sealed off the roads and let traffic back up while everybody waited their turn to prove they’re behaving themselves. But the cops admitted writing 230 tickets for seat-belt irregularities and another 47 for violations such as using a cell phone or lacking proof of insurance.

What would my old civics teacher have said, had my gawky young adolescent self raised her hand and told him, “When I grow up, I’ll live in a country where police brag about traffic checkpoints where they snagged some people with outdated registration paperwork. No, the cops won’t have Russian or German accents; I’ll still live in America”?

Probably sent me to the principal’s office for being a smartass.

Prosecutions Can Be The Real Drug Crimes

Originally published in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 30, 2008


The good thing about drug crimes, as opposed to crimes such as (for example) murder, is that if you committed any in your youth, nobody cares when your adult self admits this. Society still frowns on those who say, “Yeah, back in school I used to kill people every weekend,” but admitting an equally frequent history of illegal drug use won’t necessarily stop you from having a successful career or being elected president of the United States.

Barack Obama set a historic precedent: the first American presidential candidate to openly admit “Yes, I did inhale. And drink. And even snort,” and still get elected. But woe unto him if his detractors ever learn the secret of time travel, because they will destroy his entire career before it starts, telling some late-1970s cop “That Barry Obama kid’s using illegal intoxicants. Go get him.”

Somewhere in a parallel universe, the teenage Barack Obama got arrested for one of his numerous drug-law violations. Alterna-Obama spent his young adulthood making license plates and fending off attacks in prison shower rooms. He got out on parole a few years ago, but hasn’t amounted to much. (In that universe, as in ours, most good jobs are off-limits to convicted felons.) Your parallel-universe counterpart never heard of him.

In our reality, Obama’s drug use never attracted police attention, so he turned out fine. He even got elected president, on a platform of “change,” though it’s a safe bet he won’t change our policy of imprisoning people who committed the same crimes, if not lesser ones, that he did.

Intoxicants other than alcohol have been illegal in America for more than four generations now. The rationale is that drugs destroy lives, so the government figures that instead of giving drugs the chance to destroy your life, you should let prison do it for you.

It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop, which can be very stressful, so the law just grabs the shoe and beats you senseless with it right now.

Barack Obama, like this columnist, was lucky: Our youthful selves never got caught violating the various state and federal drug laws we broke. So we both outgrew our habits without a criminal record tarnishing our names, and nowadays, instead of committing crimes of intoxication, we stick to perfectly legal alcohol.

So long as you’re over 21 (Obama wasn’t when he started drinking), you can legally booze up until you throw up and pass out on your bathroom floor. The only exception was in the 1920s, when Prohibition led to the rise of bootlegger gangsters as vicious as the worst Colombian drug lords of today.

Until booze became legal again, at which point respectable businessmen re-entered the market and the whole gangster bootlegging business collapsed.

But Prohibition crimes, like drug crimes, are considered harmless when they’re in the past rather than the present. This is especially noticeable if you watch movies, which portray drug dealers as scary, violent types, whereas bootleggers were charming, handsome businessmen such as John F. Kennedy’s dad or “the Great Gatsby” played by young Robert Redford.

The respectability of bootleggers past is also seen in sports such as NASCAR, which got its start when backwoods moonshiners souped up their autos to escape pursuit by cops and revenue agents, predecessors to today’s Drug Enforcement Administration. Perhaps in 80 years there will be an equally popular sport that got its start when ingenious smugglers devised ever-more-clever airtight compartments in which to hide pungent contraband from drug-sniffing dogs.

How To End Either Global Warming Or The Affordable-Healthcare Crisis

Originally published as "Let's swap the roles of health, car insurers," Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 23, 2008


During the recent presidential election, two issues got a lot of coverage: America’s affordable-health care crisis, and that whole mess about global warming and carbon emissions. Fortunately, I’ve discovered a plan that will completely eliminate one of these problems.

Unfortunately, solving one problem will make the other worse. But that shouldn’t bother American voters, since they’re already accustomed to choosing between the lesser of two evils.

I discovered the plan while visiting my doctor — sorry, my “primary care physician” — for one of those good-health checkups insurance companies pay for once a year. A standard visit: half an hour filling out paperwork, 25 minutes alone in an examination room, three minutes with my doctor and a stethoscope, plus a couple weeks’ worth of time and phone calls getting the appointment in the first place.

The co-pay cost me $30. I have no idea how much my doctor billed the HMO.

Later that afternoon, I decided to get my car’s oil changed. No problem: drove to the first quick-lube shop I saw, waited 10 minutes and paid $25.

Anyway, here’s my Health Care or Environmental Salvation plan: Ordinary Americans will be able to afford medical costs by getting coverage through their car-insurance companies. Conversely, to end carbon emissions (by making driving too expensive for ordinary Americans to afford), let the HMOs handle auto insurance, too.

The great thing about car insurance companies is that you only deal with them for big-ticket items and handle everyday maintenance yourself. This makes automotive care affordable for almost everybody, which leads to more driving and more pollution.

Unless the HMOs handle it. Need an oil change? Then call your primary car mechanic and make an appointment through his secretary to determine that your car does, indeed, need an oil change, and you’ll be allowed to schedule a visit to an oil-care specialist three weeks from next Tuesday (don’t forget to ask your boss for time off work), and your mechanic bills the HMO some huge amount but your co-pay is only $25, plus another $20 for your primary car mechanic visit.

What happens when your tires start going bald? Once your PCM confirms this diagnosis in writing, the insurance company will pay for a new set at the tire shop five towns over from where you live (i.e., the nearest one belonging to your HMO’s automotive provider network. The other 19 tire shops in your area are off-limits to you).

Of course, if you want to buy a new car, you’ll need your PCM to check it over and look for pre-existing conditions. If the car’s in less-than-perfect shape, you might not qualify for coverage at all. Sucks to be you.

And let’s not forget gasoline! It’s extremely dangerous when used improperly, so instead of allowing folks to buy it willy-nilly, it’ll be prescribed on a need-only basis. Since you’re not legally responsible enough to determine that need on your own, your primary car mechanic will authorize how much gas you need, which station you can buy it from, the proper octane rating and whether you really need gas at all.

That said, you can get around the need-only restrictions if you’re friends with a mechanic who might be persuaded to prescribe you some gas for purely recreational purposes. Though if you try this, you both run the risk of arrest and prison time. The government takes recreational prescription use very seriously.

Conspiracy Theorists Gear Up For Obama

Originally published in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 16, 2008


The problem with conspiracy theorists is that they funnel so much attention onto individual trees, they completely miss the reality of the forest.

Consider the 9/11 Truth movement. Bush and Cheney have spent nearly eight years arguing that the American government should be allowed to do things such as torture people, spy on citizens without warrants, lock them away without trial and other frighteningly unconstitutional acts. Worth complaining about, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the Truthers have focused on the best ways to uncover a complex conspiracy involving radical America-hating Muslims who committed a mass-suicide fake terrorist attack as a favor to America’s president, thus giving the Great Satan an excuse to consolidate power over his own people and invade a Middle Eastern country with rich oil fields.

The idea, admittedly, has a certain appeal. It would have been comforting, during the gloomiest days of the Bush administration, to think “At least the country’s being led by brilliant Machiavellian geniuses who know exactly what they’re doing.”

Or maybe “stupid Machiavellian geniuses” is more accurate. At some point, the conspirators still said to each other: “When we bring down the World Trade Center, it’ll give us an excuse to invade Iraq. We’ll blame it on a bunch of suicidal fanatic hijackers. But we’ll have to say they were Saudi hijackers, because there’s no way we could get hold of any fake Iraqi passports for a conspiracy of this magnitude.”

Too bad Cheney never thought to hire a copy editor. Someone with a sharp eye, who could’ve pointed out irregularities that the American public might find suspicious. (This writer was qualified and available at the time.)

But that’s a digression. Point is, the 9/11 movement will likely shift its attention away from the White House once Bush leaves it. Fortunately, President-elect Obama won’t suffer any deprivation, since he’s busy with conspiracies of his own.

The right-wing parts of the Internet claim Obama isn’t merely America’s first nonwhite president, but our first illegal immigrant radical Muslim Marxist terrorist president as well. To summarize the arguments for his preemptive impeachment:


And that’s without even playing the race card.

Are any of these allegations true? America can only hope so. Obama’s probably not capable of demolishing the World Trade Center and fooling the world about who did — that requires the genius of a George W. Bush, possibly with an Illuminati/Mossad connection — but if we’re lucky, he is at least smart enough to have spent several years serving as a U.S. senator without anyone realizing he’s secretly been an Indonesian citizen all along.

He was a precocious little chap, too, bribing some obscure Hawaiian court clerk to alter his birth certificate while still just an infant. That bodes well for us. America’s in bad shape these days. We need a leader with wisdom, foresight and maturity beyond his years, and if half these anti-Obama conspiracy theories are true, he’ll do fine.

Smuggling Six Ounces Onto A Plane? Easy.

Originally published in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 9, 2008


Three is a popular fairy-tale number: three bears, three wishes, third time’s the charm, and three ounces is the most shampoo frequent flyers can haul in their carry-on bags without terrorists hijacking the plane.

That last example’s not just a fairy tale; it’s an official United States Government anti-terrorism policy in effect since 2006, when the Transportation Security Administration first implemented its airport Rule of Three.

That’s the rule saying you can’t have more than three ounces of shampoo, hairspray, conditioner or any other liquid or gelatinous grooming product on an airplane. These items, along with such others as suntan lotion, bug repellent and moisturizer, must conform to the Rule of Three or else share space on the same TSA forbidden-danger list that includes dynamite, hand grenades and flare guns.

Confession: We committed a federal crime. Last time we flew out of state, we violated national security by smuggling nine ounces of shampoo — six over the limit — in our carry-on bag. We hid the shampoo in plain sight; two TSA agents looked right at it and said nothing. Now we wonder: Would it be ethical for us to tell you how we broke federal law and got away with it?

Tough call. What if somebody reading this turns out to be a terrorist who wants to blow up an airplane but needs nine ounces of shampoo to do it? And since the TSA will only let him have three he’s all discouraged and sad and about to give up, until he does an online search for “Shampoo-smuggling techniques” and finds this column here.

The government says a lot of people could die if we share our smuggling expertise with you.

Or maybe not. On Oct. 2, TSA director Kip Hawley announced that the agency might suspend the Rule of Three next year, if they’re allowed to buy some expensive scanning equipment first. So if we get in trouble for disseminating knowledge in violation of the anti-terrorism laws, we can just look innocent and say “Oops! That column wasn’t supposed to run until next year, or whenever Kip Hawley in his infinite wisdom decided to end the Rule of Three because under his leadership America became strong enough to handle the threat of clean-haired vacationers. Who let this go to print early? It’s probably some intern’s fault. Or the editor’s. Definitely not ours, though.”

So we’ll tell you the secret (if you’re an overprotective parent, have your kids leave the room now): The way to carry nine ounces of shampoo onto an airplane in violation of the Rule of Three is to decant it into multiple small bottles of less than three ounces each.

And we did.

We used a variety so TSA wouldn’t get suspicious: Two ounces in a bottle whose label proclaimed it to be the complimentary hand lotion found in hotel bathrooms. Another 1.5 in a “Hand Sanitizer” jar. Two ounces honestly identified as the shampoo they were. And so on.

The woman ahead of us in the screening line carried only five ounces of shampoo, but TSA confiscated it anyway because it was in a single five-ounce bottle. Our nine ounces made it through just fine because we, unlike that woman, are self-taught hazmat experts who know how to safely transport shampoo through American airspace — in dribs and drabs that don’t combine to break the Rule of Three.

Gay Marriage: A Threat To Traditional Marriage, Or Whatever

(originally published as "Change in Constitution Won't Change Marriage," Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 2, 2008)


The other day we almost went to our Significant Other and said, "I love you, honey. Wouldn't it be nice if we got married?"

But we didn’t, because the last time we said that some other people started shouting “No! This horrible, unholy union must be stopped, even if it takes a Constitutional amendment to stop it. Allowing this travesty of a marriage would destroy everything we hold dear!”

Luckily, the only folks who say this are our parents. Nobody else in America cares if we get hitched or not, and they certainly don’t suggest amending any state- or country-level constitutions to keep us in perpetual bachelorhood.

That’s because we’re heterosexuals, defined as “people who want to marry folks with completely different sets of certain gender-specific body parts we can’t talk about in a family newspaper like this one, so for propriety’s sake we’re not going to define it.”

Being heterosexual also means we have no interest in getting same-sex married, so we were very concerned on Oct. 10 when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that equal-protection clauses in the state Constitution apply to state-granted marriage privileges, too. No more civil unions. Marriages for all.

What does this mean? The Family Institute of Connecticut explained on its blog: “We are up against powerful interests who are thrilled to have a bare majority of unelected judges undemocratically force same-sex ‘marriage’ on Connecticut.”

Of course, if anyone amends the state Constitution to specifically forbid same-sex marriages, that would invalidate the state court’s ruling allowing them.

That’s why the Family Institute wants Nutmeggers to vote “Yes” on Election Day, in demanding that Connecticut host another constitutional convention.

“The Family Institute calls same-sex marriage ‘judicial tyranny!’” we said. “Sounds ominous. What’ll we do now that the court is forcing same-sex marriage on us?” We paused to consider the implications. “Serves your parents right. Maybe they’ll realize I wasn’t such a bad catch after all.”

Our unimpressed Significant Other replied: “The gay couple down the street is upgrading from a civil union to a marriage. How does that affect us?”

“If you’d ever watch ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ you’d know that’s a foolish question,” we said. “Think how fabulous their wedding is going to be! How can we measure up to that? How can any couple measure up to that, if one of them’s a straight guy? So now when straight couples get married in Connecticut, everyone will compare them to gay weddings and think ‘Eeew, how tacky’ and that’ll cheapen respect for the entire institution of marriage.”

If ours were a healthy relationship, our Significant Other would’ve given us lots of sympathy and support right about then. But no. Instead, we got that look most people only make when they’ve heard something stupid, and spent the night sleeping on the couch.

None of this would’ve happened if not for that Supreme Court ruling. Considering how badly our own relationship was damaged after the court forced same-sex marriage on Connecticut, we hope the Family Institute succeeds in its attempts to amend the state constitution before things get any worse. Surely that will solve the problems facing marriages today.