November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Casual Observer

Casual Observer/Mark Levy

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It was a dark and stormy night when he ran up against Writer’s Block. “I should have had fewer children,” he thought, as multiple lightning strikes outside his fogged-up window failed to spark his  imagination…

 

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Successful Writers’ Secrets

by Mark Levy

 

This year’s Best American Mystery Stories anthology just arrived in the mail. In addition to the 20 best stories themselves, this issue of Best American Mystery Stories includes short biographical notes about the authors. I decided to read the bios first, since my attention span is even shorter than a short story. My hope was that I could find something most published mystery writers have in common. This would give me a clue as to what makes a writer successful. Needless to say, I had an ulterior motive for learning and applying that secret.

Sure enough, the answer leapt out at me like a bloody dagger at a crime scene. A number of authors stated they are married and have a son or daughter. The writers who didn’t mention the number of children they had might have had more or less than one kid apiece. Whatever the case, they decided not to mention that fact in their bio. Of the writers who mentioned having a family, only the ones with a single child declared themselves.

The authors had different socioeconomic backgrounds and came from different locations in the U.S. and Canada. They were ethnically diverse and represented both genders. In fact, except for writing the best stories of the year, they seemed to have nothing in common, but for the fact that some of them are the parent of an only child. I decided to investigate other writers to see how prolific they were, progeny-wise.

While Googling the topic, I discovered that Lauren Sandler, who wrote a book about children without siblings titled, ONE AND ONLY, had also already written an essay for The Atlantic magazine, observing that many women writers, like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Mary McCarthy, have only one child. There you have it. Ms. Sandler preempted me. And here I thought I was the first to discover the secret of literary success.

What a surprising but simple characteristic successful writers have in common. The key to being a proficient writer is not necessarily one’s formal education, or books one reads on writing, or where or when one writes every day, or how quickly one writes, or whether one prepares an outline prior to writing, or what one drinks and how much.

Success is based not only on an extraordinary ability to create a plot, or develop characters, or produce conflict, or rewrite a piece over and over and over, as I used to suspect, but merely on parenting one and only one child.

Lauren Sandler seems to think it may be that fewer children provide a smaller distraction for their writer parent. Or maybe the money a person saves by raising only one child — as opposed to a bunch of them — can be used to hire a babysitter.

Of course not every famous writer followed this practice. Norman Mailer and his nine children come to mind. Now Mailer had six wives, but that still averages 1.5 children per wife. You know what they say: It’s the exception that proves the rule.

Interestingly, some very good writers were only children themselves. I’m thinking of E.M. Forster, Ezra Pound, Hans Christian Anderson, John Updike, Lillian Hellman, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m not sure what that shows, except Google is really an excellent vehicle for discovering trivia, useful or otherwise.

This brings me to my struggle to become a famous novelist whose books are made into blockbuster Hollywood movies before they’re even published. My major mistake was having too many children. I have two daughters when I should have had one.

I should have evaluated whether a fulfilling life with two or more beautiful, loving, talented, accomplished daughters outweighs a career, say, as a potential Nobel Prize-winning author. That’s like saying would I rather have a cut body with an incredible six pack or be President of the United States; or would I rather have a full head of hair or be the first astronaut on Mars? It’s one of my many regrets, as you can imagine, that I can’t have great abs and luxurious hair and be the first President to visit Mars.

Now I can’t guarantee that my life would have been different if I had limited my number of children, but at least I can fantasize where I’d be if I had only one beautiful, loving, talented, accomplished daughter instead of a backup for her.

Ah well, unless I want to jeopardize my chances for visiting Mars, it’s probably too late to do anything about that now.

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About the author:

Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.”   He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.” 

October 28, 2014   Comments Off on Casual Observer/Mark Levy

Casual Observer/Mark Levy

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Nap Time

by Mark Levy

 

At the risk of putting you to sleep faster than my essays usually do, I’m going to discuss naps, those precious intervals of sleep during the day favored by the very young and, I’ve discovered, many older people including me. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey shows that one out of three adults takes a daily nap. More men do than women.

The Internet is full of advice about the advantages of napping during the work day and how to get the most out of your napping time at the office. Someone even invented an unofficial holiday called National Workplace Napping Day, to be celebrated the first Monday after the start of daylight-saving time each spring. The theory is you need a nap on that day more than any other day of the year to make up for the hour of sleep you missed the previous Sunday morning.

I would use that logic to argue for a nap the day after New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, the Fourth of July, Academy Awards night, Superbowl Day, World Series Day (all seven of them), and even Flag Day for the excessively patriotic.

Of course, not all of us work in offices. Aren’t hospital workers, professional basketball players, and retail sales clerks entitled to a nap, too? If you operated a jack hammer, for instance, I think you should be able to take a short nap every day, which would be a relief not only for you, but for the rest of us within earshot.

Taking a nap during the workday has a number of advantages, the most important one being an opportunity to be more productive afterwards. But if you wake from a nap feeling groggy and grumpy, as I usually do, you might feel productive even if all you do is stumble your way to the bathroom.

Here’s another advantage of taking a nap when you should be working: you can make up for nap time by working late, thereby avoiding the evening rush hour, which is its own reward.

Frankly, though, as much as I appreciate workday naps, I find great pleasure also in napping during the weekend. For most of us, the weekend is for recuperating after a long week of whatever it is we get paid to do. Sometimes I’m so exhausted on Saturday morning, the first thing I do upon awakening is take a nap. That way, instead of merely sleeping in all morning I feel that I’m actually accomplishing something I can brag about on the rare occasion that I’m invited to a party that night.

Napping has been good for my marriage, too. My wife is always concerned about my well being, which is why she pesters me about any number of what used to be pleasurable activities. Lethargy in front of our TV and fried chicken come to mind. Her concern for me has certainly curtailed my unhealthy behavior. But by the same token, her abnormally strong desire to keep me healthy at least until our mortgage is paid off has actually resulted in my getting out of most physical tasks from drying dishes to mowing the lawn to attending those interminable grade school music recitals. All I have to do, after beginning the activity, is clutch my heart and make a funny face and I’m excused from completing the job.

I have to admit, though, I haven’t been successful at ducking all of those so-called concerts. I know what you’re thinking, but the kids’ performances are so dreadful, no one could sleep through them.

I’m in good company as a professional napper. Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison advocated naps. So did Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, and Salvador Dali. And look what they accomplished.

Business people call them “power naps,” which elevates them to something more meaningful than what cats and dogs do at every opportunity. In fact, before the expression, “power naps” became popular, we used to call them “cat naps.”

The Mayo Clinic also thinks they’re a good idea for some people’s hearts some of the time. How’s that for a strong recommendation? Personally, I think that indicates the Mayo Clinic employs too many lawyers.

John Kennedy also used to take naps, or at least that’s what he told Jackie. I really have to hand it to Kennedy. If Marilyn Monroe had visited me at nap time, I’m not sure what activity I would have chosen.

 

About the author:

Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.”   He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.” 

Illustration by Walter Gurbo. You can read more about Walter in About Us.

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August 29, 2014   Comments Off on Casual Observer/Mark Levy

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

adam and eve

Was it really an apple? (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526 CE)

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Life as a Pomegranate

by Mark Levy

The other day I had the surreal pleasure of speaking with a pomegranate. This may sound fantastic, but suspend your disbelief for a few minutes. After all, stranger things than talking pomegranates have happened — at least to me.

My new friend, the talking pomegranate, suggested I could call him Pomeroy.

“Bein’ a pomegranate ain’t as simple or as relaxing as you might expect,” Pomeroy said. “Oh sure, I’m grown in warm climates. I soak up the sun like a movie star and, basically, I dig the weather of Persia. I’m one of those entities that don’t object to climate change. I think you call them Republicans.”

“Whoa,” I said. “Don’t get started with me.”

“Well, dude,” Pomeroy continued, “the more the climate heats up, the more you’ll see of me and my relatives, right up till our planet is reduced to cinders. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

I changed the subject. “Isn’t it true the rind of the pomegranate fruit and the bark of the tree can control diarrhea, dysentery, and intestinal parasites?” I asked. “Maybe the College of Gastroenterology should adopt a pomegranate as its mascot.”

“Darned right,” said Pomeroy. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience. You probably know my fruit can also treat hemorrhoids, but slatherin’ up hemorrhoids with pomegranate juice results in colorful underwear — a small price to pay for being able to ride a bicycle, don’t ya think?”

“Agreed,” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my chair. “I’ve heard you’re also a powerful source of antioxidants.”

“Believe it, bro,” Pomeroy said, his color turning even a deeper red. “I’m the best. Most people wouldn’t know an antioxidant from an oxymoron. Punicalagin compounds are the major components responsible for our antioxidant benefits and they’re found only in us pomegranates. Beat that.”

“I’ll try to remember ‘punicalagin’ for Scrabble games.”

“Whatever,” Pomeroy said. “And while we’re on the subject, not to brag, but just sayin’: a glass of pomegranate juice has more antioxidants than red wine, green tea, blueberries, or cranberries. We not only lower cholesterol, but also lower blood pressure and we help melt atherosclerosis. We’ve even been linked to longevity, even immortality, according to some ancient Chinese witch doctors. Did I tell you when squeezed into eye drops, our juice can slow development of cataracts?”

“That would help explain your sense of superiority,” I said under my breath.

“Hey, buddy, I’ve got a pretty tough skin, or haven’t you noticed? Now that you can sit comfortably and see clearly, you might be interested to know we can even help firm up sagging breasts (heh heh). And speaking of a subject near and dear to our hearts and other organs, we might help prevent or combat prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction, which is especially valuable if you’re going to be immortal. I mean, without sex, living forever would feel like a very long time.”

“I can only imagine,” I said.

“I don’t think you can, sparky.”

“It sounds like you have a pretty enviable life,” I said. “So why are you acting like the toughest guy in the orchard?”

“I’ll tell you, my fruit-talking twerp. The thing that really fries my rind is confusion with the lowly, boring, common apple. The Persians got it right. They believed Eve actually plucked a pomegranate — not an apple — from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In fact, we pomegranates are sometimes known as Chinese apples. My scientific name, punica granatum, even comes from Medieval Latin pōmum ‘apple’ and grānātum ‘seeded.’

“And even though Greeks break us open at wedding celebrations because we symbolize prosperity and, of course, fertility, life isn’t all, well, peachy. My seeds are encased in arils or arials and I’m squished among hundreds of other seeds in my colony, man, while I ripen. Sometimes 1,400 seeds are pressed against each other in each 5” bulb. Sardines have nothing on pomegranate seeds. Can you imagine? Well, I guess you can, since you’re about to cut me open and yank my seeds right out of my membranes.”

I didn’t want to interrupt Pomeroy. He was on a roll.

“When we’re processed to make juice and to make liquid flavoring for alcoholic drinks,” he continued, “we’re pushed and flattened and squeezed mercilessly under unbearable pressure, until our arils rupture and burst open and our juice spurts out. It’s a barbaric way to extract our essence, if you ask me; I thought that technique went out with ancient Egyptians’ method of extracting brains of cadavers through their noses. That’s called excerebration, by the way, chump. And I dare you to use that word in polite conversation.”

I felt badly about splitting open the fruit, but by this time I was really hungry. The discussion with Pomeroy the proud pomegranate gave me a lot to… um… chew on.

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About the author:

Mark Levy is a regular contributor of the Casual Observer column to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about Mark in “About Us.”

 

 

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August 31, 2013   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

pope eating

“I’d really rather not, but if you insist…”
“Oh, I do…”

((((((((

The Life (or Death)

of a Food taster

by Mark Levy

Recently, as I lay in bed trying to recover from a horrendous upset stomach and high fever due to an otherwise delicious lunch, I started to think — hallucinate, really — about food tasters. You know, those fellows in Rome during the first century who tasted every meal the emperors were served before the dinner bell rang.

The most famous taster was Halotus (20 A.D. – 70 A.D.), a servant to the Roman Emperor Claudius (10 B.C. – 54 A.D.). It turns out that Halotus may have acted at the behest of Claudius’ wife, Agrippina the Younger (16 A.D. – 59 A.D.). She was the sister of Caligula, by the way, which has nothing to do with this narrative.

So Halotus poisons Claudius with mushrooms so that Agrippina’s 16-year-old son from a previous marriage, Nero     (37 A.D. – 68 A.D.), can take over the “emperorcy.” This conspiracy theory is bolstered by the fact that Nero, when he ascended to the throne, executed many, including his mother. However, he did not execute Halotus or even fire him from his position as food taster. Nero may have been one of the worst tyrants in history, but at least he didn’t dispatch his food taster.

A food taster’s job is to make sure no one poisons the boss. This is why I think being a food taster is a pretty cushy job. In addition to the enviable opportunity to taste every meal the emperor is about to eat — the food probably being a notch or two better than the gruel the average slave is served — the food taster is virtually assured that nothing will happen to him. How incompetent would an assassin have to be to attempt to poison a monarch knowing that the trusty food taster would raise the alarm himself by dying first?

I don’t think an actuarial study has been performed, but I’ll bet the life expectancy of a taster rivals that of a teetotaling vegetarian.

I had thought that the occupation of food tasting went out with Romulus Augustus — or Romulus Augustulus, for short — the last Roman emperor whose reign lasted not quite a year. But no, even recent U.S. presidents have food tasters. Although the Secret Service won’t admit it, presidents from Reagan to Obama take people they call White House chefs along to sample the vittles whenever they travel from the White House.

I don’t know if the Pope has a food taster, but isn’t it suspicious that you never see His Holiness with a corned beef sandwich or even an ice cream cone in public? What’s up with that?

About the author:

Mark Levy is a regular contributor of the Casual Observer column to Ragazine.CC. You can read more about Mark in “About Us.”

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hat-man-ass-wmnodr

Walter Gurbo, Drawing Room

June 29, 2013   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

F on FL

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Saving Time on Envelopes

by Mark Levy

 In 1963, the U.S. Post Office, now called the United States Postal Service or USPS, decided to simplify our lives — or at least Post Office employees’ lives — by introducing two-letter abbreviations for the 50 states. This was to accommodate a 7-digit field for zip codes, too, which were introduced the same year.

Some of the abbreviations are difficult to remember, since a number of them begin with the same letter. For example, the words, Michigan, Mississippi, and Minnesota all start not only with M, but M-I. Who knows how many residents of Michigan have received threatening reminders from companies harassing customers in Minnesota or Mississippi.

The two-letter abbreviations make sense for states that have the same starting letter, like the eight M states and the eight N states. But I now live in Florida and there’s only one F state, just as there is only one G, H, L, R, and U state. There’s also only one P state at this time, but when Puerto Rico becomes a state, Pennsylvania will lose its status, at least abbreviation-wise.

Of course, I am going along with this silly naming convention, even though only one letter would be sufficient for Florida, but it’s starting to bother me that I have to use the letters FL for my address when, in fact, there would be no confusion if I used just the letter F by itself. I can’t help thinking how much effort I’ve put into adding the superfluous second letter so many, many times.

If you multiply my frustration by the 19 million of my fellow sunshine state residents, you can see how astonishing our efforts are. If each person who lives here writes or types a Florida address only once a week, for instance, the amount of wasted ink or printer toner can amount to well over two, maybe three gallons every year. In this age of conservation, that certainly appears wasteful, don’t you agree?

Well, if you do agree, perhaps you’ll like my plan: let’s all write to the USPS and ask it to change its policy for Florida. When the USPS receives millions of requests, it’s sure to capitulate.

I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t the effort be ironically counter-productive if we included the second letter of the postal abbreviation on our return addresses? Glad you asked that insightful question. And you’re right: sometimes you have to travel in the opposite direction in order to get where you want to go. At least that’s the way I saw it when I spent last weekend in Georgia.

 

About the author:

Mark Levy, our “Casual Observer,” is an attorney in Florida. You can read more about him in About Us.

 

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March 2, 2013   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Casual Observer

NASA PHOTO

NASA PHOTO

LIFE’S A GAMBLE

by Mark Levy

It may have been Albert Einstein and his amusing friends, hammering out the details of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the last century, who started us on a path of uncertainty. Werner Heisenberg developed the famous Uncertainty Principle to explain how the smallest elements in the universe are individually unpredictable, but if you analyze enough of them, you find that they — like a school of fish — follow statistical rules. You may not know exactly where one sub-atomic particle is located, but you can figure out the probability of its being at a definite location. Basically, those physicists changed the way things are now perceived. Instead of determining exact properties, they relied on probabilities. It still doesn’t make sense for objects we deal with. I mean, most of us who see a baseball heading for our head will duck, because we know exactly where that ball is heading. But that’s not the case with atomic particles.

Nevertheless, quantum mechanics changed our outlook, even if we’re not smashing atoms into each other.

Let me show you how different things are now, for you and me, compared to a hundred years ago.

I know myself pretty well (finally)! For example, I know I have an addictive personality. I’m the guy for whom Lay’s potato chips came up with the slogan, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” And I don’t stop at potato chips. Peanuts, cookies, and M&Ms all entice me like Sirens singing to Odysseus. My middle name is Binge.

With an addictive personality, I dare not engage in drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. The same goes for gambling — especially gambling. If I were to approach a roulette wheel, my night wouldn’t end until I lost my house.

Of course, I am not alone. Sometimes even the most disciplined among us cannot resist the urge to bet. In our society, opportunities to gamble are thrust at us from every direction, like General Custer in Las Vegas — not to mix a metaphor — surrounded by casinos owned by tribes of Native Americans.

An entire lucrative and reputable industry has developed based on our temperaments. It’s called the insurance industry. What is insurance, if not a gamble? You bet that you will get sick or die before your insurance policy expires so that you or your next of kin can benefit from the policy. The higher the premiums, the more the potential payout or reward.

And have you rented a car lately? You are asked to bet on whether you will return to the car rental with an empty tank of gas. The gas is prepaid, so if you don’t use it all, down to the last expensive drop, you pay for it anyway. Last year I was sure I could beat the odds by planning to use up a tank. But I soon discovered my hotel was too close to the airport. It was also downtown within walking distance of every place I wanted to visit. So I paid an exorbitant fee for parking at the hotel for five days, never moving my rented car, and returned it with a full, paid up tank. The experience cost me $250 more than if I had merely taken a taxi — even a private limousine — to and from the airport. Speaking of cars, why do we plunk our change into parking meters? It’s because we’re betting that we’ll receive a more expensive parking ticket if we don’t. In other words, parking meters are merely stationary slot machines with no opportunity for a payout –- unless you pack a baseball bat in your trunk.

Let’s talk about something fundamental: heating my house. My oil fuel delivery company is playing a game similar to the rental car companies. I can pay for a year’s worth of oil at the present price — lock it in, regardless of how the price of oil will change this year. The company is willing to gamble that oil prices will drop, so it will win at my expense.

Of course, I’m a sucker for that kind of bet — they call it option contracts on Wall Street — believing that the price of oil will never decrease. Just the sort of famous last words that General Custer might have uttered on his way to the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Here’s another example of gambling that corporations can get away with: air flights. If I book early, the airplane ticket is usually less than if I wait till the last minute. So I’m forced to gamble that nothing will happen to change my plans. It’s cheaper to buy non-refundable tickets, too, but I can buy flight insurance — there’s that insurance again — in case I can’t make the flight. They sell that sort of insurance for ocean cruises, too. Basically, for every trip, I’m one medium-sized kidney stone away from regretting that I didn’t buy travel insurance.

Telephone plans can be as bad. You can prepay for a certain number of minutes every month and bet you won’t go over. The only way to win that bet is to keep your phone n your file cabinet.

Major appliances all have optional extended warranties. When you purchase one of them, you’re betting that your dishwasher, say, will break down and flood the kitchen before you say good-bye to your obnoxious relatives at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Even our federal government has gotten into the act. The feds want me to bet that I will live only a short time longer, now that I reached the age of 62, in which case it would be best to claim social security benefits now, rather than at age 65. But if I live much beyond 65 — and I’m betting that I will — it’s better to defer collecting payments until I reach my 65th birthday, so I will receive larger monthly checks. Once again, I’m forced to bet against my life expectancy.

Einstein and his buddies probably weren’t thinking that the laws of chance were going to affect the average person’s life like they do; but chances are, things will get even less certain for us in the future.

In fact, I would bet on it.

 

About the author:

Mark Levy, Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer,”  also occasionally contributes “Feeding the Starving Artist,” pro bono legal advice for working artists. You can read more about him in “About Us.”

 

December 28, 2012   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer/Mark Levy

Fooled in TV Land

by Mark Levy
Illustration by Nadja Asghar

Some time ago, I moved into a small, one-story ranch house in Queens. That moving day was unusually warm in September, as I recall, so I opened the windows in every room. I should tell you that the new house was only a few miles from LaGuardia Airport, as I soon learned, directly in the flight path of approaching aircraft.

The movers had already unloaded and placed most of the furniture in respective rooms. All that was left was to unpack boxes. I had just unloaded a number of heavy boxes of books and, unaccustomed to physical exercise as I was — and as I still am, in fact — I decided to rest a bit before continuing the mindless task of unpacking. So I switched on the TV and plopped myself on the unmade bed for a short rest.

The TV happened to be showing a United Air Lines commercial, culminating in a jet taking off into a very blue sky. From that image, I knew the jet was not flying in my new neighborhood, which is normally covered by a low ceiling of milky clouds the local weather forecasters insist on calling “partly sunny.” No, the deep blue sky in the airline commercial looked like it was over Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or some exotic place so pollution free I thought this must be the first airplane ever to fly over it.

As the plane took off smoothly in the commercial, a pleasant jingle played and an announcer implored me to fly United. I heard a crescendo of music and jet engines, too. In fact, the sound of the engines eventually drowned out the announcer’s voice.

The next event really surprised me. The volume of the engines increased and increased, even as the commercial faded out and the Jerry Springer Show resumed. And then my windows started to rattle.

“Wow,” I thought, “this is one realistic airline commercial. It’s sensorama. I can still hear and feel the engines long after the TV image is gone. My bedroom feels like it’s in an earthquake. How did they do that?”

That’s when it occurred to me that the sound was no longer coming from the TV. Jet engines were overhead. I felt foolish, not only because I thought the TV could shake my windows, but because I realized I had purchased a house that would force me to experience this thrill every few minutes, summer after summer.

It is now about 30 years later. I no longer live in Queens. I have a large, flat screen TV with an auxiliary sound system, including expensive speakers that the sales person told me would make the difference between merely viewing television programs and actually living them.

“You’ll hear the crashing of football helmets, Dude, like you were on the field with the players,” he stated. “Singers will sound like they’re in the same room with you, Bud. Car chase scenes and NASCAR races will make you reach for your seatbelt, Sparky. You just have to have this X-3000 Super Sound System, amigo. There’s no sense having a large screen TV with little, wimpy speakers. It really defeats the purpose, don’t you think? Go with the X-3000 Triple S, Bro. Take it from me: you’ll never regret it.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll buy it.”

I don’t live near an airport anymore, I’m happy to report, but the place where I reside is fairly open. If the TV is playing in the living room, I can hear it in the kitchen and in the hallway and in the spare bedroom for what I hoped would be my office and private sanctuary.

Sometimes when I’m not watching the set, I hear a siren that sounds like it’s right outside. I can’t resist looking out the window for the ambulance. The sound from my TV is realistic enough for me to think a police car is about to crash through to my condo on the 26th floor.

Sometimes a telephone rings in a program, causing me to hunt for my cell phone. This is most embarrassing when friends are visiting, especially when I have to ask them to stand up so I can search under couch cushions for my phone.

Frankly, I’m concerned that if my condo ever does start burning, I’ll lose precious time racing around the place through the billowing smoke, turning off TVs instead of preparing to be rescued.

Today, none of us is taken in by the scratchy, blurry sounds of 1914 Charlie Chaplin movies or of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of the “War of the Worlds.” I suppose in a hundred years people might be amazed at how unsophisticated we were in the early 21st century, when the X-3000 was able to fool us.

All I can say is my TV does too good a job convincing me that the sounds I hear are real. Coupling that phenomenon with bigger-than-life close-ups of pizzas and ice cream, it amazes me that I ever switch the set off long enough to escape back into reality.

 

About the author:

Mark Levy, Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer,”  also occasionally contributes “Feeding the Starving Artist,” pro bono legal advice for working artists. You can read more about him in “About Us.”

About the Illustrator:

Nadja Asghar graduated with a degree in illustration from London Metropolitan University. She lives in Norway. You can read more about her in “About Us.”

October 28, 2012   Comments Off on Casual Observer/Mark Levy

Mark Levy / Casual Observer

Nadja Asghar Illustration  Sept-Oct 2012 V8N5 Casual Observer

Another Medical Breakthrough

by Mark Levy

I visited one of my many doctors a few weeks ago. He is my main doctor; what those in the health industry call my primary care physician. At this point, all of my doctors are younger than I am. In fact, I graduated from law school at about the time my primary was learning the complexities of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

But I don’t call these medical youngsters by their first names. I call them, “Doctor.”  They seem to appreciate that and it really doesn’t take much to keep them happy. All I have to do is stay sick but, of course, not too sick. The game is over if I die. This is my responsibility: to linger as long as possible, helping them in a small way to put their kids through college and make their car payments.

My primary physician has an office that curves around a bend on the fourth floor of the hospital I visit. Inside the curve are nurses’ stations. (You don’t need to know that, but one of my listeners wanted more detail in my stories. Hope you’re happy now, Marge.)

“Your tests are back, Mark,” he said.

I could tell he was pleased. “I’ve been taking my meds faithfully, Doc,” I said. “How am I doing?”

“Actually, quite well. Indicators show your stress level is much lower. Your blood pressure is down. How are you sleeping?”

“Great,” said I.

“Digestive issues?”

“Not anymore.”

“Headaches? Memory loss?”

“Not that I can remember,” I said. “Everything’s improved. That prescription you gave me must be working, huh?”

“I have to confess something to you,” he said.

I learned forward in my seat. It’s not every day that a doctor confesses something. This was going to be good. I was so excited, I might have rubbed my hands together.

“The medication I prescribed was a placebo.”

Well, whatever it is, I think I should take a higher dosage. It’s really working.”

“No problem at all,” Doc said. “It has no medical viability. It’s an inert sugar pill to fake you out into believing it causes a reduced stress level.”

I was astonished. What a revelation. My primary was playing with my head, manipulating me to believe something that wasn’t true. And I bought it. Was I that weak-minded?

Now that I’ve thought about it, I guess I am. I’m very susceptible to TV ads, for example. That tells you something. If one of those luscious pizza ads appears on TV — you know the ones that show such a crusty crust, creamy tomato sauce and melted, stringy cheese, you can almost smell it in the room – I cannot go to sleep without ordering a pizza.

So I went home and Googled “placebo.” Here’s what the online dictionary said: “a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder; any dummy medication containing no medication and prescribed to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well.”

The placebo worked so well on my health, I decided to try it out on my car.

When  I ran out of windshield wiper fluid recently, I opened the hood of my car and found the reservoir and I went through the motions of adding fluid to it. But the container I used was empty. Then I slammed the hood down with a flourish, so my car would think all was well.

Need air in my tires? Not so fast. A quick trip to the gas station, removing the air fill cap, and a fake pump of the compressor and hose and I was on my way, my car no wiser for the experience.

Back left blinker light bulb out? You got it. Just a removal of the lens and a tweak of the same old, burned out bulb would do the trick.

And so it goes.

Yesterday, my car limped into my car dealer’s service center for its 20,000 mile checkup. The manager came out half an hour later and for a minute I honestly thought he would give my precious automobile a clean bill of health. But no, he had an impressive list of things he had found and an estimate of $540 to fix them all.

Now you might think I would have been upset, but remember, my stress level is down. I toyed with the idea of unleashing another set of placebos but I think my car has begun to catch on.

I figure the repair bill is still cheaper than a trip to my primary. Now if only I can get my health insurance carrier to cover it.

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About the author:

Mark Levy, Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer,”  also occasionally contributes “Feeding the Starving Artist,” pro bono legal advice for working artists. You can read more about him in “About Us.”

August 25, 2012   Comments Off on Mark Levy / Casual Observer

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

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BOBs GALORE

by Mark Levy

As every precocious 8-year-old undoubtedly knows, a palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same forward as it does backward. Among the many palindromes for nouns, like Mom and Dad, lurk some proper names: Anna, Eve, Hannah, and Otto, for example. The one I’d like to discuss now is Bob. You know, we’ve had five Jameses, four Williams, and even a Barack, but there has never been a U.S. president named Bob. Now Scotland had King Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century, about the time the fork was invented, but that’s an essay for another time.

Jon Bois, the Kentucky sports writer who spells his name   B O I S, recently made an interesting observation. It appeared on SB – as in “sports blog” Nation.com: “Across the histories of Major League Baseball,” he wrote, “the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and NCAA football and basketball, there have been a total of 1,884 athletes who primarily went by the name Bob. Not Robert, or Bobby, but Bob.” What Jon Bois found puzzling is that today there are precious few professional sports figures named Bob. But the name, Bob, comes up in many other places. LakeBob, for instance, is located just outside of Baker City,Oregon. In Africa, an entire country is called Zimbabwe, get it?

We don’t have Linda-heads or Donald-heads, do we? But we sure have a huge variety of spring-necked bobble heads. Socks named after Bobs are called bobby socks. And some hair pins are known as bobby pins. The Bob haircut comes and goes as a popular hairstyle for women. We also have the plumb bob, shish-ka-bob, the fishing bobber, apple bobbing, a carnivorous bobcat, a bobsled, a bobtail, and a bobstay for holding a ship’s bowsprit down – something you might wish to keep in mind if you chance upon one of those untamable bowsprits. We also have a sewing machine bobbin, of course, instructions to football players and boxers to bob and weave, the Bobbsey Twins series of books, and the North American bobolink blackbird, or Dolichonyx oryzivorus, for you ornithologists.

Bob and wheel is a type of alternative music rhyming pattern not too different from what you might see in a book of Ogden Nash poems. But back to Bobs. Bob’s gym, Bob’s Famous Roller Coaster in Chicago’s Riverview Park, Bob’s discount furniture, Bob’s skateboarding tricks website, and the chain of Bob’s stores that sell clothing and footwear – not necessarily made by Bobs – are just a few establishments that use Bob as a business name. Have you been in a Bob’s Steak & Chop House somewhere in the western states or in Australia, or the K-Bob Steakhouse in Albuquerque, or Billy Bob’s Texas in Ft. Worth, reputed to be the world’s largest honky-tonk? When you get there, say “howdy” to a Bob for me.

Bob Evans restaurants are not to be confused with Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant, which is a restaurant chain that Bob Wian founded inSouthern Californiain 1936. The oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy location – and here comes the trivia part of this discussion – is in Burbank, California and is now a historical landmark. As delicious as they sound, Barbecue Bob and the Spareribs serves up not food, but country songs. Hurricane Bob struck the northeast coast in 1991, but I don’t think it made quite the lasting impression the Bobbsey Twins did. Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina and Oral Roberts University in Tulsa have a combined total of about 7,000 enrolled students. Of course, not all students are named Bob.

There are a few Robertas, too. The letters, B-O-B, as you world travelers must already know, form the three-letter ID code for the Bora Bora airport. Billy Bob’s Huntin’ & Fishin’ is a Nintendo Gameboy game, probably by now obsolete, or should I say, “bobsolete?” The bobwhite is an attractive, usually brown, ground-dwelling bird with a loud cheery song. It has great value as a destroyer of some 60 different species of weed seeds and 116 species of insects. So thank goodness, I think we can all agree, for the bobwhite.

In England, police are called Bobbies. And, “Bob’s Your Uncle” is British slang meaning “simple as that.” I happen to have an Uncle Bob who chews with his mouth open, but we call him Uncle Bawb, and you can tell he doesn’t really fit into many polite discussions, much less this one. This is a shout out to you, Uncle Bawb! See you at Thanksgiving. The BOB Motor Oil Recovery System is a handy garage gadget you’ll want, along with some towels, when you get around to changing the oil in your car. You turn oil cans upside down and drain them on this device. The BOB in the name stands for “bottom of the barrel.” And after a tough afternoon changing oil, you might want to relax with Bob’s Pickle Pops, made in Dallas, Texas. They’re frozen pickle juice treats that, I understand, taste incredibly and exactly like they sound.

Have you had a Bob’s burger in Washington State or tried BOB brand foods in Sweden? They make gourmet juices and jams. Bob’s Candies are claimed, by the company, at least, to be the world’s finest peppermints. A Beer Named Bob is brewed by the Bitter Creek Brewing Company in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Meanwhile, Bob Moore and his Oregon company, Bob’s Red Mill, offer vitamins and natural, whole grain products. In theU.S., there are estimated to be more than 86,000 people named Bob. The name, Bobby, belongs to another 362,000. And there are 20,000 Robs. If you look up Robert, you’ll find 4,941,502. That’s more like it. Almost five million of ‘em. In certain parts of the country, you can’t throw a pickle pop without hitting a Bob.

There seem to be a lot of Bobs in the music industry: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bob Seger, Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby McFerrin, Bobby Darin, and Bobby Rydell. I know I’ve left out a few, but you get the idea. Only Bobs can join the exclusive Bob’s Club, whose goal is to create the world’s largest list of famous Bobs. Don’t even think about joining it, unless you’re one of the five million Bobs. In 2011, neither Bob nor its variants made the top five male names for babies in any state. In fact, nowadays, a boy is more likely to be named Mason or Jacob or Elijah or Liam.

And 25 years ago, in 1987, no Bobs made the top five list of male names, but there were a lot more Michaels and Christophers. Roberto showed up then, but its rank was 156, way below, oh, such popular appellations as Travis and Zachary. The name, Bob, didn’t make the list of the ten oldest people in the world, either. But then again, the oldest people in history were all women. The youngest Bob is, oh wait, another Bobby has just been born while I’m speaking. “Hi Bob!” was a college drinking game, in which TV viewers had to take a drink every time someone said, “Hi, Bob” on the Bob Newhart Show. Legend has it that no one ever completed the game before passing out. And now that I’ve shared so much more than you ever wanted to know about Bobs, feel free to pass out yourself.

 

About the author: Mark Levy is a Florida-based attorney with the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman Howard and Kattell. He is a contributing editor to Ragazine.CC of “Feeding the Starving Artist,” and “Casual Observer.” Read more about Levy at “About Us.”

June 29, 2012   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

EXCESS

(Who needs it?)

by Mark Levy

This is an age of excess. I bought a car that can go way faster than I have the nerve to drive. And the speedometer also includes speed markings in kilometers, which makes the speed look 38% faster. Oh, and there are seven − count ‘em SEVEN − digits on the odometer. That’s over a million miles in one car, or two round trips to the moon. Who drives that far? A million miles. Sheeesh. I’m lucky if I can get to a tenth of that − one hundred thousand miles − without my engine blowing up, like it’s already done in a couple of my previous cars.

The point is, my speedometer and my odometer and my car itself have much greater capacity than I need. The car also has four exhausts, which is one more than the space shuttle used to have. And it’s not just the car that exceeds the comfort range of most humans.

I also have a computer with a memory that’s the envy of every other computer on my block. If I write a 300-page novel every other day and store it in the memory of my computer, I won’t need to get another computer for a million years; well, over 850 thousand years, at least.

The folks who make hot dog rolls sell them in packages of eight, even though hot dogs themselves come in packages of six. I’ve been to many, many barbeques, but darned if I’ve ever heard someone request an extra roll for her hot dog.

My wristwatch is accurate to a hundredth of a second, but I can’t change my habit of telling my friend I’ll meet him for lunch “around noon.” The watch is guaranteed to work up to 200 meters under water. It would have to be quite a downpour to result in that much water on my street. And if I did find myself 200 meters under water some day − the equivalent of over two football fields deep − I don’t think checking the time of day would be my highest priority.

The hot water in my kitchen sink is capable of scalding the feathers off a chicken. But all I need is warm water to rinse plates before the dishwasher takes over.

As long as I’m in the kitchen, let me tell you about my new microwave oven. It exceeds my desire or capacity to use it. Its keyboard has about 90 settings, so I can thaw, simmer, and overcook. I can start the process immediately or I can instruct the machine to start cooking six days and 23 hours from now. I can vary the heat and the time for each of up to 999 cooking steps. If I google a microwave recipe someday, for example, maybe I’ll prepare pheasant under glass in that unit. But like most of us, now I use it just to boil water or make popcorn.

Speaking of popcorn, we all know that movie theaters now sell large, gargantuan, and humongous sizes of popcorn. But did you know that big box stores sell Cheerios in a cardboard box that’s 6 by 8 by almost 14 inches high? Who has a family that big? And who has room for a box that size in their kitchen? I would need a separate parking space for that thing.

My TV has a sound system that can be cranked up enough decibels to shatter my windows. I could be deaf as a post and still not miss a syllable. And the size of that TV! Gosh. The images are bigger than life. I get nightmares sometimes when I try to sleep after seeing Nancy Grace’s disapproving smirks two-and-a-half feet high. The TV has dimensions that overwhelm my bedroom or any other room in my house. In fact, if I didn’t have an exterior wall, you could see it from space.

 

December 25, 2011   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Casual Observer/Mark Levy

ROMAN NUMERALS:

Is it time to turn back the clock?

 

Am I the only one who’s pretty darn tired of those Arabic numerals we’re all stuck with? I’m not saying they don’t work, or that the person who invented the zero wasn’t a genius. In fact, I think someone should award a Nobel Prize in mathematics posthumously, if we ever discover his or her name. Why not? You have to be dead for 10 years before you get a postage stamp issued in your honor. On second thought, a big zero on a postage stamp might be confusing, so forget the postage stamp idea. But the posthumous Nobel Prize is still a possibility. And think how much that would be worth now, with compound interest.

By the way, Arabs did not invent Arabic numerals. A person in India, reputedly a Hindu, did. Although how anyone knows his religion is beyond me. It happened around 500 A.D. How’s that for trivia? The rest of the civilized world didn’t adopt Arabic numerals for about 700 years. Some ideas just take longer to accept than others. Just ask Italo Marchiony, who may have invented the ice cream cone. Oh, bad example. Anyway, that’s an essay for another time.

Well, let’s get back to the Arabic numerals themselves. Sure we can express size, distance, dates, and quantities conveniently. Sure we can add, subtract, multiply, and the other thing I forgot. But where is the beauty, the elegance? Can numbers like 1 and 4 and 7 really rise to the aesthetic level of, say, MMDCXIV?

Obviously, I’m not alone in preferring Roman numerals for some things. That helps explain why the movie Rocky IV was popular, I think. More trivia: Sylvester Stallone is an Italian American, as you probably know from his 1970 movie, “The Italian Stallion.”

How about athletic events? Who could possibly want to see Super Bowl XLVI referred to any other way?

For all you analog people out there, how convenient is it to have Roman numerals on your wristwatch? Or does anyone still have a wristwatch now that cell phones have taken over the planet?

Speaking of arithmetic operations, why can’t we use Roman numerals to balance our checkbook? It’s really very simple. Let me show you.

Let’s say you have MLXII dollars in your checking account and you write a check for XII dollars to the IRS. MLXII minus XII equals ML. Simple, right?

“Ahh,” you say. “But what if — now that the IRS is paid off — I want to write a check for, say, LIV dollars to donate to my public radio station? How do I subtract LIV from ML?”

“Just like with Arabic numerals,” I say, smugly but patiently. You have to borrow an I from the sixth to last column, leaving DCCCCLLLLXXXXX or DCCCCLLLLXXXXVIIIII, if you’re thinking ahead like Julius Caesar should have before he bumped into Brutus who was enjoying a pizza one day.

Now simply remove LIV, digit by digit, from that awfully long expression equivalent to ML, and what do you get? Let’s see, VIIIII minus X, borrow from the closest D, move one of the Cs to the right column, make change of XXXXX. Of course, X minus IV equals VI, and the answer just falls out: MCMILVI. Easy as rigatoni. What could be simpler?

Honestly, with a bit of training, we can go back to basics, back to the good old days, just like the last 1600 years never happened.

REFRESHER COURSE:

 

Credit: Kent State University
(and ancient Rome)


________________________________ 

Anthony Haden Guest

October 27, 2011   Comments Off on Casual Observer/Mark Levy

Casual Observer/Mark Levy

 

Mark Levy and "Sam"

Civilization is Relative

Reflections on Life in the Slow Lane

During my recent trip to Ecuador, I had occasion to meet a gentlemen who lives in the Amazon. He is a Huaorani (Hwă răh’ni), a people who have lived in their neighborhood for thousands of years, going back to the Stone Age. It is estimated that about 3,000 Huaorani exist. This new acquaintance of mine ─ call him Sam ─ stands about 4’9” high and has dark, but not leathery skin. He has black hair and not a touch of grey, probably because he lives a stress-free life. All he has to do is spear tasty looking animals and occasional enemies, and supervise his wife, who does everything else for the family. I was going to say household, but there is no house. No clothing, either.

Sam looks 50 years old, but I could be off by 20 years one way or the other. He seems pretty healthy, considering he has no access to a health care plan. His chest has fully developed muscles that make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Woody Allen. He also has a hole in his earlobe big enough to slide an iPhone through.

I met Sam at a rather rustic resort near a town called Mindo, Ecuador, a couple of hours from Quito. I felt sorry for myself having to drive so far to get there until I learned that Sam had traveled by foot and canoe for three days from his home in the Amazon. Now, Sam didn’t mention this fact to me directly, because he speaks only the Huaorani language, so his Spanish-speaking son did the translating.

Let me tell you about this rustic resort. A raging river borders the property, so to get across from the dirt road out of the town of Mindo, you have to ride precariously on this flat, wooden, one-person seat suspended by a rope and pulley. The seat has no sides to protect you from the raging river and its formidable boulders.

Once across the river and onto the property, I locate a common, open-aired-dining area ─ really just an unenclosed, platform and I find my wooden cabin ─ quite spacious, actually ─ with a grass thatched roof surrounded by a swarm of moths the size of pterodactyls. It could be a scene from Jurassic Park. No electricity, but there are two candles and, believe it or not, a flush toilet. That’s where technology ends.

I thought that was pretty rustic, especially for a place that calls itself a resort. But then I realized that the same location that represents a giant step backwards, civilization-wise for me, is actually a great improvement for Sam, who was quite accustomed to living without a roof over his unkempt head. He doesn’t have a satellite TV, either ─ not even basic cable ─ or a heater or an air conditioner or a refrigerator or a dish washer or even, let’s face it, a roll of toilet paper.

How can he enjoy a Barry Manilow Christmas collection on CD while munching on microwave popcorn if he doesn’t have a CD player or a microwave oven in the first place? The poor fellow doesn’t have a toothbrush or a pair of Diodoro sneakers. He has survived, day after day for maybe 18,000 days, without a cell phone and without a full-length bathroom mirror. We take so many things for granted he doesn’t even know exist.

I continued to feel sorry for Sam all the way up to the day I returned to civilization to discover my mortgage, my satellite TV bill, and two credit card payments were overdue. My electricity had been shut off, too, for the same reason.

Yes, civilization can be a relative thing. You have to feel sorry for people who don’t know what they’re missing.

 

About the author:

Mark Levy is a contributor editor of Ragazine.  He is an attorney with the Binghamton law firm of Hinman, Howard and Kattell.

July 1, 2011   1 Comment

Casual Observer

Dole pineapples have just the right amount of burrs.

 

Funny Thing About Pineapples…

by Mark Levy

Quick, think of a joke about pineapples.

It’s not easy, is it?

Actually, this is one instance where the Internet let me down. After much searching, I am embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t find one funny joke about pineapples, and you’d think they would be crying out for humorous social commentary. Perhaps no one wants to take advantage of their odd appearance.

Sure, I found jokes about grapefruits and kiwis and mangoes and pomegranates and even tomatoes, which are fruits, even though we use them in salads. And bananas, of course. Just the word, “banana,” is funny if you’ve drunk too much fermented pineapple juice. But I found no pineapple jokes to relate that even my four-year-old grandson would appreciate, and he laughs at everything I say.

I started doing research about pineapples. There is no consensus about where pineapples originated, although a number of countries have been proposed, including Hawaii, when it was a country, Paraguay, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, and the Guadeloupe Islands in the Caribbean. Some say Christopher Columbus got in the act along the way, transporting them to Queen Isabella, and I have no reason to doubt that, although it wasn’t his most famous accomplishment.

Pineapples are awfully versatile, culinarily speaking. They are used to complement green salads and fruit salads, ham, pork chops, fried rice, pizza, fondue, and Jell-O. You can make ice cream from them, ice cream topping, sorbet, juice, smoothies, and alcoholic beverages with Spanish names.

They can be grilled and eaten by themselves or sliced into rings or bite-sized chunks and eaten with a toothpick. How’s that for simplicity?

Of course, this brings up a number of questions that are probably eating you alive, like:

How do I know if my pineapple is ripe?

What are them little, ugly burrs called, the ones that may are left in the fruit after the skin is removed?

How do I cut pineapples safely?

Is it dangerous to eat them little, ugly burrs?

How do I remove them little, ugly burrs without mangling my pineapple?

What purpose do them little, ugly burrs serve?

Can I place the peeled, outside skin in my garbage disposal?

Can I place them little, ugly burrs in my disposal?

What emergency steps should I take if I puncture myself while cutting a pineapple?

Do them little, ugly burrs have nutritional value?

Are there particular recipes to make them little, ugly burrs delicious?

Are them little, ugly burrs dangerous to my pets?

And probably a thousand other questions about them little, ugly burrs.

I’ll tell you if you haven’t guessed by now that this essay is pretty much totally about pineapples. So if you’re not intensely interested in the subject, it’s not going to get any better. You may want to pour yourself a glass of -– oh, say, orange juice — and come back in a minute.

I have a limited amount of time now, so I’m afraid I won’t be able to discuss them little, ugly burrs after all. By the way, sometimes they’re called “eyes,” but I think that’s way too anthropomorphic, don’t you?

Here’s the good news: I can tell you how to tell if your pineapple is ripe. Smell it right at the fruit stand or grocery store. If it doesn’t smell like anything or if it smells like anything other than a pineapple, don’t buy it. And if you’ve already bought it, don’t eat it. And if you’ve already bitten into it, you might decide not to savor the juice escaping from that first bite and flowing down your chin.

In case you have a bad sense of smell, there’s another way to tell if your pineapple and you should become one. If you can pull off one of the leaves from the very top of the pineapple without much effort, the pineapple is ripe. Hmmmm. Then again, it could be rotten.

Peeling a pineapple can be tricky. The important thing is not to cut yourself with a sharp knife and avoid being gored by the thing. In a way, that’s pretty much the same advice I give to aspiring bullfighters.

Mark Levy is an attorney with the Binghamton-based law firm of Hinman Howard and Kattell. He is a contributing editor to ragazine.cc with Ryan Miosek (Feeding the Starving Artist), and an occasional contributor to NPR, where his comments can be heard some Saturdays at noon.

May 1, 2011   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer

Ignorance is a Blessing

(aka, Playing Gadget Gotcha!)

by Mark Levy

Gadget Gotcha

Roll back the years www.columbuswashboard.com

We often don’t miss what we don’t have. But once you have something, boy can you miss it when it’s gone.

I’m thinking about automatic dishwashers. Some of us lived many years without one. Some of us, I dare say, still may not have one. But once you have a dishwasher, you absolutely cannot live without it. Generally, you can’t get water as hot in the sink as a dishwasher can. You can’t dry all of your dishes, pots and silverware at the same time, like a dishwasher can. And you can’t walk away from the dishes in your sink and come back some time later to find that they’re all clean. So once most of us have a dishwasher, we can never go back.

Take another example: garage doors. Again, if you’ve never had an automatic garage door opener, you probably don’t know what you’re missing. But as soon as you get a motorized garage door opener, operated by a push button on the door frame or, preferably, from a remote control in the warm comfort of your car, you will never, ever want to go back to pre-garage opener days, when you had to exit your car, run over to your garage door in the rain, sleet, or snow, and risk injuring your back as you jerked the door open or closed. Living without an automatic garage door opener after you became accustomed to it would be like trying to survive in America without a television. It’s possible to do that, but why would you want to?

Of course every modern convenience has a drawback. With an electric garage door opener, in the case of a power outage, you are out of luck. The garage door cannot be opened by anyone weaker than the Incredible Hulk. It’s not catastrophic when your vehicle is in your driveway, but it’s more than a bit inconvenient when your car is incarcerated in your garage.

Another convenience we soon take for granted is a computer that operates quickly. If all you have is a dial-up system for your computer, you may not know how fast Internet access can be. But once you play some games or do a little Internet surfing on a fast computer, you will not be able to deal with a much slower machine. Every second seems like a week when you’re downloading what may be -— let’s face it -— a frivolous image or video clip. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for a long time for something you didn’t want. I think hospitals must be overflowing with anxiety-ridden patients who took out their anger on their computer. There are times when I wonder if the risk of getting caught wouldn’t be worth the satisfaction of smashing a computer monitor to smithereens.

Consider, also, the little bitty cell phone. What a wonder that is, a fulfillment of Dick Tracy’s wristwatch with more functionality than D.T. ever dreamed of. It was only 30 years ago that two-and-a-half-pound cell phones and their power supplies required a separate briefcase to drag them around in. If you don’t have a cell phone, you don’t know what you’re missing. But once you get one, even if only for emergencies, before you know it you’re using it to make appointments, tell people you’re running late again, check in with the kids, and call into radio talk shows.

I remember the first time I called someone who was on the road. I was on the road, too. Point to point communications! Who would have imagined that? What seemed awesome, like magic, when we first got cell phones is now as commonplace as ordering a pizza on the way home.

I can’t make calls from the road on my handheld cell phone now; it’s unlawful in my state. Seems like 10 years ago we didn’t have them, and they’re already illegal. That must be some sort of record.

Certain things in the home can be operated remotely. You can have your oven turn on when you call home or your burglar alarm system turn off when you return. What I’m waiting for is a way to open my garage door from a couple of blocks away, by using my cell phone. Now won’t THAT be great?!!

February 19, 2011   Comments Off on Casual Observer

Casual Observer: Trophy Envy


Not the real trophy, but that's another story.

Trophy Envy

By Mark Levy

My archery trophy sits atop the mantel of my fireplace. It’s almost as high as the living room ceiling. It’s the biggest trophy I’ve ever seen, about four feet high. The base is a solid rectangle of marble, four inches by six inches and about half an inch thick. Anchored to the base rise up two majestic Greek columns, also of marble, and some sort of imitation gold insignia spanning the two uprights. Then there’s another tier above the columns with another large marble platform and a column above that. It must be 14 pounds, the weight of an average Thanksgiving turkey.

The statue itself is gold-colored plastic and depicts a slender male archer with perfect form and with his bow extended. There’s a black metal plate attached to the front edge of the base and it says, “Mark Levy, First Prize, International Archery Competition.”

The whole trophy is impressive as heck.

In fact, it often elicits admiring comments from guests who visit my house, which was the whole point in displaying it in my living room in the first place.

I have to admit that I’m more than a little proud of the trophy. It really dominates the room, especially from the point of view of a guest whom I direct to the cushy chair that faces it.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Wow, what a trophy,” they say.

I just smile, modestly.

“Is that yours?”

“Yup,” I admit.

“I didn’t know you were into archery.”

I continue to smile. Sometimes I say something like, “Well, I don’t like to brag.”

“When did you get that?”

“A few years ago,” I say. “I’m a little embarrassed that it’s so big. Barely fits above the fireplace.”

I can keep the conversation going for awhile, but at some point, I usually have had enough basking in their respect. So I confess that, although it’s my trophy –- I mean, I own it — I didn’t really win it. I merely purchased it at a garage sale for fifty cents.

Oh, and the name plate cost an additional two bucks a few years ago. Turns out, trophy suppliers don’t really question authenticity of the name plates they produce. If you want them to engrave something, they will. Truth to tell, I could see that my local trophy maker was pretty impressed with the size of my trophy, too.

Dead silence usually ensues after my confession.

“I’m looking for a fishing trophy to make it a set,” I say. “Do you think that would be too much? Would people actually believe I won… I mean I own… both of them?”

____________________________________

December 23, 2010   Comments Off on Casual Observer: Trophy Envy