Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Great Fires Aren’t Good

This column did get printed in time for Fire Prevention Week—it’s just late getting online. But really, shouldn’t something like this be all year round?
Meanwhile, the new publisher has allowed me to write a farewell column for the newspapers I’m no longer employed by, so you’ll see this once more … maybe twice.


            The National Fire Prevention Association would like to point out that, if your smoke detector is not working, it won’t work.

            Sure, it seems obvious. But it’s also obvious that if sprinkler systems aren’t installed they don’t put out fires, safety belts that don’t get used aren’t safe, and people who stay in Washington, D.C. turn into blithering idiots. And yet we defeat sprinkler laws, don’t belt up, and reelect blithering idiots, so sometimes the obvious needs saying.

            This is why we have Fire Prevention Week, which is a week during which we try to stress preventing fires. Fire Prevention Week is always nearest October 9th. That’s the historical date of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which took place in 1871, was indeed in Chicago, but really wasn’t all that great.

            “Great” is a term used for fires that get so out of control that they get weeks named after them. The NFPA has devoted itself to keeping fires from turning great, and the best way to do that is to keep them from getting out of control. It’s counterintuitive, but they would not then be called “good”.

            More importantly is to keep people from getting killed in a fire, which is the job of smoke alarms, which are just like smoke detectors except with fewer syllables. A working smoke alarm cuts the risk of dying in a fire in half. You don’t have to be Captain Obvious to see the value of that.

            Here’s the fun part, though, and by “fun” I mean “tragic”: When talking smoke alarms, you always have to stick in the word “working”. In 23% of home fire deaths, there were smoke alarms—but they didn’t work. Why? Sometimes they were old or damaged, but usually the batteries were dead or missing.

            “Honey, the batteries in the camera are dead.”

            “I’ll just take some out of the smoke detector. Don’t worry, I’ll remember to put them back.”

            Sure you will. Stop at the dollar store and get more for the camera, you schmuck.

            But even if the batteries stay in, there’s no guarantee they’re working. Batteries go dead from time to time, and dead batteries lead to dead people.

            Thus the idea of changing them twice a year, when Daylight Savings Time comes and goes. Whine all you want about springing forward and falling back (and you will … you will), but it’s a great reminder to put in a good set of working batteries. If the old ones are still good and you’re particularly cheap, put those in your digital camera. Sure, there’s a chance they’ll go dead and you’ll miss catching that UFO hovering over your house, but the little green men are going to steal your camera and make all the photos blurry anyway, so why bother?

            In between changes, you should test your smoke alarm batteries every month. This is about the same rate at which a major celebrity gets arrested. If you’re really paranoid you can check them every few days, at the rate a minor celebrity gets arrested.

            If the smoke alarm is more than ten years old, replace it. If you can’t remember how old it is, replace it. If you can’t remember how old you are, have someone else replace it. And yes, if it doesn’t work when you test it, replace it. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

            There was a time when experts recommended installing a smoke alarm on each level of the home and outside each sleeping area. They now say to install one inside each bedroom, in addition to the others. By my estimation that would mean five smoke alarms in my house. If you count every room my dog sleeps in, that would mean nine smoke alarms, or more if you count each spot as a separate bedroom.

            That may seem like a lot, but I’ve long had a suspicion that my dog smokes when we’re asleep. Have you ever seen hairballs burn? Not pretty.

            Can’t afford a smoke alarm? Yes you can. You, put down that beer. You, put down that cigarette. You, put down that game controller. And you, put down that—oh, man. Dude, close your curtains! I can’t unsee that.

            Yes, you can scrape up the money to save your life. I did a quick internet search, and found smoke alarms for sale ranging from twenty to less than five dollars. I wouldn’t necessarily go for the cheapest ones, but you can cover your entire home for less than the cost of that 20 inch flat screen TV you want to mount in your bathroom.

            On a related note, you do not need a flat screen TV in your bathroom. We’ll talk electrical safety in a future column.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Speak of the Devil: The Five Hoods: A Devilish Saxon Scoundrel

The Walking Dead's Governor as Little John ...

Speak of the Devil: The Five Hoods: A Devilish Saxon Scoundrel: Some links before we get things started. Yesterday having had been a Sunday, our joint blog had a  Snippet Sunday  post. Krisztina had tip...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A poll: My future as a humorist

This might as well serve as the official announcement: With my newspaper job gone and thanks to my paranoia about deadlines, I have around thirty unpublished humor columns. After talking it over (and crunching the numbers), Emily and I are turning them into a book entitled, yep, "Slightly Off The Mark". But what of the future? I still need to make up for lost pay, and I do love writing humor. So although I have an idea of the way to go, I thought I'd ask your opinion, dear readers, because you've been such dear ... um ... readers.

Don’t have Facebook? Don’t blame you—just tell me what you think!

Speak of the Devil: The Five Hoods: Is That An English Accent?

Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman. So Yes, it IS worth watching.

Speak of the Devil: The Five Hoods: Is That An English Accent?: Some links before we get started today. Yesterday Parsnip had a  Square Dog Friday.  Hilary had the divine Lucy  front and center the othe...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Goodbye, Cruel Newspaper Publishing World

Well, it appears I’m now a former newspaper writer, and my humor column is an orphan. Ironically, I didn’t find out KPC News bought the papers I wrote for until I read it in the paper. But while I considered the possibility that they might use their own reporters to gather local news, I held out hope that they might like my humor column, and maybe even use it elsewhere.

Instead, my first official contact was a phone call informing me I had become a “duplication of effort”. On the one hand, it seemed kind of abrupt after 23 years of writing Slightly Off The Mark and close to 25 years of doing news articles and features; on the other hand, the people making these decisions aren’t the same ones I’ve been working with. It’s business. You can storm the newspaper office to protest (and I kinda wish you would, just to make me feel better), but it’s probably pointless. I am upset that I didn’t get a chance to write a farewell column, though. Instead of going out like M*A*S*H, I went out like “Alf”.  (Oh, just look it up.)

            In addition to being the end of the best job I’ve ever had, it’s a huge hit to us financially. I still have my full time job, but this is the equivalent of taking a ten percent pay cut. I’d like to find someone else to print my column, but everyone wants to be a humor columnist and nobody wants to print one. My very funny friend Barry Parham, after trying to sell his column to literally thousands of publications, titled one of his books after the response he got from one editor:  “Sorry, We Can’t Use Funny”.

            To add insult to injury, I have nine or ten columns written ahead! I don’t know what my next move will be, but if I don’t find a home for the column, start selling some books, or win the lottery, I might have to give up my writing in return for that oft-joked about career in the fast food industry. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Fall of The Conservative Lawn Mower


            With the purchase of a brand new lawn mower, only the third new one I’ve ever bought, I said goodbye to my conservative lawn mower.
            (So named because it stopped working whenever it tilted to the left.)
            It had a good, long run. In fact, the conservative lawn mower wasn’t one of the three bought brand new—I got it used, just like my house and my cars. If it’s good enough for Pontiac/Ford/Dodge/Buick/Chevy/Nissan/Ford again, it’s good enough for Briggs and Stratton. (The less said about Renault, the better.)
            Well, good for a while. I should have retired the conservative lawn mower the first time I tried to mow the hill out front, only to have it putter and die. From then on, it only worked when on the level or tilted right. That wouldn’t have been so bad on a nice, flat lawn, but over my entire lawn there is exactly one square foot of level ground. It’s as if my landscaping was done by a guy with an inner ear infection.
            So I’d go one way and be fine, then forget, turn around, and the mower would gasp like someone finding a quiet moment in a Michael Bay movie. I’d have much preferred a moderate lawn mower.
            I needed a mower that would match my personality: Cheap and simple. It also needed to be light because of the tendonitis, which bothered me so much when I shoveled snow that I almost forgot how much I hated snow whether it was shoveled or not.
            Finally, I found a lawnmower with two stickers on the box, stickers that made it perfect for my needs: “clearance”, and “already assembled”.
            It took me only an hour to have it ready to go. That’s a new record, for me. I was a little startled to discover it had no throttle, but it’s safe to say that with me the fewer parts, the better. I went out, I mowed the lawn, and I came in. That’s all a person needs in a lawn mower.
            As for the old one, Spring Cleanup week was coming up. I had a suspicion that if I put it out on the curb, it wouldn’t last long, and I was right. In fact, as I came through the door after taking the first load of junk out, I heard a truck roar to a stop outside. By the time I turned around and looked out, the mower, a broken office chair, and a fifteen year old computer running Windows 95 were all gone.
            You could argue that I should keep stuff “just in case”, but that’s exactly the kind of attitude that was heading me toward being on one of those basic cable shows.
            For awhile the mower did a good, if not great, job. It was easy to start, easy to adjust, easy to use, the exact opposite of pretty much any government program. Then, one day … it stopped. By which I mean, by itself. By which I mean, it wouldn’t start again.
            And yes, I did aggravate my tendonitis trying.
            I’m not sure why this surprised me. If my life was a sitcom I’d be Gilligan, or Tim Taylor on a bad day. If I was a kid’s show, my motto would be: “Can we do it? NO!
            Still, I’m forever the cockeyed optimist, assuming that expression means you should accept defeat, but won’t. With the conservative lawn mower gone (and suddenly I missed it), I put the backup to work: an electric mower I inherited from my grandmother, tiny and unadjustable. The mower, not my grandmother. It was built, apparently, for people who scalped their yards like the villains in an old western. I call it “General Custer”.
            Every now and then I’d mess with the new mower, which mostly consisted of yelling at it, shaking it around, and begging. Then I’d pull the cord a few hundred times, give up, and get out the extension cord.
            Then I got lucky: Emily and I both became seriously ill, and had an excuse not to mow the lawn for three weeks. Well, lucky is relative.
            Once back on my feet, I realized the electric mower would be helpless against the forest of weeds that now snapped at my knees. I would give the new mower one more try, then give up and take it back—in other words, I’d do exactly what I should have done a month earlier.
            Not knowing what else to do, I drained the gas tank, filled it back up, took off the spark plug, put it back on, and pulled the start cord.
            The mower started. In fact, it purred like a guided-dander-armed cat.
            I can now take credit for “fixing” my new lawn mower, even though I did absolutely nothing that should have had an effect on it. It’s not often I fix something, but when I do … that’s exactly how it works.