Little Victories

My friend has multiple sclerosis. MS is a nasty disease, which has robbed my friend of the ability to walk. She gets by with an electric scooter and a wheelchair, but for someone who has traveled around the world, it’s been a tough adjustment.

When our family was going to a water park for a birthday party recently, our friend told us she wanted to meet us there with her nephew, who was visiting her. The idea was that her nephew would play with the boys at the birthday party at the water park.

At the park, our friend had fewer options. There were two lifts: One assisted her from her wheelchair into a pool, and another did the same for the hot tub. But my friend has traveled around the world; she wasn’t content to sit and soak like a dish sponge.

She wanted to ride the slides. Specifically, the biggest, hairiest slide in the park.

So she and her husband asked whether they could do that.

The first lifeguard was nice, but said the rule was that if she could get up the stairs (about four flights of them) by herself, she could ride the slide. That seemed arbitrary. What did the ability to walk up the stairs have to do with hanging on to the inflatable raft on the way down? You couldn’t use your legs on the raft anyway. On the slide my friend wanted to ride, your butt sat in a hole, and your lower body was immobilized, or was supposed to be.

What comes down must first go up.

What comes down must first go up.

That was discouraging. I once wrote a story about an engineer who spent a half day in a wheelchair to get a sense of what it was like. He was astonished at all he ways that streets and sidewalks and ramps that were built to code — the way his manuals told him — were nevertheless unusable for people in wheelchairs. I’d learned the same thing with my friend. Every doorway, every step, every time she got in a car, or got on a streetcar or bus, or went in to a restaurant — everything we take for granted is a possible barrier for her.

A little while later, my friend asked another employee, and got another no.

There were people who were grossly overweight, and really out of shape, whose upper body were far weaker than my friend’s, who has an impressive set of triceps as a result of propelling a wheelchair. But I understood the rules … which are often set up by lawyers as a result of someone somewhere suing someone else.

But my friend wasn’t giving up so easily. She went to the central first aid desk and asked a third time. This time her husband, my wife and I came too, to emphasize the point that we were willing and able to get her up the stairs.

The woman she spoke to was more senior, and was very apologetic. But she still said no.

I walked away from that feeling pretty defeated. I could go back and ride the slides, but it didn’t feel exactly right. I had free roam of the place, but my friend was hampered by a lack of machinery, and a set of invisible rules.

But then, about 15 minutes later, my friend came over, grinning. They’d changed their minds!

Up the stairs we went. The line was long, and we took turns piggybacking my friend up the stairs, while taking a lot of breaks while the line wasn’t moving. When we got to the top of the slide, we had to convince the girl working at the top that we’d gotten permission (since she was the first one we asked).

She relented. We got my friend into her seat, and off we went. With four adults, we had a lot of weight on the raft, so it was a pretty wild ride. But we made it to the bottom intact.

My friend was happy. We were happy for her.

Funny how that ride ended up being the highlight of the day.

The Best Thing I Overheard Today

It’s somewhat ironic how often I struggle to get out the front door to walk the dog, because there are plenty of days that that walk is the highlight of the day. Last week I saw a blue heron in the woods (you might have seen my failed attempt to take a photo of him).

This morning’s highlight wasn’t visual, though. It was auditory.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by kenschneiderusa via Flickr.

As dog and I returned to the corner near our street, a little boy with short blond hair was standing there waiting for the school bus. Walking toward him was a girl about his age.

“Hey!” he called out to her. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” she answered.

The boy pointed to some Douglas Fir trees behind a nearby home. “The birds! They’ve returned from migration.”

The girl stopped, looked in the trees, and listened to the birdsong. She said, “Cool!”

“Know why they’re so chatty today?” he said. “It’s because it’s sunny.”

I have no idea if those were actually birds freshly returned from migration, or whether they actually sing more in the sunshine. Doesn’t matter. The boy was outdoors, he noticed the birds singing, and he knew that many of them migrate, and they often come back in the spring. He shared what he knew with the girl, who appreciated it.

Damn, that made me happy.

Son of Sasquatch in the Suburbs

For a couple of years I’ve been walking my dog through a path in the woods. There’s a creek in there too, and where the path wends through it’s flat, so the creek flattens out. It’s more like a wetland, really, and it’s popular with ducks. There’s also a blue heron that comes by, when things are quiet.

I’ve been trying to get a photo of that heron for almost a year. Last May, I managed a grainy shot of the heron that’s only visible with either 1) a magnifying glass, or 2) a hearty imagination. (See “Sasquatch in the Suburbs” for previous middling photographic attempts.)

But last week on a quiet weekday morning, there he was again! But my standard-issue dog-walking equipment includes my cheap old cell phone,  not a camera with a zoom lens. So, I snapped a photo:

To assist with definitive identification, I even circled the blob heron this time. Can’t you see he’s facing to the right? Can’t you admire his noble profile? Can’t you tell I need to start bringing a better camera?

To answer your question: No, National Geographic has not called about the photo rights. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

Reunited and It Feels So Good

You remember Barfy, that dog whose family accidentally stranded him in the jungles of Borneo? You know, that inspirational story about how he fought off hungry natives, making his way to that rough port town, where he did whatever it took to survive until he could stow away on a ship, only the ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, but then he escaped, and he had to trek across Africa until he met up with a kindly Portugese man who smuggled him to western Europe. But the man wanted to keep him as a pet, and Barfy’s mission was to return home to his loving family in Marietta, Georgia. So Barfy charmed a widower into giving him her frequent flier miles so he could fly to the US,  but the only flight he could get was to New Jersey, so he had to walk the rest of the way.

Of course you remember. His family thought he was dead, but he turned up six years later, mangy, riddled with heartworm, missing one leg and blind in one eye. They made a heartwarming TV movie of the week about him, “Barfy’s Story: One Dog’s Incredible Adventure All 10,385 Miles From the Dog-Eating Savages of Borneo Back Home to God’s Country.” You must have seen it. Jaclyn Smith starred as an improbably good-looking and not morbidly obese Marietta housewife, and at the end, the real Barfy had a cameo role.

True, it was a brief cameo, since by then he was blind and arthritic and senile, and even after a fortune in veterinary bills, he was as gray and mottled as an old dish sponge.

Even if you never caught “Barfy’s Story” on channel 588, you get the point. Small, plucky pet, a living example of how loyalty and unshakable will conquers all.

(Though, even though I hate to quibble, there had always been rumors that Barfy took a few ethical shortcuts to get by in that port, and the “heartworm” was actually venereal disease. And then the widower’s family came forward, claiming that Barfy actually absconded with the frequent flier miles, though that was settled out of court. There was also that inconvenient detail about Barfy’s family forgetting about him, and getting Bella, a yellow Lab. No one talks about that, and they really don’t talk about how Bella made lame, demented Barfy her bitch. … But none of that’s important, because the story’s really about devotion and overcoming incredible odds, isn’t it?)

That’s why the movie is in heavy rotation on the Hallmark Channel in the 2 am slot, between the infomercials for miracle mops and the Abdominator.

Lovely as that story is, it fairly pales to a heartwarming story of our own. You see, like zillions of other parents, my wife and I stumble through our days and weeks with one hand clutching our belts, valiantly trying to keep from suffering the logistical equivalent of having our pants fall down, whereupon we trip on them, fall on our face, and inadvertently moon our mother-in-law. Or something.

Despite this fervent vigilance, child-the-younger’s reusable lunch bag went missing.

It’s not like we have a substitute, a “Bella bag,” so we had to troll the lesser household storage areas for sacks to use. And the bag had to be at school, though time and again we hunted through classrooms, and the lost and found, and the gym in search of the darned AWOL bag.

Weeks passed. And its absence gnawed at us, one of those things that was off. Out of order. Not working. Not right.

We contemplated replacing it, but that meant spending money and time, not to mention a dreaded trip to the department store — shockingly, there is no Greek-named phobia for the dread of wandering aisles of crap merchandise and various Chinese-molded plastics, in search of something you don’t even want to buy.

But just before we girded our souls and credit for such an ordeal … the bag reappeared! It was at school, sitting in the very bin where it was supposed to be. And it didn’t even have heartworm. In my tearful elation, I took a photo of it to include in the blog, but then …

You see, Jaclyn’s currently between projects. And Barfy’s story sold for a fortune. And my 401(k) isn’t doing that great, and — you know how it is.

Are These the Worst Christmas Socks Ever?

My friend Victoria Dahl was trying to convince me and the rest of the Twitterverse that she was wearing ” very sexy fuzzy Christmas socks.”

I was skeptical.

Her response: “Come on, John! Probably you just need a visual. A sexy, sexy, pervy visual.” Here’s the visual:

"Sexy," fuzzy Christmas socks. About as hawt as it gets on laundry day.

Inexplicably, I saw those socks and suffered a perv fail. How could that happen? Does Big Pharma make something for Christmas Sock Erectile Dysfunction? Well whatever. I’ll just wear my cardigan sweater and sleep in my twin bed until January, I guess.

Meanwhile, as the Christmas marketing juggernaut inexorably rolls forward to crush us all, I will try to get in the spirit. Since it’s better to give than receive, I offer up my own pair of Christmas socks.

WARNING: These socks are not for everyone. In fact, when I first tried to photograph them, my camera immediately broke:

The camera lens couldn't handle the truth.

But taking a tip from Harry Potter, I used a mirror to photograph the socks the second time. The camera survived–barely.

What the …? Yes, that’s Santa, golfing in the snow, on my hosiery.While an elf tends the pin. But wait, it gets worse:

Okay, maybe they’re not the worst ever. But I throw down the Santa-in-green gauntlet, sock-wise. Anyone got a worse pair?

The Polish Pokémon

We in the Ochwat clan are still reeling from news of a Pokémon character that practically has our name. His name is actually Oshawott, but as you can see from this parade of ineptitude, our name gets misspelled all the freakin’ time. So the fact that Pokemon gets four out of six letters correct and in order is good enough for us.

The other day on the blog we had our first encounter with the little sea-ottery thing, which was a bit rocky (e.g., “like a depressed love child of a panda and an otter, cursed to wear a frilled sweater containing an extremely unfortunate illustration of a penis”).

But we’re slowly warming to the mercurial marine mammal in the teal jumper. I even bought a package of Pokémon cards, even though I’m sure Nintendo will reimburse me once we become spokesmen for Oshawott. That’s a bad photo of the card, below:

Oddly, his keratin weapon-thingey is flipped over on the card (Is it reversible?). Also, he’s looking kind of badass…ish. I mean, relative to being a sea otter in a sweater, right?

My younger son saw the card and said he liked the “croissant” thing he has. And if you flip the beige thing over and you can shake off all the Freud the first image brings to mind, you can see his point.

Especially when the “croissant” super-heats in the oven, and then you throw it. Get a mouthful of this buttery goodness, bad guys!

Someone commented on the last blog post, “I don’t [know] you and you don’t know me, but after reading this, I feel sorry for your family to have a similar name to a Pokemon. Hope this doesn’t affect you very much.”

But that ain’t it. The name’s hard enough all by itself, so Oshawott makes things better. My older son called him “The Polish Pokémon.” He’s got the right idea. Besides, Oshawott can do this:

Did you know Oshawotts could mentalize like whoa? I’ve got to learn that trick. Maybe it involves more coffee.

My Pokemon Namesake

We Ochwats have an unfair advantage in the irony department. For some, it takes until graduate school in the humanities to learn about the floating signifier (i.e., the sign that doesn’t point to an actual object, or an agreed-upon meaning). In fact, we Ochwats not only float the signifier, we get it lost at sea.

For the last name Ochwat, not only is the referent sometimes lost, but the spelling is also a little free-floating. I have collected over 30 misspellings, which I grouped by relative ineptitude (bonus points, for example, went to getting more than half the letters correct).

I’ve also answered to innumerable mispronunciations, and I once even accepted an award when the emcee said “John … uh …” (Yeah, they meant me.)

Now my children get to experience the same thing, and generate new and different mismanglings of the old, venerable and difficult name. For example, one of my kids recently got Ochwutat. Would you like some Ochwutats with that hamburger? Or, Nice ink, dude. I really like your Ochwutat.

This weekend, my son was looking through a Pokemon book, and turned a page to reveal: Oshawott. No, I’m not kidding. That’s his name, and it even gets 4 out of 6 letters in the correct order (O, H, W, T), which is far more than other inept humans have managed with mine.

What is this thing? He looks like a depressed love child of a panda and an otter, cursed to wear a frilled sweater containing an extremely unfortunate illustration of a penis.

In search of answers, I consulted “Bulbpapedia,” the Pokemon encyclopedia, and found an entry for him.

Turns out Oshawott, aka ミジュマル Mijumaru, is one pathetic-sounding bulbaped, especially because his “gender ratio” is slightly hazy 87.5% male, 12.5% female, and his Breeding is “field group,” and “21 cycles (5355 minimum steps)” … which, if true, means Cosmo is going to have to come up with another 5,000 or so steps to help sad little Oshawott get it on.

There’s even a breeding chart with an entire column labeled “father,” and icons for 75 potential fathers in categories like “Night Slash,” “Brine,” and “Screech.” Well no wonder Otter Boy is looking a little down in the mouth. If you ask him “Who’s your daddy?” he needs to consult a frickin’ chart, and hope its not someone from a Pokemon biker gang.

And what’s with that doinker logo on his sweater?

Oshawott’s torso is light blue, and decorated with a pale yellow seashell feature in the center. Made out of keratin, this appendage, called a “scalchop“, can be removed and used in various ways; mainly, as a weapon.

Oh, it’s a weapon! I followed the link, and there’s Ash Oshawott, proudly displaying it:

In this image, the weapon looks a lot less inappropriate. Like a little dirigible, maybe, or a football of doom. Anyhow. The sweater is a disaster, and we’re not going anywhere near the whole oedipal/father thing, or what “12.5% female” might mean, but at least he has a little keratin weapon thingy.

And I like that expression on his face, like he’s got it out because looking to start some shit.

Alright then. He must be one of us.

Getting Klouted

As you can see on the right there, I’m on Twitter. Instead of going through twitter.com, I use a third-party app called Hootsuite, which shows followers, following, number of updates, and a number for something called Klout.

I’ve never liked the Klout number. It’s not even explained — you have to go looking for what it means.

The word clout means both a blow with the hand, and social influence, or political power. The company Klout gave the word a web 2.0 spelling (r you familr with Tumblr or Flickr, mothrfuckr?), and took it from there. They call their number “the measurement of your overall online influence.”

In addition to unfortunate rhyming, the About Klout page claims, “Klout isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list.’ We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Only one little problem: that’s bullshit.

Exhibit 1:  the wallpaper on Klout home page:

I have no idea whether these are actual people who have been piteously reduced to their Klout scores. (It’ s also possible they’re part of a human subspecies known as homo stockphotoicus.) But you see the issue, don’t you? These people have become their number.

Klout never exactly says it’s ranking people. They don’t have to. People will rank themselves, they way they would with IQ scores, SAT scores, income — it’s just how people operate.

Call it “social media” if you want, but once it gets quantified, it gets measured. Once it gets measured, it gets ranked. Once it gets ranked, you get squicky quotes like “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me” (that’s on the Klout website).

Exhibit 2: What’s in a Klout score, anyway? They can’t exactly tell you that either, but rest assured, it’s a scientifical factorizing of the innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary and patent-pending equation-matrix that includes:

Followers, Mutual Follows, Friends, Total Retweets, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, @ Mention Count, List Count, List Followers Count, Unique Retweeters, Unique Messages Retweeted, Likes Per Post, Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %, Unique @ Senders, Follower Mention %, Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, Update Count, List inclusions, Follower/Follow Ratio, Followed Back %, Unique Senders, Unique Retweeters, Unique Commenters, Unique Likers, Influence of Followers, Influence of Retweeters and Mentioners, Influence of Friends, Influence of Likers and Commenters.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m checking out a hottie, the things I want to know most are her Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %,  and her Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message figures. Hubba hubba!

Know what’s not on the Klout website? The Klout scores of Chief Executive Officer / Co-Founder Joe Fernandez, Chief Technical Officer / Co-Founder Binh Tran, and Advisor Thomas McInerney. Here’s a memo, guys — want to walk the walk? Then quantify yourselves. Drink your own Kool-Aid.

If you’re certifiably datafiable, you can log in to learn even more about your Network Influence, Amplification Probability, and True Reach.

Not that there’s anything to worry about, right? I mean, this is a positive experience, their mission is to help us, and we wouldn’t want to instill anxiety in people, to make them conform in any …

Hmm. Guess not. Better suck it up and try harder at social media, or your score will go down and you will plummet in the rankings. Or if you think you suffer from social media anxiety, talk to your doctor about … etc.

In his brilliant 1996 book The Mismeasure of Man, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould cut straight to the heart of problem with IQ tests. He argued,

…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.

Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions the way IQ did, of course (to my knowledge, no one has been sterilized because of low Klout). But the process is the same: your “overall online influence” reduced single entity, assigned a number, and then ranked.

Though to be fair, Klout is hardly the only one reaming your information. There’s a story on the wires this week that all your online information (Facebook, Twitter, blog)  is being archived by companies that provide pre-employment screening and background information on potential employees for clients.

Let’s not forget monetized — did I mention that Klout is backed by three venture capital firms? In the strangest little coincidence, the day after I started this post, along came …

Exhibit 3: A  story in FastCompany, “Facebook gets new VIP Sections.” The gist of it is that Facebook is developing a new VIP page, and today Audi and Klout are creating tools for it. A Klout VP told the magazine that “the new exclusive page is about finding influencers, movers, and shakers in their niche markets. Brands will be able to give favored treatment to visitors.”

To its credit, FastCompany almost addresses the creepiness of this:

“The creeping influence of money on the Facebook experience could have serious psychological impacts on how users begin to see what was once simple recreation. Facebook and Twitter have allowed few initiatives to permeate the wall between money and fun, but their data gives brands increasingly clever ways to exploit the precise monetary value of each user.” (my emphasis)

Klout says, “Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.” But that mission has nothing to do with what fattens its bottom line: namely, getting in bed with other companies (Facebook, Audi) to mine, process, analyze and sell user data for corporate benefit.

Turns out there’s a lot to that little number: It’s a nice bit of metonymy, reducing me to a number so that Audi and Facebook and Klout and God Knows Who Else, Inc. can understand my precise monetary value to their brands.

Oh, no!

Sasquatch in the Suburbs

Back in the early 1970s, Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot) was all the rage. He was allegedly a large, hairy ape-like biped who roamed the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

A still from a film that either showed Bigfoot, or a guy in an ape suit.

Actually, our hairy friend was part of the rage, which also included the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Elvis sightings, and various other quasi-bogus paranormal stuff. The thing about these were that there was all these tantalizing stories, but never anything that constituted proof. Still, it made for some interesting movies.

I’ve been thinking about Sasquatch recently, especially when I walk my dog through a local patch of woods (more pics here), where I sometimes see a blue heron.

I love seeing the bird, because he’s big, and good-looking, and rare. I’ve only seem him twice. The first time I saw him I was by myself and only had my cell phone camera, and in the long-distance photo I took, you couldn’t see him. For a few days after, I took a small camera with me in the hopes of getting a photo.

Of course he didn’t show.

But he showed up this morning, not all that far away. I only had my cell phone (does this sound familiar?), so I tried taking another photo.

Take a careful look. Do you see him there, on the left side of the water?

I know …  inconclusive. Maybe I’ll get a photo of him tomorrow, when I start taking the camera with me again. Or maybe I’ll have to dress up like Sasquatch so he’ll let me get close enough to take a decent photo.

Let’s hope not.

Now View This

USA Today, the top newspaper in the country (circulation-wise), is rumored to be considering offering its writers page view bonuses.” — Business Insider

Mortgage rates change less than Donald Trump’s hair
By Joey Cothaw, USA Today

NEW YORK — Despite tumultuous recent events including a possible federal government shutdown, Glenn Beck leaving Fox, and Matt Lauer leaving the Today Show just like Katie Couric did, the search for Obama’s birth certificate, a revolutionary new diet, and an exclusive set of Kim Kardashian nude photos, fixed mortgage rates were essentially unchanged this week, as the average rate on the 30-year fixed loan stayed below 5%.

Celebrities such as Kate Hudson would make out roughly the same because of unchanged interest rates.

Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on 30-year fixed mortgages rose to 4.87% from 4.86% the previous week. It hit a 40-year low of 4.17% in November, when a shop owner in Philadelphia picked winning PowerBall numbers.

“These rates are as stuck as the Wisconsin legislature, but without the Paul Ryan voodoo math,” said an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that Wikileaks wouldn’t reveal his sexting habit. “They need help from a Kelly Clarkson hit song, or tsunami video footage, or something.”

The average rate on 15-year fixed mortgages increased to 4.10% from 4.09%. It reached 3.57% in November (read the horoscope for Scorpios), the lowest rate on records dating back to 1991.

“You’d think these low rates would be like bargain Canadian pharmaceuticals, boosting home sales like Viagra or Cialis or Levitra,” the unnamed official said. “Instead, they’re like a sad old Hugh Hefner, leaving those buxom Playboy Magazine Playmates unfulfilled in their intimate lingerie.”

Low rates have done little to boost home sales, which are as stubbornly entrenched as Muammar Gaddafi (sometimes spelled Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Khadafy or Khadafi), the ruler of Libya. Many builders of dream homes have reported a sharp decline in home orders for the December-February quarter.

In Los Angeles (a place of many celebrity sightings and movies), one company said its new home orders dropped 32% from last year. Such declines, the company said, are worse than the drop in U.S. productivity after a Britney Spears crotch sighting, or a Lindsay Lohan drug scandal. “Our business is deader than Elizabeth Taylor,” the spokesperson said.

Many would-be buyers are as hopeful American Idol contestants, but they’re finding it’s no Tea Party out there, thanks to strict credit requirements, unemployment fears and expectations that home prices will fall further, because of the record number of foreclosured homes on the market. (For hot stock market tips, click here.)

The five-year hit 3.25% last month, the lowest rate on records dating back to January 2005 — a year dominated by news of the Iraq War and natural disasters.

The average rate on a one-year adjustable-rate loan fell to 3.22% from 3.26%. Three weeks ago, the rate hit 3.17%, the lowest level on records dating back to 1984, the year many celebrities were born, including Prince Harry, Katy Perry, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was portrayed in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Social Network” starring Justin Timberlake.

Note: Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Karina Smirnoff did not provide additional reporting on this article.