Tag Archives: Fountain Pen Reflections

For Love of Briar and Stone: A Fascination with Tobacco Pipes

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My grandfather kept his pipe under the eve of the smokehouse. Standing well over six feet in height, he could easily reach under the edge of the tin roof and retrieve his pipe while out on a jaunt, along with a tall, rounded tin of Prince Albert. He filled it, lit it with a Bic, and stood looking at the old pasture as he puffed.
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I remember the smell. I remember the routine, watching him gently shove the finely shredded tobacco into the bowl with his thumb and even it out with the Parker Jotter pen from the bib of his overalls. I don’t recall why the pipe was kept concealed beside the smokehouse, nor why the spent tins of tobacco were discarded in the disused and rotting rabbit pin on the old farm, but I remember noticing how the pipe seemed to soothe him. It made him contemplative. It was altogether different from his cigarettes, which he sometimes hastily rolled himself but mostly bought and smoked by the carton. The cigarette was a need – it was smoked like that first breath that one inhales after a long, deep dive under water. The pipe, however, was a leisurely walk along the banks of a pond where the cattails thumped against one another in the breeze.

Later, my heroes smoked pipes. James Qwilleran was one. The protagonist of Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series, “Qwill” was a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking, coffee-loving crime reporter. About the time he gave up the pipe and alcohol, however, I lost interest in the books.

Another, and by far the most influential on my pipe-smoking, was of course Sherlock Holmes. As he sat up through the night watching the smoke swirl from his bowl, laboring over some problem or another, so did I, clutching my dog-eared paperback edition of the complete stories. He was partial to “black shag” tobacco smoked in a briar; and never, to my recollection, sported the calabash with which he was so often portrayed. (Indeed, I was grateful that pipes were not omitted from the recent Robert Downy, Jr. series of films, but rather were used liberally throughout as they were in the stories.)

Sherlock. Qwill. My grandfather. Michael, the jovial, bald and bearded local tobacconist who sold me my first pipe – a hardwood – for $10 and threw in an ounce of his “Jeffersonian” blend tobacco so I could see if I liked it. That first bowl, sitting on the brickwork outside my dad’s house in the sideyard, clumsily filling and lighting and relighting the bowl.

Now, a pipesmoker is as essential to the way I identify myself as is my religion and income. I’m a middle-class, protestant, Caucasian pipesmoker.

The drawer in my office at home contains about a half-dozen decent pipes. Each has a story. One I got when I began my first full-time newspaper job, editor of a weekly newspaper north of here. Another when I moved to a staff writer position at a local daily paper. There’s one I bought with the money I was saving to pay my student fees after the university kicked me out because I still didn’t have enough to cover my fees (might as well buy a pipe, right?), and one that was given by a dear friend before I officiated his wedding. My wife has given me two pipes – one for a birthday when we were living in our second apartment, before we built the house, and one for Christmas last year. And I have about two or three others that also were nice but have encountered damage that I cannot repair myself.

I always insist that I’m incredibly easy to find a gift for: no matter the occasion, I would love to have a new pipe.

There is a time in the evening when I wish I could retire to the porch – no matter the weather – and light my pipe. Twilight, just as the sun creeps beyond the razor’s edge of the horizon for the day. Yes, to sit outdoors then and light a pipe, there at my favorite time of day is magical. It lets me recall all the days I couldn’t do that. A prisoner of employment that kept me confined at that hour, in restaurants or retail stores, newsrooms or over my own desk reworking someone else’s writing on deadline.

Even now, however, there’s no chance for that. There’s always something – the kid’s homework or bath, the dirty kitchen or the unprepared dinner, something – that seems to require my attention.

Recently, I joined a group on Facebook – The Gentleman’s Pipe Smoking Society – where members routinely post pictures of their “pipe porn”: tables and shelves overflowing with all manner of pipes in stands, fancy tins and humidifying jars of various tobaccos and more. Massive collections that I must confess, I do envy. But alas, in my life, the time I began to encounter a steady income also coincided with my courtship and marriage, and though I’ve advanced my career and accordingly my income tremendously since she and I began cohabitating almost a decade ago, there still has never seemed to be enough money left at the end of every month to spend on something as frivolous and selfish as a new pipe.

And so the pipes are gifts. They are rare treats that mark milestones, and with that I’m OK. As has been noted at times by members of that Facebook group, you can smoke only one pipe at a time. Recently, my wife found a pipe I had thought lost in a box of old stuff from her desk, and I had the occasion to work on my beloved meerschaum until a bit of pipe cleaner fuzz was finally cleared from the stem. Ah, it’s been like Christmas! Two pipes added to the collection once more.

My wife asks if ever I’ll quit my pipe. I tell her that I will, one day. But then, I also think of the days when the kids are moved out on their own, the house is paid for, the bills more moderate, and hope then that I’ll have the resources to buy myself a pipe every now and then. I look at the Web sites, like pipesandcigars.com, almost weekly. I marvel at the styles, the colors, read the reviews. I have brands that I love – GBD, Comoy’s of London, Chacom – and I treasure those pieces of my modest collection, which also includes its share of Dr. Grabows and basket pipes. I wish I could replace the pipes I’ve lost – the ones that dropped and shattered, the beloved calabash I found broken in two beside my desk after my 5-year-old spent a day in the office watching shows on the computer – but pipes, like friends, come and go in life. I like a straight-stem with a large bowl. I like little rings of nickle around the stem. I badly want a poker pipe – one with a barrel-like bowl and flat bottom that sits on its own. I had one once. It’s one of the friends I’ve lost when it fell from the pocket of my jacket while I was getting something from the trunk of my car. I mourn it still.

I’ve spent more than a little time at my grandfather’s house, peering beneath the eaves of his smokehouse. I don’t remember him throwing his pipe away. I don’t remember it getting broken.

I would love to find it, to put it in the drawer alongside my own.

A Democratic Effort to Change Douglas County’s Body Politic

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The times, they are a’changing (in Douglas County).

Oh, my my. Party politics are getting interesting in Douglas County, Ga.

The Douglas County legislative delegation – a substantially gerrymandered hydra of a thing itself – has proposed retooling the county’s board of elections.

Presently, the board of elections is comprised of four Republicans and one Democrat. This is an arrangement that has actually reflected the political reality of Douglas County pretty well, as the county’s Democratic party has largely slid between dormant and dead for about two decades.

But now, the county’s legislative delegation (that is, the state representatives and senators who represent parts of Douglas County in the Georgia General Assembly) has proposed changing how the board of elections in Douglas County is constituted, and to change it in such a way that might actually give the Democrats a 3-2 advantage on the board.

This has some in the county establishment, including Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, a Republican, stomping mad.

In a recent article in the Douglas County Sentinel, Worthan vows to “do everything in my power to kill this thing.”

The county’s delegation is composed only three Republicans: Rep. Dustin Hightower (R-Carrollton), Rep. Micha Gravely (R-Douglasville) and Sen. Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton). The remaining five members of the county’s delegation are Democrats: Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), Rep. Kim Alexander (D-Douglasville), Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta), Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague (D-Red Oak) and Rep. LaDawn Jones (D-College Park) comprise the rest of the county’s representation.

Under a plan proposed by Sen. James and one that Rep. Alexander plans to carry in the House, the Democrats and Republicans would each get to pick two members of the county’s board of elections. The remaining member would be elected by the delegation, which, again, is 5-3 Democrat.

Senator Donzella James

Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) is leading a potential shift in the Douglas County Board of Elections — and maybe county politics, too.

Ergo, a 3-2 Democratic advantage, which might more accurately reflect where Douglas County is, and where the county is going.

During the 1990s, while total population increased by almost 30 percent, the black population more than doubled its proportion of the population from 7.9 percent to 19.4 percent.

But demographic shifts in the county may not be the underlying reason for the current tension. Like the rest of Georgia, a little more than a decade ago, the county experienced a nuanced shift from Democratic to Republican hands. Tommy Waldrop, who served as sheriff in the 90s, ran as a Democrat the first time, and as a Republican for his second term. (My grandfather, a lifelong Democrat who kept a framed portrait of FDR on the wall of his living room, said he’d have to “hold his nose” to vote for Sheriff Waldrop, who was also my grandfather’s cousin.)

See, it’s like this:

During this transition, the “establishment” – that is, the organized, hierarchical political structure in place, i.e., “good ol’ boy network” – flipped. It was still the same people, mind you, but rather than being Tallmadge-type Democrats they were Perdue-type Republicans. For more than a few election cycles, this served fine; just as was the case during the bad ol’ one-party system days, if you won the Republican primary, you basically won the office. Board of commissioners chairman, sheriff, tax commissioner, etc., all went pretty seamlessly from Democratic to Republican control, and since the issues that cause such tension between the parties has precious little bearing on local politics, few even seemed to notice.

So it was that I observed the inauguration of the last Democratic office holder in county government—the county surveyor.

During this transition, however, the county’s minority community was left without significant representation. Democrats since the 1960s, they continued to vote a Democratic ticket through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Until, that is, it became clear that there often wasn’t even a Democrat on the ticket; by the general election in November, a great many races had been decided.

For a couple of elections, the Democratic ticket was led by candidates who could not be taken seriously. One county commission candidate in particular caused a stir when he placed his campaign signs in front of Douglas County High School, not realizing that school property is not exactly a public right-of-way and that you can’t put signs there. These were folks who were already pretty unglued, and for whom even the pettier burdens of local public office would doubtless lead to disaster.

In other words, these were the kinds of folks they elect in Clayton County, not Douglas County. Follow? (OK, so, we did kind of elect at least one Clayton-caliber candidate.)

Now, a Democratic party is reemerging. Some of this is driven by the diverse coalition of blacks, gays and lesbians and educated, liberal whites and freethinkers bound together through President Barak Obama’s two national campaigns. And the good ol’ local GOP isn’t happy about this at all, no, sir.

Chairman Tom Worthan

Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, a Republican, is none too happy with how them Democrats from Atlanta are influencing the political landscape of another county they happen to represent — his.

Even a local election can be an expensive proposition. Presently, however, most of the money is invested in the primaries, on the assumption that winning the Republican nomination is all that is necessary to win office. But an emerging, viable Democratic Party in the county, fielding viable candidates – like Todd Johnson, a white Democrat who endeavored to run for sheriff against Democratic challenger Derrik Broughton and Republican incumbent Sheriff Phil Miller until the county’s board of elections kicked him off the ballot because he didn’t have his fingerprints taken in the right place (he had them done through his employer, another metro Atlanta sheriff’s office, rather than at the Douglas County Probate Court) – means that more money and effort will have to go into general elections as well. And that means fewer cocktails and low-profile tires for those in the county who wish to remain politically influential (think: developers, contractors, etc.).

The claim that is easy to put forth is that these candidates are a product of an influx of people from outside the county – “those people,” if you will. But really, in the past few years, there hasn’t been much of an influx of “those people,” or any people for that matter. From 2010 to 2011, the U.S. Census shows the county’s population grew by only about .7 percent – less than the state’s growth of 1.3 percent. The housing market went kaput, new housing construction stalled and people couldn’t sell their old houses.

(Plus, during the past decade, Douglas County instituted minimum home sizes, which effectively priced many minorities out of buying a new home in the county.)

This isn’t so much that people are coming into Douglas County, and that these outsiders are stealing our way of life. Rather, it’s the fact that the people who are here are finding their voice.

Chairman Worthan – who, coincidently, I’ve voted for a few times – is casting this as people from outside the county (only Rep. Alexander actually lives in Douglas County; Rep. Gravely, though he has a Douglasville address, lives in that little loop of ZIP code that extends up into Paulding County) meddling in local affairs. Really, though, this is a product of the how the GOP gerrymandered the county in an (ill-advised) effort to dilute the political influence of Democrats from southern Fulton County (which the state would like to see go away), as well as a surprising Democratic victory that sent Rep. Alexander to the Capitol and kept former Rep. Bob Snelling (who, many took for granted, would handily win a seat after winning the Republican primary) on his porch.

It’s hard to see one’s dominance come to an end. It can leave a bitter taste. But then, those of us who remember being loyal Democrats back when Sheriff Waldrop ran with a “D” next to his name, are quite familiar with how this feels. We know how it tastes.

And right now, amid the Republicans’ tantrums, it tastes kinda’ sweet.

A Plan to Preserve My Legacy

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I’ve nearly died enough times that I often can’t help but think about my legacy. I think about the lonely grave I’ll leave behind (since my wife has said, were I to die, she’d most likely be buried with a subsequent husband), my by-lines on ever-fading sheets of newsprint in the dark loft of a newspaper’s morgue and this blog, which will fade quietly into the fog of the digital ether like so many Geocities abominations.

Or my daughter who, if my demise is imminent, would not likely remember me anyway. Rather, she’d remember someone else as daddy, probably the man with whom my widow would be buried.

Park Bench

Have a seat, on me.

There’s not much, no.

While walking down a trail near my office, I came upon a park bench that bore a plaque, the inscription of which detailed how the item was lovingly given in memory of a cherished loved one.

And I became inspired.

First, I decided that I would go ahead and begin preemptively donating things in my own memory – park benches, trees, anonymous looking bricks in large construction projects, that sort of thing. I’d save my money a little at a time, and every few months, I’d write a check to do something in my memory.

But then I made the next logical step: it is not so much the item that has been donated that is the memorial, necessarily, but rather the inscription upon the item that was donated. In other words, I don’t need to spend a small fortune on benches and trees and swings and shit so that people might remember my name through the years – I just need a rather ample supply of bronze-looking plaques that I can stick to such things.

A large box full of adhesive plaques, inscribed “Given in Loving Memory of Tony,” is the ticket to my immortality.

I could affix these things onto all manner of surfaces – benches, street signs, storefronts, parking decks – and, given the polity and norms of this historically congenial region, who would dare question or deface a memorial? Such things are simply not done.

Better, I could have the dedication come from a variety of sources. Besides my family – who, a regular visitor to this blog would note, would be an unlikely source for such remembrances – I could be loved by the Masons, the NAACP, a variety of churches and religious organizations, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the John Birch Society and the Southern Poverty Law Center and SCLC. I could be remembered by golfing buddies I never had, the car club I never joined or, of course, the American Legion!

Sure, sure – you’re defacing public property, you say. Or it’s disingenuous to begin planning memorials for yourself while still alive, you’ll sing. Perhaps these are heinous acts of vandalism, for which I will certainly face charges, you’ll cry. To which, I say: whatever. Whenever the end comes, I’m certain that it will be inopportune, and I’m further sure that it’ll be hard enough to find able-bodied men willing to sacrifice their backs to serve as pallbearers after I go to believe that I’ll long be missed. Few of us have as long on this rock as we’d like, and those who have made peace with their end are very small in number.

I want to be embalmed, as a means to ensure that I’m sufficiently dead, and I want to be buried in a sealed vault, so as I’ll leave behind a beautiful corpse for the return of Christ/zombie apocalypse. I want to be buried with an extra pair of shoes – size 12’s – that I can give to my Granddaddy if the dead do rise from the grave, because I forgot his shoes when we buried him and that still bothers me.

And, with my many memorials, I will be fondly (if  fictitiously) recalled as a mysterious – but deeply loved – father, husband and servant.

9/11 – Empty Sky

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It was a pretty September day. The concrete in the city had finally let go of the heat it had retained for months, so that a cool breeze could at last be felt even at the corner of Courtland and Piedmont.

I was at Georgia State University, and the managing editor of the Signal newspaper on campus. This was a big year for us. We’d begun printing our first color front pages in years, and we’d just launched our first Web site.

At the newspaper office, I was the first one in, and set about opening the shop. I rolled the phones off voicemail, booted up the banks of computers, jimmied the lock on the editor-in-chief’s office and turned on her television.

I sat at one of the Apple G4 computers, clicking through my e-mail when one of the sports writers came in. Strike that – the sports writer. Our sports department consisted of the Martz boys – twin brothers who liked writing about sports and designing their pages, but didn’t like playing with others. (For that year, if you were an aspiring sports journalist at Georgia State, you were out of luck unless you were willing to take whatever one of the Martz boys would give you, which wasn’t much.)

I don’t remember much about this guy, except that he was insufferable. Really, he talked all the time about things no one cared about. I can’t even remember what he talked about. That’s what I thought of him. Still alone in the office, I finally told him he’d have to excuse himself because I had to go to class and I’d have to lock up the office until another editor arrived. He picked up his bag and began to leave.

“By the way,” he said, “did you hear that someone crashed into the World Trade Center?”

“A truck?” I asked.

“No, just a plane,” he said.

“Oh. Probably one of those tourist planes got a little too eager,” I said.

He agreed, and left. I grabbed my back and locked the door. Down the hall from our newspaper office on campus was a television lounge. It was usually empty. It was also where a lot of homeless people went to watch TV and sleep. Students didn’t use it much.

This morning, it was packed.

Windows from the lounge looked out on the hall. I stopped and looked through them at the television. There was a gaping hole in the side of one of the towers, billowing black smoke and flames. “Damn,” I thought. “Helluva’ tourist plane.”

My timing was dead on. As I watched, just about to leave for class, the second plane hit. It wasn’t a single-engine tourist plane like I’d thought. It was a big, shiny jetliner that exploded on impact.

My view was obscured by everyone in the lounge jumping to their feet at once. Words like “Jesus!” and “shit!” and “holy Jesus shit!” filled the halls.

This was different.

I went back to the newspaper office and unlocked the door. I’d left the television on in the editor-in-chief’s office, but oddly had it tuned to one of the only channels that wasn’t broadcasting from the roof of a building overlooking the World Trade Center. One click fixed that.

I got on the horn and started calling folks. Something I’d remarked about before was the oddly high number of New Yorkers I had on my newspaper staff at the time. I liked them, because they were true urbanites. I’d grown up on an old farm; the city was strange to me. I surrounded myself with people who considered Woodruff Park to be “woods.” These were people who drove down alleys and cut through parking decks when you rode with them as part of their drive home, and didn’t consider this strange at all.

I opened up our phone lines for our writers to phone relatives in New York, since the cell phone system was jammed with calls and landlines were the only way to place a call. Web sites for news outlets were crashing, and somehow people were finding our site for Atlanta news. We began aggregating info from the television and what Web sites we could reach. A newspaper was making images of the scene available for college papers to use, and we were using them liberally. So far as I know, our newspaper’s Web site has never recorded more hits in a day. CNN went down, but ours stood strong.

One of our arts and entertainment writers – himself a former interim editor-in-chief of the paper along with being a former United States Marine was using one of the phones to call his old service buddies. He and about 10 other former Marines left right from the newspaper office to re-enlist.

I missed that first class of the day, but went to another before the university decided it prudent to cancel classes the rest of the day. I really wanted to go to the next class, because it was Professor Herb’s global studies class.

Professor Herb was sort of a red-headed Irish guy. He was Catholic, I remember – or had been at one point, anyway. And he was a pretty funny lecturer. I’d had him before for a class and enjoyed it. But Professor Herb’s true area of expertise was the Middle East. He’d worked for oil companies after he earned his Ph.D. in Middle East affairs. His wife was from the Middle East, and he’d lived there for years while working for the oil companies before returning to academia.

Professor Herb, I thought, would probably have something interesting to say this morning.

He came in and immediately distributed a new syllabus. While the towers quaked and fell, he was redesigning his global studies class. The lessons he’d planned to teach were no longer relevant.

We sat in a vast and nearly vacant lecture hall that morning in the General Classroom building. It was a tall building, and suddenly everyone within earshot of a television or radio was suddenly terrified of tall buildings.

That morning, Professor Herb taught us all about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. We learned about the things we’d done that made people in that region hate us, and about how many in the region still liked us or, at least, were indifferent to us. We learned about what happened after they blew up the U.S.S. Cole, about how governments there had provided implicit support for al-Qaida, and that if we were going to war with anyone, it’d be the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that wars in Afghanistan are damned near impossible to win because there’s nothing good to bomb.

There were only about six or seven of us in class that morning, but the class still managed to run over. Understanding the unique character of the moment, none of us were going to pass up the opportunity to have an audience with such a scholar on this very morning.

Later that day, out of class and after classes had been cancelled and we’d bolted the newspaper office door shut (the editor-in-chief never showed up – we finally reached her on her cell phone, getting the hell out of town – and we had sent our Webmaster home to keep the site going from there), I stood in Library Plaza on campus and listened. It was silent. The city was deserted. Even the planes – the roar of which was constant – were gone. There was no traffic, no horns blaring. I could even hear the traffic lights click as they switched from red to green. Jason Hanes, a dear old friend and college chum, and I stood on a pedestrian bridge connecting the plaza to another classroom building and starred down the desolate street below and said nothing.

We then drove to the Webmaster’s house up in Gwinnett County, near Beaver Ruin Road. The highways be then were being used sparsely as well. The electric signs over the highway that usually would have advised how long you could expect it to take you to go from one exit to another instead displayed “National Emergency – All Air Traffic Suspended – No Airport Service Available.”

At the Webmaster’s house, we watched the war begin. The Northern Alliance, which had been battling the Taliban for years anyway, suddenly were getting feisty. Rockets were being fired in Afghanistan, and CNN was airing the beginning live. So was Fox, but it was the same feed that CNN was showing, except they tried – poorly – to superimpose the Fox logo over CNN’s.

I didn’t lose anyone close to me that day. No one I knew worked in the Pentagon, the World Trade Center or was even on a plane that day. What happened was terrifying. The radio stations all carried 24-hour news broadcasts instead of music. I will not forget watching Aaron Brown, who was new to CNN, perched on a rooftop overlooking the disaster in New York, undertaking the macabre task of calling play-by-play for the end of the world. That’s when I began going to sleep with the television on, tuned to CNN, needing to watch the world revolve in real time.

Still, I remain haunted, more than anything, by the sky that day, silent as death. My parents’ house was in the path of planes that circled Hartsfield International Airport, and the sound of aircraft was constant. The memory of stepping outside and hearing that eerie quiet sticks with me.

I had the decal of an American flag in the back window of my Bonneville on Sept. 10. I do not always agree with the things my nation does, but I have always been proud and blessed to be one of its citizens. Still, every year, I make a point of listening to Bruce Springsteen’s haunting tribute to that day, his album “The Rising.” And I cry like a baby.

I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to the empty sky
— Bruce Springsteen, “Empty Sky”

Smarbo – You’re Shitting Me!?

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I’ve written before about my best friend, Roomba, and how it’s changed my life for the better. It’s a dear, dear friend and confidant. I’m not too proud to say that I’ve been willing to make love to it on occasion. I haven’t yet, of course, because I can’t quite figure out the, you know, mechanics of it, but I heart that robot big time.

Tonight, I came across an announcement for Toshiba’s answer to my wonderful iRobot product – the Smarbo.

Smarbo

Toshiba's Smarbo fancies itself a Roomba-killer. Doubtful.

Let me explain an element of my personal philosophy before I proceed further. When I was a young man in the market for my first car, I drove to a barn in northeast Alabama where a man gave me the option of purchasing one of two cars from him: a Ford Mustang, or a Plymouth Barracuda.

Both were muscle cars, but the Barracuda was far less ubiquitous than the classic Mustang parked next to it. Everyone had a Mustang, I reasoned. It was the quintessential muscle car. As such, to even compete with it, other muscle cars must be designed with some sort of edge just to make them competitive. Otherwise, why bother? So, if the Mustang was the standard, the Barracuda must have something – some element, something tangible – that made it “better” than the Mustang in some way. So, I bought the Mustang.

I have a similar philosophy now with smartphones. If the iPhone is the standard – and granted, it is as popular as it is for a reason, because it’s a damn good phone – then the other smartphones on the market must have something that gives them an edge, or else, why would major manufacturers even try to invest the resources in competing with the iPhone?

When it comes to floor cleaning robots, I have the standard – an iRobot Roomba. Almost every evening, when I take my daughter upstairs for her bath, I set it to rove about downstairs, gathering up the tufts of tumbling cat hair and ample kitty litter that is scattered across our hardwood floors while I’m at work. It is a powerful tool in my arsenal of cleaning equipment that makes life with three cats (my wife’s three cats, to be sure) tolerable.

How it works is, basically, a relatively small amount of suction, a rotating brush and – I don’t know, this rotating squeegee-type thing – collects debris from the floor. It’s powered by a large rechargeable battery, and electric motors allow it to rove autonomously around the house. A bumper in the front tells it when it’s run into something, and little electronic “eyes” on the sides help give it an idea as to whether or not the floor is exceptionally dirty in a certain spot, or if it’s coming up on the edge of the stairs. More than that, there’s not much to it. It can be scheduled to run at a given time, but since it can’t know that it’s about to run through a pile of cat shit that somehow appeared despite the presence of a clean litter box as is at times the case, setting it to run when I’m not home to lend a little supervision has proven unwise. (It also has proven that cat shit is damned hard to clean out of a Roomba.)

Like the Ford Mustang, it gets the job done. But, also like the Mustang, I’m willing to wager there are other products on the market that have a competitive edge.

One I’ve read about, from a company I’ve never heard of, constructs a type of laser grid across the floor to get a sense of where obstacles lie, and rather than fanning out in a conch-shell pattern as Roomba does, it paces back and forth through the room in such a way that more efficiently covers the ground and reduces the tendency to go back and forth over the same spot again and again, as Roomba is wont to do.

I’ve also read about a new patent filed by iRobot for its Roomba robots that calls for the installation of two sensors in the ceiling of a home. The sensors look like small smoke detectors and work rather like satellites, allowing Roomba to triangulate its location and know where it is in time and space. It sounds pretty awesome.

But then, today, I came across a description of a new challenger to Roomba’s dominance – the Smarbo, by a company I have heard of – Toshiba.

This thing has two on-board CPUs that read and make decisions on data gathered from 38 on-board sensors and one on-board camera. It know where it is, where it’s been, where it’s going, and what it’s going to do when it gets there. This thing is smarter than all three of the cats it’ll be up against. Hell, it’s got more processing power than my old Dell laptop.

Oh, but wait. There’s a problem. Tech blog Hothardware.com waits until the end of the story to lay this little glitch on us – sure, it’ll only be available in Japan to begin with (which is asinine, given the tiny accommodations in which most Japanese live, though tech-obsessed they may be), but the real doozy is that this thing is going to cost $1,175.

Yeah – more than a grand. I can’t have anything roving around my house picking up trash that costs more than that Barracuda I bought out of that guy’s barn (except maybe my wife, but she doesn’t clean, so that’s moot).

To compete with Roomba, Toshiba needs to produce a superior product, which the Smarbo may well be. But it also has to be, I don’t know, affordable. Not even Dyson gets away with trying to convince you to spend more than $1,000 on a vacuum cleaner, and they have $350 desk fans!

Look, I’m an iRobot acolyte. I believe in my Roomba, but if something better were on the market, I’d be willing to move up. But better doesn’t just mean smarter or more efficient. For more than twice the price of what I paid for my Roomba, Toshiba’s entry into the robot fray had better damned well be able to scrub my shower, wash my clothes and wake me up in the morning with a charming English accent.

$1,175? Toshiba doesn’t think much of me, do they? (Though their vacuum may well be much smarter than I am.)

Birth of the Cruel

Standard

Hey yo, depending on the day and depending on what I ate
I’m anywhere from 20 to 35 pounds overweight.
I got red eyes, and one of them’s lazy,
and they both squint when the sun shines so I look crazy.
I’m albino, man; I know I’m pink and pale
And I’m hairy as hell everywhere but my fingernails.
I shave a cranium that ain’t quite shaped right —
Face tight, shiny — I stay up and write late nights.
My wardrobe is jeans and faded shirts;
A mixture of what I like and what I wear to work.
I’m not mean and got a neck full of razor bumps —
I’m not the classic profile of what the ladies want.
You might think I’m depressed as can be,
But when I look in the mirror I see sexy ass me.
And if that’s something that you can’t respect then that’s peace —
My life’s better without you actually.
To everyone out there who’s a little different
I say, “Damn a magazine; these are God’s fingerprints.”
— “Forest Whitaker,” Brother Ali

Who are you?

Complicated question, no? We got some things in common, you and me. Carbon-based, an affinity for oxygen, maybe we both need to take a pee. But whether or not these similarities are by design or coincidence – a product of infinite intelligence or genetic happenstance – is probably where we start to part ways. Weight, gender, skin color, background, preference in shampoo, etc. We can’t see eye to eye because we’re not even the same height.

If I’ve ever gotten anywhere on my looks, it’s been out of pity.

However, if there’s anything we share, it’s probably an innate distrust of those different from us. We are in competition, after all, for finite resources over which we and our progeny will also compete, which makes a degree of aggression essential for the survival of our species. If ever there was a truly altruistic person, I doubt that he or she lived for very long.

What unsettles me, however, again and again is how vicious and violent our actions can be toward those different from ourselves within our own nation and further, within our own communities.

Our national heritage is vastly more filled with examples of hate than understanding. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes is simply not something that comes naturally to us.

Still, it is something of which we are capable, and our capacity to do such – along with thumbs and our aptitude for building nuclear weapons – is what separates us from the animals. However, again and again, we put our best selves aside and turn back to our more animal instincts; spitting venom, attacking different species and being generally happy to curl up on the couch at the end of the day and get our bellies rubbed.

Resources are finite. Here, the resource over which we fight is unorthodox: opportunity – the chance to live a good life in a good, safe and stable country.

We are not the same. Our differences make it impossible to set any standard. As the Romans said, “To each, his own.” (Well, except they said it in Latin.) But what allows us to transcend our biology is civility.

It is trite to say that we should quit hatin’. Not going to happen. But if we can set a mutual (and irrational) standard for beauty – beyond biology – can we not also set one for mutual respect and coherent discourse?