This is an offshoot of the original Liam & Janet blog. That blog has become overrun by Liam's inability to keep his mouth shut when something annoys him. The serious rants there seemed incongruous with the humor columns. The plan for the humor columns continues to be to post a new one every Friday, plus occasional extras when the mood strikes.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

When Pigs Fly, Swine Flu

[Just a quick note, faithful readers. I am considering trying to get these essays published in some newspapers as a regular column. In order to accomplish that, I need to start writing more frequently, but also somewhat shorter (I'm told that the average essay in a newspaper is 750 words). If I actually manage to get some papers to sign on, I may also have to stop posting the essays on the blog, but one thing at a time. --Liam]

Apparently, the pigs are attacking.

All this time, we've been convinced "Islamic Extremists" were the bane of human existence and the source of all terrorism. Remember when we were concerned about WMDs? Remember how WMDs were defined as "nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological" weapons? Biological weapons!

And now, after years of being told that every white powder was anthrax, every cough tuberculosis, every pock mark smallpox, it turns out our real threat was significantly more porcine in nature (and no, here I am NOT thinking about Rush Limbaugh, but thank you for playing). Swine flu has been detected in New York City.

The thing is, we should have seen this coming. Remember that the previous Presidential administration spent some time warning us of an impending pandemic outbreak of the Avian flu. But these were the same people who insisted yellowcake uranium was coming from Niger, and that Saddam Hussein was a major player in the 9/11 attacks, when they started telling us the birds were "death from the skies", we should have realized two things:

  1. There WAS a major threat from the animal kingdom, and

  2. It was almost certainly not the birds

The thing is, we even kind of brought this on ourselves. Think about it: Have you ever been laid up with a significant injury and, while healing, been unable to move or engage in any activity more strenuous than personal-region scratching? I'm talking about the sort of injury where reaching for the remote control is too much effort, where the first time you get up to use the rest room, you go through the mental calculus of whether walking to the kitchen to get a bottle is more steps than you'd save by only having to get up for the bathroom every third or fourth time.

So now consider that we're coming up on summer time. This relates, trust me. Any day now, those of us in the colder portions of the country will be breaking out our barbecue grills for the first time. Those in more tropical climates (what I like to refer to as "the armpit states") have probably been at this for some time now. Think for a second, what's the first thing you think of when I say the word "barbecue"?


Imagine just how much painful recuperation you'd have to endure if someone stole your ribs. You'd be pretty ticked off, right? Now imagine you don't even have thumbs, so you can't use the remote control, which is fine, because you don't even have a television. All you have is a nice mud puddle, and you can't even roll around in that, because you would damage your internal organs because you have no ribs! I guarantee you'd devote all of your spare time to thinking up ways to get even with those responsible for your predicament.

And so the pigs have come up with this swine flu. It's the perfect weapon. Forget building your house out of straw or sticks or even bricks, a house of swine flu would take out the wolf entirely, the only drawback being that it would also take out everyone who lived therein, but I think we can all agree that's a small price to pay (about $3.49/lb).

Of course now you're asking yourself "How exactly does this affect me?" Experts are beginning to suggest cutting down on unnecessary air travel, because, so they claim, this is how these diseases spread, but I think that's crazy. When was the last time you saw a pig on an airliner? Well, OK, a few of those CEOs in first class, maybe, but I mean back in the "veal pen" seats that you and everyone you've ever known fly in?

The first thing I suggest is that the parents of small children stop playing "this little piggy" with them. Next, if you must watch the muppets, stick with old episodes of Sesame Street, which was 100% Miss Piggy free. And by all means, avoid pigs in blankets, it's summer time, the only reason they'd need blankets is if they've got the flu!

Also, clearly you need to start avoiding the places that pigs frequent. Donut shops for instance (rim shot). Avoid farms. Cancel the family's vacation plans to visit the slaughterhouse. If Rosie O'Donnell gets another show, don't try to get tickets. Replace any American made motorcycles with foreign brands(*).

And for heaven's sake, stop eating the ribs. They won't make you sick, but they've gotten so darn expensive, and I hope to drive the price down to the point that I can afford them again.

(*For those that don't get this one, there's a certain American made brand of motor cycle which is referred to by enthusiasts as a "hog". Yeah, humor is always so much better when you feel the need to explain it.)

Copyright © April 26, 2009 by Liam Johnson.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Well Now, Isn't He Special

[I hope you'll indulge me today. This is still supposed to be a humor essay, but it's also on a topic near and dear to my heart, and so if it ends up being more informative and less funny, please understand that this is my fifth and almost certainly final child we're talking about here. I get a little sentimental. Because it's more serious than humorous, I'm posting it as an "extra". There will still be a normal essay on Thursday. --Liam]

As parents, we have certain aspirations for our children. When we have our first one, we dream that he or she will grow up to be the President who figures out a way to peace in the middle east, or the doctor who cures cancer, or the psychiatrist who figures out how to resolve whatever issues it is that makes Michael Moore think that way.

As we have progressively more children, our hopes and dreams diminish perceptibly, so that the second one we just hope is happy and moderately successful, and by the fourth or fifth child we're merely hoping they can make it through daily life without noticeably soiling their undergarments and maybe, just occasionally, remembering to chew with their mouth closed.

One thing which is NOT high on the list of aspirations for our children is autism. The name "autism" is shortened from a much longer Latin phrase which translates to "Not actually stupid, just really good at ignoring you." Autistic kids have honed the art of sticking their fingers in their ears and loudly saying "LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" down to such a science that it no longer requires fingers, or loud singsong voices. Or indeed any recognition that you're even in the room.

Autism is not well understood by doctors in much the same way that the lyrics to most songs from later in Bob Dylan's career are not well understood by the casual listener. And that's probably an apt analogy, because as best we can tell, autism is a "sensory processing" disorder, meaning that to the autistic child, we're all talking like Bob Dylan. Or the parents in a "Peanuts" animated feature. Or the Miss Teen USA pageant's Miss South Carolina 2007.

But here's the thing that no one will tell you, and that I think everyone who has an autistic child should know: In some autistic kids, much of the sensory issues relate to a sensitivity to milk and wheat. Yup, the two ingredients which we'd probably all list near the top of any list of "healthy foods for growing children" cause my son to stare into space and roll his eyes around with a fascination I've not seen since I mistakenly accepted an invitation to a party in the "stoner" house back when I was a freshman in college and knew neither what a stoner was nor why, exactly, they would choose to use so much of that particular sickly sweet air freshener.

Janet happened upon this particular bit of information when she refused to accept the doctor's prognosis that Liam was "mildly autistic" and that there wasn't really much that could be done for it. She decided to get a second opinion from "Dr. Google" and after several days of searching and reading up, we decided to try taking my son off of milk and wheat and saw an immediate improvement. I'm not saying he went from drooling to solving complex quadratic equations; he's more of a political science sort of guy.

But here's the most infuriating part: When we next took him in for a visit with his pediatrician, she was astounded by his progress and asked if we'd done anything that could account for it. We told her, and she nodded and said "Yeah, I've heard stories like that from other parents." I didn't, but I wanted to say "Really, Doctor? And you didn't think to mention that back when there wasn't 'really anything we can do'? Maybe this year your CPA will come back with a tax return saying you owe 35% of your gross wages as income, and if you ask why he didn't claim even the most basic deductions or credits, he'll say 'Yeah, I've heard stories about those from other CPAs'. Maybe then you'll understand just how incompetent a doctor this makes you."

There isn't really any handbook for children like my son. There are lots of books on the progression of autistic kid, such as what to expect and how to handle the special challenges. And heaven knows there are lots of books on raising so-called "normal" children (books which are together worth their weight in, well, logs, but only if you're out of logs and it's cold and you need something to burn). But there's amazingly little on children who were autistic but aren't really any more because they turned out to just have allergies and their parents were conscientious enough to remove those allergens from their diet.

So we're kind of on our own, which is OK, because ultimately no matter who you go to for advice, your child will be different and special. Ours is just a little bit more so.

This really hasn't turned out quite as funny as it should be for the humor blog, but as I said, it's information I really want people to have. Please pass it along to anyone you know who has an autistic child and hasn't yet found out about trying the wheat-and-milk free diet.

And if they want to talk about our experience, I'd be happy to chat with them at

Copyright © April 28, 2009 by Liam Johnson.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Blog Quickie...

Today in the Home Depot, we were walking past some large tank like objects, and my daughter asked "What's a water softener?".

So I spent some time describing the difference between "hard" and "soft" water.

She then asked "Do they also make water hardeners?"

I said "Yep. Back there. They're called 'freezers'."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yule Never Believe What I Did Today

[This essay was begun in December, and was intended to follow the "Positively Liam" essay. I never finished it then and have picked it up now to finish and post. And thus we have the odd spectacle of an essay about a Christmas tree being posted after tax day. Truly, there are no rules on this blog. --Liam]

Today, we return to the old standard essay topic, "Isn't Liam a bonehead!", but I'm still extremely aware of the fact that some of you don't like my excessive comedic self-loathing. I am, however, also aware that last week's essay proved that without self-loathing, I really haven't got much in the way of jokes.

And so I have three things to say:
  1. Technically, I only promised to not be negative to myself for that one essay, I never promised to give up an otherwise extremely non-promising writing career.

  2. Technically, this essay is not really about me. The boneheaded events herein DID happen, and knowing me, they very well COULD have happened to me, but for the anonymity of the person who told me the story, I have narcissistically recast the events with myself as the lead character. Having started down this path, I think we can all safely assume that everything in this essay is a lie, especially the word "everything" in this sentence.

  3. Technically, if you really think I'm not that much of a doofus, you should know that "last weeks essay" is correctly named in as much as it was written last week. However, as I write this, I have not yet posted that one, and in fact, I've been hemming and hawing over whether to post it or not, based on my contention that it isn't particularly funny. And so now I'm going to make another attempt at humor, the best possible outcome of which will be that this is funny enough to post, thus forcing my hand and making me post that one as well, which will have the net result of averaging out the two essays to at best a moderate chuckle or maybe a mildly-amused "heh".

That said, I am sitting here in the dark working on battery power, because we currently have a power outage due to a large winter storm which hit the northeast recently(*), and without anything better to do, I've decided to write another essay.

Earlier today, in order to pass some of the time I would normally dedicate to the selfless and vital act of watching television, I decided to put up the Christmas tree.

Janet and I long ago gave up on the idea of having a real tree. I could tell you it was because we don't like the idea of having to cut down and kill a tree just so it can decorate our house for a few weeks. I could tell you that we're concerned about the fire hazard inherent in pine needles dried to a level of aridness rarely found nearer than the surface of Mars sitting up against warm Christmas tree light bulbs. I could tell you that because you have to keep water in the base of the tree to keep down the fire hazard, and with small children in the house, we're afraid that we'd end up with a perpetual puddle in the living room. But the truth is that given past history, there is every likelihood that this tree will be gracing our living room with yule cheer until sometime near tax day, and while there is something depressingly pathetic about noting your Christmas tree still standing there in tribute to the birth of Jesus while outside the birds are chirping and the snow has all melted, this can't compare with the incredible emotional low of seeing that same tree needle bare and beginning to decompose.

And so our tree is an artificial affair made from twisted wires and green plastic by artisans who took great care to make sure that in the end, it perfectly and accurately reflects the look of... twisted wires and green plastic. We buy a new tree every few years when the kids succeed in knocking over the old one and bending the wires to the point that the "branches" no longer point in any direction that can be reasonably considered anything like realistic, even after consuming too much holiday "nog", and we generally buy it from one of those "Mart" stores to which you go when you're willing to sacrifice a few things in order to get a cheaper price, things like quality and safety and (in the case of trees) realism.

So the first step to putting up the tree is to find the box in which the tree resides for 11 months out of the year. Well, 7, but let's just pretend it's the normal 11. It's a large box, you'd think it'd be pretty easy to find, but no, sometimes we've put it in the basement the previous year. Sometimes we've put it in the garage. Sometimes in the attic. This year, I found it by the side of the road, hitchhiking to Baja.

Putting the tree together is a simple affair, no more complex or time consuming than reassembling a Swiss watch that has been carefully disassembled via Cuisinart. To start with, you have to sort out the "branches" by size and make sure the small ones go at the top and the large at the bottom. If you put the ones on the top in first, it becomes top heavy and falls over on you. If you put the ones on the bottom in first, you have trouble reaching in to hook the top ones to the central pole. And if you put the small ones on the bottom and the large ones on the top, so as to create a look of "upside down tree", your wife yells at you and makes you start over again.

I did, however, get the tree built, and so it was time to start sorting through the various decorations. We usually let the children do all of the decorating except for the lights, on the theory that Janet and I have little artistic talent, and so if we let the kids decorate it and it ends up looking like something out of a war zone, we can tell our friends with a knowing nod "Yes, but the children so love decorating the tree" and not have to admit that in fact it's because we have the same level of "tasteful decoration sense" that a cat displays in its litter box. (And lest you think I'm kidding, the last time I decorated the tree, I put all of the decorations on the floor and then got down onto all fours and kicked them at the tree with my feet).

The lights, though, are our responsibility, and so each year we pull out each of the roughly six thousand strands of lights we've accumulated over the course of our lives and begin the arduous task of figuring out which bulbs have blown over the course of the year. Cheap strands of lights (and trust me, if we're willing to put up with a foundation that resembles a tree about as much as I do, do you really think we spend any more on the lights?) have a bad habit of failing to light entirely if any of the individual bulbs are blown, and so each year we have to go through the strands one by one, plugging in new bulbs until they light, and this year was extremely frustrating. I was at this for probably an hour and a half, swearing under my breath as I tried to figure out why no matter how many bulbs I swapped out, I couldn't get the damn strand to light up.

Raise your hands if you've figured it out. Yup. And probably in less than the 90 minutes I was at it. The power was out. Like an idiot, I spent much of my afternoon trying the Christmas light equivalent of performing CPR on a sofa.

I feel so stupid. There's nothing for it but to finish this essay and go break out the nog. Wake me up when it's time to take the tree down.

(* Even this is a lie. I'm not sitting, I'm sort of lying back on my couch. The storm wasn't recent, it was 5 days ago, as were most of the events described. And although I considered writing something like this while the power was out, my battery was quite dead from watching excessive "children's programming" (a euphemism, because I am embarrassed to admit what I actually do with my spare computer time... Club Penguin.), and by the way, it's the afternoon, so even if all of the rest of it was true, it's "pitch light" outside.)

Copyright © December 17, 2008 & April 12, 2009 by Liam Johnson.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blog Quickie

It is a hard day at my office, a number of people are receiving bad news today, and so I thought I would lighten up the mood with a joke or two.

I began telling a knee slapper about two brothers and one guy in the office insisted I give them names, so I said their names were Ernest and Julio.

Then I apologized, because I realized that on a bad day like that, it wasn't a good day for Gallos humor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Taxing Essay

It's April, which means it's time once again for our annual tax advice column. Annual in the sense that every year at this time, we think to ourselves "We really should write a tax column", and so this column is "annual" in the same sense that earning a million dollars is an annual event for us.

Before we begin, we want to let you all know our qualifications. We are not registered CPAs. Our math skills are passable if you grade on a curve. But our former mother in law is a certified accountant, and we used to sing in an a cappella group led by a man whose day job was tax attorney for the IRS, and so we feel extremely confident that you should all trust our advice implicitly. Confident in a way that only the secure knowledge that anyone who does will be locked away for years and thus be unable to come after us for their just retribution can make us.

Let's begin with a little bit of history. The primary U.S. Tax form is the 1040, named after the year in which Lady Godiva made her famous ride through the streets of Brussels, Belgium throwing truffles at the little children and hitting "Peeping" Tom the tailor in the eye, which was the origin of the phrase "It's all fun and games until someone puts an eye out". This tells us that one of the best ways to ensure a favorable viewing of your tax forms by the IRS is to include with your forms a box of high class chocolates.

"But won't the chocolates melt and get all over my tax forms, rendering them illegible?"

Well, yes, there is that risk, but you should also consider the not widely known fact that the main IRS processing center is located in Dante's ninth circle of hell, the frozen circle, and so really, the only chance of your chocolates melting is if the postal service is not sufficiently speedy in getting your forms there in a timely fashion, and we can all agree that if there are two things the postal service is known for, it is "spindling" and "mutilating".

"But then what happens to me if the IRS can't read my forms?"

Well, first off, that's not your worst problem. Your worst problem will be the hungry denizen of the IRS who is now angry that you have whetted their hunger with the aroma of chocolate while not having provided any that remains in edible condition. But the truth is that the worst thing the IRS will do to you in this case is something called an "audit", which can't be that bad, right? I mean, it's a quiet little word, only five letters; surely if it were something really bad, it would have a more terrifying name, such as "Armageddon" or "Schwarzenegger".

The audit is the process by which the IRS very reasonably and politely crawls up your financial posterior armed with a pickax, a headlamp and a quart of 30 weight motor oil (don't ask why) and attempts to determine where you've hidden all of the riches they're certain you have and have been refusing to declare so as to get out of paying your fair share of taxes.

We can take another hint from Lady Godiva here, too: If you ever do get audited, show up naked. There is one of two very real benefits to showing up naked, depending on who you are. If you happen to be young and beautiful (and here we are thinking of Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie), showing up naked may just put the auditor into such a congenial state (as measured on the Mohs scale) that they let you off with just a warning, or failing that, feel unwilling to get up from behind their desks to chase you if you simply walk out of the audit. If you do not happen to be young or beautiful (and here we are thinking of everyone else in the United States), at least the IRS will not have to tear a hole in your good pants to gain access to the entry point for their examination.

"OK, so I want to avoid the audit. I'm confused about 'tax deductions' and 'tax credits'. Can you tell me the difference?"

Sure. A tax deduction is the final amount of taxes you owe after having calculated your way through all of the forms if you have it checked over by Dr. Watson. You know you have done a good job on filling out the forms if, on looking at the final outcome, Dr. Watson says "Brilliant deduction, Holmes!".

A tax credit sounds like a good thing, but remember that in 2009 in the United States, we're in the middle of a huge credit crisis and nowhere is this more true than in the world of income taxes. Unless you are "too big to fail" (and here we are thinking of noted thespian Ron Jeremy), reporting a tax credit on your tax forms is a risky business and could end up with your net worth plummeting to cents on the dollar until you are divided into pieces and sold off to your neighbors at fire sale prices.

"Wow, that sounds bad! I see in my tax form packet a number of forms called 'schedules'. What are those all about?"

You can ignore those, unless you are a corporate filer who went through a corporate merger in the past 12 months and is filing jointly. Some corporations use a different financial calendar than the rest of us do, and so they have to file these "schedules" to let the IRS know when they plan to pay their taxes, the answer to which is invariably "never, because we have moved our headquarters to the Cayman Islands, thus allowing us to avoid any financial interactions with the federal government that do not come in the form of huge 'bail out' checks written directly to the bonus fund for our top executives."

"I never had any children, but I'm one of those pathetic people who is never invited anywhere because I insist on bringing my six dogs and three cats with me and demand that they are like my children, and should be invited anywhere I am invited. Can I claim them as dependents?"

Yes, but only because your friends will really appreciate the break from dealing with you until you get out, and as an additional bonus, by the time you get released, most of those pets will no longer be with us, and those who are will have evolved language skills and may well understand common manners well enough to explain to you that you are a doofus.

"Fair enough. I have a few medical expenses. Is there any way that I can list them on my tax form, and reduce my tax burden?"

Possibly, but probably not. There are two methods the IRS uses to determine whether your medical expenses were extreme enough in the previous year to qualify for tax relief, the equivalency test and the rule of thumb. The rule of thumb is probably the easiest to quantify. Put simply, it is "if the sum of the medical expenses incurred by the filer was more than a top notch hospital would charge to clone a copy of a human thumb and then successfully attach it after a tragic hitchhiking accident, then the expenses are deductible, but only to the extent that the new thumb is fully functional."

The equivalency test is much harder to accurately calculate, but essentially if you consider the IRS to be like a loan shark, then you consider the sum total of all of the medical expenses you would incur over a year of trying to duck out of paying "Federal Eddie the weasel" and compare that to your own medical expenses, being sure to subtract out of your own a value equivalent to the damage to Eddie's henchmen's knuckles. Then consider that this is not unlike what the IRS will do to you if you DO claim your medical expenses and they consider those claims to be invalid. Now decide whether the amount of money in question is sufficient to be worth that risk.

"I have a personal net worth in excess of one hundred million dollars which I have stashed away in various tax shelters such that I have never had to pay any taxes. This year, through the various congressmen I have in my pocket, I have managed to push through tax changes allowing me to deduct the maintenance costs of my personal helicopter and Lear jet, but since I do not pay any taxes, can I get a refund for the money I paid to buy those congressmen?"

Oh, dear, look at the time. That's it for this year. Be sure to read next year's tax advice column when we will cover the topic of "amortization", the process of having your tax return looked over by your CPA "Mort" before submitting it to the IRS.

Copyright © April 11, 2009 by Liam Johnson.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blog Quickie

Here at the Institute of the Useless and Bizarre, we have come across a news story about an inventor who has developed a device he calls the "Wii-brator", described as an adult marital aid designed to interface with the popular Wii video game system.

Institute staff, in our neverending quest to avoid doing any work that could in any way benefit anyone in any context, immediately began coming up with ideas for other devices with so-called "open interfaces" which could be made to interface with marital aids.

So far, we have come up with the GPS ("You have reached your destination." "No, not quite, let's drive around the block one or two more times."), the TiVo ("This will not be scheduled as it conflicts with a higher priority show." "That's it, I'm calling the divorce lawyer on his cheating ass!") and of course, the iPhone ("There's an ap for that." "Does it come with an adaptor? That plug is way too small for my hole."(*)).

If you hear of any similarly bizarre items, please let us know.

Thank you.

P.S. Come to think of it, we here at the Institute apologize for the use of the word "Quickie" in the title. It was clearly inappropriate in this context.

(* This is sort of an inside joke. The headphone jack for most devices which include cellphone technology is actually smaller than the headphone jack for most portable audio devices, and I recently spent several hours in an airport trying to find an adapter so that I could make use of headphones from one device with another device.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Positively Liam

[I wrote this one last December while traveling, and didn't get around to posting it. I then either forgot about it or decided it wasn't funny enough, and set it aside. Last week, just after posting "Flightmares", I found it and decided it was good enough, so here you go. I mention all of this mostly so that if anyone notices the copyright date and wonders why, that's the story.

I should also make one thing clear for those who do not already know. My wife's name is Janet. My ex-wife is Jane. And if you think THAT hasn't caused some consternation when writing an e-mail to one or the other... --Liam]

Last essay, you may recall, I spent a fair amount of time making fun of myself. This is a common theme in these essays, indeed some would say that my entire oeuvre consists of different amusing ways of saying "Wow, isn't Liam (the senior) a serious bonehead!"

And yet one of my friends complained that I took it a bit too far, and that I really should be nicer to myself. Of course, the truth is that I'm an egotistical son of a gun, and so if I were to give you my honest opinion of myself, not a one of you would ever want to be around me again.

Nevertheless, since this is the third time over the course of my humor essay writing "career" that I've heard this complaint, perhaps it's time to see if I can write an entire essay without saying anything negative about myself while still meeting the three criteria of a successful humor essay:

  • Enough humor to make you laugh, or at least chuckle appreciatively.
  • An engaging subject that keeps you reading until the end, and most importantly,
  • Enough words to form two and a half pages of length.

Tonight, I'm writing this in a Comfort Inn at the Atlanta airport. Atlanta, you see, is conveniently located at the exact center between Minneapolis, MN and Manchester, NH, if you're Delta Airlines or smoke a lot of crack (which I am not prepared to stipulate are necessarily mutually exclusive conditions).

This past week, Janet and Liam (the younger) and I have been in Powell, WY visiting my oldest two children and my ex-wife, because my company requested that I do something about the excess of paid leave days in my "leave bank", and frankly there was little in terms of vacation bliss that either Janet or I could think of that would equal spending a week with a woman who still owns half of the things I once owned and who regularly speaks of me in terms that, quite frankly, I can't repeat in this essay or I will violate it's first tenet.

And to avoid violating that tenet (in letter, if not in spirit) I will point out that this was technically Janet's idea, so I am not saying anything bad about myself when I point out just how completely bone-headedly stupid it was. (And for the benefit of readers who happen to be still married to me, please forgive that. I really don't want to give away ANOTHER half of my stuff!)

Seriously, though, it wasn't really that bad an idea; Andrew & Katie have been asking almost since the moment of conception that we one day bring Liam out to Wyoming so that they could introduce him to the other half of their family, their friends, and the concepts of "big", "flat", "brown" and "boring" so absent in New Hampshire living and yet so prevalent in that particular area of Wyoming in December.

And the truth is, although being married to each other drove each of us crazy, Jane and I can still be civil and even friendly to each other in small doses, into which category (small) "sleeping at her house for a week" does not necessarily fall, but I digress.

We actually had a pretty good trip, and while there are vast comedic depths to be plumbed in the concept of spending a week around ex-wives and ex-in-laws, some of whom can somehow convey the concepts of "technically polite" and "absolute disgust" simultaneously (throw in the concept of "sucking on a lemon since birth" and you have one person I saw this week, although in the interest of not suddenly receiving a court order for an increase in child support, I shan't identify whom), the truth is that with a single exception, everyone was pleasant and warm and sharing (a bit too sharing, if you include that my former mother-in-law had a bit of a stomach flu, but again to be fair, she postponed seeing us for as long as possible to try to avoid passing it on).

And so we shall skip ahead to last night. Less than 24 hours ago. The nearest convenient airport large enough to support commercial aircraft that are not powered by giant rubber bands is nearly two hours away from Powell in Billings, MT, and in order to make all of the connections necessary to get home, you have to start your first flight no later than 9am, so for the less mathematically gifted, that meant we'd planned to get up at 5am and out by 5:30. Which of course meant that getting to sleep was almost impossible, and along about 3 a.m. I finally managed it… only to be woken up less than an hour later by a phone call from Northwest Airlines, notifying us that for various reasons, our first flight was being delayed by an hour and a quarter, which was going to make us miss our connection, and could we possibly get on the 6am flight instead?

Math again. It's almost 4 a.m. Even assuming we can get the car packed up, get Liam up and be on the road in 15 minutes, we can't get to Billings before 6. Add to that returning the rental car, checking our luggage and getting through the security line, there was simply no way we could make it.

Another choice was to be "re-routed", a process nearly as enjoyable as having a surgeon tell you that they've run out of clean scalpels, and so for your exploratory surgery, he plans to have rabid wombats chew open your chest cavity.

The final option was to delay our return trip for a day and be re-booked on the same itinerary the next day, but as I've already said, we'd been in my ex-wife's house for a week, and so the wombats were looking pretty good.

But here's the thing experienced travelers will tell you: Agreeing to be re-routed is kind of like agreeing to take just one hit of heroine: it almost always leads to another… and another… and another… until you're crawling, wild eyed to any supplier trying to get that next "fix" that will eventually get you, well, home.

And that is how we have ended up in a hotel in Atlanta, paid for by a big-time pusher named Delta when Northwest cut us off. Tomorrow morning, if the gods smile on us, we hope to find ourselves connecting home through Anchorage by way of Ganymede.

Wish us luck!

(Please note: While I promised to not say anything negative about myself, and while interpersonal relationships (and truth) prevent me from being particularly negative about my former in-laws, I never promised not to be negative about the airline companies. If you have any objections to how they are portrayed within this essay, then I have three thoughts.
  • First, what's next, not being allowed to make fun of Chicago politicians, al Qaeda and the Tele-Tubbies (three of the most evil forces the human race has yet devised)?
  • Second, have you actually BEEN on a commercial flight at any time since Orville Wright stiffed Wilbur a bag with three peanuts in it?
  • And third, perhaps you need to find a different source for your humor, such as or the repair manual for a 1974 AMC Pacer.

Copyright © December 9, 2008 by Liam Johnson.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

And a quickie...

As the father of two children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I don't feel overly bad about making this otherwise tasteless joke...

A friend of mine pointed out to me that today is National Autism Awareness Day, which I found odd, in that awareness is not the forte of the autistic.

But I suppose "National Autism Lack-of-Focus Day" probably sends the wrong message.


OK, so, I'm flying home from North Carolina, where I've been visiting my parents, and here on the last leg of my journey, I have finally found the worst person to share an airplane ride with. I've always known that somewhere out in travel land there had to be a worst, but like bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and customer service from the Sears "Customer Service" department, I figured I'd spend my whole life without ever running across him.

Not any more. This chupacabra of the travelling set is sitting less than a yard away from me, on the other side of the airline aisle. I weep for the woman in the middle seat on his side of the row, the sort of soul destroying weeping one does for a person who is doomed but not yet dead, such as a deep sea diver with his tanks empty, a skydiver whose chute has failed to deploy or anyone who debates the "liberal" side of any issue with any random one of my in-laws.

To begin with, this wad of humanity is easily 350 lbs. No, that's not fair… to anyone who is 350 lbs. He's really not that fat, but he just carries himself as though he should be, the sort of "I may not actually be overflowing the bounds of my seat, but damn it I can make you wish that's all I was" kind of attitude.

My fellow plane mates and I were already in something of a foul mood. The boarding process had gone as usual, ruthless airline representatives with cattle prods herding us into the plane, border collies nipping at our heels if we got out of line, and a giant hydraulic "trash compactor" running down the length of the "jetway" shoving us into the fuselage door.

We all took our seats and… nothing happened. We sat for about ten minutes, and finally the announcement came "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are waiting for a late connecting flight. We will be holding here for a short while. If you are meeting someone in Manchester, you might want to let them know we'll be a bit late. If you have any children older than 4, we suggest you cancel your plans to attend their high school graduation ceremonies." We sat for a while.

Finally, a few harried looking people began to straggle onto the plane, and when that tide had stemmed, we still sat, waiting with the level of patience normally associated with a DMV but with more miscellaneous fees. Finally, we heard a bellow, more bovine than human. "Dude... I think this is our plane", and on lumbers the yeti and two or three less notable companions.

He makes his way down the aisle and honestly, my eyes began to water. Have you ever gone into a gym locker room and smelled a pile of used towels that have been sitting in a pile for several days, because no one has gotten around to laundering them? That combined smell of days old sweat and mildew that we associate with socks or noted transvestite actor Devine came wafting down the aisle, and for a moment I was glad he hadn't hurried to make the connection. As bad as the wait was, I can only imagine what enhancement a good perspiration would have lent to the ambiance.

Two of the very few remaining empty seats on the plane were the middle seat in my row and the aisle seat across from me. As he walked in, I caught the eye of the gentleman sitting next to me at the window and he nodded, and I could tell we were both having the same thought: "This is the exit row, we're sitting here because we're both capable of opening the exit in an emergency. I'll support you if you want to consider this an emergency!" So, as Putrid Pete walks down the aisle, he predictably stops at my row. The aisle seat on the other side was next to the kindly octogenarian couple, and while I'm not proud of it, the thought "they've had a good, long life, PLEASE let it be them" did pass through my head. Miracle of miracles, I won, they lost. He was going to be across the aisle from me, but at least he wasn't going to be physically touching me for the 150 minute flight.

Final passengers on board, the flight attendants begin closing the doors and preparing for takeoff, and Sasquatch gets up out of his seat and walks (ambles, really) to the bathroom, ignoring the protestations of the flight crew. Really, he didn't go immediately, he'd sat in his seat for a good five minutes, and only when it would further delay our departure did he decide NOW was the time he simply had to void, and clearly he considered this noteworthy, because when he returned to his seat, he took out his phone and began to text someone. Honestly. Everyone else had put away their phones and iPods (the gentleman on the window end next to him had turned off his pacemaker, just in case), and E.T. begins texting away.

And sniffling. About every 10 seconds, a big snorting, braying sniffle. Oh dear lord, is he going to sniffle through the entire flight? Well, no, he paused from sniffling occasionally, to bellow loudly to one of his travelling companions three rows behind him. Throughout the flight. A flight that had been scheduled to depart after 10:30pm, and on which many travelers were going to attempt to sleep, the random firings of his neurons were so important that he was simply incapable of holding in the thoughts, so we were treated to a random sampling of discussions about how he really wished his friend would introduce him to the girl he (the friend) was dating, and how (to the gentleman sitting several rows ahead in combat fatigues, clearly returning from active duty) "ARMY" stood for "Aren’t Really a Marine Yet". Classy.

Snort, bellow, snort, bellow, the pattern repeated itself until suddenly he realized that something was missing, there wasn't enough variety, at which point he began to intersperse in great wracking coughs. Only comparatively rarely, but violent enough that every news story from the past few years of airlines trying to track down the other people on a flight with someone known to have tuberculosis began running through my head as people in the rows ahead of him picked bits of lung out of their hair.

So now you're thinking this is bad enough, this clearly qualifies this gentleman to be in the top 10 worst people of all time to be on an airplane with, what could he possibly do to ice that cake and cement his place at the top spot. One word: Dip.

About 20 minutes into the flight, he begins squirming around in his seat in rippling undulations that eventually produced a tin of chewing tobacco, from which he pulled a plug of... I can't even talk about it. I would rather dip my finger into the vats at a sewage treatment plant and rub the resulting mixture onto my teeth and gums than shove this gooey wad of black yuck into my mouth, but into his it went.

If you've never had the dubious pleasure of being around someone who partakes in this noxious substance, the problem isn't the tobacco itself. It's not even the cloying, sickly sweet odor, which under normal circumstances is nauseating, but in this case actually helped mask the more obnoxious ambient odors. No, it's what they do with the resulting expectorant that having a foreign body in the mouth generates.

Most dippers at least have the decency to use a styrofoam cup or other opaque container, but not Piltdown man. He begins spitting into a clear plastic cup sitting right next to his flight-attendant supplied glass of diet coke, as if the rest of us needed to see this container full of the Devil's tea. (I've now made several attempts to describe it in humorous terms, but each of them turned more sickening than the last, so we'll leave it at that).

And here's the worst of it: Although I'm writing this on April 1st, each and every core detail is true.

Santa Claus may still be a myth. The Tooth Fairy may never cross your path. Zeus may be just a figment. But there is a worst airline traveler in the world. If you see him coming in all his tattooed, stringy haired glory, fake a heart attack. Throw up violently. If all else fails, call the flight attendant and tell them you have a bomb. Anything to get off the plane. Trust me.

Copyright © April 1, 2008 by Liam Johnson.

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