During the next few days many of us will be coming together with family and friends. The operative word here is “together” because in these contentious times “together” seems to be in short supply. The key to avoiding hurt feelings and black eyes is to steer conversations to innocuous pleasantries, topics that may elicit a chuckle rather than a grimace. 


For instance, after Christmas shopping have you ever come out of a store and forgotten where you parked your car? That happened to a shopper in Halifax, Nova Scotia who hopped in the wrong car and drove away. See, two white Hyundai Santa Fes were parked next to each other and the shopper picked the wrong one. It wasn't until the driver stopped to gas up the car that the mistake was recognized. 


It all ended well. The “thief” returned to the scene of the crime, police sorted it all out, it was found that the same key fob would start both cars, and the almost-victim even reimbursed the almost-thief for the tank of gas. 



Who knows how something like this could happen, but perhaps the errant shopper was preoccupied by trying to come up with the perfect gift for their pet. “According to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, about half of dog owners and 39 percent of cat owners buy gifts for their pets for Christmas. Dog owners spend an average of $14 on any gift for their canines, while cat owners spend an average of $12.” That is unless you're in the 17-21 age group, Generation Z, who spends an average of $71.” (


When it comes to dogs, all this largess could be an attempt by owners to coax a smile from Fido. But does a dog's smile mean they are happy? “According to the experts at the ASPCA, a dog’s smile can be characterized as a display of the front teeth, normally paired with a lowered head, wagging tail, flattened ears, a soft body posture, or squinty eyes. While a dog’s smile could indicate that they feel happy around you, in most cases, it actually means that they are showing their submission to you. In other words, they are indicating, through that smile, that they will not challenge your authority because they like and trust you.” 


Apparently you can cause your dog to smile due to something called called laughter contagion. “According to Purina, your canine pal will often reciprocate your own smile at the moment, grinning back at you to communicate the fact that they consider you a companion.” (


Smiling aside, it has been determined that dogs send their owners messages in other ways. “Researchers at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England, have managed to identify 47 gestures that dogs use to communicate and translate what 19 of them mean.” For example, holding one paw in the air while sitting is a request to be fed. Lifting a paw and placing it on you means cuddles would be good right now. And lifting both paws off of the ground and placing them on a human or object is a request to go outside now. To find out what your dog is trying to tell you, go to:


If your dog gives you the cold shoulder, maybe a word game with an educational twist will interest the family. To wit, how did each state get its name? 


Some state name origins are easy. For instance, the state of Washington was named in honor of George Washington and is the only state named after the the nation’s first president. 


There is a bit of controversy for some states, Michigan being one of them. “One account maintains the Michigan name is based on a Native American Chippewa word, 'meicigama,' meaning 'great water.' Another version of the name claims the state gets its name from Lake Michigan and that Michigan is a French conversion of the Ojibwa word misshikama, which means 'large water.'”


Then there are state names based on bad information. “Idaho may sound like a Native American name, but the word is made up. 'Idaho' was created by mining lobbyist George M. Willing, who insisted it was a Native American Shoshone expression meaning 'gem of the mountains.' By the time it was discovered the name was phony, it was already being used.” 


To find out how each of the 50 states got its name, go to:


Sticking with names, if you owned a minor league baseball team what would you name it? As you may know, the Traverse City Beach Bums have ceased to exist as new owners have taken over. The new team will be in a new league with new players. The new owners wanted a new name for the team, so they asked for submissions and got 3000 suggestions. The six finalists are: Black Pearls, Dogmen, Dune Bears, Tree shakers, Sasquatch, and Pit Spitters. “Fan preferences and comments will be weighed by the team’s front office as they make the final team name decision.” The official name will soon be announced on the team's website at:


You know, a day at the old ballpark usually involves a frosty adult beverage or two. Now those beverages may have a unique taste thanks to breakfast cereal. “Kellogg's has a plan for Corn Flakes: Turn them into beer. Kellogg's is teaming up with Seven Bro7hers Brewery in the United Kingdom to take rejects from its Manchester facility and create Throw Away IPA. The recipe uses about 130 pounds of Corn Flakes per batch for the 5-percent ABV craft beer.” 


This is growing trend. Other brewers are crafting beers using Cap'n Crunch CrunchBerries, Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula, and Wheaties. (


Finally, don't forget the Neff Zone Holidays Page at: Watch Santa's reindeer on a live cam and track Santa's progress on Christmas Eve. In the meantime, check out a new feature, the Elf Name Generator, which gives kids a unique name based on the personality trait they choose. Merry Christmas to all!


Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at and