Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Promises I Can Keep

It's resolution time, which means it's time for everyone to promise themselves to do various things they have no intention of actually doing. Why be hard on yourself? Follow my example and make some resolutions that are easy to keep.

In 2009, I will smoke and drink more. I was not drunk nearly often enough in 2008, nor did I manage to kill myself by smoking. I tried to quit and had a bad reaction to Wellbutrin. In 2009, I will not try to quit.

Next year, I will eat more red meat, cheese, chips, and candy. I will eat less salad and fruit. I will drink more coffee and Diet Pepsi, and less water. I will gain 25 pounds.

I will stop exercising entirely. That includes walking. My dog will have to start walking himself; I'll be spending more time on the couch.

I will watch more television, and worse television. I will begin watching The Hills, and every other "scripted reality" program developed by MTV. I will watch at least 10 hours of the Lifetime Movie Channel every week.

I will stop reading poetry, history, and novels and will focus my energies entirely on US and OK magazines. In fact, I will not read anything that has a title that is longer than two letters.

I will not get a job.

I will not write my book.

I will not cook more often, nor will I stay in more often.

I will not plant a garden.

I will not clean more often, or more effectively.

I hate washing my car. I only did it twice in 2008, and I resolve to stop washing my car entirely in 2009.

I will not be nicer to people, particularly to people I don't even like. I promise to be as catty as I want to be.

Finally, I adamantly resolve that I will in no way become a "better" person in the coming year. I instead promise to remain just as I am.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Good Riddance 2008

It's the time for all sorts of year-end contemplations, and I'll get to various changes I hope for in 2009 tomorrow. This morning, I've been instead trying to find the good in the past year. Was there really any good? It felt like one catastrophe after another. Last spring, stocks began falling, nothing like the autumn, but it began in the spring nonetheless. That's around the time that prices steeply rose - fuel and other commodities. Remember that? Then the whole second half of the year was about calamity, layoffs, the evaporation of "wealth," if by "wealth" one means the savings and retirement accounts of every single American. But surely something good happened in 2008, right?

Well, we had a fascinating and, for me anyway, satisfying Presidential election. But that wasn't good because I liked the outcome. It was good because so many people cared about it, and because so many people got involved and then voted. Democracy demands participation, and this was one participatory election.

The summer wasn't too hot, so we didn't have to spend too much on air conditioning. Then, after the not-too-hot summer, commodity prices began to fall. Sure, no one has any money to spend and things are a mess, but gas is cheaper than it's been in years. You can theoretically spend less for the trips you aren't taking and on the commutes you aren't making to the job you don't have.

We started daylight savings almost a month early, as we'll do again in 2009. Standard time is now used only four months of the year. So, it was light later in the evenings in 2008 than it's ever been. And now that the winter solstice is over, it's already getting lighter every day. This might have been a bad year for almost everything else, but it was a good year for daylight.

With the launch of Hulu, more television and movies are available online and for free. Hulu is, without a doubt, probably the best thing about 2008. Network television might be in decline, but that's just because we have more viewing options than several years ago.

Sadly, that's all I've got. Yeah, 2008 sucked. We've got a lot to celebrate Wednesday night. It's finally over.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Joyeux Noel

Whatever holiday you're celebrating, have a good one. I'll be back once the eggnog is gone, probably Monday. In the meantime, enjoy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

All I Want for Christmas

'Tis the season to give DVD box sets, and a quick perusal of Amazon demonstrates the fact that nearly each and every TV show, no matter how stupid, eventually finds its way into release. Are there really that many people interested in owning the complete According to Jim? Apparently so. Meanwhile, all sorts of really good television sits in the vaults, unreleased. Santa, I've made my list. Please release the following on DVD for me, and place the box sets in my stocking. You'll be doing the entire world a favor.

China Beach. How is it possible that this excellent show is not available on DVD? Sure, it was depressing, but isn't the Vietnam War by definition depressing? It had a great cast, including but not limited to Dana Delaney and Marge Helgenberger, and it was ahead of its time in its use of flash forwards, flash backs, intercut interviews set in the present, and all kinds of storytelling that was, at the time, unique for television. I have been baffled for years by the fact that not a single season or episode of this series is currently available.

Homefront. Remember Homefront? You should. It replaced thirtysomething Tuesdays at 10 on ABC. It had a great ensemble including Kyle Chandler and John Slattery. Sure, it was a period drama, and I'm one of the few people who likes period dramas, especially those set in mythical, midwestern American in the middle of WWII. It was really good. It only lasted two seasons. The whole series could fit on about four discs. Release it already! And while we're on the subject, another series in serious need of DVD treatment is

thirtysomething. Oh, those self-obsessed Philadelphia yuppies with their shoulder pads and their careers and their search for fulfillment. Gary looked just like Bjorn Borg, and he died! Nancy was a saint, and she had cancer! Melissa was a goof, and had a great loft! Ellen was punished for being a single career woman by hooking up with men who were way too ugly! Miles! Miles! Michael and Hope's dog was named Grendel! Seriously, who wouldn't buy this?

Sisters. Yes, it was an evening soap and yes, at times it was stupid. But come on, George Clooney was on for a while. And it starred Sela Ward and Swoozie Kurtz. This show was too fun to be locked away in a vault somewhere.

All My Children. No, I'm not crazy enought to desire each and every episode of the past 38 years released on DVD. All I want is a couple of discs that feature highlights from the 1970s, the show's golden age. I want to see some Tara. I want Donna when she's a prostitute, and the evil Billy Clyde Tuggle, who filled the void left by the evil pimp Tyrone. I want some young Erica Kane. This doesn't seem to me like too much to ask.

Life on Mars (UK series released for Region One, USA). Everyone says the original UK version is superior to the US remake. I like the remake fine, but have only seen maybe two of the original episodes on BBC America. It's out on DVD for Region 2, which of course won't work on my player. Please, people, reformat the thing so I can make unfair comparisions between the two just like everyone else.

Ed. Oh, it was somewhat dopey and sappy. A high-powered lawyer is cuckolded by his fiancee, ditches everything, and moves back to his picture-perfect hometown, where he buys a bowling alley for his law practice and pines for his high school love, who is now a high school teacher. But the performances were strong, and on cold winter nights, there's nothing like some sap to warm you up. This lasted a couple of seasons on NBC, and there's no reason in the world why it hasn't been released.

OK, Santa, get to work.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bring It On

I don't have any particular feelings about snow. It's pretty when it falls, you move it out of your way, life goes on. Snow happens, or it doesn't, and then eventually spring arrives. End of story. It would appear, however, that the forecast of snow engenders a type of hysteria in everyone else. Naturally, I blame the media. Snowfall cannot simply be predicted. Instead, we must "brace" for winter storms that "bear" down on us.

We "brace" for snow events by madly stocking up on toilet paper and canned goods, if the mad rush I experienced yesterday at the Farmer's Market and grocery store serves as an indication. I know, it's the week before Christmas, but I wasn't surrounded by a mob stocking up on fattened goose. The mob was buying milk, water, and other staples. And of course toilet paper. Americans seem to have an ingrained fear that apocalypse will bring with it a shortage of toilet paper. We might be snowed in for a day! How will we wipe ourselves! The horror!

It's as if the prediction of snow causes a mass forgetting of what a glance at the empirical evidence makes clear: we are not 19th century homesteaders in the rural midwest. We live in the 21st century in the densely populated mid-Atlantic. No matter how many inches fall, we will not be snowed in for the winter. The chances of being snowed in for even a day are slim. Yes, we had a blizzard in January, 1996, and it took two days for my streets to be cleared, but that was almost 13 years ago. Four inches of snow will not render anyone helpless.

Despite a complete lack of meteorological training, years of observation allow me to point out the fact that nearly all of our significant precipitation comes to us from one direction: south. That's why they're called "nor-easters" in the winter, "tropical storms" other times of year. Storms that come from the north, the west, or the northwest don't flood us or blanket us with snow. Today's storm is coming from Missouri. It's now 8 AM, and the "overnight" snow has yet to begin to fall. I don't feel at all silly, though. After all, I'm not the one who rushed out yesterday to buy batteries and a case of toilet paper.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Holiday Parties

Seriously, what's the deal with cookie parties? I managed to go through almost 40 years of life without being subjected to a single cookie party but now, with each passing year, I get invited to more and more of them. It's a phenomena I just don't understand.

First of all, "party" implies two things: evenings and alcohol. "Party" does not imply 10 AM and flour. "Party" does not imply hot ovens and greased cookie sheets. I don't like to bake. I like to cook, but I don't bake. Why would I want to go somewhere first thing in the morning and make a bunch of rum balls? Even though they take place during daylight hours, cookie parties inevitably include wine. This poses a dilemma because I really can't drink during the day, particularly not wine. It makes me sleepy and, well, drunk, and I don't want to be drunk before Oprah. Not that I watch Oprah, but you never know, stranger things have happened. So not only does attending a cookie party entail participating in an activity I don't particularly enjoy, it entails participating in it while sober.

While I'm on the subject, drinking and baking just don't mix. Just as one shouldn't drink and drive, one should not drink and then attempt to take things in and out of ovens heated to 425 degrees. One should not drink and sprinkle. One should not drink and break eggs. One should not drink and attempt to balance warm things on cooling racks. Baking should be done while stone cold sober in the privacy of one's home. It's not a communal drunken activity, folks. Stop trying to make it such.

The second and absolutely most horrific thing about cookie parties is that they are the one place where Christmas sweaters are mandatory. Because at heart all I really want to do is fit in, I set out several years ago in search of a Christmas sweater to wear to cookie parties. It turns out I don't shop at stores that stock sweaters that feature snowmen, snowflakes, glitter, and Santas. Where do these women even get their Christmas sweaters? And were cookie parties invented because people needed a place to wear their sweaters, or were the sweaters invented so that people would have something appropriate to wear to cookie parties? This deep theological mystery distracts me from the cookie-making task at hand as I stand in a corner wearing my black sweater, watching almond crescents emerge from the oven.

Finally, cookie parties are completely redundant. This is the one time of year when everyone bakes or purchases baked goods and candy. This is the one time of year when you can rely on a co-worker or secret Santa giving you a highly caloric gift that cost $10 or less. No one wants or needs the cookies produced at cookie parties. I'm not a Scrooge; I honestly enjoy holiday parties. That take place after dark. That feature copious amounts of alcohol. That allow the wearing of black.

End of rant.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Let the Mic Stand Hit You on Your Way Out

In Iraq, to throw a shoe at someone is a grave insult. After all, shoes spend all their time touching the ground, and are therefore inherently dirty. Before Saddam's statue was toppled, shoes rained down on it. So although an Iraqi reporter tossing not one but both his shoes at Bush seems comical to us, it's a serious act in that culture. The incident perhaps also says something about "security" and the "security pact" Bush was there to applaud, but that's another topic altogether.

Anita Bryant got a pie in the face. That was an insult in that it pointed towards Bryant as a comedic figure, vaudevillian, a joke. Were I to attend a Bush press conference I'd definitely want to throw something at him. I'm not sure a pie in the face is serious enough an insult to say it all, though. I've spent the morning trying to figure out what I would chuck at him. A burning copy of the Bill of Rights, maybe. My question is: what would you throw?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Voicemail Gone Wild

For about six weeks now, each and every time I check my municipal voicemail I find a message or two from a lovely lady computer voice. She's looking for Rebecca. She tells me that if I'm not Rebecca, I should press "1." I press "1," but this doesn't stop her. It doesn't even slow her down. She asks me, again and again, to press "1" if I'm not Rebecca. She never tells me what to do if I am Rebecca. She never leaves me a number, or any specific message. So I've just started deleting her the second I hear her inhuman voice. I have no idea if this is some sort of weird voicemail spam, or what. Since I don't know what to do about it, or who Rebecca is, I just hit delete and forget about it until the next time.

Beginning yesterday, whatever virus is circulating through voicemail-land found me at home. In the past 24 hours, I've received four messages from "Kim," a lovely computer voice who sounds so much like Rebecca's friend they could be the same person. "Let me return what I bought from you on eBay," Kim begins. "This is Kim," she continues. "Let me return what I bought from you on eBay! I don't want it! Let me return what I bought from you on eBay!" She goes through this spiel three times, then disconnects. She never tells me what she bought from me on eBay, nor does she leave me her last name, phone number, or any other information. Oh, in case you were wondering, I haven't bought or sold anything on eBay for a decade now.

I'm on the Do Not Call lists, although since no one is selling anything here I'm not sure that matters. I'm assuming it's some new sort of spam where a computer randomly finds numbers and leaves cryptic and annoying messages. I just can't understand the point. To create busy signals? To fill voicemail boxes? I honestly don't understand what someone is trying to gain, since whoever is behind this is not trying to trick me into calling a 900 number or get me to inadvertently view Internet porn. It's senseless weirdness. And why is it only female computers who call me? Why don't I ever get a call from Frank, or Steve?

Maybe a couple of mainframes have had a little too much information crammed into them and are doing the computer version of drunk dialing. No matter what, the point behind all this escapes me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Appoint Me

Yesterday's news about the Illinois governor was quite serendipitous, because I'm getting my hair cut this morning and was looking for a new, hip style, and now I've found one. Hot! It occurs to me that given yesterday's events the Senate seat in question is now somewhat toxic in that an appointment by this guy would be the kiss of political death. It also occurs to me that the seat will no longer go to the highest bidder, but instead to whatever fool is willing to bid. That fool is me.

I don't have a lot to offer, but here's what I can do:

1. I can speak to the new owners of my magazine, who I understand are looking for an ad sales rep. This would be the perfect job for either Blagojevich or his wife, because in this economy strong-arming can only help. It wouldn't pay $300K a year, but it's better than nothing.

2. I doubt re-election campaign contributions are needed at this point, but I would be happy to donate $50 to a legal defense fund.

3. One of our local papers is owned by the Tribune Company. I have absolutely no sway with the editorial board, but I promise to go to the online comments page and spam it with supportive posts.

4. I know a member of the SEIU. He might be able to help arrange a position as a medical assistant at the children's hospital of Blagojevich's choice. After all, the Governor's resume indicates a skill at shoveling shit, which is just a step away from bedpans.

5. Because I don't live in Illinois, I have absolutely nothing at stake and couldn't care less about "constituents." Each and every one of my votes in the Senate can therefore be sold to the highest bidder, and I'll give the Governor his take, say 10 points. Top that offer, Jesse Jackson Jr.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Our Special Day


My cat Russell's death left me fairly bereft, but three months later I was ready to look for another cat. I was living in the East Village at the time, and NYC's animal control shelter up in Harlem felt like too depressing an option. Vet offices pretty universally had cats for adoption, though; plenty of crappy pet owners were too lazy to take their animals to Harlem to abandon them and instead left them on the vets' doorsteps overnight.

Russell had been a light orange and white longhair, and I knew I needed to get a cat who physically differed so he could have his own identity. I knew I wanted a male. I spent several weeks looking, but no cat seemed just right. Then a friend called. Her vet had an abandoned cat he was trying to place. She had met the cat, and thought he was incredibly sweet and that I might like him. So I went over to Brooklyn, walked down to the basement of the vet office where they kept boarders, the assistant opened the door to a cage that contained a big, black guy, and the cat meowed and lept onto my lap and began purring. "I'll take him," I said.

When he got to my apartment, Rufus lept out of the carrier, took a look at his bowls and litter box, and then immediately settled around my neck, purring. He knew he'd arrived home. That was nine years ago today, December 9, 1999. Since then he's moved with me twice, always arriving at his new space to leap out of the carrier, sit on me, and purr. He's a good guy. He pretty much loves everyone. In the picture above he's trying to get onto Jason's lap. Jason is my sister's husband; the photo is from several years ago, from the first time Jason came to visit with my sister. In other words, Jason was at that point a stranger to Rufus, but that didn't stop him from wanting to sit on his lap, purring.

I don't know when Rufus was born. The vet thought he was around a year old when I adopted him, but the only paper he came with was the copy of the NY Times at the bottom of the cardboard box in which he was abandoned. So we celebrate our anniversary every year in lieu of his birthday. I get him whitefish salad. He gives me some purrs, then has diarrhea. Gross, I know, but it's a tradition.

So, happy anniversary, Boo-Boo (yes, I have pet names for my pets, and yes, I know how queer that is)!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Shop, Baby, Shop

The press has a big story this holiday season, and it's all about how we aren't shopping. I don't need Slate or The New Yorker to tell me that the aisles of luxury retailers are empty; a look at my investment statements will tell me all I need to know about anyone's desire to purchase almost anything this Christmas. Nearly everyone I know has either declared a moratorium on gifts or has suddenly discovered the joys of crafts (I haven't researched this, but I would bet that knitting has become a rediscovered pastime). My experience the past few days tells me, though, that people are in fact shopping like crazy. They just aren't shopping at Bergdof's.

In search of a disposable yet presentable platter to take to a pot-luck, I visited two dollar stores on Saturday. The first store stocked no cheap platters of any kind, which didn't deter anyone but me: the place was mobbed. For some reason only one register was open, and the checkout line stretched, no exaggeration, the entire length of the store. This particular place isn't even a very good dollar store, in that very little actually costs a dollar and in that most of their stuff is so off-brand it's a little scary. I next went to my favorite dollar store, where things actually do cost a dollar and where the merchandise looks a little less questionable. Again, the place was mobbed; I got the last available space in the lot, and had to fight my way through the aisles to find my cheap platter and a plush toy for Brody to spend Christmas morning (or at least five minutes of it) disemboweling.

Another place people are shopping is the thrift store. A friend and I went to both thrift stores in town this morning, both of which were hopping. In my experience, the thrift store is always pretty crowded on Saturdays, but this was 10:30 on a Monday morning. Why wasn't everyone at work? Oh, right. Sorry.

What seems clear to me is that everyone wants to spend money, they just don't feel like they have much to spend. It's too bad those stimulus checks went out last May and June, because had they arrived last week, we might see a few more people buying a thing or two priced above, say, five bucks. I'm no economist, but I do know what I see. Americans are shopping. We're just not shopping at the retailers tracked by Wall Street and the media.

Friday, December 5, 2008

In Remembrance

You didn't know him, and if you'd ever met him he wouldn't have remembered you. H. M., perhaps the world's most important amnesiac, died Tuesday in a nursing home in Connecticut. He was 82.

When he was 9, he banged his head after being hit by a bicycle. He began suffering from seizures, which became so severe that at age 27 he sought the only medical treatment then available. A brain surgeon snipped two small pieces from his hippocamus. This stopped the seizures, but also stopped H.M. from forming new memories. He could remember events from before the operation, but for the next 55 years of his life he was unable to remember anything new.

His intelligence, his personality, remained unchanged, even though a critical component of his identity was lost. Most importantly, he spent the remainder of his life being studied by neuroscientists, and thanks to him we now have an understanding of how memory, and the brain itself, works. Because of him we know that we have two types of memory - let's call them emotional and physical. Emotional memory, of family, friends, events in life, is stored in the hipppocamus to be retrieved when needed. Physical memory, how to ride a bike for example, is stored throughout the brain. We know this because although H. M. couldn't form new emotional memories, studies showed that he retained his ability to form new physical memories.

He lived with his parents and then with another relative until age 54, when he moved to a nursing home. He managed to perform the tasks of daily life like shopping and preparing meals based on knowledge acquired before the operation. He was never able to fully understand the contribution he was making toward medical science. He was never able to remember the thanks he received. But today we can do what he could not. We can remember him, and his crucial role in our discovery of the workings of the human brain.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It Could Be Much, Much Worse

Once the media told us what we already knew yesterday, that we've been in a recession for a year, and the stock market crashed yet again, I started looking for some things for which to be thankful. For example, I may be underemployed and underfinanced, but at least I didn't grow up in hell.

For a vivid description of growing up in hell, check out Chris Abani's Graceland, a coming-of-age tale set in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria in 1983. Elvis, our 16 year-old hero, has lost his mother to cancer and is slowly losing his father to palm wine. Set loose on Lagos' mean streets, he dreams of becoming a dancer while he begs for spare change from tourists while doing Presley impersonations. Along the way he encounters every type of violence and cruelty imaginable, all rendered as part of the commonplace and everyday.

In contrast to this living nightmare are passages from his mother's diary, which he carries with him at all times. Before dying she collected traditional recipes, which serve as a reminder of the village life and culture from which Elvis has been displaced. On the one hand Elvis has the impersonal and random viciousness of life in the city, a life deranged by the aftereffects of colonialism, and on the other hand he has a document of hearth, home, family, love, a powerful world but one that has been lost to him.

Will he give in to ghetto life, become a low-level drug trafficer or dealer in body parts for transplant? Or will he choose the one escape left him, to leave Nigeria behind entirely and head to America, where his aunt has already moved? I'll let you read the book and find out for yourself. It's at once completely depressing and moving, and a page-turner as well. And you'll never worry about the stock market again, I promise you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Turkey Day Without Turkey

My mother always ordered a "fresh" turkey for Thanksgiving. I have no idea what that meant, except that it hadn't been frozen. It was still a commercially-produced turkey from some turkey farm somewhere, maybe even the place in Alaska that Sarah Palin used as a backdrop for her little impromptu press conference the other week. At any rate, once the "fresh" turkey arrived in our house things went downhill from there, and once I describe it you'll see why I don't like and don't ever cook turkey.

My mother's stuffing featured chopped liver. Why anyone would sully perfectly good stuffing with chopped liver is beyond me, but she did. My father would then stuff the bird so full it probably weighed 30 pounds. It weighed enough that it needed to cook no less than ten hours. It was so stuffed that every drop of fat and moisture from the bird was absorbed by the stuffing, resulting in incredibly dry turkey that tasted of chopped liver. By the time we'd eat, somewhere around 8 PM, the adults were always so drunk they probably didn't notice how dry and chopped liver-y was the food, but I always noticed. The only part of the bird I found edible was the tip of the wing, which tasted more of burnt skin than of liver.

My mother's idea of mashed potatoes was to mash potatoes in a pot with some fake margarine added. In other words, these too were dry and inedible. Since the bird had produced no drippings that weren't absorbed by the stuffing, gravy was flour, water, and maybe a bouillon cube. Inedible. Although it was often a runny mess, her homemade cranberry sauce was good, as was the green been casserole. So although I loved Thanksgiving, for me the meal generally consisted of part of a turkey wing, some cranberry sauce, some green beans, and maybe a roll.

Now that I plan my own Thanksgiving I forgo turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes. I don't miss it. Here's the best part of all this: unlike the rest of America, I did not need to spend my weekend finding creative ways to disguise and ingest leftover turkey. I did not need to make turkey lasagna, turkey pot pie, turkey croquettes, turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey stew, turkey patties, or turkey tetrazzini.

Wise up, America. Next year, make a ham.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Would You Like a Side of Acorns with that Seal?

We know that sometime after the harvest of 1621 the Plymouth colonists shared a feast with their native neighbors. Although we don't know what they did eat, we have a good idea of what was not included on the menu. Surprisingly, some foods that we consider Thanksgiving staples did not appear on the original groaning board.

Ham, for example. Although the colonists had brought pigs with them from England, there's no evidence that they had butchered a hog at this point. They probably did eat wild turkey, goose, venison, or grouse; it's just as likely that the first Thanksgiving included some fatty and nutritious seal, which at the time was plentiful in the waters surrounding Cape Cod.

Although cranberries might have appeared on the table, the colonists lacked sugar, so their wild turkey was not adorned with cranberry sauce. There's little doubt corn was part of the meal, but it would have been dried corn at this time of the year. The season for fresh corn had ended before the harvest.

Neither sweet potatoes or potatoes were common in New England at this point in time, so if you're planning a historically accurate Thanksgiving you can leave these off the menu. The residents of Plymouth Plantation certainly had no notion of the marshmallow and, remember, no sugar, so candied sweet potatoes would have been as foreign a concept to them as General Foods International Coffee.

It goes without saying that not even Squanto possessed a ready supply of french cut green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and Durkee dried onion rings, doesn't it?

Finally, historians have uncovered no evidence of a Puritan recipe for pumpkin pie. In fact, the colonists not only lacked sugar, they lacked milk; no cows made the crossing on the Mayflower. Pumpkin would have made an appearance at the feast, maybe even stewed pumpkin, but no pumpkin pie.

Enjoy whatever you've decided to cook tomorrow. Rejoice in the fact that you're not huddled around a fire pit eating seal and are instead quaffing quantities of beer glued to the illuminated box of football. Plus ca change...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Squanto Would Have Loved This

I'm actually going to post a recipe here, or at least what passes for a recipe in my kitchen. The secret to cooking is to, at all times, attempt to make what has begun as healthy as unhealthy as possible, and to make what begins unhealthy as fat-filled and calorific as possible. Adhere to these standards and everyone will believe you are a good cook.

Keeping these tenets in mind, the only thing better than bacon is candied bacon. I know it sounds weird, but it's not. It's delicious.

First, buy some decent thick-cut bacon and fry it until it's medium-well, crisp but not too crisp. Put it aside, clean out the pan. In the clean skillet, melt together one cup of sugar or brown sugar, three tablespoons of honey, and two tablespoons of water. Cook on medium high until it stops bubbling and has turned into a syrup. Turn the heat to low and place the bacon strips into the syrup, turning once until coated. Put the coated bacon on wax or parchment paper and let it dry.

Eat the candied bacon until you puke.

Serves anywhere from one to six, depending on how much sugar and fat you and your friends and family can eat at a sitting.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Burgers Grow on Stalks

Unfortunately last night's meeting did not feature fisticuffs. I did get home early enough to make a dent in my Netflix queue, and feel compelled to recommend King Corn, a smart, funny, engaging documentary about how our food is produced. While driving across the country, two friends realize that all the corn grown in Iowa is not edible sweet corn but instead the beginnings of processed food. They decide to rent an acre, move to Iowa to farm it, and follow their corn into the food chain.

You won't learn anything from the film that you don't already know from the work of Michael Pollan. Our bodies are mainly corn. When we eat meat we're eating corn, because the cows have been confined on feedlots and quickly fattened with cheap corn. Drink a soda, or eat cookies or candy, and you're consuming corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup. By attempting to follow their crop from the field to the table the filmmakers show exactly how and why this is the case. Along the way, they give us the history of our current Farm Bill and the rationale behind farm subsidies that pay farmers to produce more and more corn, more corn than can be eaten fresh so by necessity more and more corn that, in its natural state, is inedible. We also watch them attempt to taste their crop, turn part of their yield into homemade high fructose corn syryp, and visit one of the feedlots that is the destination for about a third of their acre's bounty.

Most intresting is their simple illustration of the economics that leads to agribusiness. Once they arrive in Iowa, they sign up for government subsidies for their acre. That year's basic subsidy is $28/acre, paid half before planting and half after the harvest. Their yield was about 180 bushels, which where selling for about $1.58/bushel at harvest. After expenses, they were around $19 in the red for their acre. The basic subsidy offset this loss; add in additional government incentives (the amount of which they didn't explain - I'm making a guess here) and the profit was maybe $12 an acre. This is why the family farm can't sustain itself. The price of equipment isn't part of this formula, only the price of fertilizer, herbicide, and seed. In order to make barely enough to lease and service the large tractors needed for this kind of farming one would have to farm at least 1,000 acres, although bringing in $120,000 a year might not be enough. Farms must get bigger and bigger, with greater and greater yields, in order to be profitable.

The only real solution would be a change in our subsidy policy, to go back to subsidizing controlled yields in order to keep the price of grain high rather than encouraging overproduction and therefore cheap grain. On the other hand, because of our current farm policy, the price of food is cheaper than it's ever been. Remember when steak was a luxury? Cheap corn makes beef affordable, and makes the dollar menu possible.

Rent the film and see all this for yourself. In addition to being thought-provoking, it has a killer soundtrack and is beautifully shot and edited. You'll be glad you saw it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Meeting-palooza

I began the week frustrated by the fact that I have a meeting each and every night, plus at least one daytime meeting three out of the five days. That's a whole lot of municipal government in action, folks. As it turns out, though, we've got a full moon right now, so thus far the meetings have been incredibly action-packed.

It all started with the Zoning Hearing Board Monday night. I was there to hear testimony on an item that ended up being continued until next month, but before that happened the Board held a hearing on a request for a variance to allow a warehouse to be converted into an artist's live/work space. The warehouse is situated in an alley in the most densely populated neighborhood of my city; the variance was to waive the requirement to provide off-street parking for two cars. In other words, granting the variance would mean that two additional vehicles would fight for the very limited parking available in the alley.

Current residents of the surrounding blocks packed the meeting. Parking, as you might guess, is an extremely emotional issue. So emotional that a fistfight almost broke out. So emotional that one resident called the Board a bunch of a-holes, screamed that the meeting was a joke, and incited his friends and neighbors to verbally abuse the Board and the applicant. Someone speaking in support of the applicant was shouted down and called "beside the point." After all that, the applicant got his variance, and will now have to live among neighbors who resent him and his car.

Last night it was on to the Recreation Board, normally a sedate, boring, and pointless-seeming hour of my time. Little did I know that football season had just ended and the recriminations just begun. The room was packed with angry coaches and parents. The issues? Trophies for pee-wee football. Trophies are unfair! Little kids love trophies! Trophies cause fights! Since the trophies were already purchased they will be distributed, but a policy will be developed for 2009. Next issue: some kids didn't get to play in every game. Parents screamed at coaches, coaches screamed back, after an hour and a half we hadn't even gotten past public comment and to the agenda, and I'd had enough and left.

Tonight should prove equally interesting. I'm attending a discussion of the creation of a BID in our downtown, which is in effect an additional property tax. If the full moon turns parking and pee-wee football into infernos of feeling, I can't imagine the effect it will have on a debate about the creation of a new tax.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

High Atop the Grassy Knoll

It's the week before Thanksgiving, which means it's time for our annual reconsideration of the Kennedy assassination. PBS got things started last night by rerunning Oswald's Ghost, a documentary that's useful in that it outlines the day's events and all explanations of said events, both logical and illogical, in a mere hour and a half. Lone gunman, magic bullet, grassy knoll, CIA/Bay of Pigs/Castro, FBI/mob, David Ferry and a band of not-so-merry gay men, Oswald as government agent, Oswald as KGB agent, Oswald and his mother as nut cases: it's all there.

I'm just young enough that November, 1963 means nothing to me personally. I can tell you exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot: in a bassinet in Brooklyn, sleeping or crying. I was about a month old. What's interesting to me is our culture's absolute and resolute refusal to put the "mystery" of who was behind the tragedy to rest. If anything, the intervening years have only added more and more layers to the onion, rather than providing answers.

Could Oswald have acted alone, out of a desire to enter history? I guess. Sure, he was apparently dyslexic and failed his sharpshooter exam, but everyone gets lucky once in a while, and maybe that was his day, where he could get three shots off in six seconds and hit his moving target. Could a shadow government have used him as a patsy? I guess. Sure, all sorts of things happen beyond the knowledge of the public. What's interesting is that the public believes lone gunmen were responsible for every other assassination, or at least most of the public believes this. John Wilkes Booth, acting along. Sirhan Sirhan, acting alone. James Earl Ray, acting along. John David Hinckley, alone and obsessed with Taxi Driver. Each of these men could just as easily have been patsies and part of a larger conspiracy, but most of us don't go there. For some reason, though, we've decided the Warren Commission was part of a larger cover-up and that there's more to this particular story than meets the eye.

Undoubtedly the times had much to do with this. The same administration that rushed out the Warren Report was also lying to the public about Vietnam. The intervening years didn't exactly engender a larger trust in government, what with Watergate, Iran/Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky, WMD and the rush to Iraq. On the other hand, it's not as if 190 years of scandal-free government preceeded the assassination; Teapot Dome, anyone?

What probably makes the events of that long-ago November stay with us as a mystery and a controversy is the fact that, in many ways, the hegemony of the post-war era ended with the flight of those bullets. I don't mean the cliched end of Camelot, end of idealism here, I mean the beginning of distrust, unrest, and disaffection that lasted for the next 20 years, until everyone decided they'd had enough and it was morning in America again. Whether or not he acted alone, Oswald accomplished his purpose. He entered history.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The $13 Flight Takes Off

Cheapie Irish airline Ryanair announced last week that it plans to offer service from it's base outside London to New York, Boston, LA, San Francisco, and some as yet undetermined cities in Florida. The cost? Ten euros, currently around 13 bucks. I'm assuming that's one way, but still, that seems too good to be true. Of course, this apparently is too good to be true, since Ryanair charges fees for everything from checking in at a counter to speaking with an agent. Add in the fees and you still have a round-trip flight to England for, say, a hundred bucks. Is it worth it?

I've never flown Ryanair, but apparently it out-budgets American budget haulers. The windows don't have shades, the seats don't recline, there's no back pocket in which to stuff smelly sandwiches and boring magazines, and you have to put up with a live version of QVC for the duration of your flight, with attendants hawking everything from beverages and meals to jewlery, watches, and George Foreman grills. OK, the George Foreman grills might be stretching it, but you see my point.

If you're hopping from one European city to another all of this is probably an inconvenience you'll put up with for an hour or two in order to get to your destination cheaply. The question becomes whether enough consumers will be willing to fly for at least six hours without being able to recline their seat, and with what amounts to a live auction going on in front of them. Yes, suddenly we're all poor, and maybe this will be the only way any of us can afford international travel for the next couple of years, if we can afford it at all. On the other hand, maybe I'm just too old for this kind of crap, because I think I'd rather stay home or take a cheap flight to Ft. Lauderdale than spend that number of hours trapped upright in a small seat breathing bad air.

No start date for the service has been announced, because Ryanair has yet to purchase the needed planes. Once it's up and running, we'll see what the market will bear, and how frugal the American consumer can really be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top of the Morning

I'm not the smartest person in the world. I'm pretty certain that, were one to gather up all that I don't know and put it in one place, one could fill the hold of a battleship. I do know, however, that if the water company pulls up to your driveway at 7 AM and starts digging holes on said driveway that you aren't in for a good day. I also know that if you put on some clothes, walk to the end of the driveway, and ask the water men, "What's up?" and they say, "Just looking for the source of a problem," your day isn't likely to improve.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Very Good Thing

I have no doubt that everyone's in need of a laugh right now, so I'm happy to report that I have discovered what is probably the most hilarious show on TV. Maybe you've read about it: Whatever, Martha, on the Fine Living Network. Actually, the Fine Living Network is itself pretty hysterical. It is, essentially, a bunch of repeats from Bravo and HGTV, one constant loop of Queer Eye and Emeril and other shows from the recent boom discussing cooking, gardening, and other points of accessible luxury none of us can any longer afford or even care about. Really, gracious entertaining feels very 2006. These days entertaining no doubt involves a 12-pack of Milwaulkee's Best and some tuna casserole, but I digress.

Whatever, Martha is Mystery Science Theater 3000 with the sci-fi B-movies replaced by old clips from the Martha Stewart Show and the robots replaced by Alexis Stewart and her friend Jennifer Koppelman Hutt. The clips play and Alexis and Jennifer snarkily comment on them. What makes the show funny, beyond the quick wit of the hosts and the ridiculous datedness of the clips, is the fact that Martha's daugher is one of those doing the snarking. Alexis isn't entirely mean, but she does enjoy making fun of her mother as much as the rest of us.

A block of shows runs weeknights from 8 to 10 PM (each show is half an hour, but be sure to record rather than watching live - there are way, way too many ads, probably 15 minutes of them in each show). One of last night's shows featured face painting with a very scary "clown" named Peanut Butter, who looked eerily reminiscent of a club kid from the Michael Alig era and who inisisted on glueing beads to the faces of Martha and some of her staffers. In another segment, Martha demonstrated how to make tools for the maintenance of your terrarium while Alexis and Jennifer mercilessly mocked not only the tools but the entire endeavor. No description does the show justice. You really must tune in and see for yourself.

Each show ends with some absolutely random and inappropriate sex and dating chatter between Alexis and Jennifer. It's amusing enough to listen to someone defend getting drunk and having sex on the first date, but to hear a exegesis on the joys of drunken first-date sex coming from the mouth of Martha Stewart's daughter is pure ironic genius.

The best part of all this? Martha herself is the executive producer, proof that she's not only a master markerter but also has a wicked self-depracating sense of humor. "Who doesn't have a bunch of 1990s video segments and B-roll lying, unused, in the basement?" I hear Martha asking. "On today's program, I'll show you how to repackage those used segments and make them look like new!"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leaf Blowing, Exposed

I know I'm finally an adult because I now own all manner of yard and gardening equipment. Because my house is surrounded by a lot of trees I end up with a lot of leaves each fall, so I broke down last week and bought a leaf blower. Leaf blowers, as it turns out, are a lot like relationships: the first one is practice, so you can get it right the second time.

I don't yet completely regret my decision to get the electric rather than gas-powered blower; the electric is lighter, plenty powerful, easier to store. The problem is the 100-foot cord. I'd somehow managed to own a home without having a really, really long orange extension cord, and the blower didn't come with one, so off I went to the big-box home store to purchase one. Some of those cords cost as much as the blower itself. That's crazy! I thought. Why would you spend 35 bucks on an extension cord?

So it doesn't tangle. I bought the $13 cord, and it turns out it's resting state is in knots. So it stays attached to the blower. This cheap cord slips out of the cord clip, and in the middle of an important blow it tends to detach and curl around itself into yet another knot, causing me to stop and straighten everything out. So it comes with a holder. Go ahead, try to wrap a 100-foot cord around your forearm without creating even more knots. I dare you.

Before buying an electric leaf blower you might want to assess the number of outdoor outlets around your house. As it turns out, I have a dearth. The extension cord won't reach all parts of my yard. Sure, I can buy a second cord, but I don't even want to think about dealing with twice as many tangles, and the need to wind up double the cord.

One day I will decide on the ultimate solution. I will simple cement over my entire property. Sure, the neighbors will hate me, but nature in all its permutations will finally be at bay.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

New Media 2,956, Old Media 1

What made Tuesday's election truly unprecedented? It's not what you think. Not only did Obama's victory shatter racial barriers, close the book on Rovian Republicanism, and signal a change in American politics, culture, and values, it also showed that print is far from dead. Yesterday morning, in virtually every city, town, and village across the country, newspapers were in short supply, grabbed up immediately to be kept as mementos.

I live in an area where I can't get home delivery of the NY Times on weekdays, so I set out as usual around 8:30 yesterday morning to pick up a copy. My neighborhood Wawa was already sold out. Around the corner, my neighborhood coffee shop was also sold out. On to the neighboring neighborhood, whose Wawa was also sold out. I finally found what might have been the last remaining copy in eastern Pennsylvania two townships away, left over probably because the front page was somewhat tattered and therefore not suitable for framing. I didn't care; I actually wanted to read the paper, and I like getting newsprint on my hands, an experience the Internet cannot deliver, at least not yet.

We might go online more and more for information, but we clearly don't go online for keepsakes. What would a screen capture of the Times' online edition saved to disk mean, anyway? The print edition featured the simple word "Obama" in 96-point type, with a color photo of the man himself taking up the rest of the space above the fold. The online edition contained its usual collection of links to the right and left of the screen, with three lead storied vying for the rest of the space on the front page. For visual, and visceral, impact, print wins.

There's no doubt that in order to remain competetive newspapers have to figure out a way for their print editions to become something more than mementos. On Wednesday, November 5, though, for one historic day, newspapers were once again Americans media of choice.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day Fun Facts

Long lines at the polls are predicted for this Election Day, which can certainly be a pain. Waiting in line is really nothing compared to what Americans once had to go through in order to cast a ballot, though. Perusing the history of Presidential elections is enough to make one happy to be voting in 2008 rather than 1808.

We elect Presidents on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Why? you ask. Well, we originally didn't vote for the President, but for the electors who chose the President. We still do this in that the popular vote determines who will make up the Electoral College, but originally those electors weren't pledged to any candidate. Presidential candidates' names didn't even appear on the ballot. On the one hand we didn't have a deluge of yard signs, robocalls, and advertising before elections, but on the other hand Presidents weren't exactly elected by the people. Back then Senators also weren't directly elected; they were appointed.

Anyway, states held elections any time they wanted, so long as the electors could make it to the capitol by December 3, the date they would choose the President. Because travel could take a while by horse or carriage, elections took place any time between mid-October and mid-November. Sometimes electors had trouble making it to the capitol in time, though, so it was decided to choose one national Election Day. Early November seemed best because the harvest was over then (remember those good old agrarian days?) and the electors would have a month or so to get to Philly or, later, DC. The white men of property (expanding suffrage is the real hallmark of our electoral history, but I'm not going to go into that here) needed to travel to get to the polling place to vote on electors. In those days caucusing or balloting took place in cities, towns, county seats, and everyone lived on farms, sometimes a day away. So, Monday was no good, because you'd have to travel on the Sabbath to arrive by Monday, and Wednesday was market day, when people needed to be in town but were busy selling and trading. Tuesday was deemed the least disruptive day to hold elections. National elections originally took place the first Tuesday in November, but then one year that fell on November 1 and everyone complained it was too early, so it was changed so that elections could never fall on November 1. Now November 2 is the earliest possible date, November 8 the latest.

It used to be that we voted by voice, yea or nay, or by throwing colored rocks or beans in a pot, yellow for Thomas, blue for Silas, etc. Those beans were a pain to count, though, and in lean years maybe even a waste of beans. In the meantime political parties had come to prominence (George Washington and John Adams actually had no party affiliation), and the system of direct election of people rather than electors had been devised. When you're voting for people for a bunch of offices beans become too complex, so the paper ballot made the most sense.

In order for the white men to vote, they had to bring a ballot with them. In other words, no ballots were provided by the government or local board of elections. By now pretty much all white men could vote, but not all of them could read. That didn't matter, since pre-printed ballots were provided by the political parties. You could also cut them out of the newspaper, if you could read and afford a newspaper, but why bother when the Whigs or Know-Nothings or Democrat-Republicans were happy to give you your already completed ballot? These were ususally printed on long and narrow pieces of paper and were commonly referred to as "tickets," and this is where the phrase "party ticket" was born.

Once someone gave you your ballot you had to get it to the Judge of Elections. Actually, I should rephrase that: Once someone gave you a stack of ballots, you had to get them to the Judge of Elections. Yes, you could hand in as many ballots as you could carry. This was the nineteenth century version of "absentee voting." Handing in the ballots was probably easier said than done.

The "polls" then consisted of a room where the Judge collected ballots. Voters weren't allowed in the room, however, in an attempt to ensure the integrity of the process. Probably also because many of the voters were blind drunk, but I'll get to that in a minute. One had to pass ballots to the judge through a window or a slot. To get to said slot or window, one had to make one's way through a throng of people milling around, attempting to prevent ballots of one party or another from being cast. The whole process resembled a violent video game come to life: Grand Theft Voting. Fights, even riots, were common on Election Days of yore.

The fact that votes were routinely purchased with liquor undoubtedly had a lot to do with this. Party bosses would hand out ballots in the back room of saloons. Anyone willing to cast a ballot would be treated to some rum, ale, whatever drink was at hand. Anyone willing to mill around and prevent the other guy's ballots from being cast could also expect a free drunk that day. Yes, I'm primarily talking about cities here, but farmers also enjoyed a drink or two while visiting the county seat. Election day violence, and bribery with alcohol, were one of the arguments for Prohibition in the first place, and were the reason that bars remained closed on Election Day even at Prohibition's end.

In short, we've come a long way, even if every once in a while an election hinges on a hanging chad or two. So go vote - the worst that will happen is a wait in line - and then go drink, because come tonight you'll be either happy or sad, or a little of both, and this long exhausting process will finally be over, and, most importantly, the bars will be open.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I'm Pissed

It was a gorgeous fall Saturday, so Brody and I went to the local farmers' market, as we do most Saturdays. This week, the alpaca wool people had brought two of their alpacas along. Brody has met the alpacas before. He seems unsure of how to feel about them. I think he's mainly confused: he knows they aren't dogs, but he can't quite comprehend what sort of creatures they are. A visit to the market isn't complete without checking out the alpacas, which involves Brody putting his nose through the cage and then retreating, putting his nose in and then retreating, until one of the alpacas spits on him and we leave.

On Saturday we were joined at the alpaca booth by a friend and her niece. I hadn't seen this friend in a while, so we stopped to chat. Suddenly, my friend said, "Look! Your dog is peeing on you!" I looked down to find Brody, leg lifted, urinating on my leg. I jerked his leash and he stopped, looking either guilty or confused, I'm not sure. In our time together he's done his share of weird things, but he'd never urinated on me before.

Because I was on my way to do some other errands I didn't want to go home and change, so I was forced to walk around the market looking for some water, explaining along the way that my jeans were soaked because my own dog had peed on me.

Was it the presence of the alpacas? Was he marking me, so the alpacas wouldn't think they could have me? Have I become so round that I resemble a fire hydrant? Did I look like a tree? I'm just glad I wasn't wearing shorts and sandals.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wow

The past few days have been a festival of meetings and leaf raking, to the point where I almost managed to forget about the Dow and next Tuesday's election. I'm done talking about the election, I promise. Instead, I'm giving the last word to Rolling Stone, a magazine I haven't read since somewhere around my 18th birthday. Still, Tim Dickinson's Make Believe Maverick is a story well worth reading. If goblins don't scare you this weekend, this story will.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Guess the IRS Can't Afford Spellcheck

I found this in my inbox this morning. I have only one question: why $120.50? If I'm going to be scammed, I want it to be for $14 million USD wired from Nigeria.



After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity
we have determined that you are eligible to receive
a tax refund under section 501(c) (3) of the
Internal Revenue Code. Tax refund value is $120.50.
Please submit the tax refund request and allow us 6-9 days
in order to IWP the data received.
If u don't receive your refund within 9 business
days from the original IRS mailing date shown,
you can start a refund trace online.

If you distribute funds to other organization, your records must show wether
they are exempt under section 497 (c) (15). In cases where the recipient org.
is not exempt under section 497 (c) (15), you must have evidence the funds will
be used for section 497 (c) (15) purposes.

If you distribute fund to individuals, you should keep case histories showing
the recipient's name and address; the purpose of the award; the maner of
section; and the realtionship of the recipient to any of your officers, directors,
trustees, members, or major contributors.

To access the form for your tax refund, please click here

This notification has been sent by the Internal Revenue Service,
a bureau of the Department of the Treasury.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Real Reality Show

In a fit of boredom I watched The Hills last night. If you've never seen it, you're probably either smart or lucky. It's a "scripted reality" show, whatever that means, and it's probably the dumbest show on TV. The "plot" centers around a bunch of self-involved twentysomethings having fake conversations about each other at night spots around Los Angeles. As far as I can tell, that's the show's entire premise: relatively telegenic people talking about each other while they eat or get drunk. The experience led me to wonder why my life hasn't been made into a reality show, "scripted" or otherwise. I'm at least as interesting as that bunch of dimwits.

Here, for example, would be the past 24 hours of my life:

Shot of me pinned down in bed, dog holding down my legs, cat holding down my arms. VO: I knew it was morning and time to get up. What I didn't know is how much I would change by the end of the day.

Shot of me at the computer, while the dog jumps up and down and runs in circles around me. VO: The internet is so interesting! I knew it was time to take a shower and leave the house, though. I smelled.

Shot of me in my car. VO: It's time to get gas!

Camera pans through my living room, close-up of me lying on the couch reading the NY Times. VO: Monday's op-ed pages suck. I knew I was hungry, but I didn't know what I would eat.

Montage of me pulling things from the refrigerator while the cat rubs against my legs and the dog stares longingly. VO: Anjou pears are a healthy and delicious snack. Will I ever get my work done for the day? I wonder if anyone is out to lunch right now, talking about me.

Cut to shot of empty restaurant. No one is talking about me.

Evening, living room in darkness. Camera finds me lying on my couch, watching LBJ documentary. As screen fades to black, VO: How could I have known that morning that the evening would find me tired all over again? It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

End credits.

Next week on "A Real Boring Life": interior of diner, where I am sitting at the counter reading the paper. VO: I wonder if they'll poach eggs for me today?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Homestretch

I don't even know what to say. Stocks are sinking even lower, my savings are disappearing, I'm unemployed, and Mad Men is now over, not to be seen again until at least next summer. The one ray of brightness in all this is that the election is now just over a week away and the commercials can finally stop. For some reason Pennsylvania is considered a "swing" state. Yes, PA was traditionally Democrat, and yes, PA went for Reagan and the first Bush, but so did pretty much the rest of the country. PA hasn't gone for the Republican Presidential nominee since 1988. That's 20 years. So can everyone stop running the annoying commercials already?

I also wish campaigns would stop wasting their money by calling me, either through robocalls or volunteers, reminding me of when the election is and that I need to vote. I'm a super-voter; I've voted in every election, both primary and general, for at least 15 years. In other words, I don't need to be reminded. I will vote. Leave me alone.

Because I'm one of those people who always votes, campaigns can safely assume that I keep up with the issues and know who I'm going to vote for. They don't need to leave me fake voicemails from the candidates telling me where they "stand" and how awful their opponent is. Wouldn't the time and effort (or at least the money, since these calls are automated and require very little human time or effort) be better spent reaching out to people who don't automatically vote all the time? No one needs to "get out" my vote. I get it out myself, twice a year, and not only do I not require help, I resent having my day interrupted to field a fake phone call from a politician.

I've never been as thankful for DVR as the past month, but once in a while I watch live TV. Say, during the debates, or the nightly news, or a sporting event. I long for the days when I was annoyed at ads for cars and trucks and automobile insurance. I understand that the Obama campaign has raised a ton of money and is in the process of spending it, but I can't wait until the last time I'm forced to sit through the "We can't afford John McCain" spot. I get it already - now leave me alone.

I've often wondered, the past few weeks, if the total amount spent on campaigning for all offices in 2008 - President, Congress, statehouse, each and every office, in both the primaries and general election - were added together, how large would that number be? What if all that money had been used to, I don't know, lower the national debt? Buy up stocks to try to stem the market slide? Help prevent foreclosure? Help the poor have food and shelter? What if we had real campaign reform and stopped wasting all this money?

Maybe the founding fathers had it right. Back then, candidates didn't campaign. They waited at home while their supporters traveled around making their case. They didn't have yard signs, or robocalls. They didn't spend hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money. I wouldn't want to go back to the days when only white men who own land can vote, but I wouldn't mind going back to a time before the quadrennial onslaught of sound bites.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why I Don't Date Dogs

My cat will eat and eat until he vomits or dies. My dog, on the other hand, has become so codependent and neurotic that he won't eat unless circumstances are exactly to his specifications. If he suspects that I'll be leaving the house he won't eat. If I'm not sitting near him in the kitchen he won't eat. If his bowl isn't clean he won't eat. If he doesn't have enough water he won't eat. On occasion his food will sit in the bowl so long the cat will end up attempting to eat it. On occasion his food will sit until the middle of the night, when I'm sound asleep and there's no chance that I'll decide to leave the house.

My dog is skinny and I don't think it's possible for him to ever get up to his recommended weight. Even when he does eat, he lies around all day fretting. Will I put on my shoes? If my shoes are on does that mean I'm leaving the house? If I leave the house, will I ever return? What happens if I don't return? Even if I'm in the house, I'll be leaving sometime. When will that be? Is the economic crisis his fault? Was it his decision to invade Iraq? Was he somehow responsible for both Kennedy assassinations? What about the Holocaust? Surely he has some culpability for that as well. Unless he's on my lap, playing tug of war, or out somewhere with me, the poor dog is burdened.

Which leaves me burdened. Did I make him this way? I love my dog, and I wanted him to love me, but I certainly didn't want him to need therapy. He makes me feel like Woody Allen's mother. I keep telling him to go make friends, to get a life, but he just looks longingly at me, retreats to my bed, and curls up on my pillow. This morning he even went so far as to attempt to climb into the shower with me, so bothered was he by the five minutes we were spending apart.

Let me point out that all this separation anxiety is only manifest when I am in fact present. Once I do leave the house he just lies on my bed and sleeps or pines. He doesn't cry, he doesn't destroy anything. All of his worry revolves around the inevitability that I will leave his side. Once I in fact leave it, he's fine. In short, he's nuts.

"Dogs are so wonderful!" everyone says. "They give you such unconditional love! They're so much better than people!" OK, true. But I spend each and every day thankful that my dog is not a human. Can you imagine being involved with someone who thought and behaved this way? You would not be able to take it. You would break up. I would also immediately break it off with any human who took a dump on my basement floor, but that's another story.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Take Away the "H" in H.W. and What Have You Got?

I've been somewhat under the weather the past few days, but I did manage to drag myself to the theater yesterday to see Oliver Stone's W. Here's my review: don't bother seeing it. I learned absolutely nothing new about the man's character or biography, nothing new about how and why we entered Iraq. I ultimately left the theater wondering what genre of movie Stone thought he was making - it wasn't really a biopic, it wasn't a comedy, it wasn't satire - and what the point of the whole exercise might have been.

The film's themes were as follows:

W. spent his whole life trying to please his father. Beyond this one originary hurt and motivation, the man is an empty shell.

Condi Rice is a sycophant.

Rummy is an egomaniacal pedant.

Colin Powell was emasculated. And he was right.

Laura Bush likes books.

If you are a critic of the war, and if you've read the paper or watched the news for any part of the past seven years, none of this is new. Why spend the time and money to dramatize what we already know? If Stone was trying to invent a new cinematic genre, the filmed equivalent of naturalism or New Journalism, it just didn't translate. An American Tragedy, In Cold Blood, The Right Stuff, and other literary triumphs of the real worked because the authors were able to tell us more than we already knew about the story. By turning real people into characters Dreiser et al. were able to provide us access to feeling and motivation, to provide psychological as well as cultural context. W gives us caricature rather than character, and our only context is snippets from the nightly news.

The film's main dramatic conflict, and by extension the driving force of W's story, is between father and son, between the patrician and the party boy, the Episcopalian and the evangelical, the rational and the emotional. I have no doubt that the main reason W wanted to enter politics was to show that he was just as "good" as Jeb, to best his brother for his father's approval. That story would have made for excellent drama, but in this instance the conflict is drilled into us by exposition without nuance in the first hour, and the second hour is nothing more than a recapping of the first two years of our misadventure in Iraq. Yes, Iraq ties into the father/son dynamic, but because the primal war is completely dramatically subsumed by the Iraq war I ended up feeling that I'd watched half of a biopic and half of a History Channel documentary featuring bad re-enactments.

Perhaps Stone's frustration and contempt is ultimately reserved not for the first Bush administration but for the audience. We, after all, elected the guy and we, after all, are the ones who will suffer both the consequences and this movie. In the meantime, if you want to see an excellent Oliver Stone movie about an American president, rent the director's cut of Nixon.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oh, the Excitement

So far the month of October has passed in a kind of sameness. The election, the Dow, the election, the Dow. Anger, disbelief, frustration, anger, disbelief, frustration. No wonder all those people are lining up to see Beverly Hills Chiuaua. Movies are one avenue for escape, but here in my corner of the country the most popular frivolous activity would appear to be eating.

Locally, the biggest news of the past two weeks was the opening of a Sonic Drive-In. Here's how divorced I am from the world of fast food: I had no idea a Sonic was coming to the area, or was in fact open, until I drove smack into a traffic jam on my way to the grocery store. Yes, the opening of the Sonic created such excitement that cars have been lined up out of the parking lot and into a busy roadway. The first week the Sonic was open people would wait over half an hour to get into the lot to order their fast-food burgers.

What's the big deal? It's a fast-food product delivered to your car by a teenager wearing roller skates. The roller skates might make the teenager a bit more fit, but they don't make the food any better, or healthier. We had suffered no previous shortage of greasy burgers. The Sonic is located literally across the street from a shopping center that contains a McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, Red Robin, and Applebee's. True, these other chains lack the roller skates, but at the end of the day isn't all crap food pretty much created equal? A friend actually waited in the long line of cars, dedicating over an hour of his day to procuring a burger that gave him the same indigestion he could have acquired at any other fast-food outlet. Maybe I'm just old and cranky, but I truly don't get it.

This same thing happened in the early 90s, when a Boston Market came to Charlottesville, VA. I have never seen such a mania for overcooked and overpriced rotisserie chicken. For weeks, people would line up to take home some dry chicken and steam table side dishes, as if the South had never before experienced the joys of creamed spinach, mac and cheese, or chicken. As if every gas station in C'ville didn't sell fried chicken. As if never before, in the annals of the American South, had a take-out dinner been offered.

Of course, we now know how that story ends. Boston Markets began sprouting like weeds all over the country, grocery stores and convenience markets began selling overcooked and overpriced rotisserie chicken, most of the Boston Markets ended up shuttered. People in Charlottesville went back to buying chicken where chicken rightly should be purchased, at gas stations.

If there's any sort of moral to this narrative it would be thus: wait another week and there will be no line at the Sonic.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Prescription for a Happy Weekend

There just isn't any good news, is there? Take our good friend Joe. As it turns out, his name isn't Joe and he's not, legally, a plumber. Plus he owes back taxes. Once again the moral of the story is that the last five of one's 15 minutes will be spent dealing with scandal. This morning's headlines promised that the Dow would open with a tumble, thereby ensuring that the Dow will open with a tumble. Even the leaves are sick of this horrible October and have given up, collecting dead in my yard.

There's always television to comfort us. If you think things are bad now, tune into PBS Monday night, where The American Experience Presidential biography series continues with LBJ. America hasn't been great in 2007 and 2008, but watching this will make you damn glad that it isn't 1967-1968. At least no one has yet taken to the streets and begun killing each other. Plus, we wear much cooler eyeglasses these days, and more natural fiber. We need to celebrate the little things.

If you need comfort before Monday, head out to the theater, where Oliver Stone's W can make you fondly recall the years when he was damaging only himself and not his entire country.

My main suggestion for succor in these hard times, however, would be that you do the following:

1. Buy the ugliest pumpkin in the patch, or grocery store, or parking lot, or wherever pumpkins are found.

2. Sharpen a two knifes, one as sharp as a hatchet, one as sharp as a scalpel.

3. Carve said pumpkin until it resembles Paulson, Bernaeke, or any member of the AIG board.

4. Leave the pumpkin out to rot.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe Speaks

Dear John the Senator,

Dude, I have a last name. Wurzelbacher. You tried to use it once, mangled it, and now for the rest of my life everyone's going to call me "Joe the Plumber." Listen, I'm a water and waste management consultant, with 15 years experience helping the people of Ohio control the flow of water and waste in their homes and businesses. Sure, I fix leaks, but there's so much more to it than that.

The Obama guy was speaking in my neighborhood, and now that I'm thinking of buying the business I thought I'd ask him a few questions about his tax plan. I guess I ended up on some news show, and now you've made me famous. Except no one will remember anything about me except that I'm a plumber.

You didn't call that other guy "Bill the Terrorist." You didn't say "John the Civil Rights Guy." You did call your opponent "Senator Government," but I think that was just an accident. How come I'm the only guy who doesn't get to have a surname? Plumbers have last names too, you know. Plus, all this free advertising is going to waste unless I change the name of the business to "Joe the Plumber," and that's expensive. I'd need new signs, business cards, checks, all that business stuff. What a pain in the ass!

Look, it was really nice of you to pay all that attention to me last night, what with the whole economy going down the drain so badly not even I can fix it. I'm glad you want to give me a tax break now that I'm rich. I worked really hard to get rich so that I wouldn't have to pay taxes anymore, and I really do appreciate the fact that you're going to continue the American tradition of cutting taxes for a couple of people, especially since you've promised that I'll be one of those people. But next time, can you try to remember my name? I'm really afraid that people will confuse me with "Joe Six-Pack," and I'm already in enough trouble at home because I went out with the guys after that rope line thing over the weekend, and if the wife starts hearing about me and six-packs, well, you know how that can go.

So, Wurzelbacher. Joe Wurzelbacher. Thanks a lot for all the attention, and remember to give me a call if things get a little "backed up" there in Washington. I'll be thinking of you November 4.

Sincerely,

Your Plumber

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Market Research

Last week, as I was in the middle of cooking something or other, the phone rang. Because I was distracted, I let the market researcher talk for a few minutes, forgetting even to ask why he was calling someone on the "Do Not Call" list. His company was doing market research on a new TV show, he explained. Would I be willing to watch a pilot and answer a few questions about it? Sure, I replied. I mean, we all know how much I love crappy TV.

I was told the DVD would arrive Monday, October 13, and that I had to watch the show Monday, October 13 for whatever reason. UPS dutifully delivered a package to my door yesterday afternoon. It contained a DVD, instructions, and two sealed surveys. I was told to open and complete the first survey before watching the pilot. I figured this would contain questions about my demographic profile and about what shows I currently watch and enjoy. I guess I'm just a naive idiot; it was a survey asking me about my brand preferences for such things as canned tuna and fabric softener.

Because the survey contained no words, just photographs of various name brands (I put a check next to the photo of my favorite brand in each category), the good news was that this took up only approximately 43 seconds of my day. Time to watch the pilot. Judging from the clothing and horrible "jokes," I'd say that this pilot was shot approximately 10 years ago. There's a reason why it was never picked up: it sucked. It sucked with an awfulness apparent even before the end of the opening teaser. I was asked a total of five questions about the show, which I answered within two minutes of pushing "play."

In order to ensure "the complete attention of the viewer" the DVD's rewind and fast forward features had been disabled. I soon discovered the real reason these features had been disabled: this pilot came complete with commercials, so many commercials that it's length was about 40 minutes, rather than the 30 minutes running time of a network situation comedy. Of course, I couldn't skip these commercials. And yes, the ads were for many of the products that had been featured in the pre-show survey.

After I was done folding laundry and brushing the cat the show was over. Time to fill out the post-viewing survey. It was the same as the pre-viewing survey. Exactly the same. I filled it out with exactly the same answers. What was the purpose of this exercise? It appears that the market research company is trying to find out how effective these commercials are. Would my preference for Downy change to a preference to Bounce after watching an ad? Did the happy family scarfing down Ortega tacos entice me to switch my allegiance from Old El Paso?

At least that's the only sense I can make of the whole thing. That, or there was no ulterior purpose and it was just a way of getting a bunch of unsuspecting Americans to forcibly watch some commercials. The market research company is calling me at 3:30 this afternoon to ask me some questions about the "pilot." I can't wait to talk to whoever is assigned the task of calling me. I have some questions of my own, after all. How much did each advertiser pay for this? Is this the most cost-effective way of marketing? What percentage of participants see through this charade? What percentage of those who see through it are angry? Aren't I on the "Do Not Call" list? Does this mean that television as a medium for delivering commercial messages as we now know them is dead? If we go entirely to product placement and "branded entertainment," what happens to the 30-second commercial? Is this what happens to it?

Bring it on, market research company. I can't wait to talk to you some more.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Beast Without Burden

Even as the economy continues to tank, the business of business rushes onward. Perhaps you've heard that Tina Brown's website, The Daily Beast, launched this week. Can the magic that she worked on Vanity Fair and The New Yorker (and even the short-lived Talk) be translated to the Web? Follow the link and check it out for yourself.

The Daily Beast isn't quite a full-fledged webzine. It's an aggregator, meaning that the editors cull content from all over the web. Although the site contains some original content, as well as blogs, it's main focus is distilling what's news and buzzworthy onto a easily navigated homepage and providing links to those stories.

There are other aggregators out there. Some, like Digg, are reader-chosen; the stories most often "digged" by readers top the list. Others, like Huffington Post and Daily Beast, are "curated" by editors. I go to the Huffington Post not to see what's popular on the web, but to see what's new in liberal politics, just as I would go to Drudge to see what's new in conservative politics. Most curated sites cater to particular sensibilities, particular audiences.

I'm not sure what niche TDB is meant to fill or who it's intending to reach, but in its first week, the editors undoubtedly don't yet know what it's niche will be, either. Right now, it appears mainly to be a destination for people who like Tina Brown, which I guess means people like me, in that I have always enjoyed her publications. I sense it will be a place for me to go when I don't have the time to read longer-form content in Slate or Salon, and am interested in news beyond the narrowly political, financial, or gossipy. I'll give it a shot, in other words. It beats watching my net worth disappear day by day.

Since it's new, TDB is also currently ad-free, which is refreshing. It's design is clean, and right now it can be enjoyed free of clutter. Oh, and one feature really worth checking out: the Video Cheat Sheet, an accumulation of must-see clips from around the Web. It's worth a visit just to find the view-worthy in one place. Why watch the Dow plummet when you can catch Bill Murray's SNL cameo from last night instead?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Another Day, Another Dollar Lost

I'm beginning to wonder why I read the paper every morning. The fact that there's no good news is both cliche and, well, a fact. I suppose I read the paper because it's hard to believe just how bad things have gotten and I need a daily reminder of all the bad news. Six months ago my main worry was the price of grain, while these days I worry that we'll all end up in one bread line or another.

I no longer open my monthly statements sent from the places that are tending to my net worth. I don't know if I have any net worth anymore, come to think of it. I'm no economist, but I do know that something is "worth" only the amount someone will give you for it. It doesn't matter what my car is worth on paper; if someone will give me $20K that's what it's worth, and if I can only get $9K for it, then that's its value.

So, if investors are scared of the market and are selling, rather than buying, stocks, what are my stocks worth? What happens, in other words, if we get to the point where no one wants to buy my holdings? Do they then become worthless? Can the Dow reach zero? If nothing is "worth" anything, what happens? These are honest questions. I hope to never have practical answers to them, but every day the paper makes me worry just a little bit more.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rock, Meet Hard Place

Here's a real-life political question. You live in a small city with depressed property values that has been almost entirely built-out. Tax revenue holds steady, while the cost of services continues to rise. With no new revenues, the only way the budget can be balanced while retaining necessary services (fire, police, street cleaning and maintenance) is to increase taxes every year.

The state has a program to encourage development in distressed municipalities. If voted for, it eliminates all state and local taxes for new or adaptive reuse projects in certain zones. On the one hand, passing these tax breaks is a way of encouraging redevelopment in the urban core, and when the breaks sunset promises the potential for increased revenue to the municipality. In 2011. On the other hand, for the 2009 budget to be balanced, both property taxes and earned income tax must be increased for the rest of us.

Do you support this program? Do you give tax breaks to developers while taxes go up for the rest of us? Or do you say no, and hope that developers will undertake projects in your city nonetheless? I'm completely on the fence on this one.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Why I Don't Have a Rec Room

I wish I liked football. I do like tennis and baseball, so it's not an aversion to sports in general, and I've tried to like football, I really have. I can watch a game on occasion, but I just can't get into it. I wish I liked football because it seems like a nice way to take up a fall Sunday.

If I liked football, I could hang out in bars Sunday afternoons. I'd have an excuse to drink beer and eat chicken wings. Or I could sit in a rec room somewhere with a bunch of guys drinking beer and discussing all the mistakes the coaches are making. If I liked football, I could eat a lot of chips. Nachos, even. If I liked football, I could wear a team jersey and scream at the TV.

Football games are now played a bunch of nights each week. If I liked football, I could sit in bars Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights, chugging the Coors Lite pint specials. If I liked football, I could hate Tom Brady. Or I could love Tom Brady. If I liked football, I could care one way or another about Tom Brady rather than sitting here wondering what all the fuss about Tom Brady is about, anyway.

If I liked football I could care about the weather in Chicago and Green Bay. I could buy a foam finger. I could tolerate John Madden. If I liked football I wouldn't mind having to watch parts of games every Sunday evening waiting for 60 Minutes to finally begin. I would never point at my TV and exclaim, "Why are you showing the overtime of this stupid game! Get to the Condoleeza Rice interview already!" On the other hand, if I liked football maybe I'd never have to suffer through Andy Rooney again.

Most importantly, if I liked football I'd have something in common with what feels like 85% of this country and 99.8% of the guys I know. If I liked football, I'd automatically have something in common with nearly every other American. Ultimately, if I liked football, I'd be qualified to be Vice President.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It Figures

My car came with a four-year warranty (Did you know that this is the correct spelling, rather than "warrantee"? Neither did I), which expired on September 29. Monday. When I started the car Tuesday, both headlights burned out and the check engine light went on. Are manufacturers really that smart? And if they are that smart, why are automakers losing money left and right? That's all I have to say today.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Party Like It's 1959

Enough of politics (although I'm really looking forward to tomorrow night's debate). The most exciting news I've had in a while is the fact that Revolutionary Road has finally been made into a movie, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leo and Kate Winslet, no less. Yates' is, I think, the best novel of the 1950s, of suburbia and conformity; it out-Cheever's Cheever. It's filled with bleakness, drunken-ness, and all around bad behavior, which perhaps explains why it's taken 45 years for it to be adapted for the screen. My assumption is that the success of Mad Men led the studios to think the time was right for this particular period film.

If you're not familiar with Richard Yates, he served in WWII, had TB, wrote a couple of great, minimalist novels and some of the best short stories of the 20th century, was an accomplished creative writing instructor, and drank himself to death. Read his collected stories and see that Raymond Carver didn't come out of left field. In fact, just read his collected stories; many of them are truly wonderful, ultimately better than any of his novels.

Revolutionary Road is the story of April and Frank Wheeler. Frank works in PR; he and April meet at a party in the Village, fall in love, marry. Despite their "artistic" leanings they move to the suburbs. They are predictably unhappy. They talk and talk to each other, drunkenly and manicly trying "communicate," to work through their angst. They decide that if they move to Paris everything will be different. They never make it to Paris. I'm not giving away the ending, just read the book for yourself. The title is, of course, ironic.

In times of trouble we long for the safety and certainty of the past, or yearn toward the better times of the future. We watch period dramas secure in our hindsight; we know better than the Wheelers, we know their plot has nowhere to go but to grief, we feel definite that we're smarter now. But are we? How many dreams were sublimated into mortgages during the past decade, how many aspirations swallowed by consumerist desires? We still want what everyone else has, we still need at the same time to feel different.

The Wheelers' story unfolds on the cusp of cultural, political, and generational change, a cusp we are today similarly balanced upon. We smoke and drink less, we no longer wear fedoras or girdles, we believe we are more enlightened about sexual and racial politics, but underneath the song remains the same: the more we strive, the more we compromise.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On the Road

Spend a weekend on your college campus, act 18 again. It happens every time. I'm still recuperating. The main way I felt 18 again was being completely cut off from the rest of the world for over 48 hours: no internet, no TV, no newspapers. I didn't see the debate, nor hear any of the incessant recaps of it. Paul Newman died? What do you know. The Northeast was drenched? Huh. It's hard, now, to believe I spent four years living in such a bubble.

An interesting offshoot of my trip was that I drove smack through the middle of Virginia, the last leg on back roads filled with campaign signs. I'm not sure what yard signs tell you, not sure how effective an indicator they are as to what will happen in November. However, the placement of a yard sign does indicate effort and dedication on the part of the person who placed the sign, and in that sense display the sentiments of at least one voter.

Rural Central Virginia must trend Republican these days. However, I feel comfortable predicting that Mark Warner will win his Senate race. Based on yard signs, the guy doesn't even have an opponent. Warner signs proliferated, yet I didn't see a single indication that there is a Republican nominee running against him. Some properties even featured both McCain and Warner signs, which was to me the real indicator that this particular race is over.

Based on signage, the Presidential race is harder to call. Crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains on Routes 151 and 6, through Afton, Rockfish Gap, and Nelson County, McCain/Palin definitely dominated. On the other hand, it would appear that the Obama campaign lacks an office in this part of the state, because I passed a number of hand-made Obama signs. Yes, hand-made, a true indicator of dedication. One sign, ok, but on the trip back I counted: 15 such signs on a 35-mile stretch of road.

Once I got to Route 29, a major north/south state highway, Obama took the lead in signage. McCain still had supporters, but the majority of yards sported signs promoting the entire Democratic ticket for that part of the state: Obama, Warner, and the Congressional candidate whose last name begins with a "P" (sorry, I was driving, I couldn't write it down).

Conclusions? It could be that the Obama campaign is correct in believing that Virginia is in play. It could also be that, in the end, yard signs along state highways only mean that a couple of crazy partisans went driving around in a pick-up one night, drinking beer and illegally posting. My main conclusion is that this remains perhaps the most interesting Presidential race in recent memory. And that it's a bad idea for an early middle-aged woman to party like an 18 year-old.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Here's a Bucket, Start Bailing

Brody and I are getting ready for our road trip to Virginia. I'm nearly certain that the Amherst Motor Inn will not feature free internet, or any internet, for that matter, so I'll be offline until Monday. I'm hoping that while I'm gone the Senate Banking Committee decides to give me a bailout. It's true, I haven't done anything to damage our entire economic system, and in that sense I'm not the most deserving among us, but I could use a bailout nonetheless. In exchange for a truly modest sum, the American taxpayers can have an equity stake in the home Countrywide and I co-own. It's a really good deal for everyone. I think taxpayers like me would be better served with a stake in my mid-century modern house (it's got central air! and a garage!) than with a percentage of AIG or some tottering investment bank. Why buy failing securities when we can buy a nice three-bed, one and a half bath with fireplace and hardwood floors? I'll even throw in partial ownership of my cat, if Chuck Shumer wants me to. He's a nice cat, and he'd be proud to be partially owned by the American taxpayer.

Come on, Senate Banking Committee. Stop talking and bail me out already.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Campaign Blues

Are you tired of the election yet? I'm getting there. I'm tired of the way this thing has degenerated. Everything that can go wrong in this country has gone wrong. Everything costs more, while wages have barely, if at all, kept up. The federal government has decided to prop up Wall Street, while struggling homeowners are left hanging. The situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate and no one notices. And the candidates spend more time arguing about who represents "real" change than they do presenting "real" solutions.

I'm tired of Sarah Palin and chatter about pit bulls and lipstick. I'm tired of the word "maverick." I'm also tired of "hope," because the longer this goes on, the less hope I have. I do have one hope: to never again hear the phrase "red meat." Shut up, Keith Olbermann. I'm tired, most of all, of you and all the rest of the pundits who live with you in punditville.

It would take so little to please me. All I want is to hear some honest discussion about the actual issues that we face, and to hear some honest debate about proposed solutions to those issues. I'm not sure this will happen between now and November, not even at the "debates," which, like the rest of the campaigns, are likely to become more about style than they are about substance. What substance can be presented in highly vetted, two-minute long sound bites? Don't the candidates, and I mean all of them, not just the Presidential candidates but also Congressional, statehouse, even candidates for coroner and dogcatcher, don't they understand that voters are worried about the real state of our nation and not about which party controls which body of government?

But of course I won't be able to help myself. I'll continue reading the coverage every morning, I'll watch the debates, I'll continue to be in a state of agitation until it's all over and then I'll vow, as I do every four years, to not care so much next time, to become sanguine, to let democracy take its course, no matter how I feel about the course it is taking. After all, I only have one vote. I'll cast it, as always, and "hope" for the best.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How to Spend a Saturday

There's little better to do on a gorgeous late summer/early fall weekend than to drive around the country, go to an orchard for apples, buy produce at roadside stands, and enjoy what scenery is left around here before it's paved over into strip malls and subdivisions. This time of year, nurseries are full of "hardy mums." Everywhere we went Saturday, signs encouraged us to purchase "hardy mums," as if somewhere down the road one could find a stand selling "delicate mums." If each and every mum is "hardy," why bother with the adjective?

One friend who gardens told me "hardy" means that these are mums that can survive a light frost. Another told me that it means that you can plant them in the ground, that "hardy" mums are perennials. The internet told me that all mums are perennial, all mums survive a light frost, and therefore all mums are "hardy."

Except my mums. The sign at the stand where I purchased mine said, "Hearty Mums."