Sunday, June 29, 2008

till Tuesday

I've had a busy couple of days finishing the editorial for what will be the last issue of my magazine produced under my direction. Yep, I sold it. Yep, I need to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Yep, I'm not worrying about any of that just yet. At any rate, I haven't posted the past few days because I've been working. Tomorrow, some kitsch: I'm off to the Kutztown Folk Festival, which for some reason I've never before attended. Here's the question of the hour: approximately how many feet from the car will I have to walk before encountering the first piece of funnel cake?

I'll be back Tuesday with the answer.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Letter to the President

Dear President Bush,

Where's my economic stimulus check? It's almost July already. I know my Social Security number puts me near the end of the list, but come on. All my neighbors have been happily filling up their gas tanks and buying eggs and milk, then putting the 68 cents they have left in the bank, while my refrigerator and tank remain empty. I've been dreaming all month of taking a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a few things I don't need that have been manufactured in China. Things aren't too great around here, and I need that check to help out.

Plus, President Bush, I've been bored. I just don't know what to do with myself if I'm not spending money! I shot my wad paying for heat this past winter. I know, I know, that was thoughtless and poor planning. I should have put something aside in order to help Kohl's meet its second quarter profits. What can I say? I'm a greedy Democrat, tax and spend and all that. You taxed me; where's my check so I can do some spending? Don't you care about Kohl's? This week "novelty" t-shirts made in Malaysia are on sale for $9.99 and I can't buy one.

Hey, thank you (and your predecessors) for the continuing, decades-long support of United Fruit, though. At least bananas flown up from South America are still cheap. Your unwavering support of pharmaceutical companies has also been a great help to a couple of my neighbors who work for Merck. I don't have much of a prescription plan and had to spend $300 for some Wellbutrin a couple of months ago, but that was just me doing my part for Q1 earnings. It's all good for me in the end, right?

But I digress. I'm honestly just wondering when I'll get that check. Here I am, ready and willing to buy something. Help me out already. I'll even buy some Budweiser to do my part at keeping those nasty Belgians at bay. Sorry I posted this letter on the web rather than putting it in the mail; without my stimulus I couldn't afford the stamp.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wonderful World

I've just spent the first part of the morning searching for images from 1974. Please don't ask why; I'm not even sure I understand my own obsessions. Thanks to all the kids and this newfangled Internety-thing, images from that period abound. One site in particular stands out, and if you haven't already discovered the glory that is the 1974 Weight Watchers Recipe Cards, follow the link to that site immediately. In 1974, weight loss was obviously accomplished by turning food into "food."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

All Power to the People

I received an email yesterday notifying me that my cable bill was past due, and that if I didn't pay by phone immediately my service would be shut off. That struck me as odd; I'm a good American and I always pay my bills. I looked through my receipts and noticed that I didn't in fact receive a cable bill last month, which explains why I didn't pay it.

So I called the cable company and worked my way through the voice menu until 15 minutes later I had a real human being on the other end of the line. I explained that I'd never received a bill last month, and wondered what was up. "Just a minute, let me make an adjustment," she said. I said, "OK," and waited. "There!" she exclaimed. "I changed your account so that you'll automatically receive a bill every month."

"Why wouldn't I receive a bill every month?" I asked. "I've received a bill every month but last month."

"Well," she explained, "if your bill is the same every month sometimes the system just doesn't send it out once in a while. I don't know why. I can remove the late fee for you, though."

"Are you intentionally not sending out bills so you can collect late fees? Is that what you're telling me? Even if that's legal, it's not very polite," I stated politely.

She replied that she honestly didn't know, and of course I believe her. Customer Service reps don't make policy decisions for major utilities. Here's another crap thing about this cable company: if you decide your bill is too high and have the time and patience to wait for a human voice on the other end of the phone, you can say, "My bill's so high! Do you have any promotions right now?" and they will take at least $20 off your bill for six months or a year. In other words, they overcharge anyone willing to pay a bill without asking questions, which means they are overcharging 90% of their customers.

Do I have choice? Could I get my cable and internet from another company? Yes. Would that be a huge pain in the butt? Yes. Would a different utility treat me any better, any differently? Nah. The days of public utilities are over, and utility companies are not our friends. No conglomerate is a friend. The only way for services such as electric, gas, phone and cable to be delivered to my house in a warm and friendly manner would be for me to hook a treadmill up to a battery and a generator and let my dog power everything by running in place.

I don't even think there's a lesson here, or a larger point, except this: sometimes "the man" really is out to get you, and you best stick it to him first.

Friday, June 20, 2008

5 Things I've Learned This Summer

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year, which means that summer starts fading away beginning Sunday. I've always thought that the Fourth of July marks the end of summer; it's the point at which growing season ends and flowers and trees start losing their luster, the days begin to noticeably shorten, all the promise of spring is heat-blasted off. Not that there aren't some nice months ahead - there are. Already, though, I've learned some valuable lessons this summer:

1) No one thinks my dog is as adorable as do I. Some people actively don't appreciate my dog, in fact, particularly those dogless neighbors he insists on running off to visit on a daily basis. In the spirit of neighborhood peace I've fenced off part of my yard, but even so the notion that human beings who don't love my dog exist is something I've had to learn the hard way.

2) It doesn't matter if you've been immune to poison ivy for 44 years. That immunity can be lost at any time, and once you lose it you will have poison continually for the rest of the summer, if not for the rest of your life.

3) I no longer have to imagine what my neighborhood looked like thousands of years ago. It was a solid forest of oak trees, and oak trees are not benign. They've been waging war with me all spring, sending seedlings everywhere, and overnight those seedlings turn into impossibly rooted little trees. Overnight, I tell you. This is my own miniature War on Drugs in that I lose it on a daily basis.

4) Target sells something called "Peach Pear Italian Soda" under their Archer Farms label. Said Italian soda tastes really, really, dangerously good with Grey Goose. Hangover good, I'm telling you.

5) There are many fashion dos and don'ts, but only one universal rule: never wear a belt with shorts. Please, guys, it just looks stupid.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Jennifer Love Hewitt, We Hardly Knew Ye

Hurray! Party of Five is now available on Hulu. All of season 3 is posted; that's the season where Bailey goes to college and becomes an alcoholic, his descent into inebriation made complete when he attends Owen's third birthday party as a mean, drunken, sad, lonely clown. Julia (the fetching Neve Campbell) is still in high school and hasn't yet achieved complete solipsism. Charlie is still a rogue and hasn't yet matured through cancer. Little Owen still can't talk, and the show is better for it.

It's full of flannel and Gap henleys. It's 1997. Fiona Apple sings in the background. Without commercials each episode is only 43 minutes long. You know you want to. You've got the time - there's nothing new on TV anyway. Just watch it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Unsolicited Advice

On the op-ed page of today's NY Times, Tony Horowitz provides Obama with some sage advice: give up the Nicorette and start smoking again. A cigarette costs about half as much as a piece of nicotine gum. Horowitz points out, thus demonstrating to voters that he needs to economize as much as the next person. Plus, most of today's smokers are blue-collar, the demographic to which Obama must increase his appeal. Smoking would also give him an edge in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina, tobacco states all. Since he quit at the beginning of the campaign at the insistence of Michelle, he could also portray himself as just a regular hen-pecked husband who didn't give in to his wife's nagging.

OK, if he takes up smoking again, what brand would be most politically advantageous? He had been a Marlboro smoker, but Horowitz feels he should change brands: Marlboro conjures images of the rugged American West, where there aren't enough voters. Horowitz vetoes Newport and Kools as feeding into stereotypes about African-Americans, and rejects Camels because of the issue of Camel Joe and children. His solution is Winstons, preferably unfiltered: manly, and the sponsor of NASCAR races.

Personally, I wish he'd take up smoking again so that he can meet more voters in intimate settings, like crevices on the side of office buildings facing parking lots, and small patios outside bars and restaurants where smokers freeze in winter and get rained on every other season. That's truly taking it to the people.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Call Me Ishmael

I have no idea where or when, but at some point I read the claim that all stories begin one of two ways: "A stranger came to town," or "I {he, she, they, etc.} set out on a journey." I couldn't fall asleep last night, so instead of counting sheep, or counting weeds in my yard, I lay there trying to figure out whether or not this is true. Does every story really begin one of those ways?

Set aside all memoir, biography, and autobiography - generic convention means all of these begin with the setting out on a journey. To narrow this down, I worked my way though a syllabus for a 20th Century American lit class I once taught. Here's what we have:

Sister Carrie: she set out on a journey
In Our Time: he set out on a journey
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a stranger came to town, then they set out on a journey
The Sound and the Fury: everyone avoided setting out on a journey, except Caddie, and her setting out ruined everything
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: strangers who had set out on a journey came to town
On the Road: I set out on a journey, then kept journeying trying to replicate the joys of that first journey

In terms of the fiction from that class, the journeys have it. But then I realized that's because I was teaching American literature, which is classically about journeys, movement, lighting out for the territory. The Europeans are much more the "stranger comes to town" types.

Here, though, is the question of the day: can you think of a story that doesn't begin either of these two ways?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Big-Ass Book of the Week

For the past month, I haven't been happy if I haven't been reading a 700-page tome, preferably about Richard Nixon. I think that, without realizing it, I've been privately commemorating the Senate Watergate hearings, held 35 years ago this summer. Or maybe election year politics have just made me interested in elections of the past. For whatever reason, I spent all my free time two weeks ago devouring Nixonland, then last week moved on to The Last Campaign, the story of RFK's 82-day long 1968 bid, and have now just finished Richard Reeves' President Nixon: Alone in the White House.

Nixon's rise and fall, and rise and fall again, and final rise and fall, have always interested me probably because it all feels so much like a Greek tragedy. Sure, he was "tricky", "dirty", paranoid, whatever you want to call him, but he was also a brilliant politician. He invented the politics that the Republican right have used to keep themselves in power for most of the past 40 years, after all. It's sad because he probably would have accomplished his goals - bringing order to the streets and an end to Vietnam - without illegally wiretapping anybody, and without using the IRS and FBI for political purposes. He undoubtedly would have been re-elected without spying on the DNC and then covering it up, as well. But his worse nature got the better of him, as it did throughout his life.

Nixonland led me to believe that I was right to admire him as a politician even if I can't admire him as a human being, but the Reeves book has led me to admire him for something completely different: for becoming President despite being clearly and obviously insane. I mean, he was more than just a little bipolar, and more than just a little paranoid. He was completely looped, and would have benefited from at least one of Eagleton's electric shock treatments. Read the book and you'll marvel at the fact that a person of his mindset could not only become President but also rack up some successes, particularly in terms of foreign policy.

Crazy cleaves to crazy, so it's no wonder CREEP's operatives were a sandwich or two short of lunch. Yes, of course I refer to G. Gordon Liddy. We all know what they did; what's less known is the original plan, called Operation Gemstone. Liddy presented the plan to Mitchell and Dean with one hand bandaged, because he'd held it in a candle's flame to demonstrate the pain he would endure in the name of loyalty. Here's the plan, as quoted by Reeves:

"We need preventive action to break up demonstrations before they reach television cameras. I can arrange for the services of highly trained squads, men who have worked successfully as street-fighting squads for the CIA...Teams that are experienced in surgical relocation activities. In a word, they can kidnap a hostile leader with maximum secrecy and a minimum use of force. If, for instance, a prominent radical comes to our convention, these teams can drug him and take him across the border...I have secured a option to lease a pleasure craft docked on the canal directly in front of the Fountainbleu Hotel. It is more than sixty feet long, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for both sight and sound...We can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat. These are the finest call girls in the country. They are not dumb broads, but girls who can be trained and programmed..."

Mitchell rejected this plan, not because of its absurdity, but because it would have been too expensive. Give me something cheaper, he said. Colson says focus on bugging and stealing documents, that we can afford. We all know what happened next.

My father hated Nixon with a passion that would have led Liddy to exile him to the pleasure boat. He hated Nixon so much he made me, at the age of 9, sit with him and watch the Senate hearings, all 37 days of them, televised that summer of 1973. I didn't get much of it, except that I thought John Dean was cute. I get it all now, though, and for the first time in my life I understand my father's hatred. We want this stuff in a situation comedy, we want it in a work of fiction. We don't, however, want it in the White House.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Scoot On

An article in last week's Times indicated that scooter sales are up something like 45% this year. It's about time. I've been a scooter fan for 20 years; my first was a 1986 Honda Spree. That was back in the two-stroke days, when I'd have to feed it both oil and gas. For the past six years I've been scooting around town on a Honda Metropolitan, a bike I highly recommend: it's a regular four-stoke engine, gets around 90 miles a gallon, and is styled to look like a Vespa while costing 1/3 the price to purchase and maintain.

Mine is the smallest scooter available, so my top speed is 40 mph downhill. Even though I can't take it on the highway, the scooter has a number of advantages beyond fuel economy. For now, few enough people have scooters that it's a novelty. Strangers honk, wave, and ask to sit on it wherever I go. The higher fuel prices go, the more popular I am on my scooter. Parking is also incredibly easy. The police in my small city haven't figured out that it's illegal to park on the sidewalk, so parking is particularly easy here, but it's been no problem wherever I've lived. It can fit next to a bike rack, or between street spaces, or between other parked cars. Next to a Smart Car it's probably the best in-town transportation in terms of ease of parking.

I'm off in a few minutes to get the scooter inspected. In PA all pedal-less bikes must be licensed and inspected. This costs approximately $40 a year; my insurance runs me $50 a year. Add in a quart of oil, and you're looking at $100 a year to keep it running. I bought the bike in June, 2002 and thus far have had no other maintenance on it, although at some point I'll need a new battery, tires, brakes, etc. Because I don't use it in the winter I only put around 400 miles a year on it, though, so tires and brakes feel a long way off. In short, a scooter is incredibly economical.

Really, who doesn't want to feel popular, ride a cute vehicle, save money, and reduce carbon emissions, all at once? The rest of the world has known the advantages of scooters for years. Do yourself a favor - find out for yourself.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Porn, 1950

At the flea market the other day, I was lucky enough to scarf up The Sins of Allie-May, Plaything of Men, a "brand new uncensored exotic novel" published in 1950. As it turns out, the jacket copy is much more salacious than anything to be found inside. "The devil's daughter...that's what they called luscious Allie May - and they were right!" the inside cover proclaims. "A slave of her own unquenchable passion, Allie dragged down her many lovers until they, too, wallowed in sin with the gorgeous she-devil! A story to remember...A woman you will never forget!"

Here's the opening paragraph: "The trouble started soon after Allie May sauntered into the bar, her eyes full of challenge, her provocative figure flaunting unmistakable invitation. The bartender sensed it instinctively, and prepared himself for the worst, though for a second or two he dwelt on a picture of seduction that sent his head spinning." The prose purples from there. Needless to say, Allie May is continuously degraded and punished for her wanton ways, but not before those ways are described in florid detail.

This is but one title in a series of "exciting, exotic tales of love," and I'm sorry I can't read each and every one of the following. Contemporary porn is just so pedestrian in comparison:

Divorce Bait
Confessions of a Party Wife
Shakedown Dame
Strange Mistress
Respectable Harlot
Lure for Love
Naughty Virgin
Love Cheat!
Wolf Trap Blonde
Midnight Sinner
Bad Woman

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Robert Francis Kennedy, 1925-1968

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over $800 billion a year, but the GNP - if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead...and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

- RFK, speech at University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Overheard at Sweet Briar College

I've been going through more piles of old papers, and I found the following. These are real quotes said by real people at my alma mater sometime between fall, 1984 and May, 1985. I can't believe I survived.

When you hang around with women, you kind of degrade yourself.
- Ross Dabney, Professor of English

But black people here seem so happy - they're always singing and dancing.
- Amy Graves, Class of 1988

I think people in the outside community are sort of envious of us. I mean, they'll spend their lives in places like a grocery story and we've got the chance to be bankers or something.
- Page Franson, Class of 1987

The Hebrew Profits
- course title from January, 1985 Continuing Studies Catalogue

Do the gay people on campus have any distinguishing characteristics?
- Amy Graves, Class of 1988

There's no need for women's studies here, we already do plenty of that. Why, I always teach Hamlet from Ophelia's point of view.
- Ralph Dabney, Professor of English
But Ross, it wasn't written from Ophelia's point of view.
- Nenah Fry, President of the College

I had always suspected Cyndi Lauper was a feminist.
- Elizabeth Baer, Assistant Dean

We have enough women here already. Why study them?
- Jean Jenkins, Class of 1986

I've never met a real atheist before. Let's discuss it sometime - over tea, perhaps?
- Maggie Fogarty, Class of 1987

History changes a lot.
- Bella Abzug, guest speaker

I enjoy going to Washington and Lee and degrading myself. So what?
- Joan Collins, Class of 1985

I'm voting for Reagan because I don't believe in women's rights.
- Stephanie Hardin, Class of 1987

Which world war was with the Germans?
- Nancy McMullen, Class of 1985

I love money. I'm going to marry someone who has a lot of it.
- Lewis Lagrone, Class of 1985

I hate Milton. He's an asshole.
- Lewis Lagrone, Class of 1985

You know Latin pretty well. You should go to Latin America and speak it.
- Lenetta Archard, Class of 1985

For Black History Month I want to interview some blacks from Amherst to find out what it was like to be alive during slavery.
- Maggie Fogarty, Class of 1987

I can't break down the comprehensive fee but I can tell you this: part of it goes for board, and all the rest, except for the part that goes to the rooms, goes to tuition.
- Peter V. Daniel, Vice-President and Treasurer

Why does everyone make such a big deal out of Soviet jewelery?
- Nancy McMullen, Class of 1985

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Bicentennial Minute

It's entirely possible to view America between 1960 and 1980 as a national nightmare. In some ways everything fell apart. True, the shattering of the post-war cultural hegemony was needed, but did we really need to kill each other in order to loosen up a bit? Kill each other we did: racists killing civil rights protesters, war protesters killing themselves, cops and National Guardsmen killing war protesters, rioters killing bystanders, cops killing rioters, on and on. President after President lied to the public. The economy went to hell. Drugs stopped being freeing and turned deadly and ugly.

In the middle of all this can be found one brief reprieve, one shining year filled with a bit of optimism. "Aaah," I imagine millions of Americans thinking, "That horrible war is truly over. Nixon has been banished. That Jimmy Carter seems like a nice fella. Time to put some ferns in macrame hanging baskets around the split level, buy a flag-decorated wastebasket and celebrate. It's the Bicentennial!" 1976 was a good year indeed.

It was a year when polyester was celebrated without irony. It was a year when avocado and harvest gold looked really good in a kitchen. It was a year when divorce was socially accepted, women were working, gay men were inventing disco, cocaine was everywhere. It was a year when swingers could have key parties in suburban living rooms or just go to Plato's Retreat. It was a year when the new social and sexual freedoms could be enjoyed, before AIDS, family values, crack.

1976 was the last time patriotism would be kitschy. I remember flag sneakers, flag cut-off shorts, flag beach towels and floats. The Bicentennial was an orgy of merchandising. Tall ships, fireworks, commemorative coins given out with fast food. Love of country at its finest.

1976 featured an Olympics unmarked by radical gestures on the medal podium or terrorist kidnappings. 1976 was the year my menses commenced, for whatever that's worth. It was a year when it must have felt as if a long period of national pain and struggle was finally over and relief was in sight. It was a year when it was possible to feel good about yourself and your country.

1976 is when the action of Swingtown takes place. It premiers tomorrow (Thursday, June 5) at 10 on CBS. If it's any good, it will do for the Bicentennial what Mad Men did for 1960, which is to bring the period to life through studious costume and set design while at the same time allowing through character a glimpse of the dark undercurrents at work in the culture. I doubt it will be that good, but sometimes I miss 1976 all the same, so I'll be watching, if only for the fun of it all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Borscht Belt

A rabbi walks into a bar with a frog on his shoulder. The bartender says, "Hey, where did you get that?" The frog says, "Whaddya mean? We got hundreds of 'em in Brooklyn."

I never remember jokes.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cead Mile Failte

A new Irish pub opens in my town on June 17 - Slainte. The Celtic word has proven too difficult for one of my non-Irish friends. He instead refers to it as "Schlong."

I call that "getting it wrong with style."