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.