Friday, December 29, 2006

Another Year With Nothing To Do

And so, here endeth, at least chronologically, the Year of Sorrows.

That sad and sickly thing that went for my jugular with such ferocity that it frequently bordered on the comical.

The year that boasted it could do me in; the year that dared me to draw another breath; the year that turned living into a torpid miasma of fear and horror.

Chickens came home to roost with an almost homicidal efficiency and lessons were taught with unsympathetic precision.

It would be nice if the year’s end meant that we were moving on to other things. In truth, however, it probably means more of the same.

Let’s face it. There’s absolutely no reason to look forward to 2007.

Before we call for the house pistol, though, let’s take a closer look and see whether things are as black as they seem.

Surely if, like George Bailey, I could see what the world would be like if I’d never been born, I could appreciate how important I am in the scheme of things.

Let’s look in on the wife:

Man: More caviar, dear?

Woman: I really shouldn’t!

All right, bad example.

Wait, that fellow there, he looks familiar! Didn’t he become my next door neighbor?

Man: It’s so quiet and peaceful out here, isn’t it?

Woman: Oh my, yes. Aren’t we lucky that some maniac isn’t beating the hell out of a piano with the window open?

Man: As if!

Perhaps if we switch gears and see how our civil servants are doing. This postman, for example:

Man: You’re looking well, Charlie.

Postman: Thanks, Ed. I’m just really lucky that I don’t have a route that burdens me with large packages full of useless crap every day.

Man: I heard that!

What about those two women speaking conspiratorially?

Woman 1: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean…

Woman 2: Exactly! If my first sexual experience had been with, you know, some jerk who didn’t know what he was doing…

Woman 1: Well, sure! It could have put you off it for life. I mean, you hear about some poor girls…

Woman 2: I pity them. I’m so thankful for my Herbert.

Woman 1: As am I.

One last chance. That chipper looking shopkeeper:

Man (to business partner): I think we’ve taken in more money this week than in any week since we opened.

Other Man: Sure, but…

Man: And you wanted to open a “Noisy, Obscure Import CD’s and Anything With The Simpsons On It” store!

Other Man: All right, I'm an idiot!

I give up. Where’s that confounded bridge?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Very Merry Unchristmas

“Hey!” the man exclaimed suddenly. “We’re not spending that kind of money on that broad!”

As you may have guessed from the tone and inflection, it was Christmas Eve.

We were shopping in a nearby grocery when we heard the above and turned to find that the speaker was an agitated looking middle-aged man whose poor wife looked as if she desperately wished she were anywhere but here.

But such is the nature of a season that forces us to get in touch with the better angels of our nature. It’s a thankless task, and one that really doesn’t seem worth the bother. It’s a bit like holding your stomach in at the beach: after a couple of hours, you don’t give a damn anymore.

My friend Bob has even taken the concept of Lewis Carroll’s “unbirthday” an extra step and declared this year to be an Unchristmas. He’s let all of his friends and relatives know that he’s just not going to do anything this year and that once every two years is enough. I certainly can’t blame him. The endless traffic, the nightmare shopping, the awful music. It’s enough to test anyone’s good will towards men.

Even the wife has gotten fed up with A Christmas Carol. This is the Alistair Sim one I mean, the one where John Steed plays young Jacob Marley. This year, even Scrooge’s “There’s more of gravy than the grave about you!” didn’t stay her hand from the remote.

Still, one tries to swim with the tide in these matters and smile politely and nod one’s head when people wish you a happy holiday. The pain is momentary and over soon enough.

Certainly I was in a cheerful state of mind this Christmas Eve when I stopped into the local gas station for a pre-holiday fill-up. Having filled the tank, I marched inside to pick up a quart of motor oil to keep the Screwloosemobile happy.

At the counter, a short gentleman with long stringy hair that spun off from an enormous bald spot was arguing with the cashier.

“I want to give you this change,” he said. “I can pay how I want and I want one of my dollars back.”

“I don’t really need the change, sir,” the cashier replied nervously.

“I don’t care,” the man said, raising his voice. “I’m the customer! Remember that! I want one of my dollars back for this change and I can pay how I want. I’m the customer!”

He looked uncannily like The Penguin in the second Batman movie, even down to the body language.

Defeated, the woman accepted the change and gave the man back his dollar bill. You would have thought this might have ended it, but the lesson continued.

Moving towards the door, he harangued, “I’m the customer! I can do whatever I want! Remember that! I’m the customer!”

Now if he’d taken his money and left, I suppose I could have kept silent. But this continuing to natter on after he’d won, taking advantage of his position as “the customer” to do what he could to make the cashier feel small over a dollar’s worth of change was just too much.

I let my stomach out.

After the last confirmation that he was indeed “the customer,” I said loud enough for everyone in the store to hear, “And such an attractive one, too!”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’m in no position to be making comments about other people’s physical appearance. And it was a cheap shot, certainly. But I was looking for a cudgel and that’s what came out.

There was a momentary silence. Then:

“Excuse me?” I could tell that he was still at the door and hadn’t moved towards me, thank goodness.

“I said, ‘Merry Christmas’,” I replied.

“Hey, man!” the voice shot back. “That’s uncool! You don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m the customer!”

“That’s uncool, dude!” I said.

There were a few snickers from the line that had accumulated behind me.

There was no reply as he left. Of course he was laying in wait for me when I returned to my car. I’d just managed to get the door open to get in when he marched over very purposefully and started again.

“Hey, man! That was uncool! You don’t know what happened! I’m the customer and…”

“Well,” I broke in as I slid into the driver’s seat, “I’m a customer, too, and I get to say whatever I want…man!” I closed the door and sped off.

It was another Christmas and everywhere the air was filled with cherubs, charity and good fellowship.

What was this talk about Three Wise Men?

I couldn't even find two.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Le Mot Juste Doesn't Make Sense

Thanks to people's wishes and God's will, the trend for the existence of the Zionist regime is downwards, and this is what God has promised and what all nations want.
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosts a unique Holocaust “conference”

I say violent extremists because an extremist who goes off in a closet is extreme, but he's not bothering people.
- Donald Rumsfeld gets extreme

I do have a real job where I do have real clients and I don't think they'd be too understanding if I was also the guy who painted with my ass.
- Virginia teacher Stephen Murmer, anticipating in 2003 his recent suspension for being a “butt-print artist.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Found Sculpture In America, or: Don't Call Me Squirrelly

I remember that the artist/director David Lynch, long interested in the ways that the organic world changes shape, once took a small ball of meat and sculpted a cheese head around it, poking holes in it for eyes, nose and mouth.

He then let some ants loose on the milk-based mini-bust and watched as the ants slowly retrieved the meat from inside it, eventually leaving the husk of the cheese head. Here was an example of nature, with a little encouragement, creating its own art.

Well, an interesting thing like it has been happening here of late.

To dispose of leaves and shrubbery, the local township hands out these very sturdy long bags into which one is supposed to place the errant greenery.

One day, fired up with an unusual amount of energy, I found myself cramming a great deal of loose branches into one of these bags, twisting and turning them so that they fit. This bag, only partway filled, then stayed by the side of the house for many months, silently awaiting the day when I would be visited by a similar burst of inspiration.

This meant that the bag then went on to face the elements: many sessions of strong rain and heat and cold, pummeling it into a strange clay that awaited an artist’s hand.

Eventually, I noticed that something strange was going on. As the weeks ticked by towards winter, more and more of the bag seemed to disappear, revealing the delicate branches within. The wood had, over time, come to assume the shape of the bag, and now the branches had assumed a cylindrical shape about a foot and a half high. It looked for all the world as if it had been quite intentional and, moreover, resembled something you might see for sale in a local artist’s shop.

But where had the bag gone? We finally caught the culprit red-handed one day as we saw a squirrel making off with yet another large piece of the bag and trying to make his way across the street with it.

It was far too large for him to carry and we watched, fascinated, as he attempted to collapse its size, over and over again, until it became small enough to manage. He then ran up a neighbor’s tree with it and, we assume, added it to a work-in-progress.

My god, we thought. We’ve become a sort of Home Depot for the local wildlife. Providing one-stop shopping for all of your winter nest needs.

Apparently, though, this squirrel, let’s call him Andy Squirrelhol, was not the only one with an eye towards establishing an artist’s colony here. For weeks, we had been mystified by the muffled sounds of scampering on our roof, which were only explained when I found that another squirrel had managed to push up a section of our aluminum siding and crawl in. The only way to do this seemed to be a tall tree near the entrance, so I cut it down a few feet, figuring that would put an end to it.

I was shocked, then, when the late-night scampering continued and found that, in a nimble bit of acrobatics that I witnessed myself, the squirrel had discovered a way to climb down the roof, flip himself upside-down and around, like the star of some Squirrel du Soleil, and pull himself up into the hole!

He’d also established a front entrance around the front of the house, pried apart by, one supposes, the inner fire of artistic necessity. We supposed this entrance was for pick-ups and deliveries.

The best we can figure now is that he’s got a loft space up there where he busies himself, Jackson Pollock-like, creating action paintings with the juices of berries or collages that utilize various nut meats.

I believe in subsidizing the arts, but the temptation to raise their rents and sell the spaces to some yuppie squirrels is very tempting.

I’m doing my best to keep it from going that far, but if one of them comes up to me and asks me what aisle we keep the power tools in…

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

So, No Baby Shower?

I believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman. I believe it's a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families, and it must be defended.
- George W. Bush

If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.
- Former Senator Rick Santorum

The vice president and Mrs. Cheney are looking forward with eager anticipation to the arrival of their sixth granddaughter.
- Lea Anne McBride, spokeswoman for Dick Cheney, announcing that Mary Cheney and her partner of 15 years, Heather Poe, are expecting a baby.

What They Want This Christmas

Dec. 5, Philadelphia Daily News:

Upper Darby police are struggling to keep up with the holiday demand for a $10 black T-shirt they are selling.

Why are cops peddling T-shirts? Must have something to do with the message in bold white letters across the front: "Not In My Town 'Scumbag'."

In other words, drug dealers and other criminals, keep your slimy hands out of our community, says Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood Sr.

"We are sending a message," Chitwood said. "We don't want scumbags in our community selling drugs, robbing, raping and pillaging," Chitwood said.

Officers came up with the "scumbag" slogan six months ago when Chitwood asked his department to think up a fresh mantra for the squad cars.

While Chitwood decided on the conservative "Protecting Our Community" for patrol cars, his officers decided to go with the "scumbag" motif for T-shirts.

Since the shirts hit the market two months ago, the department has sold about 350 shirts and has ordered 200 more for their Christmas-time clients.

"It has become the hottest-selling item in town," Chitwood said with a grin.

The department also is selling 8-by-4-inch $2 bumper stickers with the slogan. Cops are also placing the stickers on the facades of condemned drug houses, he said.

I still think it would have been cool to see it on the side of patrol cars, though.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

That's A Lot Of Shirt: An Epilogue

Dec. 4, NY Times:

Faced with public demonstrations of discontent by its employees, Wal-Mart Stores has developed a wide-ranging new program intended to show that it appreciates its 1.3 million workers in the United States and to encourage them to air their grievances.

As part of the effort, Wal-Mart managers at 4,000 stores will meet with 10 rank-and-file workers every week and extend an additional 10 percent discount on a single item during the holidays to all its employees, beyond the normal 10 percent employee discount.

The program, described in an internal company document, was created during a volatile six months period, starting when the company instituted a set of sweeping changes in how it managed its workers.

Over that time, Wal-Mart has sought to create a cheaper, more flexible labor force by capping wages, using more part-time employees, scheduling more workers at nights and weekends, and cracking down on unexcused days off…

The program includes several new perks “as a way of saying thank you” to workers, like a special polo shirt after 20 years of service and a “premium holiday,” when Wal-Mart pays a portion of health insurance premiums for covered employees. Sarah Clark, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the program was a “a more formalized, contemporary approach” to communicating with and collecting feedback from its fast-growing work force…

Not all of these perks are new. During previous holiday seasons, Wal-Mart has paid health care premiums and offered an additional 10 percent discount. But they were sporadic or at store managers’ discretion, rather than offered annually across the chain, said Ms. Clark, the spokeswoman.

Other perks, like a shirt that states length of employment in five-year increments starting with 20 years of service, appear designed to build morale, but might do the opposite.

Cleo Forward, a 37-year-old support manager at a Wal-Mart in Dallas, said the new program was promising, but that it fell short in recognizing long-time workers who felt unappreciated by the changes.

“They are going to spend $15 on a Polo for you after 20 years? Give me a break,” he said. “We would rather they lift the wage caps.”

Monday, December 04, 2006

Can I Get A Witless?

I don't want to go out and see Bob Dylan. I don't want to go out and see the Stones. I wouldn't pay money to go see the Who, not even with new songs. I wouldn't pay money to go see Crosby, Stills and Nash. They fucking make me sick.
- Pete Townshend, doing a bad impression of this blog

It’s like "Ulysses," except without the talent.
- Pablo Fenjves, ghostwriter of the cancelled O.J. Simpson book If I Did It, attempts to sum up his achievement



- Another online fan of “genious” director Kevin Smith pays homage

That's Not Right, Mama

What does the end of the world sound like?

Onstage, the woman in the white jumpsuit shook back and forth in a limited fashion, as if she were trying to move her glued feet off the floor. Her boom-box scratchily blared the once-familiar hits of the Hillbilly Cat who had once promised it all to us, but who disappeared into a maelstrom of formulaic films and paint-by-numbers pop hits.

All that remained after that was wealth and madness.

The audience was becoming increasingly agitated, as the now-darkened skies seemed to threaten something more than rain.

Our “Appreciation Day,” carefully designed to make all of us believers in the American Dream, in the equality of management and the workers, in the ability of the kid from the mailroom to work his way up to the Executive Suite, had gone horribly, horribly awry.

The assembled multitudes of Endless Bore and Tedium were staring dazedly at each other, first with good humor, then with fear. They dropped their free hot dogs and ice cream and began to tremble. As she went into her fourth song, palms out and head shaking, the first of what would be a chorus of screams was heard.

Was there ever a more American rags-to-riches story than Elvis Presley’s? The kid who made a record for his momma and went on to become the greatest entertainer in the world?

Until he started listening to Colonel Tom Parker and slowly, all-too-easily, started to become a living caricature of himself?

And what was this onstage but a caricature of a caricature? A copy of a copy of something that had once been alive?

Is this what was waiting at the end for us, not even a gold watch, but a sad parody of our lives laughing at our willing waste of it, this rictus of a corpse mouth grinning at the shrunken apple head of our wizened ambition?

Shrieks began to pierce the air. Why wouldn’t she stop? Was this unending torment the arrival of Hell, at last?

A man ran through the parking lot, screaming with his fingers in his ears. A woman tore at the company ID she wore on her shirt, ripped it off and dashed it to the ground. A young man who looked like he’d only begun his long, corporate climb was found later gibbering in an elevator as he scrawled nonsense on the walls.

Which Elvis was it? There were as many Elvises as there were Americas: Fat Elvis, Thin Elvis, Gospel Elvis, Sexy Elvis, Western Elvis, Hawaiian Elvis, Young Elvis, Old Elvis, Rockin’ Elvis, Vegas Elvis, even Nixon’s Elvis, the Hillbilly Rat.

All of them contradictory and all of them true.

If we did not aspire to be Elvis, we aspired to an Elvis state-of-mind, an understanding that America would ultimately reward us for our zest for life, our thirst for freedom, and our will to break the chains upon our soul.

And now we looked at each other as if we’d awoken from a dream. My god, it wasn’t true! None of it was true!

Look what they did to the King!

True panic had begun to set in, as if an invisible fever had started to spread. “No more! No more!” someone shouted, as the Elvis Thing let us know once again, palms out, that she was not through with us.

From somewhere, we could make out the beginning of Dixie.

It felt strangely appropriate, for our own microcosmic War Between The States had left the parking lot as littered as any Southern battlefield. She had begun An American Trilogy and it meant that the ordeal was nearly over. All we had to do was make it through to the end of The Battle Hymn Of The Republic and we could get back to the safety of our cubicles and pretend it had all been a bad dream.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Somehow or other, she had gotten in. No one knew how, after all the work of shutting out the light, sealing up the windows, and making us accept our lives inside this impenetrable fortress, she had gotten in.

All it had taken was one germ and we had all become infected.

The next year there would be no talent show. A few years later, no “Appreciation Day” at all, as The Powers That Be had bigger problems on their hands answering questions about misrepresenting their products and misuse of monies.

Elvis knew! He knew!

Maybe he’d come back again to show us the truth, the blazing heart of that spiritual Pelvis they always try to hide when they want to cut our souls off at the waist.

She had trampled out the vintage where the free hot dogs were stored and her truth is marching on.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Headache Hotel

Our “Appreciation Day” festivities featured the free food I mentioned previously, a live DJ, and games that allowed management to show that they were able to be good sports and allow themselves to be plunged into a dunk tank. It was certainly cheaper than giving anyone a raise.

And that was the trade-off that the Day represented, really. We might not be able to pay you any more money, but look: free hot dogs and ice cream! It made most of us happy and kept us from searching through the Want Ads for a few weeks. And it’s a pain looking for a new job, anyway. When’s the three-legged race?

The talent show, it has to be said, actually proved that we had some talented performers hiding in our cubicles. Some entries were large production numbers, usually by the same division that won every year for the Best Christmas Decorations. They spent months preparing for it and had meetings throughout the year, scheming and planning. This particular year they had come up with a set that looked like a giant television screen and whenever someone changed the channel, the program (enacted by them) would change. It involved a lot of costume changes and moving around, but it was very professionally done.

The crowd had its favorites, of course, performers beloved from previous years or well-known shrinking violets who shocked the crowd by engaging in some ferocious showmanship. Who knew Edith could juggle?

Our frivolity was at its height when the sun suddenly seemed to go behind the clouds and a chill wind began to blow. The stage was momentarily empty and there seemed to be some confusion as to the identity of the next act. There was some nervous chatter going on within the crowd.

The sky grew darker as we waited for someone to tell us what was happening. Then suddenly, without any sort of announcement, a figure quietly made its way to the microphone.

It was a middle-aged woman holding a boom-box of average size and she was dressed in a white jumpsuit. Around her waist was a large golden belt, almost like the ones wrestlers wear. Her large sunglasses and short hair gave her a vaguely masculine appearance.

The crowd was completely silent. What was this act?

The woman set the boom-box on a stool and placed the microphone near one of its speakers. So she was going to lip-synch something.

Without a word, she punched a button on the machine. The cassette sounded scratchy, well-played. But through the white noise we could make out a voice, ghostly, spectral:

“ghhhhkkkxxxx nothin’ but a hound dog crxxxxkk aaakkk txxxkkkkk!”

My god. She was doing the King. She was doing Elvis!

Now the white jumpsuit and sunglasses made sense. Her lip-synching talents left a great deal to be desired, her mouth opening and closing in a manner that seemed completely random. Most disturbing of all were the strangely pained and arthritic movements that were clearly meant to mimic those of the King of Rock and Roll, only to come out resembling a grotesque parody, an eerie cross between Tom Jones and the Frankenstein Monster.

Well, it was just one song. Let her have her fun. Then it’s time for more hot dogs.

Hound Dog ended abruptly, the victim of an amateur editing job. As the applause began, the woman held her hands up and shook her head, as if to say “Hang on…I’m not quite through yet.”

Indeed, she wasn’t. After a long and awkward pause, she launched into All Shook Up, which began as abruptly as the previous song had ended.

Again, she barely moved as her lips desperately sought purchase somewhere within the rhythm of the song. Her hips jutted ever so slightly from one side to the other as if she were still recovering from surgery. The music itself was barely recognizable as it garbled its way into the microphone.

Was it a joke? Did anybody recognize her? People began to look uncomfortable.

But just as our hands flew up to applaud, she held her palms out and shook her head again.

It had only just begun.

Conclusion: That's Not Right, Mama