Saturday, December 27, 2003

Make your terrorism target list, check it twice

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As if we didn’t have enough to worry about — whether our presents were expensive enough, petrified that the house is going to catch fire because nobody watered the tree, wondering if the chunks in the eggnog we bought on sale are egg or nog or neither — now there’s another fear this holiday season: terrorism.

The federal government has said intelligence officials have heard “chatter” about possible terrorist attacks in the near future. They won’t describe the nature of this chatter, except that it’s pretty serious and we’re now at orange alert level.

So we catch Saddam Hussein, and everybody feels the sweet bliss of relief. Polls show that Americans feel much safer now that Saddam’s gone. A few days later, we go from yellow to orange.

Boy! That safety was sure fun while it lasted.

Go about your business, the government said. But remember: those dirty terrorists could strike at any minute without warning! Al-Qaida is looking into using cargo planes as missiles, because security on cargo planes is slipshod on a good day! They won’t strike the cities — they’re going right after middle America! Have a happy holiday!

I, for one, took the orange alert level seriously, and moved most of the CDs in my car back inside my apartment. You never know.

If it goes up to red alert, I’ll start using the door chain.

Locally, the Fall River police were quoted in a Herald News story as saying city officials have identified “60 to 70” locations in town that could be possible terrorism targets.

I thought the same thing — thanks a lot, but are you sure? No, seriously, man. You really sure? This is Fall River we’re talking about.

The city wouldn’t identify what exactly those 60 to 70 targets are (too many terrorists read The Herald News, presumably).

They did mention Government Center, but give me a break. What’s important in there? And terrorists don’t need any cargo planes to knock it down — a stiff wind will do that job nicely. If anything, we should put a mannequin of Osama bin Laden on the roof, call in one of those air patrols, clear everybody out of the area, and let the federal government raze it for us.

So while stocking up on milk and bread and eggs (because nothing goes better with an emergency like French toast), I used my own peanut-sized brain and a little deductive reasoning to figure out what Fall River’s terrorist targets are.

Don’t share this list with the terrorists, by the way. If any ask you about it, you say, "No!"

1. The equestrian statue of Marquis de Lafayette in Lafayette Park. The terrorists would be taking out Fall River’s cavalry.

2. That miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty in Kennedy Park. It’s an itty-bitty national landmark.

3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. Dunkin’ Donuts.

13. Terrorists, being extremely superstitious, don’t have a 13th target on their list.

14. Those abandoned train tracks down by the Taunton River in the South End, to disrupt our lines of transportation.

15. That anonymous piece of mystery artillery in Kennedy Park.

16. That confusing and stupid rotary in the North End by the Shaw’s. I don’t think anybody will cry over this one, though.

17. Come to think of it, that rotary at the end of President Avenue is a pain, too.

18. That pole sticking out in the road by the post office on President Avenue. Not the post office — just the pole.

19. The Rolling Rock, to take out Fall River’s entire supply of gigantic boulders.

20. The Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center, to stop whatever it is that’s going on in there.

21. The overlook at Kennedy Park — just because it's new.

22. That piano store on North Main Street, to reduce our access to pianos once al-Qaida’s ground invasion begins.

23. The cop car that’s been parked at the top of Brayton Avenue for the past 37 years is a prime target.

24. Billy’s Cafe, thus depriving the city of its prime source of amazingly delicious chourico-and-chips sandwiches.

25. Gromada Plaza on South Main Street. A terrorist attack on that patch of barren, cracking concrete would turn it into a barren, cracking, concrete wasteland.

26. That humongous drive-up mailbox across from Government Center. It’s large enough to be spotted from the sky, and it’s a symbol of our postal superiority over the Western World.

27. Britland Park, if they can find it.

28. The Quequechan River. This will require al-Qaida to approach from underneath.

29 to 16,927. Various Biblical figures displayed nicely inside half-buried bathtubs, either lit with spotlights or not, would unfortunately be on al-Qaida’s list.

16,928. My own apartment’s on the list, too. Specifically, the terrorists would be after the block of feta cheese we’ve had in the refrigerator since before late August. If taken out of its Saran Wrap, it would make an excellent biological weapon.

Luckily, I’ve got the door chain — the terrorists aren’t getting it without a fight.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Bush, Blair, Saddam: Collect 'em All!

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What do you get for the American who has everything?

As a nation, Christmas shopping is getting tougher. We all have our Salad Shooters, correct? The generation that used to get Old Spice every year is quickly dying off. And our nation is sick to death of Chia Pets, because no matter how much cow manure you smear on them, they never grow to the rich Amazonian lushness pictured on the box.

There aren’t even any good toys this season. In years past, The People On Television could be counted on to force-feed a trend to our nation’s children, thus making Christmas shopping a whole lot easier.

Remember when The People On Television told kids that they just had to have a Nintendo GameCube, $299 retail? Now, stores are practically giving them away, using them to hold open doors and crack walnuts.

Remember when The People On Television told us that kids would go bananas for Tickle-Me Elmo? It turned out that it was just a regular Elmo doll with a shaking motor in it — hardly worth the $75 or so we, as a nation, collectively paid for it from that guy selling them on the highway outside the Silver City Galleria when the toy stores ran out of them.

Remember in the late 1990s when The People On Television told us that our kids would be positively suicidal if they didn’t get a Furby that year? And we shelled out the money? And Furby turned out to be an annoying ball of fake fur that our kids hated? And remember that the Furby was supposed to be a robot that had a personality, a robot that learned new things, except all it did was made those damn cooing noises?

And remember how we were supposed to play with our Furby constantly, because if we ignored our Furby, it would remember? And remember how our kids did ignore it, and the Furby became depressed and lonely, making those plaintive cooing noises alone in the dark bedroom, unloved, depressed, eventually suicidal and trying frantically to paw at its own off switch while the kids invented their own game with an old pillowcase and a stick?

There’s no toy like that this year, market analysts say. There’s no must-have gift for adults, either.

Friends, it looks like Christmas is cancelled this year...

But wait! Rushing to fill that crucial void in this holiday season’s must-have list, has created “Captured Saddam” action figures.

Christmas is back on!

It cost us $87 billion and nearly 500 American lives to capture former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. You can get your own personal mitts on Saddam for substantially less — $29.95.

The action figure features a beefed-up Saddam wearing a T-shirt with the ace of spades on it. It also sports Saddam’s groovy new beard.

I’m not making this up.

If you preferred Saddam with that clean-cut Princeton look, Herobuilders also sells versions of the Saddam doll — er, action figure — that depict the dictator when he was much less hairy.

Herobuilders also sells a George W. Bush doll with substantially more muscle definition than the actual president has. It comes in a regular version or a talking version. You press a button and it tells you that tax cuts for the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans will magically create jobs. Silly doll!

No doubt in the works is a talking White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan doll, which will do all of the Bush doll’s talking for him.

On McClellan’s flip side — the Bizarro McClellan, as it were — is Herobuilder’s “Talking Baghdad Bob” action figure. It’s a doll of Saddam’s former Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. When you press his button, he says, “There are no American infidels in Baghdad — never!”

Completing the Herobuilders set of Iraqi war action figures are two versions of Uday Hussein, one alive, one built to look like his mutilated corpse. It’s about this time that we should be cringing with embarrassment.

There are also dolls of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac (in a pretty French maid’s outfit, naturally).

And of course, everyone’s wondering where Osama bin Laden is. Herobuilders sells Osama dolls, too, so he can hide in the mountainous regions of your sofa. When you press the button on “Babbling Osama the Dirty Terrorist,” he says, among other things, “I was just joking...all jihads go la la la la!”

But good luck finding one of those dolls.

A lot of people have felt sidelined during this whole Iraqi war mess because they’re too old, too young, too female, too gay, too rich, too sane or too crazy for the military. In this case, Herobuilders can actually build an action figure of you. Starting at $450, the company will actually build a toy of your likeness. No lie! G.I. Dan!

Then, depending on your politics, your action figure can pretend to beat up Saddam, Osama, Bush, or any of the other guys. You could sit them all to tea in a Barbie playset and broker peace. Or, if you’re feeling capricious, you could build an uneasy truce between Bush, Saddam and yourself as you team up to defeat Darth Vader, G.I. Joe’s COBRA Commander and Megatron from the Transformers.

My action figure wouldn’t be too interested in fighting. After a few trips to the Easy-Bake Oven to grab some brownies piping hot from the light bulb, Action Figure Dan would hop into a hot pink Corvette convertible, Barbie and Skipper on his arms.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

An open letter to Santa Claus

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Dear Santa Claus:

I’ll be frank with you. I know I say this every year, and every year you give me gifts that are decent enough but not mind-boggling or anything — hey, I know you’re busy with the actual children, whatever — but I’ve been really good in 2003. I mean excellent.

I’ve made my own list, which I will now share with you. You’re not the only overweight guy who can make lists, wiseguy. We’ll only have to check this baby once.

Like, you know how my little problem with putting my clothes in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor? I did it twice last week.

There was also that time in April when I did the dishes.

And have you heard about that bozo in the Jeep who cut me off on Route 24 yesterday? The one with the pathetic excuse for a goatee and the backwards baseball hat? Despite my better judgment, and even though the jerk had it coming, I did not give him the bird.

Ask my dental hygienist, Ruth, how good I’ve been. She said that, at my most recent visit, my teeth were a little cleaner than last time. The facts speak for themselves.

Other personal references are available upon request.

Just to show you how nice I am, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I’ve occasionally been naughty. Hey, I’m being honest, right? And honesty is good, and good equals presents. You said it, not me.

One time last month, when I was in the Stop & Shop parking lot in Somerset, I saw this old lady waiting for a space. No, Santa, I didn’t steal the space from her. I’m not that naughty. But some other guy did — some little bozo in a Jeep, actually. Anyway, the lady got all flustered, and even though her windows were rolled up, I could read, very distinctly, some bad words on her lips. The naughty part was that I snickered at her.

I guess you had to be there.

And recently, I found a dime on the floor at work and pocketed it without asking around first whose it was.

I also shouted three times, cried once, and pouted twice.

You see, Santa? You see how tame my naughtiness has been this year? Nothing to worry about.

Now that we have gotten this little unpleasantness out of the way, here’s what I’d like:

1. My car is making a funny noise. When I start it up on cold days, it’s got a rattle under the hood somewhere. It goes away after a while, particularly if I heat it up before driving, but who has time for that?

So what I’m saying is, I’d like either a Mini Cooper or a Honda Element. Surprise me!

2. Have you ever had the chourico rolls at New York Bagel, Santa? Trust me, they’re worth the trip. It’s like there’s a whole link of chourico in there. And the bread is a little bit sweet, the chourico not too salty. I could use a couple of those.

Get a few for yourself, while you’re at it.

3. I’m really not sure how tall you are, but you seem short.

I’m not criticizing — I’m short, too. That’s why I grew the beard, so people would stop asking if I was skipping school. That’s probably why you have one, as well.

Let’s say my wife and I want to get a good table at a restaurant, and I have to intimidate the host with my imposing mass. I would need to be tall for that, correct? It would be even more impressive if I could grow larger before his eyes.

I can see why being tall has its disadvantages, though, so I really don’t want to be tall forever. For instance, I can’t fit in the Mini Cooper (see above) if I’m 9-foot-something.

So it seems what I really want is the ability to change my height with the power of my mind. I’m not sure how you would wrap this.

4. I don’t know what channels you get, but down here we have a nice television show called “The Price is Right.” You have to guess the prices of ordinary household objects, and if you do so well enough, you win fantastic prizes like new ranges, dinette sets, foosball tables, sailboats, and cars.

If you could pull some strings (come on — you have strings), I would like to visit this show and meet host Bob Barker.

I would also like to “come on down” and be a contestant. If possible, I’d like to play “Plinko,” which is the show’s most fun game. That’s the one where you slide up to five chips on a board, and depending on which slot they land in, you can win $10,000 each time.

I understand if this is beyond your powers, but if it isn’t, I’d like to win the maximum amount at “Plinko,” which is $50,000.

And when contestants spin the big wheel to see who makes the final round, I’d like to win there, too. Yes, and it would be great if I could win a showcase at the end.

My winning showcase could contain either a Mini Cooper or a Honda Element (see above). Just an idea — I don’t want to tell you how to do your job.

5. This one is going to sound really weird ... but do you have any spare athletic socks? The good kind, preferably white? I have some old socks and some new socks, and I’d really like to get rid of all the old ones. It’s been tough finding time to hit Target and buy them.

You probably don’t get much of this.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’m sure a few other things will spring to mind later, so I’ll just e-mail them over.



P.S.: I have milk but I’m out of cookies. If you could leave some behind — Pepperidge Farms, either the mint Milanos or the chocolate chip ones with the huge chunks of chocolate — that would be super.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Trampled by eight tiny reindeer

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Every year around the Yuletide season, I have the same nightmare:

I’m standing in my living room, wearing my pajamas. In last year’s nightmare, I was wearing a pair of blue feety pajamas, which I swear I don’t own, but that’s another story.

Anyway, in my nightmare, I feel a strong sense of unease. Maybe it’s the four-story-tall Christmas tree. Maybe it’s the thick carpet of pine needles rustling under my feet. Or perhaps it’s the reindeer helping himself to a cup of tea in front of the television — drinking out of my mug, no less. But anyway, something tips me off in the nightmare that Christmas somehow sneaked up on me, and I forgot to buy presents for anybody.

Then my wife appears in a horse-drawn sleigh and wishes me a merry Christmas.

“Uh,” I say.

“I hope you like your presents!” she says.

And suddenly there are all these amazing gifts everywhere. Anything I’ve ever wanted. Books. Movies. Automobiles. All those useless contraptions from Sharper Image. Hickory Farms sausages. Money in cotton sacks labeled with dollar signs. There are kittens everywhere decorated with red and green bows.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, honey,” I say, “but I thought I Christmas was next week.

She looks at me with big, sad eyes and begins to cry. Several kittens spontaneously drop dead.

At this point in the nightmare, my wife opens the one present I gave her. It’s a poorly wrapped jug of windshield wiper fluid. It’s half-full. It appears I just took it out of my car’s trunk and wrapped it with aluminum foil.

My wife starts to weep loudly, dropping the jug of wiper fluid. She storms away.

“I’m sorry!” I say. “I thought I had more time!

She returns with her bags already packed. Clearly she’s been anticipating my ineptitude for weeks. I’m stuck in the middle of all my good presents, my feety pajamas snagged on that piano I’ve always wanted.

This year’s nightmare had a new twist: the reindeer hurled the mug of tea away, rolled up his sleeves (I forgot to mention — the reindeer is wearing my favorite striped shirt) and proceeded to trample me to death under his hooves.

Invariably, I awaken from this nightmare sweaty, startled — and in the mood for some Christmas shopping!

How much have I done so far?

Don’t ask.

I’m never on the ball when it comes to gift-giving, hence the annual nightmare. I start late in December, I spend too much, I worry for weeks that my choices are lousy, and the boxes end up looking like I wrapped them using my feet. This year doesn’t look like it’ll be any different.

I won’t forget people outright or let the whole holiday slip my mind — I’m not that crazy, man — but I always feel like I’m not doing something correctly. Or like I’m halfway to ruining Christmas for people.

I wouldn’t be bursting with so much anxiety if I just went to the stupid mall already. But I’m trying to avoid the mall this year.

More accurately, I’m trying to avoid the shoppers at the mall this year. The stores themselves are always nice. They’re probably decorated with the trees and the bows and the lights. There’s no doubt some pleasantly corny Christmas music playing. Santa Claus will look well fed, as usual, and his elves will appear to be elven, more or less.

But I’m creeped out by the crowds of shoppers who bully their way around the mall, smacking me with their bags, trying to steal my parking space, cutting in front of me in line.

Take the case of the lady bulldozed under a mob of shoppers at a Florida Wal-Mart. The day after Thanksgiving (her first mistake), Patricia VanLester waited in line for the store to open at 6 a.m. so she could buy a $29 DVD player. When the store opened, according to the Associated Press, “the 41-year-old was knocked to the ground by the frenzy of shoppers behind her.”

She was found later, “unconscious on top of a DVD player, surrounded by shoppers seemingly oblivious to her.” She didn’t take the DVD player along in the ambulance (her second mistake), but a Wal-Mart spokesman said the store would “hold one for her.”

I’ve never been trampled, but it’s been close a few times.

A few years back, I became part of a human glacier slowly inching its way to the cash registers at a Target store. I, along with the rest of the nation, was buying a George Foreman grill for somebody. Three hours later, I paid for it, got to my car, and became part of an automobile glacier creeping out of Taunton with the patience of eons.

And last year, I was caught in a riptide of Christmas shoppers and carried against my will into the Bath and Body Works at Providence Place for 20 minutes, even though I had nothing to buy in there. I saw a drowning man scream for help from several young girls carrying gift baskets — either he was graying, or his hair gone stark white with fear. I only escaped myself when the prevailing winds swept a current of fragrant elderly ladies back out the door.

Come to think of it, perhaps this last one is why the reindeer was trampling me in my nightmare.

I’ll manage to survive this holiday season somehow. It may take a trek to the mall, but with the help of Internet retailers and that greatest of Christmas miracles, overnight shipping, it’ll be January before I know it.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Thanksgiving favorites

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Pardon me, but do you happen to have a toothpick handy? I’ve got this wedge of Meleagris gallopavo caught in my teeth.

That’s turkey, bub.

This Thanksgiving, I had a great deal to be thankful for: I was thankful that my parents made a turkey and shared it with me. I was also thankful that I got to eat some of my in-laws’ turkey. And I was thankful that my wife and I could make our own turkey just for the hell of it, part of which is resting in peace in my refrigerator, covered in sage and rosemary.

I like the turkey. Turkey is definitely my favorite Thanksgiving food.

Just yesterday, after I had inserted a whole leftover drumstick into my mouth and pulled out the clean bone, I heard one of those not-quite-news news stories that claimed the average American eats 14 pounds of turkey every year.

Even though I like the turkey, I don’t eat much of it outside of the holiday season. I have turkey sandwiches and turkey burgers — but those don’t count, as far as I’m concerned. I mean the real deal, jack, with the drumsticks and wings and the plastic button in the chest.

So to be an average American, I have to eat 14 pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving alone.

Can I manage it?

Yes. Yes, I can.

After I read that, I peeked in my refrigerator. The turkey we made was 13 pounds. I did some quick math in my head: take away the bones, which are impossible to eat, no matter how hard I try. Now divide that by half, and I ate — what? A measly 5 pounds or something? No wonder why I’m starving for more leftovers.

Even if you add up all the turkey I ate at my parents’ house and with my in-laws, that’s only about 7 pounds or so.

I have some catching up to do. Anybody got a spare half-turkey lying around?

We have enough canned cranberry sauce to go with it. Since this was our first year including cranberry sauce in our meal, we stared at the can, occasionally poking it.

“Do you heat it up?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” my wife said.

Then she spotted the instructions on the side of the can.

“It tells you here how to take it out so that it keeps the shape of the can,” she said.

It’s true. There was even a diagram. With a snap of her wrist, a wave of her hand, and a hearty “Hi-yo Silver,” it slid into the dish with a gassy, rude noise. It was a rather slimy, purple, ridged blob.

“Perfect,” I said.

I’m not sure if there are statistics on the average American’s annual pumpkin pie consumption, but I probably exceed it. Without question, pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving food.

My taste for pumpkin pie is simply not logical. People just shouldn’t like a dessert as much as I like pumpkin pie — it’s not right.

In college, I had a roommate named Clint who liked the pumpkin pie as much as I did. One year, starting in September, we saved all the spare change we could. We dug through the couch cushions of the dorm’s common rooms. We reached through sewer grates, prospecting for nickels. We tipped freshmen upside down and shook them until their pocket change fell out.

When late November rolled around, we put our change in a pillowcase and took it to the bank. When the poor slob behind the counter finished tallying our total, we ended up with something like $12. We ran with it — literally, we ran — to the Star Market grocery store on Boylston Street in Boston. There, we spent the entire proceeds on pumpkin pie.

Four pumpkin pies.

For the next three days, all we ate was pumpkin pie. We had it for breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner, midnight snack and high tea. Only three fit in the mini-fridge, so we had to eat one right away.

This year, I’ve only eaten maybe one, if that — hardly enough.

I forgot about the stuffing.

Wait — stuffing is my favorite Thanksgiving food.

I don’t care if it’s inside the turkey or outside, as long as I’m eventually the one who ends up stuffed. I used to prefer Stove Top with crumbled chourico mixed into it. Lately, I have a new favorite. It’s a recipe from my wife’s family, made with three kinds of meat. Next year, I’ll try to sneak some chourico in there to make it four.

The stuffing makes a fantastic binding agent for my absolute favorite Thanksgiving food, Leftover Sandwiches. A Leftover Sandwich contains everything that was on the table between bread, with a little bit of gravy — my favorite part of any Thanksgiving meal — liberally drizzled on it.

Happily, we have a colossal pot of stuffing in the refrigerator, something like 10 pounds of it — more than enough to stuff a yak. It’s also the secret to our famous Roast Stuffed Yak recipe, which is, hands down, my favorite part of Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2003

The Forbidden Zone

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The simplest way to measure a person’s wealth or social standing is to calculate how much empty air he or she owns.

Dig this: it’s not necessarily about the furnishings are in somebody’s home, or even whether its covered in shingles or vinyl. The real test is how much potentially usable but dead air a property contains.

Case in point: a house with a vast, empty back lawn seems much swankier than a house with a shed there. Once the space becomes used, it’s not as cool anymore. That empty space makes the place seem fancy, as if you’re flaunting that you own so much property you can’t even fill it.

So I guess this one of the reasons why so many Portuguese-American houses have rooms that are off-limits, packed with the good furniture that nobody’s allowed to sit on.

Be honest with yourself. If you’re from the Azores, there’s a 98 percent chance you don’t use the front door of your house — because that would mean you’d have to walk through the parlor.

And we can’t have people just walking through the parlor!

Most of my Portuguese relatives have parlors that are fully furnished, but you’re not allowed to go in there. Everything is meticulously arranged to offer maximum eye value — every spray of plastic flowers carefully chosen, every ceramic elephant placed just so. Just don’t linger too long. That’s a good way to get politely but firmly herded back into the furnished basement, where most of the living and cooking and hanging out is actually done.

Not that you’d want to hang around in the parlor, anyway. There’s nothing to do in there. If there’s a TV — as in both my grandparents’ houses — it’s probably not plugged in. The sofas are brutally uncomfortable. Everything’s breakable. The carpet is stiff because nobody ever walks on it. The only art on the walls are usually large wedding photos and First Communion portraits.

For a long time, I used to think only my family did this. Then I discovered that other first-generation Portuguese-Americans my age had identical experiences, down to the exact same ceramic elephants.

One kid I grew up with, if he so much as looked at his fancy parlor cockeyed, his mother whacked him with a slipper.

My parents were much less strict than that. We could actually live in the living room. My sister and I weren’t technically supposed to bring sneakers in there, but that was like seat belt laws — only in force if we were pulled over for some other violation.

The room that was really off-limits in my house was the dining room. It’s got a fancy-schmancy table in there and the good china. It had a yellow plastic runner leading through there from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. There’s a record player and stereo roughly the size and style of an obese person’s casket. Lingering inside this room was only for Christmas and New Year’s. My sister and I had to beg them to use it for Thanksgiving.

My wife isn’t Portuguese, the poor thing, so she’s not familiar with this custom. The first time I ever walked into her house, back in 1994, I recoiled in silent horror as I saw not one dog but two inside the house — and they were flagrantly sitting and scratching themselves in the parlor. I waited against the wall to avoid any errant flying slippers.

Recently, I had to explain to my wife why some Portuguese-American people keep some rooms like museum pieces.

“They’re for company,” I said.

“But every time we visit your aunt’s house, we don’t go into the parlor,” she said. “Aren’t we company?”

“We’re family. Family’s more comfortable in the furnished basement.”

“What about before we were married?” she said. “I wasn’t your family then. Why couldn’t I go into the parlor?”

I thought about this one for a minute — she had me there. I stroked my beard professionally, then gave her my answer. “Hmf,” I said.

Later, we visited my parents for an early Thanksgiving dinner. We celebrated early because they’ll be visiting my sister in Pennsylvania on the actual holiday.

I let us into the house to the warm smells of turkey and chourico — and it wasn’t coming from the basement. The dining room was all decked out with the good plates and everything.

“I thought it would be nice,” my mom said.

Over dinner, my wife and I asked her about the parlors. She told us about how she and my dad lived in tiny houses that were essentially one room.

“I had to sleep at my grandmother’s house, because there wasn’t a room for the girls to sleep in,” she said. “And that was typical.”

Then they immigrated to America, she said, and found that they could afford plenty of room for everyone. But they were still used to living together in the same room. So they fixed up their basements into replicas of the rooms they grew up with in the Azores, leaving the rooms upstairs as that universal symbol of wealth, empty space.

“And, of course, now we could afford nice things. So we try very hard to keep them nice,” she said.

Hence, my friend’s slipper-shaped bruises.

Of course, I thought, it’s not worth keeping things nice if you can’t enjoy them once in a while.

Hence, the dinner in the once-forbidden dining room.

So we passed highly stainable gravy from one person to the other. I dropped a potato, but caught it in my lap before it hit the carpet. After we were done with dessert, we left the dining room as clean as it ever was — for which my parents must have been extremely thankful.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Matrix trilogy, schmatrix schmilogy

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Friends, do you often find yourselves in a black leather trench coat, performing kung fu midair for minutes at a time? Do you wish your telephone transported you to a computer-generated dream world populated principally by other people wearing black leather trench coats? Are you plagued by those darn self-aware robots that are trying to wipe out the human race?

If so, friends, you have Matrix-fever, brought on by the “Matrix” series of movies. The symptoms of this illness include extreme dorkiness. Those deepest in the throes of “Matrix” fever have also been known to give their friends unwarranted (but weak) karate chops.

Luckily for you, the third part in the “Matrix” trilogy, “The Matrix Revolutions,” is out in theaters near you. In case you need further coaxing, take heed! Popcorn may be available.

This is a wild guess, but there’s probably a whole bunch of people (skewing toward the older, more fogeyish demographic) who have no idea what “The Matrix” is about.

The easy explanation is that “The Matrix” is, in the words of co-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, an action movie about “kung-fu versus robots.”

The longer explanation is also “kung-fu versus robots.”

The first film in the series, “The Matrix,” stars Keanu Reeves as a mouth-breathing computer hacker named Neo. You can tell right away that something’s not right with the world, because computer hackers do not look like people who regularly make People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list.

We also meet this really macho-looking lady named Trinity (played by the macho-looking Carrie-Anne Moss) who wears shiny black leather everything. Yes, presumably also pajamas. When a bunch of cops closes in on her to arrest her for something — it’s probably the Fashion Police — she responds by speaking to them calmly and reasonably, and the charges are dropped.

No, wait — she kills them.

Any-hoo, in the middle of this scene there’s a wicked cool special effect where Trinity is going to kick a guy in the face with her black leather stiletto boot. She jumps in the air, hovers for a while as the camera spins around them, ponders the consequences of her actions, gives the guy a few minutes to write out his last will and testament, and then finally kicks him — pow!

Then later, with the aid of more special effects, Trinity is chased across the roofs of skyscrapers by these Evil Faceless Government Types in boring suits. The clothes are the key to figuring out who’s who in “The Matrix.” The good guys are dressed like vampires. The bad guys are dressed by the Men’s Wearhouse.

We also meet other characters, like Morpheus, another guy fond of black leather whose sole purpose is to say portentous stuff like “The power of your mind.” He and Trinity contact Neo and, after much hemming and hawing, tell Neo that he’s destined to save the human race from intelligent robots that have enslaved us. You see, what we perceive to be “the real world” is actually a computer-generated dream world we all share, called the Matrix. In real reality, we’re all encased in pods, and robots have taken over the world using people as a source of power.

So, for example, Fall River mayoral candidate F. George Jacome didn’t really fib about graduating from college — we all just dreamed that he did, while in reality robots are actually in charge of Fall River.

Neo tells his compatriots that he is not familiar with any such robots. “Uh-uh,” he says in a stunning monologue. “No way.”

The Good Guys wake Neo up from his Matrix dream, and upon realizing the awful truth of the robots, Keanu Reeves utters his most convincing line of dialogue in any of his films yet:


Neo and the Good Guys decide to fight back against the robots by hacking into the Matrix to defeat the system from within. Since they’re now aware that this dream world is fake, they can change whatever they want — they can fly, shoot endless amounts of ammunition at the Bad Guys — most importantly, their hair never gets mussed, no matter how many kicks to the face they're on the business end of.

For some reason, both the good and bad guys mutually agree that kung fu is their preferred method of combat — odd, given that they can magically conjure up all the guns or thermonuclear devices they want. Kung fu. I'm just saying. Thermonuclear devices vs. karate chops. Eventually, the movie ends with the Good Guys triumphant (even though humanity is still being enslaved by the fiendish robots, which is actually not a triumph at all, if you think about it).

That’s just the first movie. Whew!

The second movie, “The Matrix Reloaded,” which came out earlier this year, is a lot like the first, except much lousier. Now there’s a whole network of people who are fighting off those pesky homicidal robots. There’s more of everything — more noise, more leather, and especially more talking.

“Urmf,” says a clearly uninterested Neo at one point.

But nobody actually says very much. “I’m losing him!” says one character. “Hold on!” says another, followed by the only adequate reply, “Noooooo!” Then some bearded guy shows up claiming to have invented the Matrix, and he unleashes this long, uninterrupted stream of bewildered yakking, and there’s no more kung fu for the rest of the picture. I mean, if you're going to stick with the kung fu vs. the thermonuclear devices, at least have the courtesy to toss a few roundhouse kicks in every few minutes to keep me from nodding off into my Pepsi.

There’s a cliffhanger at the end, except I’m still not sure where the cliff was or what got hanged.

As for the third and final film, “The Matrix Revolutions,” I’m on my way to see it. I’m still a fan despite the movie’s problems. I’ll be the guy in the front row giving his date karate kicks, his legs stretching as high as his freezing cold leather pants will allow.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Little raw slices of salty brain food

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The quickest way to my heart is paved with garlic. My parents’ cooking is loaded with the stuff. But the quickest way to my head is paved with sticky white rice, seaweed and chunks of raw fish.

I speak of sushi, nature’s perfect food. This is the story of how a closed-minded European fell in love with exotic Asia — like James Clavell’s epic novel “Shogun.”

I became addicted to sushi when I was an undergraduate student at college in Boston. I was a naïve, chubby Portuguese kid raised on kale soup, pork four nights a week, beef on the other three, and roast rabbit for Easter dinner.

There was no chourico to be found in my college dorm’s dining hall. I asked. Instead, they served chicken patties, pasta, pizza, hamburgers — American fare that my dad calls “cat food.” He says this with the expression of someone who has accidentally swallowed his mouthwash.

Worse, the dining hall had a salad bar — with romaine lettuce in it, and that crazy purple cabbage. Portuguese people cannot abide salad, or vegetables of any kind. In Portuguese houses, “vegetables” means chicken-flavored yellow rice and “salad” is a bowl of sliced cucumbers.

After a few months of eating cereal for breakfast instead of chourico and eggs, I was a wreck. I visited my parents on the weekends and replenished myself with enough buttered bread, potatoes and malassadas to make me feel whole again. But once all the red pepper was out of my system, I would withdraw.

One day, when I particularly needed a garlic fix, some friends asked me along to a sushi bar.

“Raw fish,” I said, my eyes wet with tears. “So this is what rock bottom feels like.”

“It’s really good,” one of my two roommates said. It could have been either one of them — I was too strung out to notice. “You try sushi once and you’re hooked.”

My friends dragged me like a man to the gallows into a sushi bar on Boston’s Newbury Street, and ordered me things like tuna, mackerel, salmon, squid — all raw.

Before the moment the first piece of raw tuna touched my tongue, nearly everything I had eaten had been marinated in oil, ground red pepper and salt, fried in its own fat and served with two kinds of starches and a gallon of homemade red wine.

Sushi is nothing like this. Some pieces, nigiri, look like little wads of white rice with a strip of colorful fish on top. Others, maki, are seaweed-wrapped cylinders filled with rice, fish and vegetables. A filling dinner often fits in two hands. You dip the pieces into soy sauce flavored with ginger and wasabi, which is this green goop that is so spicy it will send fireworks up your nose and make tears squirt out of your eyes if not used in miniscule amounts. To naïve, chubby Portuguese kids, it looks like food that people in the post-apocalyptic future eat.

I fumbled with the chopsticks for a minute, then dug in. Long story short, my friends carried me out of that sushi bar a half-hour later as I held onto my swollen stomach. I leaned closely into my friends’ faces to smell the soy sauce still on their breath. I was hooked.

Its main ingredient is raw fish, yet sushi doesn’t taste remotely like fish. It’s more about how it feels than how it tastes. Some fish snap, others slide. I have spent several hundred hours analyzing its hold on me. This has required, let’s say, extensive research at places like Umi in Somerset, Tokyo in Providence and Gyuhama in Boston, better known as “Rock and Roll Sushi.”

I have never become sick from eating it — actually, if I have an upset stomach, eating sushi works better than Tums. I’ve eaten raw seafood that I won’t touch cooked, like octopus.

Dig this: I’ve eaten sushi for breakfast.

I went to this one sushi bar in Boston so often that the Japanese waitresses began to recognize me. Once, when I came back from winter vacation, the waitress took my order — raw tuna, salmon, squid, and a Coke — and said, bowing, “Not see you, long time!” I felt like Marco Polo.

What interests me most about sushi is its clean taste. Portuguese food is heavy with spices and odors — the same spices and odors for every meal. Compare two fish dishes: sushi and bacalau. Sushi is light, its tastes complex; bacalau is heavily salted codfish made with potatoes and sopped in vinegar, pepper and olive oil. Burp after eating sushi, and you detect a delicate tinge of ginger. Burp after eating bacalau, and you quickly lose friends. It reminds me of “Shogun” again — where the European sailor washes up in Japan, and his “barbaric” Japanese captors force him to take daily baths and eat a healthy diet.

Sushi is food for my brain. Portuguese food is stomach food; it’s there when I want something easy to stretch out my pants.

My wife and I visit my parents for Sunday lunch whenever I can. Mom will sometimes broil up tuna steaks the size of catcher’s mitts and brew a pot of yellow rice.

“I’ll just have a little,” I say, absently carving a slab of tuna into sushi-sized pieces.

“You’re always telling me how you love this stuff raw,” mom says. “You don’t like it cooked?”

Dad shakes his head. “Could have used more pepper.”

“It’s great,” my wife says, and she peeks over at my plate. I am packing yellow rice into little wads.

Mom reaches into the fridge and presents us with a bowl half-full of sliced cucumbers. “Almost forgot the salad,” she says.

I bow slightly. “Konichi-wa, mama-san.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Utter repulsion

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I don’t like your feet. Nothing personal, buddy — I don’t like anybody’s feet. I don’t even like my own feet, which is why I keep them hidden in heavy brown shoes, as opposed to footwear where my toes would be exposed to sunlight.

I find the human foot unpleasant. Toes vex me. I don’t have a foot phobia or anything, but there are so many other nicer — and cleaner — parts of the human body: noses, shoulders, eyebrows, necks, you name it. The boob, to be sure. I’ll even take a nicely sculpted elbow, for instance, over any toe any day of the week.

When people wear sandals around me, I wince privately and turn away. These people always seem to have inch-thick calluses creeping up the sides of their heels. And they wiggle their toes an awful lot — more than seems necessary. Perhaps just to perturb me. The feet are bad enough, but it’s the toe-wiggling that sets my teeth on edge.

My wife’s feet are OK, I guess, but they’re still feet.

My point is, you can rest assured that I do not have a hoard of strange people's shoes in my home. Remain calm, Mr. and Mrs. America — if I see you on the street, I will not accost you and try to smell or lick your toes.

There are plenty of people who can’t say that. People with foot fetishes are everywhere lately.

Take the Rhode Island foot-licker — please.

In August, Raymond Dublin of Providence was sentenced to 18 months in the slam for sneaking behind a woman in a Bellingham Save-A-Lot and licking her toes on three occasions. Dublin had just gotten over a year’s stretch in the clink for doing the same thing to a woman at a supermarket in Woonsocket, R.I. For that kind of time, he should have at least swiped their purses, too.

Perhaps Judge Paul Losapio said it best: “I don’t know what type of counseling someone could undergo for this kind of behavior.”

The simple answer, of course, is to get him off strange women’s feet and onto his own. So here’s my two cents’ worth: yoga classes! Women in area grocery stores can wear their open-toed shoes again, and Dublin becomes flexible enough to smell and lick any number of his own toes. Everybody wins.

Not long ago, Donald J. Ruther of Ohio took the foot-sniffing deal a step further. In 2002, the Associated Press wrote that Ruther “pleaded guilty to burglary, admitting he had sneaked into a garage and stolen eight pairs of athletic shoes belonging to teenage girls.”

Ruther had intended to add them to his collection — “500 pairs of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes of various sizes and styles.” Some people bake cookies for comfort, and others bury their noses in other people’s footwear.

This story made me wonder if he sorted his collection at all. I collect things, and I prefer to keep them in order. I alphabetize my records and CDs, for instance, and I try to shelve my books according to preference. Maybe, like a connoisseur of fine wines, he stored his shoes according to vintage, in an enclosed cellar room to keep the fresh air from spoiling them.

I was also wondering if it was necessary to steal both shoes from a pair, if only having one constitutes an incomplete collection.

Apparently, just having one shoe works just as well. Last week, in Japan, Ichiro Irie was arrested on charges that he’s been stealing shoes from a nearby hospital — but only the left one.

Why the hospital? It’s common in Japan for people to remove their shoes before entering public buildings. Hence, I will never, ever visit Japan.

Why only the left? Pardon the pun, but perhaps it just felt right.

Any-hoo, Mr. Irie was caught when police baited him with a new pair of ballet slippers. He was trying to decide which shoe was actually the left when they nabbed him.

I made that up, but this part is true: When the fuzz searched Mr. Irie’s house, they found 440 left women’s shoes in a closet — pumps, sandals, high heels, you name it. They’ve been taken into custody and are being held for questioning.

Even celebrities are not immune to shoe fetishes.

NBA rookie Lebron James made his debut as a Cleveland Cavalier this week wearing a brand-new pair of Nikes that he helped design. He gave his pet shoes a name, “Zoom Generation,” and designed them to look like his Hummer SUV — the mark of someone who’s truly obsessed.

Starting Dec. 20, shoe fetishists can buy their very own copy of James’s sneakers for $160 a pair (they’re only half as much in Japan).

Uninterested because a new pair will smell too nice? Take heart! According to the Associated Press, “James said he expects to go through ’40 or 50’ pairs of his new sneakers this season.”

Even though I can’t understand foot fetishists, I’d hate to see all those sweaty, foul-smelling, double-digit-size sneakers go to waste. There are plenty of profoundly insane people out there who could adopt those shoes and give them loving homes.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

No more tricks, no more treats

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We are approaching the scariest day of the year, when monsters in eerie costume come out of hiding to ply their fiendish trade, stalking everyone nearby, baring their snaggle-teeth and demanding the one thing that will satisfy their hunger. Yes — it will soon be Election Day.

Halloween is also coming up.

I had almost forgotten about that holiday until recently. My wife and I were driving home one evening. It was the stroke of midnight, and ours was the only car on the road in downtown Fall River. Right outside Government Center — a creepy enough place during the day — we saw a guy in brown pants and a red and green striped sweater out for a stroll. Somewhere, a wolf bayed at the moon, or perhaps it was a pit bull.

“Ugh — that poor guy’s face looks all mauled,” my wife said.

“And he’s got knives for fingers,” I said.

He looked just like Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher flicks. As we passed him, I saw he was Freddy Krueger.

We drove along in silence for a second.

“Uh,” I said.

“Must be coming from the Asylum of Horror,” my wife said.

“Or the Factory of Terror.”

“Or the Dunkin’ Donuts.”

We hit a red light at the corner of North Main and Bedford. Behind us, in the rearview mirror, Freddy Krueger slowly approached, inexorably, shuffling along by the Citizens-Union Savings Bank.

I hit the power door locks.

For a minute there I was reminded of when I was a kid, and how much time fun Halloween could be.

The entire month of October was often consumed with intrigue as I planned elaborate costumes, stole ideas from friends, memorized maps of the neighborhood. In the weeks beforehand, my school friends would ask the eternal question:

“Who are you going as?”

“It’s whom,” I’d say. “And I wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition like that.”

Which answered their question, actually — no matter what costume I wore, I would be going as a total geek.

I was a vampire for several years in a row, until I discovered an old beige trench coat in my parents’ closet. That year, I was the only pre-teen who was planning to dress like TV detective Columbo.

So other people would get the joke, I ended up modifying the costume at the last minute very slightly — actually, not at all — and telling people I was supposed to be a hobo. Unsurprisingly, they bought it.

My sister, Christine, and I never trick-or-treated at random houses. We were always afraid of kid-snatchers, poisoned candy, witches living in tenements made completely of sugar — you name it.

More to the point, over the years, our family had perfected a trick-or-treating route that resulted in the best-quality hauls per house visited, without the unnecessary expense of calories by walking everywhere.

First, my mom drove us to the relatives’ houses. They were always good for Sweet Tarts, fun-size Snickers or Three Musketeers, and Tootsie Rolls. In return, I had to endure pinches on the cheek and pointed questions about my outfit.

“Hey, look! It’s Little Humphrey Bogart!”

“I’m Detective Columbo.”


“I mean, a hobo.”

“Oh, yeah. I see it. Take some candy!”

Then, after visiting the relatives, we always stopped by the candy mother lode, conveniently close to my cousin’s house — the home of Deacon Camara.

For those who never knew the man, Deacon Manuel Camara was one of the nicest, gentlest men I had the pleasure of meeting. I didn’t know him that well, unfortunately. I saw him only a few times a year, but he made a lasting impression.

Besides being the only deacon or priest in Fall River who tweaked the noses of children before giving them Holy Communion, Deacon Camara opened his house to kids on Halloween. It was the essence of a well-known secret — he and his wife were tucked away on a small, dark street, but there would be plenty of kids running in and out of their house with full-size candy bars trailing behind them.

He and his wife would call us inside to his living room, to where several tables were set up with every variety of candy imaginable: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Baby Ruths, Butterfingers, Gummi Bears, lollipops, 100 Grands. My sister and I would stand in awe, unable to make sense of all the sugar.

“Take whatever you like,” he’d say, eyes twinkling like rock candy. We’d pick out a few chocolate bars, careful not to be greedy, and thank him before leaving.

At home, we’d sift through our piles at eat ourselves sick, unable to sleep because of the sugar high, and planning our costumes for the next year, when we’d visit Deacon Camara’s again.

But now I’m much older, and Deacon Camara has passed away, sadly. The last time I went trick-or-treating was in my freshman year of college. Dressed in a blue bathrobe and a fedora (“I’m Indiana Jones”) I visited a couple of rooms in my dorm and was rewarded with a piece of junk mail, a sample packet of Tide laundry detergent, and a little more than 50 cents.

So I’ll buy the candy this year to eat with my wife after no kids visit our apartment, and we’ll carve a jack-o-lantern that will get collapsed and moldy after a week. But I’ll do all that because of the memories, not because I feel like celebrating. No — Halloween stopped being mine long ago.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

One potato, two potato, three potato—Jesus, I'll never get enough potatoes at this rate

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about what a nice place Canada is. About three people with zero sense of humor offered to send me there, and the horse I rode in on. One guy told me that America is cooler because we have more toys: “We have 12 aircraft carriers, Canada has zero.”

I suppose he’s right about America having neater toys, if all you care about is big boats that go boom.

That said, I put it to you that America is way behind Canada in terms of a different kind of scientific advancement: potato chip flavor technology.

Wandering through the chips aisle at Stop & Shop, you wouldn’t think we were deprived of anything in America, would you? We’ve got, like, a thousand kinds of chips: plain nachos, cheese nachos, ranch nachos, lime-flavored nachos, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, barbecue, pretzels of every shape, creed and color, poofy things made of unidentifiable substances, chips made of pita bread, chips both domestic and imported, and Fritos shaped like ladles, wood shavings or corkscrews.

And now, Lay’s has come out with a “new” flavor, available in your local supermarket: dill pickle.

I brought some to work the other day. My co-workers’ jaws hung agape at the sight. It was as if Marco Polo returned from the Orient to Europe with a fax machine instead of noodles.

One of them hit the bag repeatedly with a stick until it popped open. Using simple hand gestures, pointing from the bag to my mouth, I explained that these were for eating.

“But what strange manner of chip could this be?” one asked.

“Forsooth, I have never tasted the like,” said another, crumbs sticking to her chin.

I told them that Canadians have had pickle-flavored chips for centuries.

Visit Canada sometime and step into one of their grocery stores — like the Eh & P or Canadian Tire. It’s like traveling to another dimension, one where all your favorite foods have been compressed and concentrated into potent flavor powder.

Do you love the taste of gravy fries, but don’t have the two hours or so it takes to assemble them? Canadian potato chips come in gravy fries flavor.

Or, how many times has this happened to you: you’d really like to cook up some bacon — except it’s three-thirty in the morning, you haven’t had any bacon in the house for years, and you’re too embarrassed and/or drunk to make your way to the grocery store just to buy bacon. It probably happens far too often. If you were in Canada, you could buy bacon-flavored potato chips. They smell and taste exactly like bacon.

Or, have you ever wanted to make barbecued chicken, but your chickens simply refuse to stand still long enough to be barbecued? Any Canadian grocery store worth its salt sells barbecued chicken-flavored chips.

Have you ever had a hankering for mussels sauteed with capers and garlic, served over angel hair pasta and topped by a light white wine and lemon sauce, with a bottle of crisp, dry Chardonnay, finished off with a mellow cigar and romantic after-dinner conversation? Canadian potato chip scientists are working on it.

The variety of chip flavors one finds in Canada boggles the imagination: chips that taste like buffalo wings, freshly ground black pepper, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs with the works, sour cream with, for God’s sake, clams. There’s the “all-dressed” chips, flavored with all of the above. The only flavor they don’t have is Unsatisfying Chip Flavor.

My personal favorite flavor of Canadian chips is, by far, ketchup. Lay’s makes them in Canada, and no, I cannot eat just one. I have several connections in and around the Toronto area, and even some in the Midwest United States, who ship me supplies of ketchup chips. I plant secret coded messages in this column (SEND KETCHUP CHIPS NOW) whenever I need a shipment from my suppliers.

The deliciousness is hard to explain with language. The thin slivers are covered in a bold red seasoning that leaves your fingers — and clothes, if you’re a slob like me — stained for days afterward. They taste exactly like ketchup. It’s a technological marvel.

Some people also think they’re disgusting. As if ketchup has no business being on potatoes! What the hell do you usually put on french fries — Cool Whip? And no, it doesn’t work if you squirt ketchup on plain chips. That’s just silly.

Ever since I was young, I’ve wondered why Lay’s sold ketchup chips in Canada, but not in southern New England. Is there a chance that ketchup chips will come to Fall River?

To find out, I called the toll-free number on the back of a bag of Lay’s dill pickle chips.

After a few minutes of wrangling with Frito-Lay’s automated phone line, I received the answer to all my questions:

“We’re sorry if you’re having trouble finding one of our products. Local preferences often determine what chips and package sizes are available.”

In other words: tough noogies, America.

But the robotic voice said my course of action should be to contact a store manager, or a local Frito-Lay representative, to ask for ketchup chips.

“Look up ‘Frito-Lay’ in your phone book!” the voice chirped.

Don’t bother looking — there’s no Frito-Lay in the phone book. I even checked under “Lay, Frito,” but no dice.

I’ve done all I can do. There is a clear and present Potato-Chip-Flavor Technology Gap between our two nations, people. If we don’t move to close it now, we’ll be playing catch-up with the Canadians for years to come.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

For sale: 2 bed, 1 1/2 crater moon plot, hardwoods throughout

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I’m going to go out on a limb here: I don’t like junk mail. Don’t like it, I say! It’s no use trying to change my mind! But I received a junk e-mail the other day that I was actually glad to have received. It opened my eyes to the wondrous world of extraterrestrial real estate sales.

The subject line of the e-mail in question caught my eye: “1 Acre of Land on the Moon $29.99.”

Just for contrast, and for those unfamiliar with real estate prices, an acre of Earth land can often cost twice as much — sometimes more.

The message noted that sales of moon land have been going strong for 22 years. Two former presidents own property on the moon, “as do several hundred celebrities.”

I usually delete junk mail as soon as I can. I don’t want to buy any spy equipment. I don’t want free vacations anywhere. I can see nude pictures of Britney Spears any time I care to, for free, by shutting my eyes and concentrating for a few glorious moments.

Offers for cheap lunar property, on the other hand, don’t come along every day. And even though I just moved to a new apartment and it’s such a drag packing everything together again, my wife and I are still keeping our options open, provided the planet is in a good neighborhood with decent public schools. So I did some research.

Attempts to contact local real estate agents regarding moon land sales were not successful.

Classified advertisements in this and other newspapers were woefully inadequate, containing only listings within a fraction of a light-year-radius of Fall River.

However! The Internet turns out to be the place for people looking to homestead in outer space. There are several Web sites devoted to astro-realty.

One of them,, was a wealth of information. They’re an “authorized reseller” of moon property through the Lunar Embassy — which, as it turns out, is in Rio Vista, Calif.

Yes. California.


Like I was saying, Earth’s self-appointed lunar ambassador is a gentleman named Dennis M. Hope. In the Earth Year 1980, Mr. Hope filed a declaration with the United States, the United Nations and the USSR, claiming ownership of every planetary body in the solar system, except Earth and the Sun. He claims to have found a legal loophole in several international treaties regarding other planets. See, the international community has essentially decided that no government can claim ownership of other planets — but it says nothing about regular people. So, as I understand it, Mr. Hope drew up some paperwork telling various world governments that he now owns those celestial bodies.

What the United States, the United Nations and the USSR had to say about this, we can only imagine.

True: Mr. Hope also calls himself The Head Cheese.

He’s got a lot of real estate for sale. Not only can you buy a plot on the moon, but he’s selling off land on Mars and Venus, too, for the same scandalously low price. Operators are standing by!

For $29.99, you get a deed, a “constitution” (it doesn’t say which), a property map, mineral rights to your new land, and a copy of Head Cheese Hope’s original declaration of ownership.

Every sale comes with a “30-day money-back guarantee.” If during that time you find your neighbors are hostile, or the land has inadequate driveway space, or you get a better deal in a less tony suburb just outside the galaxy, the Head Cheese will refund your money.

Like in the Old West, an outer space homesteader must be a hardy survivor type. “Apart from the laws of the Head Cheese, currently no law exists” in outer space, according to the Web site. The “laws of the Head Cheese” are not explained, but I’ll guess that at least one of them involves keeping off the grass.

I know what you’re thinking. What if astronauts land on your property? Can you put up signs to discourage them? “No Soliciting,” perhaps, or “Beware of the Dog”?

Sadly, no — NASA has the right to explore any planet it chooses. “But,” the Web site adds, “if someone chooses to build a house, or drill for minerals or water on your property, that’s a different matter altogether.”

Before you load up the station wagon to do a few interplanetary drive-bys of the neighborhood, you should know a few things about these properties.

The moon has no air, for instance — inadequate ventilation, a real estate agent might say. It also has lousy access to major highways and shopping centers.

The average surface temperature of Mars ranges from a summery 80 degrees to a brisk –100 degrees each day. Violent windstorms frequently engulf the entire planet. And one Martian year takes 687 Earth days, which is a long time between Christmases.

Venus is a bit more tropical, with an average temperature of 890 degrees. The Venusian atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide, which is good news for gardeners. But the planet is swathed in a thick cloud of concentrated sulfuric acid vapor that constantly rains, making the natives rather touchy. In Realtor’s parlance, Venus is a fixer-upper.

It would be a trek from my interplanetary apartment to Fall River for work. Still, if I don’t take advantage of these low mortgage rates, I’d be a lunatic.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Unnatural

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So at the time I’m writing this, the Boston Red Sox are down two games in their series against the Oakland A’s. Things are looking very grim indeed, baseball fans. I know a little bit about losing games in the postseason myself, being a former Little Leaguer. I was famous for my losing.

Think back to the summer of 1984. I was a pathologically shy, 7-year-old mouse of a kid whose hobbies included rereading our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia set morning, noon and night. Despite all my best efforts at memorization, my memory is spotty at best. For instance, I can probably name every country in Europe — yes, including the little ones like San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Luxembourg — but not every capital in Europe.

So being an appalling nerd, I was pathetic at team sports, and was invariably picked last, even after young bowlegged girls with chronic asthma. I was also short for my age, with little legs. I’ve since sprouted. Given a foot-high stepladder, I now stand a towering six-foot-six.

My parents sought to rectify this situation. My dad asked me one day if I wanted to join Little League.

“You want to be on a baseball team?” he asked. “It’ll be fun.”

“Um-mumml,” I said. My mouth was full of Froot Loops at the time.

Days later, I found myself a member of the Columbus Park League. This seemed fairly exciting — I figured correctly that I’d have to end up on one of the teams. And so I did: The Jets!

Correction: the fast, exciting Jets! A team capable of supersonic speed, perhaps! Supersonic speed being, naturally, 1,087 feet per second, according to Funk & Wagnalls.

The coaches gave me a uniform, pipsqueak size. I was thrilled when I came home and unwrapped it. The Jet colors were blue and gold — not yellow, but gold! More important was my jersey number, which cruel fate had seen fit to give me: No. 1.

So I had a team and a uniform. The next thing I needed was some concept of how to play baseball.

I had no idea how to play the game, and the Funk & Wagnalls was mercilessly vague.

My dad watched his share of Red Sox games, and so did I, but being Portuguese his game was soccer. One thing we both knew was that it was bad form to kick the baseball, and bouncing it off your head was not likely to work.

My coaches, whose names I forget, drilled us Jets for what seemed like days. Ah, the camaraderie! It was like boot camp — the drills drew us Jets closer, and the coaches became a common enemy to both revere and rebel against. I can hear my teammates’ little voices now, calling through a sea of years: “You stink, kid!”

We played many games against teams like the Bombers, the Comets, and other sky-related terminology. I played two positions: deep, deep, deep left field, where no toddler could possibly hit a ball, and designated hitter, where I could sit sullenly on the bench and not harm anyone.

I discovered early on in my career that I couldn’t possibly hit my way on base. I swung early. I swung minutes too late. Only after several games did I figure out that not swinging could count as a strike. My coaches had the patience of angels.

But since I couldn’t hit the ball, I could get on first base if I was hit with the ball. What a discovery! I soon grew excellent at leaning into pitches, and my left side became bruised to a pulp. When my ribs became sore, I threw my left arm into the ball instead.

After winning games, us Jets went for ice cream, piled in the bed of one of the coaches’ pickup truck. I sulked quietly. My hat once flew off on Hanover Street. We circled the block to retrieve it. It had been run over several times, but still serviceable.

During a game at Ruggles Park, I sat in the dugout, keeping the bench from running away. Behind me were two older kids — real compulsive-drooler, sloping-cranium types.

“That number 1 kid sucks,” one said, right into my ear.

“I don’t know why they even let him play,” the other said.

I didn’t know, either. I began to cry, ready to crawl into a hole. One of them, or possibly both, poked me through the fence. My coach told them both to scram, and I worshipped him for it.

After one game, I overheard from some of the other Jets that we were going to be in the championship against The Comets. The Jets had made the postseason. I was mystified. I thought we stunk.

My parents and older sister came to the game at Ruggles Park. They were excited for me. I wanted it over with. I missed my encyclopedias, and all the practice time was taking me away from the television.

After a few innings riding the pine, my turn at bat came. My coach stuck an enormous helmet on my head, over this mop of my hair, and I strode to home plate.

The Comet pitcher was tall and cross-eyed. Already working on his psychological techniques in middle school, he stared me down in the triangular crossfire of his vision. I wondered if that made him pitch better somehow, and looked for my family in the crowd. My helmet was sinking onto my head, so I held my bat with one hand while I adjusted it.

And before I knew it, a pitch flew at me at lightning speed. It made contact with my outstretched bat — a hit! — and bounced harmlessly foul. Stee-rike one!

It was the one and only time my bat made contact with a ball all season.

The rest of the game was a blur — The Jets lost due to a bad call, somebody said, but what could you expect when the home-plate umpire was the father of that cross-eyed pitcher? I went home, ready to bury my uniform in the back yard and never speak of that summer again. But I’ll never forget all those memories.

Believe me — I’ve tried.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Two minutes hate, via cell phone

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According to an unofficial poll taken by me, with a margin of error of plus or minus three points, everybody in the world now has a cell phone.

My wife and I used to be the last people we knew without them, but no longer. Depending on your point of view, we have either caught up with the 21st century or crossed over to the Dark Side.

OK, so not everybody has a cell phone, but if you throw a stick in any direction odds are good that you’ll hit somebody yammering into one. Odds are excellent that the person you hit will be 14 or younger. In that case, don’t actually throw the stick.

I used to loathe people who have cell phones. Something about being able to call anybody at any time from anywhere makes cell phone users so smug.

“The only people who really need cell phones,” I often huffed to my long-suffering wife, “are doctors and drug dealers. Everybody else is playing dress-up.” She would nod graciously, pretending not to remember that I’d cracked the same lousy joke a week earlier.

My distaste began when regular people — not doctors or drug dealers — started driving like blithering idiots while talking on cell phones. Mostly, this bothers me because people who call other people from their cars usually do so to say, “I’ll be there in two minutes!”

Also, it’s irksome watching people seemingly blab to themselves with those “hands-free” wires they attach to cell phones now. When people talk to me now, I have to check their ears to make sure I’m the other half of their conversation. If people had any idea how nuts they look when they use those things, they’d pitch them into the nearest fireplace.

I also despise having to listening to other people’s cell phone conversations. For one thing, most people have nothing interesting to say (“Just calling to say what’s up!”). When they do, it’s too interesting — the telephonic equivalent of dropping your pants in public.

But I declared war on cell phones one day when my wife and I were in Boston, shopping at the Prudential Mall. At some point in the day, I had to answer a rather different call, so to speak, and found my way to the gentlemen’s facilities.

So there I was, washing my hands at the sink, when I heard a voice say, “Hello?”

I turned around and saw nobody — until I spied feet under one of the stall doors. I cringed, anticipating all kinds of misfortune.

“Are you there?” the voice said.

I cleared my throat, ready to ask the guy, as tentatively and plainly as possible, if he needed emergency assistance. In case it became necessary, I was preparing my standard lecture on how making small talk in the bathroom drives me up the wall. “Uh,” I said, “do you —”

“Hi!” he said. “What’s up?” And then he began having half a conversation. The other half, I realized, was on his cell phone — while he was on the john. He sounded like he was going to be hanging out for a while. I heard something splash.

I escaped and found my wife. I told her the whole ugly story, repeating my lousy joke about doctors and drug dealers, which she politely smirked at.

So I was home one day much later, stuffing an effigy of Alexander Graham Bell, when my wife sat me down and explained the situation rationally. She does a lot of freelance work, so she needs to be in contact with her clients even when she’s away from the house. And since both of us spend a lot of time on the road, we need to stay in touch.

“I think I need to get a cell phone,” she said.

Here’s what I said:


Yeah, I’m not sure where I changed my mind, either, but it happened nonetheless. I became a cell phony.

Maybe it was idea of buying a new toy that converted me. Did I mention my cell phone flips open like a wicked cool James Bond gadget?

We signed the next two years of our lives away in a contract, promising to use our shiny new cell phones like good little doo-bees. Here’s an excerpt from that charming document: “We make no representations or warranties, express or implied, including, to the extent permitted by federal, state and local law, any implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose concerning your service or your wireless phone.”

I looked it up. “Merchantability” is in the dictionary, but just barely.

Believe me, I would like to report that I’m a responsible cell phone user. I can’t do that, though.

I had plans to use it for emergencies only. So why is the number for the China Star on President Avenue programmed into my speed dial? In case I have a boneless sparerib emergency?

I promised myself I wouldn’t make frivolous public phone calls. After I bought the cell phone — the same day, in fact — I called my wife with it. “Just calling to say hi!” I said. She was in the next room at the time.

And dig this: I’ve used the cell phone while on the john. Twice. The deep sense of shame I feel can’t be expressed with words.

I won’t reveal who was on the other end of the line, except that it was a she. She didn’t know where I was at the time, and still doesn’t — but I told her I’d be there in two minutes.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Crime and misdemeanor

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The public library’s main branch reopened this week after two years of renovations. I saw the pictures right here in The Herald News, and it looked very nice in there — too nice, in fact. After seeing a picture of the gorgeously redone lobby taken from the second floor, I dashed myself against the walls of my apartment, grinding my teeth in agony.

I love the library and admired the renovations, but I was wracked by guilt. I committed a monstrous crime in my youth: I took out a book in 1995 and never returned it.

The volume that led to my downfall is “Side Effects” by Woody Allen, a collection of his short stories. On June 21, 1995, I checked out the book fully intending to return it two weeks later.

At least I read it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It’s not as if I checked it out to play street hockey with, or ever used it to beat small animals and children. I read it cover to cover several times, even the Library of Congress bullshit on the bottom of the copyright page.

After two weeks, I didn’t return the book. I was reading it obsessively, memorizing it, analyzing every word. I would have worn it as a hat if it had provided more shade. It was also never in bookstores — and even if it were, those books cost actual money.

You must understand: Woody Allen is one of my favorite authors and filmmakers. I admire his work more than anyone else’s. Dig this excerpt from his short story “The Condemned”:

“Lying back on his bed ... he appeared to be some kind of inanimate object, like a large football or two tickets to the opera. A moment later, when he rolled over and the moonlight seemed to strike him from a different angle, he looked exactly like a twenty-seven-piece starter set of silverware, complete with salad bowl and soup tureen.”

To hell with Shakespeare!

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, did the library actually expect me to give up brilliant prose like that after only two weeks?

For the first six months or so, the library sent late notices to my house with alarming frequency. A cleansing fire took care of them nicely. After a while, the notices stopped arriving, and with a fiendish cackle I moved “Side Effects” from under my pillow to my bookshelf, where it fit in nicely with my growing collection of legally acquired books.

Then the paranoia set in. I began to suspect that the librarians knew all about Woody and me.

“Why don’t you bring that book back?” my wife asked one day. "I bet they won’t charge you for it.”

“Forget it,” I said. “With my fines, it’s grand larceny.”

I went to the library, looked up books about the Library Police, but was too chicken to check them out. I imagined they were going to set up traps for me — complicated snares involving buckets of KFC original as bait and tranquilizer darts shot into my neck. Eventually, I stopped going. The false noses and oversized wigs became too cumbersome. So I borrowed books on my wife’s card.

Years later, wandering through a bookstore, I found a thick tome called “The Complete Prose of Woody Allen.” It contained, among other things, every story in “Side Effects.” I brought it home and stuck it on the shelf near my library book.

“Does this mean you can bring that old book back now?” my wife asked. “I’m tired of taking out stuff for you.”

“I can’t bring it back!” I spat. “I’ve come too far to stop now. The overdue fines will bankrupt us.” I cocked an eyebrow and twirled my mustache. “Oh yes, my dear — ‘us.’ You’re an accessory.”

“They have those amnesty days,” she said, “where you can bring in overdue books and don’t have to pay the fine. Why don’t you call and find out?”

So naïve! “That’s just what they want you to think!” I brandished the book at her. “They’d love to get their hands on a prize like me. And while I’m occupied, they send the Library Police here to take it away from me.”

“You can always drop it in the box, you know.”

I removed the library book from its shelf and stroked the cover. “It’s mine!” I hissed. “My precious...

And so it was until the library reopened after its renovations. I read all about the way it was fixed up, with new skylights and stacks you can wander through.

“It’s supposed to be beautiful in there,” my wife said. “Hint, hint.”

“Of course!” I yelped. “They fixed up the joint — just to torment me! They know I can’t check out books without paying my fine! Oh, they’re clever. They are clever.”

Bring the stupid book back already!” she yelled.

So on Monday, 426 weeks after the book was due, I crawled back into the library. I had calculated my overdue fines, at 10 cents a day, to be about $298.

I didn’t have $298, so once I entered the bright new lobby, I made sure I had an unobstructed path out the door in case I had to make a run for it.

The librarian — a nice lady and not at all like the cruel-eyed federal agent I had expected — scanned the book. “It’s not in the computer system anymore,” she said. “Oh, well.”

I braced for more. “Is that it?”

Apparently, it was.

Since she didn’t know of my awful crime, I said, “Can I get a new card?”

“That’ll be one dollar,” she said.

I felt like kissing her. Now I have a brand new library card and a brand new library. I’m a born-again book nerd.

Incidentally, that same day, I used my new card to check out a jazz CD. The library wants it back on Sept. 30.

I like jazz.

I like jazz a lot.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Sept. 10, 2001

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In February 2001, I was scheduling a date to take my GRE test, which is like the SATs for graduate school. It was a boring chore. From several testing dates, this is the one I picked, completely at random: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The day seemed as good as any at the time.

Mostly everyone has already re-eulogized the more than 2,800 dead, remembered the World Trade Center towers as they once stood, bragged about what’s gone right since then, wagged fingers about what’s gone wrong.

Frankly, since that day, both what has both gone wrong and gone right scare the hell out of me.

We’ve cleaned up colossal messes in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania, and created substantially larger and stickier messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of the latter two will be cleaned up soon, no matter how many times President Bush lands on any number of aircraft carriers.

And with the second anniversary of the attacks, we’re constantly ordered to remember 9/11, to remember our dead friends and family, and the planes crashing, and the stunned reactions from the reporters as the people trapped inside were crushed inside the collapsing buildings, to remember who did this to us and why we need to do the same thing back.

Enough! I’ve done that! Now I want to remember Sept. 10, before “terrified” became a natural state of being.

I want you to do the same.

Sept. 10, 2001, I am sitting on the floor in my living room, by the coffee table, studying for the GRE exam, which I am scheduled to take the next day. I’m also watching the television news, which is quite boring. The stories about shark attacks and Calif. Rep. Gary Condit’s hanky-panky are growing dull. I have no idea, but this is the last time in at least a year that the TV news will be dull.

I give myself three sample GRE tests. The GRE, by the way, is a picturesque slice of hell. It takes several hours — meaning I spent most of the day indoors, cramming my head full of statistics.

Meanwhile, a perfect, seasonably warm day lingers outside.

It is also a pleasant day in New York, I hear.

On another TV station, two anchors fill extra time during the news with idle chitchat.

Back in Fall River, I am not comfortable with my self-tested GRE scores, so to clear my head I walk my dog. There is a breeze through Kennedy Park, and the late afternoon light is a mild orange. Why wouldn’t the weather be nice in early September?

My wife comes home from work and she tells me that she had heard on National Public Radio that fish is “brain food.” In those days, NPR was full of harmless news stories like that. So I decide that since I will take my exam in Boston, I will eat lunch at a sushi place just before the test. We are both nuts for sushi.

“I wish I could come with you,” my wife says.

“I wish so, too,” I say.

In lower New York, people who work in the World Trade Center towers are going home for the day. Some are probably happy, some probably not. Most probably don’t feel much different one way or another.

My wife tells me about her day at work. I am preoccupied, because the shadow of the test the next day is hanging over my head.

As it grows closer to night, the red lights on the top of the World Trade Center towers light up. Many tall structures have pulsing red lights at their highest points, so planes flying by in the dark don’t accidentally crash into them.

Back home, I suggest that my wife and I get ice cream cones. We eat them sitting shoulder to shoulder outside the car at Somerset Creamery, and we talk about the future.

I’ve spent the whole day concentrating on the very near future, hoping the test will go off without a hitch. But in the end, I will spend the next morning glued to the TV set, horrified, listening to a reporter say simply, “It’s gone.” My wife will call me, and we’ll hear the report about the Pentagon crash together, and for one stomach-churning instant, I’ll put that together with the New York attacks and think, “This is the end,” meaning The Very End of Everything. That feeling will pass, luckily, and I’ll drive to Boston around noon for my test, one of just a few people driving into the city, as opposed to escaping it. I’ll pass by the sushi restaurant just in time to see the chefs and waitresses literally fleeing, as in locking their door and running away — because the restaurant sits in the shadows of the two tallest skyscrapers in Boston. I’ll be afraid to take the subway, so I’ll walk five miles from Boston Common deep into Brookline, and find that my test is postponed, and walk five miles back, a trip so serene I will almost forget that I was ready to be dead a few hours earlier. I’ll feel incredibly stupid and callous for thinking that my lousy test would not be postponed. Everything everywhere is postponed except for three grim searches: for the missing, for the dead, and for the guilty.

But that’s the near future, and on Sept. 10, 2001, it hasn’t happened yet. When my wife and I are eating ice cream that night, we’re talking about the long future. In between becoming millionaires, I say, we’ll travel the globe. Since we’re making it all up as we go along, it’s as nice as we want it to be.

Looking overhead that night, what look at first to be stars are actually blinking airplane lights. Planes are crisscrossing the country unmolested. Why wouldn’t they? There’s no reason to worry.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Asteroid rage

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For years, I’ve been walking around with a sense of baseless dread, chewing my nails when there’s no obvious reason for me to chew them. Finally, my paranoia has a name: “2003 QQ47.”

That’s the name of an asteroid two-thirds of a mile wide that, earlier this week, British astronomers said is rocketing straight toward Earth with human extinction on its mind. Worse, the predicted date of this catastrophe is March 21, 2014. If you’ve made a dentist appointment for that day, astronomers said, you should probably reschedule.

Of course, British astronomers were also saying that, according to calculations, the chances of 2003 QQ47 hitting Earth is 1 in 909,000.

A Sept. 2 Associated Press story about 2003 QQ47 — headlined “ASTEROID DUE TO COLLIDE WITH EARTH” — said that the asteroid had only been tracked for a week. The reporter seemed rather calm for somebody staring extinction in the face: “The risk of a collision could fall as its movements are further tracked.”

“I would say there’s no cause for concern at all,” said Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the time looking tragically shortsighted.

This next tidbit of information warmed the cockles of my heart. If 2003 QQ47 collides with Earth, according to the AP story, “the rock would have the force of 350,000 megatons, or eight million times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.”

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to describe my outlook on life, I would first try to wrestle the gun away from you — barring success, I would call myself “optimistically pessimistic.” I always think the worst will happen, but I really hope it won’t.

To make this condition worse, I’m drowning in news. I edit news for a living, and most news is, sadly, about atrocities: people blowing each other to bits, others getting decapitated by elevator doors, incurable viruses, environmental plagues, the cancer-causing effects of margarine, the perils of not washing one’s hands, or of washing them too much — you name it.

To an optimistic pessimist who wallows in news like me, a 1 in 909,000 chance that an asteroid will collide with Earth in the near future is practically even odds. An asteroid collision would fit in very nicely with all the other horrible news happening every day, and it’s more possible than my hitting the Powerball, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. You see why I’m climbing the walls?

So I was all set to stock up on D batteries and tinned meat and crawl into my bunker located deep below the earth’s crust when I read on that 2003 QQ47 will not hit Earth. Somebody goofed — probably that Fitzsimmons clown. He seemed a little too calm, if you ask me.

I look like a mellow character. A friend from college once described me as “jolly” (he was drunk at the time). It’s a façade to hide that I’m a compulsive worrier.

I often worry about the wrong things. I eat too much junk food, but I don’t worry about that excessively — not nearly as much as I worry if the mail doesn’t arrive by 1:30. I can barely remember the name of my car insurance company, and I don’t much care. But every time I leave the bathroom I’ll spend 40 minutes checking and rechecking to see if my fly is down. I’ll wait 8,000 miles to change the oil in my car, but if the dog gives me a sad look I’ll start worrying that she’s secretly mad at me.

I also spend time worrying that I worry too much.

So naturally, when I read cockamamie headlines about enormous space rocks screaming down from the heavens to annihilate the human race in the next 10 years, I worry about it, even though I’ve read the odds and I know it’s not really going to happen.

By then, I’ve already spent too much time reading the news story and staring at advertisements, which is the whole reason why some jerk wrote the hyped-up headline in the first place.

Now that I’ve started worrying, I’m too pessimistic to believe that an asteroid won’t collide with Earth at some point.

Dig this: NASA has catalogued a list of near-Earth objects like comets and asteroids that it considers “potentially hazardous,” meaning sometime in the future one of them could slam into our planet. It’s an interstellar rogues’ gallery. According to a NASA Web site, there are 524 of these objects. No kidding. I may find a use for my batteries and Spam after all.

The site is maddeningly vague when it comes to details about these celestial deathtraps. I have too many questions that the Alan Fitzsimmonses of the world have no answers for:

-- If we’re all doomed, why the hell did I bother taking four semesters of Spanish?

-- If an asteroid heads toward Earth, is there some way we can minimize human deaths — possibly by diverting it to land on a Republican convention?

-- Let’s say we find some way to blast incoming asteroids to smithereens with a laser-beam-equipped spaceship. Will I, with my superior skill at the Atari 2600 video game “Asteroids,” be drafted?

-- Even though 2003 QQ47 isn’t scheduled to collide with the planet, will City Councilor Leo Pelletier still want to cancel the 2014 Holy Ghost feast?

-- How, if at all, would a catastrophic asteroid disaster affect the performance of my mutual funds? I keep hoping they’ll take off one of these days — but I’m not holding my breath.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Oil vs. antimatter in a no-holds-barred grudge match

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It’s late summer in New England, and everywhere little children are turning to crime and deceit.

You can smell its delicate fragrance in the air every morning, now that school is nearly back in session — the chemical odor of thermometers being pressed against night-lights, the stink of lies told to mothers about intestinal bugs and 24-hour chicken pox. Take a walk early in the morning and you can taste its tang in the air, like cherry-flavored Robitussin swallowed around an imaginary whooping cough.

Hundreds of other children with healthier consciences will hoist their 90-pound backpacks onto their shoulders and head back to school, some kicking, others screaming, most simply trudging through and counting the days until Christmas break.

I was one of those big dorks who anticipated the beginning of school with hope. Officially, I could never be totally happy, because school also meant more work and daily doses of humiliation at the hands of bigger boys, smaller boys and girls of all sizes. But as I’ve aged, I’ve realized that, second to Christmas, back-to-school time was my favorite time of the year.

I never liked summer, for one thing. I picked up that bad habit from many early summers at my hypochondriac grandmother’s house, where fresh air and playing outside was strictly forbidden — because, you see, there’s wind outside. Wind leads to chilly air, which leads to a cold, which leads to the grave. Also, I got these painful migraine headaches whenever I came in the presence of what regular people call “fun.”

I’m improving — thanks for asking.

I also looked forward to school because it was the only thing I was any good at. Sports and I are like oil and water. Worse than oil and water — oil and antimatter. Being a big dork, I know what antimatter is. See what I mean?

So when I was a kid, and CVS would move the beach balls and Slip‘n Slides out of the middle aisle and replace them with notebook filler paper and pencils of every variety, my heart would swell.

It still does. I’m currently a graduate student at a college in Boston, earning a master’s degree in creative writing. For all intents and purposes, I’m an 18th-grader.

Back-to-school shopping is practically one of the reasons why I’m getting another degree. And no back-to-school season would be complete without my fawning over the Trapper Keepers.

For those too old or too young, a Trapper Keeper is a binder that has an assortment of pockets and folders to protect your homework. They come in plain colors for boys — for girls they usually come pre-decorated with unicorns or pandas. They are very complicated, with zippers and three-ring binders and plastic mesh and Velcro and built-in calculators. They presume a level of sophistication that no school-age kid possesses.

I always want to buy a Trapper Keeper every September, even now that I’m in the 18th grade. I’m never as organized as a Trapper Keeper demands you be, but it’s nice to try.

Also, I’ll probably buy a new pair of jeans. I may wait until I start classes first — so I can see what kind the cool 18th graders are wearing.

I even get a kick out of buying books I can’t afford. I’m somewhat lucky in my choice of majors. There aren’t many textbooks that will teach you how to write stories, and those that do exist are worthless, so we don’t need them.

In case you need more proof that I’m a big dork: someday very soon, before school begins, I will spend most of two hours at an office supply store, checking out pens. Think about it.

What aids my enthusiasm is that I’m studying a subject I love, and every September is like learning it all over again. I’d feel differently if somebody forced me to take geometry again. When I see kids schlumping away to school like they’re off to the gas chamber, I remember that I had a few of those days myself. I went to public school in Fall River — I know it’s no picnic.

I want to sidle up to one of these kids on the street — maybe a chubby boy with a mop of dark hair who’s lousy at sports — and tell him how it works.

“It may stink now,” I want to tell him, “but eventually you’re going to realize that all this stuff you’re learning can be unlearned. Your teachers aren’t filling your head with everything they can because they want to be mean — except for the mean ones. They’re doing it so you have all these different choices to decide what you want to do with your life.”

I want to look around to make sure no one else is listening, and reveal to him the biggest secret. “You’re going to figure out your real calling. And then, confidentially, you’re going to forget some stuff you don’t need or want anymore, whether that’s geometry or the principles of antimatter or whatever. You’re going to shove that stuff aside in your brain, like pushing old boxes around in the attic, to make room. That room will become full with all sorts of information that you love.

“And if you’re lucky, and work very hard, you will do this at a magical place they call college. You’ll enter grades so high they don’t have a number for them. It’ll be so nice there, you’ll never again understand why you ever dreaded Septembers.”

And before I sidle away, I want to take him to CVS and buy him a notebook, its pages empty and new.
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