Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Cranky Claus is Comin' to Town

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It's that most magical time of year again, when you wish the most magical time of year was over. Between rushing out to the mall, making sure your Christmas gifts delivered on time, and writing something personal but nonspecific on a grand total of 67 stupid Christmas cards this year, you're in that grouchy holiday mood.

You've had a visit from Cranky Claus!

You know who Cranky Claus is, don't you? He's that jolly old elf who makes the holiday season irritating! You don't remember the old children's poem, "A Visit from St. Crankus"?

His eyes were all bleary,
His nose red from drinkin'!
His cheeks, badly shaven;
His boots, they were stinkin'!


Doesn't ring a bell?

For those who aren't familiar with Cranky Claus, he wears a big red suit that's too small in the armpits and waist, and he's allergic to the red dye or something, because it always gives him a rash. He lives in a great big castle at the South Pole -- and don't think it isn't a pain to get all the way up here from there, with the traffic.

Mrs. Cranky Claus used to live down there with him until they got divorced and she took the Buick.

Cranky Claus has a fantastic workshop where hundreds of cute little elves work all year round, busily making gift certificates and bouquets of old flowers and boxes of Russell Stover chocolates, making sure to leave the price tag on -- and every year before Christmas, Cranky travels the world in a sleigh pulled by four and a half magical flying moose. Then Cranky stocks gas stations everywhere full of great last-minute gifts.

But that's not all Cranky does! Cranky Claus also visits each and every one of us for about two or three weeks before Christmas, planting the spirit of Yuletide irritability in all our hearts. In the teary eyes of every shrieking brat at an
overcrowded toy store, in the fine print of every exorbitant heating bill, in every old lady who cuts you off in traffic -- that's where you'll find the magic of Cranky Claus.

Perhaps a montage of short scenes would say it best:

--

SCENE: A typical Fall River home decorated for Christmas -- a huge tree in the front parlor, the good plastic on the couch, stockings hung by the space heater with care. Suddenly, there arises such a clatter! The space heater opens and out pops an overweight, scraggly elf. You can't tell this in print, but he reeks of menthol cigarettes.

CRANKY CLAUS. Ugh, my back...

(He stumps over to the Christmas tree. He touches one of the branches briefly, then crawls back into to the space heater -- just as Wayne enters the room.)

WAYNE. (inhaling) Boy! No substitute for that real-tree smell!

(All the needles immediately turn brown and drop to the floor.)

WAYNE. Oh, man...

CRANKY CLAUS. (his voice echoing through the pipes) Haw haw haw! Merrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wal-Mart. Wayne is waving a flyer in the face of a teenage cash register jockey while a Cabbage Patch Kid sits on the counter. A long line of disgruntled shoppers waits behind him.

WAYNE. But the flyer distinctly says the doll is half-price.

CASHIER. Flurgurbong.

WAYNE. (puzzled) Uh ... excuse me?

CASHIER. Flyer's wrong.

WAYNE. No, it says right here -- half price.

CASHIER. (reading flyer) "With purchase of Cabbage Patch DVD." Right there in the little print.

RANDOM SHOPPER. Just pay full price, ya cheapskate!

WAYNE. Then I'll take a Cabbage Patch DVD. If I don't get this, my kid will hate Christmas forever.

CASHIER. Numflistrulf.

WAYNE. (irritated) Excuse me?

CASHIER. Ain't in stock, like I said.

WAYNE. (sighing) Can I speak to the manager, please?

(Cashier waves somebody over -- it's Cranky Claus.)

WAYNE. Can you help me out?

CRANKY CLAUS. (thinks about it for a solid minute) No.

(There is a long pause, filled with the whines of bored children.)

CRANKY CLAUS. Haw haw haw! Merrrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wayne's kitchen. He's writing out Christmas cards while a Christmas goose roasts in the oven. His wife, Mildred, talks on the phone.

MILDRED. No, no, no -- it's no problem at all. We'll see you then.

(She hangs up the phone. Meanwhile, Cranky Claus emerges from a closet and sneaks over to the stove, where he casually turns up the heat.)

WAYNE. Who was that on the phone?

MILDRED. My mother. She's coming over for Christmas.

(A long pause.)

MILDRED. And she's staying with us until March.

WAYNE. Old bag...

(Mildred gives him the old hairy eyeball. Thick smoke begins to pour from the stove.)

WAYNE. I mean ... swell.

(Their daughter Brunhilda enters, tearing wrapping paper off the Cabbage Patch Doll.)

WAYNE. Broonie, that was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas! How did you find that?

BRUNHILDA. (bawling at the doll) But I awready got this one!

CRANKY CLAUS. Haw haw haw! Merrrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wayne's driveway. A beautiful blanket of pure white snow covers everything with a glorious Christmassy glow. Wayne, huffing and puffing, leans on a shovel and warms his hands. He's just shoveled out his driveway.

(There's a red and green snowplow heading his way. At the wheel: Cranky Claus.)

CRANKY CLAUS. Vroom vroom!

(A load of filthy snow pours around Wayne's boots, sliding messily into his driveway. He turns purple and flings his shovel away.)

WAYNE. @#$%!

(He turns around to see Brunhilda, stuck up to her scarf in snow with the doll.)

BRUNHILDA. You said bad words.

CRANKY CLAUS. (toots his horn and waves) Merrrrrry Christmas!
Haw haw haw!

--

Remember: the next time the holidays got you down, thank Cranky Claus for spreading some Yuletide aggravation. And be sure to leave him a plate of bologna sandwiches and a cup of Sanka. It's Cranky's favorite.

Sing it all together!

He sees you when you're grouchy,
He knows when you're ticked off!
He knows that this crummy weather
Will give you a nasty cough!
So!
You better watch out, better not smile!
Better not go to the mall for a little while!
Cranky Claus is comin' to town...

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Nostalgic for high school, for some godawful reason

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In 1994, I graduated from B.M.C. Durfee High School -- which is to say, I got out of there while the getting was good. Back in those happy-go-lucky years, heroin and pegged jeans were out; crack and flannel were in. The place was accredited -- gang fights actually meant something in those days.

And me? I was a moody little twerp. My complexion could be politely described as volcanic. I had no girlfriend and had the athletic polish of, let's say, a three-legged rhinoceros with an inner-ear infection.

I'm still a moody, graceless twerp, but I've since covered most of my face with a beard and I have a wife.

Some kids spent most of their high school years complaining about Durfee, and then spent the last year regretting having to leave it. I was glad to go. Durfee was a crummy building with too many dark corners and fleas infesting the carpets. It's true -- a hygiene-obsessed French teacher, now sadly deceased, told my class about the little guys. They'd leave tiny red welts on her arms and ankles, she said.

The French term for "flea," by the way, is "la puce."

I look back at my Durfee years, and all I see is mind-numbing routine punctuated by episodes of embarrassment. I refuse to get sentimental about it.

So why am I disappointed that I didn't have a 10-year reunion this year?

It's true. We're pretty much done with 2004, and I had no reunion.

None at all.

Not even a little one.

It's sad.

I'm not heartbroken -- just disappointed.

I wasn't all psyched to attend it or anything, but it would have been an interesting thing to do, if only to see what other people made of themselves. Who got fat. Who got skinny. Who lived a nightmare. Who got rich.

Since leaving, my life has been a blast. I want to make sure other people turned out OK, also.

I probably didn't miss much, not having a reunion. It would have been a night of awkward conversation and awkward food. In my imagination, I see cocktail weenies wrapped in dough and watery booze at a cash bar. Not an open bar -- cash. I see jokey comments about my beard ("No, it's not drawn on.") and my living arrangements ("Yes, I still live in Fall River, now kindly drop dead.").

Worse, for the sake of brevity I'd have to distill 10 wonderful, complicated years into a few phrases like this, and be thoroughly depressed at how it sounds: "After school, I went to college. Four years later, I got married. No kids yet, mercifully. Also, I went to college a second time -- first time didn't take, ha ha. Somewhere in all that, I found me a job. Then, I got this letter inviting me to the reunion, so here I am."

To tell you the truth, I suspected for a while that there'd be no 10-year reunion. My wife had the same feeling -- being cynics, we had this hunch that it would turn out badly.

An illustrative incident at Durfee shows what I mean. During my time, every year there had a mural painted in its memory on one of the walls. A little while after I graduated, something happened to the 1994 one -- some jerk defaced it with racial
slurs, I think. This was fixed by covering the mural in thick black paint.

I remember seeing it once, a year or so later. There were all these colorful murals, and one large, featureless black square in the middle of them. It sure as hell seemed like there was a lesson to be learned there.

Anyway, as 2004 wore on and there was no 1994 reunion notice in the paper, I brought the matter to my wife's attention.

"You'd think one of those 'joiner people' would put something together," I told her. "There were all kinds of goody-goody society types in our class who lived for this stuff."

My wife said, "Would you want to organize it?"

"Not a chance in hell, thanks. I just want to go incognito, so I can see how other people are doing without having to explain my own boring life story over and over," I said. "Organizing it is a headache for somebody else."

She shrugged and grinned. "There you go," she said.

In case you're wondering, senior class presidents are often in charge of doing the reunion organizing. My senior class president was football star Marc Megna. Last I heard, Marc was playing football in Montreal and getting work as a model, and I heard he's good at both. Incidentally, a photograph of him, shirtless and flexing, once made the rounds of this newsroom. It soon became wrinkled and drool-stained as the women got hold of it and used it to fan themselves.

I don't blame Marc Megna for not organizing a reunion. Not even a little. If I had that guy's abs, I'd be busy doing something positive with them, too. Instead, I have an ab. One big, round ab.

At one point in my research, I found a phone number online for the Durfee Alumni Association, thinking I would find the person in charge and ask if somebody was going to get on the ball about my reunion. I was connected to a very strange, cryptic answering machine. I left my name and number, and never got a message in return. Thanks!

But several months ago, about the time I resigned myself to never having a 10-year reunion, to missing out on this rite of adulthood, an odd thing happened.

Without meaning to, I started to hear information about people I knew from Durfee. Mainly by coincidence, many people I knew then found me. Sometimes I found them. I even started to see a few people around the city, but I didn't get to speak to them -- nevertheless, I got a glimpse of how they're doing.

It started to satisfy my curiosity, without having to wear a tie and suck in my ab.

I don't want to be presumptuous and use their names here, but I do want to pass along what little I have, in case you're disappointed about not having a real reunion, too. Grab a cocktail weenie.

One woman I knew now works for the town of Tiverton. Another woman I knew e-mailed me out of the blue and told me she's now working for the New Bedford school system. I read once in this newspaper that a guy I was in marching band with became a firefighter. I saw a former basketball player walking down the street in a suit and tie, leaving a bank. Another woman, I spotted in a CVS with a baby. A guy I was very good friends with entered the priesthood. I looked up other people online and found artists and politicians and criminals and employees of corporate America.

I wonder if any of them remember about the fleas -- les puces terribles. It's just as well if they don't.

If you're curious: I went to college. Four years later, I got married. Then I went back to college. Somewhere in there, I found this job. Then I started to get curious about the past, so here I am.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Summer sausage in winter

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There are certain sights, sounds and smells that put me in that fine Yuletide frame of mind. That pleasant sting in my nose when snow's on the way, for instance. When Stop & Shop starts stocking egg nog. Those houses on President Avenue and Second Street whose owners are wonderfully insane when it comes to stringing up the lights.

Another thing that gets me all Christmassy, every time: the sight and smell of meat, cheese and crackers in tidy little wooden boxes. Yes. I defy you to name a mail-order gourmet sausage company that says "Christmas" more than Hickory Farms.

For all I know, Hickory Farms may sell gift packs of beefy junk food during other seasons. I don't know. Frankly, I don't want to know. The idea of flip-flopping outside one sweltering August afternoon, sweat-browed in shorts and a T-shirt, to find that a box of pork has been sitting in a blazing patch of sun near my mailbox for hours -- I'd rather not think of it.

So to me, Hickory Farms is only a Christmastime thing. The mall kiosks look so great duded-up for the holidays, and the gift boxes are a time-honored way to fulfill your Christmas obligation to that person in your life whose hobbies you can't remember but who you're pretty certain eats food.

I vividly recall one Christmas season spent in my college dorm in Boston. I was a freshman spending his first months away from the nest. My friends and I were hanging out in the hallway, bored, as usual -- so like any ennuye college freshmen, we collectively decided to channel our energy toward positive activities like drinking beer. Did I say "drinking beer"? I meant "crocheting lap blankets for the elderly."

Anyway, at some point, some girl I'll call Trixie came by with a Hickory Farms gift box featuring a delightful assortment of cheeses, nuts, candy and sausage. It had come from one of her more thoughtful relatives who had unfortunately forgotten that Trixie was a lifelong militant vegetarian.

Trixie held out a 14-ounce summer sausage. "Anybody want this tube of dead pig flesh?" she said.

I waved her over. "Let's have it, kid," I said, and I ran it under my nose like a fine Cuban cigar. Then I cracked it open and bit off a piece. It was deliciously smoky.

The next day, I was still trying to finish off the entire Hickory Farms sausage myself. I had no refrigerator, so I'd left a gnawed stub of it on my desk by an open window, which kept it cool -- or at least not hot.

The day after that, one of my roommates said, "You should probably throw that thing out." He was leaning over me at the time -- I was on my back on the floor, holding my bloated, aching stomach in one hand and a few ounces of ragged summer sausage in the other. Sleigh bells rang in my head from all the sodium.

"Mustard," I croaked. "If I just ... had ... more mustard ..."

"Don't be a hero," he said. "Hand over the summer sausage."

Long story short, we threw it away. But that cherished Christmas memory has not spoiled yet.

I visited the Hickory Farms store in the Swansea Mall recently. It's full of Beef Sticks and Smoky Bars -- those are blocks of cheese with a grill pattern smoked into them, like the back of Tía Maria's legs after sitting on the patio furniture. I also
went online to the Hickory Farms Web site -- all research so I could spread the word to you, friends. Use this information to give someone you love a Christmas memory, like mine, that they'll never forget.

There are dozens of gift packs to choose from, for every budget and for every taste.

There's the forehead-slapper Beef 'N Cheese pack for $29.99, sort of the Big Mac of Hickory Farms packages. I had taken notes on what's in this one -- but I lost them. So the contents of the Beef 'N Cheese will have to remain a mystery.

Is there somebody you wish would take a hike? Why not give him the Hickory Farms Backpacker? It contains all the necessities one needs when hiking among wild, hungry animals: "Enjoy our 14 oz Beef Stick Summer Sausage, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 4 oz each
Chedd'r, Chedam and Smoky Bar, 2 oz Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread, 3 oz Sweet-Hot Mustard and Strawberry Bon Bons." The Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread can also be used as pitch to repair ruptured kayaks.

Hickory Farms also supplies a subtle way of insulting that special person in your life who's a compulsive liar -- get him a Crock! It comes with cheese in it, I believe.

To send another kind of hidden message, for $25.99 there's the Hickory Farms "Most Elegant Nutmeat." Please supply your own joke here.

There are so many choices, it's hard to decide what exactly to buy. So why not buy pretty much every goddam thing Hickory Farms sells in one box for a whopping $119.99? It's The Diplomat, or the Hickory Farms Gout 'N a Box.

"This gift is called The Diplomat because it pleases a lot of palates! With a 3 lb Beef Stick Summer Sausage" -- you read that correctly -- "12 oz each of Heritage Swiss and Country Cheddar Cheese Spread Crocks, 14 oz each American Classic Summer and Smoky Mesquite Sausages, 2.25 lb Smoky Bar, 10 oz Mild Cheddar Horn, 9 oz Mission Jack, 7 oz each Edam and New York Style Cheddar Cheeses, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 6.5 oz Apple Pie Cheddar, 16 oz Holiday Collection of Deluxe Mixed Nuts, 6.25 oz each Sweet Hot and Honey Mustards, 4.4 oz Water Crackers, etc." By "etc.," they mean a gift certificate good for $5 off at the emergency room of your choice.

Besides gift boxes, Hickory Farms also sells entire dinners -- the perfect gift for anybody who's lousy at making dinner. Imagine the look on Grandma's face when she opens the gamy-smelling present that's been under the tree for a few days, and finds it's a 6-pound Precooked Frenched Pork Loin. Not tempted? What if I told you it was on sale? It's reduced (for reasons unknown) from $95.95 to just $67.15.

By far the nicest gift Hickory Farms has to offer would be the charmingly tactless "This Lil Piggy" gift basket. It comes with a Beef Stick, cheese, mustard and yes -- ham. Also, it has a cute cutting board shaped like a pig, so you can relive the experience of a knife slicing into pork over and over again.

It's educational, too -- use the cutting board as a sort of map to figure out where on the pig the ham came from.

Any one of these gifts and more would make your holiday bright. And with all that cheese and processed meat, it'll be the gift that keeps on giving, at least for a day or two afterward.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

A catalog of disasters

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How pressed for time am I this holiday season? I may have to stoop to Jell-O Instant Figgy Pudding.

My wife and I cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, but we had very little time to bother with too many fixins. Are store-bought dinner rolls a fixin? Or is it just assumed that they always come with the meal, like the biscuits at KFC? How about forks? I already counted them as a fixin -- is that OK?

And now that Thanksgiving is over, it's supposed to be time to join the herds at the mall, to spend five hours getting fifteen minutes worth of shopping done. I'll also end up getting a cold. I always get a cold. Some typhoid-ridden kid at the mall always coughs on me while I'm cutting into line to sit on Santa Claus' lap.

I'm not sure I can fit even one trip to the malls this year -- much less the half-dozen or so that's usual with me as I gradually discover the gaping plot holes in my Christmas list.

So I have two choices. I could regift a bunch of extra stuff I already have lying around the apartment -- my spare pair or sneakers, let's say, or that half-empty box of lasagna noodles in the pantry. Or I could do all my shopping via catalogs and the Internet.

A slew of catalogs just arrived in the mail, conveniently enough. Ordinarily, I just boil catalogs in a bleach solution, strain the pulp, pour it into a manila envelope and send it back with a note asking kindly to be taken off the mailing list -- but I decided to take a closer look at these. They just might save Christmas this year.

Williams-Sonoma, best known for selling overpriced kitchen gadgets to overpriced, kitschy people, now has a catalog for home furnishings, called Williams-Sonoma Home. It's a real nuts-and-bolts kind of store, with everything from variegated-stripe duvet covers to pewter toilet-paper cozies.

The cover of the Williams-Sonoma Home Holiday 2004 catalog is a veritable postcard from pre-war Berlin, as a blond, granite-jawed husband lords over his blonde wife and two sinister blond kids. The family dog -- another blond -- lies at its masters's feet, tongue wagging and eyebrows cocked in a moue of Aryan entitlement.

I opened it anyway, and inside is the most adorable little stadium blanket: "Lofty Australian merino lamb's wool is ready to go, with a buckled carrying strap in dark brown leather. Generously sized for two." Perfect -- so's my dad.

It's pricey at $98, but keep in mind the lambs had to come all the way from Australia -- a 12-hour flight, minimum, with a layover in London.

Just a few pages away are a set of four "stag dessert plates." Your next stag party won't be complete without them. They're decorated with drawings of deer -- those majestic woodland creatures just scream "dessert," don't they? At $68 for the whole set it's a bargain. Mom's now off my list. Two down!

I have a Crate & Barrel catalog that can help me shop for that special someone on my list who's elegant and practical -- or that elegant someone who's practically special.

On page 37 of the Holiday 2004 catalog, there's a piece that is perfect for cold New England winters by the fireplace:

"Folding Leather Log Tote. Squire your logs and kindling in style. This handsome folding tote in warm brown leather has a sturdy wire frame to hold its shape." Keeping old twigs in a leather bin seems a little like keeping your toothbrush in a
velvet-lined jewelry box -- but have I mentioned the "pewter-finish hardware details"? Only $99.95! Hey sis -- I know you don't have a fireplace, but...wink wink! Use it like a purse!

Speaking of storage -- leafing through the Pottery Barn Christmas 2004 catalog I saw these precious little boxes called "Kenya Cubes," which have "snug-fitting lids" covering storage space for books and blankets. Kenya, I shouldn't have to mention, makes the world's snuggest-fitting lids.

"Crafted from hardwood with a distressed espresso-stained finish," the ad reads, "our cubes have the intrigue of artifacts discovered at a flea market." What's nice about Pottery Barn is that the prose uses metaphors.

Each Kenya Cube is a mere $199, but it'll be worth every penny for my mother-in-law. She's a swell lady who can appreciate a snug-fitting lid with the best of them. Sure, she could get a cheaper wooden box and stain it with her own home-brewed espresso and thrash it with a golf club to "distress" the wood. But where can you get flea market intrigue if not Pottery Barn?

For the kiddies in my family, there's the famous Pottery Barn Kids catalog, 88 pages of must-have fun. It's got all the hot toys tykes love: monogrammed towels, silk valances, 200-thread-count scalloped percale pillow shams -- you name it.

I have two nephews and a niece. I don't want to spoil the surprise for them, but let's just say...if they're good...Santa might bring those fluted floral curtain rods they can't stop yakking about.

I also got this catalog called Gaiam, which is chock full of environmentally friendly gifts for earthy-crunchy granola-type people. My wife isn't one of those, but I found a great new gadget for her in there, anyway.

It's a countertop bag dryer, which is a spool with a bunch of sticks poking out of it. You're supposed to wash plastic bags and let them air-dry on it. It uses the latest in amazing 15th century technology.

We use plastic grocery bags to pick up our dog's droppings, and usually, we just end up flinging them in the garbage afterwards. How wasteful!

With this special gift, we can reuse those bags and help out the environment. Only $16 brings this life-changing appliance into our home.

I tried to gauge her interest -- so, clever Dickens that I am, I left the catalog on the kitchen table yesterday near the turkey leftovers. The bag dryer was circled and starred, a check for $16 lying nearby. I was also pointing at it with my nose and whistling "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town."

She looked at the picture of the bag dryer, then at me, then back at the picture of the bag dryer. Her forehead wrinkled.

"A bag dryer?" she said.

Success!

I couldn't hold it in anymore. "No, honey -- no thanks necessary. 'Tis the season of giving. And it only took me two minutes to pick it out. Think of all the time I saved!"

"A bag dryer," she said again, and her eyes began to well up -- no doubt with tears of joy.

"Now, now," I said, pecking her on the cheek. "Better not pout, better not cry."

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Tardiness and retardiness

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I was sitting at home the other day, catching up on my knitting and soaking my writer's cramp in an Epsom salts bath, when I read a story in this newspaper about the tardiness problem at B.M.C. Durfee High School.

For starters, some wisenheimer over there thinks tardiness is a problem.

I have never been afflicted with that particular prejudice, thank you. I've been habitually late since I was born. My mom expected me sometime in the early 1970s -- deep into the Carter term, I finally showed up, sneaking into my crib and messing up the covers so it looked like I'd been there for a while.

So anyway, according to the story, at the high school there's a new policy that involves "corridor sweeps conducted by school resource officers." Check this out: "The sweeps, which have been used at the school in the past, only take place after students are given a six- to seven-minute cushion to get to class. ... Those who do not follow the rule are given a one-day out-of-school suspension."

And if kids who are more than 15 minutes late in the morning "are not allowed to attend school unless they're accompanied by a parent."

Both my wife and I managed to survive four years at Durfee ourselves, so I waved the article under her nose.

She's her own boss. She has her own business from home and keeps herself on a short leash, so she always punches in on time and always works late. I caught her trying to dock her own pay and organize a union at the same time.

"It says here," I told her, "that now, after the bell rings, they give Durfee kids another six or seven minutes to get to class -- but they have to bring cushions with them! To sit on! Or something like that. It says 'cushions.' Probably the school can't afford chairs." I shrugged. "If the kids are late, it says they also make the kids sweep the hallways. Don't they have janitors for that?"

She looked at the article, then at me for a long time.

"Um," she said.

I got to thinking. I couldn't make it in high school today, even if I tried.

I mean, in some ways I'd now be the most popular kid at Durfee. Which would be astounding. I was a twerp. Those four years were packed full of shame, humiliation, depression and self-loathing. Plus, I was so lousy at gym it's not even funny. When I start to think about my adolescent years -- about the drudgery, the awkwardness, the terrible complexion -- my stomach begins to curdle.

But now! With age and experience on my side, I could master the social life there. I'd own that joint in a matter of hours, son.

I can drink legally. I own my own car. I have two credit cards. My thick, lustrous beard would be secretly coveted by every peach-cheeked freshman boy and admired from afar by every cheerleader. I still couldn't defend myself against any bullies, but a quick trip to the ATM will ensure that nobody will try to swipe my saxophone on the way to marching band practice.

The tardiness thing would be my undoing -- just like it almost ended my real high school career.

In my senior year, I had a real problem with the clock. For most of my school years, I'd managed to suppress my natural instinct to show up late, aided by my rigorous regimen of worry-induced sleep and breakfast deprivation.

But I had nothing left to lose as a senior. I was a smart kid. I was in the National Honor Society. I was also in the French Club, and one day I had decided I should wear a tie and sport jacket to school every day.

Like I said: twerp.

For some reason or another, one day I showed up a few minutes late to homeroom at 8 a.m. Maybe I'd gotten a finger stuck in my Windsor knot, or I had spent too much time conjugating irregular verbs in the shower -- I don't remember.

The punishment for my tardiness?

I missed most of homeroom, which I detested anyway. All I had to do was visit the vice principal's office and get a yellow slip of paper.

The rest of the day, I felt incredibly smart. I'd figured out a loophole in the system. I decided right then that I'd try to show up on time, but if I couldn't, then I wouldn't knock myself out -- little slips of paper didn't intimidate me.

I was sitting in French class much later that day when a little angel and a little devil both tried to sneak unobtrusively on my shoulders, thinking I wouldn't notice.

"Always make an effort to get to class on time!" the angel said. "You'll only hurt your education!"

"Nerts to you, angel!" the devil said. "Stroll in whenever you want!"

"Sorry," I said. "Already figured this out hours ago."

"Huh?" the angel said, checking his watch. "What time is this?"

Throughout the year I was late to school many more times, for no reason -- sometimes I felt like toasting my bagel more thoroughly, and at others I just wouldn't feel like rushing off when there were such good cartoons on after 8 a.m.

I quickly burned through about a dozen tardy slips before a woman in the vice principal's office took me aside and told me I had detention.

"I'll just take the slip of paper instead," I said, suddenly turning white.

"Detention starts exactly at 2:10," she said.

I showed up to the detention room on time, dead-eyed. All these bruiser kids were already settling in with palpable familiarity. The air was fragrant with profanity and cigarette smoke. They all knew each other and were happy to be there. Most of them had the limp-mouthed look of the staggeringly high. Some guy was drawing an impressively accurate dirty picture on his desk. Everybody looked armed. I zipped my jacket over my tie and found a seat. Somebody started staring at my bag with a glint in his eye I recognized from seeing a Discovery Channel special on hyenas.

A guy from my homeroom looked at me. "What the fuck're you here for?"

"I refused to be fettered by The Man's conception of time," I said.

He blinked at me. "I chucked a desk at my science teacher and busted his head open," he said. "What'd you say before?"

"I was late to school," I said.

"Late?"

"Kind of a lot of times," I muttered.

But it was no use. I can still hear him sneering -- and then the rest of them when it spread across the room. I turned a deep red and said nothing more.

It's years later, and I can still see face. I brandished the article at my wife. "I learned a valuable lesson that day."

She pointed at the clock. I'd been talking for a while. "Weren't you supposed to be at work a half hour ago?"

"Lemme finish. I was about to say, I learned a valuable lesson that day." I drew out the tension for a minute or so, let it sink in, nodding soberly. "Punctuality," I said.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Democratic relocation program

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I spent Election Day by the phone with the Yellow Pages on my lap open to "movers." I had my fingers on the buttons, ready to have U-Haul send a truck out to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.

I don't have to tell you how that bullshit turned out.

Now that we're all stuck watching the critically reviled Hollywood blockbuster "W II: The Second Coming" for another four dream-crushing years, all I want to do is find a nice rock somewhere and live under it. I want to drown my sorrows in bag after bag of potato chips made from blue-state Maine spuds. Fuck the red-state Idahoans. I want to find every Midwestern Bush voter, grab him or her by the nasal hair and demand that they explain, in five words or fewer, what in the world they were thinking, acting so clearly against the economic and social interests of themselves and their future generations.

To say I'm anticipating the future with utter dread is like saying cancer is unfriendly, or that the Pacific Ocean is moist. President Bush, in his speech outlining his next term, said that voters have given him "political capital" and he's going to spend it how he pleases. And we know what he wants -- a sequel with a bigger budget, more special effects, more villains and chase scenes, more explosions and diminished box office returns.

Progressives have two choices. Either we leave or we take the country back.

I've been rebounding between both choices on and off since Election Day.

When John Kerry gave his concession speech, my wife and I took our eyes off the TV and glanced at each other.

"Canada," she said.

"Canada," I agreed, and the sound of the word was like music. Canada! O, left-leaning Canada! Free health care Canada! English-speaking-most-of-the-time Canada! Friendly neighbor to the north, doors-unlocked, colorful-money, waffles-and-beer-for-breakfast Canada! From the halls of Labrador to the shores of Saskatchewan! The amber waves of Yukon grain! From the purple Montreal mountains' Metric System majesty to the fruited plains of Baffin Island!

I'm tempted. There's no fundamentalist red-state agenda in Canada -- the place has one-tenth America's population and is blissfully free from the reach of Bush's right-wing tentacles. The taxes are appalling, but I figured we'd just live more simply.

"We're gonna have our own little piece of land in Canada," my wife said. "You'll see. And we're gonna plant some carrots, some lettuce, some alfalfa for the rabbits--"

"The rabbits," I murmured. "Tell me again about the rabbits."

She nodded, stroking my hair and staring off to the north. "We'll keep them rabbits in a little hutch, safe from the mighty Canadian blizzards, and we'll build us a house made of caribou skins and hockey sticks."

Bolstered by the thought, I went online and started looking for a two-bedroom igloo somewhere near the border, close enough to make faces at America but far enough away to be upwind.

I didn't get very far when a Reuters news story stopped me. Its headline: "Unhappy Democrats need to wait to get into Canada."

"Canadian officials made clear on Wednesday that any U.S. citizens so fed up with Bush that they want to make a fresh start up north would have to stand in line like any other would-be immigrants -- a wait that could take up to a year," the story reads. By the time our application was processed, I surmised, it would be too late in the year to get the alfalfa in the ground.

If leaving is not the solution, then we have to take America back. We shouldn't flee the red states -- we should join them and use our votes to help tip the balance in our favor.

A progressive vote in Massachusetts is devalued currency -- but extra Democrats in the right battleground states could get things done.

So about five minutes ago I started the Democrat Relocation Program. It's an initiative to transplant liberals from places where there's a glut to states that desperately need them. My plan would transfer Democrats from Massachusetts to Missouri, from San Francisco to San Antonio, from Manhattan, N.Y., to Manhattan, Kansas.

I found several apartments on Yahoo!, for anybody who wants to join this fledgling movement. Take this lovely two-bedroom I found in Cleveland, Ohio, within spitting distance of Lake Erie (NOTE: please do not spit in Lake Erie--it's filthy enough as it is).

It's only $485 a month. By making the small sacrifice of living and voting in Ohio, you'd make a difference in lives of millions of Americans every four years.

The ad describes the apartment as "centrally situated minutes from Richmond Mall and the Cleveland Metroparks, yet only 17 minutes from downtown." Sounds wonderful -- right now, in Fall River, we're several hundred minutes from downtown Cleveland, so moving there would trim that considerably.

Or move to Toledo, Ohio, and get the beauty of having your vote mean something, plus the benefits of living in Toledo, of which I'm sure there are many. All of them escape me at the moment. There's a simply darling little apartment near the train tracks for only $850. Among the unit's features listed on the Web site are "smoke detectors," which is a fabulous new feature. Just like the movie stars have! Also, it has "mature landscaping," which I take to mean "old trees."

For an apartment further afield, try Milwaukee, America's cheap beer capital.

This year, Wisconsin was thought to be solidly pro-Kerry until late in the game, when the Bushies came out of the bushes. It ended up in Kerry's column, but it was much too close.

Wisconsin needs you. For just $27.83 a day -- that's $835 a month -- you can help this blue state stay blue.

The building "offers uncommon construction," according to the ad. In Realtor lingo, "uncommon construction" means the floor is built at a 50-degree angle and the roof is mounted vertically.

I looked up local businesses in the area of this place. There are eight packies within a three-mile radius, and the Miller Brewing Co. itself is five miles away. Everyone needs a watering hole.

For something more "centrally located," try Iowa. It's one of the closest states this election, and one of the Democrat Relocation Program's neediest recipients.

I found a swell place in Des Moines. It's easily commutable. By that I mean it's within walking distance -- yes, walking distance! -- of Des Moines International Airport.

No place I move to can be too far away from food. Luckily, this cozy nest has 21 pizza joints within two and a half miles. One of them is called Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream -- I have it on good authority from an Iowan friend that the taco pizza is simply delish. But don't take my word for it. Become one of the many Democrats joining my program and see for yourself, for only $660 a month.

I just might join you, neighbor. Iowa soil is perfect for planting alfalfa. I checked.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Broken brains

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Democracy is the greatest form of government known to man, and on Tuesday -- Election Day -- we will prove to the world that America knows best of all countries on earth how to approximate something sort of almost like it.

We have a mind-bogglingly strange system, friends.

I'm thinking about the time I visited Government Center to register in person, and I saw my name written in the elections office's big ledger -- in pencil.

And I'm thinking about the times I've visited my polling places and I've seen the names of at least six total strangers listed as being registered to vote from my address.

And I'm thinking about the 2000 primary, when one fantastically ancient and nosey poll worker lady told me I should vote for Sen. John McCain in the primary and then for Vice President Al Gore in November.

I'm thinking of that 2000 election, and butterfly ballots, and chads dimpled, pregnant or hanging, and overseas ballots counted past the postmark, and the Supreme Court of the United States stopping recounts, and minorities stricken unfairly from the voting rolls.

And I'm thinking of the Electoral College, too, the completely dumb system we use to count votes. If you feel like your vote isn't being counted, rest assured -- it sort of isn't. Blame the centuries-old Electoral College for turning your vote into a persuasive suggestion instead of an agent of true democratic power. I once wrote before that we should take the crippled Electoral College out behind the barn and put a bullet through its head. This guy wrote to me in uncivil language, saying that the Electoral College ensures small states have power. News flash! We're not a collection of separate states anymore. Besides, when was the last time the candidates cared about a small state -- or any state that wasn't Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan or Missouri?

I'm thinking of how the Electoral College can end in a tie, leaving it to the House of Representatives to appoint the president and the Senate to appoint the vice president -- and how that should scare the bejeezus out of every single one of us.

I'm thinking of how a West Virginian elector -- a member of the Electoral College -- has decided not to support Bush if the state goes that way, thus chucking out the window the shaky honor system by which the Electoral College has hobbled by this long.

I'm thinking of how easy it is to vote more than once, and how many people will do just that.

I'm thinking of how easy it is to register pets as voters by mail in some states.

I actually thought, for about 10 minutes, about trying to register my dog as a voter. I'd walk her over to the polling place and see how far we got in the door. I decided against it because a) I like not being in prison for election fraud and b) I couldn't get her to decide which party she wanted to join. On one hand, she's quite conservative with her chew toys. But on the other hand, she's basically on welfare -- she does no work around the house and then expects constant handouts.

I'm thinking of this year's election, of touch-screen voting computers that have no paper receipts in case the machines crash and lose their information when some asshole trips over the power cord.

I've seen pictures of voting machines in other states, where people have to use levers or long needles, or they have to flip pages all around, or they have to stand on one leg with a crowbar and a No. 2 pencil. Is it so bloody difficult for some underemployed federal government person to figure out one really good way we can all vote in every state? Instead of letting some of the more stupider states come up with their own less than foolproof methods?

Look at the way Massachusetts ballots work. They're simple. All the names are listed in a functional way. They have cute little broken arrows near them. You use a Sharpie to complete the arrow of the candidate you like best. You're out of there in like two minutes. It's marvelous.

Although I'm sure Floridians would find a way to fuck that up, too. They're not too good with paper.

I was researching the ways that people vote nationwide when I came across an interesting Associated Press story: "Brain scans may unlock candidates' appeal."

This may not be feasible in time for Tuesday, but by 2008 we could have a great way to count votes. It leaves no room for chads of any sort, pregnant or sorta-pregnant, and it forces you to vote your conscience -- even if you try not to. It's also a lot of fun, and helpful if you find a hidden tumor.

These scientists at UCLA dragged 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats to their mad scientist lab and hooked their brains up to a machine, doubtlessly one with a lot of buttons and lights. "Applying some of the brain-scan technology used to understand Alzheimer's and autism," the story reads, "scientists are trying to learn what makes a Republican's mind different from a Democrat's."

I could crack wise all the livelong day, but let's move on, shall we?

"When viewing their favorite candidate, all showed increased activity in the region [of the brain] implicated in empathy. And when viewing the opposition, all had increased blood flow in the region where humans consciously assert control over emotions -- suggesting the volunteers were actively attempting to dislike the opposition."

There were peculiar differences between the two parties' brains.

"One Democrat's brain lit up at an image of Kerry 'with a profound sense of connection, like a beautiful sunset,' " according to Dr. Joshua Freedman. "Brain activity in a Republican shown an image of Bush was 'more interpersonal, such as if you smiled at someone and they smiled back.' "

So there's some Republican out there who sees Bush as some stranger he'd grin at in the elevator, and some Democrat out there who thinks of Kerry as a gorgeous astrological phenomenon.

Anyway, this seems like an excellent idea. You'd visit your local senior center or elementary school and have your brain wired up. The old ladies who volunteer there would show you flashcards of each candidate and monitor your neurons for positive flashes, such as the part of your brain that lights up when you cuddle on a freshly laundered blanket with a basket full of kitties. People who could get their entire brains to light up at once would get the door prize of a $10 gift certificate to Taco Bell.

There's no word yet on whether this will work on pets that have registered to vote. Just in case, I've been feeding my dog Snausages every time she finishes a New York Times article. It never hurts to stay informed.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bacon in the morning, gas in the afternoon

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We at The Herald News are dedicated to making your life better, or at least the part of it that involves reading The Herald News.

So that's why, if you look at the front page lately, you'll notice that it looks a little different. G'head -- look, as long as you promise to turn back.

Are you back yet? The trained eye will notice that we have tweaked the look of the thingies at the top of the page and the look of the thingy at the bottom left. The ones are the top are called "skyboxes." The thingy at the bottom is a "thingy."

A group of people here spent some time designing the new front page to give it more style, to make it more eye-catching. The end result? The front page now comes with 33 percent more cool. The old, tackier front page just said to readers, "Here's your news, I guess." Now, the page has some funk. It's all that and a bag of chips. It gets all up in your face and says, "I'm a hometown newspaper, I've got the obits and the daily lottery numbers, and I'm not afraid to be sexy."

It must have meant that figuratively.

More importantly, it now has better information in it. You can see more of what's inside before you actually open the paper. It's like having superpowers.

Since then, I've been trying to figure out other ways to make this a better paper. So over the past week I put on my green eyeshade, sat down at my desk with a spiked cup of joe to stoke the old cranial furnace, and came up with many splendibulous innovations that will enrich your reading experience.

This is a fantastic time to be a part of the Herald News family. I don't want to oversell it, friends, but you are bearing witness to history in the making.

No -- I am not taking that back.

History...in the making.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 1: If you're a regular Herald News reader, you end the week with a stack of newspapers about yea high (1 yea = 7 inches). You then have to recycle this paper or, worse, throw it in the garbage. It's such a waste of paper, isn't it?

Imagine, then, a day in the not-so-distant future. You've finished reading your morning paper and you've gotten your fill of the day's events. But, drat it all, you've spent the entire morning abuzz with information, and it's getting late for work!

When you head out to the driveway you realize your car is nearly out of gas. And only a few precious minutes to get to the office! What a predicament!

Ah, but you've got the all-new Herald News Gasoline-Newsprint Hybrid Edition. You roll your paper into a tube and cram it down the fuel chute of your vehicle. Within minutes, a chemical reaction converts the special paper into liquid energy, the needle on your gas tank quivers into the plus territory and the engine sputters delightedly. The only byproducts are trace amounts of carbon monoxide and shreds of Stop & Shop flyer propelled from the tailpipe.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: The cost of implementing this change would necessitate a slight price increase, from four bits a copy to $45 a barrel.

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: If you spent half your day reading the paper and the other half pumping gas, this would be a time savings of 50 percent.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 2: People sometimes tell me they're not totally satisfied with their newspaper delivery. The paper often gets wet -- a common occurrence in moist New England, you stupid bastards. Or, the paperboy or papergirl or paperlady or whoever just chucks the rolled-up paper into the bushes, your average shrubbery being an uncomfortable place to sit with grapefruit and the crossword.

My plan, called Herald News Platinum Service, fixes these issues. For a modest delivery surcharge, my specially trained newspaper deliverypersonages would take the utmost care in bringing you the latest events of record. Not only would they not fling the paper into your border plantings -- they would go into your house before you awake. Then, as part of their duty, they would fire up the coffee maker for you and whip up a batch of eggs and bacon (vegetarians could substitute soy sausage links for an extra $1.50).

We all know how cold it gets in Fall River for the winter. Nobody likes to handle an icy newspaper come a winter morn. So my delivery team would then, probably while the bacon's on the stove, microwave the paper ever so gently to break the chill, then slip it tenderly under your pillow to bring it to your own body temperature. And with a peck on the cheek and a gentle rubbing of the shoulder, they'd carefully rouse you to answer the day's call.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: The modest surcharge I spoke of would be in the neighborhood of $2,000 a week.

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: Bacon in the morning always makes people smile.

--

FANTASTIC CHANGE No. 3: There are a few people who, bless their hearts, read the paper cover to cover every day. But many others only have time enough in their hectic workaday lives to skim the headlines. That's no way to obtain your information about local and national events -- you might as well give up and watch TV news!

Ick!

But with the help of a new space-age technological process, together we can make reading the newspaper more efficient and more fun, too.

My proposal would harness the power of "scratch-'n'-sniff," used in stickers for decades, and remodulate it for use in our newspaper inks.

So instead of sitting and spending 15 minutes reading about a City Council meeting, by merely rubbing the Fall River dateline with a fingernail you could smell the entire story in one whiff. The votes, the citizens' input, the atmosphere thick with decision and local government at work -- our scientists would distill all that into odor form. All it would require is your willingness to scratch the text, lean your nostrils near the paper and breathe deeply.

The same process would also work for the photographs. Stop living vicariously through two-dimensional images! The scratch-'n'-sniff photos could give you a three-dimensional whiff of the Durfee boys' basketball game, down to every sneaker. Or, if you're still feeling undecided about the national election, you could scratch the pictures of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry to see which guy has the better aroma.

POSSIBLE DOWN SIDES: Turning the pages too quickly could cause nauseating waves of conflicting odor. And it would be a nightmare extracting the scent of liquefied natural gas into a form that won't explode when you scratch it. Also, who would read the landfill stories?

WHY THIS WOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER: When people say The Herald News stinks, there'll be a good reason why.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Working hard? Or hardly working?

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The 2004 presidential debates now belong to history, but it remains to be seen whether history will ever take delivery. We did not witness anything like Lincoln-Douglas, friends. At one point in the third presidential debate, President Bush rebutted John Kerry with, "Whoo!"

I sat through four debates at 90 minutes apiece for a total of six brain-tenderizing hours, and spent at least twice that much time on the Internet and with my nose buried in the AP wire, checking facts.

At the end of it, I know a great deal more about the candidates than I did before, but I wish the rest of October would take a flying leap. Let's just elect one of those poor bastards now and get it the hell over with. We'll finish out the rest of October next year sometime -- I say we tack it onto the middle of May and have a longer spring.

But no -- we have to slog through until November. Thank you very much, Founding Fathers.

In the meantime, I've distilled those four debates into a form considerably less stupefying, I hope. Here are the four most important things I learned from the debates:


1. Being president is hard work.

If Bush did nothing else during his performance at the first debate, he convinced me that being president is hard work. It's tough work. There's a lot of good people working hard. It's hard work. I understand how hard it is. Everybody knows it's hard work. I see on the TV screens how hard it is.

Which is nice to know. I had been laboring under the impression that being president of the United States of America, the most powerful head of state on planet Earth, was somehow easy.

Maybe Bush thought the same thing. Or maybe ... wait, yes! He was using reverse psychology! How could I not see it? He was hoping Kerry hadn't figured what a hard job the presidency is -- but if Kerry only knew that it involves being constantly on call up to eight hours a day, 30 or so weeks out of the year, he'd drop out. A wily stratagem indeed, Mr. President.


2. Kerry has at one time, probably, supported the idea that some people who are quite wealthy should pay more taxes, and thinks the same thing now.

Back in the summer, the Bush campaign accused Kerry of voting for higher taxes "350 times."

The nonpartisan Web site FactCheck.org coolly dismissed the "350" claim as nonsense. Then, in August, the Bush campaign suddenly flip-flopped, claiming Kerry had cast "98 votes for tax increases." FactCheck also dismissed this as garbage -- but the campaign keeps using it, including in all the debates.

For the record, from FactCheck: Most of those 98 were multiple votes on single bills, like votes to discuss it now or later. A full 16 of those 98 votes were on one item, "Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package, which raised taxes almost exclusively on the highest-earning 1 or 2 percent of households." That's fine by me. I'm not one of those rich assholes, and if I were, I'd expect to pay more. That's how it goes.

But then, during the VP debate, Sen. John Edwards went temporarily insane said Kerry had voted for tax cuts "over 600 times." At that point, a swoon came over me, and as I tumbled to the floor I imagined Cheney and Edwards arguing over whether Kerry had raised taxes a bergillion times or cut them a bergillion plus one times.

Let me make it simple: Kerry would raise taxes for the rich. Bush cut taxes mostly for the rich. The difference? When Bush cuts taxes for the rich, it trickles down onto us regular people, on the local level -- water bills, property taxes, fees for government services, they all go up. There goes your tax cut.

I remember a few years back, Bush stuck a $600 check in my cap and called it macaroni. Apparently, I'm supposed to be grateful. I put the money in my checking account, and now it's gone, because I had to spend it on things like utilities and food. All I know is, Bush says thanks to his tax cut I have more money in my pocket, but I checked -- I have like two bucks and a half in change, and I need that for coffee.


3. Kerry has Blue Cross Blue Shield.

I was in the newsroom watching the last debate. Referring to his campaign's health plan, Kerry stated, "I have Blue Cross Blue Shield."

Greg Sullivan of the Sports Department walked by and said gratefully, "That's the clearest thing anybody's said so far."

It's true. I'm still trying to figure out his health care plan, but I can't look at him without thinking, "There's the guy with Blue Cross Blue Shield."


4. When you're stuck, say "education is good."

In the final presidential debate, I thought Bush was running for school superintendent. He avoided talking about the lost jobs under his administration and affirmative action by talking education, and he said just 15 measly words on raising the minimum wage before he switched abruptly to school funding.

There's a bizarre rumor going around on the Internet that Bush was wired during the debates with a radio feeding him answers. Some people claim they saw a "bulge" on his back, under his jacket, in the second debate. I think it was more likely just a sandwich he accidentally rolled on top of while taking a nap -- but a radio could explain the C student's sudden fascination with education. What if it started picking up an NPR show about public schools, eh?

The Hidden Radio Theory could explain something else, too:

--

SCENE: The first debate. It's hot under the lights, and Jim Lehrer is so mean. Kerry's glib remarks are swinging voters all over the place. Bush has been receiving signals through a radio on his back and vibrating in one of his teeth fillings, but suddenly the sound starts to crackle and pop in his mouth -- causing him to scowl extravagantly.

LEHRER. Mr. President? What are your thoughts on Iraq?

(Bush begins to sweat and stare blankly at America. Cheney said this would be perfect... But soft! He hears voices buzzing through!)

VOICE 1. Try to fix it!

VOICE 2. I'm trying, but it's hard work! It's very tough work!

VOICE 1. I know how hard it is! I understand how hard it is!

CHENEY'S VOICE. (crackled) We have him back yet?

KARL ROVE'S VOICE. There's a lot of good people working on it, sir, but it's very hard work...

VOICE 2. Yes, it's very hard!

VOICE 1. Everybody knows how hard it is -- we can see it on our TV screens!

LEHRER. Uh...Mr. President?

(Bush purses his lips -- the green light is already on! He starts to speak.)

BUSH. Well, it's hard work...

Saturday, October 09, 2004

I Wanna Rock

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One of my favorite fiction writers, T.C. Boyle, once said in an NPR interview, "Every writer of my generation and down is only writing because we can't have our own rock bands."

I'm a writer.

Um ... I have a secret.

I want a rock band.

Not some soft rock band, either, with songs about romance and being a sweetie-pie.

I mean a hard rock band that plays in dive bars and then makes it to big arenas, wailing lyrics about whiskey and psychotropic chemicals, songs full of naughty sexual innuendo. I mean nasty guitars turned up so loud the volume spanks you in the chest. I mean screaming notes so high-pitched your eyes water and dogs feel hung over for miles around. Long hair whipping in the breeze. Long chest hair whipping in the breeze also. Me in leather pants. You heard right: me in leather pants -- I'm not taking that back. Thousands of roaring fans. I purse my lips and yell, "You ready to rock, Faw River?"

You may be either too young or too old to remember -- but you know the Twisted Sister video for "We're Not Gonna Take It" in the early 1980s? Quick synopsis: A father bursts into his son's room and berates the lad for daring to listen to heavy metal and/or rock music, which means therefore the kid's challenging the square community's conventional mores and, by extension, one could say, post-World War II capitalism and Judeo-Christian ethics.

"A Twisted Sister pin? On your UNIFORM?" the father cries skeptically. Then he sneers, "What do you wanna do with your life?"

"I wanna rock," the kid mutters, and a stroke of his trusty electric twanger unleashes an overdriven chord so filthy, so rockin', that it blows the poor chap clear through a nearby window to the yard below.

I loved that video.

Being a writer is dull. I wanna rock.

I have the guitar necessary for rock stardom -- two, in fact. One's acoustic and is named Molly, and the other is electric and is named Dot. I have a small amplifier that I pretend is much bigger than it is. I haven't named the amplifier. That would be silly.

There are a few reasons I won't ever become a rock star, though -- why the music world is destined never to be graced by my looming presence.

For one thing, my facility with the guitar is mediocre on an average day. On a bad one I play with the accuracy of a piano rolling down a flight of stairs.

I'm self-taught and don't practice enough, so I play about as well as somebody who's self-taught and doesn't practice enough. I can get through quite a few songs, but I'm sloppy about my choices. I can fake it most of the way through Led Zeppelin's catalog, but I can't remember how to play a major scale. I can play some of "Oye Como Va" by Santana, but I can't play the noodley part at the end. I figured out how to play "Blackbird" by the Beatles, but if you requested "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," I'd be lost.

That probably doesn't matter. Arthur and the Fonzarellis would rarely get requests for "Twinkle Twinkle." That's my rock band name.

Even if my guitar-playing skills improve -- I spontaneously grow several extra fingers, let's say -- the statistics are against a chubby Portuguese kid from Fall River being a rock star. Look at the stars in the Portuguese music scene: Jorge Ferreira. Marc Dennis. Glenn Medeiros. They're not what I had in mind -- I want to be more like Keith Richards, less like Englebert Humperdinck.

Glenn Medeiros, by the way, is -- was -- a Portuguese soft-rock star in the late 1980s. He had some sissified, schmaltzy song about love with an MTV video on a beach somewhere, and then his career was promptly kidnapped by gypsies. We're of no relation. He's from Hawaii. There are many Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii. Which makes me wonder why Mom and Dad immigrated here, to cold, wet Fall River, instead of to Hawaii, with the constant sun and the fruity drinks and the hula girls in coconut bras. But that is a problem I shall have to examine some other week.

Moving right along: If I am to be a rock star I must learn to say "baby" effectively. I should also adopt an English speaking accent but a southern singing one.

I must learn how to unleash my "guitar face." Every decent rock guitar player makes guitar face -- an expression of agony when mangling the strings that looks not unlike intestinal distress.

My wife tells me that when I play my guitar I look "serious." I've noticed it, too -- my nostrils flare, my jaw clenches. My appendix appears to have burst, or perhaps I've eaten a raw lemon. It's because I'm trying not to make guitar face. That's half my problem -- I'm afraid to rock out fully right now, because I'm just a schmoe playing alone. But if I'm Arthur of Arthur and the Fonzarellis, I have a reason. It would be my job to make guitar face. It would be required.

While I work on my guitar face, I'll finish writing my song. Didn't I mention my song? It's Arthur and the Fonzarellis' first single: "Heat-Seeker." Like a good hard rock song, it's catchy, it has lewd undertones and it mostly rhymes:

I'm just a heat-seeker!
Le Freaker!
Guest speaker
At the symposium of your heart!

Yeah, I'm a heat-seeker!
Take-a-peeker!
You're up the creek-er
'Cause I'm a heat-seeking missile of luh-uh-uhve...


I'll need a few people in this band to help me be a rock star -- if they could play instruments, that'd help, and one of them must be an incorrigible drug addict so we have a juicy story for VH-1's "Behind the Music."

I don't have any time to attend practices, and I'm too petrified of playing on stage that I'd never show up to concerts. But that's OK. That'll give Arthur and the Fonzarellis something to break up for.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A gift on a silver platter: An interview with Ralph Nader, October 2004

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Today, from 3 to 4:30 p.m., at Brown University's Salomon Auditorium in Providence, independent candidate for president Ralph Nader invites you to hear him speak and to listen to his campaign platform.

Take note -- pitchforks and torches will be confiscated at the door.

I voted for Nader in 2000, and then I watched in horror as Bush flushed America's economy down the toilet, squelched dissent and stuck our collective derriere in a messy war in Iraq. Now, I'm desperate for Democratic Sen. John Kerry to be elected -- but like a lot of people on the left, I'm worried that Nader's campaign might steal the precious few votes that might decide the election in Kerry's favor, thus locking the country into another four wretched years of The Bush Problem.

To sum up, I was worried that Nader might be insane.

As it turns out, he's not. His strategy is actually quite ingenious.

In advance of today's event in Providence, and because of my worry, I pestered his campaign for an interview with Nader. By a miracle, I actually got one. No joke.

He was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. He was due to give a speech there. Why Nova Scotia? No idea. I didn't bother to ask, either. Instead, I imagined hordes of Canadians impersonating Americans on Election Day and over-inflated Nader figures along border towns in New England.

Nader answered his own phone. Not only that: he said tiredly, "M'yello?"

Nader's campaign for president can be charitably described as quixotic, given the reputation he has for being the fly in the 2000 election ointment.

Polls show Nader's support is eroding. He's pulling an average 2 percent in national polls. That's down from his 2000 numbers, and expect it to drop further on Nov. 2.

Nader can't even get on the ballots in many states, including Massachusetts -- Naderites here will have to write him in. So far, he's on 32 state ballots and in D.C. He's in court to determine his status in 12 other states, he's a write-in for six, and Oklahoma won't even return his calls.

But he said the task of being placed on ballots state-by-state doesn't distract from his campaign -- it's part of why he's running.

"First of all, there's a collateral benefit in that it's raised to a national stage ... the systemic barriers in one state after another installed by the two major parties against competition, against third parties," he said. "It's only when we stretched the system that the political bigotry erupted from what otherwise are laws that could be called trapdoors in waiting. ... And that will provide very rich material for reform after November 2."

I asked if, as part of that reform, he included scrapping the Electoral College and the use of the popular vote, the only accurate gauge of actual support, to count elections. The New York Times, in an excellent and persuasive Aug. 29 editorial, called for just that.

Nader agreed, but noted, "That's very difficult to do by constitutional amendment because states -- the small states -- will likely object."

He hinted at one of the major complaints about the Electoral College system -- that your vote doesn't count -- when I asked why I should vote for him, the safe vote for Kerry be damned.

"First, you're in Massachusetts, so you don't have to worry," he said. "You can vote your conscience, because Kerry's going to take Massachusetts. Bush doesn't even think he's going to compete."

What impressed me about Nader, besides his effortlessly articulate manner that left me ashamed of the sound of my own voice, was his reason for running.

"If you're going to vote for Kerry, if you don't make demands on him, you're complicit with Kerry moving into the corporate realm even more rigidly. Because corporations are making demands on Kerry and pulling him in their direction all the time. And the people who are 'least-worsters' ... they'll vote for Kerry with the mantra, 'Anybody but Bush,' 'Leave Kerry alone,' 'Make no demands on him' -- they're letting the Democratic Party and Kerry be pulled away from them," he said. "They have signaled to Kerry that their vote can be taken for granted, because there's no demand in return, by way of positions like living wage for all, full single-payer medical, Medicare for all, getting out of Iraq, cracking down on corporate crime and abuse, ending corporate subsidies.

"So if you're going to vote for Kerry, you won't make Kerry better -- corporations will make him worse. ... He's surrounding himself with corporate consultants, corporate advisers, corporate financiers. Why? Because liberals and progressives are giving him a free ride. They're so desperate."

Right then, I'd figured out his campaign secret.

Listen: Nader isn't quite opposing Kerry -- he's making sure Kerry doesn't run as a Republican Lite.

By courting the left-leaning vote, Kerry must stay competitive among his own people. Nader's keeping Kerry honest for Democrats.

It's a thankless job, but somebody has to do it.

When I realized that, I mentioned something I'd read on Nader's Web site, VoteNader.org, as research. Nader gave the Kerry-Edwards campaign what he called a "Gift on a Silver Platter": advice on how to beat Bush. Nader lists 10 points on which Bush is weak and shows Kerry how to exploit them. You can read it on his Web site, under the "Media & Press" section.

He seemed genuinely pleased when it became obvious that I figured out his strategy.

"You liked that?" he asked. "I thought [the Silver Platter] would become a better news story, but the AP and others didn't pick it up. I thought it had everything. It had topicality, it had substance, it had visual images. ... In fact, one of the reasons we're doing this, among many reasons, is to expand the opportunities against Bush in ways the Democrats won't pick up."

Even if Nader is concerned that the Democrats aren't covering their own bases well enough, he did point to the discussion of the draft -- one of the points on the Silver Platter -- as a hopeful sign.

"We've been hammering at Bush and Kerry to come out against the draft, and Kerry's come out against it," he said.

I wondered toward the end of our conversation how somebody like me, a columnist at a small hometown newspaper in a spoken-for state, could get through to one of the most controversial presidential candidates in modern history. It occurred to me that perhaps nobody else called him. He sounded alone, and even though he'd agreed to give me just five minutes, he ended up doing all the talking for more than 10. Everybody's so quick to forget he's even running. Everyone thinks it'd be simpler without him -- but then no one would keep Kerry on his guard.

Before I left him to prepare for his speech, he asked eagerly, "Can you put our Web site in?"

"Sure, I can mention that," I said.

Here it is again: VoteNader.org.

"That's good," he said. "The way I like to put it is, 'Those who want a recess from sound-bite journalism, visit our Web site: VoteNader.org.'" Then he said, with a smirk I could hear over the phone, "Which is, you know ... a sound-bite."

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The editor strikes back

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This week, the three original "Star Wars" movies were released on DVD for the first time. Like, ever.

For unabashed or moderately abashed geeks like myself, this is marvelous news. I feel as ecstatic as Luke Skywalker was after he skimmed his X-Wing over the surface of the Death Star, Darth Vader hot on his tail, looking death right in the face, and delivered his last torpedo right on target to destroy it with one blast -- and he shot it, I may remind you, without instruments!

The original "Star Wars" films -- "A New Hope," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," released in 1977, 1980 and 1983 -- are the brainchildren of director, writer and gazillionaire George Lucas. Essentially, they're westerns set in space.

Except there are no horses. And no Indians. And instead of John Wayne, they star a shrimpy, tow-headed dork named Mark Hamill, who's about six feet tall when standing on a foot-high box.

The script is often laughable ("Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy!"), and the acting is hammy ("Curse my metal body!"), and the situations sometimes awkward ("You will therefore be taken to the Dune Sea, and cast into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlaac!").

But silliness aside, "Star Wars" is a touchstone for many members of my generation. It's part of our common history and culture -- it triggers memories from our childhoods, when it was easier to be impressed by plastic-looking robots and laser guns.

It's a club that's easy to join. Just watch the movies. Then, forever after, you'll know the secret handshake -- when someone greets you with, "I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash," you'll know to respond with, "I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board."

For people who aren't familiar with "Star Wars," or want the short version, or people who don't have the scratch to buy the new DVDs, I'm including the following handy, clip-and-saveable, condensed version of the "Star Wars" trilogy:

--

NARRATOR. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

SCENE: Space. Crawling across the screen comes a summary of the petty details of the story:

NARRATOR. Episode IV -- A New Hope. There are bad guys, called The Empire. There are good guys, called The Rebellion. There are other good guys called Jedis. You can tell the difference because the bad guys usually wear helmets...

(We cut to a spaceship, where bad guys in white helmets -- see? -- are capturing a distressed damsel named Princess Leia.)

LEIA. (aside) I only hope my cry for help gets to a lonesome farm boy who will find inner strength enough to save me! And if he could find a ragtag bunch of misfits to help him, that would also be nice.

(Enter Darth Vader, the chief bad guy. He wears the evilest helmet of them all, plus an evil cape. He's got a deviated septum, so he constantly whistles through his nose.)

DARTH VADER. And now, princess, we shall discuss the location of the hidden Rebel base.

LEIA. Never!

DARTH VADER. Please.

LEIA. Not a chance!

DARTH VADER. C'mon.

LEIA. A thousand times, nay!

DARTH VADER. (whistles through his nose for a long moment) Take her away!

(Cut to young Luke Skywalker, a lonesome farm boy on a desert planet that's got a lousy climate for farming. So they probably don't grow much, frankly. He's visiting an old man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, with his robots, C-3PO and R2-D2, in tow.)

OBI-WAN. Son, have you given any thought to your future?

LUKE. Shucks -- I've been a farm boy for a while, but I don't really want to be a farm man. I have an interest in saving the universe.

C-3PO. We're doomed!

OBI-WAN. Sure. The Jedi Knights can help with that "universe" idea, and they give you money for college, too. You'd get three hots and a cot, and you'd learn to use a lightsaber. It's made from light. Never needs sharpening.

LUKE. (turning on a lightsaber and waving it about) Coooool...

OBI-WAN. (handing him some pamphlets) Look these over, and give me a call.

R2-D2. Beep bop borp!

(Cut to the inside of a space station. Beside Luke, Obi-Wan and the robots are new friends Han Solo, a ragtag misfit, and Chewbacca, a large Irish setter-pug mix.

OBI-WAN. Have you guys heard of The Force? All the cool people believe in it. It's a great way of life.

LUKE. I'm an Episcopalian.

OBI-WAN. Hear me out, now. The Force lets you move stuff with your mind, and you can read people's thoughts. (Hands him some pamphlets.) Read these over and let me know.

SOLO. That Force stuff is a lotta hokey superstitions. Right, Chewie?

CHEWBACCA. Bow wow.

(They run into Princess Leia, who is fleeing laser fire.)

C-3PO. We're doomed!

R2-D2. Blip borp gloop!

LUKE. My name is Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you!

LEIA. Thank you. (At Solo:) Who's that fetching rogue?

SOLO. Can it, Your Worship! (aside) We hook up later.

(Darth Vader enters, lightsaber at the ready.)

DARTH VADER. Luke -- join me in The Dark Side. It's like The Force, except depraved. (Hands him some pamphlets.) Look these over and we'll talk about them sometime.

OBI-WAN. Don't do it, Luke! They encourage tithing!

(Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan, then cuts off Luke's hand.)

DARTH VADER. Luke -- I am your father. You were raised a Dark Side, and you're staying a Dark Side, and that's final.

LEIA. Curse you, Vader!

DARTH VADER. I'm also your father.

LEIA AND LUKE. No! We kissed!

DARTH VADER. And let that be a lesson to everyone -- cross me, and I'll be your father so fast it'll make your head spin.

(Enter Jabba the Hutt, a giant slug; Ewoks, these irritating teddy-bear things; and Yoda, a puppet who's wicked into The Force.)

JABBA. Ishkoop jingla Solo!

EWOKS. Prrr! Click click!

YODA. Trust The Force, you must, Luke. The Dark Side, resist. A Jedi you are!

C-3PO. We're doomed!

LUKE. That Muppet's right. I'll never be like you, Vader.

(Using The Force, Luke snatches Obi-Wan's lightsaber and cuts off Vader's hand. Vader falls dying and Luke reveals Vader's face.)

LUKE. I'm sorry, Pop, but I had to save the universe.

DARTH VADER. (nose whistles laboriously) I feel so less evil without that damn helmet on.

(The Ewoks begin to dance irritatingly and sing an irritating song -- but I always turn it off around then.)

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Tom and Leo Show, brought to you by the fresh scent of Glade Plug-Ins

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I'm having a blast following the Bristol County sheriff's race. Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson plus Fall River City Councilor Leo O. Pelletier equals madcap antics!

Thus far, their campaign can be charitably described as hostile, with both sides this close from settling the election after school in the parking lot.

I don't look forward to voting for either of them, mind you. I just like watching them.

Their campaign statements have great comic timing, like an old vaudeville routine. First, Hodgson, the straight-man, will say something buttoned-down and Republican ("I can charge any prisoner fees I want!"). Then, Pelletier will say that Hodgson is full of it ("He's full of it!"). Cue the laugh track.

Then Hodgson grows indignant, and gets off a good one ("Pelletier would charge a booking fee, too!"). Pelletier gets the last word and the biggest laughs ("You're a big crybaby!")--and then they're off the stage, leaving us begging for more.

But actually voting for either of them? I'll have to think about it.

On the plus side, Hodgson sure seems to dig being a sheriff, which is nice. He's always finding new and interesting ways to keep prisoners miserable, pursuing his vocation with holy fervor.

On the other hand, I've heard of people who openly loathe him and others who just loathe him in private, ranking his temperament somewhere between that of a Spanish Inquisitor and Snidely Whiplash.

I have no opinion, myself, because I've never met him. For all I know, Hodgson's quite charming--a real sly-boots with an infectious grin and a singing voice that gives ladies the vapors. I like to believe that everybody's nice at heart, even prison wardens who would lock inmates in rooms without toilets.

But I just can't vote for a guy who would take the Dickensian step of charging prisoners $5 in daily rent, all in a ploy to butter voters' bread with talk of "saving taxpayers money."

Besides, where's this mysterious tax relief? I'm a taxpayer, and I felt zero relief before a judge struck down his $5 fee. Or am I the only person who hasn't gotten his complimentary Hodgson Bucks in the mail yet?

I've never met Pelletier, either, but he seems like an agreeable, regular guy I could have a beer with. Though his primary platform plank is that he isn't Sheriff Hodgson. Actually, that's every plank, and for some, that's enough.

Pelletier is beloved in Fall River for speaking his mind, but as President Bush illustrates, there's a difference between "telling it like it is" and "not having that switch in one's head that makes one think about things before saying them."

Like a while back, some pro-Hodgson signs were vandalized. So rather than express empty regret, like a politician should, Pelletier scoffed to a Herald News reporter, "He's being a big crybaby."

That's his opinion, I suppose, but then he took a decidedly crybabyish tone: "I've lost more stuff than he has."

Elsewhere, he's accused Hodgson of spying on him and his supporters, and once published the license plate numbers of unmarked county vehicles on his Web site, a serious security breach. He took them down quickly--but then said, "He done me a favor. He advertised my Web site and advertised that he does undercover work."

Then Pelletier blamed Hodgson for contacting him in writing, instead of calling on the phone so he could have removed the numbers sooner.

So I'm stuck. Do I vote for the uptight one or the sloppy one?

That gives me a fantastic idea...

Why not elect both of them as sheriffs? Hodgson and Pelletier are the two great tastes that taste great together. They hate each other, but they'd have to work together--imagine how zany county law enforcement could be.

They could save some real taxpayer money by filming the whole thing and selling it as a TV sitcom, putting their boisterous repartee to good use. And I think we have a clip...

--

SCENE: The Bristol County House of Correction looms in the background as Pelletier and Hodgson both try to drive into the same parking space marked "Parking for Sheriff only." They get out of their cars and shake their heads ruefully as the frame freezes.

NARRATOR. Can two men share a prison ... without driving each other crazy?

(Cue the "Odd Couple" theme and the opening credits!)

(After a moment, we cut to inside the sheriffs' office. Leo is smoking a cigar with his feet on the desk, one side of his clip-on tie dangling freely from the collar. He's got a cursive L on his shirt. Leo's half of the room is filthy, but Tom's is immaculate, with a pretty little doily under the computer. Tom enters, mopping his brow, which takes a while--it extends pretty far back.)

TOM. Leo, call the National Guard. Some cad's purloined our law enforcement equipment.

LEO. Aw, keep your mustache on, Tommy. I sold mosta that junk.

TOM. (incredulous) What do you mean, I ask incredulously? My Mobile Command Unit? My fleet of amphibious tanks? Those sets of rocket-powered snowshoes I bought in case we had a prison break in a blizzard?

LEO. I held a yaad sale and used the money to buy a few extra toilets aroun' here.

TOM. What about my tactical nuclear missile? I was saving that!

LEO. I given it to the Salivation Army. Whatchoo buy that thing for, anyways? Parades?

TOM. (rubbing his forehead) Calgon, take me away...

LEO. Sheesh, you're the one always sayin' I should clean something up around here!

TOM. I meant your desk. Last week I saw an old corned-beef sandwich on there crawl over and throw itself in the trash. (He lifts Leo's feet off the desk and puts a coaster under them.) And for the last time, your smoking that cigar in here defeats the purpose of my using the Glade Plug-In.

(Tom sits heavily into his chair--which is actually an inmate on all fours covered with a sheet--and holds up a Glade Plug-In.)

TOM. (addressing the camera) "My Two Sheriffs" is brought to you by Glade Plug-Ins. Available in Mountain Brisk, Musky Ocean, Moldy Stucco, Roasted Pine and new Bananaberry. (to Leo:) I just saved some taxpayer money with that product placement.

(A knock on the door.)

LEO. Here's my pizza!

(Two inmates burst in, chained at the ankles. They're named Lenny and Squiggy.)

SQUIGGY. Hello!

LEO. (sputtering) The jailboids have busted loose! Get 'em!

(Leo draws his gun and fires. Luckily, Leo's only allowed to carry a decoy that shoots a flag with "BANG!" written on it.)

TOM. Remain calm, Leo. They're a work crew. (To Lenny and Squiggy:) All right, you maggots. Start earning your good behavior.

(Lenny and Squiggy start shoveling junk from Leo's desk into trash cans.)

LEO. Aw, c'mon, Tom! My poker buddies are gunna be here any minute--Murray and Speed and that little bald guy with the glasses! The racket these guys making, we won't have no fun!

TOM. Pfft. What a crybaby.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Convention tension

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Now that the Republican National Convention is over, I want to throw a blankie over my head, pop my thumb in my mouth and sleep until the debates.

If the RNC was any indication, we're not going to get anything of consequence from the Republicans this election, except for freezer-burnt 2000 convention leftovers like that old "compassionate conservatism" joke, whiny carping about who's weaker than whom, and platitude after tedious platitude about the nobility of spreading freedom by gunpoint.

If I'm a big crankypants, it's my own fault. I'm hungry at the moment. Also, the other day, when President Bush said he was going to use his speech to outline how his potential second term would be a success, I believed him. I must stop doing that.

Anyway, let's put the Republican convention to rest. I suggest we take extra precautions by garlanding ourselves with garlic and driving a stake through its heart. That should do the trick for about four years or so. While we're all whetting our whittling knives, let’s read my diary entries that I wrote throughout the convention coverage. Fair warning: If I digress, it's because the convention's menu of corn, saccharine and vitriol made me logy.

--

Monday

Dear diary:
Today, the convention opened with the traditional "arresting of the peacenik," a time-honored ritual as old as the GOP itself.

Among the myriad disgruntleds protesting at the convention are anarchist groups. The word anarchy comes from the Greek, meaning "white suburban kid with dreadlocks." They advocate a complete rejection of government. Kind of like Libertarians, but anarchism is a phase many practitioners thankfully grow out of.

Among the convention speakers today was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who opened his remarks with typical humility, by crowning New York "the capital of the world." Yes, friends--this is why they hate us.

Later on, Rudy said that blaming America and Israel for the Middle East's troubles "does not relieve the plight of even one woman in Iran. It does not give a decent living to a single soul in Syria. It certainly does not stop the slaughter of African Christians in the Sudan." Then again, diary, we haven't done any of those things, either, so I guess we'll call it even.

--

Tuesday

Dear diary:

For God's sake, can Arnold Schwarzenegger get through a speech without sticking a reference to one of his movies in there? What's the matter with that nincompoop? Does he think we'll all forget he was a movie star if he doesn't remind us about it every fucking chance he gets? "One of my movies was called 'True Lies.' It's what the Democrats should have called their convention." It made me want to vomit.

My favorite part, diary, was when he admonished the crowd to not be "economic girlie-men," a splendid piece of oratory reminiscent of the great Patrick Henry's words, "Give me liberty or shut your fuckin' piehole."

After him, the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were hoisted onto the wagon for the night--kicking and screaming the whole way, no doubt--and made to duplicate the appearance and speech patterns of real-live young people. I have to admit, in a hypothetical match between them and John Kerry's daughters, the Bush girls win a giggling contest hands-down.

First lady Laura Bush capped the night. But something about her scares me, diary. She seems like she was frozen in 1951 and only recently thawed. I bet she still calls movies "talkies." I must ask her if I ever meet her.

--

Wednesday

Dear diary:

Today, Trash John Kerry Day kicked off with Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia giving his acceptance speech after winning the Crotchety, Self-Righteous, Ignorant Old Windbag Award for 2004.

He's about 143 years young, but he still wrote a speech that sounds as if it were written by an overexcited teenager drunk on his own brashness: "(Kerry) is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?" Oh you kid!

Of course, Dick Cheney, as secretary of defense, cut some of the defense programs that Zell accused Kerry of killing. And Kerry in speech after speech, including his acceptance speech at the DNC, has never said "he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations." And tonight, to Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Zell called Kerry a "war hero." But whatever.

Later, Vice President Cheney accepted the presidential nomination. Then he sleepwalked through another Kerry harangue, droopy-lidded and muttering. Five minutes into it, I was begging the Bush daughters to come back and teach him how to giggle.

--

Thursday

Dear diary:

Last day of the convention. Pretty soon, all the confetti will be swept away, the balloons popped, the delegates returned to whatever ogre grottoes they emerged from.

If ever there was a day to persuade me to vote Republican, this was it.

This wasn't it.

For one thing, President Bush's speech was full of holes. I kept waiting for him to follow up on that "athletes shouldn't take steroids" thing he first brought up at the State of the Union speech. He never did. Some things must be beyond executive branch power.

Then, twice during the speech, yahoos interrupted him and were whisked away. If only the authorities were as adept at snagging Osama bin Laden--who was never mentioned, by the way, not even once.

When he finally got rolling, though, the clever Bush laid out a domestic strategy that looks dynamite. Simply use the same campaign promises he made in 2000 but never kept: better health care, more jobs, a quality education for everyone. It worked for him the first time, so what the hell?

Of course, Bush never specified how he's going to pay for any of the massive government projects he's promising, particularly when he's running record budget deficits. Because then he'd have to admit that he's actually promising massive government projects--and, diary, Republicans like Bush always say the government is not the solution, but the problem.

But just because he says government is a problem, that doesn't make Bush an anarchist. It just makes him confused, diary. He doesn't quite have the dreadlocks for anarchy.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Brown beans won't make you blue

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Begging your pardon in advance if I slow down. I can't recall if I've had my coffee yet today.

And I do need coffee every day now. It's become my thing. Since coffee entered my life, I have a thing now. Got to stay sharp! Slow-roasted of mind! Finely ground of step! Vigilant to the last drop!

I wasn't always a regular coffee drinker. I recall it only vaguely, but mom and dad tell me that at one time mornings would see me squinting at bright lights, gauging the stubble on my chin as I reeled groggily into the kitchen for a bottle of bracing, warm baby formula.

I worked my way up to soda. As a boy I'd sit at the kitchen table for a breakfast of chourico and eggs, grunting something graceless at my sister by way of greeting, and whack an empty sippy cup on the table. I'd say, "Pepsi. Black."

When I was young, I tried a sip of coffee from my mom's mug. It tasted like old trees. I hated it and vowed to stay away from coffee for good. That sweet young lad is dead to me now.

Somehow, I managed to make it through four years of college--including early morning classes on three hours of sleep--without coffee. Students I knew and teachers I studied with would bring to class Dunkin' Donuts cups the size of champagne buckets. Instead, I lived on a strict diet of ice water and chocolate bars, keeping my body's energy furnace at a constant simmer.

Even when I began working for this newspaper, I didn't start drinking coffee right away. I held out for years, even though everybody else was chugging it, mostly to stay awake while writing deadly dull City Council stories.

Afternoons in the newsroom were often like this:

--

Scene: This newsroom. The reporters are typing away at old-fashioned Royal typewriters, muttering things to each other like, "Gee, what a scoop!" and "Say, Smitty, how's about lending me a sawbuck for the ponies?" The copy editors are busy drawing the next day's cartoons, and Dan is playing three-card monte with a group of Boy Scouts that has dropped by to see how journalism works.

DAN. (addressing audience) All the names have been changed to protect our identities.

(Horace, who was sneaking the names of people still alive onto the Obituaries page, stands up and cracks his back.)

HORACE. Say! I'm going out for coffee. Anybody want in?

ROSCOE. Large black, and make it qui-- (falls asleep)

MORTIMER. Octuple espresso.

PERCY. Iced IV drip with cream and two sugars.

CARY GRANT. (around a mouthful of half-chewed coffee beans) Gimme another 1-pound bag. I'm starting to blink again.

DAN. Can I have a hot cocoa?

(The typewriters fall silent. Somebody snickers. Then another. Pretty soon everybody--including the Boy Scouts--is pointing and guffawing.)

HORACE. Whipped cream on that, Sally?

DAN. (miserably) Yes.

--

But recently, I've begun to acquire a taste for coffee.

It started because my wife, who was a hardcore tea drinker, found that the tea wasn't working anymore.

She was on the green stuff, so she moved on to black tea. Then on to chai tea. When six cups of that daily wasn't keeping her alert anymore, she bought a coffee maker.

"Does it make cocoa in that thing?" I said when we first plugged it in.

"I don't know," she said, rifling through the box. "Let's see if I can find the baby instructions."

After an hour or so smelling the rich, Colombian aroma, I caved in and made myself a half a cuppa, heavy on the milk and sugar.

It was delicious. The next day, I made a little more. The day after that, I had a little more.

The next week, I gave Dunkin' Donuts coffee a whirl and liked that.

The week after that, I tried Starbucks and liked that even better.

I had gone from nursing a simple half-cup of coffee until 6 p.m. to sucking down one of those large Dunkin' Donuts iced lattes in seconds.

The caffeine started to get to me.

"You know what? You know what? You know what?" I said to my wife one day. "You know what? You know--"

"Yes! What, honey?"

I brandished the iced latte I was drinking at her, eyes bulging from their sockets. "The ice! Takes up too much room! In the cup! Room that could be taken up by more coffee!"

I began to foam at the corners of my mouth. She sipped at her own coffee and politely said nothing.

"These so aren't worth the price. But I can't stop. If I don't have my caffeine every day, I get awful headaches. Also, if I have too much caffeine, I get awful headaches."

She rubbed her temples. "Welcome to coffee addiction. Like me."

"I'm not an addict."

"Admit it and get it over with, honey," she said.

"I can quit any time I want," I said, running my finger along the bottom of the cup and popping it into my mouth.

In fact, I tried going off coffee one day this week. I was just fine, thanks. I woke up, had no coffee whatsoever, and then took a long nap. I woke up, had lunch, and then curled up on my favorite chair to sleep off this monster migraine that suddenly came upon me. I was conscious for a few minutes around dinner, and took a snooze before bed.

I slept for about 14 hours that night, and dreamed that I had a giant light switch planted in my forehead, but it was stuck in the off position.

The next day was warm, so I refreshed myself at work with an iced coffee. Horace handed it over with a tip of his cap.

"Thought you were giving those up, Chopper," Horace said.

I felt the smoky flavor slide down my throat, and all sorts of neurons in my brain started firing like crazy. A headache that had begun to throb behind my sinuses suddenly faded away like a bad dream. My eyes cleared, like milk swirling in a dark mug, and I floated in an ecstatic cloud of percolated bliss.

"I could, Horace old chum," I said. "We'll try again tomorrow."
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