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.
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