Saturday, December 24, 2005

A little Christmas Dickens

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Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas (secular version)! Happy Hannukah! Blissful Kwanzaa! Pleasant winter solstice! Affable Ramadan! Festive Sunday! Congenial shopping season!

I bring tidings of great joy to all of you, friends, on these joyous holidays!

We could all use some nice hot tidings right about now. It seems to me this year that the holidays are a little ... well, bloodthirstier than usual. I'm thinking of the so-called "war on Christmas" to stamp out the phrase "happy holidays." Cadres of paranoid Christian conservatives, led by Fox News' John Gibson, call it a "liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday."

Actually, it's only a phrase people use to mix it up once in a while, or to use as an inclusive seasonal greeting for people who aren't Christians.

I swear. I asked, like, a bunch of liberals. No plot.

But no — all I hear about is the fight to take back Christmas! Because Christmas is all about fighting. Boycotts against Wal-Mart! Wall-to-wall media coverage on Fox News Channel! They even turned on President Bush! The poor man has to send the same greeting card to Ariel Sharon as he does to Billy Graham — leave him alone!

In 50 words or less: I think the whole idiotic argument is an attack on the spirit of Christmas. I think people who complain about "happy holidays" should be trampled by and fed to eight tiny reindeer. I think every time you condemn somebody else for not celebrating Christmas your way, you're spitting on everything Jesus stands for.

To illustrate how much I love Christmas, I'd like to give everybody here a Christmas present. I call it:

--

A Holiday Carol

Once upon the Victorian era, there lived the crotchetiest, most miserable, black-hearted old miser London had ever seen, named Ebenezer Scrooge. His business was in providing and collecting high-interest loans from the poor, but Scrooge spent much of his time in the icy cold office dashing off badly misspelled letters to the editor and furious notes to his congressmen, demanding things like mandatory Intelligent Design in the school curriculum, Nativity displays in public buildings, and, in one unfortunate case, the ill-scrawled blueprints of a catapult-like device designed to fling liberals into a brick wall. All these were faithfully copied and stamped by his kindly clerk, Bob Cratchit, who was shivering under a large Santa Claus hat.

Into the office came a stout and ruddy fellow, Scrooge's nephew, Fred.

"Happy holidays, uncle!" cried Fred.

"Bah, humbug!" Scrooge replied. "Don't commit your hate crimes here, you communist! Christmas only in this office!"

Bob rolled his eyes and muttered, "Oy." He removed the Santa hat briefly to scratch his scalp around his yarmulke.

"That hat goes back on, Mr. Cratchit, or you shall celebrate Christmas by losing your situation!" Scrooge growled. "And as for you, nephew, 'happy holidays' infringes on my right to celebrate Christmas! I'll call the ACLU! I know the number — I send them crank pizzas all the time!"

"Well," Fred said, "I only said it because Bob here is—"

"If I could work my will, nephew," Scrooge said, crooking a finger at him, "every fool that goes about with 'happy holidays' on his lips would be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart! Now begone wi' ye!"

That night, Scrooge went home to his empty, bleak house. And he was about to tuck into his customary pot of gruel when an apparition appeared to him, clanking a vast chain about its waist. It was the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley.

Scrooge trembled before it, dropping to his knees and crying, "An angel!"

"No, I'm a ghost," Marley said.

Scrooge stood up. "Oh. I don't believe in ghosts."

Marley clanked his chain, sending Scrooge into a fit of quaking. "Hear me! You must amend your ways, Scrooge! You're not keeping the spirit of the holidays in your heart! Also, you irritate people — a lot! You will be visited by three ghosts! Heed their lessons, lest my cruel fate be yours!"

Later that night, at exactly one o'clock, a strange figure appeared at the foot of Scrooge's bed with a light emerging from the top of its head. Basically, what I'm saying is, a human Maglite.

"Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?" Scrooge said from under the bed.

"I am," the ghost droned. "I am the Ghost of Holidays Past. I have come to show you how intolerant you've become."

The ghost magically transported Scrooge to moments in his past when he wasn't such a blithering jerk about the holidays. He saw his childhood spent waiting up for Santa Claus, and his apprenticeship at Mr. Fezziwig's for the Kwanzaa party. O, the Kwanzaas they used to have in those days! Scrooge thought. But the warm nostalgia that washed over him didn't last. Before Scrooge knew it, he was back in his own bed.

He did not sleep. For in a twinkling, a second ghost was in his room, a tall, green-robed man wearing a wreath on his head.

"I am the Ghost of Holidays Present!" he said as Scrooge regarded him in awe. "We have a visit to make!"

In a flash, the ghost had transported him to the hovel of Bob Cratchit. The entire family was busy molding potato latkes for the frying pan, except for Tiny Tim, who hobbled over on a crutch to the menorah to light it.

"Bob's Jewish?" Scrooge said to the spirit. "I just assumed, you know, Cratchit's not a Jewish name—"

"His mother was Jewish," the spirit said. "Sheesh — didn't you know? You worked with him for 16 years — why else'd you think he wanted Yom Kippur off?"

Scrooge shrugged. "Early Halloween?" He peered into the window and frosted the window with his breath. "So that First Communion suit I bought Tiny Tim..."

"Er — no," the spirit said.

With that, it vanished, leaving him alone in the street. But soon in its place appeared a third ghost, clad in a grim, hooded black robe.

Scrooge shuddered to the marrow and said, "Are you the Ghost of Holidays Yet to Come?"

It nodded dismally.

"Spirit of the future, I fear you most of all," Scrooge whispered. "Tell me — will I live to see next Christmas?"

"No," it said. "You'll be crossing the street. A driver will slow down for you, notice who you are, then speed up again." It cleared its bony throat, sounding like the clinking of dice. "At your funeral, the minister will kind of shove your coffin in the hole with his foot."

Scrooge wept and fell to his knees. "O horrors! But tell me, spirit — will there be a Christmas next year?"

It flung back the hood to reveal a clean white skull. "Naturally. There'll always be Christmas. Celebrate it all you frigging want. There'll also always be a Hannukah and a Kwanzaa and a Ramadan. Deal with it."

The fog began to creep in, and Scrooge soon lost sight of the spirit, flailing his arms to find him. "I can change!" Scrooge cried. "I won't be the man I was!"

The spirit's voice cut through the mist. "Then don't use Christmas as an excuse to divide people — you turd!"

"I shall repent!" Scrooge cried as the shroud curled around his feet — and soon he was overjoyed to find himself in his own bed.

Scrooge was good as his word — better, in fact. When he saw the spirits had given him a second chance, he never complained about "happy holidays" again. He even accompanied Tiny Tim, who got over whatever the hell it was making him sick, to his bar mitzvah. And as Tiny Tim observed, [fill in the blank] bless us, everyone!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Better to receive than to give

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Every Christmas, it's the same thing. What do you get for the person in your life who has everything, because he's already rich beyond your wildest imagination? Will a nice basket full of endangered snow leopard cubs do the trick? Or is this the year you should spring for that continent he's been hinting around at?

Just about the time most of us (by "us" I mean "them") might be giving up and reaching for the old standby in frustration — cotton money-storage bags with dollar-signs printed on the side, package of six — the annual Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog has arrived. Yes, Fall River, it's here! You can view it online at neimanmarcus.com. At long last, someone has taken the guesswork out of gifting the ultra-wealthy!

There's plenty of great stuff to choose from, but nothing will make your special someone put down his copy of The Wall Street Journal and finally take note of your puny existence like one of the Neiman-Marcus fantasy gifts! Ooh la la!

Fantasy gifts are unique presents, highly elite and more expensive than the human mind can comfortably perceive — we're talking hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Any of them would be sure to make your giftee's face light up with joy. Wait. Do rich people's faces light up when they receive a terrific present? Or do they have plastic surgery to fix that?

On the low end of fantasy gifts is the Neiman-Marcus Photo-Me Classic Photobooth. It's an actual working photo booth, the kind you see at the mall with a bunch of giggly teenage girls crammed inside. It's a bargain at $20,000, but delivery and giggly teenage girls are not included.

According to the catalog description, "The Photo-Me Classic Photobooth features a customized NM exterior." From what I recall about photo booths, that means playfully hand-scrawled vulgar graffiti, illustrations of comically oversized cocks, and authentically aged urine puddled around the back. For an extra $5,000, Neiman-Marcus will personalize the vulgar graffiti about someone you love.

Is your special person a fan of Elton John? You have my sympathy.

But if you want to indulge that person's wretched taste in music, Neiman-Marcus sells a private Elton John concert for you and 500 of your friends. Having 501 people there seems to say, "Screw the whole 'private' thing," but never mind.

The best part? It's $1.5 million. You also get a free piano, though. A red one! And add an extra million and Sir Elton will rewrite "Candle in the Wind" again to feature your life and/or tragic death.

But it's an awful lot of money for a fleeting gift. As the old maxim goes, you never own Elton John — you just rent him. And there's a $2 late fee if he's not returned to the store by 11 p.m.

If you really want to possess something of value, try jewels. Neiman-Marcus has a rock or two for sale. Not sure what she likes? Luckily, Neiman-Marcus sells an assortment — a trail mix of historic rubies, diamonds, turquoises, black onyxeseses and salted cashews.

"Eight significant pieces in all, spanning parts of the last three centuries, from the 1800s to 2004," the catalog reads — although to be fair, the jewels pretty much just hang a toe over two of those centuries, starting in 1880 and going to 2004.

Then, with a straight face, the catalog says, "It's an amazing way to begin a jewelry collection." For this beginners' set, you'll shell out $1.2 million. Intermediate sets include a sculpted fragment from the earth's core at $3 million. The advanced jewelry collection features two rings of Saturn connected by a hair from God's beard. That's $5 million.

For the kiddies? Many children of the upper crust enjoy games in which they can control everyone and everything in their environment, all while safely locked into a predestined path. It prepares them for lives of ease at the head of major corporations. So the Neiman-Marcus elves have been busy in Santa's workshop building personal Grand Empire Railroads for all the good rich boys and girls!

It's a nearly full-size working locomotive that comes with a thousand feet of track, several cars, a caboose, eight decorative signs ("Butler Xing" is probably in there somewhere), and a cute antique-looking cow-catcher on the front for running over cows and other poor people.

Only $200,000 will give your little angel hours of fun playtime, until they realize that running a leisure railroad is an unprofitable business venture and lease the track to a freight company.

Lastly, for the kid in all of us, there's the ultimate Neiman-Marcus gift:

The prototype Moller M400 Skycar.

Say it with me again:

The prototype Moller M400 Skycar!

It's a flying car. An actual car that flies.

I didn't want any of that other crap. This, I want.

It looks sort of like a cross between a Jaguar and a vision of aeronautic glory.

Take a look at this baby online. It takes off and lands vertically, so I wouldn't have to use my driveway as a runway. More room for my Toyota. The Skycar doesn't use gas — it uses ethanol, and gets 20 miles per gallon. It's better than a Ford!

What's best is, its top speed is about 275 mph. Imagine how that would cut down on my commuting time. I live about a mile from work, and typically I get hung up on that stupid stop sign on Rock Street and Locust. The traffic takes forever, bringing my commute time to something like four minutes.

The prototype Moller M400 Skycar? Thirteen seconds. In a straight line.

Now for the awful part. How much does the Skycar cost?

If you have to ask, it's still just a fantasy for you, too.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Sponge cake comes from monkeys, period

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[The following monologue was overheard in a fifth-grade classroom in Topeka, Kansas.]

[P.S.: How did I end up out there? I forgot where I left my car keys. I checked everywhere in my house -- couldn't find them. Under beds, in every coat pocket, you name it. I looked in Fall River, then New England, then worked my way west. Somewhere in Nebraska, I realized they were in the car I was driving.]



For today's science lesson, boy and girl young'uns, we're going to have a little fun. We've been working hard all year, understanding how the dinosaurs weren't good enough to get on the ark and so became fossils, and how the sky is made up of the Heaven Level, the Angels Level, the Outer Space Level, the Cloud Level, and the Guardian Angels Level.

But I want to take it a little easier today -- let's find out how Twinkies are made! Yay!

No, Amy, we're not going on a field trip to buy Twinkies. We can learn all about Twinkie creation right here -- in this a-here science classroom -- using the state-mandated Intelligent Design theory!

No, Al, going on a field trip to buy Twinkies would not be more fun.

Now begins our story, dating back a long, long time ago, either six billion years ago or in the 1950s. Mankind the world over was feeling peckish. People all around the earth were wondering if there was anything else in the house to eat during the football game -- something like cake, but not a whole cake.

Kids like you all were crying out, too. They were desperate for some kind of portable snack that could fill the obvious hole in the pastry segment of the lunch-swapping open market.

And so the Intelligent Designer heard mankind's calls. He or she -- ah, screw it, it was he -- bestowed the food we now know as the Twinkie upon the earth's stores, both grocery and convenience. One day, they just showed up, at the end of the aisle with the paper towels. And ever since that day, we scientists have found their origin a wondrous, tantalizing mystery that we probably should never look into.

Apart from that story, we Intelligent Design scientists really can't explain how Twinkies are made, exactly. So we're giving up.

You see, kids, your Twinkie is extremely complex, too complex for it to be a randomly created foodstuff. Think for a minute. How is it that a Twinkie is just big enough for your hand, without being too small? How does the sponge cake stay spongy even after weeks, months, years on the shelf? Why are there two per package when you get just one Devil Dog? These are questions that science alone cannot answer adequately, and that Intelligent Design will not bother to answer at all.

What's that, Susan? You thought Twinkies were made in a factory?

Go stand in the corner, Susan.

Good. Now face the wall.

It frightens me, the kind of nonsense you all hear when you leave these protected walls of my classroom. My guess is, someone was fed that particular slice of baloney from Hollywood liberals and the mainstream media.

What Martin Sheen won't tell you is that the Factory Theory of Twinkie Production is flawed. It's controversial. It doesn't have all the answers.

Sure, most biologists believe in it, and it's the basis of all modern snack food manufacture. But most non-Kansan biologists are evil.

No, Ben, Martin Sheen is not a good actor. He is a very, very bad actor. I want you this minute to face your desk toward the window and write it 150 times. "Martin Sheen is a very, very bad actor."

There are certain holes in the Factory Theory that traditional, left-wing science leaves unfilled. Yes, some scientists suspect there may be factories producing Twinkies somewhere in America. But where? I've never been to one. I've never seen one.

No, Sean, I never went looking for one, either. You just bought yourself a detention.

On television and in such ultra-liberal radical atheist Marxist fringe publications as The New York Times, you may have seen what some scientists described as "baking molds" and "assembly-line-style conveyor belts" and "packaging machines" that mankind could use to produce Twinkies.

They're fibbing.

And they'd rather Saddam was still in power.

Plus, there's really no way to tell for sure what those baking molds are for. They could be for Funny Bones or Ring-Dings. The facts are disputed!

It also makes more logical sense that the Twinkie is a product of Intelligent Design. I have here a package of actual Twinkies on my desk -- check out these ingredients! Monounsatumacallit? What is this stuff? Made in a factory? Mankind can't even pronounce it.

And how do you suppose the creme filling gets in the middle of a sealed yellow tube of cake? Injection by some ... machine? It would be really nice if we lived in "Star Trek," but we don't. The clear answer is that either the Intelligent Designer creates the filling first and then bakes the cake around it, or makes the cake first and permeates its outer layer with the creme in some transdimensional fashion that the human brain cannot understand. Am I using too much science jargon?

What's that, Mikey? You say there are holes in the bottom of a Twinkie where the creme goes in? What are you talking about? I've never seen any such holes -- you can't prove there are any holes. Just because you say there are holes doesn't put them there, kid. Are you a scientist?

Wait -- is that a Twinkie of your own? Are you brandishing a Twinkie at me? You put that snack away this instant, young man!

Yes, of course I can see three holes! For all I know you poked them in there yourself with your finger as part of the liberal agenda!

Principal's office, now!

And stay out.

Ahem.

So as I was saying before the hippie love-in -- of course, every Intelligent Design Twinkie theorist already knows about the three-hole phenomenon. We've known about it for some time. At this point, the holey trinity is yet another source of mystery that it is not science's job to explore.

The end!

Let's divide up these four Twinkies among the 24 of you! Now, using the Intelligent Design Theory of Arithmetic, I know that each Twinkie must be cut into six pieces -- but I'm not sure how I got to that number. And I don't want to know.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Night of the Martha Stewart Living Dead

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When I was younger, I loved writing horror stories. Then I got a mortgage and realized that life is scary enough. Fuck Dracula. You know how much I'm going to pay for oil this year?

So I gave it up. I looked deep within myself, found the part of my personality that wrote horror stories, and clobbered it with a phone book. Then I dragged it away to my brain's dark and loathsome attic, bolted the door, and condemned it to live out its wretched, accursed days in isolation, with only the light from a smoldering bonfire of vanishing calculus memories to defy the gloom.

But that impulse to write scary stories waits there still, boys and ghouls -- it bides its time, minute by despicable minute, hour by godforsaken hour! And every year, around Halloween, it breaks loose -- why, on a Sunday morning just like this one! And it seizes control of my body and writes a Halloween column, just like this one!

Now that we're all spooked out, submitted for your perusal is a recent Associated Press story about a haunted neighborhood.

It seems the town of Cary, N.C., will soon be home to a subdivision populated entirely with 650 houses designed and furnished by Martha Stewart. Everything in this community will have the Martha Stewart brand on it, from the Martha Stewart-brand chimney bricks to the Martha Stewart-brand roach motels under the sink. You can live between Martha Stewart walls, in a Martha Stewart bed, flinging Martha Stewart slippers at the Martha Stewart cat. Take a Martha Stewart shit in the Martha Stewart toilet and clean the Martha Stewart clingy crud off the side with a Martha Stewart bowl brush.

It seems like a quaint, cozy little suburb, doesn't it? Nothing evil could ever live here -- or could it...?

--

SCENE: A typical afternoon in a quiet cul-de-sac of Marthaville. The sky is a neon blue (because it's made of neon), and outside each of the identical houses, two identical blonde pigtailed girls play hopscotch while another bucktoothed clone boy takes aim at them from the hedges with a slingshot. Soon our heroes, Punch and Judy, drive up to one of the houses in their Martha Stewart-brand V6 sedan, and get out to have a look.

PUNCH. Well, here we are, honey! Home at last. Say, this new neighborhood looks great! (pulling boxes out of the trunk) I'm so glad we had to move here for my new job as an overstuffer in the Martha Stewart Overstuffed Cushion Factory.

JUDY. What are you, the narrator? (icily) This place kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies.

(She looks down the street and sees every one of the blonde pigtailed girls staring expressionless in her direction and waving. A bird falls dead out of the sky.)

PUNCH. Aw, you're just cynical because you spent the last four years in a high-powered corporate job in the big city and don't like moving to the suburbs.

JUDY. Seriously, dude -- are you the narrator?

(Later that day. Punch and Judy are tucking into Martha Stewart frozen dinners in front of the TV. On every channel is a different Martha Stewart show.)

PUNCH. Mmm! This Stewart chop with Martha sauce is delish. (Sips his Martha Stewart-brand zinfandel.) Could you pass the Martha Stewart, please?

(Judy follows his pointing finger to the salt. She hands it over quietly.)

JUDY. I'm creeped out here, Punch.

PUNCH. (dropping his Martha Stewart fork) Gee willikers, Judy, what would make you say a terrible thing like that? Are you trying to hurt her feelings?

(He points to a huge mural of Martha Stewart on the wall with a camera planted in her open, grinning mouth. Underneath it is a sign: "Martha Stewart is watching.")

JUDY. See, that's kinda my point. What's with all the Martha Stewart? I never asked for Martha Stewart stuff -- where's my Crate & Barrel dining room table?

PUNCH. It's being chopped into pieces and buried far away, honey -- like I discussed?

JUDY. (near tears) This house is so perfect it's bland. Did you notice the porch is hand-carved from a single piece of wood? And that there's a kitchen tap for warm apple cider? When I was in the bathroom, a voice came from the mirror and reminded me that squeezing the toothpaste from the end is more efficient.

PUNCH. There, there. (gives her a Martha Stewart-brand tissue) Just sit quietly and think of a fun arts and crafts project you'd like to do.

(Suddenly, the door crashes in! In stagger several zombie-like middle-aged WASPs carrying dishes of food.)

JUDY. Aaaaaaah!

ZOMBIE 1. We brought you a ham casserole, Judy.

ZOMBIE 2. Martha's special recipe, Judy.

OTHER ZOMBIES. Be like Martha ... be like Martha...

(All of a sudden, we notice Punch's hair has gotten blonder, and his teeth and posture are fantastic.)

PUNCH. Relax, Judy. It's a good thing.

JUDY. (steeling herself for a bloodbath) I loved you once.

(Judy seizes a Martha Stewart steak knife and backs away. One of the zombies lurches and tries to get its wonderfully manicured fingers on her -- but she slices the hand off at the wrist, spewing blue blood everywhere.)

JUDY. Wow -- these knives are actually pretty sharp.

ZOMBIE 3. And affordable!

ZOMBIE 4. The handle is ergonomically designed.

JUDY. (falling into a swoon, then recovers) No...No! No, you won't get to me like you did to Punch, you vile creatures!

(She hacks two of the zombies to ribbons and flees while the rest are busy blotting up the mess with an easy-to-make mixture of distilled white vinegar and dish soap. In the street, Judy sees hundreds of zombie families, limping about and giving each other gardening tips. They see her and start moseying over in her direction. A cop on the beat walks by.)

JUDY. Help-- police!

COP. Something I can do you for, lady?

JUDY. This subdivision is overrun by zombies! You've got to help me escape!

COP. (winking at her) Don't worry, Judy. I won't let them get you.

JUDY. Gee, thanks -- hey! How did you know my name? Unless...

COP. (suddenly stern) That's a tacky pair of shoes you're wearing, Judy. That's not from the Martha Stewart Collection in your closet. Martha's shoes are more practical and stylish.

(A trio of zombies leap from the bushes upon Judy and smother her with a duvet cover.)

JUDY. Aaah!

(The screen goes black. After a moment, we see it is the next day. A new couple is moving into a house in the cul-de-sac, Steve and Eydie.)

EYDIE. Boy! This sure looks like a safe place to raise some bland white kids, doesn't it?

STEVE. (looking around warily) I dunno -- that Martha Stewart bugs me. So hoity-toity all the time.

(Suddenly, Punch and Judy appear -- both are wearing identical Martha Stewart cashmere sweaters tied around their necks. Punch nudges her in the ribs.)

JUDY. (glassy-eyed) Welcome to the neighborhood...

[Fade to ecru.]

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Twenty questions minus eight questions

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During the mayoral debate between Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. and F. George Jacome on Thursday, there was a brief but horrifying moment when the fate of the entire city and everyone in it, from the children to the children's children's children, rested on my shoulders. Yes. Mine. It's all about me. Again.

The tension is difficult to describe without a 60-piece orchestra, but I'll try.

The scene: the hallowed auditorium of one Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee High School. Lights: dim. Crowd: abuzz. Me: in the front row, unkempt hair spreading out from under my ball cap like a shag carpet under a coffee table. I was probing a hole in the upholstery of my seat for loose change. The podiums stood speechless upon the stage like wooden sentinels of Easter Island as waves of political intrigue washed through the air and receded, leaving behind the exposed seashells and scuttling rock crabs of rumor and hearsay in their wake.

The debate was sponsored by this newspaper. So I was there in an unofficial capacity as Court Jester. I had been prepared to leap into the breach should one of the candidates break a rib laughing at the other guy, or be suddenly stricken with dysentery as he waded through the toxic slurry of his own bullshit campaign promises. My job: seize a microphone and fill the ensuing dead air with timely political humor until everyone could be safely escorted from the building. Like the one about President Bush, who goes to his Cabinet meeting one day and goes, "Gimme the day's top news," and Condoleezza Rice goes, "Mr. President, three Brazilian soldiers were killed early this morning." So Bush goes--

But before I could tweak the punch line in my notebook, my editor leans over to me, whispering over the cacophonous beast-howls of a crowd impatient for blood.

My editor said one of the four panelists still hadn't shown up. It was about six minutes to 7, the start of the debate.

"You feel like asking some questions?" she said.

I stared forward at a point a half-inch from my nose. "Urg," I said. "Sure. I don't have any questions prepared, but sure."

She stood up and walked away.

At that moment I snapped my notebook shut and began to beat myself with it about the face and neck. Then, gathering my wits into the folds my apron, I realized that I'm the executive city editor. I read the paper every day. I know pretty much everything there is to know about both candidates' platforms. I should be able to ask a few measly questions.

So with five minutes to showtime, I opened my notebook and wrote. With blinding speed, my pen danced across the page, and out flowed some of the most pressing and cleverly crafted debate questions since Lincoln-Douglas, without all the slavery
references. And in shorthand, too. Here's the thing: I don't even know shorthand.

Here are my questions, as I wrote them:

-- Mr. Mayor, what's it like to be the leader of the free world?

-- I'll address this question to Mr. F. George Jacome. So what's with the F?

-- What would you do, as mayor, to put a stop to all this damn rain?

-- Two-part question, sir. Do your plans for ridding the city of Hess LNG's liquefied natural gas terminal include stringing the proposed site with toilet paper and leaving a flaming bag of dogshit on the doorstep? And if not, why has the Jacome campaign not looked into this as a cheap and hilarious tool in the city's arsenal?

-- Regarding the city's failing public education system, Mr. Mayor, why is our kids getting more stupider?

-- You got a little more old-looking since the last election, Mr. Jacome. More gray hairs on the sides, there and there. I suppose this isn't actually a question.

-- Mr. Mayor, you spent years fighting a costly court battle to keep Oliver's Restaurant in the North End from becoming a strip club. Why are so uncomfortable with the naked female body?

-- Why did you choose to run on the "City of the Child" platform, Mr. Jacome, when you and I know very well that children are among the least-active voters?

-- Mr. Mayor, can I try on your glasses?

-- An attorney specializing in eminent domain law has said to this newspaper that taking the Hess LNG site would be an expensive mistake doomed to failure. You said he's "misinformed," and are vowing to try it anyway. Like I said, he's an attorney specializing in eminent domain law. You went to school to learn how to play the piano. So my question is, do you remember when you were a kid and you'd interrupt your parents having a conversation, and they'd say, "Shush, honey, the big people are talking"? Isn't this one of those times?

-- Your challenger has accused your administration of maintaining its hold on city government for five terms by relying on cronyism, patronage and intimidation. A very burly man wearing a Lambert button has informed me that I'm not allowed to ask the rest of this question.

-- As a fellow Portuguese man, Mr. Jacome, I have an important question. The entire city needs to know: Benfica or Sporting?


By the time I was finished jotting down my questions, it was all for naught. The fourth panelist showed up just on time. The crowd at the debate would never hear the answers to my -- nay, our -- questions. And me? I sat in the front row and helped the official timekeeper reset her stopwatch.

And nobody there even got to hear the joke.

Until now.

So President Bush goes: "Wait -- how many is three brazillion?"

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Beaten down on the educational beat

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The past few weeks' news from the Fall River educational beat has been, with little exception, wretched. Fall River now has two chronically underperforming middle schools out of four, and the percentage of kids flunking or in danger of flunking the MCAS looks like a golf score. It turns out most eighth-graders can't do simple math without the help of a calculator and a physics professor.

It's surprising to everyone in charge. Not me. Not my wife, either.

We're both products of the Fall River public school system. She went to Morton, and I went to Talbot -- coincidentally, the two schools not deemed lazier than dirt.

We both went to very good colleges and did well there. We both have great jobs. We had friends from Fall River who went to places like Harvard and MIT. I even got into Mensa, the group for people with high IQs.

And I still won't let my future children anywhere near a Fall River school, unless it's housing a bomb shelter during a nuclear attack. Even then, I'd tell Junior not to touch anything.

It's not just this latest crop of bad news that's soured me on our schools. Take that and combine it with our own Fall River public school educations.

Like the math teacher I once had who used to barge into my homeroom class before first period to borrow a kid's Game Boy.

And the sixth-grade social studies teacher who told my wife and all of her class that girls were, by nature, dumber than boys. If you took the smartest woman and put her up against the smartest man, he said, the woman would always fail. Always.

And the biology teacher who brought in geese for us to dissect -- geese that were peppered with buckshot, killed for sport by a friend of his over the weekend. Before we did the dissecting, we had to butcher them and hand over the breast meat. Later, when he realized we didn't have any room to store the geese, he had us cut off just the heads and keep those in the storage fridge. Actually, that episode was sort of funny, if barely educational.

And the bathrooms so revolting, in such deplorable, Third-World condition, I held it all day from kindergarten to college.

And the cooking teacher who had us cook about two or three meals the entire year, including a batch of cookies that she promptly took away.

And that same chauvinistic pig social studies teacher, who threw a chair at a girl.

That same teacher, by the way, also publicly humiliated a friend of mine because he saw that friend mutter to himself one day. "Guess who I saw talking to himself?" the teacher snickered, and then pointed at my friend.

And the fleas in the carpets, and the gang fights, and the decrepit history textbooks that ended at the start of the Vietnam War.

There's also the science teacher who had students watch wrestling. WWF wrestling.

A different science teacher also threw a chair at a girl. As I recall, it was because she was mildly irritating.

Wait, that's not accurate. It was a stool.

An old, broken stool.

That same science teacher, one day, handed out a copy of the mathematical formula to convert Fahrenheit degrees to Celsius degrees. Then he handed out sheets of paper marked in columns and rows, with dozens of figures in Fahrenheit degrees and blank boxes near them. We were supposed to do the conversion by hand. We did this, and only this, for several weeks while he sat reading in the corner. Then, we did the same thing, except converting Celsius degrees to Fahrenheit degrees. Weeks later, we'd convert Fahrenheit to Celsius again, or Celsius to Fahrenheit to Kelvin. We did this for months. Not one of these sheets was ever graded, either. We handed the sheets in, he glanced at them and then threw them in a box. They eventually became scrap paper. So after all that, what are the mathematical formulas for temperature conversions? Here’s the kicker: I don't even remember.

This was at the "good" schools, too. We got the quality education. And I'm not that old -- some of those people are probably still working.

I'm not knocking everything, mind you. I had some great teachers. I'll name them now: Mr. Vieira. Mr. Tremblay. Madame Rose, the French teacher. The late Ms. Pytel. Mr. Dube. Many others whose names escape me now. I appreciate them still.

But those saints could only do so much. This school system has more wrong with it than can be solved with some state money and a few firings.

Like I said, my wife and I turned out all right. But I always feel like we succeeded in spite of Fall River schools, not because of them.

When I look at the MCAS scores, it's not the 87 percent of kids who can't do math that worries me. As long as Fall River has plenty of working poverty, drugs and domestic abuse, the stupid we will always have with us.

I'm ticked off about the 1 percent of eighth-graders who are advanced in science, the 4 percent of fourth-graders who are advanced in math, and the 1 percent of seventh-graders who are advanced in English. I know that if they stick with public
school in Fall River, they're most likely going to have to put up with a lot of bullshit -- until they go away somewhere to college.

And then they probably won't come back.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

TV that rots your brain in even worse way than is usual

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Every year, the TV networks roll out their new shows around this time, using the "Nursing Home Menu" model of product development. First, they serve meatloaf. Then they crumble the meatloaf into thickener for spaghetti sauce. Later, they turn the spaghetti into noodle casserole, and the day after that, the noodle casserole gets some cheese on top and is called lasagna. By the weekend, what was once old meatloaf has found its way into the bread pudding, and everybody's wondering why all the food tastes like Grade Z beef smothered in different gravies.

So I've reviewed the new fall lineup, and I'm sorry to say we're looking at another season of leftover Hamburger Helper.

Like wackily mismatched relatives forced to endure each other's company? Check!

Like watching egotistical corporate types get fired by other egotistical corporate types? We got 'em!

Like cops, lawyers, doctors, psychological profilers, forensic investigators and mind-readers all working in dimly lit chrome and glass laboratories to solve the same revoltingly graphic, teenage, gory sex murder in 42 minutes or less? We have that, and enough for seconds!

To prepare for the new fall season, I recently bought myself a new TV set. Nothing fancy -- it was a little box worth less than a hundred bucks. The virtues behind paying $4,000 for flat-panel plasma screens and high-definition are lost on me. HDTVs are supposed to make the programming so sharp it's like it's right there in my living room. But why the hell would I want the sadistic pedophiles on "Law & Order: SVU" in my living room?

Oh, and I don't have cable, either. I don't mind saturating my tender brain-meat with the wickedness of pop culture, but I'll be goddamned if I'll pay Comcast for it.

So when I hooked up the Dinty Moore antenna to the new TV, I put my feet on the coffee table, bit into the vial of poison I keep under my tongue, and bathed myself in commercials for the fall TV lineup.


ABC

Show: "Freddie"

What's it about: Freddie Prinze Jr., a victim of Tony Danza syndrome, plays a guy named Freddie. His wacky sister, sister-in-law, niece and grandmother move in with him, cramping his swinging lifestyle as a celebrity bachelor chef.

Who'll like it: Both of you out there who (a) know who Freddie Prinze Jr. is and (b) wonder what he'd look like in a toque.

Why it will stink: Stretching the boundaries of the term "inspiration," ABC says it's "inspired by Freddie Prinze Jr.'s real life." The real Freddie Prinze Jr., I should say, is neither a bachelor nor a chef. Also, he's an only child. Wait -- they must've meant that other Freddie Prinze Jr., the famous bachelor chef one with the siblings.

Lesson America will learn by the end of the first episode: After all the whisks and measuring cups are put away, and the chef-groupies sent home with cab fare and a fake phone number, celebrity bachelor chef playboys are people just like you and me.

--


CBS

Show: "Ghost Whisperer"

What's it about: Jennifer Love Hewitt is "a young newlywed endowed with the unique ability to communicate with spirits, who has spent her entire life coping with this extraordinary gift, but who also yearns to lead an ordinary life -- if only the dead would stop talking." Like a big fucking idiot, she uses this ability to solve crimes instead of unraveling the mysteries of existence.

Who'll like it: The living, the dead -- there's something for everyone.

Why it will stink: To improve on the success of the identical NBC show "Medium," this show will be renamed "Large."

Lesson America will learn by the end of the first episode: As evidenced by the number of TV shows involving dead people helping to solve crimes, the afterlife offers exciting careers in criminal justice.

--


NBC

Show: "E-Ring"

What's it about: People yelling in the Pentagon. Take a dash of "The West Wing," throw in a spritz of "Law & Order," shake, and serve with a side of "JAG."

Who'll like it: People who flip the channels between "The West Wing," "Law & Order" and "JAG" because they can't make up their puny minds.

Why it will stink: After Jimmy Smits' character wins the presidency on "The West Wing," he'll push through budget cuts in the Pentagon, laying off much of the E-Ring crew and transferring the rest to the C-Ring. Thereafter, most of the action involves filing requisition forms with Accounts Payable before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline.

Lesson America will learn by the end of the first episode: An "E-Ring" is not a bizarre but compelling sexual aid.
---


FOX

Show: "Reunion"

What's it about: We follow six high school friends during the course of 20 years, one year each episode. One friend is killed, and one of them did it, probably the kid labeled "Most Likely To Butcher His Friends" in his yearbook.

Who'll like it: High schoolers who fantasize about getting their ultimate revenge on their stuck-up so-called friends, even if it takes 20 years of meticulous planning. Expect huge ratings.

Why it will stink: It's unrealistic. Only losers still have high school friends 20 years later.

Lesson America will learn by the end of the first episode: Kids, any one of your school pals today could be the person who, later in life, grimly pulls off his or her gloves while standing over your cold, strangled corpse, deciding whether to dump you in a shallow lime-lined grave by the interstate or toss you off a bridge to be dragged away by the undertow. Just a reminder.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Too pupped to pop

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Adopting a new puppy is a rewarding, frustrating, educational, exhausting and fulfilling experience, in that order. It's not something to be undertaken lightly -- puppies need constant care and attention to grow into healthy, happy dogs, as opposed to vicious, bloodthirsty killing machines with no regard for your life or even their own. It's literally just a few Snausages' difference.

I know. My wife and I just this week welcomed a pup into our home. We used to have another dog, Sable, an adorable mutt who died in June at nearly 15. It left a hollow spot in my chest that I tried in vain to spackle over with nougat. So after a while, we adopted another dog, a five-month-old pup named Myrna. She's half Labrador retriever, half border collie and half German shepherd. Her folks were swingers.

We got Myrna online through a service that rescues dogs from the South and brings them up north. Down there, many shelters keep dogs for only three days before they're destroyed. They meet their awful fate by being forced into endless Civil War battle re-enactments, or else are shipped to West Virginia and die of shame.

It is taking Myrna some getting used to, living away from the South. She seems to miss the banjo music, for one thing, and the wind a-sighin' through the magnolia blossoms. It's also difficult for her to understand our commands unless we're chewing a sprig of hay. Instead of "sit," we have to say "seeeit." She doesn't understand "no," so we tell her, "G'oan -- git!" And she ignores anything unless it's immediately followed by a nonsensical folksy metaphor:

"Myrna! Want to go for a walk? It'll be more fun than a hobo rasslin' a pillowcase fulla peach pits."

"Off the couch, Myrna. Excuse me -- off'n. Or I'll be mad as a catfish with a xylophone."

"Dad-blame it, Myrna, you pooped in the house! Your bowels must be looser'n tube socks on a rooster."

But little by little, we're understanding her and she's understanding us. So I feel qualified, after these few days, to share some of my tidbits of puppy-rearing wisdom with you.

The key to raising your puppy to be a decent, upstanding member of the Democratic Party is being able to think like a puppy. Perform your market research. Analyze your demographic. Get into its quote-unquote "groove."

I know as a human, for example, that my puppy should go to the bathroom outdoors. But let's examine this from the puppy's point of view. Wouldn't it be more fun to crap in Daddy's shoe? Plus, more challenging and all, given the concentration and aim required?

Thus, we've established what the puppy is thinking. Now you can explain to it, calmly, that going outdoors is a more cost-effective solution, given the high cost of replacing shoes versus the low cost of dog poop fertilizing the grass. Puppies are extremely logical, particularly when it comes to economics. The puppy may then suggest that you compromise, bringing the shoe outdoors so it can crap in it out there.

Many owners find this to be the easiest solution, but others demand a zero-tolerance policy on shoe-crapping. Be aware that if you have more than one puppy, they can override your veto on this issue.

I've discovered that puppies also like to chew things. Pretty much any form of matter will do, but they go crazy for anything expensive or difficult to replace. My own Myrna finds that Pottery Barn endtables have a mild flavor perfect for breakfast, and would've pulled the roof apart if she hadn't already chewed the legs off the ladder.

Again, if you think like a puppy, you can minimize the damage. Start by removing anything in your home that could be tempting for a puppy to chew -- this includes tables, chairs, rugs, TVs, household appliances, lamps, curtains, bedsheets, sofas, pillows, clothes, decorative wood moldings, cabinets, refrigerators, washers and/or dryers, toilets, furnaces, electrical wires, floors and walls.

If you catch your puppy chewing anything inappropriate that's left, never make the cruel mistake of hitting the poor pup on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. This only makes puppies resent The Media. Instead, give the dog something positive to chew, such as a thick porterhouse steak cooked rare, or, better still, a cow.

It's important to give your puppy a decent name, one that reflects its personality. Years ago, in Kennedy Park, I met a dog named Hitler. I'm going to go ahead and say that's not a good idea unless your dog is interested in the organized slaughter of millions of people, and then you should probably have him neutered right away.

Above all, the best thing you can do for a puppy is give it lots of affection and training. If you love it and care for it well enough, then the barking and whining and biting and chewing and destroying and howling and pooping and yanking and tinking and jumping and clawing and drooling will find their way into your heart for life.

Lastly, remember that unlike other pets -- such as those blithering morons of the animal kingdom, goldfish -- puppies are quite intelligent. Too intelligent, actually. This is why you must, at all times, communicate with puppies in baby talk. Rub their bellies and pitch your voice high and call them "woodgitty woo-woo kins." Otherwise, the puppies will pick up enough English to get by, and that's pretty much it for the human race.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

LNG facts get the ax

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This LNG thing is an emotional rollercoaster. Just thinking about it for too long gives me the vapors. I cure this with a bracing pony glass of crude oil.

First we were not getting LNG. Then we were. Now we're not again. Stop the federal energy regulatory process -- I want to get off!

Part of the journalist's mission is to make things clear for the public -- particularly, things that, I might add, being complicated, as so many municipal processes are, could benefit from the elucidative touch that bestows upon the very unclear thing a heretofore unknown film of transparency that improves one's understanding of the issues and, yes, most of all, the comprehension thereof, especially for anyone who knows already what exactly they are.

So, yes.

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about the recent developments to the LNG project that you may find helpful. If not, feel free to find them unhelpful.


Q. What's going on with the LNG project lately?

A. Welcome back to Planet Earth! Let's see. On June 30, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave Weaver's Cove Energy the right to horn in on a residential neighborhood so it can build a huge tank of liquefied natural gas and a facility to turn it from liquid to gaseous form. Everybody who lives in that area of North Main Street yelled a collective "SHIT!" And then the "For Sale" signs went up.

While the bigwigs at Weaver's Cove were busy twirling their mustaches with evil glee, our representatives in Congress were busy finding a nice, cozy spot in the more than 1,000-page 2006 federal transportation bill to bury a provision making it illegal to use federal money to tear down the old Brightman Street Bridge when the new one is built. It literally blocks LNG tankers from getting to their proposed destination. It's a scheme as clever as it is diabolical. President Bush recently signed that into law -- so the city has used the energy industry's most powerful tool against itself. Weaver's Cove then issued a press release saying, "SHIT!"


Q. Why would having the old bridge in place matter?

A. The old bridge is downriver from the proposed facility, and it's too narrow to squeeze an LNG tanker through, not even one that's slathered in butter. Weaver's Cove would have to sail its tankers up to the old bridge, about a half mile away, and then offload the LNG by carrying the stuff in buckets back and forth to the facility.


Q. I'm confused. Does this mean that once the new bridge is built we can drive across the old one, too?

A. God, no! I wouldn't drive on that bridge now, and there's a Pizza Hut over there!


Q. So what, pray tell, will the old bridge be used for?

A. Uh...fishing? Bike riding? They can use it for storing elephants, for all I care. The LNG tankers can't get through!


Q. Can't the LNG tankers just plow right through the old bridge, smashing it to pieces, like in a Will Smith movie? People diving out of the way? Tommy Lee Jones should play the renegade LNG ship captain.

A. I agree. That would look cool.


Q. Were any other anti-LNG provisions put into the transportation bill?

A. Yes! In case the bridge thing doesn't work, there's also $25,000 in funding to build a large arrow-shaped sign that reads "FALL RIVER THIS WAY" on it. It will be installed at the end of Mount Hope Bay, and will point toward New Bedford.


Q. Have you taken a stand on LNG?

A. Listen. I have no problem with LNG itself. Some of my best friends are LNG. What I do have a problem with is putting an LNG facility where people live. A terminal doesn't belong here. It belongs someplace where, if there's an industrial accident, human beings will not be hurt -- the Gulf States, for instance, or Delaware.

Besides, even if Massachusetts needs more natural gas, it's not Fall River's job to carry the burden for the rest of the state. We already take their garbage and their heroin addicts. And think of this: Once we let Weaver's Cove put LNG in here, what other kinds of LNGs will it sneak in? Live nude girls? In a residential neighborhood? How about loud, noisy gorillas? Are you going to be the one to say yes to loud, noisy gorillas in Fall River?


Q. Weaver's Cove Energy has been putting up a lot of billboards and online ads. I even got something in the mail addressed to "Our Neighbor." What's up with that?

A. Ah, advertising -- the last refuge of a scoundrel. Personally, I don't like the tone of their ads. They're very elitist and bullying, if you think about it. They keep telling me to "get the facts," like I'm an idiot who's been easily misled by lies all this time. Also, the ads say, "You haven't heard the whole story," which implies that I haven't been paying attention. That's just mean.

"We might not be able to change your mind, but we'll settle for opening your eyes," reads the little bit of propaganda I got in the mail. OK -- first, it's saying that I'm stubborn. Then, it's saying that I'm living with my eyes closed. Basically, the ads could only be worse if Joe Camel started pushing LNG to children.

If anybody from Weaver's Cove is listening, there are three ways your ads can be improved.

First, learn my name and don't call me "Our Neighbor."

Second, don't talk to me like I'm some closed-minded schmuck. I've read your Web site, thought about it for a while, and it turns out I still don't want LNG here. I gave you more of a chance than I do the religious wackos who knock on my door. Now go away.

Third, next time, mail me a sample packet of LNG so I can try it at home. If I like it, maybe I'll buy it.

Until then, I'm getting my bike and fishing pole ready for the Brightman Street Bridge. See you there!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

A New Home, Part III: Sanding, scraping, and sealing the deal

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[In our last two episodes, we followed Dan and his wife as they found and bought a new house. In this final episode, the two new mortgage slaves dig themselves a money pit -- but one of those nice ones.]


To make a long story a little longer, one day my wife and I got together with the fantastic lady who sold us her house. And in the presence of the Almighty and the registrar of deeds, we closed on our new home.

The lawyer pushed at us a stack of papers the size of a Brooklyn phone book.

"Sign every page," he said.

"Just a sec," I said, carving my signature into a potato stamp.

After a brief tug of war over the down payment check, my wife and I, giddy with excitement, headed to the house. My wife put me down on the other side of the threshold, and we took our first look at the new place.

"I hope this place is haunted," I said.

"Me too," my wife said.


The handyman can

My whole life, I'd lived in apartments under someone else's liability. When I became a homeowner, I had to adjust to being in co-charge of everything -- and co-fixing stuff.

"Are you handy?" the nice lady who sold us her house had asked me at the closing.

After the laughter subsided, I wiped my eyes. "Oh, God. Don't do that again -- my stomach hurts."

But, overnight, it was imperative that I become at least handy enough.

This was difficult. Somehow, every little piece of the house became broken. The doors began to stick. All the window screens had holes in them, and some also had dead beetles fused to the metal. If I looked at the kitchen drawers cockeyed, they wouldn't open. I'd force them open, and then they couldn't close again. Worse, I found stuff in the walls that needed a professional touch, like electrical wires and gas pipes -- expensive stuff.

After a day or so, I developed the habit of involuntarily groaning whenever I bent over or picked anything up or sat down.

I also tapped reserves of chronic profanity I never knew I had.

"#$%*!" I yelled one day, watching toast crumbs fall on the floor. I pulled a paper towel off the roll and felt that the spindle was loose: "Blankety-blank!" Then I bent over to wipe the floor: "Unnngh."

"You OK, honey?" my wife asked. She was covered in sweat and flecks of wallpaper were tangled in her hair from remodeling our new offices.

I pointed at the floor. "It's [expletives deleted] and [expletives deleted] I can't [expletives deleted] a [expletives deleted]." I leaned over to toss the paper towel in the garbage. "Unnngh."

"There's more crumbs over there," she said.


Mow better blues

And then the dreams started.

They were all identical, and I had them every night. They left me with a strange feeling I couldn't shake, no matter how hard I tried.

One evening, my wife caught me picking listlessly at my dinner, then flinging gobs of it on the floor and mashing it into the wood with my bare fists.

"There's something wrong," my wife said, her arms streaked with blue, green and white paint. "Don't try hide it from me."

"I keep having these recurring dreams," I said. "In them, I'm mowing the grass."

A very long, very quiet time passed. We both felt a slight quivering motion that could only be the turning of the earth on its axis.

"And?" my wife said.

"That's it."

My wife cracked her knuckles. She lives for dream analysis. "I'd say you're experiencing acute anxiety over taking on the new burdens of being a homeowner. Your subconscious is literally mowing your overgrown post-adolescence into the neatly trimmed plateau of adulthood."

I was staring out the window, my lower lip quivering. "I never had grass before. I'm Portuguese -- we pave that over, except for the kale garden." I had a spate of chronic profanity for a few minutes, then said, "I see dead grass."

Then, I had other dreams. In them, I was pulling crabgrass. I was spackling holes. Most bafflingly, I was not replacing light switches -- in my dream, I was on the Internet, looking up how to replace light switches.

For a two-week stretch, I literally went to Home Depot or Lowe's or Job Lot every single day. One day, I went to all three, just to catch up with the guys.

My wife and I were resting one day, on the floor, slick with sweat and stoned on latex paint fumes.

"Unnngh," I said as my legs twitched reflexively.

"Good -- you're getting up," she said. "I need something from Job Lot."


I scream, you scream

At the end of our third week, my wife and I realized we hadn't seen each other in days. I'd been working seven days a week, and she'd been painting and stripping wallpaper nonstop. And what was the point of having a house if I couldn't see my wife?

"Let's get [expletives deleted] ice cream," I said.

We drove to Somerset Creamery and sat under a tree.

"You like the house?" I asked.

"I do, but it's nice to leave it once in a while," she said. "Do you?"

"[Expletives deleted]," I said.

My wife held up her poor hands, twisted into claws. "I can't move my fingers -- it's from holding the wallpaper scraper and the paint roller. It feels like I have arthritis."

"My hip hurts," I said. "I nicked it with the weed-whacker."

Suddenly, the streetlights came on overhead.

"I think our house is haunted," my wife said. "By old people."

"And they're taking possession of our young bodies," I said, picking up a fallen napkin. "Unnngh."

We let that sink in slowly for a while, then went to the car and sat there in silence.

My wife let out a roaring six-second belch. She glanced quickly over at the next car, where a couple not much younger than us was eating cones on what looked obviously like an early date.

"Uh-oh," she said. "You think they heard me?"

"I think Connecticut heard you," I said. "Who cares? It's a story they can tell their grandchildren."

And then we went home again.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A New Home, Part II: We'll take what's behind Door No. 1

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[In last week's episode, Dan and his wife began their search for a new home. This week, the house-hunters become the house-hunted.]

When my wife and I were in the throes of a frustrating home search, I couldn't go five minutes without getting advice. Everybody and his left-handed Eskimo uncle would wrap an arm around my shoulder, lean in confidentially and say, "It's the hardest thing you'll ever do."

And everybody's left-handed Eskimo uncle would add, "But it's also the easiest!"

"Buy cheap. Fix it up. Then move somewhere else in two years."

"Get ready to sign your name 479 times!"

"Listen. You need a yard."

"Taking care of a pool's a wicked pain. Don't buy a pool."

"It's not just for grass. You'll use the yard for everything."

"Unless the house already comes with a pool. Then I'm coming over. Every day."

I would say, "Yeah, yard, schmard, whatever. I won't care about the yard." Then I'd confide in everybody and his left-handed Eskimo uncle about the search. I'd say how this area has some of the highest real estate prices in the country, and how it was becoming a problem.

"We just had to bump up our price range another $100,000," I'd say miserably. "The only thing we could get in our first budget is a modestly sized pile of crumpled newspapers under the Route 79 overpass on President Avenue. Every day that goes by and I don't have a house, I get priced out of the housing market that much more. Tell me what to do!"

"I bought my house for $27,000! That was 1983."

"You know where's cheap houses? South Dakota."

None of this helped. But it is true. I looked it up. You can get a four-bedroom, two-bath house on 1.6 acres for $119,000 in South Dakota. And not just South Dakota! Pierre, South Dakota! That's the state capital!

I was telling my wife about this one day while we were driving around, checking lawns for "For Sale" signs.

"I heard Pierre has a drive-through bank and everything," I said, "just like the movie stars have. And one of them fancy stoplights with all three colors. We'll run a gas station and make a fortune -- when people decide they have to get the hell out of South Dakota, they'll need gas."

She looked out the window at a "For Sale" sign on a tan house right around the block from our apartment. The house was enormous, historic and beautiful.

"I wish we could get that house," she said.

"Me too. They're probably asking too much. We'll never afford it," I said.

We went to an open house for that same house not long after that, just for laughs. It was roomy and way, way out of our price range. We had to reject it. But when we left the open house, I had a weird feeling I'd see it again. I had a premonition of myself walking down the hall in that house, in my boxer shorts -- a premonition that would come true.


Yard games

We spent much of our time looking at this other house. By coincidence, we were the first people to see it. It was an old Victorian in decent shape -- in Fall River, too. It was practically within yelling distance of our price range.

During the showing, my wife played Good Cop. I played Bad Cop.

"Oooh!" my wife said as we took the tour. "Marble fireplace mantle! Oooh! A second staircase in the back of the house! Oooh! Two porches!"

"Look at this crack," I said, jamming a pen into the wall and working it into the plaster. "This joint's coming apart!"

"That just needs more spackle," the real estate agent said.

"Pfft. It'll take thousands of dollars. I suspect this spackle is structural."

"The thing about the yard is that it's small, and someone else has an easement to keep a driveway on it," the real estate agent said. "But for the buyer, they're willing to give up part of the yard next door, because they own that property, too."

"Yeah," I said. "I couldn't care less about the yard."

The Victorian was nearly perfect, and full of charm. There were not two but three porches, and room for my wife to have her office, me to have my office, and for us to put a kid without having to stick it in a dresser drawer. Not that it wouldn't be fun to do that anyway.

We talked it over in a bedroom.

"I want this house," my wife whispered.

"Me too. I was only fooling about the crack in the wall."

She peered out one of the many windows. "There's not much yard."

"So what? Who needs a yard?"

So we made an offer, and they responded positively. The negotiations went smoothly for about 12 minutes. Then we got the call.

"The sellers don't want to give you a yard," the real estate agent said.

I heard something inside me snap like a chicken bone--if I didn't have a yard, where was the grill going to go?

"What? Are they insane?" I asked. "I need a yard! I can't buy a house without a yard! There's no yard at all?"

"They're willing to give you this," the agent said, and showed us a map with a bizarre almost W-shaped boundary drawn on it, with one zig and at least two zags.

"That yard is shaped like a curly fry," I said. "I was thinking more of a tater tot."

"Nope," the agent said.

It went back and forth like this for three weeks. I threatened to buy the house, keep the driveway in my yard, and stake a 6-foot fence right through the tar. In the meantime, we learned all about easements and surveyors, and we even visited that office in Government Center where they keep the maps. I had grotesque visions of the future, of our kids playing on the swing set we'd shoehorn into our W-shaped yard--they'd fly forward feet-first into the fence, then careen backward into the bushes. Their teachers would see the bruises and call the cops. I'd deny everything, but of course they'd never believe me. I'd have anger management problems from wrestling a lawnmower around the W's center zag every week.

Finally, we couldn't stand it.

"Do we get a rectangular yard or what?" I asked.

"Nope," the agent said.

So we became depressed, visions of marble fireplaces dancing through our heads.

My wife lay on the floor of our apartment, which by now felt as small as a shoebox. "I can't look at another house ever again."

"Me, either," I said. "Let's look at another house."

I suggested we try that other old house, around the corner, the one where I saw myself in boxer shorts. "Let's give them an offer that's low but not insulting. All they can say is no, and we already heard that today."

So we went back to that house.

We made a low offer.

The seller counteroffered.

We said, "OK."

The seller said, "OK."

Boom. We had a house.

It was the most polite house transaction I'd ever heard of. Took about five minutes.

My wife and I jumped for joy in each other's arms. "We have a house!" I said. "Hooray!"

"And look at these mortgage calculators!" my wife said, smiling. "If we eat peanut butter and jelly for 30 years, we can afford it."

I stopped jumping.

"Damn," I said.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A New Home, Part I: The smell of the house-hunt

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I clearly remember a time, not so long ago, when I promised that if Hess won the right to put a liquefied natural gas terminal here, I would not be around to hear the energy corporation fat-cats decork the champagne.

"If Fall River gets that lousy LNG terminal, I'm so leaving!" I said to my wife one day. "I mean -- we're so leaving."

"Yeah!" she said.

"I won't watch everybody's property values go in the toilet! And I'm sick of polluting industries taking a crap all over this city because it's full of poor people!" I roared. "And I'm even more sick of idiots who want to whore this city out to those industries and let them abuse our natural resources! Sure -- put a landfill near the drinking water! Oh, we'd love to put your rubber factory near the tenements!"

"So true!" my wife said, coughing a little.

"Want to heave a colossal 980-foot tanker full of explosive fluid up the river, past where moms are walking their babies by the waterfront that we finally started fixing up? And then you want to dock the LNG tanker next door to some old lady whose house is now as cheap as a six-pack? Go ahead -- I live across town!"

"Preach!" my wife said.

I began laughing hysterically, then crying hysterically, then laughing hysterically again. At some point I recovered enough to pick up my Chinese food again.

"This city's rotten luck keeps repeating itself because greedy morons will never stop exploiting this city and its people! If the LNG tank comes, we'll move!" I said. "This, I vow!"

My wife nodded. "Fall River needs nice, young professional people like us to live here," she said. "But if this city lets itself stay a dumping ground for industry nobody else wants instead of courting better industries, then we should blow this taco stand."

A strange but true coincidence: On June 30, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave Hess LNG the right to build its massive import terminal on about 60 acres of land in a residential neighborhood. FERC put thousands of people in the LNG blast radius, thousands more in the radius where you'd only get second-degree burns, and made the rest subject to snarled traffic, a blighted waterfront and lousy property values.

On that same day, my wife and I closed on our first home. We began moving an hour later.

The house is in Fall River.

Yes -- that Fall River.

These things happen, I guess.

--

Abe Lincoln in Bristol

We lived in a fantastic apartment. It was as big as your average starter home. The landlords were wonderful people, and still are. But my wife and I entered that stage in life where we need something to own. Also, I really, really wanted to buy a meat smoker.

So we made a list.

"Where do you want to spend the next 30 years?" my wife said.

"Rome!" I said. "Remember the ice cream?"

My wife's fingers poised over the computer keys. "The commute is kind of long. Say, this place looks nice. A three-bedroom cape with a workshop and pool. It's in Bristol."

Bristol! Historic Bristol! Upscale, fabulous Bristol!

"This place is a dump," I whispered to my wife as we strolled through that house. Every inch of it was covered in some sort of country kitsch decoration like an invasive, tacky mold.

My wife could only stand to peek through her fingers. "It looks like a Christmas Tree Shop threw up in a log cabin."

"They have an Abe Lincoln thing going," Agent No. 1 said, then lowered her voice. "The sellers are motivated. They're having marriage problems, and it's getting worse every day."

"Is it over the putrid decorating?" my wife said.

In not as many words, she said yes. It was.

We went upstairs, into a flimsy addition. Between the creaking, the swaying, the cramped quarters and the old exposed wood, I felt like I'd finally realized my dream of being on a pirate ship. I dropped a pencil and watched it tumble quickly against the outside wall, then roll back.

"Got anything else?" my wife said. "We don't want a raised ranch, nothing on the far side of Bristol, and nothing too pricey."

"I'll put you on my list!" Agent No. 1 said. Later, my wife would receive daily e-mails, all of them expensive raised ranches on the far side of Bristol. They ended up in her "spam" folder.

--

The agony of the feet

We went to open houses in Somerset, made appointments in Warwick. We looked near and far.

"For the price of a house in Fall River, we can get a condo -- and live in the best city on the East Coast!" I said.

"New York?" my wife said.

"No, New York's for self-important phony assholes," I said. "Boston!"

So up to Jamaica Plain we went. We had a bunch of condo viewings on the same day and drove to the first one, on Heath Street, near Roxbury.

I'm wondering how to describe it. You know crackhouses? That.

"Gaaaaah!" we said.

I gestured wildly to my wife, who was at the wheel. "Drive drive drive! Go go go!"

At the next one, Agent No. 2 stood us up. We stood outside in a mist, bouncing on the porch's soft wood, while Agent No. 3 showed up with two guys.

"Where's your Realtor?" No. 3 asked us.

"I don't know," my wife said, checking her watch, "but as of six minutes ago, she's a jerk."

"It's sort of under agreement already, anyway." Then No. 3 turned to his clients. "They're taking backup offers," he told them.

We left and tried another place, by a small park in Dorchester. Real Estate Agent No. 4 took us inside another condo. It smelled like sour feet.

I nudged my wife. "It smells like--"

"I smell it, too," she said.

The interior wasn't bad -- but it was tiny and there was no place for my wife to put her office.

"Mphfm thrf phrfmh," I said.

"Excuse me?" No. 4 said.

I took my hand off my nose. "We'll let you know."

My wife and I were strolling through the park, hand in hand.

"I like the city, but I don't think we'll ever find anything nice here," my wife said.

"Even if we do, there's something to think about," I said.

I pointed. In the distance, closer than I'd realized, was Boston's huge, striped LNG tank.

"Damn," I said.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A fantastic argument for killing as many of your brain cells as possible

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Science marched on this week, right past the Hollywood Walk of Fame. According to an Associated Press story, a study by the California Institute of Technology found that "individual brain cells 'recognize' famous people."

This group of eggheads was trying to figure out how brain cells store memories. Specifically, they wanted to know if Angelina Jolie was a smokin' hottie at the sub-molecular level. So scientists isolated individual brain cells, wired them with electrodes and sat the cells in front of flash cards. Afterward, the brain cells filled out a multi-page questionnaire and were paid $50 and a coupon to Subway for their time.

"In one case, a single cell was activated by different photos of [Halle] Berry, including some in her 'Catwoman' costume," the story states. This means that individual brain cells -- not just regions of the brain -- could figure out who Halle Berry was, even if placed in shitty-ass movies.

The story continues: "Nobody would have predicted that conceptual information relating to [Jennifer] Aniston, for example, would be signaled so clearly by single cells." This makes sense to me -- now that she's broken up with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston is also single.

But the study, recently published in the journal Nature, had even more profound results. "In one participant, one brain cell responded both to Aniston and to Lisa Kudrow, her co-star on the TV hit 'Friends.'" One scientist, Charles Connor of Johns Hopkins University, called it "a tantalizing glimpse at how neurons represent concepts like membership in the cast of 'Friends.'" That's great. Say, how's that cancer thing going, you fucking criminals?

Anyhoo, this study has far-reaching complications. For one, it explains how human beings are able to follow that steadily mutating half-plastic androgynous man-thing through his annual moltings and transformations, yet still understand him as "Michael Jackson." It also means that Tom Cruise will not go away, no matter how hard I try to forget him. He's encoded in my brain cells somewhere, man. When I see him being squirted with water by a prankster or soiling his pants with excitement over having a new girlfriend, there's a cell in my brain that pulls itself away from the nachos long enough to write all that bullshit down.

Even if I never watched TV again, Tom Cruise is still going to be there, stuck in my head. Years from now, I'll have forgotten my multiplication tables. But there'll be a couple of brain cells saying to each other, "Remember when Tom Cruise went crazy with the Scientology and jumped on Oprah's couch?"

Naturally, an important study like this brings up more questions than answers. Like these:


Q.: How can I get involved with scientific research on how your brain cells react to celebs? I'm a college science student looking for a way to write off my subscription to US Weekly as a business expense.

A.: Ask again later. This advanced study is so new that many research facilities haven't yet begun to explore celebrity-specific brain chemistry. If you really want to watch TV all day and study the brain, your best option would be to double-major in neurobiology and liberal arts.

Q.: I have trouble keeping straight which one is Mary-Kate Olsen and which one is Ashley Olsen. Is my brain broken?

A.: It is decidedly so. The differences in the Olsen twins should be obvious, as one is suffering from anorexia and the other weighs a healthy 71 pounds.

Q.: I'm curious -- do celebrities' brain cells react the same way when they see pictures of regular people?

A.: My sources say no. First, celebrities don't have what we normally refer to as "brains." Rather, their skulls contain a very small sac filled with fluid -- bioelectric chemicals mixed with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew...it depends on the endorsements.

This cranial fluid picks up DirecTV and beams television directly to their retinas. The celebrities, therefore, constantly live under the belief that they're on camera and getting paid top dollar to play along, plus residuals. This is why they do weird stuff all the time. For the ratings. This is also why they often wear their hair in strange ways -- it helps with the satellite reception.

So when celebrities meet non-celebrities, like you or me or Chevy Chase, they interpret them as "extras," or as being "with the caterer."

Q.: Are there any plans by advertisers to exploit this new phenomenomenomenonom?

A.: All signs point to yes. Scientists have recently conducted an experiment stimulating the brain cells that recognize Jessica Alba with heavy doses of gamma radiation emitted from advertising satellites high above the earth. Surveys showed those tested experienced a strange sensation, like being repeatedly poked with a stick shaped like Jessica Alba.

Q.: So what would happen if, like, one day I see Lindsay Lohan on the television, but she's dating Jessica Simpson's husband, Nick Lachey, but Jessica says Britney Spears stole her man, because Kevin Federline's just after her money, which is wicked strange because Ashlee Simpson and Hilary Duff just went through the same thing over Jesse McCartney?

A.: Reply hazy -- try again.

Q.: OK. First there's Lindsay Lohan, then there's Jessica Simpson, sister of Ashlee, who's supposed to be on the outs with Britney over Nick, even though he's going after Hilary Duff, who was secretly recruited by Tom Cruise into Scientology --

A.: Ehh, cannot predict now. Or ever. I suggest you "medicate" the cells in your brain that remember the intimate details of all those teenybopper bimbos and mimbos. Six beers and a nap should do the trick.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Pam Anderson, breast-selling author

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Most people know Pamela Anderson for two things -- two very large, very prominent aspects of her person. These two very large things simply refuse to be ignored, particularly as both of them are so often the focus of media attention. They've worked together harmoniously to lift Pam Anderson's career to the kind of peaks rarely seen in Hollywood. And let's be frank -- Pam Anderson milks them for all they're worth. Yes, Anderson has been shaped largely -- which is to say, largely shaped -- by those two great big parts of her public persona: acting and animal rights activism.

But can she bake a cherry pie? If by "bake a cherry pie" you mean "write a barely fictional account of her life disguised as a dishy beach-read novel," the answer is yes!

Star, Anderson's debut novel, is now out in paperback, and being in the news business I was lucky enough to get my mitts on a preview copy. No, you can't have my job.

The book (or whatever) centers around the life and loves of Esther Wood Leigh, known to her friends as Star. According to the press release, the ever-oversexed Anderson devised the moniker using the old "porn name" formula: the name of your first pet plus the name of the first street you lived on.

"Star Wood Leigh ... is actually what my porn name would be if I decided to change careers!" she states, stretching the meaning of the word "if." Come on -- I saw the video.

But let's get to the actual novel. It's more than 300 pages and has no pictures, except for a shot of Pam Anderson on the cover, naked. So there's that.

The book opens with a bang, if by "bang: you mean "several pages of exposition." At the novel's start, Star is a young girl in Florida with her parents, Lucille and Rick, two of the more subtle names in the book.

Star has two jobs cutting hair and shucking oysters (not at the same place) and a cute boyfriend named Insignificant Character. Suddenly, Star has one of those inexplicable cases of ennui so common among oyster-shucking hairdressers with a delicate constitution:

"It was a spider sense that something was missing," Pam writes, "like that feeling you get when you stand in front of the refrigerator, not really hungry, but unable to stop looking. The feeling that this time, it might be there, right behind the ketchup and the pickled beets."

Before she can check the butter compartment, Star receives an unscheduled visited from The Boob Fairy, who leaves her with "one of a pair of unruly and self-willed nipples." Her luck only worsens when the second one shows up, even less civil than the first. But don't worry -- they come in handy later.

A few pages and erotic scenes later, Star leaves her boyfriend -- something about him being a jerk. They fight in a scene about as tense as a banana peel ("Look, Star, I like you just fine"), and she ditches him. Always one to push her resume, Star leaves "with the speed that had made her the setter for the state
champion Double A girls volleyball team for five straight years."

From there, Star has nowhere to go but up! Or into the dirty magazine industry.

She moves to Los Angeles, and we pause momentarily to take in a film-strip-style description of L.A. that seems cribbed from the encyclopedia: "A coastal desert plain, it is met at the shore by a mountain range that runs like a backdrop along the northern boundary of the Los Angeles basin." Fascinating! After completing the geographic survey, Star moves into Mann Castle, headquarters of Mann magazine, where suave, pajama-clad publisher Mr. Mann cavorts with the nude ladies who populate his porno mag. Pam has spiced her debut novel with many things -- sex, gossip, garbled metaphors -- but imaginative details aren't one of them.

Anyway, the next chapter plods along with hardly anybody getting naked ("'Oh, pooh,' Star pouted") for almost 12 whole pages, until Star has her first nude photo shoot. She pukes with fear, which should make for singularly unerotic photos, if you ask me.

The novel hits its narrative midpoint about page 169, when Star ends up in a shouting match with a guy with the improbable name of Van Pursens.

Van is upset because Star has publicly called him an eggplant. That is not a typo: "'Don't make this any worse than it is,' Van said. 'I read it in the Daily Reporter.'" Star dares to question even the venerable Daily Reporter, denying the allegation fiercely: "Well, I don't even know what the Daily Reporter is, but I can tell you this, you're no eggplant. I like eggplant." The scene reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Mad Libs.

Much of the book's second half is like an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story," but with noticeably odder names. Also, suckier. Star lands a job on a "Home Improvement"-style sitcom, called "Hammer Time" here; then, it's on to "Baywatch," or "Lifeguards Inc." Star also dates various rock and rap stars, finds herself in an orgy here and there, and continues her path to spiritual enlightenment ("'Implants?' Star said. ... 'What do you think? Should I?'").

I shouldn't spoil the book's ending -- but let's just say Star gets the implants. I hate to give away any more of the juicy details, if by "juicy details" you mean "stuff I remember Jay Leno joking about six years ago."

For the rest of the plot, you'll just have to read it yourself. It's worth the half-hour. Any longer than that and you're just being an eggplant.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Tristan and Ysolde, the Fall River years

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Last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. Initially, that doesn't sound like much, but we've been together for 11 years. My point is, we're ineligible for "The Newlywed Game."

We have anniversary celebrations down to a science, starting with a luxurious breakfast in bed. My wife gets up before I do, so I end up rolling over and spilling her Total.

Some years, we make a big whoop-de-doo about the rest of the anniversary. Lobsters, trips to exotic ports of call, the wine third up from the bottom of the menu -- you name it. This year, it was more low-key, with us snuggling on the couch, sharing a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a fifth of bourbon. Two spoons, two straws.

Either way, we're fine. We don't fight too much and we always try to make the other feel happy. We're the cutesy kind of couple that makes other couples want to vomit in the nearest wastebasket.

Pretty good for a decadelong relationship -- which, by the way, a friend in high school gave, quote, "six months." If you're reading this, Phil: I win, you fucker.

But it almost wasn't to be. When we first met as young teenagers, I was so infatuated with my wife that I wooed her for four full years before I finally got the balls to ask her on a date -- and even then I was almost too chicken to do it.

I often wonder what our lives would have been like today if we'd never dated. It's a horrible thought. So I present to you this short tragic play based on those idle musings. It's got action, drama, comedy, romance and, yes, kung fu. Ladies and gentlemen, "Tristan and Ysolde."

--

SCENE: A Fall River drugstore, 2005. Enter Tristan, a dejected young Portuguese man with a scraggly beard grown more out of indifference than fashion. Also, there's a blot of ketchup in it from lunch. He scratches idly at the AC/DC T-shirt he's been wearing for six weeks straight, and ogles the magazine racks.

TRISTAN. Oooh, the new Dell Crossword Puzzle books are in! (peers at a cover) "Five-letter word for 'bee byproduct.'" Don't make me laugh! "Honey." (starts to fill it in, then stops) What am I doing? Ease up, cowboy -- save some crosswords for tonight.

(He takes one of the books and presses it to his cheek lovingly, like that irritating teddy bear in the fabric softener commercials.)

TRISTAN. Alack! I'm so lonely. Never have I experienced the warmth of a fair lady's hand. None but the cold comforts of crosswords and Nintendo to make my days worth living. You are indeed super, Super Mario -- but not that super.

(Enter Ysolde, a stunning young woman Tristan's age.)

TRISTAN. Could it be? Is that the maiden I used to have the hots for in high school? Look at her! She's still a peach.

PHIL THE APOTHECARY. (entering) Hey, how's tricks? By the way, I checked -- Mylanta doesn't come in beef flavor. You must've imagined it.

TRISTAN. (waving him off) I think I used to know that woman.

PHIL. Her?

(Ysolde cruises to the candy aisle with a shopping cart and packs it full with Twizzlers.)

PHIL. She comes by Tuesdays and Fridays to stock up.

TRISTAN. Her name was Ysolde. I was in love with her years ago, but I never asked her on a date. I've been wondering about her ever since. Pfft! Look where that got me. I sit in my parents' attic all day, building forts with the encyclopedias, then shelving them out of alphabetical order so I can re-alphabetize them before dinner! I wish I were dead.

PHIL. That's in aisle 12a.

(Tristan eyes his crossword puzzle book and flings it aside -- but not very well, as he has the pitching arm of a 6-year-old girl. He strides up to the stunning Ysolde, who is squeezing various bags of Gummi Bears, testing them for ripeness.)

TRISTAN. Ysolde?

YSOLDE. (startled) My God, Dan! I mean -- Tristan! It's been years! How are you doing?

TRISTAN. (sucking in his gut without success) Oh, not too bad. I work at the newspaper now, as you may have heard.

YSOLDE. That's fantastic!

TRISTAN. My paper route goes from Globe Street to the Tiverton line.

YSOLDE. Sounds important.

TRISTAN. Yeah, I'm pretty much holding the place together. How about you?

YSOLDE. (shrugs) I work at the library. They put me in charge of deodorizing the children's books. (Pushing her raven hair back -- only now do we notice she keeps a Twizzler behind her ear, on deck, like a cigarette.) So what else have you been up to?

TRISTAN. (breaking into sudden tears) I never dated. I measure precipitation levels and send them to the Weather Channel, but they never use my figures. I overmedicate myself with Advil and hot fudge.

YSOLDE. (crying too) I dated, but Sven and Keanu meant nothing to me. I'm so lonely. I live in a tent in my mom's yard. Sometimes, when I'm working at the library, I go to the reference room and shelve the encyclopedias out of order so I can--

TRISTAN. Re-alphabetize them later?

YSOLDE. (brightening) You do that, too?

TRISTAN. I never should have let you go when I had the chance, toots.

(The Muzak swells -- and Tristan takes Ysolde into his arms and lays a big smacker on the lips. They part after several hours.)

TRISTAN. Would you like to see a movie some time?

YSOLDE. I'd love that.

PHIL. (swaggering) Eh. I give it six months.

(Ysolde takes Phil by the arm and gives him a kung fu chop to the solar plexus. Phil drops like a bag of manure.)

PHIL. O! I am slain! (dies)

YSOLDE. I also know judo.

(She jumps into Tristan's arms. Then, somehow, Tristan jumps into Ysolde's arms. So there they are, hanging in midair in a sort of pretzel shape. It's best not to try to explain it -- and then the curtain falls.)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sitting docked on eBay, wasting time

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In every man's life, there comes a time when he stands in awe of all that surrounds him and calculates how much he could get for it on eBay.

It happened to me recently. I looked around my apartment, pockets empty with a week left to payday, and saw wads of cash -- all of it locked inside items some sucker hasn't bought yet.

For instance, I own hundreds of vinyl records: jazz, blues, pop, hard rock, rare ones I didn't let myself listen to. I used to keep them fastidiously alphabetized on a bookshelf until last year, when the bookshelf collapsed in pieces. My collection weighs about 300 pounds.

After a search for another shelf strong enough to hold my collection -- I figured titanium-enforced concrete -- I waved my copy of Freddy Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" under my wife's nose.

"Somebody will buy this on eBay," I said. "People buy all kinds of inane stuff on eBay. These just collect dust here."

My wife looked at me, then at Freddy. "That's actually a smart idea. Hold on a sec -- I'm trying to figure out how you can screw this up." She glanced away for a moment, then said, "That's actually a smart idea."

So I'm putting part of my record collection on eBay! After expenses, I figure I should make somewhere between $3 and $950,000. With eBay, you never know who's a multimillionaire Freddy Fender fan.

But like any good businessman, I've got to think ahead. What will I sell after the next teardrop falls?

So I researched commonly sold eBay goods. My favorite eBay items are the ones everyone has around the house, the ones no one can put a price on.

Haunted items, for instance. Auctioneers on eBay make a tidy sum every day on everyday household objects possessed by malevolent poltergeists. Everyone has at least one haunted appliance or objet d'art lying around in the garage -- why not trade it in for a little payola?

A quick check of eBay turned up Item No. 5580163845, "Haunted Vase & Contents Was Grandmas." A longer check reveals that, thankfully, the contents are not Grandma.

"I Believe that it is haunted because of the wierd things that have been going on, not to be talked about!" is the bone-chilling description. It includes a picture of what looks like a mushroom-shaped bong with a towel on it. With 12 minutes left to go, three people had driven the bidding up to $5.50 for this unique treasure.

"The Contents that might be haunted are a gift, believe me you can have em!" I'm betting it's dirt from a desecrated Indian burial ground. It could also be mold.

Think it's just useless shit? Hardly! That would be Item No. 6177975304, "Coprolite Fossil Reptile Dino Dung." For just $14.99 you can own half a dozen pieces of ancient history -- very icky pieces of ancient history.

"Dino Dung or 'Coprolite' is the Fossilized Excrement or 'Poop' of a 35 to 65 Million Year Old Reptile (Dinosaur, Turtle, Giant Sloth, etc.)." It's true -- sloths are reptiles. "These are nice shaped specimens," the description adds helpfully, meaning the rocks look more or less like poo.

I'm thinking, since I have a decent yard, there must be some fossilized turds in there somewhere. Did Fall River have dinosaurs? And sloths -- what about them?

Or I could get in on the racket of so many other successful eBayers -- like the woman selling a saltine that she drew Paula Abdul on, or the other guy hawking a grilled cheese sandwich, or the pregnant woman offering the naming rights to her twins ("Bank of America, if you keep playing with your food so help me there is no dessert! That goes for you too, Disney Presents The Pixar Animated Film 'Cars'!").

But the best racket has to be selling money.

There are no less than four "mystery wallets" for sale on eBay. People are bidding hundreds of bucks on wallets stuffed with cash. The unfortunate thing is, with mystery wallets, you could get much less than you paid for. On the other hand, most of the wallets look like Buxtons. They make a nice wallet, Buxton.

Item No. 5578715638 is "Daddy's FAT Mystery Wallet." "This wallet is used and now retired and as you can see is holding A LOT of REAL US Dollars!!" Who doesn't like US Dollars? And who doesn't like a mystery? Some say the mystery is how much loot is packed in the wallet! Others say the mystery is why anybody would spend money to buy money. I say the mystery is, why didn't I come up with this scam first?

After my research, I came up with a list of stuff around my house that I'll be selling on eBay. Now, because you look like a nice guy/lady, I'm letting you in on the ground floor. I'll give 10 percent off to any reader who wants these magnificent items! Did I say 10 percent? I meant to say 1.0:

HAUNTED CAN OF FURNITURE POLISH: I bought this can of Lemon Pledge more than six years ago -- and it still has Lemon Pledge in it. I suspect there is a mischievous demon inside. It frightens me. I also don't like dusting. Please take the Pledge off my hands. Bidding starts at $50.

GRAPEFRUIT SHAPED LIKE A YELLOW SOFTBALL: What an amazing coincidence! I was sitting down to enjoy a grapefruit, and all of a sudden I noticed the striking similarity! Spooky! We'll open the floor at $800.

DERISIVE NICKNAMES FOR SALE: Coming up with snide monikers for people you don't like can often be a chore. Should you attack their weight problems or their glasses? "Ass" -- suffix or prefix? Let me take care of that for you -- banana-face! See how easily snotty nicknames come to me, Tube Top? The power of instant mockery can be yours, with an opening bid of $250.

MYSTERY SOCK FILLED WITH NICKELS AND POWDERED SUGAR: How many nickels are inside? Why powdered sugar? These are just two of the mysteries surrounding this sock. Remember -- this is not a lottery! You're just buying the sock! Any money or sweetener inside is a special prize! Starts at $2,500.

WHAT COLOR SHIRT WILL I WEAR ON JULY 19TH? BLUE OR BROWN? Ordinarily, I just throw on a shirt. Not July 19! You make the call! Consider the power you'd wield over my life. I think $1,900 is a fair price. Bid early and bid often!
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