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.
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