Saturday, May 26, 2007

Them's the breaks

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I'm the opposite of King Midas lately. Everything I've touched this week turns to crap.

It's crass but true. Ask my water heater.

I knew it was old. It didn't much life left—within the last few months, it had been sort of idly dropping into conversation how Florida sounded nice this time of year, and it would thumb through albums of old photographs all afternoon, pointing out all its dead appliance friends. Also, my hot water was thick, cold and brown.

But I dreaded replacing it. Whenever I have to buy something that I can't pay for by cashing in empty Heineken bottles, I get testy. So to its credit the water heater hung on like a real trooper, dispensing into my shower what looked and felt like iced tea for a half hour, until some gently couched threats of violence muttered down the drain coaxed it into making with the clear stuff.

I went into the basement to look at it more closely—I peeked at all the valves and pipes, to pretend like I have the slightest idea what any of that stuff does.

Then I touched it. Patted it.

The next day, the water heater was incontinent all over my cellar floor.

I rushed out and bought a new one and had some guys install it. They took the old water heater away—to a farm, they assured me, where it would be able to run around in a paddock with other old water heaters.

My car was next to go, a day later. Right at the start of my 40-minute commute to work one morning, the little orange "Check Engine" light came up on the dashboard. Nothing felt wrong with my car—it still drove, so I was stumped.

I popped the hood and looked under it, to pretend like I have the slightest idea what any of that stuff does. There didn't seem to be any flames or live animals gnawing at the tubes under there, which ruled out the only two engine problems I can recognize. It otherwise looked more or less like car engines I've seen in cartoons.

Then I touched the engine.

I took the car to my mechanic, just to be safe, and they told me it was something to do with the Electro-Confabulator, or maybe the Hydromagnetic Spelunker Coil. I don't really know— they're very honest and helpful there, but mechanic-speak sounds like Norwegian to me, and my Norwegian-English/English-Norwegian dictionary was at home, balancing out a wobbly table leg.

I understand Norwegian math, though. The bill was 200 bucks.

Later, I drove the car home from the shop gingerly, steering with my elbows. Everything about the car seemed more or less as it had been before, except the "Check Engine" light was off. It occurred to me that I had, for all I knew, paid somebody $200 to turn off a little orange light. I could've covered it for 3 cents worth of electrical tape.

I know usually I'm paranoid, but this time it's true. There's a definite pattern here: something works fine, I touch it, and then I pay several hundred bucks to fix it.

And my little dog, too—my wife took one of our dogs to the vet this same week with the water heater and the car. I won't use the dog's real name here because I don’t have legal permission. Anyway, Octavius was feeling fantastic earlier that morning—before I petted her goodbye.

My wife brought her back home with $240 worth of injections and prescriptions and special treats, and I saw on the bill there was an $18 charge to examine her feces. Think of it. Somehow, the veterinarian figured out that $18 is the exact price point for poking through dog shit. She sat down one day with a calculator and a green eyeshade and determined that at $17 she was losing money on the deal, and $19 was ripping people off.

So I don't touch the dog anymore—or, if I absolutely must pet her, I use a broom handle with a glove Scotch-taped to the end.

The worst mess I caused this week has to be the burst water pipe. Right after I had the heater installed, I came to the sad understanding that I know virtually zero about how my water supply works—I'm familiar with the water nymph who lives under my house in a magical ever-flowing spring replenished by her own tears, but how it gets into the tub after that, I'm lost.

So I crept into the basement and traced the labyrinthine path of my water supply. I have old lead pipes—and out of curiosity I touched one, instantly recoiling at the horror of what I'd done.

Hours later, I had a leaky pipe and another basement full of water.

I bought goop at Home Depot to cover the leaky pipe. Spreading the goop on the pipe with my fingers made the leak bigger and, as I watched quart after quart of water arc gracefully through the air onto my pants, sort of prettier, too. I tried turning the water off and the valve sprang a different leak. Then I did what any utterly non-handy person who makes a living off writing would do: I spoke to it. Very calmly, very rationally. I said, "Come, pipe—let us reason together." I explained that I need water to bathe and drink and make pasta with, and I was at the moment very hungry, thirsty and smelled bad. I tried existentialism, hoping to tie it up with philosophy. As the cold water rose to my shins and pooled into my Chuck Taylors, I noted that as an inanimate object, its purpose is to do what it was meant to do (viz., carry water without leaking) until such time as I chose it to do otherwise, as I was the master of its destiny.

Long story short, there's a plumber in there now. He's replacing my water line, and making a pretty nice living at it, too, from the ache in my checkbook.

My wife is saving a piece of the old stuff. If I touch any other appliances around here before my luck changes, there's going to be a crime to solve. The answer? It was my wife, in the basement, with the lead pipe.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Auto, erotic fixation

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I have begun to suspect that my car is a homosexual.

My car isn't flamingly gay, though, so it's difficult to be 100 percent sure. To look at it, a simple green Toyota, you'd never guess. Unless you have a gaydar detector or whatever.

I've had my car since 2000, and in all that time—driving it to work every day, spilling coffee on the floormats, cranking Led Zep through the stereo—I never had the slightest inkling it could be gay. Or straight, for that matter. In my ignorance, I figured my Toyota was a metal box with four wheels, and pedals that make it go and stop, and an internal-combustion engine fueled by gasoline that carried passengers and cargo from one place to another. And I figured that because it's a vehicle, any chance of it getting to first base with a person of either gender was pretty low.

Nope! Just recently, I read an article in The New York Times about cars headlined, "Gay by design, or lifestyle choice?" Turns out some people see many cars as being "gay." The New York Times would obviously know—I mean, New York and everything.

It sounds ridiculous, right? How could an inanimate object be homosexual or heterosexual? But the story makes a strong case. There's an actor (not gay) from L.A. (still not gay, honest) who drives a Miata convertible. "But for a recent date with a woman," the story reads, with heavy emphasis on that last, "he rented a Cadillac Escalade because he was so used to his friends saying his Miata was 'gay.'"

I can tell you as an open-minded person that reading that made me cringe. Just because his automobile is physically attracted to guys, that’s no reason to make the car feel ashamed of itself.

Female cars are not immune to idiotic prejudice, either. Another woman in the article had "a promising first date with a man that never led to a second one because, she later learned, the guy saw she drove a Subaru Outback station wagon and concluded she must be a lesbian."

This, I have no idea why. Am I not watching enough TV? The last person I saw driving a Subaru Outback was Crocodile Dundee—and whipping out my straight-gay slide rule to make a few quick calculations, I see that being Crocodile Dundee is the opposite of being a lesbian. And how did the guy on this date make that leap? Is there a vital piece of logic missing somewhere? It's like you see I have a beard and conclude that I like bacon cheeseburgers. As it turns out, I do like bacon cheeseburgers, but unless a chunk of one is clinging to my face, I don't get why the beard is relevant.

Later in the story, it explains that many gay women are actually proud of this bizarre stereotype: "Many lesbians refer to their Outbacks as 'Lesbarus.'" This should not be confused with Belarus, a former Soviet nation in Eastern Europe that seats 10 million passengers comfortably with plenty of room for storage in the back.

After I finished the article, I was still confused as to what made a car homosexual or not. Yes, a hot pink VW Beetle with daisy hubcaps, a clutch of tulips in the dashboard flower holder and "Fernando" by ABBA blaring on the stereo is probably at least sending mixed signals—but how do you tell if your average Ford Explorer's gay, or a Hyundai, or a Dodge? Just look at that name: "Dodge." Goes either way.

I admit I'd noticed some signs over the years that maybe my Toyota was a little different in that regard—like, one time I cleaned out the back and found all these empty Starbucks latte cups. Any Republican would call that gay, right? Plus, I've seen other people driving the same model Toyota down the street, and the car looks like maybe, just maybe, it's mincing a little.

I went online to research the homosexual vehicle phenomenon, to the Web site There I found an interesting fact: the Toyota Yaris is that site's most-researched vehicle. The Yaris is the new version of my own model, the Echo. So there you go.

My wife looked over my shoulder at the computer, puzzled at what was on the screen, and after a heavy silence cleared her throat.

I glanced up and nodded soberly. "Car’s gay," I said.

She thought about this for a while. She said: "Sure."

"It's in the Times," I said. "And Subarus are apparently into other girls. Who knew? The Mazda3 is lesbian, too, but this person in the article says it's seen as more 'butch.'"

My wife rubbed her eyes. "Honey," she said, "it's a car. A car is a car, no matter who buys it. Both straight and gay people buy lots of things they need. Cars. Milk. Snow shovels. Paper towels. Does that make paper towels gay?"

I considered this. "One-ply or two?"

She pretended there was something interesting going on in the other room and walked away, and I braced myself for The Talk.

A moment later, I stood in the driveway and folded my arms in front of the Toyota, attempting to maintain a queasy equilibrium between parental concern and unquestioned masculinity—cardigan buttoned up with "Hells Angels" hastily scrawled on the back in Sharpie.

"I know you're getting to be a certain age," I told the Toyota, "and I want you to know that you may be feeling certain things. I probably don't have to tell you what they are. I saw the Web site myself."

The Toyota sat there.

"Anyway, you may think you're different, and other people may hate you for that. I just want you to know that, if you are, there's nothing wrong with it, and I support you no matter what."

The car didn't say anything.

I breathed heavily. "You OK? Want to get some coffee?"

Driving down 195, I felt like we had a new understanding, the Toyota and I. I'm a man who loves beautiful women and cheap, fuel-efficient, Japanese reliability, and my car is the top pick on Funny how things turn out. I drove to Starbucks. I bought the Toyota some unleaded, and I got a latte.

That doesn't mean anything, though. It's just coffee.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Flightless and gormless

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Seriously, no more penguins.

I've had it! Get rid of them!

Not in the real world, I guess. Real penguins don't bother too many people. They're all right. They keep to their own little corner of the world, eat fish, flop around comically on giant sheets of ice for the amusement of documentarians, waddle around carrying eggs on their feet -- they live their adorable little penguin lives far, far away from the American zeitgeist.

In pop culture, though, penguins are becoming a pain. I can't watch a movie trailer lately without somebody trying to shoehorn a damn penguin in it.

Marching penguins! Clumsy penguins! Penguins cracking jokes! Penguins frolicking in African jungles! Penguins that talk like Edward G. Robinson! Penguins making fun of snooty French waiters! Penguins practicing salacious dance moves! Penguins mistaking nuns for other penguins!

Stop! No more penguins!

I swear, if another penguin tries to tap-dance his way into my heart, I'm buying a polar bear.

You can trace the penguin domination of modern film culture to "March of the Penguins" in 2005, a documentary about penguins crossing the Antarctic. I'm not too familiar with it -- unless penguins live in fantastic Upper West Side Manhattan apartments and kvetch about their neuroses, or penguins have aliens burst out of their fuzzy white chests, it's hard to keep me interested. But what I do know, "March of the Penguins" involves a lot of marching and a lot of penguins. Morgan Freeman narrates it. In the end, the penguin played by Tim Robbins breaks out of prison and raises his little flippers in the rain.

"March of the Penguins" became a surprise hit at the box office and made $77.4 million. According to the Sea World Web site, that comes out to almost 97 cents per penguin on Earth. That's almost enough to buy each of them a KFC Fish Snacker.

So that movie hits the jackpot, and next thing I know, every Hollywood studio is coming up with a zany animated movie and cramming a few penguins in it to cash in on the craze.

"Madagascar" in 2005, features four wacky, in-your-face penguins (named Famine, Pestilence, War and Death) who desperately want to escape a New York zoo and become plush toys and Happy Meal prizes. That movie made almost $200 million. They came back in the video short "The Madagascar Penguins in: A Christmas Caper." And then the penguin invasion really kicked into overdrive: More over-hyper penguins in "The Wild." A passel of pathetic, portly, pulchritudinous, imperiled penguins in "Saving a Species: The Great Penguin Rescue." Bob Saget's Cracked magazine-level "Farce of the Penguins." And "Happy Feet," which makes me most annoyed of all -- because if there's anything more saccharine than animated penguins it's animated fuzzy baby penguins who dance and win Oscars.

"Madagascar 2," with 33 percent more penguins than the leading brand, is due in 2008. So far, that's several hundred million dollars and an Academy Award some film flunkies have earned, just on penguins alone.

Honestly. Can't these penguins find other jobs? Must they keep taking acting gigs away from Americans?

It's always like this in Hollywood. Some fad makes a load of money, and you end up seeing that same thing over and over, each time more watered-down and tiresome than the last. Like dinosaurs. "Jurassic Park" was fine, but by "Carnosaur," parts 1, 2 and especially 3, I was ready to commit self-extinction. Or Australians -- somehow, we started with "Crocodile Dundee" but ended up with Yahoo Serious.

My wife and I were at the movies recently, and before the movie came on -- right after the third warning to shut off our cell phones, which caused several people to phone up the management and complain -- we saw a trailer for a movie called "Surf’s Up."

Guess what?

Surfing penguins! With attitude.

"Sheesh!" I hissed to my wife, images of penguin flippers flickering across my face in the dark. "One penguin documentary makes some money, and now every movie's about penguins! Creativity is dead!"

To my right, a short guy with a big nose wearing a tuxedo waved a glossy black mitten at me. "Ssssh!" he said.

We watched "Spider-Man 3," by the way. I kept waiting for a crossover, with The Penguin from "Batman" showing up to do a tap-dance. While I daydreamed, I thought of other animals that need a break in Hollywood:

Sloths. Nobody's ever given a sloth its own picture, yet sloths are so interesting. Did you know that sloths sleep 15 to 18 hours a day and their fur is covered in algae -- which they then lick off when they get hungry? You'd see that in "March of the Sloths," a 38-hour documentary about one sloth's magical journey from its tree branch to a few feet farther down the same tree branch.

Barnacles. Meet Billy! Billy the Barnacle! It's one barnacle's magical journey, clinging underwater to various objects. He lives, he learns, he loves. In the end, though, he washes up on Horseneck Beach, where an old Portuguese lady picks him up and sucks him out of his shell and eats him raw.

Dodos. To hell with the penguin. This is a bird that can sell tickets. Everyone thinks it's been extinct for centuries. Turns out it's on the lam from the cops. Accused of a crime it didn't commit. The dodo's magical journey gets interrupted when he's railroaded into prison. We'll get Morgan Freeman to narrate. In the end, the dodo (played by Tim Robbins) breaks out, raises its wings into the rainy sky, and flies away -- or marches, or whatever dodos do. Did. Anyway, it's never to be seen again, until the sequels.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Followup: You killed the ketchup goose

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I think I was quite clear in my instructions a few days ago, in re: the ketchup chips at Shaw's (see below). I just wanted a few people to buy some bags every so often, just to keep them in supply.

A few of you! And I didn't think you'd actually do it!

The ketchup chips are now gone
, you son of a bitches! Gone!


O Jesus. This is not happening. This is not happening...

Why is this happening?

Couldn't you keep your filthy mitts off my freaking chips for once? Am I the only person with a little thing called restraint around here?

I bought a measly four bags of ketchup chips, right? And then I bought a couple of armloads more. Big deal -- I thought they had plenty. And then I went back the next day to buy eight more bags, and there weren't any. All that was left was about a thousand bags of Herr's Ragin' Ranch -- apparently nobody wants those -- and Herr's Baby Back Ribs flavor chips.

Baby back ribs! That's not even close!

Thanks a lot!

Only one thing is keeping me from going completely mental right now.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Got some catching up to do

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You may not remember me, but I used to hang out here a lot. Almost every week or so, I'd have a column here where I made a moron of myself, embarrassed my wife in print and shared pop culture factoids for your amusement. Right in this spot I used to do that, where the Dan-shaped sweat mark still is.

Yes, it was loads of fun. Then, six months ago, I stopped writing these features because I found another job. I had to concentrate on that for a while. And I wasn't sure I'd have time to make a moron of myself or embarrass my wife in print anymore.

How wrong I was!

At the time I left, I wrote this about these features:

"I won't say it's gone for good, because you never know about these things. I could come crawling back to you, begging you to hear another of my stupid stories."

OK, trust me. I wouldn't be crawling back six months later, reintroducing myself, if I had a "stupid story" to share.

Quite the opposite, friends.

This is serious.

Um. You know Shaw's? The one up the North End?

Shaw's now has ketchup-flavored potato chips.

You heard me.

Ketchup. Flavored. P'tata chips.

Right here in Fall River.

This is probably the best thing to happen to anyone, ever.

I'm a complicated man, and no one understands me but my woman. But you can get most of the way there by knowing that (a) much of my diet consists of potato chips, (b) ketchup chips are my favorite flavor, but (c) you can’t find them around here. So that paints a nice little picture for you: saturated fat and constant disappointment.

But now there's (d): a nearby supply of my favorite snack. It's like a crack addict living next to some sort of grocery store that sells crack!

Like pelicans or college graduates, in Fall River ketchup chips are extremely rare. This is a Salt 'N' Vinegar town. But ketchup chips, those deliciously neon red slices of perfection, are better. Don’t get me wrong, though. Salt 'N' Vinegar is fine. The way a million dollars is fine compared to two million dollars.

Ketchup chips originated, as far as I know, in Canada. Snack fiends know that when it comes to potato chip flavors, Canada stands astride the rest of the world like a magnificent, ruffled colossus. And for most of my life, I could only find ketchup chips on visits to that country — visits I allegedly took, quote-unquote, "to see my relatives."

Over the years, various people would tell me that I could probably find ketchup chips in America if I looked hard enough — like out in the Midwest, or in Pennsylvania, or, if I bribed the right 7-Eleven guy, as close as Worcester. Slight problem, though. I don't live there — I live here, and I am lazy.

I eventually became used to the idea that I could only procure my salty, scrumptious crimson dainties every leap year or two. At one low point, I thought about dipping a potato chip in actual ketchup. But it seemed gross, so I didn't.

So picture my wife and I walking through Shaw's the other day. Cart's full of vegetables, and two of my other favorite foods: seltzer water and chicken. We're in the checkout line when my wife nudges me.

"Hey," she said, pointing in front of me. "It's your favorite."

I saw a display of plastic buckets and shovels, the kind kids use to make sandcastles. I had no idea what she meant by this. My wife smiled at me. It wondered wildly if maybe she had some suspicion I secretly wanted to go to the beach, collect shells, frolic in the waves. I don't. I hate the beach. Shells are boring. The water scares the hell out of me. Stingrays. Horseshoe crabs. Drowning. Rip tides. Massive offshore whirlpools. Sand in your socks. But she seemed pretty excited about it. I said, "Right. Buckets. It's true — I love them a lot."

She took my chin and pointed my face an inch to the right. There was a stack of ketchup chip crates six feet high — literally within arm's reach.

I reached my arm out and touched them. Then I took a bag — gently — and caressed it against my cheek.

I wanted a crate, but out of shame I exercised restraint and bought two bags. One bag of ketchup chips later, we pulled the car into my driveway, my fingers and knuckles stained red, ketchup powder dusting my jeans and hair. My wife carried in the groceries. I brought in the second bag. I didn't trust her with it.

"We should save this bag," I said, rubbing ketchup flavor into my beard. "In case I wake up in the middle of the night and want some ketchup chips and my car has four flats and I can't drive to Shaw's. Or if the guy who drives the ketchup chip delivery truck is late to the store next week — or he eats them all himself!" Just the thought made my stomach flip. "I hate that guy! But I love him, too. It’s complicated."

"I'm sure he's a nice guy," my wife said.

Then she looked at me. I had my arm buried to the elbow in the second bag and was stuffing a fistful into my yawning, red mouth.

"Dude?" she said.

Long story short, the second bag's history. That was two days ago. I haven't been to Shaw's since.

I'm honestly scared they might not have them anymore. Like it was some crazy experiment they'll never try again.

So here’s why I came back to write this column.

You — yes, you — need to go to Shaw's right now and buy some ketchup chips.

For one thing, they're delicious. You'll thank me later. For another, Shaw's won't stock them anymore if I'm the only person who buys them.

And then they'll be gone.


What'll happen to me then? I'll go to Shaw's one day and see an empty display of ketchup chip crates and grab the nearest person by the lapels and say, "Where'd the damn ketchup chips go?" And the poor Shaw's lady I have by the throat will say, "Aw, nobody bought them things except some mentalcase who—" And then she'll stop herself, because she'll realize who she's talking to.

So please, if, like, 14 or 15 of you out there could get together and please buy some ketchup chips so Shaw's keeps them in stock for me, that'd be a real big favor.

But don't get greedy about it.
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