Monday, September 1, 2014

FPU

   The expression "community service" leads to visions of forced cleaning of city parks as repayment to the town for breaking a minor law, such as punching a photographer. Sometimes the term takes on a different connotation. Sometimes it means chasing away drug dealers, painting over graffiti, or teaching local kids to read. 
   A certain for-profit university in our local midst here in Phoenix takes that phrase to mean massive expansion.
   This For Profit University began in 1949, never amounting to much when it was run by the Southern Baptists. Then in 2004, the school found itself acquired by a group of businessmen. Over the last decade, the for-profit private Christian university has built an arena, a bowling alley, a promenade, an aquatics center, a food court and a whole bunch of dormitories and parking lots. Enrollment has soared, in large part because of FPU's aggressive campaign to compete with the public universities in the state and region. Their enrollment has hit 59,000 students, many of them online. 
   Times have changed and the For Profit University has evolved with those times. The old way held that the money brought into an educational system through academics, research and athletics recycled itself back into the community that supported that system. The new way, which For Profit spearheads, is to say that the profit from educational, research and athletic endeavors goes back to the shareholders. Those men and women, of course, are expected to reinvest their profits into the community, create jobs, keep the parks clean, scrub the toilets, and all manner of community service. They are job creators, these guys are, and woe unto those who do not get the picture.
   I must admit, I was one of those who failed to see the revelatory light of the FPU masterplan. What I thought--and you will no doubt find this quite naive--was that the school was going to expand itself over an area of our neighborhood, displace a whole lot of people, and pocket the profits. Clearly, my thinking on this matter was out of date.
   I attended a community meeting just last evening, as I write this, a meeting that addressed what is called a Planned Unit Development. If you are unfamiliar, a PUD is a way of rezoning communities so that businesses do not have to rely on antiquated means of takeover such as imminent domain. A PUD allows companies to petition the city for permission to expand into areas they hope to acquire. All this effort requires high-priced attorneys and it was just such a group who moderated last night's standing room only gathering of concerned citizens.
   I had hoped the turnout would be hearty. I had spent the better part of the previous day doing TV news interviews to promote the event. The response surprised me. We had better than 250 local residents and a smattering of co-opted individuals in attendance. 
   The head attorney lead the conversation and set the rules. Rule one: After the initial presentation, a question and answer period would take place. The moderator would call on people to ask questions and that would be the only time people in the audience would be allowed to speak. Rule two: There would be no discussion of buying properties. 
   I didn't care much for either of those rules. But that was way back last evening, before the glory of FPU had lightened mine eyes.
   As I mentioned, the head lawyer moderated, but he was not the only Esq. in attendance. There was an attorney charged with relocations, another who handled community reach out, and another still who dealt with something called entitlement zoning.
   The Q and A was interesting. The school announced they had no plans to widen any streets due to increased traffic. One person inquired about feral cats and abandoned dogs that had been left behind. Another inquired about the Christian students throwing beer cans into the streets. Another pair mentioned that they were unhappy with the religious intolerance toward Muslims and Buddhists. And one person, who claimed to be a former student in the Master's Program, declared his love for the school, especially because "This is the only school that requires a research paper based on a verse from the Bible."
   For the most part, the crowd was antagonistic. People complained about old trees being cut down and old people being evicted. The lawyers explained that those people were quite mistaken. Any problems with speeding through residential neighborhoods should be turned over to the police and they certainly did not endorse religious bigotry.
   Toward the end of the presentation the moderator announced that they had no plans to acquire the community where I live. I was told that the recent media exposure had been a determining factor. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD--AND HOW TO SURVIVE THEM

   Forty years ago this week, as I write this, Richard Milhous Nixon resigned the United States Presidency. As best I can recall, that was the last positive thing to happen in this country. 
   In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire again. Today the drinking water in Toledo will make you sick. Here's a nice list of all the contaminants about which the Environmental Protection Agency (authorized into law under Nixon) acknowledges have existed in our collective drinking water: EPA List of Contaminants. 
    In October 1973, Israel and an Arab coalition fought each other in what became known as the Yom Kippur War. Today, in August 2014, we find Israel at war against Palestine in what is being called Operation Protective Edge.
    These days the Israelis bomb the Gaza region with impunity. Isil/Isis has established an Islamic State in the desert, murdering thousands in the name of a nonexistent religion. Protesters march in the rain in Missouri to call attention to yet another suspicious police shooting of a black teenager. Robin Williams killed himself last week. The state of Arizona threatens to elect a new governor so vile that he or she will make Jan Brewer look good by comparison. 
   Two days ago the rain in Phoenix flooded the Skunk River, causing a fat stream of mud to cover the Interstate Highway. 
   People still do not get along. Other people delight in exploiting the ignorance. 
   I don't know why any of these things happen. I do know that I found myself foaming rage at what happened to a journalist named James Foley. 
  I do know that The Who were the greatest rock and roll band of all time. 
  And I also know that I'm looking forward to the original "Batman" TV series being released on DVD this November.
   I liked the way Lawrence O'Donnell brought critical thinking to an analysis he did on air tonight about an article written in The New York Times.
   My favorite stringed instrument is a dulcimer. 
   I can eat pizza at any time of the day or night.
   But when it comes to the species of humans and why we do what we do, I have no answers at all. Sometimes I think we escape into intellectualism as a way of dealing with visceral reactions, just as too often we "go with our guts" rather than use our brains. 
   I often escape into the past, something of a blend of the visceral and the intellectual. That kind of blend is often code for delusional, but it also has its up side. For instance, I can tell you about several hundred movies made before I was born. I can write for years about songs by black singers listened to by white teenagers on pathetic little radios late at night even though it happened a lot of years before I even existed. I am happy to sit down with you and discuss Philip Roth or Adrienne Rich any time you like. In short, I know my share of cultural history. I know how it feels to be an American, walking this land at night, fearing far less than I should, growing fascinated with the sounds coming from inside cars or from behind store windows or within people's houses. I don't know any other country nearly as well as I do this one. The people here remain strange to me much of the time, but that only draws me closer to the ones I love. 
   To help my girlfriend get to sleep, I take her hand and play with her fingers. What I do is I use her thumb and index finger and make them into singers doing a duet or harmony. Tonight the index finger was singing lead and the thumb was handling backing vocals. "I roller skate I ride my bike don't drive no car," sang the finger as the thumb went "Doe dee doe doe dee doo." "Don't go too fast but I go pretty far."
   Clearly, knowing one's history is important. 
   Face it: people are going to disappoint you. There's nothing we can do to stop it. What we can do is to defy them, to ward off the blows, as it were, through being as conscientiously silly as possible. 
   I work like a madman all day long. Phone calls, websites, letters, chores, you name it. Somewhere along the line I picked up the ability, the need, the compulsion to be periodically ridiculous without warning either to others or to myself. Sometimes I will open the front door and shout, "That coffee is poison, you fool!" even though I see no one drinking java, laced or otherwise. When our dogs appear bored, I will stop what I am doing to tell them story jokes. Most mornings I sing Beach Boy songs on my way down the staircase. I have been known to call the local non-emergency police number just to let the people there know that everything here is just fine. I enjoy doing magic tricks for extremely old people who have no idea who I am or why I am there. I have taught one of our parrots the words to "Surfin' Bird." 
   Again, I haven't any answers. 
   But I do know how to annoy the people who think they do. My goal is to comfort the anxious and pester the content. Or as Cesar Cruz said it (better), I try to be like Art in that I "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Before Cruz it was Finley Dunne who said that the purpose of a newspaper was to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," although everyone from Claire Boothe Luce to Mother Jones claimed to have coined that expression. 
   That remains my advice to you. Keep them laughing. Believe me when I say I hate it that so many great talents are checking out. Eventually no famous people I can respect will be left. They'll have either offed themselves or been gunned down by others and all that will remain is just you and me. Well, hell, I like you just fine, but I might get on your nerves, what with all my foolishness. Let me know. I can try to hold myself back. But the future lies ahead can make even a clown miserable. So have a little sympathy, will ya?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

CRAWLING ALONG THE TWILIGHT

   I was in a good mood when I wrote this. I remain in one. Also, please don't anyone try to make this about them. It's a total fabrication. Honest. Besides, I wrote it in 2009.

   Now and in only an instant no one hides my socks, no one suspects my broken promises and splintered potential and no one walks me to a well of guilt for his aches and toil. 
   Yet I am not alone. My tormentor looks a lot like me, only taller, fatter, and with a laugh like rotting meat. How long I must endure is answered as I watch him glow, his eyes empty as ancient tombs, his heart a mummified fist, and his long, swaying arms free and full of youth: “More,” he sings, and I submit.
   It is cold.
   My grief swaddles me to sleep again while things I don't understand bark out shattered voices and wear raisin faces—They see and hear nothing but my own fleeting footsteps. Only my Tormentor smells my panic. To him it is precious.
   So I return each morning to the sanctified sanity of survival, taking caution to be safe, digging spurs into my potential, and folding my socks into their drawer. All this activity unleashes resilience so that upon my nocturnal return, my Tormentor will face a fit and worthy supplicant. I stay fit so my Tormentor does not tire of me. 
   How can a man long dead write these words? “They are only the squandered hieroglyphics of your soul that has died,” says Mr. T. “Your health and sobriety are a joy to me, that I may help you recall lost moments, fire you along neurotransmitters, and cheer you on to rages that are your due. And when you cry, ‘Enough!’ I will have only started, just as I have not yet begun.” 
   And so as you prepare to draw your blinds and hazard one last scan at your day, remember that is me you hear crawling along the twilight, empty, gawking, and thirsting for anything but what I have earned. This is my fate. (My Tormentor takes me by the hand. If I resist, he drags me by the heels.) Crawling along the twilight among paranoid coyotes and vampire stars blinking themselves to sleep, I forget the cause of my shame, a certain sign of madness. Overhead the Anointed One claps his hands and from his arms fly tattoos, one a vulture and one a bluebird. They defile my path and peck at my sweat in the dust. Pisser.
   I write for the noise of morning, a steady building cacophony, that my Tormentor may retire. But the nights grow long, as does his self-contained shadow. My fear is his appetizer, my nightmare the dessert.
   I crawl along the twilight, dodging demons, boxing with their silhouettes and hiding from their laughter. It is cold.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

MIKEY AND THE TENNIS BALL

   Back in my youth, a kid named Mikey lived just two doors down the street. Everyone said what a cute kid this Mikey was. Little head full of red hair, kind of a button nose, black marble eyes, and the kind of voice all we five-year-olds struggled with in those days. Mikey Burnette--for that was his name--did possess what I suppose you could call a cuteness that went somewhat beyond that of the rest of us. I don't remember anyone being bothered by that. Face it. The kid was a charmer.
   Mikey Burnette didn't talk all that much, so when he did spill out a story, the rest of us shut our holes and listened up because the kid lived what you might be inclined to call a fascinating life. "Fascinating," in the Mr. Spock sense of the word, meaning highly unusual and most intriguing.
   One afternoon Mikey and I were hiding from the world, sitting in a treehouse out in the woods, one several of us nine-year-old hoodlums had built as a kind of fortress of solitude. Anyway, Mikey puts down his Spiderman comic book and says to me, "Mersh, I ever tell you about the time I found a brand new tennis ball right outside your house?"
   He had not told me this and I admitted as much.
   I cannot vouch for the truthfulness of this story. What I can assure you is that in the four years I knew the kid, I never once caught him in a lie. Here is what he told me that day.
   He'd been five and was busying himself the way a five-year-old with working parents and a bit of free time might do: just wandering around the neighborhood with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his head dropped down so he can discover things in the cracks in sidewalks, or pick up a discarded baseball card, or maybe even find something of real value. On the sidewalk that ran in front of our house on Grant Street, Mikey came upon a brand new, fresh from the vacuum-sealed can Wilson tennis ball. What a ridiculous thing to come across, he said to himself in his interior five-year-old squeaky voice.
   Being the kid he was, Mikey looked around to see if any potential owner was fast approaching, preparing to screech out an adult-style warning like "Hey, kid! You leave that goddamned ball alone, y'hear? I put that ball there this morning and if I had wanted you to steal it, I'd have called your parents on the telephone! Now scram!"
   As no such warning was forthcoming, Mikey secured the neon green tennis ball inside his pants pockets and took it home.
   Mikey had his own bedroom and inside his bedroom sat a dresser and upon the dresser rested a Cincinnati Reds souvenir ashtray. For no particular reason, Mikey sat his new possession into the concave side of the ashtray. He stepped back to take an admiring look. He recognized right away that something was just not quite right. "It needs a face," he said aloud. One Magic Marker and a few strokes of the pen later, the neon green tennis ball bore its new smiley face. This time when Mikey stepped back to look, he offered the ball a smile in return.
   In a few short months, Mikey started first grade. The thrill of discovery never left the kid, however. Each day as he would toddle from his bedroom, down the hall and into the street, he would pause at the bedroom door and say, "See ya later, Mr. Tennis Ball!"
   A couple years go by, as years will do, and every school day Mikey would take a moment at his bedroom door to say goodbye to his friend the tennis ball. He never mentioned whether he said hello upon returning home, but in my own mind, he was just as cordial entering as he was leaving. 
   As he was making his way from his bedroom to begin his very first day of third grade, Mikey resumed his routine with what one might think of as a superstitious habitualization, just as some baseball players will tap their bats on home plate or bless themselves. Mikey told the ball to have a nice day and just as he was closing the door behind him, he heard a voice speak. "You, too, dumbo. Good luck to ya."
   As he was recounting this story, Mikey admitted he had been nervous about going to school. He figured the jitters were just getting the best of him. He also considered the possibility that he was going nuts.
   The first day of third grade turned out to be not so bad as all that and when Mikey came home and threw his books on his bed he had already forgotten all about the strange voice from that morning. As he was removing his shoes and socks, he did not even bother to look around the room. He just tossed the footwear into the usual corner and was getting ready to enjoy a fine afternoon nap when he again heard the voice say, "Hey, dumbo! Those dawgs of yours stink like a dead gorilla. Christ! Ain't ya got no foot powder?"
   Mikey sat bolt upright on the bed. That voice had not come from his mother. She was at work. It wasn't dad. He hadn't come home yet, either. And Mikey didn't have any brothers or sisters. He was pretty sure his folks hadn't taken in any boarders. Deep down, he told me, he knew that had been Mr. Tennis Ball talking to him. 
   He looked over at the dresser. His eyes moved up to the ashtray. He stood and looked across the room at the tennis ball.
   "What?" said the ball. "You think you're the only one with a voice box? You got an adenoids problem, dumbo? Ya talk like a goil."
   "My name is Mikey."
   "Mikey, Schnikey. Who gives a damn? Look, junior, I've been sitting here patiently waiting for you to use your limited imagination and have you come up with something for us to do? Ya ever think what it's like for me all day while you're off staring at the back of your teacher's legs? Naw, wha'd do you care? Freakin pervo."
   "Well, what would you like to do?"
   The tennis ball groaned. "I don't wanna go bowling, that's one thing. Look, dumbo. I'm a tennis ball. I wanna go play tennis. Tell your old man to take us down to the courts and we'll kill a couple hours."
   When Mikey's dad came home from the office, Mikey was dressed in his own tennis shirt and shorts. Mr. Tennis Ball was in his front right pocket. 
   His dad said he was kind of tired but what the hey? They could play a set or two, why not?
   Mikey felt Mr. Tennis Ball vibrate with happiness.
   At the tennis courts, Mikey stood at his own baseline, took Mr. Tennis Ball from his pocket, and gave it a soft swat across the net. His father, knowing the limitations his son had in playing against a much larger and experienced man, gently batted the ball back across the net. Mikey caught the ball in one hand, turned his back to his father and examined the ball.
   In a coarse yet low voice, the tennis ball said, "This is great. I've been waiting my whole life for this. Keep it going, okay?"
   Mikey turned around and swatted the ball back across the net.
   Unfortunately for Mr. Tennis Ball, at that exact moment, two college girls in short tennis shorts giggled their way onto the court next to Mikey and his father. Being the kind of man he was, Mikey's father sucked in his gut, puffed out his chest and whacked the tennis ball back across the net as hard as he could, sticking it firmly into the chain link fence behind Mikey.
   The kid shot his dad a look of alarm, then stepped back to retrieve the ball.
   "What da hell was dat? Who your old man think he is, Roger Federer?"
    "Dad, take it easy, okay?"
   "Just hit the ball, Mikey."
   Mikey gave the ball an easy swat across the net. Mikey's dad returned the play by striking down on the ball, giving it a nasty spin. The ball dropped just on Mikey's side of the net, spun weirdly, and hopped over onto the adjacent court. One of the two girls reached down just as the ball rolled over to her feet. 
   She looked at the smiley face drawn on the ball. "Isn't this just adorable, Cindy? Look!"
   The Cindy person galloped around the net and stared. "That's funny! Lecherous, but funny."
   Mikey ran over to the girls, knowing he needed to get there before his father did.
   "Hi. That's our ball. Can I have it, please?"
   "Aren't you just an adorable little boy?" said the girl not named Cindy, as she handed him the ball. Mikey smiled and looked at the ball. The formerly friendly eyes were pinched into a sneer and the mouth was sticking out its tongue. Mikey dropped the ball into his pocket, but before he walked two steps, the ball flew out and rolled back over to the girls. The one not named Cindy reached down, looked at the ball and said, "Did you draw this?"
   Mikey swallowed hard. "Yeah. Sort of."
   The girl kept turning the ball over and over in her hands.
   Mikey's dad yelled, "Hey, that's okay, ladies. You can keep that one. Mike! We've got other balls. Let's play!"
   "But, dad--"
   "Ready?"
   Mikey turned his back on the women and walked back to the family car. His dad apologized for his son's bad manners and the two guys drove home in silence. 
   Mr friend told me he never saw that ball again, but he did encounter the two girls a few weeks later. He had been out on the court, playing against the wall, when the two young ladies had come walking by. The one not named Cindy said to the one named Cindy, "Cindy! There's that kid! The one with--"
   They ran away as fast as their suntanned ankles would carry them.
   I mention this story because Lisa Ann, the long suffering roommate, has a habit of drawing smiley faces on my big toes. 
   One never knows what the consequences of such a thing may be.

   
   
   

Friday, August 1, 2014

HOW TO KNOW IF THE SCHOOL OF YOUR CHOICE IS LAUGHING AT YOU

     Does your school proclaim itself to be a for-profit Christian learning center, offering the benefits of a private education at the cost of a state university? If so, you have cockroach vomit on your trousers.

Does your post-secondary institution buy up low cost housing to raze said properties into dustbin parking lots to accommodate the artificial growth of its main campus? If so, zombies have visited your family and planted radioactive pods where their brains used to be.

Is something called Sports Management the central thrust of your college or university's educational program? Has it brought in the same people to use as camera shills as those who bought sports facilities with city tax dollars they themselves did not have to pay, not so very long ago? If so, your brain may not be the boss.

Are the members of your school's board of directors all former CEOs and marketing directors of fake kindergarten daycares and pseudo-colleges that merely train students for culinary careers at Burger King and Dairy Queen, while they themselves recline at the Biltmore's finest venues? If so, then you are being punked.

Is purple actually anyone's favorite color? 

Do you truly desire to mix biology with religion?

Ever wonder why those enrollees walk up and down the ghetto streets, knocking on the residents' doors to see if they need anything, when what they're actually doing is softening the blow?

Have you ever attempted to have a meaningful conversation with a graduate of a propaganda mill, a guy or gal who blends their faith of poverty and meekness with self-enrichment at the expense of the majority? Mouth-breathers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your spittle!

Is it true that your university plans to employ its own police department because they anticipate rowdy behavior from the secular members of the population they bring in to buy up tickets to concerts by washed up dinosaur groups like Journey and the Beach Boys? Who stole my Daisy Air Rifle?

This message has been brought to you by an opponent of progress, one who prefers the meme:
The future lies ahead--and what to do about them!


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A FREE BIRD

   Once upon a time, not so very long ago in the overall scheme of things, there lived a teenage chicken who called herself Beatrice. All the other chickens in the henhouse referred to her as Gloria, but Beatrice was the only name she used when remarking upon herself. Around the farm, Beatrice was consider a good chicken, one who laid her eggs without much grumbling and one who cleaned up after herself without being prodded.
   The owner of the farm within which the henhouse resided was one Wilma Hackett. Despite her name, Farmer Hackett had the reputation for being a progressive farmer and it was not unusual for her to allow her best-behaved free range hens to take occasional unsupervised field trips. Now Wilma Hackett thought herself quite enlightened with such a policy, and indeed it did result in a considerable gaiety to the surface expressions of the chickens who lived there. However, on occasion a defiant chicken would fail to return to the henhouse before the curfew fell. When that happened, Farmer Hackett forgot all about being progressive and instead sent her hired hands out to bring the delinquent chicken home--dead or alive.
   Shortly after the once upon a time began, Beatrice accepted a day pass from a hired hand named Rudy. Wilma Hackett rarely if ever bothered with this type of assignment herself. She felt that delegation was the key to authority.
    "Where ya headed, Gloria?" Rudy asked with an air of indifference.
   "We shall see," answered Beatrice. Those three words were among this chicken's very favorites and so saying them she sauntered down the lane that led in and out of the Hackett Farm. She passed the rusty old mailbox next to the red tube on a stick that the paperboy filled with unreadable newspapers. An enormous oak tree made a gentle bow as Beatrice halted and started, her neck bobbing to the rhythm of the song within her head. She did not know the name of the song, although she often had heard the melody coming from Wilma Hackett's transistor radio. 
    A mere two miles down Orchard Trail, Beatrice came upon an old sign tacked to a fencepost beside a short road that appeared to lead to another farm. Beatrice clucked with delight at the prospects of meeting some new friends. Perhaps these chickens, she thought, might call her Beatrice instead of Gloria. She had no particular objection to the name Gloria. In fact, it had a lovely ring to it. The problem was that her own name was Beatrice and it seemed strange to her that the belligerent chickens with which she resided could not get that fact through their pointy little heads.
   "We shall see," Beatrice said to herself.
   Now Beatrice was quite an intelligent chicken, as chickens go, and while she did have the psychological wherewithal to hum a tune inside her mind, she had never developed the ability to read. Had young Beatrice been blessed with that power, she might have changed her mind about approaching the new plantation in search of friendship. But that was not the way this particular day was to go. So she halted and started her merry way beyond the sign that said "Cruelty Chicken Factory," down the dusty and brief road until she came within earshot of what was the unmistakable sound of many hens clucking away for all they were worth.
    "We shall see! We shall see!" chimed in Beatrice, for although she was indeed intelligent, as chickens go, those were the only human words she had learned to make. She felt her wings flutter in the breeze and allowed herself a bit of vanity, knowing the sunlight reflecting from her stark white feathers made people stand up and take notice.
   Yet the delight in her breast soon diminished.
   The closer she came, the worse things looked.
   Cage after cage after cage sat crammed next to one another, stacked so high and wide and deep that it was as if a giant ocean had opened up and poured out tin wire crosses. Inside each cage squatted a young chicken, each one looking considerably younger than Beatrice, herself just a teenager. The hens could not turn around, they could not stand up, they could not tilt their heads from one side to the other. In Beatrice's sudden fit of horror she inadvertently cackled at the wonder of how these poor birds could so much as relieve themselves. 
   When she cackled, it was as if every chicken on this factory farm had suddenly gone mute. From their jagged heads the eyes of the caged birds sought out the source of the strange sound. What Beatrice did not know was that none of these animals had ever made such a sound, not once in their lives. A cackle is a sound reserved for chickens who have known freedom. None of them had ever heard, much less seen, a free bird in all their very short lives.
   The silence did not last long. Soon the hens were back to clucking and whistling, having just that quickly forgotten all about the sight and sound of Beatrice. Our teenage chicken cocked her head in wonder. Because she had been raised as a free range chicken, Beatrice had never before encountered stupid chickens. Oh, she had encountered many different types of chickens: belligerent chickens, homely chickens, fussy chickens, smartypants chickens, and once in a while she had even observed defiant chickens. Those were the ones who sooner rather than later found their necks stretched across Wilma Hackett's chopping block. But never in her life had Beatrice ever considered the possibility that there might be such a thing as a stupid chicken. For just an instant she allowed herself to feel a wee bit smug, a wee bit superior. Then that feeling fled. She began to recall hearing Rudy the farm hand talking to some of the other men and women about something he called a Chicken Factory. Rudy said that a few years back he had worked in such a place. He had gone on to say that in such places the owners would allow the flocks to inter breed, to eat one another's dung, and worst of all, the owners would give the birds shots of something called hormones. Beatrice did not know what that word meant, but the way Rudy had described it, these hormone shots made very young hens grow up fast and become very docile. Again, Beatrice did not know the meaning of the word docile, but she suspected it might mean that these birds were simply stupid. She shuddered at the magnitude of the sight before her.
   As Beatrice strained to see if there were actually an end to the rows and rows of caged chickens, her concentration--which was quite good, as chickens go--was broken by the sound of a mechanical motor. The sound reminded her of sounds she had heard while listening to Wilma Hackett's television set. But this was much louder. The roar was so loud that all the other chickens whistled and shrieked as best they could. Beatrice felt a shriek welling up inside her too, but she had the presence of mind to stifle herself. 
   Tilting her head skyward, she observed a large silver crane with a series of hooks attached to the end. The crane lowered the hooks down onto a tall stack of cages and in mere seconds many of those cages--Beatrice was smart, as chickens go, but she could not count beyond three--pulled away from the others and were roughly placed onto something she was fairly certain was called a conveyor belt. Once released from the crane, the cages were carried by the belt into some type of big barn. No lights shined inside the barn so Beatrice could not see what happened. But she did see the huge crane swing back around for more cages. She stood watching this activity for several minutes, feeling kind of confused about what was going on. She felt the words "We shall see" about to form in her throat but she held them back. 
    From inside the darkness of the barn arose a flash of light. The flash flickered out as quickly as it had come. But it had lasted long enough for Beatrice to see what was going on.
    In that instant of flashing light, she saw exactly what was happening to those chickens.
   She turned on her claws and ran. She couldn't run very fast because every time she reached what felt like a good speed she would lose her balance and fall on her face. So she halted and started, halted and started, puffing in her chest, pushing herself forward with her wings, yet not being quite able to fly. 
   In the distance she could see the end of what had earlier seemed like a very short road. She could just make out the back of that old sign tacked to the fence. She could feel a sense of safety welcoming her mere seconds away. Then she heard a human male shout, "Harvey! Hey, Harvey! We got one of 'em gettin away from us!" 
   She fell forward and landed smack on her beak. 
   "Aw, she ain't gettin away from nobody, Earl. Watch this!"
   Beatrice had exceptional hearing, for a chicken, and as she lay face down on that dusty road, she heard the swish of a hatchet fly very close over her backside. A second later she looked up and saw the tool sticking out of the ground just inches from her. 
   That was all it took. Beatrice picked herself up, spun around toward the two men who were staring at her and, with as much coordination as she could muster, walked toward them. 
   Wilma Hackett watched a lot of cartoons on her television set. Her very favorite, Beatrice knew, was something called Popeye the Sailor. This Popeye character had a saying he liked to use, and those same words filled Beatrice's mind like big city neon. "Dat's all I can stands, an I can't stands no more!"
   Beatrice did not quite know what those words meant, but she intuited that they possessed some sort of onomatopoeiac resonance, and the force of them filling her head gave her tremendous audacity. 
   The two mouth-breathing men appeared to be typical farm hands, simply there to do a job and not much looking for trouble. Well, Beatrice thought, trouble had found them anyway. "We shall see," she bellowed. "We shall see!"
   Hearing the teenage chicken talk just as plain as a summer day, the two farm hands, Harvey and Earl, stepped back away from the oncoming hen. "Hey now, little lady. You don't need to get sore," one of them said.
   "Naw," added the other one. "Tweren't nothin' personal, ya see."
   "See? We shall see!" screamed Beatrice as she found the flight in her wings and soared over to the men's feet.
   Most chickens can peck when they are riled. Beatrice had never really felt the need until now. Later she would consider that she had made up for lost time. Before she was finished with Harvey and Earl, she had pecked their feet and legs bloody. One of the men had fallen over backwards, so Beatrice gave that guy a few choice pecks on his arms and chest for good measure. The other man ran away, leaving a series of thin blood trails behind him. He hollered something about calling the police. 
    Our suddenly brave young chicken turned to make her escape, but the horror of the earlier sight had stayed with her. She knew that if she didn't do something about it right now, her dreams would be cluttered with images of murder. (If you don't think chickens dream, then you've never watched one sleep. They do the rapid eye movement thing even more often than your average human.) 
   Beatrice halted and started her way over to the first endless row of cages. Beginning with the very first cage on the bottom of all the mountains of piles of cages, she slipped her beak inside the latch, hooked the door open, and motioned for the frightened bird inside to come on out. Rather than wait for the tiny chicken to make its escape, Beatrice moved on to the next cage and opened that one's door as well, on and on, and within a few minutes she had opened more than three cage doors. (Whenever the number was four or five or twenty-two thousand or anything more than three, Beatrice just referred to it as more than three.) When after a very long time she had completely unlocked and freed all the chickens on the first endless row of cages, she turned to admire her accomplishment. Yet her pride hit the dirty field when she saw that not one of the freed animals had ventured out of the opened cages. Each of them just stood there, scrunched over, staring straight ahead, unwilling to advance.
   Beatrice wanted to scream at them all, to tell the stupid chickens that they were free, what was wrong with them, why didn't they run away? But those words would not come and somehow "We shall see" felt a bit inadequate to the situation. 
   With her heart and head hanging low, young Beatrice left the Cruelty Chicken Factory. She halted and started without much sense of purpose down the brief road, turned back down Orchard Trail and returned to Wilma Hackett's property. 
   She stepped around Rudy who was still leaning where he had been when she had last seen him. 
   "Back kinda early, ain't ya, Gloria?"
   She turned and shouted, "The name's Beatrice, you dumb Okie!"
   Rudy stared for an instant, then placed his thumb inside his mouth and hurried away like a child running from a spanking.
   Beatrice never laid another egg after that day. She also never accepted another day pass. Instead, she took her time rolling out to nibble at the seed the men threw her and the other chickens. After a time, Beatrice grew blump. In most cases that meant that Wilma Hackett would send one of her men out to slaughter the chicken for food. But nobody ever laid a hand on Beatrice. And no one, not one person or even one chicken, ever again called her Gloria.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

JUST LIKE REAL LIFE--ONLY MORE SO

   Beginning in the Middle

   Happy endings are for flower dancers in banquet halls or deep sea divers in search of ancient wreckage. Happy beginnings arrive even less often. So rare are they that when they knock, we often groan and pretend to be out of town. We even treat such false starts as maudlin acts of deceit, things to scorn rather than to embrace. As to the middle? En medias res goes back all the way to Homer, so it should be good enough for our purposes. 
   From inside the fetid comfort of my sleeping bag I felt a nudge against my shoulder. Wanting sleep to continue protecting me from whatever might be crawling along that basin, my mind mumbled and I turned away from it. Before long came another nudge, this one a bit more harsh. I reacted against this intrusion into my sanctuary with a sharp slap of the fist against the inside of my zipped up comforter. The final kick came hard. My ribs screamed. The cold hunger I'd been repressing yawned from my stomach to my elbows. Before I could free myself to see what was attacking me, strong arms hoisted me up and tore the sleeping bag down to my shins. 
   Sure. 
   Of course. 
   Yes. 
   Cops. Two big white and blue police officers dispatched to ease the consciences of the twinkling Christmas tree homes, homes with their fireplaces blazing, their stereos clanging, and their occupants peeking down the embankment where I stood with two of the Valley's finest specimens prodding me with questions and night sticks.
    The strong arm of lunacy had been nursing my head and shoulders with its graveyard touch for weeks as I wandered from beneath bridges to atop office buildings, from the stenches of man-made shelters to the dank operations of hospital waiting rooms. Over the previous months, I'd found myself standing or sitting or lying in all those places and others, never quite allowing myself to gain a clear picture of my condition. To see myself right would have been like that horrible scene in The Elephant Man where the captain brings in the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery to gaze upon the poor wretch, the final act of maddened cruelty being to shove a mirror under Merrick's nose so the deformed beast had to look upon himself in horror.
   I had been avoiding mirrors for some time.
   The cops tore through my pockets while pretending to frisk. Out fell my battered wallet, down went half the bagel I'd grabbed from a hotel lobby. The worn razor I used for dry shaving bounced off a stone. I'd not removed my glasses when I retired, so they went down with the rest of my meager belongings. 
   "Mind telling us what you're doing here?" said the bigger of the cops as his comrade continued to pat me down. 
   "Sleeping," I said. "Or I was."
   "We can see that," said the junior partner. "What we want to know is why here?"
   "And don't tell us you're homeless," said the bigger man. "Or we'll lock you up, sure at shit."
   I had no interest in being locked up, sure as shit or otherwise. I said, "Just on my way home. Address is on my licence, if I can pick it up."
   "We'll tell you when you can pick it up," said one of them. "We had a complaint that there was a dead guy in a sleeping bag down here. Know anything about that, bub?"
   I shook my head.
   "Probably this guy."
   "Yeah, probably. Look, pick your stuff up and get out of here. It's Christmas morning, for God's sake. And clean yourself up. You got an odor, bub."
    They stood back and waited with folded arms while I gathered everything I owned into my sleeping bag. I rolled the bag into a canvas carrier, strapped that over my back and across my shoulders, and lumbered up the embankment, cutting through a green winter lawn. When I turned around, the cops were walking back to their patrol car. 
   I could easily have gone back down into that damp but not wet basin and resumed my slumbers, but my habits at that time were to keep moving at all costs. Unless I was eating, sleeping or smoking--the latter always with what I hoped was an air of purpose--I was moving. My feet tramping on inside my too-tight black slip-ons, getting me on my way to elsewhere, that was what felt right, that was what kept my mind from imploding, what kept the jokers from jumping out of the card deck and dancing all over my face. 
   My watch band had broken weeks earlier, but the face of it still kept time. It was just after eight in the morning. A nearby hospital had a coffee machine that gave out free cups, cups which were intended for the people waiting for treatment or the friends of the same. I'd benefitted from the services of that coffee machine several times over the previous weeks and even though I suspected the gruel was decaffeinated, it would still be warm and that would feel normal for a change. I also intended to make use of their restroom. I had acquired a travel bottle of shampoo and body wash and, it being Christmas, I had a personal obligation to better myself. The only risk in any of this was the slim chance that a certain security guard there--a fellow who did as much of his job as possible from behind the wheel of his golf cart--might hassle me, but I was empty and the coffee would soften the crust of that half bagel I'd been saving.
   I walked through the front doors and nodded to the chaplain who sat behind the service desk. The chaplain and I had developed some sort of understanding. He would always pretend to believe I had some valid reason for being there and I always went along with that theory. "Have yourself a cup before you go up, sir. Merry Christmas to ya."
   I smiled back at him and walked down the hallway toward my real friend the coffee maker. I filled the eight-ounce cup with black joe and beelined for the men's room. 
   Once inside I dropped my pack to the floor. With every passing day, the straps of my pack cut deeper into my skin, just as every day the pack felt heavier, just as I felt more depleted. My standard weight is 160. I didn't hop on the hospital scales, but I calculated that I had slipped to just below one hundred. To gain weight, one must take in more calories than one burns off. To lose weight requires the opposite. On that Christmas morning I had been on the bum's diet for four-and-a-half months. 
   I made a point of not looking in the mirror as I dipped my head beneath the sink's faucet and let the cool water gush over my hair and head. I even managed what felt like a smile as the cool water trickled down my face and neck. I uncapped the small shampoo bottle with one hand and grabbed a stack of paper towels with the other. I had a fair lather going when I heard two voices move by the other side of the closed door. I'd already moved the "wet floor" sign outside the door to discourage visitors. It was one thing to sneak in a cup of coffee while trying to look normal. It was quite another to be caught taking a whore's bath in the hospital men's room. The voices faded and I went back to my duty.
   My own dread of being discovered invariably outweighed my impulse to luxuriate with the glorious feeling of getting clean, so I ducked my head down again under the faucet, worked the suds out of my hair, used the paper towels to dry the strands as fast as I could, and even allowed myself a quick glance of admiration. The bags under my eyes weren't quite as heavy as my own pack. I was going to need a fresh razor soon. And I could see--in the two seconds I permitted myself--that I was going to need to eat that bagel very soon.
   I ran my small black comb through my hair three quick yanks, hoisted my bags back over my aching shoulders, snatched the coffee off the marble deck, and turned to leave. As I put my shoulder against the door, it pressed hard against me. I didn't quite fall, but I staggered back a pair of steps, somehow not losing a drop. 
   I heard the voice before I saw the man who owned it. "What the hell you doing here, boy?"
   The security guard knew he had me. In his heart, in his head, in his inner voice that wondered why he had to work Christmas Day while others cleaned themselves in public restrooms, in all these places and others, he knew he had me. 
   I had not come all this way to be "had" by anyone. I said, "What I'm doing here is visiting a friend of mine. Barbara Caldwell. She's in room 2319."
   "Naw, she ain't. Ain't nobody by that name in this hospital."
   "There's one person with that name, you moron. Unless you're pretty damned sure of yourself--and you don't look as if you are--you'd better check it out before you do something else stupid. Well, go on, dumb ass."
   "What you say that name was?"
   "Ah, for Christ sake. Get out of my way."
   I pushed by him with all the strength I could muster, which was not much at all. He slipped out of the way just in case I might have been one of those eccentric millionaires who dresses like a hobo just to throw everybody off. Since I had no idea who was really in room 2319, I turned down the hall, nodded goodbye to the chaplain, and stepped back outside just as a warm December rain exploded over the parking lot. The half-smoked cigarettes in the outdoor ashtray were going to get soaked. 

KEY LARGO

   The bruises to my ego no doubt will fade, just as the cuts to my moral cranium will blend back to normal, but despite all my protestations as to what a monumental artistic and popular success is that movie known as Key Largo (1948), as it happens, Lisa Ann, known to loyal readers as the long suffering roommate, may have been closer to the truth when she pronounced the movie "Very stupid." She called it a "vanity movie," the equivalent of some weak and overdone story that tried to sell tickets based on the glam and glitter of stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson. "I have been to musicals," she declared,  "on a brick and mortar stage that were more realistic. The costume designer was only interested in the women looking perfect and the men looking dapper throughout the wind-machine hurricane punctuated by that overpowering music score (Max Steiner). There was no duress in this movie except the delivery of the lines."
    "Did you feel bad about the Indians?" I asked.
    "Of course, I did. The Indians were not given proper attention. If you're going to call them out with any importance, you need to explain why you're calling them out, especially with Indians."
   She was not impressed that one of the Seminoles was played by Jay Silverheels.
   "They did not get the respect they deserved. Do you realize how many people at the time watched that movie and said, 'Stupid Indians.' Back in those days, the American Indians were viewed very poorly. A lot of the popular conceptions of Indians comes from movies like this. It really reinforces the stereotypes."
   The last time I watched Key Largo was fifteen years ago. I loved it. A friend of mine and I walked around together sparring back and forth as McCloud and Rocco. "What's one more Johnny Rocco in the world, more or less?" Or "Why don't you show the storm your gun, Rocco?" "Yeah! More! That's what I want." Or even "You filth." Or especially, "What I believed was that we were fighting to save a world in which there would be no need for a Johnny Rocco." 
   Then again, lots of movies have great dialogue. 
   "There's no symbolism, no moral parallelism, no point to any of it," she said with an indignant swing of her head. 
   I don't quite hold with this degree of vitriol about the John Huston-directed film. But I have learned to listen to the LSR, because to not listen often feeds my detriment. Sometimes I even think hard about what she says, especially when we disagree. 
   I don't quite agree with the "no symbolism" argument. But maybe that's just a semantic distinction. Think of it instead as personification. Just as the mountain in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (also directed by Huston, also starring Bogart, and also from 1948) was itself a character in the movie, so was the storm in Key Largo a central player, an invisible heroine bent on trying to crush the villains, even if she had to wipe out everyone else to get the job done. On the other hand, that sort of contrivance may strike contemporary audiences as corny, maudlin, or just plain stupid. 
   I'm even willing to grant that the performances by Bacall and Bogart were self-serving. And if the Nora Temple character had little to do besides fawn over old memories and romantic visions of the impending future, I can only counter that I found more depth in her gaze than in the theatrics of any one else in the movie.
   As to the cast, Robinson's Johnny Rocco truly terrifies, at least to my way of thinking. That may be why some people don't go for this film with the enthusiasm I brought to it. After all, Rocco threatens to shoot an old man for praying, murders a cop in the coldest of blood, ridicules a returning war veteran, dangles Scotch in front of his concubine just for meanness, and plans on flooding the American economy with counterfeit currency. He is, according to the movie, exactly what we were fighting against in World War II.
   That's a little bit of a problem. If you want to argue that the parallel is Rocco to Mussolini or Hitler, it doesn't quite float. Oh, both sides of that coin were hell bent on conquest and may indeed have been pure evil, but the writer and director did pull back from making that parallel clear, probably from fear of pissing off too many Italian-Americans. (And if you doubt that theory, remember that in "The Untouchables" TV show, not even al Capone himself was portrayed as Italian, and for precisely the same reason.) 
   Again, to give Lisa Ann her credit, certain aspects of the movie do fail to hold together. Too much of the struggle does come across limping rather than charging and those fifteen years since I last saw Key Largo have had their effect on me. Perhaps I've succumbed to a stand-off between fatalistic Phil and moralistic Mershon. I don't know. Let us just say I liked the movie a bit more than she did. And even if you reading this remain true believers of the justified mythology of the brilliance of Bogart and Huston, you may do well to consider that some heroes exist in small part for purposes of self-criticism.
    Hoping you are the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WENDY

   The long-suffering roommate and I have come to something of a meeting of the minds when it comes to our regular intake of video impulses. For morning diversions, she prefers the local Fox "news" station, followed by a celebrity talk show hosted by a dynamic African American woman. I have chosen to not interfere with this, mostly because in the evenings, I prefer the alleged "news" brought to us by the billionaires who own a national liberal network. She has tolerated this with a mix of grimaces and laughter.
   Because both Lisa Ann and I do most of our work from home, we each find ourselves subjected to the other's personal tastes in television watching. Just as I was initially stunned into a combination of desires to run screaming from the room and yet simultaneously to just surreptitiously gawk, Lisa Ann likewise found the admittedly self-righteous posturing of my media heroes to be so overbearing that she could not imagine why anyone would allowing such elitist snobs near them. 
   There is some continuing value to both points of view.
   Both of us have been more than a little surprised to find that we have absorbed somewhat in excess of a fraction of the other's entertainment predispositions. In other words, I now no longer slip into apoplectic fits whenever the local anchors pause from their assessments of Lindsay Lohan's latest shenanigans to explore the vicissitudes of "entertainment news," as if that would be a switch. I actually kind of like the regular crew of misfits and I especially favor the deprecations toward the network itself, as when the weatherman quips, "This is Fox; we have no standards." Likewise, I find myself loving "The Wendy Williams Show," the program which immediately follows the local media explosion. Wendy is quite remarkable. Just turning fifty as I write this, she looks great, she's smart as a whip, and manages to subtly ridicule some of the more self-important guests and features. Plus she obviously connects with her audience, to whom she refers as her "Fabulous co-hosts." In short, she radiates charm and wit and I have no trouble understanding why Lisa Ann adores her. 
   The reason I like Wendy is because she helps me in my efforts to maintain irrelevance. For instance, I haven't the slightest idea who Aaliyah is or was and I find that not knowing this increases my own personal self-esteem. Other people whose names I've heard on her show who I could not pick out of a two-person line-up include Channing Tatum, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Pine, Ryan Gosling, Zooey Deschanel and Sandra Oh. At the same time it kind of kills me that I do know a little bit about Shakira, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Alba. I'll be undergoing electro convulsive therapy this fall to have those recollections scrubbed. 
   The people I enjoy are the folks who make virtually no contribution to popular entertainment culture and yet who possess what is, to me, a complete disregard for staying au courant while eschewing any self-conscious anti-hip posing. So I like Keith Olbermann (now on ESPN2), Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Amy Goodman, and a slew of so-called TV and movie stars, some young (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Garner), some middle (Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone, Andre Braugher) and some older (Jack Nicholson, William DeVane). What I cannot tolerate and never will is the idea of being relevant at a time in our collective culture when relevancy itself has become irrelevant.    
   Nothing--or very little--that gets the glitz and glamour treatment today will be around in the group consciousness in three years, much less in decades to come. To an extent, that has been the way things have always seemed. After all, when pop stars of my generation had hits, no one expected songs like "Satisfaction," "Maggie May" or "Behind Blues Eyes" to last the ages. And yet for some people my age, those songs retain something beyond nostalgia, even though I personally could easily go the rest of my life without ever hearing a lot of the so-called classic rock that people half my age seem to favor. 
   So instead of slipping some stream dream music into my ear bugs this afternoon, I will write this article, realizing as I do so that my own relevance may be slipping away. That is one condition I can easily embrace. The best way to insure longevity nowadays is to be as irrelevant as possible. By that measure, I may have a marvelous future.
   But one thing is certain: while today's scantily clad manipulators of popular taste go the way of the milkman delivery system and dime per box Cracker Jacks, Wendy Williams will still be a force with which to reckon for years to come. Happy birthday. And "How you doin'?"



   

Thursday, July 17, 2014

ORDEAL MEAL

   My job was to teach English to the Teabaggers. 
   But we'll get to that in a moment. 
   Lisa Ann, my long-suffering roommate, tried explaining to me that her references to "booger pies" (which you may recall from our last visit--True Midwestern Humor Story from the Streets of Arizona) were more metaphorical than real, or more abstract than concrete, or more gaseous than solid. The problem, of course, was that the seeds were already in the ground, the children had begun foresting through the snotweeds, and the green grocers had already placed their orders. This is one of several reasons Lisa Ann likes to tell people I'm reactive. Actually, her word for me is "knee-jerk." Who could fail to love such an appellation? 
    "Let's order pizza," she announced. 
    I love pizza. Thick, pan, hand-tossed, with or without anchovies, heated, chilled, iced, diced--they just don't make bad pizzas when it comes to the buds of my taste, unless of course that pizza has been dipped in barbeque sauce, a matter to which we will shortly return. So when Lisa Ann suggested, "Let's order pizza," I felt the impulse to leap up onto the sofa, tear off my shirt, thump my chest and holler like a medicated Tarzan. Suspecting a trick, however, I resisted the impulse and instead smiled back at her, a querulous finger tapping my chin, the words choking in my esophagus. At last I managed to say, "Pizza?"
   "Pizza," she replied in a confirmatory tone.
   "Pizza?" I asked yet again.
   "Yes, pizza. You know, dough, sauce, cheese, toppings, comes in a flat box delivered by guys with gages in their ears. Pizza."
   Free association runs rampant in our house, so I should not have been all that stunned by her suggestion. After all, she had already conjured the notion of imaginary "booger pies." How much of a stretch of the mind did it take to reach out and seize the somewhat more realistic mental image of a pizza pie? Besides which, I was hungry. 
   After a brief discussion about the sizes, types and toppings, I speed-dialed our pizzeria of choice, informed the dear woman on the other end that we very much would enjoy the two pizza dinner box with pasta and bread sticks please thank you bye. Before I could disconnect, the receiver of my call added the unhappy news that this particular evening they had employed but one solitary driver and that he wasn't a very good driver and therefore our wait time would approximate eighty-five minutes. When one's skin is crawling like the flesh of a withdrawing junkie for the filling sacraments of the delectable pizza pie, eighty-five minutes feels more like an hour fifteen, but I said that was fine and so we sat and waited while our feet--and the feet of our two dogs and two parrots--tapped on the floor as if Patti LaBelle and Keith Moon were jamming in the living room.
    Right on schedule, the gaged (engaged?) delivery boy arrived, took our money and gave us the rectangular box within which lie (or lay; I've never been certain which) our collective salvation. Over the heads of the inquiring puppies and around the vibrating cages of the squawking birds I navigated the delicate box, at long last arriving at the stove top where I set the warm box to rest for a thin moment as we paused to anticipate the sensory delight.
   You can imagine our collective disappointment when after each of us took a hearty mouthful we shortly spat out the contents back onto our plates and shook our heads in stunned and repulsed disbelief.
   Lisa Ann shouted, "This shit tastes like barbeque!"
   Indeed it did. It tasted suspiciously and strongly like the last pizza we had ordered from this kitchen of disappoint, something called the Smokehouse BBQ Pizza That Never Should Have Been. But that had been weeks earlier! Surely they would have washed the pan by now!
   Apparently not. Our current order of two panned pizzas called for onions and Canadian bacon toppings. Nowhere on the list had we requested the dreaded whisked-on barbeque sauce from the bottom of a rancid barrel of moldy pickles. Yet there that taste sat, lingering on our curling tongues as we spat hither and yon, guzzling Coca-cola to wash away the vile thickness of poison. 
   The pasta and breadsticks were just fine.
   If there were such a thing in our home that could be called a standing rule, that rule might be that I am the person who calls up and complains about poor service. Perhaps because the original idea had sprung from her own lovely mind, Lisa Ann took telephone in hand and called the pizza place.
   "Hello, Barbara," she said. "If that is your real name." Lisa recited our telephone number and the woman calling herself Barbara asked how she might help us this evening.
   "Usually we call you to explain how wonderful your food is."
   "But not tonight?"
   "Not tonight. Barbara, dear, these pizzas your guy delivered in eighty-five minutes tastes like barbeque sauce. I simply loathe barbeque sauce."
   Then this Barbara woman did something just a wee bit odd. She took on the resolved tone of one who has heard a similar complaint more times than she cares to recall, sighed and said, "We'll send you out a new pizza right away. What would you like on it?"
   "No barbeque sauce, that's one thing. Maybe just a pizza like they used to make in the 1970s? You know, thin with pepperoni and cheese instead of all these stupid new things like the floorboards of a Camaro or the elephant foreskin-stuffed crusts? Just a plain old delicious pizza?"
   The pizza arrived with a promptness that was only exceeded by its mesmerizing aroma and Pavlovian responses. We finished it off, saving only a few bites for the birds and dogs. 
   There was still the matter of the uneaten pizza. Somehow the idea of giving it back to the delivery boy hadn't crossed our minds and neither of us had been raised to throw away perfectly detestable food, so what were we to do?
   It was then that Lisa Ann thought of our neighbor. The woman next door hasn't a husband, but she does have what might be well described as a house full of people, many of them her very own children. "Honey, would you be interested in a pizza? We ordered a little more than we needed. Eyes bigger than our bellies, don't you know?"
   The neighbor laughed and said that their bellies were a whole lot bigger than their eyes, so by all means send it over. 
   Lisa Ann wrapped the offending gruel in aluminum foil and handed it over the wall. If the sounds that came through the concrete block walls were any indication, it was well-received--and gone in seconds. 
   As I write this, it is the following day. No medical examiners have arrived to disgorge bodies from next door, no ambulances have tagged any toes, and no police have busted down doors, so it would appear our friends next door survived the Ordeal Meal in good health. Perhaps one day one of them will write a song about it. 
   In any event, I was going to tell you about teaching spelling, grammar and other rudiments of placard creation to the vocal members of a right wing extremist group, but it appears that I shall have to find some other type of transition element to make the shift appear unmechanical. Until then, we shall digest in peace and safety, all that comes our way, excepting only barbecued pizza refuse, while stepping carefully around or beside the darling snotweeds leaning heavenward in search of southwestern rainfall. Hoping you are the same. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

TRUE MIDWESTERN STORY HUMOR FROM THE STREETS OF ARIZONA

   Many of you have inquired about Lisa Ann, my long-suffering roommate, so I thought I would give you an update. Lisa Ann has developed this neat little trick to control the dogs whenever I leave the house. This trick works well, so feel free to steal it for yourselves, although there is a part of this story you cannot steal, so be sure to make that distinction.
   We have two dogs: Cody and Sarah. They are kind of like the animals in that episode of the original "Star Trek," where the one nice dog goes through the transporter and what comes out is the exact opposite kind of dog. Cody is big and goofy and lovable and a wee bit simple. Sarah is small and angry and hyper-protective and smarter than I am. A lot smarter.
   She is not smarter than Lisa Ann. Lisa has developed this plan because when I leave the house, if Lisa Ann stays behind, the two dogs go completely psychotic. They jump on the furniture, bite one another, bite her, bite the piano, growl at people apparently only they can see. And Sarah is the real instigator. Cody could not care less what I do, but when Sarah acts up, he's afraid he's missing out on something, so he pretends to be as outraged as she actually is. 
   Now for reasons I do not fully understand, both dogs calm down whenever they see Lisa Ann using the telephone. When she speaks into that cell phone, it is as if those two dogs had been shot with a tranquilizer gun by the head zookeeper on Devil's Island. They freeze in place, their muscles uncoil, and they cock their heads in that quizzical look so endemic to troublemakers everywhere. In short, they go back to being the sweet precious mutts we imagined them to be when we first brought them into our modest and vulnerable little home. 
   So earlier today I had to go out to get the mail. We keep the mailbox key on a lanyard--which I thought was just a stretch of rope, but it's a lanyard. Whenever I reach for that, Sarah the devil dog thinks I'm grabbing for the leash, so she starts spinning and flopping and kicking her legs in the air and flinging drool and stirring up Cody, who again figures he's missing out and so he carries on alongside her. Well, I do have to get the mail eventually, so Lisa Ann, once I'm out the door, she starts talking into her phone. Most of the time she's just making a pretend conversation. Now today, when I returned from the mailbox, I hear her saying something about making a booger pie. Obviously--at least I hope obviously--these were just words she was making up for the benefit of the dogs, but the idea of a booger pie was kind of intriguing, so after she hung up--you know, on the imaginary caller--we started talking about the various benefits of such a thing as this booger pie. 
   "Lots of protein in boogers."
   "Seriously?"
   "Sure. Plant protein."
   "No kidding?"
   "Sure. You've heard old people say to little kids that they've got a beanstalk growing up their noses? That's based on science."
   "I don't believe it."
   "It's true. The seedlings--"
   "I guess those would be the hard little boogers?"
   "Right. The ones kids specialize in. Kids haven't learned the social skills about sneezing into their hands or the crooks of their arms, so when a kid discharges a booger, he just lets it fly. That seedling booger ends up on the ground. A certain amount of those make it to soil. It rains. The sun shines. Photosynthesis happens. Before long, the damn thing sprouts up and the very same kid is walking along with his mother and he sees the very plant to which he himself gave birth. He says, Mommy what's that? Mommy screams Don't touch that! That's a snotweed! And it turns out she is exactly right."
   "Bullshit!"
   "Bullshit bullshit. It's true."
   Then she looks on the Internet. Right there she finds something called a Tradescantia ohiensis. That's snotweed to you and me. 

   So remember, the next time you tell a kid to wipe his nose, you're not encouraging hygiene. You're messing with the very cycle of life!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

YOU COMPLETE THE STORY

Awake in a Sleeping Bag

begun by Phil Mershon
completed by (your name here)

   He woke up in a sleeping bag out in the middle of a field. A woman lay in the bag beside him.
   “What is going on?” he asked himself aloud. The woman coughed from deep in her chest and went back to sleep.
   The man looked around. They were in a bright blue sleeping bag. Both of them were fully dressed. The glare from the top half of the sun cast long tree shadows across the field. A solitary road ran to the north of them. He had no memory of the woman snoring beside him. He pressed her shoulder.
   “Hey, you! Wake up! Wake up, whoever!”
   She rolled towards him with her eyes closed.
   “Hey! Wake up!”
   Her eyes opened one at a time, one green, the other the same. She turned those green eyes towards him. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked.
   “Kill you?” the man said. “I’ve never seen you before! What are you doing here? Who are you?”
   She pulled the lip of the sleeping bag up to her face, peeked down at herself, and once satisfied that she had not been violated, replied, “Have we met before?”
   The man looked at the woman’s face, searching for clues. She put a finger to his chin and turned his head. “Don’t look so close,” she said “It’s first thing in the morning.”
   He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a candy mint, which he handed her. He took one for himself. “Morning breath?” she asked. He nodded.
  They nursed their candies in silence.
   When the candy was gone, the man said, “I’ve never seen this place before.”
   “Nice bag,” she said. “Is it yours?”
   “No. I don’t know. Just who are you? How did either of us get here? Are you a drunkard?”
    She smiled as if she had lemon under her tongue. “Paulette, no idea, and I don’t know but probably not.”
   “My name’s Rock,” he said.
  “It is not!”
  “Yes it is.”
  “That’s a funny name.”
  “Tell that to Rock Hudson.”
   “Dead.”
  “Or to Rocky Balboa.”
   “Fictional character.”
   “Well, that’s still my name. Listen, Paulette, you must have some idea how we got here. What’s the last thing you remember?”
   “Before this morning? I used to live in Connecticut, but that’s been years ago. Say,” she said. “You don’t suppose we’re dead?”
   The man patted himself. “I don’t feel dead. Unless confusion is a symptom, I’d say not dead.”
   The woman opened a compact and recoiled. “I look a mess.” As she tussled her hair, she continued. “I meant maybe this is the afterlife?”
   “You not one of those, are you?”
   “One of what?”
  “You know.”
   “I really don’t.”
   “I guess I don’t either. I wonder if this is total amnesia?”
   She snapped shut her compact and shook her head. “Not total,” she said. “I still remember what amnesia means.”
  “Maybe you’re a comedian?”
   “Do they still say comedienne?”
   “Paulette, I have no idea.”
   “You made up the name Rock, didn’t you?”
   “Yes.”
   “Same with me. Paulette just sounded pretty. Since I don’t know any different, I thought I’d call myself that.”
   “There’s a chance that might be your real name.”


Now it is your turn. Write the conclusion.

Here is some old news from Christmastime, 2004. 

The Lack of Wisdom of the Solomon Agreement: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District has upheld the right of colleges to bar military recruiting on their campuses due to the military’s hiring policy which discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Tuition Break for Kerik’s Nanny: Eight states now offer in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants: California, Illinois, Kansas, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Some say this provides the opportunity of higher education to a very needing group, while others argue it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. All eight states require the student to sign an affidavit pledging to seek permanent residence in the U.S.

Gee, and he looked Like Such a Nice Man. It turns out that former DHS nominee Bernard “Burface” Kerik maintained a social relationship with the owner of a New Jersey construction company reputed to have ties with organized crime. Won’t somebody call Sonny Barger and tell him there’s an opening in D.C.?

Liberalism Then and Now: John Lukacs, professor emeritus of history, writes in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education: “During the 19th century, liberalism…meant political and economic individualism, an emphasis on liberty more than equality, a reduction and limitation of the powers of the government. From the beginning of the 20th century, liberals…accepted and advocated the spread of equality, meaning more and more legislation and government bureaucracy to guarantee the welfare of entire populations.”


Monday, July 7, 2014

FORTY-SEVEN HAIR MISTAKES YOU ARE MAKING RIGHT NOW!!!

   I am not making this up. In the early 1990s I read a moderately interesting cross-interview between Norman Mailer and Pat Buchanan. The editor who arranged the event hoped to demonstrate how the far right and far left meet at opposite points of extremity. Naturally, the interview proved no such thing, except on one very specific area. Can you guess what that topic was? It was not globalization, overpopulation, pollution, taxation, the intelligence community or prayer in public schools. Nope. The issue on which these two men of opposing views joined together was immigration--specifically folks migrating from south of the border up north here with all us yankees. 
   To be fair, part of Norman's intrigue with Buchanan came from the (dare I call it) naive opinion that Pat was somehow opposed to the immorality of corporations, i.e., that he is some sort of right wing populist. I may be forgiven for suspecting that what Mailer actually admired was Buchanan's lack of effete snobbery, his gruffness, and his thoroughly unselfconscious laugh. From the interview, which either appeared in Esquire or Mother Jones, it was clear that the admiration only went in one direction.
   Buchanan, of course, didn't give a damn about undocumented immigrants other than as a means for whipping his educated working class supporters into a frenzy over something. For Mailer, the issue had real teeth. He felt the U.S. government tolerated a degree of importation of human workers from Mexico and Latin America to provide cheap labor and to make anemic the American labor movement by turning the sons and grandsons of Cesar Chavez against the offspring of Jimmy Hoffa, and vice versa. Buchanan just felt that exporting jobs outside the United States made bad economic sense, although exactly why this was so he chose not to say.
   My own opinion is that neither man probably considered either himself or the other to be a racist. Both men were always loud and often deliberate in their offensiveness, yet they approached their targets (or their targets sought them out) in the spirit of equal opportunity cretinism. 
   When I listen to white trash middle class illiterates making statements into the television cameras about the need to turn around buses full of "illegals and send them back to Obama since he's the one who invited them here in the first place," my immediate visceral reaction lacks a certain tranquility that I prefer to cultivate. Instead of placing flowers into the barrels of their rifles, I envision myself ripping the antiquated smirks off the faces of the twenty-year-old barbarians who stand at the border shouting "Go home!" while demanding the young pricks say how they would feel if the jackboot was on the other foot. Or maybe I would ask how they would like to meet Leonard Peltier (if he ever gets released from his unjust term in prison). Leonard might want to tell these Caucasians that the deal is off, everything west of Manhattan is now Indian territory, and whitey has three days to pack two suitcases and get out of town. Or maybe I would just smile into the faces of these mad dog militia men, kick them in the shins, pull their hats down over their feet (Bugs Bunny style) and kick them across their own beloved border. Wonder how well those armed domestic terrorists would get along with the Federales? 
    Don't know if you've noticed, but a whole lot of people who hate President Obama have a big sack of race hate they're carrying around. They will never admit to this, at least publicly. In fact, they will be the first to mock the suggestion. They'll say, "So everyone who disagrees with the administration is a racist?" 
   No. Of course not. The only people who disagree with Obama who are actually racists are those who disagree without knowing what they are talking about. Oh, and the others are the ones who tell "darkie" jokes. There may even be some overlap. 
   For the record, here are the four principles of Barack Obama's Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposal:
1. Give law enforcement the tools they need to make our communities safer from crime, enhance America's infrastructure and technology, and strengthen our ability to remove criminals and apprehend and prosecute threats to our national security.
2. Provide visas to foreign entrepreneurs looking to start businesses here, help the most promising foreign graduate students in science and math stay in this country after graduation, and reunite families in a timely and humane manner.
3. Enable undocumented immigrants to have a legal way to earn citizenship so they can come out of the shadows. The proposal holds them accountable by requiring they pass background checks, pay taxes and a penalty, go to the back of the line, and learn English. 
4. Stop businesses from exploiting the system by knowingly hiring undocumented workers. The proposal holds companies accountable and gives employers who want to play by the rules a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.

   That is all quite lofty and not without a bit of self-righteousness in the language, language, by the way, which was taken from the White House website. But can your average reactionary Republican goosestepper take any comfort in the words of someone he suspects of being a Kenyan-born Nation of Islam communist terrorist working for both the FBI and the ACLU? Isn't Obama secretly behind all our immigration problems? Didn't he work the phones from his hiding place in Libya from whence he contacted every Guatemalan citizen by cell phone, inviting one and all to walk two thousand miles north through freezing heat to find a nice tar shack in the Texas border towns? Well, maybe not quite.
   In 2004, the W. Bush administration had 10,000 Border Patrol Agents. In 2010, under Obama, the same organization had more than 20,000 agents. Also, twenty-five percent of all agents of Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) now work on the southwest border of the United States, the largest percentage of all time. The Department of Homeland Security (which oversees ICE) has completed all but three miles of John McCain's beloved "danged fence" along the U.S.-Mexican border. Aerial surveillance is at an all-time high. Year for year, Obama has seized more currency, confiscated more drugs, and retrieved more weapons than any time during his predecessor's reign of incompetence. And, contrary to what the spell-check deficient members of the Tea Party Militia would have us believe, the Obama team has actually increased exports to Mexico, a move that could conceivably have a positive impact on the Mexican economy and therefore lessen the need for people to migrate in the first place. 
   Despite all this reasonable reassurance, there remain more than a few quivering white penises who are convinced that Hispanics and other people of color are taking over. Until the 1970s, most foreign born inhabitants of the United States were either Italian, German or Canadian, which is to say White. But in 2012, of the 41 million foreign born inhabitants of this country, the largest group (28%) were from Mexico, followed by India, China, The Philippines, El Salvador, Cuba, and Korea. In that same year, approximately 25 million people living in the United States self-identified as being Limited English Proficient, meaning that they were more comfortable speaking and writing in a language other than English. The most popular alternatives were Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. 
   I spoke today for more than an hour with a ninety-year-old American man of Japanese descent. He had lived most of his life in California and shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 this man was interred in a concentration camp in California. He mentioned there were roughly 20,000 people in this camp. Two years later, he was released and immediately joined the U.S. Army. He was shipped first to Italy where he worked in what he modestly claimed was a low-level intelligence position. After Truman dropped the bombs on Japan, my friend was sent to Tokyo to work on riot control. Apparently there had been little need for his help since riots did not occur. However, he said something interesting about this. He said, even after the abdication of the Emperor, whenever he walked the streets in uniform, he always made sure to have a Caucasian officer with him for fear he would be shot by U.S. troops who would have assumed he was impersonating an American soldier. 
    The longer I live the more I am persuaded that no significant improvements have occurred in my life-time. Yes, same-sex marriage is making great strides and black people can still occasionally vote and the earning power of women is better now than it used to be. But there are still young adults on campus telling "queer jokes," voter suppression is all the rage, and women are still not making as much as men. And some of us still hate the other guy because of the color of his skin or the language of his mouth. 
   I am so damned tired. Aren't you?