Archive for August, 2012


fear and loathing at the health and wellness expo

Dialing the numbers to respond to an advertisement in the newspaper for an unspecified “scientific study”, Rodney Whiffleberry, then 38, had no way of knowing he was about to meet his destiny, but as his ghostwriter said in his 2005 autobiography that you can probably still buy at Dollar Saver supermarkets, “this thing chose me.” A mild-mannered engineer from Stepps-Felkman, NE, the bespectacled father of two answered a few questions about his lifestyle habits from the bored voice on the other end of the line, then two weeks later found himself carefully draping his beige London Fog knockoff jacket across the back of one of the plastic orange chairs placed in a circle under the green institutional fluorescent light of the room where he had taken high school history twenty-two years before. Other people had left their jackets on, but he had wanted to convey a friendly demeanor. It kinda felt like jury duty, he thought to himself. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. Once the chairs were filled, the man in the sweater who had collected their clipboards cleared his throat and addressed them in an accent so thick they were all pretty sure they had misunderstood what he had said until he wheeled the blue plastic trash can containing the keg into the room, confirming that, yes, they were finally updating that video they show you in defensive driving where the people do a bunch of driving tests before and after drinking.
After they all completed their initial round of parallel parking, navigating cones and stopping from 30mph on wet pavement, they gathered back inside for the first round of drinks and all remarked to each other how they had all chuckled to themselves at whatever weisenheimer had inevitably made a “hey, how do I sign up for this study?” joke at the various times they had seen the video, then chuckled again during the third round when a lady said that she hoped their clothing and hairstyles wouldn’t look too ridiculous in a few years. By the fifth round, the raw footage included a woman demurely covering her mouth to burp as she answered questions assessing her own performance to an off-camera voice, lots of folks giggling, and an older man weeping openly when shown how many cones he had knocked down. It also included Whiffleberry’s amazing performance, during which his driving actually improved dramatically with every beer consumed. The scientists who analyzed the data had to edit Whiffleberry’s entire presence, save for his participation in a sloppily executed group high five in the fourth round, out of the finished video out of concern that viewers would incorrectly imagine themselves similarly gifted, setting aside Rodney’s footage for a separate scientific study.
The fellows at the local Demolition Derby were reluctant at first to accept an entrant that had to shotgun a few Erlich’s Lights before he could even put in his teeth guard without gagging, but found themselves convinced by his speed and precision on the mud track once they finally gave him a chance. He quickly rose through the World Driver Rankings, and by season’s end he was the favorite to take home the crown at Nationals, setting up a wildly anticipated showdown with five-time reigning champion Dave “Water Bug” Mellontien. Though the independent investigation never could conclusively determine whether the rumors were true about the groupies Mellontien sent to Whiffleberry’s trailer to distract him while he replaced his customary pre-race pitcher with one of O’Douls, there was certainly no contesting the results of the Derby. Poor Rodney never raced again, content to return to his old job richer a lifetime supply of his main sponsor’s product, Cool Beans: the only barbecue baked beans with a refreshing menthol aftertaste in every can.


the caller id just says ‘jerk store’

I guess everyone has a story about where they were when all the Christians got raptured into heaven. Me, I was in Astoria at my dealer’s apartment, of all places. He just disappeared into a cloud of smoke, right between explaining why an eighth was suddenly $60 and promising that it was only a temporary price hike, when his clothes suddenly crumpled to the ground after a half second where they briefly, dramatically, still held his shape. I sat there stock still for about twenty minutes, worried that the same thing was gonna happen to me, but it never did. The wind blew through the window onto my face, and I felt perfectly, horribly alone, the trance only breaking when I heard a few voices talking on the street. Within a few minutes, dozens of others had arrived and we figured it out pretty quickly. It took us all a while to absorb the concussion, at first collectively before we each began picturing the specific ways the event was going to affect us all individually, then we began drifting slowly away one at time from the huddle to gather our loved ones close and begin rebuilding our lives. I knew it was just the shock setting in, but I found myself most mystified by the knowledge that the guy who sold me baggies of Sharkleberry Kush and Hulk Dick was a believer. I mean, over the years I had heard him make a few vaguely homophobic remarks, but I had no idea he was that far gone. I walked quietly back into his apartment, then after a little detective work I stuffed a couple of bricks under my sweatshirt.
There were a lot of people gone. In His infinite wisdom the Lord took a pretty broad interpretation of the phrase “whosoever believeth in Him”, showing no regard for denomination or sect. Episcopalians? Snake handlers? The Pope? Death row inmates? The 2007 National League Champion Colorado Rockies? Everyone. To answer the question asked ad nauseam by Newsweek that year, yes, Mormons were definitely Christians, although I think most of the people who were wondering that were no longer with us. There were a few days initially where it looked like things might get pretty bonkers, but over the next few weeks and months, the 24 percent of us who remained in the United States gradually pulled together and began rebuilding society, taking newfound comfort and pride in civilization’s vital institutions as they rose back up, and either altering or shedding altogether those customs that had before driven us apart. Without most of our elected officials, we were especially thankful for the calm, steady leadership of President Barack Obama. Turns out he really was a closet Muslim, but nobody gave a shit.
It was amazing how much work there was to do that first year; things you’d never think of. We put crews to work repurposing all the newly abandoned houses and buildings, focusing a lot on the churches once they figured out how many of them there were, and how much stuff was in those suckers. They started with the big ones. These guys would find like a nice leather couch in a youth group lounge and give it to some ninety year-old old Laotian lady or something. Without the Christians to help them discern which poor people were deserving of help from the ones who hadn’t sufficiently tried to pull themselves up out of poverty, they just basically took everyone who knocked. You can fit a fuck ton of beds in a church building if you use the classroom and office space wisely, and some of the nicer ones even have showers next to their basketball gym. The places that had top-of-the-line sound equipment, like huge PAs with EQs and racks of processors, put on free shows all the time. Megadeth were actually better without Dave Mustaine, eschewing that kinda indulgent, overproduced prog metal direction they had been increasingly moving in over the last nine records in favor of a return to the good thrash sound they had back when all their album titles had ellipses.
Over time we found our way. Abortions and teen pregnancy went down, thanks to vastly improved health education, increased access to birth control, and a willingess to have frank, honest conversations about sex in terms that showed respect for young people’s growing adult decision-making skills. Surprisingly, people only had slightly more sex than they had before, although we noticed that a lot of the really fucked-up genres of porn were no longer as prevalent. Climate change still posed a considerable challenge for global leaders, but with three quarters of the world’s largest resource-consuming nation gone, the planet’s temperature skated just under the deadline for irreversible change for a few years before scientists finally reported small increases in polar ice.
It wasn’t perfect. Though we have come pretty close, we still haven’t been able to fully eradicate gun violence. And of course, the world has never quite gotten over the loss of Stephen, the most talented of the Baldwin brothers, feeling a collective measure of regret for the way he was cruelly exiled from Hollywood for his convictions. Other than that, though, not too bad. People seem a lot less certain of the inherent rightness of their opinions, which has led to some interesting and productive discussions. Plus, after all we’ve been through together, folks take responsibility for each other and are more likely to talk to each other on the street, unprovoked, and it’s not even weird. Kinda pleasant, actually. In fact, just this morning I was walking up the steps from the West 4th subway stop when I noticed an older white-bearded gentleman by the basketball courts having some difficulty with his camera. He was a solidly built man with a regal bearing about him, like he was from somewhere far away. Maybe Russian, I thought. I helped him out, then he took a few snapshots and said his son was playing out there, pointing to this lean, swarthy guy in his thirties who was just dominating the court. He threw down a rim-rattling dunk, then on the other end blocked a shot, somehow came down with the ball, and pulled up for a jumper just inside the half court line. The crowd that had gathered to watch completely erupted as he drained it, and he humbly acknowledged them before he stripped off the headband that had been holding his long hair in place and wordlessly placed it into the hand of a child. The older fellow smiled and told me they were on vacation and I asked him long they were in town for. Not long enough, he told me with a weary sigh, but they were going to have to get back soon. He didn’t want to say where they were from, only mentioning that the people there kinda got on his nerves.


trust the name it took me 233 times to practice saying with a straight face

Renowned cartoonist Jim Davis steps to the podium. A phalanx of photographers go to significant lengths to position themselves in a way that will honor his press agent’s request that Davis’ ass-length ponytail not be visible in any pictures. The media outnumber the fans at this symposium, though those few pilgrims who braved the snow to see his keynote speech at the Great White North Winter Summit Comic Convention in Butte, Montana, huddle together and hunch forward in the front three rows of chairs in the Emerald Room of the Best Western Plus Butte Plaza Inn with an intensity of devotion that makes Doctor Who enthusiasts seem casual by comparison. This intensity, of course, is best exemplified by their fierce reaction to anyone who mistakes them for Garfield fans, quickly correcting any mistaken assumption they they might be here to talk about anything other than U.S. Acres, Davis’ lesser-known daily strip set in a barnyard, which has scaled dizzying creative heights over the 27 years of its existence but never achieved the same commercial success as Davis’ iconic lasagna-loving cat.
Though U.S. Acres has been widely reported to have been cancelled in 1989, living on only as the “And Friends” side of the titular equation on the “Garfield and Friends” animated Saturday morning series that ran on CBS from 1988-94, its abiding duration continues to thrill its cult-like followers. Davis created U.S. Acres as a way to give voice to the subversive anti-capitalist message that he knew his regular audience couldn’t handle. Garfield, whose licensing rights enrich Davis by tens of millions of dollars every second of every minute of every day, pays the bills, but U.S. Acres is where he lets his creative side run wild. “These are stories that need to be told, but many are not ready to hear them,” he says.
Davis’ staff can usually shit out a month of Garfield strips in about four hours, which leaves him plenty of time to carefully craft the narratives of U.S. Acres. He spends a few weeks each month in a remote cabin in Utah, requiring absolute solitude to fret over even the finest details of each panel, whether applying a touch of pointillism to Roy the Rooster’s comb to simulate its spongy texture, or selecting an ink that is rated three grades blacker than standard comic-drawing ink to color in Orson the pig’s nostrils, the inner darkness of which is the strip’s most famous visual commentary on the emptiness of consumer culture.
When Davis first published U.S. Acres, his previous success led to a highly anticipated launch and predictions that he would have another hit on his hands. Eventually, however, the critical darling, saddled with high expectations, became too controversial for most audiences, first being bumped off the comics page and onto the op-ed page next to Doonesbury, but over time even the shitty newspapers (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Edmonton Sun) jumped ship once Davis expressed his intention to run a week of strips in which Sheldon the baby chick, forever unwilling to fully emerge from his eggshell, used a banana to demonstrate the proper method for putting on a condom. Eventually U.S. Acres was only getting published in a handful of alt weeklies. The irony of Davis having nearly emptied his Garfield earnings to keep his passion project alive is that he soon found that his characters flourished away from the spotlight.
Davis engages the assembled fans with a long Q-and-A session, pausing before seemingly every other thoughtful answer to remark about how nice it is to be surrounded by people who appreciate his artistic vision in its purest form. Everything goes smoothly until an earnest young cub reporter elbows her way through the crowd. “Tell us about Odie’s owner Lyman,” she demands. “Don’t you think these people deserve to know why hasn’t he been seen since 1979?” Though not as often as it used to, this still occurs from time to time. As security drags the woman away, a visibly shaken Davis adjusts his tie uncomfortably and fumbles for a glass of water.


golden chorale

You know what really burns me up? You know what really gets my goat? You know what really makes my blood boil? You know what really moistens my mouth? You know what really burns my Pennsylvania Dutch ham and noodle casserole? You know what really bangs my wife while I’m at work? You know what really gets my drawers bunched up? You know what really rips my teeth out with pliers over my gambling debts? You know what really applies my deck varnish unevenly? You know what really gets my kid kicked out of college? You know what really chaps my hide? You know what really devalues my stock portfolio? You know what really puts my beloved family pets to sleep after a long and courageous battle with feline mucopolysaccharidosis? You know what really gets me hot under the collar? You know what really steals my lunch out of the break room fridge, then places items of similar weight back into the back and returns the bag to the fridge, just to mock me? Just to fucking mock me? You know what really Markies my Post? You know what really urinates in my hot tub? You know what really desecrates my corpse? You know what really keys my Saab? You know what really gets my dander up?
Well, friend, I’ll tell you. When you’re out there, laying it on the line, toughing it out, making a go of it, giving it the old college try, keeping hope alive, keeping your nose to the ol’ grindstone, stirring the macaroni, scratching out a living, sneaking sips out of the ol’ sock flask, living to fight another day, listening intently to the ol’ R. Kelly CDs, making sure the show goes on, keeping the party going, telling her sure, you’re definitely using protection before turning to wink at some imaginary audience, leaving it all on the field; and then some know-it-all, high-and-mighty, wannabe-expert, holier-than-thou, smart-aleck, windbag, fuck-face, wiseacre, so-called “municipal judge”, has to come along and rain on your parade, let the air out of your balloon, spoil your fun, pull the plug on the party, send you to rot in jail, award monetary damages to your victims, liquidate your assets, call you “a remorseless monster” during your sentencing, chuckle with the courtroom artist in his chambers over aged single-malt scotch at the exaggerated weak chin you were given in the pastel drawings they showed on the evening news. Well, that, and our society’s puritanical views regarding the male form. It can be quite beautiful.


criminal animal

I tried to explain the fact that I was the only 35 year-old in the children’s swim class as the result of a clerical error, describing the situation to the few interested parties in terms that expressed my magnanimous sympathy for the poor overworked scheduler that I didn’t want to bother by having her place me in the advanced swim class where I rightly belonged. My cover story thus established, I spent a lot of time that summer crouched down in the pool with my chin hovering just over the jiggling line of the water, gripped with fear. Despite my arm floaties which had been carefully selected for their neutral color, avoiding detection by friends, family, and acquaintances proved a challenge equal to any I found in the drink, and the price of failure in either of these areas felt similarly high.
Speculation among the frail, liver-spotted seniors in the water aerobics class two lanes over that I was some kind of assistant instructor assigned to encourage the children by making their progress seem significant by comparison soon gave way to speculation that I was a plant assigned to keep the lifeguards’ skills sharp, after the fourth time I was dragged from the pool that first difficult week. I had traveled well beyond the age at which my flailing efforts could be considered endearing, much less inspirational. Observers could imagine the low ceiling to my potential relative to my classmates, who had their whole lives ahead to improve. Indeed, my skills would likely never advance much further than a point that would make me, in the event of a nautical disaster, more a liability for my fellow survivors than I would be if I simply drowned immediately.
My performance in the Little Ducklings End-of-Summer Swim Show was roundly panned, practically an inevitability given that I had not had the advantage shared by my classmates of being able to stack the bleachers with partial spectators such as neighbors and grandparents. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine, whose 36-point font declaration “A Triumph!” adorns the top line of the DVD case for Carlito’s Way 2, called my performance “a rare… misstep from an emerging… talent,” noting that “any humor that could possibly be derived from a pathetic adult being in a class full of children has already been thoroughly explored and even strip-mined by the 1994 film Billy Madison.” Prepared for this line of attack, I deftly countered by jabbing my finger in Travers’ chest for emphasis as I pointed out that our class’ instructor’s hand had been bitten off by an alligator. That had been from an entirely different movie altogether.

August 2012