Tuesday, January 30, 2007

#103 - Sassing The Man

Sassing The Man

1/25/07 (#103)

In Bangor, Maine, it was an autumn tradition for high school boys to woo the object of their affection by leaving a monographed pumpkin on the doorstep of her home.* While the most ambitious boys would scribe a poem of their own creation (usually some not-quite-clever twist on a familiar phrase, such as "Violets are blue, roses are red....", though it was ill-advised to use the most obvious rhyme for "red", lest her father be the first to find the pumpkin), most of us scoured the record sleeves of albums from The Baby's or Duran Duran in hopes of finding just the right words to capture the romance inherent in cluttering a stoop with an oversize squash. (An acquaintance of mine once scribbled the lyrics of a Blue Oyster Cult song onto his pumpkin---I didn't have the heart to tell him that if BOC can properly express your amorous inclinations, your love is suspect.)

It was just such an errand that brought my friend Bernie and I to Veazie one cold evening, a tiny burg immediately north of Bangor. Veazie is hardly a town at all---it was easy to drive through without realizing that you had, one of those hamlets whose budget allowed for only one police cruiser; as such, if you passed a Veazie cop as you crossed into their district, you knew you had carte blanche with the speed limits until you got to Orono, the next town north on Route 2. Most of their cops were probably from Veazie, as it was hardly the kind of assignment an academy graduate would seek out, and as such the cops knew everyone. I have no doubt that speeding tickets were strictly reserved for interlopers, with one or two issued to neighbors as retribution for adolescent offenses unrelated to the traffic infraction.

The goal of our journey was to leave a pumpkin on the doorstep of Donna Wampler, a girl I had recently dated but who had more recently realized that she was just too much for me. (To her credit, she was right about that.) But she was brainy and beautiful, and I was young and stupid, so I held out hope that a well-penned pumpkin might give her pause about her unceremonious dismissal of my affections. We stopped at Doug's Shop 'n Save en route to get the pumpkins, picked up a small pepperoni pizza at Papa Gambino's, and parked Bernie's Mom's orange 1976 Chevy Malibu in the parking lot of a darkened building around the corner from Donna's house. There, we ate dinner, laughing about which Blue Oyster Cult song not to use ("So I suppose 'Godzilla' is out?"), and got to work with our black sharpies. (Bernie was enamored with a Bangor girl, and we'd be dropping his pumpkin on our way home.)

Part of the allure of the secret pumpkin serenade was the danger of transporting it to the front porch, an often-precarious passage that underscored the impressive effort of the deed. Rumors and reality were replete with mock horror stories: pumpkins accidentally smashed on front walks when delivery coincided with the release of the family hound; orange orbs so large that a drop-and-run caused an unnaturally loud thud, the residents looking out the picture window to see a clumsy fool tripping through the hedge in fevered retreat; one poor sap even managed to bowl over and break a line of porcelain figurines, requiring him to ring the doorbell and sheepishly face the girl and her mom, embarrassed for his error but suddenly more embarrassed for having chosen the lyrics of Def Leppard as his poetic ambassador.

We anticipated no such drama during my delivery, as Donna and her family were out of town for several days. The mostly-eaten pizza sat on the dash and our pumpkins rested in our laps while the ink dried (heaven forbid one prematurely tuck the rotund messenger under their arm and smear the word "love" into something unrecognizable) when we were startled by a knock on the window, a sound generated by the doughy hand of a Veazie policeman.

Bernie rolled down the window to greet the man. The first thing we both noticed---the first thing anyone would have noticed---was the enormity of the man's belly. This gut had left the modifier "beer belly" behind many years ago; this was the kind of stomach to which your immediate thought addresses practicalities: "How does he find shirts that fit?!" Even your thought would have a tone of incredulity. If Veazie was Hazzard County, this man was Boss Hogg.

The bulk of the conversation is hardly worth reporting. In response to "Whacha doin'?", we explained exactly what we were doing: penning a pumpkin to drop on Donna Wampler's doorstep. (Fortunately, we were doing nothing wrong---for the first time in years, we hadn't even snatched the pumpkins from some innocent's porch.) According to the officer, the building in front of which we sat had issued a silent alarm---had we seen anything suspicious? We looked at the building---an old concrete box with a single metal door, with neither a sign nor a sign of life---and recognized his "good cop" methodology of making the suspect an ally. (We could see his partner walking the perimeter of the building, curious if there really was an alarm or if the Veazie police simply had enough time on their hands to enact an elaborate charade in an effort to convince us of the veracity of their claim.) We hadn't seen a thing, officer (we hadn't), and we'd be leaving momentarily. He smiled, wished us well, then issued the strangest non-sequitor I have ever heard from a policeman:
"What kind of pizza did you get?"
"Papa Gambino's."
"No, the toppings."
"Pepperoni", Bernie replied cheerfully. "Want a slice?"
He gave a bit of a chuckle. "No thanks. You boys have a nice night."

Bernie rolled up the window as the officer went back to his car. The ink now dry, we began donning our hats and gloves to prepare for the sprint to/from Donna's house, still marveling at the apparent tensile strength of the officer's belt, and were just about ready when the police car suddenly lurched up next to us.

It seems that in the car, the officer had relayed our alibi to his partner, a Veazie native who knew Donna---and knew she was out of town. Bernie and I later joked that it must have felt like a real Colombo moment in that cruiser, the cover story of two smooth-talking city boys blown by the keen observational skills of the Veazie police department. Poems on pumpkins? Bullshit, Roscoe, we got ourselves some criminals. The big man came to the car as fast as his waddle could take him while Bernie rolled down the window, and as the officer arrived, Bernie delivered the perfect line, straight-faced and serious, his voice so rich with generosity and sympathy that it perfectly disguised his insolence:

"Change your mind about that pizza?"

The cop didn't laugh, but I sure did. In fact, I still do.

©2007 wpreagan

* While this was a yearly ritual for my friends and I, my friend Zeth comes from Orono (8 miles north) and had never heard of it. I would love to hear from anyone who is familiar with this tradition.

#102 - Algebra and Aloo Mutter

Algebra and Aloo Mutter

12/31/06 (#102)

Hailing from New England, I was raised on a diet of casseroles, shepherds pie and various one-pan assemblages that fit squarely under the heading, "Comfort food"---a culinary category that, despite its simplicity, is rarely mastered by restaurant chefs. Some try to dress it up, others make too much effort to dress it down, and usually, I leave such dining experiences missing Maine, my Mom in particular.

I've found that the best way to satisfy a craving for comfort food is not to visit some faux-New England eatery, but instead stop at an Indian restaurant. Almost every item on an Indian restaurant menu is a saucy, curried variation of my gastronomic heritage. (With one notable exception: Indian food is unspoiled by that spongy, dirt-flavored filler known as the mushroom. Any cuisine that recognizes the true value of the mushroom---and consequently leaves it out completely---is good eating in my eyes.) If I had to limit my dietary intake to a single region of the world, India would get the contract. (Of course, I base this on the Indian food available here in the States. Before I commit to this nutritional hypothetical, I would want to be certain that the dinner scene featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was fabricated---"Monkey brain" and "live snakes" are two of only a few dishes in the world that could have me asking, "Um, do you have any mushrooms?")

I like the vegetarian meals most, primarily because chicken---when presented in a sauce---can be a dicey entree. Not only must one gamble with white meat vs. dark meat (both enjoyable, though hardly interchangeable), but depending on the chef there may be tendons and cartilage and who knows what else. I know that in some countries tendons are considered edible---they're actually on the menu at a Thai restaurant near my office---but if I bite into a meal that includes even a tiny chunk of unexpected rubbery resistance, I inevitably chew the rest of the meal with slow-motion suspicion, not so much enjoying it as enduring it. (Texture issues have a significantly larger impact on my diet than my taste buds: there is no flavor delectable enough to make adjectives like "slippery", "rubbery" or "sea urchin-esque" tolerable.) Vegetables remove these variables from the eating experience---since there is no part of the pea or the potato that is better than another, it is a much more relaxing meal.

That's why I like aloo mutter. Like most of the dishes offered at my local Indian restaurant, it's a soupy stew of deliciousness, free of textural surprises, consisting mostly of peas, potatoes, and whatever it is that makes up the soupy stew. (Since it's blended, and doesn't contain mushrooms, I really don't care what it is as long as it's delicious.)

Were it not so delicious, I would never order aloo mutter. While my northeast accent will sometimes slip into remission, certain words cause inevitable flare-ups: Pop Tarts (pop rhymes with yup, and tarts seems to contain several h's but no r's), quarter (the syllable that follows the percussive K is like a culvert catching the tire of a car, and the word crashes headlong into a sludge of south Boston unintelligibility), and, I self-consciously notice every time I order it, aloo mutter, which inevitably sounds like I'm about to break into a round of Allen Sherman's "Hello Mudda! Hello Fadda!" I asked the woman behind the counter if I was pronouncing it correctly, and she looked back at me like a clerk at a porn store would respond to the question, "To which food group do those edible panties belong?" Realizing I was earnest in my inquiry, she grumpily mumbled, "I knew what you meant." Great news, but it didn't answer my question---I was asking in hopes that I could come here regularly without being known to the staff as 'that funny-sounding white guy.' Either she didn't understand, or she didn't want to be known to the staff as 'that one who made the funny-sounding white guy not funny.' I took my food and thanked her for her help.

Back at my desk at work, I popped the plastic top on my gourmet $4.35 meal and stabbed in a spoon---Delicious. But when I looked at the divot left by the utensil, I realized that I had a horribly disproportionate meal---if you imagine a bowl of aloo mutter and rice as the earth, and cut it in half, the rice occupied all of the area of the cross-cut labeled as "core", "mantle", and "crust"; the aloo mutter occupied the thin layer of the illustration labeled "grass". The skimpiest chocolate sundae you have ever eaten had a more even distribution of elements. If I wasn't careful, I'd wind up halfway through my meal with nothing left but half a bowl of rice.

I suddenly flashed back a few decades, sitting in sophomore Algebra thinking, "When will I ever use this is my life?" This bowl of food was the answer to my question. Algebra, geometry, statistics----some sort of ratio-based mathematics would be required to optimize the enjoyment of this lunch, ensuring that I didn't run out of aloo mutter before I was sated. I had hacked through the mathematical weeds of Mrs. Brann's algebra class, and later endured a year of doodling with a compass and protractor with Mr. Beuhler---I was ready for this challenge. (Plus, I was famished.)

First, I decided to calculate the ideal consumption pattern using Algebraic methods: If A represents the aloo mutter, and B represents the rice, then the ratio of A to B as a whole should be represented in each bite of lunch; estimating the bowl held approximately 30 bites, then each bite would be three percent of the meal, and would be represented by the equation "Bite=(Ax3%)+(Bx3%)", or "Bite=(A:B)/30". (I'm glad this was aloo mutter, because the plethora of As and Bs would have made for a boring bowl of alphabet soup.)

Unfortunately, This would require constant adjustment on bites 2 through 29 if I wanted to ensure bite 30 was the same ratio of flavors as bite 1, as any variation from the formula on one bite would require compensation on the next bite. I surmised that this was simply too much work to try to fit into a too-brief lunch break, and algebra was discarded.

Next I endeavored to divide the meal geometrically: The bowl was approximately 6 inches across, and since area is derived from Pi-R-Squared, and the radius is 3 the surface area of the bowl is approximately 28 square inches. I had estimated there were approximately 30 bites of lunch in the bowl, so as long as I removed 1 square inch of surface area---all the way to the bottom---with each bit, I would have essentially equal bites of food each time, and I would not run out of entrée while still having a unappetizing pile of starch.

Trouble was, the thickness of the aloo mutter was inconsistent, as pools of sauce had filled gaps in the rice, so while the surface of the meal was essentially flat, there was no way to determine from above if a particular bite would feature more aloo mutter than rice. As such, each bite would be essentially random in its ratio. Was there a forgotten formula for identifying a pattern in the inconsistencies? Was there some postulate yet unpostulated or theorem unthought that would ensure even distribution of flavors among bites, thus maximizing the enjoyment of this culinary delight? And while we're at it, why struggle to impose a rigid pattern upon chaos if the results of the efforts will be chaos?

Why indeed. This is a chaotic world, and possessing a growling appetite, I felt qualified to step back in time and answer the younger version of myself who had asked, "When will I ever use this is my life?"

You won't, kid. By the time you need algebra---or at least what you dimly recall as algebra---your knowledge of math will have sat dormant for so long that your vaguely-remembered glossary terms will only further confuse your misunderstanding of those complex concepts. No amount of study of "sines" and "cosines" today will help you when, two decades later, some pompous buffoon at a cocktail party asserts that cosines are an essential metaphor for the city's ongoing public transportation issue. (You will sense it's bullshit, but you will be helpless to demonstrate this to your fellow cosine-illiterate party-goers.) At 40 you'll be balancing your checkbook and momentarily forget where the 2 gets carried off to when you carry the 2, and you'll suddenly imagine a dark, numberless future that includes carrying an oversized Texas Instruments calculator in your pocket so that you can figure the tip on a check.

But then I'll cheerfully remind the child that the moment when all of this comes crashing down upon you, when time and space and public education noisily collide in your head, a more satisfying realization will arrive with it: Life is like a bowl of aloo mutter---sometimes it's heavy on the rice, other times heavy on the sauce, but every time, its mostly delicious. Stop trying make it as dull as Mrs. Brann's Algebra class and dig in! No one is going to ask to see your math.

©2006 wpreagan

#101 - Dispatch from the War

Dispatch from the War

12/22/06 (#101)

The fighting has been lighter this year, with everyone in the nation except Bill O'Reilly and his elves grateful for the reprieve, but the relative calm belies the chilling truth: The War on Christmas wages on. Anywhere you see a simple star where a complex nativity once stood, know that one more manger has fallen to the enemy. (Unless the owner of the house is simply trying to save electricity, then it's technically not a war casualty, but a guy who dies of a heart attack while his plane is crashing is still considered a victim of a plane crash, right?) Anywhere a bell-ringer stands outside a mall punctuating the metallic din with comments like, "Policy prevents me from talking to you because I might inadvertently make a reference to egg nog, thus offending your holiday traditions and causing the mall to lose the $28 you had planned to spend on that Disney-character cheese-knife set", know that this war is far from over.

This confusing conflict over who is most worthy to drive the final float in the Macy's Parade might seem unworthy of a War, but such an attitude fails to take into account that America has a history of declaring war without concern for whether the war can be won. We declare war because people tend to rally around a war---even when there is no strategy for how we will achieve victory, even when there are no provisos for how to respond if the enemy refuses to adhere to our singular, narrowly focused vision of how events will transpire, and even when we have no clear sense of who we are actually declaring the war against.

I'm not talking about an actual war being fought by our armed forces (though the shoes described above seem to be a disappointingly good fit for recent events), but the metaphorical and ideological wars that allow leaders to name an enemy, then utter trite war-time analogies in hopes of co-opting genuine patriotic spirit for a task that is doomed by a terrible marketing concept.

Ever heard of The War on Poverty? It began in the 1960's, though I'm not really sure who the enemy is in that war---it seems that we declared war on a noun. (Of course, wouldn't it be just like our government to declare a victory in the War on Poverty, a triumph achieved by committing to future use of phrases such as "base economic strata" instead of "poverty level", and people who once suffered from poverty would instead be "unburdened by materialistic trappings.") I haven't researched the tensions that preceded the War on Poverty, but I am compelled to ask: If war is considered a last resort after all diplomatic efforts have failed, what diplomatic solutions were brought to the table when negotiating with Poverty: Sanctions? (I doubt it, because what had we ever given to poverty that we could later take away?) Economic incentives? (Poverty is unlikely to have believed our good intentions if it knew we were simultaneously negotiating AND preparing for war.) We've spent billions of dollars in this War, and all we've managed to do is fund a series of reports that read like vacation postcards from Poverty: "Enjoying myself here in downtown Los Angeles, where Tom Hanks makes $25 million per movie but 'skid row' has grown to be six-blocks square. Wish you were here!" I researched the status of the War on Poverty with two guys who were foraging though my recycling bin on Wednesday night---I can't confirm their credentials as analysts, but they assure me that Poverty is winning.

The 1980's brought us The War on Drugs, which sounds more like the title of a book of war essays by Hunter S. Thompson than it does a public policy measure. I regularly hear news stories about people dying of heroin overdose or losing their lives (literally or figuratively) to meth addiction, yet I never hear about any drugs suffering casualties from that war---I'm sure I'd remember if The Oregonian had run the headline, "Hashish found dead in Southeast Apartment." Sure, we've had some successes in the War on Drugs---pharmaceutical companies have valiantly labored to replace the scourge of dangerous, cheap street drugs (the kind that ruin your life) with a vast arsenal of dangerous, over-priced prescription drugs (the kind that make your life wonderful), and the fact that you have to knock on the bullet-proof glass that surrounds the pharmacy section of you neighborhood drug store and ask to fill out the paperwork that will allow you almost enough Sudafed to declare war on your sniffles shows how we've got crystal meth on the run---but all in all, drugs seem completely unconcerned about the war that we've declared on them. (Frankly, I think it's only the government that declared war on drugs; several of my glassy-eyed friends have obviously negotiated a peaceful detente.)

The significant difference between these wars and the War on Christmas is that in the earlier examples, America is the aggressor, the defender of morality and justice and government appropriations. The War on Christmas is a civil war, pitting neighbor against unwitting neighbor, a resolute defense of the right to put an enormous flood-lit manger scene on your front lawn without the neighborhood infidels (commonly referred to by the political left as "children") stealing the baby Jesus and replacing it with a brown-skinned Cabbage Patch Kid. It's about the right to self-righteously chastise anyone who devalues one of our most sacred traditions by referring to it in print as "X-mas". It's about the right to have someone say "Merry Christmas" to you and your wallet when you arrive at the door of your local electronics behemoth in early November instead of that offensive phrase being perpetrated upon the nation by the Hollywood liberals who hate America enough so much that they are shredding the very fabric from which this great nation was sewn. That phrase?

Happy Holidays.

What seems to have been lost in the debate over this phrase---along with all logical sense of proportion for the various issues that are facing us individually and collectively---is that "Happy Holidays" is not a covert political action being perpetrated by the ruthless KGDF (Kwanzaa Global Domination Front), but is in fact a phrase born from the unlikely marriage of mid-December cheer (when, suspiciously, all of the "holidays" in question occur) and unabashed anti-social laziness. Radio pundits like to talk as if "Happy Holidays" was first uttered by Michael Dukakis in his so-called presidential campaign, but the origins date back decades before, to the first person working the register at Woolworth's department store who mistakenly said "Merry Christmas!" to a Jewish customer and had to endure a dull, droning explanation of the menorah and Passover and why the yamaka doesn't cover the ears. On that day, a more efficient phrase was born, one that was not intended to represent a blurring pluralism that would one day take down Jesus (already weakened by his yearly wrestling match with that fat bastard capitalist Santa Claus), but which was designed to be as inoffensive as possible so that each retail-addled lemming might quickly exit with their bag of future return items and make room for the next surly chump who has spent 90 minutes scouring the aisles of the K-Mart for a useful, tasteful, and beautiful gift that costs less than ten bucks.

I have said "Happy Holidays" for years, and have never considered myself a pawn to the anti-Christmas forces. I said it because I'm really bad at guessing who is Jewish, and I get embarrassed when I constantly have to say, "I'm sorry, Mister Rodriguez" and "My mistake, Mister Murphy." Concerned I might have inadvertently contributed to the salvation of several 6-foot Noble Firs, I recently poured over the statistics on national trends in holiday participation (published annually in "Holidays Monthly" magazine---ironically not a true monthly since they have no August issue) and have noted that Hanukah has not grown in popularity since I began using the phrase. (There was a brief spike in the early 70's that coincided with Woody Allen's early film success, but it faded in 1978 with the release of Interiors.) If Hanukah is making no gains, and Kwanzaa remains a mysterious vagueness worthy of being named in the axis-of-holiday-evil (but not worthy of reading even the brief Wikipedia posting in order to understand what it is), then it seems Christmas is doing just fine.

It amuses me that some blustering egocentric media boob thinks he should to come to Jesus' defense regarding which party the flock attends on his birthday. O'Reilly seems to think that if we can push aside the man who founded America (Christopher Columbus, whose "discovery" of a nation is less celebrated since we collectively realized he "discovered" a fully-populated continent and brutally vanquished its residents) then, apparently, the founder of Christianity is sure to be next. But Jesus has weathered two millennia---including crusades, plagues, inquisitions, even Scientology---with what can only be described as incredible staying power. I think it's going to take more than a cheerful two-word salutation to bring him down.

Happy Holidays!

©2006 wpreagan

#100 - An Uncomfortable Level of Comfort

An Uncomfortable Level of Comfort

12/7/06 (#100)

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
---John F. Kennedy, 1961

I have been thinking about those famous words lately, impressed that a leader would speak to individuals so directly: There is no collective "we" in his exhortation, a word too easily interpreted as "everyone except me"---it is a personal address from the President of the United States to each of our nation's citizens. Kennedy recognized that "the nation" is not an enormous abstract, some political assemblage to which we can choose to belong as our favor suits---a nation is the sum of its people, and if we expect the nation to achieve greatness, we should expect a contribution to that goal from its populace. The problems that faced us as a nation in 1960 required a collective effort to confront, and Kennedy was asking for our help.

Our leaders today never ask me to do anything---we don't have that kind of relationship. Our dynamic, oversimplified, involves the government taking money from my paycheck and, if I'm lucky, telling me how they spent it. I've come to accept this arrangement because this is the relationship the government has defined, and I love the nation more than I loathe the government. (Not this party or that party---the whole money-fueled machine that has mutated out of the mostly-noble designs of our nation's founders.) A politician claiming to solve our problems without asking for our help is like a person assuring us that they can make the bed without asking the person in it to get up, so I endured an entire election season of news-hour commuting waiting to hear a candidate dare to use a word rarely heard in political speeches, one little word that would have enlightened me to the existence of a leader I could support, who didn't pretend that she or he could solve our problems for us instead of with us. That one word? Conserve.

When I think of my youth, I recall a much stronger sense of social nationalism (as opposed to belligerent nationalism), when despite our differences, people seemed to recognize that we were all in the same proverbial boat, and it would float or sink depending on our mutual efforts. There were national campaigns that stick in my memory, efforts to galvanize the nation behind a cause---not huge political issues (like civil rights, ERA or Roe v. Wade), but housekeeping items that concerned every American. While the most famous is likely the pollution ad featuring the Native American in traditional dress, surveying various environmental offenses before turning to the camera to reveal a tear running down his cheek, the example that illustrates my point came in the wake of the oil crisis, when Americans found themselves sitting in their 8-cylider muscle cars while queued up at the gas station. At that time, the Advertising Council promoted the tag line "Don't Be Fuelish", with newspapers running full-page advertisements that featured cut-outs which could be attached to light switches emblazoned with the slogan "Last Out, Lights Out: Don't Be Fuelish".* Conserving fuel (a finite resource) was a national concern, and efforts were made to raise the national consciousness to the merits of conservation. It wasn't a change for the government to make, it was a change for us all to make. (Easy for me to say---I was about eight at the time, and my banana-seat bicycle used the oldest form of bio-fuel: pedal power.)

30 years later, with worldwide oil reserves further depleted, we are in a boat of regrettably similar design, yet our leaders seem less interested in keeping the boat afloat than in making sure that their opponents are blamed for the water rushing over the gunwales. Public debates over Global Warming regularly devolve into charges of political posturing that dismiss years of research by scores of scientists as nothing more than Al Gore's shameless effort to make a political comeback, and too often the quest for solutions is impeded by obsessive effort to assess blame for the cause. (I have seen statistics that make a fair argument for both sides of the Global Warming debate, but to use an inverted analogy, imagine the earth as a house---as it gets cold in the winter, one could argue that it's merely the season, and the season will change. But until then, isn't it wise to take action---close the storm windows, caulk the foundation, etcetera--- rather than sitting around waiting to see if Spring will solve December's cold?)

I was looking for a candidate to use the word "conserve" because it seems like a taboo among national leaders. Over the summer, fuel prices were among the highest rates in history, yet the 8-cylinder SUVs still lined up at the pumps, some requiring over $150.00 to fill the vehicle in a single stop. President Bush called attention to our energy reliance in his 2006 SOTU address, saying, "here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology."**

Technology? The best way? Amazing---imagine someone proposing that the best way to beat addiction to heroin is through technology: Perhaps, but first, you have to stop using the drug. With a national audience watching, why not throw a bone to the concept of conservation? Why not urge Americans to take advantage of public transportation and carpooling? I will bypass the cynicism that says Bush, an oil man, has vested interests in not conserving oil, because I think the bigger reason is that politicians do not want to require anything of their voters---for decades, our so-called leaders have consistently promised to do this and that and anything at all as long as we elected or reelected them, and no one wants to have the reputation as "that candidate who expects something of me." They are afraid to making us uncomfortable; uncomfortable people tend to adjust their circumstances until they are comfortable again, and a politician doesn't want to be mistaken for something that can be adjusted. Thus, the policy of "give the people what they want" (or at least tell them that you will, even if you can't deliver) becomes the status quo, like parents who find it easier to placate their children with acquiescence (and toys) rather than saying, "No." Because saying no is difficult---it requires confrontation, and in the case of politics, opens the candidate up for attack by an opponent who finds it politically profitable to keep promising the toys. So rather than standing firm, the candidate simply promises toys before the other candidate can. And if their opponent promises better toys, tell the children that those toys won't work. To continue that metaphor, I'm personally fed up with being treated like a child.

However, while politicians are an easy target, it's not a simple matter that most are (to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen) no Jack Kennedy. Kennedy's quotation involves two parties, and when was the last time any of us asked what we could do for our country? (In most elections, nearly half of eligible citizens don't even make the effort to cast a vote.) The current political culture has caused many of us to mistake "the nation" as synonymous with "the government"; we might be willing to make personal sacrifices for the nation (at risk of sounding obsequious, our soldiers do that every day), but not for this or that administration, as if our concern over whether the ship sinks or floats is dependent on who is sitting in the captain's chair.

Kennedy seemed to be trying to shift the onus back to the American people---solving issues is OUR responsibility, not the government's. I didn't feel that under Clinton, and I certainly don't under Bush. So if they're not going to ask for our help, what can we do in the meantime?

We can try to ease our dependence on oil ourselves. I love driving as much as anyone (in fact, more than many) but we sold one of our cars two years ago, and while we occasionally curse the single-car lifestyle, it's been a mostly-painless process: Portland is well serviced by buses and trains (we promote the bus to our daughter as a fun adventure, rather than a frustrating necessity, which on the coldest days it can sometimes be), and we're investigating Flex-car in case a second vehicle is ever needed; I carpool to music shows with neighbors, saving the waste of three or four vehicles making the same journey; the family wear sweaters and slippers at home rather than heating the house to faux-summer environs. Please don't mistake this for bragging---it's a simple matter of fact: We (and by "we" I mean "everyone including me") need to stop using so much oil, and these are adjustments that could be made without significantly changing my lifestyle. Beating an addiction is not a battle fought in the future---it's completely present tense, finding a way to not take the drugs at this particular moment. Hopefully, with each successful moment, the next one becomes a bit easier. It doesn't require technology---it requires the will to make a change, and the strength to endure a discomfort until, incrementally, it is no longer uncomfortable. It necessitates effort, but I've opted to conserve because my so-called leaders won't, and every evening I'm greeted at the door by a little girl who reminds me that I'm not conserving for myself, but for future generations who may one day ask why we didn't act when circumstances clearly called for some type of action.

And if nothing else, one of those actions is voting---yes, politics is saturated with pointless posturing, and yes, it's a money-driven machine that sometimes seems irredeemable; but it's the only system we've got, and any change in the system that you want to see will not be achieved by sitting out of the process.

Thinking back to Kennedy's quotation, voting doesn't seem like too much too ask.

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis
** http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2006/

©2006 wpreagan

#99 - Fuse Box Repair Made Simple

Fuse Box Repair Made Simple

11/3/06 (#99)

My wife called me at work, telling me that the lights had suddenly gone out on the main floor of the house---upstairs was fine, the basement was fully powered, but the ground floor was in the dark. She called hoping that I might shed some light on the subject, probably hopeful that on some past lazy Sunday afternoon I had lacked the ambition to change the channel and instead watched an episode of This Old House that covered the intricacies of the fuse box.

Normally I relish the opportunity to be a phone-in hero, to put minds at ease with a quick dispensation of some obscure factoid that saves the day---but normally, these queries involve the intricacies of Lionel Ritchie's lyrics or arcane references made in Owen Wilson movies. My collected knowledge of fuse boxes could easily be printed on a postage stamp. Even the two-cent size.

"Have you tried flicking the breakers back and forth?" I asked, hoping my wife had somehow regressed to a Dick-Van-Dyke-era Mary Tyler Moore-ish character whose idea of trouble-shooting was to make a cartoonish face and then call her husband at work. I was disappointed to learn that she had already tried jiggling the various switches.

"Maybe try them again," I recommended, feeling a need to contribute something, and since I had only one solution to every possible fuse box issue, my only option was to repeat the one thing I did know. She had already done them all, three times. (Three times? She was quickly becoming a fuse box repair specialist.) I pondered for a moment, hoping some obscure episode of Tool Time had lodged itself in my brain, then recalled the outcome of most of the "repairs" done on Tool Time---she needed to get the lights on, not blow up the stove. I sensed the opportunity for heroism was slipping away, and I resigned myself to failure.

Steph called the electric company, and it turned out to be an issue outside the house. A crew arrived with a cherry picker, a man was lifted to the top of the pole, and a few minutes later, the lights came on. One might think I would be jealous that someone else had snuck into the hero costume that I had hoped was fitted for me, but I could live with that---after all, this guy was restoring power to the refrigerator, where a fresh half-gallon of Dreyer's Caramel Delight ice cream awaited my return. He was my hero, too. And whatever he did up there on the pole, I doubt I could have done the same thing with repeated toggling of the breakers.

When I arrived home, all was well, except the clothes dryer didn't work. Steph had to go out, so I assured her that I would see what I could do about fixing it. (Not telling her that I had already dispensed the full breadth of my fuse box knowledge with my "jiggle the switches" recommendation earlier that day.) She went out, and I went down to the basement to have a look at the fuse box.

Popping the metal cover, I saw an efficient adhesive sheet on the inside of the cabinet door, numbered in the same pattern as the fuse box, perfect for finding and solving a fuse problem in a matter of seconds. Or would be perfect if it was used as it was designed---it was less effective in our case because only five of the 16 spaces had any writing, including the not-quite-reassuring posting of "Garage???" beside #14. Next to each of the switches was a small white label, an even more convenient spot to clearly identify each switch---here, 11 of the 16 spaces had writing in them, including three that were clearly marked, "dryer". (It seemed to have been written in a fourth spot as well, but like everything that had ever been written in that spot, it was lost to oblivion under the fevered scratchings of a ball point pen.)

I wondered how anyone who had ever owned the house had been able to survive with such horrible documentation. But seen from another angle, it was a fuse box perfectly designed for someone with exactly my level of electrical expertise: perfect documentation would mean only one fuse could solve the problem, but the vagueness of our breaker database justified the cover-my-bases tripping and resetting of every switch, an activity that at least offered the illusion of proactive intervention, though the only tangible result of my actions was to remotely restart my daughter's Little Mermaid DVD a few times.

As I stared at the box (unofficially known as "step 2" in my fuse box repair regimen), I noticed a slight bulge in the adhesive label on the back of the cabinet door, and was delighted to pull out three scraps of paper with hand written notes, crib sheets from previous outage adventures, numbers and scribbles that promised to reveal the actual powers of each switch. I was certain these brittle sheets contained the primer for decoding the fuse box puzzle, and flipped one to reveal the first clue:

7 = ???

This was a clue? Why was this sheet even deemed worthy of storage? It was opposite of information---it was the written evidence of acquiescence to a more formidable foe. I wondered why there wasn't a similar note for all of the other numbers---what was so special about not knowing what was on seven? I flipped the next document, penned in a scrawl I recognized as my own:

11 =
12 = bedroom outlets, back hall, front porch

I was encouraged to have at least one of the fuses accurately identified, but the particulars of that documentation were suspect: The three regions attributed to this one switch were as distant from each other as any three areas of the house could be. The back hall and the front porch on a single fuse? Either my previous investigation had resulted in bad data, or my house had been wired by a madman.

The third note was the crucial piece---or would have been, had I extracted it 20 years ago, before age left the ink faded and barely legible. It was written in an ancient, grandmotherly cursive, full of graceful swoops and sharp angles, with a pen that was apparently sharper than a surgical scalpel. (My grandmother used to write her birthday cards to me in this same script, often leading me to believe she was wishing me a "Koppy Birdday" and that she "haped I libe the nnittens.") I scoured the note, looking for clues---there was the dryer, next to "5", disheartening because 5 was not one of the three switches in the box with "dryer" written next to it; there was nothing written next to 10 or 11, confirming the accurate uncertainty of my other note; next to 3, the only listing was "dishwasher"---an appliance we do not own, and considering our kitchen is smaller than a good walk-in closet, I don't know where the previous owner ever put it. We can't even find counter space for a juicer.

I examined the available materials and saw only one option---and began clicking everything off and on again. (When I flipped #9, I heard "Dad!" bellowed from upstairs---and quickly etched "TV/DVD outlet" onto the tag, optimistic that we would never move the television, lest "TV" one day overtake "dryer" as the item with the most redundant power supply in the house.) When I had completed flipping the two columns of switches, I went over to the dryer and pushed start---it obediently complied. Problem solved.

When my wife got home, she immediately asked for status on the dryer, and I nonchalantly responded that it was fixed. "How did you do it?" she asked, incredulous.

"I flipped all of the breakers again, and it worked."

"I did that, too. It didn't help when I did it."

I shrugged, unable to explain my success.

"Well...thanks," she said begrudgingly, her tone much less enthusiastic than it had been when she talked about PGE fixing the problem at the pole. I was no hero---I was the janitor who cleaned up the glass after the hero crashed through the window to save the day.

Oh well. As I sank the scoop into the Caramel Delight ice cream, I took solace in the fact that the world needs janitors as much as it needs heroes. I'll just keep my cape in the closet until Steph has a question about a Commodores lyric from 1979---suffice to say, there will be no calls to the electric company that day.

©2006 wpreagan

#98 - The Ache, and the Salve

The Ache, and the Salve

10/11/06 (#98)

I moved away from my childhood home at age eleven, and of all of the things I left behind, Stephanie Antosca was the most dearly missed. She lived on the next street, though by every measure except geographical location, she was my Girl Next Door.

The Girl Next Door is a mythic role in the American experience, fodder for ten thousand novels and ten million daydreams, the psychic imprint that defines so many men's female ideal. She is the mystery of the opposite sex embodied in a single physical being, and if flaws exist, they are lost amidst the swirl of inscrutable allure. She is often the yardstick used to measure any future partners, a cruel reality considering the misperceptions of the adolescent mind: I recall my first neighbor's yard to be a vast expanse of real estate that required a map and ample provisions to navigate---though I would later learn it was actually the size of a modern double lot; similarly, the measure of Stephanie in my 11-year-old eyes would later lead me to believe she was, metaphorically, nine feet tall and flawless. Who could possibly measure up?

No one, I felt certain, except her. That was my mindset when we returned to Attleboro half a decade later, my emotions having simmered on a back burner for years, a stock thickened with strange new ingredients like lust, self-consciousness, confusion and everything else that puberty had added to the pot without my approval. I had enjoyed silent crushes and occasional dates in the intervening years, but each had in some way felt foreign and unfamiliar. The problem was not what these other girls were, but what they were not, and could never be. My family was returning to Attleboro for other events, a schedule that left only one evening to spend with Stephanie, so I was swimming in anticipation for the six hour drive to Massachusetts and for every minute there. My parents let me use the family car (a large and cumbersome 1974 Plymouth Fury) to drive to from our weekend lodging at my uncle's house to the Antosca's, and it's a wonder that, considering my eagerness, I didn't leave the imprint of the Fury's bumper on half the cars between.

My heart leaped when she opened the door, then plummeted as I realized she was clearly not feeling well. She had contracted some strain of stomach virus and had spent much of the day vomiting, trying any concoction to help her feel better, but no remedy could stay in her stomach long enough to be effective. She soldiered valiantly against the disease, putting on a brave face as we went for a drive and listened to a song I had written for her (poignantly, and ironically, titled "This Close to Heaven"), hoping to overcome her illness by sheer force of will, but the virus proved too strong. Logic told us both that she should be home resting, and while she tried to be a gracious host at her house, it was clear she was in no condition to entertain. I hugged her goodbye, and drove the loneliest ride home I had ever known. While teenagers have a tendency toward the dramatic, the sadness that enveloped me was no pose---quite simply, I felt as low as I could be. Any effort to console me would have been futile and unwelcome, as there was no source of light that could have penetrated that darkness.

I arrived at my Uncle's to find the mood completely contradictory to my own. Massachusetts was on storm alert, and a hurricane over the Atlantic still had an opportunity to change course and blow right into Attleboro. Should the storm become inevitable, my uncle would have to go to his floral shop and raise all of the stock to counter level to avoid flood damage, so the large living room was cluttered with cousins and friends and family abuzz with anticipation, watching the news as if it were a sporting event---berating the storm when it gained momentum and cheering when its path seemed to veer toward any city that wasn't their own.

My folks expressed surprise to see me back so early, and offered their sympathy for my one-line description of the disappointment. I thanked them, then walked though the crowd to the furtherest corner of the room, sat down against the wall between an arm chair and an end table, and tried my best not to display the sadness that had overtaken me. Fortunately, everyone's attention was focused on the television, so amidst the raucous atmosphere I was able to settle into my personal silence and lament the cruel circumstances of the night.

Some minutes later, another arrival appeared in the doorway---the family's oversize beagle. (I had just met him earlier that day, and while he seemed like a charming pooch, I had my mind on other things and didn't take time to bond.) The dog took a couple of steps into the room and seemed to assess the excited scene, mouth slightly agape in an apparent smile, tail wagging gently in response to the room's energy. I stared at him across the room, aching for him to come without my calling, certain that he was uniquely capable of soothing at least some of the night's sting.

The dog stayed near the door, but starting at the couch on his left, seemed to take inventory of everyone present---I could see his head making incremental movements as he logged the familiar faces and unfamiliar voices that populated his usually-quiet living room. His tail continued to swing lazily as his eyes spent a few moments on each subject, eventually settling his gaze on me for the same duration before moving on to the next guest, and the next.

What happened next astounds me to this day, and always will. The dog literally did a double-take, looking back at me urgently as if there was something he had missed on first glance. He didn't bother with eying the rest of the room, instead setting out determinedly through an obstacle course of extended hands offering soft greetings and playful scratches, past a chorus of coaxing "hi boy"s and "hey big fella"s, stepping over bowls of chips and around ottomans until he arrived at my side. Without looking up, he plopped his full weight on the floor beside me and against my outstretched legs, laid his head softly across my thighs and audibly sighed. Tears ran down my cheeks as I rubbed his neck, feeling helpless to express how much his gesture meant to me, though I'm sure he knew. He obviously sensed my need, and I'm sure my gratitude was telegraphed just as clearly. We didn't budge for the rest of the night.

I've heard that some scientists insist that dogs do not feel emotion, that we merely assign meaning to their coincidental actions. But to anyone who has ever known dogs, the assertion is preposterous. Perhaps the existence of a dog's emotions is akin to the question about the existence of God---one might claim science as an exclusive ally for their position, but once you have felt the hand of God personally, science is simply not relevant to the debate. I think the same is true of canine emotions---forgive the turn of phrase, but I have felt the hand of dog in my life, and it made me a believer.

©2006 wpreagan

#97 - Is the Sphinx to Blame?

Is the Sphinx to Blame for This?

9/24/06 (#97)

I'm going to take a controversial stand, despite the knowledge that some of you will be offended by my position. This nation's success was fueled by bold people who made bold statements, and I am obligated to speak up now because I care about the world that our children are going to inherit. It is a message that America---no, the world---needs to hear, so I will say what has to be said without regard to consequences:

The time has come to retire the riddle.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to think this, though it's a topic I rarely hear discussed. The riddle exists in that rarefied air shared with the pun, types of wordplay that could never withstand a popular election, yet continue to appear in conversations at every strata of American life with an inexplicable immunity from prosecution. The riddle is a pathogen too innocuous to concern cultural health care officials, so it goes untreated, often existing as a latent strain until you get a few beers into a salesman and suddenly the pub is faced with an outbreak.

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't work? A stick.

You might be surprised to hear about my distaste for these little puzzlers---I enjoy word problems, and I like jokes, so it would seem logical that I would enjoy the combination of the two. Except a riddle combines the worst aspects of both: painstaking amounts of deduction, and bad punchlines. In fact, there is nothing "logical" when it comes to the consideration of the riddle.

The riddle offends because the ratio between work required to figure it out and satisfaction when the answer is revealed is horribly skewed toward the tedious. I know that the answer will be a trick, that all of my amassed knowledge will not be sufficient to deduce an answer, and yet the teller of the riddle stands there grinning, waiting to see how I will respond. Had my parents not raised me well, I might respond appropriately---with a punch in the riddler's nose. (In fact, that I hesitate in such situations to do just that makes me wonder if my parents might have failed in that one aspect of the nurture process. I'm sure even Gandhi wanted to pop someone when they nudged him with an elbow and said, "Hey, how many Hindus does it take to screw in a light bulb?") Instead, I smile politely while mentally removing that person from my Christmas card list.

Where do you get virgin wool from? Ugly sheep.

One cannot intuit the answer to a riddle because the riddle does not WANT to be answered. It is smug and arrogant, self-satisfied that it possesses a knowledge that you lack, even if that knowledge is of the urban traveling plans of a nameless poultry item---hardly information that makes you invaluable to your employer. Riddles too often involve some sort of play on words, or an overly cute punchline that makes me feel that the effort spent in figuring it out (or failing to) was more than a mere waste of time, but a palpable diminishing of my will to live. The riddle makes life feel futile: so much effort, and the payoff is at best a minor chuckle or feigned guffaw. (Or more likely, pained groans or threats to end the friendship if another supposed "funny one" is contributed to the conversation.) The riddle is a social faux-pas that has managed to escape the notice of etiquette books, the bratty child who thinks dangling french fries from his nostrils is the height of hilarity, oblivious to the fact (as are his parents) that everyone else in the restaurant wants to see the little moppet gag on his so-called comedic props.

What did the fish say when he hit a concrete wall? "Dam".

The riddle is a hollow, dirt-flavored truffle. It plays the role in humor that a fortune cookie plays in literature; it is to cleverness what the underwear section of the Sears catalog is to pornography. If there is a hell, they tell a lot of riddles there, and none of them are funny. (In that way, hell is just like here.) The riddle is that person who enthusiastically accosts you in the restaurant----"Hey, remember me?!" Well fella, does the fact that I'm recoiling wide-eyed without a hint of recognition on my face provide any clue of the likely answer to that query? Likewise, the punchline of a riddle is the metaphoric equivalent of that person saying, "Sure you do---you passed me the Sports Illustrated at the barbershop. Great to see you again! Mind if I sit with you?" The enthusiasm I have for that guy is the same regard I have for the riddle.

Why are there so many Smiths in the phone book? They all have phones.

Immediate cause for suspicion about the value of the riddle: it can be made up on the spot. The punchlines are so impertinent and (usually) mediocre that new variations of the jokes mutate like the influenza virus, much too quickly to maintain a safe immunization. I recall being 13 years old and hearing a crowd of kids exchanging "what do you get when you cross..." riddles, and my neighbor Greg contributed, "What do you get when you cross a freeway with a skateboard?" The answer? "Hospitalized." Most amazing, this dumb joke made up on the spot by a 12-year old C-student is better than most of the riddles heard that day. Or any day. That's how low the riddle bar has been set---rank amateurs can be riddle champions. (Of course, that's a medal you don't want to be flaunting in public. In the history of the cocktail party, no one has ever uttered the phrase, "Damn, that riddle guy gets all the babes." Women might be able to get laid on the apparent strength of a riddle, but let's face it, if that's their goal, women can get laid by reading a Thai food take-out menu aloud. The man, more than likely, is simply enduring the particulars as he patiently waits for nudity.)

Did you hear about the dyslexic Satanist? He sold his soul to Santa.

Finally, I......well, okay, I admit, that one is kinda funny. But I still hate riddles.

©2006 wpreagan

#96 - He Shoots, He Scores, He Loses

He Shoots, He Scores, He Loses

9/17/06 (#96)

Between my 6th and 7th grades, my family moved from Massachusetts to Maine. My oldest brother had gone off to college that year, so the three remaining siblings experienced the common yet brutal discomfort of leaving a school at which we knew everyone and had lifelong friends, and becoming "the new kid" at schools where everyone knew each other and had lifelong friends. When we moved in, we were greeted warmly by a neighboring family who had a 7th grade son of their own. The father assured me that Morgan would love to walk to school with me the next morning and introduce me to all of his friends. Morgan nodded along silently, but I recognized the burden for which his father had carelessly volunteered him. A few mornings later, I met him at the end of his driveway, and we walked the five blocks to Garland Street Junior High benignly probing into each other's life. When we arrived, he dutifully found me my homeroom, bid me farewell and then disappeared to find his friends. I understood---he had extended more courtesy than a 7th grader should be required to display, and didn't want to ruin his own day in an effort to make mine.

At least that's how I remember my first day of school in Maine---a collection of facts, devoid of emotional context. Junior High is like a mental scrapbook full of semi-animated photographs of individual episodes: The day they were teaching dancing in gym class and the lovely Virginia Macintosh selected me as her partner---and her subsequent request that I "loosen up a little" (a request I was unable to grant, as her beguiling allure left me with two left feet, both made of granite) or the first week of football practice, overhearing an older student remark how easy I was to knock on my ass moments before he easily knocked me on my ass. (I quit football shortly after---I was terrible, and the sport had no appealing aspects except that most of the school's pretty girls seemed to date guys on the football team, which made the squad plump with second and third stringers hoping that one of the school's dark-haired maidens came included with the ill-fitting shoulder pads.) When I think of these events, I can imagine what emotions I felt, but those feelings are not imprinted along with the memory. I don't think it's a matter of imperfect recollection: At 12 years old, we are all so much a work in progress---why would I know myself in hindsight if I didn't know myself then?

There was one evening during junior high, however, that I recall with distinct emotional clarity. It was early in our 8th grade year---Morgan and I had become friends, but I was always second-tier to the kids he had grown up with and always felt like an outsider in his crowd, which happened to be the "cool" crowd at Garland Street. We knew each other's names, but little beyond that.

Morgan was hosting a party, and all of those cool kids were going to be there---the prettiest girls, the jockiest guys, and (most likely at the behest of his father) me. Morgan's folks would be chaperoning the party, and they had helped prepare by getting the basement all cleaned and organized, setting up card tables for his rod-hockey rink and flip-up Battleship boards, creating an atmosphere that would have been ideal had it been offered a few years earlier in Morgan's life.

But these kids were now 8th graders, that transitional time when parents suddenly reveal their latent squareness. Many of the attendees were already dabbling in pot and hard liquor, so they snickered at the board games while joking about spiking the fruit punch, and delighted when more "mature" entertainment arose---Morgan produced a bottle of maple syrup made to look like a whiskey bottle and invited Jason Lewis to partake, the gaggle of boys bursting into laughter when he grabbed the bottle, took a big swig, and spit a thick, sugary plume of disgust into the air. Boys huddled behind the water heater and examined sloppily rolled joints, girls sat by the stereo and talked about whatever it is that 8th grade girls talk about, and I stood upstairs next to the grill making labored small talk with Morgan's dad. I felt like an awkwardly shaped puzzle piece that had found its way into the wrong puzzle box.

Eventually I tried to mingle, and felt relieved when one of the boys from my English class challenged me to a game of rod hockey. (For those not familiar, rod hockey is a classic tabletop game that involved a simulated hockey rink and a little black puck slapped around by opposing teams of two-dimensional metal cut-outs who were controlled by movable twist knobs at opposite ends of the table.) I had been schooled at the game by my older brothers, and had no trouble holding my own against the football-centric crowd. In the first game to five, I allowed only one goal.

Despite having scoffed at the game upon arrival, a couple of my classmates were eager to play the winner. I faced another kid, a braggart who raised the level of trash talk but not the level of play, and dispensed with him quickly, my confidence growing along with the crowd of people watching. The third game was heated---Warren Caruso could play (and more importantly, stop shots with his goalie), and there was never more than a single goal lead. We berated our sheet-metal cutouts when they flubbed a pass, we cursed our barely-mobile goalies when a shot blasted past, and we reveled in the electric atmosphere that had begun to fill the basement. It felt good to be a part of that energy---even the source of that energy; everyone was enjoying the show as we battled for our mock Stanley Cup.

The game was tied at four for several minutes, each of us thwarting certain defeat with dramatic defensive plays. Even the girls had crowded around, and I felt a pubescent rush when the adorable Debra Chason touched my shoulder to console me on a heart-breaking in-and-out shot that would have won the game. For a few glorious minutes, I wasn't the outsider I had been all night, or all year---I was just one of the guys playing rod hockey, and I was one goal away from victory. I offered animated commentary, took every opportunity to explain to Warren when his moment of doom had arrived (as he did to me), and enjoyed every sensation of the game---the brittle sound of the rods moving beneath the plywood "ice", the thin slap of the wooden puck against the plastic "boards", carefully planning a strategy for victory. I got the puck on the right wing, slid the rod out to move my player to center ice, and unleashed a slapshot into the left corner of Warren's net. Game over!

There was a minor swell composed of both "yeahs" and "ohhhhs", and then as Warren stood up, the crowd quickly dispersed. Naturally, they had all been rooting for their friend, not the eternal new guy, and while they could cheer a competitive battle, they fully expected Warren to emerge victorious. When he didn't, the game that had held everyone's attention moments before was again just an adolescent toy, fit for a child's birthday party, not a teenager's no-occasion bash. I had become the champion of the lamest thing at the party, and witness to the moment when the thrill of victory becomes the agony of a much larger defeat.

I recall nothing else from that night---I may have slipped out the porch door and gone home, I may have retreated grill-side with Morgan's dad, who knows. I just recall the burning shame of my too-enthusiastic performance, the awkwardness of having fancied myself the star of the circus, only to realize I was still a side-show freak.

I suspect the diplomacy of letting Warren win would have served my social standing more effectively, allowing the hero to be a hero while providing me the status of hard-working up-and-comer---maybe Virginia Macintosh might even have sat to console me. But I was too young to recognize the value of such political maneuvering, and wouldn't have done it even I had weighed the perks of taking a dive: when you play, you play to win. You can regret not playing your hardest, but there's no shame in losing.

At least not as much as there was in winning.

©2006 wpreagan

#95 - The Man-Purse

The Man-Purse

9/7/06 (#95)

At the cusp of 40, the vanity of my youth has faded---my jeans no longer need to be Levi's (though they are, because I haven't purchased new blue jeans in years), my khakis don't need to be Gap (I got my last pair on clearance at Target for $4.34, though they look like I paid twice that), and my shoes are selected purely for comfort. (Actually, my shoes are usually selected by my wife, who has much more patience for shoe shopping than I do, and who has found me, consecutively, the three most comfortable pairs of shoes I have ever owned. Left to my own devices, I'd have gotten them at Target for $4.34, just like I did before my wife's shoe intervention.)

Thus, I was nothing but amused when I showed up at work and one of my co-workers exclaimed, "You've got a man purse!" After all, he was right. Had I arrived with a backpack or a stylish messenger bag I would have escaped comment---even notice---but my tote lacks the size of both of those bags. It's much more like...well, a purse. (In fact, it's much smaller than either of my late grandmother's purses, which could have easily been used for shoplifting cantaloupes or smuggling infants.) I prefer to call is a bag, but as Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name..."

There's an adage among purse carriers that you tend to pack as much stowage as the purse will allow, which explains why many women can shame even McGyver when it comes to problem solving: if an unexpected dilemma can only be solved with a needle and thread, a saltine cracker, two Canadian quarters and a pen with green ink (I have no idea what issue these items would resolve, but then, I don't think you can stop nuclear fallout with a candy bar, and McGyver managed that), just look for the woman with the largest purse. You might even have your choice of Bic or Pentel pens.

I was exactly that type of packer when I carried a messenger bag---items were regularly added to the inventory, but nothing was ever removed. Scotch tape? Had it. Sore throat? Two types of lozenges. Stuck with an unexpected delay? Voila, a book of Barbara Kingsolver's essays. Tissues, Swiss Army knife, protractor, French-English dictionary, recipe for margaritas, a deck of cards, extra silverware, spare clarinet reeds, 4x6 picture frames, a bottle of ketchup? I'm sure I had them all in there, and I don't even play clarinet. The damn thing weighed about 22 lbs, and would barely fit into the overhead bin of a DC-10. I justified this portable department store as "being prepared", but over the course of a year, the only items I ever used were the knife and the lozenges. I was packed for anything possible, yet lived a life that stayed well within the confines of probable.

So I first switched to a smaller shoulder bag. Sure, I felt a bit naked traveling to the coffee shop without my unabridged thesaurus, baseball glove, folding backgammon case and matched set of 16 oz coffee mugs, but I had committed myself to minimalism. I proudly showed off my pared down portable to my wife, who inspected the contents and asked when I had last used the full-size paper cutter, and why I needed the mortar and pestle. (I had no answer, except to say that I wouldn't have put it in there if there hadn't once been a legitimate need. Ditto on the lawn dart set.)

So I scaled back again---gone were the road flares, the assortment of jams, and the propane camp lantern; I would learn to live without the down comforter and the road atlas of the western hemisphere. I had finally pared it back to the bare essentials, and by coincidence, received a new bag for Christmas that would contain these items and nothing else, a bag barely the size of...well, a purse. But it was more than just the right size---it was filled with slots and pockets and zippered compartments, an organizational euphoria for someone like me, one of those nuts who gets visibly excited when circumstances require a trip to either Staples or Storables. (The only thing better than having a clever, convenient storage container for each of my items is to have a clever, convenient storage item for all of my clever, convenient storage items. It would qualify as a secret shame if I made any attempt to keep it a secret, or if I felt any shame.)

Now the contents of my bag are purely essential: a small pad and a set of crayons in case my daughter and I need to pass time while waiting for the scrambled eggs to arrive; my PDA and folding keyboard; three pens (though none with green ink), and of course, my swiss army knife and some lozenges. It's a clear case of function over form, and I'm secure enough in my masculinity (or oblivious enough to it) that I can fling my little bag over my shoulder and go wherever I need to go. And as a coworker said in my defense after the initial "man-purse" comment, "At least it's not a fanny pack." (I have friends who once used, and probably still use their fanny packs, and while I love those people, I admit to emphatic agreement with that defense.)

Of course, you know what's going to happen now---I'll be out in the far reaches of Northeast Portland and a diabetic Frenchman who barely speaks English will approach me with his broken clarinet and an incomplete map of Montana, struggling to explain that he needs something to raise his blood sugar so he can get to a part of Montana that isn't on his map and perform a concert, assuming he can find new reeds for his clarinet.

And all I'm going to be able to say is, "lozenge?"

©2006 wpreagan

Monday, January 29, 2007

#94 - A Little Room to Read

A Little Room to Read

8/31/06 (#94)

I confess, I have given more coverage to the (usually) unspoken nuances of a visit to la salle de bain than most writers. Yet there's one topic I have not yet broached---the loo as library.

George Costanza is likely America's best known bathroom reader, forced to purchase an expensive art book that he had taken from the shelves to accompany him to the bookstore's facilities during an episode of Seinfeld. I'm not sure how the rest of America responded to this storyline, but for those of us who find the written word to be, at times, the perfect laxative, the responses were likely the same: The art book was good for the gag, but it was a terrible choice for the task at hand: a coffee table book is much too cumbersome to handle in the confines of a public stall. (Frankly, it would be an awkward handful in my bathroom at home, too.)

I know for a fact that it's not just Costanza. Not because I have a stack of old New Yorker magazines in the bathroom at home, and not because I often find those magazines on a different page than where I left them the previous day---I know because I sat on the train one morning while an exasperated woman in the seat next to me struggled to assure her Mom that despite his not answering the phone, Simon was definitely at home. Her side of the conversation went something like this:

"He's home, Mom........when did you last talk to him?........he doesn't have a car, Mom, he wouldn't have gone anywhere. He's probably in the bathroom............no, that's not that long for Simon...........I don't know, Mom, but...........Mom, trust me, he's not like us. That's not that long. Call again in 10 minutes, I'm sure you'll reach him."

"He's not like us." The phrase rang in my head as if the woman had said, "Well, you know how white people are." Since when was reading an act worthy of judgment? Simon was home alone, and of all of the unmentionable things he might be engaged in, knocking off a chapter of Clive Cussler before getting on with the day's events ought to register pretty low on the sin-o-meter.

Some folks see any activity in the bathroom as pure necessity, a chore to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. If you want to curl up with a Barbara Kingsolver paperback, schedule some time on the living room couch or relax in the backyard hammock. This is clearly the attitude of someone who didn't grow up in a house full of kids, where neither couch nor hammock offered the requisite atmosphere for concentration.

I grew up the youngest of four siblings, in a house full of noogies and charley horses and near-perpetual adolescent harassment. The bathroom was the only door with a lock on it, so the bathroom became a sanctuary, a respite from the slings and arrows of daily life. (For all of us---I understood the finer points of the charley horse well enough to dish it out, too.) At eight years old, it was enough to simply enjoy the silence, but boredom eventually got the better of me and I started reading. (Though there may be some nature/nurture issues in play, as I have a vivid image of a small stack of Reader's Digest magazines resting somewhere in every bathroom of my folks various houses.)(Reader's Digest is arguably the ideal choice to employ for this literary service: lots of short articles, several longer human interest pieces, various pages of humor and anecdotes, a word-power quiz----all in all, the prefect companion for either an efficient visit or an extended stay.) Reader's Digest, Golden books, superhero comics---any book that could safely sit on the back of the toilet when the lid was open was a qualified candidate for bathroom literacy.

As I grew older, I came to realize that reading on the toilet was more than a means to pass time---productivity, it often seemed, was closely linked to available verbiage, a disconcerting fact when having to use the commode in the house of bathroom non-readers. It's bad enough when he only book available is The Complete History of Chester A. Arthur, Volume 1, but sometimes the selection is even worse: I have read shampoo bottles, aspirin side-effect warnings, return policies printed on receipts found in my wallet, even the side panels of various Tampax products. It's a cause and effect conditioning issue, and if I wanted that effect, I sometimes had to find a few lines of cause. If that cause had to come in the form of a can of Edge shaving gel, then three cheers for Edge's patented blend of moisturizers that help to prevent painful nicks, cuts and razor burn.

Now I'm a homeowner with a very active 4-year old, and when I feel inundated by the day job, dirty dishes, dog walking and doll house games, I still retire to the smallest room of the house to lose myself in a bit of fiction. (Perhaps this was how I developed a love for the short story---reading a novel at 15 minutes a day would make the lifespan of a character feel like it's unfolding in real time.) Sure, leaning my elbows on my knees for the duration of a David Sedaris essay will cut off the circulation to my feet, and I will be forced to hobble out to the couch with the grace of the Tin Man and wait for the pins-and-needles sensation to pass, but Sedaris is a funny guy, and the opportunity for focused attention is worth the mild discomfort that follows.

I've noticed that my daughter Sage, not quite four years old, seems to have inherited this gene. She can't read yet, but she refuses to take care of business (our dog-walk inspired euphemism) without having a pad of paper and a crayon to sketch angels and dogs and abstract office buildings. (Or perhaps it's mailmen, cats, and our cereal-box shelf---tough to know without asking.) I found it quite endearing until I suffered an alarming realization: Bathrooms. Art. Good grief, have I spawned the female Costanza? If she starts asking me to call her Sage Vandelay, the Crayolas will be confined to the living room.

©2006 wpreagan

#93 - Your Cheating Heart

Your Cheating Heart (But Not Mine)

8/23/06 (#93)

Psychologists, sociologists, and Maury Povich have long theorized on the motivations that lead a man to be unfaithful to his wife. Inquire with the web and you can find a variety of non-scientific top-ten lists that chronicle the reasons for such transgressions---and depending on the author, it might be a scathing call-out (female authors) or preposterous justifications (male authors), all of which claim to answer the age old question, "What's so hard about keeping it in your pants?" (No pun intended.) But these theories are all wrong. With apologies to Maya Angelou, I know why the caged bird wants to bang the cockatoo in the next cage.

Misconception #1: He's bored.
No, that's why he does crossword puzzles. Jumping the bones of the waitress at Romano's Macaroni Grill as a means of alleviating boredom is like hunting wild boar as a means of alleviating hunger---it's just too much work. (Besides, Romano's is to delicious pasta what Schlitz is to delicious beer---there is little chance of late-night passion if "courting" means having to eat one of their mammoth bowls of penne every time you want to clean the pipes.) Adult male boredom is a leading cause of Lionel Train sales (and their accompanying HO scale trees, general stores, and period accurate 1941 coupes), but it doesn't cause infidelity. (Unless your railroad store of choice is staffed with a nymphomaniac with long lunch hours, but that is not the case with my local hobby shop---though Ed is certainly a charming enough fellow.)

Misconception #2: He's not getting any at home.
Wrong. While the accepted view that a married couple's sex life wanes as the years pass seems to be true, it is a gradual decline that occurs over years, even decades. Think of it like heroin: If you were shooting up 6 times a week and had to quit cold turkey, you'd be jonesing for a fix by Tuesday; but if you were to ween yourself off the drug slowly, over the course of several presidential administrations, the withdrawal symptoms are much easier. Every now and then a strange and vaguely familiar sensation might come over a man, but it can usually be solved quickly with the sexual equivalent of methadone: the quick tug. That way ten minutes later (or even two), he can get back to his crossword puzzle.

Misconception #3: He's collecting trophies.
While this myth is often applied to the whole gender, I suspect it was the activities of a small percentage of men that spawned this myth. Sure, if you got to take home an actual trophy it might be fun---like getting to take home the day-glo green stuffed puppy if you score at the ring toss at the Rose Festival---but no one I know has ever been awarded a statue of a gold-plated couple going for the brass ring on a faux-marble pedestal. Instead, you get souvenirs like unsightly hickies, awkward 10 PM "wrong numbers" on your cell phone, and medical conditions that make your story about sitting on an infected golf cart seat seem suspiciously implausible. Besides, all women (like men) have their own scents, textures, and flavors---some of which are much more appealing than others. Just as a champion bowler would think twice about winning if the trophy emitted a musky effluvium that seemed noticeable no matter how many times he washed his hands, most men are careful about the awards they accrue. Besides, what if your trophy decided, post-victory, to hit "play" on Yoko Ono's solo album and purr about how happy she is to finally have a person with whom she can share her musical tastes? Horniness might lead a man to banging his way through side one of a Yoko album---heck, horniness has apparently led men to actually knock boots with Yoko herself---but once the baby batter has been distributed into the condom, no prize is worth laying through side two.

Misconception #4: He's afraid of getting old.
C'mon---if you have a genuine fixation with aging, is there any combination of hair color and cup size that will distract from that thought process? Sure, it's nice to be 20 years past your prime and sitting across from a woman who is the same age as the woman you were sitting across from 20 years ago, but the blank stare returned when making references to Larry Bird, H.R. Pufnstuf, or Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" hardly makes a man feel young. No woman can make a man feel young. Only tequila can do that.

In fact, there are not ten motivations behind infidelity, or even five---there is one reason that a man cheats: It allows a brief escape from the reality that is himself.

We are all a composite of our lives, and our baggage travels with us. My wife knows almost everything about me----she knows I have spent 15 years talking about being a writer without truly committing to writing; she knows that, left to my own devices, I'd probably pull up my socks to my knees, even when wearing shorts; she knows I'm going to cry anytime I see the "Dad, wanna have a catch?" scene in Field of Dreams. And frankly, who wants anyone to know that kind of crap about themselves? I'm certain I'd have a much better chance of doing the naked pretzel when I get home if my wife had not witnessed me making full use of the airline vomit bag last time we flew into Boston, or inexplicably getting motion sickness during the inane movie Made (Suffice to say, Blair Witch Project it was not), or seen me plow through 60% of a Breyer's half-gallon in one sitting. That's just not attractive stuff. Meeting someone new allows a man to be the person he wants to be, not the man he actually is.

That's why other men cheat. The reason I don't is because I recognize the futility of trying to score a few of evenings of mattress surfing with the flirtatious barista at Starbuck's---the initial attraction would surely be heady, but I would be constantly annoyed with the sound of the clock, ticking down until the moment when she, too, found out that I get nauseous reading a road map in the car, and that, no, I'm not "splitting" the Ben and Jerry's with her. Just one woman in the world knowing these things is plenty.

©2006 wpreagan

#92 - Confessions of a Copywriter

Confessions of a Copywriter

8/7/06 (#92)

Have you seen the Dr. Scholls' ads for gel shoe inserts? Perhaps this will ring a bell: "Gellin' like Magellan"? I'm sure you've seen them---and for that, I apologize. Despite the embrace that the concept received from my employer, and the personal accolades that it has brought my way, I am renouncing that campaign.

Confession: I wrote the entire thing on the train one morning. (Some of you suspected, no?) And it's a fast train ride. And I was flirting with a beautiful Puerto Rican woman who was getting her masters in Pacific maritime history, writing her thesis on a new examination of Magellan's journals. (Apparently there's a possibility that his descriptions of Cebu Island were in fact of Macatan, and that the record of the ensuing battle of Macatan might possibly be the exact opposite of what actually happened. But I didn't care---I just watched her lips form the various vowels and consonants, her tongue appearing momentarily to gently lengthen the word "island" and simultaneously send my thoughts on libidinous tangents.) She got off at 8th Avenue, and I suddenly had sixteen blocks to change my blank pad into a campaign plan or my boss would likely fulfill his oft-made promise to "chew my ass like a brisket from Sizzler"---and I had nothing. I pondered whether I should have jumped from the train with the grad student when I realized that she had left me with more than just fodder for lusty daydreams: Magellan.

I scribbled rhymes as I navigated the sidewalk, scrawling all the way up the elevator, sculpting my pitch while hoping that all of the other suits in the lift had to get off on a floor before mine. My "notes" looked like a cheat sheet for a test on the rhyming dictionary. As pitches go, this one was in the dirt (frankly, unhittable)--- not even as good as my quickly-dismissed "Gel-atin" story boards, featuring the downtown with Jell-o streets.

Yet somehow, everyone loved the Magellan idea. Atta boys from the gaggle of middle managers; handshakes from my neighboring cube denizens; work propositions from other creative team's graphic designers. It felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone, the office rabidly enthralled with an obviously mediocre idea. Within weeks, there wasn't a football game in America that wasn't interrupted by a bunch of Dockers-wearing nobodies bellowing across a backyard barbeque about the quality of their cushioned insoles. "Gellin' like Magellan", the man enthuses.

Question: What does that mean? I wrote it and I don't know. It's a nonsense phrase, a Dr.Seussian non sequitur that has as its only asset the ridiculously pitiful strength of vaguely rhyming. Of course it rhymes---it's the exact same phonic! Forget simple rhymes like moon and June----this is moon and moon. And why would Magellan require padded insoles? Does sailing around the world take its toll on your feet? How can this utterly vacant catch phrase motivate a person to buy our product?

I'm particularly embarrassed by the non-ironic inclusion of the rejoinder, "I'm gellin' like a felon"? A felon? Is that the demographic we seek? How do you rob a convenience store? Well, first, you need comfortable feet. I have to take the blame for that, too, though I presented it as a joke---"and to reach that lucrative Cops demographic, 'Gellin' like a felon.'" Apparently, nobody realized it was a joke---instead concentrating on the possibility that felons are a lucrative untapped market.

I apologize for wasting so much of people's time, albeit it in 20-second intervals. When I wrote it, I was young, smoking a lot of pot and kinda dating a bartender, so I had a Guinness I.V. for the better part of a year---the applicable adjective is stunted. Fortunately, folks at the office don't really get my sense of humor, so for most jobs I could cobble together some grossly pedestrian treatments at the last minute and when it was dismissed, indignantly moan, "Y'all just don't get me." I was throwing darts at newspaper articles, scribbling concepts into the dirt on the side of my dingy Toyota, taking pictures of them with my cell phone and calling them story boards---that's how hard I wasn't working. None of my last-minute ideas ever saw the light of day, and I didn't think this one would, either.

But the damn thing emerged, Dr. Scholl's version of the Frankenstein monster, refusing to obey its creator. It grew into print ads and direct mail cards, web banner pop-ups and bus stop billboards. I felt no pride---just a low, sinking feeling that my parents might find out that I was the one who wrote it.

I finally cornered my boss in his office, explaining my concern. "It's memorable, " he attested, "it keeps our gel insoles in the forefront of people's minds." These assurances didn't help, they merely confirmed that he didn't know what "Gellin' like Magellan" meant either. Besides, when it comes to insoles, aren't we already in the forefront of people's minds? Who else are they going think of---we've got something like 94% of the cushioned insert market share, and 97% of the odor control insert market. Our racks are ubiquitous in every department store in the nation. I'm surprised the government hasn't investigated us as an unfair monopoly.

I have sent a memo to management requesting that the campaign be terminated. It's older now, and can be retired quietly, replaced with something less insipid; something that promotes the product in a positive, creative light. I've even asked them to reconsider my "Gel-atin" concept. See, there's the whole spongy angle, the streets no longer hard and fatiguing. It's a much more cohesive campaign---though I admit, we're probably going to lose some popularity with the felons.

©2006 wpreagan

#91 - The Letter S

The Letter S

7/20/06 (#91)

In the yearbook of the alphabet, S is superlative---"Letter most likely to start a word." One might mistake S as the most frequent letter in the language, but sadly, it is not, beaten out by a cartoon handful of vowels---hardly a fair fight considering that the vowels are required by etymological law to appear in every word this side of an acronym. Consonants have no such affirmative action guarantees---even when it comes to plurals, S is offered no promises: "deer" and "mice" are ample proof of that. Yet despite the vowel's requisite advantages, only four of them actually outnumber the S. Few consonants can make such a claim. (Frankly, E's status as the letter-frequency leader reeks of political maneuvering, having gone so far as to squirm its way into even the very spelling of its significant consonantal rival. [Ess].)

S is sinewy---one of only three letters whose composition is devoid of sharp angles and straight lines. Serpentine and simple, S is a shoe-in for the smart letter selection on Wheel of Fortune, and one of the few letters that allow a single tile 17-point score in Scrabble. (That this spectacular letter is honored with only one point is a sinful devaluation by the folks at Milton Bradley.)

S is springy and smooth, an essential element of comic semantics such as "spoink" and "splat", and has more fun on a single page of text than V has in a whole chapter. S can softly smile or sarcastically sneer, and it will sweetly soothe just moments after it suddenly smites.

S is specific---while its sister sounding C might borrow its sibilance, the C too often sneaks off to impersonate the sonic of a K, bragging about versatility when it simply lacks backbone. H might make a noise or might not ("a herd of herbs"), but S refuses to sit by silently---employ its services and you will hear its sound.

S is essential to so many savory, satisfying words---several of which I will sing the praises of here:

Sully---Mr. Webster defines this word as "To mar the cleanness or luster of." Taint and tarnish and contaminate all sound like the aftermath of a a genuine soiling, whereas if someone told me that after the flight they were sullied by the southern-accented stewardess, I would likely be slightly jealous. Somewhat less so if the recipient of said post-flight checklist had been "tainted" by the same woman.

Strumpet---Not recommended for poets (unless writing an ode to crumpets or lambasting the floozy trombone in contrast to the chaste trumpet), but strumpet ("a woman adulterer") possesses a certain not-quite-wholesome sexuality without having the rudeness of those nasty words listed beside it in the thesaurus. If the man sullied by the stewardess lamented that she was only a strumpet, my jealousy would not subside. (Sigh.)

Swagger---the dictionary says it means, "To walk or conduct oneself with an insolent or arrogant air". I prefer to define the word by what swaggers and what does not: southern band The Black Crowes swaggers; The Grateful Dead did not. Matthew McCounaghey can swagger; Matthew Broderick cannot. The paintings of Pablo Picasso swagger; Norman Rockwell's do not. The letter S has swagger; The letter Q does not.

Sofa---the meaning ("A long upholstered seat typically with a back and arms") is as soft (yet supporting) as the sound itself. (Say it----see?) Couch is cold and uncomfortable; divan is distracting and difficult; being done on a daybed seems demeaning---but sullied on a sofa by some swaggering strumpet? Well, keep this a secret, but that sounds simply splendid.

©2006 wpreagan