Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Big Fat Liar

A friend sent me a dozen photos of various fake Santas tolerating a raft of screaming, squirming, terrified children reaching piteously for their parents. Why do kids cry at the sight of that man in red? When I was little I didn't want to find out: I clung to my dad's leg and never let go.

My dad, who had been mad that very morning because I poured maple syrup into his snowblower, stood grimly in line, promising Santa Claus. Then came the very unconvincing bait-and-switch.

The tipoffs were glaring: I knew well that Santa only comes once a year, in the night, while you sleep, and only if you're asleep. Now, suddenly, Mr. Secretive is hanging out in the middle of the mall surrounded by blinking lights and paparazzi while three stone-faced clerks, serious as mafiosi, collect payoffs from the adults? Dad tried to coax me into the red stranger's outstretched, gloved hands as I realized I didn't know what happened to all those kids who were in front of me in line. I scanned the room. They were gone.

It's a trap!

I didn't think for one second that this impostor was Santa. That cheap suit, his saggy false beard that smelled of pastrami—flying reindeer couldn't have convinced me he was for real. In my hometown, Santa Clops was double-parked on seedy downtown Central Avenue, his "workshop" a crooked plywood house on two wheels, with a trailer hitch for a front porch. This itinerant hustler was obviously ready for a quick getaway. Slick Nick.

"Don't talk to strangers. They might snatch you," warned everyone from my mom to my teachers up until now. Well, no one could be stranger than this guy: obviously in a disguise, no verifiable address, and he wouldn't fit down my chimney if I tamped him with a ball bat.

This was my parents' second attempt. Just two months ago, after a short lifetime of being told it was dangerous to accept candy from strangers, they dressed me up as a bunny—the world's most irresistible prey—and tossed me outside into the dark Halloween night with instructions to go door-to-door extorting candy using vague threats. What "trick?" Was I, yellow bunny-boy, really going to instill dread among the witches, zombies, and French maids?

Still, the strangers gave me lots of candy, and having just read Hansel and Gretel I figured they were only fattening me up for next year.

Kids are highly sensitive. They are aware of ghosts when you aren't. They have friends you call imaginary only because you can't see them. Of course these kids scream when handed to Scam Santa. It's the random clueless happy kid that you want to pull aside and groom for a future on the city council.

I'm grown now, tall and strong enough. One of these days I'll get up the courage to face that fat liar. "Okay, Whoever-You-Are Claus," I'll say meanacingly, "come clean—what did you do with all those children?"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Domino Effect

My Christmas shopping felt different this year, hectic but detached. It's nothing like that year where moms were beating each other up to get a Cabbage Patch doll, or the Great Crush of 2000 when everyone battled to get a Playstation, fighting as if it was over an oil-rich country.

I was hit by the domino effect. It would be rude to tell you which store, but they specialize in curiously unpopular things at a discount—things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't sell. Things like avocado-colored bowls, pink area rugs and two-foot-tall wine glasses.

They had a row of creepy-looking dolls, perfect for giving that special child on your list who has nightmares. The dolls were baby-sized and wore baby clothes, but had oddly adult expressions—unsmiling, unfeeling, uncomfortable, much as if you locked a midget in the freezer.

Right next to them was a lunchbox-sized tin full of dominoes. I thought it would be really funny to tip over the whole box with my finger. Get it? But the domino box didn't fall over. It was heavy and oddly stable, as if it were magnetized to the shelf. It just kept sliding around as I pushed it. Thanks to my determination to complete the sight gag, it finally toppled over, but twisted a little first and bumped a row of—I didn't get a good look at what they were, because the first one fell forward off the shelf right at my face, and in lunging to save it I knocked it too far backwards, and it tipped the rest of them down, one by one in a row, and then they all slid off the shelf, one by one. I used to be a pretty good juggler, so I kept up with the raining boxes for a few seconds, but then they spilled over the side into the scary dead midget dolls, who then lunged at me like a single-file army of zombie babies.

My friend watched all this without expression. "Man," she said finally, in the eerie quiet that followed, "those are good dominoes."

I ended up buying the dominoes. I figured if I could harness their power, I could rule the world. For half price.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday on Ice

One thing I do to get in the mood for Christmas is to visit my friend's import store in the Old Market of Omaha, a district full of restored old warehouses, originally built for customers who bought flour by the sack and nails by the barrel as they prepared for their trek across 1200 miles of prairie, hard dry ground thin as an old man's head. Now each building is filled with quirky shops. Not one Burger King. (Last summer a Jimmy John's crept up to the border like a cockroach but we'll get that burned down in no time.)

I like to shop there at night, on a Monday or Tuesday, because it's quieter then. But this week it was beyond peaceful. It was eerie.

"It's December, and I just had my two slowest days in memory," my friend said with a shrug. There had been a sales party the night before, for which she had bought a case of wine. She had 21 bottles left over. "Want some?"

"Heck yeah!" It's fun to drink wine and shop. We discussed the pall that is hanging over the city. Just a week ago a dissatisfied teenager stole his dad's illegal rifle and shot eight people dead from the top of the escalator in a busy shopping mall. He may turn out to be the Grinch, stealing not just lives but the entire good cheer of the season. It is definitely a holiday on ice.

We gossiped until well past closing time, when a forecast ice storm began living up to its reputation. As I walked the short trip to my car, ice-rain rapped my head in fat, gluey drops. I didn't notice until I got home that they had frozen to my hair like little jewels. I felt like Bo Derek.

I crawled into bed and gazed out the window, which was a surprisingly bright gray-green.

I live on a busy street. As I awoke this morning it was unusually quiet thanks to the ice and snow. We were to have a poetry and prose reading event at the bar I own, so I checked in with the artists. They wanted to go ahead with the event, ice or not, Grinch or not. So on we'll go. I think we need the reading, the writing, the listening, the singing—we need to connect with real people, not hide at home typing virtual conversations. The TV isn't going to cut it right now. We need real live life.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Connected

I just got off the phone with my internet provider's technician. She troubleshooted (troubleshot?) with me for twenty minutes, and although it was never proven, she decided I needed a new modem because mine was—holy cow!—five years old. She said it as if I were trying to stuff a cassette tape into my DVD player. Apparently, in Computerville, my modem is Methuselah. Never mind that the modem worked fine just last week. Never mind that I just added a wireless router, which I'm quite certain aliens are already trying to hack from the comfort of their home planet. The router can't be the problem because—ta daaa—my internet provider doesn't sell routers.

This fiasco was softened by the fact that the tech person had a wonderful, soothing voice. Sometimes I didn't hear what she was saying because I was so enjoying not the words but the sound of them. After I hung up I came to my senses.

I poked around my records. It turns out my modem is only a couple of years old, which the equivalent of my age in Peopleville, and although I'm not blazingly fast, I still work all right. And after shutting things down and starting them back up in various combinations, the internet is back at my disposal.

So I called Internet Provider back to cancel that shiny new modem, and this time I got someone who sounded just like Scooby Doo. "Ruh-roh! Rats rincompatible rit your rinternet corrrrrection!" My mind drifted again as I realized Scooby Doo sounds just like Astro from The Jetsons. And they both sound like Tom Brokaw.

I decided I'm lucky that I have the problems I have. Some people's problems go beyond modem compatibility issues. And I suppose dogs are lucky to be talking at all, speech impediment or not. And Mr. Brokaw seems to be getting by just fine as he is.

As I'm literally counting my blessings, eight innocent holiday shoppers were shot dead in a mall less than a mile from my house, randomly picked off by a nineteen-year-old kid who had lost his job at McDonald's. Male, female, young, old—most didn't even know they were being fired upon, because that doesn't happen in the mall in Omaha.

I've lost my speaking voice thanks to a cold. And my e-mail is down again, maybe thanks to my Stone Age modem.

Right now, I can live with that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Filler Material

Thanksgiving is fun for me because no one has figured out how to sell it. There are no Thanksgiving carols to endure, no only-sixty-shopping-days-til-Thanksgiving, not even Thanksgiving cards to keep track of. Essentially, family and friends just gather to cook a bird, circle around it and pick at it until it is a shell of bare bones. It's a caveman holiday.

Preparation of the first American Thanksgiving for ninety-one Indians and fifty-six settlers fell to four women and two teenage girls —the rest of the women died the prior winter —so not much has changed there.

There are many legends from the Thanksgiving feast. Chief Massasoit's brother Quadequina disappeared into the woods during dinner and returned with a bowl of popcorn, which amazed the settlers. It didn't take much to amaze them, apparently. Maybe that is why they were called "settlers."

It was also the first American use of the wishbone, a good-luck contest brought by the Europeans. I didn't know until today that the wishbone ceremony is the origin of our phrase "lucky break," or that the bone was originally considered lucky because pagans thought it looked like spread legs.

Other feasts of fame: King Darius plied his guests with smoked camel hump, a Persian favorite. Americans don't eat camel hump, I suppose because we never figured out how to make fast food out of it. "Honey, want me to pick up dinner? I'm right by the Hump 'n' Go."

The Bible doesn't mention it, but Jewish tradition implies that it is very likely Jesus and his Apostles sang at the Last Supper. Stuck in my head is Da Vinci's famous image of the meal, everyone all scowly and accusatory. I have to reinvent to imagine them all singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

In the 1600s the Earl of Carlisle concocted meals so visually beautiful that guests could not bring themselves to eat, but gazed upon the food/art until it inevitably went cold. According to my history book, so extravagant were his meals that he was dubbed "The English Heliogabalus." I can't wait to use that nickname on somebody. "Dude—you are, like, the Omaha Heliogabalus!"

I have been told there is actually a Feast of The Circumcision. I'm too afraid to look it up so I can't tell you what is traditionally served. I can only guess it's something like pork rinds or curly fries.

I almost forgot! The outcome of the wishbone contest presented at the original American Thanksgiving? The Indians got the short end of the stick.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

That Blows

I thought my neighbor's house was on fire. Yellow smoke twisted up in a violent, angry spiral. My heart sank, imagining these poor people homeless on Thanksgiving. I imagined the irony: it was probably their holiday cooking that started the blaze.

But no fire. I got closer and saw three fat guys with leaf blowers in the front yard, triangulating their screaming bazookas, trying to herd terrified leaves into a submissive pile. They were raising so much dust they could barely see each other, and their beady eyes were twisted shut like little sphincters against the raging dust.

It was a small yard. I could have raked it by hand in ten minutes. But nothing says IM Professional like a shrieking, 30-pound, two-cycle motor strapped to your back, pumping your nose full of exhaust and spitting unburned gas and oil on your shirt.

There is an unwritten rule in my neighborhood: no one can fire up his leaf blower until there is a moment of peace and quiet. Even the bagpipe guy has moved inside. You would think if anyone could stand the shrillness of a leaf-blower, it would be him.

I should shut up. I don't rake much by hand either. I mow up my leaves and dump the mealy results into my garden. Judging by their reaction, worms consider this mix to be our equivalent of German chocolate cake. Worms cannot smile or wave, so when they hear my footsteps coming they just poke their greasy bodies out of the dirt, beckon me closer and point to where the party is. I deliver. Whump.

I passed another neighbor who actually had a leaf vacuum. It sucked, in every sense. She had a dead look on her face as she erased a knee-high pile of leaves. Two young children watched silently from a safe distance. My hope was that she was cleaning up for the second time after their jump-fest into the original pile, but I could tell from their nice clean jackets that these kids had a substandard education.

But how long since I jumped in a pile of leaves? I couldn't remember, and felt a little hypocritical. And that was when I came upon it: a pile of leaves easily six feet high. Its sculptor was still standing there, marveling at his work, his rake still in gloved hand. It was mountainous, magnificent, begging to be destroyed.

I pulled over, and prepared to introduce myself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Honkey

My kitchen lightswitch was making crackly noises. Sort of like a bowl of Rice Krispies, if anyone even knows what they sound like anymore. Maybe they don't even sound the same —I haven't heard them in decades. I'm getting lost already and I haven't finished my first paragraph. Anyway, if you imagine a little mouse wadding up a little piece of paper, that's the sound. Electricians refer to that as not good.

I pulled out the switch, checked for signs of impending immolation, and replaced it with a new one. It's not a hard job, really, but it's the kind of job that makes a man feel manly. It feels good. I kept looking for excuses to turn the light on or off. "Gotta save electricity!" [click.] "Just passing through!" [click...click.]

I do that all the time. If I replace a faucet washer, I'll wash my hands twenty times that day just to enjoy watching it working properly. I bought an antique Colibri lighter at an estate sale, and spent hours cleaning it up and figuring out how to make it work again. I don't smoke, but I began seeing everything in terms of flammability. Saturday I replaced my doorbell, and after about fifty test rings I went back inside to find my cat looking like it had swallowed a static ball. The doorbell once was commonly associated with a girlfriend and her dog, and for my cats the link has stuck in quite literal Pavlovian fashion.

Yesterday I fixed my car horn.

I know it's not nice to honk at everything. That's probably how it got messed up in the first place. I had been making a conscious effort to only honk when a honk was really needed. But it was killing me.

American car horns are impressive. They sound like harbingers of death, which they usually are. My truck is a Nissan, and its Japanese horn sounds more like it is sticking out its tongue. Nyeah!

Just last weekend I had two close calls involving twenty-year-old girls cutting across three lanes of traffic to veer into a parking space while talking on a cell phone. I bang bang bang on that horn pad, hoping to startle her and the person she's talking to, but the horn fails me until about a half block later, which just makes me look like a whiner.

All pent up full of unexpressed honks, I took the steering wheel pad apart, cleaned the guts and bent all the switch contacts closer together. Now it's hairtrigger hot, baby. All I have to do is furrow my brow: Beeeep! I'm driving down the road sounding like a one-man wedding procession.

I was going to take off a little early today to fix my jackhammer. That should be interesting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Now That's Scary

Halloween isn't just a holiday, it's a bloody knife stuck in the back of autumn. Once it passes, things die off fast.

It's only a week later, but I feel winter lurking behind every miserable tree. The kids in my neighborhood were pretty good about dressing up this year, and all were very polite, probably because I stopped answering the door at 8pm, when the older kids began rising from the dead. But now it's all over and forgotten, except for my pot belly sponsored by Hershey's, and my annual costume rant.

That's me, in the photo. Is it really all that hard to figure out who I am? Three out of four kids asked, "Who are you supposed to be?" One mom explained, "He's from the Simpsons." Lady, have you not learned anything from your four hours a night in front of the television?

My record for scaring kids into a dead run is five, set three years ago. This year I scored three. That record year, I was costumed as a seven-foot-tall, bloody, flesh-eating zombie. This year I was dressed Beaker from The Muppet Show.

Okay, so maybe I'm not brilliant at costumes. I looked it up: Beaker has not been seen on TV by any kid under fifteen. I don't want to know what kids today would recognize, because they day I design my costume to impress five-year-olds is they day I'll hand you my brain on a plate.

I've forgiven you all for not getting my Jackson Pollock costume two years ago, because I realize he's not on TV, what with being dead since 1956. My Rorschach Inkblot costume was a dud too, except for the fight it started between one guy who thought I was a spider and another who thought I was his mother.

A few Halloweens ago, when I opened the door in full bloody zombie regalia, Little Jack froze. "Go on," his mom coaxed, "It's only Michael. Don't be scared."

"I'm not scared," he replied as he backed away into the shadows. "I just think I have enough candy."

This year Jack knocked bravely at my door, and when I opened it as Beaker he paused in disbelief, having psyched himself up to face me, then said derisively, "Why did you have to be . . . this?"

Okay, kid, have it your way. Picture me as Hannah Montana. Is that scary enough?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I Ain’t Scared

I don't know if it's a good thing or not, but when I like something I tend to do it over and over. It makes me very predictable, but I'm okay with that, because I'm routinely doing happy things.

I love Halloween because 1) I cling to childishness, 2) I get to dress funny, and 3) it means my house if full of candy bars.

I already know how the day will go. I've prepared a schedule:
7:30am: Wake up.
9:30am: Wake up again. Late. Shit!
11:00am: Go outside to replace burned out porch light. Drop new bulb from six-foot ladder. It was the last one in the box. Go to store.
11:45am: Return from store. It's time for lunch. Discover I don't have any form of food besides pumpkins. Go back to store.
1:00pm: Carve pumpkins. Pop seeds into the oven to roast for a snack, even though they never turn out any good.
1:30pm: Set out trick-or-treat candy. Discover there are only six pieces left. Go back to store.
2:45pm: Return to discover kitchen full of smoke. Pumpkin seeds on fire. Dammit! Set billowing, charred cookie sheet outside.
3:00pm: Answer phone. It's next-door neighbor, who thinks my back door is on fire. "Didn't that happen last year too?" I tell him to shut up.
4:30pm: Try on costume. Discover I can't see out of the mask. Walk head-on into edge of open bathroom door.
5:00pm: Regain consciousness on bathroom floor. Where am I? Who am I? Look down at myself and deduce that I am Beaker from the Muppet Show.
5:30pm: It is time for kids to come trick-or-treating. It is time for shot of tequila. Tequila bottle has only three drops in it.
5:31pm: Another trip to store interrupted by doorbell. "Trick or treat!" Hand out candy. Ask kids if any of them has tequila. One does. He won't share it.
5:35pm: Swearing, rush back to store, leaving peel-out marks on the driveway. Stop to apologize to neighbor for nearly running over his six-year-old at end of driveway. Promise to replace flattened jack-o-lantern bucket.
6:00pm: Candy handing-outing now fully underway. Kids' costumes are great, near as I can tell, because knot on my forehead is giving me double-vision.
6:30pm: Another shot of tequila. Double vision cancels out. Neighbor kids complaining that I'm not scary enough. Pull off Beaker mask, revealing purple knot on head. They run screaming.
7:00pm: Find original Frankenstein movie on TV.
8:00pm: Older kids start showing up at the door. They are all football players and hobos. They all optimistically hold open pillowcases. Decide to stop answering door and keep candy for myself, because, hey—at least I dressed up.
8:10pm: Crash into bathroom door again. Not wearing mask. Vow to lay off the tequila.
8:15pm: Head to Mick's for Halloween party. Car honk reminds me to take off my Beaker mask. Discover I'm driving on the wrong side of the street. Now who's scary?

1:30am: Happy. Exhausted. Sugar-buzzed. Wide awake.

7:30am: Wake up.
9:30am: Wake up again. Late. Shit!

Is it November yet? It is? Excellent.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Auto Matic

When I was a kid I watched a TV show about a guy from about a hundred years past who was (I forget how) resurrected in modern times. There were lots of madcap moments as he tried to figure out them newfangled gadgets. Think Cave Man with better hair. Even now I often try to imagine having a passenger in my car who has never seen an automobile before. Seventy miles per hour, another car coming just as fast in the opposite direction, crash-course paths only three feet and one yellow line apart—and a dotted line at that. He'd have a heart attack. It'd be fun to hear his screams.

There is a weird "Y" intersection in my neighborhood where traffic comes right at you, then veers at the last moment to the opposing lane. It's quite unsettling if you're not used to it, but you learn to trust they'll go where they belong. My visiting California brother actually squeaked out loud as we drove through it. (Girly screams run in my family.) As usual, he presumed he was the only one smart enough to know we were about to die.

Hurtling around in a two-ton steel fist is an intricate dance. But at some point we have decided it's really not that hard, not that important. It has become an autonomic behavior, like breathing or nose picking. While driving, we catch up on phone calls while eating lunch, swap out CDs, and apply eyeliner. (And for reasons I can't figure out, we pick our nose.) Just today I was nearly run over by a man who wouldn't put his phone down long enough to operate his turn signal. An easy sacrifice for him since he was driving a huge truck, but still, my body might have gummed up his brakes or something. Part of his problem was trying to keep his phone sandwiched to his ear, for as he passed I could see he had no neck.

Driver's Ed costs about $75. But people pass over that to buy a $2000 option that tells you, in one of five selectable voices, that you are following too closely or fading off the road. Of course you can just be nagged by your spouse, but spouses cost way more, only come in one voice, and you have to bring them along. So there's that.

I know of at least two cars that park themselves, saving you the fifteen minutes of practice it takes to learn it yourself.

Buy the Mobileye AWS-4000 for only $2,200. If you drift out of your lane without signaling, you'll earn a "Lane Departure Warning." That sounds nicer than "Threat To Society Warning," doesn't it? A windshield camera looks forward for you, and a night-vision feature tells you what you're about to plow into in the dark, a very serious issue that in the past had to be dealt with by slowing down. I even like the name "Mobileye," because it implies that at least somebody is looking where you're going. Heads-up, it doesn't work in fog or ice. It tells you that it's shutting off. Probably something like, "Dude, even I can't bear to watch you drive now."

If it senses an airbag deployment, a voice says, "Perhaps it's time for you to hang up the phone."

My favorite new technology: BMW offers a steering wheel that shakes if it senses danger. It doesn't correct anything—it just tells you that even your own car is scared of you.

On my wish list is a voice alarm that points out, "Those white stripes directly under you? Crosswalk." And an alarm that warns you to look up from your McLunch long enough to notice that—yo!—the light is green.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Rain Man

Two weeks ago I wrote about my ability to make it rain. (Click here for scholarly review.) It turns out that, although it rains on me a lot, it might not be because of me. I'm kind of disappointed about that. It was fun to feel like Master of Something, even if it was being rained out.

Last time I went camping it rained, in spite of the weatherman's prediction of mild. It rained the time before that too. Last weekend's huge thunderstorm? Yep—I was camping. Forecast: slight chance of rain Saturday afternoon, slightly bigger chance Sunday afternoon. Reality: 24-hour deluge with relentless thunder, lightning and flash flooding. I felt gifted.

So I was thinking, three times in a row is more than a coincidence. But I had loaned my tent out to a friend and he got rained on too. Wait a minute... I have some training in scientific method, and I want to run some tests. Anyone want to borrow my tent?

I thought I could make it rain by playing softball too. But I learned what many people already know: it's far more likely to rain whenever you plan an event in advance which involves more then eight people. The Omaha Softball Association knows this—that's why you have to pay for your all your games in advance, even if you don't get to play them.

I think American Indians learned it too. It wasn't their Rain Dance that made it rain. It was that they put the word out ahead of time and twenty people came out to watch and see if it worked. I tested that theory. I went in my back yard under heavy gray clouds and danced around. It actually cleared up, although my neighbor Gary shot his garden hose at me.

There are a lot of variables to be considered, obviously. Maybe it really is the rain dance, and I just danced it wrong. I'm Scottish, after all—we do every kind of dance wrong. (Except of course for traditional Scottish dancing, which is limited pretty much to just hopping straight up and down. Anything more than that requires a visit to the chiropractor. Even my chiropractor is Scottish. He knows a good thing. His name is McCracken.)

It has rained for four straight days. I haven't danced at all, and if there were any outdoor parties, I wasn't invited. But wait—I just remembered, I left my tent set up in the garage to dry out! Duh. Sorry guys. It'll be sunny tomorrow.

The Omaha Softball Association bet it right. Just to cover his bases (ahem!) God rained out our first four games. Normally he'd spread those out over the season, I would think. But we weren't a team dripping in testosterone, and he probably figured we would get discouraged and end up skipping the games altogether, going instead straight for the bar, and he'd miss his chance to smite us.

Smart, that God.

Friday, October 12, 2007

All The Right Moves

Two years ago I awoke in the middle of the night to hear someone coming up the creaky stairs to my bedroom. Over time I've given house keys to quite a few people, so I thought it was wise to not grab the trusty ball bat I keep by my bed and start pummeling in the dark. If it turned out to be a friend in need who'd been kicked out of his house and needed a place to stay, a surprise beating would just make things worse.

As my surprise guest instead headed straight for my dresser drawers, I shook off my grogginess enough to yell, "What are you doing?!" In spite of my effort at manliness it came out sounding like Mr. Haney from Green Acres. But it was sufficient and he took off. I was slow to take up chase, though, as I was naked and had already scared everyone enough.

The only thing he had taken was a box perfectly suited for a diamond watch but which in fact contained cheap sticks of nag champa incense, which he unceremoniously ditched on his way out my front door.

For a month afterwards, every little bump in the night had me springing out of bed straight into a Ninja pose. I picked up my bat and actually practiced swinging it around, learning quickly my house isn't big enough for bat swinging.

I decided to get a motion detector and alarm system, and installed security lights outside. You move, you're in the spotlight.

At least, that's the theory. I get used to the lights being on. It helps for grilling, for instance. But if I'm not active enough they turn back off, and I find I have to dance around a bit to get them back on. Now I'm afraid I'm only protected from robbers who do jumping jacks.

Last night I was grilling enough chicken to feed me for a week. As I was turning over the tasty little strips, an especially good piece fell through the grate. Dangit! I clomped my tongs after it with all the grace of Edward Scissorhands, and in doing so my little cooking timer fell out of my shirt pocket into the fire too. As I frantically fished for both, a bug landed on my neck. My tolerance for bugs is pretty high, and saving a perfect chicken tidbit and burning timer was currently on my priority list. But this bug sounded like a mosquito and felt like a cicada, big enough to suck out my spinal fluid. Since I was alone, I felt it was okay to let out a little girl yelp, and commenced the slappy dance.

I had twirled and leaped and swatted halfway across the yard before the motion detector light came on.

With the eventual help of the spotlights I rescued my timer, and sacrificed the tidbit to the Fire God. A few pieces of chicken weren't yet done to my satisfaction, so I left them on, took the rest in, poured another margarita, grabbed a book and the guacamole, nibbled some, made another margarita, went upstairs to do some writing, and edited away until my motion lights lit up.

Uh-oh.

I went down to investigate. No one there. Maybe a big dog or a raccoon doing jumping jacks? I don't know, but I discovered I had left those seven pieces of chicken sitting on the grill. I expected them to be tender as meteorites, but I took a bite, and my first impression was, "Hmmm...perfectly crunchy!" My second impression was "Hot-hot-hot-hot-hot!" As I did the flappy, wave-at-your-own-cheeks maneuver and actually hissed aloud "Hot!-hot!-hot!-hot!-hot!"—bink—my motion lights clicked off.

[sigh.]

So come on over and rob me. I've left some chicken out for you, if you can find it in the dark.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Fire And Rain

I have the power to make it rain. No dancing required —which is good because I'm Scottish.

All I have to do is go camping. (I swear, just typing that sentence it started pouring outside. I'm that good.)

My neighbor came over Sunday afternoon. "You sure do take good care of your camping gear." I didn't understand what he meant by that at first, but with a little prodding I realized he thought the reason I had a soaking wet campsite set up in my yard was because I was washing it.

I learned last weekend that I can even make it hail. All I have to do is say, "Looks like the rain is letting up. I bet we can make it to the car."

I'm a good fire-maker, though. "One-Match Mick" is my nickname, although no one calls me that but me. I set up a carefully planned structure and take great pride when the ensuing conflagration goes off on the first try. Perhaps that's why it always rains: God is just looking out for his property.

More than usual, the smoke from this last fire kept following me around. I recall as a kid asking my mother why the smoke was always in my face no matter where I sat. She replied sagely, "Smoke follows a beautiful woman." I still don't know what she meant by that.

But the positive side is that my entire laundry room smells so much of campfire that I've put off washing my clothes. That will change as the wonderful smoke smell wears off and the other smells ferment.

The place where I camped used to be a little town, but they all left years ago. That should have been a sign, I suppose. There are no buildings, sheds, bathrooms—in other words, no place to run to when it rains. Saturday evening I met a few fellow campers who had packed up and were leaving early. "We heard it's going to rain in the morning," they warned grimly. After they passed I wondered how, in the middle of nowhere, they got an updated forecast. I decided they probably used that age-old camper's trick: they recognized me and left.

It's a quiet campground. Nobody goes there, for the above reasons. It doesn't have rows of neatly paved and aligned parking stalls such that you can park your fat RVs flank to flank just like in your regular life at the Wal-Mart parking lot. There's no power, no water. They do have two water spigots, but neither works. It's hard for me to get used to the silence. I grew up in a house two blocks from the train tracks. For family getaways we had one of those Starcraft trailers, where the roof pops up and the sides pull out—the Jiffy Pop of campers. They say it sleeps eight, which means four, and we brought eight. My dad slept through even the most violent storms (it just occurred to me: rain while camping might be hereditary), and between his snoring and the hail cracking on the taught tin roof, nights sounded much like a lumberjack being executed by firing squad.

Last time I camped it was so quiet I could hear roaming wild dogs wailing wildly over fresh kills. It was terribly unsettling. What if they came after me? Of course I'd have to be the brave one, beat my chest and protect Woman, but I had no clue how. As I lay wide-eyed staring at the tent ceiling I rehearsed scenarios in my head, settling on one that involved two raised fistsful of dirt and me poised threateningly in my underpants. I don't know whether that would have been scary enough, as I never had to do it.

It sounds like I'm complaining about camping. I'm not. We agreed after the splendid day Saturday that even if it poured rain on Sunday the trip would be worth it. It did, and it was. Indeed, I hope to go again in the next few weeks. Heck, we could use the rain.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Follow The Leader

I love America, I do, for lots of contradictory reasons. I'm just now in the middle of watching a deathly serious PBS documentary on World War II, recounting the sacrifices some made for our individual freedom. And I'm surrounded by playful, lighthearted goofballs who thrive in it.

Two weeks ago I saw the most charming hometown parade ever, in Nebraska City. Endless marching bands, tanks, politicians, fat guys on skinny scooters in nearly out-of-control formations, and—thankfully—not so many horses. People on floats threw candy while parents prodded their stupefied children to dash in front of giant green troop transport trucks with crushing wheels taller than me. "Go, Timmy, or you won't get any!" Just a week before, these same four-year-olds probably wandered into an empty street and got spanked for it. This is how American children learn to be adaptable.

Parades are a show of force. We forget now, but in wars past we sent troops off with a parade, and brought back whoever was left with another parade. And in every parade, bulbous tanks waddle right down the middle of the street, cannons aimed ominously while emboldened babies risk fingers and toes diving between the tractor cleats to retrieve pale, dry candy they wouldn't accept on a random Tuesday if you handed it to them.

When City Hall wants to entertain you, they line up tanks and drive them down Main Street. Foreign governments, when they want to take over your town, do the same thing. So maybe the best way to conquer a city would be to dress up a few Shriners and a small marching band and have them toss candy while leading fifty tanks up to City Hall while we clap and wave. "Those black and red flags with the stars and squiggles—they're new, aren't they?"

A friend just tested for his U.S. citizenship. In salute we buried him in a flurry of sassy e-mails teasing him about what it means to be American: bottomless bags of Cheesy-Poofs, American Idol, unaffordable health care and beating up tiny countries. From the youngest member of our group came this:

We also have department stores with cheap toilet paper and soap, toilets that flush and sinks to wash our hands. We have churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and flaming pentagrams. We have Neosporin and Bandaids and bicycles and cars to drive to and fro. We have FedEx on every corner. We have gallons of milk and jars of peanut butter the size of your head.

We are lucky.


This writer was raised in the sweet Iowa countryside by loving parents, amidst plentiful food and a supportive school. But she sure sounds like someone who lived through 1941.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Seeing The Light

It was a special occasion. A big Lyle Lovett fan, I was going to see him for the first time. I even wore my fancy bolo tie.

Bolos were once fashionable. Regular people wore them on purpose. Mine was special: handmade, a gleaming silver trapezoid with a gorgeous amber tiger eye gem in the center. It was a gift from Sue. So were the Lyle tickets. She was a great girlfriend.

The Orpheum is big but manages to be intimate. We sat directly in the middle. It felt like Lyle was singing right to me. And then, suspiciously, it really felt like that. Lyle winked at me.

It was more than a wink. It was a very big, exaggerated, twisted wink. He kept looking right at me, turning his head this way and that as if to say, "I'm not certain, but is that Michael Campbell out there in the audience?" My heart stopped.

It's not so crazy, because I dream of stuff like that happening all the time. I once wrote a song inspired by Lovett. I sent him a demo, addressed to "Lyle Lovett, Klein, Texas." I figured that was sufficient, given the size of Klein and the size of Lyle. I didn't hear back, but that was fine because he had just met Julia Roberts and I figured he was pretty busy with that. But still, whenever he released a new album I'd check to see if my song was on it.

He looked my way again, straining to see through the piercing stage lights. No question about it, he's looking at me. Even Sue noticed it, and she was used to guys staring at her. Maybe he got that CD after all!

A miracle happened. Sue's friend, a local record store exec, caught up with us at intermission. "We sponsored a contest and the winner gets a signed guitar and the chance to go backstage to meet Lyle," he said. "At the end of the show, just fall in behind me and act like you're part of the entourage—you'll probably get to meet him too. The worst that could happen is the guards might shoot you." I didn't think twice.

For the entire remainder of the show Lyle glanced, squinted and winked my way. But now I knew my moment was at hand. "Hi Lyle!" I rehearsed in my head. "I look familiar, you say? Really...oh, perhaps you remember me from my latest CD. Perhaps you've seen it somewhere..."

The scheme worked. I strode backstage with mock confidence, so close behind Mr. Record Store that he looked like he had a Siamese twin. It was a short reception line. And there He was.

Lyle is surprisingly beautiful up close. Vivid blue eyes and a kind face. This was good news, because if the reason he was winking at me through the whole show was because he was gay, I had a decision to make. I knew Sue would understand. I know she would have ditched me for him too.

My turn came fast. Lyle didn't look at my face. He looked at my tie. "Ah-hah! The bolo guy," he said. "That damned thing kept reflecting and blinding me through the whole show."

Sue took an almost imperceptible slide-step to avoid the presumption that we were together.

I understood.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Big Green Balls

When I had last played softball, the bases were made of rocks and the hide on the leather ball was still attached to the animal. So when I agreed to play again this year on the Mighty Mick's team, I expected some changes.

What I didn't expect was that there are new rules, and there are Omaha rules. The city calls itself the Softball Capital of The World—indeed it has more fields per capita than other city—so it only takes a tiny bit more arrogance to rewrite how the game is played altogether for its own convenience.

My first surprise was that the unsportsmanlike fees we paid to join the association don't pay the umpires. We are expected to slip them some cash before each game, which, in other sports, gets you ejected. I also made the mistake of giving them the correct amount, which is probably a reason we lost every game but one.

The point in Omaha is to get the game over with—indeed, get four games over with in four hours, such that the umpires can go home regardless of whether you are finished. It's no longer a game—it's a Softball Factory. I imagine they learned it from the Chinese.

To help you speed things along in Omaha they add a tenth person to the outfield. You start off with a count of one ball and one strike, before you even lift your bat. After three balls a female walks to first base, but a male gets to go on to second. Females are pitched a different ball to hit than males. And my personal favorite Omaha-ism of all: hit the ball over the outfield fence and it's a home run. Do it again and it's an automatic out. That is, if you're good, you're now bad.

If you learn to avoid all those landmines and manage to have fun for the whole hour, the boys in blue will call off the game. Can't run late. Git'r done.

It works, though: after hearing all those crippling rules, I felt the game was already half over before it started. And with a 7:30pm start time clear across town, I was always home by 9:00pm. Chop-chop!

Our team learned the hard way that the infield is made of sandpaper. They mix gravel with the dirt because it's cheaper for them to maintain. (Maybe they'll save enough money to pay their umpires.) I took human anatomy in high school but learned more about the muscles and tendons of the leg after watching Justin slide into second. I also learned you can get kicked out of a game for bleeding.

Ball uniforms—those pinstripe collarless shirt and Capri pants—used to be something you could only wear to a ballfield, or on Halloween. Omahans today wear the same thing they wear to a fancy restaurant: t-shirt, saggy shorts and dirty sneakers. The ballcap now is worn in one of various symbolic orientations, depending on whether you are, or aspire to be, black.

Sour Grapes Alert: our combined score over seven games was 15-126. But at least the whole season only took six hours (two games were called off early due to lopsided scores). And yes, it hurts a little that we only won one game, during which we used one of the opposing team's pitchers. And I was absent that night.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Tragic Consequences

Last week I made fun of a coincidence: I booked two bands in one week at Mick's with "Tragedy" in their name. I'm a new-agey guy who looks for signs in everything, so I should have seen this one coming like a bolt of lightning.

I suppose tragedy is a strong word for derrr, we forgot to show up. On Saturday The New Tragedies just plain didn't come. No call, no nuthin'. It was as if I'd met them on Match.com.

I e-mailed the booking agent, and he apologized profusely. "It's all my fault, I haven't talked to them in weeks!" I can't stay mad when I'm laughing, and I couldn't stop imagining, given that explanation, how ridiculous his entire life must be. So has the band spent the last two weeks at a truckstop, still waiting to be told what to do? "Lessee—we have our instruments, we have our van...I still feel like something's missing."

When I opened Mick's I expected that Problem Number One would be Temperamental Musicians. Meltdowns over the red M&M's, that sort of thing. The opposite has been true: artists come eager and prepared, and give their professional best. Problem Number One turned out to be toilets, which I refer to as Problem Number Two.

The contract for one touring artist called for a "fresh vegetable tray." New at the job, I lovingly cut and arranged it myself, feeling a mix of rock-n-roll and Martha Stewart. I left it wrapped and chilled in the dressing room with a few bottles of Pellegrino. When the artist arrived and saw it he just stared, as if I had presented him a birthday cake on the wrong day. "Wow," he whispered in awe, "no one has ever read the contract before!"

Another Famous Artist said she couldn't relax in the Mick's basement dressing room because of all the ghosts. Maybe that qualifies her as temperamental, but she still played the show. A little early, even. Apparently ghosts speed one on one's way.

So we were unprepared for Tragic Absence. The only other no-show in four years was a band whose van had been struck by lightning. And being a guy who looks for signs in things, lightning bolts don't require a whole lot of interpretation.

As karmic balance, our other Tragedy, Nathan Singleton And His Sideshow Tragedies, gave what was easily one of the top performances ever at Mick's. Stunning musicianship, euphoric energy, pouring out all they had for the twenty or so people who were rewarded for giving them a try. Even Dwayne Dopsie, who had stopped by after played at the Joslyn earlier that evening with his band The Zydeco Hellraisers, stared slackjawed at the show. And he ain't no slouch himself. The rest of you—oy-veh! Did you not get the significance of the thunderstorm that rained out the Hellraisers show? Does it take Moses to lead you to Mick's?

Nothing else tragic to report this week. (It's still only Tuesday, though.) Last January I begged you to see Krista Detor, who is among the most wonderful writers I've ever heard. Those who went thanked me for coercing them. She's back this Friday, so prepare to have your arm twisted, and to thank me for it. Her music will convince you to go if I, and my Lightning Bolt of Death, can't.

Now you know which Tragedies to avoid, and which to seek out. Or you could just watch the weather.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's My Job

There is, apparently, a job for everyone and a person for every job. My accountant honestly likes being an accountant. I swear, he does it on purpose. The garbage truck guys were bantering happily as they zoomed by this morning, clinging to the side of their dripping truck like every day was a Worlds of Fun ride.

Quite a few people have made a nice living scooping up dog doo, because owners just don't have the five minutes it takes to do it themselves. I just read about a company in San Francisco that will rent you a dog for the weekend. You can buy the dog's love, and still avoid the commitment. You can do the same thing with humans. We call it prostitution.

Health e-Lunch will bring to your door a sack lunch for your kid to take to school, because it is faster for you to greet their staff at your door, accept and sort their packages, write them a check while chatting, and say goodbye than it is to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwich yourself. Think of the seconds you'll save! And your kid won't be tempted to swap his lunch with fellow students, because they'll discover everyone has exactly the same McLunch. Slick.

How about the Lice Squad? They are honest-to-God nitpickers. For only $55 an hour, they'll comb lice out of your kids' hair. One couple hired them to delouse two kids, the housekeeper and her daughter. The bill was $1000. I think for that much money they should just buy new kids. Maybe rent out the lousy ones to couples who are too busy for the commitment of having their own children.

So if you want to, go ahead and be a nitpicker. It's a job. It'll give you something to do with all that spare time you've saved by hiring someone to raise your kids.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Pallbearer

Jimmy died after ten days in a coma, which was long enough for him to lose half his body weight. His class ring dangled precariously, big enough for two of his now bony fingers. His car had been smashed flat by a toppling bread truck at a gravel country intersection. The only two vehicles within miles managed to hit each other. I had known him for two weeks. I was asked to be a pallbearer. I was sixteen and had never even been to a funeral.

The other time I was a pallbearer was for an old man I had only met once. Is this part of the Catholic tradition, to be borne by five close family members and one Random Dude? I learned once that it is a fundamental part of the Jewish Passover meal to include a stranger, so maybe.

I had been to a couple of Catholic weddings, which were fun: they had beautiful flip-down pads on the pews to kneel on, and so many opportunities to stand up and sit down that I skipped aerobics the next day.

The Catholic funeral service, however, scared the hell out of me, which I guess is one way of accomplishing their mission.

During a pause in the funeral service I glanced around to see what was up. Just a few feet behind me, creeping silently down the isle, were hooded people wielding huge swords, much like a dream I had as a kid except in the dream there was only one of them. I nearly leapt out of my seat. "Doesn't anybody see this?!" my brain screamed. "Are we to just sit here and be slaughtered?" Nobody else scattered, and apparently I would rather die than stand out in a crowd, so I too stayed put. I was so shook up that I don't remember the rest of the service at all.

As rehearsed, we pallbearers lifted the frail deceased in one smooth motion and hauled him out the front door as if he were a couch. We paused by the priest, who swung a tea strainer full of smoking incense around at the end of a chain, then flicked water from a wand onto the expensive honey-colored maple casket. My immediate reaction was inbred by my mother: "Whoa, hey—that's going to leave a stain!" I was compelled to buff it dry to protect the finish but my hands were full. I reminded myself that a water spot was the least of this casket's worries.

We approached the long, regal steps of St. Cecilia's Cathedral. I was in front and had been instructed to raise up a bit while the guys in back lowered a bit, so that as we descended the guest of honor would remain level. But he was a small man in a big casket lined with slippery silk, and at the slightest kilter he suddenly slid to the front. All his weight shifted to me in a lunge and I heard what sounded like a melon hit the end of the casket. The back end reared up I was relieved we didn't flip the whole thing over and spill it down the steps. I know the other pallbearers felt it, but no one said anything, and Random Dude wasn't about to make the announcement.

I clung to the assumption that at some point before the burial someone would discreetly open the casket, grab him by the shoes and pull him straight. As they dangled his box over the final hole I leaned to a fellow bearer, grandson of the deceased. "Are they going to just leave him like that?" He shrugged. They lowered the casket with a machine that didn't care at all which end was heavier, or that the freshly pressed suit inside was now waded up in a ball on one end.

Afterwards, more then ever before, I planned for myself a natural burial: no waste of fancy clothes or polished hardwood. Lay me—comfortably flat, please—in a hole in the country, and stick a cottonwood tree on top so I can continue to clatter in the wind. That's how I buried my cat Libby, the hardest memory of which was seeing her pure, proud white coat get dirty. I imagine in Heaven the first thing she did was sit and groom herself. And I'm sure the first thing gramps did in Heaven was stand up, straighten out his twisted suit, shake his gnarly knuckles down at us and yell, "You stupid bastards!"

Thursday, August 2, 2007

P is for pee

I'm not one to wet my pants. People often say that something scared the pee out of them, so it must not be uncommon. I get scared plenty, so I guess I'm just not that way.

Perhaps the best wet-myself opportunity was when I was at Worlds of Fun, grinding up an impressively vertical hill on my favorite rollercoaster. After a long wait in line I already felt a pressing need to go to the bathroom and was calculating the potential effect of upcoming g-forces, when—kank!—the rollercoaster itself broke, jamming to a halt and stranding us as we faced straight up at the sky. It was scary, yes, but I had this heartpounding crush on the girl next to me, so I wasn't entirely displeased with the circumstances. Not even when cold raindrops began to drip. . . drip. . . drip. . . into my lap. I suppose if there is a good time to wet oneself, it's in the rain. But still, I didn't.

On a long flight to Paris I had avoided the bathroom which had been shared for eight hours by three hundred of my international acquaintances, figuring I could hold it until the plane landed. The landing itself was quite a hard bump and nearly popped my balloon. Then we waited on the tarmac. And w a i t e d . My eyes began to water and my Kegels quivered in stress. I tried to devise a scheme where I'd fall out of line and let loose on the fence behind the plane, but this was just after 9/11 and I knew I'd be shot. They finally boarded us onto a bus which circled the entire airport about six times, hitting every available speed bump and rail crossing. I was squeezing so hard I was afraid I'd pee diamonds. When I finally made it to a bathroom I nearly couldn't go, because everything had welded itself shut.

I once flicked on a basement light to the surprise of a writhing sea of cockroaches. I've been barraged by bats, startled by snakes. I screamed like a girl when I opened the basement door at Mick's and came face to face with Pirate Pete, an inflatable guy Holli had propped up there for my amusement. So it's a surprise that the only thing that ever made me give up a squirt was a manhole cover.

I was near Elmwood Park, on a long evening walk with my daughter Molly. I stepped on this big manhole cover and it let loose a hideous growl right between my macho Birkenstocks. My man parts jumped into my ribcage.

Molly didn't hear it, and laughed at the look on my white face. "Hif...het...hip..." I explained. So I stepped on it again, and it growled again like the Devil's squeaky toy, half angry dog and half hissing cat. Her eyes widened to the size of fried eggs. We giggled nervously, stepping on it with the tippiest of toes a few times before turning to run. But my Snow White gene kicked in and I paused. What if it is a trapped dog that got knocked into the sewer by a car? Or something. I went around and tried to peer into the gutter, which was perfectly big enough for an alligator to spring out, but I couldn't get a good look because the sun had set and I was only willing to get within thirty feet of it. Back around to the top. Stomp. Arrrchhhhssst!

"That's no dog, Dad," Molly murmured as she backed away.

At least it is nice to be able to tell you that the front door to Hades is on the 700 block of Happy Hollow Boulevard.

Maybe it was a raccoon. Maybe an opossum. Maybe I'll never go back to find out. At least not unless I've gone to the bathroom first.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Awesome Powers

I sometimes daydream about having superpowers. We all do. I've discussed it with friends, and I am surprised at how varied our dreams are.

One friend wants to be flat as a pancake, so she can slip under doors. Another wants to transform into any of a variety of lawn ornaments, so he can spy on people.

I wanted to be able to see out my fingertips.

It would be easier to peek around corners and find lost things. It could help or hurt romance, depending on how you—ahem—look at it, but as with kissing, one can always close one's eyes. I gave up on the idea, remembering that I like to juggle. Just the thought of what juggling would look like from my hands' point of view made me nauseous.

The Fantastic Four, a Saturday morning cartoon from my youth, was just remade as a movie. I was amazed that they didn't upgrade the goofy superpowers of the cast, which even as a kid I thought were the dumbest ever. Of course we've all dreamed of turning invisible. But who dreams of being stretchy? (I notice his clothes have the same superpower, which is a relief.) The Thing can turn himself into a pile of rocks. And Johnny Torch can zoom around while setting himself afire—a talent which had already been attempted to ill effect by Richard Pryor.

Last night I discovered I do indeed have a magic power after all: The Incredible Magnetic Shin. Last week I thought it was a feat of long odds when a softball thrown from halfway across the field ducked right around my big fat mitt but was stopped with a slam by my shin, which is as skinny and hard as the handle of a ball bat. You couldn't hit that stick of a target from five feet away if you tried, but it happened again last night: past my glove, into my shin, right on the same spot. I thought, wait a minute...

I don't know if it only works for softballs or if I can draw all manner of thrown sports equipment. As I think back on my past I realize I've attracted both wood and metal coffee tables, even in the dark. How I'll exercise this gift depends on the limits of what I can attract, but so far you can rest assured that if you are attacked by my notorious nemesis, the sinister Simon Slowpitch, or his evil sidekick Boris Badbounce, I'll show up at the last second and offer you my protectshin.

Maybe I'll attract imposters, like Shin Feign.

[Okay, I'm trying too hard.]

I suppose I'll need a Super Name. I'm leaning towards Jimmy The Shin. I'm a little nervous about costuming—I had to wear yellow tights in a British play once, and the costumer said if I only had a feather boa I could be Big Bird. I was offended that she didn't add that I would also need a bigger nose.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Routine Examination

I have a lot on my mind. I think it is full. For every new thing I cram in, something spills out. It makes me look stupid.

I have to consider the possibility that I actually am stupid. But it sounds so much better to say I have a lot on my mind. I feel more important and put-upon.

I survive by devising routines. The less I have to think about the better, so I do things the same way every day. It works, pretty much. I go to the bank every Monday. I water plants every Saturday and Wednesday. I send this email out every Tuesday. Last week I got up, put on a dirty t-shirt and my running shoes, fed that cat, cleaned the litter box, and headed outside and down the street for a quick morning jog. Same as every day. Except I forgot one step: my shorts.

One advantage of a routine is that if something is out of whack it feels funny. And when you're jogging down the street in boxers, you feel funny.

My first thought, upon discovering my omission, reflects my inherent laziness: "Does it matter?" Running shorts are shorts. Boxers are shorts. Algebraically-speaking, they're pretty much the same, except for the little cowboy lariats. Then I looked up at the relentless stream of commuters coming at me on Farnam Street and I knew they weren't going to say to themselves, "Wow, there's a guy running down the street in his running shorts." I turned around and when home.

I had a nightmare like this when I was a kid. I'm told it's a common one too: the dream where you go up in front of the entire fourth grade class and your pants fall down. Or you discover they were never there at all. It's a horrible dream, and the only reason I can imagine for one's mind to play out something so embarrassing is so that you will never actually let it happen in real life—a theory that has worked for me pretty well up to now. To my credit, this is the first time I have gone outside without pants.

Not counting the times I meant to.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Special Education

When I was a kid I thought half the world was retarded. Indeed, I was half right.

I can't even start this train of thought without derailing to urge the six of you who are offended at the word "retarded" to please remember that when I was five years old, "retarded" was what retarded people were called. I know we get a new euphemism every seven years or so, but it was okay to say it then, and the retarded people didn't mind.

My dad was a psychologist who trained Special Ed teachers, so everything he did involved retarded kids. I followed him around a lot, and was often engaged as a guinea pig to help develop new tests and train the teachers who gave them. Weekly I'd find myself in a room full of retarded kids, all of us taking IQ tests. To this day I still love taking tests, a sentiment my friends find despicable.

As a kindergartner I was given exactly two days to learn the eight block path to my school. "Don't worry," my parents assured me as they refused to accompany me the third day, "you'll find it." I was terrified of getting lost. I had already surmised that because there were four other siblings ahead of me in my family, my disappearance would not be a great inconvenience, and perhaps my absence would only be discovered when my mom noticed that the house was still clean.

I was to walk about six blocks before turned right, onto a random dirt path that passed what I now know was a home for retarded kids. As I walked alongside its big gray stucco wall, I would look in the windows and see several hydrocephalic boys getting ready for school. It was reassuring to see them, because then I knew for sure I was on the right path. To this day I feel safer around anyone with a big head.

I started elementary school at A. O. Thomas, an old brick building on the college campus. The public school system leased a couple of rooms for kindergartners and first graders, and the rest of the building for Special Ed. So it was normal to see the hallways filled with retarded kids, and whenever I looked out the window the playground was filled with the Special Ed kids who, as near as I could tell, had recess all day long.

Because the kids with Downs Syndrome had such similar features I presumed they were all from the same big family. This was not so far-fetched, because my friend Randy Shada came from a family that took up about a third of the city, and held their family reunions at the county fairgrounds.

It wasn't until fourth grade, after moving to a more traditional school building with a more representative population, that I learned most kids have an intellect advanced enough to exploit my soft spots, steal my lunch money, and to trick Chris The Class Bully into beating me up by telling him things I said which I really didn't. And by the end of that year I discovered I too had the gift of belittling. I effortlessly mocked my classmate Earl when he tripped over his shoelaces and fell flat on his face while on his way to demonstrate in front of the the whole class that he couldn't find the United States on a map. I didn't know that both of his parents were deaf. I wasn't smart enough to see that Earl, too, was struggling to find his path.

Every day in first grade Edwin, who had Downs Syndrome, gave me a bear hug like I was a cocker spaniel and told me he loved me. And every time we sat together on the merry-go-round, Randy, who was hydrocephalic and had a head shaped like a lightbulb, offered me half his lunch. It took a few years for me to realize that kids like these weren't common at all.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Big Bang

I quizzed a few kids about the connection between July 4th and why we blow stuff up. Not a single one mentioned anything about the symbolism of war and the cost of freedom. (One did complain about the cost of bottle rockets.) The significance to them was that after a long year of being told to wear a bike helmet and wash your hands and don't run with the scissors, their parents handed them a wad of cash to go buy an armful of their favorite explosives.

That's okay. Historically, July 4th is pretty squishy as a significant date. Independence was actually declared on July 2, 1776. No one signed it until a month later. It was printed on the 4th, so it was dated the 4th, but that's about it for claim-to-fame. When John Adams predicted a "great anniversary Festival...with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more," he was actually referring to July 2. Indeed, in the very same letter he expresses his regret that we hadn't "mastered Quebec and been in possession of Canada." Easy, John.

Some say Jesus was actually born in the spring, so Christmas should be on Easter. And we've already moved Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays to an easier-to-party-on date. My friends agreed just last night that Halloween should always fall on a Friday. So July 4th can be a holiday just because we say so. You take a party where you can find one.

During the amazing, blazing fireworks display at Rosenblatt Stadium, where the Omaha World-Herald set fire to $40,000, I pondered the significance of the event. I watched a teenage boy light noisy rockets while his friends and family huddled so closely around every launch that I feared the next missile wouldn't clear their foreheads. This punk with a punk sat with his legs astride his projectile, slumped so that his nose nearly touched it, and I imagined the rocket snagging his shorts on its way up, carrying his screaming seeds of freedom to be scattered across our fertile county.

After every thunderous explosion I expect it to rain fingers. But things work out okay, every year, and the next morning's newspaper inevitably reports just one or two people who can now only count to seven.

The weather was flawless, the fireworks spectacular, the friends hilarious, the wine intoxicating. I indeed felt very liberated, and relented to the idea that if a fourteen-year-old wants to spend his mom's money to blow off his own testicles—well, it's a free country.         ❦

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

You Name It

"My name is spelled "Richart," she said. "I bet you can't pronounce it."

Me, Mr. International Guy. Me, who can speak in a great French accent, even though I can't speak any French, except to say Il y a un monde dans le balcon, which means "the balcony is full." According to my friend, this is how the French say a woman is boobish.

Easy, I huffed. German, I thought. Rye-cart, I gambled.

"No, it's like Richard, but with a t, she corrected, without actually calling me dumb. "Everyone always makes it too hard." Great, now I'm Wrong Like Everyone Else. Then she told me about a friend who was trying to come up with a baby name that no one would make fun of. "Oh, please—" I replied eagerly, "tell me what she has come up with so far." None of her suggestions took longer than .03 seconds to mock.

I grew up with Rusty Beavers. We didn't make much of his name because, well, his mom just handed it to us. It wasn't any fun. High school mates called me Chicken Noodle, which wasn't funny either because, well, duh. Same with Dusty Rhodes. I swear, every town with more than ten people in it has a Dusty Rhodes. What we need is fewer Dusty Rhodes and more Wendy Butz.

Richart-With-A-T said she knew a Bambi Faun. Note: try not to give give your daughter a porn name.

"I'm going to change my name to something more obvious," Richart vowed. "Like 'Rattlesnake.'"

That's more obvious?

"Okay," I replied, "but then tell them it's pronounced "Rott-la-snok-ee."         ❦

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Elected By a Hair

I've never been much of a joiner or Rotarian or anything. I'm not good at meetings because the people who enjoy talking the most tend to have the least to say, and I have a dangerously low regard for human life.

But attending a Democratic Party Fundraiser last week was too good an offer to refuse. More speeches and pats on the back and honors than a high school graduation, and lots of "may-I-introduce-my-dear-friend-and-colleague...", but still it's fun to see famous politicians just walking around loose. It would have been worth the admission just to see Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and His Mighty Hair, except I was a guest and didn't pay any admission at all.

I have been to Republican dinners before. Republicans offer chicken or beef, but everyone orders beef. Democrats know what is the Public Good so they just bring you beef. After that, the dinners were the same.

I noticed a reliable trend and my date confirmed it: local politicians all seemed to be balding, while national politicians have gobs of hair. I think this is why five million of his own dollars couldn't get Pete Ricketts elected to the US Senate. Perhaps he should consider State Treasurer, like Shane Osborn, who was elected to that local post even though he has a crew cut and his only qualification for public service is that his American plane crashed into a Chinese plane, and now he sells plane insurance.

Best of all, not counting the cheesecake, was that I got to see former US Senator and presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey. He is like one of the Lesser Kennedys: very bright and inspiring but not as photogenic as John or Bobby. I think he would have been president if he were prettier and had a regular shaped head. He was defeated in the primaries by Al Gore, who is hairier. After his speech I was ready to join up, his hair notwithstanding.

Of course, I still didn't drop any cash into the bowls held by scowlingly expectant girls at the door.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Naked Truth

My sister Jodi and I were promised we would see a nude beach, so we kept our eyes peeled. We were hiking along a narrow, rocky ridge following the Italian coastline high above the Ligurian Sea. It was a perfect vantage point for peeking.

It was midafternoon when we finally spied it. There was only one guy on the beach, pacing around with a mix of anticipation and disappointment. He was clearly a tourist. I suspect that like us he had read about the beach in his Fodor's travel guide. He tried to act casual and go for a swim. Bad plan: it was a chilly sixty degrees outside. Judging from the humbled results he was either very cold or very Scottish. A Speedo would have been saggy on him.

Nudism is better left for the imagination. I read in the newspaper recently that private nudist colonies are offering discounted memberships to young prospects. They say their ranks are dwindling and aging. Indeed, the median member age is 55 years old. It is the same problem the Elks Club and the Rotarians have, they say: young people just aren't joiners.

I think the problem is simpler: young people don't want to see old people naked.

"Wow, Crystal, isn't that your dad and his bowling buddies over there?" Eew.

In addition to the discounted membership, one colony advertised half-price "amenities." What amenities do you need if you are naked? Sunscreen? Duct tape to hold your wallet to your butt? A magnifying glass?

I don't believe them when nudists claim all they want is to "be free." They want to see nice naked bodies, heck yeah. Otherwise they wouldn't care about member age—they'd be happy just walking around naked at home.

There are a few good things about nudist colonies. People are much more likely to notice that expensive new watch or flashy engagement ring. And you always know when someone is happy to see you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Phantom Ring

I talk about my cell phone a lot. It's not that I'm a Luddite—I've used cell phones since we first tried to pronounce Nokia. My first phone was about the size of a circus hot dog. I had it until it was run over by a hearse.

I miss it. The little 1x1" screen got crushed. After that it only displayed black, liquidy pop-art puddles. Cool, but you couldn't see what you were dialing, and I was taught not to speak to strangers.

My newest phone has lots of clever ringtones, none of which I can hear. So I often set it to buzz, then put it in my pocket so I can feel it vibrate on my thigh. That works better, and when I'm lonely I can call myself.

But lately my thigh has been buzzing even when I don't have my phone. I have developed a phantom ring.

It started when I crashed my sailboat twice in one day. My boat is fast but volatile, more or less two big water skis with a trampoline stretched between them to sit on. Lots of sail, not much boat, so it blows over sometimes, and you get bucked off. If your body flies above all the rigging, it's like being thrown by your friends into a cool lake: fun. If instead you go through the rigging it's more like being thrown into a pinball game. Bing-Konk-Bang-Pop-Ding!

After doing the latter last weekend (ow.) my left thigh has been randomly buzzing. I go to answer it but there is no one home, not even a phone. I even tried yelling at my leg: "Who is it?!" but nothing. An hour later it will ring again. Is this like when war vets lose a limb, and yet it still itches? Do they get phantom phone calls? If you were attacked in Kabul by a suicide bomber and you lost your ears, would you still feel your iPod?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gimme A Hand

My neighbor, Matt, is getting famous. He makes big bronze sculptures in his studio next to Mick's, my bar. I go over there all the time to see what he's up to and to avoid doing my own work.

A while ago he asked me if I would model for one of his statues. I immediately imagined myself as naked as Michelangelo's David, all rippling muscles and buggy-out veins and big hands and--well, you know, big hands.

"Put this on." Matt hands me a baggy lime-green leisure suit. At least the one I wore to my high school prom fit me. "We need to photograph how the pants and jacket drape." I am asked to strike a pose of a trumpet player. Not the gig I imagined, but if I may blow my own horn, I do feel qualified. My dad was pretty good on the cornet.

I learned that it is very hard to be blaring one's horn up to the sky, back all arched and mute outstretched, for twenty minutes.

"What in the world did you do to get so hinked up?" my chiropractor asked the next day. I started to explain, but gave up and lied something about softball.

A few weeks later Matt called me again. They were having trouble getting the trumpeter's hand right. I struck my best hand pose, and this time they cast it in plaster. Sweet! At least part of the actual me was going to be in the statue. My first hand job.

The statue is now finished. It's in front of the Qwest Center, along with a bunch of jugglers and clowns, 42 pieces in all. I was surprised to discover that the statue I had been posing for was of an old black man.

At least he is on a pedestal—someplace I have always thought I belonged. And I like my new claim to fame. I literally lent him a hand. Every time I pass him I strike the pose.

His dirty secret is that, although he is a old black New Orleans jazz musician, his stance is that of a lanky Scottish guy from Omaha.

Neighbor Matt is going to be on TV tonight as they run a feature documentary on Illumina, his big sculpture installation at the Qwest Center in Omaha. When you see the old black trumpet player, think of me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bone Phone

I don't want to be the crotchety old guy reminiscing about the Good Old Days, but when it comes to phones, we're going backwards. The last time I had a clear connection was in 1973.

It was called a bone phone due to the shape of the receiver. It was a breakthrough in design: the earpiece faced your ear, and the mouthpiece faced your mouth. Genius. In between those ends was a handle that fit comfortably in your hand, or you could wedge it onto your shoulder. Some even came with a little pillow. It didn't have batteries so it never went dead. You could talk for hours, unless you had my mom.

The first sign of trouble was the Princess Phone. It looked modern with its rounded edges but it was kind of slippery. I had one that broke, and back then I still felt I could fix a broken phone. I pried it open and was surprised to discover a lead weight screwed to the body, which hoped to make it feel substantial,"so you didn't know right away that it was a frail piece of junk.

Today my phone-of-the-month is a tiny, black, slippery rectangle with rounded corners. I drop it just looking at it. There isn't really an ear "piece," just a pinhole. And the mouth pinhole lines up with my second molar. It works most everywhere except home and work.

I was at the grocery store yesterday when my shorts started to slide down. They are held up with a drawstring, but I have no butt. Normally guys with my problem just stuff their hands into their pockets, then do The Shrug: you grip your pants and act like you don't care about something, and when you shrug you lift your pants from the inside, being careful to grab only your pants so you don't give yourself a snuggie, something you can't gracefully pick back out at the grocery store.

But I was on the phone. I tried to wedge it between cheek and shoulder to free up both hands but I might as well have been talking on a watermelon seed. It kept squirting this way and that, and I was quickly nearing the point of doom where the beltline passes the equator of my butt and the shorts freefall. Squirming and contorting to oooch them back up with one hand, I looked like Joe Cocker.

Can I get a Space Age phone? One that is ergonomic, one that doesn't drop calls, one one which I can understand people? My friend Marco reminds me that the Space Age was 1965.

This would not have happened with a bone phone. And perhaps this is why for the last five years every teenage boy I see has his pants half-assed. "Dude!" I yell silently. "Hang up and Shrug!"

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rebel Without A Cork

"That had better not be tequila," the customs agent spat as she looked at the bottle of tequila in Laura's hand.

"No, it's not," I dearly wanted to say. "It's a special hammer to hit rude people on the head. Want to see how it works?"

But I'm afraid of customs people, so I kept my yap shut.

"Of course it's tequila..." Laura responded honestly, leaving off the implied "...you idiot."

"I hope you're not planning to take it on the airplane." Laura respects officials too, so she didn't bother giving the obvious response. When she was ordered to dump the tequila out, she did, with a fat tear in her eye. She was planning to enjoy it upon arriving home after celebrating Laurie and Wayne's wedding in Mexico.

Raoul had tequila too, but it was still in his carry-on. We passed by him in the zig-zag cattle line for the x-ray scanner, and when he asked about her tequila we just shushed him. If they didn't search his bag, maybe.... But they did search it, and told him he couldn't take it any further and had to dump it out.

"That is so wrong," he said. Raoul does not waste liquor. So he did what I would only dream of: he popped open the cap and upended the bottle into his mouth until bubbles coursed through it. Then he held it up high in defiance, and yelled, "Anyone want some tequila!?" Everyone froze, expecting that the fierce little customs agent would casually pull out her gun and blow a hole in him. But to my shock she repeated in her chihuahua bark, "Aneewan wan sam tah-KEE-la!?"

In unison the crowd exploded "TEQUILA!" and hundreds applauded as the first guy in line behind Raoul grabbed the bottleneck in his fist and knocked back a high swig, then passed the bottle back down the line. It made it to me and I took a long pull. It was two-thirds empty when I lost track of it. Keeping a mental count of those who stuck it in their mouths ahead me, I figure I did the equivalent of kissing two big bald guys, a rugby player, a new husband and an attractive 40-ish Latina--about my same luck as here in Omaha. I normally like to observe rebellions from a safe distance, but in this case I'm glad I was close to the action because there were some in line with whom I don't want to share a bottle-lip.

As we left the customs checkpoint, Laura leaned to me and murmured, "Raoul is my hero." We dubbed it The Great Tequila Rebellion. I sat next to Raoul on the plane and tried to tell him that, but he was already passed out from his long swig of defiance.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

#@%*ing Snakes!

It rained hard. For days. A record, they say. Noah-style. The drought is ended, just like that. When the sun shone down again, all manner of God's creatures crept forth from their shelters. The neighborhood bunnies, whom I write about often, marched right up to me for raisin bread. They looked hungry and ragged and seemed too tired for shy protocol. They had a "can we just cut to the chase, here, and get something to eat?" kind of look. A resurrection of ants rose right up through my patio, bringing the supporting sand with them. Mosquitoes murmured in gangs, scheming to carry off one of my cats.

And--dammit--snakes!

I like snakes for their beauty and remarkable construction. I even played with them when I was a kid. They make crawling on one's belly look easy, but I've tried it and it is not. But dammit I hate it when they pop out of my garden unexpectedly. All 5,000,000 years of human evolution kicks in: my adrenaline goes from zero to pegged in a split-second while I jump straight up and scream like a girl. Dammit!

Instincts 1, Brain 0.

I read recently that the fear instinct is built in, but it needs to be triggered. You are wired to be afraid of snakes, but if no one in your upbringing reacts to a snake, you will never know that fear. So sometime around my tenth year of life my dad must have been startled by a snake and screamed like a girl, and man, that's all it took. My Yikes Reflex was switched on.

On the first sunny day after the rain I enjoyed lunch on the patio. Almost enjoyed, anyway, as I watched ants tear it apart. And of course the patio bricks were soothing, warm and dry, and the garden was chilly and wet, and snakes kept ssssssslithering out towards my bare feet. I tried to relax, be cool, Mr. Snow White, and just read my book, live-and-let-live. But my toes kept yelling to my brain: "Snakes!" I'd flail my arms and they'd scurry off. Then [rustle rustle rustle] out the'd come again. Dammit! I get shivers just writing about it.

Today the temperature is cooler, so snakes must work harder to bask. One shinnied up the stem of a small plant in my butterfly garden. I go up to enjoy the new flower, and--dammit!--big fat snake head bobbing and weaving and grinning and licking in the breeze as if I someone had coaxed him out of a basket with a flute. (If a flute brings them out, is there an instrument to drive them away? Hmmm--bagpipes, maybe.)

Last summer I was reading on my little brick front porch. I glanced down to see a snake head rising out of a crack, close enough that he could creep into my pocket. Dammit! A bag corn chips exploded all over the yard, and the neighbor next door was looking up from her gardening to see where that shrill scream came from, its faint echoes still returning.

Do you think snakes do it on purpose? Do you think they poke each other with their raspy little tails and say, "Carl, watch this guy--it's hilarious!"

Dammit!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

You Called?

Dear Micksters,

I was at Blockbuster yesterday. As I was paying for my movies the store phone rang, and the clerk did the unthinkable: "Can you hold please?" and he finished checking me out.

"Whoa. Did you just put that customer on hold to wait on me?" I was stunned. "That was really nice of you."

"Not me," he replied with the grin that comes from putting people on hold. "Company policy. In-store customers come before phone customers."

I have always agreed with that, but no one else seems to. Heck, I drove there and am standing there with product to buy and money in hand. I am why they built the store. But in my experience, I've always had to wait while clerks answer caller questions about store hours for people who got the phone number from a Yellow Pages ad that listed the store hours.

I have waved cash to get a cashier's attention. "Yo! Real Human with Money here!" It didn't work, so as I stood there I used my cell phone to call the store. "Hi, my name is Michael --I'm standing right in front of you and I was wondering if I could actually buy something?"

If I were the clerk I would think it was brilliantly ironic. But I got that blank stare you often get from someone raised on Nintendo.

The recorded greeting on the phone at my bar, Mick's, is eternal. It embarrasses me, and not just because my voice sounds uncomfortably like David Sedaris. "We're open at...for booking questions...to see who's playing, visit our website...." By the time they get a chance to leave a message they've had another birthday. Yet inevitably they ask a question like, "What time do you open?"

[Curmudgeon Alert.]

In 1965, someone got paid $2.30 an hour to answer your questions. Now we pay "voice talent" who has never even been to the store $60 per hour to pre-record answers to questions you were never going to ask. "To get your current balance, press one!" They never offer a selection like, "To speak to someone who actually knows something..." And don't even get me started on how good it sounds to a customer who calls for operating instructions for his Chevy and gets connected to someone in India who has never even owned a car. Is it really cheaper to just hope a customer will give up?

Press 9 for more options? Man, you don't need no more options.