Sunday, December 12, 2010

With Friends Like These

"You unfriended me."

"No I didn't."

"You did. We were Facebook friends and now we're not."

We're still friends. We were always friends. Facebook friends aren't friends. They are connections. They are the people you can spam when you have no real friends to whine at.

When you start a rant about how you hate Obama, or how much you love Bo Pelini, or how you don't understand why people eat raw fish, do you notice the real humans around you who clear their throats and change the subject? Those are your real friends. They care about you enough to help you not be a jackass.

You do not have 1,485 friends.

When you and your Facebook friends all change your Facebook profile face into your favorite Munster's character to show support for Ajerbistan refugees, the real refugees are still real refugees.

You wouldn't send postcards to your real friends announcing what you found behind the pig pen in your game of FarmVille. But your Facebook friends will give you a virtual egg in return. They'll watch with envy as you become the mayor of Grounds Zero Coffee Shop. They accept all your real estate chat because that buys them the right to send you their band announcements.

Facebook has ruined high school reunions. No longer do we want to go home to see exactly how our classmates turned out, exactly what they're doing these days, exactly what startlingly offensive opinions they express, and how fat they got. Facebook keeps us updated by the hour, and reminds us why we left town in the first place.

I deleted you from my Facebook page when you posted five rants in a row of spitty, angry, narrow-minded stuff you'd never say out loud. You took up two full pages on my iPhone. I didn't "unfriend" you. I stopped listening to you.

I'm still your friend.

Facebook friends send you [squeezes!] when you post that you are "feeling sad" at 2am. They give you a thumbs up! when you are "ready to face Monday!" Thumbs up! when you are defiant about pretty much anything. Thumbs up! when you want to recall the mayor, even though you haven't thought for fifteen seconds who you might like to replace him.

Thumbs up! is the only response available on Facebook. Facebook friends are 100% thumbs up. No thumbs down. No middle finger.

Facebook listens when you feel alone. It supports every notion that blips out of your fingers. It always likes! you.

. . . wait a minute . . .friends like that aren't bad to have.

"That's weird—it must have been some kind of computer glitch. Don't worry about it. I re-friended you."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Any Other Day

We don’t call it Trade Center Day. Or the Twin Tower Attack. Or the al-Qaeda Massacre. (Probably not that one because we wouldn’t know which massacre.) We obliquely refer to it as "The Events of September 11."

It isn’t even “events” unless you count each plane separately.

"Event?” A half-price sale is an event. A family reunion is an event. Intentionally crashing four passenger airliners on a sunny autumn morning—killing 3000 people—deserves a bigger word than "event."

Like Memorial Day and D-Day and Independence Day, The Events of September 11 saw heroes who leapt into action. There were also people who froze in confusion and fear, and others who went about their business, telling themselves, “If I act like nothing is happening, then everything will be fine.”

I’ve always thought of New York City as being a fount of creativity. Certainly it is a city of writers—nearly every major publishing and advertising house is there. So this non-naming of the attack to its heart, and the unfortunate moniker of Ground Zero as the location—after all this time, isn’t it okay to think about naming it?

Fourth of July is kind of like that, but at least it has a real name: Independence Day. I presume we don’t call it Independence Day because 4th is easier to spell.

Nobody refers to D-Day as The Events of June 6. Indeed, that memorable day is also called Operation Overlord and Operation Neptune, swell names befitting the courage of those involved. If June 6 deserves three names, September 11 certainly deserves one.

Can you imagine buying presents to celebrate The Events of December 25? Not to compare myself to the baby Jesus, but I was The Event of March 1.

What if something else happens on September 11? Are we going to call it "One of The Events?" We honor Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the death of Jesus on Good Friday, even though I don't see what was so good about it. We celebrate the death of good taste on St. Patrick’s Day, and on Memorial Day we celebrate the death of just about everyone else. But we don’t celebrate the death of American legends John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt or James Monroe, because they all died on July 4th. “Sorry,” the Calendar Czar told them, “you can’t have a holiday. It’s already the 4th of July.”

How about the guy who presents an engagement ring to his girlfriend on her birthday or on Christmas? It’s a classic male maneuver to duck out of shopping. A two-for-one. He considers himself a proper present, one she’s been asking for. But sir, you are doomed to forget your anniversary, and cursed to endure the icy “How-could-you” scowl of your wife and dampen her birthday every year for the rest of your marriage. Just ask anyone whose birthday is on New Year’s Eve.

The date has no connection to the tragedy except that the towers were shaped like a 11. New Yorkers: you love to tell us where you were when it happened, especially those of you who were there when it happened. Could you put a proper name on that terrifying, disorienting, surreal attack, so it isn't named like any other day?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Smells Like Omaha

The sights and smells of summer in Omaha have returned like sandhill cranes to fill my Midwestern senses and comfort me that life does go on.

A daisy-yellow backhoe, it's lanky arm moving with a flamingo's grace, picks up fat chunks of my street and feeds them into the upturned bin of stained dump truck, as a robin pukes into the eager mouth of her young.

Tanned, fit men in hard yellow bonnets scurry to and fro with dirt in their shovels, picnic ants building brown hills here and carting them away there. They sow rows of sewer pipe to carry away the fresh spring rains and toilet flushes, secret veins pulsing under the skin of our city.

The trees, bushes, grass and cars are dressed in silver-gray gossamer dust as giant circular saws squawk and grind new cement into squares as neat as Grandmother's brownies.

My old routine is freshened by surprising new sights as traffic diverts me and a hundred other drivers away from the steaming, oily new asphalt of Leanvenworth Street into the intimate neighborhood streets filled with darting children and three-wheeled cars. Like geese, we naturally navigate our surroundings, seeking the original four-land road that is forward progress.

I welcome the arrival of baseball visitors who signal a left turn, then turn right from the center lane. As sure as a mating dance they execute their native Texas 12-point parallel parking, coming to final rest in a pose of acute angle. They hatch from their mighty SUV, resplendent in bright new plumage of Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flop sandals on their white feet as they creep across our sunny city, waddling into our elegant restaurants, sweetly unaware of the local custom to remove one's ballcap.

I await Jazz on the Green, free outdoor concerts and arts festivals, where we gather thick as pigeons on a field-sized quilt of sun-bleached blankets and blue plastic tarps joined end-to-end to protect us from the young green grass.

It is God's grace that the furious winter past is a fading memory. We cannot dream of it now, but as sure as the Earth spins, winter will return with its blanket of snow, which spring will tool to freeze and thaw today's new cement into manageable chunks which will vanish under the tires of trucks carrying bread and beer and furniture, leaving potholes, natural predators that swallow annoying Smart cars. Then the men in their yellow bonnets and trucks and cranes will return, the summer cycle of the city to blossom all over again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The Kindle edition of Are You Going To Eat That? just came out today! Anyone want to help me by posting a review?

Sugar Puss

Cat litter now clumps. Whereas old clay litter just absorbed cat pee until it couldn't hold any more, at which point you waited another two weeks avoiding the foul cleaning task until your eyes watered from the ammonia, clumping litter gets changed a little at a time. When peed upon, the litter turns very sticky, and can be harvested in little lumps.

I collect these little pee balls every day, respecting that my cats are not thrilled to navigate among gummy wads of their own urine-mud. They and I know they have other options, so we've come to this agreement. I was surprised one morning to discover the litter box to be one big solid brick.

Something spilled, I thought, but found no culprit. A Shih Tzu was visiting at the time, but I doubted such a tiny dog could produce even as much as my cats, while still having some left over for the living room rug.

Nope, something was up.

Again the next day, a brick. And the next. A big box of replacement litter usually lasted a month, but I was going through one every four days. The handle of my litter scoop broke off getting the gluey used litter out.

For a few years I dated a woman who was diabetic. I knew that rampant, voluminous peeing is a symptom of diabetes. (She never used the litter box. I just took her word for it. ) Thanks to her I learned a lot about insulin, diet and needles. I even had a "sharps" jar, where spent needles could be safely disposed. Explaining to visitors why I had a gallon jug of old needles always culminated in me having to expose the tender inside of my elbow.

It was time for annual shots anyway. I cartoned my cats Spek and Romeo and drove them to the vet. Their moaning was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

"Average blood sugar for a cat is around 80-100," the vet explained flatly after testing Romeo. "His is over 500." He didn't bother to test Spek.

He placed a syringe into my fingers and showed me how to use it. The room began to carousel and my ears hissed, but I did the deed, drawing up cat scruff and piercing the leathery skin, squirting harmless saline into my irritated cat.

He handed me two vials of insulin and a demo pack of syringes. "Two shots a day, twelve hours apart. Come back in a week."

When I'm having a bad day, I pile all my other unpleasant tasks onto it, to get everything over with. On the way home from the vet I took Romeo to the groomer. Romeo is a Maine Coon with a prodigious coat. If I could figure out how to spin his hair into yarn, I could knit a whole new cat.

That's him being shorn in the photo.

Romeo arrived home naked and tired. Spek hissed at him because he smelled like the groomer.

As it turns out, insulin makes you feel better fast. Romeo has already made the connection, and purrs at the sight of the needle. "Hit me," his eyes say.

Phooey, our Shih Tsu, hears the cat purring and wants in on whatever is happening. He begs for the needle. Like most dogs, Phoo has no pride. He is the first to come running when I call "Kitty-kitty-kitty!" I administer Romeo's insulin while fending Phooey off with my heel.

We've changed their diet, eliminating all dry food. It's been hard for Romeo to adjust. Spek is happy; she has always preferred that slimy pâté. Phoo, who has the shortest memory of any mammal, thinks every feeding is Christmas. So goes their lives now.

For eighteen years my home was occupied by opposite twins, Libby and Putz, white and black cats. I don't know whether their feline souls are chasing mice and snakes in God's barn now, but I know their silky mortal bodies rest in the dirt of my garden. I pray that I'm not asked to go through that again too soon.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

For Good Measure

Recipes used to be simpler:

      1. Hit pigeon with rock
      2. Pull off feathers
      3. Hold over fire until inside temperature reaches ow.

The feather touch? That was added after some trial and error.

Next came the invention of tools. Cave-man cooks, sensitive because up until then they had done nothing but burn things over a fire, decided they would get more respect if they re-named every tool specifically for cooking. Pokey sticks became utensils.

After they invented the arrow, the knife and the alphabet, things changed fast. Food could be cut into smaller and smaller bits until it became too little to eat. This fostered the invention of bowls, mixers and measuring spoons to assemble the bits back together again. Instructions were called a recipe. Cooks became chefs.

How can you screw up something as simple as a spoon? When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground pigeon flakes, you can’t use a spoon off the table, because a table spoon holds only a teaspoon. How much does a tea spoon hold? Who knows? Even the British don’t use tea spoons. They stir tea with a demi-spoon, which, despite its name is not half a spoon. There's a soup spoon but nobody measures with it, even though it holds about a tablespoon.

Heaping teaspoon: two words nobody thought would be paired together. How to you heap with a teaspoon?

Does a drinking cup hold a cup of liquid? Of course not. It holds 1.5 cups. If I cup my hands I can carry 1/8 of a cup. A cup holds 8 ounces of flour, which weighs 4 ounces. See how recipes work? This is why we give up and go to Burger King.

Heaven forbid we use the metric system like the rest of the post-Cro-Magnon world. You know you are on shaky ground when your only compatriots using cups, pints and quarts are the British, who can’t be trusted with food nor with naming things.

The British call a spatula a scoop. The Scots call it a tosser, but that’s forgivable: if your homeland was famous for haggis you’d toss your food too.

I prefer indistinct measurements, like a pinch and a dash. While not precise, they use our fingers, which we always have handy.

More such measurements, please! A hand of thyme? A finger of cake frosting? A nose of Coke? Remember the Super Bowl when Justin Timberlake introduced a cup of Janet Jackson?

How about a glom of yoghurt? A swipe of peanut butter? (I know you can get a schmear of cream cheese, but I always feel a little cheated. No wonder: I looked it up and the word translates as “corrupt.”)

I love coffee because I grind the coffee beans in a coffee grinder, put them in a coffee maker and make coffee in a coffee cup. I appreciate such clarity first thing in the morning.

But not too much clarity. Do we really need to call it a frying pan?

In my kitchen I have a whisk, which is a mixer. My mixer uses beaters. I beat with a tenderizer, which mashes, but to mash potatoes I use a ricer, and I cook rice in the steamer while I steam vegetables in the colander before I toss them into a salad with dressing I whip up with my whisk.

My blender has buttons for chop, grate, crumb, purée, liquefy and whip. Guess what it doesn’t have a button for.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just Skating By

The last time I rollerskated was in 1975. I fell a lot. A fat kid ran over my finger. Everyone seemed cooler than me, some spinning tricks in the center of the circle like Peggy Fleming with sledgehammer shoes.

So when a gang of friends invited me to join them at Skate Daze after we had stuffed ourselves with pizza and beer at a birthday party, I subconsciously rubbed my little finger as I said, "Yeah, sure." I added awkwardly, "I like to skate."

That's partly true. I rollerblade often, cruising solo down a long flat trail with my music on and my brain off, steering away from fat kids.

I arrived at Skate Daze and entered warily. It was a giant warehouse of old video games: Defender, Galaga, and various car-racing games with pixelly, jerky graphics that reminded me of Atari. I hesitated a minute trying to make sense out of a shooting game titled, "Cops vs. The Japs." I lingered over the Air Hockey table as one would admire a restored 1962 Cadillac. It wasn't retro. It was just old.

I worked my way to the skating rink. The skaters hadn't changed much either. Granted, it was Adult Only night, which sounds sexy but isn't. I gathered from a few conversations that this is where people hang out after their A.A. meetings.

Although the rental clerk was as old and crabby as I remember, the skates were updated. You could choose between figure skates and hockey style. You could even opt for in-line skates, something forbidden in the '70s.

"In-lines, please." I laced them up and stood, wobbly as Bambi.

"In-lines?" a passing friend said. "Do your parents know you're gay?"

"What?" I hadn't even skated yet and felt I had broken a rule. "Why? I got them from the rental place!" I suddenly felt I was wearing a rainbow bandana. "What's wrong with in-lines?"

"Nothinnngg . . ." She giggled and walked away.

I recalled a conversation from a few months ago, when I invited my friend Vern to go rollerblading with me. I skate fast. He's an athletic guy. I figured he could keep up. I was delighted when he mentioned he had skates.

"Really? You're going to go rollerblading together?" his girlfriend commented, eyebrows raised. "Are you going to wear tight little cut-offs and hold hands?"

"What? Why?"

It was time. To the thumping melody of Metallica, I worked my way into the swirling drain of skaters. Fit-fit-fit-fit! Four skaters zoomed by in perfect lock-step, doing a crouchy little shuffle dance. They were resplendent in tattoos and piercings, heads shaved, and as if to cement their rebelliousness, their skates were unlaced. Maybe not Hell's Angels, but at least really tough little scooter guys.

They followed tight behind their leader, matching his every slouchy move, flannel shirts trailing like bicycle streamers. Each followed as close behind the next as if they were racing in the Tour du France, crotch to butt. This, apparently, is not gay.

"Shadow skating," a friend watching them said. "Doesn't that look bad-ass?" So it's called "shadow skating." The DJ, dressed in a referee shirt, cued up Careless Whisper by George Michael, a singer famous for his tight little cut-offs.

"Yeah," I said uncertainly. "It's cool."

I began to realize that in Skate Land, roles reverse.

"That guy is flirting with me," my friend Sarah mused. "Whenever he passes me he does an extra little dance move."

"Like a mating dance?"

"Yeah," she said. "Skate & mate."

I looked up. All the women were skating limply in circles, minding their own business. The guys were dancing like temptresses. Skate-and-Mate skated backwards past her, doing a cross-over, smiling.

"They like you," I said. "You're skater bait."

I'm never gonna dance again
The way I danced with you-hoo-hoo . . .

The skater dudes were in a frenzy of flourishes, peacocks on wheels.

I noticed another guy from our group skating happily alone in his thoughts, unpretentious, just having a nice time. He actually is gay.

"Couples dance!" the referee announced. The lights dimmed, leaving the disco star ball strewing white squares across the floor. It made me dizzy. I said good-bye to Skater-Bait, jumped on the track and pushed hard until I caught up with my girl, who was practicing her Gloria Gaynor disco moves. In the past I always had to leave the floor during couples skate.

I tried to skate backwards and face her with my best Ricardo Montalban smile. Our skates tangled, banging like bumper cars, so I settled for facing forward, holding hands. An older couple floated by, poised in ballroom position. They rotated as a pair, precise as a music box.

"That," I said, "Is bad-ass."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pink Day

Happy Pink Day.

Pink Day is not on the calendar. It is dependent entirely on the weather. The first sunny, warm day in spring, after the snow has melted and grass starts prying itself up from being smashed face down in the mud, is Pink Day.

Tree branches swell with horny buds. Cardinals and robins sing dirty songs to the opposite sex. Humans take off their shirts and shoes, offering up their pale pink skin to the pagan gods of Spring.

Pink skin in July looks unhealthy. But in March it is as natural and beautiful as a mother robin puking worms into her baby’s wide-open mouth.

I donned a thick sweater and a corduroy shirt and managed to have lunch out on the patio. I felt like an antenna, sucking up the sun's energy as it refilled my near-dead batteries. I drew a deep breath of Pink Day air, forgetting that it does not yet smell of sprouting daffodils, but of thawing dog crap.

My dog is rewarded with a little biscuit when he poops outside. Pretty much all he eats are those biscuits, so that's what his poop consists of. His little Shih Tzu turds come out like little macadamia nuts, exactly the size of those treats. If I could get him to eat his own poop he could be self-rewarding.

The lawn service guy just spread a spring layer of organic fertilizer. It smells like corn flakes. He says it comes from chickens. I don’t know if he means chicken droppings, or chicken feed, or, well, chickens.

As I exhale that deep lungful of corn flakes and poopcicles, I hear the sweet, optimistic sound of a cardinal calling for his mate. He song is drowned out by a passing motorcycle. I know it must be fun to be on a Harley. In high school, I myself earned a citation for disturbing the peace thanks to my bike's after-market muffler. But I’m not on a motorcycle now so it isn't fun. I respond with a bird of my own, and loudly sing a song of spring entitled, Shut The Fuck Up You Self-Centered Jackass. I don’t remember who wrote it.

When I finish this essay I'm going to celebrate  day with tastes of warmer weather: a margarita, maybe some corn chips. I'll sit on my front porch and watch the neighbors parade by, in all their pink glory.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Naked Power

My stairs are squeaky. When you walk up or down them, it sounds like an army of marching ducks.

I don't notice the sound. The house I grew up in had squeaky stairs too. I suppose it kept me from sneaking out at night, though I never had anyhwere to go.

I awoke with a start in the middle of the night a few summers ago when I heard my stairs squawking. I wasn't expecting any 2am visitors. (Unfortunately.) But I've shared my door key with a few friends, so maybe someone had a bad night or something? Maybe needed to talk? A place to stay? Wouldn't they have called first? It was hard to be logical  — my ears are awake but my brain wasn't.

Earlier in the night I heard glass break. I thought I should get up; the cats probably knocked something over and I didn't want them to cut themselves. But I fell back asleep. I didn't make the connection between that sound and the sound of someone creaking up my stairs.

A guy appeared in my bedroom. Nope — nobody I knew. He was wearing a jean jacket over a grey hooded sweatshirt, relaxed as he browsed my dresser. He picked something up. Adrenaline sparked under my skin like a flashbulb. I tried to sit up and clear my head.

Mustering up my toughest voice I tried to bark, "What are you doing?" But it came out with a yodel, "Af-Quack?"

He grunted and hustled out,  crunching down the noisy stairs. I flailed and kicked in my bed, trying to untangle my feet from the sheets. I took up the chase. Halfway down the barking stairs, a familiar flapping reminded me I was naked. I ran back up and grabbed the only clothing handy: light blue boxer shorts decorated with cowboy lassos that spell out the word Lucky.

By then the thief has bolted out the front door, across the yard and into the dark. As he escaped he threw away the long, narrow box he had copped from my dresser. It was the exact size of a necklace case but held a dollar's worth of Nag Champa incense sticks.

The flight down the stairs was enough to jump-start my brain. As I stood in the open doorway looking into the dark, I quickly weighed the wisdom of valiant footchase against running in my underpants down the street in the middle of the night. I gathered up my incense and shuffled back inside.

I spent the rest of the evening waiting for the pumping adrenaline to fade. I fantasized about capturing the thief, about what I'd do if I caught him. But the imagery was hijacked by visions of me running in my underpants, making a diving catch and sliding across the concrete in my underpants, wrestling in my underpants, explaining the whole incident to the police while they made note of my lucky lasso cowboy underpants.

Somehow, Superman looks fearsome in a blue leotard and Speedos. Maybe it's the way my underpants hang askew to accommodate my little pot belly, or the spankety-spank sound my tender bare feet make when I run. Regardless, the lurking underworld does not fear me.

I had a baseball bat near my bed for just such an occasion. I forgot about it in the tizzy. Later, while running the whole event over in my head, I picked up the bat and rehearsed what I might have done with it. Standing on the narrow stairway landing in my lucky underpants, I discovered there wasn't room to swing the bat without taking out all the windows.

I dearly want a pistol but I know I'd use it for the slightest infraction. "Get off my lawn!" Blam!  So I bought a sling-shot, a fancy one that locks on your wrist. But in the time it takes me to wrestle it on, fumble the BB into the pouch with my fat fingers, drop the BB, dig around for it under the bed until I give up and get another one, take aim and then — ow! — step on the original BB, I could have gone to the pawn shop and bought back my stuff. On the plus side, my ability to hit a target with a slingshot is about the same in pitch black as it is in broad daylight. Besides, when a giant ogre is lurking in your bedroom, the last thing you want to do is hit him with a pebble.

I settled on mace. I keep a handy little squirter by my bed. Unfortunately, I d0n't feel I can practice with it. If you spray the tiny can to see how it works, there might not be any left when you need it. So my fantasy of jumping up on my bed in my Superman underpants, taking aim with my chemical weapon and shouting, "Take that, villain!" is tempered by a nagging image of nothing but flaccid pepper-jizz dripping down my elbow.

I have an alarm system. So far, the score for setting it off is: me, 328; burglars, 0.

I often hear phantom noises when I'm in the shower: voices, doorbells, phone rings. I don't know why. Last week I heard a big thump. My cats devote their day to jacking around with everything, so thumps are explainable. But this was a thump. I paused to listen. Nothing, really. A few creaks in a creaky old house. I took comfort in the quiet because Phooey, the toothless old Shih Tzu, was undisturbed. Phooey barks when the neighbors open their garage door. He barks when icicles fall from the roof, and when the mail arrives. He was not barking now.

I reached for a towel and stepped gingerly out of the shower, still alert while quietly patting dry my shivering pink skin. Phooey exploded into wild barks, the boo-woo-woo-woo he must have learned from watching the Three Stooges.

I never hear strange noises when I'm carrying a 10-inch chef knife and wearing a leather jacket and steel-toe boots. My heart sank as I dropped my towel and reached for my little sailboat underpants.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Night at the Opera

The first thing I noticed about the opera was that the entire theater staff was smiling. From the elderly doorman in his smart braided jacket that he might have inherited from Michael Jackson, to the ticket takers grinning as if they had daughters to pawn off, big smiles were everywhere.

The next thing I noticed was that tickets were $60. That explained the grins.

The Orpheum Theater in Omaha is a splendid venue, one of seven ornate sisters originally built for the vaudeville circuit. It is resplendent in velvet, gilded in sweeping gold arches. It has a central chandelier the size of a bread truck. If I paid $5 for a show and the performers didn't even show up, I would feel I got my money's worth just to walk around, craning my head at its magnificence.

Grinning ushers herded us to our seat. It was in my favorite area, the narrow side of the loge, where there's extra velvet and gilding and you can spy on the floor people. We were right behind the box seats, so I kept looking over my shoulder and imagining, if anyone started shooting, how I might save the day.

But the only person who needed shooting was the old lady right behind me. The minute The Marriage of Figaro began and the cast started bellowing and hiding behind chairs, she began uncrinkling candy. It is a miracle of acoustics that a candy wrapper can drown out a professional opera singer, and second miracle that Italian music makes old ladies hungry for hard candy. For whatever reason, they always unwrap it as slowly as if it were given to them in a concentration camp and they had to make it last a week. I have never seen anybody, young or old, eat hard candy outside the theater.

Maybe it wasn't candy. After ten minutes of slow, piercing crinkling, I began to suspect she was making cellophane origami gifts for all of her grandchildren. I turned around a couple of times to give her that Midwestern faux-polite look, a combination of "how do you do" and "I'm about to give you a beating," a look that translates to "Perhaps, ma'am, you don't realize you're being obnoxious."  She might as well have been engrossed in her knitting, and didn't react to me. Perhaps she was knitting cellophane mittens.

Being a Midwesterner, I seethed to myself and never actually said anything. During intermission, after pretty much everyone in the cast had taken a turn hiding behind a chair, we moved up to the coveted box seats, long on leg room and short on crinkling. I always think of John Wilkes Booth when I sit there, knowing that at the Orpheum he would never survive the jump. He would not land dramatically on stage, but crash deep into the orchestra pit among the percussionists, where he belongs.

WI had not seen The Marriage of Figaro before. I speak a little Italian, so I'm pretty sure nobody got married, although I confess I napped a couple of times in the third hour. I also concluded that nobody in that performance had any business getting married, not until they made up their minds who they were in love with.

I was surprised by the youth of the conductor. He appeared to be a high school senior. He looked nothing at all like Bugs Bunny. But with talent beyond his few years, his hands swept in graceful waves, and his baton punctuated the air. The orchestra, in perfect unison, ignored him.

The musicians were arranged by attitude. The French horn players, according to some tradition I don't know, were all wearing flannel shirts. The oboists all wore expressions that said they had just argued about Nietzsche, and lost. The flutists were predictably slender and pretty, erect in perfect posture, blissfully ignoring the raging battle over whether they should be called flautists.

I knew the opera would be three hours long. I check details like that before agreeing to attend, ever since I was ambushed by a four-hour performance of Madame Butterfly, which was fat with madames but not one butterfly. The performance was touted because a famous ceramicist, known for making giant spotted eggs, had been convinced to try his hand at costuming. When the fat lady sang draped in a muumuu with large black spots, my mind drifted to Ben & Jerry's.

Soon came the moment I was waiting for, the reason I attended. My dear friend appeared on stage. He was among the chorus members, handsome in his newfound ponytail. Other ponytails in the cast looked suspiciously like they came from a Paul Revere costume. His rich baritone swelled to fill the open space as he moved with the confidence of Keanu Reeves.

The entire cast was fit and trim. The only lady remotely pudgy hadn't sang a note in twenty minutes, so the opera's end caught me by surprise.

We lingered a bit after the show, admiring the elegant surroundings. The ushers spread out in a dragnet of black uniforms linked across the aisles. Their smiles had eroded into grimaces. They swept us up and ushered us out.

"Wait," I said to my date as we stepped into the cold air, away from the lobby and toward a martini. "I never heard Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh! Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh."

"That's The Barber of Seville," she replied. "Rossini. This was Mozart. Marriage of Figaro."


"The Barber of Seville," I asked after a few steps, "is the one with the rabbit?"


How does opera always find a way to make me feel stupid?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Book sale: 15% off!

The good folks at Lulu are offering a 15% discount on all books sold through their site, including mine, in honor of Presidents Day. Nice! At checkout, just enter the coupon code "WASHINGTON." It's valid all weekend through Monday. If you don't have Are You Going To Eat That? yet, now's a fine time. Thanks, Lulu!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


It’s about the size of an Etch-A-Sketch, without the big white knobs. Like a Model-T, it only comes in black. It is named after a pad of paper, but it doesn’t come with a pencil. That’s progress.

The iPad, Apple’s much-anticipated, must-have Internet device, claims to do everything with nothing. It doesn’t even have a keyboard. You type using pictures of letters, which feels a bit like drumming your fingers in boredom.

Apple founder Steve Jobs calls the iPad a “window to the Internet.” Any window to the Internet ought to come with shutters, but the iPad doesn’t have that either. It runs all of the popular iPhone apps, those little programs that are cheap or free and entertain you like everything else that’s cheap or free. Maybe someone will develop an app for the iPad that is a picture of shutters, so I can block out upsetting Internet images of violence, porn, and Glenn Beck.

The iPad does look like a window. In the Apple ad, it’s a square frame surrounding a picture of rolling hills, with icons neatly arranged along the bottom, waiting for you to clutter them up with real work. You hold the iPad up to look through it and see whatever you want, like Miss Linda on Romper Room with her Magic Mirror. She saw Billy and Sarah and Tommy and Julie, but no matter how much I waved my hands in front of the TV, she never saw me. The iPad includes face recognition software.

The iPad is the latest time-saving convenience, and like all time-savers before it, I’ll spend eighty percent of my day playing games, and checking Facebook to discover what everybody is making for dinner. Since I got my iPhone, my regular job has waited patiently while I practice my air traffic skills with a game ironically named Flight Control. I presume an air traffic controller gets fired when two jetliners collide at the head of a runway, so my career lasts about two minutes. I estimate that as of today, I have killed 23,000 passengers. The iPad’s large screen would make room for bigger planes.

I would buy an iPad — I adore everything Apple makes — but I haven't had any money since I bought my iPhone. I know the iPhone, which I lusted for like a boy over a Daisy Air Rifle, would be cast aside in an iPad's skinny shadow, to idle just like my once-coveted iPod, which is now a $200 coaster.

For the new iPad to improve my life, it needs to include these apps:
iSlouch, a free app that counts the calories I’m not burning anymore. iStrain, a mirror app that reflects my own burned-red eyes, dried out from not blinking as I crash another 747 into a DC-10. And SkeeDaddle, an app that predicts the approach of the repo man.

America needs a better Internet fantasy device because reality is so disappointing. A real reality show would include an hour-long YouTube video of me with a mouth full of Wheat Thins, slumped over an iPad like a mother over a newborn.

There’s not an app for that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kiddie Porn

Terry Johnson has been my best friend since junior high school. Like any good friend, he mailed me a VCR movie of his knee surgery.

Without introduction (which is to say, without warning), the movie opened with his raw kneecap surrounded by pulsing red and cream meat. A magnified pair of tweezers and two gleaming silver picks were rearranging this tendon and that, as one might pick through a plate of spaghetti.

It took me a moment to realize that what I was seeing was not the overhead shot of a cooking show. TJ is proud of his knee.

I share that to explain how I felt when, in the fifth grade, Greg Kreitzer pulled a folded photo out of his pocket and showed it to me. It had been pressed into a curve by his humid wallet. The magazine ink was beginning to smear from being sat on. He opened it delicately, its fold lines worn white.

Such a cherished document — a treasure map? It took me a few seconds to orient, to make sense of the bright spotlight glare on the greasy body hair and sweat.

Greg grinned, as if he carried the golden ticket to eternal friendship. Greg was creepy anyway, even creepier now.

I responded with an uncommittal "Dude…," before walking away. This was exactly the kind of thing I always got caught doing when it wasn't my fault.

Porn and I were not well introduced, but I got the hang of it, so to speak. I stumbled across images here and there, and I'd tear out the ones that intrigued me. Eventually, I had a little private collection of clippings. I shared a room with my brother but I could never admire my photos around him, because I knew he'd rat me out just for the fun of watching me run for my life. When I wanted to view my collection, I'd fold them up carefully and creep into the bathroom, the only room in our house with a lock. With two parents and six kids, visits to the single bathroom had to be judicious.

I've since wondered how the person reacted who walked into the bathroom the day I accidentally left my photo collage behind. I didn't realize it until the next day. The obvious choice for my parents would have been to beat my older brother, because they never accepted that I was old enough to do the things I did. I was eighteen before my dad realized I had a driver's license. But my brother showed no signs of punishment. Nor did he reveal any hint that he found the photos himself: no smirk, no long trips to the bathroom. If my sisters had discovered them, there would have been screams. Perhaps God intervened and whisked them away, to everyone's relief.

I got older. I collected whole magazines. There was an abandoned school stadium near my house where my friend Harold and I stashed our contraband. Old magazines acquire a unique smell when they are stored in dank places. To this day I think antique stores smell like porn.

I don't remember how I got the magazines, and I don't remember where they went. Probably they were discovered and stolen by younger boys, who like me acquired a very insufficient education.

Barbie and Ken were surprisingly plain under their disco duds, given their exaggerated proportions everywhere else. Smooth, featureless skin, and nothing to their nethers but the joint of their legs. I know that some families paraded around naked all the time, but my family was a buttoned-up bunch, so I had to learn anatomy the hard way.

My first hands-on experience provided little revelation. I was with a boxy Mexican girl I had just met, who wanted my class ring. Was my hand under her bra, or wasn't it? She felt like Barbie. Something wasn't right. It took me a while to realize she had Band-Aids over her nipples. A hundred reasons raced through my head before she explained that her mother made her do that, and it was another decade before I understood why.

Two years later, to everyone's surprise, the small town theater booked an X-rated film. A high-school buddy swore he could get us in with fake IDs. As we gathered up the suavity to saunter into the lobby like we were regulars, I noticed my ID was for a 45-year-old Hispanic man who was a foot shorter and forty pounds heavier than I.

I looked up from that painful ID to discover that the ticket-taker was my next door neighbor. He eyed me me, looked at my ID and said, "You gotta be kidding." I was dead. "Welcome, Mr. Rodriquez," he rasped, rolling his eyes and waving me in. I was reincarnated.

The movie was about as sexy as The Three Stooges, but not as funny. The more I saw, the less I wanted to learn.

The first drive-in movie of each season was usually a racy one, and I knew if I rode my bike down a certain street, I could watch over the fence. I surmised that the plot centered around an enormously endowed woman who suffocated her suitors. It was hard to tell without the metal car-window speaker.

I don't know what became of leering little Greg Kreitzer and his folded up photos. Maybe he became a pornographer. Or a knee surgeon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brain Pain

I can't remember a time in my life when a muscle or bone didn't ache. I just healed up my right shoulder, and now my left one sprung.

I didn't do anything to it. It just started hurting. A lot. Maybe I brushed my teeth too hard, or slept funny.

I've always had aches, bruises and dings. Tall, bony and clumsy, I constantly bump my head, stumble down stairs, fall off my bicycle or tumble down a ditch on wayward skates. Those bonks and twists were earned honorably, a badge proving I was doing something. I'm far less tolerant of aches that just show up on their own, like uninvited guests.

My shins never had any meat on them. Only skin. It is a deformity. They're as bumpy and raw as a tree branch. You can read every woody detail of my shin bone like the rings of a tree, or like that clear plastic Invisible Man we played with in elementary school, the one with realistic organs on the inside and one missing on the outside, the one we had the most questions about. During a softball game I once took an errant pitch to the shin, and from the sound everyone thought I got a hit.

In the middle of the city park near my childhood home there was a cylindrical building that housed some mysterious industrial function. We couldn't figure what accounted for the droning hum that came from inside because, although we could climb the walls, we couldn't see clearly through the dirty windows. The outside had a rocky facade rough enough to get a toe-hold, a natural scaling wall up to the tempting flat roof with its castle-like edge.

My friend Eric scampered up the side of the building like a gerbil. "I did it, you do it!" he crowed, a phrase that has taunted countless children to their deaths. Scared of heights but more afraid of being an outcast, I slowly worked my way up, wiggling over the square roofline like a fat raccoon.

The view was heady. Squirrels were eye-level. I studied the clouds to see if they were closer.

Going down was a lot scarier than climbing up. Eric, his face scrunched in concentration, worked his way quickly. Eric was small, nimble and lithe, the kind of kid who could get away with teasing you because, wily and slippery, you could never get a good enough grip on him to pound him. I was as graceful as a can of Pick-Up Sticks. Barely able to breathe, I managed to work my way over the edge, fingernails digging into the rock, and down to the first ledge. It took a while. Mindful of the setting sun, I gave up and jumped the remaining twelve feet or so. I felt (or heard) a ringing in my feet as all the cartilage melted into jello. I held still, afraid to walk or lay down, that my feet might lose their shape.

"If you're not going to do it, get off." This was another magic phrase Eric uttered impatiently. I psyched myself up to prove I could do a back flip off the park swing at the height of its arc. The feat would be no harder than letting go of the chains, but I had to convince my hands. I wanted to rehearse it in my mind a few more times, but at the sound of Eric's nagging I kicked my head back into the the roll. My hands did not let go, not until the swing began returning to Earth with me no longer sitting in it. I rotated too far before finally releasing the chains, landing on my back with a dull huff! The next day Eric and I returned to the spot to admire the impossibly angled imprint of my  arm and palm in the dirt, my broken wrist now in a thick, heavy cast. I hit him with it, and his head resonated like a ripe melon.

My nose looks like my dad's, long and curvaceous with a preference for the left side of my face. His was broken in the Navy, by the first punch of his first boxing match. But one does not inherit a broken nose.

"Dad," I asked, "did I ever break my nose?"

"No, I don't recall anything," he replied after a thoughtful, eye-wandering silence.

"Then how did my nose get so crooked?"

He thought some more. More eye-searching. "Well, there was that one time when you were three, and you walked in front of a kid with steel-toed boots who was swinging on the swing," he recalled. "When he hit you, you did a back flip and landed standing up."

Yeah, Dad, that might have done it.

Or maybe it was Plunger. Plunger was among the pile-on games we played in the park after school. I once heard Bill Cosby refer to it as "Buck-Buck." Kids on one team would form a human wall-chain by lining up, then bending over and wrapping arms firmly around the waist of the kid in front of them, who did the same. It looked like a mule train or a woven rope. The front-most kid would secure himself by wrapping his arms around a tree. Then the other team would run up one at a time and jump on the fortified mass, using their compounding weight and relentless impacts to knock the wall team over. To protect the tree-grabbing kid's collar bone we'd insert the littlest kid as padding in between. He was the Plunger.

I only recall playing the game twice. The last time, while I was in the middle of the wall team, we held up a record number of our opponents before the entire matrix of kids collapsed on top of my nose.

Nose blood is vivid red, rich with oxygen. The other kids ran home. I retired from Plunger.

As I get older my injuries continue even though I play less. I scratched a cornea when I picked up a basketball and didn't notice the juniper branch in front of me. I turned my head to look as I backed up the car, and sprained my neck.  I pulled a muscle in my shoulder by sleeping funny.

It's as if my body is accustomed to feeling injured, and repeats it out of habit. As if it says to itself, "Say, it's about time for a pulled tendon, isn't it?"

"No, tendons are Monday. Today's Thursday. Cramps day."

"Foot cramp?"


Oww! What did I do?