Monday, May 16, 2016

My Unsent Letter to Penthouse Forum

(Recently discovered in my old bedroom at my mother’s house under one corner of the rug.)
Dear Penthouse,
I used to think all those letters you publish were a total load of crap until this happened to me.
I was in the school library minding my own business reading The Odyssey when this chick, one of the smart kids wearing a sexy pair of wire-frame glasses and her hair done up in a pony tail, sits down at the table right across from me. She’s eyeing me and checking out the cover of my book and I can tell right away that she’s sizing me up as the intellectual type, right? So I’m acting like I don’t know she notices me, playing it cool, when I reach into my backpack and “accidentally” let my combination pocket thesaurus and dictionary drop out, like I didn’t mean it. So now it’s confirmed in her mind that I’m some kind of brainiac, which is what I want. Luckily I had my pocket protector already in place stuffed with about forty pens, and I was wearing those khakis that expose nine inches of sock even when I’m standing up, because nothing turns a chick like that on more than plenty of sock, if you know what I mean. They see all that white sock, comfortable and highly absorbent and cushiony, and they think probably your shoes are sensible too, which was true, they were practically orthopedic. I mean, my mom knows how to shop, you can ask anyone. Anyway she’s got me pegged for a true Mensa type now. Perfect.
But I see it’s up to me, the man, to start the conversation, because after a while she breaks out her notebook and books and starts to make like she’s all into studying, a total act. I see it’s second year AP biology, so I lean over and go, “How much do you know about the medulla oblongata? I always get that mixed up with the hypothalamus.” She gives me this look like I’m breaking into her concentration and acts like the question is beneath her, as if I’m a complete moron, obviously giving me the old “hard to get” approach, which is not very convincing I might add, but I decide to play along. So I go, “Hey, from one scholar to another, help me out here.” And then she — get this — she picks up all her crap and moves to another table.
So there she is, supposedly all in a huff, and whose table does she go to but the one that Bradford Mcinnerney is sitting at. Let me tell you about Bradford Mcinnerney. He wants people to actually call him Bradford, not Brad. That should say everything. He’s some big jock, a hero in the lacrosse world apparently. It looks like he spends an hour each morning brushing all one hundred and twenty of his teeth and styling his gorgeous locks. So this chick tells Bradford something and then he looks at me like he’s Clint Eastwood, all squinty-eyed with what he must think is a very intimidating scowl, so I quickly yet calmly stow The Odyssey and my thesaurus/dictionary into my backpack and commence a dignified and rapid exit. Only now Bradford stands up, even though the chick grabs his arm like she doesn’t want him to. 
So Bradford and, as it turns out, his Neanderthal buddy Edward Sudhalter, who was my friend in elementary school until he grew about ten feet and his fat turned into muscle, they cut me off and Bradford starts to say one thing and then he stops, looks at me hard, and says instead, “Wait a minute, aren’t you the kid they caught with his hand down his pants staring at Maryann Williams in Mr. Roberti’s chemistry class?” So right there I say the perfect thing, I say, “No,” although in my mind I’m thinking that technically my hand was not down my pants and I thought her name was Mary Jean.
So then he goes, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy. Schprockman, right? Heading home now to violate your pillow thinking of Cheryl over there?” Which immediately was score one for me, because now I know her name is Cheryl. Pretty crafty, right?
Then Bradford grabs me by the arm and tells Eddie to grab my other arm to help him escort me out of the building, which Eddie does, because he’s so proud to be Bradford Mcinnerney’s flunky, his supposed right-hand man, which believe me is no honor if you want to know the truth, only most people don’t realize it. So they kind of frog-march me out of there while Cheryl, who before pretended to not want to associate herself with me, now gets up all concerned and says, “No, Bradford, don’t,” which is score two for me, because now I’ve got the old sympathy going, her betraying her true feelings and all, very key to my master plan. But Bradford and Eddie, who, incidentally, must have forgotten it was me who taught him chess and helped him with fractions back when he was “Edward,” hustle me out just the same.
So we’re outside and it’s a chilly fall day and I realize I left my jacket back in the library. Cheryl starts to get frantic and says, “Don’t hurt him, Bradford,” which Bradford hears but keeps his eyes on me and says stuff like he ought to play connect the dots with my zits and quit pestering girls who want nothing to do with me, etc., etc. And he’s gonna let me go, like he’s done with me. But I — get this — I — and I don’t know where this came from — I say, “Fuck you, Bradley,” which offends him on two levels, the obscenity part and calling him Bradley. So he goes real still at first, then turns slowly around, and asks, “What did you just say?” and I don’t even finish saying “Fuck you, Bradley” again before he hauls off and punches me right in the mouth.
Well it’s score three for me because Bradford cuts his hand on my braces. He immediately grabs it with his other hand and yells, “Son of a BITCH!” and I would have laughed, really, only I was sort of fading in and out of consciousness at the time and my mouth was filling up with blood. Other than that, though, I would have laughed like a hyena right in his face, I swear to God.
Bradford allows himself to be ushered by Eddie back into the library like Eddie’s his mommy, although, obviously, the nurse’s office is really where he should go, with Eddie even saying, “That might take a few stitches,” and “I toldja he wasn’t worth it.” Yeah, thanks, Edward old pal.
And then the only one left is Cheryl looking at me on the ground, blood all over my clothes. And she says, “I’m sorry,” like she really means it and waits a full half a second before heading back to the library door.
So it’s just a matter of months before she starts speaking to me, gentlemen. All according to the plan.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Republican Debate, Nostalgia

Two takeaways from the Republican debate last Tuesday.
1. Donald Trump is nothing more than the kind of low-information blowhard you see in every break room who thinks he wins political arguments because he’s louder than everyone else. Trump didn’t say a single substantive thing all night and made painfully ridiculous faces unbecoming of a potential commander-in-chief and head of state. Also, there was a sort of popular-kid-dumping-on-the-nerd thing going on between Trump and Bush that made me uncomfortable.
2. The number of outrageous cheap shots taken at our president and Hillary Clinton made me dizzy. Apparently, the reason why you got a paper cut on your finger yesterday was because of the failed and fraudulent policies of the Obama administration. And Hillary, of course, was directly responsible for the San Bernardino shootings.
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A blogger friend of mine brought up the subject of nostalgia and made an interesting point: were you ever conscious of a potential “good old day” while it was in progress? I suppose that all depends on what your definition of what a good old day is. For many, high school and college may count as the chiefest among good old days because of the friendships, the fun experiences, and a life generally untouched by the harsh realities of the workaday world we all must eventually enter: you know what I mean, that world of mortgages, fractious relationships at work and home, responsibilities, death, ruin, despair, hopelessness . . . whoops, reel it back in . . . just the day-to-day grind that so often marks the human condition. We were all spared that up until a certain point.
In the movies, you see the prosperous couple in the midst of a troubled marriage looking back wistfully to a time when they were poor but happy. You hear the cranky geezers in the coffee shop recall how much easier and uncomplicated things were before all this insane explosion of media, and the newfangled contraptions that do nothing but get in the way, and the damn civil rights causes that went on to make problems where there weren’t any in the first place. People hark back to a “much simpler time,” when there was civility and decency, when you could leave your door unlocked, when the milkman came on Mondays and Thursdays, and gas station attendants wore snappy uniforms and offered to check your oil.
When people talk about nostalgia, they usually mean a romanticized, sentimental view of the past with the rough edges sanded off, but when I look back to my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, I mainly remember a lot anxiety and worry, and I can more easily recall awkward, embarrassing moments instead of the joyful, uplifting ones. In fact, a lot of personal memories make me want to travel back in time like Biff did in “Back to the Future” to slap my young self upside the head. To me, when I think of truly good old days, I see these good old days mainly as snapshots, not epochs: random, usually unremarkable moments. Here’s one example. I’m 12 or 13 years old, walking home in the winter. It had snowed recently but the sidewalks have all been cleared and it’s not too cold. It’s dinnertime and already dark. Everybody seems to be home by now except for me. I walk by a house just outside my neighborhood, so there’s a feeling of foreignness about the place, and the aroma of what I imagine to be pot roast with roast potatoes, gravy and green beans permeates the air. It’s the best smell I ever smelled in my life. I can picture the inside of the house, all warm and welcoming in an Irish Catholic kind of way, and kids my age are just coming to the table. Then I am jarred by the realization that tonight is probably fish sticks night at my house. I walk a little slower. No need to hurry.
That’s it. A good old day moment — admittedly soured a bit by the fish stick thing, but still a pleasant memory. I have a million of those. The question is, did I know then that it would be a good old day moment? Absolutely not.
I think it would be interesting, as an exercise, to try to identify good old day moments as they happen. Perhaps a good old day moment could even be manufactured. Are either of those two possible?
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That is all.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Response to a Muslim Grievance, 1776, a Personal Gripe

Muslims make the point that when mass shootings appear in the news, the religion of the shooter is never cited unless he’s Muslim. Fair enough. But my exposure to the actions and rhetoric of radical, fundamentalist Islam goes back a long way and has left a deep, indelible impression. I can remember when Ayatollah Khomeini, the once de facto ruler of Iran and a major religious leader, actually ordered a hit on Salmon Rushdie because his treatment of the prophet Mohammed in “The Satanic Verses” was disrespectful. It took my breath away. I equated that with someone the stature of a pope or cardinal demanding the death of Andres Serrano for his “Piss Christ,” the controversial photograph of a crucifix placed into a jar of urine. Would that ever happen? Could that ever happen? No, it’s unthinkable. Yet I saw a prominent member of the Muslim clergy do just that. Now add to that the unimaginable horror and scale of 9-11, all the anti-American rhetoric I’ve heard over the years (“Death to America!”), the stories of mullahs in Pakistan and elsewhere preaching jihad from their pulpits, the innumerable acts of terror in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and here, and, yes, speaking as an average American who casually watches the news and reads the newspapers, the militant Muslim extremists fanatically devoted to their religion have my attention and they stand out. The marathon bombings happened only five blocks away from where I work, for crying out loud. I sheltered in place like the people in that San Bernardino suburb just did. And I’ll admit it: when preliminary reports of yet another terrorist attack starts trickling in, I expect to hear Muslim names. Sorry, I’ve been conditioned. I feel bad for the ordinary, peace-loving, law-abiding Muslims and I regret the unwarranted criticisms and scrutiny they are forced to put up with — which, as every thinking person knows, is wrong, wrong, wrong — but, fair or not, Islam has a big PR problem.
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I am reading “1776,” by David McCullough, a book which picks up the American Revolution story from the time of the British siege of Boston. One interesting thing about the book is that the author presumes the reader remembers details from his high school US History class, particularly the events and grievances that culminated in a declaration of independence (remember, in the beginning, the colonists merely wanted their rights to be respected, not to necessarily break from Britain). Do you remember what the Stamp Act was? Or the Intolerable Acts? I had to look them up. Something else I think noteworthy is that I find myself, for the first time in my life, seeing George Washington as a mortal being, not the demigod who appears on quarters, dollar bills, and the occasional equestrian statue. When he took command of the Continental Army in 1775 he was only 43. He stood six foot two, weighed 190 pounds, had reddish brown hair, and made an imposing figure. And, as I continue to read, I think back to the history books we had to study in school with the only aim of regurgitating dry facts back onto quizzes and tests, never once thinking of the flesh and blood people who were the actors of this great drama.
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I am the landlord of a Section 8 tenant here in Boston. The Boston Housing Authority (note: a tax payer-funded government agency) pays for most of her rent. They were the ones who wrote the original lease back in 2003 and they send inspectors annually to make my life interesting. Every now and again I have to get in contact with someone at the BHA, and always — ALWAYS — the people I need to speak to never answer their phones and never return their calls. Always.
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That is all.

Friday, November 20, 2015

ISIS, Henry VIII's Girlfriend

My understanding of ISIS.
ISIS is a fanatical, activist doomsday cult, an ever-growing collection of zealots and adventurers spoiling for a fight, who believe they have a major role to play in a coming Day of Judgment. They would like to roll the clock back to the 7th century, back to when laws and customs were more in step with the often harsh and stringent beliefs they live by, all based on a serious interpretation of religious scripture. Their “caliph” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They make al Qaeda look reasonable. Their most effective tools are social media and murder. If you discount the unlikely end-of-days scenario, their apparent aim is world domination, or to die gloriously in the attempt.
It is fair to call them extremists. It is not fair to call them un-Islamic, because they know their Koran backwards and forwards and predicate their actions on how they interpret it. Call them a mutation of Islam if you like, but they are very, very Islamic. True, they are not the same kind of Muslim you see shopping for halal food in the supermarket. They would regard the peaceful, law-abiding Muslim in the supermarket as hardly a Muslim at all, maybe someone just playing at being a Muslim. These people believe utterly and without compromise in the correctness of their culture, their brand of religion, and their laws, and everyone who does not think or act like them are either infidels or apostates. They regard themselves as a sovereign state and control vast tracts of land to prove it. Their version of the constitution is the Koran itself.
It is easy for them to recruit fighters from among boys and young men, for this group is comprised of either the disaffected urban youth of Europe, or young men of the Middle East and North Africa who have never been employed, had any kind of clout, or even a girlfriend. Joining ISIS gives them wives, money, status, and a cause. For a kid having grown up in a cloistered world, his mind poisoned against the decadent west from birth, joining ISIS is a brilliant answer to a dull life that offers little opportunity; for the adventurer, it’s a dream come true.
We think they’re looney and out of step with the twenty-first century; we wonder how people can be this way in these modern times. Maybe we think that if we can just sit down and reason with the heads of ISIS we’ll be able to figure something out. Here’s the problem: all the reliable, time-honored frames of reference we of the west use to measure and understand anything do us no good when vainly trying to peer into the minds of jihadists, or those susceptible to radicalization. Reason, compassion, desire for peace, mutual respect: these qualities are of no use in forging a bridge. In fact, we don’t possess the tools or materials needed to build a bridge. We can’t even conceive of what a bridge to them looks like. They are a completely alien species, as if our people and theirs evolved on separate planets. And, as a species, we are repugnant to them.
It is fruitless to think we can best them militarily because we’ll never win. We’ll never face armies with uniforms in straightforward battles or expect conduct constrained by the Geneva Convention. There’s a big difference between combating people merely willing to die for a cause, as opposed to those who are planning on it. A single kamikaze pilot in a small, explosive-packed plane could sink a battleship. You might argue that we can fight them by attacking their ideology, but how? Will someone please explain to me how?
Whatever the roots of ISIS are: the invasion of Iraq, oil, western arrogance, the Russians, the US, bin Laden, Bush, this century, that century, they are a plague, a spreading, ingrained, insidious, intractable, incurable, international, virulent plague. We can’t wipe them out and we can’t change their minds. The best we can hope for is aggressive and ever-vigilant containment.
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I am reading “The Other Boleyn Girl,” by Philippa Gregory, a story written in the first person by Mary Boleyn, Anne’s (second wife to King Henry VIII) younger sister. It took me a minute or two to like it, but now I do and can’t put it down. The Boleyns and the Howards combine to make the ultimate scheming family, adept courtiers all and eager to put Mary’s, and later Anne’s, feminine charms to good use toward their advancement in the eyes of the king. In that world, even females of the highest class of society are dealt with as objects, game pieces, and, as Mary says, brood mares. There is so little to envy about these women, pampered though they are, whose main purpose is to decorate power, always vulnerable to the whims of men. Gregory’s fascinating characterization of Anne fights this, as she is portrayed as a willful, intelligent, articulate, worldly and crafty person who could maybe teach Lady Macbeth a thing or two. Unfortunately, we know how things end. Great story so far. I recommend it. It’s a Schprock Lock.
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That is all.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Cinderella Man, Donald Trump, Illegal Aliens, Malala

I’m watching “Cinderella Man” on my exercise bike in half-hour installments. The film is the true story of Jim Braddock, a Depression-era boxer played by Russell Crowe. Good movie so far, but this is why I bring it up: during the boxing scenes I actually pedal harder! Maybe I should put together a half-hour compilation of Mike Tyson fights.
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I have a confession to make: I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” Although I couldn’t make it through the entire show, I thought his opening monologue with the two Trump imitators was pretty good, and felt the first sketch with him in the oval office one year into his presidency was okay, but then the show dragged and my eyelids refused to stay open.
The protesters outside the theater were offering $5,000 to any member of the audience willing to heckle Trump because of his stance on immigration and his apparent prejudice against Latinos. Now, I am not a Trump supporter, but in fairness I’d like to ask this question: does Trump have a problem with immigration or illegal immigration? I never hear that distinction being made, and you have to admit that there’s a difference between those who enter the country legally and those who don’t. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but if Trump’s beef is with undocumented aliens, shouldn’t it always be put that way?
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Now, as far as how we should handle undocumented aliens, I have it all figured out. And everyone should note that I did zero research on this issue because I didn’t want my laser-like thinking process muddled with a bunch of damn facts and statistics. And, of course, each bullet point below will surely beget oodles of unanswered questions which my superior intellect, taxed with many other matters of pressing national importance, cannot deal with at this time.
According to me, undocumented aliens are subject to deportation unless they have…
…proven residence in this country for at least two years and have established meaningful and legitimate ties
…assimilated themselves by demonstrating a knowledge of basic English and an acquaintance with, and acceptance of, American culture
…no violent criminal record
…a marketable skill
…citizen sponsors willing to vouch for them and share responsibility for their actions
…a willingness to submit to some kind of penalty, such as community service or a fine
Yep, that about does it. Really, what questions could there be? It’s all self-explanatory. Let’s call this one solved. Discuss amongst yourselves.
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And here’s what we do with the immigrants who enter this country legally: give ’em a high five, a Bundt cake, and a tiny American flag. Welcome aboard!
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For the past five years my mother has been driving my father’s old car, a 2000 Gran Marquis, the very car every American male has a constitutional right to own once he reaches the age of 75. Last week, Mom’s mechanic discovered that the “Blue Bomber” has advanced Stage IV body rot and it’s time left on earth can now be measured in weeks, possibly even days. In other words, time for another car.
My mother asked for my help in finding her a new ride. I showed up Saturday morning with a list of local dealerships, but in the end we only needed to go to one. Mom settled on a 2012 Honda Accord with low mileage, which I thought made good sense, because why would an 80-year-old who mainly uses an automobile for grocery shopping and church on Sunday need a new car? The salesman was a young guy in his early twenties and this was probably his first first meaningful gig out of college. I could easily imagine him sharing a three-bedroom apartment with about twelve other guys. A nice kid, pleasant, respectful, not the oily used car salesman my mother feared.
The test drive went well and we sat down afterward to talk numbers. It was then that the subject of the Blue Bomber and it’s potential value as a trade-in came up. There was one snag: we didn't have the venerable rust bucket with us at the time and he couldn't reasonably quote us a price based solely on our description. So the lad suggested that he drive both of us to my mother’s house to drop me off so I could then gingerly navigate the Bomber back to the dealership.
As he drove us down the main street of my old hometown, I made comments about how much everything has changed since when I was in high school. Although the town that I grew up in is only fifteen miles from where I now live, and I drive out there maybe two or three times a month to visit my mother, I have really lost touch with all the developments; after all, I always take the same route and never see anything new. So I blabbed on about how this or that was different, what used to be where the CVS is now, and so on. On one stretch there is a lake on the left side and a line of commercial properties on the right. So I said, “For instance, that lake used to be on the right side of the road, and now you see it's on the left.” The kid’s head snapped around and he said incredulously, “What? Really?” My mother turned toward me with a mock warning look and said, “Johnny…”
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I told that story to a guy at work and he says it’s an example of “dad humor.” Probably.
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I am reading “I Am Malala,” the autobiography of the Pakistani girl who publicly stood up for the right of girls to an education in her country and was subsequently shot in the head by the Taliban. To me, it has a kind of “Diary of Anne Frank” feel to it, probably because Malala and Anne are roughly of the same age and they lived through increasingly repressed times with an ever-present threat of death. They both show resilience, depend heavily on family life (and are close to their fathers), they’re smart and aware and share insights that bespeak a maturity beyond their years. Having already seen “He Named Me Malala,” the book for me serves as the documentary’s companion piece. In the film, Malala comes across as an earnest, funny, dauntless, intelligent teenager who is completely unaffected by her fame. She can meet with Hillary Clinton one day and attend classes at a Birmingham high school the next. She gets into squabbles with her brothers and friends just like any other kid. Beside all that, though, the book helps me learn more about a culture that seems as alien to mine as what you read in science fiction or fantasy novels. To my western sensibility, everything is all upside-down and inside-out and the rules make no sense, especially those regarding the behavior and treatment of women, as promulgated by the Taliban, the unofficial regime in the Swat region of Pakistan. Bombings, killings, beheadings, bizarre restrictions, all somehow in the name of Islam — yet life still goes on. Fascinating and horrifying.
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I watched most of the latest Republican debate (the varsity one). If I were ever to vote in a Republican primary, I’d probably go with Rubio. He’s pretty sharp. I liked his line about how we need more welders and less philosophers. Good one, Marco.
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On Veterans Day, you say thank you for your service. On Mother’s Day, you say thank you for your cervix.
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That is all.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Technology, Team-Building, Certitude, Crazy Dog Lady

The guy in the office next to mine — get this — is talking to his wife and kid. Wait, it gets better. His wife and kid are in Russia (that’s right, the-opposite-side-of-the-planet Russia). And not only is he talking to them, he can see them! He is sitting at his desk, right now, seeing and talking to his family! And it’s free! HOLY FUCKING SHIT!
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The guy in the other office next to mine takes off his headphones just long enough to tell me that this is no big deal.
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We were discussing team-building activities at work. I suggested we all go overseas to fight ISIS for a week. The reception to this idea was less than lukewarm, even after I recommended that whoever doesn’t make it back gets a prominently displayed memorial plaque.
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There’s right, and then there’s really, really right.
We all know what a gas gauge is. There's a needle and it points to anywhere between the “F” for full and the “E” for empty. Your gas tank can be absolutely full, to the point where you can't squeeze a single ounce more in, and absolutely empty, where there isn't a vapor left; your gas tank is a desert with bleached cow skulls and cacti and vultures circling overhead. And then there's the vast area in between full and empty indicating the varying degrees of fullness or emptiness: half full, nearly empty, and so on.
“Right” and “wrong” has a gauge very similar to the gas gauge. One can be absolutely right and absolutely wrong. And then there's the whole area in between where you can be partially right or not entirely wrong. You get the idea.
But let's return to absolutely right and wrong. It is possible to be so right that the needle is jammed flush to the “R” for right, so forcefully against it that the needle is straining, quivering, getting hot, that it begins to carve a groove into the very edge of right, it actually tries to burrow deeper into absolute right, to enter the realm of infinite rightness, where one encounters angels and the purest and rightest of rightness, righteous rightness, where wrong cannot possibly exist. A person can really be that right. I have been that right.
And boy do I hate it when people disagree with me then. Know what I'm sayin’?
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I need someone to tell me that consuming Fritos, the greatest junk food in this solar system and several others, is good for me. Throwing in a few scientific-sounding words will help.
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I am following Bill Mumy, young Will Robinson of “Lost in Space,” on Facebook. Someday I hope we can be real friends (not just Facebook friends) so I can get intimate details about what life with the robot was really like.
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Dogfight at Fresh Pond.
It being a classic, mild New England fall day, my wife and I decided to take a walk around scenic Fresh Pond in Cambridge MA, a beautiful tract of preservation land that has, as you might expect, a large pond at its center. There is a trail that follows the pond’s shore and shortly into our stroll we noticed that Fresh Pond is a popular place for dog owners to take their pets for walks. This is fine; I like doggies and the Missus tolerates them. Signs posted at intervals along the trail show the rules. Leashes can’t be more than six feet long and dogs are permitted to be off the leash so long as they respond immediately to their owners’ call. Also, pets can’t harass other visitors to the park. This last part is important.
When we started off, we didn't know about the relaxed leash rules and early into our walk a large dog galloped up near us. The Missus, who has always been a bit skittish around dogs, especially the big ones, got upset by this by overly familiar pooch. She wheeled around and chided the dog's owner, some fifty feet away, for not respecting leash laws.
This owner, who will forever be known as Crazy Dog Lady, was managing two other mutts beside this one, and she was very quick to correct my wife about her perfect right to allow the dog off the leash. At that moment, I distinctly saw a blinding flash of light followed by the nascent formation of a mushroom cloud. I gently guided the Missus away as quickly as I could and we kept moving. My wife was angry. She was steaming mad as only a Puerto Rican can and I could feel it. The air crackled with her anger. I’ve been married to this woman for nearly thirty years and I can accurately inform you that this anger, when combined with oxygen and a crazy dog lady, is a highly combustible mix. Unfortunately, we soon came to a turning that put us in close proximity to this woman, giving her another chance to get into it with us. She said something like, “Blah blah blah the rules blah blah you shouldn’t be here.” I cut her off by saying, “Okay, okay, we get it. Enjoy your walk.” That shut her up, but it didn’t satisfy her.
Have you ever encountered someone spoiling for a fight, like they have unfinished business with you? Do you sense that they need closure, possibly in the form of you falling to your knees, tearing at your clothes and abjectly begging forgiveness? That they need to witness a humiliating admission of ignorance and to hear you express horror at the extent of your crime? Do you suspect that they, to this end, might arrange another encounter with you, seemingly accidental? Do you think this is possible?
Encountering no trouble with other people’s dogs, we kept walking while Crazy Dog Lady trailed at a distance of about seventy-five feet. She called to her dogs constantly in a strong, melodic voice, the kind you expect to hear on a farm, the type of voice someone would use to call in the cows. I tried to concentrate on the fine weather, the tranquility of the pond and how it reflected the blue sky, and the miracle of this peaceful pocket of nature incongruously inserted into a busy urban setting. None of that worked. I was worried about my wife and her anger and the mushroom cloud that continued to build.
Inevitably, Crazy Dog Lady and her three rambunctious mutts got closer and closer. Finally, one dog, a different one this time, ran up and bumped into the Missus, who was genuinely startled. Before anything was said, Crazy Dog Lady declared, “That wasn’t his fault. You bumped into him.”
Words were exchanged. I played the part of hockey referee separating two fighters. Crazy Dog Lady, who is somewhere in her sixties, wore a silly knit winter hat with earflaps and layers of clothing too warm for the day. Her face was ruddy with good health and she seemed intelligent, but you could tell there was something a little off with her. She didn’t want to be placated by my conciliatory words and threatened to contact the ranger. We obviously weren’t residents there, she said, and we had no business being there. I wouldn’t engage, because I have learned from my many dealings with agitated people that you will never get satisfaction from arguing with them. I merely repeated, “Okay, okay, enjoy your walk,” which, now when I think about it, must have pissed her off even more.
And so we left. I hated to leave, but you don’t go to places like Fresh Pond to fight.
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Out of curiosity, are either Donald Trump or Ben Carson electable nationally? Does the average Republican think his party stands a good chance with either one at the top of the ticket?
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So is it Myanmar or Burma? To go by how western news outlets report on the country, it feels like they’d prefer to be called “Myanmar” but can’t shake off “Burma.”
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The label on the electronic device I just purchased says “Made in Cathay.”
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That is all.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Uncle Al, Observations, Pathological Liars

The other night I watched “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman) on Turner Classic Movies. To be honest, not a good movie, but I love TCM. If you, the modern viewer, can watch these old films with an open mind and allow that it was a different time, that the standards and mores were different, that relatively tame things now really were risqué back then, that old notions of beauty and style were once truly beautiful and stylish, and that people really talked that way and so on, if you can accept all that, you can easily get hooked on TCM. When I watch those old movies I think of my Uncle Al, who, when we visited him and my aunt back in the sixties, always had his TV tuned to a movie station. He could identify all the old movie stars and knew everything about them. “That’s Randolph Scott!” or “Errol Flynn! He had it all but got mixed up in drugs. The ladies loved him.” And later: “Maureen O’Hara!”
You could say Uncle Al was a “character.” Usually when people call someone a character, that’s code for a strong, difficult personality, someone with charm, who can be funny and entertaining, but in the long run hard to get along with. They’re “handfuls.” We had an Aunt Harriet who must have loved the endearing side of this character she married, but she eventually found Uncle Al too much of a handful and they got divorced in the late sixties. He could be blunt and tactless, prone to saying disagreeable things. He could hold a grudge for forty years. He was one of those types who could never sit still, always itchy, always impatient, a little too quick to take offense, insistent on the last word. I think everyone knows the kind of person I’m talking about. Easy to like but not easy to take. He had a nervous stomach and kept a large glass bowl of antacid tablets on the coffee table which we kids first mistook for candy, because they looked like candy and he ate them like candy.
My father’s and uncle’s mother, my grandmother, lived in Syracuse, New York. My uncle lived in neighboring Dewitt and we lived in a suburb of Boston, five hours away; so geography dictated that the responsibility for keeping an eye on Grandma rested mainly on Uncle Al. By this time, the time I’m talking about, I was in junior high, still a preteen and not particularly aware of all that went on in the opaque and mysterious grownup world. I didn’t know about the effects that loneliness, disappointment, the stresses of a career and financial worries could have on someone in midlife. I hadn’t yet realized that grownups were in essence merely bigger versions of my friends and myself, and who, though better equipped to handle the bewildering complications and problems of life by themselves, were still kids on the inside and were just as susceptible to petty jealousies and unreasonableness and hurt feelings as we were. It never entered my head to worry about Uncle Al’s state of mind, what it must have been like to find himself a bachelor again, all alone in an empty house, dealing with an elderly parent who was herself a bit of a “handful.”
After the divorce, the entire family stopped taking trips out to Syracuse to visit my grandmother and uncle because it would have been too much to host all of us at once. Instead, just my father and I would make occasional weekend excursions to see them. The plan was to stay at my uncle’s house and make visits to my grandmother so she wouldn’t have to deal with overnight guests. Nowadays, as a meditation exercise, I sometimes mentally tour her house, starting at the reception area with the too high coat rack (a winter coat always hanging there), into the living room past the sofa that felt itchy to sit on, the framed photographs, the loud ticking mantel clock, on through the dining room, where each footstep on the wood floor created vibrations that made the joints of furniture and stacked dinnerware and glasses in cabinets creak and clatter, past the old fashioned telephone table and chair, into the cardamum spice smell of the kitchen. 
On one particular visit I could sense a discord between my father and uncle right away. We did all the usual things. We arrived customarily early in the evening, and, as my father went straight to the bathroom, Uncle Al quizzed me on the length of our drive and which routes we took (I had no idea; I never paid attention to highway numbers). Later he broiled us up a few steaks for dinner and we sat down, my father and uncle each with a Manhattan and I with a tall glass of apple cider. As the night progressed and we retired to the living room, more drinks were mixed and faces reddened. I really didn’t pay attention to the specifics of their conversation, but I could follow the general drift as one can watching a foreign language film without subtitles. It had to do with the care of my grandmother, something about my uncle considering her mentally incompetent and no longer able to live by herself, and how she insisted on renting the apartment upstairs but couldn’t handle the tenants, and that he was constantly being dragged in to settle disputes and his nerves couldn’t take it anymore. He became more and more animated in his remarks, and my father countered these with placating words meant to deflect increasingly pointed comments that, if challenged, could easily lead to an argument with no quick resolution. Eventually I was sent to bed upstairs.
After an hour or so, my uncles’s and father’s voices, muffled at first, grew louder and louder; suddenly, the two voices erupted violently into an argument that sounded exactly like two big dogs barking. It was a scary thing for a boy to hear. This went on for a minute. Then I heard the door downstairs open and my father came up to my room. He told me to get up, change out of my pajamas and gather up my things.
“What?” I said disbelievingly.
“We’re leaving. Let’s go.”
My father waited for me downstairs, his overcoat on. There was no talking between them now. A grenade had gone off and this was the eerie stillness that followed the blast. I saw my uncle in the living room. He was definitely drunk, looking unsteady and a little sheepish and diminished, seemingly at loss to either stand or sit or say something or shut up. But what he didn’t look like was apologetic. Nothing conciliatory would come from that quarter.
We got into the station wagon and I asked my father where we were going. He said the motel down the street. I knew the one he was talking about, the Dewitt Motel on the corner that had a crudely animated neon sign of a women in bathing cap and swimwear taking a dive into their advertised heated pool.
Before we reached the motel my father pulled the car over and stopped. “You know, your uncle had too much to drink tonight and he said some awful things. And I said some things. But if we leave him like this, I don’t know what he’ll do. I think we should go back. Don’t you think so?”
And so we did. Uncle Al received my father warmly at the front door. They shook hands. They hugged. My uncle said he knew my father would come back and kept calling him “brother.” “Johnny,” he said to me, “you’re my nephew and I love you, but this is my brother.” And my father said, “All right, Al. All right.”
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What I learned from the 11-hour grilling of Hillary over the Benghazi incident: Republicans are humorless high school principals out to crush fun; Democrats are cool guidance counselors who keep guitars in their offices.
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I resent the implication you see in television commercials that we need all these electronic devices to effectively navigate life.
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I like TV’s “The Blacklist,” but doesn’t the FBI need to do something about their office lighting? It’s way too dim. No wonder Whitey Bulger was on the loose for so long. They couldn’t see what they were doing.
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NFL commissioner Goodell just won’t let “Deflategate” die its natural death. This pettiest of crimes, if there ever really was one, does not warrant such as a mindless, relentless pursuit of justice. In this sense he reminds me of Javert, the monomaniacal police inspector in “Les Miserables.”
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I used to work with a pathological liar. Realizing he was a pathological liar happened in slow stages because of my long-held assumption that everyone I meet basically tells the truth. There was the stage when I thought he kind of sounded like a bullshit artist. Then I thought he liked to exaggerate to make things sound more interesting. Then I thought he might occasionally outright lie to cover his ass like many of us would when put in a tight spot. It actually took several years to realize that you couldn’t accept anything he said; if he told you water was wet, you’d better check to be sure. It was like lying was his hobby. It was easier for him to lie than to tell the truth, because he lied about so many things that he really didn’t need to lie about. Lying to him was like breathing to most people.
Wikipedia: “Lying is the act of both knowingly and intentionally/willfully making a false statement. Most people do so out of fear. Normal lies are defensive, and are told to avoid the consequences of truth telling. They are often white lies that spare another's feelings, reflect a pro-social attitude, and make civilized human contact possible. Pathological lying is considered a mental illness, because it takes over rational judgment and progresses into the fantasy world and back. Pathological lying can be described as a habituation of lying. It is when an individual consistently lies for no personal gain. The lies are commonly transparent and often seem rather pointless.”
Also: “There are many consequences of being a pathological liar. Due to lack of trust, most pathological liars' relationships and friendships fail.”
I have witnessed that last part. The entire time I knew him, his private life was a mess. Two wives divorced him, and largely due to trust issues he was finally fired. I think he believed lying somehow worked, and to this day has no idea what the damage of being caught in a lie does to one’s reputation.
From what I have read and observed, pathological liars are like method actors in that they immerse themselves into the lie, and they may actually, on some level, believe their own fabricated stories. It’s not uncommon for pathological liars to have had chaotic home lives when growing up and that they think their lives may not be interesting enough. Also, because there is no known medication to combat this illness, the only effective treatment is talk therapy.
The shame of it is, he is actually a nice guy, genuinely friendly and eager to please, and if you met him at a party, you’d be impressed with his (apparent) breadth of knowledge and would probably want to get to know him better. He is very glib. I liked him, but he exasperated me constantly, endlessly. In time I showed little respect toward him and took as a personal affront the small regard he had for my intelligence when telling me some of the things he thought I’d be stupid enough to believe. Sometimes I tried to summon sympathy, knowing that he is damaged and is his own worst enemy. But my sympathy can only go so far. Maybe I can’t blame him for this very unfortunate personality defect that has marked his life, but I do blame him for not seeking treatment for it.  
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That is all.