Friday, December 23, 2005

Memo to Nabisco

Please invent seedless Fig Newtons.

I like the cookies, but the seeds subtract from my enjoyment.

Therefore, Fig Newtons without the seeds would be a much more satisfying taste experience.

We can make this a perfect world, one step at a time.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Rednecks Sure Do Talk Funny

A contraction is a smaller or abbreviated way of saying something longer (I would = I'd).

But only a Southerner can take a short word and make it unnecessarily longer.

One particular word that has always amused me is "iffen" (or "if'n"), a word I've only heard from country folk.

Let us all join together and laugh at Bubba.

Sorry, Jake...

...but I can't pronounce "Gyllenhaal," and I don't think many other people can, either.

Smile a Little Smile for Me

For as long as I can remember, people have been talking and writing about Mona Lisa's smile.

The painting has been the subject of endless speculation and analysis for eons. There's even a movie called Mona Lisa Smile. Art lovers talk about it with a kind of reverence usually reserved for something holy. "The viewer cannot help but look at that cryptic smile and wonder what she is thinking...what secret is she hiding?"

From The New York Times: "First she is smiling. Then the smile fades. A moment later the smile returns only to disappear again. What is with this lady's face? How did the great painter capture such a mysterious expression and why haven't other artists copied it?"

And for as long as I have been reading this kind of thing, I have been staring at that painting, baffled by what everybody else can see that I can't -- like the occasional person who is confounded by the hidden pictures in those "3-D" illustrations that were popular several years ago, and is convinced the whole enigma surrounding the lady's smirk is some kind of elaborate prank.

That's how I view the Mona Lisa -- like some kind of Emperor's clothes scenario, a smile you can only view as mysterious if you're cool. "Oh, sure, I see it. Wow. How puzzling! How ambiguous! What's she thinking?"

Well, I'll tell you what she's thinking.

Hurry the fuck up and finish painting. My ass is killing me!

Isn't that what you'd be thinking?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Just an Observation

Did you ever notice how the addition of one word can make something that sounds nice into something that sounds not very nice?

BEFORE: "Thanks for the tip!"

AFTER: "Thanks for the tip, schmuck."

Eye Just Don't Get It

Why do we say "He robbed me blind"? Is the implication supposed to be that the robber stole the eyes out of my sockets?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I'm Just Asking

Does the word "duly" ever modify anything other than "noted"?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Buy This Book or My Dog Will Shoot

New from Authorhouse: my new book, The Dog Ate My Gun, available at Amazon and other online retailers for $19.95, and from the publisher for $15.70. It's a collection of email pranks, cartoons, funny stories, short plays and miscellaneous comedy material. Of course, the book (in the works for several years) inspired the title of this very blog. So go ahead, make my accountant the happiest guy in the world and buy a copy today!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Can I Ask You a Question?

Why do people bother saying this?

Because the answer can't possibly be "no."
That would technically be answering the original question.

A better preface would be: "I am about to ask you a question. You may decide not to answer."

But that, too, strikes me as rather silly and pointless.

Just ask the question, Miss Busybody.

Wait'll You Hear This!

"Wait till you hear about my new raise!"

"Just wait'll you hear what happened to Jamie!"


Why do I have to wait?

Why can't you just tell me, so we can both revel in the news together?

This unusual expression has baffled me for quite a while. In the examples above, it seems clear that the speaker is about to bespeak something exciting. Indeed, "I just got a great raise!" or "Something wild happened to Jamie!" would perfectly suffice. But instead, the focus is on the actual waiting period between the announcement and "the big reveal."

Why is that so important? Is it all about creating an illusion of thrilling anticipation, a sort of lofty tease?

Why say: "Ugh! Just wait till you have children of your own!"

Instead of: "Ugh! After have have kids of your own, then you'll be sorry!"

Or some variation thereof.

One phrase I understand a little better is "Just wait till your father gets home!" In this case, the speaker obviously wishes to fill the hearer's life with dread and horror, as if the waiting were worse than the inevitable punishment.

Even so, I find it interesting that we place so much importance on the waiting.

I, for one, am getting a little tired of having to wait.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Second From Last

As a writer and copy editor, I have a natural contempt for misused words, grammar and punctuation. My biggest pet peeves are ordinary misspelled words. I have a friend in college who—even after I've lectured her hundreds of times—continues to write would of and could of. Did I mention she's in college? She gets you're and your confused as well. Another friend called me up one day, amazed that she'd found a mistake in the dictionary. It seems they left out a very common word: alot. How I laughed and laughed.

Several years ago, one of the advertisers in the magazine I edit typically bought a monthly full-page ad on the back cover. This boat builder designed his own ads in house, and would always, always let a few typos get into his text. And of course, his was the only ad I ever looked at, because I would always hunt for his stupid mistakes.

One month, looking at his newest ad, I burst into peals of childish laughter. I called him up immediately to ask him about it.

"So, I see in your new full-page ad that you claim to be the penultimate builder in the boating industry!"

"That's right," he confirmed.

"How does it feel to be second from last?" I asked him.

What is your biggest writing-related pet peeve?

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Sinister Man in the Park

The year: 2004. The place: A small park in Beverly Hills. The cast: Me and Jenna, my three-year-old niece.

Occasionally, I take her to play there. They've got slides and swings and ropes to climb. It's a decent park. On this particular day, I had my new digitial camera with me, and I was shooting some photos of Jenna. It was getting pretty late in the afternoon, and the park was emptying out. At length, we found ourselves in an area built to look like an old pirate ship, with a large steering wheel and the facade of a hull.

As I shot some more photos of Jenna, I suddenly realized that we were not alone.

Standing a few yards away was an attractive woman, about 30 years old. At first I barely realized she was wearing a policeman's uniform. She gazed at us almost admiringly, it seemed. Eventually she broke the ice by asking about our relationship.

At this point, I had not yet put two and two together. I introduced my niece, and told the woman a little about me, where I worked, etc. But after answering a few more questions, it finally dawned on me that her interest in me was not social. Someone, she admitted, had dropped a dime about the strange man in the park taking all those photos of the little girl.

"Is there a law against taking photos of my own niece?" I asked the policewoman.

She looked sympathetic. "No," she admitted. "But we get a lot of crazy calls. We have to check everything out."

I felt myself feeling a little resentful. "Well, you've done your job," I told her.

Undaunted, the woman proceeded to ask Jenna a few questions: Who she was, what my relationship to her was, where her parents were, etc.

It was humiliating.

I looked around the park in vain. Which of the dozen or so people still left had made the call? I wondered.

Eventually the woman asked to see my driver's license, which I produced for her inspection. Then she apologized once more and left.

The photos came out well.

But you know, I can barely look at them without thinking about that phone call, about the person making the call and how she was suspicious about the perverted man taking those evil photos of the unsuspecting little girl.

Better luck next time, Mrs. Busybody.

Has anybody ever called the cops on you for doing something that wasn't illegal? No, no, I didn't think so.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Time Warp

The chapter title refers to the fact that I've been absent from my blog for about a month. But there's a more compelling reason for it. Today I asked a friend to look at this list of my 100 favorite movies:

Brett's Favorite Films

After perusing the list, she asked me how it was possible that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was conspicuously missing.

It's a little difficult to explain why I, a huge fan of musicals, never embraced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but I'm going to give it the old college try. Why did I love Young Frankenstein, a hilarious sendup of those old monster movies, while TRHPS left me totally cold? I believe I saw it at least twice in the cinema when I was a lad—with the drunken audiences who threw toast and rice and water all over the place, and provided their own "witty" comeback comments to the dialogue.

Here are two things I hate:

A) Loud, unnecessary noises

B) People talking, shouting and/or whispering in a movie theater.

So that goes a long way to explaining why I didn't come away from that particular movie with a more positive experience. Also, I think I view the film as a little too odd and campy for my taste.

Here's another piece of the puzzle, though. I love Monty Python's Flying Circus and Kids in the Hall, so the idea of men dressing up as women clearly does not bother me. The difference is, in those TV series, men were portraying women. But I must admit that I'm a little uncomfortable by the whole concept of "drag queens." It's not something I think about a lot, but I know I have avoided seeing movies like Too Wong Foo and Hedwig and the Angry Inch because there's something about transsexuals and transvestites that just gives me the creeps. Oddly enough, homosexuality in and of itself does not bother me in the slightest. I've seen plenty of gay-themed movies (i.e., Jeffrey and Trick) that I have found perfectly enjoyable. So go figure.

One last thing: When I went to England in 1979, I saw a stage production of The Rocky Horror Show musical, which I enjoyed a lot more than the movie version. Oh, and I do like that "Time Warp" song.

Maybe I just need to see the film on DVD, with nobody shouting out comebacks like, "That's right, asshole!" and no chance of getting rice stuck in my hair.

What do you think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Page Turners

Here are my all-time favorite books.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. A sci-fi story told in the distant future, long after civilization has started to rebuild itself after an apparent nuclear holocaust. Several children in a quiet village cope with the fact that they are telepathic...but fear the repercussions of how they will be treated if their secret is discovered.

Booze and The Graduate by Charles Webb. The famous Dustin Hoffman film is extremely faithful to Webb's first novel about a young man searching to find his place in the world (and having an affair with Mrs. Robinson along the way). His 1978 novel Booze is the study of an iconoclast who feels adrift and alone in the world; it's remarkably funny and touching. Well worth seeking out.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Published posthumously, this Pulitzer-winning novel is a comic masterpiece -- "a fantastic novel, a major achievement, a huge comc-satiric-tragic one-of-a-kind rendering of life in New Orleans," says author Walker Percy. "Crazily magnificent once-in-a-blue-moon first novel," raves Publishers Weekly. "A masterpiece of character and comedy...brilliant, relentless, delicious, perhaps even a classic," boasts Kirkus Reviews. And they're not even scratching the surface. Buy it now.

The Morning After by Jack B. Weiner. Absorbing, tragic story of a man's battle with alcoholism; how it destroys his family, his career and finally himself.

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. As a child, I adored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But for my money, this is Dahl's best book for children -- an adventure story filled with wonder and just a touch of naughtiness. The children I read this to as an adult were spellbound by the characters, the good vs. evil theme and the superb ending.

Insomnia, Misery and Pet Sematary by Stephen King. My three favorite novels by the master of horror and suspense.

Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. I meant what I said, and I said what I meant: An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent.

Little Boxes of Bewilderment by Jack Ritchie. My favorite short-story writer's best collection. Mystery tales that are straightforward and damned funny.

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. The inner workings of a metropolitan high school are laid bare in this hilarious and touching story of a committed, idealistic teacher whose dash with school bureaucracy. The story is conveyed through a series of memos, letters, directives from the principal, comments by students, notes between teachers, and papers from desk drawers and wastebaskets, evoking a vivid picture of teachers fighting the good fight against all that stands in the way of good teaching.

Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. The first in a series of hilarious non-sequitor collections. Makes me laugh out loud even after multiple readings.

What are your favorite books?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Pet Peeve #3

I'm in Miami this week, and just checked into the hotel. And I was reminded of one of my most-hated peeves: when the room's key-card loses its magnetic muster. Then you gotta go to the front desk and beg them for another one.

"Just be sure not to get the card near any other cards, or near a cell phone, or anything that might contain sulfer, or the color green. And don't let the card come in contact with any kind of atmosphere, such as oxygen, or it will stop working immediately. And whatever you do...don't feed it after midnight!"

Can you remember when real keys opened hotel room doors?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

They Might Be Out of Ideas

One of my newest “virtual” friends is a young woman who describes herself as a Tori Amos fanatic.

I told her that while I really enjoyed Amos’s first two CDs, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink (from 1992 and 1994, respectively), I was disappointed by her subsequent releases, and I’m clearly not alone. Her third disc, a trifle called Boys for Pele, was the beginning of a long creative slide, and I noted with some despair that Rolling Stone magazine gave an alarmingly mediocre notice to her new CD this week.

My fanatical friend informed me that her personal favorite Amos CDs were more recent efforts, and that I hadn’t given her enough of a chance.

Spoken like a true fanatic.

Maybe I should give Tori’s albums from the last 10 years another listen. Right now, though, I’ve got the new album by They Might Be Giants in the stereo. I used to be quite a TMBG fanatic, but in recent years, I have noticed that they, too, have experienced a backslide in musical creativity. They seem just as prolific as ever, following a popularity resurgence that sparked with “Boss of Me,” the theme to the popular TV show Malcolm in the Middle. Lately, though, they seem to be focused on writing music geared exclusively for children. Back when I discovered the Giants, even their “adult” work was quite accessible to children. Oddly, it was only when they started to release music specificially for kids that I began to lose interest in their work. The new CD, Here Come the ABCs, is certainly their weakest collection of songs (with the possible exception of their last CD for children). I can’t believe there’s a kid in the world who would be interested in listening to throwaways like “Pictures of Pandas Painting” or “Fake Believe.”

Enough kid stuff, John and John. They aren’t buying albums. I am.

Is it inevitable that our musical heroes are destined to fall back on weak material?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

More Futilit-E!

"Rob Lowe hosts Saturday Night Live. Tonight at 8. Only on E!"

This was the message of a TV commercial I saw last week, the kind I see all time, and always will. The foolishness of the last sentence stands out as singularly absurd to these ears, and yet this claim of exclusivity is bandied about so often, everywhere, that it has become almost meaningless. "Yippee!" we are no doubt expected to cry, "I won't be able to view this particular rerun on any other channel tonight!"

And yet, can't you say pretty much the same thing about any TV show? Why make this totally mundane fact one of the main selling points? It sounds so dumb to me, not least of which is because SNL is no longer L by the time it arrives on E!. Let's face it: The only truly unique thing about Saturday Night Live is that it is the only variety show that is actually broadcast live in this country. But E! Entertainment Television wants you to believe that there's something cool, something noteworthy about the fact that they're showing a rerun—and one appropriated from another network at that! "This steaming pile of crap we're showing tonight, which you saw on another channel a long time ago in its full 90-minute length, is now being regurgitated only on our channel with a full half an hour of music and comedy missing!"

How come I don't see you jumping up and down with delight?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

An Exercise in Futili-Tea

I bought and enjoyed a bottle of Lipton Iced Tea (Sweetened, No Lemon) today. Later, gazing at the wrapper, I noticed a little blurb about the drink. It begins:

"Everything that's good about tea starts with the leaf."

You're thinking: OK, fine. I'll buy that. Tea comes from a leaf. Sounds pretty reasonable. The blurb goes on to reveal that "at Lipton, we brew our tea straight from hand-selected tea leaves and bottle it for you."

Maybe it's because I'm an editor and a skeptic, but everything I just quoted sounds wrong to me.

Because for my money, the best thing about iced tea is the sugar.

The same goes for candy and soda. It's not the cocoa bean. It's not the limes they squeeze to make the 7-Up.

It's the damn sugar!

So everything that's good about these comestibles starts with the cane.

Let's take a look at the next line: "At Lipton, we brew our tea straight from hand-selected tea leaves and bottle it for you."

They brew it "straight from" the leaves. As opposed to what? Why is that better? Maybe it's worse to brew it from the leaves straight away. Perhaps there should be an aging process.

"We bottle it for you." Uh, I hate to tell you this, Lipton, but all beverage bottlers do this. That's why they're called bottlers. Everybody who peddles their bottled drinks bottles it for me! Have you ever tried to sell a liquid that's not in some kind of container? It's impossible. You can't do it. So please don't think I'm not onto you, Lipton. This is just doubletalk from copy writers who don't have anything else to say about their sugar water. "Hand-selected." What do they mean exactly? A guy pointed at a bush and said, "Don't use that one! There was a caterpillar on it! He's not there now, but I saw him a little while ago. Great big fucker! Orange, with those spiky black things on it. He's probably building a cocoon right now, that tea-eating bastard."

It's truly amazing what advertising people can make you believe. Just once, how about a label that says, "It's tea. Hurry up and drink it so we can make more money and ruin the environment, and try not to let it worry you that it tastes like elephant piss. This drink actually contains less than 30 percent of one or more of the following liquids: elephant piss, giraffe piss, hippo piss, sunflower seed oil. If you have any questions about this product, call our toll-free number so we can write down your email address and send you spam."

The blurb ends: "So feel good choosing a brand that maintains the simple integrity and natural goodness of tea."

Do you really need your iced tea to tell you to feel good about buying it?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

More Than a Mouthful

One of my cyber-friends revealed to me that she is an "Information Technology Project Manager." I have no idea what that means, but I have a strong suspicion that a person's salary increases by $20K for every extra word in his or her job title.

In the old days, people had one-word job descriptions. Farmer. Milkman. Cop. Dentist. Stripper. Very occasionally, there would be a two-word title, like rocket scientist. And I have no idea what they did either, which is one of the reasons I'm not a rocket scientist.

Today, I always hear things like, "Bob, I'd like you to meet Ted. He's the Minister of Overseas Development for a Small-Scale Agricultural and Communications Family Law Firm. Ted, Bob here is the Assistant to the Supervisor of Mid-Level Field Service Engineers at the U.S. Aerospace Department of Florida Tech." (Translation: Bob sexually harasses his secretary and plays Minesweeper all day. Ted works at Jack in the Box, and had fake business cards made up.)

Thank God I'm just an editor.

What is: (A) your favorite four-word job title, and (B) your favorite four-letter job title?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Isn't it Shocking?

I am a lifelong bachelor, and sometimes it’s easy to see why.

On the other hand, occasionally I realize that I’m probably better off.

And yet, on still another hand, it’s a lonely life. Not being a drinker, a dancer or a socializer, it’s extremely difficult to meet people. And so it has come to pass that I have attempted to meet people online, via a variety of professional networks whose track record is impressive. Indeed, I have met several very interesting candidates. I have also met (and even dated) some women who have proven to be singularly inappropriate for me—and vice versa.

When you’re getting to know a romantic prospect who has been matched up to you by a computer, I find that it is very helpful to provide the maximum amount of data to the other person to make the screening process as easy as possible. Among the data that I have chosen to share with these women is an online photo album I recently assembled, showing me and some of my pals, my apartment, my work, etc. I believe this album is an honest depiction of me and my life as a loving uncle, devoted friend, professional editor—and an employee of Larry Flynt.

Here’s a link to the album:


One way I feel I can best illustrate the dichotomy between my professional life and my private life is to include in my online photo album a series of photos that were taken within a week of each other. Last August, I attended my company’s 30th Anniversary party for Hustler Magazine, at which there were at least 100 naked women in attendance. Literally the morning after this debauchery, some close friends of mine and I flew to Florida to spend a week at Disney World in Orlando. (There’s nothing like a week with Walt to purge you of the filthiness of being around porn actresses.) Photographs taken at each of these events were juxtaposed appropriately, to underscore both the absurdity and the reality of my life.

Regrettably, one woman with whom I had been having a particularly interesting correspondence was horrified by the two brief glimpses of nudity revealed in this photo album after I sent her the link. Today I received this email from her:

"I found your sharing the photos from the Hustler Party with me to be too much—we were just getting to know each other, and I don't yet have a comfort level with you in which this kind of sharing is okay. If this was an oversight, perhaps this will help you with the next person you're in touch with. If you were doing it for the shock factor, it worked.
Best of luck in finding the right person."

My reaction to this email was to send an immediate and unconditional apology for having offended her. Although my mea culpa was sincere, I think it's reasonable to assume that any woman in her late 30s knows what a naked woman looks like at this stage of her life. After all, there was no actual sex depicted in the images...just a couple of nudes. It'd be one thing if my entire album of 50 photos were nothing but unclothed porn stars, but in actuality, there are only two "shocking" images.

Naturally, I do respect that any adult has the right to be shocked or horrified by any images they want to be shocked or horrified by. (I considered the idea that this woman was simply using the nudes as an excuse to break off our correspondence, once she got a better look at me. But when I sent her the link, I told her very frankly that if she didn’t like what she saw, she could simply not reply and there would be no hard feelings.) My point is: Are these images really all that shocking? Has she never seen an R-rated movie on a first date?

Are you offended by the images?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Joke

Question: How many Bush Administration officials does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. There is nothing wrong with the light bulb; its condition is improving every day. Any reports of its lack of incandescence are illusional spin from the liberal media. Illuminating rooms is hard work. That light bulb has served honorably, and anything you say undermines the lighting effort. Why do you hate freedom?

Heard any good ones lately?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Pet Peeve #2

Take a good look at the image below. This is the future of broadcast and cable TV. Actually, it's pretty much the present. I made this illustration in Photoshop, but the more I tried to exaggerate the assemblage, the more true-to-life it became.

As if it weren't bad enough that the ratio of editorial/advertising has changed so dramatically over the years, TV commercials are now invading the shows themselves, overlapping and elbowing their way onto the screen when they're not supposed to be there. Network greedheads are actually allowing their viewers to suffer the ultimate distraction: logos, pop-up ads for other shows and bottom-screen crawls that tear our eyes away from the dramatic, unfolding action of their own series. Are there any viewers out there who actually don't mind this bullshit?

I can't finish this diatribe without complaining about the state of affairs at the movie theater. You plunk down $10 per ticket, plus another $8 for popcorn and a soda...and then you're forced to watch 15 minutes of TV commercials before they even get to the 15 minutes of movie trailers. Even worse are the anti-piracy ads that feature a stunt man who pleads with us not to download movies over the internet because it's killing the industry as well as his livelihood—after all, he puts his very LIFE on the line for movies. Hey, pal! Why the hell are you bitching to ME? I PAID TO GET IN HERE! The people in this movie house are not the problem. The real culprits are home, watching the bootlegs! These ads make me want to get up, go home, and download movies out of spite.

What recourse do we have? How long before they start interrupting feature films with commercials?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Oh, the Dichotomy!

I’m the editor of a boating magazine, but I’m not a boater and I would never own a boat.

For as long as I’ve been alive, I have lived within a few miles of the ocean, but I have no particular affinity for the beach and no compulsion to go swimming in anything but a pool.

Every day, I drive a car, use the telephone, cook in a microwave and listen to music on a CD player. Yet I have utterly no idea how any of these things actually work.

I love to read, but I’ve read maybe three books in the last five years.

I’m not attractive, but I want to be with an attractive woman.

I’m profoundly offended by the idea of smoking or experimenting with any illegal drugs, but recently I found the idea of a sexy female friend smoking pot to be an unfathomable turn-on.

I’m a wordsmith, but one of my most difficult chores is writing lyrics to my own songs.

I love to travel and stay in hotel rooms, but I’m petrified of flying.

And the older I get, the more I want to re-experience my childhood.

Dichotomy? Hypocrisy? Insanity? Or all three?

I'd say a little of each.

What are the major contradictions in your life?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Symbol Life

We live in a country of endless possibilities, exciting opportunities and vast resources. Yet we are a curious union, forever struggling with ambiguity, hypocrisy and paradox. Consider our very birth: America is a nation founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Irony! Today we have grown into a nation of 300 million people, and if we have learned nothing else, it's that trying to please all of the people all of the time isn't getting easier with each passing year. As the population continues to escalate, so do the chances of offending each other.

One of the many incongruities of the U.S. is that we claim to embrace freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other basic civil liberties. But you can't really guarantee these things, because as soon as you do, you unleash a variety of loopholes and exceptions (after all, according to popular wisdom, one must never yell "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, unless Adam Sandler is starring in it). Anybody naive enough to believe that we have free reign to express ourselves obviously has never encountered the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a regulatory watchdog group that routinely moderates and censors words and images that have been deemed too "potent" for the public airwaves.

Symbols have long been one of the hot buttons that routinely strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the populace. In early January, the owner of a shop in downtown Howell, Michigan, caused an uproar in early January when he placed a number of items he intended to put up for auction in his store window. Among these items: a robe belonging to a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. For many people, this garb is a symbol of racial intolerance. Moreover, the auction's timing hit a nerve: the date of the auction was to be Martin Luther King's birthday. And yet, who could deny the store owner's right to sell and display the costume, rich as it is in historical significance? In the end, the store owner agreed to remove the offending clothing.

Another recent example of "freedom of expression" clashing with other idealism came last summer, when the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court fought to keep a two-and-a-half ton monument bearing the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. The controversy began to heat up when the display angered those who felt the statue would be more appropriately displayed in a church than in a political venue. Fittingly, a vote removed the monument from the Capitol, and it was hauled over to the lawn of First Presbyterian Church in Lake Placid, Florida.

Then, barely a couple of weeks ago, yet another symbol—a Nazi swastika, arguably the most powerful and hated symbol of the 20th Century and beyond—became the source of another outcry, only this time, the flap was centered in Britain. In a move of stupidity unequalled in recent memory, Prince Harry (son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana) wore an armband with a Nazi insignia to a costume party. Photos from the party found their way onto British tabloid newspapers, causing an international furor. Harry apologized for being an insensitive dumbass.

From people who want to remove the word "God" in the pledge of allegiance to those who are infuriated by Nativity scenes during Christmas, symbols seemed doomed to create havoc for the forseeable future. Because flags are instantly recognizable as political symbols, there are numerous instances where they have been at the forefront of controversy. According to the book Farewell to Manzanar, author Jeanne Wakatsuki recalls Japanese residents of the United States—including her own father—burning the flags of their homeland following the attack on Pearl Harbor simply because it connected them to their home country.

The Confederate flag, meanwhile, has become all but synonymous with slavery for entire generations of people who never even lived through that dark period of America’s history. Years ago, at Harvard University, some people were outraged when a fellow student hung the flag in public view. Once again, a piece of decorated fabric became the source of hurt feelings and outrage. How should Harvard's overlords have reacted? Which is more important—upholding racial peace, or freedom of expression?

It's one of the hallmarks of human nature that, both as individuals and subgroups, we are designed to be offended. In a perfect world, the Harvard students who found the Confederate flag offensive should have been even more offended by any move to remove them. As Voltaire is famous for having said, “I may disagree with everything you say, but I would fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” An admirable statement, to be sure, but it doesn’t work in the real world. Or at least the United States.

Which symbols do you find disturbing? What offends you most in life?

Monday, January 31, 2005

Everything's Archie

Nostalgia Corner #1 (Or, How I Frittered Away My Childhood)

Boys find themselves fascinated with all kinds of wonderful and idiotic pastimes, from collecting baseball cards to working on cars. For me, there was no greater thrill than walking to the local 7-11 once a week to pick up the latest Archie comic books.

I am not saying that girls devoted themselves to more worthwhile pursuits. Who knows what they did? Learned how to cook? Played with dolls? Knitted and sewed? I have no idea. If you're a woman, please enlighten me. But I do know the kind of things that boys got up to, and I know I wasn't the only kid who spent a truly alarming chunk of his time lost in a cartoon universe that featured Archie Andrews, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper. They were my friends, all of them born 20 years before me, in the pages of Pep Comics #22. My years of readership were most likely in the late 1960s to early 1970s, when the innumerable titles were still gaining in readership: Everything's Archie, Betty & Veronica, Laugh, Pep, Reggie & Me, Jughead, Archie's Pals & Gals, and so on. The comics were about a quarter apiece, and they were extremely addictive. I had a large chest in my room where I kept my comics, which are all back to being part of the soil by now.

But as I have already underscored in this blog, the Internet comes to the rescue once again as I attempt to glue the broken pieces of my adolescence back together again. In an eBay auction that ended on Jan. 17, I found myself the winner of more than 125 different Archie comics originally published in the early 1970s. Take a look:

They arrived via UPS on Friday, so I've had a couple of days to page through many of them and feel the nostalgic rush. There's nothing quite like reacquainting yourself with the lost innocence of childhood.

I'll admit it's odd that at this stage of my life, I would willingly devote hours to doing something I already did in my early teens. But I'll forgive myself, because with the passing of years, I have forgotten a lot of Archie's exploits with his "pals and gals," to say nothing of spinoff buddies like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie & the Pussycats. I will allow myself to enjoy my childhood again. Yes, there are books on my shelf that I want to read. Worthy books. Books I haven't already read. But you know what?

They're simply going to have to wait their turn.

Did you read comic books? What were your teenage pastimes?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

I'm Just Pretending

Last night, I took my 3-year-old niece to see a movie called Racing Stripes, which is all about a girl's efforts to ride a zebra in a horse race. The film is shot in Babe style, with farm animals speaking English to each other, their mouths moving convincingly. (Special-effects wizardry has come a long way since the days when they'd feed Mr. Ed some peanut butter to simulate vocal prowess.)

During the movie, I wondered if kids all over the world watching these animals, including Jenna, would come to believe that some animals can actually talk—after all, this is live action, not a cartoon. Sometimes I find myself talking to my niece about what is "real" versus "pretend." For example, when travelling to Disneyland together, we often encounter people dressed in costumes: Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Pluto, Daisy Duck, et al. At her age, she doesn't quite understand that these "characters" are part of the pretend world. At least she doesn't admit it. Santa Claus is another one we can put into the "pretend" column. It's fun to pretend about things like this. But like her older sisters, it will inevitably dawn on Jenna that all of these creations are nothing more than make-believe, and belief in the magic will become a fading memory.

And suddenly, during the movie, it occured to me that adults love to pretend as well. You can't very well fool us into thinking that the fellow walking around in the Eeyore costume is, in reality, the character from the popular animated cartoons. No, we're pretty sharp about that. But even the simple act of watching Racing Stripes requires some amount of pretending, as our "suspension of disbelief" takes over and we become involved in the story of a young girl's love for her pet zebra. When we watch a TV show or read a novel, we're committing an act not unlike pretending. But we, as adults, are well versed in accepting as fact many things that are (at least from my perception) ideas borrowed from fantasy. And the best example of this is God.

Most adults believe in God, for the simple reason that their parents taught it to them. It's funny to me that the same kids who are taught that Santa Claus is real eventually come to the realization that he's a product of deception and misinformation. But most often, belief in God persists. What's the difference? They're both two guys who have got their eye on you, watching you in secret, taking notes on your good and bad behavior, with consequences on that behavior coming along somewhere down the pike.

My own religion, Atheism, dictates that most people continue to embrace their belief in God simply as a way of dealing with their own mortality. Nobody wants to think that after you die, you just cease to exist. That would be too horrible. And it is horrible. One way of escaping that inevitability is through pretending—to make believe in a "soul" inside you that magically remains alive after you die, and that your entire consciousness will live forever in perfect bliss for all time up in the pretend place called Heaven. Unless it's the other pretend place, where Michael Jackson is going.

How do you make pretending a part of your life?

Friday, January 28, 2005

What Did We Do Before the Internet?

I have always had a thirst for knowledge. Granted, it isn’t the kind of knowledge that can be transformed into practical use, such as accounting or automobile repair. No, I refer to finding answers to such trivial questions such as “Who sang that song?” and “Why do dogs walk around in a circle before lying down?” The beauty of the Internet is that I present such a query to a vast number of readers who can deliver the answer quickly and efficiently. I wish it had been around when I was a kid. But as an adult, I use the Internet continuously as a way to enjoy the instant satisfaction of finding out (a) What that movie was called, (b) Who that singer was in that one band who had the song about the Fox on the Run, (c) Where Oxnard is, (d) Why the moon goes through phases, etc.

For the last week or so, I have had a melody rattling around in my mind. I have known this song from infancy. Yet I realized I had no idea what it was called, and because I have only known it as an instrumental, I’ve had to hum it to all my friends. To my surprise, only a few people could even recognize the melody, and nobody knew what it was. So I got my Casio keyboard and recorded a very crude version of it:

Then I posted that link to a real “think tank” forum on Usenet, and in a few short hours, somebody came up with the title. It’s a Civil War-era tune known variously as “Kingdom Coming” or “Year of Jubilo,” written by Henry C. Work. The one remaining conundrum is: why do we all know it? Was it used in cartoons, or a TV show? Or were we just exposed to it in our elementary school music classes? There are some mysteries that even the Internet can’t shed light on.

Here is a much better clip of the song:

How has the Internet directly affected your life?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Pet Peeve #1

I don't want to turn this into a Complaining Forum, but it struck me that others might have some of the same pet peeves that I do. Thus, I submit to you the first of what is sure to become a laundry list of things that piss me off, starting with the worst one.

Selfish drivers suck. Those three words say it all, really. Every day, as I see people running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating and generally acting like inconsiderate buffoons, I'm reminded of how different things are today compared to 20 years ago. Is it my imagination, or have things disintegrated on the roads and highways of this country? Looking ahead into the next 200 years or so, I envision a time where people will get into their cars, type the address of their destination into a keyboard, and the car will drive them there safely and efficiently. We need to do something about the horrible state of traffic in the world...and removing the human factor should be priority numero uno. Put our cars on auto-pilot! There has to be a system where we can remove human flaws from the equation. I won't see it in my lifetime, but maybe my great-great-great-great nieces will. For the time being, I implore you: Be courteous on the road, willya? Thanks.

What are your pet peeves?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Hidely-Ho, Neighborinos!

Welcome to my blog.

Finally, here is the culimation of everything I have learned in the past four decades.

That's an awful lot of information to share.

Maybe I shouldn't.

Or maybe you should beg me to educate you.

Oh, don't be silly.

Of course I'm going to enlighten you.

Strap yourselves in.

It's going to be an E-ticket ride.