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?