Dame Edna Everage

As Edna patrols the front of the stage in her custom-made size-11 shoes, she winkles out the particulars of people in the front rows, who become, over the course of the evening, the cast of characters against whom she flings all her thinly disguised aggression. Take, for instance, Ginger, from North Carolina. "Is that outfit of yours reversible?" Dame Edna asks her. "Try it inside out, Ginger. You have nothing to lose."

-- from a review of the show "Back with a Vengeance!" in the Dec. 6, 2004 issue of the New Yorker

Auto repair

Co-worker 1: ...You can't fix your own car anymore. On my son's new car, just to replace the oil pan you have to remove the entire engine.

Co-worker 2: Lift with the legs.

Wrong wrong wrong

Judging from the calls I'm getting, the person who lived in this apartment before me apparently operated a business from home that involved selling soap and shampoo made out of fruit and vegetables. I've had worse.

In the 1990s at another apartment some callers mistook my phone number for that of a massage parlor if they transposed two digits while dialing. Late one night my phone rang and I let the machine answer. The guy asked that a young blond woman be delivered to his room at the Ritz-Carlton. He must've had to wait a long time; I was fresh out.

I still feel bad about the night back in college when I answered the phone and a girl told me all about her day, all the little details, and after she said that she had been thinking about me, I had to say that I didn't know her and she must've misdialed. That was one time I was a good listener though.

As a kid, I jotted down the number of the phone booth at the gas station nearest to home. Occasionally I would dial that number just to see what would happen. The first time somebody answered, I asked to speak to Clark Kent. The guy didn't get it; with a tone of great concern he said, "This is a phone booth, you know," and I thanked him and hung up.

We're just glad everyone is safe

I spend the last two weeks orchestrating every aspect of my move to this apartment and after living here a few days I realize a couple things. (1) The doors in this apartment are not hanging straight; they all seem to hang a little to the left. Story of my life. (2) Half my underwear is missing. I've checked everywhere, including the kitchen cupboards. I can't believe it's gone. I swear I packed it all; that was a priority. On the other hand my collection of never-used twist-ties made it all the way here. Wait.

(Five minutes later.)

I found my underwear; it was in the dryer. This place has a washer/dryer in the unit and I forgot I left a load in the dryer. So it's true: Writing about your problems can bring you closer to a solution.

For audiophiles only

Years ago this book was published: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, by Lewis Thomas. What a great title. I can see myself, listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony late one night, puffing on a pipe thoughtfully. Isabel is curled on the divan, snuggled in a duvet, dallying with a Dove bar, watching me blow smoke rings. Ha ha! The simple pleasures are the best, don't you think?

I don't have a pipe or a copy of Mahler's Ninth or an Isabel, but again, what a great title. You should buy that book just to have around for display; it makes you look so intelligent. My book, Late Night Musings on Hearing Terry Jacks Sing Seasons in the Sun, will not be quite as profound.

We had joy we had fun
We had seasons in the sun
But the stars we could reach
Were just starfish on the beach

Home for the holidays

It's the morning after Thanksgiving and I've stayed the night at my Mom and Dad's. The family has plans to go out to breakfast at a popular restaurant. We're in the kitchen.

Mom: You want something to eat? Cereal, English muffin, toast, juice? Our reservation isn't for two hours yet.

(I pour a bowl of cereal. I'm about to pour the milk.)

Mom: You don't want to eat too much before breakfast.

The forthright folks at Benjamin Moore paints

It wouldn't be prudent to paint the bedroom without reading the instructions on the paint can. Down near the bottom of the label is a list of the substances in the paint: water, titanium dioxide, latex resin... and this last notice: CONTENTS PARTIALLY UNKNOWN. But I prefer to think that the contents are mostly known.

Don't be shy

In the company where my friend works, they're just getting acquainted with the concept of employee suggestions as a way to improve conditions in the workplace: "You each take a slip of paper here, and write down a suggestion, any idea at all, and be honest. Don't write your name on the paper. Then just hand over your slip of paper anonymously to Jimmy, and he'll bring all the suggestions to management."

Whew!

In his Nov. 2 letter of resignation, Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote, "I take great personal satisfaction in the record which has been developed. The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."

I'm fresh

I walked home and when I opened my building's front door I was bowled over by the smell of rotting chicken all through the lobby. As I headed for the elevator, guys in matching dark blue windbreakers were awkwardly stepping out of an elevator, carrying a loaded body bag between them. They went out the back door. I was taking shallow breaths but oh my god the smell was thick. There was a maintenance man nearby and he explained that "the old man died upstairs about four days ago." So now I'm thinking of myself as meat that hasn't rotted just yet.

Word power

Things labeled by an acquaintance as "crazy":

This warm weather
Yasser Arafat
This desk chair
Iraq
The frosting on that cake
[Murder defendant] Scott Peterson
[Game show contestant] Ken Jennings
This cool weather

Paper Moon

Seventy years ago people listened to really sappy songs on the radio.

I'd gladly move the earth for you
To prove my love, dear, and its worth for you


There are probably corny lyrics in today's pop music, but I don't know if today's audiences would believe a guy as innocent as this one seemed in the 1930s:

I know I won't be late
'cause at half past eight
I'm gonna hurry there.
I'll be waiting where the lane begins,
waiting for you on needles and pins.


These songs were in the movie Paper Moon, which was released in 1973 but set in 1930s small-town America during the "great depression." I first saw the movie when I was a kid and got a kick out of seeing ten-year-old Tatum O'Neal running around in adventures with the grownups.

The object of my affection
Can change my complexion
From white to rosy red
Anytime she holds my hand
and tells me that she's mine


When Paper Moon first came out, maybe some people loved it because it appeared to thoroughly recreate a time from long ago, making it a great escape from current events.

Without your love
it's a honky tonk parade,
Without your love
it's a melody played in a penny arcade.


I have this movie's soundtrack on vinyl; it's not on CD. All the songs are from the early 1930s and it's like paging through somebody's old photo album to hear those voices and the cheerful music coming through the surface noise.

Trouble's just a bubble,
And the clouds will soon roll by,
So let's have another cup of coffee,
And let's have another piece of pie.


Having avoided the news in the papers, TV, radio, and "internets" last week, it's time to pick them up again!

Stand upon your legs,
be like two fried eggs,
Keep your sunny side up!


Credits:
(It Will Have To Do) Until The Real Thing Comes Along
by Mann Holiner, Alberta Nichols, Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, and L. E. Freeman
About A Quarter To Nine
by Al Dubin and Harry Warren
The Object of My Affection
by Pinky Tomlin, Coy Poe, and Jimmie Grier
It's Only a Paper Moon
by Billy Rose, E.Y. Harburg, and Harold Arlen
Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee
by Irving Berlin
Sunnyside Up
by B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson

A new kind of deficit spending is born

"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. "
-- George W. Bush, in yesterday's press conference

Motto

"You can defeat us but you cannot convince us."
-- from the cover of McSweeney's, issue no. 3, 1999

My favorite story from a friend this year

"My aunt used to work in a troupe of synchronized swimmers [in Texas around 1940] and she had a friend in the troupe named Betty Lou. After Betty Lou had a baby she would bring the baby to work for when it was time to breast-feed. The problem was that the swimmers had to do one number in blackface and the baby refused to breast-feed when she saw her mom in that make-up. So Betty Lou had to throw a towel over her head at those times in order to get the kid to feed."

That first impression

I've worked with this team of managers, programmers, and technicians for at least five years; a few people have come and gone, but the core group has stuck together and worked overtime at every time of the day, every month of the year. We know way too much about each other after all this history in the office.

Now we have a new co-worker in Client Service, fresh out of college, and it's his responsibility to represent a certain client while working with my team. The earnest young man informed us on his first assignment that this one has to be done correctly, "because the client is paying a lot for this project!"

Our company has retained this client through hard work that started before the Boy Wonder began his formal education, before my time here. I expect that our work will continue to succeed, and at the same time I feel like a cat with a new bug to play with.

Customer service

It was fun to look through the bins of old record albums in the store on the south edge of town, but I didn't see any compact discs. I asked the proprietor if he had any CDs and he said, "CDs? You mean compact discs? I calls 'em Crappy Discs! We don't got any!"

Cartoon bank

"I never get this kind of reaction in my studio. This is nice." -- Charles Barsotti, New Yorker cartoonist, on being in a roomful of people laughing at a slide show of his cartoons

Robert Mankoff is cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine and he hosted a slide show at the Harold Washington Library last night. The show featured 80 years of New Yorker cartoons and selections from Mr. Mankoff and the three other cartoonists present: Matt Diffee, David Sipress, and Mr. Barsotti.

Mr. Mankoff said that he chooses cartoons for each issue so that he includes some from each of these four groups:
1. ordinary illustration with an ordinary caption ("a slice of life" or moment of recognition)
2. ordinary illustration with unusual caption
3. unusual illustration with ordinary caption
4. unusual illustration with unusual caption

Seeing the cartoons on the big screen had to be unique for everyone there. Cartoonists usually don't get a live audience reaction, of course, and the audience usually doesn't experience these in a group setting either. It was like reading the magazine with 300 people looking over your shoulder, all focused on the cartoon instead of the article.

Links:
Most popular cartoon of the night
Charles Barsotti
Matt Diffee
David Sipress
The slide show promoted this huge book

The draining of our natural resources

In an article about Evanston, a Chicago suburb, writer John McCarron reports on how new buildings are a major concern of Evanston homeowners:
More than a hundred residents, many of retirement age, gave up the first sunny Saturday morning of spring to share news and air gripes about changes in the neighborhood... "Aren't they drawing too much water from Lake Michigan with all these new condos?" challenged one homeowner.

Yes, Mr. Homeowner, all those new multiple-unit dwellings are drawing too much water from Lake Michigan. It's only a matter of time before the lake is drained and you'll be able to walk to Michigan. If you've been in a boat in Lake Michigan lately, you've probably noticed that there's a depression in the surface of the lake near Evanston. That's because of all the condos.

Things were fine back when there were just a few native Americans living in the area, and things were OK even when the population of Chicago and Cook County grew to over five million people. Regrettably, the crucial draining of Lake Michigan began only when a certain condominium was constructed on Evanston's Main Street in the 1990s. While its residents are thoroughly embarrassed that they are responsible for the number of Great Lakes in the U.S. declining from five to four, they are determined to remain where they are.

America's Somewhat Wanted

Shirley and Joe moved from Chicago to a small town nearby, and I visited them last weekend. Shirley said they've had a male peacock visiting their backyard recently. Sometimes it walks up to the patio door where it may observe Joe napping on the sofa. It squawks at night, disturbing the neighbors.

Recently, a cop came to their house saying, "We have received reports... from eyewitnesses... that you have a peacock living with you." He said the peacock was "the ringleader" of a group of six that had "escaped" from a nearby peacock farm. The cop had Shirley sign a paper giving permission for the town to set a peacock trap in their yard, which they haven't done yet. Then a man from "Critter Catchers" visited the house and asked if Shirley could tell him about "the habits of the bird."

We went to the grocery store where I helped Shirley buy birdseed, and when we got back to the house the peacock was taking a languid stroll through their backyard. We walked onto the back porch, Shirley cautiously scattered the seed, and the bird cautiously pecked his way through a lot of it. It came within four feet of me and its breast feathers were an amazing, intense mix of blues and greens. It appeared to be about a fifteen pound bird. Shirley went back in the house, picked up their little kitten, and stood by the window; the kitten made a chattering noise when she saw the big peacock. So it's come to this: Shirley and Joe have left the corrupt, crime-filled streets of Chicago only to flout small town community standards by harboring a fugitive peacock.

Attention parents

Now that temperatures are cooler in the Chicago area, it's all right to lock your baby or small child in the car while you go shopping. Health experts agree that although this action may be unsafe during the summer months when car interiors can get dangerously overheated, October temperatures permit the unsupervised confinement of children in vehicles for up to 12 hours.

In the near future

Clerk: Sir, if you sign up for Swiftyphone cell phone service you'll be able to use your cell phone to get cash anytime, anywhere!

Customer: How does that work?

Clerk: You dial the Swiftyphone number corresponding to your bank, enter some code numbers, and you get real cash money dispensed right out of this slot in the Swiftyphone! Watch this. (Clerk demonstrates Swiftyphone by dialing some numbers. After a pause, a twenty-dollar bill emerges from a slot in the phone.)

Customer: Wow! I've never seen anything like it! How does the cash get from the bank to the cell phone?

Clerk: Well, you have to visit your bank first to load it with money. It can hold up to one hundred dollars.

Customer: What? Why bother? I can just keep cash in my wallet like I always have.

Clerk: And the receipt comes out of this slot over here! Only Swiftyphone can do it!

Customer: What's the point?

Clerk: And it works with Canadian money too.

Customer: I don't want Canadian money!

Clerk: It's also an excellent cell phone. Very good coverage. It works in the car as well, so you can get cash while you're driving.

Customer: I gotta go. (Turns and leaves.)

Clerk (raising voice): It also gives out special notices about new products and services that may interest you! Do you need Viagra?

They call me Doctor Love

Not that it'll ever happen, but I picture myself not being able to get into the spirit of a ménage à trois in bed. "Now wait a minute, I only have two hands! Gee whiz!" That kind of thing.

Supper with the family

In the novel Project X, eighth-grade misfits Edwin and Flake are considering revenge on the bullies and teachers at school. In this excerpt Edwin has supper with his mom, dad, and little brother Gus, who's four years old. Edwin tells the story:
"We got a call from the vice-principal," my dad goes.

"Mom?" Gus goes.

"What'd he want?" I go.

"He wants us all to meet," my dad goes.

"Mom?" Gus goes.

"So we'll all meet," I go.

"I thought we talked about this," my dad goes. My mom remembers the corn bread and starts cutting it up and dishing it out.

"Mom?" Gus goes.

"You have a headache again?" my dad goes.

"Yeah," I tell him. I must've been rubbing my forehead.

"You've been getting a lot of those lately," my dad goes. "Maybe we'll have to have that looked at."

"Somebody should look at something," I go.

"Mom?" Gus goes.

"Yeah, honey?" my mom goes.

His little brain locks. You can see it. He smiles at having everybody's attention, and tilts his head to get the thought to roll from one end to the other. "Don't look at me," he goes.

"We're not looking at you," my dad tells him.

"Mom?" he goes.

"Yeah, honey?" my mom says. She really is a good mother.

"Do I have to go to school tomorrow?" he goes. He calls preschool school.

I'm sadder than usual for some reason. "Now what's the matter with you?" my dad says to me. It makes me jump.

"Do I just have like a sign on my face today?" I go.

"You have a glass head," my dad says.

"Remember when we used to tell you that when you were little?" my mom asks.

"I have a glass head," Gus goes.

"You sure do," my dad tells him.

I do remember when they used to tell me that, when I was little. I remember one Easter and a guy in a rabbit suit, but I don't know why. "So what am I thinking right now?" I ask them.

"What're you thinking right now," my dad says, giving it some thought. "You're thinking, 'Why don't they leave me alone?'" Gus takes a bite of mashed potatoes and holds his mouth open so I can see. "That's it, isn't it?" my dad goes.

"No," I go.

"That was it," he goes.

"What am I thinking now?" I go. I think: Kalashnikov.

"You're thinking, 'Why do I have to eat with them?'" my mom goes.

I laugh, and it cheers her up, but it makes me sadder than ever. Gus is still smiling. I'm pretty sure the world would be a better place if I was dead.

"Glass head," my mom goes.

"I don't know how you guys do it," I finally go.

-- from Project X by Jim Shepard

I am going to hell

I'm standing in the grocery store in the cookie aisle thinking about Olivia Newton-John rubbing her breasts. The last time I saw a picture of Olivia Newton-John was around the time of the "Physical" video in 1982. I think the video included depictions of romping and perhaps some frolicking.

I had been looking for cookies and the usual music had been tootling from the grocery store speakers overhead. The music was interrupted by a public-service message from Olivia Newton-John, telling all us shoppers how important it is to examine yourself for breast cancer, which she did, she discovered a lump, she got an operation and chemotherapy, and now she's better.

The music resumes its plinkity-plunk. I snap out of my little vision and see all those cookies in front of me again. I can't make up my mind.

There's no stone for "fiscal responsibility"

A relative works at a hospital that had layoffs earlier this year, forcing the remaining staff to work more overtime. At the same time, the institution spent $50,000 to install giant boulders around the hospital grounds. Each boulder is engraved with a word like "Courage" or "Integrity."

Book excerpt

In a Charles Portis novel, a cantankerous woman named "Meemaw" Symes quizzes a visitor.
"Have you read the Bible?"

"I've read some of it."

"Do you go through your Bible looking for discrepancies?"

"No, ma'am."

"That's not the way to read it. I have a little test I like to give to people like you who claim to be Bible scholars. Do you mind taking a little test for me?"

"Is it a written test?"

"No, it's just one question."

"I don't mind taking your test, Meemaw, but there is a misunderstanding here. You asked me if I had read the Bible and I said I had read some of it. I did not say I was a Bible scholar."

"We'll soon know, one way or the other. All right, the wedding feast at Cana. John 2. Jesus turned six pots of water into six pots of so-called wine. His first miracle. His mother was there. Now do you believe that was alcoholic wine in those pots or unfermented grape juice?"

"What does the Bible say?"

Melba said, "The Bible just says wine. It says good wine."

"Then that's what I say. I say wine."

Mrs. Symes said, "It's your notion then that Jesus was a bootlegger?"

"No, it's not."

"He was no more a bootlegger than I am. That so-called wine was nothing more than fresh and wholesome grape juice. The word is translated wrong."

From the book The Dog of the South.

Living in the moment

I have to admit I'm not thinking things through when I drink a glass of water, take the glass to the kitchen sink, and rinse it out before setting it aside.

Carbonated

A consultant on consumer products speaks about the taste of specific beverages:
"The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous," Judy Heylmun, a vice-president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey says. "They have beautiful notes -- all flavors are in balance. It's very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola it's" -- and here she made a series of pik! pik! pik! sounds -- "all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike out. And then the cinnamon. Citrus and brown spice notes are top notes and very volatile, as opposed to vanilla, which is very dark and deep. A really cheap store brand will have a big, fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything."

From Malcolm Gladwell's article "The Ketchup Conundrum" in the Sep. 6, 2004 New Yorker.

Fund raising

Dear Jennifer,
If you had told me that your walking marathon in Boston was going to raise money for a cancer foundation, I never would've suggested that you smoke during the marathon as a way to relieve stress. I am so embarrassed.

I stand by the idea that these kinds of marathons would draw more donations if they had the same rules as roller derby. In any event, you could still wear a helmet to stand out from the crowd. Good luck Sunday!

Traffic report

Morning radio host: And now here's Lyle Brown with the traffic report.

Lyle Brown: Thanks Amy, we see the expressways are veritable silver streams of automotive kineticism this morning.

Every point on the compass is giving and receiving cars in a perpetual metallic gush of omnidirectional activity.

Just after rosy-fingered dawn, the sun is glinting a brilliant orange that bounces off a million sharp slices of windshield, reflecting white waves of ghostly glow that keep a perfect parallel pace with the restless flux of the hustling axles.

Perhaps they are all traveling not to go anywhere, but to travel for travel's sake, if I may paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson.

This report is sponsored by Home Depot; next traffic report in ten minutes.

Morning radio host: Lyle, what's the travel time from O'Hare to downtown?

Lyle Brown: It's 35 minutes from O'Hare to downtown, with a slowdown near the Edens merge.

Meeting your public

Imagine you're the golden retriever seen in my neighborhood, taking a morning walk with your owner. You're outside not only for social reasons, but to eat the treats that are thoughtfully left out on the sidewalk for you. You've had some good chewy pizza crusts, met some nice people, and exchanged greetings with some doggy friends also out on this sunny morning. After you've relieved yourself in the park and your owner has disposed of the evidence, it's time to head home.

You're walking toward a sidewalk cafe; people are seated outside having coffee. Among those people there's a couple with a baby in a highchair. As you approach, the baby has her back to you. Look! She's holding some Cheerios in her left hand, palm up, right at your eye level. How considerate! You slurp up the Cheerios in one motion. The baby looks at her empty hand and starts to cry. Your owner apologizes for some reason, but you sit down to wait for more Cheerios. Eventually you get up to follow your owner home, if only to get away from the baby, who must be bipolar to switch moods so quickly.

Ultimate Frisbee and alcohol

...don't mix, a co-worker reports this week.

What's a girl to do?

My friend works at a small business where the boss was dating an exotic dancer. The boss would meet his girlfriend for lunch at noon, and he'd come straight back to the office by 3 pm. The girlfriend confided that she was looking for a new career, so the boss hired her at his place of business. After a few weeks it became obvious that the girlfriend wasn't working out at the office and she was fired. In fairness to her, the office was all Macintosh computers and maybe she was a PC gal.

The big question, of course, is what should any exotic dancer do if she wants a different job someday?

1. Stick with welding in a steel mill, like Jennifer Beals might've done in Flashdance.
2. Counsel the Bush daughters on how to live with dignity.
3. Ken Lay (of Enron) and his wife Linda used to be worth $400 million; now they're worth $20 million. (Link) Help them in their fight for liquidity.

After the big speech

After leaving the stage of the Republican National Convention Thursday night, President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney joined supporters in a special reception room reserved within Madison Square Garden. At a table of refreshments, the president picked up a soft drink and the vice-president picked up a bottle of a familiar brand of red wine. Mr. Cheney unscrewed the bottle's metal cap and, by reflex, checked the underside of the cap; it read, "Sorry, you are not a winner." Mr. Cheney grinned and showed it to Mr. Bush who chuckled and said, "I think the good people at Laramie County Wineries are sorely mistaken, wouldn't you say, Dick?" Mr. Cheney said, "Right you are, Mr. President, right you are."

Good morning

Ever since my brother James bought his house a couple years ago, we've heard his stories about how the neighbors are too noisy, the neighbors staged a dogfight in their front yard, the neighbors are stupid. So Mom and Dad weren't totally surprised to hear James in this phone call.

James: I found a guy lying in my front yard this morning.

Mom (calling to Dad): Pick up the other phone! James found a guy lying in his front yard this morning!

James: Yeah, he was face-down.

Dad: Hello?

Mom: James found a guy face-down in his front yard this morning!

Dad: Really?

James: Yeah, he was under my bushes. He had dirt on him.

Dad: What did you do?

James: He wasn't moving so I looked at him real close.

Mom: Wow! Was he alive?

James: He had a red shirt and green pants. He had brown boots on and when I rolled him over he had a white beard.

Dad: Really?

James: Yeah... actually, it was a garden gnome.

Mom and Dad: Ohhhh!

James: Made of plaster. A lawn ornament.

(The little man had been half-buried under some untrimmed bushes for at least two years.)

Instant car-ma

This morning I ticked off a bicyclist by walking on the sidewalk. He came up behind me and couldn't pass because the walk was narrow and fenced-in on both sides. I didn't try to get out of his way and he stayed close behind me. After about fifteen seconds of this the path opened up and he drove past, saying sarcastically, "Thanks for letting me pass." Just ahead of us the corner stop light turned red and he drove against it to cross State Street, where he swerved to dodge a car that had just started forward, having gotten the green light. The bicycle man gave the car a startled look and proceeded to cross its path. Whew! Good thing he was wearing a helmet today.

Origin of a sketch

John Cleese from The Pythons: Autobiography by The Pythons:
When we were making How to Irritate People, Michael [Palin] started to tell me about taking his car in to his local garage. He would ring the guy there and say, "I'm having trouble with the clutch." And this guy would say, "Lovely car, lovely car," and Mike said, "Well yes, it is a lovely car, but I'm having trouble with the clutch." "Lovely car, lovely car, can't beat it." "No, but we're having trouble with it." "Well look," he says, "if you ever have any trouble with it, bring it in." Michael would say, "Well I am having trouble with it and I have brought it in." And he'd say, "Good, lovely car, lovely car, if you have trouble bring it in." And Michael would say, "No, no, no, the clutch is sticking." And he would say, "Sign of a quality car, if you had a sticky clutch first two thousand miles, it's the sign of good quality." He was one of those people you could never get to take a complaint seriously. Michael and I chatted about this, and then I went off and wrote a sketch with Graham about a man returning a second-hand car and that sketch was in How to Irritate People. That was early '68, so when we started to write over a year later for Python, I remember we looked at the sketch again. Both Graham and I agreed the car was much too hackneyed, and within a moment we were in a pet shop and we said, "Which is funnier, could it be a dog or a parrot?" We argued the toss -- well, not argued, chewed that around a bit -- and decided it was the parrot. But it definitely came from the sketch about the second-hand car.

At least it was in color

Last night I dreamed that I saw a magazine photo of an old friend having fun at a party. This is how exciting my dreams have gotten. I'm not at the party, a friend is at the party, and I see her while flipping through a friggin magazine. I can't wait to fall asleep tonight and see if I'm in a waiting room with or without reading material.

Climate control

On Chicago radio there's an ad for a local car dealer; it says one of the selling points of this dealership is that they have "climate-controlled showrooms." Whee! How does that distinguish this business from others in the area? I assembled an expedition to explore those local automobile showrooms that lack climate control.

Porter's Lincoln-Mercury - Stepping through the door, one noticed a slight change in the barometric pressure, but it disturbed no one on our team. We walked around the perimeter of the showroom, checked our supplies, adjusted the straps of our backpacks, and marched out the door single-file.

Velasco Honda - All the explorers agreed that the humidity was suggestive of the atmosphere in the Madagascar rainforest. Jennings complained of feeling peckish, so I allowed him to consume his freeze-dried wild rice pilaf 45 minutes ahead of schedule.

Mungy Import Motors - As we attempted to enter, the door resisted our push. We finally combined our weight to shove our way in, leaning into a howling wind that blew glossy full-color brochures of Saabs and Audis into our faces where they stuck, obscuring our vision. Young Gary Groble was blown backwards over the hood of a sporty little convertible; thankfully, the tether that connected all of us kept Groble from being lost altogether. As expected, Williams stopped complaining that we had been walking through Chicago all morning with a bright red cord linking us at the waist.

Cahn Buick-Pontiac - We entered the showroom with all senses alert; we looked around and felt nothing unusual, save for an uncanny calm. The silence made the thunderbolt seem all the louder when it struck from the ceiling, drilling Nelson through the chest, scorching a big hole in his red velour pullover. Nelson collapsed to the linoleum and Doc rushed to his side. Doc checked Nelson's vital signs, paused, looked up at me and said, "Bill, he's dead." I clenched my fists, planted my feet, looked up at the ceiling tiles and with veins bulging out of my head screamed, "Ca-a-a-a-ahnn!"

Fleming Cadillac - The heat was enough to literally melt the tires of the DeVille in the middle of the showroom. The car's body itself was sagging like a Salvador-Dali-mobile with both front and rear bumpers almost touching the floor. I didn't understand how anyone could buy a car in this heat, and when I asked the salesman about it, he first denied that there was a problem. When his shoes got stuck in the melted rubber from the tires, he said that we needed more information to determine whether the trend was real. Jennings whimpered about feeling parched so I permitted him three sips from his canteen.

Conclusion: If this so-called "climate-control" technology can truly moderate the extreme conditions found in most Chicago automobile showrooms, it will lead to increased car sales and improve the local economy. Next expedition: A street fair that promises "balloons for the kids" undergoes a cost-benefit analysis.

Unfortunately my grandparents are all deceased

If you ever wanted to hear a dance remix of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra playing their theme, go here and click on Track 11, "Bubbles in the Wine."

Book report

I can't blame people for wanting to be respectful when someone dies, but after seeing TV coverage of Ronald Reagan's funeral I knew I needed a more complete account of his presidency than what I happened to catch on TV.

Lou Cannon's book President Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime is a satisfying description of what happened in the Reagan White House. The book is based on hundreds of interviews with Reagan's staff and cabinet and forty interviews with Reagan over a 25 year period. In 760 pages Cannon shows the strengths and weaknesses of not only the president but also those who worked for him. Especially helpful is Cannon's approach of trying to sort out what really happened when his interviews or printed sources yielded conflicting stories about important meetings and events.

The book includes lengthy sections on Reagan's successful work with Mikhail Gorbachev and also the Iran-contra affair. The following quotes are not representative of the book's major themes, but are characteristic of the interesting details found throughout. Regarding the investigation of Iran-contra:
The FBI and the independent counsel's staff had requested the notes stored in Poindexter's and North's desk computers, most of which had been destroyed. But Kenneth J. Kreig, a twenty-six-year-old Pentagon intern working for the Tower Board, asked also if there were backup copies of the notes in the computer's mainframe. This search produced the thousands of memos and communications by Poindexter and North that undergirded the investigations by the congressional committees and the independent counsel. Kreig is the unsung hero of the entire Iran-contra inquiry.

On CIA director William Casey:

...Reagan, normally uncomplaining, sometimes acknowledged that he had difficulty understanding what Casey was saying to him. "He'd give you problems... because of his mumbling," Reagan said. Even such a staunch ally as Bill Clark quipped that Casey was so difficult to understand that he was the only CIA director in history who didn't need a scrambler on his telephone.

Attitude

I have to admire this method of dealing with the stress of war:
[Paratrooper Marc] Seiden, tall and broad-chested, from Brigantine, New Jersey, was the company clown. His rugged face, ceaseless ribbing, and New Jersey accent reminded fellow-paratroopers of the actor Bruce Willis. Seiden never let up... Pumping out light-machine-gun rounds -- with rocket-propelled grenades whizzing past -- he would pause to ask, "Do you think my butt's getting big?"

Seiden, killed in Iraq, is one of the subjects of the article "Two Soldiers" by Dan Baum in the New Yorker issue dated August 9 & 16, 2004.

Eggers and Cross

Dave Eggers interviews David Cross, kinda, in this short piece. Link courtesy of wileywiggins.blogspot.com.

8/8/74

Nixon's head was in the grass at our feet. We stood in the lawn that night looking down at the president on the little screen of the cheap TV placed on the ground. Nixon's head filled the screen as he delivered his resignation speech, and grass sprouted up in front of the president's chin as he spoke.

We were standing with the miniature golf course to our left and the "club house" to our right, where we had picked up the putters and golf balls that we still had in hand after playing. The guy in charge of the mini-golf had done us the favor of hooking up his portable TV to an extension cord and bringing it out where we could all watch the president resign as we stood under the floodlights and multi-colored streamers.

I hadn't wanted to go mini-golfing that Thursday night. Earlier that day they said on the radio that Nixon was expected to resign on TV that night and I wanted to stay home and see what that would look like. My Sunday School class had scheduled this mini-golf social event and Mom and Dad said I had to go.

We did have fun putting around the little obstacles on the course, and now after a couple rounds, some of us had been attracted to the glow of the TV while others stayed on the course. Vince and Doug were seeing how far they could drive a golf ball without hitting a windmill or a scale model of the Eiffel Tower. Occasionally a ball thwacked off a fence or a toy building, and it was so funny I thought Doug was going to pee his pants. They were laughing but trying to be quiet and so avoided getting yelled at by the grownups who were mostly gathered around the TV with about half of the kids.

Fed up

Did you ever sit in a classroom and see a student raise their hand to ask a question, but the student's real purpose is to demonstrate how smart they are? It takes them a long time to ask the question because they also have to unfold their intelligence for all to see.

That might've been the case this week when political journalist Jack Germond visited Chicago to promote his new book, Fat Man Fed Up. After opening remarks, he took questions from the audience of about 200 people. There were microphones set up on both sides of the room so everyone could hear the questions.

A man stood at a microphone and started to ask a hypothetical question about Ronald Reagan. The man began by explaining that while some countries have a head of state separate from a head of government, the United States combines both in the office of president. So how did this affect Reagan's response to events? Because he was both! He wasn't just head of state, he was the head of the government! In some European countries, these are separate offices, but... The intense man rephrased his question a second time and a third, and then someone from the back of the room shouted, "We get the point! Let him answer already!"

Mr. Germond admitted that he didn't know enough to answer the question and moved on.

Later he said (to the best of my recollection), "This book is a diatribe. I wrote it to get some things off my chest, so I could quit bothering my wife with my yip-yapping. If you're suicidal, don't read this book. It won't make you feel better. Most books like this have a 'solutions' chapter at the end, but mine doesn't."

In the book Germond finds fault with the public, politicians, and journalists, but also makes the point that we shouldn't look up to politicians or look down on them -- just look straight at them as human beings who aren't perfect but need to be held accountable for lies and misdeeds.

Pillow talk

From the New York Times, August 4:
Pfc. Lynndie R. England, the grinning face of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, appeared on Tuesday before a military judge who will determine whether she should face a court-martial on 19 charges of assault, misconduct, and posing for what the military termed "numerous wrongful photographs," including the now infamous one of her holding a naked prisoner on a leash.

Private England, 21 and six months pregnant, sat mostly expressionless as two military investigators described a carnival-like mentality among soldiers at the Iraqi prison where mistreatment of detainees and sexual high jinks were carried out with equal giddiness.

Private England, wearing a maternity version of military camouflage, appeared to suppress a smile as investigators described a videotape that showed her having sex with Cpl. Charles Graner, who prosecutors say was a ringleader of the abuse and Private England says is the father of the child she is carrying.

From a night in Iraq, before the scandal broke:

Lynndie: I. Love. You. So. Much. (kiss)

Charles: You're not just saying that because I'm a corporal? (kiss)

Lynndie: No. (kiss)

Charles: I love you too. I've been meaning to ask, is this here (touches her) a birthmark?

Lynndie: Yeah, but I can only see it if I use a mirror. I've always had it.

Charles: Well I love it too. (kiss)

Lynndie: What was that guy trying to say tonight?

Charles: Which guy?

Lynndie: Leash-boy.

Charles: Darned if I know. I think he was singing an Elvis song.

Lynndie: An Elvis song?

Charles: Yeah, (sings) "Put a chain around my neck, and lead me anywhere, oh let me be, oh let him be, your teddy bear!"

Lynndie: Oh, you are so bad! (kiss)

Charles: I know. (kiss) Hey, I'm ready, roll over and get in position.

Lynndie: Where have I heard that before? Ha-ha!

Charles: Heh-heh-heh.

Music

The President, his cabinet, and his advisers were surveyed earlier this year on what songs they usually sing with their spouses just before engaging in conjugal relations. The overwhelming favorites were "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." Those anthems have been the two top favorites ever since President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the survey among the executive branch in 1953.

A more intriguing question from the survey was "What song would you sing or hum during an act of self-gratification?" Although it's only a hypothetical question, the answers ranged from the expected to the thought-provoking. President Bush selected "We Are the Champions" by Queen. National Security Adviser Dr. Condoleezza Rice chose a Norah Jones song. Another noteworthy answer came from Vice President Dick Cheney, who selected the pensive "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell.

Perhaps the most quirky song choice came from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who named the song "Ain't Misbehavin'," written by the great Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904 - 1943). In honor of the Attorney General's choice and the centennial of "Fats" Waller's birth, here is "Ain't Misbehavin'."

No one to talk with, all by myself
No one to walk with, but I'm happy on the shelf
Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.
I know for certain the one you love
I'm through with flirtin', it's just you I'm thinkin' of
Ain't Misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.
Like Jack Horner in the corner
don't go nowhere, what do I care
Your kisses are worth waitin' for . . . Believe me.
I don't stay out late, don't care to go
I'm home about eight, just me and my radio
Ain't Misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.

Cheerful

From the autobiography "Over Seventy"
I feel that this is the place to touch on the report from Paradise, Nebraska, that the local agricultural school has discovered that if pigs are given eight drinks of whiskey a day they 'acquire an optimistic view of life.' Mr. John B. Fosdyke, a member of the staff of the school, says they develop a strong liking for these refreshers and 'get very cheerful.'

Does one or does one not shake the head? It all turns, it seems to me, on what is implied in the word 'cheerful.' Naturally, pig-lovers like their proteges to look on the bright side - a pig that goes about wrapped in a Byronic gloom can cast a shadow on the happiest farm - but one does not want them getting over-familiar with strangers and telling long stories without any point. And what of the morning after? I can see a Paradise pig being irresistibly gay and amusing all through Monday up to closing time, and on Tuesday sitting in a corner with its head in its hands and merely grunting when spoken to. There is no companion more depressing than a pig with a really bad hangover.

-- by P. G. Wodehouse

Magical artist person

You know the worst part about trying to draw a caricature of someone you dislike? For the whole time that you're trying to draw their face in an exaggerated but recognizable likeness, your brain is forced to think about this unsavory person. All the time that you're inspecting the lines and curves of their face, the light and shadow, you can't help but think about their egotism or obliviousness or whatever.

I discovered that I normally avoid thinking at length about unpleasant people, so spending half an hour trying (and failing) to draw one (for a friend) was no fun. I've always drawn cartoons but never for a living, and thought I could do this one. Oh well.

Keep my brother away from funerals

Mom and Dad went to the funeral of an acquaintance who had died at the age of 80. They didn't know the deceased that well, so they were surprised by the recurring theme of the funeral: the dead man had really enjoyed his golf.

Three speakers at the service told nothing but stories about how the departed had loved to play golf. My brother James asked about the burial at the cemetery... specifically, did the coffin circle the rim of the grave before finally dropping in?

Don't get around much anymore

After work a few of us went to a restaurant/bar. According to their website, the bar was offering "$1.99 mojitos!" Somebody asked me what a mojito was; I thought it was a Mexican haircut. I was picturing the interior of some noisy restaurant furnished in dark wood, brass fixtures, and vintage advertising posters, and in one corner, a barber's chair. Some guy, dressed business casual, would be getting a haircut from a young Latina while his friends stood around whooping with a beer bottle in one hand and high-fiving each other with the other hand. As it turns out, a mojito is a drink with rum.

Quiz

What is Dongola?
a. The sordid spin-off from the "payola" radio scandals of the 1950s
b. The new specially-shaped cheesy-curly snack
c. A small town in southern Illinois

Answer: c.

The bright side of auto collisions

An anonymous Atlanta woman talks about having a 3.5 ton Hummer as the family car:
I know it's not fuel efficient, but I love knowing that anything I bump into, I win.

--from the June 2004 National Geographic article "The End of Cheap Oil"

Still selling itself after the purchase

So every morning when I pick up the after shave the label says that it was "developed with athletes." Why? If it was an athletic shoe developed with athletes, I'd understand. If there were non-detectable steroids developed with athletes, I'd understand.

Why not an after shave "developed with the Fire Department of the City of New York?" The FDNY. America's heroes. Yeah, they save lives, and in their spare time... they develop... stuff, like, after shave with a cooling sensation to put out the fire on your FACE! Yeah! Somebody get me a tape recorder! When the big ideas come you gotta capture the whole thing fast.

Translation

When an Australian says "You've got a head like a half-sucked mango," it means "You are ugly," according to David Fickling in the Guardian.

The head office in California

A friend of the family works in a bank. He's in charge of many things, including the accounts of people who have died and had just their heads frozen and preserved. Our friend manages the money of the frozen people so that the cryogenic lab in California will always get paid for keeping the client's head frozen. The idea is that in the future, the clients will be unfrozen and maybe have their heads reattached to healthy bodies. I don't know where they'll get the headless bodies.

I can't think of a less appealing way to approach or cheat death. Who's to say that you'll get what you want when you're thawed out in the year 2500?

"Uh, could you change the channel? I can't reach the remote. I don't have a body."

"Hey! Could somebody come and get me out of the cat's litter box? This was funny for about one second, until I remembered I don't have a body."

"Being a guy, I never would have predicted that I'd spend a New Year's Eve in a darkened bedroom, propped up on some old lady's dresser with a wig on my head."

"Gee, being a centerpiece on your dining room table is more fun than I thought it would be. That Astro-steak sure smells good. I'd have some myself, if I had a body."

Radio ad

This commercial for some home repair company was so fast and breathless that I almost missed this part: "Call our exclusive number!"

Getting to know you

Sunday afternoon on State Street there was just the one slim girl in a summer dress at the bus stop, reading a pamphlet. A young man was walking toward her and as he got closer, he pulled off the oversized jersey he had been wearing. His black jeans were slung so low that about three inches of butt crack showed. He walked behind the woman, almost touching her, and after he passed he looked back over his left shoulder. She hadn't looked up from her pamphlet. He turned and continued his strolling across the street.

Because night is different from day

All I need is some bedtime reading to help me fall asleep. Listening to the radio doesn't help. Talk radio is too stupid and music radio is too frustrating. The only new reading I've got handy is Harper's magazine; that'll do. I've already read the short bits in the front part. What's the first full-length article? It's about "influenza, SARS, and the collapse of public health." It starts, "Death is inevitable, but not disease." Well, that's good.

How does the rest of the article go? Here's a quote: "The imminent threat, which all public-health experts agree will inevitably strike, is an influenza pandemic." Oh, this is not good. How does the article end? "We have grown so foolish and so incompetent that perhaps we do not deserve to survive. Perhaps it is simply time to die." Hmm.

Would even the author read this to his family at bedtime? "Honey, kids, I finally finished that article for Harper's! Wanna hear it?" Jeez, I gotta get the radio.

Warning! Spoiler alert!

Fahrenheit 9/11 opened to a crowded theater this morning at the Century mall. I got a seat up in the back row. Up the steps came an elderly man and his two daughters; they sat in my row and the man sat next to me. He said he had to apologize in advance because he had such a bad back that he might have to stand up in the middle of the movie, just to relieve the pain. I said I was sorry to hear that, but that he should feel free to stand up. Personally, as long as he didn't have Serial Flatulence Syndrome, I wouldn't be bothered. The poor guy did have to use an ice pack on his back later. We talked for another minute about Michael Moore, and then the previews and movie started.

Of course, the White House will vigorously deny what the film depicts, but it's right there on the screen: Paul Wolfowitz sucking on his comb before running it through his hair in preparation for a TV interview outdoors.

Later, music accompanies the scenes of the president on the aircraft carrier as he declares the end of major combat in Iraq:
Look at what's happened to me,
I can't believe it myself.
Suddenly I'm up on top of the world,
It should've been somebody else.

Believe it or not,
I'm walking on air.
I never thought I could feel so free.
Flying away on a wing and a prayer.
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it's just me.

After the movie, people left the theater, streaming past a long line of people waiting for the next show. As I descended the stairs and ramps of the Century mall, way behind me I heard a man following, yelling something about how "We've won the war, we've already won the war." I couldn't hear the rest of what he was bellowing; the acoustics were bad.

Then again, I shouldn't assume the guy was leaving the theater, just because he was in the mall. He might have just left the Aveda bath shop, where he won the war for personal beauty, wellness, and the environment by using Aveda pure flower and plant essences and plant-based products.

Tuxedos and cufflinks

A billboard says Tony Bennett is scheduled to appear at a local casino September 3. I thought he was dead. If he's booked to appear at that casino, he must be alive. Is Mel Torme still alive? No, he's dead. Oh, that was tragic; he looked so full of life at the time. He fell out of a tall building. No wait, that was a Mountain Dew commercial and he was wearing a parachute.

I saw you talkin' with

Christopher Walken, as profiled by Stephen Rodrick in a recent New York Times Magazine:
Walken's get-out-of-jail free card is his voice. As much as he marches to the beat of his own drum machine, Walken speaks like a man keeping time to a metronome with a wicked sense of humor. The fickle cadence of Walkenese is his calling card. "I get that from my days as a dancer," Walken says. "I'm still counting off dance steps as I cross a room. Two-two four. Three-three four. I'm doing that when I talk."

His bizarro word rhythm and gleeful disregard for punctuation makes even his most banal utterances sound dramatic. At the grocery store, he stared at a plump tomato and then put it back. "I DON'T. Buy the tomatoes with. The stems. On them. They don't. Degrade. They go. Down the sink. And into the WATER. Then. They get lodged in the throats of little. OTTERS."

Dollars for reading

From a recent news item:
Publisher Lures UK Men Back to Books with Sexy Model

LONDON (Reuters) - In a bid to lure men in Britain away from watching TV soccer games and into book shops, publisher Penguin Books will send out a sexy model to offer 1,000-pound ($1,800) prizes to males spotted reading a selected title.

The publicity ploy, launched Monday, aims to boost sales among men, who on average buy fewer books than women.

Penguin's so-called Good Booking Girl will canvass the streets this month for men older than 16 years reading versions of Nick Hornby's "31 Songs" that bear a special cover sticker.

That is just like the Brits, to let people win money for reading a book. That is so... elitist. Here in the United States we don't reserve cash prizes only for people with skills, like reading. We give prizes to people who can eat a bucket of crawly worms with maple syrup. And if you don't know anything about that then you don't know the taste of a little thing called freedom.

But freedom can also taste like apple pie, because... we're free to eat whatever, and read whatever, or not, and like the president told Brit Hume on Fox TV last year, he doesn't hardly read anything!

And don't go thinking that Brit Hume got his name because his parents wished he had been a British baby. That's not true. The Humes named their baby Brit Hume because "Brit Hume" is an anagram for "I'm the URB." And what does "URB" mean? It's the code for the airport in Urubupunga, Sao Paulo, Brazil. So stop calling us Americans isolationist! When a young American couple can name their American baby after an anagram that signifies that their child is a South American airport, it just symbolizes the philosophy of inclusion that we radiate like a grapefruit squirting juice.

It is with deep regret

George Tenet is quitting his job as CIA director in order to spend more time with his family, he says. This has to change; we need a new euphemism for when people resign due to unpopularity or mistakes.

Proposals:
"I'm stepping down so I can spend more time with my ____."
a. "ostrich farm."
b. "parents at the casino."
c. "mistress."

On message

O.J. Simpson and his attorney, Yale Galanter, consented to spend some time with journalist Pat Jordan, who captured the experience in his 2001 article, "The Outcast." Three excerpts:
The waitress brought our food and we began eating. Simpson ate hunched over, his face low to the plate, looking up expectantly from time to time.

"I didn't picture my life like this," he told me. "I thought I'd retire at fifty with enough money, on my own terms. It's hard to retire this way. But I did it for my kids."

"O.J. is a devoted single parent," Galanter said.
A little later:
Simpson sat down and said, "I never got hugs before. Now the public shows me so much love. Women are my biggest defenders. It's that bad-boy syndrome. Now girls chase me. But if a girl wants to be with me I tell them they have to be number three, behind my kids."

"Being a father comes first with O.J.," Galanter said.
Later, in the car:
It was late afternoon, and Simpson was driving again.

"For the last few years, I wasn't really looking for work," he said. "I got an offer to be a TV spokesman in Europe, an Inside Edition-type thing, but I'd have to be there eight days a month, and I can't leave my kids."

"O.J. is a wonderful father," Galanter said from the backseat.
-- From Best American Crime Writing (edition published 2002).

Blessed

"We have no king but Jesus
And I am blessed to bring you that news
We have no king but Jesus
I can't explain why we've got Jews"

-- What Attorney General John Ashcroft might write if he were in a poetic mood, according to Calvin Trillin's new book, Obliviously On He Sails, a collection of rhymes about the Bush administration. The single sentence "We have no king but Jesus" is from Ashcroft's 1999 address to Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Trillin spoke to a full auditorium in the downtown library Wednesday night.

Book fair

Dave Eggers was one of the authors speaking at the Printers Row Book Fair this past weekend. The organizers booked him into a room too small for his popularity; every available part of the room was occupied by people sitting in chairs, sitting on the floor, or standing along the sides and back. The densely packed crowd actually hushed when Dave entered the room with representatives of the book fair.

The schedule permitted only one hour for Dave because there would be a new speaker there next hour. At the start a professor took ten full minutes to introduce Dave, in case there were any people there who didn't know why they were standing in a hot, airless, overcrowded room.

Modest and unpretentious, Mr. Eggers finally got to read some very funny pieces from upcoming works he had written under a pen name or edited. His book on dispelling "all the myths about giraffes" is designed to be planted in a child's library, and reveals that giraffes are actually made out of papier-mâché.

Writer/cartoonist Jules Feiffer also spoke at the fair in a larger auditorium. Among many things, he recalled the time around 1970 when he had written the screenplay for Carnal Knowledge and they were considering Jack Nicholson for a lead role. At the time, Feiffer thought that Nicholson was just some new actor doing a bad imitation of Henry Fonda's voice.

A hole of our own

Block 37 in Chicago is an undeveloped area in the middle of downtown. There's a book about it and the blurb on the back cover says:
Before there was a Ground Zero in New York City, Block 37 was a giant hole in the heart of a great American city. In 1990, Chicago's Block 37 (as a key part of a 27 acre urban renewal project) was razed to the ground. After the expenditure of nearly $250 million of public and private capital, nothing has been built on this once vital and densely-occupied city block. This stubborn vacancy at the center of Chicago's historic downtown eerily presaged the post 9/11 wasteland in Lower Manhattan.

We are victims too, New York! Here in Chicago! Look over here! We were eerily presaging stuff years ago! When you need things to be presaged in an eerie fashion, we in Chicago are your go-to guys. It's like 9/11, isn't it? Yet, somehow we suffer in relative silence. Here's the book.

For Memorial Day weekend

College student: You always hear people talk about World War II, but was there ever a World War I?

History professor (after a pause): Yes.

-- heard from a friend, son of the professor

Sorry she asked

The last time I visited my mom and dad at their house, I was just thinking how nice it was that we had made it all the way through a Sunday without arguing about politics or anything, and then Mom asked my brother James, "What do you think of the president's idea of going to Mars?"

James: It's a good idea. We should do it.

Mom: Really? I didn't think the United States had the money for it. Going to the moon was fine but I don't know if it's such a good idea to go all the way to Mars right now.

James: So you're against all learning!

Mom: No, I didn't say that...

James: You're saying that if Dad was dying in the hospital and the only way we could cure him would be to use technology from the space program, you'd say "Just let him die!"

Mom: No, I don't mean that...

James: What did you say then? Maybe I misunderstood.

Mom: I'm just saying that if it were up to me, if I was Queen of the Universe, I wouldn't want us to go to Mars right now.

James: Well you're never going to BE Queen of the Universe, because you never want to go any farther than the MOON!

Heard on the street

"I'm taking control of my finances starting right now. I'm going to stop buying the Big Game lottery tickets with the million-dollar prizes and just concentrate on the Little Lotto."

Before there was Kaplan test preparation:

"On the Sunday before examination week he was bathed by Mrs. Tulsi in water consecrated by Hari; the soles of his feet were soaked in lavender water; he was made to drink a glass of Guinness stout; and he left Hanuman House, a figure of awe, laden with crucifix, sacred thread and beads, a mysterious sachet, a number of curious armlets, consecrated coins, and a lime in each trouser pocket."

-- A student in 1920s Trinidad prepares for a test in the novel "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V. S. Naipaul.

The spirituality of shaving

This commercial was so overdone I had to examine it again on the VCR. The ad is a blitz of images accompanied by a man's voice:
You know the feelin. Every guy's had it. You're unbeatable. Unstoppable. You got that walkin on water feelin. You look, they smile. You win, they go home. It's a feelin you get every day with the world's best shave -- Mach 3 Turbo. It's like havin an angel by your side. Every move is smooth; every word is cool. I never wanna lose that feelin. (chorus) Gillette! The best a man can get!

While the voice spoke, 40 images flashed by in half a minute. Here's how they broke down, although they didn't appear in this order:

9 images of athletes: basketball, track and field, etc.
5 of a man shaving
5 of a woman dressed as an angel
4 of a man and woman together
4 of a man's face close-up, shaving
3 of the Gillette logo or Mach 3 Turbo logo
2 of the razor close-up
2 of a man performing on stage
2 of a man falling or zooming through space
2 of a man in a suit in an urban setting
1 of a woman's face close-up
1 of a running man bursting through a wall of masonry (whee!)

Two of the athlete clips were of a young Muhammad Ali. One of the Ali images (boxing in the ring) was briefly interrupted by one quick frame of a female hand, cupped, palm up, in front of what might've been white silky fabric. Maybe this was another allusion to the angel, who must've been by Ali's side while he was whomping on that other boxer in the ring.

On first hearing, I wanted to amend one of the statements in the voice-over so that the man intones: "You look, they smile. You win, they go home... unless you're playing Monopoly at their house, then you go home."

This ad must've been created by the same agency that came up with:
"Kleenex Brand Facial Tissue -- it's like bein blessed by the Pope."
"Eggo Waffles -- it's like havin a little Saint Martha poppin out of your toaster."
"Dove Moisturizing Body Wash -- it's like takin a soapy shower with the Reverend Al Sharpton."

All about it

Downtown last week the newspaper vendor wore a vest with a placard on it that read
It's disgusting
Chicago Sun-Times

Earlier in the year the idea from Chicago Sun-Times management had been that people would be more likely to buy the paper if they could see the day's front-page headline prominently displayed on the vendors' vests. They may not have anticipated headlines like that one about more ugly news in Iraq.

1968

One great morning in first grade we all got to leave our classroom and join the rest of the school in the auditorium. The teachers said we'd get to watch TV news because the presidential election was still undecided from yesterday's voting. The race was too close and they were still counting the votes! Four hundred kids aged from 5 to 12 crowded into the auditorium and my class had to sit in the back of the room. At the far end we could see a little black and white TV showing some boring men talking.

It was very funny to me that grownups could take so long just to count some votes. Maybe some grownups weren't perfect. While the newscaster voices droned out of the tinny little TV speaker, all the kids were talking or shouting. We first-graders jabbered on about Hot Wheels cars and Saturday-morning cartoons. Then in the distance some kids started chanting, and the whole room took it up:
Nixon, Nixon, he's our man
Humphrey's in the garbage can!

Although I was unaware of the two candidates' political differences, I knew how to spell Nixon, and that made him more of a known quantity than Humphrey, whose name I couldn't imagine how to spell. So I was comfortable with the chant, and politics turned out to be pretty fun.

Finally, just before lunch, Humphrey gave a concession speech and it was over. Our state of Illinois had just determined that its electoral votes went to Nixon, which gave him enough votes for the presidency. David Broder wrote about it (the election, not my first-grade class) in the Washington Post the next day.