January, 1997.

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1/31/97: Tax on Burping

The absurdity of the title implies the ubiquitous nature of taxation in its many forms. While we may never be taxed for the expulsion of gas, from either end, people in the USA work 3 hours out of every 8 for federal, state, and local taxes. Then, when we get the filthy lucre (our wages) in our hands, we go out a buy things upon which we pay more taxes. The word, tax (Italian: taxare from the old French tausser to tauxer) is defined in the OED as making serious demands, blaming, censuring, or imposing a levy on person or persons. Where this all this levying start?

Caveman A trades a bone to caveman B; unfortunately, they are seen by caveman C, who is in charge of cleaning up the cave. He demands a little piece of the bone to compensate him for his janitorial services. The minute he is PAID, taxes begin. The minute this janitorial caveman gets enough bone pieces to trade with caveman D in the next cave down, the tax money becomes a paradigm of international trade. If he is seen by caveman E, who is cleaning up the second cave, the cycle begins anew, until we wind up with such benefits as the Stealth Bomber, farm subsidies, entitlements, and government graft.

The next time you go to the natural history museum. bypass those boring dinosaur eggs and varnished skeletons: go to the caveman diorama and watch your government in action.

1/30/97: Matrioshkas

The Russians are fond of Matrioshka dolls, those rotund and layered ladies that reveal increasingly smaller and smaller dolls as the onionlike outer ones are removed. More recently, this format has been used to show the backwards political succession from Yeltsin (the biggest doll) to Gorbachev...all the way back to a tiny Stalin (deluxe sets might go back to Czar Peter the Great). I started to imagine other types of Matrioshkas: David Letterman to Johnny Carson to Jack Paar to Steve Allen to Jery Lester etc. for a talk show host version. How about a "Successors at Disney" or Secretary of State versions: peel the layers of cheap Matrioshkas and you get back to Henry Kissinger: good ones go back to Thomas Jefferson.

More sweeping political statements could be made with the Crummy Presidents Matrioshka: First comes Ronald Reagan (captioned, trickle down, then Nixon (I am not a crook), then Warren Harding (Teapot Dome), then Millard Filmore (flush toilet). My favorite would be the Media Clown Matrioshka: Dennis Rodman followed by Donald Trump followed by Arianna Huffington folowed by Alphonse D'Amato, all the way back to Huey Long. Pushing the envelope of taste would be the Kennedy Mistress and Heidi Fleiss Client Matrioshkas. OK folks: here is a free -START YOUR OWN BUSINESS- tip: these dolls will sell like Pinch Me Elmo©. Get busy, you capitalist satirists; I can't deflate all the balloons.

1/29/97: Mail Order Caskets

I came across an ad in a throwaway paper that offered factory rebates on caskets directly ordered (DIRECTCasket was the firm's name) "in advance of need". Obviously, if you buy a casket now (limited time offer), you get to spend the factory rebate. In addition, the company will sell you a second casket at 50% off the list price. I was pleased that I did not have to make any of this up, since its absurdity is beyond my modest wit.

What do you DO with the boxes once they arrive? If you keep them in the basement or garage, meter readers, workman, and snoopy guests will think that you are vampires (two caskets more than double the effect). In all fairness to the company, they will ship free to any location of your choice, including the gravesite. All major credit cards are accepted, but you must act now.

In advance of need: this phrase kept reverberating in my head like balls in one of those indoor squash courts. If I'm dead, I don't need anything. The casket is to remove me from the presence of those still kicking. THEY need the casket: ergo, THEY should pay for it after I'm gone. The factory rebate (if it arrives in time) can pay for the wake.

1/28/97: Shoes

The obsession with Bruno Magli in the recent O.J. Simpson roast got me to thinking about shoes as edible concoctions, not that anyone (but Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush) would actually eat one (although I knew a camel in Petra, Jordan who had a fondness for buttons). There are definitely women's shoes that look like decorated ice cream or sorbet frozen desserts, or various types of layered cakes in design. Shoes are supposed to be a covering on the feet: protection. Rarely are the shoes I mention in that category. Some of them (especially translucent, plastic types) resemble miniature spaceships or retrograde sculptures of plant life. I am thinking about a particular pair that was made of corks and looked like a couple of sea slug colonies.

Human beings love to raise the utilitarian to the heights of artistic perfection, until the object portrayed can no longer be identified. My favorite is an 18th century German clock that looks like a lamp. You fill it with oil, light the wick, and watch the level decline through a line of Roman numerals. I used to use this object to test the intelligence of my party guests, but after ten years no guest ever guessed. My conclusion was that I was surrounded by morons; since I didn't know what the thing did, either when I purchased it, I had to join the ranks. If form follows function, the it is our mission to conceal either one or both these attributes. Let's have ashtrays in the form of sinks and vice versa. I always liked that van in the shape of a hot dog.

1/27/97: Making Sense

Must we always make sense? Logic dictates language, but language's internal logic may betray the pervasive paradox of what we actually mean. Yesterday I spent the entire time interviewing wanna be composers. These hopefuls wanted careers, and my colleague and I encouraged them in their creative work. Many of them were already resting on the laurels of dubious achievement, so much masking of real meaning was necessary for us judges: ":This is a very interesting score," It's completely ugly and incomprehensible; only an ignorant troll would write this down. Why not try finger painting.. " Keep at it. You should develop you potential.". If you produce any more of this crap, you'll choke us all. "You seem to have studied with many eminent teachers." Who are these fools and philistines who so severely misguided you?. "You seem to have a good ear." Unfortunately, you need two, and they have to be connected to a brain. "You wrote the text yourself!" English must be your third language.

My favorite malapropism appeared in an essay in which the candidate exclaimed: "My interests evolve around music, and music is constantly evolving around me." Yeah, right: it is going on without you. I felt as though I was evolving into one of those Grand Inquisitors in the Spanish Inquisition: Make them confess their guilt and burn their scores at the stake. We could have torture rooms where these victims would be subjected to weeks of old Lawrence Welk records (especially those where he is playing the accordion). More serious offenders would have to listen to Milton Babbitt or Hawaiian music in alternating fragments.

Extreme circumstances often transmogrify mild mannered academics into medieval torturers.

1/26/97: Family Values

New parents can count on the enormously creative situation of feeding a small child as a regular source of challenge. Claire's second offering, Time for Lunch, shows the incredulous child as he is cajoled into trying some mashed concoction. The gourmet treat could be coq au vin, or it could turn into ammunition at any moment.

1/25/97: More Happy Endings

Wagner's Götterdämmerung certainly has more than its share of nonsense and is ripe for modernization: rather than have Hagen stab Siegfried in the back, he should talk the hero to death; whereupon the body is carried out in solemn procession, where it lies in state at Valhalla (which does not burn down, being built to code). Fafner and Fasolt may be oafs, but they are honest contractors.

The gods sublet the place to Aaron Spelling in exchange for a crack at their own production company. Spelling allows them to make such TV flying turkeys as Xena the Warrior Princess and Hercules. Drunk with power over the success of these bombs, the gods resume their quest for the elusive ring, which is in the possession of the Rhinemaidens' agent. I would add a new opera, the recently discovered Morgankrankheit, which details the fate of the Rhinemaidens, having been ravished earlier by Siegfried offstage. The children of these maidens become the ever popular mausketeers.

1/24/97: Happy Endings

How often do we meekly accept the tragic endings of famous stories: Hamlet kills Laertes and Claudius, while Gertrude is poisoned. Poison from the blade of his adversary acts slowly enough to let Hamlet do all of this and then collapse. The scene is patently unrealistic; so, why not rewrite a version that leaves someone alive and rings more true. As it stands it is really only fit for the cover of the National Enquirer (Danish Prince wipes out kin).

Failing in my attempt to Improve Hamlet, I decided to try a couple of famous opera plots:

I would leave most of Carmen alone, except that in Act IV I would have Carmen, in a bold feminist move, wrestle the knife out of Don Jose's hand, stab him, and marry Escamillo, the toreador. Unfortunately, she is brought to trial; but, as luck would have it, the police mishandle the evidence and the chief investigator, Zuniga (who made trouble for the couple before) is caught tampering with evidence. After Carmen is acquitted in the controversial public spectacle involving 28 alternative jurors (6 of whom were caught signing book deals), the family of Micaela (Don Jose's ex girlfiend) brings a civil suit on Carmen which they win in an unprecented award of 1,000,000 pesetas. Escamillo, now liable for Carmen's debts is financially ruined and has to eke out an existence doing product endorsements for Old Matador Mexican tamales.

In Madama Butterfly Cho-Cho-San is not really interested in Pinkerton but strings him along so she can be close to his American wife, on whom she has a tragic crush. The two women plan to murder Pinkerton so they can be free, but their plot is found out by The Bonze (obviously related to the Fonze) who forces them to pay him blackmail while working in a miniature drink parasol factory. They finally escape and come to America where they become co-afternoon TV talk show hosts.

Watch for more happy endings.

1/23/97: What is your favorite color?

I had a girlfriend, once whose favorite color was bright yellow. Even her car was a bright lemon, iridescent color. I always felt like one of those Tijuana whorehouse cab drivers in the thing. My favorite color is blue: I never though about this until today and started to look at my clothes and other personal articles: they were mostly blue. Why, I ask does anyone have a favorite color. Is this all important character choice instilled in infancy by parents, does it involve astrology (which according to that hypothesis would make my color blue), or is it some kind of physiological quirk brought on by maturity. From asking people I know, nobody ever changes the favorite color, and almost nobody's favorite color is either white or black. People always seem to answer promptly (and probably truthfully) when asked.

Pick your favorite color: (click on the color to see what type you are).

1/22/97: Exotic Places

The names of certain places evoke much more than pedestrian fantasies so that they never seem real. Where is Zanzibar? It sounds like something out of Conrad's Lord Jim: diamond mines and magic. Actually it is a former sultanate that is now part of Tanzania and used to include Kenya (East Africa). How about Shalimar: where is it? It's in Pakistan, six miles east of Lahore.

Even famous exotic places like Mecca (Saudi Arabia) and Timbuktu (Mali) don't seem to occupy real space. They have been lifted to mythical status. On the other hand, places like Squirrel, Idaho and Canoga Falls, Wisconsin can never hope to make it in the pantheon of geographical fantasy. Of course Jersey City, N.J. never had an emperor (How about the King of Spokane Washington? Does that sound like a likely title). Let's consider the exotic oases of Las Vegas, Nevada. Somehow that doesn't ring true either: there has to be some kind of nobility, or at least a few absolute-power freaks.

Our fascination with exotic places is really a perverse empathizing with despotic regimes of the past and their excesses. Some obese sultan with 50 wives builds a palace, and we benefit from the illusion. Maybe the colonies of Hollywood stars or the estates of rock legends (like Elvis) will become the exotic places of the future. If there's hope for Nashville, maybe there's a slight chance for Newark.

1/21/97: Food Barometers

In the process of extracting a pale and stiff bialy from the arctic wasteland of my ancient freezer, I started to think how the availability of certain foods in a given town is a good indicator of that place's sophistication. My general rule has always been: if a town does not have a good Jewish delicatessen, beauty salons will prevail as cultural meeting places, the newspapers will be boring, the people brain dead, the libraries empty of good materials, and the schools will merely be extended playgrounds. Further refining that concept, I focus on the bagel and the bialy. New York City is the ultimate in this respect, having first-rate bagels of every description (however, they do not dye them green on St. Patrick's Day as in LA), and bialys that are the proper shape (not like models of alien spacecraft that fill the plastic bags of supermarket freezer compartments) and may be bought fresh.

London and Paris also pass the bialy test, but Rome and Moscow flunk. The Italians, obsessed with calzone- essentially cheese stuffed pizza crust with no tomato sauce that is guaranteed to bring on cardiac arrest and terminal flatulence- are hopeless. The Moscovites think that bread is to be hardened and shot from cannons at an invading enemy. If you are brave, try piroshki, a horrible synthesis of the knish and the Polish pirogi, a delicate stuffed dumpling that is fried. The only antidote ot piroshki is kvass, a fermented rye drink that must be made in abandoned toilets (Moscovites lace the stuff with vodka).

Many years ago, the presence of a good mom-and-pop pizza parlor had some cultural significance, but now with the intense competition between the hamburger and pizza for top junk food, the sign is meaningless. Some people swear by the presence of a good Chinese restaurant: once again NYC comes out on top. Perhaps the ultimate test is the presence of REAL and GOOD Mexican food. Outside of Oaxaca, Merida, and Mexico City, every major city pretty much flunks (Super Rico in Santa Barbara, CA. may be a lone exception, but Santa Barbara is a kind of yuppee Disneyland which would fail the other tests).

Of course, it is always possible to go retro and eat blood sausage with Pepsi Cola TM for breakfast like the citizens of Budapest. That way all bets are off. I suggest increasing your healthcare insurance coverage, though (The Misfit is not responsible for health risks incurred in the consumption of anything mentioned here).

1/20/97: The Fat Lady Has Sung

The title refers to a humorous '94 earthquake photo in Claire's Humor Gallery entitled: It isn't over until... (referring you to some hastily scrawled graffiti (is there any other kind?) on a Northridge apartment ruin). Roughly three years since the biblical event I started thinking about the technological and scientific breakthroughs that simultaneously occurred through a serendipitous quidnunc quiddity. The exploding can of sauerkraut in the kitchen that greeted me on the return from a European tour was kid's stuff compared to the incipient toxic waste made of Strega, Aurum (Italian booze not available here), [real] maple syrup, olive oil, Quaker's Oats, and balsamic vinegar that slithered across my kitchen floor after the quake. The pseudo poison gas from this mixture alone would wilt the most stalwart of the US Marines. My private theory is that contained within was a new element. Lacking a geiger counter (and shaking a Kmart flashlight to get it going) I was not prepared to evaluate the scientific results of Mother Nature.

The most important fact of the quake was that in LA (the loneliest city in the universe), EVERYONE shared the common horror. Down the street a militia of Mormons protected their 365-day food supply. Strange homeless people (who looked, basically like the cast of Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments) careened dizzily from side to side on our street: the whole thing looked like tryouts for extras in a Fellini movie. Hooking a small TV into the cigarette lighter of Claire's car, I began to witness St. John's apocalypse, right here in Canoga Park. Our house sustained no damage, owing to a wacko theory I developed in the 70's and the seismic wisdom from LA Building and Safety, but the fireplace and chimney in my study, a remnant from the early 50's that I retained because it reminded me of Orson Welles in those wine ads from the 80's, had turned to rubber and could collapse at any second. As it turned out, it never really fell over, but (much later) collapsed like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis in 1973, thus issuing in the era of postmodernism once again.

We Angelenos certainly know how to throw a party. Having survived the big blackout in NYC in the 60's I was ready for anything in LA in the 90's. Measuring my driveway this weekend, I noticed that it is 2 inches wider and 1 inch farther south than 5 years ago. Some mountains in the distance are a foot taller, and the cracks in the road through Topanga Canyon are gaping crevices, deadly to the anorexic tires of racing bicycles. Other than that, I have resolved not to store Strega, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil on the same high shelf. Now, that's true (ewige) wisdom.

1/19/97: Claire's First Time

For the first time Claire joins the Misfit with a humorous photo which I entitle: Court Wizards (Click on the title to see it)(27K). We hope that from time to time she will grace these pages with other visual broadsides. For those of you who want more, go to her Humor Gallery. (P.S., I think the fat guy looks like a weather balloon.)

1/18/97: Are you a Schmoo?

When I was about four years old, my father bought me my first schmoo, an inflatable figure that had its rounded base filled with sand, so you could punch it and it would always right itself. Being an obsessed collector, he began purchasing a variety of schmoos of different sizes, from a foot high to my size. The first one, however was on the small size and took the form of a keystone cop. It probably fostered my basic hostility toward the police and any authority around the world. Punching the cop-schmoo gave me a sense of invincibility toward them. There is a famous incident in which I broke through a police line at the Taj Mahal to see the monument by moonlight. The Indian crowds cheered as I vaulted over the barriers. Although the cops were heavily armed, they never raised their rifles, but joined the cheering multitudes. Another time I broke into the Acropolis to see the Parthenon at a time when all of Greece was on strike (what else is new?). Two enormous, rotund and schmoolike police in circus trainer uniforms with gold epaulets lumbered after me as I cavorted over the various stages and temples. Since they were so fat and slow, I would stop and let them catch up, then tear out. This comic episode persisted for about twenty minutes until I got bored and let myself be captured. I was deposited at the front gate to the plaudits of Greek picnickers who camped out on the periphery. Why take such chances? you might ask: I don't want to be a schmoo, a thing that is rooted in the earth like a potted palm, only to be pushed down and automatically return to normal. Most people are probably either schmoos or schmoo punchers, sheep or rebels. One could be a pacifist, abhor violence (I have never had a fist fight with another real person) and still be a schmoo puncher: after all, at worst, we are merely deflating a balloon, the empty illusion of authority which collapses- or may return to normal.

1/17/97: Our Slimy and Fuzzy Friends

Looking up from my desk, spying a small, multicolored and fuzzy toy snake thrown to me from a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade and hung on the wall as a souvenir, I started to think of some of the real creatures that are almost never kept as pets and are generally reviled. A pet store in Beverly Hills did try to sell tarantulas, but one escaped out into the street, never to be seen again (strolling Rodeo Drive was never the same afterwards).

Snakes, spiders, ugly frogs, slugs, scorpions, and certain aggressive rodents have always made the most yucked out list: the kind of permanent anathema that makes us want to squash, poison, trap, and generally drive out these nasties. What we forget is that THEY don't know that they're scaring the crap out of us and are unacceptable at picnics, parties and the like. In some cases it is the fear of unspeakable harm (snake, black widow, or scorpion bites) that generates our disgust. In others it is just the appearance of the beast (like an army of wooley caterpillars, dropping out of the trees): I was reminded of an incident in which my wife and I were cleaning up around an old apple tree that had split in half. As we approached the tree a six-inch long inch fat banana slug wriggled out from the crevice; my wife, who is a pacificist and quintessential do gooder, turned into Clint Eastwood and coldly flattened the thing with her shovel. Afterwards I had to counsel her out of her guilt, saying that some bird or squirrel would have disposed of the 40 year old monster as a snack.

It may just be a confrontation with the unfamiliar that sets off our destructive tendencies: swatting spiders like Garfield and poisoning snakes, rats, and slugs. It made me wonder about the old controversy of Hobbes vs. Locke: the state of nature as violent chaos (Hobbes) as opposed to peace (Locke). In all those movies where we greet the space aliens with open arms, we are playing out a childish fantasy. Hobbes is right: if the aliens land, we'll nuke'em, just like we exterminate the bugs and snakes; because, they are too weird and icky. In other words, they're not like us. I am sure that to a scorpion, we look like grotesque, pinkish (or brownish) blobs that lumber along on only two legs, make a lot of noise, pollute the air, and eat or kill everything in our path. Jeez! maybe we are the icky monsters.

1/16/97: Manhole

In an earlier Misfit this month (PC Disney; Pirates ofthe Caribbean goes PC), I touched on some of the absurd ramifications of Political Correctness. I started to think about some words and phrases that were impervious to gender neutrality. Manhole, for one cannot become personhole, which sounds vaguely pornographic. The song, Stouthearted Men could become Stouthearted Folks and lose much of it macho, male-bonding, proto military energy. We already have spokesperson, chairperson, and salesperson; so, I guess on the railroad we now have the brakeperson and the fireperson (as opposed to the gender-neutral firefighters who put out fires).

For a while I though that the term, the best man at a wedding was safe; but, at a lesbian wedding, that position might be assumed by a woman: ergo the best person, like someone who is especially good, or perhaps the finest individual in the world. On the other side, crude racist or pejorative terms like Chinanman or just Badman disappear.

Still, gender neutrality has produced a new kind of humor. Witness Mr. Blackwell's list this year for the worst dressed women: Dennis Rodman made it! Bravo, Blackwell!

1/15/97: The Experts speak

We all remember Charles Foster Kane's (aka Orson Welles in Citizen Kane) pronouncement: "There'll be no war"., having returned from talking, presumably with a reasonable Hitler. In real life, self proclaimed experts have been flummoxing and bamboozling poor citizens for millenia. In 1984 Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky published a compendium of outrageous, authoritative information, and I thought it fitting on the virtual eve of the new US government and presidential inauguration to present the choicest bits.


The sound of the flute will cure epilepsy, and a sciatic gout. (Theophrastus)
A genuine kiss generates so much heat it destroys germs. (Dr. S.L. Katzoff)

Radioactive waste:

All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk. (Ronald Reagan)


Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be re-elected. (Horace Greeley)
The race will not be close at all. Landon [as opposed to FDR] will be elected and I'll stake my reputation as a prophet on it. (William Randolph Hearst, the REAL citizen Kane)
Dewey is sure to be elected. (Drew Pearson)


Believe me, Germany is unable to wage war. (David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of GB)
Good man. (Franklin Delano Rosevelt)

Broadway's flops?

Midsummer Night's Dream: The most insipid, ridiculous play I ever saw in my life. (Samuel Pepys)
Oklahoma: No, legs, no jokes, no chance. (Michael Todd)
Grease: I don't think we can do anything with these reviews. It's a disaster. Close it. (Matthew Serino, head of advertising handling the show)

It looks like the bigger the balloon, the bigger the pop. Turn off your TV sets and radios and listen to your mom. At least if she's wrong, you can blame her directly.

1/14/97: Musical Scores for Trolley Conductors

The world of classical music has an automatic built in snob factor, given the strange names of composers (Xenakis, Pixis, Webern, Gesualdo), compositions (Das Rheingold, Das Lied von Der Erde, L'Histoire du Soldat) and general formality of most concerts (fat white guys in white tie, Tugboat Annie divas in outrageous décolleté tent dresses). I'm sure that many people assume that it isn't any fun and requires vast knowledge to appreciate: BALLS! (to quote George Sand) True: to perform well on an instrument, sing, or conduct requires a lifetime of commitment (like serving a life sentence), but to enjoy Stravinsky should not be any more difficult than to enjoy Frank Sinatra. By far the most intimidating object is the musical score- line after line of notes, stems, strange directions, foreign terms, etc.- and the score's curator, the conductor (I admit: I am still intimidated by conductors and always hope that none of them will ever entertain political ambitions).

For the musical amateur I have assembled some general observations about musical scores:

1. The more complex they look, the worse they sound.
2. The blacker the page with notes, the denser they sound.
3. The more obscure foreign terms they contain, the more incomprehensible they are.
4. The stranger the notation, the less real music (tunes) they contain.
5. NOBODY, but a genuine genius-composer (probably somebody dead, like Mozart) can hear a score in his/her head.

Should a general listener ever look at a score? Probably never, since it is just a set of performance directions (like a football play diagram): it tells the bassoonist to blow at a specific time, while the violinists scratch. The MUSIC is what you hear when the musicians begin, and it ends when they stop. As Minnesota Fats says: (in Robert Rossen's The Hustler) "This is straight pool: I shoot; when I miss, you can shoot ":.

You non-classical music souls may wonder that the fuss is all about. A large classical composition is like a wonderful time and space machine that transports you out of yourself to places beyond your dreams. That's why classical pieces are relatively long. Forget Music appreciation: all that pontificating by stuffed FM radio announcers, preconcert babblers, and pot bellied ancient professors is just like the advertising on a box of cereal. You wouldn't dare eat it. Open the box and enjoy!

1/13/97: Plumbing, in general

For those of you who liked Repairing a toilet, I offer more insights into the wonder and magic of plumbing. The first rule is: if you look long and hard enough at any plumbing, it will start to leak; if you try to fix it, like the legendary Hydra it will sprout two leaks. The second rule: there is always a primary, rotten source for a plumbing problem, and it is NOT the thing that is obvious (the leak). The third rule: you never have the correct wrench for the job; or, if you do, it is safely out of reach. This rule essentially guarantees that your plumbing will be protected from your incompetent grasp. The fourth rule: when you give up and call the plumber, double his estimate for a repair; when he arrives, keep an eye on your valuables. The fifth rule: any blocked up sewer will involve unpleasant digging, horrible smells, and the removal of at least one toilet (I am sure you have seen those houses of poor unfortunates who have a large trench leading from the street, back around to an unspeakable large and cavernous hole containing many sweaty men). Multiply the number of men by the sewer estimate and divide by the number of credit cards in your wallet, plus $1000. The sixth rule: if the job involves both plumbing and electricity, prepare to take out a bank loan. You will hear such wisdom as: this will require a 220 line (always a sign of big bucks). The seventh rule: if you can do without running water, you never have to worry about plumbing.

Think of all those great camping trips, washing at the stream in the fresh air; I don't think that there was ever a word for plumber in any American Indian language.

1/12/97: Zombies walk among us

Whenever I stand in line at a convenience store, it always seems like there are at least two zombies ahead of me, eyes glazed, gait measured, slow, plodding. Invariably they are buying lottery tickets. It is as though the fantasy of instant wealth has drained the life from their bodies and reduced these automatons to lifeless shells, temporarily perfect for the cast of The Night of the Living Dead. Movie theater lines seem to have their share of zombies, as well as lines as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the plight of these corpses crudely contrasted by frenetic teenagers anxious to scoop up their new drivers' licenses.

By far, the greatest number of zombies can be found in the queues at any public office: unemployment, public utility, IRS, building and safety, etc. I recently had to get a permit to install a hot water heater (more about this in a future Misfit) and noticed that at least half the people looked like creations of Edward Gorey, grey, gaunt figures, inching forward relentlessly to face the wrath of some smartass building inspector (usually one of those potgut-loud-shirt types that would be more at home in an outlaw motorcycle gang), issuing commands for flashings, vents, drains, and other building code absurdities. Then I got the idea that the complexity of modern life with its tangled confluence of rules had drained the vitality from these people. They have decided to live in graves rather than build anything, since following the code was like learning to pilot the space shuttle in complexity.

The gears in my head shifted, and I fantasized an improbable building inspection for a gothic cathedral: too many gargoyles, not enough saints over the entrance, what about stained safety glass? How high is that nave? There certainly was no inspection of Beauvais Cathedral with its nave of 198 ft. Competition for taller and taller among cathedral architects resulted in a structure that collapsed under the weight of its own stone. We human beings enrich the cycle of life with our labyrinths of complexity; I often yearn for the simplicity of the cave man, with maybe a bookstore or concert hall down the block.

1/11/97: Throw it out!

We finally come to the last of the New Year's advice and self improvement columns: time to look in all those places wherein reside nasty and outworn symbols of your past, ready for the trash. First we'll go to the fridge. Anything moving under its own power may have transformed itself into an alien lifeform, but it should definitely be tossed. Mystery meat, catsup bottles with less than 1 inch of stuff in them, any vegetables that look like seaweed, flat soda pop, beer, champagne, all must go. That dessicated fruitcake you'll never eat, eggnog that has solidified, and anything that does not look familiar (or like food anymore) should go to a final resting place before it poisons you. By the way, how old are those eggs?

Next, we go to the clothes closet: (assuming you can open it without a sartorial avalanche), anything you have not worn in 2 years will look better on a homeless person (unless, as I found out with a couple of suits I tossed into the garbage can, the derelict rejects them in favor of a few aluminum cans). Anything you have not worn in 10 years is probably an automatic Halloween costume. Look at those stained ties and tired belts; pathetic artifacts should be making a contribution to a landfill. Shoes that Chaplin would covet for the little tramp (like those that he ate in The Gold Rush), socks with holes in them, and a host of stupid hats and tee shirts purchased on impulse as souvenirs of theme parks will join the parade of egress. Of course, you could always have a garage sale and share these foul curiosities with friends and neighbors (see the Misfit for 11/11 for more on this topic). Remember, one person's garbage is another's toxic waste.

1/10/97: I have an annoying habit...

Although I hate practical jokers, you know the shock buzzer-whoopy cushion kind that laugh at a victim's discomfort; I can't resist what I would call the verbal practical joke. To say something that is not only out of left field, but is out of left field from the next stadium over. Case in Point: My wife's parents visited for Christmas, and one morning I emerged from my study looking particularly under the weather, having been writing all night without producing a single measure of decent music. My mother in law asked why I was so beat: Well, I've been strangling chickens all morning!, I shot back, deadpan. She replied with a kind of automatic, oh yeah, like she really did not grasp the absurdity of what I had just revealed (She should have said: I guess you had a fowl morning). These non sequitur remarks invariably catch the listener off guard; they explode like so many stinkbombs, vaporizing dignity.

My favorite VPJ (verbal practical joke) occurred when I first started teaching and was trying to get late assignments in from my Renaissance Counterpoint class. I announced: If a flying saucer lands in the next few days, I will get on it, your papers will not be graded, and you will not pass this course. Not a single student laughed: I saw the heads of twenty students nod in simultaneous understanding and agreement. They were like the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall fame in their precision. What had they actually heard? To this day I ponder this question, and I think that I might have an easier time resolving the possible existence of God.

1/9/97: Is there a Strange Pet in your Future?

Beyond the usual fuzzily trimmed dogs and cats, it seems that humans have kept a bewildering assortment of pets that would automatically turn any house into a game preserve. I was thinking about Orlando Peleteer, a college buddy with a creative sense of mischief who had a small pet monkey, whom he dubbed with the name Palfrey after the simian and hyperkinetic dean-elect of the college. He had a similar frenetic hyperactivity and fuzzy head. Peleteer used to keep the pet in his dresser drawer, because pets were not allowed in the college dorms (he was living in the room once occupied by Clement Moore, the author of The Night before Christmas). And all through the house (dorm) nothing was stirring except that monkey. Invariably, a maid, cleaning up, heard a sound emanating from the dresser and quickly opened the drawer, instantly and conclusively decapitating poor Palfrey. She (the maid) screamed, the police arrived (like the fireman in Ionesco's Bald Soprano), and Mr. Peleteer was suspended indefinitely. The next we heard of him was in a newsreel in which, in a borrowed uniform, he was a faux attaché to President Kennedy as the President deplaned from a fact finding (probably snatch acquisition) trip in the Bahamas.

You, the safe and sane reader, have been spared these extravagent excesses of the 60's, because of the verbal generosity of the Misfit and other proto-knee-jerk liberals who still believe in TOTAL human nature (let IT- whatever THAT is- all hang out). My advice: go out and rent My Little Chickadee and take ALL of Mae West's advice.

(I hope you all like the new interactive calendar format; if you can't get it, I will produce an alternative route).

1/8/97:Product Labels...Again; useless information.

After buying a king size tube of Lifesaver® candies and struggling with the little green string which never seems to open the package, I noticed a sign: Contains NO Fat. since, I never imagined the presence of fat in hard candy, I wondered about the purpose of such a label. It seems that the new ploy is to overinform the consumer, ever watchful for the absence of fat, sugar, radiation, asbestos, nitrites, caffeine, and a host of other fun substances that would have no business, even in bug spray or weed killer. Coca Cola® does NOT contain lye! This example may be over the top, but the template for its absurdity is not. We are so impressed that a doughnut contains no caffeine. Now, do we dunk it into decaf or do we wash it down with Jolt Cola®.

The opposite kind of label may be even more laughable: perusing the brightly colored bottles on the fruit drink shelf in the market, I got the feeling that some of these liquids would look more at home in some mad scientist's laboratory, bubbling up from a flask or retort. I then started reading labels and found: this drink contains absolutely no fruit juice. What is it? There are chemists whose job it is to create fake substances that taste like the real thing. That mango or banana hard candy may actually be some long chain ester or other evil substance. A child might innocently ask: why not use the real thing? In blindfold tests, people most often prefer the bogus taste, probably because they recognize and associate it more readily with the real one.

Extrapolating beyond the ingestibles, modern life may be like some sort of bad fairy that switches the fake for the real without our awareness and eventually with our tacet consent. Human nature is fascinated with illusion; I am afraid that we like to be fooled.

1/7/97: Eccentricities and superstitions.

In a recent interview, the surviving spouse of a suspected suicide was asked by reporters:Was any of his behavior abnormal? Her answer was: NO, except that he liked to eat his popcorn with cream and sugar. (I guess she never held hands with him in the movies). In all of us is an eccentric (out of round) or superstitious streak; after all, one can look in vain for a 13th floor in a skyscraper.

The composer, Arnold Schoenberg even abandoned the correct spelling of the prophet, Aaron, in his oratorio, Moses und Aron, because the original would add up to 13 letters. Plenty of people display compulsive behavior tying shoes, puttng on hats, coats, eating, entering a room, etc. that defies logic. We are supposed to be logical, but in reality we desperately need magic, voodoo, the unexplained. Maybe the Reagans were correct in consulting a swami during Ronnie's second term: at least voodoo economics earned its name.

I would put in a bid for the illogical, magical, and the totally off the wall idea or gesture, because it is probably more in keeping with human nature. Why not say grace before meals, toss salt over your shoulder, bow to Mecca: cover all the bases. You never know when reality will prove to be beyond deductive logic. Be honest: aren't there things that you do with a relentless consistency, just to please the gods (you supply the context)? That reminds me: I've go to go and light a candle for all the MIA's who were the product of alien abductions. Maybe we should start looking for Judge Crater again.

1/6/97: Never put Tide® in a Jacuzzi® or, The Day the Bathroom Disappeared.

Unwittingly, I reprised Jack Lemmon's famous laundry bomb scene from Mr. Roberts by trying to clean the Jacuzzi with detergent. It all started so innocently; the suds seemed to renew all the little holes in the air system, until the blanket of foam began to rise... Unfortunately, I was called to the phone to answer questions for one of those surveys of fast food (When was the last time you visited a Wendy's?). Since I have never been inside one of those, I tried to explain the facts. 20 minutes later I had discharged the telemarketer with some unsavory remarks about hamburgers in general; and, I returned to the Jacuzzi. Except, I couldn't find either it or the bathroom. Everything from the hallway back was encased in a thick, white foam that seemed to seal off the doorway, walls, ceiling, and everything in between. Suffused in the background was the quiet whirring of the Jacuzzi motor, relentlessly pumping out more and more white stuff. For once in my life I felt empathy with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice (even as a kid I hated Mickey's high, twerpy voice, stupid white gloves, and sexless attire). I also knew that the timer would churn relentlessly on for another 30 minutes.

My first idea was to charge in and activate the hidden pump switch, which was too hidden because of the suds. Failing that and acquiring a thick veneer of white goo, I opened the front door of the house to go out to the main panel. Scaring three small children and a cat on my way to the garage (looking like the alien in The Thing)I finally shut down all electricity and waited in the dark (it was night) for the foam to subside. An hour later the soap deflated, and the Jacuzzi timer finally ran out. When I turned on the lights, I was greeted by the set from White Christmas: everything was coated in foam that looked like movie snow.

What I learned from this experience was that any commercial substance in an obnoxious box has the potential for great destruction: who knows what that carton of exploding Sugar Pops or Cheerios might do if it got loose? Beware of the potential energy of Pop Tarts when placed in the microwave. Carbonated soft drink cans are like grenades, and anything in a spray can is ready to foul the air. Having just returned from a movie about Louis XVI, I became painfully aware that none of the characters portrayed would understand my recent suds debacle: they had enough problems with their powdered wigs and French peasants.

1/5/97: PC Disney; Pirates of the Caribbean goes PC.

Disney's latest moronic confirmation of its knee-jerk political correctness was revealed in its latest new press release declaring that the robotic pirates in its theme park ride will no longer chase the robotic women. I am sure all of us will rest easy knowing that Disney is doing its bit for feminism (of course, don't look too closely at the gender complement of its upper management). If we apply PC logic to Shakespeare, he and most writers would be in big trouble. Get thee to a nunnery, Hamlet's curse to Ophelia, meaning: go to a whorehouse, comes to mind. Some plays, like Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew would be positively anathema.

It seems that the do gooders that drive political correctness, in addition to being humorless idiots, are also ignoring aspects of human nature that will never change, given a three million-year basis. In a totally PC world, most of the stuff in art museums would have to be covered up, almost all magazine and TV ads would be banned, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima would have to cease to exist (what color is she, anyway?), and all references to sailboats, autos, and other high performance machines with women's names (including magazines with women's names) would have to stop. I would be more impressed if we in the US could elect a female President, like in Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, England, and other less PC places.

The last time I looked, I don't think I noticed that any of those pirates of the Caribbean were Black or Asian, not to mention gay pirates; but, naturally we would not want to enforce any stereotypes. I guess my screenplay about a group of black lesbian desperadoes who beat up on the wheelchair basketball team, coached by a drag queen, only to be saved by the Frito Bandito, is a little out of step. Bye for now: don't take any wooden Susies.

1/4/97: Three of my high school teachers were really stuffed, talking toys.

My classification of some teachers as stuffed, talking toys began with the observation that my second-year French teacher resembled a miniature of one of those Macy's parade balloons. Her dress appeared to be filled with melons, and she seemed to float down the aisle in a forward bending attitude, as though she were being pulled along by a troop of mice. My Latin teacher had the fuzzy, unkempt visage of an FAO Schwartz version of a homeless person; and when he talked, it was like he was a tape recording on an answering machine. I can remember at least two teddy bears and one Barbie© doll: she was new to the profession and always seemed to be trying out for the part of the other woman in some mysterious soap opera. Herr Cloos, my German teacher flew for the Luftwaffe and was right out of central casting, except that he had a pink, stuffed ham look and always wore a thick, fuzzy cardigan that looked like it was made out of belly button lint.

These mordent memories had a profound effect on my delayed decision to teach (anyone....anything). How do you stand up there and not look like a complete fool or like you just dropped your groceries? Although content is not the aim of this column, I propose to offer a little advice to prospective teachers:

1. Don't read from notes: you will always look like you are lost.
2. Don't sit at a desk; move around and you will not put anyone to sleep (especially yourself).
3. Get to know your students' names immediately: they are not potted palms.
4. (For men): the purpose of going to the blackboard is to check that your fly is not open.
5. Repeat your main points at the end of the lecture; TV newsreaders should be your models.
6. Privately, ignore all parents and anything they say: it is prompted by the mistaken idea that SusyQ is above average and cute as a button.
7. Quit after five years; you have probably expelled all the gas you have.

1/3/97: Umbrellas as Scientific Instruments and Weapons.

In one of the greatly quoted truisms of this century Louis Sullivan proclaims: Form follows function , one of those comfortable ideas that hold true for objects of surpassing nobility like the concert grand piano or the steam locomotive. However, some eminently useful objects appear to be Rube Goldberg rejects of the most improbably complex configuration; enter, the umbrella. Although we take it for granted, imagine for a second that you have never seen one before: it appears grotesquely intricate, underengineered, and unreliable in design.

In fantasy it allowed Mary Poppins and The Penguin to fly; in reality it is more likely to turn into a convoluted liability in a high wind. The word, of course comes from the Italian, ombrella (Fr. ombre) meaning shade. In 1611, Corvat mentions the device in Crudites, a treatise on modern times; we still associate it with quaint modernity. Considering technological acceleration, this object has changed little. It seems more at home with the buggy whip and the muff than with the laptop computer and cell phone.

The best thing about umbrellas is that if you carry one before it rains, the rain will never arrive: it is scientifically designed to PREVENT rain. If you are attacked, the device make a good impromptu sword, the weapon of choice for old ladies and hyperactive children (I believe that Professor Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes fame had one with a concealed blade, and Eric Satie had one that held booze in the handle, like many canes of that era. This, naturally gave rise to the term, long drink).

I also associate the umbrella with my grandmother, who made them in a factory for $1.00 a day in the 1890's. I can never remember her carrying one in my lifetime (she was probably overcome by thoughts of fleeting wealth from her parvenu career as an ombrellista). My favorite word derived from the device is umbrellian, meaning serving the purpose of an umbrella: that could be almost anything from a pet cat, pie plate, cardboard box, newspapers, or any hat. One of my character tests has a question: have you ever bought one of those little umbrella-head hats. Only complete jerks actually wear such a hat. Of course, it represents a synthesis of the umbrellian and the umbrella and suggest foolscaps worn by medieval jesters.

Ultimately, the umbrella represents complete freedom, because it cannot be owned, is always being left behind and being picked up by strangers, who then, in turn, lose it to other strangers. Maybe we should admire its oddness, persistence of existence, and independence. Maybe someday it will appear on a national flag.

1/2/97: New Year's Resolutions.

Are we all ready for a clean start?

When I was five, I made resolutions to not eat too much candy, not take what adults say too seriously, and never buy a suit with matching jacket and short pants. Today I find myself making the same resolutions: I wonder what I have learned in the last fifty years.

The author and his younger brother wearing the dreaded shortpants suits (this is not a recent picture). Here we are upstaged by a 1947 Chrysler, which looks like it could eat us for dessert. Shortly after this picture was taken, we declared ourselves scientists so as to be taken seriously. (Our careers were cut short by a successful test of a jet engine in the basement of the family home. An adult dinner party upstairs was rudely augmented by the untidy arrival of firemen and police.)

Human nature does seem to be condemned to revisit its own weaknesses, while dissipating its strengths. Never being sure that I am yet speaking as an adult, I continue to dissect the offhand remarks of adults and collect those semi precious nuggets of verbal folly. That conversational banana peel is out there waiting for all of us as the meritorious becomes meretricious, and vice versa.

I keep thinking that some things can never be improved: my handwriting still looks like that of a convicted axe murderer, my wardrobe still consists of discarded and mismatched sweatsuits or tuxedos, and I still have not been able to get through The Magnificent Ambersons.

Updated daily. Copyright © Paul Reale, 1997. All Rights reserved.