Thursday, December 28, 2006

You Better Be Ready

So my girlfriend and I went to Lafayette, Louisiana for Christmas. My parents moved down there ten years ago when My Old Man took a job with a jewlery company that's headquartered in Cajun country. The intervening decade has included a lot of tentative explorations of that part of America.

Our new favorite activity, mine and my father's, is to visit Barney's Pistol range. We are quasi-eggheads from Massachusetts. We both like guns, mostly from afar. Even pre Brady bill, you had to pass rigorous background checks and whatnot to own a pistol in the Bay State, so neither one of us had any real experience with them. We'd both shot plenty of shotguns and rifles, but pistols are a whole different animal. Barney's is great because it's like a bowling alley, without the bottled beer. You can rent any ole gun you want, from a Dirty Harry Magnum to the newest Glock or a fully automatic submachine gun. (Of this weapon, one of the staff members said, "It's like bungee jumping or parachuting. You have to do it at least once in your life.") This permits guys like us to enjoy a variety guns without the hassle and responsibility of owning them.

Anyway, my Dad, my girlfriend and I drove over to Barney's and shot a .40 caliber Beretta and a nine millimeter SigSauer, and that was fun. Initially intimidated all to hell, Katie came to enjoy the Bond-girl power of blasting away at a paper target with the Beretta.

My other favorite activity in Louisian is driving around pointlessly. I took Katie on one of these rides, and as we drove we started noticing signs for something called "cracklin." Usually these advertisements accompanied billing for boudin (pronounced "boo-dan".) I know what boudin is. It's nasty sausage. I had no idea what cracklin was. I asked my parents about it. They explained that it was something like pork rinds. Duly noted, we planned to try some before we left.

So on our last day there, we went for a short pointless drive. We intended to get some daiquiris from a drive-thru, another Lousiana custom of dubious wisdom. Click on the photo for a closer look at a typical drive-thru daiquiri menu. My favorite is the Blue Diesel.

We got in the car and wandered around for a while. After a bit of searching, we found a grocery store/meat market with a sign for cracklin. We pulled into the lot.

I have learned that when I go into a new situation in Louisiana, if I immediately introduce myself as a visitor who is interested in a local custom, people are tremendously friendly. There's a strong hospitality trait among cajuns. It's one of the nicests things about the place and the people. So when we entered the store, I walked up to the woman at the counter and I said, "Hi, we're down here visiting, and I'm seeing all these signs for cracklin around town, and I've never tried cracklin. I don't even know how to begin to order it."

The woman looked up from her Us Weekly and said, "well, okay. We got three different sizes. It comes prepackaged." She led us over to a butcher counter. On top of the counter stood three hotel pans. In each hotel pan was a heap of zip-lock bags containing brown rinds. They looked as though they'd been on display for a day or two.

I said, "Do people usually order it hot?"

The woman looked up at me. She said, "Well you can get it hot. But if you do eat it hot, you better be ready for diarrhea."

Katie and I blinked and stared.

"It's real good hot," she went on. "But there's something about it, when you eat it hot, your body tells you it ain't right."

Nevertheless, we bought a four dollar bag.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Running With Scissors

Vanity Fair has posted the full text of its Augusten Burroughs article. I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why people sought refunds on Frey's book, but everyone has chosen to let this one slide.

How to Make Coffee

From time to time people come to my home. When they visit, I offer them coffee. If they accept the coffee offer, I give it to them. Once I’ve given it to them they sip the coffee and say, “Wow. That’s good coffee.”

They often want to know what kind of coffee I use. I hem and haw about it, not because the coffee I use is embarrassing— I buy Chock Full o’Nuts. I buy this brand because I like the labeling and I like the jingle. It also comes in gigantic cans. I hem and haw about it because if I start discoursing on my preference for canned coffee, I sound like one of those guys who despises modernity as an affected quirk. This hits a little close to home. I do affect this quirk. Worse, in bashing home-ground, whole bean exotic coffee, I’m implicitly saying that you are a sucker. The way you make coffee is qualitatively worse than the way I make coffee. All this is true, and you will know it if you’re sitting in my kitchen drinking a cup of joe. The delicious coffee in your cup is proof that whatever gourmet blend you buy isn’t giving you much flavor mileage. You will feel a sinking sense of shame and inadequacy all on your own. If I start talking about it, well, that’s just not gracious.

Nevertheless, you’ve been lied to. People have impressed upon you the need to drink coffee that costs 29 dollars an ounce because it was grown on the volcanic hillsides of a remote African land, harvested by virgins, roasted by eunichs and sold to you by some pasty-skined trust-fund heroin addict with a face riven by peircings. You do not need to do this. Just go to the supermarket and buy a can of coffee.

But before you do that, throw out your stupid coffee maker. Whatever kind of coffee maker you have, it’s probably wrong. Space-age electronic drip coffee makers, coffee presses, those plastic funnel filter single-serving doo-dads that you put on top of your coffee mug, I call bullshit on all of them. The fancy electronic drip coffee makers bust all the time, and they often cost more than a hundred bucks. Coffee presses are probably the best of the lot. I dissaprove of those on strictly aesthetic grounds. The hot water should drip through the ground coffee rather than sit on top of it. The one-off filter doo-dads make a mess and brew treacley brown water. We won’t even discuss the coffee bags that major hotel chains place in their rooms.

Go and get yourself a coffee percolator. The first benefit of the coffee percolator is linguistic. Coffee percolator is a euphonic expression that nearly matches “ice box” in its poetic potential. You can use the term coffee percolator in a song. You cannot sing a song about a “French Press” unless it’s a dirty song. You can barely say the names of many modern electronic drip coffee makers. Perhaps this lends them an air of mystery and power. I say it’s a cover for the fact that they suck.

You can still buy an electric, plug-in percolator. That’s fine I suppose. I prefer my stove-top percolator (pictured). It’s got a couple of obvious benefits. First, it has no electrical components, so I don’t have to worry too much about leaving it in a sink half full of dirty water when I go out of town. Second, it has no electrical components, so I can make coffee if the power goes out. Third, it has no electrical components, so if I go camping I can take it with me. Also, if civilization grinds to a stand-still and all utility service is cut off, I will have coffee so long as my supply of Chock Full o’Nuts lasts. You will stare mournfully at your four hundred dollar, now useless combo espresso, cappuccino, latte’ making back massager and wonder where you went wrong. And when the zombies come to feast on our flesh, you will be too lethargic to run. The undead will devour you and I will live. But go ahead and buy the electric percolator. It’s fine.

So where do you get a stove-top percolator? I highly recommend George’s Variety Store on the corner of Meserole Avenue and Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. George carries a couple different varieties of percolators. I’m partial to the stainless steel one, because it’s basically unbreakable. For a long time I had a pyrex percolator and that was cool because you could watch the water turn into coffee. But the pyrex broke one day, and I imagine that happens to everything made from pyrex. If you don’t live near George’s, try Wal-Mart.

So once you have your percolator, clean it or whatever. Then place the stem funnel in the pitcher. Pour water into the pitcher until the water is just below the notch on the stem. Place the basket onto the stem. Put your index finger on top of the stem. You do this so that coffee grounds won’t plug up the works. Scoop coffee into the basket until the basket is full. That’s the first tricky part. You have a little lid that goes on top of the basket, and it needs to fit in easily. So don’t overfill the basket. When the grounds are soaked with hot water they swell. Then they either spill out of the basket or they gum up all the works and make a muddy mess. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get it.

So you’ve got the coffee in the basket. You’ve put the perforated lid on top of the basket. Now put the lid on the pitcher. If you wussed out and bought the electric percolator, you’re done. Plug it in, the electronics handle the rest. If you’ve bought the stove-top percolator, now is where the alchemy really begins.

It’s best if you have a gas stove. This is because gas stoves rule and electric stoves are a common household perversion. (Have you ever seen an electric stove in a professional kitchen?) At this point, if you have an electric stove, you should probably just call the gas company and have them come by to install a real stove. If the gas company won’t come, or if you can’t afford to have a gas stove installed, just follow along. The instructions for a gas stove should work just fine. Place the percolator on a burner. I always use a back burner in case I want to cook something for breakfast. That way I’ve got easy access to the front burners. Once the percolator is on the stove, turn on the gas beneath it. Put the gas on low, but not too low.

What happens next is a bit tricky to describe. You are not boiling the water. This is important to realize. If you boil the coffee, you burn the coffee and it will taste like swill. You are heating the water so that a convection current will form. This current will push water up through the funnel. When the water runs out of the top of the funnel, it will filter over and through the coffee grounds—this is the eponymous percolation of the percolator, the filtering of water through the grounds. In order to prevent boiling the coffee, be attentive. Once the percolation begins, turn the gas down as low as you can. You want it to percolate slowly.

How long should it percolate? I usually let it go about five minutes from the point at which it began to perc. You can go longer or shorter, depending on how rich you want your coffee. Sometimes I let it go a while, and this yields a coffee that’s almost viscous like espresso. Other times I’m in a rush and I pull it off the stove as soon as the stuff percolating in the little glass bubble is faintly brown.

Now here is the last benefit of a stove-top coffee percolator. When the coffee is done, you shut off the gas. Then when you want another cup later, you can reheat it, carefully, and it will be good. The reason old coffee tastes like bile when you buy it at the deli or get it at your office is because the coffee has been left on the hotplate all afternoon. The unending heat of the hotplate messes with the delicate composition of the coffee, and so it tastes awful and bitter. But if you only heat it up as needed, it’ll taste just fine for the rest of the day.

That’s it. Enjoy your coffee.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Plagiarism Everywhere.

I know no one reads this other than my girlfriend and some Greek Orthodox Fundamentalist law enforcement officer hot mom from Chicago. All the same, I want to blather about plagiarism and intellectual property rights a bit, if only so that I get it out of my system. I’m sparing my girlfriend the rant that’s building in me. She’s really good at nodding graciously when I go off on these dull tirades at dinner time, but I know they bore her. Given that she’s younger and better looking than I am, and may wake up to that fact at any moment, I’ll be wise to vent it here.

I worked for the Authors Guild for five years. The Guild is sort of like a union for folks who write books. It doesn’t have collective bargaining power, but it does offer other services one associates with a union. Dispute resolution, friend of the court briefs, industry research, blah blah. Mainly, people called in seeking membership because they had a problem.

Many of the problems they had were legit. The caller wrote and published a book and the publisher had just filed for bankruptcy. The author needed help getting their money out of the bankrupt publisher. Happens all the time. We could help with that.

Just as frequently, people called because they were crazy and thought they had a problem. The most common kind of crazy went like this. “I wrote a book about vampires in 1974. I self published it on a mimeograph machine and distributed the copies to homeless shelters in the North East. I have now discovered that Stephen King also wrote a book about vampires. It was released soon after my book was published. Stephen King obviously plagiarized me. Help me sue him.” I am paraphrasing a real phone call from a crazy person here.

We never assisted these people, and not merely because they were crazy. First off, the Guild has a standing policy of neutrality when it comes to inter-author disputes. We also did not assist them because anyone can write a book about vampires. No one owns the concept of vampires. Just like no one owns the concept of bank robbers, or hookers with hearts of gold, or sassy young professional girls just trying to make their way in the big city. Also, no one owns the idea of Christ on the Cross, Templar conspiracies, Jewish Conspiracies, teen love or animals that talk.

My boss instructed me to tell these people, “You can’t copyright an idea.” And it’s true. You can’t. Sorry. If I decide to assume the voice of an egomaniac with dead parents and a little brother in a memoir, or if I choose to write about my impoverished childhood on the dank shores of the Ten Mile River in North Attleboro, Mass., neither Dave Eggers nor Frank McCourt will successfully sue me so long as I don't obviously base my work on theirs. I can't name my little brother Topher or have my Mom fuck her cousin, that would be too close. But generally I can use the basic scenario.

You can only copyright the expression of an idea. That’s a fine point that gets by a lot of people. The concept of raising a little brother without parents is not copyrightable. The sequence of words that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comprises is copyrightable.

I bring this up because lately people have gone a little crazy with their accusations of plagiarism. Maybe it’s that the Internet allows folks to more easily draw connections between works. Maybe it’s because people are bored and looking for trouble. I don’t know. But everyone needs to get a grip.

Some of the accusations are legitimate. That overachieving Harvard girl who wrote a Young Adult novel obviously stitched together paragraphs from other young adult novels. The case is so cut and dry, it’s not worth discussing. I believe the story got play because the theft was lazy, and almost anyone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college loves to see an Ivy Leaguer smeared with shit.

But most of the time, the outrage aimed at certain creative people is just a bit off the mark.

Today, implied that their favorite whipping-boy James Frey is ripping off the John Cougar Mellancamp song “Jack and Diane.” Why? Well because he’s written a bit about two young middle-american kids, a boy and a girl, who are obviously poor and in love. That’s it. That’s the similarity. Of course some lawyers should send a letter to Stephen Malkmus for “Jenny and the Ess Dog.” And Bruce Springsteen should be dragged into court too for "Thunder Road." Or maybe Bruce is the beginning of this daisy-chain of rip-off. But then there’s the Chuck Berry song, “You Never Can Tell” which tonally is different, but it’s still touches the subject matter of young lovers facing off against the world. Of course there’s a precedent to that song too. It's called Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, you get the idea.

Last week there was a pig-pile on Ian McEwan followed by a subsequent defense from other novelists. His novel Atonement drew heavily on the memoir of a war nurse. He cited the memoir in his book and at readings. Some of the passages in his book also echoed passages in the memoir, but really, how many ways can you describe the broken bodies of wounded soldiers? And why is this coming up now? The book was published in 2001.

Usually the rip-off accusations are limited to lower brow authors and songwriters, for lack of a better term. McEwan is a a bit of an exception to the rule. Daniel Brown, the definition of low-brow and the author of the Da Vinci Code, has fought off lawsuits from some people who think the notion of Christ as a literal father is their exclusive clever idea. (It is not. No matter what Seth Mnookin tells you.) Despite his earlier victories, more lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, David Mamet, god bless him, steals with impunity. “American Buffalo” is essentially an Americanization of “Waiting for Godot.” It is called homage, rather than rip-off. Glengarry Glen Ross blatantly, and artfully, synthesizes two earlier masterpieces, “Death of a Salesman" and the Maysles brother’s documentary “Salesman” into a work that is at least as good as the art that informed it. Sadly, Mamet has begun setting his sights a little lower these days. His new TV show, “The Unit", is an estrogen laced re-tooling of the “A-Team” that suffers from a lack of explosions, nifty building sequences, and most obviously, Mr. T. So far as I know, the Beckett estate, the Maysles brothers and Stephen J. Cannel have not retained attorneys to sue Mamet.

In the McEwan case, he’s somewhat inocculated against a lawsuit because he clearly lacked intent. He cited the woman’s work left, right and center. But this doesn’t stop the shrill haters out there. If it’s any consolation to McEwan, he is in esteemed company. When I was an undergrad a similar controversy arose, claiming Martin Luther King had plagiarized portions of his Ph.d thesis at Boston University. That was my alma mater, so I took a few minutes to check out the thesis. His crime? He forgot to write “ibid” in a few footnotes. It was obviously a copyediting error, but still people got their panties in a twist about it. How much do you need to cite your sources? I mean for Chrissakes, it’s Martin Luther King. I think he gets a mulligan on an ibid or two, don’t you?

Well ultimately, no. So long as there are Jack Shafers, Seth Mnookins and the biddy brigade from Gawker about, you’ve got to be on your toes.

So what, right? You don’t care. You’re not an author. What does it matter? Well, it does matter. Right now we’re seeing the way it matters in film more than anything. Intellectual property “rights” have run amuck in that art form. If you have the time, check out "Bound By Law" an instructive comic book put out by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Now I know essayists for Slate and Vanity Fair don’t count as legal precedent, but judges are influenced by a lot of factors. And their tendency these days is to err on the side of restriction. How happy are you going to be when songwriters like Yusef Islam, nee Cat Stevens, decide to have another artist’s music pulled from the shelves because it shares a freaking chord progression with a b-side written thirty-five years earlier? Go on, shrug, but the Flaming Lip’s “Fight Song” is ten times the recording that “Father’s and Sons” ever was. And there’s a good chance that a book that “plagiarizes” earlier work will also be an improvement. That’s how art happens.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Be Prepared

I was a Boy Scout in the 1980s and I loved it. No one sodomized me, though I definitely heard tales of innapropriate touching. Despite this fact, scouting was among the most important things I did as a young kid. Everybody knows the scout motto "Be Prepared," and it's been on my mind a lot lately.

Being Prepared in the Baden Powell way is a state of mind. It is a zen practice. The totality of your life should be consumed by preparedness. Learn first aid. Know how to light a fire, drive a stick-shift car, put on a condom, sail a boat, paddle a canoe, ride a horse, shoot a gun, write a letter to your congressman, cook pancakes, pitch a tent, ask a girl out on a date without sounding like a jackass. The list is endless. You may be called upon to do this stuff at some point. Call me a nerd, whatever, I don't care. I'm prepared.

So when the story came out last week about the CNet editor who got his family stranded on a snow-bound road, I groaned. I feel bad for his family. I feel bad that he died, but he didn't have to die and that's the worst part of it. If he just had some camping equipment in the trunk, they could have spent half the winter up there. If he had worn decent shoes and a hat, he propbably wouldn't have frozen to death. If he had stuck to the road when he went looking for help, he wouldn't have gotten lost. This list, too, is endless.

The scout motto is on my mind again because of this new story about climbers stuck on Mt. Hood. Okay, so they went mountain climbing in December. Not the most comfortable time of year to climb a mountain, but whatever. What kills me is that they planned a "quick" ascent of an 11,293 foot mountain, so they didn't bring a whole bunch of burdensome cold weather gear. Oh boy.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Don't Play Dumb

A man in Tacoma has been busted for feigning retardation. Apparently his mother got him started at a young age. Now he's an adult and the government wants him to repay the disability benefits he and his family have collected over the years.

Can you imagine the double life that he's led? How do you remember who thinks you're retarted and who doesn't? Are these all issues resolved by Johnny Knoxville in The Ringer?

Back to Basics

A forthcoming article in Vanity Fair allegedly documents the fabrications of Augesten Burroughs in Running With Scissors.

When the James Frey book was exposed as largely fictitious, I took the unpopular position of "who cares?" Lots of people called for the guy's head on a platter. Even if Frey is a jerk in real life, the outrage was completely misplaced. Frey slandered no one. He told some stories about himself that were fiction. In order to enrich those stories, he invented some characters that others found interesting.

The woman who became JT Leroy went one better, she not only invented the stories and all the characters they contained, she invented the persona of JT Leroy. Again, no harm, no foul.

Burroughs, on the other hand, took elements of his real life, and real people from his real life, and then told alleged lies about their criminal negligence as his guardians. Will someone explain to me why he gets a pass and Frey gets villified? Because I really don't understand.

Other People's Money

I love this guy.

There's no scam like an old scam.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Changing Times

A long long time ago I worked as a reporter for a small town paper. Our paper was not the smallest in the region. From time to time we lifted story ideas from yet smaller papers in neighborhing communities. Early on I tried to credit the other papers in my copy. My editor scolded me for the attempt. As far as our readers were concered, the paper that employed me was The Paper. An acknowledgement of any other paper in the universe was a confession of weakness and bad for business. This is the normal way of doing things. You crib the story from another source, do your own reporting, generate your own quotes and hopefully write it up more elegantly. You see this on the news every night at eleven.

Except now it's wrong.

In response to complaints by the editors of smaller papers, the Times has now told its reporters to never read any of the papers that claimed their stories were pinched. Genius.

Notions of intellectual property rights have gotten way out of hand.

A Punch in the Nose

Here is a short list of people who deserve a punch in the nose:

1. Dave Eggers.
2. Jay Leno.
3. The boss at almost any job I've ever quit.
4. Probably you.
5. Andy, the guy who lives across the street from me.
6. That junky on Newel.
7. Tom Wolfe.
8. Gay Talese.
9. Any other elderly white man who dresses like a pimp.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why Dave Eggers Sucks

Dave Eggers is a bully and a star fucker. I don't care if he writes a book that feeds all the children of Darfur, mends their severed limbs and washes clean the memory of watching the rape and murder of their mothers, Dave Eggers is still a bully and a star fucker.

Stories we tell ourselves

I love Irish Americans. Almost without exception, folks with a Hibernian surname will tell you that they are descended from a king. Where one finds pride in the royalty of the colonized is a mystery to me. I, however, am not descended from a king. My nominal Irish ancestor was an assassin who killed a king.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I Quit

Last night I finally found my old copy of Confessions of Zeno. I'd spent the whole day uselessly staring at my computer, failing to get much work done, failing to not smoke, failing to do much of anything short of exchange a few emails with a favorite writer, learn that he's in a rough spot despite four published books under his belt. I then consider the prospect of driving a truck for a living.

At least it was warm out.

So anyway, there I am with my copy of Confessions of Zeno. I've read it three times already and ripped it off a billion times in conversation and writing. And I remembered why I loved Zeno so much. He can't stop quitting. He smokes, he quits. He starts again. He checks into frigging rehab to stop smoking, and he starts again.

I have been on the patch, zyban, the gum and cold hard will. I binge smoke so that I wake up with my temples throbbing and my eyes rimmed red. This is aversion therapy, I believe. I smoke I don't smoke. I wash my face and brush my teeth and take a shower and change my clothes before going to my girlfriend's house. I know she wants me to quit. She kisses me, tastes the tell-tale Listerine and says, "John McCloskey you've been smoking."

I'm not fooling anyone, but I'm trying I swear.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tom Tom and Pancake Batter

I made pancakes a lot when I was kid. Along with grilled cheese sandwiches, oatmeal and eggs, pancakes are something a kid can actually cook, as opposed to merely defrost or toast or nuke in the microwave. So on a typical Saturday morning, I would take down the box of Bisquick, pull some eggs and milk out and start cooking. When I first started doing it, I was in a thrall to directions and instructions as much as I enjoyed the responsibility of cooking my own massive breakfast. You know, there's that chart on the back of the box and it tells you to use one egg and 1 1/4 cups of milk for 12 pancakes or whatever. I followed the instructions to the letter. But after a few Saturdays I learned that the instructions are wrong. They're always wrong. If you follow the instructions exactly you will make shitty pancakes every time. They may be shitty in a novel way, every time you make them. One batch will be too thin, and another will be too thick. One dry, one pasty.

Eventually I stopped following the directions. I'd concoct the batter based on the principle of just making it look right. Winging it, an eight year old in front of a hot stove. Fantastic freedom. Perfect pancakes.

This may be a leap, but one popular Christmas gift puts me in the mind of pancake-making: the car-bound Global Positioning Systems made by Garmin. I hate the very idea of these things. Last year I was working a job that frequently required me to take a car service to a printing plant in New Jersey. The drivers lived and died by the GPS. They never had any idea where they were. A computer told them what to do. The computer was often right in generalities, but always wrong on specifics. Streets that it thought were two-way, were one-way. Exits didn't exist, or the merge off the highway went left instead of right. I planned for a longer car ride than it should have taken.

Now I've said before that if a machine can do a job better than a human, then the machine should do the job. But we need to understand what the job is. Knowing where you are is a metaphysical issue. You can't boil it down to longitude, latitude, minutes and seconds. Knowing where you are in space and time means that you know how your immediate surroundings relate to the time and space that surrounds your surroundings. Rats can be trained to turn right or left when running through a maze at the command of a tone, just like humans can turn off the highway because Tom Tom told them to. But the rat doesn't know where he is, and if you use a GPS, neither do you.

I have only been truly lost a handful of times in my life. My definition of lost is this: you have no idea where you are, how you got there, or how you can get to the other place you had in mind when you left your point of origin. Once I was in a foreign city. It was late, I was drunk. All the riot gates on the stores had been pulled down. So the narrow streets which in the daytime were lined with distinct, recognizable shops, were now grey walls marked with the heiroglyphic scrawl of graffiti I couldn't read.

I couldn't speak the language to ask directions, and there was no one to ask anyway. It's a sickening feeling. It is also absolutely necessary.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Word of the Month


Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Vietnam

I once heard a recording of Lyndon Johnson discussing the elemental tactical problems of the Vietnam war. The Vietcong, in Johnson's estimation, could lay in a muddy ditch for days waiting for an American platoon to pass by before ambushing them. American soldiers could not mimick the tactic because after a few minutes, "they'll want a cigarette or something."

This is where I'm at with the mice. They know the traps. They know the bait. They know I'm here. I never know if they are here or not, lurking in the corners or off in another building on my block. As soon as I think the mice are gone, they attack, screaming in their little mouse language, hurling home-made grenades at me and blasting away with tiny kalishnikovs. I should take a forty-five in my hand like Forrest Gump and crawl into the mouse network of tunnels, confronting them on their own territory, but on my terms.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mice Revisited.

I posted earlier about what I shall now call Mice War II. In mentioning the new mouse insurgency, I wrote that one canny little bastard traced his way around a glue trap, obviously aware that treading upon it meant a sticky death. By implication you might have assumed that his predecessors from the summer weren’t so bright. This would be an incorrect assumption.

The mice that infested my house late this spring were very smart. I first discovered those mice when I found a plastic bag of Pepperidge Farms stuffing that had been torn open, its contents scattered around my cabinet. Little black squiggles of mouse crap peppered the floor of the cabinet. I immediately did the sensible thing. I swept up, cleaned the inside of the cabinet and left a spring trap baited with peanut butter. A few weeks passed. The trap snapped the necks of no mice. I figured that it had been a fluke. The mouse responsible for the scattered stuffing had been a ranger-mouse, charged with taking the vanguard in search of food and shelter for his breathren. When I cleaned up the food, the gang decided to deploy elsewhere.

Then one night I was up late working. A grey blur flashed in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw a mouse. Uh oh. They’re still here, I thought. The next day I went to a 99 cent store and bought some glue traps and some more spring traps. I baited all of them with dried cubes of stuffing, figuring that the mice were accustomed to eating it, so they’d take the bait. I got one mouse the next night. And that was it.

Reluctantly, I hoped that it was just the one. I went back to my normal routine. The other traps remained set, just in case. They captured no mice for weeks. Then one day, I found another bag of food-stuffs scattered in my cabinet. This one was a bag of Cajun soup mix that my mom had sent me. The gauge of the plastic was much thicker than normal packaged food plastic. The bag was vacuum sealed, and had been undisturbed for over a year. The traps had not been touched.

Then it occurred to me. These mice know that food in plastic bags is safe to eat! What’s more, they know that plastic bags often contain that food.

How do they know this? According to Wikipedia, the life-span of a mouse only reaches 2 years in laboratory captivity. In the wild they don’t live much longer than 3 months. It took me seven years, as a human, to learn to tie my shoes, with multiple instructors. Do other mice communicate this information to them? Are there mouse survival seminars?

It reminded me of an incident that I witnessed once on the 14th street L train platform. For those who don’t live in New York City, the L train is the crappy subway that runs between North Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan. For most of the past several years the MTA has been “upgrading” it. What this meant was that almost every night after 10, train service was cut in half. Rather than run trains on two tracks, in each direction, train service went to one track exclusively at that hour. One night I reached the subway station a few minutes after it had gone to single-track service. And so I was stuck waiting a half hour for my train.

At the First Ave station you can look across the tracks to the opposite platform. That evening, someone had dropped a large order of McDonald’s French fries on the platform just before it went to single track service. The fries, their red cardboard container and the ketchup sat there directly opposite from where I stood. Because it was a variance in the environment, my eye naturally fell on the pile of fries while I stared into space. Then a rat popped out of the drain hole on the wall behind the fries. I watched it.

The rat meandered around the platform a bit, then homed-in on the fries. It gathered up a bundle of them and crawled back into the drain hole. A few moments later, it popped out of the hole and collected some more fries. I imagined that it was bringing food home to a little rat family. Somehow this was a nice, warm image, like a Norman Rockwell picture, but with rats. The rat made this trip several times, until it had gathered all the fries. I continued staring into space. That’s when the frightening thing happened.

The rat came back for the ketchup.

It emerged from the hole and picked up the sealed plastic envelope of ketchup. Then it tried to re-enter the hole, but because the envelope was sealed, it would not collapse to a width that would fit in the hole. The rat dropped the envelope, and then picked it up again, trying to force the envelope cross-ways into the hole. I turned to the man standing next to me.

“Are you seeing this?” I said.

He looked straight ahead. “Yeah, I am. It’s kinda scary.”

We watched the rat struggle awkwardly with the ketchup for a bit. After a few tries he seemed to figure out that the ketchup would fit into the hole if he pushed it in lengthwise, rather than crosswise. Then he disappeared, off to feast on his fries with ketchup.

So this incident was on my mind when I realized that the mice were specifically searching for food safely protected in plastic bags. “What else do they know?” I said to myself.

In the weeks that followed, I outsmarted the mice, just barely. I washed and then rebaited all the spring traps with chocolate, bits of an Easter Bunny that had been in my freezer for moths. The temptation of chocolate was too strong. Eleven mice succumbed to it. Though I left baited traps in place, I captured none and saw none until now. Looking back, many of the mice were clearly young. Perhaps they merely ignored the wisdom of their elders.

Now I am at a loss for what to do next. These new mice obviously know that a taste of chocolate is a death sentence. They surely know that peanut butter is bad news too. Cheese hasn’t worked as mouse bait since 1957. Should I go exotic? Tehini? Vegemite? I guess I’ll have to learn.

Undisciplined Vanity: How to find me

The following Google searches will yeild this blog as the first hit.

John McCloskey Lies
John McCloskey Cigarettes
John McCloskey Kitty
John McCloskey moustache (sort of)

Of all the combinations, I think I'm most proud of kitty.


The mice are back in my apartment. This batch has been properly orientated. They have taken seminars in evasive techniques before their arrival. At three a.m. last night I watched one deftly trace a path around a glue-trap.

I first had an infestation late last spring. In the subsequent killing season I liquidated 11 mice. This, I thought, was the Final Solution. Clearly I was wrong. What follows is a battle of wits.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Juice

It's been more than 12 years since O.J. Simpson decapitated his wife and gutted Ron Goldman like a fish. Now O.J. has surfaced again, doing prepress publicity for his book in which he steps into the shoes of the murderer. In keeping with the underlying (but often ignored) purpose of this site, O.J.'s narrative return to the scene of the crime requires some comment.

O.J.’s disconnect from the truth amazes me. The willingness of publishers and television networks to harvest this disconnect and the murder for cash is also very impressive.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ads on My Blog

This site is equipped with an ad server option. Having chosen this option I will ostensibly earn money if people click on the ads.

What I don't understand is how these ads are chosen. Early on I would see ads for crap that was faintly related to the text of my posts. Then today I saw an ad for this company called "In Line Crowd Control." I clicked it. It's an interesting outfit. Their slogan is "We Keep You In Line."

Here are some of their wares:

Airport-style doo-dads that compel folks to form tidy ques.

An old stand-by.

Metal riot barriers that keep riots where you want them.

And my favorite:

Only the dancer poles make sense in association with this blog.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Quitting Quitting

The only thing I do better than anyone else is roll cigarettes by hand. The cigarettes I roll are of consistent shape and size, firm cylinders of paper encasing a spindle of tobacco. They burn perfectly, always feel right in my hand and taste delicious. They look just like a machine made them.

That level of precision, their likeness to machine-made cigarettes is a bit shameful, but it's the least shameful element of this talent. If a machine can do what you do, then let the machine do it. Humans are intended to do what machines cannot do. I am not about to get into a John Henry-style competition with a cigarette machine. That would be silly. What's truly shameful about this skill is that I have perfected a hand-craft that will kill me. Imagine if knitting caused cancer. Would anyone knit for fun? No.

I started rolling my own cigarettes in earnest several years ago, upon my return to smoking after a two year break. I had dabbled with hand-rolling as a younger kid, in college. My earlier rolling habit was all affect. I wanted to seem hard, more real, though that term didn’t exist at the time. Of course in trying to be more real, I was a monumental phony. Later, when I started rolling smokes in earnest, I was as real as could be. I was cheap, and I wanted to smoke as little as possible.

Before that, I had been dead serious about quitting, and it was a hard thing to do. I asked my doctor for help. He prescribed a drug called Zyban. The chemical in Zyban, bupoprion, is also marketed under the name Wellbutrin. It’s meant to treat depression. No one is exactly sure how it works in treating depression. But a few years after it hit the market as an anti-depressant, doctors began noticing something odd. Their patients who smoked reported that they had spontaneously quit smoking. Depressives smoke at a much greater rate than the rest of the population, so this was a noticeable occurance. A few studies were commissioned, and bingo, the drug’s maker found another market for their pills.

It sounded like a great plan. I would take a pill and that pill would somehow, as if by magic, drain the urge to smoke right out of me. I had always thought of myself as a depressive, so maybe this drug would take care of that too. I mentioned this potential added plus to my doctor. He made an encouraging little punching gesture and said, “This stuff will give you a little oomph.” I nodded. He nodded back at me, and resumed writing the prescription.

After that doctor's appointment I walked down to the banks of the Hudson River. It was February 1999. I was 27 years old and had accomplished nothing. The water on the Hudson that day was like glass. At that time I smoked Camel filters. I must have smoked three or four, sitting on that bench looking out at the undulating black mirror of the Hudson. I remember grieving for my bad habit, for my depression, for the blue cigarette smoke that I loved so much but that I knew would kill me sooner or later. The pill would send it all way. I’d turn over a new leaf. Right? I mashed out the cigarette, turned my back to the water and started walking back towards 72nd street.

My doctor gave me a sheaf of paper with the prescription. It told me what to expect in the coming days as I started taking the drugs and subsequently quit smoking. I wish I still had that paper now. I remember that it told me that I had to ease into the daily dose. That should have been a warning sign right then. For several days I took a quarter of a pill, split in a little pill guilletien at my kitchen table. After that I moved up to a half a pill, and then finally a whole pill. As the treatment went on, I was encouraged to try to quit, but not try too hard. The wording of the sheet, if I recall correctly, suggested that I would just quit.

That is basically what happened. I also became mildly psychotic. Or perhaps sociopathic is the more accurate term. I remember one particular meeting at work during that period. My boss, an obnoxious woman, went on about some nonsense that she didn’t understand and that no one could possibly care about. It’s true I hated her. But at that moment I remember feeling completely dissociated from my physical body, from my moral upbringing and from any sense of goodness I had. While my boss prattled on, I looked at her and thought, “Oh yeah, I could kill her and it wouldn’t bother me a bit. It would be like squashing a slug.”

I called my doctor. He asked if everything was going okay. I said, “Yes, but I want to kill people, joylessly, but without remorse either.” He told me this was normal and that I should continue taking the drug. That particular side effect would ease.

I continued on with the drug for the prescribed 3 month period. I soon realized that it’s primary function seemed to be squashing all emotion, all pleasure, all pain. I was never sad, but I was never happy. When I did try to smoke during this interval cigarettes neither sated an addiction's craving, nor disgusted me. I ate, slept and had sex only because it seemed situationally appropriate, not because I wanted to eat, sleep or fuck. But understand at the same time, it’s not as if I didn’t want to do any of these things. In some sense, it’s as if the Wellbutrin greased the rails of free-will. So I now made decisions on a purely rational Spock-like level. Food? Yes, eat it, or you’ll faint or something, not because it feels good in your mouth or smells tasty. Smokes, no don’t smoke them, or you will die. My other moderately bad consumption habits, coffee and alcohol, I continued only because I thought it would be odd if I forsook all my habits at once under the influence of another drug. But one night I was at Tom and Jerry’s, and I had a pint of Bass Ale in front of me. I drank some of it, but wasn’t much interested in the rest. It still tasted like Bass I suppose, but the overwhelming sensation it gave me was that of mere wetness. Who cared? For the rest of the evening I drank water.

I also recall that evening coming up with a new slogan. Here it is: “Cunt rhymes with Orange.”

Not so good, huh.

Now it would be untruthful to say that the subsequent two years passed without any backsliding. I did smoke from time to time. Usually when I was drinking, I granted myself the indulgence of mooching a smoke off of a fellow drinker. But I only very rarely purchased smokes, and I seemed to be functioning just fine. I still, however, did not accomplish anything of merit.

Then came September 11. You may recall that some people crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center on that day. It was a pretty big deal at the time. By late afternoon that day, my friends started sorting out their coping strategies. I went to visit my friend John. He lived in a second floor apartment that overlooked the ruin of the McCarren Park pool in Williamsburg. The skyline of the city was visible from a chair in his kitchen, with the spires of the Empire State Builing and the Chrystler Building sticking up most prominently from the island of manhattan. He smoked pot as I sat with him, each of us trading our stories from the day, tracing our personal proximity to the tragedy. He offered me some refer, and I declined. It is unusual for me to decline an intoxicant when I’ve no immediate work or relationship obligations. But in those days I didn’t know what kind of immediate obligations would be foisted on me at any given moment. None of us did. Other folks decided to get drunk or a little high, or, as my girlfriend’s landlord chose to do, have scary loud sex with a hooker while everyone else in the building is forced to listen through the thin walls of the building. I was going crazy myself. I did not want to be intoxicated. I also did not want to take a psychoactive drug as prescribed by a doctor. So I walked to the deli and I bought a package of Drum tobacco. And I smoked.

In the years since then, when I’ve told some people that I began smoking again after September 11, a few of them have said that I was just looking for an excuse to start smoking again. September 11 provided it. These people are universally people who were not in New York City on that day. I have four words for them: Shut the fuck up.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kitty Cats

For the same reason I was recently traveling with a disco ball, I also recently purchased some realistic looking kitty cats. There are companies that manufacture stuffed, taxidermy-like cats for people who love cat so much that they need an inanimate cat always within reach. Of course these things are not sold at the bodega on Manhattan Avenue, so I found myself talking on the phone to a very nice Minnesotan named Debbie.

The thing is, I purchased these cats for the sole purpose of dismembering them. Some people, somewhere once dismembered some cats. I had been conscripted to help emulate this activity for filming purposes. Of course we could not dismember real cats, though it would have been easier to find and butcher real cats than the fake cats. I like cats. They have dignity which must be honored. But the gig required me to desecrate some fake kitties, and I'm nothing if not a guy who does what he's asked.

I did not tell the nice lady from Minnesota that we planned to chop the kittens into little bits. As we completed the transactionon on the phone, Debbie told me that her website features a page on which customers can display photographs of the settings in which they have placed their fake cats. We planned to decaptitate a cat and impale its head on the top of a beer bottle. Debbie would not appreciate the aesthetic value of this display.

"That's swell Debbie," I said. "I'll be sure to send you some snaps."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

People are Good and I am a Loser

So for reasons that will go unexplained I found myself on the bus today, carrying a disco ball. This was an unusual circumstance. As I sat on the bus, I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone about another couple we know who have just broken up. The young woman half of the couple had just loaned me the disco ball. I stopped by her place of work to get it, moments after she and her boyfriend broke up. That couple had been together for a very long time, 11 years. For almost the entire time that I had known my friend, she was in this relationship. So it upset me to hear that they had called it all off, and I needed to share this information with my girlfriend, if only to get some of the weight of it off my shoulders.

So as I spoke to my girlfriend something was amiss in my pants. I wore a tattered pair of jeans whose right rear pocket had worn through from years of carrying my wallet there. This was the occassion when my wallet decided that it would break free. I should have known. The possibility of losing my wallet in these pants has been on my mind for some time. But I was distracted.

The bus reached my stop and I got off. I did the quick mental check that I do from time to time as I move through the city. Do I have my disco ball? Yep. My backpack? Check. Ipod? Uh huh. Wallet? Wallet. Oh shit. I turned and the bus was pulling away.

This was on a section of roadway in Brooklyn called Park Avenue. I have no idea why it is called Park Avenue. So far as I know, it passes no where near any major or even minor park. It is not verdant. It is hell, hemmed in on one side by rotting warehouses and factory buildings, and collapsing tenemants and rapidly gentrifying brownstowns on the other. Looming above it is the BQE, which is forever losing its battle against entropy. Scaly flakes of rust and concrete rain down from above every time a large truck rumbles past. Through this tableau, I watched the bus (and presumably my wallet) recede into the distance.

I ran.

Some people think I'm in good shape. I ride my bike everywhere, when I'm not carrying a disco ball. But urban bicycle commuting is not really aerobic excercise. It just keeps me from becoming grossly overweight. I have smoked about a pack of cigarettes almost every day for the past 12 or 13 years. Still I ran. My shoes started to come loose, as I had tied them loose. The mirror covered disco ball grew heavy in my left hand. My backpack shifted awkwardly on my back. I ran. There were moments when I thought I was lost, that the bus would escape, the rhythm of traffic lights would conspire against me and the bus would race ahead at 35 miles an hour. At those moments I despaired, and I admit, slowed to a broken-hearted walk. But then the red of stoplights would blossom again before me, and I said to myself, "I can catch it." I ran again.

With one last mighty sprint, I caught the bus. I ran that fucker down. Just as I reached the door, the driver began to pick up speed. I pounded on the door. The bus driver cursed me.

I recalled nearly missing the school bus in North Attleboro Massachusets in 1981. We had a driver named Barbara. She had blond hair and a nerve-slashing screech. When a child sprinted for the bus, she would often see him (it was always a boy, often me, or my brother) in the rear-view mirror and she would continue to drive, slowly, for a hundred yards or so. Just to make him run. I thought of this and pounded on the glass. I shouted "I lost my wallet on the bus," facing the driver through the glass. I exagerated the shape of the words on my mouth, so she could read my lips. I prayed that she was a native speaker of English, and that she would recognize the key words "lost" and "wallet." She did. Through the glass I saw her lips form the words, "Oh, you lost your wallet" as she slowed the bus to a stop. She let me on and I thanked her profusely.

I walked back to where I had been seated. There was a woman sitting in the spot where I had been.

I told her, "I think Iost my wallet here."

She started looking around her. She got up. I looked under the seat. I looked behind it and on the floor between the seat and the rear door where I had exited. The woman felt bad for me. She also worried that I thought she might have picked up my wallet. In her hands she had a brown paper lunch sack. She opened it for me, unbidden, to show me a half empty soda bottle and something wrapped in foil.

"I didn't pick it up," she said.

"I know you didn't," I said.

Then she told me that I'd just have to cancel my cards. I began to come to grips with this reality.

There's a sinking feeling of self pity and loathing that overcomes me at moments like this. I knew my wallet would escape these pants sooner or later. I knew I should have had the account numbers of my cards recorded somewhere else. I knew I should have picked up the disco ball two days ago. All these failures of judgement. I felt like a loser, literally and figuratively.

Normally I place my metro card in my wallet immedately after I get on the bus or enter the subway. I do this so I do not lose my metro card. On this occassion, I kept my metro card loose, in my front pocket. I did this because I was on the phone when I entered the bus. Now this, the second time that I had entered this exact bus, the driver did not require me to dip my metro card. But she had continued on her route while I searched. Now I was miles beyond my initial destination. At least I could get off and take the bus in the opposite direction. I would deliver the disco ball and call my card companies. The rest of the day would be a total wash of beurocratic annoyances.

This is all I could think of as I rode the bus back to where my misadventure began. I did not think about my friend who lost her boyfriend of 11 years. I did not think of all the other horrible mistakes I have made in my life. I did not think about the book I am trying to write that was at that moment, officially past due. I thought about customer service reps for Bank of America, and low level functionaries at the New York Department of motor vehicles. Through the slow moving chaos of my life, at least, for this moment, I had clarity.

I also thought about all the bank cards and cell phones I have come across in my life. I thought about how I either returned them, if any information was available that let me return them, or destroyed them (the bank cards) so at least they would not be misused by anyone. I hoped that in doing this, rather than buying a new ipod or calling Kuala Lampur, I had saved up some Karma.

The bus reached my stop. I got off and started walking down the sidewalk. I reached the very spot where I first realized my wallet was gone. For the sake of due dilligence, I intended to search the gutter and the sidewalk, on the off chance that the wallet dislodged as I stepped off the bus. At that moment my phone rang. The caller ID displayed a Brooklyn number that I did not recognize. I answered the phone.

"Did you lose a wallet?" the voice said.

"Yes I did."

The caller then explained to me that he was at the corner of Washington and Park avenue. I too was near the corner of Washington and Park. He said he would come outside in a moment and return my wallet.

And he did. I melted with gratitude for the decency of all man kind. I love you all, each and every one of you.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Recently I went to the movies. We saw The Wicker Man, which was a piece of shit. The usual previews and ads preceded the film. There was one ad that stood out, it was a recruitment ad for the CIA. Huh, that's odd, I thought. How many people does the CIA really need to hire, even in these troubling times.

Then I was watching My Name is Earl last week, and the same ad appeared during the show. I love My Name is Earl. I think it's a smart show, just like I think the Simpsons is a very smart show. But I do wonder why the CIA is posting expensive prime-time ads looking for new employees during that particular half hour.

Friday, September 22, 2006


I have not been this proud since I won a breakdancing contest in 1984. Yes, this is all me. My moustache, my music, my voice. That's the truth.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Good Ole Days

Michael Caine remarked the other day that movies just ain't what they used to be. It's true. Films once had a much higher quality.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who knew Sicily had such a cool, and faintly scary, flag?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Exploding Liquids

I'm dissapointed in the terrorists. More air travel shenannigans. Big whoop. I just heard a commentator on NPR refer to Al Quaeda as innovative. What a crock. I'll call them innovative when the motherfuckers impress me. Can you see the brainstorming meeting they had for this one. Ole Ahmed says, "Okay men, we need a new scheme. Let's hear some ideas."

Ismael says, "Uh, how about we mess with some planes."

Ahmed: "Genius. No one's ever thought of that before."

C'mon guys. How about a death ray? A black cloud that eats the flesh off our bones. A giant mechanical turtle that shoots flame from its arm holes? anything

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Early in the morning he stands across the street from my building. One hand wrapped around a coffee cup, the other hand holding a cigarette, he paces in front of his building and looks up and down the street. Andy is 5'9''. His hair and moustache are all grey. In the summertime he wears camo shorts and a muscle t-shirt. At fifty something, he still carries himself with a pugnacious athleticism. His arms curl slightly by his sides when he's not holding a coffee cup. He rocks side to side as he walks.

Andy's prize posession is his Toyota SUV. He details it every Monday morning at 7. Over the two years that he's owned it, he's added a few modifications. There is now a fake airscoop on the hood. On the rear left quarter of the body he has placed decals that look like bullet holes at a glance.

When people walk by he glares at them.

When he worked, Andy was a corrections officer for New York City. I don't know what jail he guarded. Now he's out on permanent disability. He says he has a bum arm.

The parking space in front of Andy's house is his. It is a streetside parking space, the same as all the others on the block. But it is his. If you drive up the block while he is out and park in his spot, he will be upset upon his return. If he sees you taking his parking spot, he will scream at the top of his lungs and treat you like a perp at Rikers who's been done for statutory rape of a Dominican boy.

You will move your car. As you drive around the block you'll mutter, "What a fucking loser."

If Andy returns from a trip to Home Depot with a load of lumber or cinderblocks in the back of his truck, and you happen to be coming out of your house at the same time, he will cross the street to talk to you. Then he will say, "Buddy, can you give me a hand unloading some of this stuff? I got a bum arm."

Everyone on the block knows that he does this because he fears that spies will photograph him lifting cinderblocks and rob him of his disability pension. He has a hard time finding helpers.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It's not the heat, it's the pointless precision.

Meteorologists give increasingly exact temperature readings as the weather gets more extreme. When the temperature hovers in the 60s, they go, "Ahh, it'll be a comfy 65 degrees or so today."

When the temperature goes off the chart of normalcy they say, "Oh, it's going to be 97.865231 out there, so check on your elderly neighbors, open all the fire hydrans on your block, take salt tablets hourly and call 311 if your balls get itchy."

Then they add in the heat index, the summer analoge to the wind chill factor. "But remember, with the heat index, it will feel like 120 degrees." After that they rattle off a long list of locations, "It hit 102.245 at Ahmed's Deli on Flatbush Avenue today, that's 123.243 with the heat index."

Poor poor Ahmed. In his unknowably hot native land, they at least knew enough to say "It's just hot."

Monday, July 31, 2006

Historical Lies

I have been comissioned to write a book about Lewis and Clark for children. The initial research for the project has been interesting and revelatory. Everything you know about Lewis and Clark is a whitewash. This is all a way of saying that everything I write about Lewis and Clark and submit to my publisher will be a whitewash. A whitewash is a species of lie, perhaps the worst kind and so it's proper for me to confess it here. It will also allow me to give the publisher the desired product while alleviating my desire to hang myself from a waterpipe in the basement.

I've not yet begun reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the journey. I'm not looking forward to it, but given that it's such a popular book on the same subject, I'm professionally obliged to read it. Ambrose is famous for his heroic accounts of heroic people who live in heroic times and all that crap. I've no doubt that he bestows the same treatment on Lewis and Clark because, well that's what everyone wants. When we were in school we were told that they were brave and smart. All that.

But this is where historical whitewashes get fucked up. Lewis and Clark kept journals through the course of their journey. Each man made his own entries, and so there's a certain degree of corroboration or comparision that a student can make with these first-hand accounts. Since the journals are public domain, you can buy cheap paperbacks of the journals at any bookstore. Each edition of the journals comes with a foreword by Mr. Owl Phd who inscribes some nonsense about the American Spirit and Merriwether Lewis and Bill Clarks Indominable Spirits. Yet even a cursory reading of the journals reveals that, first and foremost, Lewis and Clark were dumb.

They could not spell. At all. I don't mean they sometimes misspelled a word here or there. I'm not the copyeditor type who condemns a man for writing "to" when he meant to write "too." I mean if a word has more than three letters, there's a fair chance Lewis and Clark misspell it. Not only will they misspell it, they will misspell the word in an innovative way, every time they write it. I cannot count the variations on the words "mosquitoes" and "fatiguing" these two men discovered. For this accomplishment they have gone unlauded until now.

Now I know, they were explorers, not grammarians. Dictionaries and standardized spelling were not established in 1804. But Lewis's last job was Personal Secretary to the President, Thomas fucking Jefferson. You would hope that a guy who served as the personal secretary to the Mayor of Idiot town would at least settle on a single spelling of mosquitoes, no?

It runs much deeper than that though. In an early entry, before the beginning of the trip, Clark wonders in print, whether or not the religious rituals of Native Americans bear any relationship to those of "the Jews." This is one of the primary questions ole Bill sought to answer on his trip. There's no clear implication that Clark had anti-semitism on his mind when he wrote this. I think he moronically equated all cultures different from his own with "the Jews."

Once underway the journey unfolded with all the scientific and military precision of a cat race. While almost every account you read will describe the 40 odd men on the trip as "carefully chosen" for their skill, discipline and courage, there's little evidence of any of these traits in the journals. They are more like the Dirty Dozen than the A Team, but less competent. Men fall asleep on watch and get beaten for it. (Clark loves running a Court Martial.) By the end of the first summer Lewis writes that everyone is in good health "except for venereal concerns." This is his polite way of saying that all the boys caught the clap from fucking Indian women.

It should come as no surprise that they kill nearly every animal that crosses their path. Deer, mule deer, buffalo, black bear, grizzly bears, none of them stand a chance. (Though one grizzly bear very nearly makes a lunch of a few members of the expedition). They have no practical way to store the meat they kill, but that doesn't stop them from the slaughter. The one act of mercy I've found so far comes when a few guys nap a live ibis and bring it to Lewis. He turns all Francis of Assisi and lets it free, then he breaks his own arm patting himself on the back for his decency.

When they come upon a new Indian tribe the two intrepid explorers always set about diplomatically wooing the chief. In order to do this, Lewis demonstrates his bb gun (he calls it an "air rifle," but a bb gun is a bb gun) with pride that would shame Ralphie from A Christmas Story. In Lewis's accounting, the chiefs are always much impressed. Clark, not to be out done, commands his slave York, a gigantic black man, to dance for the Indians. Most of the chiefs have never seen a black man before, and the sight of a 6'5'' giant busting a move by the campfire is certainly impressive to them. At least according to Clark it is. (The knowledge that York had been Clark's personal slave since childhood makes this all the more creepy.)

Now to bring it all back home, it nearly shocks me that no one else seems to be aware of all this, despite the fact that unexpurgated editions of the journals have been in print for most of the last hundred years. Am I the only person who's read these things?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pretty Lies

I received my first fan letter the other day. A boy in Pennsylvania wrote to tell me that he loved a version of the Robin Hood stories that I wrote a few years ago. "By the time you get this letter, I will have read it four times already," he said of my goofy little book.

So yeah, I got all gushy and warm. I'm an ardent writer of fan letters. As a kid I wrote to Henry Rollins, William Burroughs, Hunter Thompson among others. I still write fan letters, though nowadays it's an email that I send. I figure that if I've got something simple and nice to tell a stranger, I should say it.

I sat down with his letter to compose my reply. An image of the boy's family came into my head. The whole bunch of them would read the letter, mother, father, child. The boy, I imagined, was an only child. Homeschooled. That's what it comes to in my mind, a boy who enages in one of my old hobbies must be an lonely, homeschooled, weirdo with crooked teeth and a head the size of a soccer ball. (I had two siblings, attended public school, had straight teeth and a head the size of a soccer ball.) He wears velour shirts and when he eats Doritos his mother breaks them into smaller triangles so that he won't cut the inside of his mouth.

They are almost certainly Christians. All that they do-- eat, sleep, shit, walk, talk-- is viewed through the lens of scripture. They are rural people. Anyone who lives in Brooklyn is foreign and strange to them, almost druidic in their imagination.

These are the thoughts that were on my mind as I wrote, I had to speak to this audience and convey a sense of appropriate interest in the boy, communicate a (very genuine) gratitude for his letter, and balance this with the awareness that a 34 year-old man who sends letters to 8 year-old boys run the risk of being creepy.

And so I lie a little bit. After thanking him for his letter, I ask what he reads, what else he's interested in. I tell him some of my favorite books from childhood. These are weighed carefully. Can I suggest that he read Roald Dahl? Probably not if the parents are the Christians I suspect them of being. What about My Side of the Mountain? A kid runs away from home and makes a life for himself in the Catskills. What the hell, they'll live.

Of course I am not obiliged to inform the boy that I've been a cigarette smoker for most of the last fifteen years. He doesn't need to know that I've got kleptomaniac tendencies, or any of the other unsavory truths about myself. But what can a bachelor say to a kid that's acceptable? I went to the man playbook and over emphasized guy stuff: sports, motorcycles, fighting with my brother. What wholesome american family would argue with that?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cars from Heaven, literally

Last week I started getting buggy in New York. In need of a scenery change, I came up to Maine to visit my aunt. Much to my surprise, she had my grandmothers Pontiac Grand Prix sitting in her driveway, rusting very slowly. My Grandmother died two years ago, and the car has been at my Aunt's ever since. After a series of discussions, it became clear that I must take the car.

I have not owned a car since 1990. I feel like an exile returning to his homeland. The Flannery O'Connor story Wiseblood runs through my head as I call the mechanic to see about getting the brake rotors turned. No one with a good car needs to be justified


Aunt Sue and I were driving down I-95 from Portland, on our way to visit our 102 year old aunt (technically she won't be 102 until August, but I figure once you pass 100 it's gracious to round up). We passed a sign for the speedway. I asked Sue about it. She didn't know what I was talking about, either the sign or the actual speedway. As car agnostic kind of person, both had escaped her awareness or concern.

"Sue," I said. "Next time we're driving around up here and I ask you about something and you don't know, please lie. It's more fun that way."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Worst Lie I've Heard in a While

Recently someone told me a story about a gay acquantance of her's. The story, heard second hand, is that he walked out of a gayish bar one night. By gayish I mean that everyone in the neighborhood thinks of the place as being gay friendly, but it's not like the Blue Oyster Bar in Police Academy. As he walked away from the bar, a Ford Econoline van rolled up. A hasid at the wheel, it came to a stop. The driver said to him, "You wanna get in the van?"

This young man has a reputation for being adventurous, and he likes to live up to it. He got in the van. Once there, he saw that there were six other hasids in the back, gathered around a glass coffee table.

At this point in the story, I said, "Wait, are you going to tell me that they plated him?" (For those of you who don't know what plating is, uh, it's a sex practice that involves defecation and a pane of glass and an usual vantage point.)

She said, "Yeah."

"That did not happen."

"How do you know?"

Well, first of all it's too tidy, the story I mean, not the sex practice. Untrue stories ignore the messy loose ends of life. Complex behaviors happen effortlessly in a lie. A vast government conspiracy conceals the existinence of aliens in New Mexico. Satanists operate a string of daycare centers. Etc.

Now take this story. We, the audience of the tale, are expected to believe that a half a dozen hasids made a club out of their shared love of caprophilia and gone cruizing for goyish objects of this fetish. Absurd. Think about how hard it is for half a dozen people to choose a restaurant. Now consider that these folks are engaging in an act that is universally regarded to be filthy and disgusting. Now consider that the guys in this story, Hasids, live in a closed community that eschews unneccessary contact with people outside their community. How did this little consortium of perverts find one another? Did they post to Craigslist? "Hasidic Jews seek other Hasidic Jews to enjoy shitting on gay gentiles in the back of a van?"


What's more, this particular lie rests on the rock-solid foundation of good ole fashioned anti-semitism. Hasids mind their own business, and since the rest of us are dirty bastards we imagine that they're up to no good. I mean, why else do they avoid us good Christians? Isn't it obvious that they want to poo on us?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Help me

There is a nuance to the best lies. They have a texture and a rhythm that draws you in. A good lie is complex, a tapestery of solid indisputable truths woven together with unproveable vaguries that presents something that looks like the truth, so much so that you seem like an asshole if you question its veracity.

Now in this vein a lot of people will pick on advertisements. And those are a fine example. I mean the core message of every Bud Lite ad is that it will get you laid. This is a blatant lie. Barring the lapses of judgement that go along with being wasted, no one has ever gotten pussy because of an Anheiser Bush product. We all know this in an academic sense of the word, but when you see the ad, and you see that hot girl with big tits making a sassy remark that comments on the zeitgeist of this particular cultural moment, you think about fucking. That makes you feel something for Bud Lite. And maybe it makes you feel some loathing for Bud Lite because you're a sophisticated guy and you understand what they're trying to do to you. So you sit there with your sour puss on your face and your bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale every time you go out to play pool. But for every one of you dudes in Williamsburg and Oakland there's about two hundred guys having a blast in Ohio chugging Bud Lite.

But the most commendable lies in this vein are self-help books. For example:

The underlying statement of this self help book is that the type of dad you have dictates what kind of worker you will be. Well who can argue with that? The lie comes in when we accept the authors premise that he has some real wisdom to share with us. He presents the Trojan horse of faux-freudian the-sky-is-blue type of observations and then follows up with observations like this, "Children of the "time-bomb" father, for example, who explodes in anger at his family, learn how to read people and their moods. Those intuitive abilities make them good at such jobs as personnel managers or negotiators, he writes."

Now how does he know this? How does he even categorize "time bomb" fathers? Isn't every father a time bomb? It's just a matter of time until you use his favorite driver to whack rocks into the lake, and boom! The "time" bomb goes off right about the moment he sees the nicks in the head of the club.

Monday, March 13, 2006

When a Lie Beats the Truth

In college I worked for a fancy Boston catering company. One fall Saturday we did a wedding at a Brocton art museum. I was happy to go on a drive out of the city for the afternoon so I could see the leaves change, at least from the highway.

As these things went, it was a fairly high-toned event. More than anything, the bride wanted to demonstrate that she had class. This is almost always a mistake, especially when it's reflected in the menu. As part of the meal, she had chosen a sorbet course as a traditional pallet cleanser in between the appetizer and the entree.

Now even among lace-curtin, banking Irish folks, sorbet is not a regular part of any meal. So as the first servers went out onto the floor with trays of champaign glasses filled with scoops of bitter, citrus ice, you could see the perplexed looks on the faces of all the crag-faced old hibernians in the room. When they tasted it, their confused looks turned to outright scowls. Everyone on staff knew this would happen.

Back in the kitchen, we hustled to get the stuff out so we could finish the dinner. Robbie, the manager, scooped the sorbet from a big pickle bucket furiously. But then a funny thing happened. We ran out. One table of ten remained, and all that was left of the sorbet was a runny soup at the bottom of the pickle bucket.

This is a fairly common occurence in event catering. You run out of a dish, or you forget it at the shop, and then you improvise. In most cases you wind up dashing off to a Cumberland Farms or 7-11 and buying a substitute. In this case, the museum was 5 miles from the nearest store and folks were waiting for their sorbet. So we upended the kitchen. By the grace of God, a museum staffer clearly had a thing for Squeeze Pops. The freezer held a box and a half of the things. So we busted out the box, cut open the plastic envelopes of flavored ice, mashed them up with the remains of the sorbet and scooped the whole mess out into 10 marie antoinette champaign glasses. Garnished with a mint leaf, they looked pretty good.

Then I took the tray on my shoulder and walked out into the room. I smirked the whole time I was serving.

Now here's the funny part. The table that received the Squeeze Pop sorbet was the only table at which everyone finished their sorbet.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Several years ago I was looking at a map of North America. This was at a moment at work when I should have been working but was not. Like you, I do a lot of this. The standard daydream of driving a car across the United States scrolled through my mind, reflexively as it does anytime anyone looks at a map.

We've been programmed to imagine our own personal Dean Moriarty showing up on our doorstep, fresh from prison or reform school, holding the keys to a Hudson of dubious origin, urging us to just go. And in our minds, we go, for a second. We grab a clean shirt, a pack of smokes and get in the car.

New York's gravity falls away suddenly. What seemed impossible, escaping the pull of our familiar neighborhood, our effete comfy friends is now easy, inevitable. The car rolls down the BQE, over the Williamsburg Bridge, through the rotting gothic archways of steel from whence we watched the Twin Towers burn and peel down to the street like a wilting lily, down to the perpetual low-grade catastrophe of Delancy street and across the cluttered blur of fancy Soho shops until we plunge into the tunnel and emerge squinting in the daylight of New Jersey. At this moment even Newark, rising halfway to the horizon holds greater promise than anything we've seen in years. Out there beyond the stacks of Newark lay Pennsylvania, and we know it will seem huge when we're in it, but in the coming weeks it will be a fleeting blip when compared to the eternity of Nebraska.

Most of us, at this moment in the daydream just click on another link and navigate from Google maps to Gawker or the Hun. We had a Dean Moriarty in our lives once, but we stopped hanging out with him years ago, when he almost got us arrested in Flagstaff. (Guns were involved, as was the threat of sodomy.) Even if we did still know someone like Dean Moriarty, we'd keep him and his borrowed cars and bennies and slutty jazz-loving girlfriends at arms length. Hectic adventures are nice to read about, and maybe even pretty good to watch on TV, but what with the prospect of venerial diseases, twisted highway wrecks in cars that have no seatbelts nevermind airbags, yee. An image flashes through our mind of our body crushing against the windshield when our Dean dozes off, and we keep the daydream in its unrealized state, like the crush we've got on that girl at work.

But I have been sitting at someone else's desk, doing someone elses work for too long. My daydreams are overwhelming me now, spilling out in meetings, right on the conference room table. Someone suggests that we need to "streamline our workflow," and I say, "No, we all need to quit this shit and be dangerous. It's the last chance we've got."

They write it up on the whiteboard. The marker squeaks and in bright blue ink, it looks less real.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

In Defense of James Frey

A random short list of popular "non-fiction" books that contain either obvious or documented falsehoods, or plaigarized elements:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, By Dave Eggers
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, By John Berendt
Mole People, By Jennifer Toth
A Rock and a Hard Place, By Anthony Godby Johnson
You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish, By Jimmy A. Lerner
The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Running With Scissors, By Augusten Burroughs.
In Cold Blood, By Truman Capote.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, By Hunter S. Thompson
Locked in the Cabinet, By Robert B. Reich

Ask Me No Questions:

I sent out an email a few weeks ago asking for people's lies. I wanted confessions of lies people have told, their best lies. A lot of folks were intriqued by the idea but less than forthcoming. The main theme that came up was one of responses to unanswerable questions.

For example, you're standing on the altar with your sweety on your wedding day. The priest goes through his incantative question: do you take this man, to have to hold honor and obey through sickness and health until death do you part?

There's only one answer to this question. Everyone knows that fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, but the only answer ever uttered is "I do."

The other classic and more base response lie is: do these jeans make my ass look fat?

They do, of course. Everyone knows this. The jeans always make your ass look fat. That's why he likes them. But he also knows that if you are a white girl, and you almost surely are if you're asking this question, you do not want to hear that the jeans enhance your rear end.

Now this is where the codifcation of lies gets interesting. In the first instance, is saying "I do" in response to the priests question really and truly a lie? Is it a lie if you mean it at the time, even though a voice nags you in the back of your head, the prescient voice that forsees the ugly divorce and child custody dispute? I know at least one person who knew his marriage wouldn't last, but he still said, "I do."

In the second example, is it ever a lie to tell her, "No baby, those jeans don't make your ass look fat" Because she knows you're lying.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lies, Lies, Lies YEAH!

In light of the recent James Frey debacle, this blog is being repurposed in a vein that sychronizes nicely with its title. The goal of this blog from here on out will be to ferret out lies brazenly made in public and then critique their merit as lies.

Please note: Outside of politics and romantic relationships, I place no value on the truth. I may even be fibbing a bit on the second count. Nevertheless, it's clear that lies play an important role in our society. We need to understand lies, how they work and don't work if we are to become effective liars ourselves. I myself learned to lie on the day I was baptized. My mother had forgotten to get that bit of business taken care of until I reached the ripe old age of four. As she dressed me for the ceremony, she told me, "Now don't tell Gramma about today."

My poor Gramma Mary was Calabrese and she believed that children who died unbaptized were doomed to roam the Earth as malicious southern-Italian leprechauns. If she'd known that my mother put me at this particular risk for four years, she would have gone apeshit.

I didn't know this at the time, so I said to my Mom, "Not even if she asks?"

My Mom said, "Not even if she asks."

"Wouldn't that be a lie?"

Mom said, "Sometimes it's better to lie."

Truer words were never said. But the important thing is to lie well. It is in the spirit of improving the lies we tell through scrutiny that I rechristen this blog. Through this blog we will praise the good lies and ridicule the bad. In this fashion our society will strengthen.