Mightier Than The Pen

Making The World A Bitter Place

Archive for July 2010

I Am SO Going to Burn for This

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Any city or town of significant size has its share of panhandlers. New York has more than its share, certainly, but that’s the price it pays (har!) for being the financial capital of the world. Not to worry: in a few decades New York will lose that distinction to, say, Shanghai, and we can all go back to worrying about the positively horrific filet mignon you encountered last night.

But you don’t need to visit the Big Apple to get accosted by beggars. True, in some European and Asian cities the police make sure such people stay away from the tourists, but stick around a metropolis long enough (forty minutes should do it in most places) and you can rest assured you’ll be asked for spare change, bus fare or whatever. But it never ceases to amaze me how unprofessional, or just plain incompetent, many of these panhandlers turn out to be. So as a service to anyone considering such a line of work, I hereby offer a few guidelines:

1. Tuck away all jewelry before initiating what we shall call customer interface. The image you wish to project is one of need. Visible bling, alas, conveys one of warped priorities and contempt for the customer, which, as you can probably infer on your own, constitutes a losing business strategy. So off with the gold chains, or at least conceal them in your baggy clothes (contempt, as you can see, must remain the province of this blogger).

2. Your sob story must resonate with the customer. Few beggars have successfully petitioned a passerby with a tale of stamp collecting gone awry, or of fellow Klan members failing to rescue you from the clutches of law enforcement.

3. The purpose for which you seek the funds, if stated, must bear some relationship to your surroundings. I live about as far from our city’s bus terminal as one might reasonably consider walking distance, but one day, after walking some distance up the main drag in the direction away from said terminal, a woman asked me for bus fare. And then again, the next day.

4. While the pressures of panhandling demand relief, the time for a cigarette is not while on the job. For some reason, scientists insist on accepting all of those studies showing how smokers are all irresponsible, short-sighted wastrels, as if they have some say in how you spend your hard-earned money. Unjust as that seems, this arrogance trickles down to the everyday customer, so the wisest course involves no obvious use of your revenue for tobacco, alcohol, or other escapes.

5. If you choose to affect a disability, make it convincing and consistent. If you limp, always limp on the same leg. Sunglasses in themselves do not confer blindness. By the same token, however, too much emphasis of the infirmity may prove counterproductive: if you adopt the role of amputee, keep that stump covered.

6. And finally for today, a bit of insanity goes a long way. You want to aim for that fine line between amusing eccentricity and on-the-edge world-weariness. Think Jim Carey, not Jack Nicholson.

As panhandling is a demanding career, few of you, dear readers, will end up choosing it. But many of you may pass by such people with some frequency. I urge you, then, to print out this code of conduct and present it condescendingly to the next few beggars you encounter. Then, at least, you will be able to test point number six.

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Written by Thag

July 29, 2010 at 11:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

You Know That’s Just LOADED with Fat, Right?

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I was going to get all altruistic and proud of myself for trying to pound out oodles of posts over the next few days so my newly invalid wife (she fell and hurt her foot) will have entertainment as she sits in front of the computer, unable to go very far. Then I realized she’d rather have me spend the time with her in the flesh instead of poking away at my keyboard one floor below. A guy can’t win.

After all, I love sitting here in front of a blank text field, waiting for inspiration to strike (I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut who said there was nothing more terrifying than a blank sheet of paper). Usually it hits me square in the jaw and makes a quick getaway. Of course, this time I was eating peanut butter straight from the container, and that softened the blow somewhat. I should make a habit of that, just as a safety measure. But next time I’ll use a spoon.

For some reason, I have to fix more typos than usual. Many of the keys are sticking. Whatever. No time to figure that out now; must play gopher upstairs…

Written by Thag

July 27, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Stop and Smell the Roses, Dammit

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Some people have an itch to travel. Me, I’m not allergic to anything.

I have nothing against tourism or tourists; I proudly engage in either end of the arrangement when appropriate. But many people seem to have a drive to visit faraway or unfamiliar (or perhaps all-too-familiar) places at every opportunity, as if it’s some seasonal migrating instinct.

I recall passing through a hotel lobby a number of years ago, on the way to meet a friend staying there. A number of (you guessed it) American tourists were lounging around, and as I passed one group ensconced in the comfortable chairs and loveseats, I overheard enough snippets to piece together the topic of conversation: where should we go next vacation?

My wife and I are homebodies. During Lamaze classes before the birth of our first, the instructor conducted an exercise that called for us to visualize being in our favorite places, to get us to relax: a tropical beach; a large green expanse; you know the drill. This didn’t quite fit with our sensibilities. After the exercise, my wife asked me, “Do I even have a favorite place?”

“Your bed,” I answered, “or maybe a bakery.” Simultaneously, we inhaled the suddenly evocative, if imaginary, aroma of baking bread, and couldn’t complete the move before laughing. Who needs Nepal when you’ve got home?

I do harbor some curiosity about a number of places and experiences: Galápagos; Prague; a cruise; the original Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington, Vermont. But the curiosity remains just that, not enough to push me to do anything concrete about it. Prior to our recent trip to the NY area we did briefly explore a fantasy that involved a long, long drive into Vermont, but we both knew better thank to think it might actually happen.

Now, we do have a nice home, falling apart though it is. But it’s not the, um, luxury that keeps us rooted. There has to be a very good reason to leave the neighborhood: a wedding; picking up loved ones at the airport; sufficient compensation. We’ve had the same car we got in 2002, and have yet to hit 55,000 kilometers (that’s about 34,175.4156 miles, for the slow among us). When every amenity lies within walking distance, driving becomes a rarity.

So back to those people at the hotel: can you imagine spending your vacation planning your next vacation? Do these people inhabit the present? I can just picture how they function in everyday life:

  • After making love: “So…how will I be?”
  • “What are tomorrow’s specials?”
  • “Mr. Palmer, where will you be on the night of the 23rd?”
  • “For the Lord, your God, plans to be a jealous god…”
  • “We intend to hold these Truths to be self evident…”
  • “I will be Spartacus!”

It’s not like we don’t go out and do stuff; we’ve already taken a couple of family camping trips, three- or four-day affairs with tents, sleeping bags, the works, and we do join family and friends for various events in random other places. But I can’t wrap my head around this need to make travel so important that it impinges on the here and now, even in the midst of other travel.

Excuse me, my wife is calling. I think I’ll go discuss with her what we want out of our next marriages.

Written by Thag

July 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

This Is Not a Post About Brooklyn

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We just sent our nine-year old on a three-night camping trip with a youth group, his first such stretch without us. Part of me can’t contain the excitement for him. Part of me tries to suppress the automatic worry. Part of me looks forward to having one less being over whom to watch. Part of me (this would be the back and shoulders) will miss the extra pair of hands and arms carrying the baby around and keeping his sister from killing him.

I remember my first overnight camp experience. I’d just turned seven, and insisted I could handle the eight weeks of camp away from my family just fine. My older brother would be there for the first four; what’s the big deal?

I must say, very few of my memories from that summer qualify as positive. I do remember enjoying the pool (where I first encountered the sign, “Welcome to our ool. Notice there is no P in it. Please keep it that way,” which I thought exceedingly clever, and repeated to whoever would listen, probably as nauseam, or ad whatever other threshold you prefer not to evoke, for months, if not years, afterward). I also remember some nice people, and being introduced to the game Milles Bournes while in the infirmary for a few days. And the care package I received from my parents, which I was thrilled to receive, but upon opening, was devastated to discover contained calamine lotion (which I promptly spilled, I promise accidentally), OFF! wipes and possibly other things, but certainly nothing exciting or edible. Definitely not candy. What the hell? Oh, and the two visiting days and the canteen (this was the summer I discovered Tangy Taffy and Orange Crush), and the sugar dispenser at every table in the cafeteria for unfettered addition to breakfast cereal. I think I brushed my teeth exactly once that summer, way at the beginning. The same holds true for showering, if I recall correctly. I’m afraid I do.

Other than that, I remember how terrible I was at various sports; how much I detested both the cookie and the fruit punch they distributed more or less everyday; how much time there seemed to be with no activities at all; how we were always pitted in competition against the bunk next door (that of my brother), who were, naturally, one year older and therefore more proficient at absolutely everything; how the sewage ran in semi-open ditches just outside the bunks (when there were no activities scheduled, sometimes we would remove the wooden planks that lay over said channels and call to someone inside the bunk to flush,then cackle our seven-year-old cackles as feces flowed past) (I also remember a walk that took us past the cesspool, but the context eludes me); how I learned how to call collect, and spent some time nearly every evening calling my parents from the red wooden phone booth, the only actual booth, attached to the office, the one with the phone that actually had buttons, not a dial; how I once took the time on a Saturday to poke around in the barn-like building where they stored all the campers’ trunks and clambered up and around the pile of them until I found my bright red one with my family name in masking tape on across one side, right next to my brother’s blue one – I sat there for I don’t remember how long, thinking of home. Suffice it to say, my parents knew better than to send me away again even for one four-week session until I was ten. Suffice it to say in addition that they did not send me to the same camp.

A few other events from that summer come to mind now:

– I remember an agonizingly long trip upstate on a coach bus, my first time in such vehicle, though I recall no particular details.

– I remember arriving there on the first day, in the pouring rain, and seeing the red, yellow and probably pale green bleachers (two or three rows) at the main baseball field, and not seeing the bunk buildings right near there – so when someone said, “There are the bunks – that’s where we’re gonna sleep,” I thought he meant on and underneath the bleachers.

– I remember wetting the bed (or at least discovering in the morning that I had wet the bed), and seeing a rather large dead fly in the wet spot.

– I remember my brown shoe polish – the liquid kind in a plastic bottle with the sponge on top – spilling all over some of my nice blue shirts, and wearing them that way.

– I remember wearing only one of the two pairs of sneakers I’d packed, all summer, because early on, the other one had a knot in the laces that I couldn’t undo (no, it never occurred to me to ask a counselor for help).

– I remember going on a small hike into the woods where we saw the name John Cook painted on a big rock in orange capital letters, and hearing our counselor tell us John Cook was a murderer who preyed on little kids and lived in the woods around there somewhere; a branch snapped (I do think I remember one of the counselors being away from the group at the time) and we hightailed it back out of the trail and onto the paved road that led back to the camp itself.

– I remember a trip to, of all places, a kosher winery (along the way, I had an argument with my seatmate over whether having the window open would make him lose his hat forever; he maintained that if the wind blew his hat off, the latter would blow farther into the bus, not out; I disagreed, noting that other windows behind us were also open, and it could easily fly out one of those, too; a counselor agreed with me and all but forced him to close it most of the way).

– I remember a night so cold that it might actually have snowed, and our junior counselor told us the camp custodian had been up all night shoveling.

– I remember a day that started out rainy, but once it let up, a large group of campers assembled on the camp’s main drag, underneath the branch of a very tall tree, upon which hung a tremendous beehive, and some campers thought it a good idea to chuck rocks at it; just as soon as an announcement came over the PA system warning everyone to stop it, someone’s shot hit home and split the thing  clear in half.

– I remember the soda machines right outside the canteen – a can of Pepsi cost forty-five cents.

– I remember rooftop baseball, which used a rubber ball and the pitched roof of the bunk: one player would toss the ball onto the roof, and the other had to catch it before it hit the ground; if not, the number of times it bounced before it was caught represented the number of bases advanced (years later, at my next sleepaway camp, I encountered an improved version: instead of the end-to-end arrangement of buildings that characterized my earlier experience, the later camp had them arranged in parallel. The object was to toss the ball onto the roof such that it would bounce off at a shallow angle, preferably hitting the roof of the adjacent bunk, which would count as a home run; distance determined the score, not number of bounces).

– I remember how the administrative folks would get around in golf carts, or perhaps that was only the maintenance folks.

– And I remember, if only vaguely, getting onto the bus to go back to Brooklyn where my parents would pick me up – and where they had dropped me off.

To this day, I have no interest in Brooklyn. Some of the sweetest people I ever knew came from or live in Brooklyn, but I have too many negative associations with the place for that to matter, even though those associations formed nearly three decades ago, the first one begin a hot afternoon spent traipsing around for what I recall to be no particular reason.

I’m pretty sure, though, that my son will have a blast. It’s only three days, and he’s with some great other kids from the neighborhood. And it’s not Brooklyn, so how bad can it be?

Written by Thag

July 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

What a Prescient Surprise

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Not too long ago, I pontificated on the prevalence of superfluous phone features. I am both relieved and alarmed to report that the new phone, with its newfangled magic, has ceased to perform the one function I need it to do: the damn thing won’t make or receive calls. So I’ve reverted to my old machine, temperamental as it is. Predictability is important (you knew I was going to say that).

The term “grim satisfaction” comes to mind. The relief stems from the fact that this collapse of yet another system in my life has had minimal impact. Along with that comes the inevitable trepidation: what’s next? Did I leave a Voodoo doll of me lying around somewhere? Have the poltergeists decided to hold their annual convention all around me? (“Hello. My Name Is Bumpen Greind”) (Shaman you for thinking that).

Come to think of it, this sort of thing goes farther back than I realized. The house we live in incorporates a number of features that were new to us when they were installed, such as toilets with no external tank – wall-mounted units with a button on the wall behind them. We asked the designer whether cracking open the wall is the only way to effect repairs. “They never need repair,” she assured us. Until one of them plumb fell off the wall. “That never happens,” said the guy who reattached it. True, it hasn’t budged in the five years since, but of course one doesn’t expect to have to make such observations about toilets (generally, the only movements we associate with toilets are not generated by the toilet itself).

We could also consider the perpetually leaky roof and skylight (where aesthetics apparently trumped functionality), but who has time for such troublesome matters? I’m busy waiting for the refrigerator repairman.

Written by Thag

July 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm

When a Gimmick Goes 2 Far

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Apple should make an intentionally ugly device and market it as the iSore. Or an insulin-administering piece of equipment called the iSlets of Langerhans. iCan’t think of more such stupidities offhand, but you’re welcome to.

Written by Thag

July 24, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Expurgated Version

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And it came to pass in the thirteenth year of the reign of Thag, son of Ogg, that the refrigerator did make sound and fury, but did not cool. This did displease Thag, son of Ogg, and he did make known his great displeasure to the people.

The people gave no heed to Thag, and followed the whims of their heart; they did continue to open and close the refrigerator.

On the third day, Rowlf, son of Thag, did open the refrigerator to remove milk, for that was where they kept the milk, and did pour it into his corn flakes. And the milk bore the consistency of cottage cheese. And Rowlf did cry, “The milk hath turned!”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, his wife, “Lo, the refrigerator doth make sound and fury, and doth not cool the food. Let us call a repairman who shall heal the beast.”

Miggtha said, “Yea, call shall ye call, and tell him thou that the freezer compartment doth also drip.”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, “If it be thy wish to manage the content of the conversation with the repairman, thou canst make the phone call thyself.”

And Miggtha said unto Thag, “Why dost thou evade responsibility like that?”

And Thag said, “It is not responsibility that I evade, but the three-way conversation that shall ensue. I seek but to cut out the middle man, just as thou seekest to limit my contact with thy sister.”

And Miggtha’s eyes did grow wide and then narrow, and her eyebrows did plunge, and she said with raised voice, “What dost thou mean?”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, “For it be four months now that when it be that thy sister Blogg call, thou dost snatch the receiver from my hand and prevent me from conversing with her.”

And Miggtha, daughter of Klung, did say, “For I knoweth that thou dost harbor lustful desires for Blogg, for I did hear her and thee when thou thought I lay sleeping.”

When Thag, son of Ogg, heard this, Thag wielded his finger and did extend it toward Miggtha. He did say, “‘Twas but a jape! Blogg did recount the time thou held a slumber party and did immerse the fingers of Umba, daughter of Klonk, in warm water, and she did wet the sheets; and I said unto Blogg, ‘Miggtha be far too wary to fall for that schtick.’ And Blogg did challenge me to avenge Umba, daughter of Klonk. And I did protest, and I said that thou art surely awake and would fall not for the trick; and Blogg did begin talking to me with heavy breath. I did grasp her intent, and did play along, but thou reacted not, and we ceased the jape when thou reacted not.”

Upon seeing that Thag, son of Ogg, did make clear the source of her troubles, Miggtha did whisper an apology. And Miggtha did embrace Thag. And Thag said, “So, willst thou call the repairman?”

That night, it came to pass that Thag did sleep on the couch.

Written by Thag

July 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized