Sunday, April 30, 2006

An "aw, shucks" moment...

A few days ago, Mr. Sponge over at Minvolved paid me a very kind compliment. I want to thank him very much for that, and also thank all you people for reading my silly website. It is an honor to have people take time out of their busy days to find out what I have on my mind, and I want you all to know that I appreciate it very much.

That's why I hereby pledge that, when I win a seat in the House of Representatives this November, every last one of you people will be showered with so much pork that you're hardly going to believe it. And, no, I did not mean that to sound as dirty as it probably did...

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The ballad of the drunken porn star

One night a few years back, my friends and I were at a bar in Minneapolis when a curious thing happened. Greg, a suave and gentlemanly figure who I have been privileged to know for over a decade, got up from our table and headed off to use the men’s room. While he was attending to his business, an older man came staggering in and helped himself to the other urinal. He was a grizzled dude, reeking of cheap tropical concoctions, and his odor was notable even over the general bar-lavatory miasma. “Aaaaaaaaah!” he groaned as he let forth a torrent of boozy man-water.

Greg, by this time, was already on his way to the sinks. To imagine this scene appropriately, picture him as Jude Law. He’s charming, handsome, dapper, and dainty. He does not speak with a British accent however, which is lucky for me because otherwise ladies would always be all over him and I’d never be able to get his opinion on the latest Flaming Lips CD. But, nevertheless, for the purposes of this scene, he will be Jude Law. The urinating drunk, on the other hand, is Tom Waits playing Renfield in that Francis Ford Coppola Dracula movie from awhile back. You know, the one where he’s locked up in a dungeon, covered in drool, and bellowing “MASTER! MAAAAASTER!”. That’s sort of what the peeing guy is like, except without the glasses.

So now that you’ve got those two in your head, envision Greg dutifully and thoroughly washing, all the while hoping that the old drunk won’t try to talk to him. Unfortunately, in the men’s room of any bar in any state in the union, the old drunk will always talk to you. This is no exception. “Lemme tell you, kid,” he growls as he squirts the leavings of his fifth Hawaiian Sunset onto the stained porcelain, “I ain’t doin’ too well out there...”

“Oh,” Greg says, a model of decorum and civility. He wouldn’t dream of cutting his hand-washing short to escape the ramblings of a stranger in the lavatory. That would be unsanitary and, while Greg is a great many things, unsanitary is not one of them.

“With the ladies is what I’m talking about. THE LADIES!” the drunk clarifies and Greg gives his best sympathetic head nod and tongue cluck. Stifling a belch, the drunk asks “You know what I need?”

Greg would prefer to leave the question hanging, but simple courtesy demands that he not do this. “What’s that?” he inquires, flicking his hands dry in the basin, since the communal towel supplied by the bar for this purpose is a festering nest of dried boogers and herpes.

With disturbing earnestness, the drunk declares, “I need a kid like you to spread the word about my ten inch cock. Think you can help me?”

“Ummmmm...” was all Greg could say. Deciding that his hands were adequately cleaned and dried, he hurries out of the bathroom and back to our table, where he tells all of us what had just transpired.

Of course, given the hour and the number of drinks already consumed, this thrilled us to no end. “Did you see it?” someone asked, and Greg emphatically denied it. “Who is it? Who? WHO?” someone else wondered and Greg pointed him out. We tried to be smooth about checking him out, but circumstances precluded this. We all looked over at once and all broke out laughing at once. It was perhaps cruel of us, but Greg was, in fact, holding up his end of the bargain. He was getting the word out.

Once we had gotten our fill of him, we turned our discussion to the question of whether or not he did, in fact, have a ten inch penis. Most of us concurred that he did not, although some abstained from speculating on this matter. From there we moved on to the most crucial issue his statement had raised: whether “spreading the word” about his allegedly massive member would do him any good. Were there any women out there who would take that bait? Personally, I hoped not. That would require a woman to think something along these lines: “Well, he’s pretty overweight, kind of wrinkly, too short for me, drunk as hell, incoherent, drooling on himself, and he smells like a pile of three month old sausage laying in a puddle of cat vomit. But–hey–he claims to have a ten inch penis! Saddle up, Herbie!” And the operative word there is “claims”. Because there was really no evidence either way.

Unfortunately for the poor guy, I don’t think it really works like that. I wouldn’t want to meet the lady who could be swayed so easily. Of course, if such tactics really do work, maybe I’ve been trying too hard all these years. Maybe I ought to give up all these attempts at wit and personal hygiene and from here on out just coast on an impressive, improbable measurement. Or maybe not.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Darfur primer...

Recently, I’ve been trying to educate myself about the crisis in Sudan. Like most people who pay attention to the news, I knew that there was a conflict going on in the Darfur region, but beyond that I wasn’t sure of much. Vaguely, I understood that Arab militias were committing atrocities against the non-Arab farmers of the region and several times I had heard the situation compared to the genocide in Rwanda. These few facts and impressions were pretty much all I had, though: it was sort of a thumbnail sketch of a horror in a far off corner of the world, a distant worry, one more bad thing jockeying for attention among all the other bad things in the world today.

Now, after a few evenings worth of checking out information on the web, I have to admit that I’m only marginally better informed. From what I understand, the conflict began in early 2003 when two Darfur-based rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), began to engage in skirmishes with the Sudanese government forces. The rebels believe that the Arab regime in Khartoum was oppressive in its dealings with the country’s non-Arab population, an opinion that seems to have been proved largely accurate by the government’s response: arming and encouraging Arab militiamen (named “janjaweed”) to terrorize Darfur’s non-Arab tribes. These bands, with the overt or tacit support of the authorities in Khartoum, are responsible for wholesale slaughter, mass rapes, and innumerable atrocities. Many thousands have died and many thousands more have been forced, starving and desperate, into refugee camps and over into neighboring Chad.

This strife, occurring in the country’s westernmost province, should not be confused with the conflict in Sudan’s southern region. That was a two-decade long civil war that has just recently gave way to a tentative, fragile ceasefire. Here, the Christians and animists fought for autonomy from the Muslim north, which had long enslaved, abused and persecuted them. After years and years of violence and butchery, Khartoum agreed to a cease-fire and an arrangement in which the country’s oil profits would be shared with rebel groups in the nation’s south. It is this episode that the situation in Darfur is often confused with.

The Darfur crisis is often described as a battle between Arabs and “black Africans”. This more accurately describes the Sudanese Civil War, although even there it isn’t an entirely correct characterization (both parties are equally African and both are, by appearance, black). Likewise, the violence in Darfur is often misunderstood as Muslim against non-Muslim. This was true of the Sudanese Civil War, but not of the Darfur situation. The Arabs and non-Arabs in Darfur are both Muslim. It is, in fact, the Arab janjaweed who have desecrated the Koran and torched mosques in their campaign of terror.

Essentially, the regime in Khartoum has exploited long-standing disputes between Darfur’s Arab and non-Arab populations. It has armed and encouraged the janjaweed in an attempt to destroy the rebel groups and their potential sympathizers without having to commit the Sudanese army, much of which is composed of soldiers from Darfur, soldiers with loyalties which may not correspond with Khartoum’s. This recalls Rwanda, where the Hutu leadership used the radical militias known as Interahamwe to massacre the Tutsis. In Sudan, the government can disavow its ties with the janjaweed and tell the world that they’re a just a bunch of thugs while the slaughter continues unabated and all-but-uncontrolled. No one believes them, of course, but no one will ever shame them into telling the truth, either.

So what can be done to put an end to the carnage and cruelty? That’s a tricky question, I’m afraid. My opinion is that people should give money and, if they can, time to human rights organizations who are actively working to help the civilians caught up in the violence. People should also work to make sure that Darfur and Sudan remains in the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. This is, of course, one of those areas that the “War on Terror” has only made more complex. The Bush Administration will occasionally come out with a moving soundbite or a feel-good resolution, but–contrary to some conservative fantasies–they’re probably not going to play hardball with the Sudanese government. We’re pumping them for information on our enemies in the Persian Gulf, and we don’t want them to clam up. Furthermore, as this article argues, any sort of Western-directed military effort stands a good chance of exacerbating the problem.

So what is to be done, besides donations and consciousness-raising? I have no idea. Like I said, I’ve just started studying all this. If you know more about it, if you’ve seen anything you think I should read, or if I’ve gotten something wrong here, please share that with me.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Apparel for the unappealing

While browsing around on Digby’s site, I can upon his post about the above t-shirt. After a little digging of my own, I found that the same creative minds behind that suave garment also market this little treasure:

Now, as a bad taste maven, I must admit that I’m drawn to these sorts of things. Shirts like this exist at the deepest level of American uncoolness, that deep and dank sub-basement of inexcusable awful that stores the nation’s supply of amateur bukkake porn, “extreme fighting” DVDs, and John Ashcroft hymns. The idea that someone would actually wear shirts like these is incredible to me, but people must. I envision doughy, pale men with receding hairlines donning them to go to their Minutemen meetings, or perhaps a bespectacled, socially-awkward young fellow throwing one on to help break the ice at his first Young Republican get-together. These are merely assumptions, though, and since I try to be classier than the manufacturers of this sort of drooling wanker wear, I know not to put too much stock in them.

I suppose that the people who sell this clothing justify it as “humor”. The only problem is that they aren’t very funny. If you can bear to, look at the second shirt again. Although it’s clearly straining to be rude and offensive, it’s actually more boring than anything else. Someone ought to tell these right-wing cut-ups that “oh, those French, they sure do like to surrender!” gags went stale well before I was born. I’m all for good-natured ethnic ribbing, but this is just lame. It’s like they want to be schoolyard bullies twisting poor Pierre’s arm behind his back, but they’re so weak and feeble they just end up throwing out their own backs. For all the comedy on display here, they might as well just print a shirt that says “The French smell bad and like to surrender”. But no, the great wits behind this shirt felt they needed to drag their banal insouciance out by putting on a whole interminable list of French person disparagement. Unfortunately for them, France will endure this t-shirt’s piddling assault on it’s dignity. The person who wears it out in public, however, stands a very good chance of seizing the “biggest loser in the food court” title.

And the “liberal” one is even worse, if such a thing is possible. The humor is just as shitty, of course, but here we have the added bonus of crypto-brownshirt violence worship. I hate to be a pearl-clutching liberal here, but I don’t really think there’s a lot of comedy in the idea of “bitch slapping” people who you have political disagreements with. That being said, this garment strikes me as more sad than offensive. I pity the poor turd who has to wear something like this to feel tough, to feel superior, or to feel like a rebel. They think they’re saying that to the world, but all the world hears is “I’m a raving asshole and I don’t know how to dress myself!”. If they think liberals are intimidated by this sort of thing, they’re mistaken.

It’s an interesting sort of thing, I think, this habit of mind that real far-out ideologues often fall into when they decide that their opinions entitle them to whatever positive personality characteristics they want. These people believe that their shoddy form of conservatism is brave, tough, rebellious and sexy, so they become all those things just by accepting the worldview. But, sad to say, simply taking a position–much less a fairly well-established (if extreme) position–does not entitle you to courage, grit, wisdom or anything else. Those traits are not so cheaply bought, I’m afraid. And if this is true, then what should we make of their caricatures of us liberals and the French? Are we really mewling, useless, thoughtless cultist cowards? Or are we just seeing some big time Psych-101 projection here? To me, the answer to that is clear.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

You know what I can't bring myself to care even a little bit about?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

At long last, the genetic basis for my distrust of organized religion has been revealed...

My great-aunt and my father were doing some genealogy on my mother's family the other day and came upon a surprising discovery: my great great great great great great great great great grandmother was a victim of the Salem Witch Trials.

Here’s my distant ancestor, Susanna Martin, according to an article in The American Genealogist by David Greene:

When Susanna Martin, an Amesbury, Massachusetts widow was arrested on May 2, 1692 for alleged witchcraft, the authorities took into custody a woman who had been suspected of that crime for some thirty years and one who may have used her reputation in order to get her own way with some of her credulous neighbors. Modern commentators have found her one of the more noteworthy victims of the Salem witchcraft hysteria, probably because at her preliminary hearing she defended herself with vigor and without respect for authority.


On April 30, 1692, six years after her husband's death, another warrant was issued for Susanna Martin's arrest for witchcraft, this time as part of the hysteria that had begun several months earlier at Salem Village through the accusations of several "afflicted girls" who claimed that they were being tormented by witches. Susanna was arrested on May 1, and a preliminary examination on the same day was noteworthy for the vigor of her answers and for the lack of respect she showed for the presiding magistrates. She laughed when the "afflicted girls" went into a fit and when asked why she did so, she responded, "Well I may at such folly." When she was asked what ailed the girls, Susanna said: " I do not desire to spend my judgm't upon it." She stated bluntly that she did not think the girls were bewitched. Her answer to the request that she provide her thoughts about them was impertinent: "Why my thoughts are my own, when they are in, but when they are out, they are anothers." Other replies show that she was aware of the seriousness of her situation and that she denied guilt fervently. But she kept her sharp tongue even at the end of the examination: "Do you not see how God evidently discovers you?" "No, not a bit for that." "All the congregation think so." "Let them think w't they will."

The jurors thought what they would and indicted her. Susanna's lack of respect for authority was not, of course, the main reason that she was indicted, though it can hardly have prejudiced the magistrates in her favor. The Rev. John Hale, minister of the Beverly Church, who had supported the trials but had second thoughts after his wife was accused, states, rather clumsily, that Susanna was one of those who "had been suspected by their Neighbours several years, because after quarrelling with their Neighbours, evils had befallen those Neighbours".

In several instances, depositions indicate that Susanna was given to muttering enigmatic phrases that could be--and were, at least by hindsight--interpreted as threats. The evidence that any accused witch uttered such threats is weakened by the tendency of the superstitious to create something ominous out of nothing, but the cumulative effect of testimony against many accused witches throughout several centuries suggests that some consciously fostered suspicions about themselves in order to get their way in village dealings or simply to increase their own sense of importance.


Susanna Martin underwent the indignity of a physical examination on June 2, 1692. Such examinations were intended to discover whether the accused had any physical abnormalities, especially anything that could be used to suckle a familiar or even the devil himself. Susanna was examined twice during the same day; at neither examination was any abnormality discovered, but at the first her breasts appeared to be full and at the second slack. Doubtless the magistrates found this apparent indication that she had actually suckled even more satisfactory than an abnormal "witch's teat."

At her trial held at Salem on 29 or 30 June 1692, Susanna pleaded not guilty but was convicted and hanged at Gallows Hill on July 19, with four others tried at the same time: Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Sarah Wildes, and the famous Rebecca Nurse. Cotton Mather choose her case as one of the five that he detailed in his "Wonders of the Invisible World" (1693), a defense of the proceedings that, as modern scholars have shown, he would rather not have made. Mather clearly considered these five the most obviously guilty, and he commented that Susanna "was one of the most Impudent, Scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world; and she did now throughout her whole Trial discover herself to be such an one. Yet when she was asked, what she had to say for her self? her Cheef Plea was, That she had Led a most virtuous and Holy Life!" I suspect that her scorn of authority led Mather to this outburst, for Cotton Mather--the son of the Rev. Increase Mather and the grandson of two other prominent Puritan divines, Richard Mather and John Cotton--never, in his own estimation, received fully from the third generation of Puritans the respect that he thought his position and ancestry merited.

That's my great great great great great great great great great nana Susanna for you, "one of the most Impudent, Scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world". I very much hope this is all true and we are actually related. The family tree my dad sent me seems convincing, and my mom's side of the family does indeed have deep, deep New England roots, so I'm pretty convinced. Neverthelesss, Susanna sure sounds like a cool lady and it would be a great honor to share a little DNA with someone so aggravating to the Puritan powers-that-were.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I Heart Nerds

This past weekend, the Science Museum of Minnesota hosted a “geek prom”, which you can read about here and here. I didn’t go, but don’t think that I consider myself too cool to spend a Saturday night with a bunch of dorks and spazzes and nerds. Even though I’m probably better pegged as a “hipster”, I try not to be too pompous about it. The way I see it, a nerd and a hipster are very close together in the great scheme of human variety. The borders between the two blur together and, to our more distant subcultural cousins–the jocks, the future business leaders, the gangstas and the like–we are all but identical. Sure, hipsters might have better fashion sense and nerds might be a little less pretentious, but deep down we’re pretty similar. We both tend to feel oppressed by a society of normals, we like to band together, and we often obsess over obscure cultural phenomena. Babylon Five or Stan Brakhage, there probably isn’t that much difference in the grand scheme of things.

Many of my friends and most of my family are nerds, you see. It’s amazing that I didn’t become one. Sometimes I sort of wish I had. Nerds rule the world, after all. Nerds have cachet. Nerds are sexy. I’m sort of a nerd wanna-be, I guess. Nevertheless, I feel I know enough about them to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject. So, submitted for your approval is this, the Insomnia Report Schema of Nerdhood.


ZERO: In your basement, there are a few twenty-year-old action figures in their original packaging, a few comic books sealed in plastic wrap. You often forget they’re there, though, and every once in awhile you make a point of chastising someone who’s nerdiness is more obvious than yours. Only a nimrod would want to stay at home to catch the Star Trek Voyager marathon, you say (a little too loudly), only a total virgin would pay fifty bucks to go to an anime convention. This is because you’re in the closet and you hate the nerd in yourself. You are the saddest species of nerd: the self-hating nerd.

ONE: In college you wrote a term paper on Devo. Your e-mail messages end with a quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In fact, you were slightly angered by the recent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. You felt it wasn’t true to Douglas Adams’ vision. But you keep most of these opinions on the down-low; not because you’re ashamed of them, but because not many people you know would care. You’re well-established in straight, non-nerdy society. You’re married and your spouse wouldn’t know Douglas Adams from Scott Adams. You’ve bought drapes that go with your furniture. The furniture that matches perfectly. Because you bought it that way.

TWO: You have recorded entire seasons of that show where two teams of nerds compete to build robots out of junk. You’d rather watch this than the latest Tom Hanks movie, unless the latest Tom Hanks movie has been directed by Steven Spielberg, who always manages to pull off some innovative cinematography tricks within the context of the popcorn blockbuster. If someone pressed you, you would fess up to seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind more than two dozen times. However, when you went to see Serenity the week it opened–without telling your spouse, because you figured he/she “wouldn’t be interested”–the people there in costumes embarrassed you a little.


THREE: You wonder why that person at the Serenity showing was giving you funny looks. Sure, you’re in a costume, but it’s not like you camped out at the theater or anything. You work with computers, but your real passion is the universe created by Hayao Miyazaki. You have the kid from Spirited Away tattooed on the small of your back, you maintain a presence on at least a dozen anime message boards, and you’re considering taking up Japanese so you can contribute to even more. If you’re expecting a child, you have–for at least a moment–hoped that it will be a girl so that you can name her Mononoke.

FOUR: The months of June, July and August seem to drag on forever for you because you’re impatient for the Renaissance Festival to begin. It seems to you like it might be fun to pick up Middle English. You, in fact, have a knack for languages. You already know Ewokese, Jawaish, and Fortran. You have a cat named Number One and you’ve had a series of parakeets, each named Number Six. Sure, you’ve got bad memories of being picked on in junior high, but the sweet, sweet paychecks from Microsoft have more than made up for that.

FIVE: Even the thought of team sports makes you uncomfortable. You go out of your way to avoid occasions where you might have to dance. You’ll never admit it to anyone, but you do dance sometimes in your apartment alone at night, when you’re revved up on caffeine and have They Might Be Giants cranked up full blast. You’re not proud of it, but you once yelled at a good friend for offering a contrary opinion on the quality of Frank Miller’s graphic novels. You can quote at least six classic Monty Python sketches verbatim.


SIX: Many people are involved in the phenomenon of “on-line gaming”, but very few have had to go to a doctor for repetitive motion injuries incurred while playing one. There was a time when you considered getting your name legally changed to Samwise, Gandalf, or Arwyn. By the same token, you use the abbreviation “LOTR” and expect everyone you communicate with to know what you’re talking about. You are three-quarters finished with the sixth volume of your unpublished fantasy saga, and are seriously weighing whether or not to make it available on-line. All your favorite art is made with an airbrush. You declined to go to the Science Museum’s “geek prom” because their lax door policy might have allowed a few non-geeks in.

SEVEN: Your Myst fan-fiction has been rejected for having too many sex scenes. Your most fervent hope is that Hollywood will soon stop making films out of the comic books you like, because every time they find new ways to ruin them. Your budget has allowances in it for cloaks and enchanted swords and metal figurines shaped like characters in Battlestar Galactica. You know how it feels to wake up sludgy-mouthed and covered in dew in front of a multiplex, your heart aching with the hope that George Lucas hasn’t lost his unique vision.

EIGHT: Your behavior towards Gates McFadden has been described as “stalker-esque”. You are banned from several chatrooms for abusive language towards people who prefer TOS to TNG. In homage to LeVar Burton, you wear an engine filter over your eyes pretty much everywhere besides work. At work, you’re known as “that guy”, but everyone is nice to you because they know that you can absolutely destroy all their hard-drives with just sixteen keystrokes. You once played “Doom” for twenty hours straight. You have fantasized about playing “Doom” in your office, if you know what I mean. The memorabilia you keep in an airtight chamber in your home has been appraised as worth more than the GDP of several Central Asian nations.

From the department of really, really bad ideas

I found this in the “police blotter” section of my neighborhood newspaper:

March 27, 4:45p.m.
A female suspect approached a 69-year old man and offered to give him company and show him her breasts. The man accepted and the two went to the side of a building where the woman began performing oral sex on him. He then noticed that his wallet was missing. He confronted the woman about this and she jumped over a fence and ran off. The victim claims he had not been with a woman in eight years and that is why he accepted her proposition.

This caught my attention not only for the squalid drama of it all, but also because a little bit of information I didn’t include here makes clear that this incident more than likely happened in my alley, not fifty feet from my back door. And at rush hour. I very well could have happened past this whole sordid scene. I hope that, if I did, I would have come to the old codger’s aid. I hope I would have stood firm and said, “Ma’am, please take that out of your mouth and return the gentleman’s wallet. Because what you’re doing is just plain mean..” Although, I suppose that if I had done something like that, the guy would have attacked me. “What the hell are you doing, you rassing-frassing whippersnapper!” he’d shout, “This is all I’ve had in eight years! Get your punk patootie out of here!” And I couldn’t blame him. I mean, really, who am I to come barging in on his private moment? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell if something fishy was going on between them. I mean, besides the inherent fishiness of a 69-year-old getting a blowjob in my alley in the middle of the afternoon, what evidence would I have that the poor bastard was getting taken? I doubt I would have actually seen her swipe the wallet and, even if I did, she might have just been keeping it for safekeeping. I certainly don’t think I’d linger there long enough for the whole tableau to start to make sense to me. I’d just glance over at the slurping noise in the shadows long enough to determine that, yes, something intimate was occurring over there. Then I’d hurry on my way, leaving the victim to be fleeced. Too bad for him. With any luck, however, he had a few minutes of fun before the whole “stole-my-wallet” business erupted.

I suppose this is a lesson to all of us men, young and old alike: if a strange woman ever approaches to you on the street, offering “company” and the chance to see her breasts, you probably ought to turn her down, no matter how long your dry spell’s lasted. It’s just safer that way.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Writing: Why is it so goddamn hard?

Anyone who’s tried it knows what I mean. You get an idea in your head, an idea of such transcendent coolness that it would be a crime to let it go undocumented, and so you rush right out to your independent neighborhood coffeeshop, eagerly clutching your notepad or your laptop or whatever. You’re going to bring the idea to life. With your pail of cappuccino and your command of the English language, you’re going to shepherd your idea from a mere series of synaptic firings to a glorious story, what with adjectives and verbs and subtle-but-rich metaphors. You turn off your cell phone and shut out the rest of the world–even the cute girl/guy two tables over. It’s gonna be just you, your inspiration, and the page. The writer’s immortal struggle, in other words: wresting form from nothingness, seizing a fistful of beauty and wisdom from chaos and transforming it, shaman-like, into well-shaped paragraphs, punchy dialogue, and sentences that aren’t even the least bit overwrought.

But first, before you make your grand pronouncements on life and the frailty of human relationships, you have to get Ted, your gentle-spirited and eminently-believable main character, out of bed and into a taxi to the airport. How do you accomplish this? After a few minutes of pondering and earnest cappuccino sipping, you decide that simplicity is best and so you scribble out:

One morning, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

For a millisecond, you’re pleased. Your sentence is quick, direct, and unquestionable. It gets the job done in as few words as possible. And isn’t that what writing is all about? Isn’t the magic in the story itself, and not the language used to express it? You believe all this to be true, but–before you start in on your next sentence–doubt creeps in.

Isn’t it a bit dull? Shouldn’t your first sentence have a little more kick to it? Everyone knows you’ve got to hook your readers right away, otherwise they’ll toss you aside in favor of Danielle Steele or Stephen King or some other popular hack who can’t possibly navigate the deep waters of emotion and spirituality that you’re at home in. Yes, it’s painful, but you’re going to have to make concessions to their “dazzle me” mindsets. Even visionaries have to pander some, you decide, and so you set yourself to the task of “sexing up” Ted’s trip to the airport. But how? Thinking hard over the possibilities, you scratch out your previous sentence and wait for the answer to lunge out at you. Eventually, you jot down:

On an ordinary, if damp, April morning, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

But that sucks. There’s no rhythm and too many commas. So you change it to:

One drizzly morning on the wrong side of April, Ted woke up and took a taxi to the airport.

Yet that only sucks worse. Plus, you’re slowly coming to realize that you’re “top-loading” the sentence. Fortifying yourself with a big swig of lukewarm cappuccino and a furtive glance at the cute girl/guy, you hunker down and finally come up with this:

On a morning not at all like any other, Ted awoke slicked in his own sweat and set out immediately, via taxi, for the airport.

But why, your nagging creative conscience asks, is the morning “not at all like any other”? Why specify that the sweat he was slicked with was his own? Does he really have to be slicked with sweat? Couldn’t he be drenched with it? Or even soaking with it? And, moving right along, was Ted in such a rush that he didn’t bother to shower? Did he change his underwear? Because, if not, you need to remember to have people on the airplane reacting to how bad he must smell. But, if he does shower and change, can you really use the word “immediately”? Wouldn’t “quickly” or “hurriedly” or “shortly thereafter” be more accurate? Still, isn’t “immediately” more, well, immediate? Even putting aside all that, aren’t you scanting the taxi ride? Isn’t the cabbie worth at least at least a phrase? You feel guilt then, a deep and keening guilt for all the ancillary cab drivers in all fiction. But you’re an author. You’re accustomed to sublimating your emotions into literary material. With that in mind, you plunge back into your wordsmithing soul, confident that you can wrangle together a real first sentence, a first sentence to shine through the ages and make all those who doubted you into gibbering, humiliated buffoons. After some strain and some false starts and a whole array of intense facial expressions, this is what you come up with:

On a broken-open April morning, Ted awoke slicked in sweat and set out in a hurry for the airport, via a taxi driven by a pleasant, copper-colored man originally from Rangoon.

You like that sentence until you actually read it all the way through. Then you realize that it’s a disgrace to the writerly craft. It is, in fact, the worst sentence ever written by anyone anywhere. That must make you, its humble creator, the worst writer ever to live. You are awful. You are a failure. You should be ashamed of yourself. You sip your cold cappuccino in awe at your own badness. You ought to stop fooling yourself. Maybe you should give serious thought go going back to school. As you berate yourself, you gaze down at your long, shitty sentence. Suddenly, you see a way out. Furiously, you write:

On a broken-open April morning, Ted awoke soaked in sweat and set out in a hurry for the airport, via a taxi driven by a pleasant, copper-colored man originally from Rangoon.

This, at last, is something you can work with. Of course, it’s not perfect, but was Turgenev ever perfect? Was Borges? How about Balzac? Did Balzac worry so much about a single sentence? No, Balzac didn’t. He wrote a book every three weeks and, at that pace, you can’t care too much about all the pretty details. You should be more like Balzac, you tell yourself. Don’t get hung up on the small stuff. Think of the big picture. Think of how moving it will be when Ted’s plane touches down in Brussels and he rushes straight to the home of the girl who he met on a train once, long ago, long before he gave up all his dreams to chase a futile, inhuman vision of “success”. That’s what you should be focusing on, isn’t it? The scene where he throws his arms around his beloved Hildegaard and kisses her madly as he declares his eternal love for her in pidgin Flemish, not this piddly “first sentence” shit.

But regardless, something strikes you as not quite right about your story so far. And, since you’ve only written one sentence, the problem has to be there. You read it over and over again trying to deduce what it is. You set your pen down and gaze off into the murky distance, disappearing into your most profound artsy-fartsy zone. You’re thinking of aesthetics. You’re taking pride in your refusal to settle for anything less than perfection. You’re wondering if you’ve got to do your laundry tonight. You’re impressed by the cute girl/guy’s ass and you’re happy they’re facing the other way, so he/she won’t be creeped out by the way you’re staring her/him.

By now, you have to pee. You have to get things rolling. You take another look at your sentence. Obviously, it’s problem is that it’s too long. You whittle it down thusly:

On a damp April morning, Ted awoke with a start and set out straight for the airport, via a taxi driven by a copper-colored man from Rangoon.

But that’s kind of a mess, isn’t it? You could do better. You could tighten it up some. Why, after all, do we need to know all that about the cab driver. The cab driver isn’t going to come back later in the story. Harsh as it may seem, for your purposes the cab driver just needs to drive the cab, nobody cares if they’re from Burma or Brooklyn or Bangladesh or wherever. In fact, you don’t even need to mention the driver at all. If you write “taxi”, the audience will naturally assume that there’s some sort of driver. You don’t have to make it explicit. That’s the mistake too many authors make: not trusting their audience enough. You’re not like that. You’re a trusting author. You try this instead:

On a damp April morning, Ted awoke with a start and took a taxi straight to the airport.

But why say “straight” to the airport? Do people usually make stops when they take a taxi to the airport? No, no they don’t. So that’s superfluous. Also superfluous is the “damp” and the “April”. Does the reader really care what month and what meteorological conditions the story takes place in? Sadly, they do not. You better jettison it:

One morning, Ted awoke with a start and took a taxi to the airport.

But this whittling only makes the “with a start” stand out. Why does he wake up with a start? Did he oversleep his alarm? If I was catching a plane to Brussels to reunite with the lost lover who also symbolizes my betrayed youth, you probably wouldn’t oversleep, would you? No. Who would? So this “start” is ambiguous, isn’t it? Best to do away with ambiguity. Ambiguity is one of those things people always say they like, but they don’t really. They like to know exactly what’s going on. You want there to be no question. This is why you put pen to paper once more and write:

One morning, Ted awoke and took a taxi to the airport.

At last you have it! You would congratulate yourself if only you didn’t have to pee so bad. You’re strutting all the way to the bathroom, your head held high. You’d wink at the cute girl/guy if they’d ever deign to look over at you. They’re a fool. They don’t know what a raw hunk of sex appeal and sensitivity they’re blithely ignoring. You have created. You are a creator. It is exhilarating. It is glorious.

And the best part? You only have to repeat this process another 749 times before you have a story.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Let's talk about scorpions...

One of the best things about Minnesota is that there’s no scorpions here. I don’t think I could live in one of those desert states infested with them. Imagine having to shake out your shoes every time you want to go someplace. Imagine one of those foul things falling out of them. I can tell you what I would do if a scorpion got into my footwear. I would first launch into an instinctual killing frenzy, battering the dreaded thing until it was just a smear of goo on the kitchen tiles. Then I would curl up into a ball and cry for a month and a half straight. I’d have to be institutionalized. I would be like one of those characters in a kid’s ghost story. My hair would turn bone white and I’d stay shut up in my house, peering out the blinds and howling during certain moon phases. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. When I try to think of the worst possible way to die, falling face first into a twenty-foot deep well half-filled with scorpions is probably number two or three on the list. Number one is being crushed by a nude and frenzied Rush Limbaugh after his addled mind mistakes me for his eighteenth wife. That’s neither here nor there, though.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The sad story of the best meal I had in New York City

Laugh at me if you must, but when I lived in New York City, I really started to miss Perkins. If you’re reading this from somewhere other than the Great American Heartland, allow me to explain Perkins to you–it’s sort of like Denny’s, only less raw. If Denny’s is the wild child of 24-hour freeway exit dineries, what with its loud 1950s music and its wacky entree names, then Perkins is the bosomy grandmother. There, you can eat your meatloaf, your face-sized omelets, and your oh-so-spicy quesadillas surrounded by fake bookshelves, mass-produced family heirlooms, and pea-green wallpaper. It’s all very calming. Sedating, even. Plus, their master chefs are capable of turning even the “ethnic” items on their menu into something that wouldn’t cause too much commotion at your average Muscatine pot luck.

Needless to say, Perkins doesn’t factor heavily in the New York City dining scene. At first, I hardly noticed, so interested was in their swanky restaurants and their delicious pizza. But it wasn’t long before I came to recognize Manhattan’s Perkinslessness as a plus-sized hole in the city’s cultural fabric. Yes, the Chinese joints on Pell Street were wonderful and the Soho bistros were glamorous, but sometimes a man just wants a $6.99 cheeseburger with fries and unlimited Diet Coke refills. You can take a boy out of Perkins, apparently, but you can’t take the Perkins out of the boy. Soon I couldn’t give two shits about sushi, about transvestites serving up world-class Thai food, about miniscule little figs flown all the way from Morocco–I just wanted some chicken fingers, goddamn it, chicken fingers!

That’s why it was a grand day when I found New York’s Perkins. It was on Staten Island. Now Staten Island–the city’s boringest borough–has two distinct parts to it. There’s the northern tip, the Wu-Tang Staten Island, which is down-and-out and sort of intimidating; and there’s the rest, which is hardcore Italian–the Sopranos Staten Island. The Perkins was way down deep in the heart of the Sopranos side, tucked away in a strip mall on a mildly busy commercial street, just like the Perkins back home were. When I saw it, my heart soared, but I couldn’t eat there that night. It was late, and I was desperately searching for the transit station so that I could catch the last train back to the ferry terminal. Why I was lost in Staten Island at 10:30 on a Wednesday night is another story entirely–what’s important was that I saw a Perkins, glorious and shimmering like the mythical city on the hill. I knew I’d return to taste of its wholesome goodness soon enough.

A few weeks later, a friend from St. Paul came to visit me. I could barely wait. “You know where I want to eat?” I piped up, as soon as I could.

“Where?” he asked.

“Perkins!” I exclaimed and, I have to admit, I was somewhat baffled that he didn’t share my excitement.

“I didn’t come all the way to New York to eat at a Perkins,” he told me, and his enthusiasm for the idea didn’t increase any when I told him it was on Staten Island. “I sure as hell didn’t come to New York to eat at a Perkins on Staten Island,” he said.

It wasn’t a big obstacle, though. I just pouted until I got my way. With him doing is best not to gripe and me so pleased I could hardly stand it, we made the two-hour journey. We rode the subway to the ferry terminal, took the ferry to the Staten Island train, took the Staten Island train to the deep Sopranos side, and then walked for a mile or two until we reached the Perkins. “Why are we doing this? Explain it to me again,” my friend said, but I wasn’t even listening to him anymore. I got myself some chicken fingers and some fries and all the refills I wanted, so happy to be there that I almost broke out crying and flooded us out of puke-colored booth.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I suffer from some of the most boring dreams humanity has ever seen...

Last night I dreamed I bought a pack of gum. Half the pieces were supposed to be red, while the other half were supposed to be white. However, when I pulled out the blister pack, I saw that there was something like 20 white pieces and only five or so red pieces. This was aggravating, since I preferred the red ones. I had already bought the pack, though, and you can't return gum. So I was screwed. I left the dream convenience store and went on with my unremarkable dream day, ensconced in my subconscious-level dullness and vaguely dissatisfied with my gum. And that was it.

No Sleep 'Til Branson!

Today, my fabulous friend Tara is leaving on a fabulous, extended vacation to South America. This makes me jealous. And when I’m jealous, my custom is usually to lie to myself. So, in my mind, she won’t be spending the next three weeks traipsing around Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Oh, no, no, no: she’ll be in Branson, Missouri. Yes, you heard me: Branson! Jewel of the Ozarks! The mid-South’s premiere family-friendly getaway hotspot! And, since I want her to have the best possible time in the Tri-Lakes area, I’ve even gone so far as to research her recreation and entertainment options and present my recommendations. There is, after all, a baffling array of things to do and see in the Branson region and I’d hate for her to be overwhelmed by the abundance of wholesome fun to be had. You can thank me with a Grand Old Gospel Hour souvenir t-shirt, Tara.

1) The Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. It’s free. It’s a fish hatchery. It’s got a Jesusy name. Need I say any more?

2) World-Fest at Silver Dollar City. These days you don’t need to endure some hellishly-long plane flight to another continent to see the world. All you need to do is pilot your rental Plymouth to Silver Dollar City (which is a theme park, by the way) and experience a “month-long celebration of each other’s differences”. It’s got something for everyone: “Whether you're enjoying the 1800's Ozarks mountain culture that can be found at Silver Dollar City every day or enjoying Russian acrobatics, Irish dancing, African drumming or any other cultural artistic expression, you're sure to find it all in authentic form at Silver Dollar City's World-Fest.” Can Dollywood make those claims? I don’t think so. Dollywood isn’t cultural artistic at all.

3) Plumb Nellie Days. A craft fair! Who doesn’t love crafts? Me, I can’t imagine a vacation that doesn’t involve buying a whole bunch of folksy what-have-you. But, alas, I can’t make it down there this year. Maybe you can pick me up a wicker wall-hanging that says “PRAY HARDER” or a pine walking stick or a little clay figurine of President Bush in his flight-suit.

4) The Precious Moments Chapel. You don’t need to be strong. You can admit that you were moved to tears by the winsome beauty and unquenchable innocence on display here. I won’t think any less of you for it. Because I cried just looking at the webpage.

5) Branson Meadows. Don’t worry. These aren’t actual meadows. Of course not! It’s a shopping mall! And what a shopping mall: it’s got a Christian gift outlet, a Dress Barn, a Supermarket of Shoes, a “Touch of Class”, two institutions of higher learning, and a Skaggs Medical Supply. And there’s also a place called “Foozles”. What goes on at “Foozles”? I have no goddamn idea. You better find out!

6) The Outback Pub. Why not unwind after a long day sightseeing here? In addition to the finest wines of Australia, it offers “live entertainment, billiards, and NTN trivia”. Again, I don’t know what “NTN trivia” is, but I imagine it must be a hell of a lot of fun, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. And it stays open until one in the morning! You won’t have to abandon your night-owl ways just because you’re in the Bible Belt!

7) Yakov Smirnoff. The funniest man in Branson. ‘Nuff said.

8) The Lowe Family of Utah. This one I’ll let speak for itself: “Thrill to their lush harmonies and then fasten your seat belt as their fingers and feet fly through some of the most amazing performances in Branson - not to mention their stirring patriotic tribute which is the talk of the town! This is the show NOT to be missed!”

9) The Promise. This is a “Multi-million dollar production” about the “Life of Jesus” that “penetrates the mind and warms the spirits”. Sounds sensual, doesn’t it? And, for some reason, they also have a Live Baby Camel on hand.

10) Celebrate America. Not just a title, but a command. The sister show to “The Promise” and just as uplifting! “From the beginning shots of the Revolutionary War Through September 11th, and up to present day. Celebrate America will uplift and inspire all who share in this entertainment experience!” Because, as we all know, in Branson even war and terrorism become fodder for toe-tapping, good-feelin’ musical fun!

You know, it's funny. I started out thinking that doing this whole "Branson bit" would dampen my envy a little bit. But, now that I've thoroughly researched the place, I think I've only worsened it. I want to go to Branson. I want to take in a show. I want to see the fish hatchery. I especially want to see the Live Baby Camel. Funny how that works.

Sweet Baby Jesus, I think I've got the seeds of a dream vacation here...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Flamin' Mad Internet Injustice Avengers With High-Blood Pressure To The Rescue!

A lot of people, both on the right and on the left, have discussed this article from the Washington Post. In it, we meet a left-wing blogger named Maryscott O’Connor. Now, I was vaguely familiar with her writing before this story, and what I had seen I considered neither interesting nor informative. That splenetic-venting business doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s a matter of taste, I suppose. When I found striking in the article is its suggestion that, since Ms. O’Connor and a few other left bloggers are full of vitriol, we liberals are becoming a bunch of nasty-mannered pottymouths. My first instinct when confronted with this assumption was, of course, to howl “FUCK THAT!” and try to smash my computer into bits with the bronze idol of Paul Wellstone I pray to five times a day. Fortunately, I was restrained in time. And then it occurred to me that this whole question of which side is the angriest is silly. If you’ve got nothing better to do, you can find people willing to foam at the mouth for any conceivable position and/or cause.

Take me, for example. I can be reasonable and polite, but I’m also a venomous, profane, no-holds-barred advocate of spaying and neutering household pets. Under my internet nom du guerre, BobBarker4EVER, I am the terror of the Cat Fancy message boards, tirelessly pointing out that only a vomit-smeared, piss-dribbling, batfucking pile of GODDAMN STUPID would deny that the pet overpopulation problem has reached crisis proportions. The way I see it, these braying jackasses, these farty overgrown anuses, these rubbery smegma infections ought to just take a trip down to their LOCAL MOTHERFUCKING HUMANE SOCIETY BRANCH to have a look at all the precious kittens and adorable puppies who can’t find homes because these SATANIC SHITSTAINS have failed to support low-cost spaying and neutering programs. Why, when I read their INDECENT, SLANDEROUS, and FATUOUS arguments, I get so mad that I sometimes CHEW THE HEADS OFF OF BARBIE DOLLS! Those goofy-genitaled, scabby troglodytes—drunk on their own dishonesty and the semen of strangers—ought to be infected with stingy venereal diseases, beaten about the head and shoulders, ripped limb from limb, and then buried alive in the STEAMING DOODY of all the poor animals they’ve consigned to horrible, brutal, FERTILE lives! And, even more importantly, they should say they’re sorry! Because they are! And because they have nothing better to do, since no one will sleep with them. Because they’re ugly! On the inside AND the outside!

Ahem. Pardon me.

My point is—and here’s the place where I pretend I have a point---that the whole “you’re-angrier-no-you’re-angrier-asshole” debate is a waste of time. Anger, to me, is more a bad habit than an ethos. When it comes to political speech, it’s a bad habit of extremists that has regrettably drifted closer and closer to the center, particularly on blogs and the like. Is the right more guilty of this than the left? Who knows. I believe so, but only because they’ve spent the last couple administrations pandering to their extremists. But it doesn’t really matter who did it first or who does it worse. The internet is a wonderful tool if you want to seethe and an even better one if you’ve got a hankering to curse at strangers. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with that, but the trouble comes when people mistake a few fuming loners for an entire school of thought or decide that a screaming match is the same thing as a dialogue.

As for me, I try to resist the urge to be pissed off. A certain level of it might be beneficial, if it spurs you into action, but too much is unpleasant and counterproductive. Forgive me for getting all Dr. Phillish on you, but I think you give over too much of yourself when you get angry at everything. The causes of your anger assume inordinate control over you. I don’t want clowns like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, or whoever else to have any sway over me at all. There’s too much beauty in the world to worry about what some gross, overpaid pundit thinks, so why get worked up about another obnoxious blowhard when you could be doing something pleasant? Those people deserve to be ignored or, at most, mocked; they shouldn’t be honored with our rage. As for the President and his sorry crew, I’d rather diminish them with facts and reason and satire than go after them with another round of furious, but feeble, ranting.

The following post has nothing to do with violent death, cannibalism, or hideous savagery...

Because I find it hard to focus on those things now that I own the Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books box set. It’s 16 long, luxurious compact discs of Ella singing Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Howard Arlen, the Gershwins, and a whole bunch of others. Generally, I don’t have much affection for anything that might be considered a “showtune” (and don’t get me started on the Rent soundtrack, which is an appalling affront to all that is decent and non-sucky in music), but here we have wonderful, classy songs made even better by Ella’s brilliant interpretations. The music is, for the most part, elaborately arranged–washes of strings, bursts of brass, the whole bit. This is something that a person like me–raised on punk rock–has to get used to, but it’s worth the effort when the rewards are so great. Still, I think the Duke Ellington discs (all three of them!) Give the set a bit of variety. These recordings are, by comparison, unpolished and wild. They seem more improvised and far, far looser. In them, we are able to see different dimensions of Ella’s genius. We can hear her as the vital jazz performer, not just America’s greater interpreter of popular music. It is a range that’s breathtaking, and every minute of it is a joy.

I’m totally in love with this thing and I’ve only listened to about a fourth of it so far. The next few days promise a whole lot of happy listening, that’s for sure...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Inside Scoop From Mr. Sponge

The irrepressible and wise Mr. Sponge, of Minvolved fame, has graciously agreed to pitch in over here whenever the spirit moves him. Today, apropos of the whole Kevin Ray Underwood affair, he provides us with some needed first-hand expertise regarding Oklahoma and the Oklahoma media. He writes:

Dear Kevin-M:

I see that you have taken an interest in a product/resident/attraction from the great state of Oklahoma. Congratulations!!! Oklahoma is the most underrated of all the states in the Union. I'm very excited that you have decided to use your media organ to bring more attention to the land of the Sooner.

I would like to share my Oklahoma expertise with you so that your readers can have a more comprehensive reading experience on the topic of Kevin Ray Underwood, the would-be Cannibal from the small roadside town of Purcell, OK.

First of all, if you are looking for accurate news information in Oklahoma, there is only one place to go: News 9 with Gary, Kelly, Amy and Dean. Seriously, DO NOT FUCK AROUND WITH NEWS CHANNEL 4, IT IS AN INFERIOR PRODUCT!!!

The second thing you need to know about Oklahoma news is that it is dominated by two things: weather reports detailing the constant threat of tornadoes and wild fires and the Ogle family, currently represented by brothers Kelly and Kevin.

Kelly Ogle is the main anchor for News 9. He is a folksy and seemingly dedicated news personality; the type of guy who's credibility comes from an uncanny ability to make slightly-passed-middle-aged Oklahoma women blush during weekend "celebrity" appearances at Mathis Brothers Furniture out on West Reno. The man's name tag literally reads "one of us", yet...he is on the television. This sort of cheaply manufactured dichotomy blows people's minds in Oklahoma. We Minnesotans shouldn't get all huffy about this sort of thing, after all, don't we all miss Paul Magers?

Kelly has been handsomely rewarded for his moderately handsome skills and appearance. He has received numerous state and national awards for his reporting; the highlight of which was when he won the 1999 "Best Anchor" award from the National Academy of Television Journalists. Kelly was also News 9's star reporter during the OKC bombing coverage; practically camping out at News 9's Denver bureau throughout the entire McVeigh trial.

Kelly has so much gravitas that not only is he the flagship anchor on Oklahoma's most popular news channel, but he also has his own weekly opinion piece called "My Two Cents".

These folksy ditties give Kelly the opportunity to display some of the reporting skillz that got him the promotion to the big chair at 6 and 10. It's his little way of letting the hard working people of Oklahoma know that despite all of the fame and fortune--not to mention the blushing women at every public appearance--he hasn't forgotten his roots. What a guy.

A typical My Two Cents consists of Kelly tackling a topic that is "too hot to handle" for your typical newsman. Prime parking spaces for pregnant moms, overblown weather coverage, a poor reception for the new OU basketball topic is off limits for Kelly and his investigatory eye. Oklahoma, he's watching...and watching out for you.

Kevin Ogle is the lead anchor at News Channel 4. He is Kelly's brother. I'm not really sure which one was born first, but I'm going to roll with the assumption that Kevin is older by a hair. Actually, I should know the answer to this question. During my last visit to the in-laws in Wewoka, News Channel 4 was running a taunting series of flashback ads that pit little Kevin against little Kelly in a battle of childhood newsboys. According to the delusional hacks at News Channel 4, Kevin won the battle and he, presumably, has continued his supremacy right up until this very day.

Unlike Kelly, Kevin is a little soft/rough around the edges. While Kelly is clearly always "on", you get the sense that Kevin is the type of guy who has let down his guard long enough to have slipped his phone number to a fawning middle-aged Okie woman or two during an appearance at some lesser car dealership/furniture store appearance on the bad side of town. He also looks like he enjoys steak. A lot. Perhaps with every meal.

Kevin got his start in the wonderful field of sports photography. Unlike Kelly, it seems that Kevin has had to claw and fight his way to the upper peaks of Oklahoma news. He has had stints in radio, print, and several minor TV stations throughout Oklahoma and, gasp, Arkansas. As any good Okie can tell you, if you have to slum it in Arkansas...well, maybe you should just stay on the wrong side of Fort Smith.

Kevin eventually made his way back to the big city in the heart of the heartland. In the late 90s he was the main man behind an investigatory series called "The Power of Prayer". This put him on the track to Oklahoma news star hood. Of course, to be anyone in the Oklahoma news business, you have to weigh in on the 800 lbs gorilla in the room: the OKC bombing. Kevin accomplished this task in 2004 with a story on an OKC bombing survivor. It was a story of hope and survival. I'm very sure that it made people cry. This was about the time that News Channel 4 began to run ads that attempted to provoke News 9's Kelly into responding to his up-and-coming brother.

I should mention that both Kelly and Kevin are the sons of the late Jack Ogle, the Dave Moore of Oklahoma TV news broadcasting.

I also should mention that there is a third brother named Kent. He anchors the News Channel 4 morning show with third rate co-host Sarah and 4th rate meteorologist David. I can't even remember their last names. Kent actually seems like a decent human being with no ego issues whatsoever. He sings in his church choir and he lives on an acreage. Maybe this is why his ratings are so low. Gotta make those Mathis Brothers appearances!!

Reportedly, all three brothers maintain a solid personal relationship with one another. Secretly, I kind of hope that they hate each other. I know that this is a terrible thought and I apologize for having it. I just think that they would make a wonderful subject for a Shakespearean version of Anchorman. I've thought enough about this topic that I have come up with an ending to the tragedy: In a fit of jealousy Kevin accidentally kills the youngest survivor of the OKC bombing while trying to scoop Kelly on the biggest story of the 15-year anniversary of the bombing (perhaps he runs her over with the News Channel 4 van). Being that he is so close to the action, Kelly reports on the death and earns news anchor of the year awards at both the state and national levels. Kelly also takes the time to run a special My Two Cents which laments the cutthroat news business and the pressures that it puts on people to succeed and be first with the story. Kent is offered Kevin's anchor chair but he turns it down to live a life of quite solitude on his Edmond acreage. He will sing a song of great regret and subtle irony at the conclusion of the play. Of course, no one will pay attention to it.

I digress...

In summary, if you wish to learn more about Kevin Ray Underwood, you should really go no where else but News 9. News Channel 4 is for suckers.

by Mr. Sponge

Still on the sick bastard beat...

I have a confession to make: I’ve been slogging through Kevin Ray Underwood’s entire blog. Part of this is my own regrettable morbid curiosity, of course, but I also hope to write a longer, more detailed post on the relationship between his writings, his character, and his crimes. In the process of immersing myself in his miserable ramblings, however, a strange phenomenon has emerged, as uncomfortable as it is undeniable. Let’s get it out of the way right now:


1) We are both single white men in our late 20s named “Kevin”

2) We both maintain a pair of blogs, one updated regularly, the other not so much

3) Both of our main blogs got hundreds of visitors only after he killed someone

4) Writing wise, we are both the wordy sort

5) We are both strongly influenced by bewitching, West Coast women named “Melissa”

6) We both live near Interstate 35

7) We both have a history of anxiety in social situations and a tendency towards excessive self-examination

8) We both complain about our noisy, trashy neighbors

9) We both dislike our jobs

10) We’re both liberals

11) We both fear loneliness, irrelevance, and failure

Perhaps I’m weird or too sensitive, but I find all this unpleasant. I’d rather not have a single, superficial characteristic in common with someone who’d do something as loathsome as what he’s accused of. But I do. I have lots in common with him: a few important things, a few all-but meaningless things, a few coincidences, a few somewhere in between. In the sum of it all, it appears that Underwood and I aren’t complete strangers. I feel like I know him. He could be me if I had no hope, no emotional resources, no friends, a bad family, and a stunted conscience. That’s a large gulf, to be sure, but it still isn’t as large as I’d like it to be.

To help alleviate my mental distress, I’ve chosen to focus instead on this list:


1) I have never killed or injured anyone

2) I’ve never had fantasies about killing or injuring anyone

3) I do not write interminable, emotionally-exhibitionistic blog posts about my angst, my romantic torments, and my suicidal urges

4) I don't have much in the way of angst or romantic torment, and I’ve never had suicidal urges

5) I do not consider a child an acceptable surrogate for my sexual impulses and I do not suffer from the lack of adult female attention

6) The relationship between my bewitching Melissa and me is a platonic, thoroughly non-obsessive friendship grounded in about a decade of shared history, our similar outlooks on life, and mutual regard for one another; it’s not some frustrating, internet-bound, unrequited love deal.

7) I didn’t drop out of college and then drift through a series of miserable, low-status jobs. I graduated from college and then drifted through a series of miserable, low-status jobs.

8) I learned early that manipulating people into feeling sorry for me was a poor way to get attention

9) I have better musical taste

10) In my life, I have very little to apologize for

11) I have a future to look forward to

Monday, April 17, 2006

"And then I'll kill them, with that shopping cart that someone has left out in the parking lot...."

As many of you have probably already heard, a 26-year old Oklahoma man named Kevin Ray Underwood has recently been arrested for the murder of a small child. According to the sheriff of the small town where the crime took place, “this appears to have been part of a plan to kidnap a person, rape them, torture them, kill them, cut off their head, drain the body of blood, rape the corpse, eat the corpse then dispose of the organs and bones.”. Underwood, a stocker at a grocery store, also maintained a blog (check it before the authorities yank it off the web). The joke about cannibalism on the profile aside, it comes off as a pretty innocuous site. It takes prior knowledge of this man’s horrible acts to make it seem sinister, but–nevertheless–once you know the depths of his depravity you can detect subtle hints of it in his writings.

Basically, he comes of as the classic “unhinged loner” sort of guy. All it takes is a quick sampling of some of his longer posts over the last year and you’ll see that he’s a lonely, underemployed, awkward, fantasy-prone, sexually-frustrated man. He obsesses over a woman he apparently met in an internet chatroom and writes long tortured paragraphs about this “relationship” that never really happened. He develops a crush on a coworker who later is injured in a car wreck that also kills her boyfriend. This provokes Underwood into some serious stalker-esque behavior: he visits her in the hospital every day, guiltily hoping that it’s be his chance to date her once she recovers and then sinks even further into depression when she begins seeing someone else, even though he’s made no real overtures to her. He complains about the shitty place where he lives, and casually mentions that he’d like to kill the people who make noise outside his apartment (the title of this post). Several of his posts, in fact, meekly and obliquely threaten violence against others or discuss his "evilness", gentle hints at the rage underpinning his several years worth of internet whining (and, by the way, at least one of the news clippings he chose to share with his web diary several months ago forecasts his crime fairly well).

Bottomless self-pity, however, is the only thing he really excels at. Here’s some samples, all found during a 15-minute jaunt through his blog:

From a post discussing a disappointing chapter in his relationship with “Melissa”, his chat-room object of obsession:

I guess I'm just too nice, women all want to be friends with me. Even girls I don't like have told me what a nice guy I am, and, as if that wasn't bad enough, I've even been told that "I actually forget you're a guy, I don't even think of you as a guy, you're like one of the girls to me."

That fucking hurts.

And from later in that same post:

What really gets me about the whole "lets be friends" thing, is that they always say they don't want to date because "I don't want to ruin our special friendship." What they don't seem to understand is that that pretty much ruins the friendship as well, because it's pretty much impossible to stay friends with someone you are so in love with, but they don't want you. It hurts to talk to them, or hang out with them, because the whole time all you can think about is how badly you want them and can't have them.

And I do love Melissa, I love her more than anything. Maybe it's stupid, considering that we've only met once, for a few hours once, and she had a boyfriend at the time, so nothing happened. So you might think it's stupid to be so in love with someone you've hardly even met, but I don't think it is.

From the aforementioned post complaining about his loud neighbors:

I really need to get out of the house more. I was doing great there for a while, leaving, and going places, and actually enjoying being out in public, but ever since I started this new job, I've hardly left the house. It's not shyness or anything again really, it's just laziness. I don't feel like doing shit on my days off now. I hardly even go shopping anymore. I haven't had any milk or bagels in probably close to two months. I don't buy milk at the stores where I buy all my other groceries. I buy it at Braums, because it's the cheapest place around here on milk, and I just haven't felt like making the trip to an extra store just to get some milk and bagels. Even if I'm out already, and doing all my other shopping, I just don't feel like going to any more stores than I have to. I hardly even leave the house on my days off, I just sit here at the computer, or watching a DVD or something all day.

From the post where he discusses the crush on his co-worker:

I spent the next few months in a state of deep depression, and seriously thought about killing myself on several occasions, but never had the nerve to go through with it. Which made me feel even worse. I was such a coward. I was too afraid to talk to people, too afraid to ask girls out even after being in love with them for months. I was even too afraid to kill myself even though I wanted to.

Over time I started getting a little better, but I battled depression for a couple of years. I still have the social phobia, and very occasionally small bouts of depression, but I'm much better than I was then, at least when it comes to the depression.

But still, over the last year or so I find myself becoming more and more detached from the world. I almost never leave the apartment except to go to work or my parents' house, and when I do leave the apartment, I walk around like a zombie, with a blank expression on my face, not looking at anything or anyone. In fact, the last couple of months, I've noticed that my eyesight is going, probably because my eyes are getting weak. Whenever I'm out of the house, I never focus on anything, I stare blankly ahead, operating on a sort of fuzzy peripheral vision. The only things I ever really focus on and look at are books or computer screens for hours on end, which strains my eyes further. When I'm not safe in my apartment, I am silent and expressionless, looking at nothing. I have no personality. If someone says hi to me, I either ignore them, or grunt out a small "hi," or "ok," if they ask me how I'm doing. It gets worse every day, I withdraw farther and farther into myself with each passing week.

My spirit has been totally crushed. Anyone who looks into my eyes can see this.

I wish I could be like I used to be. I wish I could be like Melissa.

I wish I could be human.

Many people would read these things and feel bad for the person who wrote them. That is, of course, exactly what he was after. He wanted his readers, few as there probably were, to look at his drivel and consider him a wounded and noble soul making his way bravely through a bad life. A bad life that, of course, was the result of cruel circumstance, not his own failures and his own immaturity. It’s sickening to me, how he mewls for attention and sympathy while affording others only stilted walk-on roles in his theater of anguish. This isn’t severe shyness and it isn’t simple mental illness. Many people are mentally ill and many more people are shy and socially-awkward, but they don’t kill little kids. The selfishness that allowed him to prattle on endlessly about his pitiful struggles eventually became monstrous, it festered into something that allowed him to consider a 10-year-old girl’s life meaningless beside his emotional emptiness and the vicious fantasies it fed. This is a man, contemptible and childish, who wallowed in his pain for so long that pain became the only thing he was capable of bringing into the world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Barista Seduction Follies

I always try to tip baristas well. Not only do they have to know the exact composition of a bewildering array of coffee drinks, they also have to put up with customers. Customers are, as a rule, absolute swine. On one hand, they’re ludicrously demanding–they want their latte this way but their mochas that way and they can’t understand why the biscotti is always stale or the whipped cream is so frothy or some other piddling shit like that. But, on the other hand, they’re also the worst kind of crybaby: fail to banter with them or even neglect to flash them a fake smile and all of a sudden the underpaid college girl on the other side of the counter starts to represent all that is wrong and hurtful in the world. She’s sullen, she’s a snob, she hates everybody all because she forgot to kowtow appropriately when HRH Pickyass Patron strolled through the door with their laptop and their inflated sense of self-regard.

And these are just the normal ones. Baristas must also deal with a dizzying array of batty types. Coffeeshops are magnets for the ill-adjusted: the lonely, the sullen, the strange, and the creepy all come flocking. They sit for hours over a single cup of house blend, staring, wringing their hands, and giggling out of turn. Woe to the fool who dares to sit in their favorite spot, for this is a territorial breed. The quiet ones are the most unnerving–they’ll just glare at you with their red, beady eyes until you finally take the hint and leave. Sometimes they’ll even draw an unflattering caricature of you, the loathsome wretch who dared to steal the one chair in the entire universe where they can feel comfortable. They draw caricatures of the baristas too, but these are of a different sort. For a lot of these people, the barista is their only source of genuine human interaction. She may be the only “regular” person who has treated them with kindness that day, her voice may be the only one they can be certain isn’t just in their head. Bankers, engineers, and international businesspeople usually don’t have to deal with this element. They also get paid a lot more.

Worse than both these unhappy few and the inconsiderate many are the suave Starbucks Romeos. These are men–always men–who wear their lusts on their sleeves, who mask their frightening desperation in transparent banter and awful jokes. One shouldn’t mistake them for your average, harmless flirt, however: their tense smirks and tendency to talk only to a woman’s chest give away their secret selves. They would be ladies’ men, but ladies always hate them so their sexual frustration builds and builds until they become weird and twitchy. A barista is a stationary target for this kind. She can’t run away, she can’t claim to be “just waiting for her boyfriend”, she can’t even throw a scalding chai tea into his face. No, she must stand there and endure his mortifying attempts to charm her. When I’m waiting in line behind them, their antics are a torture to witness. I can only imagine how it would feel to be the recipient of a pickup line such as “I’m going to spill this all over my crotch and burn myself and sue you!” or “How come your shirt is so tight?“ or “Admit it–you think guys who drink cappuccinos are gay, don’t you?” It’s appalling. It’s as though they think anyone who works in the service sector must be “easy” and so all an acne-scarred, snaggle-toothed fiend has to do to score with them is come up with some line that wouldn’t pass muster at an Albanian cathouse.

I have a story about one particular acne-scarred, snaggle-toothed fiend that I would like to share with you today. This took place at a coffeeshop I seldom go to, on a weekday afternoon a three or four years ago. There was no one there but the barista, your humble narrator, and a gentleman I’ll call Biff. First allow me to describe Biff: besides the aforementioned complexion and dental problems, he was reasonably normal looking. Perhaps just into his late-30s, he was tallish, pale, and dressed in the sort of attire you seldom see in a Minneapolis hipster neighborhood: khaki shorts, a white t-shirt commemorating some sort of sporting event, and sunglasses pushed up into what little hair he had left. He also stood out by his drink of choice–a bottle of cream soda. The whole time I sat there scribbling into my notebook, he busied himself with one of two tasks: 1) pretending to read the Star Tribune and 2) surreptitiously ogling the barista’s bosom. Now I can admire the physical charms of 24-year old punk rock pixies as much as any slavering pervert, but I try my hardest not to be gross about it. If one must leer, there are ways to do it discreetly and there are ways to do it that make you obvious to everyone. I watched Biff start out along the former route and then, as the barista’s (just to give her name, let’s call her Penelope) youthful abundance got the better of his decency, I watched him as he eagerly adopted the latter approach. Before long, he was staring at her like she was working a brass rail, not an espresso-machine. It was discomfiting, but she didn’t seem to notice. This went on for quite awhile. I think I wrote an entire page and he didn’t stop gazing at her the entire time.

Eventually, he made his move. He slithered over to the soda cooler and drew out a Pepsi. With a yelping voice, he asked “How much does this cost?”

“One dollar and fifty cents,” Penelope answered.

This gave Biff the opening he was looking for. “One dollar and fifty cents!” he shouted. “That’s highway robbery, you know!”

With admirable sang froid, Penelope said, “That’s how much it costs, though.” I got the sense that she was no novice at these sorts of situations.

“It’s still highway robbery,” Biff said. There was then a brief moment of silence as they transacted the purchase. He probably considered it an awkward lull in the conversation. She probably thought of it more as a moment of respite. As soon as he had deposited his change into the tip jar, though, he started in on a fresh new tack: “You know, I was reading in the paper that Britney Spears is still a virgin.”

It was an interesting gambit, I have to admit. I put down my pen and sat up straight to better take in the scene. I felt no guilt at this: he was talking loud enough I felt I could have heard him from the street outside. Penelope wrinkled her nose and said “Oh, wow,” before walking away.

He didn’t let her get very far. “What?” he bellowed, his words pouring out with panicked gracelessness “You don’t buy it? You don’t think she’s a virgin? You think she’s some kind of slut? Is that it?”

Penelope halted her retreat and said “I don’t think of her at all.”

“Are you one of those people who thinks that just because you’re famous, you have to be a slut? Just because she’s rich and pretty and on television all the time she can’t be a virgin?” Biff howled at her. He was on a tear. He didn’t seem to be demented, though. He gave the impression of an extremely embarrassed man trying to save face in the worst possible way, if you can believe it. It was as though the shock of having his tantalizing line shot down had deranged him to the point where he just couldn’t stop babbling. I wish I could have transcribed the entire speech he let loose at this point. It was a thing to behold. Suffice to say, he used the word “virgin” perhaps sixteen times and the word “slut” maybe twenty-five or so times.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no master of the pick-up line, but I do know that certain words and concepts are usually considered off-limits for that whole process. If you asked me what words I wouldn’t say if I wanted to impress a pretty stranger, I would probably have to put both “virgin” and “slut” near the top of my list. I’d also want to avoid “blogger”, but that’s neither here nor there...

Anyway, as his noisy discourse on Britney’s chastity came to it’s ringing peroration, he thundered,“Well I think she is a virgin! She’s a beautiful, rich and famous virgin! I don’t think she’s a slut! I don’t! I’m not that kind of guy!” His face a shiny scarlet color and his voice hoarse, he marched back to his seat. He popped open his Pepsi, took a tremendous swig of it, and declared with finality “She’s a virgin! She’s not a slut!”. A minute later, he gathered up his things and bolted out the door. I followed him shortly after. His outburst had totally derailed my creative process. As I was leaving, I overheard Penelope on the phone, breathlessly telling one of her friends what had just transpired. She looked like she was going to fall apart from laughing so hard.

(Note: Because I'm lazy this Easter weekend, I'm posting this little story, which I wrote about a year or so ago and just had lying around. Fresher material should recommence shortly...)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

KISS, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and one hundred Japanese schoolgirls say "Happy Birthday, Eric!"

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Great Overpass Controversy

A few years ago I lived right by the freeway. Around this time, the city and the neighborhood association got it in their heads to put an overpass at the end of my block. This wasn’t going to be any old overpass, either: this was going to be a “gateway into downtown”. Rumors swirled around that they were going to use a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but this proved to be untrue. Instead, the planners had decided on a “Frank Lloyd Wrightesque” plan, which is a different thing entirely. As the built this thing, I hear all sorts of excited predictions being made–the neighborhood would be revitalized, my shabby and forlorn street was on the cusp of becoming an “arts corridor”, people would come from all over to see it. Heady claims for a road over the freeway, to be sure, but the enthusiasm was contagious.

Unfortunately, after all that hype, the overpass turned out to be butt ugly. It’s a bad mix of pastel tiles and flying saucer lights. Sure, there’s a curve in it, but to me a curve alone doesn’t make an overpass sexy. “Look at me! I’m the fanciest overpass for miles around!” it screams, flouncing around in the staid Twin Cities overpass scene like a floozy in a cocktail dress at Wal-Mart, looking for attention. Maybe it’s a convenient way into downtown, but only if you close your eyes as you go over it.

I’m getting away from the point, though. About a week after the overpass’ unveiling, I was talking with a neighbor of mine, an activist guy involved in dozens of community groups, area betterment committees, and peace circles. He was, predictably enough, involved in many of the neighborhood focus groups that had consulted with the city on the overpass project and, all through its construction, he had been one of its biggest boosters. So perhaps I was impolitic when I pointed out the resolute butt ugliness of the overpass. At first, he simply looked shocked that someone would express such an opinion, but as our chat wore on and I refused to moderate my anti-overpass position, he started to get offended. Before he finally stormed off, he gave me what must have been his ultimate insult: “Well, I wouldn’t expect a conservative like you to appreciate the overpass...”

Really. I was a conservative because I didn’t like the overpass. I was momentarily baffled, and then I resolved never to talk to that dude again. Because if I’m a “conservative”, that means that a “conservative” can:

* Never have voted for, or even considered voting for, any Republican candidate for any office ever
* Support, over the years, people such as Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Paul Wellstone
* Delight in the idea of raising the income taxes of wealthy people
* Vomit the morning after the re-election of George W. Bush
* Be pro-choice, anti-death penalty, anti-Iraq War, pro-gay marriage, and on and on and on
* Fantasize frequently about moving to Spain or France or Sweden or some other arty European utopia

In other words, I feel that my liberal bona fides are pretty well established. But apparently not to some. This is what drives me crazy about certain elements of the left: this elitist idea that, as the vanguard of enlightenment, a “leftist” must hold the virtuous opinion in all things. I’m willing to guess that the guy liked the overpass not because of its aesthetic qualities, but because it was a community project, an endeavor in which the neighborhood boards he loved came together and made something other than a parking resolution. The overpass wasn’t just an overpass to him, it was a symbol of citizens working together for the greater good. The overpass was, in other words, virtuous and, by refusing to like it, I revealed myself as one who those Rush Limbaughite meanies who hate grassroots democracy, neighborhood involvement, and everything else good and decent in this world. Or maybe he just had really bad taste, I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that one shouldn’t allow one’s political ideals to become their religion. A lot of times on the left, you find people who use their beliefs as a ladder to salvation. Being a good person, for them, has too much to do with having the correct opinions, the most sensitivity, the deepest sense of grievance. From this small-but-vocal minority of liberals, you get the smug self-righteousness that right-wingers exaggerate in order to discredit the rest of us, you get the hairshirt agonizing that too often takes the place of action, and you get the useless outrage at the thousands of sacrileges the world hurls at them daily. None of this does anyone any good, you might notice. Most of the time it’s just the same old dispiriting American selfishness and self-regard dressed up in friendly clothes, or another arrogant way to be ineffective and egotistical.

This is, of course, also an issue among those on the right. My opinion on overpasses aside, I am not a right-winger and so I don’t particularly care when they make themselves look stupid. I actually prefer it when they do. Liberals, however, ought to resist the temptation to reduce their positions–positions which I consider the only viable and ethical strategy for our world today–to a zero-sum battle between virtue and evil.

But this could all be coming out just because I’m still wounded at being called a conservative. Because, let’s face it, that’s a cold fucking thing to tell someone.