The Nerve...

of Some People’s Kids

Mark Eric Larson

The new, feverishly anticipated collection of essays from the author of “Don’t Force it, Get a Bigger Hammer”

Mark Eric Larson tells stories of dating woes faced by a woman, dating advice for a young man, why it’s best to avoid natural disasters, jobs best not to have, Disneyland, adventures in Belize, bar banter with the guys, his most entertaining teachers, cosmic jokes, stories from Morocco, the Parasitic Era of Earth, bad parenting, cheating, corporate advice to college grads, pill popping fever, back pain, how to write a better Christmas letter, his dad and unfathomable early deaths. Climb aboard for an entertaining ride from a writer who brings fresh takes of the funny, sad and curious ways of our world.

Copyright 2012 by Mark Eric Larson All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems without permission from the author, except by a review, which may quote brief passages in a review. Author’s note: Events described in these stories are both real and fictitious. Some characters’ names have been changed.

The NERVE…of Some People’s Kids
Mark Eric Larson

To Lauren, the family rock, whose big love is always there.

Definitely Mr. Wrong, Vol. I Ask Surfer Dave It’s Just Nature Being Nature The Shitty Job Hall of Fame Stuffing Mickey’s Pants Journey through Jamaica, Jr. Bar Talk The NERVE…of Some People’s Kids The Wrath of the Cosmic Joke Morocco Tales A Bad Case of Fleas A Hummer Stuck in Neutral

Cheat? OK, but it’ll Cost Extra College Grads Apply Here Overheard at the Diner OwOwOw, My Back The Better Christmas Letter Faraway Eyes Out of this World

Definitely Mr. Wrong, Vol. I
Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series on women describing some of their not so great encounters with men via dating and otherwise. What follows are some otherworldly encounters as recalled by Jennifer, not her real name, 40, not her real age, who is single, attractive and still, on occasion, fairly well baffled by the behavior of men.

Life with the Chicken Killer “I met this guy I’ll call Chicken Killer in the Midwest when I was 23 working at a hospital. I thought he was really cool, he had long brown hair and a mustache, kind of a hippie look, drove a

motorcycle, worked at the local power plant. I lived with him in an apartment for awhile, and then he said he found a farmhouse out in the country that we could rent. I don’t know why I went along with it, but we moved out there, in the middle of nowhere in the winter, and it was clear no one had lived there for some time. There was no heat except for a wood-burning stove, and the place was full of huge spiders. I really didn’t know much about this guy, but I found out he had no problem killing or abusing animals. He’d yell at his black Labrador when it didn’t mind, which it almost always did. I found out later the dog accidentally hung itself because he didn’t give it a long enough chain, and it ran off the edge of a deck where there was a long drop off. One time he went out and shot a rabbit. He brought it home and skinned it, and told me to cook it. I cooked it, fried it in a pan or something. I was crying. It was horrible. Then he said we should raise chickens. So we went and bought about 100 chicks and brought them home to raise. “Then it was my job to feed the chickens. I hated it. They pooped all over the place and would eat these mulberries, which made their crap purple. After they were fully grown, he said he wanted me to help him slaughter all the chickens. I refused. I came home from work one day, and he’d killed all the chickens, and plucked them. He put them in the freezer and that’s all we ate all the time. And they still had purple stains around their asses. Purple Butt Chickens, I called them. From then on, I just thought of him as the Chicken Killer. “His mother was five feet tall about four feet wide, big bouffant, black hair, big arms, pasty skin, a real redneck mamma. Lorraine was her name. Once the Chicken Killer bought a live duck, killed it

and brought it to his mother. She wanted to teach me how to cook, and how to dress a duck. She was a garage sale queen, took me with her shopping at garage sales a couple of times. But after living with the Chicken Killer for a few months, I realized he was a redneck with a mean, violent streak. Once he lost his temper when we were fighting and threw a chair across the room at me. Whenever he got mad, he’d drive off with the only car we had. I realized I was alone out in the middle of nowhere with this guy, and I was beginning to feel afraid. I knew I needed to move out. So I did. I found an apartment in town and my sister helped me move out when the Chicken Killer was away. I ran into him a few years later after I’d gotten married. He’d gotten fat, and had moved to a trailer court in Florida.

Dating, but not sure who… “A few years later I read a personal ad on a whim, and thought, “this guy sounds kinda cool.” I set up a blind date with him at an old bar for lunch. Before the date, he called, and said, “I know we haven’t met yet. But I have two tickets to see the Joffrey Ballet. Do you want to go?” “I had accepted the second date before going on the first one. Driving to the first date at the bar, I see a short, dorky trailer trash, state worker looking guy standing out in front of the place. I think, ‘Oh my God, if that’s him, I should keep driving.’ But I park and go in, and it turns out it IS him. We have lunch, and all I’m

thinking is I have to figure a way to get out of this. “Then Joffrey Ballet night rolled around I agreed to that he would pick me up at my place and we’d go. When I answer the door, there he is, a short guy, with longish mullet hair. He has a mustache and is wearing a crystal around his neck, a way too tight Hawaiian shirt where you can see his skin between the overly stretched shirt between the buttons, bell bottomed flood pants, and Frye square toed boots. Big long boots, I mean these boots were really long. We got to the theatre and were standing in the lobby. I was on the lookout for people I knew. I tell him I want some wine. He says, ‘No, I can’t, I’m a recovering alcoholic. You seem kind of nervous.’ I tell him I have a stiff neck. Then he starts massaging my neck. He puts his hand into my hair and starts messing up my hair. I tell him to stop. “We go in to see the ballet. When intermission comes, I want to stay there instead of risking running into any of my co-workers in the lobby. But a guy I know from the office has to cross our laps to get to the lobby during intermission. He was the very guy I was trying to hide from. But then I had to introduce my date to him. “After the ballet we talk and I find out he‘s sort of a troubled soul. He says when he was 8 or 9 in Southern California, his brother and brother’s best friend took him out to a field, raped him, buried him alive naked. He managed to dig himself out, and ran home naked about a mile, covered with mud. He ran into the house, his mother was on the phone, drunk, didn’t notice the muddy naked kid coming in. I was just horrified, I already thought this guy was

pretty odd. I tell him he really shouldn’t tell people this story if he doesn’t’ know them very well. He really thought we had a future. “Then I went on a trip and met another guy. When I got back a week later, there are two or three letters from this troubled guy in my mailbox. I read them and he’s decided that we’re going to get married and have five kids, which he’s already picked out names for. I decide to take him to a pizza restaurant and break up with him. We went to the pizza place, and I figure once we get our pizza, I’ll tell him it’s over. But it’s taking forever for the pizza to come, so I just tell him it’s over while we wait. I tell him I don’t think it was working out between us and that I thought it was best to end it. “So then the pizza comes, and I’m really starving. I start eating it, and he isn’t eating any. I ask him why he isn’t eating any, and he says he doesn’t feel that hungry. He doesn’t have much to say, while I’m eating pizza. We box up what’s left and drive to my place. At the door, he asks if he can come up to my apartment. He says he needs to lie down. So I say yes and once he gets into the apartment he lays on the floor. I go into the kitchen to eat some more pizza. He says he’s hot and asks me if it’s OK if he takes off his shirt. I say OK. Then he says he’s loosening his belt. Then it dawns on me he’s trying to get laid. I walk into the living room and tell him to put his clothes back on and get the hell out. I give him his part of the pizza and he leaves. Online dating discoveries… “I agree to meet this guy for coffee at Peet’s and I show up, sit

down and wait. He never shows up. I call my girlfriend and she says I should wait a half hour before leaving. Anyway, as I’m driving away, I realize I was in a Starbucks, not the Peet’s I was supposed to be in. I found out he had been standing out in front of the Peet’s waiting for me. We agree to meet again at a Starbucks. We talk, and he seems like a good guy. Until he smiles broadly and reveals these huge, crooked yellow teeth. I can’t handle it. I don’t have the best teeth either, but this is too much. At the end of our date I tell him I had already started seeing someone else and that was that. “The guy I was ‘seeing’ was older, and always leaned in to talk closely and touch me on the shoulder, like everything he said was confidential. For some reason he’d always say, ‘I DO. I DO feel like that!’ after making a statement. He told me he’s taken and failed the bar exam eight times. I’m thinking that’s not something I’d mention as a personal selling point. He seemed to be looking for someone to take care of him in his diaper-wearing years. So that never worked out, either. “Another time I agreed through an online dating site to meet this French Canadian for dinner. He brings the wine, a $50 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. So I ask him his political views. He tells me he voted for George W. Bush – twice, in the past two elections. This was directly opposite my politics. He says he used to play hockey and that he’s been complimented for the size of his junk. And he says when we get married, he’ll insist on a pre-nup that would nullify the marriage if I gained five pounds or more. For some reason he says he isn’t ‘the brightest bulb on the tree.’ Repeatedly. After thinking about it, I believe him. Everything that

happened on that date was a deal killer. “Then I realized I didn’t like online dating. So I stopped.”

Ask Surfer Dave
Surfer Dave answers all reasonable questions by young men wanting advice. Surfer Dave has been around the block a few times and figures his experience can help less worldly younger dudes with life information needs.

Dear Surfer Dave, I’m a guy in my mid 20s looking for a girlfriend. I want to make a good choice, but keep hearing about these things called “deal breakers.” I’m thinking that’s something about a date that makes you stay away from hooking up. Right? If so, what are some deal breakers I should look out for? Big Red Machine

Dear Big Red, You’re dead on about the definition of a deal breaker, my man. But remember, it cuts both ways. There could be something about you that your date just can’t stand, and because of something YOU do, won’t go out with you again. You know, don’t do things like blow a snot rocket off to the side while you’re walking with her. You might want avoid a few other things, too, like spitting, nose picking, tooth sucking, belching, farting, snorting, telling tasteless or gross jokes you think are hilarious, bragging about the size or athleticism of your junk, wearing dirty and/or torn clothes, wearing a Santa hat, sombrero, or any other big weird hat, sequined bullfighter pants or flood pants, being so fat your shirt stretches the buttonholes and gaps of shirt material between them into hideous ovals of exposed skin; looking 20 years older and much uglier than your online dating photo, needing a shower, biting your nails, eating like a pig in public, slurping your hot coffee. You know, things like that. Presentation is key here. And whatever you do, DON”T stare at other women while you’re with her. That’ll piss her off, and if you like her, you don’t want to do that because it could very well make her drop you like a bag of dirt. Remember, on your first date, be sober, try not to knock things over, don’t say anything stupid. Or be ugly. Because you can be sure, Big Red, she’s got her own, probably pretty long, painstakingly detailed deal breaker list. So there’s nothing wrong at all with having one of your own. You probably already have one roughed out in your head, so if one of the extra

obnoxious behaviors you can’t stand rears up during a date, you know right away, you’re done. Now, I don’t want to tell you what your deal breakers ought to be, but just to give you some examples, I’m happy to share. Mind you, I have a lot of them, but then I’ve been around a few years. And as you get older you’ll add to your list as you discover surprising new things you can’t stand. But you don’t want your list to get too long, because that means you’re too picky and aren’t likely to hook up with anyone. So you’re walking a fine line here. Some behavior may be obnoxious, but not obnoxious enough to qualify as a deal breaker. It’s pretty much figuring out what you can live with, and what you can’t because it drives you completely nuts. Anyway, some of mine are: Loud, donkey and/or snorting laugh, cackle laugh, bad breath, chews nails, slurps beverages and/or spaghetti, chews on large mouthfuls of food while talking, stinky feet, big feet, snorts back snot, farts/belches loudly in front of anybody, always chews gum, smacks lips, talks baby talk for no apparent reason, regularly uses the F word, laughs fakely because she knows a laugh is in order, but doesn't get what's funny, speaks in tongues, favorite restaurant is Olive Garden, loves junk food, smokes, likes horror movies, has a horrible dye job, wears too much perfume, too much hairspray, wears a Mohawk, hero is Rush Limbaugh, is either a Dallas Cowboy fan, LA Laker fan, and/or LA Dodger fan, smile reveals crooked or buck teeth, yellow or brown teeth, missing teeth, is too tall, too short, too fat, has a fat ass, flat ass, is too dumb, too smart, too ugly, has a uni-brow and/or mustache, has braided armpits, has tattoos covering entire body parts, sports nose and/or eyebrow rings, favorite color is

black so always has on black lipstick and nail polish, dresses like a little girl, or just dresses horribly, has pit stains, smells like an infrequent bather, dresses up her dog or cat, is a drunk, is a drug addict, is a stalker, loves the “art” of Thomas Kinkade, loves Disneyland, collects clowns, teddy bears or porcelain cats, would rather text than talk, drives a Hummer, doesn’t drive, favorite actor is Keanu Reeves, loves to gamble, loves Vegas, loves snowmobiling, guns, motorcycles, hunting and ice fishing; loves NASCAR, can’t read, likes to do Civil War re-enactments, always says “that’s funny,” but never laughs, falls asleep while eating, snores loud enough to wake the dead, cries and/or gets fighting mad for no apparent reason, tries to do accents accurately, but fails. Never funny when trying to be, likes to argue about everything, calls you names like Peachkins, Huggybear, A-hole, Stupid, always or never agrees with you, drinks soda pop constantly, never flosses, flosses proudly in public, argues with belligerent homeless people, talks too loudly, talks too fast, mumbles, never says a word, drives like a maniac, curses at other drivers, is a pennypincher, overspends, is lazy, is always jealous, nervously twists her longest strand of hair around one finger, has greasy hair, wears velour sweatpants in public, wears tight tops over a fat, jiggly belly, wears pantyhose under shorts, has a muffin top, ends every statement with, “Know what I mean?” or responds to every comment with “totally,” or “awesome,” or “no way,” or “get out,” or “cool” or “very cool.” Likes white zinfandel, voted for George W. Bush twice, always says, “that being said,” “supposably,” or “it is what it is.” So that’s just a sampling, Big Red. I know you’ll come up with a

good list of your own. Here’s a tip, though. Once she has you convinced she’s a good catch, you may find some deal breakers cropping up after the game has started. And you can’t afford to ignore them because they won’t be going away. So go slowly, and be smart, Big Red. And best of luck, my man! You’ll need it.

Dear Surfer Dave, I’ve heard a lot about women liking bad boys over guys that are nice to them and generally have good manners. So do you think I can attract more women if I act rude and indifferent? Also, I’ve heard some women think men that like cats are gay. So do I act tough and leave out the fact that I like cats? And do I really need to have manners to get a girl? Wondering Wes

Dear WW, It’s true WW, there are some women that really like guys rough around the edges. These guys dress shabbily, don’t shave or bathe regularly, may be drunk and/or stoned a lot, and have probably spent a night or two in the pokey, if not state prison. But here’s a tip, WW. Women who like these kinds of guys have their own hang-ups. They want to be mommies to these guys. They feel sorry for them and think they are misunderstood and unloved. When actually, these guys are for the most part, just dumb, rude, smelly

bores who more than likely carry STDs. Besides that, if you’re not a bona fide deadbeat, WW, which it doesn’t sound like you are, you probably won’t be able to act the bad boy part convincingly, even if you wanted to. So just be yourself, and be nice to the women you like. Manners are a good thing to have WW, and any date that doesn’t appreciate them, isn’t worth your time. And here’s something to think about. Guys that like cats can be seen as the sensitive type, maybe even less than manly by some who buy into the macho mentality. But if you feel secure about how manly you are, what do you care if a date or anybody else thinks having a cat is girly? If that’s a turnoff to a date, it’s no loss to you if she walks because of it. On the other hand, WW, if you’re a girly man, it’s probably best to not even try dating a woman.

Dear Surfer Dave, I’m a college guy, and I watch a lot of sports on TV. I can’t help but notice all the beer ads seem to be aimed at guys like me. But these ads are with stupid. Don’t these beer companies get that beer drinking college guys aren’t all a bunch of howling frat A-holes whose idea of great fun is to light their farts on fire while watching Jackass 3D? (Although I have to admit the Jackass guy is pretty funny) And what’s the deal with showing hot women as beer drinkers? As pretty much everybody knows, hot women usually don’t go for drinking beer themselves, or hanging with loud, gross, beered-up guys. At the risk of stereotyping here, (well there are stereotypes for a reason, right?) beer drinking women tend to enjoy or partake in women’s professional golf, women’s soccer,

women’s field hockey, women’s basketball, hunting, plaid shirts and comfortable shoes. And while there are exceptions, of course, they’re usually not so hot looking. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, Surfer Dave. Not A Complete Knave, Ever Rude Slacker

Dear NACKERS, Thanks for your letter. You make some great points. But what you have to realize about these ads are that they’re not aimed at guys like you, who actually have an IQ higher than a laboratory rat. They’re aimed at the majority of guys in your age bracket, who are sometimes referred to – stereotypically, of course -- as Young, Dumb and Full of (baby-making spunk). Now the beer companies know that in order to appeal to the biggest possible number of young, horny, dumb guys that can be swayed to drink cases of cheap beer, they have to hit them right between the eyes with a message sure to get their somewhat limited – two-second -attention spans. These guys aren’t so swift, so the ads deliver a blunt force, club-to-the-head message, aimed at teasing their supercharged sex drives. The three or four components of these messages crafted for dummies, include the name of water flavored, crappy beer to be sold, juvenile, dumb-guy “humor,” and some lame background music somehow meant to inspire a beer-only drinking occasion. Oh, and most importantly, hot women. The hot women in these ads are more than willing to be picked up by young, dorky dumb guys happy to order the branded yellow-

colored carbonated water with alcohol in it. The ad people who make up these oh so kooky scenarios figure dumb guys will think, like batteries included with the really cool toys they’ve gotten from Uncle Bob, hot women are also included in the ritual of drinking low-cost chilled swill. And that the hot women will convince these masses of young dumb guys to go out and buy a lot of the advertised beverage, so they can drink it, and for the first time, magically become babe magnets while cracking dick jokes and getting hammered. But come on, NACKERS, anybody with a pulse and just a little more smarts than a mad cow can pretty much get it that these ads are just stupid, obnoxious attempts to sell lousy beer. So NACKERS, that’s why the mute button, as well as food or pee breaks from TV sports are your best friends. And you can cast your vote against these lame-ass ads by doing one thing: Drinking a well crafted, albeit more expensive, beverage, that can be called beer with nary a whiff of irony. But then, you probably already knew that.

It’s Just Nature Being Nature
In its most violent outbursts, and even in its less deadly events, Nature never hesitates to kill any living thing that has the misfortune to be in its way. To Nature, mowing down everything in its path during an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane, or any other of its fairly regular chaotic events on earth, is part of what it does. There’s no malice in the death and destruction it unleashes. The collateral damage it causes against man, animals, flora, fauna and property, is part of the deal of living on earth. It’s just Nature being Nature. But if you happen to be in the way when she’s banging out an earthquake on land, or popping one under oceans to trigger high

speed walls of water to inconveniently visit your beach or shore side community, or if you’re too near when she’s blowing off pressurized flaming liquid rock with a pesky active volcano, or if you’re in a forest burning in a wind-whipped wildfire, or if you get caught in ice cold fast moving water in a flash flood, or if you get caught in a hurricane, or if you’re in a trailer park being converted into twisted bits of metal in a tornado, you have two options. Not one. Not three. Just two. The first thing you do is get the EFF out of the way. Any way you can. That sounds simple enough. And it may be easy to escape. But then it might be damn well impossible. Still, it’s pretty critical. Because if, for some annoying reason, you’re trapped and aren’t able to sidestep the Big Shitmixer headed your way, you’re on option two. That means you’re just trying to survive Nature’s pending fury. And in that regrettable spot you’re either in for a big bag of hurt, or you face the ultimate inconvenience, death. So just to review, getting out of the way is your best option. Either way, Nature doesn’t care what happens to you. If you happen to be in the way of one of her violent outbursts, she could

hurt you a little, she could cruelly maim you, or she could call off all bets and just knock you off. She’s just going to do what she has to do. Devastation left after her violent tirades is just her way of reminding anybody that cares to take note, that she is all powerful. Nature rules. Nobody trumps her power. Not man, not anybody. And she will do what she wants to do. You want to survive? That’s easy. Make sure you’re out of the way when Nature stirs up some serious shit on earth. So if any of us are stupid enough to build a house near an active volcano, say somewhere in Hawaii, and the volcano erupts, spilling fast-moving, flaming magma over its sides, and your house happens to be in the way of any of these rivers o’ liquid fire, rest assured your house will be incinerated in a few minutes. And if you missed the warning signs of hot orange rivers flowing your way outside and you’re stupid enough to be in the house when this happens, you too will be made into badly burnt toast in no time at all. Case closed. Just like if there’s a road that crosses a dry riverbed in the desert and that riverbed suddenly becomes a raging river from rainwater pouring off nearby mountains. And without even thinking about it, you drive your car into the raging water in an attempt to make it to

the other side. You’re sure you’ll make it, because, hell, it’s not that far, and this car’s a ding-dang Cadillac. Well, you’re in for a rude surprise when you and your car are quickly swept downstream, and you and your unfortunate passengers have to get out of the car to avoid drowning in the frigid whitewater. You get lucky when rescue crews spot you clinging to a bush and drag your soaked ass to safety. Your passengers aren’t so lucky. And so it goes if you built your house deep in the woods, and one day lightning ignites a forest fire nearby. If winds fan the fire in the direction of your house, it’s only a matter of time before your house will burn to the ground. Unless, of course, the fickle winds of Nature decide to have the fire sidestep your house. But when wind and fire are near, Mother Nature’s message is clear: Forget trying to save your boat, family keepsakes, or computer files. You better run for your life. If you survive, it will be because you realized early enough that getting out of the way of the fire punched your ticket to future breathing. So, if we humans want to survive Nature’s cruel outbursts, we need what are called emergency evacuation plans, AKA, “How to

get as many people’s asses out of the way of a violent act of Nature as possible.” This won’t necessarily keep you or others from getting knocked around or killed. But it can’t hurt. And while many people simply don’t respect the crushing powers of Nature despite the destruction it visits with its wildest eruptions, many do. Some respect it so much, they’re fascinated by it and are drawn to its violence. They don’t want to be in the way. But they want to get as close as is safely possible to the action. And whether it be for scientific inquiry, boredom, or some narcissistic, egoinvolved reason, they do just that. Scientists studying volcanoes get as close as possible to the hot cones where deadly magma shoots into the air. And despite wearing hooded, heat-protective clothing, they still risk getting burned badly by the liquid cinders raining from the sky. Tornado scientists try to get as close to twisters as possible to learn more about them, and risk getting sucked up into a funnel cloud and deposited unceremoniously in a cornfield a few miles from where they left earth. Climbers of the world’s highest peaks risk fainting from oxygen deprivation, then freezing to death. If they slip off a cliff, or if their climbing gear fails, if the fall doesn’t kill them the cold will. High wire walkers figure it’s a thrill to know if they lose

their balance gravity will yank them earthward and turn them into glorified road kill. Then there are the big wave surfers. They like to ride their boards down the faces of fast moving walls of water, just to show they can dance with death and live to talk about it. Like high wire walkers, free climbers and other daredevils, they know the deal. They know if Nature takes the upper hand, in their case with a wave that hammers them off their boards and holds them underwater or maybe throws them into some jagged rocks while they lose their breath, they’re done. Beyond those of us risking life and health with a little too much proximity to violent acts of Nature, mankind as a species has been stupidly arrogant in this area. He has displayed a belief that Nature is something to carve up and control to ensure his own comfort and survival. There’s not much respect for living with it. But that lack of respect comes at a high price: Often it’s an unwelcome visit from Nature. One with savage power that knocks down anything in its path. It’s one thing if cities were established near volcanoes (See Pompei) or near big fault lines (see San Francisco) before anybody

knew it was a big risk to do so. They’re not going anywhere, so they have to suffer through any volcanoes or earthquakes that may well take place, and hope everything works out. But when this perfectly avoidable stuff happens in modern times, such as where there is awareness (see nuclear reactors in tsunami ravaged northern Japan) of possible mega quakes, it means somebody decided to go ahead and building a reactor in quake prone country anyway. So that when the Big One hits, be it caused my Nature, or mankind’s bumbling, or a combination of the two, many lives and much property is needlessly lost, destroyed or displaced. Quake rattled nuclear reactors built near fault lines melt down, shooting lethal clouds of radiation into the atmosphere to rain down on any populations the winds help it reach. Electrical power utilities and government regulators in the United States (see San Bruno California) don’t seem to worry too much about the need to maintain old natural gas lines so they don’t blow up neighborhoods. So neighborhoods blow up, and kill people.

Then there are those among us who are a danger to themselves because of a common affliction: cluelessness. Some manufacturers put warning labels on their products to the effect that if their product is improperly used, it can harm the user. These little messages just keep the manufacturer from getting sued. But this assumes the product’s consumers, No. 1, know how to read, and No. 2, if they can read that they’ll read and heed the finely printed warning. A comedian once said we don’t need warning labels to protect the stupid among us. If someone turns on a hairdryer while taking a bath and oops, gets electrocuted, he reasoned, the species is better off without someone that stupid. It’s merely “thinning the herd,” as he put it, like what happens to old, weak or slow animals in the wild. But maybe we need to help the clue free among us from doing something stupid that clashes with Nature’s laws and can easily maim or kill them early in their life cycle.

So, in the spirit of promoting basic human survival skills, what follows is a makeshift guide – a starter kit, if you will – of tips on how to keep from sidestepping an avoidable early death through ignorant and ill advised actions. This doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt or knocked off in a natural disaster or freak accident before your time by following these tips. And while this tip list is far from complete, it just might help someone avoid a needless early death. So, with the above in mind, always remember, health and safety is no accident, so it’s important to: • Respect the force of gravity. If you jump or fall off of anything, make sure you’re not too high up, or the fall could hurt or kill you. Unless your parachute opens as planned. This is particularly useful advice for the cast performing Jackass style stunts, which mostly cause avoidable injuries that surely bring a lifetime of aches and pains. • Maintain your vehicles. You or someone qualified should make sure the engine in your car, plane or helicopter in is in tip-top working order. Otherwise, if the engine fails, and you’re flying, for instance, gravity takes over and you will crash. And then it’s almost certainly lights out. And if the brakes on your car or bicycle

fail, you will probably run into hard and/or sharp things you don’t want to, and could well be messed up or killed. And while you’re out driving or riding, remember to obey traffic rules. If you don’t, you greatly increase your chances of having deadly or injury causing collisions with other moving vehicles. An added plus of this preventative measure is you decrease the chances of having your car, truck or bike, destroyed, with you in it. • Prevent and avoid floodwaters. (Memo to water management agencies) If runoff water is quickly filling up a reservoir/lake because of storms in higher elevations, it’s really a good idea to release in a timely manner enough water from the dam holding the water. This so water doesn’t go over the top and blow out the dam. Flooding communities and cities ruins property and drowns fleeing people and animals. Meanwhile, if a river near you floods and introduces high water to your streets, try not to drive in it. It’s really not a bad idea to invest in a rowboat for times like this. Addendum to memo to water management agencies: It’s a good idea to maintain the working order of river levees that protect large populations. If the levees aren’t maintained, the raging rivers

they’re designed to contain may blow holes through them. Then comes the dreaded flooding. (See above). • Respect the power of high winds. If a hurricane or tornado is coming your way, leave your area as fast as you can. If it is just very windy and a large tree near your house is tilting toward your house, with its root ball pulling up out of the ground, or if it is dying but is big with huge branches hovering over your house, make no mistake. Nature is sending a clear message to you: Remove these trees as soon as possible. Otherwise big, dead, heavy branches will snap off and crash through your roof. Or the whole tree will blow over, and crash into your house. If the blown down tree hits the bedroom you’re sleeping in, you may be inconveniently crushed. • Beware of the very hot and the very cold. If the outside temperature is dropping below zero with a nasty wind chill factor, dress warmly when you go outside. And it’s important to have a good heater for your house and car. Or you could freeze to death. Note: make sure there’s enough ventilation in your car and house when the heater’s on. Or you could fall victim, in some cases to asphyxiation from breathing in too much carbon monoxide.

On the flipside, if it’s 115 degrees outside, stay inside and turn on the air conditioner. Heat stroke can kill you. And when pouring hot coffee out of an urn, do not pour it on yourself or other people (an actual warning label on a glass coffee urn offers this advice). This won’t kill, but it hurts like hell, and makes the victims want to sue. • Never mix electricity and water. If you use the hairdryer while in the bathtub, you will be electrocuted. (See above). And it’s important when installing lights or electrical outlets, to turn off the house power supply. Or you could be electrocuted. If a bone rattling electric shock doesn’t ruin your day and force a hospital visit with lack of consciousness and burning pain, it will kill you. • Be very careful with fire. Fire burns most things, and destroys them, people included. It’s especially dangerous when in the form of lit matches, it ignites volatile fuels like gasoline or natural gas. • Firmly plant a ladder on the ground before using. If you’re going to use a two-legged ladder, make sure its feet aren’t resting on a slick surface. Otherwise you can get up fairly high on the ladder, only to have it slip at the base, and clatter down to a cement

or other hard surface, with you falling out of control with it. If you’re unlucky you can hit your head on a hard surface like concrete, and suffer enough brain damage to be forced to wear diapers and sip soup for the rest of your life. • Avoid body slams of all kinds. Wear a helmet while riding a bike or motorcycle or skiing, horseback riding or mountain climbing. Because if you fall and hit your head without a helmet, once again, you could suffer enough brain damage to be forced to wear diapers and sip soup for the rest of your life. So this is an important brain saving act. However, helmets apparently don’t do much to protect football players’ brains from turning to cottage cheese after they’ve suffered years of concussions from repeated head smacks. And boxers don’t wear helmets, but probably should. If they did, their brains would have a much better chance of functioning normally after years of receiving no small number of head-snapping punches. • Do not inhale thick smoke or poisonous vapors. As the warning label on charcoal bags will tell you, if you start a charcoal-fired barbecue in your living room or any other room in

the house, you may very well suffocate. And breathing too close to poisoned air from an erupting volcano, airplane glue, paint thinner, solvents, hairspray, gasoline and the like, isn’t good for you. So if you’re in the vicinity of these vapors, make sure there’s a good oxygen supply close by. If you’re indoors, open the windows. Otherwise, it’s not so good for brain cells and healthy breathing. • Respect the power of power tools. When operating power tools, always wear goggles and never wear a necktie. This way, you’re less likely to lose an eye due to an errant air compression nail flying into your face because you’re, for some reason, holding the nailer backwards. And if operating a lathe, not wearing a necktie will prevent the high RPM power tool from grabbing the end of your tie and pulling your face into high speed spinning wood or metal. And if you have long hair, tie it back into a ponytail before operating a power drill or other high- speed power tools. That way the drill or other tool won’t snag the hair falling in your face and rip a large patch of it out of your scalp, roots and all. • Don’t eat old food, anything toxic or has sharp edges. If food has been in the refrigerator for more than a week, don’t eat it or any other spoiled food. Throw it out. A good way to tell is if it seems old, has mold on it, or is hard as a rock. Otherwise you’ll get

sick, and maybe die from eating something that couldn’t have tasted that good anyway. And if you’re ever tempted just for fun to eat glass, sharp objects or drink poisonous liquids like drain cleaner, don’t. It’s really a bad idea. Still, it’s important to note that none of the above tips are worth anything at all to help anyone that happens to be in the path of one of Nature’s regularly occurring violent outbursts. So if you’re in the way of a hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, flood, tornado, wildfire, or similar chaotic natural disaster, realize that time is of the essence. Drop everything. Do whatever it takes to get out of the way. Hopefully you make it out intact. Or the end could be right there. And Nature’s destructive forces will have destroyed the spot you had occupied, simultaneously orchestrating a few cataclysmic disasters somewhere else in the world. And even though it might be difficult, just remember, these natural disasters are really nothing for us to take personally. They happen all the time. Shit happens. It’s just Nature being Nature.

The Shitty Job Hall of Fame
A friend of a friend recently told me and a few other guys over beers that he knew the world’s worst job. And, after listening to it, and picturing it in my head, I concluded he might be right. But hell, there are tons of jobs on the planet that absolutely suck. In fact, I’d venture to say that most jobs, out of the vast spectrum of jobs out there, are just plain miserable. Only a miniscule few are actually fun, challenging, and well paid. But most are dreaded. They’re no fun, boring, possibly dangerous, exceptionally disgusting, or all of the above. Still, some bad jobs, professional football for example, pay well for the job requirement of suffering through a series of brutal collisions with other players. But most don’t. And to say that one job sucks more than any other job in the world, is impossible, really. If there were a world title for worst job, it would always be disputed as viciously as who is the worst dressed Hollywood lesbian. It’s just an opinion.

I thought I’d had my share of crappy jobs, before during and after college: steakhouse dishwasher, summer resort septic tank unclogger, garbage collector, pool table assembler. But a few years later I wrote a newspaper feature story about Jerry, a guy who had a job I still consider to be one of the nastiest callings out there. Jerry’s job was to go to a site where something was literally too smelly for anyone to deal with, and chemically defeat the funk. Some of the stank he was called upon to neutralize was so bad it made freshly churned out vomit smell like a whiff of spring flowers. He had stories that offered up jaw dropping, lip-snarling descriptions of fouled air. It wasn’t so bad to just imagine how bad a particular job smelled rather than actually getting a first hand snort and recoiling with a gag-reflex. Jerry went on a job where an elderly lady wanted to get rid of all the stinking cat poop and pee in the crawl space under her home. Apparently neighborhood cats had been making steady contributions under her house for years, and it was becoming so smelly, even she, who still had a sense of smell, but was almost deaf and blind, had to do something about it. The poor lady could stand the stench no more. So Jerry, wearing plastic overalls and a heavy-duty particle mask pulled tight over his face, crawled into the nasty minefield under her house. He scooped out the turds, be they hard or otherwise, then applied his trusty de-stenchification chemicals which, although not great themselves, were a welcome alternative to cat waste fumes. But just to add a little more color to my newspaper story, I wanted to know the nastiest job Jerry had ever handled. He was more than

happy to tell me in vivid detail. And by gosh, his description of it gave such compellingly cringe-worthy mental video that I had to put it in the story. I also mad a mental note of his gnarly tale. Because I knew someday I’d be sitting around having a few beers with some buddies and the subject of worst job in the world would come up. And when it did, I was quite sure nobody would be able to top Jerry’s. Rotten jobs are the sewer water we’ve all had to slog through at some point in our lives. The low- paying, dead-end, mind-numbing job is one of the biggest arguments for getting a college education. The conventional wisdom says a degree will help you get a better job than fare taker at a toll bridge or highway. Better than an elephant cage cleaner at the zoo. Even better than a Donald Trump minion. Theoretically, at least. I had some completely un-fun jobs during high school and college, and I bought into my parents’ mantra that a college degree due brings the good job and better life. I got my journalism degree, then figured, hey, why not go for a master’s? I wouldn’t have to get a real job for another couple years. And when I did have to find a career-starting job, I would have plenty of education on my resume to compete with. So I did a master’s degree, which wasn’t easy for me, not having the natural students’ ability to read everything fast, understand it, and remember it and regurgitate it. But when I finally got the piece of paper, I knew the jig was up: It was time to hit the pavement and find a decent full-time professional job in the real world. I knew I had dues to pay, but I wanted a job that made me want to

get up in the morning and happily tackle whatever work I had that day. I wanted a job with an easygoing boss who never put any pressure on me, and would give me raises because I was so damn valuable he didn’t want to lose me to a higher bidder. My Uncle Roger once told me as a kid that the worst part of working for a company is that you’ll have a boss. And he told me, “If you have a rotten boss, and you probably will, your life will be hell.” So, with that bit of insight in the back of my head, I knew I wanted a job with a good boss. I would have co-workers who were brilliant, fun to work with and easy to learn from. I wanted great benefits and plenty of vacation. A job that would lead to even better, even higher paying jobs. It didn’t seem like too much to expect. After all, I now had the required paper in hand. I looked in the help wanted section of the local paper and found one that looked promising: “Wanted, administrative asst., call for interview.” So I phoned and a there was a recorded message that says for those interested in the job to show up at the address they give at 8 the next morning. So I put on a tie and jacket and showed up at the place, where there was a long line of people spilling into the parking lot. They apparently were responding to the same ad. Then I realized all of us standing in line had been conned: This was just a job placement agency trying to get a herd of applicants for any job they could find for them. Then the agency could make more commissions.

If you stood in line long enough, you got inside to a reception area where there was eventually a place to sit and eventually you could get a one-on-one interview. I made it to a place to sit and opened my paperback collection of short stories to help pass the time. After a reading two stories and beginning a third, my name was called. Greeting me was Gene, a short husky olive skinned guy with neatly clipped black brillo-like hair, mutton chop sideburns and thin mustache. Dressed in the office uniform of shirt tie, black slacks and jacket, he smoked thin brown cigarettes. “Have a seat!” he said with phony cheer. He shut the office door behind me and I looked at a framed saying on the wall behind his head. It read, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and he feeds himself for life.” It was illustrated with a little kid with a fishing pole as I recall, all puffy and yellow and blue, like something you’d see in a 3-yearold’s storybook. Which I took to mean that Gene here saw his higher calling as helping people get a job that would pay their bills and get him a cut of their first few weeks’ salary. Sure, he wanted to help people. But the more jobs he found for his seekers, the more money he made. He and his staff weeded out clients that they figured would take too long to hook a job. If it took too long to find a job, there was less long term payoff. It was just how the game was played for profit. “So what job are you looking for?” asked Gene. “Administrative assistant. You know, the one you guys advertised

for in the paper.” He looked down at his papers on top of his desk. “That’s just one of a whole lot of jobs out there,” he said. “What job would interest you?” “Well,” I said, “I just finished six years of college, I got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree with the idea of becoming a newspaper journalist.” “Really,” said Gene, his face screwing up a bit. I knew how hard it was to land a news reporting job, and I was pretty sure that, like me, he had no clue how to go about it. But his little bait and switch employment agency was practiced in the art of deception, just to get me and many other unsuspecting people to come in as tricked job interviewees, who, after taking the trouble to show up, wouldn’t likely leave. They’d stay and go through with at least a preliminary interview. So I figured, might as well put Gene here to the test and see if he could pull off the well nigh impossible. At least he’d spend some time not making any money, which I was OK with. “Okay,” he said. “Let me work on that. But you’ll have to sit in the waiting area while I look, or I’ll have to go to the next client.” “No problem,” I said. “Getting a newspaper reporting job is hard, I need all the help I can get.” I’m pretty sure he’d expected me to walk out of the building then, guessing I wouldn’t wait in the waiting room. Then he could move on to placing somebody quickly, where he had sources and could more easily score some green.

But I went back and sat in the waiting room and opened my book again. I broke for lunch, but I came back. I read ‘til late in the afternoon, and was trying not to fall asleep when Gene poked his head out at me. “I think I got something for ya,” he said, smiling as if he could barely believe how good he was at his job. I followed him into his office. “I got you an interview at a newspaper in the North County,” he said. “It’s a weekly. Show up there at 7 a.m. tomorrow. They have an opening.” He said this like he was revealing a state secret that other important people would kill to know. “Be on time,” he said. “Take this. I’ve written out the directions on how to get there.” I went home. And bright and early the next morning, I drive north on the freeway to this newspaper, I’ll call the Lookout Sheet. I find it easily enough. But the front doors are locked. So I wander around the side of the building where an open door leads to the back shop and printing press. I’m in a suit and tie, everybody working there is dressed like janitors, pressmen and production people. The foreman walks up to me, big guy wearing safety goggles. He is Steve, according to his name patch. “Can I help you?” he asks, wondering what the hell this kid in a suit is doing in his shop at 7 a.m. “I’m here for a job interview.” I hand him Gene’s official looking paper with the vague information about my interview on it.

“Well, the only job we have in here is for a typesetter.” “Really?” “But the people we usually hire for that is housewives,” says Steve. “You gotta know how to type, but it’s pretty boring.” “What about the reporting job, isn’t there a reporting job opening here?” “Well I wouldn’t know about no reporting job. You need to talk to the editor about that.” “Where’s his office?” “You go right through them doors over there,” says Steve. “You might have to wait in the reception area ‘til he comes in, prob’ly around eight or so.” “Okay, thanks.” I head out of the shop to find the lobby. I find a dimly lit, empty reception desk, all the lights are still off. I slump down in one of the lobby chairs and wonder if I misunderstood anything Gene said about the interview. No, he said 7 a.m. I was there at 7 a.m. No job, but one for a typesetter. Yep, good ol’ Gene thought a typesetting job was the kind of newspaper job I wanted. He either didn’t know the difference between jobs at newspapers, which wasn’t likely, or he just wanted something to chalk up on his client list to report to his boss. Hmmm…. A blonde, middle-aged receptionist who looks like Doris Day unlocks the front door. When she sees me sitting in the dark , she jumps.

“Wooo….How did you get in here? What do you want?" Upon closer scrutiny, she sees I’m a young guy in a suit. That seems to cool her paranoia. If I’d been sitting in dirty overalls with an ax in my hand, she would have run out, screaming. “I came in through the shop,” I say. “I’m early. I’m here to talk to the editor.” “He should be in shortly,” she says, moving toward her work area. “Is he expecting you?” “Uh, I don’t think so. I wanted to see if he could answer some questions about a reporting position.” She flips on the lights and settles in to her desk, turning on the phones. “Sure, no problem.” She smiles, apparently convinced I’m no threat. “I’ll let him know when he comes in.” About 45 minutes later a friendly looking old fat guy in a baggy black suit walks in. He says a cheerful “good morning Ann” to the receptionist and disappears through another set of doors, presumably to the paper’s newsroom and his office. Ann waits a few minutes, then rings him. “Mr. Kelso, there’s a young gentleman here to see you,” she says. “He wants to inquire about a reporting position.” She listens to his reply. “I’m not sure, sir, but he did say he just wanted a few minutes of your time.” Another pause. “Okay, I will sir.”

I gather from hearing her, that there’s no reporting job. Only a typesetting position for an unemployed housewife who has some spare time, can type and needs a few extra bucks. “Mr. Kelso will see you now,” she says, pointing. “Right through those doors.” “Thanks.” I stride into the newsroom and see the editor asking a reporter – who is also dressed in a black suit and looks like a junior undertaker – if he’s over his cold yet. The young reporter mumbles something and the big guy motions me to his office. For some reason, he doesn’t turn on the lights, so it’s dark in his dinky little corner nest of a desk, typewriter, piles of newspapers, and generally disheveled work area. I introduce myself and shake his hand with my best firm, but not too firm, shake. He sits behind his desk and I sit on the gray metal office chair across from him. “So what can I do you for?” he asks with a genuine smile. “Well, I’m looking for a reporting job.” I launch into a rundown of my education, skills, dependability, etc. I have the floor with a guy that can hire me, so I sell myself like a car salesman hyping his best showroom beauty. I finish, and the big guy pauses for a moment and looks down. “We have a small staff of three reporters,” he says. “And right now, we don’t have any openings. I don’t think we will for some

time.” After hearing that, I feel I’d been had by my good ol’ fishing teacher Gene. I thank the big guy, who was polite about my crash visit, and drive back to Gene’s office. “How’d it go?” asks Gene, greeting me in the reception area. “Typesetter?” I say. “You thought the opening I would fill would be for a typesetter?” “Uh, come on back to my office.” I sit down in his interview chair. “I want a reporting job, not a typesetting job. There wasn’t even a reporting opening there.” “Yeah, well I was just trying to get you in the door,” says Gene, with belligerence creeping into his voice. He didn’t care at all that he’d sent me on a wild goose chase. “But I don’t think I can get you a reporting position. What else do you like to do?" “I don’t know.” Gene does his best sympathy act, but he’s a bad actor. He knows he’s spinning his wheels with me. He’s not thrilled about losing time. Time is money. “Tellya what,” he says, pulling the big fat Yellow Pages off his desk. “Take this, go into the conference room and go through the index in the back. When you see something you like, write it down. Then we’ll talk about the next step to an interview.”

I take the Yellow Pages and Gene walks me to the conference room. He gives me a pad and pen. He shuts the door and I sit there taking it all in. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a master’s in mass communications and here I am sitting in an employment agency conference room looking for a job possibility in the Yellow Pages. I open it up at the back and scan the categories. Nothing remotely interests me. By the time I get to the Ws I have nothing written down. Then I see “wood.” I always liked woodworking in high school, so I write it down. I go back to Gene’s office and he waves me in. “Got anything?” “I like working with wood, that’s about all I could find.” “Okay, Okay, that’s a start. Let me work on that. Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll see what I can find.” I go home and come back the next morning. I ask for Gene, but the receptionist says he’s in a meeting. “Well, please tell him I’m here.” I open my book of short stories. I’m the only one in the waiting room and I read all the way ‘til noon. I go to my car to eat my sack lunch. When I return to the reception area I again ask for Gene. For all I know he isn’t even in the office. I begin to feel like my foray here has been a complete waste of time. After another half hour of reading, Gene emerges.

“Hey, howya doin’? he says in his well-worn phony attempt at enthusiasm. “Well guess what? C’mon back, I’ve got something for ya.” He sits in his chair and leans forward over his desk with his confidential air. “I’ve got you an interview tomorrow morning at a pool table manufacturer!” he says, again acting like he’s just pulled off the coup of the century. “Now I know the head guy there, and he’s a little cowboy, but don’t worry, he’s a nice guy to work for.” I’m not jumping up and down about this. Underwhelmed would be a vast understatement. A pool-table manufacturer. Wow. But I have nothing else going, I need money, so I decide to go to the interview. The next morning I drive to the industrial part of San Diego and meet Rick at the pool table manufacturing company. This is a shop where laminated sheets of plastic that are supposed to look like real wood, are glued to wood sections made from compressed wood chips that are assembled into a pool table. The depressing shop looks like it would fit well in the bowels of San Quentin. It has concrete walls painted an industrial green and a loud, nerve-rattling bell that signifies breaks. It is annoyingly bright with florescent lighting. “Ever work in a shop before?” asks Rick. A Mexican American in his 30s, he wears a blue work shirt, a buzz cut and is about 6 feet tall.

“Sure, in high school.” “This guy Gene wants me to hire you,” he says. “But I don’t want to pay him any commission. So how about I call him back, say I didn’t want to hire you, then you can start. We pay cash for each shift you work.” “Okay, sounds good to me.” Rick answers a call on the greasy yellow wall phone, and I can tell it’s Gene following up. “He’s an impressionable guy,” says Rick. “But he’s not right for this job. Thanks for sending him over, but I’m sorry.” Rick slams down the wall phone receiver and leads me to the shop. I’d blown Gene off, made him spend time working on me that yielded him no commission. Good. Gene baby did his best to dump me. He eventually did, but it cost him time and money. Good again. But as it turned out, the joke was on me. “Take these laminated sheets and glue them onto these wood pieces using this glue,” says Rick. “You get 15-minute breaks and a half hour for lunch. Go to it!” There are about four other guys working in the shop doing other assembly jobs. One is a hostile young Mexican who seems to think I need to prove my bad macho self to him or something, to show I belong. Another is a skinny, pale white kid with short dark hair who when he looks at you, looks you straight in the eyes, in a glazed, creepy way. I figure he’s stoned, a religious zealot or a

serial killer. Or all three. I soon learn that the job is about as bad as any I’ve ever had. It beats cleaning pots with burnt rice on the bottom of them, but not by much. And it beats poking a long pipe into a pool of backed up raw sewage to break up a clog of compacted ca-ca and corn kernels in a septic tank. But just barely. Not only that, I’m not very good at it. I’m slow as molasses, and the glares I get give me the impression that they want my gluing to be a lot faster than it was. I go along on a pool table delivery one night, but the job in the shop is like doing prison time. Sitting on a chair looking at a blank wall would be an improvement. Toward the end of my second week, something comes loose under my Chevy’s front end. I get under the car to see the steering mechanism is missing a bolt. I go in to the shop and start work. But on my break I go out to try to see if I can fix my car. I’m screwed if I can’t drive home. This is a bad neighborhood. I’m under the Chevy’s front end in the dirt, trying to figure out how to fix it. I get back to the shop late. Rick tells me if I’m late back from a break again, I’ll be fired. A couple of days later he tells me he wants a big pile of gluing done quickly. When he comes back a few hours later, I’m not finished. So he fires me. I go to the front desk where an older guy, probably the owner, wearing white patent leather shoes, polyester white pants and a nauseatingly bright red and orange Hawaiian shirt, has me sit down in front of his cruddy old shop desk. He counts out the cash they owe me. “You don’t look too happy,” he says.

What does he expect me to do, get up and do a tap dance on his desk and sing out how great it was to be alive? I glare at him, take my cash and leave. I know I have to cut the crap and find a real job. No more screwing around.

But I digress. Anyway, this friend of a friend, during this recent beer drinking round table with the guys, announces he knows the worst job in the world. He’s a New York Jew with a Richard Lewis/Charles Manson intellectual neurotic crazy guy kind of look. Everybody keeps talking, then he says, “Nobody asked me what the world’s worst job is. Aren’t you guys curious?” We all just look at him dumbly. So he tells us. “When I was younger in New York I’d have sex on occasion. And one time it burned when I peed. So I go to a clinic. And there’s a big black guy, about 300 pounds, whose only job all day is to do one thing: Sit on a stool and stick an extra long Q-tip into the end of the penises of guys like me who are there because it burns when they pee. That’s gotta be the worst job in the world.” It isn’t a pretty picture, and our faces screw up in horror. We go around the table to see if anybody can top it. I offer up the nasty job done by Jerry, the de-stinking professional’s worst nightmare, which was described in the story I wrote about his business. I tell the guys Jerry’s nightmare job: “Somebody was exhuming a casket from a cemetery to move it to another burial site. They’d managed to get the soggy, rotting casket

into a hearse and drive it to the new site. But when they went to unload it, the jostling around broke it open and out flooded the liquid contents. Jerry called it a large spill of ‘body soup’ pouring out the hearse’s back door. They were able to get the casket chunks and liquid dead shit out of the hearse. But it left behind an ungodly nuclear stink. A smell so bad, the hearse couldn’t be used again unless purged of its stink. “So they called Jerry. “When he got there, he told me he got a nasty sudden whiff of it and it made him puke on the spot. The long fermented body swill was the worst stink he’d ever come across. I believed him. But he put on his mask and suit and went at it. And his chemicals did the de-stink trick.” Another guy at the table says the worst job he ever did was gut raw fish at a processing plant for eight hours a day. We had three strong entries. But which job was the worst? Didn’t matter, they were all bad enough to quality for for the Shitty Job Hall of Fame. A hallowed recognition of jobs through which honest, hard working people suffer through daily. But this had been a good discussion. We felt better about our lives just then, knowing we sat somewhere above the sea of hopeless, utterly lousy jobs. We were lucky not to have the jobs fraught with stench, abject grossness, stupid, obnoxious and annoying people, rotten pay, and other dreaded irritants. We all drank to that.

Stuffing Mickey’s Pants
Almost out of the womb, everybody in the last few generations has been taught that if you ever go to Disneyland, you’re going to have fun. Because after all, Disneyland has to keep a big load of happymaking on its plate, just to live up to calling itself the happiest place on earth. Disney staffers meeting the public are paid by the smile. They're friendly, helpful and irrepressibly chirpy. They use smiles and maniacal bright-eyed cheer to ward off any rude behavior from the occasional dissatisfied customer. But it’s a safe bet hotel housekeepers and other lesser paid behind the scenes employees smile only when they have to, i.e., to their bosses. What do they care about happy visitors? They do the low pay grunt work. But staffers with constant visitor face time head off any discord they see in the kingdom. Because if it ever spins out of control, like when a little kid falls off a ride and gets mangled, it could throw a buzz-killing monkey wrench into the well-oiled Disney happy machine. So if bad happens, the drill is done: the kid is pulled out, quietly shuttled to the hospital and the ride closed. Oh, and don’t say anything about what really happened to the press. And, hopefully the kingdom’s happy train continues as if

nothing is amiss. Disney doesn’t shovel its sugary escapism by the ton to its happytime expectant visitors for no reason. No, it’s a simple profit making formula. Happy visitors spend the most money. And unhappy ones leave the earliest and spend the least. Why on earth would Disney want any unhappiness to throw that billion-dollar monorail off its tracks? That’s why visitor happiness is pursued with Machiavellian zeal. It yields a lot of money. It works. Even if you’re not having fun while visiting, there’s an ethereal expectation in the air, a psychic nudging if you will, to get with the program like everybody else. And if you’re not happy, you better look like you’re happy. Outside the boundaries of the magic kingdom, the goal is to program the brain of every kid on the planet to want to visit to Disneyland, see every Disney movie and buy every piece of Disney kitsch. Kids then lobby their parents to buy the Disney products and trips. Parents, meanwhile, have been conditioned over the years to consider it a prideful parent moment when they throw a good chunk of their happy money down Mickey’s pants. When they do so, they’ve been trained to feel validated as good parents, and absolved of all the past damage that as lazy, crappy parents, they’ve wrought on their kids’ psyches. Meanwhile, it’s a win-win. All that guilt-cleansing happy money shoved down Mickey’s pants in turn lets him keep showing just how happy he is to Disney shareholders. Disney’s “be happy, or else” of mandatory fun for its employees has worked so well, it has been adopted by many corporate cultures in America. It’s a great way to kneecap any bad morale

among the troops. Its message of “put up or shut up” keeps everybody on board, no matter how much corporate policies are screwing them. It even spills over from the office into company sponsored picnics and parties. At these mostly dreaded events, all employees must attend, and are expected to put on a happy face, laugh at every joke, and be friendly and polite to all, including hated co-workers. And it is frowned upon not to get up and dance like a rhythm free white person when the deejay invariably plays “Brick House.” Those that don’t toe this line get noticed. And if they keep it up, they get the boot. But if they make a lot of money for the company, or have a low pay, hard-to-replace job, they’re left alone. As a kid, an upcoming Disneyland trip created the same internal thrum of excitement for me as a week of Christmas mornings. Mostly through word of mouth from kids at school, it was built up in my mind as a magical, mythical place where there was nothing but fun rides, popcorn, candy, and happy feelings. My first visit, when I was 12, was an exciting, happy visit. As advertised, Disneyland had fun rides, plenty of junk food, happy music everywhere, all in a clean, litter-free, idyllic, folksy, chucklehead atmosphere. I was ecstatic all the way through my first visit there. That is, until we had to leave. Then, like a spoiled little snot, furious at being told his favorite toy was being taken away, I stewed in insolence. I couldn’t believe we couldn’t stay longer. It was an unacceptable, outrageous concept to me. Even though it had been a long day, and we were all tired, hungry and pissy. And while earlier, happiness was all around and magically everywhere, suddenly it was conspicuously absent. I sulked and moaned, just like millions of

exhausted kids do when they’re pried away from the magic kingdom and thrown back in to what is, by comparison, a completely suck-filled world. Because along with the stratospheric emotional highs of kids’ Disneyland experiences, there are also bottomless lows of postpartum Disneyland. Victims can easily free-fall into the black hole of manic depression, a literal bi-polar experience for some sugarblitzed kids being led away from Disneyland. But these meltdowns aren’t even mentioned, much less cautioned against in any of the Disney promotional dogma. Instead, parents who have been convinced to spend no small amount of cash on giving their kids the Disney experience, are also forced to sweep these ugly postvisit hissy fits under the well trampled rug of messy family incidents. There, just like at Disneyland, the ugliness is mostly invisible, forgotten and denied as soon as possible. My second visit to Disneyland was when I was 14 and my new step-dad drove a carload of us, my mom, me and my three younger step-sisters. It was eight hours and 500 miles or so from Lake Tahoe to Disneyland and eight hours and 500 miles back. It was on the drive back, sitting in the cramped back seat of the massive Buick while we drove north through the Mojave Desert that my head began to spin. The trip had been falsely fun, and mostly depressing. I was at an age where the little kid in me had packed his bags and disappeared, and I felt vaguely alienated while walking around the park, going on rides and just generally taking in all the nonstop sensory assaults in the name of having fun. Instead of feeling elation, everything seemed freakishly surreal. I felt detached and empty.

I looked out at the brown, endless desert blurring by, and my mind felt overtaken by a dark cloud. I couldn’t really grab a thought that gave me hope of escape from the despair. Everything I took in was dreary, drab and sickeningly morose as the endless ride continued on. I was thankful when my head eventually cleared, but my little trip down manic depression lane scared me. I got my first real taste of what utter hopelessness felt like. It was all but intolerable, pure misery. Looking back, it could have been a chemical imbalance brought on by exploding hormones mixing badly with ingesting too much sugar-infused junk food. But no, I blame Disneyland for the experience. Because except for a short time in college when I went camping with some buddies, I have never since felt that hopelessly depressed. At 14, Disneyland happiness for me was the scariest ride of all: A spiraling plunge into a vortex of black hole depression. They actually built a ride at Disneyland that gives that sensation, at least physically. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone creepiness is captured in the ride that gives people the feeling of falling in the dark several stories down an elevator shaft. But the mental equivalent of depressed spinning, I can testify, is much, much scarier. It lasts longer and as a bonus, makes you think about offing yourself. I came back to Disneyland about 10 or so years later as a barely solvent cub newspaper reporter, with some co-workers. We could get in free with our press passes, and wanted to see a band that was playing there. It was a hot summer weekend and the place was teaming with fun seeking crowds. We walked around, and I don’t even remember going on any rides. All I remember is being overwhelmed by wave after wave of people, an overheated crush

of humanity. We craved a cold alcoholic drink of some kind, just to smooth the edge. But then, there was no alcohol available in the park. We all agreed to walk out and hoof it across Katella Avenue to find a bar. The four of us somehow made it across the pedestrian-unfriendly raceway that is Katella and soon found a dark, empty, fully airconditioned Mexican restaurant and bar. We cooled our heels in the refrigerated, greasy smelling air and drained a few margaritas. We felt replenished almost immediately. We made our way back to the park, cruised through the crowds, saw the band we wanted, and left. It had been a happy day, but only because of our steadfast determination – in the face of a no alcohol policy -- to anesthetize ourselves with a few shots of tequila. I didn’t make it back to the land of happy for another twenty years, after my wife Elena – a Disneyland disciple, with nothing but blissful childhood memories of the place – talked me into going for a couple days. We flew down and stayed in a low-rent motel near the park, and took a shuttle bus in. We walked and did rides, walked and did some more rides, ate junk food, shopped in the t-shirt and trinket stores, then walked more and did more rides. I liked some of the rides, but the best part for me was leaving to have dinner, cocktails and going to bed. Until some teenagers, desperate to escape, decided to loudly party all night long, with regular intervals of booze and drug addled cackling, reaching our ears from the parking lot below our

window. Then we read in the paper the next day that a little kid had been injured on a ride while we were there, causing it to be shut down. Very little information in the story, lawyers involved. About six years later, we visited to check out the newly opened California section of the park. We discovered this new part of the park has plenty of excellent alcohol and food options: beer, wine, and even radiator fluid-colored mix margaritas. Disney’s research must have finally convinced the bosses that tired adults with no alcohol options can lead to testy, ready to leave, less likely to spend more money visitors at the happiest place on earth. It took decades, but they finally figured out that if happiness means visitor spending, alcohol and happiness means even more kachinging at the cash registers. But ever since the recreational effects of booze has been known to man, that equation has always been a no-brainer. Just look at all the bars that have happy hours. Most of the imbibers at the park are going to have enough self-control to keep from sucking down too much and morphing into loud, foul-mouthed maniacs itching for a fight. But if not, no problem: Just radio in the friendly, persuasive combat-trained 300-pound security fellows to carry them quietly – but firmly -- away. The California part of the park also has a big-time white-knuckle rollercoaster ride with enough speedy loops, dips and turns to churn any earlier ingested corndogs toward hurl mode. We stayed at the big, expensive hotel connected to the park, and walked everywhere to restaurants and t-shirt and trinket shops, all while happy music played over the ubiquitous outdoor speakers. This was a nice visit to happyland, pretty much from start to finish.

Then a few years ago, I went along with Elena to a four-day work conference held at Disneyland. A few times I’d tagged along on this annual conference typically held in Orange County, either in Irvine or Newport Beach. We stayed at a Disney hotel across the street from the park, where a larger than life plastic Goofy stands in the lobby, prompting kids and parents to pose for a happy photo next to him. We had a free Sunday afternoon at the beginning of the conference, so we walked over to the park around noon. For some reason, I really wasn’t too up for the visit. I imagined about 10 hours of standing in line and walking, interrupted occasionally by a two-minute ride. But Elena was ready to go all out until closing time, to take in the full-on Disneyland experience that had been embedded into her consciousness with loving care since her childhood visits there with her grandparents. Whenever at Disneyland, she got giddy as a schoolgirl, which amazed me. I couldn’t imagine being giddy about this. My inner child had grown into an eyes-rolling teenager. I was grouchy as we started our fun quest on a few low-key ridiculous hang in the air rides meant for little kids. But then I just bucked up. I figured it was best to go with the flow and try really hard not to be a pain in the ass during Elena’s childhood bliss revival. It really wasn’t going to make it any better to be grumpy in the land of happy. While not happy, I managed to shift into a neutral mentality, not really being affected one way or another by seeing Disneyland through the distorted Fellini-esque fisheye lens of the sanitized carnival swirling before me. Except when we went on the roller coaster. That jolted us with a mainline of adrenaline, then returned us safely back to the happy-go-lucky crowded

Disneyland walkways. That’s where popcorn and sugar molecules suffused the hot hazy air. That aroma, along with roller coaster riders’ screams and happy warm and fuzzy music piped in from everywhere had effectively identified and suffocated any unhappy thoughts that had earlier held my brain hostage. Off we went, and after refueling with a late lunch, we hit the pavement. We waited in long lines and did rides. Some of these lines were amazingly long, with no fast passes. The park put fenced line lanes at the entrance to these rides to keep everybody going back and forth in a happy, orderly fashion. It amazed me how cheerful everybody was about standing in line in the heat, slowly moving ahead, seeing the same people walking the opposite way, back and forth, back and forth. I wondered to myself, what exactly was so fun about this? It had to be the expectation that the upcoming ride was going to be worth it, an unbelievably fun experience. Then I figured, if they’d been on the ride before, they were convinced the wait was worth it. That amazed me, and made me wonder. What other unpleasant tasks could people be convinced to endure for the promise of a two-minute thrill? Still, I had my doubts how good the ride could be. After what seemed like an hour waiting in this line, we eventually got on it. It was fun, no doubt about it. And mercifully air-conditioned. But it was over in two minutes. Before we knew it we were back out into the hot sun shuffling through throngs of people, all still seemingly happy to be there. Was the ride worth the wait? Well, I didn’t think so. But then I wasn’t a schizoid kid skipping around wide-eyed on a sugar high, either. After a getting an ice cream to refuel, we went to stand in another

long line. But this at least wasn’t in the sun. Still, it was a very long line outside the building containing the ride, which simulated riding in a large kite of some kind. And after what seemed to be at least 45 minutes of glacial movement in the line, we finally made it into the building. Only to realize that the line inside went another 30 yards to a right turn, which continued downward in a small hallway about 50 yards, then disappeared around another corner. I was beginning to feel like a rat stuck in a maze that kept remembering it was promised a piece of dried out cheese if it makes it out. As with other similarly trapped and frustrated rats, claustrophobia had crept in. To hell with the cheese, I just wanted out. But we finally got on the ride, which we had done the last time we visited. It was OK. But it was over in two minutes. I didn’t think it was worth it. Not even a little bit. That night, after still more miles of walking and going on rides, we saw some great fireworks. It was late, the park was closing down, and by the time we got back to our room, I think we’d walked about 20 miles. We were done. While Elena went to her conference meetings, I spent the next few days at the pool with my laptop, finishing up a freelance job, listening to the kiddies and their parents chatter in the pool. I took a walk to the nearby outdoor pedestrian mall. I didn’t want to shop, just stretch my legs. The bookstore had all the various glowing biographies of Walt Disney on display, and nothing else was interesting enough to buy. I bought a sandwich and chips and sat at an outside table and looked at the pedestrians. Not much happening. The hot, smoggy day on the mall was as serene and

safe as Walt himself would have wanted for his visitors. But it occurred to me that serene and safe can be mind numbingly boring. Some kind of danger, or at least something out of the ordinary was needed to liven things up. Maybe a women’s mud wrestling match on the plaza where you could throw down cash bets on who’d get the pin. Maybe not wholesome enough for Disney, but it would definitely draw a crowd and make the retailers happier. I walked on down the mall and came upon a pair of cops riding three wheeled vehicles that they stood on while they drove. They stopped and talked to the tourists, who were curious about their rides. “We got these about a year ago,” the one affable cop said. “They’re easier to maneuver than the two-wheeled ones.” Thinking they looked appropriately ridiculous here at the outdoor mall, where crime of any kind couldn’t be less likely, I took their photograph and walked on. I’d never seen cops look more ludicrous, with their dark blue shorts, white polo shirts, shoulder patches, shiny badges and sunglasses. Sure, I’d seen outdoor mall cops riding mountain bikes, and that’s a little goofy. But it at least there’s some athleticism, a hint of some kind of authority. These cops didn’t project authority of any kind. They weren’t fat or anything, but they looked allergic to crime fighting. They looked like they should work the counter at a pro shop, and hold court on the art of choosing the proper golf club. I tried to imagine what they’d do if the shit hit the fan at the mall. Anything crazy, like an armed and dangerous county jail escapee running through the mall. If that happened, my money says all they’d do is call for

backups and hightail it on their scooters back to their station. But the minute they saw somebody littering, or skateboarding, or even break-dancing without a permit, they’d angrily descend on the perpetrator. They’d show themselves so visitors would know that crime-ridden rebellious youth crap doesn’t fly here. Engendering a feeling of relaxed, but dependable security among the visitors is another key component to the overall happy feel of the magic kingdom. Everything must be kept quietly, but firmly under control. There’s only one thing that they want to spin wildly out of control at Disneyland: The desire of visitors to spend money like water through a firehose. I headed back to the hotel looking for the bar. I was hot and wasn’t so happy. And being in the happiest place on earth, well, I figured I needed to get happy. When I found the hotel bar, there was nobody there. There wasn’t even a sign telling when they had happy hour. So I waited and waited until the bartender re-appeared. He looked shocked to see anybody leaning up against his bar so early in the afternoon, but so clearly in need of a drink. I ordered a gin martini up, with three olives, and asked my server a perfectly legitimate question. “When’s happy hour?” He looked at me funny, like I could be some kind of troublemaker. “We don’t have happy hour!” he said, smiling freakishly. He was more than happy to keep charging me double.

Journey through Jamaica Jr.
My college roommate Doug had been to Belize before, and he’d often talked it up as a worthy place to check out. The former British Honduras sits on the western edge of the Caribbean just south of Mexico. Belize is the contrarian among countries of Central America. English is spoken, not Spanish, like it is in neighboring countries. Very dark skinned black people are a big part of the population, all speaking English with accents that make Belize fit the bill well as a landside Jamaica. Mix that with the blindingly white skinned Mennonites in Northern Belize, where about 3,000 settled from Europe in 1959. Sporting the ultra blond hair of a closely regulated lineage, they speak a mishmash of Dutch and German. Persecuted in Europe for taking passes on land taxes or military service, they hop-scotched from Holland to Germany to Prussia to keep away from laws they didn’t intend to obey. They eventually left Europe and crossed the Atlantic. For some

reason Belize was one of the Western Hemisphere landing spots for some of them. Others put down roots in Pennsylvania and Manitoba. Fiercely devoted to their special brand of Protestantism, the Mennonites put down roots in Belize and grew into the country’s main provider of poultry, dairy products and wood furniture. The Mennonites lined up their ducks well in Belize. They got a government pass on military duty and some taxes. They got the nod to practice their religion and farm within their closed communities. They were allowed to run their own government and schools. Like early American prairie pioneers, Mennonite men dress in work jeans and suspenders and wear wide brimmed hats. Women dress in high-necked long plaid dresses and bonnets. Some Mennonites believe modern machinery corrupts their faith. Others use engines, electricity, phones, drive cars and trucks. But they shun modern farm equipment. A horse and buggy remains a common way to get around. It’s early 1987 and Doug and I decide to spend a few days snorkeling off the Belizean island of Ambergris Caye. It sits on the second largest barrier reef in the world. Popular among Texans, who can get direct flights out of Houston to Belize City, the country’s offshore islands are a diver’s paradise. In the past 20 years Ambergris Caye has been discovered by TV producers. It has been the exotic backdrop of one or two bikini-clad-skankshook-up-with-dumb-chiseled-hunks TV shows.

We fly from Southern California to Cancun, then run to catch an overcrowded bus heading south to Chetumal, the Mexican town on the Belize border. The afternoon bus ride through thick jungle on a two lane paved road is standing room only, it’s hard to get much air. But we’re on the road, and it feels right. We get into the Chetumal in the early evening. We find a cheap hotel and figure to get up early the next morning and take another bus south across the border into Belize and on to Belize City. We walk around the town square, lit with strings of white light bulbs on trees and vendor booths. Locals walk, mingle, and Spanish dances in the twilight. Businessmen stride together, smoking cigars, families meander. The locals love this central meeting place. From the plaza, I hear a group clapping from a rooftop, interspersed by somebody speaking into a microphone. I wonder what it is, and walk closer to hear. I hear a voice on the mike, clapping, more comments. I get enough Spanish to figure out it’s an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Somehow I never paired Mexico, which I associate on one level with great margaritas and a few inebriated experiences, and AlAnon. Upstairs is an earnest group of drunks working on becoming non-drunks. This makes the plaza feel like a mother’s womb. I wander off into the plaza. After we eat and walk around more, we see a pair of young British guys having a fine time with the alcohol raging through their bloodstreams as they lean and career through the crowd. They stick out for one good reason. They’re both displaying flat pasty bare chests, wearing only short bathing trunks. Their skin is white as

moonlight, they look like mutant albinos that have been at sea for weeks and are having a hard time walking normally. But the oddest thing about them is their hats. Both have on monster-sized felt sombreros – one black, one burgundy, each with embroidery and sequins. These hats are the ones Mexican vendors set aside to sell only to the stupidest, drunkest gringos. Locals check out the Brits with laughs and bemused smiles, but without any visible scorn. The next morning we board a faded blue Blue Bird school bus for the ride south to Belize City. After we sit down in the nearly empty bus, the two Brits, still in their trunks and sombreros, and hammered mercilessly by their all night binge-a-thon, roll on board toward the back of the bus. Before we pull away, they’re horizontal on the back bench seats, out for the count, each using their sombreros to shield their eyes from the sunlight. Riding on a school bus on a rutted dirt road through the jungle for several hours can test anyone’s patience, even if they aren’t hung over. And this ride is especially annoying, since it seems like every fucking 100 yards or so it jerks to a randomly selected stop to let off a few passengers, or take on a few. It appears this is the northsouth artery of the whole country, this Blue Bird bus, a rolling land barge if there ever was one, with hard, small bench seats, no air conditioning. It’s a mobile steam room, without towels. The first thing I notice looking out to signs along the road, is that they’re in English. There’s no Spanish anywhere. To help make the trip go faster, I chat with a young Belizean kid, a mulatto who looks to be about 20. He tells me he’s returning home

to Belize City. He says they filmed the movie “Mosquito Coast” in Belize and he met its star, Harrison Ford. The production crew built scenes in the jungle, near rivers, and this kid chatters about the wonder of it all. Doug sits on the other side of the bus. He looks like he’s ready to vomit. He gets more annoyed every time the bus lurches to another stop, then gives another jerk to get rolling again. By the time we get off the bus, he is not a happy man. He’s a big guy, with enough of a scowl to win any audition as a hit man. So when a local Belizean hustler approaches him about arranging for a motel room, or “anything you want,” Doug vents the annoyances he’s been storing up over the last five hours or so. He’s experienced the hustlers of Morocco, who home in on Euro tourists and gringos like a pack of wolves looking to cull some cash from the herd. Here, he finds belligerence a natural reaction to the hustler who approaches him. “I can get you hotel room, whatever you want, mon,” says the hustler, a big, tall black man, wearing a thick gold chain around his neck, a tight muscle shirt, shorts and sandals. This guy’s eyes give away menace apart from his smiley, friendly approach. Doug brushes past him. “This is nothin’,” he says to me. “These hustlers ought go to Morocco to learn how to hustle. Don’t believe anything he says.” I’m pretty sure he shouldn’t have said that. This guy just got insulted by a gringo walking into his territory. Sure enough, the guy gets wide eyed, and starts in.

“You think I got NUTHIN’? HUH, MON? You think you can take me, mon?” We keep walking. “You meet me at this place, we’ll see. I know people all over this town…I KNOW PEOPLE…” We pick up our pace, as the guy keeps shouting threats behind us. “What the hell are you doing?” I holler. “He could be the town cleaner!” “Aw, it’s NUTHIN’,” Doug mutters. He’s trying not to show his cage is rattled. The guy looked like a street fighter/ psychopath, who wouldn’t bat an eye while cutting people up into shark bait. He seemed like the last person you want to piss off on his own turf. We hunt for a place to stay the night. We want to get a plane ride out to Ambergris Caye in the morning. After our little clash, we’re a little edgy. But looking around, the locals look laid back. I see guys playing pickup basketball across the street. One is dribbling the ball, setting himself to make a drive to the hoop. Hanging from his mouth is a lit joint of local herb. We find a crappy little motel room with no windows, and then set out to find a bar that pours what Belize is well known for producing: good white rum. The hot early afternoon sun steams the town as we walk and hear, bass-heavy reggae music coming from roadside shanties built with sticks. These funky little houses don’t even look like they have running water or sit-down toilets, much less electricity for a sound system. We go into a bar that fits right into the neighborhood, a rickety wood shelter with dirt floors, tables, wooden stools and bar.

“I tink you like it bettah if I pour da rum intah pint bo-tells,” says the friendly barkeep. “It much cheapah den by da big bot-tell.” He tells us the savings and we take his advice. He produces tall tumblers, a bucket of ice and fresh limes. We sit at the bar, pour the rum over ice, squeeze in some limes, and start drinking. We’re the only customers in the place. The rum is smooth and cool and a welcome respite from the long, hot, lurching bus ride, and vaguely unsettling feel of Belize City. As we chat, I notice the bartender pull out a small black and white TV and sit it on a shelf behind the bar. He turns it on. “NBA All-Star game on now, from See-a-tell.” “Wait a minute,” I say. “How are you getting the NBA All-Star game here?” “Sat-tell-lite dish just outside.” The numbing effects of the rum are wending their way brainward as I try to figure out how this place, where you can see outside through the spaces in the shanty walls, and which has a dirt floor, is getting satellite TV from the U.S. Locals start coming into the bar. As we drink, we’re ready to testify to how the local white rum beats any white rum from anywhere in the world. Anywhere. Smooooooth. A local Belizean guy, white, in his mid 30s sits at the stool next to me. He knows we’re Americans and has an ax to grind with all things American. Including Americans like us, who are well on

their way to getting shitfaced at a little shanty bar in his town. “How can you live in a country that oppresses so many people in countries it steals from?” he asks me in his alcohol-boosted voice. He rails on and on for awhile. Then I stop him. “Look, most people understand that the citizens of a country don't stand up and clap for all the bad things done by their political leaders.” This sets him off for another 15 minutes. I shake my head and then start arguing with him. Then he puts his hand on my knee. I pull away, and realize this guy is gay, drunk and is somehow getting gay and aroused by insult-driven political debate. “Let’s get outta here,” says Doug. I shove off the stool, realizing that I’ve had too much rum as I wheel out the door and into the late afternoon steambath. I have to pee so bad, I just do it out in the open into what looks to be a wastewater trench alongside the road. Now normally I wouldn’t do such a thing. But I’m pretty ripped to the point of staggering, and I have to go bad. So I’m willing to risk any scorn or ridicule from anybody that might happen by. At this point the promise of relief is worth it. Happily, I’m able to go unnoticed. At least nobody is visible in either direction. We continue down the street and ahead I see what looks like the Mosquito Coast guy I met on the bus. “Hello!” he hollers as he walks up to us. “Hey, howya doin’?” I slur at him, no doubt with a scrambled face.

He smiles broadly. “You’ve been drinking! I’d like to take you to meet my friends!” We follow Mosquito Coast into what had to be one of the poorest parts of Belize City. No white people anywhere. Just locals carrying their groceries, walking on wood planked sidewalks edging the dirt streets, living their routines. Mosquito Coast leads us to a small group of easygoing black men who look to be in their early 20s, some with Marley inspired dreadlocks. They're just quietly hanging together on a corner. “So what do your friends like?” I ask Mosquito Coast. “What could we give them to show friendship?” “Oh, they love apple wine,” he says. “Where can I get some?” He shows me a little store around the corner. We go in and he points out the beverage of choice for Mosquito Coast’s friends. I buy a bottle. “So what do your friends do?” “They’re musicians.” We offer them the bottle of apple wine, and we’re instantly lifelong buds. We laugh and joke with them. Then Doug notices one of them gives a hand signal to a kid on a bicycle across the street. Soon the kid returns with a small foil packet. It's opened to reveal a few monster spliffs of local ganja.

We look across the street and there’s a uniformed policeman, and I wonder about the situation. “Now,” says Mosquito Coast. “The police won’t bother us as long as we do this,” he says, squatting onto the wood planked sidewalk. “You take a hit, then just put it down in front of you on the foil, until your next hit. Then they don’t care.” We’re still pretty well stunk up from the rum, sitting shoulder to shoulder on our haunches with Mosquito Coast and the Rasta musicians, smoking dope the legal way in a Belize slum. Here, we stand out as the only gringos in the neighborhood. People walk by on their daily errands as we sit and smoke, and nobody bats an eye at us, or what we’re doing. After we’re sufficiently smoothed out by the local crop yield, the musicians all get up as if they’re suddenly ready to go somewhere. “What’s up?” I ask Mosquito Coast. “They want to go to a movie,” he says. “You guys should come along.” At this point, my senses have been altered enough to prompt my inner sober person to shout out that if we go to the movies with these guys, things just might spin out of control and with a little bad luck, we could end up face to face with the pissed off hustler from earlier in the day. Sure, it was worst-case scenario, but a worthy point. “We need to go eat,” I tell Mosquito Coast.

He’s good with that, and we part ways amiably. We walk on, with the semi-focused idea of finding somewhere to eat. I shamble along, trying to focus on anything, but I find it’s a slippery slope as Belize City curves into my eyes through a fish-eye lens. Doug seems to have a better grip of his navigation skills, but he too is no doubt feeling the challenge of interpreting the local landscape through a high-octane admixture of Belizean white rum and knockout local pot. Doug somehow finds a Mennonite-owned restaurant during our random wandering that lasts into the dusk, then dark. We’re led through an empty, dimly lit restaurant, me knocking things over unintentionally at our destination: a starched white table-clothed dining surface. I fall heavily into my chair. Now we’re suddenly in white man land, a Mennonite restaurant with friendly, polite young blonde waitresses. They’re dressed in long frocks with high necks to ward off any hint of how sexy they surely are under all the cotton overkill. I don’t remember what we ate, but it was probably a slab of excellent beef. I further don’t remember how we got back to our holding cell, windowless room. The next morning we discover to our dismay that the shower in the room offers no hot water. Suffering through ice cold showers, we get the hell out to find a small plane to fly us to Ambergris Caye. We take a cab to the small airport to rent a plane ride over to the caye. We get in a single engine fixed wing plane and before we know it a local pilot is flying us high over the beautifully bright

turquoise Caribbean. About 15 minutes later we land on a small airstrip on the small tropical island. Seemingly about the length of three football fields and about a half a mile wide, it’s sandy, tropical and not built up much. It has only one and two story buildings dotting it. We walk into the town there and find a second floor motel room with an oiled mahogany porch offering a southward view of the ocean. Looking from the room, several metal roofs are visible. All are designed as rainwater collection systems. They funnel the water into large cisterns. After the rough hewn shanty world of Belize City, this breezy tropical isle is a sleepy, almost comatose place. It’s a hangout for mostly American divers and snorkelers there to cruise the underwater beauty of the huge reef nearby. We snorkel in warm shallows with floors of bright coral, and find deep clear water flecked with fast swimming schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish. Hanging out on the porch at our room, I write a postcard to my mom and step-dad in San Francisco. I’m sure they have no idea where Ambergris Caye, much less Belize, is. I suggest they get out their globe and look for it. I think of how they’ll react when they read it, getting hit with something out of left field that they don’t know what to make of. They don’t even know I’m out of the country. This amuses me. We plan to fly back across in a day or two to an airstrip north of Belize City right across from the Mexican border at Chetumal.

When we go to the airstrip hut to make our reservation, the lady there asks if our passports were stamped at the Mexican embassy in Belize City. Of course they weren’t. She tells us we’ll have to fly back to Belize City to get the stamps because the Mexican border police won’t let us into Mexico without them. And we thought we were done with Belize City. But the older lady with the big brown eyes and short black hair tells us this happens to visitors all the time. She says for five bucks each, she can have the pilot that flies back and forth daily to Belize City get the passports stamped and returned to us the next day. This is a tough call. If this turns out to be a scam, we’re stuck on Ambergris Caye without our passports. But if we don’t take her up on the offer, we have to fly back to Belize City, then take another torturously slow, long, hot and jerky bus ride north to Chetumal. With her big eyes and sincere face, the lady seems like she’s for real. If this woman is conning us, she’s one hell of an actress. She seems kind, concerned and totally honest. We turn over our passports to her. We leave the hut a little worried, with nagging thoughts we may have just made a mistake. Belize City has its share of hustlers on the lookout for scoring cash any way possible. But this island’s lifeblood is catering to scuba maniacs from gringo-land. If they screwed gringos out of their passports, it would get around, and they’d be screwing themselves. We end up not having to worry at all. The next day we get our passports back, newly stamped and ready for the Mexican border.

We pay the lady and fly out, headed northwest after we circle over the island and over the pristine turquoise Caribbean water below. Soon we’re flying over thick Belizean jungle, and I see a truck driving north on a lone dirt road, it’s tires kicking up a golden dust trail as it catches the rays of a fading afternoon sun. We land at a small airstrip cut into the jungle close to the Mexican border at Chetumal. We board a bus heading north to the border crossing, only a few miles away. The border station is apparently closed and won’t re-open for another half hour, for some reason. We sit in the bus, waiting. A black Belizean is among the few passengers on the bus. He says the border station is just closed while they do a shift change. He tells me he has family in the United States and often crosses this border. He’s well educated, and says his family has business interests in Mexico and the United States. He comes through this border often. He’s been delayed at the station several times by border guards trying to shake him down for bribes to let him through. He’s been through here so often he knows which shifts have the corrupt border guards. Not all of them want money, he says. If the dickheads are on duty when he’s coming through, he just kills time on the Belizean side of the border until their work shift ends. Once he sees honest agents he knows are on the job, he breezes through to Mexico. He isn’t bitter about the inconvenience and delays, which can run into several hours. To him, it’s just part of the deal to get into Mexico.

Gringos only rarely get pinned down with this kind of crap at this or most other border checkpoints around the world. We usually get through with our U.S. passports, no delays, no waiting. But for citizens in the much poorer and much more corrupt countries beyond our borders, those hold-ups, shakedowns and hassles are just part of life. Their citizens don’t cry about it like most gringos would. They just deal with it and move on.

Bar Talk
Location: Honey Dew Bar and Grill Conversants: The modern day Algonquin Round Table, made up of Jerry the mechanic, Ed the bartender, Randy the construction manager, Barry the psychologist and part time actor, and Dave the advertising copywriter, stand in a half circle at the bar and start riffing. Jerry: What’s up Ed. What’s on your mind? Ed: OK, I’m thinkin’ many people think swearing is bad, in any way shape or form. They just don’t want to hear it. Well I’m not one-a those. I think swearing can perk up a line.

Barry: As long as it isn’t overdone. Ed: Absolutely, that’s key. Randy: Yeah I swear the most when I’m driving alone. I’m brutal. Dave: That really doesn’t count though, when nobody can hear you. Randy: I just think it’s a healthy way to blow off steam. You yell something at somebody – say what’s really on your mind, no holds barred – they don’t hear you and nobody gets hurt. Jerry: Yeah? So whaddya say when somebody pisses you off while you’re driving? Randy: Oh I say some bad shit, man. Jerry: I think we need examples... Randy: Well it depends on the offender. Let’s see, dumb C, shitsack, dickwad,

shithead, Bozod, dickweed, chucklehead, fuckhead, brain dead fuckhead, fuckface, fucknuts, shit for brains, yackadoodle, dweeb, whore. I keep a lid on it. I don’t yell out or anything. Dave: Nice! Barry: I know a guy who says his daughter in law swears constantly. In just about every sentence. She says stuff like “I don’t give a fuck if that fuckin’ idiot comes or not. He’s a fuckin’ asshole as far as I’m concerned, fuck him.” This guy was visiting and got tired of hearing it so much, so he just told her, hey ya know, when you swear that often it looses its effectiveness. She just looked at him like he was an idiot. Dave: I know, she didn’t give a fuck about what he thought, right? Ed: Yeah, but I agree with the guy. People who swear all the time give swearing a bad name. And that’s no good. Because a well placed curse can perfectly punctuate a thought. Give it just the right amount of pop. Barry: I read a book by Bill Bryson with a chapter on the origins of cursing in the English language. It was by far the most

entertaining chapter in the book. He dug up a story in a Brit newspaper in the late 80s which quoted the coach of a cricket team that had lost a big match. The coach reportedly called the match umpire, in print, “A fucking, cheating cunt.” Bryson said it was the first time the word cunt was printed in a Brit newspaper. Dave: History was made that day. Ed: Remember how they never swore on Seinfeld? It was like a way not to offend the audience. So what they did was imply the swearing. I remember they’d cut off the line so that you were expecting a fuck, or some other swearword. They did it with a kid saying in one episode that somebody had gained so much from eating too much yogurt with fat in it that the person was a “fat f…” when he got cut off. So essentially you know what he said, but the censors couldn’t flag it. Dave: How clever. Ed: But then Larry David got his show on HBO and added in swearing. I have to say the swearing in his show is done well. Not too much, just once in awhile to make a line pack a punch.

Randy: Yeah on one show Suzy really gets into calling Jeff a fat fuck. She’s screaming it. She told Letterman on his show that when she first did that scene, Larry stopped her and told her to really let loose, really go for it, he thought she was holding back. So she really let it rip. No mercy on Jeff. Ed: Hey, it works. Instead of saying somebody is overweight in pants that are too short, just make the call and say “He’s a fat fuck in floodpants.” True, it may be offensive. Still, it does the job. Dave: Yes it does. Ed: Larry’s kind of annoying though. He’s a pain in the ass. Barry: Yeah, but that’s his whole thing, getting annoyed, then annoying people because he’s annoyed and peppering it all with some well punctuated cursing. Dave: What could be better? Sounds like the dream job. Jerry: I can’t watch more than two of his shows at a time, they get to be too much.

Barry: Not me, I’ve watched a whole season in one sitting. Dave: Wow, that’s sad. Randy: What’s the best unsavory description of somebody or something you guys have heard? Other than the rantings of a roadrage driver? Dave: I know a guy who called somebody a “ball gargler.” (laughter) Randy: My dad called birdwatchers “Hairy chested nut scratchers.” Dave: OOOph. Next? Ed: This isn’t cursing, but I know a guy whose girlfriend was so dumb, he called her “Houseplant.” She was hot, though. Dave: What a great guy.

Barry: Hey, you know how in movie theaters they always ask people to be quiet and turn off their cell phones? How they always do it with a print message on screen? But they don’t work. People talking don’t read the message, even if they know how, much less comply with the request. Now, here’s what they need: A PA announcer who gets on the horn with a booming deep scary voice. He could say, “HEY, the movie is about to start so you know what THAT means, don’t you? Yes, that means, SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP while the movie is playing. That’s so nobody has to come up to you while you’re talking out loud and drag your rude ass out of the theater. And by the way, TURN OFF YOUR FUCKING CELL PHONES RIGHT NOW. You don’t want to get thrown out of the theater for that either, NOW DO YOU? Now sit back, relax, and quietly – remember quietly -- enjoy the show! Dave: Yeah, that would do it, no problem. Ed: Ever hear old school, old fart swearers? They’re great. You know, they mutter and talk fast. I had an old guy boss like that when I was a teenager. He’d says stuff like, “Oh, Christ, that did about as much good as a fart in a windstorm.” Dave: Somebody get me a rimshot.

Barry: Ba-dum-bum! Dave: Thank you. Hey Ed, aren’t you an old fart swearer? Ed: Or once he was pissed at one of his workers who accidentally backed a truck up with the driver’s door open. Problem was there was a tree really close to the truck that bent the door back and buckled the hinges and you couldn’t close the door. So the pissed boss starts screaming at him for fucking up the door. “Oh my God, you can’t drive worth sour owl’s shit!” I always wondered where he got the sour owl’s shit imagery from bad driving. Randy: Yep, it is an odd pairing. Ed: Another time, after looking at a backed up septic tank, he spit and said, “That thing’s plugged up tighter than a bull’s ass in the fly season.” Dave: Rimshot! Ed: Another time he said, “Holy Christ, her dress is so short… Dave: Hold it. Everybody, now…How short is it?

Ed: … She needs a hairnet.” Barry: How about, Don’t get your undies in a bunch. Jerry: Or don’t get your tit in a ringer. Randy: Or your tip in a zipper. Ed: Then there’s the ever popular, “She could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Dave: Wha? That’s old, man. Ed: So what? It’s not that bad. Jerry: Totally sucks. Barry: I like the ones that sum up a crazy situation with some old fart saying, “Well blankety blank,” or some variation. Randy: “Well, Mr. Balls Jangled.”

Ed: “Well, humpin’ hillbillies.” Jerry: “Well Mary Fuckin’ Poppins, I never…” Barry: I like the goofy intros on billboards with goofy cartoons of goofy people saying shit that ends in “sez” like “Polkabilly Bandleader Bix Bakersfield sez…It just aint smart ta eat glass!” Randy: Absolutely. “Candy cock carver Crabmeat Peckham sez…The only good meat is fresh meat!” Dave: Sounds like a slack-jawed mouth-breather. Jerry: I like “Trustafarian.” for the young blond guy with dreads, no job, big bank account: Ed: Yeah, or “queer-bait,” for a baby-faced guy. Barry: I once heard a hot chick once call George Brett, remember him, the old infielder for the KC Royals, an “Oknoid.” You look at his goofy hillbilly grin photo as a player and Oknoid describes him dead-on. Not sure what an Oknoid is, but damn if he doesn’t look like one.

Randy: Yeah, I can see that. I like the call someone made for this one sleepy looking ballplayer whose name I forget: They said he needed to get his eyelids circumcised. Ed: Yeah, like that one Spanish actor. Now he’s a heavy lidded mouth breather. Jerry: Numb-nutted soup-sipper. Dave: Garbage-spewing pie-hole. Randy: Shit disturbing, ape-shit nuts, mega-bitch teabag smasher. Barry: I just thought of a friend’s little brother who one time got all excited playing Clue, and blurted out, “I know who the killer is, I know! Mrs. Peepipe with the Lead Cock, In the Hall! Dave: Yeah, gotta watch out for those pesky lead cocks … Jerry: I heard Mrs. Peepipe was a serial killer…

Barry: I heard somebody describe this greasy gross guy at the ballpark who was wearing an oversized Mets jersey, lots of chains and jewelry, and seemingly no pants. Somebody said he probably did have something on underneath: A marble bag bathing suit. Ed: Did they check? Dave: Doubt it. Randy: Yeah, but any superfatty in a thong is just wrong. Dave: Anybody puts a thong on can expect negative commentary. Ed: I guarantee you this, you’ll never be able to see the thong worn by a fat fuck. Too much dribble-down folded fat, my friends. Dave: OK now, imagery check, guys, we need to change the station. Jerry: And blubber incoherently about greasy guys in marble bag bathing suits…

Barry: There was another guy I saw at a ballgame who had on a ballcap with this message broadly stitched above the bill: CEO of Diddley Squat. He just sat quietly watching the game. Dave: Works for me. But maybe not. Randy: Nice. I’ve got a photo of a WWII soldier taking a break from battle, smiling broadly as he raises a big ass tin cup. The message above his helmet reads: “HOW ABOUT A NICE BIG CUP OF SHUT THE FUCK UP.” Then on the bottom border it says: “Think before you say something stupid.” Ed: Wise words. Dave: Oh yes. Jerry: I was at a ballgame once, and there’s this big fat guy with his family. He’s sitting over a large bucket of food, lording over it like he’ll bruise anybody that gets near it. He’s tearing into a turkey drumstick like a drunken medieval slob, while his skinny kids and wife sit off to the side, huddling from the cold, demoralized with no food, wondering how they ended up with this big dirtbag. He’s wearing a sweatshirt with the arms cut off at the

shoulder and he has on a baseball cap with “Concrete Pumpers” plastered on the front. On the shoulder of his big white bare arms there’s a tattoo that reads: “The sweetest kiss I ever had came from another man’s wife: My mother.” Dave: Wow. Randy: Gnarly. Ed: Now there’s quite the fellow to bring home to meet the family. Randy: Yeah, a real charmer, a no-helmet wearing, balls scratchin’ would-be soup-sipper. Barry: I was at a ballgame and this wise cracking guy gets kicked out of his seat by what appeared to be lesbians with tickets to a row of seats, including the one he was in. The biggest one really cusses the guy out, like she’s ready to fight him. She screams a string of obscenities that shocks everybody sitting near. The guy gets up from his seat, turns to the crowd and says: “I love it when she talks to me that way!” Then, looking over the railing atop a wall that drops about 30 feet to straight down to right field below, he shouts, “Where’s Jim Brown when ya need him?”

Ed: Didn’t Jim Brown throw a woman or two off a balcony way back when? Dave: Allegedly. Randy: Once on a light rail train I was riding there was this young redhead chick wearing boots and a dress that was really a long slip, but she was wearing it like a dress, kind of trying for the hippie chic look. So this older black guy standing in the aisle near her says. “I like your boots.” And she smiles and says thank you. Then he says, “But your slip is showing.” Jerry: Good call! Dave: Anybody know any funny names? Ed: Well, there used to be some way out names of old NFL players. Dick Shiner, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. And Fair Hooker, wide receiver on the Cleveland Browns. Then there were some weird ones I heard bartending, like Towne Domino and Dick Dangler, Sugar Peacock. No shortage of weird names out there.

Jerry: No doubt. Randy: Gotta a move on boys. See you next time. Barry: Okay, I’m out too. Dave: Ditto. Ed: Until next time men. Fine session. May your travels be entertaining. The Algonquin Round Table is officially adjourned.

The NERVE… of Some People's Kids
The best teacher I ever had was Erwin Cepek. He taught high school biology, a subject I only took because I had to. But Mr. Cepek was a different kind of teacher. I’m not sure if I learned any science from him, really. But I liked the guy’s style. He didn’t take any shit off of his most arrogant students. And he definitely had his share of arrogant students. Mr. Cepek was stuck in his teen glory days of the 1950s. He combed his black hair back like Henry Winkler’s Fonzi, and no doubt spent a lot of mirror time with a comb, cocking his head, making sure every hair was perfectly oiled and in place. Not one of his hairs was permitted to stray out of place, even if for some unlikely reason he’d have to break into a sprint. He probably had a perfectly restored 1955 Chevy. Not too tall, but trim, he wore snug fitting pants and tight shirts to show off his biceps. He wore the 50s loafers. He’d often sip from a small white

Styrofoam cup of coffee before class started. He locked the door after class started. If you were late, you missed class. Case closed. He had an assistant, Miss Wyznewski. He had her do his annoying grunt work. Mr. Cepek made it very clear to his students if he didn’t like something. One day I heard him complain before class to some students about the noise made by snowmobiles roaring through the fields near his home on weekends. I’m pretty sure he knew the kids he was complaining to were the kids on the snowmobiles. “I like a quiet time on Sundays,” he said. “I like to take a nap. I don’t like to have it interrupted by loud, ANNOYING snowmobiles with INCONSIDERATE DRIVERS disrupting a quiet Sunday. The NERVE of some peoples kids.” One kid in class was on the wrestling team, and Mr. Cepek apparently thought all wrestlers were gay or at the very least, sexually confused. Wrestling and alleged gay schoolboys intertwining their sweaty bodies on a mat was a scenario Mr. Cepek apparently couldn’t stomach. Or maybe not, he might have just been having his own brand of fun hazing someone about something he may have been ridiculed for when he was a schoolboy. So whenever he saw this student in class, Mr. Cepek never failed to disparage wrestling. “So do you have practice after school tonight?” he’d ask the kid. “For that sport where you get intimate on the mat with other boys? So you’ll get better at getting intimate on the mat with each other?” The kid always laughed it off, but Mr. Cepek just sneered.

Mr. Cepek called out students for being lazy at the end of the school year. Over the last few weeks before seniors were to graduate, and as underclasses looked ahead to the easy days of summer vacation, he’d be sure to make a point. He drew a horizontal line on the chalkboard that dipped southward the last few inches. Pointing to the straight line, he said, “This is the level of performance students are at most of the year.” Then he pointed to the dip. “But look what happens at the end of every school year. Gee whiz, everybody starts phoning it in, getting lazy. They’re looking at graduation, summer, doing nothing but scratching themselves. Well Whoopi Ding! That’s not going to happen in this class.” He drew an extension of the straight part of the line over the dip. “No let up now, not in here, are we clear?” I got a taste of his teaching style on the first day I was in his class. Miss Wyznewski passed out a handout outlining the scientific “methodology” Mr. Cepek expected we students to identify in doing a biology assignment. I sat next to Larry, a big streetwise black kid who looked like he was 35. Larry was among a group of promising East Coast inner city minority kids getting a chance to get out of their shitty neighborhoods/schools and try some learning at an all white, well staffed and equipped elite public high school in Amherst, Mass. This was a progressive high school influenced by the experimental classroom teaching methods dreamed up at the nearby University of Massachusetts.

I liked Larry. He was worldly. Maybe not too book smart, or the best with grammar and diction, but he was a nice guy. And a seasoned street kid. He could size up a situation real fast. So I got the handout, and upon seeing the word “methodology,” I squinted at the word. I’d never seen that word. It looked too serious, full of itself, meant to impress. “What’s methodology?” I asked Larry. He was glad to answer. “It’s just one-a those booolllshit words,” he declared, loud enough for the whole class to hear, as I unsuccessfully tried not to blurt out laughing. Mr. Cepek’s ears perked up upon hearing our little exchange at the far side of the classroom. Giving us a major stank eye, he piped up for the whole class to hear: “The only conversation I want to hear in this class comes from me,” he said. “In fact, conversation isn’t going to happen unless I say so, do we understand each other?” Larry and I bowed our heads like whipped dogs and nodded. Then Mr. Cepek ended the exchange with one of his trademark comments. “The NERVE of some people’s kids.” This is what he’d say whenever he was disgusted and offended by something a student said or did in class or while snowmobiling. He took care to curl his lip and sneer when he said it, his face etched with sour-ass contempt. Sometimes he’d wait a few beats and repeat, as if he still couldn’t fathom the rudeness he’d just witnessed.

“The NERVE…….of some people’s kids.” He took care to elongate and give a two-toned, high, then low inflection of the word “nerve,” to get the maximum effect of his icy sharp barb. He’d save it for the smuggest students he felt it his duty to take down a notch or two. Since there was no shortage of students so very full of themselves in the class I took, he said it regularly. There were a lot of very intellectually advanced kids at this high school. Many would go on to the best universities in the country. Many were the sons and daughters of professors at the nearby University of Massachusetts or other exclusive private colleges in the area, such as Smith College, Mt. Holyoke College, Amherst College. Raised in academic environs, they were often smug about their scholastic chops, and were more than eager to show off how much they knew about whatever subject that came up. It was safe to say Mr. Cepek didn’t like cocky, smart, intellectual kids. They just rubbed him the wrong way as spoiled little shits that needed a bitch slap of comeuppance every time he saw a crying need for it. Whenever he heard over confident classroom answers piped up by babyfaced, arrogant, well-spoken Ivy League- bound students in the class, he had his humble pie ammo at the ready. “Whoopi Ding!” he’d sneer. “That sounds like an answer from somebody who thinks he or she knows what he or she is talking about. But you might rethink that answer. Because it’s WRONG.” Then he proceeded to systematically explain what he believed to be the right answer. Cocky kids in the class smirked out of his line

of sight as if they doubted he was right. In fact, it seemed some of these little geniuses were convinced Mr. Cepek was a little slow, and they knew a lot more than he did. And it’s possible they may have. That possibility, if Mr. Cepek could acknowledge it, would no doubt inspire some of his sharpest barbs. “We can discuss this further after class if you wish,” he’d say to whatever offensive little shit had ticked him off. “Then I can guarantee you, I WILL be disgusted.” It was great fun to watch Mr. Cepek wrangle with headstrong, arrogant students. He was almost like an underdog, pissed at having to teach overly smart and privileged students, but still passionate about challenging them to get past their attitudes and lock into some serious science mojo. He was well aware the hotshots in his class wanted an “A” from him for their coveted high GPAs that would help get them into some prestigious university somewhere. So he raised the bar much higher for them. It was much higher than for run of the mill nonscience students like me who were happy to get out of the class alive with a B-minus. One quiet intellectual girl with long, course dark brown hair, olive skin, a cute face with dark cheek moles, and skinny arms no less hairy than a gorilla’s, did a special project for his class on plant genetics. She built a flow chart on a large piece of cardboard, using glued on beans connected with color-coded yarn to show how mutations, and genetic manipulation work in agriculture. I saw this thing, which Mr. Cepek showed to the whole class as an example

of scholastic excellence, and I couldn’t believe the depth of understanding and extra homework it had to have required of this chick. But the skeptic in me later concluded a couple of things: Mr. Cepek liked Skinny Hairy Arms because she was cute, respectful and quiet, a welcome change from the know-it-all pompous prick attitudes of many of his male students. And I bet Skinny Hairy Arms didn’t do all the work her project made it look like. I bet her parents were PhDs in plant genetics, probably national authorities on the subject, and she just copied one of their throwaway charts. Either way, it really didn’t matter much to me. Just a bunch of posturing and politics in a subject matter that just bored the living crap out of me. But for all his behavioral gymnastics in the classroom, Mr. Cepek taught me, and I’m sure many other students over the years, a philosophic nugget that has proved to be, in the decades that have passed since I took his class, the wisest words ever planted in my cortex. He wrote it on the upper corner of his chalkboard in thick letters and framed it in a chalked rectangle for permanent display. It looked like it had been there for years, this unassailable phrase he wanted all his students to read and think about. It speaks to how to handle fear, the universal emotion we all have as a survival mechanism, but which is regularly blown out of proportion in the static of clashing, colliding emotions in our minds.

The phrase read: “Don’t Panic, Adjust.” To this day, when things get wobbly for me, I always remember this piece of advice, courtesy of Mr. Cepek. So even though I didn’t learn much about biology in your class, Mr. Cepek, you were a lot of fun to watch in action. Nothing better than to watch smartasses get put in their place by a pinpoint sharpshooter of well crafted insults. Beyond biology, you gave me “Don’t Panic, Adjust.” Great stuff, very useful. If you’re still around and even if you’re not, thanks a mil, Mr. Cepek. And I learned another great life skills tip from you that wasn’t biology related. Never take any shit from an arrogant a-hole trying to condescend to you. Words to live by.

Guard the hall Mr. Lunderbuns was the football coach and gym teacher at a small Lake Tahoe high school I attended for my freshman and sophomore years. He had the classic look of the jock coach of the 60s. He had short red hair, liked to wear sunglasses and baseball caps, always wore slacks and a short-sleeved white dress shirt, and always a thin dark tie he tucked into his belt over his stomach, which was flat as a board. He must have thought the tucked in tie looked cool because you never saw his tie untucked. It was his signature. He was clearly intent on looking the part of the physically fit, manly coach.

Lunderbuns taught a class in health and gym. He was an authoritarian coach. Nice enough most of the time, he no doubt wanted to look hot for the ladies. But he was always more than ready to show he was a bad ass and bark orders at any jock or lesser male student that pissed him off for some reason. He seemed to have a hair-trigger temper. I was in his freshman boys’ health class, as were a bunch of other freshmen too small or wimpy to qualify for the varsity football team, peopled by older, studly guys the school. Lunderbuns clearly relished being master of the biggest, baddest jocks in school. One guy in health class was Clay Mule, a really fucking weird tall pale doughy-skin kid with long greasy black hair that mostly hid his pimply face. Clay always wore overly baggy black clothes and coats. He regularly mumbled to himself. He was someone you might find living under a bridge, a teen troll with all kinds of troubling shit wriggling through his brain. Clay’s idea of a good time was to carve intricately detailed miniature wood coffins. He’d bring one in to school and show it to people during lunch in the cafeteria. Another thing Clay liked to do was to put a stray Frito on the table close to the food somebody was eating in the cafeteria to see if they’d see the Frito, be tempted by it, then eat it. If that ever happened, and I was one of those who was tempted by and ate the lone Frito, he’d light up like it was the funniest thing in the world. He’d howl and laugh. It made his day. One time Clay was looser than usual and he and most of the rest of us were having a great old time in Lunderbuns’ health class, joking and cutting up. This was happening because Lunderbuns had yet to make it to

class for some reason. When he arrived about 10 minutes late, all of us freshman boys were suddenly frozen into silence. The furious Lunderbuns strode in to his desk and slammed his fist down on it. All these little pre-pube pussies in his class who weren’t big enough or tough enough to make or take a decent football hit, showing no respect in his class, completely offended Lunderbuns. His close-cropped orange hair looked oranger than ever, as if his anger were making his carrot top deeper in color by the second, capping his All American, snarling, hate-loving face. “Everybody straighten up and put a sock in it,” he hollered, eyeing the room carefully to find the kid that looked to be the biggest pussy of the bunch. Lunderbuns’s eyes stopped on Clay Mule, who for some reason was still giggling under his breath. Clay was probably just wracked with nerves and trying not to pee his pants out of naked fear of Lunderbuns’ laser-like hate gaze drilling into him. On the other hand, he may have been giggling at the absurdity of the situation: Lunderbuns’ storming in scaring everybody into silence was pretty funny if looked at by a fly on the wall. But it was all getting a little unnerving as the asshole coach’s stony glare seemed intent on making Clay spontaneously combust like an ant getting sunbeamed through a magnifying glass. “What’s so FUNNY, FUNNYMAN?” he boomed at Clay, which to me and a few other wimpy smartasses in class, was about to make us pee, it was such a hysterically funny name to call Clay. Looking at the trembling Clay and hearing FUNNYMAN shouted at him was killing us. But we knew better than to let on, or we’d be

just as fucked as Clay was. “Just can’t stop laughing, it’s SO FUNNY, HUH?, FUNNYMAN?!!! hollered Lunderbuns, sounding as if he was revving his engines to really loose some of his incredibly pent up macho fuckhead fury. “YOU DUMMY! DUMMY!!! OUTTA HERE DUMMY! TAKE YOUR DESK OUTTA THIS CLASS, SIT IN IT AND GUARD THE HALL, FUNNYMAN!!!! We bit our lips, knowing that only poker faces meant our survival as the morose Clay loudly slid his little desk out the door and into the hallway. He was still sitting there after the bell rang and we all walked quickly by him headed to our next classes. Clay was surely afraid to leave it without Lunderbuns barking to him that it was OK. From then on, we smartasses referred to Clay as Funnyman, imitating Lunderbuns’s hollering of it. But only if there was no way he’d hear it, of course. But we cut the poor fucker Clay some slack and never referred to him as Dummy. Even though that name shouted out Lunderbuns-style with Clay’s troll-like, giggling in mind was just as funny as Funnyman.

Franz the genius A kid I met in algebra class my junior year, Mick Franz, was a big tall blond, with tangled, curly hair covering his husky shoulders.

He always asked other students how to do the algebra work in class because he didn’t get it, never tried to learn it himself, and didn’t really care about it. He just wanted to pass the class and get out. He’d amble down the crowded hallways between classes, head and shoulders above the crowds, pigeon-toed. He always wore a khaki military overcoat with the gaudy artwork of a hooker silkscreened on the back. It had a voluptuous, skanky looking lady of the night sporting a come hither look, all framed out with the big lettered message: “Property of Mabel’s Cat House. Our Motto: The Customer Always Comes First.” Franz considered himself quite the Don Juan of loose hippie chicks. Asked in algebra class what he did all summer, he was matter of fact. “Fuck girls,” he said. He wasn’t bragging, of course, just answering the question.

Please learn this I had a freshman science teacher in high school who was the weirdest looking geek I ever had the privilege of mocking with my cut-up buddies. His name was Paul Gabberducci. He wore shiny pants that were too tight around his lumpy, overly big midsection and pulled up too high and cinched tight with a belt. That made his pant legs too short, giving him the flood pants look of the certified dork. Not fat, but with a sunken chest and chicken wing shoulders, he was slightly pear shaped. He wore tight short-sleeved shirts and always had the signature geek ensemble of pens and pencils in his shirt pocket. He had huge feet, and wore very long, circus-clown

like gray Hushpuppies. He stood heels together, feet out at 45degree angles. Standing that way he definitely looked like if he were dressed in clown clothes, he could pose convincingly for the brochure photograph of any respectable clown college. Mr. Gabberducci was a dark haired, hairy Italian and always looked like he needed a shave. He had some really fucked up eyes that made us cutups laugh hysterically. His glasses were super thick, and magnified his eyes into otherworldly liquid orbs. His right eye would independently twitch back and forth on the outside part of his eye opening, like it had a life of its own behind the coke bottle glasses lens it was attempting to see out of. That twitching eye looked like it wanted to jump out of his eye socket and make some sort of life for itself. Mr. Gabberducci really wanted to teach us science. But we smartasses just couldn’t get over how fucking goofy he looked. He even talked funny in a deep monotone that signaled to us students, that even if he had something to tell us that might be interesting and informative, his voice was so boring, it was well nigh impossible not to glaze over. His droning worked like a cue for students to automatically tune him out. When he gave the class a slide show of his Grand Canyon hike he had his back to the projector so he could point out stuff in the photos. The projector’s ray of light lit up his bald spot as we shot spit wads through straws in the dark classroom. Ricky Brown, a smartass genius of rare comedic talent, sat in the back of the class shooting spit wads, and managed to get one to land right in one of the upsticking hairs near Mr. Gabberducci’s bald pate. It was

clearly visible in the white light of the slide projector. Mr Gabberducci, none the wiser, lectured on and on about the Grand Canyon lizards and iguanas he encountered and photographed, and spoke of how interesting it was that their feet allowed them to move so quickly over rocks and sand. Ricky didn’t want to get caught laughing and get tossed out of class, so he bit down on his jacket as he silently internalized his hysteria. He pointed to the illuminated spit wad on Mr. Gabberducci’s lit up head as if it were a miracle that A, it landed there, and B, he had no idea it was there. Brown’s shoulders shook as tears of laughter streamed down his tortured red face. And once, seemingly out of the blue, Mr. Gabberducci showed up in class with his pet boa constrictor. This, after parading around the halls with the absurdly massive snake draped around his shoulders and arms. He grinned goofily, watching students’ faces as they gathered cautiously around him and his huge ass jungle snake, checking it out with a combination of awe and horror. We couldn’t decide which was weirder, bringing this freakishly big ass snake to class, or the googly-eyed grin on Mr. Gabberducci’s face. Didn’t matter, it was hugely entertaining. Thanks for the show, Mr. Gabberducci, a sincere man of science who just wanted to teach some a-hole kids a few things about nature. Another teacher I had as a high school freshman was Mr. Weeks. He was a reed-thin, mild-mannered guy who always wore a gray or black suit, white shirt, and tastefully conservative narrow tie. He taught typing. And typing has been for me the most useful skill I

ever learned in all the schools I ever went to, be it elementary, high school or college. I still type every day. I know people who use the primitive two-fingered hunt and peck method, and some can type that way pretty fast. But because of what I learned in Mr. Weeks’ class I’ve successfully typed fast and smooth and efficiently every time I sit at what now is a computer keyboard, for the past several decades. Thanks Mr. Weeks. You the man what taught mad, usable daily keyboard skills. If only all skills we learned in school were so useful.

Sociology “experimentation” For the most part every professor I had in college really didn’t stand out as any grand font of knowledge or wisdom. Some were good at orchestrating class discussions that would get entertainingly off topic. Others were grouchy fucks teaching Art History, determined to give everybody a D to prove Art History wasn’t just a class to cruise through. That’s OK, I nailed that guy in his teacher evaluation with a scathing, eviscerating screed indicting his wrongheaded, vindictive teaching style. Nothing likely changed because of it, yet it offered administrators light and air where light and air was needed. One sociology teacher I had could have easily won the “Most Boring Man in the World” competition annually. A short skinny, frail old gray-haired man, Mr. Dull-Ass came to class in an old oversized black suit and tie and proceeded to give the same lecture

in a gravelly, deep monotone that he’d no doubt been painfully injecting into freshman sociology students each semester for the previous three decades. But I had another sociology professor at a Southern California university that was on the opposite end of that spectrum. Professor Hef was a good looking, pre-middle-aged divorced weekend surfer who kept his eye trained on some of the enthusiastic, hot young women in his classes. Toward the end of the semester, he announced a volunteer behavior experiment for after class. We volunteers, men and women students, and the professor, of course, all went into a windowless carpeted classroom that was devoid of any desks. It was just an enclosed box of a room. The door was shut and an alarm clock was set for 30 minutes. Then the lights went off. At first I laid down on the floor. For some reason, I put my legs up in the air and my feet bottoms somehow pressed into someone else’s feet bottoms. Don’t know why the foot connection happened, kind of made no sense. I eventually got up and remember getting some amazing crotch grinding hugs from an unknown female, who was shapely and smelled great. The alarm went off seemingly after only about 10 minutes, the lights went on and some of the guys had their shirts off, and several guys and gals were intertwined on the floor, including Professor Hef. He had a hot co-ed draped around his neck. He asked if everybody wanted to continue for another half hour, and it was a unanimous, resounding “Yes.” The clock was reset and again, off went the lights. It got pretty steamy in the room, with more anonymous hugging and

kissing between myself and what was, I think, the same finely formed female. When it was over, the lights went on, I had no idea which woman I’d been embracing, although I had a guess. We all filed out quietly, confused about what just happened, and what the point of it all was. But it was fun, and I’m glad I took the class because I never had a class offering anything close to that fun. Professor Hef was a practiced hand at this, probably did it every semester. He no doubt slipped the big chested honey haired co-ed participating in the grope-fest his phone number for future, more private hijinks.

Professor Idiot I had a college journalism teacher who misspelled words on his handouts, and mispronounced places like Guantanamo, which he insisted on calling Guantamano. His idea of being a lecturer was to make his own voice recordings of chapters in books he wanted to cover, then in class he’d put the tape recorder on the podium and hit the “play” button. We were supposed to take notes from his uninflected, droning, boring narratives. He just sat listening to the sound of his voice, doing nothing all class long but grading papers from one of his other useless classes. He gave a test on the recorded material and everyone in the class failed, so he graded on the trusty fallback “curve” to bring the grades into the more acceptable A and B levels. The laziest, most incompetent bozo I ever had for a teacher, he was reputedly a former newspaper wire service reporter, and the guy had a

journalism PhD. The one thing I learned from this guy was that big fancy academic titles or any other big titles don’t necessarily make the titleholder worthy of them. Plenty of incompetents slip through the cracks to lay claim to titles they shouldn’t have, period. They’re the ones whose incompetence causes endless frustrations, failures and trainwrecks that would never happen if they just did their job well like they’re supposed to. Harrrummph.

Cut the shit, willya? Part of going to college is learning how to be a responsible adult. You learn how to get yourself to class on time, to do your homework in time, to turn it in on time. You try your best to get a good grade in every class so you can graduate with a respectable GPA and get a good job, make money and become a productive member of society. But doing all that for every class can be difficult, as I found out early in my college career, when my other big goal -- to get laid – interfered with the ideal pursuit of getting good grades. Getting to class on time on several occasions was complicated by having to tear myself away from a hot and heavy makeout session with my girlfriend. I had an English lit class I was constantly late to because of that recurring scenario. I had the same problem with a trigonometry class. I could handle the English class’s demands, but the trig class was a complete disaster. It was the last two units I needed to fill my math requirement. But when the teacher, a happy go lucky smug little

fucker named Mr. Mudd, explained trigonometry to the class, it went right over my head. The annoying thing about it was that everybody else in the class seemed to get what he taught, no problem. I felt mentally deficient. I couldn’t get any of it. He might as well have been teaching Sanskrit, it just didn’t click in my head in any way. Not helping was that I was late to or missed some of the trig classes due to intoxicating girlfriend sessions. When I took Mr. Mudd’s pop quizzes, I always failed them. I was incapable of figuring out what everybody else in class seemed to think was the incredibly wonderfully easy world of trig problems. Then there was the final exam for the class. I went to the wrong classroom for the final, and missed it completely. So I had to track down Mr. Mudd at his office and ask him if I could take the final. In class, Mr. Mudd was amiable, cheerful, the epitome of a calm man, in tune with his teaching happy place. He taught trig, and everybody got it, there were no bumps in his road. He must have thought of himself as a genius, able to teach math concepts so well that everybody in his class joyfully grasped them with rapturous wonder. Well, at least most of his students. When I tracked him down in his office, and told him I’d gone to the wrong classroom to take the final, and had as a result, missed taking it completely, this seemed to let fly a large lead pipe, heading end over end and straight into the happy humming engine of his world. He, in a matter of seconds, became unglued.

“You went to the wrong room for the final?” he asked his voice rising in disbelief. “Yeah. I thought it would be in the class we always met in.” “Didn’t you look up the information on where the final would be?” “Uh, no.” Looking at me, bug-eyed, all he could see was, wrong, wrong, wrong, error, error, abort. Here was a student proving to him that he wasn’t the perfect teacher, the perfect teacher of trigonometry to all wanting to be blessed with his knowledge. He would tell them how to do problems, how simple it was, they would get it, get their As. Everybody was happy. But I must have been his only exception, judging by the twisting storm of rage gathering in him as he stood before me. I was like the pesky little fuck that was breaking up his perfectly pitched game in the World Series. Two outs in the ninth, no balls, two strikes. I was the one who hit a fucking bloop line drive into center field to spoil his masterpiece. The molecular fury he felt about that made him a lot different than the happy go lucky guy I saw in class. Here was a student he didn’t get through to. Here was a student he failed with, and it made him more contemptuous of me the more he looked at me. He surely sensed that I didn’t give fuck-all about him or his little fascist world of trigonometry. And while I couldn’t understand it, I’d pretty much accepted that trig and me weren’t meant to be.

That angered him even more. Who couldn’t get trig? It was so SIMPLE! “You’re NOT living at home anymore,” he said. “You’re on your own. So you have to ACT like an ADULT. That means getting to class on time, finding the right class for your final exam. You can’t go on like this in life, or you’ll FAIL every time, do you hear me? Every time.” “So, can I take the final now?” “You want to take the final NOW? After missing it because you couldn’t look up the room where it was to be taken, and show up there ON TIME to take it? “Yes, I do.” Mr. Mudd made some muffled noises as if he were trying to hold back a primal scream. He opened his briefcase and picked up a copy of the final exam. He handed it to me. “You can sit at that desk and take it,” he said softly. I sat down with the test, and suddenly realized something. “Uh Mr. Mudd,” I said. “Do you have a pencil I can borrow?”

The Wrath of the Cosmic Joke
(Editor’s note: The Institute of Good Decisions was founded to lessen the seemingly infinite number of poor decisions made by humanity. It is an effort to keep the misery arising from these decisions at a minimum. The IDG knows that while this task is next to impossible, its more modest goal is to encourage the practice of making carefully weighed life decisions. This, so that fewer really stupid decisions are made, and happier, more enriched lives result. What follows is a transcript from a keynote speech delivered to the newly released graduate inmates of the Jan Murray Young Men’s Correctional Honor Farm Trade School by IGD’s founder and president, Dr. Melvin C. Piggles, Phd.)

Good afternoon and congratulations, men, your families, administration and staff! Let me just say, I’m honored to be here, no pun intended. I especially appreciate the friendly reception I’ve been given by the Jan Murray Young Men’s Correctional Honor Farm Trade School greeting committee, and the gracious accommodations afforded me at the Sir Winston Churchill Pub and Motel. I must say, the regulars there are certainly friendly! Men, I’m going to talk today, this special day of your release, a

day when you step foot into the real world of freedom and possibilities, about something that exists out there, that you’ve no doubt already experienced. It changes your life more for the worse than for the better. Right about now I bet you’re asking yourselves, “What the bloody ‘ell is this limey talking about?” Yes, I know, you’re thinking this is going to be a big fucking bore, pardon my French. But hopefully, men, I won’t bore you. Because what I’ve come here to tell you about today you just might find useful in your future. I’m talking about the cosmic joke. And if by listening to what I have to say will help you make just one smart decision in your life, one that surely would have been a stupid one otherwise, and one that leads to happiness, and not – in the worst-case scenario, incarceration -- because you really thought it through, I’ll have done my job. Men, the cosmic joke is how the universe reminds us that we notso-swift humans – and believe me, that’s most of us, in prison as well as out -- have made a bad decision or two. More typically we make a string of bad decisions, some of which conspire to yield the same thing: Our quietly accepted misery of living with our mistakes. This can result in emotional turmoil as a lawful member of society, or in the worst-case scenario, behind bars for many years. And here’s the kicker: Most of these bad results from bad decisions could have been avoided. If we’d only taken the time to think about the possible consequences – yes, the bad, as well as the good – likely to result from our decision. You know, like if you break the law, sure, you might get a short-term gain of money. But if you get caught, you’ll probably get the long-term loss of hard

time in the big house with many roommates with very bad manners. Yes, men, the cosmic joke is one of the most important pieces of evidence that the universe doesn’t give a rat’s ass when it comes to humans and the varying degrees of poor choices we all make. In fact, I’m convinced the universe is quite amused by it all. Because when you stand back and look at bad results from bad decisions in a “Gotcha!” kind of way, they can be pretty damned funny! And no, nothing can be done to stop our unending stream of dimwitted actions, which when cast into the matrix of cosmic laws, make for an infinite array of self-inflicted human comedy and tragedy. After all, bad choices are a trademark of being human. So limiting them, men, is our only hope for happiness at best, and to avoid prison and/or insanity, second and third best, respectively. Now we at IGD have discovered, the biggest cosmic jokes take place in the wake of chasing after something we’re wrongly convinced will improve our life. But when we manage to actually put ourselves in this coveted circumstance, it many times turns out to be, uh, let’s just say, not nearly as great as we’d imagined. But then, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves! We were the ones who bought into the pursuit of this bright idea. We can only learn firsthand how very wrong we were. Oh, so wrong. This particular brand of joke is that nice big piece of humble pie we’ve all tasted at one time or another after making a bad decision. And once we’ve got a whiff of the stink caused by eating that bitter piece of putrid pastry, we can’t help but hear a voice from

somewhere with a bit of a taunting inflection, really, whispering with glee: “Ha ha! Why, aren’t you the bloody idiot here! You know you did this to yourself, don’t you? Yes, I believe you do!” Now, if we’re lucky, the misery quotient from poor choices merely humbles us, without taking away our freedom. We do our best to move on, trying to compose some sort of comforting life lesson from the experience. We search desperately for anything good that comes out of it. Then we swear to ourselves, whether behind bars or not, that someday, when we are less constrained, we will not make the same mistake again! So let’s take a moment to look at a few long-term bad decision made cosmic jokes, according to my findings at GDI: Here’s one. It goes under the heading, “You can’t always get what you want. But, be careful, sometimes you do!” Let me explain: Men, if we expect something to happen, it may very well eventually happen. Or, maybe not. Either way, it can be good or bad. If bad, Cosmic Joke! Now we already know about the consequences of deciding to break the law, right men? Right. So let’s look at another example. Take the man or woman who’s sure he or she wants that special girl or guy to No. 1, date, No. 2, move in with or marry, and No. 3, have kids with. Often times the wildly romanticized images initially held by that young starry-eyed single girl or guy is, sadly, merely the subconscious plot of a very bad version of what you Americans

like to call, a chick flick. Blinded by feel-good delusions, he or she just might, by some fortunate harmonic convergence of the universe, get all that was hoped for in making this life-shaping string of decisions. This yearned for object of desire could very well turn out to be a great dating partner, someone who is absolutely easy to live with. Someone who is the perfect spouse: good looking, kind, loving, forgiving, undemanding, open to trying new things, emotionally stable, and a loving, capable parent, for example. But men, it is important to keep in mind that in making this series of life choices with one initially idealized person, there is a lot of room for these dreamlike visions to smash headlong into the wall of cruel reality, each time, from the dating phase, to living together, marrying and having a family and beyond. And as the years pass, it can be quite a shock to take stock of some of these wrongheaded, life dominating decisions after their true consequences have been realized. How was he or she to know that after going out with/ living with/marrying/ having kids with, that person who was once a vision of bliss would turn into an illtempered, foul-mouthed, morbidly obese, crystal-meth tweaker? And how was he or she to know that, he or she was an emotionally crippled, incompetent parent plagued with daddy and/or mommy issues from a mentally disturbed childhood? And that their kids wouldn’t turn out to be the loving best and brightest contributions to the world, but instead depressed, dropout alcoholic junkies happy to live their adult years at home, or in their cars? This men, is what the GDI calls a perfect storm of cosmic jokes caused by

making a string of thoroughly bad decisions! The intention was good, but the results were a nightmare. Still, this example of the colliding and mating of rambling lost souls has nonetheless served to make the all-important biological function possible: Reproduction. And this ensures the next generation of the human experiment will once again test-drive its version of what moves will result in a good and happy life. But I digress. Let’s look at another early life path taken. What about the young single lad or lass who decides not to get married, but to play the field? They shun the married-with or without kids life for the thrills of no-strings bed-hopping. Well men, that’s an easy one. He or she comes to find out, over time, that it’s not all that great, really. He or she ends up desperately lonely, coping with drug and/or alcohol addiction and depression. And thrown in -- just to remember the good times -- is a genitals-burning STD. Now men, I ask you. Could this be a cosmic joke? Next? Here’s another: Let’s say a young fellow works hard to land that prestigious highpaying job. He’s pretty sure once he makes the big bucks, he can buy whatever he wants and be really, really happy. Well, he gets the job he wants, makes the big bucks, attracts a trophy wife and provides a luxurious living for his family. But then, seemingly out of the blue, his wife suddenly runs off with Hidalgo, a young, long-haired Argentine tennis pro. In the divorce she wins the McMansion house and custody of the kids. He’s left dangling on the hook for the not so small cost of the divorce and sending in

regular, hefty child support checks for the foreseeable future. After that, he figures there will be college tuitions to pay for. Now, he still has the high paying job. But he’s not sure for how long. Layoffs are coming. Now he lives alone in a small apartment he can barely afford, and drives an aging 7 series BMW with fading paint, fender dents and bald tires. For fun these days, he prefers the relative safety of liaisons with ladies of the night while wearing the proper protection, of course. To him, that is much preferable over another roll of the dice in the sad and pathetic midlife dating scene. Older but wised-up years too late, he wishes he’d done something different with his prime years. But he can’t. They’re gone. I ask you men, could this be a cosmic joke on our fellow? And yes, there’s an equal opportunity “what if” to ponder: What if our young woman works hard to get that high-paying job to have the money to buy and do all the fun things she wants to do? She does it, makes a nice salary, attracts a good-looking husband, and lives a luxurious life. Or she becomes a trophy wife instead, shunning any job as beneath her. In either case, what happens when their husbands leave them? Their replacements, Candy, a young model, and Tiffany, a pole dancer, respectively, bring divorce and force the sale of their dream homes. The career girl still has her high-paying job, but now lives alone in a condo with her one kid, and it is nowhere close to her dream home. Trophy wife gets all she can in the divorce, but ends up on skid row with a pesky coke habit. Career girl prefers to date only occasionally, but her heart isn’t in it. Trophy wife can’t figure out how she ended up on skid row, drug addled, toothless and homeless. Both women

wish they’d done something different with their best years. Once again, cosmic joke? So men, how do we avoid these cosmic jokes? It’s simple really. We can’t. We can only be aware of the pitfalls of making a bad decision. But it’s a good idea to be careful with decisions that have long-term implications. Your potential for being the butt of a cosmic joke is very high in this area so take your time with these decisions. It really all boils down to knowing which of two marketing slogans of yore to follow: “Just Do It” Or, “Just Say No.” Take care to weigh which is the best move. For if you do, and with no small bit of luck, you’ll be able to enjoy the years ahead. And if you don’t? Well, just try not to make too many wrong-way turns. Because, as a wise man once said, when bad things happen that could have been avoided, life really sucks! Throw a jail sentence in there and you win the booby prize. In closing, thank you very much, men. I hope you remember what you heard from me today. Best of luck in your future decisions. And may you all be spared in the future from… the wrath of the cosmic joke.

Morocco Tales
Here’s something for any would-be Algonquin Round Table members to chew on: What is the sketchiest country you can think of, but is still interesting enough to visit? That is, assuming there are no official State Department tourist warnings that a trinketbuying trip into the country in question would really be a bad idea. One that might get you – an innocent gringo from America – shot, knifed, thrown into a prison with no toilets, taken hostage, or, in the worst case scenario, decapitated on video by hooded religious maniacs. It’s a tough call. Drug running, civil wars and mouthy, power drunk, sunglasses-wearing dictators can easily shoot their countries to the top of the “do not visit -- really” list in a heartbeat. But some countries don’t need official warnings to keep annoyingly curious outsiders from stepping inside their borders. Countries like Myanmar, North Korea and some African dictatorships, for example. Take your pick of strife-riddled countries in the Middle East. Still, there are plenty of other dicey, less than accommodating but still interesting Third World countries to choose from that aren’t

having bloody crackdowns daily on their people for wanting a better supply of toilet paper. These second tier nasty little countries are just poor and kept from getting unpoor by some tasteless, plundering rich guy and his army buddies. These countries have a good old boy network squandering the country’s money and running the military. There’s a small middle and upper class of well-connected bureaucrats that tow the party line. But the average Jose in these countries have a hopeless daily grind, and barely get along in various levels of poverty. They cook great food and manage cheeriness – but the burdens of day-to-day survival are etched on their faces. They are powerless, stuck on a treadmill. Getting food and keeping shelter are their biggest challenges. They’ve learned tenacity, toughness and street smarts to survive. Petty crime keeps some of them alive. To travel through some of these down and out countries unattached to any tourist caravans often means inconvenience, uncertainty, hassles and possibly dangerous situations. But there is a reward for such experiences: An unvarnished, ground level view of the country for what it is, good, bad or otherwise. After all, if traveling doesn’t yield some sort of unplanned adventure, why bother? One such country for me is Morocco. I still haven’t made it there. But it’s on the list. Mainly because of the stories I’ve heard from friends who’ve been there. They’ve described it as an ancient and strangely wonderful place, where a gritty, sweaty reality mixes with a heady mélange of Old World food, sights, smells, and sounds. It’s a country where locals are friendly and hostile at times, a bit hard to read, mysterious. It is a place where danger lurks in the shadows of the empty alley. There are hustlers, and

thieves, masters of the art of preying on gringos too loose with their greenbacks. There are locals who, just for laughs, mess with outsiders who blindly collide with local customs, rules and ways of life. My friend Doug traveled to Morocco one summer as part of a twomonth backpack trek he took through Europe by himself. Late in his trip he crossed the strait of Gibraltar late at night with some French Canadians he’d met up with. Upon entering Morocco, he immediately learned two things: French was the language to know there. English didn’t really work. And the local hustlers weren’t shy. They were scrawny, tough and streetwise. They knew how to intimidate nervous gringos with a barrage of pressurized pitches in English on what goods or services they could provide. More experienced Moroccan travelers told Doug he should recite a handy Arabic phrase to ward off irritating and often menacing hustlers in a nice way. Just so nobody got offended and possible misunderstandings were avoided: “Say: ‘Lasho cran layhanick,’” they told him. “It means, ‘Thank you. Good-bye.’” “Hey Dave, what you want Dave?” A smiling local hustler had sized up Doug as a rich gringo ready to spend. “Hashish, hotel? Hashish-hotel? I get you what you want.” “Lashoo cran layhanick,” Doug barked, and picked up his pace. While Doug and the French Canadians continued in search of a cheap hotel, hot and exhausted from a long day of travel, one

skinny little hustler stayed on them, claiming the group as his. They finally found a ramshackle place on their own and ended up cooling their heels on its flat roof that night. They needed rest from the tension and sensory overload of wading through clogs of pushing crowds peppered with fast talking hustlers. They passed a hashish pipe until all were sufficiently stupefied into deep sleep. For a little while, anyway. “So I’m sleeping, and out of the blue in the middle of the night, some guy’s voice comes crackling over these fuckin’ cheap loudspeakers that are all over the town,” said Doug, a Los Angeles native who talks like a Malibu surfer. “We all woke up and didn’t know where we were. I thought I was on goddam Mars. This guy’s chanting all this gnarly, weird stuff: hallalabyenaynayaiyabaabllabelablaladddaddl bbaba ddeswa… and it’s so fuckin’ loud, you can’t tune it out and go back to sleep. “Then the guy starts coughing really hard, and that’s what you hear echoing through all the speakers in the area. He doesn’t even go off-mike until he can stop hacking. And when he finally gets it together, he starts in on his prayer again.” When they left the hotel the next morning, the smiling, friendly hustler from the night before had slept in the downstairs doorway. He wasn’t about to lose a chance to hustle some dough off the rich, stupid gringos. “Hey Dave! How you doing today Dave?” he said to Doug as if he’d come upon a long lost friend. “What you want, I get it for you. Hashish?” “Lashoocranlayhanick.”

While walking through the ancient city, a crowded open-air arcade, Doug took a photo with his pocket camera of the thicket of people walking in front of him. Later he discovered the photo accidentally caught a pickpocket in the middle of snatching somebody’s wallet. The photo showed shafts of slanted sunlight illuminating the smoky atmosphere of the arcade’s still, hot air, jammed with locals and tourists. The pickpocket – a local teen in jeans and a dark tshirt – is frozen in a blurred mid-sprint with a thumb and two fingers pinching the wallet by its corner, with his plucking arm high in the air behind him like he’s taking a baton in a relay race. The photo showed the instant before he pulled in the prize and vanished into the crowd. Doug and his buddies later took a bus into the Atlas Mountains. They got off at an open-air roadside stop to try some of the famous Moroccan mint tea. When locals take their cups of tea, they get a small cover for their cups to keep the bees away. Doug and the Canadians didn’t notice this. Seemingly, just to fuck with the gringos, the server didn’t give them any cup covers for their tea. Before they could look up, bees were buzzing and hovering around their tea in hungry, multiplying numbers. This especially unnerved Doug. He panicked and howled, “Fuck, I’m allergic to bees!” as he clumsily jumped up and jerked away from the table. This scene was great amusement to the locals in the joint. They chuckled, thoroughly entertained watching the stupid gringos running from the swarming bees. “I wish I knew their words for ‘Fuck you,’” he told me later. But that might have been lost in translation. Or misinterpreted that he

was gay, and trying to make friends. Once while traveling in Greece my wife and I ran into John, a young Australian who had been traveling in Europe for months. He shared a Morocco tale. John said he had wandered through an ancient city somewhere in Morocco when he was greeted by a friendly local rug salesman. “Come here, my friend,” the guy said to him. “I give you good deal. Just tell me what rugs you want to buy.” Not wanting to be rude, John inspected the guy’s rugs, showing with nods that he was impressed with their designs and quality. “Then the guy tells me to come to his house for dinner,” said John. “I think, wow, he’s really nice, trying to be friendly. So he tells me where he lives and I go for dinner.” John didn’t know that accepting the dinner invitation meant to the rug vendor that John had essentially agreed to buy at least one very expensive rug from him. Food was a celebration of a deal. So John ate the delicious home-cooked meal, and then the guy said, “How many rugs will you be buying? You have your choice of designs and colors in the next room. I take any major credit card, MasterCard, Visa.” The vendor was using the “assumptive close,” used by salespeople everywhere. But he thought, or at least acted like he thought, a buy of some sort had already been agreed to. It wasn’t, “Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies.”

Instead, it was “Would you like to buy one box or two?” John didn’t know anything about deal-making Morrocan-style or otherwise. But he could feel the pressure to buy was building. And he was suddenly very uncomfortable. “Wait a minute,” said John. “I don’t want to buy any of your rugs.” The vendor was infuriated. “You come into my home, eat my food, and now you say no buy?” he shrieked. Then he lowered his voice. “Let me tell you something about this country. Doing what you are doing is frowned upon. This can lead to big problems for you, understand?” “I never told you I wanted to buy anything,” said John. The vendor looked murderous. “Now leave.” John left, more than a little rattled. But he’d learned valuable information about how business is done in Morocco. He was lucky to learn his lesson without paying for something he didn’t want, or getting beat up. Paul was a newspaper editor I worked with a couple of years, and he too had a Morocco experience he shared once in the newsroom. He was a Brit, and had done a lot of world traveling in his 20s and 30s. He had taken his girlfriend to Morocco and they rode a bus into the Atlas Mountains. They were headed to a small town Paul had read about and wanted to explore.

They arrived and wandered around the ancient village. They ate a long enjoyable dinner, but found out too late that they missed the last bus out of the mountains. Paul, who speaks French, found a cheap place, and told his girlfriend he wanted to check out the nightlife. But she wasn’t interested. She was creeped out about having to stay the night. She asked Paul if they could just stay in their room and read before retiring. Paul reluctantly agreed. “So I’m sleeping,” said Paul, “and all of a sudden my girlfriend is poking me to wake up. Before I can ask her what she’s doing, she furiously swings her head indicating something on the other side of her. I look over, and see a man is sleeping soundly next to her. “So we switch places on the bed and I shake the guy’s shoulder a bit to wake him up. He opens his eyes and looks at me and I ask him in French, politely of course, ‘What the fuck are you doing sleeping in our bed? And how in the fuck did you get into the room?“ The guy tells me he got in through the window – actually it was just a rectangle in the wall with no glass or screen. And he says he rented his space on the bed from the innkeeper. We had rented two places on the bed for the night, he said, and he had rented the third.” So Paul got out of bed and in his underwear, hunted down the innkeeper. He banged on the door until the guy sleepily opened it up and peeked out, growling at the intrusion. Paul ripped into the guy wondering loudly how could there be a the-three-to-a-bed rental in his room.

But the guy just shrugged like it’s no big deal. It’s done all the time, he told Paul. And, he added, if Paul didn’t like it, he could leave. Paul didn’t buy it, and angrily insisted the innkeeper get the guy out of the room. Which he did, but not without making it clear, he was not happy about it. The next day, Paul and his girlfriend made sure they didn’t miss their bus taking them out of the mountains and back to the city.

A Bad Case of Fleas
(Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of a recent lecture on planet Earth’s history of human existence given to interested aliens in a Planetary Parasites 101 class at the University of Mars. The lecture, by Teaching Unit X2+4, is a compilation of scanned planet Earth observations made by intelligent life forms in the universe. In keeping with the protocol of historic accounts of planets in the universe, it is translated into the English, the dominant language of human inhabitants during their infestation known as the Parasitic Era on Earth.)

A race of brown skinned peoples known as Aborigines, who lived on an island continent called Australia were among the first human inhabitants of Earth. They are what we call the Pre-Analogs. They lived in harmony with Earth’s nature and understood the medicinal qualities of a vast array of the planet’s native plants. Without the benefit of formal educations, Aborigines were manipulated by more greedy and cunning humans. They were killed, diseased and run off their lands by violent white skinned humans arriving from a far away island called England.

These disease-carrying immigrants wanted a place to imprison their petty criminals, many of them young male humans, and lay claim to as much land as possible. So they killed any Aborigines in their way and stole their land. The same fate befell native North American Indian tribes who were wiped out by another group of white humans fleeing England, looking for a better place to live. These settlers also killed the native people of a continent rich in natural resources in order to steal their land. The land became overtaken by white skinned unhappy people from the continent near England known as Europe. The rich land they stole by force became the once powerful sector known as the United States of America. The native Americans were sent to what was considered the most useless land around -- places called reservations – leaving them without any pride or dignity and turning many of them into hopeless addicts of harmful ingestions of unhealthy amounts of chemicals known as alcohol and drugs, withering their minds and bodies. Earth humans’ warlike tendencies continued through their era of infestation. Humans leading ambitious industrialized sectors constantly made war on people in other less politically, commercially and militarily organized -- but resource rich – sectors. The goal of the most powerful sector was to amass global dominance to ensure its and its allies’ survival. For centuries most educated humans got their information from words describing current events, printed on paper in newspapers or pamphlets, and were entertained with made up stories and scientific information printed in books. Then came the widespread use of the telephone, radio and television as added tools for all industrialized and formally educated Earth humans to

communicate with each other and gather useful news and information around the globe. These generations of Earth humans are known as the Analogs. The richest of the Analogs were the most educated. They often read books and newspapers. They wrote well in their native languages. They had strong critical thinking skills useful in problem solving. They were most prevalent in the richest, most industrialized Earth sectors, and not so much in those with weaker military power and fewer developed resources. Then the digital age of the personal computer arrived and what was called the Internet became educated Earth humans’ primary source of information. Wireless phones replaced phones connected by many miles of copper wire. During these years prior to the dawn of the 21st Century, the Analogs began adapting to and using computers and cell phones in the digital world. They kept their analog habits of reading and writing, but learned the new world of digital communications which delivered information instantly, and made the much slower and more expensive analog forms of communications increasingly obsolete. Bad things finally noticed – but too late It was during this time, that a few Analogs started to realize that the ever-increasing numbers of humans were on a path that was rapidly destroying the Earth’s ability to sustain the survival of the species. Their relentless pollution of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, rivers, streams, lakes and soils was to some of them a cue that they needed to start an organized effort to “Save the Earth.” They sought to encourage the masses to destroy or pollute a smaller amount of natural resources and convert to the

consumption of electrical power, and food from sources that Earth could replenish by itself. But this campaign was not only ill-fated, it was mis-named. As one Earthling philosopher called Carlin wisely observed to followers, the planet Earth never needed to be saved. Rather, he said, and as universe history students should realize, humans on Earth needed to save themselves, not the planet. As Carlin noted, Earth’s long geologic history has repeatedly shown it has always healed its injuries, no matter how devastating, and restore balance to its ecosystems. In geologic time, it cleanses its atmospheres, lakes, rivers and streams, and provides fodder for abundant wildlife on its land. It returns thriving vegetation to its mildest climates, and restores vibrancy to its oceans, giving new life to myriad species of fish and sea mammals. But the destruction of sustaining natural resources wasn’t the only survival problem for humans on Earth. Far more threatening to it was the violent, power-lusting nature of its sector leaders. With their flexing of military might, Earth humans were brought to the brink of extinction sooner than even the minority of concerned humans had predicted. But we digress. Students, we resume tracking the path of the Digitals, the first generation of Earth humans growing up using nothing but digital media for communications. This generation had no first hand experience with analog media and little understanding of its history. Reading detailed and useful information from articles or books in print form – either on paper or in digital form -- was to them a frustrating waste of time. They were raised getting whatever they wanted very quickly and had no patience for delays

of any kind. They wanted all their information as fast as they could get it, via short “text” messages over their phones. Because of breakdowns in educational systems even in the most powerful sectors, this generation never learned many words in their languages because they could barely read or understanding anything but the simplest forms of their languages. Many grew up preferring texting to talking to anybody face to face because it saved them time and frustration. Meanwhile, the elder Analogs that never cared to learn digital communication, as well as those that were the first to convert to it, eventually died out. There were no printed books after what is known as the year 2020, no newspapers or magazines printed on paper, no analog radio, television or telephones. Everything was communicated digitally via audio or video systems. While the demand to fell trees to manufacture paper waned after many years of high demand for printed books and newspapers, another thing happened. The poorly educated Digitals were easily manipulated by their sector governments. They hadn’t been taught the survival value of critical thinking as a defense against inhumane, corrupt leadership. Digitals lent their support to leaders making them promises to feed their digital information addictions: More games, more work time allowed for social media activity, more sports, more movies, more guns, more alcohol, more legalized drugs, more fast food, less physical activity and less time required to work. The controlling powers of the most powerful of the sectors during

this period knew one thing: That the masses swelled with morbidly obese, rather dim-witted Digitals had little or no concern for accountability from their political leaders. As long as they got what they voted for. Leaders won over the masses and gained power with promises for better living and tax cuts. Once in power, the leaders encouraged their sector masses to hate other cultures different than theirs, which was popular among the uneducated masses because it made them feel superior to other foreign cultures. Violent takeover of other sectors was passively approved by the masses, as leaders arranged for more theft of economic resources and continued global economic domination. Like a popular violent video game, the other sectors and cultures fought back in clashes all over Earth. But then a nuclear holocaust suddenly erupted globally, by accident, vaporizing most humans on Earth except for a few living in remote wilderness areas. For the first time since the Parasitic Era of the planet began, the scorched Earth was free of the hurtful masses of humans that had infested it. It had shaken itself of its troublesome humans, as Carlin said in one speech to followers, “like a bad case of fleas.” The few surviving humans continued living in isolated areas of Earth much like the Aborigines and Native American Indians had as the earliest human inhabitants of Earth. They remain primitive and largely unaware of the death and destruction that visited their elders on the planet. They are known as Post-Analogs, and live in peace and harmony with the recovered Earth’s natural abundance. Students, this lecture is now complete. Thank you and continue to enjoy your journey. -- Professor X2+4

A Hummer Stuck in Neutral
If we really think about it, there’s a phenomenon that accounts for just about all the ills that have always plagued humankind all over the world. It’s simple, really. It all boils down to one ugly thing that has been going on since life for us humans began in lightbulb-free caves. Bad parenting. Yes, I know, they say you can’t blame your parents for who you turned out to be as an adult. Well, really, why not? Parents don’t want to be blamed for breeding criminals, or homeless people or fascist dictators. But they’ll take all the credit if their kid turns out to be Einstein. So why shouldn’t they get the blame when their kids are not so great adults? They molded ‘em, for better or for worse. Now everybody knows it isn’t hard to be a parent. It’s just an incredibly difficult task to be a good one. So hard, that there just aren’t a staggering number of them around. Some parents do a good job most of the time, and suck at it only once in awhile. Then there are those that miserably fail at it most of the time,

interspersed with the occasional random moment of incredibly fine parenting. Then there are the parents that completely drop the ball on their kids’ heads virtually all the time. You have to figure that all the despots, dictators and demagogues of the world surely had to have one thing in common: Two or less lousy parents who in their frustrated, blundering ways -- or neglectful absence -- gave the formative years of their offspring a steady supply of drip-lined anger and frustration, filling them with a boundless, pent-up need to trample over anybody in their way. They rise to power with cunning, intimidation and violence, relishing the rewards of absolute power as self-appointed dictators. Once in power, their fun really gets rolling against all their perceived enemies, real or not, with warfare, genocide, terrorism, you know, all the stuff that makes life not so great for those unfortunate enough to be the countries or populations in their way. Most of these aggressive acts are billed as attempts to gain freedom from oppression, when they’re actually just the opposite. Sure, some dictators in history may have had perfectly conscientious and loving parents. These despots might have just been genetic mutants, bad apples destined to be ruthless plunderers no matter how loving and caring their parents were to them. But unfortunately, the effects of bad parenting not only breeds unhinged dictators. Variant forms of bad parenting produce children who grow up to be criminals or drug addled poverty stricken illiterates. Or worse yet, self centered, obnoxious a-holes. These wrong-way offspring may not grow up to be Hitlers or Stalins, but if they’re not antisocial career criminals or drug and/or alcohol addicts, they’re primed to be extra arrogant selfish pigs

who alienate everyone around them in social situations and in the workplace. Because these types of adults are seemingly everywhere, this leaves one to believe that mankind is not evolving toward a humanitarian, loving place, a Prius moving forward in “drive” as it were. No, mankind isn’t a Prius in drive. Mankind is a Hummer, stuck in neutral, and occasionally, reverse. History bears this out with its littered trail of bullet and bomb-riddled reminders that mankind repeatedly makes war on mankind. Only a slim percentage of the world’s populace has evolved on an intellectual and humanitarian path, learning and applying what is learned with humility, while treating fellows with generosity, kindness and love. Those that have gone the farthest on this path have been viewed as a threat and have been knocked off before their times. And these few most likely got to their paths – although there are certainly going to be exceptions -- by having good parents. The rest of humanity, meanwhile, without the benefits of good parents – and in many cases good looks -- are destined to thrashing about trying to impose their wills on each other through manipulation or violence. And because the masses have for the most part been victimized by poor parenting, there is a vicious cycle doomed to repeat itself in upcoming generations: Production of entertainment addicted populations ruled by power hungry leaders more interested in global domination through war than cooperation with other nations.

What are these bad parents doing to cause all this? Well, the worst parents are guilty of neglecting their kids, and/or inflating their egos so as to make them into insufferable, demanding adults. The neglecters fail to provide the economic essentials, such as food and shelter. And they can be emotionally absent, which is almost as bad. They can fail to love their kids, give them a feeling of security and safety, fail to spend time with them, educate them. These kids grow up scared and do what they have to do to survive. They have no self-esteem and life for them is a constant struggle. They may end up on welfare, in a life of crime, or if they’re lucky they may manage to carve out a subsistence by doing low paying menial jobs. Or they could become dictators. Parents of these kids should never have been parents. They themselves no doubt suffered from neglectful parents, and just passed on their inherited dysfunctions to their kids. They just continued the cycle of beatings, drug and alcohol abuse passed on to the next generation because that’s really the only frustration relief they understand. Then there are the parents that treat their kids as if they were the center of the universe, as if they were unique and special. When, truth be told, they’re not unique or any more special than any other kids, who on the whole, are just average. These are the ego inflators. These parents were brought up with many advantages that helped them get educated and good paying jobs. But like true ego freaks, they see parenting as a competition. They want their kids to have everything, because they then think that gives them higher scores as parents over other parents. Problem is, they’ve created a whole

generation of self-centered a-holes that the rest of the world is forced to deal with. Kids growing up with parents like this have no regard for anyone but themselves. Previous generations, for some reason, had a much higher percentage of good parents that passed on valuable fundamentals such as the notion that hard work brings rewards. But most of this digital generation was raised to expect instant gratification for everything it wants, all the time. Because most of their parents never required any work out of them. Their parents gladly spoiled ‘em rotten, gave them whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, all the time. Which brings us to the Millenials, the entitlement generation. Many of them see hard work as an inconvenience to dismiss. All the worst of them know is that they, just by being themselves, should get whatever they want. They expect everything. They give nothing. This generation, which entered in the workforce beginning in 2006 or so, expect the best jobs with the most money. And some companies, unsure of how to deal with employees that have no respect for traditional hierarchies of work and pay, are wondering how to placate these young snots. Mainly because they’re the lowest paid workers in the food chain, and companies would rather keep them rather than have to go through the extra expense of constant firing and re-hiring. Fortunately, nature has a way of leveling out imbalances, be it things like overheated economic bubbles it pops or built up tectonic plate pressure it relieves with earthquakes.

And thanks to the balancing forces of nature, the spoiled childhoods of the Millennials, ultimately won’t allow them to get far in the real world. Should they have temper tantrums because everything doesn’t go their way in their job, and think it’s their right to yell at their boss in frustration, they will learn a hard lesson. That the real world has consequences for these unacceptable outbursts their parents rewarded by buying them ice cream. As hissy fit throwing adults, they won’t get any ice cream. No, they will simply be fired. Harsh reality smacks them down – and everybody else -- with a series of failures that may force them to take stock, for once, of what changes they need to make to properly do their jobs and to better get along with others. But if they don’t, they can thank their parents for setting them up for a lifetime of frustration and failure. They may have a tough time finding their way in life, just as those raised by neglectful parents most certainly do. The strong ones will work it out. The weak ones will just keep banging their heads against the wall, blame everyone else and, if possible, move back in with their parents. But until there are masses of the world’s population and their leaders who are raised by good parents, parents that teach the value of hard work, education, literacy, discipline, love, consideration of others, kindness, respect for nature, appreciation of art and of various cultures, we are doomed to continue our splotched history of war against ourselves. Doomed to continue wandering through a world full of people who are no more evolved than grunting beasts struggling to survive in the jungle. Or, in our concrete jungles where there is no vegetation, doomed to being locked in a traffic jam of smog-belching Hummers, stuck in neutral.

Cheat? OK, but it'll cost extra
Ignoring the rules, i.e., cheating, is the back door highway to fame, money, sex, glory and anything else that looks too good to pass up. Not that this is news. This has been going on since the first cave man found a big club. He got a bright idea. Use the club to bash in his rival’s hairy head when he isn’t looking, then move in to his bigger, more formally appointed cave. There’s a caveat here. Maybe not so much in the clubs and skins world, but these days, it’s really not a good thing to get caught cheating. Because then there are the nagging downsides of career loss, jail time, public humiliation, the howling rejection of the wronged as documented by the righteously indignant news media. So that’s the game. If you’re going to cheat, just don’t be stupid enough to get caught. It’s a high-wire act for the cheaters of the world. If they cheat and don’t get caught, even if everybody is sure they’re cheating, they can go on living the lie. But then they run the risk of turning into self-loathing alcoholics. Cheaters are willing to roll the dice to cash in on their deepest, most jealous desires. Which can be anything: a passing grade,

money, a college degree, money, expensive toys, money, fame, money, sex, money, a job, more money. Increasing numbers of kids have picked up on the cheating game in the last few generations. They cheat on tests in schools, copy from the smart kids’ homework, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize. The payoff is getting credit for doing good work without doing any real work at all. What a deal. They’re fine with lying to quell suspicion. They know what they’re doing is wrong. But they really don’t care. They look around and see everybody doing it. They figure the ones that get caught are just stupid. They know it’s important to not get caught. When kids grow up after an adolescent minor league career of cheating, they continue to find ways to ignore any rule to their own advantage. If they hate their marriage, they figure, why stay and try to work things out? So what if that’s a key rule of marriage, the work on problems that come up rule. Why not just ignore all that inconvenience, move out and look for something better? And so, the seeds of divorce will have been sown. Cheaters were never taught nor convinced by their parents, schools, or society, the irrefutable law of cheating. And that is, in the long run, it visits emotional and often economic pain on everybody involved. They don’t know there’s never a happy ending for themselves or those they cheat. Frank Abagnale is the subject of the true story movie “Catch Me if You Can,” that came out a few years ago, with Abagnale played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Abagnale was a teenage runaway in the ‘60s, heartbroken by his parents divorce and a judge’s order that he choose which parent he wanted to live with.

Instead, Abagnale just ran away, and in doing so, figured out how to make a lot of money cheating. He wrote bad checks to get cash anytime he wanted. He faked his ID. He impersonated an airline pilot, and through the common airline industry practice of letting pilots fly free anywhere to their job destinations, flew all over the world. He was a smart teenager who figured out the financial rewards of cheating and breaking the law. He was eventually caught, and served time in prison. A few years into his sentence, the FBI offered him a job as a fraud investigator. He took it. He’s been with the FBI nearly four decades now, and recently told of how he regrets all the fraud he pulled off many years ago. He attributed it to the recklessness and desperation of a kid trying to survive on his own. Abagnale has been called a genius for the abilities he showed in his teenage binge of global fraud. But he lays no claim to being a genius. He notes that while on his spree, he was just observant and willing to research banking practices to find loopholes for fraud. But while he was very successful, he always knew it was only a matter of time before he’d be caught. In his new life, Abagnale got married and raised three sons, all college graduates and successful in their careers. Looking back, he’s convinced that kids need to be taught ethics at home and in schools before being set loose on the world. He looked for, and couldn’t find any ethics courses taught in his sons’ universities. He’s convinced that kids who grow up without being schooled in ethics, don’t understand the value and importance of having an ethical character, the character to choose to do the right thing, when faced with that, or cheating for personal gain.

As an FBI agent, Abagnale can bypass security checks at airports before he boards a plane. But he likes to walk through them anyway, just to notice any opportunities for a bad guy or gal to get an unscanned bag onto the plane. He figures it goes back to the character issue. As long as one bag inspector is corruptible, he says, the system isn’t safe. He sees today’s kids swimming in a culture that looks the other way at cheating, giving a tacit nod that it’s just another way to get the edge in a viciously competitive world. But one big disincentive to the practice is that those caught or suspected of cheating, are summarily hung out to dry in the press: Enron, Bernie Madoff, the sub-prime loan debacle that came close to toppling the U.S. economy, juicers in professional sports, the list is endless. Even so, the threat of bad press and maybe jail time hasn't stopping the practice of stealing money at all. Abagnale says stats show the billions stolen in financial fraud each year in this country far exceeds the annual U.S. defense budget. So lucrative is fraud that it spurs the cheaters to damn the torpedos of possibly getting caught and keep on cheating. They delude themselves that they’re only getting what they want, and not hurting anybody. At least a few years ago they thought, hey, if I can sell a mortgage to someone who has no chance of making the payments, it’s their problem! I still get the commission. And some used to think, and maybe still think, I can take steroids and human growth hormones to enhance my chances of hitting enough home runs to be in the baseball record books, so why not? They say it affects long-term health, but what do they know? Let them try to prove it. And they still think, you know what? I can blood dope

and it will help me to win this famous bicycle race. I know how to get away with it. Never mind that it’s an unfair advantage over others that stay clean. And, check this out, I thought I could take the life savings of trusting clients and lose it in a Ponzi scheme because it was sure to make me wealthier than I ever dreamed. Uh oh, wait a minute. I did get to be rich, at least for most of my life. I didn’t count on getting caught. The pull of the big cheating magnet planted firmly in the middle of our society has been given weight by the advertising message etched into every brain in every market: You need to buy now. Or, at least as soon as possible. Make that purchase even if you don’t have the money for it. That’s why there’s credit! Instant gratification! Even badly used credit is called “good for the economy” – until the system collapses under mountains of debt. The consumer culture tells all that, counter to the beliefs of older generations, we don’t have to work a long time to get something. We can get it fast in our digital world, and it’s OK to get it any way we can. If we don't have the money to buy what we want, so what? That's why they invented credit cards. We don't have time to wait around for anything that isn’t fast, including drivers, computers and, uh, gratification. Part of this noxious mix is the pervasive societal emphasis placed on so-called winning and winners. We see the rewards given to successful competitors. So we all figure there’s a happy ending to being competitive. But cheating, like it or not, is an ingrained part of being competitive. You want to win, so you do whatever you have to, to win. Everybody loves a winner. Who wants to be a loser?

Publicly traded companies are run with this same short-term mentality from on high: Just make your next quarter profits even if you have to make big cuts, and even if those cuts will spell future economic doom. It's get your payoff now, and don’t worry about the future. Sadly, this cynicism and arrogance brings harsh consequences not unlike the one a large North Atlantic iceberg introduced to the not so invincible Titanic cruise ship around 100 years ago. In a few hours the ship went from speeding merrily across the surface of the ocean in an effort by its captain to make record time, to sinking from a hole opened up in its hull when it hit a massive unseen iceberg. The flood of water into the front of the ship snapped it in half and the broken remains of the once grand vessel came to rest miles below in the lightless world of the ocean floor. In the end, cheating damages everything it touches. Including the cheaters. It’s an unassailable law of nature. One way or another, sooner or later, everything gets paid for, in full. And the longer the payment is put off, the dearer the final price will be, emotionally and economically. Every time.

College Grads Apply Here
Confidential To: College Graduates From: Corporate America Re: Career Expectations

Congratulations graduates for getting your college degrees! But now the real work starts. Now you have a decision to make. Do you want to go into business for yourself? And risk financial disaster and have no affordable benefits? Or, do you want to work for a large prestigious corporation for competitive salary and full and affordable benefits? For many, the choice is easy to come to work for Corporate America. But if you do happen to land a job with a prestigious corporation, with a competitive salary and benefits, there are a few things you should expect to contribute as part of the company’s human capital capability resource. First, when you start, don’t whine about how much work you have to do, for what you think is low pay. Because when you’re right

out of college on your first corporate job, you are what is known as human capital in “dues paying mode.” This means that as an inexperienced person, or rookie if you will, you do everything you can to get beyond the dues paying mode by working hard, and going the extra mile at all times. Otherwise you’ll be fired, and replaced with somebody more in tune with their position on the corporate ladder, so to speak. Remember, you who are hired right after graduating college are considered a vital resource to Corporate America. You should know that most likely you’ve been hired to replace a long time worker who is overpaid. Never mind that they’ve been with the corporation for many years and may have performed admirably at times. There comes a time when they cost too much. It’s nothing personal. So what Corporate America does with these veteran employees is force them out of their jobs. It’s OK, it has to be done for the good of the corporation. And by “good,” I mean “profit.” How are they forced out? Well, we’ll get to that later. For now, all you need to know is that if you work hard as inexperienced corporate human capital in dues paying mode, you will get two very valuable things in return: Salary and benefits. Just remember, no matter how low your salary is, or how expensive and unreliable your benefits could be, you are a valued, prestigious member of Corporate America. And that is something to be proud of and will impress friends and family! With time, and years of strong performance, you will be promoted someday to management, which is a very prestigious Corporate America position to be in, indeed. You see, as a corporate manager, you no

longer have to do the actual work of the company’s rank and file human capital, which is the work that actually makes the corporation profitable. No, as a manager, you will make more money, and this isn’t widely known, but confidentially, just between you and me, you need to know: (I’m whispering now) You’ll do less work but get credit for doing more! So once you make it to management, that’s when it’s important you change your focus. You’re free from drudgery work of the non-management employees (losers not sharp enough to get promoted), and on to the more stimulating challenge at hand: Figuring out what you need to do to get promoted to the next highest management position. And, believe this, college grads, this is the fun part of Corporate America. Because this is where you learn about how to become powerful, and how to leverage your power to get even more power and money. Having power in a corporation is, excuse the expression, better than sex. Suddenly you have more free time to do fun things while everybody thinks you’re working. Oops, did I just say that? You should know that one of the key things that gives you power is showing your bosses, and possibly shareholders, that you know how to run your department, and eventually the company – key word here -- profitably. And, confidentially, just between you and me, this is pretty easy. I’m whispering again (Here’s what you do: Make sure every employee salary in your department is as low as possible.) That (what I just whispered) will help you show profit and your all important financial management capability. And here’s a news flash, grads. Producing profit for your Corporate America company will always – every time -- make very rich and

powerful people very happy with you. If you make sure profits happen, you can count on a bonus laden big salary, a big house, fancy car, and exotic vacations. And, confidentially, just between you and me, but you probably already know this: This is very attractive to the opposite sex. Ahem, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Many times in Corporate America, tough decisions must be made by managers looking for ways to please their bosses. And how do they do that, grads? That’s right, by showing profits, right! You’re getting it! And that means that every once in awhile they have to bite the bullet and get rid of experienced human capital that just cost too darn much to keep on the payroll anymore. See, if their pay keeps down profits, they just have to go. Especially when replacements like you, just out of college, can be hired to do the job for a third the cost. Temporarily, of course! Wink wink! See, so it is in these situations where a manager’s ability is tested. A powerful manager understands something that frankly, many do not: Loyalty doesn’t exist in Corporate America. If anybody tells you it does, they would be dead wrong. For one simple reason: Loyalty to highly paid employees, even if they have been loyal performers for the company for many years, does not produce profit for Corporate America. It does the opposite. It cuts profits. As I said earlier, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Company/employee loyalty may exist in some small potatoes companies in the world. But again, it has no place in Corporate America. Remember that, and it’ll help you’ll feel better if your ever fired or forced out of your job in Corporate America.

So now we return to the question, how does Corporate America force out employees they think make too much money? You as college grads entering the corporate workplace, don’t really need to know those details just yet. Just remember, if it weren’t for the senior employees getting forced out, you probably wouldn’t have any chance at all to land a Corporate America job. So for you, it’s a good thing. And rest assured, if you become a manager, corporate lawyers will give you detailed instructions on how to force someone out completely legally. So if you want to know, become a manager! That’s what Corporate America likes to call “job advancement incentive.” Just remember, climbing the corporate ladder may be hard, but it can be the most rewarding experience of your life. Or not. If you don’t play your cards right, you could be out of a job in a heartbeat. So this is just a word to the wise. In Corporate America, it’s best to just do your job well. And quietly. Don’t ask questions if you wonder why something seemingly wrong – you know, like maybe unethical or illegal -- is happening. Just be aware that it’s highly unprofessional to question orders from a higher-up, and can lead to your sudden joblessness if you make a habit out of it. Remember, nobody in Corporate America likes complainers that interfere with the all-important quest for profits. Not only that, if something is being done that seems wrong, it’s not your problem. It doesn’t concern you. It is a course of action that the company feels necessary to take to maintain, or more likely, increase, profits. Let’s take an example. What if you see something going on in the company that you’re pretty sure is illegal? That’s an excellent

question. First of all, don’t assume that it is in fact illegal. Do the opposite: assume it is legal. Every member of Corporate America has a legal team to make sure everything the company does is legal. And by legal, I mean legal in the sense that any broken laws can’t be proved in a court of law without paying lawyers a boatload of money. So how about another scenario? What if you see actions taken by employees that are intentionally hurting the company? You know, like stealing or vandalism. Now that’s a no-brainer. Wrong is wrong. Report them to your boss. And here’s the good part: There will likely be a reward in it for you for being on the lookout for the welfare of your Corporate America company. Then again, you could be fired if management thinks your actions are bad for management. So know who’s doing what or your speaking up could backfire you out of your job. Be smart! So there you have it college grads, a little primer on starting your career in Corporate America. Now go out there, work hard, and climb that ladder. Because working for yourself as a small business may be rewarding, but really, small business is just, confidentially, just between you and me, a way to ruin your credit and get into suicidal debt. Trust me, there is no job as great as being a part of the profitmaking company in Corporate America that will give you something back for your work: Salary, benefits, prestige and sometimes even a crack at godlike money and power. Now what could be better than that? Now go get ‘em grads! Work hard! You too can be part of Corporate America’s profit-making paradigm!

Overheard at the Diner
Boy was I hungry! I headed to the county fair and knew I couldn’t help but eat all the great food options, like hot dogs, funnel cakes, deep fried candy bars, ice cream, and everything on a stick. So I take this stuff that’s supposed to keep your stomach from turning into a slingshot and launching all this grub back up. And it works. After binging on peanuts, cheeseburgers, churros and popcorn, all washed down with big cups of cheap cold beer, I don’t have the usual not so hot feeling. Except for the next day, I can’t help but notice my crap is two toned: blue and yellow. And hard as rock. Plus, I have a murderous hangover from drinking too many beers. I take this pill that’s supposed to cure hangovers, and start to feel better. But the compacted crap thing has me worried. I told myself to start eating right. No more bacon cheeseburgers with chocolate shakes and large fries at the fast food joints I love. But before getting too serious, I had a big ol’ bratwurst with sauerkraut sandwich washed down with a couple beers. Then I’m watching TV and there’s this weird ad for this stuff actually called stool softener. I think to myself, hey, I’m not alone

with this problem. So I figure I gotta take that. After all, who needs hard stools? But after a few days of taking the stuff, my stools get so soft, they’re shapeless, if you know what I mean. Think of what you get when you drink tapwater in Tijuana! But thankfully the natural earth tones are back. Still, I needed something to bind things back into shape. So I eat a double cheeseburger with bacon, cheese, and chili fries topped with chopped onions. I figure that would definitely do the trick. And by golly, it did! But then for some reason I got really bummed out, all depressed about everything. My head was spinning out of control and I think that living may be my worst option. So I take this stuff I saw advertised on TV that’s supposed to keep you from feeling super dreary. Like when you want to hang yourself when you realize you burned the toast. Pretty soon, the spinning stopped and I actually felt like getting out of bed before noon. But after taking the stuff for awhile, I notice something. My mouth is dried out and my tongue swells so fat I can hardly breathe. So I stop taking those pills, and ya know? Now I can breathe again, without using a straw. Still, I needed something to keep me up, if you know what I mean! So I take these pills to straighten out the best part of my life! And it gets straightened all right, but after a day or so, it’s still straight. I don’t know what to do. I wear baggy pants and a loose fitting shirt, so it isn’t too obvious in public. I mean I weigh 300 pounds easy and with this stuff, I can actually see myself without using a vanity mirror! But it takes three days for it to ease back down. I can’t bring myself to go to the doctor with the problem. How do you explain this to the nurse at the front desk? She would burst out

laughing. But I couldn’t have made it do the doctor, anyway. During all this, I’m deaf and I can’t see. That worried me a little. But when I finally got my sight and hearing back, I needed something to help me sleep. I take a few more pills than they recommend and I don’t wake up until dinnertime the next day. And I’m starving! Still, I’m teetering on the brink of what they insist on calling “morbid” obesity, so I figure I need to do something. I see this ad for a pill you take to lose weight with no need to diet or exercise. Now this is my kinda pill! So I take it for awhile. But I think it’s baloney, because I gain 50 pounds really fast. I quit taking the pill and start to diet and exercise. I have to. It’s getting harder and harder for me to fit through the front door of the house. Then I see there’s a pill you can take to keep you from having to pee a lot. I don’t have to pee that often, but I think this could be very helpful. I mean, think of the time saved if you don’t have to pee but once every 24 hours. You can be snacking during those times, or taking a break! So I take these pills, and I can’t pee for two days. I felt like I’m drowning from inside. So I quit taking the pills and drink a lot of beer. I find some other pills that are supposed to help your pee flow improve. So I gobbled them down. Before I know it, I’m peeing for sessions that last up to five straight minutes. But I do feel better. Still, it bothers me that my pee glows even in a fully lighted room. I am still serious about limiting my food intake, because, at 390 pounds, I can probably stand to lose a jiggle or two. So I see on TV

there’s a pill that makes you want to eat a lot less than normal. So I get a bottle, and try it out. At first, I’m hungry at all the usual times. But then I notice I feel sick every time I think about eating. Then I suddenly can’t speak. And my hair starts falling out in clumps. Being quieter than normal wasn’t so bad, but the hair falling out really bothered me, because everybody knows, a man has to have a full head of hair, or he won’t be able to get a date, or a wife. Unless he’s a rich guy or he buys a mail order bride. I look at which hair restoration treatment promises the most hair. I start with one that makes you paint your bald spots with a waxy substance that smells like kerosene. You’re supposed to leave it on for 24 hours at a time, so I wear a hat to keep my friends from noticing it. After the 24-hour period is up, I try to check my bald spots, but my hat sticks to my head. The liquid kerosene evaporated into hard glue, but the smell hadn’t, and after I cut the hat off, I discover I still have bald spots. Plus, I notice the stuff makes me hungry. I didn’t want to have any ill effects from eating chili cheese dogs, nachos and hot sauce while watching the ball game, so I looked around in the medicine cabinet. And hey, I found what I wanted. I happened to have a whole box of the stuff made to keep your stomach happy even after hours of pounding food all day, like I always do at the county fair. And I found some other pills I forgot I had that keep you from farting! I was set! Hey, you gonna eat that?

OwOwOw, My Back
“You want a shot of Demerol?” The emergency room doc could tell I was in pain. Probably because I was standing, and not willing to sit down. A shot? A shot? That sounded like something that would numb me from head to toe. “I need to think clearly,” I say. “What have you taken for this before?” “Tylenol.” “How about Vicodin?” he says with a look that says ‘Tylenol? Are you kidding?’ “You need a Vicodin.” This guy needs a Dr. Feelgood nametag. He’s a fully optimized human painkiller delivery system, a loaded Pez dispensary of Valium and Vicodin. He can give a shot of Demerol with a simple point and push. He has plenty of pain to kill every day, so he wastes no motion. He gives me a Vicodin to pop with some water and scribbles a prescription for Vicodin and Valium, and disappears. He has more pain waiting to be killed.

Vicodin, oh yeah. That’s the stuff Brett Favre got hooked on. He liked it so much it gave him a seizure. Effective. The eye crossing back spasm pain eased on the way home as the Vicodin distributed the good news to my beaten and battered pain receptors. I was good to go. Well, at least for the time being. I’d been having recurring bouts with nagging back spasms for several years. Not nagging in the sense of being something annoying and nothing more. No, these little bouts of lightning bolt pain had a way of getting attention, pronto. Kind of like somebody slipping a noose around your neck and quickly jerking it tight. They were sudden, nasty paroxysms of pain shooting through my lower back. One time, just for fun, the pain delivery system decided not to stop at a back spasm. The pain was apparently insufficiently debilitating. So it shot a bolt of electric pain through the sciatic nerve in my left leg, from my lower back to my big toe. After a back spasm, things don’t go back to normal very quickly. The trauma leaves a scorched trail of stiff, sore muscles, cranky about allowing the wanted free range of movement. One wrong move and “Bam!” have another back spasm, Buddy. It makes time slow down and puts you on edge. You move with a determined focus of pain avoidance, treading lightly, so you don’t piss off your sorely annoyed back muscles into another dreaded spasm. While moving gingerly around the pain, you notice something. You’re stooped. You move like a calcified 80-year-old, jumpy about moving the wrong way. Just to keep from having another episode of explosive pain.

Over a period of five years these fun little skips down Backpain Lane popped up more and more often, usually at the least convenient times. Like at work on deadline, or while trying to do something fun on a day off. Or even worse, while on vacation. I tried to hold the pain at bay with stubbornness, telling myself I’d never give in to it. But it’s a bumpy flight trying to deny the pain of a back spasm without painkillers, which for some idiotic reason, I didn’t take. I had a back spasm working out before work one morning. I didn’t call in sick. Fiercely determined, I hobbled into work and could barely concentrate because of the pain. Another time I had a spasm while sitting at my desk talking to the editor. I leaned forward, and BLAM, spasm, my back seized up. I laid down on the floor and pulled my knees to my chest to try to stretch my back as busy coworkers barely noticed. I managed to get back in my chair and tried to sit while arching my back, so my muscles wouldn’t spasm again. And it was work-fast time, deadline. I was wrung out at the end of that day. I limped to my car as if I’d just been speared in my lower back by the helmet of an angry NFL linebacker. Early one Saturday I was about to go mountain biking with a couple buddies. But getting out of bed, my back spasmed. I got down on the floor face-down trying to find a position that wouldn’t hurt while getting familiar with the grain patterns of the hardwood floor. I had to figure out how to get up without a spasm. I struggled mightily, awkwardly and must have looked like I just got struck by lightning. But I was determined to go mountain biking anyway, by George. I got dressed stiffly, in slow motion, stabbing with hit and miss attempts with my feet to put my socks and shoes on while

trying not to bend over and get another spasm. I made it to the trails and rode in pain denial and my back loosened up a bit. But sitting in my buddy Mike’s Explorer on the way home, it felt like piercing screws were torquing my back muscles tighter by the minute, and the dreaded pain was advancing. If I moved a certain way, my lower back would gladly spasm into explosive pain. At this point, I knew I needed relief. Mike dropped me off at the hospital emergency room. There, Dr. Feelgood had the needed meds to put out the fire. I was mystified over why I got these freakin’ back spasms. I was physically fit. I wasn’t putting any undue strain on my back. Sure, I sat in a chair at work every day all day, so maybe that made my lower back muscles weak. There was a reason for all this crap. What the hell was it? I needed to solve this. These back spasms were morphing me into a stressed out nutcase. I read one doctor/author who claimed that mental stress is what causes many cases of back pain. And that just being aware that the stress is the cause will help it go away. When I read that, I was bathed in sudden optimism. This made sense to me. I told friends with similar back problems to read the book. I was sure I’d made the mental adjustment to stop my back spasms. But no, that wasn’t it. I even got the worse case of pain I’d had to date while on vacation in Maine: sciatica down my left leg. The leg and back pain flared up while driving a rental car, and at one point, I had to let Elena drive, so I could lay as far back as possible in the passenger seat, pounding my left foot on the floor to ease the shooting pain. Then we went on a three-day trip on an old tall ship

sailing vessel. Sleeping quarters were cramped and I moved about carefully, trying to stay as pain free as possible. Then, one time on deck, the crew asked the men passengers to help turn the manual crank to lift the million pound anchor out of the water. I went into denial and volunteered. And as soon as I started cranking, my back spasmed and my sciatic nerve began generating powerful, searing waves of pain. Like a peg-legged pirate, I limped back to a raised platform on deck and climbed onto it, face down, pounding my left toe on the deck to ease the pain shooting through my leg and back. I covered my face and couldn’t keep from sobbing. I looked up and noticed a woman sitting in a beach chair a few yards away. She was horrified and looked at me with pity. She knew I was in agony, but probably thought I was dealing with some sort of tragedy, not flat out, naked pain. There wasn’t anything to do but ride it out. My mind grasped at anything to think of that might ease the pain. I thought of my father. He was a sailor, but had passed away many years earlier. I could feel his presence somehow, as I lay splayed out on the deck of that ancient schooner, feeling a cold salt breeze and a heatless sun. I could hear his calm voice. “You’re going to be OK, hang in there,” he said. By the time my tears dried, I was emotionally spent. For a few moments I felt no pain at all. I thought my meltdown had purged me of all the pain. I felt whole again. But no, it didn’t last. The pain soon returned, a dull throb that lurked in my sore, tight back muscles, and leg. Once again I was a prisoner of back spasm shock, just when I wasn’t expecting it. I

went back to moving carefully, slowly. We went home, and the leg pain of the sciatica finally evaporated after a few weeks. But it left nerve damage in my left foot, numbing the pad under my big toe. Still in quest of a cure, I went to an acupuncturist. And when one of the needles was inserted into my lower back, I burst into sobs, immediately, like a bolt out of the blue. The needle somehow vented pent up emotions and relieved pain. But the pain eventually returned. So I bagged acupuncture as only a temporary fix. Meanwhile, the big boss in my office wanted to save budget money by cutting the biggest salaries in my department. My salary was the second-highest in my group. Vacation benefits were good, and for the final six years, the pay had grown to a rate – through years of annual merit raises – that was a lot higher than I’d ever expected to make there. So they did what corporations do in these cases. After a couple of years of finely tuned corporate strategies to put me on the defensive and make me feel under the microscope on the job, I got forced out. Looking back, it was the end of 19 years of pressurized, demanding, thankless work. But I got my share of rewards out of it. I won awards, remodeled my house, and on vacations, traveled the world. And along with the buyout I negotiated, got my fair share of go away money when it ended. During the last few years of the job, my lower back muscles, in the language of pain, using back spasms and sciatica, had been trying to tell me something. It was: “You are on the wrong path. You need a course correction.”

But I was on that pain-riddled path for a reason. For my own personal redemption, I needed to make all the money I could from the job, and not leave one penny on the table, before leaving. I was determined to make sure I didn’t get financially bagged by the company I’d given 19 years of strong work to, winning awards and being consistently productive enough to get annual merit raises for all those years. So I stuck it out through the pain, the corporate mind games, and eventually got what I wanted. It was all for money. Was it worth it? Yes, it was. Sure, it was a test of willpower. If I had quit two years earlier, I would have left a lot of money on the table. But I definitely paid the price to get it. Out of that job at last, I freelanced work at home. I made my own hours, and less money than before. But it was more than enough income to meet my needs. And I noticed something right away. There wasn’t any stress. None. And after a year or so, I knew. My dreaded back spasms were history. They weren’t coming back. My course had been corrected.

The Better Christmas Letter
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Family and Friends! Where to start! Well, Jimmy graduated from high school this past spring, and we celebrated by giving him a brand new Porsche Carrera! Jimmy loves the car and is currently looking into future job options in agribusiness. And Janie is doing super great in the middle of her sophomore year in high school. She made the junior varsity cheerleading squad, and is thinking about taking the high school equivalency test in order to have a shorter wait to start her chosen career, which we think will be something in the entertainment industry (Fingers crossed!) Dave is still at his dream job of small claims court administrator at the county, and has actively pursued his long time hobbies of designing and collecting things. He really has high hopes of getting his own HGTV show combining his varied interests. We took a summer vacation visiting relatives in Iowa, where Jimmy and Janie got to know more of their cousins, and for the

first time, Dave’s big brother, Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was nice enough to take us to a wonderful county fair where he won the hog-calling contest and bought us all the corndogs we could eat! What a day! We also managed to paint the house avocado green this summer with electric yellow trim! The new colors really spiffed up the look of the place and neighbors are now talking about how they should paint their houses different colors! We held a yard sale this summer to get rid of some of the stuff we never use and managed to get $1,050 in sales! We’re thinking about using the money to buy Janie some braces, so she’ll have an even more perfect smile, Lord willing! I’ve been keeping busy at my DMV photographer’s job, which I find very fulfilling. I meet different people every day and always have fun clicking that shutter! I still play Bunco with the girls every month where we have a potluck. I don’t even care about the game, it’s just a chance to gab with the gals and eat good home cooked food. Next year, Dave and I are planning to go on a Carnival Cruise to Mazatlan (Mexico)! We’re so excited already because we’ve heard you get to eat as much as you want whenever you want and there’s even karaoke, which (don’t tell him I told you this) Dave absolutely loves. He does a great rendition of “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland. Well, that about wraps up this year. Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!

The McFongs, Dave, Molly, Jimmy and Janie

Sound familiar? Right before the holidays, many of us write a Christmas letter to all our friends and family, to share just how great everything is in our life. But we Christmas letter writers, in sending out this letter, sometimes on colored paper and including family photos, should pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few important questions. First, do all our friends and family buy our airbrushed version of our family events for the past year? And second, does a positive spin on our Christmas letter make readers groan and roll their eyes? Well, surveys show, No, and Yes! The Better Christmas Letter Society wants to reverse what has become an annoying, obnoxious and all too common practice: The all-positive, self-complimentary Christmas letter sent each holiday season to friends and family. While the senders are sure their letters are appreciated as entertaining updates of family doings, the fact is, they’re all too often wrong about this. In reality, these letters do anything but make readers feel happy admiration. They more often make readers mutter quips such as, “What horseshit!”

“Who cares?” and “This is sooo lame, can you believe this crap?!” As a public service the Better Christmas Letter Society has a few tips for Christmas letter writers. All to help their efforts be appreciated instead of cruelly mocked, torn up and thrown disdainfully into the wastebasket. First, don’t just include all the good things that happened in the past year. Sure, put in that you won your bowling league, or Dad had a great birthday weekend in Vegas. But don’t be afraid to put in a few rough goes you went through as well! People love to read that stuff. Just look at the tabloids. It’s humanizing! On the other hand, readers are guaranteed to glaze over when there’s too much happy talk. Why? It sounds phony, made up. And it makes the reader wonder. Especially when they know for a fact that plenty of not so hot things happened to you and yours, and there’s no mention of it in the Christmas letter. Just as if it never happened. Now surveys show, that annoys readers. They think you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. They think you’re an idiot to even think you can fool them. So the letter will be seen for what it is: Puffery, self-serving drivel. So go ahead. Bring in the truth, even if it’s hard to admit. Share a little dirty laundry. Just as long as you stay upbeat, maybe throw in a joke or two, and don’t sound like a drunk crying in his or her beer or appletini. But don’t take our word for it. See for yourself. The following version has a few revealing, reality-based, not so positive admissions to the typical happy-talk Christmas letter you read

above. See if you wouldn’t pass this new version around for everyone to read! That’s what you want, isn’t it?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Family and Friends!

Good news this year! Jimmie graduated from high school (at long last) and to reward his bad behavior (just joking) we got him a brand new Porsche Carrera! Can you believe we did that? Well Jimmie was so happy about it, he got drunk and flipped it into a parked car, totaling the Porsche and the parked car. Luckily he had his seatbelt on and wasn’t hurt. He says he doesn’t remember anything about it! Go figure. He still lives at home and deals pot, but we think he has potential to be a real player in business. He gets away with everything! Janie made the junior varsity cheerleading squad, but gosh darn it, we found out the nose guard on the varsity football team got her pregnant at some party. She’s going to have the baby and try to graduate high school early and take care of the baby out of her bedroom. Well, who am I to talk, I had Jimmie when I was 16, so this is what I get! Janie’s looking into career options, but I think once she has the kid her best bet is stripping. She’s got the booty to pull in the bucks, just like I used to! Dave loves his job at small claims court, and still manages to find time for his beloved hobbies in women’s shoe design, interpretive

dance and teddy bear collecting. He’s convinced there’s an HGTV show he could host in there somewhere! We all drove to Iowa to visit Dave’s relatives last summer (two teens in the car, imagine that!). Jimmy and Janie got to meet more of their cousins (No kissing, I hope!) and for the first time we met Dave’s big brother, Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob took us to a wonderful county fair where he took first in the hog-calling contest! He was so proud, he bought corn dogs and beer for everyone! Everybody ate and drank so much, we could barely get in and out of Uncle Bob’s Hummer. The next day, we were all hung over, and ate stacks and stacks of Uncle Bob’s blueberry pancakes all smothered in butter and maple syrup. Ooh, I’m famished just thinking about it! We also painted the house avocado green this summer, with electric yellow trim. It really looks different now, we love it. But some neighbors are collecting signatures to outlaw our new colors for houses in the neighborhood. Can you imagine? Some people have too much time on their hands! I think they’re just jealous! We did a “junk” sale this summer and cleared over a thousand bucks! Maybe that’ll help pay for braces for Janie. Gotta have a perfect white tooth smile for the cameras! I’m still clicking license photos at the DMV. You know what? Very few people are photogenic! Anyway, I also have my monthly potluck and Bunco night with the girls. Boy, do we chatter AND eat! Never any casseroles left at the end of the night, especially when I make my Frito pie!

I got Dave to agree to a Carnival Karaoke Cruise next year to Mazatlan (Mexico)! He’s so excited, he’s planning to do his signature ballad, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as Judy Garland. Can you believe he’ll be in full wig, makeup and sequined dress? What a scream! And the best part is, you get to eat all you want whenever you want. They aren’t going to make any money on me! Well Whew! That about wraps up this year! Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year! The McFongs. Dave, Molly, Jimmy and Janie

Faraway eyes
When I think of my father, two things come to mind. His eyes. And his hands. He was a professional upright bass fiddle player from high school through his mid 40s. He grew up in Chicago, and as a high school kid, played in various hotel orchestras there in the mid-30s, making enough money to buy a new car. He entered the Navy and played the tuba in its marching band. And upon his return from serving in the South Pacific in 1945, he resumed playing bass professionally in Los Angeles. He played in the then-live studio orchestra of the radio station KHJ. I have a framed 13x10 inch black and white photo of him playing in a trio as a young man. The light is low, probably a club in Los Angeles. He looks to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He's standing behind the drummer, who is clasping the high hat cymbal on his drum kit and looking to the side. A piano player is on the left looking down, studiously working the keyboard. My dad is playing his upright bass, looking at nothing in particular. He has a faraway

look in his eyes, like his mind is a million miles somewhere else. His eyes aren’t searching for something out in the dark of the club. He looks like he’s daydreaming about what life would have been if his dad hadn’t died when he was 13. And what if the Indiana sand dunes along Lake Michigan, once the paradise of his teen summers, hadn't been ruined by a steel mill? And what would it be like if there hadn’t been a war to live through in the South Pacific, with its shocks of withering fear, uncertainty and death? And what if he’d realized his dream to become a mechanical engineer? In the photo, his eyes had all those questions. My dad had the hands of a craftsman. The furniture he made with those hands always had curves, fit and finish. He made a desk held together only with pegs and glue. No nails, no screws. He made a bookcase, also pegged together. He didn’t buy furniture that was needed, he built it: A coffee table, a cabinet holding a turntable and tuner, a cabinet encasing speakers for the hi-fi. After our house was built at Lake Tahoe in the summer of 1963, using a rented cement mixer, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, he framed and poured all the concrete sections for the steep 100-foot driveway. He poured the floor of the garage and basement of the house, section by section. He poured aggregate in the entry, and landing at the top of the stairs. He poured aggregate for a patio. He built a fountain from granite we’d collected on treks. It was in the corner of the front yard with a boulder as its centerpiece. On one of his most challenging and creative projects, he cemented together an array of smooth, multi-colored river rock for the facing of the fireplace and hearth in the living room. He used eyecatching rocks we had plucked out of the Upper Truckee River,

polished and rounded by its flows. He started on the flat cinder block sides of the fireplace near the floor. Those rocks had around a quarter inch of mortar visible between them. But as he got the hang of it, he adjusted his mortaring to interlock the rocks so that once they were affixed to the brick, no mortar was visible between them. He’d never been taught the finer points of masonry. But when he finished, the face of the fireplace was a showpiece. It offered an artist’s dappling of puzzled together shapes, colors and textures. He put in matching rectangle rocks about three quarters up the face on each side, and angled them like quotation marks. If you don't know they’re there, you won't see them. The center stone takes a little work to find, but it is there. Whenever I used to stand back to look at the fireplace, I saw how he quietly wove in details, depth, and subtlety. I always saw it as the embodiment of how my father’s creativity flowed through his hands. My father, Henry George, was born September 15, 1917, the youngest of a family of four kids. His parents immigrated to Chicago from Sweden in 1910. They brought their daughter, Ingrid, and had three more kids in Chicago, Gus, Astrid and the youngest was my dad. His parents, Gustaf and Herta didn’t get along. My dad once told me he never saw them kiss. Gustaf, a self-educated literature scholar and cabinet maker, was adored by my dad. He'd recall Gustaf taking him everywhere, and on special occasions, to the movies. And when Gustaf got sick and died of a kidney disease in his early 50s, my 13-year-old dad couldn’t fathom living without his father. The loss crushed the joy out of him. Those who knew him before and after said he never

recovered. Family members recalled him wailing at his father’s funeral. After that he drifted through life, and like both sisters and his brother, turned to the bottle to salve the wounds. As a young man, he drank straight vodka do forget about the loss of his beloved dad. And it helped numb the feelings of heading to the South Pacific in World War II, never expecting to make it back alive. But when he did, the vodka helped him dull the pain from the razors still slicing up his gut. After playing a show on the road in 1959 at a Lake Tahoe club, my dad, a lover of the mountains, called my mom and told her to sell the house in Sherman Oaks. He wanted the family to grow up in the beauty of the pines, mountains and melted snow water of Lake Tahoe. He remembered the rewards of growing up amid nature from his teen summers along Lake Michigan on the Indiana sand dunes. A family of five, we made the move, spending the first four years living an adventure, in a double-wide mobile home, which is the fancy name for a big house trailer. My parents bought a ridge top lot a few miles away. It had a lake view and after four years, they built a house on it. When finished, we moved in, happy to be out of the confines of the aluminum rectangle we’d lived in. Despite the mostly fortunate changes for our family, my dad continued drinking through it all, unable or unwilling to quit for very long. He wasn’t a violent drunk. Booze just made him happy, helped him forget. He didn’t believe in religion, and was disgusted with people he perceived as “phonies.” He didn’t like anybody who was cocky or given to bragging. He told me as a kid, “If you have to brag about it, you can’t do it.” “What about Muhammad Ali?” I asked. “He brags, and he’s the

best.” My dad shook his head. “That doesn’t happen very often.” He wasn’t impressed with mankind, or human nature in the least. It was just the opposite. He thought mankind was a train wreck caused by political leaders whom for the most part, he had pegged as interested only in wielding power, not doing anything to solve any problems. Once as a kid I told my dad how amazing it was how much mankind had accomplished. He just shook his head with disgust. “A lot more has been screwed up,” he said. The world "talent" offended him. "There's no such thing as talent," he'd tell me. "It's all elbow grease." He often said, “It’s all relative,” when comparing how tough a situation was. It was his way of saying, anything you think is bad, could be worse. Or, he’d say, “You can get used to anything.” To me, that meant you can make it through anything. The thing he got the most used to was daily ingestions of vodka. With that, he could get used to anything that came his way. He didn’t think advances in technology were any big deal. He just looked at history. Wars, a trashing of the environment, crime, all of which meant to him that humankind was no different than jungle beasts using cunning and force to get the upper hand. His philosophy was summed up in two words he’d often say when he was in the bag: “Who cares?” With him, "Who cares," had kind of a double meaning.

He’d throw out a “Who cares?” meaning, “What’s the big deal?” Other times he'd say it with dark overtones, as a cynical reaction to an uncaring dog eat dog world. As in, “who out there really does care?” As far as he could tell, not many really do care. And if they did, he figured they were most likely powerless to make productive changes. When he got mad about something, he got quiet. He was never competitive himself, but he liked sports: hockey, football, baseball, basketball, shooting pool, playing ping-pong. He thought golf was a waste of time. He loved the San Francisco Giants, and every summer, while working outside with his ever-present cup of cold black coffee, or driving his truck, he always had the radio tuned to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons calling the on-field heroics of Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda. He didn't care much for the Giants' rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He loved the 49ers. He liked to laugh, and make faces, and credited his mother for teaching him the humor in exaggerated facial expressions. Accents and mispronounced words made him laugh. He liked to describe funny experiences. Like the time he and my mom went to visit friends, and Oliver, the eccentric artist father of Fred, of friends Fred and Arlene, threw open the door to greet my parents and his pants fell down. When my father got to a point where he couldn't stop laughing while telling a story, he'd just stop and laugh along with his listeners. He'd regroup, and continue with the story with, "And then..." and keep going in the story until the next laugh, followed by another, "And then...!" One he told of sleeping in our double-wide trailer, at Lake Tahoe,

during Halloween. For some reason, my mom and sisters and me were away somewhere. He'd gone to bed, probably after a snort or two. He had no idea it was Halloween. "I'm sleeping, and someone's bangin' on the door," he told us. "Whoever it was kept bangin', they weren't going away. So I get out of bed and make my way to the door in my shorts and underwear, and open the door. It was a bunch of kids yelling 'Trick or Treat!' There's no candy around, I know that. So I open the refrigerator and look in. I just grab whatever’s there. I give 'em leftover cheese, I don't remember what else... " Now, for some unknown reason, my dad really liked to make, then eat, popcorn. Mainly at night when he was drunk. Which was pretty much every night after his 5 p.m. appointment in the basement with some big swigs of stashed vodka. He’d hide his empty bottles, which my sister Lauren always seemed to find. He’d slow-blink his way through dinner, making exaggerated faces to some of the barbs being thrown back and forth across the table between my sisters, myself and my mom. I always sat to his right at the table, and he had a habit of dropping his head to look over his glasses, sloppily eyeing what I’d left on my plate. He’d take his fork and hover it over my plate, than stab whatever it was, draw it back, and crudely eat it. It didn't bother me, but for some reason it pushed all my mom’s buttons. Which is probably why he did it. “Let him eat his own food!” she’d holler, and my dad would make an exaggerated retreat. When finished, he rose unsteadily from the table and did one of two things: Flop into bed, done for the night. Or he’d make a big-ass batch of popcorn. I can’t remember there not being any bags of popcorn kernels in

the house. Or sticks of margarine. Because he’d make big batches regularly, the ingredients were somehow always close at hand. It was comfort food to him. The popping sound, the wafts of corn smelling steam, helped his happy drunk world get that much happier as he made each batch. He always made too much and always drenched the batches in melted margarine, then salt the shit out of it. We’d all complain to him about the greasy popcorn. He'd just let out a big sigh and say, “Who cares?” To him, the more melted margarine on the popcorn, the better, greasy hands be damned. He must have passed on the popcornmaking gene, because to this day, I more often than not make a big batch before watching a game on TV. His happy go lucky drunkenness most nights made us passive aggressive. Once, he played a game of Scrabble with Lauren and me, and as usual, he was shit-faced. He got up to go to the bathroom, and we changed all the letter tiles in his tray, just for laughs. He came back and had no idea any changes had been made. It was funny to us, we elbowed each other and laughed. But it really didn’t feel so funny on the inside. To make up for the weeknights he’d been drunk, he’d get up early on Saturday mornings and make Swedish pancakes for everybody. We all knew it was make-up time for him, and just played along. But my guts were always conflicted by the acidic churn in my stomach left over from resenting his drunken behavior the night before. He had a big sweet tooth, and after playing in orchestra dinner shows, he’d stop at the store and buy himself a nice snack and dessert. In the early hours of the morning, he’d fry up greasy

Polish sausages and open up a carton of maple nut ice cream, his favorite. He’d get out the San Francisco Chronicle's Sporting Green sports page and spread it out on the kitchen table. He'd happily feast in the kitchen by himself, dripping sausage grease spots on the newspaper. Then he’d open the ice cream carton, get a big spoon and dig into the maple nut, sometimes downing most, or all, of the quart. Then, as my mom recalled, he’d “flop into bed with his greasy hands,” and sleep like a baby. In the early 60s, after a few years at Tahoe, he bought a used 1959 International Harvester Travelall. It was a white behemoth truck/station wagon with removable rear seats. Its gears shifted off the steering column, and because it wasn’t a four-wheel drive, had some trouble getting traction in the steep, often snow and icecovered roads in and around Tahoe. He’d never buy new snow tires for the truck. He was fine with getting the much cheaper “retreads.” And to help the rear wheels get more traction, he’d pile cinderblocks in the back of the truck, which seemed to do the trick. He loved the Travelall because it could haul lumber and furniture and firewood in its cavernous cargo area, protecting them from the elements better than a pickup truck could. The gas gauge didn’t work on the truck. So he kept a magnetized pad on the metal dash and regularly penciled in how many miles he drove, so he wouldn’t run out of gas. He’d smoke Wolf Bros. rum soaked “Crooks” cigars while driving his truck, so the truck usually had the rich and raw odors of vaporized gasoline intermingled with cigar smoke as he drove. At some point, he gave up the cheap cigars. But never the booze. One night he stopped on his way home from playing a show and

bought a week’s worth of groceries. He drove back onto the highway, then for some mysterious reason parked the truck next to the highway about three quarters of a mile down the hill from our house. He left the keys in the ignition and somehow found his way home walking in the dark. The next morning, he panicked. The truck – with the groceries, which were critical to our family eating that week – wasn’t parked in the garage, where he thought he'd left it. He was convinced the truck had been stolen. He called the sheriff’s office. But then, someone, not sure who, discovered the truck was parked near the highway, keys in it, groceries in it. My dad sheepishly drove it home. My mom was not amused, to say the least. She was probably close to plotting his demise. But later, when she’d tell the story, she cackled wildly. She’d lived more than a few of those stories in her years with my dad. And laughing at them was her only way to keep from going bananas. Al Sutton was a piano player my dad had been good buddies with from his pre-World War II days. Al ended up playing in the same Harrah’s dinner show orchestra as my dad at Tahoe. He was divorced with no kids, so he’d come over and have dinner with our family before he and my dad would leave in their tuxes to play their two shows. At the dinner table, they told hilarious stories back and forth, laughing at some of the absurdities of playing rehearsals and shows for headline acts like Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams, Danny Thomas, and other popular entertainers of the day. And those dinners were new and different to my sisters and me, because on those nights my dad would be sober. At least for dinner.

He told one story about a pompous orchestra conductor at KHJ radio in Los Angeles. The guys in the band hated this obnoxious, full of himself conductor so they decided to play a joke on him. They set the studio clock ahead by two minutes. The clock was typically synched to the “On Air” lighted sign next to it. At the seemingly appointed cue time, the cocksure conductor raised his baton in his usual overly dramatic way, raised his arms and flicked his baton for the orchestra to start. But nobody played anything. Dead silence. And when everybody in the orchestra saw the conductor's panicked face, they all roared in unison at his utter discombobulation. They regrouped quickly to get on the air on time. But they’d made their point to the conductor: “Without us, you clown, you’re nothin'.” Like most seasoned professional musicians, my dad was a musical snob. When I was 11 or 12 I told him I thought Herb Alpert, whose Tijuana Brass music dominated the AM radio airwaves at the time, was pretty good at the trumpet. My dad just snorted. “He’s a third rate horn player,” he said. “You wanna hear a good horn player? Listen to Al Hirt.” Al Hirt, my dad explained, played with power and control, with “fat notes” that showed mastery of the instrument. Hirt, to my dad, was a pro’s pro, who could play anything with the exacting musical mastery known in the trade as “chops.” So I got an Al Hirt record. He was right. The big man could really play trumpet. Eventually, my dad couldn’t hold a job as a musician because of his drinking. So he did odd jobs. Egg deliveryman, plant nursery guy, nightclub security guard, furniture refinisher. He even joined

a building demolition crew in L.A., a job he got through a friend, and would write letters headed with “Smogville, USA.” While his drinking made life for his family fairly weird and uncertain, he was a good dad almost to a fault. I think he felt guilty about being a drunk so he’d try to make it up to my two older sisters and myself. On a whim, he bought an old breeding mare headed for the glue factory, and her colt, so my oldest sister, a teenager, could learn riding and the horse thing. He didn’t know anything about horses. But he found an unused corral to keep them in for one summer. For those three months, we had nothing but amazing horse related adventures as we fed and rode, and sometimes fell off the headstrong beasts. He let me ride the saddled but unbroken colt he’d bought along with the old mare. I was about 8 and with visions of Roy Rogers riding the golden Trigger galloping in my head, I told him I wanted Charlie, the colt, to run, once I got on him. There was no bridle or reins, I had nothing to hang onto but a saddle horn. Somehow, we'd managed to strap the saddle on the colt while he was happily grazing in the nearby pasture. The saddle was borrowed, and with a high front and back to its seat, looked like it was designed more for a camel than a horse. My dad, meanwhile, who had to have been half in the bag, had his straw cowboy hat on. Hearing that I wanted the colt to run after I was on him, he happily helped me get my wish. He swung a rope over his head, and did his earsplitting fingers-in-the-mouth whistle. Of course, this spooked the already wild-eyed, long legged colt, which bucked a few times then bolted toward the meadow with me clinging to the saddle. It all ended safely, but years later I couldn’t

help think that my dad was completely nuts to do that. A bad fall could have turned me into a lifetime soup sipper. But buoyed by the booze in his bloodstream, my dad let 'er rip, and to this day, it was the wildest ride of my life. My dad was that way. He'd help me do anything I tried to sell him on, no matter how weird it was. When I was six or so, I’d been watching cartoons about Paul Bunyan, and they showed the muscle bound maniac chopping down several trees with one swing of an axe, no problem. So, of course, I got the idea that I wanted to chop a tree down with an axe. It looked like great fun. So I told my dad I wanted to chop down this tall pine tree in front of our trailer. It was at least a foot in diameter. He didn’t miss a beat. He found an axe and handed it to me. I was surprised he didn’t try to talk me out of it. So I took the axe and started wailing on this poor tree. I gave it all I had, jarring the shit out of my hands with each swing, as the blade bounced off the bark. I kept at it, managing to strip the bark away to the fleshy, sappy layer underneath. But I was wrung out fairly quickly. After about 10 minutes, I was done, hands blistered, completely beaten by the axe and the now hideously gouged pine tree. My dad took the axe and put it away, and didn’t say anything. I thought he’d make fun of my attempt to chop down the tree. But he just let me feel the humility of not being as all-powerful as I thought I was. When I was 7 or so, I was bored while he was refinishing furniture at a neighbor’s garage. I saw his Navy buck knife, with khaki green metal scabbard and asked if I could take it and throw it in the dirt outside. I was surprised when he let me. But he trusted that I’d

be careful. When I returned it to him after playing with it, I felt like he’d given me a huge, silent vote of confidence. I never forgot that. He’d take me for a kiddie mule ride once in awhile, to kiddie nature movies, once to a father and son banquet, and whenever we passed corralled horses, he’d remember ahead of time to have carrots with him so my sisters and I could feed them. Once while in the third or fourth grade, I told him I wanted to be a trumpet player. So he rented me a trumpet and I just blew the hell out of it for a week or so, annoying everyone in the house. At some point I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. So I gave up on it, and my dad returned the trumpet, again without saying anything to me. I don’t think he wanted to encourage me to be a musician. He knew the professional musician’s life to be a dreary, depressing way to make a buck. Another time we went shore fishing off some rocks at Lake Tahoe. I was around five. He set me up, casting out my line and then went to get his gear. I immediately hooked a rainbow trout, and reeled it in. The fish, about 10 or 12 inches long, was hooked on the lip and wasn’t injured at all. We put him in a bucket of water. We took the fish home. Then I told my dad I didn’t want to kill the fish, which would save him from being fried up by us and eaten. My dad didn’t ridicule me for being a softie. He said we could fill the bathtub up with cold water and keep the trout in there for the time being. The next day I told him I wanted to take the fish back to the lake and let him go. He was perfectly fine with that. We put the trout back into a bucket of water and drove back to where I’d caught him. I dumped him into the lake and watched the rainbow scoot straight out, like greased lightning toward the middle of the

early evening deep blue shadows of the amazingly clear Tahoe water. At that moment, when I saw the fish wriggle through the water with the flashing speed of newfound freedom, I was exhilarated. My dad let me set the fish free, no questions asked. And oddly enough, it was one of the most connected, spiritual feelings I’ve ever had in my life. My mom finally kicked him out of the house after 23 years of marriage and then married the local city manager. He moved to a small rental a short drive away from the house. Unlike my two older teenage sisters who were deeply into boys and their friends, I was 12 and had time on my hands on the weekends. So just about every weekend, my lonely dad wanted me to do something with him. We did lots of things. Fished, went to the movies, played pool, went to the movies, went to the beach, fished, went to the movies. After awhile it felt like I was babysitting my dad, while everybody else in the family was busy moving on in their lives, forgetting about him. I cared about him, but he clearly felt sorry for himself, and was half in the bag when we’d do stuff together. And by then, that was a song I’d already heard far too many times. He’d talk about getting back together with my mom, and I’d think to myself, “Are you kidding? There’s no way in hell that’s happening.” Once while we were at Al Sutton’s place where he stayed before getting his own apartment, he was weepy drunk. The whole scene roiled up every raw emotion in me. Trying to deflect all the overwrought drama happening, I kept flicking one of Al’s pipe lighters that was out of fuel. It would spark, but no flame. I flicked that thing repeatedly for about a half hour, sitting listening to my

dad’s pathetic cries of how lousy he felt, half crying myself. Finally, with not much feeling left in my thumb, I’d had enough. I decided to walk the three quarters of a mile or so back home. I just stood up and walked out the door without saying anything. My legs moved fast under me, I was working off surging emotions that made me feel sick, nervous and unsteady. I’d been striding along for about 15 minutes when I heard the Travelall’s haybaler engine approaching as my dad slowed the truck up next to me. I stopped and looked at him through the passenger side window. He looked like a broken man, about as lost as any soul could be. “I’ll take you home,” he said. “That’s OK, I feel like walking,” I said. “I didn’t know where you went,” he said. “I couldn’t take it anymore, I just had to leave.” “Are you OK?” “I’m OK, don’t worry, I just want to walk home.” “OK,” he said. I turned and started walking again, and he drove away. That summer I mowed lawns at a local motel along the highway near our house. I started avoiding my dad, telling my sisters to spend some time with him, to give me a break. They just rolled their eyes and looked at me with “fat chance” written on their

faces. He tracked me down at the motel while I was mowing one day and he had one of those lunchbox pies, a crimped half-moon berry pie with sugar on the crust. He gave it to me as a peace offering. We sat down on the stone retaining wall by one of the terraced lawns. “I can’t be around you when you’re drunk,” I said, choking back tears. The pie got the emotions going, because I knew my dad was using it to butter me up. He was a master manipulator. He'd go for the jugular, playing the sympathy card like a pro to get what he wanted. Like most addicts, they tell you what you want to hear, but aren't about to interrupt their joneses. They usually don't give you credit for clearly seeing their obvious BS strategy. “I’ll quit drinking,” he said. We both knew that was a lie. I wanted to believe him in the worst way. But I knew he didn’t have the will or the inner strength to do that. Still, I wanted to make him feel better. So I said, “OK.” We both knew he’d keep on drinking. But to keep up appearances, the new rule was he'd be sober when we were together. So we agreed. And it played out just like I thought it would. He’d have the shakes when we did things, dying for a drink. Then when he was alone again, he no doubt gulped himself into a stupor. He eventually moved to Arizona to be near his oldest sister Ingrid, also a seasoned drunk. Somehow my dad met an old high school sweetheart from back in Chicago. He married her probably because she owned some apartments and could pay his way. He kept it a secret from her that he was a drunk. That’s what we figured when

his new bride mentioned in a letter to us kids that he was bombed at the wedding, and she thought it was cute. But after a year or so, the laughter died and she divorced him. And Ingrid turned him away when he wanted to live with her again. He ended up living alone in a humble shack-like apartment in Carson City, unable to keep a job, getting checks from his sister that paid for his rent, food and booze. Later, going through his things after he died, we saw that he endorsed his checks with a barely legible shaky signature. The fact that he couldn't even stay sober to endorse his checks at the bank showed he was circling the drain. Eleven years after the divorce from my mom, his alcoholism finally got the upper hand. He called a cab for a ride to the Reno VA hospital. My sister Lauren visited him on his deathbed, the only one in the family – and the strongest emotionally by far -- to make the trip. She talked to him about what he wanted to say to everybody. But he was too emotional to get much out. He wanted her to have his prized ShopSmith table saw, and painstakingly explained to her how to assemble it out of storage. He told her he had no regrets. And he looked forward to seeing his late brother Gus again. So in August 1979 at age 61, he died in a VA hospital of scirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia and other complications, a month before his 62nd birthday. A year or so before he passed, I asked him if I could sit down with a tape recorder and talk about his life. I wanted info on relatives, big events, things I never knew about him. He had kept himself very much a closed book. But he said he didn’t want to do it. It was the only time I can remember him turning me

down. He knew his life was over, and he didn’t want to talk about it. He had spent his summers as a kid at an isolated beach shack on the Indiana sand dunes with his best pal, his older brother Gus. He loved the summer beach life, filling his spirit with Lake Michigan breezes and sailing. He and Gus built their own sailboat, and even got canvas and a sewing machine to make sails for it. The boat, which they christened Rascal, was their ticket to ultimate freedom, nirvana. In later years, US Steel built a plant on the sand dunes my dad had loved as much as any sacred place could be loved. He was crushed. He wouldn't speak of the dunes much, because their demise was something he simply didn't want to remember. Still, there were left over dunes, which were cordoned off into a park. And they turned out to be his last stop. After he died, Lauren sold his truck for $75, and had his remains cremated. She sent the ashes in a carton to Astrid in Chicago, asking that his ashes be spread out on what remained of the Indiana sand dunes. They were at the heart of his fondest memories. But somehow the specifics of the request weren’t understood. My aunt took the carton of ashes, went out to the dunes and for some reason, just sat the unopened carton in the sand. And left. Then somebody found the carton, which had my dad’s name on it and brought it to a popular Chicago radio host’s studio. Maybe that would help re-unite the relatives of what they thought were lost ashes. The radio host regularly mentioned my dad’s name over the air, hoping to get calls from someone either related to him, or who knew him. Eventually my aunt and cousins heard one of the host’s

announcements and they put two and two together. They went to the station, and surely red-faced about the whole thing, claimed my dad. Then they took him back to the dunes, and on the second visit, made sure they actually scattered his ashes over some leftover dunes. In my head I can hear my dad telling the story, having to pause every few sentences to laugh, then starting up again, with "and then..." He loved goofy stories. The goofier, the better. He would have bent over and laughed. He'd always bow forward during a laughing pause mid-story, like he would have telling of his wayward return to the Indiana sand dunes. And at the end of the story, he would have laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Out of this World
When someone dies before their time, it makes everyone who cares about that person ask the same question. Why them? Why so soon in their life? One oldies pop lyric tries, claiming, “Only the good die young.” Yes, good-hearted people die young. But death takes everybody, good and bad, old and young. Some die suddenly and others have time to plan their final days. When somebody close dies long before their time, though, the “why” question can’t help but be asked by all who knew this person. There’s a search for answers, as a way to somehow make sense of what seems an unnecessary and cruel blow of fate. But the answers don’t ever seem to come. A few years have passed since two close women friends of Elena, died within a month of each other. The one she grew up with had been dying of colon cancer for several months. Teresa, as I’ll call her, was a devoted Baptist and medical doctor, married to a preacher, and mother of two young kids. She was 44. The other, Renee, also not her real name, died suddenly in a helicopter crash. She was piloting the copter while teaching a

student, when the copter had a mechanical failure. She managed to keep it from crashing into a beachside suburban area of Florida, but it hit the beach and exploded, killing her and her student. She was a few days from her 39th birthday. She was unmarried but would have likely married her boyfriend. He also taught helicopter piloting, and had taught her how to fly. When these extraordinary young women left their lives in this world, they also left behind a large group of family and friends who still feel the hurt of losing them. For a long time Elena kept the sun-faded announcements of services for both of her friends between the front seats in her car, not wanting to let their memories go. She, like other family and friends, was left picking up the pieces and wondering over and over that same nagging question: Why them? Each of them had probably 40 or more years to live if they’d managed to stay out of harm’s way. But fate cruelly intervened. Teresa, a quiet and dedicated person, lived to serve God, and in doing so accepted the tough things she experienced as part of the job. Years earlier she and her husband adopted four kids from a Native American reservation. They gave them what they'd never really had before: a home and love. But these kids had suffered earlier emotional trauma at young ages. As they grew with their volunteer parents, they repeatedly acted out harshly, causing no small amount of anguish for Teresa and her husband. They put up with reckless, brutish and sometimes law-breaking outbursts, all the while loving them and making them feel like they belonged. But then they had their own two kids. And eventually the adoptees grew up, bringing no small amount of relief when

they were finally out of the house and on their own. But Teresa began having health problems, and after doctor confusion about what was wrong with her, she got a belated diagnosis of colon cancer. And at that point, it had advanced in her body. And then she was presented with her bone-chilling fate: She was going to die and it wasn’t going to take long to happen. She took the news with incredible courage. She visited her childhood friends for one last goodbye at a local restaurant, and wrote letters for her kids to read when they got older. She prepared for her death as best she could, and accepted it, bitter pill that it was. When she died, it wasn't easy for family and friends to accept. Especially her parents, brother, devoted husband and kids, who were left with a gaping, searingly painful void, having to somehow go on with their lives without her loving presence anymore. But it's safe to say the big love of her spiritual presence is still within her loved ones. And at nearly the same time, Renee’s death was a numbing shock to everyone who was lucky enough to know her. A tall, smart, energetic blonde, she had fulfilled her dream of becoming a helicopter pilot less than a year earlier and found work as a pilot instructor in Florida. She was known for her upbeat, adventuresome spirit, her humor, her open acceptance of all she met, and affection and kindness for family and friends. She left behind her younger sister and father. Like Teresa, she left behind a big roomful of family and friends. Her mother had passed away a year earlier. If there was any consolation in Renee’s passing, it was that she

died fulfilling her dream. Oh, but what a tragic loss to all who knew her. Here were two giving, disciplined, thoughtful and caring women who left this world much too soon. Their fates seem as incomprehensible as anything can be. But all the survivors could do is mourn their passing, then try to get used to the fact that they’re gone from this world. They’re not around anymore to write to, meet or share laughs with. We attended memorial services for both women. The send-offs by the huge church gatherings of family and friends for both were touchingly similar: Big crowds of grieving family and friends that came together to console each other, pray, fondly tell stories of the lost one, cry, laugh, listen to mournful music, then in the spirit of moving on, feast on food and beverages. An ex-colleague of mine had a close brother who died in his 20s years earlier in a commercial airline crash. This same colleague also lost his mother as a young boy. When I lost my mother, he offered something to me that helped me feel a little bit better. He said we never really “get over” the death of any dearly loved one as some say. All we can do, he said, is try to get better used to living our life without them. We have our memories of these beloved ones who have gone, early or late, and of the sunshine they brought to our lives. And in the best cases, we can be inspired by how their presence made such indelible marks of love and happiness within us. So as a nod to them, we have an obligation. It’s the least we can do, really. We have to make sure to pass along some of those rays and flecks of light they gave us. To every person in our lives.

MARK ERIC LARSON is a freelance writer. After a long career as a newspaper reporter, he wrote “Don’t Force, it Get a Bigger Hammer, a newspaper journalist’s memoir with names changed when that seemed best.” He lives in Sacramento.

Book cover design and author photograph by Heidi Tomlinson

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