Wednesday, August 31, 2011

12 Things

A good friend of mine named Kip recently sent me a link to an article that he thought I would find fascinating. It was an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow that appeared in Elle Décor magazine where she listed twelve things that she “couldn’t live without.” Obviously intrigued, both by the subject matter and the fact that there is an Elle Décor magazine, I read the accompanying list that Mrs. Paltrow compiled. Here are the highlights:

Juxtaposed: Religion Shelf – The idea here is that there are custom-made slots of varying depth to ensure that the tops of your holy texts are at the same level thus making a theologically-profound decorating statement. The shelf comes with all the important religious books covering Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, and Taoism (suck on that L. Ron Hubbard) and costs $2,500. 

DeGournay hand painted wallpaper – Each panel of wallpaper is unique because it is hand-painted…in London….by the English. It reportedly costs around $12,000 to wallpaper an average-sized room (or approximately the cost to build an average-sized room). Paltrow indulged herself by having it installed in her living room.

Antonio Lupi Baia Tub – This plumbing masterpiece will set you back around $10,000 and apparently helps Gwyneth unwind after a long day of sub-par filmmaking. Like the wall-covering and the holy 2x4, this item is handcrafted and hard to acquire. She told the magazine that she had hers installed in the bedroom to make it “more easily accessible.” This prevents her from wasting valuable time traversing her unnecessarily-large master suite.

YUBZ Retro Handset – This handy device plugs into any smartphone and allows you to bypass all that nasty radiation by going “old-school.” It was a rarity in Paltrow’s list as it is not handmade and costs around $50. As a bonus, the red color and retro design makes it appear that you are having a phone conversation with Commissioner Gordon. One reviewer on Amazon suggested placing your cellphone in your pocket so that you only have to hold the handset. Now, I usually mind my own business when it comes to other people, but I can assure you that if someone moseys up next to me at a store while talking on a 1960’s phone receiver that appears to be directly-wired to their pants, I will be calling that one in.

After reading through the list, I still could not believe that there is a magazine called Elle Décor. Were there that many Elle subscribers demanding monthly in-depth coverage of celebrity furniture? If I wanted glossy photos of home furnishings I can’t afford regularly delivered to my mailbox, I would sign back up for the Pottery Barn catalogue.

Also, calling her list “things I cannot live without” was a bit much. I realize that the celebrity lifestyle is often one of skewed perspective, but I doubt that anything gracing the pages of Elle Décor would help you survive the apocalypse.  

How does one even find out that such items exist? Once you reach a certain earning threshold do you just suddenly realize that it is possible to acquire nail polish made from the tears of British children or does someone have to tell you? Is there a mandatory “ostentatious décor” orientation session that comes with your first full-time publicist? Just once I want a celebrity to admit that they bought hand woven Serbian carpet because the line was too long at Home Depot.

In the spirit of Elle Decor, I have created my own list of twelve essential items that will make Gwyneth Paltrow look like she has been couponing at Dollar General:
  1. Dead Sea scrolls toilet tissue
  2. Manatee-Flesh beer cozies
  3. Throw pillows stuffed with human eye-lashes
  4. Hand-painted sanskrit television remote
  5. Dolphin marrow curtain rods
  6. Dryer sheets made from actual endangered flowers
  7. Alpaca oven mitts
  8. Saffron-powered Honda accord
  9. Elephant tusk disposable razor
  10. Eskimo harvested glacier ice cubes
  11. A papasan chair made from the skeletal remains of dinosaurs 
  12. Kitten-whisker area rugs

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bert & Ernie

I visit Google news constantly because I feel that it is a representative aggregate of the various important headlines of the day. So when I saw a listing for the top stories of the LA Times, I quickly perused the list to see what had caught the attention of one of America’s most celebrated newspapers. The third item in the list (just below a story about the upcoming 9/11 memorial services) was the following headline:

Bert and Ernie: Just friends, not gay, will not marry

Since this development apparently warranted front page status, I naturally assumed that something extraordinary must have occurred such as puppets gaining the ability to exhibit free will. You can imagine my disappointment when the paragraph under the headline explained that despite heavy speculation amongst the public, the creators of Sesame Street insist that the duo are just friends. The story then goes on to quote people from the various pages that have been created either in support of, or opposition to, a romantic storyline between the longtime companions. 

The commentary got pretty heated with one man declaring (in all seriousness) that the children’s show has always been progressive since it portrayed inter-species dating (Kermit & Miss Piggy). Others were concerned that identifying the characters as gay would create an onslaught of homosexual children by indoctrinating them through beloved characters. One man even pointed to Gonzo’s “insatiable lust” for Camilla the Chicken as evidence of the show’s “pro-bestiality” agenda.

On and on the comments went featuring insults like “sodomite” and “homophobe” thrown in for good measure. By the end of the commentary section things had gotten so personal that I had forgotten the context of the story. I must say that the entire ordeal disappointed me all the way around.

I grew up watching Sesame Street, and even back then I remember hearing rumors that Bert & Ernie were homosexual. I supposed I did not give the idea much credence at the time, probably because Sesame Street characters are inanimate objects whose only gender-defining characteristic is hair length, and until recently I assumed such speculation was nothing other than adolescent humor. Apparently, I did not realize what an important cultural battle ground televised-puppetry had become.

In the commentary, I witnessed actual human beings vehemently insulting each other because they could not agree on how to properly categorize the physical and emotional relationship of two pieces of felt. Are there that many four year olds watching the show and thinking, “These puppets are great and all, but I wish the interactions between them were more clearly defined as romantic or platonic.” Must everything be an ideological war zone? Have we actually arrived at the point where a beloved children’s show has been forced to issue a statement ?

While I am at it, the only thing more disappointing than people demanding an answer to Bert & Ernie’s sexuality is the fact that the show’s producers felt the need to oblige them. Don’t humor these people by legitimizing their concerns. The brilliance of using puppets for a children’s show is that you never have to worry about them rebelling against their image and endangering the show’s viability. In the forty plus years the show has been on the air, TMZ has never posted photos of Gonzo snorting blow at a frat party or revealed Kermit’s mug shot after he tried to drown a stripper in Connecticut.

If the producers still felt they needed to address the public’s concerns, I propose the following press release:

Dear Losers,
It has come to our attention that many of you, despite a veneer of intellectualism, feel entitled to clarification concerning the exact nature of Bert & Ernie’s relationship. Instead of reiterating the alarmingly-obvious fact that puppets are lifeless creations intentionally void of political, religious, or ideological bias we felt our time would be better served by urging you to abstain from any activities that could conceivably lead to the continuation of your genetic line. Though extreme, this course of action is the only way to insure that your offspring remain unaffected by the subliminal indoctrination you believe to be present in our program. While we mourn the academic, literary, and economic contributions that will remain unfulfilled in their absence, it is a sacrifice that we here at Sesame street are willing, nay honored, to make.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Feud

There are many perks associated with becoming a homeowner. The moment those keys are handed over there is a tangible feeling of pride that you can point to a specific place on the map and say with certainty, “This is my property and both the benefits and responsibilities associated with it are mine alone to bear.” There is, however, a darker side to home-ownership commonly known as “the feud.”

Feuds often begin as an innocuous encounter between neighbors that evolve into all out wars. Perhaps it originates over a simple observation over parking habits “Do you guys plan the most efficient way to block the street when people visit you or are you just lucky?” a remark about an animal “Your daughter’s new pet hyena sure is a welcome distraction from my peaceful slumber at 3 A.M.” or a classic property line dispute “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy going out to get the paper and seeing your cousin’s burnt out Plymouth Duster straddling my immaculate lawn.”

Unfortunately, I have recently become entangled in a dispute of the “property-line” persuasion involving an elderly couple who owns a large swath of adjacent land. To the casual observer, it would appear that our properties are divided by a dense set of evergreen trees that form a line behind their shed and garbage cans, but in actuality their land extends about a foot and a half past the tree-line. Since we moved into the house four years ago I have always mowed and edged that area (knowing full well that it was not technically my land) since it reflected on my lawn and it seemed ridiculous to have him haul his mower past the trees to cut such an insignificant section.

This unspoken arrangement seemed to have been agreeable to all parties until a few weeks ago when a severe storm came through our area and damaged several trees. Like most residents on my street, I cut up the limbs and placed them in a pile by the curb so that the city would come and haul them away. The pile was admittedly large as both me and my elderly neighbors had been contributing to it and extended from the fire hydrant in my side yard to the tree line with about 70% of the brush residing on their side of the actual property line.

About a week after the pile had been sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up, my neighbor approached me while I was mowing and the following conversation took place:

Her: “Just so you know, some of the brush is on top of one of the lower-limbs of that fir tree and it is going to kill it and we are going to have to cut that limb off.”
Me: “I hadn’t noticed but just give me a few minutes and I will rearrange it.”
Her: “No, don’t bother because you will only make it worse.”
Me: “It really won’t  take but a second…..”
Her: “Please, I am asking you to just leave it alone.”
Me: “If it bothers you then I can fix it.”
Her: “I am trying to tell you that it would bother me more if you tried to move it, I just wanted to remind you that those trees are on our property and we do not want anything to happen to them.”

Putting up the mower, I walked inside and my wife asked me what we were talking about. I informed her that our neighbor had walked over to specifically point out something that she apparently wished for me to completely ignore. In hindsight, it became clear that the entire purpose of the exchange was to subtlety re-establish their ownership of the small strip of land but being as dense as I am just assumed they had chosen to plant an unusually sensitive species of evergreens that did not adapt well to close encounters with brush.

The pile was soon removed and another storm produced another sizable amount of brush. This time I specifically arranged the brush pile so that it would not contact said tree or block the sidewalk and again they placed a few limbs on the pile as well and I assumed all was copacetic. That pile was also removed by the city and about a week ago, I placed a handful of small sticks and one bag of lawn clippings beside the hydrant in the same area as the brush pile.

The next day I awoke to find a metal pole installed at the curb adorned with a large flower pot to make it as conspicuous as possible. My bag, sticks, and whatever items could be raked from the area where the two piles previously rested had been deposited beside my mailbox on the other side of the metal pole.  The message was clear: do not put your stuff on our property.

I was slightly upset that they had raked up some of the pine-needles which were obviously remnants of debris that originated in their yard, but vowed that I would rise above the level of pettiness they were exhibiting by taking the high road and bringing a little class to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, I over-estimated my own integrity and within a few days I mowed a very distinct dividing line between my property and theirs. I then sighted the property line from my fence and took special care to place all sticks and clippings as close to their property as possible even gathering a few extra limbs to make it obvious.

A few days after mowing the front yard I decided to mow the back yard and again generated a small pile of sticks and one bag of clippings. As was my custom, I ceremonially arranged these items as close as possible to the marked property-line to be picked up the next morning when the sanitation department came by. I completed this task just as it got dark and went inside to cool off.

The next morning as I opened the garage door to take out a bag of trash, I noticed that both my bag of clippings and pile of sticks had been moved all the way to the edge of my driveway. I couldn’t believe it. The stuff had been out there for less than twelve hours and they had already moved it on my land. Were they hiding in the trees at night waiting for me to put this stuff out? Aren’t the elderly normally asleep by 8:30 PM anyway?

I walked out to the road and noticed that they had company and were indeed awake. In fact they and their friends were sitting in a gazebo at the back of the house sipping coffee and having a good old time. Not only did they come on my property and move my stuff, they actually invited guests over to witness their handiwork. My first reaction was to walk over and smack the Taster’s Choice out of their wrinkled old hands while telling them what I thought of their little stunt. I quickly decided, however, that I did not want an audience of their friends around when I let them have it so instead I again took the high road that had become so familiar to me.

I picked up the bag of clippings (making sure that I was in full view of the gazebo party) and utilized a series of exaggerated motions to dramatically place the bag exactly where I left it last night. I even made a show of sighting up the property line again and positioning the bag just right. I repeated this process until everything was returned to its rightful place as my neighbors and their friends watched. I concluded with driving by their gazebo slowly and giving them the “stink eye” to let them know that we would settle this when I got home from work.

When I arrived at work I was still so furious from the incident that I vented to my coworkers and told them how I was going to “affiliate somebody” when I got home. After my recounting of the tale, one of my co-workers advised me (between fits of laughter) that I should reconsider my plan since he had been the one who moved all my stuff. Apparently after hearing of our feud back and forth he had stopped by my house that night and moved all my stuff. It was just sheer coincidence that I had only put it out a few hours earlier and that they were having a gazebo party the next morning.

Realizing that my elderly neighbors now believed me to be a mental patient who randomly moves his own bags of clippings around and then makes an idiot of himself putting them back, I was relieved I had not followed through with my first instinct which would have probably led to some sort of hate-crime charge. I admitted that if I had confronted them that morning and they had responded that they “had no idea what I was talking about” I would have sarcastically replied “Oh, yeah, like some random person just happened to drive down our street in the middle of the night and move my lawn clippings and limbs just to mess with me!” This, ironically, turned out to be a completely accurate description of what happened.  I contemplated going over and explain my actions but decided that if they suspect me to be mentally unstable they are less likely to mess with my stuff……

Saturday, August 20, 2011

That (Statutory) Summer

While it is generally well known that I am not a country music fan per say, I once possessed a fairly impressive collection of Garth Brooks albums. I used to devour songs like “Thunder Rolls,” “Rodeo,” and “Callin’ Baton Rouge” with the fervor of someone who had actually attended a rodeo or placed a call to Baton Rouge. He was and is a rather impressive showman and deserves the many accolades that have been showered upon him throughout his storied career. That being said, there was always one song of his that made me slightly uneasy when I sang along….

I am, of course, referring to his 1993 hit “That Summer” which chronicles the adventures of an unidentified male protagonist who supplements his income by working as a handyman for a widow on a rural farm. The tale begins thusly:

I went to work for her that summer
A teenage kid so far from home
She was a lonely widow woman
Hell-bent to make it on her own
We were a thousand miles from nowhere
Wheat fields as far as I could see
Both needing something from each other
Not knowing yet what that might be.

So we have established that the young man is teenager and has moved cross country to work (assumedly between high school semesters) on an isolated farm. He and his strong-willed employer apparently require something from each other’s company, but what could it be? Financial advice? Emotional reinforcement? Let’s continue:

'Til she came to me one evening
Hot cup of coffee and a smile
In a dress that I was certain
She hadn't worn in quite a while
There was a difference in her laughter
There was a softness in her eyes
And on the air there was a hunger
Even a boy could recognize.

It appears that the young man’s employer has taken more than a professional interest in him. Let us hope that her “hunger” was strictly culinary in nature. Perhaps the chorus will clear things up:

She had a need to feel the thunder
To chase the lightning from the sky
To watch a storm with all its wonder
Raging in her lover's eyes
She had to ride the heat of passion
Like a comet burning bright
Rushing headlong in the wind
Out where only dreams have been
Burning both ends of the night.

Apparently, the widow has an overwhelming desire to “feel the thunder” and “ride the heat of passion” while “burning both ends of the night.” While many listeners would have already assumed that these were references to copulation, I held out hope that the farmer’s widow was just a meteorology enthusiast. The second verse:

That summer wind was all around me
Nothing between us but the night
When I told her that I'd never
She softly whispered that's alright
And then I watched her hands of leather
Turn to velvet in a touch
There's never been another summer
When I have ever learned so much.

Having taken several sexual harassment courses, I am fairly certain that it is inappropriate to stand so close to a coworker of the opposite sex that there is nothing between you “but the night” and the distance requires you to whisper. Also, exactly how old is this broad that she has “hands of leather?” Up until now she could have been any age but that line practically guarantees she could tell you where she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After another chorus (and queasy reminder that granny likes to “feel the thunder”) we are given an epilogue of sorts:

I often think about that summer
The sweat, the moonlight, and the lace
And I have rarely held another
When I haven't seen her face
And every time I pass a wheat field
And watch it dancing with the wind
Although I know it isn't real
I just can't help but feel
Her hungry arms again

Apparently the defiled young man was so traumatized by the experience that he is unable to experience physical intimacy or even pass through an agricultural area without being haunted by his attacker’s face. The poor guy probably wets himself every time he sees an orthopedic back pillow or smells Icy/Hot.

While some have defended the song as a beautiful coming of age story, I personally think that the lyrics read like a transcript of Law & Oder SVU. I would also like to know what parents hear the request “Can I go work for a complete stranger on an isolated farm for three months?” from their impressionable teenage son and say to each other, “That sounds reasonable.” You mean to tell me that the kid can’t find a yard to mow within 100 miles? How did he find out about this job anyway? Did the young man have the same name as the widow’s deceased husband and accidentally receive his AARP magazine?

I don’t consider myself a prude and far be it from me to look down on a little good old-fashioned geriatric seduction, but at least make it clear that the teenager is legally of consenting age. This could have been easily done in the first two lines of the song:

I went to work for her that summer
Right after I registered for the draft

I went to work for her that summer
Once I concluded my jury service

I went to work for her that summer
And deposited the proceeds into my brokerage account

I went to work for her that summer
Two days after casting my vote for governor

I went to work for her that summer
A notary public so far from home

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Recruiter

Several times a week I take a quick jog through the neighborhood. I have measured off a 1 ½ mile loop that takes me around a few adjoining streets and back to my home. One particular day as I was rounding a corner something unusual occurred: a neighbor flagged me down. Now I had never spoken to this individual before as he had recently moved into the area, but his exaggerated gyrations combined with the obvious fact that I was in the middle of a jog convinced me that an emergency had arisen. 

As I crossed the street, I mentally reviewed the CPR steps that I had learned in my first aid class and prepared myself for the citizen’s bravery award I was certain to receive. Instead the man introduced himself, shook my hand, and asked if I was in the military. While flattered to be mistaken for someone bravely serving our country, I made a quick mental note to tell my barber not to cut my hair so short and replied that I was a computer technician. He seemed momentarily perplexed by this until he said, “Oh, you must be training for a 5K.” I quickly replied that I had no desire to run a 5K and was not really training for anything.

Apparently unable to resolve these conflicting pieces of information, he looked at me and asked, “Then what are you running for?” Incredibly, I was unable to produce a single, logical explanation for my behavior and I came embarrassingly close to apologizing for having the audacity to exercise without defined goals or expectations. I quickly snapped out of it and realized that spending too much time with this guy might cause me to question the reason I continue to get up in the morning.

Seeing my impatience, he gravely asked if I had thought of joining the military as a career. I replied that I had briefly considered it when I graduated high school, but that was almost twelve years ago and I had since resolved myself to a life of cowardice and technology. Unwilling to concede defeat, he asked if I had a college degree. I replied that I did and he informed me that the Army would be more than willing to pay for my Master’s Degree. When I again expressed reticence, he assured me that there was a very good chance I could enroll as an officer. To sweeten the deal, he informed me that the military even has computers that I could work on (I found this infinitely fascinating since I had always assumed that the unmanned drones were manipulated through an intricate network of twine.)

Now feeling as if I was bargaining for a used car, I made a conspicuous motion to place my headphones back on my ears and continue my purposeless jogging. Sensing it was time to bring out the big guns, he motions toward his home and says, “As you can see, I am doing pretty well for myself and you could have all of this by committing to the army.” I almost reminded him that we live six houses apart from each other, but I feared that any rebuttal would only serve to extend the conversation.

Perhaps seeing that I was not sold on the idea of a career change, he asked how far I jogged. I replied that my usual route was 1 ½ miles. He quickly replied that he himself always jogged 2 miles and gave me a few encouraging words that I could “get there.” He told me to stop by any time I had any more questions and I jogged away dreaming of the day when I might be able to buy a house in my own neighborhood.

I was retelling this story at a party to a friend of mine and she told me that when she was in high school she had taken the military aptitude test (ASVAB) and filled in the answers without actually reading any of the questions. The result of this was that she scored in the 98th percentile and was subsequently pursued by several recruiters. They pleaded with her at school, visited with her parents, and even took her to dinner (in other words, everything that a serious boyfriend would do) and she was understandably reluctant to admit she had simply drawn pictures with the bubbles on the answer sheet.

She said it took a long time for them to back off and I told her I was pretty sure that they still had her picture up in recruiting stations across the country. I admitted that if the recruiter stopped me again I was going to offer her current whereabouts in exchange for full recruitment immunity. I actually read the questions on my ASVAB, but I think the score was so low that they pre-emptively offered me a dishonorable discharge.