A Christmas Pudding for You

I was all set to reprint something in the blog for the Christmas break, something people could read and enjoy at their leisure, since I won’t be updating anything til the new year. I was going to use an excerpt from my book Recut Madness, because, you know, the holidays wouldn’t be the same without shameless self-promotion. My conscience got a little bit the better of me, though, because the excerpt would be rather mean-spirited, to wit, my Red State retelling of “Miracle on 34th Street” with Santa being detained at Gauntanamo Bay for violating US airspace and carrying a mysterious list with millions of names on it.

It’s a good bit, I gotta admit. One of my favorite stories in the book. I was even going to illustrate the whole post with the picture below, from shades of Christmases past, when I was a cute, eager member of the Monkey Patrol. (Anybody else get any Monkey Patrol gear in 1963?)

But right now, a few days before Christmas, I just don’t have the heart to post it. Michael O’Donoghue would’ve done it in a heartbeat, but I’m too tired to be so provocative. Sentimentality is getting the better of me in my holiday fatigue. After a brief youthful flirtation with nihilism, I really do go for all that “do you hear what I hear?” jazz. It would leave a bad taste in my mouth to print something so black here on the eve of the eve of the eve of Christmas.

So instead, I’ve made a page that you can read sometime after Christmas, when everyone’s good mood has worn down and the “Year-In-Review” magazines remind you of how the government has failed to serve us all this year. Then you can savor the cynicism a little better. Click here for that page.

For more upbeat reading enjoyment (upbeat for me, anyway), I’m going to post a little story from two years ago. I wrote it for my wife, something I try to do every year, if inspiration is willing. It’s the story of a little unassuming man, one of those types we all know who seems to have been born in the wrong era. (Instead of changing this blog to show only excerpts, I’m going to post a page for “Mr. Dickens Goes Shopping” here. Sorry for the extra click.)

I hope you like it. I hope you’ll forgive me for not being a go-for-the-throat-type of satirist right now. And I hope you have a peaceful and joyous Christmas and a happy new year.

Worst Holiday Movies Ever

I wrote this as part of an interview for the Scranton Times-Tribune. If there are any you’d like to add, please feel free:

“A Christmas Carol”, starring Larry the Cable Guy
“White Christmas,” starring David Duke
“A Die Hard Christmas: Yippee-Ky-Yay, Fat Man”
“A Christopher Hitchens Christmas”
“Santa Claus Conquers the Infidels”
“I’ll Be Cloned for Christmas”
“March of the Lead-Painted Toy Soldiers”
“Merger on 34th Street”
“War on Christmas in Connecticut”
“Hung By His Thumbs by the Chimney with Care: A Guantanamo Christmas”

Say What You Want About Midwesterners…

That we’re unimaginative, slow-talking, suspicious of change, needlessly deferential, insular, xenophobic, and enjoy sex with our socks on, when we enjoy sex at all.

At least we know how to drive in a half inch of snow. Way to go, Oregon! You bring back memories of “Toonces, the Driving Cat.”

New Episode of “The Wolfie and Shaha Show”!

Due to the ongoing WGA strike, the desperate networks are dusting off the moldering nuggets lying around their vaults and rushing them to air. How else to explain the relaunch of last spring’s failed sitcom starring Paul Wolfowitz (first shown here at HuffPo last May)?

Scene opens in the Georgetown townhouse of PAUL WOLFOWITZ and his girlfriend SHAHA RIZA. It is morning. Wolfowitz enters living room from kitchen, straightening his tie, holding a briefcase. Shaha follows after him dutifully, holding his cup of coffee for him.

SHAHA: There’s nothing wrong about a man your age changing jobs every six months, dear. It’s called trading up.

WOLFIE: It’s my first day. I just want to make a good impression with the other guys on the International Security Advisory Board.

SHAHA: Don’t worry, Wolfie. Your reputation is way ahead of you. Besides, the first day on the job always gives you jitters.

Enter WOLFIE’s no-account brother LARRY from kitchen, in a ratty bathrobe, eating a large sweet roll. Audience goes wild.

LARRY: With all the jobs you’ve had and lost, I’d think you’d be used to it by now.

WOLFIE: That means a lot, coming from the top mattress-tester in the country.

LARRY: Where were you working last time?

WOLFIE: (putting on overcoat) The American Enterprise Institute.

LARRY: Didn’t they make those old cheesy monster movies, like It Conquered the World?

WOLFIE: No, they didn’t make cheesy monster movies! it was a think tank.

LARRY: Hey, I was in a think tank once.

SHAHA: No, Larry, you were in a drunk tank.

LARRY: The difference being…..?

Wild audience laughter.

WOLFIE: I don’t have time for this. I’m going to be late.

SHAHA: Here’s your coffee, dear, I know you’re going to knock ‘em dead!

WOLFIE: (with pained expression) No, dear, the International Security Advisory Board is supposed to STOP people from being knocked dead.

SHAHA: (trying for positive spin) Well, you work best when you’re confounding people’s expectations, dear. (gives him kiss on cheek)

LARRY: I’ll say. Who’d’ve bet that the guy who drove the country into Iraq could ever get a job with the government again? I know I wouldn’t.

WOLFIE gives his brother a dirty look and exits.

SHAHA: Why’d you have to say that?

LARRY: It was the truth. I bet against him getting hired again, at 3 to 2. Who could lose a bet like that?

SHAHA: Oh, Larry!

LARRY: Yeah. Too bad. By the way, you’ll have to find a new place to hide your “mad money”. Someplace where no one ever goes.

SHAHA: (crosses arms angrily) You got a suggestion?

LARRY: (beat) Your IUD?

Dissolve. New scene begins in a wood-paneled conference room in the State Department. Various members of the ISAB are getting ready to take their seats. The CHAIRMAN sits at the head.

CHAIRMAN: If everyone’s ready, we’ll get started.

The members all sit. One chair is conspicuously empty.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: It looks like we’re short one.

CHAIRMAN: (hastily) Never mind, let’s just get this going before….

Wolfie barges through door, with splashing coffee cup and briefcase.

WOLFIE: WHEW! Wait a minute! Ha ha! Here I am! (Starts to get settled at table) What a disaster. I went to the wrong building.

CHAIRMAN: (sighs dejectedly) Well, since you managed to find the room anyway, let’s begin. (sotto voce) When is faulty intelligence ever going to work FOR us?

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Say, aren’t you Paul Wolfowitz?

WOLFIE: (proud to be recognized) Yes.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: And you got appointed to the International Secutiry Advisory Board?

WOLFIE: Uh-huh.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: You know what we do here, right?

WOLFIE: (growing uncomfortable) Yeah.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: That we sort of…that is to say…we try ….how can I put this? We try to stop wars from happening?


COMMITTEE MEMBER: So, who’d you have to sleep with to get this job?

WOLFIE: Please! It’s who I slept with who cost me my LAST job!

Audience laughter.

Quick cut back to the townhouse. SHAHA and LARRY are huddled around the telephone on the table.

SHAHA: I don’t know about this.

LARRY: Believe me, this will work. You want to boost Wolfie’s confidence, right? All you have to do is call the meeting on the speaker phone and pretend you’re Condi Rice. Mention his name, give him a couple of “How ya doin’s?” and hang up. Piece of cake.

SHAHA: Isn’t there a law against pretending to be the Secretary of State?

LARRY: If there was, there’s others they’d come after before you.

Quick cut to the board room.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: (to WOLFIE) May I borrow a pen?

WOLFIE: Certainly. (He reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a huge fistful of identical pens.)

COMMITTEE MEMBER: (reads inscription on pen) “Official Property of the World Bank.”

WOLFIE: (sheepishly) Part of my severance package, heh.

The speaker phone near the chairman turns on.

MALE VOICE: I’m sorry to interrupt, sir, but I have Secretary Rice on the phone.

CHAIRMAN: By all means, put her on.

SECRETARY’S VOICE: Good morning, everyone.

ALL: Good morning, Madame Secretary.

SECRETARY’S VOICE: I just wanted to call and wish all of you on the International Security Advisory board the best of luck in advising … on security….in an international way.

CHAIRMAN: (somewhat confused) Thank you.

SECRETARY’S VOICE: Through all your efforts, our dangerous world will be made a better one…without …so much danger.

Quick cut to the townhouse, with SHAHA bending close to the speakerphone, and LARRY next to her. She’s very nervous speaking off the cuff.

SHAHA: I especially would like to welcome Paul Wolfowitz to the committee. Your international work for this administration, while costing many lives, will ultimately save many lives because, if there’s anyone who knows about the spread of global conflict, it’s you.

LARRY: Ask him if he can get us some pens from there.

SHAHA: That’s about all I have to say, I guess….

Quick cut to boardroom.

SECRETARY’S VOICE: …so I’ll get back to doing the diplomacy thing around here. Gotta call Israel or something, I bet.

LARRY’S VOICE: Ask about the free pens!

SECRETARY’S VOICE: Be quiet, Larry! I’ll just take the last chance to say thank you for your service, and good luck.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Madame Secretary.

SECRETARY’S VOICE: And good luck to you, Wolfie sweetums. Kiss Kiss!

Speakerphone hangs up. There is an uncomfortable silence in the room, as Wolfie tries to sink down in his seat.

CHAIRMAN: Well, at least we learned one thing.

WOLFIE: What’s that?

CHAIRMAN: The Secretary isn’t a lesbian.

Wolfie tries to sink down further in his chair, closes his eyes in pain.

Music up. Audience applauds. Roll credits.

Pushing Spruces

This morning’s Chicago Tribune has a reflection I wrote about gentrification, the passage of time, and working the parish Christmas tree lot. If you’re interested, you can click for the article right here.

But don’t ask for a discount at the lot. I don’t set the prices. They’re non-negotiable.

A Marxist Indoctrination

Had a very busy, typically Christmas-season kind of weekend. Hope you did too. Decorating, skating, sledding, shopping, party-going, and a glorious service of “Lessons and Carols” downtown at church, where I got to watch my progeny make use of their talents to the greater glory. I’ll admit I was a little misty-eyed at the end of the service, although that might be traced back to the hearty dinner I enjoyed of a pizza slice and a Manhattan.

But more than fun and games were on the menu. With my two young nephews in the house for a sleepover, I felt the need — no, the compulsion — to raise their cultural awareness and overall quality of character. I’m like John Dewey that way. So I made them sit down and watch “A Night at the Opera.”

Oh, they were hesitant at first. They know better than to believe Uncle Jim when he tells them that something will make them better people. But once we all made it to the contract scene (“The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part”), they were fast within my clutches.

Just as you can tell a lot about a person if his favorite kind of movie is a Western (and I’m not being sexist there–among fans of the Western movie, I can’t think of any I’ve met who weren’t men or didn’t wish they were), you can split Marx Brothers fans into two camps depending on their favorite film.

Many people stand by “Duck Soup” as the quintessential Marx movie, and they may have a point. It’s hilarious, chaotic, acerbic. It’s reportedly most true to their vaudeville routines. It has Zeppo, but that shouldn’t be held against it (it was his last picture, and he became his brothers’ agent after that). It’s also slapdash, weirdly paced, and as a movie, frankly unsatisfying. To me, it’s the “fanboy favorite” among Marx Bros. fans, the one that lets people get on their nerd horse and pontificate about it being “pure”. (Like anyone is alive today who can compare their vaudeville routines with their pictures.)

For my money, “A Night at the Opera” is a much funnier and more enjoyable movie. Producer Irving Thalberg insisted on many changes in this picture, including a strong script, a love interest, a point in the plot when everyone’s fortunes are scraping bottom, and identifiable villains for the boys to attack. Purists may scoff at its slickness, but it made a lot of money, and Groucho himself told Dick Cavett on his show that it, along with “A Day at the Races”, were the best movies they’d ever made. When you think about it, if Thalberg hadn’t made his pitch to Chico at a bridge game about the movie, their film careers may have become even more spotty, or ceased altogether. The world might have had only five Marx Brothers movies–pure or not–if “A Night at the Opera” hadn’t been made, but instead we have 13, of varying quality but fun nevertheless. In the worst case scenario, they might have faded into obscurity like the Ritz Brothers or Weber & Fields, and never made it to the 1950s and television.

I like nothing better than wallowing in an old B&W movie (if Turner Classic Movies wasn’t offered by my cable company, I’d be bitching a lot more every month when paying the bill), and this is one of the best. And for better and worse, it exposed me to opera, though I still yearn for someone to lean over from the balcony and growl “Boogie, boogie, boogie” during “Il Travatore”. Otto and Henk, as well as my own kids, wallowed with me. And for the months ahead, our conversations will be peppered with phrases like “And two hard-boiled eggs”, “He’s got insomnia, he’s trying to sleep it off” and “Well, watermelons are out of season.” And I will feel good about the future of our country.

The Limerick (Testicular Trauma Division)

Great minds think alike. So do giddy, juvenile minds with too much time on their hands. So when inspired by a bizarre news item from the United Kingdom (what would we ever do without them?), the emails started flying among the stalwart members of my writers group, the Hungerdungers.

This blog entry may not be for the faint of heart. Then again, if you can handle the facts in the news item, you’ll be able to handle the rest.

First, the news item:

Amanda Monti, 24, flew into a rage when Geoffrey Jones, 37, rejected her advances at the end of a house party, Liverpool Crown Court heard.
She pulled off his left testicle and tried to swallow it, before spitting it out. A friend handed it back to Mr Jones saying: “That’s yours.”
Monti admitted wounding and was jailed for two-and-a-half years.

The rest of the details, and Ms. Monti’s self assessment that she’s “in no way a violent person” can be found here at the BBC.

When faced with the idea of violent gonad attacks, the Hungerdungers did what any red-blooded scribes would do, and started a-rhymin’. I’ll omit the names of the individual writers, so as not to embarrass them professionally, although a certain daily newspaper in a large Midwestern city, one that is trying to sell a baseball team it owns, might want to keep a closer eye on its employees.

There once was a fellow named Conrad.*
A young lady ripped off his gonad.
His pair now a single,
It sure didn’t tingle.
Wherefore his testicular nomad?

(*name changed to enhance the limerick)

A lady and man were in thrall
Till the dude went and ended it all,
So to get the guy back,
The broad yanked on his sack.
You could say she was having a ball

He screamed as she tore at his kit.
He knew he’d have trouble to sit.
She’d reached way down south,
Popped the thing in her mouth.
Swallow? No, this time she spit.

Oh caution, if you are a vegan!
Beware ye of testicle snaggin’!
For its slang name is meat.
There’s no need to repeat…
Else they’ll ask you, dear veg, “How’s it hangin’?”

As one of the Hungerdungers pointed out, this could go on nad infinitum.

Paul Wolfowitz, the Thing that Wouldn’t Leave

Some years ago, an insider to the Bush administration writing in Vanity Fair described the whole bunch as “Mayberry Machiavellis” because of their crimped worldviews, smalltown smugness and cocksure manipulation of everyone (including each other). Here’s a new wrinkle to enhance the reference: the fact that their world is so small that the White House keeps going back to the same people who have clearly and indisputably shown their incompetence already. Case in point, Newsweek is reporting Paul Wolfowitz is being considered for a spot on the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board, which advises the Sec’y of State on WMDs, arms control, non-proliferation and all those cool things. Now, granted, Wolfowitz does have a lot of experience in arms control, but it’s obvious experience doesn’t always translate into knowledge. Ask the late Evel Knievel about that.

I just have pictures of Pat Butram in my head, reaching into his truck and saying, “Yer lookin’ for a security advis’r? Then today is yer lucky day. B’cuz today, in addition to being Jestice of the Peace f’r this county, an’ a bona feeday tango instructor, Ah’m also a registrar’d Int’rnashunal Arms Cornsultant, available immediately f’r hire. Five dollars, please.”

And we are all expected to be Eddie Albert, with a slow burn.

(I know I’m combining the Andy Griffith monde with Green Acres-Petticoat Junction-Beverly Hillbillies, but hey, the point is still valid. Plus, it gave me the excuse to find a pic of Pat Butram online.)

New King of Pop Music

I’ve known Lou Carlozo for a number of years. He’s an excellent writer, a thoughtful editor, an energetic teacher, a generous Hungerdunger, and an all-around mensch. I’ve also known he plays a little music. But in all the time I’ve known him, I didn’t know how kick-ass he plays that music. Now that his first CD is out, all I can say is “Wowsa!”

“Stick Figure Soul” is a sweet hour of pure powerful pop, written by a guy who should be old enough to have soured on the siren song. Yet Louhasn’t given up on the hope that music can take us to the next step. I completely recommend it for anyone who wishes Matthew Sweet were president, Tom Petty UN Ambassador, and Roger McGuinn the Ombudsman for Kickin’ Down the Road a Piece.

I strongly urge you to go to the myspace page for “Stick Figure Soul” to hear more music. Like all good pop, it sticks in your head quickly, and stays there comfortably. Oh, and the lyrics are great too.