Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent.

Happy New Year! The new church year begins with Advent, the season leading to Christmas.

Just light one purple one today, actually.
Advent is a period of preparation leading to the commemoration of the Nativity, traditionally celebrated by drinking too much and eating millions of cookies and shopping like looters. No, actually, the faithful are instructed to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. The readings on this first week are all about being ready---don't let the Lord catch you asleep at the switch, dummy!

So it's like Lent really, right? Well, my impression is, yes and no. Back in my semi-pagan days I knew an old Irish fellow who did not drink during Advent as part of his preparation. I thought that was the most insane thing I ever heard. Not drink during the Christmas season? That's impossible! And he's doing it at an office party with free booze! But Advent is not really the Christmas season; Christmas as a season are the days from December 25 to the Epiphany. Then he could drink, I guess. The history is very complicated, and it seems that periods of merrymaking got so out of hand that fasts were imposed off and on. (Lots more at New Advent.)

One priest I knew said that Gaudete Sunday, the third one in Advent (the delightful pink candle is for that, not the birthday of Hello Kitty) is a reminder that Advent is not Lent; "Gaudete Sunday, therefore, makes a breaker like Laetare Sunday, about midway through a season which is otherwise of a penitential character, and signifies the nearness of the Lord's coming." But while Laetare Sunday is not (at least in my experience) celebrated as a break in Lent---I don't recall it ever being especially noted---Gaudete Sunday always is.

It's a bit confusing. Hey, the church has been around for two thousand years, and the complexity and apparent contradictions of the Catechism are as nothing compared to those in the much newer U.S. tax code. Suffice it to say that Advent is not Lent, but it wouldn't kill me or any Christian to use the time of preparation to try to become better people, to do some scriptural reading, and to give up something we love as a sacrifice. But not cookies. Ain't giving up my cookies.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Post mortem: Weird Thanksgiving.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thanksgiving, but it was a weird one.

The heavy snow we got on Wednesday made for a strange experience. Here in the Hudson Valley we get our share of snow, but not usually before Santa schleps down to Herald Square. It was no dusting, but that thick packing snow that makes great snowballs. It was fun to toss them to the dog and let him go looking for them. (Heh, yeah, big jerk plays jokes on his puppy.) It plastered the trees. Under a white sky, up to my shins in show, white trees all around, it was very cozy (albeit cold). Like being a large, peaceful white room.

Several things I did not do made this different from many of my previous Thanksgivings. For example:

  • I did not have to travel. Actually we've stayed at home for the last couple of years, but when I was a kid we went far and wide to see relatives. You might think us freeloaders, but my parents would definitely have preferred to play the host and buy and stuff the turkey than stuff kids into a car and drive to the ends of the earth, but it was easier to let Grandma cook than get Grandma to leave her own place.

  • I did not watch a minute of football. With my Giants on Year Two of sucking like an Electrolux, my interest in football has waned. And the Cowboys/Eagles couldn't result in both teams losing. Still, at one time in my life I would have watched them anyway. Not that long ago I would watch any NFL team take on any other NFL team. Just doesn't seem so important to me right now.

  • I had a dog. First year with Tralfaz, who is a cold-weather breed. My God, that dog loves the snow. His selective hearing has been on full strength all weekend, refusing to come in. My wife finally let him stay out there until he was miserable and whining to come in. Works with small children too, but you can get arrested.

  • I shoveled snow. I alluded to that earlier. Weird, though, I tell you. Weeeeeird!

  • I did not eat a bit of pie. What, is this some crazy diet plan you start on major holidays? you ask. No, silly. I made the Libby's Pumpkin Roll instead. It is---not to put too fine a point on it---FREAKING AWESOME.

  • And I was not sick. When I was a kid it seemed I always had a cold at Thanksgiving. It had gotten chilly enough so the schools were keeping us all inside, and when you get a bunch of kids together inside someone's getting a cold (me). If that was not enough, we were felled like lumber by a bad turkey one year, annihilated by a baby cousin's stomach flu on another, and on a third multiple young adults were laid low by six-pack flu after closing the bar on Wednesday. On the whole I think almost half of my Thanksgivings have been spent sick or recovering from sickness.

But shoveling aside, all was fine this holiday. Now that a couple of days have passed, we can sing that classic post-Thanksgiving song:

Over the river and through the woodsFrom Grandmother's house we comeGrandma's got classBut she's a pain in the assAnd Grandpa stinks of rum

I hope next year's is equally great. I also hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful and free of illness. But if everyone had a cold, or flu, or projectile vomiting, or something else hideous but not tragic, you may at least get a great story out of it.

UPDATE: Mr. Philbin asks if I watched any of the parade this year. No, not a second, and I'm better for it. There's nothing on Broadway I'd see if you gave me free tickets and a limo to get there. Of course, when Larry and the Mascots: The Musical opens, that will be another kettle of fish.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Coal-black Friday.

Today is Black Friday, a day that has nothing to do with slavery (despite what some morons may think). Hard as it is to believe, Black Friday was not that big a deal even twenty years ago. I remember going out to the mall that year, getting there just as it opened, and it was dead. Tons of parking. Many of the stores had not opened yet. We were gone by eleven a.m., and it was only then starting to get busy. How this all turned into overnight camping and rushing the doors and behaving like panicked wildebeest is beyond me.

I do most of my Christmas shopping online now. Not that I have anything against shopping. I like it. Controlled environment, cornucopia of earthly delights, people forced to be friendly to me. Fine. But no matter what time of day you go, you have to wear pants. Who needs that?

Everyone wants to get good loot at Christmas, and nice people like you want to give it to them. So of course, people like us would fight our way through the crowds to get the perfect present. We wouldn't dream of buying anything for ourselves on Black Friday.

Or maybe you're not quite that nice. Maybe you're a selfish jerk and Santa is going to bring you coal for Christmas. You say: "Well, of course we have to buy for ourselves! We're getting a stocking full of coal! But we'll already have what we want! Har har!"

Oh, yeah, you bum? Let me tell you something, pal. You know who would be really grateful for anything for Christmas? You know who would be grateful for just a lousy frigging lump of coal in his stocking? THIS guy:

That's right: Bob Cratchit writes letters to Father Christmas begging for that lump of coal that you're getting because you're so mean.
Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.
But you whine because they're out of the 70-inch Vizios that you wanted. Don't you feel GUILTY now?

(Okay, I've done my bit to support the anticonsumerist push required by the Amalgamated Tut-Tutting Reporters of America, whose newspapers would sell their mothers to get better ad money from the retails they abjure so mightily. All right, that's enough; go about your business.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

I love Thanksgiving, I truly do. Not everyone does, I know.


Gratitude is important to me every day of my life. Anyone who's had some kind of close call with death---I mean, more than the "Whoa! Almost skidded out there!" type, which is important but easily forgotten---knows that every day is a day to be thankful for.

Am I actually grateful every day? What are you, crazy? Of course not. I'm either working on some dumb editing project, or my new book is going poorly, or I've got a cold, or my knee hurts, or I'm feeling old, or underappreciated, or someone I love is unhappy, or I'm tired, or feeling very old, or missing someone, or the bus is late, or it's raining, or snowing (Gaaah! like yesterday), or too hot, or I'm wondering why Stephen King can fart out a piece of toilet paper and it makes the best-seller lists while I... And no, I'm not very grateful.

But I know I ought to be. I'm usually pretty well, and the bills are paid, and no one's found the bodies (kidding!), and I have people who love me, eyes to see, ears to hear, plenty to eat, a warm home, and a dog that brings me a lot of laughs and a ton of blog entries. I live in the greatest country in the history of the world. I'm not in the hospital today, or in the gutter, but if I was, I'd still have things for which to be grateful. Every day I could make a gratitude list, and every day it would say "Continued on next page."

In our cynical age, when someone survives a friendly hello from Mr. Death, we think That's great and we follow it with But it's not like you're not going to die someday anyhow. At least that's the culture as I read it; not surprising that Mr. & Mrs. Smith, one of our many films that cheapen our idea of human life, contains lines like "Happy endings are stories that just haven't finished yet." (And yet---spoiler alert!---the filmmakers felt obliged to give the heroes a happy ending.)

As for that quote. When you decide life is worth fighting for, even though you know you'll have to relinquish it one day, you realize that the story is more than just the ending anyway. And if you have faith, you believe in very, very happy endings, that are themselves just beginnings.

In my life, basically nothing is how I would have asked for it, but everything is better than I deserve. And if I can't take a moment to be thankful for God's blessings on my nation and my life, then I'm a lesser creature than that turkey in the oven.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
Okay, that's enough; I'll be back to my whiny self tomorrow. But today, there's pie.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Puce Wednesday warmup.

Last year, desperate to leave my stamp on the great and wonderful American holiday known as Thanksgiving, I christened today Puce Wednesday. It's kind of colorful, as it's the day of preparation before the holiday, but it's brown and not too colorful, which is appropriate for November. It's dark, but not as dark as black, which is the color of Friday, as in all the ink that will be used to write angry articles about people who shop on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But that's days away.

Here's some puce now to get you in the mood.

And here's a puce hand turkey.
You may be wondering how to properly celebrate Puce Wednesday. Well, there's no getting away from the fact that it's a day of preparation. Like Gaudete Sunday or Pancake Day, Puce Wednesday wouldn't exist but for the holiday it precedes. Like those other days, though, there are traditions already connected to the day. Baking the pies. Finding the table linens. Defrosting the turkey too late, so it will turn into a giant fireball in the deep fryer. Trying to fight off the hoarding pigs for the last of the celery. Sitting at your desk doing pre-Black Friday shopping online. Whining if your boss doesn't let you out early, or sneaking out anyway. Getting on the bus from your college town with three bags of laundry. Finding your old pals back from college and closing the bars so you can spend Thursday hurling through all seven courses. Making lists of stuff you want to get on Black Friday, even though you'll be lucky just to get a parking spot. Picking up stoopid relatives at the stoopid airport. Worst, being the stoopid relative who has to fight through everyone else that got guilted into coming home for Thanksgiving, even though you'll have to do it again in less than a month. Yes, there are many longstanding traditions already.

I'd also add the clean-out to get ready for the feast on Thursday. Not a fast; what fun is that? No, I suggest having a couple of bowls of All-Bran cereal for breakfast and for lunch. That ought to clear the decks. Or maybe some big ol' bran muffins. Two of those and you'll be plenty hungry for Mom's dry Thanksgiving turkey the next day. Hell, four of those and you'll be ready for your colonoscopy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sale of the celery.

On Saturday I was dispatched to get everything needed for the Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, green beans, spuds, stuffing, onions, cranberries, cheese, crackers, etc. etc. 

But I forgot the celery. 

When this oversight was discovered, a collective chill descended on the house like smoke from a turkey roasting on Broil. 

"Forgot the celery...?"

"Uh... yeah."

"You can't have stuffing without celery."

"I know."

"Or it's just... chicken bread with onions."

"All right."

"No celery for the dips, either."


"Will you get some?"

"Today. Now." I got my coat. I understood the danger. We'd lost a couple of days. "I'm on my way. The celery-hoarding pigs will leave nothing but a few wilty stalks and a handful of leaves."

"The celery-hoarding pigs?"


Got to the store---fortunately there was no crisis... YET. On the checkout line I texted home: PIGS THWARTED.

God knows what it's like now, though.

You can wait till the last second and claim you want only the freshest ingredients. You can procrastinate and tell yourself the market will bring in a load of celery at the last minute. You're going to get nothing but the leavings from the pigs.

You heard it here first.

The celery-hoarding pigs kept our boys from getting adequate celery during World War II, leading to a deficiency of---whatever celery has in it. (Strings?) Don't let them do it to you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Family friendly Thanksgiving Day parade.

After last year's preposterously awkward appearance by the cast of the musical Kinky Boots in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, parents are concerned about what garbage is going to come down the pike next. Sorry, prudes! You'll just have to accept the fact that there's no such thing as family-friendly anything anymore. Oh, sure, you got the Lena Dunham-inspired incest scene in Frozen cut from the DVD release*, but that's a rearguard action. You bluenoses had just better get used to having to explain things about sex to the kiddies before they're ready.

Really, people, relax. Your man Fred is on the scene to make sure everything will be family friendly this year. I mean, yes, I did go down to Macy's in Herald Square last year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to check things out, as seen in this photo.

And yet somehow this Kinky Boots thing escaped my notice. But I'll be more vigilant this time.

You're wondering if this year's telecast will feature the bloody torture song from the stage production of Criminal Minds, the naked sex scene from Hair: The Darker, Grittier Reboot, or the head-hacking scene from ISIS: The Musical Review**.

Well, relax. No way. For one thing, the forecast for Thursday is 43F, and SAG-AFTRA rules prohibit naked performance copulation in public when the temperature is below 60.

Also, NBC was embarrassed by the coverage last year, and this year has insisted that musical acts with explicit lyrics tailor their numbers for the home audience, maybe using a holiday twist***. So Meghan Trainor will be doing a cooking number called "All About That Baste"; Izzy Azalea will be crooning about dining with "Fork Love"; and there'll be a classic post-turkey lament from rap star Eminem called "Gas Like That." So we have a lot to look forward to this year.

After all, we spend a lot of time teaching the children the difference between "appropriate" and "inappropriate," so this Thanksgiving we're going to demonstrate that adults know the difference too****.

* Kidding.

** Still kidding.

***Yeah, that too.

****Nah. It'll be more inappropriate trash, probably worse than last year.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Manly supplements.

Further to yesterday's post on Fred's manliness:

CVS was having a sale on some vitamins.

Three dollars off; buy one get another half price. Sure, what the hell.

I take a multivitamin daily. I know some dietitians think they're unnecessary, but vitamin deficiency is definitely a danger. It would be best to get all the vitamins from food, but Fred's a busy guy, you know? Besides, this is chewable; that makes it a food, right?

It's hard to feel super manly about a product that includes both "Men's" and "Gummies" in the name.

"Why does everything have to be gummies now?" asked the lovely Mrs. Key.

"Maybe a lot of people have trouble taking pills," I suggested.

"Your vitamins shouldn't stick to your teeth."

"Despite being gummy, they don't stick to your teeth."

I'm a little confused about what to make of this turning-vitamins-into-candy phenomenon too. I can understand it for kids, to get them to take their meds, although we've been teaching kids for decades that medicine is not candy, while we make pills for them (that are dangerous in large doses) into candy. Okay, I'm not going to begrudge parents things that help them get the children to take vitamins, if the parents are very careful. And I enjoyed my Flintstone vitamins way back when. But why do we adults need to bribe ourselves with candy vitamins? (Mrs. Key agrees, although she thinks the inventors of Viactiv were robbed at Nobel time.)

There's a commercial for Bayer's One a Day VitaCraves ChewyBites---brownie vitamins!---that has a grown man dancing around while he hallucinates a party after taking one of these pills. It's like one of those ads for kids that have weird, fantastic things happen when kids eat a particular snack treat or breakfast cereal. Do grown-ups need this kind of enticement?

Maybe. I don't know. I bought the gummies because they were on sale. And I thought they'd taste like candy. But they taste kind of like chewing an old-fashioned little yellow One a Day.

I'm not really your go-to guy with maturity issues.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

People who don't need People.

Damn you, People magazine!

Look, I know I never played Thor, or even Beta Ray Bill, but how could you completely overlook me for your Sexiest Man Alive award AGAIN?


Are you going to let all this macho manliness go to waste?

Srsly, amiright?


Well, I guess a writer is never going to be voted the sexiest man alive. I mean, first of all, because no one knows what most of them look like, or that they, you know, exist. And second, because, let's face it, there are reasons that people take up writing, and one of them is not because they are exhibitionists.

And it's not enough to be a butch Hemingway type either. These days I think no man is going to get to be People's SMA unless he has guns like Hulk Hogan in his heyday ("24-inch pythons" I believe they were called). Writers are busy thinking about plot construction, character development, synecdoche, symbolism, and whether you really need to take a shower if you don't absolutely know you are going to leave the house; they don't have time to spend seven hours a day in the gym.

In fact, I don't know how Chris Hemsworth has time to act. Those muscles are going to deflate if you don't pump 'em up every day.

Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure how these SMAs come about anyhow. Think about the guys you knew who were big into acting in high school. Were they towering masses of muscles and testosterone? Not in my school, I can tell you that. And don't blame me for bringing down the averages; I was with the literary mag, not the theater group.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ports authority.

Was passing through the wonderful Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan the other day---really, if you like brown, you must come see it---and noticed a new addition to the decor:

Yep, a stand-up recharging station for your various electronic devices.

At first I thought this was a stupendous idea. Then it got downgraded to a merely good idea the more I thought about it. It's a little strange, which is like everything else in the PABT. My thoughts went like this:

Like most places built before 2010, the PABT only has whatever electrical outlets are needed for its maintenance staff. Now that everyone has some kind of rechargable phone and/or tablet, people are often seen in public buildings sitting on the floor like bums next to an electrical outlet that for decades was only used to power a vacuum cleaner and a floor buffer. People in nice business suits are sitting on newspapers so they can be by their phone (which only has a short power cord) while it's charging. Now that the weather is cold, the bums are moving back in, and there may be fights over floor space.

In walks the dedicated recharging station! Or rather, in walk the electricians to install it. It's a nice gesture for the customers; you're not paying for the electricity, at least not directly. I guess it does cut down on the reasons to punch someone, so it's worth it on that score.

On this recharging station you'll note the plugs are way up there, so you can't lay your device on the floor while it is charging, just on the little table. You'll have to stand. It's too small for a lot of leaning. There's a foot rail, which is a bit helpful, but no seating. If there were seats they would have a bum in them.

The problem is that most devices take between half an hour and for-freaking-ever to get fully charged, so this will have to be a fast stop. I envision the guy whose phone has croaked; he needs to keep the thing juiced up just long enough to call or text home to let them know his bus is delayed (again). For him this is a straight-up lifesaver.

For those whose bus is not leaving for half an hour, this is an annoying place to stand while you wait.

There's still a crummy bar or two in the PABT. While on your visit to see the highlights of the world's biggest and busiest bus station, stop in a crummy bar and ask the bartender if you can use an electrical outlet while you sip your dry martini. That might work out better, although you might miss your bus.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Move on, Movember.

Further to Sunday’s rant about charitable organizations: I’m not unsympathetic to the aims of the Movember movement, a movement designed to raise awareness of men’s health issues by encouraging men to grow a mustache for the month of November. Like, maybe the sight of all those lip caterpillars will encourage some dummy to make that appointment for that colonoscopy. I have no idea. But I am a man, and I have a certain amount of health, so men’s health issues are issues of mine.
I’m not wild about awareness raising. It’s been going on so long by so many people in so many ways that my awareness is about as raised as it can get. If it gets any higher I will lose contact with it altogether. Then I guess I will be unconscious.
But worse is my secret sorrow,* my woeful confession that tears my soul and makes me withdraw silently from participation in the jolly japes of Movember:
I grow a lousy mustache.
The Movember guys want us to grow a mustache for the thirty days of November as a means of raising awareness and sparking conversations. But it's futile. It would take more than thirty days for my mustache to become detectable with the unaided eye.
A pity, too, as we may be heading into a mustache Renaissance in which I cannot participate. Early American males were clean-shaven, emulating Ancient Rome, I suppose; in the next century all hirsute hell broke loose. Then we returned to an era of the naked face. Now we're deep in Beard Country, but it may lead to an invasion of the body 'stachers.
Should I give it another go? It's a tough call. It's like getting a tattoo, because it's not enough to just decide to get one; you also have to select the one you want.

Then again, maybe some faces just are not meant for mustaches.

*Not so secret, since I’ve admitted it before: “I don’t think I ever tried to grow one without the accompanying beard. My face is a bad neighborhood, and no mustache would want to go into it alone. Maybe when I was a teenager; some teenage boys grow mustaches for months on end and no one ever notices. I had that peachfuzz thing going on too." Read more about the decline of the American mustache here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Indiana Bat vs. Tuxedo Anti-Gamblers.

A bat is standing between the town that gave the world the tuxedo and casino gambling. And that's how the town likes it.

It's complicated.

In a nutshell: Voters in New York last year approved a casino bill, allowing for casinos to be built in the state. Voters may have been thinking it would be great to revitalize the many crappy areas, like the old Borscht Belt---but these voters have apparently never seen a real casino and its environs. Even if the casinos, which invariably can maintain peace only with the most thuggish means, is not itself a cesspool, the area around it is. Or it will be. Add to that the fact that we're so overloaded with gambling in the northeast that four of 12 Atlantic City casinos have gone bust this year, with more on the way. No American community I have ever seen was made happier with casino gambling.

Tuxedo seems to feel the same way.

Tuxedo is a town, and it contains Tuxedo Park, which itself is not a town so much as an enclave, and an enclave of people with lots of dough at that. It has been that way since even before the railroads started running north of the city. The Lorillard family built a castle there on tobacco wealth. Griswold, one of the later Lorillards, started the fad in 1886 for the new men's dinner jacket named for the town that later swept the world.

Tuxedo Park is still loaded with people who are loaded, and they do not want to host a scummy casino full of people in sweatpants playing nickel slots. A Malaysian resort company named Genting wants exactly that. Maybe they intend to do something more high class, but it's like running a liquor store in a city---you want a twee little place with wine or artisinal vodka tastings, but to make ends meet you sell Night Train Express and Wild Irish Rose. It's all booze in the end, right?

Well, this little dude wants to put a stop to it.

Indiana Bat; photo thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
He doesn't actually care, but he is an endangered species and he is in the area, and foes of the casino have latched on to the plight of the Indiana Bat as a means of stopping the casino from being built. They may really care about the bat, or some of them may, but I think it's a case of: when you got to beat a dog, any stick will do. Even a bat.

And that's what environmentalism has become in this country now---nothing but a means of stopping some people from doing what other people don't want them to do.

As you can gather, I'm not a fan of casinos. Of course I live nowhere near Tuxedo---I'm no tobacco millionaire---but I don't want a casino there or any closer than that to me. But it makes me uncomfortable to see the way care for the environment has become nothing more than a means of forcing some people to conform to the will of others in the land of the free. One could easily begin to wonder if environmentalism ever meant anything other than forcing other people to do what you want.

Well, go get 'em, Indiana Bat, I guess. I don't like the bugs you eat and I don't much care for the casinos you prevent. Just stay away from my attic and we'll be fine.

UPDATE (12/18/14): No casinos in Orange County; see follow-up entry here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Charity begins in the car.

It's not just Christmas catalogs that are stuffing my mailbox right now. It's charity mailings. I get fistfuls of them every day. I couldn't respond to all of them if I wanted to. They cost someone money. I'm starting to think that regarding charitable organizations as a whole, I've turned into a net drain.

Longtime readers of this blog know I have one simple rule for charity mailings, really the first round of elimination: You send me something other than maybe mailing labels, I will get rid of it. I will not, not ever, succumb to  pump-priming. I've been sent unsolicited pens, pads, umbrellas, toothbrushes, rosaries, T-shirts, stamps, shopping bags, and all kinds of other things, including my personal favorite, money.

Then why the ^%@&$^% are you sending it to ME? 
It just goes into the poor box at church.

Even though Americans are extraordinarily generous, we can get overwhelmed and baffled about charity. Even in church. We want to obey the injunction to help the poor, but it's not like there's no safety net now (for which middle-class Americans pay and pay and pay) as in Biblical times. We know that giving to soup kitchens and shelters can be enabling drug addicts and alcoholics or aiding illegal aliens---abetting felons, in other words. You think of the no-good brother-in-law who will never get off his ass as long as people keep feeding him; are your donations going to feed someone else's useless brother-in-law? You want to fight disease, but if you're a pro-lifer, you have to wonder how many of these disease-fighting organizations spend a fortune lobbying to rip apart fetuses for stem cells. In fact, you start to wonder if lawyers are the only people who get real help from any of these charities. With all the charities and all the rich people using them for tax shelters and all the charity balls and galas and all the checks you write and all these mailings, mailings, mailings, why do things never seem to get even a little bit better for anyone?

It's hard to not be cynical, especially about the homeless, even if one has not read the eyeopening "Homeless Advocates in Outer Space" from City Journal by the brilliant Heather MacDonald:
The charity our society showers upon people living on the street makes possible this hardy resistance to seeking help. In true New York fashion, even vagrants can get home-delivered food: a do-gooder group from Dobbs Ferry called Midnight Run makes regular deliveries of sandwiches and juice, along with toiletries and blankets, right to people's cardboard boxes. The homeless know the hours and locations of every local soup kitchen, and the more enterprising work out deals for other personal needs. One older alcoholic would throw away a new pair of underwear every couple of days, secure in the knowledge that Midnight Run would soon bring another pair. Other homeless use more unorthodox approaches to street survival. When it gets cold, recounts a scraggly vagrant, "I smash a window with a brick and go to jail. I get along fine in jail."
Now you start giving the fish eye to the poor box at church.

But we want to be good people; we want to think we're going to leave the world better for our having been in it, not worse. So cynical as we may become, it's hard not to weaken when you get things in the mail, or worse, a personal request to help a charity. So, you want to check them out with the Better Business Bureau to make sure the money is going where it's supposed to go. Charity Navigator is another excellent resource.

Right off the bat, though, we can start charitable giving, and without parting with a cent. Letting the schmuck who cut you off get away without a curse or a fight, allowing someone to get in front of you even when you think you have the right of way (and doing it with a smile), or not saying anything to your sister when she makes that stupid remark about Dad again are all great ways to begin.

Or so they say. Let me know how you make out. I may try it sometime.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Six Flags over cleanliness!

We got snow yesterday, and a pal from Texas was jealous. Well, I can understand that. I'd rather be cold some of the time than hot all of the time.

But there are advantages to southern living. For example, in the south, the amusement parks never close. Six Flags Over Texas is doing its Holiday Sale right now. Six Flags Great Adventure (a.k.a. Six Flags Over Jersey) is saying "See you in April 2015!"

Great Adventure tries to keep the action going by doing Halloween stuff until November 2, but that's it. Too cold. Only outlet malls can keep people walking around in the cold weather for any length of time, and that's only because they don't have to stand on lines to get in the stores.

So no rides at all. About the closest thing we get to an amusement park ride from November to April is the Wet & Wild House of Soap:


THRILL! to the big blanket strip things that rub over your car! SHRIEK! as the water sprays and you wonder if you closed the windows all the way! CRY FOR MOMMY! as the big brushes go wubba wubba wubba! CURSE! as you realize you don't have any singles to tip the towel guys!

It's pretty lame for a ride, but it's still hugely popular. Road salt eats cars. So the House of Soap gets mobs all winter long. No funnel cakes, though.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Photo Phred.

When I was a young lad I took a couple of aptitude tests at a local college to discover what my perfect career would be. I expected at least one, if not both, would come back "Nobel-prizewinning author." Or maybe one would say "Pulitzer-prizewinning author." I would have settled for that.

"Photographer" and "Greeting Card Store Manager" were not what I expected at all.

I was disappointed at the time, but not because I thought little of those jobs---or indeed that I think little of them now. I just wanted to write more than anything.

Also, photography is very mechanical, and I am not mechanically inclined. A friend of mine took up photography, and I couldn't talk about it with him for more than a minute before he started to baffle me with F stops and aperture speeds and God knows what else.

Maybe it's simpler now in the digital age, but probably not. Light is light, and photography is all about the science of light capture. I also have never understood enough about photo composition to tell a museum-quality photography from a good vacation picture. They all look good to me. Here's a shot I took with my phone.

I call it Commuter Bus with Sunrise. Or, Antigone.
Pretty awesome, huh? Or not; I wouldn't know.

Photography is the kind of thing I would take up as a hobby, spend a thousand bucks on, and in a year the camera would have collected so much dust you could write "SAY CHEESE" on it with your finger. Probably not a career move for me.

I suppose those aptitude tests can be helpful if you really don't know what to do or what you want from your life, but they probably have some weaknesses.

As for managing a greeting card store, I think I would have to like people to do that job. Yeah, probably not a good fit either.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

All about Fred.

Now that I've got four novels out there on Google Play and iBooks, as well as through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, it is time for me to start thinking about my autobiography. People who have read my books will want to know "Where do you get your ideas?" and "What life experiences shaped you?" and "Do they let you out of the facility?" and "What kinds of medication have you been prescribed?" It seems to me that it's time to address my public.

There is no question that they, like others, will be disappointed when they get to know me better, although I must hope that it is a mere sort of wistful sigh of broken illusion rather than a recoil so powerful it frightens the cat.

There is no question either that I will be unable to match the greatest opening paragraph in the history of autobiography, that of G. K. Chesterton:

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.

When people try to write great autobiographies they think the secret is to have an amazing life, like "My mother birthed me while drinking gin, strapped to the side of a wildebeest during a stampede across the veldt caused by my father scaring the herd by blasting a bandit with his shotgun" blah blah blah. All Chesterton told us was when he was born and where he was baptized, but he makes it awesome. A stupid life with lots of scenery and namedropping is still stupid.

Which brings us back to me. I'm trying to come up with an enticing title for my grand life story. A straight chronological autobiography is unnecessary these days, as Kingley Amis proved in his mudslinging autobiography of 1991; for the bulk of the book each chapter focused on one section or person of interest in his life. Along those lines I thought of Seven Keys to Fred, a play on Earl Biggers's 1913 best-seller Seven Keys to Baldpate, wherein I'd write a section on each of the seven biggest influences of my life. But I've had only five, so the hell with it.

I suggested to my wife the title Meant To, Forgot, Didn't. She thought I could stop at Meant To. Not sure if there was any hidden meaning there.

Some other titles came to me that seemed to be the kind of thing expected these days: I thought of My Life by Fred Key, Fred Key: A Life, Life of Fred, Fred Key: My Life So Far, and then I nodded off. Sure, they're accurate, but dull. Also accurate but not dull is Where Am I Going and What's with This Handbasket? Which is has potential, but appears on T-shirts.

How I Got Stuck in a Cat Door would be a great title, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe I should get to work on that.

Kevin D. Williamson, writing about Lena Dunham's show Girls, included a devastating line:

Writers naturally indulge their own autobiographical and social fantasies, from Brideshead Revisited to The Lord of the Rings, but Girls represents a phenomenon distinctly of our time: the fantasy not worth having.

If my books are autobiographical or social fantasies, I can at least assure you that they are worth having. So maybe that's enough.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Let's get punchy.

Writing about military members getting into punch-ups and bar fights yesterday got me thinking about other ways drunk people might be able to work off their aggressions. 

We actually did not have the Rock'em Sock'em Robots when I was a kid. And that was the problem. If only we'd had this fine substitute for physical violence, peace may have reigned in the home.

The genius of the Rock'em Sock'em Robots is that other games would lead you to the fight ("Ha! I sank your battleship!" "You cheated!" "You liar!" Pow, sock, crunch). But this game IS the fight. So you're cutting out the middle man!

Really, all competitive games are a substitute for punching each other. It's like puppies doing play fights. We all instinctively know this. Different games test different skills, sure, but the idea is to fight each other using whatever the skill(s) required. Use this handy chart to see how it works:

Using such games has the advantages of encouraging the development of a wider skill set and making civilization possible. We could not have democracy, agriculture, cathedrals, philosophy, cute little restaurants, or romantic love if we were all just socking each other all the time.

So if you're in a relationship that involves a lot of hitting, or you frequent taverns wherein the entertainment is the evening knife fight, or you just like to punch yourself in the mouth from time to time, consider investing in some kind of challenging pastime. You may develop skills beyond swinging a fist or enduring a blow.

Oh, who am I kidding. In my house, if we'd had Rock'em Sock'em Robots, it would have been the same old thing. ("I knocked your block off!" "You cheated!" "You liar!" Pow, sock, crunch.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Song for our veterans.

I wish our nation were more worthy of the sacrifice made by our men and women in uniform. By that I mean I wish we were as appreciative as we should be of our freedoms and what they are for, and more grateful for the many blessings we enjoy.

These days the only freedoms anyone seems to care about are those involving sex, drugs, and nudity. These are interesting, no doubt, but that’s not what builds up the strength of the people or ensures a proper political system.
But election day’s over, so put that aside for now.

I was able to get to last year’s Veterans Day Parade in Manhattan, at least for a little while, and enjoyed hearing some of the military bands. I’ll take a military or school marching band any day over a dancing musical act or a bunch of people singing to prerecorded crap. Not just because nine times out of ten “Imagine” will be on the crap sound track, but that is a consideration.
That got me to thinking about the great songs of our armed forces: “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” “The Marines’ Hymn,” “Semper Paratus,” “The U.S. Air Force,” and of course “Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!”* These are pretty awesome. I got to wondering if the guys ever got into bar fights over who had the best anthem. Well, I thought, it’s not like these guys are drafted to be music scholars: “Your fight song sounds like atonal weasel farts composed for Castrato!” “Oh yeah? Well, your song is as Prestissimo as you guys beating cheeks con moto when the shooting starts!” And then things get all fisty.

Of COURSE they get into fistfights over who has the best anthem. These guys get into fistfights about everything. I once knew a former Navy man who’d been stationed in San Diego for some time, and every weekend they’d get into fights with Marines. “F---g jarheads don’t get their stripe until they beat up a f---g swabbie,” was how he put it.
So on this Veterans Day I salute our guys, and ask please, don’t fight each other today, all right? We need you all, and not with friendly-fire beer-blasted bone breaks or in MP-issue cuffs. You can start punching each other again on Wednesday. You all have excellent songs, really, so fight over something important, like football.

*United States Merchant Marine. Yes, really.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Hey, kids! As promised a few weeks back, my novels are now available for sale on the iBooks store for use on the iPad!

Yippee Dippee Dippee!
Although iBooks software is available---even mandatory---on the iPhone, for some reason my books cannot be made available at this time for that format. I've no idea why, but this seems to be the case for many other publishers as well at this time.

Anyway, if you're like one of the cool kids and you have an iPad, you can enjoy your Fred to go on it. I know I'm kind of heavy to carry around, but the Halloween candy is almost gone, and I can drop a pound or two before Thanksgiving.

Here are the links, which will be included on this blog's sidebar soon:

Cobalt Agonistes

Larry and the Mascots

Faster & Closer


(In answer to a question from Mr. Philbin: Yes, I am still working on the middle-grade book that I expected to have finished two months ago. Fortunately everyone who knows me knows that I have a complex and rewarding life and I am also a big fat liar. At least about getting my writing done when promised. Trust me, when the blasted thing is done, you'll all be the second to know.)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Google Fred!

I'm happy to say that my novels are now available on Google Play. For a limited time they may be acquired for the low low price of $1.99 each, but my publisher is fighting to raise that soon. Hey, I can't hold him back for long; he's a wild man!

Take pity on my publisher; his team has been working hard to get Fred out to the world, and the ePub options just keep proliferating. Of course, you could always find me on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but now we're helping make Google even richer too. And who wouldn't want that?

When I was just a little kid, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said "I want to be a content provider!" And now I am.

(Actually, I would tell them I wanted to be Batman. Imagine how disappointed I was when I became an adult and that Wayne guy wouldn't retire.)

There will be what I think is an even bigger announcement about book distribution tomorrow, so hold on to your pants. In the meanwhile, enjoy the links for my novels:

Faster & Closer


Cobalt Agonistes

Larry and the Mascots

Thanks for listening to the pitch! If you do decide to check out the books, let me know what you think. If you enjoy them, let everyone know what you think!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Just how laffy is Laffy Taffy?

Still getting through the last of the Halloween candy (thanks for not eating it all, you little brats) and I got to wondering about Wonka. I guess we've all had questions about Wonka over the years, like: How did Wonka run the only factory in England in the 1970s not completely overwhelmed by the unions? You know the Oompa Loompas weren't union.

Never mind that for now. What I was specifically wondering about was: What makes Laffy Taffy so laffy? And, in fact, IS Laffy Taffy really laffy? (And should it be Laughy Taughy?)

Let's have a look:

Okay, here's a Halloween fun-size type Sour Apple-flavored piece. Not too funny yet. But wait: In the upper right-hand corner of the package it says "Joke! In every wrapper!" Now we're getting somewhere! Let's check out the joke:

Two jokes! Or actually riddles. Okay, riddles can be funny. Well, not really. Maybe these will be. It looks like they were sent in by readers---Joe B. of Milwaukee and Kace L. of Grand Rapids. Whatcha got, kids? "What has a head, a tail, but no body?" and "What do you call an owl that has armor on?"

"A coin" and "a knight owl," respectively.

Nothing against the kids---these are about as funny as riddles get. Gollum and Bilbo weren't yukkin' it up telling riddles down there in the goblin tunnels. The only ones I ever laughed at were the pickle jokes, because they were so stupid ("What's green and robs stagecoaches? Bill the Pickle!"). Banana jokes, too: same reason. Hell, same jokes. ("What's yellow and robs stagecoaches?") So my hat is off to Joe B. of Milwaukee and Kace L. of Grand Rapids.

Maybe it's the taffy (or taughy) itself that contains the laughs. Here it is naked:

Kinda funny. Reminds me of me coming out of a shower into a cold bathroom. Never mind. Forget I said anything.

On the whole: Not very laffy, Mr. Wonka. Bazooka Joe is laughier. (At least its stupid cartoons used to have funny fortunes, like "You will never turn into a giant shoelace"---which was not only funny, it has proved thus far to be the most accurate prediction I have ever received.)

Someone's got to look into Wonka's operation. I think OSHA should investigate these Oompa Loompas, for one thing. They have no reputation for safety. There's probably a big sign on the factory floor that says THIS PLANT HAS WORKED [1] DAYS SINCE SOMEONE WAS TURNED INTO A GIANT BLUEBERRY.

And someone there is swiping a lot of the laffs, I'll bet.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Things you can't do while wearing a white shirt.

I have a white shirt that I like a lot; it is comfortable, a good fit, and while it requires ironing, it's worth it because it looks very sharp. Of course, I have a complaint. Would I be writing about it if I didn't? Of course not.

The problem is that wearing a white shirt restricts your activities. You know it as well as I do. Put on that shirt, and you become a target. I was once at a convention when I discovered that a pen had decided to become incontinent in the pocket of my favorite white shirt. I ran over to Structures and bought another one, which then became my new favorite white shirt. I had that one until the pits turned pee-yellow. 

In the white shirt.
Here's the list of things that you can't do in a white shirt---a white shirt that you want to keep, at least---that occurred to me the last time I wore mine:
  • put a pen in your pocket
  • drink coffee
  • change a tire
  • drink red wine
  • eat sloppy joes
  • wash dishes
  • eat pancakes 
  • put a pencil in your pocket
  • drink tea
  • eat pasta
  • floss
  • dust
  • carry drinks
  • change the toner
  • put a crayon in your pocket
  • apply makeup
  • wash your face
  • cook
  • drink fruit punch
  • blow your nose
  • change the toner
  • clean anything
  • shave
  • carry food
  • lift your arms
  • eat curry
  • change the oil
  • shine the shoes
  • carry anything that might be dusty
  • go without an undershirt
  • wear an undershirt
  • play with a pet
  • drink a soda
  • bleed
  • brush your teeth
  • sweat
  • eat chocolate ice cream
  • eat pizza
  • eat anything
  • drink anything
Feel free to add any others in comments. But you really could add almost anything. 

Although IBM is coy about it, we all knew back in the 80's that they wore white shirts all the time, even guys who had to fix machines that involved toner. I've only come to admire them more for that over the years as I've wrestled with more and different printers. 

Maybe the futuristic disposable paper clothing we were promised wasn't so dumb after all, although it's hard to imagine a paper shirt as comfortable as my white shirt. Could be that the 3-D printers that have everyone's paper knickers in a twist will provide the answer, though. Then I'll print white shirts and go out of my way to make a mess every day. I'd save and date them---each would be like a journal entry, a record of what messes I got into that day.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Near classics of literature.

To Have and to Havelock
The dramatic story of a rum-runner who is forced to break the law by running rum to Havelock, North Carolina, from Philadelphia, in order to keep his poodle in Snausages. The book takes a dramatic turn when the Havelockians discover that Prohibition ended ten years earlier. Herman Erminway's finest.
Melvin Hermville's novel about an ornithologist obsessed with destroying the mallard that nibbled off his pinkie toe.
The Iliac
Ancient Greek doctor Krekenes wrote this epic about Achilles' hip bone, and how it was connected to da backbone, da backbone connected to da neck bone, and da neck bone connected to da head bone.
East of Edam
A tale by Jim Stockbein that takes place in Wormerveer, east of Edam, wherein the saga of two cheesemaking families re-creates the biblical Book of Deuteronomy. 
Vanity Fear
William Makewar Hackery's terrifying novel about two young women who kill people that look nicer than they do.

Treasure Ireland
Lewis Steven Robertson's thrilling tale of treasure hunters who seek riches and glory but wind up in Ireland instead.
Last of the Norwegians
The last of Leif Erikson's American colonists is killed in this dull adventure by Finn Coopimore.
The Turning of the Shrew
Shakespeare "Shecky" James's comedy of a ghost trying to teach a cranky woman to behave. She has him exorcised.
Nicholas Nickelback
Dickie Charles wrote this novel about a young Canadian musician who needs his miserly uncle's help to realize his dream of becoming a cornerback for the Cleveland Browns. Famously turned into a 10-hour Broadway production that also sucked.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It's all dark!

Nah, I'm not complaining about the election. I'm still trying to cope with the end of Daylight Savings Time. It's all dark, dark, darkity dark dark dark.

Approximately three p.m.
It could be worse; President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act in 2005 that moved the end of DST four or five weeks later (depending on the year). So October is not so dark, but now November feels darker than ever. Made for easier trick-or-treating, anyway.

It's just hard to adjust, even if, like me, you've never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. It's hard because it's so sudden. The daylight wanes slowly through July and August and September---then comes the end of DST and the door slams on your face. On Friday you came home from work under the reddened glow of sunset; on Monday you got home from work under curtain of night. It's like the difference between being aging and being diagnosed with a degenerative disease. Yeah, I'm getting older to Wow, I'm mortal.

There is one advantage, though, to getting older and feeling the peel of time go faster, like the famed roll of toilet paper that expends itself more quickly as it nears the end: You actually take comfort in the knowledge that the days will start getting longer again in less than two months. Two months is forever when you're five, a marathon when you're fifteen, a sprint when you're fifty. At my age, two months is barely enough time to get the house clean.

There's still question as to whether Daylight Savings Time actually saves energy, as it was purported to do. (Good piece in Scientific American on that here.) All I can say is, it's done nothing for my own personal energy. More coffee is about the only thing that helps with that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ejection Day.

Yes, today is Ejection Day, or it would be if we weren't a nation of imbeciles. And I'm not even complaining about your state. Mine, New York, is as packed full of morons as a Babybel is full of cheese. What else can explain our willingness to reelect a corrupt evil-eyed schmuck as our governor who, if his name had been Andrew Amalfi---and not related to his still-popular father---would probably be working a middle-management job, helping ruin some dopey company by scaring off the clients?

Anyway, I'll be happy to see the end of the lawn signs. They're so sad after the election. Even the signs for the winners look sad. And some candidates' signs show that whiff of desperation that's made even worse when the election is over.

The problem with politics is that it is loaded with politicians. Politicians exist to buy votes. That's what they do. That, these days, is all they do. Unless you count using taxpayer money to buy support from corporations, so the corporations can give them money for reelection so they can go back to buying votes with more taxpayer money. Taxpayers who like their politicians should ask themselves if they're spending more through their taxes than they get back in whatever. Obviously everyone in Washington has to get a cut. So it's hard to believe they wouldn't be getting a better deal to keep their money. People who don't pay any taxes, of course, don't care, so it's in the interest of politicians to make as many of these people as possible. Their votes are not only for sale, they're cheap.

Politicians should come with ingredients labels, like food:

Politician Facts

Serving Size: 1 load of bullcrap

Servings per container: Size of constituency

Daily allowance:
Ego 100%
Self-serving jerkishness: 100%
Buttholery: 85%
Ham-fisted attacks on political opponents: 100%
Evasion: 67%
Outright lies: 59%
Unwillingness to serve anyone who didn't vote for him: 100%
Overconfidence: 100%

May contain one or more of the following: Stupidity, thievery, felonious intent, hyperinflated sense of self-worth, sexual misconduct, delusion, inability to admit errors or wrongdoing, a little blackened soul that looks like a charcoal briquette---very in keeping with its ultimate destination. Approach with caution.


We've gotten way too fond of our political class, as if we expect them to actually do anything worthwhile. I guess if we are the sort who expect other people's money to come our way if we stick the right clown in the chair, then we may not be disappointed. But that's not what a free and independent people are supposed to be about. That's for people with dead consciences who can bear up under the burden of shame.

Look, if you're a reader of this blog, you don't need me to tell you how to vote. You're obviously well-informed, smart, insightful, and wise. (If you read my books you're also good-looking and taller.) I'll just remind you TO vote, and trust you will do the right thing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Railway carriages.

Last week in rush hour I got on a subway car that was horribly crowded. I barely got on. We could have used the help of those Tokyo oshiya guys.

There were not too many smiling faces among those of who saw a woman on the car with a baby in an absolutely enormous carriage.

And I mean enormous. This thing looked like an Escalade. Not sure of the brand of the baby-toting device, but to give you an idea of the size:

Very similar.

I believe the carriage had fewer airbags and cup holders, however.

Probably no one without a baby could sympathize more than do I for the mom traveling with the kid. Nobody does this for fun. Sometimes you just have to go someplace, even if it means traveling at rush hour, and you can't just leave the kid at home with a bowl of water and some wee wee pads. But it's only in the last couple of years I've seen people bringing the kids in these humongous transporters on the train. You used to see kids only being shoved along in umbrella strollers, like this one:

They're called umbrella strollers because they fold up, not because they're as poorly made and likely to fall apart like those cheesy $5 street umbrellas that pop up for sale on rainy days. Although these strollers often do fall apart just that way, I hear.

The thing is, a kid in an umbrella stroller takes up no more deck space on the subway than would an average man. That's why they are, or were, the stroller of choice way back.

This may all be connected to the fact that many of us seem to be more and more inclined to bring tons of crap with us whenever we leave the house. Snacks, gym clothes, iPad, book, phone, floss, cosmetics, ever-present bottle of water... The woman may have packed along enough food for three days for all I know. Maybe she was running away to Mom's and taking the kid. But expensive as taxicabs are, sometimes you have to spring for one.

Then again, that stroller may not have fit in a cab.

I blame the Americans with Disabilities Act. In past years you wouldn't have even considered bringing a Buick-like carriage down to the subway because you wouldn't have been able to get the damn thing up and down the stairs. But now escalators and elevators are available at most stations in compliance with the ADA, and eventually will be in all stations. That's great for the wheelchairs, but now people bring huge carriages and shopping carts, and---not kidding here---cheapass companies send delivery boys out with hand trucks stacked with reams of paper, file carts stuffed with documents, even utility carts loaded with food for catering.

Hey, the subway is a people mover, not a people plus all kinds of crap mover. Get a truck.