I Don’t Believe in Me

When one’s self-confidence is leased with an option to buy, as mine is, one looks outside oneself for: 1. Reminders that one ought to have, or to try out, this thing called self-esteem and 2. The nearest venue where one can find some.

Because without self-confidence, some say, one can not achieve great things, or any things. But immediately after sentences like that always comes the caveat: Be humble. Needle-across-the-record screech. From life’s start, we are asked to be philosophers negotiating the nuances of existence: Believe in yourself, humbly. Possess something that no one can give you. Walk softly, and chew gum at the same time.
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Anger, Nothing But Ed Anger

The greatest newspaper—ever!—is and was the Weekly World News. Its presence next to every grocery store checkout lane is thoroughly missed by every non-Bat Boy walking among us.

Most American boys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and by most, I mean me, made this progression in our reading: from Cracked magazine, which quickly revealed itself to be a weak imitation of Mad magazine, to Mad magazine, which was brilliant but I (we) stopped looking at it around age 14, through a wasteland of our teen years and the New York Times and homework—heck, the Times and all newspapers everywhere just feel like permanent homework, don’t they? AmIRight?—to the discovery that the Weekly World News existed.

It is a three-word title and only one of those three words is correct: Weekly. Is this terrible? No. That is a .333 average and a career batting average like that would result in the hitter being elected to the Hall of Fame. So, weekly, yes. World? A printing press in central Florida certainly is on the globe. But “world” is an exaggeration. News? Well, upon finishing every article I would say out loud, “It’s news to me.”

An alien named P’lod regularly visited the White House and advised presidents Clinton and Bush? News to me. Where is CNN? Someone call somebody. There’s a boy abused by his own shadow? That’s a heartbreaking slice of life story. (An admission: When I was young, my own shadow was faster than me, too. It was only when lights were behind me, but still.) Bat Boy? You can’t make this stuff up … because why would anyone? That is why everything the WWN reported had to be true … ish … or, okay, not at all.

WWNtwinkieTwinkies are a superfood? In my life, on occasion, ‘deed they were. (I have now been sober for almost five years.) I love this article, TWINKIES: THE NEW SUPERFOOD!, by the way; look at that photo. How small a staff works there now? How small is the budget? Once upon a time, the reported paid circulation was a quarter-million readers, and of course, all of the Men in Black. The staff could not afford the minutes to leave the office and spend two dollars on some real fruit and berries and real Twinkies, so they had to copy-and-paste a clip-art photo of a broken Twinkie over a photo of some fruit? Even in the name of truth or comedy? You can see the white border around the middle Twinkie.

I would like to think that someone spent extra time to make this photomontage look this sloppy, in the same way that I like to think, for approximately six seconds, that every word in the newspaper is true.

The newspaper—and yes, only half of that term is correct, in that the publication was in fact printed on paper—the paper ran into hard times and only exists online now. It is there that you will find a few, a precious few, examples of the paper’s opinion writer, Ed Anger, who appeared in its pages from 1979 till around a few years ago. The title of his book, “Let’s Pave the Stupid Rainforests & Give School Teachers Stun Guns: And Other Ways to Save America,” gives a taste of his typical opinion.

Ed Anger was a creation of a staff writer named Rafe Klinger and then was the pet project of the editor, a man named Eddie Clontz. After Clontz died, several writers have revealed that they took turns editorializing as Ed Anger in the years since. Klinger sued the WWN, arguing that the paper could not continue to run the angry Anger editorials, but he lost. Thus, there was some real anger animating Ed Anger’s anger.

Ed Anger hates everything and everyone, especially Democrats, foreigners, religions other than his, wild animals that somehow need protection even though they have claws, complicated foods, and most television programming. Each editorial begins with, “I’m madder than a” and then promptly becomes less funny over the subsequent four hundred words or so.

Ed Anger amused me because I remembered a real Ed Anger in my hometown when I was growing up. I do not remember the gentleman’s name, but people in Dutchess County, New York, may remember in the 1970s a self-published newspaper—a blog, but on paper—by a writer who devoted pages to convincing his readers that all people of color were bad, that all Democrats were Communists, that the local Democrats were Satanists, that his new tin-foil hat was protecting him. Now, anyone can think anything they like and hate anything they want to, can write inspiringly dull sentences outlining their many hatreds, can self-publish those sentences in a newspaper or blog, can spend money getting copies printed and distributed, but this man, the real-life Ed Anger of my youth, he had advertising in his local production! His racist and anti-semitic, single-note, single-theme weekly newspaper, which was basically an eight-page run-on sentence interrupted by headlines, had ads in it. There were local businesses whose owners maybe did not want to rile people up by publicizing their political leanings, but they paid for ads in this one man’s hate-filled quirk.

As Ed Anger might have written: “You know what I think of that?” It is not printable in a family blog.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 11 asks, “Pick a contentious issue about which you care deeply—it could be the same-sex marriage debate, or just a disagreement you’re having with a friend. Write a post defending the opposite position, and then reflect on what it was like to do that.”

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A Christmas Tree Story

I am sitting in my girlfriend’s office looking at her office Christmas tree. It is white, snow white, like a snowman in a a Rankin/Bass stop-motion cartoon. (Paul Frees would provide the voice.) We will be trimming it in a few moments.

office xmas

A white Christmas.

I think that tree trimming was my least favorite trimming when I was young. I still lack the eye necessary for decorating a tree correctly; in fact, I believe that almost every tree I have attempted to decorate has been quietly fixed upon my leaving.

(Two things transpired within moments of me writing the above: 1. My girlfriend credited me with expanding her notions of tree decoration—she said, “You’re the first person I’ve seen who does not put all the decorations on the ends of the branches,” which is true, I sometimes place them on the middle or even closer to the trunk; and 2. We found that I had overloaded one section with the same color ornament and we needed to correct it.)

One winter, a friend enlisted me in a project to cut down a real live Christmas tree from a Christmas tree farm so her son could experience a Christmas like the one she and I had never ever had. (The sum total of my experience with freshly cut Christmas trees was buying one in a parking lot from a seller who was asked by the police to pick up his trees and move it along seconds after we made an offer. We did not receive an “Everything Must Go Because I Am Being Busted” discount.)

Neither my friend, her seven-year-old son, nor I knew what cutting a live, six-foot-tall or smaller tree would take, so we brought the only saw that she knew she had. (I believe it was one that her uncle had rejected forty-five years earlier for one that was actually sharp; now, forty-five years later, it also had some rust.) We then drove to a tree farm in Dutchess County, New York. I have chopped wood plenty of times, and I have helped take dead trees down; neither of these experiences served me on this day.

The first task in cutting down a fresh Christmas tree for oneself is finding something to occupy the seven-year-old son of your friend—allowing the child to select the winning tree to preserve your friendship with his mom is advisable. Next up is failure in the negotiations with the seven-year-old to pick a tree that is not on a steep, snowy slope. (Happy people with skis were walking almost as far up as our tree was located. Almost. I was wearing sneakers.)

Many will ask the question, “Should I cut two notches to make a V or cut straight across?” I know I did, just not out loud or in the presence of someone who could tell me the answer. With my tiny, rusty saw and no one holding the other side of the saw, I started notching one side of a V. The blade sliced some bark off and did not penetrate the green wood underneath. The snow had already penetrated my shoes, though. The trunk was no thicker than two inches wide, if that—hey, I’m no tree-ologist!—but it was quickly apparent that I was going to need help.

With that in mind, I drove away my companion and her son with my grumpy “attitude.”

After an hour alone, my inner debate over cutting straight through versus cutting a V had produced several partial starts—some up, some down—all the way around the trunk of the tree. Instead of a V, I had notched something like a lowercase w but less useful, partway to the center of the tree. My friend returned and we commenced cutting straight across, because it was “taking me too long,” when we discovered together that there is nothing quite as unsatisfying as the sound of a tree not coming down no matter how far one has cut through it until it is ready to come down. Nothing unites like mutual frustration.

It eventually came down. I accompanied it down the slope … okay, I rode it down the hill like Slim Pickens at the end of “Dr. Strangelove.” I had not reminded my friend or her seven-year-old son to bring rope to tie it to the roof of her car, so we drove home with it sticking out one of the backseat windows. In my lap.

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My family had one plastic tree for twenty or more Christmases. It was a well-constructed one, actually, a bare metal trunk with a two or three hoops to hook in each individual branch around the tree. It actually had an instruction manual. Our Christmas tree and boxes of ornaments occupied several boxes in the basement; the annual production of “putting up the tree” was my introduction to grown-ups not being able to remember from one year to the next the locations of things they put away in the same box in the same place every year. And now I am that grown-up.

I am sure that my mother and father found it necessary to re-position my ornaments; I swear that something happens to me when I approach a tree, ornament in hand. I have hooked ornaments into shirt buttonholes when I swear I was aiming for the tree. Just as I wanted to cut my one live tree down in one graceful and strong sawing motion, I always want this ornament here and now to be the first, last, and only one needed to make this year’s tree the complete and perfect Christmas statement. I want someone to exclaim, “This is the most Christmas ever!” Christmas brings out the perfectionist in all his mistake-prone grumpiness in me.

Thus, the only part of decorating that I relax and enjoy is either throwing tinsel everywhere or putting the angel on top. (That is an unsung rite of passage, growing tall enough to top the tree with a star or angel.) We had an angel, a cardboard seraph with glued-on glitter and thin, stringy blonde hair. Its halo was glued-on, as well. But it was our angel, and when nicer, more expensive-looking, ones found their way into our house, they were always relegated to lower branches. My family’s underdog mentality extended to angels.

That mentality may have been the best, most lasting, gift from my family.

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(An earlier version of this was first published last December on my previous website. My girlfriend and I will be decorating the tree again this weekend.)

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 11 asks, “As it’s been a while since our last free-write … set a timer for ten minutes. Write without pause (and no edits!) until you’re out of time. Then, publish what you have (it’s your call whether or not to give the post a once-over).”

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Mea cuppa

One of my superpowers is breaking things.

Now, I know that anyone can break anything with enough gumption and/or strength. At best, it is an inadvertent superpower; at worst, it is doom for the planet. I am not certain that I can not break paper.

I learned that I have this superpower the hard way: By claiming that I do not have it. I no longer remember what point I was trying to illustrate when I said to a group, “Nothing’s unbreakable. Right? Who hasn’t broken a so-called ‘unbreakable’ comb?” Perhaps I was talking with a group of fancy people who don’t buy their combs at convenience stores or truck stops, but I had had the experience of buying and later snapping in half a comb that had “unbreakable” written right on it. In. Capital. Letters.

Like some of you, no one in the group knew what I was talking about. Each one’s experience with combing his or her hair with an unbreakable comb was only as described on the tools themselves. Bendy, yes. Twisty, uh-huh. Breaky? Just me.

I once broke a Livestrong bracelet. What was I trying to do with it? Put it on my wrist. It snapped and flew across the room.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking. It happens. I was cooking something in a Pyrex pan in the oven, which is something I should not do. I have metal pans and, usually, common sense. I had a Pyrex pan in the oven, and when the dish was done, I removed it from the oven. (Most cookbooks describe this part, which is the most exciting after all, very blandly. “Remove dish from oven.” It’s the single most exciting part of the cooking experience! Whatever the opposite of overkill is, that right there is an example.)

I moved the food onto my plate and carried the Pyrex back into the kitchen. And then, because I do not think things through, I placed the thick glass cookware in the sink …

(Did you know that not all Pyrex is the same? (Thanks, online world of information.) Corning divested itself of its consumer goods division 16 years ago and licensed the name “Pyrex” to other companies, some of which use a different formula from Corning’s classic recipe, and thus produce glassware that is sometimes not as heat-resistant as Corning’s original. Of course, “heat-resistant” was always something of the point to Pyrex, so this is just terrific. If you see a Pyrex product with the red logo “PYREX” in all caps, that product is one that was made by Corning with the original formula and is stronger. The other logos are the newer products, which are not knock-offs precisely, as Corning did grant those companies licenses, but they are not made following the same formula.)

… I placed the heat-resistant glassware in the sink and hit the faucet. In a split-second, I remembered that objects right out of a hot oven react violently to cold water and I twisted the faucet back off. One drop of water (no exaggeration) left the faucet. When it hit the Pyrex, my sink was suddenly filled with shards of glass. Some of the shards were as big as a finger, let’s say someone’s middle finger, but most were smaller. Oh, and steam.

So I break things. Things that were invented because they are less likely to break.

With great power comes great responsibility, so what am I doing making my morning coffee in a press? (A fine example of which, not my personal one, is seen above.)

The French press “is essentially open-pot coffee with a sexy method for separating the grounds from the brew. The pot is a narrow glass cylinder. A fine-meshed screen plunger fits tightly inside the cylinder; you put a fine-ground coffee in the cylinder, pour boiling water over it, and insert the plunger in the top of the cylinder without pushing it down. After about four minutes the coffee will be thoroughly steeped and you push the plunger through the coffee, clarifying it and forcing the grounds to the bottom of the pot. You serve the coffee directly from the cylinder. Be certain not to use too fine a grind unless you have an athlete or a weightlifter at the table; the plunger will be almost impossible to push down through the coffee.” This is from Kenneth Davids’ classic book, “Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying,” and my quote is from the 1981 edition. His more recent edition changes the ground to “coarse-to-medium,” the water from boiling to “just short of boiling,” and loses the weightlifter joke. Oh, and “sexy” is changed to “sophisticated.” Too bad.

He goes on, “The plunger pot was apparently developed in Italy during the 1930s, but found its true home in France after World War II, when it surged to prominence as a favored home-brewing method.” That is why, when I first saw one in a friend’s kitchen, I asked if the thing was a “French” press. I knew that much, I guess. I also asked where one turned it on. She didn’t stop laughing long enough to tell me.

After two years of making coffee with one of these, I have broken two so far. Because that is what I do.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 4 asks, “If your furniture, appliances, and other inanimate objects at home had feelings and emotions, to which item would you owe the biggest apology?”

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A Leet

According to WordPress and other services, the number 1337 is important. It is not important for obvious reasons, like, say, reasons that are important, but for more obscure, talismanic ones.

Almost from the start, the online world has been something of a secret handshake society, but a democratic one, in which one and one’s friends can come up with a new secret handshake, and a capitalistic one, in which some secret handshakes become more popular, trendy. Elite. Or, “1337.”

Going back thirty years, users of programming language and speakers of everyday speech started to find places where the two collided. Going back thirty years, teenagers were passing messages to kids in the next aisle by typing on their calculators. Remember doing that? Certain numbers look like letters upside-down, so when one types 0.7734 that is also saying, “hello.” Here is a list of 250 such calculator-words: 250 Words You Can Spell with a Calculator.

I have had only one problem with this from thirty years ago to today: 0.7734 has never looked like “hello” to me. I just do not see it. I was the friend across the aisle from you in school who, when you showed me a secret calculator message, inadvertently said out loud, loud enough to attract the teacher’s attention, “What?”

I also do not see hidden anythings in “magic eye” posters, other than pretty fractals and colors, so I am just a generally all-around evil human being and no fun at all.

In the early days of the internet, in the era of bulletin boards and relay chat, the era in which someone typing on a keyboard in a movie was the height of real drama, those sorts of calculated calculator misspellings became a short-hand way of demonstrating one had inside knowledge about a topic at hand. Some of these terms have entered the culture at large, like newbie or pwned, and many have not.

For all of my life, I have felt like an outsider gazing in at a world of secret handshakes. Further, I am at my most uncomfortable when I try to look like I think I belong with you. Thus, when the kids in school in the ’80s who were “into computers” made it look like a secret society, I lost interest in programming. (Your loss, gaming community!) When the secret handshake society’s special vocabulary filters into the larger society and becomes a trendy lingo for a month or two or a couple of decades, it makes the world look like how I feel when I am trying to bluff my way into fitting in.

(Amusingly, I am composing this rant in a WYSIWYG in which I write my own simple HTML code and do not use a visual editor, a habit dating back to my newspaper work and a blog I started writing [now long lost] in 1997.)

1337-1xWhen one achieves 1337 of anything on a website, it is worth noting because 1337 is a lot of anything. In the case of The Gad About Town, it reached 1337 likes on November 26, when someone liked the column, “Gratitude Week.” In old-school hacker lingo, being an elite member of the community was designated by referring to them as elite, or a leet, or 1337. Again it’s the upside-down calculators that I have never looked at without saying, “What?”

Thank you to my readers and especially those who make the effort to express that they like some of the things I do. You have liked me more than 1337 times so far in ten months, which definitely makes me feel like a member of an elite.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 28 asks, “Today, publish a post based on unused material from a previous piece—a paragraph you nixed, a link you didn’t include, a photo you decided not to use. Let your leftovers shine!”

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Off the Table

Cooking is not something that I—what’s the word?—ah, yes: “Do.”

I am 46, so I have eaten a thing or two most of my born days, and I have even prepared a meal or a couple in order to live this long. One does not live to be 46 without some food here and there. And I was not left to forage in the woods beside our house when I was growing up; my mom is an excellent and health-conscious cook. Thanks to her early adoption of a low- and sometimes no-salt kitchen, my heart will probably continue beating long after the rest of me has permanently let all my subscriptions lapse.

This is not to say that I do not remember eating or cooking; oh, I do. My cooking is not memorable, though, in either direction: tasty treat or sublime sludge. I almost envy the good writers who are bad cooks (not as much as I envy the non-writers who are good cooks) because at least something interesting comes from their culinary assaults on taste and decency.

My worst work in the kitchen is memorable in how completely unmemorable it is. The problem is so is my best work.

I do not even have many or any interesting kitchen mishap tales: I am a physically cautious person—I was cautious before my walking difficulties rendered me a unique danger with knives, pots of boiling water, or even a tray of sporks—so I do not have zany anecdotes about near-terrible, “Mom, the first thing you need to know is everyone’s safe,” kitchen survival stories. I have burned my hands exactly twice: once in a seventh grade Home Ec class when I forgot to put an oven mitt on my hand before removing a cooking tray of snickerdoodles from the oven, and the second time, eight seconds later, when I moved that same tray so it would not fall from the spot on which I had dropped it.

(Many years later, a friend asked me if I remembered so-and-so, my seventh grade Home Ec teacher. By name, no, I did not, but we established that her friend and my junior high teacher were the same person. My name had come up and the teacher had asked my friend if my hand was okay. Apparently my lack of a reaction—I said, blandly, “That’s hot,” instead of yell—had stuck with her. There are no scars, but I remember that healing from even the weakest of minor burns hurts like nothing I want to entertain experiencing again.)

I have not had a snickerdoodle in the thirty-plus years since. It isn’t their fault, those cute-named little flour-and-sugar bombs. But they know.

So what I will bring to the Thanksgiving table tomorrow afternoon at my girlfriend’s family’s house is a deep appreciation for the work and love that went into preparing it all, and a big appetite: I haven’t eaten yet today.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 26 asks, “What’s the most elaborate, complicated meal you’ve ever cooked? Was it a triumph for the ages, or a colossal fiasco? Give us the behind-the-scenes story (pictures are welcome, of course).”

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Candy Crisis 2014

As the 2014 candy shortage spread from city to city and finally house to house, the hoarders were found out. The police records from that autumn show a system overwhelmed by the sugar-starved criminal element. Pages upon pages detailing baroque crimes of candy hunger give way to long lists of numbers with no further details and then to blank pages, which speak volumes in their emptiness.

The shortage was blamed by politicians of one party on politicians of the other party. Banks blamed insurers and insurers blamed a system built to only anticipate the anticipatable. Leaders were few.

The more headline-devoted media outlets dubbed it the Candy Apocalypse but they were unready for the sudden absence of advertising revenue. The criminal element sent spokesmen to express shame that it was now connected to such bizarre crimes of hunger that even hardened criminals were abashed.

The Dadaists saved me. Surrealism only put off the candy-seeking hordes for a moment, long enough to shoo my family into a far room, but not long enough to protect my property. I dimly remembered a phrase, that drastic times called for something. It seemed that these were drastic times. “Drastic times call for … drastic leisure?” That did not ring a bell. “Drastic pleasure?” “Drastic times call for something really big,” I declared.

The doorbell rang that fitful Halloween night and I was prepared with my drastic big things to meet the drastic times; I prayed that confusion was my only chance to at bringing any sense to these fructose-enslaved zombies.

I was dressed as a sort of sorcerer, put a rug on my head to indicate fortune telling and oven mitts on my hands for claws. I spoke as slowly and as quickly as I could:

jolifanto bambla o falli bambla
großiga m’pfa habla horem
egiga goramen
higo bloiko russula huju
hollaka hollala
anlogo bung
blago bung blago bung
bosso fataka
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa olobo
hej tatta gorem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu
kusa gauma













The stunt was a raging failure and tonight I am writing this on the road, leading the procession to the next neighborhood, hunting, forever hunting in a soul-less search for more candy, candy that will never more be found.

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A flash fiction for Halloween 2014. We have plenty of candy here. Boo.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 31 asks, “It’s Halloween, and you just ran out of candy. If the neighborhood kids (or anyone else, really) were to truly scare you, what trick would they have to subject you to?”

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