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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Brain vs. Body

I spend a lot of time these days staring at old people. I understand that it’s impolite. But after I turned 50 I had a rude awakening. Sure I’d been eating at the adult table for a long time. I’m not kidding anyone when I say I’m still young, because I’m not. I’m simply immature. The next table I will be eating at will be the nursing home table. Followed by the hospital tray de puree. My body understands this. My brain doesn’t.

I see and feel myself getting old. When I look in the mirror, I notice my eyelashes have disappeared. They’re still there, but they are thin and flesh colored. Hundreds of childhood-fertilized, sun-baked wrinkles cover my face. My skin has thinned, and the face fat has disappeared. I’m getting “those horrid age spots!” they used to warn about in Esoterica ads, and worst of all, I am forever ripping out piano-wire-textured hair from my ears. I do not remember signing up for Chia Ears. Could someone call them off? I won’t even go into the age-related health problems. I’m saving my “organ recitals” for The Home.

So although I have physical signs of age, even beyond my years, my general psychological being is still an adolescent. So I’m paying attention to people a couple of decades older to prepare for what I’ll have to look forward to.

So far, there’s nothing.

I was at the pharmacy yesterday, and the woman in front of me, who was probably ten years my senior, was buying three giant-sized packages of generic adult diapers. “God,” I thought, “that could be me any day now. I’m so glad I’m not there yet.”

But I am there. After all, what was I standing in line for? To pick up my (fifty-dollar co-pay, thanks a lot) Celebrex prescription. For the osteoarthritis in my back.

I’m sure my brain is this way because it lives in denial. I nearly drowned last year when I got caught in a rip current in the Atlantic Ocean. I kept telling myself I’m one of the best swimmers I know, and I don’t need no stinkin’ lifeguards watching me. They couldn’t see me, of course, because they were dutifully patrolling their cell phones, having text conversations with their friends. I eventually swam out of it, but I did get to the point of yelling for help or drowning of pride. Other Bill helped rescue me. Will I swim out to a sandbar again? Probably. Because, to me, I’m not 53. My body tells me I am, but my brain is back in junior high school, wondering why all my friends are suddenly attracted to girls.

Granted, I have slowed down some. My body tells me that it’s perfectly all right to be ready for bed at 9:00 PM. Yet, my brain says, “Well if you’re going to do that, make sure you Tivo Dude, Where’s My Car? so you can watch it during the daylight hours.”

I try to eat healthy. During the weekdays, I have green tea for breakfast and an apple and a big carrot and a yogurt for lunch. But when candy, doughnuts or cookies are available at one of the many public offering tables at work, my afternoon repast will be a handful of tasty miniature Krackle bars, and if I’m lucky, a big piece of someone’s birthday cake.

My 53-year-old body tells me I should exercise to prevent myself from stiffening up. It says I should join a senior yoga class. But my 14-year-old brain says, “What that sore back needs is for you to push yourself all the way back in the recliner, put your feet up, have a couple stacks of those delicious, orange-colored Voortman vanilla-crème-filled waffle sandwich cookies while you enjoy two hours of Warner Brothers animation on the Cartoon Network. My brain bullies my body.

Doctors, therapists, and new age spiritualists all agree that you should listen to your body. But I can’t hear my body when my brain is screaming for ice cream. My brain uses a megaphone and holds the key to the sound-proof booth, where my body is isolated backstage.

I don’t know how or when my brain and body will merge and start to cooperate with each other. The brain is definitely the super-heavyweight in this fight, and my body is the light flyweight. The body will always be knocked out with the first punch.

So I stare curiously at older generations as if they will somehow give me a clue as to how this will come about. When I’m 80, I wonder, will I be driving a Lincoln Town Car and be shrunken up so badly that I can’t see over the steering wheel? In my twilight years, will I be wearing plaid pastel pants with white patent-leather loafers and matching belt? Who’s going to tell me when it’s time to stop wearing shorts and tank tops and jeans and worn-thin vintage t-shirts? At what point does wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt look more ridiculous than a leisure suit and a bow tie? Will I ever own a car that is not a stick shift? When will I want to listen to Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby or Celine Dion CD’s? The music thing may have already started, given the fact that there are four Mandy Patinkin CD’s in my collection. But how will the rest of the transition take place?

I’ll tell you how it’ll happen. This body, which has been bullied all its life by my brain, will finally rise up, grow a pair and fight back. Well maybe “fight” is too strong a word. It’ll just let go of the rope. The body knows Depends and Levi’s are not compatible. It is aware that no one at the nude beach wants to see your colostomy bag. It understands that portable oxygen tanks are not allowed on roller coasters. Wheelchairs are not going to cut it during vacations to hilly San Francisco. My body will refuse to step out into the sun without forming some kind of ugly, suspicious growth. My teeth will rot and crumble, leaving my body only mashed potatoes and Gerber products to consume. And as the body grows bolder yet sicker, the brain will have no choice but to relent, throw in the towel, and start doing what the body says. Unfortunately, by then, it’ll be too late. The brain will merely exist in regret.

Meanwhile, my brain is reminding me that it’s been a long time since I’ve gone—and it’s only a four-mile drive—to the beach for fudge and salt-water taffy. And maybe a nice new pair of flip-flops.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Tea for One

When you come over to our house, even though I always have it on hand, I will not offer you iced tea. There is usually lemonade, Diet Coke, water, and sometimes Fresca. But offering you a drink of tea will just be a waste of time. You won’t like it. I guarantee it.

Other Bill tends to put it on his list of available beverages to offer visitors, but I usually chime in with, “You probably won’t like the tea.” To some, that becomes a challenge. Who doesn’t like iced tea, after all, especially in the warm South Florida climate? The answer is everyone, unless, of course, you are my sister or a cousin on my Dad’s side of the family.

I’ll admit my iced tea looks like lawn clipping stew. Two thirds of it is brewed with green tree leaves that are rolled into the size of a BB. It is called gunpowder tea. When the hot water hits these pellets, they expand, just like those capsules that have animal-shaped sponges crammed into them. The other third is loose jasmine tea, to give it color and just a hint of flowery aroma. It has to be strained. My tea does not come in clean and convenient teabags. I don’t think I’m a tea snob, but I look at a teabag the way that Donald Trump looks at the rest of the world. In other words: I’m worth more than that.

The reactions to tasting my tea boil down to two. A polite person will express no displeasure with it, and he will spend the rest of the night thirsty while everyone else is enjoying their drinks. The ice will melt, leaving a glass of watered-down, untouched tea. An impolite person will wrinkle up his face as if he’s just taken a sip of a Rotten Sushi Slurpee, slam the glass down and say, “You really drink this shit? Can I have some lemonade instead?”

It’s true. I do drink that shit, and I have since I was twelve years old. Each summer when I’d go out to visit my Aunt Kay in Colorado, she’d fill up her 2-quart glass pitcher with the oranges painted on it, dump in a few teaspoons of gunpowder, and a few fewer of jasmine, and set it out on the side stoop in the morning. By lunchtime, it was sun-steeped and yellowish, and was a welcome thirst quencher. Initially I added teaspoons of sugar, but she gradually weaned me off of it until I drank it straight.

She would fill up the bottle again with water, set it outside, and we would drink it until it was too weak to differentiate from tap water. Then she’d make a new batch with new leaves. Call me wasteful, but I don’t adopt that Depression mode of tea recycling. I like it strong and bitter.

For the longest time, I made the tea in the sun, too. But Other Bill read something on the bastion of sketchy information, AKA the World Wide Web, which said that sun tea could encourage the growth of harmful bacteria. Other Bill’s job is as a safety and health regulator, so if I do not comply with his wishes, he threatens me with a fine. Plus he wasn’t fond of looking at sod floating in a pitcher of water every time he opened the fridge. So these days I make it in my iced tea maker, whom I refer to as Mr. Tea (I pity the fool that don’t drink this shit.) I dump the dry leaves into the bottom of the pitcher and let it steep until the water cools, and then I strain it into a gallon jug so that instead of looking like street runoff, with the leaves swirling around, it looks more like a giant urine sample. Much more appetizing.

I also get teased at work. Officers sometimes see the soggy tealeaf compost in the bottom of the Mr. Tea pitcher and threaten to field test it to see if for weed. People are not used to seeing tea out of a bag. Most people believe that teabags grow on bushes.

At my last job, a clueless party-girl intern staggered in one morning and watched me pouring off my delicious gunpowder mix, leaving the soggy tealeaf sludge behind.

“What is THAT?” she demanded to know.

I rolled my eyes. I’d been through this countless times. “It’s tea,” I told her.

“Well, it looks like leaves!” she said.

I just stared at her until she left the room.

I was so heartened when I had a cousins reunion at our house a few years ago, and everyone, except Other Bill, of course, drank that tea, because they learned to like it when they were young, too. I felt so warm, so tingly, so validated by people who actually had seconds. I have never felt less like a freak in my life. I was moved to tears.

The truth of the matter is, my sludge is actually good for you. Green tea is full of healthy anti-oxidants. It is good hot or cold. I drink two to three gallons of it a week.

It’s a little bit bitter, but it’s very refreshing and has a fresh aftertaste to it. I understand it’s an acquired taste, just like scotch or gin or bourbon, but without the harmful side-effects. I’m not trying to convert anyone. It’s pricey, about $10 a pound, so I hate pouring out the big glass that guests are too grossed out to finish.

All I want is a little respect. It is not a urine sample, nor soggy marijuana, nor flat beer. My tea has zero calories and very little caffeine. I don’t tease you when you gulp down 420 calories from 3 cans of cola. I say nothing about the possible dangers of artificial sweeteners as you chug down a diet soda and can only pray that your DNA or healthy cells won’t be affected by it.

I’m tired of being judged because of my beverage preference. I want anti-discrimination laws to read that I can’t be discriminated against because of race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation, or consumption of fluids that the majority of people find 100% reprehensible. Even Martin Luther King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” I happen to be quite fond of my cup of bitterness and don’t see how it even remotely relates to hatred.

Drinking something that looks like floating mulch is a cross I have to bear. I will never be part of a movement. I will never gain a following. There are no bitter tea drinkers support groups. Nevertheless, I will not be intimidated. I will not be silenced. I have a dream, too, you know. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed that all beverages are created equal; that they will realize that a man who boils water, steeps his tea leaves, waits patiently for his infusion to cool (a process that takes several hours), is not in any way better or worse that a manufacturer who churns out 2400 twelve-ounce cans per minute.

Until then, I am imploring Other Bill to no longer offer my bitter potion to houseguests. Wasting my beverage of choice will not in any way impede me from making more. I am a member of a small, exclusive club, which he has been invited to join but chooses not to.

Give me liber-tea, or give me death.

Well, okay, maybe not death. But not Lipton, either.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Joyful Hanukkah, Groovy Kwanzaa, and Pleasant Other December celebrations that I don’t know about. Now shut up and get shopping. There are toys to be bought.

These days, all the danger is taken out of toys. Everything has to be touched, tasted, burned, crash-tested and, of all the stupid things, checked for lead content. What hogwash. I was snacking on lead paint chips more often than Lay’s has potato chips, and do you see anything wrong with me? (He asked, typing with his tumorous stumps.)

I grew up in the golden years before the Consumer Product Safety Commission was born. Giant head-piercing Lawn Darts, blinding projectiles, small choking hazards, and BB guns were all the rage. We had hand-burning Thingmakers that cooked toxic Plastigoop Creepy Crawlers. We loved our pinching, scalding, finger-amputating Vacu-Forms that created plastic molds you did nothing with. It was just fun to melt the molds and inhale the toxic, new-car-smelling fumes. We danced in clouds made by DDT-spraying, mosquito-killing trucks that went up and down the streets on summer nights. Pesticide smelled so good in those days. Okay, maybe that wasn’t a gift. We are still monitoring our cells for a possible class action lawsuit.

I am a bit loathe to admit that the first Christmas present I completely adored was a Swingline stapler. I wanted that more than anything, and after I got it, I spent hours putting that stapler to work, and evaluating its power. Could it staple my sister’s sleeves shut? Absolutely. But could it staple her shoes shut? There were scores of experiments to run. It occupied me for days on end. Boys push their toys to the limit to determine what it takes to break their Christmas presents. And once they find out, they ask for another one for their next birthday. Hopefully by then it would be new and improved.

Thanks to government regulation, we no longer have to worry about getting shot with the teeny-tiny little James Bond figure that ejected out of a toy Aston-Martin into my cornea. My eye was bloodshot and sore four days after the ejection took place.

And speaking of cars, my sister wanted, but never got the Barbie Dream Car. She only got the cardboard Barbie Dream House, which, along with a fifth of bourbon, kept my uncle awake while he put it together one Christmas Eve. Those were the days when “some assembly required” meant, “hope you have at least a Master’s degree in civil engineering and the patience of a saint.”

I have a friend whose sister received the Barbie Dream Car. Alan’s sister built an intricate ramp on their front steps to send her Barbie dream car down. That was all fun and games until Alan poured lighter fluid all over it, tossed a match on it, and sent the Barbie Dream Hearse down in flames. Literally. With Barbie in it, of course. And Ken. To my knowledge, Mattel never did manufacture Flame Retardant Barbie. Now get the collectable, breakable Flame Retardant Barbie, made of genuine terra cotta clay and now with long, flowing, brushable asbestos hair! Ask your parents to give it to you for your next birthday!

Girls kept their dolls clean and groomed back then, but boys lived to destroy their Christmas gifts. It was more fun to crash your electric train into a cinder block rather than just watch it go around in circles. I had a battery-operated Hot Wheels Power Blaster that sent toy cars flying off the track, across the living room, and, if you aimed right, into your sister’s face. We’d bring in a ladder and build a Hot Wheels track from the top rung. This caused the gravity-powered cars to have momentum beyond what they were engineered for, and we’d sail them off a ramp to nowhere and tried to get them to plunge into a tub of Cool Whip. After that we just ran around the room with the tub of Cool Whip and tried to catch the car in it. Naturally this ruined shirts, stained carpeting and made upholstery, in spots, suspiciously shiny.

There was this stuff that came in a tube, the precursor to Super Elastic Bubble Plastic. It smelled like a combination of leaded gasoline and ammonia. You’d squirt a blob of it on the end of a straw, blow on it, and sometimes it would make this dreary, blue-gray, brittle, plastic bubble. Other times, you would just see a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

There was a compound sold around the time of the movies The Absent-Minded Professor, and its sequel, Son of Flubber. Flubber was a moldable plastic clay-like substance that had more bounce to it than Play-Dough could ever dream of. Mothers loved it because even though it was clear when new, Flubber turned black with dirty hands and was often ground into the new carpeting without a trace of hope of being removed.

Everything worth having back then contained the word “Super” in it. There was this tub of pink gelatinous slime, which I think was called Super—perhaps Sooper—Goop. It was hot pink, came in a small tub and smelled like formaldehyde. You would form a blob of it over your mouth, blow on it, and a bubble would form, pop, and drip down into the carpeting to piss off your mother, who was already busy scrubbing the blackened Flubber and Cool Whip out of the new shag. After Sooper Goop became passé, you could use it to preserve your dead parakeets.

There was the rock-hard, high-bouncing Super Ball, which could break car windows or give you a concussion. After that came the Super Small Ball, a tinier version. My friend, Ray, and I would go into the bathroom and throw it against the side of the bathtub and see how many times it hit parallel walls. That lasted until it bounced out and cracked the medicine cabinet door. How’d that happen? I dunno.

One Christmas, Ray got something called a Water Wiggle. Picture a fire hose that gets dropped and starts flying around, willy-nilly, smashing windows, denting cars and knocking very wet people unconscious. The Water Wiggle was a scaled down version of that. It was a narrow, pressurized hose with a goofy, bell-shaped face on the end of it. You attached it to a garden hose and it would fly around, spraying water, until it finally wrapped around your neck and strangled you like a boa constrictor. We figured out on our own that if you just kinked the garden hose, you could save the victim from asphyxiation, but only if you got there in time.

After months of begging, I finally got my Slip-n-Slide. Wham-o, the manufacturer, made the assumption when marketing this lengthy sheet of plastic, that people would spread it across spongy, cushioning grass. You would hook up your garden hose to it, and it would squirt water onto the plastic runner, and one would take a sailing dive on it and slide across the yard. Yippie!

We had zoysia grass. It’s like the grass used on putting greens. You can bounce Super Balls off of it. It is short-bladed and packed firmly into the hard earth beneath it. Jumping onto a Slip-n-Slide on zoysia grass was like taking a flying leap onto wet asphalt. You could only take it two or three times before you got a splitting headache or a spinal injury. Fortunately, Alan never tried setting you on fire while you slid across it. But only because I didn’t know him then; he probably would have.

One Christmas, I received, though never asked for, something called a wood burning kit. Probing the Internet, I see these things are still being made. How do you look at a seven-year-old boy and think, “What this fatherless, unsupervised boy needs is a pen that heats up to five billion degrees centigrade. He could use it to burn his name onto a wooden shingle. Or maybe set the house on fire. Wouldn’t that be nice?” I used my wood burning kit twice or three times, and never walked away without several giant blisters somewhere on my person. Billy’s birthday is just two weeks after Christmas. Maybe we’ll get him that Mattel Battlin’ Blowtorch or the Marx Miniature Nuclear Reactor.

Some genius made millions by threading a heavy glass ball on each end of a string and putting a plastic ring in the center. These things were called Clackers, because of the deafening sound they made when you bounced them against each other. It took weeks of practice and a fractured wrist before you could rattle them to sound like machine gun fire. Even my mother recognized them as unsafe. Although she feared more for the safety of our newly-acquired color TV set more than anything else. “You’re not allowed to play with those in the TV room,” she warned. “They could slip off the string and go through the television tube.” These clever toys were known to shatter, cut, blind, break bones and were the culprits of hundreds of concussions and other brain traumas. But as long as you don’t blow out the picture tube, knock yourself out. Why can’t you be more like your friends who spend a lot of time in the emergency room?

But thanks to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, kids don’t get so damaged these days. Characters in video games don’t really shoot back and hurt you, or punch you until you’re unconscious. Hopefully one day technology will advance so electronic games can actually hurt you, by locking themselves down when they ascertain that the child’s homework hasn’t been done.

We have the Consumer Product Safety Commission to thank for shielding us from the Hasbro Slippery Noose, the Milton Bradley Slice-n-Run Chain Saw, the Parker Brothers Quaalude Fun Factory, Let’s Play Surgeon! by X-acto, the Just Like My Stepdaddy’s Tire Iron from Matchbox, Mommy’s Little Transvestite Schoolwear for Boys from Abercrombie and Fitch, Ideal’s Home Crematorium, and the Charlie Manson Map of the Stars’ Homes by Remco.

Actually, I visited the CPSC’s web page on children’s toy recalls and counted 823. One of my favorites is a desk set shaped like a submarine that houses a tape dispenser, pencil sharpener, scissors, and a razor blade cutting tool. Recommended for ages 6 and up! It houses storage drawers, convenient for, I would imagine, holding your barbed wire, ninja throwing stars, Ritalin, and, if you’re Alan, flammable liquids. Thanks for catching that, CPSC! Maybe if I’m lucky, I can find one on eBay.

I also was fond of the recall of Good Neigh Bears, a choking-hazard plush toy given away free by State Farm insurance agents from 2005 to 2007. I wonder if their life insurance claims rose those two years. Kind of counter-productive, wouldn’t you say, State Farm?

You can take the toy away from the boy, but you can’t keep the boy from his imagination. We made blow dart guns from straws housing pin-embedded Q-Tips. They were deadly accurate. We burned ants (sometimes aunts, if they were asleep outside) and started brush fires using only the sun and a magnifying glass. We made rockets out of matches, toilet paper, and tin foil. We made miniature Hindenburgs with suffocating dry cleaner bags, balsa wood and birthday cake candles. They would rise about 6 feet off the ground and then burn and melt, possibly on you.

God, this whole thing makes me sound so old. I need a diversion. Maybe I’ll go play some cards or a game of Scrabble.

Or would I get paper cuts and choke? Perhaps shuffleboard is in my near future.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Search for Intelligent Hippies in the Universe


We didn’t intentionally set out searching for genuine hippies in San Francisco, but if we had, we would have been disappointed.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and our friend, David, and Other Bill and I had a huge, organic breakfast at Kate’s Kitchen in the Lower Height. For me, this meant 9-grain French toast covered with yogurt, covered with fruit, covered with granola, covered with honey. My plate weighed 15 pounds. Afterward, we waddled onto a bus to the Upper Height. There is obviously a huge weed-smoking contingent still in the Height-Asbury district, because there were stores that sold nothing but bongs and pipes and assorted drug paraphernalia that could get anyone arrested.

I figured this meant that San Francisco, especially that part of town, must still house thousands of genuine hippies, so I was intrigued and excited to see what they looked like these days. I was a little too young to be a genuine hippie. I was 12 the Summer of Love in 1969, when Woodstock and anti-war protests were headlining the news. By the time I was of hippie age, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Moody Blues and the Doors had been usurped by Morris Albert, Barry Manilow, Debby Boone, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Nothing good came out of the 70s. Boxy architecture, the color orange, polyester doubleknit leisure suits, shag carpeting and haircuts, platform shoes, neon blue eye shadow, the Plymouth Volare, pant suits, shiny Nik-Nik nylon disco shirts, pastel tuxedos, and cheap vodka prevailed after a decade of Frank Lloyd Wright, the color blue, jeans and t-shirts, natural long hair, PF Flyers, the VW Bug, terrazzo, 100% cotton, monogrammed Brooks Brothers dress shirts and vintage wine.

True hippies who survived would now be in their late 50’s through mid 70’s, I guess. But on that side of town with organic everything and an assortment of people sitting next to buildings smoking dope and pleading for spare change, did that genuine hippie tradition still live among the young? I wondered.

As we walked into Golden Gate Park, we were given the opportunity, before we even sat down, to buy some weed by four different young vendors. Apparently, marijuana has fallen into the hands of designers. In my former youthful weedy days, a heavy ounce of grass set you back $20. Now it can cost in the hundreds just for a little tidbit. Gone are the days of gentle, peace-loving people who sowed and reaped their own and shared it with all of their friends. Now it is just commerce, and quite competitive. Each dealer who approached us said his stuff was better than any other park dealer’s.

I felt oddly giddy thinking that at my age I was cool enough for these potheads to proposition. Reflecting back, just like the TSA screeners at the airport, they most likely flagged me just because of the beard. They don’t call it grass or weed anymore. They call it bud. Like “deer,” “bud” is singular and plural. It can be a bud or some bud. After we found a nice grassy place to lie in the sun to digest our organics (on a slope I later learned was called Hippie Hill), we were even offered the chance to buy it in the edible form of Rice Krispie treats. When I was a teenager, I often followed the recipes on the cereal box, and I sometimes made loaded brownies, but I never even thought of baking loaded Rice Krispie treats. At first I thought, “What a great idea,” until I remembered I could eat a whole pan of them in one sitting, so it’s probably best that I never mixed that concoction together. I would probably still be lying on the booth of my mother’s kitchen (even though she sold the house in 1982) listening to Simon and Garfunkel while topping off the crunchy treats with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Nabisco Mystic Mint cookies, if only they were still manufactured.

There was a small contingent of quasi-hippie types sitting next to us. They were rather unwashed and shaggy-headed just like the genuine hippies of the 1960’s. But they weren’t the quiet, peace-loving, earthy hippies. They were rather cranky and argumentative, and instead of noshing on vegan sandwiches on home-baked bread, they were tossing back Doritos and washing them down with shared quarts of Coors beer.

The quasi-hippies asked passersby if they needed any “bud,” and they weren’t getting many customers. Behind them sat an old blind woman with a homeless tan and long, straight hair. She looked like she was pushing 70, but she could have just as easily been 40. She could have been a genuine 60’s hippie, but I’m willing to bet she wasn’t blind back then.

The blind woman spoke up. “Why don’t you give me some of that bud? I’ve got my pipe here,” she said, in a voice reminiscent of 1970’s Lucille Ball, or perhaps Suzanne Pleshette with a head cold, as she displayed a small wood and steel smoking apparatus. In seconds, one of the quasi-hippies got up, took her pipe and stuffed it full of bud, and the old or not-so-old woman smoked it down to puree of ash.

A kind display of generosity, I thought. Maybe these were genuine hippies and not quasi-hippies after all. Sharing. Community. Peace, love, freedom, happiness? Except for the once-boycotted beer and Doritos, they appeared to shun everything corporate or commercial. One of them even yelled out, to no one in particular, “We’ve got more hippies than you have rugby players.” No one was playing rugby within eyeshot. There was a flag football game going on, and farther down the field there was a Frisbee football game taking place. So, as high as they were, they apparently labeled themselves as hippies. I began to feel hope in the hippie rebirth.

We lay back in the cool air slightly warmed by the California sun. Occasionally I would sit up and observe, and sometimes just lie back and listen to the growing throng of nearby percussionists: bongo and conga drum players, cowbell clangers, zither zippers maraca rattlers, and people shaking coins in soda cans. The rhythm was wonderful and exotic and grew stronger as more musicians showed up, including an accenting clarinetist and a recorder tooter.

It was sweet, relaxing, and peaceful; one might even say, “groovy.” Who needs bud, thought this 53-year-old, when the air was so clean, the sun was so warm, and the music was so trance-inducing?

As time went by, the blind woman passed out on the lawn. Two police cars idled by on the walking path, and even though the park was rife with drug dealers and there was a slight hint of burning hemp in the air, no one was arrested, although everyone was eyed suspiciously.

As the hippies/quasi-hippies grew louder and drunker, I started to rescind their possible authenticity as arguments bloomed and insults were hurled among the group. What finally convinced me, however, was the shrill chirp of a cell phone that shot above the peaceful percussion beat. One of the quasi-hippie girls got up, answered her phone and left the group. Apparently, her mother wanted her home, so she quickly exited the park.

I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. These were not hippies; just self-indulgent, young, garden-variety substance abusers. If they were anything, they were 70’s people wearing natural fibers. I was disappointed. If these people wanted to call themselves hippies, then they were desperately in need of reading Hippies for Dummies. Maybe someone will write a comic book version of it, or perhaps, text it to them.

There seemed to be no shared cause among them, other than who had the most severe case of the munchies. The 60’s people had Vietnam as their cause. We 70’s people had Watergate. Who was griping for this generation of people? Those tea-baggers, or tea-party people, or whatever they’re called. They are the voices of protest today, and universal health care is something 60’s and 70’s folk would be marching for, not against. I wouldn’t trade all the AMC Pacers, Chevy Vegas, and Exploding Pintos manufactured or all the 45’s of Disco Duck, Convoy, and Piña Colada Songs pressed in the world for having to carry around that legacy. I’ll throw in Pet Rocks, mood rings, and streakers as well.

The sun was moving westward, and it was time to get moving and return to the hotel. We were again offered the chance to purchase some more bud just before we got to the children's playground, this time with the lure of free samples. Again we declined. As we walked through the kids’ section, we watched diverse families climbing, swinging, bouncing, spinning, and supervising. How many of these children and toddlers would grow up and become hippies?

None, I decided. If real hippies still existed, surely they’d be in Golden Gate Park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

We crossed at the traffic light on Stanyon and walked (sadly, past the McDonald’s on Haight) into Amoeba Music, a converted bowling alley filled with miles of new, used, off-the-cuff and tough-to-find vinyl albums and cassette tapes, but mostly CD’s. Even in retro San Francisco, 8-tracks are no longer alive. I meandered into the Folk section, where I found myself totally alone. You could hear crickets chirp. I happened upon a Simon and Garfunkel CD, a live recording from New York City in 1967. It was five bucks, so I bought it. I went back and listened to the sweet harmony and simplicity of two twenty-something young men and one acoustic guitar, and it made me long for earlier years.

I wondered if there were any genuine hippies still living in Central Park. Maybe it’s worth a visit to find out.


Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Honey Bunches of Christ, or The Holy Host: It's Not Just for Communion Anymore

At the funeral of a deeply loved family friend a couple of years ago, I took communion for the first time in decades. Anyone who knows me is aware that religion plays no part in my life, especially organized religion, but I did it for Bobbie. She had, after all, taken me out for peppermint ice cream at the Old Meeting House and presented me with a prayer book after my first communion, so I thought this would be a very nice closure in a circle-of-life kind of way.

Even Other Bill, who’s Jewish, went up to the altar with me, knelt down and got blessed by the priest. No body and blood of Christ for him, though.

Communion was a big deal growing up. Like it or not, we attended confirmation classes, where we all thanked God we were Episcopalian and not Catholic, because catechism took so much longer, was so much more involved, and we’d gotten word that nuns would crack you across the knuckles with rulers if you stumbled while reciting a creed.

I don’t remember much about confirmation classes. We had a very liberal deacon who showed us religious 16mm movies, and then, because we were eleven-year-olds, he’d show the movie backwards. Nothing like watching people spitting wine back into the chalice and the body of Christ back into the priest’s hand to lighten up an evening. And by the way, have you ever watched an hour-long movie backwards? After you stand up and leave the room, you feel like you should be walking backwards. It’s very dizzying; kind of like getting off the Tilt-a-Whirl.

One thing I do remember about confirmation classes was that there was some memorization, mostly creeds. All I remember now are the Nicene Creed, and um, the Apollo Creed. I also remember being shocked to learn that Pontius Pilate (who I thought was named “Conscious Pilot” (apparently now an extinct breed) never flew an airplane in his life.

My sister had graduated from confirmation class 3 years before and was partaking of the body and blood of Christ, and didn’t she think she was hot stuff to being allowed to drink wine. A priest feeding alcohol to a minor: Why does that just not sound right these days? But that was the big deal about your first communion: your first taste of alcohol.

I had talked to my best friend, a Methodist and was kind of grossed out to learn that at their communion, they gave out grape juice in little cups. Nobody sipped from the chalice. Just a cracker and a sip of Welch’s from a tiny plastic Nurse Ratchet pill cup that you tossed in a can on your way back to your pew. Apparently the Methodist version of Jesus was a teetotaler; no booze running through his veins. It seemed very cold and impersonal to me. There were no plastic cups at the Last Supper.

I’ve been reading that more churches are shelving the chalice and moving to the little pill cups, due to sanitation issues, especially now that the H1N1 flu is in full swing. That little napkin the priest uses to wipe the lipstick off the chalice isn’t exactly an autoclave, you know. And alcohol doesn’t kill all viruses. If it did, no gay man would ever have gotten AIDS, nor would have any Episcopalian. But I kind of like the chalice. It instills in me as a parishioner a sort of family belonging. It puts the “commune” in “communion.”

Long before I took confirmation classes, I thought that people were actually eating pieces of Jesus and drinking his actual blood. After all, up at the altar, the priest gave you a little disk that my sister always said tasted like envelope glue, and said, “The body of Christ.” They never asked if you wanted white or dark meat. That was followed by a sip of wine and the priest saying, “The blood of Christ.” I couldn’t logically figure out how there was so much Jesus to go around. There ware so many churches. You’d have thought by then they’d have run out of Jesus pieces. But I just chalked it up with one of the mysteries of life, like Santa Claus. You’re telling me one man drops by every house on planet earth and leaves presents for children he met just two weeks before at Monkey Wards?

It wasn’t until later when I learned that communion was just a symbolic ritual, and not the actual chunk o’ Christ. So you had envelope glue body, cheap port wine for blood, so why not fried pork rinds, too? “The body of Christ, the blood of Christ, and the skin of Christ." Would you like to see a dessert menu?” Hey, if you’re tithing 10% of your income, there should be a Buffet of Christ. Or at least a Snack Bar of Christ. Let’s all go to the altar to get ourselves a treat.

I do remember my first communion, and uncharacteristic of me, I looked forward more to tasting that wafer than the wine. But it was not to be. I don’t know what happened; maybe the church ran out of hosts, but that night we were served little chunks of bagels instead of envelope glue wafers. What, no whitefish salad to go on this? And which way to the pickle bar, dawlink? I thought it was kind of classy and inclusive, and I’m pretty sure that Jesus, as a Jew, would have given it his full endorsement.

As it turned out, I discovered during my second communion that I actually liked the taste of the wafers, those body of Christ substitutes, and I rediscovered that flavor once again at Bobbie’s funeral. So at my next party I’m serving cheeses on Jesus. I can walk around with a tray with brie and Stilton cheese topped on the wafer of Christ, and offer, in my best Don Pardo voice: “Aaaand here’s your host!”

To accommodate this, I have learned that through the miracle of the Internet, you can actually order those tasty wafers for a fraction of the price of Triscuits. You can get a thousand of them, gluten-free, if you want, for less than twenty bucks. Some are still made by cloistered nuns. You can’t say that about Triscuits. The only thing that comes close is the Keebler elves.

Apparently the people I love most, Quebecers, have already adopted Body of Christ Chips as a diet snack food. If you don’t believe me, go here:
Leave it to the snowbirds to find something cheap to fill their guts with.

Despite the sad occasion, it was nice being back at St. John’s, the church I grew up in. It was nice to get a little reminder-taste of the Son of God. And I don’t think I would shock myself if the next time I’m in Tampa on a Sunday, I found myself wanting to attend mass. I sure did enjoy the choir.

But maybe I’ll wait until next summer, after the Swine Flu is on the decline.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Confusing Facts of Life


I was eleven or twelve when my mother finally gave me the birds and the bees talk. Up until then I was pitifully ignorant on how babies were made. Although not as ignorant as the granddaughter of my next-door neighbor, who thought babies were born through the mother’s nostrils.

“Yeah,” I remember saying, “maybe if you’re a booger baby.” Although what I believed wasn’t exactly sane, either.

I thought all babies were delivered by C-section. I surmised that every mother had to be sliced open to have the baby removed. That was how, I was told, my sister and I were delivered, so I assumed that was the way everyone came out. I knew they didn’t go out through the nose, and I didn’t suspect there was any other way of getting something big out of a body.

I also assumed that most women automatically got pregnant by some kind of act of God after they were married. More than once I had heard childless married women say, “We weren’t blessed with children,” so I guess that is where I got the Divine Conception theory. I thought that married women who did not have kids had done something to piss off God. When I told my sister this one morning as we were walking to the day camp bus stop, she said, “Are you kidding me? That’s how you think women get pregnant? You and Mom need to have The Talk.”

Even though I was the only male in a house of three, women were nevertheless a complete mystery to me. For years I had played with the cardboard tampon applicators that set next to the toilet in a pink rubber trashcan, which oddly enough, I still own today (the can, not the applicators). I didn’t know what they were, and I certainly didn’t know where they’d been, but it was fun to play with the little telescopes while I sat on the toilet. Here’s something I don’t like to admit. If you push your thumb over the bottom of one and blow down into the other end, they make a great whistle.

One day in fifth grade, all the girls got to leave the classroom to go see a movie in the auditorium. The boys were never told what it was about, so we just automatically assumed the worst, figuring it was a full-length Disney animation, or even disheartening to us, The Batman Movie. The boys never got to go see a movie in the auditorium without girls. It just wasn’t fair.

Once, my sister was applying to go to sleepover camp, and I had looked at the application. One of the questions was: “Does your daughter know about menstruation?”

“Hey, Kathryn,” I asked, “what’s menstruation?”

She looked up from her eighth-grade homework at me. “Ask your mother,” she said.

Before I go on, there are a couple of things you have to understand:

1.) My mother hated her job. She worked for an overly-frisky, borderline abusive narcissist, your typical 60’s asshole-in-charge government supervisor.

2.) My mother believed that she was going to be one of those bridge-playing, Junior-Leaguing, garden-clubbing, hat-wearing Ladies Who Lunch. My father was a prestigious editorialist who helped shape public opinion. He was funny and entertaining and had friends in high society, so Mom actually had reason to believe she was headed toward a life of leisure. That shit hit the jet-propelled fan when Dad died, and she had to go to work. Not only did she hate her job, but also she resented working. She also told us that it was my father, not her, who wanted to have kids.

With those two things in mind, it’s pretty obvious that the first thing you want to hear from your ten-year-old son when you walk in the door (after coming home from a crappy day at work with a sexist pig boss at a job you thought you’d never have to work to support children you never wanted to have in the first place, and all you wanted to do now was curl up in bed with a good book and a fishbowl full of bourbon, ice and water) is not: “Mom? What’s menstruation?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” she sighed, kicking off her heels, “go look it up in the dictionary.” And she headed towards the ice cube tray.

So I did look it up in our ancient Webster’s dictionary. I’m sure it was no different from today’s modern online version:
men·stru·a·tion: a discharging of blood, secretions, and tissue debris from the uterus that recurs in nonpregnant breeding-age primate females at approximately monthly intervals and that is considered to represent a readjustment of the uterus to the nonpregnant state following proliferative changes accompanying the preceding ovulation; also : period.

So, yeah, that really shed light on it for me. Whatever it was, it sounded pretty disgusting, and since it only occurred in female primates, I knew it was never going to happen to me, so I was happy not to pursue it.

“Where’s your sister?” visiting friends asked that summer.

“She’s at menstruation camp,” I’d say.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t you know anything? Look it up in the dictionary.”

This was a common ploy of mine. As long as I made people think I knew things, I got by. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was a master at this. There were three groups of boys in the sixth grade: those who knew about sex, those who didn’t know about sex, and those who pretended to know about sex. The cool boys were the ones who knew about it. The ones who pretended to know about it could hang out with the cool guys, but neither of those groups would associate with the ignorant. As a pretender, I had to watch everything I said.

So my sister had begged mom to Explain Things to me. I had embarrassed her too many times about things that shouldn’t be brought up in a public venue. (“Mom? What are those little telescopes in the bathroom trash can?” I once asked at a cafeteria.) But it wasn’t until I formally made the request for my facts of life talk that Mother finally gave in.

I had asked because I had blown my cover with the cool boys. I had made a fatal faux pas in telling a friend of mine to go give a girl a “blow job.”

Everyone was talking about blow jobs in sixth grade. I took everything literally. Why would you want someone to inflate your penis? Wouldn’t that hurt? Where does the air actually go? Out your nose? Would they have to cut it out of you?

“Bill,” Joe had said, “you can’t blow a girl.”

I was immediately transferred to the other side of the line drawn in the sand: in the corner with the unknowing.

I’d had enough. It was getting too confusing. Girls could menstruate but couldn’t get blow jobs. Boys could get blow jobs but not give them, and they couldn’t menstruate. So it was that night I had made the request. Mom asked for some time and told me to start writing down the questions I had.

I grew impatient. I had to know and know now. A gap was growing between the boys in my class who knew the facts and me. I was so anxious about it, I was wetting the bed. I secretly slept on towels at night. One day Mom brought home something in a paper bag and quickly skipped the ice cube tray and went in her bedroom. A minute later she came out into the kitchen without the package.

This is how I ruined every Christmas. Every present was peeked at. Mail that I was not supposed to read was also hidden in her room. There was no lock on her door, and I had a two after-school hour window to snoop through her room to find things I had no business finding.

What I found was this tall, narrow, very colorful book called Take the High Road, which would have been better titled, Don’t Even Think About Masturbating. I sneaked it into my room and read the entire book in less than 15 minutes. It was a puritanical book warning against getting involved with the wrong crowd and dictating the way boys should treat girls, but its focus was a list of things that could happen if you masturbated. You would fall into the wrong crowd. That would lead to catching VD and not being able to graduate from high school. The illustrations were sinister and frightening. The book insisted that whacking off could damage the penis and make you sterile, which I assumed meant really, really clean. This book was of no help, but it sure made me a lot more curious about jerking off. This would turn into the first of many things in life I did that were allegedly bad for you, but really, really felt good doing them. The sad part is, it was the least harmful.

I put the book back in the bag and returned it to her top dresser drawer, under her bras. I went back to my bedroom and wrote down more questions. And made sure I had my secret towel ready for my slumber that night.

That Friday, after supper and the dishes were done and my sister had left the house to spend the night at the house of one of her menstruation camp mate's, Mom and I sat down on our beat-up sectional sofa in the den.

She had a legal pad and a sharp number 2 pencil, and she drew what looked like the head of a bull (the horns, I soon learned, were called fallopian tubes) and started the explanation. The mysteries of erections, fornication, impregnation, masturbation, and yes, even menstruation were solved in less than an hour. And I cried with relief to find out I wasn’t a bed wetter at all but merely an innocent wet dreamer, a mere adolescent with normal, textbook nocturnal emissions. I was pleased to find I was headed toward adulthood, not reverting back to diapers.

We then switched to the question-and-answer period.

My first question was, “What’s a blow job?” It was reluctantly explained with moderate disgust.

“Next question,” Mom prodded.

“What do homosexuals do?” I asked.

Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped ever so slightly. She stood up.

“I’m going to go fix a drink,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

She returned shortly, dark brown cocktail in one hand and Take the High Road in the other.

She took a swig of her drink and sat back down.

“I bought you this book,” she said, handing me the diversion.

Tossing it aside, I said, “Thanks. So, what do homosexuals do?”

“How do you know about homosexuals?” she asked.

“Everyone knows about that. I just want to know what they do.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s one of my questions. You’re the one who asked me to write down all my questions and said you’d answer them all.” Sheesh. It was like pulling teeth.

Eventually she told me what homosexual men and lesbians did to each other.

I was so excited. I couldn’t wait until Monday so I could tell Joe that women could get blow jobs.

But only from other women.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Blob

What you are about to read may contain very strong sexual or offensive language, strong explicit nudity, very strong gore or disturbing violence, or graphic drug abuse. Essays with this rating should not be read by anyone over 18 (even if they are accompanied by an adolescent) and are usually edited to get an "R" rating. Today NA-17 essays are called "uncut" for verification that very graphic sex or violence scenes will be depicted.
Or it may just contain vivid descriptions of snot.

Whenever I want to make myself laugh, I think of this one particular “incident” I had with my friend Julie in college. I sometimes do this intentionally, and I can really get myself laughing maniacally if I don’t stop thinking about it. If I were an actor, I’d use this to my benefit if given a scene that required me to perform floor-punching, hysterical laugher. I don’t know why I find it so funny, but I doubt seriously that I’ll get through writing this without slipping over the edge several times.

I first met Julie in junior high school, although we really didn’t like each other then. We were both in band, and she admitted years later that she couldn’t stand me at that time. Julie was always high strung, and she wore her emotions on her sleeve. The first time I noticed this was when she got into an argument with the band conductor. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I do remember that he was the kind of person you didn’t want touching you. He was creepy in a Bela Lugosi kind of way. His skin was semi-transparent and tissue-papery, and Vitalis dripped out his thinning gray hair. I believe he made a sexist innuendo from his podium, and Julie took issue with it, and they went back and forth until he sent her down to the dean’s office.

Even at age fourteen, she had balls bigger than anyone I knew, and I always admired that. She was dramatic in a Bette Davis, Depression-era movie kind of way. To this day she is the only person who has ever thrown a drink in my face in a restaurant. Or anywhere, for that matter.

When we got into high school, we were still in band, which was overcrowded. Neither of us bonded with the director (“I can’t respect a man who blows his nose on a washcloth,” she once said.) We both had the low honor of being Band Alternates. As if being a band nerd wasn’t bad enough, we were the leper nerds of the Plant High School marching band. There were a set number of people needed to march the formations. Any extra players, instead of practicing marching every day on the football field, had to show up and just sit in the stadium. If someone was sick or broke a leg or couldn’t play for any reason, the director would put in an alternate. If he’d been a reasonable person, he would have switched out alternates for each game, but that’s not how he operated. We were Permanent Alternates. The Not Good Enough. During the entire school year I marched once.

Julie and I got to know each other while being leper Alternates, roasting in the afternoon sun on splintery wooden bleachers. We learned we had a lot in common. We both were in single mom-led families, something that was much more the exception than the rule back then. Both of our mothers were “heavy drinkers” (although neither of us would ever utter the “A” word about that.) We both loved Volkswagens. Her mother had a tan squareback, and when I turned 16 I bought a ’71 Superbeetle. And we both shared a perverted sense of humor and adored the grotesque.

A friend of her mother’s was opening a restaurant, and Julie got me my first job as a shrimp peeler/dish washer there. We got work permits and health certificates together, which were required of anyone under the age of sixteen. Ever the emotional one, Julie almost fainted while having her blood drawn for the health certificate. And she cried.

Although I never told her so back then, Julie was lovely. She had blazingly white, wavy Lady Godiva hair that she wore in a long braid that stretched all the way down her back. But the thing about her that really got to me was her laugh. It was loud and sharp, and once she got going she would throw her head back, look towards God, and bring her hand up to her chest as if she was grasping make-believe pearls. It physically drained her. When she ran out of air, she would stomp her feet back and forth until she could stop laughing long enough to inhale.

Just as she was hot-headed and dramatic, she was also quick to laugh and fast to forgive. And I did plenty of unforgivable things in those years.

As time passed, we remained close friends, but we were also, at times, viciously passive-aggressive. To know and to love Julie was like living in a kettle of fish. You couldn’t help but admire her assertiveness, and she was seemingly fearless. You also recognized that there were times when Julie would not only stir the pot, but would light the flames under the kettle, and before you knew it, everyone in the pot would turn into an uncomfortable, steaming bouillabaisse. I, on the other hand, was only mean and inconsiderate. Julie would always calmly say, “Bill, I can’t wait ’til you die so I can dance on your grave.” And after we graduated and shared a 50-minute commute to college, I would sometimes leave her stranded out there, forcing her sister to drive out and pick her up.

Which brings us to The Incident. One late afternoon after classes, we got in my bug, buckled up, and I let out this rip-roaring, fender-popping sneeze. “God, Bill,” Julie said, “flip the car, why don’t you?”

I’d had a headache all day, and didn’t want to get into it with her, so I just apologized. As we headed west on Fowler Avenue, I noticed that my headache was almost gone.

We are approaching the NA-17 segment of our program. You may want to leave now.

There are times when you get something caught between your respiratory system and digestive system. You have to get rid of it, but you can’t decide the best way to remove it from your body, so you try both ways. You try blowing your nose to get it out through the respiratory system. When that fails, you try to swallow it and hawk it up into your mouth to expel it. But sometimes, neither system works satisfactorily, so you just stop, conceding that in time it will work its way out on its own.

This foreign body isn’t really snot. It’s a semi-translucent, whitish-clear color. Maybe it’s 20% snot, 80%, uh, I don’t know, but for want of a better word, let’s call it “organic latex.” Like a bungee cord, it is extremely rugged and quite stretchable. Sometimes you blow out only the beginning of it, and you can pull the rest out, like a magician with endless tied-together silk handkerchiefs up his sleeve. It is tough yet adhesive, and well held-together, and sometimes you can pull the whole alien out of your nose and feel it resurrect up the back of your throat. Sometimes it hurts to unearth. But it is so bizarre and so elastic that you could use it to secure luggage to the roof rack of your car. Let’s give it a name and call it The Blob. We have all produced this at some time in your life.

A little later, we stopped at a red light, and I noticed something bright and shiny in the hollow of the tiny armrest on the door of my car. I stuck my finger in to the opening and pulled out what appeared to be the largest Blob known to mankind. I really didn’t know what it was or how it got there. To this date, it has never been matched, either size or durability. It dangled from my pointer like a giant, slimy pendulum, or perhaps a baby elephant’s trunk.

“Good God!” I exclaimed. “What the hell is this?”

Julie took one look at it and, remembering The Sneeze ten minutes earlier, began howling. She grasped her chest and turned her head upwards. Her feet drum rolled against the floorboard of the car. She was radish-red, and tears streamed down her face, and when I moved The Blob closer to her for further examination, she screamed, hit my arm away and continued laughing and crying and screaming until after the light turned green and we approached the interstate.

Her laugh was infectious. After I remembered the sneeze, and could therefore identify the foreign object, I should have pulled over. We were both hysterical. I don’t remember what I did with The Blob, but knowing the kind of person I was back then, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I at least tried to hang it from my rearview mirror, just as people do with CD’s and beads today. I should have bottled it, or somehow preserved it for science. It was simply not of our species. We were on the highway a long time before either of us could speak again, and when we did, we could only have tiny conversations until Julie would recall my prying The Blob out of my armrest, and off she’d go again. That would, in turn, prompt me to start laughing breathlessly as we rushed southward on the interstate. It wasn’t safe. I’m surprised that Mothers Against Laughing Drivers was never launched.

When we pulled up to her house, Julie plopped down on the sidewalk and went into her last nuclear-powered hysterical rant. She reclined onto her back and rolled side-to-side, stomping her sandaled feet, and I soon joined her, getting to the point of silent laughter, where all you can hear is breathless wheezing. I don’t know what was funnier: the incident itself, or just watching her being so tickled. It took a long time to stop. There would be a minute of getting under control, and then for another few minutes we went off on another doubled-up, cackling binge. If any neighbors saw us, they probably assumed we were under the influence of some really good weed. It was painful. My abs were sore the next day.

Julie and I have spoken several times about this in the last three decades, and every time we do, we both still get out of control.

And luckily for me, she has passed this story on to both of her children. And if this legend keeps being handed down, I hope one day it will be a common folk song played around summer campfires: “The Blob That Ate the Volkswagen.”

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Is anyone planning on celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Y2K scare? And if not, why not? Maybe if I play my cards right, we can actually re-live it.

For those of you who were either not yet born or were just not paying attention, bad things were predicted for New Year’s Eve, 1999. According to some reports, people wouldn’t be able to order Happy Meals or flush their toilets. All traffic lights would go dark, and nuclear power plant meltdowns would force us to duck and cover. Reactionaries hoarded food and water, bought guns, ammunition, extra door locks, gas masks, survival books, and hazmat suits. Bank failures and a global economic collapse would trigger the launching of nuclear missiles. Even normally rational people were withdrawing all their cash from banks, because there were rumors that ATM’s would not work, all because mainframe date fields might remain at two digits instead of increasing to four. Because it was over-reported, people naturally overreacted. There was global paranoia.

Instead of the earth exploding, people woke up on the first day of 2000, amazed to find their televisions still working, and all channels were running endless loops of Emily Litella chirping, “Never mind.”

Y2K was a scam. Overnight, people who were good proposal writers became millionaires. According to a February, 2000 article in Money magazine, the Y2K scare cost American businesses half a trillion dollars, all of which, I suspect, was awarded to contract workers from Bangalore, India. After, of course, the proposal writers who procured them were paid.

I worked in IT at the time and was relieved to learn one Friday in late 1998 that not one person on our staff would be dedicated to Y2K repair. It would all be taken care of by a group of contractors. I was so thankful to learn that Y2K would not interrupt my afternoon tradition of playing endless games of Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows that I took that afternoon off to go and play it at home rather than from behind a locked office door. It was so much more fun with the sound turned on.

I worked in a rural town of 1800 people. When I moved in, there was one stoplight. When I left, there were three. Most of the jobs in the area were manufacturing jobs with companies that produced either a) drugs, or b) alcohol. In fact, I challenge any other city of 1800 to show that the majority of their residents work for companies that enable addiction. I suspect that Elkton, Virginia, has the highest per-capita rate of workers dedicated to making people drunk or high. It is so remote and out of the way that the nearest town with a movie theater or a Walmart is Harrisonburg, sixteen miles away. There is no public transportation. Most people have pickup trucks. Ours was the only one without a gun rack mounted on the rear window. Ours was a parasol rack.

So I will never forget that following Monday morning when two taxis, quite possibly the entire fleet of Harrisonburg Yellow Cab, pulled up and dropped off 6 Indian nationals who were to be our Y2K programmers for the next several months.

I am not proud of the way they were treated. They were all shoved into a dirty, crumbling trailer with toxic paneling and discarded office equipment. This work environment, sad to say, was identical to mine. Yet in opposition to the 14 years I spent there, none of the Indians frittered away hours composing letters to the editor and company vice presidents, insisting that we were working in poisonous, sub-human conditions.

Eventually the six of them pitched in and bought two sputtering old cars so they didn’t have to pay the outrageously expensive taxi fare to and from The Burg. They were all more comfortable living in a movie-theater-sized town instead of backwoods Elkton. And even that wasn’t a safe bet, as once an uncooperative Mexican migrant worker was literally shot out of a tree for not obeying law enforcement. Turns out he didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t understand the commands. And let’s face it: Elkton was far more frightening to an alien. If you weren’t born in Elkton and had generations of inbred families that came before and after you, then you were not to be trusted. If you were brown-skinned and spoke without a twang and were hard to understand, you were one deer-rifle-shot away from the grave.

As one of the alcohol employees, I was in training and technical support, so I didn’t have much to do with the Y2K fixers. My job, by then, was pretty much obsolete. If you didn’t know anything about computers, the company didn’t hire you. Yet, I was still teaching at the Control-Alt-Delete level. Trainees often usurped the class from me and did a better job of teaching than I did.

The Y2k Indian tribe interfaced minimally with our database programmers, and if it wasn’t for the smell of curry wafting from the microwave of our shared break room, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed they were there. They were soft spoken, self-supervised and self-testing. I always suspected that they weren’t Y2K fixers at all, but rather spies from an outsourcing company, EDS, which one year later took over our department and fired everyone who failed to suck up to their corporate executives. And the ones who spent too much time behind locked office doors playing Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows.

A few months later, the programmer/spies/tribesmen proclaimed our systems to be Y2K compliant, and they drove off in their one remaining rickety car, and we never saw them again.

If you were an IT employee at my company, once every 8 weeks you were tethered 24/7 to a company-supplied pager, shoebox-sized cell phone and 25-pound laptop computer. You took them wherever you went, as if they were the nuclear code briefcase. I would solve all the unimportant requests, like the ones that came from pustules who would call at 3 am because they forgot their Outlook passwords. Most of the other calls were too complicated for me, so I always had to chase down our database administrator and let her take care of the brainy problems. Fortunately, she had the nuke box the week of the Y2K click-over, but I still had to work for 8 hours on Saturday, January 1, 2000, in case an unseen Indian Y2K bug created a production delay. During those eight hours, my phone rang exactly zero times, and I got so bored playing Space Cadet: 3-D Pinball for Windows that I can’t even launch that program today, sounded or silent, without feeling as if I just swallowed a handful of Ambien.

While I was “working” that day, the rest of America was logging on to eBay to sell the emergency supplies they had purchased in order to sustain life after the Y2K Armageddon. When people realized they’d been duped, their generators, battery-operated ovens and icemakers, water purification tablets, Pocket Fishermen, and cases of margarita mix were sold at a fraction of their original purchase price. Elsewhere in the world, proposal writers retired and shopped for real estate in St. Tropez and St. Barts. In India, underpaid former Y2K fixers rang in the new year with double portions of dahl and naan, e.g., beans and bread to all you Elktonians.

So I’m thinking the best way to celebrate the anniversary it to revitalize it. If I could get some major clients on board: IBM, Oracle, and perhaps SAP, and get them to publish white papers warning the world that computers have crashed when post-2010 dates have been entered, we could relive the entire bogus scenario. Once it’s reported on CNN, I’ll download and plagiarize a proposal from the Web, change 2000 to 2010 and e-mail it to all the Fortune 500 companies. One of them, some think-outside-the-box, proactive-instead-of-reactive MBA will have to believe me. And I’ll move into a skuzzy trailer, join a tribe, and pretend to work. A few months later, I’ll be yacht shopping.

But first I’ll need to find a new computer game to keep me looking busy.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Auntie's Boy

(with apologies for the sappiness.)
Every summer for six years in a row I hopped on a plane headed west. Usually it was on the now-defunct Braniff Airlines. I don’t know why Braniff went out of business, but two reasons float to the surface: 1) Their tickets were dirt-cheap; 2) They commissioned the inventor of the mobile, internationally-acclaimed artist Alexander Calder to design “Flying Colors,” a fleet of jets he painted in wild, abstract designs, just as amorphous and vibrant as his regular, non-jetliner pieces. Imagine what that must have cost. Imagine Southwest, hiring, say, Robert Rauschenberg to do the same thing today. Not only would it cost millions, but it would be tough to execute, since he’s dead.

Before I got my first paying job at age 15, I would fund these annual trips by collecting and recycling aluminum cans and deposit bottles. It takes 32 cans to make a pound of aluminum, and I would get ten cents a pound for them. From September to May I had to collect 32,000 cans to make a hundred bucks. Soda bottles were much more profitable, but they were much more difficult to find. So to make fifty bucks, I had to locate only 1000 Coke bottles. $150 would pay for my flight and give me a little summer spending money.

I was motivated to do this so I could spend three months with my Aunt Kay, my dad’s sister, and my favorite person in the world. If I stayed home during the summer, my mother would force me to enroll in bizarre institutions, such as the Sadomasochistic B&R Ranch Day Camp, where ne’er-do-wells and rule breakers would be publicly beaten at the daily “council ring” meetings. I also once spent two weeks at Vacation Bible School, a long, tedious ten days of hell. When they asked how we wanted to celebrate the last day, I suggested a Jesus piñata. Whatever the event, they were always things I hated, so it was in my best interest to go west in the summertime.

Aunt Kay and Uncle Earl would pick me up at Stapleton and take me home. If I arrived after dinner (Did you know they used to serve meals on domestic flights? It’s true,) then there would be a fresh-baked apple pie (Kay’s specialty) and Dolley Madison butter brickle ice cream (Earl’s favorite) to top it. If I arrived before dinner, there was always my favorite meal: corn flake chicken, pan-fried potatoes and a fresh garden salad. I was spoiled rotten every summer. It was worth every bottle and can I picked up.

The first thing I saw when I entered the house was Kay’s amazing Chambers gas stove. She had cooked on that stove from the day they moved into the house they built in the late 30’s. It was a beautiful white Art Deco stove with red knobs and handles and built-in salt and pepper shakers. Above it hung a set of Revere Ware pots, pans, and skillets. Stainless steel with copper bottoms, they were always kept shiny by her scrubbing them with Twinkle copper cleaner and a nylon net scrubbie she made herself.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there was something defining about those shiny copper bottomed pans. My mother had the same set of Revere Ware, but instead of being hand washed and polished with copper cleaner, they were just tossed in the dishwasher and later put away in a dark cabinet. My mother once remarked to me that she still remembered coming home from the hospital after delivering a stillborn baby, and the first thing she saw was the Revere ware, bright and shiny, reflecting in the just-cleaned kitchen window. Kay had been taking care of the house and my infant sister while the caesarian took place. Mom reflected warmly on the feeling she got coming home to those clean windows and gleaming pans, after having gone through such an awful event. It was something she never forgot.

It was the kindness and simple things that defined my Aunt Kay. Growing up, each Christmas there was always a hand-knitted sweater or pair of slippers under the tree for my sister and me. And she took exceptional interest in my well being. Maybe because I was the youngest and seemingly most at-risk, the most vulnerable after my Dad died, or maybe in some odd way I reminded her of her late brother. But every summer was an adventure. A road trip to see my cousin in Vancouver. A jet boat excursion up the Snake River at the bottom of Hell’s Canyon in Idaho. But more than anything else, it was just the interest she paid and the attention she gave me and the things she taught me that meant the most. There was such a void of that back in Florida and such a flood of it that came from her every summer, that it was no wonder I cried on the plane going back home every August.

It’s because of her that Other Bill considers me such a genius around the house. I can hem his old pants and turn them into shorts, rewire a lamp, paint a house the right way, hang crown molding, manufacture a new catching bag for the avocado picker, fix a toilet, cut glass, prime a pump, hang a ceiling fan. Everything I know how to do is a result of Kay’s instructions. My dad’s family members were poor Michigan dirt farmers and never went to college. Everything they did, they did themselves. And if they didn’t know how, then they’d by-God learn how, because there was never money to pay someone else to do it.

My Aunt Kay could cut hair, singlehandedly add an addition to, or strip and re-roof a house. She could sew anything, from a pair of drawstring pants to a formal gown. I don’t think she ever bought a dress off the rack for herself. She could throw together a strawberry-rhubarb, lemon meringue, peach and apple pie in the time it would take a normal person to follow a recipe and measure the ingredients for just one of those. She canned her own pickles, made her own jam from raspberries she grew in her back yard, split rails and built a fence with the wood.

One summer she bought me my first 35 mm camera. It was almost $300, and she paid for $200 of it and loaned me the rest. “Well if you figure you have four more Christmas presents and three more birthdays and a graduation present, that’s two hundred bucks right there.” And I paid her back ten dollars a month for the next ten months. And she still sent sweaters. She stopped sending the knitted slippers because she had taught me now to make them. That camera took the best pictures and documented the next 20 years of my life.

On the cool Denver summer nights, unless there was a democratic convention on, we would never watch TV. She would sit in her red velvet Victorian rocker and knit. In the 70’s she made ponchos and sweaters to order that were sold at Andersen’s Variety Store, and she could burn through the skeins of yarn and complete one in two nights. We talked about politics, what I was learning in school, about my friends, and not often enough, about her childhood. She had some great stories about my dad, like the time he chased after her with the egg beater and got it caught in her hair. When I’d ask her for more stories about my dad, she’d say, “What do you want to know?” But my answer, “anything,” wasn’t enough. She didn’t care so much to reminisce. I think it was because she and my dad were so close, and she still mourned his early death. But she loved talking about current events, and she was full of questions for me, and she often forced me to think outside my little middle class box.

We were once talking about college draft deferments, and I told her I was glad I was going to college so I didn’t have to go in the army. “Why should you,” she asked, “just because you’re lucky enough to go to college, get out of serving your country just because you can afford to?” Her challenges to me on so many 70’s newsworthy events shaped my political outlook and social mores even to this day. I was starving for conversations like these, but back in Florida, they never happened. In Colorado, there was a plethora of topics that we discussed every night, and once we exhausted one topic, we would quickly move on to the next. Before we knew it, it was midnight or 1 AM.

She gave, and she taught, but most of all she cared. In so many disputes I had with my mother, Kay took my side, including my opposition to my mother’s second marriage. Having an adult to agree with me was an enormous comfort and an equally enormous thorn in my mother’s paw.

Aunt Kay had two kids who cared for me and took me under their wings as well. Generosity of the soul is apparently inherited and passed on.

I’ve tried for five years to write something about her that wouldn’t sound sappy and sentimental, and for the life of me, I haven’t been able to do it. This will have to suffice until I learn to be a better writer. Having her in my life was meaningful beyond words, and I still think of her all the time, but always every June 23rd, her birthday. I was often with her to celebrate it, sometimes sneaking off in the late afternoon on my cousin’s bicycle to buy her something sweet smelling from the florist. She lived a long life and died at 89. She’d be 101 now. I tried telling her several times, in person and in writing, how much she meant to me. She never thought she did anything other than what a normal aunt would do. She’d simply thank me, and then we’d move on to the next topic.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Nursing Pool

Give Him The Enema!

Who hasn’t heard the complaint of a weary airline passenger when they get off the plane: “Why is it that I’m always the one who has to sit next to the screaming baby?” Although I have often complained about that, a screaming baby is a birthday at the beach compared to the person I inevitably get as my hospital roommate.

I have a history of cardiac problems. It’s not that I’m overweight or don’t eat right or don’t exercise, or at least one out of those three. My parents should never have bred. My father was 51 when he checked out from a heart attack. Several years later my mother had valve replacement surgery and a pacemaker stuck in her, and she was never the same after that. Why I got all the bad genes and my sister is totally unaffected in any way from this mishmash of foul genetic combinations is something that makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, my dad wasn’t actually her father.

In my early forties, I was a hospital inmate for 6 days with a messy bout with appendicitis. When I was first wheeled into my room, I got stuck with a barely cognizant man, easily twice my age, which is typical for me, because I’m usually in the cardiac wing. When you’re in the cardiac wing, you’re pretty much guaranteed that your roommate is going to be someone’s great grandfather. For this visit, I wasn’t in the cardiac wing, but I got the octogenarian anyway.

I always, without fail, end up with the screamers, the moaners, the complainers, and the violent, and they all poop in their beds (so do I, but that's another story).

Don’t deny it, nurses. You always wait for the one new patient who looks most likely to not complain. Once you find him, he becomes the person you place with the screaming nut case. You see me coming. I hear you whispering. “Looks like this one’s ripe for the picking.” is what you’re mumbling, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

In order to be a hospital employee, it helps to be a gambler in order to pass all the free time they have. So they all take bets on the time they think someone will die, or, in my case, when I would finally break down and begin to complain about the accommodations.

So after a while, my roommate was sound asleep, muttering quietly to himself. I could live with that. I drifted off to sleep with his gentle yammering not disturbing me.

When I awoke to the screaming, my heart was pounding, and I had the uneasy feeling that a macaw had been released into my room.

“AAAAAAAAA! HELP! HELP! HELP ME! HELP ME!” screamed the tropical bird. After I tucked my heart back into my chest cavity, I realized it wasn’t a macaw at all. It was my roommate. I then thought, why don't hospitals have some kind of website where you can pick someone compatible? I'd put in for a quiet reader, maybe a Ipod listener of 60's folk music who spoke only when spoken to.

The screams were still echoing down the halls, and nurses came running into the room, not to aid him, but to help me. It seemed that the needle on the pulse-o-meter from the heart monitor on my chest sent out a code blue signal.

“Are you all right?” the nurse asked.

“Yeah, I’m all right. It was him screaming, not me,” I said.

“Yeah but your pulse shot up to 200,” he told me.

“That’s because he was screaming,” I tried to say with a sad look on my face, the kind that would send them the “I need a private suite with a whirlpool spa” message.

“Yeah, he goes on like that all night, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Well can I get moved to another room, then? This is crazy,” I snapped.

“All beds are full now, but maybe tomorrow we can get you in another one.”

“Please?” I begged.

The nurse moved out to the hall and yelled out, “Okay, whose name is in the 3 am box in the complainer pool?”

Someone called back, “Dr. Ansari.”

My nurse cursed, “Damn! It’s always a doctor who wins!”

Just as I was drifting back to sleep, the feathers flew again and the macaw started back in with the screaming. He sounded like a helpless girl in a B movie about to be stepped on by a dinosaur.

That was it. I took my pillow and my plasma-on-a-pole down to the family visiting room, which, at 3 am, was naturally empty. I stretched across half a dozen brick-hard chairs. When I woke up, my body felt as if it had been attacked by killer woodpeckers.

The next day was my surgery. The appendix and part of my intestines were successfully removed, but damn, I forgot to tell the doctor I wanted my appendix for show-and-tell.

Which brings us to the story of the first time I was hospitalized. I was seven and went in for a tonsillectomy, complete with ether anesthesia, which I can smell clinging to my nostril hairs to this very day. Before the surgery, I asked Dr. Bagby if I could have my tonsils to take to school for show-and-tell. He amusingly granted my request, and later sent them home with me in an old mayonnaise jar full of formaldehyde. They were enormous and red and just the thing to make the girls run away, screaming in terror. I’ve never seen the inside of a scrotum, but I suspect I could have convinced people they were testicles. But I was 7; I didn’t yet know what testicles were.

After my recovery, I couldn’t wait to be the envy of my second grade class with my Removed Organs in a Jar. My mother drove me to school that morning, but somewhere between my bedroom and the ’57 Chevy, the jar started to leak.

“What’s that smell?” my mother sniffed.

“What smell?” I pretended not to be a part of this.

“It’s those tonsils! Throw them out, throw them out now!” She pulled over, stopped the car and threw it in Park.

“Give them to me!” she demanded.

“No, c’mon Mom. It’s just a few more blocks,” I whined, pathetically.

“What’re you gonna put them in? They just don’t have empty jars in your classroom.”

Actually, they did. If you think back to second grade, you probably remember a high cabinet full of donated baby food jars that were used for doling out tempera paint. But before I could make my case, Mom snatched the jar from my hand, rolled down my window, unscrewed the lid and splashed my testicles, I mean, tonsils into Mark Pintaure’s next-door neighbor’s front yard. She tossed the jar on the back seat and sped off, as I carefully marked the spot where they fell, because I hoped to rescue them later. But alas, that afternoon when I walked home, I searched high and low, but the tonsils were gone, probably to a crime lab somewhere where someone was probably looking for the rest of the body.

Back to the appendectomy post-op scene. My second roommate was a 20-something mutt with long, greasy hair and teeth that had probably never seen the overhead light at a dentist's office.I waved as they wheeled me by him. “At last,” I thought as I pressed the morphine pump, “a young one who won’t scream.”

I woke up to him screaming on the phone, demanding that someone come pick him up, because, “I ain’t got no health insurance. You gotta sneak me outa here. “No, I di-ant drive here. They brought me by ambo-lance.” He was one of those odd white boys who spoke ghetto and thought that because he wore his pants belted at the knees, he was just as cool as the brothers who do the same. But he wasn’t.

After he finished his rant, a social worker came in and told him that he qualified for assistance in paying his bill. After that he called his friend back and told him to gather the white homies to come see him.

The next day, while eavesdropping, I learned from his ER-assigned doctor that he had only been dehydrated. The doctor told him to drink more the next time he went to the beach. It took a night’s stay and thousands of dollars of publicly-funded testing to figure that out.

Meanwhile, each time I woke up, it was to a room full of scary-looking white people and blasting hip-hop music. Once I woke up as Mr. Dehydro, waiting for his discharge papers, was reading the riot act to a nurse, demanding a better (free, publicly-funded) lunch. Mercifully, I was one with my morphine pump, and I just knocked myself out again.

Not long after that, I was back in the hospital for the first of two unsuccessful cardiac ablations. As I walked into the room I glanced over to see CNA's and volunteers waving dollar bills, eager to get in on the pool. I saw this as a bad sign. This time I roomed with a loud, old couple, even though he was the designated patient.

This great-grandfather and his wife were the bitterest wintering couple I have ever listened to. He was in for some kind of intestinal blockage and had just completed one of those luxurious barium enemas.

There was constant bickering between the two of them, even after visiting hours were long over.

He: Why can’t I see my doctor?

She: Because the doctor’s a stupid schmuck.

He: Well get the noiss, then.

She: I just went to the noiss. She said she’d be here in a minute.

He: They don’t care. You think they care? That was an hour ago. Tell her if she can’t give me an explanation, then I want to check myself out. I want to go home.

The nurse finally came in just as the doctor arrived, who insisted grampa would not be released until they figured out why he couldn’t keep any food down. Along with his wife, the patient (the word and the man both being oxymorons) demanded that they be told what was wrong right now; they were tired of waiting, and they were going to report the doctor to the AMA. The doctor said there was nothing he could do until the tests came back and made a hasty retreat.

A second nurse arrived with a bag and a hose, and the two of them hit him with the news. “We have to wash the barium out of you, otherwise it’s going to turn into concrete.” I don’t know if this was medically necessary, or if they just wanted to punish him. Naturally, the old couple flew into a rage.

As they got into a physical fight, Nurse Ratchet said to Cherry Ames, “Give him the enema.”

“I’m going to call the police!” he threatened, trying to slap the nurses away.

“The police won’t come, because there is no crime being committed,” the nurse argued. Then back to Cherry Ames, Butthole Nurse, she screamed, “GIVE HIM THE ENEMA!”

“I’m calling all the newspapers when I get out of here. I swear to God I am!”

The enema quieted him down. Or maybe it didn’t. You see, this time I had brought earplugs and forced them with my pinky way down in my external auditory canal. You learn you have no control over these kind of things. I drifted off to sleep, and in the morning I was taken in for the heart surgery, which was a picnic at the park compared to the ranting of Mr. and Mrs. Enema.

When I woke up, I was in a private room. No whirlpool spa, but completely void of noisy strangers. Apparently, if you don’t complain before you have your procedure, you win the pool.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.