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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 piƱata. 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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