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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Empty Canvas

After hearing that George McGovern, my second political hero, had died this week, Other Bill and I decided that we would, in honor of McGovern, go down to Obama HQ and do some phone canvassing, just as I had done in 1972 for the democratic nominee who ended up carrying only Massachusetts and DC. Nixon slaughtered him, but we all know where he ended up, now, don’t we?

Phone canvassing in 1972 was really a kind of a kick in the pants. I’d walk over after school to a large commercial building set up with rows and rows of telephones (and they may have even been rotary phones) manned by volunteers from people my age (15) to octogenarians. Each caller had a portion of a huge printout of all registered Democrats in the 813 area code.

Because there were no answering machines or Caller ID software back then, the number you called was either busy, or no one answered, or someone picked up. Mostly, they picked up.

“Hello, this is Bill Wiley calling from Democratic headquarters here in Tampa. I’d like to ask you three short questions about the election if you’ll allow me.”

The three questions were:
1.      How do you feel about the Democratic candidate this year? (This was kind of a trick question to make sure they were paying attention; also to make sure they knew who the candidate was without saying his satanic name in the first question.)
2.      Can Senator McGovern count on your vote this year?
3.      Do you need a ride to the polls?

Most of the time, you didn’t get past the first question, because you would get hung up on, cursed at like a drill sergeant, or they’d say “I wouldn’t vote for that bastard if he wuz running for…" And in the blank space there would be one of several candidate positions that do not ever appear on any ballot.

Most often it was “dog catcher.” I wouldn’t let that rat’s ass clean my septic tank. I wouldn’t allow that n-lovin’ boy to shine my shoes. I wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire. That man’s not worthy to wipe my ass. That was Tampa in 1972, and I suspect that little has changed since then. I can’t go back there without Demerol and clean needles.

After an hour or two of abuse, volunteers would go to the break table and have a cup of coffee or a cup of ice water and compare some of the sillier responses we got from Democrats, people who were supposed to be on our side. McGovern promised to end the Vietnam War the day he took office, for God’s sake. Who could not vote for someone who would do that? There was a great sense of hope and camaraderie at that table, even though we all knew we were fighting a losing battle.

There were a few inspiring calls. The one I remember most was an old woman who said she was blind and would like to volunteer to help with the campaign. “I can’t do much,” she said, “but I can stuff envelopes and lick stamps.” After I finished the call I went outside, sat on the curb and wept  relentlessly. Then I composed myself, went back in and gave the blind woman’s phone number to the volunteer coordinator, who called her back immediately.

Phone canvassing in 2012 is entirely different. First of all, there is no commercial building. It’s just someone’s house. There are no rows of tables filled up with phones. The register of callees is not just Democrats in our area. It’s data pulled from a website where people have bought Obama “stuff”; in other words, people who have been pre-determined to be Obama leaners or supporters. This eliminates the, “I wouldn’t let that sumbitch pick fleas off my dawg” comments. We were calling them basically to remind them to vote and let them know the early voting locations.

The lack of a phone bank indicates the technology change. The Obama assumption is that its volunteers have cell phones with unlimited minutes. This created a problem. Other Bill cannot use his employer-issued phone for personal use, especially for political causes. My cell phone, which I have used 5 times in a little over a year, is a Jitterbug. If I were to walk down the beach and pick up an undivided scallop shell, it would make calls better than the Jitterbug. They should call it the D&D: Distort and Drop.

So we both were given permission to work from home. Other Bill used our land line, and I tried to use the D&D, but after it dropped the second call that most people consider to be telemarketing anyway, I gave up on it, and we tag-teamed our landline instead.

Another technology change: Due to Caller ID, which most everyone has, excluding the Bills, no one answers their phone, so 90% of the time, you get voicemail. We had been instructed not to leave messages. We made over 200 calls and actually talked to 19 humans, most of whom pledged to support Obama for re-election. Big surprise, since they had all bought yard signs or t-shirts or pinbacks. We also got called back by people who now own our home phone number.

So it was a big waste of time.

We’re not giving up, though. We promised to go back next weekend, because they said they will have better tasks for us to do other than phone canvassing. Early election will be in full swing, so maybe we can take an old blind lady to the polls.

Since then I have canceled my Jitterbug service and finally bought a smart phone, which is pretty much useless when it is paired with a user who’s not smart. Flip Wilson as Geraldine used to say, “The devil made me buy this dress.” For me, Obama made me buy this phone.

Meanwhile, twice a week I am receiving robocalls from the RNC. If I’m there, I make sure I listen until the end of the message so I’m not databased as a “hang-up.”

I like giving them a sense of false hope, something I was filled with back when I was 15.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Exorcise that Awful Song Stuck in Your Head

Her name was Lola.

If pharmaceutical companies really want their stocks to rise and profits to skyrocket, they will invent a pill that will block your brain’s ability to get an annoying, repetitive song trapped in your head. I’d be more than happy every month to fork over a double co-pay for that.

During rare times of silence between Other Bill and me, which is a nicer way of saying, “Whenever Other Bill exhibits the ability to keep his pie hole shut for more than three minutes,” he will often ask me, “What song are you singing?”

Because we are such a happy, loving couple (and the previous paragraph should prove that), if we don’t have a song in our hearts, we certainly have one in our heads. Usually this is a good thing, and it’s a good song. I will tell him the song in my head, and then he will tell me what’s in his.

There’s a thrift store we frequent some Saturdays, usually in the late morning. Because they have such a huge profit margin, this thrift store is capable of paying for satellite radio, and it is always tuned into a station that plays reruns of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 from the 70’s.

If you spent your teen years in the 1970’s, chances are you listened to “the countdown,” on the weekend. Also, if you were a teenager in the 70’s, you listened to a lot of pop song schlock. Disco was thriving in the seventies, and in order to have a hit, your song had to have a repetitive, meaningless but danceworthy theme. Because that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, we liked it, uh-huh, uh-huh. That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, we liked it, uh-huh, uh-huh. We also liked shiny, flammable, suffocating nylon Nik-Nik shirts and baggy brushed denim pants with madras plaid cuffs. They were so baggy that you could put them on after you’d donned your platform heeled, patent leather checkerboard zip-up boots. Yes, I have pictures.

It was a bad, bad time for fashion and music, and it left many of us severely scarred with the inability to remove these lyrics from our heads even forty years later. Most of us, however, did move on to less ridiculous, safer clothing.

I have triggers. When we were in the thrift store Saturday, and Casey was introducing a song that “debuted this week at number thirty-nine by a Swedish group, two boys and two girls. The group is Abba, and the song? Fernando.” My first instinct was to run as fast as my ancient legs would propel me, out of the store and onto the street. You see, any song by Abba, KC and the Sunshine Band, and every Barry Manilow song except for “Mandy,” for some odd reason, will plant itself in my head like a fast-growing poison ivy vine, which will “itch” for sometimes 48 hours or more.

But I chose instead to stay inside, shopping for t-shirts of the humorous kind, hoping that Fernando would not pollute my head for days to come.

And luckily, it didn’t. I escaped unscathed and un-possessed by two boys and two girls from Sweden.

A day later, Other Bill and I were quietly working in the back yard on a project to prevent an area that had evolved into a hotspot of erosion. He was planting ground cover while I was building a brick border to re-route the water.

These are usually quiet times, where we are one with the dirt and other parts of nature. Suddenly, Other Bill, as his operating system compels him, broke the silence.

“What song are you singing?” he asked.

I understand this to mean not what song I am actually belting out, but have playing on a teeny unremovable LP turntable beneath my skull.

“I don’t know the title,” I said, “but Joan Baez is singing it.”

Then, just to be polite and reciprocal, I asked him, “What’s in your head?”

“Ugh. Fernando.

“Ah, so you were lulled in by Casey Kasem at the thrift store yesterday,” I said.

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Before I could shovel out another trowel full of dirt, someone reached inside my brain, removed the Joan Baez album, smashed it to bits with a sledgehammer, and replaced it with the 45 of Fernando.

I don’t even know the words to Fernando. I don’t want to know the words to Fernando. I just want Fernando dead. All I know is, “There was something in the air that night, blah-blah-blah-blah, Fernando. There was something there blah-blah-blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah, Fernando.” 

Two minutes after Other Bill’s song announcement, I said, “Goddammit!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, ever concerned about my well-being.

“Now I’m singing Fernando.” I said. And it has now been playing in my head for almost 18 hours.

Sometimes if I am being annoying, and yes, naysayers, it’s true, there are times that this quiet, mousey, unassuming person can cross the line, Other Bill will ask me, “What was her name?”

That’s another one of my triggers. There is only one answer to that: “Her name was LO-la. She was a SHOW-girl. Blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah at the CO-pa. Copaca-BAAAAN-a. Music was blah-blah while the blah-blah was blah-blah at the COOOO-pa…”

I want to kill Other Bill when he asks that question, and I think I could get off with a justifiable homicide defense. “Copacabana” is my all-time worst stuck-song nightmare, and he knows it. It can play for months. And starting right now, no doubt, it will, just because I have written it here for your entertainment and my torture. I might have to start cutting myself.

So after I was possessed by Fernando, I tried really hard to go back to the Joan Baez song, but that record was shattered, and besides, I had forgotten it. I tried In the Quiet Morning, Stewball, Prison Trilogy, and even the more popular The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down and Diamonds and Rust. Nothing would stick. Joan had turned Teflon on me.

Then I decided to try something repetitive, but more peaceful, a song from a better decade, a song by Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of a generation, something inspiring, a protest song, a call to action. So I started humming Blowin’ in the Wind. I love Blowin’ in the Wind. To this day, I still get goosebumps when I hear Peter Paul and the late Mary, up the volume when they sing, “How many deaths will it take ‘til we know that too many people have died?”

And you know what? It worked.  Thank you, Bob. Thank you Peter, Paul and late Mary.

So the next time you can’t get “shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake your BOO-ty, shake your BOO-ty” out of your head, I suggest you fire up Blowin’ in the Wind.  It worked for me.

Of course, now I can’t get Blowin’ in the Wind out of my head, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

This essay has been brought to you as a public service announcement from the Seventies Music Revisionist Organization.

She was a showgirl.

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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Eat and Run

Nothing screams, “Find a reason to leave town” louder than receiving an e-mailed invitation to attend your employer’s service awards dinner/employee appreciation banquet/dinner-dance/holiday party.

I haven’t been diagnosed with any kind of social anxiety disorder, but probably would be if I went to a therapist, who would probably prescribe yet another pill to take for the rest of my life. That’s not going to happen.

I have a tough time wrapping my hands around why these functions exist, because I don’t think anyone really looks forward to them, especially the admin staffers who are delegated to put together these events, a thankless, time-consuming job that always stirs up complaints from people for myriad reasons. Why can’t I bring my children? Why isn’t there a vegan menu option? Can you move it to the week following my chemical peel? Shut the hell up, all of you. If something doesn’t make you happy, don’t go. Or say you’re going to go and then don’t show up so I can take home leftovers.

An employee function says this to me: Let’s gather up all the people with whom you work every day, some of whom you like, some of whom you tolerate, and some of whom you pray nightly for a grand piano to fall on from the 30th floor. Let’s make the party semi-formal so you can wear a choking necktie and hot jacket, and the women at work who already dress inappropriately can dress up even more inappropriately and unflatteringly, but with sequins, lamé and Elton-John-as-Pinball-Wizard platform heels. Then let’s add unlimited alcohol to: 

a) loosen up all those inhibitions so that people who drink too much can throw up; 

b) encourage people who carry grudges to pick fights; 

c) allow people who usually keep quiet announce their prejudices with pride, thus reinforcing the unwritten law that forbids gay men from dancing. 

 All my life, the majority of people with whom I have worked range from middle-of-the-road to moderate conservatives to rabid Tea Party followers of Limbaugh Christ. The liberal to radical left employees, where I fall, are few and far between. We know who we are and whisper to each other in dark corners about taboo topics like re-election, gay marriage, and the obscene cost of health insurance and medications brought on by corrupt insurance executives and politicians. We exchange lists of fellow employees with whom we should not discuss politics, religion, or bumper stickers.

People at work are young and old, liberal and conservative, black and white (insert more adjectives regarding human diversity here) who applied for these jobs and were dropped in this pot, and we have to figure out a way to get along and simmer down and make the soup palatable for everyone.

This does not mean, however, that we have to attend social events together. I wouldn’t dream of holding an office party in a gay bar, but that is just about the only venue where I feel comfortable dancing with Other Bill. Despite the shifting winds towards gay acceptance, I wouldn’t feel comfortable dancing in a place with 500 cops, firefighters, staunchly conservative politicians, egocentric department directors, and bitter, poorly-treated, low-paid unionized staff and their spouses with bellies full of spirits, wine, and beer. It is perfectly fine for two women to dance, because American mores allow for that. But here, to see two men, slow-dancing, chest-to-chest: never. Not in America, unless you’re in a gay bar. Or at home. I taught Other Bill how to waltz on our patio, and he’s pretty good at it.

Back in the 80’s and before, and probably even now in some arenas, gay men brought straight female friends to these events. That way, everything looked “right” to the executive staff, who was fooled into believing that all their employees were straight and having loads of fun at these parties funded by corporate greed. When my sister was single, she went to her corporate event with a gay man, and I am sure that also helped to make everything look “right” to the senior executives, as well. From the ivory tower, she appeared to be married to, or at least in a relationship with, a male. Everyone of one sex had another of the other sex. How superb. How appropriate.

I don’t go to these events very often, unless, of course, there are raffles. Because not that many people attend, the chances of winning something are pretty good. But it usually takes a really nice prize to force me to be present to win. At the last awards dinner, you had to pay $25 to go and collect your paper reward. It was mostly mandatorily attended by supervisors, who deposited the certificates into their employees’ mailboxes the following day. The upcoming one I assume will be less poorly attended because the event is free for employees, but $25 to bring a spouse, unless you’re being recognized, in which case a plus-one gets to attend for free. For some people where I work, $25 is 3 hours’ pay, before taxes.

The rare occasions I do attend these events (i.e., when it’s free for both of us and loaded with good raffle prizes), I take Other Bill, and we usually sit together and talk to ourselves. Neither he nor I drink, so we arrive after the cocktail hour, just in time to hit the buffet, gather up our raffle prizes, make our excuses, and go back home and waltz on the patio. (That really means “sit on the couch and play Words with Friends while listening to TV.”)

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and attend. These are times when you win something like an employee of the year award or are getting your X-years of service dog tags, or whatever it is they give you. In this economy, it’ll probably be a certificate on copier paper, run through a color laser printer. Next month I am celebrating eleven years of service by getting my ten -year service certificate. As government workers know it takes forever to get anything approved. Maybe it’s a pin; I don’t know. But if you don’t go, you look ungrateful. And I’m not ungrateful; quite the contrary. It’s nice to be recognized. Hell, it’s nice just to have a job. But look, can’t they just e-mail me my certificate in PDF format? I promise to print it on nice bond paper and push-pin it to a wall.

So even though the next event is free but without raffles, we will be attendees. I will probably have to go out and buy a jacket that fits me and maybe a new tie, and we’ll enjoy our meat, poultry, fish or vegetarian pre-selected entrée and drink our ice water. Then I’ll go up to the front and shake some hands of people who have seen me around but don’t really know what I do, or what I’ve done, other than survive a government decade, which we already established is at least eleven years (AKA a baker’s decade). It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun.

But when the music strikes up, we’ll already be on our way home, no doubt gossiping about the wrong people who wore spandex or Lucite shoes, the ones who started drinking way too early, and the flavor of the beef/chicken/vegetarian food compared to what we ate last week on our vacation in San Francisco, a place where no one bats an eye if we hold hands on the street, peck each other on the lips in public, or even waltz in the middle of Union Square.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Offensive Helpers

Yesterday we were at the great scratch-and-dent, broken candy-cane, and crushed-box discount paradise known as Big Lots. The first thing we saw was a couple with a push cart full of nothing but dozens and dozens of slightly imperfect boxes of Tuna Helper. I’m glad I didn’t go there looking to buy some Tuna Helper, because this couple had obviously cleared the shelves of all that was available. So for them, the next six months’ worth of “What’s for dinner tonight, honey?” questions has been answered.

Tuna Helper hasn’t been around that long. After all, it all started with Hamburger Helper, which reached the supermarket when I was a kid. Betty Crocker, wherever she resides, has been a big Helper for decades.

So naturally I felt compelled to go to Ms. Crocker’s website this morning and was in awe to discover that she helps more than hamburger, more than tuna, but also whole grains, chicken, and Asians.

Yes, they actually have something called Asian Helper. The first question that came to mind is: are there tutors or launderers in the box? If I were a cow, or a tuna, or a chicken, or a whole grain, I’d be pretty insulted knowing that this Crocker chick thinks I needed her help. But I’d be really pissed off if I were Asian and came across Asian Helper. We no need you help, Betty Cwocker. We alweady gwaduate at top of cwass.

Yes, there I’ve done it: thrown in some racist, Asian-stereotyped sentences and ruined my reputation as an inclusive liberal, all at the expense of getting a laugh. I sincerewy apowogize.

My mother was a lazy and bad cook. Most of the time it was my sister and I who made dinner. I knew how to throw a meatloaf together and time it for my mother’s arrival home from work when I was seven. She never made anything fresh. Vegetables were always frozen and boiled to death or heated up from a can or a jar. I don’t think I had a real salad until my aunt made me one when I was 12.

We lived on convenience foods. So when Hunt’s Skillet Lasagna showed up on the shelf, it became a staple in our house. Hunt’s Skillet Lasagna was the precursor to Hamburger Helper, and it was good. All you did was add water, hamburger, and the crap that came in the box, and you had a meal that tasted nothing like lasagna, but was tolerable and salty, which is all one expects from convenience foods.

All these scores of varieties of Helper meals are clearly made for the tired, lazy, or unimaginative who can’t put forth the effort to chop up an onion and some fresh mushrooms, and dollop in a little sour cream or canned cream of mushroom soup or shake in some salt, pepper, or some other spice. If you did that, you’ have to wash a knife, a spoon and a cutting board. How taxing.

Here’s a quote from Betty herself from her web page.

Who couldn't use a little help in the kitchen? One of life's simple pleasures is to relax after a busy day and enjoy a good meal with ones you love. Hamburger Helper dinner mixes bring families to the dinner table for a hearty, wholesome meal.

I got news for you, Ms. Crocker. You get a lot more pleasure out of preparing or eating a meal made for or by a loved one who actually puts some care and effort into it instead of lighting a fire under a pan and dropping in shit from a box. And if you want to bring families to a dinner table together, there is only one way to accomplish this: dine out at a really nice restaurant. Hamburger Helper again, Mom? I’ll be in my room, fasting. Text me only if you have to.

Betty Crocker makes five Mexican flavors of Hamburger Helper, but she doesn’t call them “Mexican Helpers,” because Republicans would think that there was a landscaping crew inside the box. Yet there are no qualms about calling something “Asian Helper.” The four Asian Helper varieties call for chicken or ground beef, so they could have just as easily been included in the Chicken Helper or Hamburger Helper lineups. As long as you’re going to be racist, Bett, let’s do this thing right. Here are ideas for more international Helper meals.

Irish Helper:  Dehydrated potatoes and alcohol. Don’t add water. We don’t want to dilute it.
Canadian Helper: Priced significantly cheaper than all other Helpers, eh?
Indian Helper: A curry dish that comes without cooking instructions. You have to call a toll-free technical support number for that information.
Great Britain Helper: This is a real timesaver. It’s simply a bottle of ipecac syrup. Skip the torture of kidney pie and go right to the vomiting.
Eskimo Helper: A can of Sterno and a packet of Adolph’s moose tenderizer.  
Vietnamese Helper:  Instructions: fold in your least favorite pet.
Miami Helper: A live, ready-to-eat homeless man.
American Helper: Include the meat in the box; we can’t afford it in this economy.

Okay, I have offended enough people for one story. My sincerest apologies to all of you. Now let’s move on.

What we really need is something called Convenience Foods Helper, some high-tech process that will magically reverse the flavor removal that’s caused by over processing of food.  Something that makes microwaved meals taste more like something your mom made (not my mom).  Or barring that, maybe someone could come up with written directions on what to buy and how to prepare a dish. Oh, wait, that already exists. They are called “recipes.” And a collection of recipes is called a “cook book.”

Do they sell those at grocery stores, or somewhere else?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Hotel Roach

Maybe a couple of times a year, Other Bill and I will get out of Florida and take a week or so vacation. For the past several years, we’ve gone to San Francisco.

San Francisco is expensive. It is Manhattan/Tokyo-expensive. If you can find a condo the size of a shoebox for less than a million dollars, consider yourself lucky.

One of the best things about Other Bill is that he scores in the negative numbers on the High Maintenance Personality Test, and fortunately for him, I’m pretty much in the same area. We are not well-to-do in any sense of any word except “love,” and our needs are simply met. Consequently, when we go away, we tend to stay in the cheapest fleabag hotels that the least amount of money can buy in sketchy neighborhoods. We have rewards cards at the following hotel chains: Spitting Shower Suites, Dripping Faucet Inns, Motel Sex, Bedrooms & Bugs, Helliday Inns, Detached Toilet Courts, the Singing Toilet B and B, and as of the last trip there, the Why-Can’t-The-Two-of-You-Sleep-in-One-Twin-Bed-Until-Tomorrow-When-Another-Room-Becomes-Available Hotel. That one, while we were staying there, changed its name to the If-You-Want-To-Schlep-Up-Another-Mattress-From-The-Garage,-Here-Are-Your-Sheets Resort. And so we did, after a 10 hour-trek.

As I said, our needs are simple. We have 3 requirements for a room: a bed we can fit in, a shower, and Internet access. No phone, no pool, no pets, no gym, no chocolate on the pillowcase or turndown service. Look, if you can’t buy your own Hershey bar or yank your sheet down, you should be staying in a critical care unit, not a hotel.

We take good earplugs in case of noise, as well as a couple cans of 2 ounce pepper spray in case someone tries to get smart with us. And because the TSA won’t allow it, our first stop in the city is always at a Walgreens to buy a pair of toenail clippers so we can stab any bath-salts-snorting nut case who tries to get aggressive with us.

We are about to head out to that other coast soon, but this time, the rules have changed, because Other Bill’s employer is paying for his flight and 3 days of lodging while he attends a seminar there. This will enable us to get the host hotel’s group rate, which is still about double what we’re used to paying, but what the hell.

This hotel, according to its website, is a four-diamond hotel. I don’t know what that means. Four on a scale of how many diamonds? And are diamonds the same thing as stars? The hotels we normally stay in are measured in turds, and the fewer the turds, the better the ambiance of the joint. I’m not sure how many turds are on the scale, but I would say for the most part, we’ve stayed mostly at below five turd joints, assuming the turd scale apex is 10.

You may ask why we stay in such dumps. Why do we lodge in places with shared bathrooms? Why are our inns of choice walk-ups and non-ADA compliant? Why are their vertical transport units called elevators when they are really dumbwaiters?  The theory is, and I’m sticking to this, is that if you’re staying in a nice place, why would you want to leave the room? Why would I pack anything other than clean underwear?  I suspect that after we return from this luxury trip, friends might ask, “So what did you do in San Francisco?”

And our answer will be, “Stayed in bed and ordered from room service for 9 days.”  Why would we force ourselves to get dressed and go sit in a chair at the Top of the Mark and eat a meal when we could call someone could bring us burgers while we watch That Girl reruns in our underwear in bed. Not that we would ever eat at Top of the Mark, mind you.

In 20 years, I can’t remember paying to stay in a hotel that had room service. The only thing delivered to our regular room is a virus brought up by a cockroach. Here’s your Ebola, sir; can I give you anything else?

So this trip we are going to be upscale cultural tourists, peons swimming in a sea of the well-to-do. I’ll send you a postcard to report on the progress, provided a waiter can bring me one up from the lobby. And later drop it in the mail.