Monday, December 26, 2016

N. C. Wyeth

Mistrust self-expression. Is simply possessing a self somehow particularly worthy of attention? That’s great for two year olds – it’s a phase we all go through. But Shakespeare wrote what he wrote to fill the stalls at the theater he co-owned. Bach banged out piece after perfect piece because it was his day job. John and Paul sat down to write hit songs, on purpose, to get the hell out of Liverpool. And Lennon’s stuff got flabby and eye-rollingly precious only after he’d made his pile and set out to create Art. I’m gaining new respect for avarice; it’s so uncluttered.

Monday, December 19, 2016

It’s a metaphor, people.

If you’ve ever listened to Woody Guthrie songs or looked at Dorothea Lange pictures, then you’ve heard about the Dust Bowl. What happened was, there was a period of unusually high rainfall over a great big area, and farmers moved in and plowed up the ground and planted wheat and cotton. Then the weather swung back to really dry and the wind came and literally blew those farms away. See, everybody had gotten so used to a mild and fertile climate that they thought of it as the norm. It wasn’t; they’d just been lucky for a generation or two.

Monday, December 12, 2016

This is sad news

Dave Barry said, "If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person." The thing is, you should probably try to avoid being rude to anybody. Because if you think that being the low man gives you permission to be a jerk to somebody, then you’re turning your position into a strength, and so you’re punching down at somebody who can’t hit back without looking like a bully. Like when a four year old socks you in the crotch. It’s disappointing, but it turns out you have to treat everybody right, every day.

Monday, December 5, 2016

As in scope or copter

The word “kebab” comes from an Arabic root meaning to burn or roast. In Turkish, “shish” means skewer. Alrighty. But wait. In Turkey, in the mid-19th century, somebody started rotating a cone of meat on a vertical spit. “Doner kebab” means “turning roast” because the Turkish word for turning is “dönmek.” The Greeks liked this food, but they hated the Turks, so they substituted their own word for turning, “gyro.” Think I’m done? I’m not done. Turkish has another word for turning, “çevirme.” So in Arabic the same food is “shawarma.” And here’s my favorite: In Persian, it’s “kebab torki.”

Monday, November 28, 2016

a cautionary tale

Yesterday afternoon I was working in the shed, doing a little wiring to improve the lighting, and I had this great idea for today’s rant. It was so good. I pretty much wrote the whole thing in my head, basically, and I probably should have written it down right away. But I was up on a ladder and I wanted to get done so I could switch the breaker back on because if it got dark I would not have been able to finish without running an extension cord from the house. “I’ll remember,” I thought. I did not remember.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Should have seen it coming

It can stay warm for so long that you forget winter is sure to show up sooner or later. That first frost arrives and you’re like, oh crap, I gave all my sweaters to Goodwill. Because for some reason you thought the mild weather was permanent. Time to bundle up, buddy. Clean your flues, dig out the quilts, stock your pantry. Of course, if you see somebody out in the cold, you have to bring them into the warm. Beyond that, pretty much all you can do is throw another book on the fire and hope for an early spring.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Had enough of your lip.

The House of Hapsburg ruled most of Europe for about 300 years. They acquired power through marriage, and they kept it by only mating within the extended family. Three centuries is a lot of generations; they got to where they actually shared more DNA than most siblings. The last of the Spanish Hapsburg rulers, Charles II, was his dad's great nephew and his mom's first cousin. He couldn’t feed himself or keep himself clean. He died at 38, and the autopsy stated that he "..had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water." Just sayin’.

Monday, November 7, 2016

An undeniable correlation

From 1978 through 1999, Oklahoma averaged 1.6 earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 annually. Then, they had two in 2008, 20 in 2009, 35 in 2010, 64 in 2011. By last year, the count was up to 890. We’ve come to expect this sort of behavior from California, but historically Oklahoma has been pretty reliable about simply staying put. It’s a big selling point. In fact, “Oklahoma: It Just Lies There” was once seriously considered as a license plate motto. Now one of the state’s primary attributes is in jeopardy, and the data clearly points to a single culprit: The Obama presidency.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Leave me where I am, I'm only sleeping

This flaming orange narcissist sociopath may actually assume the highest office in the land. The Cleveland Indians are leading the World Series. And so I’m feeling a sense of unreality, like time and space themselves are coming unstrung. Last night I had this dream where I was walking on a bridge over a huge river. I was walking a dog that kept talking to me, giving me advice. I was carrying a duffle bag full of plumber’s tools, which I had just stolen. Of course, I was naked. And it all seemed normal compared to what I woke up to.

Monday, October 24, 2016

a man called Doc

So this guy Polonius gives with a famous list of wise hints for living and is rewarded by being stabbed through the arras, which sounds excruciating. Nelson Algren follows up with his own advice, which is funnier and probably more useful. I figure I must have picked up some wisdom by now, and I’m ready to pass it along. So. Um. Tin your leads. Try the sweet potato fries. Never go anywhere in shoes you can’t walk home in. That’s it, I guess. Okay then. Oh, this final score just in: the Monomaniacs have beaten the Minimalists, one to nothing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Thomas Wolfe, actually.

I went to five different elementary schools. That was over 50 years ago. I visited them on the internet and it turns out four of them have been torn down. One site has new houses on it, one is a big empty lot, two have newer school buildings on them. But one of them is still there. Doan School was built in 1904 at 105th and Superior in my home town, Cleveland, Ohio. It was closed in 1980 and sat abandoned. But now it’s been repurposed into assisted living for seniors. How convenient. Who says you can’t go home again?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Lives of the Philosophers, Pt. 5

Roland Barthes had a seven-letter last name, but only the first four are pronounced. French has a lot of silent letters to make speaking harder. I suspect the French want you to 1) try to speak French and 2) do it badly so that they can correct you. Nobody likes being corrected, especially about the medium of expression rather than the idea being conveyed. So can’t we all just accept that “library” and “February” are spelled wrong? Anyway, Barthes’ three silent letters are a special mark of prestige and distinction for a respected thinker whose work I find absolutely opaque.

Monday, October 3, 2016

You can't put a value on literary excellence.

Suppose over a period of time you had written 49,999 words about such essential topics as outsized pencils and enormous watering cans. For free. You might wish you’d gotten maybe a dime a word. You could have bought an eight-year-old Camry or nearly seven thousand Little Debbie Nutty Bars. Or even a dollar a word – gosh, that’s a nice foreclosed ranch home in Blytheville, Arkansas. Long ago, a buck a word was premium pay for really popular writers, like Rudyard Kipling. He got a letter that enclosed a dollar and asked for a word in exchange. Kipling wrote back, “Thanks.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rod Stewart

The options available to malicious wrongdoers used to be sort of limited. They could sneak into your sacred cave and rearrange all the bear skulls. They could put a stray cat in a burlap sack and sell it as a delicious piglet (a pig in a poke), and you wouldn’t know till you let the cat out of the bag. Today’s sophisticated technology opens up the potential for sophisticated mischief. What scares me is the awful specter of cyber-terrorism. Like, what if someone hacked my Pandora account and gave the thumbs up to music I actually don’t like at all?

Monday, September 19, 2016

We're gonna need a bigger olive.

Do you like crazy visionary science ideas? I sure do. There’s this company in Florida, Algenol, that’s working on a way to breed cyanobacteria to live in salt water, soak up sunlight, and poop out a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. They’re getting about 8,000 gallons of liquid fuel from one wet acre annually, about 20 times more than the same acreage in corn ethanol. Promising, right? But there’s danger lurking. If a rogue scientist were to splice in some juniper DNA, and the bacteria escaped, I can visualize the inadvertent conversion of all the world’s oceans to gin.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Accordion to the latest surveys.

According to the Nielsen numbers, jazz accounts for about 2.3 percent of U.S. record album sales, making it even less popular than classical musical, which posts an impressive 2.8 percent. Rock gets 34.5, R&B 17.5, country 13.8 percent. Country is more popular than this number indicates, I think, but mostly you listen to it on the radio. In your truck. With your dog. The same research shows a category called “hard music” getting a 10.2 percent share. I don’t know what this means. Hard to listen to? If that’s what they mean, why don’t they just straight up say polka?

Monday, September 5, 2016

It's just business.

If anybody suggested you could save money by fueling your car with human blood, I’m guessing you’d question their ethical compass, as well as their internal combustion cred. But look: by the best numbers I can find, over 60 percent of immigrant detainees in this country are held in private prisons. So the more people we lock up, and the cheaper they can be fed and housed, the more money these corporations make. How is that even sort of okay? And who the hell buys that stock? Seriously, a pimping meth dealer hitman could claim the moral high ground here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Except caffeine, the Neve 1073 of drugs.

There is this thing called “circuit bending,” where you take some sound-producing electronic object and interfere with its guts to make it produce noises its designers never imagined. When the bender is expert or lucky, really amazing results are to be had. More often, though, instead of getting a modified Speak & Spell to spout fluent Klingon, you get unpleasant skronks and squeaks, sadly similar to every other device you’ve putzed with. It’s not so much bent as broken. Sort of like mind-altering drugs; straight out of the box is as good as the thing is ever going to work.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Surf's up

I don’t want to be accused of sowing the seeds of panic in a time of global anxiety, but I feel the need to point out that we are facing a pretty severe hovercraft gap. The Russians, the Ukrainians, the Chinese and the Greeks have these enormous Zubr-class landing craft, which are, I swear, the coolest-looking boats you have ever seen. Imagine a 200 foot long inflatable raft with a chubby battleship on top and three hella big round fans on the back. There is no better way to take up to 500 fanatically loyal shock troops to the beach.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Going to be huge.

The World's Largest Wind Chime is in Casey, Illinois. I saw that on a sign, but did not stop. It's going to be dangly metal pipes, right? This is not an interesting world’s largest thing, even though I admit to an interest in world’s largest things. Here are other not particularly interesting world’s largest things: World’s Largest Soda Straw (plastic sewer pipe), World’s Largest Condom (weather balloon), World’s Largest Pocket Hankie (bedsheet) and World’s Largest Bedsheet (tarpaulin). Also, here’s a tip for travelers. Don’t waste your money to see the World’s Largest Grain of Sand. It’s just a big rock.

Monday, August 1, 2016

misty whatcha call your memories

I have a problem with a couple things people say. The first is when they say “I need closure.” Because you don’t get closure. Everything that happens stays in your head and you’re never going to close it out permanently. I can still make myself squirm by thinking about some terrible thing I said to somebody a half century ago. The best you can do is create workarounds, is all. Then people will say, “I’m a survivor,” which would be okay if they added “so far.” Because your survival is purely temporary. Sooner or later, you’ll be getting that closure.

Monday, July 25, 2016

For the discerning dipsomaniac

Oh for Pete’s sake. “Gluten free vodka.” Listen. Gluten is a bunch of proteins that occur naturally in grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats. They are not particularly volatile, so if you cook up a mash of cereal grain, ferment it so that the tiny funguses called yeast poop out a bunch of ethanol, then heat up the resulting glop so that the alcohol flashes off to be condensed into an intoxicating beverage, the distillate will be gluten-free. It’s like saying sugar is fat-free. It’s true, but it’s dumb. Or, more correctly, it’s counting on you to be dumb.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I couldn't have said it better myself

Right now, I got nothing. The creator of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, once wrote: “A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business." This is some valuable advice from a fellow writer. Of course, Rollo May said, "If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself." But then, as Dorothy L. Sayers said: “A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought,” and that is exactly what I’m looking for this morning.

Monday, July 11, 2016


Southern Illinois is corn and soybeans. Miles and miles of them. And it occurs to me that they’re holding up the entire global economy. Not all by themselves, but having factory farms churning out acres of commodities is what frees up all the time people spend sitting in cubicles or flying to meetings or walking to class. Commodities by definition are generic, like money. They’re not good or bad; they’re units of exchange. So whatever you choose to eat, at the end of the food chain you’re being nourished by bushels of GMO corn, washed down with barrels of petroleum.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The flea bible says different

Toxic giant hogweed is invading the state of Wisconsin. This plant gets to be 20 feet tall; it looks like a preposterously big Queen Anne’s lace. Just touching it can give you terrible blisters or make you blind. The question, if you’re being anthropocentric, is why? Why was it part of Creation – an herb yielding seed of his kind? Well, probably everything should be given its own creation myth, with itself the center of the narrative. You could think of humanity as a race of tame primates, domesticated by dogs to serve their purposes. That’s a valid perspective, I think.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Unforgettable, that's what you are

Remember being five? Can you remember being excited about getting permanent teeth? Well, they’re not. They’re not permanent. Even if you keep them in your head for your whole life, those few decades hardly qualify as any paragon of permanence. All tattoos are temporary. Eventually, even diamonds aren’t forever. That’s fine with me; I’m cool with our perishability. And considering how little time we actually spend here, I believe short-term fixes are the best. I live that conviction. Like, I have a shed out back that at this point consists almost entirely of that canned foam from the hardware store.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Obligatory what’s-his-name reference

The man says "believe me" a lot. You only say that when you're lying. Everybody knows that. The embarrassing thing is not just that he's (insert invective here), but that he's not very good at it. Seriously, the guy couldn’t sell me aluminum siding. I'm ashamed of my racist, xenophobic, angry, disappointed, confused and spiteful fellow citizens, not because they are racist, xenophobic, angry, disappointed, confused and spiteful (hey, nobody's perfect) but because they are such poor shoppers in the marketplace of ideas. Is this the best rabid hate-spewing fear monger the greatest nation on Earth can produce? I weep.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Drawing a Blanc

This one time we were listening to the car radio and a bluegrass song started with a mandolin pickup and I said, “That’s Ricky Skaggs.” And it was; I had got it right in the beat and a half before the downbeat. I’ve heard that old-time telegraphers could identify who was tapping out Morse code, they said they recognized the sender’s “hand,” as distinctive as a voice. Or more so. The other day, the kitchen radio was playing and I said, “Is that Elmer Fudd singing ‘Skylark?’” And she listened for a moment and said, “I think it’s Bob Dylan.”

Monday, May 30, 2016

Stall tactics

North Carolina, your bathroom law isn’t just bigoted, it’s stupid. Calling it moronic would unjustly denigrate morons everywhere. See, the thing is, the rule of unintended consequences is standing right in plain sight, ready to bitchslap you back to reality. Have you even thought about how there are transgender people of both sexes? Because while you’re slavering over salacious hypotheticals featuring pedophiles in the little girls’ room, you should be getting ready to explain to your daughter that your stupid law is why that fellow is in the ladies' washroom at the Cracker Barrel, trimming his beard over the sink.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The numbers don't lie.

Here’s a new feature where from time to time we will look at some of the facts and figures that are affecting our lives, and grossly misinterpret them. I shall call this special feature The Bad Statistician. Yes I shall. Ahem. In the year 2010, the average United States family of four spent $11.46 on unwrought rhodium. (Unwrought rhodium imports totaled $884,811,866, the population was 308,745,538.) The market price for the metal is around $675 an ounce, so somewhere in the average American home there is about a half gram of rhodium. Why would anyone make such a silly purchase?

Monday, May 16, 2016

I'm just saying

It takes a surprisingly long time to write 100 words, and it takes about 40 seconds to speak them out loud. That’s not very long. Yet I’ve spent hours and hours of my life in active and rapid colloquy. Leaning on bars, riding in cars, walking on sidewalks, sitting in chairs, hunkered over desks. Chattering, blathering, prattling, babbling. Millions and millions of words, and I can’t remember any of them. Well, probably there was a lot of “the” and “of.” Those are biggies right there. Also I seem to recall saying “No, no. Listen. Listen to me” quite a bit.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Geezer Wars!

Somebody asked me, “How old do you think I am?” I was both rude and prudent. I flatly refused to answer. “I’m not answering that,” I said. Isn’t there some age beyond which you got nothing left to prove? I guess not. I’m hearing now about people exchanging organ recitals; that’s where they try to top each other with their lists of the afflictions plaguing every single part of the body. So there’s always something to win at. I wonder if the second-oldest person in the world spends a lot of time checking the obituaries, hoping for that big break.

Monday, May 2, 2016

put out a tip jar

Worried about what’s happening to the American middle class? Maybe it’s a little late. Years ago, you might have checked for a union label before you picked up that six-pack of t-shirts. You could have voted yes on that school bond issue. But don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s just bad impulse control. It’s that moment when you realize you’ve filled up on bread. And there’s an obvious solution: Uber. I see a future where we survive entirely by driving each other around. But trust me. It’s not a gig economy until you’re told to enter through the kitchen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

this machine kills fascists

I was hearing about how some popular musicians are using their high visibility to inform and inspire their listeners around critical issues confronting our culture, our civilization, and our species. This is a powerful historical moment, potentially a game changer. There are precedents. Nobody who was alive in the early ‘70s can forget how Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra recorded “Song for Che,” thus bringing an end to American imperialism in the Western hemisphere. Oh, by the way, for all my readers who are corner office executives: Wednesday is Administrative Professionals’ Day. So tell your secretary to buy some flowers.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Look how objective I am.

Why are we proud of stuff we can’t control? Maybe, like me, you’re tall and you feel good about that. Maybe you’re rich, or smart, or have nice shoes. Maybe a team in the town where you live is good at the game they play. It’s all just luck; should you take credit? What about kids? A couple told me their first grader was reading at a fifth grade level. I agreed that it was exciting and pointed out that if this kept up, by the time she was 40 she’d be reading as well as a 44 year old.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Read 'em and weep

Poker is the game and they say take a seat. I say how about I just hand over my wallet and the last of my self-respect. I say I don’t gamble and the fella says what about craps isn’t that gambling and I say not the way I do it it ain’t. See, I was running a crap game and a guy shows up from Stockholm with a big gray donkey. And he says he hasn’t got a solitary dime but can he wager the animal. And I say – get this –  I say, you bet your Swede ass you can.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Wax nostalgic

Too many people spend way too much time searching for happiness when all they have to do is remember what it felt like to open a new box of 64 crayons. I can smell it now. You can take your meditation and your Caribbean cruises and throw them out the window; all you need is that box with the built-in sharpener and a fat stack of manila paper. And then, for some reason, the machines at the Crayola factory make way too many brown crayons. They melt them down and that’s where we get those really terrible chocolate Easter eggs.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Despite the title,

I don’t actually rant much. There’s plenty of cranky guys with bushy eyebrows cracking wise about how peaches aren’t delicious anymore or what’s up with those little buns on bearded guys. That only works if deep down you have a heart of gold, which I don’t. The Ambrose Bierce trajectory, leading inevitably to a mysterious death whilst hanging out with Pancho Villa. Sure, I have my pet peeves, just like anybody. But they’re so prosaic. Like, who hasn’t wished there was black dental floss? Or wondered, when opening a new deck of cards, why they’re so stingy with the fours?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Don't look up

I know you have plenty to worry about already, and I’m not trying to scare you or anything. But did you ever think you might not be paranoid enough? Like if you’re taking a nature walk in one of our state or national parks and there’s a big map in a wooden frame. Here’s a red dot that says “you are here.” Aren’t they right every time? This is creepy because often you yourself have no idea where you are. And do you not find it suspicious that all of the events in your life are arranged in chronological order?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Apologies in advance

None of the campaigns are addressing the important issues that most of us care about. By most of us I of course mean me. And when I say campaigns, I mean consumer advertising. Car ads never mention the only meaningful differentiator between motor vehicles that are adequate and those that are utter pieces of crap: Can it fit an upright bass? Then there’s the TV commercials for medications which promise to enhance the experience of sitting in adjacent bathtubs. They should have special products which provide micro-doses. Here’s a product idea: Sylantro, for those who occasionally find themselves parsley erect.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Under protest

Have you looked at the calendar today? It’s the 29th of February, which only happens every four years. This means 2016 is 366 days long, so everybody is getting a day’s free rent, which is a good deal and may help to stimulate the economy depending how consumers decide how to spend this windfall. That’s the good part. The downside for me is that the powers that be have chosen to add an extra Monday to February, which makes extra work in the form of this rant. I’ll write it, but damned if they get their full 100 words.

Monday, February 22, 2016

By way of clarification.

You might think that Balingtwine, Chickenwire, Tarpaper, and Stovewood would be a good name for a firm of attorneys in maybe a Three Stooges or Ritz Brothers short. You’d be half right. It’s a good name alright. But it’s not the names of four lawyers. It’s for a big barn-like supply company that offers essentials to a largely rural clientele. In fact, the only items they sell are baling twine, chicken wire, tarpaper, and stove wood. So the words on the sign have nothing to do with the names of the proprietors, Bob Jorgensen and his sons Bill and Jimmy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Seriously. Nothing.

Sometimes on a Monday morning I feel like dang I haven’t got a clue what to write. And I start dreaming of some sort of system I could utilize to craft clever and thought-provoking nanoessays for me on those occasions when my powers of observation and synthesis are slow in kicking in. Maybe a little paper wheel that randomly juxtaposes dissimilar topics to create a new and engaging conceptual Gestalt? Or I could try the old monkey trick, although in this day and age it’s hard to know where a guy could pick up an infinite number of typewriter ribbons.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bird is still the word

Phil Woods died last September. He finished the last tune of  his last gig, announced his retirement, and left his saxophone on stage. About two weeks later he was dead. Here’s his advice for everyone who spends time putzing with their tools. Apparently, he had an alto sax he thought was holding him back till he lent the horn to Charlie Parker. "I'm listening to Bird play… and it occurs to me there's nothing wrong with the mouthpiece, nothing wrong with the reed. Even the strap sounded great... I stopped looking for the magic instrument and started to practice more."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Man: the barricades

There’s been a lot of loose talk about rebuilding a strong middle class, like that was inarguably a good thing. But look, by definition, what’s it in the middle of? An upper class and a lower one, right? What’s so great about that? Being in the middle of a herd of ruminants is pretty comfortable. In back, you’re more likely to get picked off by predators, while out in front you might have to make choices. But for humans? Your primary function is as part of a large fleshy levee to protect your moneyed betters from waves of impoverished peons.

Monday, January 25, 2016

en passant

You know what looks like fun? Chess looks like fun. Because the little table and little coffee cups and an ashtray and elegant little pieces and just sitting quietly looking thoughtful. It turns out, though, that chess is about thinking really really hard about how to avoid doing anything stupid. That’s no fun at all, and furthermore it has only been by doing profoundly stupid things and then dealing with the results that I have had any kind of life at all so far. Sort of like how walking involves almost falling flat on your face over and over again.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Seems like only last week

I’m feeling nostalgic. Remember back when everybody was all excited about maybe winning a billion and a half dollars? Absolute strangers were talking about it at the convenience store. It was kind of beautiful, really, to see how greed can bring us all closer. Me, I actually won a portion of the jackpot by not buying a ticket, thereby instantly receiving a two dollar “do the math” prize. I’m going to spend it all on Little Debbie Nutty Bars, the best straight stock cellophane wrapped snack available in the Free World. Next time, I’m going to not buy even more.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Looking for the next Big Pencil

To my  regular readers: both of you may have noticed there was no rant last week. I have an explanation. See, it was the first Monday of the New Year, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about except the whole New Yearness of it. Which seemed like cheating, because what would it be about? Broken resolutions? That’s comedy mulch, like mothers-in-law or airline food. I like to think we’re beyond that sort of thing. Then I thought, “Hey, this lack of a decent topic will be a great subject for next week.” But that hasn’t worked out either.