* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where the beat goes on, if only to keep beating the dead horse of celebrity culture. This week our editor-in-chief Kurt Luchs shares a very personal look at a very personal icon, Cher. She may not be timely, but she is eternal. Or are we just moonstruck? Read on...

I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Babe

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“Cher experimented more than anyone. I believe she paved the way for today’s stars. I think as a society we really owe her a great debt.” — Makeup artist Kevin Aucoin in Interview

The following excerpts are from a speech given by the President of the United States in the year 20 A.C. (after Cher).

Ladies and gentlemen, Sonnys and Chers, on the occasion of this 20th annual Cher the Love Day, it’s appropriate to reflect on the debt that we as a society owe to this amazing woman. For starters, if not for her keen fashion sense and willingness to push the envelope of taste I would not be standing before you today in a leather thong and spiked dog collar. I would be forced by outmoded convention into the navy blue or charcoal gray suits in which most presidents once performed their public duties.

Those dark days are long behind us, thank heaven. But it is worthwhile to take stock of how different our lives would be, how utterly futile and miserable and empty of meaning they would seem, if not for all that Cher has given us. Before the Nine-Day Limit Law (“Allman’s Joy”), for example, many doomed marriages struggled on and on for weeks, sometimes months, before the unhappy couple could throw in the towel. Nowadays an unsuccessful union can be ended in roughly the same amount of time and with the same amount of pain it takes to complete — or remove — an especially complicated tattoo.

Cher’s impact on our political institutions has been equally profound. It was her brilliantly conceived, constitutionally sound nose reduction surgery, after all, that ultimately inspired the successful downsizing of the U.S. government.

Nor should we forget the far-reaching consequences of her solo hit “Half-Breed” — the song which, we can now say in hindsight, provided the necessary catalyst for healing our nation’s racial wounds. When she sang “Take Me Home,” her last major single of the 1970s, we assumed it to be merely another mindless paean to the joys of casual, drugged-out, disco-thumping sex. How little we knew. With the perspective of decades, we can today perceive the seeds of the simple yet elegant solution to the homeless problem that this song set in motion.

In fact, her musical dominance needs scarcely be mentioned. A single Cher video, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” was responsible for both the worldwide adoption of permanent daylight savings time and a 3000 percent increase in Navy enlistments, though the new recruits were probably disappointed to find themselves swabbing the decks instead of wiping down a sweaty, gyrating Cher with a damp chamois (I know I was).

Like so many Americans, my life has been touched directly by Cher through the Cosmetic Surgery Rights Amendment to the Constitution. My parents were poor — gypsies, tramps and thieves, if the truth be told. And when it became apparent that the slight but psychologically painful flaws in my physical makeup could only be corrected by a Beverly Hills specialist, that law made it possible for me to get the help I needed.

Cher’s contributions to the sciences may, if anything, outweigh her artistic achievements. It was a global day of rejoicing when her decades-old work on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour earned a Nobel Prize for mathematics for her discovery of a new lowest common denominator.

Environmental concerns were never far from Cher’s heart. Thanks to the hallowed documentary videocubes that are required viewing in every high school history class, all of us are familiar with her breathtaking appearance at the 1986 Academy Awards. And we now realize why less than three decades later Congress passed the Exotic Costume Preservation Act, with its particularly stringent provisions for endangered theatrical plumage.

No doubt some of the seniors watching today can remember America’s old-style economy of heavy and light industry, of tangible goods and useful services. Yes, it worked. But was it fair? Did it allow everyone the chance to star in their own infomercial? By contrast, today’s Cher-based, infomercial-driven economy guarantees every American the right to trade shares of Cher and Cher derivatives on Wall Street.

Cher did not live to see every change inspired by her example. And while she received ample honors in her day — the Jack La Lanne Chair of Physical Education at Steady State University, being named first head of the Federal Spandex Administration, and a Penthouse Soft-Focus Award for Best Half-Naked Cannon Straddling — it would have been impossible to repay her in full for her contributions.

So the next time you get a makeover grant from the Department of Glitz, the next time you receive confidential marital advice from the Chastity/Chaz Institute for Human Sexual Response, the next time you salute the Red, White and Elijah Blue…think of Cher, and say a silent prayer of thanks.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where the fun never stops...or the funny never stops...or whatever. Anyway, we're pretty sure there's something that never stops. This week Becky Cardwell helps us understand why for nearly a century, Reader's Digest has never stopped being even more clueless than we are as to what the "funny" is.

Reader’s Digest Rejected Humor Submissions

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My boss keeps a close eye on employee expenses. One time, while going through my receipts, he asked who I’d taken to lunch on Saturday.

Puzzled, I asked for the restaurant’s name on the bill. “La Chaumiere, $193,” he replied. “Oh that,” I laughed. “I’m having sex with your wife.”

— M. Bradley (Submitted Jan. 2004)

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Having been an English teacher for many years, I tend to be a little fussy when it comes to grammar. After noticing a typo on the menu at the restaurant one day, I couldn’t resist having a little fun with the waitress when she came to take our order.

“What’ll it be?” the waitress asked.

“I think I’ll get the chicken noodle soop,” I replied, tongue firmly imbedded-in-cheek.

— Harold H. (Submitted Sept. 2004)

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A co-worker came in to work one morning looking rather disheveled. When I asked what was wrong, she replied, “Do you ever have one of those days where you just feel off balance?”

I had to chuckle. What she didn’t realize was that I suffer from Superior Canal Dehiscence Syndrome, a debilitating balance disorder caused by a large gap in the temporal bone leading to the irreversible dysfunction of the ear canal, the symptoms of which are elicited by sound or pressure secondary to a dehiscent superior semicircular canal.

— Judy G. (Submitted Mar. 2002)

* * * * * * *

As an Aerospace Engineer, I get asked a lot of extremely funny questions by people who don’t understand what it is I actually do.

However, because my social skills are severely lacking, I tend to just ignore them.

— Ben M. (Submitted Jan. 2007)

* * * * * * *

Halloween is a big event in our neighborhood — decorations, haunted houses, and many of the adults even dress up in costumes. Shortly after moving in, I was taking my children trick-or-treating when I noticed that one particular woman who came to the door was dressed as a pirate. I complimented her on her choice in costume while she gave the kids their candy.

A month later I bumped into the same woman at the grocery store. Imagine my embarrassment when I realized that she was, in fact, a pirate.

— LeAnne M. (Submitted Jan. 2007)

* * * * * * *

I was working as a customer-service representative in a bank when a young man walked over and was staring at me intently. “May I help you?” I inquired. “Not this minute,” he replied. “I’m just checking out the goods.” Blushing furiously, I said, “I beg your pardon?” He then pulled out his gun and told me to shut the hell up and put my hands where he could see them. I was so embarrassed. I totally thought he was checking me out!

— Name Withheld (Submitted Aug. 2000)

* * * * * * *

My ex-husband, Dick, also happens to be a real dick.

How ironic is that?

— Jessica F. (submitted Feb. 2005)

* * * * * * *

While preparing dinner, my wife accidentally chopped the entire upper portion of her thumb off with a butcher knife. Hearing her horrific screams, I ran straight to the kitchen.

When I looked at the counter and noticed the bloody mess, I couldn’t resist. “So, I take it we’re having lady fingers for dessert?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.

— Bill J. (Submitted Apr. 2004)

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where your annual breast exams are always free (after a $30 copay). This week please say hello to Anna Lefler. In her first piece for us, Anna bares her soul -- among other things -- as she recounts her experiences in the happy, magical land of mammograms.

Excuse Me, Do You Have Any Cheap Trick?

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I enjoy being a girl. No, really. I do. I’m quite sure no one has a more evolved, Zen-like appreciation than I of the gentle waxing and waning of hormonal tide that heralds the monthly Festival of Menses.

Better yet, with each phase of life come new rites in observance of womanhood. For several years now, I have been celebrating with an annual mammogram — a ritual that is starting to feel like Christmas. Not as in, “Oh, boy! Santa’s comin!” but rather, “Don’t tell me it’s time to drag out those tired decorations again.”

The appointment also has its “Groundhog Day” aspects. I always go to the same imaging center. I always park in the same place. I always go in the wrong door. And, always, the same song is playing: “I Just Wanna Stop” by Gino Vannelli.

In the waiting room. In the changing room. In the exam room.

I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I just know that whenever I hear that song, no matter where I am, it’s all I can do not to fling a breast onto the nearest chilled metal surface.

The mammogram has become a facet of regular, annual maintenance, much like rotating my tires or meeting with my accountant, although I usually keep my shirt on for those appointments. The first mammogram, however, was a different story…

Gino serenades me in the dusty rose dressing room as I change into my dusty rose exam gown and stuff my belongings into the dusty rose locker.

Just after the first chorus, the ebullient technician, fresh from a stint in an Eastern-European roller-derby league, knocks on my swinging saloon doors which are (say it with me) dusty rose, and puts me at ease with the words, “Bring purse.”

I follow her down the hall into the exam room, which has been thoughtfully climate-controlled for any sled dogs who might be wandering through the building. The technician points for me to put my purse on the floor in the corner, then directs me to the machine. She moves me closer and closer to it. So close that if I get any more intimate with this equipment I will morph into Robocop.

“Remove one arm,” the technician says, standing beside me.

“Well, that sounds painful,” I joke and am rewarded with an unblinking, soul-searing stare. Obviously, she is prepared to wait me out, so I slip my arm out of the gown, exposing half my chest, while the technician soaks her hands in a bucket of ice water. (I may have imagined that last bit.)

“Place breast here,” she says and proceeds to palm my breast onto the machine’s metal plate like a fry-cook dealing patties onto a griddle for lunch rush. I wonder fleetingly if the other technicians also have “love” and “hate” tattooed across their knuckles.

“Closer,” she says, and executes an intriguing tugging motion. “Please closer,” she says again and pulls my breast away from my body, smearing it across the frosty tray. I turn my face sideways and press my chest into the machine as hard as I can, hoping to avoid her putting her foot on my shoulder for more pulling leverage.

“Arm up,” she says. “Don’t move.”

I hear her push a pedal on the floor and a clear plastic plate begins its descent, gathering part of my neck with it and lowering my earlobes by an inch. I watch from the corner of my eye as my breast is caught between the plates, which have stopped moving.

Whew, I think. What’s all the hubbub about a mammogram? This is a piece of cake! Is it time to do the other one yet?

The technician moves away from me and steps behind what I will call the “blast shield.” I strain to see her watching me through the partition as she sips a Big Gulp.

“No breathing,” she mouths at me through the glass. Granted, I can’t see all of her, but I extrapolate that she takes a couple of practice bounces on a mini-tramp and lands on another control pedal with both feet.

Next thing I know, the plates have compressed with a whir, my breast is one millimeter thick, flowing out in all directions like a tablecloth on a cruise-ship buffet.

“I just wanna stop,” Gino croons as the pulling motion yanks my chin down onto my collar bone with a slap. You said a mouthful, G.

Questions appear in my mind as the apparatus against my cheek fires X-rays down through the plastic plate and into my breast, which now bears a striking resemblance to the underside of a stingray. What if the power goes out? What if there’s a fire in the building? I’m going to look pretty silly dragging this machine down Santa Monica Boulevard by my chest.

I glance over to see the technician still watching me through the glass. Expressionless. Eating a churro.

Finally, the machine whirs again and the plates separate, releasing me. My knees unlock, my mouth snaps shut and, like a rusty tape measure, my breast haltingly retracts to its approximate former size and shape.

The technician wipes her mouth on a paper napkin and emerges from behind the blast shield, smoothing her hair back into its bun.

“Switch,” she says and I wonder how much more of her small talk I can stand.

“So, on the way out, do I get to pick a prize from the treasure trunk?”

“Yes.” She deposits my other breast on the metal square.

I look at her, surprised by her reply. “Really?”

“No,” she says. “Not really.”

She stomps on the pedal and I drown out Gino with a crescendo of my own.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where Cesar Millan is a household word...assuming your household is full of weird people who whisper to their dogs. This week our own Tyler Smith shows what can happen when a normal American family applies the Millan method not only to their pets but to their offspring.

The Child Whisperers

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“…some parents, and even a few child therapists, have found themselves taking mental notes from a television personality known for inspiring discipline, order and devotion: Cesar Millan, otherwise known as the ‘Dog Whisperer.'” — The New York Times

Let’s face it. Child rearing is tough. My wife Tina and I know this from personal experience. For the first three years of his life, our son Blackie was a real terror — the kind of kid you wouldn’t mind letting fall off a cliff, like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son (or Home Alone 2). We knew things were bad when we took him home from the hospital a few days after he was born and the first thing he does when he gets in the house is defecate all over my Devo record collection. Then he starts suckling on my wife’s breast! Dr. Spock doesn’t tell you how to deal with this sort of behavior, at least not on the dust jacket. These antics continued for three years. The crying, the poop, keeping us up all night howling because we forgot to let him back in the house. Our dog John Robert Eldridge III is perfectly happy to sleep outside. In fact, he likes it. What gives? Tina and I repeatedly asked ourselves.

Then one night, while Tina and I were watching The Dog Whisperer and congratulating ourselves on how well Cesar Millan’s techniques had worked on John Robert Eldridge III, we looked over and there’s Blackie, all apoplectic because Tina was sitting on the remote that controlled his shock collar. Tina and I thought, “Hey, maybe we’re going about this all the wrong way,” although neither of us had the courage to say it until a month or so later.

“You know, there’s something we could learn from Cesar,” said my wife.

“What it feels like to be Mexican?” I asked.

“No, well, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is that I bet if we use Cesar’s dog-training techniques on Blackie, we could make more headway than we have in the past.” And from that moment on, our lives, and more importantly Blackie’s life, became far more manageable.

As Cesar instructed us to do with J.R. III, the first step was to identify where our creature fit into the hierarchy of his species. For example, we recognized that Blackie was:

1. A child with childish needs as opposed to grown-up needs.

2. Too much of a damned diva to drink out of the toilet like a normal person.

3. Not going anywhere soon.

Then we began implementing Cesar’s cardinal rules: Exercise, Discipline and Affection (Initially, Tina thought it was “Affectation” and had J.R. III and Blackie smoking Gauloises and toting first editions of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Oops.). First, we made sure Blackie got plenty of exercise. By stapling a filet to his diaper, we ensured that both J.R. III and Blackie could get in a good workout. J.R. III chased Blackie around for what seemed like hours! Of course, Blackie, still resistant to “order,” would typically collapse in a heap and play dead (the first “trick” he learned) in protest, his attempt to assert himself as what Cesar might call “The Alpha Child.” But do Alpha Children run around crying when a snarling Rottweiler comes charging toward their little tushies? No, they don’t. “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” we’d remind Blackie, but he’d just squall incessantly until we shelved the Tennyson and ushered J.R. III off to his Shiatsu-do massage appointment. Blackie was often hostile, but that’s where discipline comes in.

We learned from Cesar that Blackie’s shock collar was unnecessary, and in retrospect, maybe a little cruel (Child Protective Services echoed this sentiment in a caustic little epistle). Now, there’s nothing wrong with tough love, but we found that a leash pop from a simple choke chain was all we really needed to coax Blackie into heeling. Remember, mom and dad — YOU’RE THE ALPHAS. Dogs and children are pack animals, and it’s up to YOU to establish discipline so your child doesn’t wander off to Burning Man to do magical mushrooms and get in touch with his inner nude. That’s why, following Cesar’s advice, whenever Blackie would get out of line, we’d establish dominance by grasping the scruff of his neck and going, “Tsch!” Then, when Blackie could finally talk, we changed that to “Tsst!” Finally, in high school it was “I’m going to shake you until your fricking teeth rattle…Tchst.”

But, let’s not forget affection. Affection is crucial in making sure that your child doesn’t grow up to be like one of those Menendez brothers. Be sure to praise and reward your child for good behavior (they like candy, and later in life they will appreciate cash) and encourage nuzzling and licking between your child and your dog and even other children. If you feel like they still aren’t getting enough affection, you can pay for six years of college at Chico State while they loaf around studying “Modes of Being” or glassblowing or some other dopey thing.

If, after carefully implementing Cesar’s training tactics, your child is still rambunctious, ungrateful and disobedient, I’m not sure what to tell you. We’ve tried to contact Cesar to see if Blackie (or, “Timothy,” as he now insists on being called) would be welcome at his Dog Psychology Center in South Central L.A. but we have yet to hear back. In the meantime, Blackie responded to our well-intentioned inquiry in his usual belligerent fashion, biting me on the nose, urinating on his mother and kidnapping John Robert Eldrige IV, announcing that he was going to Burning Man to do magical mushrooms and get in touch with his inner nude.

Now, Cesar’s techniques may not work for all children. But they’re certainly worth a try. After all, you only get one shot at child rearing, sometimes more if you like sex. And there is at least one lesson taught by Señor Millan that every parent needs to know: No matter how much your child bitches and moans about it, Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy with Liver may not be “cool” to serve at their 10th birthday party, but they’ll thank you later for the protein.

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