* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we often celebrate Mother's Day in November. This time it really is a special occasion, as our co-founder and editor Kurt Luchs is celebrating the release of his first humor collection, "It's Funny Until Someone Loses an Eye (Then It's Really Funny)," from Sagging Meniscus Press. This harrowing autobiographical piece is only one of 50 stories, bits and parodies contained in the book. Copies of the paperback and Kindle ebook editions can be ordered at Amazon using the link below or the one to the right in our blogroll. May we humbly suggest this would make an ideal Christmas gift for the readers in your life? Well, we just did suggest it. Now it is up to you to act. America is counting on you!

The Imperturbable Mrs. Luchs

By:
kurtluchs@aol.com
https://www.amazon.com/Funny-Until-Someone-Loses-Really/dp/1944697403/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Do not judge my mother.

You don’t get to do that unless you go and have seven children, one right after the other, in just ten years. Pretty much everything strange and mystifying about her mothering could be ascribed to a never-ending case of postpartum depression. And that’s before you take a closer look at those children. If you want to know what kind of feral society we siblings formed in the absence of real adult supervision, reread The Lord of the Flies.

Even if you do happen to have popped out seven unruly mini-monsters in one decade, you still don’t get to judge her because you were not married to my father, a maxi-monster if ever there was one — and there was. Dad was an ex-Marine, which is like being an ex-Catholic: i.e., there is no such thing, because once they have you, they have you for life, run where you will. He taught us the words to “The Halls of Montezuma” (aka “The Marine Corps Hymn”) before any other song, even Christmas carols, though for reasons best known to himself he often made us sing it while goose-stepping and delivering the Nazi salute. Come to think of it, he had us sing Christmas carols the same way. Under his command, we didn’t merely clean the yard, we policed the yard. Yes, yard maintenance was a police action like the Korean War, in which he had served as a sharpshooter, and about which he never uttered one syllable to me or, to my knowledge, to any of my siblings. He made the Great Santini look like Gomer Pyle.

But I am getting away from the subject, which is supposed to be my mother. Perhaps partly in reaction to my father’s short fuse, hot temper and lethal military training, she cultivated a persona resembling that of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She lived in a world of her own. It was a world more like Rivendell than planet Earth, populated by fairies and elves and myths and mythters, not by Stanley Kowalski’s understudy and seven hell-spawn. Inhabiting this mystic mental fog may have been what preserved any sanity she had left. She could retreat into it at will, and did so constantly. It made her unflappable and imperturbable, and as we shall see at certain crucial moments, utterly unreachable.

She read poetry. Worse, she wrote it. Some of my earliest and most persistent childhood memories are of her drifting through the house iambically reciting Yeats, Frost, Eliot and Dylan Thomas aloud. That kind of thing gets into a boy’s head. It would be many years before I understood that other mothers, normal mothers, did not carry on so. She also knew by heart many songs by the Irish folk sensations The Clancy Brothers, such as “The Wild Colonial Boy,” “Whiskey You’re the Devil,” and “The Men of the West.” Her renditions were seldom on key, but gained in power when our two dogs and half dozen cats caught the spirit of it and added their own howls to the choruses.

Speaking of animals, her big heart for them was the reason our house and yard on the outskirts of pristine, suburban Wheaton, Illinois, looked more like a Dust Bowl farm. In addition to the dogs and an unending supply of cats and kittens, we had four chickens and four geese, along with an occasional hamster or mouse and any number of woodland creatures that we rescued (usually from our own cats) and kept temporarily until we could turn them over to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center. These included everything from bats and raccoons to pheasants and opossums. We had a pet crow named Edgar Allan Crow, whom we taught to say, among other things, “Nevermore” and “Brookwillow” (his charmingly dyslexic attempt at “Willowbrook”). Imitating our mother with cruel accuracy, he could also scream, “Shut the door!” and do a very moving impersonation of a baby crying, one of the few ways to get her attention.

For some reason it was the men of the family who brought home the amphibians and reptiles. I kept a newt and a small tortoise, and usually an aquarium stocked with painted turtles and crayfish. One winter I housed twenty-seven baby snapping turtles in an aluminum tub under the kitchen sink. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I was taken with their hypnotic little six-pointed starry eyes and the fact that at that tender age, their vicious bites couldn’t even break the skin. It is a testament of sorts to my mother’s culinary skills that the smell of those turtles and whatever she was cooking could not easily be distinguished. It is a testament to her imperturbability that she allowed them to remain in the kitchen all winter with the windows shut tight against the Northern Illinois cold.

My father topped us all when he and a Marine Corps buddy returned from a fossil hunting trip in the western part of the state with a live timber rattlesnake. Not many women would have retained their composure under the circumstances. My mother was delighted, almost giddy. She promptly named the snake Gertrude and put her in a Plexiglas cage in the crawlspace. Gertrude proved very useful while we had her. When we caught some of the neighbor kids trying to steal our bicycles, we showed them Gertrude. We urged them to make sudden movements in front of her cage, causing her to strike at the Plexiglas. The venom from her fangs dripped down the inside of her cage quite convincingly. We never had to lock up our bikes again. Eventually we donated Gertrude to the Brookfield Zoo. Six months later she was killed by a falling rock under suspicious circumstances, and I believe the Chicago Police Department may still have a cold case file on her. My mother wore a black armband for a year.

I’ve told you about the good times, the times when mom’s imperturbability was an asset to a household full of wild creatures, human and otherwise. But there were other times, too. Times when her ability to retreat into those golden mental mists almost amounted to neglect. Again, I ask you not to judge. You weren’t there. You can’t know what it was like. You probably think I’m exaggerating or inventing for comic effect, but you have no idea how wrong you are, or how much I’m actually leaving out because you would never believe it.

Take the time when I nearly bled out on the living room couch while she sat there reading the paper. The evening had started normally enough. I always had a copious supply of fireworks around, which I needed for my ongoing scientific and philanthropic work. That night I was working with bottle rockets. I had become jaded with the pedestrian experience of setting them off one at a time. Inspired by the twin ideas of a Roman candle and a Gatling gun, I used corrugated cardboard to construct a multiple bottle rocket launcher. It was fiendishly simple. Roll the cardboard into a tube, and stick a bottle rocket into each of the many holes at the end. Then twist all of the fuses together, light them simultaneously, aim the tube at your target, and voila! Instant hellfire.

In this case my target was a Wheaton Police cruiser. There was an intersection nearby with a small hill overlooking it. Perched behind the crest of that hill, I waited until the cruiser stopped at the empty intersection and then set off my launcher. Seconds later, dozens of bottle rockets zipped and whistled and exploded over the cruiser’s windshield. I’m sure the two patrolmen, who had probably never handled anything more menacing than a kitten in a tree, thought they had somehow found themselves in the middle of a gang war in sedate, lily-white Wheaton. Within moments, though, they figured it out. Their siren and cherries went on, and they began flashing their searchlight around the car, looking for a criminal mastermind.

I ducked and quickly rolled back down the hill. On the way down, my right calf encountered one of those beer cans from the days before pop tops, the type you had to open with a can opener, leaving a protruding jagged metallic triangle that could do real damage. It ripped through my jeans and opened a gash several inches long in my leg, which began bleeding profusely. A sizable, grisly-looking piece of flesh dangled by a thread. Not having the time or the means to apply a field dressing, I hightailed it home through empty lots overgrown with weeds, keeping as close to the ground as possible.

I burst through the front door out of breath, and haltingly told Mom that I had been injured and would require medical attention. I also mentioned that we needed to turn off the lights and draw the curtains, and if the police came to the door, we should pretend not to be home. “Oh no you don’t,” she said, without even looking up from her newspaper. “I’m not going to fall for that again.”

Perhaps I should explain here that only the previous day I had conducted a different experiment, wherein I combined ashes, candle wax and ketchup into a fair imitation of a horrific burn wound on my left arm. That had got her to take notice, however briefly. But actions have consequences.

Not knowing what else to do, I sat down and let my cut bleed onto the floor. I began to get dizzy, whether from shock and adrenaline or loss of blood, I don’t know. The cop car slowly pulled down our cul-de-sac and back out again without stopping, gumballs still on but siren off. A few minutes later my mom finally put down the paper, looked up, saw the growing pool of blood at my feet, and smiled. “Well, are you going to clean that up, or what?” she asked. I managed to whisper that I needed to see a doctor, the sooner the better. Then I fainted.

When at last she understood that I was indeed hurt, she calmly and coolly snapped into action. She had the neighbors drive me to the emergency room. Dad was not home, you see, and she would not learn to drive until many years later. In fact, most pedestrians and light poles unlucky enough to find themselves in her path would say she never did. But that’s another story.

The wound took thirty-three stitches to close. The scar is still visible today. As usual, though, there were compensations. The respect of my peers, for one thing. Drugs, for another. That was back when they handed out opiates like Veteran’s Day poppies, even to children. It would be several more years before I would test mom’s patience to the limit by starting a hydroponic marijuana farm in the basement and using my augmented chemistry set to synthesize mescaline in honor of Aldous Huxley, another author to whom she introduced me. For now, I was satisfied to have gotten a rise out of two imperturbable entities, the Wheaton Police and mom, with mom being by far the tougher nut to crack.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, known far and wide -- and also near and narrow -- as the single most reliable source of historical truth. Listen in as our very own Editor zeroes in on some key events from America's past that have puzzled the experts for ages.

Mysteries Of American History

By:
kurtluchs@aol.com

One bright summer morning in 1756, in Virginia, a farmer named Emmanuel Boggs rose and stepped — staggered, I should say — over to the window. If he had opened his eyes, he would have seen several hundred acres of prime Virginia tobacco shrouded in dew and stretching like a fine brown mist to the turquoise horizon. But Farmer Boggs was nobody’s fool. He kept his eyes good and shut. The last thing a man wants to look at in the morning is miles and miles of tobacco. And in the distance the mad, immortal sea, the cry of the seagull, and the endless lapping of waves on the shore….Farmer Boggs felt a sudden spasm of nausea. Instinctively he put his fist through the glass. He stood gaping at his hand for a while as though it might apologize, and then he went back to bed. He never woke up again, but we mustn’t hold that against him. He had taken all that a man could take. The South. Tobacco. A brutal, inhuman system doomed to decline and eventual extinction. Corn whisky. Gallons of it. And Scarlett, beautiful Scarlett whom he had never met, who would not be born until his son was an old man.

There are other incidents in American history just as puzzling as this one.

In 1833, on a foggy March Thursday, Emil Boggs (no relation) went squirrel hunting in the woods around Natchez, Tennessee. Fifteen minutes later he came back, after realizing he had forgotten his hunting rifle and that he couldn’t kill any squirrels by pointing a finger at them, cocking his thumb and yelling “Bang!” This time he took both his squirrel gun and his dog, whom he called Commander Henry Celsius for reasons that are lost to us, and probably to him, also. Certainly they were lost to the dog, who answered to nothing but “Hey, you!”

At any rate, out went Emil, and soon he had shot his quota of squirrels. Before long he had shot double his quota, and then triple. He had also shot his wife, his brother, a man who looked like his brother, a man who looked like his wife, and a man who looked like Teddy Roosevelt, although Roosevelt would not be born for another 25 years. He just didn’t know how to quit. The local constables grilled him for hours, but when asked why he had shot all those people he would only reply, “Because they had big, bushy tails and scampered from tree to tree.” It was an airtight alibi. Reluctantly, they let him go.

Two years later to the day, he was found floating face down in the reservoir, and such was the esteem the townspeople had for him that no one bothered to pull him out, although they did put up a “No Swimming” sign. Commander Henry Celsius changed his name to Emiliano Zapata (no relation) and moved to Mexico, where he was to write his memoirs and cause no end of confusion.

In October, 1928, Emily Boggs (again, no relation), who worked as a silkworm in a New York textile plant, passed out of human ken for three days. For 72 hours no one knew where she was, and what’s more, no one cared. When she finally returned to work she was wearing a false mustache, and her breath left something to be desired. She waved a loaded revolver in the air, or vice versa, and declared in a rotten Spanish accent: “I am Emiliano Zapata. Put your hands up and don’t lower them until I say ‘Simon Says.'” Nobody noticed, as it was a Sunday and the plant was closed.

After several minutes of indecision she fell north-by-northwest into a bucket of boiling tar, muttering some words that were either poor English or very poor Spanish. Five days later she was arrested in Salt Pork, Oregon, for writing out checks in Roman numerals and making some grave errors in arithmetic. She was taken in with a tall, bearded man who called himself Abraham Lincoln, although Lincoln had been killed 63 years previously. The Birth of the Blues would not come for another four years.

On a hot Sunday night not long ago, the author of this article (no relation, but I know him pretty well and he’s a really sweet guy) glanced up from his work to find that it was 10:15 p.m., more than two hours past his bedtime. He was tired, so very tired. The Birth of a Nation was already more than 200 years in the past. There was no point in sending a greeting card now. He tiptoed off to bed so as not to awaken the guard dog.

 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where some reporters may cover the globe but we cover the galaxy. It's a big universe out there, with plenty of room for aliens with multiple personality disorder, as our own Editor Kurt Luchs discovers to his consternation.

Monka Business

By:
kurtluchs@aol.com

A federal jury in Reno, Nevada, has returned a verdict of innocent in the case of a bank robbery suspect who is said to have three personalities, one of them an observer from another world. Under questioning by his attorney, Jack Paul Faulkner, 52, displayed his three personalities, Jack, Paul, and Monka. Monka told the jury: “I am the spirit who at one time was flesh who now does not reside on your planet. I am an observer only.” Faulkner maintained he “couldn’t and wouldn’t rob a bank.” — Actual newspaper clipping found in a box of my father’s things, though the name of the paper and the date of the story are now lost to time

 

I append the above news item for those with a casual interest in the doings of their neighbors from another world. Several questions in regard to this article, and not all of them legal ones, keep nagging at me.

Just for starters, I am puzzled as to how and why the jury (a federal jury, mind you) returned a verdict of innocent for Mr. Jack Paul “Monka” Faulkner. On the face of it, you’d think that a man possessing three personalities, or even four or five, would be every bit as capable of bank robbing as you or I. My three dozen personalities would never keep me from a life of crime if I thought I could arrange to have all of my trials held in Reno, Nevada.

Then there is the problem of “Monka,” as he sees fit to call himself. I don’t doubt that there is a Monka, or that he is from another world. Neither do I doubt that he was tried by a jury of his peers; by which I mean that any jury that could acquit Monka on the alibi he gives is definitely from another world, unquestionably a place where oysters run for President and banks leave their vaults unlocked for creatures with three or more personalities to rifle through the assets.

Why must we so frequently assume that our extraterrestrial neighbors are not only further advanced than us scientifically (that I can accept), but also infinitely kinder, more benevolent, harmless, and, if you’ll pardon the expression, more humane? In our naïve fantasies we picture them coming to Earth simply for the amusement provided by the human spectacle, or to bestow upon us a gadget that will end all war and tell us which horses are good in the fifth race at Aqueduct besides. Apart from those made-for-TV movies on the SyFy channel, the typical alien is, for most of us, a sort of intellectual Tony Robbins.

My guess is that any race of beings that can find its way to what Alfred Whitehead called a “second-rate planet with a second-rate star” is looking for some easy plunder, and what’s more has the means to get it. Their scientists, nothing but a pack of interstellar hoodlums, are sweating right now over the plans for a device that will pop open every safe deposit box in the world, while simultaneously immobilizing every teller and permitting unruly monsters with three nasty personalities to loot to their heart’s content — if they even have hearts. I’ll bet they have three apiece, the scum!

But that way lies delirium. Let us not presume the worst about Monka’s people, whatever we may think of him personally. Let us merely induce that Monka is a finger man for a small but vile band of galactic pirates, working hand-in-glove with his earthly cronies, those traitors to the human race Jack and Paul. He offered these two Benedict Arnolds a tempting reward — say, a date with a nice set of personalities or a seat on the federal bench in Reno, Nevada — and for such a trifle they sold out their fellow men and gave Monka houseroom in the body of Mr. Faulkner, the better to execute his cold-blooded schemes.

I won’t be taken in by that mushy double-talk of his. “An observer only” — hah! He was casing the joint, that’s all. Any two-bit private detective could tell you as much. And as for that other bit of baloney, the one that goes, “I am the spirit who at one time was flesh who now does not reside on your planet” — well, the jury who fell for that one ought to be strapped down under a strobe light and forced to read the collected works of Mary Baker Eddy. What does he mean, “who at one time was flesh”? If a 52-year-old man doesn’t have flesh on him he’s on the wrong side of the ground and they might as well hang him because he wouldn’t notice the difference. And if he doesn’t reside on our planet, how does he come to be in a court of law? He saw fit to hire an attorney, didn’t he? After all, Jack and Paul couldn’t and wouldn’t take that kind of initiative. That’s evidence enough for me.

The lone alternative to believing that the men and women of the jury are hallucinating is that they are shielding someone, namely Jack and Paul. They feel that their compatriots have been bedazzled by a visitor from the starry heavens, innocently beguiled into helping Monka pull off his heist. Jack and Paul thought it was all in good fun, or so this gullible jury would have us believe. Let me tell you, when personalities named Monka appear out of nowhere demanding a piece of the action, innocent men, even schizoids, don’t stick around to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and shriek until the ambulance comes.

The whole business has the air of a carnival sideshow. “Faulkner displayed his three personalities,” the item reads (my italics). Display is for kindergartners at show and tell. Or performance artists. Or strippers. It has no place in American jurisprudence. Faulkner sounds like a regular Alfred E. Neuman the way he lets Monka, not to mention Jack and Paul, play him for a fool. Such things may be a matter of course in Reno, but I, for one, am disquieted by the precedent seemingly set by this case. Let us pray that if vaudeville ever does return it confines itself to the stage and leaves the courtroom to sober people with only one personality.

Come to think of it, if multiple personalities are to be recognized in a court of law, why shouldn’t each of the body-sharing defendants be charged, tried and sentenced separately? Actually, that might work — and I could serve on three dozen juries at once!

 

 

 

 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we encourage everybody to come out, come out wherever they are. We promise to accept them exactly as they are. Yes, even our Editor Kurt Luchs, who has been hiding something rather important.

Call Me Sparkles

By:
kurtluchs@aol.com

It is long past time for me to come out. For far too long — my whole life, in fact — I have lived with a painful (and what I mistakenly believed was a shameful) secret: I am a unicorn living in a man’s body.

There. I’ve said it. What relief those few simple words give me!

True, I didn’t have a unicorn mother or father. Both of my parents were human, kind of, even though one was a Young Republican. I don’t have a single distinctive unicorn gene in my physiological makeup, except in the sense that the human genome has always shared a general 96 percent overlap with the unicorn genome. I do not in any obvious way resemble a unicorn. Not yet, anyway. But now I have come to understand that being a unicorn is more than a question of mere DNA, more than a matter of outward appearances. It is not something that can be verified or falsified with a laboratory test. It is at least partly a social construct. In the end, it is largely a matter of how each individual identifies.

I identify as a unicorn. I always have. When I was five years old I started signing my name Starlite (that’s Rainbow Brite’s unicorn to the uninitiated), until my parents beat me and sent me to my room without any oats. Now, at last, I am ready to accept my true nature, with both pride and humility. Pride, because frankly it takes some balls — albeit not large, furry unicorn balls — to own who you are, especially when that admission comes with so much prejudice and societal baggage. And humility because, well, unicorns! They are so awesome, so beautiful. I cry whenever I think of them. I’m crying now, gently, with soft, neighing, unicorn-like sobs.

So you see, though I was not technically born a unicorn, I sort of was, actually. There are some who claim that being a unicorn is a choice. They are wrong. Not evil, perhaps (except for that awful God-Hates-Unicorns church), simply wrong. You cannot choose who or what you are. You can only choose whether or not to accept it. Which brings me to my next point.

This news may not be welcomed or even understood by all of my family and friends. My ex-girlfriend and children naturally see me one way — my ex, as a “vile bug who somehow escaped the killing jar”; and my children, as a loving caregiver and mentor. Will they be able to see me as a unicorn, even if unicorns are so rare that nobody has ever quite managed to see one? Will they still love me? I mean of course my children, not my ex, who has already put out three hits on me, and will probably just hire a couple of unicorn hunters to take me out when she hears this.

Those hunters will not have much trouble finding me. By making this public announcement I have put a gigantic target on myself. Anyone can take a shot at me, and no doubt many will, even if only rhetorically. I will be even easier to locate when I complete the physical part of my transformation. Years ago, when I first formulated this plan, I secretly began taking unicorn hormones, which for some reason are not extracted from unicorns but rather from readers of Japanese manga. Now you know how the paparazzi got those embarrassing shots of me snorting like a racehorse, pawing the ground and occasionally leaping over rainbows.

Soon I will approach even closer to my ideal when I have thousands of specks of glitter permanently embedded in my flesh, my DNA is altered to allow me to grow soft white fur over my entire body, and I have a long, pointed white horn surgically attached to my forehead. Regardless of where my changes take me, however, the important thing is that I am ready now, finally, to be myself, the real me.

In celebration of this joyful day I say to you now, don’t call me Kurt any longer. Call me Sparkles! And while you’re here, could you fetch me that feedbag full of oats?

 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, which we are reasonably sure does not cause cancer. At least not the big, messy, incurable kind. However, reading your horoscope does cause cancer, according to our editor Kurt Luchs.

Your Falling Stars

By:
kurtluchs@aol.com

CANCER (June 21- July 22)
Stop worrying. Just because you are a Cancer doesn’t mean you have cancer. Not necessarily. Heart disease is the number one killer, not cancer. Cancer is only number two. A big number two, but still nowhere near as popular as your workaday heart attack. The chances are that you’ll have a cardiac arrest on your wedding night before your liver ever turns black and swells up like a malignant watermelon. Don’t think about it. You don’t have it. Or do you? God, what if you did and you never knew until it was too late? You have been coughing an awful lot lately. And that sore hasn’t healed yet. Was that tiny lump always there, or…? Oh, don’t be silly. It’s probably benign, whatever it is. Don’t think about it. They say thinking about it makes it happen. So don’t think about it.

LEO (July 23-August 22)
Count your blessings — you never know when one might be missing! But seriously, just be thankful you aren’t prone to cancer, like some signs. At least you have a fighting chance.

VIRGO (August 23-September 22)
Death is something we all have to face sooner or later. To some — the lucky ones — it comes quickly, quietly, even beautifully. Say, in a heart attack. To others it is an insidious lingering illness, a mysterious and unrelenting assailant, a terminal horror. The Greeks had a word for it. They called it cancer. But what the hell did the Greeks know? They drank hemlock for kicks. They liked little boys. Where do they get off talking about your cancer? Wait a minute — you say you’re a Virgo? I thought you were a Cancer! I’m sorry. I was looking at someone else’s chart. You don’t have cancer at all. You’ll live to be 150. Probably die in a train wreck. I didn’t mean to frighten you. My mistake. Won’t happen again.

LIBRA (September 23-October 23)
You will probably get up today. If not, you are already dead. What are you reading this for? Go on, get out of here. You bother me. And take your cancer with you.

SCORPIO (October 24-November 22)
Never say never. No matter how bleak things look, there’s always hope. Every year they spend millions of dollars on research. They kill thousands of innocent laboratory rats trying to save one person like you. Eventually they’ll find a cure. They’ve got to. It simply can’t go on like this, year after year, people dropping like flies, helpless against the enemy within. It’s madness. It’s got to stop, that’s all. Don’t give up. If you were a Cancer, I’d say give up. But you’re not. Hang in there, old buddy.

SAGITTARIUS (November 23- December 21)
You will see something today you have seen before. Copper is the chief mineral export of Chile. Titan is one of the moons of Saturn. Cancer is “a malignant tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands locally by invasion and systematically by metastasis.” Good luck.

CAPRICORN (December 22-January 19)
You are “any of various hollow-horned ruminant mammals (esp. of the genus Capra) related to the sheep but of lighter build and with backwardly arching horns, a short tail, and usually straight hair.” It could be worse, right? You could have cancer. Maybe you do. Just kidding!

AQUARIUS (January 20-February 19)
Oh God, help me. Please. The doctors say it won’t be long now. All they can do is ease some of the pain. Why me, God? Why me? I raised two beautiful kids and slaved to buy a house for this? What did I do wrong? Sure, I used to smoke two packs a day. Now I can’t even lift one little cigar to my lips. People would ask me nicely to stop and I’d just blow smoke rings in their faces. “Everything causes cancer these days,” I told them. “When your time is up, you’re gonna go.” I was joking, Lord. You know that. I didn’t know it would be like this. Not so soon. Help me. Please.

PISCES (February 20-March 20)
You’re being hysterical. The actual release of radiation at Fukushima was minimal. The public was never in real danger at any time. This world needs nuclear power. There are risks involved in everything. You are more likely to develop cancer by standing in the sun than you are by standing next to a nuclear power plant. Next question.

ARIES (March 21-April 19)
What would you rather have — a few pesticide residues, or billions of bugs all over everything? There’s no proof any of that stuff causes cancer. Anyway, you’re only talking about a couple of migrant farm workers and a few California Condors already on the way out.

TAURUS (April 20-May 20)
“We are all under sentence of death.” Kafka said that. And look at him today. If he were alive, he’d probably have cancer.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20)
It is later than you think.

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* 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

By:

“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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Lake Delavan Days

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For others, the word “vacation” evokes idyllic childhood memories of family togetherness and carefree summer days spent at some garden spot by a seashore or lake. For me, “vacation” has always meant a special family time, too — a time where families retreat far from civilization for the express purpose of torturing one another in an enclosed space without distractions. It doesn’t take a $90-an-hour Freudian to trace this feeling directly back to that fateful Luchs family trip to Lake Delavan, Wisconsin.

The year was 1964. Kennedy was freshly planted in Arlington National Cemetery, having been killed (as Oliver Stone has since informed us) by a conspiracy involving 93 percent of the American people and at least two of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey and Dewey (although there is no direct evidence that Louie helped Oswald pull the trigger, he is now known to have been on a first-name basis with both Jack Ruby and Sirhan Sirhan). The Beatles were continuing their full frontal assault on America’s youth. Viet Nam was becoming the number one vacation spot for draft-age U.S. males.

The Luchses had just purchased a peculiar little foreign car, the Citroen 2CV. This vehicle is several sizes larger than a Tonka Toy and almost as powerful. It’s basically a Volkswagen Bug with an inferiority complex and only two cylinders. The man who sold it to us — a family friend later convicted of extortion and threatening to set off a bomb in the San Francisco Hilton, but that’s another story — fondly described the 2CV as “the perfect desert fighting machine.” He claimed that if you ran out of motor oil, you could always keep a Citroen going by filling the crankcase with ripe bananas. More than once our father caught us attempting to put this intriguing theory to the test.

The 2CV could seat two comfortably. In a pinch, four people could be squeezed in if they were willing to forego minor comforts like breathing. Our car held all nine of us: our parents, Robert and Jeannine, and (in descending order of age and location in the food chain), Hilde, Kurt, Murph, Helmut, Sarah, Rolf and Cara. Then there was our “luggage” (paper bags full of old clothes), the inflatable rubber boat, life preservers, a week’s worth of food and two cats, Leopold and Loeb.

The main excitement on the trip up came when one of the cats leapt from the back seat onto Dad’s back as he was negotiating a left turn. He screamed, “Get it off, get it off!” but this only amused his passengers and caused the cat to dig in its claws, piercing his Goldwater T-shirt and drawing enough blood to simulate a lovely tie-dyed effect. The rest of the ride is a blur to me now, since I spent most of it vomiting into a bag of Hilde’s knitting. Like most healthy American families, ours included both normal vomiters (NVs) and projectile vomiters (PVs). The difference is, if an NV keeps his head in a paper bag most of the time, his fellow travelers will only enjoy his experience vicariously, whereas there is no escape from the PV. Handing a PV a paper bag is like putting a cherry bomb in a coffee can: It simply makes for a messier explosion. I was an NV, but Sarah was a PV, and by the time we reached Delavan the interior of the car looked like a gutted animal.

On first sight Lake Delavan appeared to be North America’s largest mud puddle. At no point could you see bottom. Yet it was so shallow you could wade out for a quarter of a mile and never get your head wet. Not that you really wanted to get your head wet in Lake Delavan. It seemed to have become the final resting place for all the sewage, crumpled gum wrappers, rusty beer cans and broken glass in the tri-state area. Dull, sticky soap bubbles covered everything, bubbles that emitted a sickening stench when popped.

The cabin was owned by an old Polish woman from Chicago and was apparently furnished with cast-offs from the Warsaw ghetto. Before the electricity was turned on we wandered from room to room, weeping like icons at the shabbiness of it all. “What’s that crunching noise?” asked Rolf. “Sounds like Rice Crispies,” said Hilde. When the lights came on we discovered that the cabin was carpeted with dead flies. Helmut got Sarah to eat one by convincing her she would magically acquire the power of flight. She was indeed airborne for several seconds after jumping from the cabin roof, but problems with low visibility and faulty hydraulics forced her to make an emergency landing in some sumac bushes.

The only water sport we encountered at Lake Delavan was trying to get the toilet to flush. We quickly ascertained that any amount of toilet paper, even a single square, would cause an overflow. This more than anything else drove us away. Although we had paid for the entire week, by Thursday we had all had enough. We packed up and left late that afternoon with Dad even more dazed and confused than usual.

Dad was always in a world of his own, and never more so than when he was driving. He was very superstitious. He thought it was bad luck to look at a map before a trip…or during a trip…or at any time, for that matter. He also believed it was poor form to accost strangers with questions like, “Where the hell are we?” And he nursed an instinctive fear of policemen bordering on divine awe. (There must be genes for all these traits, because I regret to say they were passed on to me!)

Unfortunately, when the 2CV was fully locked and loaded with Luches it was unable to exceed 35 miles per hour, 10 miles below the minimum. A state trooper (who probably thought he had stepped into a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath”) soon pulled us over and advised Dad that he would have to leave the main highway and use back roads with lower speed limits the rest of the way. When we turned off the main road we got lost immediately and stayed lost. Mom held the thankless post of navigator. Her pathetic attempts to read the map by flashlight while in motion so infuriated Dad that he snatched the map away from her, wrapped it around the steering wheel with one hand and turned the flashlight on it with the other. This maneuver caused us to narrowly miss an A&W Root Beer truck.

The afternoon wore into twilight. It began to rain. The winter solstice drew near. I don’t remember when — or if — we ever got home, and I don’t want to remember. And I’ll thank you not to mention the word “vacation” again.

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One High Fever, Unabridged

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I’m no Dale Carnegie, God knows, but I recently stumbled upon a principle of mental health that no person wishing to retain his sanity should ignore. In short, it is this: Never open a dictionary unless you have a specific word, a particular verbal destination in mind. To do otherwise is to play Russian roulette with your faculties, the difference being that with a dictionary there is, so to speak, a bullet in every chamber. I speak from bitter, brutal experience.

Just this morning I was searching Random House’s dictionary for clupeid, that is, “kloo’ pe id, n., any of the Clupeidae, a family of chiefly marine, teleostean fishes, including the herrings, sardines, menhaden and shad.” I read through that definition 19 times. It had a rhythm as compelling as any by Bob Marley and the Wailers. By the time “clupeid” had burned pinholes in my pupils, I had forgotten why I had looked the word up in the first place. Luck had been on my side, though. I had set out to locate a single word and had done so without bringing shame to myself or my family (a family of chiefly marine, teleostean fishes, by the way). I had been able, after some effort, to avert my gaze to an especially informative advertisement for women’s undergarments in a nearby mail-order catalog belonging to my wife. Where was she now, the traitor? Shopping, probably; leaving me here alone with the Random House Unabridged. As well to leave a child in the same room with a man named Guido.

I opened the volume and quite by chance stood goggling at the same page where, in my innocent youth, I had looked up “clupeid.” The hair at the back of my neck slowly stiffened with repulsion. I had landed full force on clypeus (klip’ e es), “the area of the facial wall of an insect’s head between the labrum and the frons, usually separated from the latter by a groove.” Think of that! On the facial wall of every last vermin in the world, the clypeus was separated from the frons by a mere groove! Who could bear it? I ran a trembling index finger down the column, hoping for a soothing adjective, a prosaic noun to calm my nerves.

Instead, the final word on the page transfixed me. Cnidocyst (ni’ de sist), It had a foul, almost sinister sound. I repeated it several times in spite of myself. Cnidocyst. Cnidocyst. What it was I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know. But it was too late for squeamishness. I read on.

Why, a cnidocyst was nothing but a nematocyst! It said so right there in black and white. How foolish I had been after all. And a nematocyst was…well, a nematocyst was simply a…a…what was it, anyway? According to the ghouls at Random House, a nematocyst is “an organ in coelenterates consisting of a minute capsule containing a thread capable of being ejected and causing a sting, used for protection and for capturing prey.”

A more flimsy tissue of euphemisms would be impossible to concoct. “Capable of being ejected,” the man says. I’d like to see the one that isn’t ejected! “Used for protection and for capturing prey.” Indeed. It’s used for making a damn nuisance if I know my coelenterates — and I think I do. If I had a nematocyst to my name those coelenterates wouldn’t be swaggering like psychotic sailors, capturing helpless prey and causing wholesale carnage, no sir. There wouldn’t be a coelenterate standing in the joint when I finished with them. I could lick ’em all, I could — I checked myself before complete hysteria had hold of me.

I was beginning to wish I had stayed with “cnidocyst.” Innuendo was preferable to outright horror. I felt a compulsion to turn back to “cnidocyst,” praying that the sight of a familiar word, however nauseating, would take my mind off the chilling implications of “nematocyst.”Any port in a storm. On the way to “cnidocyst” I paused among the “D’s” long enough to pick up another happy zoological term, “dulosis,” or “the enslavement of an ant colony or its members by ants of a different species.” Slavery, right here in modern North America! What next?

I made it back to “cnidocyst” all right, but there was little relief in the reunion. It sounded as ugly as ever, and if a cnidocyst was a nematocyst and vice versa, any preference of mine amounted to a choice of evils, no more. Lost in thought, my gaze wandered. I gaped at the word above “cnidocyst.” It was “cnidocil,” obviously a close relative. There was the same squinty, pinch-faced look, the same unctuous air of authority. Cnidocil (ni’ de sil), “a hairlike sensory process projecting from the surface of a cnidoblast, believed to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst.”

“A hairlike sensory process” — again, the words were vague but the images they conjured up were not. I had the desperate certainty that if I encountered a hairlike sensory process, even a small one, I would be incapable of any reaction except screaming myself into a dead faint.

I noted the stock journalistic jargon, “believed to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst” (my italics). It’s considered poor form among journalists, and I suppose, by extension, among the compilers of dictionaries, to prejudice a case by making direct accusations against any of the parties involved, even when their guilt is a public fact. Thus we have “suspected” assassins, “confessed” kidnappers, and cnidocils “believed” to trigger the discharge of the nematocyst.

But in analyzing this nicety I was forgetting a very important factor, the word just above “cnidocil” — “cnidoblast,” or in plain Pig Latin, “the cell within which a nematocyst is developed.” Clearly I had situated myself within a massive web of intrigue, a conspiracy of international proportions. The cnidocil was a trigger man, a gunsel working for the cnidoblast, who was shielding the nematocyst, alias the cnidocyst, alias the “cnida” (from the Greek word for nettle). Paranoid psychosis nearly had me in its grip. I was sinking fast. I fought to maintain consciousness as I babbled like Gertrude Stein, “A cnidocyst is a nematocyst is a cnida is a nematocyst is a –” Then, mercifully, I passed out.

The touch of a cold, wet cloth on my forehead brought me to. I recoiled at first, then allowed my face to be stroked by a pair of delicate feminine hands. It was my wife, back from her shopping spree.

“I told you never to drink before sunset,” she chided me. “You never listen, do you?”

“Easy, hon, or I’ll sic my nematocyst on you,” I said.

“What were you drinking — alcohol or chloroform? Come on now, get your head up. Let me show you what I found at the mall: A brand new hair extension!”

“You mean a hairlike sensory process,” I said. She let my head fall back on to the tile and went to mix herself a double Scotch and soda, no ice.

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UFOs: The Secret Air Force Files

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Through a top-level security leak at the Pentagon, we were able to gain access to the most guarded information in the world, the Air Force’s file on unidentified flying objects. Up until now these reports were known only to the Russians and the Chinese, and then only in very poor translations. At last the truth can be told.

*****

INCIDENT: March 17, 1962. Three giant cigar-shaped objects were sighted over New York City, flying in formation with a huge ashtray. Millions of seemingly normal citizens witnessed one of the objects blow a definite smoke ring over Manhattan and then flick some ashes on Brooklyn. Then, within seconds the entire formation had lifted away, signaled a left turn and vanished, never to be seen again.

EXPLANATION: In this case the observers are fictional, not the UFOs. It is common knowledge that there are no actual human beings living in New York. The humanoid apparitions you see on the streets and in office buildings are optical illusions caused by the action of the sun’s rays on blacktop. If you blink, they will disappear.

*****

INCIDENT: On Thursday, December 14, 1989, Enoch Waffler, a beet farmer in Spastic Colon, North Dakota, had this experience:

“I was walking along this here furrow, planting beet seeds with a rivet gun, when this big sorta flying bedpan whizzes by at 100,000 miles per hour, shooting sparks and making a noise like a coon hound with its tail caught in a door. I know it was 100,000 miles per hour because 15 minutes later he had circled the Earth completely and was back at my place asking directions to the Crab Nebula. I say ‘he’ but I mean it was a little feller — oh, about two or three feet tall in his socks — with eyes like silver dollars and hands like pliers with tiny golden beaks. Well, we got to talking, and I gave him some corn whiskey, which he spit right up again. But he did drink a whole five-gallon can of kerosene. Got mad as a killer bee when I couldn’t find him any dry ice. Then he was off again, looking for a gas station that stayed open all night and sold plutonium. But first he posed for some snapshots and I got the whole thing on a recorder which I talk into while planting beets, to keep from going crazy.”

EXPLANATION: Mr. Waffler was the victim of a well-rehearsed prank. What he thought was an extraterrestrial visitor was most likely a little neighbor boy in a homemade costume. The boy then invented a nuclear-powered starship capable of speeds up to 100,000 miles per hour to complete the hoax. Either that or he stopped the Earth from rotating on its axis so it would look as though he were going 100,000 miles per hour. In either case the boy is very clever and should be watched. Waffler should have caught on, though, when the “alien” asked how to get to the Crab Nebula. Everybody knows it’s closed on weekdays.

*****

INCIDENT: Saturday, June 28, 2003, Albert Schmecker, a part-time glue-sniffer, returned to his home in Peoria to find it surrounded by a pulsating mass of airborne lights. He then heard a piercing shriek, and would’ve run away had he not realized it was his own. He fell to his knees, trembling. An awesome shape loomed out of the unearthly glare. He later described it as “one of those synthesizers with the color charts on the keyboard and the rhythm section that plays by itself.” The synthesizer played a medley of old favorites while the lights flickered softly as if in response, and soon Schmecker was lulled into a deep sleep. When he awoke his house was gone, with only a slight indentation in the grass to show where it had once stood.

EXPLANATION: He was behind in the payments.

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Dr. Snakey’s Pretty Pets

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(As always, Dr. Snakey — “the happy herpetologist” — answers your questions about “problem” snakes in the strictest confidence. But please DO NOT SEND YOUR SNAKES THROUGH THE MAIL for diagnosis; too many mailing tubes have been arriving bent and with postage due.)

Dear Dr. Snakey,

While I was in India 20 years ago, I bought a snake for 50,000 rupees from a Mr. B. Fakir, who assured me it was a genuine spitting cobra. Imagine my embarrassment when I entered the animal in a spitting contest and found he couldn’t spit past his little fangs! He simply lay there and drooled. Well, I was heartbroken. Everything went black, and when I woke up three years later I was a prisoner in my own house.

Since then I have lived in a private hell with “President Garfield,” as I call him. He drips at night like a leaky faucet and sneers at me whenever I change his bedding. Lately he has put on a commanding air that would be ridiculous if he didn’t have the venom to back it up — and I’m not sure he does. Nonetheless, if he wants something he points at the item with his tail until I bring it to him, be it a dish of walnuts, a smoking jacket or a nest of baby mice.

I’ve had it, Doc. There’s nothing in the book that says I have to take orders from a reptile that looks more like a soggy pipe cleaner. Or is there?

Col. Groveling B. Cringewater

the trunk of the red Monte Carlo

No Parking Zone, O’Hare International Airport

My Dear Colonel,

Any man who would pay 50,000 rupees for a snake, whether it spits or drools or hums “Pop Goes the Weasel” on a comb and wax paper, has already lost touch with that floating crap game we call reality. Spitting, drooling — what’s the difference? Either habit will keep him from being seated at the better restaurants. What you have on your hands is a prematurely senile snake who apparently needs new bridgework. He is crying out for your help the only way he knows how. Pay no attention to the fangs. They are probably “false fangs,” which he removes every night to soak in a glass of salt water, right before settling down with a copy of Modern Maturity magazine.

All best wishes,

The Doc

P.S. If you really want him to spit, try sneaking a wad of chewing tobacco in with those walnuts.

Dear Doctor Snakey,

My pygmy rattler, “Napoleon,” has me worried sick. I’m not talking about the time he ran away to join a mariachi band (he played first maraca). I can understand a snake’s need for artistic self-expression — God knows I’m open-minded — but I don’t know what to think when he ties himself in a sailor’s knot and dares me to “undo” him. And that’s not all. During an electrical storm last week, he wriggled to the top of the satellite dish, remaining perched there until he had been struck by lightning 38 times. Not only did this ruin our reception, but it altered Napoleon’s personality so that now he seldom opens his mouth except to down some hard liquor or stick out his tongue. Please, please help, and don’t recommend counseling — he says there’s nothing wrong with him “that a few thousand more volts wouldn’t fix.”

Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Spore

Lava Lamp, New Mexico

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Spore,

Not to worry. Napoleon’s behavior is typical for a small, venomous reptile who has realized that the only jobs open to him are “part-time shoelace,” or maybe “poison charm bracelet.” Would you want to go on living if you were one of the deadliest animals in the world, and still people called you “Shorty?” Of course not. But do let me know if he tries to conquer Europe.

Cheers,

Doctor Snakey

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