* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we are still a little unclear about what happened last night. Or was it last week, at the New Year's Eve party? Anyway, please close the curtains and stop making so much noise. Our head hurts. Honestly, we feel as if we'd rather die. Perhaps this is the right time to bring in our old friend Michael Fowler to tell us how. Happy New Year!

How To Die

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net

Most of us, not giving it much thought, would prefer to die with our boots on. That means dying with a sense of purpose and actively engaged in life — impossible for the millions of us who are fated to die by choking on a chicken fajita or contracting Ebola at summer camp. But if you decide to die with your boots on, it’s best to be embarked on a noble or at least not a laughable endeavor when your moment comes. For example, if you are a gardener, you may wish to pass on while lovingly pruning your rose bushes. But if this is your choice, make sure that irritable bees don’t align on your face in the shape of a beard, so that a passing state trooper mistakes you for an escaped convict and shoots you dead on the spot, or that you don’t do a home lobotomy trying to reshape your eyebrows with a hedge-trimmer. Dignity counts, and your relatives want to be able to hold their heads up at your funeral, especially if they’re paying to have it catered. Remember: if you can’t die with your boots on, then die with them off, since that completely removes dignity from the equation. No one expects your barefoot cadaver to show dignity, and to underscore casualness, arrange to have the toenails painted green.

Given the ever-worsening prospects of earning enough to retire on, many of us will opt to die at work. While this is a worthy goal, be sure your occupation warrants this choice. Bus drivers and jet pilots and brain surgeons who opt to die while on duty may risk the safety and even lives of others by doing so, and should have backups standing by to fill in. Waitresses and car mechanics and bank tellers may also seriously inconvenience others by an on-the-job demise. But if you’re a pollster or a tax collector or an artist, go on and break out your rigor mortis.

Most people, after thinking the matter through, decide they want a gradual death rather than a sudden one. Better, they think, to sign off as the result of a long illness than to abruptly cash in their chips while speeding through a red light or sunbathing in the path of a hurricane. This reflects two widely held beliefs: that a long life beats a short one, and that even intense pain is preferable to no sensation at all. People would rather lie around for years in a soiled hospital gown talking to their spouse’s family and receiving hourly injections than have the Reaper sneak up on them and surprise their pants off.

The fact is that most of us want all the life we can get, up to a point. Where that point occurs varies from person to person. For some, no longer being able to play five sets of tennis or climb K2 without oxygen support may bring on a death wish, unlikely as that may sound to the more sedentary among us. For others, life continues to hold meaning even when they must be tied down to a chair to keep them from boarding a bus wearing only pajama tops and they can’t remember to eat unless someone shouts “food!” in their ear and hands them a fork.

What’s key here is setting a “decent interval” for your life. None of us wants to hang onto a meaningless, unfulfilling life. To do so is deemed “indecent” by society, whoever they are. But what makes for a decent interval will naturally vary among individuals. If you invented Facebook and became a billionaire in your mid-twenties, you are unlikely to think that 25 years was a decent enough interval in which to be you, but it’s time to push off and not be you beginning year 26. We can probably all agree that a decent interval has ended when your shrunken spine curves like a question mark and you walk around helplessly staring at your feet. The cost of medical treatment is also a clue. When it turns out you need the equivalent of the Kennedy Space Center to monitor your breathing and your insurance premiums rise to 25 percent of GDP, it may be indecent to draw another breath. That your insurer refuses to cover your third donated heart is another sign that the miracle of life has lasted long enough.

When you have determined that your decent interval is over, naturally you are faced with the problem of dying. Few of us are so fortunate as to be carried off at the last decent second, and so you may need to facilitate the process. Since Dr. Kevorkian is no longer listed in the Yellow Pages, here’s a tip: have a glass or two of soothing wine. My preference would be Merlot, but I’m a red fancier. Any wine will do. Then take your medications, all of them, equal to a six months’ dose. Wait 15 minutes, then crawl into a warm tub and shave with a straight razor.

Alternatively, if you want to go out on a high note, plug in a Marshall amplifier and play “Purple Haze” on an electric guitar while soaking.

If you’re still alive after that, you really are indecent.

 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we prefer to view the history of science through imaginary dialogues between some of its greatest practitioners. This week Michael Fowler conjures up a conversation between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr about cars. Add in a few asides from Werner Heisenberg and suddenly there are too many variables to keep track of with any certainty. And that, dear friends, is the story of quantum physics!

Einstein v. Bohr

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net

Lights come up on: the living room of Albert Einstein’s small clapboard house near the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. It is the winter of 1937. For the last three hours Einstein and Niels Bohr have been sitting together in uncomfortable chairs and continuing their debate, begun at the 1927 Solvay Conference in even worse chairs, about whether objects exist when no one is around to observe them. Einstein, now and then giggling as he draws on an unlit pipe and sips from an empty coffee mug, has been maintaining that of course they do, or why pay to insure them? Meanwhile Bohr has grown increasingly exasperated, to the point of wishing he had bypassed Einstein’s and were frolicking in the indoor pool at the Holiday Inn Express down the road. Why wouldn’t the father of relativity admit that without an observer, there were no objects to speak of at all? Einstein, sensing his guest’s rising irritation, decides to change tacks.

EINSTEIN: I propose a little thought experiment, Niels, to clarify the situation.

BOHR: I smell a trap, Albert. I know your thought experiments can be very subtle. I will need to keep my wits about me so as not to be deceived. But I agree to listen.

EINSTEIN: Excellent. Then imagine my closed garage, right outside at the end of my drive. Now imagine it full of light. Now imagine a single photon escaping through the garage window and striking you in the eye. Now picture what you then see: a brand new Squire Drophead Coupe, yellow, with chromium wire wheels.

BOHR: Are you referring to the 1600 model that has a supercharged engine, a live rear axle, four-wheel hydraulic brakes, and reaches a top speed of 115 mph?

EINSTEIN: Nothing else. It’s out there in my garage. And you forgot to mention the custom dual-pipe exhaust. It’s a gas.

BOHR: A gas? You mean it obeys Boyle’s law of pressure and volume? But look here, Albert, are you licensed to drive in New Jersey?

EINSTEIN: I had my papers airmailed from Berlin. But Niels, you miss the point. The car actually exists in my garage, unobserved.

BOHR: Then let’s go for a spin!

EINSTEIN: Alas, I am too tired at the moment. Let’s share a couple of bowls of ice cream and then have a little nap. I’ll feel more rested then.

BOHR: Ice cream! We don’t serve that in Denmark anymore due to the cone shortage. Do you have sprinkles?

EINSTEIN: No, and no cones either. I have bowls and spoons only.

BOHR: In that unfortunate situation, let’s go on talking a while. I have a thought experiment for you to consider too, my dear Albert, while I continue to ponder your coupe.

EINSTEIN (helping himself to tobacco though his doctor has forbidden it): Shoot.

BOHR: Imagine this time there are two cars. One is your magnificent yellow roadster, sitting at rest in your garage, just as you propose. It really is there, of course?

EINSTEIN: Of course. I said it was, didn’t I?

BOHR: Fine. Now imagine that a second car, a sassy red Bugatti Type 57, approaches your car at half the speed of light.

EINSTEIN: Wait a moment. This Bugatti…does it have a horseshoe grille, thermostatically-controlled engine shutters, a twin-cam engine, and a five-year power-train warranty?

BOHR: It is loaded. It’s got all the bells and whistles and an excellent warranty. And now the astonishing thing…it is mine. I parked it not twenty yards from your door when I arrived this morning to visit you. I bought it as soon as I stepped off the boat today in New York, and drove it here in under an hour, tires smoking.

EINSTEIN: I never thought to inquire how you got here. To think there is a car finer than mine in Princeton, and you are its owner! How the hell much does the Institute pay visiting Danish lecturers, anyway?

BOHR: Easy, my friend. Did you really not anticipate my rejoinder?

EINSTEIN: I demand to see this automobile at once!

BOHR (withdraws a folded magazine from his jacket pocket and tosses it Einstein’s way): That’s the latest issue of American Auto, dated January 1937. You’ll find the car on page 31 just as I described it, except the part about its belonging to me and being parked outside. You’ll agree that in the abstract it’s just as much…a gas, as you say?

EINSTEIN (uses the magazine to swat a large fly that has alit on the wall beside him, then tosses it back to Bohr): Very clever, Niels. You had me going there for a moment. I should have realized that a thought experiment is only a thought experiment.

BOHR: I now claim a ride in that yellow coupe of yours. And if you are too tired to drive, I will take the wheel. (Produces a pair of aviator goggles.) I even brought some goggles with me so I can roll the window down. I always bring a pair when I travel in case I have a chance to fly in a biplane.

EINSTEIN: Um, about the coupe. I confess my garage is empty of all matter, even of light. You see, my friend, I actually did purchase that splendid coupe two days ago, but yesterday decided I couldn’t meet the monthly payments and returned it to the dealership, well within the three-day grace period following purchase. I’m sorry if this news comes as a disappointment. (Glances at his watch.) But if you’ll be patient another few seconds…until three o’clock to be precise…I should have a favorable update for you.

(At three precisely there comes a loud knock on the door. Einstein opens it to reveal Heisenberg, a young red-headed man who speaks in a heavy German accent.)

HEISENBERG (standing in the door):  Dr Einstein? I’m Heisenberg from the car dealership. We spoke the other day about finding you a preowned car after you returned the yellow coupe. Well, professor, I tried to compare the price of the car to the mileage on the odometer, as you requested, and I made an amazing discovery. I can’t specify the mileage without knowing the price you’ll pay, and I can’t specify the price without knowing the car’s mileage. In other words, I can’t give you both the price and the mileage at the same time.

EINSTEIN: I’m willing to pay up to eight hundred dollars for a car with less than a hundred thousand miles on it. What’s so hard about that, Heisenberg?

HEISENBERG: It depends on what’s on the lot, is all I’m saying. But I should have something for you in a day or two.

BOHR (to Einstein): The sole difficulty I detect would be if you insisted on paying only eight hundred dollars for a Drophead Coupe. Think what sorry shape the tranny would be in!

HEISENBERG (taking in the two men): What about a couple of mopeds for four hundred? I can bring them around tomorrow morning.

EINSTEIN and BOHR (together): Deal!

EINSTEIN: As long as they’re flex-fuel.

HEISENBERG: Flex-fuel? Was ist das?

EINSTEIN: Just a little proposal of mine to be published in next month’s Physics Today.

BOHR: It’ll never work.

(As the scientists move on to other topics and Heisenberg exits: blackout.) 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where winners rule. Michael Fowler is a winner. Not a big-time winner, but a small-time winner. Which can be complicated. But let him explain...

Mr. Eight Thousand

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net

After I hit the Powerball jackpot for eight thousand, the change in my life is swift and profound. I get up in the morning, and it’s not merely me rising. It’s me and the upward buoyancy of eight thousand dollars. Oh, I know it isn’t all that much, eight thousand. Not even enough for a good used car, or to send my kid to college for more than a single semester, if I could afford to get married and have a kid. But it’s eight thousand I didn’t have before, and the difference is so great that I can hardly express it in hundreds, for example. Eight thousand is eighty hundred, a number so vast and cumbersome that no one says it. It is quite simply an enormous sum of money, especially looked at in the light of how many hundred dollar bills add up to it. Eighty of them! My mind boggles when I consider how many ten-spots that is. My wallet wouldn’t hold them all. It could be a number in the Medicare shortfall.

As I walk along the street, I sense that people notice the change in my bearing. There’s a new assurance to my stride, and an openness that admits life’s pleasures, costly as some of them are. Do I feel like breakfast at that corner bistro? I can afford it, even at $6.95 for a stinking couple of eggs and a glass of watery juice. A morning paper? Sure, I’ll treat myself instead of waiting for one to turn up in the men’s room at work. That beggar who I usually begrudge giving fifty cents to in the morning? Here you are my man, have a dollar! Life is good, is it not, and we fat cats like to keep the largess coming.

At work, as I leak the tale of my winnings, I begin to feel like Mr. Darcy or some entitled nobleman out of a Jane Austen book. “Do you hear he has a hundred thousand pounds a year and an estate in Cheshire?” I think I overhear the HR women whisper as I confront one of them about a form to increase my tax withholding. Of course her real words are, if she actually is talking about me, “Do you hear he has eight thousand and an apartment near the bus station?” Not quite so grand, but with eight thou, or eight large as some say, I can move anytime I want. With my kind of money, what can stop me? The answer is, nothing can.

At noon I walk over to City Hall and pay off all nineteen of my parking tickets. I also decide to have that oil leak in my car fixed, since I’m tired of taking the bus. The sum total of all this is fifteen hundred dollars — fifteen hundred! — but I realize that even so great and unwieldy a sum as that hardly dents my vast fortune. So it’s fifteen hundred! I snap my fingers and snort dismissively. That still leaves me thousands, and quite a few of them. I can still go on vacation this summer and drop another fifteen hundred on the beach. And after that, I’ll still have thousands. There is seemingly no end to my fortune.

At the end of the day I am insulted by a high school youth at the bus stop. Normally such a psychopath-in-the-making makes me defensive, and someday I will brain one of these scholars with my briefcase or sock him with my fist wrapped around the nickels and quarters of my bus fare. But now I only smirk. Does he think he can wound me now, the lout? Does he not realize that my thick personal finances shield me from slight? I look away, not even wondering why my clothing and hairstyle so excite his crude comments. What does he mean, I look like SpongeBob SquarePants? I ignore this, comfortable in the knowledge that I can buy and sell this high school kid many times over. What is he worth, lunch money? I try not to laugh in his face, especially since he might pull a knife.

At home I go online at once and ogle my bank balance. Yes, there it is, shrunken but still massive! Oh, I know that riches are fleeting. I know the bills are coming that will finally set me back to poverty level. With a sad smile, I recall how it was last year when, for a change, I was awarded a performance bonus at work, a sum of three hundred dollars. That made a difference in my life for a brief while, a week perhaps. I walked on air then, only to discover later that I had spent it all in such magnificent ways that I couldn’t account for a dime of it. This eight thousand, though a far grander sum, will likewise dissipate too quickly and leave barely a trace.

But why get depressed? Once a lotto winner, always a winner, that’s how it works. Now that the universe has lined up to pay me out, it will stay lined up. The stars are on my side. And my next winning ticket will be for more than eight thousand. Maybe eight million — I can feel it! The store clerk is waiting to sell it to me.

Seven Eleven, here I come.

 

 

 

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we champion the car of the future. Unfortunately, the sucker who owns the car of the future may well live in the past. His name might even be Michael Fowler.

I Drive A Chevy Clueless

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net

My first car, bought with earnings from my stockboy job in a grocery store and help from my parents, was a Volkswagen Virgin. It wasn’t my first choice, but at $500 for a triply pre-owned one, I could afford it. It had no accessories worthy of the name and certainly nothing to help me out on dates. The car was as chaste as I was, with no cigarette lighter, no cup holder for side-by-side Miller Lites, and a spotty red Earl Scheib paintjob that resembled my horrific case of acne. Even the basics were missing: the contraption had no AC, heat that seeped out through the frame, and a defective AM radio that only played “Surfin’ Bird” and “American Pie” and not one note of romantic mood music.

The first girl I took out in the Virgin complained that she couldn’t turn the rearview mirror to adjust her makeup and hair, since the mirror was stuck in place with epoxy and came off in her hand. I didn’t even have a back seat to ask her to sit in, since I had reduced it to a lump of char with a carelessly flicked cigarette butt. There was also a funny smell that I discovered was caused by a decomposing pair of swim shorts in the trunk from what must have been a previous owner’s ill-fated dip in a badly polluted lake or septic tank.

My Virgin got me through college, always taking a wrong turn on the road to sexual conquest, and when I settled in on a fulltime job I graduated to a Kia Metrosexual. This was quite a step up for me and I had to get used to all the modern features. I had power everything, a blasting AC and heater, and bucket seats. The car had tinted windows and soft lighting, like the interior of a theater with the lights down. As soon as I opened the door, soothing preprogrammed music purred on the woofers like heavy breathing. A battery-operated odorizer (included in the sticker price) spritzed the air with notes of musk and rutting. The car was a deep, lustrous maroon that made you want to run your fingers through the finish. There was an extra interior mirror so I could watch myself drive, and the glove compartment came equipped with two dozen condoms, just in case. Right before the last drive-ins closed, I made use of the back seat with a girlfriend or two, and finally scored with Karen, my future wife. I celebrated by honking my horn right in the middle of King Kong.

With childbearing days upon us, Karen and I sprang for a Pontiac Ark. Roughly the size of the Exxon Valdez but somewhat easier on oil usage, the Ark had room for nine car seats, and later our daughter’s entire third-grade soccer team plus their water bottles. Plenty of space for the family animals in the Ark, too. We led our cats and dogs in two-by-two, and even three-by-three. The seats had thick, liquid-resistant covers, easy to wipe baby vomit and dog pee off of, and backseat cleanup was easy after Karen lost a pint of amniotic fluid during our rushed drive to the hospital to have our fifth child.

With the kids grown up and gone and Karen and I getting on towards mid-life and its feeling of lost youth, we looked at a Toyota Narcissus. But here technology got the better of us. A sign that I would have trouble figuring the car out was the terrifying 1,500-page owner’s manual that lay enshrined in the glove compartment like the President’s latest unreadable budget proposal. I couldn’t comprehend how to program the dashboard to answer phone calls or show how many miles before empty, let alone configure the GPS to talk to me, and I felt that the evening classes offered at the dealership would only brand me as an idiot, even though I could claim college credit for taking them. It rained during the test drive, and I couldn’t figure which of the 72 wiper blade speeds was most appropriate. The cost of a replacement electronic key was $700, more than I had paid for my entire VW Virgin, and I was not reassured when Clive, the tiny robot manservant who lived in the back seat, promised to hang it up for me. The car was so much more intelligent than I was, I felt that it should be driving me around.

So Karen and I opted for the Chevy Clueless. It’s very basic. Four wheels, two doors, a motor and a key. That’s about it. Any more stripped-down and it’d be what Fred Flintstone drives. That’s fine with Karen too, since she didn’t get the knack of strapping a child’s car seat into the Ark until our third child was born. We also test-drove the Ford Rivet, the Dodge Dropping and the Kia Gland, cars well known for being dumbed down for aging boomers, but they still had complicated gadgetry or some other feature we didn’t care to deal with. The Rivet’s power sunroof nearly beheaded me, and the Gland only got a laughable 75 miles to the gallon in the city. The tiny Dropping sat so close to the ground that I had to exit in the seated position, and ended up kneeling like a religious zealot on the dealer’s lot. Getting in, my legs buckled and I collapsed in the driver’s seat in a fetal position. At least I could climb in and out of the Clueless without collapsing, and Karen and I both loved that everything about it was unadorned and simple and that it came with an “endless refill” gas card.

With the Clueless I do have to tolerate a few jibes from my asstool neighbor next door, who drives a Chrysler Pompous. Loaded with chrome, computer navigated, powered by natural gas — but I’m describing my neighbor. The Pompous itself is only slightly less garish. When Stan, which is what I call my neighbor since his name is Bill, saw me pull my new and comparatively featureless Clueless into the drive, he asked me if I had joined the Amish, though nothing about the Clueless resembles a horse and buggy. If it did, I would lead it into Stan’s front yard twice a day to relieve itself.

Stan calls me “The Luddite” now and keeps asking how I like my Unabomber-mobile. Funny guy, my neighbor. Next time he talks smack about my Clueless, I’m parking it on his feet.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel. Normally Michael Fowler is a man who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, especially if that smell is emanating from him. This week, however, he wants to smell like something else.

Smelling Men Past And Present

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net

Inhalable Man® proudly presents our new line of colognes that closely replicate the biological aura created by six exciting and odiferous male celebrities of yesterday and today. No, we don’t have these hunks’ full genomes and so we haven’t cloned their exact sweat gland effusions — not yet! — but our skilled perfumers have come satisfyingly close to duplicating their odors based on intensive and secretive interviews with women who actually rubbed noses and shared oftentimes damp sheets and unaired hotel rooms and broken down vans with them.

From the clandestinely recorded olfactory memories of “Cleopatra”-era Elizabeth Taylor comes “Richard Rampant” — exclusively for the woman who wants the man in her life to exude the almost palpable odor of actor Richard Burton in his prime. Mix one part pretty boy Mark Antony, one part pensive Hamlet, and one part unflossed, unmouthwashed, hard-drinking coal miner’s son. Now inhale deeply and Richard, dripping masculinity after a day under the hot camera lights or an evening in a smoke- and spittle-filled pub, invades your boudoir, grips you roughly by the shoulders, and sprays your face with the hot fricatives of unpronounceable Welsh poetry. $48 the ounce at fine stores everywhere.

“I Smell You, Babe,” blended to the exact specifications of Cher, recreates the manhood of Sony Bono in his most virile “I Got You, Babe” days. With hints of fringed leather vest, incense, funky commune mattress, tie-dye solution and Chianti-soaked mustache, one whiff’ll have you believing you’re locked in a sweltering box of a recording studio with the diminutive but heavy-breathing recording artist, as the two of you croon your greatest hits and dream up the Aquarian name you’ll give to your firstborn child. There has to be a groovier and less ironic name than Chastity, and you’ll think of it as soon as you inhale this far-out fragrance. $25 the two-ounce bottle at most Target stores.

Todd Palin’s biology, so redolent of the northern wilderness, has inspired our chemists to create “Yukon Storm” with overtones of freshwater salmon, husky pee, grizzly bear musk and snowmobile exhaust. This is the primal essence that keeps Sarah and many sled dogs coming back for more. Open your nose to “Yukon Storm” and suddenly you’re in a two-person tent with Todd during a hazardous blizzard with 12 overfriendly huskies crowded around to keep you warm and pliant throughout the forty-below night. $6 the three-ounce flask at Bass Pro Shops nationwide.

Panelists on TV networks from MSNBC to Fox, male and female alike, testify that reverend and civil rights activist Al Sharpton blows through the studio like an empowering waft of sunbaked inner city street, fresh dry cleaning, volatile hair straightener, and Slim-Fast. We’ve taken those ingredients and blended them together with other assertive accents to bring you “Civil Sizzle,” an edgy concoction that represents the civil rights crusader at his fiery and fragrant best. Close your eyes and no matter how white you are, no matter how white your man is, no matter how blindingly white the two of you together are, one sniff’ll put you on the march in Washington to counter Glen Beck’s pasty throng, or tramping down Wall Street to support the 99%. By evening you’ll change your marching shoes for bedroom slippers and follow your nose to bliss. $2 the four-ounce tube online only at ACLU.org.

Our unique and indomitable “Tea Party Coalescence” recreates Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul’s near-combustible personal aura of kerosene, lymph, earwax and flannel in sensual proportions. Spritz a little on your man and you’re present at the Iowa Caucuses where libertarian values and the breath of 100,000 corn eaters coalesce around you like insecticide raining down from a crop duster. Goldfingers and isolationists alike will vote for the aromatic accuracy of this heady brew. $10 the twelve-ounce mason jar exclusively at Cracker Barrel.

“Every woman adores a fascist,” wrote poetess Sylvia Plath in 1962, and what woman won’t melt in the arms of her unyielding generalissimo after he splashes on “Eau de Gaddafi,” an arid blend of coffee, camelhair, petroleum, lipstick and eyeliner that all but tyrannizes the nostrils? We took actual reminiscences of the Strongman of Libya’s harem of female Ukrainian body builders, added pungent notes revealed during a private interview and secluded smell tests with former US Secretary of State Condi Rice, who occupied a special place in the dictator’s heart and once almost shook his hand, and distilled this mad elixir. Rice states categorically that to smell him was to obey him, and that “Eau de Gaddafi” is almost as resolution-melting as the actual presence. Can you say, “Permission to fall in love, sir”? $3.79 the gallon at most Chevron stations. Bring your own container.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where the average temperature of our contributors is about three degrees above absolute zero. This week our good friend Michael Fowler has taken this whole temperature thing to a new and very unpleasant extreme. Wrap yourself in a blanket and read on...

The Iceman Goeth

By:
mmfowler@fuse.net
http://www.dpdotcom.com/happydeath.htm

First let me clear up a few misconceptions. When I was found frozen in that Swedish glacier near Stockholm, I had only been encased in ice for seven years, 2005-2011, and modern years at that. Consequently I did not herd mastodons or keep a pet saber-tooth tiger before I froze, regardless of what you may have heard on CNN. Nor am I a Neanderthal or Sasquatch or some thought-to-be-extinct trial model of Homo sapiens, but the real up-to-date thing, born in the USA in 1983, no matter what you read in that supermarket tabloid that has aliens and werewolves and babies with eight limbs on the cover. I was skiing and listening to Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” on my earbuds when a snowstorm swallowed me up, so how much more modern can you get?

It is true that I was carefully thawed out by Swedish scientists, and that lab assistant Inga recognized my cologne when my face approached room temperature, and confessed to the local media that this was the beginning of her feelings for me, as she had long adored that fragrance. And it is also true, as I stated on that Scandinavian talk show, that nothing so speeded up my thawing and return to normalcy as Inga lying beside me and pressing her blonde Swedish body against mine, as she voluntarily did in the name of science and medicine, and perhaps unhinged by the fumes of my liquefying Brut in the small lab we occupied. Inga also sang to me, and brought my knowledge of pop music up to date. It was boogieing and shimmying to the tunes of Lady Gaga, even as I lay on a gurney, that restored suppleness to my stiff joints.

Still, not even warm Inga was enough, and there remained some icy blockage in my bloodstream, like an ice cube in my aorta. I couldn’t get enough steaming coffee and soup, and even my candy bars I liked microwaved and served hot, in a bowl with a spoon if necessary.

So I said farewell to the lab and Inga, who turned out to be married, and I was already engaged myself, or I had been before that snowstorm somehow landed me unconscious beside the glacier. I flew to Hawaii where I lay under the intense sun all day and soaked in hot tubs all night, still without feeling quite warm, but plotting my return to Susan in Philly, my fiancée of seven years ago, and still my fiancée for all I knew, having not heard from her in all that time. After a week on the broiling beach and a dozen sessions of hot-stone massage therapy from Amura, a tanned and warm-blooded wahine, I caught a plane back to wintry Pennsylvania and a hopefully still-warm Susan, dressed on my flight in multiple layers of clothing and a heavy parka and sucking heated broth through a straw.

Imagine my chagrin to find Susan now engaged to a hulk named Trunk or Chunk or some ridiculous syllable, an anthropologist at Philadelphia U. She stared at me and said, “I heard about them finding you and reviving you after all these years, and I thought, no, it isn’t possible. And your complexion seems off now, much more pimply and reddish, perhaps due to freezer burn.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Someone neglected to wrap me in safe storage bags. No doubt I would taste terrible if you made a prime rib out of me.” I didn’t mention that Susan looked different to me, too. Were those crow’s feet around her eyes? And her neck looked so papery I was tempted to write my new cell phone number on it. Here I had kept myself on ice and more or less perfectly preserved for her during my seven years’ absence — the paparazzi didn’t call me The Iceman for nothing — and what had she done for me? Not even applied a good moisturizer, from the looks of things.

When she told me of her engagement, I said, “What, you couldn’t wait seven short years? Seven years is nothing in romantic terms. Juliet waited longer than that for Romeo, didn’t she?”

“Juliet waited about seven minutes for Romeo, if you recall. She wasn’t one to moon about on her balcony breathing the night air and listening to owls until the Montagues and Capulets came to terms, which might have been never. They were the Israelis and Palestinians of their era, don’t forget.”

“OK,” I said, “but in those days a minute seemed like a year, easy. Time moved more slowly then. You gave up too soon. How long have you and Punk been engaged, anyway?”

“Only six years, eight months,” she tossed off airily. Then she introduced me to Lunk himself, who came rushing through her door as if he lived there, fresh from one of the courses he taught in anthropology over at the university. Looking delighted, he stepped up and shook my hand, towering over me by half a foot, and said, “If only you’d stayed frozen for a thousand years, what a find you’d be then!”

“Sorry to have burst in on you prematurely,” I replied, completely teed off, and stormed out of the apartment and into the Starbucks down the street, where I swilled two piping hot Colombian blends, a super-size latte and three espressos, and followed up with a hot oil massage and a steam sauna at the spa next door.

All that did nothing to cure my depression or ease my chill, though it did lubricate my medulla for a couple of hours, and the next thing I knew I was flying down a Tibetan mountainside in a jacket emblazoned with the face of the Dalai Lama, two ski-lengths ahead of a squad of Chinese soldiers, pinning my fate as always on the treacherous slopes. At the bottom I met a hot Sherpa chick named Dawa — literally hot, who hid me and then kissed me, warming me nose-to-toes for the first time since my deicing, while explaining that she routinely climbed Shisha Pangma in a bikini. She and I will ascend Everest before the winter storms start, staying cozy in our two-person tent, with or without her two-piece.

And if that’s not cozy enough, Dawa says she knows a Nepali nightclub near Everest Base Camp where, as in times past, the tribes gather, build a fire, and dance all night to Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call.” I can already feel the heat.

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where all we have to fear is fear itself. That and the vast empty white expanse in front of us. And no, we're not talking about a Romney rally. We're talking about this new bit by our good friend Michael Fowler. Be sure to check out the link to his new funny novel A Happy Death in our blogroll at the right-hand side of this page.

The Terror Of The Blank Page

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As a writer, I am surely among the bravest people in the world. Others may defend the country on battlefields in foreign climes, rescue folks trapped in collapsed buildings or in roaring fires or swift currents, stare down armed criminals, but I surpass them all: each day, or each day I can summon the fortitude, I stare at a blank page and wait for the words to come.

You scoff? A great writer whose works we still read today, though he wrote months ago and is rather dated by now, put it like this: “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line” (John Steinbeck). But I go Steinbeck one better. Each line terrifies me and makes me suffer as much as the first. So does the punctuation. And so does the spacing. I don’t know which is more terrifying: pages that are single-ruled, or those (pardon my shudder) that are double-ruled. This pertains as much to real, paper pages as to virtual, computerized documents; they are alike horrifying.

As another self-sacrificing writer put it, “Blank pages inspire me with terror” (Margaret Atwood). But it isn’t so much the blankness of the pages that makes sanguine writers like Ms. Atwood bite their lips to shreds and scream at fifteen-minute intervals; it’s what that blankness implies: the need to fill it in with characters and scenes that stand up to the highest artistic principles and will not shame them throughout time. This applies to me as much as anyone. I have felt my knees buckle and fainted at the sight of an unmarked legal pad, and even an envelope to be addressed reduces me to double vision and stomach cramps. After an hour’s writing, I don’t see why someone doesn’t hand me a medal of honor or badge of courage. It’s the least I deserve. Continue reading

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* Welcome to The Big Jewel. It has been four years since we last published anything by Michael Fowler. Where has he been all this time, and what has he been doing? Let him tell it in his own words. We should also mention Michael's two novels, God Made the Animals and The Created Couple, links to which can be found under the Blogroll at the right-hand side of this page.

Snowed In

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“We’re shut in,” I said the next morning. “The blizzard dropped almost ten feet on the cabin. I can tell because there’s only two inches at the top of the big window to see out of, and the top is ten feet off the ground. The door won’t budge. It may be days, even weeks, before we can get out.”

“Great,” said the buddy I’d come hunting with. He was laid up on the sofa since I shot him in the leg yesterday afternoon, before the snow. It was just a flesh wound, heaven be praised. “At least the central heating is working. And the lights. And the cable. And the phone.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But the water’s off. Frozen, I guess. And there’s no food.”

“Damn,” he said. “There was food last night.”

“I ate it.”

“What’ll we do?”

I stood on the sofa and looked out the top two inches of window.

“Just pray we can get out soon and make it over to the McDonald’s across the street. Looks like they’re open, or will be when that kid finishes shoveling the lot.”

“Christ. Can’t we phone for delivery?”

“The phone just went out.”

That night we turned in without breakfast, lunch or dinner, and sipping only a few handfuls each of melted snow. About midnight, when my “pal” was sleeping, I went upstairs to the attic and opened the chest I had up there, full of boxes of saltines and jars of peanut butter. I had another trunk of bottles of water. I ate half a box of crackers and half a jar of peanut butter and drank two bottles of water before going downstairs and getting back in bed.

The next morning Dennis, that was my friend’s name, and I had a few pinches of snow for breakfast. I belched, and he sniffed the air.

“I could swear I smell peanut butter,” he said.

“You’re probably hallucinating, you’re so hungry.”

“I guess,” he glared at me. “How’s it look out?”

I stood on the sofa. But I didn’t need to, since all the snow had melted in a heat wave and the window offered a clear view. I saw green grass and a few trees in front of the cabin, the highway, and across the highway, McDonald’s, open for business. But my “pal” was facing the wrong way to see out the window.

“Bad news,” I said. “We must have got more snow, since now I can only see out the top half inch of the window. McDonald’s is dark inside.”

“Oh man.”

“Listen,” I said. “You just rest up. I’ll get you a little snow to eat and then go upstairs to, uh, finish up a wood project I’ve been working on. I’m building us a sled.”

“Somehow, we’ll pull through,” he said.

“You know it,” I said.

After his nap he thought he smelled peanut butter again.

“God, don’t mention peanut butter to me,” I said. “You have no idea how that tortures me.” This was true, since by now I was sick of the stuff.

I moistened his lips with rubbing alcohol.

“God, that stings!” he said.

“That’s a sign you’re dehydrated.” I didn’t mention that the reason I hated his guy was, he wasn’t my friend, he was my boss. The worst boss I ever had, no lie. I hated his butt. “Better take some more melted snow. It’s good for you.”

“One thing I can’t figure out: how come you’re not dehydrated and weak too?”

“I haven’t figured that one out yet either,” I said. “Now get some rest.”

While he rested, I went back upstairs. The fire escape was thawed now, so I went out the window and down to the ground. I crossed the street and feasted on cheeseburgers, fries and malteds, then went back up the escape to the second floor.

“How’s it going?” I checked on Dennis. That was my boss’s name, I think I mentioned.

“It’s worse. I can hardly move. But I thought I heard someone on the roof. Rescuers?”

“Yeah. They’re trying to get in to help us. But it’s like digging out a collapsed mine. We’ll have to be patient.”

“Did they bring any food? I smell McDonald’s.”

“You’re hallucinating again,” I said.

I checked on him later.

“You’re getting out, aren’t you?” he said.

“No way,” I said. This was true. Another blizzard had dumped another ten feet of snow on us. “The rescuers had to give up because of worsening conditions. We’re still sealed in, just like they’re sealed out.” I wished he’d fall asleep so I could get upstairs to the peanut butter. Or maybe he was weak enough now that I could go ahead and eat in front of him without worrying about how he felt about it.

“How’re you feeling? Can you hang on a little longer, say a few more days?”

“With nothing to eat, and on the handfuls of snow you feed me? How could I?” he demanded. Then he sat up on the sofa. “Haven’t you wondered why I haven’t died yet, or at least passed out?”

It had crossed my mind. It’d been three days since I’d last seen him eat anything. He got up off the sofa and pulled a suitcase out from under it. I didn’t recall seeing him bring any luggage in the cabin. He put the case on the sofa, unlatched it, and showed me neat rows of candy bars. If he’d started with a full case, he’d probably eaten about 250 by then. He closed the suitcase and slid it back under sofa, dislodging a can of lager that rolled toward my feet.

“But your parched lips,” I said.

“They’re just chapped. I always get chapped lips in the winter.”

“Do you think I still have a job?” I said.

“I doubt it,” he said. “I was debating it, but the rubbing alcohol was the last straw.”

He was pointing his hunting rifle at me. I couldn’t find my deerslayer.

“Look,” I said. “I’ll file, type, answer the phones, for God’s sake. Anything.”

There was the explosion of a shot, and a section of the wall beside me broke and splintered. “Bring me the peanut butter,” he said. “And whatever you’re spreading it on.”

“That would be crackers,” I said. “Coming right up.”

“We are having some crazy-ass weather, aren’t we?” I said while he ate. He was shoving peanut butter and crackers into his mouth with one hand and holding the rifle on me with the other. “I think we got more snow. I can’t see out the window any more.”

“It’s El Nino,” he said, cracker bits flying off his lips. “Or the breakdown of the saline engine in the Arctic Ocean due to global warming, like in The Day After Tomorrow. That means a new Ice Age is upon us. Man, I can’t tell you how sick I am of candy bars.”

“Listen, I’m really sorry,” I said. “It’s just that when I didn’t get that upgrade to assistant team leader, I blamed you and lost my head. But I’m now willing to stay in my old job and work even harder, if you could see your way to letting me do that.”

Another shot just missed my left shoulder.

“Do you think I could at least have a candy bar?” I said.

He shook his head no. “When you’re too weak to move,” he said, “I’ll get you a handful of snow. If I don’t shoot you first.”

Just then the rescuers burst in and shot Dennis to death, figuring I was his hostage.

“You just shot my boss,” I said. “I’m suing. Candy bar?”

 

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NPR Interviews In Half The Time Or Less

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The NPR theme is heard, played on a classical guitar. Fast fade.

Melissa: This is National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I’m Melissa Block.

Michele: And I’m Michele Norris. Ahmed Bey is a cabdriver working in Baghdad. Mr. Bey, you state that yesterday you picked up a very unusual passenger.

Bey: That’s so. I was cruising through Sadr City, looking for a fare, when I stopped near a flaming mosque to get a coffee. A man in a western suit jumped into the passenger seat behind me, having shot off my rear door. I turned to look at him, and found myself face-to-face with the vice president of your country. Before I could say, “Where to?” he said…

Michele: Mr. Kahn, thank you for talking to us today.

Bey: Huh. You’re welcome.

* * * * * * *

The NPR theme is played on a button accordion. Very fast fade.

Melissa: From NPR news, this is All Things Considered. I’m Melissa Block.

Michele: I’m Michele Norris.

Robert: And I’m Robert Siegel. There’s been an astonishing discovery in a cave in Old Jerusalem. Wine expert Abe Crocus and his team of archaeologist vintners claim to have uncovered a cask of the wine that Christ made from water two thousand years ago. Mr. Crocus, what can you tell us about this wine?

Crocus: Due to its miraculous nature, it has not decayed at all. As for its taste and bouquet, well, I’m just this second pouring myself a glass…now a quick sniff…and down the hatch she goes.

Robert: Mr. Crocus, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Crocus: Good Lord. In that case I won’t tell you what it tastes like, or describe the total absolution from sin I’m undergoing.

* * * * * * *

The NPR theme is played on a chromatic harmonica. Almost immediate fade.

Debbie: This is NPR Weekend Edition with Debbie Elliott. In an area of undeveloped brush near the coastal tourist city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a race of hominids has been discovered who have remained in secrecy and isolation for years, living on the sewage and dumpsters of a nearby Holiday Inn Express. Joanne Tickle is part of the anthropological team now embedded with the tiny, gentle people she calls Inn Men. Joanne, what can you tell us about the Inn Men and, I suppose, Inn Women?

Joanne: Having evolved and developed in total isolation for thousands of years in a harsh environment and only recently gained access to modern luxury trash, these people show some amazing adaptive characteristics and unexpected lifestyles.

Debbie: Joanne, thank you for being with us today.

Joanne: For example, they use discarded luggage trolleys to…Where’s everyone going?

* * * * * * *

The NPR theme is played on a claw hammer banjo. Instant fade.

Michele: Michele.

Melissa: Melissa.

Robert: Robert. Astronomer Ron has spent his adult life scanning the known universe for signs of intelligent life with the aid of a radio telescope. Ron, how goes the search? Quickly.

Ron: Possibly a breakthrough. Radio telescope picking up patterns in signals from Crab Nebula. Now, patterns indicate…

Robert: Faster, Ron. No wait, you’re finished.

Ron: Hold it a sec. I must refute the five reasons that some say support the idea that no intelligent life has evolved outside our galaxy. The first…

Robert: Get off the air, hog.

Ron: Listen, anchorman. Never again will I…

Robert: For All Things Considered, I’m…(abrupt fade).

* * * * * * *

The NPR theme is not played.

Melissa: This is National Public Radio. For All Things Considered, I’m Mi…

Robert: And I’m Robert. What were you saying, Mr….

Mr….: I was try…

Robert: And then…

Mr….: What seem im…

Robert: Thank you for…

Mr….: My plea…

Robert: And now the news.

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Jaap van Ballegooijen Has Another Soda Shop Revelation

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Jaap van Ballegooijen is a man on the horns of a dilemma. Looks worried. Getting bald. Shell Oil is demanding so many barrels a day from his latest snake well shaped like somebody’s intestines. But it’s producing as badly as an overripe banana squeezed at one end. Shell Oil’s Global Smart Fields Programme Manager since 2006, with 30 years in the fossil fuel industry, Jaap knows that the solution to any problem comes from watching teens down at the soda shop drink with straws. They are so ingenious, these kids with their straws.

Jaap is the man who will stroll into McDonald’s and buy a round or two of shakes for every pimply youth in the place. Then he sits back and observes. A slurp here, a suck there. A cavalier twist of the straw. Before long one of those teens will display a novel straw technique that, before the kid can suck up his shake, Jaap will adapt to the oil well industry with revolutionary results.

“See that clownish guy over there with the straw stuck up his nose?” Jaap tells the Shell publicity lady. “After watching him pull the same stunt last year, I realized that, with the right rigging planted deep enough in the ground, we drillers could smell the petroleum down there. All we needed to do was suck it up and cash in. I bought the boy an order of fries, out of gratitude.”

Later in the day Jaap still wears that balding, hangdog look that comes with great fossil fuel responsibility. A Shell engineer has told him they have a bit of a new problem. Blocking the oil at Champion West Field offshore Brunei is a cap of solid granite a mile and a half beneath the earth’s surface.

As Jaap thinks, his frown lightens. He’s seen 14-year-old Andre at the Brunei Burger King already solve this pickle with a straw and a malted. Andre blasted through a lump in his chocolate malted by a sharp exhalation of breath into his straw. Jaap saw the analogy at once, the engineering technique that would yield millions of barrels. What a great day for drinking chocolate malteds. What a great day for Shell.

Even though Jaap is a multi-millionaire who never touches anything so filthy as oil, he always displays the sweaty, surprised look of a man who just stumbled forth from an underground cavity after being entombed in it for six months. Staggered to see daylight once more. And he’s got that male pattern baldness thing going. No amount of oil can cure that. It isn’t clear what effect if any milkshakes have on a receding hairline, either. But Jaap has other things on his mind. He’s a man in a tad of a quandary. Dr. Deep has called, and her ocean well in the Atlantic is sputtering dry like a grape on a grill. He heads off to Dairy Queen, looking for answers.

He sees a tow-headed kid with glasses attack his malted milk by burying his face in it and snorkeling through his straw. Snorkeling…Jaap phones in the solution to Dr. Deep, and the well is saved. These two Shell Oil action figures will share high-fives the next time they meet. And big bonuses.

But look, once again Jaap is in a sticky situation. A glorified well digger in a suit rushes up to him and says, calmly but with infinite concern, “The results aren’t what we wanted. We struck natural gas and the well ignited. Samuelson was running the drill. He survived, but he’s hopping mad.” Then Samuelson bursts in. Begrimed, tattered, burnt here and there, mercifully not dead. Of course it was the man’s own fault he had only a high school diploma and wasn’t trained in soda straw observation. And then Jaap knew how to deliver the stern messages to underlings. He dealt out the kind of blunt honesty that all his most lowly paid and least respected employees could count on hearing from him, no matter how uneducated and how subterranean in the Shell pecking order they were. “Let’s go grab a shake, old man,” Jaap says, “before you blow another well.”

At UDF, the exploding well continues to prey on Jaap’s mind. He observes the teens outside on the glassed-in patio, plying their shakes and malts. The swirling straw technique of a young boy with soft brown eyes and long lashes catches Jaap’s eye. The boy looks over at Jaap, starts to fidget, get alarmed. Jaap looks away at once, at a toddler with chocolate sprinkles all over its face. The trouble with watching teens eat ice cream is sometimes they get the wrong idea. He tells Samuelson this, and Samuelson has the solution. The men go watch women pole dance.

Jaap van Ballegooijen is a man with growing problems, despite his oil millions. One, his snake wells are drying up. Two, soda jerks all over the world now expect big tips for helping him solve the world’s energy problems. Look there. In the IHOP, Jaap just saw a girl do something remarkable to her sundae with a spoon. He ponders. Then he’s on the phone to Shell. Thanks to men like Jaap and ice cream-sucking teens, Shell will continue to meet the world’s demand for oil, which is expected to rise by 50 percent over the next quarter century. He leaves the IHOP waitress a five-dollar tip.

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