* 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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Superman Dies

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Today the Man of Steel rallied, briefly. The Kryptonite drip to his arm numbed the pain and wracked his body, but for five seconds his x-ray vision worked. He scanned the indestructible prostate tumor that was killing him. Ugh. Not unlike Bizarro’s face. But why not, when he was 95? Today also he had misjudged his super strength and turned a bedpan into a pancake. The nurses’ buzzer he had mashed into molecules days earlier. The old super powers were erratic if they functioned at all. A stronger Kryptonite drip would kill him. He thought, come on, Kryptonite.

Over the last decade his super feats had not been well received. His construction of a fence along the Mexican border with 10 billion aluminum pop cans was called a silly stunt. His solving the global warming crisis by hauling glaciers from Neptune across space had only enraged the environmentalists. The administration said it didn’t need a senior citizen to hunt down terrorists, and the vice president said the Axis of Evil — Poison Ivy, Lex Luthor, and Mr. Freeze — had been brought to justice. If he wanted, the VP added, he could go after the Penguin, who was implicated in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, but why didn’t he just retire?

His prostate cried for attention when he hit 87. He was in the Fortress of Solitude working on his autobiography, the chapter on Ma Kent’s delicious homemade fruit pies. Suddenly he felt a stabbing pain in his gut and an attack of weakness, as if a lump of Kryptonite lay close by. The pain never went away and his powers started to fail. As a nonagenarian the Geezer of Steel could hardly fly, and banged about Metropolis like a large, drunken moth. Exhausted at the end of each day, he fell in bed in Kent’s apartment. Kent, a loner, was utterly isolated. Lois had died of breast cancer in 1988, Jimmy had overdosed a year later. Perry White had been entombed since 1977. No one cared about mild-mannered Kent. In fact, no one believed in him.

The day before his ninety-fifth birthday he finally discarded Kent. He donated the reporter’s wardrobe to AMVETS and went in to work the next morning as Superman. No one at the Daily Planet raised an eyebrow. He had blown his cover years ago in a pre-cancer series of senior moments. There was the time he came to the office with his shirt unbuttoned and his big red S showing. Another time he stepped out the fifteenth-floor office window to catch a cab. A few coworkers snickered at these faux pas, but they only confirmed what everyone already knew. Never a sick day in decades, come on. Turning down medical coverage until it was mandatory, uh huh. Kent had effectively died around 1965, and Superman might just as well have been himself beginning then. But he couldn’t erase Kent from his mind. Although he typed at his desk in full heroic spandex on his ninety-fifth birthday, he didn’t talk to anyone unless they called him Clark. Two weeks later he collapsed at the copier and rode an ambulance to the hospital.

Admirers came, and sometimes he was alert enough to speak with them. Batman stumbled in on a walker. The Caped Crusader told him Spiderman lay in a nursing home with bedsores from neglect, the Green Lantern wore Depends, and Wonder Woman’s closet was full of pointy bras she’d never need again. He enjoyed Batman’s visit, but it tired him. All the celebrities and fans tired him. When Obama arrived, he turned his face to the wall. Superman instructed the hospital to bar all further visits. Superman, he told them to say, was having a bad day.

At the end the Man of Steel found no peace. The Man of Tomorrow didn’t take ‘er easy. The Strange Visitor from Another Planet couldn’t chill. Thing was, he left no legacy. There were no super kids to follow in his footsteps, and he would shortly be forgotten. It wasn’t for want of trying. Lois the lesbian had checked his advances, and then for a brief time, without any protection, and only to perpetuate his name, he had been as Wilt Chamberlain to all comers. But that was years ago, and he had heard of no youths running 3-second miles or leaping over buildings. Had he shot blanks? Was his seed incompatible with the earthly egg? Were all these human hags barren?

Dozing, Superman felt an unfamiliar presence. Opening his eyes, he found a large youth standing in his semi-private room. Brown-skinned and badly overweight, he had that signature ringlet of hair hanging over his forehead. Could it be? He was saying something. Superman thought he heard “I flew here as soon as I got word, dad.” But was this really his offspring, or some con artist trying to get his hands on Kent’s pension and the royalties to I Am Superman?

He waved the young man to his bedside. The lad waddled over. Then the Patient of Steel, with his last strength, grabbed the four-foot, 75-pound green oxygen tank by his bedside and smacked the kid’s cranium with it like Bonds hitting a homer. The guy’s head came right off.

No son of mine, thought Superman, and died.

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Things Dead People Can Do

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As determined by a forensic medical examiner, golfer Ted Mintzer was struck on the head and killed instantly by a golf ball on the fifth green at Burrowing Owl Golf Course in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, but went on lining up his putt. He three-putted for a bogey, not bad for a stiff. After that he caught fire, playing the best round of his life, though dead. When friends in the clubhouse told him he’d set a new course record, the now still golfer got as excited as a block of clay.

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A woman passed away of natural causes just as she hit the snooze button on her alarm clock. The next buzz nine minutes later failed to rouse her, and finally, dead, she got up already half an hour late to work. Cursing, she dressed, went out to scrape the snow from her car, got in and tried to start it. When it wouldn’t start, she slumped forward in the driver’s seat, cold as a mound of slush.

*****

A male pedestrian died quickly when struck in the head by a brick tossed from a moving vehicle, but he gave chase to the car and screamed obscenities at the laughing teenage passengers for several blocks until all the blood drained from his body and he sat down on the curb a wasted husk, never more to move.

*****

Don, ticket taker at Lollapalooza 2007, accepted a pair of admission tickets from a teen couple dead for hours from drug overdose. “My suspicions were aroused when neither of them blinked after I told them Coldplay had cancelled,” he said. “In fact, they didn’t show any emotion at all. I had security follow them in.” The deceased teens boogied until late in the evening, then strolled into the shower tent. Rigor mortis hit them under the nozzles, and they fell out like two sacks of hardening concrete.

*****

A woman thrown through the windshield of her car lost her brain and was dead as a broom handle. Still she managed to accompany friends to cash in a lottery ticket worth five hundred dollars and shout “Yowsa!” before she collapsed like a rickety bridge.

*****

A man sliced in half by a rocket went to a movie (top half) and took a scenic hike (bottom half) before he finally keeled over (both halves).

*****

A man killed in a flash after driving a nail into a 100,000 volt wire near his home went to a bar and drank “one last cold one” before he sank to the barroom floor as rigid as a stuffed owl. He still owes the bartender for that beer.

*****

Vera Hatfield of Springfield, Illinois died of starvation after playing video games for 5 days straight without eating, but continued to work her X-Box for an additional 72 hours before she dropped to the floor with some body parts already starting to rot.

*****

A man trying to run across an expressway was struck by a semi as soon as he stepped off the shoulder. He died instantly but continued on, with several more vehicles buffeting him and rendering him almost unrecognizable, until at last he achieved the opposite side. There he gave a thumb’s up to no one in particular and fell over the guardrail into some tall weeds, where he slept the Big Sleep.

*****

An airline pilot died of heart failure after narrowly missing a control tower, but managed to land his craft safely and bed a stewardess in a hotel room — both on “autopilot” — before turning blue as the sky and blank as a sheet.

*****

A 65-year-old woman died of a stroke while bowling. She appeared to revive when a teammate administered smelling salts, but she was really dead, and she wouldn’t quit bowling until she achieved a new personal best score. “I knew I could do it!” she crowed when success came 30 minutes after her death. Then she crumpled over and lay face-up in the right-hand gutter, about as frisky as a broiled scrod.

*****

Flight 712 crashed into the sea and all 86 passengers were killed in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless they all escaped the wrecked plane and, in their various states of dismemberment and drowning, swam to a nearby tropical island. They were “rescued” by a US Navy vessel two weeks later in advanced states of decomposition, but not before sharks had eaten a dozen of them and natives speared ten more.

*****

30-year-old Todd Morse gave up the ghost choking on a hotdog at a Cincinnati Bengals game. But he refused to stop watching the game since the Bengals were actually leading at the half. When the team pulled further ahead in the second with no hope of being caught, he jumped into the aisle pumping his arms and sailed headfirst down a flight of concrete steps. The fall actually revived him somewhat, and he had a near death experience. He beheld soft white lights and heard a comforting voice urging him to rise up and savor his team’s victory. But he remained a goner and in two days was six feet under.

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Advice From A Lebanese Home Remodeler

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Q. I’m redoing my twin sons’ small (2x2x3 meters) bedroom to make it more livable for them. I’ve repainted and bought new wood furniture including bunk beds. My question is, what kind of rockets should I put in the room? The boys, aged 8, have fired off all their old Kassams, which they liken to flying car mufflers, and are begging for the powerful Raad missiles that they saw on Al-Manar, even though they understand Raads are hard to come by. The master bedroom and living room both contain Katyushas, and I’m wondering if I should stick with the Katyusha motif for the kids.

A. As a rule of thumb, the shorter-range armaments are the more practical and economical. If you already have Katyushas in your other rooms, you should stick with them. Tell your sons that they will be as the claws of a mighty lion with the tested and true Katyushas by their sides, and that the Raad is much too big to fit in their room. Katyushas come in several decorator colors, by the way, and fit in well with any motif.

Q. I’m building a garage for my old truck, clearing the ground of rocks and brush and gathering materials. Do you recommend a wooden or a stone structure?

A. It only matters that your garage is wide and tall enough to conceal a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher. The ten-barrel launcher for small rockets, a simple device that can be mounted on even the oldest truck, is a welcome addition to any garage.

Q. My basement takes in water after rains fall in the rocky slopes behind my house. It’s nothing serious, just a damp floor and some mildew, but my young daughter sleeps down there with our Fajr-3 mid-range missile. I’ve moved the Fajr-3 upstairs and covered it to look like a sofa to avoid water damage to its circuitry, but now my little girl can’t sleep without her beloved missile by her side and cries pitiably through the night. Any tips on waterproofing my basement so that I can give my baby back her missile?

A. An outside retaining wall with a row of drainage tile along the base may solve the moisture problem, but you may still be leaving your loved ones exposed to Daisy Cutters. With simple but clever construction, you can easily turn your basement into a rock-solid bunker that’s also waterproof. Iranian stonemasons are particularly ingenious at this type of work, and I’m sure there are many in your town whom you may contact.

Q. I’m thinking of redoing the interior of my study. The faux oak fiberboard I have in place now doesn’t do justice to my hanging portraits of Khalil Gibran and won’t even stop a tank shell. Any suggestions?

A. I’d go with interlocking concrete bricks reinforced by 10 cm-thick sheets of solid steel. These are wonderful backdrops for Gibran and will block penetration by either tank or jet-launched projectile.

Q. My entire home was flattened recently during a bombardment, and I’d like to prevent this from happening again. My wives have picked out a Cali Bamboo privacy fence, but I’m thinking I need something more. I mean, our problem is not that we’re on a Pacific island and beset by Peeping Toms. We’re getting bombs dropped on our heads. Can you recommend anything that will keep us concealed while we dig ourselves out of the rubble and rebuild?

A. The safest thing is to wear blue UN helmets while you work. But nothing is foolproof except G-d.

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Problems in Evolutionary Theory

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Before I tackle the tough questions on evolution sent in to me here at Lonesome Pine Science Review Online, let me remind my readers that there are essentially two evolutionary problems. I call them the hard problem and the soft problem. The hard problem is how life got started at all. The soft problem is how it kept going after that. I have given endless thought and work to the hard problem in particular. Every morning I wake up and confront the hard problem. Let’s ignore the obvious joke coming up here, if it’s not too late, and jump straight to your questions.

A talented young lady writes us: What good is an appendix?

Not much these days, dear, but in the Pleistocene Era when Nixon was president, the organ actually hung outside the stomach like a lizard’s tail, and could be broken off and devoured as a delicious, quick protein pick-me-up. Usually you broke off and devoured your own appendix, but it was perfectly acceptable for a family member or close friend to reach over and snap off your appendix and devour it, too. After all, they were with you in the hard game of survival, and a timely appendix treat during a dangerous hunt or exhausting berry roundup provided a real boost. Modern man has lost this characteristic due to the advent of convenience stores, and the appendix has retreated into the interior of the abdomen, out of reach. Man still hungers for appendix but now can only get it on Thursdays at Ponderosa.

An immature boy writes: Why do men have nipples?

Same reason women do, son. Sure, it’s a thin, tasteless gruel that dad produces, and prehistoric fathers nursed only in the most hardscrabble times, but male breasts can come through in a draught or if mom goes hysterical and dries up. Even today, in the library or supermarket, I’ve seen mateless male parents pull out their flat chests and, by squeezing and grunting, produce a dusty, weak meal for junior to suck down. It isn’t clear if the law in all states permits nursing pops to do so in public, but I was in Ohio, a hotbed of decency, and it’s OK there. Tell you what, though. After seeing what dribbled out of an hombre’s teat one day last week in an Ohio Target store, if I were a kid I’d prefer a woman every time.

A conscientious objector writes: We humans only use around 10 to 15 percent of our brains. On the job I have — recycling discount coupons for a grocery store chain — I use maybe only 2 to 3 percent of that. So that’s about three or four pounds of useless gray matter I’m carrying around in my oversized skull, and the same goes for everybody. What’s the point, according to evolutionary theory? Why lug excess brain and head around, when we only need brains the size of tater tots and heads not much bigger? Without all that extra brain and bone, we might be able to jump farther or dive better or something else useful.

No mystery here, guy. Man needs a good-sized head to keep his eyes apart. Next question.

A free spirit writes: What’s the point in being conscious? It seems to me that I do most of my worrying and fretting conscious, and most of the pain and nausea I feel is a result of my being conscious, so why did nature do this to me?

You’ve put your finger on it, friend. The main function of the brain is to turn all sensory input of any kind into shocking, revolting fear. Fear so bad you shake all over and sweat at night. All visual, auditory, and tactile sensations — raw feels, as we scientists call them — are but the beginnings of outlandish, unavoidable, irreducible terror and fear. Fear of everything, terror at all! Once you understand that, you can begin to relax.

Now, it is true that a very, very small part of our brains gives rise to the incredibly profound and abstract thoughts that separate us from the beasts. I mean such deep ratiocinations as “Electric fences make good neighbors,” and “What’s Jennifer Aniston up to right now?” Yet even these profundities cause suffering. In fact, I’m just about worried to death over Jennifer, and if I don’t see her in ten movies and on six magazine covers a week, I can’t hold down my food.

An uncut cowboy writes: How did language evolve, and why?

Well, pard, consider a guy I know named Ralph. Ralph uses language every time he opens his mouth, unless he’s chewing his cud. Roughly, this is what goes on with Ralph. There are two areas in Ralph’s brain, Broca’s area and Werneicke’s area, both named after Swiss physiologists who meant it when they said “Let me pick your brain.” In effect, Wernneicke’s area goes first, offering up a rough draft of what Ralph wants to say, and then Broca’s rewrites it and hands a polished version to Ralph to read out loud. The two areas split the joint fee that Ralph pays them fifty-fifty.

Now, one day Ralph’s Werneicke’s area wanted to say “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” It also wanted to say “Pairs figure skating is between a man and a woman,” since it knew Ralph was running for office, and it wanted to help Ralph poll well. But Ralph’s Broca’s area refused to go along with these statements, since it secretly supported a gay rights amendment to the Constitution. In fact, the two areas of Ralph’s brain belonged to different political parties. The areas exchanged words, and then things got ugly. Broca’s area enlisted Ralph’s right arm to sock Ralph right in the Wernicke’s area, and Wernicke’s area persuaded Ralph’s left arm to slug Ralph right in the Broca’s area. The US Supreme Court is now hearing the case, the areas having decided to sue each other over assault and marriage issues. It’s impossible to say how the court will rule, due to Kennedy’s swing vote and Roberts’s recusal.

To generalize, Werneicke’s area allows you to shoot off your mouth with your foot in it, and Broca’s area allows you to shoot yourself in the foot every time you open your mouth. Thanks to this, man has survived as a species.

That’s all I have space for today. Be sure to email me your questions for next week’s topic: Hearsay on the Heuristics of Hermeneutics.

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If We Laughed At Brilliance The Way We Laugh At Idiocy

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Franklin did the trick with his hands where his thumb appeared to separate at the joint.

“Pshaw pshaw pshaw pshaw pshaw pshaw!” laughed Jefferson, slapping his thigh and then wiping spittle from his grinning mouth. “That’s as funny a sight as a mule wearing slippers, Ben.”

As usual, the two philosophers were the center of attention at the Peacock and Hen.

Now it was Jefferson’s turn to crack wise. “Do you know, Ben, that I hold certain truths to be self-evident, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”

“Har har har har har har har! Oh har har har-dy har har!” laughed Franklin, as ale shot ballistically from his nose. “What a poke at the Tories, Tom!”

*****

Lincoln picked up an apple from the table before him, removed a large knife from the table drawer, and in under a minute had peeled the skin from the apple in a continuous spiral.

“Ta ta ta ta ta ta tee tee tee tee ta ta ta tah!” laughed his somewhat demented wife Mary Todd, who never failed to be amused by this. “Oh Abe, you’re funnier than a bad haircut.”

“Now listen to this,” Lincoln told her. “Four score and seven years ago…”

“Ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta tee tee tee ta tah!” Merriment filled Mrs. Lincoln’s crossed eyes with tears. “Four score? Criminy, Abe. Who’d you get that from, Artemus Ward?”

*****

Lighting a fresh Blackstone panatela in his Schenectady lab, Steinmetz displayed his latest invention to Edison. “This will alter civilization, Tom.” Reaching into a desk drawer, the German-born engineer pulled out a metal coil that he set at the top of some steps. He tipped it over, and an amazed Edison watched it cascade down the flight a step at a time.

“He he he he he woo woo woo woo ha ha ha!” laughed Edison, delighted by the toy.

“Here’s another,” said Steinmetz. Throwing a switch, he stunned and blinded his co-inventor with a flash of artificial lightning.

“Ho ho ho ho he he he he woo woo woo ha!” the reeling but tickled Edison burst out once more. “Lordy, Charles, I haven’t laughed so hard since my aunt Gertie scorched her hand on one of my white-hot tungsten filaments.”

*****

Fermi finished telling a joke to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. “…and so the priest said to the rabbi, ‘How did I know pork had a half-life of ten years?'”

Oppie removed the cigarette from his mouth. “Haw haw haw haw ho ho ho he he he!” he snickered. “You slay me, Enrico.”

“And get this,” said Fermi. “Back at my Chicago lab, I’ve created the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reactor.”

“Haw haw haw haw haw haw! Ah ah he he he hoo!” Oppie chuckled until he started coughing. “That one nearly did kill me,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Listen, the other day I came across something really hilarious in the Bhagavadgita…”

*****

After the war FDR, Churchill, and Stalin swapped yarns at Yalta. “I have one!” said the Soviet Supreme Leader, who liked a joke as much as the next tyrant. “Guess what is this.” Pulling up his jacket and shirt, he placed his hands on either side of his deep navel and made it open and close rhythmically by squeezing and then releasing the surrounding plump flesh. To the stumped expressions of the two democratic world leaders he then cried out, “It’s a female hurdler seen from below, comrades!”

FDR cracked a smile, removed the cigarette holder from between his lips, and began laughing. “Tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut tut!” He was so contorted by mirth that he almost stood up from his wheelchair.

Churchill, catching the mood, also laughed freely. “A-ha ha ha, a-ha ha ha, a-ha ha ha.” Then, it being the Prime Minister’s turn to amuse, he said with a serious expression, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Stalin’s face froze. FDR relit his cigarette. Had Churchill gone too far? But then the Man of Steel’s face split into a huge grin and he shook like a bear. “Wa wa ha ha wa wa ha ha wa wa ha ha wa wa ha! That’s good, Winston! Hey, vodka!”

*****

Plath sat on the arm of the sofa upon which Hughes reclined. When he looked up at her over the edge of his book, he saw that she had suspended a teaspoon from the end of her nose.

“Woo woo woo woo woo woo wah wah wah!” came Ted’s peculiar English laugh, his body shaking.

“Is there no way out of the mind?” Sylvia posed.

“Woo woo woo woo woo woo wha wha woo!” Ted helplessly sprayed saliva onto his book and began pounding the sofa cushions with his fist. For all her manic depression Sylvia sure had a socko delivery.

*****

“Who am I?” said John Watson to Francis Crick, putting on a fake nose and bushy eyebrows mask.

“La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la!” giggled Crick, dropping a test tube. “By the way,” he said, calming a bit, “have you seen Rosalind’s X-rays? It’s a double helix.” He burst anew into giggles.

“A double helix! A-ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho ha ha ha ho!” Watson doubled over, laughing. “Oh Francis, working with you here at the Cavendish lab is like sharing the stage with Jack Benny.”

*****

Dewey, Garry, and Dan, having just formed the rock trio America, were in the studio composing songs.

Dewey, smiling, strummed his guitar and sang, “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no mane…”

“A-ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho hoo hoo hoo!” laughed Gerry. “A bald horse!”

His face straight, Dewey said, “A horse with no name?”

“A-ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho hoo hoo hoo ha!” laughed Dan. “An anonymous horse! That’s even stupider!”

“A-ho ho ho ho ha ha ha ho ho ho haha ho ha! That’s a take!” said the producer, convulsed.

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Why I Like Illegal Aliens

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It isn’t just that illegal aliens will do jobs Americans won’t do. But of course they will. They will pick fruit, wash cars, wait tables, perform colonoscopies, design computers and test weapons systems, sometimes for hours on end in the brutal heat of a hospital examination room or the hurtling, pressurized cockpit of a jet fighter. You and I couldn’t do that, my friend. Don’t even say you could.

But illegals also read the books Americans won’t read: Orwell’s 1984, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Beckett’s Trilogy, even the works of snarky French postmodern novelist Robert Pinget. You won’t find any Americans willing to put up the endless effort involved in wading through these fiendishly difficult tomes from cover-to-cover. Real Americans read Grisham and Steele and other page-turning lightweights. Only our Hispanic brethren are willing to submerge themselves in the murky, Rio Grande-like depths of governmental theory and experimental fiction, and come up smiling. And they do it, for the most part, with less than a high school education and no fluency in English, and often right after scaling fences in Texas and Arizona and running from border guards and vigilante groups. That’s determination, paisano. You don’t have that fund of determination, and neither do I.

And illegals from across our southern border also watch the TV reruns Americans won’t watch. Reruns of Leave It to Beaver, reruns of Ozzie and Harriet, reruns also of Fury, the Story of a Horse, and of The Phil Silvers Show, and musty old footage of Mr. Peepers, The Danny Kaye Show, and Chico and the Man. No American will watch tripe like that. No American is that desperate for a good time, or that hard and tough. I know personally a Mexican immigrant of questionable legal status who watched bad American TV shows all day long without complaint: Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, even My Little Margie, in black and white no less. Never did he once change the channel until he found out he could. After that he tuned in Everybody Loves Raymond right away, just like an American, but I still give him unlimited credit for viewing an entire season of Burke’s Law without once griping or becoming ill. And a man who can watch Burke’s Law can also watch Mod Squad without breaking his back or bleeding to death. What’s more, he’ll get up the next day and do it all over again, and then write his family in Guatemala about it. I’ve seen it done, citizen, but not by you or me.

I could go on and on about the unpleasant things that illegals do for you and me in America, and for which we should be truly grateful: illegals drive the cars that Americans will not drive, wear the shoes that Americans will not wear, vote for the politicians that Americans will not vote for, obey the laws that Americans will not obey, and inhale the marijuana that Americans will not inhale. Illegals speak the languages Americans will not speak, attend the schools that Americans will not attend, join the armed forces that Americans will not join, drop the nukes that Americans will not drop, drink the water that American citizens will not touch a drop of, and use the public restrooms that the American public will not go near. And for this they deserve our thanks. We really could use millions more of them.

But perhaps nothing is more praiseworthy than the undocumented impressionists in our comedy clubs who do impressions of ancient Aztecs and Old World Spanish explorers that American impressionists will not even begin to impersonate. They’ll do archaic Mayans too, on request. I’ve seen aliens right here at the Go Bananas nightclub in Cincinnati, Ohio, smack dab in the American Midwest, take the stage at night and do a flawless Montezuma. In practically the same breath, they’ll turn right around and do a perfect Cortez. If the applause is right, they’ll throw in a passable King Quetzalcoatl from Chichen Itza. These are guys whose day job is picking apples in an orchard or teaching calculus at a two-year college, my friend. I couldn’t do it, and neither could you. Not even if we were comedians. I wouldn’t even try. I get torn ligaments and a sore throat just thinking about it.

For these reasons I propose the following immigration measure: after they have lived in our country and used our worst products and done our most unpopular jobs for 75 years, all the illegal aliens, most of whom I have met and like, must return home to touch base. They must then turn around and come right back, if they’re not too old. Anything more is xenophobia, anything less is amnesty.

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