* 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


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.

* 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


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.

* 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


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.

* 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


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

* 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


“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?”



NPR Interviews In Half The Time Or Less


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.


Jaap van Ballegooijen Has Another Soda Shop Revelation


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.


Superman Dies


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.


Things Dead People Can Do


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.


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.


Advice From A Lebanese Home Remodeler


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.