Friday, December 31, 2010

What Comes Out of an ATM in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.

Miss me? ‘Course you did. Well, sorry folks but I didn’t have time to deliver my usual nightly ramblings…I took off to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada! And was it three straight days of hedonism and debauchery? Of course not. Please keep in mind who’s writing this thing. It ain’t Frank or Dino, I can assure you.

Like a lot of old folks, I’ve mentioned more than several times about how cheap things were when I was a kid. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve mentioned that candy bars used to cost a nickel, well I’d be sitting around the pool in Mandalay Bay. And I don’t mean the hotel.

So I’m not really sure why the prices of certain items seemed so outrageous in Vegas. Is it because, as Peachpit points out, I am indeed a fossil and whining about the high cost of everything is what fossils do? Or do the folks who run Vegas overcharge for most everything simply because they can? Perhaps it is a combination of the two, which I suppose is another way of saying, “How the hell should I know?”

Still, it seems like only a short time ago that I was a fresh-faced lad paying but twenty-five cents to go to the movies. OK, no it doesn’t—it actually seems like epochs ago. But even if this long ago era was a few decades back, to me the mere passage of time is not enough to justify some of prices I paid, or refused to pay, on my trip to Las Vegas.

Well, maybe it’s me and maybe it’s not. Why don’t you take the test, check out the answers and see what you think? It might very well change your plans for your next vacation. And remember, prices may vary.

1. How much is a pork chop at the fancy restaurant at the Forum in Caesar’s Palace?
a. $35
b. $45
c. $55
d. $65

2. At the pool bar at THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay, how much is a pina colada?

3. At the pool at THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay, how much does it cost to rent an innertube?
a. $5
b. $10
c. $20
d. Nothing. They’re free.

4. At the pool at THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay, how much does it cost to rent a towel?
a. $2
b. $4
c. $6
d. Nothing. They’re free.

5. At the pool at THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay, what percentage of time does the average woman spend fiddling with her bathing suit top?
a. 10%
b. 35%
c. 50%
d. 85%

6. At THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay, how much would it cost you to have room service deliver a dozen spicy hot wings to your room?
a. $15
b. $25
c. $35
d. $45

7. How much did I have to shell out to see fuckin’ Wayne Newton?
a. $60
b. $90
c. $120
d. $150

8. On average, how much per hour are the services of a hooker working the strip?
a. $100
b. $200
c. $500
d. Now how would I know something like that?

9. How much was a twelve-ounce can of soda from the mini-bar?
a. $3
b. $4
c. $5
d. $6

10. What is the maximum amount you can bet on a single spin on the “Paris” penny slot machine?
a. $0.15
b. $0.85
c. $1.28
d. $2.10


1. $45. I’m sure the price of a pork chop varies greatly throughout Las Vegas, but this item on the menu caught my eye. Good thing I seldom eat pork chops, and I never eat $45 pork chops.
2. $12. And I’m not talking about some giant frosty monstrosity either. This pina colada was in your standard 8 oz. (6 oz.?) plastic glass. It did come with a little plastic surfboard, though, which made it a real bargain.
3. $20. I mean, $20! I went up to ask for one and was shocked when I thought the girl had mumbled that they cost $10 to rent. When she cleared her throat and told me they were $20 I told her I would float on my back. There are few things I won’t do, but paying twenty bucks to rent an inner tube that I can buy for three dollars is definitely one of them.
4. NOTHING. THEY’RE FREE. And here’s why: Anybody who has ever stayed in a hotel or motel knows that they absolutely hate it when their guests bring the room towels down to the pool. So even if they charged as little as a dime for a towel most people would say, “Screw it, get the one from the room.” That’s why.
5. 85%. OK, I made that up, but really what is it with you chicks and your bathing suit tops? If they had spent as much time fine-tuning the space shuttle as you gals spend adjusting your boobs NASA would still have a perfect safety record. No wonder the people of Europe laugh at us.
6. $45. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. That’s $3.75 each. Perhaps the wings were not from a chicken, but from a bald eagle?
7. $90. More on this later. Count on it.
8. NOW HOW WOULD I KNOW SOMETHING LIKE THAT? Besides, if I’m too cheap to buy a pork chop you know I won’t be coughing up any of my hard-earned bucks just for some temporary, and possibly infectious, female companionship..
9. $3. Not so bad, eh? That’s why, unlike the pork chop or the hooker, I broke down and actually bought one. (Cokes were seven cents when I was a kid.)
10. $2.10. Not that I play the penny slot machine. That’s Spike’s domain. But you can imagine how many frugal people hit the “Play Max” button and are surprised to find themselves playing over two bucks a spin on a penny machine. There’s more coming on slot machines, too. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Are You, 47, 48?

I’ve written about Mr. Zero before. It’s a strange and wonderful friendship that we enjoy. It all began twenty-two years ago when we were co-workers at a stock brokerage. The office was in Hayward and Mr. Zero lived in Oakland. He made the daily half-hour commute for about six months and then one day declared, “I can’t work here. Every day I feel like I’m coming to an outpost.”

Mr. Zero transferred to the Oakland office where he became a hugely successful stockbroker. I remained in the Hayward office where I…didn’t. I called him a few days after he left to see how he was doing and we’ve been talking on the phone almost daily, and sometimes several times a day, ever since.

Mr. Zero was six years younger than I when we met. In fact he still is. When we first began our telephone conversations he would often tease me by asking, “What are you, 47, 48?” I was 33 at the time, and he damn well knew it. And so I’d usually answer with a haughty, “Yeah, right.” At that age I felt that being 47 was roughly the equivalent of being 98. And frankly I couldn’t begin to conceive of either.

The years went by and the phone talks continued. He was with me through many of my lovers and I through all of his wives. We know things about each other that nobody else on Earth knows; or needs to know. We both know where the skeletons are buried.

And then one day, sooner than I thought possible, my answer to Mr. Zero’s sarcastic question changed. He’d ask, “What are you, 47, 48?” and I’d be forced to answer honestly, “Yes, I am.” This new answer, of course, would only be accurate for a couple of years, and while it sounds like a cliché about the passage of time it still feels to me this happened only a short time ago.

Nowadays when Mr. Zero asks the question my reply has once again changed, this time to a soft and wistful, “I wish.” And it won’t be many more months until I will change it yet again, to an almost incomprehensible, “No, but I was a decade ago.”

What I’m assuming will be my final reply is, happily, still a ways down the road. I’m looking forward to the day when Mr. Zero, hopefully retired, will call me on the phone (or whatever we’re using then) and ask, “What are you, 47, 48?” And then I will proudly croak out my reply: “Hell no, I’m more than double that!”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes

Glorious. It’s an odd word. It manages to sound about half pompous and half archaic at the same time. And yet when it’s appropriate it should be used, and so I do. Saturday here on the coast was a glorious day.

The weather, of course, had a lot to do with it, but not all. It was in the mid-seventies with a clear blue sky and a sparkly blue ocean, an ocean I appreciated all the more from my vantage point as I drove up the hill to the swimming pool where I spend part of each Saturday morning. The water in the pool was perhaps five degrees warmer than the air, as it should be. I eased myself in and began my swim, which was only occasionally interrupted by my sun and water splashed flirting with the tanned and fit bikini babe who had asked to share my lane. “I think I had a dream about this,” I told her and she laughed.

After returning home I fixed myself a lunch of various greens and fruits, and it felt as if I was dining on life itself. I felt stronger and more alive with each healthy bite, as I had in the pool earlier with each stroke. I rested for only a short while, and soon found myself on my bicycle, riding along the ocean and up and down the streets of this seaside community, greeting neighbors and smiling at strangers. It was good to be alive, and to feel so vigorous.

Sunday dawned with the prospect of more sensational weather, and I hopped from the bed eager to embrace it head-on. On this day Spike and I planned to drive over the hill, explore a bit and see what adventures awaited us on the other side. I felt as vibrant as I had thirty years ago as I bent to pick up my--*twinge*. And there it was, that not unknown tweak in my lower back that told me that once again I had zigged when I should have zagged.

“It’s not that bad,” I assured Spike and we headed out. I checked in at my usual coffee pit-stop and it was there that I bent to tie a shoelace and felt an electric jolt flash through my spine as if I had stepped on a live cable. My knees buckled and, like some aging prize fighter who suddenly realizes he has overstayed his welcome, I felt like I was going down. I didn’t though, for which I was grateful. Catching myself not only saved me possible injury but also the embarrassment of being helped to my feet by those two cute Mexican chicks who work there.

Saturday I had been half my age. Sunday I was twice my age. I spent it going from place to place with tiny excruciating steps, looking every bit as bent and twisted as a question mark with rickets. “Hurry up, Grandpa,” called Spike in that oh-so-amusing way of hers. “You should have seen me yesterday, swimming with that bikini babe!” I yelled back.

Spike just smiled, and waited for me to catch up.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

We're Dropping Like Flies, Man.

We honestly didn’t know. Each week we watched Ed Sullivan or Hullabaloo or Shindig! and there was another great singing group. Each week we turned on the radio to listen to the new Top Ten and there was another great new song. Or two. Or more.

They were everywhere. The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Freddy and the Dreamers—the list seems almost endless even now. And the sound we heard, although we didn’t know it then, was more than just music. We were listening to the soundtrack of our youth, and we thought it would never end. How could we possibly know? We were only twelve years old.

In little over a month I have seen the names Denis Payton, Fred Marsden and Denny Doherty appear in the headline section of my home page, and all for the same reason. Each of these men, musicians who were once cheered by millions of people through live performances and television appearances, had died.

Denis Payton was the saxophone player for the Dave Clark Five. Few of the younger people today have ever heard of this band, and so they’ll have to take my word for it that at the height of the British Invasion of the mid-sixties the Dave Clark Five had numerous hit songs, and were arguably the second most popular rock band after the Beatles.

Fred Marsden was the drummer for another hugely popular group of the era, Gerry and the Pacemakers. Though not as popular as the DC5, The Pacemakers also boasted an impressive list of hit records and also successfully toured the United States.

Denny Doherty was a member of the Mamas and the Papas. Their music can still be readily heard today, relegated to oldies stations, malls and elevators throughout America. Amazingly, Doherty is already the third of this legendary foursome to die. Only former hippie-goddess Michelle Phillips survives.

And why is it that I continue to be surprised by these deaths? These were all men in their sixties, a not particularly uncommon age for a man to die. Nor should I expect that this parade of rock star deaths is going to stop. Eventually every Pacemaker, every Animal, and yes even every Rolling Stone will be dead. And I will continue to read about their demise, one by one, until, of course, it is my turn.

Is it possible that I was surprised by each of these deaths because somewhere deep within my psyche I believed, against all logic and common sense, that someday that golden musical era would return? That once again that joyous and rebellious sound would dominate our radios, T.V.s and vinyl records? What a foolish thing for a grown man to believe!

And yet it’s there. And though deep inside we all know that there is no such place as Heaven, wouldn’t it be nice if there were? Even with the use of my sometimes-vivid imagination it’s difficult for me to picture what such a wonderful place might look like. But it’s very, very easy to know how it would sound.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Was My Hero An A-Hole?

He wounded his assistant with a shotgun, but was later cleared of any criminal charges. He was charged with possession of child pornography, but the case was dropped due to lack of evidence. He went on many drug binges with his first wife, which caused her to have several miscarriages. On more than one occasion he beat her and when she told him she wanted a divorce he destroyed some of her possessions and burned several of the manuscripts she had been writing.

He missed his high school graduation because he was in jail. He began using the prefix “Dr.” when he purchased a mail-order doctorate of divinity. He once robbed a liquor store with two friends by starting a fight as a distraction. He and his friends once robbed the same gas station three nights in a row. He was charged with drunk driving in 1987. He enjoyed loading an oil barrel with explosives and then shooting at it from a safe distance. He once nailed the head of a boar to the front door of his religious neighbor’s house. And he killed himself while talking on the phone to his wife, while his son and grandson played in the next room.

Wow, maybe Hunter Thompson was an asshole. And so what? The world is full of them. Ty Cobb was well-known to have a surly temperament, and to be a first-tier racist to boot. But he still holds the highest lifetime batting average ever. Russell Crowe was arrested for throwing a telephone at a hotel employee, but he’s got a nice shiny Oscar on his mantle. And Barry Bonds seems to be almost universally disliked, but did you see the one he drilled to become the greatest home run hitter of all time?

So yes, we can all be assholes at times, and apparently some of us with a lot more frequency than others. And for a lucky few their assholeness is almost completely overshadowed by their tremendous talent. As for the rest of us, well, we’ll just have to accept that we are stuck with being what we are and disguise it as best we can. Or maybe it’s not too late to learn to hit a baseball.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Merry Christmas Quiz!

I refuse to get involved. I absolutely refuse to talk or write or even think about this diabolical “War on Christmas” that has so outraged all these headline-seeking, talking empty-heads. We’ve all known for some time that there is a dumbing-down of America going on, but didn’t you honestly believe that at some point we’d reach a bottom?

Well, there’s not a religious bone in my body and still I love Christmas. I like the lights and the music and paying forty bucks to cut down my own tree. (And I don’t like hanging it upside down; not because it’s Satanic, but because it’s non-traditional. And stupid.) I like going to the mall and I like both the hustle and the bustle. I like cold air and hot chocolate. I like receiving Christmas cards without having to send any, because that’s my wife’s job. I like not going to church and wasting valuable time that could otherwise be spent eating cookies and drinking eggnog.

I like Christmas now and I would have liked it 3,000 years ago when it was called Saturnalia, celebrating the return of longer days, and so of life, and included much hi-jinks and debauchery. (Did you think you put a pine tree in your living room because Baby Jesus had one in the manger? Decorated and with an electric train?) So enjoy the season, have fun, be kind and have a very Merry Winter Solstice!

Meanwhile, here’s a jolly Christmas Quiz just for you!

1. Who was Saint Nicholas?
a. An 11th Century Pope
b. A 4th Century Bishop
c. Son of the apostle Peter
d. Your parents, you dope.

2. How many ghosts visited Scrooge?
a. 1
b. 2
c. 3
d. 4

3. Quick! On the fourth day of Christmas, what did my true love first give to me?
a. French hens
b. Turtle-doves
c. Calling birds
d. A rash

4. Which is not one of Santy’s reindeer?
a. Blitzen
b. Vixen
c. Mincer
d. Dancer

5. What did Saint Nick smoke in The Night Before Christmas?
a. A pipe
b. A cigar
c. Virginia Slims
d. Nothing

6. What was Frosty’s nose made out of?
a. Coal
b. An icicle
c. A carrot
d. A button

7. What is the most popular topper for a Christmas tree?
a. An angel
b. A star
c. A nativity scene
d. A pointed ornament

8. In We Wish You A Merry Christmas, what kind of pudding is demanded?
a. Cherry
b. Figgy
c. Hasty
d. Jello

9. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, who wants to be the Christmas Queen?
a. Lucy
b. Peppermint Patty
c. Sally
d. Linus

10. What popular snack started out in 1902 as a Christmas tree decoration?
a. Cracker Jack
b. Pretzel twists
c. Cheese Doodles
d. Animal Crackers


1. 4th CENTURY BISHOP. Nick was reported to be one helluva nice guy who was famous for giving gifts to the poor.
2. 4. Not all of you forgot to count the ghost of Jacob Marley, but I bet a lot of you did!
3. FOUR CALLING BIRDS. Give yourself only half-credit if you had to sing out loud to get the answer.
4. MINCER is not one of Santa’s reindeer. Not yet, anyway.
5. Yeah, it was a PIPE. Hope you didn’t over-think this one.
6. A BUTTON. His eyes were coal and his ass was snow.
7. AN ANGEL. This one was really a toss-up. I mean, how many Nativity scenes have you seen on top of a Christmas tree?
8. FIGGY. Damn, I almost got this one wrong myself. Then I would have had to suffer the slings and arrows of the Comments section. I thought it was Hasty Pudding at first, which I found out is made from corn. Then I remembered the song actually said Figgy Pudding. Still a pretty demanding tune though. “We won’t go until we get some!” What’s up with that?
9. LUCY of course. We all have out doubts about Linus, but he’ll become Christmas Queen about the same time Mincer is allowed to pull Santa’s sleigh and Nathan Lane becomes president.
10. Barnum ANIMAL CRACKERS. Didn’t you ever wonder what that string on the box is for? To hang on your tree, silly!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I like snow. I’ve written before about the many disappointing mornings I experienced as a kid when I woke up and looked out on a wet, gray street after a major snowfall had been predicted the night before. And about the unbridled joy of that snowstorm that turned the world white on one magical Christmas Eve so long ago.

What is it I like about snow? Well, it’s certainly not shoveling it. I remember as a kid hearing stories about men of a certain age collapsing with heart attacks while shoveling the white stuff. And now I am that certain age. And I certainly don’t enjoy the cold that accompanies the snow. No, I think what I like most about snow is looking at it; especially watching it come down. Especially from inside the house.

And yet it’s been over thirty years since I’ve lived in a place where it snows. Or at least where it snows on a regular basis. Last week there were reports of the snow level falling to 1500 feet here in the Bay Area. There was even footage on TV of big white fluffy flakes coming down in the Santa Cruz Mountains and in Berkeley. I was hoping that it might even snow here in Half Moon Bay, but since the elevation is a non-lofty 70 feet above sea level it seemed unlikely.

Still, I felt like I wanted to see some snow come down, so I made the drive up the hill. To get from the coast, where I live, to the bay about twenty minutes away you have to drive over the mountain ridge that runs like a spine down the peninsula, a ridge that in spots is over the 1500-foot level. One night last week I saw people driving down from these mountains with their cars dusted with snow. So the next day when more snow was predicted I got in my car and headed for the short drive up the hill.

About half an hour later I was seeing little patches of white by the side of the road, leftovers from the previous day’s snow. Each patch contained just about enough snow for constructing one, possibly two good-sized snowballs. A few minutes later I rounded a turn and it was snowing! It wasn’t exactly a blizzard, the flakes were fat and soggy and surely melted the second they hit the ground if not before, but it was snowing! I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and walked for a while amidst the pine trees while bits of falling snow danced around me. Occasionally a car drove by and I suspect that when the people inside exclaimed, “Look, there’s another flake!” they weren’t talking about the snow.

Spike and I were watching the news last week when they predicted a major snowstorm for New York City. And as I do at so many things, I scoffed. “You just watch,” I said in my all-knowing yet seldom accurate way. “Tomorrow they’ll be talking about how the storm wasn’t nearly as big as expected and how New York had dodged a bullet.” I’ve had years of experience with that group—I know how they work.

When I was a kid in the New York area any snowfall of more than a foot was a major storm. So when they announced that New York City had received over two feet of snow, well, I knew that the “I told you so!” that I had prepared would remain firmly wedged in my throat, with no chance of ever seeing the light of day. And if I still harbored any thoughts that I had not been completely and colossally wrong in my prediction, the man on the TV set me straight by announcing that it was the biggest snowfall in New York City since before the Civil War. Ahem.

The previous record snowfall for New York City had also been over two feet, and had occurred in 1947. I was talking to my Mom on the phone when the subject of New York’s big snow came up. When I mentioned the 1947 storm she said she knew about it. In fact she remembered it.

She and my Dad, who wasn’t yet my Dad at the time, were actually just dating. The historic marriage that ended up bestowing me upon the world was still three years off. They had plans to go into the city to see a show or a movie. My Mom wasn’t quite sure which they did on that day. It was a different time then—those two folks who would become my parents frequently took the train into the city to see live shows, plays and movies. Sometimes they would see two in one day. People could afford that back then, as a live show and dinner for two would cost about eight cents. OK, I forget the actual price, but it was inexpensive.

So, whatever form of entertainment my future parents went to that day, when they emerged from the theater it was snowing. Hard. Just as it had been predicted, although predicted by what means I can’t imagine. Town crier? My Mom’s Mom, my wonderful Italian Grandma long since gone, had warned her not to go out because a big storm was coming. My Mom, nineteen years old and apparently carrying the “stubborn asshole” gene that she would later pass on to her first born, had ignored the warning and would now pay the price.

It took the adventurous young couple hours and hours to get home. Even when they were finally able to catch a train that brought them to somewhere near their home (They lived in the same town, not the same house, you sickos. People didn’t do that in 1947. Not my parents, anyway.) they still faced a three or four mile walk once they left the warmth and safety of the train. And it was my Grandma who greeted my Mom at the door when she, cold and exhausted, finally made it home. “I told you so!” said Grandma, and believe me, that was one “I told you so!” that I bet didn’t stick in the throat.

And how does my Mom look at this near-disaster from the vantage point of sixty years later; a night when a young couple with their whole lives ahead of them huddled arm in arm and struggled home for miles through the falling snow? “It’s a nice memory,” she said.

I like snow

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is It The Last Minute Yet?

What a shock! It looks like Christmas is going to fall on December 25th again this year! I just don’t get me. From last December 26th I knew this Christmas was on its way, and yet here I was today trying to still buy presents at what is apparently the last minute. And I’m not even talking about going out and fighting the panicky maniacs at the mall, but rather simply parking my Royal Hawaiian at the computer and banging on the keyboard for half an hour. Except it took a hell of a lot longer than half an hour.

The sad thing is I used to have to write down all the presents I had to buy and then keep it folded in my wallet, scratching off names as I went along. Back then the list usually included about thirty names, and yet somehow I managed to get it all done. And well before December 20th, let me tell you.

Now sadly my Christmas list has shrunk to truly pathetic dimensions. I don’t have an exact count, but I assure you it’s less than ten. Some are off the list by mutual agreement or folks have dropped out of my life. Others have too soon shuffled off this coil. And so when I sat down at the computer today I really had only three gifts that I needed to secure.

To make things even easier on myself I decided to get two of the three people the very same present. They live on separate coasts and will never meet. And since I won’t be seeing either over the holidays the gifts have to be mailed anyway. Hell, if I could have ordered one gift and split it between them I would have done that, but Hershey’s didn’t offer that option.

Yes, I got a Hershey’s catalogue in the mail yesterday and, as I’m at a point in life where I drool over pictures of chocolate much like I used to drool over porn, I decided I would find some nice gifts among its festive pages. Which I did. Really, who in their right mind wouldn’t want a large personalized Hershey bar in a big box surrounded by dozens of other Hershey products like kisses and nuggets and miniatures? Besides a diabetic, I mean.

Totally out of character I decided to call the Hershey’s 800 number rather than order off the Internet. Normally I try to avoid contact with humans as much as I can, but this process looked simple enough and I was ready to answer any questions they might throw at me. I had my phone, credit card, catalogue and address book within easy reach. I was ready. (Ready to get this nonsense over with, that is. Bah, humbug.)

Those people at Hershey’s truly are standing by. It was like the chick on the other end was just waiting around for my call. (A reaction I’m not used to from women, by the way. But that’s a story for another day.) I told her I wanted to order a couple of things and she asked me for the Item Number, which I was immediately able to produce. I told you, I was ready. Heck, this would take no time at all.

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re out of that item...” the Hershey girl said.
“OK, well then I’ll take…”
“Actually, all we have left is a few of the tins. How about some nice chocolate pretzels?”
“Are you telling me that Hershey’s has run out of chocolate?”

Well of course not, she explained. They were just out of most of the Christmas items. The baskets, the towers, the combination boxes—in other words anything you might conceivably want to send as a gift. As apparently the rest of the country already had.

I wished her well and clicked over to the Ghiradelli website. There I found a very nice basket of chocolate goodies that I spent the next hour trying to order. Finally I got a message that said that the number of items I wanted to order exceeded the number that they had on hand. Wild man that I am, I had tried to order…one.

I chose a cheaper basket and when I finally got their ordering system figured out a warning came up that my ATM card had been rejected. I tried another ATM card and it too was rejected. And so I spent another half hour trying to figure out why my invoice address was not the same as my billing address. Finally I saw the problem—I had typed in my ZIP code incorrectly. Damn you, computer! You know I live in California! You know my ZIP code starts with a nine! Don’t go by what I typed, go by what I meant!

And so problem solved, I went through the process twice and sent the two chocolate gift baskets. Having not suffered enough I hopped over to another site and, after wrestling with their screwed-up website, finally was able to send out the third gift.

Spike buys about five times as many gifts as I do, and she buys them throughout the year. I laugh when I see her pick up a Christmas gift for someone in April or in July. How foolish! I think. It’s silly to buy so early when it’s inevitable that you’re going to come across an even better gift later in the year. I often wonder how I got to be so damn smart?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

White Christmas: The Movie and Song

I caught the end of the movie Holiday Inn today, a film that I’ve always been confused about. My confusion stems from the fact that I always mix up Holiday Inn with White Christmas, which to me seems like a logical mistake. After all, both movies featured the classic holiday song White Christmas and both are old flicks made before I was born. (Although in the case of White Christmas, just barely.)

I don’t think I’ve ever watched either of these movies all the way through. In fact until today I don’t think I was even sure that they were two separate movies. All I remember is seeing one of them years ago and at the end they opened the doors of this lodge that everybody was staying in and the crowd went nuts because it was snowing. I even remember the classic line. They said, “It’s snowing!”

Before we try to draw a distinction between these two films let’s talk a bit about the song White Christmas. The story goes that Irving Berlin usually wrote at night. (All creative geniuses do. Ahem.) On the morning after he had written White Christmas he called to his musical secretary and said, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written – hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"

We can forgive Irving his bragging, for he must have felt the same incredible rush that Schubert felt when he wrote Ave Maria or McCartney felt when he wrote Yesterday or that I felt when I wrote my Thanksgiving turkey poem. The fact is that Mr. Berlin may also have been right in his original assessment. In fact White Christmas was the biggest selling single of all time until 1998 when Candle in the Wind 1997, Elton John’s goofy tribute to Princess Diana, passed it up. And my guess is that after another decade or two of Christmases White Christmas will again return to its rightful spot. (And listen, chumps, I know Ave Maria is not the actual title of Schubert’s piece, so there’s no need for you anal-retentive types to write in. Christ, it’s so hard to cover every base with you lunatics out there.)

So what’s up with these two movies? You know, I just read the descriptions of both movies and I suspect I’ll always be a little confused. Holiday Inn was released in 1942 and was about two entertainers opeing up an inn. White Christmas was released in 1954 (Ohmigod, it was made after I was born!) and was about two entertainers who try to save an inn. (The inn was owned by their ex-commanding officer and was going bankrupt due to a lack of snow. Hence, that final “It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” scene that I remember oh so vaguely.)

Both movies starred Bing Crosby, of course. After all, who else was going to sing White Christmas, Lou Costello? Der Bingle’s co-star in the earlier film was Fred Astaire. The happy hoofer was also pegged to co-star in the second film, but he turned it down because he didn’t like the script (You would think that if he like the script in the first one then surely…) and so Danny Kaye stepped in to fill his dancing shoes.

Maybe someday I’ll make a point of watching both of these classic films. One thing I won’t do is make the mistake of watching them on the same day, because they’d surely blend together and stay melded in my mind forever. Has that ever happened to you when you’ve seen two movies on the same day? Well take my advice and be careful with it. For example, don’t go see King Kong and Brokeback Mountain on the same day, or for the rest of your life you’ll be remembering a movie called Queen Kong. (Ha! I’ve been looking for a spot to drop that line.)

Oh, I almost forgot. Yes, the Holiday Inn hotel chain was indeed named after the movie of the same name. I just thought you needed to know.

Monday, December 20, 2010

White Christmas: The Weather Phenomenon

Even though I grew up in a place where there were regular snowfalls each winter I only recall one white Christmas. And if you want to be technical, it was a white Christmas Eve that I remember. I just assume the snow didn’t melt overnight and therefore there must have been a white Christmas as well. (I also remember a white Easter and even a white May 2nd in my college town that, although well south of the Artic Circle, often felt like it was well within it. Did I ever tell you about the time I walked a girl home when it was 35 below zero? Yes, well, I was a gentleman back then.)

Back to the white Christmas: I was about ten years old. It might have been a Saturday or it might have been a snow day, but for whatever reason there was no school on that snowy Christmas Eve. Come to think of it, I guess there was no school because it was Christmas Eve! Duh. My brother and I, along with some friends, had been sledding at the nearby state park. I say “nearby” but when I now retrace the route in my head it seems like an awfully long walk, especially when pulling a sled. Well as I said, I was ten. I guess now I’d probably drive there. Or just stay home. After all, there’s cable TV now.

As the winter night approached my brother and I stripped off our soaking wet jeans in the kitchen (no dripping allowed in the house), briskly rubbed our cold, bright red legs and put on our pajamas. My mother may or may not have been baking Christmas cookies, but since it greatly enhances the scene let’s just say she was. One thing I’m sure of is that she made us some hot chocolate and I reveled in its sweet taste, the warmth of the kitchen and the glow from the colored lights that twinkled on the Christmas tree in the living room a few feet away. And outside it continued to snow. I may well have experienced this same level of contentment at other times in my life, but if I did I no longer remember when.

Obviously a white Christmas is a weather condition almost exclusive to people living in the Northern Hemisphere. Just as obvious is the fact that the probability of a white Christmas varies greatly depending on which country you happen to be in. In England, for example, the prospects of a white Christmas are rather low, while in Canada your chances are pretty good. The odds are also fairly high if you happen to live in Scandinavia or northern Russia.

Just last year several locations in the United States that had little or no white Christmas experience were recipients of a fluffy holiday surprise. New Orleans (or as I like to think of it, Nature’s Plaything) experienced its first white Christmas in fifty years while just down the road a piece Houston experienced its first white Christmas ever!

My research has uncovered a list of American cities that gives the odds of various locales having a white Christmas. For example, if you absolutely feel you need a white Christmas this year then load up the family buggy and head to Marquette, Michigan. This northern peninsula burg is listed as having a 100% chance of a white Christmas. Now I’d never bet against the people of Marquette shoveling the white stuff come December 25th, but 100% ? That’s just a little too absolute a stat for me. More on this later.

Next up, and no surprise to anyone, is Anchorage, Alaska, with a 90% chance of a white Christmas. Now that sounds reasonable. Anchorage is followed by the syrup suckers of Concord, New Hampshire, who have an 83% chance of a snowy Yule. As does Fargo, North Dakota. This, too, sounds about right.

OK, quick, what do these cities have in common? Portland, Oregon, Dallas, Texas and our home base of San Francisco, California? Yup, all three are given a 0% chance of a white Christmas. Now I’d go along with a slight chance, but no chance at all? After all, it has snowed here in San Francisco, hasn’t it? (Not in the 25 years I’ve lived here, mind you, but certainly before. I’ve heard the stories.) So to me it’s slightly irresponsible to say that there is no chance.

No I’m not one of those glaze-eyed loons who runs around claiming that “Everything is possible!” I’ve been around long enough to know that many things aren’t. But a white Christmas in San Francisco is possible. Hell, an orange Christmas is possible, as is a Christmas where little green Martians land on the Golden Gate Bridge and sing Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer while using death-rays to level Oakland. It’s not likely—but you’ll agree it’s possible. And that, folks, makes the probability higher than 0%.

OK my friends, have a Happy Holiday. And if by some chance it does snow this Christmas in San Francisco, or Portland or Dallas or San Diego or Charlotte, North Carolina or any of those other 0% cities, I hope you’ll all remember where you first read that a white Christmas in those locales was indeed possible. And just in case it’s not San Francisco, slide down one of those snow-covered hills for me, will you?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Waxing Poetic

Not only does this health book I’m reading tell you about nutrition, but it gives valuable information about caring for the various parts of your body as well. For example, it warns that one should never insert a Q-Tip into the ear canal. Which I already knew, because it says the same thing right on the Q-Tip box. But I do it anyway, and so do you.

The reason that one should never jam anything smaller than an elbow, as the saying goes, into the ear is not just because of all the delicate little bones and other structures in there, although that should be reason enough, even for a stubborn a-hole such as myself. No, you shouldn’t put a Q-Tip in your ear because doing this day after day will, rather than cleaning out your ear, cause the swab to act as a tiny battering ram, pushing the wax deep into the ear and then jamming more on top of it every day. Oh I’m sorry, were you still eating breakfast?

Well the truth is I’m not about to stop sticking Q-Tips in my ear anytime soon. In fact I’m not about to voluntarily stop doing anything that gives me even a small amount of physical pleasure. In this way, and in several others, I’m much like a monkey in a zoo. But I don’t want to go deaf, either. I can’t imagine never again hearing the music of the Beatles, the laughter of little children or a book promotion by Bush. Well, two out of three.

And so I went to a drug store and bought myself something labeled Earwax Removal Aid. When I was a kid they might have called these “eardrops,” but then they couldn’t get away with charging $8.50 for a tiny bottle, could they? The box also claims that the drops are “safe and non-irritating” (which already puts them a step above most of the women I’ve known) and promises to clean my ears with “microfoam action.” Wasn’t there a G.I. Joe who had that?

I’m not particularly cautious about, well, anything but I thought I’d give the ingredients a look-see before I squirted this goop into my one and only head. The reason is the book had said that a good way to clean out built-up earwax (How’s that breakfast coming?) is with mineral oil. The drug store, alas, had nothing of the sort, and so I bought this stuff instead. After all, at this stage of life I’m much too fragile to be squeezing my own minerals.

The number one ingredient is listed as citric acid. Are you telling me that I could have saved a bunch of time and money by simply squeezing an orange into my ears? (Disclaimer to my readers: Do not squeeze an orange into your ears, you idiots.) But it was the number two ingredient that really left me confused. It’s listed as “flavor.”

Once upon a time somebody asked me why on a toaster it says that if you’re only going put in one slice of bread you should use a specific slot. I admitted I was stumped and so we looked for a guy who had more technical knowledge than I; that is, pretty much anybody. The immediate answer was that’s the slot where the heat sensor is. I feel much the same way about why they need to flavor drops that are designed to be put in your ears. I have no idea why, but I’m sure there are many of you who are right now slapping your heads about my density. Goody for you. Keep it to yourself—I don’t want to know.

And so I put five drops into my ear as the box told me to and tilted my head for two minutes. Then I did the same for the other ear. The box told me that I might hear a “cracking” sound as the liquid reacted with the built-up wax, but guess what? I didn’t hear a damn thing. Is it possible that, after half a century of wanton and reckless Q-Tip usage, I haven’t built up any wax at all?

Maybe yes, and maybe no. Listen, I’m going to give my Q-Tips just one more decade and then again squirt this stuff into my ears. And by god if in 2021 I actually do hear that “cracking” sound, that’s it. No more Q-Tips for me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Warming Up

As I’ve mentioned more than once on this space, Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” True, true, to be sure. But after two and a half weeks in glorious literary hibernation during which I’ve written nothing longer than a shopping list I’d take Ms. Parker’s famous quote a step further and point out that I additionally seem to have a deep and profound love of not writing. In fact, writing is becoming one of my favorite things not to do.

Ah, but what choice do we have, eh? In truth there is precious little free will for those of us who spend endless hours arranging and re-arranging words and sentences and paragraphs until we find just the right configuration that amuses us and, with luck, perhaps even one other person.

I love Post It notes. In fact I’ve said aloud on more than several occasions that I wish I had invented them. Normally during a lay-off from writing I’ll come to my desk several times a day to scribble down an idea for a future column. Generally I need only write two or three words, and always dedicate one Post It note for each new idea. Oddly, during the last few weeks I didn’t come up with a single idea to scribble down. Although I did buy a new package of Post It notes. Orange. Hope springs eternal, eh what?

OK, that last paragraph is not entirely true. Just today I was soaking naked in the hot tub looking up at the sky when I saw a plane fly overhead. The light on one of its wings was blinking and it reminded me of lightning bugs. And I wondered (although not aloud, as the neighbors already have too many strange ideas about me, most of which are, admittedly, true) whatever happened to lightning bugs? I mean, do they still exist or did they go the way of the dodo, the ten-cent phone call and Congressional vertebrae?

And so I came into my office, still naked and dripping thanks for asking, and wrote the words “lightning bugs” on one of my new orange Post It’s. So there you have it, something for you to look forward to—a treatise on lightning bugs! Can’t hardly wait to read it, can you?

Oh, and I also came up with a new game called Name That Neil. Actually it was supposed to be the topic of tonight’s triumphant return, but as the word count thingie has just informed me that I am closing in on 500 words I can save the new game for tomorrow. And won’t that be fun?

The word “the” at the beginning of this sentence is word #500. (Or at least it was before the re-write.) And, as all responsible doctors will tell you, you shouldn’t push yourself too hard after an extended lay-off, right? So that’s it for tonight. Now why don’t you run along and study up on your Neil’s and I’ll meet you back here tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


“It will take about two or three hours.”

It was pretty much what I expected to hear. I decided today to finally get my new Sirius radio installed in my car, and I knew I’d be spending some time just waiting. Waiting and wandering.

Which is not always a bad thing. Sometimes when I drop my car off at the Toyota dealership I simply stroll over to the movie theater just a few blocks away, and I’m entertained until my car is repaired. But today I was at Circuit City, a store that as far as I could tell wasn’t within walking distance of anything entertaining.

Well, I’d make the best of it because, by golly, that’s the kind of guy I am. Stop laughing. My first stop was at the Rite-Aid, where I strolled up and down the aisles. There really wasn’t too much that interested me here, but I must admit that the birdhouses caught my eye. Plus they were reduced for clearance, marked down to a mere seven bucks. They sure were tempting, especially the one with the cute bears, but I’d be damned if I was going to lug the thing around for the next three hours.

I walked down to the book/magazine rack. Maybe I could buy a book to occupy the time? Yeah right. Like I’m going to spend seven bucks on a new book when I could get the same book on Amazon for three dollars and, with the shipping charge, pay only…seven bucks. Instead I looked through the magazines and saw a copy of Mad magazine. That’s it! I’ll buy one and later on walk over to that grassy area and have lunch and read Mad, which had, of course, been a minor contributor to the corruption of my youth.

The kid at the cash register said $5.44 and I said how much? He repeated the amount and I went through my Grandpa Granola routine. “I guess they’re not twenty-five cents anymore?” I asked. You know, you probably think the kid didn’t want to hear about “the way things were in the good old days” but his face showed genuine interest and surprise. “They used to be twenty-five cents?” he asked. I told him they had been, but I generously spared him my famous lecture, “A Brief and Boring History of the World from 1963 to the Present.”

I skipped the TJ Maxx (Do I have that name right?) because it appeared to be a store for women--angry women who did not want their shopping disturbed--and walked into Ross. A big sign in the window said that on Tuesdays shoppers 55 and older get a 10% discount. Five dollar Mad magazines and now this. I was getting less cheery with every store. There wasn’t much to interest me in Ross as it was mostly clothes, and seeing how I had just updated my wardrobe in 1993 I wasn’t in the market.

I looked though a bin of DVD’s and saw a few good ones, including a two disc set about the airborne in World War Two. Dad would enjoy this, I thought, and I picked it up. Then I saw the long line of women at the cash register and put it back down. The store had just opened—where did all these chicks come from? Tough luck, Pops.

There was a K-Mart across the street, which I figured would occupy me for a while. I did a few laps around the place but can’t even report to you what I looked at. Besides the hot young girl choosing a pink bra, I mean. Here too I walked up and down the aisles but never really did find what I was looking for, which by this time was a bathroom. Oh, I’m sure they had one and I could have asked, but I couldn’t be bothered. I left the store and walked to a Shell station.

With that need taken care of it was time to focus on another: food. And so into the Trader Joe’s I went. I don’t like any of these supposedly “hip” food stores. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, New Leaf—they can all kiss my ass. Why? Because I’m a grumpy old bastard who remembers when you could get a Mad for a quarter, that’s why. The truth is I walked around that store three times looking for something for lunch and it was only when some women chirped to her little kid, “Let’s go get our hummus!” that I walked out empty-handed.

And went straight to the 7-11, where I bought a Diet Coke and brick-like and plastic wrapped chicken salad sandwich. I then strolled over to the grassy area and sat under a shady tree. OK, with the traffic zooming by and my pissy attitude it wasn’t exactly Huck Finn, but it would do while I waited for my car to be done.

I was sitting in the shade struggling to read the blurry pages of my Mad and wondering what the ten year old Leonard would say if he knew that in 45 years not only would he still be reading Mad but that he would require powerful reading glasses to do so. I sat there for a while and gradually became aware that I was feeling more discomfort than contentment. Why was that? Of course—I was freezing my ass off! And so I picked up the Mad, and the remains of my Coke and sandwich, and moved fifteen feet into the sun.

What a difference. The air was warm, the grass was dry and with the additional light I could even see my Mad more clearly. I leaned back into the lush grass, basked in the new-found warmth and began to read a clever take-off on the movie Iron Man. This was turning into a pleasant afternoon after all.

And then the phone rang. My car was ready. My car was ready and I was upset about it. I had just gotten comfortable and I couldn’t believe that they had installed the radio so quickly. I closed the Mad, put the rest of my sandwich in the bag, sighed and got to my feet. You know, some people are never satisfied, and clearly I’m one of those some people.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Useless Information: Timothy the Tortoise

I’ll get the sad part out of the way first. In case you missed it in the papers (and it was in the papers) Timothy the Tortoise passed away. He was buried near where he died, at Powderham Castle, and was assumed to be England’s oldest resident. Timothy was 160 years old.

Timothy was discovered on a Portuguese vessel in 1854 by Captain John Courtenay Everard of the Royal Navy. He was believed to be about ten years old at the time. (The turtle, not the captain.) Timothy served as the mascot for several British ships, saw duty during the Crimean War, and was finally given permanent shore leave in 1892. From then until his death in 2004 Timothy led the good life in the royally capable hands of the Earl of Devon as well as several generations of his family.

By all accounts Timothy was as bright and resourceful a reptile as you could ever hope to meet. As mentioned above, our Timothy was no stranger to battle, so when he first felt the vibrations of bombs exploding near his home during World War II Timothy leaped, well, crawled into action. He hid himself under a handy set of steps that was nearby and proceeded to build himself his very own private air raid shelter. Is your kid smart enough to do that? Then why is he still eating crayons?

From then Timothy led a relatively uneventful life, content to peacefully roam the grounds of the castle and occasionally seek out the company of his human friends when in need of a kind word or a ripe strawberry. During his later years Timothy wore a tag that read, “I am very old-please do not pick me up.” And no, Guys, I don’t know where you can get one of these for your drunken wife.

Sadly, Timothy left behind no offspring. There was an attempt to mate Timothy in 1926, but the amorous encounter was a resounding failure. At least part of the reason for Timmy’s lack of interest became obvious a short time later when it was learned that Timothy was actually a female. Had been all along, apparently. Still, even after this shocking discovery, Timothy’s owners decided not to change his name. Hopefully they did change his mating partner.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Useless Information: Columbo's First Name

A few years ago TV Guide conducted a survey to name the most popular television cop of all time, and of course the winner was the rumpled and lovable Lt. Columbo.

I don’t recall when the poll was conducted. In fact I don’t remember if it was for “most popular cop” or “most popular detective” or what. In fact today I was on the phone with a customer service person from United Airlines and I couldn’t remember the name of the street I lived on just two years ago! But that’s OK, because I figure the sooner my memory evaporates completely the sooner I’ll be able to re-watch all the Columbo episodes as if they were brand new. Can’t wait!

Fans know that one of the recurring gimmicks on that classic TV series is that Columbo never mentions his first name. If he is ever directly asked the question his answer is invariably “Lieutenant.” But if you search the web you may find several sources that will tell you that Columbo’s first name is Philip, and there’s a very interesting tale how this came to be.

In the 1970’s Fred Worth was a writer of trivia books. A former air traffic controller, Fred just had a feeling that trivia was about to become very popular, and he was right. By the end of 1984 a game by the name of Trivial Pursuit had generated over a quarter-billion dollars in sales. Fred, being the trivia aficionado that he was, took a careful look at Trivial Pursuit and noticed that the questions seemed a bit familiar. After more research Fred claimed that fully one-third of the questions in the game had been lifted directly from his books. And he had a secret weapon to prove it.

There is an old mapmakers trick where map companies sometimes include fictitious towns or lakes in their maps. If these geographic locations ever turn up on the maps of their competitors they know that their work has been stolen. Fred used a variation of this trick in his trivia questions. In one of his books he inserted the question, “What is Columbo’s first name?” He then randomly chose the name “Philip” as the answer. When the same question and answer turned up in a later edition of Trivial Pursuit, he knew he had his evidence, and sued the game’s makers and distributors for $300 million dollars.

God, I would love to put an exclamation point at the end of that last sentence and end the story here but sadly, despite the admission by the creators that they had indeed “borrowed” Fred’s questions, Fred did not win his case. It was first thrown out of a lower court and through appeals eventually was rejected by the U. S. Supreme Court. The old saying proved to be true: If you steal from one source it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s “research.”

Addendum: Speculation persists concerning Columbo’s first name. The strongest piece of evidence I’ve seen is a still picture taken from an early episode where the Lieutenant is showing his badge and I.D. A blowup shows a signature with a first name that appears to these tired old eyes to be “Frank,” although others have seen different names. Listen, if you’ve read this far you must really be interested in this mystery or so bored at your job that you’re ready to scream. So, as a reward for you patience, I’ll be happy to e-mail you a copy of the photo upon your request. Ah hell, I'll just post it. Then you can tell me what name you see. Trust me—it ain’t “Philip.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Useless Information: The Eternal Flame

As a kid you may have imagined, as I did, that someday you’d be an old man or woman, enthralling the gathered young ones with recollections of the historic events you remember from your youth; events such as the lunar landing, the Beatles appearance and the Kennedy assassination. Why, you’ll be a living witness to history for these fine youngsters! And then one day you wake up and, except for the fact that the kids are more bored than enthralled by your aimless ramblings, that day has arrived.

Well Kids, you’d probably have to be over 50, or very near it, to remember the day Kennedy was shot. Want to hear what I did on that day? Of course you don’t. You think I should just shuffle off to the park and feed the pigeons so you can go back to letting your iPod make you deaf, don’t you? Well, screw you, maybe I will go feed the pigeons instead of trying to educate your dumb asses about American history. Punks.

Ahem. Actually, what I really have been wondering lately, besides the usual stuff like “Where the hell is my next mortgage payment coming from?” and “What does this persistent rash mean?” is whether the “eternal flame” on John Kennedy’s grave is still burning, and has it ever gone out? (Isn’t this the same stuff you think about? No? Huh.)

The answer to the first part is that yes indeed the eternal flame is still burning as it has since 1967. (Oh, calm your ass down. I know Kennedy died in ’63, but he was moved to his permanent grave in 1967, and a new eternal flame device was installed. Jesus, you’re a pain in the ass.)

The request for an eternal flame came from Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, who probably got the idea from the one at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (I was just there a few months ago. And you weren’t. Ha!) The original flame on Kennedy’s grave was lit by Jackie in 1963 at the slain president’s burial service, an event seen by millions on national television.

And now for the second part: Has the flame ever gone out? The surprising answer: Lots of times. Tons of times. Millions of times. OK, maybe not millions, but it turns out the damn thing goes out all the time. When it snows, when it rains, when Jack observes the current state of affairs and spins. It seems that there’s an ingenious device that continuously emits a spark, so whenever the flame goes out it automatically re-ignites.

It kind of takes some of the mystique out of it, doesn’t it, when you find out that John Kennedy’s Eternal Flame is really little more than a glorified Bic lighter? Well, that’s what I’m here for. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it The Intermittent Flame. Anyway, at least now you know how it all works. Now, do you kids want to hear about the time the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan? Nah, I didn’t think so. To hell with you, I’m going to feed the pigeons. Punks.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Useless Information: Dimes and Quarters

Have you ever wondered why the edges of dimes and quarters have notches while the edges of nickels and pennies are smooth? Of course you haven’t—that’s what you keep me around for.

Before we get to tonight’s exciting answer I have another question for you. Have you ever watched a foreign visitor to our great land fumbling around in confusion as he frantically attempts to count out the correct change? Hilarious, isn’t it? And you know why this terrified, English language-butchering, loud color-wearing intruder is having such a hard time? Because our change, unlike what he’s used to back home, doesn’t make sense. You see, in his country, whether the coins are made of pure gold or compressed cow dung, the larger a coin is the more it is worth. When you try to explain to Umbutu over there that the thin dime he is holding has double the value of that fat nickel, well it just doesn’t compute. It goes against every known law of the universe. Luckily for us we’re Americans. We don’t have to make sense. Or follow the laws of the universe.

I had to do a little research to find out exactly how the nickel got to be so much larger than the dime. (No, I don’t know everything. Just a lot more than you do.) It seems that when the U.S. Mint started making coins they linked the metal content of each (except for the penny) to the silver dollar. In other words a dime would contain 1/10th the silver content of the dollar.

The problem was that if they followed this rule with the nickel the resulting coin would be so tiny it would become nearly useless. (I can just see one of your close-eyed, inbred ancestors as a curious but terribly dim child, sticking a tiny nickel up his nose and choking on it. That then would have been the terminus of your questionable bloodline and you and your goofy family wouldn’t even be here today. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.) So they made the five-cent coin larger by using other, less valuable, metals. And since you’re still here, I’ve got a nice simple trivia question just for you: The nickel is made up of mostly which metal? The answer is: Copper. Man, you are just not particularly bright, are you?

OK, let’s get back to the original question to which, once again, you undoubtedly didn’t know the answer. The reason, my knowledge-starved little friend, that dimes and quarters have notched edges is because they’re made of silver. (Or at least they used to be. I was a kid in 1965 when quarters and dimes first began to look like Oreo cookies. They suddenly had two sides made of a shiny, silver-colored plating and were filled with a delicious copper center. I knew even then that here was another early sign of a country that was headed irreversibly downhill.) So to prevent people from shaving down coins in order to accumulate their own personal little piles gold and silver the edges were added.

And finally, because I’m such a sweetheart, I’m going to offer you one more opportunity to redeem your sorry self. Now pay attention. Which has more grooves, the edge of a quarter or the edge of a dime? Wrong again, Chump, it’s the quarter of course. But it is interesting that the quarter has 119 grooves while the dime has 118. So you were really only off by a groove or two. That’s the closest you’ve ever come to being right, isn’t it? Good for you! Here, have a cookie.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Usless Information: Rnst Vincnt Wright

No, that title up there is not yet another example of my sloppy editing skills. It's actually a rather cute variation on the name of the subject of this, the latest entry in our Useless Information series. So now, of course, your curiosity is piqued and you're leaning forward in wild anticipation. Admit it, right now you're wondering just who was this Ernest Vincent Wright fellow, why is his name typed above in such an odd manner, and is there any of that See’s candy left in the kitchen or did those damn kids eat it all?

Well, unfortunately I can't assist with any issues concerning your dismally poor eating habits, but I will let you know that what Mr. Wright accomplished was so incredible, so unique, so downright amazing that to this day he remains...virtually unknown!

Since I know that at this moment you're burning with curiosity (Or are you still rummaging around looking for that chocolate, and if so, what is that burning? Better get it checked out.) I'll let you know that in 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright published a novel titled Gadsby that was over 50,000 words long. "So what?" you ask between chews, as a disgusting mix of chocolate and saliva drips from your chin. Well, I'll tell you so what. It turns out that Wright wrote his book, all forty-three chapters of it, without ever once using the letter "e" ! How about that! Heh? Heh? Wait, come back!

Wright did use the letter "e" in the introduction to his book, in which he explained some of the difficulties he faced in this literary challenge. First, the past tense of almost all verbs ends in "ed." Also, you can forget about using any number between six and thirty. As Wright himself explained, this was a big problem when introducing any characters who were young women: "What young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?" Oh, calm down, you whiner. This was written in 1939, so Mr. Wright wasn't yet able to appreciate the delightful restrictions of political correctness that we so enjoy today.

The first question that most likely popped into your head (after "I wonder if there's any Dr. Pepper in the fridge to wash down all this chocolate?") was why would Wright waste, I mean, devote his time to such a daunting task? The reason, he claims in his intro, is that he got tired of hearing so many people claim that it couldn't be done! (Do you think this guy ever had sex? Nah, me neither.)

OK, I don't care what you say, I think that writing an entire book without using the letter "e" is pretty amazing. Why, I've got all 26 letters at my disposal and still can't seem to get my second book together. (Why, yes, the first one is available at Thank you so much for asking.) So tonight, before your very eyes, I'm going to attempt (since I can't seem to find any chocolate in my house) to construct my own paragraph without the use of the letter "e." OK, ready? Silence, please. Here I go:

Today was a grat day. I got up around ight o'clock and had a nic brakfast of bacon and ggs. Aftr showring I dcidd to tak a walk to...Ah, I'm just funnin' with you! Here I go for real:

Today was similar to many days. I got up and took a bath. (Ha!) As it was almost noon I had brunch. The sun was shining so I got into my car and took a spin. That was a lot of fun, but by two o'clock it was cloudy and soon I was visiting a local bookshop. I bought two books, a carob candy bar and a Mr. Pibb to wash it down. "What I want now is a nap!" I thought. And soon I was snoring.

Christ, that's enough of that! It's making my head hurt. Well, I think I've proved my point, whatever it might have been, and am hoping that you've now developed a new respect for Ernest Wright. Because, my dear friends, we may not have a cure for heart disease or cancer, we may not have much control over natural disasters, and it seems very unlikely that we'll be eliminating violence towards each other anytime soon. But by golly, we've got a 50,000 word book that doesn't contain a single "e," and for this, Mr. Ernest Vincent Wright, we salute you!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Who Will Be Howard Stern's Judas?

Within the next few weeks Howard Stern may or may not renew his contract with Sirius Radio. And even if he does not, Howard has already made it clear that it is not the end of the line for him. Come January the self-proclaimed King of All Media will still be doing a version of his legendary show. Somewhere. In fact, if I were a betting man, and I am, I’d lay down a pretty good chunk of change that Stern will indeed re-up with Sirius. Look for a 2 or 3 year deal with a reduced work schedule. (To go with, and justify, the reduced money.)
But someday, as painful as it will be, Howard Stern will finally hang up the microphone. And while critics and other assorted pinheads will begin debating his place in broadcast history, one member of Howard’s seemingly loyal inner circle will betray him. One of the people with whom Howard has worked side-by-side for years will suddenly become his Judas. He (or she) will write the almost inevitable tell-all book, maliciously airing behind the scenes dirty laundry and the most unflattering of personal stories.

Who will it be? I am something of a gambler. Not a particularly successful one, mind you, but a gambler just the same. And so I present a list of Howard’s inner circle (plus Benjy) along with the odds of each becoming the one to ultimately betray him. Stern fans will be totally familiar with each of these people. Non-fans, well, I’ll see you back here on Monday.

Gary Dell’Abate (100 – 1)
Despite having taken the most on-air abuse over his decades-long association with Stern, Gary seems to possess a strong appreciation of what being the producer of the Howard Stern Show has done for him professionally and personally. And financially. A betrayal of Howard seems unlikely. But then again, the best ones always do.

Robin Quivers (75 – 1)
As an African-American and a woman, Robin has for years served as a handy shill, giving Howard the freedom to say things he might otherwise not. Even if she is carrying around some guilt because of this, and I suspect she is, Ms. Quivers will most likely choose to reestablish her credibility and “get the poison out” through her ever increasing charitable works (and coffee enemas) rather than in a revealing and hurtful book. Additionally, there seems to be a genuine love between these two people that comes right through the radio.

Artie Lange (35 – 1)
Even though they are not “bro’s” Artie always and repeatedly expressed his gratitude, and amazement, at what being a regular on the Stern show had done for his career. Time will tell if a recovered Lange will someday come to believe that his self-destructive ways, which culminated in a suicide attempt last year, were exacerbated by his tenure on the show. He may accuse Howard of “egging him on” and use a tell-all book to launch an attempted return to show business.

Fred Norris (20 – 1)
Fred has been with Stern longer than anyone on this list, and it seems unimaginable that a day may come when he’ll turn against his long-time friend and co-worker. Unless Stern turns on him first. Regular listeners know that Fred has the potential to turn real nasty real fast, especially when he feels cornered. If he feels that Howard has in some way betrayed him, a vicious book could be the result. He’d call it self-defense.

Beth O. (20 – 1)
Yes, yes today it’s all lovey-dovey in the Stern household and hopefully it will stay this way. Unfortunately the statistics on second marriages show that it probably won’t. And if and when that dark day comes, the second Mrs. Stern may find that she has become an aging beauty with a lot to get off her suddenly sagging chest. It seems unlikely that she’d take such a route, unless that is, Howard gives her reason. Hell hath no fury, etc.

Benjy Bronk (8 -1)
The dark horse on the list, Bronk has already stated that he harbors some resentment towards his boss. Due to the nature of his job as a (mostly) silent writer on the show, Bronk is the least well-known of the folks on this list. And although he is also the most difficult to pigeon-hole, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a scenario where he meets little post-show success as a writer and so decides to unleash his smoldering resentment in a book. One thing for sure, his justification for writing it will be some weird psycho-sexual explanation that few will believe or even comprehend.

Jackie Martling (3- 1)
Mocked by Howard since leaving in 2001, The Joke Man has been called the Pete Best of the Howard Stern Show. Since then Martling has done everything but perform sexual favors to return to the show. He remains friendly with Howard, and thus has been thrown the bone of his own “joke” radio show. Martling will preach loyalty as long as Howard’s in a position to help him, but deep down Martling is fuming because he knows that Howard had the power to take him back on the show from the day he left, and has chosen to not exercise that power. A nasty tell-all from this self-annointed “gentle hippie” is not difficult to imagine. After all, Howard has long made fun of the collection of “junk” that Martling sells on his website. Why not throw in his soul?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Useless Information: Ray Chapman

Whew, I'm OK, I'm OK. Thanks for asking. It was touch and go there for a while, especially around 7:00 when Seinfeld comes on, but fortunately my colossal inner strength once again pulled me through.

At around 3:00 today my cable went out. The screen on my television was like a KKK rally; that is, nothing but white noise. (I could have used "Congress" there too, but nah, too easy. Or Edgar Winter! Ha!) Now since I have high-speed cable Internet access that means when the cable goes out, the on-line computer service goes out too. (Comcast used to give me all of it for free, but they discontinued that just because I quit my job with them. Are they petty or what?) So for five hours today I was completely disconnected and expected to live with no Internet, no e-mail and no Kramer! I am not an animal!

Luckily we're up and running again, and just in time to bring you the next installment of Useless Information! Today, Guys and Gals, we take you into the world of professional baseball, and specifically into the career of a major league ball player who did something on the field that no other player has ever done.

Ray Chapman was a shortstop who played for the Cleveland Naps and the Cleveland Indians from 1912 to 1920. (The Naps were named after one of their star players whose first name was Napoleon. You thought they were named after a short, restful period of sleep, didn’t you? God, why do I even bother?)

In 1918 Ray Chapman led the American League in runs scored and in walks. An expert bunter, Chapman is still sixth on the all-time list for sacrifice hits. He batted .300 three times in his career and in 1917 stole 52 bases, a Cleveland Indians club record that would stand until 1980. Yes, Ray Chapman was fast, but not quite fast enough.

On August 16th, 1920 the Cleveland Indians were in New York to play the Yankees. Ray Chapman came up to bat against pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman was crowding the plate, as he often did, when a pitch from Mays just missed the strike zone. What the pitch didn't miss, however, was Chapman's head. And twelve hours later in a New York hospital Ray Chapman became the first and only major league player ever to be killed by a pitch. I think trivia is so much fun, don't you?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Useless Information: Big Money

Here’s something I bet you’ve never said: “Hey Buddy, you got two fifty-thousands for this?” Actually, nobody has ever said it, because there never was a fifty thousand dollar bill printed in the United States. There have been, however, one hundred thousand dollar bills. And don’t you wish you had a bucketful?

Don’t bother checking your wallet. The $100,000 bill is illegal for a private citizen to own and were only used for transactions between governments. Did you know that I’ve installed software that can post images on this site, and I could very easily display a picture of a $100,000 bill just to show you how cool it looks? But I’m just too lazy to make the effort—do your own damn research. Oh, and it’s Woodrow Wilson who graces the bill, just because you’re bursting to know. Oh, OK. Here's a picture of one.

In addition to “The Big Woody,” as that bill was never called until this very moment, there were other large denomination bills that were printed until 1940. There was a $500 bill featuring William McKinley, a $1000 bill starring Grover Cleveland, a $5,000 bill showing off the boyish good looks of James Madison and a $10,000 with a portrait of Jesus. Nah, I’m just kidding—the $10,000 bill has Samuel Chase.

A quick search on eBay, and really that’s the only kind of search I can be bothered with, reveals no $10,000 bills are being auctioned at this time. I did find one $10,000 bill currently on sale on the Internet for only $93,000. You’re probably wondering what kind of an idiot would pay $93,000 to buy $10,000? Probably the same kind who would print a book for $21 a copy and sell it for $19.99. (Available at

For years at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas there was a display of one hundred $10,000 bills. (That adds up to a million bucks, for those of you who went to school in California.) The bills were encased in reinforced glass, and many people still recall having their picture taken at the popular exhibit. The Horseshoe Casino no longer exists and many of the famous notes have been sold to private collectors. I’ve even found a wonderful black and white photo of the valuable showcase but, again, it’s really too much trouble for me to post it for you. I’m sorry, but you’re simply not worth it. And this time I mean it.

Today the largest bill that is still being printed is, of course, the $100 bill. And yet in 2003 at a grocery store in North Carolina a customer bought $150 worth of groceries and presented the clerk with a counterfeit $200 bill, complete with a picture of George W. Bush. He even received $50 change! I personally have never seen a bill like this, although I have seen numerous rolls of another popular paper product with our ex-president’s likeness printed right on it.
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