Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Greatest Misses of the '80s...

All over America, people are going to '80s nights. Every restaurant and bar seems to have one. Surprisingly, people show up without having to be drafted.

They don't even play the good music from the '80s. Because that would mean playing the same three songs over and over. Let's be serious: Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran...these were dark days.

When you ask '80s nights fans why they go, they often say, "I grew up on that music, it's the music of my childhood...I grew up on it!"

You know what else you did growing up? You ate bugs and played in traffic. You stopped doing these things for a reason. No need to celebrate bad memories.

'80s nights should be more like group therapy sessions. Each night the DJ should stand up and say, "All right everyone, show us where Cyndi Lauper touched you!"

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Look what the shrink dragged in

I have a lot to say about the psychiatry industry, but today I just don’t have the juice to say much of it (pass the Adderall). In the interests of conserving energy, I will say a little:

As traditional religion has been crowded out by self-help and psychotherapy, deep personal introspection is probably more talked about and accepted than ever. Many view this as a sign of progress. They think that more people asking themselves more questions will solve many of the problems of the past. Instead of seeking counsel from some superstitious religious figure, modern man will instead find long lasting peace through the cool, rational science of the psychiatrist.

All of this assumes that self-reflection is an unmitigated good. It isn’t. Not everyone has the constitution for reflection. Why? is the most remorseless question of them all. Asking why doesn’t always lead to progress and breakthroughs. Why? can just as easily lead one down the path to unrelenting nihilism.

Many just don’t have what it takes to be “self-aware” in the modern sense. Remember, Wile E. Coyote didn't plunge until he looked down. Many of us are better off running in mid-air for as long as we can.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hedging about hedges

When the press writes about gold buyers, they often include a subtle jab like, "Investors buy gold as a hedge against inflation and the collapse of civilization."


Civilization doesn't have to collapse for an investor to make money in gold, any more than a country has to collapse for an investor to make money in credit default swaps. The direction of your bet just has to go in your favor. No one says you have to ride your investment all the way to Armageddon.

Example: If you bought gold at $800 and sold at $1,6000, you made a nice gain. Yet there is still food on the shelves, judges in the courts, and gasoline at the pumps. There are also no roving bandits motorcyling about.

Plenty of investors buy 30-year Treasuries. No one expects them all to actually hold them for the full 30 years. Not even close. It's a trade, not a buy and hold to infinity.

Gold is like insurance, and buying insurance is seen as prudent. Yet gold, man's longest running form of insurance, is often viewed as a foolhardy investment (in fairness to gold's critics, insurance buyers are rarely the harebrained Quasimodos you sometimes see buying gold).

Friday, July 15, 2011


Remember when you were in math class and would complain, "When are we ever going to use this?" Remember how adults would spaz out like you were asking a stupid question? Remember the last time you used any of that math? It was in math class. You were right to complain. Outside a few highly specialized professions, most of the math you learned never surfaces again at any point in your life. Your teenage gripes were spot on.

Do you feel guilty that you havén't used it since? No, you don't. You don't even think about it.

So it is curious to me that so many adults express guilt over not having read much classic literature, the type of stuff that like trigonometry, they were forced to study in high school and college. They will even struggle repeatedly to endure classic works of literature they don't understand or enjoy. Why?

You don't force yourself to read the great math books. You don't make a New Year's resolution to finally finish that stack of peer-reviewed scientific journals that has been sitting on your shelf for ages. So why sweat War and Peace?

My guess is that it is because verbal intellectualism is so much easier to fake than mathematical intellectualism. Most folks can't fake math smarts, and don't want to accept or admit they are average, so they try to immerse themselves in the trappings of word nerddom, which means reading lots of Russian tomes that mean nothing to them.

OBVIOUSLY there are people, myself included, who derive great joy from reading the BIG IMPORTANT BOOKS. Some people actually enjoy Naked Lunch. Some people also like having diarrhea. There is no accounting for taste. I on the other hand wish Mr. Burroughs had used that cut-up method to cut up his own work and throw it in the garbage. To each his own.

Quick piece of non-fiction: A friend recommended Melville's Bartelby, the Scrivener. I'd never read Melville, and Bartleby was a hoot, so I felt compelled to work through a bundle of Melville's other short works. They should have come with alarm clocks, because they were all whale-sized snores. I cannot believe I resisted the quite logical urge to stop causing myself the boredom sparked by reading them. Thankfully I stopped after the short works. I will get through life just fine without having read Moby Dick. So will you (I am not discouraging those who enjoy Melville). If you don't like a classic, it is impractical to force feed it to yourself.

Some will protest: Being a good conversationalist has all kinds of practical applications, and being able to discuss literature is part of being a good conversationalist.

Yes, being able to credibly reference classic literature can help you posture as worldly during job interviews. And yes, you can often gain a sense of someone's worldview from whether he prefers Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, so it is useful to have an idea of what those authors were about. But none of this means you have to scorch your eyes with endless dreary reading.

Unless you plan to be a writing/English teacher (in which case, get in line and don't delete that temp agency from your cell phone contacts), having actually read the classics will probably not assist you much in your career. If you work in a field in which classic literature often appears in conversation--law, for instance--, read the Wikipedia synopsis for whichever classic works are mentioned most often, Google a few of the related keywords (Naturalism, Existentialism) and work them into your sentences in a vague enough way so that there is really nothing for anyone to challenge. Don't worry; the person you are talking to probably hasn't read War and Peace either and therefore is in no danger of exposing you.

As for having enough knowledge to be able to debate literature, this seldom happens at work. These arguments are much more likely to occur on dates or at parties, so the stakes are much lower. And certainly these debates can bring zest to a dull evening. But you should try to find your way to the people who have read what you like so you can have an actual discussion. This isn't as hard as it sounds. Dating profiles and Facebook pages provide long lists of people's favorite authors. And don't feel bad if you're at a party and someone smirks at you for not having read some entry from THE CANON. If all that person is looking for is a literature stand-off (WHAT??!! YOU HAVEN'T READ FILL IN THE BLANK?!?!?!?), chances are he is the kind of zero you shouldn't be wasting your time on anyway.

There is also no reason to feel ashamed about reading a novel again. You're not competing with anyone and there are no term papers to write (remember, you are reading for pleasure), so it does not matter if you have made it through a large chunk of THE CANON or not (nothing matters, haven't you read Sartre?!?!?!?!?). Part of what makes novels such a great form of entertainment is that almost no one can remember an entire novel, so a few years later you can return to it and find "new" surprises; not to mention the nuances you'll only notice the second, third, fourth time around. I just went through a phase of rereading Kafka and was delighted by how "new" much of it seemed. Better to revisit entertaining works as opposed to burying myself in the tedium of some jackass Beat writer.

It is perfectly fine as well to only read an author's slimmer works. I enjoy Dostoyevsky, but will probably never attempt Crime and Punishment. I'm pleased to say I think I have finally parted with the idiotic guilt I used to feel when I wasn't constantly seeking out new classic authors or assigning myself their longest volumes.

Once you're an adult you have very, very little time for personal leisure. You wake up early and spend time getting ready for work. Then you spend time getting to work. Then you work at least 8 or 9 hours. Then you spend time getting home from work. Then you spend time in the evening running errands. And because you have to get up early, you can't be up too late, so once you're settled in for the night, there isn't much time left for recreation (this assumes you don't have kids or more work to do at home, in which case forget about it). And while you're trying to engage in recreation you still think about work, so even that time isn't entirely yours. With that as a backdrop, to do something as insane as giving yourself homework probably means that syphilis you thought was cured is now eating through your brain like Pac-Man. You are going to die one day. There is no such thing as spare time. Don't read the classics unless you enjoy them.

Speaking of, thank you very, very much for devoting some of your priceless time to reading this.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Flavor Country Nursing Home. Welcome!

Young tobacco smokers often justify their habit with comments like, “Who cares if it kills me? Old age sucks anyway!”

You do not have to become old. You can commit hara-kiri well before the descent into antiquing and baby food begins. In the meantime, all smoking does is ensure that you feel elderly and withered long before you actually should. It is like a role-playing game you can’t turn off:

Here’s what it’s like to climb stairs when you’re 70…only you’re 25.

Here’s what food tastes like when your taste buds are deactivated. How sad. This is the one time in your life when desserts won’t make you instantly gain 20 pounds.

Here’s what it’s like to have yellow skin…before your liver calls it a day.

Smokers are simply guaranteeing that they spend their entire lives feeling elderly, rather than just their actual elderly years. You’re not ducking old age. You’re accelerating it. I don’t plan on wearing adult diapers either. But until I start browsing that euthanasia gift shop, I try to avoid activities that permanently dull my sensations and vigor.

So if you’re smoking because it makes you seem older, you’re on the right track. Smoking gives you grown up problems when you’re still just a kid.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Scabby Underbelly of Comforting Phrases

1) Virtue is its own reward.

Everything we do in this life we do to get noticed, and real virtue is seldom noticed, so we soothe ourselves by saying virtue is intrinsically good because it usually fails to deliver the recognition we crave.

Even more depressing is watching someone vulgarly draw attention to their virtue, which contaminates that virtue with the vice of pride. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so if you aren’t a virtue whore, your virtue will be overlooked and your only recourse will be the sour delusion that your virtue is rewarding in and of itself (it isn’t).

2) Living well is the best revenge.

Actually, the best revenge is direct, immediate retaliation. In cases of infidelity, the best revenge is immediately shacking up with someone hotter and rubbing it in the face of the villain who cheated on you. Seducing someone hotter doesn’t bring nearly as much satisfaction if the person you are trying to hurt never knows about it.

Alas, anti-assault laws and the universe’s lack of benevolence keep us from attaining the honey-soaked bliss of physical/romantic vengeance, so we search for relief in the notion of avenging our wounds by “living well.” But living well is a crappy consolation prize. It is the dinette set on “The Price is Right.”

Moving on to a better job doesn’t unlaugh all the fake chuckles you coughed up when your former boss tried to be funny. It doesn’t restore the enamel you lost from grinding your teeth each time he forced "vis-à-vis" into a sentence in a poor attempt to sound smart. Those humiliations are forever, and leave your soul hunchbacked long before old age turns your spine into a krazy straw.

As for romantic vengeance, while it is nice to think that finding someone hotter will ease the pain of being cheated on, if it takes 5 years to find that person, those lips can’t help but taste like sour grapes. Why would it take so long? Because the devastation of being cheated on leaves you looking so haggard not even reunited hair bands will throw you a bone.

Living well is a poor stand-in for real revenge, but as it is the only realistic form of vengeance available, we call it "the best." The honest among you would do well to start saying: Living well is the only revenge.

3 The grass is always greener.

As we age (decay), life brings us diminishing returns. We get less and less of a kick from the pleasure-seeking rituals we once counted on, so we need to spin our wheels in new directions to divert our focus from the familiar agonies of existence. This means pining for new cities, new jobs, new wives, new kids...

But there is no escape. Your lawn could look like it was imported from the Emerald City and it still wouldn’t be as green as your eyes when you gaze upon your neighbor’s glistening, dew-weighted blades. And perfection is no solution either. The proof? Someone cheated on the perfect looking Elizabeth Hurley (but I'm sure she was content to know she was living well).

We are the lone inhabitants of an otherwise barren galaxy, and it still isn't enough to fill us up. What makes you think a move across the county is going to help?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A short trip to nowhere

A lot of people say they do drugs to "expand their mind." They say things like, "Doing drugs shows you there is more than one way to see reality."

Fine. But all you had to do to figure out that there is more than one way to see reality is read about another culture. Example: in some cultures, cows are sacred. In America, they're hamburgers. All you had to do was Google it. No need to kill brain cells. If you're going to do drugs to expand your mind, you should at least consider cutting up your coke with a library card.

The main thing you learn from doing drugs is not to do drugs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How I could just kill a man

I began stand-up comedy before I could legally drink, so there were occasions when comedy clubs kept me out. Being underage also hindered me when I was allowed in comedy rooms, as most of my joke-telling mates wanted to hit bars when the show ended. One night I was allowed inside a comedy club and a bar, and it was in that bar I came close to killing a man.

My friends and I were seated by the bar, discussing our favorite songs. I wasn’t drinking.

I was in the middle of a sentence--probably giving all within earshot the business on “Riders on the Storm”--when a stranger to my right sprayed me in the face with a squirt gun. I quickly turned and saw the Shooter scrambling to put the squirt gun away. He was at the corner of the bar, with two friends beside him. All three were staring off in the distance, trying not to laugh. None was doing a good job.

I had consumed no alcohol, and nothing unusual had occurred that night. Yet this minor offense, being sprayed by a squirt gun, completely scrubbed off my tendencies toward reason. I immediately puffed up with homicide-strength rage.

A little backstory: In addition to the regular angry young man testosterone one has at that age, I think I was a bit obsessed with the way frat-boy-types behaved in public. I literally could not understand their impulses to yell out during comedy shows, randomly accelerate in parking lots, stampede at concerts, bully waiters, etc. My friends and I spent HOURS analyzing the possible motivations behind these sick behaviors.

Some people are adept at drowning out meatheads. I'm not. I more or less swore off concerts at 19 because I couldn’t enjoy live music while surrounded by the scrapple of humanity.

I was also working in a deli at the time, and each day was shocked anew by the kind of aggressive and demeaning things people would say right to my face, as though I was a robot servant rather than a fellow human with feelings. It never seemed to dawn on them that I could retaliate. After all, I was holding A KNIFE. What did they think I was cutting their bread with? The idea that it might not be safe to shriek at a knife-wielding minimum wage earner over the number of olives on their turkey club didn’t appear to cross their mind. I was only a few feet away with blade in hand. I could have easily wounded them (or worse) before anyone realized what was happening.

I believe it was these factors, as well as the culprits’ poor attempt to hide themselves, that triggered something barbarous in me. My lateral orbitofrontal cortex professed that not only could I and the Shooter not share the same bar; we couldn’t share the same planet.

I believe I spent a few seconds growling to myself and staring at the Shooter before walking outside.

The weather was warm, so the bar had been opened out onto the sidewalk. This meant the only barrier between my enemies and I was my desire to remain a card-carrying non-murderer.

The Shooter and his friends had their backs to me, so I figured the element of surprise was on my side.

I kept pacing and muttering like a zombie looking for his car keys. How was I going to attack?

Then, like a scene from a bad western, I spotted an empty liquor bottle on the ground. Eureka. I would smash the bottle against a tree (I should have mentioned the bottle was under a tree), creep into the bar, and use the broken bottle to slash the Shooter’s jugular.

One of my friends, we'll call him Mr. Pseudonym, came outside and asked what I was doing. I calmly explained my plans. My recollection is that he just kept saying, “What are you doing? You’re not gonna do that. What are you doing?”

Some of my other pals came outside and watched my little war with myself. They also conveyed how senseless my intentions were, but I feel it was the rapid fire questions of Mr. Pseudonym that pulled me from my fog of fury. I also remember having visions of the great future in comedy I would be destroying if I cut up the Shooter. I dropped the bottle and returned to reality.

I’m not sure that is the angriest I have ever been, but it is certainly as close as I have come to primal, no turning back violence. Every so often my mind revisits that night, and at times I have been ambivalent about my decision not to attack. I often return to the notion that seeing their friend mauled would have traumatized the Shooter’s pals into behaving more civilly.

I am also reminded of that evening when I read about crimes of passion that actually have been carried out. Not even counting road rage, I would guess a sizable number of otherwise lucid individuals have a near-homicide in their past. I am not violent or tough, so I have to imagine that folks who are violent and tough have multiple near-homicides in their closet.

In 2008 I became severely ill, and multiple doctors speculated that my condition might be terminal. When it hit me that I might be facing the Big Adios, I had an unusual list of regrets. I didn’t dwell much on the women I wasn’t cool enough for or the countries I failed to visit. I did think A LOT about my decision not to slice the Shooter’s neck. The main reason for not attacking was my belief that I was headed for great things in comedy. By the time I became sick, that idea had been soundly debunked. So there I was, infirm and despondent, nursing a regret about an act of vengeance not taken.

The Shooter is lucky I had delusions of grandeur when I was a young man. Had I had any inkling that my future would turn out to be a big wet firecracker, it is quite possible he wouldn’t have heard me coming until it was too late.

Civilization is thinner than the frosting on a Pop-Tart. Every time you raise your voice to another person (let alone physically challenge them in some way, even if it is with a squirt gun), you are taking your life in your hands. The fact that the person you are humiliating is a waiter, cab driver, or hotel clerk changes nothing. Telling yourself you’re "fighting the good fight” is also 100% irrelevant to your potential safety. Unless you are attacked IN A POLICE STATION, the cops won’t get there in time. Chances are, no one will be able to save you. You could very well spend the rest of your righteous life in a coma, dreaming of the extra ketchup packets you felt entitled to demand.

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