Friday, July 25, 2008

A Pile of Rocks

Well, what do you know? Here I am heading off on another rant-and-rave on one of my favorite topics: email spam. I’d really like to know how this spam thing works. Obviously it is something of a franchise program, for if you’ll note, you’ll get five or ten with exactly the same heading (usually with two or three egregious misspellings).

I swear, these idiots truly must think everyone is dumber than a pile of rocks. Unfortunately, since they wouldn’t keep doing it if it weren’t paying off for them, they may be right.

My current favorite is “Earn $5,000 to $10,000 at home every month. GUARANTEED!” Well, I admit I was just the teeniest bit skeptical until I saw the word GUARANTEED which, of course, like mommy kissing a boo-boo, removed all my doubts and made it all better. How can I possibly doubt the veracity of anyone willing to GUARANTEE me $5,000 to $10,000 a month? I do tend to find my eyes misting over a bit, though, thinking of the nobility of these wonderfully generous people.

I am also impressed by the recent, though now largely vanished, announcement that major motion picture companies are offering top dollar (I like that phrase almost as much as “big money” or “piled high”) looking for movie extras in my area. Of course they are. I can imagine how very very difficult it must be to find someone willing to be paid money to stand around in a crowd scene for a movie, and they are shooting movies in my neighborhood nearly every day. (Well, they did do the latest Batman in Chicago, and I missed my chance on that one, but I suspect several people in Pence, Wisconsin, might possibly have gotten the same offer. Pence is obviously the new Hollywood.)

You have no idea how very, very much I want to respond to these ads with the same positive, evangelical-fervor as they were sent. (Oh, yes! Please!! Please tell me how I can earn $5,000 to $10,000 every month from my own home! I am sure I am the only person in the whole world who realizes the wonderousness and sincerity of such a wonderful offer. And that you GUARANTEE it makes it even more precious to me. In anticipation of my first monthly check, I have placed an order for a new Cadillac. My second check will go toward the downpayment on a new condo. Please send me my money right away.)

One I just got rather frightens me, though. It tells me I can lose 20 pounds overnight. At that rate, I would totally disappear in a week!

The problem with responding to any of these offers with a suggestion that they wrap their offer around a stick of dynamite and put it in any one of their choice of bodily orifices will only result in your finding yourself with 189,999 brand new and equally fascinating offers. I one time made the mistake of requesting mortgage loan information from an on-line pop-up ad (far, far higher class than mere spam, and therefore to be trusted implicitly). By the next day I had received 273 similar offers from 273 different companies. How ever they knew I’d responded to that one, I have no idea. Really. I don’t. No. Do you?

But I do fondly remember a product from the years before spam was king. It was an ad ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED to kill any bug or insect. It cost $20.00 but it lived up to its promise. When you sent in your $20.00 you received a small box which proved to contain two small blocks of wood, labeled “A” and “B”, and an instruction sheet which said: “Place insect on block A. Strike with block B. Repeat if necessary.” I love truth in advertising.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pond Scum

I am often bemused by the fact that for all my Pollyannish attitudes and gushing pronouncements on just how wonderful people are, I in fact very often consider vast numbers of people pond scum, whose membership in the human race should be terminated.

A week or so ago, I watched the questionably-titled "America's Got Talent"—an indication of both the sorry state of television and my desperation to watch it regardless. The audience had obviously been transported bodily from a “bread and circuses” event in 1st century Rome, glorying in their negative power. They hated everyone, talented or not. The last contestant (for some very strange reason I do not understand, the last contestant is always by far the most talented. Sheer coincidence, I'm sure) was a singer whose vocal cords had been smashed in an accident eleven years ago, and who had been unable to even speak for several years.

Granted, the quality of the “talent” that preceded him had set the mob in a justifiably foul mood, but they took it several steps beyond foul. The minute he walked on stage, the boos started, and drowned him out as he started to sing. He has a great voice, but they didn't give a shit: they wanted blood. And then, probably on cue from some unseen prompter, the boos turned to cheers and at the end of this number everyone was standing and cheering and doing that uniquely human "What? Us? No! We always thought he was great" turnaround that always follows the success of something everyone was sure would fail. Pond scum, every one of them.

E-mail spammers are pond scum, pure and simple. Those who prey on the trusting, the naive, and the elderly, are so far beneath contempt that applying the term “pond scum” to them could be considered a compliment.

TV evangelists who shamelessly bilk those desperate for reassurance and something to believe in by pleading for money to do “God’s work”—which somehow always coincidentally seems to include making the preacher very, very rich—are pond scum.

Politicians and talk show pundits who ruthlessly use bigotry, intolerance, and the boundless ignorance of those who never take the time to think for themselves to promote their own ends are pond scum.

People so pathetically insecure that the only way they can feel superior to others is through cruelty, embarrassment, and insensitivity are pond scum.

And thee and me, my friends, ride pristine in our neat little boats upon a vast, smooth, and algae-green sea.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

The Demons Within

I try not to think of it, but there are times when I frighten myself realizing how precariously I can balance between my self delusion of being St. Francis of Assisi and the awareness of my potential to be Vlad the Impaler. I abhor violence in all forms, especially that performed on one living creature by another. I am vehemently, rabidly against the death penalty. Yet even as I rale against it, I know full well that, were someone to harm someone I love, and I had a gun in my hand, I would not hesitate for the blinking of an eye to use it. Not just use it, but do so with icy deliberation, starting with both knees, working up to the groin, then, when I am quite sure the perpetrator fully appreciates the fact that he probably should not have done what he did, one between the eyes. And I would still have a couple bullets left just in case the first four hadn’t done the job.

Man is, after all, a predatory animal. He could not have survived without using violence to get what he wanted. But it seems that 5,000 years of painful struggle to become something better than what we are has, regrettably, done little or nothing to tame our violent instincts.

I am unalterably opposed to the death sentence…not only because far too many innocent people have been put to death by our overly zealous criminal “justice” system, especially in enlightened states like Texas. Once having executed someone, a state’s “Ooops, sorry about that” doesn’t quite cut it. Even for the guilty, being put to death does little. Other than the momentary terror of receiving a fatal injection, once they are dead, their punishment is over. Far, far better…and in the long run, much more fitting…to lock the criminal away for the rest of his life, so that every morning he may wake with the memory of what he has done and the knowledge of where he is, how he got there, and what his future holds.

I tend to be a believer in the old “an eye for an eye” principle when it comes to violence. One of my first acts when I am declared emperor will be to order that any act of deliberate violence performed by one person on another (or on a helpless animal—and no, we will not get into the subject of vegetarianism just now) will have the exact same violence performed on him/her. A slap in the face will get you a slap on the face; shoot someone between the eyes so you can steal their new pair of tennis shoes and you will be shot between the eyes. Simple.

As to my own tendency to violence, I am always aware that it is there, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of my mind. I am prone to being plunged into a fury when things do not go the way I have every reason to suspect that they should. I usually manage to turn the fury inward, but I have been known to throw, smash, and jump up and down on things. The one time I directed my anger and frustration at another human being was when I first lived in Chicago and was involved in an absolutely disastrous relationship. At one point, I threw him into a wall and broke his arm. Not my proudest moment.

That our culture, sadly, is increasingly enured to violence should not come as any great surprise to anyone who has read a newspaper or watched a television news program. It’s hardly surprising that children assume, from everything they see and hear, that violence is a perfectly logical way to settle any dispute or conflict. The concept of the consequences of violence is totally ignored.
So that’s what I think about violence. And you damned well better agree with me, if you know what’s good for you.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Why? (Part MLX)

I know, I’ve asked this question before…several times, but why are there so many things in life that I simply cannot understand? It’s not as though I don’t try. I really, really do. But when I heard the news…and the very fact that it was “news” utterly dumbfounded me…that Brad and Angelina (no last names needed, we ALL know who Brad and Angelina are. We worship them. Their every move is followed with gape-jawed awe) had had twins, and that the first photos of the babies are expected to fetch $11 million, my tenuous attachment to reality was tested yet again.

Please, please, someone, explain to me why I…why anyone not a personal friend or family member of these people… should care? Please tell me how, in a world with 6-plus billion people, the arrival of two more should send so many people into paroxysms of awe, wonder, joy, delight, and enthusiasm. Mary Jackson, of Tupelo, Mississippi, gave birth to twins at exactly the same time as Angelina. If pictures of Angelina’s kids are worth $11 million, shouldn’t Mary be able to expect, say, $6 million for hers? Where are the Second Coming, stop-the-presses headlines on little Oscar and Suzanne Jackson, or any of the other 600,000 children born within 25 minutes of Brad and Angelina’s latest ode to heterosexuality?

I like Brad. I do. I think he is extremely sexy. So is Matt Damon. And Ben Afflek. And several dozen other male movie stars. But then, so are about 200 guys I pass on the street every day, and I haven’t a clue as to who they are.

I find it truly sad that our culture is so absorbed in the trivial, the superficial, and the meaninglessness, and the inordinate amount of time we spend in things which have no real impact on our lives. Are our own lives so utterly devoid of purpose, meaning, and pleasure that we must spend millions of dollars stripping the newsstands of “Celebrity” publications (printed, I suspect, on recycled toilet paper) to try to squeeze a drop of vicarious…whatever…from the belches, \burps and insipid romances of people we have never met and will never meet? It is, truly, to weep.

Somehow, I place the fact that Mario Lopez (hot as he is) has broken up with his latest girlfriend somewhat below the fact that wars rage across the globe; disease and starvation are rampant, and natural disasters claim millions of lives each year. Call me silly, but it’s just the way I am.

I constantly talk about my refusal to face reality. That doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there. But I substitute my ego for reality. I turn everything toward myself and my personal existence in an effort to improve myself. There are so very many things to do, so many serious real personal issues to consider, and so very little time in which to do it, that if something does not directly involve my day-to-day existence, my health, my income, my own friends and family, or my future, I simply don’t have the time to bother with it.

Living vicariously through total strangers who are prettier or richer or more successful than we—have you noticed that superior intelligence so seldom enters into these pantings-after?—as so frighteningly many people appear to do, does keep them from facing reality, but to what positive end? Do they channel their incomprehensible and totally pointless envy and adulation into making their own lives, or those of people around them, better? Need I even have asked the question?

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Minds and Computers

I’ve long ago given up trying to figure out either my mind or the computer. People seem to be comparing them all the time, and I guess I have to agree. Both seem to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, both can deny you access to information you know you have and want and need at any time, and my wanting them to do anything else is like opening the door to a jetliner at 40,000 feet and stepping out without a parachute.

My computer, which I really do work to extremes, will frequently, suddenly, and for absolutely no reason I can see, decide to slow down. I will try to go from one place to another on the net (or even within the computer itself) and the screen I want to leave will just sit there, staring back at me, expressionless but obviously uncomprehending or uncaring—or, as I strongly suspect, a combination of both. Very infrequently, it will simply lock up tighter than a drum, making it impossible for me to do anything at all, other than manually turn the tower off and switch it back on again.

The other day, I clicked on a photo to move it from one part of the page to the other, dragged it halfway to where I wanted it, let my finger off the mouse for an instant, and it disappeared. Vanished, never to be seen again. It did not go back to where it was in the first place, it did not go into my overflowing “Wastebasket”, though that particular feature of my computer is so full of assorted junk I probably wouldn’t be able to find the photo even if it was there. And my mind works exactly the same way: I have an idea that I wish to make use of in another context, and somewhere in between, the idea vanishes, as does, usually, the thought I was trying to relate it to.

Though I must say, in defense of the computer, that were it as completely as unpredictable as my mind, it would be totally unuseable. You’re familiar with those annoying Pop-Up ads that just appear when you’re doing something and you have to take the time and effort to click on the little “x” in the pop-up window to get rid of them? Well, my mind is one continual pop-up window. I’m trying to think of how to describe, let’s say, a piece of furniture (don’t ask me why I might want to be describing a piece of furniture…just go with me here, okay?). The instant I start I think of a chair my mom hat that her cat totally destroyed by peeing in it. Or I am writing a note to a friend telling him/her about something that happened today while I was walking to the grocery store and here comes a pop-up alerting me to the fact that the parking garage behind the store used to be a tennis court when I first lived in Chicago. A fascinating bit of trivia, but having nothing whatever to do with the grocery store or my walking to it today.

That I am able to fan and swat my way through these swarms of mental pop-ups is, I’m sure, admirable, but it is also infinitely frustrating.

Obviously, the makers of computers had to have designed them using the brain as some sort of model, and increasingly obvious, too, is the fact that more and more people rely more heavily on the computer for things the brain should do for itself. I refer you once again to E.M. Forster’s classic 1909 short (12,000 word) story, “The Machine Stops”, which you can find on Google. (That was a classic example of one of my mental pop-ups, and only goes to prove I am not only not the first person in the world to relate computers and the mind, but I’m 99 years behind E.M. Forster.)

Better late than never, I guess.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Little Things

I’m pretty good at dealing with the big things in life: cancer, the death of loved ones (though not quite so well with aging), but it is the little things…the endless, niggling minor frustrations and irritations which mean absolutely nothing in the overall scheme of things…which drive me to utter distraction. The big things I understand I have no control over, but the little things, the things that can happen to anyone but seem only to happen to me; the things that, if they do happen to other people are dispatched with casual ease, are what get to me and infuriate me with my inability or incompetence to deal with.

It was very hot last night. I have been sleeping on my sleeper sofa for the past week due to my bed being overrun by the bedbugs which have been infesting my building. The exterminators have been in no fewer than six times. Count ‘em…six. And each time they come, I am required to remove all the pictures from my walls (still not sure why, but mine is not to reason why), empty out all my drawers, remove everything from night stands, bookshelves, closets, etc. Where I am to put these mountains of materials in a very very small apartment is not their concern. Every single item of clothing, every piece of bedding must be laundered. And so I do.

And they come. And they spray, and then I replace all the pictures on the walls, put everything back in the drawers and on the shelves and in the closets and remake the bed (including replacing the full-mattress, zippered antimicrobial and antibacterial mattress cover (ever tried to do that by yourself? Pure joy, I can assure you.). And then two weeks later they come back, and I must remove all the pictures from the walls, empty out all my drawers, remove everything from night stands,…get the idea? And then two weeks later they come back.

Oh, and then they tell me I am “not prepared.” Jeesus!!

On their last visit, I asked the man doing the spraying if I had it all right this time and he said yes. I then left the apartment (a requirement) for four hours, taking my cat down to my friend Gary’s apartment for safekeeping. When I returned, I noticed that the only thing in the entire apartment the exterminators had touched was the bed.

That night, confident that all was finally over, I juggled and struggled to get the zippered full-mattress cover back on, made the bed with freshly laundered sheets, and went to bed. I awoke two hours later with itching, and got up to find three bedbugs strolling casually over my sheets.

I am told the problem lies with my wooden captain’s bed, which I purchased (around $500 without mattress) shortly before I moved to Chicago. Because it is wood and has lots of detail work which afford lots of joints for bedbugs to crawl between and breed, no matter how thoroughly or how often they spray, the eggs survive to hatch anew.I have been told I will probably have to get rid of the bed. Oh, sure. No problem at all. What’s $500. And of course the mattress will have to go, too. Another, what?, $300 or so? And then because bedbugs can get in carpets, I’ll have to throw out my living room rug, also new when I moved in.

Okay, I know full well that all this is hardly on the level of genocide in Darfur, or global warming, or the oil crisis or the delightful Whitman’s sampler of new wars our beloved leaders are eager to open up. My bitching and moaning and feeling terribly put upon is laughable. Unfortunately, I”m not laughing.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bubbly Creek

Where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River stand four large, regal-looking towers, two on each bank, flanking the lift bridge. Only one or two of them houses the mechanism that raises and lowers the bridge, but the builders thought four would look better and more impressive. So there are four. The bridge is so delicately balanced that it only takes the equivalent of a 1950s Volkswagon engine to lift and lower it.

One of them is now the Chicago Bridge Museum, which I had never even known existed, and to which, had it not been for my friend Gary, I would probably never have given a second thought.

Chicago has more lift bridges than any city in the country, and the Chicago River is, I believe, the only river in the world that flows backward. How it came to do so is a fascinating (to me) story.

Chicago was born where two slow-moving streams, the North Branch and the South Branch joined to form the Main Stem, linking the branches to Lake Michigan. The surrounding territory was largely inhospitable marshland and bogs which the city’s growth slowly consumed. The Chicago River served as the city’s sewer and until only recently was one of the most polluted bodies of water in America if not the world. Because the sewage flowed down the North Branch and up the South Branch and into the Main Stem, all the sewage, garbage, and general debris of the city flowed freely into Lake Michigan, which was and is the city’s main source of drinking water. A water pump station was built out in the lake beyond the area of main pollution, but the pollution produced by the city’s growth soon overtook it and another station was built further out, which in turn was soon overtaken.

It was decided to dig a canal connecting the South Branch to the Des Plaines river, therefore routing the growing city’s garbage and sewage from Lake Michigan and sending it down stream to the Mississippi, St. Louis and beyond. Only because the land sloped to the west was this possible, but once the canal was opened, the river reversed its flow.

All the growing city’s industrial waste and garbage could then happily be tossed into the Chicago River and let the people downstream on the Mississippi worry about it.

As the city continued to grow, the gigantic Chicago Stockyards were constructed along another stream feeding into the South Branch, called “Bubbly Creek”…a lovely name conjuring up images of forest and glens and clear artesian water bubbling up from the earth. Unfortunately, that image would be wrong. Bubbly Creek received its name from the fact that the tens of thousands of cattle carcasses and general offal from the slaughter houses were dumped into it, and their rotting at the bottom of the creek created methane gas which bubbled to the surface.

During the great Chicago fire, a large stretch of the South Branch, including Bubbly Creek, actually caught fire.

Throughout most of its history, Chicago was known not for its beauty but for its stench. One prominent New York businessman arrived in Chicago by train, stepped onto the platform, took one whiff of the air, got back on the train and never returned. And even today, after years of devoted and concentrated effort to restore the river’s purity, swimming in and fishing from the river are discouraged.

And there you have it. As I said, fascinating. You must come and visit some day, and take a boat cruise up the river. It’s a really beautiful way to see the city. And you don’t have to hold your nose anymore.

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