Thursday, June 30, 2005

[Actual transcript — as written from memory and so not entirely accurate — of a radio commercial I heard two nights ago for a company called Verbal Advantage.]

“Are you tired of being speechless? Are you sick of not be able to keep up with a conversation? Do you want to improve your vocabulary but don’t want to have to read a dictionary? Have you ever cheated on your wife with her daughter from a previous marriage? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you need Verbal Advantage — the world’s first high-tech answer to improving your speech and vocabulary without the use of harmful laser beams. Verbal Advantage is the first speech improvement program that you can customize to your needs. After customizing your curriculum, our audio guidance system will walk you through a series of 15-minute lessons that will leave you feeling confident and ready for sexual intercourse with the next human being who engages you in conversation. When you’re finished with your personalized Verbal Advantage lessons, you’ll feel the difference in the way your tongue moves when you say phrases like ‘borrow your pickup,’ ‘dad gummit’ and ‘rent to own.’ Your friends and co-workers will look upon you with a renewed sense of jealousy, because they’ll know in their hearts that you’re just too good for this redneck, one-horse town ever since you got them thar computer discs. So order Verbal Advantage today by calling 1-888-444-0005. That’s 1-888-444-0005. Get your Verbal Advantage now!”

I called Verbal Advantage this morning and spoke with a saleswoman named Kathy. She was very nice. She asked me to rate my verbal ability on a scale of one to ten. I told her I was a three.

[Excerpt from my conversation with Kathy, although I suppose it could be Cathy.]

“You think you’re a three, huh?”

“Yes. That’s my fear.”

“And are you looking for an advantage socially or professionally?”

“Socially. You see, I have these spells and-”

“Riiiight. And you don’t feel as confident as you should.”

“Yes. ... No. ... What?”

“We’re going to come up with a program that will build your confidence.”

“That’s the one I want.”

“There are twenty-four CDs and two guidebooks in the package. You’ll learn thirty-five hundred words during a series of fifteen-minute lessons. You’ll learn to switch gears during a conversation. And you’ll learn to tailor your vocabulary for different situations.”

“Sometimes I have trouble speaking with female cashiers.”

“It will help you with that.”


“This is the same program they use at Yale and Harvard.”

“I’ve heard of them.”

“Yes. The cost is two-ninety-nine-ninety-five.”

“I’ll need to talk this over with my wife.”

“Are you sure? Maybe she can use the program, too.”

“She’s not a talker.”

“Well OK. It's really a great program.”

“I’ll call you back.”

“My name is Kathy.”

“Thank you, Kathy.”

Although, like I said, I suppose it could be Cathy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When you are on vacation, it is possible that consecutive days in the lap of leisure will skew your priorities, that this skewing of priorities will actually serve to make you more cranky than you are under normal operating circumstances, and that this phenomenon will find its expression in ways that provide a marked contrast to those familiar, real-world events that non-leisure-influenced people deal with in predictible, rational ways.

Day Two on the beach in Destin. The sand is the same excrutiating white as fresh snowpack. Red-chested adults stumble out of the gulf, peel off their tinted goggles and stagger over sand castles while the diaper-clad architects peer up confused and begin to cry. Seagulls glide a gentle circuit around the shallows, dip and, finally, dive headlong into the saltwater, emerge seconds later — some natural magic. Each hotel’s beach is a fortress of huge umbrellas, all uniform in color, arranged so as to prevent patrons of neighboring hotels from wandering into the wrong territory. I am surprised there are no lifeguards, far as I can tell. I suspect undercover lifeguards, they disguised as the curvaceous women in the much-less-than-even-sexy-underwear bikinis. I inspect these women carefully. I appreciate their fine efforts.

Some beachgoers are serious. They are as serious as diseases like cancer. They build complex huts out of PVC pipe and plastic wrap. They have sand-proof portable stereo systems and the latest country-western discs. Their coolers are stocked with bottomless supplies of Corona and lime wedges, respectively. They drink from those bottles, wander into the waves and splash around, return, drink more, wander out again to float on an inflatable raft, return to shore, strip off their tinted goggles, stagger upshore over sandcastles. Children cry. Mothers are furious. A fighter jet flies over from a nearby airforce base and everyone snaps to attention. It disappears far out over the horizon in mere seconds.

One group of serious beachgoers has plunged a massive orange beach umbrella into the dry sand. As afternoon approaches and the wind begins to whip up, the umbrella can be seen to tilt precariously. I predict it will shortly lose purchase. Will fly out over the ocean, to disappear over the horizon in mere seconds. Maybe as the elderly woman with the wool bathing frock hangs on for dear life. I watch the undercover lifeguards. Their chests swell with anticipation. Their buttocks tighten, sandy thighs glisten, lips moisten with anticipation.

The final current comes. The wind current dislodges the orange umbrella and at once it is tumbling ten, twenty feet up into the air. Its parabola slow and majestic. Children stare upward, gape-mouthed. The men of the group of serious beachgoers gather around grunting like elders of the herd. A woman faints. The undercover lifeguards — clever devils, the smalls of their backs nicely peach-fuzzed with anticipation — remain calm. The situation is under control. Leisure panic. Nothing to get worked up about.

Monday, June 27, 2005

I got back from a three-day trip to Destin, Fla., last night. I'm tired and slightly crispy. More on the morrow. Or the morrow after that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Yesterday I talked a little bit about devotion. Devotion to cultivating a firm handshake, to rising up to fight that which would keep you down. But today, brothers and sisters, I want to talk about a different kind of devotion. Today I want to talk about devotion to the Lord.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

When I was a kid I learned the importance of a firm handshake. I never learned why it was important to have a firm handshake, just that human beings had gotten together a long time ago and agreed to prefer firm handshakes to their flaccid counterparts.

I remember once, after a tennis match — a doubles match in which my best friend and I were roundly dispatched by a pair of elderly men in a public park — receiving the kind of vigorous handshakes from the two that made my carpals and metacarpals grind against each other audibly. I couldn’t make a fist for days. I had a paw. I sat in bed at night staring at my swollen appendage thinking “Those old dudes had some serious handshakes.”

It was then I became certain that serious handshakes are important if you want people to take you seriously. I’d underestimated the blue-haired racketeers. They set me straight with serious handshakes.

As a child growing up in an unfortunate neighborhood — a neighborhood populated by people who could never master the firm handshake and whose lives had suffered for it — I devoted myself to ensuring my own grip was satisfactory in order that I might escape the streets. I spent hours on my front porch squeezing the coil of chrome with red plastic handles that would build my forearms up and make my handshake a thing of awe and majesty.

Alas, I fixated on my handshake to the exclusion of all else. By the time I was fourteen, I was reading at a third-grade level and was in danger of being held back or, worse, forced into the classroom with the rubber walls, where the kids with the brain problems would hit each other over the head with Trapper Keepers and then shit themselves. I hoped my firm handshake would distract someone before it came to that. Surely, during some parent-teacher conference, one of my instructors would feel my grip and the tide would turn.

“But Mr. Innocenzi, if this boy doesn't have one of the finest handshakes I’ve ever-”

“Sir, have you wondered if maybe Michael might be a perfect fit for our Gifted & Superior program?”

“Dear God. I think your son just reduced my hand bones to rubble!”

I imagined being whisked into a back room by well-dressed operatives. They would sit me down in front of a series of intricate puzzles. I would astound them with my manual dexterity. My firm and serious handshake and I would be going places. Perhaps overseas.

You know the drill.

Monday, June 20, 2005

From this point forward, please refer to me on first reference as award-winning designer Mike Innocenzi. Thank you in advance.

As I held the camera aloft to get a picture above the crowd, a bespectacled woman walked over and told me that she’s really sorry but David would prefer not having his picture taken. I would prefer perpetual handjobs from junior college softball teams. We don’t always get what we want. “It’s not Borders," she reassured me. "It’s David.”

We stood by this point about 15 feet away from the lispy scribe. I’d taken two pictures before his handler asked me to stop and neither one had come out particularly well. I had a leather-bound journal in my non-camera-holding hand and it was that journal I would ask David to sign once I reached the front of the line. (This because I don’t own any Sedaris books and was told that having him sign a receipt would be in bad taste, even if I’d once used it as a bookmark.) The journal is not really a journal. I’ve written a few ideas down in it, but for the most part its insides are blank, save some light brown college-ruled lines. It is suitable for signing.

We were six, maybe seven people from paydirt. I was surprised more folks weren’t trying to take David’s picture. I wondered if maybe there was some inside information about the book signing (this being my first) that I wasn’t privy to. Maybe every true David Sedaris fan knows that David never likes having his picture taken ... duh!

David was stirring. He signed his ultimate autograph before the reading began. The people milling around him began to head toward the back of the store, where David would sit and drink bottled water and read. One of David’s fans was angry because he didn’t make it to the front of the line. (I should note here that the reading was set to begin at 7 p.m. and that David had shown up one hour early [of his own volition] and began signing autographs before the reading instead of after out of what I can only guess was a sudden rush of artistic magnanimity.) The angry fan had “waited outside in the heat and now you’re telling me-”

“This isn’t a book signing,” David said. And he said it very level headedly and nicely, which he didn’t have to and, indeed, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d taken an entirely different tact and bitched the angry fan out proper. (Both men sounded quite gay and, even though we try to deny it in those politically correct crannies of our souls, we know that we do, in fact, find it slightly amusing to hear two gay men engaged in spirited argument.)

The angry fan said “whatever” in that way that sorority coeds in movies that caricature sorority coeds say “whatever,” and stormed away. And he did storm. All several hundred pounds of him stormed to the back of the book store, where he would sit and fume and listen to David read a story about a short flight and a wet lozenge.

• My friends never got their books (and I never got my leather-bound journal) signed.
• David is not the great reader I’d heard he was. Maybe he really goes balls out for NPR, but I got the sense he was mailing it in for Borders shoppers.
Calluna Vulgaris flickered before us like an apparation and disappeared.
• David looks older than I'd imagined him, and not nearly as hip. But his slacks were nicely pressed and I didn’t catch any foul odors downwind.
• When we first arrived at Borders and the line was out the door and it was like 100 degrees outside and we were sweating and I had bigass quivering globes of nascent sweat trickling down my legs, I am told I said something disparaging about friendship bracelets that won me the strink eye from the shortest in a gaggle of socially gangrenous high schoolers who were standing in front of me. So kid, if you’re reading this, I’m going to kick your ass when I see you.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

I don’t remember the names of the principals, but I remember wondering why cable news networks covered the Curious Case of the Missing Bride with such mouth-frothing glee. Further, I wondered about those same networks’ self-righteous indignation when it turned out the bride wasn’t so much missing as On the Lamb. It was their big story, wasn’t it? (I thought: “The embarrassment is your own. She didn’t ask to be made into your latest Missing White Chick. Leave the poor girl be.”) But no, the self-righteous indignation led to cable calls for the emotionally unstable woman to repay the jurisdictions that were inconvenienced by her flight. And we all know by now that the talking heads got their way and that the woman now has to dole out some $50,000 or so to make amends for some of her more far-fetched hysterics.

Now the very media that made the Runaway Bride into a national curiosity-turned-disgrace, the very media that embarrassed itself with its own breathless speculation about her (surely blood-spattered) fate, have now paid her $500,000 for the right to turn her story (their story) into a made-for-TV movie.

I wonder how they’ll portray their own sordid role in what could have (and should have) been a very personal crisis. I wonder if Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly (as themselves) will rappel down from helicoptors into an overgrown brush field outside Albuquerque and rescue the besieged bride from a machete-toting band of Mexican insurgents in a based-on-true-events finish for the ages. One that’s sure to distract everyone from the fact that the media were the ones, in this case, that turned out to be the real villians. Sure.

Because they can’t (and won't, dammit) have themselves exposed as a marauding band of jaw-flapping leeches, feeding on that most popular of miseries — that of the well-to-do, lilly-white family whose prodigal daughter has just gone missing without a trace. Perish the thought.

It would hit too close to news.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Buy me this book.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Last night at the Cheesecake Factory on Northwest Highway, a nattily dressed, robicund young man with a whispy voice sat down with the three women dining next to us. He'd seen them from across the restaurant and apparently knew the youngest of the three from college. They had the following exchange:

GIRL: Wow! You look so nice!
BOY: Yeah, well.
GIRL: I love that watch!
BOY: Thanks, it's couture!
GIRL: Well it's fabulous!

And yes, I am using the exclamation points faithfully.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Greatest idea of all time.

Last night as the crows hunkered down for another campaign of inane flapping, I slid Primer into the DVD tray and did some hunkering down of my own. The root beer went down cold and thick. Remote button blup. Set down, clack-clack, side after side on the coffee table top. Another sip and my shoulders came together. Butt sank in, cheek after cheek. String music. Arm hairs on end. Opening logo. Apartment walls captured TV glow, blurred it, played it back, dispersed it. (I imagine people’s blinds, the way they illuminate as the tube works inside. The outline of the lamp. The lamp on the table in front of the window. Flickering.) Imagine me inside there now. Watching Primer. Drinking root beer. Anticipating. Flapping inwardly and with purpose.

The logo faded. I swam in the film. The logo rose again and, again, faded. And that was it.

The movie, the film, primarily concerned itself with the pitfalls of time travel and self storage. The story flickered through it brilliant and broken. For me to sit here and type you that I understood the great lot of it would be a vast overstatement. I didn’t understand. But I loved every scene in the confusion. The slight terror. I thought myself around it and back. I missed every exit. I wound my way. I came out back on the inside. Exhilarated.

As a preteen, I saw a chilling documentary about time travel and prom entitled “Back to the Future.” This film, this Primer, was twice the chilling. Three times. Four. I repaired to the garage and got to work, allen wrench in hand, hammer in that jean ring made for hammers. Tonight I will travel in time and create impossible situations. I will breast stroke through paradox. I will pee in the pool of impossible. I will dive into it because it’s the only way I know how. Belly flop, if needs be.

I recommend Primer to you because I care about you and I know I don’t tell you that enough. We’ve had our differences. I’ve said some things I didn’t mean. I wasn’t always there.

That’s all going to change. Not now but then. I will travel back and change it. But for this you'll never know.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Toledo Blade is proving that newspapers can still be a relevant news source. The Blade’s coverage of an Ohio rare-coin investment made using taxpayer dollars (a fund which was run by a prominent Republican fundraiser) has been remarkable. The story is complicated, and the Blade has done a great job of getting the facts in order, organizing the information, and illuminating the various levels of what’s turned out to be a huge scandal.

This is a story that can best be told in a newspaper. Television newscasts could never devote enough time to properly break it down (although I’m sure they’re making their best effort, probably summarizing the subheads of that day’s Blade story). A website could very well tell the story, but it simply would not have sufficient credibility in the eyes of Ohio’s meat-and-potatoes, blue-collar workforce.

The Blade found the story, deconstructed it, and has been breaking it wide open day after day after day. The word is they’ve got at least three reporters working the story full-time — a manpower investment most bottom-line-minded, big-city newspapers would hesitate to make on a story that could go on for months. But this is truly what newspaper work is all about. This is the way it’s supposed to work. Find the story. And dig. And keep on digging.

Newspapers can remain relevant. It’s up to management to find curious souls, give them shovels, and allow them to dig.

Now the Blade is finding out
More dirt on how the Ohio GOP has been managing taxpayer money. Would that we had such a voracious advocate here in Dallas. I can only imagine.

No, I can’t even.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Suppose you were to ask me what I've been doing. But suppose that before you ask me this question, I am sitting across from you at a dinner party. We are at Jay Gatsby's house. I have caught you looking at me several times in the last five minutes. I don't know whether to be flattered or frightened. Stop licking your lips like that. And for crissakes put that gun down. That's better. Suppose you stand up slowly now, cross the room, stop next to me, no, not there, you're standing on my foot, ouch, those heels, over to your-, there, much better, and now you ask me what I've been doing. And suppose after all that I say "Eh, not much."

You'd go and pick up that gun again, right? Start shooting at me while spewing a stream of high-decible invective. You are lucky I am a skilled dodger of bullets. And, sure, maybe I don't catch them in my teeth like those guys in those movies where the one guy shoots and the other guy snaps his head back and smiles to reveal that he caught the bullet in his teeth, but I make due. Summer isn't a summer blockbuster — it's summer. This is real life. Get a grip.

I won't say "Eh, not much." First, it wouldn't be true. And second, I am in no mood to be dodging bullets in this heat.

I see you over there looking at me. I see you licking your lips.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I used to think I made up stories to avoid the serious business of politics and the environment and urgent global affairs. Now I wonder if I obsess over politics to avoid having to make up stories all the time. I don’t know. But it’s serious business, isn’t it?