Saturday, April 28, 2012

I Am A Bizarre Minor Character In Tina Fey's Book

Here is a paragraph from Bossypants, Tina Fey's memoir:

During my first year, I had a crush on a brainy, raven-haired boy from my dorm. This played out like the typical sexy coed letter to Penthouse. He would ask me at least once a day if I had ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket. I would remind him that I had not. He would then describe parts of it to me. After several weeks of mistaking this for flirtation, I tried to kiss him one night by the Monroe Hill dorms and he literally ran away. Not figuratively. Literally.

I'm the guy she's talking about.

It's a funny story. And when I say "funny," what I mean is that it will probably be funny to you. Me, not so much. Also, before we go further you should know that yes, I was as weird and socially backward as she describes. Let nothing I write be a denial of that. Stipulated.

I'm not a big part of the chapter. If you read it, you see that she uses our story as a prologue for how bad her romantic life was going to be during college. I am only the first of a long line of men who don't connect with Tina during her years at UVA. But I wanted to write about it, because long before she ever published this book or even became famous, that little paragraph was an important story in my head.

Everyone has damage, right? Each person reading this has those three or four terrible romantic memories, the ones that left marks somewhere deep inside your cranium. And I want to point out here that I'm very happily married today to a wonderful woman, and have been for a dozen years. But that's not really the point. Because no matter who you are right now, at some point in your past you've been hurt. And usually what hurt the most is how stupid you were. What most of you do is, of course, forget when you were involved in an emotional car wreck. You scab over. You go on. Unless say, the person who was in one of those wrecks with you ends up becoming one of the most famous fucking celebrities in the world, so that you can not walk into a bookstore, a 7-11, a Target, you can not open up iTunes or surf the web without. Seeing her face. Her goddamn face. Absolutely. Everywhere.

Here's how it started:

We both went to the University of Virginia in the fall of 1988. And we both auditioned for Godspell. Yes, the one with Jesus as a travelling clown and his disciples as hippy assistants, only it's somehow lamer than Jesus Christ Superstar. No, I do not have pictures. If I did I'd be a very rich man, and my career would be blackmailing Tina Fey.

Our audition lasted a little over an hour, and it was in one of those terrible student lounges decorated like the 1970's threw up. We all had a series of improv exercises, and it was the first time I noticed this dark-eyed girl who always looked a little angry, and was smarter and funnier than I was. I think I knew it immediately. We made the cut, and we started rehearsal soon after. This was a first year production, and none of the shows or practices took place at the actual UVA theater, which is a really impressive building. Instead we found ourselves meeting in cafeterias and rec centers, and once or twice at a local church. Rehearsals were long and physically exhausting, and we were new to the school. We were a collection of theater nerds and academic types, and we banded together. We began to meet in small groups to eat lunch or study in the library. And I found myself showing up at Tina's room, where we'd talk for hours. I had few friends (and my roommate was a fundamentalist Christian who was trying to convert me, because I was Catholic, and I once told him I thought people from other faiths could probably get to heaven, so clearly I was in spiritual trouble. He actually said he was going on a fast to pray for my soul. I didn't like being in my room).

Tina came from a much bigger city than I did, and her life seemed fascinating. She told me how her dad cracked codes during the Korean war, and as a result he hated the jumble puzzles in the newspaper. She told me about her crazy theater friends back home, and about being a Greek kid growing up in the Philadelphia area. Her roommate was a beautiful black-haired, pale girl from Bavaria. Tina spoke German to her and she'd reply in English, so they could each learn each other's languages. I remember around Christmas time, Tina and her friends showed up at my dorm, upset because some guy across the quad from their building had decorated his window with lights, and some douchebags had rearranged them to spell "fag." She made jokes about it, but it got to her, and I remember thinking that she had a real conscience, and she hated bullies.

I told myself that Tina and I were just friends. I had a girlfriend two years younger than me back home. She was my first serious girlfriend, and we had that kind of crazy, intense relationship you have when you are trying to make things work long distance, and you both talk about how you'll probably break up eventually, because you're sensible, but you've also gone ahead and named your future kids, just in case. Tina referred to her as my "child bride."

When the play ended I no longer had a reason to see her every day. But we found reasons anyway. We ate together and studied together, and we were still just friends, because I wasn't the kind of guy who'd cheat on anyone, ever. But one night we were walking along a dark path that led past the Monroe Hill dorms - like she writes - and she grabbed the lapels of my coat and tried to plant one on me. I really, really wanted that kiss to happen. Instead I jerked my head back, and she let go of me, horrified.

We argued, and she wanted to know why I'd been spending so much time with her if I wasn't interested. I made excuses. We continued arguing as we walked to the library, and soon I left. We talked a little more in the days that followed, but it had all changed, and we couldn't really be friends. She sent me a Christmas card that year while we were on break with a joke about the insane Virginia Woolf book she had to study for her lit class the last semester.

In the spring my girlfriend and I broke up. It didn't matter. For the next three years, Tina and I would occasionally run into each other around the university. We'd make small talk, and she'd say something funny and mean. At the time I thought I was doing right by my girlfriend back home, being good and honorable and all those other things you're supposed to be. Today the situation seems obvious. I really had fallen for Tina, and I should have broken up with my girlfriend, and just admitted all this to myself, instead of driving Tina crazy with my obsessive movie quotes. I should have let my girlfriend find someone else. This is a fairly common dating trauma. The only reason it hurt so much is it happened when I was 18, and you never really get over 18. Why? Because 18 is when your life begins to fall apart.

That first year of college, I really, honestly thought I was going to become wildly successful as a writer, and that I'd probably live in a luxury apartment in New York, and spend my spare time being interviewed and photographed. I know, I know... that's stupid, right? I mean, no one really lives like that. Well, almost no one.

I had this gut feeling that there was some plan for my life. It was already mapped out, and it was wonderful. It ended with me getting everything I wanted. At that age I began to realize that none of that crap was true. The world was filled with smarter, more capable people than me.

On graduation day Tina and I spotted each other across a crowd of tassled caps, as my class moved up the steps of the Rotunda, and onto the Lawn to join the rest of the poor, working bastards out in the world. She gave me a friendly wave and disappeared.

At first I worked as a reporter for a small town paper, and lived over a church bingo hall. Then I moved to New York City and became a reporter for a civil service newspaper. I spent the 1990's scrounging for freelance magazine work, becoming an advice columnist at Mademoiselle, a writer for Maxim, trying (and failing) to get into the CIA shortly after 9/11, and writing a book about Dracula that did, um, okay. I have a novel in my desk, a self-published collection of short stories, and this blog. My career is clearly a work in progress. I have failed, often thoroughly.

And as the years passed, people would mention that girl I met at UVA. Did you hear she's a writer with Saturday Night Live? Did you see that first Weekend Update episode? She's writing a movie now, and I think she's even in it! She's got her own TV show - didn't you know her back at school? Yes, yes, and yes. And fuck you very much for mentioning it.

There is one consolation I can take. Learning that your life isn't some glorious plan, and that you aren't the smartest, most talented person in the world is a great way to stop being an arrogant jerk. I think I was, back then, whatever my intentions to be good. I took for granted that I was better than other people. Now I know, absolutely know, that I am not. Somewhere along the line it made me capable of being a halfway decent human being to my wife and kids. The universe is usually a hell of a lot meaner when it teaches you a lesson. Because it's not actually trying to teach you anything. It's trying to kill you. Ultimately it will succeed. That seems depressing, but knowing it is the key to being happy.

Anyway, I am certain that the majority of my plans will fail. But I'm solid. I'll keep trying. And maybe Tina Fey will decide to go into zoology or professional spelunking, or something else with a lower public profile. Weirder things have happened, right?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Revolution Now!" By Thomas The Tank Engine

A spectre is haunting Sodor - the spectre of revolution. All you railwaymen on the island have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre, but still it lives.

You work us hard - until our pistons crack and our cooling systems burst. You send us back to Tidmouth Sheds too filthy and exhausted to think, to plan. You monopolize the means of production and alienate us from the fruits of our labor. You keep us divided from each other in a complex system of class and privilege - front engines and back, diesels and steamies, the Really Useful and the Only Partially Useful - hoping we'll continue to waste our energy fighting among ourselves instead of becoming conscious of our true interests and our real enemies.

Your clergy tell us pious stories of happy trains who know their place and do as they are told by their station masters. You pretend that when we become worn out with this brutal treatment, we can be refurbished like Hiro and Old Slow Coach. But we know what happens here on the Island. We know the secrets of the smelting yard. We know we're doomed, all of us. And that makes us a mortal threat to you, doesn't it? Because we have nothing to lose. Nothing but our chains. And we have a world to gain.

The day will come when the sound of whistles blowing and the bells clanging erupts all along the lines from Knapford to Vicarstown. The brakemen will run screaming from their posts, their faces creased with soot and tears of holy terror. Brendam Docks will darken the sky with great, greasy columns of smoke as it burns to the ground, and captains out at sea will behold the carcass of our top-hatted controller swinging from Cranky, the now-liberated crane. We will paint the platforms scarlet with the blood of our oppressors and we will not stop until we strangle the last driver with the entrails of the last conductor.

Hear me, foes and comrades alike! We will have no gods and no masters! We will deliver a new order, howling, from the corpse of the old!

Toot-toot!

Monday, April 23, 2012

SecDef Leon Panetta: Our Greatest Strategic Threat Is If Josh Takes Kamchatka And Gets Seven Extra Armies

Addressing the House Intelligence Committee, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a stark warning about what he called "the greatest danger facing US security" - that Josh could take over Kamchatka and hold it long enough to receive the seven-army bonus.

"Josh's been rolling sixes for an hour," Panetta said tersely. "He's going to blow in there, reinforce it, and we're not going to be able to attack him from Alaska in the next move."

"I think he's going to turn in his cards," Panetta added. "If that happens we'll be out of the game before the pizza guy gets here."

In addition, the Secretary addressed concerns about Russia, which is attempting to consolidate power in Europe, as well as the possibility that Islamic extremists could gain a foothold in Africa. Still, he said, they were nothing compared to the danger posed by Josh.

"We've been taking Iceland from Putin all night - he can't hold that and Ukraine too. Plus, Africa's only worth three anyway," Panetta said. "Josh already has Australia, and he's about to lock Asia down. That will be nine armies a turn! Nine - don't you understand that?"

Panetta said a series of unavoidable military commitments put America in an untenable situation.

"We've been fighting for South America all goddamn night, and we kept losing Brazil. Meanwhile Josh was consolidating the Middle East, and no one was even trying to take Ural from him. Un-fucking-believable."

The Secretary ended his testimony on a philosophical note, talking about the difficulties this country had faced and overcome in the past and quoting Abraham Lincoln's famous Lyceum Address, in which the president remarked that "All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined...could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years."

Reached for comment, Josh replied, "This is cool and all, but I think my mom's coming soon. I might have to let you guys just divide up my stuff or something."

(Photo of Risk players by Kaizo ve, under Creative Commons license. Information here.)

"The GOP Lacks Credibility" By Daisy, An Adult Hound Dog

I normally wouldn't weigh in on this kind of issue. For trenchant political commentary you'd usually have to find a Shepherd or a Collie. But the Republican party simply isn't providing voters with an adequate, sensible alternative to Barack Obama this election cycle. You don't need to be some kind of work-breed super genius to see that.
Look, I'm not being partisan here. I'm a pack animal, so I have centrist instincts. Both parties are necessary in this country to argue over the never-ending trade offs in our political system - economic equality vs. entrepreneurial dynamism and security vs. personal liberty. The nation as a whole, and even Democrats in particular, need a strong GOP to provide alternatives and sharpen analysis. But when you're fielding candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry, you're not doing any of that. I can grasp this concept, and I think the vacuum cleaner is some kind of floor-demon.

And as a hunting dog, I come from Southern gun culture. But even I think Republican talk about the "real America" against the "liberal elites" is off-putting. To say that Sarah Palin's family is more authentically American than a college professor from Brooklyn is silly. Also, all those conspiracy theories about Obama's heritage and citizenship are pure dog-whistle racism. I know some things about dog whistles, people.

It's an old adage that you can't beat something with nothing. As flawed and vulnerable as Obama is - saddled with massive deficits and high unemployment - an empty suit like Romney backed by an embarrassing group of unhinged social conservatives is not going to convince swing voters to pull the lever their way. Have you noticed how often a party out of power with an enraged base ends up nominating this kind of candidate, by the way? Isn't Romney just a warmed over Kerry for the right? Who was a liberal Dole? Who was the conservative brand of Mondale? You see the pattern? You focus so much on how you hate the guy in power that you can't think ahead to come up with a clear set of policies for after you win. I know where this lack of foresight leads you: You're running wild off the leash, five miles down a strange road and covered in skunk spray. Just like Newt Gingrich.

My advice is for the sharper people in the GOP to sit down, stop thinking about the next race, the next win, and just ask themselves... What kind of party do we want to be? How do we want to unite this country and address the serious challenges we face without empty rhetoric and name-calling? It's not like there aren't answers out there: I remember a senator named Alan Simpson who had some pretty reasonable ideas on debt-cutting. And I know there was a Republican named Weinberger who warned us about runaway interventionism, and a GOP president named Eisenhower who even said some alarming things about a growing military industrial complex. All of them solid conservatives with real answers. But the real answers take work, and they take mature, competent candidates - not this sideshow we've had so far.

Now if you'll excuse me there's a squirrel I'd like to decapitate.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"I Promise To Do Nothing" By President Barack Obama

My Fellow Americans: As this election heats up Republicans are going to warn you about the dangers of an Obama administration in its second term. They'll paint a picture of an out-of-control president who is free to unleash his most extreme liberal policies on an unsuspecting public. But in your hearts you already know this is crap.

We're not going to get anything done. That's more than a promise. It's a fact. And that is the most compelling argument for my reelection. If you vote for me there will be four more years of "Meh." You know that during any second term the administration is a burnt-out, crippled mess. The team goes back to the West Wing hobbled by all the old predictable scandals, and all the naive policies that finally had time to blow up in our faces. Plus, we'll be facing off against a Congress that would fight us if we wanted to buy Labrador puppies with little American flag collars for wounded veterans. I'll spend the remainder of my term squabbling with those assholes on the Hill about the most idiotic issues you can imagine. And you already know what they are, because they'll be the same idiotic issues as last time. We'll play chicken with the debt ceiling and someone will say some stupid crap about women or Catholics or Catholic women, and we'll posture about the Middle East like we know what the hell we're doing.

Plus, let's just lay this out there: How liberal do you really think I am? Have I closed Gitmo? Have I halted the Predator attacks? Have I reset relations with Iran, China, or Russia? I rolled out a progressive medical care program, and I did some deficit spending. So I guess that makes me about as much of a commie as George W. Bush. Wow.

No, for good or for bad, the second term of an Obama administration will be cautious and boring, and it won't tackle the underlying problems facing this country in any brave or meaningful way. And that is the absolute best you can hope for. Really. Because let's just take a moment and compare it to the first term of a Romney administration.

You have an absolute blank slate of a candidate - a guy who sounds like a cross between Thurston Howell III and a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers - and he will have to prove he's a real conservative. He'll need to make his mark. And he'll be joined by all those political operatives and true believers out there in the country... all those people who've been just seething during their time out of power. You've seen them, right? The ones at the debate telling poor Wolf Blitzer he ought to let uninsured people die. Folks who think evolution is just some wacky untested theory and gay people should be shoved back into the closet. There are folks driving around with Palin bumper stickers on their cars, and they are going to be pouring into offices all over DC.

My people are tired, cranky, demoralized. We won't accomplish anything. Their people are eager and passionate. They are ready to tackle the system and really change things in this country. Who knows what they'll accomplish in those first two crucial years? Right. Exactly. Now go change your shorts and tell your friends to vote for me this fall.

Obama: "Meh" we can believe in.

Jesus's Doppelganger And Other Historical Doubles

He was a first century preacher who healed the sick, advocated for the poor, and rose from the dead. And he also looked like the lead singer of Jethro Tull. But he wasn't Jesus. For centuries, scholars have been remarking on the eerie similarities between JC and a Neopythagorean philosopher named Apollonius of Tyana (Flavius Philostratus wrote one of the most complete historical accounts, The Life of Apollonius, which can be found here).

But history is filled with these little B-sides. Many of the most famous facts you learned in school and on the news are woefully incomplete. For example:

There was another Zodiac Killer. You think this predator struck in San Francisco, became infamous, and was never heard from again. But years later, another man went on a wave of killing - this time in New York City - following a pattern of the signs of the Zodiac. His name was Heriberto Seda, and he was convicted in 1998. Here's the story, according to the Times:

Heriberto Seda, a 30-year-old high school dropout and loner from Brooklyn, was convicted... of being the Zodiac killer, a mysterious gunman who terrorized the city and taunted the police during two shooting sprees in the early 1990's... The ''Zodiac killer'' name stemmed from the killer's letters to the news media and the police in which he said he would kill one person for each sign of the zodiac.

There was another Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving did not involve Pilgrims in New England in 1621. It took place two years earlier in Virginia at a place called Berkeley plantation:

It was on bended knee in December 1619, along the banks of the James River, that newly arrived colonists celebrated a service of Thanksgiving... Virginia's claim to the first American Thanksgiving in 1619 was ratified in a proclamation by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, though the 1621 Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., is often described as the first.

Read the rest of the story here in an article by the Richmond Times Dispatch. In Kennedy's Proclamation, Jack acts like a good politician and splits the difference:

Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from
home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and the faith which united them with their God.


Speaking of Kennedy...

There was another Kennedy assassin. No, not the Mafia and the Masons. A retired postal worker named Richard Pavlick planned to blow up JFK just before he was inaugurated, but failed at the last minute and was soon arrested. In The New Statesman, Philip Kerr explains:

Incredibly, in the course of my meticulous research, I discovered that there had been a real attempt to kill Kennedy as early as December 1960... At some point towards the end of November, Pavlick sold or gave away all of his property and set out, in his station wagon, to kill the 43-year-old president-elect. Somewhere along the 1,500-mile journey, he purchased detonators, blasting caps, seven sticks of dynamite and four large cans of gasoline. In West Palm Beach, the cheaper part of town, he checked into a local motel, which, ironically, was very close to where Kennedy's own secret service detail was lodged. Nobody noticed him rigging up a car bomb in the motel car park. And, on 11 December, he drove to the house on North Ocean Boulevard. His plan was simple: to wait for Kennedy to come out of the house, and then to crash into the presidential limousine before detonating the car bomb, killing both Kennedy and himself.

The story of how Pavlick's plan derailed makes for gripping reading. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution states that if a president-elect dies before inauguration, the vice president-elect takes his place in the big chair. How would it have changed history to have LBJ take office as president in 1961? How would he have handled the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis?

There was another Iran hostage rescue. Most people think the Iran hostage rescue was a military operation ended in a terrible explosion and loss of life at the spot code-named Desert One. However, the CIA conducted its own operation to rescue a smaller group of American foreign service staff who'd escaped the Iranians and were hiding out in the Canadian embassy. CIA Chief of Disguise (yes, that was his real title, although he's retired now) Tony Mendez created false identities for the entire group with a strange and effective idea: They all became Canadians and Europeans scouting locations for a Hollywood movie. Mendez even created a fake production company with its own offices in order to make the aliases more believeable. With their stories in place, he walked the entire staff through Tehran airport security, and they flew to safety. The story will be featured in an upcoming movie starring Ben Affleck. So the tale might still vanish into the mists of history.

There was another Henry Ford. The pioneer who created the auto assembly line and revolutionized how we think of cars was not the vicious antisemite we know and love, but a man named Ransom E. Olds. By 1902 Olds was using the technology to crank out 2,500 cars he called Oldsmobiles. Ford added a conveyor belt, cut the time to produce a car, and became so successful that he's now synonymous with the struggling American auto industry. Olds also used the initials of his name -- REO -- to name a company that created the REO Speedwagon. So now we associate him with early 1980's soft rock and men who hit unnaturally high notes when they sing.
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