Monday, December 09, 1996

AUC: Zen of the last cookie

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

The killer awoke before dawn. He put his boots on, and he walked on down the hall. And he came to Long Beach State.

After 19 generally inglorious semesters at this institution, the warden is about to open the gate. I've apparently been rehabilitated. I am ready to be re-assimilated into society.

To adapt an old Robin Williams line: "Graduation. What a concept."

I've seen a great many things over the past decade. I remember when there was a big vacant lot where The Pyramid now stands. I remember when there was 49er football (much as we all try to forget). I remember when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the Student Union. Believe it or not, I remember when you could get Coke and Pepsi on campus. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. Those were the days.

Over the years, I've often longed to get away from taking exams and writing papers and pretending I understand deconstructionism. Many times I nearly dropped out, but something kept me coming to class. Perhaps fear of someday hearing the phrase, "We'd like to give you the promotion, Doug, but…." Perhaps because Calvin Klein never asked me to model for him in my underwear.

Now, as it all draws to a close, I feel like I've just learned that I ate some poisonous blowfish while Bart and Lisa sing karaoke versions of the theme from Shaft, and I have only 24 hours to live. Actually, only 22, after Dr. Hibbert kept me waiting. Now I have less than a day, metaphorically speaking, to summon a last hurrah to culminate the academic period of my life, to experience those things only afforded me in college life, those things I should have done long ago. Whatever those things are.

Working nearly full time for much of my university years, I didn't attend college as much drop by occasionally. I scheduled classes to best facilitate jobs, only being on campus long enough to walk to class, sit through class, and walk back to my car. During these last few semesters, however, when I have actually hung out on campus, met a lot more people, and written for this rag, I've realized there's more in life than work and school, work and school. There's beer!

College is something of a metaphor for life. You can go through the motions, or you can try to make something of it. You can experience it, or you can observe it. You can dream the impossible dream, or you can pick the lint out of your navel. Or dream of picking the lint out of your navel.

Comedian Rick Reynolds spoke of what he calls "the Zen of the last cookie." Whenever he eats cookies, he particularly savors the last one, really appreciating it. But once, he reached for the last cookie and it was gone, denying him that "last cookie enjoyment." Thus he came to the conclusion that he should eat every cookie as though it were the last cookie. Not a new concept, of course, but nonetheless a good philosophy.

Like Ferris Bueller said, "Life goes pretty fast; if you don't stop and look around every once in a while, you just might miss it."

I went through the motions too long; I thoughtlessly ate my cookies, and now regard the last one. At least I'm relishing the metaphoric 10 minutes of sleep after hitting the snooze button, even if I ignored the previous eight hours. (I'll be joining Analogies Anonymous after graduation.)

I agree with Jim Morrison: this is the strangest life I've ever known. That's what I like about it.

Sure, I'll fritter away plenty of time in years to come. But hopefully I'll be able to suck some of the marrow out of life. Trite but true: Life is the moments, life is the journey. So as life lies sprawled before me, I think of the last words of a couple of my heroes, Calvin and Hobbes: "Let's go exploring." Yes.

Doug would like to thank everybody who ever read the Useless Column. If he made just one person laugh, or think, or at least forget about his/her problems for a moment, well, then he wishes he'd made a lot more people laugh or think or forget their wretched lives, so maybe he could one day get paid to write like this.

Monday, December 02, 1996

AUC: Feeding the pigeonhole

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

Ever since I was a kid, people have been asking me: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? I wanted to be asked something easy, like what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Eventually they asked me that, too. And kept asking. Then I came to college, and the question shifted to what was I going to do with my degree? (And allow me to state for the record that there is more one can do with an English degree than just teach. There are plenty of openings in the food-service industry, for example.)

Like comedienne Paula Poundstone once joked, adults perpetually ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because they're looking for ideas themselves.

When I was a kid, I thought I knew. Well, at least I didn't have to worry if what I wanted to be would earn enough to live on, or whether I could actually make it in said field despite fierce competition. Theoretical life is so much simpler. That's why we live there as much as possible.

So-called two-dimensional thinking, where everything is black or white, prevails. We prefer things to be concrete, and understandable at a glance. The guy in the black hat is the bad guy. Or the white sheet. Categorization: that's just how our minds work. Or fail to work, as the case may be.

Me, I like the gray. Sure, I jump to conclusions just like everyone, but remind myself that nothing is so cut-and-dried that it can be summed up in a few words. Except maybe John Tesh.

So in this here Useless Column, I sometimes employ sarcasm. But some people don't get it. Or else, some people think I'm always being sarcastic. Still other people wonder what Tom Brokaw looks like naked. Now, I'm not complaining: I knew the ploy was dangerous (and open to alternate interpretations) when I used it. Still, can't I be sincere sometimes and sarcastic other times?

Yeah, sure. And as they say, monkeys might rapidly emerge from my posterior. I just hope I'm not wearing expensive pants at the time.

But back to The Question. As I stand on the precipice of graduation, the time left to come up with an answer quickly dwindles away.

What's the big deal? Well, the unfortunate truth is one's role in society is defined by one's occupation. I'm reminded of a line by another comedian, Rick Reynolds: "If I was killed tonight, the papers would read, 'Comedian dies in pool of blood.' That's how you're viewed in society, what your job is. You never see the headline, 'Snappy dresser dies in pool of blood.'"

Consider the introduction in Jeopardy: a contestant may be a "quantum physicist," "certified public accountant," or "trial attorney," but never "really fun at parties," which seems a much more apt descriptive of an individual's personality.

But do we really want to know an individual? Not somebody who's smart enough to be on Jeopardy, that's for damn sure.

If society is going to label and pigeonhole me, I'd at least like it to be for what I am, not merely what I do. The Question is what do want to be?

When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was taller. That I've accomplished. But what I am, after I'm found in a pool of blood, will never fit within that headline.

So while I figure out what I want to be, I'll do what everybody does: take what I can get.

And keep asking kids The Question until I get an answer I like. Or until I figure out how many licks it takes to get to the end of a Tootsie Pop.

Monday, November 04, 1996

AUC: We always said you’d go places

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

Recently I was informed by a rather boisterous individual on campus that I’m going to hell. I’m so relieved to have that situation resolved.

Despite my inevitable damnation, I continue my education. Why? There seems no contingency for avoiding fire and brimstone by flashing a bachelor’s degree at the time of death. But maybe there’s part of the Bible that addresses education that doesn’t get much attention.

Clearly, something pertaining to this mortal coil drives this quest for knowledge. (Okay, that presumes I’m learning anything here; as I near the end of my collegiate journey, I do wonder how much I would have just figured out on my own, for thousands less.)

Preparation for a career? I think not. This isn’t a trade school, it’s a university (says so in the name; I checked). Sure, the law of averages states that some people will acquire skills or knowledge her germane to how they earn a living. But no classes are offered in looking busy in a cubicle, or carrying heavy trays of food (well, we’ve already got that down), so I must conclude the focus of the university is somewhere else.

Like all institutions—prison, for instance—this place primarily prepares a person for the environment of the institution.

At least criminals have the sense to commit more crimes after release, so they can return to a place where they fit in. College students emerge from academia and have to acclimate to a world where being able to identify the finer points of abstract expressionism counts much less than being able to get a jammed piece of paper out of the copier.

Professors are the exception. They never had to leave. Were it not for administrators making their lives difficult, they’d be eternally blissful.

So if it’s not the score points with the Guy Upstairs or get a job, what does that leave? Advanced studies in sociology—er, socializing. Yes, getting dates! Meeting interesting people, or at least people who are interesting after several beers. It’s all kind of a big singles bar with midterms.

Is learning worthwhile as an end unto itself? Will the experiences afforded me at this university have benefits in ways that cannot be fully articulated but are nonetheless valuable? Is my dog getting enough cheese in its diet?

The sad thing is this: I bet when I get to hell, life will not have prepared me for it. Not that it should.

Monday, October 21, 1996

AUC: Don’t take my word for it…

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

Why does so much depend on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens? For the non-lit majors, that is an allusion to a poem by William Carlos Williams (actually, that is the poem, turned from statement to question) published in 1923.

Why does this poem continue to be anthologized year after year? Yes, it’s a good poem. And it’s short. And there are no capital letters in it. But is it the be-all, end-all of poetry? Apparently, it is. And who am I to disagree?

Still, I wonder if it might be what I call inherited exaltation. That is, are the works that comprise the canon of literature, in part, considered so because at some point someone convinced a bunch of people that these works were great? From then on, all the scholars in the field have been trained, from grade school through college, to accept that Corpus of Works Believed by Scholars To Be Great, and thus they pass this, well, propaganda along to their students.

I could argue that the respected works of literature are merely those that have captured the attention of someone in an influential position, not necessarily those that are “the best,” whatever that means. But this ain’t no term paper, so I won’t.

To quote Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection”: “Somebody thought of it/And someone believed it/Look what it’s done so far.”

This applies to virtually every field out there: art, film, science, music, etc. Particularly music. One person’s Milli Vanilli is another’s Mozart. No, really. Who’s to say that Rob and Fab won’t be revered a century from now? It’s no crazier than thinking the sun orbits the earth. (Come to think of it, I have always just taken Copernicus’ word for it about heliocentricity. Hmm…)

Oscar Wilde stated, “All art is quite useless,” and by that definition, there’s a lot out there that must be art. Wilde’s argument was that the only reason to create something that serves no function (art) is to admire it intensely. And one must surely admire a poem, to discuss it at length. Granted, far more people are admiring Madonna having a baby.

So will it ever be a matter of life and death as to why so much depends on a red wheelbarrow? In a world of oppression and inequality, rampant with war and famine, should anybody care?

Perhaps the only way to be happy is to take a completely insignificant thing and turn it into something very important in your life. Distract yourself from realizing what an utter quagmire of hopelessness your life really is, whether through admiring poetry or “Entertainment Tonight.”

My opinion about the wheelbarrow? Heck, I don’t know. Sure, I could write a lengthy essay about it; I can’t let a lack of knowledge stop me. Of course, knowing is not actually relevant to poetry: it’s a matter of having a supportable interpretation. Or even an insupportable one. Or wearing support hose while interpreting poetry.

But I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, so what does it matter?

Doug admires this column intensely.

[* or at least I did admire it in 1996 when I wrote it, pretty much on spot to make a deadline]

Monday, October 14, 1996

AUC: Number of the beast

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

My girlfriend is in Scotland until December, which means my long distance phone bill has skyrocketed.

That’s not the problem.

Until I got the hang of dialing overseas, I was reaching some form of “operator assistance.” And doing so, I got on a list. Then one evening, someone called me on behalf of my long distance company.

She was quick to point out that she wasn’t trying to sell me anything; she merely wanted to ask me a few questions. Checking my English-to-phone solicitor/surveyor-translator, I realized I’d be occupied a while.

Usually, I don’t have time for these people, say no thanks, and hang up. But she sounded like a nice enough person, so I figured “What the heck?”

She proceeded to have me rate my satisfaction with various aspects of the call I’d made (on a 10-point scale) and I started making up numbers. I even threw in an occasional “not applicable” to keep things interesting. Toward the end of the call, I had an opportunity to comment on how AT&T could improve my service. “Well,” I replied, “they could stop having people like you call me.”

There’s just something about someone calling me at home—whether to try to get me to buy something, tell me about a candidate or ask me questions—that irks me. Telemarketing, in its various forms, is pure evil, plain and simple. Therefore, the individuals making these calls are minions of the beast master, at least while they’re at work.

That’s not to say they’re bad people otherwise. I realize what great money is to be made in such a field. Of course, the child pornography market is rather lucrative, I understand. But you don’t see as many ads for those openings, more of a word-of-mouth kind of thing.

I expect that telemarketers get a fair amount of hang-ups, rude comments, and general unpleasantness directed toward them while going about their unholy duties. But here’s the thing: I’m sure they develop a tolerance for it. Perhaps they enjoy it, as some enjoy various other twisted forms of masochism.

So if you really want to fight the forces of darkness, don’t merely tell these souls to perform anatomically-challenging acts upon themselves, keep them on the line. Lull them into a false sense of security. Don’t buy anything, of course. Just waste their time. The longer they talk to you, the fewer others they’ll bother. It’s a small but important step toward ridding the world of this plague, a modest gesture in consideration of your fellow humans.

Right now, of course, a lot of energy is directed toward hounding us in our homes about the upcoming election. Now, is how we’re going to vote any of their damn business? Of course not.

So here’s the key to the success of this plan: lie. If you’re voting “yes,” say “no.” If you’re a Republican, say you’re voting Peace and Freedom. Be as inconsistent as possible in your answers. Once we can corrupt the information collected by these demons, it will be of no use to their masters. And what then?

Life will be… perfect. Well, once December rolls around.

Monday, September 30, 1996

AUC: You say you want a revolution? Well…

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

Last Tuesday was the fifth-annual Buy Nothing Day, as organized by the Media Foundation, publishers of Adbusters magazine. You probably bought something.

Don’t feel bad. I did.

The idea behind Buy Nothing Day is to remind the capitalist establishment that it is we, the consumers, who buy their products, and without us, they are nothing. Much as their clever advertising tries to turn us into sheep with checkbooks, we ultimately have the power. If we all refrain from spending for a 24-hour period, The Powers That Be would notice.

Well, maybe. I mean, in theory this is true. In theory, communism works.

It is said that the people united will never be defeated. But I have a hard time getting a group of my friends to agree on a restaurant. And these people like each other. How are we to get a whole society to agree on anything, much less a direction for our future?

Every journey begins with the first step. But which way? Will we like it when we get there? And does the cable system there carry Comedy Central?

Besides, isn’t that the job of The Powers That Be, that elite minority to whom we have abdicated control of our lives? Sure, every four years or so they throw us a bone and let us think that we have some influence. A delightful amusement for them, no doubt, and we get to feel we’ve contributed.

They’ve set up quite a situation: whom to believe? Every statistic can be manipulated. Every “fact” can be refuted. Every Snickers is packed with peanuts. So much for reason. We follow whomever has the least offensive agenda. Or the cutest butt. On second thought, it’s probably the butt thing.

It’s sort of like playing Risk: the easiest way to win is to let the other players fight it out, then roll over their decimated armies with your culminated forces. We bicker amongst ourselves (or more accurately, we stop bickering and wallow in apathy after contemplating our lackluster choices) and the status quo is maintained. It’s insidiously ingenious.

But back to uniting the masses. Idealistic notions of equality, like labor unions and communist rule, get perverted. Take, for example, when Homer Simpson was elected union president:

Homer: “Say, how much does this job pay?”
Carl: “Nothing.”
Homer: “D’oh!”
Carl: “Unless you’re crooked.”
Homer: “Woo-hoo!”
Perhaps Marx and Engels should have had better foresight, or a proper lack of faith in humanity, and abandoned hopes of worldwide revolution. If I could go back in time, I might suggest they start small and try the agree-on-a-restaurant thing first.

The problem, again, is people. We can envision Utopia, but by our selfish nature, we are a poor choice to lead ourselves there. Unfortunately, until we get another species to take control, like the dolphins, we are our only option.

Scary, I know.

In the end, despite our best efforts of the Media Foundation, we probably are sheep with checkbooks. (And admit it: when you read the explanation of Buy Nothing Day, you wondered what the Media Foundation hoped to gain from it, didn’t you? Everybody has an angle, right? Is there such a thing as philanthropy in a capitalist society? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?)

Personally, I hope to be a clever sheep, keeping The Powers That Be guessing. If they’re going to fool me, I’m going to make them develop new ways of doing it. Capriciousness is our trump card, kids.

Remember: the sheep united can “bah” really loud at night and keep the shepherds from getting a good night’s sleep.

Monday, September 23, 1996

Grunion: Coming soon to the Student Union

[The following appeared on the Grunion (satire page of the Long Beach Union, student paper at Long Beach State), September 23, 1996]

[click on the image to bring up a somewhat clearer image--if you dare!]

[or maybe click here to see a flickr posting that might be even more legible]

Monday, September 16, 1996

AUC: Smoke, and the whole world coughs with you

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

I have to share a conversation I overheard the other day. Returning to work from lunch, I came in just behind two women who had been outside on a smoke break. One, approaching middle age, was telling birth stories to the other, clearly younger, woman, who listened with the earnestness of one who has never been pregnant.

As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, the older woman noted that she was lighting up virtually the minute she was out of the delivery room.

The most difficult part of childbirth, apparently, had been going hours without a cigarette.
At the top of the stairs, they walked in the opposite direction from me, but before they were too far away, I heard the younger woman say she might have to have an abortion if pregnancy meant nine months of tobacco abstinence.

Now, you reaction to that may have been: “What a horrible thing to even joke about!” Or you may have thought, “Yeah, nine months without a smoke, that’s rough.” Or you may still be reeling from seeing Al Gore do the Macarena, and can’t concentrate.

Whatever your opinion, like abortion, you believe it strongly.

Me? I say, hey, it’s a free country. Well, sort of.

For the record, I don’t smoke. Never have. My mother smokes, as do many of my friends. Children of parents who smoke tend to either become smokers themselves or ardent anti-smokers. I fall into the latter category, but the interesting thing is that I find I am only bothered by strangers who smoke. I’m not crazy about the fact that my mother smokes, but when I’m around her, she’s not a smoker, she’s just Mom.

Hypocritical? Of course. But we can overlook unpleasant habits in our acquaintances. We’re aware of at least some redeeming aspect they possess. That stranger whose cigarette smoke wafts too close is just an inconsiderate asshole.

I think it’s important to draw a distinction between people who smoke and smokers. The former are people who engage in inhaling the fumes of burnt tobacco (and nicotine, etc.). The latter are people for whom this practice is their defining characteristic. Think what you will about the younger woman in the aforementioned exchange, but at least she knows better than to get pregnant.

A certain camaraderie exists amongst smokers. Perhaps they bond as members of a persecuted group. Maybe it’s the fact that one can tell at a glance, “Hey, there’s someone else who’s choosing to do horrible things to their lungs.” It’s a support group kind of thing: a smoker isn’t going to give a fellow smoker a hard time.

Yes, smoking’s bad, yadda yadda yadda. But we should all exercise more. We shouldn’t eat so much fried food. Hell, we should escape this smog-infested armpit of the world if we’re really concerned about our health.

In a way, smokers have an advantage that we non‑smokers don’t: someday, when they get cancer, they’ll know exactly why, and they will have had years of nicotine-enriched pleasure getting it. When we non‑smokers come down with terrible illnesses, we won’t know who to blame. Smokers can look to the tobacco industry and the beautifully evil people who run it and say, “Thank you, it’s all your fault.”

The clever demons who produce cigarettes have made their product terrifically addictive. Despicable, yes, but perversely admirable in a business sense.

However, this just keeps the customer coming back. What makes someone start? Who knows for sure. Peer pressure? Advertising? I have to wonder, “Could the most amazing ads sway people to subject themselves to something so clearly bad if they didn’t have a predilection for it in the first place?”

Anyone influenced by cigarette ads gets what they deserve. Have some self-esteem, take some responsibility. Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi. Hey, wait a second…

Tuesday, September 03, 1996

AUC: Nowhere to go but up… must we go?

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

Ah, the first week of the semester, when no matter how much you procrastinate, you can’t be more than a week behind in your classwork. This is going to be it: this is the semester you make it to class every day, take good notes, read the assignment before it’s due, and are prepared enough to get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Yes, this semester will be different.


Here’s a little suggestion for you: expect to fall back into your abysmal habits, expect to fall behind in your studies, expect to be willing to sell your soul the week before finals.

This may seem pessimistic, but it’s in the best interests of you self-esteem. Really.

Rather than going into this semester with high hopes of academic success—which, let’s face it, history dictates most of us don’t quite live up to—set your sights lower. Instead, think: This semester I’m going to sleep through my morning classes, hang out with my friends instead of attending my afternoon classes, blow off studying in the evening to watch television, and I’ll fail miserably.

One of two things will happen: either you’ll actually get off you duff and do something and manage to pass all your classes, or the above pattern will prove to be your fate. If the former is the case, then imagine your delight when you have so amazingly exceeded your expectations that you will actually feel good about yourself for a while. If the latter comes to pass, well, you can take heart in knowing that you can set a goal and stick to it. You really can’t be disappointed either way.

Of course, you should be warned that if you happen to pass, it will be more difficult to return to your underachieving ways next semester, and you may be tempted to have aspirations again.

Remember, kids, the more classes you pass, the sooner you’ll graduate, and then you’ll have to do something with your life. But on the off-chance that you do eventually get a degree, do not fall prey to the sort of thinking that these collegiate years will make some difference in the rest of your life. Again, they may or may not, and if they do, hey, great. However, if college proves to have left you unprepared for the future, at least you didn’t expect any differently, and all those student loans you have to repay will not be a constant reminder of unrealized potential but just another pleasant debt you incurred along the road of life.

And then one day, as the sun sets on your life and you reflect back on it, you can think: Well, I did lead a life of quiet desperation, but that’s all I ever thought it would be. Thus, you can die a reasonably ambivalent person.

It’s all a matter of setting realistic goals, and expecting much less.

Monday, May 06, 1996

AUC: Being happy? It’s all in your head

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my occasional column called...]
Another Useless Column

As a member of the post-Boomer generation, I realize I’m supposed to be cynical and crass and filled with ennui. Now don’t get me wrong: I have more than adequate levels of cynicism to get into the meetings.

Between the national debt, pollution, injustice, the economy, general uncertainty about the future, and the fact that Joey Lawrence still has a career, I think no one could blame us if we all became card-carrying nihilists.

At the risk of getting kicked out of the club, however, I have a confession.

I’m kind of happy with my life at the moment.

I know, I know. I’m as surprised as you. My life is far from perfect, mind you, but hell, I’ve never had any disputes resolved on a daytime talk show.

Everyone wants to be happy. Well, everyone except Morrissey, but that’s only because it would be a bad career move.

So what makes people happy? Who knows? Perhaps that’s the problem: some people haven’t figured out what brings happiness. That, or maybe we really do lead a pointless existence in a Godless universe where nothing we do matters. I’m on the fence on that one.

Speaking for myself, my present lack of dissatisfaction can be traced to a simple fact: I’ve been down, and I’m not there anymore. I lived through self-esteem shattering effects of getting divorced, getting laid off, and being unemployed and broke for months. (The worst part of having nothing to do is that it gives one so much time to contemplate how lousy things are, with every passing day dragging one deeper into despair.)

Somehow, I survived, and when my fortunes turned, I was extremely appreciative. I lucked out and got a not-horrible job. I began writing for this rag and met a lot of cool folks. I actually had money to socialize again.

Perhaps that’s it: people. We crave interaction. Except maybe Ted Kaczinsky. But for the most part, we are social animals. The irony, of course, is that people often are the greatest source of aggravation in people’s lives. The other irony is that happiness must come from within, and yet we become [sic] look outward. Ain’t we screwy.

And mere platonic friendship isn’t quite enough. The search for that special someone proves a major concern in the quest for happiness. We long to find that person whose neuroses jibe with our own, and we dub it love. And darn if it isn’t just the best distraction there is. Oh wait. That’s sex.

Sorry. I’m sounding sarcastic. Love is good. Honest. Sincerely. I recommend it highly. Get back on the horse, no matter how often you’re thrown.

Alert readers have probably discerned another large component of why my malaise-meter is reading so low: yes, I’ve met someone I like a lot who seems to like me back. I don’t know what will come of it. Oh sure, my cynical side gnaws at me, wondering when it’s all going to blow up in my face, but for now I’m reveling in the moment.

Perhaps that’s it: setting the joy-telescopes to pick up the light in the dim stars rather than waiting for the full illumination of dawn.

Or maybe it’s a matter of perfecting the art of self-deception. In the end, whether you’re genuinely happy or just think you are, isn’t the effect the same in the end? [sic]

[2006 note: Hell of an editing job, eh?]

Age of Reason (Paul Westerberg review)

[The following is a review I wrote for the Music page of the Long Beach Union, the student paper at Long Beach State.]

Age of Reason

Paul Westerberg is getting older. But then, aren’t we all?

In his younger days, he fronted the seminal Minneapolis post-punk band the Replacements. The debauchery of their live shows often outshined Westerberg’s brilliant songwriting.

After the group broke up, many expected Westerberg’s first solo album (14 Songs) to be a reserved work focused on the songwriting. Instead, it proved a diverse collection, with lush ballads, unabashed rockers, and ever a song recorded in one take in his kitchen.

Three years later, Westerberg’s sophomore effort, Eventually, finds the 36 year-old contemplating life differently than he did in the wild days of youth.

Eventually flows more like a proper album than did 14 Songs. I’m not sure if that’s good or not.

The album opens with the contemplative “These Are The Days,” then segues into the semi-political “Century.” Of course, politics Westerberg style is not scathing, rather merely commenting: “The only ones standing after your speech/Are the ones with mops and the brooms and the keys.”

The standout track is the pensive “Hide n Seekin’,” which picks up on the threads of the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” A lone guitar, accompanied by brushes on a snare and a lilty flute, provides the backdrop for the song’s bar scene, where the narrator dismisses with the game-playing of youth: “Hide ‘n seekin’s for children, baby/Now it’s hid and saw.”

In the country song “Once Around the Weekend,” he accepts the slower pace of life, noting “I stay in every night of the week.” He can appreciate the quieter moments in life (or at least can remember them).

Even the angst (inasmuch as there is any) comes across in a somewhat detached way. In “MamaDaddyDid,” Westerberg sings, “Decided not to raise any children/Just like my Ma-ma-mama Daddy did.” Rather than seeming a bitter criticism, however, it comes across as accepting of the parents’ inadequacies. Westerberg’s gotten over it.

There’s also a certain optimism permeating the songs, most obvious in the piano ballad “Good Day.” Perhaps the death of former Replacements’ guitarist Bob Stinson last year made Westerberg appreciate things, as evidenced by the lines: “Sing along/Hold my life/A good day/Is any day that you’re alive.”

The rockers, like “You’ve Had It With You,” don’t succeed as well as some cuts. Westerberg can still turn out power pop tunes with the best of them, but they aren’t his best material.
I guess that’s the thing about Westerberg: he really is one of the best songwriters out there, so I apply higher standards to him.

Eventually is an outstanding album. It far exceeds most of what’s out there today. So will it receive the attention it deserves? Probably not.

If you want to hear what bands like the Goo Goo Dolls will sound like in a few years, you can hear it now by picking up Paul Westerberg. No matter how old you feel.

Monday, March 04, 1996

Grunion: CSU trustees to order school uniforms

[The following is from the Grunion (satire page--at least it was at the time--of the Long Beach Union, student newspaper at Long Beach State), published March 4, 1996]

CSU trustees to order school uniforms
By Morty Arthur

Grossly influenced by President Clinton’s remarks during a recent visit to a local school, the California State University Board of Trustees has tentatively approved a plan to require CSU students to wear uniforms while on campus, a spokesperson inadvertently mentioned while drunk at a local pub.

The trustees intend to implement a test run of the plan next semester here at CSULB, envious of the attention bestowed upon Long Beach’s Jackie Robinson Academy for being the first school to mandate student wardrobe.

“We heard Clinton commending them for this uniform thing, and we got this idea,” the spokesperson uttered. “Yeah, we did. Not the UC Regents, us. We’re sick of the UC Regents always making decisions and getting the glory. We can do stuff, too. We didn’t get rid of affirmative action like they did—although that was because we got bribes.”

Addressing the decision behind using CSULB as the experiment, the spokesperson stated, “Obviously, kids in Long Beach will do anything anybody tells ‘em, so we figured the college kids must be equally spineless. Hell, I can’t believe the students at Cal State Long Beach can still enunciate, considering what’s really coming out that power plant they call a water heater.” The spokesperson then laughed maniacally and staggered off to the restroom before he could elaborate.

We he returned (his fly open), I asked him if the Trustees intended to ease racial tension on campus, as were the findings in the lower grades. “Tension-smension, as long as we’re rich,” he replied.

The spokesperson rambled on semi-deliriously, grasping his glass as though it were a jewel. I was forced to threaten him with the wrath of the genie of the lamp to get him to explain. Staring absently at the broken Zima neon sign, he noted that the appeal of the uniforms for the Trustees was the opportunity to sell advertising on the uniforms, much like riders in the Tour de France, from which the Trustees would receive a percentage.

He alluded to the arrangement Sprint has made with a number of universities, including CSULB, whereby they can advertise on the student i.d. cards. Apparently, many large corporations were “very interested” by the idea, seeing the college-aged consumers as a lucrative demographic.

“That’s all they’re good for,” the spokesperson concluded, “so the sooner they accept that fact, the better for the companies.”

I added that it was also better for the trustees. The spokesperson resumed staring at the Zima sign and smiling.

When asked how they intended to get the university students to comply with the plan, the spokesperson fell off his barstool, spilling his drink, and convulsed with laughter on the floor. After I helped him up and he ordered another round, he wiped the tears from his eyes and announced, “We’re the fuckin’ trustees. We can do anything we want. The students have never stopped us from raising tuition. They the losers who couldn’t get into decent schools. What can they do?”

I said they could drop out, thus reducing the revenues from tuition.

“Yeah, sure,” the spokesperson retorted. “We’ve got ‘em all so convinced that the only way to succeed is to get a degree—even though they’ll just end up in some dead-end job anyway—that they’d be too scared to do that. Weren’t you listening? They can’t even coordinate a letter campaign over tuition. They’re not gonna rock the boat.”

When asked if some of the uniform advertising would be used to offset costs and keep tuitions from rising, the spokesperson said, “That’s what we’re gonna tell ‘em.”

The African-American waitress who was serving us overheard part of the conversation and noted she was a CSULB student.

Upon hearing this, the spokesperson mentioned he might be able to help her, if she was willing to “comply with the trustees’ wishes.”

The waitress told him perform an anatomically-impossible act, to which he unadvisedly replied, “Look, if it wasn’t for us keeping Affirmative Action, your kind couldn’t have even gotten into that school!”

The waitress proceeded to strike the spokesperson in the head with her tray. He was knocked unconscious, and as he lay sprawled on the floor, I told the waitress he would cover my tab.

Remember to act surprised when the new uniform policy is unveiled.

Tuesday, February 20, 1996

AUC: What's love got to do with it?

[The following was my inaugural column in the Long Beach Union, the student-run newspaper at California State University Long Beach. Despite being the first one, it was identified with the banner...]

Another Useless Column

"True love is the greatest thing in the world, except for cough drops. Everybody knows that."
- William Goldman, The Princess Bride
[Read the book--it's slightly different from the film.]

I don’t know the story behind Valentine’s Day, although I think it involved somebody getting his head cut off or something. I do know that on The Simpsons, Lisa gave Ralph Wiggum a card out of pity, and it ended with Ralph being emotionally destroyed before the end of the episode, all because of a little misinterpretation of Lisa’s intentions.

The lesson here: Love should not be given out inconsiderately (Like, on the other hand, should be dispensed like paper towels in the restroom).

Still, every February 14th, we make a public spectacle of this most private emotional connection.

Whether you had a Valentine or not, I’m sure you noticed last Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. It is terribly well marketed. Hallmark stores had entire sections of the shop devoted to lace-bordered cards. Restaurants and nightclubs ran promotions to lure couples in their establishments for the evening. And this is just the tip of the commercialization iceburg.

Capitalism more or less thrives on the exploitation of holidays for business. A lot of people are trying to make money that other people have been convinced they should spend. That’s the game. I’m jealous; I wish I could have that kind of influence.

Florists have imbedded their wares into the public consciousness particularly well. They had to call in extra help for all the deliveries. At work, several of the women received flowers. I even heard of some women who platonically gave flowers to other women who had no significant other to send them. What is it about flowers? To quote a female Union staffer, “Women just like flowers; I don’t know why.” None of the men in the office got flowers; this is a practice that still hasn’t caught on. Granted, women probably know it’s a wasted expression. If someone ever figures out how to convince men to like flowers, that person will be rich beyond belief, providing they sell flowers.

(To digress briefly, personally, I’ve never liked the symbolism of cut flowers. They’re dead. You can delay the inevitable by putting them in fizzy water, but their beauty is ephemeral. Symbolically, I think a better gift is a potted plant that will live as long as it is cared for.)

Of course, there is no inherent sexism to the marketing of Valentine’s Day, and certainly not when it comes to jewelry. I heard radio ad for a merchant that had cleverly hidden a diamond ring in a box of chocolates, so “she” won’t [sic] discern the nature of the gift until it was opened, at which time should would give “you” a big kiss and the world would stop rotating for those few moments. Clearly, this could apply equally well to the heterosexual male or lesbian demographics. Smart advertisers leave the gender ambiguous. (Over in Japan, there is a day when women give gifts to men, and a separate day when the roles are reversed. Imagine the marketing potential! I’m not sure when Japanese homosexuals celebrate.)

Say, could they be hinting that men will receive “compensation” in other ways, and therefore don’t need material gifts? Nah, couldn’t be.

Society is what it is; nothing is to be blamed on February 14th.

All this quibbling aside, I object only to the forced sense of obligation that has permeated our culture. Why must we expect things from our significant others just because the calendar says Valentine’s Day? Why do we have to make those who have no sweethearts feel like social lepers on Valentine’s Day?

I’ve been in love, madly, deeply. I know that when it’s real, it is its own reward. I believe it should be celebrated every day, in small but significant ways b the parties involved. The little smile, the comforting hug, the covering each other in whipped cream.

I also know that when you lose it, it hurts. A lot. So for your own sake, be careful. Remember the lesson of Ralph Wiggum.

For the record, I know there are plenty of women who lavish material gifts on their special someone, even send flowers. The stereotype exists, and it seems a lot of people take it seriously.

But hey, it’s a free country (sort of), so do what you want.

Some people may look to Bed of Roses or some such film as their Hollywood model for how love should be; I admire Homer and Marge. Sure, he screws up—that’s his defining characteristic—but he means well, and most importantly, he loves her and she loves him. No matter what. Well, at least by the end of the episode.