Friday, January 28, 2000

an ill wind blows snow good

After trying for several hours, I am convinced there is nothing profound to say about the first major blizzard of the 21st century, and I should have stuck with what I had written before Old Man Winter struck, about Charlotte Bronte and her boring books.

When I began to write this, it was just past 2 a.m. Wednesday, and I was sitting at my desk in front of the computer. It is now nearing 10 a.m., and I'm still here. I was stranded at the office by a storm that dropped about 8 inches of snow in less than 24 hours.

All told, it hasn't been as bad as it sounds. The heat and the power worked all night, the phone and e-mail kept me in touch with the outside world, and my collection of cool toys -- including a three-eyed alien from "Toy Story 2," a talking "Batman Beyond" figurine and Cookie Monster -- have kept me occupied.

Old Man Winter and I have never gotten on especially well. We did reach a mutal understanding of a sorts for about two years: I moved to the tropics, and he never lowered the temperature below the 70s. When I returned to the United States, though, it was back to our old love-hate relationship.

When I was a child, there was a certain zing in the brisk winter air when the mercury dipped low, especially when there was snow. I loved to go tobogganing, and I shared with every other child the thrill of creating a snowman and waiting for it to burst into hideous life in a twisted version of "Frankenstein" meets "Winter Wonder Land."

But winter had a dark side too. It was wet, and that gave the cold temperatures a sinister gloss I never quite overcame. I still remember making a snow angel when I was 6 years old. The snow went down the back of my blue coat, where it became trapped and melted, leaving me shaking and shivering in the cold for however long it took me to risk my brothers' ridicule and go inside.

It's been about 23 years, and the world is still awaiting my second snow angel.

Then there were the snowball fights. Everyone loves snowball fights, it's true, and I suppose I've thrown my share of those missiles too. But with three brothers, it wasn't hard to discover that snowballs also could be unpleasant when they hit me.

In the political alliances of the four Learn boys, two parties usually surfaced: Herbert and Ward, and Brian and me. Free-for-all snowball fights were the exception. In these as with nothing else, I tried to assert a neutrality that would keep me safe from all harm, and billed myself as the "snow fort repairman."

I thought it was a good arrangement. I got to enjoy seeing all three of my brothers get pounded with snow balls at one point or another, while I stayed safe from aggression (so I thought) because, after all, you need a fort to protect yourself from the snowballs.

Herb's fort especially took a beating, not because the snowballs were made of ice -- although that was known to happen - but because he used to stand on top of it and sing "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner" and try to provoke Brian into hitting him.

The taunting invariably angered Brian -- we all were good at provoking him -- and he would step out from behind his protective wall, straight into one of Brian's piledrivers.

The combined toll of Brian's high-powered vengeance and Bill's own impromptu song-and-dance routines took their toll on his forts. They usually began the day as 4 feet high and ended as 2-foot walls of solid ice. I kept myself busy packing more and more snow on top of them, and screaming loudly whenever a snowball came too close.

As I recall, my neutral repairman strategy worked exactly once. The second time I tried it, I became the universally accepted target, and was sent screaming back inside, followed by a steady barrage of snowballs.

(Don't feel too bad for me. I eventually came out on top, since I landed a job at a newspaper that lets me make fun of them in print whenever I want.)

More than 20 years have passed since my job as a snow-fort repairman, and things have not changed much for me as far as the snow goes. I still enjoy the nip of the cold air, I still enjoy building snowmen and throwing snowballs, and I still hate being hit with them.

After sleeping at my desk Tuesday night - a novel experience in that I wasn't supposed to be working this time - I stepped outside to warm up the car and go find some breakfast. For the fourth time in two days, I retrieved my ice scraper and set to clearing the windows, keeping my hands well inside my sleeves.

One of the men who was clearing the parking lot of our office complex saw me scraping away and came to offer his assistance. Apparently, I still cut a pathetic figure in the snowy weather.

Thursday, January 20, 2000

my coke addiction

I realized earlier this week that I have missed out on the single largest gravy train to come through the country in recent years. I haven't made millions by suing anyone.

Forget the minor personal-injury lawsuits for a paltry million dollars or so. The biggest money-maker is the class action lawsuit against an entire industry. Guns- and tobacco-related lawsuits were the big winners in the past few years; with the support of a few thousand other consumers, I want to go straight to the top and hit the soft-drink manufacturers.

The big soda makers are just crying out to be sued. For starters, they have lots of money to pay huge out-of-court settlements. Actually, that's the only reason I need, but my favorite fizzy beverage also has caused me several health problems, including cavities, increased urination and a brown tongue.

And emotional suffering. No, really.

I'm addicted to The Real Thing. I've been known to have three 20-ounce bottles in a single day. By the time I finish, I have reached hypertension Nirvana with a caffeine-and-sugar buzz that has me pacing the floor at 90 mph, completely unable to sit down and concern myself with earthly affairs, like work.

I have all the classic signs of an addict. If I go without my dose, my face takes on a drawn, strung-out look. I can't sleep late at night, even when I'm suffering from extreme fatigue.

Plain old water and other, healthier drinks just don't cut it for me; I even poured the cold fizzy on my breakfast cereal this morning to give Snap, Crackle and Pop a little more zing.

My performance at work is impaired because I can't stop craving the flavored brown acid, and I continually make excuses to cover up my addiction and the unexplained expenses at the supermarket.

"Why are there 23 trips to the Hillsborough ShopRite on our VISA bill?" my wife asked me as she held up the bill. "We didn't need that many groceries."

"Oh, well, you know how it is," I said, relieved she doesn't know about the trips to the soda machine at Kmart. "I bought a few things to share with people at the office."

I'm a victim of marketing strategies. When I was a child growing up outside Pittsburgh, Coke ran commercials in 1980 at the height of the Super Bowl XIV hysteria, featuring "Mean Joe" Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I've been duped by celebrity endorsements from people like Max Headroom and Bill Cosby. I mean, come on! If Bill Cosby thought Coke was "The Real Thing" and talked about how it often won the Pepsi Challenge, who was I to argue?

If Remington or Colt had run commercials on prime-time TV of Joe Greene shooting people on the other football team, or if Bill Cosby smoked a pack of Marlboros in the Huxtable family residence, parents groups would have thrown a fit. Why should Coke or the other soft drink giants be any different?

Worse, the soda pop industry is taking full advantage of my addiction. It looks like the old 50-cent cans are going the way of the dodo. They now cost 80 cents most places, and even the vending machines sell 20-ounce bottles, usually for $1. Luckily the one by the office charges only 75 cents.

And now apparently even that might change. An article I saw last year on CNNfn.com said Coca-Cola was considering investing in a device that would let individual machines change the price to match the temperature.

That way, when a really crippling heat wave hits like we had this past summer, the machine will anticipate the increased demand and raise the price to match. The hotter the day, the more expensive the drink. (Somehow I doubt they'll give it away during cold snaps, though.)

So as I said, I think it's only reasonable to file a lawsuit. At the very least, any money I collect can help support my habit.

Thursday, January 13, 2000

gold for glurge

I finally have found a use for stupid e-mail. With just a little effort, I recently earned a few hundred dollars on it.

I classify stupid e-mail into three distinct categories. First is the senseless petition for a nonexistent cause, like saving "Sesame Street" from Chechnyan rebels who want to sell Big Bird for $4.99 a pound on the open market to buy munitions.

Second are bogus alerts about viruses that will cause planet Earth to wobble uncontrollably if you open an e-mail titled "Help a poor dog win a free vacation!"

Third are warm, fuzzy inspirational vignettes. These are the worst, and surely originate in the very pits of hell, where Bill Gates -- numerologically identified as the Antichrist in several e-mails I have received and on many Web sites I have visited -- has assigned a mail-daemon, third class, to fill the Internet with inane messages about God, the meaning of life and e-mail tracking giveaway offers.

These pieces of inspiration typically go something like this: A boy is walking down the street, when he is crushed flat by a falling piano dropped out of the cargo hold of a Boeing 747.

It's very sad of course, and the boy can't figure out why no one else notices the bright shining "birdies" who keep flying around him and playing Don McLean's "American Pie" on their harps.

Anyway, as the boy stands there, listening to the "birdies" sing about Bob Dylan and the Scopes Monkey trial, a dog comes by and licks the face of the boy, who comes back to life and begins his divinely appointed task of telling everyone all about those beautiful "birdies."

After this heartwarming tale comes the kicker. We discover at the end of the story that the dog was actually God, who was walking backward for some reason, thus reversing the spelling of his name and effecting a disguise.

We're also asked to forward the letter to everyone we know. (If you've been deeply moved by this tale, I won't mind if you dry your tears before you read on.)

These e-mails usually are preceded by personal messages from 23 people you never heard of before, all of whom claim to be deeply touched by the inspirational message. "I hat [sic] to send frowards [sic], but this was so beautifull [sic] I just cried and had to pass it on to you!" is one common motif.

Another is, "I never liked dogs before, but after I read this e-mail, I bought a black Lab. The next day, I went to the hospital for a checkup and my tumor was gone!"

I'm sure these people have been touched by something, but I don't think it was the story.

I tried to stop getting these forwards, and sent several messages telling the senders how much I really didn't want to get them. "Mom," I wrote, "I've seen these things a million times before and they annoy me. Please stop sending them to me." It never worked, though.

So a while ago, I decided I had had enough. It was time to fight back. If I couldn't stop them, I was going to perpetuate them, but I was going to do it my way. I took these pieces of inspiration and began to rewrite them, making what I think of as "improvements."

One of the first I personally hit was a touching (there's that word again) vignette called "The Cracked Pot," a title I probably should use for this column.

In this story, a water-bearer has two pots, one of which miraculously has developed intelligence through a trip to Rhode Island in the trunk of a 1992 Buick Century with a rubber band and a can of mushroom soup. The pot feels guilty because it spills water through a huge crack in its side.

In the original, the servant uses that leak to water flowers along the path, and then the writer goes into a touching (there's that word again) homily that God uses our imperfections just like that blah blah blah blah and so everyone should be a crackpot.

In my version, among other things the servant smashes the pot for its impertinence, and then slips in the spilled water and breaks his neck. It's much more satisfying than the original.

Something clicked deep inside when I finished this rewrite. I had found a voice. In the months since then, my best friend and I have rewritten literally dozens of forwarded e-mails, including urban legends, poetry and more than a few inspirational stories.

Some people find them hilarious, but others are concerned they aren't entirely appropriate.

"Aw, you can't make fun of 'Footprints!'" a friend of mine objected. I suspect he is the inspiration for that particular story since he frequently dreams about walking along the beach with God.

"No I will not send you any more devotionals," my brother Ward wrote me when I asked for more fodder. "To be honest, I find some of your 'spoofs' quite blasphemous and anti-God." (Ward backed down from that stance once I explained my satirical intent, and now just says I have no social skills. Well, duh.)

I found the perfect vehicle for expression in "The Door," a magazine of religious-themed satire I subscribe to. A few months ago, I mailed "The Door" my renditions of three classic pieces of inspiration, including the ubiquitous "Footprints" poem.

Last week, my copy of the magazine came, vignettes on the center pages, along with a check for $300.

It's a nice feeling, especially since most of the writing already had been done for me. Now I just need to find a way to cash in on those stupid petitions and virus alerts.

Thursday, January 06, 2000

mildew prognostications

Some people, when they want to know the future, consult the stars. Others shuffle a deck of Tarot cards, and still others have their palms read.

Not me. When my curiosity about the new millennium got the better of me recently, I turned to the mildew that has started to grow on the walls of our shower at home, and studied it to divine the course the future will take.

Among my discoveries were the winning numbers to New Jersey's Powerball lottery, a remarkable likeness of Andy Kaufman, the results of the upcoming presidential election, and much more.

So, without further ado, here is what the next century holds for us all. Remember, you read it here first.

2000. Yosemite Sam wins the presidency on Nov. 7 as the result of a protest vote by Americans who want real candidates for a change. The U.S. Supreme Court orders all votes for "President Horny Toads" stricken, and gives the office to runner-up Tinky Winky.

2001. The Society for Anal Retentive Behavior celebrates the start of the new millennium, carefully explaining that 2000 wasn't really the start of the millennium because there was no Year 0. No one else cares.

2003. Religious activist-turned-politician Gary Bauer has a brain aneurysm when several gay- and women's-rights groups straightfacedly endorse his latest bid for presidency, calling him "a man of vision -- just what America needs for the 21st century."

2008. Former President Bill Clinton, in a statement to The NY Journal News, angrily declares, "I did not have an affair with that cleaning lady."

2012. The Titanic II, designed to replicate the original ocean liner in every aspect, disappoints everyone by not striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage. In order to keep his book deal, however, the captain of the boat arranges for a submarine from Finland to torpedo the liner just before it reaches New York.

2016. When some enterprising business owners begin shuttle runs to a new Hilton hotel on the moon for tourist vacations, national Republican and Democratic leaders alike rush to the nearest travel agency to buy each other one-way tickets. Voter turnout quadruples within three years.

2019. Former President Bill Clinton, in a statement delivered from his room at the Happy Acres Retirement Home, angrily declares, "I did not have an affair with the nurse who changes my bedpan."

2021. Somerset Valley Players, a theater based in Neshanic Station, N.J., becomes the third New Jersey theater to win the coveted Tony Award, for its innovative production of the little-known "Batman" musical.

2026. A group of animal-rights activists seize control of an entire barn for 53 tension-filled days. The confrontation finally resolves when government troops burst through one of the walls, knocking down a Coleman lantern and starting a fire that barbecues all the cows.

2032. Developers pave over the last available square inch in New Jersey and set their eyes on New England and rural Pennsylvania.

2037. The Packet Group of newspapers in Princeton, N.J., buys The New York Times, and makes the Hillsborough Beacon and The Manville News its new flagship papers.

2038. Disappointed survivalists abandon their bomb shelters and return to society after the Year 2038 arrives with only minor complications arising from the Y2038 computer bug. Ironically, the next day there is a nuclear attack and none of them reach their shelters in time.

2040. Developer U.S. Home scales back its controversial development The Greenbriar at Mill Lane to include only 2,000 living units. Elected officials promise a resolution to the 50-year-old controversy will be accomplished "soon."

2044. The smallest country in the world splits into two smaller countries when leaders in the reigning military junta disagree over whether the potatoes have enough salt.

2057. Hurricane Archibald hits the East Coast, and causes floods that decimate every municipality from Long Island, N.Y., down to Raleigh, N.C. Developers deny that flooding was exacerbated by excessive building, and instead blame the disaster on an unusually high tide.

2061. A particularly nasty flu virus wipes out all the chickens in the world. Yum Foods abandons its entire KFC chain, but not until after the chain jacks prices to $30 a piece because of the bird's new status as a delicacy.

2063. A cult forms in Hillsborough, N.J., worshipping the embalmed head of legendary freelance journalist Minx McCloud.

2065. Developer U.S. Home denies stonewalling the Hillsborough Planning Board as it submits a new application for 3,104 living units. Elected officials assure voters that a resolution is "in the works."

2070. An experiment with tachyons at Brookhaven National Laboratory accidentally causes time to run backward, with the unforeseen consequence that disco becomes popular again. An angry mob storms the lab and, unable to find the responsible scientists, eats all the yellow Zingers in the snack machines.

2075. Humanity's first colony on Mars comes to an unfortunate and untimely end when someone opens a window "to get a little fresh air."

2092. Experts in the computer industry, concerned about falling profits, start to make noise about the "Y2.1K bug."

2097. Hillsborough, N.J., planners finally approve the controversial Greenbriar development, allowing developer U.S. Home to build 2,876 units in ten 23-story buildings and calling it "a victory for open space in Hillsborough."

2098. James Cameron III wins 43 Academy Awards for his movie "Titanic II," which fortunately does not star either Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio, or anyone who looks remotely like them.

2099. A spry Dick Clark is one of dozens killed during a New Year's Eve party in Times Square when the dropping ball breaks off the pole and plows through the crowds.

2100. Every one of these predictions having come true, there is a renewed interest in the writings of David Learn and in the science of divination through reading mildew. The so-called Wall of Futures, however, is destroyed through an unfortunate accident involving a sponge and a bottle of bathroom cleaner.