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Thursday, 29 June
King Of The Choad

As I get older (so much older), I start to think about the things that I did when I was young, and wouldn't even consider any more. Weirdly, as it turns out, one of those things is the venerable road trip.

We've all been there. "ROAD TRIP!" And then you pile into a car and drive. My friend PJ and her guy are doing this starting tomorrow! They're going down to the fucking desert somewhere to crap in the sand for a week. They are insane. Fuck road trips. They were fun at one point, but now they're just going "WOO!" for half an hour and then falling asleep and running into a roadside barrier. I wish my friends weren't going on this TOTAL DEATH ROAD TRIP, but they are adults after all. Say hi to Satan, road-trippers! I hope you enjoy taking it up the ass for eternity!

But I used to really enjoy road trips. My old college friend D. used to take them all the time. (D. was the same guy who would get his Alaskan Dividend Fund checks every year and solemnly announce, "We are drinking this whole thing.") D. would show up at my horrible, dilapidated college house--the one where we patched walls by spackling over wall-holes filled with empty pizza boxes--and simply kidnapping me. "We're going to the beach!" he would scream. And then I'd kick a path through the dead flies and beer cans to shake his hand. "I agree to this plan," I would intone. Then I would do a quick visual scan of the living room floor to make sure there weren't any mysterious human turds on the carpet that required my attention (hey, once bitten, you know?), we would leave.

ROAD TRIP! Right to the local Safeway, two blocks away. D. and I would then, in the best idiotic college student fashion, load up on "road sodas." Our sodas of choice happened to be Red Beers: that is, Rainier beers mixed with tomato juice and topped with a generous amount of black pepper. (D. kept a container of black pepper in his pickup truck for just these trips.) Once armed, we would then head for the Oregon coast.

A side note here on driving while drinking: unless you are a dumb teenager, don't do it. You might hurt somebody. If you are a dumb teenager: I must insist that you not drive unless you are drinking. My experience has shown me that the only safe driving teenager is a drunk one. In fact, I've written a paper on this topic, which I have submitted to The Lancet, entitled "Red Beers Found To Be So Awesome."

The thing about road trips is how quickly you realize that the destination is utterly unimportant. In fact, once you get to wherever, things can rapidly sour if you're not careful--for example, if you failed to carry enough supply of red beers. D. and I would usually get to the Oregon coast and dick around with our feet in the terrifyingly cold surf for a couple minutes before retiring to the sand for some red beer-induced naps. We might as well have gone to a Motel 6 or some Tokyo discount coffins. The Oregon coast is, don't get me wrong, completely gorgeous, but it's also the cure for what ails ya if you're really tired of ever seeing your nuts for days at a time.

I sort of miss road trips, but it's an abstract sort of feeling. I haven't had a red beer--or rode in a pickup, for that matter--for a long time. It's just as well. It doesn't really sound that interesting to me now to load up on some cheap beer and tomato juice to make a run to the coast. In fact, it sounds like something out of Raising Arizona, but without the baby or dye packs.

In fact, I don't really feel like driving around anywhere any more. It's just a hassle and a drag. Which is why I'm putting out the call for teenaged chauffeur. NEEDED: Drunken teenager to drive me wherever I need to be. The Rainier is on me. Safety first, after all.

Monday, 26 June
Are You Receiving Me?

I'm always fucking grousing about something, aren't I? Let's see if I can write something nice without it being corny or anything. ("Corny"? Hi, I'm Holden Caulfield.)

In 1987 or '88 or so, a high school friend of mine landed some sort of scutty work-study gig at KORT, the lone radio station in my hometown. (He would later go on to do DJ work there on weekends, which was swell for me, as I would hang out with him for hours at the studio, where I diligently screwed BIG MUSIC by taping hundreds of their terrible albums.) Periodically, as some sort of lame perk, KORT would offer their employees a number of the albums--yes, vinyl--that they'd receive from the studios, but that KORT clearly had no intention of ever playing.

One day I was at my friend's house, just hanging out, and he brought out one of these albums and offered it to me. "Do you want this?" he said. "It sucks." A ringing endorsement! He handed it to me--I had never heard of the band, much less this strange, meadow-green-jacketed album. It was called Skylarking by some people--or robots, or sentient foxgloves, for all I knew--called XTC.

You have to understand here--I was growing up in Grangeville, Idaho. My only real sources of music were my parents' collection of '60s and '70s rock--and don't get me wrong, thank God for those albums--and, well, KORT, for whom a real act of radio bravery was to air the likes of Ratt, which I knew the station would never play on Sunday, thanks to my friend. As far as KORT was concerned, most of rock music could call it quits with the arrival of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and for the grandmas who querulously mewled for a little classical every now and then, they could always point to the fact that every now and then they played "Chariots of Fire." Probably on Sunday.

So there were--and still are--some fairly massive gaps in my musical education.

I took the thing home without any real expectations. I mean, here was a hopeless album rejected from my radio station as well as my dismissive friend. But I had nothing else to do, so I listened to it at home in my room.

Mother Mary of God, what was this? I don't mean to say that it sounded like transmissions from the Planet of Screaming Dogs or anything outlandish, but . . . what was this? And how could my friend declare flatly that it sucked? If there was anything that Skylarking didn't do was suck. It had--okay, pretty broadly obvious--drug references, comic book characters, and a serious amount of fun with words ("um-bi-lie-cal"?). It also had some fairly strange sonic entries, such as the bizarrely pompous and strangely Autumnal "Sacrificial Bonfire" and the track I instantly fell in love with, the delay-soaked "Another Satellite." It even had a big fuck-you to God that some of you might be familiar with.

I listened to the hell out of that record. I wore that record out. And I got mad. Why the fuck would anyone--let alone a radio station--not play this record? It upset me a lot. And I wasn't even about to go to bat for some of the songs--not being much of a fan of the genre, I can live without the jazz-inflected "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," and to be honest, I can't at this moment even remember what "Dying" is like. But the rest! How could anyone not want to listen to the relentlessly hooky "That's Really Super, Supergirl"? Look, I'm not trying to hand you a big "THIS CHANGED MY LIFE" thing . . . unless maybe I am. In some small, very personal way . . . fuck it, sure, I guess it did.

After a while, I tentatively started reaching out. I noticed the name "Todd Rundgren" as the producer, and dimly recalled the name from . . . somewhere. Rolling Stone, I'm guessing. So I bought Something/Anything, and while it didn't strike me as forcefully as Skylarking, I was intrigued. This guy is clearly a fucking madman, I thought. (Later I read about the legendarily tumultuous studio sessions that led to Skylarking and my suspicions were confirmed.) I bought a puzzling little double-cassette from XTC called Waxworks/Beeswax, which I was astonished to learn was a collection of their previous singles and B-sides. Astonished because look at all these fucking songs! These guys had been around forever! Who the fuck knew? I practically leaped around my room in joy and befuddlement as the songs unspooled in my stereo, from those spiky, yelping older songs like "This Is Pop" and "Life Begins at the Hop" to some of the later songs that hinted at things to come, like "Making Plans for Nigel." What in the fuck was wrong with the world? Why wouldn't anyone play these songs?

It's still pretty embarrassing that it took me a number of years to figure out that nobody in the rural Pacific Northwest was interested in this stuff in the slightest. My big beef was that KORT was failing to provide the content that the consumer demanded. My big failure in this line of reasoning was, in classic teenage fashion, my inability to recognize that a consumer base of one is always going to lose. (Not that I was likely the only person who was tired of hearing "On the Dark Side." I just didn't have the guts to tell anyone else that the song ate dick, and I had something better to listen to.)

Skylarking, I know this now, led to me branching out, however tentatively at first, but then with increasing boldness--and, typically, with some seriously horrible and misguided results. I hate to lay this at the feet of XTC, but they are in fact directly responsible for how I came to seek out and embrace such a dog's breakfast of bands: to get an idea of how out of my depth I was, let me list some resultant bands that I sought out in my new, fevered quest for things I'd not heard of: Love and Rockets (two albums of YAY! and then Oh, Boy); Frank Zappa (I managed to choose possibly his least-loved entry Jazz From Hell); Big Audio Dynamite (they didn't always suck!); Sigue Sigue Sputnik (which you at least have to admit is a screamingly awesome cultural document--this is the 1980s distilled into its purest form).

This of course also led to other horrible missteps. Whither Clan of Xymox? Whence 808 State? What the fuck, Flesh for Lulu? Should I lay this all at the feet of poor Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding?

I fear I must. But I do so with thanks.

What's with all this? Well, see, my 37th birthday was this last Saturday, and to my delight, the wife purchased for me, among other things, this XTC box set called Coat of Many Cupboards, one of those dealies which collects old album singles, home demos, band demos and versions of songs played while encased in cobalt and all that. I was looking over the thing fondly, and I recalled that fateful moment when my friend handed over Skylarking, and I remember the unalloyed joy of playing that album, over and over in my room, and trying my level best as a dipshit high school brain case trying utterly without success to get my few friends to understand why it was great, and damn it if I found myself shockingly close to tears with the memory. The memory of the frustration, of feeling I'd connected with something, and as far as anyone else was concerned, I was making mysterious semaphores from an ugly boat nobody wanted to get near.

So there you go. An old, old story: the adolescent disconnect. It might as well be a story about a car, or about my first at-bat in baseball, or about sexual confusion. But that's the best thing about rock music--or, fuck that--any music. It's about all of it. None of Skylarking is about any of that, really--the best thing about Skylarking is that it's about me, as far as I'm concerned. Skylarking tells me my own story, and if I may be selfish like all of us must be sometimes, I can never hear it enough.

I tried to think of an elegant way to get this last bit in, but damn it all if I can't. You know what the hell of it is? English Settlement really is better than Skylarking. But there is also truth to the old saying: You never forget the first time you fall in love.

Wednesday, 21 June
Here There Be Cliches

Midway in his allotted threescore years and ten, Skot comes to himself with a start and realizes that he has strayed from the True Way into the Dark Wood of Error (DMV). His way is blocked by three beasts of Afternoon: THE LEOPARD OF AUTOMATED QUEUING, THE LION OF UNCOMFORTABLE PLASTIC CHAIRS and THE SHE-WOLF OF DISCARDED USA TODAYS. These beasts, especially the She-Wolf, drive him back despairing into the darkness of sitting down and hopeless inertia. But just as all seems lost, a figure appears to him. It is the shade of VIRGIL, Skot's symbol of a half-remembered liberal arts education.

"Hey!" said I to the shade. "You must be Virgil."
He replied, "Yes, it is I. What's the haps?"
And I said to the shade, "Not much rhymes with Virgil."

"Indeed," said Virgil. "Terza rima is a real bitch--
I see you will not attempt it this day."
I agreed that terza rima was a total bitch.

We sat there on our cold plastic chairs
And beheld the damned. They sat
Not unlike . . . um . . . I guess, ceramic bears.

These are the UNOPPORTUNISTS, those souls who in life were neither for good nor evil but for sitting obediently. Eternally unclassified, they sit watching dull LED counters that run forever but never seem to call their number. As they sit, they are stung mercilessly by wasps and hornets, but these are nothing compared to USA Today, so they barely notice. Skot and his gloomy boy Virgil notice a sign.

I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.

WE DO NOT ACCEPT DEBIT OR CHECK OR CREDIT CARDS.
IT IS CASH OR CHECK ONLY, FOR SOME REASON.
WE ARE BACKWARDS AND STRANGE, AND WE'LL KICK YOU IN THE NARDS.

ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME MAGAZINE CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND TIME MAGAZINE KIND OF SUCKS
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO WILL NOW LISTEN TO CHER.

Skot awakes to find himself across Acheron. Here he finds the OUT OF STATE APPLICANTS. They were born without the light of Washington State's Department of Licensing, and therefore, cannot come into the light of God, but they are not tormented. Their only pain is that they have no hope.

"Will you grant me license to drive my shiny car?"
A lonely supplicant pleads her case to a demon.
"I will not!" the demon screams. And then, to rhyme, he says, "Har har!"

At long last my number is called in this Stygian farce
I walk forward with Virgil--he's pretty bored.
"Seventy-two," says I, reading my ticket. Says the attendant, "My arse."

All about Skot in the ice are strewn the sinners. These are the TREACHEROUS TO THEIR MASTERS. THey lie completely sealed in the ice, twisted and distorted into every conceivable posture. A McClusky album plays, over and over, contributing to the air of indescribable madness.

JUDAS is here, as is BRUTUS and CASSIUS and also OZZIE GUILLEN, who is chewed on with particular enthusiasm by the Lord of Hell. OZZIE GUILLEN screams, and the world buys more tinsel.

He first, Virgil, I second, after I passed the visual test
we climbed the dark until we reached the point
Can we give this labored rhyme scheme a bit of a rest?

and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars.
Don't know what this means. Let's hit the bars.

Monday, 19 June
Love Is All

This Saturday, the wife and I put on our second-best finery (I love the West Coast) and attended the wedding of our good friends B. and G. B. and G., being of the frugal sort, held the ceremony in a privately owned greenlot in Ballard, thus screwing us, the guests, out of the common decency of, say, a roof, or seats. I would very much like to condemn B. and G. for this transparent ruse to jerk us out of creature comforts, and so I will: B. and G? Thanks for the rogering.

No! I kid. It was a perfectly lovely affair--a sunny day spent in a charming greenspace, flanked by rustic brick buildings--I kept waiting for Newsies to break out. "EXTRA! EXTRA! WEDDING TRANSPIRING!" It featured all the best features of outdoor weddings, including my favorite: the impeccable timing of our airline industry. At one point, the brother of the bride stepped up to give a poetry reading, and here's what we saw:

[Brother takes deep, nervous breath; opens mouth:]

ROOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR

[Brother concludes poem just in time for aircraft to clear our zone of audibility.]

This is easily my favorite wedding poem of all time, and I'm kind of an expert. It takes second only to "Half-Drunk Coughing Fit," and easily outdistances old chestnuts like Khalil Gibran's "I'm So Tired of All These Fairies" and "I Died of Cirrhosis of the Liver" at weddings. Give them a rest, folks.)

You always risk the weather when doing an outdoor wedding, of course, and this was no different. Happily, Seattle cooperated on this day, and rewarded us with a punishing 72-degree day of unremitting gentle sunlight. This, naturally, resulted in the unfortunate fainting of one young girl near us, as she succumbed to the abominable heat. Now, I've seen women faint before, and I'd just like to say this: it is exactly like the movies. She wobbled for a moment, and then gracefully went down on her hip, and then followed through with her upper body: it was like watching a fern wilt.

People gasped! But not me. Recognizing the importance of the moment--my chance to be the day's most lauded hero--I reached for my otherwise useless cell phone. "Do you need a doctor?" I rasped hoarsely. "Wow!" she moaned. "Do you need some water?" I pressed the poor woman. "I think I just need to get out of the sun," she wheezed. She wasn't helping me out in my heroquest. I disgustedly bounced my cell phone off her forehead with a decent overhand. "Get out of my sight, you delicate flower," I snarled. She tottered off while people pointed at me and glared. In the foreground, B. and G. continued their litany of devotion, supremely unconcerned with how I was totally willing spend some cell phone minutes to help out a friend of theirs. Fuckers. It's not like nobody else had a cell phone--several people did--but I got mine out first. I get fucked all the time.

Anyway, after all the blah blah blah of the wedding--yeah, kiss the bride, you poor sap, now you're locked in--we went to the damn reception, where everyone decided to fucking bitch at me. "What's with the cell phone to that chick's forehead, dude?" and "Put your pants on, for Christ's sake, man!" and more of this shit. I don't know why people get so uptight. Anyway, the beer flowed freely, and the bride's sister, who is apparently the touring xylophonist for Built To Spill got up and joined the band for a rousing rendition of the Flaming Lips' "Bugs"--I admired the tattoo on her back that reads VICODIN--well, the rest is kind of a blur. I remember brandishing a broken beer bottle at a very wary B. and him saying, for some reason, "Not in the grapes! I need these boys!" B. is so lame now. It used to be about the music.

Anyway, I ended up getting brained with a banjo, as usual. I hate weddings.

Thursday, 15 June
Tricky

If I remember right, it started when the girls showed up at school armed with water pistols filled with cheap perfume.

What it became was a terrible prank war. In high school, naturally guys and gals worked out sexual tension with all sorts of strategies, and ours was no different. (Well, it's different than today, where guys and gals and guys and guys and gals and gals use a different strategy to work through sexual tension: evidently, they have sex. BUT NOT SO IN IDAHO BACK IN 1986! NO WAY! Except for the pregnant chicks. I'm reasonably sure they had sex.)

Anyway, there were three of us guys who found ourselves pitted, for some reason, against three girls who apparently had nothing better to do than to engage us in weak flirty banter in class and so on, and for some reason, one day they escalated affairs by showing up with the aforementioned water pistols filled with "Ralph Lauren's Swamp Rot" or "Ready For The World Presents Eau Sheila" or some such hideous cheap perfume, which they doused us with, causing us to wander the school emitting an unholy funk. This obviously could not go unchallenged. And so we found ourselves embroiled in a prank war.

We retaliated pretty lamely at first. One quirk of our ramshackle high school was the utter permeability of nearly any school locker door. (All it took was a pen cap.) Which is how I rather easily rigged a giant paper-bag black pepper bomb to go off in A.'s locker once she opened the door. It is one of the few things I've ever set my hand to that actually worked, and it had admirably long reach: for months after the thing dumped roughly a quart of ground black pepper into her locker, she would go to class, open her textbook, and then have to blow the pepper out of it, which inevitably caused several nearby schoolmates into fits of ENT-related misery.

A couple days later, I opened my own locker and discovered the counter-response: a startling cascade of dozens and dozens of tampons fell out and whispered around my feet. My biology teacher happened to be in the hall. "Skot!" he bellowed. "What's wrong with you!?" What an asshole. Yes, I'm a crazed collector of generic tampons! I had no good answer for him and stared wordlessly at the snowdrift of tampons around my ankles as passing schoolmates sniggered at me. That had to cost a bunch, I thought at the time, but as I learned later, the girls had sensibly destroyed the tampon dispensers in the girls' bathroom and simply appropriated the cotton loot.

Things escalated from there. E., who worked part-time helping out the school janitor, laid his hands on some spare urinal cakes, beat them into crumbs with a hammer, and then, once again helping himself into the girls' lockers, filled their jacket pockets with the noxious stuff. They smelled like . . . I have no analogy. Does anything else smell like that? They smelled like urinal cakes. A., at least, didn't notice much, as her sinus passages were still under black pepper assault every time she opened a textbook, but the others look pretty miserable.

Their response to that was, I'm sad to say, pretty lame: they TP'ed our cars. I couldn't help but notice that the toilet paper that wrapped my '75 Chevy Monza actually improved its appearance, as it served to mask the scabrous softtop that was slowly rotting away (occasionally, it would be peeled off in fibrous sheets by vengeful drunks who hated me). We took this lame assault as evidence that we were winning. Toilet papering our horrible cars? Please.

T. was the guy on our team who, realizing that the fight was going out of the girls, sort of went nuts. First, he took a tub of Vaseline and liberally applied the stuff to the girls' windshield wipers. This was fine as long as it didn't rain, which lasted about two days. Then, when it did, the girls turned on the wipers and . . . SMEAR, SMEAR, SMEAR. It was like their cars instantly grew cataracts, and of course the stuff doesn't come off too easily. Hilarious! It's surprising now that one of those startled girls didn't promptly drive into an oncoming truck.

The girls' efforts continued to flag, probably because they were basically sensible girs, and not irritating, weird little awful boys who didn't know when to quit and who lacked all sense of proportion. T. was also responsible for the next salvo, the provocation for which, if it even existed, I don't remember at all. Besides, it wasn't even a prank: it was just raw torment and sabotage. He simply took a few moments at lunch one horribly rainy day to remove the distributor caps to all the girls' cars. We watched in muted glee from a hiding place as we watched our victims hopelessly crank their starters. But it was, really, pretty boring. We knew we were near the end, and it wasn't even a prank: it wasn't clever, it wasn't diabolical, it wasn't anything. T. just broke their cars. Whoopee!

I guess it won't be any sort of surprise that we never had sex with these girls, much less even make out with any of them. The whole thing just kind of died away. Which isn't that surprising. I don't know a lot of women who like to start the "How we met" story with something like, "I'll never forget the day he stole my distributor cap." And then the guy says, "When I close my eyes, I can still smell the urinal cakes."

Monday, 12 June
Well Met

On Friday evening, around 7:00, I was standing in the alley behind the theater smoking my three hundredth cigarette of the day. I cop to getting butterflies on most opening nights, but the compressed rehearsal schedule for this show--sixteen total, including tech rehearsals--had made for a grueling few weeks, and I was manically going over my lines in my head while I steamed like a nuclear cooling tower.

(Look, we're going to be done with this theater stuff soon, okay? It was opening weekend. I literally had nothing else on my mind or going on. It was all theater, smoking and then, thank God, drinking.)

In addition to smoking like a condemned man when mentally reviewing my lines, I also tend to pace restlessly. So if I could shoehorn in just one more irritating thing, I'd have a trifecta of obnoxious behavior going on. But anyway, there I was, pacing and smoking, occasionally muttering, and just in general managing to freak myself out, when I heard:

"Hey, man, can I buy one of those off of you?"

I looked over at a thin black man around my age. He was, from what I could tell, brushing off the brick wall of the neighboring building for some reason. Just sort of flicking at the wall with the edge of his palm, as if dusting.

"I'll pay you, man. I'm not an asshole." He grinned at me disarmingly and continued brushing away.

"I don't think you're an asshole," I replied. "It's just, my smokes are inside. This one is all I've got on me."

"Hey, I'll pay you, man." He paused. "Oh, but you don't got 'em on you. That's cool. I wouldn't ask you to go inside. Maybe I can get a shorty." This last given out offhandedly. He studied the ever-brightening-by-centimeters brick wall. I noticed he held a single unlit cigarette loosely in his free hand.

An aside here for my nonsmoking readers. Any smoker, and I mean any smoker who has ever lived, has encountered the People Who Bum. They come in all stripes: the "social smokers" who only smoke at parties, or so they say. I like to think of them as "people too cheap to buy their own fucking cigarettes." These people are like fleas, and should be gassed to death, much like . . . well, us smokers. And then there's the rest: the people who genuinely have somehow, stricken, found themselves suddenly without cigarettes, possibly because some parasitic "social smoker" has depleted their supply, or just possibly because they're broke. Most smokers will give comfort to these people, often citing some lame sort of karma. Me, I just figure that if I refuse some desperate soul his smoke, he might just eat my neck and take them off my twitching carcass anyway.

Oh, and "shorty"? That's a sad euphemism for a nearly, but not quite, depleted cigarette. This is the saddest sort of smoker's plea. It is asking, "Can I have the last few puffs of that right down to the filter?"

I grunted, a little discomfited. After all, can't a guy in a tuxedo (my costume for the show) smoke peacefully in a fetid, stinking alley without being hassled for the last few finger-burning puffs on his cigarette? Can't I stand unmolested amongst the stinking dumpsters and lonely pallets? It seemed I could not. The fellow had stopped brushing at the wall and began examining a discarded, dilapidated chair with a clinical eye.

"I started buying these menthols," he said suddenly in a conciliatory tone.

I abandoned my efforts at going over my lines. "So people would stop asking to bum them?" I asked. "I smoke menthols" is a common gambit of smokers who are sick of doling out free cigarettes, since menthols are hideous.

"They're a dollar cheaper than my Carltons!" he crowed. He brandished his lone cigarette in the air. I had no idea what to say. I looked down at the depleted cigarette in my hand. It probably had four good puffs left on it before it became a malodorous smoldering filter.

"You want this?" I asked, holding it out to him.

"Yeah, man. Thanks." He smoked it hungrily. "I ain't no asshole."

"I don't think you're an asshole, man. Cut it out." He crouched pensively in the alley, and didn't seem to hear me.

"I'm just cleaning up the alley for some people," he said. He stood up and rattled a nearby recycling bin with some authority. He seemed to be adjusting it so as to fit into some higher design that only he could see. "I think this looks all right." He finished the last of my cigarette and pitched it away.

"I've gotta go back in," I said. I was becoming more and more aware of the upcoming curtain, and my fears resurfaced anew about my lines. My stomach jumped at the thought.

"Awright," he said. "Listen, you got a cigarette? I'll pay you. I can pay you. I'm not an asshole." He was brushing the brick wall again, not looking at me. "I'm not an asshole," he repeated yet again. "I'm a pimp!" Brushing, brushing, not looking at me.

"Hang on a second," I said. "I'll go get you a cigarette." I did. When I came back out, he was surveying the alley, with all its dumpsters and recycling bins and discarded crates and detritus. He thanked me for the cigarette, and offered again to pay me, which I declined.

He looked at his handiwork of minutely shifted garbage containers and picked-over junk. "I think that's gonna do it for today. That's all right," he said doubtfully. And he walked down the alley until he was gone.

I can't believe that this guy cost me like fifteen minutes of going over my lines, I thought. I turned my tuxedoed self away from the alley and walked inside to the hot lights and the cold drinks and I didn't miss one step that night onstage, as far as I could tell. I wasn't an asshole.

Friday, 09 June
Ad Rock

When I was a junior in college, I began taking what I thought of as the "serious" acting classes. They were called the "studio" classes, for some reason, perhaps because it feels kind of dumb to call a group of five people a "class." It's a studio! Whatever. At any rate, we were the acting lifers, as it were, the dedicated fools who simply couldn't stand to wait another minute to ruin their futures. We were the ACTORS! The rest were dilettantes.

Our professor for the course that year was a preternaturally genial fellow named R. R. was a modestly successful actor who had done extensive commercial and voiceover work; he was one of those artists in residence types, and while we all got on with him nicely, he seemed, at times, genuinely aggrieved at our less-than-professional habits, like not shaving every day, and our staunch refusal to show up for the class (at 8:00 AM) not hung over.

R. decided, sensibly enough, that since we had presumably mastered all the basics of acting--don't say your lines until you're on stage, try and remember other character's names (there's no "Ted" in Hamlet! I'll never forget that), that sort of thing--that he would conduct a class that dealt with Real World issues. Things like how to present an audition piece; the dos and don'ts of head shots, the proper way to land an agent, etc. (It's interesting to note that, reviewing even that brief list, that I myself have not bothered with any memorized audition pieces since 1999, I have never had any head shots done, and have never bothered to even try to get an agent. Huzzah! Tuition well spent.)

One thing that R. taught us was that working in TV ads could be very lucrative. Really! So he brought in several actual pieces of ad copy from spots he had done or auditioned for. He also brought a video camera in so we could review our efforts on camera.

We were, every single one of us, completely hopeless on camera. In fact, "hopeless" is too generous a term here, as it contains the base word "hope," and we clearly, the lot of us, had none at all. We were . . . what? Anti-hope? Ahopal? No, those neologisms, awful as they are, still plainly allude to some concept of hope. The adjective I need is something like "hopeless," only encrypted with a one-time pad, and then someone merciful simply eats the one-time pad before it can ever be seen again.

We all started out working on a common script. It was from a Zest commercial. I can still remember the beginning of it.

"I don't use soap. But I'll bet I'm cleaner than you are! That's because I use Zest. And Zest isn't soap!"

That's all I remember now. (What the fuck was Zest, then? Industrial degreaser?) What I do remember is how gravely funereal we all looked on video playback, no matter how much enthusiasm we tried to inject into this dead-bird text. It turned out: It's hard to fake enthusiasm about something so pedestrian and lame as soap. (Or not-soap.) Every single one of us, no matter how chirpy and gleeful our affect (we thought), looked like recently slaughtered revenants on camera, glumly holding up a bar of unsoap for the camera, grinning rictuses with bad posture. Grimly clutching unsoap in tensed fingers.

R. explained this dismal showing with typical good humor. "Commercial acting is horribly difficult. When you're in a play, the playwright does a lot of the work for you. Even bad actors can get by sometimes by just stepping back and letting the playwright do all the heavy lifting. But in TV ads, it's all on you. You think Shakespeare is tough? It is, sure. But the hardest line I ever had to deliver was for a commercial. The hardest line I ever had to deliver--to sell--was, 'Great white bread, honey.' "

Which, really, is totally true. Actors like to give a lot of lip service about "being in the moment" and "emotional truth" and all kinds of other horseshit, but that pretty much all goes out of Arthur Miller's leaded-glass window (don't talk to me about that gnomic, deathless spanker) when you get stuck with some line like "Is this the right turn, Doug Doug?"

R. then cruelly assigned us our very own ad scripts to learn and to be humiliated by on camera. J., a perfectly lovely young woman, shot her ad touting a pizza place. And, as we watched her playback (it certainly looked good live), we watched in perfect horror as the camera somehow made her previously unnoticed slightly discolored canine all but unstareable-at. It looked like a tiny gravestone embedded in her gums. Worse, halfway into the ad, the video camera caught with undeniable, horrible clarity a truly flinch-inducing minor facial tic, where her left eye did a sort of slow roll and wink, which magically transformed her instantly, on camera, from a charming young woman into a lecherous old man. "ROLL IT BACK!! ROLL IT BACK!!" we screamed, as she died a thousand deaths. "You look like Patricia Neal!" exclaimed G. We watched it again. J. strokefaced again as we cackled. "I take it back," said G. "Patricia Neal makes stroke look good."

But none of us did any better. Granted, we were being shot on single-cam videotape, but it was clearly obvious: None of us ever belonged anywhere close to anyone even remotely conversant with video technology. (I should say that G. did manage to land a national spot in a few years: It was my supreme pleasure to see him in a Rogaine ad. And I will also say that he acquitted himself well. I was also happy that he was, well, naturally, losing his hair. If it isn't clear yet, actors are such turds.)

Me? Mine might have been the worst. For one thing, R. decided, inexplicably, to assign me a dog food ad where the guy was supposed to be a sort of "Rugged Dad" character. Say! Yes, that's perfect for the 140-lb. ectomorph. So there I was on video, in some supremely unconvincing flannel shirt, extolling the virtues of MANLY KIBBLE. It was like David Schwimmer shilling for MegaBulk Protein Shakes. And this is leaving aside 1. my terrific ineptitude in front of the camera, and 2. the depressing fact that I'm uglier than David Schwimmer.

Ah, well, it all ended up all right. I mean, I'm not famous or anything, but I've been able to get my share of work over the years--fringe work, but hey. It was clear to me early on that I was neither motivated enough nor energetic enough to bother with the stupefying grind that any dedicated actor has to endure. I have been content to simply toil away at a level I'm comfortable with.

After all, I'm opening a show tomorrow. It's a good show--and the wife is in it too, along with a bunch of good people. They're good actors, all of them, and it's a good show. I've been in bad shows with bad actors--too many of them--so this is a real blessing. What's doubly good about working with good actors is that they make you also want to do good as well. So I've also been motivated.

Can you guess what I think about every night, while I'm smoking and thinking over my lines--searching for weak spots--and getting myself ready to go? I go over my lines, I probe trouble areas, I restlessly smoke, and I also think:

Great white bread, honey.

Monday, 05 June
This Just In

Grangeville, Idaho Residents Applaud Chertoff For Inexplicable Antiterrorism Funds

GRANGEVILLE, IDAHO -- In a rare show of solidarity, state Republicans and one amusing housepet state Democrat lauded the White House Saturday for cutting New York City's antiterrorism funding by 40 percent and funnelling the savings to the tiny township of Grangeville, proud county seat of Idaho County, the largest county in Idaho, and home to large piles of scrap tin. Grangeville stands to receive nearly $42 million dollars in the decision.

The stunning decision was announced by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who explained, "I think we're all pretty tired of giving these funds to kikes, fags and you know. This is the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Homeboy Security, you know? It's time to protect real Americans."

Representative Pete King, Republican of New York, charged that the Bush administration had "declared war on New York" with its decision to reduce antiterrorism funding by $83 million while increases went to cities like French Lick, Indiana; Army Of Apes, Wisconsin; and Grangeville.

"I'm not begrudging any other city, but why would you cut the number one target in the country by 40 percent?" said King, who demanded an investigation. "How can you possibly justify that?"

Responded Chertoff to reporters, "Pete King is a total pole-smoker. Listen, I get my orders just like anyone else: from Kang the Conqueror." When pressed for details, Chertoff demurred, saying, "I've already said too much."

Local leaders are already making plans for the influx of federal funds, including a much-publicized push towards increasing security around hotspots such as the town's much-loved stoplight; also to receive funding is Gravity Hill, the well-known side road where cars can seemingly be made to roll uphill.

"Chicks love that shit," explained resident Rudy Snell. "Chicks love to roll uphill. Then you go park at the Haunted House, and damn. I don't know. I guess it's, like, physics."

"Listen," continued Mr. Snell. "Does this mean free rubbers?" The Department of Homeland Security refused comment on the question.

Thursday, 01 June
Thinking Big

This evening while taking a smoke break outside of our rehearsal venue--a church basement, and it is positively magnificent compared to some places I've rehearsed--I took note of their cliched church signboard. YOU WILL BE MY WITNESS, it said, in big appropriately Godlike caps. But out of the corner of my eye, I thought for a moment it actually said, YOU WILL BE MY ILLNESS.

Boy, no kidding.

Being a pretty irreligious person, and also not very smart, I don't really know what the "witness" stuff is all about, frankly. Maybe Christians just like to subpoena each other a lot. But I enjoyed the idea of God pointing his big old perfect finger at Adam and moaning this to him prophetically. "I HAVE CREATED YOU . . . AND BOY, ARE YOU GOING TO SUCK. YOU WILL BE MY ILLNESS." And then Adam and the rest of us went out and proved God right.

"I AM SUCH A TOOL." God gripes every now and then to nobody, or maybe just to the Pope and the odd schizophrenic here and there. "THIS IS MY OWN IMAGE? MY IMAGE BLOWS."

And even though I'm pretty much a heathen, I decided to have a few words with the Big Guy and find out how He felt about this all. I mean, He did send me the weird ILLNESS message, so I figured He wanted to blow off some divine steam.

Skot: Hey, God. Thanks for sitting down with me.

God: HEY, SKOT. THANKS FOR HAVING ME. THIS IS GOOD GINGER ALE.

Skot: You can't go wrong with Schweppe's.

God: FUNNY STORY! SCHWEPPES IS A LOST BOOK OF THE BIBLE. IT CAME RIGHT AFTER RUTH. OR JOSHUA. I DON'T KNOW . . . ONE OF THE LOSER BOOKS.

Skot: Really?

God: DON'T GET ME STARTED. STUPID SADDUCEES. IT'S A LONG STORY. I MEAN, DON'T GET ME WRONG, THEY'RE MOSTLY COOL, BUT THERE'S A REASON THEY ALL PLAY IN MARIACHI BANDS IN THE AFTERLIFE.

Skot: Ouch.

God: YEAH, WELL. BUT THEY LOVE ME, AND HEY, IT'S NOT LIKE I'M ABOVE A LITTLE HAT DANCE EVERY NOW AND THEN. YOU FEEL ME?

Skot: I'm sorry?

God: CHECK IT OUT.

(God does an improvisational hat dance while a celestial host of rather mournful Sadducee mariachi musicians play.)

Skot: Nice moves!

God: I'VE GOT HAPPY FEET.

Skot: So, listen. About that "illness" thing.

God: (Sighs) MAN, SORRY ABOUT THAT. I WAS IN A PRETTY CRAPPY MOOD WHEN I SENT YOU THAT.

Skot: Oh?

God: YEAH. IT LOOKS LIKE BEN STILLER IS GETTING SOME MORE WORK. I HAD JUST FOUND OUT. WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU LITTLE THINGS?

Skot: But isn't Ben Stiller also one of your flock, just like everybody, and worthy of redemption?

God: DID YOU SEE "MEET THE PARENTS"?

Skot: Ugh. Yeah.

God: DID YOU SEE "MYSTERY MEN"?

Skot: Yeah.

God: DO YOU SEE WHERE I'M COMING FROM?

Skot: Yeah.

God: IT JUST PISSES ME OFF TO NO END. THAT GUY, I SWEAR, IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN? HE'S GOING TO BE . . . I DON'T KNOW. LIKE, VICE PRESIDENT OF BRICKLAYING, OR SOMETHING.

Skot: Bricklaying? Vice President?

God: I GET SO TIRED.

Skot: So, to get this all down . . . you're not very happy with us in general . . . but what really twists you is Ben Stiller?

God: I . . . I GUESS. "MEET THE FOCKERS"? I SWEAR, SOMETIMES I JUST WANT TO--

Skot: Hey! Hey! Listen. Would a nice hat dance make you feel better? Come on, You're getting worked up again.

God: YOU'RE RIGHT. I'M SORRY. (God sighs and sips again at his Schweppe's.)

God: THIS REALLY IS GOOD GINGER ALE.

(End interview.)










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