Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances


Saturday, November 08, 2003

Mr. Black & Blue once again offers advice to the lifelorn.


DEAR MR. BLACK & BLUE: What should a person say when a co-worker, someone you see frequently but don’t know very well, reveals plans to divorce? I usually try to say something like “I’m sorry” or “this must be a tough time for you.” Too often I just say “oh,” because it’s all that comes to mind in a situation that suddenly grows tense. I’m afraid the first two responses sound too touchy-feely, and the last one is just plain dumb. What would you suggest?


DEAR STUMPED: If the co-worker is an attractive young woman, you say: “How about a drink after work?” In all other cases, the proper response is: “I don’t want to hear about it.”


DEAR MR. BLACK & BLUE: My husband and I live in a townhouse on the fringe of a tough inner-city neighborhood. Every morning as I go to work I "run the gauntlet" through panhandlers. Often I give these people spare change, and occasionally I’ve gone so far as to return later and give them a sandwich or an old sweater. But I never get a "thank you," and that bugs me. Am I being petty?


DEAR IDEALISTIC: Leeches seldom thank people whose blood they suck. You’re not being petty, you’re being naive.

Friday, November 07, 2003

The Case of Rosie O’Donnell speaks volumes about social trends in America over the last three decades or so.

First, you’ve got women’s lib -- O’Donnell was one of the first female stand-up comics to hit it big.

Then you’ve got spin-doctoring and image-peddling. When I first started seeing O’Donnell doing stand-up on cable TV back in the 1980s, she was funny but she was harsh, sometimes crude and often rude. She was about one step this side of Roseanne (the Artist Formerly Known as Barr). But she wanted to do a daytime talk show and she realized her night club/cable TV abrasiveness wouldn’t play well opposite “Days of our Lives” and cooking shows, so she turned herself into the a charming, sweet-natured hostess who earned the nickname “Queen of Nice.” She endeared herself to women (and some men, I suppose) by portraying a self-acknowledged pudge-o with a crush on Tom Cruise. It's spin-doctoring of which Bill and Hillary Clinton would behave been proud.

This leads to outrageous financial success. O’Donnell is publishing books, she’s acting in movies, she’s performing in a Broadway musical, there’s even a look-alike doll in toy stores. She has so much name recognition, a publishing company agrees to go in with her to start a magazine called Rosie. She’s making money hand over fist, like the Gordon Geckos of the 1980s stock market or the dot.com millionaires of the 1990s.

Although she isn’t married, she decides to put her economic success to use by getting in on that ever-popular American pastime -- doting parenthood. She adopts two kids, talks about them incessantly, cultivates a reputation as Super Mom.

Then comes twin doses of Baby Boomer mid-life crisis and gay lib. O’Donnell grows tired of pretending to be something she’s not, so she abandons the TV talk show and comes out of the closet as a lesbian. Tom Cruise be damned! She’s out there riding a motorcycle with her female lover on the back, she’s getting her hair cropped into an Airborne Ranger do, she’s swearing in public like a truckdriver.

This leads to economic comeuppance and How the Mighty Have Fallen (shades of bankrupt dot.com ex-millionaires) -- Rosie the magazine collapses after O’Donnell quits in a huff, saying publishing honchos ignored her input after she revealed her lesbianism. Officials of the company respond that her prima donna behavior and vicious temper made her almost impossible to work with, but the decision to leave was entirely hers and it resulted in major job losses and financial setbacks.

So now you have the final act of so many recent American lives: The Trial of the Lawsuits. The publisher sued O’Donnell for $100 million (you gotta sell a lot of Rosie dolls to pocket that kind of change). O’Donnell counter-sued for $125 million (just enough to send her kids to community college). Now they are duking it out in a New York courtroom, saying nasty things about one another.

The Rosie O’Donnell Case has it all. Someday a history professor will write a biography describing her as the embodiment of American cultural trends at the turn of the 21st Century.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Are you ready to unleash the power of mediocrity?

I received a catalogue in the mail that poses the above question on its first page. It came from a Texas company that calls itself Despair, Inc. The Austin-based outfit sells business supplies it calls demotivational products. Finally, a firm that caters to thinkers like me!

“No matter who you are, you have the potential to be so very much less,” Despair founder and chief operating officer E.L. Kersten assures us in his introductory essay.

The key is acquiring appropriate Despair products to bring out the least in you. You can buy a Pessimist’s Mug to drink your coffee. It’s marked at the half-empty level. You can buy illustrated 2004 calendars featuring key demotivational words, such as Procrastination, Mistakes, and Ineptitude. Then there’s the t-shirt with a one-word message on the front: Insecurity. And E.L. Kersten’s book of business advice, “The Art of Demotivation.”

My favorite items are posters, each bearing a key word, a striking photo illustration and a demotivational slogan. A few examples:

--AMBITION: The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly. (Illustrated with a picture of a homing salmon leaping upriver into a bear’s mouth.)

--IDIOCY: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups. (Illustrated with a photo of several skydivers linking hands in mid-air.)

--DESPAIR: It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black. (Illustrated with a photo of a bleak winter sunset.)

--CONSULTING: If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem. (Illustrated with a photo if two male hands shaking.)

I think I’ll buy a Pessimist’s Mug and an Idiocy poster. If you want in on the action, you can order online at www.despair.com or toll free by phone at 1-877-DESPAIR. Mention Peoria Dave’s name and they’ll probably give you the opposite of a discount, whatever that is.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Writeright, through the efforts of its ace reporter, Peoria Dave, has obtained the first interview with convicted cereal killer Berwin K. Hooff, who was sentenced last month to 37 life terms in prison, to be served consecutively, for murders of cereals up and down Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Hooff spoke with Peoria Dave spoke in the maximum security unit of the Oregon State Penitentiary at Molalla. Peoria Dave’s report:

MOLALLA -- Berwin Hooff doesn’t look like a cereal killer.

At age 43, he is a small man -- 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds -- with thinning brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Even in his orange prison uniform, he looks like the smalltown accountant he once was.

Appearances can be deceiving, however. Hooff was convicted of killing 37 cereals between 1994 and 2002, and admits the number that actually died at his hands during the last two decades is much higher. He says there were so many victims he can’t remember them all.

“It started when I was a kid, I guess,” Hooff said. “Before I was born, my dad ran off to join the circus as a sword-swallower. My mother was devastated. She couldn’t cope with raising me, so she turned me over to her mother -- my Grandma Enid -- when I was nine months old. Mom took a job on a tuna-fishing boat out of Astoria. I saw her maybe two or three days a year for the rest of her life, when she’d come visit. She died when I was fifteen. Fell off the tuna boat and drowned near Homer, Alaska.

“Grandma Enid lived in Scio, east of Albany. That’s where I grew up. Grandma worked in a frozen food plant, packing asparagus. Grandpa Al had died years earlier. Slashed his wrists with a broken Grape Nehi bottle and bled to death. He was depressed about losing at dominoes to his brother Gaylord.

“Grandma worked long hours to put food on the table, but she didn’t offer much of a menu. Just cereal. She left for the plant before sun-up, so when I got out of bed in the morning I’d find a bowl of Rice Krispies and a pint of nonfat milk waiting for me on the kitchen counter. I’d eat that and then go to school carrying my lunch sack, which always held a couple handfuls of dry Cheerios. When I got home after school I’d rummage around in the cabinets to find a snack -- a few Froot Loops maybe, or one of those little bales of Shredded Wheat. When Grandma Enid got home late in the evening she’d cook dinner -- some Quaker Oatmeal or, if she was feeling frisky, a batch of Maypo.

“After high school, I got a scholarship to Oregon State University because of my good grades. In the dorm cafeteria there, I learned about other kinds of food. I got to eat scorched hamburgers, hockey-puck pancakes, cold toast, cornmeal pizza with canned tomato sauce. I grew addicted. Going home to Grandma Enid’s for vacations became torture. After a week back on a diet of Corn Flakes and Sugar Smacks, I’d get the shakes, hyperventilate. Sometimes I’d black out.

“Summer after my junior year, I got an internship with an accounting firm in Newberg. I was so relieved! I wouldn’t have to spend the summer in Scio, eating Lucky Charms.

“So I go up to Newberg and check into this motel the night before I’m supposed to start work. A sign at the office says ‘Free Continental Breakfast, 6 to 8 a.m.’ Since I don’t have any money, I figure I’ll eat the motel food. Next morning, I walk to the office. The place is deserted. The manager is off in her apartment behind the desk, I guess. I spot this card table, though, with a sign over it that says ‘Breakfast.’ I go over, and all there is on the table is a pitcher of milk, some plastic spoons and a pile of those tiny cartons of cereal like come ten to a package -- Apple Jacks, Sugar Corn Pops, Coco Krisp. No bowls, even. These are cartons you tear along the dotted line, rip the plastic wrap and dump milk in.

“I was so disappointed, I almost wept. Here I thought I’d escaped eating cereal, and I was stuck with it again. I had no money to buy anything else, so I picked up a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes. It slipped out of my fingers, though, and fell to the hardwood floor. I bent over to pick it up, but somehow I kicked it instead -- it was an accident, I swear! -- and the carton went flying across the room, smashed into the wall and dropped in a crumpled heap. A corner of the box had split, and a tiny trail of crushed Frosted Flakes bled onto the floor.

“The feeling I got as I stood looking at that wounded box of cereal -- I don’t know how to describe it. There was a sense of power, I guess. Of triumph. Of release! It was almost sexual. I had hurt that box of cereal, and I LOVED it.

“I glanced around the office. It was still empty. I could hear a television leaking sound from somewhere. I hurried over, grabbed the carton of Sugar Frosted Flakes, thrust it into my coat pocket and fled.

“Back in my room, I locked the door. I took the Frosted Flakes out of my pocket and put them on the disheveled bed. I saw a pack of motel matches on the bureau, so I picked it up. I struck a match, watched it burn down, shook it out. I struck another match. I shook it out, then leaned over the bed and thrust the hot tip against the Frosted Flakes box. A small plume of smoke rose. The match left a black scar on the pale, soft cardboard. I lit another match and didn’t put it out. I held it, burning, against a corner of the box. A tiny flame leaped from the cardboard. I blew it out. I lit another corner. And another. And blew each out.

“Sweating, panting, I lashed out at the Sugar Frosted Flakes box, sent it spinning off the bed and onto the floor. I leaped across the room and stamped it, hard, with my right foot. It gave off a plaintive, crunching sound. I stamped it again. Again. I switched to my left foot, stamped it yet again.

“I stood motionless for a while, my foot still pinning the cereal box to the floor. I bent down, then, and picked it up, cradled it in my arms. Thin, tan streams of crushed cereal leaked from two scorched corners and a seam. I crooned to the Frosted Flakes, a song from my childhood, a song Grandma Enid used to sing to me: ‘Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight? Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight, and dance by the light of the moon?’

“I searched the room for a place to dispose of the cereal, to hide the evidence of what I’d done. I found none. I carried the Frosted Flakes tenderly into the bathroom. I spotted a small plastic trash can, but that was too obvious. The motel maid would find the torn, abused cereal box and know what I’d done. Police would be on my trail within hours.

“Then I thought of the toilet. Yes! That would work! Craftily, I crept over and lifted the lid. I forced a finger into the split seam of the cereal box and pried open a gaping wound. I poured a long, thin stream of mashed cereal from that wound into the toilet. I shredded the box and the liner, tearing them into tiny pieces with trembling fingers, and dropped them into the bowl. I flushed away the remains of my victim.

“Like I said, that was the start of it. Oh, I tried to put cereal out of my mind for a while. I avoided it that whole summer in Newberg. I rented a room in an old widow’s home and she cooked bacon and eggs for me every morning. I bought hot dogs for lunch and tacos for dinner.

“One day that fall, though, after I’d gone back to college, I went into a Safeway store to buy a toothbrush and stumbled onto the cereal aisle. Before I realized what I was doing, I’d stuck a box of Trix under my coat. I smuggled it out of the store and back to my apartment, where I locked it in a dark closet. I tried to ignore the Trix, but I kept thinking I heard them crying “Help me! Help me!” in the voice of that silly rabbit on the TV commercials. After three days, I was near the breaking point. I went to bed that night and tried to sleep, but I heard that voice: “Help me!” I ran to the closet and jerked open the door. The cereal box cowered in the corner, on the floor next to my tennis shoes. I punched it. The box toppled over, spun toward the closet door. I kicked it once, twice. It made a rustling sound. I snatched my leather belt from a hook on the wall, twisted it into a loop and yanked it tight around the Trix box’s middle. It emitted a whooshing sound like escaping breath. I raced out the door of my apartment, down the stairs and around to the back of the building. At the far corner of the property, next to the parking lot, stood an oak tree. I ran to the tree, tied the free end of the belt around a low branch and jerked on the loop with all my might. The leather sliced into the Trix box, almost cut it in half. I let go. The Trix swayed there, lifeless in the midnight wind. Smiling grimly, I returned to my apartment.

“Nobody ever figured out I killed the Trix. There were a couple of stories in the newspapers, and the cops poked around for a while, but they never turned up anything. I don’t think they tried too hard. Trix were a cheap cereal, very little nutritional value. Detectives probably figured the town was actually better off with one less box of Trix.

“After that, I was hooked. I killed cereal every chance I got. The rest of my time in college, I shoplifted Alpha Bits, Crispy Critters, Wheat Chex from grocery stores. Once I burglarized a mobile home and stole some 40% Bran Flakes. I’d take cereals out in the woods and do them in. Some I burned. Some I buried alive, unopened. I hung a few. I shredded some. I fed one particularly obnoxious box of Count Chocula to a rottweiler dog that came sniffing around.

“When I graduated, I got an accounting job in Albany. Then I had money, and I could indulge myself. I’d buy a case of Post Toasties, sneak it out by the Alsea River and blow it up with a stick of dynamite. I once bought a dozen boxes of Fruity Pebbles, carried them to a lonely stretch of road near Stayton and drove my Volvo back and forth over them until they were nothing but dust. I built a rudimentary cannon and shot cartons of Quaker Puffed Oats into Detroit Lake.

“I got married, but my wife never learned about my crimes. She just knew I was a ham-and-eggs-for-breakfast man. We had two kids, a boy and a girl, and they both grew up without ever tasting Dinky Donuts or Raisin Bran. I tried to raise them right, spare them from what I went through.

“Around about 1994, though, I grew bored with easy kills. Chucking a case of Kix into the basement furnace wasn’t doing it for me any more. I needed the rush, the excitement, the high I used to get from cereal killings back in my college days.

“First, I started shoplifting again. I’d smuggle a box of Cookie Crisp out of an Albertson’s under my jacket, take it to a rest area off Interstate Five and cut it to pieces with a razor blade. When that got old, I went after wet cereal. I bought some syringes. I’d fill them with banana Kool-Aid and sneak into a Fred Meyer store. When no one was looking, I’d inject cartons of Quaker Instant Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Maypo. Customers would buy that stuff, open it and find it dead of banana-Kool-Aid poisoning.

“That’s when the police went after me in earnest. They got calls from shocked drivers who discovered shredded boxes of Wheat Puffs outside the johns at I-5 rest areas. People who bought Kool-Aid-killed Cream of Wheat wrote letters.

“I upped the ante, too, by resorting to burglary. I’d break into some Portland fat cat lawyer’s West Hills mansion in the middle of the night and snatch his Corn Chex, then heave them off the Burnside Bridge. They’d wash up on the beach at Oaks Bottom, drowned. It was a real rush for me, but the people who lost Frosted Mini-Wheats and Cap’n Crunch from their very own kitchens raised a stink, put a lot of pressure on the police.

“Finally, late one night in October 2002 I was climbing out a back window at the Cup & Saucer Cafe when a Portland city cop cruised by in his squad car. He threw a spotlight on me and I panicked. I fell and broke my leg. I couldn’t run. I could only lay there as he approached with his .357 magnum drawn, opened my coat and pulled out a carton of Golden Grahams.

“My lawyer had me plead insanity, but the jury didn’t buy it. I guess they must have experienced their own troubles with breakfast food, enough to realize cereal killing is a premeditated thing.

“The Golden Grahams went against me in court. They were pretty traumatized, I guess, but they offered solid evidence. I understand they were placed with a foster family after the trial, and are now living in LaGrande under an assumed name. Rice Chex, or something like that.

“I’m sorry for what I did. I know I’ll never get out of this prison alive, and it’s probably just as well. I committed terrible crimes.

"If there’s any one last thing I’d like to say, it’s this: Kids, just eat those Wheaties, those Corn Flakes. Don’t be like Berwin K. Hooff. Don’t be a cereal killer.”

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Say, what? Say, it’s the Sunday Seven!

1) What are you wearing?

Red, green and blue plaid fleece sweatshirt (it’s fargin’ cold, folks!), raggedy green Pomona College souvenir t-shirt; blue Levi’s; white cotton socks (no shoes because I just woke up from a nap on the couch).

2) What are you reading?

“The Magic Barrel,” a book of short stories by Bernard Malamud.

3) What’s for dinner?

Maybe salad. There seem to be several bags o’lettuce in the fridge.

4) What’s the best thing that happened this week?

My son Mickey presided over distribution of Halloween candy Friday night, juggling three golf balls on the front porch for the entertainment of one and all as trick or treaters approached and departed. He dispensed ten bags of candy, all non-chocolate carefully selected by my wife so family members wouldn’t mooch any.

5) What’s bugging you?

I just opened a piece of mail from a literary magazine that rejected one of my stories six days ago. It was a subscription solicitation.

6) Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?

Corkscrew, Florida.

7) What’s it all about, Dave?


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